The White Spell – Lynn Kurland

Murder, mischief, mayhem. Those were the sorts of things that he dealt in. The business of dogooding . well, it just didn’t agree with his digestion. Acair of Ceangail, son of the most powerful and, admittedly, most unpleasant black mage still darkening the doorways of the Nine Kingdoms, looked at the pair of do-gooders sitting across from him at a worn table in a rather less-seedy tavern than he was accustomed to frequenting, and decided the time had come to put his foot down. He fixed them both with a steely gaze. “That was the very last one of these I am willing to do.” The men sitting there looked unmoved by his declaration, which he supposed shouldn’t have surprised him. They were up to their necks in all sorts of noble activities he wouldn’t have engaged in if his life had hung in the balance. He paused. Very well, he had engaged in just their sort of rot, but that had been because his life had hung in the balance. He had agreed to a ridiculous bargain with those two there when they’d caught him in a moment of weakness further polluted by something another might have termed regret, but he’d done his part and now he had put any untoward and unsettling impulses to appease anyone but himself behind him. He was finished.

It was past time they understood that his protestations weren’t simply for show. He leaned forward and gave them the coldest look he could muster. Considering the sort of year he’d recently endured he was afraid it had barely reached chilly, but there you had it. Too much spreading of sunshine and happiness had obviously done a foul work on him. “That recent journey to Meith,” he said, slowly, so they wouldn’t misunderstand him, “was the very last of these ridiculous parleys I am willing to engage in with whichever insipid monarch, grossly offended head of state, or richly dressed underling you have selected for me to grovel before. I have spent months apologizing, smiling, and generally making a complete ass of myself. I will not do the like any longer.” The pair across from him exchanged a look. Acair was, he had to admit with as much modesty as he could muster in difficult circumstances, extremely adept at reading between the lines. Or between the looks, as it were. There was an untoward amount of amusement being shared, as well as something that spoke strongly of already-discussed, nefarious intentions. Both annoyed him, but he supposed he could have expected nothing less from the two fools huddled together there on the opposite side of that worn tavern table.

The fool on the left was his half-brother, Rùnach of Tòrr Dòrainn. Rùnach was the second eldest of a collection of impositions on the world his own father, Gair, had decided to produce with an elven princess several decades after Acair’s birth. Why Gair had wed Rùnach’s mother instead of Acair’s own was a mystery . well, knowing his mother as he did, Acair had to admit there was no mystery to it at all, but that didn’t solve the problem of his half-brother sitting across from him, smirking. Rùnach loved nothing more than a hearty bit of good cheer, something Acair had learned early on to dislike about him. Acair scowled at him, then turned his attention to his half-brother’s companion. Now, that one gave him pause and there wasn’t another soul in the whole of the Nine Kingdoms who gave him pause. Soilléir of Cothromaiche was . odd. His magic was unsettling, his power staggering, and he had a way of looking at a body so the body being so observed felt as if it were standing there in its soul alone.

Acair shook his head. Damned unnerving, that one. Soilléir wasn’t so much smirking as he was just watching, as if he knew exactly what Acair intended to do before he did it. As he’d said. Odd. Rùnach cleared his throat in a way that bespoke serious business indeed. “The thing is, Acair,” he said slowly, wrapping his hands around his mug, “we feel that you have one last bit of—” He frowned thoughtfully and looked at Soilléir. “What did we decide to call it, my lord?” “Penance,” Soilléir supplied. “Penance,” Rùnach repeated, nodding. “Aye, that was it.

” He looked at Acair with an expression of innocence he had likely not had to practice more than once. “We believe you have a bit more penance to do in order to make up for your past misdeeds.” “What past misdeeds?” Acair hedged. If they couldn’t name them, he wasn’t going to admit to them. That had gotten him out of more than one tight spot in the past, to be sure. “Most recently you tried to drain the world of all its magic,” Rùnach said. “There’s a start to the list, wouldn’t you agree?” “I believe the important word there is tried,” Acair said, “and thank you so very much for reminding me of my abysmal failure.” “Failure?” Rùnach echoed. “Acair, you toppled at least two thrones I can bring immediately to mind, as well as vexing several other very powerful members of the Council of Kings.” “True,” Acair said with a light sigh.

