-14-

Before allowing either himself or Gaia to fall asleep, Ali made sure to wrap a blanket he'd

stolen earlier tightly around the both of them to prevent the mer-woman's escape. Bright daylight

showed through the open door of the hayloft which overlooked the narrow street outside. At the

back of the stable below, Ali could hear a single farrier at work, whistling quietly and thinly to

himself as he shod a great, shaggy dray horse. Outside could be heard the movements and

conversation of people on a busy city street. The manger smelt strongly of clean, new hay, horses, manure and sunshine.

Had not the two been exhausted, sleep would have remained elusive.

They were wakened a few hours later by the clatter of mounted soldiers outside. Ali tensed, clutching his sword, but the danger soon passed. There was little traffic in the street now, and the stable had been closed up, leaving them alone with the horses beneath that whickered from time to time.

Tightly entangled against him, Gaia shifted irritably, lay her head back down on his shoulder, and was still once more.

'I would ask a thing of you,' she muttered quietly.

When he didn't answer, she continued.

'If we find my queen alive and contrive her rescue, then I want your promise that you will end it for me.'

'I already gave you my answer to that,' he grated, not wishing to continue this conversation. 'Stop asking. The answer remains "No."'

'Then you are a wicked, evil man! Having silenced my power, I am of no use to you. Why did you not send me away with the others when you had the chance, and select a more fit companion for this venture?'

'Because you would have returned to your home, where you are as good as dead.'

'Thanks to you, I am already as good as dead! In silencing my power, I am reft of half my being! You have no idea-'

'Enough! Someone will hear you-'

'I do not care! Let them come and do what they will! I-mf!'

She trembled, feeling the strength of the hand clamped over her mouth.

'Would you like me to end it for you right now? I could snap this patrician neck of yours like a chicken- crack!- like this- and it would all be over for you! Is that really what you want?'

He didn't let her see his guilt or his overwhelming relief when he fixed his outwardly hard eyes on her own which were wide and terrified, and she shook her head, No. When he removed his hand, she was panting with fear and trembling.

Her eyes filling with tears, she blurted, 'I had no idea what sort of man you really are underneath, Ali Abdhar! You are a black-hearted monster, with no compassion, no remorse, and with no feelings!'

'That's me- Ali, the evil sea pirate. Your mother should have warned you about men like me.'

'My mo- . . . do not mock me, you . . . you filthy violator of women's bodies! My people are free from the degrading debauchery and indignities of procreation.'

Ali frowned at this. 'That is not possible. You expect me to believe that your people find their children growing under toadstools?'

'They are grown in the Felata!'

'The what?'

'The Fe- . . . do you honestly not know about this?'

'You're telling me you have no men? Not a one?'

She reddened at this, and admitted, 'Occasionally a mer-woman will . . . sate a carnal need if the desire becomes too . . . overpowering.'

'That's not what I asked you. How are your people able to produce children?'

'Our people do not. The Felata does this for us.'

'And this . . . Felata . . . produces only girl children.' It was a statement.

'I should think that much is obvious!'

Somehow knowing the answer to this, with a sick feeling, he said, 'Tell me about your childhood. Who raised you? Were they good to you? Did you love them?'

Her stare of incomprehension erased all doubt in his mind, if not most of his sense of guilt. He was no longer surprised that her actions wholly contradicted her words, or that her responses were not the least bit in accordance with her beliefs, as he tenderly caressed her cheek, brushed away her tears and kissed her forehead.

'Sleep now. Regardless what you may think of me, should we survive this and retrieve the Vhurd-aq, I will make it up to you.'

'Make . . . ? I do not understand what you mean.'

'I know. But there will come a day.'

-

Erin sighed with relief when he saw their signal returned from shore.

'I suppose you'll be going straightaway to that Udin wife of yours.' Marl remarked.

May, who overheard this, stared at the heir of Otar with frank surprise and outrage.

'You married a woman of Udin? You? The heir of Otar? Which of King T'Argot's daughters have you debauched?'

Erin raised an eyebrow at this and considered an angry rejoinder, but said, 'Her father is the Thane of Woren County . . .' the look of revulsion on the young weaponsmaster's face stopped him.

'That pig! It's a good thing that his daughters were sheltered by their grandparents! Their

brothers are just as bad as the father! Which one did you select? Miri? Yela? Amra? No? Not T'li! She's but a child!' May stopped herself to think back and do a little chronological mental

arithmetic, then glared at him. 'You did say that she is your wife! Not your unwilling concubine,

but your wife! Forgive me, but I cannot believe this! Only men from Woren County take wives from Woren County! Why did you marry her? What did her father pay you? Or is he blackmailing you?' She said this last like an accusation.

'Listen, you,' Marl cut in, 'this man married that girl to keep her safe! Safe from your Udin captains! Safe from those of my Talimari countrymen who would slay any woman caught dressed

like a man or engaged in a man's occupation. And safe from his own family, and from those lunatic religious fanatics whose murderous followers were about to carve our hides before you showed up.'

