ZIHAEN, The Shadow of the Revenaunt, Book 2


The morning was still a promise when Zethir and Damion rode out of the gate, and a ghost-white fog lay over the dark heath.

Damion shivered. ‘It’s chilly.’

Zethir wasn’t in the mood for conversation. This was his first serious job since he joined the King’s Heralds and he was determined to make a success of it. Besides, his companion was an unknown factor. A friend of Halwyrd, but was he to be trusted in time of need? Who was Halwyrd anyway? Someone of that age, barely older than Zethir himself, who had become so influential in such a short time, was a mystery in himself. They had not spoken about it, but Zethir knew his father hoped to learn more from him about the mysterious King’s Lieutenant. He shivered when a cold trickle of water from his wet hair reached his back. The beastmaster had it right; it really was chilly.

Faster than they expected, they found the first signs of human activity: a skinny shepherd with a flock of longhaired sheep, their fleeces dripping fog.

Zethir looked around. Then he nodded toward a nearby group of trees clinging to the rocky soil. There they tied their horses. Still without a word, the spy closed his eyes. Slowly his face changed into that of a tired old man. His hair turned white and thinner than it actually was. A badly healed scar appeared and disfigured the left side of his face. He wore old clothes he had scraped together in Rabogst and carried a large wicker basket on his back. He didn’t really need Damion’s admiring confirmation to know that the transformation was perfect. His disguises always were.

‘Very good,’ Damion said, and his tone was respectful. ‘Where’d you get that face from?’

‘Inventory,’ the young spy said. ‘At the Illusionarium we had to memorize a number of appearances for little jobs like this. For the bigger ones I can become almost anyone I’ve seen in person or in a painting. They call it mimikria, imitation. I could look like you, so that even your parents wouldn’t recognize the difference.’

‘A dangerous skill,’ Damion said.

Zethir shrugged. ‘So is your beastmastery.’ He turned and stared across the heath to the vague contours of Derivall in the distance.

Damion followed his gaze and felt some of his strain. ‘My skill is dangerous,’ he said calmly. ‘But I can do only animals, not impersonate a king. That makes a difference. And for now I choose something simple.’

He had been practicing, and turned effortlessly into a decrepit Rocathese sheepdog. Only the scratch on his nose wasn’t his idea. Uwella had been in her cougar form and angry that she couldn’t come with him. Of course, she immediately regretted clawing at him, but it itched terribly. Damion sighed. He found their relationship confusing. Sometimes she was very sweet and concerned, bordering on possessive, and the next time he couldn’t do anything right in her eyes.

A bird squawked and he jumped. Concentrate! Resolutely he put all thoughts of Uwella away and followed Zethir with a stiff gait. Canine impressions forced themselves on him. Just as in his tiger form, the world was all shades of blue and green, filled with the most fascinating scents. In front of him, Zethir mumbled something. Immediately Damion realized that as a dog, he could not understand human speech. A dog used the language of body and odor. As he looked at his companion’s back, it told him all of the other’s uncertainty. Had he been in his own form, it would’ve been embarrassing. Zethir would die of shame if he knew how much of his fears a dog could perceive.

Suddenly his sensitive nose caught the wet-socks smell of sheep and a moment later, the bleating animals were all around him. Curse it, how big were those stupid beasts? A pungent smell of sweat wafted through the stink of the herd. The shepherd? Of what was he so afraid? Wait, Zethir spoke! The words were no more than sounds, only the tone he recognized. Quiet, question. Zethir’s tone didn’t match his posture, would the shepherd notice?

He wouldn’t. Everything about the man was fear, defense.

Damion looked at Zethir. There was something wrong with the fellow, but what? Not his voice, it was something else.

The shepherd exuded anger, hate! At whom is he so angry?

He pricked his ears. Beware; there are strangers coming! Damion’s nose caught the smell of wet leather and rusty iron, and he heard the clatter of metal. Soldiers! A gruff voice whose tone he didn’t like. Uniforms. Dammit, why does a dog have to be so bad at colors? He couldn’t distinguish the tints of the armor, but the model was very different from that of the guards. Mercenaries? A private army? Were they… enemies? Wait, what’s happening? Zethir reacted like a frightened puppy, was there something wrong? What’s with the boy? What… his face! Zethir wore his own face; the mimikria was gone! Instinctively Damion barked and one of the soldiers kicked him. He yelped. His blood was boiling. The alluring fighting form of his black tiger appeared in his head and he felt his muscles tense. No! That would mean Zethir’s death. The gruff voice said something. Orders.

