There was a storm outside, and it made me nervous. I hated thunder, and the constant applause of the rain was just annoying. After I’d gone through my accounts, which had taken twice as long as usual with the distraction of the summer shower all around me, I lay down on my bed and closed my eyes. There was no chance of sleep with that noise outside, but it was good to rest. Eventually, though, I became sick of inactivity and rose again. Taking my harp from the wall, I sat by the window, with my back to the storm, and played something softly. It was, I believe, the ballad of Sorril and Mai. As I watched the harpstrings ripple under my touch, I began to feel a familiar light-headedness creeping over me, like a thread of silver in my thoughts. I did not resist, only let the flashback take me.
“I raise horses, Sati, not dragons.” I was leaning against the shaft of my pitchfork, its prongs buried in the fragrant hay under my feet, returning her placid, violet-eyed gaze with a slightly exasperated look. Clad in soiled trousers and a tunic, my hair tied into a sloppy bun at my neck, I was sweating from the effort I’d been making before my neighbor arrived. “Where’d you get a Shoer-blasted dragon from anyway?”
“I told you,” she replied patiently. “The parents are from Sharaani and can’t get back; they have a nest but no clan to raise the hatchlings, and I’m trying to find homes for all the eggs.”
I shook my head at the name, inadvertently loosing several clumps of hair into my face. “Sati, the wizards at Chul don’t understand Sharaani. I certainly don’t want any part of it.”
“But Tix,” she pleaded, her eyes getting larger as she gazed up at me, “these babies won’t grow up right without individual attention!”
“I can’t afford a dragon,” I said, but of course it was a lie: I’d been planning for some time to add two Schic’qer geldings to my stock and build add-ons for them. If I could afford that, I could certainly keep a dragon. She knew all about my plans, and merely gave me a crooked-mouthed look. “Besides,” I said, weakening, “I wouldn’t know what to feed it.”
She grinned. “Come down here and I’ll tell you.”
With a sigh I slid down the haystack and stood beside her. A gust of early fall wind into her face blew her orchid-colored hair dramatically back behind her and undid the rest of my pathetic bun. “First tell me all about these parents. I mean, are you sure they’re from Sharaani?”
“Of course I’m sure; they told me.”
“Since when do you speak dragon?”
“Oh.” I was one of the few who knew about Sati’s mental talents. “So what’s the story?”
“I thought Arran could tell you better,” she said cautiously.
“Arran…” There was suspicion in my voice. “Who’s… Sati, you didn’t bring a dragon here, did you?” She was looking past me. I swiveled and slapped a hand to my face. “Shades of Roneraat, girl! One whiff of him and my whole stable’ll be antsy all night!”
“Arran says hello,” said Sati.
The dragon was about four and a half feet tall and shaped structurally like a cat, except for his long neck and angular head. He sat before me on crouched hind legs, a lizard-like tail curled around him. His front claws were more hand-like that I would have expected, and his wings looked a bit small to hold his weight, but, then, what do I know? One of these was tied up in a sling of sorts. His pointed scales were green, and his huge eyes were bright and yellow. As creatures went he wasn’t particularly ugly, nor was he very attractive. “Hello,” I said, giving myself up to fate. There was something about my odd neighbor that did not let me argue with her for long, even in a friendly way. “Let’s hear this story.”
“Arran says: my mate’s name is Gwen, and we lived until recently in Sharaani, in the human kingdom of Flosho. We were headed skyborn for the nesting-grounds of my people in order for her to lay her eggs when a rift in space opened before us and we came through to your world. When we landed in a forest” — Sati extrapolated that he meant the Roshwood — “my wing was broken and Gwen and I were forced to remain where we were. She laid her eggs there. Now, knowing that the only dragons here are far away and not friendly with humans, we have no way to raise our babies, since to do so requires a clan. Thus Sati has taken it upon herself to find homes for all our hatchlings.” She smiled as she spoke of herself in third person, translating the dragon’s thought-speech for me. “And you really should take one, Tixi. Once it gets older, it’ll be a great watcher for you.”
“I have dogs,” I said in a last-ditch effort to keep a dragon out of my home. We both knew it was futile.
“I know how friendly your dogs are. They’ll welcome another pet.”
“Very well,” I said at last with a long breath. “I’ll take one.”
“Great!” she said. “I’ll bring the egg over today!”
And that was how I got my dragon. It was strange even to think about having a dragon. Of course the dragons of Raharsaa are huge, bigger than buildings even, and live in the Drashier Mountains in the south where they feed on people’s flocks and burn down towns just for fun. There aren’t very many of them. But in Sharaani, our parallel world, dragons are smaller and much more common, like birds almost. I suppose I should explain Sharaani as well, since I’ve come this far. I was going to make this a nice dramatic account and follow all the rules I learned in school for grabbing the reader’s attention and not dumping all the information on them at once, but I guess that’s just not going to happen. You’ll just have to get used to the Tixi Pax style.
Sharaani is also called the Exchange because that’s what it does with us. Every now and then some stranger will appear in a tavern somewhere completely lost and ask for the way to Rholsat or Aanris or some other town no one’s ever heard of. They’ll ask him some questions and eventually figure out that he’s from Sharaani and got here when he saw what looked like a giant black rip in the air and accidentally stepped into it. Then one of our people will disappear, and the next person who comes from Sharaani will bring news of him or her. Nobody knew at the time I got my dragon why these random rips in space occurred, and the wizards had found no way to duplicate them. Thus, rather needless to say, the chances of someone seeing two in a lifetime were fairly small, and those who were carried off to Sharaani, or brought here to Raharsaa, never got back home again. So you can see why I was slightly worried about taking in a dragon from Sharaani. You never knew what might suddenly trigger a rift and pull me away, forever, from everything I knew.
She did come back later that day. Sati, I mean. I could always tell when she was coming, for she was one of the few people I knew for whom my dogs would give their happy-bark, and the only person I knew who had brilliant white skin and black-streaked purple hair. She looked ethereal, almost. I opened the door and called my dogs away, beating my flour-covered hands on my apron as I did. I’d just recently given my cook the bag since I’d caught her in my wine cellar less-than-lucid, and so was stuck with the extra chore of cooking dinner for the hired men. I was so overworked it wasn’t even funny. And here I was adopting a dragon, for Shoer’s sake! Shoer is the capital of the kingdom, by the way, and if you wonder why I swear by it, don’t ask because I don’t know. The kingdom’s name is Kopier.
Anyway, Sati was coming up the walk to the front door of Thesar carrying a large brown egg, spotted with off-white. I sighed and smiled at her. “So this is my baby dragon,” I called, then shouted at the dogs again. They were excited by the smell of the egg, I guessed, and thought Sati was bringing them food.
“Actually, this is an egg,” said Sati with a laugh, which is just what I had expected. “It won’t hatch until tomorrow.”
