SIX OF SWORDS
By Carole Nelson Douglas
Irissa the Torloc stopped, watching as stone melted from under stone of her ancient home, while the crumbling towers shrank into each other and vanished. Finorian the Eldress sat on the broken battlements of one partly dissolved tower.
“I cannot hold the gate much longer, Irissa,” she said. “All the rest are gone. You, too, would have passed with us—but it is too late now. I go to a green world, child, and I leave you in this one, already growing rusty. Your courses are set and you must run them as I must follow mine. Farewell. Do not forget that you are the last Torloc…”
Air spoke to them, only air, where Finorian had been.
“Gone,” Kendric marveled. “You are alone, as am I. We Six of Swords are fallen—upon each other, fallen upon fear .
Irissa of the Green Veil bent to the forest pool. The greens hung heavily over the still water, casting such shade that she could not see her own reflection. That was well. To see oneself in any mirror was a weakening of power. It had been so since the days of the Torlocs of Edanvant, and so it was with the Torlocs of Rindell, though these were lesser days and, perforce, the Torlocs were less than they had been.
But Finorian the Eldress, it was said, had not so much as looked at the moon, lest its lighted surface reflect the slightest sliver of herself. Finorian was a moon-sliver of a woman in her own right, straight and narrow as a snow-season ice-dagger, with silver eyes in a pale face. It was said that Torloc women’s eyes grew more discernibly amber with each glance at self in polished brass or motion-silvered water—or at even the eye of another, although that took deeplooking.
Nevertheless, the women of Rindell who would practice the power that remained became adept at looking to only the edge of eyes, a habit that did not encourage commerce with mankind, those direct beings who dwelt beyond Rindell. Mankind could always look one directly in the eyes and still lie. There was another kind of power inherent in such an attribute, and Irissa bit her lip as she considered it. For Rindell was on the wane. Those such as Finorian were merely remnants. But the power must be hoarded in the few vessels that remained to the Torlocs, and Irissa was such a one.
From Irissa’s birth it had been plain. Even her mother’s irredeemably amber eye had seen the purity of her new daughter’s vision. She had risen herself from the birthing bed to empty the basins of reflecting water, strip the servants of their decorative metals, and order the trophy shields in the great hall veiled. No glimmer had intruded into Irissa’s unwinding life.
Every forest pool was thick-grown with shade, an obsidian surface whose reflections were absorbed into some sable recess beyond sight. Now Irissa’s fingers dappled the dark water. Silver ripples undulated outward. She thrust one hand wrist-deep in the element. The dim reflection braceleted her—or manacled her.
Irissa shook her hand free, scattering her liquid bangle into drops that sparkled like the coldstone mined deep in the Torloc rins. The rins also yielded Iridesium, the metal which mailed Torloc men and made them resistant to swordstroke or the piercing of arrows, a phosphorescent metal that sprang back like grass from most blows aimed upon it.
There were few to wear the Iridesium now, though the other Realms cherished it and had once imported it like water diverted from an upland farmer’s pasture. Now the rins were abandoned and the Iridesium almost gone, as were Torloc men. Most Torloc men were old—or simply gone, none knew quite why. Irissa had been kept apart for the protection of the sight, so she had seen few males of her race even when a child. Armored men were walking mirrors, likely to draw the untrained child’s fascinated glance and thus wreck the work of years. Her own father had long since vanished into the mystery of male missions from which such emissaries seldom returned. It was the women who clung to the overgrown castles, who made Rindell of the Shrinking Forest a vague reality even as the other five Realms encroached upon it.
Irissa stood, wiping her damp hand on the green veil that floated from her narrow headdress like the cloudy flaw that moved within Finorian’s great emerald touchstone. The old woman would expect her soon, as would her mother. Not that the time to take the rite of Far Focus had come—no, that was still a turn of the moon’s head away. But Thrangar was to come. Irissa had never seen a Wrathman of the Far Keep before.
She dusted her palms on her veil again, tossing it behind her shoulders as if the alien cloth held the long familiarity of her own hair, as it did. Except for two narrow, dark braids looped around her ears, her hair was caught tight under the Iridesium circlet that bound the veil to her temples. She paused again, studying the quiet clearing where even the moonweasels dared not come. She was slight but tall. It was the Torloc race’s stature that the people of the other Realms held against them. They said the Torlocs were apart, from another land, time, or even reality. It made easy their encroachment on the Torlocs’ deep glades and mines. They made more of the Torlocs and thus less of them. And then they swallowed them whole.
Yet a Torloc was always first among the Wrathmen, and it had always been so. Irissa did not have to pass through the Far Focus to see that Thrangar, who had borne the great five-foot-long sword in the service of the Circle of Rule, was coming soon. Thrangar was the last of the Torloc leaders, when that race was no longer even represented within the Circle itself. His arrows were feathered with peacock colors and could insinuate themselves into any chink. Always the Torloc, among the Six Wrathmen who guarded the Circle of Rule, was armed with the bow and arrows. His bow was bent from seven feet of yew wood, and only Thrangar could direct its arrows true and far—and deadly.
It must be an unusual quest that brought one of the Wrathmen away from the City at the point where all Six Realms met—weighty business, beyond the work of mail and men. It would be work for Finorian.
Irissa rustled through the forest. The young shoots bowed away from her passage as if windblown. Her veil wafted behind her. She walked more quickly, aware of a certain urgency tracking her like a pursuer. She broke into another clearing centered on a similar pool, but this glade was open to the daylight that shone from the sapphire sky above. A sudden glitter below on the pool’s verge caught her attention—a rich vein of glitter, black, midnight green, vermilion, violet, and black again, so deep it swallowed sight.
