Sweet incense and warmth slowly returning to the innermost hollows of her flesh. The cold star of poison pain slowly fading. The sweetness of herbs.
The Nightraven had not been a good woman, or an easy teacher. Coldhearted and beautiful, she had laid spells over her captor, so that Lord Aver had loved her even when they fought. His sisters, Jane and Rowan, had hated her like death. When she had disappeared, leaving behind her a son, a puzzled, wary toddler who never quite trusted the world, the spells on Lord Aver had remained: he had never loved another woman, not even his former longtime mistress Hollyberry, the town blacksmith’s wife.
Jenny, too, had been left with a hole in her heart.
It was old Caerdinn, the half-mad and rage-filled old hedge-wizard Lord Aver got for his son John’s tutor, who took Jenny as a pupil when she was thirteen. Caerdinn took her into his crumbling stone house on Frost Fell, and taught her how magic was organized. Showed her how to draw power from the sun and the earth and from her own flesh and bones and blood. How to observe, and to name each tiniest flower and grass blade by its true name so that they would be within her power: how to call power from these true names. How to weave Limitations on each spell, so that cows would not run mad, nor birds forget how to fly, nor thatch roofs take fire two villages away when she summoned Power; and how to harmlessly disperse the power she’d called, after her spells were accomplished, lest it linger in the place where she’d raised it and mix with later spells. This was how Spaeth, his master, had taught him, and all the wizards of their Line back to the shadowy ancient warlock Herne.
All magic comes from understanding, Caerdinn had told her, staring at her with his huge pale blue eyes, like a demented goat’s beneath white brows. He seized her by the shoulder, small hands but terribly strong. The long nails stained yellow with the herbs he smoked dug into her flesh. Know the names of each pebble underfoot, and you can call even their tiny magics from them at need. The more of them you know, the more accurately you know their nature, the greater will be your power.
In the darkness, in her pain, in her forty-sixth year, she thought now, There is power in me still.
She breathed in deep, feeling the demons nearby. Their minds circled hers like ravens. She felt the presence of Morkeleb the Dragonshadow, who in his days as a dragon had nearly destroyed this Deep. He had dwelled here for a time after driving the gnomes forth, and knew its every passageway and chamber. His calm strength upheld her, flowing into her lungs and blood.
As her mind and body relaxed she felt the warmth return. Past and present … the glimmer of cold disdain that had been the Nightraven, who had given her the first knowledge of what power was.
Caerdinn’s resentment and bitterness, that had not stopped him from teaching her all the little he knew. Even though they were dead—Caerdinn for certain, and Nightraven for all she knew—Jenny felt them still, a part of her body, her self as surely as Morkeleb’s magic had once been a part of her bones and blood.
And a farther mind, that sweet creaky little voice again, said, Linger till we come, child. Hold my hand.
Mab, thought Jenny, clasping that strong, gentle shadow. Miss Mab, the men of Bel called her: Taseldwyn of the House of Howeth-Arawan, the tough little gnome-wife whose spells had enabled John to pass through the Burning Mirror at Ernine—to survive his first encounter with the Demon Queen.
Mab was still far away. The Wise Ones of the Deep had put her under house arrest in the warrens of her own clan, but in her dream Jenny felt her hand. It was no bigger than a child’s and hard-muscled like a blacksmith’s, thick with the gaudy rings in which the gnomes delighted. There was comfort in her grip, reminding Jenny of all those nights when she’d gone to sleep holding John’s hand.
John, she thought, giddy and frightened. Where is John?
She saw him riding away from her through the blowing snow of a coming storm. Riding down Frost Fell after they’d found their son, Ian: the boy had taken poison, to keep the demons from returning to his flesh. She saw John ride away and felt the darkness that she’d felt then, too despairing even to speak to him or to anyone of her pain.
Morkeleb lifted her. She heard the slither of boulders pushed aside, smelled the brimstone residue of blasting powder and the choke of rock dust. From a great distance she heard the dragon speak her name in that voice like the dark behind the stars, and though she’d already wandered a long way into a quiet gray country beyond the borders of sleep, she could still speak to him, for she was still holding Mab’s hand. I’m here, she said.
His body was warm. Like sleeping near a stove on a freezing night. It flashed through her how cold she was, and she tightened her grip on Mab’s hand: I’m cold, she said.
