“I am yours to command, my Lady.”
She wound a curl of his hair, black as jet but beginning to show the first streaks of gray, around one long pink finger. “I don’t think I can command this, Tranis. It isn’t for me, really, but for you, and eventually for the Brightlings.” That name, Brightlings, had only recently become popular among the Faithful who had chosen to follow Illowan in resettling the nearest of the abandoned cities of the Foe. Tranis still wasn’t quite used to it, but he realized that it fit more and more all the time. Living under the open sky, serving and worshiping the Lady of Light first and the Lord of Shadow only second if at all, they were changing.
Tranis sat up in bed. “Tell me.”
“You have things to do in the other world.”
Tranis got out of bed and leaned against the open window where the morning light came through. His apartment was midway up the North Tower and his window looked out over the white walls of the city towards the long expanse of the river. To the west he could see the Boundary Hills and the first trees of the Darkling Wood where those of his people who still followed Malatant of Shadow lived. Deep in the forest but far from any village of the Faithful stood the nearest of the Green Stone Towers. The Towers provided difficult access to the Old World, and from the Old World to this one – they were the only things that existed in both worlds at once – but Tranis could not see it from his window. “The other world. What will I do there?”
“Learn. Take part in great deeds. Fall in love. Grow. Meet my daughter.”
Tranis smiled. “Is she the one I’ll fall in love with?”
“Maybe.” The goddess laughed. “You don’t want me to reveal everything, do you? That would surely spoil the surprise.”
“Surely it would, and surely you will do nothing of the kind whether I want you to or not. Which daughter is this? Malatant’s or the Singer’s? I know it can’t be mine; she’s here in D’Anrith.”
“Malatant’s daughter, my firstborn, Sonia. Your daughter Janitha is here in D’Anrith as you said, and Johnny’s is among the People, and that’s not where you need to go. But don’t become too focused on Sonia. You have much to do in the land of the slavers, my Tranis, and she is only a part of it.”
“What should I do, then?”
“Go to the Tower, climb the stair within it, and enter the other world. If you go south from the Tower and a little east, you’ll find a road within a few hundred yards. Follow that road. It curves around to the east and comes to a big city called Watercourse within a day’s walk. Take plenty of coin with you, at least a hundred gold pieces. Meet the people you meet, find out what’s happening, and go where fate takes you. It will be a vacation in an exotic land.”
“I suppose. What about the language? They don’t speak ours, I presume.”
She smiled. “You already speak their language,” she said – in Vance, the language spoken on the other side of the Tower.
Tranis laughed. “Ah, you think of everything,” he said in the same language.
“It goes with the job.”
“You’re sure I won’t be needed here?”
Illowan’s eyes took on a far-away look. “I’m sure. The rift between Brightling and Darkling is only beginning. Real conflict is years away. I’ll need you here then, but not now. This is the perfect time, my love.”
Tranis smiled and closed his eyes. It was blissful to hear her call him that. Foolish, he knew, to fall so in love with a goddess. Unavoidable, though.
“I had best put things together, then. A hundred gold pieces?”
“Or two hundred. Take city funds.”
“Very well. I would like to say goodbye to Janitha, and I had better put a party together for the journey.”
Illowan laughed. “That’s one of the things I love about you, Tranis. You’re so decisive! No floundering or hesitation. You just get it done. A small party, and only for the journey to the Tower; no one else will be making the climb.”
“Of course. I’ll put it all together today and set out tomorrow morning.”
“That will work. There’s no need to say goodbye to me. I’ll see you on the other side before you come back.”
Tranis kissed her. “That’s good to know.”
“Don’t rely too much on my overt help, though.”
He sighed. “No. You’re going to be divinely reticent as always, affecting things only in subtle ways.”
“It comes with being able to see the future. I know the consequences of too much intervention by the gods. We all do.”
“Unfortunately, we mere mortals don’t share that insight.”
She smiled. “I can share part of it. If the gods took care of all the problems people had, then people would stop thinking, stop striving, and stop growing. We don’t want you to be dependent on us. We want you to be like us, ultimately to become gods yourselves.”
“Malatant has said similar things to me before.”
“There are exceptional times when we do intervene in major ways, Tranis, but they’re rare and this isn’t one of them. As much as anything, you’re making this journey to learn things and to grow. I must leave you on your own to let that happen. In some ways the times ahead won’t be easy for you. But odds are you’ll come through all right.”
