By Christopher Leeson
FROM DYAN'S JOURNAL
All my life I had been hearing stories about the Formoru, told in a way meant to frighten children. These bogies of nightmare were sometimes called the Dark Gods. But except for the certainty that they were dangerous and exceptionally evil, no one had described in very much detail. Going faithfully to ritual did not illuminate a child on the subject; the parish druids said not a word about these ancient ones. Yet, it was said that our gods, the Daanan, had defeated them, thereby giving their tribe its greatest victory.
Since those days that are lost to me, and which I cannot now claim as my own, I have learned much that only the high wizards and druids are permitted to know. It is the kind of knowledge that I would cheerfully forget -- if only it were safe to do so.
“What are these Dark Gods? Are they truly dead and gone?” Those were the inquiries that I once put to Cawdour when I was about seventeen.
He looked at me in an odd way. I wondered if he was taking stock of me, trying to decide whether I was ready to receive an answer to the questions that I had asked.
“The Dark Gods are ancient creatures of immense power,” he said.
“So the stories tell us. But are they true gods, or are they monsters?” I asked.
“Both. Or neither. It is a matter of definitions.”
“How would you define those terms, Sire?”
The old wizard shrugged, as if I were being irrelevant.
“Most are colossal in size,” he stated. “Their memory lingers, though they were gone from the world before Mankind walked it.”
“How can that be?”
“Because they refuse to be forgotten. They mind-touch certain mad and half-mad persons in dreamtime. From the visions reported by these mad savants, they Dark Ones continue to be worshiped by the most depraved of human cults. And not only human cults.”
Some believe that those which lurk at the edges worship them also.”
“Edges?” I echoed.
“The edges of human habitation, the edges of the seasons, the edges of Time and Forever, the edges of dark and light, the edges of dreaming and wakefulness. The edges of life and death. A few of these are found in our folklore -- the undead, the lycanthropes, the beings of the sea. Others have been forgotten, or, in their remoteness, have never become known.”
I blinked. I knew of such creatures from hero stories, but was the wizard implying that they were real? How could one so wise hold such an idea? For myself, belief in monsters had slipped away from me along with with childhood.
“The Dark Gods are held in abeyance by forces even greater than they are,” my foster father continued. “But this power is not immense enough to snuff them out of existence, so they abide like prisoners awaiting their release. The stars say that their day shall come again, but this is not their day. No one can prognosticate the hour when they will rise again; let us hope that it shall not be ere Mankind has withered and turned to dust.
“Is it the Daanan who hold these demons in check?”
Cawdour shrugged. “Most believe that the Formaru were routed by the gods. Others hold that their banishment came about gradually, part of the natural progression of the Cycles.”
I could not help but frown. What were the cycles that he referred to?
“According to the first theory,” Cawdour pressed, “the Dark Gods held sway in realms where our gods hold sway now. There was a great war between the gods of the natual world, led by Nudens, and the Dark Ones. It is said that nearly all of the Formoru and gods were slain.
"But the Daanan, legend tells us, held a secret. They knew the way back from the Pit of Death, and so sacrificed themselves in wild attacks, so that the enemy could be driven into the deep darkness along with them. The Daanan returned by virtue of their secret wisdom, but Death's Hall still holds the Dark Gods captive in its bowels.” He shrugged. “This tale is only a metaphor, the truth, we must assume, was something that our ancestors could not conceivably understand.
“Be that as it may, the Dark Gods are not truly dead; instead, they await the time of their release, eager for revenge against those who discomforted them.”
This was, in the main, the same story that parents had been telling their children for centuries.
Now Cawdour frowned pensively. “The second supposition holds that the Old Gods are dormant only due to the effects of cycles, the universal order to which even the mightiest of gods must yield. To understand this, look at the seasons of the earth. Just as some animals hibernate through inclement winter, so too must the Old Gods slumber so long as the prevailing cosmic cycle endures.
"These cycles are like the magical clock in the famous story, the one which made a sound to awaken its master whenever the time came for him to rise. While the Dark Gods sleep, life as we know it go on. But when they wake.....”
