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Master of the Cauldron: Chapter One

       Last updated: Friday, April 2, 2004 03:12 EST



    Ilna could see her reflection in the silvered backplate of the man who'd been her childhood friend Garric, the innkeeper's son--but who now was Prince Garric of Haft, the King of the Isles in all but name. He was speaking to his fiancée and secretary, Lady Liane bos-Benliman, as she jotted notes onto a thin board with a small gold pen.

    As she watched, Ilna's fingers knotted and unknotted patterns from the lengths of cord that she kept in her left sleeve. The patterns were simple, as simple as so many knives; and like knives, they could be tools or weapons if the need arose.

    Ilna's reflection was distorted, of course. She smiled--not bitterly, or at any rate without any more bitterness than her usual expression. Ilna prided herself on clear thinking, but there'd been a great deal of distortion in her view of her possible future a few years ago when she lived in the backwater of Barca's Hamlet on the east coast of Haft. For example, she'd imagined then that she'd make a suitable wife for her neighbor Garric.

    "Easy!" bellowed the sailing master, leaning out from the pintle of the port steering oar. The Shepherd of the Isles was backing toward the beach on the reversed strokes of only one of its five banks of oars. "Easy! Easy!"

    "Now you see why the men who aren't needed on the oars crowd into the bow, child," said Chalcus at Ilna's side. He held her ward, the nine-year-old Lady Merota, on his shoulder. "With their weight in the bow, we can back up onto the beach instead of crunching into it."

    "Crowd more, you mean!" said Merota. "Will we have real rooms here, Chalcus?"

    "Depending on the words our friend the Prince has with the Earl of Sandrakkan," Chalcus said laughing, "we'll have rooms or at least ground to pitch a tent on, I'm sure. The Shepherd of the Isles is as big as a warship gets, but I'll grant that with four hundred souls aboard you could find more room in a clothes press."

    Chalcus dressed in as many different bright colors as a clown and had a clown's smile and cheerful laughter. As he spoke, he gestured with his free hand to point out this or that part of the business of landing which only an expert would see.

    He was indeed an expert sailor. He'd learned his skill in the same hard school that taught him to use the slim, in-curved sword he carried stuck through his sash of vivid orange silk. As a youth he'd roamed southern waters with the Lataaene pirates, where the wrong choice meant death and the right choice didn't guarantee survival.

    Under his long-sleeved saffron tunic and his red-dyed leather breeches, Chalcus' body bore the scars of wounds that should have been fatal a dozen times over. That he'd survived said as much for his will as it did for the undoubted strength of his tautly muscular body.

    Ilna smiled again. Lady Merota was her ward, as amazing as that seemed to an illiterate peasant girl. Chalcus was her friend and her lover and... well, not her man, because he wasn't the sort to be anybody's man save his own, but a man; and even at age nineteen Ilna was aware of how rare a thing real men were in this world.

    Ilna's fingers wove, then opened the coarse fabrics to weave again. She'd always had a skill with cloth. She could run her hand over a bale of wool and hear it murmuring of meadows and clover, of the brook south of Barca's Hamlet and the insistent warmth of the lamb nuzzling your udder.

    Then she'd made a mistake, a wrong turning that took her to Hell and brought her knowledge fit only for demons. She'd returned to the waking world without leaving Hell, becoming Evil's most skillful minion for a time. It hadn't been long by most reckonings, but Ilna knew that if she lived forever she couldn't undo the harm she'd done while Evil rode her like a mettlesome horse.

    "Here we go, child," Chalcus said in an eager voice. The Shepherd scrunched onto the sand, beginning to wobble as it ground to a halt.

    The officers wore broad leather belts over their short tunics instead of sashes or simply breechclouts like the oarsmen who came from Shengy, Sirimat, and perhaps a few of the other southern islands. They shouted a confused medley of orders, but so far as Ilna could see the crew was already in motion.

    Sailors from the lower oarbanks stepped to the outriggers, leaped into the sea, and splashed shoreward carrying ropes. Those from the top bank had already withdrawn their oars from the rowlocks on the outrigger; they thrust the blades down into the sand, bracing the vessel which for the moment rested only on its narrow keel.

    "Put your backs into it, Shepherds!" Chalcus shouted as though he was still a sailor instead of being one of Prince Garric's companions. His right arm pointed to the ship sliding onto the beach beside them, the five-banked flagship of Admiral Zettin, the fleet commander. "You're not going to let those scuts from the City of Valles berth ahead of us, are you?"

    Ilna's brother Cashel stood across the narrow deck from her, one hand on his hickory quarterstaff and the other on the waist of his fiancée Sharina--Princess Sharina of Haft and Garric's sister. She was lovely and blond-haired and tall; taller than most men in Barca's Hamlet, though a hand's breadth shorter than Cashel and with a willowy suppleness that made her seem tiny beside him.

