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Master of the Cauldron: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Wednesday, September 8, 2004 23:44 EDT



    "I swear I didn't have anything to do with it!" Earl Wildulf said, sweating profusely. He tried to drink but found his mug empty. With his face twisted into a snarl he turned to shout at the servants whose job it was to keep those at the table supplied--and remembered that Garric hadn't permitted servants into the conference room.

    Wildulf got up and stepped to the wine jars along the wall, repeating but in a chastened voice, "I swear I didn't."

    "I assure you, milord," Garric said, "that nobody in this room believes that you called up a squad of corpses to murder me."

    "I wouldn't be so sure about your wife, though," Attaper said with a grim eye on the Earl. "Or that wizard of hers, anyway."

    "Balila wouldn't have done that!" Wildulf snapped, though the anger in his voice as he filled his mug proved that he'd been thinking the same thing. Instead of mixing water in equal or greater amount with the wine in normal fashion, he slurped down half of what he'd just poured straight. Even angry and defensive, he hadn't bothered to deny the accusation leveled at Dipsas.

    "Countess Balila and her wizard weren't involved in the attack," Liane said calmly, sorting through documents she'd taken out of the travelling desk. It was the only thing she'd brought from the suite which she and Garric had abandoned for what had been an office corridor on the second floor.

    Liane half-smiled. "I don't say that out of any affection for Mistress Dipsas. Blaming the wrong party prevents us from identifying the real threat, and I have trustworthy information as to where those two ladies were tonight."

    They were in what had been the private office of Earl Wildulf's treasurer, a commoner named Ardnon who probably wouldn't be best pleased in the morning when he learned that his Bureau of Revenue had been ousted to provide living quarters for Prince Garric and the entire detachment of Blood Eagles accompanying him. The troops were cleaning out the other rooms on the corridor, and from what Garric had seen they were doing so with greater thoroughness than care. Desks, files, and other furnishings were all going into the back stairwell, leaving Attaper's men only one direction to guard.

    Wildulf himself and Marshal Renold were the sole Sandrakkan officials present, facing not only Garric and his councillors but six Blood Eagles as well. The Earl kept trying to grasp his sword-hilt. The guards had disarmed him and Renold; every time Wildulf's hand closed on nothing, rage flushed his face.

    "My men were asleep," Attaper growled, looking through a window out over the dark city. His profile was stony. "The real midnight relief, I mean. Look, I'm not making excuses, but--"

    He grimaced and forced himself to meet Garric's eyes.

    "--I think there must've been wizardry involved. Somebody got in and took their weapons and equipment without them waking up. I can't believe they were just derelict."

    "Of course there was wizardry!" Garric said. "No blame attaches to you or your men, milord. And I need scarcely point out that you did save my life and Lady Liane's. I was on my last legs when you arrived to finish the assassins."

    He wished now that he'd kept Tenoctris by him. Though the Shepherd alone knew what was going on in Ornifal. He'd weighed the choices when he sent Tenoctris with Sharina and Waldron, and the chances were still good he'd made the right decision.

    Attaper looked like a rocky crag trying to smile. "I don't know about your legs, your highness," he said, "but your hands were still in good shape. I have the bruises--"

    He raised his right wrist which Garric had grabbed as he tried to wrest away Attaper's sword.

    "--to prove it."

    "Do we know who the attackers were?" said Lord Tadai, cutting through an exchange that was so far removed from his life that he thought it was meaningless. "That is, they were dead men who I gather didn't look dead at the time, but surely the bodies came from somewhere?"

    "Serjeant Bastin was talking to an old buddy who's serving in the local garrison," Lord Rosen said unexpectedly. "The fellow says he recognized one of them as a housebreaker who'd been hung three months back. The body'd have been buried in the potter's field or whatever they call it here in Erdin."

    Marshal Renold nodded glumly. "The Sister's Hundred, west of the city wall," he said. "All unclaimed bodies go there, not just people who're executed. They're dumped in a trench and covered at nightfall every day. Nobody'd notice if a few were taken out after dark."

    "Wizardry!" Wildulf said, half despairing and half furious. Lord Attaper nodded forcefully in agreement

    Liane looked up from the beechwood notebook she'd been reading, holding it close to the light of the candle lamp she'd set on the table before her. "Earl Wildulf?" she said. "Two years ago--"

    When Liane was being taught at Mistress Gudea's Academy for Girls, here in Erdin.

    "--the best collection of Old Kingdom manuscripts in Erdin was the library attached to the Temple of the Shielding Shepherd. Is that still the case?"

