“We gonna eat that?” Griz asked, pointing at the entrails.
Grandmother smiled at his expression of distaste. “No, my son. We’re going to burn it. That is why I need a hot fire. Hot and big.” She then knelt down beside Lala. “Child, I would like you to help me.”
Lala had picked out a carrion beetle from the pile, a nasty, large thing with pincers, and dropped it to pay close attention to her grandmother. Grandmother knew that if they did not do something with the entrails soon, larger and nastier creatures would arrive, attracted by the scent of an easy meal.
“Would you like to make the fire pretty?” Grandmother asked.
“Good. You know the knots. You will make the fire pretty to impress the Watchers.”
Lala nodded again looking very serious and determined. The pair of them picked through the yarn basket for the skeins they wanted.
It was not easy building a bonfire in that wet place. Much of the dead and fallen wood they tried to collect crumbled in their hands from decay, and it harbored stinging insects. Eventually they assembled enough wood to create a good-sized mound and the men took on the unpleasant task of placing the entrails atop it.
Deglin was an adept fire maker, but the wet stuff allowed only a few pitiful smoldering flames. Grandmother needed something far more impressive and hot, so after warning the others to stand clear in case the forest warped her spell, she cast a clump of knotted yarn into the flames.
The fire surged up the mound of wood in an inferno so intense that she had to retreat several steps. The forest seemed to bend away from the blaze in dismay, and there was much scurrying and rattling of branches and underbrush as creatures fled the area. The entrails snapped and popped as they burned in the fire.
Grandmother laughed. She’d wanted a hot fire and she got one. It would certainly make an impression on the Watchers, and they would not doubt her power. She gestured to Lala to add her knots.
“Go carefully, child, do not burn yourself.”
Lala approached the fire without fear and tossed her knots into it. Immediately color saturated the flames—cool blues and purples, verdant green, angry red. Shapes formed among the individual flames, people and animals. Grandmother saw a pony and she thought Lala must miss the one she had to abandon on the other side of the wall. Sparks turned to birds that flew into the canopy. A butterfly flittered over Grandmother’s head.
Grandmother was in awe for it was beyond her expectations. “My dear little child,” she murmured. “You are a true artist.” She hugged Lala and received a rare smile in return. When she called Lala a “true artist,” she did not mean one who was a master of aesthetics, though that element was certainly present in her granddaughter’s creations, but rather one who was gifted with the ability to shape etherea. Grandmother would have to carefully watch over the girl’s development.
Now, however, she must take advantage of the fire herself. She needed to check on Birch. She cast one of his fingernail clippings, wrapped in knotted yarn, into the flames. A vision blossomed in the roiling blaze of a small settlement in a clearing of the forest—not Blackveil, but the living green forest of the north. The rank smoke of the bonfire was replaced by the more pleasant scent of smoke that issued from chimneys. Birds awakened to the new spring chattered and called in the trees. Through Birch’s eyes, she peered from the concealment of the woods at the quiet settlement. A man chopped wood, while another harnessed a pair of oxen for the day’s work. A young girl helped a woman scrub laundry in a washbasin.
Birch’s gaze swept away from the settlement to his side and behind him. Other men, with weapons drawn, waited, hidden just as he was. The etherea allowed Grandmother to delve deeper into Birch’s mind and she learned that this was a training mission for his soldiers, that they were to take no prisoners. The point was to teach them not to pity the enemy, without regard for age or gender.
The settlement was located on Sacoridia’s northern boundary and was therefore largely unprotected and certainly no threat to Second Empire. Birch, however, wanted his soldiers to taste blood, to become initiated in the kill of battle before they had to face stronger, more seasoned opponents.
It was a good strategy, she thought, so long as it did not bring the wrath of King Zachary upon them prematurely, but she sensed Birch’s confidence that he and his soldiers would slip away into hiding long before the king even learned of the attack.
Birch gestured to his soldiers and they moved forward, ghosting between the trees, over patches of snow that clung to forest shadows, and they surged into the clearing with blades ready to strike down the unsuspecting settlers.
The battle cry of the soldiers was greeted by the screams and shouts of the enemy. The man chopping wood was the first to die, and a torch was set to his cottage. Grandmother observed the action as Birch did. He held back, allowing his subordinate officers to lead the attack. Some soldiers did to the women and girls as soldiers had always done while their menfolk were forced to watch. Birch did not stop them. When they finished, the women and men were slaughtered.
Grandmother watched dispassionately. Ravaging the enemy’s women was a way to further defeat those who would take up arms, and she sensed from Birch that he planned to somehow make this obvious by leaving a “message” for the king.
When she saw that the settlers had been slain to the smallest child and all their buildings set afire, she felt comfortable that Birch had everything well in hand. She decided to leave him and gaze elsewhere. She tossed another length of yarn into the fire, and the image of the settlement burned away from her vision.
A new vision did not come to her. She saw only the dance of fire, but she heard a thread of music, beautiful music, just above the roar of flames.
She closed her eyes and the music flowed through her, joyful, serene, led by a crystalline voice. A haunting chorus echoed the singer, accompanied by the distant rhythm of hammers on stone, a sound of endurance and strength ...
It was, she realized, the whisper she’d sensed in the etherea at the wall. Grandmother snapped her eyes open before she could be sucked in any farther. “No,” she murmured.
