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Story 2

Jen Downes

 No story like The Gates of Pertheris has been published in the 12-year history of 4 Star Stories. The current offering is a spirited collaboration between the writer and the editor. The flavor of the discourse is suggested in the following excerpts from the email dialog:

Here are the comments on your comments on my comments. You'll notice I agreed with you in a lot of cases. Where I didn't, I explained why I disagreed. -- Ed.

In the above instances, these are the storyteller's expressive style, which, as described in the comments below, is meant to impart some sense of the foreign or ancient, or perhaps an implied, imperfect translation. It's not meant to be perfect English. I feel this is entirely justified, and creates a narrative texture, as surely as the colourful turns of descriptive expression. -- Jen Downes

The editorial convention when "colloquial" speech is involved is to use such speech for a paragraph or two and then revert to the more acceptable English. That conveys the flavor, but doesn't unduly burden the reader. -- Ed.

Ah, this is poetic license, as you'll find in many places in this manuscript. It must be understood that this is the storyteller's voice, as if speaking to a tavern crowd, or repeating verbatim, and he must be allowed the sound of antiquity in his wording, or even a hint that the narrative is translated imperfectly. To adjust as you suggest brings it into line with proper English, but robs it of the 'twang of the different' that was my intention in creating this form of speech. So each instance will be declined. -- Jen Downes
I didn't look into the practicality, but you might consider setting off the narrator's speech in italics. That was one of the reasons I set off the various changes between narration and the story with "###". In any case, let me know what you think about doing that. -- Ed.

I think of the whole narrative being the storytellers words, with Bartoli as a personality sometimes emerging from the background, at other times fading back into it. I would rather not try to distinguish those variations in tone in any way as pointed as changing type. -- Jen Downes

I will leave it to the reader to judge its success or failure.

This story is very much in the spirit of the Golden Age tales: an adventure fantasy in honor of Robert E. Howard. A Sinbad-esque hero and his crew undertake a hazardous journey into the deep desert. High magic, fantastic creatures, an appalling 'treasure' and a not-so-doomed romance bring the story of Tristan Vallo to an unexpected finale.                                                                                                    -- Jen Downes

Jen Downes has placed stories with Dim Shores Presents, Shoreline of Infinity and anthologies from Third Flatriron and Specul8, and is eager to build upon this foundation.


The Gates of Petheris


By Jen Downes




Most taverns on the Anderlay Road offer the east’s best ale, home-brewed in their own cellars, stronger than wine and easier to drink then the rum from our southern ports. A bright fire crackles; minstrels play bawdy songs, and if they tire, the storyspinners mingle. For the price of bed and food, they weave epic tales, swearing every word is true. Do travelers believe? Anderlay lies steeped in myth, and every legend is born from tatters of truth.

Twice a year, I travel the great road from Dulhanna in the far west to Megadir in the east. I’m the famous Bartali -- Raston Bartali, dealer in spices, rugs, rare wines, rarer jewels; manager of fair courtesans, trader in ancient maps to lost cities and new navigator’s charts drawn from the finest astronomical observations. Business sends me a thousand leagues away while my lady and daughters enjoy the cool of spring and autumn at home. In my travels, I’ve heard every tale those storyspinners know, one end of the road to t’other.

Some I’ve heard often. For a favorite, I’ll gladly pay a gifted storyspinner to weave it again. One such tale is the Legend of Tristan Vallo ...and of all the stories I know, this is the one I wish most were true.

Three hundred years ago, Tristan was born in the city of Lydris, on the craggy coast on Anderlay, where towering chalk cliffs are constantly scythed back by our hungry sea. His mother ran fishing boats; his father rode as a mercenary in the service of Duke Ohmar the Elder. What would be more natural than that young Tristan would grow up as sailor and swordsman, fearing neither ocean storm nor the steel of the barbarians who snapped around the dukedom’s skirts?

As a lad, folk knew him as a great athlete, adventurer and lover, as unbeatable in a skirmish as in a drinking contest. He made several fortunes in battle, only to lose them to dice and capricious lovers. At that age Tristan remained untroubled. People called him the best sword in Anderlay, one of the best sailors—and time was his ally. Other fortunes would fall into his lap soon enough.

