“Necessary Evil” by Stephen J. Barringer
(EPUB | MOBI)

– 1 –

From Aryn Hold and the town of Arynfell, on the shore of Loch Alasdair, it was nearly a full day’s ride north to the mountain of Ben Carreg, where the house of the wizard Ash had been built. Tucked in a creek-carved fold of granite deep in the mountain’s flanks, the low sod-roofed cottage was hard to find, and impossible when morning’s gray mists drowned the tiny vale entirely. Visitors came rarely, and never without care or caution.

Which was why Mycroft MacAlasdair was so badly shocked when his daily practice with Ash’s scryglass, instead of its usual empty view of dull gray-green moorlands, showed a vision of his brothers riding lathered horses hard up the mountain’s slope and almost upon him. His stomach turned to ice. He should have known this day would come.

He didn’t want to go back to Arynfell. He couldn’t hate the village or its folk — he’d been born there, after all — but Ash’s house was more a home than the Hold had ever been. Even Mycroft’s weekly trips to Arynfell’s kirk for Taemas-service were made on Windsday rather than Sunday, to spare both himself and his family the inevitable awkwardness. Now, sitting atop the massive boulder at the vale’s edge that he privately called the watchstone and looking down at the mirror in his lap, he wondered with a sick feeling if Ash expected him to use magery against his own kin.

“Rotgut,” said Ash out of the empty air beside him.

Mycroft didn’t jump. Ash almost never used any real power, but he was childishly fond of tricks of illusion and thought-snatching, a quirk it had taken Mycroft months to become accustomed to. He bowed his blond head as Ash materialized at his side. “Master.”

Ash waved an irritated hand and peered forward, apparently at nothing; but Mycroft knew the old man saw the approaching riders as well as he did or better, and without benefit of the glass. “Don’t fret, boy. I don’t propose to let some ignorant highland louts deprive me of my pupil before time.”

“With all due respect, Master,” said Mycroft, “that’s no’ for you to decide.” He turned to face Ash, blue-green eyes meeting pale gray. “If my father commands my presence, I must go. I cannot do aught else and remain true to my clan.”

“Magefolk have no clan,” muttered Ash. He folded his arms. Mycroft looked down at his knotted hands and tried to force them to relax, without success.

They could hear the horses now, blowing and clopping as they came up the hidden path. When the first one rounded the corner, the rider, a big red-haired man in a heavy green-black tartan and kilt, looked up to see Mycroft and Ash perched on the watchstone. Blued-steel eyes widened in astonishment.

Mycroft forced a smile. “Hullo, Toran.”

Toran didn’t smile back. “That’s yourself, then? For true and real?” He nudged the piebald gelding forward. “No glamours or shadowshows? Just waiting on the chance we’d ride up?” His gaze shifted to Ash, and hardened further. “Well, old stoat, I see the Nine havnae graced ye wi’ your fate yet.”

Disdaining to answer, Ash looked past Toran as the second rider came up. The chill in his eyes thawed slightly. “Iaen.”

Even Ash, who disliked most people and only seemed to tolerate Mycroft, usually found it hard to be rude to Iaen; the middle MacAlasdair son had been the only brother to inherit their long-dead mother’s sunny temperament. But none of that cheer was in evidence now. Iaen’s handsome face was drawn and pale, his flickering smile to Mycroft more reflex tic than greeting.

The chill in Mycroft’s stomach suddenly changed shape. This wasn’t about him at all. He put aside the scryglass and slid down off the watchstone, pulling his dark green cloak around him as he strode to his brothers’ side. He looked up at Toran. “What’s wrong?”

Toran opened his mouth, then closed it. Iaen let his breath out unsteadily. “It’s Caitryn, Mycroft. She — she — ” His face twisted up as if a fist were crumpling it from within, and his shoulders shook.

“Four days ago,” said Toran, voice rougher than fatigue or loathing could make it, “Caitryn collapsed while she was helping bring in one of the flocks. She’s lain unwaking ever since, slipping deeper and colder by the day, and none of the herbwives’ balms or simples have done the slightest good.” He looked at Iaen, who had buried his face in his hands, then turned back to Mycroft. “The Thane MacAlasdair now summons ye both to Aryn Hold, to perform such acts of healing as ye may, in the hope to save Caitryn Kilbarron’s life.”

“No,” said Ash without even hesitating.

It took Mycroft a moment to understand. He turned unbelievingly upon the wizard. “What?”

Beneath straggly white brows, Ash’s gray eyes were fierce and unhappy. “I am no subject of the Thane or of the King of Arda. I do not leave this vale for any command or entreaty.” He glared at Toran, who had put his hand to the hilt of the great claymore protruding over his shoulder. “And if you draw that sheepsticker, boy, you’ll find out just why they’ve never tried to make me a subject.”

Muscles jumped in Toran’s jaw, but he took his hand away from the claymore’s hilt. It did not do to attack a wizard who saw you coming. Iaen sat slumped on his horse, not even seeming to pay attention.

“Toran — Iaen — ” Mycroft moved back, to stand between his brothers and the wizard. “I’ll go. I’ll do what I can.” He twisted to meet Ash’s gaze over his shoulder. “I’ll need some of the texts on physic. And an herbal.”

Ash stood motionless a moment, then turned. In the turning, he seemed to blur. Mycroft blinked, suddenly unsure what he had been looking at; when he focused again, Ash was gone.

“Lady of Mercy, but I hate when he does that,” Toran growled. He glared at Mycroft. “Best not try any such tricks yourself, brother.”

Mycroft kept his voice level. “I’ve yet to want to, Toran, and I rather doubt I could. Magery’s not as powerful as wizardry — Ash can twist the very light itself not to fall upon him; all I can do is cloak my presence in men’s minds, and that only if they’re not especially attuned to me. Close kin, already angry with me? Ye’d probably no’ even notice if I tried.”

Toran’s eyes narrowed, as if suspecting mockery. Iaen sighed. “Ignore him,” he told Mycroft. “He’d no wish to come anywhere near this place. But we’d naught else left.” He paused, staring at his younger brother with a look Mycroft had never seen before and couldn’t interpret. “Can ye help her, Mycroft? Truly?”

Mycroft spread his hands. “I make no promises ’til I see her, Iaen. But if there’s aught I can do, I will.”