    Garric noticed that Liane dismissed empty complaints about wizardry as brusquely as Lord Tadai had trampled through the camaraderie of warriors reliving past battles. She and Tadai were correct, of course: there was serious business to conduct and no time for small talk. Yet it was small talk that eased the friction of folk squeezed together in hard times, and these times were hard beyond question.

    He grinned wryly. Sometimes it was a mistake to be too correct.

    "Library?" the Earl repeated, frowning as he tried to get his mind around the concept. "I don't know. Renold, do you...?"

    "I could ask someone," the Marshal said, frowning in turn. "My wife's secretary, he's the sort who'd know, I think."

    "I think we can take it that there've been no changes in governmental policy toward the library since you left Erdin, milady," Garric said, grinning a little wider. "And I assume a major fire would've attracted attention also. Are you looking for a particular document?"

    "I hope there may be more information on the cataclysm that struck Erdin a thousand years ago," Liane said. "Besides the Bridge Island account, that is. Perhaps if we knew more about what happened then, we'd have a better notion of what we're facing today."

    Her reserved stiffness melted in a smile. "I can't help with wizardry," she said, sweeping her gaze across the room. "But I can search records as well as Tenoctris, or almost as well. And it's something to do."

    "Yes," said Garric. Something to do instead of waiting for an enemy to strike again from the darkness. "Yes indeed."

    He rose to his feet. Dawn was breaking, turning pink the side of the building visible through the west-facing windows. "I don't think there's anything more to be gained by discussing what happened tonight," he said. "Last night. Lady Liane, do you want to wait till later in the day to visit the library, or--"

    "No," said Liane forcefully. She cleared her throat, and went on, "That is, I certainly don't intend to go to bed. I wouldn't be able to sleep. Though I'll need the help of the library staff, and they won't be present at this hour, I'm sure."

    "Nor could I sleep," said Garric. He'd only napped before going down into the caves beneath the palace, and he'd fought an exhausting battle besides; but he certainly wouldn't sleep now. "But I would like to bathe. With luck--"

    He nodded to Wildulf, who he thought would understand.

    "--I'll scrub off some of the memories as well as what splashed me during the fight."

    He looked around the room more generally. "Lord Tadai, Admiral Zettin," he said. "You and your staffs will continue working with Earl Wildulf and his officials on the details of Sandrakkan's return to full membership in the kingdom. If there're any questions for me, I'll deal with them when I return from the Temple of the Shielding Shepherd where I'll be accompanying Lady Liane."

    "And where I'll be accompanying both of you," said Lord Attaper grimly. "And every bloody one of my men will be with us!"



    Cashel wasn't afraid of heights--or long drops either, which'd been more to the point when he gathered guillemot eggs on the sheer islets off the coast of Haft. Even so it made his lips purse to look down from the top of the... well, what would you call it?

    "Ma'am?" he said aloud. "Mistress Mab? Is this a cave we're going down into?"

    "An artificial cave," Mab said. "It was the Lower Commons, back in the days when men lived on these levels. The Upper Commons is the plaza on the roof of the city, and the King carved this from the fabric of mountain itself while he was building the Ronn."

    The Sons had been looking down into the cavern, all but Manza who'd taken one glance and jerked back from the railing. When Mab spoke, they'd turned to watch her instead. None of them spoke, but they didn't look comfortable.

    Truth to tell, Cashel didn't like the view either. It was less the height than the shadows, gray on gray on gray--and none of them soft shades like those of a normal twilight.

    Aloud he said, "Well, there's water, at least. I could use a drink."

    "After I purify it," Mab said in a thin undertone. "This high it might be all right; but again, it might not. I don't care to take chances."

    So speaking, she took what seemed a flat disk from the purse on her belt and gave it a shake. The plate slipped into a cup, its slanting walls locked open in tiny steps.

    Mab walked toward the watercourse which cascaded over the rim of the gallery and fell by a series of pools into the far distance. Cashel followed, balancing his staff crossways before him. As he'd expected, the Sons fell in behind--Herron leading and the rest following after.

    He looked across the cavern again. He wasn't sure he could see the other side, the place was that big, but white arrows in the distance were the flumes of more little cataracts like the one near by where they'd come out of the rock-cut tunnel leading from the shaft that'd dropped them through the crystal part of Ronn.

    The great cavity wasn't completely empty, though: paths slanted out into it. Some were wide enough for a cart, often with water running through a channel down the middle, but a lot of them looked so narrow that people'd have to walk one ahead of another. Sometimes they crossed each other like the cords of a spiderweb, and generally they dropped either by gentle ramps or a flight of stairs and another waterfall.

