Uwella sat with Bo and held his limp hand. She looked at him and for the first time she saw him as he really was. He was no longer a child. The vain boy she remembered from the kerran Adalien had proved a strong mage. He was almost a grown man, with tremendous potential and an original mind; who was in all but name the Court Mage of Rhidauna. With enough power to blow up a solid stone temple.
She sighed. How would he handle Avelore… no, Ruchelle’s treason? The firemage who had never looked at girls had fallen for the blonde seductress with her helpless little poses. Uwella muttered a curse. She’d never quite trusted the creature. No adepta as timid would have been chosen to operate a temple portal. It was a running joke that a portal posting meant punishment for inept blunderers, but the wikke knew better. Portal Masters had human lives in their hands, and theirs was no task for the timid.
Ruchelle’s pose had been a lie. She was an illusionist rather than a Red adept. She’s never done any fire magic. Only those flaming balls against the daghuur, and she did them with Bo. Who could say her part hadn’t been an illusion, too? The damned girl had taken them all in, so much was clear. And…’
Bo groaned. ‘Uwella?’
‘I’m here, Bo,’ she said calmly.
For the first time since she knew him, Bo cried. She had seen him angry, shocked, outraged and occasionally frightened, but never like this, and it wrung her heart.
‘Why?’ he whispered.
‘She betrayed her master.’
‘Why the Dar’khamorth?’
Uwella put her hand on Bo’s forehead. ‘I don’t know. Why would anyone do that? Power, gold, status?’
‘But… the Dar’khamorth. Those madmen, who want to destroy the world.’
‘We know they are bad; we’ve seen Tinnurad and all those other attacks. But if you are young and innocent and you are asked…’
‘Young and innocent!’ Bo said eagerly. ‘So young, you don’t know better, and once you are in, you can’t get out. Only dead…’ He moved his head and his face twisted. ‘Pain. What happened?’
‘You were really wild,’ Uwella said quietly. ‘Ghyll had only one way to stop you. He knocked you down. If his sword hadn’t caught the magic energies around you, he’d be dead.’
‘You have too much power, Bo. If we had let you, you would have blown up the whole temple.’
‘So what? That’s what I wanted.’
‘You could’ve burned yourself out. Besides, there was a prisoner inside.’
‘Yes. The real Avelore.’
‘… The real…’ Bo screamed.
Quickly, Uwella held a small bottle under his nose. The screaming stopped as if a door had slammed shut, and Bo relaxed.
‘What was that?’ Ghyll said, who had come running.
‘I told Bo that we had found the real Avelore and it was too much for him.’
‘And what now?’
‘Let him sleep. For the moment, we remain here, I suppose?’
Ghyll nodded. ‘There is plenty of water, so that’s no problem.’
‘Good. Someone should always stay with Bo; I don’t know how he will react when he regains consciousness.’
‘It hit him hard.’
The wikke nodded. ‘He is more complex than I always thought. Sensitive; and far stronger.’ She looked up at Ghyll. ‘Did you see the fireball he blew away the temple with? You’d need six mages to do the same. Six! So much power and he falls for that Dar’khamorth slut. Come with me.’ She jumped up and grabbed Ghyll by the arm.
‘You,’ she said over her shoulder to Damion. ‘Stay with Bo until I get back. When he comes to, you call out.’ Without looking, she dragged Ghyll to where Ruchelle’s body lay. Nobody had bothered to cover her up and the first flies already buzzed around.
Ghyll took the right hand of the dead girl. ‘What a strange ring,’ he said. It was a gold band made up of two interlocking claws. He took it from her finger and examined it closely. ‘There is a name engraved on the inside. Sophria.’
‘Sounds Onthilarish,’ Uwella said indifferently. ‘I know little of the other continent. I want to show you something.’
Quickly she unbuttoned the bodice of Ruchelle’s red robe and the girl’s small firm breasts became visible. Uwella drew her fingertips across the skin, then leaned over and peered with squinting eyes at the neck and the V-shaped space below. ‘She said it herself, false. Look here.’
