It was in the final, burnished days of summer — when cool mornings gave way to languid afternoons under hazy skies, when the wheat bowed in the fields, shafts heavy with fruit, and all the land was still as if drinking in one last, long draught of gold — that the Mournish came to Ar-tolor.
Through the window of her chamber, Aryn watched the line of wagons creep along the road that led to the castle. At this distance the wagons were smaller than toys, but the young woman’s blue eyes were sharp, and she could make out many of the fantastical shapes into which they had been wrought.
There were swans with high, curving prows and snowy wings folded against their sides, and snails painted pink with small round windows set into their spiraled shells. A lion crouched low to the road, as if ready to pounce on a hart crowned by tree-branch antlers, while an emerald frog bounced behind. More wagons rolled into view: tortoises, fish cresting carved blue waves, lizards, tawny hares, and a dozen other creatures that Aryn had never seen before, except perhaps coiled along the edges of pages in old books.
One by one the wagons vanished beneath the green curve of the hill, and the road was empty again. But even at that moment, Aryn knew the wagons were coming to a halt in the field outside the village, opening painted doors to release the spicy scent of incense, the cool clink of silver, and the undulating rhythms of music.
The young woman turned from the window, her sapphire eyes bright. “Let’s go see the Mournish!”
Lirith, who sat in a chair on the other side of the small sitting room, did not look up from her embroidery. “And then let’s get tossed in the dungeon and make the acquaintance of a few dozen rats. For you know as I do, sister, that Queen Ivalaine has made it plain she wishes no one in her court to associate with the wandering folk. Their entertainments are for villagers and farmers.”
Annoyed, but not surprised, Aryn indulged herself in a particularly noxious frown.
“And what a fine baroness you’ll make after your face freezes that way, sister,” Lirith mused, her dark eyes still focused on the embroidery hoop in her lap. “Even bold dukes and proud knights will quail before you.”
“As well they should,” Aryn said. Although she smoothed her features and made a quick glance at a silver mirror on the wall nearby to be sure she hadn’t done permanent damage.
“I saw that,” Lirith said.
Rather than reply, Aryn gazed back out the window. The most interesting sight she saw now was a flock of sheep dotting the side of a distant hill like flowers. She amused herself for a few moments, imagining plucking tiny sheep from the grass, weaving them into a squirming, bleating chain, and placing them around her neck. Then she considered the smell, and that fancy passed.
“I’m bored,” she said, not caring how petulant she sounded. She felt petulant.
“All the better reason for you to stay and work on your embroidery.”
Aryn scowled at the black-haired witch. “I know perfectly well that you loathe embroidery, Lirith.”
“Indeed. And my loathing keeps me well occupied, so that I do not become bored. Now sew. Sister Tressa will be here soon, and she’ll expect to see some progress.”
Aryn turned from the window, pulled close the wooden stand that held her embroidery hoop steady for her, and did her best to pretend that sewing unicorns was really more fascinating than buying packets of sugared nuts, laughing at performing monkeys, and watching men who swallowed knives and burning brands.
Yrsaia knows, you should be more grateful for your boredom, Aryn of Elsandry, she scolded herself. Where are Grace and Goodman Travis and Lord Beltan now? Sitting in a comfortable chair in a safe castle with a cup of sweet wine at hand?
She sighed, and Lirith looked up, an expression of concern on her face.
“I am certain they are well, sister. It is to their homeland they have journeyed. And no one has power to heal as does Lady Grace. I imagine Sir Beltan is telling bawdy jokes and drinking ale even as we speak.”
Aryn wished she had such a good imagination.
It had been a month since they had begged their leave of Queen Inara and set out from Castle Spardis. They had left the seat of Perridon in good order. The young queen had rescinded all of the usurper Dakarreth’s proclamations, and with the help of the Spider Aldeth — who was making a steady recovery from his injury — had cemented her position as regent to her infant son, Prince Perseth. While there would continue to be plots against the queen — this was Perridon, after all — Aryn expected Inara to rule long and well.
After only a day of traveling they had bid farewell to Melia and Falken, for the bard and the lady intended to journey north to find their friend Tome — who, like Melia, was a former god. Aryn would have liked to see the golden-eyed old man again; he had the power to make her laugh no matter the sorrow she felt. However, Inara had already sent a messenger to Ivalaine. Aryn and Lirith were expected in Ar-tolor, and Durge had agreed to escort them there.
