SINDARIA rode back into Marineth and was glad to be home again. It had been a long time.
Verdant fields stretched across the countryside, dotted with patches of ancient, wizened oaks and clusters of golden flowers. A soft, cool breeze blew across the sturdy grasses, carrying with it the faint salt scent of the sea. Frilled starlings, beautiful black birds speckled with white specks like stars, danced in the morning mists, singing their joyful little songs.
Sindaria guided her steed, a massive, black stallion, onto a well-worn path and headed east, on a path towards the port city of Mehnar's Hope. The sides of the path had been planted with the traditional pink roses. Sindaria's steed sniffed at one, but she reined him in before he could take an experimental bite. They moved down the road at an easy canter.
Her clothes were simple, leather riding garments of the kind common in Marineth, and her wool-lined jacket was brown. She wore little jewelry, only a simple gold bracelet and a pendant of the crescent moon. Her hat was a black, wide-brim riding hat with a starling feather plume. Sindaria pushed it back so that it slid onto her back, hanging by the cord around her neck, and let the sea breeze ruffle her golden hair.
She smiled happily as she rode, for, after an absence of twenty years, Sindaria of Marineth was home again.
SOMETHING moved in the shadows of the trees. Sindaria pulled up short and stopped. While Marineth was hardly a den of thieves, there was still occasional poverty and greed, and crime was not unknown.
"Who's there?" she asked, her dark green eyes searching the shadows alertly.
The faint rustle of someone pulling further back into the trees was her only answer. Too large for a child, though it might be some young man hiding from his chores.
A faint smile crossed her lips, and she dismounted silently.
WILLAD crouched back in the darkness, clutching his dagger so hard that his knuckles had gone white around the metal. He could not hear any hoofbeats, but his heart was pounding in his ears so loudly that he doubted his ability to hear anything at all.
Behind him, someone said, "Boo!"
In a particularly undignified fashion, Willad the balladeer, who could recite the deeds of every warrior king since Mehnar himself, cried out and fainted dead away.
"I must have given you quite a start," someone laughed.
Willad blinked twice and shook his head.
"Would you like some soup?"
Willad slowly focused on the voice, and then on the woman herself. Her dark green eyes glittered with barely concealed amusement. Her smile widened as Willad slowly looked back and forth across the makeshift campsite, as though unable to believe that he was still alive. Finally, he seemed to accept it as fact. He emitted a massive sigh of relief and finally relaxed.
Sindaria laughed out loud.
"I guess I was supposed to wait until you came," said Willad.
Sindaria cocked an eyebrow.
"Er... the old woman... I..."
Sindaria smiled. "Perhaps you'd better start at the beginning."
"I... I'm moon-gifted, you see," Willad said, as though admitting some terrible family secret.
Willad blushed. "I was hiding with a troupe of actors, you see. Entertainers. They had an old woman who used to be a fortune teller; she was moon-gifted too. We were trying to avoid the big cities, but one of the horses was lamed, and we needed supplies, and... We'd heard that the Sea King was away to the west, so we thought that we could be in and out of Mehnar's Hope before he returned."
"The king? You mean Rubidar?"
Willad stared at her. "No, he's been dead for two years now."
"Oh," she said, disappointed. Seeing his expression, she added, "I've been away from Marineth for nearly twenty years now."
Willad smiled nervously. "You must have been a wee miss when you left, milady."
Sindaria laughed again. "I'm a bit older than I look. You might say that I'm moon-gifted too."
Willad was aghast. "And you came back to Marineth? Are you on the run from the Sea King to the south?"
Sindaria paused. She wanted to ask him exactly who these Sea Kings were, but clearly they were common knowledge in this whole area, and she didn't want to frighten him. Slowly and carefully, she answered, "Not exactly. I just felt that it was time to give Marineth a try."
Willad seemed somewhat reassured by this answer.
"They have hounds making circles around the city these days. We must have missed them on the way in, but they apparently caught our scent on the way out."
"Hounds of Mikelos," he explained.
Sindaria's brow furrowed in anger. The hounds had been outlawed for nearly fifty years when she had left. "How many hounds were they using?"
"At least a dozen," he muttered, shaking his head. "They must have been trailing us, to see if we were going to rejoin some other group of moon-gifted. I... Lady Haven, her real name was Martha, I mean, she was a fortune-teller, so she always insisted on being called Lady Haven, especially when outsiders were about..." His voice trailed off.
"Last... last night she did a divination. She had the Sight, you see. Better than mine, at least. She... she came out of her tent all pale and breathless... She said that the guards were coming, and that everyone had better run for their lives... They were only interested in us, you see, so we thought that if the others could get away, the Sea King would let them go...
"She... she told me to go hide in the copse of trees by the crossroads and not to stir for any reason... Then she... she took a knife..." He stared at the ground.
Sindaria saw his expression. "She killed herself," Sindaria said, her voice grim.
"She... I'd never seen anyone die before, and we could hear howling and... and hoofbeats, and then everyone was running... She said there was no chance of her getting away, but I might... I grabbed one of the horses and rode away as fast as I could... I could still hear screams behind me."
