The afternoon was as fine as the morning, warm and sunny with just a bit ofa breeze to stir the leaves and cool the traveller. The birds sang and thesummer flowers perfumed the air. Here and there the early blackberries showeddark on their canes.es.
Wiz was in no mood to appreciate any of it. Before they had gone a mile hewas huffing and blowing. In two miles his T-shirt was soaked and beads of sweatwere running down his face, stinging his eyes and dripping from the tip of hisnose. Still Moira hurried him along the twisting path, up wooded hills and downthrough leafy vales, ignoring his discomfort.ort.
Finally Wiz threw himself down on a grassy spot in a clearing.
“No more,” he gasped. “I’ve got to rest.”
“Get out of the open, you crack-brained fool!” the red-hairedwitch snapped. Wiz crawled to his feet, staggered a few steps and collapsedagainst a tree trunk.k.
“Sorry,” he panted. “I’m just not up to this. Got torest.””
“And what do you think the League is doing meantime?” Moirascolded. “Will they stop just because you’re too soft to go on?””
“League?” asked Wiz blankly.
“The ones who pursue us. Don’t you listen to anything?”
“I don’t hear anyone chasing us. Maybe we’ve lost them.”
Wiz looked slightly green. “Patrius? The old man back there?”
Moira cast her eyes skyward. “Yes, Patrius. Now come on!”
But Wiz made no move. “I’m sorry,” he gasped. “I can’t. Goon without me. I’ll be all right.””
Moira glared down at him, hands on hips. “You’ll be dead beforenightfall.””
“I’ll be all right.” Wiz insisted. “Just go on.”
Moira softened slightly. He was a nuisance, but he was a human being and asnear helpless as made no difference..
“Very well,” she said, sitting down. “We rest.”
Wiz leaned forward and sank his head between his knees. Moira ignored himand stared back the way they had come..
“That old man,” Wiz said at last. “What killed him?”
“Magic,” Moira said over her shoulder.
“No really, what killed him?”
“I told you, a spell.”
Wiz eyed her. “You really believe that, don’t you? I mean it’s notjust a phrase. You mean real magic.””
Moira twisted to face Wiz. “Of course I mean magic. What did you think?A bolt of lightning just happened to strike him while he was Summoningyou?”?”
“You’re telling me there really is magic?”
Moira looked annoyed. “How do you think you got here?”
“Oh,” said Wiz. “Yeah. Well look, this magic. Can it get mehome?””
“Patrius might have been able to do that, but I cannot,” she saidangrily. She got to her feet. “Now come along. If you have breath enoughto talk you have breath enough to walk.”.”
By paths and game trails they pushed on through the forest. Twice more theystopped to rest when Wiz would no further. Both times Moira fidgeted soimpatiently that Wiz cut the stop short, barely getting his breath back. Therewere a thousand questions he wanted to ask, but Moira sternly forbade him totalk while they walked.ked.
Once she stopped so suddenly that Wiz nearly trod on her skirt. She staredintently at a patch of woods before them. Besides a ring of bright orangemushrooms beside the trail, Wiz saw nothing unusual.l.
“This way,” she whispered, grasping his arm and tugging him offthe path. Carefully and on tiptoe, she led him well around that bit of forest,striking the trail again on the other side.e.
“What was the detour about?” Wiz asked at their next rest stopwhen he had breath enough to talk..
“The little folk danced there on last night to honor the Mid-Summer’sDay. It is unchancy to go near such a place in the best of times and it wouldbe very foolish to do so today.”.”
“Oh come on! You mean you believe in fairies too?”
“I believe in what I see, Sparrow. I have seen those of Faerie.”
“But dammit…” Moira cut him off with an imperious gesture.
“Do NOT curse, Sparrow. We do not need what that might attract.”
That made sense, Wiz admitted. If magic really worked and there was theburned husk of a man lying under the sod back behind them to suggest that itdid then curses might work too. Come to that, if magic worked there was nothingso odd about fairies dancing in the moonlight. He shook his head.ad.
“Why do you call me Sparrow?” he asked, feeling for safer ground.
“Because Bal-Simba called you so. You needed a name to use before theWorld.””
“I’ve got a name,” Wiz protested.
“Bal-Simba told you never to speak your true name to anyone,”Moira told him. “So we needed something to call you.””
“My friends just call me Wiz.”
“I will call you Sparrow,” Moira said firmly. “Now comealong.””
