Rudolfo urged his stallion forward and laughed with his son as the wind caught his turban. Overhead, the afternoon sun blazed in a sky so blue it burned the eye. Around them, a warm wind stirred the Prairie Sea, golden waves rippling across the vast, rolling expanse. Ahead and around them, on the horizon, the Ninefold Forest rose up to meet the sky.
“He takes well to the ride, General,” a voice shouted to his left above the pounding of the hooves.
Rudolfo looked to Aedric, the first captain of his Gypsy Scouts, and grinned. “Aye. He does.” Then, he leaned forward and whistled the horse faster as Jakob squealed with delight. They’d ridden long enough now for father and son to both grow comfortable with the riding harness that held the swaddled infant snug against Rudolfo’s chest.
The same that bore me upon my father’s steed. Rudolfo felt the slightest stab of loss. Those knives were different upon him now that he himself was a father. The cut upon his soul took a different turn as the moments with his new heir brought back hazy recollections of his own rides with the man he’d named his son for—the man Rudolfo had watched die in his twelfth year. And those memories came with others—wrestling with his brother in the shallows of the Rajblood River, singing in the forest with his mother, learning the Hymnal of the Wandering Army with Gregoric, Aedric’s father, now nearly two years dead.
Those memories had brought sadness to him many times before, but now, alongside the grief, he found hope and joy in remembering. This child helps me find the good in it, Rudolfo realized.
A whistle to his right brought his head around. Low in the saddle and laughing herself, Jin Li Tam pulled ahead of him.
“You’re slowing down, old man,” she shouted over her shoulder. Her red hair, shining in the sunlight, caught wind and flowed behind. She wore the rainbow-colored riding silks of a Gypsy queen, and though they were unnecessary and did not match her chosen outfit, she also wore the scout knives that had once belonged to his mother.
They’d been on the move for two months now, visiting each of his forest manors, introducing a jubilant people to the heir they had longed to see. Of course, so soon on the heels of their wedding at the Seventh Forest Manor, each stop simply continued the celebration as each of his towns rallied to honor both his bride and his boy.
And they honor me as well. They always had, even back to his days as a boy king. But until recently, like those losses in his life, it had meant something different to him. Now, it was a kind of amazement tempered by a gratitude he’d never felt before.
Paramo had been their last stop—a logging town that now stretched itself into a city as refugees settled in to work the old-growth forest, milling the wood and shipping it south by river for the library Rudolfo and Isaak built. Tonight, they would rest easy in their own bed. And tomorrow, Rudolfo would approach the waiting tower of paper that no doubt threatened collapse as it dared gravity there in the basket on his desk. Still, it had been a good respite between the first rains and the last of the sun.
A flash of white on the horizon caught his eye, and Rudolfo slowed his horse at the familiar sight. It shimmered and blurred in the heat of the day, moving in a straight line toward them, low to the tops of the grass. When the bird struck Aedric’s catch net, Rudolfo matched his pace with that of his first captain and watched as the man stripped the note, read the knotted message in the blue thread and unrolled the scroll.
Behind them, the rest of their caravan slowed. Ahead, Jin Li Tam turned and doubled back in a wide and sweeping circle.
Aedric frowned and turned, looking to the northwest. Rudolfo followed his gaze. In the distance, the Dragon’s Spine rose up, gray and impenetrable, above the Prairie Sea and the Ninefold Forest that spread like ancient islands across it.
Rudolfo laid his hand upon Jakob’s cheek. Aedric’s grim look in the direction of the Marshlands told him the source of this latest news. “What are they up to now?”
It had been six months since the Council of Kin-Clave. Half a year since the woman Ria had announced herself as the Machtvolk queen and saved his son’s life before slipping back into the north and vanishing behind her closely watched borders. The Named Lands had slid into madness and disarray, though of late there had been a brooding peace of sorts.
Aedric’s voice brought him back to the moment. Already, the young captain was inking a response and twisting knots of reply into the blue thread of inquiry. “They’ve breached our borders again, General.”
Rudolfo sighed. “Where now?”
He felt his stomach sink. Jin Li Tam had slowed her horse to a trot and joined them. “We were just there three weeks ago.”
