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The Third Stone

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 13

 

On the fortieth day the Furazol rode the currents of the Desharr sea, pushed greatly along by the torrential winds of a fair westerly storm, the eagle eyes of her lookouts spied the dim line of the Khellenese coast. The air was humid with unshed rain, the sky a heavy, unbroken palate of gray. But it was warmer here than it had been in Danar, despite the season being more than a month further on towards winter.

Dharva wore her cloak for no other reason than the fear of rain, and hair a month's growth longer than it had been, whipped into her eyes and mouth. A destination reached, but she could not quite feel secure in that triumph, not being quite as naive as she had been, knowing that her success and the success of her master hinged entirely on the hope that their Kerisai adversary did not achieve her goal before they achieved theirs.

"Captain says to tell you we'll make port by late evening." The mate came up to her and mumbled, a plain faced, weathered man, who was ever shy in her company. That she could fluster a man was still a new and amazing thing to her, and she stared at his downcast eyes for a moment before thanking him and releasing him from her side.

She went below decks to put her cabin in order and let Pyphin know of their upcoming disembarkment. He was fully recovered now, and full of kinetic energy, writing pages and pages of notes, debating the merits of his thoughts to her, or even the plain air when no other ear offered, calling to his own spirits for what guidance she knew not, or teaching her new methods of control over her own budding skills.

She was not the innocent girl she had been when she'd left this coast, nor the impotent one. She had learned a great deal in the five weeks they had been at sea, things that in peaceful times her master might never have taught her.

The port of Kava welcomed them into it's embrace, the lights of the city a thousand shining points on the placid waters of Kava harbor. A hundred ships graced that port, and thousand voices echoed through the teaming dockside streets, even late at evening when the sun dipped below the far horizon. Dharva would have lingered over proper farewells to captain and crew of the ship that had sacrificed much to bring them here, but Pyphin was in a frantic hurry to be on his way, so she had little time to do more than throw her arms around Captain Skawag's shoulders and babble how gracious he had been, and promise to let him know what their plans might be once Pyphin had met with his Kurisar colleagues at the University of Kava.

Then she hurried down the gang plank after her master, and had to chase after his thin robed form through the thick crowd of the Kavian port. The university was his destination and since she had no notion where that great hall might be, she hoped not to loose track of the man who did. He took her ways she had not been on her fist visit here, and soon the docks were left behind all together and they traversed wider, more impressive streets.

Pyphin had told her of the university on the voyage over. Of the school where scholars of all interests gathered to study and learn. There were four great schools like it in all of Khell, the greatest in Perth where the emperor himself had studied, and the others in Flamora, Sarrageta and Kava Port. Pyphin had taught there, once upon a time, long before he had taken up hermitage in the woods outside her own humble village. He had, he had said in a distracted mumble, helped create it, though she hadn't been able to get much more information about his contributions, since he had then drifted off on a tangent concerning the construction of the grafting spell that might be used in the repair of the Guardian Stone.

But, she knew enough of the university to know that sorcerers and historians, generals and kings alike studied within it's halls. She knew it when she saw it, without a doubt, when they crossed onto the broad avenue that housed estates of the wealthiest Kavian nobles, the highest of the Kavian court buildings and at the far end where the road forked and split around it, the sprawling expanse of the University. It did not possess the towering spires that the courthouse did, or the elegant frontal architecture gracing the houses of the wealthy, but it had a ponderous grandeur all its own. It seemed heavy and looming, as starkly serious and impressive as the teachings that went on within its thick walls.

She stared, enraptured and intimidated by it, as she walked, hardly paying heed to the placement of her feet. There were no gates that barred entrance, only a set of wide steps that led up to a deep and shadowed alcove. Pyphin navigated those steps, creaky joints and all, and paced right up to the set of bronze, ten foot high doors and tugged. Of course they didn't budge, their weight considerably dwarfing his and it took his and Dharva's combined efforts to pull a door open wide enough for them both to slip into, the old man complaining bitterly of how badly in need of oiling they were, since they had not been half so hard to open the last time he was here. Dharva declined asking him how many decades ago that might have been, too engrossed in staring about her at the great entrance hall she found herself standing in.

