Gael felt hollow inside as he gazed at her, her hands outstretched, eager and urgent, dismay chasing hope across her countenance. If only he had saved the gong for her. But he hadn’t. He’d thought he could save a fragment of the node that powered it—intact—but he’d failed to do even that. Would his failure in this one aspect mean that he’d failed her in every way? He hated that all-too-likely possibility.
Her brows crinkled. “You didn’t save it?”
“But I heard it,” she protested.
“Keir—” his mouth felt dry—“I never intended to fully destroy it. I changed it, warped it so that it would no longer weaken trolls. Didn’t you notice the changed effect on you?”
All the taut anticipation ran out of her. Her reaching hands dropped. Her shoulders sagged. “Oh.” The very word was muted. “I had such dreams—” She broke off, turning back to the window.
Gael moved to her side. “I’m sorry,” he said, lowly.
She jerked around to glare at him. “Sorry! What good does that do? How could you? The one resource in all the North that could treat troll-disease, and you wreck it!” Her teeth gritted together. “Surely you don’t have to be a healer to understand its importance!”
He longed to reassure her, to comfort her, but there was no comfort in their situation.
“I tried to preserve a copy of the undamaged node,” he said, “but I did not succeed.”
Censure pulled at the corner of her mouth. “‘Tried and failed’ is no better than ‘sorry’!” she exclaimed. “Oh! What’s the use, when your only ally is so short-sighted!”
He could not blame her for her anger. He’d been just as furious with her, not so many moments ago. With reason. She possessed equal reason for fury. Had he known he would fail to preserve the node intact in a fragment of the lodestone from the gong’s central boss, he would have chosen differently. Events had overtaken him before he could rage at himself for more than Arnoll’s death, and he was long past mere rage now. But his regret intensified under her just criticism. And yet . . . her naming him as her ally heartened him.
She returned her attention back to the view through the barred window, her breath coming hard through her nose.
Gael stood silent beside her. He had more to say—more bad news—but they must settle his betrayal of her, or at least find some measure of truce, before he would add to her burdens.
Her breathing calmed. Still gazing out the barred window, she said flatly, “I don’t know what to do now.”
He didn’t either. It felt like all of their options had run out.
In the bailey, down the slope, the boys building the funeral pyres had stopped piling more wood on them and switched to hanging the banners of all the opteogints from the inner crenellations of the curtain wall.
“There is worse,” said Gael, reversing his decision to wait with his next disclosure. He felt Keir go very still. Strange how the difference between rejoicing and disappointment could be matched, or even exceeded by, the difference between disappointment and strictly-contained fear.
“Arnoll is dead,” he said quietly. “That is who will lie on the second pyre.”
She went even more still, and then turned to him. “Gael, no!” she said, heartbreak again in her tone.
His throat felt too tight to permit words.
Her hand, slender and strong, came to his. “I am so very sorry for your loss,” she said.
“It is your loss, too,” he managed to get out.
“Yes,” she said. “It is. But you and Arnoll . . . were like Carbraes and Dreas.”
“Not quite,” he said. “It is not fair to equate a friendship of five decades with that which merely approached one.”
“You cannot tally love, Gael,” she said. “When it fills the heart, it fills the heart entirely.”
How had she grown so wise?
He swallowed. He could not bear to dwell on Arnoll’s death. It was too raw a loss. Toward what other focus could he direct her attention?
“I did obtain a fragment of the meteoric iron,” he said.
“What?” Her voice reflected confusion.
“From the gong’s central boss,” he said. “And containing its energetic pattern.”
Her gaze shifted sideways, checking his expression. “But not before the change,” she stated.
He sighed. “No.”
“Ah.” She nibbled her lower lip. “Do you have it? May I see it?”
He removed the small pouch he’d secured on the fibula that also held his keys, and extracted the thumbnail-sized droplet of polished iron. “Here,” he said.
She turned it over briefly, studying the fragment with her outer eyes, before her breathing slowed to the rhythm that permitted the inner sight. Gael allowed his own inner vision to open, scrutinizing the energetic structure of the iron with her.
Open scrolls of aching gold energea formed an irregular lattice within a hazy glow. The tracery seemed less distinct than that Gael remembered perceiving in the reforged gong, and the radiance seemed dimmer.
“It is quite changed, indeed,” said Keir.
From the green node with the octahedral lines of force? “Yes,” agreed Gael.
She looked up from the gleaming droplet held in her fingers and exhaled shortly, her breath huffing, apparently coming to some decision. Her gaze on his firmed.
“Gael, I cannot forgive you for your destruction of the node at the gong’s heart that gave me the power to heal trolls,” she said.
He hadn’t really expected that she would.
“But,” she continued, “I doubt you can forgive my betrayal of you either.”
No, he hadn’t. He couldn’t. But he’d set it aside, somehow, for an interval, to be an ignored gnawing on his heart that he would deal with later.
The resolution in Keir’s eyes changed to a shy eagerness, and her face softened. “I wish we could trade: my forgiveness for yours.” Her smile was sad. “But it doesn’t really work that way, does it?”
“No,” he agreed.
