FIREKEEPER STOOD, feet planted slightly apart, head held high, and looked from her past into her future.
She was a woman of indeterminate age, certainly no longer a child, but beyond that certain estimation placing her age would have been a challenge. Life lived in all the tempers changing seasons could hold had browned fair skin and faded brown hair, but her eyes were bright, her teeth white and strong.
Her attire showed hard use. She was clad in worn leather trousers laced below the knee, and a battered cotton shirt that might once have been dyed pale green. Her feet were bare. A long hunting knife from whose hilt a garnet shone a muted dark red was belted at her waist. A bow was slung over her shoulder, along with a quiver containing a handful of arrows.
Dozens of scars, silvery white against the tanned skin, again testified to a hard life, yet there was a quickness to Firekeeper's motions, a fluidity and power that spoke of youth and youth's vigor. This contrasted vividly with something in her dark, dark eyes, something that hinted at challenges and sorrows young bones and muscles should not have known, but that had scarred as deeply as any tooth or claw.
"Blind Seer, how many years have gone by since you and I crossed the Iron Mountains into the east?"
Firekeeper spoke a language most humans would not have even realized was being spoken, much less understood, and the one to whom she spoke was no human but rather a grey wolf the size of a small pony, albeit much leaner in build. Blind Seer did not look at Firekeeper when she spoke, his piercingly blue eyes focused, as were her own, on some middle distance.
"Six springs into spring again," came the wolf 's reply. "Six rounding of does' sides and budding of new antlers on proud bucks, six springs where fat puppies stumbled from the dens in which their mothers had hidden them to face the proudinspection of their packs. Six, if you count this spring, and this I do most sincerely."
Firekeeper huffed agreement through her nose, a movement of air that spoke volumes to the wolf.
"Is it spring, then, that makes me restless?"
"Don't blame spring, sweet Firekeeper. Spring has done nothing but be spring. You know who is to blame, who has been whispering in your ear. I have heard what you say in your dreams, and although you have not told me, I know who has returned to haunt you."
"I have always had nightmares," Firekeeper replied, not quite admitting to the truth of the wolf 's statement.
"Always," Blind Seer agreed. "As long as I have known you, as long as any of my pack have known you--and we took you in and made you our own when you were but a small child--as long ago as that and maybe before, you have had nightmares, but this is something different, and you know it and I know it. Will you deny what is as plain as sunlight on a cloudless day?"
Firekeeper sighed and buried her hand in the thick fur of Blind Seer's scruff. "I cannot, nor will I, at least not to you. Three nights running and three more before that, the Meddler has come into my dreams. He talks most seriously, and the matters he raises are grave and seem to make sense, but I fear to be guided by him."
Blind Seer's hackles rose. Firekeeper felt the stiff guard hairs of his coat prickle against her skin.
"The Meddler earned that name for a reason, dear heart," the wolf said in a rumbling growl. "He also earned the ill reputation that goes with that name, as we know all too well. His meddling has caused considerable trouble, not just for us, although we have seen our share, but--if we are to believe the tales Harjeedian tells--for generations so long past that even their bones have returned to the soil."
Firekeeper nodded agreement that held the faintest trace of reluctance. The wolf tilted back his head to gaze upon her face.
"Will you tell me what the Meddler has said when he comes into your dreams?"
Firekeeper hesitated, knowing her delay was a trifle longer than would be polite. Had she been speaking with a human, her delay might have been taken as weighing the wisdom of speaking seriously about dreams. However, the wolf--who knew her mood from her scent--was not to be so easily fooled. She felt her skin heat with a blush.
In response to that blush, Firekeeper was aware of the rumble of Blind Seer's growl, inaudible to her ears but felt through her fingertips. Blind Seer had heard the sweet edge of the Meddler's tongue, and he knew the Meddler had an intense interest in Firekeeper. This interest might have flattered Blind Seer, for wolves are not immune to more highly prizing that which another desires, but the bond between Firekeeper and Blind Seer was sufficiently unique that the wolf was threatened rather than flattered.