“Mycroft is a true Clansman.” Ash’s voice emerged from empty air a moment before he himself did. Toran and Iaen both started; only exhaustion kept the horses from spooking. Ignoring them, Ash handed three volumes, bound together by a leather strap, to his apprentice. “He will never betray a friend,” the wizard went on, not taking his eyes from Mycroft. “He will never abandon one in need. He will never back down from a noble fight.

“And like all Clansmen, those traits will get him killed.”

This time the vanishing wasn’t marked even with a blur.

– 2 –

They camped for the night in a dell Toran knew from his hunting, dining on dried salt mutton, hard wrinkled apples, and twin skins of wine and water. Mycroft waved away the wine, pleading the need for a clear head. Normally both brothers would have made mock of him for such asceticism — Toran scoffingly, Iaen affectionately — but Iaen only fetched the waterskin without a word. Which in itself was enough to tell Mycroft how afraid and desperate they were. They ate in a silence broken only by the fire’s crackling, the star-strewn dark stretching vastly overhead.

“I should have married her,” said Iaen abruptly. Chin in his hands, he stared into the fire. “Damn Pastor Connor and the Saints, I should have. Stand before the Druids, offer blood within the Circle for the Hunter and the Moon — why didn’t I?”

“Because any Kilbarron past his Oath-day would slaughter ye on sight,” Toran growled, “before you got a chance to say aught to any of their Druids. And whose fault is that, uh?”

“It’s no one’s fault,” said Mycroft, sharp enough to surprise himself. But this was far too old a scar to pick at now. “There’s too much stubbornness on all sides to lay blame here. Cait could have had herself baptized Ascensionite any day she chose. Besides — Angus Kilbarron would hate you for stealing his daughter’s heart whatever your faith, Iaen.”

“Aye, the true highlander way.” Iaen snorted, then blinked. “By the Nine, did I just laugh? Ah, Mycroft, I’ve missed ye.” He found a smile. “Why do ye never come to visit? Does Ash wall you up when you’re not at study?”

“I’m…never not at study, really,” Mycroft evaded. “Almost every moment has its lesson, in magery. The books are only a part of it — ”

“Then you could study in the Hold as well as anywhere,” Toran cut him off. “Da’s more than half of that mind himself. Kin should stand together in times like these.” He regarded Mycroft’s blank look, and sighed. “And I should ha’ kenned as much…Ash told ye naught.”

“Told me naught of what?”

Toran leant forward, the fire painting his craggy face in stark ruddy light. “Word has it the Vhalanskjr are readying this summer for more raids — both Vanheimr and Rakkesgarder, this time. If King Hugh doesnae Call the Clans within the fortnight, I’ll go prentice to Ash myself.”

Mycroft frowned. It was true — Ash almost never told him of events beyond the vale — but he had not thought Ash would keep secret something like this. With all the passions, grudges and feuds that regularly seethed between Clans, a Calling was as like as not to trigger war within the Kingdom before the mustered Clansfolk could face any foe without. Ash claimed to know little of Clan ways and care less, but Mycroft had never known the wizard to be genuinely ignorant of anything important.

“Mayhaps he simply didnae wish to fret ye,” offered Iaen, with a concerned look.

Toran snorted. “Mayhaps he was busy wondering, ‘why do stars twinkle?’ and clean forgot.”

“The latter’s more likely,” Mycroft admitted, deadpan. Iaen laughed, and even Toran offered a grudging chuckle.

– 3 –

They rode into Aryn Hold’s main courtyard as the mists were burning off the loch. On the steps leading up to the Hold’s great oaken doors stood Gareth, the MacAlasdair of MacAlasdair, Thane of Arynfell, his tartan cloaking him against the wind. His red hair had begun to wisp and recede, Mycroft saw, and he’d allowed his beard to grow longer as if to balance it. He nodded awkwardly at Mycroft. “Boy.”

“Your lordship.” Mycroft slid off Iaen’s horse and knelt, ducking his head, then rose quickly and looked straight at his father. It wasn’t something he did much, and Gareth blinked. “We’ve no time for wrangling, Da. Where’s Caitryn?”

“I — ” Gareth’s mouth worked as if he had more to say, but Mycroft held his gaze, pale blue-green against harder green. He wasn’t the boy he had been, and there was more at stake now than a third son’s disruptive dreams versus a father’s clan pride. Yet he was more discomfited than pleased to see his father finally close his eyes and turn away.

“She’s in the Hightower,” Gareth muttered. “Come.” He trudged back into the Hold. Mycroft, Iaen, and Toran exchanged uneasy glances and followed.

Mycroft hadn’t been in the Hold for over a year, but he’d been sure the grand oak doors and high stone ceilings were larger than they seemed now to be. The corridors were eerily empty; Mycroft was used to the cheerful chatter of Clansfolk, servants and visitors, and now they hastened through halls gone dark and silent — by decree, or fear? An unknown sickness incurable by Pastor Connor was sure to revive ancient terrors of plague…For a dizzying moment Mycroft wondered what he would do if it was a true plague, or some new sickness. He rehearsed the specifics in his mind. Rosemary and Nine’s-foil for pneumachia, willowbark for aches, acorveth steeped in boiling water for deathboils…

At the door to the Hightower’s stairwell, Gareth confirmed his speculation by putting out a hand to stop Toran. “No.” Mycroft paused, and Gareth’s eyes met his, unhappy but unflinching. “Until ye’ve told us summat more than we ken now, the Clan Heir does not go in that room. Nor do I.”

It was Mycroft’s turn to search for words, find none, and turn away. He couldn’t disagree. Plague was no respecter of honor, courage, or blood. To his credit, Toran looked equally unhappy, but made no move to leave their father’s side.

Iaen had continued on, and Mycroft followed him upwards, pulling his cloak about him in the chill of the spiraling stairwell. Arrowslits to his left showed the land falling away outside. At the third door, left open a crack, Mycroft paused and ran his mind through the meditations of bodily integrity. Subtle energies coursed through his system, heightening the natural protections of a healthy life against illness. Armored as well as he might be, he slipped inside.

On a bed beneath the window, Caitryn lay stretched out still and silent, pretty face pale and thin against the dark woolen quilt. Iaen sat by the bed on a stool, gently stroking her unmoving hand. Mycroft swallowed and moved to his side. “How is she?”

