“Stay here, Finola,” Padraigh directed. Giving me orders again. I was fed up with him. “Wait til I tell you.” But I kept silent and stayed in the cave, shivering with cold.
I admit, the man usually had the best intentions. He wanted to protect me. And he’d warned me slave-catchers from Rahesh were eager to sell me to the auctioneers. As if I didn’t know that already.
But if the riders I’d seen were slave-catchers, I was sure they were gone now. And what did he think he could do with just a knife and gladius against armed horsemen? I argued that my song-weaving magic was more than a match for any Raheshi slave-catcher, but Padraigh insisted it was a man’s duty to protect a woman, any woman.
So I swallowed my objections and waited for his signal. Which seemed an eternity in coming. And when he, at last, gave the gesture, it took all my strength not to bolt from that cave, with its icy cold and its stink of mud and guano.
I emerged into a space full of tree corpses, like felled monarchs. Extinct branches stabbed the despondent sky. We were minstrels, struggling through nigh-impassable woods in the far reaches of what Padraigh claimed was Goz, heading for a tavern.
“If we’re in Goz, why are Raheshi slave-catchers roaming the land as if they own it? The Gozites are wealthy, they hate slavery, and they should have their own patrols to keep out the Raheshis, shouldn’t they?” If this was Goz, I should have felt safe.
Padraigh flashed me a smile. Some women would have swooned, I suppose. Not me. “Trust me, dear. We’re in Goz. But even they don’t have enough soldiers to seal the border. Anyway, Rahesh and Goz have a trade agreement neither side wants to harm. Those slave-catchers we saw were probably lost.”
“Uh-huh. I worry every time you say, ‘trust me.’” I scowled and vocalized a few notes of my song-weaving magic, casting about for any traces of the Raheshis. Just to be certain. I found none, praise the Lord and Lady, yet under clouds the color of bruises, I still felt uneasy.
Padraigh, a songweaver like me, heard my song, and said, “How long since you’ve enhanced your magic, love?”
I gave him a look that would have soured new milk. “Stop calling me that, Padraigh. I keep telling you I’m Sh’gan. Sex with a man won’t enhance my magic. It’s as wrong for me as it would be for you. You say you’re my friend, so act it and please stop badgering me.”
“How do you know it’s wrong for you if you won’t even—”
“Am I your partner or your slave?” I stopped, put my hands on my hips, and met his eyes. “When I say it’s wrong for me, you must take that as my final answer. I’m not the woman you want me to be. True, you helped me get away from Deanna that night in Sumharajz. But you’re as bad as—”
“I never beat you. Never touched you or even looked at you wrong. She blackened your eye and bloodied your lip.”
My stomach knotted. His words brought it all back. I shut my eyes and tried to banish the images of Deanna hitting me, screaming how worthless I was, how fortunate I was she even tolerated me.
“And who knows what she did to you before?” He shook his head. “How could she keep such a powerful adept as you in her thrall?”
“Her sorcery overpowered me.” But it sounded weak, and I had trouble understanding or believing it. Not that I would ever tell Padraigh.
He gave me the smug look that always frustrated me. “Exactly. How do you know she didn’t force you to prefer women? How can you be sure—”
I cut him off. “If you want me to leave, I will.” Many a time I resolved to break away from him. But though he could be irritating, it was true he’d never viewed me as something for his pleasure, never tried to take liberties with me. There were worse men. He’d helped me escape Deanna. We made a lot of siolfor because we played and sang together so well.
Threats to leave always got his attention. “Don’t go.” A pleading note entered his voice. “A woman travelling alone’s not safe in these times. I could not live with myself if I allowed you to come to harm I could have prevented.”
I wanted to argue that I could make my own decisions, but decided against it. I still admired him for trying not to be like other Raheshis. Of late we seemed to argue a lot. Perhaps I could have stood up to him better, but thinking about Deanna always dragged my spirits down.
Padraigh looked through the roof of trees toward the rapidly darkening sky. “We’d better not waste any more time getting to Ebur’s place.” I saw sadness behind his ever-ready smile, and a flare of regret crossed my heart. I pushed it down. He’d have to resign himself to the situation and stop dreaming of the impossible.