Min touched her arm. “Grandmother? What is it? Are you well?”
Grandmother took Min’s hand, welcoming that human touch, the support.
“I am well,” she said, “but things at the wall trouble me.”
The wall was strengthening. Someone’s voice, a voice that could cultivate the art, shape etherea, was leading the wall guardians in song. Who could it be? Who still walked the Earth that could do such a thing?
The who did not matter. The result did. If the Sacoridians repaired the wall before the Sleepers were awakened and the forest arose, then all her efforts and hopes for Second Empire would fail. She would fail God Himself.
She’d made a critical mistake. She should not have entered the forest without the book of Theanduris Silverwood in her hands. Was it possible her people had failed to acquire it and the Sacoridians were now using it to mend the wall? She could not tell by observing through Birch’s eyes—he was busy with his own mission.
She should have waited for the book, but God had clearly told her to awaken the Sleepers. Perhaps He had His own plan, but if He did, it was not obvious to her.
Grandmother sighed and clung to Min. Her body shook with the effort she’d already expended seeking visions. To her surprise, the fire had burned down considerably, but Lala’s art still colored the flames.
“I must rest now,” Grandmother told the others.
As Min helped her to a blanket spread on the ground, she realized what was done was done. If the Sacoridians had obtained the Silverwood book and someone gifted with the art was singing the wall to strength, then there was only one thing she could do to prevent the mending of the wall: destroy the singer.
She eased down onto the blanket with Min’s assistance, already planning on how she might accomplish the task.
AMBERHILL’S VOYAGE BEGINS
t was a fine morning, this first day of spring, with an offshore breeze stroking the waters of Corsa Harbor and the sun glancing off the waves. The tide was in and Captain Irvine oversaw the loading of cargo into the bowels of his vessel,
bound for Coutre Province. Amberhill watched as some of his own possessions were loaded, but Yap supervised more closely, chivvying the porters not to drop anything.
Amberhill stood on the wharf, striking an aristocratic pose and wearing a mask of boredom amid the noise and confusion of four vessels loading and unloading at once. He did not deign to step out of the way for bustling longshoremen, sailors, merchants, fishermen, or anyone. They all had to go around
As he watched he absorbed details—cormorants bobbing alongside ships at anchor, harried porters bearing everything from squawking chickens to bales of tobacco to the various vessels tied to the wharf or tossing items down to sailors waiting in longboats below. A sailor without an ounce of horse sense tried to pull a balky stallion across a gangway to one of the ships. The stallion bellowed his dismay and with a toss of his head unbalanced the sailor at the other end of his lead rope who fell off the gangway and splashed into the harbor waters.
Coins exchanged hands, and purses were lifted by grubby waifs from oblivious passengers milling on the wharf. He caught a young pickpocket by the wrist as the boy reached for his own purse. The waif gazed up at him with large, frightened eyes. Amberhill gave him a curt shake of his head, then he released the boy, who scampered off in search of easier pickings.
Overstuffed merchant carts jammed the wharf, bearing crates and sacks and barrels and hogsheads of goods. Amberhill was less fascinated by the cargoes than by the merchants themselves. Most were finely dressed, soft-looking, and did not lower themselves to assist with transferring cargo to or from ships, but rather left the dirty work to subordinates and made notations in ledgers. All except one.
That merchant tossed aside his well-tailored longcoat and rolled up his sleeves to help unload a schooner to fill a wagon with spices, sugarcane, and what appeared to be exotic fruits. The sailors on board the ship were tanned. Amberhill guessed that this vessel had been trading in the Cloud Islands.
The merchant himself was not tanned, so likely had not gone on the venture himself, but it did not stop him from taking a heavy hogshead and hoisting it up to another man atop the wagon. This was no soft merchant, but he was no common laborer either, for he exuded an aura of command as he ordered his people about and joked with them. They deferred to him in all ways and showed him no insolence. And there was something more about the man, something . . . familiar.
Amberhill caught the bulky shoulder of a passing longshoreman. “Who is that man?” he asked, pointing out the merchant.
“Not from around here, eh? That’d be Stevic G’ladheon, biggest merchant around.”
Amberhill let the longshoreman go and grinned, thinking this an opportunity he could not pass up. He of course had been well aware of who Karigan G’ladheon’s successful father was. Those who dealt in the business world of the realm could not help but know of him. What made him even more noteworthy to Amberhill’s mind was that Stevic G’ladheon was a self-made man. Very admirable.
Amberhill casually strolled down the wharf, carving effortlessly through the throngs. As he approached, he observed Stevic G’ladheon was square of shoulder and contained the energy of a young man, but a slight silvering at his temples revealed his age.
Amberhill wondered how he should introduce himself, and was lost momentarily in an imagined conversation:
“How do you know my daughter?”
the merchant asked, and Amberhill was so tickled by all the possible clever responses that he almost laughed aloud. He was not under the impression, however, that Stevic G’ladheon was the sort of man to be trifled with.
He readied himself to greet the merchant, but a ship’s bell clanged and Yap was at his elbow.
“Sorry, sir,” Yap said, “but Cap’n Irvine is ready to get underway and says ya must board, or he’s leaving without ya.”