A Nibble from The Sending

To whet the appetite...

At the far end of a narrow passage, a yellow light flashed a dull summons in the grainy dimness. The ground underfoot was broken and dangerously uneven, but a sense of urgency drove me on.

‘Stop!’ a woman’s voice commanded.

The murk quivered and thinned and I saw Dragon ahead, sitting on a broken stone column and gazing into an ornamental pond surrounded by a terrace of cracked paving stones. A wall mosaic half-obscured by a shaggy creeper rose up behind her and the full moon floated in the pool at her feet, its light limning her face and hair silver.

‘Dragon,’ I murmured, marvelling as ever at her astonishing beauty.

It was no more than a whisper but she looked up, her lips curving into a smile. I felt a stab of sorrow, for though she had once regarded me as a beloved older sister, it was long since she had looked on me with anything but fear and mistrust. A breeze lifted her red-gold hair and moved over the surface of the water, sending ripples out beyond the edges of the pool.

This is a dream, I thought.

I tried to wake but a forest clearing wove itself into a living cage about me, the breeze that fanned my cheeks pungent with the scent of pine needles. A figure appeared before me suspended above the ground, emanating pallid lavender light. Human-shaped but scaled like a fish or a lizard, its eyes were a queer cloudy white, its hair insubstantial as mist.

‘Guildmistress, help us.’

I drew in a breath of astonishment, for the voice of the spirit-form was that of the empath Angina. ‘What do you want of me?’

‘The black sword,’ he answered. ‘You must use it to save Miky.’

‘I am dreaming,’ I told him and willed myself to ascend until I was floating above the clouds through which the pale eldritch dreamtrails wound. I had taken on my winged spirit-form, though I had not wrought the change. A vague sense of unease nudged at me, but I continued to rise until the dreamtrails were barely visible.

I had never thought it possible to go higher than them. The world blurred to misty swathes of colour that bled into one another in a rhythm that mesmerised my senses. I felt myself relaxing and blurring like the colours about me. Then a shadow fell over me. Once, in madness, Dragon had taken on the spiritform of her dreadful namesake to attack me on the dreamtrails, and the memory made me instinctively dive for safety. I flung back a probe to discover what hunted me but could find no mind to engage, there was only a vast gaping darkness full of brutish thrashing power.

I tried to retract my probe, but a deadly lethargy flowed along it from the darkness to sap my will. My descent slowed as darkness grew and thickened about me. Terror fluttered in my throat, frantic as a bird trapped in a chimney, but I could not summon the will to quicken my fall.

‘To wake is the only escape,’ a voice whispered urgently into my ear.

‘I can’t make myself go down!’ I cried. ‘Help me!’

There was no answer, but a second later a blur of violet streaked with red and blue appeared beside me. The energy flowing from it told me it was a spiritform, but I could not see it clearly for I was still within the realm of merging colour. I felt it reach out to grasp my hand, and then it dived, dragging me with it towards the dreamtrails. I felt the darkness striving furiously after us. Terror broke my paralysis and I threw myself downwards, dragging the spirit-form with me. Even so, the darkness would have had us if I had kept diving towards distant consciousness, but the violet spiritform suddenly wrenched me sideways into a dream of a black road running across a moonlit, bone-white desert.

I was floating above the desert and could now see that the other spirit-form was a fiercely beautiful violet coloured man with a black wolf’s head and wings of red fire. The beastman’s eyes shone like burning embers and he spoke to me in a harsh misshapen whisper.

‘Wake you fool! Wake now, before you draw it to you!’

Then he vanished and the darkness formed claws and tore open the dream of moonlit desert and black road as easily as if it were parchment, exposing me. Instead of fleeing, I closed my eyes and used every bit of strength and will I possessed to coerce myself awake.

I opened my eyes to the distant sound of thunder and a shattering headache.

