Chapter 1 – Original version

1.

Those belonging to the higher echelons of society of Castala, traders, guildsmen or even Clan, did not usually frequent the less savory parts of Colgarma. But then, if one wasn’t recognized, in some of those shady little inns one could obtain better wine than could have been served in many a Clan House – there was a reason for that, too, because many a wine-keg destined for a noble table brought the middleman a handsome profit when sold, on the sly, to the highest bidder. If one wasn’t recognized, one could glean many a choice bit of gossip; sometimes, if one was lucky, even a snippet of truth here and there. But for that, one needed to sit in shadows and dark corners and keep one’s mouth shut – Clan faces were too well known in Colgarma, despite their number.

In an ale-house on the wharf, which stank of fish and wine and harbor, a lone figure say by the side of the hearth, in a corner where the deepest shadows were. A crude goblet, half-full of a wine he could have sworn came from his own House’s vineyards, was being thoughtfully twirled between the man’s fingers as he listened as unobtrusively as he could to a lively conversation taking place at a table a few paces away from where he sat.

There, a group of men were uproariously toasting one of their number who, in as much as their silent observer had managed to piece together, had just come in from the rather distant fief of Cavaril. There were things about Clan Carlin only the servants knew; and the listener in the corner would not have minded being privy to such information. But he was soon to get for more than he bargained for.

“All that,” said the visitor, his speech beginning to slur a bit, “all that is nothing yet… nothing yet. There is shomething… I mean, something… very interesh… that is, interesting, going on back home.”

“What, has old Lord Carlin buried another wife? Which one is this – the third?” laughed one of his companions uproariously.

“The fourth,” corrected another.

The listener had a quirk at the side of his mouth. Lord Carlin was the talk of the town with his many weddings, wives, and children. Clan Carlin was one which need have no worries about succession – there were at least three contenders.

The Carlin man was shaking his head, sloshing some wine of the table with a hand that was none too steady by this stage.

“Nothing like that is… the present Lady Carlin is alive and well… and with child…”

“There you are!” heckled another again, and they all laughed.

“Lishten!” said the visitor crossly, not even correcting himself this time. “There’s a whole lot of… of people there!”

His companions glanced at each other, then at their informant, and then they all spontaneously started laughing.

“So? Nothing now about that! Clan houses are always teeming. What with intermarriage and fostering, they’re all kin to everyone else!” one of them said, his lip curled in faint disdain, and signaled for another pitcher of wine.

“Theshe… these… aren’t Clan!”

“Who, then?”

“People from… from… from…”

“Where, man?”

“People from the shtarsh… starsh… sht… oh heck!” He shook his head violently. “The stars!” he managed to say, triumphantly.

His companions looked at each other again.

“You’re drunk, Hal,” said one of them matter-of-factly, getting up. “Come on. We’d better get you back before we have to carry you too far.”

He tossed a coin on the table for payment and then two of their number helped Hal up and supported him under his arms. He swayed, looked at them both in turn wildly.

“But it’s true!” he babbled, his drunken lisp vanishing, his speech fast and slurred still, his eyes full of tears. He obviously was drunk, but the listener, who had sat up when the man had dropped his bombshell, was convinced beyond all doubt he was telling the truth. Being a telepath helped, though. “It’s true! This thing crashed down from the sky, and there were people on it… we… my own village helped… I hear they’re going to call council… and they…”

“He’s raving,” said one of the men holding him to the other. “The stuff they serve here in the city is obviously stranger than what they have up country ways. Poor man. We shouldn’t have quite…” he hiccupped, and looked sheepish. The rest of the men laughed; slowly, they milled out of the inn, supporting the still talking and gesticulating drunk man between them.

The listener nodded, and rose. He left his unfinished wine on the table with a silver coin beside it, melting away into the darkness outside.

