After she finished her meal, the steerswoman sat back in her chair and surveyed the inn. It wasn't very big: a dozen tables, and almost half of them were empty. More seats might have been empty if not for the attraction an outside visitor presented, and a steerswoman at that. A few heads turned away, embarrassed to be caught watching, but one women came over to sit down at her table.
"Tell me, lady," the woman said, "what brings you to our village?"
"I'm passing through on my way further north."
The woman nodded, as if she'd expected that answer. "I'm Maren." She appeared to be in her thirties. Her clothes were sturdy, but of good quality, and the jewelry she wore spoke of wealth. A merchant, possibly. She looked friendly, if a bit cautious.
"Rowan," the steerswoman introduced herself.
"Are you coming up from Wulfshaven? I heard they're having a big," Maren made a vague hand gesture, "thing there, this year."
"The Academy, yes." Usually the Academy was held in a different location each time. It was in Wulfshaven for the second time in a row because of the Prime's health, and because Corvus' presence in the city made it unlikely that it would be targeted by other wizards.
"It's where new steerswomen – or rather, people who want to join the Steerswomen – gather to become educated. Many steerswomen and teachers from all over the Inner Lands come together to teach and exchange information."
"It sounds interesting," Maren said politely.
"It is." Rowan had been looking forward to it for months: the excitement and enthusiasm of the new trainees, the general atmosphere of curiosity and a thirst for knowledge, the sharing of experiences and theories and stories. The Academy was the only time almost all steerswomen congregated in one place, and it would be wonderful to meet all her sisters again who she hadn't seen in years.
"Why aren't you there, then?"
It was a question she had asked herself several times already. She had had good reasons for leaving, but that didn't completely erase the regret about missing the beginning of it. "I received a message that meant I had to leave. I have family in the north." Taken separately, both sentences were completely true.
"I'm sorry," Maren said. "Is it urgent?"
"Hopefully not quite as dramatic as that," Rowan said. "I also haven't been in the north in a long time. I'm interested in seeing what changed."
Maren shrugged. "Not much. Our village got a little bigger, but thanks to our wizard, the crops are growing well."
Many people were interested in a wizard's dealings, especially one as reclusive as Isara. Rowan tried to sound natural as she said, "It's good if there are no problems with your wizard."
"Oh?" Maren frowned.
"There's a new wizard in Donner. People are afraid it will mean another war." A new wizard establishing their holding usually did.
Maren sighed. "People are always afraid of that. We haven't noticed anything in particular." She quirked her lips and shrugged when she saw Rowan's surprised reaction. "But what do we know of what the wizard is doing in her tower?"
"Her wizard's tower. It's in that forest over there," she pointed over her shoulder. "Only half a day from here."
That was a lot closer than expected. The steerswomen's records placed Isara's home at least two days' travel in a different direction. "I've heard Isara lives in a hut."
"She has that too. Who knows what she needs two buildings for. Maybe she has the tower so she feels safe at night."
Rowan leaned back. She'd researched as much as possible about Isara at the Archives, and she'd subtly tried to question people in the villages she'd passed, but she hadn't heard about this tower before. There could be several reasons for that, of course; but it was curious for the information to be so suddenly dropped right into her lap. She hadn't even been in the village for more than an hour.
Maren was looking at her, waiting patiently for her to process the information. Rowan's first impressions of her had been friendliness and caution: not someone she would have expected to casually volunteer information that apparently wasn't known outside of the village. She had even included directions and a hint to when the wizard was expected to be there.
Maren was wearing a necklace: a wooden pendant, about two inches high and wide. It wasn't of a style Rowan recognized, and although she was no expert in such things, from what she had seen in passing she didn't think it was a current fashion. The rest of Maren's jewelry, her ear rings and rings and brooch, were made from metal.
Fletcher's wooden cross had been a wizard's link.
It could be a coincidence, Rowan reminded herself. Every wizard's minion carried a "link," which Willam had said could have many shapes, but Maren's necklace might simply hold sentimental value. It would do no good to become paranoid.
Nevertheless, it was better to be cautious than careless. If Maren was a wizard's minion, then the tower must be a trap. The other villagers would almost certainly confirm what Maren had said, but so had everyone in the village near Shammer and Dhree's fortress when the wizards had placed a fake jeweler there. If this village was so close to one of Isara's buildings, it was no surprise that the wizard would have stationed one of her minions here. Or maybe the entire village directly served Isara.
Why would a wizard's minion try to lead her into a trap? It was unlikely that Isara would recognize or expect Rowan in particular, much less Maren. Was the trap made for any steerswoman? They had been very careful not to let the wizards know of their investigations. Or were there other criteria for victims that Rowan happened to meet? Or were there other outside criteria, like times or dates?
Furthermore, what was the trap meant to do? If Isara or Maren just meant to kill her, Maren could have killed Rowan in the village, possibly at night in her sleep, or laid an ambush on the road. The villagers would surely help her hide the evidence if necessary. Did Isara, or Maren, mean for Rowan to see something, or did Isara want something from her?
If Bel were here, she would call it a foolish risk, especially since Rowan was on her own. If Bel were here Rowan would feel a lot more confident about the entire situation. Still, it was an opportunity Rowan could not let pass by.
