An Enemy of Dreams

     Many candles lit the hall. Sconce after sconce, flame upon flame, they burned in rank and regiment within a broad space. Some stood in rows, others about stanchions; yet others shone alone, fixed high in the stonework like quiet sentinels of light.
      As evening fell, a wind began to penetrate the hall. It came through slits in the stones where archers watched, fighting past oaken gates no battering ram might hope to win, and with each chill gust, the flames of candle and hearth could be seen to falter. They wavered, as did the hearts of the citizens and soldiers, the mages and diplomats who huddled, waiting, cursing from time to time while they ate, or prayed, or bent to sharpen a spear beneath a candle's guttering light.
      A murmur began to pass through the gathered crowd, and they drew back. A procession neared. Torches, brilliant and smoking, held high by Council guards, cut a path through the assembly, shepherding between them a score of soldiers and noble lords.
      Those nearest the procession began to cheer. Others soon spied the new face among the marchers, and they too lent their voices to the growing excitement. Here marched their savior, some eager voices said, coming at the head of this midnight parade.
      "This dress does not fit," said a commanding, female voice.
      "You accepted the honor," came the reply. "Where is the crown?"
      "I left it."
      "You are impossible. You must wear the crown. And that, it's so gaudy! Give the necklace here! Quickly--"
      A cry of trumpets stilled the voices to silence.
      There was a creak of iron hinges. Then, half as wide as a castle gate. a door opened in the hall. The eastern half of he palace began to glow.
      It filled with a wondrous yellow light, as if the sun of summer days had come to save those gathered about. And beyond the source of the light, a great room awaited.
      Here, magic held sway, providing light for the Council, and warmth for that body of mages and diplomats who had ruled in Laeytroeb for nearly a century now. It comforted them, those leaders about to seat within their number a new lord, an equal above equals: their acknowledged master, harbinger, and queen.
      Jairus entered first. He knew the way, and though old, his purple robes together with the jeweled headpiece lent an air of great authority to his march.
      Behind him, taking measured steps, her eyes level and full of fire, came Rowena.
      Inside, the Council awaited. They were twelve, seated about a circular table which rested on a dais above the floor. In one corner of the room hung a great, crystal sphere. Rowena recognized it at once as the Orb of Knowing.
      Without ceremony, she took her measure of the Council, judging each of them who sat before her without waiting to be judged. Robes of regal blue, hoods lined in gold and threaded with silver filament, noble faces looking out; none of it fooled Rowena or gave her cause for awe. What she saw were defeated men.
      After all, not a single Lord among them would have accepted her as leader, before this present war, this disastrous conflict of theirs with Shadow Weaver.
      She touched a piece on her necklace, for luck. "Gentlemen," said Rowena, "in times of peace there is no more noble leadership than what I see before me now: modesty, a quiet stillness, the humility and temperate reason of the Council."
      Her voice grew stern, commanding. "But when the trumpet sounds to battle, you, all of you, must imitate the actions of the lion, not the doe! Put fire to your blood; let your backs be straight; send your hands grasping for your swords. Disguise this fair and female nature of yours with overwhelming rage!"
      She paused, and though her words had cut through a shocked stillness, Rowena stood perfectly at ease. Let them see her as strength built upon strength, a goddess come to lead. The tight perfection of her dress aided the illusion, she had to admit, as did the braiding of her hair, side to side, in the style of the most ancient witches.
      She had only refused the crown, for they must see strength from her heart and not in a circlet of gold about her head.
      "Summon up your breath and spirit," Rowena continued. "Let your souls reach their full height, honored princes of Whitney and Laeytroeb. Oh, you noblest sons of warring fathers, whose grandfathers and their wives fought side by side in ages past, follow me!
      "Dishonor not these ancient and valued halls, whose stones lay stained by the blood of better men. They who died to build this kingdom were champions! They were of your kin and kind, and they need no introduction. But you, all of you, seem content to forget their sacrifice.
      "Unless," Rowena stressed her words, pausing artfully, "unless now, you swear on your honor and summon up your wills with mine. Swear to me that you are worthy of your ancestors, and with me lead those bloodied and beaten souls outside these doors. For there is not one of them so small that he does not keep a noble fire in his heart.
      "I see them waiting, not as defeated men, but warriors, dogs of war straining to be set from the leash. Swear that you will follow that spirit. Follow me, and by the gods I promise you a victory of the like your enemies have never seen!"
      All twelve rose as if a single man. They pulled back their hoods. They bowed.
      It was an extraordinary sight. To all appearance the woman before them was no better than a girl, a woman of twenty summers who might command any man in love, but whose battle strength had stirred them all.
      There was about Rowena a reserved force. She came to them with no resume of heroic deeds, having led no armies, nor crushed any evils of which they knew. And yet not a single man nor woman in the kingdom could say they had not heard her name.
      A river of command seemed to flow outward from her, engulfing all those who beheld her. It came as a natural power, like light, or heat, and all that was best in men saw fit to cooperate with it, as simple as obeying the will of gravity. It was as if the events of a day did not happen to her, but that where Rowena moved, the events of an age were like to follow.
      "How did you know?" asked the leader of the twelve. He addressed his question to Jairus, their greatest mage and advisor.
      "When I journeyed to the east," answered Jairus, "I first saw her teaching outside a temple wall. Even with what we knew, I thought it best to ask for a demonstration. Perhaps I thought I could engage her in a contest of wills. But as I drew closer I knew it would be unnecessary. She conquered where she stood, or walked, or sat, or in whatever thing she did."
      Jairus paused, stroking fingers across the length of his chin as he considered, with racing heart, the woman at his side. When he continued, it was to say: "She is our one and only hope."