He walked quickly through the deserted, dim-lit backstreets, his long cloak wrapped closely around him with the hood drawn down well up over his face. His brain worked the news he’d heard methodically over. When the Clan were in their country fiefs, they very seldom sent their servants to Colgarma, alone. If they did, it was their steward or housekeepers, or someone equally high placed in the Household. This man was obviously no such thing. He didn’t even live in the House, he lived in a village, for so he had himself said just a moment ago. Hence he was here with someone from Cavaril. Either just the said steward, or with his master himself. Which meant that, possibly, Lord Carlin or someone he had delegated was in Colgarma as well. Which meant that the knave had been right, there probably was going to be a Council session called, a full three months before the customary session was due to begin. But nobody had been Contacted yet… why? What was so important about a handful of shipwrecked unfortunates, except that they had dropped from sky in a crippled bird that broke its wings against Castala’s uniquely powerful magnetic fields?

Something nagged at the back of his mind, a legend… but he wasn’t thinking on the right wavelength for legends.

His father was sick… sick and old. To travel to Colgarma from Macha, his own family’s country abode, in the willful, changeable weather of Castala’s early spring, would not aid his ailing health one little bit. Yet, chafing at his father’s stubbornness and at the same time smiling to himself in rueful pride, he knew he’d come. If anyone called council, he’d come; and they’d all listen to him again. He was the oldest of the current Clan Lords which formed the High Council; he had seen a lot in his long life, and he had allowed all his experience to enrich his wisdom, so much so that he was almost legendary. As heir to Clan Avigor, out listener knew the day would come when he’d have to take over the reign of Lordship – and he dreaded it…

A shadow moved, and with lightning reflexes the youth twisted out from underneath a wickedly, palely shining long-bladed knife. He allowed his cloak to fall open at the throat, and the ch’ia, his Pattern Stone, glimmered faintly in the darkness.

“Back!” came a hissed command.

The attacker, a boy younger than himself, dripped the knife with a clatter. “Clan,” he whispered, terror-struck at his own audacity, and took to his heels.

The Clansman drew a shuddering breath. That was too close. Even if he did dread the day of him becoming the Lord of Avigor it was no excuse to just about ask to be murdered in the middle of the night by the riffraff of Colgarma. His father would probably never forgive him that. But they had an unnatural fear of Clansmen, and of the Clan mind, these backstreet thugs. Being Clan was enough to save one from any an attack with fell instead on some unsuspecting Guildsman’s back…

He came out of the warren and into a wider, better lit avenue. He turned down it, and again after many twists and turns it led him down again to where the sea glistened palely, almost like wet ink, in the sheltered harbor. Turning a practiced eye towards the sky, he noted absentmindedly that the pale Asturias had risen, and a green gleam on the horizon indicated the imminent arrival of the larger moon, the green-tinged Argones. But there would only by the last quarter tonight, so – a dark night. Asturias herself was too small and pale to produce much light.

He stared at the dark bulk of Colgarma keep, rising baneful and lightless over the still and gently lapping sea. It was late; everyone was abed…

The Guard at the gate dropped the spear he carried across the entrance. Before he could bark his customary “Identify,” the Clansman threw back his cloak and hood and said softly,
“Avigor. Open.”

The Guard, recognizing the young lord, bowed deeply and let him through. Once inside, in the familiar torch-lighted stairwells and corridors, the young Avigor took the stairs two at a time and started on the well-known yet intricate path to the room that Clan Avigor used when in residence in Colgarma. He paused to look around him and thought once again, as many times before, in awe about the ancient architect and builder who had collaborated in the raising of the Keep. It was a total melting pot of styles and materials, and yet it managed to give an impression of tremendous unity and loveliness wherever one looked. Above him there rose a grandiose arch which, together with four others, joined to form a five-sided cupola over the winding Grand stair that he now trod. Torches burned in carefully carved niches along the walls, the whole Hall, huge as it was, had few dark corners indeed.

He yawned, so hard it sent tears to his eyes. It was time for bed; it was well past midnight, and he would have to get up early to found out if there was truly to be Council called. Yawning again, he grinned to himself. It was very like him to admire beauties of structure in unusual times; he was usually of the right place at the very much the wrong time. Like now. Tearing his eyes away from the fantastic roof, he went on his way.