Later, as I made my way through the greenthorn maze that separated the main buildings of Obernewtyn from the farms, the headache was only just beginning to fade. I dismissed the long, fragmented dream as yet another nightmare in a period when my sleep had been more unsettled than usual. Yet I could not forget the terrible helpless passivity that prevented me from waking.

‘I was not trying to wake,’ I muttered to the fragrant greenthorn hedges. ‘I was dreaming of trying to wake.’

Coming to the end of the maze, I glanced up at the dark clouds brooding on the mountains visible above the wall surrounding Obernewtyn. I hoped the storm they harboured would hold off until evening, but there was no predicting weather patterns. Over the years since I had come to Obernewtyn, the weather seemed to have become ever more chaotic, though the incidence of firestorms had lessened.

I was about to take one of the worn tracks leading away from the maze gate when I noticed Gavyn kneeling by a tree at the bottom of a slight slope running down to the nearest orchard, gazing intently into the face of the enormous pale ridgeback, Rasial. If it had been anyone else, I would have gone down to ask what she was doing, for Gavyn had no beastspeaking Talent. Indeed, these days he hardly seemed to take in what was said to him and Rasial never responded to any communication from humans except during the Beastguild meetings which she presided over in the absence of its true guildmistress, the mountain mare Avra.

I turned to make my way towards the scatter of farm buildings that lay between the maze gate and the wall surrounding Obernewtyn, pondering the friendship that had grown up between the unlikely pair. In my opinion, Gavyn’s attachment to Rasial was not a reflection of the boy’s inclination to beasts, as the Beastspeaking guild-master believed. Nor did I consider that he had thralled the she-dog, even if that would explain why she rarely left his side. In truth I could not imagine the bitter, iron-willed canine being enthralled by anyone or anything.

Thralling was the name we had recently given to the rare and difficult blend of coercion and empathy, but there were too few possessing it to warrant a guild. Indeed, the only other enthraller at Obernewtyn was Freya, and her Talent was not something that could be controlled. In practice it enhanced the Talents of those about her, but she could not prevent herself enhancing nor specifically direct her Talent. She simply affected anyone within her limited range. Aside from Gavyn and Freya, I had known only three other enthrallers. One was the infant Lidgebaby, whose fledgling power I had encountered when held captive by the renegade priest Henry Druid. The second was Dragon, whom I had rescued from a feral existence among Beforetime ruins, but Dragon’s Talent worked exclusively upon humans.

The third enthraller was my nemesis, Ariel.

As far as I knew, Gavyn was the only one who could direct his enthralling powers to affect beasts and humans alike, although he had shown no interest in learning how to manage or strengthen his abilities. What we knew about his Talent came from observation and from all his nursemaid, Seely, had told us.

She had fled from the west coast with her young charge after discovering that Gavyn’s stepmother intended to report him to the Herder priests as a Misfit.

I had discovered them hiding not an hour’s ride from Obernewtyn. That was the first time I had witnessed Gavyn’s use of his Talent, exerted in an attempt to keep me from finding them. The second time he had used it to transfer the disruptive maternal fixation of an orphaned owl from the healer Kella to himself. His nursemaid was one of the few humans the boy had communicated with willingly, and after her departure to the west coast with a Teknoguild expedition, he had withdrawn so deeply into himself that it had given me some concern, until he had formed his mysterious bond with Rasial.

Remembering how intently he had looked at the she-dog, I wondered suddenly if they had found some new way to communicate. At Obernewtyn, we were always alert for new Talents, or for new ways of using old ones. I would have given much to be able to discuss what I had seen with an empath, but the Empath guildmaster had yet to return to Obernewtyn, and the twins who mastered the guild in his absence were ill.

Thinking of the twins reminded me of my dream of a spirit-formed Angina. It was no surprise that I had dreamed of the Empath guilden. The boy had been ailing ever since he had been wounded during the rebellion that had seen the fall of the oppressive Council that once ruled the Land. The wound had long since healed, yet somehow Angina had not. His decline had been inexorable, and for weeks now he had lain in a coma, unreachable even by a healer drawn deep into his mind by a futureteller. Only the previous day, the Healer guildmaster had told me that he had expected Angina to die long since.

