Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

Master of the Cauldron: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Thursday, June 17, 2004 00:03 EDT



    "This is my second visit to Erdin," Garric said to Liane in the stern of The Shepherd of the Isles as the big vessel stroked slowly across the strait. "The first time I was a peasant who'd never seen a gold coin."

    Unlike merchant vessels, warships couldn't remain tied up to quays while in harbor: their light hulls would become waterlogged. Erdin had no open beaches nor a drydock large enough to haul a five-banked monster like the Shepherd out of the water, so she'd return to Volita after delivering Garric with the pomp appropriate to a ruling prince.

    Garric grinned. "The city looks different now."

    The Shepherd's fighting towers of canvas-covered wicker were raised in the bow and stern. The balistas mounted on them had bolts in their troughs, and the only reason the weapons weren't cocked was that Garric had absolutely refused to chance one of them letting loose by accident.

    Attaper had thought the extra protection from having the artillery ready to shoot was worth the risk; Garric's other military officers simply weren't bothered at the possibility of a dozen or so Sandrakkan spectators being killed if a bronze-headed bolt ripped through the crowd. Garric did care.

    "You're right to worry about civilians, lad," King Carus noted with a broad grin. "But it's only because I saw where the other way of thinking led that I didn't argue with you myself."

    The triremes transporting the Blaise regiment were in line abreast to the Shepherd's starboard. They bucked the current between Volita and the mainland with more difficulty than the larger ship because they had only one bank of oars manned. Even so they kept station well. It was a short voyage, and Admiral Zettin had made sure the transports had picked crews.

    The admiral himself was aboard one of the ten fully-crewed triremes manuevering in the strait. Sections of five ships combed through one another, then reversed direction and did the same thing again. It was an impressive shiphandling demonstration, but it was also a warning to anybody who'd thought of putting out from the mainland with hostile intentions.

    Garric hadn't ordered him to put on that show of force, but Zettin didn't need orders to get him to act. If anything he was too zealous.

    "He's very able," Liane said, following the line of Garric's gaze and noting the slight frown. Her tone held the same doubt that he was feeling. "And intelligent, for that matter. But he doesn't always see that his duties are part of running the kingdom, instead of being the kingdom existing to support a fleet."

    "He probably wouldn't be as good a fleet commander if he weren't focused on that alone," Garric said. "But I have to watch him a little more carefully than I sometimes have time to do."

    "Right," said the image of Carus, nodding grim-faced agreement. "Just in case he decides to take a squadron into a fishing village by night and carry off all the able-bodied men to fill empty oar benches. And don't say it couldn't happen, because it did. And it was me who did it, I'm sorry to say."

    Garric chuckled, causing Liane to smile at his pleasure. He could imagine the effect kidnapping crews had on the kingdom in the longer run, though. The same was true of extortionate taxation, of course, but both Lord Tadai and--back in Valles--Chancellor Royhas showed more awareness of long-term considerations than Zettin did.

    Zettin's job was at its simplest level killing other people. It didn't encourage viewing things in the long term, and realities of the work led to the early death of soldiers who forgot the basics.

    The trireme manned by Blood Eagles under Lord Attaper's personal command slid up to the quay where soldiers in bright armor, courtiers, and in the center Earl Wildulf himself waited. The guards disembarked swiftly, setting helmets in place and hooking shield straps to the staples on their backplates to transfer some of the weight off their left arms.

    "How do they row wearing breastplates?" Liane asked wonderingly.

    "It can't be easy, even for the distance from here to Volita," Garric agreed. "I think Attaper's being excessive in demanding that his men be trained to row at all. But I suppose he'd say that it was his job to be excessive, and since the men themselves don't complain--"

    "They do complain!" Liane protested. "I've heard them."

    Garric grinned wider. "Love, they're soldiers," he said. "They breathe and they eat and they complain. But they're not real complaints, the kind that meant Attaper would need to worry more about his own men than the enemy in a melee."

    That was the sort of truth that a natural warrior like Carus probably knew before he was able to crawl. By now Garric had enough experience with armies to have learned it also.

    The Shepherd's officers, both those on deck and the others unseen among the oarsmen in the hold, shouted orders. The oars in the topmost three banks rose horizontal, dribbling strings of water like sunlit jewels back into the sea. The rowers of the lower banks backed their oars, though inertia kept the quinquereme sliding forward without seeming to slow.

    The Blood Eagles formed eight ranks deep in front of the Earl and his entourage. For most public functions the bodyguards stuck wooden balls onto their javelins, turning the weapons into batons suitable for pushing back spectators without injuring anybody. Garric noticed that this time the steel points were bare.

    He grimaced, but he wouldn't complain to Lord Attaper for making that choice. Attaper was already so uncomfortable about what Garric was doing that nothing short of dismissing him from his command would have any effect on his orders.

    "Besides which," Carus noted with approval, "his replacement'd do the same thing. At least he would if he was any good. Pretending this is a victory parade in Valles is likely to get you killed, lad."



    The six ships carrying Lord Rosen's regiment made for the quays to either side of the one where Garric would land. The Blood Eagle trireme rocked in the turbulence as the other ships backed water. From what Garric could see, there wasn't a soul aboard her. The vessel could scrape its sides off against the stone quay so far as Attaper was concerned. All he cared about was putting as many of his men as he could between Garric and people who generally wished Garric was dead.

    Erdin would've been an open roadstead, very dangerous in a storm, if Volita hadn't provided a windbreak. Six major canals and a network of lesser ones crossed the city, opening the River Erd to the Inner Sea some miles west of its natural mouth. All but the largest vessels could be towed into the river and docks which were even more sheltered, so the facilities on the seafront were less extensive than Erdin's size and commerce normally would merit.

    The Shepherd nosed into the slip; the captain and sailing master had judged matters well, particularly since warships almost never pulled up to a dock. The group of aides and officials were waiting near Garric in the stern--very near him, since with the fighting towers erected the quinquereme had even less than a warship's usual slight amount of deck space. They straightened, and Lord Lerdain--with a youth's impatience and the arrogance of a count's heir apparent--stared meaningfully at Garric.

    "Time we go forward," Garric said, smiling more at himself than at Lerdain. Had he ever been that young? And of course he had, only a few years ago.

