Excitement carried me along as I left the am Norreni house and headed again to the wilds outside of Vaina town. Though he’d not understood it, what the painter had told me about Ovaelo’s midnight excursions could only indicate the arcane. If a citizen of Ilessa—where practitioners of the Subtle Art were far more common and their services had practically become a part of every day life—had not noticed, it was no wonder that no one else in Vaina had said anything about his attempts at the Art. If the boy had been experimenting with forces he did not understand, this could explain his present condition as an angry spirit. It was possible even that no one had murdered him; that he’d succumbed to some misuse of the Power. He’d not be the first to so perish; even trained practitioners sometimes fell victim to their own ignorance or desperation in foolishly forming a working beyond their ability. If that had happened, it would explain why no one had found a body.
Only one person in Vaina—out of Vaina, actually—might have additional insight. The witch, Falla. So, once again, I made my way to her cottage near the ruins of the ancient Aenyr fort.
My thoughts about the potential implications of Orren’s involvement with the Art occupied me as I walked the old path toward my destination and, despite myself, I lost my usual caution about jumping to conclusions, spinning ever more fantastic threads of speculative possibility as I journeyed. None of the scenarios I imagined made a connection between the young man and Lady Aevala. Nilma or Vesonna both seemed likelier targets of his anger, but the facts were the facts. Even if Orren’s arcane talent or experimentation answered one question, it did not complete the puzzle.
Before I reached the edge of the clearing, I could hear the chanting. A single voice, Falla’s, singing as much as incanting, pleasant and enticing in its melody and timbre, the words liquid and flowing one into the other, each somehow simultaneously independent and yet part of an inseparable string of sounds. Beautiful. I felt the Power in the air around us, even at a distance from which I could not yet see her. I could feel raw possibility organizing itself into visions of potentiality, the many skeins of contingencies weaving themselves into an array of alternative futures, only one of which would come to pass. No longer did I doubt Falla’s abilities as a seer, cryptic though she’d been. This knowledge of her intimacy with the divinatory practices required that I trust her statements on the nature of that aspect of the Art more than I had.
As I edged closer to her clearing, her incanting became more intense, less melodic but ever-more rhythmic, and quickened in that rhythm. I caught sight of her at last. She knelt, her legs tucked under her, in a clear spot of grass in the glade, naked but for the pigments with which she’d slathered herself and the tattoos that covered much of her body. If she’d looked wild before, she now appeared nothing but chaotic. Her hair splayed about her head as if buoyed by some invisible force—not taut but languid, as invisible hands seemed to hold her up against falling, tossing her this way and that in time with the rhythm of her chanting, which had grown uneven so that she was sometimes propelled with inhuman alacrity and sometimes drawn into contortions the strongest of muscles could not create with such gradual movement. I sensed no spirit, no other being operating upon her; the Power itself swirled about her and held her thusly, suspending her in such strange positions as it swirled about her, passing through her to fuel her visions.
Her eyes opened suddenly, the iris and whites alike obscured by solid and dark color, swirling and changing subtly in gloomy hues. Her mouth opened and her voice issued forth, low and without melody, her lips unmoving as she nevertheless formed the words that spilled out.
“Master thaumaturge,” she said. “Are you prepared to pay the cost for seeking after death?”
“I—” I began, but the seeress would brook no interruption.
“Death begets death; it is the way of this world. Did you think that you’d find only one death at the end of your journey?
“Your time is running short. The powers at work in this place conspire against you, even as they struggle with one another, and lives hang in the balance. Not the least of which yours, though many precede you. Medryn, Errys, Savlo. For what? Who else will you bring with you to the brink before someone nudges you over?
“You look to petty histories of petty lives for answers when you do not yet know even the questions. You think the boy responsible for his own fate when he, too, is only a pawn in the games of others, just as you are. Have you any idea who pulls the strings? Who are the ones who truly rule here?”
More riddles, but I now took it on faith that they were not useless ones. Falla clearly had too much skill in the Art for that. “Who?” I asked.
Her mouth widened in an impossible smile as words passed through the gate her lips had opened without touching any part of the portal they passed through. Only then did I realize that there might be no audible words at all; I might only be hearing her through some telepathic communication. Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell the difference. “The ones who rule cannot rule themselves, and those who seek power are doomed to fall. The bolt of cloth threatens to tear itself asunder as each end pulls its own way,” she said.
I opened my mouth to speak again, but she collapsed into a heap, unconscious but breathing heavily. The inevitable consequence of calling on so much power. I only hoped she’d not injured herself permanently. The spectacle of her foresight not diminished, I turned my head aside, averting my gaze in respect for her compromised state. The exoticness of her painted skin, with its combination of designs in permanent inks and recently-added pigments carried an erotic temptation that required effort to ignore. I did my best, venturing into her cottage where I might find something to cover her with.
