The frost-covered ground crunched beneath my boots as I walked to the top of the ridge. The vantage point was familiar; I'd been here before, but the view it revealed was not what I remembered. Ice and wind-blown snow filled the valley I remembered lying before me, and across it, the rocky upthrust that held Hoarfrost Keep still rose, though somewhat broken in appearance. Atop it, there were lights within the keep that falsely echoed the beacon of safety the keep had once been.
Once, but no longer, because of me.
"You all right?"
"Fine, thank you," I called back to the man behind me. I felt a twinge in my arm and shook it out.
"The arm bothering you?" someone asked.
I turned to my left and regarded him. "Just a twinge. This spot brings back some memories, and what I see across the valley brings even more."
I thought of all I'd lost that day. I hadn't told the story, but these men knew it. Knew it too well, as most of the world did these days, it seemed. I wondered about their reasons for accompanying me to this place.
"So it seems," I muttered, more to myself than to anyone, In my mind I remembered my master saying those same words to me but he didn't offer any reproach. He knew how I felt about those events. He knew how much it took for me to come back to this place, even after the years that had passed.
I'd regained consciousness on this ridge, alone and empty handed, with nothing but the bloodied robes I wore. I could barely see from one eye and what my other eye beheld across the valley when I rose made me cringe. I tried to raise my hand to shield my eyes from the sight, but my wrist flamed into utter agony. I glanced down then at the wrist of my dagger hand, remembering the strike that I'd felt, and saw my wrist looked as if it had been taken apart and reformed, somewhat less correctly than it had once been. The examination brought new pain, and only the cries of mounted beasts in the valley below brought me out of the haze the pain had buried me in.
I'd looked for Ilesa, even for just her body to tell me she had made it this far with me, but there was nothing. In pain like none I'd known, and with my mind trying desperately to shutter itself off from the possibilities I already knew were probably true, I forced myself to move south and into the forest.
Years since I'd fled the scene of my failure, stumbling through the forest, chased by unhumans, beasts and ghosts of my own making. Two years of living with the loss of Ilesa. Two years with the Wards of the North broken at Hoartongue Keep. Two years with the worlds of human and unhuman in full conflict again.
Years since I'd stumbled south, with only the river to guarantee I did not loose my way, staggering along the line between forest and river like a beetle in a death dance. My master found me six days later, having made no great distance on foot. I still remember the look on his face, and the way he picked me up, as if I weighed no more than a feather, when I stumbled at the sight of him.
I woke several times on the road, always in pain, and always hungry and thirsty. Food and drink found their way past my lips, or the pain went away someway or another, and then I would ease back into blissful unconsciousness again. It was several weeks on the road and then another week at the tower before I was finally able to merely sleep between the bouts of awareness. Not that I knew that at the time. As with many things, I only learned the truth later.
During that time the pain eased, and the hunger and thirst abated to more modest levels. The first time I woke to a consciousness that carried reason and awareness with it, my master's face came into focus above mine. He appeared to have aged considerably.
"Pacasin," he said softly when he saw my eyes focus on him.
"Master," I said in a whisper. "I'm sorry."
"No, don't apologize," he smiled sadly down at me. "I shouldn't have sent you. You bore a wizard's burden that day, and I should have been there, not you."
"Ilesa!" I cried out,"
"No," my master put his hand on my shoulder, holding me down. I had no strength to oppose the action. "She saved you in the end, but I'm not sure that she saved herself."
"Not sure?" I asked. That was almost a relief, as I'd been expecting to be told she was dead.
"We've found no sign of her body, in the keep or anywhere else. We've been unable to contact Loam or any of the other usual agents of the old forest who could tell us with a certainty."
"Yes, he said they knew of her raising. Said they could feel her."
"None of them have been seen since the day of the breaking. But there are some signs..."
"Nothing definitive, but ... well, the forest is growing. At the rate it grows, it will threaten to fill the Vale in a few years."
"As in the first days of men," I thought aloud, remembering some of what I'd learned about the north wood and the history of the conflict between humans and unhumans.
"As it was when the old magic ruled the land," my master echoed as well.
That was the end of that particular conversation. I remained too weak for anything extended, and most of my conversations for the next few months were just as short. I suspect my master didn't want me dwelling overlong on the events of that day, but he did slowly get the story from me, piece by piece, including my suppositions about what mistakes I had made. He did agree with me about the big one. That damned imaginary sparring session by the river.
I'd used the image of my unhuman adversary, but in doing so, and by wrapping it in my magic, I'd conjured him, almost as if I'd summoned him directly. He had in turn used that opening to create a link between us, a link he used that day deep beneath the stones of Hoartongue Keep. Used it to bring unhuman magic in, past the wards, to the ward stone itself.
A week after I awoke, I was finally allowed to leave my bed. My master had brought in two of King Tynis' mage-healers to work on me, and their reports, both to my master while I was unconscious and to both of us afterwards was interesting.
"There was a great deal of healing done on this boy's body in the first few hours and days after the breaking, but it was oddly done." Damn! Was everyone referring to it as that, I asked myself?
"Healing magic of some kind was performed, but if so — and it seems certain, it was not something we are familiar with. The healing on the wrist in particular seemed to go a bit awry. We had to redo quite a bit of the work done there, and it will probably never be perfectly healed." The taller of the two added.
The shorter one, the one with the long beard looked at me with a raised eyebrow. "There seem to be some psychic connections there, between the site of the wound and the memories of the ... ahh, events that led to it..."
"How those bindings came to be is a mystery, and probably not connected to the healing magic, but the bindings are all internal and while they will probably provide a twinge of pain now and then, they are in no way debilitating or dangerous," the taller fellow added. "There is no external connection to them that we could find."
