Liath and Nerenyi

An excerpt from Illumination.

Liath started to speak, but Nerenyi raised a gloved hand.

“There’s more, Liath. The reason for the Storms. Some seekers, myself among them, fear it may be magecraft itself. We have tampered with the weather to our own ends for time immemorial. We don’t know how things were before. I know you don’t believe in before—I know you observe the old ways, I respect that, I do . . .” She hissed air through her teeth. “I wish we had more information. The Ennead has called all their brightest mages back to them, all their best proxies. To form a new Triennead? To ward against the weather that is coming, they will need the strength of three nines of mages, and even then they may fail. Magecraft may have cast itself into a deadly corner.”

You’re a scryer,” Liath said suddenly, the moment it occurred to her. Not one of Torrin’s—and yet the duplicity of it enraged her. “You’ve never really been a mage. You trained, you took the triskele, but what difference does your malady make? You only cast to find out more about magecraft, so you can report to your seeker folk! I’m surprised you didn’t try for the Ennead itself. What happened, Nerenyi? Your light is bright enough, for all you disparage it. Were you called? Did you ruin proxies’ lives, belching your truths, and bar yourself from the Holding?”

“No!” Nerenyi reined up at the foot of a crumbling dune as the sun slipped behind it.

“And you accuse me!” That Nerenyi had been perilously close to the right answer made it worse. “You don’t know anything, Nerenyi. There is so much you don’t know.”

Then tell me!

Liath threw her head back to the sky. “I can’t,” she said through clenched teeth. “I can’t.”

“Then go on,” Nerenyi said. “Ride on.”

Liath stared at her, not trying to disguise the pain. “I can’t,” she whispered. “I can’t leave it like this.”

“I want to be a mage,” Nerenyi said, hoarse. “I gave everything to magecraft, even though it couldn’t heal me, even though it would make my ailment more obvious. Seekers are nomads. Their only home is with each other. I would give anything to triad, anything to bond, to settle. Anything but . . .”

The shadows lengthened around them. “But what?”

“But the truth.”

Liath bit down on a bark of laughter. “Well, we’ve neither of us given the other much of that, have we.”

“No.” Nerenyi’s voice was hollow. “But if we had, imagine what we might have learned.”

She was right. Nerenyi, set to finding Torrin, would have found him, while Liath floundered in darkness. But Nerenyi would blurt anything when aroused. Somehow she had kept secrets; but no secret was safe with her. She could not be asked for help.

Fatigue weighted Liath’s voice. “We have to part, Nerenyi.”

“Yes.  I know.”

Of course. “Then come on. You wanted to see the sea.”

They rode side by side to the top of the white-sand dune, and looked down at a village curved like a shell at the water’s edge. The sun slipped into the sea in a spreading crimson stain. She had seen the sun go down in the Sea of Wishes after all. She shut her eyes, and a pinpoint echo of the light burned there, the color of her guiders. Instinctively she looked to Nerenyi, to drive the hurt away, then caught herself, and made a pained sound.

Nerenyi stared at the leagues on leagues of water, stretching past the eye’s ability to see. “It’s so big,” she breathed. “I always forget.”

“Everyone says that,” Liath replied. “Let’s go down.”

The cottages were tiled with opalescent shells and faced the sea. No one stirred as they led their horses down a shadowed alley, though the crunch of hooves on shells was loud. They came out onto a last ridge of dune, and walked down a boat ramp and onto the ruddied sands. A nonned threfts to either side, quartz jetties ran from the ridge out into the sea, calming destructive force into a roll of ordinary breakers. The little village seemed deserted, but coracles were tethered to spikes driven into the pale sand, lined up where the tide would bathe them in seawater.

Liath remembered a dream she’d had, great expanses of white, and for a moment the sea seemed a fluid shadow lapping at the edge of the world.

Nerenyi dismounted, sank into the sand, breathed deep—and Liath saw through Nerenyi’s eyes for one last time, and shared her wonder and exhilaration at the infinite water.

Then it became again the terrifying sea, whispering threats. She walked back up to the tideline, rearranged dry seaweed with her boot toe. “Where will you go?” she asked softly.

When the illuminator did not respond, Liath thought the surf had swallowed her words, and braced herself to repeat them. But Nerenyi said, “On.”

“Your journey year is over.”

“I have no home to return to. Seeker parents, wandering, please goodness alive and well. I’ll keep traveling. It suits some, to journey their lives long. It will be enough.” She looked up, her velvet eyes bereft of all betrayal. “I regret that I won’t get to learn the truth of you. If a time comes when you can tell me, I hope you’ll find me, somehow. Don’t forget me, Liath.”

Liath shook her head: Never. But before she could speak, or reach out, Nerenyi got up and brushed the sand off and said briskly, “It would make the most sense if I took Amaranth. That way the proxy might follow me instead of you. But . . .”

“But you can’t part with Coriander,” Liath finished for her. “I would never ask you to.”

A shadow rose from one of the coracles. It turned into a gangly youth. He stared at them, then scrambled out, gave three piercing whistles, and ran for all he was worth up the dune, head down and arms pumping. He darted between cottages, and whistled again.  Liath and Nerenyi watched helplessly. Did he think they were going to steal a boat?

