THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 34



Chapter 8


"Barak knephi . . . ," said Brincisa, kneeling before a basalt nodule originally the size of a child’s skull but now split in half. The hollow interior was lined with amethyst crystals. She used it instead of drawing a figure like most of the wizards that Ilna had watched. "Baricha!"


Instead of a flash of wizardlight, a bluish haze spread from the nodule in all directions. It was as faint as the sheen of moonlight on nacre; Ilna saw only the boundary between light and non-light, moving outward at the speed of a man running. It vanished through the walls of the workroom.


She felt only a faint tingle when the light passed through her body, and even that might have been the expectation that she ought to feel something. Ingens stood facing an alcove so that he wouldn’t accidentally catch a glimpse of what Brincisa was doing. He didn’t react at all to the haze; he probably didn’t see it.


The wizard rose to her feet, then paused with her eyes closed and swayed. "No no," she said sharply when Ilna reached out to support her. "I’m all right. Come, the effect should last till dawn, but we don’t know how long our business with the tomb will take. Master Ingens, bring the rope."


Ilna nodded curtly. She found Brincisa’s manner brusque and unpleasant, which would amuse her former neighbors in Barca’s Hamlet. On the other hand, Brincisa was commendably businesslike and obviously skilled in her arts. Perhaps Ilna’s distaste was simply a matter of like being repelled by like. Though-


Ilna had eventually broken the link to the powers of Hell from which she’d gained her skills. Brincisa may well have had the same teachers; but if so, Ilna doubted that she’d turned her back on them.


Brincisa led the way down the stairs. Until she got to the first landing the wizard used the railing for half her support, but she had full control of her balance from then on.


A dark-clad servant waited in the entranceway. Ilna expected him to open the street door for them, but instead the man remained where he was. As they passed, she realized that the servant’s eyes were open and staring: he’d been paralyzed by the incantation.


The full moon lighted the path up the bluff. Ilna wondered if the moon’s phase had anything to do with the other business that was going on, but Brincisa was the only person who would know. Brincisa would say no more than what suited her – and would be pleased that Ilna was concerned.


Which she was, of course. She wasn’t afraid to die, and she wasn’t worried about meeting the test that waited for her in the tomb. Ilna didn’t think she was arrogant, but she believed down to the marrow of her bones that she would succeed at any task having to do with fiber or fabric.


The night was silent except for the rustle of breezes through the needles of pine trees clinging to the rock. Their feet scraped on the path, and sometimes Ingens grunted from the burden of the coil of rope; those were the only animal sounds.


The uncertainty of what Ilna was facing – they were facing; she and the secretary were together in this at least – was what disturbed her. As they climbed, her fingers played with patterns: some that would guide her, and others that would deal with threats they might face.


As quickly as she’d tied one, she picked it out and started another; they only occupied her fingers. The answer would come, but it wouldn’t come that way.


"Here," said Brincisa. They’d reached the top of the bluff. "We’ll roll back the stone first. Ingens, set the rope by the post. You can tie it later."


Two guards sat by a fire which had sunk to a pile of white ash and the ends of billets smoldering around it. The men were as stiff and mute as Brincisa’s servant. A spear, a wicker shield, and an iron cap sat on the ground behind either man, but their real purpose here was the large bronze bell hanging from a yoke nearby. A stroke on the bell with the mallet beside it or even a flailing hand would rouse the whole town to deal with tomb robbers.


The silence made Ilna uncomfortable. Unlike her brother she didn’t think much about nature, but its chorus was a constant backdrop to night in a hamlet: birds calling and rattling their flight feathers, the varied trills of insects, and frogs making every sound from the boom of a bullfrog to narrow-mouthed toads bleating like a herd of miniature sheep.


Brincisa’s wizardry had stilled all that. Though Ilna didn’t particularly care for the sounds, she disliked being without them.


The stone closing the entrance wasn’t a slab as Ilna had assumed. It was a roller as long as she was tall, a large version of the querns women used in villages that didn’t have watermills to grind grain.


It was limestone like the hill beneath it, pierced through the center so that the thick hardwood pole sticking out on either end acted as a handle for the men moving it to and fro. A fist-sized rock waited on either side to chock the tomb open while bodies were being lowered into the cave.


"We have to move that by ourselves?" Ingens said doubtfully.


"We’ll manage," said Ilna curtly as she eyed the situation. Ingens probably hoped that Brincisa would use an incantation to open the tomb. Very probably the wizard could’ve done that if necessary, but Ilna knew that wizardry was better left for matters which nothing else could accomplish. Physical effort was less draining for any task that you could do either way.


