Daerus presented himself promptly in his father’s study at the appointed hour on the following morning, as he had been bid. When he tapped politely on the door and heard his Grace invite him to enter, he had been forced to suppress a grin at the thought of doing so. Honesty compelled him to admit to himself privately that Lord Loraed had some justification for believing his heir to be distressingly frivolous. Even now, bent upon voluntarily putting boyhood idleness aside in favor of manly work, he had some trouble assuming the sober mein he knew his father expected.
He stepped inside with all the quiet assurance of the next Grand Duke of Shae and crossed the room to bow deeply to his father, seated behind a massive and ornately carved desk. “Your servant, sir,” he said briefly.
“Lord Daerus,” his Grace approved his son’s punctuality with a nod. “Of course, you are acquainted with our steward, Jeraed.”
“Indeed,” Daerus said, with his own brief nod for that excellent functionary. “It has been some years since I have seen you, Jeraed. How do you do?”
“I am very well, my Lord,” Jeraed replied in the lugubrious tones that he and his sister had always found both annoying and amusing. “And, I should say, welcome home, sir.”
Daerus could not resist grinning. “Well, you should say it but it will make no odds if you do not.”
“Daerus!” Lord Loraed barked from behind his desk.
His Grace sighed. “Never mind. Be seated, gentlemen,” he said then, taking firm control of the meeting. “Jeraed has been supervising the repairs and the planting since the end of the Interval, Daerus. I must say, I am relieved that this Time begins in the spring. It means we shall not be required to go hungry this winter, for which I am thankful.”
Daerus had taken one of the two comfortable wingback chairs before the desk and cast a quick glance around the room. He had always rather liked his father’s study, even if he had always felt slightly out of place within its walls. It served the dual purposes of administrative office and library, and was a dark, sober apartment full of books, tapestries and carpets that soaked up all sounds. Everything about it encouraged a quiet, studious air and, even though he had never been either quiet or studious, Daerus felt himself at ease there.
Jeraed sat on the very edge of his chair — almost as if he felt it would not be becoming in him to appear too much at ease, Daerus thought irreverently — straightened his spine and commenced his report. “Indeed, my lords, the timing of the Gaerud seems to have been very much to our advantage. Most of the tenants have been able to repair their own farmsteads with very little need of assistance in materials or manpower from the estate. They all seem very eager to get that bit done and get out into the fields, you know,” he glanced down at some documents he held.
“Here on the main estate, we had decided that it would not do to let any of the fields lie fallow during this first real growing season since the end of the last Time, for we are very much in need of the crops. Our stores were become frighteningly low,” and here Jeraed clucked in dismay, “but I believe by harvest you will be pleased to see them largely replenished. And you will be particularly pleased I know, Lord Daerus, to know that the workmen have completed the repairs to the stables most expeditiously.”
And with that, the steward’s shoulders slowly slumped, as if he were expecting to be sadly berated for dereliction of duty by a harsher taskmaster than his father was likely to be. But before his Grace could speak, Daerus asked, “Tell me, Jeraed, how did the farmers fare during the Interval? Did you find any difficulty in keeping order here?”
“Oh, they were nervous, my lord, there is no denying that the farmers were very nervous about the Change,” Jeraed said with another cluck. “I believe our most excellent Phoebus served us well there, for he made sure to make himself available to all and rode about the estate with me, visiting the tenants to reassure them and to instruct them so that they would not give way to Chaos.”
“We were very fortunate to have a TimeKeeper of such high status to serve us here at Shae during such a time,” added his Grace.
Daerus nodded. “That is very good to know. I had feared to find that perhaps Shae had fallen into the kind of endless brawl that infected the capital during the Interval, and am glad to know those fears were unfounded. Emperor Kaerkas had the greatest difficulty in maintaining order, although … erm … ”
“Although, if the truth be known, he did not try … is that what you were meaning to say?” asked Lord Loraed.
“Well, yes, sir,” Daerus replied with a short laugh.
“I will not pretend that I have ever had much of an opinion of Kaerkas of Ormaer,” his father said candidly. “Praise the Phoenix that Saeros is now on the throne of Tamaeranda.”