    As they started up the narrow catwalk between the ventilator gratings, sailors in the bow began shouting angrily at the Blood Eagles. Soldiers in the rear rank looked around in puzzlement, then called for their own officers. The Shepherd was drifting outward, toward the quay on its port side.

    "Sorry, your highness, sorry!" said an officer--probably the sailing master--who turned from the sudden crowd on the foredeck. "Those bloody fool landsmen cleared all the dockers away, so there's nobody to grab a line to tie us up! Sorry, but we're getting it sorted."

    A sailor leaped to the quay, fifteen feet away and a very good jump even from the height of the Shepherd's deck. He grabbed a flung line and snubbed it to a bollard just as two Blood Eagles trotted back. The ship eased to starboard again as sailors in the bow hauled on their end of the line. The gangplank--a long grating covered with blue wool--thumped onto the dock even before the sternlines were set.

    Garric started forward with Liane a step behind. Over his shoulder, in a voice just loud enough for her to hear over the sailors' continued chatter, he said, "If we could foresee everything that was going to happen, then we'd be gods and not men. I'm not sure I'd want that; and anyway, it isn't going to happen."

    "No," said Liane, sounding surprisingly cheerful. It'd done both of them good to get away from the oddly tense atmosphere of Volita. "But the things that happen are getting fixed. That's what men do. The best kind of men."

    The signallers on the royal vessels blew another fanfare, and the Blood Eagles clashed to attention. Spectators filled the waterfront and the balconies of buildings facing it. Their mood was sullen, with little of the carnival atmosphere generated by every other parade Garric had seen since his first Tithe Procession in Barca's Hamlet.

    Attaper shouted an order from the front of the formation. The solid mass of Blood Eagles shifted like sand running into a mold, forming an aisle between black-armored spearmen. It was just wide enough for two people to pass down it abreast.

    The three Sandrakkan negotiators and half a dozen other courtiers stood with Wildulf. The Earl wore armor, a molded cuirass and a helmet crested with plumes that were violet or bronze depending on how the light struck them. The full-bodied natural blond at his side must be the Countess. She wore a tiara of blue stones.

    "Lord Tawnser isn't here," Liane murmured. "I've never met him, but he lost an eye at the Stone Wall, so he'd be conspicuous."

    "Right," said Garric. If the leader of the anti-Ornifal faction chose to absent himself from court while the royal delegation was present, so much the better. He started forward

    "Wait!" said Liane. "Attaper and I discussed this."

    "Your lordship," Attaper called to Wildulf. "His highness Prince Garric will receive you now."

    Marshal Renold spoke something into Wildulf's ear. The Earl grunted a reply, then gave his arm to Countess Balila and strode down the aisle. The Countess avoided looking to either side, keeping her gaze regally fixed on Garric. Her eyes were blue, matching the tiara, and they blazed with anger.

    "Your highness," Wildulf said. He was a big man, not fat but certainly going to be fat by the time he was fifty in another few years. His tone wasn't overtly belligerent, but Garric noticed he hadn't said, "Welcome," or offered his arm to clasp as one man greeting another.

    "Lord Wildulf," Garric replied with smiling reserve. "I'm pleased to have the opportunity to visit you in this fashion. I believe my associates have discussed matters of accommodation with you?"

    "There's rooms ready for you in the palace," said Wildulf. He eyed Liane and added, "We brought horses, though maybe the lady would like a sedan chair?"

    "Thank you," said Liane, speaking in the coolly aristocratic tone she used on those rare occasions when she wanted to emphasize that she was Lady Liane. "For the occasion I prefer to ride with the Countess and your advisors, Lord Wildulf, ahead of you and Prince Garric. The order of march which his highness has decided--"

    Carus guffawed in Garric's mind. This was obviously something else that Liane and Attaper must've decided without Garric's involvement. That was probably out of fear that he'd have a different opinion....

    "--is for your cavalry to lead, followed by the members of your court and the Prince's advisors, along with the Countess and myself."

    The regiment of horsemen drawn up on the boulevard joining the waterfront from the north were working soldiers, not parade troops in gaudy trappings. Carus murmured, "They're not as pretty as some I've seen, but I shouldn't wonder if they wouldn't be more useful than an equal number of Waldron's kinsmen just for being better disciplined. Though Waldron'd have apoplexy if he heard you say so."

    "A section of Lord Attaper's troops will follow us--"

    She hadn't said, "the bodyguards" or "the Blood Eagles," but Lord Attaper's bleak-faced nod made that explicit.

    "--with the remainder of that unit following the Prince and yourself. Lord Rosen's regiment will bring up the rear. They'll be billeted in buildings adjacent to the palace, I understand."

    Lord Rosen himself appeared, accompanied by a senior noncom whom Garric had met before. He waited to the side while Garric was meeting with the Earl. His men were drawn up across the narrow slips to either side of this one.

    "We figured that--" Earl Wildulf began, scowling like a thundercloud.

    "Ornifal nancyboys!" somebody shouted from the crowd. The breeze carried the words clearly over the royal contingent.

    The noncom with Rosen--Serjeant Bastin, that was the man's name!--raised his shield up beside his face to form a sounding board. "I'm a Blaise armsman!" he bellowed back at the crowd. "And I'd rather prong one of my daddy's pigs than what passes for men in Erdin! Or women too!"

    Garric gasped to keep from laughing out loud. That would've been partly hysteria, he supposed, but the sudden relief of tension was a wonder and a delight.

    "Lord Wildulf," he said, ignoring what were probably going to be arguments over the order of march, "all that needs to be said here has been said. Let's get to your palace and we can continue matters there."

    He reached forward, offering Wildulf his arm. Wildulf, by reflex or perhaps out of equal relief, clasped it.

    "Right," he said. "The horses are back with my guards, your highness."



    It wouldn't have been quite right to say that seeing the boxwoods up close took Ilna's breath away, but the mass of dark green let her know how much she'd been worn by a day of hiking on gritty soil through sere vegetation. She'd taken grass and trees for granted in Barca's Hamlet.

    She smiled, wryly but without the bitterness she might have felt in the recent past. If her life had followed the course she'd expected, she'd never have known how many places there were that she liked less than she did Barca's Hamlet.