Several twisting corridors later he passed a heavy wooden door on the wall next to which there hung an imposing banner, depicting a crowned golden double-headed eagle on a background that shaded gradually from the palest blue at the bottom to a dark midnight blue at the top. The Clan Lammuir banner hung outside their door meant that someone from that Clan was in residence. Interesting, he thought. That meant they were gathering.

The next door he reached was his own, that of the apartments of Clan Avigor. Next to that door, too, there hung a banner: a silver-white unicorn, the symbol of his House, rearing rampant on a soft velvet black background, shot through with silver thread. He gazed at it proudly for a moment. Avigor was unique; no other Clan has colors quite so… so dramatic.

He opened the door; and the Guard inside the anteroom within bowed to him respectfully. He nodded in return and passed through into the Reception Hall beyond it, now silent and empty, and then across it to a camouflaged door which led into a corridor from which branched the individual private quarters. He went as quietly as he could into his own one, and shut the door behind him with a soft thud.

The curtains were left undrawn; he could see that the sliver of green Argones had risen, and the sea shimmered faintly under the diffused, pale light. It was late… or early, depending on how you looked at it. Sighing, he drew the curtains… knocked himself on something in the darkness and swore softly… there were some unidentified whispers of material, clicks, and rustles, and then the room was silent and still.

Barely an hour later the Heir to Avigor swam groggily into wakefulness with a Pattern, his Father’s, ‘knocking’ persistently on the fringes of his subconscious. He was still dizzy of being jerked from sleep, and irritated at being allowed so little rest from his nocturnal wandering; but there was something urgent, yet alarmingly weak, about the Contact that cleared his head in an instant. He got up, rubbing his eyes.

Yes?

Take over, my son. I am leaving now. May the Gods smile upon you.

Father? Father, what are you talking about?


But it was gone. And there was a complete and utter blankness where it had been. He found he couldn’t even call to mind the pattern of his own Father’s ch’ia – it was as if it had never existed.

Now very wide awake indeed, he slid out of bed and wriggled into his clothes, in the dark, not wanting light. Not yet. Then he pulled back a curtain and opened the wide doors that led from his room to the sea-facing balcony just outside, there to stand staring out at the horizon and gripping ferociously the low, carved-stone balustrade.

This was what he had been born for, bred for. His Father had sired many children; of those, many sons. But there had been only one boy born in the legitimate marriage, which also produced two other children, both girls. And it was this boy who was trained intensively from day one of his birth to take over the Clan after his Father was dead. His father had been distinctly in the ‘older parent’ bracket when his son, his heir, was born. And now he was dead; and his Heir was only due to turn eighteen in the following month. That, by any standard, was young to lead a Clan.

There would be no problem, of course. His Father would have taken care of the formalities. The Council, whenever it was called, would only confirm him in the position – he was sure it would not be without grumbles, but unless they wished to antagonize Clan Avigor, they would not now replace a choice they had already accepted previously. Besides, he was of age…

The balcony was shared by several rooms of the Avigor Apartment, and now another door was flung open and there issued forth from it a girl whose tumbled hair and bleary eyes bore witness that she too had been woken suddenly and recently. She came out tying the sash of a house-gown around her, and approached the motionless youth at the parapet. He had not even turned his head in her direction, his gaze frozen on the sea that stretched out before him. She touched him on the shoulder, softly, afraid of his expression.

What is it? she asked, in Contact. Your distress is loud, brother, when it could wake me from sleep. Tone down, or else we’ll have all the Clans here to investigate! Her attempt to be facetious only had an effect in that he transferred the glazed stare from the sea onto her. What is it? she asked again, seriously alarmed now.

And then she caught it from his mind, before he recovered himself enough to speak. A strangled cry came from her that turned into a sob as her eyes filled with tears. Then she sank to one knee before him, holding his hand to her forehead.

“Long life and fair reign, Lord Avigor,” she said in a deep, soft voice.

This gesture finally brought the youth to his senses. He stated violently, slammed a barrier on the anguish he was broadcasting on a wide mental wavelength, and even managed a lopsided smile at the golden head bent over his hand.

