The Invisible City

By Helen Fayle

 

 

Contents:

 

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

 

Prologue: Kitezh city-state, South coastal region.

There is no Spring on Skazki. After the decades-long tyranny of Winter, Summer follows swiftly. As the Glass Mountains retreat from the land, new life springs up in their wake. The land breathes again, the great weight that has borne down upon it for centuries lifted at last.

Summer comes more quickly to the southern lowlands, and already frozen tundra has given way to low-lying marsh, green fields and pasture - at least in those areas far from the floodplains of the great rivers, swollen as they are by meltwater from the north. The Great Mother River spills over its banks; foaming, ale-coloured, silt-laden waters flowing over the entire valley floor of its later course. In time, it will subside, but for now, the torrent rages in its turbulent path to the sea.

The city of Kitezh stands at the mouth of this river, untouched by the floodwaters. With the furious rapids held at bay by the enchantments of its rulers, it sits proudly upon the headland, and sprawls down the sides of the valley to the estuary. Channelled and tamed, the waters keep to their proper course, and life carries on as normal. Most never even think of the defences that protect their city, their business and their lives from the death of Winter. To the north of Kitezh, the floodwaters of the delta are diverted to flow harmlessly to the east of the city.

There is a beast that crouches at the heart of the city: the kremlin. This ancient fortress, its obsidian towers with their web-like walkways, rising up above the tallest buildings below, rears above the outer city like some giant insect poised to strike. The thrumming of its great engines is ever present, even though it will never rise again from its resting place. The beast prefers to squat at the centre of the city that has grown up around it, allowing the vast network of cybrid ganglia and entrails to wander underneath the city, gathering information and sustenance, excreting its by-products far below the streets, into tunnels and conduits long forgotten by those who live above.

Most people forget the nature of the real power that governs them. They see only the human face of it: the man whose choices have far more impact on their day to day lives than the eldritch intelligence of Kitezh itself: Yuri Mikhailovich, Prince of Kitezh.

 

Behind an ancient desk made of rowan-wood, he sits: a broad faced man of average height, dark hair now greying at the temples, a figure once powerful and lean on a large frame now running to corpulence with middle age. An old scar mars the set of his chin, twisting his lower lip slightly. Across the desk from his lord stands one of the two men the prince trusts absolutely - Nikolai Uulamets, the Commander of his palace guard.

'Contradictory reports, Nikolai - I am at a loss as to which to believe.' His hand sweeps across the surface of the desk, scattering the papers that litter it. Nikolai is impassive.

A slightly built man, in his forties. Fair hair with more silver than blond in it these days is worn shoulder length, and braided to either side of bearded cheeks. His face is calm, handsome, and carries a look of slightly bewildered amusement that belies his abilities. Nikolai Uulamets gained his position by a careful program of assassination and propaganda, removing all who stood in his path.

'I depend upon you for such information, Kolya,' Yuri continues. He stabs a finger towards his Commander. 'We are upon the cusp of Summer for the first time in living memory, and I must know the truth of these events. Which of them do I trust - the Queen of Winter, or the Lord of Summer?'

'If I may, your highness?' Nikolai picks up the scattered papers and returns them to the desk in a tidy pile. 'Send an emissary to both. Ascertain the truth of Alianora Marevna's assertions.'

Yuri's sigh is from the heart, and he leans back heavily in his chair. 'Great changes are needed with the coming of Summer, Kolya. The last thing we need is an imbalance between the Powers. Kastchei assures me that Alianora is deposed, having attempted his life, She tells me that he has gone mad and must be brought down like a stag at bay, before he turns upon us all.'

'Kastchei and you were friends, long ago,' Nikolai says. 'You trust him?'

'I did. But reports come in daily along the trade routes that the Hunt has not been seen since the floods began. That no-one has been seen leaving or entering the Summer Palace in weeks, that the Queen was injured and seen fleeing for her life. Neither of them responds to our communications. What am I supposed to think?' His hand again sweeps the desk clear, and this time Nikolai makes no attempt to clear the mess.

'Send emissaries, Highness. I myself will attend upon the Queen…'

'No.' Yuri interrupts. 'You I will send north, to Kastchei. I will need your guile to see treachery from that quarter, if it exists. No, I will send Alexei to Alianora. It is time my son took upon himself some responsibility.'

Nikolai bows, but his expression is concerned. 'As you command, your Highness. But I do recommend caution in dealing with the Queen…'

Yuri cuts him short with a wave of his hand. 'Enough, Commander. You have your task, and the journey is not a short one. I suggest you begin it.'

'Your Highness.' Nikolai bows deeply, accepting the rebuke, and leaves the room. As the door shuts behind him with a calculated slam, Yuri slumps in his seat, a worried man.

You should perhaps consider more direct action.

Yuri doesn't look up, but places his head in his hands. 'I tell you we cannot, until we know the truth. Your concerns may well be needless.'

I sense the course of the future more keenly than your human senses, my Prince, says the voice of the city, which Yuri hears from all around him, with no discernible point of origin. My senses extend more deeply into this land than you appreciate. My warning stands. We are threatened from without.

Yuri takes his head out of his hands and stares in the direction of the heart of the kremlin, although he knows the city has no real focal point for its intelligence. 'Yet you cannot tell me from which of them this threat will come.'

Silence.

'Then let me deal with this in my own way. This is a matter for men, not machines.'

The city is silent, except for the deep, constant throbbing of its vast engines, which seem to have taken on a more sombre, warning note.

 

 

Chapter 1

Kastchei's Summer Palace – Southern Plains

Thirty feet long, about twenty wide and tall, the dromond squatted in the centre of the flagstoned yard like a grotesque gargoyle. Its skin was a pale green-grey, and covered a structure that bulged with asymmetrical contours on all sides. Some were sensory nodes, others contained the propulsion and life support systems. Currently, a small hatch in the belly of the beast was open, and a short, slim woman with long chestnut hair was sat on the ramp, trying to clean off a greenish substance that covered her skin from fingertips to elbows. She was surrounded by trailing coils of cable, conduit piping and organic tubes and fibres.

'Any luck yet?'

She looked up as the speaker ducked under the wing of the dromond. The sunlight made his red-gold hair gleam like fire around his face, the fine strands falling like flames over the collar of his black coat. Holding onto the wing with one hand, he tilted his head on one side and smiled, his neatly trimmed goatee failing to hide his infectious grin. Freckled and dimpled, he looked almost boyish, until you looked into his pale green eyes, which held an ageless and somewhat troubled intelligence.

Vivienne pulled a face at him. 'I've managed to get the new system installed, but it will take time to come on line. It's not like putting new batteries in - the sheer volume of organic components means this is more of a job for a vet than for a mechanic.' She slid down the ramp on her bottom and stood up, shaking off some of the detritus. She grimaced. 'I look like a butcher.' She ducked out from under the body of the craft and stretched, shaking her hair out of its confining plait. 'And I don't think I'll ever get my hands clean again.'

'You've got some lubricant on your nose,' Taliesin told her. He rubbed at the offending smear with the sleeve of his coat. 'There.'

'Thanks.' Vivienne plunged her hands into a nearby bucket of water and washed her hands. 'I thought you were going to try looking through the storage rooms with Kastya for something that might help?'

'I would have done, if I could have found him. Where is he?'

Vivienne grabbed a towel and rubbed her arms dry. 'Search me, I thought he was with his new pack?' She saw Taliesin's pale green eyes take on a harder look and stopped, putting the towel down on the wing. 'You still don't approve?'

'Not really, no. I understand his reason, but I don't have to like it.'

 

Four months ago, when they'd returned from trying to prevent Alianora, Kastchei's wife, from trying to kill Merlin's dragon, Kastchei had killed with his own hands most of his pack of cybrid hounds that formed his Wild Hunt. Whilst admitting that Kastchei had a point, in that Alia had been able to use the cybrids to track down and capture the dragon, the vicious, casual efficiency with which the sorcerer had carried out the task had left a sour taste in Taliesin's mouth. After the argument they'd had, the icy silence between the two men had lasted for three days. Vivienne, who'd understood a little better what the act had cost Kastchei, was a little more understanding about it, but it was still a sore subject.

Imprinting and training the newly decanted hounds kept Kastchei busy, but it also kept him from facing the one thing that must have loomed larger in his mind than any other, Alia or no. And if he didn't want to discuss it, neither Taliesin nor Vivienne felt like pushing the matter. The sorcerer's temper could be… "touchy" as Vivienne had put it after one explosion, in what Taliesin had witheringly described afterwards as an understatement of universal proportions.

'He wasn't in the kennels,' Taliesin said. He jumped up onto the wing, and sat with his legs dangling over the edge. 'And there's someone to see him. I told the seneschal to put him in the guest rooms for now.' He sighed. 'After weeks of moping around the place like a thundercloud looking for somewhere to drop its load, he picks now to go wandering? I thought Elphin's timing was bad.'

Vivienne grinned up at him. 'You really love being able to shout at royalty, admit it!' She slapped his leg. 'Off. You'll unbalance the ship while the new stabilisers kick in.' Taliesin jumped down beside her.

'Sorry. Look, I'm going to try and find our host. Clean up a bit and try to keep the ambassador occupied until I get back with Kastchei?'

'Ambassador? You didn't mention an amb - ' she was talking to his retreating back. 'Fine. Leave me to sort it all out as usual, why don't you!' She threw the towel after him, although he was long gone. 'Honestly.' Behind her, there was an ominous gurgling noise from the bowels of the dromond, and the hatch began haemorrhaging lubricating fluid from the recently repaired propulsion systems. Vivienne had to duck back under the fuselage, grabbing for a clamp as she did, yelling for the Vat-master.

 

 

Taliesin let the black stallion have his head once they were clear of the palace. The rolling hills were finally free of ice and snow, the footing firm underfoot. Summer was finally coming, and the day was warm and clear. A fine day for a ride, even if he hadn't needed to come out, he thought, bringing the black back to hand. He slowed Voronushka to a working trot, and patted the cybrorse's sleek neck, once they reached the top of the next hill.

'So, little Raven - do you think you can find your stablemate?' The stallion pawed the ground and snorted. Taliesin laughed. 'Of course you can. Shall we find Sivushka?' He dropped the reins, and Voronushka, after scenting the air, turned neatly on his forehand and set off north at a steady canter. He made no effort to steer the stallion, but sat easily in the saddle and enjoyed the ride.

 

He found Kastchei with his pack, unmaking a large hart, outside the small wood that bordered the Summer Palace's estate. Kastchei, his shirt-sleeves turned back to keep them out of the blood, was separating muscle from bone with practised ease, the carcass laid carefully on its hide, carefully propped up from stakes to catch the blood. A forked stick nearby held choice organs and titbits from the beast. The hounds kept their distance, white faces and coats streaked with blood. For all the butchery he was engaged in, as ever there was scarcely a drop on the sorcerer's clothes.

He looked up as Taliesin dismounted and draped Voronushka's reins over the saddle-horn. 'I wasn't expecting company.'

Taliesin found a convenient tree stump to sit on, after removing Kastchei's coat and dropping it casually to the ground. 'No, I suppose you weren't.' He ignored Kastchei's pointed look at the discarded garment. 'But you have it. Back at the palace. I do hope you don't intend to keep him waiting? Because he has the look of a man who thinks there's something fishy going on, and I'd hate to confirm his suspicions.'

Kastchei moved to work further down the flanks of the hart, changing blades with a graceful flourish. A leather roll was unfurled at his feet, containing a bewildering array of knives and other implements that would have done credit to a surgeon. 'You wouldn't have ridden out here without taking precautions. It can wait, I'm sure.'

'You think I care enough to make the effort?' The bard asked him. Kastchei began hacking at the hindquarters and didn't look up. 'Goddess alone knows, you don't. You think you can bury your head in the snow and your hands in blood until it all blows away? You're the Lord of Summer, and Summer is now here, Kastchei. It was only a matter of time before people wondered what the hell you were doing, and where you were. You think Alianora will have been idle in the last few months?' He'd stood up as he delivered this impassioned speech, and now stood, with his hair flying in the wind, staring at the man whose continued good favour could be his only way off this planet.

Seconds later, staring into Kastchei's grey eyes, he remembered that it really wasn't a good idea trying to be physically imposing with the man, who although he wasn't much taller, if at all, was considerably more powerfully built. Moreover, Kastchei wasn't shy of using his physical presence to intimidate.

Not that it worked as such on Taliesin. It's hard to intimidate a man who can make the Ard Rí of the Thirteen Worlds jump when he shouts.

It was, to Taliesin, the principle of the thing. He hated backing down. But where it was either looking an idiot or a complete idiot… As nonchalantly as he could, he sat back down. Which of course left Kastchei with no room to manoeuvre.

Except, Taliesin thought, it was probably a mistake to bait the man when he had a small arsenal of bladed weapons with him, and obviously knew how to use them.

Kastchei however, just laughed and walked back to the butchered hart. 'Since you're here, make yourself useful. You can give me a hand getting this little lot packed.' He looked back over his shoulder. 'That is, if you don't mind getting your hands dirty?'

'I'm not that squeamish about where my dinner comes from, if that's what you mean,' he said, helping Kastchei hang dressed parcels of meat, bone and offal on the two horses. The intestines and some other cuts were left on the suspended hide, mixed with the blood. Kastchei whistled the hounds over, and they crowded around him, not making a move on the feast until he gave the order. The head, shorn of its antlers, Kastchei took over to his lymer, kept apart from the rest of the pack. Whilst the hound tore at the titbit, Kastchei finally answered Taliesin's accusation.

'It all comes down to the hounds,' he said softly. The lymer looked up from its quarry and whined. Kastchei patted the great beast, and reassured, it settled back down to eat. 'Without them, and the power of the Wild Hunt, I'm vulnerable. Until the pack is run in, I prefer to keep a low profile. What the rest do not see, they cannot prove. Let Alia spin her tales to those she can - Most of the lords she could go to will not act against me without proof of weakness. They know all too well the price of failure.'

'Perhaps you should not have killed the pack,' Taliesin ventured. Kastchei rounded on him, violet eyes almost blazing.

'You expected me to leave a pack tainted by Alia alive, to be used against me again? I'd given you credit for more intelligence than that, Taliesin.'

'The Wild Hunt is nothing but a symbol, a barbaric throwback to…'

Kastchei raised his hand abruptly. 'Stop there, Talya. You have no idea of what you speak. Whatever the imitation hunts on your worlds are, they are not the true hunt. Vivienne tells me that most of the histories and legends of the Thirteen Worlds were destroyed by Morgaine, but I'm surprised that you don't have the eyes to see to the heart of what the Hunt is.'

Taliesin faced him down. 'Then tell me.'

'If they were come into their full strength, I could show you,' Kastchei said. The hounds having finished, he began re-coupling them. 'Put simply, however, the cybrid technology that each is grown with has certain properties. When enough of them are gathered together, and with the help of an additional fully sentient focus, they can be used to generate a path into the void that binds - a means of travelling not only between world, but on a very limited level, between times. The full cry of the Wild Hunt can also be used to rip a person from the weft of time itself.'

Taliesin looked down at the huge hounds that gathered around their master: the lymer - the pathfinder, the one who finds the way. The alaunts; massive beasts capable of pulling down a large bison. The brachets, the running hounds, for speed in the chase. All parts of a greater whole, even in a normal pack. He wasn't blind to the symbolism.

'A powerful weapon, in the wrong hands,' he said eventually. Kastchei smiled coldly.

'Perhaps now you will trust my judgement a little more?' A standing vault put him on Sivushka's back. Taliesin, less athletic, settled for a foot in the stirrup and a quick hop to land astride Voronushka's broad back.

'Perhaps.'

Kastchei called the hounds and they swarmed at Sivushka's feet, not yet wary of the stallion's quick temper. Sivushka stamped a hoof impatiently, and was calmed by his master's hand upon his neck. 'At least you're honest,' he said eventually. 'However you might want to curb that habit in some company. The other lords of this world are less tolerant than I of such forthrightness.'

Taliesin reined Voronushka in alongside the prancing Sivushka. 'It's part of my function to tell you what you don't want to hear,' he said pointedly. 'I'm a bard, not a courtier.'

'I'm amazed you lived this long,' was the sardonic reply.

'If I didn't know you'd been invulnerable for eight hundred years, I'd say the same about you,' Taliesin retorted. Kastchei pulled his mount up abruptly, and regarded him coldly. His hounds milled around the hooves of the stallion.

'My tolerance for your flippancy is not without limits, Taliesin. Be warned.'

'Neither is mine for arrogance, my lord. What do you plan to do with me if I overstep your bounds - give me horns to wear and set your hounds upon my trail?'

Kastchei raised his hand. 'Venite ad me, quonium ego precipio verbis de eternum…' his hand inscribed a glowing sigil in the air as he chanted.

Taliesin took a deep breath and let it out slowly. 'Desist and hold,' he said simply, without raising his voice. The sorcerer was held there, arm outstretched, mouth open. Taliesin waited until Sivushka, unnerved by the lack of movement from Kastchei, snorted and began fretting. Then he moved in and took the reins, calming the great cybrorse. Kastchei's eyes blazed with impotent fury, but Taliesin's command held him fast.

'I have no intention,' Taliesin said softly, 'of releasing you if you're going to try that again. You are not a fool, Kastchei. Stop acting like one. You may move.'

Kastchei shook himself as if to free himself from Tal's compulsion. There was still a dangerous glint in his grey eyes, barely contained under his habitually reserved demeanour, but he dismissed the summoning he'd begun.

'I underestimated you, it seems, Talya.'

'It happens,' Taliesin said quietly. He gave Kastchei Sivushka's reins. 'Home?'

Kastchei took them without another word and rode away at a smart pace. Taliesin waited a few heartbeats before asking Voronushka to follow, and shook his head. 'Proud, stubborn, arrogant and bad tempered,' he muttered under his breath. 'I don't know why you put up with him.' Only after he'd finished speaking did he realise he wasn't talking to the horse.

 

 

In the absence of the Queen of Winter, it had somehow fallen to Vivienne to act as sometime chatelaine to the Lord of Summer. Ironic, really, she thought, putting down her hairbrush and running her fingers through the long heavy fall of her hair. It fell almost to her waist these days, when not tied back, and she contemplated cutting it - perhaps back to her usual shoulder length style. She let the chestnut strands fall back, and stared at her face in the vanity mirror.

Not bad, for her age, she thought. She ran her fingers over the soft skin of her face. No lines, no crows feet, no grey hairs, and yet by all reckoning she had to be at least a dozen years older than she had been when she first come to Gwynedd with Taliesin.

She didn't, to the best of her knowledge, look a day older. How long? She wondered. How long will either of us have? She stood up and smoothed down the long divided skirts of her green and gold gown. Perhaps it was Kastchei's recent brush with mortality that made her question her own and Taliesin's for the first time. She'd seen with her own eyes the sorcerer's legendary invulnerability. Less than a day later she'd seen it ripped away from him, his body finally freed from whatever enchantment placed upon it by the dragon that had brought him to this realm - Merlin's dragon - and had seen, where Taliesin did not, the toll this was taking upon him.

He would not talk, but that was not his way. Another one who liked to keep everything bottled up inside. Vivienne sighed. I should be used to it. I should just let them both get on with it, the one made mortal flesh, the other still running from a past that wasn't even his, truly.

She'd never, in either of her lifetimes, been one to let matters lie. But for the life of her, she couldn't see a solution to this quandary.

And then, of course, there was the other problem.

 

The apartments Kastchei had given to them looked out onto a small walled garden - a simple affair, from the vantage point of the balcony the grassy footpaths clearly marked out a lemniscate in the shape of an hourglass, swirling patterns separated by carefully tended flowerbeds, the whole forming a circle within the walls. A tall figure in white breeches and a blue shirt walked its ways now, backwards and forwards, following the twisting curves that should not meet, yet somehow brought the walker back to a beginning, over and over again. Long dark hair and a casual sway of the hips might have led an observer to think the figure was a young woman, although one with a perhaps too boyish figure. A closer examination however might lead the observer to think that he actually looked at a surprisingly pretty young man. The truth, as always, was somewhere in the middle, or out to the fringes, depending on your point of view.

Phoenix, lately of the northern tribes, Chosen of Merlin's dragon, and now, perhaps, something more. Since the night The Queen of Winter had tried to kill the dragon, thereby destroying Kastchei, Phoenix had shown no further signs that anything was… different. But they had all seen something that suggested that Kastchei's attempt to alter the nature of the unravelling (as Tal had called it later) had succeeded. Somehow the dragon had merged with Phoenix - who would say nothing of that night, and avoided all attempts to question her about it.

Yet the hermaphrodite wandered the halls of the Summer Palace and its grounds, sometimes startling the staff by seeming to talk to herself at odd times.

Strangely, it was Kastchei who'd cautioned the other two not to press Phoenix further.

Or perhaps not, Vivienne mused. After all, he too had undergone changes that night. It didn't take a genius to work out that the two were closely linked.

Vivienne leaned on the balcony, and looked down at the garden. Phoenix still walked the grassy labyrinth, but was no longer alone. Walking alongside Phoenix and talking to him quite animatedly was the ambassador from the southern city-state of Kitezh. Swearing under her breath, Vivienne practically flew across the room and out into the corridor, almost knocking over one of the maids in her hurry to get to the garden.

 

Vivienne had her breath back before she swept elegantly into the walled garden. She chose a path that took her through a ray of sunlight, allowing the light to catch the vivid emerald hue of her gown and the copper highlights in her dark chestnut hair. Never a physically imposing woman, she did know how to make an entrance, despite her lack of height. The ambassador greeted her with a deep bow as she approached, and his gaze as he looked her up and down was suitably admiring.

She had his measure, then, she thought, noting the appreciative smile that he gave her as he took her hand.

'Commander - my apologies for not greeting you sooner. As you might have gathered, your arrival caught the household somewhat unawares.'

He bowed over her hand. 'Apologies are not needed, my lady. Your other guest here was entertaining me while I walked.'

Vivienne withdrew her hand and gave Phoenix a surreptitious hard stare. 'I'm sure. Phoenix - isn't there something else you should be doing, elsewhere?'

Phoenix shrugged. 'No.'

Vivienne smiled at Uulamets. 'Excuse me.' She took Phoenix over to ostensibly look at a flowerbed. 'Let me put it another way - find somewhere else to be and stay there.'

Phoenix gave her a rebellious look. 'I wouldn't have told him anything, Vivienne.'

'Perhaps, but until we know why he's here, I'd prefer it if you didn't speak to him. We've got no way of knowing what he wants - or just how able he is.'

Phoenix's head dipped in acknowledgement. When those blue eyes were upturned to meet Vivienne's again, she sensed a difference in the clear gaze.

'We would not speak out of turn, but your prudence is commendable, Vivienne.' With that Phoenix turned and walked away, leaving Vivienne with her mouth open.

'Problems?' Uulamets' amused voice behind her brought her back to the matter at hand. She turned with her smile firmly in place.

'Not at all,' she said smoothly. 'Phoenix has been ill of late. My name is Vivienne, Commander Uulamets. I'm afraid like yourself I'm only a guest here, but as a friend of Lord Kastchei's, I've been acting on his behalf in the absence of Queen Alianora.'

'Ah yes.' He took her arm and steered her along the green path. 'Call me Nikolai, Vivienne, it will make things simpler.'

Vivienne stepped from the grassy path onto the gravel trail that ran between the sigil's green lines, not wanting to walk the labyrinth. Uulamets was forced to follow her lead, to maintain his contact.

 

'I'm afraid we're just as confused about some of the events of the past few months as you are, Commander. The Queen's departure was rather sudden. Perhaps you would be better waiting until Lord Kastchei returns from the hunt?'

He took hold of her arm just above the shoulder and pulled her to a halt.

'Lady Vivienne, you dissimulate beautifully, but please, do not attempt to do so again. I am not, as Kastchei would inform you were he here, a man noted for his tolerance of deception.'

'How true, Kolya!' Kastchei hopped over the dividing lines of the grass labyrinth and came to a halt beside them. His dark red hair settled heavily on his shoulders, brushing the forest green of his shirt. The impression was one of boundless energy and enthusiasm, in stark contrast to his withdrawn manner of the past few months. Vivienne shot him what she hoped was a "what-the-hell-are-you-playing-at" glance, which was studiously ignored. She disentangled herself from the Commander's arm just in time to see Taliesin - by comparison to Kastchei, looking subdued in sombre black, enter the walled garden.

Don't ask was the mental response, before she'd even opened her mouth. Kastchei meanwhile had taken the Commander's arm firmly and grasped it.

'Kolya, what a surprise - Yuri doesn't usually send you so far from home.'

'There were reasons to suspect my particular skills would be of more benefit here, under the circumstances.' He pulled his arm out of the sorcerer's grip. 'Lord Kastchei - with all due respect, I really do need to speak with you privately. Is it wise to involve off-worlders in our affairs?'

Kastchei regarded him carefully for several seconds, before responding. 'I trust Vivienne and Taliesin, in any matters that concern my realm. Taliesin of Gwynedd is a bard, of the old school - I think you'll find his insights as fascinating as I do…'

Taliesin, who had reached Vivienne's side by then, bowed.

'Commander Uulamets, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.' He straightened and let Kastchei have it. 'Lord Kastchei is perhaps too modest to point out that his own opinions occasion most of my more impressive outpourings on many subjects.'

'I have heard of bards,' Uulamets said, looking outwardly thoughtful. He caught Vivienne's eye however, and she wasn't blind to the amusement in his gaze. She revised her estimate of him again: he didn't miss a single nuance, this man. 'Is it true that a true bard will always take the side of justice and truth over loyalty to a monarch or lord?'

'My loyalties to Elphin of Gwynedd are strengthened by friendship, Commander, but if he were not the man he is, I would be bound to point that out to him, in no uncertain terms.'

Uulamets laughed. 'The stories tell the truth when they say it is difficult to get a yes or no answer out of a bard, at least!'

Taliesin smiled. 'The difficulty lies in presenting him with a question he cannot answer otherwise.' He dipped his head slightly. 'Lord Kastchei, the Commander is right, it is perhaps better for Skazki's business to be conducted between her citizens. With your leave, we shall retire.'

Uulamets nodded his assent, but Vivienne didn't miss the sharp look Kastchei gave Taliesin as she was ushered out of the garden. Once inside, she rounded on Taliesin.

'That was callous, leaving him to deal with that alone.' She wagged her finger at him. 'For shame, Tal, he's not up to dealing with the chief of Kitezh's intelligence service, surely?'

'If not now,' Taliesin said evenly, then when?' He leaned back against the tapestry that decorated the wall, realised that he was pulling it from its hanging, and shifted to allow the fabric to hang behind him without strain. 'It is not my task to cover for him indefinitely. He's dragon-born, he can take care of himself.'

'No,' Vivienne replied rather more tartly than she'd planned, 'but it is our job to make sure that the balance of power here remains in our favour.' She peered at the tapestry behind Taliesin, and blushed as she realised its subject matter was of a hunt of a kind other than that of the forest. She wasn't even sure one of the positions was possible without dislocating something.

'You're assuming that Kastchei is our best hope for returning Breceliande to the Alliance - I'm not convinced of it. For a start, this will be his first Summer as Lord, and his previous record in this world's history is not conducive to making me trust his judgement.' He brushed a stray lock of red hair out of his eyes. 'Stay objective, Vivienne. Don't let your feelings for him cloud the issue. If we have a better opportunity to stop the Calaitin and deal with the broader issues of Breceliande's status within the New Alliance, than I say we have to take it.'

'Unworthy, Tal,' Vivienne chided him. He bowed his head slightly in acknowledgement. 'You've trusted my instincts before, why not now? Are you letting your own feelings cloud your judgement?'

'Point,' he said quietly. 'Part of me actually likes him, but I can't shake a feeling that he's not to be trusted. Just don't ask me why.' He took a deep breath. 'Wait. No, I do know why: he's arrogant, manipulative, amoral, quick-tempered, over-confident…'

'Intelligent, devastatingly attractive and too bloody good by far at anything he turns his hand to,' Vivienne finished. 'Remind you of anyone?' she quipped.

Taliesin look hurt. 'I'm not amoral…' he said plaintively. She caught the return of his devilish glint in his light green eyes. 'Devastatingly attractive?' he asked. She laughed as he put his arm around her waist and brought her close. She twined her arms about his neck.

'Manipulative…' she teased. He kissed her.

'But I still can't believe,' he said with a mock pained note in his voice, whispering next to her ear 'that you actually let him seduce you…'

'Shouldn't you be concentrating on finding out where they're going to have their chat so that you can eavesdrop?' Vivienne asked, changing the subject abruptly, and be damned to subtlety… He placed his hand on the wall with a heavy theatrical sigh.

'Kastchei's study, unless I miss my guess. Trust me, love - I have the acoustics in this palace down to a "T". There's nowhere they can go that I can't overhear.' He removed his hand. 'Although it would be better if we could get a little closer. Shall we?'

She shook her head. 'That's your field, I'd only be a distraction.' She kissed him lightly on the cheek. 'Besides, whilst the ambassador is with Kastya, I get to do what I do best.'

'Which is, this time?'

'Go through his luggage. Do let me know when they've finished, won't you?' She almost skipped away, girlishly, for the benefit of the passing servants, before dropping back into her normal stride. Taliesin, watching her, shook his head.

'So much for a quiet life,' he muttered under his breath. Inwardly, he couldn't resist a smile. In truth, he would have been bored living out his life as a simple minstrel, but there were times, these past few months… With a sigh, he tugged at the cuffs of his shirt, and set off in search of an empty room closer to where Kastchei and the commander were talking.

 

Three months as Kastchei's guest had been more than long enough for him to gain a feel for the acoustics of the Summer Palace. He settled down in an armchair in the parlour next to the study, and closed his eyes, concentrating on the sounds of the palace.

There was a knack to opening oneself to the sounds of the world: too open, and a bard could quite literally go insane, unable to filter out the volume of sound that surrounded them. Even their own breathing or heartbeat would overwhelm them. Too closed, and one might as well simply stand against the wall with a glass to one's ear. At least, that was his usual, more caustic introduction to new members of the order.

He listened.

First, to filter out the heartbeat, the breathing. Slowed, but not dangerously so. White noise, to be ignored. Wind, brushing past the building, over it, through it, a thousand scrapes, scratches, brushes, whistles and moans. A building as old as the Summer Palace, in a climate as fierce as Skazki's could howl like a virgin bride on her wedding night.

He brushed the image away with a mental grimace. Some of Marius' more colourful imagery had obviously rubbed off on him. He pushed the wind aside, and searched for the sounds he needed.

Footsteps, in the halls, the sounds of laughter in the kitchens, the clank of pans, the bubbling of water in the pots over the fires. From the stables, the clink of horseshoe on stone, as Sivushka stamped a hoof in his stall. The low growl of one of the alaunts as it snarled at its packmates over a choice titbit...

He pulled back. Too far. Closer. Much closer. One voice, deep, resonant, but with a sharpness in the higher registers that was distinctive.

           

           

'Yuri worries needlessly, Nikolai. My ambitions have never touched upon Kitezh's safety. Nor will they.'

'Perhaps. You will of course permit me my doubts?'

'Commander, I never expected anything less of you. But what lies between myself and the Queen of Winter is for us to resolve. It has no impact upon other affairs...'

'With all due respect, Lord Kastchei, I disagree. Summer comes, Winter passes, and your reputation precedes you. How do we know we can trust you, if tales come to us that you have lost your power? You have -'

'A reputation for brutality and a lust for power that approached legendary proportions even before I took the mantle of the Lord of Summer and Master of the Hunt. Yet knowing all of this, still you persist in trying my patience and goodwill, Kolya. Your confidence in my abilities will only be proved by my ripping your head from your shoulders and giving it to my lymers as a tidbit, and yet my goodwill will only be proved by refraining from dealing with your impudent accusations, thus showing myself to be weak. Which is it to be, Commander?'

A lengthy pause.

'You have a way of avoiding answers that approaches the skill of that offworld bard, My lord.'

'Be thankful I take that as a compliment, Commander.' Another pause. 'You find his presence disturbing?'

'I find it too coincidental that these offworlders arrive at the same time that these rumours begin flying the length of the realm, yes. Rumour was ever the chief weapon of the Cynfeirdd, or so I have read.'

'This did not begin with the bard.'

 

In the next room, Taliesin bit his lower lip, remembering a crystal cave on Gwynedd, and the death of a dragon.

'So you say, my Lord. But Alianora spreads a tale that you are no longer what you were, and hints that you have perhaps lost the path of reason.'

'So you tell a madman to his face that he is mad. Is this wise, Commander? I think you know better.' Taliesin could almost see the smile curving on Kastchei's face - cold-yet-not. Humour masquerading as a dangerously playful trap for the unwary - or vice versa. Even for a bard, it was hard to tell the difference, with this man.

 

'You're eavesdropping again.'

The accusation brought him out of his reverie sharply, and he opened his eyes to stare into the vivid blue irises of Phoenix's eyes. Phoenix, who stood not five paces in front of him, hands on slender hips, black hair rippling over azure satin. A far cry from the fur-clad waif of the Northern plains, he thought ruefully.

'That's my business, Phoenix,' he told him, pushing himself to his feet. His hair, grown perhaps too long over the last few months, fell into his eyes and he brushed it back absently. 'And thanks to you, I may just have lost an opportunity to keep a track on our host.'

'Oh, Vivienne says he's not so bad as you think,' Phoenix said archly, looking at him from under lowered lids. 'He's teaching me to ride.'

Awkwardness, and fear, under the light tone. And it didn't take a bard's ear to hear it. 'You're troubled.'

Phoenix shuffled. 'I hear voices, sometimes. Well, one voice, but she talks a lot.'

'You know why,' he said softly. Knowing, all too well, there was nothing he could do. Too many memories, poured into a vessel too soon...

Verdani's voice echoed in the depths of his own memory. His memory, not the Other. Not the voice that sometimes threatened to overwhelm him, the memories and experience of a man dead for centuries. So how much worse for Phoenix, given not just the life, but the essence of a creature so alien? 'It's outside of my experience, Phoenix, if I knew how to help, I would.'

'I know.' Misery, and the walls coming up again even as he watched. 'You should trust him more.' Phoenix had swept out of the room before he realised that the last voice had not been Phoenix's, but that of the dragon. There was no time to call Phoenix back, because he was in the doorway.

'Lord Kastchei.' He acknowledged his host with a short bow.

'Taliesin.' Equally formal. 'Next time you want to sit in on my conversations, ask first. I might surprise you.' The sorcerer swept out of the room with even more grace than Phoenix had, brushing past Vivienne as he did so. She just looked at Taliesin quizzically.

'Just what was all that about?'

'Do you ever,' he said with a sigh, putting his arm around her, 'feel that life would be so much simpler if people would just speak their minds instead of talking in riddles, half truths and evasions?'

Vivienne raised an eyebrow, a sparkle of mischief in her hazel eyes. 'You're asking that of me?'

 

The Winter Palace, Novgoren City State.

           

Far to the south, Alianora Marevna closed the window of her room, and turned from the shutters towards the warmth of the fire that raged in the hearth. Once again, she'd been unable to penetrate the shields woven around the Summer Palace. Kastchei had not lost any of his power, despite reports she'd received of his "illness". She ran her fingers over the scar tissue that marked and twisted her left arm below the elbow, and ran over onto the back of her hand. It would heal, in time, but for now it was a constant reminder of the night four months ago when she'd gambled so heavily - and lost so much.

Kastchei, Vivienne, and the bard called Taliesin would pay dearly for that. She flexed the fingers of the injured hand, and winced as the exercises pulled at the damaged muscle. The pain, however, was but a small part of the losses she'd endured, yet it was the most visible, and therefore annoyed her so easily. She stared into the flames, as if searching for enlightenment in the flickering tongues. Summer came, and with it, her power faded, day by day. She needed something to replace the Winter Magicks, and soon, if she was to best Kastchei in the battle to come.

For he would come: she knew this. How could she not? As Queen of Winter, he'd been her Master of the Hunt for close to a hundred and fifty years; she knew him, knew his mind, his temper, his strengths - and his weaknesses. Betrayal did not sit lightly with him, he would want revenge for that, if nothing else. As for the rest… She stretched out her damaged hand to the flames, letting them play over the skin, without harm. If the rumours were true, and he had indeed lost the invulnerability that made him so feared, then she could deal with Kastchei as she would any other annoyance, eventually. If the rumours were true, and that, she hardly dared to hope.

'Your Majesty?'

The young woman's' soft voice interrupted her reverie. 'What is it, Marya?' she snapped. The chatelaine of Novgoren bowed low.

'Forgive the intrusion, but the emissary from Prince Yuri of Kitezh is here. Shall I send him in?'

Alianora smoothed down the folds of her white gown, making especially sure that the long sleeves covered her scarred arm. A quick check in the mirror placed above the mantelpiece of the hearth assured her that her hair was arranged to perfection, in a simple braid running from her crown to her waist. 'Send him in, 'Marya, and hold yourself in readiness should I require your services.'

Marya bowed. 'As you command, my queen.' She turned smartly and walked briskly to the door, holding it open for the young man standing behind it to enter. 'Prince Alexander Yuriev of Kitezh.' With another lesser bow to the guest, she left the room, closing the door behind her once he had passed through the portal.

Alianora smiled winningly at the boy who stood nervously in front of her. 'Prince Alexander, your father honours me by sending his heir. Accept my welcome, and please, do not stand on ceremony - sit.' She gestured to a high-backed chair to the left of the hearth, and offered him a goblet as he sat down, grateful for the reprieve from formality. She watched him carefully over the rim of her own goblet, not sipping the wine within. He gulped the strong red she'd offered and seemed to draw some sense of purpose from the act.

One of the servants entered then, with a tray of sweetmeats, and Alia waited until the girl had shuffled silently from the room before speaking.

'Your Highness, what is it that Prince Yuri wishes me to tell you? I assume that he is somewhat concerned about events in the north, yes?' Alia sat down and artfully rearranged her skirts, noting the boy's fascination with her body as she did so. This would be easy.

Alexei swallowed hard. 'Your majesty, my father merely wished me to hear from your own lips of the events he has heard. Our knowledge is second hand, at best. And rumour…'

'Rumour is always to be distrusted. How wise.' She leaned forward slightly. 'What more can I add, however? Lord Kastchei attacked me without provocation and left me sorely injured. It is, of course, well known that in times long past his reputation for brutality was the stuff of legend. Alas,' she smiled sadly, 'my heart led me to believe him when he claimed that he loved me, and had put aside all personal gain to serve at my side.' She debated whether or not to allow a tear to fall, but decided against it, feeling that even a boy this young would see through that artifice. She let a husky note creep into her voice. 'He has become quite mad, I feel. Certainly not to be trusted.' She lifted her injured arm and let the white wool fall back to her elbow, revealing the unsightly scarring that marred her pale skin. His sharp intake of breath gave her all the information she needed. Baited… now to place the hook. 'The least of my injuries, although the last to heal.'

Alexei's expression was all concern, and not a little desire. 'Legend does indeed hold him to be a monster, my queen. Perhaps my father does indeed have cause to worry about the coming summer.'

Alia stood, slowly, and allowed the solicitous youth to take her arm. 'You can have no idea of the horrors I have endured these past few months, fearing that he would find me.' A slight shiver of her skin under his fingers… 'But for now, allow me to at the very least discharge my duties as hostess. You must be hungry after your journey, your highness?' She let her hip brush against his as they walked, and was rewarded by his sharp inhalation. Almost too easy, she thought. Kastchei had been far harder to seduce, when she had first sought him out. Always so suspicious, until her long reign had lulled him into complacency. And damn that Vivienne for waking him to the danger. If not for her… The skin on her arm itched, as if her body remembered the injury caused by the pulse rifle that had left the scar. Vivienne, she had decided, would be the second to suffer, once she had finished with Kastchei. She didn't realise she was smiling in anticipation until she saw Alexei looking at her strangely. She quickly turned the smile into a more sorrowful expression, and noted the boy's nod of "understanding". Inwardly, she preened.

Beware, my huntsman: your days are numbered…

 

 

Chapter 2

 

He stood in the centre of what had once been a castle, tumbledown walls encircling the top of a windswept hill. Rubble was scattered for several yards round the crown of the hill upon which it stood, lashed by rain and winds, shrouded in darkness. He had to pick his way carefully across the broken ground, and twice tripped over a mossy boulder half-buried in the earth. He turned to look behind him, and where the hilltop ruins had stood, there was now a single tower rearing above his head, reaching for the darkened heavens; remote and forbidding, even though it too had an air of decaying disrepair. There was one door at the foot of this keep, and it opened to his touch.

The tower was open to the elements, the floors above the single roomed ground floor long since collapsed, as the splintered timbers on the floor testified. The walls were frost cracked and creepered, ivy and other clinging plants crawling over them, and slimed with lichen where damp had seeped deep into the stones. Unlike the castle, the air here was one of slow decay rather than sudden destruction.

A shaft of light through the doorway glinted off something silvery on the far side of the room, and he walked slowly towards it, fastidiously picking his way across the littered floor.

The mirror was six feet high and about three across. The peeling gilt frame was fixed to the wall not with bolts or screws, but with living vines that trailed around and through the frame and the wall behind it, holding it in place. Dusky pink roses in full bloom wilted on the vine, receptacles withered and unfertilised. He stood in front of the mirror and stared at his reflection. With no real surprise, his own face wasn't what stared back at him. At least, the face looking out at him hadn't been his for over a thousand years.

The dark haired man in the grey suit smiled at him, a humourless thin-lipped smile half obscured by a neatly trimmed black beard streaked with grey. 'How long do you mean to be content?' he asked.

 

He awoke in the armchair he'd fallen asleep in. The only sounds were the popping of the logs on the fire, and the deafening pounding of his hearts. Kastchei took a shuddering breath, and only then realised that he wasn't alone in the room.

Valery hovered in the doorway, and cleared his throat.

'Yes?' Kastchei snapped.

'Dinner will be served shortly, my lord. You might wish to dress first?'

Kastchei nodded his thanks, and waited for Valery to leave.

'Well?' he asked when the man remained in the doorway. Valery cleared his throat again. 'You seemed – disturbed.'

'You should take something for that throat,' Kastchei replied coldly. Taking the hint, Valery departed, shutting the door behind him, and leaving his master to his thoughts.

 

 

Dinner was a subdued affair, that night. Kastchei's servants (those who had not either left with their queen or been dismissed as potential spies by their lord) served them quickly and silently, before retiring to allow the Master of the Hunt and his guests to eat in privacy. Phoenix, still sulking from Vivienne's rebuke, just toyed with the dish on the table in front of him, refusing to talk even to Taliesin, who simply shrugged after a while and let her get on with it. Uulamets ate in silence, keeping his own counsel perhaps after his meeting with Kastchei. Vivienne watched the sorcerer, who sat to her left, with a wary eye. Although he was as unfailingly polite as ever, there was something in his manner that made her nervous. Some decision made that had placed him upon a course of action. She wished she'd been able to quiz Taliesin about it before dinner, but he'd barely had a chance to grunt a "later" at her while he threw on a clean shirt for dinner, after returning to their quarters only just in time to change for dinner.

 

After the dessert was cleared away, Kastchei pushed his chair back from the table and stood. 'Kolya, perhaps you would follow us to the parlour? I believe if you ask Taliesin nicely, we may be able to persuade Gwynedd's premier cynfeirdd to honour us with a song?' He bowed to Taliesin with a return of his familiar flourish, missing for so many months. 'Taliesin?'

Taliesin returned the bow. 'It would indeed be a pleasure, Lord Kastchei. If you will excuse me, I'll fetch my harp.'

He rejoined them a few minutes later, after they were settled in the large tapestry-hung parlour that Kastchei used for entertaining in less formal surroundings than the Great Hall. The Lord of Summer stood by the hearth, a gold-inlaid silver goblet in hand, two of his hounds at his feet, stretched out upon the rug in front of the fire, their white coats a startling contrast to the deep reds, golds and browns of the carpet, which depicted one of the scenes from the history of Breceliande: Merlin's entrapment by the disguised Morgaine. The rug, although ancient, had not been here the day before, Vivienne noted. The change was not missed by Taliesin either, but although she saw his lips compress in his familiar moue of annoyance, he said nothing. He took his seat in the high-backed, armless chair provided in the centre of the room, and placed Leannan on his lap. Uulamets, native born to Skazki, looked at the instrument with interest.

'It reminds me somewhat of a guzli,' he said eventually, naming the small guitar-like instrument Vivienne had heard played several times since her arrival here.

'Similar,' Taliesin said, finishing tuning the lap harp. 'But far more versatile in her range.' The commander returned to his wine, seemingly unaware of the bard's double meaning. Versatile indeed, was Leannan, born from a bough of the world tree itself, and imbued, some said, with the gift of prophecy. Vivienne knew the full truth: that Leannan granted Taliesin glimpses of past, present and future. Just without subtitles… She accepted the goblet handed to her by Kastchei, and settled back to watch, and listen.

Taliesin's voice was deep, and soft; the song he chose first was the Lament - Arthur's response to Gwalchmai after finding him with Gwenhyfra. Vivienne hid her nose in the goblet to hide her wince. Taliesin's voice carried not the heartfelt sorrow of a man betrayed, in A minor, as the song was usually performed, but had a harder edge in a major key. The point, she noticed, was not lost on Kastchei. Thankfully, he had the sense not to push the issue. He called Vivienne over to his side as soon as the last strains of the lament were finished, and she added her own husky contralto to his soft tenor in the duet he'd written for them to sing for Elphin's coronation. Halfway through the song, Kastchei stood up abruptly, and left the room without a word. The duet over, she touched Taliesin's arm and nodded to the door. She caught a brief flicker of concern in his green eyes, but he nodded, then engaged Uulamets in conversation. When the commander was occupied, she slipped silently from the room.

 

 

It wasn't hard to find their host - Kastchei's preference when brooding was to walk the elaborate paths of his walled garden, and it was here that she found him, sitting on the pedestal of the marble statue of Arawn, first lord of the hunt, with his two oldest hounds at his feet, stroking the massive scarred head of the alaunt whose head rested on his lap, and staring at the stars. He didn't turn as she approached, but she knew from his bearing that he heard her. Without a word, he shifted slightly to make room for her to sit beside him, and she perched on the cold marble, her shoulder brushing his, and waited for him to speak.

'Love is the single most destructive of the emotions, don't you think?' Caught off guard by the question, she hesitated, and he continued. 'Hatred will only carry a man so far, but love - the worst personal excesses in any history have been committed in the name of love. Not for nothing were the arrows of Eros said to bring both death and desire.'

'Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage' Vivienne quoted softly.

'Lao Tzu?' Kastchei laughed. 'Like most poets and philosophers, he concentrated only on the strengths, and not on the weaknesses. Love destroys from within more surely and completely than hatred ever can.'

            Vivienne clasped her hands in her lap and stared at the moon-silvered branches of the trees that surrounded the statue.

'What about the lack of love?'

'A blessing,' he said abruptly. He stood up, disturbing the two hounds, which whined and looked up at their master. 'Talya comes, Vivienne, I'll leave the two of you in peace.' He began to walk away, but she caught his arm as he walked past her, her fingers entangled in the soft fabric of his sleeve.

'Kastya-'

He shook her hand off, but then as she let out a long breath and lowered her hand, he caught it in his own.

'Only I can lay my ghosts to rest, Vivienne. But not tonight. Not tonight.' With that, he leaned down and kissed her cheek lightly, his beard brushing her skin as he pulled away again. Then he slipped into the shadows, and was gone, the hounds padding at his side the only visible wake of his passing.

 

Footsteps on the gravel alerted her to Taliesin's arrival, and she waited quietly for him to reach her side. He placed his hand on her shoulder, and she covered it with her own, entwining her fingers in his.

'What was that all about?' he asked softly, his voice concerned - whether for her, Kastchei, or for seeing them together, she couldn't tell. More troubled than she could account for, she shook her head.

'If I had to guess, Alia.' She allowed him to help her stand, her legs numbed by sitting on the cold marble. Rubbing the backs of her legs to get some feeling back into them, she looked up at the face of the first Master of the Hunt, highlighted by the pale light from Skazki's two moons. Not for the first time she pondered the tangled webs of fate and history that had brought them to this point. Names and destinies; coincidences and confluences. She traced the seal engraved on the base of the statue. Names. Titles...

A fragment of a remembered conversation, months ago: ...a princess to weep such bitter tears...

Names... She stared past Taliesin along the pathway Kastchei had taken moments earlier, chewing her bottom lip, remembering an orange sky, a rocky desert, and a plea for compassion ignored, so very long ago.

'Vivienne?' Taliesin's voice held only concern.

'Nothing.' She shook her head, not wanting to believe, but left knowing that she was right. She placed her arm around Taliesin's waist and felt him hold her in return, a place of safety she badly needed all of a sudden. 'It's nothing, just a shadow passing over my grave.' She felt the unspoken question, but mercifully, he didn't ask. Side by side they made their way back to the palace.

 

           

Some time later, she lay with his head pillowed comfortably on her shoulder, and ran her fingers through his long red hair, trying to untangle a large knot. Outside, a crash of thunder loud enough to rattle the shutters signalled the start of a large storm. He turned over and murmured sleepily:

'Did you hear that?'

'Couldn't miss it. We're in for a loud one tonight, if that's anything to go by.' She nestled closer to him. 'Go to sleep, we'll both need to work on the dromond tomorrow.'

'I'll pass. I want to talk to Kastchei. Alianora seems recovered enough from her injuries to make waves and that suggests the Calaitin will not be far behind in making a move. I think it's high time he and I discussed a few matters.' The thunder crashed again.

Taliesin lifted himself up onto one arm and stared past Vivienne, towards the window, which although closed, was free of curtains, so that the night sky, deep purple with the reddish moons setting low, was clearly visible. 'No lightning - did you see lightning?'

Vivienne yawned. 'No. But then I wasn't looking.'

Taliesin tapped her arm and gestured at the sky. 'No cloud either - so where's the storm? Hmm?'

Vivienne sat bolt upright at that. 'Kastchei,' they said in unison. Taliesin was out of the bed and hopping into his breeches before she could move. Tangled up in the sheet, she had to unwrap herself first, and so he was already dressed before she was even fully out of bed.

'Why would he take the Hunt out tonight?' she asked, trying to find her boots and a clean shirt in the closet. Taliesin shrugged his long black duster on and shook his head.

'I have no idea, but I intend to find out. I'll meet you down at the stables.' With that, he was out of the door.

Cursing her tendency to just throw her clothes into a heap any which way, Vivienne hunted for a reasonably clean pair of breeches.

 

 

The kennels were deserted when Taliesin arrived at a run, skidding on the flagstones as he came to a stop. All twelve of Kastchei's hounds were gone, and Sivushka's stable door was wide open, the albino cybrorse gone. Only Voronushka's head, almost invisible in the night, hung over the door of the next stable. Of hounds, horse or master, there was no sign.

And yet… Taliesin looked at Voronushka. The thunderclap had been mere minutes ago, and the black had already shown that he was capable of following his stablemate. He almost ran to Voronushka's stable and unbolted the door. 'Think you can find them, my little raven?' The stallion pawed the ground, and the bard thought quickly. The hunt was still not able to translate far, according to Kastchei, so it was likely he'd take them in stages, if hunting a distant quarry. If he was merely out for a ride, there was no problem at all. Either way, he should be able to catch up. Pausing only to put a bridle on the black, he scrambled onto Voronushka's back and nudged the stallion into a fast trot, which once out of the palace grounds became a gallop. 'Find them,' he whispered to the cybrid, and the great black quickened his pace, almost flying into the night.

 

 

The stableyard was completely deserted when Vivienne arrived a few minutes later, clutching her cloak close to her to protect against the early morning chill. Of Kastchei and Taliesin, there was no sign, but she quickly noticed the empty kennels, and the two open stables, and drew the correct conclusion.

'Of all the bloody stupid…' she began, slamming her fist into the wooden frame of Sivushka's empty stall.

'Is there a problem?'

She turned to see Uulamets behind her, powersword in hand, although deactivated. He too had the look of someone who'd only just got out of bed, and dressed in a hurry, she noticed: his leather boots were wrinkled, pulled only part way over his breeches, and he'd not tucked his shirt in. It gave him a somewhat roguish air.

'Don't consider lying to me, Lady Vivienne,' he said, taking her arm. His fingers held her arm in a vice like-grip, and she had no real option but to follow him back into the palace. Valery, Kastchei's valet, hovered in the vaulted hall, greying hair uncombed, his usually impeccable dress looking as though it had been thrown on in the dark. He was also still wearing a battered pair of fur slippers that looked hopelessly out of place.

'Commander - my lady -' he fussed and fidgeted as Uulamets pulled Vivienne past him, ignoring him until he reached the door of the parlour.

'You - ' Uulamets released Vivienne, who rubbed her arm ostentatiously with a mulish expression. He pointed at Valery, who obviously distressed at being roused at so unearthly an hour, was looking more and more nervous by the second. 'Prepare the fire and have some mulled wine brought to us. After that, I suggest you try to ascertain your master's whereabouts. I am not appreciative of finding my host vanished in the middle of the night.' When Valery simply stood in the corridor, unsure whether to obey or argue with this uppity guest, Uulamets placed his free hand on the broad hilt of the quiescent powersword. 'Move!'

With a duck of his head, Valery scuttled away down the corridor, almost slipping on one polished section in his slippers.

 

 

Sipping from the gold-chased goblet a little later, curled up in the largest chair, Vivienne regarded the Commander warily as he poked the fire into blazing life, studiously ignoring her, until the moment he chose.

'Commander Uulamets, you push the guest right too far. You have no right to pry into these matters…'

He interrupted her abruptly. 'As a guest of Lord Kastchei yourself, and I presume a friend, I can appreciate your position, my lady, but you must understand mine - my duty is to my prince, and my city. If the rumours and tales we have heard about Kastchei's behaviour are true, then I must know. Is he a threat to us?'

Vivienne put her goblet on her knee and traced a finger around the rim. 'Truly - I would say no, but since I'm not aware of the exact nature of the allegation laid by Queen Alianora…' She raised her head then and met his eyes. 'I am assuming that she has raised certain - concerns - about Lord Kastchei?'

Uulamets nodded. 'You have the right of it. Yuri has no great love for the Queen of Winter, which is why he is wary of her overtures, but again - he knows Kastchei of old, and even allowing for the exaggeration of minstrels and the mists of legend, he was once the most feared sorcerer on this world, his excesses legendary even for that breed of magician we endured in those times. I must know the truth.'

Vivienne stared at him thoughtfully, weighing up her impressions of this man. Kitezh's Chief of Intelligence and the commander of her armed forces would not be incapable of dissimulating, but she believed him. And perhaps, with the Queen still at large, with whatever strength Calaitin could muster, and their goal still unknown, they could use another ally in this land. It couldn't possibly, she thought, do more harm than Kastchei's recent activities. She took a deep breath.

'From our point of view, this began about six months ago, on our homeworld of Gwynedd…'

 

 Chapter 3

The Void, and the Southern Mountains

 

Despite the thaw, the nights were still long and cold on Skazki. Grateful for the warmth of the cybrorse's body under him, Taliesin held on tightly as the massive beast covered the ground in huge strides. As he had earlier that day, he let the black have his head, trusting to the vat-born bond between Sivushka and Voronushka to guide his mount to Kastchei. And sure enough, after what felt like hours, Voronushka slowed to a gentle canter, and then to a walk, as the approached the large hill behind which their dromond had rested before being dragged to the palace courtyard. Kastchei, all in white upon albino Sivushka, held his mount on the top of the hill, the hounds at the stallion's feet. In the dark, their red eyes glowed with an unholy light.

'Kastchei!' he hailed the sorcerer from the foot of the hill, hoping to stay him in his journey, but as Voronushka plunged up the steep hillside, the sorcerer turned the stallion to face away from him, and ignored him. Cursing under his breath, Taliesin urged the black on, only to feel, as he neared the summit, the crackling, hair-raising power of the Wild Hunt rising around him, as Kastchei prepared to set the Hunt in motion. Against the slowly lightening sky, he saw Kastchei raise the horn to his lips and blow the Gone Away. Without thinking, he kicked Voronushka into a gallop, and as the hounds and their deathly pale master vanished into the void, he drove his own steed after them, holding on for dear life and praying that Vivienne's description of the black's abilities were well founded. The void folded itself around him, and there was nothing to do but hold tight, and follow the baying note of the Hunt's voice.

 

Kastchei, on the rare occasions Taliesin had been able to persuade him to talk about it, called it the Void. If this was meant to imply emptiness, it failed spectacularly, for the Void between was anything but empty - in fact, Taliesin would go so far as to say the problem with this outside was that it overloaded all of the senses to the point where the mind simply could not process any more information: This was the realm the dragons called their own, the realm of the Absolute, where time and space were at once both utterly meaningless and infinitely meaningful. And, he'd thought on more than one occasion, if anyone could explain that, he'd eat his coat. Buttons and all.

After a time however the sensory overload did start to make some kind of sense, although the sensation was similar to the effects of certain kinds of intoxicants. Colour emerged from the black and whirled around the traveller, but it howled like a banshee, with all the force of a hurricane trying to drag the unwary off course. Attuned to the Absolute via his tenuous link to Yggdrasil, and possibly, although this was the explanation he dreaded, the memories he'd inherited from the one known as "Merlin", he could feel the presence, just out of the mind's reach, of the great forces that inhabited this realm: Here be dragons, indeed. Lions and tigers and bears, Oh my…! How Kastchei withstood the siren lure of these shores he could not guess; it was taking every ounce of discipline to hold his own mind to the task of following where the Wild Hunt led: The Wild Hunt, which travelled upon the winds of time itself.

 

With a sensation that was less of a sound than a colour and taste that crawled over his skin, they were free of the void, and back in the biting cold of the real world. Taliesin almost buried his nose in Voronushka's mane as the black cybrorse came to a dead stop, throwing his head back. Keeping his seat with difficulty, and spitting out a mouthful of black mane, Taliesin sat up and scanned his surroundings looking for Kastchei and the Hunt. In the early light of dawn they were hard to spot, white on the white of the snows that still lay on the land, but eventually he caught sight of Sivushka, fast vanishing over the crest of a ridge not half a mile distant. Clicking his tongue, he urged Voronushka forwards again, giving chase. As he did so, he heard the unmistakable sound of the Hunter's Horn, signalling the full Cry of the Hunt, and he shivered. Kastchei had set the Wild Hunt upon prey in earnest, and he had a feeling he knew all too well who the hunted was. Which meant that he had to try to stop the sorcerer - until he knew for certain what the Calaitin and Alia had planned, he could not afford to let Kastchei take his revenge upon his former Queen.

And besides, he thought to Kastchei, as he crouched low over Voronwy's arched neck, I'm not about to let you take that path, you damned fool. In vengeance lies madness, and I'm not sure you'd come out of the other side of it this time, my friend…

A sudden eddy in the Void-born winds caught him completely by surprise, and he was thrown clear as Voronushka reared and pirouetted, trying to escape the sudden flurry that caught them. Winded, he landed in a tussock of deep snowgrass, and lay still for several minutes trying to find the will to move. Once he sat up and realised that he hadn't broken anything, although he would feel the bruise on his left thigh for several days, unless he missed his guess. He stood up gingerly. Of Voronushka, and the hunt, there was no sign.

In fact, he realised, as he looked around, he'd been thrown completely clear not of the horse, but of his recent location. Instead of the lowlands with their glacier carved valleys, the sight that met his eyes now was very different: He was standing on the side of a mountain, wreathed in snow and mist. To his left, and he'd missed falling by inches, was a deep crevasse that plunged down into an icy darkness. Taking a deep shuddering breath he backed away from the edge, and started to look for a way down, cursing the impulse that had led him to follow the Hunt. It was only then that he saw Kastchei, lying about twenty yards further down the mountainside, half buried in a snowdrift.

Trying not to lose his footing, Taliesin climbed down as fast as he could.

 

Novgoren

Alianora had long ago come to the conclusion that she disliked Calaitin intensely. The gestalt-mind of the druid was unsettling to converse with, for one thing, and for another, she simply found them to be narrow-minded and not, despite their strangeness, particularly interesting to talk to. They also had a tendency to finish each other's sentences that she found profoundly irritating. With a slight pang in her breast as she regarded her allies, it occurred to her belatedly that she actually missed Kastchei. If nothing else, he was never boring.

The three Calaitin who stood opposite her now were the eldest of the seven that she currently believed to be on Skazki: they all wore their identical grey robes, marked with the rose and hydra symbol of Morgaine's Legion of the Rose. The eldest - "First" - was the one who limped forward to address her.

'Are you nearer to discovering the information we need?' he asked. Alia smiled sweetly.

'His Highness has been most forthcoming about the legends surrounding his city. Kitezh settled upon the node you seek: it should not be a difficult task to locate the portal, once we are within the city walls.'

'You are so sure that he will grant you admittance to the caer itself?' First asked.

'The boy is flattered by my attentions, and believes he "comforts" me in my hour of grief.' Alia's smile became more predatory. 'He will see that I am granted an audience with Prince Yuri at the very least, have no fear on that score. As to the rest… Once inside I can disable the sensors within the Caer. Kitezh will be powerless to stop us, and the power from the engines should be more than sufficient to open the gateway between the worlds.' She cocked her head on one side coquettishly. 'You never did explain exactly what you seek on the other side of the gateway…'

Second regarded her warily. 'Nor shall we. The Thorn is our business. You will be well enough rewarded when our task is complete.'

'See that that reward does not involve me resting upon the bottom of the great Mother River,' Alia told Calaitin sharply. 'My resources may be reduced, but I can still combat treachery - from whatever quarter it may come.'

First bowed, and she could not detect mockery in the gesture. 'We keep our bargains, Your Majesty.'

'See that you do,' Alianora told them. She swept imperiously from the room, leaving Calaitin staring after her with collective amusement.

Perhaps we should have approached the Lord of Summer after all, my brethren said Third to the others, using the peculiar mental channel that linked the clone-brothers. The woman is more than a little unreliable.

All of our projections and prolepsis indicated that he would not be so easily manipulated Second said scornfully.

His history indicated too much uncertainty - and that he posed an even greater threat allied to us than allied against us. The Master of the Hunt is not to be trusted. First turned to face his brothers. Our decision to aid the Queen in removing him was based upon this calculation. His links to the Prince of Kitezh, whilst useful, were not deemed sufficient to warrant the risk of leaving him alive. I took the decision to remove this threat whilst you were in transit, and I take full responsibility for it.

Our reports suggest that although much weakened, he could still prove a threat, not least because of his alliance with the bard who thwarted our plans on Gwynedd, Second said. Did your prolepsis foresee that contingency, my brother?

The Bard is a random factor: where his thread is woven, none can tell, said Third. The other two nodded in assent, feeling the others of their number concur. Yet we still require one goal before we breach the defences of Kitezh. The others concurred.

Our numbers must be replenished, said the Concordance.    First smiled at his brethren.

Actually, I was thinking that the time technology of the Wild Hunt might well prove useful.

 

 

The Southern Mountains.

           

Kastchei was slowly coming to when Taliesin reached him. With the bard's help, he sat upright, although he looked as though he regretted the movement. 'I should have known you'd be involved somehow,' he said eventually.

'If you slink away in the middle of the night, do you really expect no-one to try to find out what you're up to?' Taliesin asked. 'Just what were you doing, anyway?'

Kastchei's grey eyes glared at the bard, who simply sat opposite the sorcerer with his legs comfortably crossed in the snow, and flicked his coat skirts out of the way. 'You have a reasonable idea, else you would not have given chase.'

'I wish I hadn't. Your untried pack, with your control over it imperfect at best, has left us stranded in the middle of nowhere.'

Kastchei's gaze was withering, but Taliesin just smiled enigmatically. 'No-one asked you to stick your nose into my business, Taliesin. Myself least of all.'

'I'll take that as a "yes" then, shall I?' Taliesin drawled. Kastchei's gaze by now could have melted granite.

'We're in the foothills of the westernmost peak of the mountain range that divides the northern highlands from the southern plains, ' Kastchei said eventually. Taliesin could have sworn he heard teeth grinding. 'Hardly the middle of nowhere.' He stood up and brushed himself down, grimacing at the dirt that marred his normally pristine white coat. A muttered incantation banished the grime, leaving the fabric as white as the snow-capped peak they stood upon. 'We're not too high up, I suggest we make our way further down. It's possible I should be able to call Sivushka once we are upon more level footing.' He began walking away, leaving Taliesin to trail behind him. The bard followed silently, cautious of his footing, but making sure to have his hands in his pockets whenever Kastchei turned to see if he was still being followed. From the set of the sorcerer's shoulders, there not a great deal more he could have done to irritate the man. Perversely, considering that Kastchei was his only hope of getting back to the palace anytime soon, he found it rather satisfying. Something about Kastchei's manner always managed to rub him up the wrong way.

 

Which was perhaps one reason why he didn't offer a helping hand to the struggling man ahead of him, as they trudged through the deep drifts. Kastchei stumbled more than once, but his stiff-backed manner and Taliesin's own perversity kept them a strict five feet or so apart.            Which, the bard reflected a scant few minutes later, clinging on to a fragile granite shelf for dear life, dangling above the chasm that had opened up at his feet, just went to show…

His fingertips clawed for purchase on the slippery ledge, and he scrambled for footing a carefully as he could. There was a small indentation for him to place the toe of one boot, but no more, and he feared to place much strain upon that small foothold in case the icy surface betrayed him.

'Having problems?' Kastchei's head peered over the edge about three feet above Taliesin's head. Caught by the wind, his dark red hair blew freely across his face, and he brushed it away casually.

'No, thank you, I was just enjoying the view,' Taliesin said. The sorcerer shrugged.

'Well, if you say so…' His head vanished. Taliesin counted to ten, waiting for Kastchei to reappear.

The sorcerer did not. Swearing under his breath, Taliesin tried to haul himself cautiously onto the ledge, and slipped back, the movement sending a small scrabble of gravel and ice clattering down the sheer sides of the chasm to an unknown depth in the darkness below.

'Kastchei!'

A bearded face reappeared above him. 'Had enough of the scenery?' he quipped. He lay down and extended his arm to Taliesin. 'Take my hand.'

His tone was perfectly disingenuous, but Taliesin still hesitated.

'If I was going to let you fall, I'd simply walk away,' Kastchei said bluntly. 'Stop being a fool. I won't drop you.'

Taliesin managed to get a surer grip with his left hand and reached up carefully to take Kastchei's offered hand. The sorcerer's strong grip almost crushed his wrist, and his he was pulled free he felt his shoulder give way with an audible pop as the joint dislocated. Kastchei hauled him out roughly, and the two men lay side by side for some time on the edge of the crevasse, Kastchei breathless, Taliesin trying desperately not to move his right shoulder or any muscle connected to it.

'You could have ordered me to help you out,' Kastchei said eventually. His grey eyes regarded Taliesin with a far more appraising stare than he had at any time before. Taliesin sat up, and at once regretted the manoeuvre. His right arm hung limply at his side, even the slightest movement of the shoulder provoking a sense of nausea.

'I know,' he said, when he could speak again. You could have cut the silence that followed with a knife, he thought after a few seconds.

'Hmm,' was the only reply Kastchei gave. He pointed to Taliesin's shoulder. 'Are you going to be equally stubborn about that shoulder, or are you prepared to let me put it back in for you?'

'Think you can get it in without it hurting?' Taliesin asked with a wry grin.

Kastchei's answer was equally dry. 'Not a chance in hell.'

 

The Summer Palace.

Vivienne's mulled wine was cold by the time she'd finished speaking, although she drained the goblet giddily anyway, to gain time while she waited for Uulamets's reaction. He sat in the chair opposite hers, and stared past her for several seconds, before finally turning his blue eyes to meet hers.

'Mortal, after all these years?'

Vivienne nodded. 'Whatever bound him to the dragon was severed. Although I have a feeling that the bond was not intentional in the first place. His invulnerability was happenstance, an accident. For whatever reason, she brought him to this realm, as the legends say, but was injured somehow. My guess is that by protecting her charge, she somehow wasn't able to break the link when she left him.' Vivienne had her suspicions about that whole affair, but kept them to herself: the explanation would take too long, and would be meaningless to Uulamets besides.

'A heavy burden,' Uulamets murmured. 'It would explain a great deal. No wonder he chose to stay out of sight these past few months. There are those who would find information like that invaluable, and would not be slow to take advantage.'

'But not you or your Prince?'

Uulamets's eyes held a sly twinkle. 'Oh, we of all people would seek any advantage, if we needed to, my lady.' He toyed with his own goblet. 'Prince Yuri however regards Kastchei as a friend.' He drained the goblet to the dregs and peered moodily into the depths of the cup, as if seeking inspiration. 'It is not perhaps for those of us who serve such lords to question their allegiances.' He looked up, and she met his gaze. 'Even if it is our job to do so.'