Although Lirith was her friend and teacher, and Durge was good — if sober — company, the ride across Perridon and Toloria seemed lonely. Grace and Travis had returned with Beltan to their world in hopes of healing the knight’s old wound. Melia and Falken had their own journeys. Even Tira was gone.
Except that wasn’t true, was it? For sometimes, when Aryn woke in the gray dawn, she glimpsed a star as red as fire low in the southern sky. She still didn’t understand what had happened in Spardis, when Travis gave Tira the Stone of Fire. But Melia said the red-haired girl was a goddess now, and Melia should know. Aryn supposed that, in a way, Tira would always be with them.
They had reached Ar-tolor with little event, and Aryn had been more glad than she expected to see its seven spires soaring over fields of jade. Queen Ivalaine had welcomed them with a rare smile, and at once dispatched a man to Calavere to inform King Boreas that Aryn would be visiting at the court of Ar-tolor for a time.
“You shall resume your instruction with Sister Lirith at once,” Ivalaine told her that first day in the castle, and Aryn had not disagreed.
The weeks since had passed pleasantly — walking the castle grounds, sewing under Tressa’s attention, reaching out with the Touch to grasp the magic of the Weirding as Lirith whispered calm instructions in her ear. And if at times it all seemed dull compared to their desperate journey east to the Keep of Fire, Aryn knew she should be grateful for that dullness.
With the Necromancer Dakarreth’s scourge of fire ended, the land had recovered more quickly than she had believed possible. Crops had been hastily resown, flourishing under golden sun and gentle rain. Now Keldath was nearly over, and there would be a good — if late —harvest this year. It seemed a wonder, but perhaps there was a lesson in it; perhaps she should never underestimate the power of life.
Then don’t underestimate Beltan’s life. Or Grace’s or Travis’s. They’re going to be fine. So you might as well stop worrying.
However, Aryn might as easily prevent the stars from spinning in the night sky. And she knew it gnawed at Lirith and Durge as much as it did her. They all feared for the others, who were beyond their reach now.
Which was precisely why a diversion like the Mournish caravan was in order.
A knock sounded at the chamber door. Aryn bit her lip. She had hardly sewn three stitches all morning. What would she tell Tressa? The queen’s counselor seemed to have a vastly inflated notion of the importance of sewing.
The door opened. It was not Tressa who stepped into the room, but rather a short, deep-chested man with drooping mustaches and somber brown eyes.
Lirith rose from her seat. “Good morrow, Lord Durge.”
He nodded to her. “My lady.”
Aryn thought about it for less than a moment, then leaped to her feet.
“Durge, we’re going to see the Mournish.”
Lirith glared at her, but Aryn ignored the look. It was a mean trick, but she had learned a bit about tactics from her days as ward to King Boreas of Calavan. When blocked on one front, advance on another.
Durge’s perpetual frown deepened. “That is a perilous idea, my lady. The Mournish are a queer folk. They make no homes save the wagons they travel in, and it is said the music of their flutes can drive a man to wildness.”
Aryn groaned. That was hardly the response she had hoped for.
Lirith folded her arms over the bodice of her rust- colored gown and glanced at Durge. “She has it in her head to go down and see the wandering folk, even though Ivalaine has forbidden it.”
“She didn’t forbid it,” Aryn countered. “Not precisely, anyway. Ivalaine merely discouraged us from going. Besides, I’m weary of moping about this castle. I think we all are. It would do us good to get some fresh air.” She held her breath, looking from knight to witch.
Durge stroked his mustaches and gazed at Lirith. “I believe she means to go no matter what we say, my lady.”
Lirith sighed. “Aren’t chains an option?”
“A temptation, to be sure, but I fear not. It is best if you and I accompany her to see that she does not fall into trouble.”
If she had possessed two good hands instead of one, Aryn would have clapped. “Now that’s the sensible Durge I know.” She stepped forward and kissed his craggy cheek.
The knight blinked, his expression bewildered, and Lirith’s brow furrowed with displeasure. Aryn didn’t care if she had been too familiar. For the first time in days she felt her spirits lift. The others would see that she was right — this was exactly what they needed.2.
Sunlight drenched the world like warm rain from the cobalt sky as baroness, countess, and knight passed through a colonnade of trees and stepped onto the village green.
