Part 7

by Shane Carlson

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    Copyright © 2003 by Shane Carlson ( This story is posted for the enjoyment of readers of the Nifty Archive. You are free to make a personal, non-commercial copy; all other rights reserved by the author.

    This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters to persons living or dead is coincidental.

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    Everything was dark.

    It was not a true blackness, for hints of shifting forms could be discerned. Vague images, they were impossible to make out in the enshrouding gloom. But they moved, and their movement proved that some light must exist in this place, or they would not have been seen at all. Something about their movement was interesting; with a little effort, one could see what they were and what they were really doing. But such an effort was an investment in concentration that surpassed his current ability. Right then, any effort was beyond him, and he could only watch the darkness in a daze.

    In the back of his mind, there was a slight murmur, as if he were being called, but his mind felt weighed down, bogged and uncomprehending. Just in front of that quiet murmuring throbbed a dim awareness of unpleasant sensation, a mixture of coldness and pain, but, again, he felt too groggy to translate any of these perceptions into conscious thought. He could only lay there, staring into nothing. He was so tired, he wanted to sleep forever. The thought of sleep was attractive and the darkness around him became more complete. He could see its endless black, stretching away forever, just a breath away, inviting him to its embrace. As things became dimmer, he felt warmer, and the weight on his soul lessened. So easy, to sleep.

    But the murmuring became more frantic, grating in the background, and forced him away from the encompassing darkness. He found himself becoming irritated with its ceaseless nattering. Silence! he thought as he tried to get some rest. Go away! But his snappish thoughts only made the murmuring worse, as if by acknowledging it he had encouraged it. It rose in volume, demanding his attention, making it impossible to sleep, until it became a noisy chattering that increased his irritation. He forced himself to concentrate on that rattling din. He had to find some way to make it stop! The awful noise combined with his exasperation served to drag him out of his torpor. The more he concentrated on the noise, the more awake he felt.

    As he made the effort of concentration, he noticed a general increase in the light around him. The mysterious forms began to show themselves; but, as they became clearer, their mystery only heightened. Looking at them, he could not decide what they were. They appeared to be small, glowing globes floating on a distant horizon—a horizon now limned by a dawning light. As strange as they were, he could not pay them much heed because the noisy chatter took all his attention. But, as he listened to that noise, it slowly lost its dissonance, and became more harmonious. Not words, but a soft music. It was a compelling tune, somehow familiar, and he found himself listening more closely. All this while, the dark lessened. The line of dawn on the horizon spread upward and outward, spilling light everywhere. It was a dawn like none he had seen; its light was pure white, but filled with sparkles. The glowing globes bobbed gently up and down, or swayed to and fro.

    All of it—music, horizon and globes—became brighter and stronger. They all seemed to be rushing toward him—or he to they. It was beautiful, but at the same time, that earlier awareness of pain was becoming more noticeable: pain and a cold feeling, growing with the rest. It was unpleasant, but the beauty of his environs surpassed any mere awareness of physical pain. He was nearly at the horizon now, and he saw a wondrous dome of pearly white that sparkled and shimmered. Around him were the glowing globes, and now he saw they were of many colors that zipped about playfully.

    Above it all was the music, now a transcendent song. He was mystified as to how he could ever have considered it noise, for it sang to him, carrying him higher. It was both familiar and strange. He felt he had known it for a long time, but had never really listened to it until now. It sang of the wind and the sky, the earth and water, all rushing past in an exhilarating stream. It spoke of the thrill of life. So familiar, he knew he could recognize it if he listened more closely. The music carried him upward. The colorful globes were now below him and he soared up into the dome of magical light, surrounded by that music of life. Images began to form in his mind. He saw the earth below: mountains, streams, trees and fields, all edging by. He saw the sky above: clouds rushing past.

    As the light grew into an overpowering intensity of pure, blinding white, recognition at last came to him, and he understood the beautiful music in his mind.

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    Awaking from a dream of light and music, Maryk opened his eyes. At least, he tried to, succeeding only in cracking them a bit, revealing an unrecognizable dimness blurred by his eyelashes. Opening them further was beyond him at that moment, so he let them close, and concentrated on his senses that required no physical effort. Although there was very little sound, at most a quiet rustling, there was a peculiar smell in the air. That smell was dominated by the crackling, pitchy scent of pine burning, a fresh smell that, while strong, was by no means overpowering—whatever place this was, it had good ventilation. Underneath that strong yet clean odor of wood smoke was the dank smell of mildew, mixed in with hints of dirt and unwashed humanity. Below even that rested a bitter, metallic odor that smacked of unpleasant things: blood certainly, and maybe fear. This aromatic combination of the fresh, the dank and the unknown made for a jarring olfactory experience, and Maryk wrinkled his nose in distaste.

    He focused on the sensations of his body, and immediately recoiled at what he felt there. He knew he was bound all over, immobile, his arms and legs splayed out. His bindings held him upright and he could feel a lumpy, scratchy surface behind him, cold against his naked back. He realized with dismay that all of him was naked, and that he was tied there as helpless as a babe, his head hanging down on his chest. His hands and feet, so tightly bound, felt numb and cold, although the heat from a fire burning a short distance away allowed the rest of his body some warmth. The strips of hide holding him motionless were a strong discomfort, but, more than that, he became aware of how he felt inside. It was pain he experienced, all over. His head ached as he had never before experienced, his shoulder burned, and his chest creaked with each stinging breath. Those breaths came short and sharp; with a breath any deeper, the pain in his chest flared.

    Without moving his head, he forced eyes open, and firelight afforded him a view down the naked front of his body. He gasped when he saw the blistering mass of purple-gray skin just under his collar bone, and was rewarded for that sharp intake of breath with an explosion of pain in his lungs. It was where the ice demon had struck him, just before it faded out of existence. The skin on which the demon’s clawed fist had made contact appeared dry and dead. In fact, it looked like a severe case of frostbite. Surrounding that patch of lifeless skin were purple blisters, cruel cousins to blisters created by high heat. Maryk knew that, if the Pashdins had been a moment slower in sending the demon back to hell, he would certainly have been killed. As he considered his predicament, he wasn’t sure if that would have been a bad thing.

    His shoulder experienced a different kind of pain from the crazed frostbite of his chest. It was a pain he was more familiar with—a mere puncture wound from an arrow. He shifted his shoulder and regretted the action immediately. His captors had broken off the shaft without bothering to ensure the entire arrow was removed. He feared there might be part of the arrowhead still buried in his shoulder blade, perhaps even grating against bone. The pain was awful. He paused for a moment, then, for something was not right. Considering the grievous nature of his wounds, it was strange that he did not feel more pain than he did. An arrow against bone could send the best warrior whimpering and blubbering, yet what he felt was more a dazed numbness than a piercing agony. His thoughts came slow and thick as he realized the one thing he should have noticed right off, and which should have sent every hair on his body standing straight up in horrified surprise:

    He could not feel Taisha.

    In a fumbling panic, he searched for her, trying to locate that special place within him that held the awareness of the link. He called for her, and realized he was making a sound in his throat. He forced himself to be quiet and continued calling for her in his mind. It was so difficult to think, to gather the concentration necessary to do what was usually as simple as breathing, but his thoughts were slow and stymied, and he could not find her. He felt terror rising within him. She could not be dead! He forced himself to concentrate, making himself dizzy with the effort and sick to his stomach. But, with that herculean effort, he detected a murmuring, buried down low, and he breathed a sigh of relief, even if it was a shallow one. She was still there, but the awareness was dull and tenuous, fighting to get through the prickly wool that felt like it had been stuffed into his head. He moved his tongue in his mouth, but it was thick and dry. He detected a bitter taste and finally understood what was wrong. He had been drugged. Some foul concoction had been forced down his throat to render him stupid and harmless, as if his life-threatening wounds and complete immobilization were not enough to hold him.

    Feeling dull anger begin to rise through the fog of pain in his head, he raised his eyes and surveyed his surroundings. He was inside one of the domed huts of the village, bound against its slightly sloping wall. Lashed branches packed with mud formed that wall and were the source of the lumpy coolness at his back. The hut was of a good size, at least by Torghasti standards, about ten feet in diameter. The dirt floor was partially covered with animal skins tossed alongside the tattered remains of mismatched rugs from a half-dozen lands. A random assortment of furniture stood about in varying states of decay: a few tottery chairs, a three-legged table, a couple of battered chests, and some mildewing pillows. All of the items were of wildly different makes and had probably been taken in raids—although it was possible that some of them had been gained through honest trading. A small, brisk fire, the only source of light, burned in the center, its smoke hurrying up through an opening in the pointed dome of the roof. In addition to these typical furnishings of the Torghasti raiders, there were two other people in the hut with Maryk.

    Both were looking at him.

    A small fellow sat on the other side of the fire, facing Maryk as he held a stout stick over the blaze. A sort of grating had been placed over part of the fire, and Maryk saw that a few metal implements lay on it, licks of flames curling around them as their edges glowed redly. Maryk could guess what those nasty-looking hot things were for, and he knew he should pay attention to that glowering little man turning over those implements as if cooking his dinner; the evil-looking tribesman was clearly an immediate threat. But Maryk found his attention irresistibly drawn to the other figure in the room, even though this other man was not an immediate threat—or at least did not appear so. Muttering to himself, he crouched a mere four feet away, on the ground next to stakes in the wall where another captive could be tied. He sat in a ball, arms wrapped around legs curled against his chest, rocking on his feet, back and forth, watching Maryk. Around his neck was a loose, spiked leather collar suspiciously similar to those found on large mastiffs. Two long strips of some animal hide had been knotted together and served as a leash, going from collar to stake, although, if the man needed to be tied down, it was hardly a secure arrangement. His hands were free, even if currently wrapped around his body, and any human fingers could undo the knots in the leash or at the stake. Indeed, he could simply reach up and undo the buckle on his collar. But it was the man’s dark eyes that drew Maryk’s attention. Never wavering from Maryk’s form, they burned with a wild intensity. Maryk felt a shiver pass through him at that unblinking stare.

    They were the eyes of madness.

    The balled-up figure was clearly a tribesman, and, beyond his mad, staring eyes, Maryk wondered what would cause his brethren to tie him up. Tearing his own eyes away from the other’s bright gaze, Maryk looked at the rest of him. Dressed in the tattered remains of dirty furs and ill-tanned leather, the crouching madman wore a broken necklace of bones about to fall off his neck. Thin bones also pierced his ears and the septum of his nose. The flickering firelight revealed dark tattoos stained on his face and forearms. The tattoos of his face were partially hidden by filthy, matted hair. The tattoos labeled the man a priest of the tribes’ demon-worshipping religion, Fashdouk, and Maryk had a sudden memory of such a priest crumpling in on himself as he watched his brothers be murdered and eaten alive by monstrous demons. Maryk guessed the quivering man tied up like a dog was that very same shaman. The horrors of the previous evening had, apparently, undone his mind. Maryk had no intention of ever participating in a heretical ritual, but he imagined that being trapped in a star point while foreign magic unleashed howling destruction all around could be stressful on the mind, especially when the beliefs that supported that mind were swept away by that very same foreign magic.

    Never taking his eyes off Maryk, the shaman rocked and shivered, constantly mumbling to himself. His lips were parted, and drool slipped out unnoticed from the corner of his mouth. Suddenly, he rose up slightly, and Maryk noticed with trepidation that the length of leash could allow the madman to come within reach. But he only looked closely at Maryk, making a queer, peeping sound. Settling himself back into a tight ball, he said, “Vetchik hogga! Polpk-ga-fashdwa guhush.” Maryk’s drug-addled mind stumbled over the words of the tribal language. Vetchik meant “witch,” or, more accurately, “bad witch.” Polpk was a bird, and Fashdwa meant a demon-familiar, used when the tribespeople thought a demon had possessed an animal. Translated literally, the shaman had said, “Witch awake! Bird-as-demon asleep.” Forcing himself to fight the effects of the conscious-numbing poison, Maryk made himself understand. The shaman was saying that he, Maryk the evil witch, was awake, but that Taisha, his demon-familiar-in-bird-form was asleep. For all intents and purposes, it was an accurate statement, although Maryk knew Taisha wasn’t asleep—he was just unable to reach her because of the drug. But with every effort to think clearly and lift the fog from his mind, Maryk noticed that it was becoming easier. He could feel Taisha’s murmuring without great effort now, although the awareness was still too dull to communicate with her, or better yet, to link with her. His increasing clarity of thought also allowed him to realize the implications of the shaman’s words. Was the quivering tribesman somehow aware that Maryk truly could not reach Taisha, or did he simply know that the drug lowered mental awareness? Maryk shuddered at the thought of a clairvoyant madman and looked nervously at the crouching figure, whose bright, dark eyes stared back.

    Maryk’s attention was drawn to the other tribesman in the hut, who retrieved a battered tea pot from the fire and placed it on the ground near his glowing tools of torture. He stood and approached—without taking one of those tools with him, Maryk noticed with relief. Nevertheless, the shaman began whining pitifully and clutched himself fearfully, putting forehead to knees. The torturer glanced irritably at the shaman, saying, “Zosh tawa!” – Silence, fool! Cringing, the shaman ceased his blubbering but kept his arms wrapped tight as he rocked to and fro. Even with his head tucked down, he maintained one shining eye on Maryk.