'Commander, believe me, I do not believe that Kastchei is that unstable…' A knock at the door interrupted her. 'Yes?'

Valery entered, hair now combed and tied back, his white and gold livery impeccable. 'Lady Vivienne - the kennel master reports that as yet, there is no sign of either Lord Taliesin or of the master. If you wish, we can send a party out at first light…'

'Do it.' Vivienne ordered. She realised she was tugging her hair nervously, and dropped the thick chestnut braid.

'As you wish.' Valery nodded his thanks to her and backed out of the room, closing the door quietly behind him. Vivienne found herself staring at the ornate carving on the hardwood panels for several minutes, wishing she had some skill at least to see beyond her line of sight. Some skill, some talent to contact Tal, or at least know for sure that he lived, or was safe.

'Do you still care to tell me that the Master of the Hunt is to be trusted?' Uulamets asked her quietly. 'Even I could not help but notice the strain between your lover and your host, my lady. Perhaps…'

'Perhaps nothing,' Vivienne snapped. She stood up, disentangling the skirt of her coat from her knees. 'There are other dangers in this world without looking for trou-'

A blast rocked the palace without warning; plaster and mortar cracked and fell around then, covering them both in fine dust and gravel. Vivienne fell to her knees as another, closer strike exploded. Smoke and dust filled the air when she looked up, and she could only see vague shapes. One of them was moving, and she made her way, on hands and knees, over to it. Uulamets looked up at her and grinned. 'It seems we have company, my Lady!' he shouted, over the noise. Another strike rocked the palace.

'They must have breached the outer wards,' Vivienne shouted back, her hands over her ears. 'With Kastya gone, the palace is defenceless against attack if the wards fail.' Uulamets helped her to her feet, only to have to support her as another blast shook the palace; this time it sounded as though it had hit the west wing.

'We need weapons, supplies and warm clothing. Get the seneschal, if he still lives, meet me in the courtyard,' Uulamets yelled. When she hesitated, he added 'Go!'

Needing no extra prodding, she ran.

 

She found Valery in the main hall, trying desperately to organise the staff, most of who just milled around in confusion. A few were injured, and Valery himself was cradling his arm at an awkward angle.

'Hellfire cannon, my lady,' he shouted over the din when she asked if he knew what was happening. 'A dromond appeared out of nowhere, and started firing. We've lost most of the two wings already.'

'But not the main body of the building?' Vivienne almost lost her footing as another blast found its target nearby. 'They're being very precise, then. What could they want? If it was Alia, she'd level the entire building.'

'The only structure housed under the main hall is the vat-chamber,' Valery told her.

'Calaitin,' Vivienne breathed. She swore under her breath.

'My lady?'

'Never mind.' She took a deep breath, regretting it as she coughed out a lung full of smoke and dust. 'Take the staff, or as many as know one end of a hellfire pistol from another, and meet Commander Uulamets in the courtyard. Hold them off for as long as you can. Send the rest to round up supplies - food, clothing, anything you'll need if we have to make a run for it into the wilderness.' He nodded once, and began shouting orders. The barrage seemed to have stopped, for now, but the blasts had damaged so much of the palace that the rumbling of falling masonry was still deafening. Vivienne ran for the stairs, hoping that her room was still relatively untouched.

She bumped into Phoenix on the landing, looking wide-eyed and as nervous as a cat.

'What is it? I thought it was just a storm at first, but then the building shook.' She startled as the sound of hellfire pistols and blast rifles split the air. The bombardment seemed to have ceased, which only made Vivienne more nervous. The Calaitin and their allies must be launching their ground assault by now.

'The palace is under attack. Get what you can carry from your rooms, meet me in the courtyard. Try to keep your head down - the fighting will get brutal out there.' She stared at Phoenix, who looked scared and wilted. Just a child, really, and totally out of her depth in this world, far from the ice plains of her - his homeland.

Phoenix was not the only one who was out of their depth. Vivienne pulled herself together and tried her best to look confident. She placed her hand on Phoenix's arm. 'Go, I need to fetch some things from our rooms, and I'll be right behind you, I promise.' Phoenix left, but didn't look much happier. With a heavy sigh, Vivienne picked her way over fallen plaster and rubble to her chambers.

 

Thankfully, Leannan was unharmed, although her case was dusty. Vivienne lifted the harp carefully, swearing at the additional weight she'd have to carry, but leaving the harp behind wasn't an option. A bag packed full with as much of their gear as she could find went over her other shoulder, and she strapped on her blast rifle over Leannan's carry-strap. With a last, regretful look at her warm, comfortable bed, she made her way back to the ground floor.

 

She found Uulamets and Valery pinned down behind the dromond. Ducking to avoid the crack and sizzle of hellfire shot, and the occasional fireball or lightning bolt, she scurried over to their hiding place. 'Can we get out?' she asked. Uulamets took aim and she saw a splash of red blossom on the chest of one of the fighters attacking them. Dark skinned, and so not one of the Calaitin. Blood soaked the dark surcoat before she could make out any device on the chest.

'Perhaps,' Uulamets reloaded whilst he talked. 'Does your dromond work?'

'It should go atmospheric, but we haven't tested it yet,' she replied a little doubtfully. 'Surely we can't just abandon the palace?'

'Better the palace than our lives. I can always bring some troops and win it back for him.'

'We'd never get past the wards,' Valery said. 'These "Calaitin" have taken the vat-chambers and Kastchei's laboratory. From there they can control the wards that protect this place.'

Vivienne unstrapped her pack and Leannan, and shouldered her rifle. 'In that case, we'd better knock out the wards then. Valery - the dromond will take ten people. Find Phoenix, and anyone who can't make it on foot, get them inside. Wait for me.' She pointed to her packs - 'you'd better make sure these get put on board or Tal will kill me!' she clapped Uulamets on the back. 'You and I have work to do, hotshot.'

'You have a plan?' he asked, looking amused.

'You could call it that, I suppose,' Vivienne muttered. 'Come on.'

 

 

The southern Mountains

Night was falling fast, and the temperature with it. Halfway up the slopes of a mountain, Taliesin shivered deeper into his coat, and thought longingly of his warm bed. Not for the first time that night, he ruefully regretted chasing out after the sorcerer. His shoulder, the arm bound up out of the way in a makeshift sling, throbbed in agreement. At his side, Kastchei vented yet another expletive in the guttural tongue of Skazki, as his footing slipped on the icy rocks underfoot for the third time in as many minutes. Taliesin only just caught him with his useable arm, and steadied him.

'Can I second that?' he asked allowing a lighter note to enter his voice. Enough at least for Kastchei to notice. His companion laughed.

'Do they not teach bards to swear?' he slipped several feet down one icy incline, and held out his hand to help Taliesin down the slippery stretch.

'Only in rhyme,' Taliesin said with a breathless laugh. They were finally on level ground, but still several hundred feet above the plain. 'We cannot possibly make it down there tonight, even if we were both able-bodied.'

'I might, with luck, but even so…' Kastchei stared over towards the fast-fading sun. 'It looks as though we make our camp here for tonight, such as it is.' He cast around, searching. 'Although I would prefer a roof over my head.' He knelt down, muttered something indistinct under his breath, eyes closed for several minutes, his hands resting lightly on the rock. When he opened his eyes again, he stood up and pointed southwest. 'There. A cave, of some size. Hopefully unoccupied.'

'And if it does have a prior owner?' Taliesin asked wearily.

Kastchei shrugged, and slapped him on his still-tender shoulder. Taliesin flinched, and glared, but the sorcerer was already on the move. 'Then either we test my martial skills or your persuasive ones, Talya. How are you at composing ballads for bears?' He struck a mocking dramatic pose and declaimed:

The bard stood halfway up a mountain

Wondering if he must

Gush fine sentiments like a fountain,

Instead his tongue spills dust…'

'I'd back my composition against your wit,' Taliesin muttered at the man's back, adding an anatomical act that would have made even Geraint, armsman to Elphin, blush had he overheard it.

 

'The bleeding heart least understands

The sentiments that still it.

The hunter needs must take the hand

That offers help, not kill it…' he sang softly.

 

Kastchei turned, and found himself facing Taliesin's most enigmatic smile (the one Vivienne labelled "Most Guaranteed to drive already irate nobility to violence") 'Are you really so eager to test my temper?'

Taliesin shrugged, and quickly regretted the effort, as it pained his injured shoulder. 'I've already tested it and found it wanting.' He walked past Kastchei hoping the man wasn't too close to taking a swing at him just yet. 'This way, wasn't it?' He could just see the caves Kastchei had scryed - large enough, perhaps, to afford some shelter for the night. He crossed his fingers and trudged on through the snow, feeling the sorcerer's icy stare still fixed on the spot between his shoulder blades, and trying desperately hard to stop it from twitching.

           

As Kastchei had promised, the cave was large enough and deep enough to shelter them from the worst of the weather. The remains of some large beast's nest provided them with kindling and a small fire, thanks to Kastchei's magic. It wouldn't last the night, however, and so Kastchei had concentrated his efforts on using a slightly different method. Soon the walls of the cave glowed a dull red, radiating enough warmth to bring a little colour back to both men's faces. Their coats were draped over a large outcrop, steaming gently as the heat from the enchanted stone dried the heavy fabric.

The silence lay between the two men like a glacier, but to Taliesin's surprise it was the taciturn sorcerer who broke it first. He lay casually sprawled on the rough floor, leaning on his arm as though reclining on a brocaded couch, regarding Taliesin through narrowed grey eyes, that in the radiance of the cave, seemed to regain a shadow of their former glitter.

'No songs, no happy tune to lighten the mood?' his drawl could have been sarcastic, but for once Taliesin sensed no cutting edge in Kastchei's voice.

'My teeth are chattering so much that I doubt you'd hear me above the percussion section,' he replied. He stretched his hands not towards the meagre flame of the fire, but to the rock nearest to him, and tried to rub some life back into his still numbed fingers. 'So much for spring,' he muttered. Kastchei laughed.

'This? This is only the start of the thaw. Although when Summer comes you may wish for Winter's return. Skazki is not a planet of soft options, only of extremes.'

'Much like its rulers, perhaps?'

Kastchei snorted. 'What do you expect on such a world? The Winter lasts over one hundred and fifty years, the Summer almost as long, and they are two very different worlds to live in. They demand a certain mindset from those who would rule. Yet they are not so different in one respect - Death is never out of season.'

'And comes for all in his time.' Taliesin said softly.

'Master of the wildest hunt of them all, or so they used to say,' Kastchei said. He raised his head and looked at the bard. 'I used to find that amusing.'

'Is it so hard,' Taliesin asked, sensing an opening at last, 'to face mortality again? After all, you have the cauldrons under the palace, there's nothing to stop you from growing a replacement body -'

'Been there, done that. After a fashion.' He smiled grimly, then sighed. 'I've lived so many lives, had so many faces that sometimes I can't remember them all. Once I'd reached the limits of my own body's ability to regenerate, I hopped from one body to the next, parasitical, desperate, and more than a little insane, until one final error of judgement left me bound inside a "dragon". This… ' He paused briefly and smiled a little sadly, as if at some private memory, 'is the first time I've ever been able to simply live, and reflect. I've had to live with the consequences of my choices for over eight hundred years.'

'You've been immortal and invulnerable,' Taliesin pointed out. 'It's easy to be magnanimous when your life is no longer in danger.'

'You see such immortality as a blessing?' Kastchei laughed harshly. 'I was not immune to pain, Talya. To heal, to live through hunger, madness, crippling injury, and yet not to die… that can be torture enough, and I have not always been fortunate in my adventures, even before these last few hundred years. There were days I longed to die, but I could never look Death in the face. And when death was no longer an option... can you imagine that? What it is to face the full enormity of your actions and live with the consequences…' he jabbed a finger at Taliesin. 'I don't think even you can encompass that.' His hand swept up a handful of sand from the floor, and he let it trickle through his fingers. 'The years can flow past faster than this,' and he cupped his hand so that only a grain or two was let fall, 'or be held in a grip so tight they seem never to pass at all. Time is the greatest thief of all, and yet it could no longer touch me. I'd once desired such immortality, whatever the cost, yet I never dreamed what that cost would be. A man has two choices when he realises that. He can accept it and embrace his power, or he can decide that perhaps there is more to life than the domination of others.'

'Coming from a man who accepted Alia's offer to co-rule this planet and depose the existing order, I just have to question which of those choices you see yourself as having taken,' Taliesin said mildly, his gaze never leaving the sorcerer's face.

'A better one than many I have made in the past, Talya. I hope you never come to know more than a fraction of my history.'

'We are all haunted by the past,' Taliesin said quietly, staring down at the meagre flames. 'Whether it be our own or another's.'

'Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, I believe the saying used to be,' said Kastchei. 'The past is another country, why not leave it alone?' His tone was remarkably even tempered for once. 'Vivienne's right. You worry too much about what might have been and what may come to pass. If you cannot control it, let it be.'

'Coming from you, Kastchei Bes-mertny, that is amusing indeed.'

The voice came from the mouth of the cave, beyond the light cast by the walls and the meagre fire. Only when the speaker padded softly into view, claws clicking on the rock, did Kastchei relax and take his hand off the hilt of his power-sword. Taliesin, who'd recognised the voice, simply smiled, as the Grey Wolf walked into the circle of light cast by the flames.

'Greetings, my friend. You are far from home,' he said quietly. The wolf sat down facing him, tongue lolling out of the corner of his mouth, spittle flecking the pale stones at his paws.

'I roam where I wish, Shining Brow. And there was I, minding the business of a plump srela-buck, when the wind carries the scent of two fools walking down a mountain, and I wonder who would be stupid enough to be out on such a night. So I follow the scent and what should I find but the dragon-born sorcerer and the offworld harper, bickering like cubs in a den.' The wolf looked from one man to the other. 'Is it needed that I cuff you about the ears, or are you done trying to prove which one of you is cleverest and best?'

'The years have not mellowed your tongue, Old One, 'Kastchei growled.

'Nor mended your manners,' the wolf retorted. Taliesin couldn't help himself: he laughed out loud, and both turned to look at him.

'I'm so sorry,' he said eventually, once he'd got his giggles under control at the sight of the stiff-necked Kastchei arguing with a wolf. 'Do go on…?' Wolf and sorcerer fell into an injured silence. Taliesin prodded the fire to bring it back to a more roseate glow, and let them stew in their damaged pride for a few minutes. Eventually, he cleared his throat to get their attention.

'Grey Wolf, you did not, I think, come here by chance,' he began. The wolf studied him carefully, golden eyes gleaming with a ruddy glow in the firelight, reminding him suddenly of Kastchei's hell-hounds. 'I doubt indeed that you do anything merely by "chance".'

The wolf licked a front paw, then looked up at him. 'You have the right of it, Harper. Since the two of you saw fit to lose yourselves in the mountains, I was sent to bring you to the place you need to be.'

'Why can't the old crone just send us home?' Kastchei asked.

'You mean the Baba Yaga?' Taliesin hazarded, and Kastchei nodded.

'This creature does the hag's bidding from time to time.'

'Say rather, I choose to let her think so,' the wolf said. 'She says you have unfinished business, and that you will not see the matter ended by calling the Hunt. At least, not yet. She says the time will come, but not here, and not now. To that end, I am sent to bring you both to Kitezh.'

Kastchei ran his fingers through his hair, curling slightly as it dried. His hand clenched a fistful of hair tightly and yanked it angrily. 'I see no need to travel to Kitezh, Old One. My business-'

'Your business with Alianora will be best resolved in the city,' the Grey Wolf said smoothly. 'Have I ever lied to you?' it asked.

'Lied, no.' Kastchei growled. 'Told less than the full truth, frequently.' The wolf looked at him, tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth in amusement.

'If you were told the full truth, why would you then take the path that is needed?'

Taliesin took the opportunity posed by Kastchei's silence as he formed a response, to turn the conversation again. 'We'll need transport,' he said. The wolf scratched his ear vigorously with a back paw, before answering.

'The pack and your steeds are below us in the foothills. A few hours journey if we start at first light.'

A few hours to the horses, then several hundred miles to the coast, with Kastchei's pack not yet fully trained, he doubted the Hunter could call the hunt and take the direct route. The Goddess alone knew where they'd end up next time. They'd be gone for days, if not weeks.

'We'll need to send word back to the summer palace,' Kastchei said quietly. He was staring moodily into the flames, the light cast by the fire was caught in his dark auburn hair, creating a halo of dark flames around his face, which half-lit by the fire, and shadowed by the dim light, looked sharply menacing. 'Uulamets is still there, and Yuri will have need of him.'

The wolf laid his head on his paws and yawned. 'Oh, I think you'll find that both Uulamets and the harper's mate will follow you soon enough, if not arrive before you,' he said. 'Now sleep, or at least rest. All of us will need to be awake and ready to travel at first light, and some of us have some digesting to do.' With that, he fell asleep, snoring slightly.

 

The Summer Palace

'This was your plan?' Uulamets laughed, and pushed his greying blond hair back from his face. 'You're quite mad, you do know that?'

Vivienne shushed him as they crouched behind a carved buttress in the corridor that led down to the vat chamber. 'I can jury-rig the cauldron circuits to feedback into the wards - the two draw upon the same power source. Disrupt that, they can't stop us leaving. But to do it I have to get into the chamber.'

 

And therein lay the problem, for seven of the sorcerers now inhabited the vat-chambers, along with six of their mercenaries. 'We need a distraction,' she said wearily. 'But they're not stupid, and they know our limitations.' She peered around the carving, and took another look at the great cavern that housed the cauldrons of the Wild Hunt. Here, underneath the citadel, Kastchei, like those before him, had bred, nurtured and improved the hellhounds of Annwn. In the huge, slick skinned pulsating sacs that lined the cavern walls, the huge cybrid hounds, as well as cybrorses like Sivushka and Voronushka, were gestated into their bio-mechanical half-life.

The vats had been mostly empty, bar those few Vivienne had known to be keeping additional hounds gestating in case of injury to the pack. Near the archway into the vat chamber - almost large enough to have parked the dromond in - she saw a pathetic pile of white fur. Three of Kastchei's hounds, half-grown, and very dead, ripped from their artificial wombs before their time.

So, it was the cauldrons they wanted. It gave her an idea. She touched Uulamets on the arm, and they pulled back out of sight. 'How much damage can you do in there if you just wandered in and blasted away at anything in sight?'

He looked at her as though she'd suddenly grown to heads. 'Are you completely insane? I'd be cut down in an instant.'

Vivienne shook her head. 'Not if you kept close to the vats - the Calaitin must want them, probably to replenish their numbers, at a guess.' At his puzzled frown she shook her head. 'I'll explain later. But they need those vats intact. Cause as much havoc as you can, then get out. I just need a minute once I'm clear to get into the power conduit. Then I'll meet you at the ship.'

Uulamets shook his head. 'You are insane, but I think I see what both your Harper and the Master of the Hunt see in you.' His grin was infectious. 'If we pull this off, I'd like to get to know you better.'

'In your dreams,' she whispered back. 'Good luck.' His grin grew even bigger.

'Luck doesn't enter into it, my lady.' With that, he was gone, running down the corridor and screaming defiantly in Skazki's guttural tongue.

'I'd hoped for something a little more subtle,' Vivienne muttered under her breath. She waited until the shooting started then ran for the generator room.

 

Thankfully the Calaitin seemed to have overlooked the power source when securing the facility. Vivienne found the imprinted circuits she was looking for and quickly shifted the connections, thanking her lucky stars that technomantic systems were so much less complicated than the technological versions she'd known on her homeworld. Fewer failsafes, as well, she noted, sucking a scorched finger a few minutes later. Outside, she could hear blaster fire, followed by the distinctive buzz of a powersword, and grinned. Uulamets seemed to be diverting the Calaitin quite nicely. She slipped out of the room un-noticed and made her way cautiously back to the waiting dromond.

She only met with one mercenary on her way - sweeping the corridor for traces of resistance as he walked, hell-fire pistol held ready. Her shot took him in the chest, and he crumpled limply to the floor. As she stepped over the body seconds later, she caught the all too familiar scent of charred flesh and flinched.

She picked her way through the remains of the great hall, noting the cracks in the ancient walls, and everywhere the damage done to paintings and tapestries that had been collected over centuries. Kastchei, she thought glumly, was going to go ballistic.

She reached the massive wooden doors without further incident. Outside, although smoke and dusk obscured her view of the courtyard, so that she could barely make out the bulky form of the dromond, all seemed quiet. The smoke cleared occasionally as the wind gusted through the yard, revealing bodies lying scattered across the dark granite slabs. Not all were wearing the livery of the Calaitin's forces. It cleared enough for her to just make out Valery, waving to attract her attention, from the hatch of the dromond. She waved back, and shouldered her rifle, prepared to make a run for the ship.

She shrieked as a hand fell on her shoulder, and whirled round, trying to bring the rifle to bear. Then leaned back against the nearest wall with a sigh of relief. 'Commander!'

Uulamets grinned. 'Did I startle you?' He was carrying something wrapped in an old hide, which wriggled as she watched. 'Take this, and make your run. I'll cover you from here.' The object, whatever it was, was heavy, and she grunted as she took the weight over both forearms. 'Go!' Awkwardly, with her burden, she ran across the courtyard, dodging inside just as the blast from a hellfire pistol grazed the side of the hatch. She was pulled to safety by Valery, who took the wrapped bundle from her. Nodding her thanks she scrambled past the injured lying in her path and ducked into the cockpit, sliding into her crash couch in an undignified heap, reaching for the controls before she was even seated. Under her sure hands, the dromond awakened.

'Need a hand?' Uulamets slid into the seat beside her, and she pointed to the display.

'Read those out to me. And let me know when they say the wards are down.'

'How...?'

Busy coaxing systems into life that hadn't moved in months of inactivity on an icy planet, Vivienne just pointed. 'Press that, it scrys for fixed defensive wards. When it's green, yell.' The dromond's engines groaned in protest and the cockpit lights brightened. 'Come on, come on...' Slowly, the bulky vessel began to lift.

'Now!' Uulamets shouted in her ear. Praying that the repairs would hold, Vivienne asked the ship to move, and with an acceleration that startled even her, it sprang upwards and forwards. Attuned to the rhythms of the ship's systems as she was, she felt the pain of its translation through the wards guarding the palace, weakened though they were, and she coaxed the vessel to fly through it. A little more, just a little more then they would be free...

And they were flying in free air, a little awkwardly, to be sure, but the dromond's systems, although in the amber, were not dangerously so. With a heavy sigh she sat back in the seat and relaxed, mentally keying the wards that would keep the ship flying. 'Direction?' she asked Uulamets, who was staring at his surroundings with an entranced fascination.

'South west.' He rattled off a string of co-ordinates, and she asked the dromond to comply. A little tardily, it responded. Vivienne made a mental note to check the neural circuits when they landed. She looked at her companion.

'You're bleeding,' she noticed. He looked at his shirt, and pulled the sticky, red stained fabric away from his side with a grimace.

'One of them was a better shot than I thought. It's just a scratch.'

'It's bleeding all over my control deck. Come with me, I'll see about getting it dressed.'

 

Valery ducked his head inside the door of her quarters, turned over to the walking wounded, whilst she was settling a dressing in place. 'My lady, you might want to take a look at this as well.' He handed her the hide-wrapped bundle Uulamets had rescued from the palace. As she placed it gently on the table, the leather fell away to reveal the white-furred head of one of the hell-hounds - barely half-grown, breathing shallowly.

'It was still alive, I had hoped it might it might mitigate the Hunter's ire at losing his palace somewhat,' Uulamets said to her quizzical look. When she raised an eyebrow he laughed, then winced as the wound in his side protested at the effort. 'Perhaps not.' Vivienne looked the beast over. It had survived the untimely and violent "birthing", but it was weak. Its systems were unlikely to be fully acclimatised to life without the artificial support of the vat-matrix. In truth, she was amazed it had learned to breathe unaided. She stroked the damp fur gently, and wrapped it in the hide again. It would provide some warmth until she had time to settle it, and there were others in more pressing need.

'There's some food in the forward compartments, feed the injured, then mash something up for the hound,' she told Valery. 'I'm sure you know better than I how to care for it.' He bowed, and made as if to leave. A sudden thought struck Vivienne, and she stopped him. 'Wait - where's Phoenix?'

'Your friend was right behind us when we ran for the ship, my lady. He must be in one of the other sections.'

'You didn't check?' Swearing, and not stopping for an answer, Vivienne hurried from the room, and began searching the ship. There were few places a person could hide on such a small vessel, and the search didn't take long.

 

Phoenix was not on board.

 

 Chapter 4

The Prydwen.

The vessel could never have been described as "sleek": grown and nurtured over a period of centuries, the great capital ship was now well past her prime. She was a nacreous monstrosity over five hundred yards long from bridge to the exhaust ports of its engines, and very nearly as broad in height and width, bristling with hellfire cannon and trailing filaments from its sensor clusters: a bewhiskered barnacle hanging in space. If not for the organic extrusions, any passing onlooker might have been forgiven for thinking it to be nothing more than a stray asteroid floating somewhat off the beaten path.

Inside, at least, the ship looked the part: a highly evolved vessel capable of transporting up to three hundred knights, sergeants-at-arms, squires and their equipment. Fifty cybrorses in enforced sedation shifted uneasily in their artificial sleep in the starboard hold, and lying dormant in the aft compartment the dromonds drifted weightless in vacuum, left to their own devices for the journey. There was no central armoury: it was the responsibility of each knight to supply his own and his men-at-arms' weapons and equipment.

The bridge was largely deserted, since the ship was currently in the void between, on its way to the Lord Commander only knew where. The only officers on the deck were the navigator and the overwatch. The latter a position most knights had enough seniority to avoid, which left Breogan of Braganza with the night watch, as one of the more junior knights on this mission.

           

Breogan checked the sensors for the thirteenth time in two hours, and sat back with a heartfelt sigh. The vates, Arianna, gave him a sympathetic smile from her crash seat.

'Relax, youngling. We'll be making landfall soon enough.'

'Yes – but _where?' Breogan asked. He sighed again. 'I'm not even sure where we're going, or why.'

Arianna shrugged. 'You're here because you're loyal, and can be trusted, as am I. The Lord Commander knows what he's doing.'

'Too kind, as ever, Ari.'

With a guilty "sorry Sir" that wasn't totally humorous, Arianna snapped her attention back to the navigation systems, even though in void-fugue the ship could largely fly itself. Breogan stood to attention, and saluted, left hand snapped sharply back to the right chest plate of his armour.

'Sir.'

'Relax, Sir knight.' Kaiwyn ap Eachtar, Lord Commander of the combined Legions of the Rose and Dragon, took his seat on the throne at the back of the bridge. Constructed for Arthur, over a thousand years before, it had never been replaced with anything more appropriate. Above it, on the dark, nacreous wall of the ship, two banners fluttered: the red and gold Pendragon standard: the gold dragon rampant, wings outspread; and in black and silver, the rose and hydra pennant that had been Morgaine's. 'You find the night watch boring, lad?'

Breogan cleared his throat before answering. 'A little, my lord.'

'You're young. Give it time, you'll distinguish yourself enough to avoid such things eventually.' An amused laugh. 'Although you're rather younger than most of the knights I've cleared for this. You can't possibly have seen a campaign yet.'

'No sir,' Breogan said, hanging his head slightly. 'Not in this life.'

Kai fixed him with a calculating gaze. 'Revenant?' he asked. Breogan blushed, and Kai nodded in understanding 'No shame in that, lad, no matter what the old guard say. You'll have your chance to prove your own worth when we arrive, have no fear.' He stared past Breogan, at the holographic navigation display in front of Ariana. Unlike most such maps, this one was old, and faded, the display flickering constantly, as though wherever they were heading wasn't quite real. 'You'll make history,' he said softly.    

             

Caer Tagel, Gwynedd.

For over a thousand years, the table had stood in the centre of the Great Hall of Caer Tagel. The pale ash had darkened over the years, from sweat, and ash, soot and tears, spilt ale and spilt blood. Generations of armour-plated boots had kicked dents in the underside of its surface. Mailed fists resting on the table-top had worn away the grain leaving shallow grooves and dips in the fine grained wood. Time and time alone had polished its surface to a fine sheen in places, and it almost filled the great hall, a perfect circle surrounded by high-backed chairs of lesser wood.

An almost perfect circle. Opposite the hearth, the obsidian throne glinted, glass-edged, mirror dark, in the glow of the striplights on the walls. The gap that it filled had been crudely hacked from the table centuries ago, so long that the roughly hewn edges had been worn smooth again by the passage of years.

A man sat in that throne, uncomfortable though he found it. A goblet, plain, unadorned, held in one large fist. His blond hair was short, and already greying. Simply dressed, in white and blue, the only insignia of rank that he wore was a silver chain held in place on his shoulders by braided epaulettes, and terminating on his chest at either end of a simple medallion: a coiled dragon, grasping its own tail in its mouth. Behind the throne, the Pendragon standard fluttered in the light draught the swept the room as the massive doors to his right opened, with far more force than was needed, to admit a slender woman.

Solange had never been one to stand on ceremony. The acting Chief Bard of Gwynedd strode towards her king, and sat herself down on the edge of the Round Table with as little regard as she might have had for a bench in the Inn of the Garde du Lac, a half-hour ride from the Caer. A petite, blonde woman of whom too many men made the mistake of thinking better suited to a lap than the councils of kings. It was not a mistake anyone made twice.

'The Council have been waiting for over an hour, your majesty - are we to wait all day?' She winced slightly as Elphin slammed the goblet down on the table in front of him. 'Please be more careful, you know the table dislikes rough handling.'

'I will allow the Council in when I am ready, Solange, not before.' He leaned forward in the throne. 'You are not Taliesin, to chide me at your whim.'

She was so tiny, and even seated lower than she, he towered over her. Solange of Rheged didn't even flinch. 'No, your majesty, I am not Taliesin, but in the absence of the chief of our order and his deputy, I must act in their stead. Would you have less of your bards than that, sire? Taliesin brought us together - if you would have us be less than his desire, perhaps we could provide you with a juggler and a jester instead?'

He dipped his head, acknowledging the rebuke. 'I swear he trained you all to test my patience, Solange. Peace. I will call the Council in good time. I merely wished to contemplate in solitude for a time.'

Solange tapped the arm of the throne, grimacing at the touch of the slick stone. She wiped her hand on her dress. 'You should have had this removed, long since.'

'It suits my purpose, to leave it,' Elphin said shortly.

'The table would heal, with it gone,' Solange said softly. 'And what use is it? You do not have Morgaine's gifts, to See clearly through the mists of time. Indeed, you should not try.'

'He's been gone for so long,' Elphin said quietly. His hand brushed the soft grain of the wood. 'The table was formed from a bough of Yggdrasil, as was Leannan. I hoped...'

'You hoped there would be a link? Some glimpse, some chance vision of past, present or future?' Solange lifted his hand from the table. 'You do not have the sight, and if you did, the visions would not necessarily be anything you could decipher. Leave well alone, your majesty.'

Elphin sighed, and stood up. 'Rumours come from all over the Alliance, Solange, many brought by the cynfeirdd. Rumours of rebellion, of conflict. Rumours that there are those who whisper of treason in dark places. In high places. I need my Bard.'

'Marius and that flibbertigibbet Devin should not be away long, but even before then, you have myself, and you have Elwyn, Aneirin and Heinin. Surely the four members of the High Seat who remain can be of some small use?'

The tart rebuke was not lost upon Elphin, who grinned ruefully. 'You chide me much as he would do, my dear. Forgive me, my words were thoughtless.' She smiled, then, her narrow face dimpling prettily. As she opened her mouth to speak, however, the words caught in her throat.

 

The walls of the hall receded, almost to infinity, and the shadows cast by the firelight and glows grew, deepening to an inky blackness that no natural light could penetrate. Only the table, and the throne remained.

And from the centre of the round table, a dark mass arose. Formless, it spread across the surface, trailing dark briars along the grain of the wood, their thorns sinking deep into the wood. They spread to the arms of the chairs that surrounded the table, covering them with the same thorny web. Only the obsidian throne remained clear.

And then not even that. One single vine snaked its way across the surface of the round table, and coiled around the arms of the throne, sliding with malicious precision across the back of the chair. Once there, thick thorns sank deep into the stone. And like the gaping mouth of a serpent, something swelled it its tip, budding, opening. A sickly scent of decay filled the room, as the single black rose bloomed, and then died, shedding midnight black petals over the seat of the throne, invisible against the obsidian sheen.

 

Solange screamed.

 

 

Novgoren, Skazki.

The mirror was an antique, so ancient that the glass had begun to pool slightly at the bottom of the gilded frame, and ripples had formed in the smooth surface, coloured with a slight reddish tint by the silvered backing, the mark of the silver taken from the mines of Novgoren, called blood-silver because of the impurities that gave it its scarlet hue.

It gave Alia's face a ruddy complexion, in the pale light of the glows that lit her chamber. It hid her freckles, slight though they were, and made her normally pale red hair seem as though it were made of living flame, as it crackled and fluttered around her face, dancing in the static produced by her hairbrush. She didn't bother to braid her fine straight mane once she'd placed the brush back on the table. Instead she straightened her parting, and caught the fall of her hair in a circlet of silver. Although given a rosy cast by the looking glass, her dress was white, with a simple cut. The effect was austere, but elegant.

A movement behind her and small grunting sounds made her turn slightly towards the four poster bed that dominated the room. Srela skins and verrin fur rugs, scattered on it in studied abandon, created a patchwork of cream and brown stripes, interspersed with dark brown fur. Most of them were wrapped tightly around a man-sized bulge in the centre of the bed, which moved again as she watched but did not wake. Alia glided over and sat down on the edge of the bed, holding onto one of the mammoth-ivory posts with one hand, fingering the erotic designs carved into the frame. Prince Alexei shifted again, burying himself deeper in the furs. Alia smiled, remembering the last few days. The boy had stamina, she'd grant him that, although his lovemaking was more enthusiastic than skilled. But then, you couldn't have everything.

You did, with Kastchei, said the inner voice she tried to hard to still.

Nonsense. Besides, how much of that was the thrill of the chase? Of bending him to your will?

Realising too late that he had never, ever been leashed.

I'll see him crawl…

He'll see you burn.

She dismissed the inner voice, and watched the sleeping prince, reluctant to awaken him just yet. Too many questions, and far too much enthusiasm. She was so near to the goal she had set for herself at this point, that she couldn't face his immature ramblings. Still, the boy had almost served his purpose at least. Within the day she would be inside Kitezh.

The rest was up to her.

Kitezh.

'You can land in the courtyard,' Uulamets told Vivienne. He pointed out of the viewscreen of the dromond at a large square inside the inner wall of the kremlin. 'Let me do the talking when we land.'

She didn't have time to reply, just nodded and concentrated on bringing the ship down in one piece. A little unsteadily, it descended, lurching a little to one side as it did so. Vivienne swore under her breath as she coaxed the reluctant little craft to the ground. The lateral stabilisers were still losing lubricant, by the feel of it. Mentally, she wished a plague of boils onto whoever had sabotaged her ship. Keeping the vessel airborne for several hundred miles had been a nightmare she didn't want to repeat in a hurry. She brought the ship down as gently as she could, mindful of the casualties in the rear compartments, but couldn't make the landing totally smooth. The ship landed with a jolt.

Uulamets had already unfastened his seatbelt, and she followed. A quick look at the screen before she left the cockpit showed a group of armed guards already gathering around the ship, even as she reached for her coat and strode as fast as she could after Uulamets.

           

A stocky man walked briskly towards them as they exited down the ramp, Uulamets jumping down before it had even opened fully. Of average height, he'd obviously been powerfully built in his youth, although fat had overrun muscle. He had the look of a man who had to work hard to keep his weight down. Dark hair now had more grey than black in it, and he was beardless, with a small scar running across his chin. He greeted Uulamets warmly, then turned his attention to Vivienne.

'My commander tells me you have wounded aboard?'

His voice was deep and rich, and Vivienne found herself warming to him: there was something in his tone that commanded trust, and it was mirrored in his grey eyes, which held only concern.

'Several,' she replied, hesitating and looking at Uulamets for an introduction. The blond man smiled and bowed.

'I'm remiss, my apology. Vivienne ap Gaibnenn, emissary of the Ard Rí, Elphin of Gwynedd, may I introduce Yuri Mikhailovitch, Prince of Kitezh.' Vivienne offered her hand, and smiled as Yuri bent over it, kissing it lightly.

'Charmed. But pleasantries, I think, must wait. With your leave my lady, we will attend to your people?'

'Thank you.' The half-grown hound padded out of the dromond to stand at her side, and Yuri lifted an eyebrow, but said nothing. His people swept into action, and were soon carrying out those who could not make their own way from the ship, or aiding those who could, if barely. Vivienne herself was soon ushered into chambers inside the kremlin, and sank a few minutes later into a deep, hot bath with a sigh of relief that she wondered didn't shake the rafters.

 

The Summer Palace

Timofei had been caught in the cauldron-chamber when the first blasts had hit the palace. Only the faintest rumblings had penetrated into the cavern deep in the bedrock underneath the great hall, but it had been enough to disturb the delicate balance in the sac-like vats that spun off from the central hub of the cauldrons control centre. Only minutes later, he'd watched, bound and helpless, as the gestating hounds had been ripped from their wombs, and thrown into a corner of the cavern, some still alive - for a brief time. Then all hell had broken loose.

His captors now held him in the heart of his own demesne, and he stared around numbly as robed and hooded forms examined the controls of his realm. He must have made some sound, some movement to stop them, for the silver hand holding his arm in a vice-like grip tightened, and he let out an involuntary yelp of pain.

'The protocols are far more complex than we were led to believe,' one of the figures reported. A man's voice, sharp and querulant. 'There is biodata in here of a form I've not seen before.'

'Is it readable?'

The same voice, or so it seemed to the bemused vat-master, but this time coming from a man standing to his left. The robed figures had moved into the light that illuminated the control panels, and Timofei saw with a shock that the men were identical - even down to the slight limp visible when they walked. A glimpse of silver as they moved showed that at least two of them shared the same maiming as the one holding him - a silver hand in place of their left.

'It isn't dragon biodata, but it's similar,' another of the men said. He looked up, over Timofei's head, presumably to the one holding him. 'It's been woven into the fabric of the breeding engine at the most fundamental level.'

'Twelfth generation enhancements,' another said from the far side of the machine. 'As the woman said, he's been improving the time-awareness of the creatures. In a few generations, he might even have succeeded.'

Timofei's captor released the terrified vat-master, who cowered in the relative shelter of his now flaccid vats, as the men examined the cauldrons, in perfect silence.

We can encode the biodata into our own easily enough

Encoding is not the problem

The unit is already enhanced to accept a gestalt protocol - the hunt itself is close - very close - to becoming a single entity. The modifications made by its master will suit our needs with little change. The protocol requires thirteen components - twelve subservient, and a sentient core

The biodata for the cybrorse contains the most complex strands. We can start from this.

Time...

Is of the essence. Sacrifices must be made.

'See to it.' First said out loud. 'We'll need the vat-master later, a sure hand on the loom. For now, put him with the other prisoners.'

'We have no need of such,' Third said sulkily. 'Why keep them?'

First smiled. 'A steady supply of nutrients isn't to be thrown away lightly, my brother. Go.'

Timofei stared at them in horror. 'You must be mad - those protocols are designed for animals, not for men! No mind could take the strain of such awareness!'

 

First leaned down, until his face was close to the vat-master's. 'Then perhaps you'd better think of a way to reduce the risks, little man. Because unless you make yourself useful, the only fate that awaits you is to be pumped into your own cauldrons as nutrient.'

Timofei cowered, but shook his head stubbornly. Lord Kastchei would surely return before too long, and he had to have faith in that, and in the Lord of Summer's power.

First smiled coldly at him, as though recognising the source of his courage. 'We shall see.' He nodded to his brethren, and Timofei, unresisting, was hauled out of the cavern by one of the silent clones.

 

Kitezh

The hounds tolerated, if only just, the presence of the wolf in the little party that crested the hill that overlooked the estuary. The wolf was far more particular about the company he kept, and avoided the milling throng of white-furred alaunts, preferring instead to trot casually at the side of the two horses and their riders.

'Well, what do you think?' Kastchei asked his travelling companion. Taliesin sat atop sleek, black-coated Voronwy, and stared down as the citadel below.

He'd seen caers before - such sentient citadels were quite common in the Alliance, although rarer in present times than they had been in days of old. Elphin had made his capital and home in one of Gwynedd's survivors, mythical Caer Tagel, home to the Round Table for over 1200 years. More recently, he'd been present when sorcery run amok had led to the capture of Caer Duergar by demonic forces. Yes, well... perhaps best not to dwell on that little mishap too much...

But Gwynedd's caers were ancient, patterned on archaic architectural forms - their gothic arches and walkways resembled stone-built castles. They were flying fortresses, and looked the part, hell-fire cannon bristling from every portal. Kitezh, had been a star-port, a sub-orbital platform catering for transient trade. Once it would have been a glittering jewel in the skies of Breceliande, a million and more lights shining night and day, guiding dromonds and caravels in to land, and shoppers to play. Even now it sprawled impressively across the landscape, dominating the natural harbour formed by the encircling headlands. But Kitezh would never ride the winds of Breceliande again: it lay, surrounded by a sprawling mass of wood and brick and stone, glass and steel and mortar. Its tall, elegant towers gleamed in the early morning sunshine, the light reflecting off the obsidian sheen of its outer skin, highlighting the slender walkways that linked the towers and protrusions of the citadel. Here and there, like a drop of dew upon a strand of spidersilk, Taliesin could see a monorail carriage moving along its magnetic paths. But his eyes were drawn back, time and again, to the centre of the web: the slick black dome, crowned with spires and minarets, festooned with a tangled web of filaments that ran to and from every part of the city. The kremlin Kastchei had called it. The beast at the heart of the city.

This, not the urban sprawl of the port and the docks, was their destination.

'Impressive,' Taliesin drawled. He shifted on Voronushka's bare back, and wished for the thousandth time in a week that he'd stopped to put a saddle on the black. Kastchei turned away and fussed with Sivushka's mane, hiding a smile. 'Laugh all you want, Hunter, I didn't see you springing lightly from that saddle last night.'

At Voronushka's hooves the Grey Wolf sat down and scratched vigorously. 'Bipeds.' The wolf sneezed. 'No stamina.'

Taliesin sighed heavily. 'After a week of roughing it in the wilderness I'll be happy if this place boasts a bathhouse and a laundry.'

Beside him Kastchei nudged Sivushka into a walk, and his hounds followed, uncoupled but obedient. 'I can always find you a horse trough if necessary, harper,' he said slyly. Taliesin ignored him, concentrating instead of forcing tired muscles to ride just that little bit further.

 

Kastchei is here.

Yuri looked up from the tablet that he was working on. 'Are you sure? We've had no word of him since Nikolai returned from the Summer Palace.'

If the voice of Kitezh could be said to show emotion, the reply might have been classed as "slightly put out."

I am sure. He and another man have passed my walls and are even now approaching the kremlin. He brings the pack with him.

Yuri cursed under his breath. He waved a hand in front of the tablet and the surface smoothed itself, rippling over the text as it stored the document. 'Make arrangements to have the stables prepared, warn the staff - oh, and have suitable rooms prepared.'

As you wish.

Yuri pulled on his coat, and felt around his chair for hat and gloves. Eventually he found them, tucked down the side of his chair where they'd fallen. 'Do you sense any sign of hostility on his part?'

There was a long silence before the city replied. Beyond the fact that he brings the Wild Hunt with him, you mean?

'Sarcasm ill becomes you,' Yuri retorted.

I sense only frustration. Nothing in his demeanour suggests harm. In fact, his companion's horse bears no saddle, and both men have the look of those who have spent a long time on a hard trail. I would infer that their arriving here is more by need, than design. A pause. The Grey Wolf left them at the city gates.

Yuri, about to buckle his sword-belt, paused. 'That gives me a little more confidence in his intentions, at least. The Grey Wolf would not condone an attack upon us.' He buckled the belt, and straightened his coat. 'Keep a close watch anyway, old friend. I'll try the direct approach.'

 

 

Voronushka shied for what must have been the hundredth time in half an hour, this time as a piece of paper was blown across the road in front of him. Taliesin shifted awkwardly on the stallion's back, trying to keep his balance, which only made the already nervous cybrorse even more skittish. Kastchei, on the imperturbable Sivushka, was having no such problems, and though the hounds were looking a little stressed, they stayed close to Sivushka, and their master.

'He's not used to the city. Just relax, he'll take his cue from you,' Kastchei told him. Several passers-by stopped to stare at them as they rode past, and Taliesin had to wonder at the strange sight they must have presented: two travel strained men on horseback, with a dozen hounds walking side by side close by. At Kastchei's urging, Sivushka began to pick up his trot, performing a graceful piaffe down the street. Voronushka, eager to keep up, broke into a trot, to Taliesin's dismay as tired and over strained muscles protested. It was with an effort that he brought the black back down to an extended walk, giving himself time to relax tired leg muscles, and to get a better look at the streets they rode along: unlike the ordered layouts of Gwynedd's main cities, where houses usually faced the street, forming a neat row, Kitezh's outer circles consisted, as Kastchei explained when asked, of small plots of land upon which the owners could build wherever they wished. The result was an unusual, rather haphazard design.

'It does have the advantage that any invaders will not find a simple passage into the city - roads and streets are not laid out according to any overall plan. The downside is however that it does give rather too much cover to the attacking forces, if they move in small units.' He nudged Sivushka into a trot to move out of the way of an oncoming wagon.

'Where are we going, exactly?' Taliesin asked, bringing Voronushka level with Sivushka once Kastchei had (mercifully) slowed the albino down to a walk again. Kastchei took a gloved hand off the reins and pointed to the black domed buildings that dominated the skyline of the city.

'The kremlin itself. The heart of Kitezh. You'll see soon enough. Heel!' This last was addressed to the pack, which gathered close at the command. They were now riding along the major thoroughfare, and traffic had increased accordingly. Thankfully, powered vehicles were rare, so the most Taliesin had to worry about was Voronushka taking exception to an open carriage dashing along the centre of the road at a fair clip, the three horses driven troika fashion. Both Taliesin and Kastchei were forced to move out of the way quickly. 'At the very least Yuri's palace will accord us a hot bath and clean clothes.' He sniffed ostentatiously. 'We both need to clean up.'

 

The road ahead was blocked by a tall wall, ebony black, slick and shiny, the same substance as the kremlin itself. It was broken only by a large iron gate - the decoration of which - spikes and protuberances that looked as though they'd sprung from a demented mind, screamed "keep out" in no uncertain terms. It didn't really need the guards who stood on either side of it in dark grey uniforms, hellfire pistols in low slung holsters at their sides.

'Do we knock?' Taliesin asked. Kastchei shrugged.

'That rather depends on Yuri. If he believes Alia's side of the story, we could be in trouble.'

'You don't look that worried.'

Kastchei laughed. 'I'm not. Yuri and I have a long history.'

'And a tempestuous one, old friend! It has been far too long since you have been my guest here, Kastya. You owe me an apology at the very least!' The voice came from a stocky man of average height, dark hair starting to grey a little - a muscular figure beginning to run to fat. He gave the impression of great energy held in check, waiting to be unleashed. His grin was infectiously buoyant. At his gesture, the guards stepped back and the gates opened.

Kastchei swung his leg over the front of the saddle and dismounted with a flourish.

'Yuriy. I must beg your pardon. Especially for turning up in this state, unannounced.' He embraced the shorter man enthusiastically, much to Tal's surprise - he was used to far more taciturn displays from the sorcerer. He dismounted rather less gracefully than Kastchei had, sliding awkwardly off Voronushka's bare back, and only just keeping his footing when he landed. A groom took the reins from him without prompting, and he nodded his thanks and limped over to the pair. Yuri was pushing Kastchei away to arms length, eyeing his travel stained clothing with a critical air.

'By the kremlin's heart, Kit, you look like death!' His gaze passed briefly over Taliesin, with the barest flicker of curiosity in his eyes. 'I see you still collect redheads,' he said to Kastchei, with a sly smile.

'Not exactly. Prince Yuri of Kitezh, may I present to you Taliesin ap Gwion, Chief Bard to Elphin, Ard Rí of the Thirteen Worlds.'

Taliesin bowed as best he could in the stiff leather coat and with aching muscles. 'At your service, your highness.'

'So you're the bard? It has been a long time since one of your profession walked our halls. Perhaps you will grace us with your skill tonight, after you have made yourself a little more comfortable?' His bow was precise, formal, almost military in style, and Taliesin half expected to see him click his heels.

'I would be honoured, your highness,' he replied. The prince turned his attention back to Kastchei.

'My servants will see to you both, and to your beasts, Kit. After which, I suggest you meet me in my study. We have much to discuss, you and I.'

Kastchei gave a short nod. 'Indeed,' was his only reply.

As they made their way, behind Yuri's equerry, into the halls of the kremlin, Taliesin kept pace with the hunter. 'Kit?' he asked, as lightly as he could. 'Not a diminutive I associated with your name.'

'A long story,' Kastchei said curtly.

'I'm a bard, long stories are my stock in trade.'

Kastchei didn't even bother to turn to face him when he replied. 'I'm a sorcerer. Answering impertinent questions by turning the querant's innards inside out to be worn as coat decorations is mine.'

They'd reached a long landing by now, and two doors were being opened for them. Kastchei made his way to the door on the right, without looking back. Taliesin fingered the heavy, water-stained leather of his coat, noting not only the white tide marks left by rain and melting snow, but the accumulated debris of a week on horseback - his sweat, horse sweat, mud, dust, blood, and something he really didn't want to look at too closely on the left hand skirts near the bottom.

It was risky, baiting Kastchei, but somehow he just couldn't resist. Just loudly enough to be overheard he said: 'Go ahead - it wouldn't show on this coat.'

His hand on the doorframe, the sorcerer hesitated, his back stiffening. Then he just turned his head, looked him in the eyes and burst out laughing. Taliesin could still hear him when the door shut behind him.

 

 

Chapter 5

The Summer Palace

Phoenix sat in the corner of the cellar, away from the other prisoners. Kastchei's staff were huddled together - the three who were conscious, at least. The men with guns had herded them down here, and left them. From time to time, they heard sounds of gunfire, and the rumble of falling masonry, and occasionally the room would shake, causing dust to fall from the ceiling. By that at least, Phoenix knew the battle still raged above.

'We'd be better off dead.'

Phoenix recognised the voice of Timofei, the vat-master. 'They'll probably want you alive at least,' Phoenix said quietly. 'Taliesin told me of their masters - the Calaitin. They are cauldron-born.'

Timofei spat. 'I'll do no work for them. Soulless creatures.' Others agreed. 'We'll try to take them when they come for us - four of us should be able to handle a couple of guards.'

They cannot fight the Calaitin. They will be waiting for such a move. In its corner, Phoenix huddled closer to the wall. 'Go away,' he whispered.

I can't even start to work out a way to get us out of here unless you listen, child. You have to trust me...

'No!' Phoenix stood up, shouting. 'Just go away, get out of my head. I don't want you in here!' Phoenix sank back to the ground, sobbing, hearing the mutters from the servants, hearing them move away in fear. 'Why won't you just leave me alone?'

I can't, child, we are one, now. If you would only let me...

Phoenix felt the other pushing her way to the front of hir mind, burying hir own thoughts under a blanket of fire. Cold, blue fire... For a moment, the shadows in the room intensified, as though something grew out of the darkness and swallowed what little light was left. There were cries of fear from the other prisoners, and Phoenix struggled to control the change that threatened.

'Not again, please, not again.' A voice whimpered in the darkness, and only afterwards did Phoenix realise it was hir own. From pleading, the voice within now changed to desperation:

letmeinletmeinletmetakeoverIcanhelpletmeinlet...

Phoenix clapped both hands over hir ears, as though the act would stop the internal voice, and rocked backwards and forwards, crying softly.

 

Kitezh.

Beards had never been in vogue in Kitezh. The people liked to see faces. They had a long-standing obsession with honesty, and for a man to hide half of his face behind a mask of hair was usually taken to mean that he had something to hide. Kastchei always had plenty to hide, but had never seen the need to do so behind a mask.

At least, not for a very long time. He allowed the valet to shave it off, although afterwards, staring at his reflection in the mirror, he had to admit to feeling a little odd. He'd only grown the damn thing to annoy Alia, initially. Perhaps he'd leave it off. Time for a change? Or just the fact that Taliesin sported such a similar look, and he didn't like the comparison?

He stretched out a hand for his coat, just a few inches out of reach. A moment's concentration and it was in his hands. Still staring at the mirror he put it on, smoothing the forest green velvet down with one hand, as he buttoned it down from the high collar. His hair was caught under the collar and he pulled it free, toying with catching it back in a queue - court fashion was for short hair, but he'd drawn the line at having it cut. It wouldn't do to look too civilised, after all.

Pleased with the final effect, he nodded to the waiting servant, and followed him from the room, allowing himself to be guided to Yuri's inner sanctum, despite knowing the way by heart.

It wouldn't do to appear to know too much, after all. One never knew when one would need an advantage.

 

Yuri was waiting for him, a glass of chilled berache in his hand, which he offered the moment the door was closed. 'You look a little more civilised at least,' he said. Kastchei took the glass from him, downed the contents and set it down on the table, before finding a chair and dropping into it.

'Your staff do you credit,' he said dryly. 'I was starting to think I'd never feel clean again. It has been far too long since I had to travel quite so frugally.'

'And it doesn't sit well on you these days, old friend?'

Kastchei leaned back, draping his arm over the back of the chair. 'No, I find it does not. Especially during the tail-end of Winter.'

Yuri perched on the edge of his desk. 'Alianora is here, Kit.' Before Kastchei could speak he raised his hand. 'Hear me out. I have no reason to refuse her an audience, until the Powers decide otherwise, she is still the Queen of Winter, I can no more refuse her than I can you. Besides, Alexei has brought her here as his guest, which places me under certain - obligations. I'm sure you appreciate my predicament?'

'Quite. You don't want me to kill her whilst she's under your roof.'

Yuri looked pained. 'Must you state everything quite so baldly?'

Kastchei smiled. 'It saves time.' He sighed. 'I would never force you to break your word, Yuri. Give me credit for that much at least. You have my word I will not harm her whilst she is under your protection.'

The prince of Kitezh nodded. 'Thank you.'

'You didn't need to ask.'

'Some things are more binding if spoken aloud. You of all people know this.'

Kastchei leaned forwards, staring at his old friend. 'You're stalling, Yuri. What else is going on here that I should know, that you don't seem to want to get around to telling me?'

Yuri jumped from the table, and began pacing the length of the room, hands clasped behind his back. 'Firstly, Alianora will be at this ball tonight - as my guest, I could hardly refuse her. I would ask however that you attend. If nothing else, perhaps there may be some answers forthcoming if her hand is forced.'

 

Kastchei grunted. 'You think she wants something here, is that it?'

'It has crossed my mind. She's going out of her way to assure me that she's no threat, and she knows how far back our friendship goes. That alone makes me nervous. Plus, Kitezh doesn't trust her.'

'This city wouldn't trust a bannik to warm a bath,' Kastchei snorted. 'It's been jumping at shadows for years.'

'One of you is a threat to the city, Kit. If it isn't you, then it's Alianora. I must know which. And if that means putting all of my problems into one basket and shaking it up, then by the Sleepers, that's exactly what I will do!' He's stopped in his pacing and faced Kastchei, pointing a finger at his nose, which Kastchei pushed away with a gloved hand.

'Don't, Yuri.' The prince backed down. 'What else, Yuri? What is it that you don't want to tell me?'

'Uulamets is back, with most of your staff and the bard's woman. I think you'd better hear the rest from her.' When Kastchei failed to react he looked put out. 'I see this is not news to you?'

'The Grey Wolf hinted that I might find them here - what worries me is the why - which I suspect is what you do not wish to tell me.'

'I would prefer you hear it from her - my second-hand report would likely do neither of us any good.' Yuri poured another glass of berache. 'You look tired, old friend. More so than I have seen in years.'

'Six days on horseback can do that to you,' Kastchei replied laconically. 'Don't seek for weaknesses where none exist, Yuri. I assure you, I'm in perfect health.'

Yuri leaned towards him, and cocked his head on one side, looking him up and down. 'I hear rumours that you've lost your fabled immortality - that Bes-Mertny is no longer "deathless". Would there be any truth to that?'

Kastchei smiled coldly, and without breaking eye contact, drew a small dagger out of its concealed sheath inside his shirt, and threw it to him. Yuri caught it blade first between finger and thumb, and reversed it with a practised throw. He hefted the blade lightly, and stared deeply into Kastchei's eyes. After a long pause, he threw the blade back, softly. Kastchei caught it neatly and replaced it smoothly.

'You're looking well, regardless. The eyes are an improvement: Makes you look more approachable. What can I do to aid you, within the limits of my hospitality?' Yuri asked him, eventually. Kastchei smiled.

'Let me try to draw Alianora out - she didn't come here by chance, and I'd like to know what she wants here. Just follow my lead, and if anything comes of it, we'll talk later.'

 

'Is that all?'

'For now.' Kastchei sighed heavily.' I've been caught off guard, Yuri - this isn't something I'm used to. Alia has a head start, and whatever she's planning, I need to know yesterday.'

Yuri shook his head sadly. 'I remember warning you, long ago, that you underestimated her ambition, my friend. She's not the woman you thought she was.'

Kastchei's grey eyes held more than a hint of regret as he stood up and bowed to his old friend. 'She never was, Yuri, that was the problem between us all along.' He straightened. 'Where will I find Vivienne?'

 

Yuri's servant escorted Kastchei to chambers not far from his own. He didn't give the lackey time to announce him, but strode past the man, and slammed the door shut behind him. Vivienne, kneeling in front of the hearth when he entered, jumped at the sound.

'Kastya!' Her obvious relief died away to wariness as he leaned against the door, arms folded, watching her carefully. The silence could have been cut with a knife, until broken by the whining of a hound. He looked down at the half-grown alaunt lying in front of the fire, presumably the focus of Vivienne's attention when he'd entered.

'Why is one of my hounds here?'

'He's the only one we managed to save, when we were attacked.'

'Tell me,' he ordered.

For a long time after she finished speaking, he was silent, not looking at her. Instead he focussed on the half-grown hound, ripped too untimely from its artificial womb. He knelt beside the beast, and examined it, using the act to hide his face from her, not trusting his beardless state to hide his thoughts. Not from her, she was too perceptive.

'He's healthy enough, but the untimely decanting has stunted the neural pathways. He will never connect to the hunt.' He patted the great beast on the head. 'Keep him, he already looks to you.' This much was true, the hound didn't take his red eyes from Vivienne's slight form, and his whiplike tail lashed against the wooden floor when she moved closer. 'He'll be a loyal guardian, at least.'

'I will. Thank you.'

 

The silence that followed was awkward. Vivienne eventually broke the impasse. 'Kastya?' Her hand on his shoulder was a daring gesture - those who knew him well would never be so familiar when he was in this mood. He almost snarled at her as he stood and turned to face her, expecting her to pull away. Her hazel eyes held only concern, and to her credit, she didn't even flinch.

He took a deep, shuddering breath, and forced himself to relax. There was a desk in the room, and he walked away from her and perched on the end, as nonchalantly as possible. 'You should be more careful,' he told her.

She shrugged. 'I've faced down worse than you in my time.'

'I doubt it,' he said dryly. The anger had faded, a little. Or, at least, he had it back under control. 'Most people would have told me news like that from at least a room's distance away. Not even Yuri dared break it to me, I should throttle him for allowing you to do so.'

'I told him I could handle it, don't blame him. He did try to warn me about your temper.' She sat beside him and brushed a lock of his hair back from his eyes. 'You know, I think I like you better without the beard.' He smiled automatically at her attempt to lighten the mood, but his mind was elsewhere.

'The loss of the palace I could live with. The cauldron chambers falling into the hands of a Legion-trained druid is something that must be addressed as soon as possible.' He'd been staring over hear head as he spoke, now he brought his attention back to her. 'I cannot let that technology fall into their hands - the cybridisation protocols for the Hunt are amongst the most sophisticated the dragon-born ever devised.'

'The Legion were noted for using cybrids and cauldron born at every opportunity,' Vivienne mused. 'Some of the horrors they unleashed were almost unstoppable.'

'You don't even know the half of it,' he told her, remembering. 'There were constructs that came out of the birthing chambers that could freeze the blood of even a Legion vat-master, when the dragon-born were still a force to be reckoned with. They had no regard for lesser life-forms, and would refashion and sculpt them as they desired. By comparison the worst excesses of Morgaine's days were toys.' Yet they could still be dangerous, he reflected, thinking of the protocols that defined the Hunt: Time aware. Time active. Now in the hands of a gestalt-clone that had already proved itself capable of destroying a dragon. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, wondering if he should tell her just how much of an "improvement" he'd made to an already dangerous protocol, but decided against it. 'I cannot afford any more mistakes, Vivienne,' he said eventually, 'or we're all dead. You, Talya, Yuri, this world...'

'Alia's not that dangerous, surely?'

'The Calaitin are. Alia is no fool: she's dragon-born, Vivienne, and one who remembers the old ways. You should never underestimate that kind.'

'Even you?'

 

He smiled. 'Especially not me.' Not taking his eyes off hers he placed a hand on her cheek - small enough to be covered by his palm, and let his fingers trail over her skin until he could cup her chin in his hand. Only when he leaned forward to kiss her did she pull back. 'You never know how far I'll go.'

'I've got a pretty good idea,' she muttered darkly. He touched the first two fingers of his left hand to his lips, and then to hers.

'Not yet, you haven't.' He jumped off the desk landing as lightly as a cat. 'I'd better go and check on your pretty little bard, and bring him down to you.'

'You shouldn't be quite so dismissive of him,' she chided softly. Almost at the door, he turned back to look at her.

'I'm not, but it keeps him on his toes, and I rather think he enjoys having someone to spar with. Until later, my dear Vivienne.' He swept her an ornate bow as he left.

 

 

Taliesin had yielded the point to the officious valet who'd been hell-bent on relieving him of his beard, after a lengthy discussion on Kitezh court fashions and Skazki's customs. It had been politic to just give in, eventually, although looking in the mirror at a face that now looked barely old enough to be shaved, he was starting to regret the decision - and to remember why he'd grown the damned thing in the first place.

'Quite an improvement, my lord.' He ignored the hovering valet, but wondered if Prince Yuri would object if he just used a small suggestion on the man. 'The coat, my lord?' The black velvet coat was waved vaguely in his direction, as he finished tying his hair back. He finally plucked the velvet coat out of a pair of fluttering hands. 'Go.' The valet scuttled out of the door so fast he wondered if perhaps he hadn't overdone the command a little.

'Such a breach of bardic etiquette. For shame, Talya.' Kastchei's head appeared around the door, followed by the rest of him in short order. Clean shaven, with a week's worth of travel cleaned off him, and resplendent in cream and forest green, he strolled across the room to the nearest chair and settled himself in it with studied but casual air, one booted leg thrown over the arm.

'No more so than not knocking before entering someone else's rooms,' Taliesin responded tartly. He settled the heavy folds of his coat on his shoulders. 'I see you lost the beard...' they said simultaneously.

In the silence that followed, Taliesin could almost feel the line they'd drawn between each other. On one side it was a wall, a barrier never to be fully crossed. On the other, it was just a line, easily stepped over. A bard's gift, to listen to the voices of men and know these cusps for what they were - how else to know the precise moment to tip the scales of an argument, to turn a man from one course of action to another?

A bard's curse - to know this in his own voice and be powerless to affect the outcome.

A heartbeat. No more, no less. A moment strung out to eternity, waiting to see which way they would walk.

'Vivienne was right - you do look about twenty without the beard,' Kastchei drawled.

'You looked more trustworthy with yours,' Taliesin retorted before he thought.

Kastchei laughed, and the moment ended. 'Touché, Talya. But think of the advantages - I will wander around the room looking as furtive as possible whilst you can capitalise upon your oh-so innocent face. Between us we should be able to work Yuri's court to our advantage.'

'I would rather,' Taliesin said sourly, 'be taken seriously.' He rubbed his bare chin ruefully. 'I'm not convinced that this reception is such a good idea.'

'On the contrary, it's perfect. Alia has arrived, with Yuri's son in tow - one could almost feel sorry for the poor boy - with a little effort, there might be an advantage to be gained tonight.'

'I thought you wanted her dead?'

'I do, but I'd like to know why she's gone to so much trouble to kill me first.' Kastchei pushed himself out of the chair with a bounce. 'No-one here knows our true strengths, Talya. I am a legend that no-one really wants to get too close to, you... you are unknown – if no-one guesses your true strengths, we have the advantage.'

'Alianora knows you well,' Taliesin pointed out, ignoring the jibe. Kastchei slapped him on his still-injured shoulder, and he winced.

'My apologies, I forgot. No, Talya, she does not know me.' Without the concealing beard Kastchei's wide, toothy smile was even more predatory than usual. 'She knows some of my limits, but not all. Did you think I was foolish enough to let that woman into all of my secrets?'

'Frankly, yes.'

Kastchei steered him to the door. 'Are all bards as annoying as you are?'

Taliesin smiled, a little wistfully, inwardly conjuring the faces of friends and colleagues, and the smile broadened as he imagined Marius or Solange facing down the Master of the Hunt. Or Devin, whose effervescent manner could irritate even the most placid personality to fury. 'They have their moments,' he said eventually. Kastchei shook his head.

'An intriguing institution, but not, I fear, one that is entirely to my taste. However.' He took Taliesin by the arm and stopped him in his tracks. 'That does remind me of one small oversight.' Brushing aside Taliesin's hair where it lay on his shoulders, he placed his hands at either side of the bard's throat, and frowned slightly, the furrow in his brow deepening as his hands then brushed over the left breast of the buttoned coat. Then he opened his arms wide and stepped back. 'There. Now you're properly dressed.'

Shaking his head in bemusement, Taliesin fingered the high brocade collar of the coat, and smiled as his fingers found the embroidered devices that adorned both sides. No need for a mirror to see what now rested there: wings outstretched in flight, the twin ravens that marked him as a Master Bard.

'Look down,' Kastchei said softly.

On his breast, in silver, the sign of the Chief Bard - the stylised form of Yggdrasil, delicately wrought, a serpentine dragon entwined through its branches.

'I didn't think you'd want to be mistaken for a journeyman,' the sorcerer quipped. 'Now, shall we see if we can make a suitably impressive entrance?' he snapped his fingers and two of the massive hell hounds bounded towards them, hurtling out of a side room, to stop at their master's feet. Taliesin recognised them as the two alaunts Kastchei hadn't destroyed - the two who'd been with him the night Alia had used his hunt to capture the dragon. Kastchei was taking no chances, bringing these two - alone of his pack, they were perfectly bonded to their master. It was a message Alia would take to heart.

'You don't think perhaps a more circumspect approach would be best,' he asked, as they made their way towards the grand staircase.

Kastchei stopped as they passed as large ornate mirror at the top of the stair, and carefully laid a stray lock of hair back into place and smoothed out his dark green velvet coat. 'Not at all, my dear Talya. I think it becomes us to rise to the occasion. Shall we?' he gestured to the staircase, and with a sigh, Taliesin prepared to follow him down into the seething mass of courtiers below.

 

The Great Hall, Kitezh.

Alia had agreed to attend Yuri's festivities only once her chatelaine had discovered that Kastchei and the bard would be present, a fact which the prince didn't seem to grasp too easily. He stood at her side, decorative but fidgeting, unsure whether to be protective or censuring.

'Do stand still, Sasha,' she snapped at him eventually. She raised her hand and a liveried servant hurried over with a glass of chilled berache. She sipped the strong liquor delicately, scanning the room eagerly, waiting for Kastchei's grand entrance – for, the gods forbid he should ever arrive quietly, unseen, unnoticed.

'For your own safety, my queen, you should not be here. If the Lord of Summer should decide-'

'Sasha, for your own safety, put your teeth together and stand still. When I desire your advice, I'll let you know.' Chastened, the boy sulked at her side, pouting. She took another sip and ignored him, concentrating instead on the grand staircase at the far end of the hall. Her vigilance was soon rewarded, as heads turned to watch two men descend, a brace of alaunts at their feet.

She barely recognised the second man - slightly shorter than Kastchei, she judged, but red-haired like her former lord, although much lighter in colouring, and far slighter in build. Taliesin was the name: she remembered him from the tower room, when he'd sung her spells to naught. Beardless, he looked very young, and his smile, though wide as he turned to say something to Kastchei as they walked down the stairs, had a shy quality about it.