Irissa arched her veil over her face. There was little Finorian, and her amber-eyed mother had let her see from birth. Nothing within that limited spectrum had prepared her for this. With the veil a filter before the rare silver eyes that made her race feared in other Realms, Irissa advanced on the pulsating shimmer that danced like a cluster of fireflies ahead. Before she came to it, she had to bow to some over-draping foliage. The glitter softened, and she and it were in the sylvan semi-darkness surrounding the pool. The gleam damped like a snuffed candle. She advanced on something dark, awkward, and long, very long, like one of the sleeping water beasts that circled the nomad island of Clymarind. Bulky and lethargic, it was perhaps something dead—a stray bearing-beast from the Rocklands, seeking pool water and finding death.
It was not a beast, but a man. Irissa knelt by the now strangely colorless form and reached out a finger to the substance which had dazzled her from across the pool. It was metal, linked into mail. It rusted there, turned mocking red-brown. The quiescent colors still trembled in it, but out of direct light it was tamed. Iridesium, such as the Wrathmen wore! Thrangar!
A new meteor of glitter struck her eyes. The black metal helmet had swiveled toward her. For the first time, Irissa found herself staring, unprotected, into the living eyes of a fellow creature.
Was this person Thrangar? The man’s words could have been assertion or threat or question. Irissa did not answer and kept her eyes fixed at his helm’s edge, as she had been trained.
“Sword!” His voice rasped like rough metal.
She glanced down again to the puzzling rust spot on his mailed shirt of Iridesium. Blood, mortal blood, flowed as red as hers or that of any Torloc. But he was not Thrangar. Nor, did she think, was he Torloc.
“Sword!” he cried again.
Irissa scanned the ground. Against the gnarled trunk of a weepwater tree, his shield lay askew, slashed diagonally with bronze that glimmered even in the uncertain light. Instinctively, Irissa averted her glance from its pseudo-mirrored surface. Her eyes came back to the rim of the black metal helmet that edged the fallen knight’s face. Despite her indirect glance, she felt his gaze pool on her like liquid suspicion.
“Torloc,” he said. “You are Torloc. I must be near Rindell.”
“Near Rindell, yes, what remains of it. From which of the Realms do you come?” She felt rather than saw his smile form.
“From all and none of them. Torloc lady, can you not see that? My sword!” His voice had become demanding again, urgent and impolite. “I see it there, near that twisted weepwater root. I thought for an instant that the tree had spawned serpents and wrested it from me—but I had taken Fiforn’s lance blow by then and may have dreamed it. Fetch it to me.”
Irissa skittered over to the venerable tree’s foot to search among its massive roots, feeling oddly like a dimwit ordered to be of some use. But the sword’s haft thrust into her hand on her first probe. Its blade was half-invisible, impaled in the marshy water that was as brown as blood. “I have it!”
“Commendable.” The voice was stronger, growing impatient again. “Then bring it to me.”
Irissa clasped both fists around the crossbar and tugged upward. It was as if she sought to raise a ship’s heavy anchor. “I cannot move it,” she told him over her shoulder, giving a useless last pull.
The knight behind her was silent for a while. “Then look upon it, Torloc.”
“I cannot!” Another would have whirled to face him so that the incredulity of tone would strike home. Irissa was used to addressing the edges of things, even with her emotions. She kept her veiled eyes carefully on the mossy weepwater trunk that loomed over her like a wall. “I have not undergone Far Focus. I must not look—”
“What do I care for your Torloc rituals? Was it not some trick of Thrangar’s that brought us to this pass—to Fiforn’s hacking at me as if I were his favorite rack of lamb? Has Thrangar come? Is that why you delay me?” He must have read Irissa’s blankness in her back, for his words were milder when they came again. “I need it for a cane, not a weapon, lady. It is not mortal metal. Look upon it—the forge that fired it was pure.”
Irissa heard weariness enough in his voice—weariness strung on an endless cord of despair. She had never discerned that emotion before. It demanded an extraordinary answer. She cast back her veil and dropped her glance slowly to the blade of bright metal bridging its own longer reflection in the murky water. A brilliant clarity struck her eyes, a clarity as rainbowed with color as the black Iridesium of the knight’s mail had been previously. She saw something spinning and glittering at the center of that brightness, something dangling like a star—herself, but a shifting self, twisting beyond reach. The light lengthened and attenuated until it was as high as she and as narrow as a moonweasel. It was a ladder. It was a bar.
Irissa stood by the woodland pool, the great silver sword in her hand. She held it as lightly as a wand and returned to the recumbent knight, laying it at his side. The moment her glance left it, the metal faded to pewter, rough along the edges where it had dulled its fang on armor. The knight clasped a mailed hand around the haft, then slowly levered himself up until the sword bit into the earth and stood vertical at its full five-foot length. Irissa’s eyes rested on its dully-worked, almost plain hilt. It was a noncommittal point of view. The knight’s Iridesium-gauntleted fingers laced themselves over the hilt, and she felt him draw up, propping himself on his sword, until he loomed over her as surely as had the weepwater tree.
“You are a Wrathman,” she said, not troubling to look up even to the edge of his helm, now towering nearly seven feet from the ground. “But you are not Thrangar.”
“No. I am a mere mortal from the marshes, one whose youthful tendency to knock his head on lintels saw me into the Circle’s service. I am not Thrangar, I thank Rule, though you may not. There is another Torloc service you could do me.”
Her glance dropped instinctively to the rusty seepage at his side. “No,” she said, still wondering that she had lifted the heavy sword. “Finorian will aid you—if she sees fit.”
“Ah. A Torloc who can see, instead of slinking around the center of things. But you have aided me. If you stumble not overmuch on the way, take me to your Finorian.”
For answer, Irissa whirled and strode swiftly through the underbrush, hearing with some satisfaction the Wrathman lumbering hard behind her in his armor. Satisfaction was another original emotion for her to meditate upon between this day and that of her initiation into the use of her inborn gifts. She could recognize the feeling only because she knew its obverse all too well. The rite of Far Focus would make her wise, she had been told. Perhaps it came too late. But these were the poolside questions with which she teased her shuttered mind. There was more to think on behind her than within.