“Get up, Alleth,” he commanded softly. “A sister does not kneel to a brother.”

Alleth rose, still holding his hand, and looked at him with eyes still brimming. “She does when he has just become the Lord of her Clan. Rainald, Lord Avigor.” She gave his hand a light squeeze. “You’ll do. That’s why he chose you; he knew. He had a healthy dose of precog in his Gift. Don’t be afraid, you’ll do fine. Your sister, too, has some of her Father’s Gift.”

You have precog? I never knew that. My own sister, and I never knew that.” Rainald shivered suddenly and looked away at the ocean again. “How little I know! And how much there is to live up to!”

Alleth watched him, half-smiling, and then hugged him tightly. “You’ve just said exactly the right thing. Anyone who does not have those sentiments is not fit to govern. You will be Avigor’s Lord in times of sore trial, my brother, but you will get the Clan through. They love you, you fool. Don’t you know that?” She propelled him towards the door of his room. “Go back to bed. Sleep, if you can. Tomorrow is going to be a very long day.” And then they looked at each other again, and both pairs of eyes were wet.

Alleth licked her dry lips. “I shall miss him,” she said simply, and walked away, her head bowed in great sorrow.

Rainald Avigor shut the balcony door and leaned his head on its cool surface.

Father, I feel so helpless, he thought despairingly, and his heart ached for the presence by his side of the white-haired Elder who had been there since his earliest childhood, guiding, watching, loving, stern and sometimes cruel, but always just and always wise. How I shall miss you.

Go to bed, Rainald, came the gentle, melancholy touch of his sister.

Staggering, almost blind from exhaustion and sorrow, he managed to find his way to his bed and collapsed on it, burying his head in his hands. And he cried softly for the Pattern that had gone from his head and the presence that was gone from his side. He cried, knowing this would be the only chance he would get to cry for his Father’s death; that, from now on, the only face he could show in public would be a strong one, and nobody must be allowed to suspect that there was a weakness inside. He cried for all the tears he would never again be allowed to shed.

Rainald made himself get up with the sun the following morning. There were dark circles under his eyes, witnesses to a long, sleepless night he had spent. Alleth joined him at his hurried breakfast, guessing, rightly, that what her brother needed most at that time was support. She too showed the ravages of the night. But they were the only two in the Avigor wing, and at least there was no one to whisper as servants didn’t count. By this time they, too, knew; and some of them showed eyes swollen from crying as those of their young masters.

At what was only just barely the polite time for calls, a footman announced the Lords Lammuir and Catallin, the only two Heads of Clans in residence at Colgarma at that time. They were both elderly men, and Lord Lammuir, especially, had been a close friend of the late Lord Avigor. The two Lords entered, once bowed lightly to Alleth, who returned their greeting. And then they turned to Rainald, and greeted him as an equal with the socially correct bow and an intricate Clan handshake that involved the grasping of one another’s elbows. The formalities done, Lord Lammuir drew the young Lord Arigor into a sorrowful, kinsman’s embrace.

“We heard early this morning, Rainald. I am sorry. We shall sorely miss his wisdom in Council… but he has doubtless left us a worthy successor. Your confirmation in your position will be held sooner than you anticipate, though, cousin.” Rainald’s mother was half-sister to Lord Lammuir, so he was in effect something like a nephew to that worthy. “We have heard some disturbing news from Cavaril, and High Council is being convened within a sevenday.”

“I heard. It’s about the survivors of the wrecked starship, isn’t it?” asked Rainald.

“Where did you hear that?” asked Lord Lammuir, sharply shocked. All three were gazing at him now with surprise: the two Lords because they thought themselves and Lord Carlin the only ones privy to the information and Alleth because of the actual news itself. She had heard of no starship in her entire lifetime.

“I have my ways,” said Rainald. “Only High Council, then?”