"What happened to the horse?"
"I tried to cut through the woods," he said, gulping, "and she lamed herself. Broke a leg, actually. I got thrown... I ran through the woods and hid here, like she said. I thought you might've been one of the Houndsmen..."
"How long had you been there?" she asked, stirring the soup.
He paused and blinked. "About half a day."
Sindaria looked up. "No wonder you passed out."
Willad blushed, embarrassed and angry. "You surprised me."
To change the subject, Sindaria asked, "Were they after the entire group, or just the two of you in particular?"
Willad looked confused. "Well, harboring the moon-gifted is forbidden, after all."
Sindaria frowned. "But the moon-gift is sacred..," she began, then caught herself. "Well, I mean, it used to be," she said weakly.
"Yes... that's the only reason why people still help hide us these days. They still remember what it was like before the Sea Kings took over."
"But children are still being born during the Holy Crescent..." she prompted, carefully.
"Every newborn has to be checked by the Hounds within one week of birth," sighed Willad, "under pain of death."
"And the ones with the moon-gift?" she asked, horrified.
"Taken away," he said softly. Then, more loudly, he asked, "I thought all of the Sea Kings were doing the same?"
"Well," she said carefully. "You know how rumors work. What is done with the children?"
Willad shuddered. "No one knows."
"Never seen again," Sindaria murmured coldly.
"I can see that I have a bit of work to do," she muttered darkly.
"SO, just how did the Sea King take over? Here, I mean."
Willad shrugged, and took a spoonful from his second bowl of steaming soup. "The same as everywhere else, I reckon. Showed up one day and challenged Rubidar for the throne. I mean, the king didn't like the look of him, but the Sea King killed his guards when they tried to throw him out, and Rubidar didn't really have any choice."
"How did Rubidar die?"
"The Sea King drowned him."
Sindaria remembered Rubidar, a huge, blonde, bearded, bear of a man, famed for his strength. The strength of arm necessary to hold him helpless, his head in the sea, beneath the waves, until he drowned... It was practically unheard of; Rubidar's physical prowess had been a moon-gift. "Strong, then," she murmured to herself, taking note. "And vicious."
Willad said, "I'm sorry?"
"Nothing." She paused. "Not the death he deserved."
Willard smiled sourly. "No. No, it wasn't. But the Sea King declared himself ruler, and killed any of the guards who refused to obey... Then went into the towns and terrorized enough young men into joining until he had increased the size of the royal guard nearly tenfold. The people are all terrified of the guards, the guards are all terrified of their commanders, and the commanders are all terrified of the Sea King."
"Well," she said meaningfully, "we'll have to see about that."
"WHAT'S your name?" she asked.
Willad looked up, startled. "Forgive my lack of manners, milady!"
Sindaria waved a hand depreciatingly.
"I am Willad the balladeer, minstrel to kings!"
Sindaria cocked an eyebrow. "How many kings?"
Willad looked embarrassed. "Well, one king. Er, I performed at one of the palace festivals once, when Rubidar was still alive." To change the subject, he asked, "And your name, milady?"
"I am... Sindaria, late of Sea Point."
Willad murmured, "I fear that I have never heard of that place, milady Sindaria."
"Don't worry about it. It's a good ways from here."
Willad nodded. Looking down at his simple, dark brown tunic, he added, "I wish that I had been able to save my lute. Or at least a change of clothes."
"Well, perhaps we can find you some on the way."
Willad looked up. "Our way to where, milady?"
"Mehnar's Hope, of course."
Willad stared at her, aghast.
"Didn't you say that the Sea King was there?" she asked, smiling.
"But, milady! The Sea King's guards! Even if we could make it past the guards into the city, the Hounds would catch our scent for certain! We should be trying to find somewhere to hide!"
Sindaria shook her head slowly. "I haven't come back to Marineth after twenty years just to see the kingdom destroyed by some crazed usurper."
"Milady?" Willad stared, trying to find words to express his reaction.
"Don't worry, Willad the balladeer. I'm a bit more dangerous than I look. You might say that my moon-gift was martial prowess," she smiled.
"But the Sea Kings are said to be unkillable!"
"Well," she grinned toothily, "it's about time that someone put that to the test, don't you think?"
"IT'S amazing," muttered Willad.
"What do you mean?" she asked softly, looking back from her black steed.
"Your moon-gift must have been luck," said Willad. "I still can't believe that we found another horse that quickly!"
Sindaria looked back at the healthy roan that her companion was riding, and smiled.
"I mean," Willad went on, "this beast must've cost someone a month's wages."
"Their loss, then," she grinned, and turned back to face the sea.
SINDARIA loosened her blade in its scabbard.
"What is it?" Willad asked nervously.
"Some riders off to the west."
"I can't see anything."
"No, they aren't close enough yet. It may be the patrol who attacked that troupe of yours..."
"We should take cover!"
Sindaria raised an eyebrow. "Why? I've been trying to find them since we started."
"But... but the Sea King may be with them!"
She grinned. "That would make things easier, wouldn't it?"