    The Sons were whispering among themselves, wondering if they'd be going down that way soon. Cashel supposed they would, though of course Mab might have another notion entirely. He didn't bother asking her; they'd learn soon enough.

    Mab knelt at a stone coping more like the mill flume in Barca's Hamlet than a stream bank. She dipped her cup full of water. It looked clear as it ran down the channel--you could see bits of leaf litter from the upper levels tumbling along in the swift current--but it started to bubble when it filled the cup. Cashel smelled brimstone and a hint of decay.

    Mab held the cup out in her right hand and stroked the air with her left index finger. Cashel could've repeated the pattern himself--he was good with those things, just as good as Ilna, though he didn't have his sister's feeling for fabrics.

    He couldn't have described what he saw in words, though, and he wasn't sure that even somebody who really knew words like Garric and Sharina could've done that thing. Mab's tracery was something that you had to feel, not hear about.

    The water flashed red. A skim of ice appeared on the top. For just an instant the veins in the ice were the same as the figure Mab had drawn. The bad smell vanished like thistledown in a flame.

    Mab handed the cup to Cashel, smiling archly. He took it and sipped; the ice had melted to a rind even before his lips touched it.

    He wasn't sure what the water'd taste like, not that it really mattered. On hot summer days while plowing he'd drunk ditchwater, kneeling beside his oxen. In fact it was cool and sparkled, as refreshing as a long draft of bitters from Reise's inn. His eyes met Mab's; her smile had grown wider like she knew what he'd been wondering.

    "Really good, ma'am," he said, turning to hand the cup to Herron.

    "You've only had a mouthful," Mab said. "Drink more."

    "Ma'am, there's a lot of us," Cashel said. "And it's not a big cup."

    "Nor has it gone down any from the drink you've taken, you might notice," Mab replied tartly. "Drink your fill, then pass it on."

    Cashel couldn't help looking into the cup, but that was just reflex: if Mab said he could walk over the edge of this gallery without falling, it'd be the truth. He drank more, not his fill but three big swallows taken slowly. Then he passed the cup to Herron, saying, "Don't drink too much the first time, any of you. We'll pass it around again, after the first settles in our stomach."

    The Sons drank deeply, ignoring his advice. Well, he'd thought they would. It shouldn't matter.

    "When we start down...," Mab said as the cup went to Orly, the last. "Be careful of what you may meet. And of course don't fall. The paths are solid, but the railings may not be. They weren't part of the King's plan, and the citizens who added them after the King's exile weren't able to build for the ages the way he'd done."

    "Why did you tell us not to wear our armor if we're going to be meeting the Made Men?" Stasslin said. Cashel wouldn't have used that tone to anybody, let alone the lady who was helping them.

    Cashel had one butt of his quarterstaff on the floor by his right foot. He leaned the staff forward and said in a loud voice, "I'll have another drink now, Orly, if you're done with the water."

    Orly had paused with the cup halfway to his lips. Instead of handing it to Cashel, he said, "She didn't say we'd be fighting Made Men, Stasslin. She said to be careful."

    "Yes," said Mab. She looked at Stasslin with a cold expression much more threatening than Orly's anger. "If you're going to put words in someone's mouth, make them pleasant ones; boy."

    The deliberate pause before 'boy' made Stasslin flush. "Look, I just meant...," he began; and stopped, probably because he couldn't think of where to go from there.

    Cashel took the cup from Orly's hand, mostly to cool things off a bit. He drank and said, "Stasslin, I learned when I was a boy that if you're stupid, you're best off keeping your mouth shut. I try to live by that."

    Cashel offered the cup to Herron, who waved it away. "Anybody want more?" he said. Nobody spoke.

    "Then we're ready to start down," Mab said. She gestured to a path, one of the wider ones, that slid into the cavern some fifty double-paces away on the other side of the little creek. With her left hand she lifted the cup from Cashel's hand and folded it flat again. Though she didn't pour out the water first, nothing splashed on the pavement.

    There was a hump-backed bridge over the creek, but Cashel jumped the channel since it wasn't as wide as he was tall. He glanced back as Mab followed, then frowned in surprise. She didn't jump, exactly; at least it didn't look like she had. She scissored her legs and she was across, that was all.

    The Sons were all going to the bridge, so Cashel and Mab walked to the path alone. "Who told you you were stupid, Cashel?" she asked.

    "Lots of people, ma'am," Cashel said. He let a slow grin spread over his face. "Not after I got my growth, though. Not twice, anyhow."

    "Sometimes people need to have their errors beaten out of them," Mab said in a quiet voice trembling over fury. "I'm afraid there aren't enough of us to do all the necessary beating, but we have to try."

