Wind swept down from the snow-cap with a keenness that cut the breath from Gair’s lungs. He had climbed as high as he dared this time, to a rocky spur far above the tree line where the air was so thin and cold it burned. This was where he belonged. Up there he could be himself, with none to watch him but the sky.
He stepped towards the edge of the rock. The wind swirled boisterously there, fiercer, colder, eager to be gone, like him. Below his perch lay the Laraig Anor range, a maze of black granite and blue snow-shadows, awaiting the sun. Soon it would crest the ridge behind him. Already the sky above was brightening, the last stars long since faded. Simiel Dawnbringer was a mere ghost in the west, yellow as old bones.
He took another step. The wind snatched at him; he stretched his arms wide and embraced it. Sunrise struck the shoulder of Tir Breann opposite, turning the snows bright as steel fresh from the forge. One last step and his toes gripped the very edge of the rock. Almost time. Now he leaned out into the void, only the wind between him and a slow fall into nothing, but he trusted it. The wind would carry him; it always had. As long as he lived, it would not let him fall.
His pulse quickened in anticipation. The new day was close, sizzling just out of sight. Below, the valley held its breath. A moment more, a blink, a heartbeat. Now. He leapt.
For an instant he hung suspended, neither rising nor descending, neither flying nor falling, captured as surely as a charm in a sphere of finest Isles crystal. Muscles moved, slid over and against each other, shifting bone and sinew in the complex dance that enabled him to ride the wind. Perfect. Pinions thrummed, whispering their song around him. Sunlight across his shoulders turned his flesh to gold and fire. Perfect.
And then he fell.
Gair jerked awake. His breath whooshed out of him, stomach yawning away, still falling into the ringing silence of the mountains – except he wasn’t in the mountains any more. Dogs barked in the distance, wagons rumbled over cobbles. In the city? Not the Motherhouse; the bed under him was too soft and the linens too fine. Where was he?
He pushed himself up into a sitting position and his left palm blossomed into fire. ‘Holy Mother!’ Clutching his hand to his chest, he fell back onto the pillows. A blank white shriek filled his head. Holy Mother dear Goddess above it hurts. He squeezed his wrist tightly to distract himself until the pain began to ebb.
‘Drink this. It’ll help with the pain.’
A hand held a pottery beaker towards him. Beyond it, Gair saw only a vague shape in the shadows where the speaker must be.
‘Where is this place?’
‘We’re at an inn called the Oak and Eagle, off Copper Chare on the west side of Dremen. I brought you here from Traitor’s Gate.’
‘Are you a physician?’
‘A hedge-doctor, no more.’ The man nodded towards the cup. ‘That’ll do you more good if you swallow it. It tastes foul, but trust me, you’ll feel better for it.’
Gair took the cup. ‘What’s in it?’
‘Athalin, with a little willow-bark, and white mallow for your bruises. Nothing that will cause you harm.’
The man’s rounded baritone was soothing, but still. ‘I don’t know you.’
‘I didn’t bring you here just so I could poison you in private, lad. Drink up.’
Gair looked at the milky stuff in the cup. Well, he had nothing left to lose. As promised, it tasted dreadful. Holding his breath, he downed it in three swallows.
The man took the empty cup from him and set it aside. ‘Now, a little light so we can see what we’re about.’
He folded back one of the window shutters. Afternoon spilled into the room, bright as a banner. It illuminated a large-boned fellow with fierce blue eyes framed between a short pepper-and-salt beard and bristling brows. Thick, wavy hair matched the beard for colour and curled around the man’s ears like the mane on a stone lion.
‘Is that too much?’
‘No, it’s fine.’ Gair still had to squint, but his eyes were stronger than before.
The man pulled up a chair, reversed it and sat down, his arms folded across the back. Ropy muscle corded forearms the colour of teak under a scurf of silver hair. ‘How are you feeling?’ he asked.
‘Well enough. Sore.’