Endure. The word flowed over her like the tides of the sea.
She didn’t know how she would, but she thought again, There is power in me still. Not really magic, she thought, but power of a kind. She tried weaving a little skein of magic from the name of that black-haired girl-child, running after Kahiera Nightraven along the battlements of Alyn Hold. To that she added a thread of power from the awkward, un-pretty thirteen-year-old who had fetched Caerdinn’s breakfast porridge for him all those mornings when he’d been too crippled with arthritis to rise from his bed. Who had endured his slaps and curses because he was the only one who could teach her spells.
She colored the magic with her endurance then: If I could stand living with him, I can surely stand this.
Magic from understanding. Know the names of each pebble …
The name of this pebble was Jenny Waynest, she thought. What I am is that person who was.
She breathed a little easier, and some more of the coldness in her limbs seemed to abate.
After a long time—more dreams—she smelled herbed smoke and sheepskins. Much closer now she heard Miss Mab say, “Lay her down. A well lies farther along that passageway. Fetch water. I brought a hothwais of heat …” She named the spell-stones of the gnomes, which could be charged sometimes with heat, as if they’d been baked in fire, and sometimes with glowing light: sometimes with other things. “She must be kept warm.”
Jenny had a clear picture in her mind of the place where she lay, though she had not the strength to open her eyes. It was a cavelet barely larger than the smokehouse at Alyn Hold, a nodule deep in the rock of the mines. Air flowed through it, tracking across the stubble that was all that was left of Jenny’s hair after the fight with Folcalor. So the cave must be near the ventilating shafts that riddled all the gnomes’ workings like worm-tunnels. Reaching out with her other senses, she smelled water not far off. Miss Mab had brought blankets and sheepskins as well as her medicines. Even large burdens were of little account to a gnome. She laid some of these down as a bed for Jenny, and moved her onto them. From a box she took a stone as big as a man’s fist, and set it beside her. Passing her fingers across it she whispered the True Name of heat. The stone gave forth no light, but the chill of the cave, and the bitter cold in Jenny’s flesh, grew less.
Will she live? asked Morkeleb. Jenny heard the slosh of water in a gourd, smelled it as it dripped on stone. In her half-dreaming state she could not tell whether the dragon wore his human guise or the serpentine semblance of a dragon in miniature as he sometimes did. He might even have been completely invisible, a state he had returned to more and more since giving up his magic lest the demons take hold of him. In the darkness Jenny was aware of his diamond eyes, no more.
She could see Miss Mab, in any case, a bent little gnome woman with a round face seamed with wrinkles, and eyes the color of sunset beneath a jutting brow. Her pale gold hair she wore dressed in elaborate rolls and bands over a padded frame, and she was dressed in silky trousers, tunic, and a quilted jacket, as both males and females among the gnomes clothed themselves. Only her family’s influence with Balgub King of the Deep had kept her from being killed for abetting John’s quest for the Demon Queen. As it was, she had been imprisoned for a year and a day.
Demons could, of course, being deathless, wait far longer than that to make their presence known in one they possessed. But they never did. Like children they were impatient, and greedy about their pleasures, even to their own detriment. If one immediate plan failed, there was always another.
The Lady Trey is dead, Jenny tried to say. Prince Gareth is sending for one in the city who is said to raise the dead.
But all she could do was whisper, “Dead,” in a voice no louder than the scrape of dried leaves blown across a marble floor. Human ears would not have heard her, but she felt Morkeleb draw near.
Is this what you learned when you went into the city, my friend? Claws touched her, light as spider feet. Tender.
She gathered images together like a sheaf of dried flowers. Herself at Trey’s bedside, and Gareth stretched weeping over his wife’s body. The stink of pyre smoke on the rainy air and Polycarp, Master of Halnath, saying, I don’t like it, as they sat in the Long Garden. Like flowers she handed them to the dragon, thankful that she need do no more than that.
She had been a dragon, once upon a time, transformed into that shape by Morkeleb’s power. For a time the magic of a dragon had filled her veins and her flesh. She remembered how dragons spoke.
With those images, others: the horror of the drowned sailor rising from the water of Eldsbouch Harbor, with the soul of the wizard Caradoc glaring hungrily from its ruined eyes. The tall, gray-haired form of the Baron Pellanor, leading bandit slave hunters through the Winterlands months after his death in battle. Trying to trap her sons.