The Calaitin may think him dangerous, she thought, but he didn't look so impressive close to. Although he and Kastchei did make an interesting pair, she noted, hiding a predatory smile behind her glass. One burned with a dark flame, the other brightly: The bard in austere black and silver made a sober counterpoint to Kastchei's green and gold. They might have made an entertaining diversion, once.

She turned slightly to look at the boy beside her, striking a pose like an outraged cockerel, and sighed inwardly. Such a pity about both the bard and Kastya... She forced her attention back to the scene in front of her, watching closely as Kastchei led Taliesin through the throng, to where Yuri stood, his watchdog, Uulamets, at his side, standing next to the slight, and oh-so-hated form of Vivienne of Gwynedd.

'Come,' she said to Alexei. 'We should make ourselves known, don't you think?'

'He could kill you, your Majesty, 'the boy said, placing a hand on her arm. She looked down at it and he moved it quickly. 'Surely he's not to be trusted. If I talk to my father...'

'Sasha, darling, for once in your life, do as you are told. I am still the Queen of Winter, until Summer comes, and his power is not yet a match for mine. Unless you fear him on your own account?'

Alexei drew himself up to his full height, and placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. 'He is just a man, despite the legends. I do not fear him.'

She heard the lie in his voice, and laughed mentally. All too easy... 'Come.' She swept past him, and the crowd parted before her as she made her way towards Yuri and Kastchei. At least, most of them moved out of her way. One man refused to step aside, and she was about to upbraid the impertinent guest, when she saw his face. The moment he touched her, the room fell silent.

 

 

'I see Alianora has noticed our arrival,' Tal muttered to Kastchei as they descended. 'Are you sure this is a good idea? She does want you dead, after all.'

'Let me worry about Alia, there's someone else you should be paying attention to.' As they reached the foot of the staircase, Kastchei nodded to where Yuri was standing, with a familiar dark haired figure beside him.

'Vivienne!'

 

She waited until he was at her side, but the hug she gave him almost took his breath away. 'I was worried,' she whispered, as he held her close.

'What happened? I left you at the palace.' He looked over to where Kastchei stood, looking insufferably smug. 'You knew she was here?'

Kastchei gestured expansively with a gloved hand. 'I thought I'd surprise you.'

'It's a long story, I'll fill you in later,' Vivienne replied, as Taliesin shook his head ruefully. She led him towards Yuri. 'Your highness, may I present Taliesin ap Gwion, Chief Bard of the Alliance of Worlds, and High King Elphin's emissary to Skazki.'

Yuri bowed. 'Allow me to offer you a rather more formal welcome, Taliesin.'

'My thanks, your highness.' As Taliesin straightened from his bow, his eyes caught sight of Alianora, stalled in her nonchalant saunter across the room, talking to a tall man dressed in red and black. His face was half in shadow, and Taliesin could only tell that he was young, and dark haired.

 

 

'You take a risk, coming here,' Alia hissed. She shook her hand free of Calaitin's grip. 'What if you are recognised?'

'The bard is the only one who has seen our face, and the obscuring I've worked should prevent him from seeing too closely.'

'He's watching.'

'Let him. Even if he eavesdrops he'll hear nothing. Time is on our side.'

Alia looked around the room, and realised that he wasn't speaking figuratively. 'A useful trick.'

Calaitin ignored her comment. 'We need a diversion for tomorrow, something to keep the city and those who might meddle in our affairs away from the fracture until we are ready. Are your wiles enough for such a task?'

'I'm sure I can goad Alexei into doing something rash. Kastchei might be harder to manipulate, but hit him hard enough in his vanity or pride, he'll bite.' She smiled. 'Yes, I'm sure I can provide your diversion. But are you sure that this will be sufficient to the task? How many of you are here?'

'Two,' he replied. 'More than enough to open the fracture and retrieve the Thorn.'

Alia's smile broadened. 'Perhaps if you told me just what it is you plan to bring through, I can help you? I do have some expertise in such matters, after all.'

'You? What could you know?' The Calaitin scoffed.

Alia delved into her pockets and handed him the headpiece of her bracelet, destroyed several months ago by Vivienne's blaster. 'Perhaps this answers your question?' she purred.

Calaitin looked at the piece, then at her. 'Is this what I think it is?' He handed the jade-coloured amulet back, and she replaced it in the pocket of her gown. 'You should have spoken sooner.'

'I had no reason to think it relevant, before.' Alia regarded him coldly, but expectantly. 'Well?'

He hesitated for a moment, his slate grey eyes taking on a blank expression, then clearing. 'Very well, but briefly.'

 

 

'My thanks, your highness.' Taliesin straightened from his bow, and over Yuri's shoulder he looked straight into the eyes of the Queen of Winter.

'Perhaps I might add my own welcome to Gwynedd's bard?' she said, with a smile that could have frozen the air between them. 'I don't believe we were properly introduced, but then, Kastya can be such a savage, at times.'

Taliesin's smile as he bent over Alia's offered hand was equally frosty, but on rising, he could see Kastchei's face, and the sorcerer looked as though he wanted to kill her with his bare hands. 'Alianora Marevna. As I recall, you were trying to kill my partner at the time.'

Your partner?' She raised an eyebrow and looked from Kastchei, to Vivienne and then to Taliesin. 'Really?'

'Alia...' Taliesin heard the murderous note in Kastchei's voice. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the boy beside her stir, laying a hand on his sword hilt.

The Queen of Winter laughed. 'Oh well, if you say so.'

Taliesin smiled coldly. 'Vivienne is not my property, your majesty. I think the only person making an issue out of this is yourself - which seems a little odd since you seem to care nothing for your lord, and see fit to indulge yourself quite openly with your latest paramour. Or is it perhaps the fact that you couldn't keep him on a leash that bothers you so much?'

Talya, I know I said to provoke the situation, but do be careful... Kastchei's warning held a trace of amusement in his mental voice.

If Alia looked furious at Taliesin's barb, the young prince looked ready to kill. His sword was half out of its scabbard before his father stopped him with a sharp 'Sasha.' Yuri shook his head. 'They are our guests, boy. See that you behave yourself accordingly. Besides, the bard is not wearing a sword, and only a fool challenges a man who cannot fight back.'

'You could lend him one,' Kastchei said lightly. The comment earned him a dig in the ribs from Vivienne and a frown from Tal. 'Or maybe not.' He took a sip of wine, and placed his glass down on a nearby table. 'Perhaps the lady of the lakes would care to dance?'

'Perhaps,' Alia said frostily. 'But not with you.'

Kastchei gripped her arm tightly, and led her to the dance floor. 'I insist, my lady.'

Alexei seemed about to follow them, until a shake of his father's head stopped him. 'You let emotion cloud your judgement in this matter, Sasha. Leave it be.'

Taliesin snorted. 'I'd place the problem a little lower, myself.' Vivienne closed her eyes shook her head, wincing mentally, and wished she were close enough to him to give him a good kick on his shin. Thankfully, Yuri just threw his head back and laughed heartily. His son glowered from under lowered lashes.

'A little blunt, but you have the right of it. Tell me - are all bards so forthright in their opinions?'

'Only those with no sense of self-preservation,' Vivienne said, a little tartly. 'If you'll excuse us, your highness, I'd like to have a quiet word with my partner? We have a lot to catch up on.'

Yuri bowed, giving her an amused smile. 'Indeed. In that case, my lady, I leave you to it.' He backed away, leaving Taliesin glaring at Vivienne.

'What was that?' she asked, as soon as he'd left. 'I've known you to get that snippy with Elphin, but never in public. Have you gone completely potty?'

He ran a hand through his hair, pushing back off his face. 'Just irritated.'

The boy-prince was still standing to one side, glaring. 'You have no right to judge us, whoever you may be.' He said sulkily.

Taliesin laughed in his face. 'I'll judge where and when I like, your highness, and someone who plays with fire should take care not to get his fingers burned.'

Alexei scowled, but didn't press the issue, storming off angrily. Taliesin sighed, and grabbed for a goblet on a passing tray. 'The gods be thanked that I was never that young. Kastya owes me for this.'

Vivienne gaped at him. 'You two set this up?'

Taliesin shrugged. 'He wanted to push events along a little, and suggested I give him a hand. Although I'm not sure, from the mental grumblings, that he expected me to take him quite so literally.' He placed his arm around her waist. 'Where's Phoenix?' Vivienne flinched.

'We lost her. We couldn't go back, they'd have shot us down before we got close.' She paused, wanting to say so much. 'I'm so sorry,' she ventured, eventually.

'Until Kastchei can get help in retaking the palace, I'd say there's nothing to be done. We'll have to sound him and the prince out tomorrow.' He nodded in the direction Kastchei and Alia had taken, which led them out of the hall and into the lantern-lit gardens. 'You know, I have the strangest feeling there's something here that's not quite right…'

'Another vision?'

'Not quite. A few minutes ago, I had a flash of déja vu.' He took another sip of wine. 'I could have sworn I saw Alianora talking to someone.'

'Sorry, wasn't looking.' Vivienne tapped him on the arm when he didn't reply. 'Oi – aren't we supposed to be keeping an eye on things?' She nodded in the direction Kastchei had vanished with Alia.

Taliesin brought his attention back to the present. 'You're right. I'd love to know what they're talking about. Shall we try to get closer? I can't hear anything over this babble.'

Out of the windows, turn left, head for the arbour, said Kastchei's mental voice. I'll try not to let the conversation get too interesting until you're there…

You're close to becoming the most annoying person I've ever met, you do know that, don't you? Taliesin shot back. Kastchei's mental tone was dryly amused.

Oh, I do hope so – it'd be a shame to waste the effort.

Vivienne, watching Taliesin grit his teeth, decided to put her own barb in. 'Getting as good as you give for once?' she asked innocently. The reply was inaudible, but she got the gist of the suggestion, and wisely shut up.

 

 

'What do you really think we have to say to one another, Kastya?' Alia pulled her arm out of his grip and turned on him furiously, once they were out of sight of the grand hall. He kept on walking, and she was forced to keep pace with his longer stride, whilst trying to stay clear of the two hounds that padded at his side. Once, she might have been able to coerce the hunt to her own needs, but not now, with their master now wise to her betrayal.

'How about "why"?' he asked eventually, coming to a stop underneath a rose-encrusted trellis. Alia snorted.

'You were in the way, that is all. Did you think it was more?'

'There's always more, Aleschka. What are you after, here? Why coerce the boy into bringing you? You must have known Yuri would have told me you were here, even if I hadn't shown up on his doorstep.'

'Bedraggled and with your pet offworld bard in tow,' Alia snapped. She smiled with mock sweetness. 'I hear you both looked much the worse for wear, and more than a little travel-stained, my lord – did your new pack not perform as well as you'd hoped?' She bit back a cry of pain as his hand lashed out and slapped her cheek hard, almost enough to unbalance her. Whilst her head still rang with the force of the blow, he grabbed hold of her and stared deeply into her eyes.

'Enough games, Aleschka, I want answers. Tell me what it is you want here'

His grey eyes seemed to bore into her mind, stripping away her defences, and the compulsion he laid upon her was almost irresistible.

Almost. Alia resisted, and stiffened her spine. Sensing her resistance, he increased the hypnotic compulsion. Tell me.

'Th – thorn,' she gasped unwillingly. Inwardly she seethed, and berated herself for not remembering just how strong his coercive power was. Kastchei's hands gripped her even tighter, his fingers digging into the muscle of her arms.

'Explain.' When she shook her head, trying to break the compulsion, he tried again. 'You will obey me, Aleschka. You have no will but mine. Submit, and tell me. What is the Thorn?'

She was free of his compulsion just a fraction of a second before she told him all, and staggered back, gasping for air, unaware that she'd been holding her breath until then. Kastchei was on his knees, Prince Alexei standing over him, about to deal a fatal blow this time with his sword. But even as the boy raised his blade for the stroke, he was buried underneath the two alaunts, who snapped and snarled, worrying at his arm, hastily flung up to protect his throat.

Hold

The hounds stood as though paralysed, thought still with paws resting on Alexei's chest, holding him down, their jaws only inches from his throat. The bard, Taliesin, with his mistress in tow, came running up the lantern edged path. As Alia watched, Kastchei recovered and pulled the sword from Alexei's frozen hand, whilst his hounds held their prey fast, held in their turn by Taliesin's Voice. Alia shrank back into the shadows as Kastchei raised the blade to strike the prince.

'Kastya – no!' Taliesin's voice rang out in the night air, no compulsion in it this time, but Kastchei stopped the blade in mid swing anyway.

'This is my fight, Talya, don't interfere.' He looked down at the prince. 'Release my hounds, Talya.'

'Oh, so killing the heir apparent of your host is a calculated move? I must remember that one. And no, not until I know you've called them off.'

Alia sensed her opening, as Kastchei lowered the blade with a sigh. 'Perhaps there's a way to settle this – after all, Prince Alexei was only trying to protect me.' She eyed up the red-haired bard in black. Perhaps he was more of a danger than she'd thought. 'Aren't you going to let him go?' she asked, nodding in the direction of the prince. She saw a glance pass between Kastchei and the bard, a slight nod from Kastchei, then the hounds shook themselves free of the compulsion, and slunk back to stand beside their master, tails between their legs, growling as Alexei tried to sit up.

'Stay down' Kastchei warned the youth. Alexei stayed. By now, however, a large crowd had begun to form, as various guests indulged their curiosity. Vivienne stepped out of the way as Prince Yuri forced his way past her, Nikolai Uulamets in his wake.

'What happens here?' he thundered. Strangely, Vivienne noticed Tal and Kastchei held their silence. Alianora was not slow to step into the breach.

'Your highness, is this how you enforce the guest-right in your palace? I was assured that no harm would befall me here, and yet you allow the Master of the Hunt to treat me like a common harlot?'

'Shows some perception on his part,' Vivienne muttered under her breath. Taliesin gave her a sharp kick on the ankle. The look she received from Alia told her that the other woman had heard, and noted the comment for future reference.

'I see that my son saw fit to interrupt a conversation with one of my guests by attacking him from behind, my queen. Perhaps he acted precipitously?' the hard stare he gave the young prince would have made any man quail. Alexei visibly wilted.

'Father...'

'The prince was protecting me, and my honour, your highness. For that he has my undying gratitude.' She offered her hand to the boy, and helped him to his feet. 'The insult done to him and to myself requires an answer.'

She has the boy primed for this, Taliesin told Kastchei mentally. Be ready.

A distraction only, Kastchei replied. Shall we take the bait anyway?

We?

'Tomorrow, My lord? Mid morning, in the training yard?' Alexei drew his sword and saluted Kastchei. 'I think we can settle this, if his lordship is man enough to accept the challenge.'

Kastchei gave Alianora a pitying look. 'Is this puppet show the best you can do, my dear? You disappoint me.' He turned his back on her and bowed to Yuri. 'With your permission, my friend, I think I can teach the boy some manners.'

'Your fight is with me, sir!' Alexei's indignant voice rang out, with only a slightly petulant quaver. If he expected support from his father, he didn't get it.

'Be silent!' Yuri stepped past Kastchei and stood in front of his son. 'He at least values friendship enough to ask my permission to fight my only son, whereas you seem to be fast losing what little sense you ever had.' He stepped back and nodded to Kastchei. 'Do what you must, I will not interfere.'

Kastchei bowed in return, and Yuri swept past him, his fur-lined cloak swirling heavily behind him. Only Taliesin was close enough to hear his whispered "don't kill him," and see Kastchei's almost imperceptible nod. Alia took her lover's arm and stepped daintily past Kastchei, Taliesin and Vivienne, smirking slightly as she brushed past Vivienne, almost knocking her off her feet. Kastchei caught her as she stumbled, and held her arm as she made to go after Alianora.

'Don't,' he told her quietly. 'We have what we wanted.'

The crowd was dispersing, the show now over. Vivienne turned first to Taliesin then to Kastchei. 'You mean you two planned this?'

'Not exactly,' Taliesin said apologetically. 'We just agreed it might be worth shaking the tree a little to see what would fall out of the branches.'

'Alia isn't that subtle by nature. She loves intrigue, but offer her an easy solution and she'll take it. Tomorrow morning, she'll get what she came here for - a distraction that should give her enough time to do whatever it is she has planned.'

'I can't shadow her,' said Taliesin. 'You'll need a second.'

Vivienne sighed. 'Fine, I'll do the legwork. As usual.' She eyed Kastchei up and down. 'You've got one small problem though, Kastya.'

'What would that be?

Vivienne pointed to his waist, where his coat buttoned neatly over a scabbardless belt.

'You might just have to run after your friend Yuri and borrow a blade for tomorrow,' she quipped. Taliesin anticipated Kastchei's unspoken query and smiled.

'You brought all our gear in the dromond, didn't you?' he asked her. She nodded. 'Good, then I'll lend you mine,' he said to Kastchei, and strolled off, whistling.

Kastchei bent down to whisper in Vivienne's ear. 'Is there a joke here I should be aware of?' he asked. She grinned up at him.

'She's called Memory.'

Kastchei's wide mouth twitched into a sardonic half-smile. 'Double edged, I presume?'

Vivienne's answering grin was enigmatic. 'But of course.' She took his offered arm. 'So what do we do for an encore this evening?' she asked lightly, as they walked back into the hall. Kastchei handed her arm to a waiting Taliesin, and bowed to them both. His hounds waited patiently at his side, red eyes glowing in the twinkling lights of the hall.

'You two - whatever you wish. I on the other hand intend to enjoy myself. If you'll excuse me?' A studied gesture sent the hounds away to the side of the dance floor, and he made a bee-line for a red-haired girl in a diaphanous gold dress.

'If she's even sixteen, I'll eat Leannan' Taliesin muttered as Kastchei swept the girl onto the dance floor for an energetic gavotte.

'I'll fetch the salt and pepper,' Vivienne said with a laugh, as the couple danced past them. 'She's Yuri's youngest daughter, and she turned sixteen last week.' She grabbed a handful of canapés from a passing waiter. 'Do we dance, mingle or talk?'

'Yes, no, and yes. You can fill me in during the next waltz.' He whisked her onto the dance floor so quickly she ended up having to brush pastry crumbs off the front of her borrowed gown.

 

Chapter 6

Kitezh

 

They'd retired early, mostly because there was so much to discuss. Afterwards, Taliesin lay on the rug in front of the fireplace and gave Vivienne a searching look, which she parried with a nonchalant, impassive demeanour.

'You cannot seriously think of keeping that?' He said eventually, pointing at the ghostly white hound that sat with its huge head on Vivienne's lap. She ruffled its ears and grinned down at him.

'Why not?'

'Because...' he knelt at her side, leaning on the arm of her chair. 'Let's start with which bit of "it's a damn hell-hound" escapes you?'

'He can be whatever I want, with the right training,' Vivienne replied. She rumpled his hair and he gave her a filthy look for her trouble.

'I never thought of you as a dog person,' he sighed, sensing from the set of her chin she wasn't about to yield on this point anytime soon. The hound turned its head and blood red eyes stared into his. It was Taliesin who looked away first.

He gave up, and scratched it behind the ears, unable to resist a smile as it leaned into his hand. 'What are you going to call him?'

'I thought "Cafall",' she said, waiting for his reaction. He merely grunted.

'Clichéd, but appropriate.'

'It's not the hound that worries you,' Vivienne pointed out. 'Why not just talk to me?'

'Do you have a week?'

She was about to make a flip reply when the hound raised his head a growled deep inside his throat, a low menacing rumble. Hackles raised, it stalked towards the door, stiff-legged. Taliesin raised a finger to his lips, and Vivienne nodded. As quietly as she could she stood up and tiptoed over to the dressing table, where her pistol lay, still holstered. Cafall stood in the centre of the room, eyes fixed on the door, still growling.

Hear anything?

Vivienne shook her head and drew the hellfire pistol, fingers tracing the engraved sigils to power up the weapon.

'Damn dog,' Taliesin said loudly. 'Jumping at shadows.' He walked across the floor deliberately keeping off the rugs. Leannan sat in the corner of the room, and he picked her up gently, and settled in the nearest chair, the harp in his lap. Cafall now lay with his belly pressed to the floor, no longer growling, but whimpering softly. His attention was still fixed on the door.

Vivienne would have pulled the door open, but a sharp shake of Taliesin's head stayed her hand. She backed away from the door in response to his unspoken command, and placed herself to the side.

'There's nothing,' she hissed to Taliesin. He raised a hand to stop her speaking, and played a single note on the harp.

The shadows in the room deepened almost instantly in response, and Cafall fled to hide under the bed. Vivienne looked disgustedly at the spot where the hound was hiding. 'Some help you are,' she muttered.

Taliesin played, a sequence of no more than thirteen notes, and the room exploded.

 

At least, that was Vivienne's first impression: a cold wind howled louder than the Wild Hunt in full cry, pushing her to the floor in its fury. Every loose object in the room was carried spiralling into the air, and smashed against the walls. The only oasis of order in the room was the area surrounding Taliesin's chair: nothing disturbed the red haired bard as he played on. Unsure of what to look for, Vivienne settled for concentrating on the point from where the wind seemed to emanate - the place where the shadows were darkest: the doorway of the apartment.

Where the heavy oak panelled door had stood there was a deep oily blackness, shot through with a faint, sickly red light. Peering into it as closely as she dared, Vivienne thought she saw a human figure, or perhaps two, standing in the centre of the shadows, back to back.

'Tal!' she shouted trying to make herself heard over the roar of the wind. A glass vase fell at her feet and she looked down. The glass had run and pooled thickly at the base of the vase, as though it had melted.

Not melted, she realised with shock: aged. The liquid glass had simply run slowly to the base: centuries passing in a matter of seconds.

'Stay back!' Taliesin shouted back. 'Any closer and you'll be caught in the heart of it!'

The music he called out of Leannan soared over the chaotic wind, forcing it back. Note by note it touched and unravelled the working, and with each thread that fell free, Taliesin modulated the theme he played to pick it up and incorporate it into the melody, turning in back on its creators.

One of the figures in the doorway cried out and fell, and the wind faltered and died. Leannan's music, with nothing to stand against it, faltered, briefly.

It was enough for one of the remaining figures to move. Vivienne caught sight of the shadow within a shadow as it did so, and called out a warning. Too slowly, it seemed, she raised the gun in her hand and fired, even as the figure made a casting motion with a hand that glinted silver in the recovering light.

The figure collapsed, as something white landed on top of it, and there was a snarling, tearing sound from within the darkness.

 

And then there was light. Kastchei stood leaning nonchalantly against the door of the rooms opposite, arms folded. At his feet his two hounds worried and tore at a body that might once have been a man - but was already little more than a pile of bloodstained grey robes. As she watched, even that faded slowly from her sight, and the hounds, muzzles red with blood, padded back to their master's side.

'Having a little trouble?' he asked.

 

 

Alia was awakened by a hand placed over her mouth.

'Do not be alarmed,' said a familiar voice. She relaxed a little as she recognised Calaitin. This one's voice sounded strained and hoarse. Careful not to wake Alexei, who simply turned over in his sleep and grunted, she slid out of the bed when the druid removed his hand.

'What is it?' she hissed, once they were safely removed to her dressing room. 'Dear gods...'

 

She'd set the bioluminescent strips on low, and even that that faint light, the sight was shocking. The Calaitin were none of them old - their numbers had been severely depleted not too long ago, and only one was over middle-age in appearance, and First, she knew, was overseeing the operation at the Summer Palace.

The man standing in front of her was ancient. Thin white hair straggled down to bony shoulders from an almost bald, age-spotted head. His face was deeply sunken and lined, and underneath the grey robes of his order, his body was obviously emaciated. The silver arm that all of them bore looked ridiculously large by comparison, the hand more than twice the size of its flesh and blood companion.

'We tried to destroy the bard with a time wind.' He coughed and the effort shook his frail body from head to toe. Alia made no move to help him, as he staggered to the nearest chair and sat down. 'I had no idea he could counter such things. The harp he bears...' the Calaitin had to stop for a breath, 'is made of a living branch of the World Tree itself. He was too strong, even caught unaware.'

'Where is the other member of your order?' Alia asked. Calaitin shook his had slowly.

'I was able to teleport to safety; he was taken by the hell hounds.'

'Kastchei.' Alia breathed as she stared over the dying man's head, at the floor above where Kastchei had his rooms. 'Can you bring any of your brethren here before tomorrow for the crossing?'

'No.' Calaitin raised his flesh hand shakily and pointed to her. 'There is no time, and it must be done as soon as possible. Already the rent in the veil between the worlds that we tore by killing Delbâeth is repairing itself. You must perform the ritual.'

Alia knelt at his side, and placed a solicitous hand on his arm. 'Then tell me what I must know...'

           

 

A brisk wind blew through the courtyard, picking up stray pieces of debris and sending them spiralling upwards. Vivienne shivered and huddled deeper into the fur-lined coat she'd borrowed. At her side, Taliesin stood in one of his black dusters, seemingly oblivious to the chill. His pale green eyes were fixed on Kastchei as the sorcerer limbered up. Normally, Vivienne might have let her own attention settle on Kastchei - his control and grace with a sword were breathtaking - but she pulled her attention away, and instead watched his opponent.

 

Alexei looked so young, and so much lighter than Kasya, she might have been tempted to think this would be a very one-sided affair. But the boy's body was more muscular than it first appeared, and he was fast on his feet, she noted. Perhaps faster than Kasya, which could easily make up for the difference muscle mass between them. He was also a little taller, and had a longer reach, which could tell against Kastchei.

On the other hand, with over a thousand years of experience, Kastchei could probably counter any advantage the prince could come up with.

So why did Alianora, standing close to her chosen champion, look so smug? Vivienne frowned. Somehow they'd ended up playing right into the Queen's hands, and that, after last night, she now knew meant Calaitin's as well.

'Ready?' Uulamets' voice carried even on the gusting wind. Both men stopped and nodded. Kastchei made his way to where Vivienne and Taliesin were standing. Wordlessly, Taliesin handed him Memory.

'You still don't approve?' Kastchei's tone held amusement. Taliesin shook his head.

'Just try not to get yourself killed. The prince isn't a novice with that blade. Don't get cocky.'

'I won't.' He turned to Vivienne. 'And you? No last minute words of wisdom?'

She tied a scarf around his arm, the blue silk a dazzling contrast with his white shirt. In defiance of the chill winter morning, he wore his shirt open to the waist, as always. She laid a hand on his chest, feeling the beating of his hearts under her fingers. 'You're not immortal, Kastya. Please be careful.' She kissed him on the cheek. 'Luck.'

'Luck,' he said with a smile, 'is no substitute for preparation. Be ready.' She nodded and stepped back. Kastchei turned to Taliesin. 'It is time. I assume you haven't changed your mind about being my second?'

Taliesin shook his head. 'You're taking a chance, but I said I'd back you. Besides, after last night, I owe you. Let's get this over with.' He followed Kastchei out into the centre of the yard, where Prince Alexei was already waiting, swishing his sword impatiently. 'Someone doesn't like to be kept waiting,' he remarked quietly. Kastchei's answering smile was grim.

'Good. He's more likely to make a mistake.' He stopped in front of the prince and bowed his head, the barest minimum of civility. Alexei didn't return it. Vivienne, watching from the sidelines, huddled deeper into her coat and watched as Taliesin backed away, standing about twenty feet away. At Uulamets' signal, Kastchei and Alexei both took up guard positions, Alexei in a classical pose, knees flexed, keeping his weight central. Kastchei in contrast stood upright, left arm behind his back, Memory held lightly in front of him, in quarte.

 

'Engage.'

There was little movement at first. Vivienne tried not to hold her breath as she watched. The two men hardly moved, but she heard the blades engage with the ring of steel on steel, neither man committing to an attack. Just a light tap of blade on blade. Alexei moved first, circling around Kastchei, trying to draw him into making the first attack. Kastchei just followed him, moving as little as possible. Tap. Tap. Tap. Beating Alexei's blade out of line, a little harder each time.

Then she saw it, the slight opening, as Kastchei left his blade out of line, just enough out of true to leave an opening. Alexei lunged, fast and hard...

Kastchei simply side-stepped, flicking the blade out to the side as he did. It connected, leaving a trail of blood on Alexei's hand. Alexei danced backwards, moving the blade to his left hand and shaking his right, flexing the fingers. Kastchei advanced, calmly, striding towards him with no pretence at adopting any style or form.

Confident.

Arrogant.

Vivienne watched the next engagement, Alexei again attacking, and Kastchei diverting his sword with the absolute minimum of effort. As the two men squared off to each other again, she brought her attention off the fight with difficulty, and watched Alianora.

There was admiration on the red-haired woman's face as she watched the fight, and not a little exhilaration. Well, Vivienne thought, it wasn't everyday you got to watch your former lover and your toy-boy fight each other to the death, after all. There was also a look of anticipation in her eyes, as she leaned forwards, her fists clenched as her lover gave way again, another attack rebuffed. This time he clutched his arm as he retreated, and Vivienne saw blood drip from between his fingers from a cut just above his elbow. Kastchei turned his back on his opponent and walked away, the tip of his blade tapping on the ground. Not waiting for him to turn and face him again, Alexei attacked, slashing wildly at Kastchei's exposed back, the clash of steel on steel ringing out across the courtyard as Kastchei's blade met Alexei's, and the younger man's sword slid down the blade. As Alexei staggered back from the force of the parry, Kastchei made a running lunge, his point only just beaten back by Alexei. The boy tried to come onto the attack, but was off balance. Kastchei sidestepped with insolent ease, then he swung round to slice at Alexei's unprotected chest. The boy only just brought his blade up in time to parry, before he was fighting off a flurry of blows from Kastchei, as the sorcerer pressed the prince hard, forcing him to retreat across the courtyard, away from the audience. He disengaged and walked away from the prince, letting his opponent get his breath back, and leaving his own back open to attack, knowing the younger man would not resist the opening. Alexei took the bait, launching a savage blow diagonally across towards Kastchei's shoulder which if it had connected would have split the sorcerer in two. Instead it was parried with arrogant ease, Kastchei's blade dropped over his shoulder, held long enough to deflect the blow, the hilt released and allowed to fall into his outstretched left hand, and then he was turning even as his opponent recovered, dancing out of range and parrying now with his left hand, to the delight of the onlookers, most of whom now realised that they were watching a master in action.

Drawing, as they had hoped, all eyes away from the Queen of Winter, who, with a regretful look back over her shoulder, quietly slipped away from the thronged courtiers, and made her way into the kremlin, unseen, unmissed.

Except, of course, by Vivienne, who backed out of the crowd surrounding her and followed Alia from the yard.

 

 

The queen wasn't exactly careful about not being seen, as she made her way from the training yard into the body of the kremlin, but then, Vivienne realised as she followed at a careful distance, she didn't have to. Most of the palace's staff were watching the fight, either over the scryscreens in various monitoring stations, or gathered in and around the grounds themselves. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to get a look at a legend in action. She had to admire Alia's tactics - even the city itself would be distracted, keeping track of the unnatural movements of its citizens.

Alia rounded a corner, momentarily out of sight, and Vivienne broke into a trot to keep up. Thankfully, there were few side corridors on this level, and she soon caught sight of her quarry again. Alia was heading deep into the heart of the city, judging by the increasingly ancient look of the walls as they moved deeper into the centre. Whereas the outer walls were slick and clean, these had a roughened, nacreous look, indicative of the age of the city's heart. These were the layers that had been grown naturally, to allow the city to function, before the more structured layers above could be encouraged to grow. They were also thicker, to protect the brain and heart of the caer's engines and higher functions.

For a moment, Vivienne thought that Alianora was heading for Kitezh's brain - perhaps to destroy it. But the red haired woman turned away from the mottled dark purple walls with their luminous nerve clusters swelling into the corridors, and instead headed for the throbbing heart of the city - the quiescent engines.

 

For generations, the city of Kitezh had been totally immobile, unlike its cousins on the worlds she was more familiar with. Caer Tagel, Caer Gwydion, and their ilk floated freely through the skies, borne up by massive suspensors powered by the engines at each city's heart - engines that could even, when fully powered, take the caers between worlds. At least, that was the legend, since no-one now knew how to operate such systems, and the surviving caers higher mental faculties were much damaged by age and warfare. "Senile" was perhaps too strong a term, but as far as Vivienne was concerned, the effects were much the same.

Alianora turned into a side corridor, and Vivienne hugged the wall until she could see around the corner. Peering around the bend, she saw Alia look quickly behind her, then duck into a sideroom. On the floor of the corridor one of Yuri's liveried technomages lay crumpled by the doorway. Vivienne scuttled over as quietly as possible and checked for signs of life. She pulled her fingers back from his neck and suckled them to remove the sudden icy cold. Winter magicks... The man had been flash frozen to death in an instant. Vivienne unholstered her hellfire pistol, and checked the remaining charge. Carefully standing back from the doorway, she peered round. The room beyond was empty, but through another door, she could see movement - and the telltale signs of the dimensional jump engines beyond being powered up. She pulled her head back and tapped the comms sigils on her bracelet.

'She's in the jump engine room,' she whispered to Taliesin, when she had his attention. 'Tell Kastya to finish it quickly, if he hasn't already.'

'He's still playing, you know Kastchei...' came the laconic reply.

 

She smiled to herself. 'Never mind, just warn him, and let Yuri know what's happening - I think somehow she's taken Kitezh's sensors offline.'

As if on cue, she heard the rumbling from inside the room increase in intensity. Vivienne took a deep breath, and eased her way into the room, treading as quietly as possible.

 

 

Taliesin refocused his eyes on the duel, pulling the cuff of his sleeve back over his own bracelet. In the centre of the yard, Kastchei danced effortlessly around his younger opponent, who was huffing and puffing by now, and his blows were becoming slower and less co-ordinated. Kastchei was making it look far too easy and the few murmurings around Taliesin were enough to convince him that the crowd had begun to notice that Kastchei was playing with the boy. They wanted a finish to it. Taliesin moved out of his position standing by a pillar, until he could catch Kastchei's eye. He nodded once, when he saw Kastchei's eyes flicker in his direction, and saw the answering nod, so slight he might have missed it normally. Then along with the rest of the crowd, he gasped as he watched Kastchei simply side-step Alexei's next wild swing, and with a move so fast even he almost missed it, sent Memory flicking under Alexei's blade, under his arm and sent the blade spinning out over the crowd in the same move that sliced a long shallow cut along the boy's arm and then ran him through the shoulder. The prince dropped to the ground with a cry of pain, instantly surrounded by a group of youths his own age, whilst Kastchei stepped back, looking as cool and unwinded as he had started the fight, although Taliesin noticed the faint sheen of sweat and blood on his bare chest, where his shirt gaped open. There were two shallow cuts on his left shoulder and right arm, where Alexei's blade had gotten through his guard: the sorcerer hadn't had it all his own way. He strode over to the bard, wiping the blade on a cloth pulled from his pocket as he did so, ignoring the cheering crowd.

'Where?'

'Jump engines,' Taliesin replied tersely. He accepted Memory back and sheathed her carefully. 'We should hurry.'

Kastchei signalled Yuri, and the stocky prince strolled over to them, looking remarkably unconcerned about his son's welfare.

'I take it I can expect trouble after all?' he drawled. 'I've heard nothing from the city.'

'She probably had Alexei grant her the rites of passage into the heart.' He spared only a passing, contemptuous glance back at the prince, who was being helped to his feet by his friends. 'I think we need to talk to Kitezh.'

Yuri nodded. 'Follow me.'

Vivienne was so intent on following Alia silently that she almost walked around the curve of the wall before she realised that her quarry had stopped. The Queen of Winter was busy re-calibrating the city's jump engines, oblivious to her shadow, and didn't notice Vivienne step carefully back into the shadows. The hum of the powerful drives grew louder, but not to the pitch Vivienne associated with a pre-jump level of activity. She leaned around the corner, trying to get a closer look, but had to pull her head back sharply as Alia turned suddenly, as if at some sudden sound, although Vivienne could have sworn she'd been as quiet as a mouse. Shaking her head, Alia turned her attention back to her task, finalised her adjustments, and stepped away from the panel. On the flagstoned floor of the room, a pool of soft amber light began to form, and Vivienne, risking another look, saw a satisfied smile appear on the Queen's face, as she raised her arms above her head and began to chant:

'Beyond the gates of night I call

Blood to blood,

Biomass to biomass

Open to me now the gate of the worlds,

Hear my summons and obey'

With a gleaming knife, she sliced open her wrist, letting the blood fall to the floor, swallowed instantly by the light, which took on a blooded-tinged hue.

'The gates of night open to my need

Winter's heartblood calls the seed

From Avallion's temenos I summon thee

Venite

In the name of the Rose, I call

Venite

In the name of the Great Dragon, I call

Ureas Naga!

Venite

I call to thee by name and summon thee to thy rightful realm

Gareth ap Arthur, Medraut, Rex Aeturnum!'

 

Blinded by the brightening light, Vivienne turned away, but even closed, the bright flash that illumined the room left a searing afterimage that she blinked frantically away. Through watering eyes, she managed to turn back and observe the scene – Alianora sinking to the floor, exhausted, but also in deference to the figure who now stood in the centre of the room: a tall man, black hair only just greying at the sides, and cut short, not even to his collar. Standing side on to Vivienne as he was, she could only see his profile, and that cast in shadow, but even that, coupled with the final summoning Alia had woven, was enough for Vivienne to recognise who stood there, surveying the cramped room with a triumphant smile: Gareth ap Arthur. Gareth, son of Arthur, and of Morgaine, called in later years Mordred.

 

 

I detected nothing until Lady Vivienne entered the lower chambers. I am sorry.

'Don't be, you couldn't have known that Alexei would be so foolish.'

Treachery from within was unexpected, the city agreed. But my long range scry detects a large ship in orbit around the planet, and dromonds are being launched - my preliminary information indicates that they are heading this way. Should I let them approach?

'Are you expecting company?' Kastchei asked Taliesin, who shook his head.

'They could be Elphin's, we are somewhat overdue.'

Kastchei looked grim. 'Then again, they might not. Any other day but this, I would give them the benefit of the doubt.' He turned to Yuri. 'Contact them if you can. If they reply, try to stall them and tell them to land...' He looked around for a map, found the corner of one sticking out from under a pile of papers on Yuri's desk, and pulled it out. He examined it carefully, and pointed. 'Here. It's about ten miles from the city. Tell them whatever you have to, but do not mention my name, Talya's or Vivienne's. Kolya?'

Yuri's commander had been sitting so silently in the corner, Tal had forgotten he was there, having followed them from the courtyard. 'Lord Kastchei?'

'Have your men ready to ride as soon as you can, but be circumspect, there may be other traitors in the city.'

'And Alia?' Yuri asked.

Kastchei shook his head, and started to pace the room.

'This isn't about Alianora, Talya. Think, for a moment. This ship appears in orbit now, when Alia's down in the heart of the city? She's after the jump engines. Why?'

'Maybe she wants to move the city? Taliesin asked.

I'd have felt that, Kitezh told them. I sense power being diverted, but not enough to move me, not now. I have been rooted in one place too long.

'It happens to the best of us,' Kastchei muttered, only just loudly enough for Taliesin to hear.

'She's creating a portal,' Taliesin said. He closed his eyes. 'Merciful fate, but to where? And for what?'

'A summoning?' Uulamets drew his pistol. 'We should-'

Kastchei raised his hand, head bowed in thought. 'Wait.' He looked at Taliesin, grey eyes boring deep into the pale green of the bard's. 'Not what. Whom.' He grabbed the pistol from Uulamets. 'I'll be needing that. Come on.' This last was addressed to Taliesin, who followed belatedly.

'What is it?' he asked. Without slowing his pace from a fast jog, Kastchei told him.

'You said the Calaitin were trying to summon something or someone they called "The Thorn"?' he asked.

'Yes.'

'They served under Morgaine for centuries - you're the historian, what was it she was known as?'

'Destroyer of Worlds, Sunkiller...' realisation struck him then, and he groaned. 'The Rose of Hell. How could I have been so blind?'

'That makes two of us, but at the time, I saw only Alia's treachery. I'll wager that portal is designed to reach Avallion.'

'Morgaine's dead,' Taliesin said. 'We've known that for years, thanks to the Black Throne.'

'Most roses have many thorns, this one however had only one,' Kastchei said acidly. 'Gareth ap Arthur, better known as Mordred.'

 

 

Mordred knelt down in front of the exhausted sorceress and helped her to her feet. 'I was expecting Calaitin – who are you?' he asked brusquely. Vivienne smiled to herself, seeing Alia's pique at the lack of gratitude.

'Alianora Marevna, Queen of Winter, Lady of the Lakes.' Alia drew herself up to her full height, albeit still looking a little shaky. 'I was sent to effect your summoning, as Calaitin has business elsewhere that could affect our plans.'

'Our plans?' Mordred looked amused. 'I don't recall you being a part of any plan of mine, woman.'

Alia bristled visibly at the insult. 'With all due respect, your majesty, you have not been party to events in this world for quite some time. Circumstances change, as do alliances.'

Shuffling slightly to get a closer look, Vivienne knocked a loose stone in the wall. She froze as the crumbling rock hit the floor with an audible thump. Before she could move, her arm was caught in a vice like grip, as Mordred dragged her out of her hiding place. She hadn't even seen him move.

'Well, well, what have we here? A spy?'

'She's an agent of the usurper, Elphin of Gwynedd. She calls herself Vivienne of Avallion,' Alia told him, giving Vivienne a triumphant look. 'She works with a bard – one high in the councils of the usurper, or so I've been told. Let me kill her for you.' This last was almost a plea, and Vivienne shivered, seeing the predatory look on the woman's face as she fingered her arm absently. Vivienne remembered seeing that arm scorched to the bone, a result of her attempt to stop Alianora from killing Kastchei and the dragon.

'Next time I'll remember to aim for your head,' she said boldly. Alia snarled, but backed down as Mordred raised his free hand.

'If she's close to the usurper's council, she'll be useful. I think I'll keep her.'

'She's nobody - there are others you should be more wary of-' Alia began, but Mordred silenced her with a glance.

'I make my own council, woman. Be mindful of that - my gratitude only stretches so far. Now, take us out of here, I believe there should be an escort waiting for us.'

Alia nodded her acquiescence, but Vivienne didn't miss the thunderous look she gave Mordred before she turned. And neither did he.

'Seems the she-dragon has a little bite left,' he whispered into her ear. 'I wonder which of you would give the best sport?'

'You're sick,' she muttered, trying to twist away from him. 'The stories were right - you'd sell out anyone for your own gain.'

He twisted her arm cruelly behind her back, until she cried out, and pushed her in front of him, along the corridor. 'Then perhaps, little one, you'd better reflect upon how many of the other stories are true, whilst we travel, and keep your pretty little mouth shut in case it provokes me further.'   

 

They exited in the northern courtyard, and Vivienne looked around in horror as they stepped into the sunlight. Where she had expected to see Yuri's guards, only bodies greeted them, scattered around the flagstones like broken puppets. The reason wasn't far away: crouching by the far wall like a malevolent bug, was a grey dromond, marked with the symbol of the rose. Overhead, a familiar drone made her look up, and she saw three more flying above the city, circling like vultures, periodically firing down at the city, the hellfire cannon lancing down almost at random, but keeping well clear of the kremlin.

Two of them were black, as was the armour of the man who walked towards them now, flanked by two legionnaires in grey.

'Lord Kaiwyn?' Vivienne stared in shock at the man who knelt in homage to her captor, no helm on his greying head. Mordred thrust her towards one of the knights, who held her tightly, powered fist encircling her arm.

'Lady Vivienne, an unexpected surprise. I'd hoped you were dead. It seems I'll have to have words with my technomages next time.'

'You treacherous bastard…' Her attempts to pull free were futile, the knight holding her pinned her other arm to her body, and held her tightly.

'Treachery is such an ugly word, my lady. Especially when coming from one who serves a usurper.'

'You gave him your oath of fealty yourself, you snake! What love was ever lost between you and the rest of the dragon's brood anyway?'

Kai regarded her calmly. 'Blood is thicker than water, as they say. He is, after all, my nephew, twice over. And dragon-born, which is more than can be said of the line of Elphin.' He looked past her, into the darkness of the doorway behind her. 'Speaking of which, where is the Chief Bard? Is Taliesin with you?'

Vivienne glared at him mutely, refusing to answer. Alia answered for her.

'He's here, along with the Master of the Hunt.'

'You were supposed to have cleared the Master out of the way before we arrived, Queen Alianora,' Kai said angrily. 'I told the Calaitin -'

'Plans change, Lord Kai,' Alia said smoothly. 'It proved more difficult than you could imagine - Kastchei is extraordinary - even for a dragon-born.'

'You failed,' Kai spat. Alia smiled coldly and lifted a hand, only to be stayed by Mordred's voice.

'Silence, both of you. Blame can be apportioned later - for now, I wish to leave this place. I presume you have a fortress that can receive us until we consolidate our position here?' Alia nodded.

'My own city of Novgoren awaits, your high- your majesty.'

'Good, then we leave. Kai - take the women inside the ship, see that they are accorded every hospitality - within reason, in Lady Vivienne's case.'

Kai bowed. 'As you wish.'

Still struggling, Vivienne was carried up the ramp and into the belly of the beast.

 

 

Chapter 7

Kitezh

Yuri, Kastchei and Taliesin were barely a hundred yards into the lower passages when the city sounded the alarm. The whole city shook as the first blasts hit, showering the three men with dust and debris.

Three ships, coming in low and fast Kitezh replied to Yuri's question, with a slight trace of panic in its voice. They're using some kind of thermal weapon, and targeting my central core

Taliesin picked himself up from where the shockwave had thrown him to the ground. 'Hellfire cannon and Firewhips, at guess. Damn it all, these are Legion vessels - what in the name of Annwn are they doing here?' Pushing the question aside for the time being, he continued: 'The underbellies are armoured, tell Uulamets to target the rear or front – dromonds were grown for ground attack, they move like a brick, and the armour is thinner around the viewports and the rear vents.'

I will, Taliesin, but you should know that these ships bear the same markings as your own.

Yuri looked askance at the bard 'So much for diplomacy,' he said acidly. 'They would not reply to our requests.'

'Elphin would never do this, there has to be some mistake.' Taliesin told him tersely.

Kastchei gave him a push in the direction of the surface. 'We'll have to find out the hard way, come on.'

They emerged into the middle of a pitched battle in the courtyard. Uulamets, with a wild grin on his face, was shouting orders to his men from behind Taliesin's dromond, which for them moment at least was relatively undamaged. Chaos reigned in the palace courtyard. Armoured legionnaires, wearing both grey and black, jumped down from the hovering dromonds, their armour glowing dully red from the levitation fields surrounding them. They were using Uulamets' troops for target practice, Taliesin thought sadly. Their superior arms and armour would make them almost invincible against their unarmoured foes.

Kastchei yanked him out of the way of a lancing red beam from the lead dromond. 'Keep your fool head down, Talya!' Behind the comparative safety of a low ornamental wall, they sheltered. Kastchei, barely audible over the noise, shouted in Taliesin's ear: 'Do you recognise the markings?'

'It looks like the crest of Kai ap Eachtar, Lord Commander to the king,' he yelled back. 'What in the name of Annwn is going on?'

Any answer the sorcerer might have made was drowned out by the lead dromond landing in the courtyard. Grey armoured knights ran out of the vessel even before the ramp hit the ground, securing the area. Yuri's men had been pushed into the outer regions of the city, and only the dead or wounded littered the ground. There were very few knights of either unit amongst the bodies that lay scattered across the courtyard. Taliesin, watching the hatch, swore under his breath as he saw an armoured figure with the golden dragons of the Supreme Commander of the Order of the Dragon emblazoned on his chest plate stride out of the ship, his head bare. His greying hair, once jet black, blown back off his face by the breeze.

The figure who walked out of the citadel, with Alianora and Vivienne, was equally familiar. With a barely audible cry, Taliesin stood up, only to be hauled back down bodily by Kastchei.

'Wait.'

They watched in silence as Vivienne was carried aboard the dromond, Alia and Mordred following.

'I have to do something,' Taliesin whispered urgently. 'Between us we could rush them – he's only got an honour guard.'           

Kastchei placed his hand on Taliesin's shoulder, then when the slighter man still resisted, slid his arm around his chest, pulling the bard closer and restraining him. 'Are you completely mad? This is not the time,' he whispered in his ear. Taliesin struggled harder against the restraint, then sagged back against Kastchei.

'He has Vivienne – you expect me to stand here and do nothing?'

Kastchei hauled him bodily around the corner, and thrust him against the wall roughly. 'If you want to live, yes.' He let Taliesin go then, and stood back, waiting to see if the bard would try again. He didn't. Instead, he slumped against the wall, long red hair falling over his face, hiding the anguish in his green eyes. 'You want to take on Kai ap Eachtar single-handed? Or Mordred?'

Taliesin bit his lip and said nothing.

'Mordred is a powerful sorcerer,' Kastchei continued, a little less confrontational. 'For all he spent so long in his mother's shadow, he's not one to be taken lightly. Just what do you hope to accomplish, taking him on? You're one man, your sorcery is minimal at best, you're competent but not expert with a sword – and he has, in addition, far too many men surrounding him already. I for one am not yet ready to die' He waited for his words to sink in, keeping his gaze fixed on the younger man. Eventually, Taliesin looked up, and pushed his hair back from his face.

'I can't just leave her to him.'

'I don't expect you to, and I don't intend to let him keep her. But you - you can't track him, you can't take him on at his own game, Talya. You're not Merlin, don't even think of trying to confront Mordred. Leave him to me.'

'Just what did you have planned?'

'I'll take the pack, and put the Hunt on his trail. The hounds will be more than a match for the warriors he has, and I should be more than a match for Pendragon's little bastard – or for that whining lap-dog Eachtar spawned.'

'Fine, I'll come with you.'

Kastchei put a restraining hand on the bard's shoulder. 'No, you won't.'

'Kastya- '

Kastchei shook his head. 'Three reasons. Firstly, the Hunt only has one Master - using them for transport is one thing, but you saw the result of your following me into the void last time. We ended up a hundred miles or more off course. Next time we might not be so lucky.'

'And secondly?'

'Are you really that eager to die, Talya? Because he'll kill you without blinking, and not even notice. He's his mother's son, and although he's a spoilt, petulant, sadistic brat, he's still very powerful.'

'I'm not without resources.' The bard's manner was defensive now, his head thrown back in defiance. 'I held you, remember?'

'You got lucky, Talya. That's all.'

'Really? Stand.'

Kastchei shook off the compulsion, but with difficulty, although he took pains not to show it. He walked around the bard, his hand moving from his shoulder to his throat, although the three steps he took were painfully slow. He felt Taliesin freeze under his grip. 'Don't ever try that on me again, Talya.' He felt the compulsion release him, and fought the urge to sag against the younger man, as if a great weight had suddenly been lifted. 'If you're that ready to die, Taliesin, fight me, I'll happily oblige. If you want to play hero, go ahead.' He stepped away from the bar until they were face to face again. 'I'd even deserve it, wouldn't I? After all, My name is cursed and feared on more worlds than you have years - and that's counting your progenitors.' He almost held his breath after he'd finished speaking, wondering if Taliesin would take up the challenge.

'You said three reasons.' Taliesin said eventually.

He had to give Taliesin credit, at least, for his recovery. Imperceptibly, Kastchei relaxed. 'Have you killed anyone in cold blood, Talya?'

'I've killed.' The reply was quietly spoken, barely audible.

'I'm not talking about in self-defence, or in the heat of battle. I'm talking about deliberate, cold-blooded murder.'

Silence.

'You can't do this, Talya.' The hand he placed on Taliesin's shoulder this time was comforting, not restraining. 'More to the point, I won't let you do it. No-one knows the cost of crossing that line better than I - there is no coming back from that. Leave the sorcerers to their own kind. I stand a better chance of stopping him leaving Skazki, and you know it. This isn't just about rescuing Vivienne, it's about killing a man before he can make his presence known to the Alliance. You're the historian, you know how much he can capitalise on his lineage. Imprison him, exile him, and you still leave him with sympathy. You've seen today just how well that's worked in his favour.

'And making a martyr of him is a better idea?'

'I'll just kill him - it's up to you to put the public relations spin on the situation.' He clapped Taliesin's shoulder, his mouth twitching into a brief half smile as he saw Taliesin's wince as he touched the still tender tissue. 'You're the bard, that's your job.'

'This isn't funny, Kastya - that's Vivienne he has. Do you really expect me to sit back and leave her fate in the hands of a man we barely know?'

Kastchei sighed theatrically. 'You know me better than you think, and yet you'll never come close to understanding me, Taliesin.' He shook his head, and for a moment Taliesin thought he saw a different emotion register in those blue-grey eyes.

Regret?

'You know,' Kastchei continued softly, 'a long time ago a man I called "friend" tried to stop me from making the biggest mistake of my life. He failed, because he lacked the strength to stop me.' As he finished speaking he wound up a massive right hook and laid Taliesin out cold. Catching the slighter man's unconscious form, he laid him gently down to the ground. 'I'm not as squeamish.' He wriggled numbed fingers and blew on his bruised fist. 'Ouch.'

'You could have just put him to sleep,' said Uulamets, behind him. Kastchei straightened, and turned.

'So I could.'

Uulamets gestured at the unconscious bard. 'What do you want me to do with him when he wakes up? He'll be as mad as the hells.'

'Sit on him until he calms down, for a start, I'm sure you'll find a use for him. You might take him with you to my Summer Palace - that nest of sorcerers needs clearing out, before they can put my cauldrons to use. He knows something of Calaitin, so he should be of some use. Anything to keep him out of my way whilst I do what needs to be done.'

'You're going after the girl and Marevna.' It was a statement, not a question.

'I'm going after Mordred, and a nest of traitors,' Kastchei said coldly.

'I'd say they were just dessert,' Uulamets said with a knowing look. 'Don't think you fool me - I know you almost as well as Yuri does, and for almost as long.'

'Motives are unimportant as long as the job gets done,' Kastchei replied coldly. 'Get me an escort to the stables, and send someone for my coat and some supplies. I'll meet them there in five minutes.'

Uulamets nodded his assent, but kept a wary eye on the sorcerer. 'He won't thank you for this, you know.'

'I know.' Kastchei looked down at Taliesin. 'But he'll thank me for her life.' With that, he was gone, leaving Uulamets to call for one of his men.

The Summer Palace

The view from the hill was breathtaking – from here Phoenix could see the city in the distance, rendered almost ethereal by the shimmer of a heat haze rising from the plain. The sky glowed a fiery orange, with the sun mid way to noon above, shining down from a cloudless sky. Underfoot, the grass was thick and luxuriantly green. The ground was slightly spongy, and there was the slight scent of wet earth in the air. Phoenix looked around in awe, never having seen a summer: the sheer variety of colours was almost overwhelming, after years of white, and grey, and black.

Then Phoenix remembered the prison cell.

'This isn't real?' Phoenix had meant it as a statement, but it sounded more like a question in his own ears. The woman beside him said nothing, but stared down into the shallow valley below, and smiled. 'You're not even supposed to be here.'

The woman turned to face Phoenix, and for a brief moment before her face held a carefully neutral expression, there was a look of intense sorrow on her face, that almost – almost – made Phoenix regret the harsh words.

'No.' she said, simply.

'I'm dreaming, aren't I?' Phoenix took another look at the orange sky, so different from the pastel blue/green of Skazki's winter. 'Volkhvy told me once that sometimes, in the dreaming, it's possible to go so far that the sky changes.'

'This is not a dream, it's a memory.' The woman smiled down at Phoenix. 'Don't you like it here? I thought this would be a pleasant setting for us to talk in – and we do need to talk, my dear.'

'You take over my spirit and my body and now you want to talk?' Phoenix snorted. 'What is there to say, Dragon? You're in my head and I can't get you out.'

'No.'

'Is that all you have to say?' Phoenix pushed long black hair off her face angrily.

'No.'

'Talkative, aren't you?' Phoenix sneered, hoping to provoke a reaction, but the woman ignored the jibe, and just stood there, quietly, long fair hair blowing behind her in a breeze Phoenix couldn't feel.

'I'm out of practice.' The woman moved away from her then, her long blue gown swishing softly across the top of the grass, dampened by the rain-drenched blades. She stood on the edge of the rise, with her back to Phoenix, staring at the city, its tall towers gleaming in the fiery sunlight. Her shadow streamed out behind her over the grass, falling on Phoenix. Its outstretched wings covered the small hilltop. 'For what it's worth, I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt you – it was instinct, nothing more - a simple desire to survive. But we are bound now, you and I, and I would not have our association begin like this.'

'Like what?'

'With anger, fear, mistrust. If we work together –' she turned and held out her hand to Phoenix – 'there's no end to the wonders I could show you.'

'Can you get me out of the cell we're in right now?' Phoenix asked. The woman looked troubled.

'Not yet. You're still fighting me. If you would let me take over for a little while…'

Never,' Phoenix snarled, suddenly sensing the trap she'd almost fallen into. 'You'd never let me back!'

Phoenix had been Volkvhy's apprentice for most of her short life, and no one lives with a shaman of the Tribes for long without learning a little of their ways. Phoenix closed her eyes and willed herself not to see the hilltop and the gleaming spired city beyond, and concentrated on her body, trapped in a holding cell inside the Palace of the Lord of Summer.

The blonde woman stood for what might have been an age, or a heartbeat, on top of the hill, staring with sad blue eyes at the place where Phoenix had stood, the grass flattened where two small feet had stood. So lost in thought was she that she didn't hear the newcomer approach until she spoke.

'So, this is what you're reduced to? A fragment of a fragment, binding yourself into another body, like a cerawyrm? How are the mighty fallen.'

The woman in blue didn't turn around. 'Lailoken. You shouldn't even be here.'

'Funny, I thought that child said the same to you.' Lailoken sniffed ostentatiously. 'You've made some dreadful choices in your life, sister, but this has to be the worst. Do you have any idea how hard it was to find you?'

'No,' the woman replied, in a voice that clearly said that she didn't care.

'Hmm. You know, I could take you out of here, you only have to ask.'

'Not without killing Phoenix.'

'One mortal child? Who'd care?'

'I would.'

She felt, rather than heard, Lailoken vanish from her conceptual boundary – the other dragon removed herself with a sharp tug that conveyed far more than words what she felt of her sister's decision. The woman in blue smiled sadly, and sighed. All that remained now was to wait, and hope. In the meantime, whilst she waited for Phoenix to come to its senses, she began the long walk to the citadel. At least wandering through the constructs of her memory would give her something to do.

Kitezh

When Taliesin came round, only the grinning face of Kitezh's Commander of Guards was in focus. He levered himself up from the cold flagstones, and ignored the hand Uulamets offered. Still grinning, the fair-haired man shrugged.

'Suit yourself.'

'Where is he?'

'Gone, these last few minutes. If you ran fast enough, you might just catch a sight of the Hunt, but I doubt it. Do you hear the wind?'

Taliesin listened, and over the constant noise and clatter of the city, and the more urgent clamour of the guard trying to clean up some of the mess left behind by the legionaries, he could just make out the sound of a storm, fading into the distance.

'He said to sit on you if you tried anything stupid - and forgive me, Taliesin, but this is my world, he is nominally our ruler now that Summer comes, so if you're planning on trying anything foolish, I really wouldn't advise it.' Uulamets fingered the powersword at his side. 'You and I have other work, if you care to take it.'

Taliesin closed his eyes briefly, wishing the pain he felt at Vivienne's abduction were as easily blotted out as the world. 'I hope he's as good as he thinks he is,' he whispered, only half to himself. Uulamets overheard.

'If you want your friend back in one piece, Taliesin ap Gwion, you'd better hope rather that he's as bad as the stories say he was.' He clapped Taliesin on the shoulder - his still tender one, as it happened.

'I'll settle for competent,' he muttered, rubbing his shoulder. 'Let me guess – he wants me to sort out the mess back at the Summer Palace for him?'

'Kastchei can want whatever he wishes. Your first problem is to tell us exactly why we should trust you. My prince will want to talk to you, harper -I suggest we go now.' His amiable expression never changed, but the unspoken threat was perfectly clear.

Taliesin brushed himself down carefully, wishing not for the first time that the colours of his order were other than black. Perhaps something that didn't show every speck of dust that it came into contact with.

'Lead on,' he said quietly. He followed Uulamet's into the kremlin, wishing, not for the first time, that he knew what was going on. And hoping that he could persuade Yuri and his ever-grinning attack dog that he didn't.

A little later, still nursing a headache, he stared indignantly at the accusing faces of Prince Yuri and Commander Uulamets.

'I keep telling you, I knew nothing about the attack until it happened. Lord Commander Kai cannot possibly be acting under the orders of Elphin of Gwynedd.'

'So you say, bard, yet you also tell us that his lordship is the High King's right hand - that he commands the units that supported Arthur, not Morgaine, during the civil wars.' Uulamets walked around Taliesin's chair until he could lean over him, one hand on the back of the chair, the other on Yuri's desk. 'Which is it to be? If he's loyal, than who has betrayed who - and to whom?'

'I have no idea,' Taliesin snapped back. More reasonably, he continued: 'Kastchei believed me.'

'Kastchei is gone, and the Hunt with him, chasing these invaders back to whatever lair they've chosen here.' Yuri leaned over his desk and stuck his finger almost under Taliesin's nose. 'And we are caught here between our own Powers and yours - a three way war is one we cannot afford.'

'Believe me, it's not one we can afford either,' Taliesin told him. He tried to resist the urge to rub the bruise on his chin where Kastchei's blow had landed. 'Elphin's reign has been relatively trouble-free, but there were always elements in Council that we've known from the start were just biding their time - they just never had another claimant to back.'

'Until now.' Yuri leaned back in his chair and steepled his hands under his chin, staring at Taliesin thoughtfully. 'Why not this Lord Kai? Surely he is of the same blood as Arthur?'

Taliesin shook his head. 'They shared a mother, nothing more. Kai's father was Eachtar, Master of the Hunt and Lord of Summer on Breceliande.'

'Here, in other words,' Yuri said. Taliesin nodded.

'Eachtar gained his position through his brief marriage to Merlin's grand-daughter, Ygraine. Arthur's claim to the throne came through Uthyr ap Emrys, his father, not from Ygraine - although there were those who claimed that Uthyr usurped the throne from Gorlois of High Tagel - that part I cannot testify to, since it formed a large part of Morgaine's claim to the throne, and all the records from that time are either gone, or come from her cynfeirdd.'

'So in other words, Mordred's claim to the throne from either side of his parentage is better than your own lord's' Yuri laughed. 'No wonder you want him stopped before he can leave Skazki.'

Taliesin winced. Yuri cut straight to the heart of the whole problem, and that without being a part of the various power plays that had been brokered behind Elphin's throne for years. It wouldn't take the Council long to start playing both sides off against the other, in a display of political horse trading that would make the interregnum of Maelgwn's rule look like a child's playtime by comparison.

Uulamets stared thoughtfully at Taliesin, who regarded the Commander evenly, recognising in him something of a kindred spirit.

'It seems to me you already have a civil war on your hands, Taliesin - and it looks as though this will be the first battleground.'

'Not if I can help it,' Taliesin said softly. He leaned forward, staring not at Uulamets, but at Yuri. 'Kastchei has gone after Mordred and Kai, and I'm assuming that he really is as good as he thinks he is, and stands a chance of stopping them from consolidating their position?'

Yuri shrugged. 'When I first knew him, I would have said yes in a heartbeat - but since we arrived here...' he let the sentence trial off, then sighed. 'Maybe. But I'm not too sure he didn't take more hurt from Alianora than he is admitting, and even without that, he'd lost much in the years we've known each other.'

'I would worry rather that he may let his desire to avenge his hurt upon Alianora Marevna get in the way of doing what he must,' Uulamets added tartly. A sharp glance passed between prince and commander, and it was the prince who backed down, a slight nod his only acknowledgement of the point. Taliesin suppressed a sudden pang of fear for Vivienne's safety, regretting again the circumstances that had left her fate in the hands of a man whose motives were so ambiguous.

'This avails us nothing,' he said quietly, letting his voice carry a strong note of urgency. 'Kastchei's' and Vivienne's... 'fate is not one we can influence, now. Can I suggest we concentrate upon the task he has left us, and decide upon the best way to re-take the Summer Palace? He was right in this respect at least - Calaitin cannot be allowed access to those cauldrons, and the cybrid technology they contain.'

Uulamets leaned over the desk and unfurled the map of the southern part of the continent.

            'It will take us about two weeks to move even a small force north, at this time of the season. The rivers are all in full flood, which means we have to stick to the highlands, and that slows us down considerably. Do we have time to reach the Summer Country before this Calaitin can bring a cauldron-born to full term?'

Yuri sat back in his chair, looking thoughtful. 'Perhaps. Kastchei is more conversant with these matters than I.'

'A skilled vat-master, with a template to work from, could bring one to term in about three weeks,' Taliesin said. 'Adding in the time needed for adapting the cybrid protocols, that might give us another week, but I don't think we have that long.'

'Explain,' Yuri commanded.

'Calaitin is a gestalt entity - their combined minds have powers no-one's ever even begun to understand. Plus they have already had about eight days to begin the work – and that leaves us a very small window of opportunity at best. The real problem is that they won't be starting from scratch. They'll cannibalise each other one by one, feeding them to the cauldrons, which means all they have to do is add in the cybrid components.'

'Sheer madness!' Yuri jabbed a finger at Taliesin angrily. 'No-one would be that desperate – it's suicide!'

'They're cauldron-born, your highness – what does it matter to them if one of their number lives or dies? As a gestalt entity, if one of their number still lives, the whole can continue. Believe me, I think they can – and will – take the risk, given the prize at stake.' Taliesin allowed a concerned note to enter his voice. 'The power of the Wild Hunt, in the hands of such a creature is something to be feared, and we have little time.'

'Then what do you suggest?' Uulamets butted in abruptly. 'We'd need the fire mares of the Baba Yaga herself to reach the Summer Country in time, and she's not likely to let us have them, even if we could find her in time.'

'We take my dromond,' Taliesin said, making it sound as though it were perfectly obvious.

'It carries – what – ten men at best if they must take supplies?' Yuri snorted. 'That's half the size of the force I would have spared, and I considered even that to be too small.'

Taliesin was fast losing patience. 'The available evidence points towards the bulk of Kai's forces being taken to Novgoren, not to the Summer Country, so it's likely the actual physical force we can expect to face is small. Our best plan is to send in a small force, and enter the palace secretly, and to take it from within. Once inside there's someone we left behind who should be able to help us, and with a little forethought, we should be able to retake the palace – or in the worst case, destroy the cauldron chamber and render it useless to Calaitin.'

'Kastchei won't like that,' Yuri told him grimly.

'Kastchei, quite frankly, can take a running jump if he doesn't like it. I've seen firsthand just how powerful Calaitin can be, and I'll be damned if I let them loose upon the Thirteen Worlds with the power the Wild Hunt could give him. If that means destroying the Hunt, I'll do it. If you're that afraid of his reaction, my lords, tell him it was my doing. I'll happily explain my reasons.' He took a deep breath to calm himself, realising he'd only just resisted letting his voice rise in anger. A little more quietly he continued: 'Now if you'll excuse me, there are some thing I need from my rooms.'

It took an effort to avoid slamming the door as he left the room.

Novgoren

Vivienne stared out of the window whilst Kai regaled Mordred with a brief précis of the events of the last thirty-five years, ostensibly taking in the view from this tenth storey window high above the streets of Novgoren. However she was finding Kai's version of events enlightening. Keeping one ear attuned to the conversation, she also tried to find a weakness in the spell that bound her wrists together. So far, Alia's incantation was proving impervious to her probing.

'Most of us had no choice but to take the oath, Grey and Black alike. Once Maelgwn was defeated, the legion was in chaos, there was no way to keep the Alliance together without some kind of compromise.'

Mordred paced the length of the room, his heels clicking rhythmic time upon the wooden floor.

'And yet you, dear uncle, are the last person I expected to see in charge of my reception, after your centuries working with the rebel cause,' he purred. Kai laughed.

'Do you really think blood counted for so little? Whilst Arthur lived, yes, I was loyal to my brother, and I never made any secret that I had little love for Morgaine in the early years of her reign.'

'I hardly call leading at least two rebellions against her "little love",' Mordred retorted. 'Yet I often wondered why she never killed you outright, instead of banishing you as she did.'

'Politics, and blood,' Kai said. He poured himself another glass of chilled wine. 'We made our peace a long time ago, but she thought it more prudent to ask me to keep my association with the rebellion - as such, she would always be one step ahead of the resistance.'

'She never told me any of this,' Mordred said sulkily. Vivienne stifled a laugh at his petulant tone, but he heard her and strode over to her window seat. 'You find this amusing?'

'I find it amusing that the feared Mordred, destroyer of a hundred - '

'Thousand.'

'-worlds: the Bane of Kestria, the Despoiler of Lyonce, is nothing more than a spoilt child, still wondering why mummy wouldn't let him play with the big boys,' she taunted. It earned her a slap across her face, that sent her reeling from her seat.

