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Black Wolf, Silver Fox

Summary

There were five of them: Aramina, Raori, Duinn, Eahn, and Picket. They were friends, serving as elite assassins in the elf world. Raori was their mage, Duinn their builder, Picket the trickster, and Eahn the leader. Aramina was The Priestess, their heart - and her very presence tore at the mind and heart of Finnbhear, the Silver Fox: a man who stood against them. That was before the team was retired and the kingdom fell into years of suffering at the hands of their cruel master. Her master is calling for them again. He's asking that they rid the world forever of the only remaining tie to the land: a prince. Obeying this command is an opportunity for one of many things. She and the others could gain more stature in their master's eyes. They could win their freedom. They could find love - or rediscover it. They can also die trying - as chaos takes their lives and no action they take makes sense nor seems sane. And Aramina - whom Finnbhear can not forget - still stands at the center after all these years.

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Black Wolf, Silver Fox isn't my best story. I broke a lot of guidelines when I wrote it, ones that I realize now should have been listened to in order to get a more cohesive story. It took me ten years to edit, rewrite and produce.

Despite it's failings, I am in love with at least one of the characters in the way that authors can't help but to fall in love with their creations. From time to time I will reopen this book and look at the pages, to remind myself of what happens within. I've had a sequel start on it for years now - and someday I swear I'm going to find the time to finish it. If life will allow it.

I thank you for giving this book a chance, and I hope you enjoy.

Chapter 1 - Aramina

The moon hung full and bright over the thick canopy of the forest. Shafts of moonlight pierced the leaves to fall in dappled shades of grey onto the ground. Occasionally, there was a swish as underbrush was carefully moved aside to allow the passage of some nocturnal beast. Otherwise, the air was deadly quiet as if the entire world were waiting.

The black one ran silently through the trees, dodging the pale moonlight as if it were poison. She paused and sniffed to test the air and get her bearings. The moon called her onward. Through the trees and underbrush, she rushed, across streamlets and pale meadows.

The cries of her brethren followed as she loped along. They sang of family, kinship, and togetherness. They were the things she turned her back on now as other memories moved restlessly in her mind. Her ripped left ear throbbed: a warning from the pack leader. It would probably scar and serve as a permanent reminder.

Suddenly, a clearing burst out of the trees. Not wanting to step out of the forest and be exposed, the black one halted and whined. Indecisively, she paced back and forth in the shadows.

She could hear a familiar, flapping sound in distance. It’s presence nagged at her, although she only acknowledged it with a flick of her good ear. Her pacing slowed then halted altogether as it grew louder. To herself, she growled a low warning before setting paw into the clearing before her.

Something that looked like an old rag appeared suddenly in a nearby patch of moonlight. It circled the black one like trash caught in a whirlwind, dizzying her senses. Finally, it stopped flying to land in the clearing before her. She lowered her ears, crouched in place, and whined again. Her tail hung limply between her tensed legs.

Either a flying bat or an old cloak—it was difficult to tell—it fluttered once by way of threat. Then it changed, lengthened, and gained mass until a handsome elf stood in its place. His green eyes sparkled above a sharp-toothed grin.

"Aramina," said he, "leaving so soon?" His grin mocked her. He had killed with those teeth; it was a matter of pride for him. Unimpressed, the she made a sound that might have been a snort.

"Come now," he said soothingly. "You and I are above this beastly behavior."

Suddenly at ease, she sat and scratched her ears. Let him carry on the conversation by himself, her attitude seemed to say. Her unwelcome companion ignored the insult. Laughing, he crouched before her to wait. Clouds moved slowly past the moon, marking time.

It was a very long time before the elf got bored enough to try again. "Shall we sit here all night?" Again the black one growled, and then she barked softly. She stood, circled a time or two, then faced her adversary. The elf leaned back, his smile widening as he watched her change. Similar to the one he had just undertaken, her emergence was deliberately slow. The first thing she did when done was to toss her long, black hair and narrow one eye.

Shadowed by the night, her deep brown eyes glittered like obsidian. With a voice like a deep howl, she said, "Speak, and be quick."

"You've been feral too long," the elf said calculatingly. "Where are your manners?"

"I don't have time for manners." She stood naked, for she had long ago dispensed with such trivial things. The chill in the air made her shiver. It would only get colder before dawn, but she preferred not to think about that.

The elf sighed. How like her: business before pleasure. "Where are you going?" he asked unenthusiastically. They both knew the answer.

Aramina looked past him toward the moonlit clearing. "Gredber," she said slowly, as if she found speaking to be painful, "what is it you want?"

Gredber continued to smile, but now the expression looked sad somehow. He shook his head, freeing a brown cowlick into his eyes. Aramina had found that painfully attractive ages ago, but now she could barely remember why or even how they met.

That was the price of immortality. One could forget and never learn from their mistakes or go insane from the burden of memory. Aramina had been happy living with the pack and feeling the bliss of pure wildness. If Gredber’s occasional visits did not remind her that she was more than a mere lupine, she would have forgotten herself forever.

That would be too easy, she thought with narrowing eyes. Gredber was waiting, watching her warily. The choices she made tonight would affect him as much as her. Regardless of that responsibility, she intended to plunge onward. She was not the naive girl of long ago and would no longer sacrifice time for another’s comfort. Of all people, Gredber should know that.

"Let me pass," Aramina snapped.

Chin high, she took a step forward. Their shoulders brushed each other. He gripped her arm suddenly and jerked her back in one violent motion. She gasped in pain, ducking a little to protect her ears. Involuntarily her eyes met his and locked. Then, shamefully, Aramina looked away and toward the ground.

Angrily, Gredber pushed her away. "Go then," he said, his voice choked with pain and anger. "I won't stop you."

Something fluttered, swept upward, and touched her cheek. By the time Aramina dared to look up, Gredber was gone back to the wood. Her pack had fallen silent; everything was quiet again but for the soft crunch of leaves under her feet as she timidly walked forward. Aramina rubbed her cheek where Gredber had kissed her.

When the moonlight hit her naked flesh, it set her aglow as if she were a goddess. Around her, the darkness held back as if it knew how unreachable she truly were. Her eyes remained focused on the clearing’s center, a dark area the moonlight could not touch. There as an ancient altar there. It was made from piled weathered stones and was stained dark with the blood of countless sacrifices.

Three rings of weathered stones, each marked with sigils of forgotten spirits, surrounded it. Aramina could not remember what the sigils were for, or who they named, except one. She paused when she reached the first ring of stones and touched it with a single finger. “Mine,” she whispered.

Her heart hammered in her chest. It was a long time before she could bring herself to step over the first ring and into this unholy, yet somehow sacred, place. The second ring of stones was even harder to cross, as if something pushed her back. Aramina held her breath when she stepped over the third and final ring. With the altar now just feet away, her soul shuddered.

Mortal eyes could not see the energy that flicked over the darkest part of the center. She smelled the energy in the same way she saw it. For an instant, she could not think of how to react. Then, she remembered as if instinct needed only the excuse to come alive. Her knees buckled, and she sank to the ground. Pressing her face to the earth, she touched the altar base with sweaty fingertips. A shock run up her arms and sent spasms to her toes. Atop the altar, a bright flame burst mysteriously to life, chasing away the shadows.

Inwardly Aramina groaned as her every nerve was set on fire. To acknowledge this torture was to forfeit her life, and she could not do that yet. She bit her lip, tasted blood, and stayed perfectly still, even when a spark jumped from the fire and burned a hole in her wrist.

Rise, a deep voice commanded. It came from everywhere; the ground, the trees, even her mind. She obeyed, resisting the urge to brush off her soiled knees. The flame flickered before her, capturing her gaze and holding it. Something invaded her soul, read it, then withdrew. Although she had expected and almost welcomed it, she still felt raped. Revulsion tightened her stomach.

Speak, said the voice.

"Lord," the fey said before choking. She swallowed, but a moment passed before she found her voice again. "I would ask a boon for your loyal servant."

Ask.

"I want to go home,” she said as quickly as she dared. "At least for two seasons–“

Silence! The air crackled with the command. Despite herself, Aramina flinched and awaited her punishment. The air was pregnant with expectancy.

You may go, the rumbling voice said after a while. It pleases me that you do.

"Lord?" Hope filled Aramina's eyes and moistened them with unshed tears.

I have an errand for you. Your companions will await...

Aramina nodded her head dutifully and bowed again. Within her mind, the voice methodically explained. Memories, left slumbering for ages, rose screaming to the top of her mind. Helpless, Aramina could only watch history replay behind her eyes...

The city gates were shattered by the siege engines, and fire rampaged through most of the area. The few survivors fled but were efficiently hunted down and exterminated. Their heads were severed and placed on pikes outside the walls.

One young woman - a fey creature of alluring dimensions - did not flee. The temple which had been her home for most of her life was now burning to a cinder right before her eyes. She stood fascinated while it crumbled inward, devouring itself in its death throes. There would be nothing left except fine ash when it was over.

Winds whipped at her torn, sooty acolyte's robes, pulling it around her legs. Shaking a triumphant fist toward the blaze, she laughed a high, crazy note before turning away. That was when she saw the ancient priest, who watched with sad eyes as he leaned on his staff. Apparently, he had been there a while.

"Join the fun, Old Man," she said playfully. She traced her hips with her hands, stretched, and pulled her hair up. "You could use the excitement."

The priest shook his head slowly. "It is enough," said he, "to watch the damage you have done."

She laughed again, but this time her mirth had a lower note to it. "Yes, I thought so, too." Coyly, she approached him. He did not back away nor show any sign of malice toward her, not even when she kissed his breast. Disappointed, she pulled away from him.

"You aren't mad at me?" she pouted, childishly putting her hands behind her back.

The old elf responded, "You were so full of promise," as if he spoke to an errant child and there were no fires around them.

"Promise?" she shrieked suddenly, spreading her legs apart and bringing up two fists. "What do you know of promise? You dined while I starved, scrubbing the floors with my bare hands! The only promise you filled was that of humiliation!"

"I am sorry for what the others did to you. It was out of my hands and beyond my knowledge."

"You saw me every day!" Her face was a mask of fury framed by the fire. "Every day you walked by, too intent on your own inner peace to see the suffering it caused!" She crouched.

“We saved your life,” the old priest said.

“You used me,” the woman hissed.

"I wish," said the old elf as he stood a little taller and leaned a bit less on his staff, "that it had not come to this."

With a shout and a flick of his wrist, he reached towards her. He was quicker than she expected, but she jumped out of reach just as his hands, glowing with white-hot flame, groped for her face. She cracked his chin with her fist, and he staggered back, flailing wildly. His pinky grazed her cheek, burning it. She howled in pain, backing away while he regained his senses.

They feinted: a slow dance in which she circled and he shifted only to watch. With a new howl, she changed form and rushed him. His form matched hers and two wolves, white on black, clashed in a rage of snapping teeth. Rolling over each other, tearing any flesh within reach, they hit the temple steps. Kicking legs scattered glowing embers.

The black wolf somehow managed to clamp her teeth on the white wolf’s inner thigh. Yelping, the white wolf broke free with a twist and scampered to get away. The black one latched to his ankle and held tightly. She tried to get a better grip, but slipped. The white one twisted loose, snarled, and ripped into her front leg.

She bit his nose, tasted blood, and limped back when her leg was released. The two faced each other, snarling, for the briefest of moments. Then the black one leapt.

The white wolf dodged but slipped on some cooling embers and missed his footing. The black one was on him instantly. They rolled until the white wolf lay on his back. The impact knocked the breath from the aging werewolf. While he was stunned, the black one tore his throat. Hot blood sprayed into her eyes, and she knew that she had won. The black one’s warbling howl sang victoriously across the burning wreckage.

Warily, three elves and a dwarf approached from up a nearby street. The black one barked at them, content to scratch one ear while she waited. When she was within reach, the leader scratched her ear. He was a charming elf with tousled brown hair. His sparkling green eyes studied the body of the white wolf as it slowly lost its transformation to again become the high priest.

 "Well done, Aramina," he said. The black one harruphed, wagging her tail. "If a little dishonorably accomplished."

The black one's eyes were full of mischief. However it was done, the job was complete. And what was honor between her and her enemies but a lie?

