Authors: Robin W. Bailey
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic
Robin Wayne Bailey
Copyright ©1996 by Robin Wayne Bailey
Published by E-Reads. All rights reserved.
For Stephen Paget
with more thanks than I can say;
For Scott Tansey,
who was there when I began this,
and John Leininger,
who danced by as I finished;
who saved my life by teaching me
my first dance movements;
And for Louis Falco, Robert Joffrey,
Murray Louis, Yuriko, Loyce Holton,
Ann Brekke, Jean Ford, and others,
who through their instructions
certainly saved my soul.
At midnight's bell
All sleeping souls rise up entranced
To prance across the nighted world;
They whirl and leap
And, shrieking, fly and fly around the moon
Until they swoon and tumble down to hell—
Which is their mortal shell rejoined.
Some remember with a timid shaking
How a dream is but a dream, no more.
But you and I,
Who love to fly, embrace the dark with jubilance
And fling ourselves each night into this
For what is earthly walkinc, running?
When a cunning music calls
We fall into a metronomic trance,
Ascend with a graceful spin, and begin to
Innowen dragged his crippled body desperately through the darkness and the mud, ignoring the chill, whipping wind and the rain that pelted him. His hands were sore and bloodied from pine needles and thorns and sharp stones. Still, his fingers dug into the road, seeking purchase as he hauled himself a few more painful inches, stripping more flesh from elbows already raw and oozing. His breath came in ragged gasps; he cried out again and again for help, but through the thunder and relentless deluge, his voice came as a weak and pathetic whimper.
Who's there to hear me, anyway?
he thought forlornly. Yet for the sake of his guardian he cried out, hurling his shouts against the tempest as he dragged himself with piteous determination through the miserable night.
A blast of lightning, a cobalt flare bright enough to penetrate the tangled canopy of leaves and branches, tore open the sky. For an instant, Innowen saw the narrow road stretching before him and the trees on either side that loomed like mighty soldiers of an era before the Age of Man.
he begged them.
Help Drushen! Don't let him die! If only I had legs to run for help!
Darkness closed in again. Thunder ruptured the heavens, and a wind ripped through the forest. At first, in that rasping rustle, he thought the trees had answered his prayer and torn themselves from their roots, that they would sweep him up from the mud and, awakened from an ancient hibernation, march to Drushen's aid. But that was only fever or a moment's wild dream. Neither spirits nor gods answered men so easily. Save for the deafening crashes and the rain and his useless cries, the forest kept its silence.
He couldn't stop a gush of tears. He didn't know how much time Drushen had, how fast the venom in his veins would work. If only Innowen had legs to run! The village of Shandisti was not too far for a man with legs. Or Lord Minarik's keep; his soldiers might help.
But Innowen's legs were worthless. Filled with despair and self-loathing, he pounded his fist against the road, splashing mud in his face and eyes. Without Drushen, he would be alone in the world. How would he get by? He shouted again with a force that left his throat raw.
Help me, help!
But not a soul traveled the forest road on such a night as this, and if any gods rode the wind, they offered him no solace.
For Drushen's sake, he swallowed his fear as best he could and struggled on his belly toward the village, eating the mud that filled his mouth, wiping rain from his face, with only the lightning to show him the road.
Half a man, that's all he was. Not even that; barely a man at all. He hated himself for his useless legs and for his tears, all his weakness. Now he hated the world because soon Drushen would die, and he, Innowen, would be left alone.
On the verge of exhaustion, he used that hatred like a whip to lash himself onward. Weeping, he dragged his body another inch, clinging to the barest shred of hope while a small part of him prayed.
If Drushen dies, let me die, too, here, exposed in the storm.
In heaven, they would be together again, and Drushen would take care of him forever.
"Look here, my lady." A deep voice said suddenly out of the night. "Quite a worm we've found wriggling in the mud."
Innowen looked up just as a bright flash tore open the night and stung his eyes. For an instant, fear gripped his heart, but that emotion yielded suddenly to wild hope as a pair of riders splashed cautiously out of the darkness.
After-images of the lightning dazzled his vision, and he wiped a hand over his eyes. A huge white horse stopped so close that its hooves splattered him with mud. Raising up on his elbows, he stared in wonder at the leather breast strap so richly studded with gold and silver, at the elegantly worked bridle that tinkled with bells and precious glimmering jewels. With an impatient snort, the horse shook its streaming mane, then lowered its head as if to investigate him.
He saw the horse's rider perched high on a soft, beautifully woven cloth-of-gold riding pad. Just as suddenly, he perceived the eerie glow that surrounded her and lent gleam to the gems and luster to the metals on her tack. A warm, wondrous pool of light spread on the ground around her. Innowen felt it like a gentle wave on his skin.
Her hair shone with the same golden light, and it spilled over her shoulders. Her eyes, though, were black, full of a darkness so deep it shamed the night. There was no color in her cheeks, but her lips were redder than roses. They turned upward in a strange smile. One hand parted the folds of her cloak and fluttered to her throat, while her ivory breasts strained against the white silk of her gown. Upon that tender flesh, a ruby hung on a thin chain. It seemed to Innowen that the jewel burned with an inner fire and throbbed with something not unlike hunger.