‘The athalin should take the edge off it soon. Ironhand’s a good man, but some of his marshals are a little too fond of their maces.’
‘You know Bredon?’
Gair’s left hand lay in his lap, curled like the claws of a dead bird. The gauzy dressing wrapped around it gave off a prickly herbal smell. Branded. What did it look like? Angry and bloated, blisters rising out of his flesh like bubbles in a pot of stew? Goddess forgive me. He rubbed his eyes wearily.
‘Try to keep that hand still if you can. Considering what they did it’s not too bad. It should heal well, although you’ll always have a scar.’
A witchmark. A slanted, scowling eye staring out of his palm to remind him of his sin, and to warn others against him. He could wear gloves; keep his hands dirty. Keep it hidden. His stomach coiled into a sour knot. Being outcast was nothing new, after all. Saints, his head hurt. ‘Why did you bring me here?’
‘You needed somewhere to be. This was as good a place as any.’
‘You could have left me.’
‘No, I couldn’t. There was a mob waiting for you at the gates, ready to finish what the Motherhouse started. I was not prepared to stand by and let murder be done.’
‘But you know what I am.’
A smile twitched the man’s beard. ‘I know what the Church thinks you are, which isn’t quite the same thing.’ He extended a square hand. ‘My name is Alderan.’
Gair stared at him. Who was this man? Why did he want to help a stranger, when he could easily have crossed the square and gone on with his day? Why store up trouble for himself? Alderan’s mild, open expression did not change a whit and his hand remained extended towards the bed. Slowly, Gair accepted the clasp.
‘No family name?’
‘A man’s friends make the best family, my mother used to say. At least he can choose them.’ The chair creaked as Alderan stood up. ‘Rest there for a while, let that athalin get to work. We’ll talk more when you’re feeling better. There’ll be time enough tomorrow.’
You have until dusk today to comply. ‘What time is it?’
‘Gone three hours after noon. High rang whilst you were asleep.’
Fear became an icy grip on Gair’s spine. ‘I have to be out of the parish by dusk.’
‘There’s plenty of time.’
‘You don’t understand. I have to go, now.’
He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat up, but the room wheeled around him. That had been a mistake. But time was passing, time of which he had too little to waste. Lightning-flashes of sickly yellow lit up the dull red throb behind his eyes, but he gritted his teeth and tried to stand.
Alderan’s hand pressed on his shoulder. ‘Wait.’
‘I appreciate what you’ve done for me, but I have to get moving.’
The hand pressed down more firmly. ‘Just wait.’
‘Damn it, Alderan, I’ve got to go!’ Gair struggled to rise, but was kept seated with distressingly little effort. He should have been able to put the old man on his backside but he couldn’t even get up from the bed. He kicked out in frustration.
Alderan sidestepped, smooth as a dancer. ‘Goddess’ golden apples, boy!’ he exclaimed. ‘Must you make everything hard work?’
Strength draining from him like water from a holed bucket, Gair sagged onto the pillows. His head thudded. Waves of nausea rose and fell, leaving a sour taste in the back of his throat.
The old man blew out his moustaches and dropped back into his chair. ‘Let me help you. I’ve got a spare horse in the stables; we can be over the border well before dusk with no one the wiser. You’d never reach the boundary in time if you went on foot – the marshals saw to that when they knocked your wits into next week. Besides, you need a bath and a shave and you haven’t a stitch to wear. Now we can fight about it if you want, or you can sit still and recognise good sense when it’s poured in your ear. What’s it going to be?’
‘You’re only making trouble for yourself. I can get a horse if I need one.’
‘By thieving? And what about clothes? Would you steal those too?’
‘If I had to.’
Alderan shook his head. ‘I don’t think so. You haven’t got the time, nor, dare I say it, the temperament to be skulking about the city in your skin stealing what you need.’ The lines around his eyes softened and his voice gentled. ‘I mean you no harm, Gair, truly. Please, trust me.’