“When they wake, what happens?” I asked.
Cawdour drew a deep breath through grim lips. “By the time they rise, their thirst for destruction shall surely have grown as bottomless as the pit that had imprisoned them.”
I suddenly wondered if the savant was only trying to test me, to assess my canniness when told a false tale, even if by one whom I had always placed at the highest level of trust. “Wherever they presently lay,” I began carefully, trying not to sound naive, “will the world of man be left in peace for the next thousand thousand years, or should we fear?”
Again he regarded me, his glance challenging. Was it intended to admonish me -- not for my gullibility, but for my skeptical tone?
“We should fear,” he finally declared.
* * * * *
The Dark Ones
A tower bell kept us appraised of the hours. A little hushed conversation, a midday lunch and, after interminable hours, the balance of our provisions at supper were all that broke the day's monotony. But in my state, it was a strange sort of monotony. I was not bored, but plagued with anxiety. We had so much to do, and such scant means to do it.
A single toll marked the first hour of the evening -- sunset. The bats tittered restively and, in ones and twos, fluttered to their exits, their excited wings often brushing our faces. They were free to leave, but we had to await the hours of full night. Lairgann may have been right; without Gannon to steady me, I might indeed have left the garret too soon. I wanted room to breathe, to be at the door when Maeve was being brought inside. But the plan was my own and I had to stand by it. At last the third bell rang.
"Take it easy, Rod; it'll be another hour at least."
So we believed, but what if the black priests varied their routine, just this one time? Of what use would be our planning if its aid came to my sister just a few minutes too late?
"Waiting is worse than fighting," I complained, and not for the first time.
Gannon shrugged. "Whenever I'm in a fight, I'm usually wishing that I was waiting behind the tree.”
“You're not a coward!” I told him.
“No, but I'm a worrier.”
“No, you're not that either. You're the most gay at heart man I know.”
“Maybe I'm just the best actor.”
I forced a laugh. “You're not that either. What a pathetic woman you made!”
“Well, you made a good one, and you still do. That's what worries me.”
I didn't want to carry on this silly banter, so I just grunted.
Finally, the fourth bell tolled!
I leaped to my feet. Gannon held me by the skirt of my jacket. "Easy, Rod."
"We've got to get down there!" I told him and hurriedly picked up my pack, and lastly made sure that my dagger was still firmly in its sheath.
Gannon opened the hatch, and the cap was barely out of my way before I was on the ladder. My comrade, above me, descended more deliberately, even pausing to replace the hatch covering. It was the right thing to do, though, surely, no one would have noticed it until morning.
We found the hall outside the room deserted and I continued in the lead. We moved in silence, thanks to our soft-soled shoes, a type favored by hunters who require stealth. Despite the darkness, we located the service stairs and descended two flights to the ground floor.
Then the pair of us skulked along a narrow hallway, but everything seemed unfamiliar in the dark. Suddenly, the faint scuffle of many boots and a woman's whimpering disturbed the silence.
* * * *
"It must be Maeve," I hissed. "I'm going after them!"
"No!” Gannon whispered. “We have to unbar the northeast door!"
"You unbar it! It doesn't take two!"
"Rod -- you're crazy!"
I broke away and ran lightly in the direction of the sounds. Though I could no longer hear the woman's cries, the footfalls guided me.
Only a minute later, I spotted a diffused light and approached as far as the next corner with a light-footed scurry. Dropping on one knee, I peered around I and saw a torchlit chamber back-lighting two black-robed priests. These were acting as sentries. My heart sank like a leaden weight when I heard yet another distressed cry, this time from the room. It had sounded like Maeve, but I had grown so keyed up that I couldn't be sure.
Not daring to challenge the sentries with naught but a dagger, I took a side corridor, searching for a back way into the ceremonial chamber, one which was perhaps less well guarded. I very soon came up against a closed door and tried its latch with my right hand -- only to have it swing open with force, nearly striking me!