    Cashel looked at her in concern, but her face was calm enough. They'd reached the walkway before the others, so he paused.

    Mab nodded. "Yes,we'll wait," she said. Pointing down she added, "Do you see the fish hanging in the air below that broad catwalk? Midway to the surface."

    Cashel squinted to see better. "I think so, yes," he said. It was fish-shaped, anyway, but as far down as it was it must've been bigger than he was. It was moving, squirming furiously and rising headfirst toward the path. That wasn't just a trick of the bad light.

    He puzzled the question through in his mind and said, "Ma'am, do fish fly in this place?"

    "No, though we may well see stranger things," Mab said. "There!"

    A spider dropped along a strand of silk unseen in the dimness, scrabbled at the fish for a moment with its four front legs, and climbed quickly out of sight again beneath the walkway. The fish resumed its jerky upward journey, but it'd stopped wriggling.

    "The King's influence has leaked into these lower levels during the millennium of his exile," Mab said. "The way filth drains into the bilges of a ship. Neither the King nor his creations have entered Ronn, not yet; but here in the lower levels the insects and plants and the fish in the ornamental pools have changed. In the directions that the King would've wished."

    The Sons had caught up to them again. They'd been whispering among themselves as they crossed the bridge, but now they fell silent as they listened to Mab and Cashel.

    Cashel looked at them, feeling his face grow harder than usual when his eyes fell on Stasslin. The burly Son frowned for an instant but then looked away.

    What good would your breastplate be if that spider grabbed you? Cashel thought, but he didn't say anything. The spider and the prey it'd netted in one of the pools were out of sight, and scaring the Sons worse than they already were wouldn't help anything.

    Cashel smiled in sudden warmth. Aloud he said, "You fellows aren't used to this sort of thing. You're doing real good."

    "Watch yourselves," Mab said again, nodding to the Sons as a group, then to Cashel. She stepped onto the walkway. It spiraled down for quite some distance, then split into three separate paths that slanted off. Cashel put himself a half step ahead of her, where he could move fast without having to worry about friends being in the way of his staff.

    "Mistress Mab?" said Orly. He seemed to be the one who did the most thinking. "You said the lower levels are turning into the way the King would have them. But the King built Ronn, didn't he? And he didn't build it like this."

    "The King was a very great wizard," Mab said. "Was and is. Greater than the Queen in many ways: he could create what she could only maintain. But the King had to change things in order to live, and eventually he changed himself. He couldn't turn himself back, any more than an addled egg can become fresh again. And so the Queen ousted him, for the sake of Ronn and the citizens of Ronn."

    Cashel saw movement on a distant catwalk. He thought it was water flowing till it raised its head and tasted the air with its tongue. After a moment it slithered out of sight among the trees of a hanging garden.

    Well, he'd seen snakes before. Never one that size, though, as far as he could remember.

    "The King came from the earth and created Ronn," Mab said. Her voice was clearer than it should've been with this huge emptiness around them to drink the words. "But the Queen came from Ronn itself."

    "And the Queen's gone," said Herron harshly. "It's up to us, now."

    "It's up to us," Mab repeated in the same flat, clear voice as before. Cashel wasn't sure she was agreeing, exactly.

    Stepping out a little farther ahead, Cashel began to spin his quarterstaff slowly to loosen his muscles. Something passed overhead. He heard Enfero gasp in surprise, but Mab didn't speak. He continued to spin, a little faster each time he crossed his wrists.

    He guessed Mab would warn them if there was going to be a fight. And though Cashel wasn't sure about the Sons beyond figuring that they'd try, he knew what to do in a fight.

    Smiling, content as he usually was, Cashel began feeding his spinning staff before and behind him in a careful, complicated pattern like what Mab had done to clear the water.

    Oh, yes. Cashel was certain sure he knew about fights.



    "There's people on the sand spit," Ilna said, speaking in a low voice. The creek they'd been following much of the afternoon forked here. Though the shallow channels weren't real protection, the freshly-deposited sand at the upstream end would be more comfortable than a camp hacked out of the willows and sedges on lining both banks. "Making supper, it seems."

    "I don't smell smoke," Chalcus said. His hands weren't on his sword and dagger, but his voice had the peculiar lightness that meant the blades would be clear at the first hint of a threat. "There's four of them; and a dozen donkeys--one's strayed downstream."

    "They're not people," Davus said, cold and hard and certain. "Not any longer, at least. The New King's been this way."

    Instead of relaxing, Chalcus rose onto his toes and looked about them. They were on an animal trail that came into sight of the water only at fords: the vegetation was much heavier at the streamside than a double-pace back from it. Even so Ilna doubted that her friend could see anything that'd been hidden while he stood flat-footed.

