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"Once upon a time there was a boy ..." Rudy Solis began.
"Once upon a time there was a boy." Altir Endorion, Lord of the Keep of Dare, wriggled his back against the side of the big chest-bed to get comfortable and folded his small hands, the low glare of the hearth's embers shining in his speedwell-blue eyes.
"And he lived in a great big palace ..."
"And he lived in a great big palace."
"With lots of servants to wait on him and do whatever he asked."
The blue eyes closed. Tir was thinking about that one. He had long black lashes, almost straight, and his black forelock, escaping from the embroidered sheepskin cap he wore, made a diacritical squiggle between cap rim and the drawn-down strokes of his brows. In thought like this he seemed older than five years.
"He went riding every morning on horses by the river and all his servants had to go with him," Tir went on after a moment. "They'd all carry bows and arrows, except the boy's servants had to carry the boy's bows and arrows for him. They'd shoot birds by the river ..."
His frown deepened, distressed. "They shot birds that were pretty, not because they wanted to eat them. There was a black bird with long legs wading in the river, and it had a little crown of white feathers on its head, and the boy shot at it with his arrows. When it flew away, the boy told his servants, 'I would that you take this creature with net and lime,'" his voice stumbled over unfamiliar words, an antique inflection, "'and bring it to me, for I will not be robbed of my ... my quarry ...' What's quarry, Rudy?" He opened his eyes.
"Quarry is what you catch when you go hunting." Rudy gazed into the hearth, wondering how long it had been since black egrets had haunted the marshlands below the royal city of Gae. A hundred years? Two hundred? It was part of his wizardry to know, but at the moment he couldn't remember. Ingold could have provided the information out of his head, along with a mild remark about junior mages who needed their notes about such things tattooed on their arms--along with their own names--for lagniappe. "Sounds like a mean boy to me, Pugsley."
"He was." Tir's eyes slipped shut again, but his face was troubled now, as he picked and teased at the knot of deep-buried memories, the recollections of another life. "He was mean because he was scared all the time. He was scared ... he was scared ..." He groped for the thought. "He thought everybody was going to try to hurt him, so they could make somebody else king and not him. His daddy's brothers, and their children. His daddy told him that. His daddy was mean, too."
He looked up at Rudy, who had an arm around his shoulders where they sat side by side on the sheepskin rugs of the cell floor. Even the royal chambers of the Keep of Dare were mostly small and furnished simply with ancient pieces found in the Keep, or with what had been hewn or whittled since the coming of the remnant of the Realm's people. The journey down the Great South Road, and up the pass to the Vale of Renweth at the foot of the still higher peaks, had been a harsh one. Those who'd gone back along the route the following spring in quest of furnishings thrown aside to lighten the wagons had found them not improved by a season under mud and snow.
"But why would being scared all the time make him be mean?" Tir wanted to know. "Wouldn't people be nastier to him if he was mean?"
"If they were his daddy's servants, they couldn't be mean back," pointed out Rudy, who'd learned a good deal about customary behavior in monarchies since abandoning his career as a motorcycle painter and freelance screw-up in Southern California. "And maybe when he was mean he was less scared."
Tir nodded, seeing the truth of that but still bothered. As far as Rudy could ascertain, Tir didn't have a mean bone in his body. "And why would his daddy's brothers want to be king instead of the boy? Being king is awful."
"Maybe they didn't know that."
Tir looked unconvinced.
As well he might, Rudy thought. Tir remembered being king. Over, and over, and over.
Most of what he recalled today would be of more interest to Gil than to himself, Rudy reflected. She was the one who was engaged--between relentless training with the Guards and her duties on patrol and watching the Keep's single pair of metal doors--in piecing together the vast histories of the realms of Darwath and its tributary lands; its relationships with the wizards, with the great noble Houses, with the Church of the Straight God, with the southern empires and the small states of the Felwood and the distant seaboard to the east. She could probably figure out which king this mean boy who shot at netted birds had grown up to be, and who his daddy was, and what politics exactly had caused his uncles to want to snuff the little bastard--no loss, by the sound of it.
Except that if that boy had not grown up and married, he would not have passed down his memories with his bloodline and eventually have created the child Tir.
And that would have been tragedy.
The wizard in Rudy noted the details remembered about the palace, identifying flowers in the garden, birds and beasts glimpsed in the trees, picturing clearly the place that he himself had only seen in ruins. But mostly what fascinated him were the workings of that far-off child's life and family, how cruelty had meshed with cruelty, how anger had answered angers formed by fathers and grandfathers; how constant suspicion and unlimited power had resulted in a damn unpleasant little brat who quite clearly worked hard to make everyone around him as miserable as he possibly could.
