The great domes of the city of Gyree dazzled blue and red when the sun shone through a break in the clouds, and for a moment Cer Cemreet thought he saw some of the glory his uncles talked about in the late night tales of the old days of Greet. But the capital did not look dazzling up close, Cer remembered bitterly. Now dogs ran in the streets and rats lived in the wreckage of the palace, and the King of Greet lived in New Gyree in the hills far to the north, where the armies of the enemy could not go. Yet.
The sun went back behind a cloud and the city looked dark again. A Nefyr patrol was riding briskly on the Hetterwee Road far to the north. Cer turned his gaze to the lush grass on the hill where he sat. The clouds meant rain, but probably not here, he thought. He always thought of something else when he saw a Nefyr patrol. Yes, it was too early in Hrickan for rains to fall here. This rain would fall to the north, perhaps in the land of the King of the High Mountains, or on the vast plain of Westwold where they said horses ran free but were tame for any man to ride at need. But no rain would fall in Greet until Doonse, three weeks from now. By then the wheat would all be stored and the hay would be piled in vast ricks as tall as the hill Cer sat on.
In the old days, they said, all during Doonse the great wagons from Westwold would come and carry off the hay to last them through the snow season. But not now, Cer remembered. This year and last year and the year before the wagons had come from the south and east, two-wheeled wagons with drivers who spoke, not High Westil, but the barbarian Fyrd language. Fyrd or firt, thought Cer, and laughed, for firt was a word he could not say in front of his parents. They spoke firt.
Cer looked out over the plain again. The Nefyr patrol had turned from the highway and was on the road to the hills.
The road to the hills. Cer leaped to his feet and raced down the track leading home. A patrol heading for the hills could only mean trouble.
He stopped to rest only once, when the pain in his side was too bad to bear. But the patrol had horses, and he arrived home only to see the horses of the Nefyrre gathered at his father’s gate.
Where are the uncles? Cer thought. The uncles must come.
But the uncles were not there, and Cer heard a terrible scream from inside the garden walls. He had never heard his mother scream before, but somehow he knew it was his mother, and he ran to the gate. A Nefyr soldier seized him and called out, “Here’s the boy!” in a thick accent of High Westil, so that Cer’s parents could understand. Cer’s mother screamed again, and now Cer saw why.
His father had been stripped naked, his arms and legs held by two tall Nefyrre. The Nefyr captain held his viciously curved short-sword, point up, pressing against Cer’s father’s hard-muscled stomach. As Cer and his mother watched, the sword drew blood, and the captain pushed it in to the hilt, then pulled it up to the ribs. Blood gushed. The captain had been careful not to touch the heart, and now they thrust a spear into the huge wound, and lifted it high, Cer’s father dangling from the end. They lashed the spear to the gatepost, and the blood and bowels stained the gates and the walls.
For five minutes more Cer’s father lived, his chest heaving in the agony of breath. He may have died of pain, but Cer did not think so, for his father was not the kind to give in to pain. He may have died of suffocation, for one lung was gone and every breath was excruciating, but Cer did not think so, for his father kept breathing to the end. It was loss of blood, Cer decided, weeks later. It was when his body was dry, when the veins collapsed, that Cer’s father died.
He never uttered a sound. Cer’s father would never let the Nefyrre hear him so much as sigh in pain.
Cer’s mother screamed and screamed until blood came from her mouth and she fainted.
Cer stood in silence until his father died. Then when the captain, a smirk on his face, walked near Cer and looked in his face, Cer kicked him in the groin.
They cut off Cer’s great toes, but like his father, Cer made no sound.
Then the Nefyrre left and the uncles came.
Uncle Forwin vomited. Uncle Erwin wept. Uncle Crune put his arm around Cer’s shoulder as the servants bound his maimed feet and said, “Your father was a great, brave man. He killed many Nefyrre, and burned many wagons. But the Nefyrre are strong.”
Uncle Crune squeezed Cer’s shoulder. “Your father was stronger. But he was one, and they were many.”
Cer looked away.
“Will you not look at your uncle?” Uncle Crune asked.
“My father,” Cer said, “did not think that he was alone.”
Uncle Crune got up and walked away. Cer never saw the uncles again.