      "I agree," said a telepathic Councilman. "Brothers, I have looked into her soul. Neither did she resist, nor offer evidence of anything beyond a brave heart and a magic most true and powerful. She is no spy of Shadow Weaver's. Instead, as the Orb proclaimed, she comes to us most welcome. She is our savior and queen."
      "I agree," said Jairus. "I too have had the opportunity to test her soul, on our journey here."
      With a smile, Rowena moved to the Orb of Knowing. As she did so a vibration began, building between her and the sphere. It was invisible, noticeable only to the most adept in the room, and yet it linked Rowena to the Orb along lines of magic as old as the world.
      "Gentlemen," she said. "We begin." She raised her hands above her head, palms upward, a movement which came naturally to her, while above, as she knew it must, the sphere came to life.
      "So this is the Orb of Knowing, that harbinger and foreteller which showed me to you," said Rowena. "I'd heard of it in my youth. I never dreamed I might so easily...." She allowed her words to trail. Her face grew stern, while above her, clouds and flashing scenes began to swirl within the sphere.
      "All time is an arch," said Rowena, "through which shines an untraveled world: the truth. See it, my gentles, and do not despair!"
      Images of a black and lonely island appeared.
      Here was a desolate place. Rocks lay everywhere, as if, in a rage, the gods had shattered a mountain and left its corpse to lie upon the sea. Yet by ones and twos, aboard rafts, or cast away from good boats passing near, the dregs of the earth found their way to this unpromising land.
      They came to escape, to slip away from sentences of death, or to settle far from honest men. They were brigands, outcasts, and those more vile than names might tell. And all their journeys ended at a single point: the island.
      Years passed and their numbers grew, until finally those upon the island organized, and in organizing drew themselves up into a company and establishment of criminals.
      Then the raids began.
      Cities and towns along the coast gained a new fear, for in the night came sleek boats, and with them a flash of knives beneath the moon.
      As season followed season, the raids grew in intensity and skill, with each thrust of the brigand Horde falling deeper into the mainland. At last the voices of the dying reached as far as the Council. There, no less swiftly, they were followed by a great wailing sent up by the widows of the slain.
      The Council raised a fleet to oppose the Horde, lords joining together in the armor of battle, and their men marching side by side, singing to the boats while flags snapped brightly above the sight. And warriors filled each ship with the noise and stink of war.
      When the appointed day and hour arrived, the Council's fleet set sail.
      (A shudder passed through Rowena as she watched.)
      No man of that fleet crossed blades with the enemy. No captain gave his call to arms. Instead, as they approached the island of the brigands, they saw, through scudding mists, a sight to chill their bones.
      Where only barren rock had been reported, now a vast citadel rose beneath the clouds, while great mountains girded the place like walls laid down by the will of the gods. And before this bastion of stone, stretching out to the sea, lay a labyrinth of intricate design. Here was a maze of traps and dangers sufficient to slow any assault.
      As if at once, a great and despairing groan arose from the men of the lead ship. Soon it was followed by other and more terrible cries as the fleet closed within easy sight.
      From the fleet, but a few survivors returned to tell the Council of their defeat. As they told it, scorn and self-contempt, shame piled on shame, were all too little to describe their plight, for the many ships, the great fleet of the Council, its armies, weapons, and supplies -- all had been destroyed by a fearsome magic in the sea.
      The only enemy fought that day was death, and, for the most part, death had won.
      When next seen, the brigands were an army. They came down upon the mainland in their own squadron of ships, and with them came a leader to drive terror through the hearts of men. Here, for the first time, was Shadow Weaver.
      It had been his magic that sank the fleet, the spells of his hand turning ships to broken toys, and drowning before his island home the Council's entire fleet, and will, and righteous strength.
      Shadow Weaver. They watched his image clarify in the Orb of Knowing.
      If possible, Rowena's gaze grew more brilliant, her eyes becoming wider, and of a deeper blue than they had been before. To those nearest, she seemed to be looking out through eyes of precious stone, their aspect turned hard and immutable in the instant Shadow Weaver appeared.
      Yet Rowena remained in control, and when she came down upon the figure, focusing him as tightly in the orb as might be done, all was as if seen from the eye of a descending hawk.
      "Here he is," said Rowena. "From the battle for the castle of Etenkral. Two summers past."
      The evil mage rode a charger into a breach in the castle wall. Black cloak and mask adorned him. Yet the mask seemed a part of the man, and the cloak swirled behind him as easy as flowing hair, and when he shouted to his men they followed. Into the breach they roared, into wind, flame, and the rising music of blade upon blade.
      Though hundreds of the brigands died, hundreds more remained, and each man came at his best pace to shout the name of the dark one, and to count himself blessed if he died within sight of his mounted king.
      "Look at him," said Rowena. "Man, ordinary man, is at the mercy of events. Floods and lightning take his soul, he trembles at the violence of his neighbors. But this man, he shares the life of all that terrifies. He is an expression of the same laws which control the tides and the moon, numbers and realities."
      "Unstoppable," said one of the Council.
      "By all but me," replied Rowena. "How wonderful, the two of us! Two such spirits alive at once, in the same age, and with no choice for it but a contest of wills!"
      "When will you tell us how?" asked Jairus. "When will we know?"
      Rowena dropped her hands. The sphere went dark. "Tomorrow. It will be tomorrow," she said. "For now I want quarters, food, the plans and disposition of all men-at-arms. These I want immediately. Then tomorrow, at this same hour, we will meet again."
      Rowena watched Jairus as he directed the placement of dishes upon the table, his gifted attention to each portion of browned and golden pheasant, his delight at a taste of the Council's best wine.
      After a rush of servants and serving wenches, they sat together in the palatial quarters provided her. They ate.
      "You are more the diplomat," said Rowena, "than am I. No doubt it explains the size of your stomach, the bags beneath your eyes."