Brincisa turned to the stone roller. The pole extended far enough that two people could push on either side if they didn’t mind rubbing shoulders.


"Mistress Ilna," the wizard said, "help me on the left side. Your secretary can take the right."


Ilna looked at her. Brincisa was still breathing hard. She hadn’t stopped to rest on the climb up the hill, but she was far from having recovered her strength after the incantation.


"Ingens and I will move the stone," Ilna said. "You brought along a lantern for me? Light it now."


She squatted and braced both hands on the pole. It was smooth from long wear, fortunately. Even if it hadn’t been, Ilna’s palms weren’t soft like a fine lady’s who might be gored by a splinter.


"Ready?" she said to Ingens. He nodded. Behind them, metal clicked on stone; Brincisa was striking a spark with steel on a chip of pyrites instead of using wizardry to light the wick of the candle she’d taken from the lantern.


Ilna and the secretary shoved forward together. The roller moved more easily than she’d expected; though the track sloped very slightly upward, years – centuries? – of use had polished it. Ilna’s only problem was that she was too small to easily extend to the stone’s resting position, but by hunching forward from her squat she was able to get the chock in place on her side.


She stood and looked back at the hole they’d uncovered. There’d been gaps big enough to stick an arm through when the stone was in place, but now that it’d been removed the opening didn’t look any too big. She could crawl through without difficulty, but she wondered how much trouble it would’ve been to bury her Uncle Katchin – a pig in all senses.


She frowned. The air inside the cave was dank, like the interior of a well. She didn’t smell rotting flesh, however. Three days even deep in rock should’ve been enough for Hutton to turn, quite apart from the reeking corruption of centuries of previous dead bodies.


"Mistress Brincisa," Ilna said, "I don’t smell death." What she really meant was that she didn’t smell corpses, but she was being polite since the woman’s husband was one of them.


"There’s a special property of this cave," Brincisa said with a flash of irritation, there and then gone. "It’s of no consequence. Master Ingens, tie the rope around this post. And you, mistress, may want to tie the other end around your waist."


The ‘post’ was a thick bollard. Ilna rang it with her knuckles and found what the moonlight had led her to expect: it was bronze, not wood or even iron. It was set too deeply in the rock to quiver when she threw her weight against it.


Lowering bodies into the cave was obviously so familiar a practice that considerable preparation had been made to make it easy and dignified. More dignified than simply tossing them down a hole in the rock as though they were so many turds falling into a close chest.


Ingens threw his rope around the post. He started to loop the free end around the main length, then paused.


"I’ll take care of that," Ilna said, trying to keep the disgust out of her voice. Ingens could read and write, after all. She’d have to be out of her mind to trust a knot he’d tied, however. "Since I’m the one who’ll be hanging from it."


Ingens stepped out of the way obediently. Brincisa rested on one knee, her face set; presumably she was still recruiting her strength. Ilna let her fingers run over the rope for a moment; it was linen, new and easily strong enough for Ilna’s slight weight even though it was the diameter of her fourth finger. It would do.


She tied it with two half-hitches, simple and satisfactory, then rose. "I’m ready," she said. "Give me the lantern."


"Mistress, how will you carry it?" Ingens asked in concern.


Ilna glanced into the hole. The moonlight showed that it slanted slightly for about the length of her body before dropping away. She couldn’t see beyond the initial slope. The rope would rub, but not badly; and anyway, it was new.


She wore a silken lasso around her waist in place of a sash. Now she uncoiled a two-ell length and tied it around the lantern’s loop handle.


"I’ll carry it in my hand till I’m over the drop," she said to the secretary. Brincisa remained silent, watching like a cat attending the actions of human beings but holding aloof from them. "Then I’ll let it hang so that it lights the floor of the cave before I reach it."


"It’s not far," the wizard said. The fact she spoke was by now a surprise. "Twenty feet, no more."


"Fine," said Ilna, "but I still want light."


She supposed she’d be dropping into putrid corpses, the remains of centuries. She wasn’t squeamish, but if she could avoid putting her weight on a spike of rotting bone, she would.


"Shall I lower you, mistress?" Ingens said softly. He seemed genuinely concerned, which made no more sense to Ilna than the other parts of this puzzle. Well, her own task was simple enough.


"No," she said. "I’ll climb down myself."