'Enough, Gareth,' Kai said sharply, as Mordred raised his hand to hit her again. 'Play with her later, if you must. You- ' he pointed to Vivienne, 'should learn to keep your mouth shut, lady. But then, like your partner, that's not really your forté, is it?'

'You said her lover is one of the Raven Bards?' Mordred turned his attention back to Kai.

'Their leader, for what little it is worth. There are only a handful of them, few enough to go around, and more than one is recruited from our own order of the owl - including Taliesin's second.'

'Marius of Rheged, I believe you said?' Mordred laughed. 'I remember him at court when he was a journeyman. How far has he turned to their cause?'

'Unknown, but all avenues will be tested before we strike,' Kai said evenly.

'And this one?' Mordred pulled Vivienne to her feet. 'What is she?'

'One of Elphin's intelligence operatives, but of little consequence, except as a lever to keep the bard in line. I've never known her to make a move without Taliesin's say so, have I, little one?'

'Take a running jump out of an airlock, Kai,' Vivienne snarled.

'Spirited,' Mordred said. He ran a hand down her face, and then over her throat and breast. She struggled but couldn't break free. 'How long do you think it would take to break her?'

'Not long enough to be worth my money,' Kai said. 'I wouldn't waste your time on this little doll. It's the bard who needs stopping.'

'Ah yes.' Mordred released Vivienne and she backed away from him quickly, but with as much dignity as she could muster. 'Merlin's revenant, you say?'

'So the story goes. Elphin was never very forthcoming about how they met, and Taliesin never talks about his origins. However he's shown knowledge of events that only Merlin could have known.'

'Or Gwion,' Mordred reminded him. 'That cauldron-born carrion - he caused us more trouble than his progenitor ever did.' He turned his back on both prisoner and commander and stared out of the window, his arms behind his back. 'You know, Breceliande looks so different - I'd never have recognised the place.'

'That's one reason it took us so long to locate it - the orbit was changed some time ago, with disastrous effect, in addition to which, someone has made serious alterations to the planet's timeline whilst it was out of touch with the rest of the worlds.'

'Anything of interest?' Mordred asked, turning his attention back to his uncle. Kai shrugged.

'Ask Calaitin, I'm no expert. They think the Master of the Hunt holds the key.'

'You should know,' Mordred said softly. 'Eachtar was your father, you were born on this world...'

'Eachtar passed me over as his successor, in favour of Cernan,' Kai snarled. He flung his goblet at the wall, where it clanged hollowly and fell to the floor with a metallic clatter. 'My knowledge of Hunt lore is no better than yours, and this new Master has made changes none of us could have predicted. That's why we tried to have him removed from the picture before we retrieved you.'

'You failed,' Mordred said coldly.

'Yes.'

'With him gone would Breceliande revert back to its natural state?'

'According to Calaitin, yes, eventually – although we would have a window of opportunity, assuming the bards can be persuaded to manipulate the situation to our advantage before its history solidified into its old patterns.'

'Then under the circumstances it might be for the best if he lives a while longer, yes? The longer history remains in flux here, the better our chances.'

'Dangerous, Gareth, this Kastchei is growing more powerful by the day as Summer returns - and even now, they say the only way to kill him is through the dragon that keeps his soul. No. I want him dead, the Hunt in my hands, and this planet secured in our corner of the web, as soon as possible.'

Vivienne turned away from watching the two men, to hide a small smile. They didn't know Kastchei was mortal again, but then again, they didn't know his bond to the dragon no longer existed. Perhaps there was still a chance.

She cried out in pain as Mordred seized her arm. 'Someone finds this amusing? Alianora said you were there when she tried to attack the sorcerer through the dragon - perhaps you know something of his weaknesses?'

'Not a thing, he's not the most forthcoming of men,' she said defiantly.

'Really. Then it won't matter if we discuss this further, will it, my lady?' He placed a hand upon her forehead and she screamed as she felt his mind lash out and touch hers, seeking a way in through hastily erected defences.

'Gareth-'

'If you're squeamish, Kai, leave now. I leave the military campaigns to you, but sorcery is my demesne, and I must know my enemy.' He smiled coldly down at Vivienne, held rigidly in his coercive grip, her body straining to resist his power. 'After that, however, I intend to have a little fun.'

'Gareth, we need her alive as a hostage, at the very least.'

'Don't worry, uncle, I won't kill her.'

'Then what do you intend?'

Mordred turned and smiled at Kai, a predatory grin that made even Kastchei's most feral smile seem tame by comparison. 'Uncle, I've been locked up in an all male prison for thirty five years, why don't you work it out?'

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 8

Novgoren

Kastchei brought the Hunt out of the void a safe distance away from Novgoren. Here, in the heart of the Queen of Winter's lands, snow still lay heavily upon the frozen ground, slowing his beasts down to a fraction of their speed, as they waded through snow that was belly high to the hounds and well over knee high to high-stepping Sivushka. The cybrorse grunted as his hooves broke through the crisp surface again, and he stumbled as he floundered for his footing, unable to feel solid ground immediately. Kastchei patted the albino's neck with a black-gloved hand, and soothed him. Only when they reached the better footing offered by a rocky hillside did he feel more at ease, as the slopes had only a thin covering of the icy snow. Slipping and sliding, Sivushka bounded to the summit, arriving out of breath, the pack milling around at his feet, tongues lolling out of the corners of their mouths as they panted.

The hill offered an unobstructed view of the city below, which filled the entire plain of the valley floor. Behind a meandering wall, wide streets encircled the palace that lay at the city's heart - although unlike Kitezh, Novgoren's was not a heart that beat: no caer, Novgoren, to answer the summons of its mistress - but stronghold enough, even without that advantage.

Especially, he noted, with three combat dromonds squatting in what in summer days would have been a green park near the palace. But then, he had never intended to enter the city by force of arms.

With a sharp word of command, he sent the pack away, watching them melt into the snow like ghosts, only the glow of their red eyes, or the flicker of a red lined ear giving away their position. He patted Sivushka on the neck and reached forward to pull and rub one flickering ear. 'Just you and I, this time, old boy.'

The stallion stamped a hoof impatiently and snorted.

'Yeah, that makes two of us.' Kastchei looked down at the dark green coat he wore, and ran a hand over the fabric, muttering under his breath. The dark fabric turned even darker, a black shadow spreading out from the place his hand had been, until the coat was jet black. A similar process changed the cream and gold theme of the rest of his clothing to stark black and white. Looking down at the end result, he grimaced distastefully, hating black.

'Yes, I know,' he answered the cybrorse's unspoken comment, 'but sometimes you have to look the part.' Sivushka snorted heavily, almost unseating his master. 'Be thankful I don't give you the same make-over, Sivka.' He clicked his tongue, and the stallion picked his way carefully down the hillside, towards the city below.

Novgoren was an orderly city. Unlike the ramshackle layers that had grown up around Kitezh as the city had grown out from the sentient heart of the kremlin over the centuries until it resembled a nacreous extrusion onto the estuary below the fortress, in Novgoren well tended suburbs gradually gave way to the bustling thoroughfares of the commercial and industrial districts. Each area, as a traveller would notice as he proceeded from one concentric ring to the next, was meticulously planned and built, although still with that peculiarly Skazkian habit of building anywhere within an allocated plot of land. As sparsely populated as the planet was, there was little need for fortification, and so the city had a far more open look about it. Here and there, in defiance of the lingering winter, were patches of open parkland; green grasses forming a shimmering haze peeking out between the buildings, diffused by the faint refraction of the spells used to keep the temperature within to a more moderate level. On the plains beyond the city, from certain vantage points, the same diffuse smudges gave verdant testimony to the existence of the farms that fed the city, maintained purely by the largesse of the Queen of Winter.

Or rather: from her consort, the Lord of Summer. For these were Summer magicks, not Winter. Custom only dictated that the cities should look to their Queen in Winter, and she in turn ask the aid of the Lord.

Whatever her nominal allegiance, Marya Alexandrovna, chatelaine of Novgoren, was well aware to whom she owed her carefully protected fields and orchards. Which was why, when her guards told her that Kastchei Bes-Mertny had come a-calling, she hurried down to the courtyard to greet him in person, without informing her Queen or her guests of the fact first. Always, always, there must be self-interest above all other things.

The knights, now wearing uniforms rather than armour, took little notice of yet another native visitor here on business with the city's ruler. Kastchei's eyes swept over the company with ill concealed disdain as they lounged against walls talking and rubbing their hands together to keep warm in the unaccustomed cold. Kai's men were complacent, after their easy assault upon Kitezh. He only saw one give him more than a cursory glance as he strode past, and even he turned away again, bored, at the sight of what was obviously just another courier with a message for the chatelaine or her guests. He added weak-minded to the list as he turned the corner; the man's mind had been as easy to influence as a child's, a simple application of will enough to send him back to his post, certain that he had seen nothing and no-one of import.

Kastchei smiled to himself, remembering how long it had been since he'd toyed with such skills. Once learned, never forgotten. A momentary diversion, however - walking into the wolf's lair as he was, focus was all important, as was the need to avoid magic at all costs: Mordred's talents were considerable, if ill-disciplined, and Kai ap Eachtar had never been a pushover. From this point on, there could be no mistakes.

He ignored the nagging thought at the back of his mind that suggested that this should possibly have been a better job for Taliesin - for all his recklessness the bard was a diplomat, and moreover more familiar with at least one of the men involved. But to examine that thought too closely might lead him to conclusions he really didn't want to make.

Inwardly pondering the known variables, outwardly as impassive as only a thousand years or more of experience could have made him, he made his way to Marya's reception room

The Summer Palace

Most of the prisoners had been taken from the cell by now. Only Phoenix and two of the palace guard remained, and of those three, only Phoenix was relatively unharmed. Both guards were injured, one of them unconscious since they had been placed here, and drifting deeper into a sleep that Phoenix recognised would be final, unless he was treated soon.

Which wasn't likely, under the circumstances. The other was badly burned, and conscious, but not particularly lucid. She huddled next to her comrade and refused to move, cradling a burned arm and staring fixedly at the door through which, one by one, all of their fellows had vanished. She glanced over at Phoenix from time to time, but said nothing. Phoenix, too wrapped up in his own problems, didn't offer to help.

The dreams had been getting worse. From the time Phoenix had stood in the tower room, and felt the alien presence of the dragon tear into his mind and take possession, there had been a sense of no longer being fully in control of body or mind. But the dreams had been largely confined to sleep. Now they were taking place when Phoenix was awake, and they were getting stronger.

Phoenix was afraid. The last dream had been so vivid, standing next to the woman in blue, on top of that hill in a place where the sky changed colour. It had seemed...

Real. More real than even the prison cell Phoenix was currently confined in. Phoenix took a deep breath, and let it out again slowly. The female guard turned to look, briefly, then turned her attention back to her own pain.

Phoenix lifted an arm so that it caught the light that streamed in from the grilled window above and behind it, and stared at it. His/Her own arm; small, pale, slim, human.

The shadow it cast on the wall was large, and leather-winged. Phoenix lowered the arm again and tried to fight off the shaking that threatened to tear his frame apart. Phoenix wrapped his arms around his knees, and tried to will himself to stillness.

It wasn't working.

 

Novgoren

Vivienne had grown out of the "wait around to be rescued" stage long before she'd taken the fateful steps into this new life. Not that she'd ever really gone through it as such - she'd always put it down to being rescued before she could effect her own escapes. It was all in the timing. Which was why as soon as Mordred dragged her into the suite of rooms he'd taken for himself, and dismissed his guard, she promptly twisted herself free of his grip, speared him in the throat with her hand, kicked him as hard as she could in his more vulnerable parts, and high-tailed it out of the room and down the corridor before he'd hit the ground gasping for breath curled around his own pain. By the time his guards had made their way back to his rooms, she'd already got herself well and truly lost in the maze of corridors that made up this wing of the palace, and was trying to find a staircase leading down.

Instead, she found herself back where she'd started, in a side corridor just outside the room Kai and Mordred had taken her to when they'd arrived. A small, plain service door was slightly ajar, and she froze just before passing it, listening carefully before committing herself to walking past it. From inside the room, she could hear Kai's voice, and she edged closer to hear more clearly.

'Just do the job you were asked to do at your end, leave Breceliande to me,' Kai snapped. Vivienne grinned, hearing the edge in the Lord Commander's voice: Kai wasn't the most subtle of men, and someone was obviously not following the script - which boded well.

'Don't tell me how to do my job, Commander.'

The voice was male, and sounded familiar, although Vivienne couldn't quite pin it down. The sound was distorted as well, which didn't help matters. She didn't dare take a peek around the door, but she assumed the speaker was on a long range communicator. 'Breceliande must be secured, and the Powers that rule it destroyed. Take the Wild Hunt for your own if you must, but whilst any of the ruling Powers live, the planet - and the Tree - are protected. If the Alliance is to be taken as a whole, Breceliande must be brought back into the web under our control, not theirs.'

She did know that voice. But who? Who?

'The planet is only just coming out of its winter season - there's only one population centre to be wary of, and we can take that any time we wish. It has one sessile caer with a handful of defenders. As to the Powers - Alianora Marevna is already with us, and I can bring the Master of the Hunt to heel in short order.'

Vivienne had to bite back a derisory snort at that.

'I wouldn't be too sure of that, Commander. There's a power in names and he bears an old one - be sure you take him and finish him before he comes into his power as Lord of Summer. Whilst he lives, we will never be able to manipulate this world. His death will free Breceliande's history and make it malleable.'

That made Vivienne prick her ears up. A bard? But if so, who? Which one of them was allied to the enemy? She tried to match the voice to a name, but couldn't. The distortion was subtle, but enough that without a face, she couldn't put a name to the voice.

'...mystical claptrap. Words cannot change the past, history is immutable.'

The other voice laughed. 'Have it your own way, Kai. Just finish it quickly, and bring Mordred to us. We will do the rest.'

She heard the sound of the connection being severed - a bright ringing bell-like tone. Then the sound of armoured feet striding across the room, the sound of a door opening and shutting again, then silence. She finally dared to take a deep breath and let it out, and risked a quick look around the door. The room was empty, so she decided to look around.

The scryer was resting on a velvet cushion on the desk that occupied the far end of the room, underneath a large arras showing the defeat of Arthur's fleet at the Battle of Camlann. The fiery trail of Prydwen's fall through the atmosphere was coming unravelled, ironically making the ragged flames seem more realistic. She yanked idly at a trailing thread and winced as a good three inches of fabric unravelled further, leaving a bald patch on the canvas. She hastily stuffed the thread into her pocket and turned her attention back to the crystal ball on the desk. If it wasn't too heavily protected, she could use it to contact Elphin.

She passed her hand over the globe, and smiled triumphantly as the clear glass misted over, a sweeping array of colour swirling on the heart of the globe. Hastily, she ran her fingers over the changing patterns, trying to key it to her personal codes. Slowly, far too slowly, the random, shifting display began to settle into a recognisable pattern, and then to clear, as the channel with the great ball held in the depths of Caer Tagel was established. She only hoped that whoever was on duty was one of Elphin's people, not one of the traitors.

'Take your hands away from that, and stand up.'

She'd been so engrossed in trying to bring the ball online, she hadn't heard anyone enter the room, and cursed herself roundly as she straightened. Mordred stood in the doorway, looking a little pale. However the hellfire pistol he trained on her didn't waver an inch.

'Don't I get even one phone call?' she asked, with as much bravado as she could muster.

'Wrong dimension my dear,' he drawled. 'Now step away from the desk, and put your hands on the wall.'

She did as she was told, keeping her attention on every sound he made as he walked over to her. This time, however, he was ready for her; the muzzle of the pistol was pressed hard against the back of her neck, and he kept well clear of her feet. 'I wouldn't recommend trying that trick again, my lady,' he said softly. His voice had a quality to it that made her skin crawl, and she couldn't put it all down to knowing the stories that were told about him in certain parts of the Thirteen Worlds. She pulled away from him, very slightly, and was rewarded with a backhanded blow to her head that sent her reeling. Before she could pick herself up, he'd hauled her up, and hit her again, this time a blow to the stomach with the butt of the pistol. Whilst she tried to get her breath back, he pulled her close and placed the barrel of the gun against her cheek. 'Never defy me again, lady.' He smiled down at her, cruelly. 'Please me, however, and I might at least let you live.'

'Go to hell.' She spat into his face, and received another stinging blow for her pains. Already she could feel her cheek swelling, and a trickle of blood ran from a cut at the corner of her eye.

'After you, my dear,' he whispered coldly. 'You'll beg me to kill you by the time I'm through.' He held her small wrists with one hand, and tore her shirt from her shoulder with the other.

'The raven bards were right about you - you're not very original, or even remotely interesting, are you?' she whispered, struggling to get the words out as she tried to fight his grip. He raised a hand to her again, and she held her head up, defying him to hit her. He lowered the hand instead, stroking her cheek as she stared defiantly.

'We shall see.' His hand closed upon her throat, and his blue eyes blazed coldly. She was caught, trapped by his mind, which slid over her mind like liquid ice, invading her every thought so completely that she could do nothing but watch helplessly as he kissed her savagely; unable to move, to fight, or even to scream.

           

Kastchei waited patiently in the ante-room, once he'd told the seneschal to bring Marya to him. There was, after all, little profit in an overt display of impatience, regardless of the turmoil that raged behind his carefully studied demeanour. He stood looking out of the third-floor window, a view that overlooked the city, and clasped his hands behind his back. An old habit, one he'd thought he'd lost long ago. A measure, and the only outward sign, of his fears.

Once, long ago, he would have denied that he could feel such emotions: they ill-became the monster he'd created from the wreckage of an even earlier life. Fear for another, uncertainty as to his motives - they'd had no place in his world. Some things, he reflected mentally, do not change for the best.

It was a gut-reaction, an instinctive denial that he knew to be false as soon as it was imagined. The one person he'd never been able to fool was himself, after all.

'Lord Kastchei?' Marya's voice, a little sharp, suggesting that she'd had to repeat herself before he'd heard her. He brought himself back to the moment, inwardly cursing the lapse, and hoping it had gone un-noticed.

'Lady Marya.' His bow was deep, but not showy. He took her hand and raised it to his lips, noting her pleased response to the old-fashioned greeting. He raised his eyes until they looked deep into hers, and it was then a simple matter to take her will in his.

He'd forgotten how easy it was. The chatelaine didn't fight him at all, but just stood there, relaxed and unafraid, waiting patiently for him to command her.

'Sit down Lady Marya – we should be civilised about this, don't you think?' He led her over a plump, overly upholstered chair near the window, and sat her down, taking his place in a high backed chair opposite. He let his hands rest lightly on the smooth ivory arms, fingering the time-worn carvings surreptitiously. The chair, like the city, dated back perhaps to the time of Merlin and Arthur, and the shallow intaglia depicted sinuous dragons, entwined around a rose vine: symbols of different days. 'I wish to speak with Lord Commander Kai ap Eachtar, and with his Grace, Gareth ap Arthur, Duke of Orcadia. You will arrange this?'

Marya nodded, but then, she could hardly refuse him. 'As you command, Lord Kastchei. What of Queen Alianora?'

The question was unexpected, given her controlled state, and for a moment he thought she was somehow circumventing his suggestion in some way. Yet her expression remained innocent, and somewhat vapid. He berated himself inwardly for allowing the woman too much intelligence: even free of compulsion, she had never been that perceptive.

'Tell her nothing.' He thought quickly, and added: 'and make sure she is not made aware either of this meeting, or of the fact that I am here. Do you understand?'

'Yes, My lord.'

'Now, where are they keeping the woman, Vivienne of Avallion?'

'The prince has held her in his rooms since she tried to escape this morning. He's in the west wing, on this floor.'

'I know the suite,' he nodded. Easily defended, and out of earshot of the main body of the palace. He'd have picked the same rooms himself under similar circumstances, if never for the same purpose. 'Lord Kai?'

'He remained in the barracks, with his men.'

Kastchei nodded to himself. It made sense, but it also smacked of some manoeuvring on Kai's part. Despite ap Eachtar's apparent support of his nephew, what he remembered of the relationship between the two suggested that Kai would prefer to keep at least one eye on Mordred, and keep himself suitably distanced from any trouble, whilst appearing to be within reach. He stared over Marya's shoulder absently, playing through the possible variables. He discarded any hope of Kai being accessible to turning openly against Mordred – his presence here already negated that. And Mordred already knew Kastchei, albeit under a different name – something he'd elected to keep from Taliesin, but which might yet bring his tentative plan to nothing, if he made a single error.

'My Lord?' Marya's voice interrupted his thoughts, and brought him back to the present with a jolt. 'Shall I send for their lordships?'

'Yes. No – fetch them yourself. And make sure they bring the woman, Vivienne. If they ask why, tell them that I expressly told you that I had no intention of explaining myself to you when you asked me the same question.'

She rose gracefully from the chair and bowed. 'As you command.' She exited the room with a minimalist elegance and a casual sweep of her satin skirts. Kastchei smiled to himself, recognising Alia's influence in her lackey, even under his coercion. He sat back in the chair, hands steepled under his chin, and stared at the door, deep in thought. Very briefly, he considered using the Sight to probe the palace for Vivienne, but forced the temptation aside. He could afford no detectable display of power here, with both Alia and Mordred easily capable of detecting it. This exercise required different disciplines, and a resolve he'd not had to test for centuries.

Unbidden, his hands drifted back to the arms of the chair, and his fingers began to drum lightly on the wood.

 

Kitezh.

Taliesin slammed the door of his room almost without thinking, only realising when Cafall raised his head from between his paw and woofed at him, annoyed at being disturbed. Tal took his coat off and threw it onto the bed before calling the beast over. It padded towards him, claws clicking on the hardwood floor, and sat at his feet once he'd sat down on the edge of the bed, its head resting on his knee. Its demonic red eyes stared up into his face, and despite their fiery glare, still managed to look mournful. He rubbed its head absently, then gave it a hard pat on the shoulder.

'You miss her as well, I suppose?' The hound whined, and its whiplike tail lashed against his ankle. 'I know, so do I.' He lifted the hound's chin up so that he could stare more closely into those red eyes, sensing, even in this immature creature, the intelligence behind them, wondering not for the first time just how much tinkering Kastchei had done to the breed. He sighed heavily and patted the hound again.

He fell backwards onto the bed, and stared up at the ceiling, feeling that events had spiralled totally out of control in the last few months. If he hadn't talked Vivienne into tracking down Delbâeth. If he hadn't persuaded Elphin that he had to be the one to make the trip to Brecelinade. If he hadn't dragged Vivienne along with him. If. If. If…

I'm a teller of tales, not a hero within them… Hadn't those been his own angry words to Maelgwn, fifteen years ago? And yet time and time again he'd let himself get caught up in adventure after adventure, telling himself that it was his duty, that he couldn't just sit back and let others do his fighting for him. That path had led here, to Breceliande; to Vivienne taken by Mordred. To the certainty of another civil war if he didn't stop Mordred and Kai here, and now.

He'd come seeking a dragon, and found only trouble, and now for the first time in years he felt paralysed, too numb to think straight, and he couldn't put it all down to the throbbing headache left over from Kastchei's punch. Which, the inner voice said bluntly, you have to admit you had coming. He was right, you couldn't take them on by yourself...

Except that Calaitin was an equally formidable enemy, currently holed up in a place Kastchei knew inside out and backwards, where the sorcerer would surely have had the advantage. Yet he'd insisted on going after Mordred and Kai instead, against foes Taliesin's talents and knowledge gave him the advantage over.

He wants Alianora...

The hound whined, and placed its heavy head on Taliesin's arm where it lay by his side.

'I hope you know what you're doing, Kastya,' he whispered. In the corner of the room, Leannan's strings thrummed with an insistent summons, which he resisted. The siren lure of the harp was strong, but this time, he wasn't sure he wanted to know for certain. What was set in motion was done, nothing he could do now would change anything. 'We should have gone together,' he said aloud, and heard the answering note from Leannan's heart-string that affirmed, even without a vision, a resounding yes.

Novgoren

After Marya bowed low and left the room, Mordred turned angrily upon his uncle.

'This upstart dragon-born dares to walk in here and demand an audience, as though he rules this place?'

Kai's response was rather more laconic. 'Technically, he does - now that the thaw has begun, he is the Lord of the Summer Country, and we are on his planet, after all.' He paused, thoughtful. 'Coming here like this, alone, he must be either supremely confident, or a fool.'

'I say you send half a dozen knights in to take care of the problem once and for all,' Mordred snapped. 'Enough of this plotting and intriguing - perhaps it is time we kill both the Queen of Winter, and the Lord of Summer, and take this planet now. Kitezh poses little threat, we can bring them to their knees in a matter of hours, if we strike now.'

Kai sighed. 'Gareth, Gareth - patience. Intelligence wins wars, not mere force of arms. If he's walked in here alone, he must know he can walk out, unless he's totally unhinged. I want to know what he wants, and what he knows - you can stay here if you like, and play with your new pet whilst it lasts.'

'You're playing the game by his rules,' Mordred said testily.

'Stay, or follow as you wish, Gareth - it matters not. Until we reach Gwynedd, I'm in charge. You may do as you wish.' Kai reached for his black cloak and swung it around his shoulders, fastening the dragon brooch at his throat. Without looking back, he called out: 'Bring Lady Vivienne with you - we might as well be civilised about this.'

'She's a little the worse for wear,' Mordred said sulkily. Kai shrugged.

'Well we'll just have to hope that her well-being means enough to him to throw him off his game, won't we? Fetch her.' He strode out of the room without checking to see if he was obeyed.

           

The Summer Palace.

Vat-Master Timofei paced the length of the cell that held only himself and Phoenix, the young female guard having been removed several hours ago. The latter sat in the furthest corner, oblivious to his peripatetic wandering across the width of their prison. Since he'd been returned to these meagre quarters to be allowed to rest before the druids called upon his services again, the boy hadn't moved.

The child had unnerved him from the start – the Northern Tribes had little love for the civilised folk of plain and coast, and the feeling was mutual. They were reputed to resort to cannibalism, or so his grandmother had told him as a child. They had strange powers and could turn into beasts at will, as well as speak with them as though they were human. From the moment he'd seen the young boy-girl that had arrived with his master and the bard, he'd believed those tales for the first time in years. There was an otherworldly aura around the boy (he'd settled on thinking of the creature as male – it saved him from some unthinkable questions…) that made him think that perhaps his baba had known more than he'd realised. It wasn't the child's physical "attributes" – they at least weren't too obvious. It was the way that sometimes, when he looked into those blue eyes, he had the sense that something not even remotely human moved behind them.

And then there was the shadow.

It crawled across the straw-strewn flagstones of the floor, flickering in the meagre light thrown by the oil lamps in the room. It curled around the walls, as though too large for the room that held it, straining upwards towards the low ceiling, leaving the vat-master with a sense of growing claustrophobia, as though the room were shrinking – or becoming too crowded. The air felt thicker where the shadow fell, as though something filled it. Timofei kept to the farthest edge of the room, as far away from it as he could get, and paced. One two three four, turn. One two three four turn. Occasionally he brushed past the edge of it, and shivered, although there was nothing to touch. Only shadow.

The shadow of a dragon.

Trying to stay awake was impossible, and as soon as her eyelids closed again, Phoenix was standing again on top of the grassy hill, staring down at the city in the distance. Alone at first, Phoenix breathed a sigh of relief, only for it to turn into a sharp intake of breath as the woman in blue appeared at her side.

'They will come for you soon,' the woman said softly. Her voice was like the chiming of small bells, and echoed slightly in the still air. 'When they find out what we are, they will tear you apart to get to me.'

'Then leave,' Phoenix told her sharply. 'I never wanted this.'

'Didn't you?' The woman smiled sadly. 'When Alianora began her ritual, you stepped in to try and save me. When Kastchei gave back almost everything I gave him in order to stop her, you offered me the spur I clung to. It was your mind that reached out for what was left of me, not his.'

'I didn't know what would happen!' Phoenix's cry was full of anger and sorrow, and not a little self pity.

'Didn't you?' The woman looked Phoenix in the eye. 'All of your life you've been an outsider, never truly fitting in. Different.'

'Human' Phoenix retorted. The woman inclined her head in acknowledgement.

'Perhaps.' She reached out her hand. 'No longer, however. If you'd trust me I could show you worlds you've never even dreamed of.'

'I like this one.'

'Narrow, parochial, restraining. Together we could see so much more.'

Phoenix ignored her, and began walking down the hill towards the city. 'I don't like the price.'

The woman stood for a long time watching Phoenix recede into the distance, before shaking her head sadly. 'It's a little late to complain about the price when you've already bought the goods,' she muttered under her breath. 'Humans. What on earth do I see in them?'

The only man who might have been able to give her an answer, however, was long gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Chapter 9

Novgoren.

Vivienne stumbled as Mordred pulled her roughly to a standstill outside a large wooden door, almost bumping into Kai's armoured back. With her hands bound in front of her, she couldn't reach out to keep her balance, and only Mordred's hand gripping her arm stopped her from falling.

'No "thank you"?' he whispered into her ear. She tried to pull away from him, but lacked the strength. She tried not to flinch as his hand brushed her hair.

'Leave her, Gareth,' Kai snapped. 'You've marked her enough already.'

It was funny, she thought, that she didn't feel anything. She just felt numb, physically and mentally. The horror, pain and shame of the last few hours didn't belong to her, but to someone else. Part of her kept thinking she should be screaming, or crying, anything but this dull calm, a sense of being a stranger looking out through her own eyes, feeling nothing.

Except for this: it hurt to walk.

The chatelaine walked past them, opened the doors and stepped through. 'Lord Commander Kai ap Eachtar, and Prince Gareth ap Arthur, as you requested, my Lord.' Vivienne heard her say. Marya bowed gracefully, and moved aside to let the two knights and their prisoner walk past her. She bowed again and shut the door behind them. Mordred and Kai strode into the room, Mordred keeping his grip on her arm. When she saw who was sitting in the chair at the far end of the room, some of the false calm began to lift. She couldn't help the small sigh of relief that escaped her as she looked into Kastchei's eyes - or the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach seconds later as his cold gaze passed over her as though she wasn't there.

'Lord Commander.' He nodded a greeting to Kai. 'Mordred.'

'You!' Mordred let go of Vivienne's arm and went for his sword. 'If I'd known it was you, I would have insisted on seeing your head before I set foot back in this world.'

Vivienne moved out of the way quietly as Kai turned to his nephew.

'You know this man?'

'Not by the name he uses here. But surely you recognise him - ' he paused. 'No, wait, you were in exile during that rebellion.' He turned back to Kastchei. 'Accolon of Galicia, you called yourself then, I believe?'

Kastchei's smile was as cold as the Glass Mountains. 'For a time.'

Vivienne knew that name: Morgaine's lover, who'd come so close to destroying her; the rebellion he'd raised had left sixteen planets in ruins, when Morgaine was through with them.

'I've used many names,' he said softly, coldly. 'Admittedly most of them meant the same thing, in different languages, but there is a power in names, or so I'm told.' Still ignoring Vivienne he stood up and walked over to Mordred, who held his ground, but kept one hand on his sword hilt. 'There's one you might find familiar, given the world you've just left.' Standing at Mordred's side, he leaned towards him and whispered a name into his ear. Mordred turned a ghastly shade of white. At his unspoken question, Kastchei nodded. Mordred removed his hand from his sword hilt.

'Better,' Kastchei said dryly. He sat back down. 'Now, perhaps we can discuss this unfortunate business?'

'Discussion?' Kai looked incredulous. 'We tried to have you killed, and yet you walk in here, seemingly unarmed, with no forces behind you. What trickery is this? We already know from Alianora that you side with the Chief Bard...'

'I've sided with no-one but myself,' Kastchei told him. 'I'm sure both Alianora and your nephew can confirm that my reputation for self-interest precedes me.' He turned his attention to Vivienne then. 'This one as well can tell you just how little my words are to be trusted.'

Vivienne tried to catch his eye, searching for any sign that he was playing some game of which she was unaware, but he had already turned away.

'The Queen of Winter tells us that your fabled invulnerability is not what it used to be,' Mordred said. He eyed Kastchei up and down. 'You do look a little different, it must be said, although I can't quite place what it is. But then, it has been several hundred years.'

Vivienne watched as Kastchei stood up smoothly, and gestured for Mordred to come closer. The inky black coat he now wore combined with his expressionless face made him seem so chillingly remote that she shivered. There was nothing showing in his face, his manner, his voice or his eyes of the Kastchei she knew.

'Do you have a dagger?' he asked. Mordred produced one from a belt heath. Kastchei smiled, cold and predatory. 'Then strike,' he told Mordred.

Mordred hesitated, just for a moment, and stared into Kastchei's eyes. Then he thrust the blade through Kastchei's coat, up to the hilt, and pulled it free.

'Ouch,' Kastchei said, without a trace of emotion in his voice. His eyes flickered over to Vivienne as he spoke, and this time, for a brief second, she thought she saw something familiar in them. By the time he had turned his attention back to the two men in front of him, it was gone, but she was starting to piece a few things together. She hoped. With both of her captors focussed on Kastchei, she began to work on the rope Mordred had tied her wrists with, trying to get a little slack.

'Now that we have that little myth out of the way, why don't we get down to business? You have something I want.'

'This?' Mordred sneered, giving Vivienne a shove in the small of the back, so that she fell awkwardly to the floor, unable to stop herself. She struggled to sit upright, and from her vantage point, could see Kastchei's face clearly.

He never even looked at her.

'What I want is Alianora Marevna,' he said coldly. 'I do not take kindly to being betrayed.'

Vivienne, still on the floor, shivered at the sound of his voice. There was death in it, and something else – something she couldn't quite identify. What the hell are you playing at? She asked silently.

'And this one?' Mordred asked. 'Alianora tells us you have some fondness for her. Perhaps you are not as disinterested as you claim.' He pulled Vivienne to her feet and placed the knife at her throat. 'I could kill her now, in front of you – would you stop me?' Vivienne felt the blade brush her throat and shot Kastchei a pleading look

Kastchei shrugged. 'Try it and see.'

As Vivienne gasped in shock at his response, it was Kai who placed a hand upon Mordred's wrist, pulling the blade away from her throat.

'No. I have a different idea.' He took the knife from Mordred and threw it to Kastchei, who caught it by the hilt. 'Call it a test. You kill her.'

Kastchei didn't say a word, just rose to his feet and walked over to her. Both men moved aside to let him past, and left Vivienne standing alone in the centre of the room. He walked towards her with a terrible, blank expression on his face, his blue-grey eyes darkened to a stormy darker grey, almost as black as his coat.

His coat…

He never wore black, except occasionally a shirt, or his gloves. She remembered him only a few weeks ago teasing Tal for wearing black, commenting on it being the colour of choice for villains. "It doesn't suit me," he'd quipped back in reply to Tal's jibe about it therefore being better suited to him. "It stands for something I no longer want any part of." He'd added later, to her, in private. "Something I never want to be again."

From the coat, her eyes flickered up to his face, questioning. Point of no return: to trust, or not.

How little my words are to be trusted…

She held her head high, and stretched her bound hands out in front of her, as though to ward him off, and heard Mordred's thin chuckle behind her. Kastchei stopped in front of her, hefted the blade into a better position in his hands, and she tried not to flinch as it flashed down…

…and the world went black.

 

Kitezh.

Yuri pushed the day's reports away from him with a heavy sigh. Couriers were still arriving almost hourly with additional tales of attacks on outlying estates and townships along the coast, but the pattern was so far meaningless. Commander Kai seemed to be following no particular plan that he could determine, at least.

He seeks to distract you, to keep you off balance.

'Since when did you become an expert on human strategy?' Yuri asked, more amused than annoyed at the interruption.

I'm not, Taliesin told me. He says Kai is noted for his unpredictability in battle. A pause. He's waiting outside to see you.

'Let him wait a while,' Yuri snapped, rather half-heartedly. 'Right now I'm not in the mood.'

The door opened and the bard walked in. 'I prefer not to wait upon kings and princes, if you don't mind' he said in his quiet voice. He took the chair in front of Yuri's desk. 'Two days I have already waited upon you, and I think that the time for waiting is over.'

He looked much more composed than he had the last time Yuri had seen him, although he still had a fading bruise on his face where Kastchei's blow had landed. Altogether, however, Yuri found the man to be an unsettling combination of contradictions: the youthful face didn't match the spirit that stared out at him from those light green eyes – occasionally so languid, but capable of changing from sea-green calm to flinty agate in less than a heartbeat. And the austere image conjured by the sombre black of the bard's coat was ruined by the shoulder-length tumble of red hair.

He's two men in one body, at times, Yuri thought to himself with a moment of insight. I'm not sure he even knows which he is from moment to moment. At such times, Taliesin reminded him uncomfortably of the absent Kastchei.

Aware that the bard was waiting patiently for him to reply, he brought his attention back to the moment. 'My people assure me that the flight north should pass un-noticed – Kai's forces are concentrated along the coast, in the vicinity of Novgoren. Hopefully Kolya can deal with the Calaitin and return before the week is out. I fear that the Commander is not finished with us yet.'

'Gut feeling?'

'After a fashion. My scouts have encountered his men still monitoring the city.' He leaned over the desk towards the bard. 'What could he want with us, that he could not take that first day? They took Mordred and left, doing little damage. They could have destroyed us then if they had wanted. By all the hells, Taliesin, they could have destroyed us from the air at any time in the last three days.'

Taliesin sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers under his chin. In defiance of local custom he seemed to be regrowing his beard. 'Kitezh is a Caer – he'll want to take the city, not destroy it. Functional caers are rare these days, Yuri – your city would be a great prize.'

'And yet our planet is distant from the Alliance, only tenuously reconnected to the web – there is no strategic value here!'

'The city has jump engines, it could be moved,' Taliesin pointed out.

'Not without almost crippling it in the process!' Yuri stood up and began to pace behind his desk, hands behind his back. 'If Mordred and Kai want to make a bid for the throne, this is a poor place to start.'

'Is it?' Tal's voice held a harder note now. 'You forget where we are, Prince Yuri: this is Breceliande, once at the heart of the Dragon-Born empire that ruled the web before the Alliance. This world was one of the original thirteen – the World Tree runs through its heart. Never forget that, because you'll find that they have not.'

'Breceliande was nothing more than a prison planet for those even the Dragon-born could not control,' Yuri snapped. 'Even now the Sleepers wait, frozen in time until their sentences expire.'

Taliesin smiled coldly, and Yuri felt his blood run cold. 'Surely not.'

The bard stood, moving lightly as he got to his feet. 'I can't think of a better advantage in the coming war than what lies sleeping inside your planet's glaciers,' he said coldly. 'If they can be coerced or persuaded to join his cause, they would make formidable opponents.' He leaned over Yuri's desk, and the prince flinched away from the icy stare of the bard's green eyes. Youthful looks not withstanding, he was suddenly acutely aware of the power this man had: leashed in, unwielded, and yet tangibly visible for the first time. And for the first time he believed Kastchei's statement that this man - this young, slender, bookish, softly spoken boy - could indeed be Merlin's revenant.

'Would I be right in thinking that the records pertaining to the sleepers are housed here?' Taliesin asked. Yuri shrugged.

'Ancient history is not my field. It's possible that some records exist. Kitezh?'

Records exist in some of the older archives that date back to before the time of the first Powers, but if anything relates to the Sleepers, this information is not part of my core index

'Is there anyone who might know?' Taliesin asked.

The Powers themselves the city replied. Taliesin turned a questioning gaze on Yuri.

'The powers were the six major rulers of Breceliande, in the early years of the formation of the Thirteen Worlds - Only three remain, now.'

'The Baba Yaga, the Queen of Winter and The Lord of Summer?' Tal hazarded. Yuri nodded.

'Once the roles of Lady of the Lakes, Queen of Winter, and Mistress of the Forest were sequential - as were those of Master of the Hunt, Lord of Summer and Old Man of the Mountains.'

'A three stage triune system from Youth to Maturity and then Old Age?' Taliesin tutted. 'How quaint. Although I can see why Kastchei might have issues with the last of those.'

In spite of the gravity of the situation Yuri had to fight back a chuckle. 'If I remember my history lessons as a boy correctly, it was Arawn who refused to take up the mantle of the Old Man when the previous incumbent died too early. That changed everything.'

'There was a break out from the prison stasis facility,' Taliesin said suddenly. 'I- Merlin arrived too late to stop it.'

A sudden scrabbling noise from outside the window drew Yuri's attention away from the bard. On the narrow ledge outside the thick panes, a raven stared back at him, cawed once, and flew away.

'Our legends say that there was a terrible battle - Merlin's lover, Viviane, was killed, and his dragon wounded fighting one of those freed from the ice.'

'Lailoken,' Taliesin said, his voice holding a dreamy quality, his eyes fixed upon some distant, unseen point. 'Her name was Lailoken. She was condemned for attempting to birth a new race of dragons in her own image.'

'I thought Lailoken was the demon who helped Blaise train Merlin?'

Taliesin sighed, and rubbed his forehead with one hand, a pained look on his face. 'Ask someone for useful information, you draw a blank - but anything drawn from the life of an ancient sorcerer and put down in verse or song, and suddenly everyone's an expert. Dragon, demon - all the same in the end. Lailoken has been many things over the years, to many worlds, not just this one. She goes under many names, as well: Lailoken, Lilith, Lol...'

A knock at the door interrupted him.

'Yes?' Yuri snapped. Uulamets' head peered around the door.

'I thought you might like to know I'm ready whenever our guest is,' he said. 'But we have a slight complication...'

Taliesin stared straight at Yuri. 'Prince Alexei has vanished,' he said quietly. Without looking he could sense Uulamets' jaw dropping.

'How did you know?' the commander demanded.

'Given recent events, I'm more surprised that you didn't anticipate it,' Taliesin said evenly. Yuri, he noticed, didn't seem surprised by the news either. 'He will betray you, your highness,' he continued gently. 'Willingly or not. How much damage can he do?'

'Too much,' Uulamets growled. 'Yuri – please – let me take out a patrol and find him, he cannot have gone far – the river's swollen and the lowlands between here and Novgoren are a deep mire at the moment.'

'He won't have to go far,' Taliesin told them. 'Kai will have his own scouts monitoring the city. He'll have been picked up very quickly.' At Yuri's questioning look he shrugged. 'I know how he works – I've known the man for fifteen years, after all. He's good – too good perhaps for your defences to hold off for long. After all, he is the man who took Caer Tagel…'

I have no desire to face a siege

'You won't have to,' Yuri reassured the city. 'Somehow we'll stop them.' He turned to face his commander. 'Kolya, I want you to take the bard to Kai's camp. Taliesin - Talk to him, please: Try to find a solution to this.'

'I have friends in the Summer Palace,' Taliesin said. 'I won't leave them to die.'

Yuri was unrepentant. 'I'm sorry, Taliesin, but I have weightier concerns than the fate of a handful of people. There are over a hundred thousand souls in my care. You're more use to me as a bard than a warrior.'

Taliesin thought of Delbâeth, torn apart by the forces at the command of Calaitin. Of Phoenix, still struggling with hir dual identity. Of what Calaitin could do to such a creature. Or with it.

There are larger concerns, he wanted to say. You don't understand the stakes.

This is not your role... was the whispered voice within. Verdani's voice, in memory, so long ago. Before Vivienne, before Gwynedd, before Yggdrasil and three nights that almost killed him. You are to be an observer, not a hero. Inspiration, not action.

He bowed his head, and lifted it, clear green eyes meeting Yuri's. 'I will go,' he said, quietly.

 

Novgoren

Vivienne nearly screamed when a hand clamped onto her shoulder. In the darkness that had filled the room she could see nothing. Not far away she could here Mordred shouting for the guards, and a snapped command from Kai for him to be quiet so that he could listen.

Stay close to me

Kastchei's mental voice was such a welcome sensation that she sagged with relief against him. She recoiled immediately at the feel of his coat, which slid and slithered unpleasantly against her, as though it didn't really exist. She had little time to react, however, as he was already pushing her in what she hoped was the direction of the door. Once out into the corridor, she was forced to blink, as the light almost blinded her, the moment they were over the threshold. She made as if to start running down the corridor towards the entrance, but was hauled back by Kastchei.

'Walk, don't run. Look as if you know where you're going and that you have to be going there in a hurry, and follow me.' Without waiting for her acknowledgement, he began to stride down the corridor away from the exit and deeper into the heart of the palace. Not for the first time she was forced to jog to keep up with his longer stride. Twice they were forced to move out of the way of Kai's troops, running towards the chamber they'd just left, but to her surprise they ignored them, not even sparing them a second glance. Eventually, though, the effects of the last few hours took their toll, and after only a few minutes she had to ask Kastchei to stop. Checking to see if anyone was coming, he ducked into a sideroom and pulled her in. Whilst she tried to get her breath back and not to let the pain of her injuries show, she took a closer look at her rescuer.

His coat had returned - mostly, at least - to his habitual forest green. In places, however, it still bore traces of black, twisting and slithering with a life of its own.

'What was that?'

'Shadow magic. A trick I picked up a long time ago. I bound my shadow into my coat.' He fingered the fabric with undisguised disgust. 'However it ruins a perfectly good coat.'

'I thought for a moment you really had gone over to them. Even when you said your piece about not trusting you, I wasn't too sure I understood - at least, not until I saw Mordred stab you. Was that...' she pointed to the coat.

'It's a kind of conceptual state of reality. With the proper training I'm told it's even possible to bond weapons into a shadow and use them, but this was the best I could do under the circumstances.' He shivered. 'And it's not something I'd like to try again anytime soon.' He brushed past her and opened the door. 'We seem to have a clear run, are you up to it?'

She nodded, and saw his eyes take in her appearance - bruised, her shirt torn, and she could feel her lip already swelling where one well timed blow from Mordred had split it earlier.

If he'd been Taliesin, she knew damn well that he'd have said something, made some gesture of sympathy, which would have had her crying in a heartbeat. Mercifully, although she saw his mouth tighten into the harsh line she had a feeling meant that he wanted to rip someone's throat out, he said nothing.

'Stay close, let me do any talking. They'll be looking for us as soon as those two have told them what's happened, but in the meantime we've got a few minutes.'

'Then why,' she hissed at his back, 'aren't we heading for the door as fast as we can?'

'First thing they'll look for. So we walk - not run - and make our way out through one of the side exits. This palace is full of them - it's not exactly built for defence, after all. Besides, I have some unfinished business to attend to.' The sound of booted feet running towards them echoed in the vaulted corridor, and he pulled her behind the concealing folds of a fraying tapestry that covered a deep alcove in the wall. Just in time, as the knights turned the corner only seconds later.

The knights ran past their hiding place without checking it, and Vivienne breathed a huge sigh of relief. Tucked in behind Kastchei, she couldn't see beyond the concealing arras to the corridor beyond, but felt him relax as the sound of boots faded into the distance.

'Too close that time,' she whispered. He slipped out into the corridor, then offered her his hand.

'Not really.' He pointed down the corridor. 'That way, I think. Come on.'

'Oh really? So your shoulders were tense enough to snap because you were worried you'd get dust on your coat?' she quipped, following in his wake. He ignored her and carried on walking, but his stride lengthened perceptibly, forcing her to jog. She kept the pace up for only a few seconds before pains in her stomach forced her to pull up with a gasp of pain. He stopped instantly and supported her whilst she tried to straighten up again. 'I'll be fine,' she told him, at his unspoken question.

'Oh really?' his sarcastic tone matched her earlier quip perfectly. If she'd felt up to it, she'd have stuck her tongue out at him. As it was, it was all she could do just to hold onto him. 'I should have ripped his heart out when I had the chance,' he muttered. His eyes met hers, and she saw quickly masked concern in their smoky blue depths. 'I can make the pain go away long enough for us to get clear of this place, but you must trust me.'

She had a pretty good idea of what he intended, and normally she'd have kicked up a fuss: she hated being hypnotised. But he was right, they had to get out of Novgoren, and she was only slowing him down. She nodded.

He took her chin in his hand and tilted her head so that he was staring straight into her eyes. 'I give you my word - only the pain, nothing more, and you will be released the moment we're clear of Novgoren. Look into my eyes.'

A moment later, she blinked, tearing her gaze away from his, which had taken on a curious, burning intensity. He didn't give her time to think but grabbed her hand again and ran, pulling her after him. This time, she was able to keep up. After the third corridor, she pulled her hand free and tugged his sleeve.

'This isn't the way out - you're taking us into the East Wing.' She pointed out of the window they were just passing, which overlooked the central courtyard. 'Where the hell are you going?'

'I'm getting us out of here,' he replied smoothly. 'I'm just taking a more scenic route. If it bothers you, you can always try to get out on your own.'

The sound of armour clanking on the stone floors sent them both scurrying for cover, ducking into the nearest room. Fortunately the boots took a different passage, and they re-emerged, both breathing a sigh of relief. Vivienne watched Kastchei closely, wondering if he'd meant his last statement. He just shrugged.

'Would you really leave me?' she asked.

'Would you put it to the test?' He handed her a pistol, and watched impassively whilst she checked the charge. 'Keep watch for me, this won't take long.'

She cursed herself for being slow on the uptake. 'It's Alianora, isn't it?' He turned away, making for the north end of the corridor, and she caught his elbow with her hand. 'Don't you think there's a time and a place for that sort of thing - and that maybe - just maybe - a palace full of knights in full battle armour actively hunting for us isn't it?' She hissed. All he did was check the power levels of his own pistol.

'Are you quite done?' he asked softly. After a long pause she nodded. 'Then wait here.'

Without looking back he vanished around the corner.

The room was windowless, as were most of the Winter apartments. The glowstrips on the wall were dimmed down to the lowest level, and cast a warm amber light over the reception room, which was, as usual in Alia's apartments, sparsely furnished. He stood quietly, just inside the door, waiting, knowing she'd sense his presence – if, indeed, she weren't already expecting him.

He didn't have to wait long.

'I wondered when you'd get here.' Alia's voice was soft, quiet. She stepped out of the shadows of the room, apparently unarmed. Warily, Kastchei kept her in his sights, keeping his distance, and always keeping himself between her and the door. 'What do you intend to do, shoot me? That's hardly original.'

'It wouldn't be the first time.'

'No. But to do it deliberately, in cold blood? After all we've been through?' She took a step towards him and he tightened his finger on the trigger. She stopped, and shrugged. 'Perhaps that wasn't the best suggestion.'

'No.'

'No long drawn out speeches? No word of goodbye? No last minute reconciliation?' She laughed. 'You know; if you were going to kill me, you'd have done it by now. What's to stop me just walking past you and walking out of that door?' She took another step, and when he didn't respond, another, and another, until she was standing within reach of his arms, the pistol now pointing down at the floor. 'You and I - we could have had it all, but somewhere along the line you grew a conscience - who could have predicted that, of all things?' She leaned closer until her lips brushed his ear. 'It's still not too late, Kastchei. There are changes coming, and we should be on the winning side, don't you think? - and we make such a good team. We always did.'

'You overlooked one thing, Alia,' he said quietly. 'You tried to kill me remember? Do you think I take treachery lightly, even now?'

'Fair's fair, my dear - thanks to you I'm in this mess in the first place.' She pulled away to get a better look at his face, which he kept totally neutral. 'No. You won't kill me. You can't do it, can you? Not in cold blood.' She looked down in shock as he brought the pistol up hard into her stomach.

'Actually, my dear, I just wanted you to know that this time, it's no accident.' He kissed her cheek. 'For what it's worth, I did love you, once. I would have turned back time for your sake.'

He laid his free hand on her cheek. 'In cold blood.' He said, so quietly she almost didn't hear him. She pulled away from him, her eyes widening in shock, and he stood, motionless, the gun sill trained on her. She lifted a hand towards him, the fingers already blue with cold, and opened her mouth as though to speak.

No sound came out, except for a strangled breath. A slight frost formed on her bare arm, visible where the fabric of her sleeve had fallen away, and he regarded it with a scientific interest, watching the veins swell under the pressure as the blood in them turned to ice water. Finally, as pale as alabaster, she sank to the floor. The last breath she exhaled hung on the air, a cold mist that might have carried his name on it, then she crumpled sideways, and lay unmoving, her pale green eyes fixed on his face. For what seemed like an age, he stood over her body, not looking down. Eventually, he knelt beside her, leaned forward and kissed her cold lips. 'You always underestimated me, Ailla,' he whispered.

A noise behind him made him whirl around, and he fired, only just pulling his pistol wide of the mark as he saw - barely in time, that it was Vivienne, come into the room against his orders. The blast hit the wall behind her, and she stood, trembling and white with the shock of the near miss, as he stood up slowly, trying not to show the sudden cold that settled in every limb at the nearness of the accident.

'Never, ever do that again,' he said coldly. Without a word he holstered the pistol, and walked past her, ignoring her hand as she tried to catch hold of his sleeve as he walked past.

'Kastchei?'

She followed him into the corridor, where he stood leaning against the far wall, as if it was the only thing holding him up. He didn't acknowledge her, but stared over her shoulder at Alia's body, a crumpled heap of white satin and red hair. He didn't want to look at her. To do so would have meant acknowledging the feeling that had seared him at the moment he'd come so close to creating an irony no bard could ever duplicate. And this, as Vivienne had pointed out only minutes before, was neither the time nor the place for reflection. Or for regrets.

He brought his attention back to Vivienne, waiting silently, not approaching him - just waiting.

'Time to go,' he said simply. He gestured down the corridor. 'This way should take us down to the courtyard.'

'Are you finished here?' she asked. He didn't manage to resist the temptation to look back, although he'd moved out of the direct line of sight with Alia's crumpled form.

'Quite finished,' he said, so quietly that she nearly didn't catch it at all. 'Time we were out of here,' he said shortly, and took the lead, this time heading for what she hoped was an exit, rather than more trouble.

 

  

 

Chapter 10

The Summer Palace.

The vat-chamber underneath the Summer Palace held something of the stench of the charnel house - the viscous, rendered fluids that fed the amniotic sacs had this peculiar quality, just hovering on the edge of decay. The cavern had been hollowed out of the bedrock in ages long past, the walls long smoothed by time into an inky, obsidian-sheened finish. The exit was covered by an ancient, but well preserved tapestry depicting the Wild Hunt in full cry, drawn back from the entrance for now and secured to the wall by a braided thong. Although large, the cavern was dominated by the device that gave the chamber its name - the amniotic vats, colloquially known to the denizens of the Thirteen Worlds as "cauldrons".

Twenty-one coiled umbilicals snaked out from the central core of the device, each leading to a skeletal framework, the colour of old bone, that supported a translucent, thickly veined membrane, somewhat like the wing of a bat. Eight of the devices hung flaccid and empty, but the rest were swollen, their nutrient and waste conduits pulsing steadily, carrying their cargo to and from the gravid sacs, which quivered and throbbed as the forms within them stirred. Timofei watched them out of the corner of one eye whilst, under the watchful gaze of his captors, his hands moved over the controls of the gestation matrix with practised ease. What had been done here - what he had been forced to do - was an abomination, but it was well-woven.

His hands drifted lightly over the threads of the matrix, the warp and weft shifting in response to his unspoken commands, shifting to change the flow here, a slight deviation in the neural stimuli there. It was an artist's work, this, not a technician's. Timofei was the best.

Calaitin stood beside him, having moved silently despite its limp. Its left hand - silver, but seeming blackened in the dark light of the chamber, pointed to a pulsing amber thread.

'You respond too slowly - there must be no error in this.'

Timofei ignored the rebuke, settling the threads in his own time, the amber fading to green as he moved. 'If you think you can do better, my lord, you are welcome to try. These are my cauldrons, and I know their margins for safety better than you do.'

'This is why we let you live,' Calaitin hissed. It turned away as its brethren brought in a limp figure. 'What is this?'

Ninth bowed. 'The hermaphrodite captured during the attack. Now that gestation is underway we wished to examine it more closely?'

First nodded. 'Indeed.' He limped away from the matrix. The brethren holding the child released it, and Phoenix stood awkwardly, shivering in the permanently damp air of the chamber. Timofei watched the scene covertly, wondering if the northern child had any powers that would manifest, now that he was in the presence of his captors. Sadly, it seemed as though the youngster was still wrapped in that strange trance he'd been in since they'd been imprisoned in the cellars.

The citadel was long deserted. From a distance the graceful towers had seemed intact, but close to, time had obviously taken its toll. Time, and perhaps something else, for the city looked as though at some point it had been in a major war: rubble filled the wide streets so that Phoenix had to pick a careful path between fallen walls and deep pools of dust. From time to time the clouds raised by Phoenix's walk through the city were thick enough to choke the lungs. Despite knowing that this was only a dreamworld, Phoenix couldn't hold back a cough.

Owls used the fallen towers as roosts: Phoenix's explorations disturbed them from time to time, and they flocked from their makeshift lairs like bats from a cave, wheeling overhead in their thousands. The ground beneath each tower was littered with their debris: tiny desiccated pellets, the remains of small vermin. Phoenix picked one up and crumbled it in the palm of its hand, examining the tiny skull within the dusty remains of fur and fragile bone. The skull had pointed teeth, still needle-sharp, within a flat jaw. The skull was vaguely bat-like, hollow-boned, but misshapen, distorted, and not, Phoenix sensed, by age or digestion. The skull was let fall from suddenly nerveless fingers, and Phoenix wiped the hand on her coat.

'You'll find the whole place is covered with them.'

The woman in blue stood beside Phoenix, as though she'd materialised on a breath of wind. 'It's been like this for years.'

'I thought this was just a memory?'

'It is, but even memories can die. The owls rule everything, now.' She pointed to the orange skies, where a black shape was being mobbed by the silent-winged owls. 'See? The natural order is overturned. Here, the owls are rulers, and other birds have no place.' The black shape tumbled to the earth, amid a triumphant cacophony of calls from its attackers. 'There are simply too many of them for the ravens to fight.' The tiny pellets crunched underfoot as she took a step forward, and she pulled a face. 'And they make such a mess of everything they touch, regurgitating what they cannot digest.'

Phoenix walked beside the woman for several minutes in silence, allowing the 'dragon' to lead her towards the heart of the city – the tallest of the towers, even now, although it had long since fallen - the pile of rubble from its topmost stories buried the building on two sides, although shades of its former glory could still be seen in the fragile structure that remained of the north and west faces. The gentle, curving lines had an organic grace, and here and there the sinking sun glinted off the opalescent surface, which gleamed a fiery red in the orange light.

'Where are we going?' Phoenix shivered, although there was no chill in the air, and only a faint breeze. 'I don't like this place.'

'You brought us here,' the woman said softly. 'I'm just following you.'

'This is your world,' Phoenix snapped. 'Why aren't you in control?'

The woman shrugged, and tossed her long blonde hair back from her bare shoulders. The gown she wore was sheer and shone with a light of its own. It brushed the debris that littered the floor, but remained unsullied by the mess. 'This is a memoryscape, and whilst technically you could say that it's mine, since that's how we got here, it's also one that belongs to all of my race.'

'So there could be other dragons around?' Phoenix looked up and around in fright, but apart from a straggling owl, the skies were clear. The woman shook her head.

'I doubt it - there aren't that many of us left. There are only three others remaining in this realm, and two of them aren't going anywhere.'

'And the other?'

The woman sat down on a broken wall, and placed her elbows on her knees, resting her chin on interlaced fingers. 'The other comes and goes pretty much as she pleases, but I don't think we need to worry about her just yet.' The sky darkened to a burnt umber as she spoke, but at Phoenix's interrogative look, she shook her head again. 'That's not Lailoken's work, my dear - that's you.'

'What is it?' Phoenix wasn't frightened, but sensed something odd lurking on the edge of her perception, like a speck of dust in the eye.

'Calaitin.' At Phoenix's puzzled look the woman continued: 'I wouldn't go out to look - they've started trying to find out what you are. For now, you're safe in here.'

Phoenix looked around again at the ruined city, its only inhabitants circling overhead on ghostly wings; silent killers and wanton despoilers. All around was decay, and death. The woman tipped her head on one side and sighed.

'Admittedly, "safe" is something of a relative term.'

Kitzeh

'I want you to take Kolya with you,' Yuri said. He stood in front of the huge fireplace that dominated the wall of his apartments. The flames leapt and danced behind him, for a moment making his face look as though it were washed in blood. Taliesin shook his head to clear the vision, but couldn't shake the sudden chill of premonition that ran down his spine. To cover his discomfort, he fiddled with Leannan's strings, tightening the pegs with an expert hand. One of the blessings of such a high maintenance instrument - it gave him ample opportunity to stall for time and composure.

'I'm not sure that taking a warrior into such a situation is sensible, our highness. Besides, if something goes wrong, not even Uulamets would be enough to get me out.'

'He doesn't go to protect you,' Yuri replied, amusement warring with rebuke in his voice. 'He goes to serve my interests and to ensure that my concerns are unfounded.'

'You don't trust me.'

Yuri shrugged, and placed his hands behind his back. 'Let us say rather - I do not trust that your interests and mine are wholly compatible. You monarch is not here, it is not his world under immediate threat.'

'I am a bard, Prince Yuri. My role is to serve as mediator. To record, to analyse and to report. If needs be, I can act as diplomat, and I can certainly extend the High King's writ in this instance, since I know what his response would be.'

'You seek to prevent a civil war, harper. I seek to protect my people. Kolya will ensure that this is so.'

Taliesin placed Leannan at his side. 'Very well, but I want it understood that I do the talking - I know Lord Kai well.'

'Ah. That would explain why you were not surprised at his treachery?'

Taliesin winced. 'I asked for that, didn't I?' Yuri said nothing. 'He'll talk to me because he knows I have Elphin's ear. That much is certain.'

'And if it is the other one? This prince Gareth?'

'Mordred,' Taliesin corrected him sharply. 'He lost all right to his birth name long ago. I don't know. I really don't know. The only two bards who knew him are back home on Gwynedd. I doubt he'll even entertain me - Morgaine wasn't known for her love of my order, and Mordred personally killed dozens if not hundreds of minstrels, tale tellers and bards in his time.' He fingered the silver ravens on his coat collar. 'You do realise there's little hope that either of them will accept a diplomatic solution? Kai once sent Lord Cynric his bard's head back in the diplomatic pouch. With a note between its teeth.'

Even if it fails, it still gives us time. The voice of the city seemed to fill the room, with no discernible point of origin. I have defences, but they require preparation

'I won't be used as a mere distraction,' Taliesin said sharply. Yuri shook his head and stepped towards him. He placed a hand on Tal's shoulder, briefly.

'No-one asks that of you. But you yourself have said that this is at best a futile gesture. Do you truly feel you can achieve anything besides stalling them?'

'Perhaps some understanding of just how far Kai intends this to spread. For all we know this might be the whole of his support.' He ran his hands through his hair. 'Gods of earth and air, I need Vivienne!'

'We all have need of those who are not in a position to help us, harper. I myself am only an administrator - not half the warrior I used to be. Kastchei is the only one of us with any real experience of war.'

'Starting them, perhaps,' Taliesin muttered darkly. Yuri sighed heavily.

'He may be the only thing that stands between us and certain death. Do not be so quick to dismiss his abilities.'

'What of the Khoziaika lesa?' Taliesin asked. 'She commands the forests of Skazki, and their dwellers.'

Yuri turned away from him, and busied himself re-arranging the lacquered ornaments on the mantelpiece.

'Well?' Taliesin asked, when an answer was not forthcoming.

'I thought you knew,' Yuri said quietly. 'I thought a bard would know - especially one with your background.'

'You forget, I have little knowledge of this world. I met the Baba once, and we spoke little. Why would she not help us?'

'Because of who she is!' Yuri turned round to face Taliesin, his eyes blazing with anger - but that anger that was more properly directed at what cannot be changed, rather than at Taliesin. 'Or rather, who she was.'

'I know of the pattern, 'Taliesin mused. 'Lady of the Lake, to Queen of Winter, to Mistress of the Forest. But names...' He shook his head. 'The names are not known to me.'

Yuri's laugh was humourless and harsh. 'Oh but they are, Taliesin ap Gwion ap Myrddin. Oh but they are. Viviane was Queen of Winter, daughter of Arawn. That family had a stranglehold over this planet in those days. Viviane became Mistress in her turn - and her daughter became Lady, then Queen. And the dragon-born live for a very long time...'

'Ygraine.' Taliesin bowed his head and walked slowly to the window. From Yuri's room the city spread out in its entirety below, from Kremlin to the outer walls, and beyond: to the valley floor where the waters rushed to the sea; and above, on the plateau, the distant encampment of Kai's forces, fires burning brightly in the dusk.

Ygraine; Merlin's daughter, Morgaine's mother. And before her marriage to Gorlois of Caer Tagel, she'd taken Eachtar of the Savage Forest - the Master of the Hunt - to be her lover, and borne him a son.

Kaiwyn ap Eachtar. Duke of Orcadia, Lord commander of the combined Legion of the Rose and Dragon. Arthur's foster brother.

Morgaine's mother. Arthur's mother, and therefore also Mordred's grandmother.

Twelve centuries of blood, and pain, war and betrayal.

There would be no help from that quarter. Oh no. And that was if they were lucky.

He watched as stormclouds gathered on the horizon, black thunderclouds rolling in from the north, and for the first time felt completely helpless in the face of the coming storm.

Novgoren

'Stop them you fools!' Kai pushed his way through the blackness that had filled the room, knocking his prince over in the process, judging from Mordred's muttered oath. Once in the corridor, the bright light blinded him momentarily: by the time he'd blinked away enough of the after image to see clearly, there was no trace of Kastchei or the woman. Swearing under his breath he ran down the passageway and grabbed the nearest guard: 'Did anyone just run down here?' The man looked at him blankly.

'My lord?'

'You're wasting your time - this Kastchei is too clever to throw away his advantage like that.'

Kai rounded on his nephew angrily.

'Had you not decided to help yourself to Taliesin's little piece of tail, I doubt we'd have a problem,' he snapped. 'Why don't you make yourself useful and find him before he causes too much damage?'

'Security isn't my responsibility,' Mordred retorted.

Kai took a deep breath and raised his hand. 'You - remember you owe your place here to my largesse, nephew. I suggest if you want any chance of reclaiming your throne, you listen to me for once in your life. Find the Lord of Summer and the woman. Kill them both.'

'And whilst I'm doing your job for you?'

'I have a city to take, and thanks to this debacle, I'm going to be forced into taking it before this renegade dragon-born can reach it.' He turned to walk away, then turned back. 'And get someone to clear that shadow out of there - I might need that room later.'

Before Kai was out of sight, Mordred grabbed hold of two of the citadel guards. 'You, and you - sound the alarm and seal off the building. I want every exit covered.' Mordred made his way to his own rooms deep in thought.

Accolon... What did he remember about the traitor? He held a grudge, for one thing. Mordred smiled to himself, and picked up his pace, so that by the time he reached the private apartments of the Queen of Winter, he was running.

Too late, he realised, as he charged into the queen's rooms and saw the ice cold, pale figure lying on the floor. Her red hair was spread out behind her like a veil, her white gown only a little paler than her skin. The Queen of Winter in truth, he thought wryly, admiring Kastchei's handiwork. Her face was almost unrecognisable, distorted by pain and the tissue damage caused by the ice crystals. Such a pity... she'd really been quite lovely, in life.

There was only one exit from this wing, and he knew where it led: he left the apartments at a run, hoping that he'd be in time.

 

There were three knights in the courtyard. Hidden behind a low wall, Vivienne crouched quietly behind Kastchei as he tried to assess their best route for escape. They needed Sivushka, but the cybrorse was hidden on the other side of the courtyard. Their chances of getting across were slim to non-existent as things stood, and there was no useable cover.

'I could try to distract them,' Vivienne offered. He shook his head.

'Too risky - I was supposed to rescue you, not get you killed,' he said, a little more sharply than he'd intended. She gave him a peculiar look, remembering the incident in Alia's rooms, but said nothing. 'And three is too many to try to control at once, even for me. We might just have to try making a run for it and hoping for the best.'

'There's another way,' she whispered. She pointed. 'Who looks up?'

He followed the direction of her finger, to where she was pointing. 'The stable roof? It's slate: slippery and noisy. We'd never make it.'

'It's our best shot, isn't it? I mean, we could try to take them all out before they raised the alarm, but hellfire pistols aren't very accurate at this range, and I'm not too sure my aim would be that steady at the moment. I think I can make the climb, and you're fit enough...' She let the sentence trail off with a slight question in her voice, and she wasn't even sure he'd caught the implied jibe until he brushed past her and crept over to the wall of the stable block, keeping out of sight of the patrol, and began to test the worn stone for handholds, his back ramrod straight. Hiding a slight smile, she followed him, scuttling awkwardly as she tried to stay out of sight herself. She only bobbed upright once she was hidden by the corner, and behind Kastchei.

