Authors: Clayton Emery
“Piffle. I go whereWhoops! Company!”
She pointed a gold nail. The palantir shimmered, ethereal smoke inside clearing from the top downward. But that one glance was enough, for the caller had snow-white hair. Only one person they knew was so adorned.
The wizards waited quietly. Candlemas was high steward of Delia, this magical castle in which they stood, and Sysquemalyn was chamberlain. Their duties meshed, for the steward managed the grounds of the castle and the chamberlain the interior. When not engaged in the Work, the furtherance of their own magical might, Candlemas oversaw the lesser wizards who oversaw other humans who oversaw their brethren in the manuring of crops, culling of forest growth, diverting of streams and dams, and the maintaining of many lesser castles and barns and granaries, all mundane resources that kept the manor and lands thriving. Sysquemalyn oversaw her own staff of wizards who in turn supervised others who directed a staggering number of maids and footmen and cooks who kept the castle neat and its people fed; artisans who made furniture, clothing, and other goods; and entertainers and musicians who needed to be prepared at any moment in case the castle’s owner dropped by.
Their methods, however, differed greatly. Candlemas felt he must oversee everything personally and drove his wizards and their clerics and farm stewards and huntsmen crazy with fussy details. Sysquemalyn most often waved a laconic hand, ordering her magical lackeys to “Do it however so.” Then she would return in a day or two to scream and rant and order random folks flogged half to death for guessing wrongly about how to execute such vague orders. So the two, Candlemas and Sysquemalyn, worked together, more or less, and often squabbled, though there were weeks when, because of the castle’s vast size, they never even met.
Now an image cleared, and the castle’s owner could be seen. Lady Polaris was beautiful, her face calm and poised, her white hair setting off perfect golden skin. A groundling might think her a goddess, but despite staggering powers, she was human, though she’d never admit it. The lady was archmage of Delia, one of many small city-states that made up the Netherese Empire. In the pyramidal power of the empire, Lady Polaris ranked fairly high but was still under the thrall of the preeminent mages. Yet she had under her control many powerful mages of her own, as well as many normal humans.
Two of these mages were Candlemas and Sysquemalyn, who, despite their own awesome powers, were mere apprentices compared to Lady Polaris. So when she demanded their attention, the pair were as meek as schoolchildren caught squabbling on the playground.
Lady Polaris had vast holdings and vast powersneither of which the two wizards knew much aboutso she never wasted time with underlings. She spoke immediately. “Candlemas, and Sysquemalyn, this concerns you, too. There is something wrong with the wheat harvest. Everyone at court is talking about it, and I said I would take care of the problem, whatever it is. Fix it.” The palantir went blank, a black glass globe again.
Candlemas shook his head. “What did she say? A problem with wheat?”
Sysquemalyn sniffed. “Who is she to treat us like peasants? What does she have that we don’t?”
“Enough power to turn this castle into a volcano, if she wished it,” muttered Candlemas. “But what’s this foolishness about wheat?”
He stopped at a knock on the doorjamb. Two lesser mages from one of the bottommost workshops stood in the hall. Candlemas didn’t even know their names. Timidly, one said, “Milord? This basket arrived for you.”
Sysquemalyn sniffed, but Candlemas waved them forward with a sigh. Any delivery from Lady Polaris would almost certainly be bad news. “Yes, yes, bring it here; then get out.” Almost dropping the basket in their haste, the lesser mages fled.
Candlemas approached the bushel of grain slowly, as if it might explode. Archmages were known to slaughter their thralls on shortor nonotice, and anything sent by one was suspect. But kneeling carefully beside the container, the steward found it contained only wheat, if oddly red-tinged.
Sysquemalyn sauntered over, sniffed again. “What does she expect us to do, bake coriander rolls?”
Candlemas gingerly rolled a wheat kernel between a stubby finger and thumb. “It’s hollow. And red.”
Peering closely, Candlemas crushed another kernel. Instead of resisting, as would solid, food-rich seeds, it flattened like a milkweed pod. The red dust stained his fingers, and he wiped them fastidiously on his robe. “I’ve never seen this before, though I’ve heard of it. Rust, the peasants call it. It’s a blight that eats the heart of the kernels.”
“You’re boring me, ‘Mas.”
“You don’t understand.” Candlemas dumped the contents of the basket out onto the floor. All the grain was afflicted with rust. “This is bad, and could mean disaster. There’s nothing to these kernels but jackets, hulls. There’s no food value here. If all the crops are like this, people will starve!”