She turned and started down the rope backward. The linen filled her mind with memories of terraced fields rising from a broad brown current – not the North River, at least not the North River of the present. The sun was bright and hot, and little blue flowers nodded from long, kinked stalks.


It was good to have the rope to touch, because it insulated her from the narrow rock about her. Below, waiting for her, was ancient death.


But for now, flax flowers smiled at the sun.


* * *


"Since you have an oracle here . . . ," Liane said.


"Please sit down, milady," Amineus said, gesturing to the cushions along the left wall of the single round room. He must’ve been sitting on the other side, for the table there had a bowl of fruit, a wedge of deep-yellow cheese, and a lidded silver flagon with matching goblet. "Ah, would you like some refreshment?"


The door across the room had three lock plates in it, all set together in the middle. The panel looked heavy enough to be the street door in a city where folk had to worry about robbers smashing their way in.


"There’s no need of that," Liane said, flicking the suggestion away with her left hand. "Nor time, I dare say. My colleagues and I need to question the Tree Oracle. And what I was saying -"


She froze the start of the priest’s protest with a raised finger.


"- is that since you have an oracle, you are aware that the Worm is approaching Dariada. The city is doomed unless we stop the creature."


Other than the second door, the room didn’t have much to see. Solidly joined storage chests sat along the walls, two and two, and above the cushioned seats the plaster’d been frescoed with pictures of fountains. Cashel liked paintings; they were the one thing he’d found in cities that he’d have regretted missing if he hadn’t left Barca’s Hamlet. There didn’t seem much reason to paint a fountain when you might’ve had the real thing about as easy, though.


"You don’t understand the difficulties in what you’re saying," Amineus said, shaking his head in slow frustration. "The College of Priests – all three of us, not just me alone – has to consider the petition and -"


"I don’t care about the difficulties," said Liane, slapping the words out. "I certainly don’t care about your procedures – and neither should you, since you and your whole city will be destroyed unless my associate Lady Rasile -"


She gestured to Rasile, who grinned but kept her tongue inside her long jaws.


"- who is a wizard, is able to find a solution. To accomplish this, she believes she needs to see the Tree."


"A wizard?" Amineus said in amazement. He stared at Rasile, then back to Liane. "You mean this -"


"Stop!" said Liane. "If you use the word ‘animal’ again to refer to a friend of mine, Master Cashel will knock you down. You can do that, can you not, Cashel?"


"Yes ma’am," Cashel said. A cudgel would be handier, but short-gripping the quarterstaff would do the job too. He figured he could probably handle the big man without a weapon at all, but wrestling around inside chanced squashing the women like shoats when a brood sow rolls over.


"As to your question, yes," Liane continued more calmly. "Rasile is a wizard. Now, take us to see the oracle."


Amineus sighed and set the bread and knife down on the low table. "You may as well," he said. "It’s improper, but what does that matter if the danger’s as bad as we think? As bad as you say, milady. But I warn you -"


He looked around the three of them.


"- we’ve tried ourselves, following all the rituals. And the Tree has told us nothing. Nothing!"


"We’ll go now, if you please, Master Amineus," Liane said. She wasn’t near as harsh as she’d been a moment before, but she didn’t expect an argument.


"Yes, yes," the priest said tiredly. He turned to his servant. "Ansco, go tell Masters Hilfe and Conwin that I’m taking a noblewoman and her retinue into the Enclosure. If they want to join us, they’d best hurry."


He paused, frowning. "Better see Conwin first," he said, correcting himself. "I can’t imagine Hilfe will be willing to tear himself away from his counting house so early in the day."


The servant nodded and trotted off. From his look of disappointment, Cashel guessed the fellow wanted to watch whatever happened next.


Amineus lifted the key he wore chained to a heavy leather belt. Cashel expected him to go to the back door, but instead he knelt beside one of the storage chests.


"The priests of the Tree are elected to three-year terms, you know," he muttered as he fitted the key to chest’s lock. Maybe Liane knew that; Cashel certainly didn’t. "One a year, and the senior man is high priest. I took it for an honor and thought it worth the trouble, but this business now . . . ."


He lifted the lid. There was nothing in the chest but three more keys.


"I don’t know what to do, none of us do!" Amineus said. "An army of ruffians coming toward us with a monster – everybody says they’re coming for the Oracle! We’ve got refugees from Telut, they tell us what’s going to happen. I’m responsible and I don’t know what to do!"


He rose with the three keys in his hand. They were the kind that had thin pins sticking out from the end to fit and turn in arcs cut in the face of the latch plate.