“A little worse. Every time, a little farther away. A little colder.” Iaen’s voice was soft and hoarse, steady only for lack of breath. “For the Blessed Saint Seralyne Rhaesse the Redeemer, Mycroft, do something. Please.”

“Get out.”

Iaen blinked and looked up. “What?”

“Get out.” Mycroft made his voice as hard as possible, but did not try to keep his own pain out of it. “I cannae work with you in this room, Iaen. I need to go deep, and I need to go wide open. Trying to do that wi’ you about right now, the pain you’re in — it’d be listening for a cricket while the clan pipers blared in my ear. Do you follow?”

Iaen shook his head, then pushed himself to his feet. “No,” he said heavily. “But I’ve no need to. What ye need, ye have it.” He moved to the door, paused, turned back. “I’ll see Da gives ye what ye need, too, no strife. Oath on it.”

Mycroft nodded, already flipping through one of the books as he sat. “First thing, send up one of the herbwives, whoever’s worked upon her. Now.” He didn’t watch Iaen leave. Checking each page, he tested the signs of illness against the book.

Pulse slow, too slow, but steady. No fever. Skin and lips dry, but not parched. Mycroft skinned Caitryn’s eyelid back and watched as the hazel-ringed pupil contracted: normal response to light, then. Color pale, but even. His puzzlement grew. The only symptom seemed to be that deadly chill, and nothing in the book said anything about a plague that induced only sleep and chill with no other signs.

A gaunt, gray-capped face poked in at the door, narrowing its dark eyes at him. “So ye’ve finally deigned to make yourself of some use then, eh?” The woman came in and straightened to her full, surprising height, arms folded and mouth pursed sourly. “I’ve yet to see the wizard whose spells were worth a fart in a rainstorm. What’s Ash got to say about this, hm? What’s all your fancy training got to say about this?”

“He’d ask you the same as I would, Mistress Sairet.” Mycroft had to smile, though it was thin and strained. “What you’ve used so far, and what effect it’s had.”

“Effect? Effect?” Sairet’s voice rose to a hoarse shout, then cracked. “Ye can the effect, for all the good the simples have done. Willowbark, flameheather tea, we even tried a feverfew infusion for what use that was, she was never fevered at all — ” She leant on the stone wall as if falling against it and put one hand to her brow. “Spoonfuls of beef broth and water twice a day. That’s all that’s done aught.”

Mycroft steadied his breathing, feeling cold settle once more in his gut. Lord Saint Andor, Prince of Battle, he prayed, lend me courage. By the Nine, he loathed being afraid. “Thank you, Mistress. Now I ken what I’ve to do.” He turned to look at her levelly. “I need to be alone for this.”

“Don’t trust us with your wizardly secrets, boy?” Sairet muttered, but she was already halfway to the door. Mycroft stared at the floor, not wanting her to know he’d seen the tears in her eyes. Love of Caitryn? Shame at her own failure? Most likely both, he supposed. But it didn’t matter, and it was none of his business anyway.

He took Caitryn’s hand once more. Closed his eyes. And with three deep, slow breaths, he woke the Sight.

He opened his eyes upon a different room. The ancient stones glowed with soft reddish light, and the wood of Caitryn’s bedframe bore traces of the greenish-brown elemental energies that had once enlivened the tree it had come from. Caitryn herself shone in an aura of whorling color, a rainbow shrouding her body and showing the currents within…but that radiance was dim and chill, the currents slow and sluggish. Mycroft bent closer to her, following each current to study it.

He frowned. For all their lassitude and weakness, the patterns of the lifeflow seemed unaffected. There was none of the disruption that was the mark of sickness: no blockages in lungs or the great vessels of the torso, no fever-hues in the brain, no knots or flares that would signify a malign growth, no clouds of gathering contagion waiting to spring across into another host. That, at least, was good news. Whatever was killing Caitryn — and it was killing her; from the ebb of her lifeflow, she would be dead within another day or two if nothing was done — it was no threat to anyone else.

But he could tell nothing more from this perspective. Mycroft squared his shoulders and took another deep breath. His stomach cramped. He had only done this twice before, both times under Ash’s guidance, and never with the purpose he intended now. His own death was only the first of several hideous possible consequences, should this go wrong.

But this woman was his brother’s beloved.

Mycroft closed his eyes, let his body slump, and sprang his spirit free of his flesh. With the Sight, he looked down on himself and Caitryn; his own body’s aura shone dim now, the majority of its energies invested into his projected essence. He turned away and focused upon Caitryn; took one more illusionary breath, gathering himself.

Then, as if leaping from a high cliff into Loch Alasdair’s chill waters, he dove forward into Caitryn’s flesh.

The binding sliced into him the moment he crossed the boundary, like long razor-sharp chains of wire; the psychic shriek of agony that burst from him went mercifully unfelt in the empty tower. But the spell had not been crafted for him, and after a moment he was able to reshape himself around it, winding himself through its lines of force like a serpent through a fence. It was woven into Caitryn from scalp to toe, skin to pulse, heart to hand; Mycroft found himself marveling at the complexity and subtlety of it, before he realized what it was doing.

The binding was choking Caitryn’s life-force in every cell and atomie, spilling an infinitesimal portion of energy from every process of life — as if a galaxy of wounds too small to see had been made throughout her flesh, bleeding her dry so slowly and subtly none but another mage or wizard might have seen it. It had most likely been imposed long before her collapse; knowing Caitryn, she would not even have complained of the fatigue and lethargy that must have been its precursors. And by accomplishing its task so stealthily, it would never occur to the sickness-wary Clansfolk that anything other than the countless mysteries of natural death was at work…

Mycroft recalled himself with a jolt. This was wizard-work: the energies fueling this binding were too powerful and alien to be magery, which used only the natural forces of its wielder’s body and mind. He could not hope to shatter this binding himself — but he could provide a focus for one who could. He turned, finding his orientation against the currents of the land, and flung the call out across the miles to Ben Carreg.

–mycroft?– Ash’s shields snapped into place upon contact, but a shadow of his presence remained sensible beyond, flickering with surprise. In this aetheric phantomland, Mycroft saw again the vastness of the power Ash kept hidden, and tried not to rejoice. Ash would make short work of this.