“Yes. Not the Full Council. I daresay the news is going to get around to most of the Clans anyway.” That sentence was barbed. Lord Catallin, who had spoken it, have another short bow. “Lord Avigor, Lord Lammuir, Senya Alleth… if you will excuse me, I have some preparations to attend to.” He took his leave.

“It will be your first High Council, Rainald,” said Lord Lammuir. “What a way to start.”

High Council was a gathering of the Clan Lords only. Full Council, by comparison, was a gathering of all Clan. Anyone who had Clan right by birth would come and talk there, and all would be listened to. Full Council took place every year, for a period just before the Summer Solstice Festival, and traditionally ended by a Summer Solstice Festival Ball. High Council comings and goings were known only to Clan Lords themselves.

Lord Lammuir stayed for another ten minutes, and then he, too took his leave. Shortly afterwards there was a courier-brought letter from Lord Carlin, conveying his condolences. Over the next few days, many Clan kin and Lords came to pay their respects. Rainald was, happily, called away by the High Council preparations most of the time. On the morning of the Council, he actually sounded guilty as he took his leave, in a breather between callers, of his sister.

“I’m sorry, sieri, to have to leave you to cope with the onslaught all by yourself, but…”

“I’ll survive, Rainald. You’re other paths to tread now. Go, and good luck.”

“Father didn’t believe in it,” said Rainald, wistfully recalling what now seemed a golden age.

“He made his own. Do likewise. Now will you go? I’m not going to be the one thing they’ll blame if you stagger into your first High Council late.”

Rainald moved towards the door, but his sister’s soft voice stopped him before he could leave. “Colors, Rainald.”

He glanced down at his garments ruefully. “I really don’t have time to change, but I suppose I’d better. Making a good impression in one’s first High Council is bound to be important.” He vanished down the corridor and into his room. About a quarter of an hour later he emerged in black boots into which he had tucked black trousers, and a silver tunic top belted in black. A black cloak held at the throat with his diamond Pattern-stone, the ch’ia, completed the outfit. He was just in time for an effusive speech from a wizened old lady whom he recalled vaguely as being a great-aunt or something similar, to which he listened patiently and wound up soothing her tears instead of her trying to comfort him. Then he gratefully passed her over to Alleth, who was smiling at him valiantly, and took his leave.

It was going to be a long, hard slog uphill before people stopped looking at him and seeing his father. But then, that was an achievement one could not hurry, this being accepted for oneself.

Could you have waited to hand over the Clan until I was at least twenty five and ready for it? he thought to his Father’s face in his mind rather crossly. An eighteen-year-old in High Council is unheard of, and they probably won’t let me forget it.

Before he knew it, the time had fled beyond recall and he was hesitating before the double doors of the High Council Chamber deep in Colgarma Keep. What am I doing here? was a last-minute frantic thought that crossed his mind; and then he squared his jaw, lifted his chin, and pushed the door open. It opened, as was usual in the keep, into a small anteroom. A ceremonially-clothed steward stood up to greet him.

“Lord Rainald Avigor,” said Rainald, as he had heard that he must identify himself and be announced into the Hall. And well he knows who I am! was an unbidden accompanying thought to the way the steward smiled formally and motioned him forward.

A second set of double doors was opened and his name called out into a high, echoing room. Rainald entered and walked towards the chair under the Avigor banner with a supreme confidence not an ounce of which which he felt. The Lords Lammuir, Carlin, and D’Alleara were there already. The rest were not. Lord Lammuir smiled at him warmly, and the other two nodded, unsmiling, appraising him from top to toe and then back again. At least he wasn’t last.

He crossed the space from the door to the table with light, springy steps and an easy lithe grace he wasn’t aware he possessed. Lord D’Alleara, whose own youth was a good few years gone, frowned at the young man darkly. He did not like to be reminded of his age.