"We’re each supposed to keep our key with us at all times," he said, "but the gardeners have to go in and out at any hour. That’s, well . . . . There’s always one priest in the office. That’s inconvenience enough."


"You’re doing what you needed to do, Master Amineus," Liane said firmly. "You’re putting the problem of the Worm into the hands of those who may be able to solve it."


The priest sniffed. "Am I?" he said, fitting the three keys into the locks. "Well, I hope you’re right, but it doesn’t really matter. Since I don’t know of anything else to do that would be better."


He turned and looked at Liane. From his expression, he might’ve just learned that his whole family had died.


"I don’t know anything at all to do!" Amineus said. "Except run, and I won’t do that."


Liane stepped past the big priest and turned the keys one after the other. Each bar withdrew with a solid clack.


She looked up at him. "We won’t run either, Master Amineus," she said. "That’s why we’re here. Now, lead us to the Tree."


Instead of pushing the panel herself, Liane gestured and stepped aside. Amineus smiled crookedly and opened the door, leading them through. Beyond was what seemed like another room, only this one was as big as a stadium and the roof was the branches and leaves of trees growing around the inside of the wall.


The one tree. Each trunk was joined to the trunks on either side, just like it’d looked from outside the wall. The limbs arched overhead like the beams of an impossibly great hall, linking to one another in a wooden spiderweb.


"This way," the priest said, taking them to the left around the curve of the enclosure. "The Stone of Question is across the enclave."


The ground was bare, dry and packed from ages of exposure. The only undergrowth Cashel saw, if you wanted to call it that, was moss in places where rock had broken through the top of the dirt. The soil under these leaves and branches didn’t get any more sunlight than it would on a thatched porch; that was why it was barren, not because the gardeners Amineus talked about had dug out everything but the Tree’s own roots.


Though the roots were everywhere. Amineus kept wide of the boles by longer than Cashel could touch with his staff; even so it was like they were walking on a floor of ridged wood, the roots lay so thick. Cashel would’ve avoided stepping on them, but there wasn’t any way he could; and the priest wearing leather-soled sandals – Cashel was barefoot – didn’t seem concerned about it himself.


The reason for going around the side of the enclosure was to avoid what was left of a building in the center. It’d been a temple, Cashel guessed, but not a very fancy one even before it’d all fallen in.


A foundation course of rough limestone showed a rectangle three times a tall man’s height on the long sides and not quite that wide on the front and back ends. There’d been two stone pillars framing the doorway at the front, but extensions of the side walls had carried the ends of the porch roof.


There wasn’t any sign of a roof or the rest of the walls, either one. If there’d been a statue, it was gone too. All there was inside the base course was a litter of fallen leaves and husks from the Tree’s seedpods.


"Sir?" Cashel asked. "The temple there in the middle? What is it?"


Amineus had been lost in his own thoughts. He gave Cashel a look that was peevish if not quite angry.


"That’s no matter of ours," he said. "It’s a temple, yes, but it’s very old. Nobody knows who it was dedicated to."


He cleared his throat. "We avoid it," he added, "out of courtesy for those who worshipped here in former days."


"You’re afraid of it, Master Amineus," Cashel said, as polite as he could be while calling another man a liar. It wasn’t something he often did, but he couldn’t take the chance that Liane and Rasile would mistake what was going on before they spoke to the oracle. "It sticks out all over you. I’m sorry, but it does."


Amineus stumbled but caught himself the next step. His face went red, then white. He didn’t say anything or even look over his shoulder at Cashel.


"He is right to be afraid, warrior," said Rasile calmly. "There is much power focused here, power that could turn this universe. Power enough perhaps to put the very cosmos into a spin."


Her tongue lolled in laughter. Either she thought the priest was smart enough to understand she wasn’t slavering for his blood, or maybe she didn’t care.


"When we came beneath the walls of this great place made of stone," the wizard continued, "I thought the great power I saw was the oracle. It made me doubt our success, for power like that would make nothing of such as me. It was too great for any person, of the True People or of the Monkey People. Who are true in their own way, as I now see."


She cocked her head to look at Amineus. He must have felt her foxlike sharpness, but he didn’t turn to meet it.


"But it is not your tree that has the power, elder," she said. "The tree has grown here because of the power of the temple in its center. And you fear it."


"The temple is very old," Amineus said softly. "Its walls were mud brick. They’ve been gone, crumbled to dirt, from long before records. And the records of the priesthood of the Tree, the questions and responses, go back to the age before the age before the Old Kingdom."