Again she set off in an effortless stride. Wiz came huffing along behind,glumly admiring the swing of her hips and the easy sway of her body. He wasused to being treated with contempt by beautiful women, but he had never beenthis taken with a woman and that made it hurt worse than usual.al.
One thing you have to say about my luck, he thought. It’s consistent.
Finally they topped a small rise and Wiz could see a road through the treesahead. Off to the left he could hear the sound of running water. Moira crouchedbehind a bush and pulled Wiz roughly down beside her.r.
“This is the Forest Highway,” Moira whispered. “It leadsover the Blackstone Brook and on into the Wild Wood.””
“Where we’re going?” said Wiz, enjoying Moira’s closeness and thesmell of her hair. Instinctively he moved closer, but the hedge witch drewaway.y.
“Yes, but not by the road. I am to meet someone here. You wait in thewoods. Do not make a sound and do not show yourself.” She pulled back andcontinued down the trail, leaving Wiz with the memory of her closeness.s.
In spite of its grandiose title, the Forest Highway was a weedgrown lanewith the trees pressing in on either side. The Blackstone Brook was perhaps tenyards wide and ran swift, deep and dark as its name under a rough log bridge.e.
As Moira predicted, there was a man waiting under the trees by theroadside. He was tall, lean, long-faced and as brown as the rough homespun ofhis tunic and breeches. When Moira stepped out of the trees he touched hisforehead respectfully.ly.
“I brought the things, Lady.”
“Thank you, Alber,” Moira replied kindly.
“Lady, is it true you are leaving us?”
“For a time, Alber. A short time, I hope.”
“We will miss you,” he said sadly.
Moira smiled and embraced him. Watching from behind his bush Wiz felt apang of jealousy. “Oh, and I will miss you all as well. You have been likea family to me, the whole village.” Then she smiled again. “Butanother will be along soon to take my place.”e.”
“It will not be the same, Lady,” he said dejectedly. He turnedand gestured to the small pile of objects under a bush by the roadside..
“The messenger said two packs. And two cloaks.”
“Correct, Alber.” Moira did not volunteer and he did not ask.
Quickly she began to sort through the items, checking them and re-stowingthem into the packs..
“Shall I wait, Lady?”
“No.” She smiled up at him. “Thank you again.” Thehedge witch made a sign with her right hand, first two fingers extended.”Go with my blessing. May your way home be short and safe and the journeyuneventful.”l.”
“May you be safe as well, Lady.” With that Alber turned andstarted down the road..
As soon as he had disappeared around a bend, Moira motioned Wiz out ofhiding..
“A brave man,” Moira said as she tied the drawstring on one ofthe packs and set it aside..
“Why?” asked Wiz, nettled. “For bringing us thisstuff?””
“Don’t sneer, Sparrow,” she said sharply. “This ’stuff’ willsustain us on our journey. Alber was willing to chance Mid-Summer’s Day to seethat we will eat and be warm in the Wild Wood.”.”
“Nice of him. But brave?”
Moira finished loading the second pack and shook her head. “Sparrow,how did you survive so long?””
“I survived just fine up until this morning,” Wiz retorted.”So what about Mid-Summer’s Day?””
Moira sighed in exasperation. “Mid-Summer’s Day is the longest day ofthe year. All magics associated with the sun and fire are at their most potentthis day and magics of green and growing things are unusually potent as well.l.
“It is a day of power, Sparrow, and not a day for mortals to beabout.””
“Not by choice, Sparrow,” Moira said grimly. “Nowcome.” She slung a large leather pouch over her shoulder and shrugged oneof the packs onto her back. Then she stood and watched as Wiz struggled intothe other one. As soon as he was loaded, they started off across the bridge.ge.
Well behind them, Alber stuck to the relative safety of the road. Thus hewas easily seen by a soaring raven gyring and wheeling over the green and leafyland.d.
Alber saw the raven as it glided low over the road. He made a warding sign,for ravens are notoriously birds of ill omen, and hurried on his way..
Above him the raven cocked his glossy black head and considered. Like mostof his kind he knew enough to count one and two and one person travelling alonewas not what his master searched for. There were two, and the bird’s keen eyescould see no sign of anyone else on the road.ad.
But this was the only human he had seen today and this one was well awayfrom the normal haunts of man. The raven was not intelligent, but he had beenwell schooled. With a hoarse caw he abandoned the search to his fellows andbroke away to the south to report.rt.
The forest deepened after Wiz and Moira passed over the river. They leftthe road around the first bend past the bridge and toiled up a winding gametrail that ran to the top of a steep ridge. By the time they reached the topeven Moira was breathing heavily. She motioned Wiz to rest and the pair sankdown thankfully under the trees.ees.