I only glimpsed the hooded man before my fist slammed into his belly. He doubled up with a grunt and I struck him again, this time with my knee to his bent head. Larger men than him had gone down like a sack of oats from such blows delivered by male muscles, but this scoundrel seemed only stunned. He lashed out with a thick arm, knocking me aside like a down pillow.
I struck the flagstones on my back, and then felt the crush of the man's weight upon me.
Though pinned, I groped for the dagger that I'd fumbled, hoping to kill my assailant before he could shout for help. The stranger seemed to need no help and in seconds I knew the mortification of being pinned by superior power, and of having my own point poised at my throat.
"Who are you, boy? A thief? Well, you'll be sorry –-"
"Let me go, slime!"
My voice must have suggested what I was. He paused but a moment and then squeezed my breast. I gave a throaty yowl, to which the brute returned a short laugh. "A maid! And a chesty one, too."
I had to buy time, and my life along with it, if possible. I stammered: "L-Let me live. I'll d-do anything." Only now did I get a good enough look at him to make out his priestly raiment.
"Anything?" the cleric echoed, sounding mildly interested. He might have been a priest, this one, but he was definitely a man. "What can you do?" he asked, unhurried.
"I'm only an escaped slave –- a joy maid," I lied. "I was hungry."
"A joy slave?" As I'd hoped, that made him more interested in me. "Maybe you do know how to do a few things." He tweaked my breast again and knowing it was for lust seemed grotesque beyond imagining.
"What are you going to do with me?" I whispered, wanting to keep the man talking, rather than physically harming me.
"Tell me what do you do for your customers," he said suggestively, slipping the dagger beneath my chin -- to cut my jugular, I thought in sudden horror. Instead, he only severed the tie at my collar. Though only a cleric, he hardly seemed to fear me at all, for he was using both hands to pull the lacing of my jacket open.
"I never denied my customers anything," I forced myself to say. "I'll do what you wish, but don't hurt me."
"No time for sport now," the priest sighed, mostly to himself, "but later –-"
He got up and dragged me to my feet. I pretended to be too dazzled, too afraid, to resist. His hold was by now a careless one. His underestimating of me gave me my one and only chance. As soon as I had my footing, I spun toward his face and clawed for his eyes. But the man was quick; a sweeping arm knocked my hands away; he followed up with a lunge which shoved me against the wall, with such force that it made my bones rattle.
"You're a hellcat!" he said, panting. He pressed up so closely that I could smell the onions on his breath. "I'm going to enjoy taming you! If you don't like it, just complain to your taverneer."
I wasn't shamming being stunned; the collision with the wall had knocked the wind out of me. I wasn't able to give him much trouble as he twisted my arm behind my back and prodded me through the doorway.
While I was being forced along, I realized how outclassed I now was, having Ava's weight and musculature. My days as a warrior were over, whether I survived this ordeal or not. There could be no deceiving myself; if women could fight knights by main force, the army would have been full of them. I had to become a wizard, or else would end up being nothing at all.
The small room ahead was lighted by lamp. I saw vestments on hooks; it looked like a robing room. My captor forced me through it, up to an open closet, and into this he thrust me headlong. Then the robed man slammed and locked the door behind me.
"That'll hold you for a while, little girl,” he said. “We or the order live by our codes, and honor insists that we share. It's lucky you've been toughened in by tavern work, or else you'd really be in for a night to remember!"
With that taunt he left me in pitch darkness. I felt around the tiny cubicle blindly, trying to discover some tool of use as a prying bar. There appeared to be nothing except a lot of robes hanging from a rod. The rod itself was solidly fixed into the walls and I couldn't tear it loose. I next tested the door with all my strength, but it proved solid.
What if I couldn't get out? I couldn't help Maeve and she would have to depend on Gannon's action alone. In fact, I was just as much in need of rescue myself! Not just my dignity, but my actual life was at stake. Wouldn't they soon use me in sacrifice, too, just as they had used so many others?
Or did they only want virgin girls? I hadn't been a virgin, and I doubted that Ava was that kind of girl, either. In fact, I'd always supposed that her sort would have given Harouck anything to win his favor.
