Chapter 4 An Answer


The door opened with the slightest of sighs. Keleios paused, thinking of murder.
The room was silvered darkness. Fidelis lay quietly on her side, pale brown hair flung across her pillow, one slender hand half-clinched on her hip. When she was six, Keleios had tagged after the older girl, as Alys followed Keleios now. One bright summer day Keleios had been playing near the water garden with a kitten. Fidelis had asked to hold it. Keleios had been so proud that the older girl noticed her. Fidelis had held and petted the tiny cat. Then with a wonderful smile that reached all the way up into her eyes, Fidelis shoved the kitten underwater and held it there while Keleios beat on her with tiny fists. Keleios had learned hatred from Fidelis. It was she who taught Keleios that all her fear and rage for Harque's murder of her mother could be turned into something else. Fear crippled, rage blinded, but hatred could be formed into revenge. With revenge could come satisfaction.
When Keleios was a little older she and Belor had ambushed the older girl. They had beat her bloody. Fidelis had asked, "Why?"
"The kitten you drowned," Keleios said.
"You never forget, do you?"
"No," Keleios said, "I never forget."
Was Fidelis trying to kill her now? It was better to be cautious. The spell tonight had been a blatant attempt; perhaps there would be others -- although being a shadow worshipper, Fidelis was more inclined to treachery than frontal attack.
Keleios searched the room with her night vision. The cool, seeking breath of the night wind touched her through the open windows. It rustled the papers on the two worktables and sent rows of hanging herbs scritching against the wall. She gave over to her suspicions and searched the chamber with the other sense that could not be tricked by silvered shadows; even night vision had its faults. The air currents moved around familiar things. The shelves lining the walls were stacked thick with books and papers, jars and bottles, and the strange miscellany that spell casters of any sort seem to collect. There was evil in the room, but again familiar evil. A large gallon bottle, carefully blown and enchanted, sat on the third shelf of Fidelis' side of the room. A demon swirled softly, bound by magic and hating. Oh, how demons hated to be used.
A scuttling under Fidelis' bed attracted her attention, and pinpricks of many eyes stared back at her.
Fas, Fidelis' familiar, was awake. The spider was only as large as a medium-sized dog, small for a wish spider, but he gave Fidelis the power of illusion.
The wind blew stronger, and the papers on Keleios' table struggled against the lead-lined weight of the demon's skull that held them down. The bare white skull was a trophy she had carried away from the Grey Isle. It had been one of the lesser demons, but not many people lived through encounters with the devilkin. All one needed was a magic weapon and a great deal of luck; her sword had given her both. Now the horned skull acted as a paperweight and a reminder that she had done the nearly impossible. A chunk of raw ore sat nearby, waiting to be forged if only Keleios could decide what it most wanted to be. The herb press sat smelling of crushed thyme and verdis. She wondered briefly if one of the apprentices had forgotten to clean it again, but for once was too tired to care.
Something fluttered in the far comer, but it was only the dark cloth hiding Fidelis' mirror -- a beautiful thing in itself, lovingly carved of polished oak, a floor-length oval of unblemished glass. It had power as all enchanted objects did, and it was evil.
Fidelis had hidden it from Keleios' view since the day Keleios had looked at it and said, "I see you standing in a chamber with a blond man. I can almost see his face."
"How can you do that?" she asked, suddenly pale.
Keleios smiled. "Remember, I am an enchanter. I can divine the uses of enchanted items much more thoroughly than an illusionist/herb-witch."
"It is evil. You shouldn't be able to use it."
Keleios shrugged. "It is also demon-aided magic, and like it or not, so am I."
"Demonmonger!" Fidelis hissed, "How long have you been watching the mirror?"
Keleios had toyed with the thought of lying, making her sweat, but Fidelis was a little too dangerous to play with. "Not long, Fidelis. Your secrets are safe, for the most part. And before you start calling names, remember, my demon alliance was accidental; yours was not"
So the mirror had been covered.
Keleios sat down on the edge of her bed, back to Fidelis and Fas. If it were the herb-witch, she would not want to bring blame upon herself. Most likely attacks would continue outside of the room. She was probably safe for tonight, or was it tomorrow already? The sword, Luckweaver, slid along the slanting mattress to touch her. Keleios reached back and drew the cool golden hilt to her. The hilt was carved simply for gripping but its one jewel was not simple. That orange jewel was a luckstone nearly as large as her fist. It rode the end of the hilt and pulsed magic to her touch. It was an elementary enchantment, her first shaped weapon. It would be just as powerful in anyone else's hands, if they knew how to use it. There was no blood, or soul binding in it, so she had to touch it for the magic to shift things in her favor. If she had worn Luckweaver tonight, the damage would have been less or avoided completely. One did not take alien magic into the tower. She caressed the sword and resisted the idea of unsheathing it. Perhaps it was time to go openly armed. She sighed, stretched, and set the weapon carefully on the bed.