Through a gap Wiz could look ahead. The valley was a mass of greentreetops. Beyond the valley lay another green ridge and beyond that anotherridge and then another fading off into the blue distance. There was no sign ofhabitation or any hint of animal life. Only endless, limitless forest.st.
This was no second-growth woodland or a carefully managed preserve. Theoaks and beeches around them had never been logged. The big ones had stood forcenturies, accumulating mosses and lichen on their hoary trunks, growing closeand thrusting high to form a thick canopy overhead. Here and there was an openpatch where one of those forest giants had succumbed to age, rot or lightningand the successors crowding in had not yet filled the place. There were snagsand fallen limbs everywhere, green with moss and spotted with bright clumps offungus.fungus.
“I see why they call it the Wild Wood,” he said.
“This is not the Wild Wood,” Moira told him. “We are stillonly on the Fringe of the Wild Wood.””
“Does anyone live here?”
“None we would care to meet. Oh, a few cottagers and a small stead ortwo. But most who live on this side of the Blackstone have reason to shun theirfellows. Or be shunned by them. We will best avoid company of any kind until wereach our destination.”n.”
“Where are we going anyway?” Wiz sidled closer to her.
“To a place of refuge. You need not know more. Now come. We have farto go.””
It was late afternoon when they came over the second ridge and descendedinto another valley. Although the forest was as dense as ever, there was awater meadow through the center of this valley. The broad expanse of grass wasa welcome sight to Wiz, oppressed as he was by the constant trees. Here andthere trees hardly more than shrubs luxuriated in the warmth and openness. Alsointerspersed were small ponds and marshy patches marked by cattails, reeds andsweet blue iris. iris.
They halted at the edge of the open and Moira surveyed the cloud-fleckedsky uneasily..
“Nothing,” she sighed. “Now listen, Sparrow. We cannot goaround because there are bogs above and below. We must cross and do it quickly,lest we be seen. Once we start we must not stop.” She looked him over critically.”We will rest now.”w.”
Moira knelt, scanning the meadow and the sky above it while Wiz caught hisbreath..
“What?” She did not stop searching the meadow.
“We’re being chased, right?”
“Well then, can I ask a dumb question?”
“Of course,” the hedge witch said in a tone that indicated he hadbeen doing nothing else..
“Why are we being chased? What did we do?”
“Yeah, but why?”
“We do not know that, Sparrow.”
“Do they know?”
“I doubt it.”
Wiz shifted slightly. “Well, if you don’t know and they don’t knowthen why the bloody—heck—are they chasing us?””
“They hope to learn from you what Patrius’s aim was.”
“But I don’t know either!”
Moira snorted. “I doubt they will take your unconstrained word forthat, Sparrow.””
“Look, I don’t want any part of this, okay? Can’t we talk to them?Isn’t there some way I can prove I don’t know anything and then they can leaveme alone.”.”
“Sparrow, listen to me,” Moira turned to him. “The DarkLeague of the South is not interested in your innocence or guilt. The fact thatPatrius Summoned you is enough to make them want you. Probably they want tosqueeze you for the knowledge we both know you do not possess. Possibly theysimply want you dead or worse.”se.”
Moira laid her hand on his. “But either way, Sparrow,” she saidgravely, “if you are given a choice between the worst death you canimagine and falling alive into the hands of the League, do everything in yourpower to die.”e.”
Wiz dropped his eyes from her intense stare. “I get the picture.”
“Good.” She turned back to the clearing and checked the groundand sky again. “Then make ready. We will not try to run because the groundis boggy, but walk quickly!”!”
Moira rose and moved into the clearing with Wiz on her heels. Thethigh-high grass whisked against their legs as they walked and the soilsquished beneath their feet. Unlike the forest, the meadow was rich with life.Insects buzzed and chirped, frogs croaked or plonked into puddles as they wentby. Dragonflies flitted by and once a yellow-and-black butterfly circled theirheads.eads.
In spite of the sunshine and wildlife, Wiz wasn’t cheered. Except for anoccasional bush, the travellers were the tallest things in the meadow. He feltlike a large and very conspicuous bug on a very flat rock, and the further theygot from the suddenly friendly line of trees, the more nervous he became.me.
Moira was feeling it too. She pushed ahead faster, her head turningconstantly. She dared not use active magic, but she listened as hard as shecould for any sign of others’ magic.c.
