Liath Falling

Triad Expanded Scene

LIATH PLUMMETED into open space—faster than her weight would pull her, heavier than she was, a drop so sudden it was like being wrenched down. No air whistled past. Torrin’s hand tore from hers, then Heff’s. They were there—she could sense them, she was not alone—but she was falling, her arms flailing through void. Was this the fall from the cliff, had she stepped into the death she should have died with them all those years ago?

She was home. She was still falling. She was home, telling Graefel to stuff himself, she knew he’d warned Keiler off her and she wouldn’t have it. She was packing magecraft in, too—she wouldn’t let him betray her to a dark, corrupt Ennead. She went back to her mother and the public house and took up the legacy of daughters. She was falling—falling into bitterness, falling out with Keiler. Both of them brittle, burned black from the inside by magelights they had forsaken. News came slowly: A rebel mage and his armed horde destroyed by the Ennead. Changes in the craft’s rules. No freedoms for mages, no children for the lightless. She came with child within a nineday by a beaten, bitter man she no longer loved. It was only the beginning of the ugliness . . . the lightless six-year-olds abandoned to die on winter hilltops at the Ennead’s command . . . the hillwomen and hillmen who saved them . . . magecraft denied to any who aided them, and then the reprisals . . . the uprising of the lightless . . . war . . .

She was home. She was still falling. She was home, telling Graefel to stuff himself, that she knew he’d warned Keiler off her and she wouldn’t have it. Hanla stood by her, and Keiler found the stones to stand up to Graefel. Graefel retired into obscurity to muse on his strophes and verses. Hanla stayed beside him, tending their garden, growing old before her time, watching the craft she’d loved turned dark and cruel by a cruel Ennead. Reckoners were everywhere, their eyes on every village casting. Liath and Keiler joined the resistance. As the world went up in flames and carnage around her, Liath sat casting under the scorched, ragged banner of Torrin Lightmage and thought how she would have liked to meet the man himself—what a remarkable man he must have been, to leave a legacy that could grow into this brave, doomed rebellion—but the Ennead had located them, the ground was erupting beneath her, and she was falling, crushed and broken and falling. . . .

She was home. She was still falling. She was home, a reckoner passing through. Her mother would not speak to her. Keiler had gone over to the Darkmage. In all her home village, it seemed, only Graefel and Hanla remained loyal to the Ennead, and without their binder they were useless to stop the blasphemies. She would have to report this. She could not bear to report on her own folk, but it was her mandate. She hated the Darkmage for poisoning her family and her home with lies. She despised the Darkmage for accusing the Ennead of the very darkcraft he had invented. She stood agonizing in the road, with the echo of Jonnula’s voice in one ear saying “It’s your duty, Illuminator, if you don’t report this I will,” and the echo of Karanthe’s in the other saying “We’ll handle her, Liath, you have to spare your home, we’ll keep the secret,” and she cried out and mounted her black reckoner horse and rode for half a year to find the Darkmage. She caught him in the Fist preparing to cast against the Ennead, and she fell with her knife a handsbreadth short of his heart, his bodyguard’s longblade in her back, an endless fall through agony, an endless fall into the white maelstrom of death. . . .

She was falling, falling through her life, falling like a stone cast onto a board, one stone within nine nonned configurations of stones.

Something slammed into her from the side. Something like a wind. She thought she felt an arm or leg brush her, Torrin’s or Heff’s, but then she was tumbling away, swept sidewise on a gust or in a flood, tumbling like a rock down a slope, spinning and rotating like a stick over rapids, whirling like a leaf in a gale.

Heff and Torrin were swept along with her.

Heff went with Torrin straightaway to be his binder, and Ennead assassins killed him, and brigands in the Blooded Mountains killed him, and earthquake in the Blooded Mountains killed him. The boy Heff stayed in the Holding and hid his light and grew to manhood in a cave, and his brother withered and sickened, and the stewards’ uprising was the death of them; or one died, and one lived half a life; or both lived, only to be subjugated further as the Ennead turned its stewards into slaves. Heff did not follow her from his village the night she rode off to find the Darkmage, and lived out the year a bitter pariah, only to die, later, and gratefully, in the rebellion of the lightless against the light.

