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Fiction – “The Halcyon in Flight” by Therese Arkenberg

A man waded through the marsh of Felind.

The brackish green water lapped sluggishly at the shore as his steps stirred it. The adventurer’s clothing—and he was an adventurer—was well-made and certainly suitable for most travel, but no match for the damp swamp air. Wet strands hung from fraying cuffs, pant legs tore in the grip of water plants, and everything was caked with mud. He carried a lantern, but there was little to be seen by its light.

The watching thing was still out there. It moved more quietly than he, but he had heard it following him, and had seen flashes of yellow eye in the night. It hadn’t attacked him when his fire went out two nights ago, so maybe it wasn’t after meat. But what then? If only he had some idea what it wanted—

The only way to find out is to ask.

Was that his genius speaking again? The Immortal Empress Aurmid-Nash declared it heresy for anyone in the Kahnnish empire to believe in the mind-spirits, since they were a fondly held doctrine of the rebel Bashtas, but on his travels he had seen and heard things that…well, they rendered it more than a vague belief, at any rate. Like this voice. It wasn’t his, and its ideas—he was humble enough to admit it—were often much, much better than his own.

Though every once in a while they were fatally stupid. And as an adventurer, he traveled armed, but not well enough armed for that.

You’re an excellent warrior. There’s nothing to fear.

The voice did speak sense, however. And he liked the word ‘warrior’. Casting about with his lantern, the adventurer spotted a low hummock rising from the waters of the swamp. He waded to it, climbed up, and drew his knife with his free hand. “Show yourself!”

“I don’t think I will.”

He nearly dropped the lantern in shock; it was a human voice. Of course, as he had learned in the caverns of Adian, human sound and human form didn’t always go together. And if the watcher didn’t want to reveal itself…

“Why not?” he demanded.

“I prefer my privacy.”

“If you prefer your privacy, why the hell are you following me?”

The voice laughed. “Very well. I prefer not to be seen. But I’d like to speak to another man, if you’d allow it.”

“Another man?” The voice was male, he realized. So could this be another traveler like himself, lost in the marsh?

“I am…Asmadene.”

The adventurer sat down and hastily put his knife away. “And you want to talk?”

“I have a story to tell.”

***

Traveling through the Desolate Lands was enough to give Hethen A’Manth second thoughts. He had agreed to carry this message to the rebel queen Sesitin NaVarma for a good price, but he already had gold in his saddlebags and would give ten times as much for green hills and blue sky again, and consider it a bargain.

Felinda was under a curse. Everyone knew that, and they knew it was the Puissant Empress Aurmid-Nash who had laid it, and they knew the why of it was that Sesitin of Felinda was plotting something. But few of them could imagine what a Desolate Land really looked like.

Rolling hills spread from horizon to horizon: gray, with charcoaled stubble of what must once have been corn or wheat. The sky was brown, dull orange in the west where the sun was setting. Hethen didn’t know what made it that color, nor could he remember when it had turned that way, but he didn’t like the effect it had on Tulay’s white coat.

She tossed her head, snorting. “Easy, girl,” Hethen muttered. His hands must have tugged the reins; nerves. She forgave him as soon as the discomfort ceased, and they continued, the only travelers on this gray and dusty road.

It was hard to say how he knew the way to get to the Varman lands. It probably had to do with the message—the boy who had given him the papyrus scroll had whispered something about ‘not getting lost’. Hethen hadn’t liked that boy; there was something wrong with the shape and color of his eyes and his skin was too pale. A hired messenger dealing with treason had enough to worry about without tangling with sorcerers.

In any event, this was the route to Varma: in the evening light he saw the dark domes of a city over the next hill. A flag hung from one spire, bearing the three doves of Felinda in flight. The blue of the banner tangled with gray smoke above the walls.

The citadel was crawling with soldiers.

Hethen and Tulay hadn’t seen another living being since they entered the Desolate Lands four days before. Now the question of where they all went was answered: crofters, shepherds with their flocks, coppersmiths, and innkeepers had taken up arms, hammered plowshares into swords, and collected here. No doubt some had also fled to Epseraph and the other cities of Aurmid-Nash’s empire, but the bravest had stayed behind with their queen. Sesitin must be something, to command such loyalty.