    Cashel was a massive oak of a man, his neck a pyramid of muscle rising from his massive shoulders. He looked anxious. Ilna knew his concern wasn't about what was happening, just that he wasn't part of it. For choice Cashel would be down in the surf, gripping a hawser and helping drag the Shepherd up the beach with the strength of any three other men.

    He couldn't do that because he'd become Lord Cashel, a nobleman by virtue of being Garric's closest friend during the time they both were peasants growing up in Barca's Hamlet. If he jumped into the water and grabbed a rope, the officers would be embarrassed and the common sailors shocked and worried; so he didn't, because the last thing Cashel would willingly do was to hurt or embarrass anybody unnecessarily.

    Of course when he thought it was necessary, Cashel's iron-bound hickory quarterstaff could do quite a lot of hurting.

    Seated cross-legged on the deck between Cashel, Sharina, and the railing was Tenoctris, an old woman whose talents included being generally cheerful despite the things she'd seen in her long life. Here she'd drawn a figure on the deck planking with a stick of red lead. She was muttering the words of a spell as she gestured with a thin split of bamboo.

    Tenoctris was a wizard. A wizard of slight power, she repeatedly noted, even now that the forces on which the cosmos turned were reaching another thousand-year peak, but a person whose craftsmanship had gained her Ilna's respect.

    Tenoctris' art never did anything that she didn't mean it to do. At a time when the hedge wizards of a decade ago could rip mountains apart--generally by accident--Tenoctris' care and scholarship had a great deal to do with the kingdom's survival.




    With the Shepherd firmly aground, the men from the lowest oarbank came up from the hold, sweating like plowmen. They stepped onto the outriggers. Many of them poised there a moment instead of dropping immediately to the sand into the knee-deep water nearer the stern.

    They'd backed the great warship onto the beach by themselves, while the men of the other four oarbanks stood on deck to slant the stern into the air. Though the deck gratings had been removed before the vessel began these final maneuvers, there'd still been very little ventilation in the hollow of the hull.

    The largest stern anchor was a stone doughnut attached to a section of cypress. The trunk was reeved through the central hole, and the three branches spreading just below the stone were trimmed to points to grip in the sea bottom. A pair of sailors lifted the anchor from where it'd been stowed beneath the tiller of the starboard steering oar and walked to the rail.

    The sailing master leaned over the side and shouted, "Ware below!" then nodded to the sailors. They half-dropped, half-threw the anchor onto the sand.

    "Chalcus?" said Merota. She pointed toward the strait separating the little islet where they were landing from the mainland of Sandrakkan. "Why are those ships there still rowing? Isn't there room for them here?"

    The child's high, clear voice cut through the scores of male shouts and snarls. For some reason, people always sounded angry at times like this. Maybe they were angry, frustrated by the complexity of what was going on.

    For complex it was. Ilna couldn't count beyond the number of her fingers without beans or pebbles for a tally, but she knew that there was a ten of tens of ships in Garric's fleet, the royal fleet--and perhaps several tens of tens. Many were backing onto the beach to either side of The Shepherd of the Isles; others had anchored well out in the channel, sending the soldiers they carried to land in small boats.

    In a few cases swimmers had dragged lines from vessels to the islet and tied them to the columns of ruined mansions lining the shore. Tunic-clad skirmishers armed with javelins and a hatchet or long knife clung to the lines with one hand as they splashed to land, safe even if they weren't able to swim any better than Ilna herself could.

    "Sandrakkan hasn't any real fighting ships, dear one," Chalcus said, speaking to the child on his shoulder but pitching his voice so that Ilna could hear also if she wanted to. "Just some fifty-oared patrol boats to chase smugglers, you see. But somebody had the notion, Lord Attaper I shouldn't wonder, that even little ships might attack Prince Garric while he's all tangled up with landing."

    Chalcus laughed. "Attaper is a fine man, to be sure," he went on, "but I think he worries lest a stone fall out of the clear sky and strike the Prince down. Regardless, there's thirty triremes sloshing the sea between Garric and the mainland. It's good practice, I'm sure, and there's never a crew that wouldn't benefit from a little more practice."

    Ilna allowed herself a slight smile at Chalcus' description of the commander of Garric's bodyguards, the Blood Eagles. Attaper was a fit, powerful man in his forties. At the moment he stood watchfully just behind the Prince. Ilna was sure he was ready to react if Lady Liane tried to stab Garric with the nib of her pen.

    Ilna's fingers knotted a tracery of cords, then undid them before their pattern was quite complete. Had she finished the design, a man who saw it clearly would hurl himself away, shrieking and trying to claw the horror out of his eyesockets. She didn't need such a thing here and now; but it was available, like the warships patrolling the strait and like the curved sword at Chalcus' side.

    The equipment of all the Blood Eagles was blackened bronze, but Attaper's helmet and cuirass had been chased with gold so that they looked more like parade armor than anything meant for war. His swordhilt, though, had the yellow patina that ivory takes when a hand grips it daily at the practice butts if not to wield against living foes.

