SHARON GREEN

 

has written:

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

THE REBEL PRINCE

 

The Terrillan Series

THE WARRIOR WITHIN

THE WARRIOR ENCHAINED

THE WARRIOR REARMED

THE WARRIOR CHALLENGED

 

The Jalav: Amazon Warrior Series

 

THE CRYSTALS OF MIDA

AN OATH TO MIDA

CHOSEN OF MIDA

THE WILL OF THE GODS

TO BATTLE THE GODS

 

The Diana Santee Series

 

MIND GUEST

GATEWAY TO XANADU

 

SHHRON GREEN

 

THE FHR SIDE

OFFOREVER

 

DAW BOOKS. INC.

 

DONALD A. WOLLHEIM, PUBLISHER

1633 Broadway. New York, NY 10019

 

Dedication:

 

For Paty Cockrum—and not only for being

a good friend. It took more than a friend to

share Sh'rlii.

 

Copyright © 1987 by Sharoo Green.

All Rights Reserved.

Caver an by Ken W. Ketly.

DAW Book. Collectors No. 717.

 

First Printing, August, 1987

123456789

 

PRINTED IN THE U.S.A.

 

PROLOGUE

 

/—Laciel

 

The room was colder than a small room should be, but not

in front of the blazing fire where she sat. The fire jumped

and crackled, trying to get the attention of the uncaring

gray stone all around it, but didn't even succeed in getting

the girl's attention. She sat in the overstuffedtirown leather

armchair, relaxed but intent on something she seemed able

to see in the air in front of thtf'fire and hearth, something

mat seemed to excite her. Her violet eyes glowed in the

firelight and one lock of her platinum blond hair had fallen

over her right shoulder, but other than that she sat unmov~

ing and unspeaking.

 

Beside her chair, to the left, the dim, warm air stirred

and began to thicken and darken, increasing until it was

deep black and palpable, beating and pulsing with obvious

life- In the midst of the living cloud were two red eyes,

blazing as hot as the fire, intelligent and aware and con-

scious of power in a way most beings never achieved. The

eyes looked around, saw the girt and the way she stared,

narrowed very briefly with disturbance, then widened again.

The black cloud immediately began stirring a second time,

and in five heartbeats it had assumed a form that was

definitely feline in nature, four legs, large body, long tail,

big head and pointed ears. All black but for the two red,

burning eyes, which fastened themselves on the motion-

less. oblivious girl.

 

6                            SHARON GREEN

 

"If you try it, you're a fool." the black beast-cloud said

to her, its voice low and nearly all snarling growl. "More

minds are lost on that plane than ever make it back, usually

because they try it before they're ready. You're doing the

same thing."

 

"I think 1'hear someone calling you, InThig," the girl

answered with faint annoyance, her eyes still on whatever

she saw. "Why don't you go home and see what they

want?"

 

"You're scarcely amusing, girl," the beast InThig

growled, stretching its big body out on the stone beside the

girl's chair. "I'm aware of the fact that you don't care to

have people express concern for you, but I'm not people.

And I'm only thinking of your safety."

 

"Demons aren't supposed to be concerned," the giri

observed, still not looking at me being she addressed.

"They're also not supposed to think of people's safety.

You're a disgrace to the legends, InThig, and should be

ashamed of yourself. If I'd been the one to summon you,

f'dbe ashamed."

 

"Happily, your foster mother has more sense than that,"

InThig replied, the growl turning dry as the blaze in the

eyes sharpened. "If I could have reached her where she's

traveling and brought her back with me, she would be

telling you the same thing. Going to explore that plane BOW

is reckless madness."

 

"If I were ten years old, it would be reckless madness,"

the girl came back, her annoyance rising so high that she

shifted in the chair. "Since I'm twenty-two and have been

a full sorceress for me last five years, it's nothing more

than necessary research. One must expand with one's

growth, otherwise one ceases growing."

 

"The witch apprentice Nedra did not achieve the plane

on her own," InThig persisted, the claws on its front feet

curiing into (he stone with a chill-making scrape. "Borinthin

the wizard sent her in and out, taking a simple payment

both before and afterward. Borinthin has always been

attracted to you; if you're determined to go through with

this insanity, why not approach him as Nedra did and. . ."

 

The demon's voice went on and on, but the giri had

stopped listening. She knew what Nedra had done to achieve

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER         7

 

me plane, but she wasn't about to do the same. The next

time she saw mat prancing, preening Nedra, she'd have

achieved the plane herself, without having had to buy any

favors. Then it would be her turn to crow.

 

Her eyes were still on the point of space in front of the

hearth. Seeing there not empty space, but the entry she'd

called into existence- Some entries occurred naturally and

only had to be found, and those were called gates; some,

however, needed to be created before they were available

for use, and those were the most dangerous. They gave

access to planes that had no relation to human beings in

any way, places in which humans could not long survive.

For the unSighted to go to many of those places would be

instant death, to remain there permanently in safety impos-

sible even for wizards. All the Sighted could do was visit

for a while, and that was all Laciel was going to do. She

rose from the chair in one fluid motion, stepped two

spaces forward, and was gone from me room.

 

Her determination carried her another three paces past

the entry into the plane on the other side, and then she

stopped in startlement and awe to look around. Everyone

had always said that that plane was indescribably beauti-

ful. but the words they'd used yere pale and flat in the face

of the actual thing. Rather than feeling dangerous the place

chimed with lovely welcome, crystal song adorning crystal

lace, colors such as she'd never seen before, shapes that

caught the eye and held it. It was filled with the breathy

whispers of lovers, the delight of small children, the inno-

cence of a wholesome heart, the dearest hopes ever to be

dreamt of; she was instantly entranced as she looked around,

her mind no longer alert for what danger there might be.

Danger was unknown in a place like that, always had been

and always would be.

 

The time rate of her own dimension was unknown in

that other place, but after a thousand heartbeats she was

distracted from her stroll through the overwhelming beauty

by the awareness that her lungs were beginning to labor.

The golden rose that had been bom through her desire to

see it still lay fragrantly on her palm, but its perfume was

no longer reaching her as easily as it had. She knew then

that it was time to return through the entry, and turned to

 

SHARON GREEN

 

her left to find the shadowy gate only two steps away.

Slowly and with great reluctance she took those two steps

and then the necessary third—but found her surroundings

unchanged. Chiming loveliness still lay everywhere, laugh-

ing softly in shared'happiness, and the gate shadow was

now three steps to the right. Her heart began to pound with

effort as this time she moved to the right, but once again

stepping through the gate took her nowhere but four steps

over along the singing plane. She had gone twice through

the entry and still hadn't left, and then, as fear began to

rise to accompany shortness of breath, she finally understood.

 

The plane was not only endlessly beautiful, it also cre-

ated its visitors* fondest wishes; it would create an image

of the entry anywhere Laciel wanted it, but none of those

images would be the real thing. It had taken two days for

the giri to See through to the actual entry, two days in her

own world. From that side a new entry would take at least

as long, but the air she had brought through with her

would last no longer than another pair of minutes.

 

In desperation the young sorceress began to really look

at the nearest curtain of crystal lace, fully intending to

change it into the air she needed to breathe, but under her

stare the curtain shifted, dissolved, and left behind it—

nothing. She blinked in shock, withdrawing her stare—and

me curtain glimmered back to life, resuming its place

among the other curtains and veils and trailing leaves and

tall, delicate pastel fountains. None of it was real. none of

it had substance, and she was already gasping; there was

nothing in reach with which to make the air she needed,

and the pounding in her head increased and expanded. She

was close to blacking out, she knew, close to the end with

no hope of finding her way back, and then the hand

appeared in front of her. . . .

 

// — Rikkan Addis

 

It was heavily overcast that night, and even darker in

the forests all. around them, but none of that was helping.

The small group of men had already split up and melted

away from each other in me humid dark, trying to confuse

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER         9

 

their pursuers, but that wasn't going to help either. They

were being tracked by the soul-leeches that had picked

them up at the castle, and soul-leeches couldn't be shaken

off- He had told them that just before he had left them,

wanting them to know just what their lies had bought them

all, and then he had slipped off into the dark, ignoring

their hissed demands that he return. A moment later they,

too, had chosen separate directions, all except the two who

had been so badly wounded they needed help to keep

moving. If they hadn't kept moving, they would have died

that much sooner.

 

He was a shadow among shadows as he made his way

deeper into the woods, but one that cursed silently even as

he sharpened his senses to their limit. He had been a fool

to believe those people when they'd told him they were

fighting for their freedom, a fool to let their idealistic

lectures keep him from looking around a bit more care-

iully. They'd begged him to lead them in their revolt, had

pressed their gold on him even before the attack just to

demonstrate their faith and good will, they'd wined him

and dined him and then had insisted he choose from that

group of very willing and very eager females. The time

with the girls had been pleasant enough, but if he hadn't

really believed the men needed him to help them find their

dignity as men, he never would have gotten involved. The

baron was an evil usurper, they had told him, one who

stole their young men for his army and their young girls

for his bed. He had to be stopped for the sake of every

villager in every village in the district, otherwise they were

all doomed to endless depravity.

 

Just before they had attacked the castle, he had accidentally

come across the real reason they wanted the baron attacked.

 

The night sounds of the forest had long since resumed

all around him, but suddenly a distant scream rang out,

silencing the daik-dwellers who had no desire to bring

attention to themselves. Immediately he went motionless,

his ears straining for sounds of the pursuit that had just

caught the first of his former comrades, his head up as he

tasted me messages borne upon the faint breeze, his eyes

blazing even in the smothering dark. Bronze-colored those

eyes were, dominating all of his tall, broad form, filled

 

10 SHARON GREEN

 

now with self-recrimination and self-disgust. He'd seen the

popinjay just before they'd left their camp to attack the

castle, the silk-covered fop clearly having no intention of

going with them, and had heard one of the men make

some ribald comment about die former baron's nephew.

He'd been too busy shifting the men into position to think

about what he'd seen and heard, but once the attack started

and it was too late to call it off, the truth had finally come

home to him.

 

He began moving soundlessly through the forest again,

this time cursing the men who had lied to him. Rather man

being a usurper the current baron was the rightful heir,

something made completely clear the moment me castle's

defenses had activated, it was the popinjay who was the

attempted usurper, and he had failed to tetl his greedy

followers that the castle itself would protect its rightful

inhabitant. The old baron's nephew had probably known

mat if the attacking force was targe enough and determined

enough at least a few of them would break through, and

had therefore decided not to mention anything else. Like

the defense that had made men go up in pretty-colored

smoke in me middle of their screaming charge. Like the

defense that made the ground open to swallow up others.

Like the ghost shapes that had flowed through the castle

walls to drink the life from any man they touched. Like me

soul-leeches that had picked up the trail of the few survi-

vors, following them away from the castle and into the

woods. No man had stayed to break into the castle, so the

popinjay had outsmarted himself. Faced with the horrify-

ingly unexpected, his surviving followers had cut and run,

leaving none to assassinate the baron for him.

 

A second scream came then, this time comprised of two

voices, increasing his pace rather than halting it. If he

could stay far enough ahead of the leeches to make it out

of the district, they would no longer be a danger. They

couldn't live beyond the boundaries of their own district

and they knew it, so once he was out they would not

pursue him. His night vision showed him the faint trail he

was following, helping him to move soundlessly even in

his hurry, but it simply wasn't enough. Those behind him

were moving even faster, and didn't care about how much

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER         II

 

noise they made. They had quarry to catch, and weren't

about to be denied.

 

When he heard the crashing in the underbrush he knew

he'd lost the race, but it wasn't in him to simply give up.

He stopped and spun about, knowing they'd be on him in

another minute, but he still had the time to compose

himself for a final stand. Ignoring the heavy sword hung

scabbarded at his side he stood staring back up the trail

with his eyes blazing, a blaze that quickly began to spread

to the rest of him. As the blaze spread his body changed,

his form glowing and shifting and melting, until a giant

bronze beast with dripping fangs and eager claws stood in his

place. That was another reason they'd wanted him so

badly, telling him his link-shape was the only thing that

could breech the baron's final defenses, and he'd had no

reason men to disbelieve them. His link-shape could do

quite a lot that was beyond most ordinary mortals, but it

had never before faced soul-leeches. If it had any power

over them, he would soon know.

 

The crashing through the underbrush turned abruptly

into forms charging at him out of the darkness, too many

to count, too many to avoid. The soul-leeches were small,

but their mouths gaped wide "with needle-pointed teeth,

their claws dripped paralyzing venom, and me pads at the

bottoms of their feet were suckers, designed to hold to

their victim until he was dead and drained. Their victim

snarled, swiped across with the claws of one giant paw and

men leaped aside, but the effort had done no more man

delay the inevitable. More than half a dozen of the bone-

white leeches lay twitching and dying, but the rest were

gathering themselves to fly at him again. He snarled his

frustrated fury and backed a step, knowing that this time

some of them would have him, knowing that the end of his

days had now been found, but just as they began to throw

themselves in his direction a hand appeared before him. . . .

 

/// — Targa Emmen Su Daylath

 

The sun was not simply hot, and was no longer far, far

above the land. She knew it had lowered itself to only a

 

12               SHARON GREEN

 

few feet above her head, and now tried determinedly to

melt her into a pool of broiled, greasy flesh. She was still

up on her feet and still moving, but her eyes had taken to

closing even as her feet trudged on, and her mind was

beginning to wander.

 

"Fool woman," she croaked, speaking to herself aloud

again in an effort to recapture her attention. "Found the

tracks and followed them, made sure you didn't lose them,

but didn't realize until much too late how far they'd led

you. Middle of the desert they took you,'too far out to

walk back, then killed your mount. Too smart for animals,

those animals, and now you're the one who's dead. Tribe

will starve for sure if the other hunters are the same kind

of fools, but you won't know it. Another day at least to

any kind of water, and you won't make it."

 

She grunted agreement with herself as her feet dragged

across the flat, sandy barren, the pain of those steps just

another thing to add to all the rest. The flaming sun bumed

down on die sand as well as herself, and walking through

it barefoot, had become agony. She could close her eyes

against the blinding glare all about, but wrapping her feet

had proven impossible. Her leather shirt had cut into wrap-

pings easily enough, but they hadn't stayed where they'd

been put. They'd fallen off when her attention had wan-

dered, and by the time she'd noticed they were far behind

her. Lack of water was doing that to her, and the heat and

the trail that she couldn't afford to lose. As long as she

kept her attention on the trail, it didn't matter whether or

not she could see it; she could feel its proper place and

therefore follow it. If once she lost that trail, though, she

knew she would never be able to find it again.

 

"Damn fool woman," she muttered almost silently, her

sand-dry mouth and tongue and throat refusing to produce

any more in the way of sound. "Why don't you just fall

down and give it up?"

 

She considered that suggestion for a minute, liking the

way it sounded, but for some reason couldn't do it. When

she fell for the final time it would be soon enough to just

lie there, so she didn't have to bother about doing it now.

Also she was a hunter, and hunters didn't do things like

that.

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

13

 

She had been a tall, strongly-built, attractive woman

when she'd started the return trek, light brown hair and

dark brown eyes, but that had been days ago. Right then

she was fire-skinned and blistered, bent and limping as

though old, eyes closed in voluntary blindness and lips

cracked like dried-out clay. Her hair was lank and greasy

from sweat and her limbs had begun to tremble, and

suddenly she knew she hadn't been lying just to keep

herself moving- She wasn't going to make it and she was

going to die, probably right that minute. Her shuffling

advance had stopped and she couldn't get it going again,

not even if she tried forever. That was it, she knew, the

final step, and just before she fell for the last time she

opened her eyes—to see the hand. . . .

 

IV — Kadrim Harra

 

He'd spent a long time that morning just standing and

staring out a window of his palace, and no one had dared

to disturb him. The king had been moody, they knew, and

it wasn't wise to intrude on a moody king, most especially

not one who had taken his kingdom by the strength of his

sword. That sword had been hanging on the wall above his

throne for more than twenty years now, but it hadn't been

neglected or allowed to rust. When he took it down and

buckled it on there was still no one to question his actions,

not even when he got a mount and rode away from me

palace alone toward the mountains. He had never been the

sort of king who bowed to the will of others just because

they were there to advise him; his advisors offered advice

only when it was asked for, and at other times kept their

mouths prudently shut.

 

He was into the mountains in no time. moving quickly

through the foothills and then upward toward his favorite

thinking place, his refuge from the demands of kingship. It

took more than an hour of steady riding and climbing to

reach it, and once he did he dismounted slowly and left the

beast untethered, then walked out as far as he could. His

favorite place was a widened platform of a plateau on the far

side of the mountain, and when he stood at the edge and

 

SHARON GREEN

 

14

 

looked over, he could see a thousand feet and more down

to the slope below, with nothing in the way to mar the

view. He had always loved that place, which made this

particular visit no more than fitting.

 

"I have come for a final time, old friend," he said to

the view, letting his eyes move slowly from one side to the

other- "1 am no longer able to bear this life, and no longer

young enough to seek another. How foolish a man is to

survive all his battles, for then he becomes that most

pitiful of things, an aged warrior."

 

He stood silently with his gaze turned inward, remem-

bering the streaks of gray he had seen in his hair and beard

that very morning. Until then he had seen no more than the

bright red of the time of his youth, but after bending down

and having trouble straightening again, he had gone in

shock to study his reflection. The face that looked out at

him still had bright, hard blue eyes, but it was the face of a

man who hadn't seen battle for the length of his oldest

son's lifetime, for long enough for him to have grown old

without his having noticed. He had been discontented for a

long while, and had found it more and more difficult

remembering that he had conquered every foot of land he

could see from horizon to horizon, had taken it and held it

and made it his own; in the beginning the accomplishment

had been very satisfying, but after a time the satisfaction

had palled. Every year he had promised himself that the

very next year he would ride beyond what was his and

claim what others thought was theirs, but ruling his own

was chore enough, and more than enough for a man who

preferred the taking to the ruling. If he took more he

would have more to rule, and more to keep him from any

further taking.

 

He sighed as he thought about it and shook his head, a

big man now emptied of what had made him larger than

life. Not one city in his entire kingdom had been able to

stand against his forces when he'd first ridden in attack,

not one that could anticipate his strategy and defend against

it. That, too, had kept him from riding out again, for this

had been the largest and best defended kingdom on the

entire continent before it had fallen to him; after that, what

sport would the others be?

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

15

 

Now even the thought of sport made him wince, espe-

cially the sport a man should find interest in till his body

was no longer filled with breath. As he had stood gazing at

himself in the glass that morning, that devil-kitten Sheldis

had come up behind him and circled his body with her

amis, then had begun to stroke him- Rather than respond

to her as he always did, he had for the first time in his life

felt unable, the horror of which had made him send her

away. He was old, and useless, and no longer even a man;

 

as a king he had lately left running his kingdom to his

eldest five sons, who saw to the thing better man he ever

had. There was nothing left to do but end it entirely,

before he became a burden rather than a king.

 

"And before word spreads of my vanished manhood,"

be muttered, knowing he would never be able to bear the

shame of that. To need to live with shame would slay a

man, to live with shame and boredom both, far worse than

death. It was better that he end it at once, right there, in

me place he had always loved. He stood at the very edge

of the plateau, his once-strong left hand resting on the hilt

of the sword that had been his only close companion for

many long years, his eyes taking a final pleasure from the

scene he would soon become ,a part of. One last time he

sighed, a wordless farewell to all those he left behind, and

men he raised his foot for the longest stride he had ever

taken. Raised the foot and set the body to following—and

men there was a hand before him. . . .

 

V — Soffann Dra

 

The lock was so simple she scarcely paid attention to it,

getting through the door faster than she would have with a

key. It was darker inside than she had expected it to be,

but she couldn't take the time to worry about that. She

slipped inside quickly and silently and shut the door be-

hind her, then groped around trying to find something to

sit on. The man who had paid her me advance had said she

might get there before him, and if she did she was to wait.

 

She exclaimed in a low voice as she bruised her shin on

something hard, then discovered that the something was a

 

i6

 

SHARON GREEN

 

wooden stool. Beside the stool was a low wooden table,

one to match the height of the seat. She smoothed her

skirts down and sat on the stool, wondering how long she

would have to wait, knowing she would wait as long as

necessary. She had agreed to meet the man in that deserted

part of the city in the dead of night for only one reason,

the same reason that would keep her there until he showed

up- The money he'd given her for the work he wanted

done was only a small part of the ultimate total, more than

she'd ever seen at one time in all her life. With tastes as

expensive as hers, she needed all the money she could get.

 

She sat on the stool in me absolute blackness, one hand

unconsciously patting her dark, well-kept hair. thinking

about how much danger the job was likely to have. She'd

been told not to let anyone see her getting to the meeting

place, advice that was meant for her sake rather man his.

Whatever he needed opened had to be important, then,

probably something that didn't belong to him. She would

protect herself in the usual way before she started the job,

so if what needed to be opened happened to have the ducal

seal on it, she would not lose her life rather man getting

paid once it was done. There wasn't anyone in the city

better at opening things than she was, and maybe no one

better even on the entire continent; if anything happened to

her, uncounted numbers of things would just have to stay

closed.

 

She chuckled at the thought, knowing exactly how at-

tractive most men found that chuckle. It went perfectly

with her large green eyes and oval, innocent face. her

small but very well-shaped body, her throaty and ex-

tremely intimate voice. All in all her attributes had added

gold pieces to her fee more than a few times, and often

they'd even found her diversions. Some of her male clients

had been rather attractive, and those she had allowed to

buy her certain things in exchange for her favors. The

others she refused no matter what they showered her with,

also refusing to lower her standards for mere gold and

jewels. As long as there were things that needed to be

opened, she could find the necessary gold that way.

 

And thinking of things that needed to be opened, what

could be keeping her newest client? She shifted on the

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

I?

 

hard stool in discomfort, really quite surprised that he had

kept her waiting that long. It had been clear that he'd

found her as compelling as most men did. and shouldn't be

that late meeting her. She wouldn't be opening anything

that night, of course, only after they'd come to a firm

agreement and had arranged a rendezvous with which they

both felt safe and comfortable, but first he had to get

there—

 

She jumped up from the stool with a low gasp when she

heard the faint scrape and loud thump on the other side of

the table. Someone was there in the room with her, some-

one she hadn't even heard breathing in the dark, someone

she hadn't seen when she'd first opened me door and come

in. Unsteadily she considered saying the name he'd given

her, then simply backed slowly away toward the wall

behind her. If it had been her client he would have greeted

her as soon as she appeared, so it had to be someone else.

The fact that the sounds hadn't been repeated wasn't any-

tiling like reassuring, and she couldn't keep from shuddering.

 

Just as she had decided to break and run for the door, a

dim light began glowing in the middle of the low wooden

table. It wasn't a natural light such as a candle or lamp,

and it froze her in place with ifs eerie pink glow. She knew

it couldn't be anything but magic, but couldn't imagine

why magic was being used against her. She hadn't done

anything to anyone—lately—so there was really no reason—

 

"Girl," a soft female voice said from the strengthening

glow, a voice she had never heard before. "Did you enjoy

me gold you were given? I know you were expecting

more, but unfortunately there won't be any more. One of

the reasons is on the other side of this table."

 

Gingerly she edged around the glow to peer at the filthy

floor on the other side of the table, then jumped back with

a gasp. The man who had arranged to meet her there had

gotten there first—but he was dead. He lay sprawled gro-

tesquely on the floor beside a second stool, and the sounds

she'd heard must have been the sounds of his body falling

from the stool.

 

"He was the only one who knew of my involvement in

this," the voice continued, sounding sleek and pleased.

"In my position I can't afford to become involved, but I

 

118              SHARON GREEN

 

never fail to pay the debts I owe. Some months ago, you

opened a cream-colored leather box for a gentleman who

never gave his name. Inside the box were certain letters

and documents that shoutd have been seen by no one but

myself, and now they're in the possessidn of my husband.

You're incapable, I think, of understanding the incredible

difficulty I now have because of that, and I consider it

only fair that you be given some difficulty of your own.

To teach you. in the best way possible, not to meddle in

affairs mat don't concern you."

 

"But I didn't—!" she began, much more frightened

than she had been, most especially as the voice belonged

to a woman. She couldn't deal with women as easily as

she did with men, and the situation looked far from

promising.

 

"Ah, but you did," the woman's voice interrupted, still

calm and faintly amused. "At this time, however, I think

we can safely assume that you won't do it again. I under-

stand that you've boasted there isn't anything you can't

unlock; if yoa find yourself able to unlock yourself from

that room, I'll consider us quits. Good-bye."

 

The glow immediately began to die, leaving her with a

hand clutched round her heart. She would separate herself

from that room, all right, and without wasting another

minute! She turned to run toward the door, wanting noth-

ing more than to get as far away from that place as possible—

and at that moment all four walls burst into flame. She

screamed and stumbled back from the roaring sheets of

fire, fell to the floor and tried to crawl away, but there was

no place to crawl to. The heat was terrible and her lungs

already felt burned, and as she heard the faint sound of

female laughter she knew that that was one manner of binding

she never would unlock. She began coughing, knowing it

was only a matter of seconds, feeling her clothing already

beginning to smolder, and then there was a hand. . . .

 

VI — ZaU T'Zannu

 

He stood in the shadows doing more than simply listen-

ing, not only in the shadows but actually a part of them.

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

19

 

Much of his adult and near-adult life had been spent as a

shadow, and that fact pleased him enormously. People

guarded against other people, but it was impossible to

guard against shadows.

 

Some parts of the castle were new, but the part he stood

m men was older than most could remember. The square

gray stone blocks all around him were covered with the

green of age and damp, and very few torches burned that

far below ground. He could hear water dripping some-

where, and a steady, distant scraping of some sort, but felt

nothing in the way of human presence near him- The level

was as deserted as he'd been told it would be, which

wasn't surprising. The earl's strongroom was three levels

up from that place, and the guard mounted on it was heavy

enough to stop a troop of cavalry. Well, they could guard

the strongroom all they liked; he was after bigger fish.

 

The shadows extended all the way to the old, splintered

wooden door he had been looking for, and once he'd

shouldered me thing open he paused to light a small torch

of his own. Dark was good to move through, but a man

needed light when there was delicate work to be done. He

entered the bare, stone room, closed the door behind him

and set his torch in the wall^ then began pacing out the

exact center of the room. That would be his starting point,

and it had to be as accurate as possible.

 

Quite a lot of time went by in pacing and measuring, but

he was far too absorbed to notice it. What he was engaging

in men was a passion inherited from his father, passed on

as undeniably as the lands and gold would be, but far less

publicly. For four generations his family had been collect-

ing legendary and/or fabulous items produced down through

me centuries, which were not readily available to the

general public. If securing them required only gold, then

gold was supplied; if securing them required more effort

man mere wealth, his family had always been willing to

supply mat as well. To say they stole would be reducing a

grand, irresistible passion to the prosaic, and he and his

family had never been that. Passion and practicality had

dictated their efforts, until me latest of their line had

proven that there was nothing he could not take, no matter

how well guarded it was.

 

20 SHARON GREEN

 

Or how intricately unguarded it was. The wall stone he

stopped in front of looked no different from any of the

others, and his gray eyes inspected it carefully before his

long-fingered hand reached out to touch it. Cautious, gen-

tle fingertips proved it also felt the same, but that meant

nothing. If the priceless relic was there, it had been there

long enough for an entire castle of stones to match up.

What he had to do next was try the combination.

 

After gently marking the key stone with a piece of

chalk, he backed away from the wall until he'd reached a

distance of about eight feet, then withdrew a rod from

beneath his cape. The rod was no more than a foot in

length until he began pulling on it, and then it obligingly

extended and extended and extended, until he was able to

reach the wall again without moving toward it. The rod

was light and stiff enough to produce a minimum of

waving at the far end, and he'd practiced with it so often

over the years that his touch with it was more deft than

many people were with their own hands.

 

"Never trust an enemy, even when he's dying,*' he

muttered, leveling the pole and beginning to press the

stone with it in a precise pattern. If a relic or a work of art

was in some contemporary's possession, it simply had to

be fiberated from whatever safeguards had been contrived

for it; if it was still where it had been originally secreted,

however, there were traps and Fiendishly deadly snares to

avoid if the searcher wanted to survive to enjoy his find.

Ramil had intended going after it himself, but their duel

had come first and had ended all of Ramil's intentions.

The dying man had told him where to find the parchment

detailing the location of me relic, and had sworn with his

last breath that there were no traps. Ramil had parted with

the information—or so he had said—because he wanted

someone with a desire equaling his own to have it; in full

truth Zail didn't believe that for a minute. Ramil had

wanted him dead, and probably had had another parchment

which detailed the traps. If he had believed there weren't any,

he would have deserved whatever happened to him.

 

With the last touch of the rod the stone began to sink

downward with a grinding scrape—and at the same time a

full five foot by five foot section of the stone of the floor

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER         21

 

dropped a good deal more quickly. Anyone standing on

(hat stone to touch the wall would have gone through the

floor, but he'd come across that kind of trap before and

had the rod to take care of it. If that was the only snare

guarding it, he would thank the gods later when he got

home.

 

The floor stone rose again and clicked into place, but he

was no longer paying attention to it. Even as his hands

compressed the rod back into a more manageable and

concealable size. his gaze was captured by what the sink-

tog wall stone revealed. Resting comfortably on a stone

cushion in the niche now opened to view was a scepter, one

that seemed to be made of solid gallium. The blue-white

metal gleamed even in the dim light of the single, under-

sized torch, but not quite as brightly as the huge heartfire

gem set at its end. Color flared and glowed from the

exquisitely faceted jewel in a way that hadn't been seen or

matched in centuries, and there could be no doubt as to

what relic he'd found.