He didn't turn as she approached, just waited for her to reach him, then spoke quietly.

'I can climb up here, do you think you can follow, with a hand up?'

'I've been climbing up walls, through air ducts and sewers for years,' she replied in a tart whisper. 'After you.'

He made it look easy, she thought ruefully, watching as he hauled himself effortlessly onto the low roof. Vivienne's scramble was far less graceful, one hand held tight by his, the other scrabbling for a purchase in the rough stone. She froze at one point, as her foot sent a shower of loose stone to the ground below. Thankfully it went unnoticed, although her dangling feet were only just pulled out of the way as another patrol ran past in double time. Trying not to breathe too loudly, she clung to her handhold and to Kastchei's hand with a vice-like grip until they were past. As soon as the patrol was out of earshot, Kastchei hauled her the rest of the way up and helped her to balance on the slippery roof until she nodded that she felt she could keep her footing. She kept low behind Kastchei, as he made his way carefully along the shale roof.

The block they were inching along ended at a larger wall, thankfully not too high for Kastchei to half jump, half climb. Again she had to rely on his strength to pull her up, glad in this instance that it was him doing the rescuing, not Tal.

Unfortunately, the drop on the other side was a good twenty feet.

Kastchei stared down at the ground below, looking thoughtful.

'It's a long drop…' Vivienne wished she sounded more confident. He would probably make it, she wasn't sure she could.

'We cannot try to come down further along; the next section overlooks the barracks.' He took a deep breath. 'I'll go first – the best way down is to lower yourself over the side and then let go. If I catch you, you should be fine.'

'After you,' she whispered. He swung his legs over the wall and eased himself down, until she could just see his hands clinging to the edge. She moved closer to the edge, and looked down, waiting for him to drop.

She had to duck down quickly as a hellfire blast passed so close to her she felt the heat only inches from her face. Off balance, she slipped towards the drop, and scrabbled for a safe handhold. She heard a cry from Kastchei as he fell, but had little time to wonder if he was safe, as she lost her own precarious grip at that point, and fell. She managed to tuck and roll on landing, absorbing the worst of the fall, but she couldn't bite back a cry of pain as she landed hard on the stone courtyard. Rolling over quickly off her bruised shoulder, she tried to sit up, feeling sick. Kastchei was struggling to her feet at her side, holding his left arm awkwardly. Before he'd got to his feet fully, he was knocked flying by a well-timed kick. Down again, he was forced to curl up to avoid the follow up, as his attacker aimed another at his ribs. A second kick connected, and he grunted with pain, rolling over quickly out of reach and finding his footing. Vivienne had little time to see their attacker's face, but then, she didn't need to: the black surcoat held a device she knew all too well: A rearing unicorn. Mordred's coat of arms.

'Nice try, my lord. You almost made it.'

Get Sivka He circled Mordred warily, staying out of reach. When Vivienne didn't respond immediately, she felt the push of his will against hers. Go.

Torn between trying to help, and knowing she'd just be in the way, she ran for the archway. No guards stopped her, thankfully. Not daring to look back, she ran on, hoping she knew where she was going.

She found Sivushka in a back alley not far from the courtyard. The white stallion materialised like a ghost out of the shadows, startling her when he suddenly appeared in front of her.

'I wish I knew how you did that,' she snapped crossly at him. The cybrorse snorted and shook his head, making the links of his curb chain rattle. A little nervously, since she wasn't too comfortable around the beast, she took the reins. 'I don't know how you manage to stay hidden, but I'm glad one of you has some sense. Come on, Kastya needs you.' She clucked to him and tugged on the reins, but he stood firm, refusing to budge. She got the message. 'Fine. I'll get up there. Somehow.' She looked around for a convenient mounting block, but finding nothing, had to resort to trying to mount from the ground. Since Sivushka was easily eighteen hands, and she was only a shade over five foot four, even with the stirrup lengthened she just couldn't get her leg over, no matter how she hopped. At the fourth attempt, Sivushka turned his head round to stare at her, snorted, and knelt down, one foreleg extended. She swung up into the saddle a little clumsily, and guided him back to the courtyard, hoping she wasn't too late.

Kastchei could normally have held Mordred off easily - the other sorcerer was already breathing hard - except for the slight problem that the fall from the wall had broken his arm, and Mordred's first kick had broken at least one rib. Circling his opponent, he moved as lightly as he could, shutting the pain away, hoping he could fool Mordred long enough for Vivienne to bring Sivka.

'Not quite so invulnerable after all?' Mordred taunted. He moved in swiftly, flicking a force knife into his hand at the last minute. Kastchei cursed under his breath as he twisted to avoid the vibrating blade, warned by the low frequency hum. He'd been hoping to keep this hand to hand. He moved in on Mordred's left, avoiding the blade, a feint with the hand at his shoulder, switching at the last minute to a fast sweep kick to scythe Mordred's legs out from under him. Slowed down by his injuries, he only succeeded in knocking him off balance. Mordred staggered back out of range, then closed again, a new look of confidence in his eyes.

'I think you'll find my legend says I cannot die, not that I cannot be hurt, 'Kastchei said icily. He smiled, a death's head grin as cold as Winter. 'If you do use that,' and here he nodded at the force-knife, 'you'd better make damn sure I can't find you again, boy.'

Another feint followed up with a straight-arm blow that should have connected with Mordred's throat, and yet again, a fraction too slow. Off balance himself from the attempt, he was wide open when Mordred, instead of jumping clear, ducked under the blow and came in under Kastchei's guard, blade extended. Like a sliver of ice, white hot pain lanced through Kastchei's side, as the blade penetrated deep into his flesh, cutting upwards as Mordred pulled it clear. He pulled clear, but with an effort, and now blood ran freely down his side, despite his attempt to control the bleeding. Already weakened, he was at Mordred's mercy, and he saw from the look in the other man's eyes that he knew it. Mordred smiled triumphantly, and shifted the blade in his hand, preparing for a killing strike. Backed against the wall, nowhere to run, all Kastchei could do was watch.

And smile, as Sivushka, the diminutive form of Vivienne clinging to his back, reared above Mordred from behind, silhouetted against the darkening sky in a fitting parody of Mordred's banner, and brought his hooves crashing down towards the sorcerer, catching him a blow on the side of his head. Mordred dropped to the ground as though pole-axed, and didn't move. Not stopping to check if he still lived, Kastchei jumped over him to reach Sivka's side and vault onto his back, landing behind Vivienne. He reached round her and held her tightly with his good arm.

'Sit tight, this will be rough,' he told her. Hoping he still had the strength to make the transition, he told Sivka to take them into the void and at the same time cast his mind outwards, seeking the Hunt. The bond was faint, but the lifeline was there; seconds later they exited behind the shelter of the hills that overlooked Novgoren, and the Hunt was complete. Drawing strength from the pack, he entered the void again, this time with another destination in mind.

He only just had time to see the familiar shape of his hunting lodge before oblivion finally claimed him, and the last thing he remembered was the sound of Vivienne's voice calling his name as he fell from Sivushka's back to the cold hard ground.

             

The Cauldron Chamber

Of the six Calaitin who now stood around the table on which the body of the hermaphrodite lay, not one could offer a solution to the problem before them: namely, how to awaken the creature in order to scan its mind. No matter what afflictions they visited upon the unconscious form, the mind refused to return, and no amount of probing could penetrate the shields that protected that mind from their mental attacks. Their minds, even augmented by the melding simply slid off the slick wards like water from a skrilic's back.

The birthing is near, we must desist, First said eventually. When we are at full strength, we may be able to penetrate these protections. For now, the child is beyond our reach

The child's mind, perhaps, the fourth said. He wiped bloodied hands on a clean towel and threw it casually onto the table at the side of the creature's naked body. The biodata has plenty of potential even without the answers we require.

Given time we could introduce the dimensional anomaly into our own protocols, eighth said. The time-awareness shown by the flesh also has extraordinary properties - far in advance of even the Master of the Hunt's experiments.

We have what we came for, First told them bluntly. We'll take the creature with us for further study, but for now, our priority is the preparation we have already made. He turned to face the vats, now pulsing thickly as the time of birth drew near. Meld with me, our brethren await our call. Stand ready.

Six moved to form a circle around him, whilst the remainder of their number busied themselves with the preparations for the birth. At First's feet, unremarked, discarded, lay the body of Timofei.

The sky had darkened since they had been in the city, from a vivid orange to a burnt umber. No moons rose in the sky, however, and the rusty twilight would soon gave way to total night. The woman sat on a broken stretch of wall not far from Phoenix, who sat amongst the broken stones, arms clasped firmly about dusty knees.

'You have to decide what to do sooner or later,' the woman said gently. 'I cannot protect you here forever.'

'Decide what?' Phoenix asked angrily. S/he threw a stone at an owl that had perched on the wall a few feet away. It missed, but the bird flew away swiftly on silent wings, with an angry hoot. 'Where is there to go? Outside they'll torture me and kill me.'

'They're already trying,' the woman pointed out. 'Only the changes you're already undergoing from being linked to my biodata is protecting your body from lasting harm.'

'You want me to accept you, to become you,' Phoenix accused. 'I want to stay me.'

'Do you think I don't?'

Phoenix stubbornly refused to look at the woman and she sighed heavily. 'Neither of us can survive alone anymore. If I leave – even if I could – you'd die from the results of the Calaitin's explorations. If you don't believe me, take a look.' She pointed towards the boundary of the city walls. 'All you have to do is walk away.'

Phoenix looked around: at the ruins of the city, the ever-circling owls hovering on silent above them. At the thin scattering of ravens on the fringes of the city, who occasionally dared to storm the decaying fortress, only to be torn apart by the waiting owls. Was that to be their fate?

'Some of them survive,' the woman said, as if she'd read Phoenix's thoughts. 'Only by becoming owls themselves, however. They're the worst - they turn upon their former fellows in the end. Almost as though they are ashamed of what they once were.'

'This isn't literal, is it?' Phoenix asked. The woman smiled, and stood up, smoothing down the dusty folds of her blue gown.

'Like everything else in here, it's a bit of a mixed metaphor.' She held out her hand. 'You can leave freely, but only to pain and certain death for us both. Or you can take my hand...'

'And?'

'Maybe one day I'll take you home to meet my mother.' Her smile was softly radiant as she spoke, and Phoenix, who had always been an outsider, looking in on the families of the tribe in the long nights, suddenly wanted more than anything to fill that emptiness inside that had grown with every passing year. It hadn't been enough to be the shamanka's chosen, even though Volkhvy had been kind enough. Even the occasional intimacy with those who'd been bold enough or adventurous enough to want to make love to the "changeling" hadn't offered a fraction of the promise the woman's smile held out now: mother/lover/sister/friend; an end to the hollowness that until now had never felt so deep or so cold.

There isn't much time said the voice inside, so much a part of her that it set nerve endings trilling with a sensation akin to the downward spiralling of orgasm. Separate, we die, together, we live. Either take control of your own destiny now, or remain forever at the mercy of fate, a passive victim. Which is it, my Firebird?

'Will I still be me?' Phoenix asked, fingers almost touching the woman's outstretched hand, but not quite.

'We will be one, whatever happens after that will be strange for both of us, but no less wonderful for that.'

Their fingers touched.

The touch of the dragon's hand sent a deep thrill through Phoenix, setting already over-stimulated nerves on fire. Their fingers entwined, briefly, before the woman's hand was gently disentangled from Phoenix's, to drift slowly along a slender arm. It touched a shoulder, then the side of Phoenix's neck, before being pressed lightly - so lightly - against a downy cheek, like a mother caressing a child. Phoenix almost wept, then, at that half-remembered memory. How many times in the night, in the tents of the Tribe, had it been Phoenix's lot to watch as children snuggled close to their parents, lovers finding warmth and pleasure with each other, or friends simply laughing and sharing the closeness which was denied to the outsider? The dragon leaned closer and kissed tears away that Phoenix hadn't even been aware of crying.

'You'll never be lonely again, dear heart. Neither of us will.'

Phoenix leaned into the dragon's kiss, feeling it sear hir nerves like liquid fire. Above them, the owls, on almost silent wings, were taking flight, the air now strangely peaceful without the ominous whispering of their soft wings. A strange light emanated from the dragon, enveloping them both in a shadowy nimbus. Over the shoulder of the woman in blue, Phoenix caught a glimpse of a pale shadow cast onto the wall behind them: roseate wings outstretched in triumphal display. As the kiss deepened, and their bodies entwined more closely, the wings changed, and grew. Instead of the bat-like outline, they now had a less determined shape that licked and trembled across the wall like flames. Phoenix closed hir eyes, and surrendered to the moment. Overhead, the ravens wheeled and turned in a sky now cleared for a time of their foe, and cawed in a raucous but joyous chorus, as beneath them, two forms melted slowly into one, finally obscured in a blaze of blue light that slowly dwindled and sank downwards, obscured by the shadows cast by the ruined walls of the citadel.

 

 

Chapter 11

Kastchei's Hunting Lodge

Vivienne slithered off Sivushka's back and landed badly. The long skirts of her heavy coat were already sodden and difficult to move in, and she was soon even wetter as she knelt beside Kastchei. Blood covered her hands, had soaked through her coat where he'd leaned against her in the saddle, and already pooled thickly on the ground underneath him. When she looked up, she saw the white cybrid's sides were also stained with red, diluted by rain and horse sweat, spreading down his slick shoulder even as she watched.

The rain continued to pelt down. One of the hounds trotted up and sniffed at its master's face, then looked at her and whined. Sluggishly, she reached out a hand and unbuttoned Kastchei's coat, placing her hand on the wound to try and slow the bleeding, but she couldn't bring enough pressure to bear. Warm blood, slowed by the cold, still trickled through her fingers. His face was already ashen. Wearily she looked around, hoping for any sign of help. But they were in the middle of the forest, outside his hunting lodge, and from her previous visit, she knew he kept these lodges to himself. She was alone, a good ten feet from the door and he had to be at least twice her slight weight, and a good six inches taller.

It might as well have been ten miles, she thought glumly, given the state he was in. She had no idea if her attempts to move him would make his injuries worse, but there was no choice.

She stood up clumsily, slipping a little in the wet, icy mud, and made her way to the door of the lodge. It opened easily at her touch, and she pushed the door fully open. She made her way back to Kastchei, and after a last futile attempt to rouse him, placed his uninjured arm over her shoulder and tried to lift him. She failed and slipped, landing awkwardly. Trying a different tack she tried to pull him towards the safety of the lodge, but in the thawing mud, found that it was like trying to drag a hundredweight or two. She simply didn't have the strength, and already the wet and the cold were affecting her ability to think clearly.

A small, wizened looking creature ran out at her from behind the log-pile to the side of the lodge, making her jump. Heart pounding wildly, she struggled to free her pistol from the folds of her coat. Hissing angrily however, it ignored her, and instead jumped up and down on the spot, spitting at the hounds and the ever-implacable Sivushka. The two largest hounds growled low and stalked stiff-legged towards the furry little creature, hackles raised. Her fingers already stiff with cold, and unable to focus clearly, she tried to bring the hellfire pistol to bear, only to find herself falling, darkness claiming her before she hit the cold wet ground to lie next to Kastchei.

Kitezh.

A deathly silence had fallen over the city. Neither air cars nor horse drawn vehicles roamed the streets now, and the monorail hung overhead, empty and dead. It was mid-afternoon and the sun shone brightly, if without much warmth. The traders had shut up shop, those whose businesses hadn't been hit by the attack deciding not to push their own luck. Those who did take to the streets did so furtively, and kept a weather eye on the skies, scuttling along as quickly as possible to their destinations. In the kremlin, guards, servants and courtiers were no different: conversations took place in hushed low tones, and over the whole, there was the sense of the gathering gloom before a storm breaks - heavy, expectant and charged. To Taliesin, it felt like a harp string tuned too tightly - the wrong pressure at the wrong time, and it would snap back into his face like a whip. He pulled his collar together and huddled deeper into his coat as he splashed through the slush on the streets. A seller of hot salla-roots tried to interest him in a steaming sample of his wares as he passed the brazier on the corner, and he waved him away politely.

'You didn't have to keep an eye on me,' he said evenly, as Nikolai Uulamets fell in beside him. He glanced across at the blond man. Uulamets shrugged, and tugged his hat down further over his ears.

'I know.'

They reached the out all of the kremlin, and Uulamets waved off the two guards who barred their way. The men stood to attention and saluted as he past, a gesture their commander returned lazily. 'Yuri wouldn't have ordered me to follow you, but I like to keep an eye on things. Especially with so much at stake.'

'If you feared I'd make a run for the enemy camp, you misjudge me.'

'It's my job to be cautious,' Uulamets told him bluntly. They reached the stables, and Taliesin saw Voronwy and a bay cybrorse standing in the middle of the yard, held by grooms. 'Time to go. Are you ready?'

Taliesin accepted a leg up from Voronushka's handler, and settled himself in the saddle, wincing slightly at the thought of riding again so soon, despite the fact that his aches and pains had faded days ago. He took up the reins and felt the stallion settle under him, accepting the familiar hand. He'd never been overly fond of cybrorses - they were rare on Gwynedd, and almost all of them were bred for war - a prickly breed at best, but Kastchei's cybrids were far more sophisticated. The black was more responsive than the flesh and blood horses back home. As Uulamets mounted his own steed - a good hand and a half taller than the lightweight Voronushka - he noted the bay's distinctive markings - four white socks and an uneven stripe running from a narrow star between his eyes, to a crooked snip between his nostrils. It gave the raw-boned bay a somewhat quizzical look - and one that was rather familiar.

'I can't help thinking I've seen that horse before, somewhere,' he mused. Uulamets gathered the reins in his left hand, and smiled.

'You probably have. The cybrids Yuri uses are bred from the Baba's templates - in effect, there are probably only about a dozen cybrorses on the planet.'

He rode out of the yard, Taliesin at his side, in a semi-companionable silence. Riding through the deserted streets Taliesin felt as though he were part of some funereal procession, and immediately tried to clear the image. The presentiment of coming disaster didn't go away, however, and the feeling of some oppressive doom lurking over the horizon wasn't lifted by the threatening weather. The day was darkened by the thunderheads overhead, heavy with the storm that had yet to break.

They reached the picket line of Kai's camp just before noon. The outriders galloped up to meet them before they'd even been stopped by the sentries. By agreement, Taliesin did the talking. The lead knight bowed from the waist – a not altogether easy task on horseback. Taliesin dropped his head slightly in reply.

'Tell Lord Commander Kaiwyn ap Eachtar that Taliesin ap Gwion, Chief Bard to Elphin, would speak with him.'

The knight was a young man, fair haired and wearing grey armour that looked as though it had been handed down through far too many generations. He smiled nervously at Taliesin's request, and sent his second away to inform the commander.

'I am Sir Breogan of Braganza. If you'll follow me?'

There was something odd about his voice, Tal noted. Something familiar. As casually as he could, he rode Voronushka closer to Breogan's grey.

'You're with the Ninth, are you not, Sir Breogan?'

The knight nodded. 'I joined just before we came here.'

'You're a little young for such treachery,' Taliesin let the barb sink in with the slightest of edges to his voice. The knight turned in his saddle and looked at him.

'You don't want to believe everything you hear, cynfierdd.'

Taliesin schooled his features into careful neutrality. 'Is that so?' he drawled.

'In times of war, yes.' Breogan kicked his cybrorse into an extended walk, leaving Taliesin to follow at a more leisurely pace with Uulamets at his side.

           

The Estuary, Southern Coastal region.

'Lord Commander?'

Kai didn't look up from the durafilm reports in his hand when the knight spoke, and the young man in grey armour shuffled his feet and cleared his throat. 'My lord?'

Kai walked the length of his tent and around the makeshift desk - a workbench brought down from the drakkar. Only when he'd taken his seat and laid the papers on the table in front of him did he finally acknowledge the messenger.

'Sir Breogan, is it not?' The youth nodded.

'Of House Braganza, yes, Lord Commander. The emissaries from the city have arrived.'

Kai leaned back in his chair and placed his feet up on the table, the black armoured sabotons making a satisfyingly casual clang on the lightweight metal of the desk.

'Well send them in boy!'

The boy flushed, and stammered as he tried to speak. Impatiently, Kai sighed. 'Just get on with it.'

The young knight bowed and left the tent. Seconds later, Taliesin and Uulamets swept in. Uulamets bowed, Taliesin found the nearest chair and sat down in it.

''Do make yourself comfortable, Taliesin,' Kai told him dryly. 'Wine?'

'No, thank you.'

Kai shrugged. 'As you please. Commander Uulamets – please, do sit down. We should be civilised about this, yes?'

'I'd hope so, Lord Kai.' Uulamets took the chair nearest the entrance of the tent, and moved it slightly so that he could watch the entry. It was also far enough away from the canvas to be out of reach of a sword tip. Kai poured himself a goblet from the flagon on his table and drained it, after saluting Uulamets with a knowing smile. Then ignoring the commander, he turned his attention to the waiting bard.

'I suppose there's little point in the usual pleasantries,' he began.

'I'm so glad you think so,' Taliesin snapped. 'Just what do you think you're doing?'

'Breaking oath and rescuing my nephew. There's really little more to it, Taliesin. Don't think to look for anything more sinister. At heart, it's really quite simple.'

'An open defiance of the High King is treason, Kai.'

'I wouldn't call it defiance – after all, I've not been forbidden to do what I'm doing.' He smiled wolfishly. 'The end result is the same, however. And for the record, you can tell Elphin that I will see his bastard dynasty removed from Caer Tagel.'

Taliesin shook his head sadly. 'You helped to put him there,' he said softly.

'When there was no option but total anarchy!' Kai slammed his fist down on the table, tipping the slender trestle and sending his papers flying. He ignored the litter and continued more calmly: 'Morgaine was gone, her only heir with her. Maelgwn was a puppet, controlled by the Legion and that parasite, Harbinger. Under their rule there was no hope for the Alliance. Elphin was the best option.'

'Are you trying to tell me that this was your plan all along?' Taliesin scoffed. 'To place Elphin on the throne to hold the Thirteen Worlds together until you could bring Morgaine and Mordred back from Avallion?'

'Not even my grandfather was that prescient.' Kai leaned back again in his chair. 'At the time, it seemed expedient to allow Elphin to take control - he offered the best choice for stability. No, it wasn't until your own investigations turned over one stone too many, and Calaitin crawled out of hiding, that I changed my mind.'

A bolt of lightning seen through the tent's open entrance split the sky, momentarily taking the edge off the gloomy shadows inside the tent that even the bio-lamps could not dispel. Taliesin counted to thirteen before the thunder rolled.

'You sought them out after I returned to Caer Tagel.'

Kai shrugged. 'They weren't hard to find. Not once I knew who I was looking for.

'Oh don't look so shocked, Taliesin. I saw my chance, I took it. You'd have done the same, once.'

Taliesin shook his head emphatically. 'Never.'

Kai stood up and walked around the desk to stand in front of Uulamets, who watched the exchange in wary silence. 'Commander - please give us a moment?'

Uulamets looked over to Taliesin, who nodded once. With a bow, he took his leave.

Once they were alone, Kai turned to face Taliesin. 'We are family, after a fashion, Taliesin. We should not be enemies.'

'You should have thought of that before bringing that psychopath back. You had no love for him, Kai - why?'

Kai tipped his head to one side, as though considering the question. 'He's kin.'

'He was kin to a body that died over twelve hundred years ago,' Taliesin said softly.

Kai flinched. 'Would you then deny that the cauldron-born have a claim to the lives of their memories?' he replied frostily.

Taliesin kept his eyes fixed on Kai's, sensing the resistance to the suggestion. 'We are what we are. A memory. Merlin is gone, Gwion died two hundred and fifty years go, and Kaiwyn ap Eachtar died on the field of battle at Camlann in his foster brother's arms.'

'Only three people ever knew of that, Taliesin - and two of them are dead,' Kai snarled.

'So is the third,' Taliesin replied. 'I am not Merlin.'

Kai walked towards him, and placed his hands on the arms of Taliesin's chair, as though to prevent him from moving. Taliesin sat back and relaxed, refusing to be intimidated. After a moment, Kai's mouth twitched into a slight smile, and he stood up again, and walked away. He took his own seat behind his desk.

'We are none of us what we once were, Taliesin. You claim only to be the revenant of Gwion, the raven bard - and yet all know that Gwion in turn was Merlin reborn. If that is so, then we are kin, and we should stand together. At whatever remove, the same blood runs in our veins, or did once, Grandfather. Join me.' This last was almost pleading in tone.

Taliesin stood up slowly. Very deliberately, he reached under his coat and pulled out his dagger. Holding it in his left hand, he pushed the sleeve on his right arm up to expose his wrist, and then, his pale green eyes never wavering from Kai's, he drew the edge of the blade across the skin, cutting deeply into the flesh, and then turned his arm and let the blood drip to the ground.

'If any of that blood still ran in my veins, I would sooner spill it all, drop by drop, than accept such a fate.'

The blood ran over his outstretched hand, warm in the chill winter air, and dripped relentlessly to the ground. Taliesin sheathed the knife, bowed, and walked out of the tent, leaving a trail of blood behind him.

Kai made no attempt to call him back, or to stop him.

Once outside the tent and out of direct line of sight, he clamped his hand above the wound, slowing the flow of blood to a trickle, and then, as he concentrated, it stopped. Uulamets joined him, and silently offered a clean cloth to wrap the wound - accepted just as silently.

'I take it the offer wasn't to your liking,' Uulamets said disingenuously.

Taliesin finished binding the cut and pulled his gloves back on. 'That's one way of putting it,' he replied, under his breath. Anything further Uulamets might have asked was forgotten as the young knight who'd led them into the camp strode towards them and saluted.

'I'm to take you to quarters until the Commander is free to see you again,' he said imperiously. 'You should consider yourselves to be our guests, for the duration.'

Taliesin took a deep breath. 'A gilded cage is still a cage,' he said quietly. 'Lead on, Sir Breogan.'

           

North...

Vivienne awoke to the sound of horses whinnying. Sunlight streamed over the furs that covered her, and she sat up groggily, blinking in the bright light.

'Awake at last?' The voice was accompanied by what sounded like the tinkling of bells. She turned to look at the speaker, and found herself face to face with an old woman, sitting beside her bed, grey hair straggling out from under a face-frame, her features hidden by the dangling strands of bells and clinking disks that decorated it. She was wearing a dress that might have been blue, once upon a time, but which had faded to grey, except for the bits protected by pockets and frayed hems. It was also a little too large for her bony frame.

'Where am I?'

The woman cackled. 'The old ones are the best, they say. Good girl, start with the easy questions. You're in my house, where else?'

'That isn't much of an answer, since I don't know who you are,' Vivienne replied. The woman laughed again.

'Well then, perhaps you should ask the right questions, in the right order. I'm surprised at you, Vivienne of Avallion - isn't asking questions what you do best?'

'Once,' Vivienne said, distractedly. She looked around the room, taking in the crude wooden slats that made up the walls, chinked with moss and clay. There seemed to be only one room - certainly, the only door she could see was slightly ajar, and she could see the night sky through it. 'Who are you? Where's Kastchei?'

'I am called many things, child. The leshii call me the khoziaika lesa - the mistress of the forest. The city dwellers call me Baba Yaga.

'Your friend is over there,' she pointed to the corner of the room, nearest to a large iron stove. 'Badly wounded, but he'll live. Hard to kill, that one. Always was.'

Vivienne tried to stand, and the room span. She sat back down, the Baba's hand on her shoulder.

'Easy, girl, rest easy. He's going nowhere soon and neither are you. If the dvorovoi hadn't brought you here, you would both be dead. You were sorely hurt.'

Vivienne's hand traced the flat mound of her stomach, almost automatically, as memory flooded back, and with it, the horror and pain of the past few days.

Mordred...

'Easy, dear, lie back. Safe now.' The Baba's voice had such a soothing tone, she obeyed instantly, feeling drowsy even as she lay back down. Sensing the compulsion, she fought against it, but the woman's voice was so soft, so tender...

She slept.

It was mid-afternoon when she awakened again, this time to the scent of cooking, and the clatter of a ladle on iron. The old woman was stirring a great pot, suspended over the fire, and humming under her breath. At her feet, several small stick-like creatures were gathered, humming along with her. As Vivienne sat up they turned as one to look at her, and in the blink of an eye, vanished with startled squeaks. The Baba turned to look at her and smiled. This time she wasn't wearing her face frame, and her face, though lined and ancient, still showed traces of the handsome woman she might have been, once.

'There's a dress you can wear, I suggest you put it on. Better that than your own things. I put those on the fire.'

Still in a daze, Vivienne dressed and made her way across the single roomed-hut, bare feet chilled by the cold wooden floor. Thin light streamed through the windows and the open door, and Vivienne guessed that it was early morning, but how long she'd slept, she had no idea. She felt refreshed, however, and guessed at least a day had passed.

'Thank you,' she said, unable to frame much more of a sentence. The old woman nodded, and returned to her stirring. Feeling at least marginally human again, Vivienne knelt at the side of the pallet on which Kastchei lay, covered in white furs, his dark auburn hair spread out upon the pillow. In sleep, he looked strangely vulnerable, the lines around his eyes deepened with pain.

'Will he be all right?' she asked. She let her hand rest lightly on his cheek, but he didn't stir.

'That one?' He'll awaken in his own time. Sleep is the best healer for most ills.'

Vivienne pulled aside the blankets covering him, to examine the wounds; the wound in his side was covered by bandages steeped in some foul-smelling liquid. The Baba rapped her knuckles with her ladle.

'Leave well enough alone, child. I know my business. The physical hurts the two of you carry will heal well enough - yours are already gone. His will take a little longer. Fool of a man, too used to his invulnerability, too long immortal and he forgets what it is to take care of himself. Well, it is a lesson he will not soon forget, I think. Never one to make the same mistake twice, this one' She paused, and laughed. 'Well, except perhaps in one respect, but many a man makes a fool of himself over women, especially when he thinks himself above such things.'

Vivienne covered the sleeping sorcerer again, smoothing the furs. 'How did we get here? The last thing I remember…'

'The dvorovoi who lives in the stables of the Master's lodge brought you to me. You were fortunate, an hour or so longer you'd both be dead.' The old woman bustled around Vivienne, clucking and muttering under her breath. 'Your hurts were easy to heal, his less so.' She paused in her perambulations and stared towards the covered figure of the sorcerer. 'If it were only the physical injuries, I'd be less concerned.'

Before Vivienne could respond, she bustled off again, once more the rambling crone, the sudden flash of something else gone as though it hadn't existed. 'You look nervous, girl. Too many fireside tales from your bard? Eh?'

Caught by the change in subject, Vivienne stammered. 'I – I don't know. Your reputation is fierce enough in some tales Tal uncovered.'

The crone snorted. 'Hah. People always fear power, girl. They fear those who have it, they fear the getting and the having and the keeping of it, they fear the not-having. Do you fear me?' The question was fired at Vivienne like a bullet from a gun, and again she found herself off guard.

'A little.' She took the stool that stood beside the table that occupied this corner of the room, and sat down, trying too look nonchalant. The crone fixed Vivienne with a sharp-eyed look. Vivienne noticed for the first time that her eyes were blue - forget-me-not blue. The same blue as the noonday sky outside the hut, the sun blazing down through the open windows. 'You should fear that one - ' she pointed to the comatose Kastchei -'before fearing me. That one's name has been written in blood on more worlds than I have years. Or do you think that such a comely form could not possibly be so evil, eh? Handsome is as handsome does - you might not be so accepting of him if he still wore his real body.' She stirred her pot, rhythmically. 'Such a nasty little man, he was.' She suddenly stopped her stirring and pointed her ladle at Kastchei. 'And still one who thinks he can act without consequence. See, did I not tell you he would awaken in his own time? Thinks he can lie there so still and quiet, and I will not notice he sleeps not? If so, he has forgotten much of what he knew.'          

'I've not forgotten, Old One,' Kastchei said quietly. He sat up, wincing as the wound in his side pained him. 'I served you too long to forget.'

'Still find the collar chafes even after so long, Kastya?' The crone laughed. 'Never one to call another "master" this one, save himself - and even that was a galling yoke to wear, eh, my proud huntsman?'

'Sometimes, old woman, you talk too much.'

'I like to keep myself company. However you may enjoy each other's, for a time. I have my mares to feed.' With that, the hut momentarily stopped its delicate stepping and she left the hut, vanishing into the night. The moment she was clear of the last step, the hut resumed its dainty dance. Vivienne sat beside an increasingly pale Kastchei.

'You look dreadful.'

'I've had better days, it has to be said.' He lay back on the pallet, with an audible sigh of relief. 'How long have we been here?'

She shrugged. 'Time passes strangely here, it's difficult to tell.'

'Oh, that I know all too well, but at least it should pass in our favour.' He struggled to sit up again, only to be pushed easily back by Vivienne. 'I do not have time for this, 'Nina,' he told her.

'Kit - be sensible, you're going nowhere. Not for a day or two at least. You're lucky to be alive - Mordred's blade only narrowly missed a couple of major organs, in addition to the broken bones. Rest. Let the Baba do her job.'

He obeyed, albeit reluctantly, lying back with as much grace as he could muster. 'I am not the only one who should get some rest,' he said eventually. His grey-eyed gaze flickered over her, missing nothing.

'I'm fine. Although you took more than just the pain away,' she said, a little more bitterly than she'd intended. The memory of Mordred's touch clung leechlike to her memory, tainting every breath she took, and she tried to force it out of her mind, part of her wishing Kastchei would just reach out and take it away again, another part of her fearing that he could, so easily take away whatever he chose.

'I did what I had to do. And don't tell me everything is fine, and that you can manage: I've used that line myself too often to be fooled by it.' He reached out his hand and lay it against her cheek. She didn't pull away, although it took an effort to permit even that contact. He let his fingers drift over her skin and down to the back of her neck, tangling in her long chestnut hair and pulling her closer. His eyes, fixed upon her hazel ones, saw the sudden flicker of uncertainty, and he released the pressure, although he didn't move his hand. She was free to pull away, if she wished. Instead, she reached out her own hand and touched his cheek, brushing the rough growth of stubble, the dark red now flecked with grey. She ventured a small smile, and leaned forward and kissed him, lightly, defying her fear.

'You shouldn't exert yourself just yet,' she said with slightly mocking gaiety, her face only inches from his. 'You're nowhere near healed yet, you damn fool.'

'I suppose you'll just have to be gentle with me then, won't you?' His tone was teasing, the hand that was buried in her hair, with only just enough pressure to ask for resistance, wasn't. Nor were those searching grey-blue eyes.

'If you rupture those stitches,' she murmured into his ear, a moment later,' I won't be held responsible.'

'Well you know what they say,' he said lightly as he placed his other hand around her waist and pulled her closer. 'If you break it, you've bought it...'

She laughed at that, and it turned into a hiccup. When she looked up she found his eyes dancing with an unaccustomed humour, warmer than she'd ever seen them.

'You really are impossible.'

'I'm beginning to find that out,' he said, without a trace of irony. 'Stay a while, I could use the company.'

'Just company?'

'Unless you want me to rupture these stitches.'

She settled down beside him, careful to avoid the worst of his injuries, and pulled the covers over them both. 'You know, I always thought Tal was about as annoying as anyone could be, when he has a mind to it, but you could take the red ribbon in the event.'

'Oh I think you'll find that I can be far more obtuse, obscure, annoying and downright irritating than your pretty little bard could ever be,' he said softly. A little later, when the pattern of her breathing slowed and she was relaxed in sleep, he shifted a little under the weight of her arm, and continued, so quietly she might not have heard even had she still been awake: 'After all, I'm an original, not a copy.'

In the darkness of the hut he heard a cackle.

'Are you so sure of that, Kastchei Bes-Mertny?' the crone asked from the shadows.

He didn't answer.

The Estuary

Dusk fell, and the threatened storm still hovered on the horizon. Periodically jagged flashes of lightning split the sky, but the thunder was faint, and lagging well behind the discharge. The intermittent roar of the dromond engines, shuttling troops between Novgoren and the valley, or more rarely from the Prydwen in orbit, was louder.

Kai watched the sun set behind the horizon, and ignored the woman standing at his side in the shadow of his tent. She, however, was not so patient.

'Night falls, Kaiwyn. The storm will follow swiftly.'

'I know.' He didn't look at her. 'What news of my nephew?'

'Kastchei scattered his wits a little, nothing that the healers cannot handle. The Master of the Hunt is out of the field for now, but he heals quickly.'

'You could kill him,' Kai said softly. The woman laughed.

'I could try. Even mortal, he is too wary, and the woman is just as careful.'

'A dagger in the ribs wouldn't take much subtlety. Or risk.'

'Perhaps. But if you want him, you'll have to take him yourself. Attack the city, he will come. He has a twisted sense of honour, but he does have one. In many ways it's his main weakness.'

'The problem should never have arisen in the first place,' Kai snapped. He turned to look at her, but he was alone in the night, except for a nearby sentry. Dismissing the encounter with a shake of his head, he signalled the knight and sent him to fetch his other guest, before ducking back into the relative shelter of the command tent.

Breogan was waiting for him inside, and he brushed past the younger knight, and seated himself before deigning to acknowledge him. Breogan shuffled nervously and cleared his throat, whilst Kai made a show of looking over the latest reports.

'My lord – you sent for me?' Breogan asked eventually.

Kai placed the reports on the table in a neat pile and and stood up. 'You return to Novgoren tomorrow, yes?'

Breogan nodded.

'You may tell my nephew,' Kai said coldly, walking towards the young knight, 'that if he deigns to move his arse away from the comforts of Novgoren and its obliging chatelaine, and bring the Ninth Legion here I'll undertake to have this city in our hands by nightfall. Further more,' he said, standing over the younger man and towering over the boy by a good half foot, 'You might like to tell him that if he's half the sorcerer his mother was, perhaps his talents would be put to better use here, than sulking several hundred miles away.'

'You'll need him. The city cannot be taken without sorcery, my lord.'

Both Breogan and Kai turned to look at the speaker. A slight figure stood in the entrance of Kai's tent, looking a little bedraggled as he stood in the rain that had poured continuously all week.

'Prince Alexander Yuriov, late of Kitezh,' Kai introduced him to his bemused subordinate. 'No, don't start bowing and exchanging pleasantries, I was being sarcastic. You - ' he pointed to Breogan - 'Take the next dromond to Novgoren. You' - he pointed to Alexei, 'sit down.'

'You've kept me waiting on the outskirts for three days,' Alexei said sulkily as soon as they were alone. 'I told your men, I came here of my own free will. I'm no spy.'

'Then what are you - a traitor?' Kai looked the boy up and down, and shook his head dismissively. 'It's a lonely path for one so young, why walk it?'

'Do you ask me that?' Alexei asked. 'I grew up hearing tales of your deeds - you've turned your coat so often I'm surprised you remember which way round to wear it.' His boyish defiance had all the bite of a puppy standing up to a hell-hound, and Kai laughed.

'Listen, boy - when a gift-wrapped parcel lands in my lap, I'm careful about how I open it if I don't know where it's from or who sent it. I lost one life that way, I don't plan to lose another. I'm satisfied you're what you claim to be, at least. The question is, just how useful can you be?'

'How useful do you want?' The boy relaxed in his chair and steepled his hands under his chin. With one swift kick Kai sent him sprawling to the floor, and bent over him, lifting him up with his collar.

'You will not take that tone with me, nor will you treat me like one of your lackeys, your highness. At the moment you are in my camp, on my sufferance. That can change, very easily. Remember one thing, and you might live: I never trust anyone who is prepared to betray family.' He let Alexei drop, and the boy sat in an ungainly heap on the floor, rubbing his neck and scowling.

'I can give you the city,' he said sulkily, 'but I want one thing in return.'

Kai laughed again. 'Really? You make demands?'

'A request then.'

'You want Kastchei, if we manage to take him?' The prince looked surprised that his petulant desire for revenge was so transparent. 'In days gone by, revenge was a much more subtle matter. I suppose you planned to challenge him over the death of your queen?'

Alexei lifted his head proudly, and now Kai was reminded of a young stag standing at bay with a hound at its throat. 'It is my duty.'

'He'll kill you without a backward glance,' Kai scoffed. 'From what I heard from Alianora before her untimely demise, he was playing with you. Come to think of it, so was she for that matter - or did you think it just coincidence that she chose your duel as cover to retrieve our prize from Avallion?'

Alexei's face didn't lose its stubborn expression. 'Then you have nothing to lose, do you, Lord Commander?'

'One thing I don't understand,' Kai said, ignoring the question as meaningless. 'Why betray the city, and your father?'

'My father is Kastchei's puppet,' Alexei spat. 'I owe him nothing.'

Kai clasped his hands behind his back and regarded the boy for several seconds, gauging the strength of his resolve and his honesty. Thus far, his men had reported that since the prince had turned up on a winded cybrorse three days ago, he'd shown nothing but sulky defiance and hatred towards his father, the city, and the Master of the Hunt.

Kai had his reasons for wanting two of those, and it cost him nothing to humour the boy. He handed the boy a goblet from his table and filled it with wine. He waited as Alexei picked up his chair and sat down warily. 'We should be civilised, your highness,' he purred. Alexei took the goblet and relaxed, easily reassured. 'Tell me more about Kitezh.'

 

 

 

 

Chapter 12

The Estuary.

Taliesin looked up as the knight – Breogan – entered the tent where he and Uulamets were being held. The young knight dismissed the woman guarding them, and closed the tent flap after her. He met Taliesin's questioning gaze with a confidence at odds with his appearance.

'You've really gone and done it now, haven't you?' he said eventually.

Uulamets looked puzzled. 'Do you know this man?' he asked Taliesin. Who looked at the knight and arched an eyebrow. The knight's face blurred and shimmered, the features running into each other as though seen through smeared glass. The hair darkened from fair to jet-black, the face became leaner and older, the nose longer. When the illusion was gone, the man standing in front of them was slimmer, darker and appeared to be a good twenty years older than "Breogan".

'Sadly, the answer is "yes". This is my second, in the council of the Cynfeirdd. Hello, Marius.'

'I don't have much time,' Marius said, keeping his voice low. 'Nor can I keep a zone of silence over this tent – Kai's as thick as a brick when it comes to such things, but some of his sub-commanders are a bit quicker on the uptake.'

'What the bloody hell are you doing here?' Taliesin hissed. 'I left you in charge of the council.'

Marius placed his helmet on one of the pallets and sat down beside it. 'With full powers to take whatever action I felt I had to. About a week after you and Vivienne left, my cousin Breogan came to me with wild stories about rumours in the Legions – the Ninth in particular. I had to investigate.'

'You could have sent someone else.'

Marius shook his head. 'No. Not someone I could trust – apart from Devin, and he's hors de combat at the moment. Someone tried to kill him just before we left.'

Taliesin gave him a sharp look. 'Another bard?'

Marius nodded. 'I'm certain of it. Something is very wrong back home – Kai's moves are just a part of it. That's partly why Dev's back home in mufti, keeping an eye on things. The rest of them think he's with me. Have you noticed the banners in camp?'

'What banners?' Uulamets asked. 'I've seen no devices on any of these knights.'

Both bards nodded. 'Precisely,' they said in unison.

'No house devices on show – which means the houses these knights belong to are playing it close. I recognise a few faces,' Marius continued, 'But no-one's out in the open, and there's no-one here above the rank of Count.'

In reply to Uulamet's questioning eyebrow, Taliesin picked up the explanation.

'Elphin has held the alliance together for ten years, but there are still factions who would follow Mordred if he returned. It's a delicate balance. Most of them will probably wait to see who looks like winning, before committing themselves openly. That's why there are only minor lords and younger sons here.'

'So you cannot allow Mordred to leave Skazki?'

Taliesin nodded. 'We have to try to stop him, at least.' He sighed. 'What else?' he asked Marius.

'Not as much as I'd hoped - I couldn't get near Kai's tent unless he was in it. Remind me next time to pick a knight with a bit more seniority. I spent two days running errands for Lady Medb macAoifa. As far as I can tell though, only the Prydwen is in orbit.'

Taliesin raised an eyebrow. '"Only", he says. She's the former flagship of the fleet. Is that all?'

'Kai's sending me – "Breogan" – back to Novgoren. He wants the rest of the forces here, and Mordred's sorcery. I suggest you get yourselves out of here before he arrives – he's got good cause to hate you, after all.'

Taliesin grimaced. 'To hate Merlin, perhaps. I sometimes think I'm damned to go through life trying to pick up the mess he left behind.' He placed his hand on Marius' arm. 'What of Vivienne?'

Marius didn't meet his gaze at first. When he looked up, his grey eyes held a mixture of grief and sympathy.

'She got away, only a day after he took her.' He smiled grimly. 'Quite an escape - this Kastchei has them both on edge, and he gave Mordred a real pasting by all accounts. But they say he was sorely hurt in the process. Where they are now I couldn't say.'

'That isn't all,' Taliesin said quietly. 'What are you holding back?'

Marius hesitated. 'Mordred wasn't exactly gentle with her.'

Taliesin's eyes could change from their habitual pale agate to a stormy emerald when angry, and they flashed now, his normally mild expression replaced by one that had a look, to Uulamets, looking on, that reminded him uncomfortably of Kastchei.

'You're not normally one to take refuge in euphemism, Marius,' Tal chided his second. 'Don't do it now, and never think to do it to me.'

Marius bowed his head briefly in acceptance of the rebuke. 'I don't know the details, chief, I swear to you. All I know is hearsay from the guards. He raped her, and tortured her. Dammit – don't look at me like that – what was I supposed to do? Run in there on my own and try to get her out?' He looked at his superior. 'Don't even think of showering me with self-righteous anger, Tal – if you hadn't played the hero and taken this one on your own...'

'Marius.'

Uulamets, looking on, felt as though he could almost touch the weight of pain and guilt in the bard's voice. Taliesin's voice had cracked on the last syllable, a loss of control unheard of for the skazitjeli.

'You know I'm right,' Marius said bluntly. 'You've also been beating yourself up about this since it happened, if I know you. And I do.'

Sounds from outside grew louder: men moving machinery and weapons, and the not so distant whine of dromond engines being coaxed on line.

'They're playing your tune, I think,' Uulamets said. Marius gave him grateful smile.

'He's right,' he said to Taliesin. 'I have to go, before I'm missed. Watch your back with Kai, my friend. The man didn't get to be over twelve hundred years old by being stupid. And whatever you do, don't underestimate Mordred.'

'I could say the same for you,' Taliesin said. Marius grinned.

'If he hasn't recognised me by now, I doubt that he will. I can take care of myself - I've had a damn sight more practice than you have.' He checked the neck seals on his armour and picked up his helmet. 'There's a long distance scrylink in Novgoren. I tried to get to it, but the flap over Vivienne's escape made them increase the security. I might have better luck once things calm down a bit. If I do...'

'Tell Elphin - and only Elphin – what's going down here. If the council can't be trusted, he can still rely on his own people.' Taliesin sighed thoughtfully. 'Whatever you do, don't let him come here - tell him we'll handle it. Somehow.'

Marius made for the exit, and paused in the opening. 'We'll need a plan.'

'I'm working on it!'

Marius laughed, and turned to leave.

'Face,' Taliesin prompted. With a thankful grin, Marius replaced the illusion he'd dispelled earlier, and "Breogan's" fair and disingenuous features replaced his own dark good looks.

Marius lifted the helm above his head and it clicked into place with an audible ssnap and hiss of compressed air as the air supply connected and the final power cables snaked into place.

'If you can come up with a plan to get us out of this one, I'll eat my flute,' he grumbled, his voice muffled by the helmet.

'We've had worse odds,' Taliesin reminded him.

Marius' body language was restricted by the armour, but was still unmistakably a wince. 'Nothing so drastic this time, please, Taliesin? I still have nightmares about the Green Knight…'

With that, he slipped away into the night and was gone.

Elsewhere...

The castle had been designed to be impregnable, the walls built to exacting detail with the intent that they should withstand even the strongest assault. The architecture had been perfect, yet the walls had crumbled.

The rubble was scattered for several yards round the crown of the hill upon which it stood, a broken monument lashed by rain and winds, shrouded in darkness. He had to pick his way carefully across the broken ground, and twice tripped over a mossy boulder half-buried in the earth. Once inside the remains of the walls, it was clear that very little of the stone remained, and he thought idly that perhaps the stone had been removed over the years and used elsewhere.

With that thought he turned to look behind him, and instead of the path he'd followed to this place, a single tower reared above his head, reaching for the darkened heavens, remote and forbidding, even though it too had an air of decaying disrepair. He knew what he would find inside.

He stood in front of the mirror again and stared at his reflection. The mirror image was shorter than he: black hair was silvered at the temples (when his was dark auburn), and swept back from a receding widow's peak instead of curling across his forehead from a side-parting. The deep set eyes were heavy lidded and brown, flecked with gold, the nose was hooked instead of aquiline, and a sharp chin was only slightly mitigated by a neatly trimmed goatee, silvered at the sides of a narrow lipped mouth that had a cruel set to it. He was dressed in a conservative black suit from a world long removed from the web.

'Finally,' the reflection said, 'You found your way back at last.' The voice was smooth but dripping with contempt. 'We thought you'd never make it.'

'I never needed to,' Kastchei said coldly, looking around. 'There's nothing here I want.'

'If that were true, then why are you here?' The voice was harsh, cracked and broken. Bloodshot orbs glared at him from underneath a tattered cowl, which mercifully hid the ruined face beneath it; shrivelled, blackened and skull-like, the teeth exposed in a death-like rictus: a gruesome parody of a smile. One hand, burnt and twisted, stretched out like a claw towards him. 'Safe and secure inside your immortal fortress you could indulge yourself and put aside your past, but now...'

'I put aside nothing,' Kastchei said quietly. I've simply outgrown it.'

His reflection laughed, a deep-throated chuckle that held more than a hint of madness. 'Have you really? Then why, now that you are once again mortal - vulnerable - are you here?' A black gloved hand straightened a high velvet collar inlaid with a design in silver thread, and he smiled a peculiarly lop sided smile. Again black haired and bearded, but the features were coarser, the manner less polished. 'You had it all - power, immortality... and you threw it away.'

'Immortality?' Kastchei scoffed, 'is a living hell. Death would have been a welcome release.'

'Then die,' his reflection said, looking down at him. This time he was tall and thin, with a receding hairline and an angular, aristocratic profile. 'If you wanted that release, why not take it, now that you can?'

'Or do you still fear to face it, even now?' asked the dark haired man with silver in his hair. 'Is this what your lofty ideals come to after over eight centuries?' hissed the shrouded corpse, 'The first time in all of these years you come face to face with death and you come running back to where you started.' His reflection smiled and tugged at his black gloves, smoothing the fabric.

Kastchei took a deep breath. 'This is just a dream, a figment of my imagination. You - ' he pointed at the tall thin man in the mirror -'are a personification of my own doubts, nothing more.'

'Then why keep us locked away, behind these walls?' The heavy-eyed reflection asked him. 'Are you so afraid of what you are?'

Kastchei threw his head back and laughed. 'This? I didn't build this. Nor was it built to keep you in.'

He was standing on the hilltop inside the ruins of the castle, the wind tugging at his hair. The heavy-eyed figure from the mirror stood in front of him, this time wearing a grey suit. 'You built it.' He walked around the man, who stood unmoving in the centre of the ruins; a grey statue, almost. 'I built the walls inside my head, and when they fell, as it was inevitable that they would, I merely built a new edifice from the ruins of the old.' He faced the man in grey. 'Running from myself, and forgetting that no matter where you go, there you are.' He smiled coldly. '"The spring rebels not against winter, but it succeeds it - the dawn rebels not against the night but disperses it,"' he quoted softly.

'There was no succession, only dissolution,' the man in grey whispered.

'You'd like to think that, wouldn't you?' Kastchei circled him again. 'So much easier to cope with than the truth - that you were the monster all along. Hiding behind an empty title, as though to deny my name would deny my responsibility for my crimes.'

'Nooooo!' the man in grey screamed, his hands covering his ears. 'You lie!'

'The only thing that separates us is a single syllable!' Kastchei shouted. He grabbed hold of his doppelganger and forced his hands down from his face, which was bowed, hidden in shadow. 'That, and a sense of responsibility.'

'You'd like to think so, wouldn't you?'

The man looked up, and Kastchei stared into his own face.

Vivienne awoke with a start, disorientated for a moment until she remembered where she was. The uneven rocking of the hut as it stepped daintily around on the spot immediately made her feel a little queasy in the dark. Beside her, she felt, rather than saw, Kastchei, sitting bolt upright, breathing heavily.

'What's wrong?' she asked.

'Nothing,' he told her a little harshly. 'A dream. Just a dream,' he continued, a little more calmly.

'You once told me you don't dream,' she said gently, yawning. He disentangled himself from her and stood up, his movements alone giving away his sudden need for distance.

'I know. I don't.' He pulled his coat on. 'I'm going for a walk.'

For a few minutes she lay back on the pallet, debating whether or not to follow. His temper could be prickly at the best of times, and the last couple of days, facing an enforced convalescence, had been anything but that. Old instincts died hard, however, and her curiosity and compassion had always been strong. She scrabbled about in the dark, feeling for her borrowed clothes, and dressed quickly. From the far side of the hut the crone's snores came thick and fast, and she was able to sneak out without being heard.

Once outside the hut, she made her way to the corral that held Sivushka; as she'd expected, the stallion stood at the fence the fence, a pale shadow in the night, only just visible. The cybrorse whickered and lifted his head from where it rested on a darker shadow. Kastchei carried on grooming the giant cybrorse, the stallion leaning into the strong strokes. He didn't turn around as she walked up behind him.'

'I wanted to be alone,' he snapped, without any real conviction.

'No you didn't,' Vivienne said softly. Ignoring her he carried on, the physical task one she knew well by now to be his refuge when something disturbed him, as though the physical effort could, for a time at least, put a stop to more troubling concerns. She pulled herself onto the fence so that she could sit beside him whilst he worked. 'You're going to be able to see your face in Sivka's sides by the time you're done.' Sivushka nickered softly and lifted his head, his soft nose nuzzled her cheek and he huffed noisily into her ear. She stroked the stallion's nose absently, her attention on Kastchei, as he strapped the stallion's coat rhythmically.

'You could make yourself useful,' he said eventually, not taking his attention from the stallion. 'There's saddle soap and a cloth over there, and the saddle is caked with blood.'

'Couldn't you just...' she made a vague gesture with her hands.

'Of course I could just,' he mimicked her gesture, despite the fact that she could have sworn he'd not turned round once in the last minute or so. 'But where would be the satisfaction in that?'

'Less effort?' Vivienne quipped, as she fetched the soap, cloth and a bucket. She set to work on the saddle where it rested on the fence, and pulled a face when she realised that the blood soaked leather was frozen stiff. Kastchei reached back and tapped the saddle lightly with one hand, and it warmed and thawed under her fingers. 'Thanks.'

He joined her presently, sitting on the fence beside her, taking the bridle to pieces and cleaning it, this time in an almost companionable silence. Sivushka had wandered away to the far end of the corral, and was watching the mares milling around in the larger yard next door, ears pricked, huffing occasionally.

'Don't invite trouble, Sivka' Kastchei told him sharply, when the stallion neighed loudly to the mares. The cybrorse turned and snorted at him. 'Take that attitude and you can work some of that energy off.' He jumped down from the fence and stood in front of Vivienne. 'Coming?'

'I thought you wanted this cleaning?' She waved a stirrup leather under his nose. He fingered the leather and sighed regretfully.

'Leave it, like so many things it's a lost cause. Sivka needs some exercise and so do I. Care to join us?'

She shook her head. Without comment he whistled to Sivushka, and vaulted lightly onto the cybrid's back, the stallion moving lightly at his slightest touch, as though a part of him.

'Tell the crone I'll be back later, if she asks.' The gate opened at his command, and Sivushka trotted out onto the hillside, before an unspoken command sent him into a flying gallop, as though Kastchei intended to outrace the wind. Vivienne watched, the cold breeze whipping her hair over her face, until they were out of sight.

Kitezh.

Three more ships have landed

Yuri didn't look up from the reports on his desk, and the city made a sound that might have been its equivalent of clearing its throat.

Yuri? Nikolai and Taliesin have yet to return. A pause. How do long do I have to wait? We need to hide. Alexei could tell them how to breach my defences. I'm helpless sitting here.

There was still no reply.

Yuri? There was a rising note of panic in the city's "voice". The prince of Kitezh sighed heavily and pushed his chair back from his desk.

'Our defences have held before, my friend. There is still time. Relax.'

We were never faced with anything more organised than a few tribesmen or a rogue dragon-born before, Kitezh pointed out. I was not designed to withstand this level of attack. Nor are our people prepared.

'Kolya and Kit should both return soon,' Yuri said soothingly. 'The wards should hold that long, at least.'

If nothing has happened to them, Kitezh replied, sounding woebegone. Even then, they are but one sorcerer and a handful of men, against hundreds. A pause. I am afraid.

Yuri stood up and walked slowly over to the window. Outside, the normally clear violet sky had a darker, more malevolent hue, as heavy stormclouds gathered on the horizon. Two stories below his people massed in the courtyard, for yet another training session, using weapons that, if the worst happened, would better serve their masters by being turned on themselves than upon their aggressors: swords, knives, axes, bows and the very rare antique hellfire weapons were no match for trained knights in powered armour. The ranks of shopkeepers and artisans below worked dutifully, but were subdued.

Yuri looked back at the pile of reports on his desk, still unread. Reports of growing discontent and violence: the enemy was already running freely in their streets. It was called "fear".

Yuri clasped his hands behind his back, and lowered his head. Had he been of a more superstitious bent, he might have prayed. But he was dragon-born, admitting of no such conceit.

Their only hope now rested on the shoulders of two men, and perhaps a great deal of luck.

"Luck is no substitute for preparation"

He almost smiled at the memory of Kastchei's words, so long ago, when the two of them had taken on the might of the Lord of Summer, and won.

But his old friend was not here, and the lack was cause for concern. Kit had been gone a week, and the journey to Novgoren was a short step for the Master of the Wild Hunt. What could possibly be keeping him?

The Forest

'Time,' Kastchei told her when she'd fretted about the way the days seemed to speed past in the forest, 'is relative.' Such an annoyingly self-evident statement that she'd almost slapped him. The smug expression he'd worn was proof enough, she thought, that he was finally on the way to recovery. That, and his increasingly restless manner. He was not, she knew, a man who welcomed time for reflection.

Nor did he welcome the few home truths the Baba tried to throw his way. Two such incidents had ended with him simply walking away angrily, and disappearing with his pack to some corner of the woods, returning as the evening mists rolled down from the mountains, usually with supper in hand. This time sounded as though it would be little different.

'Always vengeance, killing and war!' The old woman sniffed angrily. 'Is that always to be our way?'

'They know no other,' Kastchei replied evenly. From her vantage point on the corral fence just outside the stables, Vivienne waited, not wanting to walk in on yet another argument, but too curious to move out of earshot. 'If they see fit – as they have done – to bring a war to me, then I will give them a fight.'

'To your door?' The Baba's voice rose in indignation. 'What about Vivienne? Or Kitezh? Be certain you can end this before more than they take hurt from it.'

'You would ask me to spare them?' Kastchei's voice dripped scorn. 'Ygraine, you are too transparent. Your son and grandson they may be, but I will give no quarter.'

'There are ways to deal with this, Kastchei, that do not involve war. Gareth's claim to the throne is a true one – the Ard Rí of Gwynedd has no clear right to the Black Throne. Some compromise can be reached –'

'Madam, I have been assaulted, betrayed, my friends attacked and my home destroyed. I put it too you that it is too late for diplomacy. It was too late the moment they approached Alia and tried to accomplish my death. As for Mordred - is blood so thick that you would ask me to negotiate with a rapist, Ygraine ap Myrddin?'

Vivienne almost choked at the mention of the woman's full name. She missed part of Kastchei's next comment.

'… ai may be your son, but I will not give up the Hunt whilst I live, and I doubt he has the stomach to take it from me personally.' She could picture his wry, sardonic smile as he spoke. 'The phrase "over my dead body" comes to mind.'

'Would that be too hard to achieve these days, Kastchei?' There was an edge to the Baba's voice that hadn't been there before. Unconsciously, Vivienne straightened, her hand dropping to where she normally wore her side-arm, remembering too late that it was probably still on a table on board one of Kai's dromonds. From inside the barn there was only silence, for what seemed like an eternity, as she held her breath.

'Even before I came here I was notoriously hard to get rid of, old woman.'

'Even your luck will run out one day, Bes-Mertny.'

'Luck,' Kastchei drawled, 'has nothing to do with it.'

'Even so, you should perhaps give careful thought as to which side you take in this matter.'

'Are you threatening me, Ygraine?' Kastchei's voice held a note of cold amusement. Vivienne winced mentally and waited for the explosion, but it didn't come. Instead, he continued icily: 'You should perhaps give careful thought as to which side you take.'

'I follow my conscience, at least,' the old woman snapped. 'Can you say the same?'

'I choose my own path,' Kastchei replied calmly. 'Conscience does not enter into it.' With that, Vivienne had to jump back behind the door as he strode out. She'd thought herself hidden and unseen, but he turned his head to look her straight in the eye as he walked to where Sivushka waited patiently at the gate of the corral. His sword belt was hung casually over the post, and he picked it up before vaulting onto the back of the cybrorse and sending him into an easy canter across the yard and over the bone fence that ringed the hut.

The slight jerk of his head towards the direction he'd taken had been an unmistakable request for her to follow. At least, as she slipped out of the gate a moment later, she hoped she'd read it correctly. With her luck, he was probably just stretching because he had a stiff neck.

She found him eventually on the hillside outside the bone fence that surrounded the Baba's hut. Sivka grazed contentedly nearby whilst his master worked in silence, shirtless in defiance of the cold wind, although his ribs were still bandaged. After watching him for a while, and seeing that he showed no sign that he'd noticed her, she sat down upon a convenient rocky outcrop, ostensibly to watch, and drew her borrowed sword, idly cleaning the blade as she waited. Eventually, he lowered the blade and looked at her from under a fringe of damp red hair, fallen from the pony-tail he pulled it into to keep it out of his way. He stuck the blade point first into the semi-frozen ground and leaned on it, staring at her.

'You look as though you've been kicked in the teeth,' she said eventually, giving up on the hope that he would be the one to break the silence. 'What happened in there?'

He walked over, shushed her over to make room on the outcrop and sat beside her. Taking a cloth out of his pocket he wiped his blade down carefully, staring out over the forest for the longest time before speaking.

'Nothing that we can discuss here. It's high time - past time - that we left. You look better today,' he finished, changing the subject.

Vivienne shrugged noncommittally. 'Some days better than others.'

'Want to talk about it?'

She shook her head, the emotions still too raw. She sensed that he was evading his own problems, and didn't appreciate being used as a distraction. 'Would you understand?' she snapped, a little more harshly than she'd intended.

He sat down next to her, without the explosion she'd expected. 'You feel as though you've had something fundamental taken from you - far in excess of the physical hurt. Wounds heal, but you've lose a part of yourself, had your faith in your ability to control your environment and yourself destroyed by something totally outside of your control – and it will fester. Nothing you see when you look in the mirror will ever be the same, and there's no going back.'

He'd let the cloth fall to the ground, and kept his gaze fixed firmly on the horizon. The silence of the lazy, limpid afternoon was almost deafening, until he spoke again, breaking the sombre mood abruptly with his characteristic smoothness. 'Are you going to polish that thing into non-existence, or can you still use it?' He brought his gaze back down to look at her, and tapped her blade with the tip of his own. 'Up. You look as though you can use the exercise.'

She stuck her tongue out at him before she stood up, grateful for the excuse to put her own mask back into place. 'Thanks - are you saying I'm getting fat?'

'Women,' he sighed theatrically. 'Yes. Positively flabby around the rear, now put that sword up.'

'Is that such a good idea?' she asked doubtfully. Although shirtless, he still wore bandages around his ribs, and there was a little blood on the edge where they overlapped with the dressing on his stab wound. 'Only a couple of days ago you were at death's door.'

He circled her at sword's length, his blade in an extended guard position, crouched low. 'Then you shouldn't have too much trouble then, should you?' His blade tapped hers, forcing her to engage. 'What are you waiting for?'

Warily, knowing he was the stronger and faster, she launched a tentative attack, hoping he'd settle for a bit of sparring, but his defence and riposte were so hard she was almost knocked off her feet. She transferred the blade into her left hand and wriggled her numbed fingers, whilst he stood back and grinned, just waiting.

'Fine,' she told him 'If that's the way you want it!'

He held back, that much she felt within seconds of engaging his blade. He was stronger, faster and bigger, and knew how to use it, but then she was smaller and marginally more agile. A couple of times she tried to force him to attack in the high line, in order to get under his blade, but found him wise to the move. Soon she was only defending, trying to keep enough distance between them to stop him from landing a blow, although this reduced her own chances. She managed one light touch - a scrape of the point across his upper arm, but had taken three herself in the process.

Another flurry of attack and parry left his blade skittering across hers in a shower of sparks, and they disengaged. This time, she saw him place a hand on his ribs and wince slightly, doubling over as he did so. Concerned, she lowered her blade and leaned towards him as he doubled over.

'Kit?'

A pricking sensation in the hollow of her throat stopped her dead. The tip of his sword pressed harder and she lifted her head up. He straightened, a knowing smile spreading across his face. She swallowed hard, and felt the small trickle of warm blood run down her neck, to disappear between her breasts.

'You really should get rid of your finer feelings.' He walked around her, keeping the sword at her throat, forcing her to turn on the spot to follow his movement. 'Compassion has no place in warfare. Get rid of it.'

'This isn't war.' Outwardly calm, inwardly she was furious with herself for letting him take her with such an old trick.

He lowered the blade, and stepped back. 'Not yet. You trust far too easily, my dear.' He handed her his blade and began unwrapping the bandages. Where only the day before he'd been bruised black and blue (and one or two colours she really hadn't liked the look of), the skin was clear and perhaps only a little lighter than his usual tan. Where Mordred had stabbed him only a thin scab remained. 'I heal quickly, it seems.' He dropped the bandages to the ground.

'Litterbug,' she accused lightly. She handed him his sword. She touched the cut on her throat and pulled a face when her fingers came away sticky with blood. 'Did you have to cut me to make a point?'

'Probably not,' he replied, in his most irritatingly nonchalant tone. 'It just seemed like a good idea at the time.'

She picked up his shirt and threw it at him.

'Bastard!' The shirt landed over his face, blinding him temporarily. Dropping her sword she launched a sweepkick aimed at scything his legs out from under him. He went down, but reached out as he fell and pulled her down with him, using his weight to hold her. He had her pinned to the soggy ground within the space of a heartbeat, and held her with one hand whilst he pulled the shirt away. When his face was clear, she saw that he was laughing.

'That's better - being a victim doesn't suit you.' His blue-grey eyes had taken on a violet hue, she noticed; his expression was slightly mocking, but those eyes still held a trace of that strict reserve he maintained almost as a spinal reflex.

'It doesn't look too good on you either,' she replied. Out of her own sense of mischief more than anything else, she tilted her head and kissed him.

His response took her by surprise, expecting, as she had done, his habitually playful reserve. The first time, she'd had the feeling that he'd been toying with her, pushing to see just how she'd react, and in turn she'd pushed back, refusing to let him overpower her or intimidate her. It had been a game, and both of them had understood the unspoken rules: it was about advantage, not desire, although that had played its own part. He'd known his strengths, and her weaknesses. She'd known her own strengths but had not found any chink in his impenetrable armour; no certainty that even the glimpses of the man behind the mask that she did see were any more real than the outward face he showed the world. During the last few days, when she'd been sure that even his iron will could not hold back the increasing tide of frustration and uncertainty forever, that mask had slipped only a fraction, and no more. Until now.

It terrified her even as she responded in kind: the shadow of Mordred's brutality was still too strong, and she panicked, momentarily, before realising that he wasn't even holding her. Only one point of contact held them together; one single moment that might have been stretched to infinity. One instant in time, on the verge of indecision: to passively submit and tell herself he was the stronger, or to take control again of her own life.

He pulled away from her, very slightly, although not enough to break the contact between them, and without hesitation this time, she followed, her fingers tangling in his hair even as he bore her down to the ground, unexpectedly warm and verdant: Summer warmth on her skin in defiance of the dying Winter that surrounded them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 13

The Encampment.

Taliesin stuck his head out of the tent and grinned at the guard who whirled around to bring his pistol to bear on him. When the knight traced the safety sigils, he pulled it back hastily.

'Chances?' Uulamets asked. Taliesin held his hand out and waggled it from side to side. 'That good?'

'One guard on the front of the tent, we're right in the heart of the camp - it's a good hundred yards to the perimeter, and it's lit up like the Festival of Lights out there. Could be tricky.'