No wonder Tir's eyes were a thousand years old.
"Rudy?" A tousled blond head appeared around the doorway after a perfunctory knock. "M'lord Rudy," the boy hastily amended, and added with a grin, "Hi, Tir. M'lord Rudy, Her Majesty asks if you'd come to the Doors, please. Fargin Graw's giving her a bad time," he added as Rudy reached for his staff and started to rise.
"Oh, great." Fargin Graw was someone whose nose Rudy had considered breaking for years. "Thanks, Geppy."
"May I go play with Geppy, Rudy?"
"Yeah, go ahead, Ace. If I know Graw, this'll take a while."
With Geppy and Tir pelting on ahead of him, Rudy walked down the broad main corridor of the royal enclave--one of the few wide halls in the Keep not to have been narrowed millennia ago by the owners of cells breaking walls to cadge space from the right of way--and down the Royal Stair. Someone had taken advantage of the draught on the stair and stretched a clothesline across the top of the high archway where the stair let into the Aisle, the black-walled cavern that ran more than three-quarters of the Keep's nearly half-mile length. Rudy ducked under the laundry, scarcely a wizardly figure in his deerskin breeches, rough wool shirt, and gaudily painted bison-hide vest, his dark hair hanging almost to his shoulders. Only his staff, pale wood worn with generations of hand grips and tipped by a metal crescent upon whose sharpened points burned blue St. Elmo's fire, marked him as mageborn.
The Aisle's roof was lost in shadow above him, though pin lights of flame delineated the bridges that crossed it on the fourth and fifth levels. The glasslike hardness of the walls picked up the chatter of the launderers working in the basins and streams that meandered along the stone immensity of the open floor; some of them called greetings to him as he passed.
Fargin Graw's voice boomed above those homier echoes like flatulant thunder on a summer afternoon.
"If we're supporting them, they'd damn well better earn their keep!" He was a big man--Rudy could identify his silhouette against the chilly light that streamed through the passageway between the two sets of open Doors while he was still crossing the last of the low stone bridges over the indoor streams. "And if they're not earning their keep, which I for one can't see 'em doing, then they better find themselves a useful trade or get out! Like some others I could name sitting around getting fat ... There's not a man in the River Settlements who doesn't get out in the fields and pull his stint at guarding--"
"And boy, after all day in the fields, they must be just sharp as razors on night-watch." Rudy hooked his free hand through the buckle of his belt as he came out to join the little group on the Keep's broad, shallow steps, blinking a little in the pallid brightness of the spring sun.
Graw swung around angrily, a brick-faced man with the fair hair not often seen in the lands once called the Realm of Darwath, perhaps five years older than Rudy's thirty years. Janus of Weg, commander of the elite corps of the Keep Guards, hid a smile--he'd lost warriors twice due to the inefficiency of Graw's farmer militia--and the Lady Minalde, last High Queen of Darwath and Lady of the Keep, raised a hand for silence.
"Rudy." Her low, sweet voice was pleasantly neutral in greeting, as if he had not spoken. "Master Graw rode up from the Settlements with the tribute sheep today to hear from your own lips why there hasn't been further progress in eliminating slunch from the fields."
Rudy said, "What?"   In three years, slunch in the fields--and in huge areas of meadow and woods, both here in Renweth Vale and down by the River Settlements--had become an endemic nuisance, indestructible by any means he or Ingold or anyone else had yet been able to contrive. It would burn after a fashion but grew back within days, even if the dirt it had grown upon were sown with salt, soaked with oil of vitriol at any strength Ingold could contrive, or dug out and heaped elsewhere: the slunch grew back both in the dirt heap and in the hole. It simply ignored magic. It grew. And it spread, sometimes slowly, sometimes with alarm ing speed.
"How about asking me something simple, like why don't we get rid of rats in the Keep? Or ragweed pollen in the spring?"
"Don't you get smart with me, boy," Graw snapped in his flat, deaf man's voice. "You think because you sit around reading books and nobody makes you do a hand's turn of work you can give back answers to a man of the land, but ..."