She pulled off one boot. A cat materialized through the door. It was a spell they had worked out between them. The door was enchanted to be soft near the bottom, but only Poth's touch would activate it. Keleios didn't want just any cat-sized creature crawling into the room. Gilstorpoth, who had many names around the school -- Mistress Poth, or just plain Poth -- came to rub against her ankles. Keleios picked up the cat. She trusted her hands to tell her that the cat was all right. Though Poth was not her familiar, she was more than a pet and sometimes sensed what only a familiar, or another sorcerer, should have felt.
The cat's mother had been a shapeshifted elf who had become trapped. The beautiful white, silver-eyed cat had finally taken a true cat mate, and Poth had been one of her first and only litter. It is said that after a while one forgets one's old shape; Keleios always hoped that was true. There had been a look in those silver cat eyes that had frightened her. Regardless of the pain it may have caused the mother cat, the mixed ancestry had given Poth sorcery. Poth meowed up at her, and Keleios cupped the small chin in her palm. She stared into those gold eyes, the color of well-worn gold pieces. They communed quietly for several minutes until the cat purred in a long contented line. Though there was no need for words, Keleios spoke softly. "I'm glad to see you, too." She sighed. She had been too long among humans and had picked up the habit of talking when it wasn't necessary. It was past time for a visit to her elven kin. Elves knew the value of silence.
A soft thump from the far corner announced that Piker was awake. Encouraged by her gaze, the half-grown white mutt ambled toward her. She smiled, and her thoughts turned to Piker's owner, or rather master. Feltan was the youngest untrained witch ever to attract a familiar, and he was a peasant. Keleios herself had brought them to the school. If her dream came to pass, Feltan would die. She let the thought go, for she had learned not to dwell on death prophecies. She had been wrong once. Piker stayed with Keleios because no animals were allowed in the apprentice dorms. If they made an exception, even for a familiar, the place would turn into a zoo, or so said Toran, head of the boy apprentices. Personally, Keleios thought Toran just didn't understand children and their need for animals. Fidelis had complained that their room was turning into a zoo.
The moon shadow of the canary's cage placed huge bars on the floor. Keleios smiled. Perhaps there were enough animals in the room.
Fidelis' familiar, the wishing spider Fas, had tried ridding the room of some of its occupants. Keleios had entered the chamber in time to see Fas enclosing the canary's cage with his hairy legs. "Fas! No!" The chain holding the cage to the ceiling snapped, toppling the spider and freeing the tiny bird, which flew to the highest shelf, panting.
Keleios had been about to fry the vile thing when Fidelis had entered screaming. She convinced Keleios that she would punish the spider. Keleios let it be, for it was a very serious offense to kill someone's familiar. Secretly, she thought that Fidelis herself had ordered the animals killed.
The canary's cage once more hung from the ceiling, and Poth the cat slept where she would, and Piker slept in the comer, all unmolested. To those who could see it, the cage, the dog's blankets, and Poth herself glowed magic.
Fidelis had protested the severity of the wards. Later Keleios admitted to Zeln that perhaps a fifth circle fire ward was too much, but to change it would have been to admit she was wrong. She was excessive, not wrong.
Fas was intelligent enough to leave well enough alone, so Zeln had let it stand.
Keleios sat on the bed, the dog's head sunk on her leg, and scratched his ear. Poth clambered up her back and curled round her neck. A precarious perch for a cat, but she liked it, and her purrs rumbled through the back of Keleios' neck.
Keleios' skin prickled, and Poth jumped down with a squall. Piker whined softly.
Fidelis called sleepily from her bed. "What is it?"
"The wards have gone up. Prophet's right."
"Why did they go up?"
Keleios turned to watch Fidelis grope out of sleep. "I told you: prophet's right."
"You being the prophet."
"Yes, go back to sleep. We can argue in the moming if you want."
Fidelis opened her mouth to speak, changed her mind, and settled back into her covers.
A few minutes and the woman's even breathing filled the room.
Keleios rubbed the dog's head, making his ears flap, and sent him to his bed.
Poth walked along Keleios' covers, trying to find a comfortable spot.
"We're safe now," she whispered to the cat. But as she finished undressing, she wondered just how safe one could be with traitors on mis side of the wards.
She placed a hand to her bedpost and activated the spell. It gave a pulse, a mere spark of power. Keleios lay back gratefully. There would be no more magic tonight, no matter what the need. Poth curled into a black and white ball beside her shoulder, her plumed tail resting just under Keleios' chin.