THE rumble of hooves filled the air. Willad was pale with fear, but he resisted the urge to turn and run.
Sindaria unslung a long, oddly made bow from her saddle and pulled a quiver of arrows onto her shoulder. She unfastened its cap to reveal the violet fletchings of at least two dozen arrows. "Quick," she muttered urgently, "is it a patrol or not?"
Willad stared at her, then concentrated on the approaching horsemen. "Yes, yes! I see their markings!"
Sindaria cocked an arrow. "I certainly hope that you're right. It's time to be blunt, and to the point."
She let the first arrow fly.
THE first rider was brash and eager; he had hoped to impress his captain with his devotion to duty. The horizon jumped up and down as his steed thundered across the fields towards the travellers. Then, quite without warning, the edge of the horizon leapt up out of his vision, and the ground came smashing upwards into his body. He clutched at the ground for a moment in shock, not hearing the shouts of his fellows or the cries of the horses. He had a moment to wonder what was making it so hard for him to breathe, and then he died.
The captain called a halt, and reined his stallion in violently. The shaft had seemed to come from the travellers, but they were almost certainly out of bowshot... He snatched his spyglass from the saddle and tried to focus in on the travellers. Their horses had stopped, and one of them was making some kind of motion...
Another man cried out, pierced through the belly. The fletching of the arrow still protruded from his stomach; its odd violet color was now speckled with red.
The captain cursed twice. "A moon-gift archer!" he screamed, and forced his steed into a gallop towards the nearest woods. His men, confused and distracted, hesitated until another of them died, violet fletchings protruding from his face. Then they too spurred their steeds on towards the nearest cover. The three now riderless horses began to follow for a moment, on instinct, then slowed to a stop and began to mill about. The scent of blood disturbed them; they began to wander out towards the open fields, unsure of their sudden freedom.
"I don't think that they're coming out of the woods," said Sindaria, finally. She let her arms relax, and casually replaced the arrow she had nocked.
"What do you mean?" asked Willad. He had accepted her phenomenal archery as a moon-gift and had thought nothing more of it.
"There weren't any Hounds in that group. Either they stumbled onto us blind, or someone has found our trail and sent them on ahead to check us out."
"Found our trail? You mean the Hounds?"
Sindaria nodded. "They must've crossed our trail coming in. They probably sent half of the soldiers forward and half back to scout for us."
She sighed and hefted the bow affectionately. "I probably should have concealed this thing's range a little longer. With any luck, his commander won't believe him, though."
"What do you mean?" Willad asked her uncomprehendingly.
Sindaria glanced at him. "Know anything about archery?"
"Not really. You seem to be quite good at it, though."
Sindaria burst out laughing.
"What did I say?" Willad cried.
Sindaria wiped a tear from her eye, and answered, "It's just the way you said that. I usually get a more enthusiastic response. You see, I doubt that any bow in Marineth could fire as far and as accurately as this one."
Willad stared at the strange, bow with new respect. "It's a magical bow, then," he announced.
Sindaria grinned. "Not really. Just better materials than you can get around here."
"Oh," was all he said. Willad seemed almost disappointed that there was no magic involved.
FROM the shadows of the woods, Sindaria stared down the winding road, looking for the slightest sign of incoming troops.
A bird called out from the trees above, startling Willad.
"Be still," she whispered. "I think this may be them, coming up the road."
Willad quickly leaned forward, peering out over her left shoulder down the road. "I can't see anyone!" he muttered.
Sindaria shrugged, quite deliberately, and Willad sheepishly moved his arm from her shoulder.
"Straight down the road, coming up slowly. You should be able to see their standard bobbing up and down as they ride."
"Are you sure that's not just a tree?"
Sindaria smiled. "Trust me. They'll be here, soon. We'll want to have the horses in the clear, with trees between them and the riders."
"That way, if we need to run, they can't shoot the horses until they're past the trees. Unless another squad or two catches us from behind, I should be able to hold them long enough for you to get going."
"But what'll happen to you, then?"
"I'll catch up." She saw the worry in his eyes and grinned. "I'll ride faster."
SINDARIA'S expression hardened as the Hounds of Mikelos came into view, straining at their tethers. The dogs were large and brutish, plain brown animals distinctive in only one way: they had all been horribly mutilated. The empty sockets of each Hound were streaked with caked brown blood, where their eyeballs had been inexpertly plucked out. Their nostrils had been slashed and torn until the scars blocked the nasal passages completely. Their ears had been burned off down to the bone. Their open mouths were empty, with only a dull scar where the tongue used to be. Finally, to eliminate any surviving sensations, each Hound had been thoroughly washed in special acids which burned off almost all of the nerve endings in its skin.