He and his mother had to leave the house and the fields, for a Nefyr farmer had been given the land to farm for the King of Nefyryd. With no money, they had to move south, across the River Greebeck into the drylands near the desert, where no rivers flowed and so only the hardiest plants lived. They lived the winter on the charity of the desperately poor. In the summer, when the heat came, so did the Poor Plague, which swept the drylands. The cure was fresh fruits, but fresh fruits came from Yffyrd and Suffyrd and only the rich could buy them, and the poor died by the thousands. Cer’s mother was one of them.
They took her out on the sand to burn her body and free her spirit. As they painted her with tar (tar, at least, cost nothing, if a man had a bucket), five horsemen came to the brow of a dune to watch. At first Cer thought they were Nefyrre, but no. The poor people looked up and saluted the strangers, which Greetmen never do the enemy. These, then, were desert men, the Abadapnur nomads, who raided the rich farms of Greet during dry years, but who never harmed the poor.
We hated them, Cer thought, when we were rich. But now we are poor, and they are our friends.
His mother burned as the sun set.
Cer watched until the flames went out. The moon was high for the second time that night. Cer said a prayer to the moonlady over his mother’s bones and ashes and then he turned and left.
He stopped at their hut and gathered the little food they had, and put on his father’s tin ring, which the Nefyrre had thought was valueless, but which Cer knew was the sign of the Cemreet family’s authority since forever ago.
Then Cer walked north.
He lived by killing rats in barns and cooking them. He lived by begging at poor farmer’s doors, for the rich farmers had servants to turn away beggars. That, at least, Cer remembered, his father had never done. Beggars always had a meal at his father’s house.
Cer also lived by stealing when he could hunt or beg no food. He stole handfuls of raw wheat. He stole carrots from gardens. He stole water from wells, for which he could have lost his life in the rainless season. He stole, one time, a fruit from a rich man’s food wagon.
It burned his mouth, it was so cold and the acid so strong. It dribbled down his chin. As a poor man and a thief, Cer thought, I now eat a thing so dear that even my father, who was called wealthy, could never buy it.
And at last he saw the mountains in the north. He walked on, and in a week the mountains were great cliffs and steep slopes of shale. The Mitherkame, where the king of the High Mountains reigned, and Cer began to climb.
He climbed all day and slept in a cleft of a rock. He moved slowly, for climbing in sandals was clumsy, and without his great toes Cer could not climb barefoot. The next morning he climbed more. Though he nearly fell one time when falling would have meant crashing a mile down into the distant plain, at last he reached the knifelike top of the Mitherkame, and heaven.
For of a sudden the stone gave way to soil. Not the pale sandy soil of the drylands, nor the red soil of the Greet, but the dark black soil of the old songs from the north, the soil that could not be left alone for a day or it would sprout plants that in a week would be a forest.
And there was a forest, and the ground was thick with grass. Cer had seen only a few trees in his life, and they had been olive trees, short and gnarled, and fig sycamores, that were three times the height of a man. These were twenty times the height of a man and ten steps around, and the young trees shot up straight and tall so that not a sapling was as small as Cer, who for twelve years old was not considered small.
To Cer, who had known only wheat and hay and olive orchards, the forest was more magnificent than the mountain or the city or the river or the moon.
He slept under a huge tree. He was very cold that night. And in the morning he realized that in a forest he would find no farms, and where there were no farms there was no food for him. He got up and walked deeper into the forest. There were people in the High Mountains, else there would be no king, and Cer would find them. If he didn’t, he would die. But at least he would not die in the realms of the Nefyrre.
He passed many bushes with edible berries, but he did not know they could be eaten so he did not eat. He passed many streams with slow stupid fish that he could have caught, but in Greet fish were never eaten, because it always carried disease, and so Cer caught no fish.
And on the third day, when he began to feel so weak from hunger that he could walk no longer, he met the treemage.
He met him because it was the coldest night yet, and at last Cer tore branches from a tree to make a fire. But the wood did not light, and when Cer looked up he saw that the trees had moved. They were coming closer, surrounding him tightly. He watched them, and they did not move as he watched, but when he turned around the ones he had not been watching were closer yet. He tried to run, but the low branches made a tight fence he could not get through. He couldn’t climb, either, because the branches all stabbed downward. Bleeding from the twigs he had scraped, Cer went back to his camping place and watched as the trees at last made a solid wall around him.
And he waited. What else could he do in his wooden prison?
In the morning he heard a man singing, and he called for help.
