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Master of the Cauldron: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Saturday, July 10, 2004 00:56 EDT



    "There's no call for concern," said Chalcus in the same light tone with which he'd been singing I'm goin' away to Shengy, "but I believe something's following us with such care that I've caught no more than a whisker here and there."

    "I've thought there's something too," Ilna said, taking the silken lasso from around her waist. "I haven't seen anything I could point to, but the... well, I thought there was."

    She couldn't say, "because of the way the clouds stand overhead," or "because of the way the tree roots crawl across the ground," and expect it to mean anything to people who weren't already disposed to trust her instinct for patterns. Chalcus did trust her; and so, apparently did Davus. She didn't need to explain the things that shimmered on the surface of her mind.

    They'd entered this valley around mid-afternoon. It was well-watered, but the soil was a sickly yellow-gray and supported only coarse vegetation. Scrub oaks provided a welcome shade and they'd been able to drink their fill from a little creek, but an enemy would find concealment easy. Shortly the sun would go down.

    "It could be a jackal following us hoping for scraps," Davus said conversationally. "There's jackals in these parts."

    He let the two walnut-sized pebbles he'd been juggling along with a larger stone fly off to the side as he bent. He snatched a block of quartz out of the dirt, fist-sized and jagged.

    "There's other things as well," Davus added, grinning at his companions. "Things that the jackals follow, hoping for scraps."

    They saw the crops before they noticed the houses, a double-handful of them on the other side of alternating fields of lentils and grain--oats, Ilna thought, but it might've been barley. The low buildings were made from chunks of pale limestone which'd weathered out of the ground. They were set on one another without mortar. Though the houses were close together, there wasn't a wall around the whole community.

    A man with a girl of ten at his side stepped between two houses and raised his hand. "Welcome, strangers!" he called. "We're just in from the fields. Come join us for dinner."

    More people were appearing in the spaces between the dwellings. None of them were armed. A boy of three or so stared at Ilna, his thumb in his mouth. Suddenly he gave a cry of fear and ran behind a woman breastfeeding an infant. He continued to watch from between her legs.

    "Since the King's law died with the Old King...," Davus said. He fed a thumb-sized lump of chert into his pattern so that he looked like a juggler executing a complex pattern instead of a man ready to bash skulls by throwing stones. "I can't swear that their hospitality is more than a lure. But if something's prowling about us now, I'd as soon have stone walls around me in the dark."

    The three of them continued to saunter forward together. Chalcus raised an eyebrow to Ilna. "Agreed," she said, looping the lasso back around her waist. It would shortly be too dark for her knotted patterns to be of much use, but the noose was no help at all against a whole village-full of people.

    If they were enemies, which they certainly didn't seem to be.

    "Thank you, good sir," Chalcus called cheerfully. "We're three travellers far from home who thought we were going to spend another night under the stars. Though we've no intention of putting you to trouble--we've slept rough in the past and can do so again."

    "Why do you suppose they have no defenses?" said Davus, speaking quietly but without seeming furtive. "For I can tell you that even in my day, there were things in this part of the land which were less innocent than we are."

    "Some claim there's a part of the world that the Gods bless and cherish," said Chalcus in a similar voice. "Mayhap they're right. Though the chance the likes of me would ever see such a spot, that I find hard to credit."

    The field had been plowed, not planted in separate holes made with a dibble. A cow lowed, and as they walked toward the houses down three parallel furrows Ilna caught the smell of cattle. There was also another animal odor, one she didn't recognize.

    "I'm Polus," said the man who'd first greeted them. "This is my daughter Malia. Ah, are you traders? We don't get many traders here."

    Polus wore a kilt and separate poncho, both of a vegetable fiber that Ilna hadn't seen before. The material had possibilities, but the workmanship was crude and the embroidered decoration was childishly bad.

    Ilna smiled minusculely. Not the sort of work she herself did as a child, of course.

    "Not traders, just travellers on our way north," said Davus. He caught his small rock and a large one in his left hand. The other large one remained in his right. "If we could sleep in your cow byre tonight, we'd appreciate it."

    They'd walked between two houses and found themselves on the front side of the village; the community, anyway--it wasn't half the size of Barca's Hamlet, which seemed tiny in recollection now that Ilna had experience of the largest cities in the Isles. The houses were built as single rooms on three sides of a square, around a courtyard of tamped earth. All the dwellings faced the same way.

    Though there wasn't exactly a street, the long drystone corral ran parallel to the line of the dwellings at the distance of four or five double-paces. Everyone in the community stood in that plaza, watching the strangers.

    "We can provide you with a room to sleep in," Polus said. "There's one in Anga's house they could use, isn't there, Anga?"

    "If they don't mind sharing with storage jars, I guess," said another man, stocky and heavily bearded. He rubbed his neck. "We'd be honored, I guess."