‘It is as if he clings to life,’ Roland had growled. ‘I cannot think why, when he is aware of no one and nothing now.’

Angina’s mysterious decline was tragic enough, but as if their fates were connected, as some superstitions about twins suggested, Angina’s sister Miky had recently fallen ill too, and now she lay in a bed alongside her brother. No doubt it was my visit to the Healing Hall the day before that had sparked the dream of Angina begging me to save his sister. I had gone chiefly to see if there was any improvement in the girl’s condition, but I went first to her brother’s bedside. Seeing Angina lying so frail and white, shadows under his eyes as dark as bruises, it had been hard to remember that this was the same young man who had competed so gallantly alongside me in the Sadorian Battlegames. Yet the sight of his sister moments later had shocked more than saddened me, for Miky had been ill only a sevenday, yet she looked near as wasted as her brother.

‘Hannay believes she is dying of grief for Angina, but although she loves the lad as maybe only one twin can love another, I do not see Miky as the sort to die of love,’ Roland said, after we’d left their chamber. His voice had been tight with anger, which I knew sprang from his powerlessness to help the girl. He had put the twins in a small chamber away from the main hall because initially Angina had been disturbed by the emotions of the other patients. Neither he nor his sister would now be disturbed by anything, I thought bleakly, as we returned to the large Healing Hall where most patients lay.

‘How long does he have left?’ I asked.

Roland scowled, telling me he had no idea but that however long it took he doubted Miky would long survive her brother.

It was the healer’s bleak words coupled with my dream of Angina asking me to help his sister that had prompted me to scribe a letter to Dameon that morning, despite my headache. I had asked the Empath guildmaster to return to Obernewtyn as soon as possible. It was not a decision I had made lightly. Dameon and the master of Obernewtyn were in Sutrium, meeting with the two high chieftains of the reunited Land, and with representatives from the Norselands and Sador, concerning the expedition that was to be mounted to the distant Red Queen’s land before wintertime. According to the futuretellers, the expedition was vital to the safety of the Land, and Rushton relied upon Dameon’s counsel, but the empath had a right to know how things were with his guilden. I did not think he could help Angina but he might be able to discover what ailed the boy’s sister and save her.

I had sent Hannay to the lowlands with the missive, knowing it had been killing him to sit helplessly by while the girl he loved mysteriously faded away.

My thoughts circled back to Gavyn and Rasial as I came in sight of the gate that led through the wall surrounding Obernewtyn to the thick wood beyond. When Rasial had arrived at Obernewtyn leading a motley band of farm beasts after killing her brutal master, she had made no secret of her disappointment at finding humans where she had thought to find none. That no human at Obernewtyn owned any beast or regarded them as a lesser form of life had not consoled her, nor had she been reassured that many of us could communicate with animals. Chillingly, she had told me that she had come to Obernewtyn to seek her death. Yet she had stayed on, forging her inseparable if incomprehensible bond with Gavyn and even serving as Avra’s replacement as mistress of the Beastguild.

As if summoned up by my thoughts of his mate, Gahltha appeared at the gate, his silken mane floating back from his long dark neck. As he cantered towards me, I felt a fierce surge of joy at the sight of him, and when he came to a halt beside me, scolding me for my tardiness, I mounted meekly.

Fastening the bag of supplies to my belt, I sat back comfortably to signal that there was no need for haste since I had warned Ceirwan that I would not be back until dusk. But Gahltha wheeled and broke into a brisk trot that had me straightening my back and tightening my knees. The black stallion had taught me to ride and was wont to test me if he felt I was riding carelessly, though maybe now he was only eager to begin our-long-awaited jaunt. I had been promising to go out with him since our return from Sador, without being able to find the time for it. In truth, the pleasure I would take in the ride was not my primary reason for it.

