Door Into Light
House of Shadows 2
by Rachel Neumeier
The long awaited sequel to House of Shadows
A coup against the king of Lirionne forces his last remaining legitimate son, Prince Tepres, to flee to Kalches, nearly on the eve of war breaking out between the two countries. Tepres may have won the friendship of Kalchesene prince and mage Taudde Omientes ken Lariodde, but in the face of his cousins’ hostility and his grandfather’s mistrust, not even Taudde may be able to protect the heir of the infamous Dragon of Lirionne from the perils of the Kalchesene court. Worse, his duty to his own country may require that he set aside every consideration of friendship . . . unless he can find another path both countries can accept.
In Lirionne, Leilis holds too many dangerous secrets for comfort. She knows where Tepres fled, and with whom. She knows his father the king is still alive, and where he is hidden, and why he cannot declare himself and take back his throne. But not even Leilis knows that the true conspiracy was never aimed at the king, nor at seizing ordinary power.
The real conspiracy was always aimed at the true dragon, the dragon sleeping beneath the mountains of Lirionne. Nemienne, apprentice mage and far out of her depth, is the only one in either country who can hear the dragon as it stirs toward wakefulness. If it rises, Lirionne may fall. If the conspirators force it to their will, worse than that awaits. And Nemienne, with no one to help her but the youngest and least-regarded heir of the Dragon, can find no way to stop any of the disasters now poised to crash over both countries.
This is a book that is really about families and choices.
There are four narrators, lots of plotting, lots of people being their intelligent (or not) selves, albeit the younger ones somewhat insecurely, and an ending that is an intricately structured tour de force that brings all the pieces together with a couple major surprises. (translation, I didn’t forecast them, and I’m usually pretty good at that.)
The writing is excellently lyrical, reminiscent of McKillip,
Three weeks before the spring solstice, one week after the door to Kalches had first appeared in this whimsical, unpredictable, willful house where he had lived for the past month and more, Taudde stood before that door, his hand on the knob, recruiting his nerve to open it.
The door to Kalches, land of music and sorcery and the high winds that both cut like knives and sang like harps, stood in the long hallway of the house, between two high, narrow windows. Brilliant sunlight blazed through the nearer of the two; silver moonlight glimmered through the other. Between day and dark stood this door: solid, weathered, and ordinary, exactly as though it was a normal door and had always waited there for a hand to fling it wide. Though it did not match any other door in the house, somehow it did not look out of place. Its frame had been hewn roughly out of granite. The door itself was of common pine, the wood neither stained nor painted nor carved with any decorative figures nor even planed entirely smooth. When Taudde opened that door … when he opened it, he knew exactly the wind, fragrant with pine forests and the cold, clean scent of lingering winter, that would skirl out of the distant mountains and into this house.
He did not mean to step through the door, not yet. But this afternoon, weather permitting, he would finally step from this house into Kalches, crossing all the intervening miles in an instant.
He was not looking forward to that at all. Or he was, of course, in a way. He had been so long away; no matter how bitterly he would miss Lonne and the sea, he couldn’t help but anticipate his return to the stark, cold country that was his home. But his homecoming would certainly be … fraught. Taudde did not at all relish the thought of facing his grandfather and explaining everything that had happened. Or, really, anything that had happened.
Still, he dared not leave his return too late. Three weeks was little enough time.
He had asked leave from the prince of Lirionne to step through that door and into Kalches. Tepres had granted it, of course, exactly as he had promised. At noon today, Taudde would formally ask leave from the king of Lirionne himself, Geriodde Nerenne ken Seriantes. The king would also grant it. Taudde had very little doubt of that. Then he would open this door for the third time, and step through, from the spring of Lonne, the Pearl of the West, into the high, stark winter of Kalches.
With Leilis, so that was something, at least; no matter how little Taudde expected to enjoy his own interview with his grandfather, he did expect to enjoy witnessing the meeting between that stiff old man and Seathrift of Cloisonné House, which was the name Leilis went by when she put on the robes and manners of a keiso. He wanted to watch the old man try the edge of his tongue against her wit and unshakable composure. She would render his grandfather absolutely speechless, which was not something many people could do, but Taudde had no doubt she would do it. He looked forward to that very much.