“Oh ho,” he heard a voice say in a strange accent. “Oh ho, a tree cutter and a firemaker, a branch killer and a forest hater.”
“I’m none of those,” Cer said. “It was cold, and I tried to build a fire only to keep warm.”
“A fire, a fire,” the voice said. “In this small part of the world there are no fires of wood. But that’s a young voice I hear, and I doubt there’s a beard beneath the words.”
“I have no beard,” Cer answered. “I have no weapon, except a knife too small to harm you.”
“A knife? A knife that tears sap from living limbs, Redwood says. A knife that cuts twigs like soft manfingers, says Elm. A knife that stabs bark till it bleeds, says Sweet Aspen. Break your knife,” said the voice outside the trees, “and I will open your prison.”
“But it’s my only knife,” Cer protested, “and I need it.”
“You need it here like you need fog on a dark night. Break it or you’ll die before these trees move again.”
Cer broke his knife.
Behind him a heard a sound, and he turned to see a fat old man standing in a clear space between the trees. A moment before there had been no clear space.
“A child,” said the man.
“A fat old man,” said Cer, angry at being considered as young as his years.
“An illbred child at that,” said the man. “But perhaps he knows no better, for from the accent of his speech I would say he comes from Greetland, and from his clothing I would say he was poor, and it’s well known in Mitherwee that there are no manners in Greet.”
Cer snatched up the blade of his knife and ran at the man. Somehow there were many sharp-pointed branches in the way, and his hand ran into a hard limb, knocking the blade to the ground.
“Oh, my child,” said the man kindly. “There is death in your heart.”
The branches were gone, and the man reached out his hands and touched Cer’s face. Cer jerked away.
“And the touch of a man brings pain to you.” The man sighed. “How inside out your world must be.”
Cer looked at the man coldly. He could endure taunting. But was that kindness in the old man’s eyes?
“You look hungry,” said the old man.
Cer said nothing.
“If you care to follow me, you may. I have food for you, if you like.”
Cer followed him.
They went through the forest, and Cer noticed that the old man stopped to touch many of the trees. And a few he pointedly snubbed, turning his back or taking a wider route around them. Once he stopped and spoke to a tree that had lost a large limb—recently, too, Cer thought, because the tar on the stump was still soft. “Soon there’ll be no pain at all,” the old man said to the tree. Then the old man sighed again. “Ah, yes, I know. And many a walnut in the falling season.”
Then they reached a house. If it could be called a house, Cer thought. Stones were the walls, which was common enough in Greet, but the roof was living wood—thick branches from nine tall trees, interwoven and heavily leaved, so that Cer was sure no drop of rain could ever come inside.
“You admire my roof?” the old man asked. “So tight that even in the winter, when the leaves are gone, the snow cannot come in. But we can,” he said, and led the way through a door into a single room.
The old man kept up a constant chatter as he fixed breakfast: berries and cream, stewed acorns, and thick slices of cornbread. The old man named all the foods for Cer, because except for the cream it was all strange to him. But it was good, and it filled him.
“Acorn from the Oaks,” said the old man. “Walnuts from the trees of that name. And berries from the bushes, and neartrees. Corn, of course, comes from an untree, a weak plant with no wood, which dies every year.”
“The trees don’t die every year, then, even though it snows?” Cer asked, for he had heard of snow.
“Their leaves turn bright colors, and then they fall, and perhaps that’s a kind of death,” said the man. “But in Eanan the snow melts and by Blowan there are leaves again on all the trees.”
Cer did not believe him, but he didn’t disbelieve him either. Trees were strange things.
“I never knew that trees in the High Mountains could move.”
“Oh ho,” laughed the old man. “And neither can they, except here, and other woods that a treemage tends.”
“A treemage? Is there magic then?”
“Magic. Oh ho,” the man laughed again. “Ah yes, magic, many magics, and mine is the magic of trees.”
Cer squinted. The man did not look like a man of power, and yet the trees had penned an intruder in. “You rule the trees here?”
“Rule?” the old man asked, startled. “What a thought. Indeed no. I serve them. I protect them. I give them the power in me, and they give me the power in them, and it makes us all a good deal more powerful. But rule? That just doesn’t enter into magic. What a thought.”
