Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Second Realm 1.2: You Can't Go Home Again

(episode 1 here - this episode at Smashwords (still free) - next episode)

Van Raighan's Last Stand

2. You Can't Go Home Again

Ceiling. Dora lay in bed, fighting to remember that the wooden planks in front of her were above her. Since waking up, she'd been grasping for the word for it. Ceiling. Had it always been this hard navigating the First Realm? Reaching back through a memory usually crystal-clear and knife-sharp, she found everything out of order. She could clearly see her bedroom in Federas, but she couldn't work out which surface was the top - ceiling! - of the room.

Whichever way up the memory was supposed to be, this room was not hers. She rolled onto her side, resisting the instinct that what she actually did was spin the room around herself. A brown rug covered most of the floor, leaving a strip of uninviting, bare floorboards around the edges. The narrow oak wardrobe at the foot of the bed menaced the doorway, and the rest of the room was austere, though far from primitive.

Oddly, she wasn't surprised to find herself in Nursim. Jumbled though her memory was, she remembered stumbling down the hillside towards the town without confusion. The driving rain, the warmth of Rel's hand in hers, the gut-wrenching gasp when they almost fell into a quarry lake, were so clear she shivered in recollection.

Dora yelped in alarm. Rel stood in the doorway, looking through the room. Was he staring out the window? The tickle of wool made her suddenly conscious that beneath the blankets, she was naked, her shift hung to dry from the front of the wardrobe. Automatically, she curled up, her voice pinched to a squeak by shock. The sheet pulled free at the bottom of the bed and a cold draft clawed at her leg.

She gasped, and suddenly logic snapped back into place. Rel's odd pose, one fist raised in front of his face - he was about to knock. On the door. Which was closed, so he couldn't see her. For that matter, why had she thought she could see him? The door was the same stout, polished wood as the rest of the furniture, as opaque as anything else she'd ever seen.

Rel's knock caught her just as she convinced herself he had been an uncomfortable hallucination, provoking another yelp. His voice was muffled through the door, "Dora, are you alright?"

She cleared her throat and called, "Not decent! Just a moment."

Mercifully, her shift was dry as she pulled it roughly over her head. Hair already mussed from the pillow found new and irritating ways to play haystack, and Dora dragged her fingers through it with a hissed curse. She fought her way into dress and stockings with similar vigour, shaking off the morning's strange start by sheer force of ire.

Reverence replaced anger as she lifted her uniform rope belt from the hook on the back of the door, wrapped it loosely around her waist, and tied it through the stylised Four Knot of the buckle. She settled it pulled slightly to one side across her hips and sat in front of the mirror. Tugging again, uselessly, at her hair, she called, "Come in!"

The latch clunked against its bolt and Dora shot her reflection an irritated glance. So much for putting a good face on things. She unlocked the door and opened it.

Small consolation, but Rel didn't look much better than she had in the mirror. His eyes narrowed as daylight struck him, and he put a hand to his head. His shirt was rumpled, his scowl deeply lined.

Still squinting, he said, "Are you alright? You look like hell."

"I'm fine." Dora turned and stalked back to her chair.

"The Sheriff wants to speak to us. Boy said it's urgent. We'd better go."

Dora glared at him as she caught herself, half-way between seated and standing. In Federas, she could take a minute to sort her hair before going to meet Sheriff Pollack's request, but here in Nursim courtesy at least demanded a quicker response. And the quicker she saw to it, the sooner she could get home.

She pushed to her feet and glanced out through the window. Cold fogged the glass with condensation, but bright blue sky promised no rain to settle her hair down. Well, the Sheriff would just have to deal with her, haystack on her head or no. She stomped her feet into her boots and grimaced at the hint of dampness. Rel stepped diplomatically out of her way as she strode out onto the inn's dim landing and headed for the stairs.

The common room's only occupants were a maid mopping the floor and a boy jiggling anxiously from one foot to the other by the door. He straightened at the sight of Dora, his face suddenly nervous. She forced herself to take a deep breath and put a hand up to massage the frown from her face. "Where's the Sheriff?"

"At the Warding Hall, miss." The boy bit his lip and looked at the floor, a long fringe of brown curls dropping across his face.

"Not his office?"

"No, miss." He looked up again, not quite meeting her eyes, "I can show you the way, if..."

Dora smiled, surprised at how good it felt, "I think I can remember. What's your name?"

"Tol, miss." His face brightened and he stole a glance behind himself, towards the door.

"Well, Tol, if the Sheriff didn't ask you to come back with us, I suppose he must have thought you had other important things to be doing, mustn't he?" She took a step towards him and patted him on the shoulder. He nodded eagerly. Dora finished, "Go on then. Leave the trouble to the grown-ups."

Tol was out of the inn in a flash, only the barest of nods for courtesy. Behind Dora, Rel said, "What if the Sheriff did want him?"

She turned, "Rel, the poor boy was terrified. I don't know what's at the Warding Hall, but... you don't think Van Raighan...?"

Rel's frown darkened a few shades, and Dora found she couldn't quite place the result. She felt herself frown in response. Usually Rel was an open book to her. He said, "Van Raighan's secure back home."

