"Time is thingless," the old sorcerer told his last disciple. "Yet, you are about to see the source of it."
Tall, gaunt and completely bald, the sorcerer stood against the night dressed in straw sandals and a simple white robe. Narrow as a wraith, his raiment glowing gently in the starlight on the steep cliff above the temple city, he seemed about to blow away.
The disciple, a blue-eyed barbarian girl named Marigold, knelt before him on her bare knees, the hem of her kilt touching the ground. She lowered her face and closed her eyes. Whatever curiosity she had for why her masters, the priests, had awakened and brought her here stilled momentarily in the chill desert air, and she awaited her fate with expectant submission.
"Look at me!" The old man demanded, his voice resonant among the vacancies of the cliffs.
Marigold lifted her gaze hesitantly toward the withered figure and saw in the slim light that the sorcerer was smiling. He had a face as hewn as a temple stone, and it was a strange experience for the girl to find a friendly smile in that granite countenance. During the four years that Marigold had served as floor-scrubber and acolyte at the temple of the Sun, she had seen the sorcerer often in the royal processions and ceremonies - but the haughty old man had always appeared in public garbed in cobra-hood mantle and plumed headdress. Now he was bare-shouldered, his skeletal chest exposed, reptilian flesh hanging like throat frills from his jaw.
"Why are you here?" the old man asked.
"The priests of Shan'dolorei sent me, lord."
"Yes - they sent you. Because I ordered them to. Do you know who I am?" He peered at the girl, the whole immense dark sky glistening in his eyes.
"Lord, you are the supreme vizier. The man of the high places."
"Yes. That is who I am." He stood taller, stretched out his bony arms, and spoke in a flat voice: "Supreme vizier of the People, counsel to kings, master sorcerer." Without warning, he sat down in the dust, and Marigold's shock at the sight of the holy man squat-legged on the ground almost toppled her. She had to touch the earth with one hand to stay on her knees. The sorcerer's sagacious grin thickened. "And you are Marigold, I know, for I am the one who sent ships to seek you."
Marigold leaned back under the weight of her puzzlement.
"Well, not you specifically," the sorcerer added, hunching his frail body under the night. He looked tiny. "Just a child, boy or girl, any child, as long as the tyke was wild and not of the people. The child had to belong to no one. You are the one they found."
Marigold thought back, remembering the few fleeting memories and scraps of idle speculation an old priest had once offered her of the girl's young, insignificant life. She had been born on a heath in northern land, in a bracken hovel with many mouths for the wind to sing through. Her birth mother had been an outcast from her clan, exiled for madness but sane enough in the way of animals to survive on the wind-trampled moorlands.
Her first memory was of her scent - a bog musk, creaturely, hot. Even now, she was fond of the fragrance of rain-wet fur. Her second memory was of her telling her that she had never known a man. She had told her that many times, her simple speech gusty with fervor, saying it over and over again until she had become redundant as the lamentations of the wind. To the day she died trying to cross and iced river, she had moved and talked in a frenzied rush. Ranting about never knowing a man, beast eyes in the sky, about the smell of darkness in the sun-glare, and the thunder of hooves when the wind stilled, clearly she had been mad. She had realized this only years later, living among the People, though at the time, when she had first begun to reflect on her life, she knew nothing of madness, only that her mother had been true in her devotion to her, and she to her.
In her seventh winter, she fell into the river and vanished under the ice, all in an instant, right before her eyes. Standing three feet behind her, she had been attentive only to the twine net where she carried their next meal, a dead badger, the blood not yet frozen on its head where she had stoned it. That was the last she saw of her, the dead creature caught for an instant at the broken edge of the ice. She remembered clutching for it and it jumping from her, sliding into the black water as though it were yet alive. After she was gone, she had survived only because she had pretended she was still with her, instructing her what to do. With the thaw, she had followed the river, looking for her body. She never found her. The corpse of animals still frozen or caught in the floods kept her alive. Moving with the river, she never went back.