The ceiling was two stories high, and lost in shadows. Great chandeliers hung from the heights but were cold and dark. To the right was a table with a thick book laid out upon it, a pen and ink by its side, no doubt a registry of some sort for visiting scholars. Before them was a wall with several closed doors and above that a balcony overlooking the hall below. To the left was a long hallway with oil lanterns burning sporadically down its length. Pyphin chose that way with little hesitation. In wonderment, feeling herself the slow whited back-village girl, she followed.

Down that hall they went, and at the far end turned and went down another, deeper into the bowels of the university. They began to pass people. Young men and old, in robes of brown or gray or tunics of the same colors over simple trousers. Sometimes eyes might flicker up at their passage, but more often than not they were ignored, since Pyphin seemed to know what he was about, despite the overwhelmed look of the girl on his heels. He came to a door, one amongst many, and rapped once on its smooth, polished surface before pushing it inwards and striding into a small, well furnished study.

A withered old man sat behind a desk, his mouth open, caught in the midst of a reply to the knock. For a moment his wrinkled face screwed up into lines of affront, then his pale gray eyes widened, and he dropped the page he'd been reading so he might place both hands on the desk top to help push himself to his feet.

"Pyphin, you sly devil. What are you doing here?"

"As if you couldn't guess, Malafor." Pyphin said, clasping the old man's hand over the desk.

Malafor's face creased, his lips turned down and he sat heavily. "Ah, you felt it too."

"I felt it and I fear that there are ambitious Kerisai masters who would take advantage of the Second Stone's vulnerability."

"Ridiculous. Releasing that demon would be tantamount to condemning the world to chaos. No one in their right mind would attempt such a thing."

"Naive. You were always naive, Malafor. Not only would one try, but she kidnapped me in attempts to locate the stone."

Malafor blinked at Pyphin and it was hard to tell if his papery pale skin turned paler or if it were the old scholar's natural hue. "But - - when? I don't understand - -"

"Hardly longer than it takes to sail a ship from Danar to here, you old fool and it's perfectly understandable that the Kerisai have been practicing their arts in the dark for long enough and think it's time for a change of status."

"You didn't tell them?"

"She may have my journals on the subject."

"Fair spirits! Pyphin your research on the subject is more concise than any other."

"Which is more than likely why she chose to force her hospitality on me." Pyphin said dryly.

"But- -but- -" Malafor seemed at a loss. His fingers unconsciously wrinkled what might have been a priceless sheet of script. "This is unthinkable. Something must be done."

"I've made a seal to be placed on the stone, that should temporarily prevent its breaking, but we've no time to waste in restoring the Third Stone. I do hope someone has been planning on undertaking that goal?"

"Well, of course we've talked of it. We were planning on convening in Perth to discuss it in detail - how to best go about it and all - but not till the end of the season." Malafor trailed off uncertainly at Pyphin's scowl.

"This green girl has more a grasp on the situation than you. We don't have till the end of the season. We may not have till the end of the month if my seal isn't placed. What a bunch of dithering fools." He threw his hands out, pacing. "There's little need to discuss how to go about it. I can tell you what we need. Power and great deal of it; every sorcerer, witch or apprentice we can gather up between here and Ishvan to lend power to the spell."

"There are three masters here." Malafor said. "Not including you or myself, and a fair number of apprentices. If you weren't so closed mouthed about your research maybe we'd have had more information here to go on. No one alive but you knows as much about the stones as you and yet you expect us to have acted as if we did."

"I expected you not to be sitting here doing nothing."

The two old men matched glares, stubborn and obviously old hands at conflict between themselves. Finally Malafor relented and said. "I'll call the other masters and lord Shivan and you can tell us all how you plan to mend the guardian stone. We'll need Shivan's assistance to gather a party to travel to Perth."

Pyphin nodded, mollified that action would soon be taken. Dharva, hesitant to intrude, but feeling that this meeting might be over soon and she might not get another chance, asked.

"Master Malafor? Has a journeyman named Anson come here recently?"