He stopped and turned to face the three of them. "I didn’t lie to you, Master Cashel," he said. "We know nothing about the temple beyond what you yourself see. And if you prefer to think that I would not act respectfully to a site of ancient worship if I didn’t fear it, then you go ahead and believe that. But you’re wrong."


Cashel felt uncomfortable. He wasn’t sorry for having brought the business out in the open, but it now seemed that the priest hadn’t had any bad intention in not wanting to discuss it.


"I don’t think that, sir," he said. "You’ve showed yourself polite to us, for which we thank you."


"Yes," said Amineus, "but perhaps less forthcoming than a man in fear of his life should be to his rescuers, eh? My pardon to all of you."


He turned again and gestured with his left hand. "Milady," he said. "This is the oracle itself."


Cashel hadn’t known what to expect. There was an aspen grove in Cafardstown, three days north of Barca’s Hamlet. Folk said that if you slept in it, the Lady would speak to your dreams in the rustling of the leaves. Cashel had never seen the grove or cared about it one way or another, but he knew folk who’d made the journey.


Some said they’d got their answer, too. Widow Bassera had asked the trees to pick between her suitors, then married young Parus or-Whin instead of a settled man her own age. The match had worked out well, but Bassera was a clever one who might’ve decided to get the Lady’s support for the choice her own wits had made.


Here at Dariada . . . .


A flat stone was set into the ground. It was polished black granite an ell across, not local limestone like the foundation of the old temple. Though the stone had been cut to be round, the surface was etched with many figures inside each other, from a triangle up to something with more sides than Cashel could count with both hands.


Describing the Tree would make it sound like the stands of mangroves that Cashel had seen in his travels. That was nothing like what it really looked like, though, because these individual boles were as thick as the trunks of live oaks.


Slanting up from the nearest trunk was a branch thicker than Cashel could’ve spanned with both arms. From it a seedpod hung almost to the ground in front of the granite slab. This pod was huge, bigger than Cashel in every dimension. Its casing had turned a brown as dark as walnut heartwood, and the seam running from tip to stem was almost black.


That seam had started to split open at the top. Inside the pod was the face of a man with his eyes shut. It was the same deep brown as the casing around it.


"I’ve brought you to the oracle, milady," Amineus said, turning his hand toward the pod. "The querent always asks his – or her – own questions. We of the priesthood merely make the administrative arrangements."


"Thank you, Master Amineus," Liane said. She seemed a little taken aback. "Which . . . which of us is to do the questioning?"


The priest shrugged. "That’s up to you," he said. "I’ve already explained that the oracle refused to tell us – the priests of the Tree – anything beyond the fact that the Worm will come to Dariada regardless of what we wish or do."


"All right," said Liane with a crisp nod. "Rasile, this is your business properly."


To the priest she added, "Master Amineus, is there a form she’s to use in addressing the oracle?"


Amineus shrugged again. "The Tree will speak if it chooses to," he said.


Rasile stepped onto the slab, placing both feet carefully within the triangle that was the innermost of the forms. Before she could speak, the eyes within the pod opened.


I thought it was a statue, Cashel thought. A carved statue . . . .


"What have I to do with a Corl?" said the wooden head. "Other than kill it as an affront to the world that is given to men, that is. Or do you think that because you are a wizard, you can force me to speak?"


"If you know my heart . . . ," said Rasile, standing as straight as the joint of her hips permitted. Cashel had seen the wizard’s face when she confronted a wyvern that had just torn a muscular Corl chieftain to dollrags. Then too she’d shown a fierce certainty that though she would die, she would die fighting. "Then you know I claim no power over such as you."


The face – the Tree – laughed. "I will not harm you," it said. "But step away, Corl. You have no part in my world."


Rasile bowed, then hopped onto the bare ground without touching the slab again. Liane, delicately but without hesitation, stepped into her place.


The Tree laughed again. Its voice was a deep baritone. It reminded Cashel of stormwinds booming through a hollow log.


"Greetings, Lady Liane," the Tree said. "Another time I would speak with you, but now as the world of men nears its end I will talk to your champion instead. Cashel or-Mab, come face me."


"Sir," said Cashel, stepping onto the granite. He held the staff crossed before him at waist height. It wasn’t a threat, but it showed he didn’t intend to be pushed around.


Cashel knew the Tree’s sort. He was the Tree’s sort; which he guessed was why it’d called for him.


"My father’s name is Kenset, sir," he said. "Not Mab."