 

"The Living Flame, scepter of Prassa the Unconquer-

able!" he breathed, hardly daring to believe it. The glori-

ous tiling had been sought for so long\ Wait until his father

saw it!                     ^

 

Despite his excitement he proceeded carefully, testing

(he floor before trusting it with his weight, and then study-

ing the scepter before attempting to touch it. There had to

be other traps, he knew it for a certainty, but the only

possibility occurring to him involved me stone cushion the

.scepter lay on. He had put the collapsed rod back into his

cape, but now he drew it out again with a different purpose

;ai mind. Using the rod to tap gently at the scepter, he

discovered that there were no hidden knives waiting to cut

the hand from anyone reaching into the niche. With that

routine taken care of, he held the rod behind the scepter.

reached in with his free hand for the relic, then immedi-

ately put the rod on the stone cushion in its place. His

heart pounded with elation and excitement as he stood

mere with the scepter in his hands, the relic now free of

me niche with no further traps sprung! He wanted nothing

more than to stand mere and drink in the sight of it, but

 

22 SHARON GREEN

 

that could be done once he got home. He still had to get

out of die castle undetected, and that would take time.

 

Once the scepter was wrapped and comfortably nestled

into his cape in the place the rod had previously been, he

took his torch from the wall and went to the door. As soon

as he had the door open he would put the torch out, and

then he would go back the same way he'd—

 

A heavy click came from the door when he pulled on it,

a sound he hadn't heard the first time he'd opened it.

Quick as a startled bird he jumped to one side, but nothing

else seemed to be happening. He approached the door

again being careful of the floor and ceiling stones while

also watching all around, and this time pulled harder on

the metal grip. The old wooden door should have opened

then, even if it moved no more than slowly, but it didn't

budge. He pulled again and again, his heart beginning to

hammer from something other than elation, but it was a

waste of effort. The door refused to open, and he had

nothing to force it with even if it were possible.

 

He turned away from the door in disgust, but more with

himself than anything else. He should have anticipated die

possibility of being locked in, and left the door open a

crack. Now he would have to wait until his father realized

that something had gone wrong, and came looking for

him. If he hadn't taken me precaution of speaking with his

father before starting out, he would have undoubtedly died

down there, with none knowing what had happened to

hmi. That level was never—

 

His thoughts slowed to instant stillness as he realized

he'd been hearing a sound of some sort, and it seemed to

be coming from the niche. Slowly he carried his torch back

to the wall, and saw that the stone cushion the scepter had

been resting on was sinking into the bottom of the niche.

He knew then that substituting the rod hadn't done any

good, that the difference in weight had triggered another

trap, and that was probably what had locked the door. But

if that was all it was meant to do, why was the cushion

still sinking downward—?

 

The answer to his question came with a loud click as the

cushion sank flush with the bottom of the niche—^and

stones on three of the four walls slid aside to reveal pipes.

 

THE PAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

A few seconds of scraping and gurgling passed, and then

water began spewing out of the pipes, heavy streams of

water mat seemed pure and clear. An underground river

had to be feeding those pipes if mere was still water after

all those centuries, and he could see that the river in-

tended emptying itself into the room. He ran back to the

door and tried pulling on it again, then kicked it hard

before turning away. There was no way out of that room,

none at all, and me water was already up to his ankles.

His jaw tightened when he understood how few minutes he

had left, but even then he could only regret that he hadn't

taken greater precautions; as far as finding the scepter

went, he had no regrets at all.

 

The water quickly rose higher, and he did nothing more

than begin to swim once he could no longer stand. There

was always the chance that the level would stop before it

rose all the way to me ceiling, and even a slim chance was

worth grasping. He held the torch clear as long as he

could, until his head was being pressed into the ceiling,

and just as water slopped into his mouth and nose and

quenched the torch, he saw a hand. . . .

 

CHAPTER  1

 

The room was larger in all dimensions than it needed to

be, giving me, at least, the impression that I sat in the

house of a rustic giant. Wood paneling, decorative beams,

immense stone fireplace and upholstered log furniture sup-

plied the rustic, and a twenty-foot ceiling on a forty by

forty foot room made the giant. 1 wasn't quite sure what he

was up to, except that he seemed to want us to be relaxed

but impressed; if the others felt the way I did, he'd missed

his mark by quite a lot,

 

1 shifted in the chair I'd claimed in order to sit with one

leg under me, wondering again who all those people

were. I'd looked at each of them and had found that they

were real, but their life forces were resonating in a way

that said they weren't native to that world-dimension in

which they found themselves. I was native to it, but that

didn't mean I knew any more than they did.

 

All five of them seemed to be more wrapped up in their

own thoughts than interested in starting conversations, and

that despite the cozy circle of chairs we sat in. The chairs

stood on a large shaggy rug that was probably supposed to

look like an animal hide, and a round log table stood in the

middle of our chair-circle with two bowls of assorted fruit

on it. The main conversation-stopper seemed to be the

seventh chair in our circle, the empty, larger chair that

none of them had been able to claim. The spell on the

chair kept it reserved for whoever was coming, and al-

 

1A

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

25

 

though I could have negated the spell and taken it myself,

it didn't seem worth the trouble. The others would have

begun throwing questions at me, questions I couldn't an-

swer. 1 was feeling stupid just then for a number of

reasons, and not having those answers simply added to

it—and to my mounting annoyance. We'd been shifting

uncomfortably in those chairs for at least twenty minutes,

which in my current mood was seventeen minutes too

long- I'd waited with as much patience as I could muster,

but now the patience was all used up.

 

"Right now strikes me as a good time to make an

appearance," I observed to the air in the empty seventh

chair, drawing three pairs of startled male eyes and two

pairs of equally startled female ones. "If you don't agree,

I'll go home to do my waiting."

 

The air in the seventh chair started shimmering then,

and a figure began forming and filling to occupy the space.

To the accompaniment of a single gasp our host at long

last showed himself, and also showed mat he was still

reaching for specific reactions from us. It was hardly likely

that any of us doubted he would prove to be a wizard, so

the shape he took was unnecessary for the purpose of

supporting the point. We weie now being inspected by a

robust man who carried his many-years easily, his hair and

beard very long and dazzlingly white, his light eyes spar-

kling with gentle understanding and amusement, his long-

sleeved. electric-blue robe covering a body mat seemed

two feet taller and a foot wider than even the redheaded

boy who was one of our six. I could feel how powerful he

was without even trying, but that was no excuse for theat-

rics designed to impress the backward.

 

"The ever-impatient Laciel," he remarked when his

inspection moved itself to me, his smile apparently strug-

gling to keep from becoming a grin. "Since you knew it

when I came in and seated myself, I'm surprised you were

able to wait even this long. What's the matter, child?

Don't you approve of my appearance?"

 

"You know I don't," I answered, aware of the stir of

discomfort among the others. "1 may owe my life to you,

but that doesn't give you the right to patronize me. It's

 

26 SHARON GREEN

 

obvious I was brought here for a reason; how about getting

around to mentioning what it is?"

 

"Don't be upset by her abruptness of manner,'* he said

to the others, most of whom seemed embarrassed and

dismayed and flinching as well as upset. "Sorceresses tend

to be difficult to impress, especially when they have the

potential power that she does. And, of course, when they

have her impatience."

 

"When a king fails to find waiting beneath him. a girl

should have far less difficulty," the redheaded boy put in,

the comment half-disapproving and half-amused. He seemed

to be no more than seventeen, if that old, but his very

large body was fully developed, muscles bulging out of

arms and shoulders, thick neck corded with strength, chest

deep and wide and covered with red hair. He was bare to

his trim waist except for a wide gold band around each of

his upper arms, and from the waist down he wore supple

leather pants and boots in gray, with a wide belt of woven

gold cinching me pants. The red hair on his head was

rather long, straight and thick, but his broad face looked

too pink-cheeked to ever have been shaved. His deep voice

made it all fit together rather neatly—except for his unself-

conscious bearing and straightforward blue eyes. Some-

how, those eyes would have been more suited to a man

three times his age.

 

"Please believe that I appreciate your patience, Kadrim

Harra," the wizard said to the boy, sounding as though he

were speaking to an adult his own age. "All of you have

been more than patient, especially in view of the fact that

you don't know what's happened to you. The truth of the

matter is I need you six, to help with a serious problem 1

have. In return for what 1 have done for each of you, there

is a service I would like you all to perform. A dangerous

service, but no more dangerous than what you left behind."

 

The expressions on me faces of the others gave me the

distinct impression that I wasn't the only one who had

been about to pay for stupidity in a rather permanent way

when rescued, and me next one to speak confirmed mat.

 

"What I left behind me was certain death," the second

of the three men said, drawing agreeing nods from the

third man and the smaller of the two women. "If what

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

you're about to ask us to do means the same, what benefit

will there have been for us in being rescued?"

 

"A fair question, Rikkan Addis," the wizard allowed,

looking at the man with benevolent understanding, his

hand stroking his long white beard. The man he spoke to

was not as large as the redheaded boy, but by any other

standards he was far from small. His bronze-colored eyes

were his most outstanding feature, set off by a tanned face

and dark black hair, supported by a wide, broad-shouldered

body dressed in rust-colored leather. Shirt, pants and even

boots were rust-colored, and an intricately linked belt of

silver circled his waist. "If I were sending you on a

hopeless mission, there would have been no benefit in

your having been rescued at all," the wizard said to him,

' 'but the mission 1 have is no more than extremely danger-

ous. There's a great deal of difference between extremely

dangerous and hopeless."

 

"I'm really very grateful to have been given my life

back," the smaller woman interjected before the man with

the strange eyes could say anything else, drawing the

wizard's gaze to her. "I would have no objections at all to

showing how grateful, but as far as this—extremely dan-

gerous mission goes, I'm afraid I'm just not cut out for it.

Don't you think it would be much better if I stayed here,

rather man going along to be nothing but a burden?"

 

Her smiled warmed with the end of her question, adding

to the overall sense of extreme and eager willingness she

was projecting—along with the delicate appeal of helpless-

ness, She was smaller than the other woman and myself,

her long black hair arranged into curls and twists that

framed her angelic face. Dark lashes made her big green

eyes very visible, and her mouth was generous with pout-

ing lips of bright red. Her skin was too light for her to

have spent much time outdoors, and the delicate, long-

skirted gown of green she wore not only set off her small

but lush figure, it also matched her eyes. She seemed to

know that the wizard wasn't as old as his appearance

suggested, and she had leaned somewhat toward him as

she spoke, adding to the effect of her throaty suggestion. If

the wizard had fallen for it 1 would have walked out

 

28

 

SHARON GREEN

 

in disgust no matter how powerful he was, but all he did

was look at her with a sobriety she wasn't expecting.

 

"My dear Soffann Dra, I really do wish I could oblige

you," he said, the gentle but implacable words taking the

smile from her. "I hadn't meant to go into this now, but

since you've raised the point I might as well explain it. 1

need six people with six individual talents for my mission,

and expended a certain amount .of energy bringing mem

and keeping them here. The energy needed was greater

than you know, and I haven't any to spare above that

certain amount. If one of you isn't suited to the mission,

that one will have to be replaced with someone of equal

talent—which can be done, I'm sorry to say, only after me

original candidate has been returned to where he—or she—

came from."

 

The small woman's light skin paled visibly and a good

deal of fear came into her eyes, but strangely enough she

was me only one to react that way. The other woman and

me three men seemed to consider me arrangement no more

than fair, indicating mat they'd probably already decided

to pay off their life-debt in whatever way they had to. As

far as I was concerned I would have been long gone if I

hadn't also decided the same, which left the smalt woman

the only one among us who had tried to renege. She

looked around quickly to see how everyone else was tak-

ing the news, then leaned back in her chair in defeat.

 

"Well, if you put it like that, of course I'll go," she

said, then deliberately raised those eyes to the wizard with

another smile meant to devastate. "After all, there is no

one eke of equal talent you could replace me with."

 

The wizard chuckled at the woman's audacity, his reac-

tion matched with smites from the three men, but for some

reason the other woman and I weren't amused. Possibly we

weren't built right to appreciate her—wit. The general

enjoyment continued being expressed for a short while,

and then the man with me bronze eyes, Rikkan Addis,

turned to the wizard again.

 

"Now that we know your mission isn't hopeless and

that we'll all be going," he said, "I, at least, will appreci-

ate a few more details. Where will we be going, and for

what purpose?"

 

THE F^R SIDE OF FOREVER

 

He sat back in his chair and crossed his long legs, both

actions signs of relaxation, but I had the feeling that

something in the questions he'd asked had more impor-

tance for him than he was letting on. Before answering,

the wizard's hand went again to his beard, which I began

to believe was a sign that he was handling something of a

delicate nature. I now knew that Rikkan Addis had to be

handled, but didn't yet know why.

 

"Your ultimate destination is a place whose name I

know as well as the approximate position where it lies,"

the wizard answered at last, his hand still slowly stroking

his beard. "Something of great importance was stolen

from this world and taken there, and if it isn't recovered

our world here will die- 1 tried going after it myself, but

me safeguards along the trail were set with me in mind,

negating my strengths and taking advantage of my weak-

nesses- You six will have to do the task for me, and if you

succeed your rewards will be greater than you ever dreamed

possible; if you fail, a world dies with you."

 

"I find it best to consider only success, and let failure

worry about itself," the third man said in an easy way,

sharing nothing of the frowning silence which had taken

the others. "Will part of my^own reward be the return of

the Living Flame?"

 

His gray eyes rested easily on the wizard, a faint smile

making his handsome face even more attractive. He seemed

to be as tall as the man with bronze eyes who sat two

chairs away from him, but his body was a bit more slender

and graceful, and his dark brown hair curlier rather than

mane-thick. He wore a wide-sleeved shirt of white, closed

at the wrists and open to the middle of his chest, black

trousers and short black boots, with a small golden medal-

lion hung from around his neck. He looked as though

being relaxed was the only state of living he had ever

learned, and the wizard smiled as his hand stopped

beard-stroking.

 

"The Living Bame is, of course, yours, Zail T'Zannis,"

he acknowledged, his tone making the words a sworn

oath. "Even if you don't return for it yourself, I'll make

sure it reaches your father. Will that satisfy you?"

 

"Very much so," the man said with the flash of a wider

 

SHARON GREEN

 

30

 

smile, for some reason amused. "I'd prefer unveiling it

myself for him, but if that becomes impossible it helps to

know he'll have it anyway. Please go on with what you

were saying before I interrupted."

 

"What 1 was saying was mat this world is in danger of

dying,'* the wizard resumed, losing his smile again. "I

think you should know that except for Laciel, none of you

are native to this world-dimension. If this one dies your

own worlds will, for the most part, be untouched, except

for the unavoidable ripples that the dying will send through

the dimensions. The ripples can cause storms or earth-

quakes or eruptions or, in certain instances, political unrest

or out-and-out war, but nothing that your worlds won't be

able to survive. It's the people of mis world who will die if

you fail."

 

"I don't understand," I said slowly into the newest

silence, which was something of an understatement. He

had just lessened everyone's motivation for success but

mine, and I couldn't figure out what he was up to. "How

could this world possibly be in that much danger without

anyone knowing about it? And what could have been

stolen that would make that much of a—"

 

I stopped in midsentence as a chill washed over me, me

answer to my question coming even as I'd asked it. There

was only one thing that could have been taken, but I'd

always thought it was impossible!

 

*'I believe you understand now," the wizard said, com-

passion on his face for the stunned expression on mine.

"What was stolen was the balance stone of the Tears of

the Mist."

 

"And you're Graymor," I said, no longer wondering

why he'd disguised himelf in a way that kept me from

looking through. He'd needed time to build up to me

shock he'd known it would be for me, and maybe he'd

been right. But as I put one hand to my head, 1 wasn't sure

years would have been long enough.

 

"And I'm Graythor," he agreed gently, men sent his

gaze to the others. "Laciel knows me not only because

we're long-time acquaintances, but because she knows mat

I'm the Protector of the Tears, just as everyone on this

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

31

 

world does. Every century a Protector is chosen from

among the most powerful wizards then alive, and he or she

serves until the next Protector is chosen. My term of office

was nearly up when this happened, and maybe that fact

caused me to be careless; if it did, I'm more than paying

for it."

 

He paused a moment to look away from everyone, his

face and eyes briefly ages older than they had been, and I

doubt if anyone in the room thought the change had been

caused by magic. Most of them shifted in place with sym-

pathy or embarrassment, and their movement brought his

attention back to them.

 

"The Tears of the Mist keep this world stable," he said

with a sigh, straightening in his own chair. "Aeons ago

the Tears were set in place by the EverNameless to make

the world habitable and safe, and to remove them all from

their resting frame would cause its immediate destruction,

Removal of the balance stone alone, however, delays that

destruction and stretches it out, so that the breakup begins

slowly and builds toward the final destruction. For that

reason alone is there time enough to search for the balance

stone and time enough—maybe—to return it to its place.

As long as the breakup basnet gone beyond the point of no

return, it will still be able to be-stopped."

 

"That seems somewhat odd," the gray-eyed man called

Zail TZannis remarked, one finger rubbing thoughtfully at

his face. "If I wanted to destroy & world, I'd do it in the

fastest way possible, not in a way that would give some-

one the chance to stop me. And why would anyone want

to destroy a world anyway? Maybe the stone was simply

taken to embarrass you."

 

"Your objections are valid, sir," Graythor acknowl-

edged, a wry look appearing on his face under the beard.

"Right now only we in this room know the balance stone

is gone, but soon everyone will know it and wilt also know

that its loss is due to my negligence. If the matter weren't

so serious, everyone would laugh." The wry look disap-

peared to be replaced with bleakness, and Graythor shook

his head. "But me matter is indeed that serious, and once

the world begins to break up, no one will have the time or

 

SHARON GREEN

 

die heart to laugh. They'll all know they're facing death,

and only those with the power will be able to escape it.''

 

"But if you have time before it happens, why can't you

just move everyone somewhere else?" the small woman,

Soffann Dra, asked, her pretty brow creased in thought.

"That way it won't matter what happens to this world."

 

"My dear young woman, there are uncounted millions

of people living on this world," the wizard answered,

trying not to show how ridiculous the question was. "There

aren't wizards enough to move even a quarter of them,

which means there would have to be those who were left

behind. Would you want to be the one to decide who will

live and who will die? Without knowing good from evil,

kind from vicious, intelligent from retarded, industrious

from hanger-on? Would you take them at random, first

come first served, encouraging them to trample each other

in their desperation to get to safety? Would you have them

first fight and kill each other, and then take only the

survivors? The decision would be one many would find

fascinating, but I'm not quite up to fascination of that

sort."

 

"Then the thing was done by an enemy of yours, rather

than of this world's," said Kadrim Harra, the red-haired

boy who continued to sound so unboylike. "As Zail

T'Zannis has said, one who desired the destruction of a

world would see to mat destruction with the utmost possi-

ble speed. As the choice of speed was possible yet disre-

garded, agonizing anticipation must be the true reason for

the act. To know of the coming destruction and yet be

powerless to halt it, must truly cause unbearable pain for

you."

 

"No more unbearable than the rending of my soul,"

Graythor said, his face now expressionless, his gaze aimed

inward, his hands curled in silent fury around the arms of

the chair. "Yes, the one who did this is an enemy of mine,

one who knew how I would take it. Millions of people,

knowing me responsible for the safety of the Tears, will

die cursing my name with their last breath. Those who are

able to breech the dimensions will do so, taking knowl-

edge of my infamy with them and spreading it as far as

there are ears to hear, eyes to read, fingers to sign, minds

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

33

 

to merge. If that was simply the payment demanded for the

survival of this world I would gladly make it, but mat

simple an expiation will not be allowed me. I have no

choice other man to die with those people whose death I

caused, or live on in safety in another dimension, remem-

bering what it was I left behind me. Death, of course,

would be the far better choice, but there are those else-

where who also depend on my survival for their own-

Most likely I'll find that I've been given no other choice

than to live on and remember."

 

"Or to end the horror before it begins," said the bronze-

eyed man, Rikkan Addis, in the hardest voice I'd ever

heard, his eyes glowing with fury. "I don't need to know

what sort of monster would kill a world full of people just

to hurt a single individual; all 1 need to know is where that

monster is so that I can find it. What do we have to do?"

 

Graythor looked around at the circle then, his face

lightening with the beginnings of hope, and every face

looking back at him reflected Rikkan Addis* statement of

challenge. They were all pledging themselves to him with-

out reservation, and from that pledge the strength flowed

back into him as though it had never left. His hands slowly

uncurled from the chair arms, and a smile of silent thanks

creased his face as he nodded again.

 

"The first part of what you must do is simple," he

said, his voice now filled with relief and enthusiasm.

"You all must follow the trail of the balance stone across

the dimensions, to the place where it was taken and is now

being kept. The stone leaves a—a—spoor, I suppose you

could call it, wherever it happens to pass, one that Targa

Emmen Su Daylath won't have any trouble following. The

rest of you will simply follow her."

 

All eyes suddenly went to the only one of us who hadn't

yet spoken, the big woman who sat next to me. Targa

Emmen Su Daylath smiled a faint, unself-conscious smile

di the attention, but still didn't say anything. She had dark,

calm eyes in a face mat was pleasant rather man pretty,

very long, light brown hair worn straight back and held

high in a flowing tail by a ring of bone, a yellow leather

shirt that was fringed all over, and a wide, yellow leather

 

SHARON GREEN

 

34

 

breech that was held close to her body by the thin string of

leather knotted around her waist. Her legs and feet were

entirely bare, but she didn't seem to be self-conscious

about that, either.

 

"Once you reach your destination, the best way in will

either be found or devised by Kadrim Harra," Graythor

continued, now sending everyone's eyes to the redheaded

boy. "It will also be his job, with others of you, to guard

against unexpected physical attack with weapons. Once

inside, you will find many locks and closings which will

require the talent of Soffann Dra to open; when she does,

Zail T'Zannis will then be able to take the stone from its

remaining safeguards. Laciel will take you all through the

dimensions to reach your destination, as well as guard you

against magic. Rikkan Addis will be in charge of the

expedition, and will organize the efforts of the group as a

whole. Tonight, after dinner, I'll give you what few details

I've been able to gather, and you'll leave in the morning.

Are there any questions?"

 

With the promise of details to be given later, no one felt

me urge to ask questions that might prove to be unneces-

sary. Graythor nodded with satisfaction, then rose from his

chair.

 

"I'm sure you could all use some time to rest and

refresh yourselves before dinner," he said, raising one

hand. "As each of you passes me, I'll attach a thread

which you may follow to the room assigned to you. Just

go through that doorway to the right, and up the stairs

you'll find beyond it. If you need anything, ring for a

servant."

 

They filed past him one at a time to get their threads,

then trailed out of the room in the same individual way

they'd sat in it. I followed them with the Sight until they

were all upstairs, then turned back to look at Graythor.

The wizard was sitting in his chair again, both hands over

his face and eyes, and I couldn't keep quiet any longer.

 

"Now that they're gone, I want the truth," I said, the

words as harsh as I could make them. "I want to know

what happened, and why you can't go after the stone

yourself."

 

"You've grown since the last time I saw you, Laciel,"

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

35

 

he said with a sigh. dropping his hands to send a benign,

light-eyed gaze toward me. "You're much larger and pret-

tier now, but not a millimeter more tolerant. I suppose

tolerance comes with greater age than you've yet achieved."

 

"Tolerance my—foot!" I snapped, running thin on pa-

tience that hadn't been very thick to begin with, letting my

fists find my hips. "It isn't possible for anyone to have

stolen mat balance stone, and even more impossible for

anyone to keep you from following to take it back. You're

the strongest wizard alive, Graythor, except for those who

were Protectors before you, and they don't count. Protec-

tors are made incapable by the Tears themselves of touch-

ing the Tears to do harm! There is no one who could keep

you from reclaiming the stone, so why haven't you gone

yourself?"

 

"I can't tell you," he said, and the way he looked

directly at me showed a hint of the strength he was capable

of. "There are things you're not yet ready to leam, young

lady, and that's one of them. Since 1 know without a

single doubt that if/ go I'll fail, you six will have to do me

job for me. Are you afraid you won't be able to succeed?"

 

"This is too important not to succeed," I answered with

me scorn I felt, folding my arms in annoyance. "Unlike

you, I'm convinced 1 could do it alone, which wouldn't be

a bad idea. I have the sort of motivation you made sure to

remove from the others. While I'll be picturing all the

untalented people I know dying slowly in terror, they'll be

picturing the same thing happening to nothing but a bunch

of strangers."

 

"You think I could have made them believe they were

striving for their home dimensions?" he asked, those eyes

still locked to me. "That might have been possible for a

short time, but what would have happened once they

began talking to each other and exchanging information?

They all come from the same continent in their respective

dimensions; what do you think would have happened when

they found that the geography matched but nothing else did?

They're not stupid, Laciel, and it wouldn't have taken

them long to discover that they all came from different

places. Once that happened, they'd begin to wonder what

 

36               SHARON GREEN

 

else I'd lied to them about, and the expedition would start

falling apart. Getting the stone back will take all of you—

despite your own opinion to the contrary—and that means

keeping you all together."

 

"You're still hiding something, I can feel it," 1 mut-

tered, trying to match the look 1 was getting. "And that

goes beyond the questions you've flatly refused to answer.

And what's this nonsense about that Rikkan Addis being

leader of our expedition? Magic users lead expeditions,

and you know it."

 

"Not this time," he denied, shaking his head with just

the hint of amusement behind his eyes- "There are too

many components of that group who would refuse to

follow you no matter how strong a sorceress you are, and I

can't repeat often enough how important it is that the

group stay together. Rikkan Addis is more than just a

natural leader; I know you couldn't feel that part of his

talent working because it didn't affect you, but it was his

belief that the task needed doing that swayed the others.

He doesn't just lead, he makes people follow, and that's

why he's so valuable."

 

"So that's why you were handling him so carefully," I

said, my eyes narrowing as I thought about it. "You

knew if you were able to convince him, die others would

follow along. And if he thought you were lying, the others

would believe the same. But that doesn't explain the mas-

querade. If he finds out what you really look like, won't

he consider that the same as lying?"

 

"Laciel, girl, the—masquerade, as you call it, wasn't

done for him," Graythor said with a sigh as he leaned

back in his chair, but whether the sigh was one of weari-

ness or exasperation, I couldn't tell. "It so happens that as

soon as you stop pestering me, I'll be calling on Rikkan

Addis to chat—and incidentally show him what I really look

like. He already knows from your earlier comments that

this isn't my true form, and I don't want him to begin

wondering."

 

"If you didn't want him to begin wondering, you

shouldn't have gotten involved with silly dress-up to begin

with," 1 said, now knowing what his sigh had meant. "I

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

37

 

know people have certain prejudices about wizards, but

that doesn't mean you have to cater to them."

 

"If you're asking them to risk their lives for you, mat's

exactly what you do have to do," he said, the snap in his

voice and sharpness in his eyes clear indications of how

close to anger he was. He looked to his right and my left,

spoke the words that were necessary, then joined me in

watching the chairs that stood there change immediately

into a tall, wide mirror in an intricate frame of gold. The

mirror showed me just as I was, tall and slender, tanned

and violet-eyed with long platinum hair, my pale rose shirt

and light gold slacks loose enough to keep from emphasiz-

ing my figure, my short, soft leather boots of gold more

for comfort than durability. The image of me was clear

and accurate, but so was the image of a still-seated

Graythor—which didn't match the form in the chair. Beard-

less, dark of hair and eye, sallow complexion, short, nar-

row, bent just a little but still extremely competent-looking—

that was the Graythor I knew, and the one I would have

recognized.

 

"Try to imagine yourself one of the others, child," he

said with less of the anger showing, the mirror-gesture 1

saw reflecting me movement only just visible from me

corner of my eye- "Your life has just been saved by

someone who is a very powerful wizard, and in return for

saving your life, he's asking you to risk it again on his

behalf. People are strange, Laciel, and after you've lived

among them for as long as I have, you'll leam that their

gratitude for an important favor can quicldy turn to resent-

ment over being forced into a position to need to return

that favor. One of die most important points in that is just

exactly who you owe the favor to—and now you're one of

mem and looking at me as I really am. What do you see?"

 

"I see—you," 1 answered, having no idea what he was

getting at. "What else is there to see?"

 

"What there is to see is that you've known me too

long," he said, for some reason with a pleased chuckle,

his true image smiling the crooked smile I'd so enjoyed as

a child. "What the others would see would be a mis-

shapen, ugly little man who really shouldn't have been

accorded the privilege of saving their lives, one who wasn't

 

38               SHARON GREEN

 

at all up to deserving their gratitude. Consciously they

would never want to feel that way, but deep inside, where

emotion rules in place of thought, they would have no

choice. My altered shape gave them nobility and wisdom

to admire, size and strength to respect, power and age to

be in awe of—and a tragic figure to sympathize with and

help. My saving their lives is now incidental; what matters

most to them at this point is that they have it within (heir

power to help someone who would normally need no help,

but who now requires their help. They're motivated, some-

thing even an enslavement spell could not accomplish, and

they'll see the job through to the end. All we have to take

care of now is that single, important question buzzing

around in your head."

 

"What question?" I asked at once, looking at him

sharply—but at the real him, the one in the mirror. "What

other question do you think 1 have?"

 

"Laciel, I've known you since you were a very little

giri," he said, the dark eyes in the mirror staring at me

with a sober calm. "You did something foolish and nearly

died for it, and now you're wondering if mat's the real

reason you're not leading the expedition. You're also

wondering what you'll, have to do to prove how capable of

leadership you are after all, and that most likely before you

all leave tomorrow. I'm telling you now that there's noth-

ing you can—or had better—do to change the arrange-

ments of this expedition as they stand, or you'll find

yourself tied so fast and deep into an obedience spell that it

will take you a year to See your way out of it. I need you

badly for this task, but you cannot do it akme, and you

cannot be me leader. Do you understand what I'm saying

to you?"

 

"Of course I understand," I answered with exasperated

impatience, making no effort to avoid his eyes. If I couldn't

do anything before we left then it would have to be after,

but one way or another it had to be done. Magic users

were the leaders of expeditions, and it would be stupid to

allow any other precedent to be set. Besides, I knew I

would make a better leader than that Rikkan Addis, espe-

cially for so important an objective.