We kept up a conversation about nothing of consequence after that. An hour’s march brought us to a crossroads and a two-story stone square with a thatch roof, oak doors, and brightly lit windows battling the dark. Smoke meandered from chimneys at either end. Padraigh said, “We’ll do well here. Ebur draws big, noisy crowds who like a good song.”
“Just so there’s enough blankets.” I shivered. “I can’t sleep when I’m cold.”
“I could keep you warm,” he said, then winced and stammered an apology.
“I can’t believe you just said that.” I shook my head and marched for the entrance.
An avalanche of noise slammed into me as I pushed the portal open. Tankards hammered on wooden tables, mingling with laughter and short talk in several languages. Men in workers’ garb elbowed up to the narrow bar. Whores wriggled between the crowded tables. My mouth watered at the smells of wine and roasting venison, and a rumble in my belly reminded me how long it had been since I’d last eaten. In a corner, a few men were playing Senet, the clack of tossed bones lost in the overall din.
A mandola’s plunk and a voice like an angel cut through the noise. Whoever was playing displayed a high degree of skill. A peek around someone’s head showed me a dais where a dark-haired woman was performing. Silence surrounded her from the patrons at nearby tables.
Padraigh tugged at my arm when I tried to get closer to see. “We must see Ebur first, then settle in.”
I let him lead me, but would not stop looking at the woman. We broke through the throng near the kitchen when I heard a voice boom over the din.
A huge one-armed man ambled toward us, wiping his hand on his apron. A head taller than Padraigh, he had a torso like a tree trunk and shiny black eyes, with thick, dark hair and beard that made an island of his craggy face.
“Ebur!” Padraigh roared. The two men embraced, and hearty back-slapping ensued. But in the face of the rowdy display of virility, my thoughts kept straying to the minstrel.
“You’re early, man.” The bearded man threw his arm around Padraigh, nearly knocking him over. “And you’ve a partner? Well!” He shoved us into the kitchen and whispered, “Get out quickly!”
“What is going on?” Padraigh and I both demanded.
“Forget playing here tonight or tomorrow. There’s a Raheshi phenai in here!”
Padraigh’s face reddened. “I thought you didn’t allow such scum in the place.”
Ebur shook his head and looked at the floor. “Padraigh, you haven’t been here in Haaton in a while, have you?”
I exploded, “Haaton? You never told me we’d be in Haaton! Lord and Lady, you claimed you’d keep me safe!”
“What’s wrong with being in Haaton?”
“It would seem your partner knows the situation better than you, Padraigh.” The barkeep rolled his eyes, then looked at me. “Do you want to tell him, or should I?”
“Padraigh” I said, “you do remember Rahesh won the last war with Auriga, don’t you? Padraigh’s eyes shifted from his friend to me.
Ebur said, “Haaton was forced to make, er, concessions afterwards…”
I wanted to kill Padraigh. “We’re actually in Rahesh, aren’t we?”
“Not yet, thank the Goddess,” Ebur muttered. “But it may only be a matter of time. For now, Haaton must grant Raheshi soldiers free passage…”
“Ebur, are you going to introduce me?”
The newcomer strode through the kitchen like an overseer. Cooks, servers, and other workers all seemed to find other places they needed to be. He was compact, with a small-featured face, near-female, despite the neatly trimmed blond beard. Hook nose, and brown eyes that seemed to peer through everything and everyone they trapped in his gaze. The black tunic and sash of a phenai, a Raheshi priest, had no wrinkles or imperfections. When he threw back his cloak, a series of knotted bands tattooed on his neck became visible.
“Thiyudo Epilochias.” Ebur sounded as if saying it hurt his mouth. “I did not see you enter the kitchen.” “Thiyudo” was a common form of address in Rahesh, expressing solidarity between equals. Equal males, that is. In Rahesh, no female was ever anything but “slave.”
Epilochias nodded, ignoring Ebur and eyeing Padraigh, as if probing for a weakness to exploit. Padraigh had told me about deserting the Raheshi army at age twelve, just before the priests would have subjected him to Affirmation, to purge him of any “unreliable” thoughts, he said. The Padraigh I saw now seemed timid, not at all the man I knew.