Tulay’s reins were grasped as they entered the citadel; Hethen showed his messenger’s ring and allowed his accoster a glimpse of the papyrus in his saddlebag. The soldier led him to a stable, where a slack-faced youth of indeterminate sex rubbed Tulay down and offered her some oats. He wondered idly where they had gotten the grain. Assured in any event that his girl was well cared for, he followed the soldier into the domed house—it couldn’t be called a palace even in charity—in the center of Varma. The queen was already waiting for him.

Sesitin’s chamber was well lit by oil lamps, though the great dome remained in shadow. The brick walls were frescoed with heroes of the God, virtues of Ceshim the Compassionate, and even, in one corner, a young Aurmid-Nash on the Leopard Throne. The Empress had not been defaced, for whatever reason, and she observed the chamber with the kindly, interested expression that Hethen had heard she often wore in real life. Probably not for this company, however.

Sesitin NaVarma was dark-skinned, dark-haired, with a wide face and long, slender body. Beautiful, perhaps, but her mouth was set in a thin line and she stared somewhere in the space beyond Hethen’s head in a way that made him glad she wasn’t looking any closer. A boy sat at her feet, blond-haired and pale. Too pale. Hethen couldn’t be certain, but he was willing to bet that something about that pallor wasn’t natural.

Sesitin’s fingers stroked though the gold hair, and the boy’s eyes opened. Not a boy, Hethen realized belatedly, though youthful, and beside the willowy Sesitin he had looked small. His eyes were golden, and the pupils were strange—large in the darkness, so that Hethen could see they weren’t round.

“I have a message for you, your Radiance,” the messenger said at last. “From a woman named Beved. No other name. She…wears the skull.”

If Sesitin was surprised that a member of the Feasting Priesthood had something to tell her, she showed no sign of it. She reached out, and Hethen crossed the room to hand her the scroll. At her feet, the sorcerer watched his approach.

“I take it Beved isn’t gossiping about the latest funeral she’s presided over,” he said, golden eyes never blinking.

Sesitin smirked. “No, I imagine not. Unless someone’s done something delicious and scandalous again. Managed to bury all of his wife’s rivals at once. And trusted that rumormonger to officiate over all of them.”

“I’d gladly bury your rivals in the same pit.”

“Of course you would, love.” She bent to kiss him on the forehead. His veined eyelids flickered; he gently touched her cheek. Not only was the skin of his hand pale, but the flesh had shrunk on it to form little more than a claw.

“Messenger,” Sesitin said with an air of cold amusement, “have you ever heard of the Halcyon?”

“The bird or the…” Hethen’s voice trailed off before the word sorcerer. It was obvious which one she meant. He bowed to the young man. “Stormcalmer.”

“Sometimes.” The sorcerer’s smile was as fleshless as the rest of him. “Feel free to call me Asmadene, messenger.”

“Thank you,” Hethen said, though he wasn’t sure it was meant as a favor.

Sesitin read over the Feasting Priest—Beved’s—message. “Very good,” she said. “Asme, lead this man out, please.”

Asmadene rose and walked out of the room. Hethen followed. “You’re welcome to stay the night, of course,” the Halcyon said without looking over his shoulder.

“Thank you.” When the silence stretched, Hethen added, “Funny you’d remember that,” in a tone that he hoped made it sound like an afterthought.

“Because sorcerers don’t sleep?” Asmadene did look over his shoulder then, smiling thinly. “But that only makes us more aware of it. While everyone else in the world dreams, we’re left awake, watching them. It makes us very conscious of sleep.”

Silence again. Hethen, knowing magicians were a touchy lot, and rebels especially, wondered if his next words would be suicide. “Does Sesitin realize Beved has a sorcerer in her employ?”

“How did you know that?” Asmadene’s voice didn’t even hold curiosity.

“The boy who gave me the parchment and told me it came from a wearer of the skull—he had gold eyes, too.”

“And he was pale.”

“Granted.”