–master– He sent the images to Ash in a burst faster than lightning: Caitryn’s story, her state, the binding, his own deductions. With each pulse of knowledge he saw glimmers of Ash’s surroundings — the cottage’s small living room, books piled thickly everywhere; the armchair, in which sat a darkly garbed, cruel-faced stranger Mycroft didn’t recognize; the telescope, pointed skyward to track the stars. –-you can help her: you must help her: i cannot–

Ash’s shields thickened. The wizard’s thoughts drew inwards, silent. Mycroft waited breathlessly.

–no–

The word made no sense. Mycroft’s bewilderment flooded back, to meet a black wall of pain and implacable resolve. –-it cannot be–

–but — why?!–

–my responsibility is not to caitryn kilbarron,– came the reply after a long pause. -–my responsibilities are to greater causes -and to help caitryn now will undo those causes: will undo me. know the truth of my sorrow, mycroft, but know also this truth: caitryn’s fate is beyond me now–

And Ash sent a whipcrack of power back, severing the connection.

Numbly, Mycroft hung suspended in Caitryn’s flesh, surrounded by the spell that was killing her. This…could not be. Ash was no saint or holy man. But even he could not so callously abandon a young girl, a blameless innocent, to a death she could not understand or resist…could he?

How could any man with even a hint of the Light within him do that?

With no warning, Mycroft’s sick befuddlement flashed into rage, like the detonation of raw magesilver touched by fire. From within the binding he struck out, wrenching at the spell with his will, tearing away the countless microscopic tendrils woven into Caitryn’s cells. Pain crackled through him as the tendrils fastened hungrily onto his aura, but with willpower woven needle-sharp he sliced them apart, watching them disintegrate. Around him, the patterns of Caitryn’s lifeforce began to rally, surging in fast, panicky waves.

The tendrils withdrew, regathered, wove themselves forward again in mindless obedience to their defining commands. Mycroft tore at them once more, slashing left and right, up and down with the blade of his fury and his horror. In his mind, every tendril had Ash’s face. He fought his way to Caitryn’s core, where her inmost essence pulsed, and silently embedded runes of command and strength, building a barrier around her soul and the tiny knot of lifeforce it encompassed. He could feel his strength ebbing, poured into crafting the ward, sucked up by the hungry tendrils. No single mage could hope to match a wizard’s work for long. But Mycroft’s anger fed his power. With a final surge he closed the ward about Caitryn’s spirit.

The tendrils recoiled with a whiplash as Caitryn’s mind ignited. A gust of psychic wind blew Mycroft back into his own body; the jarring, nauseating impact knocked him off the stool to shudder on the floor, even as Caitryn jolted upright with a great gasp. He fought for breath, hearing Caitryn do the same.

Footsteps thundered on the stairs and Iaen burst in, eyes wild. He froze a moment on the threshold, then swooped upon Caitryn with a wordless cry and lifted her from the bed. Caitryn threw her arms about Iaen’s neck and cried against his chest as if she hadn’t seen him in years.

Holding onto the bedframe to steady himself, Mycroft clambered to his feet. Iaen turned towards him, face shining, but had only opened his mouth when Mycroft held up his hand. “No. Dinna thank me. Not yet.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I havnae saved her, Iaen. She’s still dying.” Mycroft straightened, swaying. “And I greatly fear that you might be the reason why.”

– 4 –

“A wizard-sending? Not plague?” Gareth leant down, staring at Mycroft as if to peer straight through him.

Mycroft gulped water from his tankard, washing down another bite of bread and mutton. “Aye; folk can return to the Hold straightaway, no fear.” He sat at the Great Hall’s longtable, bolting a meal he felt little hunger for; but it was vital he replenish his energies, and eating was a faster way to do so than sleep. Iaen and Caitryn sat a few seats down, leaning on each other, both wide-eyed, numb and silent.

Toran paced back and forth, hands knotting and unknotting in fists as if yearning for the hilt of his claymore. “But it makes no sense! We have no enemies who hate us so much as to bring sorcery against us!”

“Wizardry,” Mycroft corrected. “Not sorcery. No spirits or demons in this binding.”

Toran brushed the distinction aside impatiently. “And if they sought to kill one of us by magic, why Caitryn? What harm would her loss bring us? — begging your pardons, Iaen,” he added hastily as Iaen sat upright with an angry look. “But tha kenst my meaning, eh?”

“Love — ” Caitryn’s voice was hoarse ” — he’s right.” She touched Iaen’s wrist. “I’m not even a proper member of your Clan, yet. Why should a wizard not seek to slay the Thane himself? Or his heir, or indeed all his sons?”

“You can wed into our Clan any day ye wish,” Gareth growled. “All ye need do is come to the Saints — ”

Caitryn groaned and slumped against Iaen, who glared at his father. “Da, we will not speak of this again! I’ll not ask Caitryn to forsake her faith!”

“Even if it means her life?” said Mycroft. He flushed as all eyes turned to him.

“What d’ye mean?” whispered Caitryn.

Mycroft sighed. “I mean that we have no Druid here in the Alasdair lands who can break that binding,” he said, looking down into his tankard. “But Pastor Connor could break it in a heartbeat — if Caitryn was a follower of the Nine.”

Caitryn took a shaky breath. “In other words,” she articulated faintly but clearly, “should I betray the God, the Goddess, and the Old Faith — forever — then the High Saints will save my life? How gracious of them.”

“The Powers dinnae meddle with one another’s followers, Caitryn; you ken that as well as I,” Mycroft snapped. “Would you rather you’d woken to find your soul marked for the Nine while you slept, with no choice at all?”

“Mycroft.” Toran’s voice was hard. Mycroft bit back his irritation and bowed his head.

Toran sighed and looked from Iaen to Gareth, gaze clear and level. “‘Tis a futile idea, any road. Even if baptism could take against the will, merely trying would be all the excuse Angus Kilbarron needed to claim bloodfeud. We cannae afford that now, not with a Calling of the Clans so close.”

“And will he have less cause to rise against us, if she dies of a wizard’s curse under our guard?” Gareth snarled.

Caitryn frowned. “Might that be why? Someone seeks to send your Clan and mine to war, by killing me?”