    "And dinner, you'll have dinner, won't you?" asked the woman suckling the infant. She seemed to be Anga's wife; at any rate, she'd moved closer to him when he spoke, accompanied by the child still clinging to her legs. "That is, we don't have enough cooking, but others...?"

    She looked around at her neighbors. Ilna, following the woman's gaze up the plaza, saw a great cat holding a child between its paws.

    Ilna dropped her knotted cords--only an owl could see well enough for her patterns to work in this half-light--and snatched the lasso free again. Chalcus had drawn both his sword and dagger in shimmering arcs, and Davus cocked the stone in his right hand back to throw.

    "Wait!" cried Polus. "What's wrong?"

    The cat got to its feet with lazy grace. The child, a girl of three or four, rubbed the creature's ear while continuing to stare at the strangers. It wasn't really a cat: its thick, jointed tail had a curved sting at the tip like a scorpion's. The lithe body was tawny, with gray and brown mottlings which almost perfectly mimicked the pattern of the corral against which it'd reclined with the child.

    "The beast!" said Chalcus, lifting his chin to indicate the creature rather than using one or the other of the blades he held. A sword's point was a threat even when meant only as a gesture.

    "Why yes," said Polus. "He protects us. He's always lived here."

    The cat sauntered toward the strangers, its head high and its long ears pricked up in interest. The boy hiding behind his mother suddenly darted back to the creature instead. He tugged at the long whiskers for a grip. The cat turned peevishly and licked the child's arm away, while the little girl on the other side said, "Don't pull, Ornon! Play nice or I won't let you play at all!"

    Chalcus sheathed his sword and, after a moment of consideration, his dagger as well. His hands remained close to the pommels, however. Ilna bunched the lasso in her hands, but she didn't loop it back around her waist.

    "He eats porridge and offal when we slaughter a cow," said Anga's wife. "And he hunts for himself. There's deer and wild hogs in the valley."

    "They'd eat half our crops if it weren't for him," Polus said. "And there's other things that'd find us sooner or later. They don't dare."

    The cat, as Ilna'd decided she might as well call it, was nearly the height of a heifer at the shoulder though of much rangier build. Two double-paces short of Ilna it sat on its haunches and began to groom itself. Its eyeteeth were curved and as long as her index fingers. While it licked and combed itself with its dew-claws, one eye or the other remained on the newcomers.

    "I've never seen a fellow who looked quite as this one does," said Chalcus, watching the cat as carefully as the cat watched them. "What is it that you call him?"

    The cat suddenly shifted as smoothly as quicksilver flowing, bounding halfway up the plaza to where it flopped on its back. Children, all the children in the village who could walk, it seemed--cried out in delight and ran after it to throw themselves on its belly.

    "Him?" said Polus, the village spokesman by default if not in more formal fashion. "We call him Friend, because he's the friend who keeps us safe."

    "Such a creature is no friend to men," Davus said. He hadn't relaxed even as much as Chalcus and Ilna did. "I do not, I will not, believe that it can be."

    Polus shrugged. "Folk in your land have different customs than ours," he said. "But please, it's getting dark. Won't you have bread and porridge with us?"

    He gestured toward the central courtyard of the nearest house. Anga's wife had swung the infant over her shoulder to burp it. She trotted into the door in the left-hand wing, murmuring something like, "Not enough bowls!"

    "Aye," said Chalcus, gesturing Ilna ahead of him into the open court. He smiled broadly. "If it won't offend you, though, we'll sit with our backs against the wall as we eat. I'd be pleased to be wrong, but I worry that your Friend is not necessarily our friend."

    He laughed to make a joke of it; but it was no joke, as Ilna well knew.



    The Star of Valles rocked as water coalesced out of the glowing stars beneath her keel. Sharina gripped the railing with one hand and put the other around Tenoctris' shoulders, just for safety's sake.

    The four remaining vessels of the squadron settled with faint slapping sounds behind the flagship. The nymphs who'd been guiding the sea worm now released the hawser. The great creature undulated toward the depths, growing faint and vanishing long before it could have drawn away in physical distance.

    The eastern horizon--it was a shock to have a horizon again--was bright enough to hide the stars. Sharina thought the ship might be at the mouth of the River Val, but even in full daylight she wasn't enough of a pilot to be certain of one landfall against another.

    "Come on, you lazy scuts!" Master Rincale shouted, dusting his palms together in enthusiasm as he strode sternward along the catwalk. "Oarsmen to your posts! We've got three leagues against the current before we dock in Valles! Move! Move! And you bloody landsmen, get your asses off the lower benches unless you're willing to pull oars!"

    The sailors don't doubt where we are, Sharina thought.

    The nymph rose toward them. At first she was only a glint in the water far below their keel, but she wriggled into full sight before Sharina had time to wonder what the object was. The nymph swam with her body and webbed feet, keeping her arms flattened back along her torso except when she wanted to turn abruptly in the water.

