By E.C. Blake
Chapter One: Shelter from the Storm
The dead lay on the beach, row upon row, the snow gently wrapping their disfigured forms in shrouds of purest white, hiding the horror, hiding all differences. Had she not known how they were arranged, Mara could not have told which were Watchers and which members of the unMasked Army.
Except for the smallest corpses. There had been no children among the Watchers.
She stood, Keltan to her right and the Lady of Pain and Fire to her left, on the hillside to landward of the gathered corpses. Keltan’s presence warmed her. No one else had dared come close to the Lady and the wolves clustered around her feet. The survivors of the unMasked Army…though “army” seemed far too grand a term for what had been whittled down to no more than eighty fighters and perhaps two hundred men, women and children in all…huddled together in small groups across the rows of dead from the Lady. Edrik stood with his wife, Tralia, both of them supporting Edrik’s grandmother, Catilla, commander of the UnMasked Army. Hyram was there, too, his arm protectively around the shoulders of Alita, the dark-skinned girl who had been rescued with Mara from the wagon taking them to the mining camp. Two other girls who had been in that wagon, Prella and Kirika, held each other close. The survivors of Chell’s men…about fifty in all…stood with their Prince and their captains on the seaward side, where the sinking sun turned them into faceless silhouettes, as though they wore the black Masks that had crumbled away into dust from the Watchers’ faces when they’d died.
Whatever words were to be said over the dead had already been said, by the surviving members of the families…those families where anyone survived; not far from where she stood Mara saw three corpses gathered together, man, woman and young daughter. An entire family wiped out.
A family like mine once was.
Among those corpses lay that of Simona, the baker’s daughter who had been the fourth girl rescued from the wagon with Mara.
No tears dimmed her vision. Her ability to weep, like so much else, seemed to have been stripped away from her this day. Instead, her grief coiled, with her anger and fear, somewhere deep inside her, down where the nightmares lurked, the nightmares created in her mind whenever she used her Gift of magic to kill, whenever she absorbed the magic of those who died in her presence.
Though she had killed few if any of those on the beach before them now. The Watchers had killed those of the unMasked Army. And the deaths in turn of those Watchers, and the psychic burden they imposed, could be laid directly at the feet of the Lady in white fur by her side.
“The burial ceremonies are complete?” the Lady said now to Mara, in a voice only she—and the wolves; she saw their ears flick at the sound of their mistress’s voice—could have heard. The Lady had stood upon the hillside, watching silently, while the corpses were gathered and laid out.
“Yes,” Mara said.
“So.” The Lady raised her hands. In Mara’s Gifted sight, they began to glow brighter and brighter, until they seemed like twin suns come to the beach. She knew that those around her who were not Gifted, like Keltan, saw nothing at all. She still found that hard to believe.
The Lady made a pushing motion. Mara saw a ball of white fire spring forth from her palms, spread into a towering wall of flame, and sweep across the beach. As the fiery wave passed, the bodies vanished, dissolving into white dust that the flame pushed ahead of it into the sea.
One instant, the corpses were there. The next, they were gone, and the snow fell onto empty, level ground, already softening the human-sized blotches of bare stones where the bodies had lain an instant before.
Mara heard a kind of collective gasp from the unMasked Army and the men of Korellia, followed by renewed weeping from those whose loved ones’ remains had just vanished. She’d gasped, too, but for a different reason: for the first time she had seen where the Lady obtained her power. This close to her, she had sensed its flow.
Most Gifted could only use magic collected and held in containers of black lodestone, the strange mineral that attracted magic to itself. But the Lady of Pain and Fire, the Autarch, and Mara herself could draw magic directly from other living things, including people, though the Autarch’s power was limited in that he required those people to be wearing magical Masks for him to access their magic.
The Lady had just drawn magic from the wolves.
Mara looked down at them. They grinned back at her, tongues lolling.
“I see you glimpse the truth,” the Lady said softly to her. “But this is only the beginning of your understanding. Once we reach my stronghold…” She shook her head. “But first, we must reach it.” She glanced at Keltan. “Boy.”
“Keltan,” he muttered, but she hardly seemed to notice.
“Tell Catilla we have to leave at once.” She glanced out at sea. “The storm is returning.”
“But you stopped it,” Mara said.
“No. I only quieted it, locally, for a short time.”
“But didn’t you start it in the first place?”