After one grand adventure, he held onto his wealth long enough to buy a trading ship. Home in Lydris, he ordered the vessel re-rigged, repainted and renamed Carmelita for his one great love: the only woman he could never have.

She was a wife of Duke Ohmar: third and youngest, of an age to be Ohmar’s granddaughter. Carmelita came from Harrand, across the mountains, at just eighteen, to fulfill a marriage contract arranged by her father. In return, Ohmar would furnish Harrand a defense regiment. The city was then too poor to defend itself against the brigands who ravaged everywhere in those years.

So Carmelita felt herself honor-bound to stand by the contract, faithful to her aged husband for the sake of her father and homeland. But she was young, and had eyes. On the Harrand road, long before the wedding, she gave her heart to Tristan, who commanded a cavalry cohort to escort her to Castle Mauvais, Ohmar’s ancestral home.

Handsome young Tristan and the beautiful Camelita spent weeks on the road. Love bloomed like a rose: a tragic love, leaving the cohort’s captain bruised and, perhaps, a little wild.

Four days from Ohmar’s borders, he almost gave his life to protect the party n a desperate battle. The lady bound his wounds with strips of the silk she brought for her wedding gown....

Two months later, healed, strong, he wore he ducal livery, braced at attention in the temple of Ghiris while Ohmar and Carmelita exchanged vows. He swore never to love again, and meant every word.        He never wed, nor settled with any woman. He enjoyed mad flirtations of every kind from Shehend to Elyssan, but gave his heart to none.

All this, before Tristan Vallo was twenty-three years old. Little wonder he named his ship Carmelita and pursued every tale of treasure and glory. Over and over, he returned home with full holds and a hundred new stories. Minstrels loved him. They still tell his tales: how he fought the Iron Troll of Gnothia to win freedom for the fair Tressida; cut the head off the Black Gryphon to liberate the city of Selendria; found the ancient necropolis of Eldrev and steered his Carmelita home heavy with the weight of treasure long buried by greedy, superstitious god-kings of old, who feared a jealous sun would snatch away gold not hidden from its glare.

Storyspinners love to weave his last adventure—my favorite, heard so often I can recite it from memory. Minstrels call it ‘The Gates of Petheris.’


It begins as they all do: here is the Carmelita, moored at a Lydris wharf, her crew inebriated in an old sailors’ tavern called The Silver Sword, Tristan himself tangled in the limbs of some lovely thing who’d caught his fancy. In comes a man with a broken nose and two gold teeth. “Where might I be finding Tristan Vallo?” he asks.

“What might you be wanting him for?” asks Toby, landlord of the Sword, whose back is bent with the bone ache, while his eyes and mind are sharp as those of a general at war.

“I would hire him, ship and crew, for a voyage,” says the stranger. “I need him and them for their expertise in the desert. I’ve a map showing the way to Zuralia, but I can’t get there alone.”

Any whisper of this magical name makes heads turn, ears prick. Everyone knows Zuralia—and its fate. She was a wealthy trading city, long ago, before a Borask slithered in with a sandstorm and settled there. You get a Borask in your area, you might as well fly, and warn your neighbors to run while they can.

No one in Anderlay has ever seen a Borask... or, no one ever lived to tell of it. But legend swears the beast is a great serpent: half dragon, half cobra, with red eyes, the breath of Hell, and possessing dark magic no alchemy under heaven can undo. When living flesh feels the blaze of its malodorous breath….

You know of a goose that lays golden eggs. The Gorgon, whose gaze turns men to stone. King Midas, whose touch makes anything gold. Vengeful gods of desert folk, who turn to salt anyone disobeying their will. Well, the breath of a Borask turns living flesh to silvergold, the gorgeous argentiferous gold, worth more than all jewels in a ducal harem.

Legend claims Zuralia’s folk chose to make a stand, fight, so there’d be hundreds, even thousands who lingered like fools. They challenged the monster. Meaning, thousands of great lumps of precious, argentiferous gold, once the flesh and bones of idiots. Enough to make a kingdom wealthy beyond any dream of avarice.

Little wonder the Sword’s landlord ran up to hammer at a chamber where Tristan lay tangled in some amorous embrace.

