Excerpt (c)2005 by Michelle M. Welch
And it ends in fire.
I have seen it, in the time that is all time, in the spiral that turns back on itself and has no beginning or end. In my dreams the world ends in fire. Fire is in my eyes and my mouth, crackling in my ears, breathing through my skin. I ask them, the Sages, whose voices surround me like mist, voices that do not speak—what is the fire? What is the fire? They do not answer me. But one voice, one isolates itself from the mist and says, loud in my deaf ears and clear as the rain I do not feel—Ah, but I will find her.
Then from the tangle of dreams a vision solidifies. A city, standing in a pass between mountains, burning. It is not a city I know, remembering faintly that I was once a spy and I visited cities to gather secrets and kill people. I cannot say where the city is and I do not know when the city burns. Standing before the city are figures, four people silhouetted in the hungry light of the flames. I can see the faces of three of them, an old man, a young man, a girl with hair more fiery than the flames that rage behind her. The fourth is masked in shadow and secret, and I do not see his face even when he turns to speak to me. It is the Sage whose words are in my mind. When he speaks the vision cracks and disperses and I am left with blackness and silence.
My eyes will not open. I have forgotten whether I have eyes, or what they once saw. I do not know what lies around me, what the land of Sor’rai looked like, what trees grew and what lurked in their shadows, things I would once have noticed. I have forgotten so completely how to measure time like a human that I do not know how old I am, or how long I have sat on this piece of grass, if it is grass, if I am sitting. Sage dreams have merged with waking as the lines of time have merged into a spiral—except for this dream of the city burning. Because I see the ends of the vision and know it is a dream. I do not know why, why I dreamed it, why the Sage within it spoke to me, who he is looking for, who he will find. But inside the haze I taste what resonates unspoken, drawing me into this Sage’s thoughts. He is looking for a woman who is part human and part Sage. He is looking for her and he does not know where she is.
It is not me. But it has woken me. And my tired eyes begin to clear and take in the light. A faint recognition—I see trees, standing still in my eyes though in my mind I see them moving, and grass that thins as the land rises to a mountain trail. The trail out of Sor’rai, I dimly remember. The Bioran gate.
But something is wrong. I look and try to see what I am not seeing. Tired and worn, those old spy’s eyes open, looking for their answers and evidence, though I do not remember why. They focus, they see the Bioran gate. A pass, tree-canopied and open. And that is what is wrong, the eyes tell my drowsy mind. The gate should not be open. The thick light, the unreal brightness, the taste of change that clung to the hands of the Magi, they were not there. The gate had been opened. There is something wrong.
What is it? What would make me stand, awkward as an infant on legs I forgot I had, and stumble toward the pass? What would spur me to investigate, driven and restless with an unanswered question after so many years of stillness? What would draw me from my vigil at the bedside of the dreams of all time? But the Sage who spoke to me in the dream knows. I am still human.
Autumn, 791 C.C.
Rindell wasn’t sure about his job, not at all. He was thinking that more and more recently, as he chewed on the end of his pencil and stood as far back as possible from the dead people, holding his tablet up in front of his face as if it would keep him from breathing in whatever had killed them. Sometimes he even thought he should get another job, as if he had a choice. At home was the freak his father—planning who knew what punishment for Rindell if he left his apprenticeship—and here was the freak Aron Jannes.
“This is a good one,” Jannes was saying, half under his breath. “Head is still intact, eyes are clear. We’ll be able to get a lot from this one.” He hung over the body and began poking at it with a small silver rod, which was balanced between the deformed fingers of his right hand. Rindell swallowed hard and chewed on the end of his pencil again, waiting unexpectantly for Jannes to call him forward to draw something.
