Keepers of Light Front Cover - A Novel by Louise Cooper

3: Keepers of Light
ISBN 0-340-77853-9

The adepts of the Circle have rediscovered the properties of the Maze, an ancient means of transporting people instantaneously between locations. Shar, though, suspects that the Maze can manipulate time as well as space, and she wants to use those powers to achieve a burning—and potentially dangerous— ambition. She has begun to experiment in secret, and now, for the first time, she is about to try to travel back to the past…

Shar managed to have breakfast without seeing anyone she knew, then hurried back to her room. Today, she intended to try to travel in time as well as in space, and she had worked out a plan that should allow her to do it safely. She would go to her childhood home on Summer Isle, in the far south. It was the one place in the world that she knew better than any other, and her memories of it were very strong. There was one particular occasion that she recalled with crystal clarity—a summer Quarter-Day six years ago, when a troupe of acrobats from the Great Eastern Flatlands had come to entertain the crowds at the great fair outside the High Margrave's palace. They had put on a spectacular show, and every detail of the event was fixed indelibly in Shar's memory. To return to that day would be an ideal first experiment with time manipulation.
As she was dressing in summer clothes, a new and intriguing idea struck her. If she bought something on Summer Isle—nothing elaborate, just a small trinket—could she bring it back to the castle or would it vanish when she returned through the Maze? It was surely worth trying. lf it worked, the possibilities were very exciting indeed.
Quickly, Shar rummaged in her purse for some money, then eagerly took up the amulet and focused her mind on Summer Isle. The image of the Quarter-Day fair came quickly and easily. She closed her eyes; her fingers tightened on the metallic spiral...
The lurch of displacement was far stronger than she had ever known it before. As always she glimpsed the castle, briefly, from the point of view of the Maze, and her pulse quickened as she saw that the sun was far higher than it should be at this time of year. Then a strange, high singing note sounded in her ears—the world collapsed into a mad whirl of silver and black and she was spinning away and away, faster and further, as the shrill note rose until it seemed to pierce her skull—
Colour slammed against her senses, and with a massive jolt Shar was standing on firm ground again. The singing sound was eclipsed by a medley of more natural noises, and as her vision cleared she saw a sea of people, banners, tents, booths, and the noises resolved into the cheerful din of a fair in full swing. The sun blazed crimson in a cloudless sky, and high summer heat washed over her, relieved by a breeze that carried mingled and delectable aromas of food.
She had done it! Overwhelmed by her success, Shar stood for several minutes simply taking in the sights and sounds and smells around her. She had arrived, as she had wanted to do, at one corner of the broad, sweeping meadows where the Quarter-Day fairs were always held, and the performers' arena was just a short distance away. The acrobats' brightly coloured and pennanted pavilion was not where she remembered it, but Shar wasn't worried. She could hardly expect to recall every detail perfectly; doubtless she would find the pavilion on the far side.
She started to make her way around the edge of the arena. It was slow going, for there were so many things to distract her. Craftsmen, musicians, fortune-tellers, sellers of wine or sweets or pastries or spiced meats... Shar had almost forgotten how different Summer Isle food was to the plainer fare of the castle, and she craved to taste it again. Well, why not? She had money. People could see and hear her, and no one suspected anything; only a moment ago someone had jostled her, smiled and apologised before moving on. She was simply one of the crowd.
She turned to where a sweet-maker was selling her wares, and chose some fruit-and-honey comfits. The price was an eighth of a gravine, which seemed cheap for so many. Shar gave the stallholder a half-gravine and waited for her change. But the woman was studying the coin, and a frown appeared on her face.
'What's this?' she demanded.
It was Shar's turn to frown. 'A half-gravine. If you want something smaller—'
She didn't get the chance to finish. 'A half-gravine? Don't try that trick on me, girl!' Abruptly she snatched the sweets from Shar's hand and thrust the coin at her. 'Here, take it back, and don't let me catch you around my stall again! Brazen little swindler—by Aeoris, it isn't even a good fake!'