    This country seemed to have a general slope from the southern cliffs northward, but no terrain is perfectly flat--not even the surface of the sea. The vegetation they'd seen at dawn had been out of sight for most of the past several hours. Now it appeared directly before them, an interwoven wall of branches reaching from the ground to several times a man's height.

    "It's been planted!" said Chalcus. "There's never a chance that those trees grew together naturally."

    "It's a maze," said Ilna. The entrance wasn't on this side, but she knew it existed as surely as she knew which warp threads to raise when she ran her shuttle through. "It's a maze of more than bushes."

    "This is a barrier too," Davus said, indicating a fist-sized chunk of porphyry with the big toe of his right foot. It was lying on the crest of the rise they'd just walked up. "Of sorts. See there--"

    He pointed, still using his foot. "And there?"

    Now that he'd pointed them out, Ilna saw other rocks, some basalt and some porphyry, scattered in a wide arc to either side of the first. There was a distance of several paces between rocks, and they were of course--Ilna smiled as the words formed in her mind--just rocks.

    "They circle the grove," Davus said. "They're to keep trolls out."

    Chalcus stepped forward and paused, frowning angrily. He touched his sword hilt.

    "Just a moment," said Davus, bending to lift away the stone he'd first indicated. "Now go through."

    Chalcus stepped past him and nodded thankfully. Ilna followed, standing to the side as Davus backed after them and set the stone precisely where it'd been before.

    "It was like stepping into warm blood," Chalcus said quietly. "A pool of warm blood. I could've gone on, but--I thank you, Master Davus."

    "This way, I think," Ilna said, taking the lead without thinking about it. Seeing patterns was her work, her life; that was the skill they needed at present. She crunched over the ground, keeping just beyond arm's length of the hedge so that she didn't brush the boxwoods by accident. It probably wouldn't matter, but she didn't care to take the chance.

    The weather appeared to follow the ridge they'd just crossed. The country Ilna saw to the north must be better watered, as it was grassy instead of being sparsely sprinkled with vegetation.

    "Dear one?" said Chalcus, a few steps behind her with Davus. "What would happen if we were to cut a path through the branches here?"

    "Nothing good," said Ilna. She usually plaited patterns in yarn as she walked along, a way to occupy her hands while her mind was elsewhere. Now she put the hank of yarn away because she needed that part of her to deal with the maze. "It isn't only brush, as I say. In fact, I suspect the trees were planted to conceal the real barrier."

    The entrance was on the east side of the circle. It was a simple gap, wide enough that two could walk down it abreast if they didn't mind their shoulders touching the dense green branches.

    Without looking at the men behind her Ilna said, "Follow me in line. Don't touch the branches, and on your lives don't go down any path except the one I lead you on."

    She didn't bother to add, "Do you understand?" because they did understand. And if they'd been the sort of people who didn't, a few more words from her weren't going to prevent them from killing themselves.

    Ilna stepped into the maze. The air was noticeably more humid, and she no longer felt the wind that'd been so constant since they'd arrived. The path was shaded even more than the tall boxwoods explained, and the light had a bluish cast. The changes from the arid waste outside weren't unpleasant in themselves, but they made Ilna think of bait in a trap.

    She smiled. If the person who'd built the maze trapped her, then she deserved to die. It was a perfectly fair wager so far as she was concerned. She'd regret what happened to her companions, of course; if she had any time for regrets.

    At the first turning Ilna took the left branch, but as she stepped past the fork she felt a surge of hopeful warmth, of longing even, to turn the other way. She looked down the narrow corridor. When she held her head just so, the green walls to either side vanished and she was instead peering into a deep well. At the bottom something waited, holding its raised tentacles close against the stone walls where they were ready to enwrap anyone who fell into its lair. Waiting, wanting more desperately than any young lover....

    Ilna walked on, grimacing. She wanted to go faster, but though she trusted her instincts she was too careful a craftsman to increase the risks even marginally. There was always the chance that one of her companions, hurrying to follow, would make a mistake that his instincts wouldn't warn him against.

    She turned left again at the next fork. If space within the maze were the same as that outside it, she and her companions would've been back on the windswept waste... but it wasn't, of course, and they continued down another boxwood aisle.

    There was nothing down the other fork: gray, palpable nothing, stretching on forever; a Hell of emptiness, without hope or end.

    Ilna's face was set. She wouldn't show fear, even to herself; but she knew that some day she would die, and she wondered/suspected/feared that the same endless gray waited for her when she did.

    She couldn't control that, nor was it her present concern. Her task, her duty, was to bring her companions through the maze to where they could expect to find food and water better than the brackish trickle they'd sucked from the underside of a limestone outcrop not long after noon.

    The next branching puzzled her: neither path was the right one. Then something shifted and she stepped through on the right, calling over her shoulder, "Quickly, now. It'll change back shortly."

    She didn't take the time to glance down the left-hand branching, but there were scattered bones along the portion of the path she was walking. Some were human, but another cleaned skull lying against the boxwoods showed horn cores over the eyesockets.

    When Ilna reached the next branching, she looked back. The men were with her, Chalcus leading Davus, both of them still-faced and precisely in the center of the path. Chalcus threw her a smile, real enough she supposed, but the fact his right hand hovered over the hilt of his incurved sword showed that he was more tense than when she'd seen him in bloody combat.

    But of course in combat, Chalcus had a task which he knew perfectly how to accomplish. Here his duty was to follow and keep out of the way. He'd do that as he'd do whatever his duty was, but for some people it's harder to watch than to act.

    Ilna grinned. As she herself knew well.




    "We're getting close," she said as she continued on. Her companions had remained silent ever since they entered the maze, but they must be wondering even though they had the wit and courage not to chance distracting her with questions.

    Ilna was judging their location by the pattern instead of any fancied judgment of how far they must have come along the path's windings. Distance had its own laws among these boxwoods, different from those it followed in the world outside; but patterns were fixed in the fabric of the cosmos.

    The path kinked to the right. Instead of following it, Ilna paused, frowning because she knew that couldn't be correct; and as she hesitated, she saw the gap between boxwoods straight ahead where she'd have sworn their branches interwove.

    She stepped forward but looked to the right, toward the path she hadn't taken. That was a mistake, almost a fatal one: she shouted and stumbled to her knees.

