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Master of the Cauldron: Chapter Fifteen

       Last updated: Tuesday, October 19, 2004 10:29 EDT



    "Ma'am?" Cashel said, meeting Mab's eyes. Softly crimson wizardlight wrapped her, like a tree in deep fog silhouetted against the sunrise. She looked like a middle-aged woman, pudgy but not fat. Her expression was coldly cynical like Ilna's on a bad day; which for Ilna had been more days than not.

    "Wake them, Cashel," Mab said. "That's what you were told to do, isn't it?"

    "Yeah," he said. He glanced at the equipment along the back wall, facing the door. "And to tell them to put on the armor there."

    The Sons slept more soundly than people sprawled on a stone floor ought to do. Cashel guessed something was going on with them besides just being tired and sleeping. Maybe they were having the sort of meeting he'd had with the Heroes, but he kinda doubted that.

    In the Sons' minds, the Heroes were the next thing to Gods. Cashel knew enough about people to understand that real heroes were more apt to be men like Ilna's friend Chalcus than they were to be saints. These boys hadn't been out in the world enough to know that, and it might discourage them to meet those six hard men.

    "Rise and shine!" Cashel said in a loud voice. The Sons stirred, but they didn't open their eyes.

    Cashel frowned. He banged his quarterstaff against the inside of the door, noting with surprise that the ferrule struck sparks of blue wizardlight from the bronze.

    "Wakey, wakey!" he said. He only by a heartbeat kept from adding, "You'll get no breakfast, you lazy woollies!" as he'd have done with a flock of sheep slow to leave their byre in the morning.

    The Sons were alert now, sitting up or at least rolling to one arm. "How long have I been sleeping?" Enfero asked plaintively.

    Cashel took out his wad of raw wool and began polishing his quarterstaff. People asked a lot of questions that didn't make any difference. That was all right, he supposed, but it didn't mean he needed to answer them.

    Rubbing down the staff was more than just filling time. Cashel hadn't really done anything with the staff during the journey, just spun it through the air in much the fashion he did most days for exercise. The air he was spinning it in was something he didn't like the memory of, though. If he cleaned nothing but the surface of his mind with the wool, then it was a good thing to've done.

    Orly got to his feet, slowly and carefully. "We're up, Master Cashel," he said. "What do we do now?"

    "We were supposed to wake the Heroes," said Stasslin. His voice started accusingly, but the peevish tone bled away as his eyes moved from Mab to Cashel, then settled between them. "There's nobody here to wake. Unless that's them."

    He gestured. "The bones."

    "You're to put the armor on," Cashel said. "And the swords, I guess."

    He looked at the equipment, which hadn't interested him a lot until now. He'd never worn armor nor had any truck with weapons beyond a quarterstaff. The knife he'd carried all the years he could remember was a tool for trimming leather or picking a stone from the hoof of a plow-ox, not something he'd ever thought of stabbing somebody with.

    This was fancy stuff, though. Cashel didn't see much point in the engraving and gold inlays, but the quality showed in the falling-water sheen of the swordblades and the way the axe heads were shrunk onto the helves instead of just being wedged in place.

    "It won't fit us," Herron said. He glanced down at the swordbelt he'd unbuckled when he curled up on the floor to sleep, then looked again to Cashel. "Will it, Master Cashel?"

    "It will fit you," Mab said. "Well enough. Put the armor on, Sons of the Heroes. "

    Orly looked at her with an expression Cashel couldn't read. "Yes," he said. "It's what we came here for. Isn't it, milady?"

    "You came here to save Ronn from the King and his creatures," said Mab. "For that you must put on the armor."

    "I thought we came to wake the Heroes," Athan objected with a whine, but he stepped to the set of equipment on the right end of the line and began to examine it.

    The gear varied in style and decoration. Each place had a helmet, but these ranged from the simple iron pot that Herron set carefully on his head to the ornately chased and gilded pair that Enfero and Manza chose.

    Cashel stood uncertain as the Sons armed themselves. He glanced at Mab. She crooked a finger to bring him silently to her side, then laid her free hand in the crook of his elbow as they watched together.

    Five of the sets included shields. The last had instead two short-hafted axes; that had been Hrandis' equipment, Cashel supposed. Stasslin lifted Hrandis' cuirass of riveted iron bands from the rack on which it hung, muttering, "This'll never fit any of us...."

    He closed the piece around him and it did fit, fit the way a scabbard fits the sword it was made for. Something had changed, but Cashel couldn't swear whether the difference was in the armor or the body of the man wearing it.