Uulamets grinned. 'That's why you have me along, harper! Can you sing the guard to sleep?'

'Give it another hour or so - he'll be a little more receptive after midnight.'

'Unless they change him.'

Taliesin gave him a sour look. 'Don't go looking for problems, Nikolai, they'll find us in their own time.'

'Call me Kolya.' Uulamets lay back on his bed and put his hands behind his head. 'Why doesn't Kai just hit the city from orbit, if the Prydwen is powerful enough?'

'Take your pick: he wants the kremlin, or maybe his supply lines won't support it. Or maybe he already has an agreement with the Khoizaika lesa - besides, this is his home - why would he want it damaging too much if he can take it from the ground with minimal damage. Mass drivers are incredibly destructive.'

'So, we have a reprieve?'

'From Kai, probably. I'm not so sure we'll get one from Mordred.'

Uluamets sat up and stared at him. 'Remember what Kastchei told you, harper: you cannot take him.'

'It's my mess.'   With night fallen, the temperature had plummeted, and Taliesin pulled his coat around him more closely. 'More properly, it's Merlin's mess, and it's my job to clear it up, as usual.'

'You take too much on yourself, lad.' Kolya leaned forward and shook a finger at the bard. 'Take Kastchei's advice: worry about the past later – sufficient unto the day are the problems thereof! Why don't you try to figure out a way to get past the guards, get out horses and make a run for the city without being killed instead.'

Taliesin forced a short laugh. 'Ask me the easy ones, why don't you?'

Kolya's reply as he lay back down and closed his eyes was more genuinely amused. 'Nothing worthwhile was ever easy, Taliesin. Now keep one eye open and wake me if I drop off, will you?'

Elsewhere…

Phoenix stretched, luxuriating in the sensation, feeling like a skelka–cat in front of a fire. Overhead, the sky was clear of birds, as the orange sun sank slowly below the horizon. The ruins of the citadel cast long shadows over the ground, that skirted the edges of hir own, as it stretched out to the side. Phoenix lowered hir arms again slowly, and watched with new found curiosity as hir shadow's broad wings folded neatly against its side. Looking around, s/he could now put a name to each of the shattered buildings that lay in crumbling ruin: here the hall of records; there the Panopticon, its great dome cast down like a broken eggshell, lying atop a pile of rubble several metres high, as though that great egg had been hatched on top of the nest of some gigantic creature.

Phoenix looked down at hir shadow and smiled, then spread hir arms out to catch the winds. The dark blue fabric of hir robe fluttered, bannerlike, and the vast wings of the shadow opened, and enfolded Phoenix's slim form, spreading thinner and thinner until nothing remained.

Phoenix reappeared on the hillside overlooking the citadel, with a feeling akin to being watched from the darkness. Two ravens circled overhead, but quickly moved away, flying away from the city, which even as s/he watched, was covered by the fast-growing shadows that spread over it like the slow spread of blood on the snow, the shadows tinted red by the setting sun, before the blackness finally engulfed the ruined spires.

Novgoren.

'How dare he!' Mordred threw the goblet in his hand, and Marius ducked. The crystal shattered on the wall behind him, showering the young knight with red wine and shards of glass. Wisely, he made no move to brush himself off, but stood to attention whilst his lord raged. 'He orders me - me - to attend him? Am I to believe that one small, sessile caer with hardly any real defences is proving too much for the man who won the battles of Anderida, Celydon and Badon for Arthur?'

'With respect, my prince, Lord Commander Kai did suggest that the sorcerous defences of the citadel were outside of his experience, and that with your greater knowledge of such matters, your talents would be better suited to the task than his.' Marius bowed.

Mordred ceased his agitated pacing and smiled. 'You should have been a bard, Sir Breogan. I doubt my uncle put it quite so politely. So he needs my help does he? Well he shall have it, but on my terms. Send my page in, sir knight, and make ready the legion. We travel as soon as I am accoutred.'

'As you command, my Lord.' Marius bowed and backed out of the room, straightening as he reached the door. He closed it behind him with a quickly hidden sigh of relief. An imperious wave called the page assigned to Mordred over. He sent the boy into the room, then sought his own. Once within the safety of the four walls, the door sealed behind him, he relaxed, and allowed the features of Breogan to dissolve once more into his own. Mordred's comment about his diplomacy had given him a nasty moment. If Mordred saw through his disguise, he was a dead man. Unless of course he could somehow persuade him that his allegiance was still to his old order.

His hand went automatically to the collar of his armour, where the owls that were the symbol of his old order had once been. Long removed, but on some days, burned into the cerametal like a brand.

One that at least one member of the council still bore, if his suspicions were confirmed. Only four of the council of the cynfierdd had been part of Pwll of Badon's faction. Himself he could comfortably discount. Solange was usually too blunt for such subtlety. Devin was like a brother to him, and he could not believe that the shy, quiet humour of the dreamweaver hid a traitor. Which meant that his main suspect was Elwyn, bard to the court of Lord Seithyr. And he could not imagine anyone less likely than the tall, thin, dour bard with the voice of an angel – such a contrast to his robust, overweight and usually drunken lord.

Had any knights in the legion worn traces of Seithyr's teal and orange colours? He couldn't remember, but then, any house colours were being worn discretely here, if at all.

Sounds drifted up to his tower window from the barracks below, and he reached for his helmet and gauntlets. Time for "Breogan" to make an appearance. A moment's concentration and a hummed melody restored his disguise.

Not for the first time, he wondered if he should have told Taliesin that he'd ingratiated himself with the returned crown prince a little more deeply than he'd let on. But then, the lecture about the dangers that would have followed…

He snapped the helmet into place with a confident click and left the apartment. Time to worry about his superior's ire later. Much later.

The chatelaine, Marya, was wandering along the corridor again. Since the discovery of her queen's death, the woman had been in what could only be described as a state of shock. Marius took her arm gently.

'Lady Marya?'

She looked straight through him with vacant, bovine eyes, not really seeing him at all. 'It's the death of winter,' she whispered. It was all anyone had heard her utter since she'd been found collapsed outside Alianora's rooms.

With a sigh, he led her, unresisting, back to her rooms, where her attendants fluttered around her like butterflies, gaudy and ineffectual. There at least he could leave her, without fear that she'd come to harm. The previous time she'd gotten away from her people, she'd been found on the battlements of the topmost tower, balanced on the balustrade in defiance of the winds. Palace gossip had it that her mind was gone. "Touched..." they whispered in the halls, and kept away from her apartments. Mordred's people ran the city now, and the city bowed its head under the yoke of its new master. The halls were silent and deserted, the streets empty, as people kept to their homes, seeking to avoid the armoured knights who strode through their streets.

Just like old times, Marius thought grimly, as he made his way down to the barracks. With Mordred, fear had returned to the Thirteen Worlds. The Night Watch would begin again, if he and Taliesin failed to stop it here and now.

Two bards to stand against the fall of night. He almost smiled at the image, until he walked out of the palace, and rank upon rank of armoured knights met his gaze, arrayed for their lord's inspection, and the full weight of the task felt as though it landed squarely on his shoulders.

The Forest

'You're getting predictable,' Vivienne said eventually, staring up at the cloudless sky, her head pillowed comfortably on his chest. 'Somehow I don't think you brought me all the way out here just to practise your swordplay.'

'Not totally,' he replied. He shifted around until he was facing her, his chin propped on one hand, elbow on the ground. She followed suit. 'How much did you overhear this time?'

Vivienne shrugged. 'Enough. I think. I can put the rest together well enough.'

'Then you know why we cannot stay.'

She nodded. 'Would she betray you?'

'She might. I certainly don't want to take the chance. The forest and its creatures are hers to command, and small as they are, they're troublesome en masse, and it's one more complication I'd rather not face.'

'But even apart from blood ties,' Vivienne mused, twisting and wriggling around until she face facing him, propped up on one elbow, 'why? Doesn't she know what they are? I mean, they're trying to…'

'Take back their own worlds, their own lives and positions?' She gave him a sharp look and he responded with his lopsided grin. 'Your trouble is that you still think we're the good guys.'

'Aren't we?' she asked.

'If you have to ask…' he left the sentence unfinished. She thought for a moment he was still joking, but his suddenly serious expression killed that thought stone dead.

Something small scuttled over her, tiny, sticklike claws tickling her stomach as it did so. She rolled over quickly, and found herself staring up at what at first looked like a tall white column. The image soon resolved itself into the head, chest and massive forelegs of Sivushka. A leshii, twiglike limbs twitching nervously, stood between his hooves, stared at her for a moment with wide black eyes, then stuck its tongue out and vanished.

'I think we've got an audience.' She said with a forced laugh. She shivered in the cold, noticeable now that she was no longer at Kastchei's side, and scrambled hastily back into her clothes. Rather more leisurely, he picked his shirt up from where it had fallen earlier and did the same.

'It's time we left anyway,' he said once they were both dressed. He handed her sword back. 'Assuming you feel up to it?'

She sighed theatrically, and wondered at his ability to change direction with the wind. Like Tal, there were times when she never knew in which direction he'd bounce next. 'I though we were waiting for your injuries to heal,' she replied tartly. Then she saw his mocking smile. 'Honestly! Are you never happy unless you're pushing someone's buttons?'

'It's a nasty habit,' he admitted dryly, 'but hard to break.' He gave her a boost onto Sivushka's broad back.

'Shouldn't we at least say "thank you?' she asked. He shook his head emphatically.

'No.' He landed lightly behind her on Sivushka's back. At the stallion's feet the pack milled, tongues lolling, demonically eager for whatever their master had in mind. She didn't even have time to form her next question before the fractal strangeness of the void claimed them all.

The Estuary Encampment.

If there was one thing Taliesin wasn't good at, it was waiting. Whilst Kolya Uulamets had the soldier's natural habit of being able to sleep anywhere and through anything, Taliesin, as Vivienne often told him, was a born fidget. Which, he reflected with a wistful smile, was pot calling kettle, since Vivienne was even worse at sitting still than he was. Even unravelling the blanket on the bed and knotting a series of elaborate ropes out of the remains didn't occupy him for long. Uulamets seemed determined to sleep through anything short of an orbital attack, and his one attempt to talk to the guard had ended with the business end of a pistol jammed under his nose and an order to stay put inside the tent. So playing a solo game of cats cradle with a length of wool, he did the only thing he could. He listened.

With no stone walls to reflect and conduct sound, opening his senses to the noises of the camp was a more difficult business than eavesdropping in Kastchei's palace had been. Yet it was a challenge, and a welcome distraction from their imprisonment. He closed his eyes, fingers still toying with the complicated string cradle between his fingers, and opened his mind to the sounds outside. Past Nikolai's deep, heavy breathing. Past the soft flapping of the tent opening, caught in the night breeze that brought a chill air into the tent. Past the creaks, clans and chinks of their guard's armour as he shifted and shuffled his feet in the cold night air, his breath freezing as it left him. Further still, the murmuring of knights around the campfires; little chatter, beyond complaints about the cold (you should have been here three months ago and a few hundred miles to the north, Tal thought mentally, then brought his attention back to the camp.) the damp, the city above them, crouched like a dark, dreadful beast waiting to pounce. These men knew the powers of such caers, and were wary. Veterans all - very few, if any, newcomers. Knights in black, knights in grey. No distinctions, no old hatreds - at least not yet. But he did store the information away for future use: old scores could be useful in sowing dissent in the ranks, if he had time to uncover the histories of any of these men.

He rather hoped he wouldn't hear any familiar voices, but they were there, all the same. Geraint's son Cador. Byanor. Gahmuret of Zazamanc. Loholt of Amoricia. All of whom had fought beside Elphin against Maelgwn and Owain, so many years ago. Men and women to whom he owed his own life, on several occasions. And Cador... He'd sat beside Elphin's Armsman's son during his vigil. Had watched Elphin knight him, three years ago.

This, the inner voice said, is the price of Blood. The Grey Knights are loyal to Morgaine, and always were. But the Black... they believed in Arthur, in Arthur's blood, in Arthur's legend: and Mordred, and Kai - they are part of that legend. What is Elphin - first king of an upstart dynasty - compared to that? This, you cannot fight.

He would have wept, then, at the betrayal, and at the fight that lay ahead. If this rebellion left Skazki, Mordred and Kai between them would tear the Thirteen Worlds apart.

'Does it hurt, Cynfierdd?'

Kai's voice dragged him back from his reverie, and he opened his eyes to see the Lord - former Lord Commander, staring down at him.

'Betrayal always hurts,' Taliesin said softly. He looked down at his hands, at the tangled ball of wool that was all that remained of the elaborate construction between his fingers. He threw it away, and looked up into Kai's blue eyes. 'No-one wins a civil war.'

'Then don't fight it,' Kai said, sounding amused. 'Give me the city; use your powers of persuasion and tell Yuri to side with us- he owes Elphin nothing.'

'You attacked our city,' Nikolai said, levering himself up from his bed. 'Your druids tried to kill one of our own, and you say we have no quarrel with you?'

'Actually, he didn't say that,' Taliesin pointed out reasonably. 'Why is Skazki - Breceliande - so important to you, Kai? I don't believe that it's out of any desire to return to your home. Not wholly, at least. You've never made any move that had less than three or four reasons. I'm surprised you don't trip over yourself coming back on your own path, some days.'

'My business with you, Taliesin, is finished, although you'll make a useful hostage - Elphin will be anxious to get you back. My concern now is with the city.' He turned to Nikolai, who regarded him with an air of amused wariness, and didn't bother rising from the bed. 'If I were to give your prince my word that I would not order any attack upon your city - that I would guarantee the safety of both the city and its people - would that change matters?'

'It might,' Nikolai drawled lazily. 'Taliesin?'

'Oh, he's not lying,' Taliesin said softly. He stood up and walked over to the still supine commander, facing Kai. 'He wouldn't be foolish enough to lie in front of a bard.'

'But he might tell less than the full truth, is that it?' Nikolai asked.

'You just have to know how to ask the right questions,' Taliesin told him. Then he moved aside, and sat down upon the edge of Nikolai's pallet. Nikolai gave him a questioning look, at which Kai laughed loudly.

'Well, Taliesin ap Gwion ap Myrddin ap Diancecht - will you aid him? Will you guide his choices, explain to him why I may not be trusted? Take up, finally, the mantle laid down by your progenitor so long ago; Advisor to Kings?' he taunted. When Taliesin refused to answer, he laughed.

'I do not think I need a bard to tell me what I already know for myself.' Nikolai stood up and circled the Lord Commander. 'You offer your own amnesty to my people, but you say nothing of any other who may have a say in this. Would, for example, Prince Mordred stay his hand? Would he honour your word? Would he give me his own bond, and keep it?'

Taliesin smiled, but said nothing. Kai gave Taliesin a withering look. Nikolai laughed now, staring up into the face of the taller man. 'Your words are hollow, even if they have the ring of truth, traitor. Whether you be puppet or puppet-master, I care not. My answer is this: go back to your own people. Tell them to prepare for war, because Kitezh will not be given to you - you will have to take it: street by street, house by house, body by body.'

Kai sidestepped, breaking eye contact. 'Have it your own way, Commander - but do not be too confident that you precious city will last long before we take possession over the cold bodies of its dead: there is more than one traitor walking this camp tonight, and one of those has promised to lead us through your streets, if necessary.'

'Alexei,' Nikolai spat. 'So much for blood bonds. I knew I should have had him killed.'

'I wouldn't worry too much about it, Commander: we all make mistakes. Besides, tomorrow morning, your problems will be over?'

'Oh?'

Kai smiled wolfishly. 'Tomorrow morning I plan to return you to your people, Commander. Or rather - I shall return part of you to them. Your head should do nicely.' He bowed mockingly. 'I'll have a meal sent to you - I wouldn't want you to complain about my hospitality, now would I?'

With that, he left.

'I once saved that man's life,' Taliesin mused glumly.

'Ever wish you could travel in time and change the past?' Nikolai asked with a sly grin. Taliesin sighed heavily.

'All the time, Commander. All the time.'

 

Elsewhere...

Huddled in front of a huge roaring fire for the first time in days, Vivienne finally started to feel that maybe, just maybe, things were getting back to normal. The small room in the keep Kastchei had travelled to was hardly cosy - lacking any chairs they'd made more of a "camp" in front of the hearth, made up of the remaining rugs, tapestries and whatever blankets could be salvaged from the stores that hadn't been shredded at some point in the past by a nest of some breed of large rodent. The hounds - all but the two he kept close by his side at all times these days - were in the tumbledown stable outside with Sivushka. Vivienne tried to ignore the red-eyed stare of the hounds as they watched her from across the hearth, as if guarding their master from her. Though against what, she had to wonder.

They'd do better to protect him from himself. She could still feel his body trembling slightly against her, as she leaned back against him. Too much, too soon, as always, although she knew he fought it, fought any show of weakness, as a reflex, even now.

She had the sense that there was always a barrier he wouldn't let her cross, as though it would diminish him somehow to admit to being less than superhuman.

'You should get some sleep,' she said, for the third time since they'd arrived here - wherever here was. The first two times he'd ignored her.

 

'You fuss like a mother hen,' he said quietly, with no hint of his usual sardonic humour. Instead, he sounded weary. I didn't come here to sleep.'

For all that, he didn't make any effort to move from where he sat, behind and to the side of her, allowing her to lean comfortably against his shoulder, taking sanctuary in his physical presence.

She shifted guiltily, half pulling away from him before chiding herself mentally. Whatever - and whoever - he had been in his past, this was Kastchei, and she could reconcile the two, if only that internal voice of reason would just shut up and stop asking her what the hell she thought she was doing.

'Is Kastchei your real name?' she asked, on impulse.

He moved, forcing her to do the same, until he was lying on the rugs his chin resting on one hand propped up on his elbow, staring up into her face. Lit by the flames his hair haloed his face with fire of its own, and threw it into stark and frighteningly beautiful focus.

He hesitated. 'Close enough,' he said eventually. 'I didn't see any point in correcting their pronunciation, and it seemed appropriate to accept the difference, somehow.' Another dismissive shrug. 'Names have power, here, they're often best kept hidden, or at least subtle.' His lips twitched into a lazy, speculative grin. 'It's closer to my past than "Vivienne" is to yours, or Taliesin's to his...' he let the sentence trail off, but she refused to respond to the bait offered. 'I'm content to be "Kastchei", if that helps. Empty titles have little meaning for me now.'

'Hardly empty,' she said, casting a sideways glance at the two watchful hounds. 'Master of the Hunt indeed,' she teased.

His smile graced her with the point, but his blue eyes, clouded to grey, betrayed a rather less sanguine emotion, one that she could never pin down .

'I would have told you.'

She knew. The truth with this man could cut like a knife, when he chose to wield it.

'It's a failing of my race, I think, to be bound up in forms, rituals and empty gestures.' he continued. 'It might go a long way to explaining why so many of us who turned renegade hid behind grandiose titles.'

'Names might have made you a little more accessible,' she replied tartly. 'Although personally I think you hid behind masks and titles because it makes it that little bit easier to sleep at night when you don't have to look at yourself in the mind's mirror.'

'I'm surprised any of us turned out as well as we did, all things considered. I've never known a more arrogant, decadent and morally bankrupt race, than the "dragon-born"' he said softly, as though he hadn't heard, emphasising the name as though that too amused him for some reason. 'Bound up in ancient ritual, wrapped up in lies so old they'd become truth by default. A repressed, decaying and stagnant culture masquerading as lords of time and fate, simply because that was all they had left.'

'Would you return home?' she asked. 'Given a chance?'

'No.' There was an old anger in his eyes now, just for a moment. It was quickly gone, but it left its mark. She shivered, remembering just what he had been - was still - capable of. 'No,' he continued, less harshly. 'I would not. There's nothing for me there. It's not the world I remember.' The look in his grey eyes was one of pain, long endured, not soon forgotten, as he stared over her head, into the flames. 'I saw so much, caught as I was in the dragon's maw for so long, seeing through her senses. History is no longer what it used to be - and ours has been distorted and warped by a war that no-one even understands, let alone can fight effectively.' His laugh now was harsh. 'The world I left behind is long gone. In its place is a race that has bound itself - or been bound - into the very warp and weft of history, in the process tearing out their collective manhood by its bleeding roots. You think I wish to return to such a world?' he reached out a hand and touched her cheek briefly. 'If they were complacent before, they are beyond redemption now,' he said as he pulled his hand away.

'The dragons fled that war, or so the legends say,' she replied. 'This world reflects the other, but you and I - we don't belong here. How can you know so much?'

'History can leave pieces of itself behind when it shifts course. Do not be too sure of what you think you know of this world. It may yet surprise you.'

'That I can believe,' she said tartly. 'You manage it all the time.'

'I've never liked being taken for granted,' he said with a mocking smile. 'Why don't I show you one of those surprises?'

'Now?'

He stood up, and offered her his hand. 'Now is as good a time as any.'

             

 

 

 

 

Chapter 14

The Summer Palace.

Marius strode along in Mordred's wake through the rubble that littered the main hall of the Summer Palace. The vaulted ceiling was open to the elements, most of which were making their way into the hall and onto his head, the bard thought sourly. Rain gusted through the open hall, making the already treacherous footing even less secure: slick and slippery underfoot. Mordred's black armour had the repulsor field activated, leaving him bone dry. Marius, whose grey suit had seen better days, was reduced to periodically wiping his face to keep the rain out of his eyes.

Not for the first time, he wondered what would happen if he let the illusion that hid his true identity slip. In a way, it was tempting: to slip a dagger between the plates of that black armour and watch Mordred's face as he died.

'Hello, dad,' Marius muttered under his breath, as he followed Mordred down into the bowels of the palace.

The cauldron that occupied the centre of the cavern had thirteen stations - and all of them were now empty. Standing near the control panel, thirteen of the Calaitin stood, newly robed. All identical. Marius had seen them only once before, but he remembered them well.

A slight noise from behind the druids caught his attention. On a stone slab, bound and naked, lay a young man - or so he thought: one of the druids moved, and Marius could make out small but perfectly formed breasts. He arched one eyebrow but said nothing. "Breogan" would be a little young to make a noise over such a thing.

Mindful of his own precarious identity, he stayed behind Mordred, keeping to the shadows, but not obviously so. A young knight, not willing to attract unwanted attention. That was all they must see. His illusion would not stand up to scrutiny by a druid of Calaitin's abilities.

'You seem stronger, old friend.' Mordred strode forward and clasped the lead druid's hand. 'Rebirth agrees with you.'

'The opportunity to add the hunt's biodata to our own was not one we could pass by,' the Calaitin said. He pushed back the sleeve on his left arm. 'Even the cybridisation protocols for this are enhanced.' He reached out, into the shadows, and clenched his fist. When he drew it back into the light, it seemed as though he held the shadow still clutched tightly in his grasp. 'The rest we are still assimilating.'

'Then assimilate elsewhere,' Mordred told them sharply. 'The Prydwen is in orbit, and I want all of you on board by nightfall. I'll have need of you elsewhere once we're finished with this rock.' The figure on the stone slab stirred and whimpered, and he pushed past Calaitin to take a closer look. Marius followed at a discreet distance. 'What is this?'

'A native, apparently. We've been studying it.'

Mordred's eyes raked the naked form from head to foot. Marius didn't miss the lascivious glint in his eyes. The hermaphrodite was very young, black haired, boyishly slender and quite lovely - or would have been, had its pale form not been marred by traces of the Calatins' experiments. Blood had dried around the cuts made by the flensing knives that lay on a nearby table, although only a few wounds remained open.

'Androgynes are not so rare amongst half-breeds that they require your study, old friend. What is so interesting about this one?'

'Its biodata has been corrupted,' said a second Calaitin. 'We questioned the household staff we captured - some of them believed that this creature had somehow bonded with a dragon, or the remains of one.'

'Merlin's dragon, to be precise,' said a third. Marius only just stifled a sharp hiss. Coldly, he watched as Mordred removed a gauntlet, and then ran his hand over the youth's body, lingering over the curve of a breast, a fingernail digging into the line of an open wound on the flank, before resting lightly on a pale thigh. The youth whimpered and struggled, but did not wake.

'Really?' he asked. His voice in that one word held such a combination of malice, desire and anticipation, that Marius flinched. 'Take this.' Mordred ordered Marius, 'to the dromond. You - ' he pointed to Calaitin, 'take what you need from here and leave. This place will not remain secure for long.'

The Calaitin filed out past their prince, and Marius hurried to obey. The dark haired youth stirred only once as he released the metal straps that had cut cruelly into wrists and ankles, and as gently as he could, Marius lifted him - her - into his arms. The youth was as light as a feather, and cold to the touch. A blue robe lay on the ground nearby, and Marius placed his charge nearby, and wrapped it before carrying it as gently as he could from the cavern.

'I don't know if you can hear me,' he whispered, holding the child's head close to his own, 'but I'll try to get you out.'

To get them both out... he looked down at the unconscious form. Once they reached the Legion's encampment, they had a chance, especially if Taliesin was still there. If not...

Marius didn't like the "if not". Behind him, picking his way back through the ruins of the palace was Mordred. Who saw Marius's backward glance and smiled.

'Keep my little treasure safe, Sir Breogan. I don't want it damaged.'

Marius smiled back, feeling sicker inside by the minute.

 

The Hall of the Sleepers

The keep had been carved out of the solid rock of the mountain that rose, sheathed in glittering ice, thousands of feet above the foothills. From the topmost window, Vivienne had been able to see clear across the plains; still, this far north, buried under the ice sheet that covered most of this hemisphere. The thaw continued, however, and even deep underground, as Kastchei led her deeper into the tunnels that penetrated the mountain, she thought she could hear the land straining and groaning as the ice retreated, and almost expected to see the passageways buckle and break under the strain in front of her eyes.

She tried not to think of the sheer weight of rock that would bury them if it did, but too late - the feeling refused to be banished.

'It's quite safe,' Kastchei told her, noticing her hesitation at the next fork in the way. The bioluminescent strips in the walls, covered by a thick layer of ice, gave off a sickly, diffuse light, which gave his features a ghastly, skull-like pallor. 'These passages have stood here for thousands of years, and will probably still be here when both of us are dust.'

'Could you choose a more comforting image, just for once in your life?' she grumbled. 'Where are we, anyway?'

'The northern mountains, not far from the Summer Palace, as it happens. At least, not as the Hunt flies.' He led the way down a brighter passage, which widened considerably as they advanced. Water from the roof dripped down Vivienne's neck and she rubbed it away with a shiver: it was icy cold.

'This, however, is what I brought you here to see.' Kastchei stepped back into the shadows, and allowed her to move past him, into the bright light at the end of the passage.

The passage opened out into a vast cavern that stretched ahead of her for several hundred yards, before the light dimmed. Above, the roof was lost in a vaulted ceiling that arched into the darkness like the buttresses of an immense gothic cathedral. The scale of the cavern wasn't what made her gasp in awe, but what it held.

Along the sides of the cavern, and in long lines down its floor, hundreds of caskets lay, each one lying in state amid a seemingly discarded pile of conduits and cabling: row upon row of crystal coffins, laid end to end.

All of them were occupied, that she could see. Vivienne walked slowly down the nearest rank, looking into them as she passed. The thick crystal lids distorted the faces inside, but most were humanoid, although some only barely. Several looked as though they were monstrous hybrids - armoured, cybridised creatures with only the barest traces of humanity left in their faces. Except, she knew, these were not, and had never been, human.

Dragon-born, every last one of them: and very far from dead.

'Stasis capsules,' Kastchei whispered in her ear. 'The locals like to describe them as "frozen in ice", which does have a more poetic ring to it, I'll grant you.' He moved past her, checking one or two of the caskets as he went, with an air more of idle curiosity than duty. 'Breceliande is an analogue of a planet in our own timeline - a prison planet, where the undesirables of my race are left to rot whilst those who put them there congratulate themselves on their mercy.' He sneered on the last word.

 

'Then why not release them?' she asked 'if it bothers you.'

'I never said they didn't deserve to be here,' he replied. 'I just have no time for hypocrisy. Here,' he pointed to one of the less humanoid occupants. 'This was once a man little different to Taliesin or myself - would you believe that, looking at him?'

Vivienne peered through the glass case, and had to rub condensation off the surface as her breath misted it, obscuring the occupant. From what little she could see, very little of his body was recognisably human - organic armour plating covered most of his body, with barbed extrusions at the joints. Even the face was reduced to the barest sketch, overgrown by horny plates, the eyes set into deep sockets underneath heavy brow ridges, the mouth reduced to a thin slit.

'I did tell you that there was a war on,' he said softly. 'This is what they became in order to fight it: these - or some of them at least, are the remains of the troops they wove to fight that war.' He stared down at the casket, a look on his face she couldn't quite read. 'Some prices are too high to pay. No race should do this to its own. And this - this is the least of their atrocities.'

'Are they all like this?' she gestured expansively to take in the whole of the cavern.

'Not all. Some are like me - simply renegades and criminals.' A harsh, short laugh. 'Actually, they used the renegades first. In another lifetime, that - ' he pointed at the casket, 'might have been my fate.'

She recognised the emotions crossing his face now: Hatred. Disgust, mixed with a deep anger. And more... Pity?

'Then why not wake them?' she ventured.

'Wake them?' he laughed harshly. 'Trust me, that's the last thing you want,' he said coldly, turning away. 'Did you know that in a manner of speaking, I am their jailer?' He was walking through the ranks now, unheeding of the dimly glowing caskets he passed, intent on another goal. 'The Hunt was designed to track them down and destroy them, in the event any of them were released.' He stopped again, this time next to an empty casket. 'I deal with them as and when they arise. For now, that is enough.'

He turned left, heading for a small opening in the wall, and she followed, but not before stopping to look into the open casket. The lining was a slick white substance, with no mark upon it from its former occupant. Except that where the head might have rested, two strands of long, straight, light red hair lay, caught in the locking mechanism. She followed Kastchei into the antechamber without a word, her bottom lip caught between her teeth in thought.

 

Afanc class dromond "Siofra"

'I know you're awake.'

'Do you think you can lie there, so still, playing dead, and I'll go away? Is that what you hope?'

He ran his hand over the shallow curve of a satin draped breast. 'That won't happen.'

His voice dropped to a hoarse whisper, and his lips brushed the skin of the ear he's so close to, his breath warm on that skin. 'Do you know who I am?'

'I am Mordred.'

'I am Gareth ap Arthur ap Uthyr.'

'But that has no meaning to you, does it?'

The knife scraped bare skin as it cut the blue satin from the body, abandoned to the whim of its captors. Gooseflesh forms as the cooler air of the cabin caressed the skin. Or perhaps that was in response to the hands that explored with a licence that had not been granted.

The knife made a metallic click as it was dropped onto a surface close by.

'I am Gareth, son of Arthur, son of Morgaine, both born of Ygraine, herself the daughter of Merlin. And you know who Merlin was, don't you?'

His lips were warm. Hir's were not.

'Do you remember me, lady? Does any part of you remain? Or is there not even so much as animated the revenant of your master in the form of that crow, Gwion? Not even so much as his second-hand successor?'

'Enough to fly, given time?'

His hand squeezed a breast hard, then pinched the nipple between finger and thumb. 'What does it take to get through to you?'

'So young, so lovely.'

Hands played with unresponsive genitalia. 'So unusual. I think you'd interest me even if you were not what you are.'

'Merlin's blood, lady. Merlin's flesh.' His lips brushed the soft skin of the neck, heedless of the black hair in the way. 'You recognise it.' His lips moved down and round to the hollow of the throat, wandered across the sharp collar bones, back down to the breasts, and the valley between them. But the body was still immobile.

'Can you resist the call forever?'

A whimper accompanied the tiniest shake of the head, as the mind and body connected briefly to attempt to voice a rejection.

He laughed.

'I knew you weren't asleep.'

'The Calaitin were too crude, but then, you can't expect a druid to understand how to bond a dragon, after all.'

Hands insistent, determined, part slender thighs. The body remained passive, but began to tense as his fingers explored more intimate areas.

'A poor choice of form, my dear, if you hope to remain inviolate,' he whispered. 'But you cannot change it yet, can you? Still so human, so mortal. And it leaves you so vulnerable.'

'Would you open to Merlin, firebird?' His voice was husky with both anticipation and desire. 'Would you let him in, hold him close inside you, and take him to new worlds?'

His weight, pressing down. Skin on skin. Familiar, but unwelcome.

Flinch.

'I may not be Merlin, but I have enough of his blood to bind you.'

'You're mine for the taking.'

The violation, when it came, provided the spark that reunited body and spirit, and Phoenix screamed.

But screams were useless. The flesh was pinned to the treacherous softness of the bed, and held by his will. And he knew, all too well, the weaknesses of this form, which had once been – was still for now – Phoenix.

Rhythm was the key; energy responding to the simplest, and darkest ritual of all, the one forbidden by lore, for a dragon in human form is bound by the limitations of that form, and doubly so for Phoenix.

 

He enjoyed causing pain, and his will was strong enough to bind that into his act, and he left no avenue of escape, no place to hide from either his body or his mind, which eclipsed the firebird's brightness like a black sun, as he forced himself into places where he had no right to be, and forced Phoenix to follow him, bound by the lore that constrained hir kind. Dragon and dragon-born.

Phoenix's shadow expanded, but could not envelop him. Sight, sound, taste, hearing… all blurred and intermingled. The taste of blood burned the back of hir eyes, the pain of his thrusts was enough to deafen hir. The light, which he'd kept dimmed in the cabin, smelt like the salty tang of sweat. The shadow hovered on the edge of perception, pulsing in time to his violent thrusts, and little by little, the multi-coloured texture of the void envelops it.

And receded as he collapsed, spent, his control failing, the shadow just a shadow that retreated as he pulled free, and the world receded with it.

'Infinite possibilities,' he whispered, looking down at Phoenix.

Who opened hir eyes onto the ruins of the ancient city, and fell on hir knees in the long orange grass, sobbing.

 

The Keep

At the back of the antechamber, Kastchei stopped in front of the wall, and ran his fingers over the surface. Under his touch, the ice melted, running down the wall to pool on the floor at his feet. Peering over his shoulder, Vivienne could begin to make out carvings in the rock, half hidden by time and ice, incised deep into the surface. A hunting scene, she realised as the images became clearer: hounds and horsemen, wolves, mammoths, srela, a king hart and, above them all, flying with wings outstretched, a hawk of some kind. It was this carving he traced with the index finger of his left and, and the wall slid aside silently, revealing another chamber, this one smaller, and filled with boxes, stacked in neat piles along the walls. In this chamber, there was no ice. Without a word, Kastchei made for a large container lying on its own against the far wall - a box easily the length of a man, and about two feet across; it reminded her too much of a coffin. She shivered at the image, and examined the room. Curiosity getting the better of her, Vivienne began inspecting some of the other boxes. They were all locked, however, and soon she wandered over to where Kastchei had begun to remove the contents of the box and place them beside him. He'd seated himself on the edge of the box, and she knelt beside him, and took a closer look.

'I'm not sure I want to ask what that's made of...' she picked up one of the items and handled it gingerly. It was a gauntlet to a suit of armour, and it not only looked like old bone, it felt as though it was made of it: slightly slick to the touch, buffed to an ivory smoothness, and picking up the warmth from her hands quickly.      

'My old armour,' Kastchei said. He knelt down beside the heap of parts, sorting them into separate piles with practised ease. 'I hid it here centuries ago, in case of trouble.' A grim smile, almost demonic in the pale light. 'One can never be too prepared.'

Vivienne picked up another item, this time about eight inches long, black and cylindrical, with a rather suggestively bulbous shape at one end. 'I daren't ask...' she said cheekily. He pushed her arm away from him until the object was no longer pointing at him, then took it off her.

'Be careful with that, it might not be broken.' He flicked open a small cover on the side and examined it, before starting to put it in his pocket. At Vivienne's raised eyebrow he sighed and placed it back in the box instead. 'A relic of my misspent youth,' he said tersely. 'Are you going to sit there and admire the scenery all day, or give me a hand putting this back together?'

'I was waiting for you to tell me what you wanted me to do,' she said pointedly. She sniffed. 'You could use a bath.'

'I'll need you to help me put it on. I trust you're familiar with the systems?' At her nod he grunted. 'Good. We don't have much time.'

'I just hope you haven't put on any weight since you last wore this,' Vivienne quipped as he began to strip off. He gave her a withering look, and she grinned as she handed him the tight-fitting black coverall that was to be worn underneath the armoured plates. 'Are you sure this will still be operational after all this time?' She handled a bone-coloured cuirass gingerly.

'It should be, but we'll soon know. With her help he began attaching the overlapping plates one by one, the pieces sliding together slickly and clicking into place with mechanical precision.

When the last piece slotted neatly into place, she stepped back and stared at the result. 'That's not a comforting sight,' she told him. He smiled.

He stood in front of her, a dread shape seemingly carved from living bone, the carapace flexing as he moved. The feeble, hazy roseate light cast by the room's bioluminescent walls darkened his form, and yet at the same time there was a glory about him that eclipsed that dim light. His face had an air of dauntless courage, and lines of care had been etched a deeply onto his proud features. His eyes burned with a cruel passion, giving his face the ruined beauty of a fallen angel.

'"His form had not lost all her original brightness, nor appeared less than archangel ruined,"' Vivienne quoted softly.

He laughed, and the spell was broken. 'I don't intend to lose,' he said firmly. He reached down into the box and pulled out something small and silvery, which he slid into the pocket of his coat before bundling up his clothes. 'Come on.'

'Where now?'

'On the winds of time,' was his answer. 'We ride to Kitezh.'

 

Onboard the "Siofra"

Outside Mordred's cabin, Marius hesitated. No sound escaped the room, even to a bard's trained senses, but as he drew level with the irised door, his skin crawled as though a thousand fireants were walking over him. He leaned against the wall for support, and recoiled as it seemed to give way under his weight. The corridor suddenly stretched ahead of him into infinity, then like a rubber band stretched too tightly, sprang back. The slate grey of the dromond's cerametal flesh darkened to midnight blue, shot through with strands of a sickly orange and pulsed in a strangely arterial rhythm to an unheard heartbeat.

The world returned to normal as though nothing had occurred. A knight strolled past Marius and gave him a peculiar look, but walked on as though there was nothing out of the ordinary. Marius took a deep breath and stood up, relaxing muscles that had tensed in defence of the assault on his senses.

'Breogan.'

Marius stood to attention. 'Knight Commander Elathan.'

Elathan had been a mere knight under Elphin, never considered able enough for promotion. His black armour gleamed, hardly a battle-scar to be seen. Marius sneered mentally. Another who'd taken the easy option of joining his fortunes to the opportunity Kai offered, instead of earning his rank.

'How may I be of assistance, sir?' His voice was perfectly subservient, as befitted a low-ranked knight.

'The Lord Commander wishes to see the prince as soon as we land.' Elathan handed him a message fleck. 'Give that message and this to his highness, Sir Breogan.' He strode away without waiting for an acknowledgement.

'Anything to avoid getting your own head chewed off, Elathan?' Marius muttered under his breath. He placed his hand on the sensor next to the door.

'Yes?' Mordred's voice snapped over the link.

'A message, your highness. From the Lord Commander?'

The door opened and Mordred stepped out into the corridor, closing the door behind him quickly – if not before Marius heard a pained whimper from inside, and something move on the bed. Unable to take a closer look without arousing suspicion, he had no choice but to follow Mordred to the command deck, wondering all the time if the flux in the corridor had anything to do with the strange youth the prince had taken such an interest in.

The Estuary, near Kitezh.

 

Vivienne slid down from Sivushka's back without waiting for Kastchei to help her.

'I really don't know how you stand it.' She placed her head between her knees, hoping the nausea would pass.

'Willpower. The void isn't difficult to traverse unshielded, but it can be distracting.'

'Distracting? It's a synaesthetic assault on every bloody sense. And that's before you get to the screaming heebie jeebies that you get in there. Something's watching us - and calling.' She looked up and saw the smile on his face. 'You enjoy it.'

He threw his right leg over the pommel and dropped lightly to the ground. Sivushka dropped his head to graze. 'I enjoy any challenge.'

Scattered at his feet, the pack sprawled in the long grass, panting with the exertion of the run through the void. 'We'll leave the hounds here. The camp should be over the next rise, if ap Eachtar has a head for a good site. Actually, it's the only site not on the floodplain or halfway up a hill, so his options are a little limited, unless he and his men can breathe and move in mud. Shall we?'

He wasn't wrong. Before they'd reached the top of the next rise, he'd dropped to the ground, pulling her with him.

'What?' she hissed, seeing nothing.

'There.' He pointed. Peering between the bushes they were lying behind she couldn't see anything. Then an armoured knight walked over the hill, stood for a moment scanning the horizon, then walked away. 'We're a little too close to the pickets. Come on.' He began to wriggle his way back down the hillside, into the cover of the longer grass at the foot. 'There's never enough cover on this planet when you need it in Winter, and too damn much during the Summer when you don't want it.'

'Some people are never satisfied,' she whispered back with a grin at his grumbling. 'Now what? Got any ideas?'

'There's more cover to the west – it's closer to the treeline.' He pointed.

'They'll also have it covered, at a guess,' she hissed back. 'I know I would.'

'So would I,' he grinned at her. 'So we wait until after dusk, then make our way over there. I'll take care of the guard, if there is one.'

'That's a good two hours away,' she said as they made their way carefully back to the pack. 'Any ideas how to pass the time?'

'Not with the amount of noise you make,' he drawled. She hit him on the arm, and immediately regretted it as she bruised her knuckles on his armour.

'Pig.'

It only earned her a mocking smirk.

 

A few hours later, Vivienne was lying next to Kastchei from a vantage point overlooking the camp, although she couldn't see much in the darkness. She was also more than a little damp from sitting on the increasingly soggy ground. Kastchei however seemed to have less of a problem. But then, he was the one wearing high-tech armour.

'Two, three hundred at most, if the squires are fielded.' He grunted. 'It could be worse.' His faceless gaze swept the western edge of the camp, and he swore under his breath.

'What?'

'Voronushka. In the horselines. And I think the bay next to him is Kolya's.'

'How you can see a black horse at night…' Vivienne began teasingly. Then she realised. 'Oh god. Tal's down there.'

A heavy armoured gauntlet grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back down before she could get fully to her feet.'

'Sit down,' he hissed. 'You'll accomplish nothing by getting us both caught.'

'What do you expect me to do, sit here and knit?' she hissed back. He pushed back the faceplate of his helmet.

'It might be better if we head straight back to Kitezh. There's no way I've got time to get down there and scout out a way of rescuing them, even if I could.'

'There's the armour of that knight you left staring into space in the wood,' she suggested. He shook his head, the movement only just detectable.

'I'd love to, but not only is she three inches shorter than me, there's also the problem of the plumbing.'

'Then I'll go,' Vivienne said. 'I can pass as a squire or page, and I know enough of Legion procedures not to make a daft mistake'

'And if you're stopped and asked for your credentials?'

'Only if I get caught outside the lines. You can get me through, can't you? I only have to get past one sentry, after all.'

'Risky,' he grunted. 'Very. If the sentry isn't susceptible to my coercion, we'll rouse the camp.'

'It's night duty,' she pointed out. 'Anyone with half a brain would have found a way out of it, it's a shit detail.'

'If you get caught or killed, you do realise Talya will probably kill me?'

She grinned, not knowing whether or not he could see her. 'I take it that's a yes?'

'It's an "I don't seem to have a choice,"' he whispered back. 'I'm going further forward, wait here.'

 

In the darkness, time seemed to slow to a crawl. Without a watch, and with no familiar stars overhead to use as a reference, it felt like hours before he was back, a pale shadow in the gloom. How he managed to be so quiet in that armour, she didn't know.

'There's a young knight on the picket just to the east of here, who might suit.' He hunkered down beside her. 'You should pass muster unless they're really alert, but I think they're concentrating on the city as a point of attack. We'll wait a little longer though, give him time to start feeling a little less threatened and a little more complacent.'

'You'd better cut my hair while we wait,' she said, handing him her knife. 'Ship-regs require short hair, mine's a dead giveaway.' She pulled her hat off and her plait free of her coat collar, and held it out.

'Are you sure you trust me in the dark?' he quipped.

'Just try not to cut anything that bleeds,' she shot back. She tried not to flinch as the blade sheared through her hair, and afterwards rubbed her exposed neck, feeling oddly vulnerable without the familiar weight.

He handed her the knife back without a word, and led her eastwards.

The young knight on duty was looking most out of sorts when they arrived, huddled into his armour. In the glow of his torch he looked as cold and miserable as anyone she'd seen in such a position. Vivienne almost felt sorry for him.

She felt around with her foot until she felt a thin branch underfoot. As deliberately as she could, she trod on it.

 

It didn't break. She brought her foot down on it a bit harder, and still it just bent under her weight. She gave up. Bending down she felt around for a smaller branch, and snapped it with her hands.

Immediately, the sentry whirled round to stare in her direction. She stepped out into the open. 'I'm sorry, I seem to have got turned around. I'm trying to rescue some prisoners – could you show me the way to the holding area?'

'Stay where you are, don't move.' The knight (very young, and very nervous, she judged from his voice) approached her warily. 'Who are you?'

'Actually, I'm the one you want to worry about.'

Kastchei appeared like a ghost out of the shadows behind the knight, and had the boy's weapon in his hand before the youth could react. Like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle, the boy stood, frozen to the spot, his eyes fixed on Kastchei's. Kastchei cupped the boy's chin in his hand and tilted his face up, his eyes boring into the young knight's.

'Hear my voice. You have no will but mine.' Kastchei intoned softly, his voice deep and compelling. 'Tell me.'

If there was a momentary look of resistance on the knight's face, it was fleeting.

'My will is yours, master.'

The inadvertent phrase made Vivienne shiver, and she rubbed her arms, as though she could rub away the goose-bumps.

'You saw nothing. No-one passed you, the perimeter is secure.'

'I saw no-one,' she heard the whisper torn from the boy's throat. 'The perimeter is secure.'

'Good. Now return to your post, and count to ten. When you reach ten, you will continue your watch. Do you understand?'

'Yes.'

Kastchei nodded, and she slipped past him, as quietly as she could, down to the camp below.

           

 

 

Chapter 15

 

The Estuary

With nightfall, the activity in the camp had fallen to a minimum. Knights, sergeants and pages had settled down for the night, huddled around campfires or, if more affluent, inside heated tents. Sounds of laughter, and the murmured conversations outside carried on the night air, which hung heavy with the promised storm.

The sounds of a conversation outside the tent flap gave him, finally, the signal they'd been waiting for.

'A page,' he whispered to Nikolai. The blond man nodded once, and got to his feet. Silently, he made his way behind the opening, and waited. Taliesin lounged back on the pallet, hands behind his head.

The tent was in semi-darkness, but he made out the slight, slender figure of the page who entered, silhouetted in the opening briefly, before the flap fell closed behind her.

'I don't remember ordering anything,' he quipped. Behind the page, Nikolai raise his arm to strike. 'Just put it over there. And be silent.'

The woman's head was raised then, and Taliesin had to launch himself off the bed, to knock her out of the way of Nikolai's fist, aimed at her temple. They landed in a heap on the floor and all three froze, waiting to see if the guard rushed in. When no sound came from outside, Taliesin and Nikolai breathed a sigh of relief. Taliesin sat up and off the page.

'What was that all about?' Nikolai asked in a whisper.

'Sorry, couldn't let you hit her, she'd never forgive me,' he replied quietly. There was a tug on his sleeve and he looked down at Vivienne, who opened her mouth and pointed, eyes blazing. 'Sorry. Released'

'You bloody well will be,' she hissed. 'How did you both manage to get caught? Oh never mind. Kastya's on the other side of the hill. As soon as he sees us make a break for the horselines, he'll send the hounds in as a distraction. Then we hope the horses are faster than the dromonds.'

'There's the guard outside first…' Nikolai said doubtfully.

'Taken care of,' she whispered. At their puzzled looks, she held up her hand, fingers separated in a "v". At their blank looks she sighed. 'Never mind. Trust me, he's out. I half-inched a shot of kithrin from the healerie on my way past – thought it might come in useful.'

'She's really very good at this, isn't she?' Nikolai said with a grin to Taliesin.

'Too much practice,' Vivienne muttered darkly before Taliesin could reply. 'Shall we?'

           

'Nice punch,' Nikolai grunted a few minutes later. Taliesin rubbed his bruised knuckles.

'That one had a hard head,' he muttered. They were crouched behind the tent nearest to the horselines. Voronushka was a dark shadow in the night, Kolya's bay only a little more visible due to his white markings. 'Vivienne?'

She was so close behind him he could feel every breath she took, and it took an effort not to turn around and hold her tightly.

'There,' she pointed. On top of the rise overlooking the camp, a ghostly mounted figure was highlighted against the dark sky. As they watched, the horse reared as though in challenge, and the three sharp notes of the Hunter's horn rang out into the night. Lightning flashed in the sky, and then the thunder rolled.

'Now!' Nikolai shouted, and ran for his cybrorse, Matushka, Taliesin and Vivienne in pursuit. As they reached the horses and Vivienne cut the rope, the threatening storm finally broke, raindrops beating down on then with a chilling ferocity. Cybrorses reared and plunged in panic, and Taliesin had to scramble onto Voronushka's back, only just holding him long enough to hold out a hand to help Vivienne up behind him. Even as they turned the horses towards Kitezh, the howls of the Wild Hunt echoed above the storm, and pale shapes, eyes glowing red, sped past them in full call. Screams could be heard from the camp as they galloped up the hill, dodging the fire from the guards as they sped past the outlying patrols, to where Kastchei waited.

He gave them barely enough time to draw breath, as they drew level with Sivushka, who stood like a rock in spite of the thunder rain and lightning. Three short notes, two long, three short, split the night, recalling the hounds, and without waiting for the pack, they were off, the city gates five miles distant.

The "Siofra"

In the cramped control room of the dromond, Marius was forced to find a corner in which to stand, the bulk of the room being taken up by the three stations and the armoured form of Mordred, hovering behind the comms officer.

'A message from the camp, your highness,' the knight said, her voice slightly muffled by her equipment. 'The prisoners are escaping – heading south west, on horseback.'

'Pursuit?' Mordred asked, leaning over her shoulder. Marius inched a little further forward to take a closer look himself, looking as nonchalant as he could.

'They're asking if we can follow. The horses are scattered, and in this weather it'll take them several minutes to get off the ground.'

'Can we track them?' Mordred asked.

'I have a trace,' weapons replied. 'It's a little unstable though.'

'Temporal distortion caused by the Wild Hunt,' Mordred told him tersely. 'Move over, I think I can compensate.'

The knight vacated his seat, and Mordred slid easily into the weapons station. His hands moved expertly over the console, only hesitating occasionally. 'They'll be heading for the city,' he told navigation. 'Try to maintain the bearing, even if the trace seems erratic or vanishes.'

Not for the first time Marius wished he had managed to pick an identity with a little more experience. "Breogan" could not offer to take over the vates or weapons console without drawing suspicion, and all the bard could do was watch. His agitation must have become a little too obvious, because the weapons officer gave him a curious look. Marius schooled Breogan's features into a nervous half-smile, and the older knight nodded in "understanding".

'Signal weakening,' comms told Mordred, who grunted an acknowledgement. 'Signal returned – two miles south south-west of last trace.'

'Compensating,' the vates replied. The dromond banked sharply, and both Marius and the weapons officer had to grab hold of something.

'Almost there,' Mordred told them. 'Now. Bring us in close, try for a sighting run. Visuals are better than systems when trying to get and hold a lock onto a temporally unstable prey.'

'You've done this before?' Marius asked, as casually as he could.

'During the Battle of Badon, Arthur used dromonds with dragon-based protocols. They had a way of shifting in and out of reality rather inconveniently. They were quite effective, until we learned to compensate for the temporal shift.' Mordred sounded rather smug. 'Arthur's own ship was one of the prototypes. Rather a pity it got blown up eventually. It might have been worth retrieving.' He sat back in the crash chair and his hands danced over the controls. 'Range to target established. Commencing attack run on my mark.'

'Ready, highness.'

'Mark.'

Marius flinched as the ship pulsed, ejecting the super-heated plasma arc of the hellfire cannon.

           

 

The horses ran, the phantom-like hounds streaming out around them in front and to the sides, red eyes blazing in the murky predawn light. The ground underfoot was boggy in places, semi-frozen in others, and even the cybrorses - enhanced as they were - had difficulty keeping their footing on the treacherous ground. Vivienne was forced to hold onto Taliesin for dear life, her face pressed into the sodden suede of his coat and her arms wrapped so tightly around him she wondered that he didn't squeak at being squeezed in two. The city was only a few miles away as the raven flew, but the estuary forced them to detour around the floodplain of the swollen river, sometimes doubling back on their course. Sounds of pursuit from the Legion's cybrid cavalry were non existent, and she'd just about begun to breathe a sigh of relief when the unmistakable buzz of dromond engines could be heard above the storm. Kastchei's horn sounded again, the hounds howled and quickened their pace, running on ahead of their master, and the horses quickened their already breakneck pace.

Lightning flashed, Vivienne counted to three before the thunder rolled overhead, and in that same second the sky was split open again, by a brilliant white-hot flash that struck the round only metres away. The ground heaved under them, and hot soil and gravel showered the group. The horses plunged in panic, almost unseating Taliesin and herself.

'A little close for comfort!' Nikolai called out, only just audible over the driving rain.

Another flash, hitting the ground a little further away. The dromond screamed overhead, wheeling awkwardly as it turned for another pass.

The city gates were too far - she couldn't even see the tallest spires from their current location, when she raised her head briefly, braving the lashing rain, to look over Taliesin's shoulder.

'We'll never make it!' she shouted into his ear.

In response he clucked to the black stallion, asking him to extend. Voronushka drew level with Sivushka.

'It's too far!' he shouted. 'They'll have our range on the next run, even in this weather!'

'The Hunt will interfere with their systems,' Kastchei shouted back. Another arc hit the ground, forcing them to detour suddenly past the steaming, molten maw it created. Uulamets' bay squealed in pain as the debris hit its skin. Vivienne could hear the commander talking to his mount, trying to steady it as they galloped on.

'Not enough,' Taliesin shouted. 'Now would be a really good time to come up with a plan!'

'Hold on tight!' was Kastchei's reply, shouted back to the three of them. He blew the short, sharp notes of the cry that led them into the void.

'You'd think that one day I'd remember to use a saddle,' Vivienne heard Taliesin say as the dark fractal strangeness swallowed them whole.

 

'Damn them!' Mordred slammed his fist onto the console. 'He's created a temporal fugue around them.'

'I'm sorry your highness,' the weapons officer said quietly, from his station next to Marius. 'There's no way to compensate.'

'No way for machines - or even these semi-sentient constructs, perhaps.' Mordred smiled in triumph, his eyes gleaming. 'Take the automatics offline, I'll target them manually.' Under his breath, so quietly that only the bard heard him, he added: 'This one's head is mine.'

'Automatics offline,' the comms officer told him. 'Bringing the ship about now. Time fugue increasing in strength.'

'He's going into the void,' Marius muttered under his breath. 'Come on, come on…' he added mentally, willing Taliesin and his companions to safety, wishing that will alone was enough.

'We've lost them!' comms shouted, even as the next beam lanced down from the ship.

'We know where he's heading,' Mordred said calmly. 'Set a course for Kitezh. If he's running the pack into the void with passengers, he won't have time to get creative with the timing, we might just catch them. At the very least, we can target the city. A few blocked streets should slow them down somewhat.'

Marius coughed. 'Sire - with all due respect - Lord Commander Kaiwyn did ask that the city be taken, not damaged, if possible.'

Mordred rounded on him angrily. 'Is Kai prince of the Blood Royal, or am I?' he snapped. Marius bowed his head.

'You are, sire.'

Mordred nodded sharply. 'See that you remember that, Sir Breogan. He may be your commander, but ultimately, Kai answers to me.'

The knight standing next to Marius gave him a warning look as Mordred turned back to the controls. Marius, seeing that the prince was preoccupied, excused himself quietly and left the flight deck.

 

Once into the corridor he leant against the wall and let out a deep, shuddering breath. Within minutes, the dromond would be at the city gates, and Tal… Tal would be dead. There had to be a way to distract Mordred for long enough to let the fugitives reach the relative safety of the kremlin.

Marius stared down the narrow corridor in the direction of Mordred's quarters, remembering the strange youth he'd carried aboard the vessel. Remembering the peculiar disturbances outside those quarters. Remembering the Calaitin telling Mordred about a dragon. Merlin's dragon.

He pushed himself up and away from the wall abruptly, and strode down the corridor as fast as he dared without running, his footsteps firm and confident.

Fearing no betrayal on board his own ship, Mordred's quarters had no special protections on the door. The iris opened quietly at Marius' command, recognising him as a legitimate member of the crew, and just as softly slid shut behind him.

The dark-haired youth lay on the bed in a tangle of bloodstained covers, one arm hanging limply over the side, traces of dried blood starkly visible on the pale skin, a mockery of the pale blue veins underneath the skin, traced out in blood red upon its surface, a delicate filigree of pain. The youth's eyes were open, but unfocussed, as Marius sat down on his heels at his - side and brushed the long black hair back from his face.

'Listen to me,' he said softly, hoping the youth could hear from wherever he had fled inside his own mind. 'I've come to help you. Can you hear me?'

There was no response. On impulse, Marius dissolved the illusion that gave him Breogan's voice and features. 'You know me, lady, if you are who I think you are, and there's anything of you left in there. Gwion knew me.'

At the name, the youth stirred. Hopeful, Marius pulled the covers over the battered form, and continued. 'I am Marius, of the cynfierdd, second to Taliesin. You must hear me. We are both in grave danger. Taliesin is in danger.'

Nothing. Marius felt the dromond bank slightly, then come to a stop, hovering. More drastic measures were called for.

'Damn it - you cannot hide forever, dragon. Or is it your host who runs and hides? Is that it? Too scared to face reality?' He shook the slender body roughly, eliciting a whimper of pain. 'Time later to cry and hide in the shadows, right now, I need a dragon, not a scared child. Is there nothing of you left? You stood by Merlin and Gwion and fought greater horrors than this; is there so little of you left that you cannot even try?' He slapped the youth's face. 'Give me some sign, dammit!' he shouted.

 

'Is there nothing of you left?'

The cry echoed around the ruined buildings, and the owls took flight, soft wings a rush of win overhead as they scattered. In the shelter of the ruins, Phoenix buried hir head deeper in hir hands and tried to ignore the voice that tried to get inside. She could hear the desperation, the anger in the bard's voice: could hear the skill with which he tried to reach what was left. Part of hir self responded, on a level s/he didn't quite understand and that only added to the panic, remembering the responses the other had almost provoked.

The boundaries between what had been Phoenix, and what the dragon were still discernible, if barely. But Phoenix remained, and Phoenix wanted nothing to do with what lay outside.

An image formed: the vat chambers beneath the Summer Palace. The corpses of hounds piled in a corner, rotting where they'd been left. Timofei, who'd been kind to hir in the cells, even though he'd been afraid of what he saw, a stiffening corpse on the floor. The Calaitin, shining with a power that should never be theirs. The sounds of blaster fire and the cries of the dying in the distance.

The Calaitin, twelve of their number encircling the thirteenth, their minds merging into one, the protocols – cybrid and mathematical – so clear to one who had been a natural part of what had been here forced into unnatural life.

Time, unravelling; disorder where there had been order. A vision formed: of thirteen trees where once there had been only one, and a world tore itself apart to accept the new order. As it did so, something else crept in through the tears in reality created by the birth screams of the new order.

Phoenix's mind touched the void in that moment, tied through blood and pain to another, already in transit, and aware of the danger even as the Wild Hunt sensed the disturbance and bayed, warning their master. It touched the mind of the bard, Taliesin, and felt his frustration and fear.

Fear of failure.

Fear of success.

Yet always drawn to the knowledge, to the experience.

Above it all was duty. As there had always been.

A choice to be made.

The mind of the bard next to the bed was open to Phoenix in that moment, and within was enough - just enough - familiarity to allow a connection to be made. Part of the knowledge gifted by the dying dragon understood. Blood called to blood. Mordred's natural son, Merlin's seed. It was tenuous, but it was enough.

Phoenix chose.

Marius cried out in pain as the dragon's hand closed around his left arm, the nails drawing blood. Blue eyes blazed like a summer sky into his own. Even as the dragon's mind seared into his, he retained enough presence of mind to reach for his communicator.

On the flight deck, the systems alarms suddenly went into overload, even as the tracking systems locked onto the pack as it exited the void only five hundred yards from the city gates.

'What in the name of Annwfn is going on here?' Mordred asked.

'Sire - a sudden time-fugue detected inside the ship itself. I can't…'

'Don't bother,' said a voice over the intercom. 'I'm in your quarters. Come and get me, if you think you can take me.'

'Who are you?' Mordred asked, even as he pushed himself out of the weapons chair and ran for the door, his blaster drawn.

The voice laughed. 'Marius.'

Mordred stopped at the door to the flight deck. 'Fire at will - I want those fugitives dead,' he snarled, as the weapons officer slid back into the vacated station. 'Free fire - take out the city if you have to, but kill them.'

He was gone before they could acknowledge the order.

The riders exited the void at a gallop, as they had entered it, the hounds ahead of them. The rain had begun to lessen, even as the sun rose over the distant horizon behind the city, silhouetted in the roseate glow. The black stumbled, almost pitching both Taliesin and Vivienne off his back, his head disappearing between his knees. By some miracle, he staggered on and recovered his footing, but his breath, and that of the bay next to him, was laboured, his sides heaving with the effort. Even Sivushka, normally as indefatigable as his master, was slowing.

The gates were only a matter of yards away. Two, three hundred at most, and the sentries had already sounded the alarm, even as Kastchei lifted the hunter's horn to his lips and blew three long notes.

The ground exploded. Voronushka shied and screamed as hot debris rained down. Taliesin wheeled the black back round, checking his instinctive flight. Nikolai's bay was down, thrashing wildly, the commander pinned underneath his body. The horse screamed in pain, and tried to struggle to his feet, only to crash back to the ground, his left foreleg useless. Kastchei, ahead of them, reined Sivushka in, and turned, sending the albino back to the scene. He slid from the stallion's back and pulled Uulamets free from the bay's body, careful to avoid the thrashing hooves. Dazed and obviously hurt, Uulamets had to be helped onto Sivka's back, Kastchei vaulting up behind him and holding him tightly.

'Matya…' Uulamets groaned.

Without a word, Kastchei unholstered his pistol, and Vivienne looked away as he fired. Mercifully, the screams stopped abruptly. Overhead, the dromond wheeled in the sky, and headed straight for them.

'Ride!' Kastchei yelled at Taliesin. Who needed no second urging, already kicking the exhausted stallion into a canter. They headed for the gates, already opening. The next shot from the hellfire cannon hit the wall of the city, missing the gates by several yards but collapsing part of the ancient wall.

Marius helped the youth to his feet. The floor of the chamber rocked slightly as the cannons fired, and Marius hoped he hadn't been too late. But a slight chance was always better than none. 'Can you walk?' he asked.

'Yes.' The hermaphrodite's voice was soft and melodious.

'Do you have a name?' he asked, more to keep his mind off the trickier question of how exactly they were going to get off the ship than from any real care.

'Phoenix,' the youth replied. 'Are you a friend of Taliesin's?'

'Yes. Now do you think you can get us out of here?' Marius snapped. Phoenix sagged in his arms. 'Perhaps not,' he muttered.

'I've never tried,' Phoenix said, a little unsteadily. Marius could hear the undertone of pain, fear and exhaustion in his voice.

'Well we've got company coming, so I suggest you try,' he said curtly. 'Whatever you were - or have become - now would be a very good time to get in touch with your inner dragon.'

The light on the locking sensor flashed red, then green. The iris began to open. Marius pushed Phoenix out of the line of fire behind him, as he moved to the side. 'Try,' he hissed. Mordred stepped into the room, pistol in hand.

'Marius?'

The bard kept his own pistol trained on the prince. 'Long time, no see,' he drawled. 'Pity it wasn't longer. Like "never again".'

'Sorry to disappoint you,' Mordred retorted. 'I didn't have much of a say in the matter myself. You know how it is with loyal minions. Can't stop the pesky so-and-so's from rescuing one from alternate dimensions.'

'Must be an occupational hazard.'

Mordred gestured with his pistol to indicate Phoenix cowering behind Marius. 'I'd like my little plaything back, if you don't mind. Step aside and I might not kill you.'

Marius cocked his head on one side as though thinking about the request, then shook it. 'I don't think so.'

'You used to be more amenable, Marco. What happened?' Mordred's voice dripped false concern.

'I grew up,' Marius replied, loading his own voice with scorn. 'Drop the weapon, Gareth."

Mordred smiled scornfully. 'You should know better than anyone that bardic tricks won't work on me. And would you really shoot your own father?'

Marius' own smile was cold. 'Why not? It runs in the family. Personally I put it down to inbreeding.'

Mordred's finger caressed the control sigil. 'Then shoot. What's holding you back? You were never one to hesitate, as I recall.'

'Oh please,' Marius sneered. 'We both have our repulsors set on maximum.'

The dromond lurched, and all three had to fight for their footing. The cannons fired again.

'Now would be a good time to do something,' Marius said calmly, not to Mordred, who looked puzzled.

Reality flexed, without result. Mordred raised his pistol again.

'I will not let you leave, Marius. If I have to kill the androgyne, I will. Step aside, and give me your parole.'

'Go fuck yourself,' Marius spat. He raised his own weapon. 'Phoenix, now.' He put everything in his voice into that last command, forcing the dragon to obey. The world shifted around him, and he felt a soft, smothering sensation, as though enfolded by huge wings. The ssnap of a hellfire pistol discharging was followed by a sharp, burning pain that set every nerve in his arm on fire, even as the welcome oblivion of both the void and unconsciousness claimed him at the same time.

Mordred was left alone in the room, staring at the twisted ruin of a hellfire pistol still smoking on the floor.

The streets of Kitezh were mostly clear, whether due to the fear of the coming battle, or to the early hour, it was difficult to say. The horses had to be slowed to a trot on the slippery streets, exhausted and double-laden as they both were. Even the hounds seemed tired, although they still bounded along beside Sivushka. Above, the dromond continued to strike at random, but it seemed to have lost their exact trail. Kastchei led them onwards towards the kremlin at the city's heart, as fast as he dared. The dromond was heading that way as well, always a few streets ahead of them. Several times they were forced to detour to avoid debris from damaged buildings, or roads already closed by collapsed houses. The guards had taken up stations on some of the taller buildings, using portable cannon to shoot at the vessel, but without any real effect.

The cybrorses stumbled into the courtyard of the kremlin, shaking with exhaustion. Kastchei dismounted first, helping Nikolai down onto the ground and shouting for a medic. Vivienne let Taliesin help her down, and leaned on him gratefully as her legs seemed to turn to jelly.

Yuri was already running towards them, heedless of his guards attempts to keep him out of harms way.

'I'd given all of you up for dead, or nearly,' he said as he sank to the ground beside his commander. 'How is he?'

'Broken arm, broken leg, I think,' Kastchei grunted. 'He'll live.' He stood up and moved aside, pulling his gloves off, as the healers arrived and carried Uulamets off. Grooms took the horses and led them away gently. The hounds clustered around their master, tongues lolling, sides heaving. A brief pat on the head was all the thanks they got.

'They must be nearly out of power by now,' Taliesin said breathlessly, pointing at the dromond. 'We should be safe, for a while.'

'I don't share you optimism,' Yuri replied curtly. 'Kitezh detected three more ships heading this way and the ground forces are mobilising even as we speak.'

'You don't have the defences to hold that kind of force off,' Taliesin said softly.

'No.' Yuri slapped Kastchei on the back. 'Come. It will be better to be inside when we do this.'

'Do what?' Vivienne asked of no-one in particular as they followed the prince into the kremlin.

Hide the city told her.

 

 

Circling the city, the dromond waited whilst the weapons gathered enough of the remaining power for one last strike.

'I can take out one of those towers,' the weapons officer told his companions.

'Wait.' Mordred strode back onto the flight deck and took his seat. 'Target the central dome. That's where I was brought back - it covers the city's engines.'

'Compensating,' Weapons confirmed. 'Target acquired. Thirty seconds to recharge.'

'Fire when…' Mordred leaned forward, staring at the viewscreen. 'What in the name of…'

 

The city below was a dark maze of walls and streets, running in concentric rings to the black kremlin at its heart. That blackness now began to spread out from that heart; a growing shadow that devoured everything in its path. Wall after wall vanished under its inexorable flood, until only the blackness remained. Then it spread still further, along hitherto unseen arteries running under the earth and down to the river and the sea. Where a city had stood was now only a vast, chancrous shadow fed by innumerable veins. A shadow that pulsed and flickered as they watched, and then pulled back on itself, imploding to a vanishing point in less than a heartbeat.