“Nothing is ever certain.”
“I suppose not.”
“Except my love. That goes with you always.”
Tranis smiled broadly at that thought, kissed her once more, dressed, and left his apartment.
He was leaving his duties and his people behind, but in fact Illowan was doing him a favor. What destiny she saw for him he didn’t know. Doubtless she spoke truly about what her vision revealed. But for Tranis, the prospect of relief from the dull responsibility of helping to build a new culture was all the inducement he needed. He was a warrior, and except for occasional skirmishes with the swamp trolls, more nuisance than anything despite their growing sophistication, the land was at peace. The time was perfect for an adventure.
Four days later, Tranis woke from the sleep of exhaustion to another dawn in the land of the slavers. The journey on diwatha-back to the Green Stone Tower had been uneventful. The climb up the stairs within the Tower had been an ordeal but one he had survived. As the Towers always worked, he had climbed the winding stair until his legs had given out and he had fallen in exhaustion. When he lifted his head, he found himself on a landing with a door much like the one he’d come through, apparently still at the bottom of the stairs, as if he’d never climbed a single step. Opening that door he had stumbled into a clearing in a forest in the Old World and had fallen instantly asleep in the grass. The morning light had just cleared the trees when he rose and stretched. His legs ached, but otherwise he felt well enough. Dressed in the strange but tough and functional garments of the Old World – trousers and shirt of rugged woven fabric fastened with buttons and a leather belt, leather boots that rose to mid-calf, and a felt hat – he found south and slightly east by the sun and walked. A jacket of tanned sheepskin with the wool still attached was rolled up in his backpack (it was late spring and the weather was mild, but he might need it later in the year if he was still about), along with a pair of sandals. Within a few hundred yards he saw the road and made his way to it through the undergrowth.
After that the going was easy. The road was paved with gravel. It had ruts showing the passage of wheeled vehicles, but otherwise it was in fine condition. So was Tranis, who suffered no sign of aging except the gray in his hair. The Faithful did not age as mortals did.
He had been on the road for an hour before he met his first native, a man on a riding-beast. It was not a diwatha but a horse, the fangless, clawless, herbivorous animal enslaved by the men of the Old World for riding and labor. No match for a diwatha in a fight, Tranis still judged it big and strong enough to be dangerous. He nodded politely to the stranger, who doffed his hat and said “Hello, sir.” The rider pulled the reins of his animal, which came to a stop from the brisk walk it had been making.
“Hello,” Tranis said.
“Haven’t seen you before, sir. My name’s Arthur Wildplum. What’s your name, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Tranis saw no reason to keep his name a secret. “I am Tranis of D’Anrith, a stranger to this land.” As unobtrusively as possible, he loosened his sword in its sheath, just in case.
Arthur Wildplum grinned. “Well, skin me for a rabbit. Are you one of those faerie folk from down south I hear about?”
“Not precisely. I came from the other world by way of the Green Stone Tower, just yesterday.”
“Well, I never! Welcome to the Kingdom of Grandlock, Mr. Tranis. No need to pull that blade at your side; I ain’t no highwayman or inclined to do harm to visitors.”
Tranis laughed and took his left hand off the hilt of his sword. “I am pleased to hear it. Will this road take me to the city of Watercourse?”
“That it will.”
“Thank you, Arthur Wildplum. May you find what you seek this day and come to no harm.”
“Same to you, sir. Good day and best of luck!” He kicked his horse gently in its sides and the beast snorted and trotted past Tranis and on down the road.
Smiling and thinking that if Arthur Wildplum was a typical specimen, the people here were friendly enough and he should get along well, Tranis hefted his pack and went on down the road himself.
Another hour and a half of walking, more or less, brought him out of the forest and in sight of a walled city surrounded by what had to be plowed fields. Tranis had never seen plowed fields before, but he had heard of them and these could be nothing else. They were laid out in regular rectangular plots of bare earth, smoothed flat, with plants growing in neat rows, all the same kind in any given row. Most of them seemed to be planted with some sort of grain, although at this time of year it was hard to be certain. A few fields had fruit trees instead, also growing in that same unnatural tidiness and order, while in the distance he could see animals – sheep, he was fairly certain, grazing on the grass in the fields. The animals were enslaved by the people here, of course. That was why the Faithful and the Foe alike called these people “the slavers” – because they enslaved plants, animals, nature itself for food, clothing, and work. Both the Foe and the Faithful worked their magic on the wild lands instead to increase their bounty, and hunted and gathered as nature had intended men to do.
