By Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick
"Nightfire acts as arbiter whenever a wizard is accused of breaking Bera's Unwritten Laws. He alone determines guilt or innocence and passes sentence. In the case of capital offenses, Brack also observes the proceedings and carries out any death sentence."
— Weard Sigrath Brennan, Models of Power and Authority
Weard Katla Duxpite opened the door to Brack's main library, where the wizard sat writing vigorously, his hands shaking.
She was a slim woman with curly brown hair and green eyes. She was plain and bookwormish but had exited her thirties more gracefully than her brother Sven would, with nearly unwrinkled skin.
"You wanted to see me, master?"
Brack looked up from his work. He looked like he had aged ten years in the last two-month season, and he had never looked a day younger than seventy for as long as Katla had known him. His frame looked brittle enough to shatter in a strong wind, and the lines of his face made Nightfire look young by comparison.
"Have a seat, Katla." He set down the pen as she took the chair on the other side of his desk. "I have been called to meet with the Delegates. They have heard much about Mardux Takraf from the Hue, none of it good."
Katla frowned. The Hue was the gobbel tribe that had claimed the Morden Moors as its territory until Sven had driven them out to found his Protectorates, long before he decided to become Mardux.
Brack nodded, his expression severe. "You can see why it might take me some time to placate them."
"What will you tell them?"
He shrugged. "Mardux Takraf will soon anger his fellow reds, and someone will defeat him next Duxfest."
"Sven won every duel with ease. I do not think his enemies will have the stomach to challenge him next year."
"I agree. However I cannot exactly tell the Delegates that." Brack smiled knowingly, but the tension never left his eyes.
"It is a delaying tactic."
"Yes. This gives us a year to find another way to topple Mardux Takraf from the Chair without breaking the Law."
"And if we cannot invent one, will the Delegates mobilize the Mass to defend their territory?"
"The Mass only attacks, and it only attacks with overwhelming numbers. The Drakes know the limits of Mar magic." Brack stood up and took a fine red cloak from a hook on the wall.
Katla allowed herself a small hope. Brack spoke about his meetings with the Delegates often, but he had never let her meet them. "Are you taking me with you?"
Brack slipped into the hisses of the Drake common tongue. "Yee Ka Lah is not yet ready to meet the Delegates."
"Stop that, Yee Roh Yeh. Yee Ka Lah no longer needs to practice."
"Yee Ka Lah is still a Mar. To speak to the Delegates, you must prove to them that you are a Yee."
Katla resisted the urge to roll her eyes. The Mass assigned Drake names to everyone and expected them to respond to these names, and this included any Mar the Delegates had reason to discuss. All names had three syllables — a tribal or racial designation followed by a two-part personal name. Brack was Yee Roh Yeh, and she was Yee Ka Lah. The Drakes called the Mar the Yee, so all Mar names began with that designator.
Brack liked to juxtapose the two names for the Mar. The Mar were proud, ruthless and savage, he claimed, but the Yee were humble, polite and eager to serve the Delegates.
"If Yee Roh Yeh does not think Yee Ka Lah is ready to face the Delegates, you should go to them, instead." Katla returned to the Mar language. "Now, if I have proven that I can speak Drake, could we please continue this conversation in a language that does not feel like I am gargling snails?"
Brack didn't acknowledge her question, but he did switch languages. "Never fear. I will bring you to the Delegates as soon as we have neutralized the Mardux." The old wizard adjusted the cloak on his shoulders and returned to the desk.
If indeed they even exist, Katla thought. Brand certainly never believed in them.
She met his eyes with a hard stare of her own. "I am your only apprentice. You have named me the successor to your post. Why do you continue to shield me from the Delegates?"
"You will meet the Delegates soon enough, Katla, but this is not the time."
"I have heard that too often since I became your apprentice."
"Do you recall how unprepared you were to face the reality of a Drake civilization when I first brought you here to Tue Yee?"
Katla lowered her eyes. It had been astonishing, seeing the Drake city of Tue Yee for the first time, and learning just how civilized the Mar's eternal foe really was.
It was not that long ago ...
She had been a junior administrator climbing the ranks to become Nightfire's right-hand weard and, eventually, his replacement. Whatever Sven's aspirations, she had intended to be Nightfire's successor.
Only one of many possible paths to the fulfillment of my oath.
But despite Sven's mistakes at Tortz, Nightfire began to lean more heavily on his star pupil. In her research, Katla had discovered the truth of a few rumors, and when she approached Nightfire with a plan, he had sent her off without even his trademark weighing glance.
Now, deep in the Fens of Reur, she began to second-guess her motives for choosing another path and agreeing to apprentice herself to the red-cloaked figure before her, blindly following wherever he led.
Nightfire had said Brack may be too empathetic to the force he was trying to control, that the power to control the Drakes might be going to his head. The stories she had read said Brack controlled the Mass, which Nightfire had not dismissed despite refusing to answer her.
At Nightfire's Academy, she had been a fourth-degree with a suite of rooms to herself and three classes to teach. Out here, no shelter existed. She was covered in bug bites and the humidity made her hair stick uncomfortably to the nape of her neck.