There were two trails leading away from the farm gate. One ran along the wall to the main gate, and joined the road that went to the mountain pass leading to the lowlands. The other trail wove a little way through the forest then forked. One fork led to the great mound of stones and boulders that surmounted the caves where the Teknoguild had established their hall, and the other ran towards the high mountains. Gahltha chose the latter and broke into a canter. Thereafter he alternated walking with cantering or galloping hard whenever there was a stretch that allowed it. Many smaller paths and trails led away from the main path and he chose whichever his mood dictated, save that he always advanced up the valley towards the high mountains.

Fingers tangled into his mane and legs firmly about his body, I relished not having to decide the route almost as much as I enjoyed the exercise after so much talk and so many meetings. It was all too easy to be swallowed up by the demands of ruling a settlement as complex as Obernewtyn had become. In truth I dreaded how much busier it was likely to be once it was officially a settlement, or more specifically, the walled heart of a settlement. Rushton’s idea was to allow a village to grow up outside the walls, and to gradually demolish the wall until the village and what had been Obernewtyn were knitted together.

Gahltha slowed to a walk and chose a trail that soon brought us to the lip of a hollow filled with dense vegetation and very old, gnarled trees. Clearly the trail had once cut through the hollow, but it was so overgrown that I doubted anyone had used it in some time. Gahltha was on the verge of turning back when I heard the enticing clamour of water cascading over stones and suggested we find the source of the sound and stop for a drink.

Obligingly, he pushed on, opening the old trail up with his bulk until we reached a small clearing in a knot of trees divided by a swift, narrow stream. I slid down onto the mossy bank and knelt to scoop water to my mouth. It was so cold that it made my hands and teeth ache. Sitting back on my heels once I had drunk my fill, I tucked my hands into my armpits to warm them, wondering idly why water drunk from a stream always tasted sweet.

‘It is sweet because it is free running,’ Gahltha beast-spoke me as he quenched his own thirst. His strength of mind and our closeness gave him easy access to my thoughts unless I consciously blocked him. He ventured a few steps into the stream and splashed at the clear water with one hoof and then with the other. I marvelled at the sight of his black shining form, half obscured by the spray of droplets he sent up and the steam rising from his hot body.

As a younger horse Gahltha had developed a terror of water after being half drowned by a cruel human owner trying to break his spirit. Time and several sea journeys had forced him to conquer his fear but, being Gahltha, he never lost an opportunity to test himself.

I looked up at the sky again and frowned. I had intended to ride higher up the mountain valley before doing what I had left Obernewtyn to do, but the storm clouds I had seen earlier were beginning to swell inexorably and the breeze had freshened. I rummaged in my bag for an apple I had filched from the kitchen and tossed it to Gahltha. He crunched the fruit with relish, looking around, ears pricked and nostrils quivering. I did not need to enter his thoughts to know that he was trying to scent the free running herd. I had never dared ask if he knew when and if Avra would return to Obernewtyn with their son. Indeed, it was quite likely that Gahltha had not asked her. He did not see himself as worthy of the freeborn mountain mare or of the wild herd, having been owned and broken in by humans.

Sometimes I wondered if this was why he had accepted the charge of the mystic Agyllian birds to watch over me, why he had become Daywatcher to the Seeker. Any purpose was better than none.

My stomach growled and I took out a spiced bun and settled my back against the pale, smooth trunk of a single ur tree growing alongside the stream, for I did not wish to be distracted from my purpose by a rumbling belly. The sun shone, but it was cool enough that I pulled my coat closed and turned up the collar before I relaxed. I watched a glistening thread of spider silk drift past my nose and snag on the grass. Somewhere near, a bird burst into ecstatic song, perhaps sensing as I did that the bright day would soon cloud over.