In minutes the map lay uncurled on a table beneath six fat candles: painted in rare metallic inks on the polished inside of a hide, stretched, cured, bleached the hue of ivory—so old, even these pignents had faded. Tristan knew at a glance that it was genuine. He’d seen enough fakes to easily recognize forgery.

The map was real, but one more thing interested him. He recognized the accent of its owner. Carmelita spoke with the same lilt. “You’re from Harrand,” he growled.

“I am indeed.” The stranger called himself Eldrigo.

“You seek Zuralia’s riches for your own sake?” Tristan asked shrewdly.

Eldrigo was a decent man, honest. Certainly, he’d take his fair share of whatever riches Zuralian yielded, but the rest was for the defense of Harrand. It would furnish the kingdom—Carmelita’s home—legions of mercenaries.

Tristan thought the lady could demand a release from her marriage contract, since Harrand no longer needed any service of Anderlay. She’d be a freewoman, leaving Tristan at liberty to court her.

Quickly, he gathered his crew with orders to rig for sea: they’d head west along the coast, paralleling the Anderlay Road for six days. Lookouts must watch for a cove marked by tall, bluestone cliffs, one shaped like the head of a gryphon.

Carpenter, blacksmith, sailmaker and armorer labored through the evening hours; voices bawled between ship and quay long past midnight, as stores came aboard to the tramp of sailors’ feet. Tristan sprawled in his cabin, a goblet in one hand, in the other a tiny cameo painting of Carmelita, commissioned by the duke and purloined for Tristan by the lady’s handmaiden. He brooded over it, thinking of all that might be.

Mist cast silver gauze over the harbor when the Carmelita slipped silently out. She left behind the headlands, east winds billowed her ivory sails and she sped before a good sailing breeze. She set fast time into waters that grew stranger, more dangerous every hour. All our gentle, generous Anderlay ports fell far astern. Ahead loomed seas alive with mystery, treachery.

Now the crew took arms, stood lookouts day and night, kept their weapons close. Tristan dozed fitfully, reluctant to sleep while the ship raced into peril, but the Carmelita remained unchallenged when she cut sail and slipped in under the great cliffs Eldrigo had described.

Dawn colors painted the bluestone ramparts pink and gold. Shadows curling around the looming gryphon made the monster appear to watch the ship come into the calm, still bay. There, she dropped anchor.

The whole day lay ahead. Tristan saw no reason to delay. Eldrigo was keen to march, and Tristan could almost feel Carmelita’s hand in his. He’d kissed her once, and thought he could still taste her lips, like berries and honey. The kiss was surreptitious, illicit, stolen in a single moment when her stewards and his officers had left her tent. It burned through him, and three years later still felt as if it were branded into him.

Before they shipped out, he’d sent a message to Carmelita’s handmaiden, who’d brought him the cameo. Thira would set the note in no other hand than Carmelita’s. Hold and hope, my dear, he wrote. We return before winter, and the slenderest thread of luck will see Harrand well defended and you free. Hold this in your heart, and wait.

He signed the note with a drop of blood. A tiny scar on his wrist glistened in the sun as the dory bucked through lazy breakers to a white beach. Indescribable deserts stretched away, right above the shore.

Sailors still fear this as the Coast of Skeletons. Sure enough, Tristan saw bleached bones—men, camels, mules, victims of sandstorm and tempest, as seemed to claim any attempt to carve out a foothold in lost Zuralia—before they’d trudged three miles inland. Five men landed with him and Eldrigo, and the party of seven carried provisions for four long, hard, thirsty days.

Travelers familiar with this hell swear there are no wells, soaks or creeks, save in the depth of winter. Streams expire before spring. Zuralia thrived a thousand years ago, when rivers flowed through different channels, rains came from the south, not the east, and the hinterland bloomed. Lands which today are cruel were generous during Zuralia’s glory—the years before the Borask.

The master builders who raised Zuralia cut immense cisterns into the bedrock beneath the city: granite tanks which fill with every rain. Even in high summer they remain full, the water clear and cold.

Uncharted paths wind from salt pan to dune to wadi. Goats can make a living upon thorn bushes, lapping dew at dawn, when fine sea mists creep inland with grudging veils of moisture. Tristan’s party followed their trails as the sun arced high, and afternoon grew hot enough to boil a man’s brains inside his skull.