But while Firekeeper did not precisely return the Meddler's interest, still she experienced her own peculiar fascination with him. The fascination was not--or so she told herself--that which a female feels for a mate. How could it be? The Meddler was noteven alive. His body had been slain centuries before Firekeeper had been born, but his spirit, entrapped in a prison constructed for that purpose, had persisted.
Firekeeper told herself that she was interested in the Meddler because he possessed knowledge that no one else did. But Blind Seer read her scent--so much more honest than her thoughts--and was threatened by a potential rival.
"I will tell you," Firekeeper said at last, "but dreams are strange, and sometimes I have trouble recalling their logic."
"Some trouble," Blind Seer agreed, "but not too much trouble, else you would not be so restless. Tell what you can. I will listen."
Firekeeper sat next to the wolf, flinging her arm over his shoulders. He, in turn, settled onto his haunches. Blind Seer was large enough that in this attitude Firekeeper's head now leaned against his own. She sat this way for several long breaths, taking comfort from their proximity.
"The Meddler says," she began, the words tumbling out like water spilling over a beaver's dam, "at great length, supporting his case with many cogent arguments, that I must seek the source of the Fire Plague."
"The source of the Fire Plague?" Blind Seer asked. "What purpose would be served in finding the source of the Fire Plague?"
"Not just the source," Firekeeper amended. "The source and, with the source, the cure."
"Why does the Meddler care?" Blind Seer said. "If anyone is immune to the Fire Plague, it is he. Nor did he take particular care to warn us of the Fire Plague when we crossed to where we would be vulnerable to it. Why should he care now?"
"I asked the Meddler why he didn't warn us," Firekeeper said, glad to prove that she did not listen to the Meddler with unquestioning obedience. "He claims that he did not know the Fire Plague still lived in the Old World. He says that such things fade and die. Over a hundred years have passed since the Fire Plague first appeared--and he was already entrapped then, and so only knew of it in the abstract. The Meddler claims he did not know for certain where the Setting Sun gateway would take us. Nor did he worry unduly that it might take us to the Old World. He thought the Fire Plague likely dead or aged beyond ability to harm us. Remember, he knew nothing of how the Old World had fared since his imprisonment. He had difficulty enough contacting the New."
"Perhaps this is true," Blind Seer admitted grudgingly. "After all, even for one such as him, knowing what is happening across a great ocean might be difficult."
"The Meddler says that such knowing is perhaps not quite impossible," Firekeeper said, "but close enough to impossible."
"I am pleased that the Meddler does not claim his knowing what happens far away is impossible," Blind Seer said, "for I have seen him at home in places I would have termed impossible if I had not been there myself. I would trust him less than I do were he to claim something impossible."
"And you do not trust him very much," Firekeeper said.
"Less even than that," Blind Seer replied. "Has the Meddler told you why it is so important that the source of the Fire Plague be found--beyond, of course, that this is the way to find a cure. Why is a cure necessary all of a sudden?"
"Did you enjoy your experience when you were seized with the Plague?"
The blue-eyed wolf stiffened, even seemed to stop breathing. What had happened to him when the Fire Plague had seized hold of him and nearly killed him was a matter Blind Seer steadfastly refused to discuss. Like Firekeeper's perverse interest in the Meddler, it was one of several things that had driven a wedge between the pair, although to any watching them woman and wolf would seem as close as ever.
"The Fire Plague is not something to enjoy," Blind Seer finally replied, "only to survive."
"I would go a bit further," Firekeeper said, "and say the Fire Plague is something I would wish upon no one--not even an enemy. How then can we wish it upon our friends?"
"I do not."
"The Meddler says that if a cure is not found, then we are as good as wishing the Fire Plague upon our friends. Thus far we have been fortunate. The Plague has not reappeared in the New World, but we know now that those who were born in the New World are not immune. How long will our luck hold? How long before the Fire Plague crosses as we have crossed?"
"We have taken care," Blind Seer protested, "that none actively ill return from the Old World to the New until the sickness has run its course."
"Someday we will judge wrong," Firekeeper said. "Even if we do not, what of those who wish to come from the New World to the Nexus Islands? You know as well as I do that our allies have held those islands thus far only through constant vigilance. How long before weariness or boredom or even betrayal leads to a disaster? We cannot recruit further support from the Old World. If we are to hold the Nexus Islands, we must bring reinforcements from the New World."