Asmadene sighed. “Sometimes I wish I could pass as a foreigner.”

“No chance of that, with your pardon. I’m from Kahn, and even I’m not that pale.”

“Yes. I can see that.” Asmadene’s tone, combined with a smile, suggested that he saw a lot more as well. His expression was nearly a leer.

“So…” Not only did Hethen not know how to change the topic, he had no idea what to change the topic to. “How did you become a sorcerer?”

Asmadene turned and began walking backwards, facing Hethen with no expression. “What do you think? Did I whore my body to demons? Drink the blood of children? Chant unspeakable words to the Thousand Adversaries of the God?”

“I don’t know,” Hethen replied.

The Halcyon sighed. “It was simple. I studied. I practiced what I learned. Sometimes the things I did had effect. Over time, I changed. Sleepless nights, inexhaustible power, thoughts that were…strange.” He shrugged. “That’s all.”

Hethen A’Manth had nothing to say to that. Asmadene stopped at an empty room with a pallet in one corner. “Excuse us,” he said dryly. “We’re a bit crowded now.”

“Of course.” Hethen ducked through the low door. The sorcerer followed, also crouching—he might not have the height of the willowy Sesitin, but he could easily look Hethen in the eye, and just as easily knock his head on the frame.

“You may need to deliver a return message.”

“Of course.”

Asmadene seemed about to say more. “In that case…sleep well.”

“‘night yourself.”

As he drifted off, Hethen wondered if Asmadene had been serious about watching mortals in their slumber. He hoped he didn’t do anything terribly embarrassing while sleeping.

***

A girl was waiting for Hethen to wake up.

The messenger blinked drowsily from the pallet, then sat bolt upright. “What is it?”

“The queen NaVarma wants to see you.”

He dressed quickly and followed the waif to the Lady of Felinda’s chambers. Sesitin sat as straight on the throne as if she had been there all night. Asmadene stood behind her, and Hethen was willing to bet he had been there all night.

Were those dark shadows under his eyes new?

“Return message, your Radiance?”

“Yes.” She nodded to the sorcerer. “Asme will carry it.”

“…Oh.” He covered his mental lapse with a bow. “I suppose I won’t be needed, then.”

“I’m not so sure.” Asmadene smiled, not happily. “Our contact will recognize you. And I will probably need human hands.”

As opposed to what other kind of hands? Some part of Hethen’s mind laughed weakly at the question, though it wasn’t really a joke. “I’m happy to be of service, your Radiance, your…Potency.” There was no good way to title a magician: some used the title ‘your Puissance,’ but that reminded Hethen a bit too closely of the Empress, Aurmid-Nash. And Sesitin probably wanted to think of her Excellency even less than an out-of-law messenger did. “Where will we be going?”

“Xeocib,” Sesitin and Asmadene said together.

“The capital?”

Sesitin rose a dark eyebrow. “Do you know of another Xeocib?”

“No, of course not…”

“Then that’s settled. You’ll be paid at the end of your journey,” she said. “It’s all been handled with Beved.”

“Thank you, your Radiance.” He bowed, and as he did Asmadene swept past him for the door.

“Shall we be going?”

***

The Halcyon was named for his weatherworking abilities, of course. Stories were still told of how the Desolate Lands in Felinda had received rain for months after Aurmid-Nash had cursed them. It was he who had kept Epseraph from being swept away in a cyclone twelve years before. When even younger, he had calmed the blizzard in the Kahn mountains as his family fled south, refugees of a war five hundred years past.

And, sometime over those five hundred years, he had found another link to the storm-calming bird.

Asmadene knelt on the bare ground outside the citadel of Varma. The guards on the walls were conspicuously few, and none of them looked down at the sorcerer or Hethen. The messenger patted Tulay’s neck as the mare tramped nervously.

Asmadene held an object in his hand. A white feather. He raised it to his mouth and whispered something.

Hethen didn’t like thinking about what happened next. He had never seen human flesh melt like that before, and never realized how little change it took to make the bones of a man the bones of a bird…

A halcyon, a white bird with red crest, golden eyes, and talons that flashed like iron in the ashy sunlight. The bird that flew above Hethen and Tulay all day. The bird which, that night, came down to earth and in a blast of—well, something—turned suddenly into Asmadene. Which, of course, Hethen had known it was, but still.