Aedric nodded. “Two evangelists this time. Preaching their so-called gospel in the streets openly. The house steward has them locked away for now. I’ll deal with them once we’re home and I’ve seen to the men.”
Rudolfo stroked his beard. This had started not long after the council there on the plains of Windwir. Initially, they had found Marshers wandering the Prairie Sea or the more isolated parts of the Ninefold Forest. These they turned back—even chased back—to the low hills that served as a border between his lands and the woman who called herself Winteria the Elder and claimed the Wicker Throne. Later, the ragged preachers had shown up in the towns surrounding his forest manors. These, his militia beat and delivered back to their border. It was less violent than what his father would have done, and still it made Rudolfo wince. Lord Jakob would have placed them on Tormentor’s Row, and after a day or two under the knives of his Physicians of Penitent Torture, they’d have seen the value of keeping their beliefs within their territory. If they’d returned, he’d have had them killed and would have buried them at the border.
The beatings had seemed a reasonable compromise when reason failed.
But still they persist. Rudolfo sighed. “I think a new tack is in order,” he finally said, glancing down at his son. “Have them brought to me.”
Aedric’s face registered surprise. “You want to see them?”
Rudolfo nodded. “I do. I want to speak with them. Question them.”
He glanced to Jin Li Tam. She regarded him with a face he could not read, but her hands moved with subtle grace along the reins. He admired the care she took to be sure none saw but him. Are you certain giving them voice is the answer?
He smiled, though it was brief and felt out of place. He’d just started teaching her the subverbal language of House Y’Zir last month, and she was nearly proficient. Of course, she’d already known eleven other subverbals. Rudolfo’s fingers moved over Jakob’s shoulder and head as he formed his reply. I’m not certain.
Rudolfo felt the power of his words even as his hands made them. He truly wasn’t certain, and it was foreign to him. “I think our old strategies are no longer serving us well,” he said, keeping his gaze steady on her blue eyes.
Then, he looked away from her, toward Aedric. “Be certain they’re well cared for, Aedric. I intend to return them whole to their bloodletting queen.”
He did not wait for Aedric to speak before he pushed his horse forward. He wondered if Jin Li Tam would follow him but secretly hoped she wouldn’t. He needed this time for himself and his son.
Two years ago, he’d ridden these same plains, Gregoric at his side. A shadow had moved over the light of that second summer day, and he’d looked up to a pillar of smoke on the sky. He marked it now as a day when his life—and his world—changed utterly. From that moment, so many other changes had flowed out to him, sweeping him away with the force of their current, including his betrothal to Jin Li Tam and the birth of their son.
He felt the warmth of his son against his chest and thought about the new shadow passing over the light that remained. Six months earlier, at the edge of spring, he’d watched Ria bring Petronus back from the dead with her blood magicks and had watched his betrothed beg for their son’s life as a result of it, the culmination of a grand manipulation. With relations already strained, the events on the Plains of Windwir had driven an even deeper wedge between his houses and the other nations of the Named Lands. Pylos had broken off kin-clave entirely, and Turam was close behind. The Delta remained a loose ally, but it was a paper kin-clave as they wrestled through the upheaval of political reform. And now, adherents to this new Y’Zirite Resurgence brought their sermons into his lands, preaching them to his people and pointing to his son as their so-called Child of Promise.
As he whistled his horse to a gallop, Rudolfo wondered what path he would take. His own words came back to haunt him: I am uncertain. It was a strange sensation, not knowing the best path to take.
He felt the sun on his face and savored the wind that pulled at his silk clothing and his scarf of rank. Silent for a time, Jakob gurgled and laughed again.
When Rudolfo placed his hand over his child’s chest he felt strength there. His fingers moved, and he tapped a message there. Whatever I do, I do for your future.
He could not bring himself to laughter now with the gravity of that thought. Instead, he kept his hand there and urged his stallion faster, finding delight in the voice of his son and purpose in the heart that beat lightly beneath the palm of his hand.
“My best and truest compass,” Rudolfo said in a quiet voice.
Then, he turned his horse toward the line of old-growth forest and raced homeward to his waiting work.