“However, we did not gather here to discuss politics, did we?” And with that, Lord Loraed rose heavily to his feet.
“Do we ride out this morning, sir?” Daerus asked rather eagerly. It did not seem to him that one could run an estate the size of the Grand Duchy of Shae without going about among the tenants regularly.
“Have you not had enough of the saddle, my boy?” his Grace asked in a rather heavy handed attempt at archness. “As it happens, we do not ride out today. Rather, we must review the accounts to ensure that we can meet our obligations to the farmers.” Correctly interpreting the look on Daerus’ face, he added, “Not, I admit, as entertaining as taking to horse but it is a regular part of the task of running the estate and we must not shirk that duty simply because we find it distasteful.”
“Yes, sir,” Daerus said meekly.
By the time father and son were ready to join Lady Mara for midmeal, Daerus felt that he had a reasonable grasp of his father’s accounts and an earnest wish to never see them again. “There should be some limit to the amount of time any man should have to spend sitting in an office doing sums,” he told his mother as he took his place at table.
“Oh dear. I do hope that you have not distressed your father, Daerus,” she said, as capable as always of finding something worrisome in his quips.
“Do not distress yourself, my lady,” Lord Loraed said calmly. “Surely, you must be used to your children’s ways by now. For myself, I was quite pleased with the boy’s grasp of estate matters. It would appear that he is not quite as mutton-headed as he would have us believe.”
At that, Daerus laughed heartily. “Thank you, sir!”
Lady Mara cast a somewhat timid glance at the two gentlemen before venturing another question. “And do you return to his Graces office this afternoon?”
“I think not,” Daerus replied, looking speculatively at his demanding sire. “If you have no objection, sir, I should like to inspect the repairs to the stable and perhaps ride out to have some words with the nearer tenants.”
Lord Loraed returned his heir’s gaze for a few moments in silence, a tactic that was used to make a younger Daerus fidget but only had the effect of making an older Daerus grin. “What you mean, I conjecture, is that you have had quite enough of being confined inside on such a fine day and would prefer a more agreeable way to spend the afternoon.”
“Why, how can you say so, your Grace?” he replied, falling into the insouciance that usually kept his conversations with his father from turning into harangues. “Indeed, I am hurt!”
This speech had the effect of disturbing the calm of his Grace’s expression, transforming it into a sardonic stare. “Are you?” was all that gentleman said.
“Was there some other chore that you particularly wished to share with me indoors this afternoon, sir?” he asked with a deference that was only slightly marred by his lingering grin. “I will confess that I am surprised that you have not yourself spoken of taking to horse, for I seem to recall that the administration of your estate used to involve a great deal of time on horseback before I left home.”
The silence that greeted that observation was deafening. Aware that his innocent remark had brought a deal of tension into the room, Daerus felt the grin sliding from his face as he watched his parents exchange a glance.
“Loraed does not ride out so much as he was used to, dear,” his mother finally said when it seemed that his father could not find his tongue.
“Indeed?” For some reason he could not quite fathom, he began to grow alarmed. “Have you been unwell, sir?”
“No, of course not,” Lord Loraed said, suddenly pushing back his chair and rising from the table. “Have my meal sent to me in the study.” This order was directed at Lady Mara, and with a brusqueness Daerus had never heard his father direct toward his mother, before his Grace stalked from the room.
Concerned, Daerus fixed an enquiring gaze upon his remaining parent. “Has he been unwell?” he asked her.
“Well, no more so than any man his age, you know,” she said. “He is more prone to aches and pains than he was when he was a younger man but that is only to be expected.”
This was not precisely a satisfactory answer. “Yes, Mama, but that is a poor explanation for what would keep Lord Loraed out of the saddle and well you know it,” he told her bluntly.
“Yes, but I do not know what is the matter, my dear,” she said fretfully. “Your father was used to ride out over the estate almost daily until that first High Sun. And even then, that first year, he rode out for as long as he was able before the heat made the activity impossible. Indeed, it seemed he would go out of his mind with having to remain indoors for so long. But sometime after that, when that first Great Dark was coming on, he simply stopped riding.”