The Lady shook her head. “The land of Aygrima has magical defenses, established centuries ago. That ancient magic created this storm. It will last for however long those who crafted that magic decreed it should last.” She glanced at Keltan. “If we are not off this beach before full night, there will be more deaths. We must move now.”
Keltan frowned, glanced out at sea, froze for a moment, and then dashed off without another word. Mara followed his gaze, and saw what had given him pause.
The sun was vanishing, but not yet behind the horizon: instead, it was being swallowed by a rapidly rising line of black clouds, whose towering peaks it outlined in flame as it disappeared behind them.
“I’m not sure they can be off the beach before the storm comes back,” Mara said, turning to the Lady. “Can’t you quiet it again, at least for a time?”
The Lady shook her head. “I came down to the shore holding as much magic within myself as I could, and I drew much more from the dying Watchers, but I also used a great deal destroying the remaining Watchers and cleansing the beach.” And destroying Chell’s ships, Mara thought, glancing at the crippled Defender lying heeled-over and broken-keeled on the beach, and uneasily remembering the gleeful fury with which the Lady had savaged it. But she didn’t mention that out loud.
“The wolves provide some, but they are not inexhaustible,” the Lady continued. “No. I can do nothing more against this storm, or stop the rising seas that will soon lash this beach. But as I have said, I have prepared food and shelter a short distance away, to see us through the night. After that….” She glanced inland. “We are three days’ journey from my stronghold, and that is three days as I travel. It may be a week with this ragtag bunch, and the journey is difficult.”
Mara felt a surge of anger. “Then leave without us, if you’re so worried. Save yourself. What do you care about this ‘ragtag bunch’?”
The Lady raised an eyebrow. “I need them,” she said. “I need people. And, as I have told you already, I need you in particular. If I—if we—are to overthrow the Autarch, then we must all help each other.” She looked across the now-empty beach at the unMasked Army, and Mara, following her glance, saw Edrik already beginning to chivvy people inland. Beyond Edrik, the water, almost calm a few moments before, now tossed restlessly against the shore, and out to sea, the waves advanced in white-capped rows growing ever larger.
The final blazing sliver of sun vanished behind the rising clouds, plunging them in shadow. A wind even colder than before swirled the snow across the beach.
“I will use my magic as I can to make the journey easier for them,” the Lady said, “but I cannot remove all hazards or discomforts.”
Mara stared out across the beach, at the weary, crying children being urged to their feet, at the weeping widows and walking wounded turning their backs on the rising sea to start the long, uncertain journey inland. “Is there anything I can do to help? This suffering…it’s all my fault.”
“It is the Autarch’s fault,” the Lady said sharply. “Don’t forget that. And don’t forget that he will pay. Now that I have you, he will fall, as hard and fast as his father.” She took a deep breath. “And no, there is nothing you can do to help. I have no magic you can use, and I do not think you are willing to deliberately take magic from your companions.”
Mara shot a horrified look at her. “I’ll never be willing to do that. It’s…I don’t dare.”
“Really?” The Lady smiled slightly, the expression revealing deeper lines in her face than were usually apparent, so that for the first time Mara had a hint of her true age. “I can see we have a great deal to talk about…and a great many misconceptions on your part to clear up. But all that must wait.” The wolves, sitting or lying at ease all around them, suddenly rose to their feet as one animal. “We are moving at last, and I must lead the way.” She turned, tugged the hood of her white fur robe into place, and strode higher up the hill. She did not move like a woman of at least Catilla’s age, and as she stood, slim and erect, at the crest of the hill, waiting for those below to follow her inland, she might have been taken for no older than Mara. Like the Autarch, she seemed to have the secret of perpetual youth.
Like the Autarch, Mara thought, chilled by more than the wind. She knew how the Autarch had extended his life: by draining magic from the Child Guard and, through the newest version of the Masks, from many others. So how was the Lady achieving the same effect?
Mara had a lot of questions for the Lady of Pain and Fire. But first, of course, they had to survive the night. What did she mean, she’s prepared shelter? How? And what kind of shelter?
Despite her questions, she didn’t follow the Lady to the top of the hill. Instead, she went downhill, in search of Keltan.
She found him gathering the belongings of a woman who cradled a squalling infant in her arms. “Lost her husband,” Keltan grunted as Mara came up. “Needs help.”
Mara nodded, then turned to the woman. “Let me carry the child for you for a while,” she said, holding out her arms.
