Four massive plow steeds nodded their long heads, almost asleep in their traces. Coils of steamy breath drifted from their nostrils in the predawn chill. An enclosed litter with plain black draperies was balanced across the four broad backs. The beasts shifted under the burden placed into the litter. Last evening’s spring drizzle continued in fits and starts, and their giant, unshod hooves made little sound on the still damp courtyard paving stones.
From the exterior courtyard, the black stone walls of Castle Krej appeared wrapped in gloomy silence. ’Twas inside that the storm raged.
Senior Magician Baamin listened to the protracted arguments with his extended senses and shook his head dispiritedly. The old man gently tucked a warm blue cloak around the prostrate form sheltered within the litter. Only then did he try to say farewell to Jaylor, the only journeyman magician who had survived the quest to find an invisible dragon.
But at what cost? And for how long?
The hastily constructed litter swayed. Meager torchlight cast wavering, elongated shadows—like so many ghosts released by the magic Jaylor no longer possessed—around his once strong body.
“Go in peace, my boy,” Baamin whispered. The young man lay unmoving, unresponsive. Only an occasional shallow breath indicated he still lived.
A tear touched Baamin’s old eyes. “So much promise wasted on a single spell. But what a magnificent spell, my boy.” He shuddered in memory of the massive amount of magic that had bounced around the Great Hall of Castle Krej a few candle-lengths ago.
“You have made me proud to name you magician. If I had ever had a son, I would hope he would be as strong and honorable as you.”
A small hand touched his shoulder. Sympathy and understanding radiated from the slender young woman at his side. He marveled that she could spare so much emotion from her empathic contact with the young man who meant a great deal to both of them. But Brevelan had grown beyond empathy. She had the ability to mutate emotions, ailments, and thoughts and turn them to healing.
A rare creature out of legends.
Why was so much talent wasted on a woman who would never be allowed to enter the University for training?
“I will heal him.” Brevelan wiped the tears from Baamin’s eyes. His sadness lifted a little. Just a little.
She touched Jaylor’s chest to make certain he still breathed. The faintest glimmer of coppery light passed from her hand into Jaylor’s body. He stirred and groaned within his coma.
“If anyone can heal him, ’tis you.” Baamin clutched his own shoulder where the witchwoman had touched him. Had that bizarre light passed into him as well? “Take him back to your mountain clearing where you can keep him safe. I’ll send Yaakke with you. His boisterous spirits should keep you both from brooding, and his magic will keep you in contact with me at the University. I shall throw a summons your way at each full moon.” Baamin signaled his youngest apprentice to join them. Subdued for once, the dark-eyed adolescent moved between the heads of the lead steeds.
From the depths of his robes Baamin withdrew a large rectangle of precious glass, framed in gold. He tucked it into the blue cloak that covered Jaylor’s shoulders. “Here’s a master’s glass, Jaylor, to go with the master’s cloak. Tonight you have surpassed your quest and earned these symbols of your accomplishments. I doubt any other master magician in all our history could have worked that spell and survived.”
The old man allowed his sad burdens to settle on his shoulder. He needed to go back to the Great Hall of the damaged castle. The irate lords, the confused young man who should be king, and treacherous royal relatives just might listen to Baamin’s counsel. If they didn’t, the kingdom of Coronnan seemed certain to splinter into rampaging chaos.
Before the magician could move toward the broad entryway, Prince Darville pelted down the steps from the keep, waving an arm above his head to keep the litter in place a few moments more. “Brevelan, wait!” he called.
Brevelan turned her wide blue eyes toward Baamin in near panic. “Help me make Darville understand,” she pleaded.
“Don’t go, Brevelan.” Darville nearly skidded on the rain-slick paving. He came to an abrupt halt within a finger’s length of the small woman with witch-red hair.
“I have to take Jaylor back to my clearing.” She turned away from the prince, hiding her face.
Baamin stepped back one pace to observe them. Their love for each other was so obvious, touches of her coppery aura entwined with the prince’s golden afterimage. Baamin ached for their necessary separation.
Women were a mystery the old man wasn’t sure he wished to understand. Love and sex wasted too much energy. Energy that Baamin needed to devote to magic and diplomacy. He remembered, fleetingly, the one woman who had claimed his love. After one night together she had deserted him rather than spend her life as the lonely and forgotten mistress of a magician.
“The best healers in the kingdom, in the entire world, are trained at our University,” Darville asserted. “Come back to the capital with me, Brevelan. We’ll care for Jaylor together.” The prince cupped her delicately-boned face in one of his large, warrior’s hands.
“You have a kingdom to rule, Darville,” Baamin reminded him. “Your Council is divided. Your cousin seeks to usurp your rightful throne by fair means or foul. You cannot spare the time or energy to heal your friend.”
“I will heal Jaylor.” Brevelan straightened to her full height, seeming to stretch upward and outward with power.
Baamin had never seen anything like it in a female. Where did the girl get the magic to give her that kind of an aura? Stargods! Women didn’t have magic!
Correction, women didn’t have traditional magic. Since Shayla, the last breeding female dragon and source of magic, had flown away, all that was left in Coronnan was the solitary magic thrown by rogues. Without limitations and controls, solitary magic had been outlawed in Coronnan hundreds of years ago.
“Please stay, Brevelan,” Darville pleaded. His hands began to shake with the strength of his emotions. “I need you. I can’t think straight without you. Your love was all that kept me from sinking permanently into the feral instincts of a wolf body. You have to stay with me.” Darville’s mane of blond hair glistened damply in the combined light of dawn and dying torches. His queue had come undone hours ago. His wild tangles added a sense of untamable vigor to the planes and angles of his too-thin face.
“You have the ability to heal yourself, Darville. Jaylor won’t survive without me.”
“Then come to the capital at least. I need you near me.”
Baamin had never seen his prince so insecure, so vulnerable. Those moons of ensorcellment in the guise of a wolf had taken a heavy toll on Darville’s mind as well as on his body. These were weaknesses the prince had best hide from the Council and Lord Krej. That greedy cousin wouldn’t relinquish his regency powers easily.
“All the minds and emotions of the throngs that dwell in your city would kill me, Darville. You know that better than anyone. Let me go in peace. Please.”
Darville’s hand dropped to his side. His fist clenched tightly. A muscle in his jaw jumped. Then he bowed his head in acquiescence. “Go quickly, then. Before I lose my courage and command you back.”
Baamin nodded to his apprentice, Yaakke. The boy tugged on the harness of the left leader steed. The litter swayed and lurched as the beasts began their plodding journey. Jaylor groaned from the depths of the blankets. Brevelan turned her back on Prince Darville as she reached a loving hand to soothe the ailing magician.
“I love you, Brevelan,” Darville whispered.
“I love you both,” she whispered back.
Neither of them seemed to notice Brevelan’s cat, Mica, who crept from the shadows and parked herself on Darville’s foot.
“Merrow,” she begged for attention from the prince. He didn’t respond. “Merrower!” This time the cat rubbed her head insistently against Darville’s leg.
Baamin stared at the creature, eyes wide with questions. He swore the cat had spoken out loud, first in reassurance, then in petulant tones.