Though he had worked in the house of Celevrau for some time, Tomas had never actually met him. On those rare occasions when the master of the house had been present, Tomas had been working for Limlot, and it would not have been proper to meet him. On this occasion however, as the designated driver, Tomas met with the Master on the evening before they left. He was gravely polite, as was fitting, and bid him a good journey.
Tomas started as the sky lightened in the east and followed the road towards the dawn, wrapped in his cloak against the early morning chill. After leaving the settled forest behind he made decent time,occasionally passing eladon patrols, some mounted, others on foot. Around mid-day he pulled off the road to a shady spot, tethered the quaha on long reins to allow her to graze, and took a nap in the cart during heat of the day, like a civilised speaking being.
He woke to find the sky crowded with fat grey clouds and the wind delightfully cool. The quaha was eager to be off, so he hitched her up again and took to the road. He made excellent time following Master Ben’s written directions, sighting the fort in late afternoon just as the rain started.
Thunder rolled and rain spat down as the cart halted at the gatehouse and Tomas spoke with the guards. He reported to the commander. ‘My master Bethnero sends compliments to yourself and your deputy, Ethenceldo Eltorvil, and a consignment of Magus-treated wands,’ Tomas said. His Celadi had come along well.
The commander nodded, saying, ‘Thank you, Apprentice. At last – we have waited too long. We have a Healer from the city here now, helping with the poisons and curses, and she may now be released to her usual duties. Are you a Healer apprentice?’
‘I am not.’
‘Ah, you would not be acquainted, then. I shall allocate you quarters in the Infirmary, and you may lodge there until the Healer is ready to leave.’
The following day, Tomas was at a loose end. He wandered the fort for a while until someone told him to leave a private area. That afternoon, a magus came to see him. It was burning hot, but with a heaviness in the air that promised rain to come. He was a golden-skinned elado with a merry, sun-lined face, hair bleached blonde by the sun, and bright green eyes.
‘Hello, lad,’ he said with no preamble, knocking at Tomas’ door. ‘I am Master Aravon. I am an animal magus, and I have been visiting here to help with treating injured quaha. Now that we have your Master’s wands, I may return home, but like you I await the Healer’s pleasure.’
Tomas rose and bowed from the waist, as was proper.
‘If it pleases you,’ the master went on very politely, ‘I would bide with you while we wait; for since I am senior here, I may show you the fort without incurring anyone’s displeasure. Would you like that?’
‘Yes, O Master, thank you.’ The elado’s manner was easy, almost diffident; Tomas fleetingly thought the master might prefer the company of animals to speaking beings.
They walked down from the Infirmary to the main gate. Master Aravon asked, ‘Are you apprenticed in your Master Ben’s school?’
Tomas said, ‘No master, I am to study Animal Sympathy.’
The master checked to look at Tomas. ‘Ah! So you are young Tomas! Your master has spoken of you – kindly of course,’ he added, with a grin. ‘When the time comes, you will be joining my college.’
‘Ah,’ Tomas said, ‘I look forward to it. Master Ben had not told me who I would go with.’
‘It might have been Master Celevrau,’ said Aravon, ‘but he is too busy with the Lord’s affairs in these days. So I have taken on many of the teaching duties in Greystone.’
Master Aravon did most of the talking, showing him the fort, the stables and rookeries where the messenger birds were kept. He greeted the bird-keeper heartily, and made introductions. There were rows of large cages, most occupied by large black birds with white breast and underparts - crows. ‘These birds,’ said Master Aravon, ‘are just as clever as dogs, or monkeys. If you train them from the nest, and reward them consistently, they make the most reliable messengers we have, without the difficulties of homing pigeons.’ He gestured towards the other side of the building, ‘Though they have those too, of course.’
Tomas looked at a crow in its cage. It felt very bored. ‘Hi, bird,’ he said. The crow cocked its head and shuffled on its perch.
‘You certainly are gifted,’ said Master Aravon, watching Tomas. ‘Why don’t you give his head a scratch?’
As if on cue, the crow hopped to the bars and tilted his head for a scratch. Tomas did so, noting the large beak. ‘Good boy,’ he said, for lack of anything better.
After chatting for some time with the keeper, they walked down to ground level and made for the large clear exercise ground at the back of the fort. It was hot there. The sun beat mercilessly down on the hard-packed red-brown earth of the exercise ground, where a detachment of mounted eladi were drilling.
The bare earth shook. The mounted detachment charged, the striped forequarters of their quaha shimmering in the heat as they rolled across the field in formation. A small horn blew, and they all wheeled about, now heading towards the Tomas and Aravon. For several tense heartbeats, they came on; and then another blast sent them into another wheeling turn, stripes shifting aside for brown. Tomas could only gape: such co-ordination was simply not possible using bridled horses, at that speed. To watch these animals, with saddles and stirrups but no bridles was an incredible sight.