“We won’t starve. There’s enough preserved food, dried and jarred and pickled, in the larders and pantries and cellars to last a year or more. Lady Polaris orders it so, in case we’re besieged.”
“No, no, the peasants will starve, or go hungry, anyway. Wheat makes bread and ale. Without it, they’ll have only rye and barley. That means a third of our crops lost, a third fewer cattle and horses and pigs in the spring!”
“You’re still boring”
Agitated, Candlemas grabbed a handful of grain and shook it so some spattered onto Sysquemalyn. “Blatherbrain, listen! Less grain to sell. A third less revenue! Or worse, because we’ll have to buy grain. Less money! Get it now? Do you want to explain to Lady Polaris that she’ll have less money to gamble, to spend on magic, to squander on lavish presents for her friends? A woman who once bet ten thousand crowns on whether the next drop of candle wax would land inside a dish or without?”
“Oh.” Sysquemalyn bit her lower lip. “No, I wouldn’t want to tell her. Fortunately, you will, because she sent you the basket.”
“She sent us the basket! She included you in the order, remember?”
“No,” the woman lied. Then she shrugged. “Maybe it’s not a real problem. Maybe it’s just a local bug. Or it may be that it’s a test she’s sending you, hoping you’ll find a cure for someone else’s crops, someone to whom she owes a debt. We don’t know what she thinks or really wants.”
“No, that’s true.” Candlemas tossed down the grain. “Still, I’ll have to find a cure. We will. Or she’ll feed our livers to the peasants.”
A shrug was his answer. Sysquemalyn returned to the palantir, traced an arcane pattern, first circles, then intersecting triangles, and brought up the image of Sunbright, who appeared to be scouting for a defensible hollow under thornbushes at the bottom of the gorge. “Let’s get back to our bet.”
“What? Oh, yes.” Somehow their silly wager didn’t seem so important now. They’d begun it this morning out of boredom. They were humans, after all, and had lived an incredible number of years. Not much happened in the castle or grounds, so boredom was their major enemy, and squabbling their main entertainment. Candlemas joined her at the palantir. “So, you still contend surface humans”
“Yes, mud men are no better than cows and horses?”
Lifting glittering eyes of green, Sysquemalyn laughed. “Worse, actually. Livestock are tractable. These creatures are independent. When they think, they invariably think about hating us.”
Candlemas watched the young man hunt for a campsite. He noticed that the barbarian rejected many spots, places with too many or not enough exits of that were too far from water or likely to flood if it rained. “You don’t know humans like I do. Most of those under your command were born in this castle and have never set foot on real soil. I deal with humans all the time, and they’re capable of accomplishing a great deal if given proper supervision.”
“So arewhat are they called?prairie dogs. They burrow holes and connect them up, and make entire cities, someone told me. Clever things, digging holes in dirt so wolves have a hard time eating them.” Scorn tinged her words.
Candlemas pointed at the room around him. “Our castles and cities are of stone, which is merely hardened dirt. And we use humansmud men, as you call themto maintain them. If we Netherese get any more decadent, the humans may take over someday and supplant us entirely.”
Sysquemalyn laughed long and loud, a rippling trill that chilled the man’s spine. “Ah, yes! I can see it now, groundlings sitting at table, eating with silverware, running Toril with brays and squeals and grunts! If you believe that, then by all means, let’s firm our wager.”
“Fine.” Candlemas’s eyes strayed to the dumped wheat, which his underwizard was already hurriedly cleaning off the workroom floor. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a nuisance, after all. He’d send his apprentices out with news of a reward, and perhaps someone would produce a cure. If that didn’t work, he’d have to be more severe. Perhaps the threat of kidnapping firstborns would make the farmers produce better crops. “What’s the bet?”
So far this morning, Sysquemalyn had idly steered the orcish patrol onto Sunbright’s trail, and so precipitated their battle. Now the wizard continued, “Let’s subject this gruntling to more tests. Increasingly exacting. Until he dies and I win, or he perseveres and you win. The loser loses a limb.”
“Limb?” Candlemas looked at his own arms and legs. “I’m rather fond of the ones I have.”
“I don’t see why.” Cattily, Sysquemalyn looked him up and down. “They’re podgy and hairy and none too clean, I suspect. You could pass for human.”
“Don’t sweet-talk me, love,” was the snide reply.