    Ilna couldn't fathom the minds of men who made it their life's work to kill other men--and that was what soldiers did, when you boiled away all the nonsense about duty and courage and honor put on the business by the Old Kingdom poets that Garric so fancied. She couldn't understand, but she knew craftsmanship and honored it above all other things.

    Craftsmanship meant doing a thing the single right way instead of any of the unnumbered wrong ways others might do it. The Blood Eagles were volunteers, veterans who'd proved themselves in other regiments before they were even permitted to join. By the standard of craft, the only standard that had ever mattered to Ilna os-Kenset, the Blood Eagles were worthy of her respect.

    Lord Waldron, commander of the Royal Army, stood on the stern of another five-banked warship backed onto the beach a few places down from The Shepherd of the Isles. His aide raised a silver trumpet and blew a ringing note that was answered a moment later by the deeper, richer calls of several curved horns from the shore. The troops who'd already landed were milling like ants from a stirred-up hill, an image of hopeless chaos.

    But it wasn't chaos, Ilna knew. Those scrambling troops were forming shoulder to shoulder with their fellows, under the standards of their proper units. Many were soaked to the waist and some had lost their shield or spear or helmet in the process of coming ashore, but even so they were an army rather than a mob.

    Sailors were bracing the Shepherd's hull upright with spars so that the crewmen who'd steadied her when she first grounded could ship their oars and jump down. Half a dozen men under a bosun's mate hauled the anchor and its trailing hawser farther inland to hold the ship even if an unexpected storm raced down the strait.

    Ilna knotted her pattern, shaking her head in marvel at the scene around her. It was as if every thread in a loom had its own mind, but they chose to weave themselves into a complex tapestry instead of twisting off each in its own direction. It was a marvelous thing, but she didn't understand it, didn't understand how it could even be possible.

    Chalcus and Merota laughed at some joke Ilna had missed in her reverie. She smiled also, though at a thought of her own.

    Ilna understood very little about the world in which she found herself living. No doubt people like Garric and Sharina, whose father had educated them far beyond the standards of Barca's Hamlet, understood more than she did, but she was sure that even their grasp was slight compared with the world's enormous complexity.

    Still Garric and Sharina and the others went on, guiding a kingdom through the darkness of their own ignorance; because if they didn't the kingdom--the people, the uncounted numbers of ordinary peasants and traders and fishermen--would surely be crushed into the mud by masterless chaos. Ilna didn't really believe in Good personified, but she had no doubt of the existence of Evil.

    So she'd act to help Garric and Sharina, Tenoctris and Attaper and yes, Liane--the people who knew more than she did. She'd act without hope, without real certainty except in one thing: that whatever Ilna os-Kenset did, she would do with all the skill at her disposal.

    Cashel looked over his shoulder. He gave Ilna the broad smile that was as much a part of him as cold stiffness was to Ilna's own lips.

    Ilna's fingers made a last knot; she raised the completed pattern into the air. Everyone who caught sight of it laughed and pointed it out to their neighbors. It was only a rough, knotted fabric, but it brought a flash of joy and hope.

    Even to the woman who'd knotted it.



    Cashel, bursting with pride because his left hand rested on Sharina's waist, surveyed the island of Volita. From a distance the terrain looked rocky, but as the Shepherd approached the beach it became obvious that except for the granite crag near the center of the island the stones weren't natural outcrops. The shore was covered with the tumbled ruins of buildings which must've been palaces, even by the standards of what Cashel had seen in Valles on Ornifal, the capital of the Isles.

    Cashel flexed his right hand on the shaft of his quarterstaff. The touch of the stout hickory, polished both by labor and by use, reminded him of who he really was: an orphan who'd grown up in a borough which the rest of the world had ignored for a thousand years.

    His father Kenset had sold his share of their late father's grain mill to his brother Katchin and left Barca's Hamlet; seeking adventure, his neighbors remembered, and swearing he'd never return. When he did come back in seven years' time, he'd brought the infants Cashel and Ilna. People recalled that Kenset had left Barca's Hamlet with a song on his lips; but on his return he didn't sing, rarely spoke, and spent as many of his waking hours as he could drinking ale.

    Before long Kenset died in a ditch; too drunk to find shelter and very likely seeking the end he found in the frosty night. He'd never explained where he'd been while he was gone nor had he talked of the children's mother. His own mother had raised Ilna and Cashel; and after she died, they'd raised themselves.

    A peasant village has neither the taste nor the resources for luxuries like charity, but the orphans had made do. They had half the mill to sleep in, for by their grandfather's will neither son could sell his portion of the building; and they earned enough for their bread in one fashion and another. Cashel had a man's strength early, and Ilna's talent with fabric was a marvel from the first time her fingers twisted raw wool into thread.

    Cashel had never expected to leave Barca's Hamlet except perhaps to badger a herd of sheep across the island to Carcosa, the ancient capital of the Isles on the other coast. Instead he'd seen Laut on the far side of the Inner Sea, and he'd lived in the royal palace in Valles, a sprawling park with more separate buildings in it than there were in Barca's Hamlet and the borough around it altogether.