Suddenly Moira dropped in her tracks. She went down so quickly that Wizthought she had tripped..
“What?” Wiz whispered.
“Something in the air of to our left. No, don’t look! The flash ofyour face might betray us.” After a second she bobbed her head up for aquick look.k.
“Fortuna!” she breathed. “It is searching the area. Allright, see that tree ahead of us?” She nodded towards a big bush a fewyards up the trail. “When I give the signal, ,
On hands and knees they crawled for what seemed to Wiz to be an eternity.He dared not raise his head, so all he saw was a narrow strip of wet blackearth and green grass stems on each side. By the time he pulled up under thebush he was panting, and not entirely from exertion.on.
They dragged themselves back far under the overhanging branches, heedlessof the mud or the tiny crawling things in the litter of dead leaves. As soon asthey were settled, Moira pulled her cloak off her pack and threw it over them,turning two people into one lumpy brown mass and leaving just a narrow crack tosee out.out.
Even as frightened as he was, Wiz was exhilarated by Moira’s closeness. Herwarmth and the sweet, clean odor of her was wonderful and the danger addedspice.e.
“What is it?” he whispered.
Then a shadow passed over them and Wiz saw what they were hiding from.
The dragon glided noiselessly above the trail they had just left. Itshundred-foot batwings were stiff and unmoving as it let the warm air risingfrom the meadow bear it up. Its long flat tail twitched slightly as it steeredits chosen course. The four legs with their great ripping talons were pressedclose to its body and its sinuous neck was fully extended. It came so low andso close that Wiz could see the row of white fangs in its slightly open mouth.outh.
Wiz’s breath caught and he tried to sink into the dirt. Instinctively hegrabbed Moira’s hand and they clung together like frightened children while thenightmare beast swooped above trees and turned to cross the meadow from anotherdirection.on.
Clearly the monster had seen something on the water meadow. Again it glidedacross and again it flew directly over the bush where Wiz and Moira cowered.Wiz felt as if the dragon’s gaze had stripped him naked.d.
Four times the dragon flew over the meadow and four times Wiz trembled andshrank under Moira’s cloak. Finally it pulled up and disappeared over thetrees.s.
For long minutes after Wiz and Moira lay huddled and shaking. At last Moirathrew the cloak back and sat up. Reluctantly, Wiz followed suit..
“Was that thing looking for us?” he breathed at last.
“Very likely,” Moira said, scanning the skies warily.
“Are there more of them?”
“Dragons are usually solitary creatures and one so big would need alarge hunting territory.””
She frowned. “Still, I do not know of any like that who live nearby.Wild dragons make ill neighbors. It may be the one from the southern lake or itmight be one of the ones who lair in the hills to the east. If it is coursingthis far afield there may be others.”s.”
“Wonderful,” Wiz muttered.
Moira sighed shakily. “I dislike playing hideabout with dragons, butwe should be safe enough if we stay under the trees and are careful aboutcrossing open spaces.”.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“There is risk, of course,” Moira continued, half to herself.”The forested ways are not always the most free of magic. Besides, withthe forest close around us we will not have as much warning of the approach ofothers.”s.”
“Trolls, wolves, evil men and others who do the League’s work.”
“Great,” Wiz said.
Moira missed the irony entirely. “Not great, but our best chance, Ithink.” She folded the cloak. “Now come. Quickly.””
“Well?” Atros demanded.
“The searchers are out as you commanded, Master,” said the newMaster of the Sea of Scrying. “But so far nothing.””
“With all the magic of the League you cannot find two insignificantmortals?” Atros rumbled..
The Master, only hours in his post, licked his lips and tried not to lookpast Atros’s shoulder at the place where a newly flayed skin hung, still oozingblood, on the stone wall of the chamber. The skin of a very fat man.n.
“It is not easy Master. Bal-Simba—cursed be his name!—has been castingconfusion spells, muddying the trail at the beginning. The Council’s Watchersare on the alert and we cannot penetrate too deeply nor see too clearly.”He paused. “We do know he has not taken the Wizard’s Way.”y.”
Atros rubbed his chin. Walking the Wizard’s Way was the preferred method oftravel for those who had the magical skill to use it. But it was also easy todetect anyone upon it. Perhaps this strange wizard preferred stealth to speed.d.
“And those already in the North,” he asked, “behind theWatchers’ shield of spells?””
“Our best servants are creatures of the dark. On Mid-Summer’s Daytheir power is at its weakest. Our dragon allies and our others seek as bestthey can, but there is so much magic upon the land that it is hard toscan.” He gestured into the Sea of Scrying. Atros looked and saw sparksand patches of magic everywhere.ere.