For the first day in her life, Irissa felt she was living within an event, not a dream. The sword had arched into her hand like the back of a favorite pet when one stroked it, because she had done what she was never to do—look upon a thing freely and fully.
Irissa stopped, reined by a phantom inner twitch she had never felt before. The questioning of her place in life had brought unease. This was what one got for shaking one’s head at the bridle of Finorian.
The Wrathman towered to a halt behind her, catching a pair of ragged breaths before he spoke. “What is it?”
Irissa resumed walking, but more slowly. “Nothing. And everything. I thought I saw something—a bridge of ether or some eldritch vapor. Since I looked upon your sword, I am aware of—nothing, it is nothing. We will go to Finorian.”
She moved more quickly, leaving the Wrathman to blunder on behind, using his massive blade for a walking stick. She stopped again, with a soft cry that brought the Wrathman’s sword up to duel the air—or whatever had made his guide draw back.
“What?” he demanded, a bit impatiently.
Irissa clasped her side, where the twist of pain had passed. It must have been merely a walking cramp. But she was not susceptible to such troubles…
Irissa clasped her side and ran past strands of underbrush to the clearing she knew so well, which broke suddenly on level ground to reveal the ancient Torloc stronghold rising up like rock, with sprays of ivy on its crumbling sides. There Finorian the Eldress waited with her answers.
She saw the lines of stone, the high, arched windows, as secret as hooded eyes—solid, safe, with nothing dangerously reflective about it. Except that now—Finorian had warned her this would happen, but surely it was too soon? There was much to do yet—and much to learn still. She had only just gone out for a walk…
She stopped, alarmed, watching as stone melted from under stone and the crumbling towers diminished and shrank into one another like fog.
Finorian sat, her white hair bare to the light, her deep-set eyes serenely lidded, on the broken battlements of one dissolved tower. Her forefingers each touched the massive emerald cabochon upon her breast. It cast a glow that pulsed around the Eldress’ figure in a kind of phosphorescent breath.
The Wrathman rattled behind Irissa like death, but she was immune to mortal metal. Something new was being forged here, something.
“I cannot hold the gate much longer. It has closed beyond your passing, Irissa. It takes all my powers—and yonder Wrathman could tell you something of those—to keep my image in your eyes.” Finorian’s voice was creaking, mechanical. It emanated from her body as if from a stone. Irissa put her hands to her ears at the foreignness of it.
Finorian laughed shortly. “Ah, it will be a time for you now, child, to live within the Five Realms. Yes, the Six are broken. Thrangar was called out of time, and the rest of us Torlocs must follow.”
“Gone over, child, as the others before her. You, too, would have passed from the Realms with us, if only—
“But it is too late, Irissa. There is little I can do for you now. You are awash on the ground that is breaking, the bridge that is falling. The time of the Six Realms is over, and the Five shall turn upon one another like a pack of moonweasels when the prey is scanty. It was meant to be. We Torlocs have been fading into a more beneficent world for generations. Thrangar alone held this last Torloc remnant to this world. Now Thrangar—”
“Thrangar is a traitor!”
Irissa whirled to see the outlines of the Wrathman behind her.
“Ah, you know so much, Kendric of the Marshes,” the old woman replied without lifting her eyelids or her voice. “Tell me, then, O Discerner of Traitors, how came you here? Do you know?”
“Yes. Thrangar was gone, vanished. For the first time in memory, the Six Wrathmen were five. We fanned out across the Realms, seeking Thrangar, seeking an answer, seeking—”
Each other, Wrathman, That is what you sought. And whence came the rust that reddens your mail? It ran from the blade of another Wrathman, Fiforn of the City That Soars, he whom you called bondbrother. Do you still swear you know so much of traitors? Or Torlocs?”
“No!” But the Wrathman was not answering Finorian. His cry was confused, as certain a form of denial as the turning away of his eyes. Irissa wished for a paradoxical moment that she dared read his face.
‘‘The Six are now five,” Finorian declared. “It is not a harmonious number. Irissa.” The Eldress lifted a long, admonitory finger from the emerald. It dotted the air with a brief pulse of green. “I have not long. I can give you one moment of the Far Sight. Come, look at me.”
Twenty years of constant training held Irissa’s eyes oblique to the old woman’s.
“Come! You will have to walk upon the shifting air of this world. I must show you. Look.”
Irissa brought her eyes to the Eldress’ face. The pale lashes screening Finorian’s eyes rolled upward. Irissa dived into an endless silver sea, as blank and bright as death. “Nothing, I see nothing,” she protested.
“That is the beginning of vision,” Finorian said, wavering in Irissa’s unshielded gaze like moonlight. Her finger flexed to touch the emerald. “I go to a green, green place. Another time, place, and people. A green world, child, and I leave you in one growing as rusty as your Wrathman’s mail—”
“He is not my Wrathman. It is not my world—Irissa objected, while the pale slivers of smoke shifted in her vision.
“No?” The word seemed to emanate from the hot, green heart of the emerald. “Your courses are set. You must run them as I must follow mine. Farewell. Fare well. Do not forget that you are Torloc.
Air spoke to them, only air, a vaguely green exhalation that rose dustily from the last of the tumbled stones that had always been Irissa’s fortress home. She stood still a long moment, striving mightily to control her emotion at such loss. Everything she had ever known—completely vanished.
Then the mail behind her shifted. It sounded like hail. The Wrathman clattered around her to study the leveled clearing.