“And what will I feed this small thing?” I asked, worrying momentarily what I’d gotten myself into: having forgotten to inquire farther about a dragon’s eating habits earlier, I had never discovered whether or not the thing would need special food or something.
“Give it whatever you feed your dogs until it can fly,” said Sati as I prohibited the entrance of those particular animals with my foot and shut the door behind her. “Then it’ll find its own food. Wild rabbits and such,” she added as she saw the worried look on my face. I have a pig and a few chickens.
“Did you find homes for all the other eggs?” I asked, wondering: what effect would a set of baby dragons have on her trade?
“All but two.”
“How many were there?”
“Mailiw’s ghost! How did you find that many people?”
“I’ve been looking for a few weeks,” she said. “You were the last.”
I gave her a mock-accusatory look. “Sati, your own neighbor!”
“Well, I knew you’d be the easiest to convince, so I saved you.”
“Unh!” I put my hands on my hips and gazed around the cluttered room. I hadn’t tidied up in a while, with all the extra things I’d been doing lately.
“I don’t suppose you need any help around here, do you?” she asked as she followed my indifferent gaze around the room.
“Not really,” I said affably. “I complain ’bout the extra stuff, but I’m going to hire another housekeeper as soon as I can. Thanks, though.”
“Cause if you need help, I can always come over. Gwen and Arran can take care of two babies just fine.”
I waved her inquiry away. “No, thanks,” I said, and meant it. She had things to do just as much as I did.
“Well, here’s your egg. Put it on some cloth by a fire. You’re going to hate this, but it’ll have to be turned once an hour.”
I swore with an oath slightly more serious than naming the capital or calling on the dead king Roneraat or queen Mailiw. “Every hour?” She smiled innocently, eyes glowing. “All right.” I took the egg, which was a great deal heavier than it looked. “Wow, this thing’s going to be big.”
“Thanks, Tix,” she said sincerely. “I really appreciate this. So do Arran and Gwen.”
“Well, you know how I love surprises,” I said dryly. “I’ll take good care of… it. When it hatches. Is it likely to stay with me forever, or run off once it’s full grown?”
“I’m not sure about that,” she said, brow furrowing. “I’ll have to ask Arran.”
Suddenly I remembered my quiche in the kitchen and balked. “Oh, my idiotic meal,” I gasped. “I hate cooking.”
“I’ll leave now,” she said with another smile. She smiled a lot.
“Sorry to be rude,” I apologized. Though Sati and I had never been best friends, I liked her all the same and didn’t want to offend her. Though I never had heard of Sati being offended by anything.
“‘S all right,” she said, and walked to the door. “Remember, if you need any help or anything, I’m just down the lane.”
I nodded. “I will.”
“Thanks again,” she said.
“Ma’am! Mistress Pax!” I shook myself, realizing the memory had receded. Standing shakily, I reeled towards the bedroom door.
“What is it, Luiti?”
“Ma’am, Isolia won’t come when I call her.”
“I’ll get her,” I said. Luiti was always a bit too passive when it came to bellowing pet-names into the rain. I headed for the front door, smoothing my wrinkled tunic as I went and untwisting the chain around my neck to right the silver and green amulet. I opened the door and got a gust of wet air in my face. I stepped outside to avoid soaking the front hall. “Isolia!” I called at the top of my lungs. “Come inside! Isolia!” There was no response, and I could not see three feet through the rain. With a snort of annoyance I went back in. “Get my cloak,” I told the worried housekeeper as I pulled my boots on.
Stepping into that mess of swirling rain took a bit of courage, but once I was there it was not so bad. Not so bad as some things I’d done, anyway, but it was up with them on the list. So I picked my way along the muddy path to where it turned into the stable yards, thinking Isolia might have hidden from the storm with the horses. Not good for the horses. Suddenly the rain began to weave together into one silver sheet of confusion, and the fence post before me became very real. Why in the name of Roneraat did I bring this Shoer-slighted harp? I wondered as I clutched at it. I struggled to remain standing while the dizziness swept over me and I had another flashback.
Standing upright, I added the newest honeysuckle to my bouquet. I didn’t know why I was in such a flowery mood, but wasn’t about to argue with silly urges when my only witnesses were horses and a dragon. All I needed now was a flowing dress and long wavy hair to billow and spread behind me in the wind. But ranchers don’t wear dresses and my hair is straight as a board. I looked around, smiling: it was a beautiful day, and the horses were certainly enjoying their romp around the flower-filled meadow. It was near the center of the Roshwood and quite a trek
After the egg had hatched — a singularly unpleasant experience for my callow self — the dogs had wanted first to baby and then to play with the little lizard-like creature, blue-eyed, with which I now had to deal. After I’d had Sati confirm the dragonette’s sex, I named her Isolia and tried to hire another housekeeper. It had not been particularly easy to find one who was willing to work in a house with a dragon from Sharaani, but you know what people will do for money.
Then for the next half year Isolia had grown, and grown, and grown, until she was almost fully grown. The dogs loved her, the horses withstood their terror in her presence with much coaxing. I liked her, I must admit. She followed me everywhere.
It was this that made me wonder what was going on when she suddenly disappeared into the trees, looking almost wild with excitement. Perhaps she saw a deer, I thought. Tucking my bouquet into my belt, I followed her leisurely, though with a certain amount of caution: the Roshwood has around it a number of odd legends which I’d never believed until I found myself in possession of a dragon from Sharaani. Not to say that I really believed them now; but I did feel more ready to admit them the causes of the undeniably strange things that periodically occurred in the area.
I followed the crunchy sounds of Isolia’s passage into deeper and deeper brush, the forest growing twilight-dim around me with the thickening trees. Annoyed, I called out my dragon’s name and ordered her to come back; but she seemed always to run faster. After several more minutes of this, I stopped. Let the little weasel come back in her own good time, I thought. The crashing noises before me also stopped. As a matter of fact, all sound in front of me had ceased entirely. Behind, faintly, I heard the rustling of leaves in the wind and the chirping of birds and crickets. But ahead all was silent, unless it was for, perhaps, a hint of voices as if from far off. I also became conscious at that moment of the light that bathed the forest around — a strange purple tint that seemed to glow from some point ahead, turning the enforced dusk into eerie, artificial day. I pushed forward through the dense trees and came into the light, if you will. Sharaani, was my only thought.
A novelist once write a book about Sharaani called The Rip in the World, and she was right. It was this black tear shining purple at the edges, looking for all the worlds like a place where reality had just been torn away. It seemed to suck sound into it as well, though now standing before it I thought I could hear from its depths forest sounds, soft, similar to those that should have surrounded me. I also heard voices, far-off and nearly inaudible, so indistinct that I could make out no words.
I had no doubt — no doubt whatsoever — that Isolia had gone straight through this doorway into whatever lay beyond.