Chapter 2 - Eahn

The sun was hot for spring, but Eahn knew he could manage. He had just two more rows to sow before turning his attention to butchering a hog. His wife could make a grand dinner from it this evening and days to come if he kept the predators from the larder. He paused in his sowing to wipe his brow.

Three men on horseback topped a distant hill to be silhouetted by the morning sun. Eahn frowned, sensing that these were no ordinary guests. There was a feel about them that was wholly familiar, but he could not remember just what it was. Scratching his chin, he watched them as they approached.

When they were close enough for Eahn to see the sunlight flash off their golden hair, he took precautionary measures. His old sword, lovingly cleaned and oiled, was hidden nearby in the barn. He made way to get it and did not feel better until it was in hand. Then, he leaned casually against the barn door, sword tip to earth, and chewed a bit of grass.

When they were near enough to make out their faces, they reigned their horses in. One put his hand up, palm out, in a gesture of peace.

"Well," Eahn spat, "you're here. Now what do you want?" Elves, these riders were, and therefore a danger. Eahn dealt better with dwarves than elves, even though he was elven himself. Dwarves were forward with their intentions and usually a good deal more honest. Elves, especially mages, were something else entirely.

"You are Eahn the Northern Thorn?" asked the peacemaker.

"Maybe," Eahn said, drawling the world out for all it was worth. Casually, he pointed his sword tip to each elf. "Who wants to know?"

"Lord Eahn," the rider said, making a half bow in his perch. It looked ludicrous. "We have ridden a long way to find you. It concerns The Five."

"The five what?" asked Eahn suspiciously.

The rider opened his mouth to speak, but a gesture from one of his companions stilled his tongue. The other rider urged his horse up a step, leaned forward, and grinned. He was feet away from Eahn, who did not appreciate the intimacy. "Eahn," said he, "don't make our lives more difficult than it is. We're not here to arrest you for treason, or burn you, or whatever else you might imagine."

"No?" The sword whistled when Eahn gave it an experimental swing. Clearly unimpressed, the riders exchanged a single glance. "Is that because of what happened the last time Cnos Fada sent someone for me? Which makes me wonder. What was the reaction in court when they received the pieces?"

The second rider chuckled to himself, then dismounted. Immediately, Eahn struck the earth with his sword. Lifting it into a guard stance, he held himself ready while the sword rang a high-pitched tone. The air stood still while the sound faded.

"I am Handfast," the second rider said. He stepped closer and ignored Eahn's shift of balance. "I came with a message from Moirfenn. MacKegan summons you, Eahn the Northern Thorn, upon the very geis that holds your spirit."

Eahn, entirely against his will, suddenly remembered... Aramina. The first thing he had to remember out of the entire ordeal had to be the dark were-creature. Annoyed, Eahn resisted the urge to kick the nearest object. Not that the elf standing before him would not have looked better sporting a few bruises.

Eahn lowered his sword and sighed. "Well," he muttered.

His three visitors waited patiently. Eahn gazed into the horizon, still remembering, and frowned. The hills were beginning to show color with the first flowers of spring. Eahn had no flocks to keep them grazed. Picket would love those hills and have a jolly time trampling them. And... there was someone else. Not a companion, but someone who liked flowers. Someone who really liked flowers.

Someone he should be wary of. Eahn could just taste the memory.

Eahn's eyes flicked back to Handfast and stayed. "I remember you," he said harshly. Handfast had fought alongside Eahn years ago. The elf still had that whiplash scar across one arm. His sleeve was rolled up, as if to proudly display the blemish.

"I thought you might," Handfast said with a trace of a grin. "Now, shall we talk business?"

The sun set unnoticed outside. Handfast’s companions, Maguire and Neolch, sat near Eahn’s fireplace after a hearty supper of ham and early greens. Sulking at the table, Eahn kept his thoughts to himself. His guests were sent from his master in Moirfenn, and this meant nothing but bad news. Anyone from Moirfenn was bad news, although Handfast could be trusted to a certain degree. Then there came a point in which Eahn found himself not trusting the elf at all. Not that he trusted any elf, including himself.

The servants had been sent to their quarters, and Eahn's wife was ordered upstairs. The dinner mess could be cleaned in the morning, he had told her. She had obeyed without argument, obedient little thing that she was. Eahn felt a glow of affection in her direction, and spat into the fire to cover it. He glared once again at Handfast.

Handfast ignored Eahn's barely concealed malice. Without touching it, he stirred his spoon around in his empty bowl. The atma made little sparks off the utensil, which was wood, but otherwise did no harm. Eahn disdained such frivolous uses of magical gifts, and Handfast knew it. The faster the spoon moved, the more irritated Eahn looked. It was rather amusing.

Maguire and Neolch were hired swords and not concerned with any discussion other than their own. They played sticks and bones in the corner, alternately cursing and accusing each other of cheating. Eahn was more annoyed with them than Handfast's mischievous activity.

Eahn flicked his fingers, wasting a precious bit of atma, and the spoon flew from the bowl. It bounced into the fireplace where it promptly caught on fire. A log popped and sparks jumped. Handfast chuckled, leaning back and drinking his glass of mead. Maguire mumbled something faintly murderous to Neolch in the background.

"What if," Eahn said casually, continuing a conversation they had begun during dinner, "I refuse to do this?" The things Handfast had told him this night were not agreeable, not in the least. Eahn knew better, but the thought of killing his two guests and hiding the bodies were not far from his mind.

Handfast snorted with mirth. "As if you would dare," he said. "I think what you should be asking is where to go first."

"All right then," Eahn said in his slow drawl. "Where? Do I meet them there or wait?"

"Nebhirrlos," Handfast said. "And wait for the others to arrive, if you are first." He set his cup, now empty, down on the table. There was more mead – indeed, an entire barrel nearby – but he felt too lazy to get it. Eahn would surely not, and the wife and servants were banished from sight. Apparently, Eahn sought to protect his family from the dangerous intruders. Handfast was only annoyed that he was forced to serve himself under another’s roof. This smacked against all rules of etiquette and hospitality, not that Eahn had been anything but surly and impossible to deal with.

“There is a Sanctuary House there," Handfast continued, pushing the cup a little away. "The Priestess will be waiting for you there. She knows what to do and is already on her way."

Eahn remembered Nebhirrlos. There had been much blood, and even Aramina the Priestess had been quite... shaken. A pleasant memory indeed, he reflected as he fought to keep from smiling. "Have you nothing further to tell me?" he asked.

"Of course not," Handfast snapped. "I know only what you need to know for now. Have a little common sense. MacKegan would not trust even you with the details, if it were not necessary."

"I suppose you will not be accompanying me." It was not a question, merely an observance of fact. Handfast nodded affirmatively.

Eahn stared into the flames a while longer, listening to Maguire and Neolch play. Or rather, argue. They seemed to take much pleasure in their personal conflict. "To sleep then," Eahn said. "I should start early tomorrow. What shall you do, my friend?"

"Wait here," Handfast said calmly. "I'm under orders to protect your wife, should you fail."

Eahn went cold inside and resisted the urge to look up the stairs.

***

His wife clung long to his embrace before he mounted their best horse to leave. He leaned down from the saddle and patted her bulging stomach before whispering into her ear, "I will be back before my son comes. I promise you that, my Joalie."

 

She flashed her bravest smile and said, "You best be back before your daughter arrives. I wouldn't want her to greet the world without your strong arms to protect her."

Eahn nodded, letting her win their argument this one time, and flicked the reins. Too soon, Joalie was a waving figure swallowed by dust. Somewhere in the house, Handfast and his crew drank his mead and argued over dice. Eahn wanted to burn the house down and carry Joalie away, but he knew better than to try.

How long has it been? Eahn wondered to himself as his horse's hooves plodded patiently down the road. Memories of settling down to make his own stead were always clouded, ,as if they were only a dream. Time did that, as well as simply not wanting to remember. One thing was irrefutable: he had been given that land for a reason.

One obvious reason was that it was close to a break in the veil. Eahn chewed a piece of grass, spitting to the side occasionally. How convenient to place a valued servant so near a doorway to Éire, where the mortals dwelt. And then MacKegan seemingly had forgotten him, which had led Eahn to believe he was no longer in use.

If MacKegan had wanted Eahn to do something through the veil, the reason was lost forever, especially in light of this new task, whatever it may be. Eahn knew better than to question MacKegan’s sanity; the elf was merely fickle. It was his way, and thus far MacKegan had won an entire kingdom merely by deciding he wanted to rule.

All of Fion’s rulers did the most peculiar things, as if they trusted to blind luck and foolishness to keep a country sound. It had worked for generations, but Eahn sometimes felt that even luck such as that could not hold out forever. MacKegan was an old fool, and sooner or later it would be his downfall.

Yet, even mortals flocked to MacKegan’s banner. Eahn could not stand the creatures and wished MacKegan would either kill them or send them home. Their atma was weak. They bred like flies and died quickly. Their fascination for Eahn's people, and the divine fire within, drew them like moths to light or repulsed them just as strongly. Eahn had participated in dozens of sluagh rides, mainly to patrol his borders, and witnessed the mortal people's ways first hand. He did not wholly approve of them.

Eahn found them to be crude-mouthed and sometimes brutal, even when compared to crueler breeds of two-leg. They were almost completely without honor. The bravest mortals had the tendency to swarm over the land, like ants, and dig without the slightest thought for the local inhabitants.

Their music could be delightful, and occasionally a mortal bard had the ability to play a sprightly tune. But overall, the lure of enchanted gold always became too strong. Twice Eahn had to dodge attempts on his life. By mortals!

Thieving, lying, filthy mortals.

Not that mortals were the only dishonest creatures in the world. The most honest person Eahn had ever known was the mage, Raori. Raori could stretch the truth or lead you to believe false by omitting certain facts and letting you make your own conclusions, but not once did he ever truly lie. No, he was not like the Priestess, whose every breath was questionable to Eahn’s ears. Reminded of other things he had long ago forgotten, he spat out his piece of grass and scowled.

He camped that evening near the highway leading to Nebhirrlos. He kept his fire small; the last thing he wanted was to be found, and firelight was a giveaway in the dark. Chewing a bit of dried meat, he sat staring into the tiny flames blankly. Then, he noticed that he was being watched.

His observer was a young elf standing on a nearby hill like a statue against the oncoming night. Eahn considered the silhouette a moment, blew out noisily, and got to his feet. It would be inhospitable not to invite this stranger to share his fire. He waved his arms once, then he sat down again.

The youth bounded down the hill enthusiastically and slid to a deep bow at Eahn's feet. A harp case, hung from his right shoulder with a worn leather band, slid forward and made a musical bump against his knee. "Oenghus, at your service," he declared breathlessly. He stood with a flourish and pushed the case back to its proper place.

Eahn grunted and resettled by the fire. He did not care for formal introductions. Confused, the bard waited just long enough to be sure Eahn would not be introducing himself. Then, he also sat by the fire. Eahn handed him a bit of cheese and dried meat.

“Your mother either had a sense of humor or a good sense of character,” Eahn observed while the youth ate his meal, “to have named you after the god of mischief.”

Oenghus grinned fleetingly. “Yes, my mother does like to stay entertained.” He swallowed his last bit of cheese and reached for the waterskin which lay near his foot. “What do they call you?”

The waterskin was passed to Eahn, who switched it for a full skin of wine. Wine Eahn had no trouble sharing with company, but there were occasional times that good drinking water was more precious than gold. The youth grinned his pleasure at the change in the spread, thinking himself honored.

“My name is Eahn.”

Oenghus’ eyes grew wide. “Surely not the Northern Thorn?” he whispered with awe. “A pleasure, Lord! To think that I, a lowly bard, would be graced with the hospitality of one of Moirfenn’s greatest heroes!” He shook his head in wonderment.

“I did not say I was the Northern Thorn,” Eahn said, scowling. “Eahn is a common enough name.”

“Oh yes, Lord,” Oenghus said agreeably. His eyes lit with a twinkle. At least, he did not press the subject.

The wineskin was passed between themselves during the following silence. Oenghus idly poked a stick in the fire to keep it burning. He was smiling to himself. Eahn ignored him while he oiled his sword. When the skin started to go limp, Eahn packed it away.