I’d expected to step into the darkness endemic to most such structures but found instead that light illuminated the interior as well as the outside under the twin suns, now high ascended. No torches or candles flickered, nor did I see the alchemical lamps so commonly used by those of means. She had enchanted the light into the rafters themselves with runes at once precise and indicative of her wild independence. The more I came to understand her practice, the more I admired her, both for her skill and her character. She paid a heavy price for her freedom, and she paid it willingly and without hesitation. There is no greater freedom than that.
In a manner uncharacteristic of any practitioner’s study I’d ever observed, the mundane flowed into the arcane here without any noticeable transition. An herb with occult properties hung next to strips of smoked and dried meats. One does often get hungry while undertaking an extended working, I suppose. Those of us who are trained by masters and at the university are instructed to keep a harsh separation between our laboratories and other chambers. They rationalize the tradition with warnings of allowing the imagination to wonder into the use of the Power accidentally when such division is not maintained, but I’d never found the argument all that compelling, and Falla’s cottage seemed to indicate no true threat justifying the approach. The Subtle Art is delicate and mysterious for all of our desire to truly control it, and thus it sometimes becomes difficult to separate important aspects of practice from mere superstition.
A humble bed waited patiently in the corner of the single room, unkempt but clean. Preternaturally so, as I pulled the blanket off of it for a covering for the witch, I noticed no fleas, no bugs, nothing crawling out from the straw stuffing. Rare is the bed without some form of pest or pestilence. I made a note to remember to ask her about the enchantments she’d used.
Returning to the clearing, I laid the rough-spun blanket over her gently, careful not to touch or disturb her. By then her breathing had settled some and I ceased to worry about her not coming back. My stomach growled and reminded me that I hadn’t eaten yet, so I took the liberty of taking some of the vegetables lain on the table inside the cottage, chopped them, and added them to the cauldron in the center of the clearing, as it was clean and empty. She kept a barrel of fresh water, perhaps collected from the rain, near the door of the cottage and I used a ladle to transfer some into the waiting pot. On the side of the cottage Falla had stacked firewood, which I stacked carefully under the vessel along with some tinder I scrounged from beneath the trees at the edge of the glade.
On this visit, we had no audience of animals in the trees and shadows; I imagined that Falla’s use of so much Power had temporarily driven them away. I set the tinder ablaze with a quick sorcery and sat on the well-worn log nearby. I unbuckled my sword belt and lay the weapon and leatherwork gently on the ground behind me, unlaced and opened my vest as some relief from the afternoon heat.
I sat quietly with as much patience as I could gather—which admittedly didn’t last long—before I rose in search of something to drink. Inside the cottage, in the corner on the same wall as the door (which I told myself was the reason I hadn’t noticed them in the first place) a collection of corked pottery bottles lay on their sides, stacked nearly as high as my waist. I took one from the top, delicately, and pulled the cork with a little effort. The smell of ale greeted me, evoking a smile. After an introductory swig, I took the bottle to my perch on the log and resumed my vigil over the unconscious witch.
As I sat and sipped at the sweet concoction, I mulled over Falla’s prophetic utterances. The ones who rule cannot rule themselves. Did that mean the amn Vaini or the im Valldyni and the im Vardi? Those who seek power are doomed to fall. I assumed that this meant Orren, who did little to hide his ambitions, but a part of me wanted this to refer to Edanu and his Artificer House, even after we’d built some camaraderie on the field of battle. His kind would find little well-wishing in my heart. Even so, though, the ambiguity of the statement meant that I might apply it to many in the town: Nilma and her family, the constable Daedys, Lady Vesonna, perhaps even me, from a certain perspective. The bolt of cloth threatens to tear itself asunder as each end pulls its own way? But who, or what, was the fabric? The town itself seemed to be the answer, as ancient rivalries the amn Vaini had once quelled by dividing mastery of the demesnes resources amongst the prominent families seeped to the surface anew. Could Orren have been a pawn in a conflict between the old town and the new, or were the amn Vaini the manipulated ones, the ultimate prize over which their factions of followers fought?
I’d downed half the bottle by the time the contents of the pot began to pop and boil, which happened to be about the time that Falla opened her eyes. I like to think that it was the pottage that woke her. She blinked, bleary-eyed, before sitting upright. The blanket slid off of her as she did, but she ignored it, standing up to her full height without embarrassment or shame. There was nothing meant to entice or invite in the movement; she simply didn’t care that she was naked in my presence, as if such a thing were so natural that neither of us need mention it.