The list should have been longer, but again, it had been a difficult year and he’d been distracted by trotting out his best court manners and using them in ways he hadn’t particularly cared for. “It wasn’t a compliment,” Soilléir said. “You can’t say you wouldn’t do the same thing,” Acair said pointedly, “given the proper inducement.” Now, there was a piece of truth if ever there were one. Who knew what that one there dreamed up as he sat in his private chambers in the schools of wizardry, contemplating that staggering amount of power he had that was no doubt simply lying about his chambers like so many unmatched socks. “I could,” Soilléir said, “but I never would.” Acair suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. When Soilléir of Cothromaiche started making a fuss about his nobler instincts, the conversation was doomed to head downhill very quickly. Best to head off any potential rhapsodic waxing about the health benefits of virtuous living before the man truly hit his stride. He studied the two on the other side of the table and considered the lay of the land, as it were.

He hadn’t minimized the misery they had already put him through. It had been at least half a year that he’d been dragging himself from one tedious locale to another, forcing himself to smile politely, speak without threats, and keep his hands in his pockets instead of allowing them to linger in any visible coffers. It had been absolute hell, but he was nothing if not a man of his word and he had agreed to do the like. That Soilléir had threatened him with life as a lawn ornament if he didn’t comply had been a decent bit of motivation, but he’d done what he’d agreed to do and now he had other plans. He hadn’t wanted to choke down a meal with the lads facing him, but the invitation had been less of a request and more of a summons. He had assumed he would be required to give some sort of recounting of all the things he had learned, promise never to behave poorly again, then be relegated to a distant if not fond memory. His life would again be his own and he would never darken either of their front stoops again. He knew he shouldn’t have been surprised to find that extricating himself from their clutches was going to be a bit more difficult than he’d anticipated. He pointedly ignored Soilléir and turned to Rùnach. “Very well,” he said briskly, “tell me quickly what preposterous thing I must do in order to win my freedom from your presence and let me about it.

Just realize I am only doing this to humor you. If I were a lesser man, I would simply leave you here at the table to pay for my drink yourselves.” They didn’t look as alarmed by that possibility as they should have, but insults only went so far with men who obviously hadn’t the wits between them to know when they were being insulted. Rùnach looked at him seriously. “We want you to apologize to Uachdaran of Léige for disturbing his sleep with the rivers of power you set to running under his kingdom.” “I didn’t do that,” Acair spluttered. Rùnach only looked at him in a way that was so reminiscent of Soilléir, Acair almost flinched. “Very well, I did do that,” he said, “but if you think I’m going to go prostrate myself in front of that feisty old curmudgeon and apologize for anything, you’re mad.” Rùnach shrugged. “If that doesn’t suit, then we’ll take a century of your doing no magic instead.

” Acair knew he was gaping but couldn’t keep from it. He revisited his three favorite activities and wondered which one would be the most effective on the two sitting across from him. He sat up a bit straighter and smoothed his hand over his tunic. “What horrible fate do you have waiting for me if I tell you to go to hell?” he asked politely. “Or shall I simply slay you both whilst your noses are buried in your cups?” Soilléir lifted a pale eyebrow. “I could turn you into something you wouldn’t like.” “I can’t think of anything I wouldn’t like,” Acair said promptly, ignoring any previous discussions he might or might not have had with the man sitting across from him regarding birdbaths. “Do your worst.” “You might want to reconsider,” Soilléir advised. “Imagine the locales where I could put you, silent as stone, doomed for eternity to simply watch those around you living pleasant lives.

” “You’re bluffing,” Acair said dismissively. “Your vaunted code prevents you from doing something that evil.” Soilléir only looked at him in that way he had. “For you, Acair, I might make an exception.” Acair almost shivered, which alarmed him more than anything he’d been faced with so far that evening. He didn’t shiver; he made others shiver. He was accustomed to walking into a hall and having the entire company sink to the ground in a terrorized faint. It was just what he did, that terrifying the bloody hell out of everyone he met. He had to admit, with extreme reluctance, that he didn’t care for it at all when that same sort of feeling tapped him on the shoulder and demanded his attention. Damn that Soilléir of Cothromaiche and all his ilk.