    "Dear heart?" Chalcus said, his left arm about her shoulders and his right flicking his swordpoint in tight arcs before her.

    "Don't look to the side!" Ilna said. Her eyes were closed. She set her knuckles against the ground, grinding them hard enough that pain blurred the memory of what she'd seen. After some moments, she opened her eyes again and rose. Chalcus hovered behind her like a protective spirit.

    Neither of the men spoke. Looking ahead rather than back at them, Ilna said, "There's what I suppose is a mirror down that aisle. It shows you the mistakes you've made in life, all of them; and it shows you what might have been if you hadn't made the mistakes. I think it would disturb a saint, and I haven't lived a saint's life."

    She took a deep breath and added, "I've woven patterns to do that same thing. The people I've shown them to haven't recovered. I must not have gotten a clear look, or...."

    "Are you able to go on, dear one?" Chalcus said softly.

    Ilna gave a harsh laugh. "Of course," she said. "Until I die."

    She strode forward. A very clever man, Chalcus; and a very understanding one. He knew that the last thing she needed was to stand, thinking about what might have been.

    There were no more branchings. Ilna walked between the boxwoods, feeling the path spring comfortably beneath her feet. The aisles were too shaded to support grass, but moss carpeted the moist soil.

    The path ended in a small clearing. In it stood a low stone house with a slate roof and a walled garden in back. In front was a door of reddish wood framed by casement windows with panes of frosty isinglass. At the left side, a thin trail of smoke rose from the chimney of flint nodules set in brilliantly white lime mortar.

    Chalcus stepped in front of Ilna. "My turn to lead," he said, walking forward with an easy roll to his step. He slanted his sword across his chest where it was instantly ready to slash or parry but less obviously threatening than if he'd pointed it out in front of him.

    Ilna glanced back at Davus; he smiled tightly and nodded her on ahead of him. He held a rock in either hand. These were larger chunks, each the size of a clenched fist, rather than the pebbles he'd used to bring down small game.

    Ilna nodded back and followed Chalcus at a safe distance, just farther than his arm and curved sword would reach in a wide sweep. Her fingers were plaiting a pattern, keeping it doubled over between her palms so there was no danger if Chalcus looked over his shoulder at her.

    She couldn't see movement through the windowpanes, and the only sound was the whisper of her feet and the sailor's against flagstones; Davus didn't make even that much noise. The latch-chain of bronze links hanging from the notch at the top of the door was verdigrised except for the flat plate on the end where use had worn the metal to a natural golden sheen.

    Chalcus gripped the chain in his left hand, then glanced back to be sure his companions were ready. Davus gripped the vertical pull, also bronze, with two fingers of his left hand. He still held a stone with his thumb and the other two fingers. He and Chalcus moved in perfect sequence, one lifting the latch and the other hauling the massive door open.

    Chalcus was inside as soon as the door swung enough to pass his body by a finger's breadth. Ilna followed, the pattern cupped in her hands against need.

    The interior of the house was a single room, lighted by windows on three sides. Several layers of carpets covered the floor, their patterns subtly pleasing through the soles of Ilna's feet. A small cauldron hissed on a hearth crane over a charcoal fire.

    A man with a goatee sat on a chalcedony throne in the center of the room, facing the front door. Curving designs were worked in silver thread on his purple velvet robe. Ilna sniffed to note that the embroiderer had been much more skillful than whoever'd woven the fabric to begin with. In the back wall was another door, less ornate, to serve the back garden.

    The man's right hand rested on the arm of the throne, holding a gold-mounted goblet of etched glass. It was empty except for russet dregs. His eyes were unfocused and his mouth lay slackly open.

    Davus stepped in behind Ilna and pulled the door closed to cover their backs. When the heavy panel thudded against the jamb the man woke up, staring in fury at the three of them.

    "Your pardon, good sir--" Chalcus began.

    The man dropped his goblet and jumped to his feet. Standing, he was no taller than Ilna and noticeably pudgy despite his loose robe. He drew an athame of dense black rootwood from beneath his sash. He probably meant to point it at the intruders, but Chalcus moved more quickly and flicked the athame out of the wizard's hand with the back of his sword.

    The blade wavered back like a curving beam of light. Its point paused a hand's-breadth from the wizard's nose. He made a strangled sound and jerked away, only to trip over the goblet and fall beside the throne.

    "As I was saying, good sir," Chalcus said. This time his voice was the deep, rasping purr of a big cat. "We're visitors in need of food and shelter, and though we beg your pardon--you will provide what we need."

    He smiled down the length of his extended arm. The swordpoint was still centered on the wizard's nose.



    Ronn sloped to the east in steps like those of a giant staircase. The exercise field was on the lowest level. Cashel looked over the parapet. The nearest ground was forest, covered with trees tall enough to overhang the edge of the field.

    Cashel hadn't ever looked at the top of trees so big; or the tops of any trees, really, except after he'd cut them down. Seeing them this way was a pretty sight, no mistake.

    Kinked and knotted vines grew everywhere, between the trees and from the crowns to the dirt. The branches were narrow meadows covered with mosses, plants that looked like cups or whose leaves were turned up to catch the rain, and bright, dangling flowers. Birds of even more colors than the flowers hopped and fluttered among the foliage, and equally gorgeous butterflies caught the sun like drifting jewels.

    "We're on good terms with the jungle here in Ronn," Mab said. She smiled at him, but not in the coolly amused fashion he'd seen most often on her face. This was a warmer expression, like a mother gives a sleeping baby. "It creeps into the palace here on the east side. Some of the lianas stretch a hundred feet down the corridors, and when they bloom their flowers perfume the rooms even farther in."

    She turned, drawing Cashel's eyes with her, and added, "But I see the Sons have arrived. Come, I'll introduce you."

    The exercise field was an enormous thing; everything in Ronn was on a grand scale. There was an oval track around the whole terrace, and inside it straight tracks of a furlong and two furlongs. Ball courts stood at one end, and arrangements of poles for climbing and swinging were at the other. Down the middle ran long rows of dressing rooms, which men and women both came in and out of with the irregular busyness you see at the mouth of a beehive.