But the woman glared at her, hatred plain on her face even in the fading gray twilight. “Don’t touch her.”
Mara gasped. “I—”
“Don’t come near her, you…you monster!” The woman could barely choke out the loathing-filled words. She turned and strode blindly toward the hill where the Lady waited, clutching her infant to her breast.
Keltan, still carrying the woman’s bundle slung over his back, paused beside Mara. “She didn’t mean it,” he said. “She’s just upset…”
“She meant it,” Mara said. And the worst of it is, she may be right.
“I thought you’d stay with the Lady,” Keltan said. “What are you doing down here?”
“I don’t want to walk with the Lady,” Mara said. She wished she could take Keltan’s hand, but they were both full. She contented herself with walking beside him. Side by side they trudged toward the hillside through the snow, the wind swirling it around their feet and biting through the flimsy coat she wore. “I want to walk with you. With someone ordinary.”
Keltan shot her a glance. “Thanks…I think.”
“You know what I mean.” Mara shook her head. “The Lady—she wants me for something. She wants me to become like her, I think. To help her overthrow the Autarch. But if I do what she wants…Keltan, I don’t want to be a monster. I just want to be a girl.”
“You are a girl,” Keltan said. “I’ve kissed you, remember? Definitely a girl.” He shook his head. “But if you mean you just want to be an ordinary girl…Mara, I’m sorry, but you can never be that. After what you’ve done…after what you’ve seen…you’ll never be ordinary. You never have been.”
Mara said nothing. Her life in Tamita, before her failed Masking, seemed as dim and distant as a pleasant dream, one that had vanished upon waking, leaving behind only a faint sense of wellbeing…and longing. Had she ever really been a carefree child, playing barefoot in the streets, sitting on the city wall and watching the crowds in the Outside Market, sneaking out at night with Sala for a secret swim, secure in the knowledge her mother and father loved her and she had a hot supper and warm bed awaiting her every night?
Now her father was dead, and maybe her mother, too. She’d seen so much death, had caused so much death, had done things she would never have dreamed possible less than half a year ago, things she wouldn’t have believed if they’d been in one of the tales she’d enjoyed reading as a child. Everyone wanted to use her, to turn the powerful abilities she had never wanted to their own ends: the Autarch, Catilla, Chell, and now the Lady of Pain and Fire. None of them seemed concerned with what she wanted, or needed, or longed for. They just saw her as a tool, a tool they would use until it broke.
But if I break, she thought, with the power I have to rip magic from the living, to kill and destroy…how many more will die?
Keltan was still looking at her. “Mara, you’re not a monster,” he said in a low voice. “You never will be. You never could be.”
How would you know?
The wind blew harder and harder, and the snow flew past more and more thickly. Never mind people dying on the beach, Mara thought. They’ll be dying in their tracks if we don’t find this shelter the Lady promised.
She couldn’t really see anything at all anymore except the bent back of the man in front of her, carrying a huge bundle while his wife struggled along beside him with a toddler in her arms. The small boy’s white face stared at Mara over his mother’s shoulder. She knew it had to be her imagination, but it seemed as if he were blaming her for his misery.
They had been trudging away from the beach for half an hour, while the last light faded from the overcast sky, when suddenly the column stumbled to a halt. “What’s going on?” Keltan asked Mara.
“No more idea than you.” She craned her head to try to see, but the snow and darkness defeated her. But she heard shouts, being passed down the line, resolving, as they came closer and closer, into “Shelter to the right! Camp for the night!”
The man in front of them received the shout but didn’t bother to pass it over his shoulder to Mara and Keltan. Mara heard it anyway, and felt as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. “Thank goodness,” she said to Keltan.
Keltan didn’t look convinced. “What kind of shelter could there be out here?”
They found out soon enough, as the column turned right. Beneath a tall bluff that blocked the worst of the wind, which roared through the trees at the top of the cliff, they found four long, low, windowless structures, with rough log walls and roofs of branches, ranged around and revealed by the flickering flames of a giant bonfire. Their shapes reminded Mara uncomfortably of the longhouses of the mining camp. Smoke from holes cut in their roofs mingled with the smoke from the bonfire, chased up the face of the bluff by tumbling sparks until the wind finally caught it and ripped it to shreds.
“How did the Lady do all this alone?” Keltan said. “Magic?”