Holding his thorn rifle loosely, Neb lay still and studied the dust cloud that moved across the shattered landscape of the Churning Wastes. The afternoon sun baked the ground beneath him, and from his vantage point in the hills, he watched heat waves rising from the sand and rock floor of the valley below. There, against the backdrop of that shimmer, a figure ran under cover of magicks.
This was the third time they’d encountered magicked runners in the Deep Wastes in as many weeks.
Shielding his eyes, he chewed the black root and watched. Using fixed patches of scrub or outcroppings of rock to mark distance, counting silently beneath his breath, Neb ciphered out the runner’s speed as he had with the others. He moved too fast for the scout magicks Neb had trained under during his short time with the Gypsies. Faster even than the black root would allow.
Neb had a theory but didn’t want it to be true.
If his theory was correct, the scout below would not only be fast—he would be strong, too. Stronger than four men. And he would be dead in three days’ time, once the blood magicks burned their way through his organs.
Neb shuddered. A sudden memory of Rudolfo’s Firstborn Feast gripped him—the sudden clamor of third alarm as the doors burst inward, the invisible wall of iron that pushed through the Gypsy Scouts as if they were made of paper, assassinating Hanric and Ansylus. It had been a dark night of violence throughout the Named Lands.
Blood magicks. Forbidden by kin-clave in the New World and the product of older ways—the way of the Wizard Kings with their cuttings and bloodlettings and bargains made in the Beneath Places.
He glanced to his right where Renard lay, also scanning the landscape below. The Waste Guide wore the tattered robe of an Androfrancine and the sturdy boots of a Delta scout. He lay with a spyglass to his eye, his own thorn rifle within easy reach. Renard’s mouth was a grim line.
“Three now,” Neb said in a whisper.
Renard’s eyes narrowed as he pulled back from the glass. “More are coming, I suspect.”
But from where? And more importantly, why?
After Renard’s leg had healed from his brutal encounter with the mechoservitor at D’Anjite’s Bridge, they’d spent months in the deeper Wastes. By day, Neb learned not only how to survive, but how to thrive in the harshness of the blasted lands. He’d learned how to trap, how to hunt, and how to find the scant pockets of life that sprang up hidden in the Wastes. Renard had shown him the secret gun grove nestled in an arroyo at the base of the Dragon’s Spine and had taught him how to harvest both the rifles and their thorn pods from the tangled thicket they grew in. Then, he’d taught him how to use them.
At night, Neb held the silver crescent to his ear and listened to the strains of the song that trickled out from it, trying to find his way into the dream he knew lay beneath that haunting music. Even now, he heard it faintly, though the crescent was wrapped tightly in thick wool and buried in his pack. He’d deciphered bits of the code within the song—series of numbers without meaning to him—but so far, he’d not been able to interpret what response the canticle required.
It chewed him, not knowing.
But somewhere out here, he knew there were metal servants who did know the response. Yet in months of searching, there had been no sign of the metal men themselves, only evidence of where they had been. Carefully concealed digs. Empty supply caches. He and Renard moved from place to place, tracking them as they could.
Between them and the song, Neb already had two Whymer Mazes to solve. Now the runners presented him with yet another.
Already, the figure below had disappeared behind a massive outcropping of fused glass and stone, and Renard tucked the spyglass back into his pouch as he pulled himself up into a crouch. Neb did the same.
Renard scratched his close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. “You say the blood magicks will kill the user in three days’ time?”
Neb nodded. “That’s what Aedric told us.” Even the scout magicks that Neb had trained under could eventually kill a man if he hadn’t been raised up in them from an early age and if he didn’t exercise caution and moderation in their use.
Renard backed away from their vantage point and bent to pick up his pack. “It makes no sense,” he said. “We’re weeks from anywhere—at least two from the coast and three from the Keeper’s Gate. Three days wouldn’t get them very far.”
Neb chewed his root and pondered this. His Franci training took hold, and he remembered their seventh precept. The simplest path is most often the best to take. “Perhaps it’s a different kind of magick, then. Or”—here, the root became more bitter in his mouth “—perhaps they’ve found a way to prolong their exposure to the magicks.”