She would be very cautious, and she knew a lot more than Isara could expect. There was a good chance that she would be able to avoid or escape the trap and learn valuable information about Isara's plans. So far, very little was known about Isara, and any new information could be helpful.
Maren was still watching her. Rowan hoped that her long silence had not appeared suspicious.
"Wizards are mysterious," Rowan said, keeping her face blank.
"Yeah." Maren shrugged and changed the topic. "How long are you planning to stay?"
When would be the best time to spring the trap? Best to follow her original plans, so as not to reveal that she suspected anything. It had rained heavily the past few days, but the weather promised to clear up the next day, so she would travel on.
"I'm planning to leave tomorrow."
The only roads out of the village went north and south, with a smaller path leading west to the river Wulf. The forested hill lay north-west. The village was surrounded by fields on all sides, and consequently any traveler was clearly visible for miles.
It made Rowan uncomfortable, even though Maren had surely already told Isara about her. Isara might be watching her at that very moment. Wizards had many ways of spying on people, even the Guidestars, and there was no way to know if she was being watched from a Guidestar. Rowan carefully watched any birds she saw for unusual behavior, but so far she had not noticed anything that stood out to her. Nevertheless, when she reached the crossing with the road leading to the hill, Rowan made a show of deliberating and then giving in to curiosity.
As Rowan neared the hill she expected to see the wizard's tower, but to her surprise she could recognize no artificial structure. Had the other steerswomen who had traveled this route similarly missed it, or had the tower not existed yet? There was another possibility: that a steerswoman might have discovered the tower, run straight into the wizard's trap, and either been made to forget about it or disappeared altogether. Rowan tried to remember if any steerswomen had vanished on this route in the past few decades. It wouldn't have caused alarm: steerswomen did go missing on their travels occasionally, and by the time the order found out it was often impossible to retrace their steps and find out what had happened to them.
Around noon she reached the edge of the forest, where the path stopped. If there was a wizard's tower on the hill she would have expected at least some signs of supplies or reports being delivered. Either the people going there deliberately tried not to leave obvious tracks, which the recent rain would have helped with, or supply trips were only rarely needed and the tracks had since disappeared, or there was another way to transport supplies, or there were no supplies necessary for this particular wizard's building. Isara was said to live in a hut, so maybe she only needed this tower for specific spells and came here rarely or for short periods of time. Rumors talked about Isara flying in a cloak made of fire and with lightning in her hands; Rowan thought that Isara was probably using something similar to the "flier" Jannik had.
Somewhere on the hill there was a trap waiting for her. Rowan walked carefully just far enough to be surrounded by the forest and then paused to take it all in: the sounds of the trees in the light wind, the rustling of the last withered leaves and the thinner and bigger branches; the sounds of the animals, the birds' calling and the rustling of mice and squirrels and one deer walking by; the different shades of brown and green on the forest floor and the trees; the smell of wet leaves and moss and wood, still lingering in the air; the peculiar stillness that forests always seemed to spread, even though they were full of life. It was the first time Rowan had been in a forest in many months, and she waited until she was familiar enough with the surroundings to feel confident that she would be able to pick up disturbances.
Maren hadn't said where on the hill the tower was. Fortunately there wasn't a lot of underbrush and in most places the trees weren't very close together, otherwise searching could have taken a very long time. Rowan first circled the edge of the forest without finding any signs of wizards and then walked upwards.
She found the tower almost on top of the mountain. It was built from solid stone, a little under twenty feet in diameter, and as high as the surrounding trees. The top of the tower was a smooth dome, and the space directly above it had been cleared of any branches.
There were windows on every floor, but not many, and they were closed with metal shutters. The tower only had one metal door, and next to it was something that looked similar to the security spell Bel and Rowan had encountered at Shammer and Dhree's stronghold. It was impossible for Rowan to say how old the building was, but there were no signs of recent construction work around it.
There was no activity that she could see, but if anyone were in the tower, watching her or waiting for her, Rowan would have no way of knowing. Covered by the trees, she could not be seen by the Guidestars from above, but Isara could have her own spying spells active all through the forest. Was the wizard waiting for her, was she expected to knock on the door, or did Isara only want her to come near?
Just as Rowan was about to walk closer, she heard an unexpected noise. She tensed, her hand dropping to the hilt of her sword. Someone was walking toward her from the northern side of the tower. The wizard? A wizard's minion? As far as she could tell it was only one person, and it was someone who tried not to make a lot of noise but wasn't very good at it. A wizard or his minions wouldn't need to try to be quiet, but who else might be walking to the tower?
As quietly as she could, she walked toward the noise, making sure to keep tree trunks between herself and the other person. When she thought she was covered and near enough, she cautiously took a look.
She stared. Then she took a step into the open.
He startled, his head jerking up, and then stared at her. Surprise left his face unusually open, and she could see shock and then resignation.
"You shouldn't be here."
She walked toward him so they could speak more quietly. "Why not?"
He had recovered from his surprise and his face was blank again. Apart from slightly greyer hair, a sturdy cloak and boots, and a travel bag, he looked almost exactly like the last time she had seen him in Donner. "Shouldn't you be teaching at the Academy? From what Bel said, your experiences are… unique."
"I can teach at the Academy later. I've been looking for you. I read your letter."
"It wasn't for you," he said dismissively. "I sent it to the Archives."