Even as he seated himself in his place, the door opened again announcing the entrance of Lord Rimmuz, and, before he was even halfway across to the table, another call ushered in the Lords Acharmi, Catallin, Ramer, Mykonas and Dow more or less at once. Lords De Skari and De la Gyeras arrived together some ten minutes later. By this time, a good few little pockets of conversation had started; Rainald, who took part in none, was almost paranoically sure that he was a topic of most. Even in this heavily shielded room his Gift of telepathy could tell him that. When the last two Lords had taken their places, a short silence fell on the men who sat around the table. Then Lammuir suggested that, before they got on with the matter in hand, they duly confirm the young Lord Avigor in his position as the Head of that Clan. After some whispered demurring and long faces, this was accepted and done.

“And now, Lord Carlin,” said Lammuir after these formalities were over, “can you fill us in on the evens in Cavaril? In full, please, because some of us know bits and pieces that we cannot in truth connect without the backbone.” He glanced at young Avigor as he spoke, and the latter knew he was still trying to puzzle out how it was that he, Rainald, had known such reasonably well guarded secret information. Rainald stifled a smile. If he, or Lord Carlin, only knew that it had been blurted in the middle of a third-rate inn in lower Colgarma; and, had it not sounded like utter nonsense and been dismissed as such, the entire city would have been buzzing with it by now.

He suddenly realized that Lord Carlin had begun to speak, and started to pay attention.

“…Only then that one of the villagers came to me in Cavaril and told me how these people had seemingly crashed, and how, would I punish them if they had done wrong, they had helped them, and these people were now some at the Healer’s and some in their own homes. I, of course, went immediately to investigate. I had suspected the Healer, Lilia, of having vestiges of a Gift for a long time; well, she proved it – she exhibited this quite amazing ability to understand them, although they spoke a thoroughly incomprehensible language. She mentioned that one of them ‘kept saying’ how he through he was dreaming, and that we were all no more then a figment of his imagination!” A ripple of laughter swept the Hall. Lord Carlin, content at the effect of his narrative, cleared his throat, and continued. “Well, my Lords, to cut a long story short, I told the village they were responsible for these people until further notice, and took the precaution of removing these.” He tossed a metal object on the table. Everyone leaned forward to try and look; Lammuir finally took it, examined it, and passed it down the table for everyone to see. Catallin, after having scrutinized it, glanced up at the silent speaker.

“Well,” he said, “what are they?”

“I’m not altogether sure,” said Carlin thoughtfully. “Weapons, certainly, but nothing like we have seen. One went off, triggered by some dolt by mistake, and it but through two villagers and an unconscious new arrival… by a beam of light of some sort… cut right through as if they were wax thrown into the fire. I wanted no repeats.”

A murmur of assent arose, and De le Gyeras, who had been holding the thing, pushed it rather hurriedly away from him.

“What are we to do with them?” asked Carlin finally.

“You told the villagers they were in change of them?” said Acharmi.

“Yes,” said Catallin.

“Did they see you?”

“Hardly. Most of them are unconscious or close to it anyway.”

“Are they Gifted?” asked Catallin suddenly.

Carlin hesitated. “N-no. That is, I have seen no evidence in favor of that.”

“Well, then,” said Catallin, leaning back in his chair, “Let ‘further notice’ never arrive. They will stay with the village. By the time they learn the structure of society of Castala, they will have lived too long amongst the Others to aspire to a higher social position. And these,” he indicated the weapon on the table, “these we will destroy.”

“Why would they want to aspire to a higher social position?” asked Mykonas.

“Would you really be satisfied as an Other, Lord Mykonas, living a hand-to-mouth existence of the land with a higher social stratum hovering before your eyes and out of your reach?”

“Well… no, but then I’ve never known different. Who knows what they were…”

“When? A lifetime ago? They have crashed on a different world. They had better live according to its rules.”

“They’re strange,” said Carlin.

Catallin whipped around, narrowing his eyes. “How do you mean, strange?”

“Well, for a start, they all wore trousers when we found them… even the women.” He paused. “Then,” he continued, “more than half of their women wear their hair short… and I don’t mean what our women would consider short. I mean very short, shorter than even some of our men wear.”

“What are they, some sort of penal colony?” asked Acharmi, puzzled and mildly shocked. “Our ladies would sooner die than gallivant about in anything resembling male attire. And for a woman to cut her hair so, it would only mean she’d committed a terrible crime and was thus done to for shame – even then, it would be others who’d shear her, and not herself! Is this normal with them?”