I stood there glumly for a while. I really was going to miss my stupid dragon, though Sharanni was where she belonged. After several moments the thought hit me that someone should be told about this portal; perhaps something could be done. I looked around, realizing I had no idea in which part of the Roshwood I was. Suddenly, a shout issued from the rip and startled me half to death. Of course, it didn’t even reach normal speaking level on my side, but the pained surprise in the woman’s voice left little room for debate as to its volume over there.
I think it must have been the surrealism of my situation combined with the vague familiarity of the voice and my nerves already on end that drove me in; but whyever in Mailiw’s name I did it, it was done: the moment I head that pleading voice I darted forward, hands outstretched, and plunged into the unknown.
I was in a forest, very like the one I’d just left. Stumbling into a tree before I caught myself — I’d expected more resistance in the portal, but it had really been like walking through a doorway — I looked around after a moment for the rift. It was not there, but the voices were much closer now. Shouts and grunts met my ears as if a fight were going on nearby. That voice was there, too — it had to be… whoever she was — and I was determined to help. My heart still beating rapidly from the excitement of this entire business, I moved towards the sounds.
Now, I’ve had my share of fistfights. Being the youngest of six, all brothers except me, taught me early to defend myself from what was for them good-natured play-fighting but which was for me somewhat dangerous. Then, too, I’ve had to deal with the occasional highwayman seeking a couple of nice horses and thinking I was an easy target. This is not to say I’m the be-all-end-all in a slugfest, but I certainly can hold my own; every good rancher can fight, my father used to say.
This situation didn’t look too bad: two thin, scruffy men against a very nicely-dressed, quick-moving woman with dark hair. She was the voice, I knew — a rich traveler, perhaps, set upon by these bandits — but there was something familiar about her. I tried to catch a glimpse of her face as she dodged and ducked her way around the other two, but she was moving too quickly. I darted out and knocked one of her dirty attackers soundly on the back of the head, sucking in my breath at the pain of fist meeting skull. The man turned in surprise and took a swing at me, which I barely managed to dodge. I aimed a blow at his shoulder and got a kick in the knee before I hit him, losing all the force from my arm.
Stumbling backwards, I regained my balance in time to meet the bandit’s charge with a heavy punch to his chest. I sidestepped his flying fist and watched as he stumbled just as I had. My next hit was better aimed. Before I connected with his face, though, I caught a glimpse of Isolia behind him and smiled. She whipped her tail forward, even as my balled hand met the man’s cheekbone with a crack, and rapped the man’s ankles out from under him. He fell with a look of pain and surprise as Isolia darted out of the way, and I looked around for the woman I was defending. My eyes met her back, but then my left knee gave way. The bandit Isolia and I had knocked over was on me in an instant, wrenching my arm up behind me as far as it would go (which was, incidentally, pretty far; I’m rather flexible) and punching me repeatedly in the back. I struggled to get up, but soon his blows found the more sensitive areas at the base of my skull, and my struggles stopped.
The rain awakened me… …no, that was just the storm. The flashback had ended, and I was on my knees beside a fencepost holding a harp to my bosom as if it were the most priceless thing in existence. Climbing to my feet, the rainwater and mud running down my already-soaked leggings, I attempted once more to pierce the rain with my not-so-superior night vision. Clambering carefully over the rain-streaked slats of the fence, I headed for my original destination, the stable, fervently hoping no more flashbacks would take me before I found Isolia.
“Isohhhhhlia!” I called into the horse-smelling darkness, squelching the urge to calm my frightened animals. Stepping fully into the building I closed the door behind me, desiring peace for just a moment. The rain’s irritating drum on the roof and walls was certainly provoking still, but at least for the moment it was not drumming on me. Isolia was obviously not in here; rain and thunder would alarm horses this much, a dragon much more. With a sigh, I shook the rainwater off my harp — a futile gesture, I know — and stepped back into the storm. Running the length of the stableyard, and luckily only slipping two or three times in the rain-churned mud, I found the fence at the other side that separates the yard from a cropped-grassy embankment sloping down to the lane. As I switched the harp from one hand to another, I accidentally drew my fingers across the strings, rippling a wave of storm-drowned sound inaudibly into the chaotic night. I swore loudly, though my voice was nearly lost in the after-rumblings of a thunderclap. If the previous events of this evening were any indication, I was particularly susceptible to flashbacks tonight. Strumming the harp would only bring on more. I determined to wait it out here rather than risk going out into the lane and possibly collapsing under someone’s carriage wheels. But I stood against the fence for so long, enduring the uncomfortable torrents as best I could, I began to think I was done with flashbacks for now at any rate. Slowly I pulled myself up onto the fence, and then of course it came. Frantically I tried to climb down before I was gone completely, but my body was falling too fast. I felt my hands’ grip relax and then the memory took me.
I lay on my back securely bound, bare wrists already chafing in the tight ropes. The light to which I opened my eyes gave me a sudden, pounding headache, and a pang of hunger twisted my stomach. “Roneraat and Mailiw,” I groaned, regardless of who might hear, squeezing my eyes shut and attempting to hold still.
“What did you say?” she gasped from behind me. It was the voice, the rich stranger to whom I’d been so useless. Pain or not, I had to see her face. She was only just behind me, to judge from the sound, so I struggled into a sitting position and scrabbled myself around to look at her. My next oath is not repeatable, for my fellow prisoner, stripped of her rich clothing and clad now in rough, dirty linen; bruised, broken, bound as tightly as I; the woman I’d left my world, come to Sharaani, to protect — the woman beside me was none other than Haering of Chul, crown princess and heir to the throne of Kopier.
I choked out, “Your hiiieee!” and ended in a shriek as she kicked my ankle sharply.
“Quiet!” came a savage command from nearby, and turning I saw a bandit, apparently our guard, reclining against a tree with a knife at his side. I glared at the princess.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered harshly, “but you realize what they’ll do if you call me that?”
Still annoyed with her for my stinging ankle, I responded, somewhat surly. “All right. Haering.” She nodded her pretty head with its mussed dark auburn hair, and I looked away; she had a black eye. I took the time, rather than speak again in anger, to look around at what was apparently a camp. We lay a little way off from the large fire pit in the center of an oblong clearing. Around the edges were perhaps twelve tents, square, many with their front flaps rolled up to revealed raised wooden slat platforms holding a couple of padded cots and often a chest or two. At one end of the clearing, near where our anything-but-alert-looking guard rested, stood a wooden shed-like hut, weather-worn and sturdy. Gazing upward, I guessed it must be about noon, for the sun was directly overhead. Above to either side were the impossibly steep, tree-covered sides of the narrow ravine in which these brigands obviously felt themselves perfectly safe. Turning back to the princess, I whispered, “You are the last person I thought to meet here.”
“I didn’t exactly expect to find myself here,” she responded. “Who are you?”
“Tixina Pax, from Lottingdell-Roshwood. I’m a horse rancher.”
“Pax? I know your brother, then.”
