“Therese, my favorite customer, look what I’ve got for you!” Marchand the peddler clambered up onto her kitchen chair and plopped his pack down on her table. He plunged his hands into the pack’s canvas folds and drew out a double fistful of gems. “Each cursed—blessed! Blessed, I mean—with a special gift. Only a mistress of magics such as yourself has the talent to tap their energies.”
Therese eyed the gems, and the dwarf, doubtfully. “I know you, Marchand. If these stones had any worth, you’d have sold them already.”
“But they’d make a pretty necklace—oh, never mind.” Dropping both the jewels and the pitch, he pulled out a set of small, aromatic sachets. “Herbs! Herbs for brews and potions, fresh from the exotic lands beyond—”
“I grow my own, Marchand.”
“How about fresh bones? I know you don’t favor the dark arts, but a good mage can always find use for—”
“These are chicken bones, Marchand.”
“They are? That thief of a trader! Next time I’ll bring you his bones. Ah! Here’s a needful item.” He displayed a woody tuber. “Calca root? I know you don’t grow that around here.”
“Let me see.” Therese took the tuber, tapped it, sniffed it. Marchand had a point: calca didn’t grow this far north. If it were real, it would expand the length and depth of her visions. If not—well, she could always make soup from it. “I’ll take this. What else do you have?”
Emboldened by victory, Marchand practically upended his pack. Therese bore his spiels with well-honed patience. Along with the crystals and the lotions and the so-called magic rings, the little swindler occasionally got his hands on something truly magical. There was little enough magic left in the country, after Lord LeKestra’s cleansing.
She selected a book—nonmagical; she just enjoyed reading—and a few stalks of shadegreen from Marchand’s wares. Shadegreen, ground and brewed, could freshen dry goats and cows, and sometimes milkless mothers. That much she could do, at least, for her neighbors in the simple village where she’d taken refuge, and not catch LeKestra’s watchful eye.
She wondered sometimes—only idle musing, mind—what she would do if presented with real strength or means to make a difference. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a magic sword in there. Even an enchanted dagger would be nice.”
“You don’t want weapons. Weapons cause trouble. In the wrong hands they get you killed.” A mouse scurried behind the walls of Therese’s cottage, and Marchand flinched. Even a lowlife peddler such as himself risked LeKestra’s sting. “Are you sure we’re secure here?”
“Of course we’re secure. LeKestra’s got more on his mind than this backwater.” Like hunting the rest of us down. “Don’t worry, Marchand. If someone were planning an uprising, I’d tell you. I know it would mean fat profits for you.”
“Dear Therese. You’ve been a good friend to me, and a valued customer. One who keeps her mouth shut about her sources. That’s why I saved this for you.”
Marchand rummaged deep in his pack and brought out a crystal ball, about the size of a head of lettuce. Therese bit down on a groan. Did he honestly think —
No, wait. Something writhed within the glass—long and slim and serpentine. She leaned in closer, then abruptly recoiled as the flash of scales registered. “Gah! Get it away!”
“What?” Startled, Marchand nearly dropped the ball. He fumbled frantically and managed to fumble it intact and unchipped to the table. He set it at a safe distance from the both of them. “Is it dangerous?”
“I’ve no idea.” Therese shuddered. “I just don’t like snakes.”
“Really?” Marchand said, with a little Oh, is that all shrug. “But it’s powerful. Magical. Can’t you feel it?”
Of course she could feel it. Now that it was out of the pack the snake flailed against the glass like a thing alive. Like a soul fighting for survival. Abruptly it stopped and fixed her with a stare like molten emeralds. She could almost taste its desperation.
Without taking her own wary eyes from the snake, Therese said, “Where did you find that ... thing?”
“There’s others.” Marchand’s voice went sly. “I can get you one with something else, something more, well, lovable. I’ve noticed you don’t keep a familiar. How about one with a cat?” His eyes flicked in quick irritation toward the scrabble in the walls. “You could use a cat.”
“I’m allergic.” The snake’s eyes bored into hers. Its expression seemed ... beseeching. Therese knew little and cared less about reptiles, but even she found that look odd.
“But it is powerful magic, right?” Marchand persisted hopefully. “You can practically smell it. So some magic-worker’s going to want it.”
“Someone else. Not me.” She broke the stare between them. “And no, I don’t want a different one. I don’t want anything to do with a kind of magic like that.”
Marchand shrugged again. “Your loss. If you change your mind, however....” He scooped up the ball. The snake thrashed against the glass. Therese hid her eyes until Marchand restored it to his pack.
“I won’t change my mind. But—have you been to the foothills yet?”
“My very next destination. Is it oils you’re wanting? Calamix leaves? I know a man—”
“So do I. He’s a mage named Yves. He lives in the mountains. I’ll bet he’d buy your snake. It’s the type of magic he enjoys.” A thin smile touched Therese’s lips. She’d never cared for Yves. “If not him, then friends of his. The dark arts don’t bother them.”
“Well, they bother me. But a copper’s a copper. Or a silver. Or a slice of gold, eh?” He winked. The snake had looked more honest. “Anything you’ll be wanting? For on my trip back.”
“Oh, all right. Fish oils.” They were fairly bland in spells, but made for a good meal. She’d been doing a lot of cooking lately. Even put on a few pounds. Frustration, probably. Not being able to openly practice her arts.
At some point, someday, someone would move against LeKestra. But not Therese and her meager spells. She intended what life she had left be a long one. She shook hands with Marchand to seal their bargain, and paid him for her purchases. “Are you sure I can’t get you a cat?” Marchand said. “It doesn’t have to stay in the house. You can—”
“No cats, Marchand. And no dogs, ponies, squirrels or raccoons. Definitely no more snakes.” She kept the table between herself and Marchand and the thing inside his pack. She could feel it rubbing at the edge of her senses. It left a smear of—oddly—hopelessness.