Rudy opened his mouth to retort that until the rising of the Dark, Graw had been a man of the paint-mixing pots in Gae--his wife and sons did most of the work on his acres down in the River Settlements, by all accounts, as they'd done here in the Vale before the nine hundred or so colonists had moved down to the river valleys to found settlements three years ago. But Alde said, still in resolutely friendly, uninflected tones, "I think what Rudy is trying to say is that there are some problems, not amenable to any remedy we know, which have been with us for thousands of years, and that slunch may turn out to be one of them." The glass-thin breeze from the higher mountain peaks stirred tendrils of her long black hair, fluttering the new leaves of the aspen and mountain laurel that rimmed the woods, a hundred yards from the Keep on its little mound. "We don't know."
"The stuff's only been around for three years," pointed out Rudy, upon whose toe Alde had inconspicuously trodden.
"And in those three years," Graw retorted, "it's cut into the fields we've sweated and bled to plant, it's killed the wheat and the trees on which our lives and the lives of our children depend." One heavy arm swept toward the farms downslope from the Keep, the fields with their lines of withe separating one plot holder's land from the next. Like purulent sores, white spots of slunch blotched the green of young wheat in three or four places, the wrinkled white fungus surrounded by broad rings of brown where the grain was dying.
Graw's mouth clamped into a settled line, and his pale tan eyes, like cheap beads, sliced resentfully between the slim black-haired woman beside him, the young wizard in his painted vest, and the heavy-shouldered, black-clothed shape of the Commander of the Guards, as if he suspected them of somehow colluding to withhold from him the secret of comfort and survival.
"It's sickening the crops, and if the River Settlements are sending wheat and milk and beasts for slaughter up here to the Keep every year, we're entitled to something for our sweat."
"Something more than us risking our necks to patrol your perimeter, you mean?" Janus asked thinly, and Graw scoffed.
"My men can do their own patrolling! What the hell good is it to know about saber-teeth or some bunch of scroungy dooic ten miles from the nearest fields?" He conveniently neglected to mention the warning the Guards had brought him of the White Raiders last winter, or the battle they and the small force of nobles and men-at-arms had fought with a bandit company the autumn before. "But if our labor and our strength are going out to support a bunch of people up here at the Keep who do nothing or next to nothing ..." His glance slid back to Rudy, and from him to Alde's belly, rounded under the green wool of her faded gown.
The Lady of the Keep met his eye. "Are you saying then that the Settle ments Council has voted to dispense with sending foodstuffs to the Keep in return for patrols by the Guards and advice from the mages who live here?"
"Dammit, we haven't voted on anything!" snapped Graw, who, as far as Rudy knew, wasn't even on the Settlements Council. "But as a man of the land whose labor is supporting you, I have the right to know what's being done! Not one of your wizards has come down to have a look at my fields."
"The slunch is different down there?"
"Thank you very much for coming to us, Master Graw." Minalde's voice warmed as she inclined her head. As Graw made a move to stride toward the Keep, she added, with impeccably artless timing, "And I bid you welcome to the Keep, you and your riders, and make you free of it."
He halted, his jaw tightening, but he could do no more than mutter, "I thank you, lady. Majesty," he added, under the cool pressure of that morning-glory gaze. He glared at Rudy, then jerked his hand at the small band of riders who'd accompanied the herd of tribute sheep up the pass. They fell in behind him, bowing awkward thanks to Alde as they followed him up the shallow black stone steps and vanished into the dark tunnel of the Doors.
Rudy set his jaw, willing the man's hostility to slide off him like rain.
In a sweet voice trained by a childhood spent with relentless deportment masters, Minalde said, "One of these days I'm going to break that man's nose."
"Y'want lessons?" Janus asked promptly, and they all laughed.
"Why is it," Minalde asked with a sigh, later, as she and Rudy walked down the muddy path toward the Keep farms, "that one always hears of spells that will turn people into trees and frogs and mongrel dogs, but never one that will turn a ... a lout like that into a good man?"
Rudy shrugged. "Maybe because if I said, 'Abracadabra, turn that jerk into a good man,' there'd be no change." He shook his head. "Sheesh. I've been around Ingold too long."
She laughed and touched his hand. His fingers fitted with hers as if designed to do so at the beginning of time. The farms--which, contrary to Graw's assertions, were in fact the chief business of the Keep, and always had been--were far enough from the walls that wizard and lady could walk handfast without exacerbating the sensibilities of the conser vative. Everyone knew that the Keep wizard's pupil was the lady's lover and the father of the child she carried, but it was a matter seldom mentioned: the religious teachings of a less desperate age died hard.
"You're going to have to go down there, you know," Alde said in time.