    The torturer came to stand in front of Maryk, the top of his head level with Maryk’s chest, and gazed with interest at the hideous mass of blisters there. Maryk was feeling more aware with each passing moment, and was able to understand the words of the tribal tongue as the torturer said, “The Ice King has given you a mighty blessing. He has marked you for his own when you join him in hell.” The short man reached up and gently brushed his fingers across the tops of the blisters, making the slightest contact. Even with that light touch, the pain was excruciating, and Maryk forced himself to take even breaths. He wished he could breathe deeply as well, but his damaged lungs could accept only shallow, short intakes of air. The torturer withdrew his fingers and brushed them against his palm, muttering. Still trying to maintain even breaths, Maryk’s hazy mind heard the muttering but couldn’t grasp its meaning. He knew it had something to do with the tribes’ demon religion—the eternal battle of the ice demons against the fire demons—but wasn’t sure what that had to do with him.

    The shaman, still rocking on his heels, suddenly cried, “The Ice King awaits!”

    The torturer’s head swiveled to the shaman, who tucked his head into his knees and moaned, but the short man said nothing and looked once more at his captive. Although the pain Maryk felt was increasing, his mind was at the same time becoming clearer. This clarity of mind allowed him to manage the pain he felt, to put it in the background so he could focus on more pressing concerns. He met his captor’s gaze and tried to read meaning in the torturer’s strange look. If was almost as if the man were worried, or distracted.

    “The Black Robes will be here soon,” the torturer said. “They will ask you questions.” He looked at the fingertips that had just brushed the blisters on his captive’s chest, then focused his dark brown eyes on Maryk’s blue ones. “But, I will ask questions, first. Why do you spy on us, witch? We are a simple people, who have not the strength of your numbers or swords. Why do you track us across the mountain heights, following us even into our very homes, to badger us and frighten us with your evil?”

    Feeling mild disbelief at the tribesman’s protestations, Maryk kept his face smooth while he tried to collect his groggy thoughts. The torturer regarded Maryk’s composed expression for a moment, then sneered. “I know you understand me, witch,” he said. “My people recognize you: you have been seen at Groke, and I know you speak the mountain tongue.”

    Maryk realized his silence had made the torturer think he was trying to play dumb. Groke was Torghast’s sole town, at the north end of the only useful mountain pass from Velledore to Torghast—the Groken Pass—guarded at the south by the fortified Vellish city of Vel Esya, Maryk’s place of birth. Maryk had spent some time with traders going to and from Groke, and this was how he had learned the northern language. Some tribesman in this tiny village had apparently been at Groke at the same time as had their captive. Considering his present situation, Maryk decided that his best course was to comply as much as possible with the wishes of his captors, while he formulated a plan of escape. He nodded his head and said, “I understand you.”

    The tribesman glared for a moment, and said, “Tell me then, witch: what is your purpose here?”

    Trying to think, Maryk answered, “A mere foray, sir, for winter herbs found only in the mountain heights. The flower of the galis vine blooms only during early winter, and its nectar has useful medicinal properties.” It was a simple statement of truth; a Queen’s Guard always spoke the truth, even if his words slipped around its edges. Maryk had indeed been gathering galis petals while scouting. While he knew it was a weak cover, it was all his slow-moving mind could come up with in that instant. The tribesman gave him a dark look, and Maryk saw the man’s fist clench just in time to tighten the muscles of his abdomen. The drug slowed his body along with his mind, and the jabbing punch made him grunt, as well as roll stinging shivers across the top of his damaged lungs.

    “Do not toy with me, witch!” the tribesman cried, “You spied on our holy ceremony, and I would know why.” He narrowed his eyes and curled his lips in a sneering smile. “You are alone here,” he continued. “Your White Demon cannot help you.” He nodded to the battered tea kettle next to the fire. “The potion of the Black Robes makes it sleep. None can help you, or save you, except I. If you tell me your purpose here, I will allow your demon to awake and set you free.”

    With that statement, the shaman made a moaning sound, whether in protest at the words or in fear of such a possibility, Maryk could not tell, but a sharp glance from the torturer silenced the shaking priest, and he huddled further into his human ball. Mention of the “White Demon,” however, helped Maryk rally his thoughts. Still able to feel Taisha’s murmuring, it was apparent that she was trying to reach him, and he decided he should return the favor. He adopted a pensive expression, as if thinking about the offer—anything to get more time—even if the offer was plainly a ruse. While the tribesman looked at him expectantly, Maryk focused within, to that dim awareness of the link, and mentally poked around to find the clear center where he should be able to reach Taisha and communicate with her. It was difficult, though; his mental fingers were swollen and slippery, lacking the finesse to find the right spot.

    While he did this, the shaman jerked, straightening slightly, and turned his head suspiciously toward Maryk. The torturer narrowed his eyes at the long pause and reached into his belt, withdrawing a small knife. Maryk glanced nervously at the bright gaze of the shaman and gave off trying to link with Taisha. Glancing at the knife, he realized he was taking too long to answer, anyway. His hazed mind could only focus on one thing at a time, and even that was difficult. He nodded to the tribesman, even as the little man held up the knife threateningly. “My purpose is not with you, but with your guests,” he said, finally.

    The tribesman pulled the knife away and frowned while the shaman settled back into a ball. Maryk gave a small sigh of relief, one given because the shaman no longer seemed to be paying attention, and not because the other had put his knife down. Maryk was more troubled by the shaman’s unsettling sensitivity than by the torturer’s silly theatrics. The Torghasti were fierce fighters, especially in their home terrain of the mountaintops, but in the art of war, they were rank amateurs. The “torturer” in front of him wouldn’t last an hour with a Borosduin Truth-Seeker, and a Vellish Red Guard would have him blubbering in half that time. Indeed, within minutes, a Taraskouzi Red Guard would have the little man screaming everything he knew. Maryk focused on the self-important tribesman in front of him, forcing himself not to look at the prescient madman glaring a few feet away.

    The tribesman had a wary look on his face, holding the knife in front of him and running his finger along the peculiar curve of the blade’s edge. The blade looked familiar and, after a moment, Maryk recognized it. It was a pruning knife, of all things! Skilled cooks in the art of gourmet cooking did not number among the Torghasti, and Maryk was sure the torturer had no idea of the true purpose of the little kitchen tool he held so menacingly in his hands. Maryk felt an urge to giggle. A pruning knife! And dull at that. He did giggle then, although he stifled it, managing to turn it into a squeaking sound he hoped would be taken as a sign of his fear.

    The torturer looked at him askance, then focused once again on the purple blisters of his captive’s chest. “Our guests?” he said. “You mean the Black Robes.” He hesitated for a moment, then reached up again to brush his fingers across the tops of the blisters, making Maryk shiver. “So cold...” the torturer said, quietly. Looking at his fingertips, he continued, “The Kings danced at the command of the Shadow Woman, but they chafed at their bonds. The Black Robes are strong, but they controlled the Kings no better than our shamen do the minor demons, and wise men know never to call up the Kings of Hell. Are the Black Robes truly wise? Do the Kings truly dance to the tune of the Shadow People? Or do the Black Robes steal our magic to trick us?”

    While maintaining a smooth face, Maryk felt a thrill at the confessional words of his captor. It seemed not all the tribespeople were convinced of the sincerity of their new overlords. He tried to formulate a plan that could take advantage of this revelation. At the same time, he felt Taisha’s murmuring increase, until he almost thought he could reach out to her. Forcing himself not to look at the shaman, he opened his mind to her murmuring, as much as he could, in an effort to make himself more receptive. Dimly, he considered that it was always the Bond Sibling who instigated contact with their bird, not the other way round. It was impossible, theoretically, for Taisha to be contacting him; the human held the link, not the animal—although this philosophical conundrum was one that he let slip away as he looked at the dark eyes of his captor. He had always known that Taisha was special, and was more than willing at this point to let her prove it to him. After considering the tribesman’s words for a moment, Maryk said, “I did not know the tribes served a foreign master.” That simple statement should strike a chord. The fiercely independent Torghasti had always rejected mere overtures of alliance, much less outright rule by foreign powers.

    The tribesman’s lips tightened, and for a moment Maryk feared that he had struck that chord too hard, but the man said, “We serve no one! The Black Robes are, as you said, our guests.”

    Maryk said nothing, wishing his dulled mind would work faster. While he was sure that these “guests” were a point of contention that should be exploited, he was unsure just how much he should push in that direction, and wanted to feel the tribesman out on the matter before he proceeded. At the same time, he felt Taisha’s gentle but insistent murmuring. Was it becoming stronger? He felt short of breath, and shivered. His chest felt so cold and his head so heavy. Casting a quick glance, he saw the shaman still maintaining a steely eye on him. There were too many things which required his full concentration, and his dispersed thoughts were simply unable to cope. He was so tired, it hardly seemed worth the effort to keep his eyes open.

    A slap across the face snapped him out of these circling thoughts and made him realize that his head had drooped upon his chest. He looked up, head throbbing and bleary-eyed, as the torturer gazed at him in irritation. “Perhaps I must give you some encouragement,” the man said, looking at the glowing things on the fire-grate. “Do you come from Esyakar? What preparations does the city make?”

    Maryk blinked. These were sophisticated questions coming from a Torghasti, and Maryk suspected the “Black Robes” were behind them, preparing the mountain clans for war by teaching them about their enemy. It seemed the man sought tactical information, although he was off to a poor start calling Vel Esya by its old name, Esyakar, not used for more than sixty years since being raised to duchy. The man narrowed his eyes, and, apparently deciding Maryk was taking too long, turned toward the fire.

    “Wait,” Maryk said, and the Torghasti turned around, slowly, with an expectant expression on his face. “Too much potion,” Maryk continued, “Head hurts. Can’t think. Can’t breathe.”

    A look of worry passed over the questioner’s face, and he turned his attention on the shaman, who looked nervously back. The crouching priest said nothing, though, and only whined as he shook his head. The torturer turned back to Maryk, saying, “My patience grows short. Do you come from Esyakar?”

    “Yes. Esyakar,” Maryk said.

    The questioner took a step forward. “What preparations does the city make?”

    “Why did the mountain tribes attack Esyakar?” Maryk asked back.

    The little man scowled. “The High Plain is ours,” he said. “The Sporting Field must be returned to us, and the abomination of stone torn down. The Kings must sport again.”

    The shaman whined in an alternating pitch, rocking back and forth as he rolled his head in what Maryk took to be a convulsing nod of agreement. “The Kings must play,” the crazed little man croaked. Then: “The Ice King awaits!” he nearly shouted, almost falling forward as his body spasmed.

    Maryk watched in distaste as the shaman shook all over, as if in a seizure, although that little human ball managed to stay balanced on its toe tips, if just barely. Maryk looked at the torturer in confusion. The Sporting Field? He had never heard of it, although he was unsure if he had interpreted it correctly. The phrase the man had said could also be translated as “place of the high games” or maybe “holy games.” This was certainly a new twist; he had not been aware that the tribes laid any sort of claim to the High Esyakar Plain. “Did the Black Robes promise you the High Plain?” he asked.

    “The Kings promised us the plain, long ago!” the torturer cried. “We will have it back!” He took a deep breath, preparing for a long-winded tirade, but paused and looked at Maryk in suspicion, realizing that he was allowing the witch to become the questioner. Grimacing, he leaned forward and said, “What preparations does the city make?”

    Maryk thought as quick as his throbbing head allowed, while in the back of that throb he felt Taisha’s continuing murmur. “Winter preparations,” he said. “Like every winter. What preparations do the tribes make?”

    The torturer hissed and turned around, stomping to the fire. He put on a blacksmith’s glove—Maryk idly noted it was of Soldish make—and picked up a pair of tongs, also Soldish. “Enough!” the man cried, reaching with those tongs to the grate. “You will tell me all you know!” He retrieved a blade of some sort, like a long-knife not yet attached to its handle, and held it up as he walked slowly back to Maryk. “You will tell me all you know!” he repeated, holding the glowing blade up. “How many warriors gather on the High Plain?”

    Maryk eyed the blade, trying to figure out if it was Vellish or Taraskouzi. It was a bit blackened, undoubtedly from previous use by the torturer. Or, misuse, he corrected himself. It looked a solid piece of metal, and he found it rather a shame that it had been pressed into such an ignoble line of work, especially before it even had a chance to be completed. It must have been taken from a blacksmith’s shop in a raid.

    At the same time, he felt Taisha pecking away like a woodpecker at the heavy, throbbing mass in his befuddled mind. Yes, it was definitely too difficult to concentrate on more than one thing at a time, and so he started concentrating exclusively on Taisha. The torturer was too much work. Besides, Taisha was a far more pleasant presence to deal with than that glowering little amateur and his gibbering, collared monkey. There seemed to be a soft spot, somewhere, but his mental fingers kept slipping on it. He searched for that spot, as delicately as he could. Definitely Vellish, he decided, after a moment. A Taraskouzi long-knife would have a thinner blade.