“Fish oils. Maybe a few surprises. I’m good at finding things.” Marchand waved to her merrily, coins jingling in his purse. Therese let him get well down the street before she shut the door.
I’m not sorry, she told herself. The thing was beyond me. Beyond my talents. Besides, I know how those things work. You buy it on a whim, then you put it beside your bed, and while you sleep it sucks the life out of you. I’m not putting myself into any form of danger, thank you very much. Dark arts and revolutions are for Yves and his cronies. Not me.
Anyway, snakes are so ... icky.
Absently she patted her stomach. Her gut was starting to swell against the fabric of her robe. Definitely putting on weight.
A mouse scuttled beneath the floorboards. “Oh, do be quiet,” Therese snapped at it, and swept into the kitchen.
Once, in a happier, more secure lifetime, Therese had slept with her doors unlocked, even in the heart of the city. After all, what thief would risk retaliation from even the lowest of conjurers? That was before LeKestra’s men swept through the streets, armed with their swords and their charms against magic. The clamor of battle and eruptions of power, and the screams, had been warning enough. While the soldiers busied themselves with the most powerful mages, those on the fringes, like Therese, had been able to make their escape.
These days she slept lightly, with doors bolted and windows latched. And, when she had the makings or a sense of unease, with a low-level ward around her cottage.
The ward woke her just after midnight. The shrill whistle in her mind jolted her upright. It was followed, in her ears, by the crash of the shutters, and a sharp cry of surprise. All around, mice darted for cover.
Therese leaped from bed, her robe clutched about her. She snatched up a bag of blinding powder, then a knife. She’d kept both by her bedside since that night. If they’d come for her and her small sorry magics, they’d find her no easy kill.
But it wasn’t a soldier or assassin trapped in the magical glow beneath her hearthroom window. Just a young man in muddy homespun. He clawed at the nimbus that had netted him, as if trying to rip through cobwebs. The tongue he cursed in was unfamiliar to her.
He noticed Therese, and stopped struggling. His eyes jumped at once to her knife. In the language of the north he said, “Don’t kill me.”
“You broke into my cottage. Why shouldn’t I?”
“I tried the door. It was locked.” He shoved at the nimbus. It swallowed his struggles. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I doubt if you can.”
“Look, I know you have it. Just give it to me and I’ll go.”
Therese folded her arms, without easing her grip on her weapons. “I think you’ll go anyway, down to the sheriff. Without it, whatever it is.”
“Please.” The man stopped struggling. His eyes implored her. She had felt the impact of such pleading before. Recently. “You must have it. I followed it here. And I know you’re a witch.”
Therese stiffened. “Who says I’m a witch?”
He shrugged within the glow of net. “Your scent. You smell like magic.”
Not a statement you’d get from the average farm boy. It seemed far too coincidental, but ... “This it. Would it be a snake encased in glass?”
“Yes, yes! That’s all I want. Anything you want for it, I’ll pay you.”
“Why? You’re clearly not a mage. What do you want it for?”
“I have to have it back. I—” He clapped his lips shut on the sentence. Therese saw the struggle in his eyes. With words, with trust. Finally he slumped within the nimbus. “All right, curse you. I need it. That snake—it’s mine. It’s me.”
Therese eased back a step. “Shapechanger?”
“Until recently. Until that part of my self was ripped out of me. What you see is all that’s left.” His lips twisted into a sneer. His crumpled form on the floor blunted the effect. “You want to taunt me? Wave my stolen spirit in my face? Don’t bother. Just slit my throat. I’ve had enough of conjurers’ cruelty.”
She wouldn’t have called it cruelty. Bias, perhaps. Prejudice and distrust. No one, it seemed, cared for shapechangers. The reasons lay buried in ancient feuds, and a wariness towards those who were different or even more different than you.
But she’d never heard of this, sundering a shapechanger from his animal self. That would take a mighty magic indeed. A kind she hadn’t thought anyone dared use openly any more.
“Who did this to you?” she asked.
“I don’t know his name, or his reasons. I never even saw his face. I only know it was one of you.” He sank in upon himself, radiating defiance. He was trying, Therese realized, to coil.
So young, so helpless. At her mercy. That realization brought an inward shudder. With a gentleness that astonished her, she told him, “I don’t have it. It left here with a peddler named Marchand.”
“You’re lying. I tracked it to here—”
“If your self were in this place, so close, wouldn’t you know it?”
That silenced him. He glanced around the room. The tip of his tongue appeared, tasting the air. He turned his head to peer at her. “But you’re a witch. And it’s magic.”
“Not my kind of magic. Anyway, I find snakes repugnant. No offense.”
He growled something in his own tongue and flexed against the glow. Cautiously, against her better judgment, Therese crossed the room. The netted man stilled, his gaze now on her knife. She touched the blade to the glowing web. The nimbus split like a cocoon. She pocketed the blinding powder, but kept the knife ready as she offered her hand.
The shapechanger ignored her proffered aid and stumbled to his feet. Instinctively she reached out to steady him. His skin was supple and warm to the touch. She’d expected sliminess, and scales.
For a moment they both gaped at her hand on his forearm. He raised his eyes to hers. Whatever he saw there caused him to yank his arm away. He leaned against the wall to get his footing. “Well,” he said gruffly, “if you don’t have it, I’ll be going then. Sorry to have bothered you.”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort. You’re in my home now _— that makes you my guest. Come, sit down and have a cup of tea. Perhaps a bite to eat as well. You look ghastly.”
“I don’t need anything from your kind,” he spat, but the weariness in his eyes said otherwise. He didn’t resist when she guided him into the kitchen to a chair. She noticed how hungrily he peered at the walls, and the sounds of the scampering mice. “Well ... maybe a cup of tea.”
Therese put a kettle on the fire, careful not to turn her back. “What’s your name?”
“Uh?” He dragged his attention away from the walls. “Oh. Philemon. Phil will do.” He tried to smile.