After a moment, I settled down, reconciled to the idea that I was a trapped bird in a dark cage. I frantically tried to come up with a workable plan. What really bothered me was the thought that I had a better chance to survive than Maeve did. I wanted to let her her know that she wasn't abandoned.
Suddenly the lock rattled. A jolt of alarm went through me.
Bereft of any other weapon, I seized the hanging rod for support, intending to kick who opened the portal with both feet and all the power of my legs.
The door swung open. Gannon's outline loomed in front of me!
"Rodin!" he whispered hoarsely.
Thank the gods that I had stopped myself in time!
He drew me from the closet, his arm under mine. I didn't need so much solicitude and didn't wanted to be handled like a girl. But, in that moment, I couldn't have faulted him for anything.
"Are you all right, Rod?"
"I'm fine. Did you see --?"
"He's over there!" Gannon said with a nod toward a heap on the floor.
"My gear!" I said. I darted out into the hall, plucked up the bag from where he had subdued me. Then I rejoined Gannon.
"You really ought to take better care of that gear," my companion advised.
"How did you find me?"
"I heard your scream."
"I didn't scream. I yelled."
"It sounded like a scream to me."
"Never mind! I told you to unlock the northeast door, not to shadow me!"
"So, would you prefer to be left inside that closet?"
"For Lew's sake, enough! I've got to go help Maeve!"
"Alone? That wasn't the plan. What can you do?"
"I can do plenty!"
I shoved him out of my way, then knelt over the unconscious priest. Working as quickly as I could, I stripped off the man's velvet hood and turban. As far as I could see, there was no blood on them, which was good. I next took a weighty statuette from a nearby table and delivered enough blows to his skull to make sure that he was indisputably dead.
My ferocity drew a gasp from Gannon. "He really must have made you mad!"
"You should have done it yourself!"
"He had his back to me. It didn't seem sporting."
"These people aren't worthy of chivalry.”
“I don't like to be a barbarian unless I know I'm up against barbarians.”
“He's a barbarian; take my word for it! Let's get back to the plan."
"What is the plan?” he asked in exasperation. “You keep changing it as you go along!"
I ignored him and resumed disrobing the now-dead priest.
"What do you want with those clothes?"
"I'm going to attend the ceremony," I explained. "If I have to, I can slow things down with a diversion.” I glanced about. “I don't see my knife anywhere. Loan me yours."
"You're insane!" he said, even while handing me his ballock dirk.
I yanked the dagger from its sheath, feeling a little more confident from having it in my fist. "If I'm caught, they'll probably keep me alive long enough to rape me. That's what saved me with this one."
"The rest of the lunatics might not be so gentlemanly!"
I grunted and dressed swiftly. "Find the door, unlock it, then lead band to the chamber where I heard a woman speaking -- it's down the hall, a turn to the right, and then to the left!"
Gannon saw me standing in the impossibly over-sized robe. "Let me go instead, Rod," he implored. "You'll never pass for a man!"
"Well, you're -- too short!"
With a snort of disgust, I pulled the cowl low, dragged up my sagging hemline, and sprinted into the corridor.
* * * *
There were still two sentries guarding the front entrance of the ominous chamber. I waited and when I saw the pair distracted by words spoken from their rear, I darted between the two of them. They had barely a glance at my back before I stepped behind the nearest column. The fools didn't come after me or even give an alert. Sentries! Never let a priest do a soldier's job.
Or maybe the gods were smoothing my way. That would be royal of them.
I was now down the gullet of the lion's mouth, but yet I felt myself drawing a breath of relief. If Maeve were here, I could now try to help her. But how much could I do? A quick glance told me that there were some fifty men gathered -- all wearing similar hooded cloaks. Any man was probably a match for me. Didn't women ever come in to worship those man-eating gods of theirs?
The makeshift ceremonial chamber was a large vaulted room decorated with paintings and tapestries. Mostly, they pictured mythical animals and sea life. For the most part, I had never seen the likes of these creatures. One was a fish that walked on two bent legs, another was a mass of tentacles. The remainder were not much prettier. The atmosphere hung heavy pungent incense, producing a dull ache between my brows and irritated my nasal passages. It almost forced a sneeze out of me.