To be sure, the Faithful enslaved men and women, which these people had done once but no longer. But Tranis’s people didn’t enslave all of life the way it was done here.
It was all planned out and logical. Tranis smiled wryly. He could recognize the influence of the Lord of Shadow, right enough, even after ten thousand years. Malatant did love everything orderly and in its place.
He spent a little time gawking at the plowed fields and the people working in them. They seemed to require an enormous amount of work. He wasn’t sure what the workers were doing. Some walked slowly down the rows of plants bent over and whacking the ground with a tool on a pole. There had to be some point to that effort, but he could not think what, and it was only one of many mysterious labors that occupied these sunburned folk. Tranis knew in theory that these arts could grow much more food from a given amount of land than one could forage without the help of magic, but how Malatant ever persuaded people to make slaves of themselves just so they could grow extra food that they didn’t even need he could not fathom. Truly the gods were capable of marvels.
But Tranis’s business was in the city, so he set such thoughts aside and followed the road across the fields towards the distant walls.
The city began well outside those walls. He walked among houses and shops, on paved streets and beside people on foot and horseback, which showed him that the land was at peace and the people of Watercourse did not fear attack by enemies. The men wore variations on Tranis’s own dress, while the women usually wore long skirts that hid their legs entirely. In coloring they seemed midway between Tranis’s dusky hues and the golden-pale looks of the Foe. Their hair was usually dark, but occasionally he saw some with light brown or blond locks, and even one redheaded woman who reminded him of Illowan, although she was not nearly so pleasant to the eye. Their skin was fairer than his, though, even the dark-haired ones.
He was still a goodly distance from the walls of the city when Tranis gasped in shock. Before him was a man, or a man’s wreckage, hobbling with bent back down the street aided by a cane. Some of the Faithful used walking aids of that sort if they had been severely injured in battle or in accidents, but this man’s injuries went far beyond a mere crippled leg. In fact his legs both seemed to function well enough, just clumsily and slowly. What was wrong with him? His skin was marred by ugly folds and mottled patches. His sight seemed dim and his eyes were clouded; they rested in pouches of loose skin so that Tranis feared they might tumble from his head at any moment. His back was bent over like the curve of a bow – surely, Tranis thought, that could not be natural. His hair had mostly fallen out, and what remained hung in thin snow-white clumps.
The white hair gave Tranis the clue to what he was seeing. This was not an injured man. He was simply an old man. His hair was white like an Elder’s, but in addition he displayed all the dire effects of old age to which Elders were immune. Tranis suppressed an involuntary shudder. To these folk, such a horrible transition from youth and health into decrepitude through no agency beyond the passage of time was normal. With a deep breath, a shudder, and a silent word of thanks for his own semi-divine heritage, he walked on towards the city walls. By the time he reached them, Tranis had seen a dozen or more people in various stages of aging, from folk with roughly the same amount of gray hair as he had himself, relatively hale but still disfigured with a few unsightly wrinkles and bulges of fat, to white-haired trembling ancients who seemed likely to die at any moment. After a number of repetitions he almost got used to it, at least to the point of being able to see it without reacting too blatantly.
The gates of the city were unguarded. A few men in uniform did patrol the streets inside the walls carrying the strange missile weapons Tranis had heard of but never seen before, along with more recognizable short swords and clubs. He folded himself into a minor magic to divert their eyes, having no desire to waste time answering nosy questions. A bank accepted his two hundred gold coins in deposit, weighing them on a scale and giving him a purse full of the local currency as well as papers entitling him to the balance. An inn was not hard to locate on the main thoroughfare just inside the city gates. He arranged for a room and ate a meal in privacy. It consisted of bread, stew made with some kind of meat and vegetables, quite tasty and well seasoned if strange to his palate, beer, also very good, and a weird pale brown substance that, on inquiry, he found to be a concoction from the milk of enslaved goats. He tried a small bite and decided it must be an acquired taste. Finishing his meal, he paid for it and for a room for a week, washed up and went out into the early afternoon sun to explore the city of Watercourse.