She checked briefly to assure herself the wrist sheath dagger was in place, and placing a hand over Luckweaver, she gave herself to sleep.
Keleios lay snuggled into the warmth of her sheets, tired, very tired. Something was tapping at her hair. She batted it away but the tentative touch returned. She opened her eyes just enough to catch a black and blur.
Keleios groaned. "Poth, what is it?" Then she noticed the angle of the sunlight. "Urle's forge, I'm late."
Poth jumped to the floor with a startled cry as Keleios tore back the covers. The cat swatted at her foot, claws carefully sheathed.
"I'm sorry, and thank you for waking me."
The cat sat very straight, looking virtuous and patient. Keleios laughed and picked her up. Poth tried to remain unmoved but consented and began to purr. Keleios put her on the bed and began to undress. "I haven't slept in this late in months."
She was alive, the ward was intact, and Fidelis was gone. A note was pinned to the clothes she had taken off last night. It read simply:
She smiled. They had been leaving notes to each other for two years. Keleios signed hers 'the half-elf' and Fidelis was always 'the witch.' The smile faded when she realized that the urgent business could be the planning of her own death.
Keleios felt a light touch on her mind. She opened to it and Allanna asked for permission to enter her room. The woman appeared in the middle of the floor. As always, Keleios was taken with Allanna's beauty. She was the heroine of an old legend, or should have been. Being Astranthian, she was tall and slender with straight yellow-gold hair that fell to her knees. Her eyes were the surprised blue of cornflowers, and her skin had never known the touch of sun, white and pure like a wax doll. She was dressed in blue today, which emphasized everything -- the eyes, the skin, the golden hair. Her gown was blue on blue-patterned silk. It gapped below her fitted waist to reveal a pale blue dress. A necklace of pearls and sapphires adorned her slender neck. Allanna of the Golden Hair was a princess waiting for her prince, and no one was more aware of it than Allanna herself. Her beauty would have been breath-stealing if it had been an unconscious beauty, but it was affected, like the dress that matched her eyes and the refined gestures. It was a self-conscious show.
She began her sentence with a sweep of long tapered hand. "Belor bid me hurry you."
Keleios pulled her gown over her head. "How late am I?"
"'An hour."
"Carrick will skin me alive."
The impossibly red lips smiled. "It is a possibility."
"You think it's amusing; I do not." Keleios poured water from the pitcher into the basin, tepid cold. She gasped at the feel of the chill water.
Allanna said, "Here, let me warm it for you."
"No, thank you."
Allanna shrugged. She wasted sorcery on minor things like warming water without thinking it a waste.
Allanna sighed gracefully. "I'm sorry. I know you are in trouble but why do you put yourself at the mercy of a man like that?"
Keleios dried herself on a small towel. "A man like what?"
Allanna shifted uncomfortably. "Oh, come, you know what I mean."
"No, tell me."
Allanna stamped a delicate foot and sent the blue silk whispering over the floor. "He isn't magic, not even an herb-witch."
"True, but then he doesn't need magic to be the best swordsman in the islands." It was an old argument between them. Allanna had very Astranthian ideas about people without magic. Without magic one was less than human, and it was this idea that had kept the peasants in thrall for so many years. "When you have exhausted your spells, what is left? You can't even use a dagger, let alone a sword. What happens when you've run out of spells?"
She stood perfectly straight, hands loose at her sides. "I do not run out of spells."
It was true, in a way. Allanna was perhaps the most powerful sorcerer to come out of Astrantha since Zeln and his sister Sile.
"You are powerful, Allanna, but everyone, everyone, will eventually run out of spells. Or at least the strength to use them."
The pale face was haughty; her opinion of her magic was very high. Unfortunately, up until now the opinion was deserved. She was one of four people who could enter the arena with Zeln and stand a chance of coming out alive.
Keleios watched Allanna's face until her linen shirt blocked her view. It was useless to argue. Until someone stronger than Allanna challenged the girl, she would think herself unbeatable. The frightening thing was she just might be right.
Keleios pulled her hair from the shirt collar. "Perhaps you are a special case, Allanna, but I with my more humble talents feel the need for more."
Allanna gave a small laugh. "You, humble? My father is only a viscount; yours was a prince and your mother, a princess."
"Such things are much more important in Astrantha than in Wrythe. And as for my mother's family, they consider me a bastard child."
She sniffed. "The Calthuians are a barbaric people, no offense intended. Your mother was far above most of her countrymen."
Keleios, being half-Calthuian, wasn't sure what was compliment and what wasn't, but she said, "Thank you, Allanna."
