by Robin Lythgoe
The Parting manifested as a delicate shimmer in the air, like sunlight on a mist. It stood deeper and higher than the eye could perceive. The passage of time had done nothing to mellow the strength of the magical barrier. Impenetrable and indifferent, it stood between Bairith Rilsingyr Mindar and all that rightfully belonged to him: a kingdom, a people, land and wealth beyond imagination. More, a life; his life. His need to get it back filled his every breath, piquant and rich with potential. He would swallow his pride, pay any cost. That one such as he should be reduced to such depths infuriated him.
The nearer he drew to it, the more aware of its presence he became. Its many-faceted existence jittered along his nerves. A lively flush touched pale skin and filled him with an intense desire to turn back, to be anywhere but here. He could no more ignore the sense of dread than he could ignore the darkening of his vision. He pressed on with teeth clenched. His fists knotted. His heartbeat thundered in his ears. Bile rose sour in his throat. Before long the threat of insensibility slowed his steps to a halt.
The single word jolted him back to the present, back to his purpose. If he lost focus his plan would fail, and he refused to allow such a thing to happen again. Years he had spent. Day after day, coin after coin. That the barrier had affected him so quickly only sharpened his resolve.
Behind him, the mages murmured about the prickling on their skin. The soldiers sensed nothing. It had not been built for them after all. Their blood had not gone into the making of it as his had. It endowed him with a peculiar, perverse sort of ownership.
“My lord, might we rest for a moment?” Daerowyn asked, head bowed in deference.
The murmur of her voice soothed the jangle of Bairith’s nerves and the chaotic leap of his temper. She was lovely as always. Her golden-brown braid and blue gown spurned the heat and dust of the trek. She might have just stepped out of a shady forest bower. Advisor, witch, and mistress, she continued to intrigue him after all these years, in spite of her continued failure. Lavender eyes held his then slid away, shuttering their knowledge of his weakness. Anger quivered to life again.
“I should check on the boy,” she said, anticipating his rebuke.
He turned to inspect the procession. “He is fine.”
Daerowyn inclined her head. She would not contradict him, whatever she thought. “May I give him some water?”
“To what end?” he asked shortly. “You’ve done your duty, go back to the horses.”
“I would stay and see this through.”
“He is not yours.” The flicker in her eyes, there and gone, told him he’d scored a wound. He didn’t have the time or energy to coddle her.
Silent, she bowed her head and stepped aside.
Bairith faced the Parting again and directed his attention to strengthening wards he’d spent countless hours creating. After a time, he resumed his journey, eyes on the dimming brightness. Behind him came the crunch of boots on the road. The men spoke little, and only in undertones. Their confusion and uncertainty suited him. “Stay close to me,” he ordered. When they bunched near he drew on their nervous energy to fortify himself. No sense letting it go to waste.
The company had left the horses some two hundred yards away from the barrier to keep them out of harm’s way. It was no great distance, yet the further Bairith walked, the more of a strain motion became. The air itself closed around him. An indefinable pressure bent his shoulders, dragged at his soul, clogged his lungs. When he could go no further, he stopped and drew himself up.
“Bring the animal.” His voice rasped like an unoiled hinge.
A pair of guards pushed through the group, half dragging a young stallion. It alternated between an uneasy dance and straight-legged balking. Terror rimmed its eyes with white.
Bairith found it curious that the magic affected a dumb brute more than it did the men. He ignored its swiveling ears and lashing tail. Laying a hand between its eyes, he sought the vital energy of its life and drew it into himself. He needed every bit of strength for the ordeal.
The men leaped out of the way as the animal collapsed between them. One of them swore.
“Now the child.”
Another guard stepped forward, his expression apprehensive. Mouth tight, he deposited his burden on the ground.
The boy swayed on chubby legs, golden curls limp, green eyes dull and unfocused. The drugs that had laced his sweets counteracted the inevitable screaming and thrashing. Children were prone to such behavior, and Bairith wouldn’t have it interrupting his spell-casting. Or spell-breaking, as the case might be.
“Walk with me, little one,” he invited. He had to take the boy’s hand himself, then tug him into motion. How remarkable that one so small should play such an important part of history. The magic lay dormant within the child, but it ran through his veins even so. Such was the gift of his remarkable inheritance. Its presence gave Bairith something to focus on besides the increasingly oppressive Parting. A gentle name for something so grotesque.