Then the old man chattered about the doings of the silly squirrels this year, and when Cer was through eating the old man gave him a bucket and they spent the morning gathering berries. “Leave a berry on the bush for every one you pick,” the old man said. “They’re for the birds in the fall and for the soil in the Kamesun, when new bushes grow.”
And so Cer, quite accidentally, began his life with the treemage, and it was as happy a time as Cer ever had in his life, except when he was a child and his mother sang to him and except for the time his father took him hunting deer in the hills of Wetfell.
And after the autumn when Cer marveled at the colors of the leaves, and after the winter when Cer tramped through the snow with the treemage to tend to ice-splintered branches, and after the spring when Cer thinned the new plants so the forest did not become overgrown, the treemage began to think that the dark places in Cer’s heart were filled with light, or at least put away where they could not be found.
He was wrong.
For as he gathered leaves for the winter’s fires Cer dreamed he was gathering the bones of his enemies. And as he tramped the snow he dreamed he was marching into battle to wreak death on the Nefyrre. And as he thinned the treestarts Cer dreamed of slaying each of the uncles as his father had been slain, because none of them had stood by him in his danger.
Cer dreamed of vengeance, and his heart grew darker even as the wood was filled with the bright light of the summer sun.
One day he said to the treemage, “I want to learn magic.”
The treemage smiled with hope. “You’re learning it,” he said, “and I’ll gladly teach you more.”
“I want to learn things of power.”
“Ah,” said the treemage, disappointed. “Ah, then, you can have no magic.”
“You have power,” said Cer. “I want it also.”
“Oh, indeed,” said the treemage. “I have the power of two legs and two arms, the power to heat tar over a peat fire to stop the sap flow from broken limbs, the power to cut off diseased branches to save the tree, the power to teach the trees how and when to protect themselves. All the rest is the power of the trees, and none of it is mine.”
“But they do your bidding,” said Cer.
“Because I do theirs!” the treemage said, suddenly angry. “Do you think that there is slavery in this wood? Do you think I am a king? Only men allow men to rule them. Here in this wood there is only love, and on that love and by that love the trees and I have the magic of the wood.”
Cer looked down, disappointed. The treemage misunderstood, and thought that Cer was contrite.
“Ah, my boy,” said the treemage. “You haven’t learned it, I see. The root of magic is love, the trunk is service. The treemages love the trees and serve them and then they share treemagic with the trees. Lightmages love the sun and make fires at night, and the fire serves them as they serve the fire. Horsemages love and serve horses, and they ride freely whither they will because of the magic in the herd. There is field magic and plain magic, and the magic of rocks and metals, songs and dances, the magic of winds and weathers. All built on love, all growing through service.”
“I must have magic,” said Cer.
“Must you?” asked the treemage. “Must you have magic? There are kinds of magic, then, that you might have. But I can’t teach them to you.”
“What are they?”
“No,” said the treemage, and he wouldn’t speak again.
Cer thought and thought. What magic could be demanded against anyone’s will?
And at last, when he had badgered and nagged the treemage for weeks, the treemage angrily gave in. “Will you know then?” the treemage snapped. “I will tell you. There is seamagic, where the wicked sailors serve the monsters of the deep by feeding them living flesh. Would you do that?” But Cer only waited for more.
“So that appeals to you,” said the treemage. “Then you will be delighted at desert magic.”
And now Cer saw a magic he might use. “How is that performed?”
“I know not,” said the treemage icily. “It is the blackest of the magics to men of my kind, though your dark heart might leap to it. There’s only one magic darker.”
“And what is that?” asked Cer.
“What a fool I was to take you in,” said the treemage. “The wounds in your heart, you don’t want them to heal; you love to pick at them and let them fester.”
“What is the darkest magic?” demanded Cer.
“The darkest magic,” said the treemage, “is one, thank the moon, that you can never practice. For to do it you have to love men and love the love of men more than your own life. And love is as far from you as the sea is from the mountains, as the earth is from the sky.”
“The sky touches the earth,” said Cer.
“Touches, but never do they meet,” said the treemage.
Then the treemage handed Cer a basket, which he had just filled with bread and berries and a flagon of streamwater. “Now go.”
“Go?” asked Cer.
“I hoped to cure you, but you won’t have a cure. You clutch at your suffering too much to be healed.”
Cer reached out his foot toward the treemage, the crusty scars still a deep red where his great toe had been.
“As well you might try to restore my foot.”