Renard stood upright now, his eyes to the north. “That seems likely. We should get word to the Gypsies. One was an oddity; two was a problematic coincidence.” He looked to Neb. “Three is a pattern.”
Neb pulled his own pack on and cinched the straps tight on his shoulders. “Rudolfo will want to know what these runners are up to.”
“Yes.” Renard’s voice sounded far away.
When Neb looked up, he realized the man watched him carefully. He’d run with Renard for long enough to read him and could see the discomfort in his eyes now. “I think we need to find that out, too,” the Waste Guide said. “Something tells me it can’t possibly be good.”
Neb felt the slightest tickle of fear in the deeper part of his stomach and at the base of his spine. “What are you proposing?”
“There’s still a Gypsy camp at Sanctorum Lux,” Renard said. “You know the way. And you can handle yourself in the Wastes, Neb. You’ve taken to it like a kin-wolf cub.” He nodded to the north. “I can track our new friend for a bit, see what he’s up to. You bear word to the Gypsies and meet up with me at the Dreaming Well in three weeks’ time.”
Neb blinked and felt the fear spreading farther into him. No longer a tickle, now it was as cold and pervasive as the Second River in winter. He’d spent months in the Wastes with Renard and certainly had known at some point they’d part company, even if only for a season. Still, now that the moment stared him down, his mouth was dry and his feet felt rooted. “Are you sure—”
Renard offered a grim smile. “You’re ready, Nebios.” He dug about in his pouch and pulled out a smaller cloth sack tied shut with a bit of twine. He passed it over to him. “You know how to use the powders. Be wary of mixing them with the root for too long—they burn harder and will wear you down faster. If you run into anything you can’t handle use the magicks.”
Neb opened his mouth to protest but couldn’t find the words. Renard was right, of course. He could do this. And it made sense that one of them should track the runner—and that Renard, being the most experienced, was the best candidate for that work. Still, Neb felt the hesitation in both his mind and his body. During his time in the Wastes, Renard had been a constant, and the thought of striking out alone, even for three weeks, frightened him.
Renard’s eyes were on him, and the man raised a hand to place it on Neb’s shoulder and squeeze it quickly. Then, he dropped his arm. “You’re ready for this. Hebda would be proud.”
His father’s name settled the fear in his stomach. Or maybe, he thought, it gave him the resolve he needed to face that fear. “Three weeks then . . . at the well.”
“Three weeks,” Renard said with a final nod. Then, he turned and ran north along the ridgeline, dust from his boot heels rising behind him as the root took hold and his speed increased.
Neb watched him run until he could no longer see him, then took a deep breath. Cinching the straps of his pack even tighter, he willed his legs to carry him southward.
As his feet found their way, he turned his mind back to the song, and not for the first time, he wondered if he would ever hear within it what the mechoservitor assured him lay beneath the notes.
Those few times he’d discussed it with Renard, the Waste guide had simply shrugged. “You’ll hear it when it’s time to hear it.”
Neb had wondered what the man knew that he wasn’t saying.
He’d run twenty leagues before he finally placed his pondering on a shelf in the hidden corners of his mind. Tonight would be soon enough for those questions, when the moon was up and the song was at its loudest. Alongside it, he shelved his questions about the magicked runners and instead tried to turn his mind westward toward Winters, the girl he loved. The girl who had first pointed him toward his purpose in the days before that purpose had sundered them.
But when he could not remember her face, he set that aside as well and gave himself over to the warmth of the sun on his neck and the fingers of wind in his long, flowing white hair. He blessed the solid ground beneath his feet and the steady rhythm of each breath moving in and out of him, keeping time with the pounding of his heart.
As the sky moved into twilight, a kin-wolf howled in the mounded ruins of a city to his east. In his ears, it was a cry of praise and despair.
I would join you in your song, Neb thought.
But instead, he simply ran and gave himself to the running.
Jin Li Tam
The Seventh Forest Manor stirred to life when the sky was still pink from dawn. Servants bustled, laying fires to heat water and cook breakfast, all under the watchful eye of Lady Ilyna. Jin Li Tam moved quietly among them, smiling at each member of the staff that she passed on her way to the back door near the kitchen.