      "A cruel tongue," Jairus responded. "But direct, accurate, and sorely needed in these halls." He speared a steaming potato with his fork, bringing it carefully before his lips. "Some of what is before you may be too generously heated. Be careful, my dear. Perhaps you should remember who brought you before the Council.
      Rowena narrowed her gaze. "I remember."
      "Then a simple question, an honest query for honest tongues," said Jairus. "Do you believe you could have even come before the Council, let alone as their preordained savior, without my doing?" He pulled apart a succulent leg of meat; he chewed.
      "No," Rowena answered. "I can appear threatening, without the proper introduction." She paused, placing a morsel of food in her mouth. "To be honest, I would never have thought to raise an army, as Shadow Weaver has done. Nor would I have conceived to place myself in opposition to him, without you. An honest question then, for honest tongues; now having brought me here, what do you want out of me?"
      "My reasons are entirely self-interested," replied Jairus. He sipped at a heady wine. "If Shadow Weaver wins, it is unlikely I can be of service to him, and more likely I shall spend the rest of my days in some great agony of torture. It therefore befits that I should run, or fight. Yet, however old or out of shape I may appear, I have never run."
      "Then I take it," said Rowena, "I am the weapon you have found for your fight."
      "In part, yes," Jairus admitted. "I believe you can lead us against the evil. There is also the matter of your magical strength."
      "You wish to learn?"
      "Yes. Whatever a child of such gifts may teach," said Jairus. "There is also this force about you. So natural and overwhelming an aura of command."
      "Which, if you possessed it, might give you control of the Council."
      "But not replace you," said Jairus. He threw his hands wide, palms up, and smiled. "And finally," he laughed, "there is your beauty. Old I am, and weak in many ways. But whatever has been dulled in me, by time, awakens when I see you. Your dancing shape, your haunting gaze, they stir a magic all their own." Jairus forked another steaming bite before his lips.
      "Charming," said Rowena. "But, honest woman to honest man, you would find my charms more difficult to swallow than a hot potato. More true to the result, they would kill you. This, because I am as direct in love as in war."
      "The necklace," Jairus whispered.
      "What?" Rowena asked. She grasped toward her breast, feeling for the necklace of gold, and once finding it, letting her fingers run across its many small runes and inscriptions.
      "Yes, I recognize the piece," said Jairus. "You stole it from the temple where I found you. Didn't you? I've searched for it. I've spent years--"
      "They knew not what they had," Rowena interrupted.
      "And do you," asked Jairus, "now that you possess it?"
      "In all its particulars, no," Rowena admitted. "But I feel the strength of the thing." She dropped her voice to a whisper. "What will you tell me, freely?"
      "I tell you, freely, that it belonged to a most ancient and evil witch, the sorceress Chesschantra. She was the one who betrayed our kingdom in the days of Lord Borel and the Gods of the Three Ways. This bauble kept her young, for an age more than she deserved."
      Rowena smiled. "Then it will keep me young?"
      "No," said Jairus. "It will make me young! We, together, will explore its powers to that benefit, and securing such ability I will transform myself into a more vital form." He spoke quickly, excitedly. "We will then join, man and wife, king and queen to this kingdom, sweeping aside the Shadow Weaver, the Council, and any who may oppose us."
      Rowena fingered the necklace, considering Jairus' offer. "And if I refuse?"
      "I will have what I want," he replied.
      They looked into each other's eyes, and in that meeting, strength came against strength. Once harbored a power as direct as day, while the other took subtler advantages, those of position and experience.
      "I must sleep on it," said Rowena. "And take this, my one last and honest thought; I will consider your request. Now leave me." She sat back in her jeweled chair as if suddenly exhausted. "And still there are maps to study, and plans to review before I sleep."
      Wax dripped from her candle, hitting in soft splashes against a parchment of battle plans. Even as she attempted to concentrate, the room grew dark. It became a close and weary place, and within moments, the rigors of her day having caught up with her, Rowena fell asleep.
      The dream began.
      Rowena entered it as if the lapse from consciousness to fantasy were immediate, and soon she found herself suspended, bodiless, a witness to the pain below.
      "Father!" screamed a child. The girl fought pushing against spears held close and leaving blood upon more than a single blade, while one soldier, stepping toward her, came on through the ring of weapons. He reached out with a mailed fist to slap her, hard, and the child fell.
      "Abighael!" screamed a woman. It was the mother. "Get away!"
      The woman's hair lay braided, side to side, in the style of the most ancient witches. About her throat hung a necklace of golden pieces, and in her eyes burned a remarkable, unyielding flame.
      In turning a hand, just so, the mother stole one soldier's breath. With a word, she slew another, his throat torn by an invisible blade. Others closed. Combining their powers, mages and warlocks hoped to subdue the woman's tricks.
      Fighting past ethereal defenses, one man caught the mother's gaze (and went blind instantly), while two others trembled with fear as they worked, on their bellies, to grasp the ankles of the witch. Above them a powerful magician joined battle with blades of lightning in the air, until at last and working together, they clasped her in irons.
      The chains jangled. They grew warm and stretched taut, making all the sounds of restraining a violent power. But resistance meant nothing. Here was a metal to hold magic at bay. working quickly, the guards applied a smaller, second set of bonds to Abighael.
      The girl watched strength flee from her mother, as if blood poured from a mortal wound.
      And in the deepest recesses of Rowena's heart, pain grew upon pain as she watched. she became richly, serenely aware of the young girl's terror, seeing from her own vantage how weary was the mother, and how unutterably frightened became the mind of a child no more than fourteen summers old.
      "Father!" screamed the girl, once more.
      "She mistakes you for Lord Borel," said the captain of the guard.