They camped by a salt pan under indigo skies and blazing constellations. Fretful winds stirred, full of the whispers of fools who’d perished not far away. Tristan’s men hugged the fire, longing for dawn, though a thin wedge of daylight would fetch back the heat.

Two days found them still hunting, and beginning to relinquish hope. If they didn’t stumble on Zuralia’s ruins soon—with its cisterns full of cold, sweet water—they must turn back while enough remained in their flasks to see them to the ship.

Then Tristan glimpsed something half-buried in the sand, gleaming in the sun. They stumbled forward, keen to dig it out. The crew gathered, only half believing, but eyes don’t deceive. A human skull lay in Tristan’s hands... seemingly cast in argentiferous gold.

“Zuralia is close,” Eldrigo said eagerly.

“According to your map, we should be right on top of it,” the swarthy little mariner, Rashid, added.

“Maybe an hour or two ahead,” Tristan corrected. “But there’s one thing we never talked about.” He frowned at each man in turn. “The Borask.”

“It might still be there?” Rashid whispered.

“But.…” Eldrigo’s cheeks blanched. “After so many years? Surely not!”

Lesser men would have turned back, but Tristan’s crew had followed him to Hades more than once—and prospered. They were not about to quit. Each carried a number of sacks, to carry out as much silvergold as a man could bear. They made ready while Tristan thrust this first prize into a sack and slung it over his shoulder.

The map sent them around a salt pan, whiter than bone in the sun. When they crested a low rise to the southwest, Eldrigo began to shout. With eyes shaded beneath both hands, he’d spied a tumble of stone where constant wind swept the sand level and brilliant sunlight blinded a man.

Zuralia actually lay much farther than they’d imagined. Dusk fell before they stumbled into the ruins. In fading twilight they searched frantically, their desire not gold, but water. Rashid found it: a staircase winding into basements beneath the ruins. Every man held his breath, praying....

Dame Fortune smiled. The ceiling remained sound enough, permitting them to walk passages where dust lay inches deep. No human foot had trodden there in centuries. By the light of three meager oil lamps, like mules or camels smelling water, they followed raw instinct to a great bell-shaped chamber where the floor glistened by torchlight —

No, it rippled, for it wasn’t stone, but water. Lakes gathered, untapped since the Zuralians either fled or became silvergold. The men swam, drank, bathed in the vast cistern of dew-sweet water. In an hour, the goatskins bulged as the crew rested by the pool and dared sleep.

Shivering pleasantly with the first cold he’d felt in too long, Tristan climbed to the ruins to get warm, eat, watch the stars, and make plans. He thought, they’d find the Borask’s handiwork tomorrow. He set a lamp, and sorted the contents of his pack. Moths fluttered around the flame as he ate his ration of jerky and dried fruit.

To his mind, it stood to reason the gold must be buried. Sandstorms would have covered and uncovered Zuralia time and again since the monstrosity laid waste to it. Silvergold must lie everywhere folk too stupid to flee made some desperate, insane stand against a demon. Only find the ramparts, Zuralia’s fortifications, and enough would surely lie underfoot to free Harrand—and Carmelita.

His tired mind drifted on the brink of asleep. He saw her face clearly, heard her voice. She reached out to him, so close, he thought he felt her touch. Her nearness was so real, he actually understood her words, though her voice was ethereal as dawn mist.

“Tristan,” she said, “listen to me—you must hear me!”

“I am listening,” he said, reaching for the phantasm, wanting to bury his face in the soft tresses of her hair, breathe the lotus perfume of her skin.

“Tristan!” She seemed to hiss into his ear. “Listen!”

Her urgency shook him awake. He began to concentrate. “This isn’t a dream?”

“Not a dream—it’s me,” Carmelita promised. “I got your message, when you left Lydris. I know where you went—in fact, I know where you are! You’re in the ruins. Zuralia.”

He was astonished. “How d’you know this?”

“Because I was so afraid I went to the witch, Magdala, paid her a duke’s ransom to work magic for me.” She paused. As he listened harder her voice gained substance. “Look about,” she said. “D’you see a bird, a raven?”