It was unusual for her to awaken before Rudolfo. Typically, he rose first and it was his rising that started her slow journey to wakefulness. But these last several mornings, even while camping on the Prairie Sea or staying in another of his nine Forest Houses, she’d found herself waking first. This morning, she received it as a gift. She had much to do.
Besides, she told herself as she stepped into the cool morning, this was better than the dreams she’d been having of late. Their frequency and intensity had let up since Jakob’s healing there in the midst of the Desolation of Windwir, but when they did visit her, the darkness and terror in them was smothering.
Lately, they’d been about the children.
She walked quickly through the back gardens, past Rudolfo’s Whymer Maze, nodding to the Gypsy Scouts who stood at the small, rear gate of the manor. The younger of the two men opened the gate for her and she passed through. She followed the trail until the forest swallowed her; then she broke into a gentle run and left the path, letting the wet ferns slap at her as she built speed.
She wore loose trousers and a looser shirt for these excursions, trading her low, sturdy boots for a pair of doeskin moccasins that protected her feet without encumbering them. And of course, she wore the knives Rudolfo had given her for their wedding—blades she’d already helped herself to and had even wetted in battle in the days of violence that had culminated in the blood magick that spared her son.
Like the manor, the forest also came to life around her. Birdsong echoed beneath a dark canopy, and foliage shuddered and whispered with the movement of wildlife slipping back into dens to sleep out the day. Mist clung to the ground, lending the wooded terrain an ominous beauty. She ran through it, leaving the familiar path in favor of making her own.
She built speed until she felt the sweat trickling down the sides of her breasts, until she tasted iron in the back of her mouth, until her breathing deepened with effort. Then, she held that pace.
As she ran, she thought about the day ahead of her.
First, she would see to Jakob. And after feeding him, she’d dress him and take him to see the other children. Isaak had tasked one of the mechoservitors with basic education and childcare, drawing on theories from the vast tomes of Franci thought they now re-created for the new library. They had built a school for the children at the base of the hill where that massive structure slowly took shape. She’d wanted to bring them into the Seventh Forest Manor, but there had simply been too many of them; in the end, her father had suggested that this would be more in their best interest.
Memories of the nightmare tugged at her and she increased her speed slightly, as if the extra effort might exorcise the iron knives and the children’s screams from her nightmares.
Y’Zirite monsters. It still closed her throat to think about it. Somewhere southeast of them, in the Ghosting Crests, her father worked with a small remnant of their family to learn what he could about the Blood Temple that had so recently cut most of House Li Tam out of the world.
To save my son, she realized, by making from the blood of others a magick so powerful it could raise the dead, or cure the deathly ill.
She felt the heat of her shame and transmuted it into anger, forcing her legs to bear her rage, savoring the slap of the foliage across her skin as she ran.
I am the forty-second daughter of Vlad Li Tam, she thought as she ran. I am the queen of the Ninefold Forest Houses.
But another voice whispered inside of her—the voice of that so-called Machtvolk queen, Winteria the Elder—calling her by a title she still did not fully comprehend: You are the Great Mother.
She felt the woman’s feet again within her grasping hands, saw the woman standing above her blurred by tears of terror and hope as she begged for her son’s life. She heard again Rudolfo’s cry of surprise and saw him, too, also trapped behind her curtain of tears, standing in the doorway of the massive tent in the last of winter, upon Windwir’s blasted plain.
She turned east and pushed harder, but the run could not strip away the image of her scarred and broken father and the compound of scarred and broken children, cut with the mark of House Y’Zir over their hearts.
As she ran, the forest took on a gloomy silence that weighed heavy on her. But just as she noted the silence, a sound that did not belong there reached her ears.
It was the slightest high-pitched whine, so slight that it tickled her ears, barely discernible over the sound of her pounding heart and feet. Then, another sound—the guttural cry of a bird of prey, the muffled flapping of its wings.
By instinct, she turned toward the noise and slowed. Her right hand moved toward a knife handle even as her left moved out ahead of her to slow the slapping branches.