"Where are you bound?" Oenghus asked as if to break the silence. Bored with the fire, he turned to his pack and began to unpack his sleeping furs. Intent on his work, he only heard Eahn spit into the fire. His furs were mangy-looking and probably had fleas. Eahn forbore wasting atma to charm any such pests away from his person.

"To see an old friend," Eahn said after a brief pause.

"Ah," Oenghus said knowingly. He began to pick up rocks, large and small, to throw them into the darkness. "Uncomfortable things," he muttered to himself while he worked. When he had thrown what he felt was enough, he spread his furs on the ground. "That should do."

Amused, Eahn watched until his guest was finished. "My guest asks me questions," he said once Oenghus was completely settled, "but offers nothing concerning himself. Where are you going?"

"Wherever suits me," the bard said with an airy wave of his hand. "I was thinking Nebhirrlos. The people there love a good tale as much as anywhere else."

“Of course," Eahn said, faintly annoyed. The last thing he wanted was to be tracked by a faithless bard. "How very convenient."

"From there I might go to Cnos Fada," Oenghus said. "Then usually I just go straight to the temple in Tech Danaan to gather more news. Bound to stay there," he yawned mightily, "for months." He closed his eyes and shifted until he was comfortable.

Oenghus was asleep almost immediately and snored faintly. Quietly Eahn spit to the side. It did not bother Eahn that the boy did not offer to take first watch. His carelessness was his own business. When Eahn wanted to get some sleep, he would set protection spells around the camp and be secure.

What bothered him was that Oenghus was going to the exact same destination. The last thing he wanted on this trip was a companion. In this case, the last thing he wanted was someone who knew his face.

In much the same way as he had done before with Handfast, he pondered killing the boy. After a while, he rejected the notion. It was far too much work. He would wait to see what developed later.

To Eahn's relief, his fears were unfounded. Oenghus, when he woke the next morning, industriously packed his belongings. Refusing Eahn's offer of breakfast, he plead that he did not want to waste the morning. Marching straight away with only a jaunty wave of farewell, the bard was gone before Eahn had his horse saddled. The farmer was glad to see him go and bade him good riddance.

Rain clouds hung low in the sky, making the air gloomy and heavy with rain. It drizzled at the best of times, and rain fell in sheets of blinding silver at the worst. If Eahn did not have to hurry to Nebhirrlos, he would have found shelter to wait it out.

Afraid water would get into his bags, he skipped lunch and barely allowed his horse to rest. The bags were waterproofed by oil, and he refused to waste atma to reinforce it. Water ran in rivulets down his neck and back. Those tiny streams joined to make bigger ones that ran down his saddle and to his horse’s legs. The horse snorted to itself, shaking its mane, and trudged along in the mud.

Evening had deepened into soft gloom before the rains finally lightened up. Eahn camped at a crossroads and made his fire beneath the weathered wooden marker. It was hard to keep the wood lit given that it was drenched. In the end Eahn was forced to resort to atma to set the wood on fire. The enchanted flames glowed greenly over the area but offered little warmth. Miserable, Eahn shivered in his cloak and thought of his warm house and Joalie.

"Hai!" someone shouted in the gloom. Eahn reflexively grabbed his sword. "Hai!" they shouted again.

It was Oenghus, dripping wet but looking none the worse for wear. He emerged from the darkness and rain to stand just beyond Eahn's camp and grin. For the briefest of moments, Eahn was reminded of a hopeful mongrel begging for scraps.

Eahn considered the situation. He could turn the bard away, or he could allow him by the fire. When Oenghus sneezed, the decision was made. Before long, the youth was huddled by the fire. The last of the wine warmed their bellies. Oenghus sneezed again.

"I'm glad I found you," Oenghus said through chattering teeth.

"Looking for me were you?" Eahn asked suspiciously. He had not put his sword away, although the rain was sure to rust it.

"No," Oenghus said with a chuckle. "It's just that a bard is a sorry sight in the rain with no fire to warm himself with. I'm sure to catch a cold." Mournfully he sniffled, as if to say he had caught one already. "Even a green fire with little warmth is welcome. My poor harp! I can only hope I mended that hole in her case well enough to keep her dry."

Eahn did not respond, turning instead to the difficult task of drying his sword enough to put it away. He could put the fire out; it made no sense to keep it except as light against the darkness that surrounded them. But, he did not. His companion obviously appreciated the fire as he curled himself into a sodden ball as close to the flame as he safely could. With misgivings, Eahn settled to sleep after Oenghus was snoring, his sword nearby.

A boot by his hand startled him awake. With a yell, he grabbed his sword, rolled and crouched into a defensive position. Oenghus, whose boot it was, stood dumbfounded, staring at Eahn with eyes round as coins. It was late morning, and Eahn had overslept.

"I was just," the youth stammered, "I was just going to wake you before I left."

Eahn forced himself to relax and lower his sword. He ran his fingers through his beard, feeling foolish. "My apologies," he muttered. "Twas a reflex."

The bard nodded solemnly, stepping back a pace. "I wouldn’t let it be known that I had frightened the Northern Thorn from his sleep.” Eahn snarled. “I wanted to give you this," the bard squeaked, offering a golden medallion strung on leather.

"Why?" Eahn said, trying to keep the edge out of his voice. The bard shyly handed it over, took another step backward and readjusted the strap to his harp case.

It was a simple disk, no larger than the palm of a woman’s hand, engraved with a swan. Someone had used it for a tool and left the edges slightly battered. The leather, slipped through a worn hole, looked fairly new. There was no inscription.

"You were kind to me, for one thing," Oenghus said. "Because, I don’t know. You're the one to take it." His voice trailed lamely away. At Eahn's questioning glance, Oenghus grinned. "Give it to your woman friend," he said, "in Nebhirrlos."

"Wait!" Eahn demanded as the bard turned to go. "I never said I was going to–!”

”Don’t forget!” Oenghus cried as he strode away. “Give it to her when you see her!”

Eahn cursed as Oenghus strode further, yet further away. The lad was walking impossibly fast. Eahn followed a few steps then stopped. He had not time to go chasing after a bard, medallion or no. It would have to wait.

Later, when the monotony of riding grew unbearable, he removed the medallion from its place in his saddlebags to examine it further. Tracing the swan with his fingers and using atma to see things his eyes could not, his world was the inside of this metal thing for an instant. The sounds around him, even the horse’s ungainly plodding, faded away.

He sensed nothing about the medallion; not a faint odor of magic. Eahn refused to carry a cursed thing all the way to Nebhirrlos, but if the medallion were such a thing, it was well concealed. He considered throwing it away, but thought again. The Priestess might find some use for it, and perhaps it was cursed. The Priestess more than deserved it, if so.

The faint rush of water reached his ears. Somewhere in the trees, at the end of the road he traveled, would be an arm of the River Nosloraug. Beyond by about a two-day ride lay Nebhirrlos.

Chapter 3 - Raori

His brain was pounding mercilessly against his skull when Raori opened his eyes and struggled to bring his world into focus. Someone groaned. He realized it was himself.

Something was pushing him down and holding him to the ground. He tried to push against whatever it was, but he was stuck fast. After a second of struggling, he lost his temper. The backlash of his brief fury slammed it across the room to shatter against the wall. Raori winced as the sound amplified the already resounding throb in his brain and realized that he had just splintered a good table. Now he would have to pay for it.

Picking himself up off the floor, his hand brushed an empty bottle and sent it rolling. Another groan emerged. Holding his head in one hand, he surveyed the situation.

He stood in what had been a tavern only a few hours ago. All of the furniture, now that the table had met its abrupt end, was destroyed. Broken glass was everywhere, twinkling in the morning light. The building was missing one wall and smelled of scorched flesh.

Oh.

A grin cracked his face, causing his lips to burn. The table be dammed, he would have to pay for the entire building. With pride. He had caused this: a beautifully rendered fiasco starting with accusations about a girl he did not even know. It had been so easy to get the fight started. All without uttering a single lie.

That would teach old Febis. Next time the tavern's owner saw Raori, he would look the other way and mind his manners. If Raori again heard the old man speaking ill of MacKegan or anything to do with The Five even remotely, he would do worse.

Dropping to one knee in the midst of the rubbish, Raori immediately offered thanks to BileEll, the shining god. Then, a little guiltily, he offered a second prayer to the god of mischief. A breeze brushed his cheek, affirming his prayers. He could not tell from which god it came, but he would lay bets on the latter.

He was filthy, but his head hurt too much to make an effort to magic the dirt away. Grime, ripped shirt, sore muscles and all, Raori stepped out of the ruined tavern. The town was surprisingly busy that morning. Raori seldom got up before noon, and he could not comprehend the need to do so. If it had been left to him, the place would be little better than a ghost town.

Fortunately, it was not up to him. Bread was being baked, wives made their way to buy eggs and butter, and children shrieked happily. Raori dodged a toddler, nodded cordially to his mother, and scowled at her back.

"Stupid woman," Raori muttered under his breath. Children were rare enough these days without some woman allowing her child to be murdered under foot. Not that Raori would ever do such a thing, but there were those who would.

Home jutted against the rising sun sharply, and welcome. Gratefully, Raori slipped inside. Moire greeted him, holding a cup of warm milk, and took his cloak. He stood by the door and sipped the beverage slowly. It settled sharply against the lump in his stomach.

"Master," Moire said nervously, "you have visitors."

Raori grunted. "You mean, I had visitors and you sent them away."

Moire blinked for a moment. She was dutiful, for a mortal, but sometimes got details confused. He supposed it had been a difficult transition for her. One moment she was picking flowers on a hill in Éire, the next being borne away in a sluagh ride.

He had bought her intending to set her free, but she refused to go. Why go home, she said, when years, even centuries, may have passed for her there? The quality of life was better in Fion, too. She preferred to take her chances among her kidnappers and appeared grateful.

Raori had found himself stuck with a servant he truly did not want. He gave her some tasks to earn her keep but insisted on doing most things himself. Being raised on a small farm with eight siblings had tempered Raori into independence – and allowed him to appreciate the finer things in life, like not having to share a bed.

Moire was still blinking stupidly. "Do you mean, you want me to send them away?" she asked.

Raori sighed.

“Yes, Moire,” he said. “I’m for bed. Tell them to come back this evening.”

"I would, Master," she said hurriedly, placing a brave hand on his chest to stay him from leaving. "Truly, I would. But, Milord, they seem important."

Everyone who came to see Raori was important. He did not encourage friendships, other than those made years ago, and those people had forgotten him by now. Raori could not forget, even when he tried. The ability had always escaped him, even from childhood.

Drunken nights and late mornings helped temporarily. With Moire standing before him, unwittingly forcing him to think and remember, Raori almost regretted what he had done to the tavern.

Moire was waiting for him to say something. Her eyes were targeted on his lips. She had clasped her hands in front, as if she regretted touching him. Raori felt obliged.

"How important?" he asked, raking his fingers through his hair.

"Very," Moire said, as expected. She pointed to a side room. The door was closed.

Raori considered first the closed door, then the stairs leading to his bedroom. Then the closed door. The stairs were winning the debate.

"They bear the mark," Moire said in a wide-eyed whisper.

His attention tumbled down the stairs and back to Moire. "What mark?" he demanded.

"Like yours," she said. "I know you don't like anyone to see it, but you get careless once in a while, if you don't mind my saying. In the bath," her face reddened, "when I bring your fresh clothes is usually when I get a look."

Fear suddenly gripped him. His guests, it seemed, were also Marked. He could almost forget when, but he was sure the last time he had been visited was after he had settled in Boynaan. He remembered.

Blast it.

Before he could change his mind, Raori strode bravely into the side room. Three figures rose from their seats to greet him. Moire had taken good care of them while Raori was away; they each had a goblet. A half-eaten loaf of bread sat on one of their best plates on a little table.

Raori took a breath to demand their business. Then he saw the Mark on each of their cheeks. Sorcerers. The demand dwindled into an inward sigh. As adept as Raori was in the manipulation of atma, these men could beat him without blinking.

"Raori MacGuinnan?" asked the oldest of them. The question was unnecessary. They knew who he was.

A lie formulated on the tip of his tongue. "Yes," Raori said, belatedly giving each of them a short bow. "My lords."