    Ronn towered to the west, but because of the way it was stepped back, it didn't feel oppressive the way a wall straight up and down would've done. Cashel had seen mountains since he'd left the borough, real ones that hadn't been hollowed out into cities, and he'd learned that they never looked as big as they really were except when you were at a distance from them. Close up, the nearby bits got in the way of you feeling the size of the whole thing.

    Six young men wearing helmets and breastplates walked from the dressing rooms toward the stretch of sod in a corner where Mab and Cashel waited. They carried shields with designs on the facings but they didn't have spears. Instead of real swords they held awkward-looking wooden affairs. Herron was in the middle.

    They looked uncomfortable. Cashel gave them a friendly smile. Duzi knew he'd spent much of his life feeling uncomfortable around other people.

    "Mistress?" Herron said to Mab. "You told us to meet you here?"

    "Yes, to give Cashel a demonstration of your abilities," Mab said briskly. "And to introduce him to the rest of you."

    She gestured toward the youths with her palm turned upward and continued, "Cashel, these are the Sons of the Heroes. They take the name of their group from the six Heroes who in past centuries defended Ronn from the Made Men. The real Heroes now live in the Shrine of the Heroes, a cave beneath the city's foundations. Only their semblances walk the walls of Ronn at night."

    "That's all a myth," said a dark, studious-looking youth, dropping his eyes as he spoke. "Nobody lives for centuries in a cave. The Heroes died and maybe their bones are buried there, that's all."

    "That's Master Orly, Cashel," Mab said coolly. "Herron you've met, and their four companions are Manza, Athan, Enfero and--"

    "I'm Stasslin, Master Cashel," said the sixth man, red-haired and the shortest of the group but built very solidly. He transferred his wooden sword to the hand gripping his shield, a little buckler with a wolf's head device, and stepped forward to clasp arms with Cashel.

    Stasslin squeezed a trifle harder than he needed to. Cashel didn't squeeze back, but he tensed his biceps to convince the shorter man that he was all muscle under the tanned skin. Stasslin backed away, pursing his lips. "Glad to meet you," Cashel said. "Ah, all of you, masters."

    "And as for you, Orly," Mab said in a voice that cut like the winter wind. "You've been down to the Shrine of the Heroes, have you?"

    The dark young man flushed. "I haven't been there, of course not," he said. "I'm just not a fool. I've read books, I've studied all the legends."

    "And the people who wrote the books?" Mab continued in the same tone. "Had they been to the Shrine?"

    "Mistress," said Herron, edging forward a little to partly shield his embarrassed friend from the woman's glare. "Nobody's been to the shrine in, well, a hundred years. It's not safe, not now with the way things are, with the King threatening."

    "So, Master Orly...," Mab said. "You believe things you've never seen because you've been told them by other people who've never seen them. Isn't that how you'd define 'superstition', Master Orly? Or would you prefer to call it childish prattling?"

    Cashel wouldn't have treated a beaten enemy that way--and Orly surely was beaten, for all he was too young to admit it out loud--but he knew Ilna would do just the same to the boy as Mab was doing. He'd seen Ilna flay people with her tongue more than once, but only once per victim.

    "All right!" Orly blazed. He tried to meet her eyes but blushed and ducked away again. "Have you been into the shrine yourself, then?"

    "Would you believe me if I told you I had?" Mab said. "Well?"

    Orly didn't speak. Herron said, "Mistress, we're sorry if we offended you. But this isn't why you wanted us here, is it?"

    "Of course," agreed Mab mildly. "Let's draw a curtain over it, shall we?"

    She slashed her right hand through the air, her fingernails trailing a cloud of sapphire glitter that drifted toward the ground and vanished. The Sons gaped at her. She smiled.

    "A trick," she said. "A trivial illusion. Now, Master Herron--I wanted Cashel to watch you at your practice. That's what you'd usually be doing at this hour of the afternoon, wouldn't you?"

    Several of the Sons looked at one another. They were Cashel's age or maybe a little older, but they all seemed boys. Herron not as much as the others, but....

    Cashel had seen Garric at age sixteen quiet a pair of drunk bodyguards in the tap room during the Sheep Fair. He hadn't hit them nor called for help, though he'd have had help if he'd needed it; he'd just grabbed both men by the shoulder and shouted for them to belt up as he hustled them to the door.

    None of the Sons had Garric's presence. All of them together couldn't have done what Garric had that night.

    "Well, yeah," Herron said. "When the sun's hot, there's not so many people here to, you know, watch us."

    He looked over his shoulder. Given the size of the field, it wasn't anything like crowded by the number of people present. A double handful were kicking balls against a wall in some kind of competition, and maybe twice that many were running around the track. There was only a scatter of people swinging on the bars, throwing weights, or jumping for distance.

    "Does it bother you to be laughed at?" Mab said. She wasn't asking from curiosity: she was really prodding the youth, though in a teaching way instead of just trying to hurt him."You think you're right, don't you?"

    "Mistress," said Orly fiercely, "we know the King is threatening Ronn again. At night the Made Men are all around us on the plain, and the lower levels keep getting darker. I've gone far enough down to see that. Somebody has to be ready to defend the city!"

    "Yes," said Mab. "I quite agree. Now, why don't you show Cashel your exercises."

    The words were a question but the tone was an order. The Sons looked at each other again. "All right," said Herron. "Usual opponents. Let's go."



    The Sons spread out into three pairs. Cashel backed away but Mab tugged him farther yet, till they were standing with their backs against the parapet. "Be ready to move toward the corner," she murmured.

    Cashel thought she was worrying too much. He'd given the nearest pair, Herron and Stasslin, as much space as he'd have done for a quarterstaff bout. The Sons' sword-shaped clubs weren't but a third the length of his staff. Mab was a woman, so she probably didn't understand how these things were done.

    Some of the people who'd been exercising drifted closer, while others stopped what they were doing and turned to watch. A man--he was with one of the few women, which probably had something to do with him showing off--called, "Hey, boys! You're a hundred years late for that stuff, you know?"

    "Just ignore them," Herron growled. "Get set."

    The Sons hunched over and faced each other. About a double-pace separated each pair. "Now!" Herron said.