Malafor looked at her as if he were surprised she had the ability of speech, making her feel stupid for bothering him with personal matters when affairs of the world were at stake.

"No. No journeyman called Anson has come here to my knowledge."

"Are you certain? We were here perhaps three months ago."

"I ought to be certain, I'm dean of this collage."

"Only because I gave you the job." Pyphin said testily. "And since when do you pay heed to every journeyman who darkens your doorstep. Set someone with more administrative skills than book learning to finding out if the boy stopped by."

Malafor thrust out his wrinkly chin, nodded once, and said. "We'll meet in an hour in the old library, if that suits you?"

Dharva's hopes sank. Eyes downcast she followed Pyphin from Malafor's office, barely hearing him as he muttered about finding the university kitchens and something for lunch. She had so very much wished Anson might be here. The fact that he wasn't at the only safe haven in this city against Kerisai sent assassins might mean that he had succumbed to them.

* * *

The new found horses were nervous. Such a state might have been understandable, considering their riders were ill at ease on anything but a ship's deck, were awkward in the saddle and overcompensated with the reins, hurting sensitive equine mouths, but Theo tended to think it was more than that.

They were well past Pu Kan in two days time, thanks to the horses, even with some of them carrying double loads. The nest coastal city was Deslar, but Lhoki said they would pass far west of it as the slave route swung inland towards Corath. It seemed that since their destination lay at the eastern most point of Danar, according to Pyphin's vague estimation, that it would serve them better to leave the route and cut through the heavily forested lands east of the road. Lhoki advised gravely against it. Lhoki's eyes grew wide with apprehension at the suggestion, claiming that the fiercest of beasts roamed those woods and if Theo did chose to sway from the path, then Lhoki would not be among the victims going that way. Grudgingly, Theo decided against the detour.

It was as the road turned distinctly westward that the horses began to get cagey, showing the whites of their eyes and prancing out of control under the guidance of inexperienced riders at the slightest sound from the surrounding wood. There was nothing that human senses could detect that caused the unease, but thoughts did return to the huge beast from the storm. One had no desire to encounter such a monster again, although it was doubtful that such a creature could maneuver silently through the forest. Theo kept a constant eye for lumbering, mountainous shapes anyway.

During the day the unease was tolerable, the horses merely high strung but not uncontrollable. As night crept through the foliage, casting it's shadow on the land, the panic grew. Even his men began to feel it, the lot of them gone silent and apprehensive, watching the wood with nervous eyes.

"We should stop soon." Collin said. "For the sake of the horses carrying double loads."

"There's something out there." Theo said bluntly. "I'd rather push on a bit longer."

Collin pursed his lips, his face a ghostly pale oval in the scattered bits of moonlight the leaves let through. "There's nothing there. It's nerves. The horses are making us jumpy is all. With rest and grain in their bellies they'll calm down."

"No. I've got a feeling. Another league or two, then we'll stop."

Collin didn't argue. Theo, like his father before him, was a strong believer in following 'feelings'. He could be talked into a lot of things with enough persistence, but if he had a feeling against a thing, then he could be damned stubborn.

A small creek cut across the path. It was shallow and studded with flat rocks, barely wider than the length of a horse, but possessed of a strong, gurgling current. The water was cold and fresh and the men stopped to refill canteens. The horses eagerly plunged their noses into the shallow depths, forgetting their apprehension, more interested in quenching thirst.

Theo squatted by the brookside, submerging his canteen, listening to the glug glug of air escaping and water taking it's place. Something rustled furtively in the woods east of the path. He peered into the shadowed bramble of dense undergrowth and thought he saw movement. Nothing large, more a low, swift moving darkness that might have been no more than saplings swaying in the faint breeze. His horse, standing forelegs in the stream next him, lifted it's head, muzzle dripping water and flicked it's ears quizzically. The other animals looked the same way, soft, nervous sounds issuing forth. The hair on the back of Theo's arms stood up. He rose, capping the canteen and calling for the others to finish up and remount.

Casually he joined Wing and Lhoki at the fore of the group.

"I saw something in the woods." he said low enough for their ears only. "Something low to the ground and fast. What roams these woods like that, Lhoki?"