Camp that evening was set up quickly. Hethen gave Tulay her nosebag while Asmadene started a fire with a few handfuls of dry stubble. The fire burned all night, and was never fed more than those wisps of grass. Sorcerers. In any event, soon a wineskin was heating, and the messenger was struggling with a mouthful of hardtack and jerky. Asmadene did not eat.

“I’ll keep watch,” he said finally, as Hethen finished his meal. “I have nothing better to do, anyway.”

“Suit yourself.” The messenger rolled in his blanket.

“This will be the last time I’m human, I think, until we reach Xeocib. I need halcyon feathers for the transformation, and I don’t have many of them.”

“Sure.” At a thought, he looked over his shoulder. Asmadene stared into the flames, and for a moment Hethen could pretend that the gold in his eyes was just the fire reflected. “What’s making you go up north, anyway?”

“The priestess asked for me specifically in her message.”

“Planning something big?”

Asmadene laughed softly in a way that made Hethen suspect the answer was yes.

“And what does an overseer of funeral feasts have to do with it?”

“I wouldn’t tell you that even if I knew. But Beved and Sesitin go back a long way. After all, even one who wears the skull mask can have ambition.”

“So what’s keeping you and Sesitin together?” Hethen yawned in the middle of his question, which he hoped made it sound a little more innocent.

“Loyalty,” Asmadene said. “What’s keeping you and…well, Sesitin, together?”

“Money.”

“You’re a traitor now, too, you know. They aren’t treated nicely in Xeocib. Aurmid-Nash has promised that all her enemy’s names will be forgotten in two generations. And that’s to say nothing of what she’ll do to them while they still have names.”

“Well…” Hethen shrugged. “How’s a messenger’s name going to last more than two generations, anyway? No one remembers messengers. Only the message.”

Asmadene laughed, and that ended the conversation.

***

Hethen didn’t speak to Asmadene after that, since it was hard to have much conversation with a bird. Though he suspected that even if the sorcerer had stayed human, he wouldn’t have heard more than a few words, though the trip was long enough to have heard told most men’s life stories. And then, most men didn’t have five hundred years of life story to tell, not to mention five hundred years to get in the habit of keeping silent.

Xeocib appeared on the horizon after a fortnight. Or perhaps it would be better, and more accurate, to say that the horizon at last resolved into Xeocib. First there was only a mist in the north, which then seemed then to become a mountain range, but at last the first onion-bulbed tower rose up and into sight. Hethen had never been to the capitol before, but he had to admit that the view half made him regret he hadn’t. They said that a beggar who lived in Xeocib for only a hundred days could lord himself over a king of any other land—if he could ever escape that maze of golden streets, at least, the messenger amended the proverb.

The city straddled the Sheb river on the far northern edge of the Kahnnish plains. ‘Straddled’ was certainly the correct word, although as they entered the gates Hethen realized that ‘was built on’ would also be a suitable choice. Xeocib had a talent for making him reconsider his words. A giant plate of crystal or glass or something like it lay over the Sheb for nearly a mile, and some buildings of the city had even been placed right atop it.

“Legend says that Aurmid-Nash formed the bridge,” Asmadene murmured as they entered. “And that at her death, the city will crumble and fall into the Sheb.”

“I trust you don’t hold that view yourself,” the messenger said dryly.

“Or I simply don’t care about the citizens of Xeocib.” Asmadene lowered his voice. “Or I don’t plan to assassinate the Empress.” He smiled, and there was no telling if he was serious.

The sorcerer was disguised, or at least concealed, beneath a wide white cloak. He carried gloves, Hethen knew, but disliked wearing them. Sorcerers cast better with hands bare. Probably would cast even better with everything bare, but that would be a little much, Hethen thought. He covered a snicker.

Still, when Asmadene tried to conceal the fact he was a sorcerer, Hethen wished he’d be a little less sorcerous.