    Maryk concentrated on that soft spot, feeling for it, searching for it as his sense of Taisha grew slightly stronger. He ignored the tribesman, even though he knew the man was saying something, probably demanding more answers to his obvious questions. The little man definitely lacked any finesse in his art. As Maryk fumbled about in his mind, the shaman sat up on his toes, stretching toward the prisoner. The tattooed figure started whining, hesitantly stretching out his hand toward Maryk.

    The torturer cried in indignation at the lack of response from his prisoner, even as he brandished the glowing weapon threateningly. He made one final statement, which Maryk ignored, then tossed his head like a petulant child. The shaman whined louder and switched his gaze back and forth from Maryk to the torturer. He seemed to be trying to get the torturer’s attention, but the glowering man ignored his countryman, instead focusing on the mass of blisters on his captive’s chest. He raised the glowing blade to touch those blisters.

    Gazing with terror on Maryk’s form, the shaman cried out and waddled over to crouch beside the torturer as the man brought the hot blade down to sear his enemy’s flesh. As the blade came closer to his blisters, Maryk felt a strange tightness in his chest and throat. He had previously been dully aware of the pain of the blisters on his chest, a pain he had largely ignored, but the sensation coming from them was different now. It was a surging, like some force lived in those oozing, purple-grey lumps—a force that had been awakened and was now trying to get out. Feeling a sudden cold dread, Maryk frantically clawed around in his mind, trying to reach Taisha.

    The torturer gazed intently at his victim as he slowly brought the blade closer and closer to the blisters. He ignored the whines of the shaman, until finally the tattooed man cried out and pushed the torturer aside, right before the blade was to touch skin. The torturer yelled in rage at the shaman, bringing the tongs and blade round to smack the shaman in the head. He swung too hard, however, and the blade flew out of the tong’s grasp as soon as it made contact. That contact made a brief, sizzling sound as skin, hair and leather burned, and the shaman howled in pain as he scampered away, only to be brought up short as he reached the end of his leash. The whiplash landed him flat on his back, choking on the taut line, one hand grasping at his constricted throat and the other quavering over the burned flesh and hair above his neck. The torturer snarled as he quickly stepped over the choking shaman to get to the still-hot blade, which had landed on a rug, causing tendrils of smoke to rise.

    As soon as the blade went away from his blisters, Maryk felt the surging die down, although he still felt an alien tightness in his chest. Still feeling the cold grip of dread, fighting to get air, and with sweat dripping from his brow, Maryk sought an inner calmness as he focused on Taisha and her murmuring. With trembling mental fingers, he once again searched for that special spot, sweeping gently and slowly across the inside of his mind.

    With the tongs, the torturer retrieved the hot blade and rounded on the shaman, who had finally figured out that he needed to scoot back a few inches to take the pressure off his throat. “Fool!” the torturer cried. “What is the meaning of this?”

    The shaman whined in pain and terror as he bunched himself into a ball again, this time on his side as he lay on the ground. Rocking back and forth, he said, “The King awaits! The King awakes!”

    Wide-eyed, the torturer seemed to grasp the import of the shaman’s words. He looked at Maryk’s inert form and approached it slowly, holding the blade down as he thought for a moment. Coming to a decision, he stood before Maryk again, and said, “You cannot trick me, witch. If the King has chosen you, he will make himself known. In the meantime, you will tell me what you know! Once again: How many warriors gather on the High Plain?”

    If Maryk heard him, he made no sign of it, and the torturer grimaced. Resolutely, he held the tongs and knife forward, once again bringing them toward the blisters. The shaman whined in terror, scampering over to clutch the torturer’s leg, crying, “The King awakes! The King awakes!”

    Kicking at the shaman until the whining man sidled away, the torturer nevertheless paused as he held the knife above his victim’s chest. Finally thinking the better of it, he stepped to Maryk’s side. Looking up, he saw the angry red wound of the arrow puncture peeking up where Maryk slumped forward from the wall. An evil grin appeared on the tribesman’s face, and he thrust the blade between wall and shoulder. Although it no longer glowed redly, it was still mightily hot, and the sizzling sound of skin cooking could be heard.

    So intent was he on linking with Taisha that it took a moment for Maryk’s body to tell him it was being horribly burned. Then the shock of realization crashed over him, shattering his concentration and filling his whole consciousness with white hot pain. He tried to scream, but his constricted throat would not cooperate and all that emerged was a high-pitched grunt. His whole body convulsed as Maryk gasped, unable to take a breath. Finally, the torturer withdrew the blade and looked at Maryk’s shaking form in satisfaction. “You will answer my questions, now, yes?” the man said.

    Although that pain was among the most horrible Maryk had ever experienced, it accomplished far more than the torturer had intended. For one, the pain seared through Maryk’s drugged consciousness, burning away the groggy haze that had enveloped his mind. Maryk was able to deal with pain far better than he was able to deal with dark potions, and at last he found his mind clear again, even if his body shook with the shock of burning. For the other, the torturer had just unwittingly helped Maryk. Besides the blisters—which Maryk was too worried to think about—only one wound would seriously slow him down, and that was the open wound on his shoulder. The torturer had just cauterized it, closing it quite nicely, if roughly.

    Still shaking uncontrollably with the heat of the hot blade’s pain, but feeling clearer-headed than he had in what seemed a long time, Maryk linked with Taisha. He almost cried out with the splendid warmth of her presence. Upon linking, his pain receded to a murmur in the background. Whenever he linked with Taisha, he tended to experience sensations as a bird would, and birds ignored a wound until it healed or killed them. Maryk was pleased to bury the burning sensation of his shoulder as he thrilled for a moment in achieving contact with her. Now that he finally had linked with her, he needed to figure out what to do. Then it came to him in a rush: the Bloodmark Compulsion! Fighting back a sudden sadness, he gathered up his will to strengthen the link with Taisha; in order for the Bloodmark Spell to work, he had to have the strength of a link nearly on the level of flying with her. He also needed to recall the words of the spell, for his mind was not quite as clear as he would like. The background of pain from his seared shoulder was yet a noisy distraction.

    The moment Maryk made contact with Taisha, the shaman howled and rolled around on the ground, screaming, “It awakes! The demon awakes!”

    The torturer looked at the shaman in alarm, crying, “The King? The King awakes?”

    Still convulsing on the ground, the shaman shrieked, “The White Demon! The Bird Demon awakes!”

    The torturer looked at Maryk in confusion and terror, then threw down the tongs and knife onto a dirt section of the floor, and bounded to the fire, where he picked up the tea kettle. He rushed over to Maryk as the liquid inside slopped out of the spout and held it up to Maryk’s mouth, forcing it inside and down his throat. Maryk sputtered and coughed as the scalding liquid ran all over his face and down his chest, but the tribesman kept pouring until nearly all the potion was gone.

    As the foul, reddish liquid ran half down Maryk’s throat and half down his chest, he felt two sensations at once. One was a slight diminishing of Taisha’s presence; she was still there, only a little farther away. He gave off trying to remember the Bloodmark Spell, for it was now hard work to maintain any sort of contact at all. He also felt that evil tightness, as if the heat of the liquid had energized the force somehow lurking within the blisters of his chest. The kettle had been off the fire for some time, however, and, apparently, the potion’s heat was insufficient to fully awaken the beast he feared lurked within him; although he was unable to feel any relief at this, for he felt Taisha slipping away. The horrible, leaden grogginess of the potion began to descend on him again. Crying out, he felt himself slipping away as well, the poison of the potion robbing him both of his consciousness and his awareness of his bird. As she slipper further away, and he felt a blackness descending on him, Maryk felt along the diminishing link, to where it ended somewhere in Taisha’s avian consciousness. Although she was fading, Maryk knew that she was there, for him, and would never leave him. Feeling powerful emotion sweep over him, he opened his mind wide, breaking open the gates, just as if he were about to fly with her. This was very much the wrong way to go about it, of course; the establishment of a solid link was absolutely required before throwing one’s consciousness into it, otherwise there was a worry that consciousness would be lost. At least, this was the way it was taught—rather firmly—when learning about the White Bond. But with his own consciousness rapidly dimming, Maryk ignored this hazard, and instead looked up to where he thought he saw a warm, glowing center, not yet too far away.

    Knowing his Taisha would be there—he leaped.

    The torturer watched the guardsman’s body convulse for a few moments after the draught had been forced down the man’s throat. Feeling terror that the vengeful White Demon would show itself and rip his soul from his body, he cast nervous glances all around the hut. He wondered what possibly could have gone wrong—sticking hot iron on an open wound made everybody talk, but this mad foreigner had somehow taken strength from it! The torturer licked his lips, hoping he had put enough potion in the witch to make the demon sleep. The tribesman detested the Black Robes, but he did have to admit their potions worked well. The witch’s body slowly stopped twitching, its head hanging upon its chest. The foreign creature’s breathing was raspy and shallow, but it still seemed to be alive. Just as the torturer was ready to breathe a sigh of relief, the shaman started thrashing on the ground, whining and crying.

    The torturer kicked at the man, demanding, “What! What is it?”

    The shaman paid the kicks no mind as he thrashed all over the rugs and dirt. “The demon!” he cried, “The demon! The witch!”

    The torturer beat on the shaking shaman, kicking him and pulling his hair, shouting, “What? Does it fly? Tell me!”

    The shaman stopped thrashing and with wide eyes peered at the still form of the witch’s body. The tattooed man shook for a moment, as if with a chill, then started whining in a high pitch. Curling himself into a tiny ball on the ground, the shaman rolled back and forth, muttering, “The demon... the witch... together...”

    The torturer looked with fury on his countryman’s balled-up form. “Tell me!” he roared, giving several well-aimed kicks. He stopped and looked around nervously, and asked in a quieter voice, “Does the White Demon approach?”

    The shaman shook his head, and said, “The demon flies. The witch flies. Not here. Can’t tell. Witch is here. Witch is not here. Demon is here. Demon is not here. Can’t tell... can’t tell...” His words trailed off into an incomprehensible string of mutters as he quivered on the ground.

    The torturer glared in consternation at the shaman. The man had lost the few remaining shreds of his mind in the affair with the Kings last night, but he could still “smell” demons—it was why he was here, to ensure the White Demon did not try to rescue its witch. If anything, the shaman’s sense of demon-smell was more acute since he had been reduced to such a blubbering mess. If only his coherency, never strong in the best of times, had been heightened as well. The torturer stared at the witch’s body, expecting at any moment for it to roar and rip out of its bindings to leap upon him and tear him to pieces. But the witch just hung there limply, its chest barely rising up and down. The torturer considered his options. The Black Robes had ordered him to watch the witch until they came to question him. He was only to watch and pour more potion down its throat should it stir. He distrusted these Black Robes, however, not really believing their stories that the gods of his people were the “pets” of their Black Mother. It was simply unbelievable, although he was too wily to say so in front of they who demonstrated such awesome power. As an important man of his tribe, it pleased him little to be reduced to errand boy and guard by these black-robed foreigners. Many a strong warrior from other tribes—and other lands—had broken under the skill of his questioning, telling him, and only him, the location of secret stashes of loot, the planned route of a trade caravan, and the like. Thus, he had endeavored to use his skill to question the witch himself, although this had not turned out as well as he had hoped. Still, everything was much the way it had been before the witch awoke. The shaman was curled up in a ball, muttering to himself, and the witch was hanging limply. After a moment, the torturer went back to his cushion by the fire, deciding to pretend nothing had ever happened. Keeping a nervous eye on the witch’s body, he waited, wondering what was taking the Black Robes so long.

~           ~           ~           ~

    Although Maryk had made the leap, he had not landed where he had expected. He had one foot in his humanity, and the other foot was with his hawk. During the times he had been tempted to succumb to the call of the Wild Hunt, to give up his humanity and fly free and wild with Taisha forever, Maryk had discovered how easy it could be to do so. And yet, at the same time, how difficult. It was a matter of letting go—of flinging the full essence of himself into the link. To maintain the link, the human always had to keep some part of themself at the human end as a sort of anchor by which they could return. To become forever one with the bird was simply a failure to maintain that anchor, to throw everything into the avian awareness. While it seemed easy to do this, especially with the siren call of the bird’s wild nature, it was difficult to take that final step. As a human, he intrinsically wanted to remain human, and this basic desire held him back. The extensive training given to Bond Siblings built upon this desire to be human; months alone were spent just on the exercise of maintaining the human anchor, until it became so ingrained as to be second-nature. But, even with this training, and even with the survival instinct to remain human, sooner or later all Bond Siblings gave in to that siren call; its sheer, wild intensity eventually overcame all human safeguards. Something about that rare gift that enabled a man or woman to bond with their bird also spoke of their secret desire to be done with those civilized trappings of humanity and be wild and free forever. Maryk had felt the urge so many times that he wondered what held him back. He truly did not know, but somehow he had always managed to come back to himself, even when doing so had left him feeling empty and hopeless.

