THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 23

Chapter 5

Cashel hadn't been here in the garden before. There were three small trees in pots: a weeping willow which must've been a trial for the servants carrying water to it and a pair of silver birches. The grape arbor was nice, and there were terracotta planters with flowers.

Anyway, Rasile seemed satisfied as she placed the yarrow stalks she used to lay out her figures. Cashel was used to being around animals whose legs bent the wrong way so it didn't bother him when she hunched, the way it did some folk looking at the catmen. When Rasile stood up, though-well, a sheep never did that.

Liane stood like she figured to be hanged by midday. She wore sturdy tunics that must've been from Ilna; nobody else Cashel knew could weave cloth so practical and still have designs that seemed simple until you looked at them close. The sleeves and torsos mated perfectly.

"These myrtles seem full grown even with being so small," Cashel said quietly.

It took a moment for Liane to understand he was talking to her. When she did, she jumped like he'd poured ice water down her back.

She flashed a wide, embarrassed smile. "Yes," she said, "they're a dwarf variety from the mountains of Shengy. One of Mistress Gudea's tutors grew this kind. It's hard to imagine a pirate with the same tastes as Mistress Lassa, but I suppose it makes a change from drinking blood and cutting people's fingers off."

Cashel laughed. He had a notion of what it was like in Liane's head right now, and it wouldn't have been right to let her wallow there. If she'd been Sharina, Cashel would've put an arm around her-or more likely, Sharina would've put an arm around him. Cashel wasn't comfortable doing that, but sometimes it was the best thing there was.

"I guess," Cashel said. "I think I'd rather have peonies, though."

He kept on smiling, but mention of pirates made him think of Ilna's friend Chalcus. They'd never talked about the things Chalcus had done before he met Ilna, but you could read from the scars all over his body that he hadn't been the kind of sailor who took a tub from Shengy across the Inner Sea with a load of oranges ripening aboard.

Had Chalcus cut off fingers and drunk blood? Not without a reason for it, but Cashel guessed there wasn't much Chalcus wouldn't have done if he'd had to. Because Ilna wouldn't have been happy with a man who wasn't that way, since she surely was herself.

"Cashel?" Liane said, looking at his smile and maybe seeing what was behind it. She was smart, just as smart as Garric.

"I was thinking about my sister, ma'am," Cashel said. He didn't talk much, but he'd answer a question if somebody asked him. It was easy when you were willing just to tell the truth. "She's gotten a lot mellower since we left home-even after she lost Chalcus and Merota, I mean, though for a while there she was something else. But you still wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of her."

"No," said Liane, "I wouldn't. But I don't think anybody could be a better friend."

Cashel smiled. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "But she's not a good friend to herself."

Rasile got to her feet, looking like a toy unfolding. "Are you ready, Cashel?" she said.

"Yes, ma'am," he said.

Rasile's eyes were a little harder as she turned them on Liane. The expression reminded Cashel that the wizard's jaw was long and full of pointed teeth. "And you, female Liane?"

"Just Liane, please," she answered pleasantly. "Yes, I'm ready."

"Then join me in the heptagram, Cashel and Liane," the wizard said. "The star of power, we of the True People call it."

She waggled her tongue in the equivalent of a grin. "We will see if it has enough power," she said.

"The power . . . ," said Liane as she stepped over the jagged line of yarrow stalks. "Is in you, Rasile, not in your symbols. And you have power enough."

"The Wizard Tenoctris trusts me more than I trust myself," said Rasile. "But in this, I think she is right."

There was room enough in the star for Cashel with the two women, but it was pretty tight. Since there was time, Cashel counted the points: there was a handful and two fingers. It'd seemed like more just to look at; it must be that the yellow stalks were tricking his eyes.

Rasile began to chant, wagging her slate athame side to side in front of her. She sounded like a catfight instead of wizardry unless you paid attention to the rhythms, but if you did that, you knew it was just the same as Tenoctris.

Liane was standing really stiff. Part of that might be how close they were together, but she relaxed a trifle when Cashel gave her a slow smile. She carried a bag of waxed linen with a broad strap over her shoulder. It wasn't big, but it looked heavy. Cashel would bet anything that there was books in it.

Garric generally carried a book with him, too. Sharina said that she read for pleasure, but her brother was the real scholar of them. That was another way he and Liane were well matched.