    "This is as far as we will take you, missie," she called. Her eyes had the opalescence of pearl shell, and the pupils were slitted rather than round. "The water here hasn't enough salt for comfort, and going farther up the river's course would poison us. We have kept our bargain, missie, have we not?"

    "You've kept your bargain," Sharina said, touching the hood covering her bare scalp instinctively. "Go with, with my blessing!"

    She'd intended to say, "with the Lady's blessing," but she realized before the words left her tongue that these nymphs and the Goddess might be... not on the same side, say, even if they weren't enemies. The nymphs had helped Sharina and helped the kingdom; she didn't want to insult them.

    "Perhaps we will sing to you some day, missie," the nymph called. She arrowed away, once waving back toward Sharina.

    "We hope to sing for you, lovely missie," caroled the chorus of her sisters from invisibly far to seaward.

    "Given who they are," said Tenoctris with a faint smile, "and where it is they sing, I rather hope that neither of us take them up on their offer. Though no doubt it was well-meant."

    The soldiers and oarsmen were shifting places, the former with more enthusiasm than their relative clumsiness justified. The Star of Valles rocked side to side; common sailors, not just the officers, shouted curses at the landsmen. When Sharina glanced over the railing, she saw that all the narrow-hulled triremes were wobbling similarly.

    Lord Waldron walked forward, looking haggard. He hadn't hidden in the belly of the ship the way most of his men did, but neither had he cared to stand in the prow and watch the great worm swim through the waste of stars.

    "Your highness," he said in a tired voice, nodding in a sketch of a bow. "Lady Tenoctris. Your highness, I, ah.... I'm in your debt for the time you've saved us in returning to Ornifal."

    "We're all acting in the interests of the kingdom, Lord Waldron," Sharina said, trying to sound as cheerful as she'd been when her mind had settled down. She could see in the old warrior's haunted eyes how little he liked the means by which they'd voyaged, but he was too much of a man not to acknowledge the debt regardless.

    "The kingdom?" Waldron said with a snort. "Oh, the army could serve the kingdom's need without having to hurry. I'd have to resign, of course, but your brother wouldn't have to look far for a replacement. If he even bothered! He's got a real man-of-war's head on his shoulders, Prince Garric does."

    No, thought Sharina, smiling. But he has a real man-of-war's ghost in his mind.

    Aloud she said, "Garric's very pleased that you're willing to undertake this dangerous task with minimal force, milord. He doesn't want to rule the Isles with his sword."

    Waldron snorted again, this time in bitter humor. "Willing?" he said. "I'm forced to by the fact my cousin Bolor is an idiot. An idiot or a knowing traitor, and I prefer to believe the former. We bor-Warrimans have had our share of fools, but never before a traitor. If that's what Bolor is."

    He took a deep breath, scanning the shore. The vessel's officers had sorted out the rowers by now. All the long oars were in position, hanging just above the water to either side of the hull.

    "And aye, I know Prince Garric doesn't want to rule with his sword," Waldron went on. "His sword or his army's swords. He's the right king for the Isles now, your highness."

    He turned and glared at Sharina as though he expected her to disagree. "He's the right king, wherever he was born or whoever his ancestors were," he said forcefully. "On my oath as a bor-Warriman!"

    Bedrin and several of his aides were talking with the sailing master beneath the trireme's curving sternpiece. There voices rose, but the words were still unintelligible to Sharina in the bow. The trumpeter blew a signal. Three of the following vessels replied, but the last did not.

    Bedrin snapped a command. The trumpeter signalled again, still without getting a response.

    "This is where the People landed," Waldron said, gesturing toward the shore. "Back when I was an ensign in Lord Elphic's regiment."

    He spoke in a tone of quiet reminiscence; partly, Sharina suspected, to calm himself by retreating into the past where he could forget the voyage just ended. "Here at the mouth of the Val. They paddled their ships like canoes instead of rowing them, and the hulls were made of bronze instead of wood."

    "Bronze?" said Sharina. "Weren't they awfully heavy, then?"

    "Not particularly, no," Waldron said. "Except at the ribs and keel, the metal wasn't any thicker than your own skin, your highness."

    He shrugged and went on, "I don't know how they could've sailed boats like that any distance, the way the sea would've worked them up and down, but they got here somehow. Thousands of them. For a long time afterwards, the price of bronze wasn't but half what it'd been in silver before all those boats were broken up and sold."

    The last ship of the squadron finally replied with a quavering trumpet call. Bedrin shouted an order. The trumpet and curved horn called together.

    The seated flutist began to play the rhythm of the stroke. The oars dipped down, splashed, and drew back in a bubbling surge. The Star of Valles started toward the river mouth hidden for the moment beneath a blanket of mist. The hull steadied as her speed reached that of a man walking at leisure.