    When he had felt the effect of the black potion descending upon him, he had been unable to muster the concentration to establish that human anchor; it was all he could do to keep Taisha in his mental sights, and so he had simply leapt into her, flinging his full essence into the link, without any safeguard to maintain his humanity. In effect, he had attempted to bond permanently with her. But the potion had weakened his efforts, and so he had failed in establishing a permanent link. A part of himself was still in his unconscious, drugged body in the hut; the rest of him was in Taisha. It was a crazy half-world in which Maryk existed. He was aware of Taisha’s avian senses, but that awareness was dim, like viewing a distant scene through a farseeing-tube splashed with mud. He was aware of the goings-on in his unconscious body, but superimposed on those murky impressions were the sights and sounds experienced by the hawk. Above his rapidly beating heart and his ragged breaths he saw Taisha’s view of the snow-covered mountainside, steep and filled with rocky formations and occasional groves of white-shrouded trees, all lit by the soft light of a false dawn. Alongside the distant scream of his shoulder’s burned skin and the pain of fresh blisters arising there, he felt the rush of cold air flow past his hawk’s feathers. He experienced everything at once, although these senses were a see-saw between the clarity of Taisha and the murkiness of his body. One moment he nearly saw with her full vision while the pain of his body became distant; the next, his experience of her hawk vision was far away while he felt his heart clearly thumping in his chest.

    It was enough to drive a person mad. It should be driving him mad. But, somehow, it had little effect on his sanity. For Maryk, it was akin to watching a mummers’ show, or, rather, two shows, one of mummers and the other of puppets, both at the same time, one in front of the other. He had no active participation in the proceedings; he was merely a detached observer. This was because he had fully leapt into Taisha, without maintaining that necessary human anchor. By giving his all—or trying to—he had absolutely no control. Always before, he had controlled the link, giving commands to Taisha, navigating and ordering her to follow his human will. Now, he was a helpless passenger, completely at the whim of his unconscious body and his startled bird.

    And it was clear Taisha was unsettled. She hopped a few inches up the branch on which she perched, peeping uncertainly. She cocked her head in a strangely human-like expression of confusion. She could feel him, and then he was gone, and then he came back—although he had never really left. He was there, but he was not there. And, even when he was there, he did not impose his will on her; she received no direction from him. She fluffed her feathers as she hopped back down the branch, looking all around as her avian mind sought without success to understand what was happening. Maryk could feel that sharp, hot mind; even with its current uncertainty, it was clear and beautiful. It was just a breath away, and he ached to be closer to it, to let its heat envelope him and take him away. But he could not get any closer; his body clung to his essence like sticky sap, pulling him back no matter how he stretched toward her brightness.

    Emotion, belonging as it did to his drugged body, was beyond the purview of his current, helpless condition. Such slight emotion as he was able to feel came in the form of worry for Taisha, and, to a lesser degree, for himself. He felt Taisha constantly shifting her weight, always favoring her left claw over her right. Her right claw had been injured during the fight with the ice demon. It had struck the creature, partially freezing it, making it unable to grasp anything firmly. Taisha ignored the pain in that damaged extremity with typical, hawk-like indifference, merely compensating for its inflexibility by favoring her undamaged claw. Maryk, with his humanity flavoring his hawk experience, knew she would need healing soon to save the appendage. He also felt a small degree of worry for himself, although this concern was far overshadowed by his worry for his bird. He felt his stomach gurgling with the huge amount of poisonous brew that had been forced into it. He knew that poison was killing him. Indeed, the see-saw between human and avian experience was slowly, slowly tilting toward the avian. As his body processed more and more of the poison filling his stomach, his human senses became murkier and more distant; eventually, his body would breathe its last. He was worried about this in a dim way, but at the same time, he felt a small exhilaration. At last he would be able to fly free with Taisha, forever.

    At first, he struggled with his state of helplessness, his Bond Sibling instincts taking over and trying to control Taisha. After a few moments, when he realized he could do nothing, he slowly gave up and allowed himself—possibly for the first time in his life—to become a passenger, although this was assuredly only because he had absolutely no choice in the matter. He let the seething mass of combined human and hawk senses wash over him, merely letting it all happen as he observed quietly. Taisha, after a short while of confusion, figured out that, while her human was with her, in a way different from any other time, he was not going to tell her what to do. Realizing that she could do as she wished, she took flight.

    The vista of the mountains swept through Maryk’s vision, one moment clear and the next dim. Taisha wheeled in the sky, possibly looking for something to eat or a new place on which to perch—both were equal possibilities in her avian mind. Seeing nothing worth chasing, she spied a tree of a fairly decent size and began a gentle descent toward it when, suddenly, another bird came into her vision, flying directly toward her. Taisha screeched and flew straight up, wings wide, in a hawk’s gesture of territorial dominance. The other bird ignored this and still came directly toward her, in an almost unconcerned fashion, wings beating a smooth and steady flow. Taisha peeped in irritation at the other bird’s nonchalance, then turned around and flew away from it. Taisha knew this bird and it seemed she didn’t think it necessary to go through the trouble of making a big hawkish display for it.

    Maryk, mental passenger that he was, knew along with Taisha who this other bird was. The feelings that swept over him, dim as they were, were beyond his ability to describe. It was disbelief, mainly, but also a surging of hope. He felt ready to cry, if only his unconscious body could cooperate with such an action. If he were better aware of his heart, it would have filled his chest. Through all of this, he felt an outpouring of love.

    The bird was Duvo.

    Taisha flew away from Duvo, but in a lazy way, obviously making no great effort to avoid him. Soon enough, he caught up with her, stroking his wings as he flew behind her and to the side, keeping pace. She emitted an occasional screech, but it seemed more for show than because she disliked his presence. As the two birds wheeled in the sky above the frosty mountain slopes, Maryk flew along with them, trying to understand what he felt in Taisha. While it was a feeling that he had never before experienced in her, it carried a degree of familiarity. He struggled to decide what it was, although separate thought outside the bounds of the hawk experience was difficult in the extreme. After a few moments of flying together, Duvo emitted a short, sharp cry and suddenly flew directly at Taisha, who uttered a throaty grumble and slashed her wing upward at him. Screeching again, he dived underneath that upraised wing and flew in a large circle under and over her, once again settling into his original position a few feet behind and to the side. Taisha uttered a few peeps that sounded nothing but like a bit of grumbling to Maryk, and evened out her wings to fly straight again. There had been no sense of threat in either hawk. It seemed they were just having a bit of fun. Duvo had wanted to play with Taisha, but she had told him she was not in the mood for it. It was the sort of familiar by-play between those of long acquaintance, practiced now and then, if more out of habit than anything else. Taisha, although still unsettled by the constant, non-controlling half-presence of her human, nevertheless seemed untroubled by Duvo’s presence—she even seemed content. They were two, old friends out for a wing-about in the pre-dawn hour. After a few moments of sharing Taisha’s feeling of content in Duvo’s presence, the realization slowly came to Maryk, a realization which explained why her feelings seemed familiar, but were different from what he had before experienced in her.

    Taisha and Duvo were mates.

    The White Bond formed a link between a human and a bird-of-prey, specifically a very select few species of hawk and falcon, all of whom were chosen and bred for their amenability to such a magical linkage. Just as very few men or women were capable of forming that bond, so it was true of the bird—only a few emerged from the breeding and training program actually suitable to form a link. The unsuitable ones were sold for very high prices to nobles who practiced the ancient sport of falconry. Such unbonded birds had actually become a solid source of revenue for the crown, being highly desirable to those who could afford them. When the bond was established, certain aspects of the nature of both bird and human were changed, the most significant of which was the lengthening of the bird’s life and the corresponding shortening of the human one. The longest-lived Bond Sibling had been the famous Muryala Oshyndren, who was killed in battle at age sixty-three. Her falcon, Yaawfo, who famously clawed the eyes out of her murderer and then disappeared, had been forty-two, an unlikely life span for a hawk, and one enabled by the magic of the White Bond. Muryala had been the exception to the rule, however. The average life span of a Bond Sibling was around forty years, and this was because of their unfortunate tendency eventually to succumb to the call of the wild hunt. Maryk dimly remembered hearing about “ghost birds,” reports of sightings of birds whose humans had so succumbed. The reports usually came from the lovers of the erstwhile Bond Sibling, saying they had seen the bird of the deceased hanging about for a while, never allowing anyone to come near it, but seeming to follow their bond-bird. After a while, the ghost bird would disappear, never to be seen again. Maryk believed he had solved this mystery, although trying to put the pieces together in a coherent fashion was difficult in his present state.

    Most raptors used for the White Bond were of species that mated for life. Maryk believed that the newly free bird sought out its mate, which was usually the bond-bird of the deceased’s lover. The White Bond formed a link that superceded the bird’s mating instincts, however, and the still-bonded bird rejected the advances of the free bird, who eventually gave up and moved on to establish its own territory and, possibly, to find another mate. Much of this was supposition, however, for little was known of the fate of such birds that had melded with their humans. Maryk believed that Duvo had been following Taisha, who had thus far rejected him, preferring her human. Now, however, her human was no longer directing her, and her natural mating instinct was coming to the fore. The familiar feeling Maryk noted was one of avian love. Maryk had experienced a similar feeling from her when she had mated with Duvo, when her heat had been satisfied. It had been a far more intense feeling, being mostly sexual in nature, compared with the positively mellow sense of companionship she exuded now, but both feelings came from the same source. Avian love was quite different from human love, being an affair of instinct rather than of the heart. But it was clear that the two birds were comfortable in each other’s presence, and, as Maryk’s body became weaker, he was better able to participate in that avian sense of companionship.

    As the two birds flew, Maryk sensed Taisha’s discomfort in her wounded claw. She could not retract it properly against her underbelly, and it hung out, creating a slight drag in her flight. She was forced to constantly adjust her wing strokes to compensate for the small lack of balance—not a serious concern, but irritating and, after a while, tiring. Deciding to land, she swung a wide circle, looking for a suitable spot, of which there were far too few, as several testy peeps clearly implied. During that wide sweep, Maryk’s see-saw of senses tilted strongly toward the avian, and, for a brief moment, the world was crystal clear. The light of the impending dawn gathered on a craggy horizon limned in a rose-infused gold. Frost covered rocks stuck out of the steep, white mountain face. Dark spots here and there spoke of small vales with lumpy white forms suggesting snow-covered groves of trees. Taisha yearned for a proper-sized tree, and she took off toward one of those vales. In the last split-second of her clarity, before Maryk tilted back toward the harsh, murky awareness of his dying body, Taisha cocked her head and got a good view of Duvo, who was dutifully trailing her. Duvo was looking directly at her, giving Maryk a tantalizing glimpse deep into those sharp orbs. That glimpse struck Maryk straight into the depth of his soul. He saw the avian awareness that was Duvo, but at the same time he saw more. He knew he was seeing the melded result of Duvo and Wilmar. Maryk felt giddy for moment thinking of his lovely Wilmar. If Maryk could have gasped, he would have. He felt sadness, love and not a little bit of jealousy, for Wilmar was flying free with Duvo. That brief glimpse into Duvo’s eyes also sent shivers along Maryk’s awareness, shivers that could not be felt by his unconscious body. That brief glimpse convinced Maryk that Wilmar knew Maryk was with Taisha, even if incompletely. More than a hawk now, Duvo’s animal form contained the combined and distilled essence of the avian and the human, and Maryk suspected that the human had a greater say in the affairs of his new form than the Bond Siblings knew, or let on. Maryk tried to hold on to the feeling of joy, sadness and hope that had appeared so suddenly upon making eye contact with Duvo and Wilmar, but then he felt the shadows of his struggling body envelope his awareness once more and the brightness of Taisha’s senses faded.

    After that meaningful glance between hawks and their human passengers, Duvo suddenly darted in front of Taisha and swept upward, wings wide. Taisha screeched as she banked to avoid him, then dove down, her wings spread wide as well; although, since she was the larger bird—just as all female hawks were larger than their male counterparts—her wingspan was more impressive, an array of white, grey and tan feathers with distinctive bluish-grey bands around her wingtips. Duvo, not to be outdone, gave a louder cry, and wove a complicated circle around her diving form, his wings beating fast as he zipped under and over her, once, then twice; on the second pass, he brushed his wingtips against hers, causing her to squawk in a most undignified manner, then he was away, once again diving upward, his wings spread as far as they could go. Taisha evened out her flight as she pursued him, giving him the avian equivalent of an irritated glare while she chirped out a series of clipped peeps that sounded nothing so much as a good scolding. Duvo gave another throaty screech, a teasing note evident in its tone, then flew off, as fast as he could. Taisha roared in irritation and gave chase, sharp eyes fixed on his form.

    And a fine form it was, Maryk couldn’t help but notice, although he was unsure if the strange stirrings he felt belonged to him or Taisha. Duvo was nearly a perfect specimen of his species, all his markings even and well-spaced, the bands of his wingtips all uniform, the color of his tail-feathers the perfect blue-infused grey that had given the Blue-Tailed Mountain Hawk its name. Duvo’s two nest mates had likewise been perfectly marked, although they had ultimately been unsuitable for bonding; Maryk knew that each had fetched one hundred gold pieces when sold, fortune enough to buy a barony in the Western Highlands. It had seemed fate when the perfect bird had bonded with the equally perfect human; the team of Duvo and Wilmar had inspired poets and artists across the northlands. Thinking on his beautiful Wilmar filled Maryk with longing, and he looked hungrily through Taisha’s eyes on that zipping form just ahead, although he cursed in his mind at the endless surging back and forth of his senses, one moment seeing clearly through her, and the next filled with the numbed yet painful awareness of his body.