They had walked and canoed for five days across rivers and muck. She dulled her marsord daily clearing a path for them, and Brack spoke only in the evenings. She asked him when they would arrive at their destination. His lips only twitched, and he wouldn't answer. She was about to refuse to do any more work for him when he pressed past her purposefully. She saw the smoke, then, over a rise near the horizon. She heard the humming of raucous conversation long before they found the source of the smoke.
It sounds like a city. But there should be nothing here. And that hum sounds like conversation, but those are not words, I think.
They topped the rise, and Brack stopped so she could see the town. A hundred paces away, rotting boards and thatch created some kind of road on top of the muddy ground. It looked like some kind of market community, with hundreds of thatched-roof stalls selling all sorts of things, and a dozen great buildings near the center. Giant, stinking bonfires kept bugs away from the marketplace. But the most astonishing thing was what populated the place.
Stocky, tusked gobbels. Scrawny, long-limbed ravits. She saw an ochre, a sickening pile of muck that somehow had life. A giant winged insero, towering over the stalls, eyes the size of her entire body dominating its triangle face. And dozens of species of guer, the reptilian species that came in a scary variety of sizes and strengths. Drakes! A whole army of Drakes! She nearly dropped her marsord as she prepared to defend herself, but her companion gripped her arm tightly, his fingers like ropey tendons.
"Civilization comes from all directions," he said. "The Mar never understood that."
"These are the creatures of Domin," she hissed at him, afraid they would hear her. She quelled it, pulling her arm away from his.
This is why I followed Brack here — the path of my patroness, Dinah.
"Why is Domin any worse than Seruvus? Seruvus makes slaves. What does Domin do that is any worse than that? The gods do not show up unless you call on them, Weard Duxpite."
"Why did you bring me here?"
His hand encompassed the whole bazaar. "This is Tue Yee — the most important spiny-tailed guer city in the Tue territory. It is a major hub for trade between the other territories." He stroked the deep lines on his face. "What do you know of the Mass?"
"Nothing," she lied, knowing that Brack was said to believe in such nonsense. He had to, though. His brown eyes bored into her green ones, and she wavered.
"Nothing, she says." His cough sounded like a laugh. "Not even the lies taught you as a child?"
"They are lies," she said, steeling herself for what he would say. "They must be, if they never told of this True Tee." Her hand swept the bazaar.
"Tue Yee." He snorted and turned away, leading her into the market. "The Mar have the Mass to thank for their freedom. In the dark days when the Gien Empire ruled Marrishland, even the mightiest Mar wizards were ground beneath imperial heels."
A couple of short, scaly guer looked up at them as they passed and bared their teeth at the two wizards, hissing. Katla flinched, but Brack hissed back. An apparent stand-off continued for several seconds before Katla recognized it as a conversation in a language she had never heard.
"Through it all," Brack continued once the lizard-like guer had returned to their own business, "the Drakes retained their independence by fiercely defending their swamps. Rural Mar had their freedoms, too, but the Gien Empire never laid claim to these lands, nor to the dead swamps of the lost Duxy of Despar. It is a pity, really, that the damnens still refuse to send emissaries here even after all these centuries."
"The Giens regarded the Drakes as monsters," Katla said. "They were unworthy of conquest and only fit to die. Sending armies into uninhabitable swamps was a waste of their time. This history is written. The Drakes damn themselves whenever they attack a town."
Brack's eyes burned, but he kept quiet, feigning disinterest. Katla wanted to scream at his fake complacency, but she kept her patience.
They passed a spiny-tailed — a short guer with two well-muscled lower legs and two long arms, its most prominent feature was its long, thick tail covered in small, stinging spines — Katla cringed at the grotesque proportions of the creature. It seemed to be engaged in a fierce discussion with a pair of ravits in the same hissing, spitting manner that Brack had used earlier.
Brack strode by, acknowledging Katla's surprise. "The Drakes have a common language, as the Mar do. They are not monsters, and neither am I for dealing with them."
"You seem as much at ease killing Mar as they are," she observed.
He only acknowledged the barb with a small smile. "You may suffer more surprises while you are here. Many Drakes speak Mar more fluently than many of your rural mundane do." He spoke louder as she opened her mouth. "Not many Mar have ever considered the possibility of negotiating with Drakes. In the days before the Giens arrived, most of the Mar who knew anything of the Drake language were considered mapmakers. Some mapmakers had even mastered different dialects."
"I am no mapmaker, but I will learn their languages," Katla said firmly, making the quick decision. She was, after all, here to learn what she could from this wizard.
"You will first learn their history with the Mar. The fall of the Gien Empire marked a revolution in these relations."
"Yes. Those who spoke Drake tongues were often those who lived on the fringe of Mar society, but not always. A few scholars collected knowledge of that sort, as you have learned. Nightfire has never had a reputation for discarding knowledge, however forbidden it might be. The Brack who preceded me was an avid scholar of the Drake languages when he was a young wizard."