The Halcyon’s eyes darted around, examining the flow of people down the crystal concourse. The thrum of the Sheb echoed through their feet. “Where are we meeting the messenger?”

Hethen had memorized the papyrus’ contents on the way north. They included directions. “The Globe of Tithis,” he said. “The proprietor is brother to the lady who owns the Horse and Eagle. That’s where I first found Beved’s sorcerer—or the other way around.”

The Globe was a large banquet hall, off the crystal concourse but not far from it. Though not busy at this time of day, it still held enough guests to provide a fair sized audience when they entered. Hethen led the way to one of the long communal tables, where they sat on padded benches beside each other. He ordered bowls of something half-wine and half something else, a family recipe, which Asmadene took a sip of and which he took in draughts. He wondered whether the sorcerer needed to eat or did it only to pass the time. He also wondered if Admadene was finishing his bowl, or if he would share if he wasn’t.

Some time later another person entered, drawing the gaze of every guest but Asmadene. It was a slim figure, robed in billowing red, with long narrow gloves and a cloak that covered all of the face but a pale chin. He sat across from them and drew back his hood to reveal golden eyes and features that, though odd, were familiar to Hethen.

He glanced at Asmadene. “You brought the sorcerer.”

The Halcyon shifted. “You didn’t tell me about the marks,” he whispered.

“What marks…?” Hethen began as Beved’s sorcerer pulled off the hood.

His neck and the flesh along his cheeks to the ears were inked with tight black script. Hethen hadn’t noticed them in the shadows of the hood before, but the sorcerer gave Asmadene a look that suggested he hadn’t wanted the tattoos revealed.

“What about them?” he said in the voice of a man knowingly making a losing bet.

“You’re a bound sorcerer.”

“And you aren’t?”

Asmadene’s hand rose as if to pull back his own hood, but stopped. “My lady doesn’t keep slaves.”

With the Halcyon’s pale coloring, Hethen would have seen any marks on him long before. But Beved’s sorcerer, despite his black hair and preference for shadows, could not have hidden them much better when Hethen had taken the message from him only weeks before.

Those marks were new.

He jumped when the bound sorcerer spoke again.

“The priestess wants me to bring you to her.”

“Both of us?” Asmadene asked.

“He’ll need to get paid, anyway,” the sorcerer said, nodding to Hethen.

Hethen would have preferred it if he’d just tossed a coin or two across the table at him, but it seemed like he would be playing this game just a little bit longer. He and Asmadene followed Beved’s servant out.

Now they were led farther through the city, along boulevards and winding alleys, to a large building made of some dark stone and plated judiciously with electrum. The sorcerer led them down a flight of stairs in the back, and Hethen realized this must be the Temple of Feasts.

The cellar was dimly lit by oil lamps hanging from the arches every few paces. At fist Hethen thought it was empty, but then he heard a soft sound—like a laugh or sob—and a woman moved out of the shadows. Her face was wholly expressionless, at least what could be seen of it beneath the mask she wore. Yellowed bone—skull pieces, and genuine—covered her cheeks, chin, nose, and brow. She waved her sorcerer away; brown teeth gaped to reveal a flash of thin pink lip as she spoke.

“Good evening, messenger. Your service has not gone unnoticed.” She turned to Asmadene. “And you brought the Halcyon.”

“I brought myself,” the sorcerer said in as cool a tone as Hethen had ever heard him use. “On Sesitin’s orders.”

“Excellent.” Beved made no sign or order that Hethen could see, but suddenly the cellar room was filled with—

“The dear God,” Hethen rasped. “Empress’ Guard.”

“You have little to worry about, messenger,” Beved began.

“You will if I have anything to do with it.” And he had thought Asmadene’s voice was cold before. “You led us into a trap!”

“I didn’t know,” Hethen started, but stopped himself. Protesting his innocence in the one thing might lead to the confession of another crime, one more significant when surrounded by Aurmid-Nash’s Guard.

“You didn’t,” Beved agreed. “But you may be forgiven your offense, as I have been, by doing the Empress a certain vital service.”

“And what service might that be?” Hethen asked, not looking at Asmadene.