He should have drained the man’s bloody homeland of all its power long before now. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t considered the possibilities of that previously, and very seriously too. The actual execution of that sort of theft had turned out to be rather more daunting a prospect than he’d thought, which had forced him to shelve the idea for the time being. Perhaps ’twas past time he took the plan down and reexamined it. Soilléir had to sleep at least occasionally, surely. A wee rest for the man, a substantial bit of pilfering for himself, and then he would be saved from being turned into a lawn ornament for those damned faeries from Sìabhreach. “The choice is yours, of course,” Soilléir continued with a shrug. “No magic, or a visit to the king of the dwarves.” Acair rubbed his hands over his face. Damnation, would the torment never end? He had a drink of ale to purchase a bit of time for thinking, then decided there was no point.

He should have been paying more heed to the chess game he’d become an unwilling part of the all those many months ago. As it was, he now found himself pinned into a corner of the board where the only way out was forward. He looked at his half-brother and wondered if a last-ditch bit of honesty might save him. “I can’t go to Léige,” he said. “Can’t,” Rùnach asked, “or won’t?” “Does it matter?” Acair returned shortly. “I’ve paid especial attention to that old whoreson over the years, vexing him at every opportunity, carrying on the long and glorious tradition of my fathers. He doesn’t like me.” “King Uachdaran has a fair number of companions in that activity,” Soilléir noted. “I also may have spirited away one of his daughters for a fortnight of ale-quaffing,” Acair admitted. “Several years ago.

” Soilléir blinked several times—a sure sign of surprise. “Ale-quaffing?” Acair shrugged. “She was beautiful and I have a weakness for handsome wenches. Decent ale too.” Rùnach looked at him, then laughed. Acair cursed them both but that didn’t seem to leave much of an impression. “He doesn’t like me,” Acair said stiffly, “and that is all you need to know. I will not set foot in Durial.” Rùnach was apparently having difficulty breathing. “Please tell me your dealings with that poor gel were limited to pub crawls.

” “Hardly even that,” Acair said grimly. “She called me a very unkind name at the first establishment, clunked me over the head with a chair, then scampered off with an elf from your mother’s homeland, an opportunistic lad who will remain unnamed for his own protection.” “Though you would spew out his name in a heartbeat if you thought it would save you,” Rùnach said, still grinning like the idiot he was. “Well, of course I would,” Acair said. “You would too—you can’t deny it.” “Depends on the elf,” Rùnach said, then he looked at Soilléir. “I had wondered what had happened to her.” “Middle child,” Soilléir said wisely. “Trouble in the making.” “Apple of her father’s eye,” Acair corrected, “which is why Léige is the last place I will go.

Perhaps your memory fails you, Rùnach my lad, but I didn’t go with you half a year ago when you wanted company. Now you know why.” “Ah, but the king has since made a special request that you come for a visit,” Rùnach said. “Who am I to deny him his whims? Either go, or be without magic for a century.” Acair could scarce believe he was having his current conversation. “Have you lost all your wits?” he said incredulously. “I’m not going to give up magic for a fortnight, much less . well, I’m not even going to dignify that suggestion by repeating it.” He looked at Soilléir narrowly. “I suppose that leaves you with only one choice, which is to take it from me.

” “I wouldn’t dream of it.” Acair grunted, not believing that for a moment, then considered the pair thoughtfully. There was something else afoot, something he didn’t care for. Those two there had dragged him with them all over the Nine Kingdoms for months, showing him off like a prized monkey, humiliating him at every turn. Surely they’d had enough of that sort of entertainment to suit even their unwholesome need for the same. Nay, there was something else going on. But simply asking certainly wouldn’t provide him with answers. He would have to play the fool for a bit longer. Unpleasant, but he obviously had no choice. The things he had been forced to do .

He made a production of nodding knowingly. “I see where this is headed. You do indeed fear my mighty power and despite your fine words you want it for yourselves.” Rùnach only lifted his eyebrows briefly. “An interesting thought, but nay. I have enough magic of my own, thank you just the same. I would suspect my lord Soilléir feels the same way.” Acair couldn’t believe Rùnach would be satisfied with anything that wasn’t more, but what did he know? Soilléir likely had too much of it, but what decent mage wasn’t interested in adding to his cache of spells? Nay, mischief was being made right there in front of him and he didn’t care for it when he wasn’t the one at the helm, as it were. But if he’d learned anything over the past several months, it was that his companions were tight-lipped about their plans. He was going to have to pretend to go along with their plans until they made a misstep and he could see what they were truly about.