"I do not profess to understand the ways of elves, but in Astrantha you are not humble."
A torso of Belor floated through the window. Ghostlike they could see through it. Keleios whispered to it, "I'm hurrying."
Keleios started to put on the vest she had discarded last night.
Allanna's delicate lips curled slightly, a look of disgust touching her face.
Keleios held it up at arms length. Allanna did have a point. She opened the chest at the end of her bed and began rummaging through it. "I haven't even fed the animals yet."
'I'll do that."
Keleios' voice came muffled from inside the trunk. "Remember to chop parsley for the canary."
As if in answer to it, the tiny bird sang an ear-thrumming trill.
Allanna said, "I will see that the dog gets to Feltan, and Mistress Poth will dine in the kitchen under my watchful eye."
"Thank you."
She blinked, long gold eyelashes curling downward. "Your haste is my only reward."
Keleios stood, a rather pale green vest clutched in her hand. It fit rather snug but would have to do. There didn't seem to be any other clean ones. Poth circled round her ankles. Keleios picked the cat up and cuddled her. "Allanna will tend you, Poth. If you don't mind?" The cat didn't, perhaps because Allanna was somewhat catlike herself. They got along very well. And she cautioned the dog, "Behave or Allanna will turn you into a rabbit."
The dog gave an apologetic tail thump.
Keleios put Poth down and ran a hasty brush through her thick hair. She began to braid it. Allanna stepped forward. "Here, let me." The swift delicate hands wove her brownish gold hair into a single braid. The fingers lingered on a somewhat pointed ear. "How lovely they would be if you would let me put earrings in them."
"Thank you for the thought, but they're fine the way they are." Keleios scooped up her short sword and belt. She fastened Luckweaver in place.
"Perhaps, Keleios, you should take a more direct route today."
She motioned toward the windows.
"You mean levitate down. I think not."
"Oh, come now, Keleios, you are a journeyman sorcerer. Surely you can levitate yourself to the courtyard."
"It is not a matter of can, or can't, but a waste of magic."
Allanna sniffed. "I will levitate you myself if you are so stingy with your spells."
Keleios sighed, resigned. She strode forward, touching the middle window to release the sound-muffling spell. Steel on steel rang through the courtyard.
The green-brown canary hopped from perch to perch, the wooden cage swaying gently with his movement. She smiled at his inquiring chirp. "Be a good bird, Shotzi, and Auntie Allanna will give you a surprise."
The Astranthian laughed, and the sound was like wind chimes or feast bells. Surely the woman had to sit and practice. Keleios hesitated, staring down at the courtyard below. It was too much for Allanna's patience. Keleios vanished with a startled cry and reappeared on the stones below. She frowned up at the slim hands that were closing her window, but she dared not draw more attention to herself. Carrick did not approve of magic anywhere near his practices. A summer breeze swept up, tugging wisps of hair.
She stood in the center of one of the gigantic blocks of square-cut stone. They had been magic-lifted to their places and were magic-supported still. In the middle of the vast stony expanse huddled the weapons practice. Most sat in a wide circle. Carrick strode round the inside of that circle. He wore a sleeveless brown jerkin and baggy trousers stuffed into knee-high boots. He was large, with a beefy, muscled body. He looked slow, but it was deceptive. Keleios had felt his lightning-quick blows too many times to be fooled. His muscles were the kind that hid in a disguise of bulk, no shapely definition for Carrick's body. His black hair was cut close to the round balding head. His quick brown eyes caught every mistake. The stick he carried poked, prodded, and tripped, so you would notice your mistake also.
Two fighters danced round each other. The wooden practice swords had been left behind for blunt steel -- blunt steel that was two or three times the weight of most ordinary weapons. Tobin was one; the other was a blond guardsman.
Tobin was short, but at sixteen, he hadn't yet attained his full height. His hair was a dark copper-red and his skin flushed with gold highlights. Somewhere back in his ancestry was a faerie of some sort. It was a common heritage in Meltaan. Only his amber eyes showed ordinary and young. His linen shirt trailed over a pair of bright red trousers. His boots were shiny black with polish, and since Zeln considered it an excess for the servants to do such things, Tobin had shined his own boots. He was heir to the entire province of Ferrian. He was a prince, and someday he would be a king.
The guardsman towered over Tobin; and his reach was twice the boy's. The man possessed superior strength as well. Yet Tobin circled, feinting. The boy opened wide his arms, giving Darius his chest and stomach as a target. Darius reached forward with his long arm; it would be a gut slice. Snake-quick, Tobin's sword slid under the arm and got in a heart blow with inches to spare for his own life. It was an elven thing, and Tobin had sweated and worked to acquire the strength of wrist to do it. His quickness was still not elven, but it was close.