Not as circumspect as Theo, Lhoki scanned the darkness worriedly. "I don't see anything."

"It's quiet. It's probably been trailing us all day."

"Them." Lhoki corrected. "Lyienas travel in packs."

"What's a Lyiena?" Asked Wing.

"Things I'd rather not deal with. They usually don't bother large groups of men, though. Could be attracted to the smell of blood."

The man wounded in defeating the bandits had reopened his wound early that morning. It had bled a fair amount until Collin had finally decided to stitch it closed. The bandages were still stained with blood, though an animal would have to have a keen sense for it, to pick up on the small amount.

"Will they attack us when we camp?" Theo said.

"How should I know? I never actually seen one."

"You're sure you saw something?" Wing asked.

"Pretty sure. I wouldn't bet my life on it - but, I wouldn't bet against it, either."

"We've got to camp." Wing said. "We need these horses sound."

"I know. We'll build a large fire and set double the watch."

He had always heard that wild animals avoided fire, and hoped fervently that it was the case. Having his men attacked and killed by animal predators was somehow more unnerving than being preyed upon by the human kind. Hoping to avoid spooking them more than they already were, he calmly explained that there might be something prowling the woods and to keep a wary eye for it. It didn't much work, sailors having the inventive imaginations that they did. They sat about the fire, talking in whispers about what monster might be stalking them now, mixing superstition with the scant knowledge they did know of this continent's wild inhabitants. One would hate to actually encounter a beast of the proportions the crew made it out to have. Even the cornbread and apple tarts that Collin made did little to relieve the tension.

Theo got little sleep that night. It was doubtful if his men did much better. Overall, they were a surly lot when they set out in the morning. The good mood they had entertained since the acquisition of the horses had soured and even though they never actually saw the physical shape of the illusive Lyienas, the constant skittishness of the horses was proof enough that there was something out there, pacing them. It seemed a portent of things to come and Theo was ill-pleased with it.

* * *

The streets of Kava were filled with busy people. Sailors, merchants, Natives peddling homemade remedies, ethnic masks, charms or exotic teas crowded the streets, carrying their shops with them in the form of boxes suspended from their necks by leather straps.

It was a bustling port, full of optimism and overall good cheer, unlike the last port Dharva had visited. It was she that moved among the people sullen and depressed, having visited every place she and Anson had been together those few days in Kava and finding no clue to his existence.

She'd had a fair bit of free time on her hands, master Pyphin having closeted himself with the powers that be. The governor of Kava province itself had come to hear what he had to say, though Dharva had only caught a glimpse of that worthy when his entourage filed into the university as she was leaving.

True to her word, she went to the docks to let captain Skawag know of their progress and to ask his advise on what she might do to locate her missing brother. Sadly, he had no better notion than she, so she thanked him and went on her way, leaving the dockside, which held uneasy memories and drifting back to the better side of town.

The coach and guardsmen of Governor Shivan were gone when she reached the steps of the university. She hoped the meeting was over so she might have a word with her master, needing to vent some small bit of her frustration over Anson. Her cubical of a room in the section devoted to housing apprentices, was far removed from the finer quarters given Pyphin. He had a very fine suite of rooms in the master's hall, a set she suspected had never been occupied by anyone but Pyphin, though he seemed to have no more care for the fine furnishings than he did for the cobwebs in the corners of his cottage.

She rapped on the door and an impatient voice bid her enter.

"Oh, it's only you, Dharva." he said, as if expecting someone else. There was a huge desk before a ceiling high shelf of books, a great many of which he had spread out before him. There were fresh clothes laid out for him on the bed, that he hadn't bothered to don, and a tray of uneaten food.

"Do you know, that though we've known the Third Stone has been in the caverns of Ishvan since its conception, no one has actually seen it in more generations than I'd care to count?"

"No, master, I didn't."

"They've led tours of the caverns for hundreds of years. A city has grown up around them in honor of the damned stone and no living soul has set eyes upon it."

"Why not?"