“Gone,” he marveled. “As Thrangar is gone. She said he was called. And she is right. I do not recall much of my meeting with Fiforn, only the bite of his famous flying lance—and I ran, ran from Fiforn as if I feared him, feared something other than he even more. Truly we Six are fallen—fallen upon one another, fallen upon fear…”
Irissa heard the Wrathman’s words, but they were merely bitter counterpoint to her internal keening. Gone, all gone, truly gone! And what reason had she to stand above vanished stones and long for home fires and for even the rite of Far Focus? She had seen nothing when given the gift of Finorian’s silver gaze. There had been nothing to see. Something else which Irissa had never seen before flashed in her eyes and ran moonweasel-swift down her cheeks.
The Wrathman glimpsed the furtive silver and cupped his hands beneath her chin. Something clinked into his mailed fingers. “Torloc tears,” he said, his voice softening. “It is true.” He held up a palmful of glittering coldstones, like the ones found in the rins when they were mined. Irissa averted her eyes from the flashing white gems.
The Wrathman tossed them once in his hand and closed his fingers upon them. They rattled within his palm like coins. “I’m not afraid to look upon them, lady. Among the men of the marshes, they call such stones wealth. Many labor a lifetime to earn as much as one small coldstone. They will buy you a mount, at least. It appears your talents, while bizarre, are not useless.” The coldstone tears slid into the deep recesses of the boarskin purse at his belt while Irissa stared stonily ahead.
“I need no mount, nor guardian of my talents, Wrathman. Keep them as recompense for your inconvenience. I would not profit by my own mourning, though it appears mankind is not loath to leech on another’s sorrow?’
“Have you never wept before?” he asked curiously.
“And I have never bled before.” His hand touched the severed mail at his side. “A woman who has never wept and a warrior who has never bled. It strikes me the elusive Finorian was righter than we knew. We had best make our way together for a while until some harmony is restored.”
Irissa shrugged and turned away.
“Wait!” The Wrathman’s hand upon her arm was insistent. “Your tears are done, but I still bleed.” His mailed palm opened like a bright red blossom.
“I may weep again,” Irissa pointed out.
“And I may bleed again. My blood has no value in its wasting. I assure you no rubies form. You have the means—”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You Torlocs can heal with a glances. You can do that for me.”
“No! I have not taken training in such things. Perhaps my glance may draw the blood from you in a sunset river. It’s best you heal of yourself.”
“I cannot. Fiforn’s lance eats deep. I do not know how I came away from that encounter, or crawled to yonder pool. And I have walked far since. I will risk your looking awry. I have no other choice.”
Irissa’s glance fell to the mailed hand clutching her forearm, then to the open palm washed in streaks of red. Her eyes slid reluctantly to the Wrathman’s side, where the broken Iridesium glittered dully in the waning daylight. She focused on the rust-rimmed break in the mail, looking hard, until it hurt her eyes. Then she looked beyond that hurt to the hurt within, mining the essence of the Iridesium from within the metal’s shifting colors, burning through into riven flesh below, seeing bone bridging to bone, blood flowing into blood, flesh knitting into flesh…
Before her eyes, the crushed links of Iridesium writhed and reached for one another, joining, linking, and forging themselves together. She saw only a rainbow of ridged black metal and a rising blackness as the ground leaped up at her.
A feeling of constriction dragged Irissa back to consciousness. Her wrists were bound. She tugged on the binding and felt her head snap back. She was sitting, and her conveyance rocked her. She focused forward, saw that her wrists were tied to a chased metal ridge of some kind, and looked beyond to a furred throw. She glanced left and then quickly away from a smoothly rounded expanse of Iridesium.
She was on the back of a bearing-beast, tied to its elaborately worked saddle as firmly as that contrivance was buckled around the sleek creature’s belly.
“Awake?” The Wrathman swiveled his helmeted head, which was level with her own, though she rode and he walked alongside. But she felt another tug on her wrists, and the rope slid away. “Hang on with your own power, then, if you have any left. I did not know you would be so taxed.”
“You are well?”
“Better than even before I met Fiforn’s lance—or your eyes.” He gestured expansively, his mail sending off a shower of iridescence. “Veil yourself. We are in full daylight now. They do not call it the Shrinking Forest for naught. We are but a few minutes from your home clearing, and already the hamlets of ordinary folk cluster around us.”
Irissa followed his pointing arm to wisps of smoke curing over the nearby hills. “You found your bearing-beast,” she noted, studying the distance to the ground. She had never been aboard such a mount before.
“No. Willowisp found me, as any worthy mount must.” Kendric gave a friendly tug to the silken red mane. The creature turned its massive head and rolled a faceted brown eye at Irissa,
“It does not like me.”
The Wrathman’s hand slipped down the creature’s well-muscled neck and gave it a slap. Willowisp shook its head until the crimson mane twisted around the short ivory horns atop it. “I do not doubt that,” said the Wrathman. “You Torlocs are light for a war mount to bear. I think he senses you may be a heavier burden than is apparent.”
“Then ride him yourself. I would rather walk.”
“Soon enough, we shall both have mounts. I see a village smoking over the next rise. Stay back by the road.” He tied Willowisp to a slender larch stripling, started away, and then returned, binding Irissa to the silver-shelled saddle before she could pull her clasping hands away.
“You do not like my race,” she said, keeping both her glance and her head down.
“No. Why should you not turn to vapor as easily as that old seeress among her shifting stones? If you are indeed the last of your kind left in the Six Realms—”
“Say you. I am not certain that is true.”
“Finorian said it, and she cannot lie.”
“Nor, it seems, can she remain to see her sayings tested. You may prove as elusive. Stay a while, Torloc.” He rested his mailed hand briefly on hers, and then he was striding away to the grinding accompaniment of his armor.
Irissa stirred on the brocaded saddle cover. Willowisp moved his massive hooves in a short dance that indicated he was as restive with the arrangement as she was. He was a fine, high beast of polished red-gold hair smoothed to bronze along his muscular body. Willowisp seemed to read her grudging assessment, for the long neck arched and he shook his flame-colored mane until sparks seemed to fly.