“He stopped riding?” Daerus asked, frowning. “He just stopped?”
“Yes, and I was just as shocked as you seem to be now, dearest. Indeed, I could not imagine what had gotten into him and I implored him to tell me if he were ailing or in ill health. But, after a time, he seemed to get so angry about it that I had to refrain. He would tell me nothing,” she concluded, tears standing in her eyes.
Daerus could well imagine the scene. Lord Loraed was genuinely attached to his lady, as had always been apparent to his twin children, but his Grace was always testy about his own infirmity. None had ever seemed able to even discuss the subject with him except Dia, who had always baffled his Grace by refusing to be properly chastened by his set-downs.
“I see what it is, your Grace,” she had told him once. “You are determined to tell none of your ill health because you are anxious to see Daerus step into your shoes and mean to drive yourself into an early grave. Foolish beyond permission, Papa!”
“I have distressed you,” Lady Mara was saying now. “I am sorry! He did say that I should not worry my head about him, if that is of any comfort to you.”
“On the contrary, I find it completely alarming,” Daerus told her with a half smile. “To own the truth, ma’am, I was thinking of my sister and how well she seemed to handle my stubborn father when he fell into one of his ways over his own illnesses.”
Lady Mara smiled fondly at the memories his words conjured for her. “I suppose it is too soon to expect a visit from her Imperial Highness?”
“Much too soon,” he assured her. “Never mind, Mama. While I cannot aspire to Dia’s skill at persuading our father to have a care for his health, I can at least spare him a great deal of effort in the management of the estate now that I am come home. Perhaps all he really requires is rest.”
“Oh, do you think so?” she asked hopefully.
“I can try,” he told her cheerfully.
He left his mother in a tolerably good humor but he was not so easily reassured. He could not still his curiosity about why a man who had for thirty years spent the bulk of his time in a saddle should suddenly develop a distaste for the exercise. Lord Loraed was not so timid as to be easily discouraged, Daerus knew. His Grace was a rider of long standing, and so had been kicked, bitten, thrown and otherwise inconvenienced by his mounts on more than one occasion. Something extraordinary would need to have happened to have driven his father from the saddle permanently and Daerus meant to find out what that something had been.
Accordingly, after midmeal, he changed into riding dress and sauntered out to the stables.
It was another beautiful spring day and Daerus looked about him with that curious mixture of pleasure and dismay that no doubt afflicted many farmers in southern Tamaeranda at that season. The lovely, cloudless sky was very agreeable, of course, but the crops would fare very badly if the sunny blue skies were not occasionally punctuated by rain. Daerus considered the matter as he strolled along, absently staring at the verdant meadows surrounding the manor.
The grass was lush and green, for it was hardy and resilient. But Daerus knew that High Sun had been far enough along when the New Age had dawned so that the few days of showers they had had since would not be enough to repair the parched soil. He wondered what his father’s tenants were doing about that. How did a farmer water an entire field during a lengthy spell of dry weather? Did they even try? he asked himself, transferring his gaze to the sunny sky.
Absently, he became aware of a peculiar tingling sensation on his brow and he rubbed his forehead, his eyes still on the sky. Perhaps the farmers simply shrugged and prayed to the Phoenix for rain? He must remember to ask one of them. What a pity that one could not simply cause the weather to be wet when needed and fair when desired. Chuckling to himself, he lowered his eyes again as his destination came into sight.
The stables at Shae were not quite as imposing and elaborate as the Manor House itself, but the large, well-kept building meant the Shae horses lived as well as horseflesh could. Daerus and his sister had often speculated that the only reason their animals’ home was slightly less grand than the Manor was because Lady Mara had no doubt refused to sleep in the stables no matter how her lord had begged. Really, what a very good thing it is that Lord Loraed never knew how irreverent his children often were about their parents! he thought, still silently chuckling. But his father’s love of horses was perhaps his only eccentricity — another reason why it seemed so very odd that his Grace had suddenly stopped riding. Daerus, reminded of his errand, strolled toward the open stable doors.
“Nay, then, m’lord!” he heard a voice call from somewhere behind him. “Ye doan wanna be going in thar, sir!”