"You've been sending a lot of letters to the Archives."
When Rowan had finally returned to the Archives from her latest travels, shortly before the start of the Academy, she'd been very surprised to find a stack of Reeder's letters. He had begun sending them shortly after Jannik's death. They contained valuable information about the remains of the dragons, about the new wizard in Donner and her actions and demonstrated abilities, information about any wizards' packages being sent through Donner, and information about wizard's men that had been identified in the city.
He hadn't answered, but technically it hadn't been a question. "What are you planning to do?" she asked.
Reeder raised an eyebrow. "I thought you read my letter."
His most recent letter had been sent several weeks ago. Reeder wrote that Willam had returned and taught several people in Donner how to make blasting-charms like those they had used to destroy the dragons. He also wrote that after monitoring wizards' men and their communications and the trade orders they placed, he was sure that Isara was building something big and extremely dangerous to use in the coming wizards' war. Under the guise of exploring new business opportunities for his father, Reeder planned to travel to the Upper Wulf valley via the Long North Road. He would try to discover what Isara was building and destroy it with charms.
"You weren't very specific."
"I've heard there's a wizard's tower in the forest. I'm planning to find it, and to destroy it."
Rowan remembered Reeder's face after Naio's death. When she read his letter, she had been certain that he was about to do something careless and dangerous. If caught, Reeder could betray not only the entire city of Donner, but also the steerswomen, Bel and the Outskirters, and Willam. Even if he wasn't caught she didn't feel comfortable about his plan. It was easy to attack anything that looked like magic: even she and Bel had almost killed Willam, multiple times. Magic itself, she was learning, was just a tool, and eventually they would have to use magic to fight against Slado and to repair what he had already done. Rowan didn't think Reeder had the necessary restraint or judgment to decide what needed to be destroyed. There was also an element of curiosity: if it did need to be destroyed, she would like to get a chance to observe it first. So she had decided to travel north to meet him, hopefully before he found Isara. It looked like she had succeeded at the last possible moment.
"Who told you about the tower?" Rowan demanded.
"A merchant in the last village."
"It's a trap. I've been told about the tower by a wizard's minion. They meant to lead me here."
"So of course you came," he said, incredulous.
"Yes," Rowan said simply.
Reeder sighed. "Is at least your barbarian friend with you?"
"No. Bel had to go back to her people."
"Pity. She would stop you from doing foolish things."
Rowan took a deep breath to suppress her annoyance. She had forgotten how aggravating Reeder could be. She wanted to reply that at least she wasn't walking into a trap without knowing that it was one, but there would be no point in it. They were near a wizard's building, so caution was required.
Finding Reeder had been her goal, but now she wasn't sure about the best way to proceed. Her observation of the tower wasn't finished yet, so possibilities were two: Reeder could leave, or he could stay with her. She would prefer the former, but he almost certainly wouldn't agree to it. A fight would waste time and could draw attention to them.
"I'm going to try to find out more about the tower. Unless you're willing to leave, you need to keep quiet and do what I say."
Reeder narrowed his eyes, but nodded. "Lead on."
It didn't take long until the tower came into view, partially obscured by tree branches. Reeder's eyes widened. He walked toward it quickly, but he'd only taken a few steps when Rowan suddenly put a hand on his arm. "Wait."
"What is it?"
"I don't know." Something warned her not to go any further. She looked around, trying to figure out what made her feel so uneasy.
"Are they watching us?"
It was possible, but she hoped that they were still too far away yet. No, something else had changed.
"It rained yesterday. Behind us there were occasionally deer tracks on the ground. But there are none in front of us."
Reeder shrugged. "Maybe no deer came here yesterday."
Rowan already walked back to the last set of tracks she had seen, and then searched and found two more. All turned away once they got near the tower. It could be a coincidence, but it could also be a wizard's work. Deer would remember a dangerous area and stay away from it.
Careful not to go closer than the deer had, Rowan circled the tower, Reeder impatiently but quietly following behind her. On the other side of the tower she found the evidence she had been looking for: a dead squirrel on the ground. She used a stick to drag it closer to her and examine it. It had not been old, and there were no visible signs of injury. A few patches of fur were lightly burned.
The squirrel had lain on the ground between two trees. It took her several moments to find the very thin vertical black line hidden among the trees' bark. She suspected that the black lines were connected by an invisible barrier that activated a defense spell if something tried to cross through.
Reeder hissed through his teeth when she showed it to him. "Is it meant to kill us?"
"I don't know." Both trees had another thin black line on their other side, and eventually Rowan found the corresponding lines on other trees a few feet further. She thought of ways to test the trap, perhaps with a coat held out in front of her; but before that she wanted to map it out. Perhaps there was a place the invisible fence between the black lines was open.
It took them hours to find all the links in the chain. They had found no holes, and it was getting almost too dark to see the lines, much less search for more traps. She hesitated. Spending more time here was a risk, but Maren had alluded that the wizard sometimes spent the night in the tower, and Rowan was curious if anything would be visible from outside. Maybe they could see how Isara arrived.
Reeder shrugged and agreed. They found a mostly dry place on the ground that gave them cover, but still allowed them a view of the tower, and they sat down and shared provisions in companionable silence. Reeder had travel bread from Terminus, made with spices rarely seen outside of the north, and Rowan enjoyed the small taste of her childhood.