But though he was resolved to go through, he thought he had better see how the weather lay on the other side of this door. This door opened into the mountains above the town of Kedres, not into the town itself, and storms were common in those mountains as winter turned to early spring. If the weather looked too difficult, well, that would be reason enough to put off his homecoming at least another day.
“Well? Will you open it, or do you merely mean to admire it as it stands?” inquired a light, quick voice at his shoulder. It was a voice that, to Taudde, was unmistakably underlain with an echo of the dragon’s voice. When ordinary men called Prince Tepres the Dragon’s heir, they were generally thinking merely of the king, the infamous Dragon of Lirionne. But ordinary men did not know of the true dragon beneath the mountain, and ordinary men did not possess Taudde’s trained ear.
Karah, Moonflower of Cloisonné House, the newest and youngest keiso in all of Lonne, stood beside the prince, her fingers twined with his. Though she had come to this house this morning ostensibly to visit her younger sister, Taudde’s student Nemienne, the romance between Prince Tepres and the beautiful young keiso was a very, very open secret throughout Lonne. Karah was far too honest to hide her feelings for the prince, and as his father did not disapprove, Prince Tepres also openly acknowledged his infatuation with her. Everyone looked forward to an eventual flower wedding. This gave the city a charming, pretty subject for speculation and gossip and helped take everyone’s mind off the coming solstice. Taudde was perfectly certain the king had thought of that, and would not have been surprised to discover that Prince Tepres was deliberately making certain public gestures of favor for the same reason.
Jeres Geliadde, the prince’s companion and bodyguard, stood behind them both. Nemienne hovered to one side, most of her attention on the door. She had long since accepted her sister’s romance with the prince and wasn’t much concerned with that; she was much more interested in doors and windows and the whims of the house. And in Kalches. Taudde had not yet decided whether he would permit her to accompany him to his home. He was almost certain it would be safe enough for her to come, but … he wasn’t entirely certain. None of them could be entirely certain about anything of the kind until the solstice came and went and did not give way to a summer of iron and blood and fire.
Prince Tepres said drily, “If you are not inclined to open it, Taudde, I might lay my hand to it.”
Jeres Geliadde cleared his throat.
“Or, then, perhaps not,” the prince conceded, tilting a straw-pale eyebrow at Jeres. He did not touch the door, but half turned to give his bodyguard an ironic look. The prince’s thin, arrogant mouth seemed made for irony. He bent that look on Taudde. “Someone needs to, however.”
Taudde eyed Prince Tepres with resignation.
“Of course my father will give you leave to go, Taudde. Surely you don’t doubt it.”
Taudde steadied himself with an effort of will. “No. I don’t doubt your father’s … generosity.”
“Your own grandfather’s, then?” the prince asked, more gently than was his habit.
A sudden hammering on the door interrupted Taudde’s attempt to frame an acceptable answer.
It wasn’t the door to Kalches; that would have been far beyond merely startling. This was merely the ordinary door that simply opened out onto the Lane of Shadows. Men did come to that door from time to time: mages who came to study bardic sorcery or the occasional tradesman daring enough to seek custom among the mages who lived along this lane. Prince Tepres, of course, or one or another of the young men who were his companions. Now and again, on a few memorable occasions, the king himself.
None of them had a knock quite of this sort. There was a disconcerting urgency to it.
Prince Tepres, quirking a pale eyebrow at the intrusion, stepped forward to answer that hammering. It was not his place to do so, but he might have meant to reprimand whomever was there for so rude a summons. Certainly whoever pounded roughly on the door would be embarrassed to find he had disturbed not a mere foreigner but the Dragon’s own heir.
Taudde, moved by an alarm he did not entirely understand, said sharply, “Wait!” just as the prince reached the door.
The prince, startled, turned his head, to look back at Taudde.
Jeres Geliadde, responding perhaps to the alarm in Taudde’s voice, thrust himself past Karah and Nemienne and strode suddenly forward, his hand dropping to the hilt of his sword.
The prince’s hand fell on the latch. The latch dropped and turned under the pressure of that touch.
The door slammed open.