Daerus turned sharply at that familiar voice. “Baer!” he said with genuine pleasure. “Still alive, are you? How do you get on, old friend?”
Baer grinned his cheerful, toothless grin and took the hand Daerus offered after wiping it carefully on his tunic. “Ah, very well, sir, very well,” he said, pumping the young lord’s hand vigorously. “‘Tis a mighty good thing t’see ye, sir, and tha’s truth. But ye won’ be findin’ any o’ th’ horses in thar, sir, that ye woan!”
Daerus, who had retrieved his hand and was surreptitiously trying to regain the feeling in his fingertips, raised a brow at this. “Indeed?”
Baer shook his head and the glance he cast at the building behind him was filled with an oddly malevolent fear.
“I understood from Jaraed that the stables had been fully repaired,” Daerus said. “Why are not the horses housed there?”
“Las’ time his Grace paid a visit, he ordered ’em all brought outa the place, sir,” Baer said, after a short struggle with himself.
“Indeed?” Daerus said again. “Might I know why?”
This mild question merely increased the old retainer’s agitation. Baer opened and closed his mouth three or four times, while shifting from one foot to the other and looking around him at anything but his inquisitor. After another moment of silence, Daerus, now afire with curiosity, decided to push a bit further.
“Would this have anything to do with the reason why my father no longer rides?”
“Ye’ll think I’m gone crazy, tha’ ye will, sir, but I’m a-tellin’ th’ truth,” Baer began, as if that final question has caused a dam to burst. “We’d a mare foaled tha’ firs’ HighSun, a fine strappin’ colt was he, sir. We’d feared for ‘im, too, bein’ as ‘e was born at such a time but ‘e were a promisin’ one, and ‘is dam bore ‘im like a trooper. Only … I dunno wha’ happened, sir, and tha’s truth. His dam nursed ‘im like she should but we could all see as she din’ wan’ ‘im t’ touch her and when ‘e wasn’t at t’ tit, she stayed away from him, like. An’ then … ”
“Where is the colt now?” Daerus interrupted him.
Baer nodded toward the stables.
Daerus could not help himself. He laughed outright. “Do you mean to say there is only one horse housed in the entire building?” he asked.
“None other will go in thar, sir, and tha’s truth,” Baer assured him with quiet emphasis. “Last man that tried were ‘is Grace, and he ain’t been astride a horse since.”
That effectively banished Daerus’ amusement. “Indeed,” he mused, turning to cast a speculative glance at the building. Could it be that he was close to solving the mystery of his father’s sudden distaste for his favorite form of exercise? “Did his Grace ever say what had occurred in there?”
“Nay, sir,” Baer said with a shake of his head. “All ‘e said was tha’ we was t’take all the beasts outa th’ stable. So, we did an’ they seemed purty happy t’ be leavin’ it, too, sir. Except th’ stallion. ‘E would ‘na come out and thar wasn’t none of us as wanted t’ go in an’ get ‘im.”
“I see,” said Daerus. “Thank you, Baer.” And he turned around to face the stables once more.
“Sure and ye’ll not be goin’ in thar, sir!” Baer asked, alarmed.
But that was precisely what Daerus meant to do. “All will be well,” he told the groom gently, before he strolled toward the entrance. The bright sunshine dimmed as a cloud passed over the sun.
“Please, m’lord!” Baer said behind him.
But Daerus only dimly heard him, for his mind was racing with all he had just heard. Could it be that somehow this colt was affected because he had been foaled during an Interval? But how could that be? The cows and mares did not stop giving birth during an Interval, surely! His head still in a whirl, he stepped inside.
After the brightness of the outdoors, he was temporarily blinded by the darkness. Even before his eyes had adjusted, a bone chilling cold swept over him that he instantly recognized. Blinking rapidly to clear his vision, he stared while his heart began to pound.
Just inside the door to the stable, Lord Loraed had had a large track built so that the horses could be exercised during inclement weather and even in the midst of High Sun and the Great Dark. The area was perhaps as large as two full ballrooms and, in its precise center, there stood a huge swirling darkness that seemed to his imagination to be peopled by wailing, miserable souls and unseen tortures. Indeed, he seemed to hear a mournful howling coming from that darkness, a cry that spoke to him of a terrible, inhuman grief.