“No.” Mycroft shook his head. “Had you not summoned me, none would have known Caitryn ailed aught but a mysterious sickness. The Kilbarrons could not in honor claim grievance for that. If you wished to spark a feud, why waste such time and power on a secret spellbinding when a bought blade would serve better and swifter?” Iaen blanched. “Sorry, Iaen.”

Toran sank into a chair. “Mycroft is right. The rift ‘twixt us and the Kilbarrons needs no murders to widen it.” He rested his chin on his hands and scowled. “Indeed, if Caitryn had died of what we thought to be the plague — ”

“As she still might!” Iaen interjected.

” — then by all rights it would end that feud,” Toran finished, glancing at Iaen. “Her living here dishonored and unwed has been the Thane’s greatest grievance. If he thought she had died a natural death, that dishonor would end. They’d bear a grudge against us evermore, but not enough to justify war…”

“Wait.” Mycroft sat up. A cold thrill of excitement and dismay burned along his nerves. “If Caitryn dies a natural death, the feud between MacAlasdair and Kilbarron ends — just before a Calling of the Clans to face the Vhalanskjr.” He spun to face Toran and Gareth. “What would happen if Kilbarron refused to march to join the Calling?”

Gareth flushed. Toran glanced at his father and replied in a flat voice. “The Kilbarrons are the mightiest Clan this side of Arda, and if we marched against the Vhalanskjr without them we’d like as not be torn to pieces. You know this to be true, Father,” he added.

Gareth said nothing.

Iaen’s brow furrowed. “But that means…” He trailed off. “I’m no’ sure I ken what it means.”

“It means,” said Mycroft grimly, “that somebody decided to ensure the Clans would be united before facing the Vhalanskjr. And that Caitryn’s life was an acceptable price for that surety.” In his mind was the vision Mycroft had seen during his call to Ash: the darkly garbed stranger sitting in one corner of the room, narrow face cruel and cold. “And I think I well ken who to ask about that.”

– 5 –

Using his Sight to guide his mount through the dark, Mycroft reached Ben Carreg near midnight without breaking for camp or sleep. When he slammed open the cottage’s door and strode in, he found Ash at his desk, his back to the door, small and wizened form almost lost inside a great swath of red silk robing. The fire had burned low, and only a candelabrum at the desk gave any light. Mycroft could hear the scratch of quill on parchment.

“You hypocritical bastard,” he spat.

The quill ceased scratching a moment. Then it began again under Ash’s toneless, quiet words. “I have earned that title before this, boy. For more than you would wish to know.”

“All your proud words about no’ being a subject of King Hugh’s,” Mycroft snapped. With a gesture, he psychically seized two logs from beside the fireplace and flung them into the hearth. A second gesture and a word ignited both in a crack of spurting flame; the room brightened. “And at the suggestion of a King’s Herald you’d let a young girl die, a girl who’s my friend and kin, for the sake of peace in a kingdom ye claim to care nought about!”

“Then you did see the Herald here today?” That made Ash turn around; he raised his eyebrow. “Your sensitivity is increasing, Mycroft. I’m impressed.”

“I’ll not be put off by praise, Ash. What did he tell ye? The Herald?”

“He told me what was necessary for me to know, and to do. As I told you. I really don’t know why you’re here, Mycroft.” Ash turned back to his book.

“Necessary?” Mycroft found it took actual effort to close his mouth. “My heart-sister is dying, and ye call it necessary? What possible necessity could — ”

He stopped, the breath leaving him as if he’d been punched in the stomach. A terrible, freezing possibility had burst upon him like an avalanche of ice. His horror splashed out into the room and struck Ash, and the old wizard spun around, eyes suddenly blazing with anger. “How dare you?!” he roared. “How dare you even consider that?”

Shame and fear heated Mycroft’s own fury anew; he lunged forward to face his master. “Ye were ready to let her die!” he shouted back. “If ye’d have done that, what’s to say you didn’t work that binding in the first place? What’s to say King Hugh didn’t send his Herald here to ask you — the only wizard within leagues of Rianloch Thorn — to do the one thing that’d forestall a bloodfeud between MacAlasdair and Kilbarron: ensure the death of the person separating them, in a way none would ever think was aught but natural?”

He ran out of breath and glared at Ash, gasping. In the silence, the fire crackled and popped. The wizard’s face was absolutely blank.

“That is compellingly plausible,” said Ash at last. “And as I cannot tell you what King Hugh’s agent and I truly discussed, Mycroft, I have no way to disprove it. But let me ask you this. If I had done such a thing to Caitryn Kilbarron, why in the name of the Nine, the Twelve, and the One Himself would I allow my own apprentice to try to undo it?”

Mycroft blinked. “Because there was no way ye could have stopped me without a geas, for starters, and if my brothers had seen you compel me so, your sanctuary with the Clan MacAlasdair would have ended that day.”

Ash shook his head. “If that had been necessary, Mycroft, neither you nor your brothers would ever have known it.” His voice was utterly flat. Mycroft felt cold. “Think harder. You fought the binding upon Caitryn yourself; you know its mark, its aura — was it the same as mine? And how long has that binding been there? When could I have worked such a casting without you sensing it? And when would I have received this hypothetical command to murder, since you know no King’s agent has come to this vale for months until today?”

Mycroft struggled to hold onto his anger and fear, but felt them collapse, melting into sullen shame and a deep, unpleasant feeling of foolishness. The strength went out of his legs. He tottered to the nearest chair and dropped into it.

Ash sighed. “I cannot be indignant, Mycroft,” he said after a moment. “I am not proud of my inaction. But as you would have known had I worked such a binding near you, there are others — far more powerful than either of us — who would know if I worked to undo it now. And would know where to seek me if so. That cannot be allowed. Not yet.”

Mycroft rubbed his face and looked up at Ash. “And that’s important enough to allow Caitryn to die.”

“If necessary — yes.” Ash did not look away. “That her death might conveniently obviate some petty local grievance…that is nothing more than a lucky coincidence for King Hugh. If he even knows about it, which I doubt.”

Mycroft frowned. “What d’ye mean?”