"Well, it's a religious icon and I suppose initially it was just considered blasphemous to charge admission to let the public view it, so the caretakers took their money and led them around the adjoining caves instead."

"It is there, isn't it?"

"It damned well better be."

There was a rap on the door, and a boy entered with an armful of scrolls, which Pyphin eagerly began unrolling. Dharva prowled about the desk, looking at this book or that, hesitant to disturb him with her problems when he seemed so involved in his own greater ones. She looked at what they'd given him for mid-day's meal - soup and fish drowned in some elaborate sauce - too fancy for her master's tastes. At least the tastes he'd acquired since she'd known him. He might have been used to different, grander things back when he'd founded the university.

The whole of the place intimidated her, with all its imposing architecture and priceless furnishings. In her humble opinion, it was more a palace than a place of learning. Her own place of learning had been a small, cozy cottage four leagues beyond the village she'd been born in. The people here were lofty and subtly condescending, the apprentices more so than the masters themselves. She was nothing more than an fledgling witch from a little rural glen with none of their city sophistication and their looks and the whispers they exchanged when she was forced into their fellowship told more of what they thought of her than what they actually said to her face.

"Dharva, what luck did you have?"

She stood at the room's one window, looking blankly over an inner courtyard, not knowing how long she'd done so. Pyphin looked quizzically at her from the desk, quill pen suspended in one hand, the other smudged with ink. His penmanship had always been atrocious.

"No luck." She said softly. "I fear the worst."

"He's a competent lad. Have a little faith. It could well not have been in his best interests to make himself known here, or in town with Kerisai thugs prowling about."

"Maybe." She didn't feel confident. She didn't feel much of anything but useless. "I wonder if they've found the Second Stone yet?" She had felt rather effectual in Danar. Had felt needed. She hadn't thought much on Theo, had tried to avoid musing about him at all, but sometimes when she wasn't paying attention some flash of memory would rear up and take her off guard.

"He'd better, or be well on his way to it, for all our sakes." Pyphin said, dipping his quill once more in the ink pot and managing to splatter ink droplets on his sleeve and the papers between it and the page he was working on.

She mouthed a prayer to the spirits for good luck and wished the benediction across the sea to Theo.

 

Since her moping bothered his work, Pyphin sent her to sit in on apprentice Kurisar classes. She would have rather done anything other than that, having had more than enough of snotty looks and condensation, but with no better way to pass her time she consented to attend. The lecture was the worst. Long and torturously boring, and as far as she was concerned, being a student of Pyphin whose teaching methods were more often than not self-exploratory, covering the most basic of lore and craft in excruciating detail. If she recalled correctly, Pyphin had gone over all of an afternoon's session in about twenty minutes and she'd gotten a far better grasp of it then, without all the trimmings and pompous recitation.

The workshop was more tolerable, but barely. Most of the students had made their first sacrifices, a few novices that had not gotten even that far. What the brown skinned, harsh eyed instructor taught them were the simple techniques of forming spells within ones own mind, exercises of patience really, that only hinted at actually performing magic. This was not, the instructor said, more than likely repeating a quote she recited every session, a stage to show off flashy abilities to ignorant farmers and fishermen. It was a class to horn skills, and Dharva, with grudging respect for the need of it, listened dutifully.

She was saved from another lecture by the announcement that the lord Governor Shivan had agreed to put together a caravan to Perth. It would be gathered most expediently and they might leave as soon as day after tomorrow, if the master sorcerers and their chosen apprentices could be ready at such short notice. She was more than happy to run about the next day and gather scrolls, books or arcane ingredients for Pyphin.

Other than those things, their packing was light, since they had come here with nothing but the clothing on their backs. It took a while longer for the magical segment of the universities population to uproot themselves from their time honored routine. Despite Pyphin going about harassing Malafor and his fellow masters, they were still lagging behind when the governor's troops arrived with their supply wagons and coaches.

There were twenty soldiers, all Kavian natives by the brown skin and small stature. They were staunch and reserved, only showing their distaste for the disorganization of the scholars and sorcerers they were to escort by small shifts of the eyes and slight curls of the lips as this master dropped his valise, scattering scrolls, or that apprentice ran about desperately asking if anyone had remembered to pack the Kylidium leaves for Master Malafor's rheumatism.