Phoebus, Daerus reached out with his thought for his old tutor, have you seen this?
Even moreso than your father and the grooms, I may not enter that place, my Lord, Phoebus calmly replied.
And, yet, I can? Daerus retorted.
Phoebus did not reply.
Daerus stepped further inside, aware that his brow was tingling again. He felt peculiarly torn, both repelled and attracted by the familiar cold darkness that had invaded the stable, and all the memories that sensation evoked. In spite of all the time he had spent mired in murky blackness at Kaerkas’ court, this was his first opportunity to observe it with his mind intact. He stared into that darkness now and felt it reach out to him, but it did not invade his body or rape his mind. His heartbeat slowed as remembered fear waned.
The vortex of darkness shifted and swirled, almost as if it were in pain. Daerus continued to walk toward it, aware somehow that he could master it, if he dared. Why should you wish to? he asked himself. For that matter, what was it? Why was it here, of all the places in the Empire? Should not this window into Chaos be visited upon Ormaer, as the home estate of Septha’s Chosen?
And yet, even as the questions chased each other through his mind, he grew still more at ease with whatever this swirling blackness was that had consumed his father’s stables. The longer he stood there, the more he felt himself infused with a curious power that was unlike anything he had ever experienced before. Even when he was completely under the domination of Septha, even when he commanded the full power of the God of Chaos whenever he raised his hand, he had not felt this awful, supreme potency. With that awareness came another, and Daerus realized that he was standing on hallowed ground. His brow began to burn.
By now, as he felt his mind and will expand beyond anything he had ever before achieved, he also felt another presence in the stable. The colt, he recalled. Except that the animal that emerged from the clouds of darkness swirling before him could not by any stretch of fancy be called a colt. He was large and powerful, almost like the huge war horses Aerandos bred for battle, and his glossy coat was completely black with no mark on him. Daerus had no notion what it was about this magnificent beast that had frightened the Shae grooms so, but he did not have leisure to consider the matter just then. He stepped into the darkness and the burning of his brow intensified as he concentrated on the yawning vortex that now surrounded him.
Dimly, he could hear thunder rumbling outside the stable.
Something seemed to be wrenching at him, trying to grip his spirit and rip it away into the black void with the terrible, sorrowful wailing but Daerus, guided by some unknown instinct, never faltered. The horse snorted and Daerus could hear the rapid hoof beats as the animal frantically ran around the track.
And then, suddenly, he could see again. He had no idea what he had just done, but the black cold was gone and the wailing that had accompanied it had faded.
Trembling with an abrupt exhaustion, Daerus stumbled over to one of the support beams and leaned against it to keep from falling. Eyes closed, he took several deep breaths and listened as the hoof beats slowed. The animal snorted again. For several moments, there was a blessed silence in the stable.
Presently, Daerus was roused by a tentative touch on his shoulder. He opened his eyes and straightened when he found the massive horse beside him, gently nuzzling his shoulder. “Well, boy?” he said wearily.
The horse neighed.
Daerus chuckled and reached up to slap his neck with rough affection. “You are in need of a name, are you not? I believe I shall call you Nasaeth,” he told the horse.
Nasaeth nodded vigorously as if in approval.
Chuckling again, he looked around. Really, it was a beautiful stable complex and much too well outfitted to be wasted so! “Do you suppose we might be able to persuade the rest of the herd to come back inside?” he asked, referring to both the animals and the groomsmen, although he assumed that Nasaeth could not have known that.
Nasaeth snorted and tossed his mane.
“You may be right,” Daerus said whimsically, fully aware that he was conversing with a horse. “But, for now, you at least are comfortable here. For tomorrow … well, we shall see.”
Nasaeth whinnied and trotted over to a stall, while Daerus made his way to the door. Outside, he could hear voices raised in alarm but he could not yet trouble himself about them. He felt oddly hesitant to leave the animal there, and he turned his head and looked him in the eye. “I shall return,” he promised.
Nasaeth snorted again.
Smiling, Daerus strolled out of the stables and into a gentle spring rain.