Aryden had recalled the guardsmen who’d earlier been keeping watch at my chamber door. Either he suspected that the “amn Ydelli” wouldn’t try again, or, more likely, his reaffirmed alliance with Vitella amn Esto had lessened his fears about my investigation and behavior threatening his schemes.
Evening was upon us and the suns had begun—though far from finished—their daily descent into the netherworld. While Aryden and his retinue left the keep to feast with the amn Esti at the house of im Valladyn, I used the peace to press forward—discreetly, as Aryden had asked.
The room’s candles had been lit and, combined with the remaining light of day that slid in through the window, I had more than enough illumination for my purposes. I placed the binding disk on the floor. “Magaréil, come forth,” I said.
The smell of spring blooms emanated from the disk before any visual indication of the spirit’s presence followed. Then, a sprouting plant, a single shoot, seemed to burst from the center of the disk itself, growing and splitting into many vines. The vines wrapped around one another, tangling together until that had created the form of a man, flowers of various types and colors, unlikely in their combination on the same plants, studding that form. With just a bit more time, the foliage coalesced into a more human form, though still green. Not as tall as before, and diminished in the otherworldly grandeur that had emanated from him when he was free.
“You are ready to negotiate my ransom, Iaren amn Ennoc,” he said by way of greeting. His tone was flat, the result of anger, frustration—and,perhaps, fear—mitigated by an attempt at pleasantry.
“Not yet. Not entirely, at least. But your cooperation in answering my questions will go a long way to earning my favor,” I said.
“Indeed. You want to know what I know about Orren, yes?”
“Very well,” Magaréil conceded. “Ask your questions and I will answer as best I can.”
“Tell me first about your cult.”
“‘Cult’, such an unpleasant word, don’t you think? It reeks of ancient and uncivilized folk sacrificing each other to the fallen Firstborn, invoking their dark power for nefarious purposes.”
“Then how would you describe the folk of Vaina who…associate with you?”
“Fellow celebrants of creation, venerators of the Avar’s wild beauty and natural splendor, paying homage to the Three Mothers and The One.”
I looked askance at the spirit.
“You don’t like that description?” Magaréil asked. “Perhaps I should call us a confederation of farmers for the welfare of Vaina?”
I’ll admit it; that at least made me smirk. “You want me to think that you came here for the good of the townsfolk? No. You came for the Place of Power.”
“Initially, yes. But when you’ve existed as long as I have, you gain certain…sympathies…for the plight of the oppressed and downtrodden. It didn’t take much to draw the first child to come visit me, to convince her to bring her friends, for their parents to come looking for them.”
Another reason parents tell their children not to wander in the forest alone. “And you struck a bargain,” I said.
“A mutually-beneficial alliance,” Magaréil corrected. “That was nearly a century ago.”
“You’re telling me that the folk of Vaina have been involved with you for a century undetected?”
“Do you really think that was so difficult? I have many, many centuries of knowledge of the arts of scheming and strategy. I have the ability to influence the Avar, and even the minds of men. And there are many things that those who’ve not had to live close to the land now dismiss as superstitions.”
“So you protected the farmers, the shepherds, the laborers of Vaina. In exchange for what?”
“The ritual participation of the townsfolk helped me to cultivate the Place of Power for my own purposes, while keeping it secret. They gave me eyes and ears in the town, insight into those who ruled it. Occasionally, even the opportunity to subtly influence them.”
“You had an equilibrium, it seems. What changed it?”
“House Meradhvor, of course.”
“But that only happened recently.”
“Not so recently as you think. That fop, Edanu, was not the first of Meradhvor’s presence here. Long before that, not long after the Treaty, in fact, most of the Houses had their agents scouring the Avar for places that might be of use to them.”
“But Edanu doesn’t know where the Place of Power is.”
“No, he does not. But Meradhvor knows such a place is here somewhere.”
“How did you discover this?”