Dharva stood quietly to the side, watching the frenzy as almost a dozen magic users of varying degree finally reached some sort of stabilization. Eventually they loaded the wagons and everyone that should have been there was accounted for. There was no room to ride with Master Pyphin, the other master's crowding into that coach to discuss arcane things on the journey, so she found herself sharing an open backed coach with five other young journeymen. They were the best of the students, the most talented and powerful chosen to accompany the masters to Ishvan. And here she sat among them, barely having mastered her first element of magic. She thought she recognized one of them as being master Malafor's personal aide, Filipe. He'd never spoken a word to her and did not now. She looked at the buildings they passed, at the flashes of people about their business on the streets, some of whom paused to follow the passage of the entourage before going blithely back to their affairs.

Soon, the port city was left behind, a gradual fading of crowded buildings and narrow streets into scattered houses that eventually bled into outlying fields where coffee plants flourished. In the distance, to the west a narrow line of green marked the great humid forests of Kava. To the north, flanking the great trade road were endless fields of coffee, sugar cane and other crops that thrived in the temperate weather of Southern Khell.

The pace was steady and moderate, one the horses could hold for long periods of time. Well into the night they traveled, safe on the Trade Road with their company of guards. The moon was deep into her nightly dance across the sky before they reached the roadside traveler's inn they would spend the night at. They were welcomed extravagantly, the inn keeper seeing great wealth in the trappings of the Governor's coaches and his private guards. A fine dinner of roasted fowl, herb crusted vegetables and broth calmed rumbling stomachs. Dharva was more than happy to take a bed by the hearth, since there were too many of them to have private rooms, and she had no desire to share with the other apprentices. She tucked a little bread away for the morrows journey, figuring it would be a long ride till lunch and sat with a blanket the innkeep's wife had given her about her shoulders on a cot by the warm stones of the fire. The guards slept in the stables, and when the last of them had finished his ale and went off the sleep, she finally felt comfortable enough to settle down. Being the only woman among the company she felt ill at ease and perhaps it was not so much even the difference of sex that bothered her as the difference of status. A day riding with a group of men who talked as if she weren't there had done nothing for her self esteem. It had gone a great way in forming the opinion that she did not like the majority of practitioners in her chosen field of profession. Other than Anson and Pyphin, she had never met a journeyman or sorcerer she had particularly liked. In fact, considering that she had gone most of her life holding a grudge against the sea and those who sailed it, thanks to her errant father, she rather liked sailors more than wizards.

It might not be so bad to live aboard a ship and only temporarily set foot on land. The sea was so much less complicated than solid earth. She had been comfortable in her little cabin aboard the Furazol, and she wondered if the Luck was similarly commodious. Her thoughts drifted particularly to the cabin of the captain, and she found herself blushing furiously. She had to make a better effort to keep her thoughts where they ought to be. It was stupid and useless to pine over a man who had never looked on her but anything but an inconvenience. If it killed her, she would make herself forget him.

Of course she dreamed about him. It was a lasciviously vivid dream that she woke from as the innkeep's wife stirred the fire in preparation for breaking fast. She sat up, wide eyed and flushed and stayed that way while the dregs of fantasy disappeared down whatever hole dreams fled to at the onset of consciousness. Embarrassed at the lengths of her own imagination, sub-conscious or not, she got up, folding her blanket with flustered little movements, while the innkeep's wife went about her business, paying Dharva no heed at all.

Last to retire and first the break their fast, the Kavian troopers came in with the dawn, talking quietly among themselves of the distance they hoped to cover today. The lieutenant of the guard sipped coffee and spoke of his hope to cross the border to Alatar within the week. The Great Trade Road would lead them as far as Riverport City and then they would take river passage to Perth. Twenty days, they estimated. Dharva had never realized how close she was to the imperial city.

The masters and their apprentices struggled down some while after dawn, some looking vaguely nauseous at the thought of taking breakfast so early. The guards didn't say a word, sitting at their own table and observing the studious bunch with askance glances that betrayed very much what they thought of slugabeds. Anyone who did not fill their bellies with breakfast now would regret it hours down the road.