Then it was my turn to be subjected to the phenai. The way he probed me turned my stomach. As a minstrel, I’m used to being looked at. And most men never look any further than my tits. I’ve grown used to that. But this man’s stare was like nothing I’d ever experienced, with no emotion, not even idle curiosity. He assayed me like a farmer would a cow or a pig. How much milk would I give? How much would I cost to feed? How long until I outlived my usefulness and must be sold?
“This is Padraigh.” Ebur sounded as if being civil was an effort. “My entertainment next week.”
“A minstrel and his slave,” Epilochias murmured. His eyes were not as soft as his voice.
Almost before the words escaped his mouth, I snapped, “I’ll thank you not to talk about me like I’m some whore! I’m Padraigh’s partner!”
That snapped Padraigh out of his daze. He stepped between me and the man, who was now frowning. “Finola’s a harper. We sing together.”
Ebur touched Padraigh’s arm. “Why don’t I show you two where you—”
“Just a moment.” From a fold of his tunic, the phenai brought out metal object, like a knife, its blade twisted in a knot like those on his collar. “I must test this woman—”
At the flash of the knife, I stabbed with both hands, fingers spearing sensitive spots on the priest’s neck, which threw him into uncontrollable spasms. I left Padraigh and Ebur shouting behind me and bolted from the kitchen to the common. Fighting through the crowd with my harp on its leather strap on my back, I made for the minstrel. Someone pawed my bottom. I pivoted and punched his face with the side of my fist. His nose burst in a fountain of blood. He collapsed like an empty sack, and I had all the space I needed.
As if I weren’t already angry enough. First, that pig of a phenai stripped me with his eyes, now this.
Four Raheshi soldiers in brown uniforms commanded a table near the minstrel. One of them, wearing the blood-red ribbon of an apprentice wizard, extended his hands at me to cast a spell. A scrap of song-weaving magic diverted it before he’d even finished the words.
The novice tried again. Again I defeated the force. “We can do this all night.” I almost hoped he would try again. To my disappointment, they retreated, and I had a table from where I could watch the dark-haired woman. Looking at her greatly improved my mood.
She looked about twenty-five, I guessed, slender as a willow. She’d shaved all the hair from the right side of her head and woven the rest into three braids that reached below her shoulders in a way I found very pleasing. When she played, she would smile, all pearly-white teeth, lighting up her face with joy, like a diamond. The delight showed in her playing. Her fingers danced on the mandola, creating chords and tricky fingerings as smoothly as a fish gliding through water. I lost myself in thoughts of the blend of my harp and her mandola. That led to a daydream about the soft caress of her hands…
I shook away the fantasy. That was how Deanna had trapped me, I warned myself, using my loneliness to lead me into a nightmare. I was tired of feeling like the only one of my kind, but how could I know how this woman would respond? She might not even be Sh’gan. She might be the happy lover of a man who treated her as she deserved.
“You make quite an entrance, Blondie.”
I hadn’t even noticed when she ended the song to applause and cheers. I looked up and found her in front of me. My face burned, which brought a chuckle from her. Even her laughter sounded musical.
“I… I don’t usually have to fight off drunks and Raheshis.” I looked down at the table, studying the gouges and markings carved into its surface.
She put out her hand. “Well, I can’t keep calling you ‘Blondie.’ Do you have a name?”
As I accepted her handshake, I made myself meet her gaze. “Your eyes…” I broke off, aware on a sudden how dotty I sounded.
“My eyes don’t match.” She laughed again. I wanted to hear that laugh more often. “My Papa used to tell me the Lord and Lady couldn’t decide what colour eyes to give me, so they gave me blue for the right one and green for the left. Oh, and I’m Suzannah. But my friends call me ’Zannah.”
“I… I like your singing.” I was sure she must think I was inane. “The Lord and Lady gave you a good voice. I like your playing, too. And—-and my name is Finola.”
She was even prettier up close. Dark brows. Large, liquid eyes I could lose myself in forever, with smile lines bordering them. She had a straight, pointed nose, exactly the right size and shape for her face, and her chin had a tiny dimple.