The plateau was empty.

'A whole city doesn't just vanish into thin air!' Kai shouted. The knights accompanying Mordred flinched, but continued to stand rigidly to attention.

'Don't take it out on them, Kaiwyn,' Mordred drawled. He draped one leg causally across the arm of his chair. 'We all saw it.' He nodded to the two knights. 'Dismissed.'

They fled the tent gratefully. Kai rounded angrily on Mordred.

'Don't you dare undermine my authority with my own men like that!'

Mordred shrugged. 'I thought you'd prefer them out of here when you started foaming at the mouth and chewing the rugs. Or are you over all of that now?' he reached for a goblet and took a deep drink. 'As it happens, I think we can break their defences, eventually.'

'"Eventually" is something we do not have time for,' Kai snapped. 'Nor can I rely on your "skills" in this matter. If you'd been a little more circumspect, we wouldn't be in this mess.'

'Really?' Mordred sneered. 'I wasn't the one who let the bard and the city's commander escape.'

'No,' Kai retorted. 'You were the one who let Kastchei Bes-Mertny escape. Twice, now, isn't it?'

The two men glared at each other. Kai was the first to take a deep breath and back down.

'I still have the prince - Alexei. I suggest you interrogate him as soon as you feel able. We need to know how to break through whatever it is they've done - or to circumvent it in some way. That, dear nephew, I leave to you.

'I have my own agenda,' Mordred replied coldly.

'I don't care,' Kai told him. 'I want this planet subdued before we leave, if for no other reason than I do not care to have the Sleepers held at my back. That means we take the city.'

'And your plan to take the Master of the Hunt?' Mordred asked slyly.

Kai slammed his goblet down on the table. 'The Master falls when Kitezh falls, now that he's trapped inside with the rest of them. I don't care how you do it, Gareth, but get me inside those walls.'

Mordred laughed coldly. 'You'd have to find them first,' he sneered. He stood up, walked to the tent opening and threw back the flap. In the hazy sunshine, he could just make out the empty plateau where the city had stood. The ramshackle areas on the outskirts still stood, falling down the sides of the escarpment, to the deserted docks on the estuary, no ships riding at anchor now, given the fury of the flooded river. But where the tall black spires and domes of the inner city had stood, there was nothing. Black smoke from burning buildings palled over the remains of the business district left behind; Kai as usual taking out his frustration on what little of the city remained.

'I'll find them,' he promised. 'Wherever and however they're hiding.'

 

A little later, Mordred stood at the side of the young prince, on a hilltop that had once given a good view of the vanished city. They were on the opposite side of the river, at a point where the swollen current widened out onto the floodplain, the torrent slowed by the gentler slope. Still fierce under the surface, the river looked relatively calm to the casual eye.

'Homesick?' Mordred asked. The prince shook his head.

'That place always gave me the creeps,' he spat. 'Always watching you, whatever you did or wherever you went. And my father, always toadying to it.'

'Then help us,' Mordred said. 'Show us how to defeat the spells that protect it.'

'They've taken themselves out of time,' Alexei said. 'It's still there, under the surface. All you need is to know where to look, isn't it?'

'My druids can work wonders,' Mordred soothed. 'The people will come to no harm once we have their leaders. The Lord of Summer…' he shrugged. 'Well, I have plans for him. But show us what you know, we can do the rest.'

Alexei pointed at the surface of the flooded river. 'There's everything you need.'

Mordred tried to see what he was pointing at, but had to look up at the prince and shake his head, a puzzled look on his face. 'I'm sorry, your highness, you've lost me.'

'Magic works in strange ways, doesn't it? But so long as the memory of a thing remains, you can use it, am I right? That's what Alianora told me. Concepts.' He walked away from Mordred, down the slight slope towards the water's edge, and stood on the shore, staring down into the silty depths of the temporary lake. 'There's your memory, my lord.'

Mordred, arriving at his side, didn't bother to correct the title, as he stared into the brown waters.

Reflected in the churning muddy waves, he could just, very faintly, make out the reflection of the spires of the citadel.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 16

Kitezh

           

The walls of the apartment spluttered fitfully as Vivienne rummaged in the wardrobe for clean clothes. Whatever the city had done to hide itself, it was affecting every system. On the bed at her side, Cafall lay with his massive head on large paws, and stared with baleful red eyes at her, periodically wagging his whiplike tail whenever she glanced down at him. Finally settling on a dark green shirt, she pulled it on and sat beside the hound whilst she tucked it into the waistband of her breeches, welcoming the feel of her own clothes for the first time in too many days. Cafall laid his head on her lap whilst she picked up a brush and ran it through her cropped hair.

'It'll take some getting used to, but the look suits you.'

 

She looked up and smiled only a little half-heartedly at Taliesin as he walked out of the bathroom, towelling his hair dry. 'Needs must.'

He walked over to her and knelt down at her feet. When Cafall protested by shoving his head between them, he pushed the hound out of the way and placed his elbows on her knees, his head resting on his clasped hands so that he could look into her face.

'Did I say "thank you" for the rescue?' he asked.

'You're all wet,' she replied, picking the towel up from where he'd dropped it at her side. 'You're welcome.' The silence between them stretched out awkwardly. She made the mistake of looking at his eyes at one point, and wished she hadn't, seeing the guilt, pain and pity writ there. She pulled away then, unprepared for his reaction, although in retrospect she supposed she should have seen it - after all, how many times had she seen similar reactions played out? She'd never thought she would see anyone look at her in that way and it cut deeper than Mordred's knife had.

There was a barrier between them now, that had never been there before. That, more than anything else over the past week or two very nearly broke her. The feeling just cemented her resolve not to let Mordred have the last laugh. She reached out to place her hand on Taliesin's bare chest, only to pull it back sharply as a knock on the door shattered the moment, and Valery peered around the door as it opened.

'Lady Vivienne? My Lord? You are asked to go to the infirmary at once.'

'Why?'

'What is it?'

Both Taliesin and Vivienne spoke at the same time. Valery, Kastchei's efficient but always slightly fussy factotum looked distressed.

'Sir - the child, Phoenix, has arrived rather precipitously, and in a terrible state.'

Taliesin struggled into a shirt, getting the arms tangled as he rushed. Vivienne took it from him and straightened it out before handing it back with a half smile.

'How bad?' she asked. Valery blushed.

'She- he's - well, you'd better see for yourselves. But it's the other one who's in the most danger,' he continued.

'Other one?' Taliesin tried to put one boot on hopping around with the other only half on.

'There's a man - a stranger. He said he was a bard, like you.'

'Marius?' Vivienne asked. Taliesin swore under his breath.

'How badly hurt is he?'

They were already out of the room and following Valery down the corridor before the little man answered.

'He could well lose an arm at least.'

                                     

 

The streets of the citadel were lined with fire. Overhead, the sky boiled with a dark, lurid riot of colour that swallowed the light. Shadows closed in on all sides, devouring what little light remained within a few feet of the burning braziers, torches and fires lit by the populace. They lurked and pooled everywhere, held at bay by the flames, but only just. The people, when they had to walk the streets, scuttled from one island of light to another, as though afraid something in the shadows would jump out at them at any moment. Vivienne, watching from a window in the healerie inside the kremlin, shivered and drew her coat closer. The peculiar light was the same that she saw in the void, and she understood all too well those fears.

Inside the kremlin itself, the situation was little better. The bioluminescent walls of the citadel were only slightly more effective than fire, but even they seemed to struggle against the void-born shadows. The torches lit to help cast the darkness back only made matters worse, as the flickering tongues of fire made the shadows leap and jump as though with a life of their own. Several times over the last few hours she'd started at the sight of something moving out of the corner of her eye, only for it to be revealed as a curtain billowing in a draught causing the shadows to change. Nerves inside and out of the kremlin were frayed, and fraying further.

She turned her attention back to the occupants of the room. Two beds in this small room were occupied, and in one, Phoenix lay, unmoving, possibly sleeping. The youngster was hurt, and hurt badly, but not in any immediate danger. The other, however, was a different matter. Looking on, but keeping well out from underfoot, Vivienne watched as the healer turned to look at Taliesin from his examination of Marius, and shake his head. There was blood all over the sheets, and the normally stoical bard cried out every time they touched him. Taliesin murmured something to his deputy, and walked over to stand beside Vivienne. He looked pale.

'They say they can't save the arm, there's too much damage - it's seared to the bone. Some of the hellfire caught his chest as well, one lung is on the verge of collapse and he's got massive internal injuries.' He lay his head on her shoulder, and she put her arm around his shoulders, feeling him shaking slightly.

'Tal...'

Marius' voice was so faint only a bard could have heard it. Taliesin pulled out of Vivienne's embrace and rushed to his friend's side. Heedless of the blood on the floor, he knelt at his side.

'Marco?'

From her vantage point, Vivienne could just make out Marius speaking, and then Taliesin's emphatic shake of the head. Marius reached out with surprising strength, and grabbed Taliesin's sleeve. Whatever was said was obviously heated, and eventually, Taliesin bowed his head and nodded. Marius collapsed back onto the bed, and closed his eyes. Taliesin stood up and signalled to the healer, ad whispered something into the man's ear. The healer's eyes widened in shock, and he too began remonstrating, only to be cut short by a sharp word from the bard. The healer bowed his head, and a moment later, Taliesin was making his way back to Vivienne's side.

'Let's go, they have work to do, and I've no stomach to watch.' She let him lead her out of the room.

'What did Marco want?' she asked, once they were outside. Taliesin shook his head.

'A request. Not one I agree with, but it's his choice.'

She glanced back at the closed door, lips compressed in anger and sorrow. 'He's a flautist - how will he manage? Can't they do anything?'

'Not here, and not now. Damn that Mordred!' Without warning he turned and slammed his fist into the wall, and stood there, his forehead pressed against it, eyes closed. She laid a hand on his shoulder, and then leaned against him, her head resting against his back.

'We'll find a way to stop him,' she whispered. He took a shuddering breath and turned, and she was again the comforter, holding him tight whilst he buried his head against her neck.

'We have to, if this is only the beginning,' he whispered. 'Gods help me, I know the stories only too well.'

 

On board the Prydwen.

 

'There must be something in the memory banks about this man!' Mordred slammed his fist down onto the table in front of him. 'Accolon of Galicia led a major rebellion against my mother - are you telling me that nothing was recorded?'

'Morgaine didn't want the "incident" on record, your highness,' the first of the Calaitin said soothingly. 'She felt it were best if the whole thing be forgotten. Most of the sixteen planets affected were destroyed, and the whole affair was expunged from the records. When Accolon escaped from the prison in which he was being held, she decreed that the story should go out that he had been quietly executed for his crimes - as it happens, this wasn't a lie - but as you now know, they had a great deal of difficulty in actually killing him permanently.'

'She told me none of this.' Mordred said sulkily.

'It was more than enough, perhaps that you knew as much as you did. She certainly didn't take kindly to the bards who spread the story that Accolon had been her lover.'

'No. I don't suppose she did, judging by the way she eradicated the order only a few months later. I'd always wondered why she changed her mind after allowing them to just drop out of sight. So is there nothing of any real use you can tell me?'

'Only what we know from our talks with the late Queen of Winter and our analysis of his own records. Which, although meticulous in detail about the improvements he made to the Wild Hunt, are rather lacking in any personal detail.'

'Then speculate. Give me something I can use. You must have come up with some ideas at least, surely?' Kai asked, from his seat on the far side of the room, from where he'd been listening to the conversation, a wine glass in his hand.

'Then I would suggest he's cold, calculating and meticulous,' Calaitin said smoothly. 'He's naturally manipulative, and has a need for control which borders on obsession. Your description of his actions in Novgoren and what you remember of Accolon - and my own talks with Alianora Marevna - lead me to believe as well that he's that most dangerous of creatures - the frustrated romantic.' He shrugged eloquently. 'Which is a pity. Simple monomania or a lust for power is easier to direct than a man who has ideals, however tarnished, or need for an audience, however much denied.'

'He's a charming bastard,' Mordred added. 'I remember that much. Also a great one for revenge, if I recall correctly. Mother found that rather amusing.' He picked up a goblet and drained it in one gulp. 'Who cares? We know what we need to - that he can be hurt.'

Kai smiled. 'He can be killed,' he corrected. Mordred and Calaitin both gave him a sharp look, and he shrugged. 'I have my own sources, don't look so surprised. I'm assured that his much vaunted immortality is gone - he barely survived what you did to him, my dear nephew.'

'This hardly helps us decide on a plan of action,' Mordred told him.

'On the contrary, perhaps it gives us the perfect weapon. He will be unwilling to engage us in the open, yet his pride will force him to make some gesture of defiance. Especially if Taliesin is being his usual annoyingly heroic self.' Kai smiled warmly at his companions. 'Taliesin is that most dangerous of creatures - the incurable romantic. He's very good at encouraging people and inspiring them to suicidal heroism. He'll end up leading the Lord of Summer by his aristocratic nose in the only direction he can go, given all the variables, and knowing that, we have the advantage.' He pointed at the map inscribed on the table top. 'They'll draw us into the city, hoping to trap us. What we have to do now is find a way to set that trap off from a safe distance.'

Kitezh

'We can't stay here forever,' Yuri said. Vivienne pulled her attention back to the discussion. Yuri paced in front of the hearth, his hands clasped behind his back. Nikolai was the only one of the four sitting down, and he had his feet up on the small table in front of his chair, one arm still in a sling and one leg splinted. Kastchei leaned nonchalantly against the far wall, half in shadow, his armour licked by flames from a nearby torch, two hounds at his feet. Taliesin still hovered at her side, leaning on the windowsill half his attention on the city outside, half-fixed on Yuri.

I can

The city still sounded afraid, and underlying that fear, a stubborness that worried her. She shared a quick look with Taliesin.

'The people can't, Kitezh.' Kastchei said bluntly. 'They're afraid, and the void is no place for their kind.'

I'll protect them, the city replied.

'From themselves?' Taliesin asked, pushing himself into a standing position. He strode into the centre of the room and looked at each man in turn. 'Already they're scared, and it's only been - what - a day at most? How long before they turn on each other? - and make no mistake, they will. This was at best buying us some time, and for that, I thank you. But it is no solution, Kitezh. Sooner or later you will have to take us back, so that we can finish this.'

'The bard's right,' Nikolai told the prince.

'I'm not the one who needs convincing,' Yuri replied. 'Kit? You've been quiet. There must be something you can do.'

Kastchei shrugged, almost imperceptibly in the bone-coloured armour. 'I'm no warrior, Yuri. I can't fight a war for you.'

'Oh I don't know,' Vivienne said slyly. 'You used to have a knack for starting them.'

The comment earned her a black look. 'When I have something to work with,' he retorted, a little snippily, she thought. 'If there was anything we could use as a distraction, two sides to play off against each other, some leverage to turn their attention away, perhaps. But this - this will come down to brute force. Sooner, rather than later. Mordred or Calaitin will find a way in, and when that happens, we don't have the resources to fight them off. No weapons, no defences. Just a handful of trained men, one bard, the hunt, two ex mercenaries one ex journalist and a planet-bound ex spaceport. If anyone has any suggestion how to put this little lot together, please - feel free to come forward.' He was looking straight at Taliesin when he finished, but the bard refused to rise to the bait. Kastchei took his place against the wall again, partly, Vivienne suspected, because sitting in an armchair in that armour wasn't exactly practical.

'There's one sure way to get them off balance,' Taliesin said eventually, breaking the awkward silence that followed. 'Take the fight to them - it's the last thing they'll expect. Kit's right - distractions are what we need, and we can give them that, with interest, if we go for the right target.'

'I think I know where you're going with this,' Vivienne murmured into his ear. 'Ballsy. If he goes for it.'

Yuri gave him a questioning look. 'Well, Taliesin? What do you suggest?'

'The only thing you can do - when you want to kill a snake, you cut off its tail…'

'Just behind the head,' Kastchei finished. 'Thank you so much, I was rather hoping that a suicidal rush on horseback into the heart of their forces was something that wouldn't occur to anyone to ask of me.'

'You're the only one of us who stands a chance against Kai,' Taliesin pointed out reasonably. 'With the Lord Commander dead, Mordred will have his work cut out to control the Legion - I don't think he has the same loyalty factor Kai has, to hold both sides together. They'll break.'

'What you don't seem to appreciate,' Kastchei replied, 'is that a fight with me is exactly what he wants - a chance to take the hunt from me. Are you willing to risk it?'

'Are you?' Taliesin asked point blank. Vivienne looked from one man to the other, hardly daring to breathe.

'You're asking me to put my life on the line for you? For what you care for?' He sounded amused, but there was cold venom behind the humour.

'Not really,' Taliesin said mildly. 'Your arse is already on the line, as are the lives of your own people. What do you want me to do - ride in with you?'

'Tal…' Vivienne began.

'That's not such a bad idea,' Kastchei said. He steepled his hands in front of his face, and stared at Taliesin. 'Would you put everything on the line and guard my back?' He lifted his head and sought Vivienne's eyes, and after a brief moment, he smiled. Still looking at her but addressing Taliesin, he continued: 'don't worry, you'd only be in the way. However I'll need you to provide the diversion.'         

Vivienne breathed a sigh of relief.

 

'We can field perhaps three hundred men, with a little planning,' Uulamets suggested. 'Do we engage them on the plain?'

'Nothing so obvious. Even with similar numbers they have hellfire cannon mounted on their dromonds. All they'd have to do is shoot from the air, we'd be sitting ducks out in the open,' Kastchei replied. 'No, we need to draw them into the city, take the fighting street by street.' He turned to Yuri. 'I'll need the city plans.'

'I'll send for them.' Yuri looked apprehensive. 'Kastchei - giving them free access to the city…'

'They won't fire on their own forces,' Kastchei reassured him. 'We need to separate their forces, stop them from attacking en masse. If we engage them in the open, we're dead. We're completely outgunned, and their armour is superior to everything we have - to be honest, I think there are perhaps five sets in working order on the entire planet, and I'm wearing one of them.'

'I thought you said you couldn't fight a war?' Taliesin asked him, an amused smile on his lips. Kastchei grinned ferally at him.

'I can when I have to, I just don't like to rush headlong into the fray. As Vivienne could tell you, I like to keep my own skin intact.'

'Fair enough. What do you want from me?'

Kastchei smiled. 'What a bard does best, I understand. Entertain the troops. Preferably theirs.'

Taliesin grinned widely as he realised Kastchei's plan. 'You really are a devious bastard, aren't you?' he asked admiringly. Kastchei's smile just grew a little bigger. 'Kitezh?'

Yes?

'There's a communications network in place throughout the citadel, isn't there?'

Yes, Taliesin. But why?

'Do you have recording devices that still work?'

'We do, as it happens,' Yuri replied before the city could. 'What can you do?'

'Plenty,' Vivienne said, grinning cheekily at the prince. 'Once he gets going. Shutting him up is usually the problem.'

'Music,' Taliesin said, with a sharp glance at Vivienne, 'defines the universe. More particularly, it can also influence the mind. I can use the city itself to create a fugue to disorientate the troops. Nothing elaborate - it produces a similar effect to motion sickness, only much more debilitating.'

'Nice trick if you can pull it off,' Kastchei drawled.

'I'd give you such a dig in the ribs for that if you weren't in armour,' Vivienne told him. He winked at her as he stood upright, unfolding his arms as he did so.

'You concentrate on working out a way to hold them off until you can sic the hunt onto Kai,' Taliesin said amiably. 'Leave the difficult jobs to the professionals.'

Vivienne heard a slight intake of breath from Nikolai, and even Yuri took a step forward as though to defuse the situation. But Taliesin was wearing his most innocent expression, and Kastchei was already turning away to hide a smile.

'Honestly,' she tched at them.

'Is this really the time for levity?' Yuri asked. Kastchei placed an arm around his old friend's shoulders.

'If not now, Yuriy, then when? Talya - thank you. Yuri will see that you have everything you need.'

Taliesin gave him a nod of thanks, but the tall armoured figure was already striding out of the room. Vivienne perched on the edge of the table.

'So' she asked, 'Is there anything at all for me to do around here?'

 

On board the Prydwen.

Inside the war room, Mordred and three of the Calaitin sat at opposite quarters of the huge circular table that took up the centre of the room. Modelled on the Round Table itself, it had once been Arthur's, over twelve hundred years ago. Mordred ran his hands over the polished surface, remembering. The last briefing Arthur had given him had been here, before he left for Galicia, leaving his son and nephew as co-regent with his young trophy-wife.

Gwen had sat on the table, he remembered. So close he could have reached out and touched her. He could still remember the scent of the wildflowers in her hair.

He grasped the edge of the table with both hands, and stared at the mirrored surface. Twelve hundred years had left their mark on the Prydwen. Still the pride of the fleet, she showed her age in places. The table was pitted, and the surface cracked with age. The multiple images from the ship's scanners flickered in places, most particularly where they overlapped on the display in front of him.

 

Pushing the past aside, Mordred leaned back in the copy of the black throne, and placed his hands on the obsidian arms.

'Do we have the key to the city yet, old friend?'

First nodded. 'We believe so. The reflection by itself however was not enough. There is a need to use methods a little cruder than we might have liked. I do hope you don't need the prince for anything?'

Mordred waved a gloved hand dismissively. 'Do what you want with him.'        

First nodded in satisfaction. 'Good. Then we are ready whenever you are, your highness.'

Mordred stood up and sauntered over to the viewscreen that occupied one whole wall of the room. Unlike the table, this was new. As he approached it sparkled into life, displaying a view of the planet's surface. Cloud cover was minimal over much of the only large continent, an so the ship's sensors could show the surface in detail, closing in on any area where he let his hand linger. The mountain range to the north. The great river and its tributaries flowing southwards to the ocean, the whole still largely wrapped in snow and ice, although the ice cap was retreating. Already the southernmost foothills of the range were clear.

Mordred's hand traced the line of the river down to its mouth, and hovered over the flats of the estuary, as a lover might run his hand over the familiar curves of a woman.

'This was always an inhospitable world, even when I was a child,' he mused. 'Gwynedd suits me better, I think.'

'In time, your highness,' Second said. 'In time.'

           

Mordred turned away from the screen, and looked around the room again. The once bustling war room of the flagship of the fleet, now a battered relic of times long past, a lifetime in its own legend, much like he and Kai had become. All of them, relics, reminders of past splendours in a world that had started to pass them by and leave them behind.

He looked back over his shoulder at the view of Breceliande. Nowhere was this being made clearer than on this world, once so familiar, now so changed that it had taken a tremendous sacrifice to find it. Changed out of all recognition: its orbit, its seasons, its language, its people… and its history. More importantly, even its name.

Skazki.

 

'When we're through here,' he told Calaitin, 'When we have everything we need from this place - its secrets, its sleepers - I don't give a damn what my uncle wants for it, I want this planet destroyed.'

He turned his back on the screen again and swept out of the war room. 'I don't like change.' He muttered, almost under his breath, as he left.

 

He made first for the command deck, but half way down the main corridor, changed his mind and turned back, taking instead the path to the dromond quarters. 'If my uncle wants to know where I am,' he told Calaitin a few minutes later as the Siofra left the bay under his hands, 'I'm visiting family.'

 

Kitezh.

Miraculously, the dromond had escaped damage during the attack on Kitezh by Kai's forces. It squatted in the shelter of the main courtyard, and in the uncertain light cast by the torches, the bulbous little craft had an evil looking aspect. The flames and shadows sharpened its rounded lines, giving it a darker, more malevolent feel.

Kastchei made his way up the ramp, ducking as he entered the craft through the hatchway. He found Taliesin in the hold, rummaging through one of the storage compartments, an assortment of objects on the floor at his feet.

'Need a hand?' he asked. He found a bench that hadn't been covered by the debris and sat down.

'Depends. Can you come up with anything resembling a solid state wave amplifier?' Taliesin asked. 'We seem to be out.'

Kastchei ran a quick eye over the pile on the floor. 'No, but with a little ingenuity and a bit of imagination…' he picked out what appeared to be a random selection of artefacts and began to assemble them deftly, helping himself to the toolbox at Taliesin's side when necessary. 'Will this do?' he asked eventually, holding up a small lopsided object that hummed slightly when he moved it. He handed it to the bard with a small smile.

'Thank you,' Taliesin said quietly, taking it from him.

'You're welcome.'

'I didn't mean just the device,' Taliesin answered. Kastchei smiled.

'I know.' He looked over the structure Taliesin was building. 'Do you know what you're doing here or are you just hoping if you put enough junk in one place it will somehow assemble itself?'

Another time, Taliesin might have bristled at the jibe, but he caught the humorous undertone in the other man's voice.

'It's mostly trial and error,' he admitted. Kastchei shooed him away and began reassembling the device, methodically and expertly re-arranging and re-connecting its various components, occasionally selecting another from the pile.

'You're quite a good engineer,' Taliesin told him.

'Tell me that if and when it works.' Kastchei brushed a lock of hair off his forehead that threatened to obscure his vision. 'Actually, yes, I did use to be quite adept at the practical application of spatio-temporal mechanics. "Merlin" however was the better theorist.'

'I didn't know you were acquainted,' Taliesin said softly.

'If you're trying to rummage through that patchwork of memories you seem to have,' Kastchei said dryly, 'I wouldn't bother. I think I'd be one of the things best forgotten.' He ran a hand over the assembly in front of him and then placed the amplifier inside the structure, which resembled a teetering freeform sculpture roughly in the shape of a tuning fork. 'This should do the trick, try it.'

'Not yet,' Taliesin picked up a map of the city that had been lying on the floor next to him, underneath a pile of organic circuitry. 'I still have to work out the correct location, as well as the acoustic effects needed.' He threw the map down again in frustration. 'You know - I don't even know if this will work, and I had no intention of getting involved in a war. Where did it all go wrong?'

Kastchei leaned back against the bench and gave him an appraising look. 'It's hard, isn't it - always having to live up to expectations?'

'Would you know anything about that?'

Kastchei grinned toothily. 'Me? No. I've spent most of my life here living down my reputation.'

As if he hadn't heard him, Taliesin continued: 'Everyone had expectations, right from the start. It's never been enough to say, "I am not Merlin", because no-one ever believes it. They always expect miracles, as though one man could ever be the answer. I'm not even sure how much of him there is inside me.'

'Trust me,' Kastchei drawled. 'However much it is it seems to be the less annoying part.' He stood up and offered Taliesin a hand up, which was accepted. When the two men were face to face he continued: 'You try too hard to hold on to the past, then scream when people demand that you live up to it. If you want my advice, just learn to be yourself. Do what Taliesin would do, not what you think Merlin or Gwion would. You can't change what you were, but you can change what you want to be.' He paused. 'Didn't we already have this conversation?'

Taliesin grinned, remembering a cave half way down a mountainside, not much more than a week ago. 'Yes.'

'Then start paying attention, I hate having to repeat myself.'

In spite of the situation, Taliesin found himself laughing, and offered his hand to the armoured sorcerer. 'Perhaps it should start here.'

Kastchei stared at the offered hand, then looked into Taliesin's green eyes. In the baleful light of the dromond, his had that violet colour Taliesin had come to associate with the sorcerer's stronger emotions. Taliesin kept his face perfectly neutral at the hesitation.

'Now who's holding on to the past,' he said lightly. He didn't withdraw the hand, and waited. Eventually Kastchei grasped it firmly and shook it. 'Shouldn't you be preparing or something?' Taliesin asked.

'For what? A mad dash into the middle of several dozen armoured knights armed with sophisticated weaponry, with only a dozen hounds to back me up?' He helped Taliesin pick up the device. 'Apart from running a brush over Sivka there isn't really much I can do until the time comes.'

'And you hate being unoccupied,' Taliesin laughed. He looked up at the sky, an oily, opalescent black overhead, and shivered. 'I don't blame you. I don't think I want to sit around and stare at that for the next few days.'

'It won't be days,' Kastchei assured him. 'It's never days. The one constant in any universe is that one way or another, we'll be up to our necks before we're ready.'

 

 

Dawn. The surface of the river shone in the early morning sunlight. Only the occasional ripple disturbed the clear waters that lapped gently against the shore. The city of Kitezh was reflected in its depths, a dark shadow that filled most of the lake formed by the Calaitin overnight.

Alexander Yurievich, Prince of Kitezh, sat on the shore, oblivious to the deep mud, throwing stones into the calm pool created by Calaitin's magic. Occasionally he tried skipping the stones across the surface, but no matter how hard he tried, they always sank as soon as they hit the surface. The two empty bottles beside him had little to do with his lack of skill however, but they did account for his monstrous headache and the tendency of his scanty breakfast to keep rising up his throat into the back of his mouth, leaving a foul, acidic aftertaste.

He reached for another bottle, this one half full, and took a long swig, staring as he did so at the men standing nearby, ignoring him. The Calaitin he could always tell by the limp they all affected, even when, as now, they were dressed in full battle armour. The other man, a little taller than the druids, was the greying commander of the legion.

Alexei glowered, made safe by distance, alcohol, and the fact that not one of them was looking at him.

Another drink. Well, they needed him, and he could use that, for long enough to see the Lord of Summer dead, and then…

And then he could ride in as the city's liberator and saviour. Blood mattered: the city would answer to him, once his father was gone. Once they had what they came for, these people would leave. After all, their battle was elsewhere.

He looked over at the group again, noting that the really unpleasant one – Gareth – was not yet returned. He'd taken off last night for parts unknown. He skipped another stone across the lake and watched as it plunged into the water only a few feet from the shore, vanishing without a ripple into the depths, somewhere near the reflected image of the north tower transit terminal.

I can only hold the river out of time for a short time Calaitin told Kai. Two of their number flanked the black-armoured form of the lord commander as he watched, standing on the shore. If you would act, act now.

'Do you still need me?'

Kai turned to look at the questioner, Alexei, swaying drunkenly as he walked over, a bottle still clutched in his hand. 'I've been sat here for hours – when do we attack?'

'Soon, my prince. And of course we still need you, your highness.' He nodded to Calaitin, two of whom moved swiftly to Alexei's side and held his arms. A third member of their order walked slowly behind his brethren as they forced the struggling boy towards the water and pushed him to his knees at the water's edge, his face almost touching the surface, obscuring the reflection of the topmost tower of the city.

Kai looked up briefly to the escarpment, the skyline unmarred by the reality reflected below. 'We couldn't do this without you.'

The boy screamed once, and a knife flashed in the sun. The scream became a choked gurgle, and his blood first dripped, then trickled in a steady stream into the lake. All thirteen of the Calaitin remaining now stood on the shore, standing in a semi-circle around the body of the prince, whose blood continued to pour into the river seemingly without end, swirling out to cover the reflection of the city, faster and faster, drawn into precise patterns in response to the silent commands of Calaitin.

No chants, no gestures, no outward sign of the powers conjured were discernible, but Kai felt the moment when they finished, a sense of something snapping into place with precise finality. The city's reflection was covered by a shifting, rippling, bloody lemniscate; a labyrinthine device in the shape of an hourglass – or from another angle, a stylised spider - it was difficult to be sure - that filled the timeless lake. As one, Calaitin's thirteen parts stepped back from the shore, and allowed the body of the prince to fall to the ground. As it hit the soft mud, the river, released from its bonds, began to run free, sweeping away the body, the reflection and the sigil.

'Is that it?' Kai asked, as one by one, Calaitin filed past him.

'You asked us to find a way to bring the city back,' one of them said, pausing briefly.

The next in line simply pointed back over the river, to the blank escarpment.

 

In the hazy light of the early morning sun, the city of Kitezh stood once again on its plateau overlooking the estuary, the roseate light making the dark spires look as though they were drenched in blood.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 17

 

The Forest.

Mordred stood outside the little bone fence, and stared insolently at the hut stepping in its dainty circle inside. Twiglike leshii flickered in and out of existence around him, keeping their distance, as though unsure of this intruder into their world. His lip curled in disgust as he watched them. There was something far too unnatural about semi-sentients. Of their mistress, there was no sign, and after several minutes, he'd had enough of waiting.

'I'm not going to stand here all day,' he shouted. 'Nor do I have any intention of reciting children's rhymes in order to get your bloody attention. I know you're listening, grandmother.'

The hut stopped, the single door facing him. A tall, elderly woman came out, descending the wooden steps down to the ground. Stiffly, but gracefully, she walked towards the gate. She stopped short of it, and regarded her visitor with piercing blue eyes, from under an ancient bell- hung face frame.

'You used to have better manners, Gareth,' she said eventually. 'What do you want?'

'To come in, for one thing,' he said angrily. He laid a hand on the gate, and then pulled it back sharply as a sharp pain lanced through it and up his arm. 'It's been a long time, grandmother. Aren't you pleased to see me?' He wriggled his numbed fingers.

'Don't appeal to me my claiming blood ties, Mordred. That's as good a reason as any to keep you out,' she said dryly. 'You didn't come to talk, Gareth, not you. My daughter trained you in hate too well for that. What is it you want from me?'

'Direct and to the point. What – no convoluted, riddling reply? – my my, you are getting old,' he sneered. When the insult failed to arouse any reaction, he continued: 'Well two can play at that game. I want you to awaken the Sleepers.'

'You know I cannot do that,' she replied. 'I am the Keeper of the Golden Book: their fate is only mine to know, not mine to determine.'

'Merlin's revenant is here,' Mordred said softly.

Her head bowed slightly.          

'I know. I've met him.' She looked up. 'What of it?'

'Don't you want revenge?' he asked.

She laughed harshly 'Vengeance? Against Merlin? After so long? He ceased to matter centuries ago. Besides, if I kill this one the Norns will simply create another. It wouldn't be the first time. He's almost as hard to kill as the Undying One.'

'It's not just the bard,' he snapped. 'Without help, I cannot take back what is rightfully mine. Caer Tagel is in the hands of a usurper, Ygraine. Does that mean nothing to you? Kai – your own son – even now prepares to take the first steps to consolidate our position, but he cannot do it alone. Not against the Lord of Summer. Does that mean nothing to you?'

She raised her left hand in warning. 'It means a great deal,' she said coldly. 'More than you know.' He waited, as she stood there, a pale shadow of the woman he remembered from so long ago. There was so little left of her beauty in old age. It reminded him sharply of his mother's face, in the last few days before she died, attached to the primitive life-support devices of the world that had imprisoned them.

 

He shuddered, remembering the feel of Morgaine's cold, wrinkled skin; age spotted and unresponsive, as though life had already fled, even though the body still breathed. The scent of decay had been masked in the hospital by the even more acrid odour of disinfectant, but it had been there, under the surface, a reminder of the eventual fate of all men, even the dragon-born.

He could smell it now, borne on the breeze that whipped the crone's tattered cloak around her frail form, fluttering like dark wings.

'You're dying,' he told her bluntly. She made no reply, but he knew it for the truth. 'What have you to lose by helping me?'

'I have no need to take revenge on Merlin,' she said in her harsh croak. 'A long time ago I set in motion the one thing that could hurt him the most. And you – you would have me destroy that thing. Do not think I see nothing that happens outside this fence or my forest, Gareth ap Arthur. You want the Master of the Hunt dead, and he… by simply existing, he will be a greater revenge upon Merlin than anything you or I could accomplish.'

'I can offer a better one,' he cried. 'I can destroy everything he loves!'

'By what means – rape and murder?' Ygraine moved so quickly, he had no time to defend himself. Somehow she was on his side of the fence, and her bony, taloned fingers were around his throat. 'You dare to come to me and ask for my aid, after what you have become?' She flung him down to the ground, almost effortlessly, and her creatures surrounded him. 'You understand nothing if you think to seek my aid after what you did to the bard's companion.'

From a distance, he could hear horses whinnying, as though in warning. She turned from him, and looked back over her shoulder. Her creatures closed in on Mordred, sharp claws digging into his flesh, as their long sticklike fingers closed around his arms and legs, holding him fast. A woman stepped out of the trees, and walked slowly towards them. Long dark hair fell to the level of her breasts, curling slightly. She was tall, slim and as she came closer, Mordred realised that he knew her.

'Lady Marya?'

She smiled coldly, but otherwise ignored him, and swept past flicking her coat disdainfully as she sidestepped to avoid the leshii, who hissed at her, but did not let go of their charge.

Ygraine, he noticed with no little satisfaction, had turned even paler. 'Abomination.' The old woman spat.

'The word is "revenant,"' Marya corrected, 'It always helps to keep a spare body or two tucked away in case of emergencies, don't you think?' Her voice was much lower and resonant than Mordred remembered. The chatelaine of Novgoren had struck him as a rather air-headed, fussy woman. She now held herself with the bearing of a queen, and his grandmother's comment left little doubt as to the reason. Sensing an opportunity, he relaxed, no longer fighting the leshii's hold on him.

'Winter is dead, Ygraine. Past time for you to follow it, I think.' Marya remarked to Ygraine, as though discussing the weather.

'You have not the strength to do what must be done,' Ygraine replied coldly. 'Nor the training.'

Marya laughed. 'I learned a great deal from Kastchei, old woman. I think you'd be surprised how much.'

'Obviously it didn't include "don't trust him",' Mordred remarked dryly. It earned him a sharp look from the former queen of winter, to which he just smiled.

The sound of horses neighing grew closer.

'If I could bend the Wild Hunt to my will, including Sivushka, what possible challenge do you think your horses would be?' Marya continued, turning her back on Mordred. She raised her hands to the sky. 'Venite!' she called, in a high, clear voice.

The sound of many hooves suddenly thundered towards them, and the Baba's mares galloped around the side of the little hut on hens' legs, bearing down on mistress and pretender. The leshii holding Mordred vanished with screeches of dismay, leaving him free, and he ran for the safety of the trees, stopping just far enough inside to be both safe, and to watch.

                       

There was little of the struggle between the two women visible to the observer: two women, standing facing each other, struggling for mastery of the minds of the cybrids that galloped towards them in slowtime. For a brief second, it looked as though they would turn, and head towards the younger of the two, but as time quickened to its normal tempo, they bore down instead on their old mistress, and she vanished, without time to scream, beneath dozens of flashing hooves, trampled into the ground by her own creatures.

They passed on, running for the stream where they drank every dawn and dusk, as though nothing had happened. All that remained of Ygraine ap Mryddin were a few tattered remnants of her blue dress and a handful of bloody scraps of flesh and bone. The leshii, rematerialising to pay homage to their new mistress, snatched these from the icy ground and gnawed upon them even as they genuflected to the new mistress of the forests, who accepted their obeisance, then banished them with a sharp gesture.

'Too easy,' she muttered, staring down at the bloodstained grass. Then, and only then, did she turn with uncanny precision to face Mordred's hiding place, and call to him to come out. Cautiously, he approached her, and bowed, never taking his eyes from her.

'Lady Marya.'  

'I believe you had a proposition for my predecessor?' She smiled at him, the expression as cold as the remnants of winter that surrounded them.

 

Kitezh

Dawn. Or at least, the opalescent black sky above the city was shot through with red, which Vivienne assumed meant that "outside" it was morning. She stood on the balcony for several minutes, staring up into the riotous maelstrom overhead, before walking back into the relative light and comfort of her room, shutting the doors behind her and pulling the drapes across with a definitive tug to shut out the darkness. Taliesin looked up from his chair, where he was restringing Leannan.

'If only it were that easy,' he quipped.

She shook her head, unable to frame a suitable reply, and walking over to the wardrobe removed her coat: cream and forest green, trimmed with red. The Lord of Summer's colours. She pulled it on and buttoned it up to the neck, as though that, like the drawing of the curtains, could somehow keep the darkness at bay. Like Taliesin's constant fiddling with Leannan, it was a poor defence.

'I don't like feeling helpless,' she said eventually, feeling that one of them at least should try to fill the silence that lay between them like a thick fog. 'We seem to be waiting for them to make the first move. So far, they've made all the running, Tal. When are we going to take back the initiative?'

'As soon as we find an opening,' he told her bluntly. 'Think of it more like an ambush, if it helps. None of us are waiting around tamely to become victims.'

'No,' she replied tartly, 'but even so, that's how it seems to end up. From the moment we left Gwynedd that's exactly what we've done. We've been tossed around from one crisis to another, reacting instead of acting. Gods, I'm so sick of it!' She took a deep breath after her outburst, and let it out slowly, steadying herself. 'I need some air,' she said. 'Coming?'

He shook his head. 'Not yet. I'll join you later.' His fingers ran lightly over the harp's strings, playing the first bars of an unfamiliar melody. 'I have work to do.' His fingers stumbled over the notes, producing a discordant cacophony, and he winced. His hand stayed the strings with a practised grace, but the noise lingered, filling the room with an angry cacophony. He looked at Vivienne with a troubled expression on his face. 'I think they've started,' he said simply. He laid the harp down next to the chair and stood up. 'Kitezh?' The city didn't answer.

Vivienne watched numbly as he walked over to the window and pulled back the heavy drapes. Outside, the thick, sickly blackness was fading slowly, giving way to a violet, bloodshot sky.

I cannot hold us here the city replied, a note of panic in its voice. The call is too strong.

'Then don't fight it,' Tal said softly, trying to reassure the city. Judging from the uncertain fluttering of the lights along the walls of their room, Vivienne wasn't too sure any reassurance would help the nervous caer right now.

I must fight it, Kitezh said. You cannot hear them. It is dark, dark and cold. Colder than death, and they want only to take, to remake, to remake in their own image and I am afraid. Afraidafraidafraid…nononononononono….

The city's voice rose to a shriek of denial, rage and fear, screaming the words over and over again, until both Taliesin and Vivienne were forced to their knees, their hands over their ears trying to block out the sound.

           

'Stop it! Stop this now.' Yuri thundered. The Prince of Kitezh stared up at the ceiling of his study, although the heart of Kitezh had no real location, being diffused as it was throughout the structure. The city whimpered, and ceased its howl of terrified rage. Yuri laid one hand on the wall. 'Hush. I am with you. I will protect you. Just trust me for a little while longer.'

The city whimpered, but acquiesced. Yuri let out a sigh of relief, and laid his head against the wall. 'If I'd known it would be that bad, I'd have rather taken us back of our own volition. How did they do it?'

Kastchei, sitting at Yuri's desk with his feet up on the table, nodded.

'Blood magic. Can't you feel it?' he asked. He swung his booted feet off the desk and onto the ground, the armoured sabotons clunking on the bare floor. 'Compulsion at the most fundamental biological level.'

'There's no need to sound quite so impressed,' Yuri growled. 'Kitezh - concentrate. How close is the Legion to the outskirts of the city?'

Coldcoldcold… the city wailed.

Yuri hadn't the time to be patient. 'Kitezh - how close?'

Not far. Approaching the gates, the city moaned. It continued to whimper almost inaudibly, like a child rocking backwards and forwards in fear.

'Get your people into position,' Kastchei told Yuri. 'Whatever you do, make sure I've got a clear path from the main street to the gate, get them off the main thoroughfare as soon as you can.'

Yuri nodded. 'Depend on it.'

Kastchei's answer was a wolfish grin. 'I thought I was doing.' As both men were in armour, he could only offer his hand to Yuri, which was taken firmly. 'Good fortune.'

'Good hunting,' Yuri replied. With a turn on his heel that really required a billowing cloak to underscore its dramatic intensity, the Master of the Hunt left the room, two hounds at his heels.

 

He collided with someone running down the corridor almost immediately, and the lighter, un-armoured man ended up in a heap on the floor. Kastchei extended a hand to help Taliesin to his feet, and waited impassively as the red haired bard dusted himself down.

'You should watch where you're going,' he said, amused rather than annoyed. Taliesin rubbed his shoulder, wincing.

'I wasn't expecting a brick wall in the passageway,' he shot back. Kastchei grinned.

'The original immovable object,' he drawled. 'Which would make you the irresistible force. At least we now know the outcome to one long-standing question,' he quipped. 'Shoulder still painful?'

'Full marks for observation,' Taliesin said. 'I take it you felt the shift?'

'Walk with me,' Kastchei ordered. Taliesin fell into step beside him. 'Is your own contribution ready?'

'As ready as it can be. It's only a distraction, not a weapon.'

'A distraction is all I need.'

'Just be careful,' Taliesin told him. 'Kai's no fool, and he knows the hunt.'

'He knows what the hunt used to be,' Kastchei corrected. 'I've made more than a few modifications over the years. We shall see.'

They reached the courtyard and Sivushka, harnessed, was waiting, held by Valery. The hounds, coupled, sat silently on the cobbles, waiting. Kastchei moved among them, uncoupling them and giving each one a brief gesture of acknowledgement. Only then did he turn to Sivushka, and mount, vaulting easily onto the tall albino, who sidestepped neatly, moving away from the gentle pressure of his rider's leg as Kastchei turned him towards the open gates.

'Watch yourself out there,' Taliesin called up to him, as Kastchei lifted his helmet. The Master of the Hunt looked down at him and smiled grimly. With his free hand he unsheathed the horn slung in its cradle on his saddle, and lifted it to his lips, blowing the chassé - one long note, six short. Then he lowered the featureless helmet into place, his face replaced by an immobile, blank, bone coloured mask. The horn in one hand, reins loose in the other, he kneed Sivushka into a slow collected canter, and with the lymers before him, the other hounds at his side and behind, rode under the arch and out of the gates, Sivushka's hooves beating a rat-a-tat-tat of their own on the stones of the city streets.

Taliesin felt the presence of another behind him, and did not have to look to know that it was Yuri - the man could have written the instruction manual for the Heavy Thoughtful Tread.

'He should have someone at his back,' the prince said softly. Taliesin turned to look at him, puzzled by the intensity of concern in the man's voice.

'I should think he's capable of taking care of himself,' he replied, meaning it.

Yuri stared past him, his heavy face lined with worry. 'Perhaps.'

'I'm surprised you're not more concerned about the citadel.' Taliesin nodded in the direction of the thick body of the main dome which loomed over the courtyard. In the restored daylight, it cast a thick shadow over the cobbles.

'Kitezh is terrified, past the point of listening to me.' Yuri stared up into the bard's green eyes. 'That's why I wanted to talk to you. My people can deal with the dissemination of your musical "entertainment". I need you to put your skills to use in a more urgent matter.'

'More urgent than distracting Kai's forces?'

'Don't be flippant, Taliesin. You understand me perfectly,' Yuri snapped. Taliesin accepted the rebuke.

'Your pardon, your highness.'

'You are not the only one here,' Yuri continued, 'who can judge others well. You do not want to do this - why?'

Taliesin stared over his head, at the black dome. 'Sing lullabies to a city whilst it burns around me? No, I don't want to do it. I can't lie to it, Yuri. Just what do you expect me to do that you cannot? You at least are linked to it.'

'I'm not asking you to lie. Kitezh deserves better.'

'Then what do you think I can do to comfort it, Yuri? I'm not a miracle worker.'

'No, but you have a gift, Taliesin. Please - do this for me. For all of us. Kitezh is afraid, and capable of acting without thinking if provoked. I need you.' He laid his hand on Taliesin's arm, and the bard allowed himself to be led into the citadel.

 

The Fortress of Barenton, Northern Mountains.

Mordred stared around the interior of the keep, and shivered theatrically as he examined the coffin-like containers which contained the sleepers. He touched the little flame-shaped sigil on the breastplate of his armour, and breathed a small sigh of relief as the temperature increased. It might have been psychological, given the icy stalactites and the thick layers of ice that covered everything, but when all was said and done, cold was cold. He shuffled impatiently as he waited for Marya to finish examining the gilded console a few feet away, her fingers dancing lightly over the controls, in defiance of the cold.

'Where are we, exactly? The keep looked familiar, but the terrain is so changed…'

She didn't look up. 'The fortress was once called "Barenton", if that means anything to you?'

Mordred nodded slowly, remembering. 'It was in ruins when I was a boy. I never knew it housed an entrance to the sleepers' caves.'

'The original keep was larger – it was destroyed in the wars that followed the attempt by your dear departed mother to destroy Breceliande's sun. I understand this one was rebuilt later, as part of a chain of towers that guarded the passes through the mountains which separate the cities of plains and coast from the tribes of the north. Only Kastchei, the Mistress of the Forest, and myself knew that it also guarded one of the older caches of prisoners.' She stood back from the console with a satisfied smirk on her face. 'There, that should do it.' The console was lit now by a cold greenish light, and as Mordred looked closely, unfamiliar sigils scrolled up the display screen. He looked at Marya and raised an eyebrow.'

'My homeworld's original alphabet,' she told him. 'I think only myself and Kastchei would know it now.' She tapped the screen, bringing up what he assumed was a list of some kind. 'I can't over-ride the safeguards on many of these capsules, so it's either wake them or leave them, but there are a few less well defended that might suit your purpose.'

'Our purpose, surely?' he asked, leaning closer to take a closer look at the screen, which made as little sense close to as it did from a distance. With studied casualness he tucked a stray lock of dark hair behind her ear, letting his fingers brush her cheek.

'If you don't take that hand away this instant, you'll lose it,' she said softly, but icily. He pulled his hand back as nonchalantly as he could. 'Your own people can move the capsules of those we'll need later aboard your vessel for transportation, but I'll need your help to revive the three I'd like to throw at Kastchei before we leave,' she continued smoothly. 'I'd like to see just how well the Master of the Hunt handles the little gift I'll send him.'

Mordred trailed in her wake as she strode down the space between two rows of ice-bound coffins, pausing occasionally to scan the transparent lids for the markings, presumably, he, thought, for the serial numbers. Once or twice she laid her hand on the ice, melting it with a touch and brushing away the water to get a closer look at the sigils engraved into the surface.

It might have been his imagination, but as they hurried down the seemingly endless ranks, he thought a paler grey shadow slipped in and out of the darkness that lurked at the limits of the failing lighting that illuminated the cavern, keeping pace with them as they threaded through the labyrinthine catacomb. When, curious, he took a step towards the shadows, it vanished. Shaking his head, Mordred put it down to a trick of the light, and followed the new mistress of the forests deeper into the mountain.

 

Kitezh.

Vivienne had found herself in the unenviable position of having little to do as news of the attack began to filter through to the citadel. Intrigue and a thirst for knowledge were her specialities, not tactics, battlefields and the bloody cut and thrust of war. The causes, course and fallout were where she came in: analysing, collating, and synthesising. None of which had any real use during the battle. Musing on that very thought, she remembered a conversation on the subject around a campfire in the Forest of Anderida, over ten years ago:

'The last thing anyone wants to hear while he's trying to avoid having his head lopped off,' Marius had commented, in reply to a forgettable quip by Elwyn, 'is someone twittering in his ear about why he's in that situation in the first place.'

Which decided her course of action, and turned her steps instead of down to the courtyard, where she'd only be in the way, to the healerie.

Phoenix was still unconscious, her black hair spread across the pillow. She looked pale and drawn, where her face wasn't bruised. Vivienne approached the bed softly, but Phoenix stirred and whimpered, without waking.

'She won't wake.'

At the sound of the familiar, if weak, voice, Vivienne turned. Marius was propped up in his bed, a clean shirt failing to conceal the swathe of bandages that wrapped his side up like a mummy, or the fact that his right arm now terminated well above the elbow.

'She – he – has been like that ever since we got here. Can't blame him. I'd do the same if I could get some sleep.'

Vivienne perched on the edge of his bed. 'You look better. Admittedly, that's relative.'

'They tell me I'll live. Ask me again in a month if I think that's good or bad.' In the awkward silence that followed, she looked down and began fiddling with the sheet. His remaining hand reached out and touched hers. 'You'd wonder how one man could cause so much havoc in such a short space of time, wouldn't you?'

She looked into his eyes, and tried to force a smile. 'Events have a way of congregating around living legends,' she quipped.

'That's Tal talking,' Marius said sharply. She shrugged.

'Sometimes it rubs off.'

He shook his head, and she wondered for a moment if this was to deny her statement, but he then tilted his head on one side, as though to catch a sound outside of her range.         'Marco?'

He shushed her abruptly. 'Is he using a battle-fugue?' he asked sharply. Vivienne nodded. 'Thought so. He's way off in the lower register. Perhaps I should give him a hand.' He paused. 'On second thoughts, maybe I should rephrase that…' he said, looking down at the stump of his arm, surprisingly calmly, she thought.

'Are you insane? The healers haven't finished with you yet.' She tried to push him back down, expecting resistance, as the wiry bard was the only one of the cynfeirdd who had warrior training, and normally, it showed. This time, however, he sank back onto the bed, looking grey and drained. 'Told you so,' Vivienne told him tartly, removing his limp fingers from her arm. He smiled back at her weakly, only a fraction of his usual indefatigable charm brought to bear for once.

'I hate feeling so helpless, so useless,' he said eventually.

'So do I,' she told him. 'So do I.'

 

From the tallest tower of the kremlin, Taliesin could see the entirety of the city spread out beneath him. Beyond the kremlin walls, oily black in the light of day, the rest of the city was already on fire. The ramshackle shanty town that had filled the slopes down to the estuary was gone, as were the docks: those areas had been left behind when the city had hidden itself in the void, and had paid the price, taking the brunt of Kai's anger and frustration. Now the remainder of the city suffered, as the knights advanced in small groups, street by street. Kitezh did not have enough men or women to fight this army, and although they fought, they died.

The screams and cries of the dying could be heard even here, so far from the fighting, and over the disorientating fugue he had composed to confuse the legion.

The bard's curse.

They have found some of my extremities the city said, breaking into his pain. Taliesin raised his head. I can't feel the market, or the outer walls on the north and east.

'We're all doing what we can, Kitezh, I promise you. Be patient.'

You are afraid.

 

He couldn't bring himself to lie to the tormented caer. 'Yes.'

Then why do you stay? This is not your world.

'Because I must. Because it is my job, and because if I don't, even more will die.'

Then why not fight?

Taliesin seated himself on a ledge, and placed Leannan on his lap. His long fingers quickly re-tuned the harp, and he began to play, beginning with a lament, before he stopped, thought for a moment, and let his fingers dance over the strings picking out the tune of a lively jig from the forest towns of Rheged. 'Because I'm not a warrior. I watch, I teach, I remember and later I sing so that everyone who hears my song will know what happened, to whom, and why. That is what a bard does.'

You want to fight.

He couldn't deny the city's sudden perception. 'Yes.' He carried on playing, letting the familiar melodies dance out of the harp and into the sullen light of day. 'For what they have done to those I love, for what they will do to those I've left behind in the Alliance, yes: I want to fight. Like you, I feel helpless, frustrated, and angry.' His fingers struck a harsh chord, and he winced, but played on, segueing into a soft melody from the Lay of the Battle of Badon, that soon dropped into a minor key. He stopped playing, just as a series of sharp notes from the Hunter's horn split the air, cutting through the distant sounds of battle like a knife. It cut through his fugue, briefly harmonising with the underlying theme.

He placed Leannan gently on the ground and stood up, pushing his hair back from his face. He walked slowly to the balcony and looked out over the city, closing his eyes and just simply listening to the chaos around them. The hunt he could hear only intermittently, as the pack phased in and out of the void, shifting through the city, leaving death in its wake. The hounds cut down anyone in their path, and Taliesin didn't dwell on their fate: he'd seen what the hunt could do, a few nights ago outside his chambers in the kremlin.

He could hear the knights as they moved through the streets. Shouted orders, cries of pain, cries for help. Pleas for mercy. The sharp ssnap of hellfire pistols, the sub-sonic buzz of force swords, and occasionally a hellwhip grenade exploded, whistling fiery death wherever it landed. The crackle of flames and the creaking, crashing, crumbling of timber and stone. And through it all, the fugue, reverberating from building to building, slowly building into the grand multi-part theme as it fed back upon itself, over and over again, each new iteration being returned to the source and incorporated into the next level.

It wasn't going to be enough. None of it was. The Legion was winning.

           

 

The city's skies had darkened to a burnt umber, and no moons lit the night sky. On a cyclopean stone block, in the very centre of the ruins, a blue-draped figure lay outstretched, unmoving, black hair cascading over the obsidian-smooth surface of the stone. Two ravens perched on a tree which overshadowed the block, almost invisible against the darkness, but somehow deepening it. Only one owl flew in the sky above the ruins - a gleaming white shape which floated down on silent wings, to perch next to the ravens, who fluttered in agitation, and then flew away. The white bird preened its soft feather briefly, then fluttered down to perch on the dark obsidian block, next to the unconscious body that covered it, and resolved itself into the form of a young woman with white blond hair, dressed all in white.

'Oh no,' she muttered under her breath, tutting as though in irritated remonstration. 'This will not do. This will not do at all.' She sighed theatrically. 'But this is always how it goes, isn't it? "Take care of your sister". "You're the eldest, you have to be the sensible one".' She reached out a slender, long fingered hand and pinched the sleeping figure hard on the cheek. There was no response.

'Typical. I suppose I'll have to do this the hard way.' She looked around, noting the twisted briars that had sprung up around the monuments. The thorny vines bristled and thickened even as she watched, and she sighed again. She shifted her position to face the stunted little tree that overhung the makeshift bier. 'If you insist on using such outmoded symbols, I suppose I'll just have to play along for now.'

There was no wind, but the nine branches swayed slightly, as though bowing. She harrumphed. 'I do have my own plans, you know. Don't think this means we're on the same side. We're not.'

The leaves rustled, producing a menacing whisper. The woman in white shrugged it off. 'Whatever. Your theatrical posturing doesn't impress me, you know.' She leaned over the dark-haired figure and smiled down at hir. 'Poor little firebird, trapped in a hell of your own making. I did warn you that this would all come back to haunt you, one day. Not that you ever listened. No-one ever listens…'

Lailoken leaned over Phoenix and kissed hir.

 

 

Chapter 18

 

Kitezh

Although the hounds ran through the streets in full cry, Kastchei slowed Sivushka to a brisk walk once they were clear of the palace, their point made, gaining ground by phasing the stallion in and out of the void, following the trail blazed by the pack as they ran. His armour's sensor picked up the temporal signature of a hellfire whip a second before it launched from a nearby building, and he nudged Sivka sideways, the plasma's passage into the space they'd occupied a heartbeat ago seen as a thin white trail in the swirling, sensual assault that was the Void. He felt the heat from the wall where it had struck, as they reappeared in normal space.

He shifted uncomfortably in the saddle, reflecting that he'd become unaccustomed to the armour after so long, but grateful for its advantages. Controlling twelve hounds and Sivushka, as well as keeping his own skin intact in the middle of a battle, was rather more than he'd bargained for.

Behind the blank, bone coloured and featureless mask of the helmet, he grinned to himself, even as he gave the mental trace of Kai's time-signature to the hounds, mentally un-coupling the lymers, letting his mind lie lightly in theirs as they ran, and simultaneously both seeing through the eyes of the rest of the pack, even as his mind held them in check.

A city is a small place, compared to the vast open wastes of the northern plains, and the chase would be all too short.

He sounded the horn again, and the lymers raised their voices, having finally found the trail they sought.

Kai's helmeted face turned as he heard the notes of the Hunter's horn rise above the clamour of battle. A muttered cantrip brought up the estimated distance and direction on the visor display - a needless effort, he thought wryly, since he knew damn well where the Hunter would come from, and who he would be hunting.

A hellwhip cracked feebly through the air next to him, and the black armoured knight at his side ducked.

Kai didn't flinch, although his cybrorse plunged sideways. 'I wouldn't worry, the city's weapons are too old and too feeble to do any damage to your armour at this range,' he told the knight, recognising Aoifa of Ulaid's daughter, Medb. Another bolt sizzled past and hit the ground next to him, sending up little more than a few pieces of gravel.

Medb straightened sheepishly in the saddle and shouldered her own weapon again, the ancient joints of her armour protesting at the unaccustomed exertion she was making.

'Sorry Sire,' she mumbled, her voice muffled by her helmet.

'Save the apologies,' he snapped. 'Take a squad and remove that hellfire whip. It's still effective enough at close quarters.'

 

He didn't watch her scurry to obey. Already he had his mind on the oncoming storm that was the Wild Hunt.

Faintly, even over - or more properly, underneath - the furore of battle, he thought he could hear music - a delicate refrain that once heard, refused to be pushed aside. He shook his head angrily, to clear it, but just below the threshold, the melody lingered. Knights paused as they strode through the streets, some shaking their heads as though to clear them, and the constant chatter over the comm channel gave tangled evidence of confusion and fraying nerves. The minor key played on fears, real and imagined. Some knights reported visions of strange sphinx-like beasts stalking them, fragile illusions that refused to dispel, but vanished without trace when approached.

'Overwatch!' he snapped into the communicator.

'Sire?' the reply came back, relayed from the Prydwen.

'Scry the comm channels for unusual activity - specifically for a bardic fugue.'

'But sire - they have no bards on this backwater hole, surely?'

Kai reached down and grabbed the shoulder of one grey-armoured knight nearby and pulled him to his feet. The man had been crouching, staring around with his visor open, as though expecting monsters to leap out of the shadows at him. 'That cauldron-born revenant, Taliesin, is here, and I think we just walked into his handiwork. I want a full audio analysis done, and countermeasures engaged within the next five minutes.' He shook the knight. 'Pull yourself together. Not you,' he snapped at the hapless knight on the other end of the channel, who'd squeaked at the rebuke. 'That cauldron-born abomination has got them starting at shadows down here.'

The music was growing stronger and louder, and he recognised the spiralling cascade; the interlocking interwoven themes that would loop back upon themselves, growing more effective with every cycle. Voices now mingled with the instrumental theme, whispering slyly, promising, threatening.

Feeling that something stood by his shoulder, Kai whirled his horse round, but there was nothing there. Behind the mask of his visor, he frowned. Nowhere in his time at court over the last few years did he recall Taliesin being so adept – the bard was good, but not this good. He kneed his cybrid forward, weapon readied, watching every approach, and resisting the temptation to look behind him, even though every nerve screamed out to him, with the sensation that something watched him as he rode away.

In the darkness of an alleyway tangential to the main thoroughfare, three tall robed figures watched from the shadows. Deeper shadows at their feet crooned a query, demanding release. Bright claws flickered into and out of existence, and liquid wings fluttered and danced in the light breeze, cajoling, pleading.

Not these, the message came back, sighed softly on the breeze. Not the attackers.

Not yet.

Something flexed in the darkness, and slipped into the light, following the black-armoured Lord Commander at a discreet distance.

 

Knights rode and ran through the deserted streets, dodging the sporadic fire from the rooftops and upper floors of the buildings. Smoke and flames filled the streets, hampering the defenders, but posing little deterrent to the legion, secure behind sealed power armour, proof against the cold vacuum of space and the fires that leapt from house to house around them.

The attack should have been simple, even allowing for the haphazard layout of the city, which provided too much cover for the defending guards. Too few defenders, stretched thinly over such a large area, hampered by smoke, fire and their own ageing weaponry. Yet the legion was faltering. Knights scattered, confused, chasing shadows into blind alleys, to be cut down at close quarters by Kitezh's elite guard, and their own weapons taken and turned against them. Or they stood as though entranced in the middle of a thoroughfare, listening to a siren call that only they could hear, not even raising a hand to defend themselves from attack, as the city's own defences snaked across the streets, entangling them in serpentine coils and crushing them until the armour cracked, blood and flesh liquefied. Riderless cybrorses galloped from the fray in panic, trampling anyone foolish enough to get in their way.

What should have been surgically simple was becoming a chaotic rout.

Ignoring the insidious melody, Kai opened a channel to the scattered troops.

'Hear this: what you hear is a bardic trick, one you've all seen used by our own people, against our enemies. The first knight or sergeant who falters and lets his or her guard down will have a lot more to worry about than a song.' He keyed the sigils that amplified his voice across the entire city. 'Do you hear me, Taliesin? Cheap tricks will not stop the Legion. Is this the best you can do?'

'It might well be, but then, it's not the best that I can do,' said a voice from behind him.

Kai turned his cybrorse, and found himself facing a snarling pack of red-eyed hell hounds. Behind them, mounted on a massive white cybrorse, face hidden by the faceless visor of a bone-coloured suit of armour, was the Master of the Hunt.

Kai had never been a man to stand on ceremony. And besides, he only needed the stallion and one hound.

'Kill them,' he shouted to the nearest knights, pointing to the pack.

The hounds snarled as the six knights marched forwards, hellfire pistols levelled, until within range. As one, they opened fire - but the pack was gone.

'They're time-shifting!' he shouted to his men. 'Spread out, watch for -' A hound landed on his back, knocking him to the ground. The ssnap of hellfire and the screams of hounds and men filled the air. A hound had its teeth buried in the cerametal of his rerebraces, and he tried to throw it off. Servos protested, and the hound hung on grimly, snarling. He felt its teeth touch his skin, and threw his body sideways, desperate to break the contact.

The absorption field of the suit only just held, and he rolled, winded, but unharmed. The hound crouched, having rolled out of the way, and snarled, teeth bared, staring at him. Kai risked a quick look around, but could see only confusion. Smoke had drifted into the square they stood in, and the hounds were ghostly shapes, only half-visible even when shifted into the here-and-now. Several men were already down, empty armour scattered on the stones of the city.

The hound leapt for him again, but this time Kai was quicker, leaping out of the way, and slamming a fist into the brute as it passed. It fell heavily to the ground, and whimpered, before climbing to its feet, limping slightly. Kai smiled grimly, and drew his sword. The edges shone a hazy silver as he keyed the wards in the hilt into life. Kastchei's own blade glittered green and gold in reply.

'You could lay down that sword, and the pack, and walk away from this,' Kai said quietly, his voice carried by his helmet's vocaliser. His cybrorse shifted under him, and tossed its head nervously. The albino stallion stood like a statue, the bone-clad figure on his back as still as the dead: faceless, unmoved.

'The hunt is mine, ap Eachtar. As is this planet.' Kastchei's voice was toneless, with no trace of emotion. 'If you'd left when you had what you came for, I might have let you live.'

'This isn't your fight!'

The shoulders of the bone-white jesseraunte lifted and dropped in an unmistakable shrug. 'You made it mine, Kaiwyn.'

The albino cybrorse stepped forwards slowly squealing a challenge to Kai's steed, and Kai had to take a strong hold of his cybrid mount as it stepped backwards, snorting. 'Brave words, Kastchei Bes-mertny. Proud words. How many worlds lie in ruins as a monument for that monumental pride? Sixteen, wasn't it? Would you make it seventeen?'

If he'd hoped to distract Kastchei, he failed: the Hunter's sword swung down on him without warning, the giant cybrorse upon him before he could react. The shoulder of his jesseraunte took the brunt of the blow, but the shock almost forced him from the saddle. His mount sprang away as the albino's teeth tried to close on its neck. Kai recovered in time to parry the next blow, and counter attack, landing a blow on the hunter's armour. His attack was hampered, however, by the pack of hounds that continued to worry his mount, snapping at its heels. His only hope lay in keeping the Master of the Hunt on the attack, unable to focus on his pack, and hope he found the opening he needed before they brought him down. If he could separate hunter from steed, he had a chance.

           

 

Taliesin heard the hounds' voices carried on the air, above the hue and cry of battle, and heard the change in that baying as the lymers finally gave voice, their prey found. He placed one hand on the cool black wall of the citadel, and laid his head against it, staring blindly over the city, now largely invisible through a haze of heat, smoke and flame.

It has begun Kitezh said solemnly. I can feel it. A silence so deep followed that Taliesin thought for one brief moment that the city had stopped breathing, holding a deep breath.

Something comes it said, its voice rising in panic again. Dark, deep, old.

Taliesin reached for Leannan, and drew his hand back sharply as the wood vibrated at his touch. A sustained, sharp note rang out and then the heart-string snapped. Swearing under his breath, Taliesin picked up the harp.

The wood was warm to the touch, and seemed to writhe under his fingers.

Blackness, darker than any night. And a cold, so deep it burned through to the bone and beyond.

And pain. Pain beyond anything he'd ever felt, even during the three nights he'd hung from the boughs of Yggdrasil.

Hunger. Madness. A need to kill, as though killing was the only thing that would make the world right, safe, secure. It screamed, cried, sang, pleaded… offered death, life, blood, desire, pain, terror, love, pleasurepainfearcomfort…

Unravelling.

 

He saw through eyes that were not his own, but there was no shape, only the impression of substance, as though the actuality had been stripped away, leaving only a memory. And even that shifted and slithered out of context, as though not all of it were entirely in existence at any one time.

And dear gods, there was more than one of them, each with its keeper.

Awake.

Unleashed.

 

'Furors' he gasped, as his eyes snapped open. 'Kitezh, you have to warn them - someone's awakened furors - three of them, I think.' He had been holding Leannan in a death grip, clasped tightly to his chest. He forced himself to relax his hold, and sprinted for the door. 'Tell the guard to pull back to the citadel. They'll kill anything they touch. I'm going to fetch Kastchei. We need him back here; any fool can hack his way through a jesseraunte.'

Taliesin

'Kitezh, please - I have to go. We can't kill these things with sword or pistol.'