 

"Good," he said with a nod of satisfaction, raising one

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

39

 

hand in a vanishing gesture to get rid of the mirror before

rising from me seat. Without the mirror there was nothing

but his altered form, which I had to look way up at. "I can

see now there's a good deal of truth to the saying about

clouds and silver linings," he observed with a smile as he

put one giant but gentle hand to my face. "If I hadn't been

scanning around in my search for members of the expedi-

tion, I never would have come across your entry onto the

Plane of Dreams—or known what was happening. If you'd

died I would have missed you, Laciel; after all, who would

be left then who would criticize me as you do?"

 

"Don't worry. Uncle Graythor, I'll always be around to

criticize you," 1 assured him pleasantly, recognizing the

teasing even if the face and form weren't familiar. "Since

everyone else is too afraid of you to do it, the job has to

be mine."

 

"So it does," he agreed with a chuckle, turning to lead

the way out of the room. "Your accommodations are

marked with a blue door, and you'll have no trouble

finding mem. While you're resting you might consider

cutting down some on all that courage you're so filled

with. Where you're going, a bit of prudent cowardice will

likely serve you better."

 

"That's right, you did say you knew our ultimate desti-

nation," I realized aloud, looking'up at him again as we

walked. "You make it sound like we have no chance

against it, but if we had no chance at all, you'd be wasting

your time and our lives by sending us. What's me name of

this deadly-dangerous repository of stolen articles?"

 

"The place you have to find an entrance into is called

Cloud's Heart," he answered, bending a much less-benign

gaze on me than he had a moment earlier. "Despite its

name it is deadly dangerous, probably as much so as the

journey you'll have getting there. I've never made me trip

myself, but I've spoken to one or two who have, and

nothing conceivable would ever get them to try it again. I

wish I could send someone in your place, Laciel, but I

can't. Just remember that, if—when you get there."

 

"But where is it?" I asked, disturbed by the haunted

look in the eyes that had left me. Graythor had stopped to

stare straight ahead, and that bothered me more than any-

 

SHARON GREEN

 

40

 

thing he had said. He hesitated so long I thought he wasn't

going to answer, and then he sighed with his gaze still held

by the distance.

 

"It's on the Far Side of Forever," he said in a whisper,

then strode away so fast that I had no hope of catching up.

Not that I felt like catching up. I just stood there for a

minute staring at the giant mstic dining room he'd disap-

peared through, then went looking for the accommodations

I suddenly felt a lot of need for.

 

CHAPTER 2

 

The sun wasn't up very high when I went outside the next

morning, but there's something about sunlight after hours

and hours of candlelight that makes you want to squint and

go back indoors. Much as I would have enjoyed it I had no

time for going back indoors, so 1 went instead to the group

of hprses and people who waited in the middle of the

squarish, rustic yard. Giant-sized, squarish, rustic yard.

Leave it to Graythor to be consistent even outdoors.

 

' "You look as though you had little in the way of rest,

girl," the redheaded Kadrim Harra remarked as I reached

for the only unclaimed set of reins in sight, which tied a

big gray to the hitching post the boy stood beside. His own

mount was an even bigger golden palamino, and the stal-

lion danced with excess energy and an eagerness to be

away. The other four were involved in a discussion which

seemed to be centered around Soffann Dra, which some-

how wasn't very surprising.

 

"1 had no rest at all," I told the boy without looking at

him, getting more enjoyment out of the sight of the beauti-

ful gray horse that was to be mine for a while. He snorted

softly with pleasure when he saw he wasn't to go un-

claimed after all, and lowered his nose so that I might

stroke it. "I'll catch up on what I need when we stop

tonight."

 

"When we left one another after the discussion last

darkness, we were all bidden to rest ourselves well," the

 

41

 

SHARON GREEN

 

42

 

boy said from my left, his deep voice beginning to fill with

disapproval again. "Though you gave the wizard little of

the respect due him with your words, surely you were not

so foolish as to disobey his commands as well? We mean

to ride far and hard this day, and one who is weary will

have difficulty in keeping up."

 

"You're worrying about my being able to keep up?" I

asked with a snort of ridicule, finally turning my head to

look at him. "If I were you, little boy, I'd spend my time

worrying about myself instead of the adults around me,

especially an adult who also happens to be a sorceress.

And if I'd wasted my time sleeping instead of learning the

spells Graythor wanted me to leam, there might have come

a time when you and the others had trouble keeping up

with life. Aren't we ready to leave yet?"

 

By the end of my speech he was blinking at me with

surprise and a very becoming silence, then turned to see,

as I already had, mat our four companions had ended their

discussion in favor of mounting. Before he could turn back

to me I walked the few steps to the gray's side, got my left

foot into the stirrup, then pulled myself up to the saddle.

The gray waited until I was firmly seated with both feet in

the closed stirrups before beginning to dance like me

palamino, and that left only the boy who wasn't ready to

go. For some reason he grinned up at me with a lot of

amusement before turning to his own mount and leaping

onto the giant beast without using the stirrups at all. The

only thing he'd used to help him had been his hands on the

pommel, but before he could start bragging about how

athletic he was. a different voice came to us across the

yard.

 

"It's true!" Soffann Dra exclaimed in delight from

where she cantered slowly around us, left hand on reins,

back straight but easy, wide-skirted green gown spread out

over the saddle of her beautiful white horse. "He's really

done it! I've never so much as been on a horse before, but

I can ride as though I've done it all my life! The wizard

has given me the ability to ride!"

 

Zail T'Zannis and Rikkan Addis grinned at the girl's

delight and enthusiasm, but Targa Emmen Su Daylath was

too distracted to do more than smile. The big woman's

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

43

 

attention kept being drawn to the road leading out of the

yard, and a minute later she was following that road on the

big paint horse she sat with accustomed ease. Soffann Dra

quickly followed after her with the clear intention of catch-

ing up, which drew the two men in her wake. Since it was

clear Graythor wasn't going to be coming out for any last

good-byes I took my own turn at following, and the red-

headed boy brought up the rear.

 

The gray's gait was smooth and easy, his response

immediate to the lightest touch of my heel, the least

movement of the reins. We moved up the road in ground-

eating strides, the early morning sparkling around us,

Graythor's giant-house shrinking into the distance. To ei-

ther side of the road were green and flowered fields for at

least a mile, with nothing but trees rising in the near and

far distance, nothing of houses even of normal size. The

air was still comfortably cool that early in the day, but I

could feel that once the sun rose higher the heat would do

the same. The road was heading us toward woods which

would surely help for a while, but the woods were unlikely

to last forever.

 

"You must forgive me, lady, for having spoken to you

as I did," a voice came fronnny right, deep and smooth

and at least trying to be conciliatory. "I had not realized

that your weariness came from laboring on our behalf, and

I would offer my apologies for having given you insult."

 

The red-haired Kadrim Harra had brought his palamino

up beside my gray, and he really did seem to be sorry for

what he'd said. I glanced over at him where he sat his

mount looking down at me, and simply shook my head.

 

"I wasn't insulted," I grudged, wishing I could find

more pleasure in the beautiful day all around us. "It's just

that this quest is so important to me, so important to

everyone of this world—I'll do anything I have to to see

that it turns out right, and losing a night's sleep is so

unimportant an anything—1 didn't mean to imply that you

weren't one of us because you're not as old as we are—

You're not really all that young—"

 

My stumbling explanation finally ran out of steam, just

as it usually did when I tried to tell people why I'd done as

I had. I couldn't quite understand why 1 was bothering to

 

44

 

SHARON GREEN

 

explain things to a boy who was probably too young to

comprehend what I was saying, but rather than looking

blank, another glance showed him smiling.

 

"Your concern is natural and understandable," he said

in a way that was supposed to be soothing, his tone

brushing aside any insult on his part. "Were it my people

who were in jeopardy, I, too, would be difficult to speak

with. Have you any further knowledge of the worlds to be

traveled through than that which was given us by the

wizard?"

 

"Unfortunately, no," I answered, watching a small flight

of birds lazing through the early morning air. "There are

too many gates and too many choices at each gate for any

one person to know them all, even if they've lived as long

as Graythor has. I haven't lived nearly as long, and don't

even know me two worlds he was sure of. I can see I

should have traveled more."

 

"Even should one attempt to live one's life anticipating

difficulties, one would still be caught by the surprise of the

unanticipated," he said, those steady blue eyes putting

surprising weight behind the statement. "Your power is

meant to guard and assist us through these worlds, a thing

we are sure to find of great benefit, yet are those of my

own world largely unfamiliar with me doings of magic.

What are these—spells—which were taught you through

the darkness, and in what manner will they be of aid to

us?"

 

"What I learned was a special group of protective spells

designed to guard us from magical attack," I explained,

privately wondering how anyone anywhere could be unfa-

miliar with magic. "One of the spells creates a large.

invisible sphere around us which will keep anything of a

magical nature out. Another of the spells builds a wall of

the same kind, a third a platform which will also raise us

into the air, and the rest are of the same sort. For anything

nonmagical in nature, I already have the necessary de-

fenses. What took so long was memorizing the details of

spells mat work against other spells, which means I'm

practically working without the Sight. I won't be able to

See if I'm constructing them properly against what's com-

ing at us, so I can't afford to forget the least little—"

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

45

 

The frown on his face made me break off the explana-

tion, telling me it wasn't explaining anything at all to him.

Just what part he wasn't getting was another question,

though, as I found out when he shook his head.

 

"1 have no knowledge of what sight you speak of, nor

do I understand what difference there might be between

spells," he said, looking as though not understanding

annoyed him- "Are you able to say in what manner /

would need to labor in order to leam what you have?"

 

"But you couldn't leam it, not unless you had the

Sight," I protested with a laugh, then understood how

much he was actually missing. "Maybe I'd better start

from the very beginning, and explain it to you that way.

People are born either with the Sight or without it, and if

they're without it they can never learn to do magic no

matter how hard they try. You can't have just a little bit of

the Sight, you either have it or you don't. Are you with me

so far?"

 

His nod was definite despite his silence, and for some

reason I had the feeling that he was keeping himself from

making a comment. That unwavering blue gaze seemed to

be just a little put out, but I couldn't imagine why.

 

"Now, if you have the Sigh^you have the ability to do

magic, but the keys to real power are how much strength

you can bring to bear, and how complete your control is of

the things around you. If we were standing together some-

where and you began to walk away when I didn't want you

to, I could reach out a hand to grab your sleeve to stop you

physically. How well I did stopping you would depend on

how good a grip I had on your sleeve; a light or badly

placed grip would be one you could pull away from, but a

strong, full, sure grip would keep you from getting very

far. Have you got that?"

 

"indeed," he said with a faint smile, and then the smile

widened. "And yet do I believe that my halting would

require one with hands less slender and considerably more

powerful than yours. Even had I a sleeve which might be

grasped."

 

"That was just an example," I told him patiently, half

expecting his remark. Boys always have to be so—ignorant—

about everything. "With magic, the way to get a firm,

 

46 SHARON GREEN

 

sure grip on something is to See it clearly and in detail, the

more detail, the better the grip. At the same time you must

describe what you're Seeing, since it's that description and

the strength you exert mat gives you power over what you

See. If someone has a red hat, people without the Sight

will see nothing but a red hat; people with the Sight,

however, will See the exact shade of that color, me exact

shape of die hat itself, the thickness of the material the

thing was made from, the strands or layers involved, all

the way down to the smallest mote mat's a part of that hat.

Seeing it lets them describe it, and describing it gives

mem power over it. Spells are the verbal description of

what someone with the Sight Sees."

 

"These spells, then, must be complex indeed," he said,

back to frowning in an attempt to understand. "Even to

describe what / am able to see of a thing would be

complex, and never have I been able to see to the core of

an object."

 

"Not all spells are that complex," 1 corrected, pleas-

antly surprised that he seemed to be following my explana-

tion. "If the details needing to be described had to be

spoken in this language, it would take hours simply to

describe enough of that red hat just to lift it in the air. The

language used for spells is sort of a—short-cut code, I

suppose you might say—that lets you describe hours' worth

of detail in only one or two words. If I wanted to change

that hat instead of simply lifting it, my description of it

would have to be a lot more detailed so that I had more

power over it. A spell like that could run five or six words,

depending on just what change I wanted to make. And, of

course, some descriptions can be added to with gestures

rather than words. There are a lot of different getures, all

standing for different things, and that's where the old

saying comes from. You know. the one that goes, 'One

gesture is worth a thousand words.' "

 

"That adage is more familiar to me in another form,"

he muttered, clearly trying to decide whether or not to be

impressed. His big hand rubbed at his face as his mind

worked behind distracted eyes, and men his attention was

mine again. "Then all those with the—the Sight—have

power over that which is about them. Why is it, then, that

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

47

 

some have more power than others? For what reason was it

necessary that you leam—spells—from the wizard which

your own—Sight—should have found it possible to give

you?"

 

"I think I'll answer the first part of your question

first," I said with a smile, really pleased with how bright

he was. He was having trouble with unfamiliar phrases,

but he wasn't using them wrong. "Some with the Sight

have more power than others for a variety of reasons, one

of which is how long they've lived. The longer you study

it, the easier the language of spells becomes, and the easier

it becomes, the more power you can exert over what

happens to be around you. Also, you've learned to See

things in greater and greater detail, which gives you more

to describe, which in turn gives you more power over

them. You have to leam how to look at things, you know.

in magic as well as in anything else. To someone who

didn't know about hats, our red hat would be nothing but a

red hat. To a maker of hats, though, it would be of such

and such a style, that color and this shape, individually

dyed or batch dyed, stitched or woven, made by someone

with skill or without, old and well worn or new and

unfaded- There's so much to know about things that the

amount is incredible, and some people with the Sight are

too lazy to leam it all. That's where a lot of them run into

trouble.''

 

"I do believe I would dislike trouble of that sort," he

said, a reluctant but definite admission. "Of what does

their dereliction consist?"

 

"Well, some of them tend to be the sort to believe that

any hold at all on a sleeve is enough to stop the person

wearing the sleeve," I said. "They describe as little of the

thing they're looking at as possible, exerting only a tenu-

ous hold over it, then try to make it do what they want.

Sometimes they're successful, usually they're only half

successful, and sometimes it doesn't work at all. They're

the ones who are too lazy to really leam me language of

spells, but mere are some who don't have the brains for it.

All the stupid ones can do is leam one or two very simple

spells, and then spend the rest of their lives coasting on the

reputation of being a witch or a magician. The real trouble

 

48               SHARON GREEN

 

comes when one of the stupid or lazy tries to do something

beyond them. They establish a weak or useless hold on

some dangerous entry, for example, then either get sucked

into it or let out things that don't get along with our kind

of life. It's pure hell getting a mess like that straightened

out again, especially if they happen to get sucked in and

leave the entry behind them. People without the Sight

can't See the entry, and end up getting sucked in right

behind the bungler."

 

"To disappear forever from the world they know," he

said with a shudder he made no attempt to hide. "Truly is

there a dark side to this thing called magic."

 

"Only if you go at it stupidly," I said, looking around

at the cool, green woods we were just entering. "There are

some people, without the Sight, who make a wrong dis-

tinction between white magic and black magic. They don't

understand that the Sighted arc otherwise no different from

me unSighted, some bright, some stupid, some decent and

some warped by something inside them. What the warped

try to do is use magic to advance themselves according to

their own peculiar values, but they try to do it in a way

that doesn't match reality. They See what me rest of us

See, but the vision doesn't suit them so they try to tell

themselves they're Seeing something else. When they be-

gin describing that something else in a spell, the spell and

me reality don't quite match up, but they're using very

precise language that brings them a lot of power. We've

discovered that that power—changes—the reality of what

the warped one is looking at, but not the way normal magic

changes things. To change something into something else

is easy, but only if you have a sure grasp of what that

something is to begin with; you're accepting its reality and

working from there. To alter that reality to begin with is

not black magic but something else entirely, and the sub-

stance for the change has to come from somewhere other

than thin air. The only place for the substance to come

from is the warped one's own body, and that's where it

does come from. They force reality to change to their view

of it, but pay a terrible price for the accomplishment.

Every use of that kind of power diminishes them, but most

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

49

 

of them won't admit it until mere isn't enough left of them

to save."

 

We were both silent for a while after that, the darker

woods a fitting backdrop for the dark subject we'd been

discussing, the happy chirps and squawks and chitterings

all around both incongruous and at the same time warm-

ing. Physical dark can never be as bad as the dark of the

mind, and after the while passed Kadrim Harra took a deep

breath of the sweet air we rode through.

 

"And the spells which you spent me darkness learn-

ing?" he said, bringing his attention back to me. "As

spells are merely descriptions of that which you see, for

what reason did you need to leam of what is not yet before

you?"

 

"The purpose of speaking a spelt is to gather power

over the thing you're describing," I said slowly, trying to

keep from confusing him. "If I can See something I can

describe it in the language of spells, and if I speak the

spell I have power over it. The problem is, although I can

feel the power someone has or has used by speaking a

spell, I can't See the spell itself—at least, not most spells.

If I can't See a spell sent to attack us, I can't defend

against it, nor can even the strongest wizard alive. The

only thing i can do is leam certain general defensive

spells, which describe conditions rather than solid objects.

Developing those spells took a lot of time and a lot of

dangerous work by very powerful wizards, and they must

be learned exactly right or they won't work—or, worse

than that, they'll work wrong. I could build us a house in

the middle of these woods right now without any trouble at

all, but I've Seen houses and can speak the spell without

the least danger. UnSeen spheres and platforms and things

are another matter entirely, so you can be sure I won't use

those spells unless I absolutely have to."

 

"A wise precaution," he agreed with a distracted nod,

again thinking about what he'd been told. "No man of

sense will use an untried and undependable weapon, save

that his life hinges upon that use. These spells of protec-

tion which were taught you—the wizard spoke them to you

so that you would know them? Over and over till they

were yours?"

 

SHARON OREEN

 

50

 

"Of course not," I answered with a laugh, seeing it

would take some time before he absorbed all the details of

what magic was about. "If Graythor had spoken the spells

he would have invoked them, and then we would have

spent the night surrounded by invisible spheres and walls

and platforms. He had me leam them from his red

Grimoire."

 

The blank look I got then made me feel annoyed with

myself, mainly for forgetting how little he knew about

magic, but also for the tiredness that was weighing me

down. I'd need to gather strength and alertness before the

morning was even half over, something I hadn't thought

would be necessary quite so soon. Maybe I was getting to

be older than I thought.

 

"A Grimoire is a book of spells, and each wizard puts

together his or her own," I explained, tossing my head to

get the hair back over my shoulders. "Some of them are

like Graythor's, simply written in the language of spells to

be used by anyone with the Sight, but some are more

involved- Spells that are written down deal with things that

can't be Seen, and not all wizards are willing to share the

work of decades with anyone who comes along. Those

wizards disguise their spells to look like this language

rather man the language of spells, and need a key before

they can be read as spells. Those are usually also red

Grimoires, but sometimes the same is done for safety

purposes with black Grimoires."

 

Again the blank look, but this time I was expecting it.

Maybe it was lack of sleep rather than age after all.

 

"There are two kinds of spells concerning the unSeen,"

I said, this time consciously noticing that the two men

ahead of us were glancing back to make sure we were still

with the group. Rikkan Addis had done that a few times

before, but then he did still consider himself leader of our

expedition. "The first set of spells are like the ones I've

learned, ones that have been developed and made reason-

ably safe by wizards of power, spells that will work right

if they're spoken right. The second kind of written spells

are ones that aren't safe at all, ones that are speculation

and have never been tried, ones that are tried but for some

reason don't always do what they're supposed to, and ones

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

51

 

that seem absolutely simple and safe, but will kill or erase

anyone who uses mem. Spells like that are black magic,

and are kept in black Grimoires, to let everyone know

what they are, and to be in a handy place where they can

be studied and tinkered with by any wizard who's grown

tired of living. I don't ever expect to get that tired of

living."

 

"Nor I,*' he said with a chuckle, also having noticed

the attention from ahead, but making no effort to hurry us

into closing the gap we'd let grow. "Life, I believe, is

meant to be filled with enjoyment till it ends of its own

self. At dinner last darkness, the wizard disallowed discus-

sion upon the point of our former lives. Think you he

meant the ban to continue for all of this journey?"

 

"If that's what he'd wanted, he would have said so," I

answered with a shrug, wondering why he would ask that,

"Or he would have used a spell to be sure no one could

talk about themselves. Is there something about yourself

that you wanted to say?"

 

"At the moment, no more man that 1 am a king in my

own world," he said, his smile faint beneath those steady

blue eyes. "It was you I wished to speak of, to learn what 1

might of one who deals so easily with that which others

are unable to touch. Surely the power comes to you more

swiftly and easily than to others."

 

"The power only comes to those who work hard for it,"

I said with just a small sound of ridicule, remembering he

didn't really know about magic. "I've spent the last ten

years slaving away studying with my foster mother, who

was a wizard long before she ever found me. A wizard and

a slavedriver, but if there's one particular reason I'm a

sorceress now, she's it. She didn't have to take me time

away from her own studies but she did, and always let me

know how much she enjoyed it and how proud she was of

me. I owe her more than I'll ever be able to repay."

 

"She must truly be a great woman," he said, somehow

sounding as though he, a boy, was giving her, a wizard,

an approval she might not ordinarily be entitled to. "You

say that she is your foster mother, and that you were a

foundling? Who, then, are the people of your blood?"

 

*'It would be interesting to know," I muttered, moving

 

SHARON GREEN

 

52

 

my eyes to the long gray mane bobbing in front of my

hands. "My earliest memory is of the streets of Geddenburg,

sleeping in deserted shacks, eating garbage, and begging

coppers with me rest of the kids who lived in the alley-

ways with me. I spent years among the street folk, eventu-

ally moving up, like all the others in our pack, to stealing,

but I wasn't very good at it. Morgiana caught me with a

hand in her purse, tripped me with a spell before I could

run far enough to lose myself in the crowds or alleys, then

dragged me home with her. She'd known immediately

that I was one of the Sighted, and wasn't about to let me

disappear back into the gutter. As close as she could tell I

was about twelve years old then, tall and thin and raggedy

and filthy, and stubborn as a brick wall. I've always

wondered where she found the patience to put up with

me."

 

"Clearly she was able to see the woman you would

become," he said in a way mat let me know those eyes

were still on me. "Tall and slender, well-shaped and

lovely, strong as well as powerful. Had 1 a sleeve, perhaps

I would not escape as easily as 1 had thought."

 

"Oh, sure, lovely," I repeated sourly, reaching a hand

out to stroke the gray mane I still stared at. "With straw-

white hair and stupid-colored eyes and taller than almost

any other woman except Targa Emmen Su Daylath. That

was one of the reasons 1 was such a failure as a thief. A

good thief is more like a ghost, never noticed by the target

or mark, but how could anyone miss someone who looks

the way I do? If I weren't so stubborn 1 would have

changed myself years ago to something more normal, but I

don't want to do that. Looking like something else wouldn't

be me."

 

"And we must each of us be ourselves," he agreed, his

voice now a murmur. "I am honored that you would speak

to me so, sharing things which surely continue to give you

pain. Perhaps later I, too, will share a thing which is not

easily put into words."

 

"Only if you want to," I said, finally looking at him

again. "You're very easy to talk to, but 1 don't happen to

have that talent and I know it. And I'm also very tired and

probably have talked too much. All my closest friends in

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

53

 

the pack were male, but I haven't had a male friend since.

You don't mind being friends with someone older than

you, do you?"

 

"No, it would please me if we were friends," he said

with a sigh and the oddest smile, one mat made me think

that for some reason he was laughing at himself. "One is

never able to have too many friends." He paused a mo-

ment then said, "What of suitors? You have said naught of

them, yet surely there are many men who came to pay you

court? You speak of yourself with odd disapproval, yet a

man would need to be blind to see you as anything other

than lovely."

 

"You sound like Morgiana," I told him, making a face

at the nonsense he was trying to get me to believe. "If you

mink you like me way 1 look, it's only because we've

decided to be friends- She says it because she loves me,

and love does weird things even to the Sight. And no, our

doors haven't been broken down by droves of love-crazed

men coming to beg for my hand. Oh, I guess a few

sorcerers and one or two wizards have come calling the

last few years, but Morgiana didn't like them any more

than 1 did, and there must have been something wrong

with them if they were coming after me. But what about

you? You must have had hundreds of girlfriends back in

your own world, especially if you're a king."

 

"Indeed, I have had all the women I could desire," he

said, his smile widening to a grin. "Few as friends, yet

did 1 nevertheless find the time most pleasant. Many fe-

males seem to desire a king no matter the other qualities he

may or may not possess. Afterward, they, too, were

pleased."

 

"Well, I know what's going to please me," I said,

glancing ahead to make sure we were still far enough back

before looking straight at him. "If I tell you something,

will you keep it just between us?"

 

"You would now share a secret," he said with another

sigh, the grin having gone elsewhere- "Perhaps, after that,

/ would do well to speak more plainly- For the moment,

you have my word that I will not repeat whatever is told

me. What is it you would have me know?"

 

"Just mis," 1 said, deciding 1 didn't have the time to

 

54

 

SHARON GREEN

 

figure out whatever he was talking about. "I've already

mentioned how important this quest is to me, so when I

say I've decided to make sure it's run right, you won't be

surprised. As soon as we pass through the first gate I'm

going to take over as leader, and I want you to be my

second in command.''

 

"You?" he said, blinking at me with the sort of incom-

prehension he hadn't shown even when 1 was explaining

about magic. "Our leader? Has the wizard not said that the

man with glowing eyes is to be our leader? How do you

mean to convince ..."

 

"Convince nothing," 1 interrupted, gesturing aside his

objections- "Once I announce the change, he can either go

along with it or go back where he came from. Even if he

didn't agree, how could he stop me? Besides, I have

experience leading, and who knows how much he has? I

was leader of our street pack for almost two years before

Morgiana found me, and I made a damned good leader.

And wouldn't you rather be second in command instead of

just another member of the expedition?"

 

"At various times in his life, a man fmds me offer of

position tempting," he allowed with a nod and a very

bland look that somehow seemed to be covering amuse-

ment. "There is still, however, the matter of the wishes of

a wizard to consider. And this Rikkan Addis himself.

Should he leave us, we would be lacking his abilities when

we arrived at our destination. Would you see our quest

jeopardized through the lack of some necessary talent?"

 

"But that's just the point," I urged, determined to get

him off the fence. "All of us have specific talents but him;

 

he isn't supposed to do anything but lead- Under normal

circumstances / would have been the natural choice for

leader, but Graythor was given reason to doubt me. i don't

blame him for that doubt, but 1 also don't have the time to

prove to him how wrong he is. All 1 can do is what I know

is right."

 

"But what of the physical defense of our group?*' he

asked, the supposedly neutral question still keeping him

seated firmly where he had been. "Zail T'Zannis, Rikkan

Addis and I have been made responsible for our physical

defense, with Targa Emmen Su Daylath to assist us should

 

THE PAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

55

 

it become necessary. It would not benefit us to lose one of

our swordanns."

 

I looked ahead to see again the swords worn by the two

men and the big woman, not to mention the wide slab of

edged metal hanging sheathed between Kadrim Harra and

myself. They all wore the weapons as if they were a part

of them, but that couldn't be as important as the boy

thought it was.

 

"Magic is better than a sword any day," I assured him,

speaking with all the confidence I felt. "And there's al-

ways the chance that he won't leave the group once he's

replaced anyway. Now, what do you say? Are you with

me?"

 

"1—must have some time to consider the thing," he

hedged, me mind behind those blue eyes working fast. "I

shall come to you when we have halted for the darkness,

and we may continue the discussion then. Is this accept-

able to you, lady?"

 

"1 suppose so," I grudged with a sigh, knowing 1

wasn't about to get a commitment out of him right then

even if we kept talking for the rest of the morning. "And

you don't have to call me 'lady'. My name is Laciel."

 

"A lovely name for a lovely woman," he said, really in

a hurry to change subjects. "It would please me to have

you call me Kadrim. Have you no other names to go with

the one, Laciel? A woman such as you should have many

names for a man to put his lips upon."

 

"Those with the Sight usually use only one name," 1

explained with no more than partial attention to what I was

saying, already being distracted by the consideration of

what time would be best for the takeover. "There's a

heavy link between people and their names, so if you

know their real names you have considerably more power

over them. The Sighted all have use names, chosen for

them by someone else to cut down on possible affinity-

choices, and those are the names they're known by.

Morgiana chose Lay-see-el, and I can't think of a name I'd

dislike more."

 

"Yes, it would definitely be wisest waiting for the

darkness," he muttered, for some reason back to sighing. 1

 

56              SHARON GREEN

 

couldn't imagine why he kept making such strange com-

ments, but at that point I had other things to think about.

 

The woods we rode through lasted until the sun had

climbed a good deal higher in the sky, and then they

deserted us. Beyond was a wider road leading between

broad, cultivated fields, and by that time Kadrim and I

were riding considerably closer to the rest of the group.

Targa Emmen Su Daylath was still in the lead with Soffann

Dra half a length behind her, Zail T'Zannis beside Soffann

Dra, and Rikkan Addis alone just behind them. He'd

looked over his shoulder one last time when Kadrim and I

had finally caught up, a curious expression in those bronze

eyes when they touched the redheaded boy, and after that

he hadn't bothered looking back again. It occurred to me

that he might be considering Kadrim a possible rival for

his new position, which just goes to show how wrong you

can be if you really work at it.

 

It wasn't quite noon when we reached the town, in the

middle of lots of other traffic, both vehicular and foot.

Wagons and people on horseback and even more people on

shank's mare were converging on the meadow that stretched

wide and crowded in front of the town, and everyone was

laughing and joking in the true holiday spirit. Tents and

booths and wagons were spread out all over the meadow,

tinny-sounding bands were playing, conversation, barter-

ing and come-ons sounded everywhere from the growing

crowds, and the previously fresh air was heavy with the

smells of animals, people, food, leather goods, newly

worked metal, you name it. The town was having a fair,

and everyone from fifty miles around or more must have

come to enjoy it.

 

"Oh, I wonder what jewelry and silks they're show-

ing," Soffann Dra exclaimed, leaning up in her stirrups to

see if anything was visible from where we'd stopped be-

side the road. From the fact that those hours of riding

hadn't affected her any more than it had the rest of us, I

could see that Graythor had given her more than simple

horsemanship ability.