Shar was so astonished and confused that she didn't try to argue, but backed away and fled. Reaching a quieter spot, she examined her coin. There was nothing wrong with it; on one face it bore the star-and-lightning ­flash sigil, and on the other the mark of its value. So why had the woman caller her a swindler?
Uneasily, she looked at her other coins. They, too, seemed genuine, but she began to wonder if something had happened to them during the transfer through the Maze; something that she was unaware of but others could see plainly. The only way to find out was to try again, so she approached another booth where a thin man was selling small wooden carvings. One—of a cat—took her fancy, so she picked it up and held out a whole gravine.
'Is this enough?'
The thin man looked at the coin, and his eyebrows lifted. 'Enough for what, lass?' There was amusement in his voice. 'To make a pretty pendant out of, maybe. But for buying something...' He returned the coin, took the cat from her and placed it carefully back on the stall. 'If you want to spend make-believe money, you'd better find someone selling make-believe goods!'
'But it's real,' Shar said. 'A real gravine. I'm sure it is!'
'And my name's Ilyaya Kimi!' the man retorted.
She stared at him blankly. 'Who?'
His expression changed from amused-annoyed to downright astonished. 'Who?' he repeated. 'Great gods, girl, what backwood are you from, if you don't even know the name of our lady Matriarch?'
A hard, icy little knot seemed to form in Shar's stomach. The Matriarch's name was Ulmara Trin...
Then suddenly she saw the man with new eyes, as though a veil had been lifted. She hadn't even noticed it before, but his clothes were wrong. And so were the clothes of the crowds milling around her. And the styles of their hair. And the fact that the acrobats' pavilion wasn't where she remembered it... The acrobats weren't here at all, and nor was anyone else whom she had ever known. She had come back in time, yes. But not to the time she had intended.
What year was this?
She swallowed, struggling to find her voice. 'I—I'm sorry,' she said. 'You see, I—' But she couldn't explain to him; it was far too dangerous. 'Please,' she said. 'I know it sounds foolish, but... could you show me a real coin? I won't try to steal it, truly I won't.'
He clearly thought she was mad, but he took pity on her and put a hand into his pocket. 'Oh, very well. Here. A proper gravine, look.'
On the side that showed its value, the gravine was very much like Shar's own. But the other face showed a plain circle, with the lightning-flash sigil of Order cutting diagonally across it.
Shar knew that symbol from her history lessons. It had gone out of use nearly two hundred years ago.
'Best go along now, eh?' the stallholder said more kindly. 'Go and find your parents, or whoever looks after you. They shouldn't let a poor, simple creature like you roam around; you might come to harm. Go on, now, that's the way.'
Shar went. With her heart pounding and the icy knot making her feel sick now, she found a deserted space behind one of the performers' tents, took out her amulet and pictured her room in the castle. Praying to Yandros that the return journey wouldn't go wrong as the outward one had, she willed the Maze to open.
The lurching disorientation snatched her out of the bright world of two hundred years ago, and moments later she was hurled back into the safe, familiar surroundings of her bedroom.
Shar sat on the bed, stunned and shaking. How had that happened? She had visualised the scene so carefully, certain that she was in complete control. What had gone wrong? Was it her fault, was there some flaw in her amulet, or had the Maze itself caused the anomaly? Raking her memory, she tried to recall every detail of the transfer. The lurch had been unusually strong, and there had been that shrill singing sound, and a moment when the whirl of colours had changed to black and silver. But if any of those things were significant she didn't know how or why.

A lot of people—even experienced Circle adepts—­would have been daunted by this newest experience. Shar, though, was not. Hestor would have called her cussed, she thought with dour amusement. Well, perhaps she was, for she certainly had no intention of giving up; in fact her resolve to fathom the Maze was strengthened by what had just taken place. The Maze always brought her back safely to the castle and to her own time, so there wasn't really anything to be afraid of. She would persevere, and she would solve this problem. An hour's rest would refresh her. Then she would try again.