“I detected the practitioner Meradhvor had sent to scout the area long before she had sensed the font of Power that I had claimed; I concealed it well enough that she never located it, used my influence over the creatures of the Avar to drive her from this place before she could come too close. But my spies followed her as long as they could, learned as much about her, her plans, her allegiances as they could. And then I waited for what I knew would one day come—Meradhvor’s plans to bring their influence to Vaina. And, if not them, one of the other Houses soon enough.
Many years passed in my waiting, but I am not impatient as you immortals are. Through generations, I cultivated my spies within the amn Vaina household, solidified my influence over the humbler folk of the town. When Meradhvor first sent letters to Aryden amn Vaina, and then gifts, I knew the time was coming.
I especially liked the little bird that the House sent to the young lady Vesonna, a spy with wings, after my own heart. But that’s besides the point. My enemies were moving.”
I thought, for a moment, to ask why House Meradhvor might needs be the spirit’s enemy. But I didn’t need an explanation.
“So, what was the plan?” I asked.
“It quickly became clear that a marriage of Vesonna to House Meradhvor required a closer alliance to either the amn Esti or the amn Ydelli,” the spirit explained.
“Geography, boy. The amn Vaini have feuded with both families and Meradhvor needs a clear and easy path to the Sisters for this place to truly be profitable to them—Place of Power or not. So, I made plans to stop such an alliance.”
“So you planned to make a spirit of Orren to plague the amn Vaini?”
“Of course not! Such an action would be corrupt and anathema. My messengers told you that the boy was not part of my plans and that I had nothing to do with his death. Both of those things are true. My masquerade as Orren’s spirit was merely the seizing of an opportunity after the fact.”
“But Orren and Daedys both were part of your ‘community’, yes?”
“Yes. But Orren’s plans were never about me or mine. He was a selfish child. I’d not wish his present state on any spirit in Creation, so I won’t say that he got what he deserved, but ill-conceived ambitions lead to tragic consequences, do they not?”
“What exactly was his plan?”
“He wanted to insinuate himself with the amn Vaini, learn their secrets and use those to his advantage. Not too different from most of his schemes except in scale.”
“That, I do not know.”
“Did you teach him anything of the Art?”
“He came asking, to be sure. But I do not share my secrets lightly.”
“And what about Daedys? What about trying to kill me?”
“Daedys disagreed that subtlety should be the rule of the day. He wanted to murder the amn Vaini instead. While Orren’s father lived, he kept his brother in line, but the Red Maw claimed him and Daedys became the head of the im Varde family, with no one to rein in his baser instincts.”
“So Orren’s fate was—for you, at least—fortunate happenstance?”
“Indeed. Punishment for the wicked—both he and the amn Vaini alike.”
“Are the amn Vaini truly more wicked than anyone else?” I proposed.
“Perhaps not,” Magaréil admitted. “But they have more power, and that amplifies the wrongs that they achieve. Aryden amn Vaina, like his father before him, maintains his power and position on the backs of the less fortunate on whom he depends. Oppression and the cultivation of infighting to preserve his seat. Is that just?”
I said nothing.
“So, shall we discuss the terms of my release?” the spirit asked.
“No,” I said, summarily dismissing him. His form disappeared into a green cloud, which seemed to be sucked back into the disk. There would be plenty of time for that later, and I wouldn’t risk an ancient and skilled schemer further complicating matters when the end began to draw near. Or so I hoped.
I couldn’t be sure that Magaréil had been entirely truthful to me, but his explanation matched what else I’d heard about Orren enough that I was willing to focus my efforts elsewhere for the time being. Even a bound spirit has a will, and the binding itself does not extinguish that will, even if it blunts many of its effects.
Placing the binding disk back into my pouch, I prepared my ritual items and began to draw a circle of finding on the room’s floor—the same circle I’d used to find the missing miner and one I used often in my work in Ilessa. Familiarity allowed me to create the design by rote and with little time.
With dark soon falling, I might have hesitated in performing the working at that time, but I suspected that Orren had been murdered somewhere in Vaina-town and felt the press of time more keenly than potential danger.