I nodded briefly; Saquell, the second oldest, was at Chul studying to be a wizard. Though the Wizards’ Academy and Kopier University are technically two different institutes, they are in the same set of buildings; so it was no surprise that the school-going princess should be acquainted with my wizard initiate brother. “So what do we do now?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she responded glumly. “These fellows are slave traders and bandits of the worst kind.”
“How do you know?” I asked, shocked.
“They failed to knock me out,” she replied. “I kept fighting after you were struck down, until more of them arrived and subdued me. I’ve had to listen to their vulgar jaw since last night. Most of them are gone off now, to do whatever they do during the day; they’ll be back tonight, no doubt.”
I sighed. “So how do we get away?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said again. “I’ve no idea.”
“Does the guard ever change?” I asked.
“He has not moved more than twice all morning,” Haering said.
“Well, do they go to sleep at night?” I asked.
“They leave a guard out at night as well,” she responded.
“Well, don’t you have any ideas?” I asked, frustrated.
“About what exactly should I have an idea?” she demanded. She was apparently very frightened, more than was I, and I determined not to ask her anything more.
“Don’t worry, I’ll think of something,” I said. However, long monotonous hours passed and not an idea had come to my mind. The day dragged on, darkening immediately a few hours after noon when the sun fell beyond the lip of the ravine, with the occasional brigand coming and going, and I began to rethink the opinion of our guard. Though he remained fairly lazy-looking throughout the day, there was a wariness to him I had not observed at first, and he never went to sleep or left the camp. No hope there, then. I would have to see what the night guard was like.
Haering didn’t speak much, and I became more and more convinced that she was terribly frightened. I suppose the thought of being a slave was even more repulsive to a rather pampered royal university student than it was to me. I decided to try to lighten the mood a bit. Looking around, I commented on the first thing I saw — whispering, of course. “This ravine’s pretty, isn’t it?” As soon as the words were out of my mouth I wished I could take them back: I doubted the princess would be able to see the beauty in the area of her captivity. But she surprised me by saying immediately,
“Yes. The way the shadows fall into it and make the trees on the sides seem, by their shadows, to be double — that is lovely.”
I lowered my brows. I certainly hadn’t observed the tree-shadows, at least not like that, and admitted as much.
She sighed. “I enjoy painting,” she said. “I notice things like that.”
“Do they let you study such things at KU?” I asked curiously.
“Yes, we have art instructors there. Saquell paints better than I do, however. Sometimes I suspect him of using magic for it.”
I laughed softly. “Of course. He probably just wants to show you up. He couldn’t care less about art.”
I shrugged. “I like music. I’ve never really tried my hand at painting.” We fell silent, but I thought the tension had been loosened.
When the darkness became serious, our guard lit the fire. Brigands began returning to the camp in earnest, one at a time mostly, occasionally bearing chests or backpacks. One set up a large pot by the fire, not throwing us a glance like the rest of them, and began to cook something that smelled sickeningly good. I was becoming frustrated with the entire situation: no one so much as looked at us, and my back was tired from sitting up with my legs to the side. The princess had not said a word all day, and I guessed she was still frightened out of her wits. That’s what came from being a college girl, and a royal one at that: never fought a man before yesterday in her life, probably, and certainly had never had to deal with wolves or coyotes trying to get at her horses or chickens. She was beautiful, though.
A man came striding through the camp then, clad in mail unlike his patchworked group. The sword hanging at his belt was longer than the short blades of the rest of his people, and the sheath appeared actually to match the weapon. He stopped just in front of us and looked down. “Somebody come feed these,” he ordered. “Kelvin do it.” That was all. No greeting for us, no insults. Better than it could have been, and worse. With that level of disinterest, I didn’t think I was in danger of rape any time soon, but if they would talk to us we might find some weakness we could use to escape. But nobody spoke a word to us. At least, not until Kelvin arrived.
“Hello,” he said, crouching. “I’ll bet you’re hungry.” Looking over his shoulder he shouted. “Tiner! Vasey! Get over here and help me!” He addressed us again. “Now, I’ll untie your hands so you can eat, as long as you don’t try to escape. If you do, Tiner and Vasey’ll stick you.” He had a gentle voice, and his face in the firelight looked more refined than that of anyone we’d seen so far, especially the two great men that appeared at his back. Without a word they took their places at either side of us, short swords drawn. Kelvin knelt behind me and I felt practiced fingers loosing the ropes that bound my poor wrists. Shaking my hands out in front of me at last, I tried to rid them of the odd tingling that came from bad circulation, then rubbed my sore arms that had been pulled behind me all day.
“Thank you,” I said inadvertently, realizing the next moment that being polite to my captors might not be the best idea in the world.
“You’re welcome,” Kelvin said as he untied the princess. I looked at him more closely. He had high cheekbones and wispy blonde hair, and his face was bruised multiple times as if he were often struck. I wondered what his status among the brigands was. “I’ll get you some stew and bread — we don’t starve prisoners who are destined to be slaves, after all.” I imagined that as he spoke the word ‘slaves,’ his lip curled up into an expression of disdain. At what this emotion was directed I could not tell, but I stored the gesture away for future reference.
Haering sat up, rubbing her wrists and glancing apprehensively at Tiner and Vasey. “Still alive, Tixina?” she asked, somewhat less despondently than I might have expected.
I grimaced. “Tixi,” I said firmly. “Looks like we get to eat after all.”
“Shut up,” said one of out watchers — whether Tiner or Vasey, I could not tell — and kicked me. I almost fell over, hip smarting, and took a deep breath before sitting up fully again. No use mouthing off to someone who could so easily kill me.
Kelvin came back with a large bowl of stew and a small loaf of hard bread. It smelled so good I thought I’d die if he didn’t hurry. “Here you go,” he said, “and don’t fight over it.”
There were two wooden spoons in the bowl, and the bread was easily broken in slightly uneven halves. I gave the princess the large portion, and set to on the stew with a vengeance. It took me a moment to realize that her highness was not eating, but was staring at the food with a blank, slightly dismayed expression.
“You’re not going to do yourself any good if you don’t eat,” I hissed at her. She nodded, and with a look of distaste at the bowl joined me in my efforts at emptying it. So that’s her problem, I thought: the food’s not good enough for her. Well, at least she’s not complaining. She rose a great deal in my esteem, just for that.
When we had finished eating, Kelvin returned to take our dishes. “I’m sorry,” he said jovially, “but I’ll have to retie you.”
I grimaced, but forced myself to say, “Don’t worry about it,” in a tone that suggested I knew it was not his fault. He was probably just another brigand, but since he seemed so friendly I felt it would not hurt to try and make a friend of him. Haering just snorted.
Our guards had wandered off, and the camp had settled down a great deal with the brigands eating their supper. A cry arose for a song, and I was surprised to see Kelvin step forward, unslinging a harp from the strap around his back. I frowned. So he was a bard, which was for some reason considered lower-class among brigands. That made no sense. But I paused reflection to listen to his song, which was of middling length and rather bawdy. He had a nice voice, though, and the melody was endurable.