“Someone mighty enough to be worth the risk of a wizard like Patriusmust leave a track even through that,” the giant magician objected..
The newly made black robe lowered his head. “We have found no sign,Master.””
Atros bit his lip thoughtfully. It was possible for a magician to hide hispresence through cloaking spells, but such spells usually betrayed thatsomething was being hidden. Either the League’s servants were unusually ineptor this magician from beyond the World was extremely powerful. Someone thatpowerful might indeed tip the balance against the League.gue.
“Is there sign of aught unusual in the cities of the North?”
“Nothing, Master, save what you know. Nothing unusual anywhere in theNorth’s territories.””
“Then perhaps he whom we seek is not within the North’sterritories,” Atros said suddenly. “Patrius performed his GreatSummoning on the Fringe of the Wild Wood? Then search the Fringe mostcarefully. And extend your search into the Wild Wood itself.”f.”
“Thy Will, Master,” said the Watcher. “But there is no signof anything unusual on the Fringe. Besides, it will mean weakening our searchof the North’s lands.”.”
“If he was in the North’s lands we would have some sign ere now,”Atros said. “Perhaps he goes another way to mislead us.””
It was the Master’s turn to rub his chin thoughtfully. “If he pushesinto the Wild Wood he brings himself closer to our servants and his magic willstand out even more strongly against the non-human magics of that place.”.”
“Only if he uses magic,” Atros said. “If he weaves little ornone he will be much harder to find, will he not?””
“What kind of wizard travels without magical protection?”
“A most powerful and dangerous one. So search carefully.” Atrospaused for a moment, looking down into the Sea once more..
“But our alien wizard will not find it so easy to shield histravelling companion,” he said. “Tell your searchers to lookcarefully for signs of a hedge witch in the Wild Wood. That should stand outstrongly enough.”h.”
They camped where dusk found them, spreading their cloaks against a fallenlog. Moira would not allow a fire, so their dinner consisted of some bits ofjerked meat and a handful of leathery dried fruit. Normally Wiz didn’t eat redmeat, but things were decidedly not normal and he gnawed gratefully on thepieces Moira placed in his hand.and.
As the twilight faded Moira took a stick and drew a design around them andtheir resting place..
“The circle will offer us some small protection,” she told him.”Do not leave it tonight for anything.””
“Not even for… ?”
“Not for anything,” she repeated firmly.
Without another word Moira rolled herself in her cloak and turned away fromWiz. He sat with his back to the log staring up at the unfamiliar stars..
“This is soooo weird,” Wiz said, more to himself than Moira.
“Sleeping outdoors is not what I am used to either,” she said.
“No, I mean this whole business. Dragons. The magic and all. It’s justnot like anything I’m used to.””
Moira rolled over to face him. “You mean you really do not have magicwhere you come from?””
“The closest I ever came to magic was working with Unix wizards,”said Wiz..
“Eunuchs wizards? Did they do that to themselves to gain power?”
“Huh? No. Not Eunuchs, Unix. Spelled…” Wiz realized hecouldn’t spell the word. He recognized the shapes of the letters, but theytwisted and crawled in his mind and no meaning attached to them. When he triedto sound the word out only runes appeared in his head.ad.
“Never mind, but it’s not that at all. It’s an operating system.”
“Operating system?” Moira said frowning.
“An operating system is a program which organizes the resources of a computerand virtualizes their interfaces,” Wiz quoted..
“A computer? One who thinks?”
For the thousandth time in his life, Wiz wished he were better at makingexplanations. “Well, kind of. But it is a machine, not alive.””
“A machine is some kind of non-living thing then. But this machinethinks?””
“Well, it doesn’t really think. It follows preprogrammed instructions.The programmer can make it act like it is thinking.””
“Is it a demon of some kind?”
“Uh, no. A demon’s something else. It’s a program that does somethingautomatically when called. Unless of course it’s a daemon, then it’s active allthe time.”.”
Moira wrinkled her brow. “Let us go back a bit. What do you have to dowith these creatures?””
“They’re not creatures, really.”
“These demons, then.”
“I told you, they’re not demons. A demon is something else.”
“Never mind all that,” Moira said impatiently. “Just tell mewhat you do.””
“Well, I do a lot of things, but basically I’m a systems-levelprogrammer. That means I write programs that help applications programs—thoseare the things people want done—to run. ’’