“Your father’s attitude towards arcanists is unusual among the Clans, Mycroft.” Ash gave the snort which was as close as he usually got to laughter. “He will actually permit a known wizard residence on his lands, albeit the farthest border; he will even permit his son to apprentice to me, albeit a third son with little chance of inheriting. Most Clan Thanes would have run me off without a second thought, if they didn’t try to have me shot from cover and burn my corpse at the stake.” Ash got up, pulled his robe around him and trudged over to the fire, staring into it. “King Hugh may be more aware of political realities than Clan honor will ever admit, but even he knows what outrage would erupt were he caught using a wizard to work his ends. Especially such ends as these. It’d tear the kingdom apart.”

Mycroft leant forward, scowling. “But — if it’s naught to do with the Clans…then — ” He couldn’t think of a way to end the sentence. The silence stretched out.

Ash turned from the fire, looking thoughtful. “If neither you nor I sensed this binding being placed, it must have been done at great range, and with great subtlety. The wizard who cursed her may not even be in Arda at all.”

“A foreigner?” Mycroft’s brain felt heavy. It had been a long, strange day, and it was getting stranger by the moment. “What foreign wizard would know Caitryn? She’s never left Arda.”

“No,” agreed Ash. “But Thane Angus Kilbarron is one of Arda’s wealthiest and most powerful lords, second only to the King himself. It is not impossible that Caitryn might have been considered a…negotiable asset…in the Thane’s diplomatic relations.” While Mycroft processed that, Ash added in his driest voice, “Some outlanders are even worse than Caels at dealing with rejection.”

Mycroft opened his mouth to answer and found himself yawning prodigiously. Ash sniffed and jerked his head towards the second sleeping chamber at the back of the house. “You may as well spend the night,” he said, as if Mycroft hadn’t slept there nearly every night for the past three years. “Caitryn will not be greatly worse for the delay.”

“She will be eventually,” Mycroft muttered. He rose to join Ash at the fireplace, arms folded to keep himself from shivering. “I was only able to ward that binding for a few days. I cannae stave it off indefinitely. What am I to do?”

“At least you have those days, now. Be grateful this wizard chose such a slow method of murder.” Ash looked at Mycroft sidelong. “Had it been me, I would have ensured her next tryst with Iaen was fertile, then malformed the babe in her womb to kill her within a month or two. Miscarriage is as common and deadly as plague, far faster, and far less likely to incur searches for arcane explanations.”

Mycroft shuddered. “You’re a sick old bastard, Master.”

“Thank you. I’ve been waiting for that fact to penetrate your thick Caelic skull…” Ash trailed off. “Mycroft?”

Mycroft stared, open-mouthed, at empty air. Then his gape turned into a slow but dazzling smile.

– 6 –

Arynfell looked considerably busier when Mycroft rode back into it: the news that there was no plague after all had finally brought the Clansfolk out of their cots and houses. As if sharing in their celebration, the sun had broken through the spring overcast, warming the morning breezes. Several of those he passed called out cheerily to him, and Mycroft grinned and responded with a wave. Sometimes he forgot that life among other folk had its own appeal.

It wasn’t until he passed the sentry present once again at the Hold’s entrance that he realized why the villagers had been hailing him. Incredulous, he reined his horse in and twisted to look down at the armsman. “What did ye say, Rhovan?”

The sentry shrugged, still grinning. “I said, how’s that for a jest? For you to save Caitryn and all of us, after all his lordship’s put-up about your prenticing?”

Mycroft sighed. It would have been nice to think the Arynfells had been glad to see him simply for himself. “I’ve not saved anyone, Rhovan. Caitryn never had the plague at all. Didnae my Da tell you?”

Rhovan frowned. “But his lordship said you’d cured her. Came out yestereve to proclaim it himself.”

Mycroft opened his mouth, then closed it.

* * *

“Every soul in this village feared for her and every soul feared it was the plague.” From the Thane’s grand chair, atop a raised dais at the head of the Great Hall, Gareth MacAlasdair faced his youngest son with hard green eyes. “Nothing was being done. Men were afraid to leave their houses, even to go to their pastures or their barns. And Caitryn wanted to be outside to see them. What was I to do, Mycroft?”

“Well, I dinna ken, Da, perhaps you could tell them the truth? As honor requires?”

The Thane’s face twisted in a snarl. “Honor requires what’s best for my people, Mycroft. I could affright them further wi’ tales of sendings and things I dinnae understand myself, or I could reassure them they’re in no danger — that our own mage, my own son, has made sure there’s no danger, which is true I might add — and let them return to their lives.” Gareth leant forward, big hands folded. “Tell me, Mycroft, where does the honorable choice truly reside?”

Mycroft stared at his father, then threw up his hands and dropped into a seat at the longtable. “Enough,” he said. “I’ve no stomach for this anymore, Da, not after speaking to Ash. I need to see Caitryn and Iaen.”

“Have you found what you need to save her?”

Mycroft shook his head, suddenly weary beyond words. Yesterday’s workings catching up, no doubt; magic’s price was always paid, eventually. “Mayhaps, Da. I’m praying right now.” He gave his father a look. “Please, just bring them here.”

Gareth regarded him, green eyes opaque, then stood without a word and left the Hall. Mycroft closed his eyes and let his head loll back against his chair. In tales, he thought, prodigal princes who returned to save their lands earned reconciliation and rejoicing. In a tale, Gareth would have praised and celebrated his son for his success, and declared his pride in that son.

In tales fathers told the truth.

“Mycroft?”

Iaen stood at the door, Caitryn on his arm. In heavy cloak, tunic, and skirt, she was dressed warmly for the spring; perhaps a little too warmly, but Mycroft was not surprised at that. “Taken a chill, have you, Cait?”

Caitryn nodded. “Ever since I woke this morning, I’ve…I’ve just felt cold.” She smiled up at Iaen. “That’s why I’ve kept this great hot-blooded lummox around. Finally, a practical use for him.”

Iaen laughed and kissed the top of her head.

Mycroft forced a smile, but it felt painful, and he dropped it at Iaen’s and Caitryn’s nonplussed looks. “Aye, well, that’s to be expected.” He let out a breath and made himself meet Iaen’s eyes. “That’s the curse come back, clawing its way past my wardings. In a day or two it should have them down, and everything will start all over again.”

The dismay on Iaen’s face was sickening. For a moment it actually made Mycroft physically angry: Blessed Redeemer Seralyne, did none of his family ever really listen to him? He kept his voice level by sheer will. “I did tell you yesterday, Iaen. I’m able to buy you some time. Naught more.”