"We've had a little trouble finding you," said another of them. He was dressed in dark black and wore a cloak trimmed in gold. "You were not in Boynaan."

The inward sigh became a lump in his throat. "No, my lords," Raori said slowly. "I had some trouble and was forced to move."

"Trying to forget, eh?" asked the old one. He cackled.

When Raori did not answer, the third elf stepped forward. He was young and tanned from the weather. Flashing a friendly grin, he said, "You know as well as any of us the price of forgetfulness. And that it is... impossible for practitioners of magic to do so." He clapped Raori's shoulder. "You should feel proud. We're too few."

Raori bravely did not wince. Even his toes ached from the blow. "May I ask," he said through clenched teeth, "why you have come?"

The old one grunted. "Why else? To get you."

The one in black said, "We've an errand for you. Sadly, we had to waste some time looking for you. Now you're going to be late."

"They can wait for him in Nebhirrlos," the young one said. "He can travel four times faster than they. He'll probably be there early."

"Think you so?" the old one said. He peered at Raori knowingly and said, "Well, boy? Over that hangover enough to ride a ley line where you need to go? I'm telling you, Leahr," he turned to the one in black, "go find another one for this. Raori will never do."

Raori wondered what he would never do for and hoped they might find someone else who would do better.

The one addressed as Leahr frowned. "Moirfenn wants him specifically. He knows the others, remembers more than they will, and has tremendous talent."

"Too bad he doesn't use it," the old one said.

"I agree with Leahr," the young one said. He flashed another grin at Raori.

"The others are waiting in Nebhirrlos?" Raori, several sentences behind, managed to ask. His mind's eye flicked over long gone events, lingering at some and trying to ignore others. Mostly, a woman’s face haunted his inner vision and taunted him with smirking kisses. If ever there was someone he would like to forget, it was her.

The three nodded in unison. "There is a Sanctuary near there," Leahr said. "They will be waiting for you."

"Why Nebhirrlos?" Raori constructed a mental map of the land and pursed his lips in thought. Cnos Fada, the last city to remain standing against Moirfenn, was closer to his home by several days. "It would be easier if I just met them at Cnos Fada."

"You will obey orders," the old man snapped. Raori jumped and immediately lowered his eyes to the floor. In a gentler tone, the old man continued, “You’ve a mission, my boy. MacKegan wants someone dead and it’s you five to do it. Meet them in Nebhirrlos.” He handed Raori a small scroll sealed with MacKegan’s waxen mark.

"Yes, my lords," he mumbled. His headache was trying to get worse. All he wanted to do was get some sleep.

"Be there by the end of the week," Leahr said with what he must have thought was a reasonable tone. "If what Skagg says is true and you won't use the ley lines, I suggest you leave now." Raori refrained from mentioning that few used the ley lines anymore, with good reason.

Leahr and the old one left the room without further word. The young one started to follow, thought about it, and lingered behind. He watched the other two covertly until they were out of earshot.

His boyish grin would have been infectious at another time. "Don't worry about those two," he said. "They're harmless."

Raori had never heard of a harmless sorcerer, but he nodded anyway. The elf chuckled. "My name is Aes. It's a pleasure to meet you." He touched the Mark on his cheek, and his grin faltered for a brief moment. "I grew up listening to stories of how you and the others burned the temple. I took this Mark wanting to be like you."

Raori refused to feel guilty. If the young man's illusions were destroyed by meeting the real thing, so be it. He said, "You seem to have done very well for yourself."

"Better than you?" He laughed easily. Narrowing his eyes, he looked around suspiciously and whispered, "I just want to know one thing, if you don't mind my asking."

"What?"

"To be honest, I cannot decide just who I’ve heard the most about in court; you or that wolf woman. It’s rumored you two had a thing going.” The young sorcerer chuckled. “I wonder, though. Is the Priestess as beautiful as they say? I find it hard to believe, but you can tell me." And he grinned, wickedly and narrow-eyed, like an embittered sprite about to rendezvous with disaster.

"Beautiful cannot begin to describe her," Raori said softly. Visions of the very thing he had been striving to forget resurfaced in his mind. He swallowed, fighting for control, and won.

Aes was watching him closely. He still grinned, this time with disarming charm. A twinkle came to his eye.

"I said before that I know all about you," Aes said after a moment. His boyish charm faded, revealing deadly malice. "You have no love for Moirfenn. Said MacKegan was 'too dishonorable,' am I right?"

For the second time that day, Raori was tempted to lie. It was not that he would not. He simply could not. When he tried, he did so badly. So, he settled for nodding his head.

"Moirfenn wants you to do this errand. Who knows, it may put us in a position to wipe out Cnos Fada entirely." Raori’s face remained wooden. Aes snorted. "I've worked very hard to get where I am. Be successful, and I don't just stand to benefit. You do."

There was nothing this young man had to offer that would tempt Raori. Raori could be happy in a kobold's den while he was fed and comfortable. He said nothing.

 

"If you, for any reason, have a sudden change of heart and decide to fail," Aes went on quietly, "then don't expect any mercy. We found you here. Not even Tech Danaan has the atma to keep us out."

Raori nodded cautiously.

"Turn against us, Raori, and I will kill the Priestess."

Helplessness flooded Raori. Satisfied, Aes walked away. At the door, he paused and said, "I think it's ironic. She would let me kill her, if it would get you to behave." He left Raori alone with his misery, but not without a final say. "Her loyalty is astounding."

Raori sent Moire into town to barter for supplies immediately. While she was gone, he read the scroll twice, ripped it apart, and kicked the nearest table. Then he set about inspecting and repairing his horse's tack and sharpening his sword.

So, it was a prince they were to kill. Raori found the task typical and unpleasant. MacKegan had managed to drive out the royal family and claim Fion for his own centuries ago. Why destroy some harmless boy? Raori forced himself to put his frustration and bewilderment aside. Most times, one could not fathom the resolve behind MacKegan’s actions. He wondered if even MacKegan knew what he was doing at times.

The house was quiet, except for the soft scraping of his sword against the whetstone. Raori worked in his bedchamber where the light graced the floor with the afternoon sun. Downstairs, wood scraped on wood as someone, most likely Moire, entered the house via the front door. Raori ignored it, content with his work.

The sword was sharp, had been for years, but the sounds it made were soothing. One could fall into a pleasant momentum; swipe, swipe, swipe... The blacksmith Duinn had taught Raori how to sharpen his weapon with a tiny whetstone like this one. It was dwarven magic Raori wove into his blade as he worked; spells to strengthen and assure victory. His mind was thankfully numb from the exercise.

Moire entered timidly. Her eyes, red and puffy from crying, made her look like an owl. "I got all you asked for,” she sniffled. “I'll pack the rest you need, Master, and you just rest. There will be plenty of time to get started after noon."

"Thank you," Raori said, not breaking his rhythm. Moire fled the room, weeping loudly.

When Raori could delay no longer, he saddled his horse, packing it with only a small sack of food and his sword. His other tools, magical pebbles and bits of colored sand, were tucked safely in a little satchel at his waist. He mounted slowly. Moire stood below him, holding the reins, and choked back her sobs.

"Moire," Raori said, "I'm setting you free now."

"I know," she said miserably. "But I don't know what I'll do with myself."

"I could send you back to Éire."

She shook her head. "What good would it do me to be there? I've been here since I was a little girl. This place is all I know."

An uncomfortable silence stood between them. Raori broke it with, "Close up the house. Tomorrow morning, I want you to go north. About a day's walk from here is a stead owned by a man named Leanehus. Tell him that I had to take a trip south and would ask for him to give you employment. At least, until I return." He smiled boyishly. “I’ll send word when I do.”

Moire nodded dutifully. She knew not to expect him back.

Raori leaned down as far as he could go to whisper, "Don't mention my birthmark! Not to anyone! They'll get the wrong impression, and you'll be killed." He so desperately wanted to tell her the price of such a burden: to serve MacKegan with no choice, to feel the angry stares of people you conquered as you passed by on the street. Few would do it, but there was the chance Moire could be the victim of someone’s misplaced hatred.

Moire said, "I knew that mark was something horrible. But I never said a word about it. For your sake."

Their eyes met: mortal into elf. A deep moment passed. "You've been a good servant, Moire," Raori said finally. "I hate to leave you."

"I hate to lose you," Moire whispered, stepping back. Raori's horse was galloping away before the sentence had completely left her lips. She watched him go until he was no longer in sight.

Chapter 4 - Picket

The spotted stallion reared his challenge to the wind and thundered down the sloping hills of Éire. He skirted around a small circle of stones and skidded to the bottom of a hill. With no effort, he topped another rise and stopped running.

He stood, unconsciously posing, and turned his gaze to the next hill. His nostrils flared, his back legs quivered, but he stood his ground. Someone was approaching. Their black cloaks billowed in the wind, the flapping sounds touching the horse’s delicate ears.

They were sorcerers, these travelers across the stallion’s domain. One was young, seeming almost too young to wear MacKegan’s mark on his cheek. The other was too old and leaned on his staff for support as he struggled to climb the grassy slope. The stallion dipped his head, snorted, and resolutely met them at the bottom of the hill. The three regarded each other silently.

"Cuiddal Cernach?" asked the old one. The horse shook his head and started to graze, a docile nag that never knew the freedom of the wild. He walked away a few steps from the old man, one eye watching him warily.

"No sense in trying to trick us," snorted the young one. "We know you're no normal horse. For one thing, a normal horse would not stand there grazing like an idiot."

"Silence, Aes," the old one snapped. “Fool.” The horse lifted his chin high while still chewing a bit of clover. His ears swiveled independently. "I don't suppose you would grace us with a little conversation, Cuiddal?"

The horse reared, then bucked. His sharp hooves came dangerously close to the young sorcerer’s nose, but the two watched this without flinching. Suddenly the horse stood on his hind legs, pawed the air, and the naked man stood before them.

His red hair was spotted with gray, even though the slightly hostile face that regarded them was youthful. Freckles covered his skin heavily, like fleas on a sick mongrel. He was clean-shaven, and he had a long nose. Only his eyes gave him away, for they remained equine and gleamed at the elves mischievously.

"Thunder, man!" Aes exclaimed. He discarded his cloak to place it around the pooka's shoulders. "At least have the decency to appear dressed!"

Cuiddal shook his head, scratched his shoulder where the freckles grouped into an hourglass shape, and settled into the cloak. His entire demeanor said he could care less if he was clothed or not. "'Tis my nature to change and not the fabric I wear," he said

"We did not come here to discuss the theories of lycanthropy," the old one muttered impatiently.

Aes looked properly reprimanded. "Cuiddal," he said, "Moirfenn needs you to come back to Fion."

If Cuiddal had still been a stallion, he would have challenged the sorcerers immediately. Instead he shook his head with a snort. "It was our bargain," he said, "that I would not be called upon again. If MacKegan wants my services, he must bring me to him." The set of his jaw indicated that such an act would be impossible, if not fatal.

"You mean, you would not be called upon while you were not in Moirfenn," the old one said. “MacKegan still holds a part of you, creature. Don’t forget that.”

"This is not Moirfenn," the pooka said with a whinnying laugh. "This is the mortal realm. And that part of me may not yet be free, but it is not a tether. Not here. Not in the mortal realm."

"Skagg," Aes said, turning to the other, "is this true?"

Skagg sighed heavily and scratched the earth with his staff. "I'm afraid so," he said. "It’s stone magic, young one, and a solid spell at that. When MacKegan captured this one with the Sight Stone, he was lucky to keep the creature as long as he did. I’m not sure how ‘twas only this little bargain that held him this long. That’s MacKegan’s secret." The horse-man rumbled something. “And yours, of course. Yours.”

Aes scratched his chin, musing. “Clever,” he said. “I thought the Sight Stone’s charm only worked a short while; a full cycle of the moon or some such. And you say this pooka has been MacKegan’s for time out of time? By something so simple as leave to go outside of Fion?”

“Aye,” Skagg said. “Geis, my boy. Something you’ve yet to learn about.”

Cuiddal grinned broadly. He knew he was safe from MacKegan while living in the green hills he now called home. MacKegan could very well renew that hated charm in Fion, but this was Éire... and few rules from across the veil applied here. The prolonged vassalage of Cuiddal was not one of them.