Tranis noticed a number of places of worship in the city alongside the markets, dwellings and other buildings. Most of the temples bore the sun-disk symbol of the Good God, the country’s official faith. The Good God, as Tranis knew but these people mostly didn’t, was the disguise worn by Malatant of Shadow when he taught them the slaver’s arts and turned them against the workers of magic long ago. That was what brought about the Great Division and drove the sorcerers into the New World to become the People. In a way, that meant the slavers worshiped Malatant, although he never answered their prayers.
One temple displayed a different image: a globe of the Earth as the rounded belly of a pregnant woman. He stopped and stared. The music coming from inside the open doors, the smell of incense, and the people singing as they sat in a circle holding hands, confirmed that this was another temple or fane, but he could have sworn that image meant –
He stopped a young woman who was about to enter the shrine and said, “Excuse me, can you tell me what this building is?”
The woman smiled broadly and said, “Why, surely one of the faerie-folk would know! This is the temple of the Mother of Life. I go to ask her blessing for my new baby.” She cradled her belly protectively, although it showed no sign of pregnancy yet.
“Thank you,” Tranis said. “That’s what I thought. So tell me, are all of the old gods worshiped again here?”
She nodded. “All except for the Lord of Shadow,” she said, and then, lowering her voice to a whisper, “and I’ve heard even he has a secret following. Anyway,” she went on in a normal tone, “if you’re curious you could read the Book of the Gods. There are copies for sale at Seedrow’s Books just around the corner there.” A bell sounded from within Shavana’s temple and the woman said, “Excuse me, I need to go in. Nice meeting you, sir!” She scurried through the door and sat with the others on the floor.
Shaking his head, Tranis walked on down the street, thinking that he was altogether too recognizable, or mis-recognizable rather, as one of the Foe. Apparently the slavers had become accustomed to the idea that the faerie-folk had returned to the world, and had even begun worshiping the old gods once more. He wondered what it was all about, and what the gods planned to do with the place.
History – he felt a need of it, of learning in general. He wanted to understand these people as he understood his own people or the Foe. If he had to conduct a military campaign against them at this time, he would be riding in a blind fog.
The afternoon was smoothly proceeding towards evening when he realized that someone had been following him for over half an hour. Surreptitiously, in the course of stopping to buy a mug of ale from a vendor, he looked behind him. He saw nothing suspicious. Whoever was following him was doing a professional job of it, but was unaccustomed to shadowing someone with magic.
Tranis walked a little further past the beer vendor, sipping the indifferent brew he had purchased – at least it had been cheap – and at the first dark and narrow alleyway turned to the left. He ducked into a doorway, drew his sword, hid himself with a spell, and waited. In a few minutes, a young man followed him into the alley, and the man’s furtive casing of the area before entering told Tranis all he needed to know. As the man passed him by without seeing him, Tranis exploded from his doorway and kicked the man’s feet out from under him. The man fell on his face with a cry. He tried to rise, but Tranis set his foot in the man’s back and forced him down to the filthy pavement. He flicked his sword against the man’s neck and said, “Do not move.”
The man’s eyes widened and he stopped breathing. “I – I mean you no harm.”
“Is that so? Perhaps I mean you no harm as well, but you will have to convince me. Why are you following me?”
The man swallowed. “May I get up?”
“I can hear you fine as you are. Speak!”
“I know what you are. You are one of the Dark Faeries. Not from the islands in the south. From the other world. You came from the Green Stone Tower, didn’t you?”
“And if I did?”
“Then you are favored of the God of the Shadows. One of his true servants. I seek to talk to you on his behalf.”
Tranis hid his surprise well, although that was about the last answer he had expected. “What do you want with a devotee of Malatant?”
“You dare to say his name?”
“He does not object. Answer my question.”
“To bring you among us, so we can learn from you. He has devotees here, you see, but we must hide from the Church. They may tolerate the worship of the other gods, but not him.”
Tranis chuckled. “If they only knew.” He backed off and sheathed his sword. “Very well. It was stupid of you to follow me that way. I could easily have killed you.”
The man stood up and brushed himself off. “I see that now. My name is Robert Marshweed.”
“I am Tranis of D’Anrith.”
“I am honored, Lord Tranis. Will you come with me?”
Tranis grinned. “Yes, I believe I will. Lead on.”
Or continue to Chapter Two.