"And the town is safe?"

"It was when I left it. Come on, we'd better go." He walked past her and opened the door. The hinges gave the slightest of creaks. Unease coiling in the pit of her stomach, Dora followed. If something had happened to Nursim's Stable Rods, having extra Gifted on hand would be exactly what the town needed, and it could be days before they were free to return to Federas.

The Warding Hall was where she remembered it being, even through her fogged memory. After all, it wasn't as if you could just pick up tons of building and move them around. It did look different, though. For a moment, Dora thought the walls might be sagging, but the impression passed as they walked into the building's shadow.

A man stood by the door of the Hall, arms folded across his slender chest. A cudgel dangling from his belt identified him as at least a guardsman; the way he stepped forward, reaching out a hand to shake hers, made him the Sheriff. Dora returned a stiff nod.

He squinted at her slightly. "Dora, right? I'm Jadil, do you remember me?"

He was naggingly familiar, but she couldn't place him. Not that that said much this morning. He could be her brother for all she knew, though that wouldn't explain why he wasn't releasing her hand. She pulled it back a little too forcefully, and couldn't keep an accompanying sharpness from her voice as she said, "Should I?"

Jadil's already-long face fell. "I was just starting in the guard when you were here training. I suppose we didn't have very much to do with one another."

Rel cleared his throat. Dora channelled her lingering irritation into spitting him with her best glare - he frowned in... what? Again, she couldn't quite place it. Surprise? Alarm? She turned back to the Sheriff. "Sorry, I didn't mean to snap. I'm a little out of sorts this morning." She managed a smile, "Tol said you needed us urgently?"

Jadil nodded. "I'm not sure urgent was quite the right word, but best it's sorted sooner than later. Tawny's away in Federas or I wouldn't have imposed - you remember our Four Knot, at least?" He finished with a gentle smile that somehow became mournful on his gaunt cheeks.

Dora nodded, scrabbling for a memory. "She came by yesterday. I thought she was planning to be back here last night?" If she wasn't back, what had kept her away? Tawny's competence was above question, but with Van Raighan in the town, even in custody, Dora found she couldn't put her fears aside.

"So she said, but she's not back yet. I know better than to ask after her business, though, and yours." Jadil paused, waiting for Dora's nod. "Anyway, sometime after you came in last night, we had a Wilder walk into town. She rousted me out of bed claiming to be a Gift-Giver, but with Tawny away we've no way to check and you were both dead to the world. She agreed to spend the night in custody."

"You don't have a Clearseer?" Rel broke in.

"Not for a long time." The Sheriff glared at Rel briefly before turning back to Dora. "Anyway, she's inside. Would you do the honours?"

Dora looked from Jadil to the growing thundercloud on Rel's face. "Better to let Rel, Sheriff. Clearsight's quicker than anything I can do."

Jadil glanced dubiously at Rel. "He's not... under censure?"

Dora chuckled. "Not formally. He did no more than take a foolish risk." She watched Rel's eyebrows shoot up, satisfied that he was suitably chastened. "Shall we?"

She led the two men into the Warding Hall. Inside, the construction was familiar; two rows of four pillars making an aisle that led to the dais holding the Stable Rods. One of the Rods spun slowly in its mount as it absorbed the strain of a powerful Wilder's presence.

The powerful Wilder responsible dangled from a hook set eight feet up the pillar nearest the door, her wrists cuffed and her arms pulled high above her head. She was tall enough to stand, but the night had clearly taken its toll; she leaned back against the pillar slightly, dangling from her cuffs. A faint sheen of sweat on her brow caught the light, and Dora was struck by the intensity of the Wilder's gaze. Her hair, a rich, glossy red, was pulled back into a high ponytail and fastened with a black ribbon.

Just the kind of hair Dora would have killed for.

Rel said, "If she walked clear into town, she should be on the second pillar, Sheriff. Facing the dais, not the door."

"She was cooperative..." Jadil was wringing his hands, Dora could hear it in his voice. The Wilder was still staring at her, ignoring the two men. She had clifftop-high cheekbones and a straight, sharp jaw. With the way her pose leant her forward, she put Dora in mind of a knife-blade, or a predator in the chase. Memory skittered away again as Dora grasped for it, but the Wilder looked familiar.

"Cooperation or no, it should be the second pillar. The cuffs aren't proof against Negation." Dora watched Rel's aura flare and his face tighten as he slipped into Clearsight. Almost immediately, he blinked and relaxed again, but Dora was too busy trying to remember if she could normally see an aura around him. For that matter, the Wilder threw off sparks towards the Stable Rods. The sparks struck a memory, one blessedly clear compared to the rest, and the nagging feeling of familiarity resolved into a remembered face amid a whirl of disorganised colour.

Rel said, "She's a Gift-Giver, alright." He rubbed his forehead, wincing briefly.

"She's the one who came to Federas with Tawny yesterday." Dora stepped past Rel and up to the Gift-Giver. "I don't believe I asked your name?"

"Taslin." Her voice was like her face, all crisp angles. Up close, her eyes were as violet as her skirt, and still fixed on Dora.