My heart was pounding like a bodhran.
“Ah.” She extended the word. “In Gilam you’d be Fionnghuala. It means ‘white shoulders.’ There’s a brehon by that name, a judge she’d be called here.”
“You’re… you’re from Gilam?” From her accent, I’d guessed her to be from one of the northern countries they call The Feuding Sisters, Haram and Gilam. “Me, I was named for my mother’s sister, who was originally from Gilam.”
“Mmm, yes.” She looked at my harp. “How quickly can you tune?”
I slid the instrument off my back, plucked a C string, then tried a double-pluck. “The weather’s been dry, so it’s in good tune.”
“Well, look, the crowd’s waiting. Why don’t you join me? I’m sure we must both know some of the same songs.”
I hesitated. “Are you sure?” My insides were churning like butter. Was she casting a spell over me with her song-weaving magic? Did she even realize what was happening to me? And just what was happening to me? Then she smiled at me, openly and without guile, as best I could tell. I had to trust myself. I swallowed hard. “If you’d like. Maybe just one.”
One tune led to another. We played “The Rising of the Moon,” “The Ash Grove,” and “The Drunken Sailor.” I learned two of her own tunes, an instrumental she called “On the Road to Chophtha,” and a sarcastic song about a slave, called “He Thinks He’ll Keep Me.” I taught her my arrangement of “The Whiskey Song,” which got the audience stomping their feet. Once when we paused, I glanced over toward the kitchen and saw Ebur and Padraigh arguing with the Raheshi, all using many gestures. I wondered how long I’d be safe from Epilochias.
Performing with Suzannah was like sunshine breaking through clouds, and I soon quit thinking of Epilochias. My heart lifted, such as I had never experienced before. Padraigh was an excellent partner, keyed to my playing; Suzannah was like that, but better, easily the best I’d ever played with. She seemed to anticipate my every change, every pause, every fill, fitting her music into the spaces I gave her as if she’d originated the ideas.
An hour vanished before we finished. I wanted to be with ’Zannah, Sh’gan or not.
She was someone I’d been waiting for all my life.
“You’re too good for this place,” I told her. We occupied my table near the dais, each of us with a tankard of ale. Epilochias was apparently gone; like as not, Padraigh had handled him.
Suzannah blushed, or perhaps it was the light. “If I think that way, the audience will see it. And if I keep drinking this ale, it’ll affect my performance, not to mention my mind. I’ve an urgent need to pee.” She set a gentle hand on my forearm. “Don’t go away. I’ll be right back.”
I wanted to jump into the air and cheer. “I’ll be here,” I managed to say.
As the crowd closed around her, I followed her with my eyes, so intently I barely noticed Padraigh slouching to a seat beside me.
“Why don’t you play that well when you’re with me?” he asked, fidgeting.
“Oh, it’s all her, she’s much better than me,” I stammered. I buried my hands under me to hide their trembling. “Please don’t be angry.” I hated how servile I became whenever someone seemed cross with me. The echoes of Deanna still lingered. I tried to change the subject. “What about Epilochias?”
I could not read the look he gave me. “Ebur got the Raheshi dog thrown out of here. And I’m not angry with you. I’m glad you enjoyed yourself. Where’d Suzannah go?”
“Oh, she… She’s gone to the jakes. Outside, I mean.”
He nodded slowly. “Well, you and I have to settle in, then rehearse. But we can wait til she’s back, so you can thank her and say goodbye. I wouldn’t want—”
“I’m not saying goodbye.” I rushed the words out. “Not to her, at least. I’m… I’m going to ask her if I can travel with her. For a while. To see…”
“She’s bespelled you.” Padraigh’s face was grim. “So my care was wasted. You—”
“Stop feeding me all that shite about how I need you to cure me! The only thing I need to be cured of is believing in you!” I balled my hands into fists, so tight my fingernails dug into my palms. I might have punched him, but for Ebur’s sudden appearance.
“Finola, what have you done with Suzannah?”
I sprang up. “What have I done with Suzannah? She’s gone to the jakes.”