Master Aravon watched with quiet pride from the shade of a line of thorn-trees at the edge of the ground. ‘Is that not a fine sight? I have been trained, and trained in my turn, even as they do.’ Turning back, he led the way round the edge of the exercise ground, back along the hard-packed track to the sprawling stone pile of the Cobra Fort. ‘Most of my apprentices,’ the master explained, ‘remain with me for only a term or two before going on to train with the cavalry. I had thought, Tomas, you were to be an officer of the militia or to join the cavalry yourself, but I see that your gifts are deep indeed. Master Ben has been lucky to find you – as you have been blessed to be found by him.’
‘I know it, sir, though I doubted at first.’
On returning to the fort, the master was called away. Tomas took in the view from the walls for a moment, and then went down the stairs, smelling rain in the gathering cloud. Rain was always welcome in this heat. He remembered home, where it seldom got this hot, and set off on a wave of nostalgia and worries about his family.
His maudlin thoughts were interrupted by a strange sound: a distant shout. At first, it might have been a human voice, but as it went on, he realised it was almost like a bark: a baboon, perhaps? Baboons had not been much of a problem when Tomas had lived in Hunters’ Wells. The vermin were never far away from settlements, and had to be controlled.
The barking was coming closer. It seemed to be echoing, somehow. Wait a minute, he thought, that’s a really loud baboon! He looked around at the wooded hills, green trees dark on yellow grass. Where was it coming from? There was nothing down by the forest road; nothing up the slope, where the land mounted bare, rocky hills in the cloud-dappled, late-afternoon light. Behind him, he thought. He looked along the edge of the exercise ground. As he watched, a lone quahastar came galloping at speed along the road he had walked earlier. He slowed as he came up the road, but seemed unsteady in the saddle. He swayed, and Tomas saw red all along one side of his armour. He’s doomed, Tomas thought. He was torn between wanting to help and wanting to get below, out of the way of the trouble that was obviously on its way. Suddenly, someone came hurrying out of the gate below Tomas. It looked like an elada in Healer clothing, but she was alone. Tomas started down the stairs to the courtyard, unsure whether to offer help or get out of the way. Down in the courtyard, he put one hand against the golden-stone archway of the gate and looked out, to where the elada was treating the injured soldier. The quaha stood nearby, breathing heavily.
Suddenly a trumpet rang out from the tower. Fear fluttered on Tomas’ heart: time to get out of sight! He wasn’t even armed. As he looked out of the archway, beyond the trees on the lane, he suddenly saw what had been chasing the rider: the biggest baboon he had ever seen loped along the road at terrible speed towards the fort. At least the height of a man, with limbs like tree-trunks, and running on its knuckles, the shaggy-haired baboon was grossly oversized. Its teeth were bared in a snarl, revealing fangs longer than Tomas’ hand. Instead of the usual grey colour, this monster was black, with white and grey streaks. Tomas’ blood ran cold: what devilry was this? Even as he stood there in terror, several more of the monsters loped
past in the same direction. They seemed to be all dogs, all males, heavy-shouldered and shaggy-furred.
It was too much for Tomas. As shouts rang out and eladi rushed to their posts, he couldn’t move fast enough. He turned to go, hoping to get out of the way of the fighters, cursing his disability. Hobbling as fast as he could, he stopped short – the healer! Turning again, he looked out. She couldn’t be seen from inside the gate. Tomas desperately wanted to close the gate, but where was the elada? He waited, heart hammering, for seconds that seemed like hours.
‘Close that blasted gate!’ came an order from the tower.
‘The Healer’s still outside, sir!’ called an elado from the wall.
Tomas remembered the tears of the girls and women of Hunters Wells, and made his decision. Two fighters started down from the walls towards the gate, as Tomas started through the gate himself.
Suddenly, in a rush of footsteps up the stairs, the Healer was there. It was Liriel! Her face a tearful mask of terror, she cried ‘Close the gate!’ but it was too late.
With a buffeting of dusty fur, the massive baboon was in the doorway, right in front of Tomas. Tomas reflexively reached for the militia equet he no longer carried, then hefted his walking stick. With one deft swipe of a heavy, black hand, the baboon tripped Liriel up. She crashed down to the dust with a short, sharp scream. Pinning her down by the neck with one hand, the baboon made to disembowel her with the other. In desperation, Tomas did the only thing he could think of: he whacked it with his walking-stick.
‘NO! Stop!’ The walking-stick clacked heavily on the thing’s nose. The baboon stopped dead, seeming to only now notice Tomas. Time stood still. The baboon looked atTomas. Tomas could feel its pain and surprise: what was this?