Dora was too short to reach the cuffs that restrained the Gift-Giver. "Rel, let her down, would you?"

"Just a minute." He walked over to stand beside her, studying Taslin. Dora frowned as his gaze took in the Wilder's extravagant cleavage for far longer than manners allowed. He said, "What were you doing here last night?"

Taslin's eyes flickered briefly to Rel's face, then back to Dora. "I was looking for Dora."


"Rel-" Dora put a hand on his shoulder, but he just glared at her.

Jadil came up behind him. "We have to let her go. It's the law."

"This is our domain, Sheriff, not yours." Rel turned his glare on the other man, who took a stumbled half-step back. "I just need some answers before I'm happy giving her the run of your town."

The Sheriff looked from Taslin to Dora, set his jaw, and stepped back further. Taslin was staring at Rel, eyebrows raised. Dora tried again, "Relvin, what are you playing at?"

"Something strange is going on, Dora. Several strange things. What happened to you and Beris and Notia yesterday? It was Tawny and this one you were with on the canal path, right?"

"Notia Tollan is the new Four Knot for Federas." The words escaped her before she realised what she was saying. She clamped her jaw shut and spent a confusing moment trying to glare at her own tongue. She was the Four Knot, how could Notia be replacing her? But the memory was there; the four human women with Taslin and another Gift-Giver at the Court, deep in the Second Realm, while Notia drank the amber liquid that tied the Gift into her.

Rel at least had the decency to look shocked - or was it frightened? - but he rounded quickly on Taslin. "What the hell's going on? Dora's our Four Knot."

The Wilder matched him tone for incisive tone. "We have something else planned for Dora. If she chooses not to tell you, then it is between her and us. Not you, Clearseer." Dora remembered no plan. This business with Notia needed sorting out, but maybe at least she'd know what Taslin was on about. The sooner they got back to Federas the better.

Rel, on the other hand, seemed rather attached to the argument. "And if I judge you're a threat to her? It's my duty to protect the First Realm from Wildren."

Dora squeezed Rel's shoulder more forcefully. "Enough, Rel. If I need protection, I'll let you know. Release her."

Rel glared daggers at her, then at Taslin. Dora felt a quick rush of relief as she spotted him very definitely not looking at Jadil - she could still read that much in him at least. Taslin glared right back at the Clearseer. Finally, he took a step forward and reached up to undo the Wilder's cuffs. The motion left him only inches from Taslin, and she drew herself up to match, eye-to-eye.

The Gift-Giver let her arms drop to her sides, but made no move to leave the Warding Hall, despite the stress of being so near the Stable Rods. Instead, she went back to staring straight at Dora. Rel stepped back, gesturing vaguely at the door. For a long moment, no-one said anything.

"You're free to go, Taslin." Even Rel's voice scowled.

The Wilder's eyes darted to him, then the door, then settled back on Dora. "I go where Dora goes."

Dora felt her own brows knit. "Why?"

"We can argue that later, Dora," Rel said. "I need to speak to you. Alone." He glared at Taslin, but she was still fixed on Dora.

Dora studied Rel's face, still confused. His usual hostility towards Wildren had a new edge today, but why? What had he been up to when she rescued him from the Second Realm, or whatever it was had happened the previous evening? Something about her mention of Van Raighan had set him off, too. Thinking of the quiet huddle of Federas and the hundred things that could have gone wrong overnight, Dora shivered.

Rel said, "Taslin? I need to speak to Dora alone. I need you to wait outside." The Wilder's eyes stayed fixed on Dora with almost physical force, and she didn't respond. Rel continued, "Dora? You alive in there?" She realised he was leaning around to look in her eyes, and blinked.

To Taslin, she said, "Sorry, would you mind waiting outside for a moment?"

The Gift-Giver's face creased with anger, and she took a small step forward. "I'm not letting you out of my sight. We need to monitor you closely at all times."

Dora stepped back, unease transforming into a tickle of fear at the base of her spine. Glancing from Rel to Taslin, she said, "Rel, does it really matter if Taslin's here?"

"Yes. Absolutely."

"Well, what do you need to tell me about? Maybe we can arrange something." Rel was still scowling at Taslin, who was scowling at her. Dora chose not to complete the triangle, and stole a look at Jadil. The Sheriff was edging slowly towards the door, apparently without realising.

"It's something Van Raighan said when we took him, and it concerns the Gift-Givers. Beyond that, I won't say in front of her." Rel turned to face Dora as he finished, jerking his head slightly in Taslin's direction.

What the hell was he playing at? "You're worried by something a monster like him said?"

Rel sighed, and suddenly Dora saw the unease in the way he held himself, the slight swallow as he started to speak. "Van Raighan's a Witness, Dora. You need to know what he showed us before you decide whether she can go with you."

Dora twitched her shoulders against the chill creeping across her back. Something had her Clearseer really rattled, but Taslin's knife-blade face had 'immovable object' written all over it. It was going to be a while before they got home, then. Would it really be so bad just to trust the Wilder? At least Federas had had Tawny overnight, but the town would be on its own soon.