Strange, though, what happened to him as he began singing: his face went blank, his eyes closed, and he seemed not to notice anything around him. I swear, if that fire had leapt up and burned his trousers I don’t think he would have felt it. Only at the very end of the song did he come out of his odd trance, and then staggered a bit as the brigands laughed and clapped. By that time the fire had burned low, and the men were starting to roll their tent flaps down as if to go to bed. The cook pot was taken down and washed, the area was tidied up, and things generally began to quiet. A guard was set. The door of the chief’s hut (for that it must have been) closed with a bang. After a little while everything was still.
I was going to watch that guard all night if it killed me. There was no way I was going to be sold as a slave on Sharaani when I had a ranch, three servants, and a dozen friends back on Raharsaa. But I’d just eaten, after being hurt and sore all day; my headache was somewhat subsided, and despite my valiant efforts I was asleep before an hour was up.
The first thing I saw the next morning when I awoke was Isolia peeking out at me from between two tents. She gave one of her hawk-like dragon calls, and I sat up in fear. Glancing quickly around to see if anyone was about, I called her softly. I held out my hands as far as I could and ordered, “Bite.”
She knew this command — because she was so naturally gentle, I’d trained her to bite when I told her to, in case I was ever in trouble or needed something broken. She advanced and looked at me confusedly, obviously puzzled as to why she should bite my hands. I strained the latter and managed to tap the rope between my wrists with one finger, repeating the mandate. But at that moment I heard the rustling of a tent flap, and hissed at Isolia with no real reason other than wishing her to get out of sight. She did that on her own, hopping off between the tents again and disappearing. No doubt she was hiding in the trees beyond.
“Good morning,” came the cheerful voice of Kelvin from behind us, and I cursed him mentally. Still, I resolved to be friendly.
“Hello,” I said. Struggling to face him, I smiled weakly. “I liked your song last night.”
He frowned. “Did you? I’m sorry.”
He did not appear eager to speak further, and had turned his attention to getting some food from what appeared to be the supply tent. I felt now was as good as any to speak. “My father was a harpist.”
“Was he?” asked Kelvin absently, as if he had not heard. In the light I could see how gaunt and tall he was.
“Yes; he taught me a song.”
Kelvin glanced at me, now mildly interested it seemed. “Oh, really? What song?” There was not much hope in his voice.
“The balled of Sorril and Mai.”
He turned to face me, brows flickering downward. “I never heard of that. Is it a high ballad?”
I had what might be called, if I were a dramaticist, a plan at this point, so I feigned ignorance. “I dunno,” I shrugged. “It’s pretty. ‘T’s long.”
“I’d like to hear it,” he said; I’d caught him now. At least, I hoped I had.
I forced a sigh. “When my father died he left his harp to my brother, whom I haven’t seen in four years. And now –” It wasn’t much work to make my voice bitter — “I’ll probably never play again.”
“Well,” he said slowly, coming over to me, “I’ll let you play mine.”
“Are you allowed to do that?” I questioned doubtfully.
He shrugged. “As long as you don’t escape, I can do anything I want.”
The uncomfortable double meaning of this was not lost on anyone present, and Kelvin looked somewhat abashed. Haering, whom I had not known to be awake, said fiercely, “Watch what you say to her.”
Kelvin frowned and replied, “I didn’t mean anything by it.” Looking at me — I made sure to smile — he continued, “I don’t think your sweetheart took it that way either.”
Now I was blushing. Kelvin untied my hands as I studiously avoided looking at Haering. It wasn’t the first time someone had made that kind of insinuation about me.
“Here you go,” he said, unslinging his harp and handing it to me. My heart was beating rapidly; this would be my only chance at escape, as far as I knew, and it was not likely to work. I wasn’t the worst aim in the world, but I wasn’t the best either… maybe if I played and sang very quietly I could get him to come close enough. It was a shame to use such a nice instrument for such a sad purpose, though.
“Thishud be fun,” said someone, and I saw a brigand who hadn’t been there before.
“So you’re finally up, are you?” Kelvin asked. “Sondor’s not going to be happy you slept so late when you were supposed to be guarding the prisoners.”
“Who cares? You were up.”
“I haven’t been for long. Anyway, she’s going to play me a song, so be quiet.”
My hopes of escape vanished. Where had he come from, anyway? Trying my hardest not to look annoyed or disappointed, I ran my hands along the strings to get a feel for the instrument — I really hadn’t touched a harp in four years — and began to sing.
The balled of Sorril and Mai is a pretty song, a high ballad as they call them and very poetic. It tells a story of two lovers divided by war and reunited under miraculous circumstances, and it’s always been my favorite song. However, I do not remember singing a single word of it that day, for as I stroked the harp the world took on a silver shine and I was suddenly not there anymore. Abruptly I was reliving a scene from months earlier when Isolia, a hatchling yet, had frightened my big Contiu mare so badly the horse had jumped three fences and bolted across the lane to Katzi Leik’s field and out thence into the Roshwood. It’d taken half a day to find her, and as I supposedly played that song I retraced every step in acute detail as if for the first time.
And then it was over, the last notes of the song still hovering in the air as the last words faded from my lips. I felt dizzy, and the world took several moments to come back into focus. Then suddenly I felt violently ill and shoved the harp back into Kelvin’s hands, combating nausea as I leaned forward to the ground. The laughter of the late-sleeping brigand filled my ears. When I was finally able to sit up without seeing three spinning copies of the camp I demanded angrily, “What in Shoer’s name was that?”
Even Kelvin seemed mildly amused. “This harp brings flashbacks to whoever plays it. I suppose I should have warned you.”
“I suppose so!” I said.
“Are you all right?” asked Haering quietly.
“Fine,” I responded.
“It was a lovely song,” said Kelvin. “Thank you for playing it for me; now I have to tie your hands again.”
I felt weak and hopeless as he again bound my wrists. Don’t despair, I told myself, there’s still Isolia.
“Goodbye,” the bard then bade me, and left without words farther.
“What were you planning?” whispered Haering once Kelvin was gone.
“I was going to throw the harp at him,” I said, “or something.”
“A good plan,” Haering sighed.
“Don’t worry — I’ll still think of something. I mean, all it takes is for one of us to have our hands free when they’re not watching. I think you and I together could take them, right?”
“I don’t know. I have been trained in self-defense, but it was little use before, as you saw.”
“Hey, but there’s only two of them now.” She did not say anything. I had to get her to talk. “So, would you paint this valley from your current position, or would you stand up?” I asked, aiming at humor.
I think I caught a weak, brief laugh from her before she answered. “This vantage is pleasing, but I think I would sit up if I could.”
“Do you always use paints, or ever other things? Like pencils or something, I mean?”
“I have occasionally used pencils. They are not as versatile as paints, though.”