Keleios made it safely to the group without being noticed by any except Belor. She quickly moved to take her place.
Carrick ignored her arrival and she slid in between Tobin and Belor. Tobin's auburn hair clung in dark strands round his face. He smiled, and his eyes sparkled. He had never beaten Darius before.
Belor frowned at her. He seemed ready to speak but didn't dare with the weapons master so close.
Five people down to the left sat Lothor, shirtless, sweating, and staring at her with his strange silver eyes.
She laid Luckweaver and the magic bracers on the ground beside her. Carrick did not allow any magic weapons at his practices. Those with magic weapons held a practice on their own in the afternoon or early evening. The guard had begun to come and watch and to use some of the magic weapons. Carrick had finally consented to let Bellenore, his second in command, direct the practice.
The next match finished early, one guard tripping and nearly getting his nose smashed. Carrick turned to Keleios like a great dark cloud. She felt that uncomfortable urge to shrink back. But she sat straight and met his angry eyes.
His voice was deep and thick with emotion, each word a whip. "Zeln forced me to let magic users in my training sessions. I said it would be a waste of time to train nonguards. He countered with let them be part-time guards then. He willed it; I obeyed. But I told him that spell casters don't make good soldiers; they distract too easily. Magic is more important than steel to them. But I take you magicmongers seriously. I will train you, and you will learn. You will learn that these practices are important and come first."
He barked out her name.
Keleios stood.
He called out, "Bellenore to the circle."
Bellenore was tall with wide shoulders. The braid of her brown hair was streaked with grey, though she couldn't have been past her thirtieth year. She was dressed as Carrick was, brown sleeveless jerkin and trousers. Scars decorated her bare arms. Her face was plain until she smiled, and then it was beautiful. Pale brown eyes regarded Keleios without smiling.
Carrick handed them each a shield and sword. The shield was weighted for fighting, and the sword was edged. Edged weapons were not an uncommon punishment. It was a compliment of sorts. He trusted only the best of his fighters with edged weapons during practice. His glittering eyes challenged Keleios to protest. She did not, even though Bellenore was a better fighter than she was. They would fight with short sword and shield, Keleios' own favorite method, and Bellenore would beat her. It was meant to be a humbling experience.
Carrick bawled out, "To third blood; a nick is as good as a wound."
As they faced off, Lothor's pale flesh seemed to glimmer, like carved alabaster. Keleios shook her head to clear her vision and Bellenore withheld asking, "Are you fit for the circle?"
Keleios nodded, and they began the dance. They had fought before, and Keleios had even won twice, but not with an edged weapon, and not to draw blood. Even with blunt weapons Bellenore won nine out of ten times.
A lesson would have worked better on others because Keleios did not consider it embarrassing to be beaten in practice, by the guards' second in command. Carrick knew this, but it was one of his standard punishments. He had not come up with a satisfactory punishment for the half-elf. Though he had found he could make her angry, he could not make her truly repentant.
They circled, wary, shields held close covering upper bodies and stomach, tensed to move up or down. Bellenore's preferred weapon was the two-handed sword. She was one of only two women who Keleios had seen with the strength to use it properly. For that matter, she hadn't seen many men who could use the two-handed well. More of them carried it but only a handful had the strength, stamina, and mind-set for the weapon.
They tested each other with some half-hearted feints, which neither fell for. Then Bellenore grinned, and Keleios did too. The fight began in earnest with a clang of steel. Bellenore rushed inward, sword slashing. The tension was not there; it was a ruse. Keleios let the blow go past but countered with a smash of shield against Bellenore's body. It set the woman off balance, but before Keleios could bring sword into play, she had recovered.
As they circled, Keleios found her eyes drawn to Lothor. His hand as it swept up his arm fascinated her. Bellenore was upon her, blade flashing downward. Keleios threw her steel upward; the swords sang down each other, with a shower of sparks. As they broke from each other a thin line of crimson began to wend down Keleios' forehead. The point of the blade had found her before she reacted. With the knowledge of blood, the cut began to sting.
Worse, the thin stream of blood dripped across her left eye, hampering her vision.
Blade met blade, blocking. Blade, shield, met straining against each other. Without magical aid, Keleios could not hold Bellenore. Knowing this, feeling it, she collapsed downward. It was a great gamble, and if she had been fighting for her life, she might not have done it. Bellenore staggered forward, and Keleios' sword caught her across the stomach. Elven quickness allowed her to roll away and stand ready for the next rush.