As if a rope holding him had just snapped, Rel turned and strode for the door, saying, "Come on, Dora. Sheriff, I need to use your office for a few minutes, if I may?" He glanced at Jadil, then pulled a face that might have been an attempt at an apologetic smile. It ended up as a grimace. "I'd ask for the Four Knot's, but she's not here."

Jadil nodded stiffly and followed him out. Dora shivered again as she was left alone with the Wilder. Did Rel mean for her to follow? Again, she found she couldn't quite grasp what he was after. Grinding her teeth, she followed the men outside, Taslin hard on her heels. Cold sunlight caught her by surprise and she almost tripped over the step.

Rel set a fast pace that Jadil sweated to match as he led the way across town. Dora, used to brisk walking, kept up easily enough, but Taslin seemed to struggle with her figure-hugging skirt. Concentrating on following the men, Dora caught occasional glimpses of the Gift-Giver out of the corner of her eye, and every time she looked less human - and yet, less inhuman as well; she read a mix of frustration, determination and an odd undercurrent of anxiety in Taslin's profile.

How could Dora recognise that, but not read Rel? Uncertainty twisted in her, and she worried how badly her judgement was impaired. Was Rel right about Taslin? If not, it fell to Dora to make him accept her. Rel had always trusted her, bowed to her judgement, and she needed that faith more than ever right now. She trusted the Gift-Givers, and they knew what had been done to her. She needed them.

Jadil's office was as far from the Warding Hall as it could reasonably be, a clear ten minutes' walk up and over the ridge in the centre of town, among the neat boarding-houses and pubs that housed most of Nursim's quarry-workers. Late morning, the streets were empty save for a couple of donkey-carts laden with new-quarried limestone, each minded by a pair of scrawny, dark-haired local youths.

The guardhouse was a broad, squat building, the lower floor dug well back into the hillside. A short staircase of well-worn oak took them to a catwalk around the outside of the first storey, the boards creaking slightly underfoot. Jadil led them into an untidy room too small for four people to fit comfortably around the huge desk and its mound of coarse paper.

Rel grabbed a loose sheet from the top of the pile and asked to borrow a pencil. Insight dawned. Reflexively, Dora looked at Taslin, whose face had twisted with pent-up rage. The written word was anathema to Children of the Wild; it was rude of Rel, but expedient, and that he was prepared to scorn Taslin so openly said much about his concern.

Dora found herself craning her neck to look over his shoulder, leaning on the desk, as he wrote 'VR's witnessing suggested he was working for Gift-Givers. Possible collusion with predatory Wildren. Would like your opinion'. His handwriting was fast and impeccably neat - Rel never passed up any skill which gave him an advantage over the Second Realm. Another shiver ran through Dora; Rel could have misjudged. He must have, finally led astray by his hatred of Wildren. Still, if she needed his trust then she owed him hers. She answered his expectant look with a curt nod.

"Sheriff, is there a Gatemaker in town?" Rel glared at Taslin as he straightened up, only then turning to the other man.

Jadil nodded, "We have two. They'll be at the quarries."

"No!" Taslin accompanied her shout by grabbing hold of Dora's arm. Dora jerked away, but the Wilder's grip was stone. Out of her depth she might be, but Taslin realised what Rel was trying - to protect them from traps, Gift-Givers couldn't pass through a human-made Gateway. Given a clear look, Taslin would be able to copy the Gate, but if Nursim's Gatemakers were worth their salt, they'd be able to escape her.

"Don't." Rel's voice was a growl, and he raised his hands in the tight space between them. "You want to make a nuisance of yourself, fair enough, but try to hold Dora against her will and I will put you back in the Warding Hall."

Taslin's entire body twitched as she fought back fury. After a moment with teeth bared and tendons flexing in her neck, she let go of Dora's hand, throwing it away like a bad fruit. Dora managed to keep from banging her knuckles on the wall behind her, but only just. Rel's glare never left Taslin's face. The Wilder returned his animosity in exact measure, eyes narrowed to violet knives.

Dora took the opportunity to head for the door, saying, "We'll find them. I remember the way to the quarries at least. Thanks for your help, Jadil."

The Sherriff nodded with obvious relief, then looked uncertainly at Rel and Taslin. Dora stepped outside into a sudden gust of cold air. Balance deserted her for a second and she leaned on the catwalk's hand-rail. Rel followed her outside. "Are you alright?"

She blinked quickly and nodded. "I'm fine. That was just a bit intense."

"You're telling me. Lead on."

Dora pointed away up the hill and let Rel set the pace, happy to match him while Taslin struggled, swinging from towering anger to incongruous gracelessness. The echoing ring of pick on stone led them to the first of the active quarries, a jagged limestone bowl carved from the round peak of the hill. Perhaps a dozen men laboured at the face, none wearing more than trousers and a vest. A handful of teenagers managed donkeys and carts, all parked for loading with their backboards up against a flat patch of cliff away from the working men.