    She understood why Chalcus was--in his way--nervous, though. What use was a sword against a creature that turned its victims into stone?

    Davus splashed through the stream. He held a chip of patterned obsidian in his left hand, but as a talisman rather than a weapon. His thumb rubbed the smooth stone, and his face was set in lines as hard as those of the statues on the sand.

    Chalcus nodded Ilna across; she waded over quickly. The water was only knee deep, but the strong current made her tug up her tunic. She didn't mind the hem being wet, but the fabric might give the stream purchase enough to pull her down.

    Chalcus waited till Ilna was on the sand, then followed. He watched their backs with a faint false smile. If Davus was right, mere sight of the creature and its jewel was enough to turn the victim to stone, so it didn't seem to Ilna that keeping a close lookout was a useful defense. There were other dangers in this land, of course.

    And perhaps Chalcus thought that if he were turned to stone, it would give her warning to escape. Her lips tightened at the thought. As if she'd run!

    The Citadel--the tall basalt spike whose crystal crown flared and twisted into fanciful shapes--loomed not very far away. Ilna hadn't learned to judge distances, growing up as she did in a small hamlet which she'd never expected to leave. The New King's victims hadn't been looking that way, however.

    Something had come down the creek from the west. The wayfarers were preparing supper. Two men had risen, their hands on a sword hilt in the one case, a spear too heavy for easy throwing in the other. A third had gone to settle the tethered donkeys which must've become restive, while the last had remained squatting by the fire.

    And so they were now, figures of coarse black stone. Their clothing had rotted off, all but a few tatters where the cloth was doubled, and the blades of their weapons were lumps of rust.

    Chalcus dug his bare toe into the hearth. Sand half-covered the ring of stones and the feet of the man who'd been watching the fire, but Chalcus turned up a layer of ash beneath. It'd burned itself out, whenever the thing happened. Years ago.

    Davus knelt by a pile of flat black boulders near the stone donkeys, running his fingertips over them as Ilna might have done with a complex tapestry. Ilna frowned at the blocks, puzzling as to where they came from. They were basalt, not the limestone that cropped out of the brush in this--

    Oh. They were leather packsaddles, turned to stone by chance or whim at the same time the creature had petrified the men who owned them.

    "Ilna, dear heart?" Chalcus said, looking about them with a smile as bright and hard as the glint of faceted diamond. "You brought Master Davus back from the black, stony place that these poor fellows are in now. Might it be that you could do the same for them?"

    The statues--they'd been merchants, Ilna supposed--were utter strangers; and though Chalcus was no longer the red-handed pirate he'd once been, she'd seen him viewing a bloody shambles with no greater concern than a sawyer has for cut timber. The difference here, the reason there was a real plea in his falsely cheerful voice, was that he knew the victims weren't dead. They were living men, inside a prison that had been their own flesh.

    "I'm sorry," Ilna said. "The vines around Davus told me where to cut. I can't see the patterns here. Not in stone."

    Davus poised his chip of obsidian like a writing stylus, then tapped once on the uppermost packsaddle. There was a slight click, no more, and the thin slab that'd been the flap cracked away in a single sheet. A shower of wheat kernels spilled out, golden in the sunlight and far more welcome now than bullion would've been. Ilna's belly growled in anticipation.

    Davus rose and faced his companions. He wasn't smiling but he seemed satisfied. "They've been sealed better than any storage jar," he said. "Mistress, if you can manage flat-bread, I'll take a handful--"

    So speaking, he bent and scooped up a little of the bright grain.

    "--and see if I can't bait some quail in for a meat course, eh?"

    "Yes, of course," Ilna said, looking for stones she could use to grind the grain. She was hungry enough that she didn't think she'd take the time to parch it first. A packsaddle would do fine for the lower stone....

    Chalcus began gathering brush for the fire, his face immobile. Occasionally he had to use his knife, a crudeness that the fine steel didn't deserve; but these were hard times, for people as well as for blades.

    Davus spread grain at several places where the bank was open and in sight of the sand-spit; then he crossed back. Pausing, he looked up at the spire of black and crystal not far to the north.

    "I don't know why the creature would come down from his Citadel," he said musingly. "The Old King walked the land at intervals to mete out justice."

    He gave his companions a lopsided smile. "His version of justice, of course. Perhaps the New King does the same. These poor devils may have offended in a fashion that no human being could understand."

    Ilna had expected the broken flap to be uselessly brittle, but on trying she found it quite sturdy enough to grind the hard kernels against the block beneath. Davus must have tapped with the skill of a diamond cutter to split it so easily.