I nodded. This almost made sense, but I didn’t want to puzzle through it. “What kinds of things do you usually paint?”
“Landscapes. City streets. The occasional portrait.”
“Hmm.” I had run out of things to ask her, knowing nothing of this branch of art. I tried to think of something else to talk about. “So what’s it like living in the royal palace?”
“It is home. We are not so privileged as many believe us to be, and there is work to be done for everyone. I do not ‘live’ there now, of course, but in Chul. Sometimes I think I would rather be there.” She did not say whether ‘there’ meant Chul or Shoer, but I didn’t ask.
“What does the palace look like?” I’d been to Shoer a few times, but had never gone so far as the palace.
She sighed, and seemed reluctant to continue speaking. But at last she began slowly to describe her home, after which I told her about Thesar and what it was like to live on a ranch. Our whispered conversation continued for a good long while. If the guard ever noticed we were talking, he didn’t react.
I noticed that throughout the day Isolia peeked her head into the camp once or twice, but seeing our guard quickly ducked out. By suppertime my stomach was growling, and I swore that if I ever got home again I’d be glad to do my own cooking — yes, and cook for the hired hands, too — forever more.
This night Kelvin fed us again, and for a second time I watched in interest as he went into his flashback trance while singing. Halfway through his song, however, the chief — whose name I believed to be Sondor — approached him and struck him, not gently, across the face. Kelvin stopped singing, reeling, clutching the harp to his chest like a highly precious thing. He shook his head and looked around.
“Is there a problem?” I now understood all the bruises on his face, if that was what it took to get him out of the flashback.
“Have the wench sing for us,” he said. I wondered who’d told him.
“Yes, sir,” said Kelvin, not seeming to notice he’d been struck. He came over to me and quickly untied me, giving me brief instructions as he did. “Play well and you may escape slavery. Don’t look anyone in the eye when you start the song.”
For the first time in two days I was able to stand, and my legs almost gave way. My left knee was still hurting from where I’d been kicked, and I was afraid I’d be limping for some time. But the glorious feeling of finally being able to stretch my legs overrode all the pain, and I gladly stood and took the harp from him. Standing before the fire as I’d seen him do, I looked at nowhere in particular and began to sing the ballad of Sorril and Mai for the second time that day.
This time the waking memory was that of my father teaching me to ride — an event that had occurred almost fifteen years ago now, and in as vivid detail as if it had happened yesterday. I was jarred back suddenly, to the dark, spinning camp, where I fell to my knees squeezing the harp convulsively to my chest, tears running down my face. Sondor was walking away from me, and I barely realized he was speaking to Kelvin. “That song’s too long. Does she know any others?”
“I don’t think so,” he answered, unsure.
“Teach her some. Maybe I’ll let you keep her.” Hope sprung up again in my heart, hope of escape and freedom — freedom at least from the slavers if not from this world. But depression filled me again at the thought of Haering — I couldn’t just leave the princess here! — and at Sondor’s next words. “Tie her up again, for now.”
I returned the harp to Kelvin and took my place beside her highness once more so the bard could tie me. Haering whispered to me, “Did you know that monster just struck you?”
I frowned. “I guess he must have,” I said. “I didn’t finish the song.” I felt no pain.
“It’s better than the alternative,” Kelvin murmured, giving the knot on my ankles an extra tug. “I’ll talk to you later.” With that he stood and walked off, and the camp began to quiet once more for the night.
This night I was able to stay awake, but to little avail. The crescent moon became visible and then disappeared again, and the guard never stirred. Yet I did not think he was asleep. I grumbled a little to myself, almost silently. And then there was a bustling from the other end of the clearing, and twisting around I saw a figure emerge from one of the tents. He made his way across to the guard, and then I knew who it was. “I can’t sleep, Notsly. D’you like me to watch them for you?”
“You’re a pal, Kelv,” Notsly replied, yawning. “I’ll take yours sometime.” The seated guard stood and headed for his tent. “Night.”
“Good night,” said Kelvin softly. All was quiet for several moments, the only sounds those of Notsly arranging himself in his tent. When the noises of the night forest were the only things audible, Kelvin came silently over to me. “I’ll help you escape, if you’ll help me,” he said in a whisper. Our further conversation continued at the same level.
“Help you with what?” I said with sudden excitement.
“I’ve seen the dragon that comes to you sometimes. Is it yours?”
“Can it bite through metal?”
“Sondor stole my real harp and has it locked in a metal strongbox in his hut. It’s the only reason I stay with these bastards. If you can get your dragon to break open Sondor’s box and get my harp for me, I’ll get you and your friend out of here. There’s only one way out of the ravine. It’s a little opening in the rocks that always has a guard at it. I can take care of him. The only thing I can’t do is get my harp.”
“I’ll do anything to get out of here,” I assured him nervously, “but I don’t know if I’ll be able to find Isolia, my dragon, in time.”
“Can you walk quietly?”
“I think so,” I said very doubtfully.
“Well, your dragon’s usually watching from nearby. It shouldn’t be too hard to find. Please try.”
“Why don’t you just break open the box yourself?”
“It’s enchanted against all humans but Sondor. It would kill me.”
“Ohhh,” I nodded exaggeratedly. “I’ll try it.”
With a swift motion he cut the ropes, then helped me quietly to my feet. “Please hurry,” he said. I started to tiptoe off. “Wait!” he said, a little too loudly. I froze. “One more thing — put these in your ears when you come out with the harp.” He handed me a pair of carved, cloth-padded woodchips that fit perfectly into my ears. I looked at him in confusion, forgetting he could not see my face in the pitch-black night.
“Why?” I asked.
“Trust me,” he said. I shrugged and continued towards the wood.
After I was a good way in — or so I thought, for the camp was to the forest what night was to oblivion — I began whispering Isolia’s name. Silence was my echo, and I found no sign of my dragon. I started to feel panicky, fearing that Kelvin would heartlessly tie me up again if I did not retrieve his lost harp for him. “Isolia!” I whispered again, and this time was answered by a rustling in the leaves and a glint of nonexistent light off two very blue eyes. A moment later Isolia thrust her scaly head under my hand and nuzzled me, exceptionally happy. “Come,” I commanded, and began feeling my way backwards, not daring to turn lest I lose track of my path, towards the camp.
I knew I was there by Kelvin’s slight hiss. Turning to face him, I saw he’d aroused Haering and the two were crouching near the fire pit watching me. Haering’s eyes were wide as she saw me leading my dragon: she had apparently not been as acutely observant as Kelvin. I turned and headed for Sondor’s hut, Isolia still following obediently. “Hey,” whispered Kelvin, coming to my side, “did I mention that Sondor is not in there?”
“No!” I protested. “Now it’s going to be easy!”
“Not necessarily. He and several of the others are away on a very tricky raid. Depending on their success, they could be back any minute.”
I sighed far too loudly, afraid again. “Then we’d better get going,” I said.
