Darkwind watched tensely as Silverfox led Firesong into his bedroom and shut the door with an audible snap. He flinched a little, and let relief flow through him. Firesong was in good hands; he would not have to do battle against a friend today. Silverfox would not have led Firesong away unless he was certain he could handle him.
He sagged against the nearest wall and closed his eyes. Gods, but that had been too close! Already the scene they had walked into seemed like something out of a nightmare. The smoke, the splintered furniture, Firesong turning on his bondbird with a mad look in his eyes…
Elspeth’s hand on his shoulder made him open his eyes. She looked as exhausted as he felt.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s leave them to it and get out of here. I’d rather we both fell over in our own rooms.”
Wearily they trudged through the snow, back to the palace, then through the hallways and passageways, avoiding people as much as possible, and ducking at last into their rooms just as Lord Palinor, seeing them from a distance, was starting to show distressing signs of wishing to speak to them. For a moment they paused, half-expecting a knock on their door, but none came.
The pause stretched out. Darkwind busied himself with taking off his outer clothes and hanging them up, then with taking Elspeth’s from the chair she had abandoned them on and hanging them up. His hands were shaking, he realized distantly.
Elspeth was sitting ramrod straight in a chair, staring sightlessly at the wall across from her. If he was not mistaken, she was holding herself from weeping only by sheer force of will.
He sank into a chair next to her, and hesitantly reached out towards her hand with his. She grasped it eagerly, almost desperately.
“What if we had not come?” she whispered. “What if he had been alone?”
“Silverfox hasn’t been leaving him alone for large stretches of time,” he reminded her - and himself as well. “If it hadn’t been us, it would have been him.”
Though that was not an altogether encouraging thought. They were mages, Adepts near in skill to Firesong himself, they could defend themselves. Silverfox would have been horribly vulnerable if he had interrupted Firesong in a killing rage.
Elspeth seemed to follow his thought without words. Her shudder echoed his, and her hand involuntarily tightened on his.
“When Silverfox came to us,” he said, barely loudly enough for her to hear, “I thought that surely these mental effects he spoke of would pass us by. It seemed worth checking on Firesong, just in case, but I never truly thought -”
“Neither did I,” she murmured.
Another silence. What else could they say?
They sat in silence, taking comfort each from the other’s presence.
The next morning dawned bright and cloudless. The sunlight reflecting off the snow was bright enough to give Darkwind a headache.
He had slept poorly, haunted by dreams that escaped his memory as soon as he woke, leaving only fragments. Firesong sobbing remorsefully on the floor - a destroyed ruin in place of the ekele - striking Firesong down with a levinbolt - finding Silverfox dead by Firesong’s hand - stabbing his father’s hand - Firesong chasing after Aya - Elspeth looking at him with Firesong’s look in her eyes -
No. No one was dead. No catastrophe had arisen in the night; Gwena had promised them the Companions would keep an eye on the ekele , and she would have surely woken Elspeth if anything had gone wrong. They had stopped Firesong before he could do anything truly irreversible, and they had not had to resort to blows to do so. Silverfox had seemed to think, last night, that the damage to Firesong’s psyche was reparable. His father was healing, if slowly, and he was far away and could not help besides. Elspeth was blessedly sane, the least likely of them all to fall prey to the storms’ mental effects. Her Companion and her own hard sense would see to that.
But gods above, that these are my standards now! That it is a relief that my friend has not killed anyone in his madness!
And they needed to speak to Firesong. This much was clear: they needed to know how exactly the rot had crept into his mind, needed to understand if they could have prevented this earlier - and, above all, they needed to know how far he could be trusted now.
“Ready to go?” he asked, turning to Elspeth.
She nodded tightly and led the way out the door.
The central room of the ekele looked almost precisely the same as it had the day before. The smoke had aired out, but the wrecked, shattered, and charred pieces of wood, ceramic, and cloth were still scattered all over the room.
They froze in the doorway, but Silverfox did not let them do so for long. “Ah, good, you’re here!” he said cheerfully, sailing out from the bedroom. “We haven’t had a chance to clean up out here yet, I’m afraid. But I think the bedroom will work adequately for this conversation?”
He barely waited for Darkwind’s hesitant nod before sweeping them into the bedroom, settling them on the cushions already prepared there, and briskly pouring them each a cup of water. Firesong was already there, looking almost his normal composed self as he lounged on a cushion of his own.
Darkwind noticed there wasn’t a cushion for Silverfox a moment before Silverfox said calmly, “I think this will go better if I am not present. I’ll stay within earshot, in case you need me, but I do not expect that you will.” And with that extraordinary statement, he stepped out of the room and was gone before Firesong had the chance to let out more than a choked-back cry of protest.
Firesong looked like there was nowhere he wanted to be less than in this room, and for a moment, Darkwind felt a thrill of pleasure. He’s ashamed! And so he should be, afraid and ashamed both, after the fear and heartache he’s caused us!
Again he reined in his thoughts. Anger would not help him here.
“Firesong.” His voice was firm. “What happened ?”
Firesong flinched a little, but his voice was steady. “Where do you want me to start?”
“Anywhere you like,” snapped Elspeth. “Anywhere that will explain what you were thinking when you attacked your own bondbird would work excellently.”
Aya let out a soft trill from his perch on Firesong’s shoulder, then dropped down into his lap. Firesong sighed a little and stroked the bird’s head gently. “I - can’t explain it fully,” he said. “I was - angry, and Aya was afraid, and there was a fire - but none of that explains it, much less excuses it.”
“Silverfox told us about the effects of the mage storms on the mind,” Darkwind said neutrally.