They had not seen another person the whole day, or any suspicious animals, so after they had eaten they felt it was safe to quietly talk. Rowan asked about his father, and about Joly and Beck and others she knew in Donner. She asked about Ona, but stopped when she saw how it pained Reeder to talk about her. Then she asked about Willam and what he had taught them. Willam had sent letters of his own to the Archives, but hadn't dared to send instructions for the charms. It was too dark for Reeder to show her the charms he had made and carried with him, but he described the process as well as he could. He also patiently answered her questions about the notes he'd already sent, about the new wizard and about other wizards' activities. Willam had given him tips what to look out for, and together with his father Reeder had been very successful in discovering wizards' minions and following their travel routes and trades.
He was, Rowan realized, a very observant person.
"You must have spent a lot of time on this."
Reeder's face darkened. "It's important," he said brusquely.
"It is. The information is a big help."
He relaxed slightly. Then he changed the topic and asked what she had done in the meantime. Rowan told him about her travels since she left Donner, about what she'd seen and discovered. She fell into the rhythm of story-telling, newly practiced after her brief stay at the Archives, and Reeder was an interested audience. He asked very few questions, leaving it to her to tell as much detail as she saw fit, but he made a few insightful or wry comments, and to her surprise Rowan found that she was enjoying herself. He even made her laugh once or twice, wearing a satisfied smile afterwards.
"That is not true!" she exclaimed, smiling, when he boasted about having climbed The Crags' cliffs bare-handed, and his lips twitched as he insisted that of course, and it had been raining and dark and furthermore…
He stopped in the middle of the sentence, and his entire body stilled as he remembered who he was talking to – or rather, who he was not talking to.
"Of course it's not true," he said harshly. "Excuse me." He stood up and walked away. Soon afterwards she heard him stop, but he didn't come back.
Rowan stared at the wizard's tower. It was no wonder that Reeder was looking for ways to harm the wizards however he could. He would never forgive them for the death of Naio, or Naio's son. With a pang of regret Rowan realized that she didn't even know the boy's name.
She passed the time thinking about how she would tell Bel about what she had been doing. Perhaps when she came back to the Archives there would already be a letter waiting for her. Maybe Bel had even found out if Kammeryn's tribe was still alive, or if they had been caught by Routine Bioform Clearance after all. Or something else could have happened to them: there were numerous ways to die in the Outskirts.
Something moved, and Rowan was on her feet before she'd consciously registered what it was.
"Reeder," she whispered, and thankfully he heard her and came back.
"What is it?"
She gestured toward the tower.
The dome on top of the tower had split vertically in two, and the sides were opening like a flower. They revealed something in the middle, some kind of magical device. It rose even higher and split into a bowl with a rod in the middle and a cylinder. Both the bowl and the cylinder were aimed at the sky, and when the halves of the dome stopped opening up, the bowl and the cylinder slowly started rotating. All of this happened in total silence, apart from one eerie call of an owl.
Isara was studying the stars. And she used magic from a tower that had been built at least several years ago – when had she started, did it exist before Kieran had died? This was specific equipment, and if the whole tower was necessary, it might even be more than Kieran had access to in Donner. Did the tower make records, like the wizards' house in Donner did? Could it tell her more about what Kieran had discovered that night?
"We can't destroy the tower," she said out loud. Then she winced and looked around, but fortunately nothing seemed to react to her voice.
"I can throw the charm," Reeder said.
Rowan turned toward him and waited until he met her eyes. "No, we shouldn't destroy the tower. It has important information."
"Every wizard's building has important information."
"Not like this," Rowan insisted. "She's studying the stars. Slado killed Kieran because of something he saw in the sky. If we can find out what happened, we could find out why he did it and perhaps what he's planning to achieve now."
"And that's more important than the hundreds of people who would die because of Isara's war magic?"
"Yes." She didn't allow herself to flinch. "If we don't stop Slado, thousands will die."
Rowan braced herself for a fight, but to her surprise Reeder stayed still and then gave an acquiescing nod. "Who in the whole world could ever know enough to strike against a wizard," he said quietly to himself. It was what Bel had said to Reeder, to stop him from attacking Rowan after Jannik had killed Naio.
"Do you think you'll find him soon? Before the next war?" he asked.
"I don't know."
Reeder grimly stared at the door to the tower, so deceptively close.
"Why did they even tell us about this place? Was it just a convenient place for us to kill ourselves?"
"Possibly." Maybe Maren had wanted to give her a chance to ignore the wizard, so she would only die if her own curiosity led her to the trap.
"So it was useless." Reeder balled his hands into fists.
Rowan disagreed. "We know about the tower now. Maybe we can figure out a way to get to the information somehow." Willam had been able to access information at a different wizards' building. If he had the right instruments, could he get information from the tower from somewhere else? At least he would probably know how to circumvent the traps and security and perhaps break into the tower.
"But we can't do anything about the war devices Isara built."
Turning her focus on the new problem, Rowan looked at the door again. "They're probably not in this tower, or at least not all of them," she thought out loud. "They can't be. There are no signs of anything being transported or built. Isara might be able to fly, but it's unlikely she would build it all herself, and even storing the amount of materials you described in this tower would be difficult. No, they must be somewhere else."