“Restore?” asked the treemage. “I restore nothing. But I staunch, and heal, and I help the trees forget their lost limbs. For if they insist on rushing sap to the limb as if it were still there, they lose all their sap; they dry, they wither, they die.”
Cer took the basket.
“Thank you for your kindness,” said Cer. “I’m sorry that you don’t understand. But just as the tree can never forgive the ax or the flame, there are those that must die before I can truly live again.”
“Get out of my wood,” said the treemage. “Such darkness has no place here.”
And Cer left, and in three days came to the edge of the Mitherkame, and in two days reached the bottom of the cliffs, and in a few weeks reached the desert. For he would learn desertmagic. He would serve the sand, and the sand would serve him.
On the way the soldiers of Nefyryd stopped him and searched him. Now all the farms were farmed by Nefyrre, men of the south who had never owned land before. They drove him away, afraid that he might steal. So he snuck back in the night and from his father’s storehouse stole meat and from his father’s barn stole a chicken.
He crossed the Greebeck to the drylands and gave the meat and the chicken to the poor people there. He lived with them for a few days. And then he went out into the desert.
He wandered in the desert for a week before he ran out of food and water. He tried everything to find the desertmage. He spoke to the hot sand and the burning rocks as the treemage had spoken to the trees. But the sand was never injured and did not need a healing touch, and the rocks could not be harmed and so they needed no protection. There was no answer when Cer talked, except the wind which cast sand in his eyes. And at last Cer lay dying on the sand, his skin caked and chafed and burnt, his clothing long since tattered away into nothing, his flagon burning hot and filled with sand, his eyes blind from the whiteness of the desert.
He could neither love nor serve the desert, for the desert needed nothing from him and there was neither beauty nor kindness to love.
But he refused to die without having vengeance. Refused to die so long that he was still alive when the Abadapnu tribesmen found him. They gave him water and nursed him back to health. It took weeks, and they had to carry him on a sledge from waterhole to waterhole.
And as they traveled with their herds and their horses, the Abadapnur carried Cer farther and farther away from the Nefyrre and the land of Greet.
Cer regained his senses slowly, and learned the Abadapnu language even more slowly. But at last, as the clouds began to gather for the winter rains, Cer was one of the tribe, considered a man because he had a beard, considered wise because of the dark look on his face that remained even on those rare times when he laughed.
He never spoke of his past, though the Abadapnur knew well enough what the tin ring on his finger meant and why he had only eight toes. And they, with the perfect courtesy of the incurious, asked him nothing.
He learned their ways. He learned that starving on the desert was foolish, that dying of thirst was unnecessary. He learned how to trick the desert into yielding up life. “For,” said the tribemaster, “the desert is never willing that anything should live.”
Cer remembered that. The desert wanted nothing to live. And he wondered if that was a key to desertmagic. Or was it merely a locked door that he could never open? How can you serve and be served by the sand that wants only your death? How could he get vengeance if he was dead? “Though I would gladly die if my dying could kill my father’s killers,” he said to his horse one day. The horse hung her head, and would only walk for the rest of the day, though Cer kicked her to try to make her run.
Finally one day, impatient that he was doing nothing to achieve his revenge, Cer went to the tribemaster and asked him how one learned the magic of sand.
“Sandmagic? You’re mad,” said the tribemaster. For days the tribemaster refused to look at him, let alone answer his questions, and Cer realized that here on the desert the sandmagic was hated as badly as the treemage hated it. Why? Wouldn’t such power make the Abadapnur great?
Or did the tribemaster refuse to speak because the Abadapnur did not know the sandmagic?
But they knew it.
And one day the tribemaster came to Cer and told him to mount and follow.
They rode in the early morning before the sun was high, then slept in a cave in a rocky hill during the heat of the day. In the dusk they rode again, and at night they came to the city.
“Ettuie,” whispered the tribemaster, and then they rode their horses to the edge of the ruins.
The sand had buried the buildings up to half their height, inside and out, and even now the breezes of evening stirred the sand and built little dunes against the walls. The buildings were made of stone, rising not to domes like the great cities of the Greetmen but to spires, tall towers that seemed to pierce the sky.
“Ikikietar,” whispered the tribemaster, “Ikikiaiai re dapii. O ikikiai etetur o abadapnur, ikikiai re dapii.”
“What are the ‘knives’?” asked Cer. “And how could the sand kill them?”