    "Why didn't the People go on up the river, milord?" Sharina said. The question had occurred to her, but primarily she asked to make Waldron more comfortable by ordinary talk and to settle herself as well. "There's only fishing villages and small pastures in the marshes on this part of the coast."

    "I'm not a great lover of ships," Waldron said, smiling grimly to emphasize the degree to which he could put the statement more strongly. "But it was a good thing that we had ships on that day--had half a dozen triremes, at any rate, that Stronghand could crew and put in the water right away. It wasn't much of a fleet, but the People's boats were brittle as eggshells. They landed as soon as they reached Ornifal, because the Val is plenty deep enough to drown in--and that was the only choice, if the triremes caught them on the water."

    The old warrior shook his head at the memory. "They came down on us so quickly, you see. There was next to no warning and then there they were, like cicadas coming out of the ground. Tens of thousands of them, all of them men. They had good swords and good armor, and they kept their ranks well. I wouldn't call them soldiers, rightly--they fought like they were hoeing rows of beans. But the city militia that stood between them and Valles was no better, and there wasn't time to raise the levy from all over the island."

    The mist was no more than a faint haze when the Star of Valles drove into it, though it continued to curtain the shores while the squadron kept to the center of the channel. A few small boats were on the water. Men with clam rakes stood in them, watching the warships pass.

    "We were the only real troops in the city, Lord Elphic's regiment," Waldron said. "Stronghand--though he was just Valence II at the time, he'd made a tour of his northern estates and we'd escorted him back to the capital. The People were marching up the right bank of the river, a quarter mile wide at low tide and only half that at high. They couldn't go inland because of the marshes."

    The sun was visible over the hills to the east of the Val's boggy floodplain. The mist had lifted, and the sound of cowbells drifted across the water. The Star of Valles cut the brown water at a fast walk, a good speed for her partial crew but not difficult to maintain over the short distance remaining before they docked at Valles.

    "Stronghand put the city militia in the People's way just below the Pool," Waldron said, his voice strong and his face suffused with a harsh pride. Waldron didn't boast, but his whole personality was shaped by the certainty that he and his--the cavalry of Northern Ornifal--were the finest soldiers in the Isles. "North of there the channel's bounded by firm clay soil for leagues to either side. If the People got that far, they'd be able to use their numbers--and there were twenty thousand of them, maybe more."

    "Who led the People?" Tenoctris asked. She'd taken a sliver of bamboo from her satchel but she didn't seem to intend a spell; she was just holding the little wand between her index fingers while she listened to Waldron's memories. "Were you able to tell?"

    "A wizard," Waldron said. He laughed. "And he was no general, that I can tell you, but he probably didn't think he needed to be with the numbers of men he had. He wasn't even with his army, but the prisoners told us later. He didn't have a name, at least to them: he was just the Master."

    He looked at the right bank. Just to the north, the deep green of marsh grasses gave way to squared fields, varied by the type of crops and pasture. "Right there it was," he said, pointing with his right hand. The fingers of his left played with the pommel of his sword. "That's where they met the militia."

    He lowered his arm and breathed deeply. "There was a barricade of sorts, carts with their wheels off mostly, but even so city folk couldn't have held them long. And then we came, Lord Elphic's regiment and Stronghand with us. We rode through the marshes on their flank. We had shepherds to guide us. The People didn't have time to form a shield wall against us, and after the front of their column stopped they were packed too tight to even use their swords. We mowed them down like barley till our swords were blunt. And then the tide came in."

    Waldron slammed his right palm against the left, cracking like a thunderbolt. "They couldn't stand against us!" he said, his voice rising. "The militia slaughtered them at the barricade, and the tide didn't stop. The triremes rowed up and down the banks and swept them under, those our swords hadn't killed. There's never been such a day as the Battle of the Tides!"

    Never for the young Waldron bor-Warriman, Sharina thought. And few enough such days anywhere, this side of Hell. She'd seen war, but it was still hard to imagine death on the scale of the barley harvest: the mud and water both bloody red and rafts of corpses drifting out to sea on the current. Mouths open, eyes staring, bodies already beginning to bloat with the gases of decay. Tens of thousands of corpses....

    "You mentioned talking to prisoners, Lord Waldron," Tenoctris asked. She didn't seem as distressed at Waldron's account as Sharina was. Perhaps at Tenoctris' age, the awareness that everyone dies was so constant a companion that death even in wholesale lots no longer had the horror Sharina felt. "Is it possible that any remain for me to examine?"

    "We captured some," Waldron said, staring far into the past. "It didn't seem like many but there must've been thousands by the end. They were willing to talk, but they really didn't know much. From what I was told, at least. I didn't talk to any of them myself."