Go. The city said softly, sounding resigned. Taliesin laid a hand on the dark walls, feeling the frantic pulse of the city's systems in the distant vibration of its great heart, far below.

Time was short, and there was no time for sympathy. Taliesin ran. Senses outstretched, he could already hear the tolling of the bell-like signal that called the citizens of the city into the kremlin in times of danger.

It sounded too much like the tolling of a death-knell.

 

 

In the healerie, Vivienne jumped as the first crashing tones of the alarm echoed through the room, reverberating through her diaphragm. Hands over her ears, she stumbled towards one of the healers.

'What is that?' she shouted, hoping he'd hear her over the din.

'The alarm, lady!'

'What?'

'The alarm - a call to the kremlin. Only used in times of greatest danger!'

He pulled away from her, bustling over to check on his charges.

'And being under attack by half the bloody army wasn't a dire emergency?' she muttered under her breath as she made her way back to Marius' bed.

 

The silence she walked into was a blessed relief, but she twitted Marius for it anyway. 'I thought you were at death's door,' she nagged. He smiled weakly.

'And put up with that racket?' He looked over to where Phoenix still lay, unmoving. 'I'd have said that could wake the dead, but your young friend's further gone than that, it seems.'

'Further still to go,' said a voice from near Vivienne's knee. Something warm and hairy was leaning against her leg. She'd assumed it was Cafall, but the hound was sitting with his head resting on the bed, at its foot. She looked down to see a large shaggy grey head, and tawny yellow eyes staring into hers.

'Grey Wolf?'

'My fame travels before me, it seems.' It sneezed. 'Healers. I hate the scents in here - I can't smell a thing for hours afterwards.'

She wasn't quite sure how she heard the creature - its mouth didn't move, and yet the voice was not in her head. She shrugged it off. What with giant spiders, shape-changing dragons and immortal sorcerers, she felt she could handle this.

Marius was staring at it looking slightly bewildered.

'That's a talking wolf.'

'Full marks for observation,' Vivienne and the Grey Wolf said simultaneously. They glared at each other.

'That -is-a-talking-bloody-wolf.' Marius enunciated slowly.

'Quick, isn't he?' the wolf seemed to drawl sarcastically. 'You're a talking monkey, but you don't see me making a fuss about that, now do you?'

'If you're looking for Tal, he's not here.' Vivienne told the creature, heading off the argument. It licked a paw and then stared at her.

'He has other sources,' the wolf said. 'My task was to warn you three, and see you to safety.'

'Who sent you?' Vivienne asked.

'Vivienne, doesn't anything about this strike you as a little - odd?' Marius asked her. The Grey Wolf looked at him and drew its lips back from teeth that looked very large, and very sharp.

'Are you attached to that remaining arm?' it asked. 'Because I can give you a very clear idea of just how real I am, since you seem to be in some doubt.' It stood up and placed both front paws on the bed, staring into Marius' eyes.

The bard looked away first. The wolf dropped back down to the floor, and Vivienne could have sworn it was laughing.

'No-one sent me,' it said eventually. 'I serve the Norns, occasionally. When it suits me.' It looked over its shoulder to where Phoenix lay. 'I have other interests, in this place.'

'So why are you here?' Vivienne asked.

'To warn you.' It padded over to Phoenix's still form, then back again after a cursory sniff at a limp hand. 'The Queen of Winter is no more.'

'I know that,' Vivienne snapped. 'I was outside the room when Kastchei –'

'The Queen of Winter is no more,' the Grey Wolf repeated, giving her a sharp look out of one golden eye, 'because she is now the Mistress of the Forest. Alianora is become Marya, and when you have the time, please inform the Lord of Summer that he really should check that his victims don't have spare avatars lying around.'

'I'll be sure to pass that on,' Vivienne drawled, wondering just how badly Alianora had taken her death at Kastchei's hands.

'She wants you all dead,' the Grey Wolf continued, as though it had read her mind. 'To that end, she has taken the Golden Book of Fate to the fortress of Barenton, and there she has awakened the Furor.'

Marius threw back the covers and began to scramble out of bed, before Vivienne pushed him back, meeting little resistance, although he gave her a furious look.

'Furor?' she asked.

'A terror from the old times,' Marius replied. 'Let me up, Viv.'

Hearing the urgency in his voice, she stepped away.

'The dragon-born came here escaping a dreadful war, remember? Except that they forgot that there are some things you cannot escape.' Marius pulled on a shirt, helped by Vivienne. 'The Furor were a legacy of that war – one of the experiments they made on their own kind, to create something similar to the timeships - dragons - but smaller, and under direct control. And they created them to kill. The stories are vague, but quite clear on one thing – they were among the worst mistakes of that war. The thing is,' and here he turned to face the Grey Wolf. 'They were supposed to have been destroyed centuries ago.'

 

'Whether true or not,' said the Grey Wolf. 'They come, and my task is to take you from this place.'

''All of us?' Vivienne asked. 'How? It's not like Phoenix is in any shape to ride, and Marius is already turning a funny colour.'

'Details, details,' said the Grey Wolf.

Jaws as large as the room swallowed them all.

 

 

Seconds into the battle it was clear that although Kastchei had the advantage on the Lord Commander in terms of reach, and Sivka was so much a part of him that he could trust the cybrorse to anticipate his thought, Kaiwyn ap Eachtar had at least as much experience, if not more, and skill to match.

Behind the blank faceplate, Kastchei smiled, relishing the rare challenge. A heartbeat after that, he nudged Sivka out of range, and called the hounds to him, dodging the commander's unhurried attack. Now was not the time to get creative. One long note on the twisted horn he carried commanded the alaunts, and the four mastiffs threw themselves at Kai's cybrorse, bringing it down into a screaming tangle of legs and blood, bone and guts in seconds. Kai rolled clear, his armour absorbing the shock of the fall. Kastchei grinned, and felt Sivka gather himself up under him, in preparation for a final charge.

It never came.

Even as hounds and stallion prepared for the kill, he felt Sivushka tremble underneath him, and the stallion leapt forwards without warning, carrying them both into the void, and then out. The usual dislocation he felt upon entering the void was stronger, for a moment, as though something had passed over them on the very threshold.

They emerged on the other side of the plaza, and faced a scene of utter carnage. Sivushka, normally so responsive, plunged and reared, forcing Kastchei to take a stronger hold on the stallion's mind than he had in decades, and still the cybrorse fought him, mindless panic warring with loyalty.

'Sivka, be still.' Kastchei ran a gauntleted hand over the stallion's neck, watching the veins standing proud under the sleek artificial skin. He keyed the visor to slide into the helmet to get a better view.

'Kit, look out!'

The warning cry came almost too late, as the silver-edged sword swept upwards, nicking Sivushka's flank as it did so, aiming unerringly for the torso joints of the jesseraunte. Something slammed into Kai from the back of a black cybrorse, and the two men rolled under Sivushka's hooves, the stallion plunging out of the way, nearly unseating his master.

Multiple images slammed into Kastchei's mind: Kai and Yuri wrestling on the ground, the prince of Kitezh struggling to parry the blows from the armoured Kai; and from the hounds, confused, painfilled images of something that darted amongst them, ripping, tearing, crushing, clawing. They couldn't see it, hear it or smell it, but they felt it.

Kastchei severed the link to the pack brutally, and sagged in the saddle. Looking with his own eyes, he could see the hounds trying to attack whatever moved amongst them, but could make out no two details at a time: a tail, a head; claws, teeth, spikes, here and there the suggestion of wing, or a huge paw.

 

It sang as it killed.

 

Its song curled around the fugue woven by Taliesin earlier, and tore it to shreds. Its own siren-song rang out through the streets, crooning an irresistible invitation to death. Kastchei, who'd used similar compulsions for much of his life, shook it off, but only with an effort. He raised his sword and turned Sivushka sharply to face the battling pair closer to hand…

…in time to see Kai's sword slice Yuri from shoulder to waist. Blood spurting from his mouth and ruined body, Yuri's eyes gazed sightlessly at his old friend as he slid to the ground.

Kastchei's answering strike sent Kai to his knees, but his armour held. He was back on his feet even as Kastchei wheeled Sivka round for another attack.

'Is that all you have, Hunter?' Kai taunted. He shifted his grip on the hilt of his sword, not even the powered armour disguising his fatigue. 'I fought at Arthur's side, fought both with and against Morgaine the Deathless, and fought off your petty rebellion. I've commanded armies, and levelled whole planets. What have you got that can take me, Bes-smertny?'

Kastchei lowered his sword, and smiled. 'This.'

He called, and the planet answered: Summer fire, at the command of the Lord of the Summer Country. When it passed over him, a pile of ashes scattered on a cool breeze where Kai ap Eachtar had stood.

Where chaos danced death amongst his pack, there was sudden order, the broken, bloodied remnants of the wild hunt limping towards their master, who sat astride Sivushka, white horse, white rider blazing with the full power of the Summer Country, come at last. The fire dissipated, but took everything it found in its path, as it raced towards the city gates, and vanished on the clear air of the headland.

The Legion, already demoralised, broke and ran, but could not outrun Summer. The Royal Guard followed them, harrying them to the gates, defying the clamouring summons of the kremlin. Some were caught in the blazing fires of summer, and perished with the enemy.

Kastchei ignored it all, and leapt from Sivushka's back to land at Yuri's side, and kneel beside the lifeless body. Slowly, painfully, his four surviving hounds limped over to join him.

 

This was how Taliesin found him, a few minutes later: a bloodstained angel of death, knee deep in gore. He deliberately scuffed the paving as he approached, not wanting a sword in the chest.

'What happened?' he asked, staring at the devastation that stretched from their position out to the gates. Then he saw Yuri's body, lying in a pool of blood in front of Kastchei's gore-splattered form. 'Dear gods...' He looked away. 'I'm sorry. He was a good man.'

'There are some debts that can never be repaid.' Kastchei stood up slowly, and sheathed his sword with deliberate precision. His visor was retracted, and his face looked haggard and drawn.

'You should watch your back,' Taliesin said quietly, moving closer to stand by his side. Voronwy's black head shoved him hard in the chest, and he picked up the broken reins.

'The hounds would have alerted me if you were a threat.' Wearily, Kastchei walked back to the ever patient Sivushka, and vaulted onto the stallion's back, not without effort for once, even in the jesseraunte. 'What are you doing here, Talya? This is no place for a bard.'

Looking around at the destruction, Taliesin silently agreed with him, but more urgent matters compelled him to file the questions for later. 'There's something loose in the city.' Briefly, he outlined the vision, watching the sorcerer's face as he spoke.

'Furor? I thought it looked familiar.'

Taliesin sprang onto Voronwy's back and settled the restive black with a soft word. He nodded once, and Kastchei swore under his breath.

'Who was stupid enough to release even one of those abominations, let alone all three? Mordred?'

'Seems like a good guess.' Tal looked over at the remains of the pack. 'What happened here?'

'Kai killed Yuri, I took care of him.' Kastchei replied shortly, in a tone that implied that further question about the how would have to wait. He looked over at the bodies of his hounds. 'Furor. I should have guessed. I've never seen one in action before today, although I've heard tales of their abilities.'

'Can you fight them?' Taliesin asked.

Kastchei shrugged. 'Maybe. Maybe not. We'll soon know.' He kneed Sivushka into a trot, and Taliesin let the black follow his stable mate. 'There's no hunt to set at them anymore, it looks as though it's down the two of us.'

'The city's doomed,' Taliesin quipped. Kastchei didn't laugh.

'They do not know fear, or pain, or hunger. They never tire; they never stop. Personally, I'd rather take on the entire legion than three of these creatures.'

'Don't even joke about that,' Taliesin replied, as they rode back towards the kremlin, 'they haven't left yet. If Kai rallies them…'

'He'd have a job rallying anything right now, he's dead,' Kastchei told him. 'Not that that ever seems to slow anyone down around here,' he added, with deliberate innocence. 'Even if he does have an avatar in stasis, it'll be a couple of days before he can integrate his memories. It takes some even longer, I hear.'

Taliesin refused to take the bait. 'Mordred and Calaitin are alive, and noticeable by their absence,' he pointed out as they rode. 'If I know Kai he was the one who'd hold them back from destroying the city.'

'Well if we find ourselves on the receiving end of a mass driver, at least you'll die knowing you were right,' Kastchei snapped. Gusts of acrid smoked billowed around them, and he slid his visor back into place. Taliesin, unarmoured, was left with stinging eyes and a throat that felt as though it were being sandblasted from inside. Coughing and spluttering, he was left trailing in Kastchei's wake, hoping that the little black was still following his stablemate.

Taliesin's fugue had fallen into silence, torn and scattered to the winds by the Furors' Song. Even the clamouring bell of the citadel had been stilled, and the only sounds where those of falling masonry, over the crackling of flames that leapt from building to building. Most of the citizens had fled, and few knights still roamed the streets. Dromonds already shuttled back and forth, removing the forces in the wake of Kai's death. Taliesin watched the departing vessels feeling a shred of hope - perhaps, with their Commander dead, they would not regroup. Kastchei's more pessimistic assessment refused to go away, however, and the sense that they had never been in greater danger grew as they neared the kremlin.

 

Twice, in the short ride back to the kremlin, they were attacked: once by a raving Knight of the Dragon who stumbled out of the smoke filled ruins, firing his hellfire pistol blindly at them, before being cut down by Kastchei's sword. The second time it was a woman, who ran screaming down the street towards them, and tried to claw at Taliesin's leg.

Half her face was missing.

Not torn, not scratched, or burnt. But missing, as though it had never existed.

Taliesin stared in horror, only Voronwy's nervous sidling keeping him out of her reach, until Kastchei's sword flashed down for a second time in as many minutes, and the woman collapsed to the ground and faded from sight.

As though death had severed the only thing that had kept her "real", Taliesin thought, staring at the space where she'd lain so briefly.

Kastchei rode on, any expression or body language impossible to discern behind that deathly armour; Sivushka however pranced uncharacteristically and fretted at the bit, the only outward sign of his master's feelings.

 

The Prydwen

Mordred ran all the way from the dromond bays to the flight deck, bursting onto the bridge without ceremony. A Calaitin looked up briefly as he entered, but said nothing. Knights and sergeants milled around in panic, calling in the remnants of their forces on the planet below.

'What in the name of Annwfn happened down there?' Mordred snapped, sliding into the commander's chair. Marya Marevna glided onto the bridge and stood behind the chair, staring at the confusion with mild amusement.

'The Lord Commander is dead, your Highness,' a knight told him. 'The cauldron was activated a few minutes before you arrived on board, but with so little warning, we've no way of knowing if the transfer worked or not.'

Mordred's fist slammed into the arm of the chair. 'Of all the times for this,' he hissed angrily.

Marya's mouth twitched. 'I'm sure he didn't do it on purpose, your Highness.' She smiled innocently when he turned a murderous glance in her direction.

Mordred decided to ignore her. 'How quickly can you pull the legion out of there?' he asked.

'Most of the survivors are already returning, but with so few dromonds, it will take time, Highness,' the knight told him. She brushed her bangs back from her forehead, sweat-dampened and furrowed with worry. 'Most are clear of the city, however.' She looked at the screen. 'We have another problem: long range scrys by the vates indicate a large vessel moving in-system, closing fast.'

'Identity?' Mordred snapped. 'Is it with us?'

'It's the Setanta,' Calaitin told him. 'Her profile is distinctive. She's new, grown and commissioned since your exile. She belongs to the usurper, so I doubt that she'll welcome us with open arms.'

'How long before our orbit brings us within optimum range of the mass drivers?' Mordred asked, leaning forwards and staring at the screen at the white planet so far below. The knight checked her station.

'Fifteen minutes.'

'And the time left until the Setanta can fire on us?'

'Half an hour, given her current course and speed.'

'The Furor are still in there,' Marya said sweetly. 'Surely we should let them do their work?'

Mordred turned on her angrily. 'My lady - don't think I'm not grateful for your assistance, but I'm beyond using terror tactics. Whilst we stood a chance of taking the city with Kai's leadership, the plan was good enough. Now, however, it's a lost cause. You have your freedom, I have what's left of an army, and we have, even as we speak, two dromonds full of potential allies being escorted to quarters. Frankly, I've had my fill of this world. I say we open fire on the city from orbit, and end this now.'

'A mistake to do this from a distance,' Calaitin said suddenly. 'We should make sure that the key players are destroyed, and this planet should be secured.'

'I'm with the gimp,' Marya said, to no-one in particular. She shrugged as Mordred turned away again. 'Not that you'll listen.' She moved over to the door and leaned against the wall with her arms folded.

'Fire when ready,' Mordred told the crew. 'Pick up the last dromonds, and then get us out of this system before the Setanta can fire on us.' He glared at Calaitin. 'We don't have the support for an open fight with the usurper's troops, not yet.'

The Prydwen throbbed as the engines came fully online, and deep in her heart, the energy of a small star glowed with life as the plasma chamber slowly opened to the vacuum. The great ship turned, to point its fiery maw at the planet.

 

 

 

 Chapter 19

Kitezh

Nikolai Uulamets limped out into the courtyard, yelling for reinforcements. Only a handful remained to guard the citadel; after so long a winter, with so few threats, Kitezh's standing forces were small, and stretched thinly across the city.

'Have you seen Yuri?' he asked the city.

I cannot feel him,' Kitezh replied. Something blocks my senses.

'More offworld witchery?' Nikolai asked through gritted teeth. The city did not answer, continuing to croon tunelessly in the background. 'Will you stop that,' he snapped. 'You're making everyone nervous.'

The crooning continued. Grimacing, Uulamets ordered his men into position as the gates shook under the onslaught of the legions' weapons.

At the third explosion, the gates shattered. Armoured knights strode into the courtyard, to be met with fire from the guards' antiquated hellfire arms.

'Close with them!' Uulamets shouted over the noise. 'Their wards are too strong from a distance.' He grabbed two of his men. 'You, and you – to the wall, and try to come round behind the.'

It couldn't possibly be enough, and they all knew it; he could see it in their eyes. Cursing his injured arm, which prevented him from carrying anything more substantial than a pistol, Nikolai limped into the fray.

Abandoning any subtlety, he threw himself at one knight, and knocked him to the ground. Two of his men rushed to help him, and they held the man down whilst they fired at the joints of the armour – its only vulnerable points. The wards glowed into the red, overloading as they tried to dissipate the attack, and then turned black before fading. The knight struggled furiously, but Nikolai's men had the advantage, and the armour began to crack allowing one final shot to penetrate. The armoured form went limp, but to make sure, Uulamets put another shot into the visor.

Breathing hard, he and his men stood up, sharing a triumphant grin, only to see that the enemy were retreating, backing to the gate, firing as they went. Several of Uulamets' men fell in that assault, but instead of pressing their advantage, the legion continued to disengage.

'What in the name…?' Uulamets looked around warily, but could see no reason for the retreat.

One of the guards nearest the gate was suddenly tossed into the air, and something shimmered in the sunlight. The body was caught in mid air, and then, as the guard watched, was shredded into hundred of pieces and scattered across the courtyard. As blood rained down, for a brief moment Uulamets thought he saw parts of a huge beast – wings unfurled, clawed feet, and what might have been a human face, heavily distorted, with savage teeth. Spines rippled along what might have been a dorsal ridge, and a thick tail slashed across the air, making a whistling sound.

It was impossible to see it as a whole: the effect reminded him more of the Wild Hunt phasing in and out of existence, except that this creature was phased in parts, never enough of it visible at any one time to see it in totality. The effect was mesmerising.

And then it began to sing.

The voice was beautiful: it soared above the battlefield that the courtyard of the kremlin had become; above the slaughter, and the pain. The voice was sweet, it was strong, it was glory, and it promised so much.

Pain. Torment. Terror. Fear. Ecstasy. It promised these with a lover's caress, more seductive and more arousing than any woman's touch.

Nikolai took a step towards it, unable to resist the compulsion. Around him, he barely saw his men do the same, as other voices joined the first.

It offered death, and he accepted. It offered pain beyond endurance, and he reached out his hand to it, and begged it to take him, to seduce and ravish him. He felt it slice into him, with an intimacy deeper than any lover had ever offered. There was no part of him it could not find, could not explore with a tender savagery that he welcomed even as it devoured him in a lingering sensual explosion.

Any onlooker would have been hard pressed to know whether he died screaming in agony, or in ecstasy.

 

The gates to the kremlin lay in ruins by the time Taliesin and Kastchei reached them. The dark wood was burnt and scorched, shattered into firewood, the iron bosses melted. Two charred corpses lay in the gateway itself. Beyond, the smoke mostly cleared, and they could see bodies littering the courtyard, few of them intact.

Taliesin rode forward to take a closer look, and instead of the expected carnage of battle, saw instead that the bodies were partial, like the woman who'd attacked them in the street. No blood, no ragged edges, no cauterised wounds, but the severed limbs and truncated bodies just simply ended. A severed head stared up at him, the eyes still blinking, mouth open in a silent scream. Limbs twitched, chests rose and fell with breath, hands crawled across the courtyard as if in blind search of their former home. Blood pooled in worn hollows in the ancient stone, viscous and bright, trickling along cracks in the flagstones as though forced through age-thickened veins.

'Wait.'

Kastchei's voice, after so long a silence, startled Taliesin. He reined the restive black to a halt. Kastchei stood in his stirrups, scanning the area through the visor of his jesseraunte. The blank faceplate was almost as unnerving as the scattered body parts in the courtyard.

'What is it?' he asked, in a hoarse whisper. He winced, hearing his voice so strained by smoke. If his skills were needed, they were finished: he doubted he could manage a madrigal right now.

'Something's still in there.'

A cold dread filled Taliesin's stomach. Sickened and weary, he slumped in the saddle.

Kastchei's gauntleted hand came down hard on his shoulder, and he only just bit back a cry of pain.

'Pull yourself together,' the sorcerer hissed, his low voice given a harsh buzz by the amplification of the helmet. 'Either they're dead, and we can't help them, or we have a greater reason to stop these things. Get a grip on yourself.'

Hating Kastchei for his ability to place personal concerns aside so readily, envying his detachment, and knowing that he was right, Taliesin bowed his head slightly, accepting the inevitable.

Something brushed past the limits of his senses, singing as it ran. Taliesin lifted his head, and regarded the courtyard warily. 'I think they know we're here,' he said shortly.

'I hear them,' Kastchei replied. His sword was held loosely in his right hand, down and to his side. Memory was in Taliesin's hand, her edges glowing a deep blue/black. 'Whatever you do, do not open your mind to it.'

The song rippled through Taliesin's senses, calling, enticing. Underneath the sensual allure, however, he could feel the truth it offered: Death. Madness. Decay. Darkness. Life-in-death.

'Can you resist it?' he asked Kastchei. A derisive snort issued from that unsettlingly featureless helmet.

'It will take more than that to compel me against my will for long. No-one's managed it yet.'

Taliesin smiled thinly but said nothing.

'Just keep your eyes open, and move away. Not too far,' Kastchei told him. 'Just enough to split their attack when it comes.'

'There should be dragon-born with them,' Taliesin told him, nudging Voronwy into a slow walk.

'They won't be far away, stay alert,' Kastchei replied, scanning the area. 'They're not supposed to be much of a threat – the poor fools had to be practically lobotomised as part of the bonding process. Any left too self-aware would have gone insane within days.'

The largest of the surviving hounds began to growl, and crouched low to the ground, snarling. Taliesin looked over in the direction it was staring, but could see only shadows cast by the walls of the courtyard, and his dromond, crouched in the centre of them like a big fat bug.

Something shifted in the shadows underneath the belly of the dromond. Voronwy reared, and Taliesin had to throw himself forward, using his weight to force the stallion back onto four legs. The clattering of hooves nearby suggested that Kastchei too was having problems. He heard the sorcerer cursing a blue streak, and the stallion screaming defiantly. By contrast the hounds were unnaturally silent, growling low in their throats, bellies pressed close to the ground. One whimpered softly, and Taliesin felt a stir of pity for the beast, knowing exactly how it felt.

The soft, sensual song began again, this time from three sides, producing a lilting, compelling harmony. Shapes whispered along the edge of Taliesin's perception, tantalisingly vague, alluringly distracting. He had the impression that they were circling their prey, toying with them.

'Why don't they just get it over with?'

'They're playing with us. Look at their victims: they're not interested in the kill.' Kastchei forced Sivushka to turn to face one of the flickering creatures, and it danced away from him, only to dart inwards and send Sivushka and the hounds scattering for cover. He reined in Sivka after a handful of strides, and the hounds lurked nervously under the sheltering bulk of the dromond. 'Funny, I always used to think it was a good idea when I did it.'

 

North - overlooking the city of Kitezh

'You'll be safe here,' the Grey Wolf said, depositing Vivienne, Marius s still unconscious Phoenix and a slightly disorientated Cafall on a hilltop overlooking the estuary. Marius looked a little faded, Vivienne noticed, and she hurried to help the bard sit down. He gave her a grateful smile.

'Thanks. Remind me never to do that again,' he said with forced levity.

'Oh, cheer up,' Vivienne quipped. 'Think of the mileage you'll get out of this one as an after dinner anecdote.'

Vivienne stood up, and stared out over the landscape, searching for the city. In the distance, she could just make out the promontory that the kremlin occupied, and the city itself was a small black shadow against the blue sky, although a dark cloud hovered over the outskirts of the city.

'I should go back,' she told the wolf, sitting at her side. 'Not that I'm not grateful for you getting us out, but Tal and Kastchei are still in there. They'll need help.'

'Help would not arrive in time,' the Grey Wolf told her. 'This, they must face alone.'

'No-one can face furor alone,' Marius rasped. 'Their Song can harmonise with ours. Only dragons could ever hope to hold them, since they are of a similar cast.'

'There are no dragons,' the Grey Wolf said sadly. 'At least, none left who can help.' It looked down at Phoenix and nuzzled the still form. 'Or who will help,' it added.

'You have some of their gifts, though, don't you?' Vivienne asked it. It sat down and stared hard at her, its gold eyes unblinking. 'I don't know quite what you are, but you're something kin to both dragon and furor, aren't you?'

The Grey Wolf said nothing, just raised a back paw and scratched its ear lazily.

'Well?' she asked, insistently.

'The Lord of Summer is come almost into his power. It should be enough,' it said eventually.

'And if it isn't?' she asked. 'This is your world too, Grey Wolf. If these things are loose, then you pay the price as well.'

'You do not know what you ask,' it said. It flopped onto the ground, and placed its head between its front paws, a most woeful expression on its face. 'Such a thing may be beyond me.'

Vivienne knelt beside it. 'All of us have to make a stand sometime, Grey Wolf. You know they'll both make theirs down there, each for their own reasons.'

A dromond flew overhead, from the direction of the city, heading for orbit. It was closely followed by another.

'Looks like Kai's had enough,' Marius remarked. 'If we're lucky.'

'And if we're not?' Vivienne asked, although she knew the answer. Marius just shook his head.

'Do I need to answer that?' he asked. 'You know what the Prydwen is capable of.

Vivienne laid a hand on the Grey Wolf's shoulder, feeling the thick shaggy fur under her fingers, long and soft.

'Please,' she asked it. 'Help them, and if there's a price to be paid, I'll pay it.'

The Grey Wolf stood up. 'There is no price,' it told her. 'Not for those who offer freely, and ask nicely.' It stared down at the city, and sighed. 'However you will make sure that the Hunter saves a goodly portion of each kill, for the next few months. Heroism is such hungry work.'

With that, it loped away down the hill, vanishing silently before it reached the foot.

 

Marius took a long, thin, ivory coloured object from inside his coat pocket, and began whittling it with a thick-bladed knife, bracing the object between the stump of his arm and his knee. 'Things used to be so much simpler,' he sighed. Vivienne huffed at him, and shuffled over on her knees to Phoenix, to check the youngster out. She lay unmoving, and totally unresponsive. Straightening her out on the grass, Vivienne pulled a face.

'Not noticeably,' she sighed. 'Although I don't think they've ever been weirder.' She stroked Phoenix's face gently. 'Gods, Marius - what did he do to her?'

'Violated every aspect of him - her - it,' Marius said hoarsly. 'Physical, mental, temporal… There was nowhere left to hide, nowhere he couldn't go, and take what he wanted. And having exposed herself to human form, the dragon was vulnerable. When they carry companions, they do so freely. What he tried to do was force that upon her, using his blood connection to Merlin to bind her. He nearly succeeded.'

'Will she recover?'

'I'm the wrong person to ask,' Marius told her. He put down the bone carving her still held. 'Dragonlore isn't my field, it's Tal's. As for the physical and emotional hurt…' his voice trailed off, and he couldn't meet her eyes.

Vivienne took Phoenix's limp hand, and held it tightly, wishing the dragon could hear her. 'I couldn't stop him either,' she whispered. 'But I promise you, I won't let him do this again.'

Thick black smoke still palled over the city in the distance, and she stared into it, almost prayerfully. 'You know, if you were singing the lay of this fight, now would be a good time for the cavalry to come riding over the hill to the rescue,' she quipped, rather more lightly than she felt.

'Trust me,' Marius replied, lying back in the grass. 'If I could sing them into existence, I would.'

           

 

Another of the scintillating shapes moved, faster than sound, heading for Taliesin.

'Don't let it touch you,' Kastchei shouted. Voronwy obviously felt the same way, as the stallion tried to bolt, held back only by a death grip on the reins. But the furor passed by harmlessly, and the song it sang seemed to sparkle with manic laughter.

Kitezh? Taliesin called mentally, hoping the city could hear him. We need help here, where is everyone?

Gone the city told him dully. Its voice carried a weight of sorrow in that single word. Gone. All gone. Dead, or fled. DeadorfledDeadorfled… it droned.

Vivienne? He asked, sharply, trying to break through the kremlin's terror..

The Grey Wolf came. Took them. Took them all. None left. The Mad Ones killed the rest.

Relief flooded through Taliesin's veins like a drug. Kitezh, I need you. Is the fugue we used earlier still recorded?

The city sent its affirmation.

It was torn, Kitezh told him. Came back twisted, tainted. It hurt me.

I know. Please Kitezh, concentrate. I need you to send it again, just as before, but only into this courtyard.

Taliesin broke the contact quickly, and called to Kastchei: 'We need a distraction to get us into the ship,' he nodded in the direction of the dromond.

Kastchei's blank faceplate turned and stared in the direction of the gate, where three figures - a woman and two men - stood motionless. 'Not a problem,' he snarled. Without warning, he kicked Sivushka into a canter, and bore down on the trio. A barely visible ripple of light and colour moved to intercept him, rearing up in front of the stallion, who, obedient to his master, launched himself into the air, leaping the furor and clearing it by a good foot. The cybrorse slipped on the flagstones on landing, hooves sparking off the flagstones as he slid to an ungainly halt.

Now, Kitezh! Taliesin called out, even as the furor attacked, phasing across the courtyard - one to him, two on Kastchei, who was almost on top of their puppet masters.

The fugue crashed into the air around them. The siren song of the furor was countered for a moment by the dragonsong he'd woven into the melody, and disrupted itself by the furors' own seductive harmony. For a second, they paused, held by their own snare. At a command from Kastchei, the four hounds shifted from hiding, placing themselves in the path of the furor, one torn into pieces that vanished in a shower of light before they hit the ground, another smashed sideways to land in a heap on the floor, turned completely inside out.

The furor bearing down upon Taliesin resumed its singing almost immediately, and darted towards him, lashing out at him as it did so. He parried its attacked with Memory, and felt the sword bit deep into flesh – flesh which melted away from the blade even as it met it. Braced for the impact, Taliesin lost his balance as the sword continued an hindered, passing through a body that was no longer wholly there, and slipped in the saddle, only just clinging on for grim death as Voronwy plunged out of the furor's path.

The creature's melody was so haunting, and so lovely. Even the undercurrent of evil that rang in every note didn't repel so much as attract, and he lowered the sword, feeling his will to resist drain from him like blood from a wound. He took his feet out of the stirrups, preparing to dismount.

 

A grey shadow sprang between Taliesin and the furor, snapping and snarling; a hairy whirlwind of tooth and claws, that howled a challenge to the furor. Teeth snapped shut on an insubstantial neck, and the furor howled its own pain. Taliesin straightened in the saddle, and Voronwy lurched underneath him, taking an unwilling step forward, as though the cybrid had also fallen prey to the siren song. One of the puppet-masters screamed in pain, and collapsed. Across the courtyard, Taliesin saw Kastchei fighting another of the creatures, phasing in and out of the void to avoid its attack, his sword flashing, shining with the sun's fire as it moved, leaving a fiery trail in its wake. The other creature was playing with the hounds, seemingly ignoring the men and the Grey Wolf.

Finished with its quarry, the Grey Wolf abandoned the unreal corpse and leapt to the defence of Kastchei, phasing in and out of substantiality itself as the furor tried to attack.

 

The way to the dromond's lowered ramp was clear. Not waiting to see what happened next, Taliesin forced Voronushka towards the vessel. The ramp hadn't even hit the ground before the black had plunged up it and into the hold. Taliesin leapt down from the stallion's back as they clattered up the ramp, and headed for the flight deck. Behind him, he heard a sharp explosion, and the clatter of hooves, and hoped that was Kastchei following him into the ship.

He fell rather than sat in the flight chair, his hands already reaching for the controls, and breathlessly ordering the dromond's systems back online.

'Kit?' he asked, opening the external speakers.

'Here,' the sorcerer said shortly, sliding into the chair beside him. He heard a distant thump on the surface of the ship. 'The hatch is closed, but it won't hold them for long.'

'Hold onto something, we're lifting off hot,' Taliesin told him. With a lurch and what was becoming an all too familiar sound of strained cerametal, the dromond lifted off, bobbing and weaving as it tried to gain enough height to clear the walls. The little ship barely made it, and fluttered unevenly clear of the city. He brought the vessel under a modicum of control, her flight steadying as he deftly levelled her out, until she was flying on a reasonably even keel. Only then, clear of the city, did he relax.

 

'There are days I wish this vessel was equipped with something more offensive than its looks,' he muttered, slumping wearily in his seat. 'Can you take the controls? I need to keep an eye out for any Afanc class dromonds heading back to the Prydwen. Someone might try to take a shot at us on their way home.'

Kastchei changed seats with him, sliding behind the console and taking the controls with a practised grace, shedding helmet and gauntlets as he did, and leaving Taliesin to pick them up. 'This isn't a solution,' he said shortly, his attention on the flight controls. 'I'm not prepared to give up Kitezh without a fight.'

'Suggestions welcome,' Taliesin said heavily. 'Does the Lord of Summer have anything up his sleeve that might get us out of this one?'

'The "Lord of Summer",' Kastchei drawled, 'couldn't set light to a firecracker right now. What about you, Taliesin ap Myrddin? No last minute reprieve? No carefully thought out plans coming to fruition in the nick of time?'

'Sarcasm,' Taliesin replied pithily, 'is the lowest form of wit.' The dromond came to a stop, hovering several thousand feet above the city. 'Where now?' he asked.

'I'm thinking,' the sorcerer snapped. 'I'm thinking.'

 

 

The Prydwen.

 

'My prince - the Setanta is very close,' one of the Calaitin whispered into Mordred's ear. 'Once she clears the second moon…'

'Two Afanc class dromonds coming in fast,' the vates officer called out. 'Weapons locked. The lead ship is asking to speak to the Lord Commander. What do I tell them?'

'Let me speak to them,' Mordred ordered. He settled back in the black throne.

'..repeat, this is the Ironside, Commander Geraint calling Prydwen, please respond - what is your mission?'

'Commander!' Mordred hailed the speaker, nodding to the vates to give him visual contact. The image of a dark-haired man appeared in the orb attached to the arm of the throne. 'I'm afraid Lord Commander Kaiwyn is a little indisposed at the moment, but perhaps I can be of some assistance?'

'Highness,' Calaitin hissed. 'I must protest, this is folly!'

Mordred raised his hand imperiously to forestall any further comment.

'You don't look familiar, sir - who are you, and what are you doing in orbit around this planet?'

'Taking back what is mine, Commander.' Mordred smiled into the crystal orb. 'I am Prince Gareth, son of Arthur, and I do believe that I am your rightful king. If you and your people lay down your arms and offer your fealty to me, you will be greatly rewarded.'

'Oh yes,' Marevna drawled from behind him. 'That will work.'

'I'll give the matter some thought,' Geraint drawled, and severed the connection.

'Enemy status?' Mordred asked. The vates concentrated for a minute.

'Hellfire cannon powering up. They can't do much damage to us, your highness.'

'No, but they can distract us.' Mordred swore under his breath. 'Elphin's people don't mess around, do they?' he asked Calaitin, who shrugged noncommittally en masse. 'This could be an interesting war.' He turned back to the vates. 'Is the mass driver ready?'

'Ready, sire. But we have two hellfire flames on course.'

'Fire the plasma. Launch remotes to intercept incoming attack, then run for it.'

'Course?' the vates asked, as the weapons officer fired the giant mass driver. The ship throbbed from bow to stern as she ejected the superheated plasma.

'Anywhere that doesn't take us close to the Setanta. Now move,' he thundered.

Slowly, wallowing gracefully as she manoeuvred her huge bulk, the Prydwen glided away from the icy planet, the only trace of its wake being the fiery comet that now headed towards the surface; ignored, abandoned, its job already done.

 

 

"Tacharen" class dromond Sorcha

The proximity alert went off in Taliesin's left ear within seconds of Kastchei turning the ship towards Novgoren, in the hope of re-grouping at the secondary city of the region. Tal slapped the alarm off, but not before its shrill screech had set his teeth on edge. He scanned the sensors anxiously, thinking at first the Sorcha had detected a stray afanc class vessel from the Prydwen.

'Now what?' he heard Kastchei mutter.

Taliesin's hands danced over the controls. 'Something coming in hard and fast. Heading for the city.' He looked at the readouts and paled. 'Oh no.'

'What?'

'Plasma. Large spherical mass about…' he sat back in the flight seat and stared out of the screen in disbelief. 'Oh by the gods, no…' he whispered.

Below, he could see the city standing on the headland, smoke still rising from the ruins of the outer circles, but the inky-black towers and domes of the kremlin still stood, Kitezh's heart untouched, casting two shadows across the bay.

Taliesin looked up, and wished he hadn't, as the second sun that lit up the sky arced down, and the world exploded. The last thing he remembered was the little ship tumbling through the sky, and the ground rushing up to meet them.

 

 

A bright flash lit up the sky, followed seconds later by a rumbling, echoing boom that sounded almost like thunder, although the sky was clear. Vivienne looked up, shielding her eyes against the sun, and paled in horror at the sight of the fireball that streaked across the sky, heading inexorably towards Kitezh.

'Marius!' she screamed. She was on her feet, and would have started to run towards the city, as though she could reach it in time if she simply ran fast enough. She felt his one arm encircle her waist, holding her back easily, in spite of his injuries, and she struggled in vain. 'Oh gods, no, he wouldn't do this, he couldn't…' she wept and struggled and fought, but he held her fast, until she sagged against him, screaming her anger and frustration into his shoulder as the fireball streaked overhead.

 

 

Something warm and wet trickled over his forehead, between his eyes, down his nose and dripped off the end of it onto his lips. He shifted uneasily, not fully conscious, and the pain awakened him fully. He licked his lips, and grimaced at the sharp coppery taste. His hand went almost automatically to his head, and came away bloodied. He stared at it dully, not fully taking in his surroundings. Without thinking, he tried to stand up, and fell back to the ground as a wave of dizziness and nausea washed over him. Dimly, he felt hands guiding him back into a sitting position, and a voice, speaking, but unintelligible.

'Talya? Taliesin, concentrate. I need you awake. Can you understand me?'

A white blur resolved itself gradually into the armour-clad form of Kastchei. Taliesin shook his head to clear it, and wished he hadn't as his head throbbed.

'Don't try to stand. Just hold this.' Something cold and hard was pressed into his hand, and he stared down at it. A hellfire pistol. 'Here.' Kastchei reached out and placed something cold on his head, over the worst of the pain. 'Ice. It'll slow the bleeding. Just sit still for a minute.'

'I feel as if a mountain fell on me,' Taliesin said eventually. He took the makeshift ice pack from Kastchei and re-applied it a little further down his skull. 'You don't look so bad.'

'The jesseraunte took most of the impact. You weren't quite so lucky.'

'So what did fall on me?' Taliesin asked. He stretched and winced, feeling even more bruises, although thankfully nothing seemed to be broken. A whickering noise nearby caught his attention and he looked up, to see the two cybrorses grazing a few feet way, looking relatively unharmed, although Sivushka limped a little as he moved.

'I did, I'm afraid.' Kastchei looked round. 'Can you stand? I think we're about to have company - a dromond landed a couple of minutes ago, just over the rise. Think you can wave that at them whilst I go around behind?'

Taliesin nodded, and had to swallow hard to avoid throwing up. Kastchei took his hand and aimed the pistol, only for Taliesin to pull his hand back.

'I think I can manage. I'm not sure if I'm seeing double or not though.'

'Shoot anything that moves, it's safer,' Kastchei told him. He stood up, although not without effort. 'Apart from me, that is.'

'Funny man,' Tal gasped. 'Get lost.' The sorcerer was already gone. Tal leaned back carefully, keeping a watch on the ridge. Two hounds lay next to him, both battered and bloodied, and too exhausted to do much more than whine. 'I know how you feel,' he told them. He stroked the nearest beast's head, and its whiplike tail thumped the ground weakly.

 

The sound of stones scattering down the slope alerted him, and he primed the pistol, keeping it carefully hidden., and slumped to the ground, careful to face the ridge, and keep the pistol pointed in that direction.

'Over here!' a voice called out.

'Careful,' another warned him. 'We've no idea who they are.'

Footsteps. Heavy, armoured footsteps, squelching slightly in the defrosting ground. The mud had already soaked through Taliesin's coat, leeching what little warmth he had left. He waited, unmoving, eyes half closed, until the first armoured figure bent over him, and reached out a hand to turn him over. 'I think this one's still alive…'

'Close enough,' he said hoarsely, sticking the pistol into the chest panel of the man's jesseraunte. 'Drop your weapon.'

'He said drop it.' Kastchei's voice. 'I suggest you do, or your companion here loses his head.' Taliesin looked over the knight's shoulder to see Kastchei holding his own weapon to the helmeted head of another fully armoured knight, who allowed his own pistol to fall, which was kicked out of the way by Kastchei. 'Better. Now your friend - before my comrade here starts shivering too had and blows him in half by mistake.'

'If you'd just let me…' Kastchei's prisoner began. Kastchei increased the power setting on the pistol, and he fell silent.

'Am I supposed to be worried?' asked the man still kneeling at Taliesin's side. 'Red couldn't hit the broad side of a barn if he was standing inside it.'

'Then your friend dies,' Kastchei said simply.

'Wait!' Taliesin released the pressure pad and pulled the weapon away. 'Geraint?'

The knight reached up and thumbed the visor release, revealing the battered face and receding hairline of Elphin's armsman. 'The very same.'

'Talya -'

'Put the gun down, Kit. I think we just got rescued.'

When the sorcerer didn't move, Taliesin stood up, helped by Geraint. 'Kit - drop it. They're friends.'

 

'How do you know this one hasn't simply joined the opposite side?' Kastchei snapped.

'Perhaps because he came here with me,' said the other knight, removing his own helmet. 'And unless I'm rebelling against myself, I think we're on the same side?'

'El…' Taliesin took a step forward and almost collapsed, fielded by Geraint. Ignoring the gun still trained on him by a wary Kastchei, Elphin strode forward and helped lower his bard to the ground.

'Elphin of Gwynedd,' he told Kastchei, 'High King, et cetera, et cetera. Sorry about the lack of formality but as you can see, my chief bard seems to be about to pass out…'

Taliesin grinned weakly at his sovereign. 'You could be right. Just promise me one thing?'

'Name it,' Elphin said.

'Try not to kill each other until I come round?'

The darkness this time was a welcome oblivion.

 

 

 

Chapter 20

He was surrounded by something warm, and soft. For the briefest moment, he remembered another awakening, and hesitated before opening his eyes. He could hear voices, loud and imperative. Orders. The sounds of dromonds overhead. A man's voice calling his name.

'Tal?' it asked again.

He opened his eyes, and stared straight into a pair of blue ones. Blond hair, cut short, and already greying slightly. A broad, handsome face and a ready grin were not yet ruined by responsibility and care. His body was encased to the neck in black cerametal armour, and a silver dragon blazed en courant on the chest plate.

He tried to sit up, and an arm augmented by hydraulic servos pushed him back down effortlessly. 'I wouldn't; the healers say you've taken a nasty knock.'

He lay back, the waves of dizziness and nausea more of a deterrent than her order. 'El? What are you doing here? Or am I hallucinating?'

'Well they did give you something for the pain, but I'm here. In the flesh,' he added, his smile warmer as he spoke. 'We saw the mass driver hit, and went to investigate. Geraint and I found you not far from the site, remember? The vates found Vivienne and Marius a few minutes later. They're here, and in better shape overall than you are.'

'El -'

'Oh come on, Tal - I turn up to save the day and your arse, and this is all the thanks I get?'

Taliesin winced. 'I shouldn't have needed saving,' he said.

'That,' Elphin drawled, 'goes without saying.'

'And you shouldn't have run all the way here to do it – Haven't you heard of delegation?

'Heard of it,' Elphin said breezily, 'can't be doing with it.' He folded his arms and stared down at Taliesin, 'I'm still waiting,' he said.

'Thank you,' Taliesin told him. 'El, we've got real trouble…'

He tried to climb out of bed, but Elphin pushed him back.

'Don't even think it, Red. You took a nasty knock in the crash. Luckily for you your co-pilot has reflexes like a cat's, or you'd both be dead. As for the trouble – I've been briefed. At length.' He gave Taliesin a wry grin. 'Vivienne does go on rather when she's angry, doesn't she?'

'It took you fifteen years to notice?' Taliesin quipped. 'Where is she?'

'Safe,' Elphin reassured him. 'We carried you back here a couple of days ago.' Seeing Taliesin look around, trying to place his surroundings, Elphin explained. 'Novgoren, I'm told. Seems its ruler has vanished. The one who calls himself Kastchei suggested we bring you here.'

Taliesin tried to sit up again, and this time made it. Elphin stuck a cushion behind his head and he leaned back gratefully, wincing as bruised muscles protested at being forced to move. 'The last thing I remember is the ground rushing towards me - what happened?' he asked.

'The shockwave from the mass driver knocked the dromond. Your co-pilot managed to bring it down, but you hit your head on the control panel. He was luckier: his armour took most of the impact. Nice ambush, by the way. Quick thinking.' Elphin told him. 'Sorry I couldn't bring the cavalry in the nick of time, but if you will take off on your own like that, what the bloody hell did you expect?' Elphin's eyes darkened. 'And why – why in the name of the Seven Lords of Annwfn didn't you let someone know what the fuck you were doing?'

Taliesin resisted the urge to flinch, knowing he'd had this coming. But even with three months to prepare for the explosion, he hadn't come up with much of an answer.

'It was personal, El. If Vivienne filled you in, surely she mentioned that we had no idea what was going on until we arrived? Or that someone back home sabotaged the dromond?'

'Personal,' Elphin drawled. 'Well, let's see: you turn over a stone and find Calaitin, one of Morgaine's worst subordinates, and you don't tell me. You witness them slaughter a dragon and use its death in blood rites, and you don't tell me. Then you take off, not telling anyone but Solange where you're going, and I find you at the middle of a storm that will tear apart everything we've built. Which bit of this was so "personal" that you felt it was none of my business?'

Taliesin grimaced.

'You might well look uncomfortable, Red. Usually when you pull something like this, I worry whether you're dead or alive. Right now – I'm sorely tempted to root for "dead".'

'Finished?' Taliesin asked, as evenly as he could.

'Pretty much,' Elphin admitted, his severe frown giving way to a heartsore grin. 'Damn it, Tal – if I didn't like you so much I swear there are days I'd dropkick you off the battlements of Caer Tagel – whilst it's airborne.'

'Get in line,' Taliesin said wearily, lying back on the bed. 'I think the list got a lot longer recently.'

Elphin shook his head. 'You're impossible, Red. Get some rest, I'll need you to give me your version of events as soon as possible. I want your analysis of this later.'

'We're so screwed,' Taliesin muttered, as the High King shut the door behind it. 'But I suppose I'd better put it into a more heroic metre.' He fell back heavily onto the pillow, but sleep, when desired, refused to come.

 

 

Only recently relieved of the presence of Kai's troops, Novgoren was a city trading nervously around this latest influx of strangers from the stars. News filtering through as refugees from Kitezh arrived in dribs and drabs fuelled speculation: The new knights were here to save them. They were an invasion force. Novgoren would be targeted as Kitezh had been. The Lord of Summer was dead. The Lord of Summer had defeated the armies from the stars. Skazki was to be forced into an alliance with these strangers.

And this was before the conspiracy theorists got to work.

For their part, Elphin's men looked just as wary: most were relieved that there was as yet n        o backlash against Kai's actions; some were as nervous around their comrades as they were around the locals – for who could tell now the difference between friend and foe? Every little comment made around the campfire, however innocent, could be an indication of which side the speaker supported. And which side would that be? Knights of the Grey and the Black regarded each other with cautious eyes. Knights of the Black watched each other, wondering if their long-standing allegiance to the true blood meant that some knights would declare for Mordred – Knights of the Grey watched everyone, knowing that in the final analysis, no-one trusted them.

It made, Vivienne thought, as she strode purposefully through the corridors she'd seen only twice before, and that held no pleasant memories, for an uneasy atmosphere. Men she'd long known as friends and comrades avoided her eyes, or just gave her the most minimal courtesies, skirting her as though afraid anything more would give the Ard rí's investigator ideas – right or wrong – about their loyalties. Grumpy, isolated, and eventually well and truly lost trying to find the room they'd put her in, she ended up taking a turn that led her eventually to the gardens.

Novgoren's former chatelaine had had a less structured approach to greenery, Vivienne judged, as she wandered through the half-wild tangle of the water garden. Semi-tropical plants – broad-leaved shrubs, trailing lianas and reeds – dominated the walled garden. Artificial pools and rivulets meandered through the undergrowth, under tiny stone or wooden bridges, and washed over mossy stepping stones. Here and there small pagodas peeked through the overgrown tangles, and the whole was as out of place in this still sub-arctic world as she was beginning to feel. It didn't really come as much of a surprise to find Kastchei sitting on a narrow stone bench overlooking a tiny lily pond fed by a six foot high waterfall.

'I thought you'd be by Talya's bedside,' he said companionably, shifting along the bench to let her sit down. She took the offered seat and stared down into the murky waters of the pond. Bright pink fish, like day-glo coy carp, flitted leisurely from lily to lily, only occasionally flicking out an extendable tendril above the water as a small insect made an injudicious landing on the surface of the water. More often than not, the fish didn't miss.

'The healers chased me away. Elphin wants him reasonably fit for the meeting later.' She ran a hand through her short hair, shaking out the rough-cut tumble of curls. 'Elphin.' She shook her head. 'It seems so strange to have him here. Reassuring, but strange.'

'Welcome back to Kansas,' Kastchei said dryly.

She clicked her heels together, then turned and smiled weakly at him. 'Nope. Doesn't work.'

'If only it were that simple,' he replied eventually. He bent down to pick up a small stone, and dropped it into the pond. 'I suspect things just got a little more complicated in the Thirteen Worlds. For all of us.'

'Us?' she quizzed him, with a sly smile. After a moment, he returned it with his own brief grin.

'I don't seem to have a great deal of choice, do I? Your enemies are now mine, and I suspect they'd not leave me be, even if I did refrain from taking sides.'

'I'd say that choice was made for you months ago,' Vivienne retorted. 'Stop wriggling, Kit – you're one of the good guys now whether you like it or not.'

'You still think so, don't you?'

'That you're one of the good guys, or that that's what we are?'

'Either. Both.' He stared over her head, lost in thought. 'Perhaps it doesn't matter anymore.'

'It's not like you to be defeatist,' she pointed out, prodding his upper arm. 'Did you knock that head of yours in that crash or something?'

'Are you always this annoyingly perky?' he asked with mock irritation, an amused smile back playing around the corners of his mouth as he brought his attention back to her. She stuck her tongue out at him.

'As long as I can remember.'

'Hmmm' was all the reply she had out of him for what felt like an age, before he changed the subject again. 'I hear you almost took your liege-lord's head off, when the rescue party showed up.'

'Funny, I hear you and Tal tag-teamed him as well,' she shot back. She grinned, remembering Elphin's reaction. 'I suppose we were a bit twitchy, but under the circumstances, I wasn't taking chances. I think his helmet took the worst of it.'

'He's asked for an audience, later today,' Kastchei told her. 'Presumably to discuss an alliance.'

'Will you?'

He shrugged. 'I'm still thinking about it.'

'Liar.' A bright pink tentacle snagged another unwary fly and vanished back into the water with an audible plop. 'I doubt you'd walk into a meeting like that without having decided what you plan to do next.'

'Maybe you don't know me as well as you think,' he replied laconically.

'Some things are a universal constant,' Vivienne replied. 'I'm starting to think that you're one of them.'

He laughed out loud at that. 'It does start to look that way, doesn't it?' he asked. He stood up and offered her his hand, taking her arm both gracefully and emphatically when she stood beside him. 'As it happens, you're correct. Although if he expects me to become his vassal, he's in for a shock. I bow the knee to no man.'

'Like I said,' Vivienne interjected dryly, 'some things never change.'

'Others change in unexpected ways, my dear. You might be surprised before this is over.' He led her back through the labyrinthine tangle of the water garden, a route that started to feel strangely familiar to Vivienne. Only when returned to the gentle slope of the lawn in front of the palace did she realise that the random tangle had been anything but - the nagging familiarity of the pathways resolved itself into a familiar image, and she realised that despite the unruly undergrowth, underneath the network of stone paths and waterways was a mirror-image of the grassy lemniscate that decorated the gardens of the Summer Palace.

Kastchei looked down at her when she pulled away to look up at him, silent questions unspoken.

'I did warn you,' he told her. 'Come,' he said, leading her back to the palace. 'You can make yourself useful, since you're here.'

 

 

Kastchei's factotum, Valery, looking a little the worse for wear, escorted Taliesin and Elphin into the room where his lord waited for them. Kastchei, Taliesin saw with a small twinge of satisfaction, looked almost as bad as he felt. The sorcerer had foregone the usual formalities - the room was arranged in imitation of his parlour in the Summer Palace - comfortable chairs around a blazing fire, and mulled win steaming slightly on a small round rosewood table at his side.

Elphin bowed.

'Lord Kastchei.'

'Ard rí.' Kastchei didn't rise. 'There seems to be little point in standing on ceremony, under the circumstances. I'm assured that you are, like myself, a practical man.'

Elphin took a seat without being asked. Taliesin took up his position behind his king, and waited. 'I see my reputation travels before me,' he replied mildly.

Kastchei smiled. 'Not really. Your bard just has a big mouth.'

'And you, it seems, just can't resist a sharp remark, as usual,' Taliesin rebuked him gently. Kastchei's smiled widened, although Taliesin noticed the sorcerer was careful not to move too much. Holding onto the back of Elphin's chair as he was, there was some small satisfaction to be had from knowing that for all his charm, Kastchei was probably in just as poor shape.

'I don't have a bard; one has to therefore make shift for oneself in such matters,' Kastchei replied. 'Which I understand does put me at something of a disadvantage in these circumstances.'

'Marius of Rheged could be sent for,' Elphin offered, missing the byplay. 'He's being treated, but I'm sure…'

'A generous offer, High King,' Kastchei interrupted.' But although I do not have a skilled orator, lawmaster and loremaster with perfect recall, I do have someone who has offered to provide similar services.'

Vivienne walked in, Cafall at her feet, and a stylus and tablet in her hands. 'I should have known you wouldn't stay in bed,' she told Taliesin, as she walked over. He hugged her hard.

'I thought I'd lost you, when the furor attacked.'

She kissed him lightly. 'Likewise. You don't want to know what went through my head when I saw that fireball.'

Elphin cleared his throat noisily. 'Please?' He gestured to the seat next to Kastchei. 'Changing sides?' he quipped, as she sat down.

She stuck her tongue out at him. 'Be nice, El. My shorthand's rusty. You don't know what I'll commit you to.'

'Very little on either side, I would suspect,' Elphin said. 'I left Gwynedd with a ship full of loyal knights, and I now have a large group of people who keep staring at each other wondering which side they'll declare for. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife out there right now. As for our host - '

Kastchei smiled ruefully, but his eyes were fixed on Taliesin when he spoke. 'It would seem that we have all been caught unawares, your majesty. The past has returned to haunt all of us, and we lost this round.'

'We survived,' Taliesin pointed out.

'Barely. And many didn't. I am huntless, homeless and for a while at least, powerless. There is now a threat wandering this universe that could threaten everything - past, present and future.'

Elphin snorted. 'Mordred is dangerous, yes - but although the war he brings will be hard, I hardly think he can be said to present a threat of that magnitude.'

'He's not talking about Mordred,' Vivienne said quietly. Her eyes flicked from Kastchei to Taliesin, and then to Elphin. 'Are you?'

Kastchei leaned forwards, wincing slightly. 'Calaitin.'

Elphin laughed sharply. 'Calaitin? They're powerful, but only Merlin ever had the ability to walk through time.'

'Until now, yes.' Kastchei said, leaning back. He reached for a goblet. 'In this world, at least.' He took a long drink. 'Calaitin has taken the protocols for the Wild Hunt, and bound them into their own flesh.'

'There can be no time-travel beyond certain limits,' Taliesin told him. 'It's impossible. Only those bound to Yggdrasil can move even slightly - not even the last dragons can travel freely without cost. Even Merlin only managed a drunkards walk through his own timeline without help.'

'Only because this world is not bound,' Kastchei said quietly. 'Yggdrasil passes through it, but it is one creature; one dragon, one point of origin. One anchored thread. With the knowledge the Calaitin already had, taken from the dragons and their enemy, they now have the means to change that. If they stay sane for long enough.'

'Have you anything to counter such a threat?' Elphin asked. Kastchei shook his head.

'The only thing we have still lies in the coma Mordred put it into several days ago, and thus far shows no sign of awakening.'

Taliesin walked painfully over to the large window on the far side of the room, and stared out. 'I should never have come,' he whispered.

'Oh don't start taking the blame now,' Kastchei snapped. 'Whilst it's tempting to hold you responsible for this mess, the fact is if you hadn't shown up, this would still have played out badly for all of us. That we suffered isn't in doubt, but it could have been a lot worse.'

'Yes,' Vivienne murmured; so quietly that only Taliesin and Kastchei hear her. 'You could have ended up on their side.'

'Highly possible,' he replied, in an amused whisper. 'That, or dead.' He turned to Elphin. 'I serve no man but myself - but I will offer my services in your fight. These men - these creatures- killed two good friends and destroyed my pack, my home and an ancient, gentle city. And I'm a man who likes to repay such debts in full.'

'The enemy of my enemy is my ally?' Vivienne quoted.

'I'd have offered my friendship freely,' Elphin told him.

'Not knowing to whom or to what?' Kastchei asked. He tutted. 'You're almost as naïve as your bard.'

'Funny,' Elphin drawled, 'I was about to say that you're almost as tactless as my bard.' He offered his hand, and after a brief hesitation, Kastchei took it. 'I have a feeling we both would cut off any hand that turned on us, lord Kastchei.'

'How true.' Kastchei clasped his arm firmly. 'There is one other thing, your majesty - I'll need a liaison. Someone I can trust.'

'I need my chief bard back,' Elphin told him firmly, with a quick look at Taliesin as he spoke. Taliesin nodded slightly.

'Perhaps Marius?' Taliesin offered.

'Taliesin, whilst your faith in your fellows is commendable, there is a traitor amongst them. Until you know who that is, I'd rather not be close to one of them. no, I had a better idea.' Kastchei looked meaningfully at Vivienne.

'No!' Taliesin took several strides before fatigue overcame him, and he stumbled. Elphin caught him and half-carried him to a chair, where Vivienne knelt at his side, fussing. He took her hands in his. 'You don't want to stay?'

'You've left me kicking my heels on Gwynedd enough times in the past whilst you went gadding about on some fools errand or other,' she said tartly. She shrugged. We need him, Tal, and we need Breceliande back in the web.'

'It's not for long, Red.'

'Vivienne-'

'I need to do something,' Vivienne said softly, holding him close. 'What could I do back home that would make a difference? I want to hurt them, Tal. I can't do that from Gwynedd, it's too immured in the centre of the web. Mordred will be out on the fringes, licking his own wounds for a while, and gathering support. I can do more out here, but your place is back home, for now. You know it, I know it.'

'It doesn't make it easier,' he whispered back. She gave him a rueful smile.

'It never is. But you know I can do this.'

He rested his chin on the top of her head, and stared at Kastchei. 'You'd better take care of her,' he told the sorcerer.

'As much as she'll let me,' Kastchei promised. 'I wouldn't get too sentimental just yet - it'll be a week or so before you leave. There's much to discuss before then.' He stood up, looking very stiff. He began to walk from the room, limping slightly.

'Does it ever get easier?' Taliesin asked, and Kastchei reached the door. Kastchei turned and gave him a quizzical look. 'Losing.' He added.

Kastchei didn't speak for several minutes, just stared at him, into his eyes, as though searching for something.

'Do you believe that you have to stop Mordred? That you're in the right, and he's wrong? That your wants, needs and beliefs matter more than his?'

'Yes,' Taliesin answered, reluctantly.

'Then no, it doesn't get any easier, unless you stop caring, or stop believing that you're in the right.

'Tomorrow, we start again. That's all there is to it. We lost. Badly. The consequences are going to hit hard. But not yet. You'll have a breathing space, although it won't be anywhere near long enough.' He smiled thinly as though at some joke only known to himself. 'It never is.'

With that, he was gone, the door closing behind him with the silent finality of the tomb.

 

That same silence hung as heavily in the healerie an hour or so later, in the room where Phoenix lay, unmoving. Taliesin laid a hand on the limp, pale one that lay on the coverlet. The skin felt warm, but unresponsive. On instinct, he felt for a pulse, but felt nothing in the wrist. Yet the thin chest still moved. Inhale. Exhale.

'Too many changes, too soon.' Kastchei stood behind Taliesin, looking over his shoulder. 'I did warn you that the child might not survive.'

'Phoenix,' Taliesin said emphatically. 'Hir name is Phoenix.'

'Then you'd better hope she lives up to it.'

'Is there nothing you can do?' Taliesin asked him. 'Vivienne says you used to be quite a master mentalist, at one time.'

'Vivienne talks too much,' Kastchei said softly. 'No. There's nothing I can do - my talents lie with manipulating the conscious mind - in this state, I can't reach her. Whatever hurt Mordred inflicted, this one is on her own.'

'Vivienne turns to you for comfort, Phoenix turns inwards.' Taliesin couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice. 'Am I really so helpless?'

'Time was,' Kastchei said quietly, 'that I might have enjoyed throwing that one in your face myself. You're as helpless as you want to be, Talya. But don't see others' choices as reflecting on you. The only choices you are responsible for are your own.' He placed a hand on Taliesin's shoulder. 'Whatever demons Phoenix is battling inside her mind, you cannot fight, and we both have our own battles ahead of us.'

'I had hoped Phoenix would stand beside us,' Taliesin said, resisting Kastchei's attempt to guide him away.        

'You looked for answers in the past, and for you, all that will ever do is pose more questions - some of which are probably best left unasked.'

Taliesin stared down at Phoenix, and reached out a hand to stroke the long black hair back from her narrow face. 'I can't shake the feeling that the past is the key to everything that's happening here, Kit. Mordred, Calaitin, you, the dragon… Alia… all of it is connected, and somewhere, that connection goes back to the past. There's something we're missing, something we've lost.'

'I could try to guide you to it, if you wished. If you trusted me.'

Taliesin shook his head. 'No. And not because I don't trust you.' He took a deep, shuddering breath. 'What you said about the past - it's come back to haunt us, Kit. All of us. The furor are only the beginning. Someone's already asking those questions, Kit. Shouldn't we be doing the same?'

For once the sorcerer was silent, unable to give him an answer.

           

 

Lailoken watched as the three veiled woman carried the slight form of Phoenix underneath the great root of the towering ash tree, into the darkness of the cavern below. From that darkness, a dark spring bubbled, which Lailoken walked over to approach the tree more closely.

'When she awakens,' Lailoken told Verdani, 'give her this.' The white dragon handed a large, heavy book to the youngest of the Norns, and watched patiently as the woman opened its thick pages, turning them over uneasily, as though afraid of the contents.

'The Leabhar Gabhála,' Verdani whispered, staring at the dragon through her diaphanous veil. She shivered. 'The Book of Invasions? You dare to bring this Here?'

Lailoken shrugged. 'You'll have need of it before long,' she told the Norns bluntly. Urd and Skuld came to stand beside their sister. 'Events have already been set in motion that will change your little enclave forever. And whilst I've no objection to that in principle, I have a sneaking fondness for this quaint little refuge.' She began to fade from sight, and the leaves of Yggdrasil rustled angrily. 'Tell my sister, that sacrifices will have to be made before this is over.' Only a hint of white remained, then temporarily re-solidified. 'Oh - and I've marked the pages she'll need to read.'

The three women stared at the book in Verdani's hands as though it were a viper about to strike.

'I thought we were free of this,' Skuld said hoarsely. 'We were supposed to be free of this book, and all it portends.'

'It is the past,' Urd muttered. 'As such we are never free of it.' She took the book from Verdani's hands. 'When the blue one returns to the physical world, I will see that this goes with her. For now, I think it were best kept safely out of reach.' She vanished back into the cave, even as Hugin and Munin landed on one of the branches that stretched out over Hvergilmir.

'She'll read it,' Skuld muttered darkly to her sister. 'You do know that?'

'What would you have me do? Destroy it?' Verdani asked. 'The future is more uncertain now than it has ever been.'

'Perhaps we should summon the bard?' Skuld suggested slyly, knowing what the answer would be.

'We agreed that he should be free to choose, this time,' Verdani told her firmly. 'They must all be free to choose.'

'Even the The Magus - ?'

'…is as free as the rest. The present is only informed by the past, it is not the past,' Urd said, returning from the dark temenos below. Our bards play a fugue, not a canon. What will be, will be.'

'You would have things be as they were,' Skuld accused. Urd shrugged.

'I would have things be what they are, my sister. And so should you.'

'I would rather have them be what they will become,' Verdani said softly. Hugin and Munin alighted upon her shoulders, and she reached up to stroke both ravens.

'Yes,' Skuld said tartly. 'You would.'

Verdani smiled sweetly. 'This solves none of our problems, sisters. The book is already here, the blue dragon hurt almost beyond hope of recall, and forces best left buried are once more at work in our world.'

They all stared at the tree which rose above them, vanishing into the blue sky.

 

'Nidghogg gnaws on the root and the harts nibble on the lower branches. The axis mundi cannot hold, and it will fail,' Verdani intoned. 'This is known. What is free, will be bound. The dragons will die, last as they were first. Time will be fettered with bonds stronger than Gleipnir.'

'We could summon the bard,' Skuld insisted. 'Show him the book.'

'We cannot,' Urd replied. 'Only the dragons may deal with this. Only they can show the way.'

'One sleeps hiding from her own pain, one is bound, the other doesn't want to get involved,' Skuld snapped. 'Why should we not act?'

'This weakness comes about because the protagonists have all allowed themselves to be driven by the past,' Urd told her. 'Like you, they refuse to let it go. They must learn.'

'Though it risk everything?' Verdani asked.

'You look only to the future, my sister, I look to the moment, our sister to what has gone before. None of us sees clearly what is, what has been or what will be. That is why we wait.'

Hugin and Munin flew away, cawing as they left the grove. Gliding silently, their robes brushing the long grass but leaving it unmoved, the three sisters followed.

 

When the grove was empty, a grey shape limped out of the trees and flopped down at the waters' edge to lap gratefully from the spring. Its thirst quenched, the Grey Wolf lifted its head from between its paws, and sighed heavily. 'Thank goodness,' it said aloud, although only the great tree could hear it. 'I thought they'd never leave.' The Grey Wolf limped into the shade of the cave mouth, and curled up close to the entrance, lay its head on its paws, and went to sleep with one eye open, the other closed and so hidden in shadow, it might not have existed.

 

Finis.

 

 

The Book of Taliesin is © Helen Susan Fayle. Certain concepts drawn from the novelisation of the Doctor Who story "Battlefield" by Marc Platt, from a script by Ben Aaronovitch, are used without permission. Thanks to David McIntee for permission to quote material deleted from his novel "The Dark Path", and for providing therein the inspiration for "Kastchei". Any elements recognisable as being drawn from the Faction Paradox Protocols by Lawrence Miles are used with the kind permission of the copyright holder. Doctor Who remains the property of the BBC.

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