 

"We'll just be stopping for a meal and a short rest."

Rikkan Addis said as he looked around, his tone distracted

and very faintly unsure. "We might even be best off

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

57

 

continuing on to the inn on the other side of this town that

the wizard told me about. Wandering around in a crowd

this size doesn't strike me as a very good idea."

 

"But the people at the inn are probably all here,"

Soffann Dra protested with a pretty pout, moving her

white horse closer to the man's roan. "Please, Rik, just

for a little while, it won't hurt anything. Won't you say

yes for me?"

 

When she batted her long, dark lashes his way she was

almost close enough to knock him off his horse, and

probably would have if he hadn't been that much bigger

than she. When he didn't answer immediately it was most

likely concussion that kept him silent, and that gave Zail

T'Zannis a chance to jump in.

 

"It might be a good idea at that, Rik," he urged, faint

amusement in his gray eyes. "I don't know about the rest

of you, but I think I'd like to get a closer look at the

people we'll be trying to help. Bring it away from the

idealistic and down to the personal, so to speak."

 

"We don't have that much time, but I suppose it'll be

all right," Rikkan Addis gave in with a sigh, opting for

reasonable instead of stubborn. "Let's find a place to

leave the horses."          ^

 

He and the others began looking around for a good spot

that would be out of the way, but they weren't likely to

find one unless they went into the town itself. At first I

hadn't wanted to take the lime to stop at the fair, but Zail

T'Zannis' request had given me an urge of my own. Just

in case the unthinkable happened, I needed one last happy

time among the people of my world-

 

"Everyone bring their horses over to that tree," I said,

pointing to a tall, lonesome specimen that stood about fifty

feet to the right of the road, on the side opposite the fair

meadow. "We can leave the horses right there."

 

"All tied to that one tree?" Zail T'Zannis asked with a

laugh, mis time giving me those gray eyes. "Right where

anyone coming by can walk off with them? If we leave

them there, one of us will have to stay to guard them."

 

"Don't worry, Zail, I'll stay with them," Rikkan Addis

said, finally giving up on looking around. "There isn't any

 

58 SHARON GREEN

 

place better, not unless we go into the town. Just remem-

ber to bring something back for me to eat."

 

"What noble sacrifice," I commented, backing my gray

out of the press of other horse bodies before turning to-

ward the tree. "If you'll all quit criticizing, complaining

or volunteering and just follow me, you'll fmd mat no one

has to stay behind."

 

A puzzled silence followed along with them, especially

when I told them not to tie their mounts in what would

have proved to be a very restricted area for such big

horses. Once we were all dismounted I had them move

back, then looked at the area surrounding the tree and

horses. As soon as I decided what size I wanted it to be, I

raised my right hand and spoke the two words necessary to

get it done. The silence behind me was suddenly filled

with startled exclamations, and when I turned to my five

companions they were dividing their stare between me and

me tree.

 

"They're gone!" Soffann Dra exclaimed, looking less

than pleased with that. "I loved that horse, and now he's

gone! What have you done with him?"

 

"He's right mere behind the fence," I answered with a

good deal less excitement, glancing over at her. "Would

you prefer being inside with him to visiting me fair?"

 

"I don't see a fence," she protested, this time without

the exclamation points, her hands flat to the middle of her

pretty green gown, her eyes wider than they had been.

 

"And neither will anyone else," Rikkan Addis said

with satisfaction, his bronze-colored eyes glowing very

faintly. "I can see your magic is going to come in handier

than I'd expected, giri."

 

"There is something here I do not grasp," Kadrim said

thoughtfully, just in time to keep me from putting another

fence around Rikkan Addis. My magic was likely to come

in handier than he had expected?

 

"1 can't imagine what you could be missing, my friend,"

Zail T'Zannis said to Kadrim with a grin while I glared at

Rikkan Addis, who never noticed a damned thing. "First

the horses are there, and now they've disappeared. Noth-

ing simpler."

 

"The horses haven't disappeared," I said for what felt

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

59

 

like the thirtieth time, moving part of my glare to the

curly-haired Zail T'Zannis. "I just put a fence around

them, to keep mem in and other people out. You're not

really seeing the tree through the fence, only an image of

it, and I've added a 'Keep Out' sign that will make people

walk around it rather than blunder into it. Don't any of you

know anything about magic?"

 

"You know how meager my own knowledge upon the

subject is," Kadrim said smoothly while Zail T'Zannis at

least had the grace to look uncomfortable. "I had thought I

now possessed a partial understanding of me thing, yet is

this cleariy not so. You had said, I thought, that you

would hesitate to use spells for the unseen, yet now you

have done so with no difficulty and less reluctance. I

would know from where my confusion arises."

 

"It arises from your definition of 'unSeen'," I told him,

looking up into those steady blue eyes instead of into all

the rest of the eyes on me. "Invisible and unSeen are two

different things, and what you're looking at now—or,

rather, not looking at—is simply invisible. My spell built a

fence just like any other fence, except for the fact that it

can't be seen. Ail I did was leave the outer physical

appearance of 'fence' out of4ny description, so everything

appeared but its appearance. I hww what the fence looks

like, so it isn't 'unSeen'. 'UnSeen' has no physical appear-

ance to begin with, which is what makes it so hard to

handle."

 

Kadrim was frowning while his mind wrestled with

what he'd been told, but his expression was the mildest of

the five. Soffann Dra looked totally bewildered and lost,

Targa Emmen Su Daylath was sighing and shaking her

head, Zail T'Zannis was hitting his temple with the heel of

his hand—as though he thought something had gone wrong

with his hearing—and Rikkan Addis was looking around

impatiently. Our fearless leader didn't seem to be very

impressed, and his next words proved it.

 

"I think we'd better get on to finding some food," he

said, garnering everyone along with a gesture as he turned

back toward the road. "The horses will be safe until we

come back for them, and the lectures can wait until we're

on our way again. All of you stay as close as possible to

 

6o SHARON GREEN

 

me, we don't want to get separated in the crowds. The

wizard gave me enough gold to feed us on a regular basis,

so let's start using some of it."

 

"So let's start using some of it," 1 mimicked softly at

their retreating backs, watching them all heading toward

the road and the fair excitement beyond. "Lectures can

wait until later. Stay as close to me as possible." He

wasn't the expedition leader he was the Daddy, and even

Kadrim was old enough to get along without that. When I

took over, we'd all be even better off than I'd thought.

 

I trailed along after them into the eager, jostling crowds,

but after a minute or two made no effort to keep up. When

I wanted to find them I'd have no trouble doing it, and

they certainly couldn't ride off and leave me. The sun was

high and hot enough to be uncomfortable, the crowds were

thick enough and close enough to compound that, and

despite the strength I'd gathered to me with a revitalizing

spell, I could still feel a shadow of tiredness; none of that

made any difference, however, in the face of the holiday

feeling I was catching from everyone around me. It had to

be more than two years since I'd last been to a fair, and I'd

loved them even when I was little and couldn't afford to

buy anything. Everyone was always so happy there, and it

felt as if all the people in the world were gathered in that

one place to have fun.

 

The rush of the crowd carried me with it for a little way,

and then people began moving off in different directions,

men pointing things out to the women with them, kids

tugging at their parents in an effort to make them hurry,

women entranced by the sight of things they'd love to have

and towing chuckling men behind by the hand. Food

smells competed with one another in the heavy air, and

hawkers shouted at the crowds to get mem over to the

booths and buying. Clowns ran in and out of the thinner

crowds, fighting with one another and making people laugh,

urging them to come to their show later and then skipping

off. I was doing no more than strolling around, drinking it

all in, and then I saw one exhibition that drew me to it.

 

Outside a big black tent with silver stars and moons on

it stood a tall man with a black beard, wearing a long,

wide-sleeved dark blue robe and a tall, pointed hat, both

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER        61

 

decorated like the tent. The man was holding a wand and

talking to the people who had paused in front of his tent,

watching them as they watched the three-legged brazier

standing to his right. A thick bed of coats glowed red in

the brazier, and just above me coals lazed a wide flame

with two very black eyes. The eyes looked up at the

people staring down at them, and when they shifted from

one face to the next, people gasped.

 

"Don't understand what that's supposed to be," a quiet

voice said from beside me, surprising me into looking

around. Targa Emmen Su Daylath stood at my right elbow

a short distance back from the people in front of the tent,

her eyes on the brazier and the flame, her arms folded

across her chest. None of the others seemed to be with her,

and then it came to me that she'd asked a question.

 

"That's a salamander," 1 supplied, studying her as she

studied the two black eyes. "The magician is telling the

crowd that his arts captured it and keep it in forced service

to him, but that's just a come-on to get them into the tent

and pay to see the rest of the show. The salamander isn't

bound, it's just here visiting and seeing the sights. When it

gets bored it will simply move on, and he'll have to find

another one to make a deal w^h. They're not master and

slave, they're business partners." .

 

"Thought the thing might need freeing," she said, bring-

ing her attention away from the attraction and back to me.

"Don't know more about magic than that it is, and don't

really want to know. Shouldn't have wandered away from

us in a place like this, too easy to get lost. Rik said we

should stay together.' *

 

"I'm sure Rik says a lot of things," I commented,

bringing a flash of amusement to her calm, dark brown

eyes. "If you're so worried about what Daddy will think,

what are you doing away from the nest? I can always use

magic to find them, but you can't."

 

"Wizard said my tracking ability is some kind of magic,"

she informed me, the words as easy and unimpressive as

the rest of what she'd said had been. "He fixed it so I

could see any trail 1 want to see, and if I can see it I can

follow it. That's how I'm following our trail."

 

"So if you want to go back, you'll just follow your own

 

62 SHARON GREEN

 

trail to where you left them. then theirs to wherever they

went," 1 acknowledged with a nod, still looking up at her.

"That says how you'll get back, but not why you came

away in the first place."

 

"When there's a group, don't like seeing one all alone

out of it," she said, a faint smite appearing to add to the

calm. "In the tribe, we don't let it happen. You don't like

Rik, but he's got the gold and you have to be as hungry as

lam."

 

I studied her in silence for a moment, her big body more

man half a head taller than mine and proportionately wider,

her long, light brown hair supported in a high tail by its

bone holder, the yellow leather and swordbelt she wore

doing more to add to her air of competence than detract

from it. She seemed to really enjoy going barefoot, so she

simply did it. Just the way she seemed prepared to do

anything else she felt needed doing. Straight out with no

excuses.

 

"No, I don't like Rik," I said after me moment, giving

her the sort of smile she was giving me. "But he's not the

only one with coins in his hand, so there's no reason to go

back right away. Let's get something to eat first."

 

I hadn't needed to use a word, only a gesture, which

meant that she blinked in surprise when I opened my hand

to show the silver. Gold is fine for inns and cities, but at

country fairs silver does better. Less change to get when

you buy something, and less of a stir when you produce it.

There was a food stall not far from the magician's tent, so

we headed for it.

 

"Your tribe must be a really good place to live,1* I

remarked as we walked, privately hoping that the lines at

the food stall would move quickly. "If everyone's as

friendly as you say, you must miss it quite a lot."

 

"Would miss it more if my man was still alive," she

answered, also eying me lines we were nearing. "He was

me one who made me feel a part of it all, without him I

don't much care. Hunted for the tribe because they were

good people, because they needed all the hunters they

could get, but my being gone won't make much differ-

ence. A thousand hunters won't keep them alive in those

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER         63

 

empty lands they ran to, and they're too afraid to go back

to where the game is."

 

"Why?" I asked with a frown, stopping behind the

crowd of food buyers to look up at her. "Why should they

go to a place to starve, and what happened to your man?"

 

"Died in the fight with the Wolf tribe," she said, her

shrug putting the whole thing beyond anyone's ability to

change. "Wolf tribe wanted everybody else's land, so they

started a war. We were the third they fought with, and we

didn't do any better than the rest. Our men died where

they stood, and the rest of the tribe ran till they got to the

empty land. Nothing left but women and kids and old

ones, nothing that could face me Wolf tribe. If they went

back the Wolves would take the women and kids and kill

off the old, and they don't want that. Without men to fight

for them, they have no choice- Wanted to go with my man

to stand against me Wolves, but he said no. Didn't want

me dead, he said. Dead wouldn't have been as bad as he

thought."

 

Her dark eyes were still calm as she merely stated facts,

but / could feel the hurt she wasn't showing. People still

enjoyed themselves all around us, but a little of the warm

brightness was gone from the^day. I looked down at the

piece of silver in my hand, then back up to the big hunter.

 

"After this quest is over, maybe you'd care to join me

on another trip," I suggested, weighing the coin in my

hand. "I think I'd like to meet that Wolf tribe."

 

"Won't like meeting you," was all she said, but the

grin she suddenly showed was full of anticipation, not to

mention the first of its kind to be seen on her. The big

woman didn't seem to be the sort to grin much, and I

could understand that. Apparently I'd found something she

could grin at, which I could understand even better. No,

the Wolf tribe would definitely not enjoy meeting me.

 

The lines in front of us finally thinned enough for us to

reach the stall, and the wait turned out to be worth it. The

stall people were selling meat pies, vegetable pies and fruit

pies, all of them composed of the lightest, most delicious

crust I'd ever tasted. AH the fillings were just as special,

and I was glad I'd bought one of each for each of us. We

stood at the side of me stall eating the delights one after

 

64               SHARON GREEN

 

the other, trying not to burn our mouths but making no

effort to wait until they cooled, and it didn't take long to

realize what we were missing. I licked up the last of the

crumbs on my hand, then glanced over at my companion.

 

"After that, Targa Emma Su Daylath, we need some-

thing cold and wet," I announced, already beginning to

look around at the other stalls and tents. "If you'U tell me

what you'd like, we'll go and find it."

 

"Always been partial to ale," she answered, brushing

her hands together to get rid of her own crumbs. "Passed

an ale tent on my way here, should be in that direction.

And you can call me Su. My man was Targa Emmen Vad

Areth, Vad and Su the hunters, for the Hawk tribe."

 

"Su, then," I said with a nod and a smile. "I'm Laciel,

and ale it is in that direction."

 

We left the stall and headed toward where me ale tent

would be, happily filled and looking forward to quenching

our thrist before rejoining me others. People moved every-

where and in every direction, making us thread our way

through them until we reached a reasonably uncrowded

alley between two lines of tents and stalls. With gambling

going on inside some of the tents and dancers putting on

their shows in others, most of the foot traffic was already

under canvas. Su and I, able to breathe again, strolled up

me alley looking at what could be seen of the doings in

the tents, and were surprised when three men suddenly

materialized in front of us. They wore old and dirty leather—

high, scuffed boots, plain, worn swordbelts—and two of

them had beards. The two with beards were straight-faced,

but the shaven one was grinning.

 

"You girls looking for a good time?" he asked, letting

his eyes move back and forth between Su and myself, his

book-end friends standing slightly behind him. "You just

come along with us, and we'll show you the best time you

ever had."

 

"We're not looking for anything you could help us

with," I told him coldly, letting him see I wasn't joking.

"Just get out of our way and find someone else to show a

good time to."

 

"Now, that's not being very friendly," the beardless

man complained, his dark eyes finally settling for me, his

 

65

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

grin undisturbed. "You're the only one at this whole fair

who interests me, and 1 won't take no for an answer."

 

He moved one step toward me, raising his hand to take

my arm, but before he could touch me or the step was

completed, he was stopped by a big hand in the middle of

his chest. The man was barely an inch taller than me,

which made it necessary for him to look up at Su, the one

whose hand had stopped him.

 

"Wouldn't do that if I were you," she said in her calm,

easy voice, unimpressed by the way the man's grin faded to

a scowl. "Better find somebody else, the way she said."

 

"And I said I didn't want anybody else," he contradicted

with a matching evenness, then without warning dropped

a wide shoulder to knock Su away from me. The next

instant he and his friends were close and grabbing for me,

and that got me almost as angry as what he'd done to Su. 1

snapped out a word of power meant to drop them in their

tracks—then felt my jaw drop when they did no more man

shiver before closing in to grab me. They were under the

protection of some sort of warding spell, which probably

meant they did that kind of thing on a regular basis. I

could have countered their warding spell if I'd known its

details, but I didn't know and didn't have the time to find

out. They all had their hands or anus on me, and despite

me way I was kicking and struggling, they were beginning

to force me back up me alleyway.

 

And then a sound came that no one could miss, the

sound of a sword being freed of its scabbard. The beard-

less man and one of his helpers whirled away from me as

they drew their own weapons, paying no attention to the

small clumps of people who had appeared from some-

where to stare and point and ask each other what was

going on. The only one they looked at was Su, her sword

in her fist as she stood waiting for them. The third one

still had his left arm around my waist and his right hand

clamped to my right arm, my kicking doing nothing more

than making him curse. I twisted in his grip but couldn't

get loose—and then the other two had closed with Su:

 

The sound of metal on metal turned me more desperate

man I had been, especially when I saw that Su was good

enough with a sword to hold her own against the two men

 

66

 

SHARON GREEN

 

for a while, but probably wouldn't be able to best them

both. They would wear her down and kill her before

dragging me off for the ransom or whatever they'd decided

they could get, and I couldn't let that happen. They were

protected against my magic just then, but there's more

than one way to use magic.

 

The proper gesture and word put the long, heavy piece

of squared wood into my left hand, and I lost no time in

bringing it up and back with alt my strength, catching the

man who held me in the side of the head. He grunted at

the blow and immediately began falling, nearly taking me

down with him before his grip relaxed enough for me to

free myself- As soon as I had pulled loose I ran over to the

three who were swinging away at each other with swords

and did a little swinging of my own, directly at the head of

the second bearded man. Su had been swiping toward his

middle just then, and when his guard dropped she opened

him from side to side. He went straight down to the

ground without making any sound, first unconscious and

then dead.

 

The beardless man was left to face Su, and that didn't

make him very happy. She had been able to hold off

two swords against her own, and once the odds had been

evened she went on the offensive. He suddenly found

himself defending frantically against an attack that had

almost as much strength behind it as his own, and didn't

seem quite able to match the speed of it. Su drove him

back step by step, and when he tried to disengage and run

she didn't allow it. One quick, strong lunge put her point

in his chest, and when she jerked it out again he never felt

it. He dropped his sword, then folded to the ground, and

that was the end of that.

 

"That was really nice," I began, moving forward with

the block of wood still in my hand, but was interrupted by

a commotion coming from the other end of the alley. Su

and I both immediately turned that way, sword and wood

coming up together, but all it turned out to be was three

familiar male figures rushing up with swords in their hands,

one small female figure hurrying along behind them. In-

stead of us finding the group, me group had done the

finding.

 

67

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

"What's going on here?" Rikkan Addis demanded as

the three stopped beside us, all of them looking around at

the mess Su had made. "What happened?"

 

"Didn't listen when we said to move on," Su told him.

bending to wipe her weapon on her second opponent.

"Tried to take Laciel along with them, didn't think I'd

draw on numbers. Some men are damn fools. Good swing

with mat wood, girl."

 

"My pleasure," I told her with a smile, gesturing the

wood back to the air it had come from. "Most especially

with the one who was still holding me."

 

I turned my head to look at my first victim, but all that

was left of him was a mark in the scuffed dirt where he'd

fallen. He'd probably come around soon enough to find

himself outnumbered, and had faded back into the wood-

work where his kind came from.

 

"Did they harm you?" Kadrim demanded from my

right elbow, and when I looked back saw that he was

talking only to me, a scowl on his smooth, handsome face.

"You must surely be greatly upset from so harrowing an

experience."

 

"Why would I be upset?" I asked, amused at me way he

slammed his sword back into ite scabbard as though disap-

pointed that he had no one to use k on. "It's been a good

number of years, but when I lived on the streets this sort of

tiling happened all the time- Not to me, of course, but I

wasn't worth ransoming back then. And no, they didn't

hurt me, just mussed me a little."

 

"This wouldn't have happened if you two had stayed

with tile rest of us as you were told to do," Rikkan Addis

interrupted with a growl, moving nearer to glare at Su and

myself. His weapon had also been returned to its scab-

bard, but his bronze eyes glowed with the sharpness of a

sword edge. "Do you know where we'd be if Su had been

badly wounded or killed? We'd be without anyone to find

the trail for us, and therefore stopped even before we

started! We'd be able to turn this expedition around and go

crawling back to the wizard on our bellies, beaten by our

own stupidity. Didn't that even occur to you?"

 

By the end of his speech / was me only one those eyes

were accusing, his broad face adding to their anger, tight

 

68

 

SHARON GREEN

 

fists set on hips. Su had been endangered because of me,

because I had disobeyed our great, bronze-eyed leader,

and that could have meant the end of our quest. Rikkan

Addis was a little taller than Su, but that wasn't the reason

he was looking down at me. I'd been a bad little girl, and

now was being scolded for it.

 

"Since I didn't set out to get Su hurt, it certainly did not

occur to me what might happen," I came back at him,

finding that I'd straightened to my full height, somewhat

aware of the absolute silence holding the rest of our group.

"For your information Su's safety is more important to me

than just in relation to this quest, and if it came right down

to it, I would not have let her get hurt. And even if she

was, for one reason or another, unable to follow the trail

for us, there would still be nothing to stop me from doing

it. Or didn't you know that if I had to, I could bring her

abilities under my control? It would not be particularly

easy, but I could do it."

 

For someone who had had so many words eariier, he

seemed to have no immediate response to that. I was

standing there and glaring up at him with my own fists on

my hips, furious that he'd lecture me like a child, and in

front of a crowd of people at that. If it hadn't been possible

that Graythor was watching us I would have taken the

leadership from him then and there, but knowing Graythor

he probably was watching. Once we passed through the

first gate, though, he would no longer be able to watch,

and that's when I would make my move. Our fearless

leader absorbed my justifiable truculence with no more

than a thoughtful blink of those bronze eyes, and then he

had brushed it all aside.

 

"What you can or can't do is completely beside the

point," he said in a flat-voiced growl, making the only

kind of judgment his sort was capable of, "We were

brought together for a purpose, and wandering around

separately, getting into trouble, isn't it. From now on no

one leaves this group without my permission, or the worst

trouble they'll find will come from my direction. Now,

let's get to the horses and back on the road."

 

He moved one step away and just waited, as though

expecting me to jump to it as fast as I could, desperate to

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

keep from finding the awftu, hovering doom he'd prom-

ised for disobedience. I let my eyes move down his rust-

colored leather to his boots and then back up to his thick

black hair, then deliberately turned to look at Su.

 

"We haven't had our ale yet, have we?" I remembered

aloud, seeing the instant amusement in her brown eyes

before she lowered her gaze to inspect the back of her left

hand. "I think we'd better get to it fast, to keep the others

from being impatient. I'm sure they're eager to be back on

me road."

 

Rikkan Addis seemed to have forgotten that / was the

only one who could get behind me fence to the horses, but

apparently me others hadn't. They stirred where they stood

and exchanged quick glances, and for the most part looked

everywhere but at the man who was playing leader. In

actual fact I was even more anxious than he was to take up

the trail again, but considering what we had ahead of us,

ten minutes wasn't likely to make that much of a differ-

ence, and the man had to be taught where he stood with

me. Su hesitated, not quite sure what to say, but good old

Rik took care of that for her,

 

"You can either walk back to the horses now on your

own, or get carried there over my shoulder," he stated, me

words surprisingly mild in view of his previous anger. "If

I'm leader of this expedition I'm leader over everyone,

which includes you, girl. I don't know why the wizard

wants you in on something as important as this, but if he

thinks we'll need a bad-tempered, ill-mannered trouble-

maker, it's my job to see that she goes with us. You have

your choice, now make it."

 

The flat challenge hung in the air behind my left shoul-

der, just about where mat stupid man stood, and everyone

was silent again, waiting to see what I'd do. What I

wanted to do was something classical but tacky, like turn-

ing him into a toad or making him three inches high and

then doing a stomp-dance around him, but I couldn't

afford to forget about Graythor and that obedience spell

he'd promised to use. Challenge-answering would have to

wait until we passed through the first gate, but that didn't

mean I had to put up with nonsense. Without even glanc-

ing at me man I put both hands out between Su and

 

70 SHARON GREEN

 

myself, palms upward and fingers slightly bent, then said

the proper word. When the two pewter mugs of ale

appeared I handed one to a startled Su, then took the other

by the grip and turned part way back to Rikkan Addis.

 

"At your service, master, anything you say, master,

yessir, boss," I acknowledged, raising my mug to him in

salute before taking a good swallow from it. The ale was

delicious, dark and cold and just right for the heat of the

day, and after I'd had my swallow I began leading the way

out of the alley- The rest of them came after me without

comment, a silence that lasted all the way back to the

horses. Rikkan Addis should have been thrilled that he'd

gotten his way, but from the last glimpse I'd had of his

expression, I didn't think he was.

 

CHAPTER 3

 

Beyond the town there were more fields, and beyond the

fields there were stands of woods, some open grassland,

one stretch of flats, and occasional solitary farms with neat

rows of plantings and fenced in pastures right in the mid-

dle of nothing else. The horses had been satisfied with the

rest and me grass they'd found inside their fence, and

moved along as strongly and evenly as they had that

morning. It took at least an hour before the general silence

was broken, and then only to a certain degree. Su rode out

ahead again with Rikkan Addis not far behind her, Kadrim

had begun a conversation with Soffann Dra, and that left

Zail T'Zannis with something of a problem. He clearly

wanted to talk to somebody, but Su was busy studying the

road, Soffann Dra was exchanging low-voiced chatter with

an absorbed, redheaded boy, and as far as our still-silent

leader went, if the expression on his face meant anything

he probably would have shredded anyone who dared to

approach him. That left only me, but it took the curly-

haired man a minute or two to decide to chance it. The

way he made an effort to ease back without bringing

himself to Rikkan Addis' attention showed he knew how

popular anyone in my company was likely to be with our

leader. Bravely and deftly he did it anyway, though, and

men his black was moving beside my gray where 1 brought

up the rear of our company.

 

"I wanted to tell you that that ale looked better than

 

•7I

 

SHARON GREEN

 

72

 

what we had," he offered, grinning widely with an amuse-

ment he didn't seem able to hold down any longer. "I

must say, though, that you giris deserved it. There wasn't

anything left for us men to do."

 

"It was a lucky thing Su is that good with a sword," I

said, unbending a little at his attitude. "That was just

about the worst time for something like that to happen, but

kidnappers don't usually stop to make convenient appoint-

ments. It also would have been easier if they hadn't been

warded against spells."

 

"Well, they certainly had good taste when it came to

picking victims," he said, his gray eyes laughing, and

then a more sobering thought came to him. "What do you

mean, they were warded against spells? Does that mean

you couldn't use magic against them?"

 

"Exactly," I answered with a nod, wondering why they

all seemed to know so little about magic. "If you're going

into the kidnapping business, your best bet is to get some

gold accumulated first, and then go to an apprentice sor-

cerer or sorceress and have a warding spell put on you.

Most apprentices can't yet see gold or silver in fine enough

detail to reproduce it, but warding is simple enough for

just about anybody to do. And a lot of honest people, like

those who deal in jewels or precious metals, pay to be

warded against dishonest magic. If you can manage to

look upright enough, the apprentice will pay more atten-

tion to the fee than the reason you want to be warded, and

you're in business."

 

"The kidnapping business," he said, distaste briefly

wrinkling his expression. "What makes these warding

spells so simple?"

 

"The fact that they're nothing more than invisible re-

flecting surfaces," 1 said, this time wondering if I ought to

set up a general lecture series. "What the speH does is put

a thin, undetectable mirror bubble around the person, one

specifically designed to reflect back magic, but the minor

details make it hard to crack. The bubble doesn't necessar-

ily have to be round, and its thickness can also vaiy.

which means no one who doesn't know its exact shape and

thickness can dissolve it. In order to have power over it

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

73

 

.you have to describe it in detail; without the detail, you're

wasting your time trying."

 

"Maybe they weren't trying to kidnap you," he sug-

gested after shaking his head, a grin beginning to grow

again. "Maybe they just couldn't get a woman any other

way, and were desperate. Once or twice I've considered

trying that method myself."

 

"But you're not warded," I pointed out with a chuckle,

enjoying the comment he'd made. "If you try it on the

wrong woman, you could end up a living two-dimensional

cut-out, hung on a wall for decoration or rolled up and put

away on a shelf. Which is what I intend doing to that third

one who disappeared, if I ever come across him unwarded.

1 don't like being strong-armed."

 

"I don't blame you a bit," he agreed, his left hand

coming across the space between us to close gently over

one of mine, his pretty gray eyes filled with understand-

ing. "Men who try to force themselves on women deserve

anything they get. Women arc there to be appreciated, and

taken care of, and handled gently, like the priceless works

of art they are. Don't you think so?"

 

"I—never really thought about it," I stumbled, sud-

denly very aware of his hand on mine, wishing his eyes

would let mine go. The saddle was harder than it had been

and the day abruptly hotter, and if my mount hadn't been

watching the road we probably would have found our-

selves off it.

 

"It's the best and only way," he assured me, his smile

very warming in spite of its softness, "From the moment I

first saw you I knew you were a woman who was born to

be treated like that, and myself as the man born to do it.

I'm Zail and you're Laciel, and when we stop at an inn

tonight we'll have dinner together, just you and me. If

young Kadrim tries to join us, we'll just tell him we'd

prefer being alone It's about time someone starting treat-

ing you the right way, not shouting at you the way Rik

did, and you'll have a wonderful time. I guarantee it."

 

At that point I couldn't think of anything to say, not in

any language ever created. No man had ever spoken to me

like that before, especially not one as good-looking at Zail,

and I couldn't decide if 1 wanted to drop my eyes away

 

74

 

SHARON GREEN

 

from his or keep on noticing how beautiful his were. I

have no idea how long the dilemma lasted, but suddenly it

was solved in a way that should have been predictable.

 

"Zail!" Rikkan Addis called, looking back over his

shoulder at us, his expression only a little lighter than it

had been. "I could use a few minutes of your time."