Looking at the bubbling pot and the earthenware vessel in my hand, she smirked. “Made yourself at home, didn’t you?”
“I asked if you minded,” I lied. “You didn’t object.”
A quick burst of air passed her lips, the expulsion of minor amusement, as she walked past me and into the cottage. She returned a moment later, clothed in a simple dress and carrying two wooden bowls. She took the ladle I’d used to water the cauldron and served some of the soup into one her bowls, which she passed to me. “What did I say?” she asked.
“You don’t know?”
“This time? No. When I sensed you coming, I started the working, hoping that I could divine something useful for you. I was overzealous. I reached out to scry the spirit itself, but it is more powerful than I’d imagined. I had to give myself over to the visions entirely or allow it to follow me back here. I will not be so foolish again.” She filled her own bowl now, setting it on the ground near the log, where she sat down beside me. With a look, she demanded the ale from me, which I passed to her willingly. She took a swig, a long one, and I could see the faintest remnant of trembling in her hands. I’d thought her fearless, in a way, but she reminded me that none of us is.
“Why?” I asked her.
“Why what?” she said, wiping her mouth with the sleeve of her dress, leaving a smudge of color behind. She’d not washed the pigments from her face, and the arcane runes formed in blues and greens seemed to dance on the background of orange, yellow and black whenever I looked at her from the corner of my eye.
“Why risk so much to help me?”
She shrugged. “You trusted me enough not to despise me in our first encounter, enough to return to seek my advice. And I am a guardian of Vaina, in my way; there are spirits enough in this place without such a malevolent one making its home among us.”
I said nothing for a moment, motioning for her to hand back the ale. She held it out for me, but didn’t release it when I grasped it, using the chance to look me square in the eyes. “What did I say?” she asked again. She smiled playfully, but an intensity in her eyes revealed her desperation for the answer.
“You told me that the powers in this place are conspiring against me.”
“But you knew that already, didn’t you?”
“Suspicion is a natural state for me, yes.”
“And what does that suspicion tell you.”
“For every answer I get, there are two held back. I don’t know the right questions to ask, so I’m letting the folk of this town evade me in the most important matters. Until Ovaelo, at least. He’s an outsider here like me, doesn’t have the advantages the Vaina townsfolk do in knowing the terrain here—social, political—like one’s own thoughts.”
“And what did the painter tell you?” she replied, the look in her eyes again cryptic, enigmatic. A look that told me that she, too, was waiting for me to ask the right answers. Unlike the others of Vaina, she would give me the answers she had freely, but only if I asked for them specifically.
“He described the boy, Orren, leaving in the middle of the night, coming back giving off the aura of one who’d been practicing the Art.”
“Or of one who’s been touched by something with Power itself.”
“What does that mean?”
“You think the boy had the Gift? And I wouldn’t have told you that the first time we met?”
“Well…damn. There goes the best theory I had.”
She smiled patronizingly.
“Wait—” I said. “What did you mean when you said there are spirits enough in this place?”
Her smile turned playful again, pleased even. I’d asked the right question. “You know that there are spirits everywhere,” she told me.
“I do, but most of them are dormant or driven by such focused nature that they are merely the representations of the things they embody. That’s not what you meant. You meant Awakened spirits.”
“You’re telling me that Orren was communing with an Awakened spirit, that he wasn’t a practitioner?”
“There is an old and powerful spirit that dwells near Vaina town, a child of Avarienne, a spirit of nature, bound only to the land itself. It, too, sees itself as a guardian of Vaina, but it guards its own desires for the place, not the commonwealth of its people. It uses the people as a means to its own ends, and they are indebted to it deeply.”
“This spirit has a cult?”
“Of a sort. Nothing like what you’d normally ascribe to that word—these are not servants of the ones whose names I shall not speak. They do not spread corruption and evil. To those who venerate it, this spirit is like unto the Firstborn, or the saints of the Temple—a steward of the creation of The One, but not the creator Themselves. They do its bidding in exchange for the blessings it bestows upon them, not because they worship it. In fact, I imagine some in its thrall fear and resent the spirit more than venerate it, and they are right to. This spirit is powerful, and while it is no demon-thing, its volition is its own and, like nature, it is ultimately uncaring for those affected by its whims and maneuvers.”
“You fear this spirit, too,” I accused.
Her lips pursed, not quite a frown but certainly an expression of doubt. “I do. I am a rival to it, I suppose. We both offer succor to the townsfolk, though its is far more general and mine far more personal. But anyone who seeks help from me is not seeking help from the spirit; this diminishes its power, however slightly.”
“This all would have been good information to have had from our first encounter.”
