In a cave, high in the mountains south of Zagorbia, an ancient Mage shivered before an open fire. By his side, a woman tucked a blanket closer about his chin, while a servant added another log to the fire. It was not winter, nor even particularly cold-though at that altitude the nights often were-and the opulently furnished cave was certainly comfortable. But the mage had not been well, and that very afternoon had begun to show signs of fever. He sat now, tightly swaddled in a pillowed armchair, his wispy white beard spilling down the blanket like corn silk, and gazed into the fire with moist, fever-bright eyes.
"Come here and sit by me, girl," he commanded. "There are some matters we must discuss, signs I have seen."
"Can it not wait, Volkmir?" the woman protested, but nonetheless sat down on a stool by his side. "The hour grows late and you need your rest."
"No, the time is ripe now, Vahla my girl, and I will have rest soon enough. Chad..."
The servant was a small, dark-complected man who moved like a shadow. At the mageís nod, he sprinkled a spoonful of powder over the fire. Instantly, a cloud of thick green smoke boiled up, filling the chamber with a sweet, pungent smell. The girl felt it catch in the back of her throat and swallowed hard not to cough. As the smoke began to clear, Chad added more powder, pouring a thin trickle this time, and the smoke, as if following instruction, rose up straight in a narrow column and formed a small, vaguely round cloud above the flames. Here it hovered, throbbing and pulsing like a wispy balloon on an insubstantial string, occasionally augmented by fresh powder from Chad.
"Look deep, Vahla," said the mage, "for herein we should see something of the signs I mentioned-of a new power rising in the east to rival the claim of King Valerius."
Vahla looked close, squinting with concentration, but could see only smoke, swirling and churning like an impenetrable curtain. "Another of Fantarís minions?" she asked, darting a quick glance at the mage.
"I know not," said Volkmir, "nor yet what events the signs portend. Surely, Fantar reigns in the east, but whether this Asperides is a scion of his line, an anointed of his, or someone entirely new, I know not. I only sense his force and am drawn to it, like iron to lodestone."
Beside the fire, Chad deftly added more powder, rose tinted this time, and bands of pink and red began to swirl within the smoky orb. Both mage and assistant leaned forward now, peering intently at the moiling cloud. Vahla swallowed again. Her mouth was thick and dry, and she felt like some of the cloud had entered her brain. She coughed suddenly and Chad handed her a cup of wine. She drank deeply, thinking, íI feel like a cat with a hairball.í It was funny, that thought, and she was very aware of her mouth curling upwards in a smile. But then, something caught her eye in the fire.
It was like a spark, but it wasnít. It was blue, and looked like a tiny picture that flashed in the fire, then floated swiftly upward into the smoke and disappeared. It happened so fast she was not sure she had actually seen it, and was just thinking she hadnít when something flashed again, in the cloud this time. Suddenly, the cloud filled with an image of the sea at night, under a clear, full moon, and she could see the yellow light rippling off the waves. Then it was just cloud again and she started to exclaim. But the mage hushed her, for the smoke had once more become sea.
It was a quiet sea, a round ball of sea floating like a painting above the fire, yet so clear and close she felt she could reach out and touch it. Then a boat sailed by, very fast, and she jerked back as if it would burst from the cloud and run her down. "What was that?" she said.
"Hush, girl," said the mage. "It looked like a boat."
"I thought you said this was going to be the east?"
"Hush, I said! We see what we are given to see. From that we try to understand."
Vahla hushed and the sea image began to move. It slipped backwards, as if the eye, or whatever it was, were moving along behind the boat. Then it soared up, like a bird, away from the surface, and fixed on the boat, bright in the moonlight. It was a twin-hulled craft with a bridge deck, sailing swiftly along across a light evening breeze. A man stood at the helm and several others lined the weather pontoon. Another figure-half the size of the helmsman-stood forward by the mast, peering ahead into the darkness.
"Why, thatís the catumaran-Lord Koltarís invention!" Vahla exclaimed. "And that must be Colinus there by the mast. Heís supposed to be with Valerius in Zagorbia. Whatís he doing here?"
"Valerius sent him east as a military envoy," Volkmir whispered. "Heís been using the boat for courier duty because itís so fast. But why Colinus is aboard now, I know not. Perhaps he brings the message we seek."
"But he seems to be looking for something."
"Hush now!" Volkmir hissed. "Your breath will distort the skein."
The image above the flames had indeed begun to shimmer, but now, as the two observers quieted, it too settled, and zoomed in on the half-sized man by the mast, the one called Colinus. He was looking at something, his round, boyish face thrust forward, his eyes squinting. And he was obviously concerned about the bright light of the moon for he kept glancing back at it, a look of irritation crossing his face. He signaled the helmsman to alter course a bit and pointed in the direction he wanted to go. As if on cue, the image above the flames shifted, too, and followed his hand. The image panned to a shore where, on either hand, thousands of campfires stretched away into the darkness, and as they drew closer, dark shapes along the shelving beach resolved themselves into ships.