Their eyes met, and she rested her free hand briefly on the swell beneath her gown. "I think so," she said matter-of-factly. "It's the second or third time he's been up here, demanding that something be done about slunch. He has a lot of influence in the Settlements, not with the nobles, but with the hunters, and some of the farmers. If he broke away from Keep rule, he'd probably turn bandit himself. The child isn't due for another two months, you know."
Rudy knew. Though he'd helped to birth dozens of babies in the five years he'd been Ingold's pupil, the thought of Alde being brought to bed while the master wizard was still on the road somewhere terrified him.
With Alde, it was different.
The Lady of the Keep. The widow of the last High King. Tir's mother.
The mother of the child that would be his.
The thought made him shiver inside, with longing and joy and a strange disbelief. He'd be a father. That child inside her--inside the person he most loved in the whole of his life, the whole of two universes--was a part of him.
Involuntarily--half kiddingly, but half not--he thought, Poor kid. Some gene pool.
And yet ...
Under the all-enveloping bulk of her quilted silk coat she barely showed, even this far along. But she had the glowing beauty he'd seen in those of his sisters who'd married happily and carried children by the men who brought them joy. Ingold had early taught him the spells that wizards lay upon their consorts to keep them from conceiving, but she had pleaded with him not to use them. Nobody in the Keep talked about their lady carrying a wizard's child, but even Bishop Maia, usually tolerant despite the Church's official rulings, had his misgivings.
"It can't wait till Ingold gets back?"
"It's only a day's journey." He could hear the uneasiness in her voice, see it in the set of her shoulders and the way she released his hand to fold her arms around herself as she walked. "Much as I hate to agree with anything that man says, he's right about slunch destroying crops. Unless the harvest is better this year than last, our stores will barely get us through next winter."
"It was a bad year." Rudy shifted his grip uneasily on the hand-worn smoothness of his staff. "Last winter was rough, and if Gil was right about the world getting colder, we're in for a lot more of them."
Beyond the shaggy curtain of pines, the Snowy Mountains lifted to the west, towering above the narrow valley, the glittering cliff of the Sarda Glacier overhanging the black rock. Far up the valley, St. Prathhes' Glacier had moved down from the peaks of the spur range called the Ramparts, a tsunami of frozen diamond above the high pastures. Edged wind brought the scent of sterile ice and scraped rock with the spice of the spruce and new grass. It wailed a little in the trees, counterpoint to the squeak of Alde's sheepskin boots in the mud and the purl of the stream that bordered the fields. The mountains may have been safer from the Dark, Rudy thought, but they sure didn't make good farmland.
Cows regarding them over the pasture fences moved aside at Rudy's wave. He clambered over the split rails and helped Alde after, not liking the lightness of her frame within its faded patchwork of quilting and fur. Spring was a time of short rations. Even with last year's stored grain and the small surplus sent up from the Settlements, everyone in the Keep had been on short commons for months. Crypt after crypt of hydroponics tanks lay in the foundations deep beneath the Keep, but Rudy didn't have to be a technician to know they weren't operating as effectively as they could be. In any case, grain and corn had to be grown outdoors, and in the thin soil of the mountain valley, good arable was short.
The withy fences around the slunch in the west pasture had been moved again. The stuff had almost reached the stream. Past the line of the fences the grass was dying; the fences would have to be moved farther still. Three years ago, when slunch first started growing near the Keep, he and Ingold had agreed that neither humans nor animals should be allowed to eat it until they knew exactly what it was.
And that was something neither of them had figured out yet.
Short meadow grasses stirred around his feet, speckled bright with cow-lilies and lupine. There were fewer snakes this year, he noted, and almost no frogs. The herdkids waved to him from the other side of the pasture fence and choused the Settlements' tribute sheep into the main flock. He spotted Tir's bright blue cap among them, beside Geppy Nool's blond curls. Geppy's promotion to herdkid--with the privilege of sleeping in the byres and smelling permanently of dung--had consumed the smaller boy's soul with envy, and for several days Tir seriously considered abdicating as High King of Darwath in favor of a career in livestock supervision.
"Damn crazy stuff." Rudy waved back, then ducked through the
hurdles that made up the fence. Alde followed more clumsily, but kept pace with him as he walked the perimeter of the rolling, thick-wrinkled plant--if plant it was. Sometimes Rudy wasn't sure. He'd never found anything that looked like seeds, spores, roots, or shoots. Slunch didn't appear to require either water or light to grow. It just spread, some six inches high in the middle of the bed, down to an inch or so at the edges, where wormlike whitish fingers projected into the soil bared by the dying grass.