Five feet up the cliff, a Gateway opened above one of the carts, and a jumble of rock dropped through with a crunch and a groan of stressed wood. A Gatemaker walked along the active face of the quarry, pausing wherever there was a pile of stone and opening the other end of his Gateway to let the rocks fall through. Rel marched over, his face a thundercloud. Dora followed close on his heels, recognising trouble in the stiffness of his walk.

She managed to get the first word in. "Excuse me, Gatemaker?" He turned to look at her, revealing a weathered face and laughing eyes. Rangily built, a good five or ten years Dora's senior, he wore the same vest and rough trousers as his fellows, but a tattoo of a stone bridge marked his left shoulder. He took her in with a glance and a quick nod for her Four Knot.

"I'm Wern. Can I help you, Four Knot?" He smiled as he spoke.

"Dora. This is my Clearseer, Rel." Dora glanced over her shoulder, caught the edges of Taslin's glare, and quickly turned back. Wern frowned at the Wilder, but Dora didn't give him a chance to speak. "We need to get away from here quickly. On my authority, and I'd appreciate not having to explain until we're away."

Wern shot a second uncomfortable glance at Taslin, then met Dora's eyes and nodded, "Where to?"

"Just away. A couple of miles?" It was tempting to ask him to take them to Federas, but they'd only have to come back again.

Wern nodded again, shouted across the quarry for the men to take a break, and waved a hand at the cliff face. The Gateway that opened faced South down a hillside covered in wild gorse, and even stressed as she was, the sunlight on the early golden spring-flowers took Dora's breath away.

A final glance at Taslin revealed teeth-grinding, fist-clenched frustration. Dora quashed the desire to hurry and stepped smoothly through the Gateway after Rel. Wern followed, step faltering as he passed the Gift-Giver.

Wind chased ripples in the scrub, plucking at Dora's skirt. She said, "Another move, please, just to be on the safe side."

"Now hang on a moment. That was a Gift-Giver back there, wasn't it? She came into town last night." Suspicion sat uneasily on Wern's open features.

Rel turned from watching the hillside. "She's making a nuisance of herself, and I need to speak to Dora alone."

Dora made a hushing gesture at him, then faced Wern again. "There's a suggestion of foul play, possibly involving the Gift-Givers." The shudder that gripped her at the mere thought was mirrored in wide-eyed alarm that played across the Gatemaker's face. Raising a mollifying hand, Dora finished, "I just wanted to hear Rel's explanation before having to decide how to pursue the matter. You're welcome to stay and listen."

A Gateway opened in the cliff behind them and Taslin started to step through. Wern took a second to glance from Four Knot to Gift-Giver, then dashed through a Gateway of his own. Dora followed with Rel almost falling over himself behind her, and they were back in the quarry. There was a disorienting moment as Wern realigned his Gateway to point elsewhere - Dora could almost feel First Realmspace twisting with the strain - and they were piling through again into an empty quarry.

The Gateway vanished and Wern bent to put his hands on his knees, gasping for breath. Dora was surprised to find her own chest tight; Rel hid exertion behind stiff posture and a clenched jaw. Even a Gift-Giver would be hard-pressed to trace the destination of the second Gateway; Taslin was clearly talented, but Wern's quick reactions had bought them minutes if not longer.

Dora straightened and cleared her throat, then fixed Rel with the glare she usually reserved for criminals arraigned for censure. "Rel. Explain."

Even Dora's impaired perceptions could identify the flash of uncertainty that paled her Clearseer's complexion. He said, "When we took Van Raighan, he claimed Coercion and offered as proof a Witnessing of Wildren abducting his brother. One of them was a Gift-Giver. He said that he'd been promised his brother's safe release in exchange for stealing Stable Rods."

Rel's face remained stony as he spoke, but his words shook Dora to her core. Wern straightened up, stiffly, his face white, his mouth hanging open. Dora closed her eyes, trying to sift implication and measure Rel's explanation against her own knowledge. "You're sure he told the truth about his brother? And the Gift-Giver?"

"I had him show me again and used Clearsight. The resemblance was unmistakable, and the Gift-Giver vanished even in a Witnessing."

Trying to cover alarm that might undermine his trust in her, Dora put a hand over her mouth and broke eye contact. Curling fingers of rising wind cut through her dress, suddenly rendered grossly inadequate as protection. She looked to Wern, searching for a moment's human contact to stabilise herself, but the Gatemaker was clearly lost, his eyes distant and glazed.

Rel was frowning at her. Awaiting her opinion? Questioning her judgement? Worrying over her well-being? She needed to say something. Groping for anything to keep him on her side, she resorted to cheap tactics. "You were right, getting away from Taslin was a good idea."

That bought her a little time, but what did she actually make of the story? Her every instinct shouted at her to do what she did on the rare occasions a Second Realm problem stumped her and ask a Gift-Giver, but if there really was a conspiracy, secrecy might be the only advantage humanity had. Every Gift-Giver she'd ever met had seemed sincere in their devotion to peace between the Realms and the well-being of humanity, but the first rule of dealing with Wildren was that their logic was not ours. Trust only went so far.