A straight path lay before him, cutting through the broad mountain pass in a wide, cream-colored ribbon. The Parting no longer marked the southern reach of the Suminian Empire. That great nation’s borders shrank more with every passing year. Fools.
Bairith drew a vial from beneath his layered silken tunics. A gold filigreed dragonfly embellished plain black glass. With no hand to hold onto, the boy sank silently to the ground and stared into the distance. Ignoring him, Bairith removed the vial’s stopper and drank down the contents, savoring the ethereal flavors of time and determination along with the more earthy flavor of blood, berries, and the karuda spice. His eyes closed as he tracked the revivifying effect of the potion within him. Its liquid heat lit a flame of confidence and brought the magic—the aro—within easy reach.
The aro was in everything, including his companions. One mage for each aspect of the magic, one guard for each mage. It took only a moment to tug threads of essence from each of the mages, knot them, and bind them to himself. They did not protest; they accompanied him for the express purpose of giving him aid.
“Shall we?” he inquired politely. Without waiting for a response he swept his hands in an elegant motion that brought them into a rough circle. From another place within his robes he produced a small embroidered pouch. He poured the fine, coppery powder it held into patterns on the hard surface of the road. Residual dust drifted in little eddies over each symbol, writhing independently in a space gone broody and still. The guardsmen shifted to stand behind their charges, faces grim, stances ready.
Eagerness filled him. Soon, by the grace of the gods, soon. From his belt he drew a small ceremonial blade the length of his hand. He whispered a prayer, kissed it, and pricked the meaty part of his palm. He directed the dribble of blood to fall upon one of the linked runes he had drawn. The lines changed color, the stain spreading to either side. He followed the new energy as it percolated through the circle, anticipation growing. When the two points met on the far side, the energy level leaped and he smiled in satisfaction. The power was enough to muffle the repulsing influence of the barrier and give him focus.
He crouched and took the boy’s chin in his hand, studying the glazed eyes. “Do not be afraid. You and I have a magnificent future ahead of us.”
The fabric of his robes rustled as he stood and began the first of the incantations. Lilting, beguiling, his clear tenor rose through the sultry air. The entire world stilled to listen. That was as it should be. As he began the verse again, the voices of the other mages joined his to lift and twist around each other. Here the higher voice of the little Earth-shaper, there the deep tones of the broad Water Master. With voice and will, Bairith brought each of them into perfect harmony. The combined magics rippled the fabric of time and place.
The very foundations beneath his feet shook. Stone grated, raw and powerful. The vibration trembled up Bairith’s frame to his skull. Dust swirled in a wind that whipped sable locks away from his face in long streamers. Water weighed the dust, turning it to a perfume of rain-washed earth, dampening his skin. A pair of droplets formed to slip down his cheek and kiss his lips, but the sear of heat burned it away. Crackling. Intense. Vital. Then the spirits shrieked through the circle, each claiming their part—thundering desire, howling challenge, weeping grief, burning passion. Glorious, so glorious…
Bairith drew the magic and the elation of the moment close. The breaking of blood magic promised hours of strain, and he settled in. He countenanced no failure. When they wavered, he spurred them onward. When they staggered and stumbled, he compelled them to continue.
Teeth bared in a savage grimace of determination, Bairith fought to gain absolute control. A single thread, Fire, flickered and sparkled just beyond his grasp. He needed it. Energy snapped and crackled all around. The stench of burning pervaded the air: ozone, silk, hair, skin. A quiet sound like a puppy panting came from the boy huddled at his feet. The taste and smell of blood teased Bairith, but he could no longer work out whether it belonged to him, his companions, or even the life that had long ago been sacrificed to create this wretched wall. Jaw and teeth groaning beneath the pressure of purpose, he commanded the magic to obey. He drew ruthlessly on the strength of the others, particularly the firebrand who wielded the one thread he could not control on his own.
A moan grated across his eardrums.
He answered with a growl from deep in his throat.
“Master, stop. Please—”
A meaty slap cut off the plea, a guard reminding someone of their duty. A single whimper followed.