"We can bring those who lack the magical talents upon which the Fire Plague feeds."
Firekeeper pulled back so she could look Blind Seer in the face--the locking of her gaze with his own a gesture of challenge among wolves as it was not among humans.
"And can we be sure to know in advance who possesses magical talents and who does not? It seems to me that there are those in whom the talents are so deeply buried that even they do not know the talents are there."
Blind Seer glowered at her, blue eyes narrowing to slits, ears pinning back, and fangs revealed in a snarl. He held that threat for a moment, but Firekeeper did not break his gaze. After a long moment the wolf shook himself calm.
"True. Such does happen. What if we recruit one or more of the maimalodalum to help inspect our candidates in advance? The maimalodalum have the ability to sense magic--even magic that is very faint. They could review potential candidates, and turn away those who would be endangered."
"There are few maimalodalum," Firekeeper said, "and those few are isolated on Misheemnekuru, and do not wish their presence to be known to the world. It is possible we might recruit one or even two, but this would only be a stopgap. In the end, we would still need a cure--or expose our allies to the Fire Plague."
"And the Meddler assures you that to find a cure, you must find the source of the Fire Plague. How does he know that? It seems to me that when the Meddler wishes to do so, he knows a great deal--and when it is convenient, he claims ignorance. Which do we believe, his ignorance or his wisdom?"
"I believe neither," Firekeeper said, "but I can see the sense in what he says. Surely nothing comes from nothing. If you want to stop a stream you must block its source. If the does are killed there will be no more fawns. So it will be with the Fire Plague ... I hope."
"So he has convinced you to go hunting for the source of the Fire Plague?"
"He is trying to do so."
"A hunt that would take you into the Old World."
"I think so."
"Where you speak none of the languages."
Firekeeper raised her chin in defiance.
"Where there are no Royal Beasts to help you."
Firekeeper held her silence.
"Where, if we are to believe those we met on the Nexus Islands, there are places where magic is--if possible--hated even more fiercely than it is in our homeland. And you will go there, searching for a cure to the very disease or curse or whatever it is that broke the power of magic, that broke the power that was used to dominate and destroy humans and Beasts alike in the Old World and the New."
Firekeeper inclined her head in the smallest of nods.
"Yes. That is what I am considering doing. Will you come with me?"
Blind Seer huffed his breath out in a long sigh. "Of course. Where else would I be but at your side?"
DERIAN CARTER COULDN'TMAKE HIMSELF GO HOME. Sitting in the front room of the stable master's house--what had become his house on the Nexus Islands--he tried to explain how he felt to the young woman seated across the room from him.
"Isende, look at me," Derian said, a pleading note in his voice. "Look at what the Plague--what querinalo--has done to me."
"I am looking at you," she replied. Isende tucked a lock of hair behind one ear as ifto emphasize that nothing was blocking her vision. "I see a tall young man with broad shoulders, red hair, and very nice eyes."
"Red hair that grows like a mane," Derian said, reaching up and tugging. "By all my ancestors, I have a forelock! My ears are pointed and hairy and I can wriggle them. My eyes--those 'nice eyes' used to be hazel. Now they're brown--and the irises are weird. They blot out more of the whites. My finger and toenails are hard now. I need a farrier's kit to clip them."
"And you can eat grass," Isende said, "and talk to horses. Derian, the moon has shown all aspects of her face five or six times since you had querinalo. I thought you were adjusting to what happened to you. You went to see your friend when she had her baby. When are you going to visit your family? I know you miss them. I've seen the fat letters that go out with just about every post. Spring is going to open up the ports to shipping. With the gate, you're less than a moonspan from the harbor at u-Bishinti. If you left now, you could be home to Hawk Haven by midsummer at the latest. If you delay too long, winter will close the ports again."
"You have no idea how my people feel about magic," Derian replied. "I mean, your people dislike how magic was used and abused by the Old Country rulers, but you don't hate magic for itself. Magic is one of your deities. You see her face when you look up at the moon. It's not that way at home. Having a talent wasn't too bad, especially since my talent was one of those that could pretty much be concealed. After all, I am a livery stable owner's son. When I think about it, I'm not even sure I knew I had a talent until people started pointing out the obvious to me."