If only he didn’t feel so helpless. He needed to get moving, get out of the city without a moment’s more delay, but he could hardly stir. The bed was comfortable, the sheets soft on his skin and his battered body wanted to curl up in them and sleep. Saints, yes, sleep. It had been so long. His eyes closed as drowsiness pawed at his mind. ‘I need to get out of here.’
‘Then let me help you.’
‘If they take me again, they’ll burn me for sure.’
‘We’ll just have to make sure we stay a few steps ahead of them,’ Alderan said lightly. ‘For the record, I don’t think you are a witch. All I can see is a lad in deep trouble and I’m in a position to help. If you don’t want me to, that’s your choice. I’m not holding you here. You can leave right now, but believe me, your chances are less than poor. If the Knights don’t take you the townsfolk certainly will.’
After ten years in Dremen, Gair didn’t need to be told what would happen to an excommunicate under sentence of death in the Holy City. Whether he liked it or not, he needed Alderan. He made himself look squarely at him. ‘I was rude. I’m sorry. Thank you for your help.’
‘You’re welcome.’ There was no rancour in Alderan’s voice. ‘There’s a warm bath through that door over there; I suggest you use it. I can take care of the rest.’
‘What are we going to do?’
‘Get you out of the city for a start. After that we’ll see. Are you always this full of questions?’
‘How do you know I won’t just turn you into a toad and take your horse?’ Could he? Probably, if the magic didn’t burn down the inn or blow off his head first. If the magic ever came back.
‘I don’t doubt you could, but I don’t think you will.’ The old man gave him a sidelong look full of twinkling amusement. ‘Besides, who’s to say I’m not a witch myself? Now for the love of Eador, go and wash. You stink.’
The bathroom was tiled with pretty blue and white Syfrian ceramic. Most of it was taken up by a large, deep bath better than half full of warm water. Folded towels and a cake of soap stood on a stool next to the washstand. Thoughtfully, someone had provided an array of sponges and washcloths and a long-handled brush on a shelf over the tub.
Gair clambered into the bath, careful to keep his burned hand elevated, then leaned right back until the water closed over his ears. Silence. Nothing but the whisper of blood in his veins and the slow throb of his injuries. The athalin had begun to work at last, lifting his headache. Even the pain in his hand had begun to recede. He knew it was there and what it was, but the sharpness had blurred, become as indistinct as a landscape retreating into mist.
The music was still absent. He probed the place it had been cautiously, feeling his way round the void as if it were the socket of a missing tooth. Nothing there. He thought he felt something once, a sense of presence as of another person behind him in a darkened room, but it was so fleeting he wasn’t sure it’d been anything at all. Maybe it was gone for good now, and with it the temptation. And maybe he was as mad as a saint and would open his eyes in a moment to find this had all been another dream and he was back in his cell, waiting on the questioners to come.
No. He would not think about the iron room again, nor the events in the Rede Hall. He took a deep breath and slowly let it out. That was behind him. Muscle by muscle, he compelled himself to relax, closing doors on the memories as he went, locking them securely. The weight of them fell away with the sweat and filth dissolving from his skin. Good enough. That was good enough for now. It was time to get moving. Sitting up, he set to work with the soap to scour himself clean of the last traces of the Motherhouse.
When he was done, he towelled off as best he could and padded over to the wash-stand where a comb and razor had been left for him. As he tilted the looking-glass up it filled with colour. Bruises bloomed across his belly from breastbone to groin: violet-blue, mossbell-green, the purple-black of irises. He brushed away drops of water, remembering. The bruises should have hurt, so much he couldn’t stand up straight, but he felt no pain. Maybe he had Alderan’s medicine to thank, or maybe he’d locked the pain in a box with the other memories. No matter. He wouldn’t think about it again. Getting out of the city was enough to worry about. Clumsily he managed to wind the damp towel around his waist and began to lather up his beard.