Cashel had his usual leather wallet, the one he'd used when he was watching sheep or doing any other job that would keep him away from the mill at lunch time. In it was hard bread, whey cheese, a gourd of ale with a wooden stopper, and a couple onions. It would keep for a week and not be the worse for the wait. It wouldn't be any better either, of course, but that had been what he'd eaten for most of his life. Nobody could look at Cashel or-Kenset and say simple food wasn't enough to keep a man healthy.

Rasile yowled her incantation. The sky looked bright when Cashel glanced at it, but it didn't seem to throw as much light down on the roof slates as it had a moment before. The shadows of the flowerpots were blurring into general darkness.

Rasile shrieked something that ended with a spitting sound, pft-pft-pft! The yarrow stalks burned with red wizardlight, and a razor of ice shaved Cashel's marrow. The landscape beyond them changed.

Tufts of grass, yellow and dry, sprouted from gritty soil. The wind was harsh and cold and terribly thin. Cashel drew a deep breath, but it felt like he was being smothered with a feather pillow. In the distance was a great mountain, its slopes glittering with ancient snow. From its peak trailed steam with a sulfurous tinge.

Cashel had been holding the wizard's woven satchel in his left hand and his quarterstaff in his right at the balance. Now he slipped the looped handles up over his shoulder so that he could spread both hands on the staff. He didn't swing it horizontal, though, because the ferrules would've stuck out beyond the edges of the star.

Rasile called out again, rousing another pulse of wizardlight. Liane stood with her eyes closed and her face set. Bone-chilling cold cut again.

They were on a shore. Basalt spikes, one of them hollowed into an archway by the surf, stood up from black sand; the landscape for as far as Cashel could see had no other features. The water was bright blue where it rolled onto the beach, but in the middle distance it changed sharply to the dusty green of olive leaves.

Something on the horizon curled up, then back into the depths. Cashel wondered how anything alive could be so big.

Rasile called, and ice carved deep again. The sea vanished and the sand they stood on was red. The air smelled wet. Soft-bodied plants sprouted around the margins of a pond near the figure of yarrow stalks. There wasn't any grass and the tallest plants were horsetails that Cashel could touch the tops of by stretching his arm up.

Rasile sank onto her haunches. Cashel and Liane both reached to grab her, but she hadn't collapsed; she was just settling.

"Our route is over these sands, companions," the wizard said, looking out over the waste. Sandstone ridges slanted across it; there were more plants in their lee. Cashel felt a breeze, but it didn't smell of anything in particular.

"Where is this place?" said Liane. Now that they'd arrived she sounded calm, the way she usually did. "That is, is it in our world?"

"Perhaps," said Rasile. "Not our time, though; your time or mine either one."

"Ma'am?" Cashel said. "Give me a moment, if you will."

He stepped out of the star so that he had room to limber up with his staff. He began to spin the iron-shod hickory in slow circles. Having the wizard's satchel over his shoulder cramped him, but it was all right if he kept his arms up a little more than usual.

He'd drop the gear if there was time, of course. But there might not be time.

Cashel brought the staff around in a figure-8, spinning faster. He wasn't surprised that the tips left sparkles of blue wizardlight behind them. The landscape looked simple enough, but something here was making the hair on the back of his arms and neck prickle.

He slowed to a halt and slanted the quarterstaff in front of him with his left hand high. Looking back to the women, he said, "I guess I'm ready now, Rasile."

The wizard rose from her crouch. "And I am ready to lead, Cashel," she said. "This is not a place to tarry."

Rasile started off to the southeast, her legs taking quick, steady strides. She seemed to have recovered from the wizardry, though she was still pretty old.

Liane glanced at Cashel. When he nodded, she followed Rasile by a double pace behind. She wore sturdy sandals that even had cleats; they weren't anything like her usual footgear. Cashel hoped they wouldn't blister her feet.

Liane usually kept an ivory-mounted case knife in her sash. The finger-long blade was etched and gold-filled, but both edges were sharp and the steel was the best Cashel had ever seen. She held it bare in her hand now.

Cashel brought up the rear, looking in all directions. Not looking for anything in particular, just for things that might be a problem. Which was anything at all in this world, he figured, from the way his skin tingled.

He smiled. And that was true where they were going as well. It made him feel good to know he might useful.