Every time the circle showed her Lothor, her concentration wavered. Something was wrong. Keleios decided before the dance turned her to Lothor once more to try another dangerous move. It was a disarming technique more favored in elven circles than human. The blades met. Keleios forced her steel down the length of Bellenore's and twisted point along the haft. It should have disarmed her and nicked the wrist. But this was Bellenore. She bled but kept her sword.
The blood welled out of the slice and would make the hilt slippery in a short time. Keleios moved away to give it that time. The woman knew that, too, and pressed the fight. Keleios shook blood from her left eye, but the eye was useless until cleaned. Nothing bled like a shallow scalp wound.
For whatever reason she was being distracted, Bellenore had noticed and began moving her to gaze that way. It worked like a charm. Keleios' eyes were drawn away to Lothor, and she found herself on the ground with Bellenore's sword at her throat. She had not dropped her sword. The point bit into her neck twice, one nearly atop the other.
Carrick strode forward. "Winner."
Bellenore offered Keleios a hand up and she accepted. "What was of such interest over there?"
Keleios touched her neck and her fingers came away crimson. "I am not sure."
Keleios went back and sat beside Belor. The healer attending the practice session this morning knelt and pressed an herb mixture into her face cut. He began cleaning the blood from her face. She contacted Belor by mind. *Belor, is Lothor wearing anything new, different? A ring, a piece of rope, a necklace?*
*Yes, a silver chain with a large ball cage. It's magic of some sort.*
The herbs absorbed the blood, and the healer began salving cream for pain and to speed healing.
*Belor, I can't see that necklace.*
*So a charm for, or against, you.*
Keleios did not answer; there was no need. Belor stood and walked to Carrick. Carrick gave the prodding stick to Bellenore and went to speak quietly to Lothor. Belor resumed his seat. Lothor protested. Keleios watched him from across the circle, gripping the silver charm, still invisible to her.
Reluctantly, Lothor moved to undo the unseen chain. He handed it to Carrick, and it became visible to Keleios' eyes. The two fighters had sat down, and the circle was empty. The weapons master strode into the circle and said, "Our visitor here was wearing a magical charm, which is against the rules for my practices. He claims it to be a charm against the unusually cool weather of our island." He let the chain slide into his big palm -- a pool of silver chain. "Keleios, what is this?" And he tossed it through the air. Lothor sprang forward and the guard's reflexes took over as they covered him.
Keleios caught it and nearly choked with its closeness.
Until Belor knelt beside her, she didn't realize she had fallen to the ground in a near faint. He had to pry her fingers from the chain.
Carrick knelt beside her, all anger forgotten. "Girl, girl, are you all right?"
She managed to speak, "Yes, master, I am . . . fine."
Belor was carefully dissecting the ball of herbs. The empty metal ball lay near at hand. Keleios allowed Carrick to help her sit and watched Belor tear the woven herbs apart and place them in neat piles. When all else was cleared away, two locks of hair remained. One was the white of fresh snow; the other a golden brown.
Lothor stood very straight, anger bringing a flush to his death-pallor cheeks. He was ringed round by guards, uncertain yet if he was to be prisoner. No one had been comfortable with a black healer in the school; they were quite willing to believe he had done something evil.
Keleios got to her feet, shaking off the well-wishing hands. She walked through the ring of guards to face Lothor. "I suppose I should ask where you got it, but only three people in this keep could have made such a charm. I didn't do it; Poula wouldn't do it. That leaves Fidelis." She stood very close to him and said, "You wanted my answer, well here it is -- no. No, not if you were my only chance out of the seven hells."
His voice was low, calm with menace. "Do not say in anger what you will regret later."
"Don't caution me."
Carrick interrupted, "Keleios, what is that thing? Is it a magic weapon of some kind?"
"Not in the way you mean, Carrick. It was a charm of lust."
He half-laughed. "Then how did it harm you? You fell when you touched it."
"It was that powerful, too powerful. It gave itself away."
Carrick waved the guards back. "Many a man's turned to magic to acquire a lady's favor. 'Tis no crime."
Keleios was forced to agree with him, "No, but it is grounds for a refusal."
Lothor stood isolated, alone. He bowed slowly. "You have refused me, very well. I challenge you."
"To what?"
"The arena."
Someone gasped. "If that will satisfy you, Lothor, you have it."
He smiled, his gaze roaming over her body, stripping her in his mind. "It will not satisfy, but it will do."
She stepped close and nearly hissed. "Stop that."
"Stop what?"
"Looking at me like I'm something to eat."
His smile broadened. "I wasn't aware of it. So sorry."
"Insincerity becomes you. As the one being challenged, I choose tonight, just after dusk, and magic." She turned, picked up Luckweaver, slipped the bracers on, and strode up the main steps of the castle. Belor and Tobin caught up with her in the corridor outside one of the classrooms. The murmur of voices floated into the hallway. A sharp snap of magic and a burst of childish laughter said a spell had gone awry.