“From your travels you know the way to Sesitin’s encampment.” The voice that spoke was a new one, and another woman shoved her way through the guard. At least, Hethen guessed she was a woman: her electrum-plated armor concealed her form, but the mask on her helmet was female. She pulled it off, revealed a handsome-faced lady with red hair cropped short. “You will lead us there.”

Hethen’s mouth went dry and he found himself on his knees with no clear memory of how he came to be there. “Tsea-Nash.” He bowed his head. “Princess.” Even out-of-law messengers for hire had to respect Aurmid-Nash’s daughter and general.

“You stand guilty of treason against the Leopard Throne.” She smiled with the least joyous amusement he had ever seen. “Or perhaps you kneel. Either way, do you deny it?”

“Of course not, princess.” He dared a glance at Asmadene. The sorcerer’s expression was unreadable. “What about him?”

“Excellent point.” Tsea-Nash gestured to two of the Guard, who seized Asmadene. “Take him out.”

“What will you do to him?” Hethen pressed as the sorcerer was dragged out.

“There’s not much you can do to a sorcerer,” Tsea-Nash said, “except bind him or burn him. Binding takes a lot of work. Burning is easier.”

Hethen had nothing to say to that.

Her fingers tapped the cheek of the helmet she held against one hip. “Perhaps we’ll pose as a rebellious army from the provinces going to join her. Or we could simply go as ourselves—without the Halcyon, there’s precious little Sesitin can do against us. Either way, you will lead us, messenger.”

“Yes, Princess.” Hethen frowned. “I beg your pardon, Princess, but…I left my horse at the hall where we…well, anyway, may I go and get her?”

“Certainly.” Tsea-Nash snapped her fingers at two of the Guard. “You and you, go with him. Meet us at the Southern Palace Wing.”

Hethen tried to think of a plan, but nothing came to him all the way to the Globe. Truly, it was nothing to him if Sesitin’s rebellion succeeded or failed, but there was something about this that he didn’t like. And he didn’t want to dwell on the possible fate of Asmadene, who had been his travelling companion, after all, even if he did spend most of the trip as a bird. As to the state of his mind on the way back…well, few of those thoughts were very pleasant, and none of them were useful.

Asmadene was shackled in the courtyard of the Southern Wing. He knelt with arms splayed between two pillars, bound by long, thick chains of something blacker than iron should be. Tsea-Nash stood before him, golden helmet still under one arm. The guards who had led Hethen there vanished into the shadows, one of them leading Tulay to the stables.

“Be careful,” Tsea-Nash said to Asmadene. “The chains holding you aren’t gentle with magic. The spell making them that way was cast by Aurmid-Nash herself. Try struggling against her directly now, sorcerer, and see how far it gets you.”
She looked up and saw Hethen. “Messenger. We’ll be leaving early tomorrow. Get some rest.” As she left the courtyard, Hethen’s guards appeared again at the door.

“A’Manth,” Asmadene whispered. His voice was harsh. His hood had fallen back during their capture, and loose blond hair spilled in his eyes.

“What?” Hethen wondered what would happen to Tulay if he was blasted to ash where he stood. She’d be happy enough in the Royal Stables, he decided, even if she missed him occasionally. Maybe he would meet her in the Lands

Beyond, if whatever Asmadene was planning wouldn’t destroy his soul, too. But the sorcerer only sighed and slumped in his chains, and Hethen remembered that he couldn’t work sorcery with the spell binding him.

“I need your help.”

Hethen spoke gently. “There’s only so much treason I can do, Halcyon.”

Asmadene whispered something. The messenger knelt close to hear him better, which was probably what he wanted. The guards started, but didn’t come closer or stop them, knowing that Asmadene’s chains were enough to keep him from any mischief.

“It’s simple,” Asmadene whispered. “Not treason at all—or at least, you could always convince them it isn’t. I have a halcyon feather in my breast pocket. Give it to me.”

“What do you want it for? Wait, don’t tell me.” Hethen took the feather and pressed it into Asmadene’s hand.

“Shapeshifting isn’t like other magic. It uses props, for one thing.” The sorcerer’s pale fingers closed on the feather. “A spell that binds some sorcery might not work against others…But I remember, you don’t want to know. Go.”