As the tranquillity of the little glade settled into me, the band of pain around my head finally eased. The breeze caused a tendril of hair to tickle my cheek and even as I reached up to push it behind my ear, I shivered at a memory of Rushton doing the same thing. Rather than indulging in the memory, which would only lead to more memories and more longing, I closed my eyes and steered my thoughts into the creation of a probe attuned to Maruman’s mind. Once formed, I sent it down the valley to Obernewtyn – first to the house and then through the numerous outbuildings and extensive grounds. Of course I had searched them already but probes created away from distraction and human settlements were always stronger, and their strength increased when I was on higher ground than the object I was seeking.

I knew that Maruman might be asleep, and it was notoriously difficult to locate a sleeping mind unless you knew exactly where it was, harder still with Maruman, whose damaged and distorted mind was always hard to find. In truth, I was relying upon the fact that, even in sleep, if I touched his mind, Maruman would feel me and instinctively open himself to me.

I paid particular attention to all of the old cat’s favourite sleeping places, but when the probe failed to give the slightest quiver, I sent it through the main gate of Obernewtyn and down the road that ran through the pass to the highlands. I could not scry beyond the pass for it and the mountains rearing up either side of it were streaked with enough residual Beforetime poisons to inhibit Talent. Once I might have used the Zebkrahn machine to penetrate the blocking static of the tainted ground, but it was no longer as effective as it had once been since one of its tiny parts had burned out. The teknoguilder Reul, who had made Beforetime computer-machines his area of study, had told me regretfully that we had not the knowledge to repair it nor the tools to create the broken piece anew.

I ran my probe over a number of new buildings that had been erected just above the pass in the hope that they might find tenants once Obernewtyn officially became a settlement. I doubted there would ever be more than minimal traffic in such a remote region of the Land. Or perhaps, I thought wryly, that was what I hoped. Finding no sign of the old cat, I brought the probe back up the valley, moving it in a tight pattern from one side to the other. I came to the steep foothills on the western side of the long valley, where the Teknoguild had created a garden inside a honeycomb of caves fed by hot springs. It had not yet endured a mountain winter, but given the immense fertile forest that grew miraculously in a cavern deep under the subterranean Beforetime complex on the west coast, I did not doubt that a wintergarden was possible.

As ever when admiring human ingenuity, I could not help but acknowledge that, knifelike, the power had two edges: it had enabled the Beforetimers to conceive of a forest growing under the earth, but it had also led them to create weaponmachines powerful enough to destroy their world. I always wondered if we had learned from the Beforetimers’ mistakes to temper our imagination with enough humility to make us think twice before we set out to change the world to suit our desires. Of course the creation of a wintergarden was unlikely to cause any harm, but perhaps the Beforetimers had felt the same about some of the things they created.

I withdrew from the cave gardens without bothering to dip into the minds of the teknoguilders working there. If any of them had seen Maruman, I would be informed of it soon enough.

I sent the probe further up the valley until I came to the high, jagged peaks that were the end of a great, thick chain of mountains running away across the vast landmass of which the Land and Sador were the smallest untainted parts. I lingered briefly over the hot springs bubbling up into pools at the feet of the mountains, remembering the times Rushton and I had ridden up to bathe there. My probe would go no further for it could not penetrate the taint-streaked mountains that were regarded as the outer border of the Land. One could wind a crooked trail on a horse and go higher, and I knew there were clean places much deeper in the mountains, for the mystic Agyllian birds lived there in high eyries, but there was no way to reach them, save to fly.

Once I had been carried there near dead with infection, and it was after my body had been taught to heal itself that the Agyllian Elder At this told me it was my destiny to find and destroy the weaponmachines responsible for the holocaust that ended the Beforetime.

‘Long ago . . . I dreamed one would be born among the funaga, a seeker to cross the black wastes in search of the deathmachines, one who possessed the power to destroy them . . . you,’ At this whispered in my memory.

Was it possible that Maruman had gone to the Agyllians? I wondered suddenly. As well as making him one of my guardians, the birds had often used him as a messenger, yet it was hard to imagine the irascible old feline submitting to the indignity of being carried in a net, and why would the Agyllians bother summoning him when they had never before needed physical contact to reach his strange mind?