    After a moment of fast flying, Duvo began to pull ahead of Taisha, who peeped in irritation, both at him and at her recalcitrant talons jutting out and slowing her down. Underneath that irritation, Maryk sensed something else in her, a queer lightness in her avian awareness, something just on the edge of anticipation. Duvo looked behind him and gave a cry, then banked abruptly and came round her. Crying back, Taisha followed him, head forward, beak open like she intended to nip. Duvo squawked and went down out of range. Taisha, still following, made a menacing screech as she descended on him like a falling rock. Duvo abruptly pulled out of his dive, and spread his wings to their fullest as he faced her. She matched his motion for moment, then rose above him, beating her wings furiously, as if to push the air down on him. Her ploy worked, for his flight became unsteady for a second, and then he was away, going around her in a circle. As they flew in this wild and magnificent dance in the air, they continued to screech at each other, making a commotion above the sparse northern mountainside. All this while, Maryk felt that strange feeling growing within her, although in his present condition it was as much his feeling as it was hers. Wrapped up in her wild instinct, it was difficult to use his human reason to understand the nature of her feeling, but he was yet far enough away from her to recognize gradually what that feeling was.

    And it was impossible.

    He had felt it in her before—many times before. It happened every spring, and he usually tried to make sure he was with Wilmar and Duvo when it happened, for happened it did, and Wilmar had always been the best. This made sense to him now. Most Bond Siblings had another Sibling with whom they connected most strongly. That Sibling was usually bonded to a bird of the same species but opposite sex. It was known that the Bond Birds influenced the romantic choices of their humans, but Maryk now knew that nobody suspected just how strong that influence was. Taisha and Duvo had chosen each other, and this had made Maryk and Wilmar’s love all the stronger.

    But this did not change the fact that it happening right now was impossible. Taisha’s avian senses were quickening and focusing for the act of mating, and this did not happen in high winter. It happened in the spring, shortly after bare branches showed their first bits of green, when slender stalks appeared with buds ready to bloom, when snow and ice persisted only in lees and shadows. No hawk could mate now, with midwinter more than a month away, with the worst of the season’s storms yet to blow over the mountaintops. It made no sense. There was no place to build a nest; no materials with which to build it. The two hawks were out of their habitat. They could not be working themselves into a courtship flight. It just could not be.

    At that point, however, it seemed Taisha had little interest in the unlikely timing of her biological rhythms—her interest was in the sly, quick form in front of her, then behind her, then to the side and around. Their dance in the air became more elaborate, her cries more stretched and throaty, his more high-pitched and staccato. Maryk, when his sensual see-saw tilted toward Taisha, found himself consumed by her growing urgency and need. When his sick body absorbed his attention, he could only feel disbelief at the proceedings. Suddenly, the two birds separated and flew around each other in a loop, describing a wide figure eight in the sky. Now flying toward each other, it seemed they would crash, but at the last instant, they pulled up, talons extended. Those talons locked, although Taisha gave a pained screech at her inflexible claw. Duvo ignored her pain and gripped all the fiercer, and, after a moment, Maryk felt Taisha ignore the discomfort. Then, they spun in the air in a dizzying spiral of tight circles, round and round, plummeting toward the ground, talons locked tight. It seemed they would crash into the mountain slope, but, again at the last second, they let go, flying away from each other just above the ground. Taisha gave a whoop and a holler, and sped away toward a thin copse of trees, where she alighted on a reasonably good-sized branch, well up from the ground. After a moment, Duvo was there, screeching as he came up behind her.

    Taisha gave one last cry of defiance, although she made no effort to get away, and, before Maryk knew what was happening, the two hawks were mating. The sensations flooding through Maryk, even with the exasperating see-saw of senses, were indescribable. It was a pure, raw satisfaction of animal lust, immediate and overpowering. The many times he had lain with Wilmar, and others, while their hawks did what Taisha and Duvo were doing now, Maryk had participated in that instinctual drive. The passion he had shared with his partners had been of a level higher than any non-Sibling could know, driven as they were by the link with the hawk. But, as powerful as that passion had been, it was still filtered through the Sibling’s humanity. The sexual instinct of the bird was yet muffled, even if slightly, by the human mind controlling that link. Now, Maryk was getting a taste of what it truly meant to be wild and free, unfettered by rationality, unbound by petty sensibilities. He had no control. He had no human filter to lessen the impact of Taisha’s animal lust. When the see-saw tilted toward her and the satisfaction of her need, a need so deep as to be unfathomable to a mere human, Maryk entire being was filled with a powerful energy, a quivering universe of wild lightning, streaking everywhere at once. It was an explosion of high emotion, a series of such explosions, filling him up until he knew he would burst.

    So powerful was this energy, that when the awful see-saw took him away from Taisha’s brightness and dumped him back into the numb awareness of his dying body, he yet took some of the energy with him. Even though he yearned to feel fully Taisha’s satisfaction, and could not wait for the see-saw to bring him back to it, he noticed that he could see what was happening in his sick body hanging limply in the tribal hut. Always before, when he was forced back into that tightly bound form, his awareness immediately dimmed and he knew not was happening until he returned to Taisha and was again able to experience the world through her avian senses. Now, however, with the power gained from Taisha’s excitement, he was able to take some of that energy back with him and he consciously knew what was happening inside himself.

    He realized with dismay that it was not good.

    His body was surely dying. It was dying a slow, painful death as his stomach dutifully digested the foul poison poured into it. He understood now that a small amount of the poison merely reduced awareness, making it difficult or impossible to muster the concentration to activate the magical link. Indeed, he suspected that it made the performance of magic impossible for anyone so poisoned. He had been given much more than a small amount, however. An entire tea kettle had been forced down his throat, when probably a cup or two was all that was needed. Feeling the powerful energy of life that Taisha and Duvo had given to him, he suddenly wanted very much to live. He still wanted to link permanently with Taisha. He wanted to desperately. But, not like this. At some point, he wanted to go alone with her into the forest, into her proper habitat in the southern mountains. He would give his proper respects to his family, friends, lovers, queens and goddesses—then leap into Taisha forever. But he did not want to bond permanently with her, now, when he was held captive and she was leagues and leagues away from where she should be. He knew he could not with good conscience give up so easily. He still had important tasks ahead, not least of which was informing his country of the evil plotting of foreign heretics—plowings that were turning the merely troublesome northern tribes into mortal enemies.

    But the nature of his current condition was one he had never before experienced. His body was unconscious, hanging limply, unmoving. He could not tell it what to do. He felt apart from it. It seemed more a room in which he was staying for the night, and from which he would exit in the morning. As well beat on the walls as tell that room to do something. He had never felt so helpless before in his life. By leaping so fully into Taisha—or trying to—he had given up control of his human form. Always before it had responded automatically to his needs and to his conscious thought. Now he felt like a seamster with a broken loom. The seamster knew how to use the loom, and always before the loom had worked. But now it had broken and he, the seamster, did not know how to fix it.

    The see-saw of senses continued, one moment with Taisha and the next with his body. He continued to feel the tremendous energy of life from Taisha, and each time he swung back to his body, he tried to reacquaint himself with it—to figure out how to make it do as he wished. He knew not how long this went on, although in the back of his mind he knew he had little time. The actual act of mating between hawks was a quick activity, no matter how satisfying it was. As he examined his unconscious, physical form, he knew the sexual excitement from Taisha was passing itself along to his body. He felt his manhood stir, and was glad that Taisha’s energy was able to manifest itself physically on his form; it showed that his body was not yet past the point of no return. He tried to gather up that energy and pour it into the rest of his senseless form, to wake it up, to tell it throw out that poison, to live! In his strange, detached manner, he examined his inner workings, feeling his heart beat, following the rush of blood along his veins, feeling the air come in and out of his lungs, along with all of the other things bodies do whether they are awake or not. He followed these activities to his gurgling stomach. He knew it was disliking the poison, but it was too weak to do anything except try to digest the nasty stuff—just to get it out. Maryk knew he needed a much quicker manner of expelling it. He struggled, concentrating on his stomach and that feeling one gets when one knows one needs to sick up.

    He felt Duvo and Taisha finish their lovemaking, and, immediately, Taisha’s powerful energy and urgency began to settle down into a warm glow of satisfaction. As her energy faded, the strength of the awareness of his body faded as well. Frantically, he focused on his roiling stomach, filled to capacity with that noxious brew. He knew he had to get it out. He focused the last of her fading energy on his digestive organ, willing it to expel the poisoned tea.

~           ~           ~           ~

    Back in the hut, the tribesman continued to look around, dividing his attention between the witch, the shaman, and the entrance flap, which he had tied down so that it could only be opened from the inside. Even so, he still found himself making constant darting looks here and there, as if the witch’s white demon would somehow appear out of thin air. He had become increasingly nervous with the passage of time. What in the pit of hell was taking the Black Robes so long? He wondered if the guard the Black Robes had forced to stand watch outside the hut was still there. What had happened to the witch, the Ice King’s blessing, was a matter of deep superstition to his people, and he knew that any sensible tribesman would keep as much distance as possible between themselves and anyone so blessed. He was able to admit to himself that the blisters terrified him as well, although he was more terrified of losing his power and authority among his people, an authority he had fought so hard to attain, and one which was being so horribly swept away by those smirking foreigners! He still found it unbelievable that they should allow a woman to take charge, after their head priest was killed by the Fire King, although given their incredible claims that the Kings of Hell were the pets of a supreme Shadow Woman, he knew he shouldn’t be surprised. Next they would claim that the Kings of Hell were actually Queens! Still, many of his people seemed to believe these claims. He feared the Black Robes were achieving success in their attempt to unite the tribes in attacking the southerners. Stirring up the old belief in the Sporting Field had been a stroke of genius, although he was unsure if the High Plain was really where the southerner’s gigantic, stone village now stood.

    It was all very confusing. The Black Robes were the most powerful magicians he had ever seen. They put the strongest shaman to shame. He had cowered in awe and terror along with the rest of his people when they had called up the Kings. He had been ready to believe that the Shadow Woman did control the Kings of Hell. But then chaos had been unleashed, and it seemed the Kings did as they pleased—which included killing the leader of the Black Robes while their Shadow Woman laughed. It made no sense. He had difficulty believing it was as simple as the Black Robes claimed. He knew the Kings of Hell were tricky—they had to be. Were they playing some game with the Shadow People? He wish he had some ability with magic so he could understand these things better.

    His attention was drawn to the shaman, who was increasingly getting on his nerves. The tattooed little man was rolling back and forth on the ground, muttering and crying, howling and blubbering as he gripped his head, then pulled his hair, then stuck his fist in his mouth. The torturer decided he was glad he did not have any ability with magic, because then he might have turned out like that miserable human ball over there. He considered going over and simply clubbing the fool over the head to give them both a moment of peace, but he yet depended on the man to signal if the witch’s demon came to seek retribution. After a moment, he admitted that he depended as well on the shaman to signal if the Ice King stirred, for he wasn’t sure which would be worse: a shrieking, vengeful hawk with glowing eyes, or the King’s wraith wisping from those pustulous bumps on the witch; both would take his soul to the netherworld, and both would promise that soul an eternity of equally unpleasant prospects. He knew his people thought him mad to stay near one promised to the Kings, even if the promised one was a southern witch, but he yet existed on this mortal plane, and he intended to seize the advantage wherever he could. The Black Robes had sneered so far at his offers of service to them, to use his skill at questioning to advance their cause. If they did unite the tribes, and if he was able to ingratiate himself into their favor, then his status would greatly rise. He would have much power not only over his own tribe, but over all the tribes. It was a prospect that much pleased him. And so he had sought thus far to appease the Black Robes. If they failed, he would yet gain status in the eyes of his tribe by having faced not only a southern witch, but one claimed by a King of Hell. Glancing nervously at the still unmoving body of the witch, he considered that he might emerge from this successfully, as long as that sweating body kept still, and as long as the Black Robes showed up soon!

    The shaman was getting steadily worse, however, and the torturer didn’t know how much more of the crazed little man’s howling he could bear. Once again, he shouted at the tattooed magic man, demanding to know what was happening, but was ignored as that balled up form continued to shake on the ground, stopping every now and then to fix a wild eye on the witch, then to moan piteously and begin thrashing again. The torturer ground his teeth in frustration, stroking the cudgel he held in his lap, willing himself to show forbearance toward his fellow tribesman, and at the same time deriving a strange sort of comfort from the other’s noisy, quivering presence. Suddenly, the shaman went still, his head cocked toward the body of the witch. Blood-shot eyes stared widely and wildly at that tall, inert form, and the shaman emitted a series of blubbering noises, similar to the cooing of a babe, although no innocent would utter anything so harsh. Raising a shaking hand toward the witch, the shaman blubbered something that almost sounded intelligible, and the torturer leaned forward to try to understand its meaning, but the other man howled, pulling his fist in so quickly that he hit himself in the head. Once again, he thrashed around on the rugs and dirt, moaning in a high cacophony, until the torturer could stand it no longer and stood up, raising the cudgel threateningly and demanding the other’s silence. As he stood up, he glanced at the witch and realized something had changed in the man’s condition, something he had noticed earlier in passing but had foolishly ignored.