With attention directed toward the prayer-leaders up front, I made for the more shadowy pillars in the rear. No sooner was I out of sight than voices shouted in unison: "Ityd ye llaedd! Ydy!"
Two men on the platform, acolytes I thought, were leading the others in a chant that I took for Herzeloydeg, though my fluency in that tongue was meager. I recognized only the words "Seal the --" and "Begin!" The porters now shut and barred the exit door, leaving me and, presumably, Maeve, trapped. I remained out of sight and alert.
But was Maeve really here? Just as a child had difficulties seeing parades, I had not seen before what they were looking at.
I had hoped against hope that some other woman, not Maeve, would be standing there, that a different selection had been made for the night, but all in vain! My youngest sister stood on the dais behind the presentation platform – tied naked by thongs to a black, oblong stone. My thoughts turned murderous to see her be so used.
"'Muwwhl fthagn, Kolwhu fthagn. . . ."
The congregation had struck up a dull drone that made the vessels upon the shelving tremble. For the moment, no one was actively threatening my sister, but my hands were clenched with tension. I needed to do something, but what chance did I have against so many? Where was the help that I expected?
Though the doxology did continue for a while, my optimism did not. Maeve's fate might depend upon what I chose to do within the next few minuets!
A priest in elaborate ritual finery emerged from a curtained alcove and, advancing to the platform, took a stance between the acolytes who had started the invocation. This newcomer now made a series of theatrical gestures and started speaking in elevated tones. He stood over a small table draped with a black-and-silver covering, upon whose surface there rested several objects of crystal or glass.
I watched the lead priest with the intentness of a hunter, hoping that he would take a long time at his rituals. To my consternation, the man's form was suddenly cast into highlights by some verdant light. I glanced about, but the source of it I could not see. What was that corporeal prickling I felt? Was it just a case of nerves, or did I have some new sense beyond the ordinary five, some reaction of my sorcerer's blood to the intrusion of another's magic, like a dog sensing a fox?
The assembly gave out a cry in one voice, filling the hall with a roar. I tensed. Something was about to happen, and I feared that it might be what the tortured priest had said would happen. The ghost light was intensifying steadily and a luminous globe had appeared and drifted over the altar, as weightless as a bubble, or a willow-the-wisp.
I could not turn my face from it. Did my unwilling informer speak true? This phenomenon was supposed to presage the coming of the That from Beyond! And when it appeared, the woman would be taken!
And, this time, the woman was my sister!
I saw leathery wings beating. The Summoned Thing was taking form out of the green mist. Maeve was seeing it, too, and horror was writ large on her bloodless face.
There was no more time.
I would defend her or die with her.
Springing from my hiding place, I dashed dashing between the unready chanters. The high priest shifted toward my disturbance and fired barbed words at me in Herzeloydeg, but not even barbed arrows would have been enough to stop me in my excited state. Leaping upon the dais, I seized the only weapon at hand, a candelabra as tall as I.
An acolyte came at me with his bare hands, but my brass artifact struck the man in the chest and he tumbled off the platform. I next jabbed it at the high priest, who, rather than be hit, vaulted away. The second acolyte, the last man sharing the dais with me, also turned poltroon and stumbled out of reach.
But I still had an opponent, an inhuman one. The creature was flapping overhead, looking like flying demon centaur. I could see little of its face through the mist and the shadow, but it had four legs and two arms. I saw no weapon in its knobby hands, but I'd been warned that it could use its whiplash of a tail destructively. Also, it was helmeted by a crown of blades; no such structure could have been a natural body growth -- not even on a body so unnatural.
I expected the Summoned Thing to attack me at once, but, instead, the creature cautiously moved toward my left flank, seeking –- I supposed –- to reach my sister, drawn to the sacrifice like a bee to a blossom. That such a monster seemed wary of a mere human being encouraged me to think that, unlike a ghost, it could be wounded.