“She’s not there,” Ebur said. “Nobody’s seen her. I sent a woman to see, and ’Zannah’s not at the jakes. Nobody’s seen her since she left the common. She’s overdue for her next set.”
“She just left,” I recalled my last image of her, pushing through the crowd. “She’ll be right…” My words trailed off.
Ebur was shaking his head. “She’s not at the jakes. This close to Rahesh, there’s only one answer when a woman disappears.”
I looked from Ebur to Padraigh. “She’s been taken,” Padraigh said. “That Epilochias…”
Recalling the way the Raheshi had stared at me, I clutched a small pouch of five-finger grass, ague weed, cinnamon, and sage I kept tied around my waist to ward off evil spirits, and uttered a short prayer to the Lord and Lady.
Ebur was scowling. “He wanted ’Zannah. Fancies he loves her.” I stiffened. “He must have decided to take her. And I thought I’d got rid of him.” He shook his head. “With you two here, I at least have a week to find someone else.”
I swore and looked him in the eye. “That’s it? You’ll let him get away with it? What does that tell the other women here? Cooks, servers, scullery maids… Even the whores. That a slave-catcher can come into your tavern and take any woman he wants?”
Padraigh grasped my arm. I pulled away. “Finola, Epilochias is not a slave-catcher. He’s wealthy and powerful. He’s a phenai, for Goddess’s sake!”
“I don’t care if he’s—”
“What can we do?” Ebur asked. “Shall I close up to go after Suzannah?”
“We? We? You’ve just made it clear you’re not going to do anything! ‘Oh, well, he stole one. Still plenty of others.’ What if she were your sister? Or your mother?” I glared at Padraigh, who coloured and seemed to wither. “Padraigh, you say you love me. What if he took me? Would you abandon me to him?”
“Of course not! But you can’t rescue her by yourself. He’s a phenai. He has sorcery beyond what you or I have ever dreamed of.”
“So you’re afraid.”
Padraigh’s eyes flashed. “I’m not afraid. I just wonder what’s in it for me, to attack a powerful phenai to rescue a Sh’gan woman you’ve just met when you’ll just leave me when you’ve saved her. What if she’s like Deanna?”
“If you were as sensitive to the magic as you claim, you’d not have asked that question, the way her songweaving and mine blended so seamlessly.” But I knew what he wanted. “If-if… If we can save her from that Raheshi, I’ll-I’ll stay with you.” I told myself he was right to question my judgment. Reminded myself of his good points, how kind he’d been to me, how well we played together. I cursed myself. I was making excuses for not getting what I wanted.
But the thought of ’Zannah imprisoned banished the excuses. My heart became a stone.
If he could sense my feelings, he gave no sign. “All right, Finola. We’ll try. But I’ll hold you to your promise.”
An hour later, Padraigh and I were on a horse the Ebur had lent us, cantering along the New South Road toward Rahesh. I rode behind Padraigh, my arms locked around him. Branches arched over the road like a roof, blocking the light of the low-hanging sun. Padraigh kept the horse from galloping.
“Can’t you make this beast go faster?”
“In the dark?” Padraigh called over his shoulder. “Even if I tried it, this horse has more sense than to gallop into the dark. We’d crash into a tree or a branch and dash our brains out. We won’t do Suzannah any good lying out cold on the ground.”
I knew he was right. But that did not chase the icy serpents from my belly.
We caught Epilochias sooner than I’d expected. He had created a transparent blue dome of sorcery in a narrow canyon. We crept as close as we dared. He’d bound ’Zannah ankles to neck in magical bands resembling lightning. She was trying to weave a song-spell. Her lips moved but apparently without effect, to judge by the tears that gleamed on her face.
The Raheshi looked at her as if she were a wayward child. Like Suzannah’s, his mouth moved but I could hear nothing. Then he stretched out his hand and ruffled her hair as a parent would do to a juvenile. There was venom in the look she gave him.
I began to sing, focusing on Suzannah. I wanted to touch her mind, to tell her I was near, without giving away my presence to Epilochias. I reached out with a spell, fighting his sorcery. I battled for what seemed forever, and suddenly the resistance vanished. I felt ’Zannah’s mind embrace mine.