    The man was sweating.

    The torturer gasped and stood stock still for a moment, staring in apprehension at the sweat-slick gleam of the witch’s skin. It was still not moving, but the tribesman could detect a tightness in that bound form that suggested a small, internal struggle was happening. Intending to forestall any more activity on the part of the southerner, the torturer took three quick steps to the tea kettle. Picking it up, he realized there was almost nothing left in it; he had already poured its contents down the witch’s throat. Well, mostly down the witch’s throat, he noticed in irritation; as much or more had gone down the pale, muscular front of the man, as attested to by the reddish stain cascading from mouth to sparse brown and grey chest hair, down the abdomen and even into the curling brown hairs around the man’s thick manhood. The torturer hissed in vexation, even as he looked about in apprehension. He considered going straight to the Black Robes himself, but then an extraordinary sight so surprised him that, for a moment, all he could do was stare in shock. It had been happening so slowly that the torturer had not immediately noticed it, but now there was no question about it. The witch’s manhood was rising. The torturer stared in disbelief as that length of flesh grew firmer and fatter, slowly becoming longer as it arched toward the pointed dome of the hut. He was so shocked that he barely noticed the screams and howls of the shaman, which had grown loud enough that anyone within a league would be able to hear them. The torturer was little interested in the groins of other men, except as a point of weakness to be exploited in seeking the answers to his questions, and he had paid little attention to the southerner’s flaccid tool. Now, he stared at it in disbelief, terror, and, after a moment, anger. What in the name of the Seven Kings was happening? How could it be possible that this witch could draw sexual excitement now, when he was unconscious and bound—and had just been horribly burned! It was pure madness.

    The witch’s body began to shake, just a little, struggling weakly. The torturer glared in hatred and came to a decision. Ignoring the continued howling of the shaman, he retrieved the blacksmith’s glove and tongs, then went to the grate on the fire. He picked up another glowing blade there, smaller than the first but still more than sufficient for what he intended. He fixed a baleful eye on the witch’s nearly erect member sticking out so obscenely in front of him and moved slowly toward it. There were no blisters on that pulsating rod, and so the Ice King should not be drawn to the searing heat he intended to put there. The witch would still be able to answer the questions of the Black Robes without his organ of satisfaction; indeed, he might even be more inclined to do so. It was, after all, the least the torturer could do given what the witch had put him through. Besides, he could take the organ and eat it, in the old style, and take the man’s strength and vitality, although, considering the witch’s insanity, he wasn’t completely sure if that would be a good idea. He stood in front of the witch, who now quivered visibly, and slowly, slowly lowered the redly glowing blade to sear off his manhood.

~           ~           ~           ~

    The light of a false dawn cast a pale starkness across the mountainside, touching the top of the vale in which the tribal village was tucked, its not-quite light misleading to the eye; here it stretched the distance from a hut to a large boulder, there it shortened the height of some trees, all around it lent the encompassing snow an otherworldly glow, playing with shadows, deadening sounds, and illuminating the surroundings with an eerie mystery. Down at the edge of the village, a figure emerged from a copse of stunted pines and picked its way carefully through the knee-deep snow, cursing as it hoisted the hem of a voluminous black robe to keep it from dragging. Beneath the cowl of that robe, a woman’s sharp eyes surveyed ahead of her, scanning the village and its ramshackle collection of huts, woodpiles, fire pits, and various odd boulders. Not a soul stirred among them, and she narrowed her eyes as she tried to detect any sort of activity up ahead. Pre-dawn light usually played with the senses, making shadows seem real and the real seem shadow, but here on the mountaintops such light was odd in the extreme, although, glancing up at the foreboding crags and peaks of the high mountains above her, she admitted the village was not quite on the mountain tops—just near enough to make no nevermind. Everything was thinner up here, she considered, not for the first time, the light and air especially. The thin light was not really a problem, unlike the thin air, which left her short of breath after making even a small effort. After a large effort was much worse, such as last night when she and the remaining Kin had managed, barely, to seal the compromised star and send the hellspawn back to the underworld; all three of them had collapsed in the clearing, gasping for breath, sweat pouring from their brows that froze instantly upon contact with the night air. It had been a moment of terrible weakness for all of them; anybody could have come up and given them a tickle, much less a poke in the gut—or heart. They had been completely helpless for a good few minutes as they strained to catch their breaths and recoup their strength. Fortunately, no one had dared exploit their moment of weakness, or perhaps been able; the tribespeople had still been screaming and scattering in the awful aftermath of the demons’ visit.

    Seeing nothing move in the too-quiet village, her eyes crinkled in suspicion. Here and there, blood stains on the snow spoke of the demons’ assault. The bodies had been dragged away—to be burned, she had been told, although the bonfire would not occur until the next sunset because of their ridiculous beliefs. At least it was too cold for all those carcasses to start up a stink. All told, that demonic visitation had been far more than any of them had expected, and it was all thanks to that blundering fool Madrayas. She was glad he was dead, because she would certainly have killed him, even if he had spoken the tribes’ grunting mockery of a language the best among the Kin. Mother had saved her the trouble, fortunately; the expression on his face when he had turned to see the demon roaring fire upon him had been thoroughly satisfying. If only she had been able to savor that moment longer, being forced as she was, along with the remaining Kin, to try to seal the broken star. It had been a near thing, and she had been left to deal with the consequences. She was the leader of this group of Kin, even if Madrayas had spoken Torghasti best, and her leadership had been sorely tested at every turn, beginning with that leering Soldishman. She had wondered at his temperament upon hearing his name. In Soldish lore, Madrayas had been a poet, artist and lover extraordinaire, leaving a trail of swooning hearts in his accomplished path; it was a very pretty name for such a nasty character, and he must surely have chosen it in jest, for it could not be real. At least she hoped no mother would burden her son with such a loaded name, although you could never tell with the Soldish, who named their boys Tresuras for “treasure” and their girls Fortapedra for “strong rock.” At least it was a Soldish name to go along with his Soldish accent, although all of that mattered little now since Mother had claimed him. She had never trusted Soldish members of the Dark Kin, anyway; the Soldish were too bright and joyous a people—it seemed unlikely they could produce those of the temperament needed to wish for Mother’s return. She had detested depending on him to communicate with the idiots claiming to be the tribal elders. There had not been a woman among those “elders,” and she had been shocked to discover they did not allow women to become elders. Indeed, no Torghasti woman was allowed any position of responsibility; they were considered chattel and breeding stock to these disgusting savages on the mountaintops. Dealing with them had set her blood boiling and roiling until she was sure it would come steaming out her ears! She could not wait until Mother’s return. For part of her reward, she would demand sovereignty over these horrid mountain men. She had already dreamed up many satisfying scenarios where she would show them the error of their ways.

    Licking her dry lips, she reminded herself that Mother had not returned yet, and, indeed, Her return depended on the successful outcome of this dreadful mission. Getting that mission back on course after last night’s debacle had been difficult in the extreme. She had just spent the last many hours arguing with those stupid elders: arguing, haranguing, cajoling, pleading, begging—whatever it took to get them to agree to follow the Kin’s plans. The elders had refused to stay in the village for some unexplained reason, leading them all off to the north end of the vale to a lone hut surrounded by trees, where she and the remaining Kin had been forced to sit on the filthy dirt floor while they talked the elders back into supporting an invasion of Vel Esya. She did not allow herself to miss Madrayas and his fluent words, but communicating with them had been a trial, given her scant knowledge of their tongue-twisting language. At least they listened to her now that they had caught a glimpse of the Black Mother. Possibly they were beginning to understand it was wise to follow the natural leadership of a woman. She believed she had succeeded with them—if not quite in agreeing to invade, then at least in sending out messengers to gather the tribes at Devil’s Rock. That would have to be good enough, for now. When she met her siblings at the new moon, they would prepare such a display of Mother’s power that all the mountain tribes would flail before Her might until they gnashed their teeth in their eagerness to destroy the southerners.

    After she had been sure she had that one important point of agreement, she had left the rest of the negotiations to her fellow Kin, for she itched to get her hands on that Vellish spy. She was sure it was a Queen’s Guardsman—and possibly a Bond Sibling, if she could be sure about the hawk. During the chaotic aftermath of the demons, while she and the other two Kin chased the elders down and made them agree not to flee into the mountains, she remembered someone reporting two hawks. If this were true, then there was another Bond Sibling out there, and she ground her teeth at the amount of time she had been forced to spend with the elders, all while the spy’s accomplice could be plotting to save his countryman. She wished she could have brought another Kin with her, but the tribes responded to strength in numbers, and two Kin were better than one in facing the elders down. So it was up to her to sort out this business with the spy. She rather looked forward to inflicting as much pain on him as possible for she had been forced to bottle up her rage for far too long with those exasperating elders.

    She was worried about that distasteful little man that she had been forced to let guard the spy. No other tribesman would do it, no matter how threatened, and the questioner, as he called himself, had been her only choice. She mistrusted the man, disbelieving his protestations of support, but at least he had offered to help, even if he had been the only one. The important thing was to have someone around to pour more glassroot and blackbark tea down the Guardsman’s throat, should he stir, which, given the amount she had already forced into his unconscious form, was an unlikely occurrence. She had dosed him with enough tea to make the White Prelate herself sleep for a day, if she did not die first, and be unable to gather her magic for nearly two days. It had been many hours since he had been dosed, though, and the Guardsman was a goodly man. As well, she knew little about this so-called White Bond—just that it gave a Bond Sibling a special rapport with a falcon or hawk. Some called it a glamorous sort of falconry, but she suspected it was more. These factors made her more and more nervous with the passage of time. Anything with “White” in front of it smacked of White Magic, always a wild and unpredictable thing, and, although she knew that no man could participate in White Magic, it was yet White Magic that enabled the Bond.

    It was worrisome and she raged inwardly at those doddering, fearful elders and the amount of time they had taken to be convinced! Worrisome, too, was the complete lack of activity around her. She was nearly to the questioner’s hut, and she had seen no one. It was as if every person in the village had fled it, and she worried that the elders had lied to her when they said all the tribespeople would stay near. Were they all hiding in the woods around the village? She passed by the clearing and felt the residue from last night’s magic. That had been an exhausting ordeal. The amount of power she and the Kin had been required to call up both the apparition of Mother and those demons had been simply enormous. And, then on top of that, they had to call up every last reserve of strength to shut out Mother and force the demons back into hell. She found herself shivering with how close it had been. Mother was greedy, a trait reflected in all Her children. After being given so much blood, She naturally would want more. If the Kin had failed and been overcome by Mother and her demons, then the hellspawn would have raged across the mountaintops, killing everything in their path. As they moved further afield from their earthly anchor, they would have become more attenuated until, finally, they would disappear. They would also have disappeared with the first light of the sun, and the woman looked around the village once more, trying to decide whether the amount of light had increased—it was so difficult to tell. She could see the questioner’s large hut not too far in front of her and she nearly hissed when she saw it lacked a guard. She wished she could remember what the dark-eyed guard looked like, so that she could punish him, but the tribespeople all looked exactly alike to her. She quickened her pace as she closed the distance.

    It was then that she heard the howling.

    She paused in alarm, to be sure the screaming came from the questioner’s hut—these mountain heights played with sound as well as with light—but the cacophony could be originating from nowhere else. Now approaching the hut with caution, she listened to that wailing. It was high-pitched, like that of a terrified little girl. Narrowing her eyes, she decided it was unlikely such a whining sound would come from that manly-seeming Guardsman, although one could never be sure about such things. At least, she hoped it was not the Guardsman—he would not be fun to break if he whined like that! She then heard another voice shouting, clearly in the tribal tongue even if she could not make out the words. What the devil was going on in there? She came up to the entrance flap and stood still for a moment, closing her eyes and gathering her will. She prepared herself in a general way, ready to unleash skeins of magic for controlling or for attacking. Taking a deep breath, she ducked to enter the flap.

    And came up short as the flap barely budged. She did hiss then. It had been tied down from the inside! She glared at the offending piece of hide hanging immovably in front of her. It was called a flap, but in fact was several pieces of leather-tough animal skin stitched together to keep out the elements. This “flap” was nearly as thick as a door! The screaming inside was becoming louder and more frenzied. It nearly seemed the howling of some wild animal. Alarm rising in her, she gathered some of her will into a pinpoint, and then thrust it at the flap. The thick hide burst inward, and, magic at the ready, she ducked into the hut.