For a heartbeat, that was all. There were men there, poised on the weathered gray stone of the porch, a crowd of men: a few in the black of the King’s Own and a handful in the flat red and gray of the army; two men in the black and white robes of mages, and, most fraught of all, three men wearing robes embroidered at cuffs and collar with the saffron-gold that no one in Lonne but those of royal blood had any right to wear. The one in the forefront was a man nearing middle years, heavyset and hard-featured, powerful and angry. The man a step behind was younger and more elegant, with a narrow mouth and small chin; his angular eyes cold with bitter triumph. The third was a younger man, well back, surrounded by soldiers.
Taudde had never met the left-hand princes of Lirionne, but he knew at once who they must be: the youngest must be Prince Geradde, of whom he knew nothing but the name. The cold, elegant man must be Prince Telis, whom the folk of Lonne called Sa-Telis, the serpent, even to his face. He had a serpent’s look to him: a cold look. He was said to be mage-gifted and clever and dangerous to cross.
And the one in front had to be Prince Sehonnes, eldest of the king’s sons, but keiso-born and thus not his father’s heir.
Not the king’s heir so long as Prince Tepres lived.
Taudde’s flute, recently carved of driftwood he had gathered himself from the broken shore below the Laodd, was in his hand. It had come there as automatically as Jeres Geliadde had drawn his own sword. But it was not the same as his old flute, which Taudde missed suddenly and acutely.
But for a long, reverberating moment, no one moved or spoke. Jeres would have leaped forward, he had his hand on his prince’s arm, ready to snatch him back from danger. But Prince Tepres had flung up a hand to check him and by that seemed to check them all, so the moment drew out, tension singing in the air until it became all but audible.
Prince Sehonnes, too, held up his hand. He, as Tepres, might have meant to restrain his men. But there was something else in the gesture. Something ostentatious, something that was meant for display: Look at me, like a vain boy showing off a new and expensive bauble to his friends.
Prince Tepres was staring at Sehonnes, at his hand … at the ring he wore: a heavy iron ring in the shape of a dragon, with twin rubies for eyes. Their father’s ring. The ring of the Dragon of Lirionne. Tepres had paled. His thin mouth set hard and stern, and he put his shoulders back and stood very straight. He looked, in that moment, very like his father.
“Brother,” said Prince Sehonnes, grimly, and Sa-Telis added, sharp and urgent, “I want the sorcerer alive!”
Tepres tried to swing the door closed. The heavy gauntleted hand of one of the soldiers caught it, a booted foot came down to brace it open, a sword went up … Jeres jerked his prince back and caught that descending blade with his own shorter sword, closing with the other man to counteract the soldier’s advantage of reach, shoving the man back out onto the porch with his weight and the sheer force of his will. But Jeres was only one man, and the door was still open.
Tepres, unarmed, reached after a sword he did not have.
Taudde lifted his flute, meaning to get those men off his porch and sweep the left-hand princes after them—perhaps he would fling them all into the dark under the mountain; he thought he could and was frightened and angry enough to try. But the mages blocked him, Sa-Telis stepping to the side to get a clear view of Taudde. Of course the mage-prince and his allies had known Taudde would be here. Both those mages had actually studied with him—he recognized them now—they knew very little sorcery and pretended to scorn what little they knew, but they knew him a little, and they had plainly come prepared to counter his sorcery.
And Taudde, who had devoted considerable thought during the past winter to ways in which a bardic sorcerer might avoid being caught in a magecrafted net of silence, found himself, in the moment in which it mattered, unprepared to meet them. He had more or less trusted the Dragon of Lirionne; he had not expected the door of this house to open onto enemies and sudden battle.
So he was not quick enough to answer the attack when the mageworking set itself against him, binding him into silence so that his flute uttered no sound, so that his shout of frustration fell into silence and was utterly lost. Taudde found himself unable to unravel that mageworking as fast and as powerfully as the two mages set it.
Out on the porch men struggled, but Taudde, caught by a web of magecrafted silence, could not hear them. Jeres had killed one man. Another of his attackers, slashed across the belly, folded slowly down over his terrible wound. The man’s mouth was open, but if he was screaming, Taudde could not hear him, either. Prince Sehonnes’ mouth was open as well, but he seemed to be shouting rather than screaming. He was pressing straight forward through the melee, toward Prince Tepres. One soldier had gotten around Jeres—there were too many men, far too many, they were getting in each other’s way, but that wouldn’t last and anyone could see how this particular battle must end.