Torrin fled the Holding as a boy, and was hunted down and killed. Torrin stayed in the Holding to fight the Ennead, and was killed in his bed or in the corridors or in a casting, or was cored and sealed and left to roam the labyrinth. Torrin and Evonder left the Holding to cast against the Ennead and were destroyed. Torrin and Evonder left and cast against the Ennead with Liath, and were destroyed. Torrin died at the hands of Ennead assassins he tried to convert instead of killing. Torrin died whether or not he welcomed Liath, whether or not he let her go. Torrin died, and died, and died . . . and still they were tumbling, buffeted, helpless, painworn, whirling on the dry, futile winds of might-have-been.

Liath, lying safe and loved between Torrin and Evonder, was also Torrin lying in the dark at the edge of that bed, striving to cherish a moment he feared, he knew, would slip from him, listening to Liath’s mumbles and Evonder’s snores, trying to hold time itself fast. She was herself, crying Enough, it’s not enough, it will never be enough; and she was Heff, standing outside the sphere of that sweetness and anguish as he had always stood alone on the periphery of other lives, never believing that another way was possible for him.

Torrin, lying safe between his parents in the Heartlands where they’d vowed to stay beyond the Holding’s reach until their precious five-year-old had grown, was also Heff, snuggled in safe with his brother among Bron’s fosterlings, and Liath, safe in her bed in the public house, her world still bathed in the pride and acceptance of her mother and her father, whose hearty voices drifted up to her from the greatroom down below, whose customers sang her a lullaby with their boisterous shouts and rowdy cheer. None of them yet showing a light, all the choices still to be made, the choices that light gave them—the choices that light forced. . . .

Oh, to go home, Liath thought—now that it was too late, now that she had died to retrieve a vanity. The selfish hubris of her act shook her to the core. Once again she’d bulled off in her own direction, heedless of anyone but herself, and this was what came of it, this heartbreaking tumble through the dark. . . .

Some things can be seen clearest only in the dark.

She was home, though she was falling, and she would be home forever, and forever falling, because home was where Torrin was, home was where Heff was. . . .

Some things can be seen clearest only in the dark.

No. This wasn’t home. This couldn’t be home.

She was alive.

These men were dead.

Torrin had dedicated his life to preventing the Ennead from harming the outer realms. He’d succeeded. He’d known he would die in fulfilling his purpose, and die he had. He’d wanted literacy for Eiden Myr, the liberation of painting and pattern, verse and song, and that liberation had come to pass. His life’s work was complete. There was nothing left for him to want. Not even Evonder. Not even her. Torrin was finished.

Heff had lived through others, right up to the casting that killed him. For himself, he’d wanted only to feel his healer’s hands on flesh, his farrier’s hands on iron. With his body taken from him, that pleasure and mission were gone. Heff was finished.

They were done. Living was yearning. Living was seeking. Living was striving. They had nothing to strive for anymore. That’s what being dead is, Liath thought, with profound horror, and profound pity. Aimless, purposeless movement was the eternal perdition of the unpassaged dead. She had dragged them with her when all they wanted was to be still. She had never felt so selfish or so cruel. She had never felt so alone as she did now, the last guttering spark of life blown on the hauntwind with dust and shadows.

Torrin took her by the shoulders. It was a shock to be touched by this semblance of his flesh. But flesh was only the spirit’s garb, concocted easily enough in the right circumstances. The difference between life and death was the difference between motive and stillness. To feel his death this way was a horror worse than the shock and grief of his departure from the world. The man she had known was driven. This man was his antithesis.

Torrin was dead. Heff was dead.

The man who stilled her, made her face him, was a dead man. When had they come to rest? When had the whirling tumble stopped? She could almost see Torrin now. He was limned like a new moon—a crescent of aquiline nose, a sliver of jawline. She could almost see Heff’s hands move, in a blur of muted silver-white.

Some things can be seen clearest only in the dark.

“You give us life,” Torrin said. “You want your light, and we want you to find it. I’d say there’s motive in that. There’s motive even in striving to be still.” He stroked her brow, ran his knuckles down her temple and the curve of her cheekbone, opened his hand to caress the hollow of her jaw. “Perhaps through you we’ll make our passage. That’s something to fight for, yes?” If the hands that touched her were dead, they were no less sublime than his living hands had been. “Perhaps we aren’t so dead as you fear.”