And yet, a single Gift-Giver engaged in collusion with predatory Wildren didn't - couldn't - implicate them all. The question lingered, too, that Rel had been to the Second Realm for some hard work of Clearseeing since Van Raighan's capture. Looking up into a scowl on his face growing darker by the moment, Dora said, "Tell me exactly what you saw. In the Witnessing and at the Court."

"Five Wildren, one of them invisible to Clearsight, in a cave under one of the old cities, beating up Rissad. That's Van Raighan's brother." Angry, frustrated, afraid or whatever was making him unreadable to her, Rel's usual disciplined precision was missing from his report. "They... I'm not sure what it was they did, but some power I've not seen before. They buried him up to his waist in solid rock, I can't think how else to describe it. He-" Rel caught himself and took a deep breath. For a moment, the air behind him seemed to twist, but Dora blinked and the impression vanished. "They left him to starve, I think. At least, I was able to see time passing, him getting hungry. He was injured, a broken bone in his shoulder. He... He's a Gatemaker, and quite a powerful one, I think. He used a Gate to cut away the piece of rock he was buried in, then shattered it using a second. Broke a leg doing that.

"Just after that, the Viewing stopped, like it does if I'm going to be there." He paused, scowling down at the floor, then at Wern, then over his shoulder at the patch of stone where the Gateway had been. "I went to the Court to see if I could pin down where he was or when it happened."

"But if Van Raighan Witnessed it, hasn't it already happened?" There were limits to how far she was willing to stroke her Clearseer's ego by accepting nonsense.

"I don't understand it. I Saw Rissad being captured, in a cave under one of the old cities, but even that won't happen for a few weeks. He'll be captured later this spring, after-" Rel faltered, "after you've had time to grow your hair out a bit."

"My hair? What's that got to do with anything?" Dora caught herself reaching up to the bird's nest on her head and forced her hand back to her side.

"I Saw you going towards the city, with your hair in a ponytail. That's before Rissad is taken."

A ponytail might not be a bad idea, if she could just get a brush through the worst of her tangles of a morning. A Four Knot couldn't exactly ask for help with dressing. Brushing vanity aside, Dora focussed on the important bit of Rel's information. "You're saying Van Raighan found some way to Witness the future."

"'What we know is that we know nothing', remember?" Rel quoted with a bitter smile. "There just isn't enough information to figure any of this out."

His despair was frighteningly seductive; Dora fought the pull of psychological paralysis. If Rel's news was bad, her situation was all the worse. There could be no question of not confronting Taslin with the information, but Rel would take that with injured pride. Usually, he accepted her overruling him. Usually.

Rubbing arms that were goosepimpled even under her sleeves, she said, "Do you have any idea why Rissad was captured?"

Rel didn't answer immediately, instead turning to frown at Wern. His lip twisted and he bit at it, deep in thought. Dora could tell he had an idea, but she couldn't fathom his reluctance at all. Finally, he said, "It looked like he was exploring. Searching for something, maybe something from before the crash."

A moment's insight offered a way to push further, "Come on, Rel, you're never usually this uncertain. What did you see?" She stepped forward and put a hand on his arm.

"A door. A huge one, made of concrete. I know it sounds crazy, but that's what it was. In the cave, overlooking a chasm. They buried him in front of it, and when he got free he went for it instead of trying to get away." But for a slight waver in his voice, Rel could almost have been delivering an ordinary report in his usual clipped, formal style. Well, she doubted she sounded any better than he did.

"He's a Van Raighan. Could it be he was up to no good?" Wern's question shamed Dora for sharing the thought.

Rel's face softened. "That's what I thought at first, but it wouldn’t explain the ransom, or what the Wildren were doing there in the first place." He glanced at Dora. "Or whatever they did to you yesterday."

"That's got nothing to do with it," Dora snapped, knowing it for falsehood even as she desperately clawed after wild, disordered memory for what had been done to her. Confusion and unravelling fear answered, that she might already be as much a victim of foul play as the Van Raighans. Among the Children of the Wild, she was known as the most formidable woman in the First Realm; never before had she regarded the epithet as cause for anxiety.

Rel's bland expression, concern bereft of all his usual intensity to the point it became sarcastic, made her blood boil. She said, "We need to confront Taslin with this. Wern, please take us back to town." Rel's anger returned in a flash while the Gatemaker startled out of reverie. Conscious that she still needed her Clearseer's support, Dora held up a hand to placate him. "You were right to get me out here, Rel, but we can't just walk into this blindly. We need more information, and even if Taslin's in on it, her evasions might give us a clue."

Wern stepped forward, but Rel waved him to a halt. The Clearseer said, "Her every appearance so far has been designed to manipulate us, you must see that?"

"What?" Disbelief put scorn in her voice.

"You think she didn't choose to appear that beautiful? It has to be a ploy to make us trust her."

Taslin probably was beautiful, Dora realised as she fought to suppress sudden laughter. Or at least, to Rel's nineteen-year-old eyes, the sheer quantity of flesh the Gift-Giver had been showing must have been as near beautiful as made no odds. And yet, her Clearseer wasn't joking, crazy though the charge was. Something from yesterday had him really paranoid. Perhaps that explained why she couldn't make head or tail of his expressions.