    Cashel had gone to those places, and he'd gone to places that weren't in this world at all. He recalled how he'd felt scarcely a year ago when he'd first seen the crumbling walls of Carcosa. They'd been built during the Old Kingdom and used as a quarry by the city's remaining population for all the thousand years since the Old Kingdom fell. He'd been awestruck by the ruins that remained, almost unable to accept that so great a mass of stone had been created by men. Nothing in Cashel's previous life compared with those walls save for the sky overhead and the sea reaching eastward to the horizon from the shore of Barca's Hamlet.

    But marvelous as Cashel'd found the places he'd gone and the folk he'd met there, none of them were as wonderful as the fact that Sharina loved him and had allowed him to love her. Her father Reise was the innkeeper, a wealthy man as the borough weighed such things and a learned one by any judgment. He'd come to Barca's Hamlet from Carcosa, where he'd been Countess Tera's chamberlain; and before that he'd served the king himself in Valles.

    Reise had taught Garric and Sharina to read and to love the great writers of the Old Kingdom. They'd learned so well that Lady Liane had found the education she'd received at a school for the daughters of the wealthy made her no more than the equal of the innkeeper's children she met in Barca's Hamlet.

    Reise's daughter was far too great a person to wed an orphan like Cashel who couldn't write his name and who'd never handled a silver coin in his life... and besides that, Sharina was a long-legged beauty with blond hair as fine as spiderweb. Every year at the borough's Sheep Fair there'd been drovers and wealthy merchants who offered Sharina riches past a peasant girl's imagining if she'd come away with them.

    A thundercloud of memory shadowed Cashel's face. Sharina had told them 'no'. The ones who didn't like the answer were told it again, by Sharina's muscular brother Garric and her even more muscular friend Cashel. If they had bodyguards--and they generally did--so much the worse for them. A swordsman in an open courtyard hasn't a chance against a strong man with seven feet of iron-shod hickory and the skill to use it.

    Cashel's left hand rested lightly on Sharina's waist, not a claim but rather a badge of honor. He'd worshipped Sharina for as long as he could remember, but he'd never imagined that he'd be permitted to love her. Whatever else happened in Cashel's life, it'd already been more wonderful than he'd dreamed.

    He looked at the island. Volita didn't have much to see that Cashel cared about. Ruins were interesting to some folk, just as books were. Tenoctris could touch a carved stone and talk about where it came from, while Garric and Sharina nodded in understanding. But for Cashel, rocks were mostly important when they were where they'd grown, because then they gave him a notion about how good the grazing was likely to be.

    Garric was sailing his fleet slowly up the western arc of the kingdom, halting at each of the major islands. He was making what his advisors called a Royal Progress. Cashel didn't need anybody to explain the sense of it: a shepherd who kept his eyes open saw the same thing happen every Spring. Birds, squirrels--frogs, even--stared at each other and puffed themselves up, singing or screeching or croaking. All of them were trying to make their rivals back down.

    With dogs you might get a fight, but that was dogs. It could be a fight between men too, but not if they were as smart as Garric.

    Cashel was one of the people Garric talked to before he did things. Cashel hadn't understood why at first, him a shepherd who couldn't read or write sitting with nobles who were used to running things. He'd seen quickly that his knowing the things a peasant knows could be useful. With nobles, what they knew got mixed up with what they called honor. Honor to a noble generally meant acting like you didn't have any common sense.

    About fighting, for instance. A fight meant the winner was hurt too, like as not, and maybe the losers from earlier fights would pile in and turn it into an all-against-one thing that no 'one' could survive. It was a lot better in the long run to talk and posture and hop up and down--and not to have to fight, because you'd convinced your rival that he couldn't win but that you were going to let him not lose either.

    So Garric arrived at each island with a fleet and army that the ruler knew he couldn't defeat; but instead of attacking, Garric told him how glad he was to have a loyal supporter of the kingdom like him in this place; and by the way, here was the new schedule of payments that his island would be sending to Valles to support the fleet and army.

    That's what a Royal Progress was. That's why Garric and his huge fleet were here on an island just off the coast of Sandrakkan, whose previous ruler had claimed to be King of the Isles twenty-odd years ago; and who'd failed, but not by so much that his nephew mightn't have similar notions of his own.

    Tenoctris had finished the spell she'd been working. Sharina bent down to talk with her, but Cashel remained where he was as a wall between the women and the bustle on the ship's narrow deck. No sailor would bump Sharina or Tenoctris deliberately, but they might not notice them. Most everybody noticed Cashel. If they didn't, well, they bounced off.

    Cashel continued to scan Volita the way he would a new pasture. He'd seen a lot of places in the past five seasons. Many of them were cities, and the only parts of a city Cashel'd found he liked were the pictures city-folk, wealthy ones anyhow, had painted on their walls. But there'd been countryside too, none of it really nicer than the borough in springtime but nice enough regardless.

