* * *
Lourlan stood in the kitchen, fiercely chopping carrots. Malen sat at the table, watching her as he sharpened a knife for Findol to take with him on his journey.
“Careful that you don’t cut yourself,” he said. Lourlan dropped her knife with a clatter. She sat down, her face grim.
“He’s never been more than a day away from home,” she said. “Why did the Queen choose him? He knows nothing of demons and shapeshifters, and precious little of magic. He’s unprepared.”
Malen sighed, considering his words.
“Well, the dragons chose him first. They’re sending Aurmid along to protect him. Surely she’ll train him for what he needs to do. He’s unique because he’s your son. That’s why the Queen chose him, because of his heritage and because the dragons favor him.”
Lourlan glared at him in the way that meant she knew he was right, but was unhappy about it nevertheless.
“Did he tell you he spotted Zaghran while he was still far out to sea? He used the long sight to get a look at him. I didn’t know he possessed that ability.”
“No, I didn’t know.” Malen frowned at this. “Then he has power that he hasn’t found in himself yet. Don’t worry, dear. Our boy will be all right.”
She gave him another dark glare.
Findol came in then, hauling a pack behind him, dressed warmly for traveling. He saw his mother’s look and his face went pale.
“Coanh insists on coming with me,” he said. “I’m glad I’ll have him to climb with and talk to. He’s a better cook than I am, too.”
Malen smiled; Lourlan rolled her eyes. She got up and turned to stuff a loaf of bread into a canvas pouch that already bulged with food. She fastened it and handed it to Findol.
“This should last the two of you a few days. Then you’ll have to hunt for your supper.”
Malen sheathed the knife in a leather scabbard and held it out to Findol.
“And here’s something to help with that and other things, if a need should arise.”
Findol slipped the knife into his belt and put the food in his pack.
“Thank you both,” he said. He sat down at the table, and Lourlan poured him a cup of tea. He sipped it slowly.
“Mama, what can you tell me about this Zaghran? The Queen wants Aurmid and me to bind him and bring him back. That’s the idea, anyway. But what was his crime to get himself bound in the Deep for thousands of years? He must have done something truly evil, mustn’t he?”
Lourlan sighed, troubled, and sat down again.
“I doubt anyone remembers the true reason,” she said. “I think the Old Ones feared his power, mostly. He was a thing of pure magic, not bound by physical form. He roamed the world, affecting things with a touch, a mere look. He changed things, created things outside the purview of the Old Ones. He brought uncertainty to the world when the Old Ones wanted order above all else.”
“The Old Ones,” Findol echoed. “You don’t hear tell of them very often, either.”
“You tend to stay away from the old priest,” Malen chuckled. “That’s why you don’t hear of them.”
“I thought they left this world long ago,” Findol said.
“So they did,” Lourlan said. “The ancestors worshiped the Old Ones as gods. But once they left, the people realized they were not true gods, not creators, but only shapers, like water shapes stone. Life continued without them, and only fragments of their stories remain. Few remember them, and fewer still go on worshiping them.”
“Then why bother about the prisoner of the Old Ones escaping? After all this time, why not let him go free? What harm could he do now?”
“Well, the Queen has had him in the Deep all this time, so she must have her reasons,” Malen said. “She must know what he can do, so she seeks to retrieve him.”
“You can refuse to go on this ill-conceived chase,” Lourlan said. “You can stay home and safe and live your life. She may be my Queen, but she’s sending you into danger against a very ancient power. No reason justifies that for me.”
Findol and Malen exchanged a helpless glance.
“I would like nothing better than to stay home,” Findol said. “But I already promised her I would go. I may not be equal to the task of capturing Zaghran again, but I can keep my word and try. I won’t have the Queen turn her anger on you and your seal kin, or on Papa when he’s in her waters fishing, because I changed my mind.”
Grumbling, Lourlan got up and left the kitchen. They heard her rummaging in a chest. In a moment she returned, carrying a small blue-gray rock, which she put in Findol’s hand.
“It’s only a keepsake,” she said. “It has passed down my family for generations. The hands and paws of all your ancestors have touched it. Keep it near, and your family will always be close. You won’t be alone, no matter how far you travel.”
He put it in his pocket and got up to embrace her. Malen came and put his arms around them both.
“I must go,” Findol said, pulling away at last. “The sun will be up soon. Get some rest today. I know neither of you slept after the solstice festival last night.”
He hoisted his pack onto his back and went outside. They followed to see him off.
“Take care,” Lourlan said. “You’d better come back whole and healthy.”
“We love you, boy,” Malen said. “Good fortune go with you.”
“I’ll see you again before too long,” Findol said, and managed a brave smile. He turned and went to meet Coanh, who waited at the end of the garden path. They waved at Lourlan and Malen, and went east toward the mountains.