They are raising the dead. Tell Miss Mab. The demons are raising the dead.
She slipped away into sleep.
She lay for a long time in the cave, like a child in the womb. Morkeleb never left her side. Miss Mab came and went, bringing water sometimes, or gruel, or once another hothwais, this one imbued with white light so strong, she kept it wrapped in several layers of leather sacking. With a silver knife barely as long as a finger, she cut Jenny’s wrist and drew sigils around the cut in ocher and ink. The spells of healing were a whisper rather than a shout, for demons still lurked in the mine. In her dreams, Jenny felt them, slipping green and shining far away among the rocks. Mab was forced to work slowly, dispensing tiny sips of magic, drawing forth the poison a little at a time. In the long periods between, Morkeleb’s smoky presence wrapped Jenny around, and held her in life.
Sometimes Mab spoke to her as she worked, gentle words like a mother, telling her about the road back to healing and life. “Power lies in thee still, child; in thy heart, in thy bones. Call it from what thou art, what thou truly art NOW, not from anything thou wert before.”
When I had the magic of the dragon in me, I had power, thought Jenny. That dragon power was all that I saw. What am I, truly, now? A woman who formerly had the power of a dragon: this I am. A woman who has borne three children, and who loves them now more than she did at their births: this I am.
She took even the headaches and the little spurts of nausea that had tormented her for years, the flushes of heat and the migraines of her changing body, and sought in them for power instead of calling on the power of her youth to suppress them: this I am.
She laughed in her dreams, to feel that power respond.
Once she even called on the power of the poison itself, slowly working out of her body: from death and pain whose name and nature she now understood, weaving strength. This I am.
Opening her eyes she looked up at Mab and though she could not speak, she smiled. The pale golden eyes smiled back.
“Walks the plague still in the City of Men?” Jenny heard Mab ask later, through the dim shadow of sleep.
So deep lies this place within the stone of the mountain, even I cannot hear. Morkeleb’s voice sounded in Jenny’s mind, as she knew it would sound in Mab’s. When I reach forth to listen to those who walk the thoroughfares of the Deep, the rumor is confused. Some say the plague there is ended, and the man who brought it upon the city was killed. Others say no, the demons saved him from the fire, sending a dragon to snatch him away. Others yet say stranger things. The old King who was ill and broken in his mind is now restored, they say, and takes up the reins of power again in his hands. The Warren of your Clan lies closer to the ways of your brethren than this hiding-place, Gnome-Witch, and the tongues of servants are ever ready to gossip. Surely you have heard?
“I listen in the stillness of the nights.” Mab’s warm, stubby fingers paused in drawing the sigils of healing along Jenny’s veins. Her voice was barely a murmur, as though she feared who might overhear. “These rumors have I heard, and others as well. In the City of Men, they say, evildoers rove the streets killing men in their own gateways without reason, without concealing themselves from the justice of the King’s guards. No man now trusts another, nor children their parents, nor wives their husbands. Those whose loved ones were resurrected from the dead try to pretend that the ones who were restored to them were indeed those who were taken away, but they weep in their fear, and dare not speak. All this I have heard.”
Ah, said the dragon softly. This is as it was a thousand years ago, in the Realm of Ernine.
And having been a dragon once herself, Jenny saw into the dragon’s mind, as he had been able to see into hers. She saw the columns of smoke that rose above the walls of that lost golden city, seeing in its prime what she had only glimpsed as ivy-smothered ruins. She saw flame and smoke rising from the roofs in Morkeleb’s memory, and no one came to put out the blazes for fear of the demons they might meet. She saw the bodies of young girls and children left mutilated by the waysides, and how, in time, gangs in the streets would kill without a hand raised against them, until at last barbarians swept in from the East and looted the undefended town.
“Were you there?” asked Mab, and she used the form of words that gnomes use to address Kings, or gods. Somehow to Jenny this did not sound strange.
The dragon replied, I was there.
Then he was silent. Jenny saw the mad wizard Isychros riding at the head of his corps of dragons and wizards, demon light burning from his eyes, as Caradoc later had ridden. The possessed dragons sparkled in the sunshine, crimson and golden and blue and bronze, their magic transfigured by the magic of demons. The wizards scried in water and glass and crystal with fivefold power for any who would plot against them, and those plotters came to terrible grief.