    Cashel expected the Sons to start by taking each other's measure, though maybe since it seemed they did the same thing each day they wouldn't need to do that. In a group this big there'd always be one who rushed straight in, trying to overwhelm his opponent with a sleet of blows. Because they'd trained themselves, maybe they'd all do that--

    Except they didn't. Each pair circled widdershins around its center without getting closer. They were too far back to hit. They were barely close enough that the tips of the wooden swords could touch each other if they both waggled them toward the other at the same time. Every once in a while a Son stamped his foot and leaned forward like he was about to lunge, but it was always a feint.

    "Are you impressed, Cashel?" Mab asked in a tone of amusement. She spoke in a normal voice, one that the Sons could maybe hear over their own hoarse panting.

    "No ma'am," Cashel admitted. "Not, you know, in a good way."

    Herron must've heard the exchange, because he jumped toward Stasslin with a wild, overhead swing like he was splitting a log with an axe. Stasslin threw his shield and sword both up above his head. Herron's sword banged hard on the buckler--it was a powerful blow, no mistake--but then instead of kicking Stasslin in the crotch he backpedaled wildly.

    Cashel saw why Mab had moved them so far away. Instead of jumping clear as Herron rushed backwards toward them, he raised his staff crossways in both hands to cover him and the woman both. In the event, Herron stopped just before he ran into the thick hickory instead of just after he did.

    "I believe that's enough of a demonstration," Mab called in a clear voice. "Come back over here, if you will."

    The Sons lowered their arms and walked to where Mab and Cashel stood. They were red-faced and panting: what they'd been doing was certainly exercise. It just wasn't fighting.

    The wooden swords didn't have sheaths. Herron laid his on the ground and set his buckler on top of it, then lifted off his helmet. Sweat plastered his hair to his scalp, turning it two shades darker. He looked at Mab and then looked away in embarrassment.

    "This is the army which plans to defend Ronn, Master Cashel," Mab said. "What do you think of it?"

    "Ma'am, I'm not a soldier," Cashel said. That was true, but it wasn't the real truth. He went on, speaking directly to Herron instead of talking about him as if he wasn't there, "You fellows aren't soldiers either. You're...."

    He didn't know how to put it. He frowned and lifted his hand toward the mass of the city rising to the side. "Ronn's a wonderful place, I can see that," he said. "It's like Mab told me, a palace with everybody living like kings. You're not used to getting hurt--and that's good, I'm not saying it shouldn't be that way for everybody. But back where I come from, people are used to getting hurt, and we're used to fighting. And when you fight, you're likely going to get hurt some even if you win."

    "Look, we don't want to hurt our own friends," Orly said hotly. "It'd be different if we were fighting the Made Men with real swords. It'll be different when we do that, because surely the King'll attack some day soon. And the others will follow us when they see the danger's real."

    "Cashel, do you agree?" Mab asked. "About it being different when they fight the Made Men?"

    Cashel grimaced. She knew the answer, of course. "No, ma'am," he said, then meeting the eyes of the youths again. "Except then you'll be killed. I'm sorry, but you will."

    He thought for a moment. The spectators had gone back to their own business now that the Sons weren't giving their dancing exhibition any more. These fellows, these boys, knew there was a danger, they just didn't have anybody to teach them. And the rest of Ronn's citizens didn't even think there was danger.

    "Look," Cashel said. "Herron--or Mab? Can you maybe hire soldiers? Enough to lead you, anyway? I mean, maybe the people here would follow if they had real soldiers to lead. But you need somebody to, well, get the rest of you started."

    "We'll lead them!" Orly insisted. "When it's not our friends, we'll fight and the other citizens will follow us!"

    "Cashel's not your friend," Mab said. Cashel figured she was putting the sneer into her voice just to goad the others. It sure would've got his back up if it'd been directed at him. "Will you fight him?"

    "He's bigger than any of us," said Enfero doubtfully. He was a lanky fellow, taller than Herron but not nearly as heavy. "He's a lot bigger."

    "He's not bigger than all six of you together," said Mab. "Is that all right with you, Cashel?"

    "Sure," he said, keeping his voice calm. He held his staff upright on his right side; now he tipped the lower end behind him so the upper ferrule was just about the height of his eyebrows.

    Back in the borough offering to take on six fellows with clubs would be asking for broken bones; but not here. Mab was teaching them what they needed to know before they got into a real fight with these Made Men. If they weren't willing to hear the words, then pounding the truth into them with a quarterstaff would do the job.

    Stasslin cut at Cashel's head without warning. Cashel'd figured he might pull that. He shifted his right arm just a little so that the whistling wooden sword smacked into the end of the quarterstaff.

    The sword flew off in the air while Stasslin yelped and grabbed his tingling swordhand with the other. He'd at least been trying, so Cashel hadn't let him smash his hand itself into the iron buttcap and break all his fingers. Still, Cashel wasn't feeling so kindly to a fellow who'd tried to sucker punch him that he didn't kick Stasslin just below the edge of his breastplate.

    Cashel was barefoot, but he was generally barefoot so his soles were tough as ox hide. Stasslin flew backward, hit the ground, and spewed up more breakfast than you ought to eat before you start a workout.



    Cashel backed away. "Mab, you stay clear!" he said, but she was just a shimmer of light robes. All Cashel was really seeing right now were the five Sons still standing. "You, Herron! Get your gear on now while I give you the chance!"

    Herron made as if to kneel, but that was a feint too, just like all the foot-stamping when the Sons "fought" each other. Well, you shouldn't trust the guy who's planning to whale the daylights out of you, but Cashel was finding all this pussyfooting around troublesome. If Herron didn't--

    Herron knelt for real this time and slapped the helmet over his head so quick that he canted the nose-guard over the corner of his left eye. He seized the double handgrip of his buckler and scrabbled for the wooden sword, grabbing it first by the wrong end.

    Cashel shifted his quarterstaff crosswise before him, gripping it with his hands just more than shoulder's width out on the shaft. He hadn't had time to limber up properly, but he contented himself with a few twists and flexes instead of giving his staff the series of spins that he'd have liked to. He had too many opponents and they were too close for that to be safe.

    While Herron was getting himself back together, the other four Sons still upright stood with their swords and shields lifted but not doing anything. That was pretty much what Cashel'd figured would happen, though he'd been ready if they'd managed to show some spirit.