      "She mistakes no one," replied the mother. "She was well loved by him, and calls to his memory. You were all loved by Borel. You should all be ashamed."
      "Fool!" charged the captain.
      "He brought the enemy upon us," said another.
      "Or did you, Lady, behind his back?" asked the captain. "Well, Borel is dead, and the three gods defeated. Time now to clear out all spies, miscreants, saboteurs, plotters, villainy, fiends, monsters, rogues, curs, and betrayers -- stop me, Lady, when you hear your name."
      "Ahhh!" The woman screamed, a crystal, icy exhalation of grief, comparable only to the howl of wolves in the northernmost reaches of the world.
      "Take it and its issue," said the captain, forcing his words from between clenched teeth. "Take them from this place!"
      For Rowena, the grief and cold of the moment flowed through her, becoming blood and breath and a terror in the night, her true body beginning to rock in its chair, one arm flailing out across the table and forcing aside all maps and books in its path.
      The dream ended. In starts and fits it flew from her mind. Yet before it had faded completely, she recognized in the corner of her thoughts an island, the place of volcanic desolation to which the mother and child of the dream were taken. There they were freed from their magical bonds and left to live out the rest of their lives, alone.
      Rowena awoke bathed in sweat, and terrified. For long moments, she could not shake the notion that she, now, sat in some lonely exile, worse than dreams.
      "The plan is cunning," said the chief Artisan of War, he of the Council known as Khail. He stood tall, well-muscled, and dressed in a leather armor decorated by the gleam of a dagger strapped across the front. Before them on the round table lay three parchments, each marked in swirls and arrows of fresh ink. A dozen pairs of eyes looked on, and before them gesturing with urgent motions from map to map, stood Rowena.
      "But will it win?" asked another.
      "No," said Khail. Behind him, Jairus coughed nervously into cupped hands.
      "No indeed," said Rowena. All at once she knew Khail to be right. The work of the previous evening was nothing, or, at best, little more than a beginning.
      Grimacing, wiping a hand across her pale forehead, the feeling of the dream upon her once again, she turned, and in turning caught sight of it. The Orb of Knowing waited for her across the room.
      "Was it an omen, then," she asked in whispers, "the dream?" Then, her voice rising, moving back toward its heights of confidence, Rowena continued. She returned to the maps. "they will smash us here, and here, within four-score days. The castle will fall one month later, to the day."
      "A month, perhaps two, and longer than we would have had otherwise," said Khail. "I can think of no better, but is this all?"
      "No," said Rowena. "It is a start. The rest falls to the will of a single champion, not yet chosen. Watch."
      She stepped to the Orb of Knowing. She raised her hands, palms upward, and began.
      "Here is our history, here lies our clue, herein awaits a weapon for our present war." Light and shadow swirled through the sphere above her, stabilizing a moment later upon an image most frightening and terrible.
      A valley lay dead, a wasteland stripped of forest and opened to the howling wind. Battle and conflagration were but moments past, and of sounds, there were but two: the rush of the wind, and a wailing of women. An army of women were moving down from the villages. They crossed the dying embers to find their dead.
      At first the mothers and daughters could not be certain if they imagined the movement, or if the trembling beneath them was real, holding in its restless vibration some new danger, some terrible purpose. Then it came. All eyes turned to ward the center of the rumbling. They saw it rise.
      From the center of the ashen land, a tower rose. Its sides sloped to a steepled top. It became a spire.
      The land stopped its shaking, but the tower remained. It waited there, and as the widows of the slain and the daughters of the slain stood before this unholy structure, and as they watched, three forms retreated to within its walls.
      "A god of magic, a god of war, and a god of intellect," said Rowena. "They hail to us, these images, from a history almost legend. Remember, how these gods came to conquer man; remember how the armies of one lord held them at bay; remember the tower.
      "Within that dark spire, the three gods hoped to heal their magic and their wounds, eventually to return for battle. But Lord Borel, having forced retreat upon them, had no heart to lend them the very time they might need to re-emerge. Alone, he ventured into the tower. Alone, he did battle with the gods."
      Alarmed by the proceedings, Jairus moved forward. Though his hands shook, visibly, he saw fit to interrupt.
      "Are you unaware of the history?" he asked, looking to the images within the sphere. He blessed himself. "Borel was the traitor who brought the anger of the Three upon us. He incurred their wrath by his eager demands."
      "Watch, and be silent," Rowena ordered.
      "He died in that tower," said Khail, "the first of the champions."
      "Yes," agreed Rowena, smiling. "And for it his love was banished, his daughter banished. But others followed. Many brave men and women followed in the years to come, until one championed all the tricks within the tower and brought it crashing down.
      "Today mankind is faced with a new threat. The armies of Shadow Weaver cross the land." Rowena spread her fingers, watching the play of light within the sphere as it became a series of faces, visages of the men and women, champions all, who had marched off to die within the tower of the three gods. At last a single image remained. Rowena identified the countenance as that of the final champion.
      "All that is in my heart, soul, and experience tells me this; we need a new champion. All that is in my heart and soul tells me it must be someone with the one quality I do not possess. It must be a descendant of that last and winning warrior, the one who brought the dark spire down."
      "What goal would you set for such a man?" asked Jairus.
      "Spy, saboteur, adventurer, assassin, champion," Rowena answered. "He will be all these and more. While we hold the shadow Weaver, battling him to a halt at each pass and river crossing, the champion will make his way behind the lines. There he must find the clues to aid our victory."
      A collective sigh escaped the Council. Jairus nodded first, then Khail, and afterward a dozen heads bowed in unison and in assent.
      "The summoning bled you," Jairus observed. He lent his shoulder to Rowena and helped her to order her steps. He shepherded her past curious guards and into the quiet of her room.