When he faced her, when he touched her, his blank, vague features became wise again, and sad. Not as a seeming crafted to please her. If he was as dead as she feared, he wouldn’t care to please her. He wouldn’t have reacted as he did to the sight of Louarn, who looked so like Evonder. His eyes would not have danced with golden delight to look upon his son. He wouldn’t have bothered to come with her, and neither would Heff. There was still life in him, there was—there was still warmth, and humor, and love—

She drew him tight against her and nearly sobbed, “Oh, sweet spirits, I want you back!”

He cupped her head, her hipbone. “And I would come back, if I could. For you,” he said. But he locked eyes with Heff over her shoulder. She felt the shared regret. The truth they could not unmake, even for her.

“But you can’t,” she said, pushing away, hands flat on his chest. Standing tall, to look him in the eyes. “Not all the powers in the world could bring you back, and make it right.” Blinking at tears—how long had it been since she’d permitted herself to cry? half a lifetime, and she wasn’t going to start now, in the realm of death—she ran a fingertip over his sweet, curved lips, then pressed a tender kiss where they had been. They’d spoken of gifts; this was a gift, one stolen kiss before the final parting, a gift granted to few if any in all the long ages of fierce loves and grievous partings. “Let’s see about sending you on.” She stepped away. “Pethyar has to be better than where you’ve been.”

“We tried,” Torrin said. “We could not find the way, or make a way. We tried for . . . years. I don’t know how long that would translate to, in the time of the living. Perhaps only a turn of the moon or two. But we did try.”

We made our own place, Heff said. It was a good place. A place where we could be quiet and still and stop roaming. But two of us could not sustain it.

“Huh,” Liath said. Pethyar might be quiet and still; it might be a realm of abiding peace, eternal stasis, or oblivion; or it might offer refreshment and renewal. They couldn’t know except by going there. They mustn’t know, or they wouldn’t bother to live. The nature of pethyar was a necessary mystery.

“You made your own place,” Liath said, considering. “But you couldn’t find pethyar.”

Heff nodded, waiting.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have been looking for it. Maybe you should have just…decided to be there. Maybe you just didn’t know where to be.”

Torrin cocked his head. He had a glimmer of what her mind struggled toward—she could sense the same in Heff—but she wasn’t certain herself.

They stood in darkness, limned in sourceless silver light. They had fallen—because she found herself inside what she believed was her own consciousness, and couldn’t hold on to sane awareness in the twists of such a mental intorsion. They had spun through all the lives they might have lived, perhaps seeking a way to another place, another outcome—seeking a way to the end they would have wished by changing the means by which they arrived at it. But the past could not be changed. The dead could not be brought back.

Will didn’t work that way, and where they were was a product of their will to be there. When they went into the unknown, with unclear purpose, they went into darkness. As they began to understand, they were shadowed with light.

Slowly, she said, “With ink and pigment and parchment and pens, we changed the world. With the touch of his hands, Heff changed the world. With the focus of their vision, those newfangled seers change the world. What is any of that but will, worked through the use of various tools? Mellas made passageways in the stone of the Ennead’s Holding by willing them through his dreams. When I was knocked loose from my body, I traveled at will from realm to realm and place to place. We have no flesh here, not made of matter. This flesh is our will to feel that we have bodies. Where those bodies are is a manifestation of our will. If we will for them to be in the realm where light goes when the spirit goes elsewhere…”

“We have no tools with which to actuate such will,” Torrin said. “Had I a light, and tools to scribe with…”

“We’re dead,” Liath said. “We’re not in the world of physical tools. I’d rather live in the world of flesh, but these realms of death may have their advantages.”

“You’re not dead,” Torrin said, brow delved with a silver frown.

Liath made a wry face. “If I’m not, I’m close enough. Belly wound like that, you can hang on for a good while. Not forever.”

“Time stretches here.”

“Not forever.”

There is too much wanting in you still, Heff said.

Liath grinned. “Then I’m a restive haunt. And haunts can move where they will, yes?”

“We could not,” Torrin said. His frown deepened.

We could, Heff said, hands speaking in silver tracery. But we could not conceive the way. We could not conceive the place. The place we conceived, we made. It can be done.

“Then we are limited only by our imagination?” Torrin said, cocking a brow. He was half lit now in numinous silvery white, like a figure made partly of magestone and partly of shadow.

Liath’s grin widened. “That’s what I think. And that shouldn’t be a problem for a triad of old mage haunts, eh?”