"I grew up," Isende said, her tones dreamy, "with people thinking I was a freak. Looking a bit different didn't matter much in Gak, because so many different peoples fled there during the chaos, and after a few generations there were some odd combinations. So having this weird hair that is brown underneath and sort of golden on top wasn't too much different. Lots of people had skin like mine, browner than yours, but not as brown as the Liglim have, but even in Gak I was a freak nonetheless, and for the same reason you think you are. Magic. My brother and I could sense what each other was feeling, almost read each other's minds in a way. When we were really little, if one of us got cut, the other would get a red mark in the same area."
"That's what one of our nurses told us, anyhow," Isende said. "By the time I have really clear memories, that wasn't happening anymore, but there were times Tiniel fell down and I swore I could feel my own knees aching. If he was scared, I knew it. If he was unhappy, I wanted to cry."
"But that's over now," Derian said. He was aware that his tone sounded like he was looking for reassurance.
"That's over now," Isende said. "Querinalo burned away the connection in exchange for letting us live. We paid a price. You paid a price. Querinalo turned your flesh and bones into wax. If we're to believe what those who've survived the disease say, your own will resculpted your body into the shape it now holds. Is that what'sdriving you crazy? Is the fact that you think you're to blame for what happened making you run from your family?"
Derian found he couldn't answer directly. His next words came out all muddled and confused--much like his thoughts.
"You should have seen the look on Elise's and Doc's faces," he said. "When we heard that the baby had come, but early, and that neither Elise nor the little girl were doing well and they might both die, Firekeeper insisted that we go and see them. I didn't need her pushing. Doc's lost one wife already to childbirth, and Elise's family ... Well, the history of their women surviving childbirth isn't good."
"I remember what you told me about Elise," Isende said, "and I'm not likely to forget your going. You've only been back a few days. So you went."
"So I went," Derian said. "Would you believe me if I told you that I was so worried about Elise and Doc that I didn't even think about what they'd think when they got a good look at me?"
"If you say so."
"Honestly. That's how it was. When some of the ospreys relayed the news from u-Bishinti, Firekeeper jumped to her feet and was casting around for Ynamynet or Enigma or someone who could open the gate. Eshinarvash offered to come along and carry me so we wouldn't be slowed."
"It was the middle of the night," Isende said, "so most of us were asleep. All we knew was that you were gone the next morning. Plik explained what he could, and that you'd be back. There was an uproar, let me tell you."
Derian ignored her, and went on with his story as if in telling it he might understand his own reaction better. "Well, we were moving at a pretty good clip. Firekeeper and Blind Seer can pace a horse, especially at night. Eshinarvash has good night vision for a horse, but he's still careful that he doesn't wrench something. When it got dark, we decided to stop. Firekeeper suggested that maybe I'd prefer we camp somewhere a little isolated. I said that, given how Blind Seer upsets both humans and livestock, this was a good idea."
"And Firekeeper said something rude?" Isende's hands tightened around the armrests of her chair. "She can be impossibly blunt."
"No." Derian's ears flickered back, almost as a horse's would to express annoyance, then resumed their normal position. "Actually, she was very gentle. She said something about the humans maybe not being ready to see a maimalodalu. I was about to remind her Plik wasn't with us--and then I realized she meant me."
"That's an interesting comparison when you think about it," Isende said. "I mean, the translation is flawed--you didn't start out as a beast, so you can't be beast-souled--but you've the same sort of combination of human and animal traits that Plik does."
Derian forced a laugh. "Are you telling me I look like a raccoon?"
Isende's grin was genuine. "Not in the least, but just like Plik is a mixture of raccoon and human, you're a mixture of human and horse--and far more human than horse. Honestly, Derian, except maybe for the ears, I'm not sure anyone would notice the difference."
"Elise sure did," Derian said, wincing at the memory. "And Doc. I think my eyes got to them more than anything else. They really don't look human. Too much brown. Too little white. You can't hide that under a broad-brimmed hat."