    A ewe with a black body and an all-white face stood between half-raised pillars on the horizon, staring at the ships and men on the shore. She chewed a grass blade with the same rotary motion as a woman mixing bread dough. The hooves of sheep had cut narrow paths which wound among the ruins wherever Cashel looked, following the least possible grade across the landscape. Sheep could find a slope where water'd give up and make a pool instead....

    Cashel smiled broadly and rested his hand gently on Sharina's shoulder, his eyes still on the shore. Volita might not be Barca's Hamlet, but it'd do. Any place in any world would do for Cashel or-Kenset, so long as he was there with Sharina.



    Sharina saw the crimson spark vanish from above the symbol Tenoctris had drawn on the pine planking. She put her hand out to steady the old woman, but Tenoctris didn't sway with fatigue the way she often did after an incantation.

    "I'm all right, dear," she said, though she raised her left hand for Sharina to hold and didn't look up for a moment. "I was determining the amount of power here, that's all. I'd never visited Sandrakkan before. In my former life, I mean."

    Now she did turn to smile. Tenoctris appeared to be about seventy. Indeed she'd lived some seventy years, but she'd been born more than a millennium ago. She'd been ripped from her time by the wizardry which had drowned King Carus and brought the Old Kingdom down.

    The Kingdom of the Isles today was only a shadow of the magnificence which had shattered a thousand years ago, the crudely rejoined fragments of the little that had survived the Collapse. Except for the help and direction Tenoctris had given Garric and the others who were trying to prevent it, a second, final Collapse would have destroyed what remained.

    And that Collapse could still occur. The forces which wizards tapped with their art waxed every thousand years, and they were swiftly rising to their peak again. Wizards who in the past could only wither a tree with great effort were now able to blast whole forests--and might easily do so by accident, because an increase in power didn't bring with it greater learning and wisdom.

    "I thought I must be mistaken about the skeins of force I felt here," Tenoctris continued, gesturing toward the ruin-speckled western slope of Volita. "I was right, though. Something really terrible must have happened, but--"

    She grinned.

    "--it was after I left my own age. Or I'd have been aware of it, even if there hadn't been time for human messengers to bring word."

    The wizard shifted her feet in preparation to rise. Sharina stiffened to help, either by lifting or just to provide a fulcrum on which the old woman could lever herself upright.

    After a moment's consideration, Tenoctris relaxed where she was. "Not quite yet," she murmured, mostly to herself.

    When Sharina was a child who'd never met a wizard, she'd imagined that wizardry involved muttering a few words and having all manner of wonders appear from the thin air. Now she'd seen wizards of many different types and abilities. The one thing they all had in common was the bone-deep exhaustion that they felt at the conclusion of a spell.

    A powerful wizard could do things that a lesser one couldn't even attempt, just as Cashel could lift a stone that wouldn't tremble if Sharina strained against it. That didn't mean lifting a heavy stone wasn't work for Cashel, though: just that it was work within his very considerable capacity.

    Tenoctris was a little old woman with limited physical strength and similarly slight ability to influence through her art the forces she saw so clearly. Even minor spells were an effort for her. At need, she could function on sheer willpower for long enough in every case which Sharina'd had occasion to observe; but there was no need for Tenoctris to do anything just now except to sit on the deck as sailors completed berthing arrangements.

    Volita lay in the Bay of Shelter. This western shore faced the mainland of Sandrakkan and the city of Erdin, the capital of the Earls of Sandrakkan from the founding of the Old Kingdom two millennia before. The surrounding water buffered the climate. Volita was close to one of the most vibrant cities of the realm, so during the Old Kingdom it'd become a summer resort for wealthy folk from the length and breadth of the Isles.

    Today the remains of those homes lined the island's western shore and, as Sharina had seen as the fleet approached, the eastern side as well. Most'd had a slip for the owner's yacht, but the waves of a thousand stormy years had crumbled the pilings and stonework. They wouldn't have been large enough to berth warships two and three hundred feet long anyway.

    But not all Volita's ruins were those of time and weather, though....

    "Records of the Collapse aren't good," Sharina said. It seemed odd to be explaining what had happened a thousand years ago to a person who'd been alive then, but Sharina knew from her own experience that the person who lives an event often doesn't know more than a tiny shard of it. "Of course. But there's an account written in the monastery on Bridge Island, the Healing Brethren of Lady Erd. Nobody knows how accurate it is."

    She cleared her throat and repeated, "Of course."

    "Yes," said Tenoctris. "I understand. But there is an account?"

    "Sandrakkan was attacked by pirates who came from the Inner Sea," Sharina said, not letting her tone carry any emotion. "There was much raiding then, after Carus and his fleet were overwhelmed. These pirates were led by a wizard."

    She was surprised at how difficult it was to go on. When she'd found the codex with the story in a temple library in Carcosa, it'd been interesting enough to struggle through despite the copyist's awkwardly back-slanted hand--but it'd been merely an anecdote. Perhaps it was slightly more important than otherwise because it took place in Erdin, where the Royal Fleet would be going next; but only slightly.