Centuries ago, the wizard Mikelos, charged with the task of providing a test which could distinguish the moon-gifted from normal men, had created the first of the Hounds. Deprived of all their natural senses, the dogs would react to the slightest amount of magic in the area. They were drawn to it. Skilled trainers could even get the Hounds to ignore specified kinds of magic, or that of specific people, so that the presence of a powerful magus did not render them useless for their task. The training required a tiny patch of skin, usually upon the animal's back, to be left untouched so that pain could be inflicted on them when necessary. The Hounds had been very rare and expensive to produce even in the times of Mikelos. Well trained ones were even rarer, simply because they rarely lived more than a year after their mutilation. The practice had slowly died out, out of simple revulsion. Even before Sindaria had left Marineth last, the Hounds were merely a historical footnote; none had been created for nearly three fourths of a century.
The Sea King had nearly a dozen of them leading this squad, with three soldiers each holding three or four of the beasts by four-foot leashes. And if Willad's rumors were true, this was only one of several squads of Houndsmen in the area. This impractical cruelty fired Sindaria's anger; in times past, the Hounds had been a necessary evil, but using a dozen of them was surely excessive.
Since the Hounds rarely lived longer than a year, and many of them died outright from the pain involved, it meant that the Sea King had to have set up a small army of men for the sole purpose of mutilating and training new dogs to replace the old.
WILLAD shuddered at the sight of the Hounds. "Horrible, aren't they," he breathed.
"Yes," said Sindaria flatly. The anger in her voice surprised him.
THE Hounds were advancing slowly, as though confused. They pressed their mutilated faces down into the soft earth of the road, instinctively trying to find a scent that they were no longer capable of detecting. Their keepers had to constantly tug on the leashes, pulling the dogs back and keeping them from suffocating in the loam. The animals occasionally gave long, high pitched whines that were barely recognizable as the call of a dog in pain.
SINDARIA muttered, "I'd like to put them out of their misery directly, but without their masters to guide them, the Hounds won't live till dawn."
"What do you mean?" Willad whispered in confusion.
THE slow advance of the soldiers came to a sudden halt, as one of the Houndsmen released his tethers and toppled over. The dogs, oblivious to their freedom, continued to shuffle forward, several of them drifting aimlessly off the path into the woods.
The second man took an arrow in a more obvious place, and fell to his knees, clutching at his chest. That was when the captain of the guards began shouting orders to his men.
Sindaria grimaced, and reluctantly let the third Houndsman pull his charges back into the trees, while she drew a bead on the tall man with the mace, whose manner identified him as the leader. Though less than a hundred yards away, she had chosen their place of concealment well; the guards had not yet spotted her. It might take them several moments to realize that the woods were too thick for sniping, and that she had to be firing from just off the path, and she could use those few moments to greatly improve the odds.
WHEN the rest of the squadron came galloping forward, weapons out, to reinforce the Houndsmen, they found their captain and several other men dead, a few survivors cowering back in the trees, and a number of the blind dogs still shuffling about on the trail, blocking their path.
One of them tried to whip the dogs out of the way, and took an arrow in the throat. The others, afraid to simply trample the dogs, whose value was well known, started to turn back.
They stopped abruptly when a figure in the back made some gesture with a sword. Sindaria squinted, trying to make out the figure, who seemed to be dressed in blue. It might well be the Sea King himself, but she could not get a clear shot because of the mounted soldiers milling about.
She was trying to choose the best target to clear her view, when the soldiers turned back again, charging through the bodies and dogs as fast as their steeds could travel. A couple of the horses stumbled momentarily, but the blind dogs made little impact on their steel horseshoes, and they quickly resumed their charge.
Sindaria cursed, and tossed her bow to Willad. She had hoped to deal with the Sea King from a distance, but she had no desire to be fumbling with a bow while fighting several charging horsemen.
"What are," Willad began. Then his eyes widened and his voice fell silent as her long, silver blade snaked silently out of its sheath. The sound of hooves thundered in his ears.
THE first man in line had only just sighted the pair, and begun to shift his pike in their direction, when Sindaria lunged.
Faster than the soldier had believed possible, she stepped in, sidestepping his pike, and cut him across the neck.
Sindaria ducked underneath his outstretched arm as the dying man thundered past her, and snapped her blade back to prepare for the next stroke.
As the first man slipped off of his steed and fell limply to the ground, Sindaria stepped around the tip of the second pike and neatly severed the business end of the weapon, to protect Willad in case he had lacked the sense to retreat into the woods. This soldier had time to drop his useless pike and scramble for his sword before Sindaria stepped forward and buried the point of her blade in his heart. She withdrew the blade in a careful, curving motion as the man's momentum carried him forward, past her. His body crashed to the ground behind her, but she was already turning to face her third opponent.
Willad had only just stopped staring, and had begun to blink.
THE last few guards drew up short, staring. There was a strange woman with a sword standing amidst the strewn bodies of their comrades. She regarded them coolly, her gaze steady and her manner casual.
One of the guards noticed that she was not even breathing hard. He started to turn back in sudden fright, but an imperious gesture from the mounted figure behind him curtailed his flight. The other guards simply shifted their horses to the sides of the trail as their leader slowly rode forward.
SINDARIA could not help staring at the Sea King. It was not his size, or shape, which was that of a man of average size and build. It was the simple fact that, shape aside, he could never have been mistaken for human. He seemed to be made of water, or perhaps gelatin. His body was a soft blue that reminded her of the ocean, and he cast a faint blue shadow upon the ground where the sun's rays passed through his translucent body.