    He didn't worry about Stasslin except for remembering where he was just as same as he'd need to for a section of tree trunk. After a kick in the belly like he'd taken, Stasslin wouldn't be leaving the field without a buddy to help him.

    Herron got his sword right end to, then jumped back to put himself at the end of the tight line his friends had formed. Cashel stepped forward, shifting his grip again. He slammed his staff's left ferrule low into Herron's lower chest. The boy managed to get his shield in the way, but Cashel's straight thrust banged it out of the way without slowing.

    Herron went over backwards, throwing his sword and buckler out to opposite sides. There was a fist-sized dent in his breastplate, right over the pit of his stomach.

    Enfero and Manza rushed Cashel together. They weren't coordinated enough to have planned it, but it was a good tactic anyhow. Because his left ferrule was leading, Cashel backpedaled and brought his right arm around widdershins, catching Manza on the left hip and flinging him into Enfero.

    The two of them went down with a crash of metal. The sound seemed to have triggered Athan to leap forward. The gods only knew what the fellow planned to do, but he managed to get his feet tangled with Manza's legs and tripped. That was better luck than he'd otherwise have had, because Cashel rapped him behind the ear with the shaft of the quarterstaff instead of catching him with the iron-shot tip.

    Enfero raised his head. Cashel clipped him a good one, sending his dented helmet flying. Manza was clutching his left hip with both hands and moaning. Cashel hoped he hadn't broken the bone, but he didn't pull his blows in a fight.

    Orly was the only one left. He'd raised his sword overhead like a torch to light his surroundings. He had a fixed look of horror on his face.

    "I guess you can put that down, buddy," Cashel said, his voice a low growl. "I guess you can see it's all over."

    "Kill the monsters!" Orly screamed and charged straight forward. That was the first surprise Cashel'd had in the whole fight, but brought his staff around low and swept the boy's legs out from under him, dropping him as neatly as a scythe does oats. Orly hit on his belly hard enough to knock the breath out of him. The sword flew out of his hand and clacked into the parapet. He tried to get up but the best he could do was paw the ground while weeping with frustration.

    "Hey, way to go, soldier boys!" shouted the man who'd made the earlier gibe. He began to clap.

    Cashel strode toward him. "You want a chance?" he said in a savage voice nothing like the way he normally sounded. "They at least were willing to try. You want to show your girl what you're made of? Because just say the word and I will show her!"

    The man backed away in terror. He stumbled and almost fell.

    "Boo!" shouted Cashel, waggling his quarterstaff overhead. The man gave a strangled cry and staggered off. The woman with him glanced over her shoulder to watch him go, then turned to stare at Cashel.

    Cashel sank to one knee and butted the staff into the ground for an additional support. He'd been moving his considerable weight very fast, and he needed more air now than his lungs could take in even through his open mouth.

    Mab walked over to Cashel and put a supportive hand on his shoulder. To the sprawled Sons she said, "You've learned the reality of what you claim you're willing to do. Go to your homes, now, when you're able to. The Councillors will be calling an emergency assembly before the week's out, unless I'm badly mistaken. If you're really willing to be the heroes you claim you are, come to that assembly. Ronn will need you."

    The Sons didn't say anything, though Herron's lips moved as though he would've spoken if he could've drawn in a breath.

    Mab nodded in approval. "Come, Cashel," she said. "You'll be ready for a meal, I suspect."



    Sharina stood with Tenoctris in the small box projecting from the starboard prow of the Star of Valles, looking ahead as the ship rocked through slow swells on oars alone. The box--the ear timber--kept the outrigger from being smashed when the trireme rammed another ship.

    The space was tight for even two slim women, but everything aboard a trireme was tight. Here they weren't in the way of the crew and didn't risk being trampled by the soldiers who, less used to crowding than oarsmen, had left their benches and squeezed together on the decks where at least they could stretch their legs.

    Tenoctris held a small codex and was trying to read it in the fading light. Sharina had found that the ship's rise and fall seemed less uncomfortable if she looked at the horizon instead of down into a page on her lap.

    The old wizard sighed and closed her book. "What do you know about the People, Sharina?" she asked. "The ones who invaded Ornifal. It's--"

    She smiled.

    "--after my time, you see."

    "I'm sorry, Tenoctris," Sharina said. "I know as little about Ornifal's history a generation ago as I do what was happening on the far side of the Moon. I don't think Lord Waldron is much of a student of foreign cultures--"

    This was her turn to smile.

    "--but some of the other officers may know something about the background to the invasion."

    She looked forward again and pursed her lips. A few stars shone on the eastern horizon. There were two lookouts in the prow of the Star of Valles, clinging to the jib boom, but even so it'd soon be too dark to see shoals a safe distance ahead. Both Waldron and Bedrin were aboard the Star of Valles. The other five ships of the squadron followed in line, so that if the leader ran aground they'd at least be able to take the crew and passengers off.

    It was still a dangerous proceeding, and Sharina knew that the way she'd forced Lord Bedrin to put out later than he'd wanted to was part of the reason. In war, in life, you had to make the best decisions you could even when none of the choices were good ones.

    Something gleamed in the sea just ahead of the trireme's foaming bow wave. Sharina touched the older woman's hand. "Tenoctris?" she said. "Do you see--just ahead of us there?"

    The shimmer broached and rode the trireme's bow wave for a moment, looking back over its shoulder. Looking back over her shoulder, for the figure was as distinctly female as she was human--save for the webs between her toes and fingers and the yellow-green sheen of her hair.

    "She sees us!" the swimming figure called in delight, and she dived back into the sea.

    "Tenoctris!" Sharina said. "She's a nymph! I saw a nymph swimming with us!"

    The two sailors on lookout were muttering to one another, glancing sidelong at Sharina in the boxing just below them, but Tenoctris wore an expression of careful reserve. "Didn't you see her, Tenoctris?" Sharina said.

    The nymph and two others curved up from the depths. As they swam, easily matching the speed of the laboring trireme, they chattered, "She sees us/Do you see us, missy?/Oh look at her hair/at her hair/at her golden hair!" Their words were as clear as the piercing notes of the timekeeper's flute in the stern, but Sharina realized she wasn't hearing them with her ears.