Belor jogged to catch up with Keleios, "Where are you going?"
"The stillroom."
Tobin caught up with them. "You aren't going to challenge Fidelis as well?"
She smiled, but her eyes remained dark. "What a marvelous idea."
Belor laid a hand on her arm, but she would not stop. "Keleios, do you think it wise to make two challenges in one day? By law you could end up fighting both today. You'd surely lose the second."
She stopped and turned to them. "I am almost certain that Fidelis nearly killed me last night. I'm tired of waiting for proof while she plots behind my back. I want my enemies in front of me across the sands." She shook off Belor's hand and started walking again.
Belor tried reasoning with her as they passed through the south arch into the keep's gardens. "This is not wise. You are letting your anger best you."
"Perhaps, but it is my mistake to make, not yours."
Tobin said quietly, "Keleios, don't do this," His usually mocking grin was gone; his face was sober.
The herb garden was a thousand shades of green, from the silver-grey of lambsquarter to the pine dark of rosemary leaves. Keleios led them through the white-painted trellis and into the rose garden. The scent of roses was a close sweetness that clung to the summer air. The white gravel paths formed a cross round the fountain, each path leading to a boxwood hedge and a gate.
Belor said, "You know I don't agree with the council rule about waiting for proof. I've said before that it would get you killed -- but two challenges in one day, Keleios. It is madness."
The far gate led into the healer's garden. The plants stood alone in their circular patterns, knotted and bordered by stone paths. The white marble and gold sundial stood in the center of the garden, a reminder against wasted time. Digging tools lay discarded along the path as if the tenders had left in haste. The far gate opened, and a trio of apprentices entered, Melandra among them.
Keleios took time to notice the dark circles under the girl's eyes. Then the ever-masking hair fell over the scarred face. "Keleios, what is wrong?"
The other two, a girl and a boy, stood silent and round-eyed. Something was up. One master and two journeymen straight from practice -- it was news.
"'Is Master Fidelis in the stillroom?"
Melandra hesitated, then nodded, feeling that she had done something vaguely wrong. The apprentices parted like frightened birds to let them pass. They followed at a discreet distance.
Keleios turned and said, "Don't follow us."
The apprentices stood very still. Melandra said in a small voice, "As you wish, Keleios."
By the time they came to the door, Belor and Tobin had fallen back to either side. They jumped her from behind, knowing that the bracers made pinning her a lost cause.
Belor spoke through gritted teeth as they struggled. "Keleios, think, think, control your anger. Behave like a master, not a journeyman."
She froze for an instant, staring up at the sky. Her breathing came harsh, but she stopped fighting them. "Let me go."
They rose slowly and oflfered to help her up.
She took their hands and said, "I will confront her but not challenge her. Is that satisfactory?"
Belor smiled one of his gentle smiles. "Very."
They fell back like a guard of honor and followed her.
The building was framed in the golden eastern light, but inside all was cool and shadow-dark. Firelight and lamplight cast yellow pools in the gloom. The rich perfume of herbs filled the place. The thick dryness of hanging herbs, the rich dampness of herbs boiled down in a pot, made the air almost solid with their smells. As always, the scent of a well-run stillroom reminded Keleios of her mother, but it was here that she found the witch.
Fidelis stood feeding herbs into a grinder. Her plain grey dress clung to her body, almost like a slip, more seductive than any of the full-petticoated skirts. A single strand of pearls was her only ornament.
A small apprentice turned manfully at the handle of the grinder. It was he who saw them enter, and his face paled, leaving his brown eyes like islands. Fidelis asked, "What is it?" She turned, irritated, and saw Keleios. Something flashed over her face -- fear, perhaps, but not quite. A small pot bubbling on the fire spat into the flames, and the drop sizzled, making the fire pop.
The boy jumped, and Fidelis said, "That will be all."
The boy walked slowly between the two women, and once clear of Keleios, he ran.
A rustling from the side of the room, and two girls stepped hesitantly into sight.
Keleios said, quietly, "Get out."
They fled.
"We are alone now, Keleios, save for your cortege and my familiar." Fas the spider clicked from the top of a nearby shelf. Belor and Tobin were a solid reassurance at Keleios' back. "State your business, half-elf."
"You wrote we could fight later; well, it's later."
The witch blinked and smiled, "What should we fight about?"
"Belor." He stepped forward and showed Fidelis the dismantled charm.
"Why, Fidelis, why?"