When Gair returned to the other room, wearing a linen robe he’d found behind the door, Alderan was seated at the table next to a large tray covered with a napkin. He looked up as Gair sat down. ‘Feel better?’
Gair nodded. It had been awkward shaving with a new razor and only one good hand. His face and neck were as pink as a boy’s.
Alderan pushed the tray across the table. ‘I thought you might be hungry,’ he said, flicking the cloth away. ‘You look like you’re missing a few pounds.’
Slabs of pork pie were piled on a plate. Fresh bread and a crock of butter. Roast meats and pickles and a bowl of fruit. A dewy pitcher of cold milk to wash it down. Gair’s stomach growled. His left hand sketched the sign of blessing before he remembered. He hurried through his thanks for the Goddess’ bounty and tucked the hand in his lap out of sight. ‘Force of habit,’ he said.
‘If I’d been through what you’ve endured, I’d be giving thanks for a slice of pork pie too,’ said Alderan, calmly quartering an apple. ‘But go steady with it, or you’ll make yourself ill. I take it you weren’t fed too well recently?’
‘I got food and water when they remembered. Neither was particularly fresh.’ He bit into a slice of pie. Golden pastry melted on his tongue. Wonderful. Nothing in the Emperor’s banquet hall could have tasted better.
‘How long did they hold you?’
He shrugged. ‘I was arrested on St Saren’s Day, in the spring. What day is it now? I lost count.’
‘It’s four past midsummer.’
Gair stopped chewing. Three months, plus a bit. A hundred days – an eternity in that iron room. Gone. He swallowed hard.
Alderan watched him, bouncing his knife in his hand. ‘It doesn’t usually take the Curia that long to make up their minds. You must have presented them with quite a problem.’
‘I suppose.’ The question was plain enough, though Alderan had not asked it directly. Gair finished a glass of milk to chase the pie down and took his time pouring the next one. Then he helped himself to some roast beef, rolling it up with his fingers. Still warm, it dripped with rich juices. He reached for another slice.
‘So how long have you been able to hear the music?’
‘What music?’ He knew.
‘Rumour in the city was the Knights were trying a witch today. Only one person was thrown out of Traitor’s Gate like an old carpet.’ Alderan popped a piece of apple into his mouth. ‘How long,’ he asked, chewing, ‘have you been able to hear the music?’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
Another slice of apple went the way of the first. ‘It usually starts about the age of ten or eleven, give or take a couple of years, though there’re often signs before that. Round about the time a boy’s voice breaks and his arms and legs start to sprout like weeds after rain, it becomes much more powerful. Then he learns to use it, after a fashion. Little things at first, like lighting candles, but it grows with him and eventually he has to learn to control it, before it starts controlling him.’ A third slice of fruit and Alderan smiled across the table. ‘How am I doing so far?’
He knew. Gair had no idea how, or who this man was, but he had recounted events as if he’d seen them written in a book. He spread his good hand on the tabletop, pressed it down on the polished wood as if he would slide off his chair without it. The room had tilted on its axis and he did not know which way was down any more. ‘Fairly close. How did you know?’
‘It always happens the same way, more or less. I’ve seen others like you and their stories differ only in the details. Why don’t you tell me what happened?’
‘You already seem to know most of it.’
‘Tell me anyway. It’ll pass the time whilst we eat.’ Alderan finished his apple. ‘Is there any mustard? That beef looks good.’
How can he be so matter-of-fact? Magic is a mortal sin – I’m damned for all eternity, and he might as well be discussing the price of grain! How does he know so much about it, about my life?
Bewildered, nursing the embryo of a new headache, Gair told him. ‘It began when I was a boy. Maybe five years old. I sneaked into the pantry after marchpane, but I was too small to reach the jar at the back of the shelf. I tried and tried, then eventually I held out my hands and willed the jar to move towards me. I ate so much I sicked up all over my foster-mother’s best rug.’