    What had seemed a scrap of history in an old book took on a disquieting immediacy here, staring at the ruins of Volita. All the more reason to go on, Sharina thought with a grin.

    "The Earl of Sandrakkan had a wizard also," she continued. "The monk doesn't mention the wizard's name, but he was apparently more learned than he was powerful."

    Sharina and Tenoctris exchanged broad smiles. Tenoctris was an exceptional scholar irrespective of the subject on which she focused. She could appreciate better than most a wizard of former time with greater learning than power.

    "He summoned a third wizard from a distant place," Sharina said.

    "Distant in time or space?" Tenoctris wondered aloud. "Though I don't suppose a monastic chronicler would know the difference."

    "He didn't," Sharina agreed. "'From a far country' was what he said. This third wizard met the pirates on Volita and raised great giants to battle them. At last the giants defeated the pirates and pent them under the earth. Erdin and the rest of Sandrakkan were saved, but everything on Volita was ruined. The island spat red and blue lightning for all the year following."

    Tenoctris got to her feet with studied ease, barely touching a hand to the deck as she straightened. She smiled at Sharina, sharing with her younger friend a triumph over the insistences of age. She looked over the railing at Volita.

    "Yes," she said, "I can imagine there were flashes of wizardlight that even those who aren't sensitive to the forces involved would notice. And I'm not surprised that the houses haven't been rebuilt even today."

    She nodded toward the ruins marching up and down the beach. The location should've remained desirable for the same reasons it had been during the Old Kingdom, but the only present signs of human activity were wandering sheep and the beehive hut that a shepherd had built from fallen debris.

    "It'll be uncomfortable staying on Volita," Tenoctris continued, "though it won't do us any harm. The soldiers will probably feel itchy, some of them more than others."

    Sharina watched the troops and sailors scrambling over the shore of the island. Groups were moving up the slope, spreading the way spilled liquid does through a piece of cloth.

    She turned back toward the wizard. "What about you, Tenoctris?" she asked sharply. "'Some more than others,' you said.The sensitive ones, don't you mean? Then you most of all."

    Tenoctris chuckled. "Oh, child, I know what's happening," she said. "For me it's no worse than being out in the rain; and the land needs rain, you know. But what if you didn't know what rain is?"

    With a sad expression she watched the busy men. Sharina pursed her lips, understanding now why this landing seemed a little different from those she'd experienced before. The shouts were harsher, angrier than they should have been at the end of a successful voyage. The crews and soldiers were already on edge; that would only get worse the longer they camped here.

    "Perhaps I should've said something sooner," Tenoctris went on. "I didn't realize it would be quite like this."

    "It wouldn't have changed Garric's plan," Sharina said, glancing sideways toward her brother among his aides and black-armored bodyguards. "He didn't want to land on Sandrakkan proper because there might be trouble between our soldiers and the Earl's. Would be trouble."

    There always was trouble: between soldiers and civilians, even when the soldiers were in permanent barracks at home, and between soldiers of different regiments even in the same army. Dropping an army of twenty thousand, armed and full of themselves and secretly frightened, onto an island which had fought them during the lifetime of many on both sides, meant the inevitable drunken insults and brawls over women were very likely to escalate into full-scale warfare.

    Sharina knew that a bloody war between the Royal Army--which was still the Ornifal army in the minds of many--and the army of any of the major islands was likely to doom the kingdom no matter who won that particular battle. King Carus had fought a score of usurpers and secessionists, winning every time. Even if wizardry hadn't destroyed him and his army, there'd still have been a final battle that Carus lost if only because there were no longer enough able-bodied men to stand beside him.

    The Old Kingdom had died with Carus. The New Kingdom would die just as surely with Garric if he started down the path of ruling by his swordarm.

    Sharina looked at her brother in silence, feeling love and pride.

    She also felt an embarrassing degree of relief. No matter how willing she was to help him for the kingdom's sake, the final responsibility was Garric's, not hers.



    The Sandrakkan mainland was crowded with people, standing on the shore or already in the barges which would bring them across to Volita as soon as they'd gotten permission. Even a mile away they could see Prince Garric of Haft, Regent of the Kingdom, in his dazzling silvered breastplate and the silvered helmet from which flared wings of gilded bronze.

    Inside that splendid armor was Garric or-Reise, the peasant son of the innkeeper of Barca's Hamlet. There were many things Garric would rather've been doing than the job he had before him. They started with reading verse by the great Old Kingdom poet Celondre while he watched a flock of sheep on the hillside south of the hamlet, because that was a job he understood.

    "You understand being ruler as well as any man does, lad," said King Carus, the ancestor who'd shared Garric's mind ever since his father gave him Carus' coronation medal to hang around his neck on a thong. "Better than I ever did, as the Gods well know."