Then Padraigh seized me, covering my mouth with a hand before I could utter a cry. “We must get away now!” he whispered. “That phenai dog’s too much for us to handle!”
I wriggled my right arm free and punched Padraigh, with no appreciable result because I could not plant my feet.
“I am not leaving ’Zannah to that creature!” I was probably too loud, but I didn’t care. Padraigh swatted me away like an insect, then raised his right arm, fist clenched. His arm took on a red glow. I remembered the Raheshi sorcery he never talked about. His body began to tremble, and his face twisted into a grimace, becoming someone else, not the song weaver Padraigh, but something darker, uglier, more gruesome than I’d ever seen. Had Epilochias completed some spell begun in Rahesh long ago?
“Now you see my true face, girl!” His snarl was like a demon’s, from a mouth that gaped as dark and forbidding as a cavern. His flesh turned the colour of baked mud, his brow thickened and overshadowed his eyes, which flashed like those of a beast devouring its prey.
I wanted to flee. But this was Padraigh, my singing partner and friend, who had not fled when I was in need. I fought down my fear and sang, a spell of love at first, for that was what I felt for Padraigh. Not sexual, for that could never be. Yet I knew he had a good heart, despite how annoying he was, and I aimed my magic at that heart.
I met the sorcery possessing him head on. Our spells, male and female, crashed like thunder and blazed like fire. The combined power nearly lifted me from my feet, but I struggled and regained my balance. I hurled a song-spell at him. He flung a bolt at me. But he’d spent his life denying and fighting the power forced on him, while I had grown into mine and embraced it. Back and forth we fought, each countering the other’s power.
He thrust a black spell that engulfed me like a shroud. But my song cut the dark as a knife cuts cloth, shredding his enchantment into fragments. As the sorcery dissipated, the monstrous visage faded, and I saw the Padraigh I knew.
It was as if he had emerged from a prison of clouds. But his face dimmed. “Did I hurt you?” He looked quickly away.
I cupped his chin in my hand and forced him to meet my eyes. “That wasn’t you, that was the sorcery they forced on you. And because you spent your lifetime fighting it, it never took you over completely. They tried to make you like them, but you defeated them.” I released his chin and gently poked his chest with my finger. “Despite the fact you want me to become someone I am not, you’ve never harmed me. I find you decent and honourable. I can never be your love, but I would like to think we can be friends.”
His face softened slowly. For an instant, I feared he might try to kiss me. My face must have revealed that thought, for he pulled away quickly and gave a nervous laugh. “You’d think by now I’d know better,” he said. The fight must have helped him adjust his thinking. “But I have a thick head. I’m glad to be your friend. And I’m sorry for all the stupid things I’ve said and done along the way. I hope you’ll forgive my mistakes.”
“Of course,” I said. “I’ve made mistakes too. Now though, there’s one more matter…”
He nodded quickly. “Suzannah. Can we conjure up some good spells?”
“When I said, ‘I have one more matter,’ I didn’t mean to—”
“You think I’d let you have all the fun alone?”
“You don’t have to.” But he was shaking his head.
“I’d be no friend if I let my inaction cause you harm. You’ve never faced any power like him, a Raheshi phenai, a very powerful, EVIL sorcerer. There’s nothing he will not do to subdue you. You’re no helpless girl, but Epilochias would crush you like an egg.”
I read the sincerity in his face. This was more than just my pride and desire for him to see me as his equal. This risked Suzannah’s freedom, even her life. Enslavement would surely kill her. He made sense. “Very well. We’re partners. Equal partners in this effort. Am I clear?”
He flashed the familiar grin. “Since I’ve known you, I’ve never doubted where you stood on anything, despite my acting like a wanton fool. What shall we do?”
“I’m open to suggestions, my friend.”