    "Somebody help me with these laces," Athan said. His cuirass had a sleeve of mail to cover the right arm. He was trying to do something with it one-handed and of course failing. "Dasborn, help me, will you?"

    Cashel started forward. Mab gripped his arm to prevent him.

    "Come on, Dasborn!" Athan said, but it wasn't Athan's voice. "I didn't come back so I could die of old age."

    "What would you know about dying of old age, Valeri?" Enfero--or was it Manza?--said.

    "Maybe he's been talking to Virdin," said... said his brother. Neither man was Enfero or Manza now.

    Orly had slid on a coat of mail with a silver wash that made it shimmer like a moonlit lake. He finished buckling the crossed shoulder belts that held his long sword and dagger, then walked over to the man who used to be Athan.

    "You'd be in a hurry on the way to your execution, Valeri," he said, taking his companion's sleeve in one hand and reeving a thong through the rings above, then below, the elbow. He'd gathered the metal fabric so that it wouldn't bind if the man wearing it swung his sword violently.

    "We all were, weren't we?" said Stasslin, wearing Hrandis' black armor. "What else did we ever get from being Heroes?"

    "We got the eyes of every man in Ronn," said one of the twins.

    "And especially every woman in Ronn!" said his brother. "Oh, those were the days, weren't they?"

    "We did our duty," said Herron's body speaking in Virdin's calm, reasonable voice. "There isn't any pay for that--not the honor, not any of the rest. It was our job and we did it. And we'll do it again."

    The swords were racked apart from their belts and scabbards. Athan held Valeri's blade up in the shimmering light for examination, then sheathed it with the absently smooth motion Cashel had seen skilled swordsmen like Garric and Chalcus display.

    Athan couldn't have handled a sword like that if he'd practiced all his life. It took more than work: you had to have the sort of understanding of what you were doing that Cashel did with his quarterstaff. The Sons of the Heroes were... gone, maybe dead; Cashel didn't know where the boys were now or if they'd ever come back. These men in armor were the Heroes themselves.

    "So," said one of the twins to Mab. "Who are you?"

    "You know who she is," Hrandis said. "Who else could she be in this place?"

    "I've never seen her look like this," the other twin said. He walked a few steps to the side.

    "It doesn't matter what I look like," Mab said, smiling faintly as she turned, keeping her face toward the twin who was trying to view her profile. "It doesn't even matter who I am, Menon. What matters--"

    She swept the whole band with her glance. She'd been playing before. Now each word came out like the thump of a door closing, without music or doubt: "What matters is that none of you is a wizard, and Ronn will need a wizard's help as well as your own if the city is to survive."

    Dasborn laughed. "The citizens thought I was hard," he said, looking around his fellows. "It must've been the same for all of you in your day. But they didn't know what hard really was, because they only saw surfaces."

    He bowed to Mab and went on, "We didn't serve you, milady, we served Ronn and her people. But it was an honor to serve with you, and I'm pleased to be doing that again."

    "He speaks for all of us, I think," Virdin said. "Anybody disagree?"

    "We're here, aren't we?" Valeri snapped. He hunched, settling his cuirass to ride more comfortably on his shoulders. "Let's get on with it."

    "One thing first," Virdin said, turning to Cashel. The Hero's features were those of Herron, but nobody could've mistaken the boy from sunlit Ronn for the man who faced Cashel now.

    "You're a stranger, Master Cashel," Virdin said. "You've done a man's duty to come to this place to wake us, but you have no business with what comes next. Go home with our thanks and the thanks of the city."

    "I've come this far," Cashel said, facing the men in armor. "I guess I'll go the rest of the way with you."

    "This is Ronn's business," Hrandis said, his eyes on Mab. "Ours and the citizens. He doesn't belong."

    "He belongs," Mab said. "He's said he's willing to accompany us, and he doesn't say things he doesn't mean."

    Cashel smiled. "No ma'am," he said, his voice husky. "I don't."

    "I want Cashel with me," Mab said. "He's made it his business. He belongs with me, and with us."

    "All right," said Valeri. "We've talked enough."

    He turned and touched the great bronze door where the valves met in the middle. It opened with the soundless majesty of sunrise. Drawing their swords and Hrandis lifting his two axes, the Heroes stepped from the temple.

    Darkness fled before them.




    Sharina knelt and picked up one of the larger stream-washed stones. It was some dense pinkish rock, about the size of her both fists clenched.