    The Star of Valles had entered the Pool, the basin just south of Valles where the current grew sluggish. Here the big freighters unloaded their cargo onto barges for transport the rest of the way to the city. There were naval installations also, and a pair of triremes were exercising in the broad waters. The trumpeter beside Bedrin in the stern blew a signal to the guardships, but the squadron didn't slow.

    Waldron turned away from the rail to face the women for the first time since he'd begun to reminisce. "I had seventeen men in my troop when the battle started," he said in a different tone of voice from the one he'd used during the previous portion of the story. "There were three of us left at the end, and only my standard bearer was still mounted. He'd have given me his horse, but I couldn't have lifted myself into the saddle. I was so tired. I've never in my life else been so tired. They carried me back to Valles in a wagon, and it was a week before I could raise my sword-arm above my shoulder, it'd cramped so badly."

    "And the prisoners?" Tenoctris said. She didn't sound peevish, but she was quietly determined to get an answer.

    "They died," Waldron said. He shrugged and smiled faintly. "Oh, I don't mean we killed them. I don't think anybody who'd been in the fighting had the energy left to do that. But they sort of ran down. They didn't eat, not enough at least, and they even seemed to forget to drink. Mostly they just sat. They'd answer questions, not that they knew much except their Master had sent them to capture Valles and then go on to conquer the whole island. There'd be more of them coming soon, or so they said; but no more did. And in a few weeks they were all dead. Or so I was told."

    Waldron held out his right arm. He repeatedly made a fist, then relaxed it, as if he were working out the swelling and numbness of a long battle.

    "Stronghand's councillors, the ones who survived, summoned the levy," he said, his mind slipping again into the past. "The king himself didn't leave his bed for three months, and he was never the same man again. Even when he was sober, and that was rare. But the People never returned."

    The horns and trumpets of the whole squadron began to call, waking echoes from the Valles riverfront. A watchman at the naval dock rang his bronze alarm gong in reply.

    "Never...," Lord Waldron whispered.

    "At least until now," said Tenoctris, echoing the words that had formed in Sharina's mind.



    Garric awakened; Liane had touched his cheek. When she felt him twitch she whispered, "Quietly. Garric, I see light coming through the wall there." She pointed.

    Garric's swordbelt hung from the head of the bed on his side. He got up in his bare feet and drew the long sword with only the least hiss of the blade's chine on the bronze plate protecting the mouth of the scabbard.

    A three-wick oil lamp hung from a wall bracket, but the only wick lighted when they went to bed had burned to a blue ember. It was dark enough in the bedchamber that Garric should've been able to see light coming from any other source--and he didn't.

    The suite he and Liane shared had been used for storage until only hours before the royal contingent arrived at the Earl's palace. It'd suffered severe water damage some decades ago, very possibly around the time the previous Earl died along with his hopes of kingship at the Stone Wall. The frescoed plaster above the wainscoting had fallen, leaving rough brick walls, and the wood had warped in many places also. The damage hadn't been repaired immediately, so the unused room had attracted unused objects the way silt settles to the bottom of a pond.

    "There, do you see it?" Liane said. She'd pulled on her left slipper. She pointed again with the other, then slid it on also; she hadn't been raised a peasant and gone barefoot eight months of the year. "Just a faint line."

    Garric still didn't see anything, but he didn't seen any reason to say that. He could trust Liane. He stepped to the lamp and filled it from the ewer of oil in the alcove beneath the bracket, being careful not to submerge the ember of wick yet remaining.

    Normally that'd be the job of the servant sleeping in the small room off the bedchamber, but Garric preferred privacy to having somebody perform tasks he could handle perfectly well himself. He'd had plenty of experience in his father's inn, after all.

    As the flame brightened, Garric looked around the room. He found what he needed immediately, as he'd expected he would. The palace servants who'd been told to prepare the room for guests wouldn't have had time to do a careful job even if they'd been willing to make an effort. The skirts of the bed covered a considerable quantity of trash they'd found easier to hide than to bundle up and carry out. One of the objects was a half pike whose shaft had begun to split where the head was riveted onto it.

    Garric sheathed his sword, then buckled it around his waist. Liane had donned an outer tunic over the one she'd slept in. "What should I do?" she asked.

    "Bring the lamp closer," Garric said as he fished out the half pike. Though it was an ornate thing intended for show rather than serious use, it'd do for his purposes. He thrust the point into the wainscoting and struck brick immediately.

    "More to the right," Liane directed, unhooking the lamp from the bracket.

    Garric slammed the pike into the wainscot again. This time the rusty head scrunched through not only the paneling but also structure inside. He twisted, splitting the panel. Behind was a low doorway, blocked with wattle and daub on a frame of poles.

    Garric set down the half pike and wrenched the panel free with his hands. He was as quiet as possible, knowing that if the guards in the hallway outside heard wood tearing they'd be through the door even if they had to smash it down.