“It seems so,” said Carlin. “I must admit our own villagers tend to aver their eyes when they look at their women. Even after they dressed them in decent clothes.”

“They seem to be too… different, as you say,” said Lammuir gravely. “Will they fit in anywhere on Castala, at all?”

“Well, they’re perfectly free to come to lower Colgarma and rot there for all I care,” said Catallin, rubbing his nose reflectively. “Any woman who’s had the utter cheek to walk around in public flaunting hair of shame is a fallen woman anyway.”

Lammuir suddenly shook his head in what was almost weariness and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “Oh, leave them,” he said. “They will pick up the social customs as they pick up the language. We’ll see how they behave them. Until that time, leave them. Just keep extending that ‘further notice’ of yours, Carlin. Oh, and by the by, what about that so-called Gifted healer of yours? What did you say her name was? Lilia?”

“Yes, that’s right. She’s too good a Healer not to be without some empathetic abilities – and I’d say hers were quire extensive. Also, when she’s telling one a sequence of events, a coherent story, sometimes she can flash a particularly vivid picture of what she’s talking about straight into your subconscious. That’s why I went to her to get the facts. I knew I’d get more from her then from a village yokel who can’t open his mouth for more than a yes or a no. They’re really ridiculous teachers of language, if you think about it. Their vocabulary is what one might call… limited.”

“Is she aware of this?”

“What, picture flashing?” Carlin thought for a moment, cupping his chin in his hand. “I don’t think so. If she is, then she is amongst other things an excellent actress.”

“Low-level Gifts amongst the yokels?” asked Ramer, appalled.

“How low-level in low-level?” asked Catallin.

“Lower than Clan threshold, I’d say,” said Carlin.

“Burn her out,” said Lammuir shortly.

“But that would probably render her useless as a Healer, in the very best event,” protested Carlin, spreading his arms.

“If it does, I’ll get you another healer. Zarog’s Hells, man, we have all the healers we want, and the best ones are Clan anyway. We’re trying to protect Clan and what we stand for! We cannot condone this kind of thing. She’d pass it onto her children, and in a generation or two we’d have complete anarchy!” growled Catallin.

Rainald kept quiet and listened. He was appalled at the apparent complete lack of sensitivity with which the Lords could order a Gifted person ‘burned out,’ even if she wasn’t Clan. He was taking the measure of each Lord, keeping his own counsel until at least their second meeting. They thought him a presumptuous young pipsqueak as it was; he didn’t want to compound the impression by speaking ‘out of turn,’ as it were, in their very first meeting.

Catallin, with his lean, wiry build and grizzled hair, looked a dangerous wolf. His grey eyes were flint-hard and as cold as ice. He seemed to be burning up with some inner fire, every word he spoke a lash. When he had taken over the leadership of his Clan, he had sworn, as had all the rest of the Clan, to hold his heritage to his best ability. Well, he was holding; and the Gods help anyone who so much as came near. Lammuir seemed to be the resident neutral force, leaning very much on the conservative, however. Carlin was a ditherer; Mykonas, as far as Rainald could see in a first impression, was terminally slow. D’Alleara was very silent; he was watching everyone with his small, bright eyes and offering no help to either side of the argument. Rainald had the feeling he was an opportunist who would join the winning side when it bore in for the kill. But he was content to let others do the hunting. Ramer was staunchly conservative. Acharmi, now – he was a wise old owl. Rainald knew him well; the Acharmi Clan was one of the minor houses, and very much connected to Avigor. Rainald had met the old Lord many times at the Avigor country domain, always a welcome guest of his father’s. Acharmi was just about the only lord, apart from Lammuir, who had had a smile and a warm greeting for him in this Hall. Rainald had a shrewd suspicion that Acharmi and the old Lord Avigor had been allies in Council; and he determined to keep it so. More than anything Avigor and Acharmi were the neutral balancing force to the radically conservative Clans. As for the rest of them, Rimmuz, Dow, De Skari, De la Gyeras… he did not have enough information, nor enough time. He determined he should study them, and determine his own position and his odds.