Tepres, unarmed save for a short belt knife, gestured urgently for Karah and Nemienne to get back and himself stepped forward to face his attackers. Nemienne was trying to pull her sister away, but Karah was clearly refusing to go without Tepres—the girl wasn’t actually wrong, the prince absolutely could not be allowed to sacrifice himself—Taudde started forward, meaning to grab the prince’s arm and haul him bodily back farther into the house, which after all was not an ordinary house—there was no need, even now, for heroic last stands, but with the silence on him he could not even say so.
Jeres Geliadde faced two more armed men, but another man, behind him, kicked him behind the knee, and Jeres collapsed to one knee. The man drew back his sword for a killing thrust … and Jeres, his face blank, lunged upward and sideways and whirled his sword around in a short, vicious arc. Prince Sehonnes’ hand leaped away from his arm, seemingly of its own accord, blood spraying across the gray stone. The left-hand prince staggered, his expression one of disbelief and anger rather than pain. At the same time, the man behind Jeres completed his thrust, and Jeres, his body fully extended in his own smooth attack, could not even attempt to counter that blow. He did not counter it, and the sword slid into him, stabbing from back to front so that several inches of the blade emerged from his chest.
Despite that terrible blow, Jeres, in a smooth continuation of his own movements, as though stepping through the choreographed movements of a dance, caught Sehonnes’ amputated hand as it descended and flung it with deadly accuracy past half a dozen startled soldiers and through the door of the house. Where Prince Tepres, as though the move had been practiced in advance, put up his own hand and caught it.
For a moment that seemed frozen in time, everyone stopped. Prince Sehonnes, face twisted, clutched at his maimed arm. Even the serpent-prince hesitated, his dark eyes narrowed, to all appearances unmoved, but his attention momentarily fixed on his stricken brother.
Taudde, feeling as though he had been somehow caught in a play, was seized now by a wild desire to laugh. He seized Tepres’ arm in a hard grip and pulled him, resist though he would, back down the hall, sweeping the girls with them, and the pause shattered. In perfect silence their enemies came after them, rushing forward—too many and too well armed and nothing to laugh at, so that Prince Tepres yielded at last and backed up willingly, shoving Karah behind him, but it was impossible, anyone could see they would not be able to get clear. The soldiers rushed forward, and in that instant, without thought, Taudde seized the knob he found ready under his hand, flung open the door, and snatched Prince Tepres and Karah sideways out of the house and out of Lonne entirely, into sudden dazzling cold. The mage-prince strode forward, his mouth open in an inaudible shout, but Taudde slammed the door shut between them, staggering with the force of that motion and with footing gone suddenly uncertain.
Prince Tepres, staggering also, jerked himself free of Taudde’s grip, shoved Karah away toward safety, and whirled back toward the door to face his brothers, lifting Sehonnes’ amputated hand as though he might fling it at their faces in a macabre gesture of defiance.
Only the door was not there. Where it should have stood was only brilliant light pouring down a steep knife-edged ridge and into the empty gulf beyond, light glittering off an equally steep cliff rising on the other side: light and naked stone, empty air and blowing snow, here in the heights where snow would linger all through the short northern summer.
Tepres straightened, slowly. In one hand he still held the grotesque trophy his bodyguard had thrown to him, but not, now, as though he was aware of it. Tipping his head back, he stared up at the sharp peaks above them. Karah, who had stumbled into the snow beside the path, scrambled urgently to her feet, forgetful of keiso dignity, and then stopped as well, struck by the shock of cold and the stunning view. She turned slowly in a circle, peering in astonishment down from the heights. Far below, a road curved around a shoulder of the mountain where they stood. Taudde, too, glanced down, though he already knew where they were. The jagged pattern of these mountains were familiar, though less so from this angle. He knew exactly where they were: high on the side of Kerre Irelle, greatest of the mountains that loomed above the town of Kedres. He could follow in his mind’s eye the curve of this road down and down and farther down, toward the green valley and distant town still invisible below.
“Of course you would seize upon this door, of all doors in that house,” Prince Tepres said at last. “Of course you would. And … where is the door now?” His tone was commendably neutral.
Taudde cleared his throat, glancing up the bare slant of gray stone. The wind drove tiny particles of snow into their faces, stinging. In Lonne, the warmth of summer had already come. Below, in the valley, he knew spring flowers would be blooming. But nothing at all occupied these heights but stone and snow, singing winds and glittering light.