Manners required she not laugh. Need for Rel's trust made the stiffer demand, that she maintain dignity while nursing him out of his fear. Caught between his worries and her own, with too many questions yet unanswered, Dora's smothered mirth teetered on the brink of hysteria. Both men watched her with hard eyes, as if Rel's outburst was as rational as breathing.

Dora swallowed, took a deep breath, and met Rel's gaze. She was gratified to see a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes before she said, "Rel, if Taslin wanted to win me over with a pretty face, don't you think she'd have picked male?"

"I don't think she expected any problems from you." Imperious, Rel's tone verged on condescending insult. "The pretty face was for the Sheriff and the town guard."

"She can't have expected problems from the Sheriff and not from me. After all, it's only the Sheriff's business because Tawny wasn't here. We're going to go and ask her about what you've seen, and that's final. Wern?"

The Gatemaker managed a strangled smile, "I should get back to work anyway." He nodded to the quarry-face, and a Gateway appeared. Dora gestured for Rel to precede her, and it was a long moment's scowl before he did.

They emerged into the quarry where they'd met Wern. The labourers were clustered in the lee of the cut-away hill on the far side, and the Gatemaker set off towards them. Rel stared daggers at his retreating back. The faint sensation of - what? A breeze, except that the wind was strong and blowing the wrong way - caught Dora's attention and she turned to see Taslin stepping out of a Gateway.

Thunderous anger marked the Gift-Giver's face, but it was the slender, graceful woman behind her who really made Dora's heart sink. Tawny's perfect hair framed a face on which scowls were not often seen, but wrinkles of tension etched dark lines around her eyes and into her rounded cheeks . She had one fist clenched around the rope of her belt despite the fact it threw her stride off into a lurch as she crossed the Gateway's threshold.

Initiative fled as Dora choked on her first word. Tawny said, "There'd better be a good reason for all this faff, Dora." Her gaze raked over Rel. "There's clear grounds for censure for uncooperative behaviour."

"That cuts both ways," Rel said, thickly. "We only had to go through all this faff" - his emphasis made the word a sneer that paled Tawny's face a satisfying shade - "because she wouldn't give us the grace of a moment's privacy."

Dora forestalled her colleague's frown with a raised hand. "Rel had a Clearviewing which raised some questions about the Gift-Givers. Quite rightly, he wanted to consult me before bringing it up in front of Taslin." Rel tensed and again for a moment, Dora made out the flare of his aura as he opened his Clearsight. Wincing, he fixed his gaze on the Gift-Giver.

Fighting back awareness of her Clearseer's grinding teeth and Taslin's animosity, Dora faced Tawny and related what Van Raighan had shown. A fraught pause followed when she tailed off.

Taslin said, "The chasm you speak of could only be the Abyss that runs beneath Vessit. For your protection, human beings are prohibited from approaching it. If what you saw is somehow the future, then what you saw as abduction must be an arrest for censure."

Rel took a step forward with a sharp shake of his head. Instead of speaking, though, he staggered and clapped a hand to his brow. A reeling sway somehow gave him back lost footing, but he'd be doing no more Clearseeing. If Taslin was complicit in a conspiracy, if she attacked, they'd have no warning at all; nor could even two Four Knots working together hope to restrain or subdue the Gift-Giver.

A futile half-step back promised no release from the danger; Dora ruthlessly crushed her sign of weakness. Taslin's regard was twin violet crystal drills boring into her as Four Knot and Wilder clashed stares. She couldn't keep her voice steady as she said, "Then why the brutality?"

"Better to ask why Children of the Wild think to bar humans from any part of the First Realm." Tawny's voice, rich and deep despite a faint quaver, was an unexpected well of support.

"To the latter, there are dangers there that we don't understand well enough to let you risk." The edge in Taslin's voice was still there, but Dora began to wonder if it wasn't born as much from worry as anger. She was struck, suddenly, by how young the Gift-Giver looked; could it be other than illusion? Taslin's height was all long-limbed awkwardness, easily passed off at first as an alien mind struggling to fit into human form. But as Dora looked closer, the whole shape of the Wilder seemed more natural.

And if Taslin was young, inexperienced at dealing with humans, this confrontation must be a disaster for her.

Dora was given no chance to respond to her realisation. Rel bore in, his face contorted. "The point stands. If it happens in the First Realm, it's a human affair. Your people have no business meddling, in Vessit or here."

"You don't understand!" As if the sharp gust of wind fanned a fire in her, Taslin reddened. "It's for your own protection. Everything we do in the First Realm is for your protection."

"The boy has a point, Taslin." Tawny, stood beside the Wilder, clearly couldn't read the distress on her face the way Dora could. Reasonable as her tone was, Dora flinched; was Taslin human enough to feel patronised? Tawny finished, "Isn't it possible that whatever's in this Abyss is something that eludes Second Realm logic, but makes perfect sense to us?"

"What if they've found something down there that could hurt them? A weapon we could use against them?" Rel was asking her, Dora realised. He was staring at her as if he expected something, but what, she had no idea.