“But Da said — ”

“He said I might have a solution for you, and I might. But it’ll not be one you like.” Mycroft got up and trudged over to Caitryn, lifted his hand towards her head, then paused. “May I?”

Caitryn shrugged. Mycroft touched her forehead, focused his mage-senses, and dropped deep within, deeper than he had gone yesterday, into one tiny corner of Caitryn’s life; seeking an irregularity he had passed over yesterday, the one small sign that might save her. After a moment he sighed, slumped, and withdrew, lowering his hand. Fatigue numbed any response.

“Mycroft?” Iaen whispered.

Mycroft didn’t open his eyes. “Caitryn,” he murmured. “If I ken Iaen, he’s never asked you of your past — the men you might have…known…before coming here.”

Caitryn stiffened. “That’s because there were none. Iaen was my first, last and only love.”

“All the better.” Mycroft went back to his chair, weaving a little with dizziness. “But you were the Thane Kilbarron’s daughter — I’m sure your da introduced you to a fair few…visitors, aye?”

“Well — aye. But — ”

“D’ye remember any of them?” Mycroft slumped down, drawing deep even breaths. Lady of Mercy, he was tired. “Names, titles, aught?”

“What’s this about, Mycroft?” said Iaen.

“Iaen, please. Caitryn.”

Caitryn fidgeted. “I do remember a few,” she admitted, after a long pause. “There was Padrig of the Clan Malethron — he got himself shot a-reiving, thank Mother Moon. And the foreigners — Aleiden of Beltirios, was one; kind man, but only six teeth in his head. And the Hachtgraf Harlech von Streleheim, who put the shivers in me from one look — ”

“You never told me aught of this,” Iaen breathed, his voice somewhere between shocked, hurt, and angry.

Caitryn rubbed her head against his shoulder. “Naught matters now but us, my love. Von Streleheim was the last. I left to be with you before my father could sign me away to him. I dinnae regret that choice. Ever.”

“Von Streleheim.” Mycroft massaged his face with one hand. Ash had been right. Once again, frustratingly and relievingly at once, Ash had been right. “That’s it, then.”

“What?” said Iaen.

Mycroft folded his hands on the table before him. “There’s no way your father could have known this, Caitryn. But Ash taught me of the wizards of the Ausfalken Domination. And one of them — the one they call the Schürvalgen, the Black Wolf — is a bastard kinsman to the House von Streleheim.” He looked up to gauge Iaen’s and Caitryn’s reactions.

They looked more bemused than anything else. “For that?” Iaen said eventually. “For one agreement broken two years ago in a realm a hundred leagues or more away?”

“Kargoths have long memories for injury,” Mycroft growled. “And what better way to erase an insult without trace than to cloak it in sickness? The only better way would have been to kill you through a miscarried pregnancy, Caitryn, and he couldn’t have done that.”

“Why not?”

“Because a curse of that kind has to be placed into the babe at its conception…and you’re already two months pregnant.”

Iaen turned white. Caitryn’s mouth fell open. “But — the babe — ” she whispered.

” — will die with you,” finished Mycroft. “Unless we do the only thing we can to free you. Unless we go to Pastor Connor right now and baptize you into the Church, so he can break that curse.”

Iaen’s jaw set. Mycroft’s heart sank; he recognized that look. For all his surface amiability Iaen had just as much of the MacAlasdair stubbornness as they all did. “No,” he said.

“Iaen — ”

“No. There must be another way. We’ll travel to the Kilbarron lands — summon a Druid — ”

“Iaen. There. Isn’t. Time.” Mycroft struck the table on each word, hammering it home. Part of him cringed from Caitryn’s panicked, hopeless look, the despair he could feel through oversensitive mage-senses. But they were out of time, and out of choices. “Before you could reach the nearest Circle, she would die. Before we could find a Druid by magery and summon him here, she would die. And your son would die with her.” He looked at Caitryn, shadow bruising his eyes. “Were it only your own soul, Cait, I’d not say a word against any choice you made — but it’s not. And if you swear to the Nine, you save your son’s life and your own, you can marry Iaen at last, end the enmity between our Clans…Is that truly such a terrible thing?”

Caitryn’s face closed into a sullen mask. Mycroft had more than half expected the reaction, but his stomach still lurched in dismay to see what was very close to hate in her glare. “You bastard,” she whispered. “How dare ye say that when you’re Ascension-born your own self? D’ye think it’s as easy as trading one horse for another? D’ye think I dinna ken how gleeful your pastor will be, to win my soul away?” She stepped away from Iaen’s side; wisely, Iaen made no move to restrain her as she paced back and forth, gesticulating wildly. “Am I to break faith with the Mother and Father out of fear for my life? What sort of follower would I be if that was all it took? What if this is a test, to determine the fate of my soul? Aye, and my babe’s?! Or mayhaps — ”

She stalked towards Mycroft, eyes blazing. ” — mayhaps it’s not so simple. I’ve only your word that all this must be so, Mycroft. Your…Ascensionite…word.”

Mycroft’s jaw dropped.

“If this is all some kind of, of trick, or trap — ”

“CAITRYN KILBARRON!” The rage and the magery came together, in a single blinding white surge. As he lunged to his feet, Mycroft’s aura burst into searing parti-colored light about him, crackling with power. His glamour-enhanced voice rang against the Hall’s high windows with thundering, deafening force. Caitryn staggered back; Iaen rushed to catch her. “I am not some half-copper charlatan in the employ of cheats!” Mycroft roared, lifting a light-wreathed hand to point at her. “I am a true son of the Clan MacAlasdair, brother to the man you love, baptized in the name of the Ascended Saints who command charity to all! I am the mage who warded your life against the curse of foreign wizardry when no other could! And I will not hear you slander myself or my Church because ye fear the choice now come upon ye!”

He closed in on Iaen and Caitryn, his aura beginning to fade along with his anger; the sick feeling in his stomach grew greater as he saw a fear in their eyes he had never seen before. But this was necessary. If any good was to come of this nightmare at all, this terror was necessary. Mycroft stopped before Caitryn and glared down at her. “For the sake of love, you gave over your home and your Clan. Now decide what’s more important. Your love, your son, and the people you chose as your own, or a faith you seldom honored, a worship you don’t practice anymore, and an allegiance you cling to as much out of stubborn pride as aught else.”