"Then," said Aes somberly, "I'm sorry, Cuiddal."

His hand was too swift for the eye to catch, but Cuiddal thought it grabbed something from one of the sorcerer’s pouches. Something powdery and glittery hit him in the face. He sneezed, coughed, and tried to shake it off. His form wavered a moment and the man remained. Dizziness brought him to his knees.

"Let's hurry," Skagg said. The two sorcerers grabbed each of Cuiddal's arms and began to drag him. The old one's hands gripped Cuiddal's arm with surprising strength. The pooka's protest came out as a choked whinny.

They dragged Cuiddal to the small ring of stones, lay him down within, and spoke three words. The world dissolved around, then it reformed. Before the pooka knew it, he lay in the sparse grass of Fion. Already, he could feel the unwelcome chains of MacKegan’s curse settling over his hide. Cuiddal rolled to his knees.

"Welcome home," Aes said, helping Cuiddal to unsteady feet. He made a pass in front of Cuiddal's eyes, whispered a word, and stepped back. As the spell lifted, the pooka’s control returned. He aimed a glare at both of the sorcerers. In his equine form, his ears would have been flat against his head. Only one thing held him back from murdering these two, and that was MacKegan’s sudden awareness of his return. He could almost feel the ancient lord sit up suddenly in his throne and take notice. If Cuiddal acted against these two, MacKegan would punish him severely.

Geis and stone magic. The pooka clamped his teeth in displeasure.

"Now that you're here," Skagg said smugly, ignoring Cuiddal's blatant anger, "you should consider what Moirfenn has in mind for you."

As quickly as it had come, Cuiddal's anger vanished. He grinned, shifting his feet much in the way horses do when they’ve stood still for too long. "Fair enough," he said easily. He wore a disarming smile. "What is it this time?"

"For now," Skagg said, "you'll go to Nebhirrlos, the Sanctuary, and meet the others."

"The others? The others?" Cuiddal's face was blank. "What others?"

The sorcerers exchanged a glance. "He doesn't remember, yet," said Skagg. "He may need a guide."

Aes shook his head. "All he needs is a reminder." He reached into the little satchel again. His hand emerged covered with the sparkling dust.

Cuiddal backed away, half turning his back toward the young sorcerer. He nodded his head in alarm. "What is the dust for?" he demanded. "I'm here, wherever here is. In Fion. Moirfenn definitely. I will keep the bargain."

"It's not to harm you," Aes said. He blew the dust from his palm onto Cuiddal, who stood there and blinked stupidly. "It will help you remember, Picket."

The pooka was hit with a new wave of confusion, which he tried to brush off with the dust. His hands moved quickly, and he snorted. "I don't like this stuff. Makes you sneeze. Why did you call me Picket?" The pooka blinked. His hands slowed to a stop. The sorcerers grinned in spite of themselves.

"They called me Picket," Cuiddal said, answering his own question. "Picket is I."

"And who are they?" Aes asked dubiously. He crossed his arms and quirked a grin.

"The Priestess," said the pooka, "Eahn, Raori, and Duinn. The rest of the Five." His voice held a note of awe, as if he could not believe that he ever knew them. His snort broke the spell. "You say go to Nebhirrlos?"

Without waiting for an answer, Picket changed back into a horse. First, he snorted into Aes’ face. Then, he spurred away. A few pebbles scattered, striking Aes, in his rush. The stallion reared his challenge a few feet away from them before galloping north.

Skagg cackled while Aes brushed himself off. "He has good aim."

Aes was unperturbed. "I wish he had waited so we could tell him to get the last one on his way. Now we'll have to do it." He closed his satchel and then looked around. His brow furrowed. "He took my cloak, too."

***

Picket ran for the sheer joy of it. It was what he did best, and it was when pookas felt the most free. The hills passed quickly under his rumbling hooves. He jumped a fence, scattering the sheep within, and galloped to the other side of the field.

He stopped running and paced the fence a minute. It was a perfectly innocent structure. There were no protective wards placed along it. It was not too high, nor even painted to enhance it unnatural existence. Nothing about it should have caught the attention of any fairy, but it had caught Picket’s.

For a moment, it looked like he was going to forget about the fence and keep going. He pawed at the bottom railing indecisively, then he walked away. Stopping after five steps, he looked back at the fence.

He could not resist.

Running back, he jumped over it lightly, faced his hindquarters to it, and kicked. And kicked. When kicking got boring, he pranced. On their own, Boards flew off of the fence and landed randomly all over the field. When Picket grew tired of that, he carefully pawed the railing until that, too, fell apart.

When he was done, the sheep had scattered. Most stayed together in a clump that steadily grazed farther and farther away. Picket snorted, turned, and resumed his journey. He wanted to stay and watch the shepherd's reaction when the damage was discovered, but there was no time.

In the past, he would run a ley line and made it to Nebhirrlos in an hour. He could not remember why, but the prospect filled him with dread. One sentence lodged itself into his mind. Once, we were six.

A vast forest loomed in the distance. It started suddenly and was edged with hazel, hawthorn, and oak. Picket did not relish the idea of fighting his way through the primeval undergrowth. Fortunately, there was a small river that cut a straight path through it and beyond. So, he forded the river.

The currents were strong, but his atma – the all-source of magic – gave him strength to fight back. Fey creatures such as he were more atma than flesh, and the strength of their magic seemed boundless. It was Picket’s nature that gave him the seeming of a mortal body, that and MacKegan’s hold over his soul.

Once on the other side and on dry land, Picket shook himself dry (and free of that memory). He kicked in the river's general direction. Nothing happened, so he assumed the river god was away or ignoring him.

With no sport to be found along the river, he resumed his journey with double speed. He could be in Nebhirrlos in two days, provided he took no detours. He might even beat the others. But... what fun would that be? It had been a long time since he was home. One might as well make the most of it.

The trees thinned out as the terrain fell away to cultivated lands. Ploughed fields passed him by. He galloped by someone's house and was gone before the children knew what kicked their pigskin ball on to the roof. The cows lowed when he passed about a mile away and paused only to knock down another fence.

Darkness began to fall. He relished the night, but he had been running all day and was tired. He found a small clutch of oak trees of the road and used them as a makeshift stable. At first he tried sleeping in his man form, but it was uncomfortable and cold. The tree roots dug into his back, and the sorcerer’s cloak was a pitiful shield against the night air. Settling for four legs and a warm hide, he spent the night grazing in his sleep...

The Five had gathered beneath the full moon to discuss their future. It was weeks after they had proven themselves to the Lord of Moirfenn by burning the temple and ransacking the city. Raori was late, as always, but when he arrived he had someone with him.

Picket had excellent night sight, especially in his natural form. He grazed nearby, cocking his ears to listen, and watched the pretty girl who shyly clung to Raori's arm. She would not need an hourglass on her shoulder if she joined their group, he decided. The shape of her body was hourglass enough.

"This is Leannahn," Raori said, giving her a slight push to present her. "She used to live in the temple with Aramina and myself."

Now, what's wrong with Aramina? Picket wondered. The werewolf sat to the side with her head lowered. Was she afraid, or did she feel threatened?

"I wanted to cheer," Leannahn said, "when the temple started burning. I hated it there."

"You're free now," Eahn said, puzzlement coloring his tone. "I'm glad for you. What would you want with us?"

"To join you," the young woman said. Her pointed chin trembled, but her eyes were steady. "I can be a big advantage."

"Oh?" Duinn leaned his burly frame forward. He was dwarven stock, an audacious breed, and did not trust easily. "What could you, a mere slip of girl, do for us? Can you cook?"

"Cook?" the woman demanded incredulously. She sniffed. "Does this one cook for you?" She gestured to Aramina. "Is that what she is to you? A cook?"

Raori looked uncomfortable, glancing sidelong as Aramina visibly bristled. "We take turns cooking."

"Except for Duinn," Aramina murmured. It was the first thing she had said all evening. "Dwarven fare is not very palatable."

"Say that," Duinn said, flashing a sharp grin, "in the field with sword in hand. My halberd and I could convince you that my cooking is worth eating."

"All right," Aramina said. She returned his grin. "Let's go. Maybe your halberd can tenderize the meat into chewable chunks, too."

"Wait," Eahn said. He blew through his nose noisily. "Be serious, you two. We haven't settled this matter with the girl yet."

Leannahn said, "I can do more than cook. I was about to take the Rite of Blue Passage before... the burning."

Admiration took the power of speech away from the others. Anyone qualified to take the Rite of Blue Passage were talented indeed. It was no wonder Aramina was not comfortable with this strange girl in their midst. Picket lifted his head and nuzzled Aramina in the ear. He nickered.

"Picket likes her," Aramina translated grudgingly. "That's one vote to her favor."

"And me," Raori said. His sly glance in Aramina’s direction hinted that Leannahn was not there to enhance the group in any way. His affair with Aramina, lately peppered with disinterest on her part, had been a continuing drama for a year now. If Picket were any judge of men – and he was, but a terrible one – then Leannahn’s pretty looks were at the heart of the matter.

Aramina refused even to look Leannahn’s way. Picket could safely bet Raori’s ploy had failed. Or perhaps it had worked, but not the way Raori would have preferred.

Duinn grunted. He never voted for anything. That was for people who liked responsibility, he always said. All eyes turned to Eahn.

"Very well," he said slowly. "She can travel with us to Moirfenn, and we'll ask the lord. If she proves herself along the way it will be easier."

 Leannahn broke into a happy grin. "I will," she promised. "You will be very surprised at what I can do."

Chapter 5 - Duinn

The mountain was home to dwarves, who mined and lived there like ants in a rocky anthill. Their city, tunneled miles within the mountain, was a network of roads and rooms all lit by torch or magic. There were chambers within so old, they were all but forgotten, and new ones begun daily. Dwarves loved to build, so it was told, and many lords sought the dwarves’ industry.

Where there were dwarves, there was a forge where the hammering sounded. The musical sound of hammers rang throughout the mountain constantly. There was a language within that steady beat; thrums of warning or echoes of reassurance. Old ones called it the mountain's heartbeat. It lulled babies to sleep, comforted the heartbroken, and kept time for many songs. To the dwarf smiths, no sound was sweeter.

Duinn was accustomed to the hammers. How could he not be, raised with them as he was? There was something in them that bothered him; something incorporeal or absent. It rang a half-note in his soul when he stopped to listen. So, to forget his melancholy, he joined the music with a hammer of his own, pounding metal in his tiny forge near his home.

He brought his hammer down with a ringing blow. The shapeless lump of metal held between his tongs would have become a sword, if the mood struck at the critical time. Right now it was Duinn's outlet for frustration. Each ringing blow distorted it further, and he had only begun to beat it. He could always recycle it later, if the bar became ruined, by remelting it with the rest of the ore it came from. For now, the rhythm of hammer to metal filled his time.

Several blows later, Duinn realized he was being watched and had been for some time. Straightening his back, feeling his bones crack, he turned and saw two elves. Wrapped deep in their cloaks, their faces peered out from within the enshrouded hoods. At least they showed proper respect, dwarf fashion, by letting him turn in his own time. A smith could be wounded if interrupted at the wrong time. In turn, an intruder could be hurt more, depending on the infraction.

These elves knew their manners, and good for them. Still, elves meant business, usually trouble. The sight disturbed him.

"I'm not supposing you want a sword made?" Duinn asked with fading hope. The hourglass marks on the elves' cheeks leapt from the shadows, as if screaming an advertisement.

Smiling, the elves shook their heads. The younger of the two stepped forward and bowed deeply. Duinn scowled with recognition. A business call indeed.

"Master Duinn," the elf said. "A pleasure, as always."

"Yes, Aes," Duinn snapped impatiently. "Enough formality. What is it this time?"

"’Formality,’ he calls it,” the young one laughed. “How like him. I’ll be brief, then. Duinn, Moirfenn has called your comrades to Nebhirrlos." He laughed again.

"What in Éire and Fion could be found in Nebhirrlos?" the dwarf demanded incredulously. He scratched his beard, realized he still held the tongs, and lay them on a nearby anvil.

"There is a matter of the new king," the other elf said quietly from the doorway.