    "How will we enter the Citadel, friend Davus?" Chalcus asked, feeding fuel to the fire he'd just sparked. "If we're to climb that wall of rock, I'll say that it's a task that lay beyond me."

    "And it's certainly beyond me," Ilna said. "Though I'll try if I must, of course."

    "Of course," Chalcus murmured. "Though you hate stone; and if there were a thing you feared beyond your own self, dear one, that would be stone as well."

    He glanced over his shoulder at her. He was hard and knew very well how hard she too was; but Ilna's breath still caught with the warm certainty that this man, this man, loved her.

    "There's an internal passage from the base to the crown," Davus said. "A natural vent originally, I'm told, but improved over the years. The route shouldn't be a problem in itself."

    "Is it guarded?" Chalcus said, his voice returning to its natural lilt. Ilna smiled to hear the tone. There might shortly be better work for his blades than willow stems.

    "There'll be someone there," Davus said, standing with his hands together at his waist, looking down the trail. "It won't be easy dealing with her."

    Ilna looked at the tree lying in the streambed. It'd been a palm, but the fronds jad long vanished and the trunk was crumbling. Originally it must've fallen across the path, but travellers like the ones frozen here had wrested it out of the way of their donkeys.

    On it, looking back at her with sightless eyes, was a lizard. Like the humans, it'd been turned to stone.

    "We'll deal," said Chalcus with bloody cheerfulness.

    "It depends," said Davus, "on just how skillful we are."

    As he spoke, he flung a pebble sidearm. Not one but two decapitated quail shot into the air in a scatter of feathers, dust, and their own spouting blood.

    "It depends...," Davus repeated. This time there was no doubt of the satisfaction in his voice.



    Sharina wasn't sure that she and Tenoctris had any business thrusting themselves into a group of armored men rushing to assault a building. Tenoctris obviously felt otherwise: she was trotting toward the temple at the best speed her old legs could manage.

    Sharina threw the older woman's left arm over her own shoulders and grabbed her around the waist with her right hand. If she was that determined, there was no choice for a friend but to help.

    Stretching herself, Sharina was able to join the second line of soldiers as they ran up the temple steps. Five Blood Eagles formed an arc in front of them with Lires watching their backs. Ascor seemed to view his job as protecting Princess Sharina while she went about her business instead of preventing her from doing that business.

    A squad of regulars had paused to wrench the hearthstone from the altar; they started up the steps with it. The slab was a thick piece of fine-grained limestone, blackened in the center and burned slightly concave. It weighed as much as any four of them put together.

    The troops chopping at the temple door with their swords backed away at a shout from their commander. The soldiers carrying the block of stone staggered onto the porch, paused to organize, and lunged forward on command. They smashed the square stone battering ram corner-first into the door where the leaves joined.

    The doors sprang partway open but caught on the crossbar and staples which the blow had bent but not broken. The altar top slipped from the hands of the men wielding it, dropping to the porch edgewise before toppling to the left. The troops shouted warnings and jumped in various directions, one of them tripping on his own feet. He slipped beneath the falling slab, but another soldier grabbed his belt and jerked him clear just in time.

    A pale figure inside the temple tried to push the leaves closed. A soldier thrust his sword out to stop him. A javelin thrown by a man who'd just reached the porch glanced off the swordsman's helmet, knocking him silly but then catching its proper target in the throat.

    The troops who'd carried altar top hit the doors again with their boots or shoulders. They struck in near unison though they didn't have any formal coordination so far as Sharina could tell. The leaves flew back.

    Inside were three People, two in tunics with drawn swords. The third lay on his back, clutching at the spear that'd killed him. The first soldiers through the door chopped the People down. It wasn't a fight, even though the troops had dropped their shields to lift the hearth.

    As the leading soldiers entered, Sharina carried Tenoctris inside also. The ring of Blood Eagles, now shield to shield, kept them as safe from jostling as they'd have been in the middle of an empty plaza.

    The cult statue was wooden and only slightly greater than life size, an old image that hadn't been replaced when the temple was repaired. There was a door to the right of the statue, ajar when the troops burst in. A man came through it, another of the People. He was older than the others, unarmed, and wore a ring with a brilliant sapphire on his right index finger. When he saw the troops, he turned to flee.

    A thrown javelin caught the man in the middle of the back, flinging him down the stairs he'd come up. The blood that sprayed from his mouth was the bright orange-red like that of an ordinary man speared through the lungs.

    Soldiers charged into the cellars, sounding like a wagon full of old iron tipping even before one stumbled. He and half a dozen of those ahead of him crashed through the railing.