He gazed around the ruins, found it in the starlight. “I do,” he said. “How could you possibly know …?”

“The raven is Magdala’s familiar,” Carmelita told him. “It followed you, rode in your rigging, though you didn’t see it...she sees through its eyes, and has worked this magic to let me speak to you.”

“Can she work more magic, let me see you?” He would have loved to see her, whom he’d only seen fleetingly, from a distance and at state occasions, since she wed.

“I wish it were possible,” she sighed, “but listen well, my love. Do as I bid.”

He listened and was horrified. He must gather his crew, she said. They must flee Zuralia before dawn.

“But, why?” he demanded. “We already found a skull, pure silvergold, as legend promised. Thirty like it are the price of a legion for your home, freedom from you. There’ll be hundreds here!”

“What do I care for freedom, if you’re dead?” she cried. “Don’t you know, Tristan? Has Eldrigo not told you? Or perhaps he doesn’t know... the Borask is in the city! Magdala knows. It’s there now, it hibernates in a chamber below the ruins. Sleeps till it’s disturbed. Just being there, walking its passages, breathing its air, you’ll disturb it. At dawn it rises with the sun. You’ll join the silvergold bones in the sand. Run, Tristan—get your people together and run!”

“And your freedom?” he asked, resentful even as he began to stuff his pack.

“My freedom against your life?” Carmelita asked sadly. “If only one of us can be free, I want it to be you. Quick, now!”

Her voice faded. He struggled to reach her, but she’d gone. In a fine fury he roused his friends. He pinned Eldrigo with a gimlet-eyed glare, demanding to know why he’d said nothing of the hibernating Borask.

He knew by the blanch of Eldrigo’s face, the man had been blissfully ignorant. “Perhaps Lady Magdala is mistaken,” the Harrandian began.

But all his life Tristan had known Magdala by reputation. She appeared to be a young woman but was older than the foundations of Ohmar’s castle. Her powers were immense. She was never wrong. He knew they had two chances—fleeing was by far the safer, but another possibility lay ahead. He put it to his men, rightly letting them choose their own fate.

Flee before dawn, and they’d return to the ship with one hunk of silvergold, enough to outfit two voyages. They’d not leave empty handed. Or draw swords, head into the catacombs, seek the Borask’s lair, and slay it like a bear in its den.

Defeating the monster before it woke freed them to claim Zuralia’s terrible legacy. This crew were mercenaries, sailors, adventurers to a man, afraid of nothing if they believed they possessed a fighting chance.

He knew how they’d choose. Swords and lances gleamed by lamplight; whetstones slithered, sharpening blades. Men braided their hair and buckled on weapons, ready to hunt.

A second time, Tristan heard the voice of his beloved, and closed his eyes to concentrate. “Don’t,” Carmelita begged. “Please, Tristan, go! Magdala sees through the raven—she knows your plan. Run while you’ve time!”

“It’s too late already,” he murmured. “My crew chose their destiny, as is their right. They’re ready to hunt.”

“Then, you be ready to flee,” she insisted. “Don’t let the creature’s breath touch you! Be fleet-footed, don’t stand and fight, for you can’t. Run into the rising sun—the creature is blinded by brilliance, when the sky is clearest in the early morning. Watch for the gates.”

“Gates?” he puzzled, wondering if he’d heard correctly.

“The Gates of Petheris,” Carmelita repeated urgently. “Look for them! Promise me, Tristan, promise you will. They’ll appear as a mirage, but you must make for them with the last breath in your lungs and strength in your legs. Magdala has wrought a great magic. I paid her the emeralds Ohmar gave me when we wed. She’ll be rich, but this magic is her last, and her greatest.”

“A mirage,” he repeated.

“Yet not mirage.” Her voice dwindled again and he listened harder. “They are the Gates of Petheris. Inside, you’ll be safe....”

Then she was gone, and his heart hammered. He’d heard the Petheris myth, though not in decades. Stories of Petheris were so ancient, his mother’s father told them at the end of his long life, an old man dimly recalling what his own grandfather had said.