I rushed at the Summoned Thing, swinging the candelabra. I struck its unlovely front legs. Instead of roaring with bestial rage, the creature startled and fluttered away. This brief respite I used to cut Maeve's right wrist free with Gannon's dirk. As the whir of wings again loudened, I yelled, "Here!" and pressed the knife hilt into my sister's nerveless hand. Then I turned at bay.
The wind from its wings swept me as the monster sent from the Dark Gods hovered just out of reach. While I did not know the signs of fear in a shape so outlandish, the creature seemed to be hanging back, as if to study me. Then, suddenly and with a shriek, the creature shot out a long arm and seized the end of my candelabra.
We fought a brief tug-of-war, but my foe was much stronger than I. Instead of digging in my heels, I abruptly changed tactics and pushed away, as hard as I could, turning its strength against itself, sending the Thing tumbling backwards, its wings lashing the heads and shoulders of the horrified congregation.
Just then, I ducked under the table, grabbing at the altar cloth. My roll carried me through to the other side, and my action brought the ceremonial objects crashing down behind me.
Regaining my feet unarmed, I saw a new flash of green light and in the next instant the Summoned Thing seemed to be fading away like a wraith. Was it returning to the realm of spirit! Had it taken no more than the upset of the ceremonial array to banish it? Had my action been a mere impulse, or had I been inspired by some guardian spirit that had inspired me?
But if good spirits were inside this chamber, why had they left all the risk of life and limb to me?
I glanced back and saw that Maeve had already sawed her left wrist and two ankles free. Scrambling to her side, I reclaimed my knife and put my arms around her, pulling me with her around behind the black stone. From there we had no other place to run to. I heard the cultists' mutter of indignation arose amid the cultists and saw them moving on us, like predators toward a wounded prey.
It came to me in a flash that we had no other moves to play. The question flashed through my mind whether I should give Maeve a merciful coup de grace, before I went down under the daggers of the infuriated horde. Not even Rodin at his manly best could have held back so many knives and bludgeons without a weapon to call his own.
At that instant, the double doors at the rear of the chamber burst open and men surged in, a marble pedestal being carried before them like a battering ram.
All became pandemonium. The small ceremonial blades and makeshift clubs that the priests wielded were no match for a dozen scarred broadswords striking right and left. War cries from warriors the chamber with a terrifying din. At every stroke blood came in streaks and streams.
It wasn't a fight, but the butchery of animals in a pen. The priests had no training and no worthy armaments to resisted despite their greater numbers. Some reacted by falling to the floor, covering their heads and yowling for succor. Others threw away their weapons and raised their hands, only to be struck down where they stood. Still others fought, but mostly against one another, to get to the wall, with no more plan than be be the last one who perished, apparently. But however the cultists reacted to the Fyana's onrush, the slayers never relented in their grim work of execution.
This, in its bloody fulfillment, was the plan that I had offered to Cemion and Lairgann after many false starts. My hope was to have the priests gather in pious witness to the Summoned Thing, a moment of vulnerability that would afford us the opportunity to have done with them, to the last man. I now was standing over the high priest's body, whom someone else had laid low. His blood was almost invisible as it soaked through the blackness of his robes.
This carnage wasn't sport, but it had been regrettably....
No, not regrettably. By then I already knew too much to have to regret anything that we had done so far.
* * * *
In the confusion I had lost sight of Maeve and scanned for her across what was a tangle of gore-drenched bodies. I needn't have worried; there she was, safely held in Lairgann's arms.
“Is this the lass?” he called to me.
“Aye, that's...the lass,” I replied breathlessly.
"Rodin," someone behind me whispered.
I turned to confront a blood-splattered Cemion.
"Shh!" I hissed.
Without reply, he took my arm and waved for Lairgann to join us. “We have to go through he house and kill everything alive in it,” I told them. Cemion, nodding, summoned some of the men and gave them their task, with Lairgann to lead them. According to the plan, all the discovered exits were to be immediately guarded once they had entered by the northeastern door. Now every additional exit, and every hidey-hole, too, had to be blocked or searched.