Caitryn opened her mouth, but Mycroft didn’t give her a chance to answer. He whirled and stormed from the Hall, and his footsteps echoed down the stone corridors.

– 7 –

The sky had clouded over again by late afternoon, as Ardan skies often did. Half an hour’s walk from Arynfell at the end of an almost-forgotten childhood path, Toran found Mycroft sitting on a small cliff’s edge above the loch. He sat down on a rock nearby, watching as Mycroft tossed stones dispiritedly from the cliff into the loch’s gray waters. The splashes punctuated the dull, chilly silence.

“Iaen told me ye put the fear of God into Caitryn,” Toran said at length. “Bit of a surprise, from you.”

“Am I not allowed to lose my temper for the same reasons anyone is, then?” Mycroft glowered at his brother. “Like the maligning of my honor, or Pastor Connor’s, or the Church’s?”

Toran shrugged. “That should make any man angry. But you’d a gift for knowing hearts even as a lad, and your prenticing’s only deepened that. D’ye really no’ ken why she spoke to you as she did?”

Mycroft slumped with a long sigh. “Aye. She wouldnae hate the gods for forcing her to the choice, and she couldnae hate Iaen — so she flung her hate at me, for lack of any other.” He gave Toran a glare. “Still made me angry, mind you.”

“But was that all?”

Mycroft closed his eyes. “No. No, it wasnae. So many reasons, Toran…For Iaen’s sake, and my own: I didnae want him to lose her and his son at once, and I’d not see her die either, brother — I love her too. For the Kingdom, so we can face the Vhalanskjr as one. For the Ausfalken lord who bid that curse be laid, and the Black Wolf who laid it — to teach them no man, noble or wizard, meddles with the Clans with impunity. And for the babe, who deserves his own chance to live.”

Mycroft rolled onto his back, arms flung wide, and stared up at the sky. “But Iaen loves her too much,” he whispered. “He could never have made her choose. He would never try. So…I tried for him.” His voice had thickened.

Toran snorted. “Mycroft, if ye truly think ye could scare Caitryn into doing aught but what she’d do anyway, ye dinna ken her nearly as well as ye think.”

After a beat, Mycroft gave a wet cough that might have been a laugh. He sat up, drew up his legs, wrapped his arms around his knees, and looked at Toran. “Why did this have to happen, Tor? Why should the gods ask such things of us?”

Toran sighed. “D’ye think I’ve any answer for ye? I’m no philosopher, Mycroft.” He paused, looking at his hands. “All I ken for certain is: If I’d a man or woman in my service, I’d want them to be loyal…but no’ so loyal they’d kill their own child, as well as themselves, to prove it. And if I truly loved them — I’d forgive one who saved them, bad choices or no.”

He looked over at Mycroft. “Does that help?”

Mycroft took a deep breath. “Some. You may be more the philosopher than ye think, Toran.”

“Aye, well, what compassion I have I learned from you, Mycroft.”

Mycroft blinked, unable to find a reply, but Toran had already risen and turned away. “By the way,” he added over his shoulder, “Caitryn spoke to Pastor Connor after ye left. She’s to be baptized tonight. Ye might wish to be there. Lend a hand with the cursebreaking, and all.”

“I think Caitryn’s had all the help from me she’s minded to take.”

“Ye might be surprised.” Toran gave him a half-smile, then turned and trudged away down the path, back towards Arynfell. Mycroft watched him go. The tight strain across his shoulders eased a little.

“Well done, boy.”

Mycroft jerked in fright, then slumped. Anger flickered weakly and died. “Saints damn you, Ash.”

The wizard’s projection — Mycroft knew it instantly from its psychic hollowness and its missing shadow — raised an eyebrow, unabashed. “That’s a peculiar form of gratitude for a compliment.”

Mycroft pushed himself to his feet. “I’m to be grateful, that I’d to do your work for you? That I had to learn, at the price of Caitryn’s faith, that you cannae be trusted?”

Ash folded his arms. “When have I lied to you, Mycroft? Or betrayed you?”

“You truly dinna understand, do ye?” Mycroft shook his head slowly. “When you accepted my father’s protection, Ash, you incurred a debt to him. A duty. Oh, I ken you swore no oaths,” Mycroft added, holding up his hands as if to cut Ash off, though the wizard’s image had not moved. “But he who lives on another’s land owes him, naetheless. That’s only right. And to do nothing while Caitryn wasted away…” Mycroft let his hands fall to his sides, where they clenched into fists. “I dinnae care what ‘greater responsibilities’ you claim, Ash. You’ve shown you’ll never truly be one of us. That you’ll spend our lives to serve your own ends. How can I name it aught but betrayal? How can I ever trust you again?”

Ash shrugged. “If you will not trust my benevolence — a quality I never claimed, as I recall — then trust my selfishness. I need you, Mycroft. I need you to act for me, as you need me to teach you. If you do not trust me to help your people, use my teachings to help them yourself. That is your necessity. I do not ask you to understand mine.” For a moment, the phantom face tightened in mixed pain and anger. “Is regret a luxury permitted only to you, Mycroft?”

Mycroft’s jaw set. He looked away.

Ash sighed. “As you will, then. I shall see you if I see you. If not…then not.” The projection vanished.

Mycroft’s legs buckled. The fatigue, anger, pain, and grief of the last three days finally overcame him. Crumpling onto his side, he curled up beneath his cloak. His throat and eyes ached.

He’d saved a life; two lives. Perhaps even the Kingdom itself. He’d done what had to be done, and done it where a true wizard could not. Why wasn’t that enough?

Blessed Redeemer, why is that not enough?

Nothing moved in the gray and empty sky.


Stephen J. Barringer lives and writes in Toronto with his wife and writing partner Gemma Files, with whom he is the co-author of the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated novella “each thing i show you is a piece of my death”. His first story, “Restoration”, was published in the Canadian SF magazine On Spec; he is also the author of several RPG products, as well as a radio-play adaptation of E.F. Benson’s “The Room In The Tower” for Canada’s Dark Echo Productions. He is pleased to be making his Kaleidotrope debut with “Necessary Evil”.
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