“Philemon,” she said firmly. “I’m Therese.” She set an apple, a chunk of cheese, and a slab of bread before him. He thrust the bread into his mouth and tried to swallow it whole. After a bout of near-choking, he settled for chewing instead. Therese, who had gone through her own period of hunger and scrounging before the village took her in, refrained from scolding. “Now, Philemon, here’s how it’s going to go. I’m going to feed you, and we’re going to share a cup of tea. Then I’m going back to bed, and you’re going to sleep in the hearthroom. In the morning we’ll track down Marchand and see about getting your spirit back.”
Crumbs flew as he made muffled noises of protest. Therese held up her hand. “Stop sputtering and listen. By now Marchand has denned for the night, no doubt in a noisy, smelly, and very public place. He has coins in his purse and he’ll want to spend them, so he definitely won’t be alone. If you go after him now, tired and weak as you are, you’ll be easily captured. I needn’t tell you what will happen then.”
He swallowed hastily. “I can’t afford to wait—”
“I know. I felt it when I touched you. You’re dying.”
He went still as a cobra, searching her eyes. “Wasting,” he said finally. “Wasting away. It’s a lot like dying, but it takes longer.”
“But it leaves us a little time, at least. You don’t even know which way he’s gone. I do. You eat, you rest, and in the morning we’ll go after him. He won’t be traveling very fast, not after the night I’m sure he’s having now. I hope you’re up for a hike.”
Philemon considered, then curved his fingers around the apple. He rubbed his fingertips along its skin. “Why?”
Therese quietly sipped her tea. Behind her cool facade roiled memories of screams and the stench of spoilt power, and the chafe of festering magic that dared not be worked in the open. Wasting away, indeed. “Because no one should have to die like that. Not even a snake, or a shapechanger.”
“Oh.” He nibbled on the apple thoughtfully. After a while he said, “Thank you.”
“Thank me when we’ve caught up with Marchand. He won’t enjoy parting with profits.”
“He’d better get used to it.” He took a bite and chewed. “The snake. Did you see it? Was it still—”
“Quite lively.” She shuddered. He chuckled. She glowered at him. “Drink your tea.”
Philemon applied himself to his meal without speaking again. While he ate, Therese made up a pallet for him in the hearthroom and rekindled the fire. Finishing, she looked up to see him leaning in the doorway, watching her. “You’re a good hostess, for a conjurer.”
“You’ve been a polite guest, for what you are. So far.”
“Hsst. I’m no threat, the shape I’m in. Or not in.” He tittered and took a step into the room. His legs wobbled. “You put something in the tea, didn’t you?”
“You’ll sleep more soundly.” Therese took his arm and guided him to the pallet. “And so will I.”
He spewed a weak hiss. “It’s the vipers, isn’t it? They give us all a bad name. I’m a speckled python. A constrictor. I don’t even have any venom—” He folded, and his body hit the pallet with a thump. He lolled on the sheets and snored softly.
Therese gazed down at him, shook her head and thought, I am a fool.
The road to Yves’ hideaway followed a well-traveled trade route into the foothills. Therese was certain Marchand would keep to that road as long as possible. “He hates the woods,” she said to Philemon, with a nod at the trees that lined the road. “He’ll stay in the open, where travel is easy and potential customers pass on a regular basis.”
“Are you sure he came this way?”
“It’s the quickest route to the mountains. And the easiest, if he’s dealing with a hangover. We ought to catch up to him soon.”
“We’d better,” Philemon growled. The food and rest had added strength to his stride and pertness to his tongue. “I can’t believe you didn’t buy me. The me in the glass, I mean.”
“I told you, I’m not that kind of a mage. I do simple healing spells. I find lost lambs and children. I make crops and babies grow. What I felt from the glass—it frightened me. Not just because it was a snake.”
“So you pawned me off on one of your friends.”
“We aren’t friends.” She adjusted her travel coat. Its inner pockets contained some tea, a few deadly herbs, and her dagger. Just in case. “We are—the most I can say is that we are aware of each other. Yves and his comrades are on a different level than I.”
“It was a conjurer of that ‘level’ that did this to me. What makes you think this one will be generous enough to give my spirit back?”
“It won’t come to that. We’ll catch up to Marchand long before he reaches Yves’ stronghold. Marchand will be generous. I’ll see to it.”
Still, it bothered her. Conjurers and shapechangers had no love for each other, but they’d never openly fought. What had been done to Philemon amounted to an act of war. Unless .... The sudden idea chilled her spine. “Could this be LeKestra’s doing?”
Therese started; she wasn’t aware she’d spoken aloud. “You’ve never heard of LeKestra?”
“No. Is he a conjurer?”
His innocent question shocked a laugh out of her, one shrill with bitterness. “No, I’d say not. He slaughtered enough of us to prove that. Or hadn’t you noticed how few conjurers are left in this part of the world?”
Philemon shrugged. “We don’t keep track of conjurers, or their enemies. What are either to us? No conjurer ever came to our aid when a shapechanger faced persecution.”
“No,” Therese agreed, her scorn deflating. “A pity we didn’t. We may face the same enemy now.”
“If so, he must be a conjurer himself, or else have one working for him. How else could he have halved me like this?”
She’d been trying not to dwell on that selfsame riddle. “We’ll have to ask Marchand. We should overtake him soon.”
“Not soon enough for me.” Philemon tested the air with his tonguetip. “I don’t smell dwarf nearby.”
“Wait.” Therese reached into a pocket and pulled out a small bound book. “Maybe this can help us pinpoint him.”
Philemon leaned forward. “What is it? A book of spells?”
“No, just something he sold me. It may still have a trace of his aura on it.” She held the book to her lips and whispered to it, then blew across the cover, as if puffing off dust. A thready beam sparkled in the air, following the road. Several yards ahead it abruptly swerved, and darted into the woods.
“I don’t like this,” Therese said.
“That’s his trail? It looks as if someone chased him. Maybe attacked him. Maybe stole my—” Philemon bolted into the forest.