Pyphin came down, deep in conversation with another old master named Edawin. Dharva made sure a heaping plate of fried ham and apples, corn muffins and diced potatoes made it's way before him.

The lieutenant of the guard gave them about half an hour to eat and situate themselves before he had the coaches brought around and suggested they be on their way in no uncertain terms. Dharva again found herself in the coach with the five older apprentices. Several of them fell immediately into dozes, cloaks wrapped about themselves, chins to chests or heads lolling at awkward angles on the seat backs. The others looked moodily at the landscape of agriculture and at a sun that had hardly began it's westward journey.

It was smooth riding, for the coach was well made and the Trade Road paved with level stone. In some of the fields they passed, harvesters worked, always pausing to watch the progress of the party of wagons and riders. A group of children helping load sacks of coffee beans into a wagon at the side of the road ran along side the caravan for a while, waving and calling greetings. Dharva laughed and waved back, leaning over the side of the coach and watching as they fell behind. When she pulled back into the carriage, the eyes of the other apprentices were disdainful. They all seemed to follow the lead of Filipe, the eldest and most accomplished of them, he having gained the good will of three of the four elementals. If he looked down his long nose at her, then they all did and he seemed most offended by her jovial attention to the harvester children.

"Must you encourage the commoners?" Filipe said, pinning her with his narrow gaze. One wondered at the ancestry of a man who could be so blatantly snobbish.

She blinked across at him, at the smug faces of the two young men on his side of the carriage. "I'm a commoner. I used to harvest crops when I was a child."

"Is that where Pyphin found you?" There was enough vile superiority in Filipe's voice to make Dharva want to reach across and slap him. He was too sallow and unappealing a man to carry such a lofty attitude. But, she had twenty days travel to share with him, and did not wish open conflict with the lot of them, since the others would back Filipe.

"Not exactly." she said quietly.

"And you hope to someday attain the mantle of mastership, or do your aims lie more towards being a hedge witch and peddling charms and cures?"

"I wasn't aware that master Pyphin trained hedge witches. I believe the last apprentice he trained was your master, Malafor, wasn't it?"

Filipe's lips disappeared into a thin line of dislike. He stared at her a moment, and when she would not flinch from his gaze, turned to the fellow beside him and took up a conversation as if he'd never exchanged a word with her.

That night they stopped at a village sprung up around the Trade Road. It was a farming community mostly that gained a little extra revenue from the road. The inn was large, boasting of a fine kitchen. The dining room was dominated by a huge central fireplace around which long, plant tables sat. There were perhaps half a dozen diners present.

The lieutenant made arrangements with the innkeep for supper and rooms, while his charges settled about the various empty tables. There was stew laden with chunks of beef simmering, fresh bread and pots of newly churned butter and preserves. They dug into the fare eagerly, those who had not partaken of breakfast particularly ravenous.

When they'd finished they sat by the fire, the masters talking of the spell they'd devised to seal the Third Stone. The serving girl brought a jug of wine out, saying it was complements of the innkeep and left it with a trey of fresh glasses at the table. Filipe took it upon himself to uncork the jug and sniff at the cork with the air of someone who fancied himself a connoisseur of fine wines.

"Perthian red." he announced after a moment's consideration. "A fair vintage for such a rural inn." He poured a measure in his glass, then passed the jug down. He brought the glass to his lips for a sample, as his fellow apprentice was pouring next to him.

"I wouldn't." A man walked up behind him, leaning one hand on the back of Filipe's chair and the other on the table. Dharva looked up from the scraps of bread she was idly crumbling and gaped, utter stunned, delight filling her.

Filipe looked up indignantly. "And what business is it of yours?"

"Concerning you? None. But there are a few people at this table I'd rather not see poisoned."

"Anson!" Dharva cried, scrambling to push back her chair and rush around the table to embrace him. One long arm went around her and she was half covered by the folds of his cloak.

"Where have you been?" Pyphin stared at them from down the table. "And what do you mean, poison?"