When I liberated myself from my bed, it was for the smallest of things at first. Relieving myself was an almost joyous experience. Walking slowly to my master's table to eat a meal was immensely satisfying, even if I was ready for a nap immediately after.
Doom and Gloom, as I began to refer to the healers in my thoughts, were with me constantly, and I wondered at what it was costing my master for their complete attention to my needs. Competent healer-mages were not cheap, and this pair, if annoying, seemed utterly competent.
I spent a good amount of time the first few weeks after I'd risen from my bed flexing and bending various body parts; my wrist in particular receiving frequent and agonizing attention that left me aching and shaking several times a day. When I wasn't flexing and bending, I was walking. I had walked the corridors and climbed up and down the stairs of my master's tower countless times in my life, and the healers seemed intent on having me duplicate that feat in a very short time.
My walks were brief at first, and it wasn't until I'd been up several weeks before I was able to consider the stairs, but it felt good to be up and about, particularly when the walks began to take me outside. The fresh air seemed very welcoming, as if Gaen herself had been waiting to greet me.
My evenings, once I was able to stay awake long enough to appreciate them, were spent sitting by the fireplace in my master's library. I didn't try to read much of anything at first, but rather would get swept up in my own thoughts and memories, save for those times when my master would sit with me. We would talk then, trying to piece together the events leading up to and beyond the events at Hoartongue Keep.
"Pacasin, you are of the Might-Born, but you are still living within your first lifetime. No one can be called a Wizard who has not lived at least two lifespans, and most of the truly great wizards known to man have lived far more than just a few. I myself have lived more than a dozen, and I am considered young by some."
I nodded. I knew and understood this.
"Young as you are, you still have exhibited a sensitivity and strength that has had me relying on you to a degree, and in ways that I never should have. I was treating you far more as an equal than is wise to do with someone your age, despite your willingness and capacity. You have not yet lived even a quarter of your first lifespan, and yet I sent you to restore the Wards of the North."
Again I nodded, but I remembered that there had been more to this than just my masters predilection for placing burdens on my shoulders. I began to speak, but stopped, wondering if it was my place to remind him. My master saw and understood my hesitation.
"Yes, its true that King Tynis had a hand in much of this, and you know a wizard is seldom likely to go against his king's foreseeing. What our king saw, and what it means to you and me is still being written, and it is his place to share the fullness of it with you, not mine, but..."
It was not like my master to hesitate, and it drew a raised eyebrow from me, which had him laughing a short, barking laugh that carried some bitterness in it.
"King Tynis — OUR King Tynis has long been not only my king but my friend. Within his gift as Right-Born ruler of Montcross, he has seen ahead, and in seeing, told me things. Given me instructions on things which must be carried out. He was the first to know of the rising of a new Wood Witch in the Vale. He was the first to suspect her strength and what it might mean to the forest. Beyond that, it was Tynis who foresaw my taking you as apprentice, and what that might mean to me, to him and to Montcross."
Again I began to speak, but this time stopped with the realization that I had no idea what I should say at this. My master continued, placing a hand on my shoulder as true sadness crept into his voice.
"Tynis it was who told me you should attend the restoration of the wards, and Tynis it was who told me to send Ilesa with you to Hoartongue Keep."
"Why?" I managed.
"'Send Pacasin alone and he will die, ' Tynis told me. 'Send the wood witch with him, and he will live, '. I asked him what would happen to Ilesa and all he would say was that her fate had not been revealed to him."
"So this has all come about because we are dancing at the end of the strings King Tynis holds?" I asked with some bitterness.
"Of course," my master answered. "He is a King of Gaen, one of the Right-Born. Such is his place, and his power, and it is yet another reason why the Wizards do not last long when they seek to rule."
"We cannot see ahead as they do," I summarized what I'd been hearing.
"No, we can look ahead, if we have the knowledge and the power for it."
"Indeed, and I have done it a few times, but it takes much preparation, and far more precision and power than even what you used to restore the Starhill Wardstone," my master squeezed mt shoulder then and stood, walking toward the hearth before turning. "The Kings of Gaen receive this gift as part of what makes them Right-Born, and costs them nothing."
"Nothing?" I asked, trying to imagine it.
"Nothing except their peace of mind. Every King of Gaen knows too much about the ones they love, and about their own fate, and they do not get to pick and choose what they know. It comes to them unbidden."
"Odd that they would make friends at all, over time then," I thought out loud.
"Indeed, and I often wonder how our lives are tied together, his and mine, that he has been so willing to be my friend all these years."
"If sending Ilesa with me saved my life, what did sending me in your place do?"
"That is a good question, Pacasin, and it is one I have promised our King I would not answer for you. I might have my plans for you, but King Tynis has plans for the both of us, and we are both pieces in the game of Kings he plays."
There was nothing I could do, it seemed to me, except refuse to be a piece in the game. I wasn't prepared to accept the consequences, known and unknown, of doing that, so I nodded and left the remaining questions unasked.
When the day came that I suggested to my master that I might want to try sitting a horse again, he agreed.
"We will ride tomorrow to Trilin," my master told me. "You will pick out a new horse for yourself from the Royal Stables."
"No Warhorse this time," I told him, missing Tarn. "Just a steady trail horse, one equally at home on forest or mountain trail."
"Probably a wise decision, Pac. You've had your taste of the battlefield for now. Still, with that in mind, it is also time you picked up sword and dagger again, don't you think?"
My wrist flared with pain at the thought of it, but I knew he was right. My flesh was mended, but there were yet other wounds to heal.