“The knives are these towers, but they are also the stars of power.”
“What power?” asked Cer eagerly.
“No power for you. Only power for Etetur, for they were wise. They had the manmagic.”
Manmagic. Was that the darkest magic spoken of by the treemage?
“Is there a magic more powerful than manmagic?” Cer asked.
“In the mountains, no,” said the tribemaster. “On the well-watered plain, in the forest, on the sea, no.”
“But in the desert?”
“A huu par eiti ununura,” muttered the tribemaster, making the sign against death. “Only the desert power. Only the magic of the sand.”
“I want to know,” said Cer.
“Once,” the tribemaster said, “once there was a mighty empire here. Once a great river flowed here, and rain fell, and the soil was rich and red like the soil of Greet, and a million people lived under the rule of the King of Ettue Dappa. But not all, for far to the west there lived a few who hated Ettue and the manmagic of the kings, and they forget the tools that undid this city.
“They made the wind blow from the desert. They made the rains run off the earth. By their power the river sank into the desert sand, and the fields bore no fruit, and at last the King of Ettue surrendered, and half his kingdom was given to the sandmages. To the dapinur. That western kingdom became Dapnu Dap.”
“A kingdom?” said Cer, surprised. “But now the great desert bears that name.”
“And once the great desert was no desert, but a land of grasses and grains like your homeland to the north. The sandmages weren’t content with half a kingdom, and they used their sandmagic to make a desert of Ettue, and they covered the lands of rebels with sand, until at last the victory of the desert was complete, and Ettue fell to the armies of Greet and Nefyryd—they were allies then—and we of Dapnu Dap became nomads, living off that tiny bit of life that even the harshest desert cannot help but yield.”
“And what of the sandmages?” asked Cer.
“We killed them.”
“All,” said the tribemaster. “And if any man will practice sandmagic, today, we will kill him. For what happened to us we will let happen to no other people.”
Cer saw the knife in the tribemaster’s hand.
“I will have your vow,” said the tribemaster. “Swear before these stars and this sand and the ghosts of all who lived in this city that you will seek no sandmagic.”
“I swear,” said Cer, and the tribemaster put his knife away.
The next day Cer took his horse and a bow and arrows and all the food he could steal and in the heat of the day when everyone slept he went out into the desert. They followed him, but he slew two with arrows and the survivors lost his trail.
Word spread through the tribes of the Abadapnur that a would-be sandmage was loose in the desert, and all were ready to kill him if he came. But he did not come.
For he knew now how to serve the desert, and how to make the desert serve him. For the desert loved death, and hated grasses and trees and water and the things of life.
So in service of the sand Cer went to the edge of the land of the Nefyrre, east of the desert. There he fouled wells with the bodies of diseased animals. He burned fields when the wind was blowing off the desert, a dry wind that pushed the flames into the cities. He cut down trees. He killed sheep and cattle. And when the Nefyrre patrols chased him he fled onto the desert where they could not follow.
His destruction was annoying, and impoverished many a farmer, but alone it would have done little to hurt the Nefyrre. Except that Cer felt his power over the desert growing. For he was feeding the desert the only thing it hungered for: death and dryness.
He began to speak to the sand again, not kindly, but of land to the east that the sand could cover. And the wind followed his words, whipping the sand, moving the dunes. Where he stood the wind did not touch him, but all around him the dunes moved like waves of the sea.
Moving into the lands of the Nefyrre.
And now the hungry desert could do in a night a hundred times more than Cer could do alone with a torch or a knife. It ate olive groves in an hour. The sand borne on the wind filled houses in a night, buried cities in a week, and in only three months had driven the Nefyrre across the Greebeck and the Nefyr River, where they thought the terrible sandstorms could not follow.
But the storms followed. Cer taught the desert almost to fill the river, so that the water spread out a foot deep and miles wide, flooding some lands that had been dry, but also leaving more water surface for the sun to drink from; and before the river reached the sea it was dry, and the desert swept across into the heart of Nefyryd.
The Nefyrre had always fought with the force of arms, and cruelty was their companion in war. But against the desert they were helpless. They could not fight the sand. If Cer could have known it, he would have gloried in the fact that, untaught, he was the most powerful sandmage who had ever lived. For hate was a greater teacher than any of the books of dark lore, and Cer lived on hate.
