The King of Calandra mounted, and settled gently into the saddle. He gathered the crimson-dyed leather reins, and the horse danced under him, eager.
Which way do we go today? Valadan’s eyes sparked garnet and gold.
“If we make for the coast, and follow the shore, do you think we could find Am Islin?” Tristan asked the Warhorse.
The Frozen Sea is frozen no longer. But Valadan set off from Crogen on the instant, and no arrow’s flight was swifter, nor more direct. The countryside, grassland and forest, farmland and water-meadows, fell away behind his heels, until at last he stood upon a tall cliff, sea-breezes stirring his black mane. There was not a drop of sweat on his ebony hide.
Tristan craned over his shoulder, looking down the cliff. “There’s a wide beach, looks as if it runs for leagues. Let’s see if there’s a way down.”
They galloped between sand and surf, with sea birds crying over their heads. And all at once, Tristan spied out a dark speck on the sand ahead of them. Not a tower, no, perhaps a rock, tumbled from the cliffs above. There might be others. He slowed Valadan a touch, then a touch more. They were at a walk when they came up to the woman seated on a lump of smooth white stone at the tide-line. Tristan dismounted and closed the last few yards on his own feet.
“Well met, Lady,” he said to Welslin Amberesdaughter. He wondered if he ought to bow, or drop to his knees, or if there was some more complex reverence properly made to her in days long past. She was spinning thread as she sat there, on a hand-spindle such as Elisena used—but there was no wool in sight, no flax, no reeled silk. Trying to watch closely dizzied him, but it seemed to Tristan that the foam of the waves gathered to her hands, and the sand of the beach swirled up to meet it, and became an endless thread which then flowed off of the spindle once more to lie in shining hanks by her slippered feet.
“I wanted…to thank you, Lady, and Magister Ambere, for your help. The quest is achieved.”
Welslin turned her head to her left. The wind played with her red hair, toyed with the ropes of pearls braided through it, and made a few sea-bird feathers flutter. “We know.”
Tristan looked where she did, and saw a mountain peak in Channadran, a living feather of smoke rising from it. And at its side, a smaller plume—as if the mountain had a child. Not even a hawk had such sight as to see so far into Channadran from the coast, but Tristan knew the truth of what he beheld.
“You have our thanks, as well,” Welslin said, her voice like the rush of waves against the beach, the beach where once a goddess’s heart had been washed ashore, and found, and in the end carried home.
“I thought to find the tower,” Tristan heard himself say. It had stood sentinel, impossible to miss.
“No,” Welslin Amberesdaughter said. She was swinging her spindle as she twirled it, side to side and round and round. Tristan’s sight blurred, and he felt as if he might at any moment topple onto his long nose in the sand.
“No,” he heard her say. “I waited here, for you. Seek not the tower.”
The gulls cried, the wind whistled, the waves sighed regular as a heartbeat. Tristan remembered the stairway, twisting up the tower, as the thread was twisted on the spindle.
Whose thread was she spinning? Tristan wondered. Whose life? He opened his eyes, seeking a clue in the thread or in her flawless face…
There were skeins of white foam on the pale gold sand. The sea was the color of Allaire’s eyes. A smooth rock crouched on the sand, the waves and foam just lapping at it. There was nothing more. No spindle. No woman.
The tide was turning. He and Valadan must go back, plainly the whole beach was within the sea’s reach.
Tristan turned. Something flickered at the edge of his sight. A twist of wind-spun, wind-blown silk was caught on the unicorn buckle that fastened his belt. All the colors of his world were in it.
Tristan waited for it to dissolve back into sea-foam and sand. When it did not, he coiled the hank of silk carefully, and tucked it into the pouch of magic stones that hung always from his belt.
Then he mounted, and rode back to Crogen.