I remember the light, Heff said. The world was full of lights, as many as there were stars in the sky.

“I remember your light,” Torrin said softly to Liath. “I had never wanted anything so much in all my life, and falling in love with its stubborn bearer seemed the spirits’ mockery.”

There were no words for the quality and luminosity of the light she remembered in him. It was gone now, and he was wholly lightless, and her love for him swelled the way the light had swelled in her when it touched his. The quiet, careworn teacher leading children glyph by sounded-out glyph through the rudiments that would take them into poetry and history, preservation and creation. She’d cursed his sacrilege as he gave her the shape of her own name. She’d sneered at his dim light, a light that blazed only when he used it. Revering the light, bound by the light, living by the light, they had lost each other, lost themselves—

She was flying. She was home, and she was flying. Home in a modest Midlands cottage, birdsong drifting on sunshine through the open windows, the lush green of summer without, the familiarity of worn old furniture within. Torrin sat scribing at the table, some message to one of their children, off practicing magecraft in a holding or on the road or out at sea. She stepped up behind Torrin’s chair, slipped her arms around his neck, dropped a kiss on his gray head, felt the warmth of his smile. Returning to the portrait on her easel, she was prickled with the strangest memory—a charcoal rendering she had made of him before the searing, a rough sketch to bring him back from the brink of death, with daubs of blood for eyes, for lips….Those days of trial and trouble were far from her now. She lifted her cornsilk brush, dipped it in water-based pigment, and, as though painting with light itself, completed the picture of her pledge, bent over his sedgeweave in a shaft of summer sunlight at their battered old table, scribing a quiet account of their day. . . .

She was flying, and she was home, sitting with her children in her own sleeproom while Pelkin’s triad cast passage for her pledge, a frail, beloved figure dwarfed now by their big bed, sinking into death with the relief of releasing a life well lived, a life completed….He’d fought the darkness, and saved the world, and lived to enjoy the world he had saved, the world he had changed, the world he had made….She heard the breath fail in his chest, saw the life go from him, saw the casting leaf flare and fade, heard her children say “I saw” and “I saw . . . ,” and she thought she knew, a little, what they had seen, as though she’d glimpsed it in some other, harder life. . . . She would find out soon enough. She lay down beside the shell of him for one last embrace before the bonefolk came. “I’m coming, love,” she whispered. “Not long now . . .”

She was flying, and she was home, in that same bed, with her children around her, and their children, and theirs, the casting leaf on her chest, pethyar parting its white shroud for her, and she was proud of the family she’d raised, proud of the work she’d done, proud of the life she’d lived, and she was ready to go on, grateful for the push the casting gave her, and she saw, at the edge of her eye, she saw her own light coming to greet her after all these many, many years, and she turned, and took a step. . . .

She was flying, and she was home in the circle of her triad, and they were slowing, falling, easing into a realm of golden wonder, infinity drenched in golden light. Magelight ran in glowing rivulets, drifted in soft, shining mist, fleeted in streaks and wisps, angled in widening rays that diffused into distance. Magelight pooled in molten sheets, shimmered in golden depths, rained in golden coruscation. The realm of magelight was a golden vastness stitched with radiance, wormed through with undulating luminosity. They hung suspended in that light as three figures of fluid reflection—the shape of themselves without substance, their forms become animate mirrored contours. Could the light sense them, or were they apparent only to each other? Bound within the realm of matter, light was apparent only to itself. Here light was elemental, the quality of being, and she and Heff and Torrin were mere echoes of that quality: made visible by what they could see, reified by what they displaced. They floated in glory.

I could go, Liath thought. I could go, now that I’ve seen this. I could go, knowing my light lives on in this place. I could go, and be no less myself. My light was a gift. I can be strong without it. I can be happy without it. That’s what a gift is. Not a thing you require. A thing you . . . love, just for itself.

She knew these lights. She knew them with a sweet, heart-piercing recognition of spirit.

Not even the searing could burn through lights. These lights weren’t dead. These lights weren’t ghosts of light.

She’d been right; their lights hadn’t been destroyed. Their lights had gone somewhere.

That where was here.


Most of this text falls between the first and second paragraphs of the chapter that begins on page 342 of the hardcover, page 447 of the paperback. Searching on the first two words will bring you to the right place in the ebook.