    Since Garric became Prince Garric, he spent too much of his life already being protected from the unusual. This was something he'd handle himself until he found some greater threat than a doorway plugged in the distant past. The withies were cracklingly brittle.

    The wattle had shrunk as it dried, and the remains of the clay that'd filled it shook away as Garric wrestled out the plug. There was a draft, faint but cool. He stepped back, dusting his palms against one another, and Liane thrust the lamp into the opening.

    "There's steps going down," she said. "Farther than the light shows."

    Garric squatted beside her to look. He grinned, laid his hand on the half pike, and said, "It looks a little tight for this, don't you think? I think my sword's the better choice."

    He rose and drew his sword again. Liane lifted the half pike at the balance in her left hand and said, "I'll carry the spontoon in case there's something blocking the passage. Though the shaft's split so badly that it probably wouldn't work as a lever on any serious obstacle."

    She slipped through the opening, using the pikeshaft to support her as she dropped nearly her full height to where the steps started. A foundation wall for the present palace rested on what would've been the upper portion of an ancient staircase.

    "Hey!" said Garric in surprise. "I'll lead, and I'll take the lamp too."

    "No," said Liane. "This leaves you free to deal with anything waiting around a landing or a corner."

    Garric made a sour face but followed as Liane started down the steps. The staircase was wide enough for two, but only barely. If he were attacked unexpectedly, the lamp would be a serious hindrance; though he didn't like to think of killing an enemy whose weapon was stuck in Liane either.

    In his mind Carus, who'd watched silently to that moment, murmured, "Some times there's no really good way to do it. It's just that simple."

    "This building's built over one that was destroyed a thousand years ago," Garric said. "We must be in part of the cellars of the earlier palace that didn't completely collapse. I don't see how there can be light here that you saw, though."

    "Neither do I," said Liane quietly. Her voice whispered an accompaniment to itself between the narrow walls of the passage. "Unless fungus glows on the walls, but it doesn't seem...."

    The steps ended on a concrete floor which hadn't been finished or even properly leveled. They'd reached the sub-cellars of the original palace.

    Storage jars had been placed upright along the section of wall opposite, their narrow bases sunk in a stone-curbed sandbox. All but one had broken in the violence that brought down all the building to their right. Liane raised the lamp, but it could only hint at the thoroughness of the destruction.

    Garric heard water dripping; it seemed to come from below where he stood. He frowned, turning slowly and letting his other senses tell him what his eyes couldn't in this gloom. The hairs fringing the shell of his ears felt an air current too faint to be called a breeze.

    He walked slowly toward the corner to the right. It was a shadowed mass of rubble by the flickering lamplight. His shadow shifted around him as Liane stepped to his side with the lamp high. At the end of the vast room the debris sloped not only inward but to the side as well: the shock had dropped part of a foundation wall into a natural cave.

    "How far do you suppose...," Garric said, then swallowed the rest of the question. It was one of those silly things you said--or caught yourself before you said, if you kept control of your tongue--when you wanted to make noise because you were afraid.

    Liane had no better way than he did of telling how deep the cave might be. The faint air current suggested it went on some distance, but a crack too tight for a mouse would still let air through.

    "Well, we can go a little...," Liane said. She stepped onto a broken chunk of concrete, planting the butt of the pikestaff farther down the slope like a walking stick. The block shifted under her weight and slid, gathering lesser debris and sending a cloud of dust up the scree. Liane twisted after it.

    Garric grabbed her shoulder with his left hand. The lamp flew from her grasp and shattered. Its wick faded into a blue spark far down the slope of rubble, then went out.

    Garric hugged her to him. "Love,” he said. "Love. Is your ankle all right? I can carry you if you've turned it."

    "I'm fine," Liane said, but she held him tightly for a long moment. "I'm a fool not to have brought rushlights instead of the lamp! They'd still burn if I dropped one."

    "I think we've seen enough for one night," Garric said, pleased in his heart that he had an excuse for not going farther with what was either a pointless exercise or a very dangerous one. "Here, give me the pike and I'll feel our way back to the stairs."

    In the morning--later in the morning, he supposed--he might send a squad of soldiers here to explore with pine torches or rushlights as Liane suggested, dried fennel stalks whose spongy pith had been soaked with tallow. This jaunt had been enough to satisfy his desire to do something real instead of talking interminably and 'looking regal,' whatever that meant.

    "I'll guide us," Liane said. "You keep your sword out. Anyway, it shouldn't be difficult. The floor was clear enough."

    She walked briskly with Garric's left hand on her shoulder, tapping the staff but obviously following her instincts rather than needing the help. She had as good a sense of direction within buildings as Garric did in the woods. At the stairs she continued to lead, but without Garric to boost her she'd have had a difficult time getting through an opening at the height of her head.

    As Liane scrambled back into their room, Garric turned and listened. Somewhere in the distance water dripped, or perhaps he was imagining that it did.