Rudy knelt and pulled up one of the tendrils, like a very fat ribbon stood on its edge. He hated the touch of it, cold and dry, like a mushroom. By the tracks all around it there were animals that ate it, and so far neither the Guards nor the Keep hunters had reported finding dead critters in the woods ...
But Rudy's instincts shrank from the touch of it. Deep inside he knew the stuff was dangerous. He just didn't know how. He squeezed it, flinching a little at the rubbery pop it gave before it crumbled, then wiped his hands on his soft deerhide trousers. With great effort Ingold had acquired enough sulfur from a dyer's works in Gae to manufacture oil of vitriol--sulfuric acid--and had tried pouring that on slunch. It killed it but rendered the ground unfit for further use. And the slunch grew back within three or four weeks. It was scarcely worth the risk and hardship of another trip to the ruins of Gae for that.
"Do you think that thing Maia described to Ingold--the Cylinder he found in the vaults at Penambra--might hold some clue about the slunch?" Alde kept her distance. The dark fur of her collar riffled gently around her face, and the tail of her hair made a thick sable streak in the colors of old gowns, old curtains, and old hangings that had gone into
"It might." Rudy came back to her, uneasily dusting the sides of his breeches and boots. "Ingold and Gil haven't found zip about slunch in any archive they've searched so far, but for all we know it may have been common as daisies back before the first rising of the Dark. One day Pugsley's going to look up at me and say, 'Oh, we always dumped apple juice on it--shriveled it right up.' And that'll be that."
Alde laughed, and Rudy glanced back at the cold, thick mass behind them, inert and flaccid and yet not dead. He said, "But we better not count on it."
The sun had slipped behind the three great peaks that loured over Sarda Pass: Anthir, the Mammoth, and the Hammerking. The air above glacier and stone was still filled with light, the clouds streaked crimson, ochre, pink, and amber by the sunset, and the eternal snowfields picked up the glory of it, stained as if with liquid gold. Like a black glass rect angle cut from the crystallized bone of the mountain, the Keep of Dare caught the reflection, burning through the trees: a fortress built to guard the remnant of humankind through the times of darkness, until the sun should shine again.
Looking below it, beyond it, to the scant growth of wheat and corn in the fields along the stream, the white patches of slunch and the thinness of the blossom on the orchard trees, Rudy wondered if those ancient walls would be protection enough.
Just my luck. I make it to the world where I belong, the world where I have magic, the world where the woman I love lives--and we all starve to death.
"The range of my tribe lay at the feet of the Haunted Mountain, between the Night River and the groves along the Cursed Lands, and northward to the Ice in the North." The Icefalcon slipped his scabbarded killing-sword free of his sash, set it where it could be drawn in split instants, and shed vest and coat and long gray scarf in a fashion that never seemed to engage his right hand. "Never in all those lands, in all my years of growing up, did I hear speak of this slunch."
Only a few glowstones dispersed white light in the Guards' watchroom. Most of the Guards' allotment of the milky polyhedrons illuminated the training floor where Gnift put a small group of off-shift warriors--Guards, the men-at-arms of the Houses of Ankres and Sketh, and the teenage sons of Lord Ankres--through a sparring session more strenuous than some wars. Hearthlight winked on dirty steel as the incoming shift unbuckled harness, belts, coats; ogre shadows loomed in darkness, and across the long chamber someone laughed at Captain Melantrys' wickedly accurate imitation of Fargin Graw feeling sorry for himself.
Rudy sighed and slumped against the bricks of the beehive hearth. "You ever ride north into the lands of the Ice?"
The young warrior elevated a frost-pale brow in mild surprise. "Life among the tribes is difficult enough," he said. "Why would anyone ask further trouble by going there?"
"People do," said Seya, an older woman with short-cropped gray hair.
"Not my people."
"Well," Rudy said, "slunch is obviously arctic--at least it started to show up when the weather got colder ..."
"But never was it seen near the lands of the Ice," the White Raider pointed out logically. His long ivory-colored braids, weighted with the dried human finger-bones thonged into them, swung forward as he chaffed his hands before the fire. Like all the other Guards, he was bruised, face and arms and hands, from sword practice. It was a constant about them all, like the creak of worn leather harnesswork or the smell of woodsmoke in their clothing. "Nor did our shamans and singers speak of such a thing. Might slunch be the product of some shaman's malice?"