"What care I for kings?" Duinn asked with a grunt. "The tribes rule themselves with or without a king, even in the palace to the north. If MacKegan is worried, he shouldn’t be. No one recognized the royal line anymore, no more than I do. It would take something more than a claim to kingship to get them to do so." Dismissing the matter, Duinn turned back to his anvil and the cooling piece of metal.

"You would be wise to remember," Aes said sharply, "your required services. You were not released."

"Aye, I know it," Duinn said. He returned the metal to the fire in disgust. There it would melt, and he would reclaim it later. "The way I see it, I have done more than my share for Moirfenn. Let a younger spirit break his back this time."

The elves exchanged a glance. "Leahr?" Aes asked with a rising eyebrow. The other stepped toward Duinn, paused, and slowly raised his hand.

The dwarf could ignore it at first. The pain emanating from the Mark on his shoulder merely pulsed. He turned to choose another bar. The pulsation became a pounding throb. His breath grew shallow.

"Enough!" Duinn gasped. The pain stopped suddenly. He was on the floor with no memory of when, or how, he fell. Irritation blackened his brow, but his mind he kept to himself. He was too weak to do more than lay there, like a beaten mongrel.

"Nebhirrlos," Aes said. "Don't forget. Meet them at the Sanctuary."

Duinn nodded weakly. He did not bother getting up again. A black boot came down by his hands. "And do not fail this time," the voice of Leahr said. "We can do worse if need be. Get up and listen while I explain.”

***

He traveled light, down into the bowels of the mountain. Underground highways that had been built for generations crisscrossed not only his mountain, but miles around the area and even into other mountains. It was like a giant ant mound, dwarves often said proudly if called upon to talk about their homes to strangers. He walked them, making good time. Before long he came to the deepest areas that were mostly deserted.

These places had once been bustling mines, but the ores were mostly gone. Whispers of dark things that lurked in the shadows, waiting for a good supper, sometimes were told around family dinners and gatherings. Duinn paid them no head as he continued.

He turned into an old mine shaft where the darkness was very deep. He required no torch, being a creature of the dark, but still he stumbled occasionally over scattered debris. At one point, he tripped on a fallen timber and fell face first up against a skull. Pausing long enough to pay quiet respects (and apologize to any spirit that might be listening), he sighed and moved on. Perhaps he could return to give the remains better honor later.

The darkness went on forever. He stopped only to eat and rest, sleeping with his back against the wall and his halberd across his knees. Two days, according to his senses, passed in this manner before reaching the end. The mine's exit was a small crack in the mountain side with a boulder half blocking the way.

One thing more dwarves shared with ants was their strength. If Duinn chose to, he could push a boulder out of the way easily. He pushed against this one, but it was stuck tight against the mountainside. Undaunted, Duinn dug his way out, using his hands to clear away rubble and push at the boulder until it went crashing down loudly. Duinn crawled outside, not even winded.

It had been years since he had been above ground. He almost did not recognize the place. The exit had let Duinn out in the foothills with the mountain a lurking beast behind him. In the distance, a worn ring of stones stood on a barren hilltop. They marked a ley line, if Duinn’s memory was correct, and promised an easy avenue to his destination. Hoisting his pack on one shoulder, he walked to it. This did not promise to be a pleasant task, but there was no other option. Duinn did not know enough about the terrain to make his way by foot, nor did he care to learn the hard way.

The stones were weathered and cracked in various places, but this was hardly a testimony to their performance. Duinn's magical senses were very weak, but he thought he felt some power within them. In his opinion, elven magic was unreliable at the best of times. He could invoke the ley line in the traditional manner, elf magic, or his own. He stood a moment, plotting which choice might be the most effective.

Touching each stone, he stepped around the circle in the prescribed matter. Elves liked their circles, and much of their magic was based on intricate knot works and various themes involving round dimensions. It was all silly nonsense to the dwarf, who preferred straight lines and clean angles. He walked the circle five times, then two more. There was a flicker of light, the only reaction. The stones were almost dead.

Duinn had suspected he would have to resort to dwarven magic. If dwarves built the ley lines - which they did not but if they had - the stones would still work. He was willing to bet they’d even work as if finished just an hour ago. Elves were a silly lot. They built the ancient roads in a frenzy of enterprise and, once they were done, almost forgot about them. To be sure, there was probably some clan of elves somewhere who still knew how to make and repair these structures. Duinn knew not where and held no interest in finding them.

He settled in the middle of the circle with his pack still in hand, making himself comfortable and even pausing to groom his beard with a quick rake of the fingers. Once settled, he closed his eyes and, slipping into a light meditative state, began to mutter. The words came slow and haltingly at first, but as he gained confidence his memory improved. He shouted the final word, and the stones began to vibrate.

Pure light sliced into his brain, split his nerves wide open, and carried him into the sky. How can the elves stand this? he thought. Opening his eyes only brought misery, but he forced himself to look.

He was standing in the ley line. It glowed under his feet (funny how he could not remember standing up), looking like a bright ribbon tapering off in the distance. It forked up ahead with each turning a subtle difference in color to mark where they went. Like a sleeper in a dream, he knew the way he had to go. He started to walk.

A gentle hand reached out of the light and touched his shoulder. Duinn froze in dread. He had been expecting this, true, but he still felt nervous.

She emerged from the light, smiling. Thankfully, she withdrew her hand and backed a couple of steps away. Her pointed chin, those blossom cheeks – they were all as Duinn remembered, if a bit whitened by the illumination around them.

She had not aged, but specters did not know time the way physical folk did. Not that any of the Six, Duinn’s age-old companions, knew old age first hand. They all remained young, as was their choice. Duinn never regretted it.

"I thought I was forgotten," the ghost said.

"I could not," Duinn said, letting a touch of regret tinge his voice. "Perhaps the others, but they cannot help what they are."

"I know," the specter said miserably. "Raori would not have forgotten, though."

Duinn privately reasoned that any elf with a memory of stone would be utterly miserable. "What have you seen?" he asked past the urge to run away from her, for all she had been once a dear friend. "Does no one pass through the lines these days?"

"Oh," she waved a hand. It was a familiar gesture, but made eerie by the trails her hand left in the air. "A sorcerer or two will pass occasionally. I do not bother them."

"No one else," Duinn mused to himself. "Where do they go?"

"Some to Moirfenn. Most to Tech Danaan. The traffic grows less and less these days."

Duinn digested the information calmly. The ones going to Moirfenn were not important. Moirfenn naturally got a lot of traffic as lords sent envoys to pay Moirfenn’s tribute or, to their folly, ask a boon. And Tech Danaan, the isle of the land’s most holy temple, served hundreds of pilgrims every season. There was nothing unusual in that.

"Duinn," the specter said in a quailing voice. She edged forward a pace, then stopped at the dwarf's look of warning. "Do you think that maybe you could find a way to set me free?"

He gave the ghost an appraising glance. Her eyes were full of hope, as if he were some savior sent by the gods. It was an effort not to agree. "I'm truly sorry, " he said. "If I do find a way, I will help you. You have my word."

Anger flashed across her features. Her hands balled into fists and shook. Looking down, she said, "If that is what I must take as payment for my help, then so be it."

What help? Duinn opened his mouth to speak, but his mind was blank. There was nothing to do but continue his journey, and so he did. Reluctantly, he cast a final look over his shoulder as he walked away. The woman watched him go. She looked like she was crying, although her tears were not real.

Later, Duinn opened his eyes to a different circle of stones. He was sitting as if he had never moved. His legs ached like they had walked miles without rest.

The wind was fierce and tangled his hair into his beard. Duinn ignored it as he turned around, getting his bearings. This place was familiar, but ages of change made known things alien and strange things familiar. Resolutely he shouldered his pack and began to walk.

The highway greeted him like an old friend. He walked until he came to a marker, read it, then angrily turned the other way. An hour at best was lost by his misdirection and now he would have to hurry if he wanted to reach shelter before sundown. He hoped there would be mead, at least, when he finally got to where he was going.

The Sanctuary House seemed to come out of nowhere as it sprang from the gloom of late evening. Duinn stared at it suspiciously for a long moment. Dogs barked at him from the doorway. A plump elf woman waved him in merrily.

"We don't see many of your clan," she said conversationally as Duinn crossed the threshold. He lay his halberd in the corner where guests were required to leave their weaponry. There were a couple of swords and three daggers. This meant the house had a few guests to force Duinn into unwanted conversation. This, he did not like. All he wanted to talk about was a fresh mug of ale.

He got that, and a plate of forest roots with gravy, ham, and peas. Devouring the meal in a corner of the house's room, he barely looked up when the door opened to admit another visitor.

The newcomer was a red-haired man with freckles visible even in the dim light. Duinn chewed thoughtfully on his ham and watched the man settle by the fire. The stranger did not seem to notice Duinn, or he was simply ignoring him. The woman brought the stranger a goblet of mead before whisking away.

There was no denying a certain animosity between the pair. Duinn’s glare glittered in the firelight. The newcomer drank his mead calmly, casting the occasional return look at the dwarf. Finally, Duinn decided to make the first move.

When the woman, Residhnne, collected his plate, Duinn stumped to the fire. Red-hair did not look up. Duinn cleared his throat. The newcomer ignored him as he took a final, deep drink from his goblet.

At last, Red-hair turned his eyes to Duinn. He started to smile, then adopted a serious expression. It made his face look longer than it was. "Well," he said.

"Thought you'd be first this time, eh?" Duinn asked.

Red-hair snorted. "Perhaps they told you before they dragged me here," he said. "Gave you a head start?"

Duinn chuckled. "No, Picket. I don't think so. You're getting slow. You're spending too much time with the mares. Maybe you're no better than a mare yourself."

They glared at each other. The fire crackled in a background of silence. Then, as by some unspoken command, they burst out laughing. Duinn patted the pooka's shoulders and settled down beside him.

"Any word of the others, fairy man?" Duinn asked. Residhnne, who had been nervously watching the exchange, brought them a new pitcher of ale.

"Nay," Picket said. "Then again, I haven't asked. I've spent my time in Éire." He grinned lopsidedly. "With the mares," he continued just as Duinn was taking another drink.

Duinn's new fit of laughter forced ale through his nose and into the fire. "Gods, man," Duinn finally choked, dabbing at his burning nostrils with one sleeve. "Leave off, you're ruining the ale."

Picket nodded in good horse fashion. He drank his ale more of courtesy than anything. The stuff never did anything to him. Few fairies had any problem with alcohol. Often he wondered about the fascination for getting drunk, when all one did afterward was lament the deed.

"The elves said to wait," Picket complained. "I hope it isn't too long."

"You know the Priestess will be along," Duinn said. "And Eahn. It's blasted Raori that's the slow one. We might have to wait for weeks."

"Would that not be a good thing?"

“The bluidy coward refuses to use the ley lines,” Duinn grumbled.

“I don’t blame him. Did you?”

"Yes." Duinn rumbled the word into his chest. "We have no time for the nonsense. Not at all. We've a king to catch, my fey one. Bad enough we’ll be walking all over hill and vale just looking for him, let alone wasting time on some seven day trip just to get ourselves together."

Picket snorted into his drink. "Politics," said he. "Things were simpler when we lived by our clans and nothing more."

"Aye. A fight was a fight in which your brothers stood by you."

"Death was a quick thing," Picket mused. "Honorable. Mares had a stallion to be proud of."

Duinn grunted. "Women sang proudly of fallen heroes. We made weapons that wanted only for blood." Picket reached back and scratched his right shoulder. It made Duinn acutely aware of the Mark on his own shoulder. "When we died," Duinn went on, "it was forever. We passed into the next realm easily. Only the highest of us lived immortal, and by their choice."

Picket swirled the ale around in his mug. In a regrettable tone, he added, "The ale was much better, too."

"What do you know of ale, you flea-bitten animal?" Duinn roared. "Can't even get decently drunk and he complains of the flavor!"

Innocent eyes regarded Duinn for a solemn moment. "'Tis true," Picket said. "By my mother's mane, this ale is watered down. No taste at all."

Duinn downed his drink in one gulp. Waving his mug, he shouted, "Residhnne, lass! Get over here with the ale! The best I've had in years!"