It was easy to see why he was called the Sea King. Even at a dozen paces, she could smell the salt of ocean water, and there seemed to be little bubbles of air floating inside of his body.
The Sea King slowly dismounted, his empty, featureless, face turned toward hers. He looked more like a rough, unfinished sculpture of blue ice than a real person, but he moved with easy assurance, and his foot left the stirrup dry and unmarked. He wore no clothing or armor except for a belt with a sheathed sword on his hip, and a small gold circlet atop his head.
Sindaria's heart hardened as she recognized Rubidar's crown, and she knew that she had found her old friend's murderer.
SINDARIA regarded the creature with some distaste. "What puddle did you crawl out of, then?" she muttered.
The guards blanched at her arrogance, but the Sea King faced her with easy confidence. The guards pulled back a little, preferring to let their king deal with the strange warrior personally.
Ripples spread across the Sea King's otherwise featureless face as it spoke. Its words were spoken in a dull, flat, monotone, like a machine reciting a message, but unable to reproduce the emphasis.
>Do you not fear me?< the creature asked, tonelessly.
Sindaria grinned at it. "Not one bit."
She could feel the creature's gaze, as though it were trying to study her mind.
"That's contempt you're reading from me," she added, "in case you couldn't recognize it."
Though the Sea King's face remained flat and unchanging, Sindaria could sense anger in the thing's bearing.
Sindaria just grinned and swung her blade into a dueling stance.
"LET'S see just how tough you are," she smiled.
The Sea King seemed annoyed by her impertinence. Its watery hand motioned the guards to remain behind, and it drew its own heavy, grey sword.
As it raised the blade, Sindaria lunged forward, her sword slicing through its arm faster than the eye could follow. There was no effect except for the sound of metal passing through water, a faint scent of salt water in the air, and the swirling of the bubbles in its arm.
The Sea King paused, apparently disturbed by her speed, but she could sense amusement from it as well. Then it struck at her in return.
SINDARIA parried the blow easily, and snapped a swift cut through the creature's belly. The Sea King stumbled for a moment, then drove its blade down at her in a two-handed stroke, trying to break her sword, which was lighter and fragile-looking.
Sindaria grinned and easily side-stepped the blow. Her arm snapped forward, driving the tip of her blade into the Sea King's watery head, to no obvious effect. She retreated a few steps, frowning.
The Sea King seemed unharmed, but angry. It lunged forward again, making a wide, swinging stroke with its heavy, grey blade.
Sindaria parried the blade to the side and slashed the creature where its groin should have been. But once more she only succeeded in swirling the waters that made up its liquid body.
They traded thrusts and parries for a moment, as Sindaria tested the creature's skill. Though a powerful swordsman, the creature had little skill, and relied upon brute force.
Sindaria lunged upwards, suddenly, and her blade slashed through the creature's head, slicing Rubidar's crown into two pieces. The Sea King paused as the two halves fell to the dirt below. Annoyed, it focused upon her again.
>Your weapon cannot harm me.<
"It must sting a bit, the way you keep flinching away from it," she grinned, trying to intimidate it. "I've never stung anyone to death before; it should be an interesting experience."
THE creature lunged forward angrily, swinging its blade with all the force that it could muster.
From back in the woods, Willad gasped in fear as Sindaria stood there smiling, waiting for the blow. At the last possible instant, her thin silver blade swung up to block the blow. There was a sound like a bell as the two blades met, and a tiny crack. Only Sindaria and the Sea King could see that her blade had cut a tiny chip out of his grey sword.
Gripping the hilt of her blade with both hands, Sindaria slowly levered the creature's sword back, pitting her strength against its own.
"Playtime is over," she smiled, trying to unsettle the creature as she revealed her full strength at last.
>Yes,< said the thing, as it redoubled its efforts, bending low over its own blade, trying to press her back again.
"Look out," shouted Willad, "he'll drown you!"
THE Sea King had released its blade with its left hand, and swung its watery fist at her face.
Sindaria started to duck, but the arm seemed to swell and expand like an ocean wave, and smashed across her face.
For a moment, she couldn't see, and then she couldn't breathe, as the creature tried to force its liquid arm down her throat. She choked on the stinging fluid, and her head swam as the creature's substance began to pour into her nasal passages. Her lungs felt like they were on fire. For a desperate moment, she teetered on the edge of unconsciousness.
"It drowned him," she thought to herself, remembering.
AS the Sea King struggled to choke her, Sindaria threw herself backwards with all of her strength.
For a single, deadly moment, the Sea King held her fast in his watery grip. Then she ripped free, and hurled herself away from it. The acidic fluids of its body tore loose from her throat, and hung limply from the creature's outstretched arm.
THE Sea King stared at its still formless left arm, while Sindaria choked and sputtered. Tiny drops of red slowly dissolved in its watery flesh.