"What shaman?" Rudy demanded wearily. "Thoth and the Gettlesand wizards tell me the stuff grows on the plains for miles now, clear up to the feet of the Sawtooth Mountains. Why would any shaman lay such a ... a limitless curse?"
The Icefalcon shrugged. As a White Raider, he had been born
"As for foods that will grow in the cold," he went on, settling with a rag to clean the mud from his black leather coat, "when game ran scarce, we ate seeds and grasses; insects and lizards as well, at need." Constant patrols in the cold and wind had turned the Icefalcon's long, narrow face a dark buff color, against which his hair and eyes seemed almost white. Rudy observed that even while working, the Icefalcon's right hand never got beyond grabbing range of his sword. All the Guards were like that to a degree, of course, but according to Gil there were bets among them as to whether the Icefalcon closed his eyes when he slept.
"Sometimes in days of great hunger we'd dig tiger-lily bulbs and bake them in the ground with graplo roots to draw the poison out of them."
"Pray to your ancestors you never discover how yummy such fare can be."
"We used to eat these things like rocks." Rudy hadn't heard Tir come up beside him. Small for his age and fragile-looking, Tir had a silence that was partly shyness, partly a kind of instinctive fastidiousness. Partly, Rudy was sure, it was the result of the subconscious weight of adult memories, adult fears.
"They were hard like rocks until you cooked them, and then they got kind of soft. Mama--the other little boy's mama--used to mash them up with garlic."
The Icefalcon raised his brows. He knew about the heritable memories--an old shaman of his tribe, he had told Rudy once, had them--and he knew enough not to put in words or questions that might confuse the child.
Rudy said casually, "Sounds like ..." He didn't know the word in the Wathe. "Sounds like what we call potatoes, Ace. Spuds. What'd that little boy call them?"
Tir frowned, fishing memories chasms deep. "Earth-apples." He spoke slowly, forming a word Rudy had never heard anyone say in the five years of his dwelling in this world. "But they raised them in water, down in the tanks in the crypt. Lots and lots of them, rooms full of them. They showed that little boy," he added, with a strange, distant look in his eyes.
"Who showed him, Ace?"
Melantrys, a curvy little blonde with a dire-wolf's heart, was offering odds on the likelihood of Graw finding a reason not to send up any of the hay that was part of the Settlements' tribute to the Keep come July--betting shirt-laces, a common currency around the watchroom, where they were always breaking--and there were shouts and jeers from that end of the room, so that Rudy had to pitch his voice soft, for Tir's hearing alone.
Tir thought about it, his eyes unfocused. He was one of the cleanest little boys Rudy had ever encountered, in California or the Wathe. Even at the end of an afternoon with the herdkids, his jerkin of leather patches and heavy knitted blue wool was fairly spotless. God knew, Rudy thought, how long this phase would last.
"An old, old man," Tir said after a time. He stared away into the darkness, past the lurching shadows of the Guards, the stray wisps of smoke and the flash of firelight on dagger blade and boot buckle. Past the night-black walls of the Keep itself. "Older than Ingold. Older than Old Man Gatson up on fifth north. He was bald, and he had a big nose, and he had blue designs on his arms and the backs of his hands, and one like a snake like this, all the way down his head." Tir's fingers traced a squiggly line down the center of his scalp, back to front. Rudy's breath seemed to stop in his lungs with shock. "And it wasn't a little boy," Tir went on. "It was a grown-up man they showed. A king."
It was the first time he had made the distinction. The first time he seemed to understand that all the little boys whose memories he shared had grown up to be men--and after living their lives, had died.
Rudy tried to keep his voice casual, not speaking the great wild whoop of elation that rang inside him. "You want to go exploring, Pugsley?"
"Okay." Tir looked up at him and smiled, five years old again, rather solemn and shy but very much a child ready for whatever adventures time would bring his way.
"They won't thank you, you know," the Icefalcon remarked, not even looking up from his cleaning as they rose to go. "The know-alls of the Keep--Fargin Graw, and Enas Barrelstave, and Bannerlord Pnak, and Lady Sketh. Whatever you find, you know they shall say, 'Oh, that  . We could have found that any day, by chance.'"
"You're making me feel better and better about this," Rudy said.
The White Raider picked a fragment of dried blood out of the tang of his knife. "Such is my mission in life."
I  t  's him!  Rudy thought as, hand in hand, he and Tir ascended the laundry-festooned Royal Stair. It's him!  For the first time, Tir's memories had touched something that lay verifiably in the original Time of the Dark.