Innowen caught his breath, unable to move or speak. He had seen few women in his life, and none at all like this one. The heart sprang out of him; he loved her at once. Yet he feared her, too, for he knew her name. In all of Ispor there could only be one such woman.
He gazed upon the Witch of Shanalane.
When she spoke, her voice was a velvet caress: "Vashni, get down and see what this is. If it really is a boy, then it's either mute or afraid of us." The red blossom of her mouth opened in a smile, exposing small, perfect ivory thorns. "We won't harm you, boy," she said, but her words didn't reassure Innowen.
A deeper rumbling answered the Witch. "I still think it's a worm, mistress."
Innowen recoiled as a huge demon rode out of the Witch's shadow on the largest, blackest mare he had ever seen. Lightning glistened on the creature's breastplate and greaves, which were made of black leather and fitted with rings of burnished bronze. As the demon swung down to the ground, Innowen saw the immense sword belted over one hip and the helm bound with a leather strap to his other. Dark braids tumbled over the demon's shoulders as he bent low, grasped Innowen's arm, and tried to jerk him to his feet.
Innowen gave a sharp cry of pain as his shoulder nearly separated from its socket, and another as Vashni, reacting in surprise, dropped him. The muddy road rushed up to meet him as he fell helplessly.
"He's lame," Vashni commented without emotion, looking down upon Innowen, who struggled up onto one bruised elbow. A grim smirk lifted the corners of the demon's mouth. "A poor night for a walk, anyway."
"Enough of your rudeness," his mistress ordered.
The Witch of Shanalane turned her dark-eyed gaze fully upon Innowen, and he froze, unable to look away. A shiver passed through him. Drushen, the storm, the forest, his anguish, all other thoughts suddenly dissolved. Only those eyes, of all else in the world, held any meaning for him.
She's drinking my life,
he thought through a strange, blissful haze. His vision blurred, his senses swam, and he felt himself becoming tenuous and thin.
Let her. I give it willingly.
But then she let him go—if, indeed, it had not all been his imagination. He shook his head and wiped rain from his eyes.
"We heard your wails even over the storm," she said. Her voice sounded sweeter, richer than the bells that jingled on her bridle. "Are you lost, boy?"
His face burned suddenly with shame: he had forgotten Drushen.
"My guardian is dying," he stammered, wishing with all his soul that he could stand on his feet to speak to this lady. Plainly, she didn't deserve her reputation. The aura that surrounded her was surely the golden light of goodness. Here was no thing of evil. He beheld no witch, but a goddess.
Innowen swallowed hard and continued, the words rushing from him. "He went to gather logs from the woodpile at dinnertime, and a serpent bit his hand. He barely made it back to the cabin before collapsing. I touched his skin—it was so cold! I had to try to get help, but as you see, I can only crawl. Then, this storm came up so fast!" Innowen broke down again and sobbed freely. "He may be dead by now, but please, Lady. Drushen is all I've got in this world!"
Under her steadfast gaze, he felt like a bug pinned in the mud, like the worm for which Vashni had taken him. Again, unwanted tears sprang from his eyes, and he hung his head.
"Mistress," the demon said in a bare whisper, "the soldiers..."
The Witch's words came like shards of ice that froze the air. "The soldiers are my worry."
Vashni dared to say no more. He turned away, but he looked back just long enough to glare at Innowen with eyes of pure menace.
The Witch put a finger to her lips, considering. Her brow furrowed ever so slightly in a way that did not mar her beauty. "Put him over your horse," she said at last to the demon. "We'll see if his Drushen is alive or dead."
Innowen raised up on his hands and lifted his head as high as he could. "Thank you, Lady, thank you! Please, let's hurry!"
Before he could say another word, the breath rushed from him as Vashni seized the rope belt around his waist and jerked him from the mud. Innowen flushed with anger, feeling as if he'd been cut in two, as the demon heaved him roughly over the black mare's withers. What must the Lady think to see him treated like a piece of meek baggage! And the demon used no riding pad, but rode bareback. A sweaty froth coated the mare's hide, unpleasant and creamy warm against his skin.
Innowen bit his tongue to keep from crying out or protesting. He'd found help for Drushen. Only that mattered. For his guardian's sake he kept silent. A wrong word and they might shove him back in the mud. Where would he be then? Where would his guardian be?
The Witch of Shanalane addressed him: "Do you live down this road, boy?"
Innowen started to snap. He was no boy. But then he mastered himself. He could not be angry with such a lady. From his awkward position, he did his best to look up. "Yes, that way. Just off the road you'll see a narrow path. Drushen is a woodcutter, and we live in the deepwoods."
A burst of lightning illuminated the forest, and the wind suddenly bent the trees until timbers cracked and splintered. Innowen stared, wide-eyed, as a strange realization struck him. He held up his hands. "The rain!" he cried. "It's not touching us!"