“Of course,” Tepres said once more, following his glance. Straightening, he faced Taudde straight on, as though they were adversaries. His voice was still neutral, but undertones of wariness and grim suspicion lay beneath the neutrality.
Taudde could not even blame him. “If I hadn’t closed it, they could have come through after us,” he pointed out, a shade too quickly. He heard the defensiveness in his own voice. He felt defensive, embarrassed, as though he was at fault. He said sharply, “We had to get out of their reach—beyond the reach of their mageworking as well as their blades—that, first of all.”
“Yes, of course,” Tepres said politely. The prince didn’t say, There were other doors in that hall, though that was true. He didn’t say, Any of them would have been better than this, for me, though that was without question true.
He didn’t have to say anything of the sort. Taudde knew it perfectly well. He started to say something else, justification or excuse; it was perfectly true that he had not had time to choose which door to open, though he could not blame Prince Tepres for his mistrust.
Karah broke the moment. “Where’s Nemienne?” she asked, sharp and desperate, and both Taudde and Prince Tepres broke off to stare at her and then, in growing horror, at the ice-glazed stone around them.
Nemienne was not there. Only the three of them, in all these empty heights.
“My half-brothers—” Prince Tepres began, and then halted.
He had started to say My brothers have no reason to harm her, Taudde guessed. But they all knew that was not true. Because the girl was Taudde’s own student, and had been for months, and if Prince Sehonnes forgot that or forgave it, Sa-Telis surely would not. “The left-hand princes were focused on Prince Tepres,” he said quickly. “And on me. Not on Nemienne. She will have gained the safety of another door, I’m certain. She could see and open any door in that hallway—they were only steps away.”
This was plausible. It might even be true. They could not know, and had no way to find out, but it could be true. Karah drew a breath and pressed a hand over her mouth, and Tepres went to her. She blinked hard and her gaze fell to the grisly hand he still held. “Your father …”
Tepres looked down, too, and his mouth tightened against, Taudde suspected, an exclamation of disgust. Moving with quick, decisive precision, the young prince stripped his father’s iron ring from his brother’s bloody hand and then, in uncontrollable revulsion, hurled the hand away into as hard as he could, so hard that he staggered and might have fallen save that Karah took his arm and steadied him.
The prince’s breath came hard. He stared after the vanished hand as though he might actually be able to see it—no. As though that horrid token of battle was not after all what he saw. He held his father’s dragon ring clenched in his left hand, but he took Karah’s hand with his right and she did not pull away.
“We cannot know what has happened,” Tepres said. “Not to my father nor your sister. Nemienne was not in their grasp when we fled, and they will not take time to pursue her now. Above all, it is a disaster for my half-brothers to lose me to Kalches.” Then he faced Taudde and added, with an edge to his voice, “To be sure, it is a disaster for me as well.”
Taudde didn’t move. “Prince Tepres, we are here through no intent of mine. But other chances might have been worse. If we had fled under the mountain, they might have followed, and then what? Would you have led Sa-Telis and his mages beneath the mountain? Risked your own death there in the dark of the dragon’s cavern? Your brothers—”
“Half-brothers,” the prince said sharply. “Half-brothers. Sehonnes—Telis, one is hardly surprised by his treachery, but even Geradde—even Geradde was with them—” he broke off, pressing a hand against his mouth. Karah laid a tentative hand on his arm, and he did not jerk away, but straightened his shoulders, lowered his hand, and said in a hard tone, “Jeres knew exactly what he was doing when he struck Sehonnes. Did you see him? Did you see what he did?”
“He knew he couldn’t evade the blow. He chose deliberately to do as he did. I am sorry for his death, and your loss.”
Tepres laughed, a sharp, bitter sound, reminding Taudde that this young prince was not unacquainted with death and loss. The prince began to speak, but stopped. Then he said at last, “I will hope for the opportunity to tell the tale of his courage and loyalty. We can only wonder which other men will show such quality in the coming days.” He glanced again to the empty air where the door should have stood. “You cannot bring back the door?”
Taudde, too, glanced up the mountain. But then he shook his head. “I think it was, in a very real sense, never here. Not from this side.”
Tepres nodded, unsurprised. But he said, “If not a door, then perhaps—”
“I’m sorry, Prince Tepres. I’m not a legendary mage, to set a thousand invisible doors into a house when I build it. Or even one, into the stone of this mountain.”