Willad, stepping out of the woods, helped her to her feet. Her face was covered with blood, and one eye was swollen and red. Her breath came in heavy gasps and coughs, but she yet lived.
The Sea King's gaze slowly shifted to her. She fixed it with a glare of fiery hatred, but the Sea King did not react. Slowly, it asked, >What are you?<
SINDARIA laughed, and it turned into a coughing fit. After a moment, she straightened up. "More than you can handle." She wiped some of the blood off of her face. "A lot more."
Willad could only stare.
THE Sea King spoke again. >Two thousand, six hundred and twelve moon-gifted have given me their power. You have given me that again, in a moment, and I have only wounded you.<
>But you are not one of us. Your blood is like nothing that I have ever eaten.<
"SEA water," whispered Sindaria in shock, and shuddered.
"What?" asked Willad, still cowering behind her.
"Sea water. Blood is like sea water, in a lot of ways. It's a leech, a vampire. It drinks blood. And now it's tasted mine."
The Sea King straightened up. >And I shall have it all.<
"FAT chance," Sindaria muttered. "You've felt how powerful I am. Try and take me now."
The Sea King stared at her outstretched blade, as though weighing his chances. Nearly a minute passed, as Sindaria, battered and bloody, glared at him with all of the ferocity that she could muster.
At long last, he answered, >Perhaps there is enough to share.<
TO the astonishment of his men, he wheeled about, and leapt back onto his steed. The horse, spurred into a gallop, rushed back down the road, scattering his stunned soldiers.
Before they could recover, or ask questions, Sindaria shouted, "RUN! Or I'll kill you all!"
Having seen their king flee in seeming terror, the guards needed little persuasion to scatter. They galloped after their departing liege, hounds and wounded forgotten.
"WHAT happened?" asked Willad.
"I bluffed him," answered Sindaria. "He thinks I was just toying with him."
Sindaria brought her fist to her mouth and coughed, then looked sadly at the blood that now speckled her hand. "I wish I had been. He's probably gone to get the other Sea Kings."
"Well," said Willad, heartened, "that should take a week's travel, at least."
Sindaria smiled softly. "I doubt it. He won't be taking the roads. There's a faster way, and I don't doubt that he knows it."
"A magic road, you mean?" asked Willad, wondering.
"Sort of. Come to think of it, we should probably make use of it ourselves. And fast."
Sindaria started forward, then slipped as a bout of dizziness overcame her.
"Are you fit to travel?" Willad asked nervously.
Sindaria shook her head. "I think he tore up my lungs a little, with that stuff. We'll have to take..." She took a deep breath. "...take it slow, for awhile."
"I don't recognize this part of the forest at all," Willad complained, still nervous about their supposed pursuit.
"I told you, it's a magic path. It doesn't lead through the same woods we came through."
"And the sun still hasn't set," added Willad, yawning. "Is it always day here?"
"Usually," Sindaria breathed, stifling a cough. She had wiped most of the blood from her face, and her mouth and nose had stopped bleeding, but she was worried because her lungs still seemed to be clogged.
Willad looked at her with concern, and started to suggest that they stop for the night.
That was when they first heard the hoofbeats, on the path behind them.
"DAMN," Sindaria muttered, trying to focus the spyglass on the winding path behind them. "There must be about a dozen of them... How many Sea Kings were there supposed to be, in total?"
Willad paused. "I really don't... Ten, I suppose. One for each of the seas."
"Ten of them," Sindaria sighed. "We wouldn't stand a chance. We'll have to run."
THEY fled down the path at a full gallop, Willad's little pony frothing with effort.
"They're gaining!" Willad screamed, over the rush of wind.
Sindaria only grimaced, and tried harder to concentrate. Her head was swimming, and the deadly danger fast approaching them from behind only made things worse.
The ten Sea Kings, each the color of one of the ten seas of Marineth, rode after them. Each rode a great stallion, adorned in their royal colors, but the Sea Kings themselves carried only weapons. Here, there was no need for symbols of status or authority. All that mattered was the prey.
SINDARIA'S head swam. Try as she might, she could not focus her will, and the hooves of the horses behind them thundered in her ears.
Willad yelled as an arrow struck his pony in the leg, causing it to stumble. The animal was screaming in pain, and Willad was holding on for dear life.
Anger overcoming her dizziness, Sindaria reached out and scooped Willad off of the wounded animal, throwing him across her own steed's back.
"Hold on!" she ordered, as her gaze searched the horizon.
There was a single, yellow poppy growing in a patch of green grass in a clearing ahead. Her mind's eye jumped to it, and she held onto it with all of the will she could muster. Willad's words were lost as reality spun around the tiny flower, and was lost in a swirl of madness.
SHE reduced her horse's speed to a slot trot while she examined their surroundings. The yellow flower had been left far behind, as had the rocky soil from which it had been growing.
"What... what happened to the woods?" Willad groaned, staring at the vast, empty plains stretching out to the horizon in every direction.
"We're past them," Sindaria said bluntly. Her dizziness had been replaced by a blinding headache.
"I don't understand," he muttered. He listened to the clatter of horseshoes on the road below them, then asked, "Is that cobblestone?"