Trying to keep her voice calm, she said, "Paranoia will get us nowhere, Rel."

"Really?" His anger struck her hard enough to force her backwards, stumbling. His eyes flashed red. The finger he stabbed at Taslin seemed for a second to shine with the caught glint of sunlight on sharp steel. "She hasn't given us a single damn straight answer. She hasn't told us what she wants with you. She hasn't answered for Rissad's treatment. She hasn’t explained anything. When will you stop trusting her?"

His demand presaged a tirade of vicious insult. The insight, recalled from another thunderous row years earlier, blasted through the fog in Dora's brain like sunrise. The edge-of-perception spectre of her Clearseer's aura vanished, replaced by the clear understanding that the stresses of the last twenty-four hours had knotted all his fears and suspicions of the Second Realm into a hard stone of anger. There'd be nothing else from him until she broke that stone.

Tawny gaped at him, her face a mixture of shock and disdain. Taslin wasn't much better, poleaxed and crosseyed as she tried to watch the finger still held only inches from her face. Rel opened his mouth to continue his tirade, but Dora stuck up her hand. "Enough, Rel. Taslin?" The Gift-Giver turned to her, blinking. "Let's put aside that other stuff for a moment. Why are you here? What happened to me yesterday?" Expecting her voice to waver, Dora felt a swell of pride as it stayed steady. She straightened up, feeling eight feet tall despite her eyeline only reaching to Taslin's lips.

"You don't know?" Taslin's frown and the thin squeak in her voice confirmed Dora's impression; the Gift-Giver was out of her depth.

"My memory's hazy." Not as much as it had been, Dora realised. The whirling jumble of images had settled. Picking through her journey into the Second Realm was a fool's errand for understanding, but at least the flashes had a fixed order now.

"You were offered a great honour," Tawny gave her a gentle smile, but the other Four Knot's eyes flickered warily at Rel. "A second Gift".

"What?" Rel's voice was a hoarse shout. "That's impossible! Nobody-"

"Shut up, Rel." Dora snapped, pleased when he subsided instantly. "Taslin. Explain."

The Gift-Giver shrank back. Dora held her face steady by main strength, resisting a creeping smile. All the force gone out of her, the Gift-Giver said, "You accepted."

"But why?" Dora's question provoked another flinch. Satisfying as it was to cow such a powerful Wilder, Dora realised she wasn't helping. She turned to Tawny. "You were there."

"They said it was the next stage of their plan for cooperation between the Realms. And that it should grant you new powers over the Second Realm and Wildren." Tawny ran a hand through her wind-ruffled hair, frowning again at Rel.

Dora tried sarcasm to restore her composure. "I haven't exactly noticed any benefits." She cringed as she finished, bitterness failing her. She'd noticed new weaknesses, there was no doubt about that.

Taslin, not meeting anyone's eyes, spoke. "The procedure was interrupted. You were summoned away before we could stabilise the Gift inside you." Dora felt the drain of the other woman's desperation. The Gift-Giver wasn't just out of her depth, she was terrified. Torn by the greater worry, that her second Gift might have damaged her, Dora focussed on Taslin's face. Had she been able to read Wildren expressions before today?

Nobody seemed willing to embrace the waiting question. Silence dragged painfully through rattled nerves. Rel had gone white, jaw clenched. Taslin stared at her feet. The two Four Knots exchanged a frightened glance. Cold wind ripped into the sweat trickling down Dora's back as she replayed the morning in her mind, trying to measure the Gift's effects.

It was too much to bear. Breath caught in her dried throat, and her eyes welled. Anger that might have restored her composure eluded her. Bereft of her duties as Four Knot, discipline failed. Somehow, Tawny sensed the moment that Dora broke, and gathered her into a mother's hug that could do no more than hide tears.

Dora shook, sobbing into the older woman's shoulder and ignoring her murmured encouragements. Rel and Taslin remained silent, and Dora felt a stab of bitterness that neither offered help.

Finally, Tawny asked, "What do you want to do?"

Not go home. Anything but that, if Notia was Four Knot now. The thought was unworthy, but Dora knew she'd never rest easy under the care of another Four Knot. Never mind having to deal with Sherriff Pollack without the benefit of her old authority.

Rel's Viewings offered escape. Whatever was going on with the Van Raighans, or the Gift-Givers, someone needed to look into it. Clinging to purpose almost as hard as to Tawny, Dora pulled herself back together.

Her voice barely even shook as she straightened and said, "Rel, I was part of your Clearviewing, right?"

The Clearseer wasn't in much better shape than she was. His face was pale, and his voice came as a halting mumble. "Yeah. I saw you going towards the ruined city, anyway."

"Then that's what we'll do." Her voice wasn't that unsteady, really. Certainly not enough to justify the dubious look Tawny gave her. Dora frowned back, then turned to Taslin. "You know where we need to go. Lead on."


Next episode

Okay, so this episode took embarrassingly long to produce, for which I apologise. I hope it's been worth the wait. Episode 3 is going to be ready much more quickly, I promise. Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. Episodic fiction...have to go back and read the first two epis..

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