      Drawing shallow, quick breaths, her brow furrowed and pale, almost as if a fever burned behind it, Rowena collapsed upon the bed. She coughed.
      "It was not part of the bargain," Jairus continued. "You never told me --"
      "Conditions change," said Rowena, interrupting. "We must... we must be flexible. I had a dream last night. I saw the witch Chesschantra and her daughter Abighael. It was the day they were banished from the land, and I took it as an omen."
      "To find and teleport some country oaf within these walls?"
      "Yes!" said Rowena. "That oaf is the direct descendant of the champion who saved us all. He is blood and kindred flesh to that memorable knight who struck the tower down! This oaf, no less than a stem of that victorious stock, will, oaf-like, in oafish fashion, oafishly bring our enemy curled and bleeding to his knees. His oafishness, as you may call it, will, if I am right, burn away the shadows in our Weaver's eyes and, like a thousand oafish suns, blind him to his soul! Fate will have no less."
      "He knows no weapons," said Jairus.
      "He knows little magic," said Jairus.
      "Details," insisted Rowena. "You and Khail go and attend to them."
      Leaning forward across the bed, Jairus entwined his fingers through the necklace about Rowena's throat.
      "You," he whispered, "are one that, headstrong with your own desires and seeing omens in every dream, will lead us to ruin." He pulled the necklace taut. "Remember who I am."
      "I remember that," Rowena answered. "And I remember what you want." She searched inside herself. She felt for what strength might oppose Jairus in this moment, and none remained. She would have to bluff.
      "Gentle Jairus," Rowena said. "This war with Shadow Weaver has new angles every day. And like the dream, I cannot believe this necklace came to me by chance --"
      "Came to you," Jairus interrupted. "You stole the thing!"
      "As would you have, if you'd found it first," Rowena said. "Now understand this; it possesses power, but how much and how we will need it to destroy Shadow Weaver, I do not yet know!"
      "It is a necklace of youth," said Jairus. His wrinkled, bloodless fingers pulled it close, their nearness like a breath of ice upon Rowena's throat. "It kept Chesschantra young."
      "No, not a necklace of youth," said Rowena. "It is a necklace of time!"
      Dismissing Jairus from her room, Rowena fell quickly into slumber. The finding and teleporting of the champion to their castle had played her out. She slept. She recovered.
      She dreamed.

While Chesschantra wove her spells throughout the interior of the island, transforming pillars to hardwood trees, making glades, and coaxing springs to life, the powers of a lifetime at their peak, her daughter (she whose name meant "my father is joy") watched with a most careful and discerning eye.
      "Allow me, Mother," said the girl. "I've been watching you." And from the curling of Abighael's fingers, a rain composed of swords, shields, maces, and armor flew from the sky. Pieces struck stone and grass, hurtling past with such abandon that Chesschantra threw herself to the ground as a pickax tumbled by. She arose laughing.
      "Such hatred and such power!" Chesschantra beamed. "One day you will shout, and the world shall tremble at the sound."
      "A world that hates my father's name," said Abighael, "deserves to tremble." Then she smiled. It was a teenager's delighted smile. "Teach me more."
      "Teach you," said Chesschantra. "You are already almost beyond teaching. You could be the daughter of a god, young Abighael."
      "Lord Borel is father enough," said the girl. "Well loved and loving. I tell you, mother, I will remember him always."
      Upon awakening, Rowena ordered the servants to bring her a mirror. Hours passed. For it took hours and many permissions to secure the particular mirror Rowena wanted. When it arrived from a nearby temple, they placed it in the brightest part of the room, at the foot of her bed and facing outward toward the hall.
      It was not magical, but valuable, perhaps the only full-length looking glass in the land. Within its frame of gold and silver filigree, Rowena studied herself. The dreams had taken their toll.
      Her eyes seemed weakened, harboring dark circles beneath their squint. Her movements were unsteady. It was as though all the fire and power of her majesty had been doused in that cover of sweaty sheets still laying on the bed.
      She raised a hand to her eyes. It glowed. By slow prudence and through soft degrees, she worked to restore her beauty.
      "What is keeping you?" asked Jairus. He entered her quarters in a huff and closed the door. "We find ourselves busily training your oaf while our armies engage Shadow Weaver at the pass of Ivers, near Whitney. The whole castle will lose heart if you do not show yourself." He stroked at his chin, impatiently.
      "I am scared, Jairus," said Rowena. "The dreams continue. And I do not know if they are omens, or sent to destroy me."
      For the first time, Jairus put his arm about Rowena, gently and as a comfort. He held her as he imagined he might have held a child of his own, had such a one as he ever married to produce an heir. He smiled.
      "Take them as omens," said Jairus. "There is a strength in you no enemy may overcome. If you are faint for the moment, then it is the weakness of the sun on a cloudy day. In time your true nature will burn through to light the world again. I'm sure of it."
      "In the meantime, I will make this mirror my friend and study my appearance day to day," said Rowena. "We must show no weakness to the world, you and I."
      That day and for many days thereafter, Rowena worked with the champion. She laid hands upon his bare chest, and there inside his heart, she sensed a spark of magic. His flesh descended from a line of mages, of that Rowena could be certain, and so her task became one of awakening abilities already waiting within.
      Together, she and Jairus taught him the art of casting spells, leading him, step by step, though the ancient arts, of visualization, and of the proper hand motions, each of which represented a different kind of magic. By combining different motions, he might successfully call upon different spells. And when his time was not thus engaged in supernatural lessons, Khail and the finest swordsmen and combatants in the castle pushed their champion to the limits of his physical strength.
      Like a true champion, he learned well, complained little, and day by day grew all the more used to the idea of sacrificing himself for the common good.
      Still, at night, Rowena lay tortured by her dreams.