“Hush,” Irissa said, stroking her hand along the whipping strands. The beast quieted instantly. But she was seething, as if ignited by some ember caught from her fiery mount. She pulled again on the thick rope that bound her, then hissed in disgust. The Wrathman’s disappearing form still bobbed blackly over the green hill brow. Mortal thanks, that was what one got for aiding a mortal man. Irissa studied the rope strands. If metal could weld together under her glance, perhaps rope could part. She stared at her bonds, concentrating until all she saw was the rough hempen strand, and then that was merely an impression dissolving.
Only mist manacled her now. She slid off the high saddle and jolted to the ground. The Wrathman and his hamlet were beyond the bearing-beast’s polished bulk. She turned, heading for the underbrush and the not-too-distant green outcropping of forest behind it. A sheet of burnished hair rose like a hedge before her. She ducked around it and found herself caught in the reflection of a glittering brown eye and whirled again. A rope of crimson tail hair circled her wrists and held her fast. Irissa looked to the edge of the bearing-beast’s eye, which was elegantly fringed with bright gold bristles.
“No wonder you found your master,” she remarked softly, but in surrender. “You are wiser than he. And as untrusting.”
For answer, the creature dipped his head to the sweet long grasses and munched a casual bouquet. He swung his tail once, pulling her around to face the unseen village. Soon after, the helm of Kendric of the Marshes rose over the hill brow.
“Beast,” Irissa snarled over her shoulder. The mount whistled then, a high, soft sound that echoed over the hill. Another bearing-beast swayed into view behind the Wrathman, a fog-gray creature with ebony horns and sharp hooves to match.
The Wrathman came up without comment and patted his mount’s tall flank. The imprisoning tail strands melted away in a crimson flicker. Kendric laced his mailed fingers together and stood by the new mount. Irissa didn’t bother resisting. She put her foot into his hands and felt herself sprung into the black leather saddle. She brushed a vagrant strand of smoky mane off the high pommel.
“I should have bought you boots as well,” the Wrathman noted.
Puzzled, Irissa glanced down at her tattered hemline. She always walked the forest bare of foot—now she had left it shoeless. She shrugged and gathered up the bell-strung reins. “l am glad you spared yourself further efforts in my behalf. This is an oddly knitted beast. I hope he did not cost you dear.”
“No, only a tear or two, and those borrowed. He is yours, lady. Name him well, for he will serve you as he is named. And as for his configuration—well, I would hardly ride him into battle. But he has an elusiveness I thought would appeal to you. I think he hails from Clymarind, or some forebear did.”
“Impossible. There are no four-footed beasts in Clymarind.”
“Nor Torlocs in the Six Realms, if one would believe what some say.” The Wrathman mounted and urged his beast forward. The creature flashed like fire and sped down the road. Irissa waited, then shook the belted bridle once. “Very well, nameless one, follow.” The tall gray bearing-beast obeyed, floating smokily behind its fiery leader.
Campfire flames danced through the soft, green gauze veiling Irissa’s face. Across from her, the fiery tongues’ reflection licked the Wrathman’s helmet. As if feeling that heat, he suddenly stripped the helmet off, revealing a head hooded in Iridesium like some samite snake. Irissa dropped her glance to the fire. Behind her, the tethered bearing-beasts whistled softly to each other and occasionally stamped powerful hooves as punctuation to a colloquy in which no human could partake.
She pulled her unshod feet under her coarse linen hem, wishing for the moonweasel fur with which the lordlings lined their robes, and clasped her hands around her knees.
“Am I really the last Torloc?” she asked the thoughtful Wrathman.
He stared for a while at the ardent flames he had coaxed from gathered hazelwood. It burned sweet and warm and would keep any moonweasels off until dawn. But perhaps moonweasels were extinct, like Torlocs. Perhaps they had never really existed, save to frighten the young, the old, and the feeble into keeping to the home hearth. Perhaps.
The Wrathman pulled his sword closer to his side. He glanced across to his fireside partner as if anticipating a questioning look. There were only the tightly clasped hands, the slightly bowed and veiled head. “Moonweasels,” he explained tersely.
“Have you ever seen one?”
“No.” Again she heard a smile in his voice. “But then I had seen only one Torloc until now.”
“Thrangar. Is he dead?”
The Wrathman pulled off his head mail. Irissa was startled to see dark hair spring from the retreating mesh like a woodland creature from a trap. He suddenly looked more human. “Is Finorian dead?” the Wrathman inquired in turn.
Irissa folded her arms deeper in her wide sleeves—another potential choice spot for moonweasel pelt. Perhaps they would come, and the Wrathman could halve one or two and procure her some fur. “Where do you go?”
“We go to the City where the Circle of Rule meets.”
“We? What does a mighty and muddy mortal from the marshes need with a Torloc?”
“Not conversation, I vow. Talking to you is like addressing a log. It’s uncanny how great a thing a mere glance is when it is absent. I will sit at any angle to you so that you may look ahead and not see me.” She heard him settle near her side. “Have you a name?”
“And have you named your mount?”
She thought for a moment. “We Torlocs had no need to harness beasts to our purposes. I know not what to call him. He is like meadowmist, like rock, like smokeshadow…” A whistle vibrated from behind them.
“You have named him. It is good not to be too ponderous in these things. The wrong name can weight a beast’s hooves.”
“Yet you would misname your fellow beings.”
“Torlocs? In the marshes we grew up and grew old fearing what we heard of Torlocs. When I came to serve the Circle, I found less fear of your kind, but no love for them either. And, of course, there was Thrangar. He was ever one of our company, yet isolated from it. When he—vanished, do you say? —when Thrangar was gone, it seemed we suddenly remembered a thousand suspicions.”
“How did you come to be a Wrathman? Was it something passed down in your family line?”