"Smoked glasses," Isende said promptly. "Like some sailors wear at sea to protect their eyes."
"You have an answer for everything," Derian said, and this time his smile was more honest.
"I see you tearing yourself up," Isende said. "You talk about your family all the time. You obviously miss them."
"I lived with them until I was nineteen," Derian said. "Then I went on the road with Earl Kestrel, and sometimes I don't think I've been home since. I don't feel like I have a home anymore."
"And you want one," Isende said. "I know how you feel. When our father died, there was just me and Tiniel, and Tin, well, he went a little ..."
She looked very uncomfortable, and Derian struggled to save her from having to talk about her brother. The current relationship between the twins was far from good, and Derian would have had to be a whole lot more self-absorbed than he was to miss the tension. He tried to spare Isende the need to speak about past events by reviewing them himself.
"And first Tiniel wanted your family made a part of Gak's voting council," Derian said. "Then when that proposal was refused, he suggested you go out and reclaim your ancestral stronghold."
"And then we found the gate, and, well ..." Isende shrugged. Her gaze dropped as if she sought omens in the patterns of the wood grain of the floorboards. "Here we are, two more of the reluctant, responsible residents of the Nexus Islands. You're afraid to go home--and I don't have a home to go back to."
Derian leaned forward, wanting to offer comfort, but not quite sure what to say. He didn't think Isende would want his pity, but what might she want? She couldn't want anything from him. Hadn't she just about said she thought he was like Plik, a sort of unique monstrosity? He started to reach out and at least give her a brotherly pat, but then he remembered Tiniel and froze, and when he did so he caught sight of those heavily horned nails at the ends of each of his fingers, and his impulse died within him.
The silence was getting distinctly uncomfortable. Derian didn't know whether he wanted Isende to leave or whether he wanted her to stay until he could make her smile again.
Poor return for Isende's friendship and sympathy, Derian Carter, he chided himself, making the poor girl feel miserable and alone. Say something! Anything! Otherwise, she's going to walk out of here, and leave you by yourself feeling like something Eshinarvash leaves on the stable floor.
"I ..." he was starting when the howl of a wolf, the note falling from high to low, broke the stillness of the afternoon.
"Firekeeper," he said, feeling such relief that he didn't even mind when he realizedthat his right ear had automatically swiveled to track the sound. "Back from the mainland."
Plik had been the first to start referring to the New World as the "mainland," a habit evolved from his own life prior to coming to the Nexus Islands when he, along with the small community of maimalodalum, had lived on Center Island at the heart of Misheemnekuru. The other residents from the New World--Derian, Plik, Eshinarvash, Truth, and Harjeedian--had adopted the custom with alacrity.
As Harjeedian had said, showing far more vulnerable humanity than Derian had thought possible, "Calling the New World our mainland gives us roots, a sense that there is something to which we are connected."
And the New World residents all needed that feeling of connectedness. While Firekeeper, Blind Seer, and assorted Wise Beasts tended to commute back and forth between the Nexus Islands and the mainland, the other five had opted for more or less permanent residence on the Nexus Islands. They were needed there, for although the Old World residents had thus far honored the agreement they had made following their defeat the previous autumn, none of the New Worlders were so naive as to believe they would continue to do so without supervision.
It all comes down to querinalo, Derian thought. If there was no querinalo, we could instate rotating shifts here, like an army in the field or a crew aboard a ship, but because of querinalo we dare not. None of us who has lived through that horrible fever could risk inflicting it on another--and since we cannot tell for certain who will catch it and who will not ...
The thought continued on like a cart wheel rolling down a well-worn rut in a dirt road, but this time the wheel hit a rock and went bouncing off down the embankment.
I don't want to go home--I just can't bear the idea of how my folks would look at me--but I don't want to stay here forever and ever and ever.
Each "ever" sounded like the clash of an iron wheel rim against rock, and on the last clash, Firekeeper burst through the front door. Overall, the wolf-woman had improved a great deal about remembering little social courtesies like knocking on doors, but when she was excited, social graces went out the window.
Or rather, Derian thought with mild amusement, Firekeeper would come through the window if the door wouldn't open.