    Sharina halted in the middle of the sanctum, holding the older woman back. "Tenoctris, we can't go down now," she said.

    "But I want to see what they're doing there!" Tenoctris said. "I'm afraid it'll be smashed if we wait."

    "We'll be smashed if we don't wait," Sharina said. "I'm sorry, we can't."

    Ascor nodded strong agreement. "We'll get you there when things settle a bit, milady," he said, his lips close to the old wizard's ear to be heard over the racket.

    From the cellars came shouts, mostly unintelligible but one very clear, "Got'em got'em got'em! They's dead! The ones as was painting is dead!"

    "Oh!" said Tenoctris. "Oh, I did hope we'd capture living prisoners. That would have been helpful."

    Additional troops were still trying to force their way down the stairs. Are they insane? Sharina thought. And in a way they were: they were soldiers ignited by battle. Fear and bloodlust drowned their ability to think.

    Aloud she said, "Ascor, where's the commander? I need the commander."

    "Captain Rowning!" Ascor bellowed. "Here to the Princess! Now! Now!"

    Sharina couldn't see who he was shouting at. The Blood Eagles stood in a tight circle around her and Tenoctris, their shields raised to fend line soldiers away from them.

    An officer who seemed old for his modest rank stepped close to the circle of guards. "Your highness?" he said, peering between the shoulders of Ascor and Lires. "Your highness, you shouldn't be here! It's far too dangerous!"

    "The only danger at present is that we're going to be trampled to death by your men!" Sharina flared. "Get them out before they destroy information we need to save the kingdom!"

    Captain Rowning recoiled in shock. "Your highness!" he said.

    Sharina felt her gut knot in self-disgust at what she'd just said. Rowning's troops had reacted splendidly in an unexpected situation. She shouldn't have let her fear and anger cause her to lash out that way.

    "Captain," she said, "you've done very well, very well indeed. But please bring your men up from the cellars now."

    Rowning turned to the signaller at his side, a cornicene whose horn curved around his body instead of the trumpeter normally attached to an infantry unit. "Sessir," he said, "sound recall!"

    The signaller blew a long note followed by three quick ones, then repeated the call. His mouthpiece was bone, not brass like the horn itself: he might have to use it in the dead of winter. The horn calls rattled the rooftiles.

    Though Sharina didn't see how anybody could tell what the signal was supposed to be through the blurring echoes, troops stopped shoving forward. After a moment they began to back out of the sanctum. Men returned from the cellars, some of them helping along fellows who'd fallen under booted feet.

    The sanctum had nearly emptied, and the last of the soldiers were straggling up the stairs. "Ah, your highness?" said Captain Rowning, hesitant because of Sharina's snarl. "What would you like me to, ah, do? Now, I mean."

    "Leave a squad here and yourself accompany me into the cellars," Sharina said in quick assessment. "If you'd be so good."

    She didn't especially want the captain present, but he'd be pleased at the invitation. She owed him that and more for her outburst.



    "I'm honored, your highness!" Rowning said, his expression opening brightly like a lotus flower at dawn.

    "Hey troop!" Lires called to the last soldier coming up from the cellars. "What did ye do for light down there? There's lanterns?"

    "Huh?" said the soldier. "No, it's windows, like, in the ceiling. There's plenty light, though. No problem there."

    Rowning drew his sword and trotted down the steps, apparently worried that Sharina would withdraw her offer. Ascor raised an eyebrow to Sharina for instructions, then muttered, "Let's go," to his men.

    "Tenoctris, hold my shoulders," Sharina said, stepping in front of the wizard. The stairs were narrow and the soldiers rushing down them had ripped the railing away. It'd been a sturdy one, judging from how thick the upper bracket with its tag of broken pole was.

    Twenty steps led to a floor of poured concrete. Looking down as she descended, Sharina saw six troughs of bright gray zinc along the wall on the street side of the single room. Sealed storage jars, wide-mouthed and each big enough to hold several bushels of grain, stood opposite them, and in the middle was a long limestone table. The tabletop had originally been smooth and probably white, but now stains and blade scratches covered it. It'd been used for surgery--or butchering.

    The room was better lit than the sanctum above. Slabs of crystal around the edges of the coffered ceiling flooded down a cold, milky light. The panels on the south, the street side, were brighter than others.

    Tenoctris looked at them with interest. "That isn't wizardry," she said, "but it's quite clever. Sunlight's led down through blocks of glass from the roof, I suppose. I saw a device like that on Yole in my own day, in an underground chamber built by one of the Duke's ancestors."