“Wait—” Therese called, but he’d already raced off in pursuit of the twinkly thread. “I am a fool,” she growled, and dashed after him.
The thread twisted and wound between treetrunks, darted through brambles and brush. These same brambles caught at her hem and her sleeves. Pine boughs slapped her in the face, leaving scented needles in her hair.
The trail ended abruptly at the bank of a swift-running creek. The thread extended its sparkling line out over the water, and stopped. Philemon was casting back and forth along the bank, like a frustrated hound seeking scent. He barely glanced up at Therese’s arrival. “There isn’t any blood,” he said. “I don’t think he’s dead, but I can’t—”
“Therese?” Marchand stuck his head out from beneath a tangle of brambles. His clothes were drenched and muddy, and water ran in creeklets from his hair. “Therese, it’s you! And with help! You couldn’t have timed it better. I was attacked!”
Therese and Philemon each took an arm and helped the trader wriggle out of his hiding place. “Where’s your pack?” Philemon asked.
“Gone. Everything’s gone. They took my pack. They’d have taken my life if I hadn’t slipped in the creek. The current carried me off.” He slanted a look up at Philemon. “Do I know you?”
“This is Philemon,” Therese said. “The owner of the snake.”
Alarm sparked in Marchand’s eyes. “I don’t have it. It’s stolen, along with the rest—”
“Yes, we heard you,” Therese broke in. “Do you know who they were?”
“No. There were three of them, on horseback. Dark cloaks and clothing. No insignia. I tried to beg a ride and they charged at me. Followed me into the woods. Over a ride. So touchy, some people.”
“Not LeKestra’s men, then,” Therese said, with a thrill of relief. “They like their uniforms. Thieves?”
“Thieves? With horses?” Marchand spat. “Thieves are lucky to have shoes. It’s why they’re thieves.”
“Conjurers, then,” Philemon said with blunt certainty. “After the glass.”
“After everything, you mean. No one knew I had the glass. No one but Therese.” Marchand flung this at her accusingly.
“And whoever you showed it to last night,” Therese returned, unperturbed. ‘You had money; you stayed at an inn. Who did you show it to?”
“No one. I kept my pack by my side at all times. I never—”
Therese pressed her fingers to her forehead and sighed. “What was her name, Marchand?”
“There was no ‘her’.” Therese folded her arms and glared down at him. “All right, there was a waitress. I thought I’d impress her—”
“And she screamed.”
“More of a squeal.” He was silent a moment. “There were a lot of people in the common room. I suppose some heads did turn.”
“Then it could have been stolen by anyone.” Philemon slumped. “And taken anywhere.”
“Or,” Therese said, “it could have been reclaimed by the ‘owner,’ tracking it as you were. Where did you get it, Marchand? Or rather, who did you take it from?”
“Therese.” He sounded hurt. ‘You know I’d never—”
Quick as a striking snake, Philemon grabbed Marchand by the front of his sodden shirt and hefted him off the ground. “Let’s try again,” he hissed. “Who had the snake before you stole it?”
The merchant’s eyes bugged. His hands fluttered like the wings of a captive bird. “Therese ... ? Some help?”
“Philemon.” She pried Marchand loose and set him back on his feet. Stepping between them, she said, “Marchand, this is vital. Where did you find the snake?”
Marchand made a great show of choking. When that got him no sympathy, he settled for a scowl. “What are you helping him for?”
“I gave him my word.” She slanted a wry glance at Philemon. “There was a time when our word carried weight.”
“Well, if you’re going to get snooty about it.... I got it from a caravan coming up from the south. I cadged a ride with them. Most were traders or travelers, but there was one wagon that was always kept locked—”
“So naturally you broke into it.”
“I investigated,” Marchand corrected. “A fine mage you are, with no curiosity. There was a chest filled with those globes, with different animals in them. I grabbed the one on top.”
“A chest? Filled with....” Philemon’s initial look of shock slowly gave way to dark rage. He whirled on Therese. “What are you conjurers doing to us? Why?”
“When we find the one responsible, we’ll know,” Therese soothed him. “Where was the caravan headed?”“
“Through the mountains and into the Steppelands, I think,” Marchand said. “But I don’t know who owned the locked wagon. It could have turned off along the way.”
“Anywhere along the way,” Philemon said morosely. “We have no way to track them.”
Therese considered. “Perhaps we do. I can find a being through some object they’ve owned or touched. I’ve never tried it the other way ‘round, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work.”
“You mean like that trick with the book?” Hope rekindled in Philemon’s eyes. “Can you do it?”
“Let’s find out. Come here.” He glided toward her. So like a snake in his movements—Therese bit down on her loathing. Lives are at stake, his and his people’s. Perhaps the lives of mine as well.
She rested her hands on his cheeks and whispered the words of search. She gently blew through his hair.
And there it was, the trail that linked shapechanger and glass, shimmering like sunlight on a serpent’s scales. It stretched from the bank of the creek back through the trees to the road. “I see it!” Philemon cried.
“Well, I don’t.” Marchand shaded his eyes and squinted into the—to him —empty forest. “What is it? Does it lead to my pack?”
“Among other things,” Therese said dryly. “It will thin with time and distance, so we must hurry. Come.”
They followed the thread, and the road, for two days, as fast as Marchand’s short legs and Therese’s lack of stamina allowed. She feared the thread would dim and die, but though it lost some luster, it held firm. It startled her how good it felt to use her magics so openly. Then she remembered the potential consequences, and urged herself and her companions on to greater speed.
On the third day they hitched a ride with a farmer carting vegetables to the city. The pace was slow, but it saved their feet and energy. Marchand claimed the seat beside the farmer, leaving Therese and Philemon to find room amid the crates of carrots and beets. While dwarf and farmer bemoaned the overall poor state of their respective markets, Philemon and Therese pondered motives.