“Don’t forget the earplugs when you come out. You’ll have to watch me carefully, but the earplugs are very, very important.”
Nodding sharply, I told Isolia to heel and went forward quietly into Sondor’s hut.
I couldn’t see a single Shoer-blasted thing in there. I stumbled around in the total absence of light for a while, making a bit too much noise, until my hands alighted on what must have been the strongbox. It was nothing more than a large chest of metal bearing a metal padlock, but I drew my arms away in fear of what Kelvin had said about it. Seeing, however, that I was not instantly incinerated or whatever, I figured he must have meant it was enchanted against other humans trying to break it open. I hoped. I took the padlock in my hand and commanded Isolia, “Bite.”
She made short work of it. The lock fell into my cupped hands dented and bent out of shape, and the chest opened relatively easily. Reaching hesitantly inside, my other arm already shaking from holding the thick, heavy lid open, I felt what must be Kelvin’s harp.
At that moment I heard voices outside, and from under the door I caught the glimmer of tiny lights entering the clearing. “Kelvin, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” That was Sondor. In fear I seized the harp and let the lid fall. That proved to be a mistake, as the chest closed with a wrenching clackudd that must have been heard through the whole camp. “What was that?” shouted Sondor. “Who do you have in there, you sorry shit? Well, you little games are over. Kill them both!” I knew he must mean Kelvin and Haering; I had to do something quickly. Throwing the door open I sprang out, harp under my arm, and remembered the earplugs at the last moment. Still wondering why they were so important I fumbled them into my ears, cutting off Sondor’s shout. “She’s got a dra-”
The brigands rushed forward to attack us. But Kelvin stood calmly in the center, holding his harp, and began to play.
I don’t know what song it was, but even with the earplugs on I felt dizzy, and the world took on that silver tinge I now associated with flashbacks. However, no memories came, and I suspected that was due to the earplugs. I felt like I was being swept up in silver wind and carried far, far away, blown in endless musical eddies forever. I shook my head, pulled the sliding harp up under my armpit, and ran forward. All the brigands had stopped moving, and stood where they were, rapt, dazed in the flashback. I took the torch from one of them and looked to Kelvin for instructions. His face was stone in concentration, but he began walking forward and it appeared we were to follow. Haering and I, tailed by Isolia, fell into step behind the harpist and left the slavers’ camp.
The harp under my arm was heavy, much too large to be played standing like the one Kelvin held now. I could barely hold my torch and keep it from falling, so presently Haering relieved me of the flickering light. We made our way through the forest, Kelvin playing at every step, and soon were moving upwards as the ravine sloped, tapering, to its end.
The guard at the opening was charmed by the song before we reached him, and Kelvin was forced to stop playing as we clambered through the narrow crevice leading to the brigands’ hideout. Once out, the weary-looking Kelvin tapped his ears, and I removed my earplugs. Handing the torch to me, Haering did the same. “Now we ride,” said Kelvin. “We must make it to the gates of Landington before they find us.” Shouts already echoed up the canyon walls behind, and I did not hesitate to follow the bard when, after one longing look at the harp under my arm, he broke into a run.
In a carefully-hidden cave nearby we found several horses, and paused long enough for Kelvin to catch his breath before we mounted. He looked pale and grim, his strength apparently having been taxed by whatever song he’d been playing to get us out of there. The angry cries of the slavers not too far away drove us to our mounts, though, and we broke out of the cave almost on top of our pursuers. Swords flashed and hands clutched at us, and I nearly dropped Kelvin’s precious harp before we were free of them and galloping down a rocky slope towards what looked like a road in the now-visible moonlight. I guessed the brigands would not be far behind once they found their own horses.
On the road we pushed for higher speeds, the annoyed whinnying of hard-pressed beasts following us on the chilly night air. Giddy, I focused on holding the harp and holding the horse, letting Kelvin lead the way. Haering was beside me on her own mount. Even in all the excitement I managed to see that these were no plough horses — probably stolen from rich travelers just as they’d taken Haering to be, these were top-breed stallions.
The wind of our speed swept my hair out behind me, carrying my panic, perhaps, to our pursuers, for they seemed to be gaining. Urging our steeds onward we made for the lights ahead, the salvation that disappeared in each dell and reappeared all the closer at the top of each hill. It was a desperate chase, but in the end we made it. Shouting at the top of his lungs, Kelvin managed to arouse whatever porter was there, and the gates were open when we arrived. They closed on the faces of the bandits, hard on our heels and irate at our escape.
It was not long before the men of the town, clued by our gasped-out story, were up in arms and marching from their gates against the now-exposed brigands only a mile from their doors.
Kelvin bought us rooms at the inn.
Haering and I sat in a small upstairs parlor at The Ball and Racquet while the bard was downstairs getting us drinks. Sitting on opposite sides of a round table, we seemed both to be in a kind of exhausted, relieved stupor. Finally I shook my head and asked, mostly from a desire to break the silence, “So, how did you get here?”
Haering, who could not take her half-glazed eyes off the dragon whose head was on my knee, answered, “I was on my way back to Shoer to visit my parents. They did not know I came, for I had left University secretly. I wanted to travel on my own, understand, not with an escort. I was walking when a portal appeared in front of me, and I stupidly walked into it.” She looked at me strangely. “Though I do not think I mind so much now.” I was sure I must be blushing, so I looked down at Isolia and scratched her head. She rolled her eye up to look at me, happy to have me back. I couldn’t say I disagreed.
“This silly dragon led me to a portal,” I said, “and I heard you yelling.”
She smiled. “You came to help me?”
“I didn’t know it was you, but yes.”
“You were brilliant in the camp.” This was unexpected, and I looked at her curiously, knowing my cheeks were red again. She explained. “I was frightened out of my wits, but you kept your head the whole time.”
“Thanks,” I said. What else could I say?
Kelvin, entering and setting three drinks down on the table, remarked, “I’ll sell those horses tomorrow,” settling himself into the vacant chair to my right. He was cradling his harp lovingly, and I could now see the intricate gold threadwork that spiraled up and down the black wood of the instrument. His eyes never strayed from it, and he continually stroked soft chords across its strings with his delicate hands. “You won’t need them,” he continued, “now that I have my harp.”
Haering looked up, fixing her gaze on the object in Kelvin’s arms. “Why?” she asked.
“This harp of mine, that your friend so kindly retrieved for me, is magical, like the other; with it I can send you anywhere you want to go.”
We both sat bolt upright and stared at him, all trace of weariness gone and our eyes alert. “Anywhere?” we echoed with one voice.
He narrowed his eyes, brows lowering. “Why? Where are you from?”
“Raharsaa,” I said.
“D’sh…” I think he was cursing rather vigorously, but I could be wrong. “You are joking me, I swear it.” He looked almost frightened.
“Both of you?” We nodded. “Who are you?”
“I am Haering, daughter of Hebald, crown princess of Kopier,” said her highness. Her tone was so casual, it was terribly regal.