    A corpse lay between the table's two slab supports. He'd been one of the lookouts pretending to be painting. His partner was huddled just behind him. They'd been hacked to pieces by soldiers who'd found no better way to slake their bloodlust.

    Tenoctris sighed. "Well," she murmured, "it can't be helped."

    "Captain Rowning?" Sharina said. "These are ordinary men, are they not? Not People, I mean."

    "Right," Rowning said. He'd sheathed his sword and was using his dagger to pry at the tar sealing the ceramic stopper onto a storage jar. "They couldn't put People out where they'd be seen, your highness. Once you get a look at them, it's like Serians--you don't have any trouble telling what they are the next time. And there's a lot of folk here in Valles who saw them after the Battle of the Tides. Or in it, for that matter, with all the militia who fought that day."

    Rowning popped the plug off the jar. He looked in, sniffed, and stuck his dagger down inside. The dagger point drew up a slab of flesh as broad and flat as a napkin. It was pink and fresh-looking but it didn't have bloodvessels.

    "By the Lady!" Rowning said. "What's this? Is it human? Is it?"

    He twitched the dagger, slapping the flesh against the wall. It slipped down with a sucking sound. Rowning's face had a look of horror. That struck Sharina as incongruous in the midst of slaughtered men who'd been human beyond question.

    Tenoctris knelt beside the third body, the member of the People whom the javelin had thrown down the stairs. A pair of Blood Eagles bracketed her to keep others from bumping the frail old woman.

    She looked over her shoulder at Rowning. "No more than the People themselves are," she said. Smiling wider she added, "But no less, of course. I think this is Hani's workroom. Here in Valles, of course. There'd have to be a much larger installation to create as many People as were in the army that invaded Ornifal before."

    Rowning jerked back from the jar, his dagger poised to slash at anything that came out of it to touch him. "Bloody Hell!" a Blood Eagle rasped under his breath.

    "Create?" Sharina said, staring at the People's leader. She edged back unconsciously, much as Rowning had done. "Then they're not human?"

    "Human?" Tenoctris repeated with a grimace. She lifted the corpse's hand and looked at the big ring on its finger. "Dear, I don't know how to answer that. What I'm sure of is that Hani or someone else, some wizard, builds the People from materials like those--"

    She nodded to the jars.

    "--instead of them being born the way you and I were." Tenoctris smiled with a vagary of thought, and added, "A very long time ago, in my case."

    Ascor glared at the dead leader of the People. "I suppose they could sneak into Valles without being noticed," he said grudgingly. "But what were they here for?"

    Tenoctris pulled the ring from the corpse's finger, twisting it one way and then back to loosen it. "I suspect they might have known something about the theft of Stronghand's body," she said, holding the ring to the light. "I'd have questioned them about it if I had a chance."

    "Sorry, milady," Captain Rowning muttered. He started to wipe his blade on the skirt of his outer tunic, then thought again. He turned and with a grimace of fury hurled the dagger point-first into the stairs. It drove deep into a tread and hummed for a moment with the violence of the stroke.

    Lires prodded the leader's corpse with his boot. "I'm not sorry they're dead," he said conversationally. "I guess you and her highness'll figure things out, milady."

    Sharina looked at Tenoctris, then at the soldier. She felt a rush of relief. "Yes, I agree with Trooper Lires," she said. "With both parts of what he said. What do we do now, Tenoctris?"

    Tenoctris rose to her feet, helped by one of the Blood Eagles. She smiled also.

    "Speaking as a human being," she said, "I don't think creatures like the People should exist, nor that humans should help accomplish purposes which certainly aren't meant to benefit Mankind. A scholar would have a more detached viewpoint, but one can't be a scholar always."

    She handed the ring to Sharina. The sapphire was as large as her little fingernail and seemed to be perfect. It was set in dense gray metal, lustrous but heavier than silver.

    "Sharina," the wizard said, "your eyes are younger than mine. Can you make out what's written around the bezel?"

    Sharina adjusted the ring against the angle of the light. There were tiny letters encircling the diamond; at first glance she'd taken them for brushed ornamentation.

    "It's in the Old Script," she said. "I think.... Ereschigal aktiophi--"

    "Sharina, stop!" Tenoctris cried. "Don't read--"

    But the Words of Power had already gripped Sharina's tongue. The stone's facets threw dazzling highlights across the cellars.

    " Berbiti baui--" Sharina shouted, her lips speaking the words despite her mind's desperate attempt to control them. Tenoctris covered the ring with her own hands, but the light burned through her flesh and through the fabric of the waking world.

    "Io!" Sharina shouted, spinning down into a vortex of adamantine light.

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