    There was a glow, though, from the sub-cellar or perhaps from beyond it. It was fainter than starlight, but he could make out the flat arch over the bottom of the stairs.

    "Here," said Liane. She set the pike crosswise in the opening, braced against the wall on either side. Garric gripped the shaft with his free hand and tugged to make sure it would hold. Then he shot his sword back into its scabbard and pulled himself up by the strength of both arms and the soles of his feet on the wall.

    The moon had risen since they'd started down the opening; Garric's eyes, adapted to pitch darkness, gave him a good view of the unfamiliar room. He lifted the clothes press which held his regalia and straddle-walked to the opening, where he set it down with as quietly as he could.

    "There," he said, stepping back to view his handiwork. "Now I think we can get some sleep."

    "Will it hold?" Liane said doubtfully.

    Garric laughed. "Not against a serious threat," he said, "but it'll make a good deal of noise if somebody slides it back. And if that happens--"

    He drew his sword with a sring! and an arc of shimmering moonlight.

    "--I'll have something to say about it even before the guards get here."

    Still chuckling, he led Liane to the bed. Suddenly getting some more sleep wasn't the first thing on his mind.



    Cashel'd always had a good head for heights, so the view at night from Ronn's north parapet thrilled rather than frightening him. He bent over the edge, feeling the force of the wind that rushed up the wall's slope. It brought with it dry odors and hinted mystery.

    A patchwork of lights gleamed at every level of the city, the suites of residents still awake. The outside stairs were pastel zigzags against the general darkness.

    He turned; Mab was watching him with an amused expression. The night was moonless, but drifting glows like those he'd seen on the terraces over the diamond lake were enough to keep the scattered strollers here on the topmost plaza from walking into one another.

    Mab was shorter than she'd been when they left the terrace. Though he couldn't be sure in this light, he thought her hair'd changed color too.

    She pointed to the nearest of the lights; it floated obediently closer. "They'll brighten enough for you to read by," she said.

    Cashel smiled. "Well, not me, ma'am," he said. "But if I could read, I'm sure they would."

    For the first time since he'd met her, Mab lost her self-composure. "I didn't...," she said with a look of shocked surprise. Instead of finishing whatever she'd started to say, she went on, "You've had a hard life, haven't you, Cashel?"

    He thought about the question instead of just blurting an answer, but it came out the same way anyhow. "No, ma'am," he said. "I don't guess I have. Not for me, I mean."

    Mab quirked a smile at him. "No?" she said. "Well, perhaps you haven't, then. I believe your mother would've wished things had been otherwise for you; though a more learned upbringing might've left you less able to aid Ronn in her present plight."

    Cashel laughed. "Oh, mistress!" he said. "You wouldn't say that if you'd met my friend Garric! He can read and write like any city-bred scholar, but he can knock any man in the borough silly with a quarterstaff. Besides me, of course."

    Cashel had room here, so purely for the joy of it he stepped clear of the woman and started a series of exercises with his staff. He made slow circles at first, in front of him and overhead; then he crossed his grip to reverse direction, spinning the heavy hickory faster.

    Only when Cashel was sure he had the rhythm and he'd warmed the kinks out of his muscles, did he start doing fancy tricks. He fed the staff around his body sunwise, then widdershins, and when he had it around in front of him again he spun it between his legs and caught it over his head. That was one where you could do yourself a world of hurt if your timing was just the least hair off.

    There were more people coming over to watch him now. Mab had brought a yellow light to hover overhead, brighter than the others drifting over the plaza. If Cashel hadn't already gotten into the feel of the thing the spectators would've embarrassed him, but as it was he was kinda glad for their eyes. He was good at this, better than any man in the borough and any man he'd met since leaving the borough. He wasn't going to pretend that wasn't so.

    Cashel capped the show with the things that were more than just tricks--the moves you made in a bout or a fight for real, if you were good enough. He spun the staff overhead. When the smooth hickory was a blur of soft light, he jumped beneath it and let it pull him so that he was facing the other way, then jumped again and returned to the way he'd been standing before.

    Cashel's weight slowed the staff so he could slam it to a dead stop upright beside him. He was sweating and gasping in deep breaths, but he was as happy as he'd been since he walked into the hillside with Mab.

    The spectators raised their hands over their heads and clapped them together. There were really a lot of them, more than he'd realized while he was exercising.

    Mab stepped to Cashel's side, touched his right hand, and with gentle pressure turned him so that everybody could see his face. It was a little embarrassing, but mostly he was proud.

    Mab pointed to the bright fairy light directly overhead. It went out, returning the two of them to darkness and privacy. The spectators drifted away.

    "Now," she said, "we'll watch what I brought you here to see. It's time."