Meanwhile, Cemion and I had to take on the most important work. I went to recover my bag from the cloak room where I'd hidden it and then rejoined the Fyana leader. By that time, Custin the Magician had been presented to us by his keeper. I took the wizard's hand and led him up to the bat-infested garret were Gannon and I had passed the day. I hoped that the strangling odor of butchery had not inhibited his sorcery.
* * * * *
"Cut a hole up there!" I directed. Obligingly, two of our men with fighter's axes started breaking though the planks and the shingles between the rafters, using more prying effort than hard hitting in order to keep the noise down. The wood, fortunately, was old and brittle. They had very quickly chewed a hole through to the night air, about a cubit and a half wide. As soon as the breech was made, the rest of us piled up storage chests and boxes to serve for steps.
I stepped over to Custin, who had drawn off alone, shuffling in place nervously. I took his arm like a consoling friend.
"Come with me, Custin," I coaxed. "It's all or nothing now."
"D-Dyan,” he stammered, “I forgot to m-mention something important."
"What?" Any unforeseen complication arising now could be fatal.
"I'm afraid of heights."
I gave a short laugh. "Heights?! That's nothing! When your blood is up, it won't bother you at all."
He found little assuagement in my words, but with the help of the men already on the roof, Custin and I were hoisted up out of the garret. A cool sea breeze swept over us there, blowing away the odor of slaughter that somehow still clung to us, while a mist-dimmed moon offered us some light. The Wedtynn mansion abutted the eastern tower of the Bannog prison and the leadership had agreed beforehand that this afforded us the best route to my family's cell.
Cemion came up a minute later and I told him: "Let's get on with it.
“R -- Maeve, if what you've told me is true, you won't have much time before your power gives out," he warned.
"I don't need much time.” I shifted to the right. “Custin, watch me. If a timid girl can walk to the tower, you can, too!"
“T-Timid? You?” he said weakly.
I made the trip up to the tower wall without slipping, and then knelt on the shingles to search my pack.
While I was doing so, the magician, helped by Aine, a sure-footed rebel, made his passage to join me, moaning when he heard the sound and feel of the weak and decayed cedar reacting to his weight. Meanwhile, I had located the gem-studded magic belt that the druidess had called "the Belt of Teyrnon."
I felt Custin breathing on my neck and his clench as he clung to my shoulders for support. "Sit down and put your back against mine, Custin,” I whispered, “just like we practiced. This is going to be the easiest work a hero ever did to win fame." The jittery mage did as I asked him and, again assisted by Aine, he was buckled into the special harness which had been custom-crafted for the two us by a city leather-worker, so that we were now firmly fixed back to back.
Cemion had reached our position by now. "I don't like this, Dyan," he complained. "You've just gone through a battle. You're only a --" I waved him to silence. He was calling me Dyan now, I noticed, probably because he had finally met the real Maeve and my imposture was over. I only wondered what the other rebels would think when I wasn't Maeve and never had been.
"I may be worn out physically," I corrected him, "but not magically."
"Oh, come now! Stamina must affect a witch's magic."
"Oh, yes, it will," Custin volunteered gratuitously.
"Be quiet!" I snapped.
Cemion threw up his hands. What was his alternative to letting us try? Leaving the Oc'Raighnes to their fate? Not even Cemion wanted to do that to me. I was more concerned about Custin. From his first glance of me, he had been infatuated. I could give him back so little of what he most wanted. But because he was taking this risk for me -- not for a family that he didn't know – I wanted to endanger his life as little as possible.
With the magic belt buckled secured, Custin and I now endeavored to stand up with the help of Aine and Cemion. We discovered that being spliced had rendered us less somewhat less agile than a crippled crab. Only our friends' steady hands prevented us from falling down and rolling off the roof. The drop would be over fifty feet down to a stone-paved walk.
"Sort out that magic of yours," I told the young wizard, "and I'll sort out mine. At my word, we launch."
I gave Custin a minute to focus, then asked, "Are you ready?"
"Y-Yes!" he replied.
“Face the wall,” I said.