      Images of Chesschantra and Abighael, of Lord Borel and the tower, of the God of Magic and his two companions filled her dreaded nights.
      And each morning, upon awakening, Rowena faced the mirror. There, standing before her at the foot of her bed, she watched her image grow darker in the silvered light. Her strength waned visibly. She looked worse, and found that it took longer with each new day to repair the damage.
      In desperation she removed her necklace, hiding it carefully, almost hoping some undetectable curse lay upon it and that this might, at last, prove the cause of her hated dreams.
      Rowena placed the piece within a hollow above her door, in a spot she carved out with the last bit of magic she could manage for the day. Yet that night the dreams continued.
      "We are losing," said Khail. He stood squarely at the head of the training field, his armor dulled by blood and battle, his jaw set in grim defiance. The horse that had brought him in from Ivers paced nervously behind him with its mouth foaming; its sides were slick with sweat.
      For Rowena recognition came instantly, before she examined the slanted eyes, the ebony skullcap with its side- shields extending downward to chiseled cheeks, the broad well-muscled chest and the fingers thin as bone, she knew; here lay the God of Magic, a golden necklace about his throat.
      "Were my latest orders carried out?" asked Rowena. She walked toward Khail, the cham- pion at her side, the lather's chest heaving as he drew deep breaths in recovery from a mock battle but moments past.
      "We followed them, Lady," Khail answered. "We followed today's orders, and your com- mands of yesterday, and of the day before. By my heart, you make the worse of it with each new decision."
      "You dare say this[ " said Rowena.
      "You've changed from the original plan, Lady," said Khail. "And my men die for the privi- lege."
      "Only I can save this castle."
      "Tell it to the dead," said Khail. "Your failure has brought the enemy within a day's march !"
      Anger sparked, and a hand of silken grace flew, startling in its speed as Rowena slapped Khail, her contact no less cutting than the vicious look she threw him. The first blow he, took. But, all in an instant of fiery response, Khafi caught Rowena's second blow and let fly his own gloved hand. He hit Rowena above the cheek and the young witch fell.
      Her thoughts fell with her, entering at first: upon a black- ness and then upon a dream.
      She saw Chesschantra, that ancient witch and Lord Borel's lover, this time without Abigail and in a time before the tower's rise, before the war with the three gods, and before her daughter's birth.
      In the recesses of a castle the witch lay upon a couch of fine leathers, her soft words reaching out to soothe the most remark- able of creatures by her side.
      For Rowena recognition came instantly, before she examined the slanted eyes, the ebony skullcap with its side-shields extending downward to chiseled cheeks, the broad, well-muscled chest and the fingers thin as bone, she knew; here lay the God of Magic, a golden necklace about his throat.
      Chesschantra smiled, loosing her hair from its braids. As she spoke, she caressed the great one's chest, working delicately until her fingers intertwined the necklace of golden pieces, until her gaze fell longingly upon each rune-inscribed piece.
      As if aware of Rowena's pres- ence, the great witch turned, looking directly toward the posi- tion Rowena's consciousness seemed to occupy, and there, across a tremendous span of years, their gazes met. A puz- zled look passed across Chesschantra's features, for she could detect nothing more than an aberrant breeze, a touch of some unknown breath. Still, the great witch laughed, and for Rowena, there appeared in the other's eyes a measure of such treachery and cunning that it shook Rowena from her dream. It hurled her from this past of long-dead images and back to a present where her face still throbbed from Khail's blow.
      Behind her eyes, she could still see Chesschantra laughing at her.
      "My apologies, Lady," said Khail.
      The champion helped Rowena to stand, while two guards held Khail at bay, and a score more of the castle's men-at-arms rushed in to protect her from the threat.
      "Let him go," Rowena ordered. "And you will have my apologies, General. I know, now, that the dreams, the omens I have taken for true revelations were but the devil's work. They fought to confuse my judgment, and they won."
     "Lady" asked Khail. "Shadow Weaver did his bat- ties in my sleep," Rowena explained. She drew herself up, shaking off the pain, trying with all her will to hold back any fur- ther words of despair. "My orders to you, Khail, my choices of how to train our young cham- pion, all of them were influenced by a mind that counts itself our most dreaded enemy!"
      "The enemy is almost upon us," said Jairus. "Every remain- ing man is within the castle walls, and Khail stands before them like a silent shadow. He has lost his will. I doubt now that even the curses we have laid for traps and the cloaks of magic we have used to hide this place can hold for much longer."
      "Don't bother me," said Rowena. They stood in the Council room alone, with Rowena having positioned her- self beneath the Orb of Knowing. She raised her palms upward and images began to play within the sphere.
      "The people need you," said Jairus, "to rouse them in their defense. They cry out with despair."
      Voices, the movement of cata- pults and wagons, a host of mingled, confusing sounds fil- mred through the great doors. It was the rush before the storm.
      "He fooled me," said Rowena. "He had me from the first. Each night a new dream changed my plans, each battle order contami- nated by his messages within. Even my training of our cham- pion was warped, I fear, and shaped to some unknown plan."
      "Are you telling me," asked Jairus, "that you've trained the champion to do Shadow Weaver's bidding?"
      "Not consciously," Rowena answered. "But he may yet take actions to end us all."
      Within the sphere, images of Chesschantra and Abigail began to clarify, and from them, in a truth she hoped would prove sharper than her dreams, Rowena looked for possibilities and answers. What had hap- pened in those long gone days, and why had the Shadow Weaver chosen their pains to taunt her dreams?
      For mother and daughter on the island, years passed, season after season fading into silence, into the quiet between two peo- ple who know no others, have no news, and wait together in some far, lost corner of the world.