“Will you tell me your bardic sorcery cannot fling a road through the air itself between my mountains and yours? Or that you do not have the skill or the strength to do it?”
Taudde paused. Prince Tepres, after all, had seen Taudde wield sorcery as a tool and a weapon. With both skill and strength, and under the most dire circumstances. He said at last, “There was a great deal of power loose that night, you will recall. You will recall … afterward, it was not the same.”
Tepres seemed only half convinced, but he said only, “If your bardic sorcery cannot open a proper door, then I must trust you to protect and guard Karah while I take the long road home.” He looked, in that moment, sufficiently determined to try.
Taudde waited a moment, out of respect for that brave declaration. Karah glanced from one of them to the other, but said nothing; he was certain she already understood that what the prince proposed was impossible. Finally he nodded toward the road that curved across the face of the mountain. “That road leads to Kedres. You’re in the heart of Kalches, and it’s a hard road through these mountains even in fair summer weather—harder still in this season, when sudden killing storms can come out of any clear sky. But suppose you lived to reach Teleddes, and then Pinenne, and took a riverboat down the Kemsennes and so came back at last to Lonne: what do you suppose you would find waiting for you there?”
The prince met Taudde’s eyes steadily, but said nothing.
Taudde said softly, “Even if I could make a sorcerous door, set it into the air, open it across hundreds of miles … should I send you back to Lonne? Would you even be wise to go back, if a door opened for you? That is your father’s ring in your hand, is it not? Who rules in Lonne, now? Who now is the Dragon of Lirionne?”
Tepres glanced down at his clenched fist. After a moment, slowly, as though it took physical effort, he opened his hand. The iron ring lay there, his father’s dragon ring, the twin rubies of its eyes like sparks of fire in the brilliant sunlight of the high mountains.
Closing his hand again without answering, Tepres thrust the ring into his belt pouch. His hands were shaking, but that might have been the cold.
“And in less than a month, the solstice will break the Treaty,” Taudde went on, remorseless because he had no choice. “I swore an oath to you and to your father. But the solstice will free me from that, too. And here we are, the two of us, your father’s son and my grandfather’s grandson.” Taudde paused once more. Then he said, “Prince Tepres, I must ask that you release me from my oath.”
Karah flinched, but Tepres did not. He had clearly known already that this request must come. He said, an edge of bitterness underlying the steady calm of his voice, “Of course I free you of it, Prince Chontas Taudde ser Omientes ken Lariodde. After all, I would not wish you to be forced to break your oath.”
Taudde bowed his head in acknowledgment and sincere gratitude. “We will go down to my grandfather’s house. No one will offer Karah insult or offense; I promise you that.” He hesitated, looking at the pale, set face of the Dragon’s heir, because he could not promise as much for Tepres. Who, from his air of hard-edged arrogance, knew that perfectly well. Taudde said instead, layering his voice with undertones of sincerity and determination, “However events play out, Prince Tepres, I will ask you to believe that I am still your friend.”
Tepres did not answer. But he did not, at least, throw that carefully proffered gesture back in Taudde’s face. That was a greater generosity than Taudde had really expected.
He said, “It is a day and a night from this place to—”
“Taudde,” said Karah. “Are the storms in this season truly so dangerous?” She was not looking at him, but past him, out and up at the stark stone and the sky. Her voice came out small and clear, but the undertones were all of growing fear.
Taudde stopped, and turned, following her gaze, up and up, to the storm that was rolling down from the heights.
Even as he watched, the storm cloaked the farthest mountains, Kerre Ires and Kerre Gaur, in a pewter-hard dusk struck through with lances of lightning. It was still distant, the thunder had not yet reached them, but Taudde thought he felt it in his bones. Streamers of cloud were already shredding around the high peaks, and below the clouds, not the whirling white blizzards of winter but, far worse, the freezing rains of spring, glazing all that they touched in deadly ice.
Tepres raised an expressive eyebrow.
Taudde played them through the storm.