It had been a simple feat to slip from the castle. Too simple for Lirith’s taste. Was it merely chance they had not come upon Lady Tressa or another member of the queen’s court on their way through Ar-tolor’s busy halls? Or had luck received some degree of assistance in the matter?
Lirith cast a glance at Aryn as they walked. She still didn’t know what the young woman had done over two months ago, when in secret they followed after Grace and Durge as the pair set off from Calavere. Tagging along had been a foolish plan, and Lirith had agreed to it only because she had been certain King Boreas’s knights would ride forth to retrieve them before they had gone a league from the castle. Only somehow Aryn had misdirected the king and his men. Lirith didn’t know how, but there was one thing of which she was certain: Aryn had used a spell of some kind to achieve their escape.
Yet despite Aryn’s rashness, Lirith was grateful — if not precisely glad — that she and Aryn had followed after the others. The road had been arduous, filled with fire and death, but there had been purpose to it. For if they had not stolen away from Calavere that day, there was so much Lirith would never have witnessed: Grace’s courage against the burning plague, Goodman Travis’s wisdom before the Necromancer, the girl Tira’s mysterious and wondrous transformation. And there was more she would never have known....I miss all your questions, Daynen.
A sigh escaped her lips, as it always did when she thought of the sightless boy who had given his life to save Tira at the bridge over the River Darkwine. For so many years she had prayed to Sia to grant her a child, and she had drunk an ocean of infusions and simples to quicken her womb. However, no amount of prayers or herbs would ever cause seed to grow in the soil of a salted field; she knew that now. But perhaps Sia had heard her pleas after all, for Daynen — however briefly she had known him — had seemed a son to her. She would never forget him.
“Come on, Lirith!” Aryn said, tugging on her arm.
Lirith let the young woman pull her across the grass while Durge trotted behind them, clad in a heavy gray tunic despite the brilliance of the late-summer afternoon. Already people from the town wandered uncertainly onto the green, as if fearful yet compelled by the fantastical wagons. As the trio passed, the townsfolk cast startled glances at Aryn, eyeing her pale, lovely face and azure gown — no doubt surprised to see a member of the queen’s court there. As well they should be. Lirith hoped it was only the townsfolk who saw them.
The three reached the edge of the circle of wagons. Now that they were close, Lirith could see the vehicles were more than a little roadworn: wood cracked, gilt peeled, and dust flecked sun-faded paint. Yet somehow this only added to their patina of mystery.
Although they had wandered for time out of mind, it was said the Mournish came from the south. And indeed the appearance of their wagons had been a more frequent — if far from regular — sight in Lirith’s childhood home in southern Toloria. Still, she had not seen the Mournish up close since her girlhood. The scent of spices, candles, and roasted meat reached her nose, and memories flooded her.
“Listen!” Aryn said, coming to a halt. Lilting music drifted on the air, blowing back and forth with the breeze. The young woman shut her eyes and swayed like a slender tree. “It’s so beautiful.”
Lirith drew in a breath, letting fresh air clear the memories from her mind. “Well, are you feeling wild yet, Sir Durge?”
He seemed to consider her words, then gave a solemn nod. “Perhaps just a bit, now that you mention it.”
Lirith gaped at the stone-faced knight. Had the Embarran made a joke, or was it merely a happy accident? Either way, she laughed. Perhaps Aryn’s impulses had proved beneficial once again — perhaps visiting the Mournish was not such a bad idea after all.
“All right,” she said, engaging Aryn’s good left arm and Durge’s iron-hard right, “I believe there are some spice pies with our names on them.”
It did not take them long to find the pies. They paid a copper coin apiece to a toothless woman clad in orange and yellow, then sat in leafy shade. There they bit into bubbled crusts to release warm juices that dribbled down their chins. When the spice pies were gone, Aryn and Lirith laughed as Durge diligently licked each of his fingers.
After that, the three wandered from wagon to wagon, and at each one a new and enticing aroma drew them on. There were plates of sugared nuts, sizzling bits of meat on sticks, and small cups fashioned ingeniously of leaves, filled with honeyed wine as gold as the sun, but cool against the tongue as evening dew.
And not all of the wagons contained food. Many were open to reveal black cloths piled with silver rings, bright scarves that fluttered on the air like butterflies, knives of blue steel, polished stones, rugs woven with swirling colors, tin whistles, and boxes of wood carved like the Mournish wagons themselves into the forms of animals and birds.