“So it wasn’t just me,” Philemon said. Outrage lent a quiver to his voice. “There’s been a plague among my people—powers lost, vitality draining away. Our physicians couldn’t find a cause or cure. Then I met the conjurer, almost a month ago. I felt the snake ripped out of me. Like being hacked in two. He left me for dead. His mistake.” His eyes were thin, unblinking slits. “I didn’t see his face. He wore a hood. He never spoke, except to cast the spell. It’s clear now he was part of the caravan. And part of what’s been happening to shapechangers.”
“And not alone. Marchand said three men attacked him.” Therese chafed her hands. Her fingers felt like sticks of ice. “I wanted to believe it was LeKestra behind this, but this isn’t his way. He’d have sent his soldiers to butcher you. This is—I don’t have a word for this.”
“How about ‘atrocity’? Those are my people your people are destroying. At least butchery would be swift.”
“Please.” She pressed her fingers to her brow. Frigid fingers, burning brow—perhaps they’d cancel each other. “I’ve been wracking my brain for three days. I don’t know any mages capable of this. At least, none I know of would have been, before .. before LeKestra. That night changed us. Those who survived it, that is.”
“As this changes the shapechangers.” His eyes sought her face, perhaps to gauge her reaction. “We can’t let this assault go unpunished. Our survival as a race is at stake.”
“And what do you want from me? Permission? My blessing? My aid, when your race attacks mine?” Therese drew in a long breath, held it, and slowly let it go. “I’ll help you recover yourself, and then we’re quits. Whatever you do after that, I don’t want to know.”
“Fair enough.” She sensed his stare upon her, and didn’t try to meet it. Too unsettling, that blinkless regard. “Are you all right?” he finally asked. “You look flushed.”
“I didn’t sleep well last night. I’m not one for life on the road. I could really use a cup of tea.”
She could use a lot more than that and she knew it. I don’t want to be here. I want to be home, behind my doors and as far away from politics and wars as I can get. Away from a world where such a horror could be done to a person like Philemon. Back to how my life was before.
And how was my life before? I heard the warnings spoken against LeKestra, but I thought it couldn’t touch me. And here I am. I was a fool. Then and now.
They were approaching the foothills. The road angled upward, preparatory to its easy slide into a river valley and the little village nestled at the bottom. Beyond the village lay the mountains and LeKestra’s empire.
Therese half-rose and turned to peer ahead. The thread still shimmered before them. Just before the road crested, however, the shimmer curved and veered upward, into the hills.
Philemon heard her murmur, and looked where she looked. His tonguetip flickered rapidly in and out. “It’s near,” he whispered. His hand brushed hers. His fingers were trembling. “Very close. Up there.”
He hopped off the wagon and stretched out his arms to Therese. She let him help her to the ground. “Marchand,” she called. “We’re leaving.”
“What?” He bolted upright on the seat. “But we’re not even at the village yet! There’ll be food and drink and—”
“Go on, then. We’ll find you afterwards.”
“No. Those brigands took my pack.” The farmer brought his team to a halt, and Marchand swung down. “Thanks for the ride. And don’t buy any of that grain seed from Wielandside. It’s got the blight, I’ve heard.”
They waited until the farmer topped the crest, then hurried along the thread. Philemon uncovered a track, just wide enough for a carriage or wagon. The thread ran along it, up into the trees.
“Therese, look.” He pointed out hoofprints in the dirt. “See how much deeper this set is, and this? Three riders, two of them side by side, carrying something heavy. That chest from the caravan, I’ll bet.”
Marchand peered at the dirt and nodded sagely. The jumble of prints looked indistinguishable to Therese. However, there was no arguing with the bold, thick shimmer in the air. “Yves has a stronghold somewhere in these hills,” she murmured. She didn’t like the implications.
“Yves. That’s your old cohort, is it? The customer you recommended to me? Looks like the thieves had the same idea. And beat us to him. Pirates!” Marchand spat at a hoofprint. “Well, we can still salvage this. There may still be time to strike a bargain.” He marched purposefully up the track.
Therese and Philemon followed. “I don’t like this,” Philemon muttered. “I’ve never trusted conjurers—” He glanced at her quickly, then as quickly away.
“It’s all right. I never liked Yves, but occasionally he could be reasonable.”
Philemon looked grim indeed. “Then this had better be one of those occasions.”
Marchand’s cursing burst out of the trees up ahead. They dashed to join him.
“There you are. Look at this.” Marchand stood off to one side of the track. At his feet lay three bodies, all wrapped in mages’ robes, all riddled with arrows. The thread shimmered and stopped just above them. “Bloody thieves,” Marchand snarled. “Got what they deserved. And them mages, too! Robbing people. Er—you didn’t know any of ‘em, did you, Therese?”
Gingerly she turned the bodies over, one by one. Green, filmy eyes stared up at her from one of the bloodless faces. “Stephen,” she said. “I knew him vaguely. He was a friend of Yves’.”
“Mage turned thief. What’s the world coming to?” Marchand spat at a fern. “So what do we do now?”
“We follow.” Philemon bent to read the marks in the earth. “It’s plain enough what happened. They were ambushed from the woods. Their assassins took the chest and the horses, and went on.” He pointed to the hoofprints, as if that confirmed it. “Let’s go.”
Therese peered uneasily up the track. If the glass were still intact, why did the thread not continue? Only another mage’s magic could have stopped her spell. And only warded assassins, armed with charmed weapons, could have slipped up unseen on three mages, let alone dispatched them.
Few conjurers remained who had such power. One lived at the end of this trail.
“Yes,” Therese agreed, “but slowly. When we get there, I’ll go in first, alone. And while we climb, let me tell you everything I remember about Yves.”
For a lord of conjure in hiding, Yves apparently had done quite well for himself. His hideout in the hills was not the humble cabin Therese had envisioned. Rather, it was more of a fortress of stone and hewn timber, overlooking the valley, the village, and the mountain peaks beyond. Perhaps he wanted to watch the passes for signs of LeKestra, but she doubted that had much to do with it. Yves had always lived ostentatiously. Just because he was a mage in exile, why should he change his habits?