Sindaria was too tired to laugh. "Asphalt."
To forestall his next question, she added, "Special kind of cobblestones."
"Oh," was his only reply.
THEY made camp that night where a small, struggling stream crossed under the road. Willad was too tired to comment on the workmanship of the bridge, which seemed to be an extension of the road itself.
"They can't follow us, can they?" he asked, afraid to sound hopeful.
"I'll be surprised if they can't," Sindaria sighed. "It's a fast way to travel, but it leaves an obvious trail."
She poked at the fire with a stick, wearily stirring the cinders. "And it's faster for them to follow that trail than to track us down the way they were doing before. We'll have to move on soon. I don't know if I'm up to that kind of speed again."
"I can keep watch while you sleep," Willad suggested. His tone was that of a desperate man trying to find anything useful to do.
"You're tired too," she sighed, "and you're not as used to this as I am."
She poked at the fire again, sending a hail of sparks upwards into the night sky. "Willad, how do you kill a worm?" she asked, hopelessly.
"A worm? Like a dragon?"
"No, like a fishing worm."
"Um... most people put them on hooks."
"That doesn't kill it," she sighed. "You can even cut them in two, and you'll just get two worms."
"Oh. Well, I guess you could burn it."
Sindaria stared at the fire sadly. "I don't think we could get a big enough fire to burn all of these worms. And they won't drown, I'm sure."
Willad stared into the fire for awhile, feeling more tired and alone than he had spending the night hiding in the copse of trees.
Finally he sighed, and yawned. "If it were a little worm, I'd just smash it with a rock."
Sindaria stopped poking the fire, and looked at him. Willad, shivering from something besides the cold, did not notice.
THE low, mournful tones of the song echoed through Sindaria's mind for several minutes before she realized that Willad was singing softly to himself beside the slowly dying fire.
His sad, weary voice, slowly recited "The Sorrow of the Dawn," an ancient dirge of Marineth. He had no musical accompaniment, but Sindaria's memory filled in the missing notes.
She was filled with sudden sadness. She thought of the beautiful places that she would never travel to again, and the gentle fields of Marineth, where the Sea Kings were slowly devouring the land.
She focused on Willad's voice, which seemed somehow deeper and filled with unending sorrow and loneliness. She blinked twice, and was surprised to realize that her eyes were moist.
When he finished, and curled up by the fire, she coughed twice to clear her throat, and said, slowly, "You never said what your moon-gift was."
"Hm?" murmured Willad, stirring to look at her. "Oh," he said after a moment, slightly embarrassed.
"There've never been more than four moon-gift singers, in all the history of Marineth," she said softly, a bit of wonder in her voice.
Willad smiled, both embarrassed and pleased by her reaction. "I just wish I'd been born a hundred years earlier," he sighed.
Sindaria laughed once, ruefully.
"Get some sleep," she ordered.
SINDARIA was awakened twice that night, out of a faint doze, by dreams of the Sea Kings charging down on them.
The third time, the hoofbeats were unmistakably real. She could feel the vibrations in the ground.
"Willad!" she yelled, grabbing her blade and rushing for her horse. "They're here!"
Willad snapped awake almost instantly, his eyes wide with terror. As he stumbled to his feet, Sindaria wheeled her black steed about, and scooped him up onto the horse, setting him down in front of her.
"Go!" she snarled, half to her steed, and half to herself. The black horse lunged forward, into a full gallop. Willad clutched at its mane with all of his strength.
THE Sea Kings thundered behind them, occasionally catching up a little as Sindaria's strength failed, and falling behind again as she caught her breath. Her steed was faster than those of the Sea Kings, but it was not their physical movement that mattered now. The world shifted around them constantly, the landscape rearranging itself seemingly at random. But always, no matter how bizarre their surroundings, the one constant was the clatter of hooves close behind them. Occasionally, an arrow or crossbow quarrel would fly past, but fortunately the Sea Kings seemed to be poor and unenthusiastic marksmen.
"Can't you do anything?" Willad asked, desperately.
Sindaria grimaced, concentrating on the shifting world around them. "Anything I could surprise them with wouldn't be strong enough to hurt them."
Willad twisted his head back to look at her. "What do you mean?" he asked over the rushing wind.
"I'm too weak to be subtle about this. We'd only lose more time!"
Willad stared a moment. "Subtle?" he asked, raising his voice to be heard over the clatter of hooves.
Sindaria scowled at him, her rage and helplessness looking for an outlet. She shouted angrily at him, "I could try to shift obstacles in their path, but that only works against novices and idiots like you!"
Willad stared into her eyes, hurt, and for a moment she was sorry that she had yelled at him. Then he spoke again, too softly for her to hear over the wind.
"What? Speak up!"
Willad stammered, "I just thought the Sea King hadn't ever met anyone like you before."
For a few seconds, the world stopped changing, and they were galloping down a forest trail. Behind them, the Sea Kings flickered in and out of visibility, reappearing closer each time.
Sindaria laughed, a hollow, desperate noise.