At one wagon — this one shaped like a crouching rat — an old man beckoned them closer with a bony finger. They peered into the gloom within the wagon, and only as their eyes adjusted did they make out the glass jars that lined wooden shelves. The jars were filled with yellowish fluid, and things floated inside them. At first Lirith couldn’t tell what they were, then a jolt of horror surged through her. One jar was filled with eyeballs, another with snakes, and one with the half-formed fetus of a pig, its clearly visible spine ending not in one head but two.
Displaying a rotten grin, the old man reached out and brushed Aryn’s left arm with something dark, dry, and shriveled: a monkey’s paw. The baroness screamed and darted from the wagon, bumping into a rickety wooden stage where a monkey — this one quite alive — danced in time to a drum. The stage tilted, and the spindly creature leaped for Aryn, eliciting another shriek. She heaved the monkey back at its owner, who caught it as he shouted at her in a hot and musical tongue.
Lirith and Durge grasped the baroness’s shoulders and quickly steered her away. As they walked, Aryn collapsed against them in breathless, trembling laughter, tears streaming from her eyes. Lirith couldn’t help joining in, and even Durge’s craggy cheek seemed to twitch. At last the three of them came to a halt beside a tree, away from the circle of wagons. Heavy light infused the air, and the leaves whispered soft, green secrets above; the day was waning. Aryn’s laughter dwindled, and she let out a breath as she leaned against the smooth bark of the tree.
“I feel sticky,” she said.
Lirith nodded in agreement. Durge said nothing, but his mustaches stuck out at odd angles.
“It’s nearly sunset,” Lirith said. “We should get back to the castle. The queen will notice if we’re not at supper.”
Durge held a hand to his stomach and winced. “Please, my lady. May I beg that you do not mention the word ‘supper’ again this evening?”
Lirith gave the knight a wry smile. “I told you not to go back for another spice pie.”
“And no doubt I shall pay for my folly, my lady. Do I need the lash of your tongue to punish me as well?”
Lirith smiled sweetly.
Aryn stepped away from the tree. “Can we walk slowly back to the castle? It’s been such a fine day.”
The two women started back across the green arm in arm as Durge lumbered none too swiftly behind them.
“Now here is a sight,” said a voice as deep and rich as a bronze bell. “There walks the moon and the sun arm in arm. And look — a gloomy cloud follows behind them.”
The three came to a halt, searching. It took Lirith a moment to see the hulking shape nestled in the deepening shade between two trees. Then she made out the ridged spine, the sinuous neck, the folded bat wings. Aryn gasped beside her, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Durge grope in vain for the greatsword that was not strapped to his back.
For a heartbeat, Lirith was transported to the high, windswept bowl of stone where they had encountered the dragon Sfithrisir.
And here are two Daughters of Sia, both doomed to betray their sisters and their mistress....
But how could such a terrible and ancient creature be here, in a well-tended grove beneath the queen’s castle of Ar-tolor?
A shadow moved between the trees: the shape of man. “Good sisters? Good brother? Is something amiss?”
It was the thrumming voice again — the warm voice of a man, not the dry hiss of a dragon. Realization drained through Lirith, leaving her trembling. How could she have been so foolish? It was not a real dragon before them, but rather a Mournish wagon carved in the shape of one. Now that she peered closer, she could see the craft’s spoked wheels, its circular windows, and the peeling, painted scales of the dragon’s neck. Yet they had not seen this wagon before. Why was it set apart from all the others?
The man stepped closer, still awaiting an answer.
Lirith swallowed. “It was nothing, sir. A shadow of the past, that is all, and soon gone.”
The man paused, and it seemed he stiffened. Then he said softly, “I have found in my travels it is usually best not to dismiss what one glimpses in shadows.”
Before Lirith could speak again, a cracked voice drifted through the wagon’s window.
“Sareth, who is it out there? I cannot see them, blast my failing eyes. I should give them to Mirgeth and his jars for all the good they do me.”
“It is ... two beautiful ladies and a stern knight, al-Mama.”
“Well, bring them here where I can look at them. I will see their fates for them.”
“This way,” the man said, gesturing to the wagon. “Al-Mama does not like to be kept waiting. She says at her age there is no time for patience.”
He turned and started toward the wagon. Lirith glanced at Aryn and Durge, but they only shrugged. It seemed there was nothing else to do save follow.
Excerpted from The Dark Remains by Mark Anthony. Copyright © 2001 by Mark Anthony. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.