"Itís an army!" said Vahla.
"And if Iím not mistaken," said Volkmir, studying the scene intently, "that stretch of beach is along the coast east of Zagorbia. Yes, there! See that stream? And that lone stand of trees inland? Chad and I used to land there years back, didnít we Chad?"
"Yes, Master," said Chad, stepping back from the fire and glancing into the image cloud for the first time. "Chad row long way. Trees where we hid boat."
"Thatís no more than a dayís march east of the headland behind the city."
"But what can it mean?" Vahla wanted to know. "Whose army is it?"
"Whose army I know not, my dear-unless our friend Colinus here can discover that for us-but I suspect it means your brother, Valerius, is in for some unpleasantness. But letís see what else portends."
The image showed the boat sailing along parallel to the shore now, and Colinus busily counting the ships, his face hard with alarm and concentration. Suddenly, a shower of arrows fell about them, some thudding into the deck, some splashing along side, and one narrowly missing Colinus himself. Quickly, the craft turned and headed back out to sea, but two more flights reached them before they were out of range, a shaft from the last one piercing the helmsmanís right calf. As he fell, Colinus ran back to grab the tiller-the bar shoulder high on him which the wounded man had guided with his hip.
Back on shore, a group of armed men swarmed down the beach and in moments, two ships were launched in pursuit, their oars digging the black waters into phosphorescence under the brilliant moon. Large square sails dropped from their yards and the two galleys surged ahead, froth bubbling at their bows. Colinus watched them as he steered and ordered minor adjustments to the set of his own sail. Another flight of arrows was launched from the first ship, but it fell well short, and as Colinus left the loom of the land, the sea breeze freshened. His strange craft heeled, lifted its windward pontoon, and began to fairly fly across the waters. Spray dashed back into Colinusí face, and as he leaned back against the increasing pull of the tiller, his teeth bared in a feral grin.
Quickly, the pursuing craft lost ground and soon, the second of the two turned back. But the first kept on, hoping some mischance would yet bring them up with their prey. On and on they raced under the yellow moon, the ícatumaraní skipping along like a white stone, the oared galley walking the waters like some amphibious centipede, the gap between them widening steadily.
"Theyíll never catch him now," Vahla started to say, but before the words were out, the scene in the shimmering cloud shifted yet again, this time shooting forward across the rippled sea as if it were an arrow, and settled on a dark, sodden shape, a large tree trunk, awash in the black quickness of the sea. "Whatís that?" she shouted. "Oh, no!"
The view pivoted to show the onrushing catamaran. Vahla screamed. At the last instant, Colinus looked up as if he had heard her voice and their eyes locked across imaginary space. Then the pontoon hit and he was catapulted into the sea.
The cloud screen went blank. Where an instant before was life and tragedy, now there was only roiling smoke. Vahla looked about wildly, the familiar surroundings registering as if she herself had just been dropped into the room. Then she saw Volkmir. He had collapsed, and lay sprawled in the chair like a carelessly flung doll.
"Volkmir!" she yelled, reaching out and lifting him. His eyes were rolled back but he still had breath, a feeble wind that rattled in his throat. "Volkmir! Come back! Are you all right? Volkmir!"
The mageís eyelids fluttered and his head shook. He inhaled sharply, then groaned. His eyes focused on her. "Are you all right?" she asked, more softly this time.
"You must go," he said, his voice little more than a whisper.
"Go? Go where? To warn Valerius?"
"You will know."
"Know what?" she asked. "What does this mean?"
Volkmir shook his head. His breathing was a bit steadier now. He lay back in the crook of her arm and closed his eyes as if to sleep. But she would have none of that and gave him a little shake.
"What do you mean?" she insisted.
"I donít know," he said.
"But you must," she stammered, "Youíre the mage!"
Volkmir chuckled, a raspy, hollow sound like the scraping of dry leaves. "Vahla, my dear," he said, "youíve been with me for nearly a year now. Have you not yet seen that Iím a fraud?"
"But..." said Vahla, indicating the swirling cloud that still hung above the fire.
"A parlor trick, merely. Like most of my magic. Anyone can make the smoke. What it shows is the Godsí will. I do no more than observe."
"No," said the mage, "itís true. I can advise you no better than your own heart. Probably less well. All I know is that you are called, and that you must go. The moon was full in that image. That means you have just over a week. Chad will guide you."
Vahla stared down at him, her mouth searching for words.
"Look!" said Volkmir. "At the cloud."
Vahla looked back. The surface had cleared again, showing a clear darkness now, and a tiny, distant light. As she watched, a figure entered from near at hand and walked slowly towards the light. It was Volkmir. Quickly she looked down at the old man in her arms. He was dead.