Residhnne obeyed, chuckling to herself as she went about her business. Duinn drank six more pitchers before he passed out. Picket, who had watched the dwarf's antics impassively, stealthily crept for the door.

He was incredibly fond of Duinn, but there were times when a pooka just did not want to be bothered. "I'll be back before he wakes," Picket whispered to Residhnne. She smiled, yawned, and blinked eyes heavy with sleep. Picket disappeared by the third blink, but she was not surprised. Pookas were that way.

She tucked a blanket around Duinn and went to bed. Somewhere in the distance, a stallion screamed. It sounded angry. Residhnne locked her bedroom door....

"A test," said Duinn to the five faces before him. "An easy one, I think. Before we meet the lord tomorrow."

The six companions were lodged at Jurbhean City in Moirfenn. At dawn they were to approach their lord, Chulain MacKegan, in his keep and speak of Leannahn. The subject of the impending encounter was not feeling cooperative.

"I have burned three cottages, crossed the veil and stolen twenty babies for many families, and robbed two temples of their treasure," Leannahn said bitterly. "I refuse to do more!"

Picket's chuckle sounded like a rumble in a long throat. "Now lass," he said. "Those were just practice."

Leannahn's eyes grew round with rage. She opened her mouth to speak and found Duinn's hand covering it. The dwarf, standing on the room’s only bed, nearly lost his balance in the process. Leannahn jerked away, ignoring him as he fell to the floor, and turned her face to the wall.

"Never mind that horse," the dwarf said, picking himself up with as much dignity as he could. "One last test will not harm anything."

Aramina giggled in the corner. Although nothing was said between the two girls, she obviously enjoyed Leannahn’s discomfort. Leannahn haughtily tossed her hair, making it a point not to look at the other.

"If she thinks she has done enough to please MacKegan," Eahn said, "then let her alone. It isn't the deeds that he appraises."

To Aramina’s obvious disappointment, the band decided to go to Moirfenn before sunrise. Leannahn was not forced to anything more. The werewolf sulked all the way to their lord’s gates, before which they arrived just as the sun topped the horizon.

The gates stood open and the guards ignored them as they passed. Picket had chosen to be a horse that day, and he bore Leannahn majestically. During the short time Leannahn had been with them, he had spent more and more time in her company. Duinn did not agree with the two growing as close as they were, but he never protested aloud. The same went for Aramina, who spurned Raori's advances constantly. The dwarf knew she was restrained only by the occasional presence of Gredber, who held her to his heart like a dragon's hoard. Raori often wished that Gredber would disappear and leave Aramina to him alone.

Gredber had been brought into the picture at MacKegan’s behest; something about an old favor that MacKegan owed. The wily elf only came around occasionally; Gredber was no more a member of the team than strangers living across the sea. But he had taken a liking to Aramina, who played at loving him only when Raori was around. It was no secret that Aramina hated the elf, and she often echoed gruesome sentiments of what she would like to do to his person.

Their lord met them in his dining hall. He was at late breakfast and suggested his servants join him. They did so warily, sniffing their food before tasting it. The master ignored their seeming lack of courtesy: It was a sign of wisdom in his eyes.

When the meal was almost finished, MacKegan regarded Leannahn with eyes red-rimmed and blazing like lamps in the darkness. "How did you fall in with these five, Niece?" he asked.

"Niece!?" Duinn's familiar roar cut across the room. He stood, a formidable gesture despite his lack of height, and faced Leannahn. "You never said you were his flaming niece!"

The lord's eyes were cool as he leaned back to appraise his minions. Aramina was beside Duinn quickly, firmly pushing her teammate down into his chair. Leannahn looked amused, while Raori, Picket, and Eahn were stone still with caution and fear.

"How very clever, my dear," the lord said to Leannahn. "They never knew."

Leannahn sniffed. "It protected my backside," she said. "How could I know to trust these ruffians?" Haughtily, she drank from her goblet.

When everyone, including Aramina, protested indignantly, Chulain laughed. His laughter rang like bells. Everyone grew quiet and respectfully waited for him to finish. "Well spoken," he said, dabbing his eyes with a white cloth. "I think you have represented our clan wonderfully. Well done. Well done."

Leannahn, looking pleased, returned to her meal in silence. The others were not as willing to do so.

"Lord," Eahn said, "your niece asked to join our band. We had thought to let her, but knowing she is your relative, we cannot put her into danger."

“Aye,” said Raori, obviously fighting not to stutter. “T’would be unforgivable if she were to be hurt, Lord.”

Their master drank deeply from his goblet as he pondered the statement. "Eahn," the lord said, "are you not one of my most prized servants?"

"Yes, Lord," Eahn said in some confusion. "But--"

"And is loyalty why you would now reject my niece’s offer?"

"Only in regard of her safety," Eahn said, his confidence wavering.

"I see." Another pause of contemplation. "I would never place a member of my family in danger," Chulain announced. "As I have no children, the role of heir falls to Leannahn." Leannahn jumped, then beamed. "It would be unthinkable to put her into danger. Why, if she were to be killed–“

It was Leannahn's turn to be indignant. "Uncle, that is unfair! How can I prove myself worthy of you, of the realm, if I am kept indoors like, like... a pet?"

"Indeed," the master agreed too easily for his servants’ comfort. "You're right, my dear. I would not expect anyone in Moirfenn to follow an untried warrior. You must be worthy of my seat should the day come that you would assume it. What do you think, Duinn?"

Duinn felt an unaccustomed flush creep past his neck. "Lord MacKegan," he said slowly, "she should surely join us. So far we have put her to some petty tasks, to test her mettle, but if you had something important for us to do...” He could feel the astonished glances around him. Grimly, he stuffed food in his mouth and chewed slowly.

"A task it is then," Chulain said without hesitation. "I know the very thing. Retrieve for me the spear Birgha of Allen, which is now in the mortal realm."

"Too easy!" Picket proclaimed proudly.

"If it were so easy," Chulain said, "then it would already have been done. Know that the spear is guarded by the magic of Vighn MacFhion, who was raised by his father to hate us."

Duinn kept his own counsel, even when Eahn asked what use Birgha would be put to. Doubts about facing a spiteful sorcerer, even a mortal one, assuaged his mind. If Chulain truly wanted the spear, he would have had it by now. The entire business seemed bad.

It was too convenient, all of it. Chulain had this planned. But why? Duinn had decided ages ago that Chulain MacKegan was quite mad, although to what extent he could not tell. The lord seemed to have no single agenda. His mind followed twisted paths that snakes feared to travel. Most likely, there was no reasoning behind Chulain’s desire for the spear. It was there, and that was enough for Chulain.

After Chulain retired for the night, the Five ( now Six) drank more wine and discussed a strategy for claiming the spear. Leannahn sniffed haughtily and often, declaring it an easy victory. The others exchanged uneasy glances.

“We all know my uncle is insane,” Leannahn said. “This Vighn is not a threat to us.”

“Yes, your uncle is eccentric,” Raori agreed diplomatically. “However, he’s not a fool. Do not take this business lightly, Leannahn. It could mean your death. You wanted a serious task, now you have it. We should treat it that way.”

Leannahn only smiled as she sipped her wine.

Chapter 6 - Silver Fox

Finnbhear the Silver Fox, Lord of Cnos Midhea, Keeper of the Bard's Seal, Practicer of Magic and current Protector of Bodb Derg, sat in his garden, frustrated over his roses.

His roses were his pride. No gardener tended them save himself. Clipping them, watching them bloom, even procuring fresh manure to feed them was his special delight. They, in a sense, were his children.

This love of horticulture was his mother's breeding, although Finnbhear did not know it. She had been the great granddaughter of a wood nymph who forsook immortality for love. Finnbhear was the finishing result: hazel-eyed, silver-haired, and gentle. He was also ferocious when necessary and solid in his beliefs.

With a great sigh, he brushed the soil from his leggings and stood. The roses would have to wait. This morning he would embark on a journey to escort the Crown Prince to Cnos Fada, where the prince’s friend (and only surviving family), Chonnall, waited. There, Bodb would be crowned king.

Then all the trouble will begin, Finnbhear mused. Bodb's succession meant hope for the scattered loyalists who aspired to win their land back. Although the north was not as under MacKegan's thumb as the south, it still knew the harsh lash of his whip. The annual alone left barely enough food for people to live on. Most spiritual practices had gone underground while the new religion - temple-born and government maintained - flourished with Moirfenn’s guidance. Even traffic between Fion and the other realms was limited.

Tech Danaan, the island temple north of Cnos Fada, was the only other place free from Moirfenn. This was only because MacKegan's power could not pierce the walls and magical wards tended constantly by the acolytes who dwelt there. Full scale sieges used to be common around the walls of the temple, but MacKegan had given up and withdrawn. The temple’s maintained neutrality gave the conquering lord an excuse to keep his distance, and so far a tentative peace held even when the rightful crown prince was born within its walls.

The young prince had grown up near the temple, Finnbhear knew, but then moved mysteriously north towards the mountains. It was said the lad had narrowly escaped no less than ten attempts on his life once MacKegan learned he, and his family, lived. In each attempt, someone had died to protect him. That, the Silver Fox acknowledged bitterly, was why the boy now had no family.

There would be another attempt on Bodb's life, surely. Although the young prince did not seem a threat to Chulain MacKegan, the south's master would not pass up this opportunity to finish what he had started. MacKegan was insane and liable to do anything, but he was also predictable to a small degree. Bodb Derg’s life was in danger.

Which was why he, Finnbhear, had been hired to ride with the young elf to Cnos Fada. Finnbhear was not keen on the idea, but Bodb's supporters had argued convincingly that with Finnbhear the Silver Fox, hero of many battles and stories, by the new king's side nothing could go wrong. The Silver Fox had his doubts, but the gold was plentiful enough to keep his mouth shut.

"Hai, Finnbhear," a voice said from the back door. It was Mohg Deagan, Finnbhear's partner in this venture. He was girded in leather armor, belted with his sword, and holding his helmet. The latter object was beaten from years of abuse, but recently shined. "Come on, old man. Bodb wants us to leave now."

"Aye," Finnbhear said with weary sigh. He was getting too old for this. The thought was uncomfortable, but true. Even tree-bred elves grew old and died. It just took longer for it to happen.

The thought also reminded Finnbhear of something, or someone, but he could not quite nudge the memory awake. Dismissing it as unimportant, he followed his friend to the front of his home where the young prince was waiting. Bodb Derg sat his horse like a champion on the pathway by the front door of Finnbhear’s small cottage. The expression he wore was a mask of nervous tension. The mood was bleeding to his horse, which snorted and pawed the ground. Two other mounts snorted to each other just behind the prince, as if to say how ridiculous the young were in this day and age.

Finnbhear felt a mixture of pity and amusement at this boy child. He barely looked ready for such an adventure, as young as he was. But then again, who ever was ready? Finnbhear’s own life of venture began at an even earlier age. The troll who had unwillingly participated was still looking for its tail, it was said. The Silver Fox chuckled softly, careful to keep his mirth to himself.

Finnbhear swung into the saddle of his grey gelding and looked to the house. His servants, all humans who had entered his service willingly, hurriedly ran from the house to see their master away. They thought it attracted bad luck if even the smallest babe missed saying farewell. All of them, down to the smallest babe or most ancient gaffer, lined up and tossed shamrock to the earth for luck.

Gods knew Finnbhear needed all the help he could get. He thanked them heartily and promised to return quickly. With cheerful farewells caroling behind, the threesome rode away. It as almost as if they were going to the fair rather than treading dangerously through wilderness and MacKegan’s lands. Bodb rode between Finnbhear and Mohg. His mare was skittish, but Bodb controlled her with an iron hand. Finnbhear wondered what that meant for Cnos Fada. Indeed he wondered what it could mean for Fion, should things go that far.

They rode in silence for the first couple of hours. Mohg was more concerned with the ground than anything. Bodb seemed too shy, or arrogant, to make small talk.

"I remember," Finnbhear said when the silence grew unbearable, "my first trip to Cnos Fada."

Startled glances met his eyes. "Are you sorcerer as well as a warrior?" Bodb asked. His somber face was not built for shock, but he conveyed it well. “I thought only those who practiced atma went to visit the Moonstone.”