    Carus laughed, his presence unseen by others but to Garric as real as his own right hand. In life Carus had been a tall man with a ready smile and a swordsman's thick wrists. That was how he usually appeared to Garric as well, leaning on the rose-wound railing of a balcony in an indeterminate place. Carus' features and those of Garric, his descendant after a millennium, could have been those of the same man some decades apart in age.

    We don't know what history'll say about me after I'm dead, Garric said in his mind.

    "We know that if you don't continue to do better than I did," said Carus in what was for him an unusually crisp tone, "there won't be any more history."

    "That's Marshal Renold's standard, a crow displayed," said Liane, slitting her eyes as she peered toward the waiting barge with a cloth-of-gold canopy shading the passengers amidships. "If he's present, he'll be in charge of the negotiations. The Marshal traditionally commands the Earl's professional troops, and he leads the left wing in a battle."

    Garric followed the line of Liane's gaze. He could see the standard, a pole supporting a gilt bird with its wings spread. His eyes were as good as anybody in the borough's, but he couldn't have told it was a crow. Liane was probably guessing.

    But possibly not. It was never a good idea to underestimate Liane.

    Lady Liane bos-Benliman was dark-haired, gently curved, and as obviously aristocratic as she was beautiful. Her father Benlo had been a successful merchant, widely traveled in the Isles and perhaps beyond.

    He'd been a wizard as well. Wizardry had cost him his honor, his life, and finally his soul.

    Liane had gained a fine education before her father's disgrace. She retained that, along with a powerful intelligence and Benlo's network of contacts throughout the known world. She'd made herself Garric's confidential secretary and his spymaster, carrying out both sets of duties with a skill he couldn't imagine anyone else equaling. That Liane loved him was to Garric a greater wonder than the fact he shared his mind with his ancient ancestor.

    "Is Renold a sensible man?" Garric asked. "Because if he is, he'll see immediately that my offer--the Kingdom's offer--is reasonable given the balance of forces. If he does, then this can be a basically pleasant meeting."

    "Reasonable or not," said Liane with a sniff, "your offer's the Earl's only chance of survival. Unfortunately from what I can gather Renold is very similar to his master, and Earl Wildulf is barely intelligent enough to pull his breeches on before his boots!"

    She cleared her throat, keeping her eyes toward the far shore, obviously embarrassed at her outburst. Liane had a personality flaw with some other smart people Garric knew: she became genuinely angry when she had to deal with folks who refused to demonstrate common sense.

    "She wouldn't do for a politician, lad," Carus commented from the back of Garric's mind. "But then, neither did I. She's not in charge, as unfortunately I was."

    "I think we'll be able to work matters out with the Earl in adequate fashion," Garric said, smiling toward Liane but speaking to his ancestor as well. "I don't doubt his pride, but he didn't rebel when we--"

    And by 'we', he meant the Royal Fleet and Army.

    "--had other things to occupy us during the past year. He and I will manage to agree."

    Carus laughed cheerfully, seeing the mass of fears and indecision that roiled in Garric's mind while he calmly predicted success. Garric smiled also, at himself. He'd said the politic thing, after all. That it was more likely than not true was in a way beside the point; and that the uncertain future terrified him had nothing to do with the matter at all.

    Ordinarily Garric expected to meet local dignitaries in their mansions or in public areas designed for the purpose. Negotiating among the ruins of Volita created some problems that Garric's staff had solved with impressive professionalism. A crew under the bosun of Admiral Zettin's flagship was raising a great marquee under which Garric and the Sandrakkan envoys could negotiate.

    The fleet was equipped strictly as a fighting force; it didn't carry tents for the common soldiers, let alone the trappings of luxury that some nobles thought were required even while on campaign. The marquee'd been stitched together from the mainsails of several triremes and trimmed with signal flags for color. The sailors--soldiers weren't used to working with spans of fabric so great--used the concave ruin of a domed building for a back wall and had supported the front of the canvas with spars. The work of raising it was almost complete.

    Garric turned to his aide, Lord Lerdain--a husky youth of fifteen, and said, "Lerdain, tell the signalers to summon the Sandrakkan delegation. By the time their barge gets here, we'll be ready to meet them."

    "Right!" said Lerdain, resplendent in gilded armor even gaudier than Garric's own. He stepped onto the port outrigger, then jumped straight to the beach--a youthfully boastful thing to do. Lerdain's helmet fell off, probably after banging his head a good one. He thrust it back in place and scrambled toward the flagship whose raised mainmast provided the fleet's signal station.

    Lerdain was the eldest son of the Count of Blaise. He was here at Garric's side in part as a pledge of his father's continued good behavior, but he'd made an excellent aide nonetheless. He had the arrogance of youth and the occasional pig-headedness of his class, but pride made him keen and he'd shown himself quite capable of thinking for himself.

    There was another benefit to having a ruler's son as an aide. Garric'd found it useful to send a messenger who had no hesitation in passing on the Prince's orders just as forcefully as the Prince himself would've done, no matter how lofty the person receiving those orders might be.