The old man with the big nose and the bald head and the tattoos on his scalp and hands was--had to be--the Guy with the Cats.
Records did not stretch to the first rising of the Dark. Gil and Ingold had unearthed archives dating back seven hundred years at Gae; two of the books salvaged from the wreck of the City of Wizards were copies of copies--said to be accurate--of volumes two thousand years old. The Church archives the ill-famed and unlamented Bishop Govannin had carried from the broken capital contained scrolls nearly that age, in dialects and tongues with which Ingold, for all his great scholarship, was wholly unfamiliar. When the mage and Gil had a chance to work on them, they had arrived at approximate translations of two or three--at least two of the others Gil guessed had been copied visually, without any knowledge of their meaning at all.
But in the Keep attics above the fifth level, in the hidden crypts below, and in the river caves up the valley, they had found gray crystalline polyhedrons, the size and shape of the milk-white glowstones: remnants of the technology of the Times Before. And when Gil figured out that the gray crystals were records, and Ingold learned how to read the images within, they got their first glimpse of what the world had been like before that catastrophe over three millennia ago.
The Guy with the Cats was in two of the record crystals.
The crystals themselves were magic, and readable only through the object Rudy described to himself as a scrying table found hidden in an untouched corner chamber of the third level south. But less than a dozen of the thirty-eight were about  magic, about how to do   magic. Even silent--neither Rudy nor Ingold had figured out how to activate the soundtrack, if there was a soundtrack--they were precious beyond words. Magic was used very differently in those days, linked with machines that Ingold had tried repeatedly--and failed repeatedly--to reproduce in the laboratory he set up in the crypts. But the crystals showed spells and power-circles that were clearly analogous to the methods wizards used now. These Rudy and Ingold studied, matching similarities and differences, trying with variable success to re-create the forgotten magic, even as Gil studied the silent images in the other stones to put together some idea of that vanished culture and world.
On the whole, Rudy guessed that their conclusions were about as accurate as the spoofs written in his own world about the conclusions "scientists of the distant future" would draw about American motels, toilets, and TV Guides  .
But in the process, he and Gil had come to recognize by sight a bunch of people who died about the time of the Trojan War.
They had given them names; not respectful ones, perhaps, but convenient when Gil noted down the contents of each crystal.
Mr. Pomfritt--named less for his resemblance to a long-forgotten character in a TV show than for his precise, didactic way of explaining the massive spiral of stars, light, and silver-dust that funneled, Ingold said, a galaxy-wide sweep of power into something kept carefully out of sight in a small black glass dish.
The Bald Lady.
And the Guy with the Cats.
And now Tir said that the Guy with the Cats had been in the Keep. That meant whoever that old mage was, he'd been of the generation that first saw the Dark Ones come.
The generation that fought them first. The generation that built the Keep.
"The little boy got lost here once," Tir confided in a whisper as they wound their way along a secondary corridor on third south. Night was a time of anthill activity in the Keep, as suppers were cooked, business transacted, courtships furthered, and gossip hashed in the maze of interlocking cells, passageways, warrens, and bailiwicks that sometimes more resembled a succession of tight-packed villages than a single community, let alone a single building. Rudy paused to get an update on Lilibet Hornbeam's abscess from a cousin or second cousin of that widespreading family; nodded civil greetings to Lord Ankres, one of the several noble men who had survived to make it to the Keep--His Lordship gave him the smallest of chilly bows--and stopped by Tabnes Crabfruit's little ill-lit workshop to ask how his wife was doing.
Tir went on, "He was playing with his sisters--he had five sisters and they were all mean to him except the oldest one. He was pretty scared, here in the dark."
What little boy?  Rudy wondered. How long ago?  Sometimes Tir spoke as if, in his mind, all those little boys were one.
"They sent a wizard up to find him?" Rudy was frequently asked to search the back corners of the Keep, or the woods, for straying children.
They ascended a stair near the enclave owned by Lord Sketh and his dependents, a wooden one crudely punched through a hole in the ceiling to join the House of Sketh's cells on the third level with those on the fourth. Warm air breathed up around them, rank with the pungence of cooking, working, living, drawn by the mysterious ventilation system of the Keep.
One more point for the wizards who built the place, Rudy thought. However they'd powered the ventilator pumps and the flow of water, most of them still worked. He and Ingold had never been able to ascertain that one to their satisfaction. They'd found the pumps, all right, and the pipes and vents like capillaries through the black walls, the thick floors, but no clue as to why they still worked.