The Wrathman laughed until his armor echoed the ring of it. “Passed up in my family, Torloc lady. I rose to my exalted position quite literally. Merely by being Halvag the smith’s son and growing higher than his humbler portal. There is but one primary consideration to becoming a Wrathman of the Far Keep among the marshmen.” He slapped the sheathed sword that lay beside him. “The height to carry one of the Six Swords forged generations ago for the first Wrathmen. Among the people of Tolech-Nal on the world’s rim, or the men of the City That Soars, or even the sturdy Rocklanders, family lines to rear Wrathmen have been established for centuries. We men of the marshes are too rough yet for such niceties. We rely on what has served men better than design—accident of birth. I am a Wrathman only because I am too tall to be anything other.”
“You make light of your position. To be a Wrathman is an honor.”
“Is it? So they have told me since I was fourteen years old and sent to the City of the Circle to study the arts of war. But of the Six, who alone has never carried an ancestral weapon? Thrangar had his bow and arrows; Fiforn has his singling lance, as I can well attest. Glent of the Stones, his granite-tipped axe; melodious Valodec of elusive Clymarind, his snakeskin gauntlet that never fails him; and Prince Ruven-Qal from Tolech-Nal has his burning crimson powder. For Wrathmen from the marshes, there is only the sword they take on with their oath and what little wit is left to them in such a company. You claim you have not undergone the Torloc ritual of power. Perhaps you are fortunate?
“But I find I can do—things I had never thought to do…”
“Mere conjurer’s tricks, rudimentary for a Torloc. One could find twelve wizard’s apprentices in the City of Rule who could do as much for the eager market crowds and the few pence cast to them.”
“The City of Rule sounds like a place that does not content you. Why go there?”
“It is the center of the Realms, Lady Irissa, perhaps center of our current riddle. I had been sent to Rindell to find and bring back Thrangar. Perhaps another Torloc will serve.”
“I am prisoner of Rule, then?”
“No more so than I.”
“It appears you are fond of riddles. No doubt the City of Rule suits you. Be careful, Kendric of the Marshes, or I shall look at you.” She turned her head slightly and the veil fluttered around her face, like the green mist that had swallowed Finorian.
The Wrathman stirred, so that his mail protested. “Without having undergone Far Focus, lady, that would be more peril to you than to me, I think.”
“Perhaps you overestimate my fear or peril.”
The Wrathman stood, a metal mountain looming over her. “Enough word sharpening. We ride early.”
Kendric returned from a check of the mounts with a great circle of cloak he fanned over Irissa. She caught it around her with demur and tucked it close under her chin. Moonweasel fur tickled her. Perhaps the City of Rule would not be so dreadful. Before the Wrathman’s last rattles had died away, she was asleep, a Torloc trait she had never appreciated until now.
Another Torloc trait, that fine-tuning of hearing granted to those who did not rely on their eyes, woke her. The fire snapped rhythmically, though its color had ebbed to a blood-dark glow. There was silence in the meadow. Even the bearing-beasts slept, their horn-crowned heads drooping. A slither sounded behind them. They did not stir. Again came a dry rustle, as of a leaf kissing the ground and then swept away, followed by silence and the crackle of fire. Then there was sound and motion behind her.
The night was waning, but not the moonweasels. It was said they were longer than the tallest man and crawled upon their bellies like a snake. Their amber fur was as soft as their numerous fangs were hard. And they had human faces, pale faces like the moon. Some said they had small, clever little arms and legs with which they could undo latches and wriggle over windowsills. They came in packs and preferred their victims sleeping. Once their attack succeeded, they would hang on with their relentless teeth until human blood dyed their pelts crimson. Afterward, they could be seen sitting in a moonlit circle, licking one another’s coats.
Irissa stirred, the wave of moonweasel fur against her throat suddenly sinister. The heavy cloak rustled, but no motion came from the sleeping Wrathman. She strained to search out his figure in the dark and saw a crimson glimmer beyond him where the tall grasses whispered together—two crimson glimmers, matched and symmetrically balanced…
“Wrathman!” Her voice was as dry as the graze of claws across grass. “Wrathman!”
He rattled to life, and the crimson gleams blinked out. She heard the bone-chilling rasp of the great sword drawn from its sheath. Its blade caught the moonlight as he swung it almost contemptuously.
“Moonweasels, I think.” Irissa pointed behind him and he whirled, the mail and metal clanking around his figure, jingling into silence as nothing more presented itself.
A fugitive wisp of fur wound around Irissa’s throat. She reached for the cloak and found it had ebbed to her ankles. The fur at her neck pulsed, twined—was warm. She screamed. Then the Wrathman’s blade hung over her.
“Wait!” Irissa cried, daring to face the furred thing that coiled around her. “Wait. It is only Finorian’s cat, Felabba.”
The sword sighed through the air and touched earth. The Wrathman knelt by her, his eyes upon the small creature balanced on Irissa’s shoulder. “Another Torloc?” he inquired in no good humor.
“Merely Finorian’s old cat. It has no Torloc powers, simply a nose for the table when fresh meat is upon it, and a liking for licking its whiskers in an opportune spot of sunlight. It must have followed us.”
“Half a day’s ride? Are you certain it is not a dog? No powers, you say? Well, it has a gift for disturbing a man’s sleep, as do you. I suggest you accommodate your familiar and settle into rest so that, if any moonweasels do arrive, I shall not be too tired to deal with them.
“It’s merely a cat,” Irissa complained as the Wrathman’s armor grumbled to silence again. She pulled the creature off her neck and tucked it within the folds of her cloak. Poor scrawny thing, poor Felabba, forgotten again. It was a most unprepossessing creature, but having something familiar about one was nice.
“Rude, that one,” a voice purred near her ear. “And you’re learning it from him. No good will come of your taking up with that mortal, you mark me. And move, you great oaf of a Torloc. You’re on my tail. We should have stayed by the castle, both of us. You watch, Finorian can’t help you now.”