Petheris..., a place, or person? Tristan couldn’t be sure, but remembered enough to know that beyond those mirage gates lay another realm: fabled, splendid, safe. A land from which no one ever returned, though the same legend swore it was possible to come back, if one were determined enough. Strong enough.

This was the last, greatest magic of the most powerful witch: to open the gates for him, if only he could run hard and fast enough to escape the breath of the Borask. He swallowed his heart and faithfully recounted every word to his crew.

Wide eyed, they heard him out. He hoped they’d quit Zuralia while night and darkness were on their side, but as one the company turned down a flight of cracked marble steps into moldering basements and cellars, intent on hunting.

Zuralia stretched miles underground. Often Tristan was sure he was lost, then a gap would open in the ceiling, permitting a glimpse of the stars. He held a tenuous grasp on his bearings while the men searched from hall to hall, down passages thick with the muck of eons.

At last Eldrigo’s sharp ears noticed a sound. He held up a hand to halt them. They strained to hear in the absolute quiet. Tristan heard it too. A rasp that might have been breathing, a slither that could have been the coils of a serpent shifting, moving in its sleep. They had it!

Swords slid silently out of scabbards, sheaths lifted off razor-honed spear blades. Tristan led the way on cautious feet, following the shush of the creature’s breath. They rounded a corner into a wide hall where the roof gaped partly open to the stars. Vines and creepers intruded, sinking roots into the cisterns below. And here, he knew at once, they were wrong.

The sounds they’d heard were not a monster shifting in the depths of slumber. Magdala had seen correctly: the mere presence of humans disturbed it. The Borask had woken.

It reared on its coils, twice the height of a tall man. The monster bared massive fangs as it turned toward them, issuing a sibilant roar as a glistening, forked tongue darted out. Rashid — always impulsive, seldom wise — was first to try his luck. He flung a javelin, and another.

A shrug of the creature’s armored hood turned the first aside. The second struck it squarely where its heart might have been, but bounced easily off. Its armor was too thick to be damaged by a spear. Tristan doubted a sword would hurt it. Acrid breath swept over Rashid as he spun, trying to withdraw. With vast eyes his fellows watched their friend transformed into silvergold.

The next to try, and pay the price for rashness, was Eldrigo. He rushed forward, an axe in either hand, trying to dodge the Borask’s head, stay out of its breath. He hacked where its armored scales joined and it might have been vulnerable. Watching intently, Tristan realized Eldrigo never drew blood. The incredible creature seemed merely infuriated by the blows.

Faster than Eldrigo could hope to move, it spun, twisted, breathed long and hard on him. A chill rushed through Tristan as he witnessed Eldrigo of Harrand freeze in place, solidify to the tips of his long hair, as had Rashid, and take on the luster of pure argentiferous gold.

But the Borask was not done. Its sinuous neck darted, snakelike, faster than Mahmed, the young steersman, could escape. It had him even before Eldrigo’s transformation finished. Mahmed was gone.

Three of them—half the party—were lost in as many moments. Tristan knew by now -- victory must be measured in sheer survival. He shouted at his men while the thin, breeze-like murmur of Carmelita’s voice whispered into his ears,

Run! Tristan, for the love of all the gods, run!”

It might have been the only time Tristan or any of his lads turned their backs on an enemy and fled, but they had the sense to do as the lady bade. He bawled for them to follow, but did not look back as he hurled himself through a rent where the roof had collapsed, and found himself in the ruins. He heard scrambling on his heels and willed his men to speed.

Where had the night gone? They’d lost track of time. Dawn lightened the east as they raced through the tumbledown columns and walls of a dead city. What had Carmelita said? They must run into the rising sun, for its brilliance blinded the monster. They must not stop till they reached what seemed a mirage. He shouted this to his fellows, exhorting them just to follow.

Without water, they raced directly into the desert. Return to the ruins spelled death, and the cove lay too distant for them to dream of reaching the ship. One chance urged them on: the Gates of Petheris, which would swim, dance, mocking as a mirage.

Always an athlete, Tristan sprinted. He dropped every weapon, for all were useless. Near to naked, like the athletes of old, he hurdled tumbled columns and sped into the sand, into the dazzle of dawn. He heard three of his crew behind—one screamed and surrendered, but the fastest two hung on.