For three years he’d worked for the disturbing man, the Circuit Justice for Mortality. Rindell had expected to travel around Dabion filling notebooks with drawings, though he hadn’t really been able to imagine the subject matter. He’d expected to visit Healer’s tents and burial grounds, a distasteful enough job, but better than facing his father again. He had not expected what the company of Aron Jannes would be like. No match for his father, of course, but Justice Jannes was impressively frightening in his own right. The cold face, the permanent frown, the angry eyes—he never actually lost his temper, but if Rindell had been drawing him he would have drawn a powder keg with a broken hand. For once, though, Rindell had learned his lesson, and the caricature never made it to the page.
“The Healer you asked for is here,” a voice said from behind them.
A tall, thin man in a white robe stood in the tent’s doorway, calmly waiting to be acknowledged. He used no introduction, no “your honor”. Healers didn’t care about such formalities. Rindell stepped backwards with a sigh of relief, although Jannes looked over his shoulder with his eyebrows furrowed deeply, angry at the interruption. “The Healer,” he mimicked coldly. “Don’t you have names?”
Rindell had wondered that himself, but kept his mouth closed. He backed away through the tent flap, drinking in the fresh air gratefully, but before he got very far Jannes followed him out and pushed him along to their next destination, muttering an order about taking notes for “this infernal interview”.
The Healer in question, whose name was still not given, was sitting in a nearby tent, perched on a stool beside the bed of an old man. All the Healers looked alike, the shapeless white robes, hair cut blunt above their shoulders and a color that ranged from brown to as light as wheat, the men and the women all looking the same. Rindell didn’t even know until the Healer looked up, turning away from the sick man to face the visitors and showing a narrow, soft chin, that this one was a woman. Rindell’s eyes drifted over the front of her robe and he ducked his hotly reddening face toward his tablet, scribbling notes furiously, although the interview hadn’t started yet.
“You handled the first case of the plague, did you?” Jannes demanded of the Healer. “Where was that?”
The Healer’s voice was smooth and calm, although it didn’t make Jannes any calmer. “In Karrim.”
The Healer smiled and shook her head, more as if it wasn’t important than as if she didn’t know.
Jannes frowned and muttered, loudly enough that he was sure she could hear, “Like talking to a damned wanderer.” Healers, like the wandering madmen, didn’t care about the numbers Justices were always giving to things. They were also impervious to embarrassment; Rindell did the woman the favor of being thoroughly embarrassed for her, and looked sheepishly out the door flap. And there, as if on cue, was a wanderer, walking past as easy as day, motley clothes and wild-colored hair and all. Rindell blinked and rubbed his eyes—clumsily, with the hand that was holding the pencil. When he opened his eyes again the wanderer was gone.
“The year, then,” Jannes was demanding in a voice that made Rindell flinch back to attention. “Do you know that?”
The female Healer knit her brow a little and sighed, unaffected by Jannes’s tone. “It was years ago, ten? Fifteen? Before your war in the south.”
War in the south, Rindell copied in his tablet, then stopped and chewed his pencil. What war in the south? In all those history lessons he’d ignored, he thought he would have remembered a war in the south. He glanced up and saw Jannes scowling at him. “The siege of Mount Alaz,” he prompted. “So it would have been 776.” Rindell scribbled obediently.
“What were the symptoms?” Jannes went on in an irritated voice.
“Oh, the same as they are now. Fever, delusions, scratching of the skin and tearing of the hair, and the infection of the wounds. That is only the outside, though. Inside they are tormented by their sins.”
Sins? That didn’t sound medical, and Rindell wondered whether he should write it down. He glanced at Jannes, as if the Justice might give him some indication, but Jannes was watching the Healer with an even deeper frown.
“And you,” the Healer asked, her voice softened with almost painful charity, “how well are you?”
The powder-keg caricature in Rindell’s imagination promptly exploded. “I,” Jannes spat, turning an angry red, “am fine.”
The Healer did not let him go from her gaze. She studied him, serenely and sorrowfully, for another moment and then said, “You are restless, and you’re not sleeping. I can give you a draught to help you. And you,” she added, turning unexpectedly toward Rindell, “will make sure he takes it.”