But Mara, peering through the falling snow and flickering shadows, shook her head. “No,” she said. “Or at least, not entirely. She didn’t do it alone. Look.” She pointed.
“Who are they?” Keltan said, voice suspicious, as he saw what Mara had spotted first: strangers, men clad in furs like the Lady’s, though gray and black rather than white (rather like her wolves, Mara thought), some still busily chinking the gaps in the logs on the buildings with a paste of some sort, while a few lay additional boughs on the roofs.
“I don’t know,” Mara said, as surprised as Keltan. She’d somehow thought the Lady had been living in lonely isolation for all the years since she’d been driven from Aygrima—but why should she have been? Why shouldn’t she have followers or subjects?
Or slaves? she thought uneasily. Does she draw power solely from the wolves?
That was an uncomfortable thought.
Already, people were beginning to divide up among the four long structures. Edrik, Tralia, Hyram and Alita were in the thick of it, directing families and couples to two of the huts, single women (Prella and Kirika among them) to another, men to the fourth. “I’d better help,” Keltan said. “And find the woman this bundle belongs to.” He gave Mara a quick smile and hurried off.
Mara hung back, watching. It all seemed to have very little to do with her, though of course she needed someplace to sleep that night, as well. The thought of going inside the longhouse to face the accusing faces of the other single women, though—especially Prella and Kirika—didn’t appeal to her.
Something nuzzled her gloved hand. Startled, she jerked it away, then looked down to see one of the Lady’s wolves grinning up at her. It trotted a few feet, then turned and whined.
Hardly believing she was doing it, Mara followed the animal. It led her through the camp, children watching wide-eyed as she passed, men and women drawing back. Their hostile expressions gave her no hope of being forgiven by the bulk of the unMasked Army any time soon.
The wolf guided her between two of the long houses. Behind them stood a large tent, its white walls flickering orange from a fire inside. Smoke rose from the center of its roof. The wolf pushed through the closed flap, and Mara followed.
She found herself in a cozy canvas-walled chamber, floored with rough-woven brown cloth, warmed by a fire in a stone-lined pit dug at the very center, and further lit by an oil lamp hanging from one of the two stout poles holding up the tent, each the trunk of a tree so freshly cut sticky sap still oozed from where the branches had been stripped away. The fresh scent of pine mingled with the smoke.
On either side of the fire pit, bedrolls lay open on piles of green branches. At the far end of the tent, on a red-upholstered folding bench wide enough for two, sat the Lady, still wearing her white furs. The smoke rising from the fire half-shrouded her, and the heat made her appearance wavering and uncertain. Six of the wolves rested at her feet; the wolf with Mara made seven. She wondered where the other six were. The Lady’s left hand rested in the ruff of the wolf at her feet; her right hand toyed restlessly with an amulet of gold and crystal hanging from her neck. She smiled at Mara. “I thought you might be more comfortable here with me than in the shelters with the others.”
Mara rounded the fire, and as she did so, the wolf that had led her to the tent joined the others at the Lady’s side. “Can you communicate with them?” she said, staring at the animals.
The Lady’s smile widened. “Oh, yes. And see through their eyes.” She raised her own eyes to Mara. The firelight struck red sparks from them. “How else do you think I knew the unMasked Army was on its way? I have long kept watch on Catilla’s pitiful band of would-be revolutionaries. It has been clear for years…decades…that they would never pose a threat to the Autarch, though at least, I supposed, they have provided a refuge of sorts for those who somehow escaped Masking. But I admit I was startled when the Watchers suddenly descended on the Secret City and drove them out.” She studied Mara. “I did not know, then, that that was your doing.”
“I didn’t—” Mara began.
The Lady raised a placating hand. “You didn’t mean to. Yes, I know. And yet you did. And I am thankful for it, for it brought you to me.” She ruffled the silver mane of the wolf at her side, whose red tongue lolled as it watched Mara through amber eyes. “Though for a time, I thought I had lost you. I knew you had left Tamita—in rather spectacular fashion—and knew you had fled to the coast with Prince Chell, but my lupine spies do have some limitations, and following a boat out to sea is of course beyond them. Once you sailed into the night from the village where you stole your craft, you were beyond my ken.” Her hand tightened on the wolf’s fur. “I was not happy about that, and so I was delighted when I saw you arrive among the remnants of the unMasked Army with the Prince…and considerably less so when you sailed away again. By that time, of course, we were already on our way to the coast. My consolation, had you not returned, would have been that at least I would return home with the survivors of the unMasked Army. My village—the one that gave me succor when I made my journey through the mountains as a girl—is dwindling. An influx of fresh people is just what we need. But to my relief, you reappeared. The rest you know.”