    The lizard was hunting her by smell. She wasn't sure she'd gain by walking downwind with the stream, but it was something she could do. The water wasn't deep but the bottom was dangerously slick, especially when cold water had numbed the soles of her feet. She'd like to have run, but that wasn't possible.

    Sharina's silken inner tunic had long sleeves. As she paced over the smooth, algae-haired stones, she ripped the right one off at the shoulder seam to create a fabric tube. She knotted the wrist end into a bag, then dropped the stone into it. That gave her a mace of sorts, easier to hold than the bare stone and much harder-hitting.

    She continued on. The nearest horn called, followed at intervals by horns at a greater distance to either side.

    The willows and mimosas were a good screen against anybody looking this way from the fields, but they wouldn't hide Sharina if the rider reached the creek and chose to follow it. That's what he would do almost certainly, if his mount lost the scent. The lizard's long legs could in a few minutes go farther up and down stream than Sharina could walk before the hunter arrived.

    She glanced through the mimosa stems toward the cultivated field. She'd reached the edge where an irrigation channel separated the maize and beans from a field of dark green rape. The rider wasn't in sight yet, but he would be soon.

    The builders had stubbed the irrigation channel off just short of the creek so that the measured water didn't drain away. Trees must sprout along the channel's margin, but they'd been trimmed away; cattails grew from the muddy bottom, however. Without hesitating Sharina scrambled out of the creek and across the short stretch of waste ground, then threw herself into the channel. It was shallow, but she could wriggle down into the soft bottom to conceal herself among the cattails. The standing water was blood-warm and opaque with mud.

    Sharina lay down full length and settled a mat of leaves from last years growth over her head. She hoped she'd covered her blond hair completely, but she'd decided that she had to keep her eyes above water so that she could see. Settling her breathing again, she waited.

    What would Cashel do if he were here with her? Hide in the ditch, she supposed, just as she was doing. There was no other choice, not against the band of hunters coursing her. She could hear the horn calls coming closer. She might escape the nearest rider, but she didn't see how she could get off the island without using the ring and taking her chances with where it sent her. Nothing Cashel could do would change that.

    But she'd feel better with Cashel beside her. Things were never hopeless if Cashel was there with you.

    Sharina grinned, the way Cashel'd expect her to do. She shifted to grip her mace's silken shaft with both hands. Things weren't hopeless now, either.

    The horn sounded from where she'd entered the stream. After a brief pause, Sharina heard loud splashes mixed with the clack of stones being knocked together by the weight of the great lizard. Chance or instinct had caused the hunter to turn downstream, the correct direction.

    Well, Sharina couldn't do anything until he'd come past her. That made his choice her good luck, didn't it?

    And perhaps it did, but she wouldn't pretend that she really felt that way about it.

    The hunter came closer, though Sharina still couldn't see him. There was a Braaaa! from the lizard's throat, a startled, "Ho! Ho!" from the rider, and then a sloshing like a waterfall. The beast had slipped.

    "Up!" the rider called. "Come, come up!"

    The scene was wrong, but it took Sharina a moment to understand how. She was expecting a torrent of shouted curses. She'd never met a human, no matter how saintly, who wouldn't have reacted excitedly to that dangerous fall. The People appeared to have no more emotions than dung beetles did.

    The lizard's head and clawed right foot slid into her field of vision over the creekbank. The beast lurched forward in the rainbow spray as its tail lashed the water for balance. Its pebbled skin was pale gray with darker stripes that looked purple when the light was on them.

    The rider'd been lying close over his mount's long neck. He straightened, looking first forward and then back the way he'd come. He clucked the lizard into motion, holding the reins in his left hand and raising his trumpet to his lips with his right. He blew his long, sighing call as he strode past the ditch where Sharina lay. The lizard cast its head from side to side, obviously restive.

    The saddle was over the lizard's hips, more than six feet in the air. Its high crupper would incidently protect the rider against a blow from behnd.

    As the lizard's head swung away from Sharina, she came out of the cattails swinging her stone mace from left to right. She was two strides from the hunter. He dropped the trumpet onto its neck chain and snatched at the long-shafted trident upright in a saddle scabbard.

    The mace struck the center of the rider's polished bronze breastplate, just below the ribs. It bonged, dishing in the thin metal and throwing the rider out of the saddle. He tumbled backwards, hitting the ground with a crash; his helmet fell off.

    Sharina caught the left stirrup. She couldn't stay hidden in this place. She supposed she'd be better off mounted. She wasn't planning, just reacting, but she didn't have enough information or time to do better.