A young boy passed with two buckets of water on his shoulders, accompanied by a henchman wearing the three-lobed purple badge of the House of Sketh--Sketh was notorious for thinking it owned the small fountain in the midst of the section where most, but not all, of its servants and laborers lived. Alde suspected they were charging for access, but couldn't prove it.
"Uh-huh," Tir said. "There were three wizards in the Keep then, an old man and a lady and a little girl. The girl found the little boy."
"So these were different from the guy who showed the King how to find the potatoes."
Tir thought about this. "Uh-huh. That was ... I think the King was before. Way before." It was the first time he'd identified anything resembling a sequence to his memories. Eldor--Tir's dead father--had had some of Dare of Renweth's memories, toward the end of his pain-racked life; according to Ingold, few others of the line had. Ingold deduced that the wizards who built the Keep had engineered such memories into certain bloodlines to make sure of their preservation, but it was never possible to predict who would remember what, or when.
The boy frowned, fighting to reach back into that barely comprehended darkness, and they turned a couple of corners and cut through a quarter-cell somebody had chopped into a corridor: Tir still leading, still pursuing old recollections, matching in his mind the way the Keep had been three thousand years ago against the shortcuts of his current experience.
"There's stairs way back there but we can go up here," he said, pointing down another hall.
Here, toward the back of the fourth, many of the fountains had failed. The cells were inhabited by the Keep's poorer folk, who'd received less productive land in the division of arable allotments or whose birth rate had outstripped what they were assigned; those whose land had been damaged by slunch or whose livestock had sickened and died; those who had sold, traded, or mortgaged first their land, then their time and freedom, to the wealthier inhabitants who had food to spare. Many of the cells, lying far from the stairways or the bridges that crossed the Aisle, weren't inhabited at all. Around here the air smelled bad. It was all very well to be living in a place whose ventilation pumps were still operative after three thousand years, but over the millennia, as Rudy put it, somebody had lost the manual. When a pump broke, it stayed broken.
Rudy hadn't mentioned it to Alde, but he lived in fear that a lot of this stuff would all give out at the same time, as the internal combustion engines of his experience generally had. And then Shit Creek won't even be the phrase for it,  he thought uneasily.
Toward the back of the Keep the corridors lay straighter, too, for no one had lived here long enough to alter the walls. The darkness seemed denser away from the pine-knot torches, the lamps of smoking grease, and the occasional glowstone in its locked bracket of iron.
The stairway Tir led him to was at the back of the fourth, a deserted area smelling of the rats that seemed to spontaneously generate in spite of all the purging-spells he or Ingold could undertake. Without the blue-white glow that burned from the head of Rudy's staff, the long corridor would have been as lightless as the crawl spaces behind Hell. A smoke-stained image of a saint regarded them gloomily from a niche at the stair's foot: St. Prool; Rudy recognized her by the broken ax she held in her hands.
He'd never figured out, when Gil told him the story, why God had broken the ax in half after  ol' Proolie got the chop. The blood line around her neck was neatly drawn in red, like a sixties choker.
The stairs themselves were rough plank, almost as steep as a ladder. Tir darted ahead, feet clattering on the wood, and Rudy cast his magic before him so that a ball of witchlight would be burning over the child's head when he got to the top.
He himself followed more slowly, thrusting his glowing staff-head up through the ragged hole in the stone ceiling to illuminate the cell above. The magelight was bright, filling the little room and showing Rudy, quite clearly when he came up level with the floor, the thing that stood in the cell's doorway.
It was a little taller than his knee, and, he thought--trying to summon the image of it in his mind later--a kind of dirty yellowish or whitish-yellow, like pus except that there was something vaguely inorganic about the hue.
It had a head but it didn't have eyes, though it turned the flattened, fist-sized nodule on its spindly neck in his direction as he emerged. It had arms and legs--afterward Rudy wasn't sure how many of each.
He was so startled he almost fell, lurching back against the stone edge of the opening in the floor. He must have looked away, grabbing for his balance on the ladder, because when he looked back it was gone.
"Tir!" Rudy lunged up the last few rungs, flung himself at the door. "Tir, watch out!" He almost fell through the doorway, the blast of light he summoned flooding the corridor, an actinic echo of his panic and dread.
He looked left, then right, in time to see Tir emerge, puzzled, from another cell door perhaps fifty feet down the hall.
There was no sign of the thing he'd seen.
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