The Tree’s laughter boomed. The carven face was handsome, but its lines were just as hard as the wood it was shaped from.


"Your father was a weakling," the Tree said harshly. "He made bad choices and drank because he regretted them. Your mother Mab, though . . . she is not weak. Nor is her son. Ask me what you want to know, Cashel son of Mab."


"Sir," said Cashel. Without really thinking about it, he pivoted the quarterstaff to stand straight up beside him, gripped in his right hand. "There’s a Worm loose in the world, now. How do we kill it, please?"


"No man living can kill the Worm, Cashel," the Tree said. Its words were rumbling like distant thunder. "In times more ancient than you can imagine -"


The eyes looked from Cashel to the women beside him, just like they were in a human face instead of a wooden one.


"More ancient than even Lady Liane has read of in the oldest books. In those times lived a hero named Gorand. He was the champion of his people as you are of yours, Cashel. He vanquished the Worm when fools let it into the world of men."


"Yes sir," Cashel said. He was speaking like the wooden face was another man; but it talked like another man, and anyway that was the polite thing to do. "Can you teach me to do what Gorand did? To beat the Worm?"


The Tree boomed another peal of laughter. "No, Cashel, I cannot," it said. "That is a thing not even you can learn. You must rouse Gorand and convince him to banish the Worm for you. To banish it for mankind, as he did before."


Cashel didn’t say anything for a moment, making sure that he understood what he’d just been told. He caught Liane out of the corner of his eye: her mouth opened like she was going to speak, but she closed it again. Rasile reached out and touched her arm. Both women were looking at him.


"Sir," said Cashel, "how do I find Gorand and rouse him? Please."


The Tree had said that Cashel couldn’t learn to fight the Worm. Cashel wasn’t sure that was true, but that didn’t matter if there was another way to get rid of the creature. If the Tree said to rouse Gorand, that meant it thought they could do it. All they needed now was to learn how.


There was no point saying that Gorand was long dead. The Tree knew that, had told them that.


"There is a stele in front of the Office of the Priests," the Tree said. "On the reverse of the stele are carved directions to reach Gorand. But I cannot tell you how to convince Gorand to return to help you, Cashel son of Mab. The people of this world repaid Gorand with evil for his good, and the people of Dariada worst of all. Gorand was a citizen of Dariada, and they treated him ill."


"I’m sorry for that, sir," Cashel said. "A man like you say Gorand is, though, he won’t let that keep him from doing what he needs to do."


Sure, there were people who’d cheat and do all manner of low things to the folks who helped them; it’d happened to Cashel and he’d seen it happen to others. But you couldn’t hold it against everybody.


"Do you think so, Cashel?" the Tree said. Cashel thought it might laugh again, but instead there was something else in the tone that he couldn’t place. "That’s for you to convince him, then."


The eyes of the wooden face closed; the mouth settled back into grim silence. Cashel stepped off the slab.


Liane’s face worked with frustration and a touch of anger that she was trying to conceal. "The stele’s worn smooth!" she said. "Any information there was lost ages ago. Perhaps -"


She looked from the pod to Amineus.


"- we can speak to the oracle again?"


"Milady," said the priest, "you’re welcome to speak to the Tree as much as you wish. But as you saw, the Tree was unwilling to answer you even once."


"It’s all right, Liane," Cashel said. He stretched with the quarterstaff, but he didn’t spin it as he might’ve done in another place. There was room here, but it didn’t seem, well, respectful. "He knew what he was doing. The Tree did, I mean. We’ll go look at this stele. You think he meant the slab out in front of the door here?"


"Yes, of course," said Liane sharply. That wasn’t like her, but she wasn’t used to being off on her own this way. By now, Cashel was. "That’s a stele, the stele. And I did look at it. The image on the obverse is clear, but the legend on the reverse has been completely worn away."


The priest was watching. He seemed even more worried than before. He probably hoped the three of them were marvels who never doubted what to do next. Seeing that they were human after all put him right back where he’d been before they came, frightened and despairing.


"Warrior Cashel is correct," Rasile said calmly. "We must trust the oracle."


She dipped her head to Amineus. "Thank you, wise one," she said. "We will examine the stone outside your gate again. I think we will find that the stone is not as blank to a wizard as it might be to a layman -"


Her tongue wagged toward Liane.


"- no matter how wise that layman is."


Liane’s face went hard for an instant; then she stepped forward with her arms spread, managing to sort-of hug both Cashel and Rasile. "Thank the Lady!" she said.


Cashel figured they could all agree with that.