Kelvin stared at me. “And you are…?”
“Just a rancher,” I laughed. “Tixi Pax, from the lowlands at Lottingdell-Roshwood.”
Kelvin shook his head, and downed his drink in one gulp. I had only sipped mine; it was not too bad. “I can’t thank you enough for getting my harp back,” the bard said, “but you must understand I’m not at all comfortable with people from Raharsaa.”
“I understand,” I said. “Perfectly. Just send us back and we’ll be fine.”
“First I want to give you this,” he said, gesturing to his old harp in the middle of the table. “It’s not much, but, hey, I don’t have anything else.”
“Um, thanks,” I said. “But won’t it give me flashbacks every time I play it?”
“Yes. And you can only come out of a flashback, before it’s over, if someone hits you or takes the harp away. That one makes you very sick. And only one song will never give you a flashback.”
“The one you played to stop the brigands,” Haering guessed.
“Most songs you play are very likely to give you a flashback. Only your True Song will give others a flashback instead of you. To find your True Song you must clear your mind of all other thoughts and look into your heart until your hands just play the right music. It is a great gift to know your True Song, but with this harp it can also be a great weapon.”
“Thank you,” I said, now more seriously. “That’s really great. So that was your True Song you played earlier.” I took the harp in my hands with a new respect for it. “I heard it somehow, even with these.” I handed the earplugs back to him.
“If you ever see me again, perhaps I’ll play it for you on this harp. I call it the Wind Ballad. One more thing — the True Song charm works only on human ears. Don’t forget that and try to use it on some wild animal that’s attacking you.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever use it,” I said.
“Is it all right if I send you home now?”
Haering and I both laughed in spite of ourselves. Taking a draft of whatever drink I had in my cup, I nodded, smiling. “Good luck in your new life,” I said.
“New life?” Kelvin looked confused.
“Not being a brigand anymore,” I explained.
He smiled, the warmest and most personable smile I’d seen from him. “You gave me that. Thank you. Take hands, and hold that dragon somewhere. I’m not sure if this will work.”
Blushing mightily, I took Haering’s hand, and put my other on Isolia’s back. “Goodbye, Kelvin,” Haering said. “I owe you my life.”
Kelvin gestured, whether at me or Isolia I couldn’t tell. “You owe her your life. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” I said as he started to play.
Music swirled around us, black and gold and warm, and we were falling, falling through the depths of gilded darkness, comfortable and happy, knowing that we were headed home.
We landed — it seemed like landing, anyway, gently and with no jarring — in the middle of a street that I recognized as being about ten miles from my ranch. And about thirty-five miles from Shoer.
I laughed out loud with pure joy at being home. “Looks like you’ve got your walk cut out for you,” I said to the princess, releasing her hand with a grin.
“Tixi, please don’t mention this Sharaani affair to anyone,” she said worriedly. Her face looked so serious! “Or at least, don’t mention me. I don’t know what the wizards would do to me if they discovered I’ve been to Sharaani and back; I don’t want my life ruined.”
I shook my head, brows lowered; I hadn’t thought of that. “All right,” I said, slightly downcast. Looking around for Isolia, I felt my legs telling me to walk towards home; there were still several hours before dusk, apparently, and I could make some progress before finding a place to sleep. But my mind and — yes, I’ll admit — my heart would not let me move. I just stood there like an idiot staring at Haering as if expecting something.
“Thank you for rescuing me,” she said.
“Kelvin did it, really,” I replied.
“Then thank you for helping Kelvin.”
“I was rescuing myself too, you know.” Why was I so stupid?
“Well, take this… as my royal thanks.” She held out a green and silver amulet on a thin chain, letting it dangle from the hand which was about as far from her body as it could be. How had she hidden this from the brigands…? Oh, Kelvin must have given it back to her before we left. I took it, thinking, Royal thanks? I’d rather have your personal thanks.
“Thank you,” I said.
“I suppose I will see you again sometime.”
“I hope so,” I couldn’t help but say.
Then she just turned and walked away. Just like that! I mean, it was, goodbye, goodbye, and then she was gone! Down the hill and out of my sight in an instant. Well, there is normalcy and there are conditions, I supposed glumly.
Feeling empty and alone and terribly depressed, I turned for home, curtly bidding Isolia follow.
I was lying on my back in the pouring rain, deafening thunder filling my ears and drowning out the rhythmic sound of my footsteps as the flashback faded. The harp held tightly in my arms, I sat up. I was literally soaked, covered in slimy mud from head to toe and shivering convulsively. I’d better find Isolia fast or these flashbacks were going to kill me. But why so many tonight?
I hadn’t played the harp much, though I knew it worked differently here than it had in Sharaani. I wished I could find my True Song and just stick to playing that. But that might cause trouble with the hired help. As if I didn’t have enough trouble with them threatening to quit if I ever disappeared like that again. For Shoer’s sake, it had only been a few days!
I climbed the fence, making it all the way over this time, and ran down the slope into the road. “Isohhhhhlia!” I called into the torrents that practically washed the syllables away from me, as if the roar of the storm did not already drown me out.
“Tixiiiii?” came a call through the rain. My heart fluttered — why did that voice sound so familiar? I pressed forward past all semblance of visibility and kept walking until I ran into a tree and realized I’d reached the other side of the lane.
“I’m here!” I called, clutching fiercely at my harp as another gust threatened to tear it from my hand.
“Where?” bellowed the faint voice. Instead of answering I made my way towards it, through the trees, over a fence, and into someone else’s pasture. Katzi Leiks’s, no doubt.
I almost ran into her arms, which would not have been the worst way to meet up with her. “Haering?” I gasped, totally inaudibly. I raised my voice. “What are you doing here?” I wondered how much she heard.
Her hair blew into my face as she leaned close to answer, but I only caught half the words. “I wanted… …see you again. But… …saw Isolia… …that way… …follow.” She raised an arm, which wavered in the wind. I seized the hand at the end of it and pulled her in the direction she’d indicated. We ran together, stumbling and swaying as errant gusts altered our course for us. Was it just me, or was that a light up ahead?
And here was Isolia before us, standing straight and unmoving through the storm. “Isolia!” I shrieked, barely able to be heard over the din that kept growing louder. As soon as the little wretch saw me, she turned and vanished into the storm. We took off after her again, I still holding Haering’s hand and trying to keep my harp at the same time.
It was a light. A purple light. Springing from the violet edges of a black rift in the pattern of space. All the noise and cry of the storm was sucked into it, and as we stood before it we could for a moment hear each other, arriving just in time to catch a view of Isolia’s tailparts disappearing into it.
“Wha–she’s gone in there!” cried Haering.
“Isolia, come back!” I called, but it was to no avail.
We looked at each other.
“Well?” queried the princess with a smile. The strains of the Wind Ballad seemed to echo around us.
I squeezed her hand, returning her smile, and with her stepped forward into a new adventure.