Reeder's head jerked up. "Where?"
"I don't know," Rowan said slowly, "but it would likely take at least a large space, and at least decent access…" She called up a map of the surrounding area in her mind, with the villages and roads and hills and the river. Some areas were quite detailed, while others were only sketched in, areas steerswomen hadn't visited, or not in a long time, or only from a distance. Of those areas, she excluded those that seemed ill suited as a place to build war magic because they were too close to a village or trade road. Not many areas remained.
"What were you told about the surrounding area?" she asked. Someone had told Reeder about the tower, and they had likely been a wizard's minion. They might have let some other information slip, maybe trying to warn him off somewhere in particular.
Reeder had pretended that he had never been in the area, so he could ask plenty of questions. That, Rowan thought, might have been the reason he was led to a trap in the first place. Apart from minor details, the information he had gotten overlapped with the map in Rowan's head.
"Were there any places you were told to avoid?"
"No. Only the marsh, the children say it's haunted." His tone clearly conveyed what he thought of that.
"Treacherous ground, dangerous animals, and fireflies in the night, I was told."
The marsh lay between the hill they were on and the Wulf. Rowan's map only had its outline, which wasn't surprising because there were rarely landmarks in marshes. It sounded like there were good reasons to tell travelers to stay away. On the other hand, rumors of ghosts usually originated somewhere.
"Did the children say anything about what they think haunts it?"
"A ghost dragon, I believe. Loud and it spits fire. Do you think…?"
"It's possible." The marsh had access to the Wulf, which made for easy transport of goods. No traveler would go there, even without the stories of ghosts, but ghost stories would work well as a cover for magic. It was surprising to begin with that the children talked of ghosts instead of magic, with a wizard living so close.
If there was a wizard's building in the marsh, it had to be hidden. When Rowan had walked around the hill, she had only seen the fields and grass she'd expected to see. That didn't necessarily mean there was nothing, however. She had already seen wizards create pictures in the air; maybe they could create a picture of the marsh around a building. And a haunted marsh around it would make it unlikely that anyone would stumble across it.
"It's likely," she corrected herself. She looked at the bowl and the cylinder again, but they were still moving in the same way. The marsh wasn't far away. "Let's take a look."
Reeder looked skeptical, but took up his pack and followed her without complaint.
Though they weren't far from the western side of the hill, it took them a while to carefully make their way through the dark forest, following the path they'd taken before. Eventually they reached a place where fewer tree branches obscured their view to the river. The marshes weren't very big: if it was dry ground, Rowan estimated that she could cross it in less than half an hour. In the dark, however, and with no knowledge of the area, trying to cross it would be foolish.
"Nothing to see in the dark," Reeder commented. "We'll have to wait for morning."
"Wait," Rowan said. "Watch."
"I'm not sure," she said and ignored his unimpressed look. He leaned against a tree and crossed his arms.
The land below them was almost completely black. She could see the outline of the Wulf, and the mountains in the distance. Maybe Reeder was right, she conceded after a few minutes. Maybe trying to see something in the night was useless.
Right then a flare of blue and purple light lit up at the left edge of the marsh, flickered for a moment and then disappeared again.
"What was that?" Reeder asked, straightening up.
"I don't know." She hadn't seen anything like it before, and she couldn't think of any natural process that would produce a light like that. Possibilities were two: either it was a natural phenomenon unknown to her, or it was wizard's work. "Could it be one of the charms that Willam taught you to make?" She doubted it. Willam's charms had always been very loud.
"No," Reeder confirmed.
These lights must be the grounds for the ghost rumors. If the wizard stoked them deliberately, there would likely be more lights. Rowan settled in to wait, and this time Reeder stood right next to her, watching the area closely.
A while later there was another flare, this time of green and orange light and near the river. Then another one, bright red and lasting for several seconds, on the right, and then two in blue at the same time. Rowan mentally drew lines through the spots where the lights had appeared and made a guess.
"It seems to be a circle. They're appearing at the edges of a circle." Was it only a circle of pictures around the entire marsh, or was the whole area covered by a wizard's picture? If it was only a circle, then whatever was inside would be visible from the hill in daylight, and they likely would have seen it earlier. It seemed like the entire area was hidden from all sides. Did they have so much power? If the wizards could hide an entire area like that, what else could they hide? Could she even trust her own eyes anymore?
No, she told herself. She was jumping to conclusions. It couldn't be a common thing, or Willam would have warned her. He'd never mentioned anything like this. And surely, if there were many areas like this, eventually some of them would have been found. No, this was likely something rare, possibly something that took a lot of power.
"So whatever is down here must be important," Reeder said when she shared her thoughts with him.
"Yes. It's likely that whatever Isara is collecting materials for is hidden there."
Another light had briefly appeared, yellow and gold. Rowan wondered if the lights followed a list, like the dragons had done.
"We need to destroy it," Reeder stated.
"We can't walk through a marsh at night," Rowan reminded him.
"The wizard's illusion covers the entire area, right? How do we know that there even is a marsh?"
"We don't." That was a good point. If the wizards wanted to build there, it would have been easier for them to drain the wetlands first. If the illusion was already in place, the surrounding villages might not even have noticed. It was equally likely that they had, but were too loyal or too afraid of the wizard to say something. Possibly they had even been drafted by the wizard as workers.