Finnbhear laughed. The mental image he had of the Moonstone, a fallen star revered by the denizens of Cnos Fada, always made him smile. "No," said he. "There are some things too pleasant to forget. Or too important. And besides, my liege, the Moonstone is in Tech Danaan. Without it, the wards around the island would fail."

“It must be very powerful,” mused prince.

“Aye,” Finnbhear agreed, mind dwelling on the past. “The atma in it practically glows, it’s so strong, and those who touch it are said to be cleansed from darkness of any kind. I’ve never seen it, of course. Cnos Fada is the furthest north I’ve been when not on a war campaign.”

Mohg snorted. "You were a child then.”

"I was grown." Finnbhear's lips tried to smile. "Barely. There was a girl, an acolyte. Sweet little thing. Just my age, too."

The trio fell back into silence. Mohg concentrated on sitting his horse. Bodb worried about his future. Finnbhear dwelt in the past, recalling the face of his first love.

It seemed to him that grass was greener then. The sky was clear during his entire visit to Cnos Fada (although privately he knew memory overlooked the bad weather). The girl had been an elusive figure at best times, a solid creature with haunted eyes at the very end. She was always so sad and he, gallant soldier on his first assignment, had wanted to rescue her.

That was long ago, and she was dead. Finnbhear had lived a long time, longer than most. Few elves were left with immortality in their minds. Although it could be waked in them at any moment, one out of every hundred had the desire. Finnbhear himself had decided long ago to die gracefully.

They camped that evening on a hill off the road. The grassland lay flat around them and afforded no protection for would-be ambushers. Most of Fion’s terrain was a strange mixture of grassland with forests cropping up in thick to sparse clumps. Common folk avoided the forests out of respect for the fae, fairies and creatures of older magic, that were said to dwell within. Finnbhear hoped to use that superstition to their advantage and cross the woodlands in relative secrecy.

The night was uncharacteristically warm for the season. On nights like this, Finnbhear liked to play the silver flute he kept beneath his shirt. Stealth stole those joys from him now, although he was tempted to play it anyway. He consoled himself with thoughts of the journey's end. Their fire was small and smokeless, thanks to Mohg's skill, and dinner was dried meat. Surprisingly, Bodb did not complain about their meager fare. Finnbhear had expected worse.

The morning smelled of rain. Breaking camp quickly, they guided their horses through the hills and thickening forest. The road, abandoned, disappeared behind them. As the sun climbed in the sky, the day grew uncomfortably hot. Bodb unlaced his shirt and mopped his brow with a sleeve, but otherwise never said a word. Finnbhear and Mohg only muttered occasional comments to themselves. They reached a river by noon, just as storm clouds darkened the horizon and sent cooling breezes their way.

The water current was not too strong for the companions to cross. The horses were snorting and dripping on the other side in minutes. Bodb stripped, laying his clothes on the ground to dry. He stretched lazily on a boulder and closed his eyes happily. Mohg and Finnbhear were preferred to dry with their clothes on, which made setting up camp uncomfortable..

A movement caught Finnbhear's eye while he rummaged through the saddlebags for lunch. Pretending not to notice, he pulled out the sack of herbs and dried meat. Mohg was at the river drawing water in an old pot. Bodb left his boulder to warm his backside at the fire. With obvious reluctance, he slipped into his shirt and leggings. His boots he left where they lay.

Finnbhear blinked. There it was again: a flicker of black leaping from one bush to another. He surveyed the plain around them, noting that vegetation gave way to grass and Bodb’s single boulder. It was not a good place to defend oneself.

Mohg returned with the water. Satisfied that his work was done for the evening, he sat opposite Bodb to enjoy the fire. Finnbhear put herbs in the pot, some of the meat, and watched it thoughtfully. By unspoken consent, Mohg and Bodb unrolled their bedding and began to settle in for the night.

"A fresh rabbit would be wonderful," Finnbhear said. "It would make our food last longer, too."

Bodb stood gallantly. "I will hunt for it," he offered.

Mohg grunted. "No," he said with his customary scowl. "You're to stay here with us." Bodb whined like a little boy, but sat back down.

"Too bad," Finnbhear said. "But you're right."

He saw the black shadow again while he was on first watch that night. When he investigated by casually strolling nearby, he saw nothing. Cursing his imagination, he turned away and then noticed the freshly killed rabbit at his feet.

A predator, he decided while skinning the rabbit by the dying fire. It killed the rabbit, and he had frightened it off. Lucky for him. Only, why would a predator hunt so close to their camp? It made better sense that a predator would hunt elsewhere. Maybe it was a scavenger, and it came seeking scraps. The rabbit escaped a hunter and died near their camp, and Finnbhear was lucky he had frightened the scavenger away.

Bodb took second watch when the moon, heavy and full, was high in the sky. Finnbhear slept heavily and dreamed of rabbits being chased by the night.

Mohg's boot prodding his leg scattered the dreams. Finnbhear opened his eyes to the dim light of early morning. "You should have let me take my watch," Mohg growled. “And look at ye, sleeping like a baby. Aren’t you supposed to be protecting the prince?”

"Bodb took second watch," Finnbhear said, sitting up and scratching his head. "It was his responsibility. I protect him, but I won’t baby him. The lad’s to be king." Groggily he stood, prepared to berate Bodb for falling asleep.

Within moments, they realized Bodb was nowhere to be found. "Blast it!" Mohg cursed, pointing out the prince's boot prints leading out of camp and along the river. “Young boys and their fancies!” He followed them at his fastest walk, pushing violently against any foliage that chanced in the way.

"What was the scamp thinking?" Finnbhear asked the air as he followed the rugged elf. He berated himself severely for allowing the boy to watch the camp alone.

They followed the tracks down river where the brush was thick and almost impenetrable. Finnbhear winced every time Mohg snapped a branch or ripped a plant out by its roots as he made his own path after the boy. If the fae took insult, they would all three be in for serious trouble. Continuously, he glanced around and offered apology. Mohg apologized for nothing, not even his muttered threats toward the prince’s life. At least, Finnbhear prayed silently, let not the boy hear that.

Twice, they thought they had lost the trail, and privately Finnbhear despaired that the boy was gone. Reliable Mohg always found it again just when Finnbhear felt panic rising in his throat. The sun climbed high in the sky.

When they finally found Bodb, the sun had just passed its zenith. Bodb did not notice them at first, even though they both clamored from the brush. The prince was lying on his stomach and leaning over a small rocky outcropping to look into a clear pool below it.

"I could do that," he said thoughtfully, "but I don't see where it would do you any good."

He went silent as if listening to something. Finnbhear and Mohg exchanged a look of dread. Had the young prince stumbled into a fairy glamour or lost his senses entirely? Signaling for Mohg to stay put, Finnbhear crept quietly forward.

"I'm sorry," Bodb said to the pool. "I have a little trouble believing a creature of your clan can have an interest in helping another."

Finnbhear was almost to the rock. Bodb said with a laugh, "No need to be insulted! I was only speaking truth. And your kind appreciates the truth, do you not? Three times and three times over?"

Finnbhear carefully slid onto the rock near Bodb and prepared to grab him away from danger. Bodb glanced up slightly and slowly motioned for Finnbhear to stay still. Then Finnbhear noticed the tiny voice coming from the pool.

"--looks so pitiful," the voice said. It sounded like the trickle of water in a stream. "She stands at the gate and wails. It disturbs my children."

"How did she get trapped there?" Bodb asked, sounding as if he were barely interested. "She might belong there. I’m not sure if I should tamper with the delicate balance of something like this, especially if there be a life involved."

"No," the voice said. Finnbhear edged further forward, trying to crane his head for a peek beyond the rock. "It was an accident, she’s not meant to be there. So sad, so sad." There was tiny splash, as if the water were slapped with a tail. "She disturbs my children." The voice sounded irritated.

"I suppose I might take a look," Bodb said thoughtfully.

"Would you?" The voice sounded hopeful. "She disturbs my children ever so much." The water splashed again.

“I’ll go right now,” the prince said candidly, pointedly ignoring the Silver Fox.

“Its up the old trail there, to your left,” the voice said. “Please hurry. Nightfall will be here, and my children will be disturbed again!”

Bodb slowly scooted off the rock. Finnbhear followed him, muttering under his breath. "Quiet," Bodb admonished him. "She might still be around, listening. No doubt she knows you two are here. If I hadn’t agreed to help her, who knows what she might have done to either one of us. Now, hush."

Finnbhear considered doing quite the opposite. Then he remembered that this child of command was about to be king. Sulkily, he followed Bodb away from the pool. Mohg fell in step behind them, glaring at the ground. When the pool was out of sight, Bodb stopped walking and sighed.

"You can yell at me now," he said without turning around.

Mohg chuckled. Finnbhear opened his mouth, but found that all the anger had been replaced with curiosity. "What was that?" he asked.

"A sprite, of course," Bodb said and resumed walking. Not toward camp, Finnbhear noticed, but further away. "An asrai, I think. She called me, pleading for help. I thought it was about something important, not a noisy neighbor."

It was an old trail they followed. Leading away from the river and into wild land, it ended with the familiar ring of stones that marked the gate to an old ley line. Finnbhear did not neglect to observe the decay of the place. The rocks were chipped as if they had been attacked, although it obviously happened years ago. He did not recognize the place, which he thought strange. In his years, he thought he had been to every gate the ley lines had to offer.

"This is it," Bodb said, stating the obvious. He touched each of the stones in the formulae used to invoke the gate. Something flickered, but nothing happened.

"Broken," Mohg said. "Damn shame. We could use it to get to Cnos Fada."

"No," Bodb said. "She doesn't want us to see her."

“Who?” Finnbhear demanded, then suddenly turned to Mohg. “And you know we don’t dare use the ley gate. Chulain would have us in an instant, and woe to our hides if he does.”

“The noisy neighbor,” Bodb answered Finnbhear’s first question as Mohg kicked one of the founding stones in vexation. “The asrai was not very specific in who she was, only that she had once been an elf. And now her spirit is trapped here, in the stones.”

Neither of the other men had a comment to that. For a while, Bodb continued to putter around the stones. Still nothing happened. Finally the prince gave up.

"Well, I took a look," Bodb said on the way back to camp.

"For nothing," Mohg said. "Now we'll have to camp by the river another night."

"The sprite won't bother me again," Bodb said with a wry smile. "She already knows I can't be drowned."

For the first time Finnbhear noticed the state of Bodb's clothes, as if they had dried while being worn. After yesterday's meticulousness, Finnbhear did not figure Bodb went for a swim fully dressed. The prince did not seem to mind the wrinkled state of his attire, for good or bad.

The late spring night was chilly. The other day's promise of rain, renewed, loomed over them in the shape of grey clouds. It sprinkled occasionally, but otherwise the sky withheld its downpour. Finnbhear expected a deluge at any second, and hoped it would wait just another day.

"We need shelter," Mohg said, casting an accusing eye to Bodb. The prince sniffed, refusing to be blamed for the delay.

"Never mind," Finnbhear said. "We're here."

"A little rain won't hurt you," Bodb said. "You could use a bath."

"I'd rather need a bath than smarts," Mohg said. “Or common sense.” He was sharpening a knife. With each stroke against the whetstone, he managed to convey the feeling that he meant the knife for Bodb.

"It's a good thing I've got intelligence to spare," Bodb said casually. "Or you'd be in real trouble."

Finnbhear smiled to himself when Mohg stabbed the knife into the ground. Mohg would never let an insult contest get out of hand, but he could make you wonder. "Keep them," Mohg said. "Any less, and you'll never live to be a man."

Bodb snorted. "Maybe I don't want to, if the women are more interested in cleanliness."

Mohg grunted. "If you're talking about that sprite, boy, then keep her and welcome. I've plenty of real women who appreciate a man's hard labor."

"Labor? What do you do all day except ride that horse? If you can call it riding."

Inwardly Finnbhear sighed when Mohg's mouth wagged as he tried to think of a response. He grabbed his cloak and walked to the edge of camp. An insult contest with Mohg could last all night, and Bodb obviously had no intentions of losing. Finnbhear would take first watch again.

His watch passed uneventfully, with not even a shadow to tease his eyes.