    The lizard twisted its head back to bite her; it couldn't quite reach. Its breath, stinking of dead meat, made her gag.

    The saddle was high and narrow, like a mule's only much larger. A downward extension formed a mounting step below the stirrup. Sharina put her right foot into it. As she did the lizard sidled away and tried to snap at her again.

    She still held the mace in her right hand, gripping it close to the stone. She batted the beast's snout. It squealed like steam from under a pot lid and hopped sideways, dragging Sharina with it.

    The rider lay face up on the ground. His eyes were open, but his only movement was to move his lips like a carp sucking air. The stone had caught him in the pit of the stomach, knocking the wind out of him despite his armor.

    Sharina tried to pull herself into the saddle. She had her right foot on the step and held the stirrup in her left hand. From the way it was laid out, she was meant to lift her left foot into the stirrup, grip a bronze handle below the horn with her left hand, and lift herself aboard. She was perfectly capable of doing that--if the lizard stopped hopping away for the three seconds or so it'd take!

    A horn sounded, a quick Heep! Heep! Heep! rather than the long calls she'd heard before. The lizard sidled, twisting. Loping down the waste ground on Sharina's side of the creek was another of the lizard-riding hunters with his horn to his lips. She grimaced in frustration, making one last attempt to get--

    The lizard had been easing forward at the same time that it moved sideways. Sharina, her attention fixed on mounting, hadn't noticed what was happening. She jumped, her left foot lifting for the stirrup, and her left shoulder slammed into the trunk of a willow as big around as her body.

    She recoiled backward and dropped to the ground, her body a white flash of pain in a cocoon of numbness. The lizard, having finally brushed her off, capered away and turned with a hoot of delight.

    The second hunter leaned from his saddle and thrust his trident down, pinning the skirts of Sharina's tunics to the ground. Leaning on the shaft to hold it in place, the hunter blew the quick three-note call, then repeated it.

    Two more hunters rode up. One dismounted and rolled Sharina onto her stomach. When he jerked her arms behind her back, the pain in her left shoulder turned the world into white haze. He tied her wrists efficiently, then turned her face-up again.

    The third rider bent over his saddlehorn to check on the hunter Sharina'd disabled. The injured man was doing something with his hands, maybe trying to unbuckle his dented cuirass. The third rider straightened and clucked his lizard over to the first man's mount, catching its reins without difficulty.

    Sharina's head had hit the willow also, though she hadn't noticed it until the pulsing agony in her shoulder subsided a trifle. She hadn't had an inkling that the tree was there till the instant she slammed into it....

    Her captors turned to look to the left, the direction from which they'd come. They didn't speak. Sharina realized that the only words she'd heard from them were the first rider's commands to his mount.

    A bronze boat was sailing toward them over the plowed fields. It was large enough to hold more than the dozen men already aboard it. The one in the bow had a face like a monkey's. He wore a sky-blue robe and peaked hat, and he was beating the air with a copper athame. Some of the others were People like the hunters who'd captured Sharina, uniformly still and pale-skinned, but half the boat's passengers were ordinary men like the wizard in the bow.

    The boat settled, sinking into the soft earth. The wizard lowered his athame. Though he tried to seem relaxed, he was breathing hard from the effort of his wizardry.

    Sharina didn't recall having seen any of the boat's passengers before, but the tall, black-bearded man with a grim frown looked so much like Lord Waldron that she'd be willing to bet he was Bolor bor-Warriman. He turned to the wizard and said without affection, "This is Sharina, the usurper's sister, Hani. How did she get here?"

    "She must have the ring," said the wizard. "That means there was trouble in Valles, but there'll be time enough to learn the details later. Two of you lift her aboard and we'll go back to the lake."

    A pair of ordinary men climbed out of the boat. They were dressed in velvet and gold, but both looked more like street thugs than noblemen. The short one's nostrils had been slit, and his taller companion was missing three fingers on his left hand.

    As they lifted Sharina, dizzy with renewed pain, into their vessel, she saw the man who hadn't crowded to the railing to look at her the way the rest had. His face was that of the oversized bronze sculpture of Valence II Stronghand that she'd just seen in front of the mausoleum of the bor-Torials. She was looking at Valgard.



    Ilna backed a step as the parasite walked toward her. Swam toward her, really: it looked like a dollop of slime floating on top of a pond. It wasn't moving very fast, but she couldn't go any farther back unless she wanted to slip into the pool of the worm's wastes below.