"Willam said that wizards can see in the dark, but they rarely bother," Reeder said. "If we go by day, we'll likely be discovered."
"There might be more traps that we can't discover in the dark," Rowan pointed out.
Reeder shrugged. "Or maybe Isara trusts in the illusion. There could also be traps we wouldn't be able to find even in daylight."
That was true. And there were precautions they could take, like tapping the ground in front of them with a stick or holding out a spare coat on a stick as a dummy in front of them. Also, if they waited, Maren and the other wizard's minions in the surrounding villages might check the trap and then wonder where they were.
"We'll have to leave the forest first." Walking through an unknown part of the forest in the darkness was no easy feat. She looked back to see if anything had changed at the tower, but nothing had.
"I'll manage," Reeder said grimly.
They managed, but it took a long time. Rowan walked carefully in front and then gave Reeder, who followed close behind, as many details about her path as she could. It reminded her of the forced march with Kammeryn's tribe, except then she had had received the map of the land from scouts during the day, and now all she had was her general memory of the forest's structure the day before and what she herself saw and felt. Both of them were struck by branches and tripped several times.
When they finally came to the edge of the forest, Rowan paused to examine the illusion again. It was likely a round dome, and she estimated its height and tried to see its edge against the night sky. She thought she caught glimpses of it, places where there was a sudden slight ripple in the sky, but she wasn't sure. She would have liked to examine it further, but Reeder was clearly impatient and so they went on.
Another light flared up not far from them, helping them pinpoint the approximate edge of the illusion. From so near it was obvious that the light was a two-dimensional picture on an invisible canvas. It was eerie. Other than that, there was no sign that what they were looking at was not real. Rowan hoped that it would be different during the day, at least from this close. The idea that her eyes could be fooled like this was a very uncomfortable one.
When they reached the edge of the circle, Rowan held up the stick she had picked up and slowly moved it forward. The tip of the stick disappeared into thin air. She shivered.
"Can we just walk through?" Reeder whispered.
The ground was solid, and when Rowan moved the stick she found no resistance. After a moment of hesitation, she stepped forward and through the picture.
Immediately the scenery in front of her changed. She saw the outline of a dark building right in the middle of the illusion circle, about the size of a large barn. The ground appeared solid throughout. There were no lights, no noises, and no people that she could see.
When Rowan turned around and looked back, she saw the same image she had seen just a moment ago from the other side. It looked like the hill had suddenly disappeared. It was disorienting, but also fascinating. Did the picture change if certain circumstances changed, like the dragons had?
"That's it," Reeder breathed next to her, staring at the building. "There are even windows."
Rowan could barely make out glass windows, though they were high up. She didn't feel the windows were the most remarkable thing about the building being there. Then she realized what Reeder must be thinking.
"You can't blow it up now," she whispered.
"Why not?" he asked angrily. "Is there more important information there? Does every wizard's building have important information, so we can't damage any of them? We just leave them alone and let them kill anyone they want?"
Rowan crouched down in the grass and pulled Reeder down next to her, in case there was a watcher after all. The grass wasn't high enough to hide them, but in the darkness they would be hard to see. "They'll know who it was. Both of us were sent to the wizard's tower, and if a building nearby is destroyed, we'll be the suspects."
He paused. "They'll want to know how we did it. When we destroyed the dragons, they could blame it on the runaway apprentice. But they have no reason to suspect he's here."
"They'd suspect the Steerswomen," Reeder realized. "I told them that I'm from Donner, and they might suspect that I met Willam there and he taught me, but that's a long shot. They'd suspect the Steerswomen, wouldn't they? Bel said that they already thought the Steerswomen were working with a traitorous wizard once. If a steerswoman shows up in wizard's territory and shortly afterwards a building is destroyed…"
"Yes." If the wizards, if Slado suspected the Steerswomen were working against him… The Academy was currently taking place. There would be no better chance to eliminate most of the order in one strike. It probably wouldn't even be difficult for him. There would be collateral damage, but they already knew that Slado didn't care about that.
"If Isara can use the charms and other magic she's been building, whole armies are going to die. Armies of people the wizards forced to fight. For their own amusement." Reeder's voice had become louder, and he visibly tried to rein himself in.
He was right. It could strike people from anywhere: Isara was Red, so she was probably going to fight Blue Corvus, and the new wizard in Donner was Blue too, so he would probably fight against Red Olin. But that could change in an instant. And who knew where Abremio would come in and where the battlefields would end up being. That didn't even account for Slado, who had to either ignore, approve, or even support the other wizards' battles with each other.
"We need to do something," Reeder insisted.
"We still have some time until the next war. We'll tell the others about the building, and discuss how to destroy it." She'd talk about it with the other steerswomen and together they'd come up with a plan. They'd figure out a way somehow. Maybe they could send someone without making it obvious they belonged to the Steerswomen.
Reeder was quiet for a while. "The wizard's minions who sent us to the tower," he said abruptly, "won't they expect us to be caught in the trap?"
Rowan nodded. "We'll need to come up with an explanation."
"I got lost in the forest, you found me, I twisted my ankle so you decided to accompany me back to the town just in case," Reeder suggested.
"Why would I go back to the village I just came from? And wouldn't it be safer if they thought we didn't know each other?"