The energy surged to a new height, so intense it threatened to obliterate consciousness. Exhilarated by power, Bairith closed his will upon the evasive Fire. It did not come easily, yet every aspect of the magic had been used to exile him, every aspect must be used to restore him. He refused to let it go, no matter how it burned.
It was time.
For the barest instant, he regretted sending the woman away. He knelt with effort and, chanting still, drew the child into his arms. The flaring magic nearly blinded him and he had to feel his way. A high-pitched whine followed by broken sobbing announced his success. Precious blood ran, thick and rich and tangy. He did not much care for the scent, but such weakness had no place here. “Blood for blood,” he croaked.
For an instant the energy hovered in the center of the circle, gathering. Then shocking power rent him. Fire escaped his grasp with a booming explosion, then Air careened away. He made a wild motion to recapture them—screamed—fell. Dizziness and pain dragged him into a leaden darkness. Beyond it he could hear the murmur of voices twined with the incessant, scraping whisper of spirits so close, so present, he could surely touch them. He reached for them to force them to his will and succeeded only in making himself black out.
When Bairith opened eyes again, it was to a gem-studded sky and the bitter stench of failure. Still, he had to know for certain. Reaching out with his senses sent exquisite pain lancing through his skull. Daerowyn forestalled his attempt to sit up with a firm hand against his shoulder. He hissed as the world slipped sideways.
“Your hands and your chest, Master,” she murmured, her voice an anchor to reality. “Please do not move. The healer should be here soon. The magic frightened the horses. They escaped, and we had to send someone on foot.”
They’d left the healer in the village, safely out of danger. Bairith lifted one hand, looking blankly at the bandages wrapped around it. The memory of escaping Fire awakened his senses to a fierce agony, and it didn’t abide only in his hands, but riddled his torso as well. It took a moment to find his breath and force words into a rasp. “The wards failed. Will I be scarred?”
Daerowyn hid her expression by reaching for a flask, distressed. Light from a tiny fire nearby danced across her face. “They have not failed yet. You live. May the gods speed the healer on his way.”
That he should experience such acute pain meant the wards were badly weakened. He felt them crumble further with each breath. Bairith let his counselor lift him to drink, though he almost passed out again in the process. The fortified wine sent relief creeping through his body. From his raised position he saw a second fire situated a short distance away. The silhouetted shapes of men obscured the flames. He squinted to try to chase away an unwelcome blur. “How many lived?”
“A third. I expect we’ll lose two more before dawn.” Daerowyn set the flask aside and carefully lowered Bairith to the blankets again. She stank of charred meat and wet wool. Strange…
Breath scraped through scorched lungs. “The boy?” he wheezed after a moment. He kept his eyes closed.
Silence preceded a drawn breath. “He did not survive.”
Bairith’s heart skipped a beat. All that potential power gone! Sudden fury scorched him, equal in measure to the burns on his body. “I told the guards to get him away after I cut him.”
The inability to see or sense Daerowyn’s emotions reminded Bairith of the deafness he’d once experienced after an explosion. “Yet they failed.”
“No, lord, they got him out. The water followed. He—drowned.” A thick swallow followed the pronouncement.
The boy’s blood had failed. His body and all the precious latent magic within it had failed. “How unfortunate,” he managed through clenched teeth.
A log on the fire popped.
“What will we do with him? Shall we return him to his parents?” Daerowyn whispered. The drape of her veil hid her expression.
“Don’t be a fool.” What a ridiculous idea, ferrying a useless corpse across the sea. Bad enough he had to suffer the stench of the soldiers and the over-salted fish that would feed them. “Send the two dying to their gods, along with any others that will needlessly tax the healer. And get me another drink. Water.”
Daerowyn’s breath hitched, but she did not protest. She was only a servant after all. “Is all lost, Master?”
The water, in spite of the flavor it had picked up from the leather flask, went down sweetly. The barrier still remained; what options did he have left? One idea after another tumbled through his mind, alternatives he’d already considered a hundred times over and discarded like chaff from wheat. Today’s failure galled him. A single crack in the Parting was all he’d needed to bring the entire thing tumbling down, yet the boy’s blood had failed. The efforts of the most powerful mages in three realms had failed.
“The boy has siblings. Cousins. Aunts and uncles. I will find which of them is the key.”
He cut her off with a gesture. Held his breath against the pain, then exhaled slowly as conviction suffused him. “Whatever it takes.”
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