“It makes a convenient excuse, does it not? But the roots of it came from within my own mind. The influence of the storms only encouraged that which was already present.” He paused, and for the first time that day, looked Darkwind in the eye. “Thank you for stopping me. I don’t think I could have lived with myself if - ”
Darkwind gave a jerky nod. Elspeth sighed and shook her head. “I’m just glad you’re back with us now,” she said gently. “You scared us badly.”
“I know,” Firesong whispered, looking down at Aya again.
“There are a number of things we need to discuss,” Elspeth continued. “Let’s start with this: is this going to happen again?”
“No!” Firesong looked almost panicked. “No, of course not!”
“Are you certain?” Elspeth pressed. “If I had asked you a few days ago, you would have said it could not happen at all, or am I wrong?”
“You’re… not wrong,” Firesong admitted. “It feels different now, though. I know what to guard against, now.”
She shook her head. “You know that’s not enough. You know that cannot be enough. Next time, we might not be on hand to stop you. And next time, it might not be Aya who angers you.”
“Then what - what do you want me to do?”
“We don’t have a solution in mind,” Darkwind said quietly. “You say you know what to guard against. Are there any signs we can watch for? Any times we should remind you to be on your guard?”
Firesong shook his head. “Silverfox and I spent some time speaking about this. The problem is that the early signs are not outward ones, they’re particular patterns of thought that I have fallen into. Though I suppose any sign of anger on my part should be treated as suspect now. Not that I know what can be done about it.” He hesitated. “There are… several subjects that have been particularly likely to incite me to anger recently, and I think it… would be well if someone would… would keep an eye on me when they come up.”
Darkwind nodded. “What subjects are those?” They would have to ask Silverfox to confirm this, came the sudden thought, in case Firesong omitted or forgot something…
Firesong swallowed. “The artificers, for one. I have not hidden that I dislike their approach, but I think perhaps I have successfully concealed the extent of my dislike. And I very much fear that I have let that dislike impede our work.” He waited for their cautious nods, then went on. “Secondly… secondly there is Karal.”
Elspeth grimaced. “I did think there was tension between the two of you, but I did not think it was this bad. Can I ask what it is about Karal that angers you?”
“Easier perhaps to ask what does not. He was the one that brought the artificers in; he got An’desha to face Falconsbane’s memories when I could not; he encourages An’desha’s ridiculous penchant for mysticism-”
“An’desha’s the key, here, isn’t he? At first, he was very fragile, very dependent on you and your guidance, and you were flattered by that. But as he healed, you discovered he had a mind of his own, interests of his own, friends who were not yours, choices he wished to make without your input.” Darkwind tried to keep his voice calm and free of condemnation, and failed. “And that was very unpleasant, wasn’t it? You had gotten used to running roughshod over him, however much you said you wanted a partnership. He could tell you resented it, of course; it was rather hard to miss, especially living with you as he was. And when he drew away, you blamed everyone in sight except yourself.”
He stopped, breathing hard with anger. He wanted to continue, to express in detail just how little he thought of Firesong’s treatment of An’desha, but if he carried on, he would say something he would later regret.
Firesong had covered his face with his hands and turned his whole body slightly away from Darkwind. As if he were cringing from a blow , came the sudden unwelcome thought. Darkwind’s anger seeped out, leaving only sorrow and disappointment behind.
“Am I wrong?” he asked gently.
“No.” Firesong’s face was tear-streaked as he raised it to look at Darkwind again. “None of that… was inaccurate.” He paused, then went on. “The thing that set me off yesterday, the… first spark… it was because someone had been using the Heartstone, and I realized it must have been An’desha.”
Darkwind raised his eyebrows. Elspeth nodded. “I gave him permission,” she said, and did not elaborate.
Firesong sighed. “I assumed so. I also assumed he could not possibly be ready to use such power, and… well. Flew into a rage at the thought that someone had convinced him he could.”
Elspeth snorted. “He was perfectly capable of thinking of it himself, no convincing required. Yes, and of using it himself, too! And if he wasn’t ready to use it, you know very well I would not have granted him permission!”
“I know. Now. I… wasn’t thinking straight, yesterday. I thought… well. It doesn’t much matter what delusions I was having, I suppose.”
Darkwind rather suspected they were getting less than half of the story, but he did not think he wanted to know more. Firesong’s head sounded like a very uncomfortable place to be, just now. He would gladly leave delving further into it to Silverfox.
“Very well,” he said instead of pushing further. “We’ll have to make sure you have one of us with you whenever you meet with Karal, An’desha, or the artificers.” Firesong grimaced but didn’t protest.
“One of us or one of the gryphons,” Elspeth put in. “I’ll drop a word in their ear.” Firesong looked even less happy at that.
“I’m glad Silverfox is staying here,” Darkwind continued. “I don’t think you should be alone much right now. To which end… Firesong, will you promise me something? If you find yourself alone, and dark thoughts start creeping up on you again, will you come find me? Or Elspeth, or Silverfox, or any other friend. Let us help you.”
“I - all right.” He still looked upset at the idea of being guarded like a prisoner, but Darkwind hadn’t missed the fleeting relief at the offer of company.
Darkwind ran over his list of questions in his head again. He thought he had the answers to all of them now, more or less, even those they had not discussed explicitly. He could catch it, he thought, if Firesong was in true danger again, or if someone else started slipping down the slope to insanity. Even if it was himself. And Elspeth would help him and watch him, as he would help her and watch her.
“I think that’s all,” he said, not hiding his weariness. “We’ll go and leave you in peace.”
He got to his feet, hesitated a moment, then pulled Firesong into a sideways embrace. Elspeth put her arms around Firesong from the other side. Firesong leaned against them both, dropping his head heavily onto Darkwind’s shoulder.
“We’ll figure this out,” Elspeth promised in a whisper. “There is nothing here that has been irreparably broken. We’ll fix it.”