“All right, here’s what I think…”
I had returned to the copse of trees whence I had launched my initial attempt to reach Suzannah. I had only a vague idea where Padraigh was. “Better you not know,” he’d said. So as I left the shelter of the larch, the hemlock, the sumac, and the oak, I took time to reflect. I’d stayed with Padraigh out of gratitude, and because it was better than being alone. Then I’d met a black-haired woman with odd eyes who seemed to be exactly the person I had wanted to be all my life. She was bold and funny and beautiful. She sang about life and love with a conviction that could only come from a heart that had known those emotions well. And the light that ignited in her eyes, the sheer joy of doing and being, showed in her singing and her playing. Several of her songs told of her experiences as an orphan in war-torn Gilam, a child of seven whose life had been turned upside-down when her parents died, full of images of hunger, of biting cold and the icy fear that gripped her every night since. During the brief time we’d had to talk, she’d spoken of the man who had saved her from the two-legged beasts that roamed the city, how he’d changed her life forever with his kindness. Hers was the talk of how blessed she’d been, even as she’d questioned why the Lord and Lady had taken her parents. She dreamed, she’d told me, of some day helping children like herself who had tasted the bitterness of being torn away from their parents. She had presented her life and soul to me. Meeting her had felt like the culmination of all my own dreams.
Now I approached Epilochias’s dome again and used my magic. My spells had weakened the Raheshi’s sorcery, so penetrating was less difficult. Again I felt Suzannah’s presence. It seemed a little weaker as if her magic was starting to run out, so I linked to her and began to feed her mine.
“Who—?” As I linked more firmly, our minds met. I felt her pain and fear. “Master, please, no—”
“Be calm, ’Zannah darling, it’s Finola. I’m here, and I’ll free you.” I tried to tamp down my anger at what he’d already done to her.
“You aren’t really Finola, you’re a phantasm, another trick by him, to torment me. Go away!”
My face flushed, but I forced myself to take deep breaths to calm myself. “’Zannah, dear, of course, it’s Finola. How would Epilochias know of me, when we met not three hours ago?” To convince her, I sang “He Thinks He’ll Keep Me,” using a bit of song-weaving to layer in her harmony. While I did this, I attacked the spells imprisoning her. “Could an illusion do this?”
A sudden flood of Suzanna’s song-weaving burst free. When I kept up my magical assault on the lightning bands binding her, she spoke aloud. “Finola, don’t waste your magic, I’ll free myself! Get me out of this damned dome!”
I stood beside her now and focused my magic. The dome began blackening like paper afire. Suzannah gathered me into a tight hug, crying, “I just want to kiss you!”
My heart leapt. “You’re not saying you’re—”
Her grin lit up her face again. She nodded. “You are, too, aren’t you?” Laughter like a melody sprang from her.
“How charming,” another voice broke in. Our joy vanished when we saw Epilochias standing in the ruins of the dome. He dragged Padraigh behind him. Padraigh looked as if he had not eaten in a week. He did not react when Epilochias dropped him like a bundle of rags.
My heartbeat galloped. A desert would have been less dry than my mouth. Thoughts roared in my head. I vocalized a song-spell, but the Raheshi ignored me as if I were a moth.
“I must have made some mistake,” he said. “No slave could do that.”
His arrogance arrested my careening thoughts. Ignore me, would he?
I directed a blast of magic directly at Epilochias. While he was busy with my attack, I sent a tendril to finish undoing the sorcery that still lingered around Suzannah. When our minds were linked by my spell, I told her to combine her power with mine, emphasizing the need for her to appear still under the phenai’s influence. Padraigh had been right when he warned me against challenging Epilochias alone. Battling his spells had been difficult when he’d been busy with Suzannah; it was far harder to defend myself effectively when he aimed his sorcery right at me. I erected mystical shields; he demolished them like cobwebs.
“Little weaver of songs.” He flung spell after spell. “Your petty tricks have no effect on a master of the dark arts such as I!” I fell back before his assault. He summoned up mystical claws that gripped my torso, tightening with every breath. Sweat drenched my forehead and stung my eyes. My magic weakened. My ribs ached where the sorcery gripped me. I tried seizing the claws but managed only to burn my hands, which forced a scream from my throat. He’ll kill me, I thought as consciousness began fading.