Willad cried out, "They're catching up! Don't stop now!"
Sindaria shook herself for a moment, then squared her shoulders. The world shuddered around them again, and the forest floor became black asphalt once more.
"You're right, Willad," she said in her normal voice. "They haven't got the slightest idea who they're messing with." There was a faint smile on her face.
Willad just stared at her, uncomprehendingly.
THE Sea Kings continued to catch up as Sindaria concentrated on their surroundings, which did not change. Willad stared ahead, terrified, suddenly longing for the mind-reeling changes that they had been riding through before.
Then there was a drop ahead of them that had not been there a moment before. Willad pointed and cried out as they rode head on towards the cliff.
Behind him, Sindaria grinned and said, "Hold on!"
The world flickered, and they were at the base of the cliff, riding out across the rocky bottom of a stone canyon, its rough walls blocking out most of the sky in both directions.
There was a sound of horses rearing somewhere behind them and above, then the Sea Kings appeared in a clump at the base of the cliff behind them. They appeared to spend a few seconds regaining control of their horses, then charged forward, faster and angrier than ever.
Ahead of them, the canyon opened up into an open plain. There was a yellow metal structure squatting there, and there was a man in a white helmet waving at them.
SINDARIA pulled up on the reins to stop her horse and dropped off of its back in a single motion. Her hands snapped up the man by his jacket, and she easily tossed him a dozen yards away, where he landed in a heap, the breath knocked out of him.
Willad was still trying to formulate a question when she swept him off of her now stationary horse and sat him down next to a small box that was lying on the ground nearby.
She grabbed his hands and set them on the crossbar of a T-shaped bar sticking out of the top of the box. "Hold this," she hissed, and turned to face the Sea Kings, who were now accelerating down the length of the canyon.
"Look at them, Willad," she ordered, "and when I tell you 'now,' I want you to drive that metal bar as far down into that box as it will go."
She glanced at him to see if he was ready. "Watch them Willad. Watch them carefully."
Then she turned back to face the Sea Kings. "Time for last regrets," she murmured. "I wish I knew what you were. You're not shadow, and you're not substance, and there's not supposed to be anything else. But you were screwing with a place that I love, and now you're just history."
As the Sea Kings accelerated down the canyon towards them, the sound of their steeds' hooves echoing across the rocky faces of the cliffs on each side, Sindaria said, "Willad... Now."
Willad threw his weight against the metal bar. It sank rapidly into the box.
THERE was a tremendous roar, and the stone walls tore themselves apart around the Sea Kings. Horses screamed as blocks of stone the size of houses slid down the cliffside and crashed into them. Sindaria thought she saw the lead Sea King splatter like a puddle of water as the two walls of onrushing stone smashed together. The rumbles and crashes filled the air for nearly half a minute before the canyon was no more. Shattered stone blocks filled it from end to end, and the cliffsides had been reduced to gradual slopes.
Sindaria smiled, and sighed with relief. "Best road I've ever seen, and it hasn't even been built yet."
Willad was still staring at the rubble. "What... what happened?"
"We did," Sindaria laughed, merrily. "You were right. They had no idea what they were doing."
"Come on," she coughed, clapping him gently on the back. "I want to get us both looked at soon, and not by the..."
She lost her voice for a moment as a coughing fit overcame her. Willad looked at her, concerned, but after a moment she continued, "what passes for a doctor in these parts. Let's go."
"WE'LL have to leave Morgan here," she said, leading the horse into the trees. "He'd look a bit out of place where we're headed."
"Morgan?" Willad asked, stroking the stallion's black coat.
"Mm. About the third best horse around, that's my Morgan," she grinned, patting the horse on the head. "He'll wait for us."
"So what do we do now?" Willad asked.
"We walk. Then we see some doctors, who hopefully will be able to fix up my lungs a bit." She paused in thought for a long time.
"What is it?" asked Willad.
"Then," she said, softly, "we do something I said I'd never do."
"We go find my brother. If there are more things out there like the Sea Kings, I want to know about it."
She paused, lost in thought. Then she seemed to reach a decision. "But first," she smiled, "we walk."
"HM," she murmured as they walked beside the smooth, black road. Strange metal carriages passed them at high speeds, their occupants sparing them not even a second glance. A few miles ahead, huge metal buildings, like castle towers, stretched into the sky. "We'll have to change your clothes a little, too. A bit more black should be enough to let you blend in."
Willad was astonished to realize that his tunic had suddenly become black silk. "That's amazing," he said, wonderingly.
Then Sindaria turned back to face him, and his mouth fell open in astonishment. Her hair was now a fiery red, and her clothing had become an assortment of tight-fitting black leather, decorated with dark colored metal studs. Even her face seemed somehow different, as though her cheeks were a little higher, her chin a little sharper.
"Call me Samantha while we're here, Willad. That's my name in these parts."
She grinned at him, and he could tell that it was still her, inside. "Sam for short. Just keep quiet until you get used to the place. It's a little noisier than Marineth, but the doctors are better here."
A few moments later, she added, "They're big on music here, too. You may like it."
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