“The rest I do not know,” Mara said. “How did you even know I existed?”
“The Secret City is not the only place I’ve watched closely over the decades,” the Lady said. “The mine of magic is another. Aside from the handful of magic-collection huts scattered around Aygrima, it is the sole source of magic for the Autarchy. I have long understood that if I am ever to move against the Autarch, it is the first place I must strike. As it happens, I was not watching it when you arrived. I was watching it when it was almost leveled by an explosion—an explosion contained by magic. And I was watching as you returned to the Secret City. It was absolutely clear what had happened, crystal-clear that you have been Gifted, as I have been Gifted, with the ability to use all colors of magic, and to draw magic from living things.” Her left hand again caressed the mane of the wolf. “I knew I had a potential…ally, if only I could make contact with you.”
“If you’re so powerful,” Mara said, “why didn’t you just stroll into Aygrima yourself and present yourself at the Secret City?”
The hand in the wolf’s fur tightened into a fist for a moment, then relaxed. “I cannot enter Aygrima,” the Lady said. “The Autarch has guarded the borders against me. Or rather,” her mouth twisted into a moue of distaste, “he stands on the shoulders of giants to do so. He has neither the skill nor the power to create such magics himself. But centuries ago, when magic first came to Aygrima and the first powerful Gifted arose, they learned much about its use that we have forgotten.” Her right hand returned to the amulet at her neck. It obviously meant something to her, but Mara had no clue what. “Magic is in the very ground of Aygrima,” the Lady said softly. “Diffuse, too diffuse to be of use even to me—to us. But black lodestone dust is everywhere, and even those minute particles draw magic to themselves. And taken in total, across all the miles and miles of plain and forest and mountain and valley that make up Aygrima, the power is immense. The ancients learned to craft that magic into vast spells that could be activated at need. The Autarch cannot create such spells himself—no one can in these days—but he knows how to trigger them. As I told you on the beach, it was such a spell that summoned the storm that prevented your Prince from sailing away with the unMasked Army. No doubt the Autarch gave the means of activating the spell to the commander of the Watchers he sent north to the Secret City. A scout probably saw the unMasked Army boarding the ships and reported back, and the commander called up the border magic to ensure his prey did not escape.
“Sixty years ago, the first thing the Autarch did when he returned to Tamita after having forced me out of Aygrima was to aim the magic protecting the borders directly at me. If I enter Aygrima anywhere, by sea, by land—even by air, if I could manage such a thing—I will be struck down by the land itself, crushed in an instant as easily as you would slap a mosquito.”
Mara shivered. “Then I don’t see how—”
“The magic is not aimed at you,” the Lady said softly. “You can re-enter Aygrima. And at the place in the mountains where I will show you, you can destroy the ward that keeps me out. Then together, we and my followers and the unMasked Army can march south to overthrow the Autarch.”
Mara stared at the woman in the folding chair. “March south. Against all the Watchers he can throw at us, all the magic he has stored in the Palace? I don’t know how many fighters you have, but the mighty unMasked Army is down to a few handfuls.” She shook her head. “You’re crazy.”
The Lady’s eyes narrowed and Mara shivered; it seemed the temperature in the tent had suddenly dropped. “You had best hope not. Because neither you nor all those with you whose survival now depends on my power and generosity have any choice in the matter.” She straightened suddenly, lowering the hand that had been fondling the amulet. “You should sleep.” She glanced to the right. “Your bed is there.” She stood. “I will return later. I must ensure that all is well in the rest of the camp.” Pulling her furs more closely around her, the Lady moved to the tent flap, the wolves rising as one animal to follow. They stopped and glanced back at the same moment the Lady did, one hand poised to push open the canvas. “Sleep well,” she said to Mara. “If you can.” And then she swept out.
The wolves trailed her one by one. The last of them turned and looked at her. Its amber eyes caught the red light of the fire, casting it back in red sparks identical to what she had seen in the eyes of the Lady itself.
If she’s telling the truth, Mara thought, those are her eyes. Or can be.
And then the wolf nosed through the tent flap, the canvas closed behind it, and Mara was alone.