“Finola, I’m free!” Padraigh’s familiar voice brought a fresh surge of mystical energy. “We’ll join all our magic and destroy this dog!” I let their magics pour into me, and felt renewed strength.
I freed my ribs from the spell and pressed the attack. Now the Raheshi fell back. His face showed shock and disbelief as I cast enchantments. “Attack, attack! Don’t let him think!” Padraigh’s presence. Suzannah’s “voice” was just as strong, not as full of swagger. “You’re powerful. Keep at it.”
Under our combined assault, Epilochias staggered and fell. His arms flapped, like the wings of a dying bird. His power had ceased to be a factor. “Would you like to finish him off, ’Zannah?” I remembered her tears when she could not sing.
But Suzannah declined. “If I do that, I become like him.”
Padraigh apparently had no such qualms, for a blast of his magic exposed the Raheshi’s skeleton for an instant, then reduced him to a black, smoking mass.
Epilochias’s death freed us all. We set off for Ebur’s. Suzannah and I shared the horse, at Padraigh’s insistence. I balked at first, but after a brief thought, I gave in. We all were very quiet during that journey.
For ’Zannah and me, the quiet extended into the next day, and the next. We talked about travelling together, and she heartily agreed. I described how Padraigh had helped me get away from Deanna, and his feelings toward me. She gave a slight smile when I brought up my promise to remain with him in exchange for his help rescuing her.
“So the choice is obvious.” She took me into her arms. We remained clasped like that for a long time, neither speaking. When she released me, there were tears on her cheeks. But she swallowed hard, looked away, then sighed. “I guess I’ll never see you again.”
My throat filled up and I could not speak.
But then Padraigh appeared. How long had he been here? “Never is a very long time.” He spoke softly.
I wiped my tears on my sleeve. Found my voice, though it was but a stammer. “Yes, it is.” I tightened my grip on ’Zannah, praying, Lord and Lady, let this moment never end. My hands trembled and my heartbeat raced.
“What’s happened here seems pretty obvious,” Padraigh said. “You two—”
“Are you going to start giving me orders already?” I rose to look him in the eye. “I know you mean well, Padraigh. You’re not like… like him. And perhaps I didn’t tell you often enough what a blessing you’ve been. You exasperate me lots of times, but your intentions have always been good, and… ”
He touched gentle fingertips to my lips. “‘Doom’s road is paved with good intentions,’” he said. “In this case, mine. You know I never wanted any evil to befall you. But that bastard … He thought he was doing ’Zannah good, protecting her from other Raheshis. He was probably surprised she didn’t want what he offered. He must have told himself he would always protect her. But he revealed himself when I saw him ruffle Suzannah’s hair.
“When he performed that simple action, he revealed his true self, and I saw myself. Like me, he convinced himself she needed him to protect her. But he never asked her what she thought of that.
“I’m not him. It’s not enough just to want ‘what’s best.’ I was arrogant and vainful to think I knew what that was for you and to give myself charge over your life. When did the Lord and Lady grant me that right?”
My heart leapt. “You mean…” I squeezed ’Zannah’s hand, and she responded in kind.
Padraigh nodded. “Go. Your destiny is not mine to give you. You did not have to earn it. It’s been yours since your parents gave you life. If I stand in your way, then I’m no better than Epilochias, the swine. No better than any Raheshi slave-catcher.”
’Zannah and I kissed Padraigh on the cheek, found our packs, and left. Before the forest closed around me, I looked back. He remained where we’d left him.
“He truly loved me,” I murmured, and bid him a silent farewell.
Jack Mulcahy has been a writer all his life. He has written free-lance articles for newspapers and magazines, and sold fiction to Lesbian Short Fiction, Altered Realities, Young Adventurers (anthology), Pulp Empire, Sorcerous Signals, Flashing Swords and others. He is currently at work on the second book of a planned trilogy that combines the fantasy elements of Conan the Barbarian with the feminist sensibilities of The Handmaid’s Tale. He lives with his wife in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Links to some of Jack’s other work can be found on his website
I have worked with Jack for many months, his writing and world-building is one of the best I have read. His stories are well thought out and he has characters that will leave you wanting more. I urge you to check out his other work and look out for his book when it is published.