 

"Right with you, Rik," Zait acknowledged with a wave,

then his attention was briefly mine again. "I have to go

now, but I'll probably be useless if he wants to discuss

anything in the way of planning for the quest. My mind

will be too full of thoughts about tonight. Until then ..."

 

He took my hand and raised it briefly to his lips, then he

was urging his black horse forward toward where Rikkan

Addis rode in our procession, up front where a leader

belonged. I looked down at the hand Zail had kissed.

wondering why it tingled that way, wondering if I should

curse fearless leader for breaking things up just then, or

thank him for doing it. Zait was unlike any man I had ever

known, and somehow I couldn't decide how I should feel

about what he'd said. Dinner together, just the two of us,

him and me. I'd occasionally had dinner with men before,

but they'd been magic users and couldn't seem to talk

about anything but that. Not to mention how nervous

they'd been. Zail wouldn't be nervous, and somehow I

knew he wouldn't be talking about magic, and I found

myself wanting to hear what he would be talking about. I

shifted in the saddle, knowing I'd be thinking about him

even after the dinner was over and I'd gone to bed, and

discovered that I liked that idea. We'd be spending a lot of

time together until the quest was finished, and I liked that

idea even more. Maybe having companions along wasn't

going to be so bad after all.

 

The rest of the afternoon drifted by without bringing

itself to my attention, most of my thoughts involved with

the quest and where it would take us. That particular line

of consideration was enough to distract me even from

thoughts of Zail and dinner, and no matter how hard I tried

pushing it away, it continued to insist on coming back and

hopping around in front of me. Graythor had told everyone

the night before that the quest would take us an unbe-

lievably far distance from that world-dimension, but he

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

75

 

hadn't gone into details about what we would find there.

He hadn't lied when he'd said he didn't know what we

would find, but he hadn't mentioned any of the stories

we'd both heard about the place, either. . . .

 

"Oh, thank goodness we're finally here," Soffann Dra's

voice came, drawing me back to the world-dimension we

hadn't yet left. "I don't think I could have ridden one foot

past it."

 

The "it" she was talking about was the inn we'd been

looking for, one that wasn't supposed to be very far from

the first gate. We'd spend our last night on that world in

comfort, and after that take accommodations as they came.

If nothing turned up that was suitable I'd produce tents and

things for us with magic, which kept us from having to

drag along pack horses and tons of equipment, which in

turn would make things easier for me at the gates. It took a

lot of power and strength to move things without power of

their own through a gate, and five people and six horses

were going to be hard enough.

 

The inn was bright in the darkness that had descended

on everything around it, standing in the middle of a large

cleared space in me woods to the right of the road. Wel-

coming light spilled out of windows on each of its two

floors, and lanterns had been set on the outside of both

house and stable. It promised a comfortable haven in the

middle of nothing but trees and road. and yet even as we

rode into the yard and slowed to a stop. something about it

began bothering me. It was cheerful and friendly and we

could hear the sounds of conversation coming from inside,

but there was something. . . .

 

"Rub them all down and give them oats, boy," Rikkan

Addis was saying to me gangling teenager who had hurried

out of the stable, followed by two younger assistants.

"We'll be staying the night, but we'll want them early

tomorrow."

 

"Yes, sir!" the boy acknowledged, snatching the coin

tossed to him out of the air and pocketing it quickly before

taking the reins being held out. Then he gestured hurriedly

to his assistants to do the same with the rest of our horses,

which meant it was time to dismount. I was almost as tired

as Soffann Dra claimed to be, which was probably why I

 

76               SHARON GREEN

 

was seeing strangeness where there wasn't any. The fresh,

dewy night air was beginning to make me sleepy, and I

hoped getting back on my own two feet would wake me up

a little. I started to dismount—and suddenly felt an arm

around my waist.

 

"Here, let me help you," Zail said, lifting me down

against his chest before slowly lowering me to the ground.

There was more than enough light to see those gray eyes

by, and they were looking at me again as they had that

afternoon. His arms didn't leave my waist immediately,

die hand firm against my ribs, and once again I felt as

though I'd lost the ability to speak. It was stupid for a

grown woman to be acting that way, as though she'd never

met or spoken to a man in her life before, but there was

something about that particular man. . . .

 

"Let's get inside and settled," Zail said, letting me go

as though reluctant to do it, then taking the single rein I

held to give it to the boy waiting for it. "As soon as we've

arranged for rooms, we can get to that dinner."

 

The dinner for just the two of us. We stood and waited

while the horses were led out of the way toward the stable,

then joined the others in walking toward the house. Zail

wasn't touching me at all right then, and I felt the loss of

his hand and arm more than I would have thought possi-

ble. Normally I didn't like being touched, usually I avoided

it even if I had to be downright rude; I couldn't really

imagine why Zail would want to touch me, but also found

that I didn't have the urge to laugh, or wonder aloud about

his desperation, or do anything that would keep him from

wanting to do it again. That was probably why I'd been

finding it so hard to speak, afraid I'd say something stupid

or clumsy and drive him away. . . .

 

Rikkan Addis opened the inn door and led the way

inside, Kadrim right behind him, then Soffann Dra and Su,

then me with Zail bringing up the rear. The big room we

walked into already had ten or twelve people in it, seated

at the long rectangular tables with food or drink or both m

front of them, the lamps on the walls casting odd shadows.

At the back of the room opposite the door was a long bar,

with a heavyset man in a once-white apron behind it, just

then handing over two mugs of ale to a slender young

 

THE PAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

77

 

thing who was obviously a serving girl. The girl was the

only female in the room aside from those of us who had

just arrived, and when she turned away from the bar the

man behind it beamed at us.

 

"Welcome, travelers'" he called in a rough voice trying

to be professionally jolly, gesturing us toward him. "Are

you here for the night, or just for a meal?"

 

"For the night and for a meal," Rikkan Addis told him,

starting over toward the bar. "We'U want two of your

bigger rooms and breakfast in the morning as well, early

enough to let us be on our way at first light."

 

"Rik, I've had a thought about those rooms," Zail said,

moving past the rest of us fast to catch up to fearless

leader. "Since this is probably the last night the girls will

be able to have any privacy, why not . . ."

 

His voice lowered as he reached the other man's side,

causing Kadrim and Soffann Dra to step closer to hear

what he was saying, also making Su curious enough to do

the same thing. As a matter of fact I was more than a little

interested myself, especiallly since 1 had no intention of

sharing a room for the night. Over the years I'd learned to

enjoy having a place all to myself rather than having to

share it with others, and if Rikkan Addis wanted to be

thrifty with Graythor's gold that was his business. He

could sleep in the house's back corridor for all I cared, but

/ was not going to be packed into a cheap, communal stall.

I started to move forward to make my position as clear as

possible—and that's when everything began happening at

once.

 

Very casually three of the inn's previous guests sud-

denly stepped between me and the others, big men dressed

in rough homespun undecorated with swordbelts. For a

moment 1 thought they were just going past so I stopped to

let them get by. but continuing in their original direction

wasn't what they had in mind. Without any warning all

three were abruptly around me the way the three at the fair

had been, rough hands grabbing for me and heavy bodies

already pushing me toward the door. A deep male voice

shouted wordlessly, possibly Kadrim although I couldn't

be sure, and then the other "guests" were streaming from

their tables with swords in their fists, the sound of metal

 

78              SHARON GREEN

 

striking metal coming when they reached the others. The

inn was a trap, and my suspicions about it had been right.

 

It's been said that be who hesitates is lost, but some-

times a little forethought can outbalance the hesitation of

shock. Attack was the last thing I'd been expecting at the

inn, but part of my thinking during the afternoon had been

about the warding the three kidnappers had had that had

kept me from defending myself with magic. I hadn't en-

joyed being helpless, and when 1 dislike something that

strongly I usually try to think of a way to keep it from

happening again. I had thought of something that might be

a way, and there would never be a better time to try it.

 

The three men were having only minor trouble forcing

me toward me door over my struggles, and none of them

were making the least effort to silence me. That told me

they had to be warded me way me others had been, so I

closed one fist tight in anger and spoke the two-word spell

I'd prepared only a few hours earlier. Instantly the light-

nings blazed high and all three of mem screamed and

threw themselves away from me, me agony they'd brought

on themselves dropping them to the plank floor to roll

them about moaning. With their thick bodies out of the

way I could see that the "serving girl" had been making

her way over to us, but had frozen still in fear and shock

when her friends had gone down. Just then she stood

staring at me wide-eyed, the back of her hand to her

mouth, and when I met her stare she simply turned and

ran.

 

The noise of fighting and cursing was rather loud even

in a room that size, and a quick look around showed me

two more bodies on the floor, both of them "guests." One

had a shirt that was soaked in blood and the other only half

a head, but our side was still outnumbered about two to

one. Soffann Dra was the only one without a swinging

sword in her fist, and she stood cringing behind a wildly

fighting Kadrim. trying her best not to be noticed. The

attackers were fighting back as though they didn't care

whether they lived or died as long as they took us with

them, and that was another clue that told me even more

than my not having been silenced had.

 

Moving to the right, away from the three on the floor,

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

79

 

let me see past the fighting to the bar. Just as I'd hoped the

"innkeeper" was simply standing where he had been, his

face calm, his attention on the fight. I drew myself up and

spoke me word of power, and all outside sounds faded as

me cylinder formed between and around us, locking us

together in a private world that was nevertheless still in the

middle of that inn. He started in surprise, obviously not

expecting anything like that, and then he laughed in a way

that was supposed to sound superior, rather than the way it

did sound—which was frightened.

 

"You can't seriously be challenging me, Laciel," he

said after the laugh, trying to straighten up a bit more.

"My power is years stronger man yours."

 

"If that's true, then I'll lose," I told him, Seeing that he

wasn't disguised. "You seem to know me, but I can't

remember when we met. Who are you?"

 

"That's something you have no need to know," he

answered, finding a little more courage somewhere. "It's

enough that I know who you are. Surrender to me now and

you'll live, resist me and you'll die; those are the only two

things we have to talk about- Which will it be?"

 

"Neither," I said with all the disgust I was feeling, and

then I raised my arm to signal the start of the combat and

fling out the raging, ravening sphere of Hellfire toward

him. He gasped and paled just the way I'd thought he

would, gesturing frantically in an attempt to send the thing

back to me, but Hellfire takes confidence as well as skill to

handle, which is why so few of the Sighted become adept

at it. You become adept by entering the Lists at Conclaves

and formally challenging those stronger man you, accept-

ing the minor burns of a controlled exhibition in order to

add to your confidence and skill. Whoever my current

opponent was, he wasn't adept, otherwise I would have

known him; I was adept, supposedly at a younger age than

anyone had managed in centuries, and it didn't take long

to prove it.

 

The man in the combat cylinder with me sweated and

ducked as he gestured, trying to avoid the Hellfire even as

he fought to force it away from him, frantically trying to

spread his fingers into the best and most widely used

repelling mode that had been developed. My right hand

 

So

 

SHARON GREEN

 

was already set that way. urging the terrifying ball of

annihilation closer and closer to him, playing it to give

him the least amount of room for the return. The blazing

colors of the Hellfire were blindingly beautiful, the searing

jump of its numberless fingers a raging hunger reaching

out to consume, and the man's fear grew greater with

every inch closer it came to him. He fought to control it,

struggled to keep it from him, and when he crossed the

line from trying to send it back to trying to keep it away,

the fight was lost. The crackling of the ball of flame rose

to a roar that nearly drowned out the man's scream of

ten-or, and the blast was so bright that it really did blind

me for a minute. The scream seemed to go on and on,

making me press my hands to my ears as well as squeeze

my eyes closed, and then mere was absolute silence and

darkness, both thick enough to be felt rather than sensed.

 

"Laciel! Laciel, where are you?" a voice shoiiied, a

voice that I finally recognized as Zail's. I forced my eyes

open to see the dark all around, shivered even though I

understood, then whispered a word. A small sun blazed up

over our heads under the trees, lighting up me scene so

that it was almost day bright.

 

The three men of our group and Su all still stood with

swords in their hands, but they no longer had targets for

their weapons. Their former opponents littered the ground,

and only some of them showed visible wounds. Soffann

Dra still trembled behind Kadrim with one hand to his bare

back as though seeking comfort from contact with another

human being, and nothing at all remained of the man I'd

stood in combat with, not even the cylinder. When I

realized that I shivered again, and then Zail was beside

me, holding me close to his chest with his arms wrapped

tight.

 

"What happened?" he asked, his voice faintly bewil-

dered and the least bit unsteady. "Are you all right? What

happened to the inn, and those men, and the one you were

standing and facing? That fire, that blinding explosion—

What was it?"

 

"It was—combat with Hellfire," I answered, wonder-

ing why I couldn't do anything but hold to Zail and shiver.

"We do it all the time at Conclaves, those of us who can.

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

81

 

It's the way me Sighted fence with their power, bringing

me Hellfire through a simple entry and then seeing who

can control it best. At the Conclaves there are wizards who

keep me Hellfire from really touching the loser, from

doing more than singeing him or her a little— I've never

before fought a real battle with it— It—it—ate him—

Zail—"

 

I was trembling so hard that I wanted to be sick,

finding a real win nothing like a Conclave win. There

hadn't been a wizard handy to control the Hellfire and send

it back when the combat was over, so it had been free

to—eat—the man before me entry drew it back! I held to

Zail with all my strength and buried my face in his shirt,

trying to control my shuddering but finding it impossible. I

hadn't simply killed mat man, I'd fed him to something,

and I'd never once, during all those combats, thought to

consider just exactly what mat meant.

 

"They're all dead," Rikkan Addis' voice came from

behind me, calm and quiet and almost even. "Do you

know why they're dead, girl? Or what happened to the

inn?"

 

"They're dead because—he's dead," I answered, trying

to find something else to think about besides— "He had

them under a spell of compulsion, and they would have

fought until you were all dead or they themselves bumed

out. The abrupt release—their systems couldn't take it—"

 

"It's all right, you're doing just fine," he said in a

soothing murmur, as though afraid that speaking any louder

would really set me off. "And me inn? What happened to

it?"

 

"The same thing, in effect, because it wasn't the real

inn," 1 said, finally calming down enough to simply put

my cheek to Zail's shirt. His arms were still tight around

me, which helped more than he probably knew, and I was

able to look at the black trees and darkness beyond the

glow from my small sun. "As a matter of fact I Saw the

gaps and lapses as soon as we rode in, but I was too tired

to really understand what I was Seeing. He was the one

maintaining the image, and when he died the spell went

with him. He—wasn't as good as he thought he was,

otherwise the inn would have been an exact replica of the

 

82

 

SHARON GREEN

 

real one instead of a sloppy copy. And anyone truly com-

petent also wouldn't have protected their henchmen with

nothing but simple warding.'*

 

"You mean those three who went after you were warded

like the ones this afternoon?" Zail asked, this time sound-

ing surprised. "But if they were protected from your

magic, how did you get away from them?"

 

"With magic," I answered with a sigh, finally making

the effort to push back from him and stand alone. "It

came to me this afternoon that warding was defensive

magic, designed to protect people from attack from others.

Those kidnappers used the warding to let them do the

attacking which, if you think about it, is using something

defensive for offense. Magic has a kind of balance, and

you can't use something meant for one purpose in an

entirely opposite manner without paying a price. I used a

beefed-up warding spell to protect myself, adding a lot of

insulation on the inside, working on the theory that their

attack would—blow the circuits—on their own spell when

they tried using it against its nature. As soon as their

warding touched mine, they were nearly knocked across

the room."

 

"What did you mean, those three this afternoon were

warded like the ones tonight?" Rikkan Addis asked, his

tone fractionally sharper. "1 didn't know there was any-

thing magical about this afternoon's attack."

 

I'd put my hands over my face to let my fingers rub at

my eyes, but something in the man's voice made me take

them away again. When the pretty -colored spots had all

faded I saw those bronze eyes looking down at me, and

they were glowing faintly.

 

"There wasn't anything magical about this afternoon's

attack," I said, wondering if I were being gently accused

of hiding things. "Those kidnappers were warded like the

three attackers tonight, but that can't be anything but

coincidence."

 

"Like the coincidence that the three tonight were head-

ing you toward the door?" he came back immediately,

annoyance growing in both eyes and voice. "You and Su

agreed that it was you they wanted this afternoon, and

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER        83

 

tonight they almost had you again. Who would want you

so badly, and why?"

 

"But—no one!" 1 protested, certain he couldn't possi-

bly be right, but still beginning to get confused. "And it

can't be just me they were after. They had fighters under a

compulsion ready, and sent them after the rest of you."

 

"But not until drey already had their hands on you," he

countered, those eyes glowing brighter now, one big hand

running distractedly through thick black hair. "Once they

had you they felt free to attack the rest of us, but first they

took you. Why would that be?"

 

"Perhaps they feared what magic she would use," Kadrim

suggested from where he stood with Su and Soffann Dra,

only a couple of feet away. "Did the wizard not say her

power was great?''

 

"But they found out this afternoon that her magic couldn't

get through their warding," Zail disagreed from behind

me, sounding as confused as Kadrim had and I felt. "If

they really are all the same group, the one who got away

would have told them what happened. And if they aren't

all the same group, what's bringing so many of them out

from under their rocks all at the same time?"

 

"That part's not hard," Soffann Dra said, moving just a

little closer to Kadrim after a glance at the darkness all

around. "We're after something that was stolen, aren't

we? Anyone who keeps us from getting it back, can

probably ask for and get all the gold he wants from the

thief."

 

"Couldn't ask if he didn't know about it," Su put in,

surprising just about everyone, "The wizard said no one

knows but us and him, so how could they know."

 

"There is someone else who knows," Rikkan Addis

said suddenly, staring at Su where she stood under the

low-gauge glare of the miniature sun. "The one who took

the balance stone knows, and is also obviously in a posi-

tion to set up ambushes along the trail we have to follow.

Knowing that much, I also now know why they've been

trying for you first, girl."

 

Those eyes were back to looking at me, but for once

they couldn't distract me. He claimed to know something,

but for the life of me 1 couldn't see it.

 

SHARON GREEN

 

"You totd me the reason yourself," he pressed when he

saw that I wasn't following him, seemingly oblivious to all

the rest of the eyes on him. "You said that if you had to,

you could make Su's talent your talent, and I'm now

willing to bet you could do me same with me rest of us. If

one of us didn't make it all the way, you could substitute

for that one."

 

"As a matter of fact, I could," I admitted, still not

seeing where the line of logic was leading. "As long as I

know what the necessary talent is, I can reproduce it. If I

tried to match all of you I'd probably be good for nothing

more than counting my fingers afterward, but if I had to I

could do it. What has that got to do with kidnap attempts?

With all of you still around, 1 don't have to reproduce your

talents."

 

"That's why they're trying for you first," he said with

the sort of slow patience that forces home a point, folding

his arms across his rust-colored leather shirt- "There's no

sense in their trying to stop us if you're still around, not

when they can kill every one of us and still lose the game

to you. If they manage to get you out of me way, then they

can try for one or two of us. Without your particular

talent, mat would be enough to stop me rest of us."

 

Put that way, the idea was very hard to argue against. 1

just stood and stared at him without being able to say

anything, then discovered that I was also being stared at.

Five pairs of eyes were reflecting me digestion of the fact

that as long as I stayed alive and a part of the group, they

were as safe as a quest like that was likely to let mem be. I

didn't care for that thought, and wasn't even sure I agreed

with all of it, but for me third time that day the words just

weren't there-

 

"I think we'd better get on to me real inn now," Rikkan

Addis said, unfolding his arms to look around. "It's prob-

ably the safest thing we can do, considering that they tried

to trap us here. Using the real inn would have been easier,

if they could have managed it. Maybe there's a reason they

couldn't. Kadrim, Su, see if you can find the horses. The

rest of us will stay with the girl."

 

Kadrim and Su nodded before going off, and Soffann

Dra lost no time in replacing the red-haired boy with

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER         85

 

Rikkan Addis as someone to stand close to. A minute later

there was an arm around my shoulders, and Zail was

standing to my left, tall and concerned and protective. It

was all I could do to keep from pushing that arm away, an

arm 1 would have been delighted to have around me just a

few minutes earlier. They were now all going to be look-

ing out for "the girl," and "the girl" didn't like it one

little bit.

 

The horses hadn't been taken very far, and once we

were back on the road with my miniature sun doused, I

discovered that the line of march had been shifted without

anyone saying a word. Su was still out front with a ner-

vous, tired Soffann Dra beside her, but the men had

rearranged themselves so that Zail rode to my right, Kadrim

behind me. and fearless leader to my left. I didn't like the

new arrangement and tried to talk mem out of it, but they

were all too busy looking in seven directions at once to

listen to me. Even Su had muttered something about al-

most losing me because she hadn't been bright enough to

follow the trail to the inn rather than the trail that was

taking us to the balance stone; the two were supposed to

have been the same, and would have been if we'd gone on

to the, real inn. At that point I discovered I was too tired to

continue me argument for that day, and simply saved my

strength for any further emergencies.

 

Happily, all emergencies proved to have retired for the

night. Another half hour^s riding brought us to the place

we should have reached the first time, and my companions

were faintly upset to see that it looked exactly like the inn

mat had been reproduced for us back in the woods, right

down to the three boys who came running out to see to our

horses. I, myself, took a good long look at the place

before dismounting, and immediately Saw why the trap

had been set at the duplicate.

 

"Take it slow until we've checked this place out, Laciel,"

Zail fussed at me as I handed over me reins of my gray

men turned toward the house. "We don't know what can

be waiting for us inside."

 

"There's nothing to worry about here, Zail," I said

with a sigh, stopping because of the hand on my shoulder.

"They couldn't set the trap here because Graythor warded

 

86

 

SHARON GREEN

 

this place, with a spell to keep out anyone with evil

intentions. Considering some of the people who usually

ride this road on a regular basis, we might even find the

place empty."

 

That seemed to settle them down a bit, but it was still

Kadrim and fearless leader who walked into the house

first, their right hands loose and ready. The big room held

about five people aside from the serving girl and the

innkeeper, and none of them looked familiar including the

last two. The girl was small and blond and tired-looking,

and the innkeeper was tall and lean with a long, unhappy

face. Our sudden, group appearance made him uneasy, but

mat disappeared quickly enough when Rikkan Addis stepped

forward and threw three gold coins on the bar.

 

"We need meals and lodgings for the night," he told

the suddenly happier innkeeper, watching as the man made

me coins disappear with a single movement of his hand.

"For the food we'll take the best you have, but for sleep-

ing we want one of your dormitory rooms. Our group will

be staying together, but alone; if there's anybody already

in the room, clear them out."

 

"Just a minute," I said as the innkeeper began nodding

in surprised but nevertheless eager agreement, moving past

Kadriro to get to the bar. "I don't care what the rest of you

do, but 1*11 be sleeping in a private room tonight. Crowds

tend to keep me awake."

 

"You can't be guarded as easily in a private room as

you can be in a dormitory," Rikkan Addis said with a

touch of annoyance, looking down at me with those eyes

again. "As long as I'm me one with the gold, we'll do

things my way."

 

"Then isn't it lucky for me that I can afford to pay my

own way?" I remarked, opening my hand to show the

three gold coins I'd just produced before handing them

over to the innkeeper. "As far as being guarded goes, I've

already told you that this place is safe. If you're in the

mood to ruin what will probably be everyone's last decent

night's sleep just to play fearless leader, don't try to count

me in on it. Tonight I make up for what I missed last

night. Give me my key."

 

The last of my words were for the innkeeper, who had a

 

8?

 

THE FAR SIDE Of FOREVER

 

key in my outstretched hand before the final syllable died

away. He hadn't missed the fact that there hadn't been any

gold in my hand when I'd first walked over, and knew

exactly what that meant. If his odd new guest was about to

get into an argument with a sorceress, he wanted no part of

it.

 

But his odd new guest apparently decided against an

argument with a sorceress; I was able to leave the main

room with nothing but silence following me, find the stairs

leading upward, then locate the room that matched the

number on my key. The room was dark when I opened the

door, but a snap of my fingers brought the lamp to life,

dimly illuminating a small, not particularly neat and clean

box that had a bed and a chair and one window, and

nothing else. The patch-quilt on the bed was faded, the

linen was more yellow than white, and the greasy brown

chair had one leg snorter than the others; nevertheless I

closed and locked the door behind me, threw the key on

the chair, then sat down on the bed.

 

"You still haven't learned to follow orders very well,

have you?" a voice asked, a voice I'd been half expect-

ing to hear. I looked up to see Graythor's image sitting on

the chair, paying no mind, of^course, to the key it wasn't

really sitting on. It was his true image that he had sent,

and his dark eyes were staring straight at me.

 

"I had the feeling you were watching, checking to see

how well we could take care of ourselves," I said, making

no attempt to avoid his gaze. "Did we pass?"

 

"You've had no real opposition yet and you know it,"

he came back, his voice as even and undisturbed as it had

been. "We'll find out what you're all made of once you

get a little farther down the trail."

 

"Why didn't you stop it?" I demanded, too tired to play

any more word games. "You were there at the replicate

inn, 1 know you were! Why didn't you stop the Hellfire?"

 

"Laciel, child, it wasn't a friendly competition," he

said, his eyes commiserating but his tone cold and im-

placable. "If Draffan had gotten control of the sphere, it

would have been you who was devoured So far they've

underestimated you, but that can change at any time.

 

88

 

SHARON GREEN

 

Now, I think, you can understand why your being leader

of this expedition would have been impractical."

 

"Because they're after my head first?" 1 asked with a

sound of ridicule, not terribly happy with his answer con-

cerning the Hellfire, but needing to discuss this other point

as well. "Most leaders are targets, so what difference

would it make? At least if I was leader I could keep them

from suffocating me, which is what I intend seeing to first

thing in the morning. With the number of personal de-

fenses I have, their attempts at protection are ludicrous."

 

"Their attempts are necessary, not ludicrous," he said

very sternly, his anger enhancing the heavy flow of power

from his twisted image-body as he straightened in the chair

as best he could. "You still have no idea what you're

fighting against, and if you were leader you would under-

estimate the enemy just as they're doing with you! You

need to be protected for more reasons than you know, and

Rikkan Addis is the one to do it! He will remain leader,

and you will stop bedeviling him!"

 

It had been a long time since Graythor had last spoken

to me like that, showing so much of his enormous power,

and it wasn't something I'd be able to argue against for a

long, long time—if ever. There was no question about

how much stronger he was—but Acre was also no ques-

tion about my own opinions on the points. Rather than try

to argue I simply stretched out across the creaking bed on

my right side, busily inspecting the faded patch-quilt under

me, saying not a word.

 

"I'm tempted to have a few words with Morgiana when

she returns, but I have the distinct feeling it's already too

late," he growled at my silence, less angry but more

annoyed. "Once you make up that mind about something.

it's just about impossible to sway you. Try to understand

that Rikkan Addis is the best leader for the expedition,

otherwise 1 wouldn't have chosen him. Just as you're the

best Sighted for it. You can't let your personal feelings get

in the way of what has to be done."

 

"What personal feelings?" I asked with a snort, looking

up at him over the foot of the bed. "Knowing you can do

a better job than someone else isn't opinion if you can

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

89

 

i             •_

 

' ^

 

:!

 

'    t,

 

&"

 

prove it—which I can. Don't you want the balance stone

recovered?"

 

"Your attitude toward Rikkan Addis has nothing to do

with the balance stone," he said, back to staring at me and

almost back to calm. "Laciel, the man is different, almost

in the same away you're different, and you're blaming him

for that. Also, everyone is accepting him without question

despite his difference, and you're blaming him for that as

well. It all has to do with why you've never even tried to

find the people you come from,"

 

"That's ridiculous," I said after forcing the words over

a pause, finding that the patch-quilt was a much better thing (o

look at than the image of Graythor- "What could fearless

leader possibly have to do with whoever my people were?"

 

"He has nothing to do with them," me gentle but

persistent answer came as I picked at the stitching of the

quilt. "You seem to have come to the conclusion that your

people didn't want you because of your differences, and

that's why you were abandoned to grow up on the streets

like a homeless animal. You equate different with wrong,

which is why you feel so strongly that Rikkan Addis is the

wrong one to lead the expedition- You've also learned

some small measure of personaLself-esteem over the years

with Morgiana, and that's why you feel that if anyone

different is to be leader, that one should be you. You're

going to have to take my word for me fact that everything

is already as it should be, and be satisfied with that."

 

"I'm rarely satisfied with second best or blind specula-

tion," I muttered to the quilt, certain that what he'd said

was absolutely untrue, but much too tired to go looking for

me logic flaws. "Would you mind very much letting me

go to bed now? Fearless leader will be chasing us out early

in me morning, and I'd hate to oversleep."

 

"Very well, then, we'll do it your way," he said, and

all the compassion in his voice was gone behind the return

of sternness. "I've devised a spell I'd hoped would be

unnecessary, but your stubbornness leaves me no choice.

From now on Rikkan Addis will be warded, but not in the

usual way. If you make any attempt at all to use magic

against him, your spells will bounce back changed into the

strongest obedience spell I could find, leaving you needing

 

SHARON GREEN

 

90

 

permission to so much as blink- You'll still be able to do

what's needed on me expedition, but then you'll have to

be allowed to do it—by Rikkan Addis. 1 know exactly how

much you'll enjoy something like that.11                        '_•

 

I sat up fast to glare at him furiously, but that was about       [

the only thing I could do. Most people struggled simply to

leam to use spells, but Graythor was experienced enough       ^

to devise them. Experimentation always fell into the dan-        "'

gerous black area, but if you managed to survive you were       .^

powerful enough to do just about anything you pleased. I'd       |-

never be able to find a way around his spell, and he knew  ,    ^

it!                                                           ||

 

"And you'd better stop trying to antagonize him," the       g-

most powerful wizard of our time said, his image rising       ^

from the chair with no more than slight difficulty. "What-       ^

ever patience he had with you is just about gone now, and

if you continue to push him you'll certainly regret it. And

one more thing—''

 

"What now?" 1 asked when he paused, for some reason

looking as though he were searching for the right words-

"Have you decided the way 1 breathe in and out bothers

you?"