May blinked in incomprehension. 'Religious fanatics?'

'The church!' Marl enunciated. 'The very people who set their armies upon us!'

'We are newly come from the gate of the City of Treasures,' May told him, looking to Erin as well. 'The men we saw were soldiers, not religious fanatics. We saw no sign of religious activity

at all.'

She sighed. 'But perhaps the situation within the city tells a different tale. As we left, our captain was attempting to enter the city.'

She told them of the Vhurd-aq, of the fate of Queen Animanya, of the mer-women of the Doloman islands, and of the Dark Magi, of which almost nothing was known.

Erin responded by telling her of all that had transpired, to the best of his knowledge.

When he was done, May sighed.

'You do not know it, but the Fate of the known world hangs in the balance. Should the Dark Magi master the periapt known as the Vhurd-aq, we will all be destroyed.'

-

Erin considered his own haggard reflection in the porthole as the schooner approached Dawnton's landing. He hadn't slept in days, and had eaten little. Though it was late dusk, the reflective ice-sheet gave a false sense of light that illuminated its own bitter cold and the great wooden landing incongruously affixed to its edge, upon which were built warehouses and other buildings.

Events of the past weeks seemed unreal. His homeland had fallen, his people were scattered, there were so many things that needed doing . . .

Yet he had pushed all thought of responsibility to the back of his mind for the time being. His sole focus, for better or for worse, was his young wife and all that remained to him of his family, his two sisters.

It was with considerable difficulty that he'd learned of their whereabouts. The people of Brannigwaith were too preoccupied with war to have much time to spare for the heir of a fallen

country, who to them was just another dispossessed refugee.

Odd, he reflected, considering the strong, hidden ties there had been between Otar, Brannigwaith and the Norlander nations. Otar's primary resources had been in metals and raw ore, coal and wood, which through Brannigwaith had for generations been traded with the Norlandermen for fish, finished manufactured goods, and meat and other products that came from the northern Veldts.

The arrangement had traditionally kept the Norlander nations, Brannigwaith and Otar, out of military conflict with Otar's two warlike, yet infinitely more primitive neighbours, though both

Udin and Talimar had made marvellous progress in certain areas with the industrial leavings of

their more peaceful neighbours.

The finest timepieces and precision instruments and machines were universally acknowledged to hail from Udin, whereas the silver and goldsmiths and jewellers of Talimar were without equal. And despite their apparent differences, the black markets of Udin and Talimar had flourished for generations. There was no matron of Udin who did not own Talimari jewelry, and there was no Talimari ship that did not have compasses, telescopes or other instruments made in Udin.

But cultural differences ran deep, and inflexible societal and spiritual canon made conflict inevitable.

All this Erin reflected upon as he boarded the first available ice ship to Port Brun. The Old Order is dead, he mused. Will it be possible to establish a New Order?

For this reason alone he remained reticent about declaring himself heir to what had once been part of the Old Order. How could he or anyone in his stead do so without inflaming old conflicts, old hatreds, old enmities, old wounds, and adherence to old beliefs?

Yet as he left the great ice ship the following day and beheld the strange wonder of Port Brun, he realised that for such things to exist, hope yet remained. And with this realisation, he spirits began to rise.

And as he began making his way through the port city, his thoughts turned to the young captain, Ali, and the mer-woman, Gaia, who at this moment were somewhere within the City of Treasures, two lone souls striving against the evil might of the Dark Magi.

Erin paused before the door, and rechecked the address a young dockworker had given him.

Yes, he thought, the Old World is indeed ended. Will the New World have a place for us, I wonder?

With that thought, he knocked upon the door. Time and the world changed then, and his memory of the events that followed remained a vague, heady blur to the end of his days, a series of frozen moments that merged one into the next. Unreality opened the door and greeted him in the form of a Udin woman whose presence was unexpected and welcome . . .

A Udin woman? Here in the North Country? As bewitching as a Siren, whose glad presence in that moment seemed to him as radiant as summer sunshine. She drew him inwards, into a small room with a door at the far end, which led to another small room and yet another door beyond, as though he passed through layers of consciousness into the heart and mind of a dream . . .

. . . and the last door burst open, and he was dragged unceremoniously to the ground, set upon and buried beneath unbearable soul-release and tears, by the hysterical weeping of his wife who threw herself into his arms, by his no-less-hysterical sisters, who like his wife, said his name over and over and over again, as though to reassure themselves that he was real and alive . . .

. . . and afterwards there was warmth and people and laughter, and a hot bath and feasting well into the night, and the sharing of stories over hot punch, and his young wife and his sisters who refused for one moment to leave his side . . .

. . . and at the last some hasty arrangements were made . . .

. . . and he and his young wife were alone together in darkness . . .

. . . at last . . .

. . . and the last moments of that day faded gradually away in warmth and ecstasy; faded like a dream in a haze of gentle caresses and murmured endearments; finally slipping away altogether into the soul-healing arms of blessed and untroubled slumber.

-

Here ends Book One of The Dark Magi.