He played warmth and quiet air out of his flute … a simple little melody, at first, a melody almost any bard in Kalches could have woven, not even real sorcery, not as Kalchesene bardic sorcerers used the term. But he layered a harmony beneath the melodic line as the storm came down on them, bending the cutting winds and icy rain aside so that they walked in a space of quiet air. Even a simple harmony took sorcery, with his simple flute. He wished he had twin-pipes. Or an ekonne horn. Or, most of all, another sorcerer to help him.
Ice glazed the road, so that they could not go quickly. He might have pulled warmth out of the stone to melt the ice, if he had had the attention and strength to spare. Nemienne could have done it, if he had not lost her; her skill was unpredictable and fit peculiarly into the world, but she could have called the warmth of remembered summer into the stone of the roadway.
Taudde had been afraid for her because he had left her behind; but now he feared his carelessness might have doomed them all. But he could not even take time to curse himself for losing Nemienne. Listening to the heartbeat of the storm, he scattered a handful of notes around and through his main harmony, sending lightning to strike behind and beside them, closer than he liked, barely far enough away. Karah, directly in front of him, flinched and gasped. Taudde might have, too, if he had been able to spare the breath to gasp.
So far as Taudde could tell, Tepres did not even twitch. His concentration was that entire. He was in front, finding their way along the icy road, seeking always the step where one might set a hand against the cliff to their left, where if one’s foot slipped, there was enough space to catch one’s balance. The drop to their right was sheer, the freezing rain slashing down into emptiness; if they had come near to the gentler slopes, they could not see well enough to know it.
Karah came behind Tepres, so he might catch her if she slipped. Sometimes she did slip; sometimes they all did, but Karah’s delicate slippers had never been meant for anything but the polished floors of civilized life and were already tattered. Tepres had wanted to give her his boots, but her feet were too small and the road was too steep and icy for the girl to wear boots that did not fit. She insisted her slippers would do. They would have to, for the storm, strong as it was, would get worse. Taudde dared not let them stop on this most exposed and steepest part of the road; he knew he would not have the strength to protect them until the storm was past and the skies cleared. If his attention failed even for a moment … if he did not hear the lightning in the storm before it struck, or if he lost the strength to turn aside the icy rain … he flinched from such thoughts, but doubt crept back in as the storm strengthened.
A day and a night to Kedres, if there had been no storm. But not so far to descend from the heights to the roots of the mountains. There, where the stone folded and turned and made little sheltered places, they might find a safe place to wait. But Taudde, disoriented by the violence of the storm, pouring his attention into the sending the cutting winds and icy rain whirling around rather than across the tiny bubble of quiet air he had made, could not guess now how much farther they must go or how he would find the strength to get them there.
He could hardly imagine what his grandfather would say if, after everything that had happened, he let himself and his companions die in a spring storm hardly an hour’s walk from the valley’s shelter.
There would be farms below, nestled down in protected places at the foot of Kerre Irelle. It could not be so very far now to the nearest of those. An hour’s walk. Less. He could play the three of them through the storm that far. If they could only get down to an easier part of the road, Tepres would be able to carry Karah, if her slippers were worn through.
Ice and stone, the cutting wind and freezing rain … Taudde played warmth and quiet air. Lightning leaped through the storm, brilliant and deadly, and he sent it aside. And again. Thunder rumbled slowly and then crashed, and Karah slipped. In the still air that surrounded them, Prince Tepres heard her gasp, and turned, and caught her. And slipped himself, twisting to cushion her fall, taking the impact on his hip, both of them skidding in exactly the worst direction. Karah caught at the rocks at the edge of the road, but her fingers could not close on the icy stone and the precipice lay only an arm’s length farther –
Taudde played a heavy series of notes, setting them in empty air like stones across a dashing stream. On these notes, Tepres caught himself, his boot hard against solidity where there should have been nothing but the precipice. He didn’t make a sound, but twisted around and half threw Karah back toward the safe—safer—part of the road and then began, very carefully, to try to crawl after her.
Then lightning struck, and struck again, far too close, and Taudde found himself on his hands and knees, dazed, his flute nowhere he could find it, icy rain coming down across him with a cold so brutal that in that first moment he couldn’t even whistle through chilled lips. Taudde almost wanted to laugh it was so ridiculous, but it was infuriating and terrifying, too. At last, at last he had returned to Kalches, he’d brought Prince Tepres and Karah here to save them, and now, if he couldn’t recover fast enough, the mountain and the storm could kill them all and no one of his family would even know he had come home.