Abandoning my search I reeled the probe back in. It took time but simply allowing it to rebound would have left me with another headache. Opening my eyes at last, I saw that the shadows of the surrounding trees now striped the clearing. Overhead, black storm clouds filled half the sky, though beams of pale sunlight still shafted down through their tattered edges.

‘Maruman is not a tame cat,’ Gahltha beastspoke me mildly as I got stiffly to my feet. I grimaced, knowing I had been foolish to imagine that the black stallion would suppose I had been sleeping.

‘I know he is not tame,’ I sent. ‘I just don’t understand why he tells me that the old Ones want me to come back to Obernewtyn immediately, and then he disappears the minute we get here without explaining what I am meant to do.’

In truth, when the old cat had vanished the night I had returned from Sador with him and Gahltha, I had assumed he was revenging himself on me for leaving him in Saithwold. Never mind that I had been carried away unwillingly aboard a Herder ship, there was no excuse as far as Maruman was concerned. I was the Seeker, ElspethInnle, and he and Gahltha were my protectors, the Daywatcher and Moonwatcher. I should never have allowed myself to be parted from them.

‘Perhaps the old Ones wanted no more than that you should return to the barud,’ Gahltha suggested.

‘But why bring me back here to do nothing?’ I demanded, exasperated.

‘Nothing?’ Gahltha echoed blandly.

I laughed despite myself. ‘All right, I have been busy, but surely the Agyllians did not summon me back to Obernewtyn to sort out Misfit affairs?’ Even as I said the words, I wondered if that was the reason. Long ago atop her mountain eyrie, the Agyllian Elder At this had told me that my role at Obernewtyn was as important in its own way as the fulfilment of my quest as the Seeker. I had never understood how the fate of Obernewtyn could be as important as the fate of a whole world, but like the futuretellers, the mystic birds saw much that they did not tell.

‘Well, there is plenty of time for me to sort things out here, before we leave for the Red Land,’ I told Gahltha. ‘What worries me is that Marumanyelloweyes may be ill/hurt. He is not a young cat . . .’

‘I would not say that to his face,’ Gahltha warned seriously.

I sighed, for I did not like to think of Maruman’ sage any more than he did. He was no longer a kitten when I met him during my time in the Kinraideorphan home, and sometimes it frightened me to think how old he might be. I always comforted myself with the thought that his life had not been easy and he was simply battle-scarred. But therein lay a greater fear. Something – either a traumatic birth or a later event – had caused terrible damage to the cat’s mind, leaving him prone to fits and fey states, when he would wander, half in a dream, never knowing where he went and scarcely remembering to eat or drink. In such a state he had more than once ended up on tainted ground, though not so tainted that it did him permanent harm.

What if, this time, he had stumbled onto badly tainted ground?

To distract myself from the bleak turn of my thoughts, I got out the gourd bottle of cider and the rest of the food I had brought with me. I ate another spiced bun and shared a second apple with Gahltha, accepting that one more attempt to find Maruman had failed. I resolved glumly to ask the futuretellers to scry out Maruman’s whereabouts. Once I knew where he was, I could send the coercer-knights to get him. The knights had bound themselves to serve the master of Obernewtyn unquestioningly, or in this case, the temporary mistress, and they would just have to face the old cat’s wrath.

‘As will we,’ Gahltha sent ruefully.

I said nothing, for the thought of having to consult the futuretellers filled me with a different kind of anxiety. Indeed, this whole expedition had been an attempt to evade the need to face the Futuretell guildmistress, Maryon, whom I had been avoiding since my return from Sador. Aside from the fact that she seldom gave a clear answer to a question, Maryon’s visions often addressed something other than the thing you had come to ask, usually the very thing you wanted least to talk about.

As I mounted Gahltha, I decided the worst of it was the knowledge that the Futuretell guildmistress had probably already foreseen my coming to her, and would be expecting me.

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