    As she spoke, a male Councillor stepped through an arched doorway that came from the interior of the city. He murmured a word, beating time in the air with an athame of zebra-striped wood. Beside him appeared the lighted figure--no, it was a figure of light!--of a warrior in steel armor.

    Blond hair spilled from under the figure's helmet and fell across its polished shoulder-pieces. It was oversized, half again as tall as Cashel and taller than any living man he'd seen, but it wasn't a fanciful giant like the trumpeter who'd greeted the dawn.

    "That was Valeri," Mab said. "The Queen formed his image after he went down to the cavern to sleep. The Councillors cause the image to walk the parapet every night; it and the other Heroes."

    Cashel watched the figure go by, moving at the speed of the wizardling who walked beside it. The image's legs scissored and its head turned like a real man looking toward the mountains as he sauntered along. The body looked solid, but it was too clear to be real. It looked like it would in daylight, but there wasn't any light here except for the floating glows. When the figure passed through a planter of roses, it did just that--passed through them.

    "There's nothing on this plaza that's higher than the parapet," Mab said as she and Cashel followed the warrior's image into the distance. "Someone watching from the mountains, even if he were able to bring objects closer with wizardry or mechanick arts, would see only what appeared to be Valeri walking the battlements."

    Another Councillor came through the arch. This time it was the woman who'd spoken when age prevented her chief from addressing the Assembly.

    "They're honoring the people who saved the city?" Cashel said. "I've seen statues in Valles and other places too, but those're mostly bronze. The ones I've seen."

    Instead of an athame this Councillor held a flight feather from the wing of some great bird. She beat time with it, and at every stroke it changed color: from purple to orange, and back again with the next stroke. Each step she cried, "Misauda!"

    "It's not for honor's sake, Cashel," Mab said. "I'm afraid most of the citizens couldn't tell you the names of the Heroes, even though their images walk the parapet every night. But if the people of Ronn have forgotten the Heroes, their enemies have not. Every time the Made Men marched against the city, one Hero or the next drove them back with slaughter that left the bare ground red. Even a hundred and fifty years haven't been enough to erase the terror of Valeri sweeping almost to the heart of the King's power."

    Two figures of light stepped through the archway, seemingly arm in arm. Cashel could see that the elbow of the figure on the inside actually passed through the jamb of dark crystal. They were taller than real men though perhaps not quite as tall as the image of Valeri had been. One had fair hair and the other was a dark brunette, but apart from that they were as like as the two eyes of an owl.

    "Minon and Menon," Mab said as the phantasms of light walked past. "Few cities have had a champion as great as either of them, and in Ronn they were both together till the day Minon carried his brother down to the cavern and the sleep they now share."

    One of the images carried a broad-bladed halberd. The other wore a long straight sword and carried a shield broad enough to cover two: the blazon on its face was a double-headed eagle. They were turned toward one another, and their smiling lips moved as though they were talking.

    "The King created the Made Men," Mab said, "and he rules them--to a point. But not all his threats and promises have been enough to convince his creatures to attack again while the Heroes walk the parapet of Ronn."

    "But they aren't real," Cashel said, nodding as the twins passed on at the pace of the wizard walking beside their images. "They can't defend the city."

    "They're semblances," Mab said, "but their semblance alone is enough to protect Ronn so long as memory of real slaughter remains; as it does."

    Two Councillors, a young woman and a boy of scarcely Cashel's age, came through the doorway. They chanted; the boy's voice was nervously high and loud enough that Cashel heard the word sabaoth. As they beat the air together with their athames and a lanky, raw-boned figure appeared. It was so tall that it had to duck to clear the high arch.

    "That's Virdin," said Mab, "as he was when he was a youth. No minion of the King nor all the minions of the King could stand against him during the long life before he went to the cavern."

    Cashel had noticed without giving particular thought to the matter that the citizens of Ronn kept some distance from the parapet. The wizards and the figures they controlled passed outside of them. It was with surprise, then, that he saw a group of stooping men come up an outside staircase and place themselves directly in the path the image of Virdin must take. Two carried between them what looked like a large oval mirror.

    "Mab?" said Cashel, bracing his legs for better support and spreading his hands into a fighting grip on his quarterstaff. "What're those fellows doing? There, by the--"

    "Citizens of Ronn!" Mab shouted. "The Made Men are attacking!"

    At the sound of her cry, four of the newcomers drew curved swords. They were pale as soured milk and the pupils of their eyes were empty.

    The other two turned, holding the mirror between them. Face on, Cashel saw a hideously misshapen man reflected in the mirror's surface. Beyond him was a sea of creatures like the few who'd climbed the walls, man-like but not men.

    "Citizens of Ronn!" Mab said. "The Made Men are here and they bring their wizard-King with them! Rally for your lives!"

    The figure on the mirror's surface raised an athame of human rib; his albino creatures scuttled toward Cashel with their swords raised.

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