The sea washed the last tint of sunset away, and the sky faded to moondark. Nerenyi sighed and gathered Coriander’s reins.

A clatter of hooves became  a fat little man clinging desperately to a pony skidding down the boat ramp, trailed by the boy and a handful of other seafolk.

“Mages!” he cried. “Please wait, please wait for me!”

They waited. The pony trotted up and deposited him. “Mages!” he cried again, then lowered his voice and smoothed his clothes—sleepclothes, a linen nightshirt and felt slippers. “They need mages.  I’ve just been to Ondree and found none and here you are, sent by the spirits in my foolish panicked absence!”

“Who does?”

“The other mages, of course.  The ones who sent Korelan.”

Liath backed away; Amaranth snorted as the surf tickled her fetlocks, then turned to sniff it, and tossed her head when froth got up her nose. “We’re only two,” she said, “and both illuminators. We’ll be of no use to anyone. You need to find a triad.”

“No no no, you don’t understand—spirits calm me, I can’t get a straight word out of my mouth. It’s illuminators they need. And here, now, two at once! Sent by Sylfonwy, there’s no doubt of it!”

Nerenyi made a face at his personification of the wind spirit, but her eyes were bright again. The man’s arrival had roused others, and he directed them to unmoor the boat the boy had fallen asleep in while waiting. “Where?” Nerenyi asked.

“Out there,” he said, and pointed at something they should be able to see and could not.  “Senana. The isle.”

“Not very big, is it?” Nerenyi said skeptically. Then her eyes narrowed, and Liath looked again, and there was something— a bump in the straight seam between sea and sky.

“Big enough for two nonned to live there still, though it’s a hardscrabble life and many have left. Big enough for its own triad, once. Big enough to die on.”

He was ushering them toward the boat; Liath scuffled with a stubborn-faced girl determined to take Amaranth’s reins.

Nerenyi had unscrambled the man’s words. “Their triad’s illuminator has passed, and now someone else is about to go,” she said. “Someone’s got to cast passage.”

This was it, then. The mages on that island would have to take Nerenyi as they found her; they’d have no choice. It wouldn’t poison the casting. If it did, there’d be nothing Liath could do anyhow. Let her go. It was time to go on.

“Liath!” Nerenyi said, and gestured with her chin.

Liath looked down the long crescent of shore.

Cloak an otherworldly ripple in the cool sea air behind him, blond hair flung back, gray horse flowing over pale sands like mist—the black form had to be the reckoner from Sauglin.

Liath strained to see his face.

“Come on, you fool,” Nerenyi said. “He’ll have you in a breath.”


“I don’t care what’s passed between us. You could be wrong about him. I won’t let him have you. Not while I can stop it.”

Nerenyi was stronger than she was, and Nerenyi was convinced this reckoner meant her harm, and nothing she could tell her short of the truth would make her listen. She could have twisted the grip back and been free, but it would have meant breaking the wrist. If she fought her, she would hurt her. Nerenyi hauled her into the boat. She flailed for a handhold when the craft tipped under her weight, then sat down hard on a wooden seat.

Not a boat. Not again. Not a boat one-ninth the size of that coaster. Not a tippy little boat. The blasted thing was made of nothing, layers of tarred canvas over a frame of willow laths stuffed with moss. “No,” she said.

Nerenyi stepped lightly across three seats to position herself toward the far end. Liath tried to get up, but a girl tossed a heavy coil of wet line at her. Others gave the boat a great running push into the surf and hopped in. The youth in the stern seat was sliding a steering oar into place and trying to show respect for her triskele instead of amusement at her distress. Korelan, who’d come from the island. She craned to look past him.

The reckoner was closer now—cantering, not galloping, but gaining. She couldn’t see his face. There was still time to get out—the water couldn’t be over her head yet. Again she tried to get up, but felt the boat sway under her; a hand on her shoulder pushed her firmly down, and the girl beside her said, “Please, mage, that’s very dangerous.” Nerenyi was dipping a smooth ashwood oar into the water as if she’d done it all her life. All Liath could do was clutch at the seat, like a child clutching the pommel on her first ride, as the craft seemed to go straight up the next wave and drop, leaving her stomach to roll in on the crest.

The reckoner didn’t hesitate at the tumbled jetty; his mist-gray horse sailed neatly over and continued on to where the fat man stood with their mounts and a handful of villagers. Someone swung a light back and forth in a long arc, a signal to the island.

The coracle broke through the last of the shorebound surf, Korelan began a rhythmic chant, and the craft shot out into the sea, leaving the village, and the reckoner, behind.

When the crescent was itself a smudge on the water and no other boat had followed, Liath squeezed around on the seat to face front. Leagues of darkness lay between them and the island shouldering out of the sea, and nothing but black water all around, nothing to cling to but this nutshell, so weightless that she could feel in its frame every swell, every pull on the oars. Heartbeat on heartbeat later, the rising shadow before them resolved into sheer cliffs and a long slope down to the ocean.

For a moment, her eyes widened. The island was the perfect place—rocky, craggy, isolated, not well known or much thought of—for a darkmage to carve out his fastness.

Then she swore.

After everything, Nerenyi was rowing straight to it.

Cover of the book entitled Illumination