She wondered, fleetingly, if he locked his doors at night.
A barn large enough to engulf her cottage sat behind the fortress, sheltered by a craggy overhang. Therese passed it by and approached the dwelling itself. The door swung open before she could knock. A sullen servant greeted her, after a fashion. “The Lord Yves welcomes a fellow mage,” he recited.
Therese arched a brow. “‘Lord’ Yves is a gracious host.”
The servant chose not to respond to this. “If you would follow me.”
He set a brisk pace, but Therese deliberately lagged to get a better look at the dwelling. Hardwood floors, padded furniture, fine rugs and wall hangings. Palatially high ceilings with exposed wood beams, for that humble, rustic touch. Not a very defensible position for a fortress, she thought; anyone with a bow and fire arrows could climb that crag and torch the place. Yves was either stupid, or felt monumentally secure. She did not believe he was stupid.
The servant conducted her to a hearthroom fit to welcome kings. He grudgingly offered her a curt bow and departed.
She noted his exit in passing. She had far more interest in the man rising from his chair before the fireplace to greet her. All smiles, all silken mage’s robes, and quite a bit of jewelry. He extended a hand weighted with rings. “Well! This is quite the surprise ... Therese, is it?”
“Lord Yves.” She stepped into the room and took his hand politely. She succeeded in not staring at the mantel, and the glass globes that lined it. “It’s been a long time.”
“Too long, I’d say. Three years?”
“At least.” She gazed about the room. “You’ve recovered quite well. Better than most.”
“Some people just naturally rise to the top.” He released her hand. “Can I offer you something?” His nose crinkled. “You look—and smell—as if you’ve had a rough journey.”
“Some wine would taste lovely. Thank you.”
He called for a servant. Therese partially angled her back to him and studied the mantel more closely. At least two dozen globes were displayed there, each holding an animal prisoner. A lion raged against the glass, deer cowered behind it, rabbits tried to burrow. A buckskin stallion lashed out with its hooves, again and again and again.
And at the far end, its eyes upon her, coiled a tan and speckled snake.
“You like my collection, eh?” Yves said beside her ear.
Therese jumped. She hadn’t heard him approach. “Impressive work,” she managed. “You’d swear they were alive.”
“Yes.” He nodded, smiling. “Quite astounding.” The grumpy fellow from the door reappeared, this time carrying a tray that held a bottle and two glasses. Yves dismissed him with a wave and poured the wine himself. “It’s a unique array,” he went on. “There’s no other like it anywhere.”
Therese was careful to keep her voice steady. “Aren’t you worried so much magic might attract attention?”
“Don’t be such a worry-willy, Therese. We’re perfectly safe here, from anything or anyone.”
And why might he believe that, she wondered. Unless that barn outside housed a private army. Or unless …
He sipped his wine. Therese sniffed hers. It smelled of frost and apples. She allowed herself a dainty sip. So cool and crisp, like an orchard distilled. She wished she had the leisure to indulge. In another time, another place ... but that time had come and gone.
“So,” Yves said, brisk as the wine. “What brings you to my home? I doubt you would have come all this way just to pay a social call.”
“You’re right.” Therese let her gaze travel the room again. She held her glass in one hand; her other hand she held in a fist at her side. “Three years ... we’ve all lost touch. I don’t even know who’s out there any more, how many of us are left. Yours is the only name I’ve heard in recent times.” She strolled around her portion of the room, inspecting the rugs, the furnishings. Careful not to lose sight of him. Maneuvering herself ever closer to the mantel. “Rumor says you’ve sought out others. Maybe even organized some kind of retaliation against LeKestra.”
He smiled, like some indulgent older brother. “And you’ve come to sign on? Offer us what help you can, with your little herbs and powders?
“I was never much of a joiner. You know that.” She refused to let his nettles sting her. He’d been an arrogant oaf before, and not even disaster had changed him. But he was still a mage. A lord of conjure. She spoke the truth when she told him, “I think I just needed to speak with one of my own kind. Maybe even be reassured we weren’t all destroyed.”
“Dear Therese.” He oozed to her side. She tried not to stiffen when his arm briefly went around her. She realized she found Philemon’s serpentine touch more acceptable. “So brave, to travel all this way. I wish I had better news to tell you.”
Her clenched hand tightened. “Is no one left? No one at all with the power to face LeKestra?”
“Oh, there’s a few. Those like yourself, weak and limited in power. But as for lords of conjure ... no. Those who weren’t killed in LeKestra’s cleansing scattered into the countryside. Went into hiding, as you did. But you know how it is ... or perhaps you don’t, being only a witch. For those of us who’ve tasted power, being bested by some upstart human was too bitter a blow to the ego.”
And there it lay, the answer that she didn’t want to accept. In his arrogant stance, in the casual dismissal in his voice. Of course Yves would do whatever it took to maintain his accustomed position. “One by one,” he went on, “the surviving mages returned to their territories, with the purpose of uniting their forces against the common threat.”
“Where they were murdered, one by one.” Her blood had chilled to ice. “By you.”
He arched a brow. “You catch on quickly. I thought I was going to have to spell out everything.”
“There were times”—usually in the cold, short hours after moonset, when she woke in a sweat with a scream in her lungs—”when I wondered how LeKestra’s army knew so well how to thwart our magic. Who had armed and instructed them. Who sent them directly to the most powerful lords of conjure. Your friends and equals.”
“Friends and equals? You’re joking. A lord of conjure has neither. A few upstarts with a little talent. They got on my nerves. LeKestra would have struck at us anyway, sooner or later. He’s that kind of fanatic. Why shouldn’t I position myself to land on the winning side?”
And destroy all your rivals in the process. Along with the rest of us, and our lives. And anyone else in your way. “Then the rumor of a resistance movement was just another ruse. To lure the survivors here, where you could deal with them.”