And that was that. Other than for some other and fairly minor matters, the meeting was closed. Lammuir, as the oldest now that the old Lord of Avigor had gone, closed the Council and the Lords began to prepare to leave. Several, including Lammuir and Acharmi, came up to Rainald to renew, or make, the acquaintance of the new Lord Avigor. There were tears in Acharmi’s eyes as he looked at his friend’s son.

“Ay, you look like him, Gods grant him peace. He was a presence, Rainald… I mean, Lord Avigor. Hard to call you that, son; I’ve known you all my life as knee high to a grasshopper. Well, long life and fair reign, Lord Avigor. Good luck.”

“You were silent today,” said Lammuir, patting his young cousin paternally on the shoulder.

“I wasn’t the only one,” retorted Rainald.

“Fair blow,” laughed Lammuir. “Carlin seemed to hold monologue for most of the time. I think you’ve been taking mental notes on us, haven’t you, nephew?”

Now Rainald chuckled. “Shrewd guess, foster-father. Yes, I have. I have a reasonably full picture of the High Council. And I think that you are probably a leading force in it.”

“Your father was.”

“That I know. I’ll try to follow suit. But I’ll need a good few years before I can convince the Council that a Lord does not have to be defined as being over half a century to be a force in the Council.”

“Take it from someone who knows – you’ve got your job cut out if you want to go that way.”

Rainald turned towards the new speaker. It was Lord Dow, who smiled, offering a handshake. “I am twice your years,” he continued, “but to most of the Council forty is still in the flower of one’s youth. Most of the ideas I put forward in Council get quietly shelved – I dare say they’ll blow off the cobwebs when my hair turns the obligatory white. Until them I’m a nonentity. It’s going to take a strong man to make a dent.”

“I know it’s going to be hard to fill my father’s shoes. They still do not fit me all that well,” Rainald admitted frankly.

“Yours,” said Dow as they began walking out of the Hall, “will be the youngest Household in all the Clans. Forgive me, but are you married yet?”

“Gods no!” laughed Rainald.

“Betrothed?”

“No, Lord Dow. Have you got a candidate, by any chance?”

“As a matter of fact, yes; but that is not why I asked. The reason I did so was that I have an eight-year old daughter whom I wish to foster somewhere next year. Have you any plans in that regard?”

“There are not all that many children in Macha at this time, but I think that there are enough for me to be able to accept a Foster-child. My mother will be in Foster-parentage, though, since I cannot myself yet provide a foster mother. And your candidate?”

“A young cousin… a half-sister of young Goran Rimmuz, and a Foster-sister of Gilden Lammuir. Her name is Liara Rimmuz-De Skari. Her relationship to me is totally incomprehensible, but we are cousins in some degree. I dare say you will be hounded by many a guardian, my young Lord, you’re quite a catch now. Anyway, she is fifteen this summer, just coming of age. Pretty as a picture.”

“I’ll think about it,” smiled Rainald.

“Do that. A wedding this winter sounds very nice indeed. Well, I must away. I was very nice meeting you, Lord Avigor. I hope I see you again soon.”

“Do videnya, Lord Dow.”

They took cordial leave of one another, and Rainald finally made for his own apartment. Alleth, the tide of condolence calls temporarily stemmed, was in her room, playing the cithre softly. She rose, laying the instrument aside as her brother entered.

“Don’t stop,” he pleaded, and collapsed into a chair, throwing an arm over his eyes. Silently, Alleth obliged.

“How was it, Lord Avigor?” she asked.

“Oh, don’t you start. Alleth, for pity’s sake, I’m the youngest there by some forty years, excepting Lord Dow who’s only twice my age. A comparative youngster! Alleth, Alleth, I’ll need to grow up, nay, to grow old, faster than I would have wished…”

She pushed the cithre away and began to knead the tension out of his shoulders. “They’ll just have to grow younger,” she said, very seriously.

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