He shifted into position with teeth clenched. When we were steady in position, I let the rebels let go of us.
It was now or never. I repeated my memorized spell carefully and, with it, there began a tingle deep at the core of my torso. It gradually suffused me, spreading as an expanding warmth, permeating me like a wrap of hot towels.
Custin probably couldn't feel what I felt, but he gasped as the magic of the belt raised me up, dragging him along with me.
His weight was sheer torture upon Ava's frail shoulders, but the shoulder straps had been well padded, and were cunningly designed to distribute much of the weight to my lower body, particularly to my stronger hips.
"Shouldn't we have worn a safety line in case we fall?" my high-strung ally suggested. “Like mountain climbers do."
"Why didn't you think of that before!" I grumbled.
"Why didn't you?"
“Am I supposed to think of everything?”
While elevating, I sensed the heavy draw upon the mystic resources within me. We had to get this mad enterprise over with, and quickly, or we would never complete it at all.
"Don't be dead weight!" I admonished Custin. “Clamber up the stones with your hands and feet. Give me some help, for Macha's sake!"
Because he knew his life was at stake, he did so, clawing at the rough blocks like a frantic cat. We continued rising and, as the magic belt was created to respond to the wearer's mental direction, letting him slowly fly, I was able to drift us along, until we hung opposite to the thick limestone of my family's cell.
"Do it now, Custin!" I moaned, feeling that I had almost nothing left to give to the magic. I couldn't keep us aloft for more than a few seconds more. "For the love of Rhyannan, do it!"
"If I save your family will you marry me?" Custin asked breathlessly.
His indecision lasted only a second, and then I heard the crackling of Custin's sorcery at play; I saw nothing, keeping my teeth gritted and eyes closed against the strain. I therefore didn't see it, but I had imagined the thick rock folding itself away to nothingness a hundred times before. Custin was surely putting all he had behind the power of his spell, but it seemed to be taking too long. As I rapidly weakened, our levitation grew shaky.
"We're through!" Custin cried.
I couldn't answer; I just grunted, “Aye!”
We began our descent, slowly for the first few seconds, like goose down drifting lightly to earth --
But in the next instant we were plummeting like a pair of leaden bobs welded together....
* * * * *
Custin and I hit the sloped roof hard and tumbled one over the other toward the eves. Men around us gasped. My heart seemed to stop when I felt nothing beneath us except empty air....
But I didn't fall.
We simply hung there.
Magic? I strained to get a look.
No, it wasn't magic.
Custin was holding on to the cornice. There was nothing between life and death for us, nothing except those amazing flabby muscles of his!
“Take this rope!" someone hissed from above.
I saw the line dropped faintly through the darkness and I groped for it. My fumble sent it swinging out of reach.
“I can't hold on!" pleaded Custin.
"Don't let go, magician, we'll get you!" someone promised.
I managed to capture the line on my second try. I twisted the rope around my arm, anticipating the awful weight that my strength would have to support in another instant....
I felt the shock of the sorcerer's weight pull upon my arms!
Custin's fall had dragged me down the rope a full cubit, skinning me from wrist to elbow. It was too much to bear and the rope escaped my grasp!
We fell --
-- but only for another cubit.
My feeble effort had given Custin just enough time to gain his own hold on the line!
I recaptured it then, too, and together we hung on for dear life.
"We've got you!" a man said, as loudly as he dared. "Just a few seconds more!"
The rebels began drawing us up by lurches. Thank Tarantys for the strong backs and cool heads of the partisan knights!
The old shingles raked my hip as I was dragged over the edge -- and the sense of solidity that the rooftop conveyed temporarily took away the blazing pain from my rope burns.
Friendly hands then proceeded to drag us up a farther up the pitch and then let us settle down to rest while they held us steady. Someone found a place to secure the rope, making me think that we weren't actually going to die. We we both still clung to the line, while busy fingers unbuckled the harness which had made us joined twins.
I tried to clear my mind of the shock. How much of our plan had we accomplished?
The next few minutes would tell.
TO BE CONTINUED...