Yves chuckled. “Knowledge, or guess?”
A guess, but his ugly smirk answered her. She held her clenched hand tight against her side. “That explains why this home is so exposed. It wasn’t built for defense. You don’t need to guard against LeKestra. You’re watching this side of the passes, for your master.”
Yves stiffened. “Partner,” he grated. “A lord of conjure has no masters.”
“Or rivals, or peers,” Therese finished. “Not now.” She waved her glass of wine at the mantel, and the globes of trapped animals there. “And what about them? Did LeKestra order this too? Or did you just grow bored?”
“Oh, them.” He tugged the wrinkles out of his arrogance until it set smoothly again. “Lovely bit of handiwork, aren’t they? Proofs of loyalty from would-be allies. All gone now, alas. We mages do tend to bicker.” A careless shrug. “I convinced LeKestra an army of shapechangers would be invincible. More than enough to deal with whatever few mages remained.”
“Was this before or after you had their spirits stolen?”
“I’m not as big an idiot as most of our kind, Therese. These are insurance. The shapechangers will fight for LeKestra—and will leave me alone—as long as I hold their kin. Consider them ... I favor the term ‘goodwill hostages.’“
“It’s killing them.”
He shrugged again. “The casualties of war.”
“They were never a threat to us. Certainly not to you.”
“How little you understand. A man of power is at war with everything that lives. LeKestra knows this. So do I. You, on the other hand, have yet to learn the importance of choosing the right side.”
At some invisible cue from Yves, two burly guards entered, hauling the struggling Philemon between them. A steady hiss blasted from him, to the clear distress of his captors.
Yves frowned. “Where’s the other one?”
“He eluded us, Lord.” The guard looked chagrinned. “He, um, he bit me. On the shin.”
Good for you, Marchand. Therese set down her wineglass and stood very still.
Yves dismissed this news with a careless wave. “Leave him for now. He’s no threat. He doesn’t even have any magic. Nor does this one, any more.” He turned from Philemon and stepped up to Therese, peering down at her as one would at a child. “Was this your plan of attack? If so, it’s as sorry as your magics. You should learn to come better prepared.”
“I have,” she said, and raised her arm. She unclenched her hand, revealing the blinding powder, and blew it into his face.
Yves fell back with a startled howl, clawing at his eyes. Therese was already reaching into her robe. The toadstool caps she hurled at the guards had been dried and soaked in blackroot. They shattered at the guards’ feet, belching sour smoke and a rank odor that seared both eyes and lungs. Through its screen she heard their choked, rough curses. She hoped Philemon had had warning enough to shut his eyes and mouth.
That would hold them, if only for a few precious seconds. Time enough?
She and Philemon had discussed this in the woods before Therese, both attack and diversion, went up to the fortress alone. Find the globe and smash it, he’d urged her. The snake will return to me. Or so they hoped.
She could see the snake now, its length pooled in the bottom of the globe, watching her. All the imprisoned animals were watching her. There had to be a way to help them.
Philemon first. She snatched the globe from the mantel. The glass was thick, heavier than she’d expected. Like the stone of the hearth. She smashed the ball against the fireplace. A tiny crack appeared. Another strike. The crack widened. The snake flung its coils against the crack, assaulting the glass from within.
Muttered words, a muttered spell. Yves, clearing his eyes. Therese slammed the globe against the stone with all her might.
The glass ball split in her hands like an egg. The tawny snake poured free, dissolving to mist as it left the globe. The mist shot arrow-straight toward Philemon.
Almost at once the curses of the guards changed timbre. Shriller. Frightened. As the blackroot smoke dispersed she saw they now had their hands full of eight feet of writhing, biting snake. The speckled python clamped its coils around the arm of one and sank its teeth into the neck of the other. Howling in panic, the guards heaved and yanked and finally got the python off them. They flung it away and reeled for the door without so much as a glance at their lord. The snake slithered into the shadows.
How many guards did Yves employ? Therese reached for a poker.
A bolt of cold electric fire blasted beside her, close enough that sparks from the impact singed tiny holes in her robe. Yves had recovered faster than she wanted. His hands glowed with dark power. The gems in his rings, she thought. They could focus and amplify his personal energy into a potent weapon. His eyes, however, were peering at a spot three feet to her left. “Damned witch,” he ground out, blinking heavily. “I’m going to roast you for that.”
Inspiration struck. Carefully, so the movement wouldn’t draw his attention, she leaned toward the mantel and rose on her toes. “The great Yves, bested by a cottage witch.” Her voice came out at roughly the height of the mantel, and the globes that lined it. “Lord of conjure? More like the lord of charlatans, I think.”
He roared wordlessly and blasted his full might toward the sound of her mockery. She dropped down and away, but the edge of the charge still caught her, struck her down and sent her skidding across the floor, every nerve-end in her body raw and shrieking for mercy. She bit her lip until blood flowed, choking back a vocal scream, riding out the pain.
The fireplace took the full brunt of his blast. The mantel shattered with a shriek of its own, and so did the bulk of the globes. The rest cracked upon hitting the floor. Therese forced herself to keep count of them. Not one remained intact.
In a rush of curling mist, the shapechanger spirits shot free.
It looked like a rainbow haze at first, but outlines of semi-sold forms took shape within the fog. Therese made out a bear, a lion, a rearing stallion, an eagle, a pair of deer. The mist-beasts swirled together for a moment, as if conferring, then speared straight at Yves.
Only spirits, but spirits have power. Especially furious spirits. They tore at him, solid for seconds then dissolving again, and each one left a mark. Scratches appeared on Yves’ face, left by a lion’s claws. The bear gouged its teeth into his neck. He began a spell, then lost it when the stallion kicked his jaw. Even the deer struck, with their small razor hooves, and the rabbits gnawed at his hands.
Atop it all, Therese caught a frantic shout from the corridor. “Help! The barn! The barn’s on fire!”