      Then came the ships. At first, reflexively, Chesschantta smiled and called to Abigail. Together they ven- tured toward the breakers near the sea, their arms pointing out- ward to puffed sails, ships rushing in toward the island's bay. Their voices became as giddy as might a pair of young gifts' at some warrior's approach. But here were no good tidings, no friends having braved the sea to rescue the long lost pail. Chesschantra caught their thoughts; she explored the emo- tions wafting in on a breeze from the sea.
      Murderers and magicians manned those boats, warlords and brigands gleefully rushing toward an island whose only treasure stood above the shore, watching their approach. In-their thoughts they held no less a plan than to find and enslave Chesschantra, bending the will of so powerful a witch to their own. And in their dreams, for their ultimate endeavor, they intended to conquer the world.
      In the first days Chesschantra and Abigail worked to conceal themselves, but while the magic of cloak and stealth was easy to maintain for a time, it became laborious to hold. And outside, the warlords persisted in their search, using their own probing sorcery.
      At last there was nothing for it but battle.
      "You must go now," said Chesschantra at the height of the turmoil, when it became dear her powers could protect them no longer. "I will send you away!"
      "No," Abigail answered. "We stand together!"
      But as lightning and fire cracked heavily against her magic shield, Chesschantra knew but a single option remained to them.
      In the first Chesschantra and Abigail worked to conceal themselves, but while the magic of cloak and stealth was easy to maintain for a time, it became laborious to hold.
      With a final burst of magic, the witch released her soul, expanding outward in con- sciousness and power, all the ,- will and fire of her life released in a single instance as if from the shattering of a magic.
      In that second, the mountains rained down upon them, falling in blocks of shattered, granite hail while a hot and sulfurous wind blew through every rift and fall of dust. It was a breath of scalding heat, and it crossed the island in a rush. Raiders died, their magicians abandoning them to their fate, feebly trying to protect themselves with weak- ened shields of magic, the whole of the island raising up to crush and burn them all.
      'If we lose today," said Rowena, "then we alone should bear the shame. But if we win, then to our small band goes the greater share of glory"
      But for Abigail, the scene faded about her, a calm will gathering her up, holding her within its thoughts. This was the soul of Chesschantra, and it tele- potted the girl away to safety. It set her down far and away, in the world of men.
      There Abigail grew in remembrance of her parents, of Borel and of Chesschantra, always perfecting her skills with magic, and patiently making her way in the world.
      Years passed, and though Abigail learned many tongues and traveled in the course of time to many lands, she remained young, always young, with only her hatred to keep her company. It festered inside her, a hatred of the world which turned Abigail, season by season, from the gentle daughter of Chesschantra into an enemy of all life and living and joy.
      "A sad tale," observed Jairus. "But we have our own invasion to deal with. There, don't you hear that ram at the castle gate?"
      "I must have time to think," said Rowena. But Jairus grabbed her by the hand and pulled her insistently aside.
      "Where is the necklace?" he asked. "Please, only give me that one small miracle, allow me to become young enough for battle. We may yet fight off the evil one. Oh, let me deferld your honor, at least that!" "Perhaps you're right," Rowena said. "Follow me."
      Outside warriors stood in ids- array, their captains terrified to the point of inaction while a bat- tearing ram continued to shake their castle's gate.
      "If only one in a hundred of our dead might rise," said a woe- ful voice. "If only their swords might swing with ours today."
      "Who says so?" asked Rowena. She stepped forward, and grasping the pulleys of a catapult, drew herself to stand up along one beam of the heavy device. "My general, Khail? No, great soldier, ask not for one man more!" She raised her voice, projecting it for all to hear.
      "If we lose today," said Rowena, "then we alone should bear the shame. But if we win, then to our small band goes the greater share of glory!
      "Wish not for one more sol- dier to join our side," she said, "for I am starved for glory, and I would not give up that share of it a single, extra man might take. Instead, Khail, proclaim this through my army; he who has no stomach for this fight may leave. Yes, let him depart with gold in his purse for ransom, and a cheer for Shadow Weaver ready on his lips, for I will not fight in that man's company who is afraid to die with us.
      "Listen, brave souls! He that outlives this fight and brings a triumph to our side will know this day as he knows the first morn of spring or the Feast of Champions. He will call it Victory Day, and yearly on the eve of this great anniversary, he will prepare a feast for his neighbors and tell them 'tomorrow is Victory Day.' Then he will bare his chest, or roll up his sleeves and say to all: 'these scars I gained on that great day.'
      "Old men forget, but he'll remember what feats he did that day, and with each yearly feast our names will grow, bright in his thoughts and fresh on the tongues of those about. Then never, I promise you, shall a Victory Day go by, from this day to the ending of the world, but we shall be remembered[
      "Know this, all of you, that warriors born in future years will think themselves cursed they were not here, and each of them will hold still his tongue, and sit in shame, while any man speaks that fought with us upon this Victory Day["
      "My Lady," said Khail. "The gate is about to give, and Shadow Weaver is upon us!"
      "Then let him come," cried Rowena. "Open the gate! Let our arrows fly, and may the gods be with us all["
      "Open the gate!" ordered Khail. About him a thousand voices took up the cry, and a thousand battle-ready hearts surged forward as one.
      When the halves of the gate parted, a shocked silence filled the courtyard. For there was nothing there, neither ghost, nor horse, nor even the gleam of a single blade in the hand of one enemy soldier.
      "We've been tricked!" cried a man near the gate. Then, all in a single motion, the warrior who cried out drew his sword and pointed it to the rear of their lines. "Behind us. They come by magic!"
      A spot of darkness, jagged on the outside, circular, grew all in the instant of its magical inva- sion from the size of a nut to a span equal to that of the casfie's gate. And from it, behind Rowena's men, poured the armies of Shadow Weaver.