“Iaren, if Aryden and Barro had any knowledge of this group or its spirit, there would be pyres in the streets. They would make no distinction between this kind of relationship with a spirit and the far more sinister ones found in the secret cults of the cities. The innocent would suffer, greatly, and my silence on the matter intended to protect them without having to rely on your discretion.”
“You don’t trust me,” I said, a little offended.
“I see many things, Iaren, but they are only possibilities. I might guess at probabilities of events, but I cannot see inside the hearts of men. I do not know you, my lord. Not well enough to trust without need. Besides, we both know that this spirit and the one afflicting Lord amn Vaina’s castle are not the same.”
“But they could be related, Falla.”
“After my latest trance, I agree. Orren was a member of this group.”
“Do you not see the distinction?”
The picture became clearer in my mind. This spirit was the reason that Vaina had fared so well when other towns and villages had been wracked with storms, famine and plagues. The spirit offered bountiful harvests and natural wealth to the people of Vaina in exchange for their fealty to it. And who stood to gain from that? Everyone, potentially, but particularly the folk of the new town, who made their living in farming or forestry, by the natural bounty of the Avar. If they wanted a powerful patron to struggle against the influence of the old Vaina merchants and the lord who favored them, this spirit was it. And it knew it. This minor cult may not have been one devoted to Sedhwe or his lieutenants, or to Daea and her monster queens, but its existence was sinister all the same. And the mystery ran deeper. “What else can you tell me about this cult? When do they meet?”
“Iaren, you must swear to me that you will not reveal these folk to the priest or to Lord Aryden.”
“I’ll do what I can.”
“Iaren, please,” she didn’t beg; she delivered the words flatly and straightforwardly. A firm request born of concern and consideration for consequences, not of emotion.
“You know that I cannot control all things,” I objected.
“But swear that you will control the things you can.”
I hesitated a moment. “I swear it, Falla. Are you going to ask to fatebind me to the declaration?”
“No,” she said. “Your word is stronger.”
“How do you know that? You said you don’t know me.”
“I know enough. The cult will meet tonight, while Nyryne is full, as is their custom. They meet in a place west of Vaina in the wild while the moons are high. You’ll feel it from a distance and be able to follow your sense of the Power and the spirit itself. But be careful. These folk mean no evil, but they will protect themselves, and they know the stakes if they are discovered.”
Perhaps now I understood what her prophecies had meant. Vaina had two rulers, just as it was split between old and new, split between haughty merchants and stubborn farmers. And Orren had been at the center of it, moving as he did between both worlds. But this only broadened the possibilities for Orren’s murder, made everyone a suspect again. Even Falla, perhaps. Her easygoing demeanor and frank speech had lulled me into a sense of trust. But was it a false one? Maybe she was like everyone else, giving me the answers she wanted me to have to lead me away from questions she did not care to answer. I still didn’t take her for a killer, manipulative though she might have been. But I’d been wrong before. Don’t tell anyone.
The pottage had cooled sufficiently; I slurped it out of the bowl to avoid having to speak as much as to slake my hunger. “This cult must have long roots. How long has it existed?”
“The spirit itself? Who knows. This arrangement with the folk of Vaina? Since before ‘twas my mother who stood in my place, lived in this cottage. People told tales about the ‘spirit of the wood’ since time immemorial, but it never revealed itself nor bargained so openly with the townsfolk until Lord Aryden’s ancestors set im Valldyni and im Darqosi over the town’s trade and the im Vardi, the im Osi and the im Norenni over the towns agriculture. That division gave it a place to gain power, to use the struggles of Vaina against itself for its own profit.”
“How has it gone this long without the amn Vaini discovering it?”
“If the benefits it provides—and perhaps the threats as well—are not enough to ensure the silence of those who serve it, then surely it is a master of deceit and obfuscation, with and without the Art.”
“Damn it.” I said, more to myself than to Falla. This job just kept getting more and more complicated—and dangerous. As if victims of the Red Maw and a child of Daea had not been enough to earn my pay twice over already. And I couldn’t ask for more, not without breaking my vow to Falla. But she was right—at least some of those who had devoted themselves to this spirit were innocent; I wouldn’t feel good about sacrificing them simply to make things easier for myself.
“Thanks for your advice and hospitality,” I told her, rising and giving a short bow.
She laughed at that, stood and curtsied in mockery of the entire gesture, plucked my sword and belt from the ground and handed it to me in both hands. I took a last swig of the ale and traded her bottle for blade. I fastened the belt around me again as I made my way to back to Vaina; the afternoon had mostly passed and I desired to be back to the castle before dark—though I wouldn’t be staying long.