If they could keep enough speed, just ahead of the sun-blind Borask, they might live. Tristan could do nothing to help. Anyone who turned back would give his life for a futile attempt. No man in the company would have permitted the sacrifice, much less asked it. Each juggled his fate between his own hands. The prize, the ultimate victory, was survival.

The raven flew ahead, cawing urgently as it chased the rising sun over sands sparkling with quartz. Tristan ran till his legs trembled, lungs burned and throat rasped. Exhaustion swam in his head while the sun climbed a ridge of saltbush, but still he didn’t look back. Heat haze began to shimmer, and now he looked for the mirage.

He was slowing, he knew. The Borask must be back there, though he couldn’t know without stopping, turning, which would surely be the end of him. Instead, he forced himself on, fleeing into the sun. Exhaustion dogged his every step, his body begged for rest, his lungs spasmed. He stumbled, sprawled, dragged himself up and plunged on, slitted eyes raking the distance, praying Magdala’s last, greatest magic would not be wasted. Sure he couldn’t lurch another step, much less run—he saw it.

The portal appeared misty, as if made of glass, shimmering, wavering amid its haze. The Gates of Petheris stood wide, and he dove toward them, though the mirage mocked him with transparency, fading in and out as if it must vanish before he reached it.

Not even breathing, he tumbled through. The gates closed one instant before they winked into nothingness, as mirages do....


Here, storyspinners pause. A camel driver fetched home the end of the tale. He’d chased his animal into the sands and saw a magnificent athlete, spent, at the end of his endurance, vanish into a mirage. The camel man hid among saltbushes, unable to believe his eyes as he glimpsed an immense, impossible serpent. Losing its quarry, the monster turned back, in moments swallowed by the dancing heat haze.

Magdala recounted the same. She’d observed through the eyes of her raven. The bird rejoined the ship, which waited weeks in vain for Tristan’s party. No one walked out of the desert, and at last the Carmelita turned for home with dire news. But Magdala, grown rich on Ohmar’s emeralds—the price of her Gift—promised Carmelita this was far from the end of the tale.

Such magnificent enchantment stripped her power utterly: everything she possessed, she gave to let Carmelita speak with Tristan, and to open the Gates of Petheris. Magdala would wreak no magic now, but had one more pledge for the youngest wife of the duke.

She made this promise as a mortal woman; even her ability to cheat time was spent. “Petheris is a land beyond,” she swore. “The gates are impossible to find and even harder to enter. People who step through don’t return—not because they can’t, but because no one desires to. Once one discovers this splendid realm of demiurge and demigod, light and music, wonder and magic, the world of mortal men seems tawdry. A sham. One has nothing to return for....

“Or,” Magdala added shrewdly, “nothing much.”


If Tristan returned from Petheris, it was surely love brought him back. But did he return?

Stories abound. It’s a matter of history that within a year of the ill-fated Zuralia voyage, prospectors struck gold in the hills south of Harrand. The city became as wealthy as any in Anderlay. Its duke recruited a legion, trained by the finest officers from Ohmar’s personal guard.

At liberty to request her marriage contract be dissolved, Carmelita did so. Everyone believed she’d fly home at once, but instead she, her handmaiden, Thira, and the now-mortal Magdala moved to Lydris Harbor. They took a house overlooking the bay; and waited.

How long they waited, no one knows, but soon town records show the house at the top of Rigger’s Lane held by two women, not three. In the following years Thira’s name appears in the tabernacle register as the mother of four sons born to a handsome sea trader. Magdala grew notorious, gambling on horse racing, as if she retained enough second sight to unerringly choose winners. She grew richer than the duke, though she aged, as mortals must. Young men adored her to the end of her days, as if under some spell. The last history records of her is a voyage to the west, to a cove marked by bluestone cliffs..., an immensely old woman borne off into dawn-lit sands dancing with mirage. The chronicle says no more.

Rumor ran wild. Of Carmelita, history soon lost all trace, just as it records no more of Tristan.


The two disappear into time, leaving one to wonder, and hope.

Storytellers wind down there, demanding wine to quench the thirst of a long tale, well told. They always drink the best, for the story of Tristan and Carmelita is a perennial favorite; and, as for the ending... everyone wants to believe.


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