“I’m sorry,” Hethen said. Asmadene did not reply. The messenger rose and went to the door, where the guards waited to show him to a room Tsea-Nash had prepared. They stood outside the place all night, but Hethen had no plans to escape, anyway.

***

Hethen sometimes wondered what his old companions would say if they could see him riding at the head of an army two hundred thousand strong. Probably nothing, since it was hard to talk with your jaw hanging open in shock. Or maybe, if enough wine was in them or they saw the truth of his position, they would make the sort of dry, sardonic comments he found himself often wishing to hear, but which he was far too ill at ease and–the truth be told—frightened to say himself. Or perhaps they’d repeat jokes and vulgar jests at Tsea-Nash’s expense, fools that they still had the luxury to be. The princess rarely let Hethen out of her sight, and sometimes he had the uncomfortable feeling that she knew every bawdy story involving her that he had ever snickered at.

Where the hell had those jokes come from, anyway? Looking at Tsea-Nash now, Hethen could barely see her as female, much less…by the God’s eyes. He tried not to think about it.

It took Nash’s army a long time to reach Felinda, and their progress slowed even more across the Desolate Lands. Hethen hated the waiting most of all. It wasn’t that he had betrayed Sesitin, not really, but he couldn’t bear the thought of what she might feel or do when she saw his arrival—more properly, his arrival with Tsea-Nash and the entire army of Xeocib.

And he had, however ignorantly, been a part and even cause of the capture of her favorite sorcerer. He wondered if Asmadene’s plan had worked, or if he was dead by now. He wondered why he cared.

***

They encountered no one on the way to Varma. The Desolate Lands were empty, and Sesitin never thought to scout her own abandoned territory. Tsea-Nash’s advance was almost embarrassingly easy.

Hethen wasn’t privy to the attack plans. He saw a small party sent out from the main company two days from Varma, and the next night saw the sky in the east glowing with flames. By the time the bulk of Nash’s army arrived, there was little left outside the citadel but ashes and crumbling bricks.

Now that they had Sesitin under siege, Hethen became aware of how useless his position was. How precarious. Mercifully, Tsea-Nash had decided to pardon him after all. Or perhaps she was too busy with war and plans to do otherwise for now. He was permitted to wander the camp, provided he didn’t get too close to certain tents. The camp cooks fed him and certain ladies that followed the baggage train made eyes at him as well as at the other soldiers—but he was too disheartened to even make eyes back.

They breached the walls of Varma’s citadel on the eighth day of the siege. But Sesitin wouldn’t be the commander she was, the commander they told stories of, if she couldn’t finish with some show of resistance. She fell back with her troops to the center keep, one of the only towers left standing.

And then Nash brought out her sorcerers.

Hethen had never seen weather-working in action before. Some said it was the easiest magic, others the hardest. It either event, it was certainly some of the most impressive.

Black storm clouds bubbled in the dust-laden skies of the Desolate Lands. Rain began to fall, the first rain Felinda had seen in years, but instead of soaking into the ground it pooled on the baked surface and flowed to the base of the keep. Lightening crackled, and bolts shot to earth uncomfortably close to where Hethen was standing—a rock slab near camp, overlooking the siege without being a part of it. Tsea-Nash had let him watch, or at least hadn’t bothered to order otherwise.

Now the princess strode out from her camp. She was wearing her armor and mask, not the ornate electrum-plated suit from Xeocib, but a dark steel one, carried in a barrel of sand all the way south. A spear was in one hand and a sword-breaker in the other, both gleaming in the odd flashes of lightening. She was joined by her lords and captains, all wearing similar overwrought armor and carrying long swords and spears. They were preparing for the final sally against Varma.

Hethen turned away and was beginning to return to his tent, so as not to have to watch, when he heard a bone-chilling cry. He turned back.

The shriek came again, loud enough to feel like a blow to Hethen’s ears. Something moved in the sky, soared between pillars of lightening, clearing swaths of cloud in the buffets of its white wings.

A halcyon.

Hethen laughed.