"You've come about that." She began to laugh. She leaned against the table and cackled until tears ran down her face. They weren't sure how to take that. Keleios had planned for almost any reaction but not laughter.
"I don't think this is a laughing matter, witch."
Fidelis nodded, wiping her eyes with her fingers. "No, no. You asked why." She straightened, a strange half smirk still on her thin lips. "The black prince wanted something to attract you, and I needed his help with spells."
"His help? He knows no herb-craft. What help could he give you?"
The smile widened, the eyes hooded with the long-lashed eyelids. "The help any man could give me." She moved closer to them, her slender frame seeming to glide over the stone floor. "I asked the illusionist for help, but he follows Cia and would not aid me."
Belor blushed.
"I almost had the journeyman convinced, but at the last he would have asked your opinion, and I knew what that opinion would be."
Tobin simply stared at her, amber eyes glittering.
"But Lothor wanted something from me. A willing man for a charm, that was the bargain."
Keleios' face paled. "The Landien Cycle. Urle's forge, Fidelis, how could you?"
Her eyes darkened, anger rising. "Power, half-elf, power."
"How many times did he help you?"
Lothor answered from the doorway, "Twice."
Keleios backed to the side of the room in order to watch them both. "Are you bargained for one more?"
He nodded.
"You need a child's heart for the last spell. Where were you planning to get it?"
Fidelis began to laugh again; the sound bubbled up and filled the room. "Keleios, don't be naive."
"You give witches a bad name, Fidelis."
The laughter stopped abruptly, "Perhaps, but it was worth it for power, and he is a wonderful lover. I envy you with him for your bedmate."
Lothor bowed. "And may I return the compliment, my lady."
Keleios had a great desire to scream. "It seems I will never know; we fight in the arena tonight."
"Too bad, and if you have no more business with me, I have work to do."
"One more thing. You were amazed that I should confront you over this charm. Well, it's all I have solid proof of. But I know that you are up to something treacherous."
"Was I in your dreams last night, prophet? But even so, you have no proof."
"You have been very careful. Without proof I can't go before council, but there are other ways to deal with it."
"Yes, half-elf, there are other ways to deal with it. A knife in the dark, perhaps."
"Are you threatening me?"
"Oh, no, not me. I don't use knives as weapons, that's much more your area."
"Then what did you mean?"
"Why, whatever you want it to mean." The witch smiled sweetly, flashing a dimple to one side of her lips.
Keleios stared at her for the space of three heartbeats then said, "This is not over between us, witch."
"On that at least, half-elf, we can agree." Fidelis turned back to her table of herbs and began sorting them, "My first class is soon, if that is all?"
"For now, witch." And Keleios turned abruptly. She brushed past Lothor with the words, "I'll see you tonight."
"I look forward to it."
Belor and Tobin left with her. Tobin glanced back and only Fidelis was smiling.
They walked quietly for a few paces, then Belor said softly, "She plans to kill you, Keleios."
Tobin shook his head and said, " 'A knife in the dark' means an assassin. Why would she warn you?"
"Maybe she hopes to frighten me."
Tobin gave a rough snort. "Doesn't she know you better than that by now?"
"I don't think Fidelis has ever understood me, or I her."
Belor touched her arm. "I don't think you should worry about assassins until after tonight."
"You mean that Fidelis may wait and see if Lothor kills me."
"If I were her, that is what I would hope for." He squeezed her arm. "It's done now, but you should make plans, strategy. He is an enchanter/sorcerer, the same as yourself. You've never faced anyone who matched you."
"He is not an herb-witch."
"No, but you may not get to use herbs tonight."
She shook her head. "I will plan, Belor. Meet me in my room in half an hour. I must tell Master Tally I cannot help him today in the forge."
Tobin asked, "What can I do?"
"Come dressed for battle to dinner tonight; do your duties as if everything were normal."
"Am I to be your second then?"
She smiled at him. "No, Tobin, but I fight a follower of Verm and Ivel, and that may mean treachery. I would want us all on our guard tonight. Now you are almost late for your first class. Allanna is not kind to late arrivals."
He grinned, "No, but someday maybe she'll be kind to one young Meltaanian prince."
Keleios shoved him. "Oh, go to class, skirt chaser."
"Battlemonger." And he jogged off towards the classrooms.
Belor spoke softly. "I want to know your plans."
She clapped him on the back and smiled, much too cheerily. "My second has to know."
"I am honored to second you, but you don't have a plan, do you?"
"Not yet. Better make it an hour before you meet me." And with that she turned towards the main keep and the blacksmith workshops.
Belor yelled after her, "I hope you know what you're doing."
A delicate touch of sorcery brought her thoughts to his mind.
*So do I.*
The thought did not comfort him in the least.