With visible reluctance, Ghyll bowed down and followed Uwella’s finger.
‘What should I see?’ he asked hesitantly.
‘Compare her skin to Kerianna’s.’
Ghyll blushed. ‘Keri’s skin is much smoother. Here I see very faint wrinkles.’
‘Exactly, that’s what I meant. Her skin is a lot older than Keri’s. Well cared for, yes, but that doesn’t stop the decline.’
Her nose crinkled up in disgust as she refastened the buttons. ‘Hag,’ she said disdainfully, and made a gesture as if she washed her hands.
‘We have to cover her,’ Ghyll said.
‘Throw her into the ruins,’ Uwella said bitterly. ‘That’s where she belongs.’
‘Bo would never forgive me.’
Uwella stiffened. ‘You’re right.’ Her mouth twisted. ‘I have an extra sheet with me; that should be enough.’
When they got back to the tents, only Damion was there, with the unconscious Bo.
‘Where is everybody?’ Ghyll asked.
‘Zino and Olle are in the temple,’ the beastmaster said. ‘Keri’s with that new girl in the tent. Torril and his mate are catching marmots – Anliin knew of a whole pack of them, if I understood their chattering hands.’
‘For dinner. There seems to be a special way to prepare them.’
‘Yes, I know,’ Uwella said sourly. ‘Those Yinno women showed me how they do it. If you guys don’t mind, I’d rather use my way. Maybe not so traditional, but they won’t be blackened.’
‘Good plan,’ Ghyll said with an attempted grin. ‘Rhidaunans are modern. We don’t keep every tradition.’
He sat down on the bottom edge of the temple tower and pulled his sword from its sheath. ‘Childegard?’
‘Are you all right?’
‘Of course, thank you. How long do you think to stay here?’
‘I don’t know. Bo recovers slower than you do and the new Avelore must regain some strength first. Why do you ask?’
‘That voice is driving me crazy.’
‘The one you’re looking for. Sire, I am a sword, but not stupid.’
‘Do you hear him?’
‘I have heard him for weeks. Actually for centuries, but I never paid attention before. There’s so much blather in the world of the dead, Sire; you don’t want to know. I can imagine the young deathguide going out of his mind.’
‘Who, Anliin? Deathguide?
‘Yes, you hadn’t realized that? That Yinno priest should leave his own tent sometimes. He’s so stuck in his tribe that he loses the big picture.’
‘What in Greos’s name is a deathguide? And how do you know all this? You’re not dead.’
‘I’m very dead, Sire. It’ll be fifteen hundred forty-nine years, next winter. I hear all these lamentations, prayers and tall stories.’
‘What kind of stories?’
‘Of the countless so-called heroes bluffing to each other about whose death was the bravest. That little Nhael of yours should hear them going on; it would cure his wish for dying like a hero. They’re all loudmouths; you won’t hear the real ones bragging. Those haunt a quiet corner of their old beer house, or sit at the altar in a temple or something. There lived six ghosts in that castle of the Swordbrothers. Did you see them? I didn’t. We just said hello, that’s all.’
‘You’re a busy chap, aren’t you?’
The sword snorted. ‘The life of a dead man doesn’t have to be dull, Sire.’
‘But what is a deathguide?’
‘A priest of Greos. The highest category of priest, because they are so rare. Guides can enter the Underworld and the spirit world. Alive, of course; if they were dead, it wouldn’t be so difficult, ha, ha. And they can return alive as well, which is more than the dead can say. Only I’m afraid the boy hasn’t got a clue how to go at it.’
‘Is that important to us?’
‘Frankly, Sire, I don’t know. I have a proposal. Take the little nomad for a walk. Set him down on a rock with me in his hands and leave us for an hour. I will try to show him some things.’
‘Is that safe? I thought you couldn’t be touched?’
‘If I don’t want it, Sire. And usually I don’t.’
‘But now you do.’
‘Now I do, Sire.’
‘Thank you, Childegard.’
‘No thanks needed, Sire.’