    "I see something, dear," Tenoctris said. She bent forward; Sharina put a hand on her shoulder just in case the older woman managed to overbalance as she tried to glimpse what Sharina had said was there. "I see power, a great deal of power. Concentrated, flowing out of the depths and proceeding with us; but I don't see nymphs as nymphs, I'm afraid."

    "But you're a wizard!" Sharina said desperately. She needed to have her vision affirmed--not because Tenoctris doubted her, but because she doubted herself. "I'm just a person!"

    The nymphs curled beneath the surface again. This time Sharina followed their track into the depths, through water which was suddenly as clear as the air on a bright day. They rolled over and came up again, trailing bubbles and joined by three more of their kind. "... so lovely/so lovely/so lovely!" they caroled.

    "You're a person who's been in places few humans go," Tenoctris said, straightening and giving Sharina a kindly smile. "Places I haven't been, many of them. That doesn't make you a wizard, but you shouldn't be surprised to find that you see things other people don't. Their minds haven't learned the tricks of observation that yours has."

    "Your ladyship?" said one of the lookouts, leaning toward them over the bow railing. The sailor knew of ladies, though he might never before have been close enough to touch one. He didn't have any notion of the form of address proper to royalty, so he was making do as well as he could. "Please?"

    "What?" said Sharina, looking up in surprise. The fellow was balding. He wore a gold ring through his right--and only--ear, and he spoke with a thick Sandrakkan accent. "You mean me?"

    "Right, your ladyship," the sailor said. The other lookout was looking over his shoulder with a pained but hopeful expression. "Please? Did you call the Ladies down there to help us along?"

    "You can see them?" Sharina said in relief. "The nymphs?"

    "The Ladies, yes," the sailor said, relieved also not to be called down for speaking. He wouldn't use the word "nymph" though, preferring the euphemism. "I see them, and my mate D'vobin here sees them kinda."

    "We been to sea all our lives, you see," the other lookout said, obviously relaxing. "You see a lot of things, mostly at night."

    "We know the Ladies help sailors sometimes when they're, well, in the mood," the first man said. "And we were hoping, you know...."

    "We can help you, missy!" a nymph called. "We can draw you to where you want ever so quickly. Would you like us to help you, missy?"

    Sharina thought the speaker might be the first one she'd seen, but she couldn't be sure. There were twelve of them now, dancing around and below the trireme. The darkening sea had vanished and the ship drifted over a bottom dressed in pearly light.

    "For a price!" sang a chorus of nymphs, "For a price/price/price!" In a descant above them a solo voice trilled, "Such lovely hair...."

    Commander Bedrin strode into the bow. Master Rincale, the sailing master of the Star of Valles, followed close behind. Lord Waldron was coming forward also, his face set like a granite cliff.

    "What are you doing?" Bedrin demanded, glaring at Tenoctris. He let his gaze slide into the water, then jerked his eyes back. "What have you done? Are you responsible for this, wizard?"

    "Lady Tenoctris is no more responsible for our visitors than I am, Master Bedrin," Sharina said, emphasizing her superior rank in a fashion she'd never have done if she weren't uncomfortable with what she was seeing in the water.

    "We can help you, missy," said a nymph. "We can sweep you to your desire quickly, so very quickly."

    "Quickly/quickly/very quickly," chorused her sisters in voices like silver bars ringing.

    "Your highness, I'm sorry," Bedrin replied. He waved his hand toward the sea, making it clear that he was one of those who saw and heard the nymphs clearly. "I--it's getting dark and the current set's against us. And now this, these."

    Bedrin swallowed, grimaced, and said in a softer voice, "We honor the Ladies, of course, and we'd appreciate any help they offered us... but never would I ask them to involve themselves in the affairs of mere mortals like us."

    "For a price...," the nymphs sang. "For a little price, lovely missy."

    "I see," said Sharina. She looked into the crystal which gleamed where the sea ought to be. She imagined her face looked much like Lord Waldron's. Still she--she grinned--knew her duty. "Ladies, what is your price to carry us to Valles safely, all five ships?"

    "A small price/price/price...," called the chorus.

    "Your golden hair, missy," said the first nymph Sharina had seen in the water. "Only your lovely golden hair."

    "... hair/hair/hair...," sang the others.

    "All right," Sharina said, because there was no other answer in the kingdom's need. "Master Bedrin, you'd better inform the captains of the other vessels that we'll be getting help to reach Valles quickly."

    Eleven of the nymphs had scattered laughingly when Sharina agreed, swimming with their whole bodies like otters as they swept into the far distance. The last spiraled down, snatched something from the glowing sea floor, and swirled back up in a smooth curve.

    Sharina felt only minor pangs at the thought of losing her hair. She had to trust laughing, whimsical, not human creatures; but there was no choice.

    "Yes, of course," said Bedrin, his tone that of a man who's been told he'll be executed in the morning. "I'll order the squadron to lie to. And for the men not to be concerned."

    Bedrin strode back toward the stern where the signal horn hung from a hook on the railing. He brushed Lord Waldron but seemed not to have noticed the grim warrior despite the contact.

    Waldron met Sharina's eyes. "I don't see anything out there, your highness," he said in a tight voice. "But I know there is... something. It's wizardry, isn't it, your highness?"

    "Something like that, milord," Sharina said. "It's an opportunity to get to Valles more quickly than the oarsmen alone could manage. I thought I should... I thought I needed to accept the offer when it was made."

    "Yes, of course," Waldron said. He was looking at the horizon, now; or rather, trying not to look at their immediate surroundings. "For the kingdom's sake, we have to accept help from any quarter."

    The horn called, two short notes and a long one. The ship's officers shouted orders, and the timekeeper shifted to the pairs of quick notes that signalled the oarsmen to ship their oars.

    "Ah...," said Tenoctris softly. "Yes, it's changing...."

    The nymphs who'd gone off were returning, leading in pairs and a triplet vast sinuous shapes. The nymph who'd stayed with the squadron sprang from the water like a trout leaping and caught the ear timber with one hand. Her other webbed hand held a flake of obsidian with an edge that looked sharp enough to cut sunbeams.

    "Your lovely hair," the nymph murmured as she seated herself on top of the boxing and lifted a handful of Sharina's tresses. "Your lovely golden hair...."

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image