"They think we went to the same place, they will probably assume that we met anyway. We can back up each other's stories, and if we're together they might think longer about killing us both on suspicion than just one of us."
It was hard to predict how the wizard's minions would react because they didn't know if they had magical means to communicate. When Rowan arrived at the next village, would they know that Maren tried to lead her to the tower? It was a distinct possibility.
"We should appear to dislike each other so they don't think we're allies," Reeder continued. He glanced at her and Rowan knew they were both thinking that not too long ago they wouldn't have needed to pretend. Hopefully it would help with her weak deception skills.
"We should get back soon. It'll get bright soon, and we might be seen."
He was right. Approaching the building in the dark was too dangerous, and they couldn't risk being discovered. With some effort Rowan tore her gaze away, nodded, and stood up. Reeder looked at the building for a few more moments and then followed.
Rowan shuddered when they walked through the illusion again, even though she couldn't feel anything. The pictures were painted on air. She wanted to stay and examine them in more detail: where did they come from? Was there one central point where the pictures originated, as the circular dome seemed to imply, or did they come from multiple places? Were they affected by the weather?
Once she got back to Wulfshaven she had to ask Corvus about them. He wouldn't tell her how they worked, but maybe he could at least tell her how common they were and how mobile. Illusions like this were scary, but the idea of them being used in war…
When they got back to the forest it was close to sunrise, and Rowan led them back to the tower. As she'd expected, the dome on top had closed and the bowl and cylinder had disappeared. There was no sign of any other activity.
They barely spoke on the way back. Rowan was so absorbed in her thoughts about the tower and the illusions that she only noticed how far they'd come when they were almost at the village. She'd hoped for another chance to talk with Reeder unobserved about his future plans, but they were already in plain view, and when she briefly stopped he continued walking into the village without even looking at her. In accordance with their story, he was limping slightly.
It was rude, not merely distant, and Rowan didn't have to fake her irritation. They could at least have walked to the inn together. She followed at a more sedate pace. When she reached the inn, Reeder was already at the bar talking to the innkeeper.
Rowan sat down at a free table and pulled out her logbook. She didn't dare write in it in the middle of a wizard's village, so instead she took out a single page and started writing her letter to the Prime. She kept it cryptic, in case it got intercepted, but Henra would be able to read between the lines. Reeder would be able to fill in the rest.
She hadn't gotten far before Maren sat down opposite of her with two cups. "Back again?"
"Yes," she said and gratefully took a sip of tea. Only then did it occur to her that Maren could have put something in the drink. Inwardly she cursed herself for her moment of inattentiveness.
"Didn't you want to go north?"
"I came across someone in the forest who needed my help getting here," she nodded toward Reeder.
"In the forest, hmm?" Maren asked, sounding amused. "Did you find the tower?"
"I only saw it from a distance. It's dangerous to go near a wizard's things."
Maren laughed. "That's true."
She was watching Rowan very carefully. Rowan tried not to look like she noticed, but suspected that she only looked blank. Bel had told her often enough how bad she was at deception.
"I didn't see it at all," Reeder complained and sat down between them. "I went there to see a wizard's tower and then I didn't even get a look at it." He bowed his head toward Maren. "Honored to meet you, ma'am. I'm Reeder. May I ask your name?"
Rowan watched in astonishment as Reeder proceeded to apparently effortlessly charm Maren. He told stories of his travels, complimented her outfit, the village, and her smile, and slowly moved closer until they were close enough to touch. There was no trace of the deep affection and joy that had been in his eyes when he'd looked at Naio, but if Rowan hadn't known him, she would have believed him to be completely sincere.
Maybe it was not that surprising. Reeder was a man who wore masks often.
At one point he gave her an annoyed look and then very obviously looked at the door. Rowan gratefully stood up and left. Behind her, Maren laughed at something Reeder said.
Outside not far from the inn an old man sat on a bench in the sun. Rowan sat down next to him and continued writing her letter.
She wanted to return to the Academy in Wulfshaven as soon as possible, but she had let Maren and others believe that she was traveling north because of a family emergency. It would look suspicious if she turned back now. No, she would have to continue north for now, at least until Terminus. She had a distant cousin in Terminus that she could visit, and after that on her way back she could truthfully say that there had been no dire emergency.
She was looking forward to her return to Wulfshaven. She would miss at least four, probably five more weeks of the Academy, but there was plenty of time still remaining. Keridwen had said that the first few weeks were the most difficult, before the students left who realized that the life of a steerswoman wasn't for them after all, and that after that the most interesting parts of teaching began. Steffie would still be there, and Rowan looked forward to his tales of all that he had already learned.
Rowan finished her letter and then didn't have to wait long until Reeder left the inn. He looked annoyed when she approached him and walked into a small alley, gesturing at her to follow.
"What is it?"
Rowan held out the letter. "Please deliver one more letter to the Archives. It was nice to see you again," she added impulsively.
Reeder frowned and looked around. He started to speak, hesitated and stopped, then lowered his head to hers and whispered. "I told Maren I met Willam in Terminus, traveling east."
"What?" It came out louder than she intended. "Why?"
Reeder hesitated again, looking conflicted. Then he looked over her shoulder. Immediately an arrogant expression settled on his face again. "I'm sorry, lady," he said, tone condescending, "but you're just not my type."