Isende looked less horrified than she might at the sight of the lithe, lean young woman and the enormous wolf now bursting through the door.
But then, Isende has known Firekeeper for moonspans now, long enough to be catty about her manners--or lack thereof. And maybe having your brother live in the back of your head most of your life gives you a bit of flexibility about the conventions.
The thought teased Derian as the beginning of something interesting, but before he could pursue it, Firekeeper flung herself down on his hearth rug and said, "Derian, I need to talk to you."
Isende rose, her posture every bit as polite and proper as Firekeeper's had not been.
"I should be going," she began, but the words were hardly out of her mouth before Firekeeper was flapping her hand in an indication that Isende should resume her place.
"No. Is not to say I have a secret to talk. You would be good to hear this, too."
Derian sighed. As always, when she was away from human conversation for more than a few days, Firekeeper's syntax went to pieces.
Probably out of courtesy to Isende, Firekeeper had been speaking in Liglimosh, the dominant language of the southern nation of Liglim and many of the bordering city-states--including Gak, where Isende and her brother Tiniel had been born. Had Derian been the only one present, Firekeeper doubtless would have spoken Pellish, the language of Hawk Haven and Bright Bay, allied kingdoms that had been founded by the same Old World nation.
The odd thing was that Derian had noticed how Firekeeper was perfectly capable of proper grammar and syntax, but she seemed to reserve these for either those times she must translate for others, or those rare occasions that she wanted to make absolutely certain she was not misunderstood.
I suppose I should be glad Firekeeper is bilingual--at least after a fashion. Trilingual, if I count whatever it is she speaks to the Beasts. When I met her, all she could speak was Beast talk, and I'm still not convinced that counts. Less than ever, since we discovered that while I can now understand Eshinarvash and the other Wise Horses I can't "speak horse" back at them, nor can I speak any Beast language at all. There's so much I don't understand ... .
These thoughts passed through Derian's mind in the time it took Firekeeper to convince Isende that she was entirely welcome.
"Derian," Firekeeper said when they were all settled. "I think I need to go and find where querinalo comes from. It is dangerous, to us, to our homes. We need to find it, so we can end it."
The effort the wolf-woman made to insure that she could not be misunderstood made Derian perfectly certain that she was serious.
"And how are you going to find where querinalo comes from?" he asked, trying not to sound like he was humoring her. "Does querinalo have a scent by which you can track it?"
"It has a scent," Firekeeper said, "if not one I can use to track. I was thinking you could track for me--you and Harjeedian and Ynamynet and all the rest."
"Like Lady Melina find the Dragon of Despair," Firekeeper said. "She find it, so Toriovico tell us later, through old stories. There must be stories from the time before querinalo came. Maybe even there are stories about how it began. The New World does not have them, because we always told that it come from the Old World, but the Old World must have stories."
Derian felt some doubt, but Isende was nodding.
"Firekeeper could be right," she said. "If not stories, then histories, records that tellwhere querinalo first appeared and how it spread. Was it like a bout of late-summer spots, spreading from person to person, or did it come in waves, like the sneezing fits that come with the blooming of certain flowers?"
"Would there be records like that?" Derian asked. "My understanding is that the upheavals and chaos that happened in the New World after querinalo took hold were nothing to what happened in the Old World. In the New World the abandoned colonies had to make do without their rulers and the support of the Old World, but if those tales Urgana likes to tell are representative it seems to me that the Old World fell apart completely."
"But not all at once," Isende insisted. "There was more structure in place in the Old World. As Urgana tells it, the rulers did their best to conceal what was happening. There must be records, archives, something ..."
"But how do we find those?" Derian asked. "If they're anywhere, they're in the Old World, and we're here on the Nexus Islands."
"Nexus," Isende said thoughtfully. "Crossroads. Meeting point. A neutral ground between areas that otherwise were rivals. And after the collapse, the Nexus Islands were abandoned for a long, long while. They've only been reinhabited for ten years or so, and many of the old buildings are still untouched."
Derian stared at her. "Are you saying the answers might be right here?"
Isende grinned at him. "We won't know unless we look, will we?"