Patience wasn’t anything that came easily to him, but if having it at present would win him freedom from the meddling ways of the two alewives sitting across from him, he would use any last bits of it he might still possess. He would pay the price, but not gladly and he would certainly take note of every pesky moment of it for use later. He didn’t like to admit any sort of defeat, but he knew when to pause and retrench. The inability to do that was his sire’s fatal flaw, a flaw he had no intention of allowing to take root in himself. “Very well,” he said heavily, “let’s have this over with. To spare myself an endless existence on the front stoop of some mindless faery, as well as secure the guarantee that I’ll never have to encounter either of you again unless there are spells of death involved, I will agree to a month without magic.” “A century, Acair,” Soilléir said mildly. “Absurd,” Acair said. “Two months and no more.” Soilléir only looked at him.

Acair managed to keep himself from rubbing his arms against the sudden chill that blew over him but damn it if he couldn’t keep himself from shifting. “Very well, a year,” he snarled. “And not a heartbeat longer.” Soilléir and Rùnach exchanged a look. Acair sensed a softening of the resolve of the pair, something he didn’t dare disturb with even a mild epitaph. Soilléir looked at him. “Very well, then,” he said. “A year. Upon your honor.” Acair refused to respond to that.

“I assume you are leaving me free to roam where I choose to,” he said. Considering the number of souls he had been less-than-friendly with in the past, the list of places where he might find sanctuary was very short indeed. There was, of course, no use in pointing that out. The two fools across from him knew that very well. “Oh, nay,” Rùnach said, with a feeble attempt at solemnity, “we wouldn’t dream of leaving you so —how shall I put it, my lord Soilléir?” “Exposed,” Soilléir said. “Exposed,” Rùnach agreed. He smiled. “We wouldn’t want you to be vulnerable, of course, which is why we’ve selected an appropriate destination for you. Lots of opportunities there to do good. You’ve become so adept at that sort of thing, we thought you might want to keep on with it for a bit longer.

” Acair thought many things but decided it would be best if he didn’t voice any of them. He would have attempted a smile but found it was simply beyond him. He settled for something just short of a grimace. “Where?” “Sàraichte,” Rùnach said, looking terribly pleased with himself. “A stroke of genius, if I do admit as much myself.” Acair was past surprise. “Indeed.” “I suggest a labor of some kind,” Soilléir said thoughtfully. “With your hands.” Besides wrapping them around your neck? was what came first to mind, but Acair decided that was perhaps something also better left unsaid.

If he didn’t get away from the pair of imbeciles in front of him, he was never going to be able to speak again. “I don’t need a labor when I can . ” He paused and frowned. It was going to be a bit difficult to feed himself if he couldn’t pluck the odd piece of Nerochian gold out of thin air now and again. “I’ll need magic to conjure up funds from time to time.” “Use it and become a conversation piece for a faery,” Rùnach said. “Isn’t that right, my lord Soilléir?” “That did seem to be our bargain.” Acair wriggled his jaw to loosen it. There had been no bargain; there had simply been a chess game that he’d played very badly. But Sàraichte? Could there be a place in the whole of the Nine Kingdoms less appealing? Well, he supposed there could be and he could name several of them without effort, so perhaps he would be better off to simply keep his mouth shut and carry on as if he were bested yet again.

He looked at his companions coolly. “Very well, I’ll go,” he said with as much politeness as he could muster. “I don’t suppose that as a courtesy you two would spot me a sovereign or two to help me on my way, would you?” Meager funds were produced and pushed across the table. Acair collected them—he was a pragmatist, after all—and pocketed them. Obviously, he would be sleeping under the stars more than he cared to, but he couldn’t see how anything could be done about that at present. But later? Aye, there would be retribution. He stood up and pulled his cloak around his shoulders. “Don’t make this any worse for yourselves,” he warned. “And you know exactly what I mean by that.” Rùnach lifted his cup up in salute.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” “Oh,” Soilléir said, holding up his hand, “one more thing. You are forbidden to reveal your identity to anyone who doesn’t already know you.” Of course. Acair glared at Soilléir. “Anything else?” “If I think of anything, I’ll let you know.”

.

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