Anson shrugged, rolling a hand negligently towards the back of the room. "The innkeep didn't send the wine. A rather stealthy fellow gave the serving wench the jug and a few coppers to bring it over."

Every eye at the table swung towards the back of the dining room. The lieutenant and a few of his men rose threateningly.

"He's gone." Anson said. "Out the back door and most likely melted into the night."

The lieutenant sent men out to look anyway.

"You don't know it's poisoned." Filipe said sourly, not appreciating being crowded by Dharva and Anson.

"Then by all means, drink." Anson suggested.

"Master Ketilin, do a divining." Someone suggested, and Filipe's glass was pushed down the table to the elderly master in question, who bowed his head over the glass and concentrated. A few wispy spirits appeared over his head, very well behaved spirits that dove immediately into the glass and disappeared. The old man looked up after a moment with the grave declaration. "Asrinoth."

They looked among themselves, shocked at how close they had come to quick, painful death. Asrinoth was the vilest of poisons, corroding a man's insides, pulping his organs in a matter of scant hours.

"It seems," Master Pyphin said. "That someone would rather we not reach Ishvan."

"The same someones, who tried to keep Dharva and I from following your abductress." Anson speculated.

Pyphin waved a hand at him, beckoning him to come and sit beside him and ousting an apprentice from the chair in the process. Anson took the seat and Dharva stood behind him, between both their chairs, happier than she had been in some while, poison attempt or not.

"Who is this?" Filipe wanted to know from his position far down the table.

"Journeyman Anson." Master Edawin answered, casting Anson a faint smile. "Wildly talented and stubborn to a fault."

"You only say that, master, because I refuse to study at a university." Anson smiled back.

"The girl thought you dead." Pyphin accused.

"I looked everywhere. What happened?" Dharva added.

Anson looked up at her fondly. "I'm sorry. There were more of them than I thought. I couldn't follow you. It was all I could do to stay on my feet after fighting that demon off. The university was the first place they might have expected me to go and the last place I wanted to trap myself, so I took to ground and waited for them to loose interest and when they did I followed. No easy feat that, these are cagey men, with elusive masters. But I can assure you that there are Kerisai forces at work here, and Kerisai masters that have great interest in seeing that the guardian stone remains shattered."

"You know of that?" Pyphin said.

"I've picked up quite a few interesting tidbits of late."

"Yes, you tend to."

"There are no Kerisai sorcerers that I know of in Kava." Malafor said doubtfully. "We discourage that sort of thing at the university."

Anson cast him a skeptical look. Pyphin waved a hand to dismiss Malafor's disbelief. "And Kerisai are such open, honest fellows. You spend too much time with your nose in a book, stuck in that mausoleum of a university, Malafor. The way may be frowned upon here in Khell, but we both know that there are plenty of Kerisai practitioners roaming the lands."

"Apprentices, hedge witches, charm casters, yes." Malafor agreed, but master sorcerers?"

"Why, one visited my very house, not so long ago." Pyphin said impatiently.

"Ah, but one whom by your own account is safely back in Danar."

"She has great resources." Dharva said, daring to intervene in an argument between masters. "She is very wealthy and very powerful. Ancestrally her family dealt in shipping and trading, so there's a fair chance she has property on the coast here, and connections."

"Yes, so don't be naive." Pyphin snapped at Malafor and both old men thrust out their chins and glared. "Besides, when she knocked on my door there were half score men with her, yet when she sailed back to Danar she only took two, at least according to Dharva's sea captain."

"Your sea captain?" Anson looked askance at her and she blushed, and was saved from explaining by the return of the guards who'd been sent out seeking the assassin. There was no sign, as Anson had predicted and the lieutenant declared that guards would be set in the halls to watch over the sorcerers that night. Food and drink was not so much a problem with this group, since once alerted to the prospect, a divining could easily ferret out what was comestible or not.

But, it was an unsettling prospect, being stalked by an assassin who struck with insidious poison, but not one that dulled Dharva's spirits much, her mood much buffered by the reappearance of Anson. It might be a sign of things going right, and it was long, long overdue.

 

 

 

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