Rindell didn’t have the courage to disagree with her. Aron Jannes wasn’t sleeping, it was true; he almost never slept. Rindell knew because he’d been traveling with the Justice for the past three years, but there was no way for the Healer to know. Rindell tried hard not to look at her again, more disturbed by her than ever. Healers were suspect, according to the physicians at the School of Bioran Science. The medical college at the Origh School had been instituted to address the problem of the plague, which the Healers with their reputed but unseen powers had failed to cure. Rindell had no idea what those powers were supposed to be. Obviously they did nothing for all the dead people. But this woman knew Jannes wasn’t sleeping, and she was very insistent about it. She stood and eased out of the tent to fetch the sleeping potion, and even after she was gone Rindell felt a little nervous. He decided it would be best to change the subject. “So the siege of Mount Alice,” he said, “was in 776?”
“777,” Jannes snapped. “Mount Alaz, in District Three. The Alaçans tried to secede from Dabion. Lord Justice Zein fled the High Council, went to Mount Alaz and closed the gates. One of his retainers had the plague. Before the end of the spring half the city was dead.”
Rindell blinked, stunned. He really hadn’t heard any of this in school. “How do you know?”
“I was there,” Jannes said between his teeth, and he turned on his heel and left.
This didn’t make Rindell any less nervous. He also didn’t like being alone in the tent with the sick old man, and cautiously he turned to peer at him and check for scratches, torn hair, and infected wounds. It was startling, then, to see the man’s eyes, themselves a startling amber color, wide open and looking straight at Rindell.
“Well,” the old man said gruffly, “he’s a bastard, isn’t he?”
Rindell burst out laughing and sank down on the stool where the Healer had been sitting.
The old man didn’t laugh, but his face wrinkled up around the eyes, looking like it was going to crack, like he hadn’t laughed in a long time and his face wasn’t used to it. “You probably weren’t even born yet in 777.”
“I was,” Rindell answered indignantly, sitting up straight. “I was six years old.”
This time the old man did laugh, a short and gravely sound. The wrinkles that looked about to crack were around his mouth this time. And, Rindell noticed for the first time, his mouth was also surrounded by a beard and mustache, absolutely colorless but carefully shaped. Everyone in Dabion was cleanshaven. The old man’s hair was long, still thick, hanging over his shoulders. “You’re a cavalier,” Rindell breathed.
A deep V formed in the man’s forehead then, and he looked at Rindell suspiciously. “And what does a twenty-year-old clerk know about cavaliers?”
“Everything!” Rindell said rapturously. “The swordfights, the poetry, the romance—everything the minstrels wrote. I’ve read it all!”
The old man’s face went truly severe. “Well, forget it all,” he said. “It’s all lies.” And he turned his back to Rindell and lay very still, as if asleep. Reluctantly Rindell gave up on his saying anything else, and ducked out of the tent. Then he jumped out of his skin. Just outside the door stood the wanderer.
“He knows the song. You should ask him.”
Rindell blinked. The words were so nonsensical—obviously, the speaker being a madman—that Rindell had no idea how to respond. He could only stare at the wanderer, tilting his head up until his neck started to hurt. Never having seen one up close, he hadn’t quite realized that wanderers were so tall, or so pale, or that their eyes were so fragmented with different colors, shifting and changing and never standing still. For a moment Rindell wondered how he would draw that, how he would paint the effect. Then he suddenly felt rude and blurted something in response to the wanderer’s statement. “Be careful. It’s not safe, there are rebels out there, men with guns.”
The wanderer’s wide face brightened. This was a completely inappropriate reaction, Rindell thought. The wanderer must not have realized what guns were. “You’ll tell me if you see her,” he said eagerly. Then without explaining whom Rindell was supposed to be seeing and without taking his leave, he turned and walked around the corner of the tent. Rindell darted after him but by the time he rounded the corner, the man had disappeared.