Irissa looked fixedly at the creature that curled into her cloak and shut its baleful eyes in sequence. Talked—it had talked! Or it thought, and she had heard it. No powers? By Thrangar, this was astounding! She opened her mouth to hail the Wrathman’s shadowed back, then shut it. He had obviously not heard Felabba’s comments on his manner, and he just as obviously would not appreciate them, even if they had been complimentary.
Irissa closed her eyes but did not sleep.
Morning revealed that at least Felabba’s outward appearance had undergone no startling transformation. The cat was as lean and as sharp-boned as ever, its white fur somehow ruffled-looking. The only remarkable thing about it was a pair of limpid eyes that reflected a spectrum of green as various as the colors of the Shrinking Forest. Irissa did not gaze long into the creature’s eyes—only long enough to discern a certain smug twinkle.
Felabba leaped to the broad leather saddle a moment after Irissa had mounted. The Wrathman cocked a dubious eyebrow, then shrugged and pulled on his helmet. As he mounted his own beast, Smokeshadow danced lightly on the grass, testing his ability to dislodge the new passenger. Felabba balanced easily and twitched her unimpressive tail. The procession resumed, the Wrathman in the lead with his great sword slung diagonally across his back like a bow, Irissa behind on Smokeshadow, who shook the dew off his ebony hooves so smartly that not a bell on his bridle rang.
Felabba leaped to Irissa’s shoulder and curled her tail around Irissa’s mouth to smother any startled exclamation. “These men from the marshes are most lacking in chivalry. He made no offer to assist me into the saddle, as he did you. And at my years, it’s quite a bound from the ground to the top of a bearing beast’s withers. You weren’t entirely helpful either, my girl. It would be my misfortune to be stranded with the last Torloc in the six Realms, and she is a silly fool who goes traipsing meekly along on a most uncomfortable—and fruitless—journey to the City of Rule. City of rue, my girl, that’s what you’ll find. Now don’t bother arguing. I’m going to nap now, for I certainly didn’t sleep all night with you about to roll me into oblivion.”
They rode all day, Felabba artfully curled into the high curve of Irissa’s saddle, sleeping and silent as promised. The landscape was changing, gentle hills turning broken as they thrust up through the earth. Soon rocky prominences blocked the roadside view. The sapphire sky took on a grayer hue, and finally great, fast-moving masses of smoky clouds roiled across it. The heavens seemed suddenly lower, as if they were scowling down on the rough countryside. Once a small rock slide danced across the road, and Willowisp jigged to avoid it, his ivory hooves striking sparks from the ricocheting rocks. That small shower of light was somehow comforting.
Kendric finally reined in Willowisp. He lifted a hand to signal Irissa to stop. At that moment a flash of violet lightning wracked the clouds from left to right. They rolled back to unveil a blacker layer.
“A dry-storm is coming,” the Wrathman said, nudging his mount up a roadside gully. “We’d best shelter here.” He dismounted near an overhang of rock. “Small chance of fresh food in these Rocklands—and if we found it, I doubt it would be edible fare—unless Torloc tastes run to the reptilian.”
Irissa shuddered and slid off Smokeshadow. Her feet hit bruising stones and she hopped about, each jump landing her on something sharper.
The Wrathman frowned. “It’s boots for you once we reach the City. Torlocs must truly hail from an elder world if they care not for such conveniences as shod feet. Sit down and I’ll fetch your supper. Felabba can fetch for herself.
The cat growled faintly and leaped lightly to the rocks above Smokeshadow’s back, padding silently out of sight.
“Now you’ve injured her feelings, “Irissa objected.
“Nonsense! The creature’s just following its natural bent. Are you saying the thing can understand me?”
“Not words, perhaps, but tone. You forget, we Torlocs have sharp ears for unsaid things.”
“Do you?” The Wrathman looked at her oddly. For a moment Irissa was glad her powers required avoiding direct glances, but she could read tension in the way the skin tautened over his cheekbones.
“How long is it to the City of Rule?” she asked.
“Longer than you would like,” he answered, tossing her the cloak from the back of his saddle. Irissa caught the garment without donning it.
“Why do we go there? What will you do there? If Thrangar and the rest of my people are truly called into another world, what use is it to worry? I might as well live on in my clearing, forgotten.”
“The Realm Lords and the Circle of Rule forget nothing. The last Torloc would be a prize or a pawn over which they’d fight until you or they broke. You have powers. What does it matter if they are dormant? They are still dangerous.”
“And I ride to the City of Rule with you because, for the first time, the men of the marshes and their Wrathman have a weapon beyond the sword to match the other Wrathmen, the other races.”
“Yes.” Kendric handed her a packet of dried meat and cheese.
Irissa let it lie in his hand. “What makes you think you can use my powers when I cannot?” He withdrew the food without answering, and Irissa realized she had asked the wrong question. “What makes you think you can use me?”
“Someday you will look at me, Torloc lady, and know the answer.”
Irissa shrugged herself into the cloak. A wind gust blew her veil back, but she shut her eyes to the dust it carried.
Another gust lifted the heavy cloak folds and riffled moonweasel fur across her cheeks.
“No fire,” the Wrathman said. “A dry-storm can be as dampening to wood as a wet one.”
She heard him rustle about, unsaddling their mounts. Then he settled under the rocky lip to chew methodically on the food she had rejected. A low growl of hunger came from her stomach, but Irissa ignored it and shrank further into the cloak on a hard chair of rock at her back. The wind whistled shrilly, piping through the rocks with an almost intended melody. She opened her eyes briefly to find the horizon glowing sulfur violet. It was eerie. There were no trees to break the wind and turn it back against the overhang, only the Rocklands, yet wind struck her, a fierce wind that glued her to the stony shelter. The Wrathman’s head was flat against the rock behind him, his eyes shut to the infinitesimal pieces of sand that massaged their faces with a dry tattoo of sensation. Another branched lighting struck, phosphorescent pink. Irissa squeezed her irritated eyes shut and thought of Felabba. When she opened them, the cat stood there, a rock-gray lizard with six legs dangling limply between her neatly pointed teeth.