Therese smiled thinly. Marchand, making his presence felt. She tried to rise, in spite of her seared and jangled nerves, and got as far as her elbows.
Something brushed her cheek. Gold mist floated past her eyes, and took on the shape of a rabbit. It wriggled its nose at her and vanished. The stallion nuzzled her. The eagle’s wings stirred her hair. The lion licked her nose. Each soul-beast touched her before moving on to reunite with its body. Each touch restored a measure of her strength.
Still physically shaky but no longer depleted, Therese managed to sit up. Yves was still on his feet, though perhaps not for long. Blood oozed from dozens of tiny spirit-inflicted wounds. The air stank with it, and the charred scent of leaking magic. She peered at the dark beyond Yves. No sign of Philemon.
“The barn is afire,” Therese informed Yves. “Perhaps your servants will fight it. I suspect they’ll save themselves. If so, it will soon spread to the house. We have to leave. You’re finished here.”
“Not quite.” He bared his teeth at her. His eyes were raw and red. “You’ve still got some magic in you. Magic I can use.”
He snapped a word, and Therese found herself caught in a nimbus net. She thrust with knees and elbows, but the spell only tightened around her. Yves tottered to a halt in front of her. “Your blood to replenish mine. Maybe I’ll stick your soul in a glass, to punish you for—”
The threat ended on an oomph as Philemon dropped upon him from the rafters. Quick as thought, the python’s coils pinned Yves’ arms and slid around his neck and mouth. No hands, no voice, no gestures, no words, no magic. No air, as Philemon began to crush his windpipe.
Yves thrashed, but the snake was relentless. He turned desperate, beseeching eyes to Therese. Help me, his stare begged. We are mages. We are of a kind.
Therese touched the nimbus. The net crumbled, its power ebbing with the life of its caster. She shook her head. “I am not that great of a fool,” she said, and wrenched her eyes away from Yves, and Philemon’s revenge.
“We have to destroy this place,” Therese said.
Philemon, in human form again, tipped his head toward the thumps and clatters upstairs, where Marchand was gleefully looting. “He won’t like it.”
“I don’t care what he likes. We can’t carry off everything, and we don’t dare leave anything behind. LeKestra’s men, or someone else—”
“No, I agree. I’ll be happy to set the fire, if you can’t.”
“I’ll do it,” she said. “Marchand! Let’s go.”
The trader appeared at the top of the stairs, dragging a bulging sack as large as himself. “But I’ve barely got started. There’s enough goods here to—”
“We’re leaving, Marchand, and we’re torching the place. Take what you’ve got and let’s go.”
“You’re a hard one, Therese,” Marchand complained. He hauled his sack down the steps. At the bottom he thrust it at Philemon. “Here, you’re young and strapping. Make yourself useful. I’ll fetch the carriage.”
Therese blinked. “We have a carriage?”
“Of course. I drove off the horses when I fired the barn, but first I hitched a pair to a carriage. It’s tied in the woods, out of sight of the house. Y’think I’d haul this much loot on my back? We’re going home in style.”
So they did, with Marchand handling the reins and Therese and Philemon riding inside, opposite Marchand’s sack of pilfered trade goods, the inferno that had been Yves’ fortress lighting the way. Both mage and shapechanger leaned out the windows to watch the flames leap at the sky.
“It makes an impressive sight, don’t you think?” Philemon observed.
“Yes,” Therese said, heavy-hearted. “LeKestra’s sure to hear of it.”
“LeKestra’s going to have a plateful.” Philemon’s eyes slitted. “It won’t take long for the ‘hostages’ to recover. For us, word travels on wings. This barbarity of his will unite the shapechangers.” He flashed a glance at her. “And the conjurers as well?”
Therese considered long before she answered. “I don’t know. We’re an individualistic lot. But maybe at last we’ve had enough. There may be some who’ll join you. Marchand knows where they are. He’ll carry word.”
“And you, Therese? Will you stand with us?”
She considered longer still. How long had she awaited and dreaded this moment, the chance to make a difference. “I’m not much of a fighter ... but I’ll do what I can.”
Philemon chuckled. “You’re a better fighter than you think. And more dangerous than you know.”
Behind them, the roof of Yves’ stronghold fell in. Therese shuddered at the distant crash. Philemon covered her hands with his. She didn’t pull away.
They parted ways just outside Therese’s tiny village. Marchand headed west, in search of profits and any mage receptive to the call to arms. He drove off in the carriage, whistling loudly and, every now and again, on key.
“I have to go home,” Philemon said, “help organize my people. But before I go, I found a gift for you.” From his pocket he drew out a golden-brown snake, about the length of his forearm.
“I’ve named her Amber,” he said. “Go on, take her. She’s harmless. No venom. A constrictor, like me. She’ll help you with that mouse problem of yours.”
“I couldn’t.” Yet here was her arm, stretching out, and here was her hand, falling open. The golden snake flowed from Philemon’s arm to hers. Her skin was soft and supple as fine leather, actually pleasing to the touch. She made herself at home on Therese’s arm, her little tongue flicking in and out, tasting her new friend’s scent.
Tentatively, Therese touched her body. Not a bit slimy at all.
“It’s small enough repayment, for what you’ve given me. And maybe, by the time I come back, you’ll have a better opinion of snakes.” He squeezed her shoulder, gently, briefly. “The shapechangers are in your debt, Therese. My people won’t forget.”
She touched his hand. “Be well, Philemon. Safe journey.”
He took his hand away, and changed. The sandy python pressed against her legs, then slithered into the grass. In a blink he was gone.
Therese also blinked, quite rapidly, until Amber’s movement on her arm distracted her. Relaxed by the warmth of Therese’s skin, the little snake coiled loosely around her forearm like a breathing bracelet. Her topaz eyes gazed up at Therese, lazy and content.
Therese sighed mightily. “I am a fool,” she said, not for the first time, and went home to prepare for war.