 

"That's closer to the truth than you know," he said, his

crooked smile bending his face and warming the dark of

his eyes. "Laciel, child, you've spent too much of the last

years locked away with Morgiana in her house, studying

and practicing and associating with very few people who

weren't of the Sighted. Morgiana is a wizard of great

power, and your potential is nothing short of enormous;

 

mat combination of factors tends to turn people, especially

men, somewhat diffident and circumspect. In the full mea-

sure of things, I'm afraid you're a good deal more inno-

cent than girls who are years your junior."

 

"Is all that supposed to mean something?" 1 asked,

having not the least idea what he was talking about. "And

I'm not at all innocent. I'm a full grown woman."

 

"You most certainly are a full grown woman," he

agreed with a sigh, beginning to look frustrated. "That,

specifically, is the reason for the problem. Your self-

image, however, hasn't been given me chance to change

from the scruffy waif Morgiana brought home with her, to

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

91

 

what you've now grown to become. The men of this

expedition aren't Sighted, child, which makes your poten-

tial meaningless to them, and they've never even heard of

Morgiana. All they have is their own sight, and you

mustn't believe everything they tell you. Morgiana will be

cross enough with me as it is; I certainly don't want to add

to it."

 

"Uncle Graythor, I haven't the faintest idea of what

you're talking about," I said. giving in to the need to

stretch out across the bed again. "Whatever this is, can we

discuss it some other time? I really am very tired."

 

"Possibly I should be the one to be cross with Morgiana,"

he muttered, shaking his head in annoyance and what

seemed like defeat. "She should have explained these

things to you long ago, not left them to a man who has

never had daughters of his own to caution. I think I'll have

to look for another way. You sleep now, and remember

what I said: the trail will grow progressively more danger-

ous, and you need to be protected so mat you can protect

everyone else. Know mat my blessing and hope is with

you every step of the way."

 

He raised one hand, more in benediction and farewell

than for magical purpose, and then his image was abruptly

gone. Probably to set that warding on Rikkan Addis, I

thought sourly, forcing myself to my feet in order to get

out of my clothes. Well, I might not be able to use magic

to take over leadership, but if there were some other way

I'd find it- I used the Sight to make sure there was nothing

living in my bed before crawling under the covers, vaguely

wondering what it was that I wasn't supposed to believe

when told by my male companions, men stopped wasting

my time. Graythor was very old, and sometimes old age

affects even wizards with strength like his. I snapped my

fingers to turn the lamp out, then snuggled down to think

about Zail and the dinner we still had ahead of us to share.

 

CHAPTER 4

 

The bloodcurdling scream snapped me out of sleep and

bolt upright, my eyes opening quickly enough to see Soffann

Dra just disappearing from the now-open door to my room.

I still wasn't awake enough to know what was happening,

but if we were under attack again the attacker had to be

invisible.

 

"She really should have knocked louder instead of sim-

ply walking in." a very familiar voice said from the floor

to the left of my bed, not five paces away from the door.

"That way she wouldn't have nearly stepped on me."

 

"InThig," I groaned, lying back down as the big, black,

feline head with blazing red eyes rose above the side of my

bed, it now being in a sitting position instead of stretched

out along the floor. "What are you doing here?"

 

"Graythor felt that my presence on this expedition will

be very helpful," it purred, enormously pleased with it-

self, red eyes unblinking in the small amount of lamplight

coming in from me hall. "Was that one of our companions?"

 

"Our companions," I muttered, hanging a forearm over

my eyes, still too jangled to make a more appropriate

comment. There were some people, I knew, who disliked

being awakened abruptly in the dark by the crowing of a

rooster greeting the approach of dawn; right then I wouldn't

have minded a batallion of roosters.

 

"Listen to all those running feet," InThig remarked, its

growl sounding interested and delighted. "Almost all booted,

 

Q1

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

93

 

f-

 

,B

^

 

I think, and definitely coming this way. This should be

bin."

 

"Fun!" I exclaimed, suddenly realizing what had to be

happening, pulling my arm from my eyes and sitting up

fast again. Those stampeding-herd sounds had to be com-

ing from the other members of the quest, rushing in to

save me from the horrible danger that had so frightened

Soffann Dra. I doubt if any of them truly believed 1

couldn't be in danger there, and that little incident was

about to make things ten times worse in the way of smoth-

ering protection than—

 

"There it is!" Rikkan Addis' voice came from the hall,

harder than it usually was and filled with command. "I'll

take it, and you two back me up."

 

"Wait a minute!" I yelped as his heavy, broad-bladed

sword came through the doorway with him right behind it,

snapping my fingers to light the room lamp. "You don't

understand! This isn't what—"

 

"Don't worry, girl, we won't let it hurt you," he

interrupted, his eyes narrowed against the sudden light, but

all his attention still on InThig. The demon gazed back at

him calmly, a grin of amusement bringing to sight the two

rows of sharp, dangerous teeth, its mouth was filled with,

and a hiss of caution came from the doorway just behind

the slowly advancing man.

 

"See how it snarls in preparation for attack," Kadrim

pointed out, his own sword low to keep from stabbing

fearless leader in the back, but alertly ready for all of that.

 

"We ought to get Laciel out of there first, just in case it

turns suddenly and attacks her," Zail put in from where he

stood beside Kadrim in the doorway, his sword held the

way the boy's was. "Even a dying beast can cause a lot of

damage."

 

"You may be right," fearless leader agreed without turning

to look at Zail, stopping where his very slow advance had

brought him. "Any movement on her part might cause the

thing to attack, but it seems to be centering on me right

now. See if you can slip out of the other side of that bed,

girl, and if it doesn't go after you, try to work your way

around until you're behind me."

 

"This is ridiculous," I announced while InThig chuck-

 

SHARON GREEN

 

94

 

led, the sound of it causing the three men to bring their

swords up a little more. "If you think I'm getting out of

this bed stalk naked, you're out of your mind. If you'll

just listen to me for a minute ..."

 

"Saving your modesty at the expense of your life would

be stupid," fearless leader interrupted again, annoyance

tmgeing the low growl in his voice. ' 'Get out of that bed,

and I mean now."

 

InThig's chuckling turned to low, chill-making laughter,

enough to cause Rikkan Addis to look as though he wanted

to take one step back, and I'd absolutely had it. Everyone

was having a grand old time at my expense, but party time

was over. I continued to hold me patch-quilt to me as I sat

straighter in the bed, and glared around at everyone

concerned.

 

"1 am going to say this only once in this language, and

if 1 have to repeat myself it will be in words none of you

will like," I said through my teeth. "I am not getting out

of this bed because 1 am n^r in any danger. InThig is

getting a real kick out of mis, but I am not. I don't need

your protection and I don't want it, so you can all go back

to wherever you were."

 

"InThig?" Rikkan Addis echoed with a frown, his eyes

still on die laughing demon. "Who or what is InThig?"

 

"That's hiThig," I said with a gesture and a lot of

disgust, wishing it were possible to touch demons with

magic. "Graythor decided we needed it with us, and it

decided to have some innocent fun with its new compan-

ions. It has that son of a sense of humor."

 

"I merely wished to see how well they would take my

presence," InThig protested mildly, completely phony in-

jured innocence in its tone. "They certainly are a coura-

geous lot, to be prepared so quickly and completely to

confront the unknown."

 

"You might not have thought our courage that admira-

ble if we'd simply attacked," Rikkan Addis pointed out

with increased annoyance as he sheathed his sword, Zail

shaking his head with a sigh while Kadrim stood blinking

and staring. "Once you put a sword in someone, all you

can do afterward is apologize while the blood flows out."

 

"But I don't have any blood," InThig answered with

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

95

 

another chuckle, still enjoying itself. "Your weapons aren't

capable of hurting me, so it wouldn't have mattered even

if you had attacked. Laciel knows that, but I do believe it

slipped her mind for a moment."

 

The big, black head turned and those two blazing red

eyes were on me, but I pretended to ignore them. I had

forgotten for a moment that InThig couldn't be hurt, but I

didn't want it reading things into a temporary memory

lapse.

 

"Well, now that the crisis is over, maybe Laciel will do

us the favor of getting dressed and joining us at break-

fast," Rikkan Addis said, already heading for the door,

"It's more than time we were on our way."

 

Zail and Kadrim retreated before his striding advance,

and an instant later the door was pulled closed behind

them, leaving nothing in his wake but thick silence. InThig

was still staring at me, however, as demons never can

leave their points unmade.

 

"I'm flattered that you were worried about me," it said,

the previous smugness back in its voice, its purr making it

seem like an overgrown housecat "Not many people can

be bothered with being concerned over a demon, so you

must like me no matter how^often you try to get rid of

me."

 

"Being used to having someone around is not the same

as liking them," I pointed out in an effort to dent the

smugness, throwing me quilt aside so that 1 might get up.

"Besides, if anything happened to you, Morgiana would

be upset."

 

"Of course," InThig murmured, grinning to match the

increased blaze in its eyes, its purr of contentment un-

changed even as I turned my back on it. "How silly of me

to be so mistaken."

 

I suppose I was waiting for it to continue bothering me,

but happily it seemed to have said everything it wanted to.

I was able to get back into my clothes in the midst of

pleasing quiet, admiring (he way Graythor's refreshing

spell had turned my clothes beautifully clean and new

overnight. The others would have found me same thing

done to their clothes, which meant no one needed to carry

any changes. We'd get very tired of those outfits long

 

96

 

SHARON GREEN

 

before the quest was finished, but it cut down on the need

for extra baggage—not to mention the possibility that I

might have to disguise us in some of the worlds we'd be

going to. Disguising one outfit each would be no big deal,

but six wardrobes full . . .

 

As soon as I was dressed I took the room key and left,

snapping out the light before closing and locking the door.

InThig padded silently beside me, its movement more flow

than walk, the red eyes taking in everything, its big head

beside my right elbow. I could remember a time when

InThig had been almost my size. but that hadn't lasted

very long. Morgiana had originally summoned it as a

companion for herself, but that hadn't lasted very long

either. . . .

 

Everyone was downstairs in the inn's main room around

one of the plank tables, the serving girl having just brought

another two heaping platters of something hot to add to

what was already there. When I paused at me bar to return

the room key the innkeeper paled and closed his eyes. his

lips moving soundlessly in what was probably a prayer,

and the serving girl gasped, put one hand to her head, then

immediately fled the room. I couldn't help sighing as ljust

left the key on the bar and headed for the table, beginning

to be annoyed with Graythor for having sent InThig to the

inn instead of having it meet us at the gate. I'd almost

forgotten how untalented people reacted to the sight of a

demon, but I had a feeling I would soon be well reminded.

 

"Good morning, Laciel," Zail greeted me, rising from

his chair at the big, round table and gesturing toward the

empty place to his right, his attitude saying nothing at all

unusual had happened that morning. "Did you sleep well?"

 

"Very well, thank you," I answered pleasantly—if the

least bit softly, taking the chair he held for me. To my

right was Kadrim, to his right Su, to Zail's left Soffann

Dra, and between the two women Rikkan Addis. Kadrim

smiled at me as I sat, ignoring InThig the way Zail was

doing, but Su inspected my new companion with curiosity,

and Soffann Dra did the same with wariness. Only Rikkan

Addis continued to fill his plate from the platters of food

standing around, ignoring my arrival as though 1 were

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

97

 

invisible or unSeen. If I hadn't been so hungry, I might

have spent some time being thoroughly annoyed.

 

"You really must have been exhausted last night," Zail

said as he sat again and reached for a platter of steaks to

pass to me. "When dinner was ready I came to your door

and knocked, but there was no answer and the light was

out."

 

"I, too, came to your door, to continue the discussion

we had not completed on the road," Kadrim said, ready to

take the platter of steaks and replace it with one piled high

with eggs. "Although I knocked as well, I also found no

response."

 

"1 don't remember hearing either one of you," I said,

giving Zail the eggs and reaching myself for the fried

potatoes. "I feel fine now, though, so sleeping like the

dead obviously helped. Now all I have to do is replace the

meal I missed."

 

With which comment I immediately began to dig in,

pausing after a moment to take a slab of bread and butter. I

felt hollow all the way through, and the men on either side

of me took the hint and left conversation for another time.

We all worked silently at fueling ourselves for the upcom-

ing day's travels, and it wasn't ^ntil almost everything was

gone and the last of me coffee .had been poured that

Soffann Dra broke mat silence.

 

"Doesn't your—friend—need anything to eat?" she

asked, moving her head a little to look at InThig where it

lay stretched out on the floor behind my chair, "I hope

you don't take this wrong, but I really dislike the thought

of him being hungry."

 

"InThig's an it, not a him," I corrected, letting another

swallow of coffee push the food I'd eaten down where it

belonged. "And it doesn't eat, at least not the way we do,

so you don't have to worry. When it's hungry, it goes

home to eat."

 

"Oh," she said, her tone wavering between relief and

disbelief, not quite sure which way to go. She wanted to

think I was telling the truth, but was still too uneasy to put

complete trust in something that might not be so. If that

was the worst difficulty InThig's presence caused among

me six of us, though, I would be very, very happy.

 

98

 

SHARON GREEN

 

By mutual consent, we didn't do much dawdling over

the coffee. The first rays of the new day were just begin-

ning to light and brighten the landscape when we went out

to get the horses, and 1 had my first job of the day. Our

mounts reacted to InThig the way the innkeeper and the

serving girl had, but with more volume and violence; I had

to speak a spell to keep them from bolting and leaving us

afoot. After that they were no longer aware of InThig's

presence, but InThig got a lot of fun out of the incident.

Demons are always amused when people and animals

panic at the sight of them, which accounts for some of the

legends concerning them. The reason they're that amused

is something no one knows for sure, but I suspect it has to

do with their life-places in their own world-dimension.

Sort of like, "Are they really afraid of me?" As humans

would find it impossible to survive in their world, the

matter continues to be one for speculation.

 

We followed the road through the woods for less than an

hour, and then Su turned off it to lead the way through the

trees. There wasn't the least sign of a trail or path or

anything to show we were heading in the right direction,

but none of us had any doubt. Until then Kadrim and Zail

had ridden to either side of me, their conversation light

and their attention to our surroundings heavy, but once we

were off the road it was strictly single file. Su led the way

with Rikkan Addis behind her, Soffann Dra following

him, then Zail in front of me and Kadrim bringing up the

rear. InThig ranged through the trees on its own to our

right, a silent, blackly flowing shadow, and somehow the

woods felt friendlier having it there.

 

No more than fifteen or twenty minutes later Su stopped,

at a place that seemed to the naked eye no different from

any other spot in the forest. The early-morning sun was

slanting down through the leaves above and birds sang in

the upper reaches, but closer to the ground there was no

forest life, nothing to disturb the bright, pulsating slit I

could See between two of the trees. No human or animal

could have gone through that slit without the help of a

Sighted, but the woods-dwellers still avoided the spot;

 

sometimes I have the feeling that all animals are Sighted,

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

99

 

and those unSighted who feel the greatest affinity for

them are closest to the state themselves.

 

"Can't see the trail any more," Su was saying to Rikkan

Addis, who had ridden up to halt his roan beside her paint.

"Stops right mere between those trees, and doesn't start

up again."

 

"Then this must be it," he said, glancing around a little

before turning to look at me over his shoulder. "Is this

where the gate is, girl?"

 

"Just ahead of you, between those two trees," I an-

swered, urging my gray past Zail and Soffann Dra to join

the head of the column. "I'll have to help Su go through

first, so that we transfer to the proper world. Everyone

dismount and get ready; this might take some doing."

 

"You're expecting problems?" Rikkan Addis asked, his

frown making itself known in his voice since we were all

too busy climbing off our mounts to look at him. "I

thought you were good enough to handle this easily."

 

"If I were alone, I could handle it easily," I answered,

annoyed but too deep in juggling possibilities for him to

distract me. I dropped my reins to keep my gray standing

where 1 left him and walked closer to the gate, aware of

the way ^—folded—on the inside, each fold going in a

different direction. Choosing "among the folds was not

difficult at all; moving others to one of those folds without

going through myself was going to be the hard part. 1 had

to be on this side of the gate to help the others in and on

the other side of the gate to help them out again, both at

the same time. Either I would have to escort each one of

them through separately, the end of which would leave me

needing two nights' worth of sleep-like-the-dead, or I could—

 

"All right, here's how we'll do it," I announced as

soon as the decision was made, turning to look at them.

"The fastest and easiest thing we can do is form a chain

through the gate, with Su on the left, one of you men on

the right, and me as the central link. That way the rest of

you can just pass right through with the horses, and I

won't have to go back and forth half a dozen times. With

me right in the middle of the gate, it will stay open."

 

"Why do you need a chain?" Rikkan Addis asked, those

 

100 SHARON GREEN

 

bronze eyes glowing faintly with curiosity. "Why can't you

simply stand in the gate alone?"

 

"Gates aren't made for standing in," I answered, im-

patient to get on with it but seeing that the others had the

same question. "They tend to draw you through once

you've entered them, so I have to be anchored. Is every-

one ready?"

 

"Just a minute," old fearless leader balked, part of his

frown back. "I can see why Su has to go through first, but

what happens if there's a welcoming committee on the

other side? How can she defend herself if she has to help

anchor you?"

 

"The answer to that is, she can't," I said, speaking

slowly and carefully so the man would have no trouble

understanding what would have been obvious to any real

leader. "That's why InThig will be going through right

behind her,, on its own, to stand protection until the rest of

us make it. Did you think Graythor added it to this expedi-

tion just to give it new victims for its sense of humor?"

 

My adversary's head came up, as though he didn't quite

care for something I'd said, but that wasn't the time or the

place to continue the discussion and he seemed to know it.

Rather than giving voice to whatever was bothering him,

he opted instead for giving orders.

 

"Kadrim, I think you'd better be the anchor on this

side," he told the red-haired boy without looking at him,

that bronze stare still all mine. "Zail, you'll go through

behind InThig, Soffann Dra after you, and then me, we mice

leading all the horses. As soon as we clear the gate, Kadrim,

get yourself and the girl through as fast as possible."

 

"Also shall I be on the alert for any who might appear

behind us," Kadrim said with full agreement, ignoring the

near-growl with which he'd been addressed. "At the mo-

ment it appears that we are alone, therefore does it seem

best that we hurry."

 

"Couldn't have said it better myself," I commented to

Kadrim with a smile, then gestured to Su and the boy to join

me very near the gate. Su stopped no more than half a pace

back from it, probably guided by where the trail she was

following ended, and when I reached her 1 put my left

hand up.

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER        101

 

"Su, you take my hand and we'll move into the gate

together, but I'll be edging in sideways," I told her,

looking up at her calm brown eyes. "When you know

which world we want simply move toward it, but don't let

go of my hand. That way I'll be able to open the gate for

you on the other side without passing through it myself,

and Kadrim will keep me from being drawn through. Once

you're on the other side, hold tight to make sure I don't

get drawn back."

 

"Don't have to worry I'll let go," she answered, flash-

ing me a quick, faintly amused grin. "Don't want to be

left over there all by myself. Let's get to it."

 

She took my left hand with her left, waited until Kadrim

had my right hand in his left, then all of us moved

cautiously forward. The gate sensed my presence and ex-

panded sideways, the slit becoming a glowing curtain that

stretched between the two trees, even me ground beneath it

beginning to glow. The horses snorted and moved behind

us, clearly startled by the unexpected happening but not

really afraid, their reactions reinforcing my belief concern-

ing animals and magic. The gate was open and ready, and

the horses, at least, knew it.

 

Su, however, had no idea of what was happening until

we actually stepped through the gate-. She gasped then and

tightened her grip on my hand, most likely dizzied by all

the folds and choices among worlds. Gates glowed much

more brightly on the inside, and once in you didn't have to

be Sighted to perceive the brightness. Universes seemed to

be rushing by in that glow, and it took a while even for the

Sighted to get used to it.

 

"Just concentrate on the trail," I told Su gently, my

voice sounding odd in the silent rushing of the glow.

"You should be able to see it again now, and then all we

have to do is follow it."

 

"Yes . . . there!" she gasped, still strangling my hand,

and then she was stumbling toward one particular fold. I

made sure to See which fold it was just in case, and then

Su was through it into the next world-dimension, my hand,

arm and shoulder through with her. I felt the pull of the

fold trying to draw the rest of me along with the first, but

Kadrim's big hand held to mine behind, and Su's grip kept

 

102 SHARON GREEN

 

that part of me from snapping back. I was anchored in the

gate, and InThig bounded through so fast all I caught was

a glimpse of black.

 

A moment later Zail appeared, leading his horse and

Su's, his eyes widening as he became aware of the inner

gate. The dizziness didn't take him as badly as it had Su,

most likely because the chain was stabilizing a good part

of the confusion, but the central link of that chain wasn't

taking her position as easily as she thought she would. My

body had begun hurting from being pulled in two opposite

directions, my head was starting to throb in time to the

pulse of the glow. and I was getting queasy. When Zau

glanced at me, some of the awe left his expression.

 

"Are you all right?" he demanded, his flattened voice

full of his frown. He seemed to want to say more than

that, but talking in a gate isn't very—comfortable.

 

"Yes," I answered, speaking more in general than

specifically, but had to add, "Hurry."

 

Zail wasted no further time on questions, for which I

was grateful. He led the horses straight through into the

fold, and then it was Soffann Dra entering, followed by

her horse and mine. The small, dark-haired woman gasped

and paled, and she, at least, didn't have to be hurried. She

moved through the gate as fast as it's possible to go while

leading two horses, her head down, her eyes nearly closed,

and then it was Rikkan Addis' turn. Fearless leader entered

the gate in front of his horse and Kadrim's, his bronze

eyes narrowing at what he saw, and then his gaze found

me. A peculiar expression crossed his face and his left

hand came up, as though he were going to touch me, but

men he -stopped himself, turned away, and pulled the

horses through the fold behind him.

 

I could now hear sounds of some sort, soft and very

distant, as though coming from the other folds all around.

It was neither warm nor cold in the gate but 1 could feel

beads of sweat on my forehead, and something was inter-

fering with my vision. I kept getting flashes of scenes mat

weren't there before me, scenes of landscape and sea-

scape, mountains and valleys, hot sunshine and shivery

snows. People and animals of all sorts inhabited the scenes,

and each one seemed to be calling and pulling at me. I

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER        103

 

gasped for air, finding it almost as hard to breathe as it had

been in the Plane of Dreams, and me whirling in my head

began turning even faster. I gasped again, feeling my

knees begin to buckle—and then it was all gone and ! was

being carried in two muscular arms, my body no longer

being torn apart, my hands now free. For an instant I

thought me chain had broken and 1 struggled, but then I

was being put down in thick, soft grass and my eyes

opened to see that everyone was there.

 

"Just take it slow for a minute," Rikkan Addis said

from where he half-knelt beside me, the glow in those eyes

looking as strange as his expression in the gate had. "We're

all through and everything's all right, so you can rest as

long as you have to."

 

I closed my eyes again and simply breathed, knowing it

wasn't rest mat I needed. Standing in the gate hadn't been

as draining as going back and forth through it would have

been, but it also wasn't the most pleasurable of experiences.

After three or four breaths I became aware of the thick

grass on which I lay, the heavy, woodsy smell in the air all

around, the sparkling warmth of sunshine, the sound of

birds singing; by then the visions and sounds of the gate

had begun to recede into faint memories.

 

"I hadn't expected that, but I suppose it's logical," I

muttered, putting one hand to my head as I opened my eyes

again. "If the folds can't simply draw you into one of

them, they start trying harder in other ways. I wonder if

it'll be easier next time, now that I know what's coming."

 

"Perhaps, next time, it would be best if 1 were to stand

beside you within the gate," Kadrim said, crouching down

to my right to take my hand again, a faint smile on his

handsome young face. "When I came through you were

nearly in a swoon, and I found it necessary to support you

me few steps to the far side. I would not wish to see you in

such difficulty again."

 

"Unfortunately, my friend, you're needed as one of the

anchors," Zail said to the boy before I could answer, his

own crouch to my left putting him close enough to take my

other hand. "It looks like I'll have to be the one to stand

with her, lending her support until everyone has passed

through."

 

104

 

SHARON GREEN

 

Zail had smiled at Kadrim before bringing those pretty

gray eyes to me while helping me to a seated position, and

Kadrim's eyes had hardened in response, as though he

blamed Zait for speaking nothing but the truth. I didn't

know what was going on between them, but before I could

ask, InThig was suddenly sitting at my feet.

 

"It would be interesting to see one of you attempt

that," it said to both men, looking between them and

grinning its amusement. "Laciel, being Sighted and hav-

ing power to call on, was able to maintain her position

inside the gate. Were one of you others to try the same,

you would be swept away nearly at once—and unable to

exit from any other gate. She can hold you going through,

but not if you stand around sightseeing or keeping her

company. That's what makes taking the unSighted through

a gate so difficult. If the Sighted doesn't hold on tight, the

gate takes its turn."

 

Kadrim and Zail were now staring at InThig, their ex-

pressions peculiar, but that seemed to be the day for odd

expressions. I hadn't wanted to break the news to them

quite that abruptly, not after they were nice enough to

volunteer their help, but tact isn't a word often found in a

demon's vocabulary. Instead of letting them down gently he

had dropped them off a mountainside, and there was noth-

ing I could do about it right then but change the subject.

 

"I think it's time we got back on the road," I said,

retrieving my hands easily from the two loosened grips

before getting to my feet. "We still have a long way to

 

go."

 

"There is no road," Rikkan Addis pointed out, back to

looking all around himself. We seemed to be in a wide

clearing, almost a meadow, and all around were very big,

very old trees. "This is the world without any people, isn't

it? The one the wizard told us to be very alert in?"

 

"I can sense animal and plant life," InThig told him,

padding over to where the man stood and glancing at him

before joining in the looking around. "If there's human

life as well, it's out of my sensing range."

 

"Don't waste any time letting me know if that changes,"

Rikkan Addis said, fearless leader instructing one of his

followers without a second thought, glancing down at

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

105

 

InThig as though he'd known the demon all his life.

"Aside from us, anything human on this world will have

only one reason for being here. Let's get mounted and

moving.''

 

Everyone began moving toward the horses at mat, re-

sponding to his orders as enthusiastically as they'd ignored

mine, something that set me thinking even as automatic

annoyance flared. Now that we'd gone through the gate it

was time to start doing something about taking over lead-

ership of the expedition, but just as Graythor had sug-

gested, few of the others seemed ready to accept my orders

unless magic was involved—and magic was something 1

couldn't use against ol' feariess leader. I didn't yet know

how I could manage the takeover, but it was clear I'd have

to do it ^st before everyone got too used to having that

impossible man directing us. Habit was a hard creature to

best, and as 1 moved toward my gray I glared at InThig; if

even demons were subject to it 1 really did have to hurry.

but somehow I had the feeling it had ranged itself with

Rikkan Addis for another reason. With Graythor having

sent it, I didn't have to wonder long as to what that other

reason could be-

Even without a road, the trail continued to be clear to

Su. We followed her out of the'meadow and in among the

trees, everyone probably wondering privately why we had

to be so alert in so pleasant a place. There was nothing to

show that humans had ever before passed where we rode,

and that sense of being all alone in a lovely, green, virgin

wilderness was soothing as well as exhilarating. Graythor

had refused to be specific about what we were supposed" to

be alert against, saying that expecting one particular type

of attack would leave us open to the unexpected sort. If we

were alert against everything and anything, it should be

that much harder to surprise us. I could see the logic in

that line of reasoning, but the look of the landscape was

working against it; if there had been a specific threat we

could brace against, it would have kept us from getting too

comfortable.

 

"Laciel, girl. how do you fare?" a deep voice asked

from my right, drawing me out of introspection. Kadrim

had been riding behind me and Zail was deep in conversa-

 

io6

 

SHARON GREEN

 

tion with Rikkan Addis up ahead, but now the red-haired

boy had moved up to ride beside me.

 

"Now that I'm out of that gate, I'm fine," I told him

with a smile, seeing how those blue eyes examined me to

be sure I was telling the truth. "I never got the chance to

thank you for carrying me out of there."

 

"Merely did I assist you out, and for so little a thing

there is no need of thanks," he answered, matching my

smile as he looked down at me. "Once out it was Rik who

took you, for he had anticipated your need and waited just

beside the gate. As you are happily no longer in distress, I

will come to you once we have made darkness camp, and

we shall be able to continue our dis—"

 

"What do you mean, it was Rik who took me?" I

interrupted, feeling sudden outrage cover me like a cape.

"What gave him the right to come anywhere near me, let

alone touch me? How did he dare. . . !"

 

"It is surely a leader's right to see to those who follow

him," the boy interrupted in turn, for some reason show-

ing amusement .in those steady blue eyes. "As you con-

tinue to follow him much like the rest of us, there was no

call for him to refrain from doing as he wished. Perhaps,

should we seek for it this darkness, we will discover a

means to . . ."

 

"Change that state of affairs," 1 finished in what was

nearly a growl, nodding my head as I turned it to glare at

fearless leader's back. "Even if it takes all night."

 

"Even should it take the entire darkness," Kadrim agreed

in a murmur, a smile behind the smoothness of his tone.

"1 would, however, refrain from speaking of this to the

others, most particularly Zail. That one spends a good deal

of time with Rik, and should he inadvertently let slip a

premature hint of what you intend— To me they appear to

be quite close."

 

"Oh, but Zail would never take Rik's side against me,"

I protested, looking again at me very large boy. "He's

already said he doesn't like the way fearless leader treats

me, and he has no choice about conferring with him in

relation to the quest. If I don't tell him, he'll mink I don't

trust him."

 

"Should he fail to be told of me discussion we intend,

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER        107

 

the question of trust will not arise," the boy pointed out,

that very faint smile back on his face. "Should you speak

of the matter now, you will only cause him to realize that

there were previous discussions of which he was not a

part. And also do ! wish to speak of another matter this

darkness, the matter I previously referred to. It will bring

you as great a delight as it brings to me, I feel, yet would I

prefer that you alone be told of it at this time. Will you

agree to have it so?"