Into the center of the circle I placed the bag of corpse wax. I produced my wand, touched its point to the interior of the circle, closed my eyes and recited the words I knew would guide me quickly and easily through the thoughtforms to achieve my desired effect. The circle of finding, using as it does it eponymous device and drawing upon a sympathy between the object I’ve selected and the quarry, requires less Power than many other workings—and bears less risk of flux.
The ritual complete, the wand began to vibrate in my hand. This time, it bounced more furiously than it had before in the quarry, attempting to shift between two distinct points in space. One, I knew, was the body proper; I felt its tug from elsewhere in the keep. But the second direction of the wand’s twitchiness seemed to direct me outside; this I decided to follow.
Racing the falling suns, I attempted to move quickly, but the divergent locations to which the wand pointed, shifting as I moved myself, quickly became difficult to read with any precision. Maintaining my grip on the tool, I ignored it momentarily, making my way to the courtyard before I returned any attention to it.
Once there, I had no need for the wand, for I could see the funereal pyre hastily constructed outside of the castle’s chapel, Barro (again dressed in the robes of officiant) gathered in a small group with Lord Aryden, the im Vardi, and a handful of retainers or servants.
In my hand, the wand bounced between the direction of the pyre and the castle keep, beckoning me back inside. I hesitated, wondering whether I’d ought to pay my respects to the boy upon his last rites. But I decided that I needed no further entanglements this evening and turned away.
Stepping back inside, I focused my attention upon the point of the wand and not only the sensation of its movement. The device wanted to point downward as well as laterally, to the castle’s cellars—or to its dungeon. A few steps determined the former to be the location I sought, and I breathed a shallow sigh of relief that I need not renew my suspicion in Falla.
Following obediently, I made my way into the cellar, where I found myself called toward the butts and tuns of wine. Insistently, the point of the wand returned—between bouncing upward and across to Orren’s body where it lay on the pyre—to a single barrel, wide and large, turned upright against the wall so that its head faced up. A few of its fellows, used and empty, sat nearby after being removed from the rows of racks filling the space.
The candles flickered and the room became cold. I braced myself for the appearance of Orren’s spirit, dropping the working of finding within my mind and readying a defensive sorcery. But, almost as soon as the sensation had come, warmth returned and the flames returned to their more sedate dance.
With the momentary distraction abating, I examined the wine barrel more closely to find small gaps around the edge of the head plate; it had not been properly seated and wouldn’t have held wine. I looked around for something to pry the piece loose and wondered further into the cellar, to rooms storing grains, cloth, household sundries and seldom-used equipment. In one of these rooms I came across a bucket of large nails—spikes really—in a pile of old building materials.
The nail, big enough to fit dagger-like in my hand, made quick work of prying the lid off of the barrel. It took a brief working to create light enough to see into the darkened interior, and I instinctively recoiled at what I found before returning to investigate in earnest.
A brown sludge coated the bottom of the barrel, a sickly-sweet fragrance of death emanating upward, tinged with the taste of copper. But the blood was not wholly dry; it glistened slightly in places and seemed to ooze slowly—ever so slowly—within its container.
I’d heard before of bodies bleeding when the murder weapon—or murderer—was brought near, but, aside from a few instances involving the Art, most scholars considered this to be superstition. Some sympathetic reaction was occurring and, as steam began to rise from the barrel, I realized what it was. Barro had set fire to Orren’s body in accordance with his last rites.
Perhaps, then, that rush of cold had been Orren attempting to manifest himself in the cellar before the Temple rites called him away.
I watched as the blood gathered at the bottom of the barrel vaporized, becoming part of the rising steam until nothing remained. The sort of thing, as Magaréil would say, that people would call supernatural. I’d call it wondrous, at least.
For a moment, I lamented the destruction and disappearance of evidence—and a strong sympathetic link to the spirit. But I realized that I had seen what I needed. Orren had been murdered here, in this very room, by someone he intended to meet—probably in secret—in whom he trusted and who had prepared the room for his execution. No wonder, then, that some of his first and most violent manifestations had occurred here, and that he’d appeared so readily for me when I’d first come to the castle.
With nothing left to recover, it was time to move on.