‘Let go!’ said Tomas, his voice trembling.
The monster stood still. It was a Speaking Being! He had to obey. Terrible things might happen if he didn’t. Tomas felt all the thoughts, as if they were his own. For a few agonised seconds, he tried to sort out which were which. The baboon sat back on its hindquarters, rearing its awful head up above man-height. It had stopped, as ordered to, but now it was confused. Why did it have to stop? Wasn’t it told to go and kill as many thin-monkeys in this place as it could?
‘You must not!’ Tomas said out loud.
But why? The other Speaking-Being had said, they could eat anything they found here!
‘You may not eat men!’ Tomas shouted.
Oh, the baboon thought. It was feeling rebellious, and was tempted to defy the Speaking-Being, but fear of pain and hunger stopped it. The memories were burned deep, and its hunger was not yet great enough to push it beyond its conditioning.
‘Go – outside!’ Tomas told the monster.
The baboon showed its front teeth in a subservient smile, and went down onto all fours again, showing its purple backside as it turned.
Tomas lowered his walking-stick. The baboon stopped, looking back, still a bit confused. Tomas had to make sure it left. ‘Go!’ he said, ‘look for your friends.’
The monster was in the doorway. Liriel lay still, breathing in small, sobbing gasps, trying to be quiet. Agonisingly slowly, the monster moved into the doorway. Tomas made to reach for the end of the heavy lever that would bring the gate crashing down. As soon as it was on the threshold, he could slam it shut, kill it...
Now! Tomas grabbed the lever, but it was made of heavy ironwood, bound with metal strips. He pulled it, but the effort forced a grunt of exertion out of him as his injured hip protested. Pain shot out of his pelvic bone, and he lost concentration. Suddenly, the baboon was back, a terrible suspicion in its mind. It was Tomas’ turn to panic, and he lost contact with the monster’s mind.
‘Stop,’ came a female voice. Tomas looked behind to see Liriel, still on the ground, concentrating on the baboon. She said, ‘Go out, now.’ The baboon looked at her, but it had already been tricked once. It curled it lips back horribly, showing horrible fangs capable of killing a man with one bite. Suddenly, just as it started to move, there was a heavy, whipping sound and a long-shafted eladon arrow suddenly protruded from where its left eye had been. Two more arrows hit it, in the neck and in the ribcage, and it was dead even as it crashed down in the doorway.
Tomas spun around to see two the archers at the end of the yard. ‘Well met, comrades,’ he said. He had never been so glad to see an animal die.
‘And we thank you,’ said Liriel. Her face pale, she said to Tomas in a faltering voice, ‘Would you mind helping me up?’
Tomas did so, leaning heavily on his walking-stick. The quenstari hastened to help them. One of them said, ‘Look outside – the quahastari have them.’ Tomas saw a group of mounted eladi ride into view below the gate. They were chasing one of the giant baboons. The beast bellowed and fled, but was too heavy in the limbs for a burst of speed. Arrows came from the eladi, hitting it in the neck and ribs. In shock and pain it screamed, an unnervingly human sound. It turned to fight, and was hit by three more arrows. It stumbled and fell, coughing blood. The eladi riders reined in, circling and attacked with swords and spears until it lay still. Then, wheeling and forming up, they rode out, seeking further targets.
‘That was well done,’ said one of the archers.
‘Indeed,’ said Tomas. His hip throbbed, and he leaned heavily on his walking-stick.
Liriel was still clinging to his arm. ‘I think,’ she said, ‘I have wrenched my –’ and then a word Tomas didn’t know. She pulled heavily on him, and he grabbed her under her arm. She was surprisingly light.
'I cannot walk,’ she whimpered.
Tomas leaned heavily on his walking-stick. This could be difficult. The archers came to their aid, and as Master Aravon re-appeared, they helped Liriel to the Infirmary where she had been working as a Healer until mere minutes ago.
They carried her into the building, where cold lights gleamed golden, brighter than the gloomy sky. It was very like the infirmary in the City, Tomas thought.
Liriel was lowered onto a raised bed, much higher than normal eladan beds. Her eyes were closed and her face pale, as she concentrated on reducing the pain. Tomas made to leave with the archers, but Liriel said in a quavering voice, ‘Tomas, would you stay by me, please?’ He returned and they both answered questions from the healer. Tomas noticed a dark red stain spreading on Liriel’s solar plexus – the beast had come that close to eviscerating her! Suddenly, she convulsed and vomited up a lot of blood. It spewed all over Tomas’ hose and tunic, but he held her up. She then lay back on the thin mattress and grabbed Tomas’ hand, as the Healer laid his hands on her. He began muttering, and Tomas caught a few phrases of Ancient Eladan. Through Liriel’s hand, he felt ratherthan saw a hot, golden glow from the healer’s hands. He closed his eyes to focus, as he did in meditation, and felt his mind drift. Another presence seemed close and familiar, and Tomas realised it must be Liriel. All at once, he felt her soul pull on him, and he braced himself to support her. The pull became a drain, but he kept himself up. He felt Liriel’s presence as something bright but fractured, with her drawing strength and life from him. With a final pull that almost knocked him out, the contact was broken.