“Ahhhh!” Irissa edged harder into the rock. “Take that thing away!”
Felabba dropped the lifeless prey and blinked her emerald eyes. Her back was to the wind and the dust was ruffling her coat, turning it an evil ocher shade.
“Away!” Irissa begged.
A thick point of steel flashed over the lizard and flicked it suddenly an arching distance away. “Torloc tastes,” Kendric commented, pulling back his blade and shutting his eyes again. Felabba gave him one poisonous glance, then glided after her scaled dinner.
A clatter like hail pelted around them—not ice crystals but rock crystals. It seemed to be raining faceted pellets of amber and violet.
“Glent of the Stones was homesick for these dry-storms when he served in the City,” Kendric said sardonically. “I suppose you yearn for your forests. It occurs to me there are worse things than springing from marshes one will never mourn.” A vagrant violet crystal fell upon the tip of his sword, where it protruded from the overhang. The crystal shattered in a fan of color.
“It’s unnatural,” Irissa said, shutting her eyes against it. The Wrathman’s silence was her only answer. She decided to forget about the Wrathman, the dry-storm, and even the obstinate Felabba, who was now quite probably becoming minced cat out on some exposed rock. The thunder cleared its throat and burst forth in a rumble, followed by the crack of more lightning. A violet branch burned itself through her closed eyelids and the dark behind them. Another clatter of thunder followed.
“Shield-shakers, Glent called them—the thunder-gods,” the Wrathman said, speaking as much to remind her that they were, after all, merely mortals caught out in a mortal storm as to make conversation.
“Perhaps they know you bear a sword and would do battle,” Irissa responded dreamily. “Go shake your sword at them, Wrathman, and remind them how mighty mortals are. But do not disturb me with your battle rumbles. I did not sleep well with Felabba anchored around me.”
She was gone, suddenly, into that black, memoryless land the dreaming mind painted under all the pictures it etched on the surface. She did not dream, or remember dreaming, until she saw the Shield-shakers advancing from the dark-clouded sky, their boots making the rock towers around them shudder, their shields striking together like cymbals. Tall—they were taller than a Wrathman, three Wrathmen tall, their blue-black beards and long, wild hair streaming around their shining armor. It was too shining. She must not look upon it, though her eyes were drawn to the gleaming surface, so like an obsidian pool, with a dream desperation she never would have tolerated awake.
Look, some inner voice urged. Look, Torloc! The Shield-shakers drew near, forked lighting flaring from their sword tips as they swung the great blades around their helmeted heads. There were three—no, four—of them, each the mirror image of the others, and they engaged a shadow, a flat black shadow that absorbed their blows and ebbed backward.
Look, look, the inner voice urged. A flash of violet lightning struck toward her, branching and stretching to touch her. A sizzle of pain streaked along her neck. Look! Irissa looked, her lashes seeping upward like a curtain on a scene. It was dark, and still the dry-storm howled around them and the Shield-shakers dueled in front of her eyes. Something burned along her neck. She touched it and found blood on her fingers.
A pair of implacable green eyes glared over her shoulder. “Sleeping?” the cat asked. “Just like a dull-wit. Look, look at what transpires before you. Your knight is sore-pressed, lady. He fights himself and another and three shadows. Look.”
Irissa glanced to the place where the Wrathman had settled for the night. It was vacant. And figures were battling in the open space beyond. She discerned now the glitter of Iridesium lit by frequent flashes of the unnaturally colored lighting and saw another figure contending with Kendric. A twin, identically armed, swung a great broadsword two-handedly. It rose and fell on the bronze slash of Kendric’s shield. The other Wrathman had forsaken his own shield and came cleaving toward Kendric with swordstroke after swordstroke crashing down thunderously. Kendric parried with his shield and back stepped, bringing up his own sword and thrusting fiercely. The blow caught the strange Wrathman under his upraised arms. He staggered backward, then rallied and hacked forward, his lethal sword falling again and again on Kendric’s ringing shield.
“Stop!” Irissa commanded, before she even knew she had spoken.
The other Wrathman only swung his sword sideways, aiming a blow that could cleave a man in half. Kendric genuflected to the onslaught, then scrambled away, his sword carving an arc that hit the ebbing Wrathman in the backs of the legs. The Iridesium-clad figure staggered and sank to the ground.
Irissa unclasped her tautened fists. It was done. Kendric towered over his fellow warrior, his sword and shield dragging on the battle-beaten ground. The only sounds were the rasps of both knights’ breathing and a soft complaint from Felabba, who sat on a small rock and cleaned her tail of the battle dust.
The fallen Wrathman rose without warning and had at Kendric, his blade pointed straight ahead, lance-like. The point caught Kendric’s shield off-center and wrenched the protective bronze away. Kendric swayed, his shield-bereft arm still limp from the impact. He sidestepped in groggy surprise as the other Wrathman charged again, this time raising his sword for an axe blow.
“Wait! I implore you, stop!”
Neither man so much as paused to attend Irissa’s plea. Kendric clasped his sword with both fists and drove it at his opponent in a lethal arc. It plowed the side of the enemy helmet and drove a furrow in the metal.
The alien Wrathman staggered to his knees. Surely this time the battle was ended, over. He pulled up his sword slowly and swung it feebly at Kendrick. The blow was weak, but it caught Kendric on the thigh. Kendric toppled, regained his knees, and aimed another ribbon of steel at his adversary.
Stop! This time the word echoed only in Irissa’s mind. They would clearly hack at each other until they were animated by their limbs rather than by their brains, like slain animals that twitched in a mockery of life. She felt a great anger toward such a pointless contest. She had looked on a Wrathman’s sword once and had made it light. If only she could wrest away their weapons, force the combat to an end…