The men grabbed Zethir and he saw the boy resisted. Anxiety, panic. Damion’s hair stood on end. Don’t bark, he admonished himself. While they dragged him away, Zethir shouted something, urgently, and Damion understood what he meant. Warn Ghyll! Without thinking, Damion rushed off and thanked the gods these men were ordinary soldiers, not archers.

Once out of sight he stopped. He couldn’t go back yet; he had to know how well Derivall was defended first. Not as a dog; what animal was the most suitable for spying?

He looked at the castle and the answer shouted at him. Crows, dozens of black crows circled around Derivall’s towers. He sought out a biggish bird and called it to him. Curiously, the beast winged his way and landed beside him on the ground. Damion carefully studied every detail of the glossy black feathers, the dark, slightly curved beak and the bright beady eyes. When he had seen enough, he thanked the bird and sent him away.

He formed an image of the crow in his head and began the transformation. The clump of trees under which he hid rose higher and higher above him and the heather grew up above his head. He felt light, feathery… something itched under his wing and with his beak he preened until every feather sat in place. A perfect specimen, he thought, and flapped his wings. Instead of gracefully flying away, he fell flat on his beak. Oops, that was more difficult than he had supposed. Don’t think; flying is an instinct. He needed a distraction. In his mind he saw Uwella, her face, her eyes, the outlandish clothes she always wore, her… suddenly he noticed that he was flying!

Promptly his wings faltered and he fell. He closed his eyes. Twenty one times seven is one hundred forty-seven, divide by… Instinctively his wings stopped his fall and he rose up again. Dammit, this is fun.

For the first time in his life, he experienced absolute freedom and he croaked in ecstasy. Higher and higher he flew, way above the treetops. He felt the wind under his wings and rejoiced. Gradually it went smoother, and when he thought he had mastered the art of flying, he headed for the castle.

The crow family of Derivall saw a stranger and they greeted him effusively. They circled around him enthusiastically. ‘Welcome! Come! Come!’

Heartened by his reception, Damion cawed, ‘Help me! Help me!’

Crows are curious creatures, so they closed around him in order not to miss anything. What now?

A large, pale black crow appeared beside him. It had one good eye; the other was white and sightless. Its looks were venerable, and the other birds made respectful way for it. Damion held his breath when a vague, blurred picture appeared in his head of two crows flying circles above the castle. A telepathic crow! He did not know that birds had that ability. One of the two had a white eye and the other… was that him? He squawked in surprise and the rest of the crows laughed at his astonishment.

A new series of images came to him, from Damion as himself, as crow, as himself, as crow, and the other birds laughed again, as if it were a big joke. Somehow, they had realized that this crow was not his own form. Damion grinned. Then he thought of something: would the old crow read him as well? Quickly he formed an image of Zethir as herb doctor. ‘Where? Where?’ One-Eye was silent for a while, and finally said, ‘No. No.’

Damion gave himself a mental kick. Of course not, idiot. Quickly he built a new image of Zethir in his true form.

Immediately the old crow reacted. ‘Come, come.’ He flew away, with Damion behind him, while the other birds escorted them, dancing and whirling. They came to a barred window in the heavy castle wall. Damion and One-eye landed on the windowsill, while the other crows flapped around, chattering excitedly. ‘Here, here.’

Damion saw a small stone cell, hardly large enough for a dog. Inside, Zethir crouched on the floor in an attitude of deep hopelessness. His face was bruised and swollen, and his wrists were chained to the wall by rusty shackles. Damion squawked and for a moment, the young spy looked up. Then he hung his head again. Damion thanked the wise old crow and his family, and headed as fast as he could for Rabogst.

A crow isn’t a fast flyer, but the wind was favorable, and his sense of urgency gave him extra speed. Within three quarters of an hour, he was back at the castle. He landed in the courtyard and changed back to his own form.

‘Ghyll?’ he cried. ‘Where are you?’

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