Rowan stared at him, speechless, as he walked by her and back to the main road. Maren was standing there, and Reeder offered her his arm and led her away.
He'd seen Maren standing there, Rowan knew. That's why he'd acted like that. It had been a simple matter of logic, and it would be stupid to feel hurt by it.
Reeder hadn't even taken the letter. That was unnecessary, she thought, annoyed. At least he would almost certainly send his own letter to the Archives, or even go to Wulfshaven himself on the way back to Donner.
He hadn't answered her question, either. The ban allowed for exceptions in special circumstances, however, and Rowan decided that this qualified. If he answered her question the next time they saw each other again, she wouldn't put him under the ban. She felt a little regret at the thought that it might be months until then, or longer.
Rowan stayed at the inn for one more night. In the morning it was again Maren who sat down at her breakfast table.
"My nephew and I are also going up to the next village today," she said. "Could we accompany you, lady?"
"Yes," Rowan saw no choice but to say.
"Wonderful. It's so much nicer to travel in company. And as Reeder reminded me, there's safety in numbers. You never know what could happen."
"Indeed." Reeder had suggested that a wizard's minion travel with her? Maybe he wanted Maren to see for herself that Rowan didn't go near any wizard's buildings. Or maybe he thought Rowan would appreciate an opportunity to talk further with Maren and try to gain information from her.
If that had been his hope, it had been futile. Instead it was Maren and her nephew who seemed intent to gain information about Rowan, and Rowan had to be very careful not to reveal too much. By the time they finally arrived at the next village Rowan was irritated and tired. They had left late and it had already become dark. Maren led them straight to a large inn, where they were served a filling stew. Rowan would have preferred to go straight to bed, but two young men kept asking her questions about the lands she had seen.
Just when she considered leaving anyway, she heard a distant rumble of thunder. Someone shouted on the street, and a woman opened the door and looked out.
"There's a big fire!" someone called. People rushed outside.
Rowan was the last one to get up. She knew what must have happened. She'd heard a similar sound before, months ago, when the dragons of Donner had been destroyed; and there had been no thundercloud in the sky as far as she had seen. There was a chance that something else was going on, that maybe the wizard had had an accident, but the probability was so low as to be negligible. And indeed, when she joined the group standing at the edge of the village for a better view, she saw a huge fire coming from the direction of the wizard's building in the marshes.
Foolish. Rowan's hands clenched into fists. She'd thought that Reeder understood the danger. She'd thought he understood that she was trying to save more people and didn't just hesitate for no reason, and that he wouldn't put everyone at risk for his own impulsiveness and hatred.
No, that wasn't fair. He'd understood at least some of the risks. That must be why he'd suggested Maren go with her, so that Maren herself saw that Rowan couldn't possibly have done it. And why he'd told Maren that he'd met Willam in Terminus, so that she wouldn't suspect the people in Donner. How had he even brought it up? Willam had unusual hair and eye color, he could have simply described him and hoped Maren could draw the right conclusions.
Now the wizards would be after Reeder. They'd look for him with men and magical birds and with the Guidestars, and it would be extremely difficult for him to hide. Did he have a plan? Willam had had no doubt that the wizards could find out anything they wanted from anyone they captured, and Reeder knew much. If he were captured…
But Reeder knew how dangerous it would be if the information he had fell into the wizards' hands. He'd even made sure to provide Rowan an alibi, so he wouldn't be careless with this. He had to have a plan for getting away.
Unless he hadn't planned on getting away. Rowan remembered the expression on his face when he'd talked about the wizards killing anyone they wanted, and his insistence that they had to do something. She hadn't even tried to point out that there might be more traps around the building and that it would be dangerous, possibly lethal, because she had been sure that he would have acted anyway. It wasn't much of a stretch to imagine that if he saw a way to stop the wizards from killing, he would have risked or even sacrificed his life to do so.
If he were dead, the wizards couldn't capture him. It would be easier, the analytical part of Rowan's mind pointed out.
"Lady." Maren stepped in front of her, and Rowan blinked. She realized that she'd taken a step forward. "Lady, you can't go there."
"You'll be stopped."
Maren didn't answer. She looked polite, but firm, and utterly uncaring about placing herself under ban.
"Are you going to kill me because I've seen the fire?" Rowan asked. It was too far away to see any details, but it was obvious that there was something there, something the wizards hadn't wanted anyone to know about.
Maren shook her head. "Just stay away, lady."
Rowan nodded, but didn't move.
The fire would be visible for miles. Rowan wondered what had been in that building, to make it burn so brightly. It was a good sign. She hoped Reeder had managed to destroy all of Isara's war magic, or at least a large portion of it. Because of what he did, hundreds of people might survive the war who otherwise would not, or possibly the wizards would even push back the war for months until they'd dealt with the new problem and re-built.
Willam's blasting-charms had a timer, so Reeder could have escaped the fire he'd set. Possibilities were three: either the wizards would catch him, in which case there would be bad consequences for everyone who opposed them. Or he'd gotten safely away, and maybe they would meet again one day. Or he'd died to deal this blow to the wizards. In that case Reeder's death was one more they were responsible for.
When she finally found Slado, Rowan vowed, she would avenge them all.