 

I bit my lip at the question and looked in Zait's direction

again, but everything Kadrim had said was true, and I had

already agreed to listen to his secret any time he was ready

to tell it. I don't believe in going back on promises to

friends, but I had been so looking forward to that

dinner. . . .

 

"Tonight it will be just the two of us," I conceded with

as much of a smile as I could manage, forcing my eyes

away from Zail and back to my big, young friend. "You

have my word on it."

 

"You seem to wish it were otherwise, yet shall I take

the sadness from you with what I will say." he assured

me, seeing what I hadn't wanted him to see. "You will

find that the men of other worlds are not so blind as those

of your own, nor so backward. Have I told you that the

first woman to take my heart was much like yourself?"

 

"Why—no," I answered, surprise coming to cover me

confusion I felt over the rest of what he'd said. "You

sound as though you really have had dozens of women—if

not hundreds. You also make it sound as though you met

your first woman a very long time ago."

 

"A lifetime has passed in the interim," he said very

softly, his face now expressionless, his sight turned inward

with loss. "Her appearance was not like yours, for she

was small with hair as red as my own, yet was she bright

and alive and filled with the fire of a woman of pride—yet

also innocent and in need of great gentleness. I loved her

as a drowning man loves solid ground, as a suffocating

man me breath of life; had I been called upon to give my

life for hers, it would have been my pleasure and joy to do

so. It was she, however, who gave her life for mine, and

never will 1 forget the moment of it- It gave her great joy

 

108 SHARON GREEN

 

to know I was unharmed, yet when she died in my arms

the joy of the world died with her."

 

"How did it happen?" I asked in a very unsteady voice,

my throat tightening in echo to his whisper. Those hard

blue eyes were completely dry, but only because he was

the sort to keep tears strictly on the inside. "Was there an

accident of some sort?"

 

"More stupidity than accident," he said with a sharp

shake of his head, old anger fighting to free itself. "My

enemies were not many for they seldom survived our

meeting to continue as enemies, yet was mere one who

lacked the stomach to face me. Had I been wise I would

have sought him out and slain him, yet did I feel then that

such a doing would be dishonorable. I allowed him to live

so long as he kept from me and mine—which lasted till he

approached unseen, with a bow. The shaft was meant for

my back—and took her, instead, between the breasts

when she threw herself in its path. My enemy's death,

when I tracked him down at last, was neither swift nor

easy, yet does revenge fall short as a means to replace that

which has been lost. A lifetime of loneliness had already

passed by then. and each day thereafter brought more of

the same."

 

He was back to looking straight at me by then, a steady,

unwavering blue gaze that left me with nothing to say. It

hurt to know that someone so young had had so terrible a

loss, and right then I felt very close to Kadrim. I reached

over to touch his arm, trying to make him know without

words that I understood how he felt, and a faint smile

returned to his face.

 

"She, too, would have shared my loss in such a way,'*

he said, his voice still soft. "I was not mistaken in seeing

me similarity between you."

 

"The similarity between who?" another voice asked, a

much more open and friendly voice. We both looked

around to see that Zail now rode to my left, and his smite

warmed when I quickly withdrew my hand from Kadrim's

arm.

 

"Kadrim was just telling me about someone he once

knew," I said rather quickly, half to keep the boy from

being hurt by having the subject rehashed once again, and

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER        109

 

half to reassure Zait that my touching Kadrim hadn't meant

anything. "He and 1 are friends, you know."

 

"Friends," Zail said with even more of a smile, glanc-

ing with what seemed like amusement at Kadrim. "When

you're young it's important to have friends you can count

on, and I'm sure Kadrim knows he can count on you—and

the rest of us as well. Even though our own friendship has

become a good deal more special. We'll make up tonight

for that dinner we missed last night, just we two special

friends."

 

"Zait," I began, trying to think of some way to tell him

that I couldn't have dinner with him that night even though

1 really wanted to, without sounding as though I were

making excuses. I looked ahead to where Soffann Dra now

rode with Rikkan Addis, both of them chuckling over

something, without finding any inspiration, and then Kadrim

decided to save me the trouble.

 

"Laciel will be in my company this darkness, friend

Zail." he said, the smoothness of his voice somehow

taking the amusement that had abruptly left the other man-

*'0ur friendship may not yet be as special as yours with

her, but perhaps the darkness will bring about a change—

for the better. I hope. She ha& given her word on the

matter.''

 

"You made her give you her word?" Zail asked, his

gray eyes more than annoyed as they rested on Kadrim.

"You took advantage of her, and now you're crowing

about it? When it comes to dealing properly with women,

my young friend, you still have a lot to learn."

 

"It is scarcely I who means to take advantage," Kadrim

came back. his head high and his blue eyes a good deal

colder, his voice losing quite a lot of friendliness. "Never

have I forced myself on innocence with overwhelming

words meant to dazzle and blind, with no more than one

end in mind. A few words of honest praise indicating

sincere interest, perhaps, and then ..."

 

"And then on to the next name on the list," Zail cut in

with a snort of scorn, his eyes and voice also growing

colder. "Any one of those names will do, and they're

forgotten as soon as they're checked off. But some of us

are capable of having a vision of perfection, an ideal

 

SHARON GREEN

 

no

 

which raises one name far above all others, the culmina-

tion of all he's ever searched for in one single, slender

form. That's me one worth striving for, the one to win no

matter what has to be done to . . ."

 

"To achieve one's own purpose?" Kadrim took his turn

at interrupting, a distant, regal sneer in his stiffened atti-

tude. "Even should it not be best for the one striven for?

And once that one is achieved, then what? A short time of

pleasure and self-indulgence, and then the realization that

the ideal is no longer quite as ideal, perhaps? A true man

advances his cause with a view toward sharing, of himself

as well as all things which are ..."

 

I was getting dizzy looking back and forth between

them, but the next interruption became me last. An ear-

piercing scream sounded that even startled the horses, and

then we were all in the middle of what had caused the

scream, a vocalization of the understandable terror felt by

Soffann Dra. A vine from one of the trees had whipped

down to wrap around her where she rode next to Rikkan

Addis, trying (o unseat her, trying to draw her back into

the trees with it. The man had drawn his sword and

slashed the vine through, but we'd all automatically reined

in and now there were other vines after us! It was too late

to try riding away from the attack, and even the horses

were being threatened.

 

Zail, Kadrim and Su had their blades unsheathed only

an instant behind Rik's, and the flurry of whispering swings

was almost lost behind the high-pitched whining coming

from the trees all around us. The forest world was still as

bright and beautiful and peaceful as it had been, which

made it all a good deal worse than dank, threatening dark

would have been. Kadrim grunted as he swung his weapon

and Zail cursed in a low, furious voice; me horses were

snorting and shivering, picking up the fear so thick around

them.

 

And then a vine wrapped itself around me from behind,

sticky sap dripping from it onto my clothes and flesh, tiny

suckers searching for skin to attach to, strong as the arm of

a well-muscled man. I gasped and shuddered as it began

tightening around my arms, knowing it was ready to pull me

back into the forest to whatever was waiting, and horror

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER        III

 

and disgust finally forced me out of shock and into action.

For some reason revulsion had frozen me till then, but that

wasn't the time to be fastidious.

 

A single word caused the vine around me to shrivel to

black dust, faintly increasing the whine in the trees all

around, and that told me what 1 needed to know. The trees

and vines feared something too, and that was the best

weapon with which to fight them. I composed a three word

spell and then spoke it. Seeing me blazing swords as they

flamed to life all around us, watching their flickering

edges sever and shrivel every vine in their reach, following

them as they darted around searching for more antagonists

to touch. The presence of edged steel hadn't bothered the

vines, but my swords were made of fire that burned hotter

and hotter. The vines withdrew from the attack with a

whining shriek that could be felt in your bones, panic-

stricken at the thought of what could happen if even one

sap-covered vine stayed too long in contact with those

fiery weapons. In minutes the entire forest would be ablaze,

and the trees had a lot more to worry about on that score

than we did. We could always retreat to the gate, and wait

until sheets of flame cleared the way for us.

 

"Let's get out of here fast'",Rikkan Addis called from

up ahead, his sword still in his fist, and that was an idea

none of us cared to dispute. The horses leaped ahead when

we put our heels to their flanks, needing urging from

nothing but recent memory.

 

After a while we reined in the horses from a gallop, but

we didn't dawdle and I kept the swords of fire whirling

around over our heads. Some of the forest we rode through

seemed to—draw away—from the circling swords, but it

was difficult telling if those parts were merely withdrawing

from the heat, or would have attacked if we were unpro-

tected. To be perfectly honest, I had no interest in finding

out; the thought of hostile vegetation has always been able

to make me shudder, and I preferred the drain on my

strength due to keeping the swords above us, to the consid-

eration of what might come at us if I sent them back to

nothingness.

 

It seemed to be only a little past noon when we found a

place to stop for lunch. Fearless leader had already turned

 

112 SHARON GREEN

 

thumbs down on three previous places, ones he said looked

a little too pleasant and inviting, but we were all hungry

and the horses needed to rest and graze. With a great deal

of reluctance he let us stop in what wasn't really a clear-

ing, only a place where there were fewer bushes and no

low-hanging trees, and after he had looked around we

were allowed to dismount—with strict orders not to wan-

der off alone for any reason at all. Someone else might

have felt stupid saying something like that in a place like

the one we were in, but not ol' fearless leader; looking or

sounding stupid never seemed to bother him.

 

It was time to put a fence around the horses and conjure

us some food, so I reluctantly let the swords of fire go. 1

could have maintained mem while doing the rest, but mat

would have been an even greater drain on strength that was

more than adequate but still limited. We still had a lot of

hours left to spend on that world, and no way of knowing

what was ahead of us.

 

"I hope the grass doesn't do them any harm," Rikkan

Addis muttered^ staring at the horses through the fence I'd

put up as everyone else gathered around me. This time I'd

erected a normal fence with a gate that anyone could get

through—just in case we needed to get to the horses fast

and I was too occupied with other things to open or banish

a magical fence. "I don't like or trust anything on this

world."

 

"That's why I put my own grass inside the fence," I

said without more than a glance for him, shaking my head

just a little as I rubbed at the knots in my shoulder. "Fear

not, fearless leader, I'm not about to let us get left afoot.

Okay, now everybody step back a little."

 

They all did as I'd instructed, so I spoke the spell that

produced the nicely stuffed picnic baskets, then gestured to

them to help themselves. It wasn't exactly a picnic outing

we were on, but the suggestion couldn't hurt and might

even help soothe everyone's digestion. The four went to

the two big baskets and began looking through them, but

there wasn't anything in the way of joking or light

converation while they were doing it. There hadn't been

conversation at alt since me attack, and all of them spent

as much time looking around as looking at the food.

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

"3

 

We all found places in the grass around the baskets, and

once InThig came-out of the brush to pace silently all

around us, even Rikkan Addis was able to force himself to

relax enough to eat something. The vines had gone after

all of us but me demon, which was, at least to me,

perfectly understandable. InThig liked its cat-shape and

used it most of the time, but that didn't mean it was made

of the same thing real cats were. InThig wasn't usable prey

to the vines, and they had left it strictly alone. We worked

our way silently through the sandwiches and ale from the

baskets, most of us moving from automatic swallowing to

some small appreciation of what it was we were eating,

and then InThig stopped beside Rikkan Addis.

 

"I would recommend against too lengthy a halt here,"

it growled, putting those blazing red eyes on the man very

briefly before letting them go back to random searching.

"There's something odd about this place I can't quite

pinpoint, and the feeling grows stronger with each passing

moment. Perhaps I can't identify it because it's no threat

to a life form like myself.''

 

"But it is a threat to us," Rikkan Addis said at once,

throwing away what was left of his latest sandwich and

abandoning his ale as he rose immediately to his feet.

"We'd be stupid to wait around until it was ready to jump

on us. Let's get out of here."

 

Again no one argued with the suggestion, but even as

we all climbed to our feet and I banished what was left of

the food with a gesture, we discovered we were too late.

Su's breath sucked in with surprise and then she made a

sound of pain, one which quickly became a scream of

desperation. She was the only one among us who was

barefoot and bare-legged, which meant that the things

didn't have to pass boots and clothing before they reached

flesh. They came up out of the ground, pale white slugs

that appeared in the grass then immediately began climb-

ing us, a squishing sound accompanying them rather than

whining, an eagerness to cover us in their squirming,

slithering advance. Soffan Dra screamed too, but not be-

cause the slugs had reached the tops of her high boots

under her gown. The scream was just part of the general

reaction to the swarming things, an equivalent to the sick-

 

SHARON GREEN

 

ened, cursing shouts of the men as they frantically brushed

at themselves.

 

I might have been on the slow side with the other

attacks, but slugs and maggots had shared a tot of my food

while I was growing up, before Morgiana found me. They

were more familiar to me than they were to most people,

which meant I didn't waste any time being horrified or

disgusted. Two words banished the slugs already crawling

on us, and a word of power forced the ones on the ground

to freeze where they were. That didn't slop newcomers

from squeezing up through the grass all around the frozen

ones, but at least it gave us something of a break. I looked

quickly around at everyone, seeing how Kadrim had hur-

ried over to Su and had lifted her quickly off the ground to

keep her from being covered again, and shouted the single

word, "Run!"

 

This time 1 was obeyed almost before the word was out

of my mouth, and if we didn't all go at top speed, that was

only because of what our feet were coming down on. I

banished the gate to the fence as we struggled through the

mess, saving us from having to stop and open it or climb

over, and once inside the fence we found naming but

vegetation beneath our feet. Whether it was the grass I'd

substituted for what had originally grown there, or the fact

that all of us had been outside the fence that had made the

slugs appear there alone, I didn't know; none of us knew,

but mat didn't keep us from mounting as fast as we could

and getting ourselves out of there. I froze the slugs one

more time before our horses galloped through them, which

kept us from taking any unwanted company along with us.

 

We slowed the horses sooner this time, trying to save

what was left of their stamina after too short a rest and not

enough grazing, and it wasn't long before we were glad

we did- The insect swarms made them bolt even though 1

was able to screen us from being stung much, and once

we'd managed to slow them down, they were set off again

by the fruit suddenly dropped on us as though it were

being aimed. It's impossible to know how long we went

on like that, five minutes of peace and twenty of attack,

but I do remember a lull of sorts, between the birds diving

and the rootlets reaching for our horses' hooves, of nearly

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

"5

 

an hour. Our four sword-wielders spent almost as much

time and energy defending us as 1 did with magic, but the

one who seemed to be taking it all the worst was Soffann

Dra. She had thrown up once we were away from the

slugs, and continued to look like a powder-pale ghost from

men on.

 

At long, long last the forest opened onto a beautiful

meadow containing manicured grass and a really lovely

stream, and we six sat our horses staring at it in silence. It

was late afternoon and we were hot and sweaty from the

heat of the day, covered in filth from the vines, slugs, fruit

and so on, bitten and stung, and not far from dropping

from exhaustion. Aside from that, we didn't trust the look

of the meadow one little bit; it was too pretty and inviting,

and we were all remembering the lovely little glade we

would have ridden through if not for InThig. I shuddered

at the thought of what the grass in the glade had been

resting on, and my gray snorted, either in echo or in

sympathy.

 

*'Su, do we have any choice about going through it?"

Rikkan Addis asked after a minute, unfairly sounding as

though he wasn't tired at all- "We might be better off if

we went around."         *-

 

"Can't," Su answered, sounding more like I felt. "Don't

see the trail any farther ahead than around to the left of

that stream. Could be it ends there."

 

"At the next gate," Rikkan Addis said, causing some-

thing of a stir in the rest of us. The second world, accord-

ing to Graythor, had people, and I'd discovered that I'd

rather be attacked by people than things any day. Appar-

ently the others felt the same, but rather than start forward

at once, Rikkan Addis called softly, "InThig!"

 

The demon had been ranging out ahead of us again, but

it came gliding back at the sound of its name, a big, black

shadow flowing silently over the grass. InThig wasn't tired

at all, of course, and it knew exactly why it had been

called.

 

"I haven't been able to detect anything of particular

danger," it told Rikkan Addis, sitting cat-like as it looked

up at the man. "Our next gate is not far from that stream,

but for some reason it seems odd."

 

n6

 

SHARON GREEN

 

"Odd in what way?" the man asked, joining everyone

else in glancing in my direction- I. on the other hand, was

looking at InThig, dreading what its answer would be but

already half anticipating it.

 

"The gate didn't flare open when I approached it,"

InThig replied with a puzzled tone in its growl, turning

those red eyes to meet my gaze. "Gates always open for

me, and I don't understand what it means."

 

"It probably means the gate is timed," I supplied with a

groan, slumping in my saddle. "We'll have to wait a

certain amount of time until I can open it, but 1 won't

know how much time before I See the thing. Graythor

once told me it has something to do with the positioning of

me worlds it leads to, when those worlds are more man

usually far from the world you're leaving. This seems to

be a giant-step gate, and we can only hope its period is

hours rather than weeks or months."

 

That caused another stir among my companions, this

time accompanied by echoes of my original groan. We all

wanted to be off that world, but when we left was no

longer our choice:

 

"It looks like the best thing we can do is get over

there," Rikkan Addis decided aloud, his eyes already set

in that direction. "We'll worry about what to do next if

me period turns out to be unreasonably long. Before that,

worrying is a waste of time."

 

A touch of his heel sent his roan into a steady lope

toward the distant gate, InThig stretching just a little to

move out ahead of him, Su and Soffann Dra following just

behind. Zail and Kadrim kept to their places to either side

of me, but there was more of a grimness to them than what

had been holding them most of the day. They both now

seemed to consider it a personal insult that we would not

be leaving that world right away, and I didn't understand

why.

 

Riding across the meadow turned out to be totally un-

eventful, a pleasant change from the way the day had gone

until then. The stream was beautifully blue and sparkling

with fluffy bushes of various sizes here and there around

it, but none of us looked at it too closely as we rode by.

Everyone was just then more interested in the gate, and

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

II?

 

most of mem acted as though they expected to be able to

See it. Su knew where it was from where the trail ended,

but Rikkan Addis would have ridden right through the

glowing slit without knowing it if his roan hadn't slid

sideways when he tried. He looked around then to see

InThig stopped in front of the gate and me already begin-

ning to dismount, and finally got the message.

 

"How long before you'll know what its period is?" he

asked me, backing his roan before starting to dismount. "I

don't like me way this place feels."

 

"I'm afraid you'll just have to live with it for a while,"

I answered, putting my fists on my hips as I stared at the

glowing slit. "Its pulse is clearly declining, but it seems to

be on a short cycle. My guess is it's openable only in the

morning, so it looks like we'll be spending the night

here."

 

"Your guess," he echoed over a few moans and groans

from the others, his tone dissatisfied. "Is guessing the best

you can do? Can't you tell me something a little more

concrete?"

 

"If you think you can do any better yourself, go right

ahead," I offered, waving a hand at the slit with only

some of the annoyance I was reeling, aiming my head to

look directly at him. "It so happens 1 wasn't telling you

anything, just informing the group as a whole, so don't

take the disappointment so personally. And you don't have

to be that nervous about spending the night here. Once I

have our campsite warded, we'll be just fine."

 

His head went high as his eyes began to blaze, but 1 was

too hot and tired to wait for him to come up with words in

response to what I'd said. I'd used the opportunity to show

the others how little he had going for him as a leader, but I

wanted to get our camp set up and provisioned while I still

believed I had the strength to do it.

 

For that reason I turned immediately and walked away

from all of them, getting straight in my mind how much

room we would need for me camp, what we wanted to be

in it, where to put the horses and in what, dozens of items

and specifics that would then all have to be warded. It was

like juggling a giant puzzle in my head, all the clues and

answers in place, all the pieces locking tight, every hint

 

li8

 

SHARON GREEN

 

and suggestion picked up and fitted into the pattern; it

wasn't impossible, only difficult, the sort of difficulty that

had fascinated and delighted me from the moment I first

began learning about it. I closed my eyes for a moment,

wishing there was even a small breeze to cool the air, then

raised my arms and spoke the spells one after the other-

 

*'0h, look!" Soffann Dra gasped, delight in her voice

for the first time that day. "Look at those beautiful pavil-

ions! We'll be able to be comfortable tonight!"

 

There were murmurs of agreement and approval keeping

her observations company, and I wondered again why she

always had to speak in exclamation points. Right then I

was finding it just short of painful, but that wasn't the

woman's fault- I sat down in the grass and closed my eyes

again, but this time so that I could rub them with my

fingers.

 

"You all right?" Su's voice asked from above me just

before her hand touched my shoulder. "Didn't know you

had enough left to do all that after the kind of day we

had."

 

"Nothing to it," I answered, dropping my hands so that

I could look up at her where she bent over me. "I'll bet I

even have enough left right now to keep my eyes open

until I've washed in the stream and maybe had a bite or

two to eat. How about you?"

 

"Didn't think it was worth hoping we could wash," she

said with a tired grin, crouching so that she could rub at

her leg more easily. I'd neutralized as much of the slug

venom in her as I could after we'd ridden away from them,

but her legs were still marked with painful-looking sores

under the slime that had been left on her from the slugs*

upward progress. There hadn't been a word of complaint

out of her, though, and if 1 hadn't been able to clear and

ward the stream as well as our camp, she still probably

wouldn't have said anything.

 

"It's always worth hoping you can wash," I told her,

deciding I really ought to try getting back to my feet. "It

helps to remind you that stinking and filthy isn't the only

way of life. Let's get me horses into their pasture, and

then we can get on with it."

 

Su nodded and straightened slowly while I forced my-

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER        119

 

self back to a standing position, and then we went to take

care of our mounts. If we'd earned the right to spend the

night in comfortable pavilions, our horses had also earned

me right to something special. I'd given mem a fenced-in

pasture with safe grass and their own piece of stream, a

covered-over area to sleep in if they wanted to, and a wide

trough of oats. The pasture had taken more effort than the

pavilions had, but only because I'm less familiar with

pastures. Putting up a castle would have been easier, but

horses aren't known for being partial to castles.

 

Once we had the saddles and bridles off our mounts, we

left them alone to enjoy themselves and went to take care

of ourselves. The others had spent some time looking into

the targe silk pavilions before leading their mounts to the

pasture, and the only one still in hers was Soffann Dra.

Good old fearless leader was taking care of her horse for

her so that she could continue inspecting to her heart's

delight, which was exactly what she was doing. None of

them had had any trouble figuring out which pavilion

belonged to whom, not when I'd matched them to the

color of the horse each rode, and the small woman seemed

as pleased with her white tent as she was with her white

mount.                      »,

 

My own gray pavilion stood between Su's brown and

white one and Kadrim's golden one, all segments of the

large circle the six tents were formed into. On Su's other

side was Soffann Dra in white, on Kadrim's Zail in black,

and between Zail and the small woman, Rikkan Addis in

red. If I'd been even a little less tired the red tent would

have come equipped with several special features, but

fearless leader had gotten lucky with the sort of day we'd

had. Maybe next time the luck would be on my side.

 

Considering the state of my clothes and boots, I walked

no farther onto the carpeting of my pavilion than was

necessary to reach the soap and drying cloth, and then I

hurried back out. Su took only a moment longer to get her

own things, but she didn't turn immediately toward the

stream with me; she hesitated very briefly, then without a

backward glance walked over to Soffan Dra's tent.

 

"Thought you might like to come with us to the stream

to wash," she said, looking through the open fold in the

 

120 SHARON GREEN

 

silk without taking her bedraggled condition inside.'' Lacici

made it safe for us, so we might as weH all Jump in."

 

*'0h, I'd love to," the small woman's voice came, and

then she was hurrying out with her drying cloth and soap

in her hands, a warmer, truer smile on her face man I'd

ever seen before. The smile, though, turned out to be for

Su; when she saw me watching her it faltered, and then it

was gone entirely. "On second thought, maybe I'll rest a

while first and go to the stream later," she said, quickly

moving those pretty green eyes back to Su while trying to

revive at least a portion of the smile. "Thanks anyway for

asking me."

 

"Wait," I said as she began to turn back to me tent,

speaking before 1 could stop myself. "If you fall asleep

and don't make it to the stream, you'll wake up in the

morning with clean, new clothes and nothing but a body

covered with half of what we went through today to put

into them. I think you'd better—come with us now, and

leave the resting for later."

 

She looked at. me in silence for a moment, her pretty

face sober, and it was almost as though she knew how

embarrassed I felt. Then a good part of the warm smile

came back, and she nodded once as her arm tightened

around the drying cloth.

 

"Thank ^ou," she said, turning to share the smile and

words with Su as well. "I'd be very pleased to go to the

stream with you."

 

With that settled we moved off between two of the

pavilions and headed for the stream, but not the section

immediately behind the silk tents. I directed my two com-

panions to the left, more toward the gate, where I'd thick-

ened the bushes into a screen that would even let us swim

a little without being seen. We all walked along in silence,

theirs probably a good deal more comfortable than mine,

and just as we reached the opening in the bushes, Soffann

Dra put her hand on my arm.

 

"I know you don't like me and didn't really want me

along,'' she said, looking up at me with what seemed to be

difficulty. "I wanted you to know how much I appreciate

your asking me anyway. It was a very nice thing to do."

 

"1 don't dislike you." I protested, feeling my cheeks

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER        121

 

go warm, especially when I saw the faint smile Su wore

where she stood behind the smaller woman. "I just don't—

make friends with women very easily, and we haven't

really had much of a chance to get acquainted. I didn't

mean to make you feel—unwelcome."

 

"Well, at least I wasn't feeling as unwelcome as Rik,"

she said with more of a smile, one hand going up to pat at

her hair. "I'm more or less used to cool receptions from

women, but I don't think he is. You two really got off on

the wrong foot, didn't you?"

 

"If you're going to talk about 'Rik*, I withdraw my

invitation," I said, suddenly feeling more annoyed man

embarrassed. Su had changed her smile to chuckling, which

made it even worse. "If I knew for sure it was going to

rain, I would have put up only five pavilions—or given his

a leaky roof. And speaking of water, do you think we can

get a little closer to the stream? Washing from this distance

without magic won't accomplish very much."

 

"But I'm really curious about why you don't like him,"

she said with a laugh, turning to keep me in sight as I

walked around her, then hurrying after me through the

opening in the bushes. "You get along well enough with

Kadrim and Zail; why not Rik^"

 

"Kadrim is a friend, and Zail is nice," I said over my

shoulder without slowing, knowing beyond doubt that Su

was also following—and still chuckling. "Our fearless

leader Rik is neither, and now I'd like to talk about

something else.''

 

"Oh, this is wonderful," Soffann Dra said, diverted at

last by the large area I'd screened off. "There must be

enough room here for at least fifty people, and you made

the grass softer all the way to the stream. I don't know

how you do it, but I'm certainly glad you do. And in case

you didn't know, he hates that name."

 

I had stopped not far from the stream bank and was just

beginning to try stretching some of the aches and tiredness

out of my body, which probably accounted for the reason I

spoke without first stopping to think.

 

"Who hates what name?" I asked, reaching wide toward

the hot, late afternoon sun. "I know I'm tired, Soffann

Dra, but I'm not following you at all,"

 

SHARON GREEN

 

122

 

"You don't have to be that formal," she said with a

dimpled smile, sitting down to my left and raising the

bottom of her gown to reach her boot laces. "You can

both call me Dranna, the way my family did. And the

name I'm talking about is 'fearless leader*. Rik knows you

call him that, and he hates it."

 

"Oh, isn't that too bad," 1 said in a very sympathetic

way, feeling considerably better as I joined—Dranna—on

the grass to get rid of my own boots. "But doesn't he

realize he ought to be happy with what he has? There are a

lot worse things to call someone, which he may yet find

 

out."

 

"Wouldn't push it too far without thinking about it, if I

were you," Su put in, standing to Dranna's left and loos-

ening her hair. "You jump on a man's dignity too hard

and too often, and he just might decide to jump back."

 

"And then Zail and Kadrim will probably get involved,"

Dranna added while I frowned at Su, the small woman's

voice more sober than it had been. "Normally, I don't

think either one would challenge Rik, but if you get him

mad enough to come down on you, they might be forced

into it."

 

"That's idiotic," I said after me briefest hesitation,

addressing both of mem. "No one is stupid enough to get

into an argument with a sorceress, not even Rik. And as

far as Kadrim and Zail go, there's no reason for them to

get involved. They both know I can take care of myself, so

why would they bother?"

 

They both looked at me then. Su with a faint smile of

amusement, Dranna with a searching stare, and then the

small woman shook her head with a sigh.

 

"You really don't know, do you?" she said, green eyes

still searching my face. "I'm not all that much older than

you, but suddenly I feel ancient. Don't you know anything

about men?"

 

"How much is there to know about them?" I came

back, enough of the discomfort returning so that I got to

my feet to begin taking off my clothes. "They're people

just like everyone else, and some you like and some you

don't. What's so complicated about that?"

 

"I think I understand now why they find you so fasci-

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

123

 

nating," she said with another sigh, pushing her boots to

one side and rising to her feet. "I'm just glad you don't

get along with Rik. Taking another woman's leavings isn't

what I'm used to, but at this point I can't afford to be

critical. Not that I'd be critical of Rik under any circum-

stances. I happen to like him and find him very attractive,

and he even understands."

 

"Understands what?" I asked automatically, wondering

why she kept talking in circles and changing subjects.

"And you haven't said why you think Kadrim and Zail

would involve themselves in my argument with fearless

leader."

 

"Rik understands how horribly helpless I feel," she

said with another dimpled smile, glancing up at me as her

hands reached to her gown front and began opening it. "I

knew from the start that I didn't really belong on this

quest, but I had no choice about going. I'm the only one of

us who's absolutely helpless, the only one who can't do

more than shiver through an attack and pray we survive.

It's terrible not being able to fight back, but 1 don't know

how to, and haven't the courage for it in any event. Rik

understands that 1 wasn't meant for a life like this, and

he's patient rather than criticaL Something like that means

a lot to someone like me."