His head swam as he looked at the healer. The elado was smiling, saying, ‘That was an elegant and rapid healing, OAranelado. Thank you for your support of your lady-friend.’
‘What happened?’ Tomas slurred. He felt incredibly tired, almost drunk.
‘Because our healer is not pure elada, she is too broken in soul to be healed perfectly, even though her own healings are excellent. She drew heavily on you to compensate for her weakness, and it worked. It was well it did, for she was bleeding into her stomach from that wound. I myself was unaware until she vomited blood all over you.’ He pointed at the blood-stain on Liriel’s abdomen, now shockingly large.
'If the healing had been incomplete, she may have died from loss of blood, perhaps before we even knew of the extent of the injury.’
Tomas heard the words, but made little sense of them. All he wanted to do was to lie down and sleep. He focused on the healer with difficulty.
‘Come and sit down here,’ said the healer, guiding him to a couch nearby. He called for help from the apprentices. Tomas was so tired, he didn’t even see who expertly pulled his ruined clothes off, leaving him in his underwear. As he lay back, he heard the Healer again: ‘You have been drained by the Healing, but your recovery will be complete: you have saved her life this day. She is now as family to you.’ Someone covered him with a cool, clean sheet. Tomas was aware enough to be vaguely amused, but fell asleep almost immediately.
The daylight woke him up. He was in a strange room, one that didn’t look or even smell like the hut he shared with Master Ben. After a few seconds, he remembered and groaned. He hadn’t seen that much blood, so close up before. Soon, Master Aravon came to see him, with Liriel. ‘So,’ he said with a grin, ‘here is our unwitting hero: that was something to see.’
'How long have I been asleep?’
‘You collapsed yesterday afternoon.’
‘What?’ Tomas was appalled.
‘I took a lot out of you, Tomas,’ Liriel said with tears in her eyes. ‘I cannot be too grateful. If you hadn’t been there with your passion and strength, I would have died.’ She bent down and embraced him.
Tomas returned the hug, though all he could reach from that position was her arm. She stood up again. The master quietly left, leaving Tomas alone with Liriel. She sat down on the end of Tomas’ couch.
‘We saved each others’ lives today – only you saved me twice!’
For once, Tomas could think of no witty reply. He simply said, ‘Thank you, O Liriel.’
‘You are most welcome,’ she knelt by his bed. ‘I don’t know how it is among men,’ she said, ‘but if you save another’s life, you become as family. We are doubly so now – so,’ she said with a mischievous grin, ‘you are my hanno, my little bruv,’ she punched him gently on his arm.
Tomas chuckled and levered himself up on his elbow. ‘All right – neti, little sis!’ he poked her in the ribs. They poked each other childishly a few times, then Liriel suddenly hugged Tomas again, saying, ‘I remember your psychic touch during the healing. You are like me, Tomas. So like me: we are of a kind.’
‘Iremember feeling your presence, too. It was somehow familiar.’
‘That is what is so good, Tomas. You cannot know what it is like for me. All my working life, I have either treated eladi or men, and they were always so other. And, because of my mixed race, my fellow Healers always felt my presence as something – lacking, or impure. And of course, because I find it so difficult to heal myself properly, I have always so feared serious injury. We,’ she said with a wan smile, ‘people like us, simply are not as good or whole as full-blooded eladi. But, men are such a vortex of passion and energy, and they really are not... we really have so little in common with them, either.’ She sat on the bed. ‘I would love to know how you came to be as you are.’
‘The Healer I spoke to at your Infirmary said I was merely lucky.’
‘Well, if you are that lucky, I would not want to play cards against you!’
They laughed, and Tomas noticed once again how fine her face was. He grabbed Liriel’s hand, looking in her eyes. She returned the look steadily. He pushed himself up, as quickly as he could, despite the discomfort. He pulled her closer, trying to kiss her. Suddenly, she was in his mind, taking control as if he was a dumb animal. He simply let go, unable to hold her any more.
Humiliated, he flopped back down onto the bed. He ached all over. She rose to leave, and he didn’t want to meet her eyes; but at the door she turned back and looked at him, smiling and pink in the face.
‘Your feelings got the better of you, Tomas.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘you did.’
She just laughed, a throaty, liquid sound. Then she disappeared from the doorway.
‘This time,’ he added, slightly louder. There was no answer.