Tsea-Nash noticed the bird, sent archers at it, but Asmadene twisted in the wind—or perhaps he twisted the wind—and none of the arrows touched him. He remained in the air, clearing the clouds from the sky and deflecting the sorcerous lightening—but only that.

It was not enough. Tsea-Nash was unsettled by the appearance of the bird—though Hethen never learned if she knew its true identity—but she had prepared her sally well, and the barred doors of the keep crumbled at a word from one of her sorcerers. The slaughter was over quickly. The warriors from Xeocib did not make it unblooded—Sesitin was found lying over the bodies of her killers.

And as the victorious generals emerged, the ground around them was suddenly seared by flashes of green and golden lightening.

Most survived it, and Tsea-Nash herself carried the day unscathed. It might have been because her armor, which was like many things enspelled by Aurmid-Nash herself. It might have been pure luck. And that thought rankled, as did the fact that the damned creature that attacked her was never brought down, and the escaped sorcerer Asmadene was never recaptured.

As for Hethen…well, as soon as possible, Hethen A’Manth left ruined Varma and rode Tulay across the length of desolated Felinda, until he found a bar in Epseraph where they served cheap ale generously, and asked no questions.

Along the way to oblivion, he may have said a few things unwisely, and may have mentioned Felinda and halcyon feathers and pale sorcerers, but the consequences of those words never reached him—not while sober, at least.

***

The adventurer rubbed his foot, which had fallen asleep sometime during Asmadene’s tale. It was obvious the sorcerer was finished speaking, but he couldn’t think of anything to say in reply, and damned if his genius was helping any.

“Is that all?” he asked finally.

“It is. Do they still know of Felinda, where you come from, and Hethen A’Manth and I?”

“Felinda, yes. We named this marsh after it. Didn’t you know?”

“I…never heard. This was once a province in the northeast of Felinda. I suppose it is…fitting.”

“And you, you’re still remembered. Most don’t know you’re alive, of course. They figure Aurmid-Nash had you killed sometime in the past two hundred years.”

He heard laughter, soft to his ears, though it must have been loud to reach him.

“Anyway, some of us guessed you were still around. Hethen Manth, or whatever he was called, though…”

“So they did forget him.”

“Struck his name from the records, most likely.”

“Of course. It was treason, helping me, after all. He should never have spoken of it. But then, why would he care?”

“No one remembers messengers,” the adventurer said, with the strange feeling he was repeating something. “Only the message.”

“I owe Hethen memory,” Asmadene said. “Which is why I told you his story. And I will not leave the Nash dynasty thought invincible…and perhaps a knowledge of halcyon feathers will help any of my community ever caught by ensorcelled chains.”

“Of course.” The adventurer, not uninterested by aids to sorcerers himself, stood up. “Well…” He’d offer his hand, but the Halcyon didn’t seem close enough for that. “Goodbye, Asmadene.”

“Have a good journey.” Maybe there was power in the words, because they were spoken oddly. The adventurer bowed and heard something overhead. When he looked up he saw a white-winged bird flying into the marshy darkness.

As it faded from his sight, he had the oddest impression of clarity: he knew the way out of the marsh now.

He turned up the wick in his lantern. “What next?” he murmured aloud.

Next we go out. Get dry. And after that? His genius paused. Hethen A’Manth’s story would go well in your book, wouldn’t it?

“Of course!” The adventurer chuckled, somewhat dreamily, and turned in the direction he now knew was right.

And he slogged on, with wet and fraying clothes, through what had once been a province in lost Felinda, the beloved land of Asmadene the Halcyon.

About the Author

Therese Arkenberg is a student at Carroll University in Wisconsin. On the rare instances where she puts down her pen, she bikes the trails in her area, reads a book (more often a textbook than not these days) or attempts yet again to organize her desk and her collection of stuffed animals. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and the anthologies All About Eve, Things We Are Not, Thoughtcrime Experiments, Warrior Wisewoman 3, and Sword and Sorceress XXIV. Her novella, Aqua Vitae, has been accepted by WolfSinger Publications for a 2011 release. Several of her short stories are also available at AnthologyBuilder.com

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