Smirking, Sysquemalyn pointed a finger at the man’s rope belt. Candlemas jumped as his smock suddenly tilted upward below the knot. He grabbed it and pushed it flat. “That is not a limb!”
“No? Then perhaps you’ll miss it less when it’s gone. You’re not using it overmuch now, according to my maids’ gossip,”
Candlemas huffed. “Obviously your maids don’t tell you everything, like my stable hands tell me.”
Sysquemalyn idly moved the toe of her boot to point at some grain that still lay on the floor. The underwizard hurried over and scooped it up into a small crock, which the redhead casually took from his hands. “So our bet is on?”
“Yes, yes.” Candlemas agreed dismissively. Something was wrong with this wager. It never paid to let someone else set all the terms. But the reminder of the blight had distracted him. What should he do first?
“Fine. I won’t be bored for a few days, anyway.” Sysquemalyn walked toward the door. “I’ll send up a maid with your midday meal. Bellstar, perhaps. She likes hairy men. You can eat the food or have the maid, for all I care.”
As she passed the window, she pitched the crock of wheat out, as if dismissing the problem.
Candlemas’s shout of dismay went unheard.
Sunbright jumped as a crash sounded a hundred feet down the gorge. He crouched, wary, but no more sounds followed.
Trying to watch everywhere at once, padding silently, nocked bow in his hand, sword at his back, the barbarian moved toward the sound. It took a while to locate the source, and it only confused him.
A redware crock had shattered on the rocks. Scattered among the shards were grains of blighted wheat.
Hunkering between two rhododendron bushes, he craned his neck upward. High overhead, half a league, was the squarish black blotch of Delia, the castle in the sky from whence Lady Polaris and her minions ruled. They dumped dishwater and sewage and garbage on the peasants below, Sunbright knew. But crocks of wheat he’d never heard of.
He watched the castle curiously, waiting for more. The huge structure drifted over the land much like a cloud, though often against the wind. Sometimes in summer it roamed so far north the tundra barbarians saw it. It was said, by old slaves returned from the castle, that the archmage of Delia ruled all she could see, and since the castle drifted a mile or more high, that was a lot of land. But it was still only a tiny fraction of the Netheril Empire, and Sunbright’s people’s land was the tiniest fragment of that fraction.
And now the young man didn’t have even that, just a leaf-strewn hollow under thornbushes. But, more to be stubborn than for any other reason, he’d guard that patch of ground as boldly as a knight would his liege lord’s castle.
And with that thought, he peered around at his surroundings once more, then crawled in for some sleep, reciting prayers to various gods, both thanks for deliverance and appeals for the future. He’d need all the help he could get, for he’d have more adventures tomorrow, if night beasts and fiends and dreams didn’t carry him away.
Sunbright dreamed, and in his dreams he relived his entire life.
He saw his clan, the Ravens, trekking across the vast and unending tundra, a herd of reindeer driven before them by dogs more savage than snow wolves. He saw their life as a vast circle, moving season by season from place to place by ancient routes and ancient tradition: cutting through ice for seals in winter, craning from weirs to spear salmon in spring, crawling across a plain of brown skull-like rocks to flush ptarmigan in summer, slipping through cedar forests to shoot moose and elk in fall. And then watching the first snow fall, and steering gradually for the ice that hadn’t yet formed, but would, as it had for centuries.
He recalled his mother Monkberry, strong but silent and shamed, for she had borne only one child. And his father, Sevenhaunt, a mighty warrior and shaman, returning to the tribe with yellow scalps when the tribe made war.
He saw his mother splicing rawhide reins for dog sleds and braiding her own hair for arrow strings, heard his father discoursing to the men long into the night, citing the old wisdom and his shaman’s visions that helped guide the tribe to safety year by year.
Then had come the bad times. His father collapsing, wheezing like a speared seal, so weak he had to be carried to his bed where he lay day after day, sweating and chilled under six musk-ox pelts, wasting away until he died from a curse no one could name. His mother, tamping down the moss on her husband’s grave, then lifting his great sword Harvester of Blood in one hand to hang over the door of their yurt, so her husband’s spirit might continue to guard his family. For Harvester was a steel sword, the only one among the tribe’s arsenal of bronze and iron, won by Sunbright’s father in the distant past from a source he would never reveal. And being a mighty sword, and well-nigh unbreakable, the boy could believe something of his father’s spirit lived in it.