"You are Brack the way Nightfire is Nightfire, then." Over hundreds of years, a name becomes a title — are not all of us weards named for the first wizard, Weard Darflaem? Nightfire is the title of the person who is the arbiter of law among weards.
"Yes." He touched the braided gold and silver ring on his finger. "Domin's Favor marks me as his successor. Brack learned to despise the Giens after he witnessed the Flasten Massacre."
He ignored the question. "It changed Brack, made him a hard, ruthless man who would stop at nothing to destroy those who opposed him. He organized a rebellion among his fellow wizards, which failed, before fleeing into the swamps. When he returned, it was with an army of Drakes at his back."
They entered a low building separated from the others. A fire already crackled in the hearth, a tall stack of peat to one side. Two chairs and a table were the only furnishings.
"Brack wanted to liberate Marrishland at any price," she said.
"He learned the Drakes' common tongue. He befriended the leaders of many of their tribes. It would be presumptuous to say he is the reason the Drakes united peacefully, but he was there the first time the Delegates met to discuss how to deal with the Gien problem. The Mass was the result of that first debate."
Brack nodded. "A delicate one forged in fear of the Gien invaders. Brack fanned that fear daily. He painted them as barbarians with powerful magic who would not rest until they had slain every Drake on the subcontinent. The Delegates' power grew as more tribes joined them out of fear of the Giens."
And then Domin came to him, Katla thought bitterly. Brack, a brilliant strategist, led what to the Gien mentality would be a sizable force to attack a northern town far from the capital. When the Giens committed a majority of their forces, Brack led the rest of the Drakes along the coast from the east, leveling every city in his path.
"His rebellion succeeded at an incredible cost to the Mass. The Drakes defeated the Giens and liberated the Mar. That is when matters got out of control. The Mar turned on their saviors, and Brack convinced his allies to leave Mar lands alone."
The Mar turned on the Drakes, monsters of the northern swamps. That was not surprising. But, then Brack would have had to convince them that the Mar were not Giens, despite what the Drakes must have seen as mass murder and betrayal.
"Many Mar and Drakes branded Brack a traitor, and someone surely would have killed him if the Delegates had not sheltered him. Many Drake tribes withdrew their support for the Delegates and went to war with the Mar. They caused a lot of unnecessary bloodshed that drove a wedge between Mar and Drakes, and even mapmakers stopped talking to the Drakes."
Katla stared at Brack's aged, wrinkled face. Everything he has just told me conforms with the histories as I know them. Out loud, she said, "That was centuries ago. What have you and your predecessors been doing since then?"
"Keeping it from happening again. We spread and reinforce the legend of the Mass to discourage expansion beyond the Fens of Reur. We seek out magocrats who are sympathetic, or who can be bought, to tell us when a threat to the Drakes is beginning to grow. When possible, we eliminate the threat before the Delegates ever hear of it. Our magocrat allies serve that function, too."
"Dux Feiglin is one of them."
A short nod. "Nightfire, too. Many more magocrats than you'd likely believe."
"A conspiracy." The word was bitter in her mouth.
Brack sat in a rocking chair and gave her a wry smile. "More like a delicate treaty forged in fear to prevent the Mass from eradicating the Mar." He waved at a chair on the other side of the fireplace.
They could invade. History tells of such incursions. The Mar had never stood a chance during these battles, yet the Drakes only rarely take a city. But widespread belief is that they are too stupid, little more than livestock, to take a city. If the Mass is real ...
Katla sat. "If the Mass could wipe out the Mar whenever they wished, why haven't they?"
"The tribes are no more united under the Delegates than the duxies are under the Mardux. The Delegates are a real political force, but they have limited control over the tribes who make up the Mass." Brack gave her a conspiratorial wink. "And that is my other duty — to keep them that way."
Katla lowered her voice. "You serve the Drakes among the Mar and the Mar among the Drakes."
"Both sides hate me for it, yes." Brack leaned forward and steepled his fingers. "As long as the Mar are weak, and the Drakes are not united, the uneasy peace persists. In the absence of a threat as powerful and aggressive as the Gien Empire, the Delegates cannot send the full power of the Mass against the Mar."
"And if one were to emerge?"
"Then we may have to choose between breaking the Unwritten Laws and the extinction of our entire civilization."
"If Tue Yee cannot prepare me for the Delegates, then take me to the Delegates. How else can I learn their ways?"
Brack shook his head. "This is not the time to introduce new faces to the Delegates. Besides, I could be gone for some time, and I need you to be my representative among the Mar in my absence. Dux Feiglin is our most cooperative ally. Convince him of the wisdom of overthrowing Mardux Takraf before the Delegates grow ... restless."
Katla chewed her lower lip thoughtfully for a moment. "It likely will not be as simple as duels for the Chair."
Brack smiled, but his eyes held deep sadness. "I am all too aware of that. The fire must find a way to keep burning."
"The fire will find a way," Katla promised.
Brack picked up his cane and took a few experimental steps, not even aiding himself with magic. "I will return here when I can."
Even though he could teleport with ease, he walked out of the library like a mundane Mar, leaning heavily on a cane.