    The scene that greeted her was so far beyond anything she could possibly have imagined that she stood stock still for a second, eyes wide. Upon the inward explosion of the flap and her entrance, the wailing had abruptly stopped. The two tribesman in the hut—and her eyes popped with rage at seeing her orders defied by the presence of the second tribesman—had stopped what they were doing and were looking at her in shock. The second tribesman was a puny little thing rolled up into a ball on the ground. It was from him that the girlish whining had come, and she realized it was that insane shaman from last night. She had considered killing him then, just to be sure he would pose no difficulty. After all, the Kin had just murdered his fellows. But he had hardly seemed worth the effort, quivering ball that he had become, and she had had more important things to worry about. Now, he was here in the questioner’s hut, still in a ball and still moaning. She knew he had some small ability with magic which, while similar in a strange way to her own black powers, was nevertheless no threat to her superior ability. Deciding it safe to ignore him for the moment, she turned her disbelieving attention to the first tribesman—the questioner—and the tightly bound form of the Guardsman. The questioner gazed upon her in complete terror, even as he held up a blacksmith’s tongs clenching a dimly glowing blade. It seemed he had been about to use that blade on the unconscious Guardsman, and her eyes widened further in displeasure at his defiance of her orders. Most unbelievable, however, was the Guardsman himself. His eyes were yet closed, but he seemed to be struggling weakly against his bonds. Her eyes trailed down to his nearly erect member, poking out in front of him.

    “What is going on here?” she demanded.

    The questioner turned toward her, one hand up in supplication while the other gripped the tongs. “Mistress!” he said. “The witch awakes!”

    The mad shaman chose that moment to start thrashing and screaming at the tops of his lungs. The Kinswoman glared at the tattooed figure and shouted, “Silence!” Seeing that she was being ignored, she cursed and turned back to the questioner, yelling, “Then give him more tea, fool!”

    The questioner cringed as he said, “I gave him the tea!”

    Glancing at the struggling body of the Guardsman, even if his eyes were still closed, she cried, “Then give him more!” She then noticed the upturned kettle near the feet of the questioner. Seeing that the kettle was empty, she roared, “You gave him all the tea! You fool! It will kill him!”

    Indeed, the struggling of the Guardsman appeared to be growing less. It seemed he was making one last fight before the poison overcame him. Nevertheless, the Kin stared in suspicion while she gathered her magic to hold that body still, just in case, even as the howling screams of the writhing shaman set her teeth on edge. After a moment, the Guardsman’s body stopped all movement, and his manhood drooped noticeably at his groin. She wished she could be sure of what was going on in that still form. A kettle full of glassroot and blackbark would kill even a large man such as the Guardsman in less than an hour. She now wished that she had not brewed so much, but she had thought that having an additional amount might be useful to keep on hand. She had certainly never dreamed that the questioner would pour the whole thing down the Guardsman’s throat! The questioner still stood in front of the Guardsman, casting his glances between that bound form and herself. Since it seemed the Guardsman was giving up the fight, and would soon be dead, she began to think of ways in which she would punish the foolish tribesman for defying her orders. Since he had stolen her opportunity of torturing the Vellishman, she decided that it was time the questioner was asked a few questions himself. But first, she intended to stop that awful racket from the howling shaman. The miserable little man was far too irritating, and she intended to kill him immediately. She gathered her magic to fling something nasty at him.

    A gurgling sound from the Guardsman distracted her and she turned toward him. His eyelids fluttered for a moment, and then his eyes shot open. The three others in the hut stared at the suddenly conscious man in shocked alarm, the questioner fully facing the bound form as he raised the hot blade he yet held in his tongs. Just as suddenly, the Guardsman’s mouth opened wide and expelled a wide liquid stream of reddish vomit which cascaded down over the head and face of the questioner. The questioner cried out as he flung the tongs and blade away, taking several steps backwards as he madly tried to rub away the foul stuff from his face. He took one step too far and tripped over the stones surrounding the fire. He crashed backwards, half of his body landing in the fire and on the glowing grate. Horrible screams of pain came from the man as he madly scampered away from the fire, but he was not quick enough, for licks of flame could be seen rising from his hair and the fur covering his coat, and the disgusting smell of fur, leather and flesh burning floated through the air. The questioner writhed on the ground as he screamed in agony, his movement across the rugs and dirt muffling the flames, but not extinguishing them. His crash into the fire had sent embers all across the hut’s interior, and a dozen small fires were springing up from the threadbare rugs. The Kinswoman looked in alarm as the fires began to grow in volume. Her skill with magic did not extend to controlling flame, and it was clear that the hut would soon become an inferno. Nearly deciding to get out of there, she looked once more at the Guardsman and the shaman. The Guardsman had continued vomiting, his body expelling every last ounce of the poisoned tea. His head rolled around on his chest, seemingly unaware of the events around him. His lips were moving and she sensed something strange, something on the edge of magic, but the feeling was weak and the growing fire was quickly becoming the paramount concern. The shaman had stopped all of his thrashing and moaning, and was sitting up straight, his mad, bright eyes looking intently at the Guardsman.

    The questioner tried to stand up, but fell again, screaming all the while. He crawled, heaving and twitching, moaning piteously, toward where the Kinswoman stood near the hut’s entrance. She sneered in disgust and stepped away from his smoking form, small licks of flames extending from his sides and back but not from his vomit-soaked front. She would have laughed at him, but her attention was drawn to the Guardsman’s lips, which still moved. She knew she needed to get out of there soon, but something was happening with the man, something which felt familiar to her. With a gasp of horror, she recognized what it was, but she was so stunned by her realization that, combined with the burning chaos around her, she was clumsy and slow in gathering her power to kill the man. Before she could focus her will to stop his heart, he had finished uttering the spell.

    If the interior of the hut had already been a burning chaos, what followed the completion of his spell was an insane nightmare cast up from the deepest pit of hell. The Guardsman howled the most soul-rending scream she had ever heard, a cry of loss so deep it was far beyond her ability to understand. The magnitude of that loss rent into her own soul, and she felt suddenly helpless, gasping for breath as her knees buckled. She knew that loss had been magnified by magic, and she also knew it was impossible, although this knowledge was a scant comfort as she tried to stop her sudden, uncontrollable shaking. The Guardsman had just performed White Magic. The feel of the bitch-magic had been unmistakable, for she had been trained to recognize it, but she had never expected it to come from a man. It was impossible! Her mind spun as she tried to get a grip on herself. She realized she was on her knees very close to burning spots of rug and struggled to get on her feet. The shaman started screaming and jumping, whether in glee or horror, the Kinswoman could not tell. He had his hands at his collar, and through the smoke it appeared he was trying to wring his own neck. After that soul-piercing scream, the Guardsman said nothing else, although he appeared to be sobbing in his constraints. There was a sudden crackle and burst of fire as the pinewood table across from her exploded into flame. Finally standing up, breathing with difficulty, she forced her legs to move, even as shock and disbelief still seized her mind. She backed away from the nightmare, praying that the Guardsman had no more White Magic within him, for she knew she would be ill-prepared to deal with it. With eyes locked on the sobbing form of the still-bound Guardsman, she had taken two steps when she was tripped. She fell over backward and felt hands gripping her legs, trying to pull her. She looked up and was met with the ghastly sight of the questioner’s burned face. His skin seemed melted where it did not appear crisped. His hair was burned off, except for a couple of smoking tufts, and his skull was an angry red where it was not char black.

    One of his eyes oozed out of its socket as a wheezy, croaking voice emitted from half-lipless teeth. “Mistress...” the voice said as bloody, black and cracked fingers gripped at her robe. She screamed and kicked at the specter, automatically gathering her power and flinging it at him. As if a great shovel had smacked him in the face, he slid back half a foot, but her magical blow was not enough to make him give up his grip on her robe. Not a foot away, a wooden chest burst into flame with a shower of sparks, and she realized that her robe was smoking at several points. Frantically, she kicked at the hideous apparition of the burned questioner, ignoring the cracking sounds resulting from her kicks, and finally freed herself. She scrambled to her feet and turned to run toward the flapless entrance, a mere three feet away. Upon turning she found the shaman between herself and her route of escape; somehow in the smoke and confusion, the man had snuck around her. She took a step back at the crazed expression on his face, and immediately gathered her will to fling it at him. But her magic would not come to her; she felt her will slip away even as she sought to gather it up. She looked down and was surprised to see the knife sticking out from her chest. As her vision grew dim, the shaman was right in front her.

    “The King awaits,” he leered. “The King awakes.”

~           ~           ~           ~

    When Maryk managed to awake his body—boosted by the energy of Taisha and Duvo’s love and lovemaking—he forced it to expel the foul poison gurgling in its stomach. After that, he found himself returning to his now conscious form, his spirit and flesh reuniting into their old partnership, his deep awareness of his body’s inner workings fading as they resumed their automatic function. He tried to turn his attention outward to the physical world, but was disoriented and unable to focus on that world, small though it was in the tribal hut. All he could discern was that every sort of chaos seemed to be breaking loose. The most important thing for him at that point was that he still was linked with Taisha. Automatically, he clamped down the human anchor necessary to control the link, which was already more than strong enough for what he knew he had to do, even if it broke his heart. He tried to get his bogged mind working, and began mumbling what he thought might be the finale of the complicated Bloodmark Spell. Those last few lines of ancient Velledic words were all he needed to culminate the spell, and compel Taisha to return to her birthplace in Vel Esya. His slippery mind couldn’t remember the words specifically, but he kept his mouth moving, hoping that its action would wring out the necessary words. After a moment, he was successful, and he muttered the last words of the spell.

    He had expected it to be awful, but it was indescribably more than that. The Primarchae of Borosduin were rumored to be fond of a sport wherein four horses were tied to the arms and legs of a criminal, with each horse setting off at a gallop in opposite directions; the rider of the horse with the largest chunk was the winner. Maryk felt like that unlucky person, but instead of his body it was his soul being torn asunder. Like a root ripped out of the ground, the bond was torn from his mind. He heard and felt Taisha’s screams of rage and confusion as, willy nilly, her wings took flight and carried her south, her cries growing distant in his mind until they were gone. The sense of loss was so overwhelming that he could do nothing but howl with grief as he felt his beloved Taisha disappear from his awareness. His mind felt like an open wound, raw and bleeding, and he gasped with the horror of it, knowing he was sobbing like a babe, but uncaring and unable to control his emotions. How long he wept he did not know, but, eventually, the heat surrounding his body asserted itself, cracking through the shell of his grief, and he looked about him. Seeing the interior of the hut springing into flame, and knowing that he could not escape, Maryk felt a small sense of relief that it soon would be over. He intended to burn as brightly as the sun to warm the back of his former bondmate as she flew to safety.

    His relief turned to worry as more of the hut burned, the smoke and heat increasing around him, although all the fires were yet away from his place of captivity against the wall. The smoke was a nuisance, stinging his eyes and making him cough, but the heat was the source of his worry. It stirred a strange feeling in his chest, a feeling he had experienced before, when a hot knife had nearly touched there, and hot liquid had spilled there. It was an alien tightness, like some force lived inside those scabrous blisters—a force that was being awakened by the growing heat. The blisters began... moving somehow, pulsating, quivering—it was nothing like anything he had before experienced. He looked down at them with concern even as stinging clouds of smoke swirled around him. The blisters glistened in the wildly flickering light of the growing fire. There seemed to be a purplish darkness replacing the dead-looking gray of each of their surfaces, and that unnatural darkness gathered at their tops like a hellish pus. His breathing became more labored, both from the smoky air and from the expanding sensation of the blisters, and he wondered what was going on—and what he could do about it. It was strange, but even as it grew hotter around him, he noticed that he himself did not feel very hot. The force gathering on his chest was cold, and it was slowly spreading its coldness throughout his form. Feeling a growing alarm, he looked around him. Although the fire was rapidly igniting every inflammable surface in the hut, the only things near him that would burn—besides himself, of course—were the wooden stakes in the wall and the strips of hide tying him to those stakes. There were no rugs on the dirt floor underneath him, and the closest piece of wood was a burning chest some five feet away. He began to hope that the fire would not actually reach him, and that he would die instead from smoke inhalation. Anything would be better than the awful mystery of those blisters. But the tribes built their huts well; most of the tremendous amount of smoke in the air scurried up through the hole in the pointed dome above. It was difficult to breathe, but not impossible, and the horrid sensation of the blisters’ expanding coldness became more intense.

    A form materialized through the smoke and, to Maryk’s dismay, he saw that it was the shaman trudging toward him, dragging something big and heavy. After a moment, Maryk could see that the thing being dragged was swathed in a black robe and Maryk wondered what a Pashdin heretic expected to do with him now. But, after another moment of dragging, Maryk suspected that the Pashdin was unconscious, and then, when the shaman finally turned the black-robed form to lie face up beneath him, Maryk realized that the Pashdin was a woman. And she was quite dead, as attested to by the knife sticking out of her chest. The shaman tried to prop up her body, but it immediately fell backward when he let go. He seemed to think this was funny, for he giggled a moment. He attempted to make her sit up again, and then suddenly cried out. Letting go, her torso immediately flopped down again, but he had commenced jumping up and down on her robe. Maryk could see a few tendrils of smoke rising from it; presumably, the madman was doing his chicken dance to quell any fires that had considered springing up. The shaman then turned and looked at Maryk, gazing intently at all of the bound man’s form. The shaman nodded in a satisfied way, then leaned down and pulled the knife out of the dead woman’s torso. At least, he tried to, for it would not come out without a struggle, and twice he fell on his bottom as his hands slipped off the handle. Each time he fell, he giggled as if it were a child’s game he were playing, and would set to his task again, until finally he held the blood-slicked blade in his hands.