    Garric looked toward the shore of the mainland. Hundreds of barges lined it, ready to put out for Volita with provisions and recreation for the Royal Army as soon as Garric allowed them to. The Royal Army under Garric--as had been the case under Carus--carried silver to buy supplies locally so that it didn't have to proceed with a train of lumbering store ships.

    The river Erd drained central Sandrakkan, bringing produce from the northern mountains and the plains alike to Erdin, where an extensive system of canals distributed it without the heavy wagons whose iron-shod wheels clashed deafeningly through most cities. Canal and river boats weren't meant for the open sea, but in reasonable weather they were adequate for the narrow waters between Volita and Sandrakkan.

    "I should've given the traders come as well," Garric said, frowning at his oversight. There were too many things to keep track of. Many of those that weren't of life-or-death importance slipped through his mind, and he had the nagging fear that some that were critical were going to get past him also.

    "I'll take the message, your highness!" said the next-senior in the cluster of noble youths detailed as aides to the Prince. This boy was a cousin of Lord Royhas, the Chancellor and at present the head of government back in Valles. He was just as keen as Lerdain--and not a little jealous as well.

    "Stop if you will, Lord Knorrer," Liane said. Her voice was emotionless but it was far too loud to ignore.

    The youth, already poised to leap ten feet to the sand the way Lerdain had done, teetered wildly. Garric grabbed Knorrer's shoulder, steadying him until he could reach back to the railing.

    "I believe your highness was correct to let the delegates arrive before you allow the traders to cross," Liane continued, smoothly and in a much quieter voice. "The traders will race one another for the best market, and it's very possible Marshal Renold and his companions would be overset in the turmoil. At the very least, they'd find the situation demeaning."

    "Which would put them in a bad mood," Garric said, smiling at the polite way Liane had contradicted him in the language of agreement. "Or perhaps a worse one. Thank you, milady. The troops can wait for their bread and wine."

    And women, of course. Some of the barges were laden with what looked from a mile's distance like a sampling of court society. Closer to hand the finery would be less impressive, but it'd serve well enough for the purpose. It would've dazzled folk in Barca's Hamlet, for that matter; except for Ilna, whose taste was as subtle as that of a great lady of Valles.

    Garric glanced at those standing with him in the stern of The Shepherd of the Isles. He'd chosen to wait here till it was time to meet the Sandrakkan delegation, because the quinquereme's deck was a much better vantage point than the ground anywhere near the shore. The spine of Volita rose enough that not even the worst winter storms could send waves from the Inner Sea surging across the mansions on the western shore, but the only portion that could really be called high was the knob of basalt that stuck up like a raised thumb a quarter mile inland.

    Sharina was talking to Tenoctris, but she met Garric's glance with a surprisingly warm smile. They'd always gotten on well, better than most siblings, but for a moment Sharina's expression suggested motherly concern.

    Cashel stood just behind the two women; his face placid, his staff upright in his right hand. It was disconcerting to look from the granite knob in the middle distance to Cashel close at hand. The rock looked something like a hunched human being when you compared it to a man of equal solidity.

    Ilna raised her hands, stretching the cords between her fingers into a sunlit web. Garric laughed aloud to see the pattern. There was just something about the way the cords crossed... it made him sure there was a way through all the tangles that were part of a prince's life no less than a peasant's.

    Crewmen dropped a ladder over the quinquereme's stern. It was roped to the pintle of the steering oar at the top; a husky sailor braced the bottom rung with his foot so that it wouldn't shift in the sand. The barge from Sandrakkan was nearing the island.

    "Time to go, I think, friends," Garric said. "Cashel, if you'll help Tenoctris...?"

    Without comment or hesitation, Cashel scooped up the wizard as easily as Chalcus held Ilna's ward. Close behind, Sharina carried the satchel holding Tenoctris' books and paraphernalia--liquids, powders, and a few crystals of greater weight.

    Chalcus nodded to Garric. Then--still holding Merota--he followed after Ilna, who was tucking away her knotted pattern.

    Still chuckling, Garric said, "Lord Knorrer, take Lady Liane's case if you will." He nodded to the travelling desk in which Liane kept the documents for which he had immediate use.

    "I can--" she said.

    Garric lifted her in the crook of his right arm and strode toward the ladder, laughing again. He was bragging, about his strength and also that this beautiful, brilliant woman loved him as he loved her; but he had a right to brag. Life was very good.

    Earl Wildulf doesn't want a fight any more than I do, he thought, answering the grim speculation in the eyes of his ancient ancestor.

    "Aye lad," Carus replied, but he wasn't agreeing. "But fights can come even when neither side wants them to."

    Carus paused, then added reflectively, "I've been in more battles than I could count, and mostly at the end the only thing I could say I was happy about was the fact I was still alive. The day came I couldn't even say that. I pray to whatever Gods may be that you never have to say that while the Kingdom still has need of you!"

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