“But could you set your just grievance aside?” she asked. “I think I can set mine aside. So we can plan. We have to plan, Gael, to figure out what comes next, or we’ll both be lost.”
He couldn’t help smiling back at her, his smile warm, where hers had been cool. “I already have,” he said.
“Really?” she asked.
He hesitated, then nodded.
“Good!” Her more usual poise seemed to be returning to her. “Because I have an idea. I’m going to test this fragment’s functioning,” she declared. “We might yet salvage something. Perhaps, even changed as it is, even as small as it is, the node in this droplet can yet multiply my energea the way the gong did.”
Surely not. And surely an unnecessary risk.
“On something harmless,” she added, perhaps noticing his frown. “On—” she hunted about her person and lifted a stray hair from her shoulder, holding it up “—on this.”
“What will you attempt?” Gael asked.
“Even a dead strand of hair possesses its own characteristic pattern,” she replied. “I shall attempt to shift that pattern so as to cause the color of this strand to change from blond to brunette.”
That seemed harmless enough. “Very well,” he agreed.
He watched as she settled more deeply into the relaxation necessary to manipulation of energea. Sparks of silver welled from the demi-nodes in her palms, chased one another in an aerial dance, and then coalesced to beam into the golden node within the iron teardrop. Its scrolling arcs flared and emitted a gout of amber. As the amber energea touched the regular silver lattice within the hair, the golden node flared again, and the silver sparks still flowing from Keir started to shift color, gaining a tinge of warmth.
Gael’s jaw clenched. Cool energea was safe; hot energea was not.
Keir closed down the sparking thread of yellow-tinged silver, and shook her head, decision and disappointment mingled.
“Did you see it?” she asked Gael.
“Dangerous,” he answered. “Exactly the prelude to innocent magery that goes astray and creates a troll.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “But not only that. Gael, how similar is the working of magery to the discipline of energetic healing?”
He shrugged. “As I’ve never done any healing . . .”
Her lips twitched impatiently. “No, but does a magus shape the inner structure of his flows of energea?”
His brows rose slightly. “Of course. Were one able to slice the flow across, it would resemble the intricacy of a snowflake.”
A puff of breath escaped her. “Well, the energea translated through this drop of iron was blurry,” she said, “and weak. Not only would it be dangerous to use, but you couldn’t accomplish anything with it. It diminished the force of my energea, rather than increasing it as I’d hoped.”
Her shoulders slumped in the wake of this admission, the vitality provoked by her initial idea—now failed—running out of her. He hated having no solution for her.
“I didn’t make this droplet,” he explained. “It was formed when Arnoll tore the node asunder, spattering the iron that held it. This one fragment was enough larger than the others to retain a copy—a blurred copy—of the torn node.”
“That’s why its focus isn’t sharp then,” she said, lifting her gaze.
“I expect so,” he agreed.
Enterprise was returning to her face. “If the focus had been crisp, I know I could have done something with this.” She tapped the shiny metal. “It still channels energea, even though its configuration is altered. It was the fuzziness that made the energetic flow ineffective, that diminished it. If it had been sharp . . .”
A twinge of alarm stirred in Gael’s belly. He didn’t like where her logic was leading.
“You’re forgetting that it was tainting your energea, twisting it toward troll magery, toward gold,” he said drily. “Too dangerous to use.”
Her gaze grew fierce. “It would be worth it!” she said. “What matter if I succumbed to my troll-disease, if I could remedy that of other’s. I would not be the first wounded healer in the North.”
He really did not like that idea.
“But the focus wasn’t sharp,” he reminded her.
“No,” she said regretfully.
She slumped again.
Gael stayed his reach for her shoulders. He didn’t want her to find any answers down this line of reasoning.
A moment later, her lips firmed, she jerked upright, and her hand shot out to grip his wrist. “Gael. If you were merely subdividing the gong’s node, the process would be less perilous, would it not?” she asked. “If you weren’t trying to alter its configuration,” she added hurriedly.
“Perhaps,” he replied, his tone as discouraging as he could make it.
“Because a controlled subdivision—not an accidental one—would yield a node that generated the precision I require!” Her face was alight again. “If you heated the gong afresh to extract a droplet containing a copy of its node, that copy would be crisp, not blurry!”
He’d thought he’d do almost anything to change her dejection to renewed hope, but not this. Never this. A vision assailed him of her channeling her energea through a fresh fragment obtained by him from the gong, her clear features and straight body sagging into the deformities of the truldemagar, as she poured out her health—her very self—in the healing of others.
Her grasp on his wrist tightened. “Will you do it, Gael? Harvest another piece of the gong’s lodestone? For me? For the afflicted? For the unafflicted?”
This, too, was a new Keir. He’d never seen her plead before.
“The changed node channeled your energea, but you don’t know that even a good copy—an unblurred one—would multiply it. And that is what you require, is it not?” he asked. “Also . . . Carbraes has consigned the gong to the new march,” he told her. “I doubt Dreben will allow me within sight of it.”
“Oh,” she breathed, all the air flowing from her lungs.
He’d only thought he’d seen her discouraged before. This was utter despondency.
Next scene: coming August 11.
The Tally Master, Chapter 21 (scene 99)
Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)