    Acting as if the bound Guardsman were a good friend of long acquaintance, and seeming to be unaware of the fiery chaos just feet away, the shaman said in a conversational tone, “It has been long since a King has blessed our tribe. After the hunt, a new elder will be born who will lead us to victory.” Leaning down, he took the knife and casually sliced the dead woman’s throat, making blood appear, although, since she was dead, it oozed out slowly. The shaman seemed to be offended by the lack of blood, for he kicked the body several times, then jabbed the knife repeatedly into her head and torso. Finally seeming to decide there was enough for his purpose, the shaman dropped the knife and dipped his fingers in the blood, then stood again, looking intently at the blisters on Maryk’s chest.

    Looking at the shaman’s dripping fingers, Maryk said, “The King has not blessed your tribe—he has cursed it.”

    The shaman began rubbing the blood across the blisters, and immediately the cold in Maryk became stronger. The tops of the blisters felt like painful blemishes ready to release their fluid. “The Kings punished us for dealing with the Shadow People,” the shaman said, “but now they have given us a sign. They blessed you, who will assume the mantle of King in the earthly domain. The hunt is being called, and the victor will be reborn as High Elder, who will lead us to great victories. We have not been so blessed in two generations. We will dance in honor of you, the Southern Witch, delivered to us by the Kings to show us the error of our ways and lead us to greater power.”

    Feeling the horrific cold seeping into him, Maryk listened in disbelief to the shaman’s words. The man said them in such a rational way, as if it all made perfect sense. Glancing at the man’s dark, bright eyes confirmed that the tattooed figure was still completely insane, even if his words were measured and well-spoken. “If I assume the mantle of King,” Maryk said, “I will kill all the tribes, starting with you.”

    The shaman chuckled as if told a rich joke. Smiling, he leaned down to slick more blood across his fingers, then he stood up and again applied that blood gently on the pulsating blisters. Maryk knew that whatever force lurked within those blisters would soon be forcing its way out. “Of course you will kill me,” the shaman replied. “As well, you will undoubtedly kill a number of your hunters. The King chose well in your blessing. Your hunt will be sung of for generations. The hunter who takes you will be a great leader.”

    Getting desperate, Maryk said, “Let me go and I will spare your life.”

    At this, the shaman laughed deep and hard. “My life has already been taken by the King,” he said between guffaws, “as were my fellows last night. We were all punished for conspiring with the minions of the Shadow People. Soon I will dance for the Devil. I live now only to complete the task before me.”

    Wearily, Maryk said, “And what task is that?”

    Bending down to gather more blood, the shaman replied, “To prepare you to wear the King’s mantle. It is a test for me, who was allowed to live. Your evil magic gives you protection from the King’s touch. I must aid the Ice King in preparing you to become an earthly vessel for his spirit.” The shaman paused, looking at his bloody fingers. He smiled, and continued, “You have sent your White Demon away to find aid for you, but, in doing so, you have lessened its ability to protect you. Now,” he nodded toward the still form of the Pashdin’s body on the floor, “with the blood of my sacrifice, I will strengthen the Ice King’s spirit in his manifestation. This blood, combined with the heat of his rival’s fire, will allow him to awaken within you. Your struggle is mighty. Your power is strong. When the King finally overcomes you, the mantle you will wear will be remembered for a hundred generations!”

    Suddenly feeling hopeless, Maryk hung his head. “I have no power,” he whispered. “I am only a man. And my Taisha is no demon. I did not want to send her away.”

    The shaman paused, giving Maryk a sharp look. “Her?” he said. Shaking his head, he continued, “You southerners are truly foul, to follow the Concubines. Some of them escaped long ago, and I see that your people listen to their lies.” He stood on his tiptoes to look Maryk directly in the eye. “And they lie to you if they say you have no power. Your power shines like the Eye of the Sky Devil! The mantle you will wear will be fearsome indeed!”

    Maryk could not reply to this for he felt a coldness gripping his heart. Fighting for breath, he felt a surging within him. The blisters were large and tight upon his chest, now glowing a soft, putrid purple. Small openings in their tips were revealing themselves, and the purple blackness within poked hesitantly outward. That blackness consisted of ghostly, winding threads that swirled just above his form. The shaman’s eyes widened in anticipation and, Maryk believed, fear. With fingers now shaking, the shaman gathered more blood. “Soon,” he murmured. “Soon.”

    The shaman had just begun applying another coating of blood when there was a abrupt motion in the smoky air. “What!” he cried as a small form dashed in front of him. That form screeched angrily and Maryk suddenly knew who it was.


    The hawk screeched again as it attacked the shaman, sharp claws and hooked beak going straight for the eyes. The shaman screamed in agony as Duvo was successful in tearing one of those eyes. The shaman madly swept his hands all about him and dove to the ground, retrieving the blade he had dropped there. He rolled away, waving the sharp blade. Duvo followed and screeched as the knife barely missed his swift avian form. The shaman snarled and began muttering a strange form of Torghasti which Maryk realized was a Fashdouk spell. Still waving the knife with one hand, the shaman cried out the spell and flung some of the dripping blood on his fingers at the bird. Maryk felt a magical release and a rush of air buffeted the hawk. Duvo, already having a difficult time navigating within the small, smoky confines of the hut, fell straight down, barely regaining his wings before he struck the ground. Then he attacked the knife-waving shaman again. The shaman howled as Duvo tore the skin next to his remaining, good eye. Batting his arms, he managed to smack the hawk, who crashed against the wall, just under Maryk’s outstretched hand. Duvo fell to the ground and then immediately took flight to begin the attack anew.

    The fight between man and bird went on for a few moments, Duvo managing to inflict new wounds on the shaman with every pass, but unable to get at the man’s remaining eye. The shaman’s hands and arms were a maelstrom in front of him in his effort to protect himself, and occasionally Duvo would be struck, mostly by wrist and arm, but a couple of times by the knife. The shaman rumbled two more spells, but their effects were much smaller than that of the first spell, indicating the shaman had a very limited reserve of magical ability. The wounds inflicted by the bird were slowing the shaman down, but at the same time, the fire and smoke were slowing the bird down. During all of this, Maryk struggled with the burgeoning presence of the demon-spirit lurking within the blisters, trying to get out and take over Maryk’s form. The force of the demon within him was like a slow, unstoppable tide, washing away all of Maryk’s efforts. Maryk feared he would not be able to resist, and that Duvo’s miraculous appearance would be for naught. Feeling a rage building within him, he struggled all the more, fighting the cold, creeping presence of the alien spirit. But the rage was a mistake, for it seemed to energize that demonic force, and Maryk felt himself quickly being overcome as purplish tendrils of shadow flowed out of the blisters and began to envelope his form. Maryk immediately quelled his rage, although it was difficult, and the surging force lessened. But Maryk knew this was a battle he was losing.

    A blood-curdling scream from the shaman told Maryk that Duvo had succeeded in blinding the man’s remaining eye. A last, wild flailing of the shaman’s arms clipped Duvo as he flew away and the bird once again struck the wall, falling down its side to land on the ground a few feet away from Maryk’s bound form. As the shaman howled in agony, turning this way and that, blood streaming down from his ruined eyes and from a hundred cuts on his head and neck, Maryk looked toward the small form of his beautiful Duvo, expecting him to get up. But the bird just lay there. For a horrified moment, Maryk thought Duvo was dead, but then a slight rustling of the wing told him the hawk yet lived. It was clear, however, that Duvo was injured.

    The shaman fell to the ground, and began crawling forward, his hand in front of him. He turned away from the still burning interior of the hut, even if the fires were dying down, and stumbled across the body of the heretic. Dipping his fingers in the woman’s congealing blood, he felt all about him until he grasped Maryk’s feet. He pulled himself up until his ruined face was turned toward Maryk. Then, horribly, he smiled.

    “Soon,” he said, and began reaching with those blood-covered fingers to coat the burgeoning blisters once more.

    Maryk ignored him, for all of his attention was on the still unmoving form of Duvo. He had ceased to care about himself, but if there were any way he could save Duvo, he would do it. He now wished that Duvo had never come, that he had followed Taisha to Vel Esya. It might have been that the two could be mates for the rest of their lives. But, improbably—impossibly—Duvo had stayed and come to Maryk’s aid.

    And it was all for nothing.

    A tear appeared in Maryk’s eye, and the shaman paused. “Your power will not save you now, witch,” the ghastly visage said.

    Maryk ignored him and kept his eyes on Duvo. He knew why Duvo had come to save him. It had been much more than the bird—it had been Wilmar, who apparently had a greater say in Duvo’s affairs than Maryk would ever have guessed. His lovely Wilmar, true at the last. Maryk felt an unbearable grief descend on him and he sobbed. The shaman gasped, and began applying the blood more quickly, although, to Maryk, nothing held any importance except the small, still form of the hawk nearby. Maryk would have given anything to have seen Wilmar one more time, and he now knew that he had seen his beloved once more, and how blessed he was by having experienced Wilmar’s love again, in the form of Duvo and Taisha’s mating. That act of lovemaking had been between Maryk and Wilmar as much as it had been between the two hawks. Tears started rolling down Maryk’s cheeks as he thought of how beautiful it had been.

    The shaman hissed and began muttering a Fashdouk spell. He cut his hand, sprinkling his own, living blood on the blisters, and Maryk felt the demon growing within him, although, at that point, it mattered little to him. On the ground, Duvo stirred slightly, and turned, cocking his head. Maryk was once again able to peer into Duvo’s orbs, this time with his human eyes, and his heart broke at the dimming light he saw there. Duvo had been cut with the knife and was bleeding. The second blow against the wall had broken his wing. His feathers were singed and burned. His life was flowing out of him.

    Maryk yearned to be able to cradle the dying bird in his arms, and tears of grief ran in a steady stream down his front. When those tears touched the blisters, a sound like small drops of water steaming off a hot surface could be heard. The shaman whined, fury evident in his ravaged face even if his eyes were no longer capable of flashing with anger. “Witch!” he cried. “It is too late! The King will have you!”

    With that statement, the shaman leaned close to Maryk and slashed his own throat, deep and straight across. Blood spurted everywhere, some of it splashing directly on the blisters. The shaman made a rasping sound and sunk slowly downward, blood covering Maryk’s torso, stomach and legs. Even this horrifying self-sacrifice did not affect Maryk, for he still looked yearningly toward Duvo’s form.

The living blood of the shaman re-ignited the force within him, and purple shadows emerged from the blisters in force to wrap themselves around Maryk. Feeling the lifeless cold of dead eternity grasp him from head to toe, Maryk gasped. The tendrils and shadows of the demon spirit began to sink into his flesh and Maryk felt that cold invade his soul. As the ice cold dread of the demon spirit inhabited his form, it also filled him with an awful strength. Feeling his will slip away, Maryk flexed suddenly powerful muscles and his bonds broke. The demon attempting to take up residence within him still was uncoordinated, and Maryk fell flat on his face across the bodies of the shaman and the Pashdin heretic.

    It was all strange to Maryk, however. Even with the overpowering presence of the demon, he still found himself detached. All he could think about was the little bird just a few feet away. A little bird so brave and true. The cold presence of the demon chipped away at Maryk’s grief, and his tears stopped. But that little bird remained in his mind, and Maryk was capable of only one emotion toward it.

    The emotion was love and Maryk felt the struggle of the demon growing less. Without fresh, or even old, blood to strengthen it, the demon spirit was proving no match for Maryk’s mighty love toward Wilmar and Duvo. Still, the demon struggled, and for some moments Maryk was unable to move as he lay draped across the dead bodies beneath him. All he could think about was his lovely Wilmar and noble Duvo and the tremendous sacrifice they had made, all for him.

    After he lay there for a while, thinking only of his true love, he realized that the demon was gone. The demon had mattered little to him but Duvo and Wilmar had meant everything to him. He immediately went over and gently cupped Duvo in his arms. With tears streaming down his face, he regarded the handsome, if singed, bird. Duvo’s eyes were still sharp, but now they were far away, and growing dimmer. Duvo peeped once, gently, and Maryk understood what he had said.

    “I love you, too,” he whispered.

~           ~           ~           ~

    The hunter regarded the back of the black-clad form as it moved swiftly away from the village. The hunter’s face and body had been painted with mystical symbols in goat dung and blood to offer some protection from the Mantle-Wearer. Even so, he gulped nervously as that form disappeared into the trees beyond. No Mantle-Wearer had appeared in two generations, and this Mantle-Wearer had been a foreign witch whose struggle had been mighty and long. Some of the ancients had expressed dismay over how long it had taken for the Mantle of the King to be accepted by its new Wearer. Even so, this Hunt was the opportunity of a lifetime. Whoever succeeded in taking the King-in-Flesh would be a mighty leader whose song would be sung for generations. Grabbing his spear, arranging his fur and leather, and giving his knife a flourish, the man set off on his hunt.

~           ~           ~           ~

    To the south, a form flitted across a wild vista of crags, slopes and peaks. Southward, ever southward it went, in a straight line, driven by a need it could not understand and which it could only obey.

    Up on high, a hawk flew over the mountain.