 

"Men do more, sometimes, from feeling than they do

from thinking," Su put in, some of her words muffled in

the folds of her yellow leather shirt as she pulled it off

over her head. "Lot of the time the doing is nice, like the

way Rik is with Dranna, but sometimes it's dumb, like the

way Zait and Kadrim would be if they thought Rik might

hurt you. They don't want you getting hurt, girl, and they

won't take the chance it might happen. That's why they'd

step into the argument."

 

"That really would be stupid," I said, growing annoyed

again under her calm stare. "What's wrong with those

two? Don't they understand I can take care of myself?"

 

"I don't think you'll find a man alive anywhere who's

willing to consider a woman built the way you are, as able

to take care of herself," Dranna said with an amused

laugh, tossing her gown aside as she glanced at me. "Well,

come on! Let's get to the washing."

 

SHARON GREEN

 

124

 

She ran forward with small, graceful steps to the edge of

the stream bank, Su following at a more leisurely pace,

both of them ignoring the tinge of red I was sure they

could see all over me. What did what I looked like have to

do with whether or not I could take care of myself? If

being Sighted and powerful depended on what you looked

like, half the wizards in the world would be too untalented

to so much as light a match—and that included Morgiana-

As small as she was, she'd never even be able to—

 

I cut off the internal debate with a kick at the pile of my

dirty clothes, forced to admit that if I'd said any of that

arguing aloud, I would have been wasting the breath.

Although I couldn't imagine why, 1 wasn't so dense that 1

didn't know Zail and Kadrim had been fighting over me

just before the first attack. They were behaving the way

warlock apprentices and sorcerers—and even a few male

wizards—behaved around me witch apprentice Nedra, and

I didn't know how to cope with that. It was something that

had never happened to me before, and wasn't as enjoyable

as Nedra seemed to find it. I was very glad that Zail had

found a reason to be attracted, but Kadrim, although very

handsome, was only a boy, and I didn't want them fight-

ing, especially not against fearless leader—

 

"Damn," I said under my breath, adding a few street

words inside my head, where I'd learned to keep them

because of Morgiana. None of it was working out right,

not the way it did in books. The quest wasn't a lark or a

fun adventure, it was a race to save a world and its people;

 

the most attractive man around there was too busy being

alert against attack to pay any real attention to me, and me

first assignation I'd ever had was with a boy I wanted

nothing more from than friendship—but who seemed to

want more from me. On top of that, I still hadn't figured

out a way to take over leadership of the expedition, and

that alone was enough to make me depressed. Su and

Dranna were already splashing around in the water, so I

took my jar of soap and went morosely to join them. If I

was going to mope, 1 might just as well do it clean.

 

The stream water was blue-green and delicious, so cool

and refreshing that I spent some time swimming in the

light current rather than immediately beginning to bathe.

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

125

 

Because of that, Su and Dranna were already back on the

bank and drying by the time 1 got to washing. They

offered to wait until I was finished, but that would have

left mem standing in their drying cloths while I hurried to

get clean, and we were all too tired for standing or hurry-

ing. I told them I would be perfectly fine and that there

were soft lounging robes waiting for them in their pavil-

ions, and those two items of assurance and information

helped make up their minds. They carefully gathered up

their filthy clothes—keeping them well away from their

now-clean bodies—and their soap jars, and left the wash-

ing area to the one who had formed it.

 

I took my time with the washing, delighting, as always,

in the feeling of being really clean, and then I left the

stream to take up my drying cloth. It was getting a good

deal closer to sundown by then, and I stood all alone in the

middle of the large, bush-screened area, the very soft grass

cradling my feet, looking out over the stream toward the

far bank and the forest there, the long, thick drying cloth

held in front of me while I patted at my face with it. The

sun was just above the trees and flaming out its anger over

being forced to abandon its realm to darkness, the sullen

red painful to the eyes but forcing a soothing, quiet calm

on everything that would soon become part of the silence

of night. 1 loved the look of sundown and the view of it

from that spot was magnificent, a view of peace that that

world more than owed us. It was . . .

 

"That's not fair," a voice said suddenly from behind

me, unexpectedly close behind me. "The scenery in this

part of the stream is much nicer than in ours."

 

I whirled immediately to see Zail, standing no more

man five feet away, his drying cloth wrapped around his

middle, his smooth chest bare except for that small, golden

medallion, his arms folded easily and comfortably before

him. Strands of wet, dark hair fell on his forehead over

those pretty gray eyes, and when I realized his faintly

amused stare was resting on me rather than on the sunset,

it came to me with a shock that the entire back of me was

bare!

 

"Zail, you're not supposed to be here!" I blurted.

feeling my cheeks going red as fluster covered me a lot

 

126 SHARON GREEN

 

more thoroughly than the drying cloth did. "You have to

leave. . . !"

 

"But why?" he interrupted to ask, his faint grin amused

as he unfolded his arms and began to move slowly toward

me. "You don't think I'd hurt you, do you?"

 

"Well, no, of course not," I stumbled, still blushing

and horribly upset, my hands clutching the drying cloth to

my throat, my feet desperate to back away from his ad-

vance. "But I really don't. . ."

 

"The water has made your hair a little darker," he

observed, stopping in front of me to raise one hand to the

dripping strands. "I like it better when it's dry, pale and

soft as silk, draping your shoulders like a priceless fur.

And your eyes are the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen,

light and very deep, drawing me closer like twin, exqui-

sitely matched jewels. I could never hurt anything as

perfect as you, Laciel. You believe mat, don't you?"

 

He was looking down into my eyes, his body no more

than a breath away from mine, his hand still touching my

hair, and once again I found that the ability to speak had

abandoned me. Of course I knew he wasn't going to hurt

me, but my heart still hammered inside my chest, setting

all of me to trembling with the heavy thud of it, and 1

couldn't fight my way through me shivering confusion his

nearness caused. I wanted to ask him to turn his back until

I got the drying cloth wrapped completely around me, but

I just couldn't do it.

 

"Of course you believe me," he murmured, sending a

glow through all of me with his warm, beautiful smile.

"You know I'd never lie to someone who obviously sun-

bathes rather often with no clothes on."

 

His smile turned to a grin and laughter when my face

flamed to an even hotter red and 1 looked down with a

horribly embarrassed, "Oh!" but his amusement wasn't

mocking. It was a clear attempt to share something inti-

mate, and when his hand came gently to my chin, I found

out what that something was.

 

"Close, personal friends never have to be shy with one

another, lovely girl," he said, making me look up to see

that the warm smile was back. "And besides, you have

nothing to be embarrassed about."                    

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER        127

 

His head lowered toward mine then, and until it hap-

pened I didn't understand that he was going to kiss me. 1

wasn't innocent, not at all, not even if I had never been

kissed like that before; it was just that 1 hadn't expected

him to kiss me while I was soaking wet and practically

naked. With his warm, gentle lips on mine it came to me

that his arms were also around me, holding me tight to his

body, my own arms a flimsy and ignored barrier between

us. I should have been struggling to push him away,

telling him how improper that was, but all I could do was

stand there and begin to really taste the kiss he was giving

me.

 

"You know something?" he said very softly when he

finally let the kiss end, his strong arms still firmly around

me. "You're delicious as well as delightful, and I'm very

glad you made this place so private. It's perfect for giving

each other a very special gift, one mat can be exchanged

again and again and again, and be more precious each time

it is. We're going to give each other that gift now, aren't

we?"

 

He had asked me another question, but I knew without

doubt that he was going to answer it for me just the way he

had done with the other. One of his hands was on the bare

flesh of my back, moving slowly, in soft circles, and I

found that I really did want him to answer the question for

me. I felt terribly odd, and my breathing was more uneven

than it had been at any time that day, and 1 couldn't bear

the thought of his letting me go. . . .

 

"Sony to interrupt, but I'm afraid I have something

rattier important to discuss," a voice came suddenly, star-

tling Zail as well as me. "I would have waited, but this

has waited too long already."

 

"Come on, Rik, give me a break!" Zail protested,

running a hand through his still-wet hair as he looked at

the other man in exasperation. "Another hour or so won't

make that much of a difference, and I promise I'll come

straight to your tent after ..."

 

"Sorry, Zail," the miserable, low intruder said again,

his bronze eyes looking as though they were struggling to

keep from being amused. "The discussion I have sched-

uled isn't with you, it's with her. I'm sure you understand."

 

128

 

SHARON GREEN

 

Zail hesitated at that, his body stiffening slightly, his

expression going neutral but faintly guarded. He stared at

Rik in silence for a moment, then shrugged in an off-hand

way.

 

"Well, if it's that important, 1 suppose I can wait a little

while," he grudged, really trying to sound unconcerned.

"Go ahead and get it done."

 

"Zail, privately," Rikkan Addis said, his voice soft and

unexcited, his body tall and shoulders straight. He was

wrapped in a drying cloth just the way Zail was, but

somehow he gave the impression of being fully clothed

and well armed. Zail stiffened even more at the two calm

words, and suddenly 1 realized what Su and Dranna had

said was true.

 

"Zail, it's all right," I said quickly, reaching one hand

to his arm before remembering about the cloth I held and

bringing it hurriedly back. "I'm sure mis will only take a

minute, and then you can come back. I'll send a bird to

your pavilion."

 

He looked startled as he glanced at me, obviously hav-

ing forgotten that I was a sorceress, but the reminder

reassured him just the way I'd intended it to. He nodded

once, as though to something he was thinking, men turned

back to kiss me lightly -

 

"1*11 be waiting and listening for the flutter of wings,"

he murmured, touching one hand to my face. "Try not to

be too hard on him."

 

He seemed to find a lot of amusement in mat comment,

so much mat he actually nodded pleasantly to his good

friend Rik as he headed for the exit through the bushes.

Said good friend nodded back and waited until he was out

of sight and the sound of footsteps had faded, and then his

attention was all mine.

 

"Okay. now that we're alone I have a question," he

began, his voice and stare equally direct. "How long do

you ..."

 

"If you don't mind, I'd like to get just a little more

comfortable before we start this discussion," I said, find-

ing a lot less satisfaction in interrupting him than he had

undoubtedly gotten from interrupting Zail and me. "If

you'll turn your back, it will only take a moment."     .

 

THE PAR SIDE OF FOREVER       129

 

"It's hard to see how you can get more comfortable

man that," he observed dryly, for an instant looking as

though he were about to refuse, those eyes moving slowly

over me. Then he turned himself around, his back and

shoulders to me rather than his face, and I lost no time

wrapping the drying cloth firmly around me. I hadn't liked

the way he'd looked at me, and decided not to let it go by

unnoticed.

 

"AH right, you can turn around again," I said, ready,

now, to give him a piece of my mind. "And before we go

any further, let me tell you a thing or two ..."

 

"Hold it!" he snapped, raising a finger to point at me

even before he was fully turned, those bronze-colored eyes

filled with a new expression. "Since this discussion was

my idea, we'll start with what / have to say. As I was

about to ask you before, how long do you expect to keep

this up?"

 

"Keep what up?" I demanded with a frown, having no

idea what he was talking about. "You are the rudest, most

insolent man 1 have ever ..."

 

"I also happen to be the leader of this expedition," he

cut in, still angry. "That's the part you seem to be having

no trouble overlooking, and I've had enough of it. The

wizard told me to give you time to get used to the idea, but

he didn't say 1 had to put up with your nonsense until the

quest was over. Now: are you going to back off and

behave yourself, or do we have to settle this another

way?"

 

He had moved slowly forward toward me until he stood

no more than five feet away, the same distance Zail had

started from a few moments earlier. Despite my fluster I

hadn't really minded having Zail that close, but the feeling

wasn't the same with this man. His shoulders were too

broad, and his upper body and arms were too well-muscled,

and he was looking down at me with a directness that

made me want to bare my teeth. He was trying to take

something that was mine with words instead of ability, and

he'd never live to see the day I'd let him get away with that.

 

"Settling this shouldn't be hard at all," I told him,

folding my arms over the drying cloth as I looked up to

meet his gaze, "All you have to do is step down to the

 

130

 

SHARON GREEN

 

place you belong in, and there'll never be another harsh

word exchanged between us. I'm the proper leader of this

expedition, and there's nothing you can do to aiter that."

 

He stared at me in surprised silence for a moment, his

fingers on his hips near the top of his drying cloth, quite a

lot of his anger having disappeared, and then he shook his

head with what seemed like confusion.

 

"You sound like you didn't hear a word the wizard

said," he observed, those eyes now studying rather than

staring. "We were all given our places on this expedition,

and yours wasn't leader. I've spent the last ten years leading

men into battle from one side of my world to the other: it's

what I was born to do, what i was raised and trained to do.

What makes you think you could do it better?"

 

There was nothing but mildly curious questioning to his

words, nothing of anger, nothing defensive. His self-

assurance was as thick as a stone wall, presented to the

world without chink or crack, so uncaring about belief that

belief was the first thing it engendered. He thought he

knew where he. stood and thought he was weil-rooted, but

that was not going to turn me defensive.

 

*'I don't think I can do better, 1 know it," I came back,

raising my chin just a little. "Magic users are traditional

leaders of expeditions, because of the very fact that they

are magic users. Are you silly enough to think that having

hordes of people following you around makes you special?

Only special abilities can do that, and you don't have any.

This quest means a lot to me, and I'm not about to see it

fail because of inadequate leadership. Don't you think our

objective is a little more important than your puffed-up

pride? Wouldn't it be better to step aside now, to make

sure we don't fail, than to keep a death-grip on what

Graythor mistakenly ordered? He may be a very powerful

wizard but he's also very old, and age has a way of

making you do things you would never do in more clear-

headed moments. The best thing you can do now, for

everyone's sake, is step quietly and gracefully aside."

 

"I see," he murmured, folding his arms the way mine

were folded, what seemed like real amusement beginning

to show in his eyes. "You have more special talent than I

do, so you should be leader. But as I see it, your special

 

131

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

talents are already being put to use for the good of the

group; do you mean to say you're holding something back,

something you'll use only if everyone lets you be leader?"

 

"No, that's not what I'm saying!" I protested, shocked

that he'd suggest I'd do something like that. "1 told you

how important this quest is to me! Holding back would be

nothing less than sabotage against everything we're trying

to accomplish! I could never ..."

 

"And what about handling the natures of our compan-

ions?" he asked, giving me no chance to finish what I'd

been saying. "In what way do your special talents give

you the ability to calm Kadrim's urge to take on every

attacker single-handedly, to hold down Zail's penchant for

looking for trouble just for the sake of the lift it gives him,

to keep Su from sacrificing herself on behalf of someone

she considers a friend, or to let Dranna know she's a full,

accepted and acceptable member of this expedition? Would

you put a restraining spell on them, limiting the abilities

we so desperately need from them?"

 

"No, 1 wouldn't put a restraining spell on them," I

said, beginning to feel confused from everything he was

throwing at me. "And how do you know about restraining

spells? The others know almostJiothing about ..."

 

"Then how would you handle them?" he asked, and I

suddenly noticed that there was more—firmness—now in

his whole attitude. "What would you do if Kadrim and

Zail started a fight over you? Wall them off from one

another? When they might have to fight to save each

other's lives at any given moment? And how would you

keep Su from standing in front of you again, the way she

did at the fair, without hurting her by saying you don't

need her protection? Dranna doesn't trust other women,

not after all the times they've turned on her, and she's had

a bad experience with magic. How do you plan on putting

her at ease? How will you ..."

 

"Stop it!" I shouted, furious at the way he kept ham-

mering at me, refusing to let me think. "You're just trying

to confuse me! You know [ can do a better job than you're

doing, but stubbornness won't let you admit it! You're

trying to talk me out of it , . ."

 

"And how will you handle me?" he asked, plowing

 

132 SHARON GREEN

 

calmly on as though I hadn't said a word. "What if I call

you cute names, and insult you, and flatly refuse to ac-

knowledge your orders, just the way you've been doing

with me? How will that make you look in front of the

others?"

 

"You'd do that just to make me look bad?" I de-

manded, feeling my hands cur! up into fists at my sides.

"Of all the low, vile, cowardly things to. . . !"

 

"But that is what you've been doing with me, isn't it?'

he pursued, still held by that maddening calm. "If you can

do it, why can't I? All I'd have to do would be to

comment on the truth. I could let your nickname be 'lovely

legs' or 'cute round-bottom', for instance, and mention

that following you is a pleasure, since following is usually

done from behind. That sort of disrespect is guaranteed to

make trouble at the worst possible time; when one person

in a group does it and gets away with it, the others can't

help but wonder how far they can go. Wondering usually

leads to trying, and the next attack can find everyone

doing something different, something that could turn out to

be fatally foolish. The wizard said that under no circum-

stances were you to be leader; how would you feel if

someone died because you tried it anyway?"

 

"No!" I whispered, shaking my head, so horribly upset I

didn't know what to say or do. How could he say that / would

be responsible for the death of one of the others? Just

because I'd been calling him fearless leader? Just because

I'd— "You're lying! Nothing like that could happen!"

 

"Couldn't it?" he asked, now more steady and grim

man calm. "Five minutes ago, Zail was closer to challeng-

ing me than he would have even considered being when

this quest first began. He's not only feeling possessive

about you, he's starting to lose respect for me, and Kadrim's

not far behind him. That's your doing, and one way or

another it's going to stop now. I don't want to have to hurt

one of them just because it's been too long since the last

time somebody took the trouble to teach you about the

right and wrong ways of doing things. Sniping from be-

hind is not the way to make yourself a leader, especially

when you're not qualified for the position. From now on

you'll behave yourself, or you'll be very sorry you didn't."

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

133

 

"Not qualified!" I breathed in true fury as he turned

away from me, obviously ending the discussion because

he'd said all he wanted to! Everything he'd thrown at me

had had the purpose of rattling and distracting me, to push

me off balance and keep me from demanding what was

mine by right! Old fearless leader certainly did have a way

with words, but unfortunately for him some of them had

really been the wrong ones. It so happened I did know

how to challenge for me leadership of a group, and the

proper time had just presented itself.

 

I really had very little strength left for magical effort,

but I couldn't use magic against Rikkan Addis and didn't

even want to. What I wanted was to get a little more

personal, not to mention physical, and a single word took

care of the requirements for that. I tightened my grip about

the hard round stick I'd called into being, seeing my

opponent stop short when the second one appeared directly

in front of him in the grass at his feet, then began moving

toward him.

 

"In the packs, that's the weapon used during a chal-

lenge," I told his back, starting to feel again the way I had

all those long years ago. "1 got to be pretty good at it, but

don't let that frighten you. Justpick it up and turn around

and fight."

 

"What do you think I am?" he asked with a snort,

starting to turn back to me without even trying to reach for

the stick. "I don't fight females, and especially not with

a—Oof!"

 

The air whooshed out of him when I jabbed him side-

ways, hard, right in the middle, even before he was com-

pletely turned around. He bent over with the pain and

surprise of it, wrapping his arms around himself, doing no

better than I'd thought he would.

 

"What I think you are is a fool," I said, remembering

how good the taste of victory was. "You don't talk when

you're supposed to be fighting, and you don't simply

dismiss a challenge. Pick up the stick, fearless leader, or

I'll knock you sillier than you are naturally."

 

He raised his head so those bronze eyes could find me

again, his expression full of more mad than had been in it

back at the fair. I was certain he would go for the stick

 

SHARON GREEN

 

134

 

then. but some people are incapable of doing things right.

Something very like a growl came from his throat, and

then he was launching himself directly at me.

 

When I'd been leader of our pack, no one had ever

come at me without the challenge stick. I hesitated no

more than a very brief time, but that was more than long

enough for that miserable man to reach me- He threw his

arms around me and pulled me down to the ground even as

1 beat at his back with the stick, but he ignored the blows in

a way no one had ever done before. The grass was very

soft but the weight of his body wasn't, and 1 was gasping

for the breath knocked out of me even as I struggled to get

loose. I brought up the stick and fried for his head despite

being mostly pinned under him, but he ducked that dark-

haired head aside and grunted as he took the blow on his

shoulder, and then his hands were on my wrist. I cried out

as his fingers began twisting my arm, finding it hard to

believe he seemed to be using only a fraction of his

strength. None of the boys in the pack had been that much

stronger than me, not any of them, and 1 couldn't keep my

hand from opening and letting the stick slide out of my

grip. Once it had slipped to the grass he took it and threw

it away. and then those blazing bronze eyes were looking

straight down at me.

 

"I think you can consider this challenge as having been

answered." he said, his voice still very angry despite its

evenness, his big hands clamped to my arms to keep me

from beating at him with fists- "If you ever raise a weapon

like that to me again 1 will answer in kind, no matter what

it does to that overblown ego of yours. I'm not a child,

I'm a man, and having bested boys doesn't mean you can

do the same with me. And you should have listened when

1 told you to behave yourself; now you're going to get

what you've been begging for."

 

"What do you mink you're going to do to me?" I

demanded, struggling against the impossible strength in

those hands as he began to get up and pull me with him.

"Do you think I've never been beaten up before, that I'll

start sniveling and crawling once it's done? If you're smart

you'll let me go now, or next time it'll be my turn."

 

"You've already had all the turns you're going to get,"

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

135

 

he said, yanking me to my feet by the wrists as though I

weighed nothing at all. "And I'm not in the habit of

beating up women, no matter how obviously they seem to

expect it of me. What I'm going to do is take the wizard's

advice and do what he did to civilize you, when you were

fresh from the life of a gutter rat. That ought to serve the

purpose."

 

1 don't really know if the blood drained from my cheeks

or rushed to them at that, but 1 do know how shocked and

embarrassed I felt. Graythor had told him that, an absolute

stranger and one I hated? As he began drawing me closer I

kicked at him and fought to get loose, but I had never had

to fight against strength like this, and the kicking didn't

seem to bother him. He was going to do it, he was really

going to do it, but if he did I'd die of mortification! ! had

to stop him, even if it meant using magic, but I couldn't

use magic without activating Graythor's spelt! One of his

arms went around my waist as I fought harder and even

more wildly—and then suddenly he was standing com-

pletely still.

 

"What in hell is that?" he demanded in a low, disbe-

lieving voice, one that compelled me to look up. The

breath caught in my throat when 1 saw what he had, and I

felt a sudden chill in the pleasant warmth of the early

evening. We'd been interrupted at the best possible time,

but it wasn't likely to turn out to be in the best possible

way,

 

The thing stood in front of the bushes farthest away

from us, what would have been to the left as you entered

the area and faced the water. Some of the bushes were still

vibrating where it had pushed itself through them, under-

standable in view of the*size of the thing. Every inch of it

was a pure, sparkling white, its skin and fur both, the

space around its madly glaring yellow eyes, the rows of

long, sharp teeth showing in its snarling mouth, the needle-

pointed talons at the ends of its four feet. It had no tail to

speak of but it did have leg spurs, big yellow ones that

complimented its claws/and they moved just a little as it

flexed its talons into the grass while staring at Rikkan

Addis and me.

 

"It doesn't matter what it is," I answered after swal-

 

136              SHARON GREEN

 

lowing just a little, staring back at the thing. "What does

matter is where it could have come from. If it had been

here when I warded this place, it would have been pushed

out by the warding spell. How could it have gotten back

in?"

 

"That's an even better question," he agreed, letting go

of my wrists and beginning to slide his arm from around

my waist. "And the next one has to be—Look out!"

 

The thing launched itself at us with such speed that !

was frozen in place by shock, but the attack didn't affect

Rikkan Addis in quite the same way. His hand came up

and shoved me violently to the right, so hard that 1 went

stumbling and sprawling to the grass, and then he was

diving to the left, getting himself out of the way just as he

had already done with me. The white intruder raged through

the space where we'd been standing and finally stopped to

whirl about with a snarl, furious that its claws hadn't been

able to find flesh and blood, its mad yellow eyes glaring

all around. It looked at me, and then it looked to where

Rikkan Addis had rolled in the grass and up to one knee,

and then it made up its mind. With another snarl of

kill-lust, it went after the man.

 

My heart was hammering and my hip hurt from the way

I'd fallen, but that didn^ keep me from speaking a spelt

designed to smash the thing instantly. The gesture capping

the spell threw the beast to one side with a scream of pain,

but as far as being smashed goes, it wasn't. I'd been afraid

it was that kind of life form, the kind that needs immense

power to destroy it, and suddenly 1 felt like trembling- I

didn't have that sort of power left, and Rikksn Addis was

unarmed. We were helpless before it, and it was going to

kill us!

 

"I can't stop it!" I called to the man in a voice that

wasn't as steady as it should have been, starting to gel to

my feet as the white beast shook itself to throw off the

pain I'd given it. "All I can do is hold it off for a while,

but that should give you time to get the others. Hurry!"

 

The white beast glared malevolent hatred at me, as

though it knew that 1 was the one who had given it pain,

but it didn't come for me as I'd expected it to do when I'd

stood up. Its look of hatred had a sense of patience to it, as

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

137

 

though it knew it would have no trouble taking me later,

when it had the time, but just then it had a more pressing

objective. It bared its fangs in a silent snarl of vengeance

promised—and then turned again toward its first choice in

prey.

 

I'd expected Rikkan Addis to do as I'd said and go after

the others, but when I turned to look where the beast was

looking I saw that he hadn't moved except to stand straight.

! moaned inwardly to see him still there, not knowing how

long 1 could hold off the white beast if it kept attacking,

and then I noticed that something strange was happening.

The man's bronze eyes were glowing brighter and brighter,

so bright that the glow was beginning to spread to all of

him, and in the glow he was—changing' One instant a

man stood there and the next there was a giant bronze

beast in his place, with nothing left to show that the man

had been there except for a discarded drying cloth lying in

the grass. The bronze beast was almost as large as the

white one, and this time when the intruder attacked, there

was no attempt made to get out of its way.

 

The two beasts came together with a thud and the sort of

snarling growls I'd never heard before in all my life, true

challenge given and answered inlhe most basic way possi-

ble. Claws raked and fangs stashed,'the grass tore out by

the roots under their churning feet, and then they were

rolling over and over, first one on top and then the other.

Any other two beasts fighting like that would have been

shredded to ribbons instantly by the terrible violence and

ferocity, but although there were streaks and lines of red

on both white fur and bronze, neither beast seemed to

notice it. They were engaged in a fight to the death, and

wounds could be worried about by the one to survive.

 

I had heard about people with link-shapes, but I had

never before seen the transition and results, nor had I ever

seen one of those link-shapes engaged in that kind of a

fight. From the way it had started I'd expected the meeting

to be noisy, but aside from panting and grunting and heavy

thrashing around, the fight was nearly silent. Each was

trying to bite the throat out of the other, or claw its way

through to a vital organ, and they had no time or energy

for sound effects. The only time I had ever seen savagery

 

138

 

SHARON GREEN

 

like theirs had been during my time in the streets, a part of

a very small number of those who haunted the alleys and

gutters. That sort either went on to make their presence felt

by the entire city, or died by the same savagery they,

themselves, produced; but whichever way it went, no one

ever entirely forgot them.

 

The white beast howled suddenly and threw itself away

from the bronze, and in its hurry to back off I could see it

was limping badly. Its right foreleg was torn and bleeding,

possibly even broken, and the beast knew exactly what

that meant. Only in perfect condition did it have a hope of

besting the bronze link-beast, and it was no longer in that

kind of condition; it was now only a matter of time before

it died. With that realization blazing full in its yellow eyes,

it turned with the sort of speed it had shown at first, and

launched itself directly at me.

 

I can't say I wasn't expecting the attack, but expecting

something doesn't make you able to stop it. I spoke me

smashing spell a second time, but this time the capping

gesture did no more than make it scream, nothing to stop

its racing advance. The bronze beast was right behind it,

easily matching its speed, but he had been caught by

surprise when the white beast had turned from him, and

there was no way he could reach it and stop it before it got

to me. I stood in what felt like a dream as the two rushed

toward me in slow motion, the white form out ahead and

certain to stay that way. the bronze straining every muscle

in its body in useless effort, no time to throw myself aside

and out of the way. All I could do was stand there and

silently curse myself for letting my strength and power

drain so far, and then the white form leaped, triumph in its

yellow eyes. If 1 had been capable of it 1 would have

screamed as I fell backward and would have closed my

eyes—but then I would have missed the savage streak of

black hurtling in front of me.

 

By the time I hit the grass and was able to twist around,

there was a second fight already in progress. My heart

thundered inside my chest and every inch of me was

shaking uncontrollably, and InThig had never looked so

beautifully welcome in all my life—or so screamingly

enraged. The black demon who had been the companion

 

THE FAR SIDE OF FOREVER

 

139

 

and-bane of naif my existence was almost unrecognizable

in its maddened fury, the blaze of its red eyes making the

white beast's yellow gaze seem mild and unexcited. It had

knocked the white beast down with its attack, and amid the

most blood-curdling screams it was literally tearing the

thing apart, scattering it in red and white pieces all over

the grass. The white thing was dying but it wasn't dead,

and its howls of agony were making me ill. InThig's claws

and teeth just kept ripping and tearing, forcing me to put

my hands over my ears and squeeze my eyes shut. It was

the time with the Hellfire all over again, and the memory

of that experience was too fresh to let me even begin

coping with the current one.

 

And then I was pulled to my feet and two strong arms

were wrapped around me, holding me tight to a broad,

bare chest in an effort to calm my shuddering. I didn't

know where he'd come from but I didn't particularly care,

as long as I could stand in his arms and share his warmth.

I had never thought of myself as a baby, even when I was

very small; I hated feeling that way, but I couldn't seem to

help it-

After what seemed like ages the howling stopped, but it

took a minute or two before the snarling and tearing did

the same. I had never seen InThig that furious, and it took

some doing before it calmed down. A big hand had been

gently stroking my still-wet hair, and finally I was able to

raise my face with a weak smile of thanks—which froze in

place when 1 saw who had been holding me.

 

"It almost got you, and that was my fault," Rikkan

Addis said, the look in his bronze eyes more than uncom-

fortable. '*! should never have let it back off, but I didn't

realize how stupid a move that would be. I'm sorry."

 

"But—I thought you were Zail!" I blurted, feeling like

a foot, feeling the heat in my face again. After the way

we'd argued, after everything I'd said and done to him—

To let him hold me like that!