‘Did you tell her what had happened?’
‘She didn’t believe me. She thought one of the maids must have got the jar down for me, or left it out where I could reach it.’ He’d insisted his story was the truth, not wanting to drop the maids into trouble for something they hadn’t done, but it had done him no good. Nurse had still slippered him for telling lies.
Gair rubbed his forehead. The headache had settled in behind his eyes, not so much an ache as a buzzing discomfort, prickling at his brain. ‘Oh, very much like you said. Little things. Simple things. I could make a light when I had no candle, start a fire without flint and steel. The music came later, the summer after I turned ten.’ Having a secret no one else could know had been thrilling, at first. He’d spent hours in out-of-the-way places with a stub of candle filched from the chatelaine’s pantry, practising even though he’d known there’d be worse consequences than a slippering if he was caught. After a time he had started to hear music, at first just when he touched the magic, then all the time, weaving through his consciousness every moment of the day. Later, flames had refused to come when called; candles had exploded in a shower of scalding wax. Then he had heard the music shriek.
‘How did you come to be at the Motherhouse?’
Too old for the nursery by then, he had a room of his own, up under the roof. He’d grown accustomed to the privacy and thought nothing of conjuring a light when his candle had burned down so he could read past his bedtime. That night he’d had his nose buried in the pages of Prince Corum and the Forty Knights well past midnight and Chatelaine Kemerode had tapped on his door to remind him it was time to go to sleep. He hadn’t noticed the knock, nor the door opening, but he’d heard her scream when she saw the light by which he read.
‘Hidderling!’ Her mouth a round red O of horror, her hand fumbled through the sign of blessing over her breast. ‘Oh lady, fetch the lector, quickly! The boy is shadowkin!’
And that had been that. His foster-mother had wept slow, silent tears whilst her husband raged at how Gair had repaid them for the roof over his head and the food on his plate. Then the lector had been summoned. Less than a day later Gair had been set on a horse and sent north, just a boy, clutching a too-long, too-heavy sword to his chest, who was grateful for the rain on his face so that the bony-arsed spindleshanks of a curate in the saddle behind him wouldn’t see he was crying.
Rage and shame flickered again, humiliation glowing like a coal. All that time ago and it still had the power to hurt.
‘I was careless.’ It came out more shortly than he’d intended. ‘The housekeeper saw me with a conjured light, so the family couldn’t foster me any longer. For want of anything better to do with me, they put me into the Church. Look how well that turned out.’
‘How old were you then?’
‘Eleven.’ Gair dabbed some cheese crumbs from his plate with his fingertip and licked them off. ‘So you were right about that, too.’
‘And you managed to keep it a secret for what, another ten years?’
‘Until someone saw me when I thought I was alone. One of the other novices, I think. He ran to Elder Goran and Goran brought charges. The marshals came that night, at supper.’ They’d dragged him from the refectory, past the shocked faces and dropped spoons of the entire novitiate, so that everyone could see what had been living amongst them. He’d felt his friends’ eyes on him as he was marched past, but no one had spoken up.
The headache had worsened. It gnawed at the inside of his skull, preventing him thinking clearly. Gair kneaded his forehead again. ‘I think you know the rest.’
‘Enough of it, anyway. Are you feeling all right?’
‘Just a headache. It’s nothing.’
‘Is the music there now?’
‘No, not since this morning.’ He pinched the bridge of his nose and pressed hard into his brows. ‘Saints, it’s like wasps.’
Alderan frowned. ‘What?’
‘That headache. It’s like wasps under my skin.’
‘How long have you been feeling that?’
‘Not long, maybe ten minutes. Why?’
The older man pushed his plate to one side and stood up. ‘We need to be somewhere else. Come on.’
‘What is it?’
‘Rumour has it Goran keeps a witchfinder,’ Alderan said grimly. ‘I think he might have just earned his pay.’