The whine shifted into a staccato burst of chirps just as Jin Li Tam moved into a small clearing. There, at the center, an enormous bird pecked and clawed at a rotting tree trunk. The chirping rose in volume as if fear fueled it. She drew her knife slowly.
The raven was weathered, its feathers mottled and its large head scarred. It turned as she approached and regarded her with one midnight-colored eye. Its beak opened, and a static hiss leaked out as it cocked its head at her.
I’ve seen you before, she realized. She remembered the dream vividly. “What are you hunting, kin-raven?” she whispered.
And how do I know what you are called? The kin-raven was a bird from older times, from the Age of the Wizard Kings. Though some claimed to have seen them in the skies of late.
In the dim gloom of morning, she thought she saw a flash of silver behind the bird. Something twitching in the hollow of the trunk, just out of the larger bird’s reach.
Jin Li Tam balanced the knife in her hand and crouched. When she threw it, the blade flew straight and struck the kin-raven with its handle. The bird flapped and shrieked at her as she drew her second knife.
“Begone, kin-raven,” she said in a low voice.
It turned its head, casting a long glance at the tree stump. Then, as if understanding her, it launched itself into the sky to speed northwest.
Jin Li Tam recovered her knife and approached the stump. There, huddled in the hollow, a tiny bird shivered and chirped. It sparked and popped as it moved, the flashes illuminating its delicate, silver form.
The chirps slowed slightly, and she suddenly realized they were much more than the sound of fright and panic. The numbers were clear despite the speed with which they streamed from the tiny beak.
She knelt and stretched a hand into the hollow but did not take hold of the small mechanical bird. Instead, she flattened her hand in the way her father had shown her when she was a little girl standing with him at the open cage of his golden bird, which had been at least twice—maybe three times—larger than this one.
“Where have you come from, little sparrow?” she asked it, forcing calm into her voice. “And where are you going?”
The numbers ceased, but the beak remained open. A metallic voice leaked out. “Mechoservitor Number Three, Seventh Forest Manor, Ninefold Forest Houses,” it said. “Message follows.”
It sparked again.
Jin Li Tam withdrew her hand and sat back. Mechoservitor Number Three? She knew that title: It was Isaak’s designation before Rudolfo had named him there in the Desolation of Windwir, where they had all first met nearly two years ago.
The numbers started up once more, and she regarded the small and huddled form. Again, she stretched her hand out. “I am Jin Li Tam,” she said, “queen of the Ninefold Forest. I can take you to Isaak”—she corrected herself—“Mechoservitor Number Three.”
But even as she said it, she wondered if the tiny mechanical could possibly understand her. Her father’s bird—now caged in Isaak’s office in the basement of the Great Library—had understood basic commands but did not have even a fraction of the range that a larger mechanical like Isaak had when it came to memory, speech and analytical function.
Still, her musing was cut short when the chirping abruptly ceased and the bird shuddered one last time. A final pop and spark, and it lay still within the hollow. One tiny jeweled eye went dark.
Biting her lower lip, Jin Li Tam stretched out her fingers and carefully pulled the delicate bird from its hiding place. Its tiny feathers were of a silver so intense that it threw back the reflection of her eye as she studied it and wondered if it could be fixed.
Isaak had repaired her father’s bird. Charles, the man who had built Isaak and the others, surely had similar skills. He was the last of the Androfrancines in the Ninefold Forest, the rest of the remnant having followed Petronus east into the old Pope’s exile in the Churning Waste.
They would know what do, she told herself.
Cradling the silver bird in her hands, Jin Li Tam cut short her morning run and let this new mystery wash away her rage and shame for the moment. As she turned toward home, she wondered what word this tiny messenger carried to Isaak, and why.
Whatever it carried, the kin-raven had brought it down just short of its destination, and she knew of a certainty that there was intent behind that hunting. That the dark bird of prey had sped west and north did not surprise her at all.
As the sun rose behind her, the tiny bird in her cupped hands took on the mottled shading of a red morning sky as light pierced the forest canopy, and Jin Li Tam felt cold fingers moving over her skin.
It was the color of blood.
It was the color of her dreams, as well.
Copyright © 2010 by Kenneth G. Scholes
All rights reserved.
Edited by Beth Meacham
A Tor Book