      It was as if a sea wall had rushed through. Men on charg- ers, pike-men, and archers made up the body Of the attack, their rush so close they seemed a sin- gle thing, a black wave, violent and unstoppable, while the glint from their weapons shone like foam upon a crashing sea.
      Beneath that first wave fell a hundred of Rowena's men. Then the catapults, quickly turned, cracked in response. Her archers reformed their lines and fired. They let loose their shafts in ordered ranks. Volley followed volley, until death dosed the sky with arrows, and arrows rattled down upon the enemy in waves and showers of death.
      Horses died, their terrified, animal screams mixing with the shocked cries of men, the thud. of catapults, and the dashing of steel blades. Explosions rocked the stone walls. Magic was everywhere. Shields crumpled and faces turned their expres- sions into nightmare masks of death, all in the first wave of attack when the bodies of the dead and dying came to pile up before the magic gate, blocking it as surely as if oaken doors had been dosed upon it.
      "Now," Rowena said as she grabbed Jairus by the sleeve. "The necklace. I have a plan." But the old man fell as if his limbs had suddenly been replaced by works of straw, and as he crumpled to the ground Rowena saw the crossbow bolt which had taken him just below the heart.
      She reached down, and with a trembling hand she closed Jairus' eyes. To Rowena's left, Khail was faltering now, his. sword a twisted fragment of metal holding an enemy but a handbreadth from his already bleeding throat.
      Rowena turned and ran for her quarters. If any hope remained, it rested there.
      She skirted warriors locked in battle. When a hand came roughly to her shoulder, she let her knees buckle, and in falling Rowena found time and art enough to twist two fingers just so, sending an invisible blade deep into her assailant's ribs.
      She almost dispatched a sec- ond man, before realizing it was the champion racing to her side.
      "Lady," he said, looking about. "Time is short."
      In that instant Rowena was a woman that, having failed at all her plans, her advisors dead, her armies falling and dying about her, knew only fear. She seemed dazed.
      "Lady," the champion said again. "You must transport me away, as we discussed. Even if you lose here, I may yet be able to destroy him!"
      "Then come," said Rowena. Together they made their way back to the Council hall, the many angled roofs of the palace already aflame above them.
      Two of Shadow Weaver's men intercepted them in a smoky cor- ridor. Weighed down with stolen loot, they were no match for the champion's sword as it flashed, cutting away their loot and their lives.
      Once in the Council Hall, Rowena outfitted the champion with a set of meager supplies: items of magic, parchments of instruction, a few days of food and water wrapped up in a leather kit. Then she stepped beneath the Orb of Knowing.
      "I am teleporting you to a spe- cial location just inside the labyrinth on Shadow Weaver's island. There you'll find an old man who is a friend." The last words came to Rowena uncon- sciously, unknowing (were they
      "To victory, "said the champion. "For my Lady and the Council." He raised his sword 'in salute. true. "He will aid you at the start." The room grew dark with smoke, and still the clatter of blades grew near. There was no more time.
      "To victory," said the cham- pion. "For my Lady and me Council." He raised his sword in salute.'
      Rowena dosed her eyes for but a second. The teleportation seemed almost effortless, easy, for the champion smiled and was gone, but it was the ease of cut- ting open one's wrists, releasing life and blood in the bargain. The act drained her, danger- ously. And still much work remained.
      "The game is over," said Shadow Weaver. "Don't you remember who you are? Oh, I suppose not, "he laughed "Ill had left you with a sure mem- ory these fools would have seen it, even with their probes."
      As Rowena made her way to her quarters, the battle receded into the distance. Smoke became less in the corridors, shouts seemed muffled, and those that did come to her might have been orders barked to racing squads of men. She heard neither the dash of swords nor the fiery eruption of magic blasts. Could it mean they were winning, or had they already lost?
      Upon first rushing through the door, she reached above the threshold; she reached into her secret place. The necklace was still there, and Rowena brought it down.
      "That," said a commanding voice, "is of no use now!" Rowena spun around, turning, her teeth bared. She was ready to greet the speaker of those words with whatever force she might still possess. It was him! Standing at the foot of her bed, facing her directly, his dark form haloed in silver light; it was the dark lord.
      "The game is over," said Shadow Weaver. "Don't you remember who you are? Oh, I suppose not," he laughed. "If I had left you with a sure memory, these fools would have seen it, even with their feeble probes."
      "I have the necklace," said Rowena. She began to work her sense of magic along the many, golden runes. Faltering in fear, her hands agleam with sweat, she wove and worked an invisi- ble pattern in the necklace such as only desperation might try. "And the champion is gone."
      "Yes, to do my work, I hope," said Shadow Weaver. He too was doing something with his hands, but in the strange, silvered light, and in her fear, Rowena could not clearly make it out. "Now, you will remember, and the game be done!"
      "You sent the dreams," Rowena challenged.
      "Yes, to guide and to remind you," the dark form replied. "But as the dreams were mine to wield, so are you, and you will yield to me now! You and I are --"
      "No!" Rowena screamed. And with that scream, that wretched, woeful cry, she turned inward with despair and crumpled, falling to her knees. But the waves of fear which crashed upon her barren soul failed to extinguish one last brash and daring flame. With everything she had left, with every strength and spark of angry will, Rowena loosed the full magic of the necklace against her foe.
      A blossom like the birth of the sun engulfed them both. It spread in the instant of its cre- ation to compound and confuse the moment, the hour, the day, and the year in which it hap- pened, mixing them as it went, mixing up time, engulfing all the land and souls and events in its path.
      Time reversed. It settled. It began again.
      Here was the only victory good men might grasp from their first encounter with the Shadow Weaver, a triumph of second chances, a victory well enough to start the game again.
      Candles lit the hall. There were many ....


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