And on hate alone, for now he ate and drank nothing, sustaining his body through the power of the wind and the heat of the sun. He was utterly dry, and the blood no longer coursed through his veins. He lived on the energy of the storms he unleashed. And the desert eagerly fed him, because he was feeding the desert.
He followed his storms, and walked through the deserted towns of the Nefyrre. He saw the refugees rushing north and east to the high ground. He saw the corpses of those caught in the storm. And he sang at night the old songs of Greet, the war songs. He wrote his father’s name with chalk on the wall of every city he destroyed. He wrote his mother’s name in the sand, and where he had written her name the wind did not blow and the sand did not shift, but preserved the writing as if it had been incised on rock.
Then one day, in a lull between his storms, Cer saw a man coming toward him from the east. Abadapnu, he wondered, or Nefyrre? Either way he drew his knife, and fit the nock of an arrow on his bowstring.
But the man came with his hands extended, and he called out, “Cer Cemreet.”
It had never occurred to Cer that anyone knew his name.
“Sandmage Cer Cemreet,” said the man when he was close. “We have found who you are.”
Cer said nothing, but only watched the man’s eyes.
“I have come to tell you that your vengeance is full. Nefyryd is at its knees. We have signed a treaty with Greet and we no longer raid into Hetterwee. Driplin has seized our westernmost lands.”
Cer smiled. “I care nothing for your empire.”
“Then for our people. The deaths of your father and mother have been avenged a hundred thousand times, for over two hundred thousand people have died at your hands.”
Cer chuckled. “I care nothing for your people.”
“Then for the soldiers who did the deed. Though they acted under orders, they have been arrested and killed, as have the men who gave them those orders, even our first general, all at the command of the King so that your vengeance will be complete. I have brought you their ears as proof of it,” said the man, and he took a pouch from his waist.
“I care nothing for the soldiers, nor for proof of vengeance,” said Cer.
“Then what do you care for?” asked the man quietly.
“Death,” said Cer.
“Then I bring you that, too,” said the man, and a knife was in his hand, and he plunged the knife into Cer’s breast where his heart should have been. But when the man pulled the knife out no blood followed, and Cer only smiled.
“Indeed you brought it to me,” said Cer, and he stabbed the man where his father had been stabbed, and drew the knife up as it had been drawn through his father’s body, except that he touched the man’s heart, and he died.
As Cer watched the blood soaking into the sand, he heard in his ears his mother’s screams, which he had silenced for these years. He heard her screams and now, remembering his father and his mother and himself as a child he began to cry, and he held the body of the man he had killed and rocked back and forth on the sand as the blood clotted on his clothing and his skin. His tears mixed with the blood and poured into the sand and Cer realized that this was the first time since his father’s death that he had shed any tears at all.
I am not dry, thought Cer. There is water under me still for the desert to drink.
He looked at his dry hands, covered with the man’s blood, and tried to scrub off the clotted blood with sand. But the blood stayed, and the sand could not clean him.
He wept again. And then he stood and faced the desert to the west, and he said, “Come.”
A breeze began.
“Come,” he said to the desert, “come and dry my eyes.”
And the wind came up, and the sand came, and Cer Cemreet was buried in the sand, and his eyes became dry, and the last life passed from his body, and the last sandmage passed from the world.
Then came the winter rains, and the refugees of Nefyryd returned to their land. The soldiers were called home, for the wars were over, and now their weapons were the shovel and the plow. They redug the trench of the Nefyr and the Greebeck, and the river soon flowed deep again to the sea. They scattered grass seed and cleaned their houses of sand. They carried water into the ruined fields with ditches and aqueducts.
Slowly life returned to Nefyryd.
And the desert, having lost its mage, retreated quietly to its old borders, never again to seek death where there was life. Plenty of death already where nothing lived, plenty of dryness to drink where there was no water.
In a wood a little way from the crest of the Mitherkame, a treemage heard the news from a wandering tinker.
The treemage went out into the forest and spoke softly to the Elm, to the Oak, to the Redwood, to the Sweet Aspen. And when all had heard the news, the forest wept for Cer Cemreet, and each tree gave a twig to be burned in his memory, and shed sap to sink into the ground in his name.
© 1979 by Orson Scott Card.
Originally appeared in Swords Against Darkness IV, edited by Andrew J. Offutt.
Reprinted by permission of the author.