    If that happened, the creatures living there would probably object before she could convince them that she hadn't arrived to steal their filth. It wasn't only human beings who jumped to the worst possible conclusions without giving the other fellow a chance to explain....

    Ilna walked to the right and started forward. The parasite stopped. The tiny legs around three-quarters of its flat body wriggled furiously, turning the creature like a wheel; then--in its fashion--it charged Ilna again.

    By advancing she'd come close to a second parasite, this one slightly larger than the first and wearing a different pattern of black smudges on its brown back. It pulled its beak from the worm, just as the first one had, and started toward her also

    Ilna smiled in a combination of amusement and triumph. That was what she'd expected would happen. Patterns weren't merely something that appeared on the backs of monstrous bugs. She retreated a step quickly. The two parasites drove together and began fencing with their long beaks, trying to force each other out of the space they both were claiming.

    Ilna walked around the back of the first parasite at the pace the surface held her to. Her feet set up slow waves in the worm's flesh, undulating the length of the creature. If she took her usual rapid strides, the ripples would trip her.

    It was like walking on a huge fresh intestine. And at that, she didn't suppose there was much difference between a worm and a sheep's gut. All either one did was turn food into waste in the course of its trip from one end to the other.

    The parasites were scarcely more intelligent than the worm. They couldn't think, so they reacted. So long as they were reacting against each other, Ilna had nothing to fear from them. It only meant that to walk from the worm's tail to its head, she had to zigzag instead of going in a straight line.

    The next creature up the worm's back pulled its beak out with a slurping sound. As soon as it was ready to move, Ilna started around it to the right. It and the parasite nearest to lunged together with the same mindless determination as the first pair. When they were firmly locked together, she went on to the next.

    On firm ground Ilna might've been able to simply run the gauntlet of the parasites instead of tricking them into fighting for territories, but she didn't trust this jellied sponginess. Besides, she'd never been interested in running. If it was something good, it'd wait till she got there. If it was bad.... Well, if it was bad, she wasn't going to run away from it.

    She guessed life'd be easier for her if she treated obstructive people the way she did these flat bugs: trick them into fighting one other so that they left her alone. Instead she met them head-on and smashed them into a proper awareness of their mistakes. Human patterns weren't any harder to grasp than those of bugs were. Because they were fellow human beings, however, Ilna felt a need to correct them instead of leaving them in their errors.

    She smiled as she negotiated the parasites. In her heart of hearts, Ilna'd never been able to believe that she really was a human being. Perhaps her assumption of duty to her fellows was merely self-deception.

    The worm was nervous, moving its rear portion side to side in what for it must be major exertion. That was probably Ilna's fault. The parasites she'd passed continued to struggle, in pairs and occasionally four at a time, locking their beaks against one another and shoving sideways. This must be the first time in a great while that the worm had been free of their attentions.

    Change was always distressing, even change for the better. Ilna knew that as well as anybody did. The puckered wounds where the parasites withdrew must itch terribly. Besides, the interval of peace wouldn't last. The parasites would settle their differences and stab into the worm's soft flesh again. That was the way of the world. Ilna's world, anyway.

    There were only two parasites still ahead of her: one a double-pace to the left, the other farther by a similar distance and offset to the right. She'd come far enough to understand the rhythm of the worm's movements now. Instead of pausing, she stepped quickly and delicately to a point between the parasites. The wave pulsing through the mass of white flesh lifted her with gentle power and launched her the rest of the way onto the worm's horny head. She was past before either parasite reacted.

    Ilna hadn't paid any attention to the jewel while the problem of reaching it remained. Now, standing within arm's length, she considered it for the first time. She'd seen many things in her life and been impressed by few. This jewel nonetheless took her breath away.

    It was egg-shaped and bigger even crossways than Ilna could circle with both hands. From the way it scattered highlights over the inside of the cocoon she'd assumed the surface was faceted, but instead it was as smooth and slick as an eyeball: the dance of light came from inside. She couldn't understand how, since the crystal seemed as clear as a water droplet.

    Ilna touched the surface, finding it warm to her fingertips. It resisted slightly when she pulled as if it was glued to the worm's head. When it came away, though, the underside had the same glassy feel as the rest of it.

    The jewel was much lighter than she'd expected. If she'd closed her eyes, she could've imagined that she held only a soap bubble. Light it might be, but it had a power, a presence. Ilna understood now why Arrea demanded it as the price of her cooperation.

    She didn't know what Arrea intended to do with the jewel, though she presumed it would be something evil: that was what people like Arrea did if they had the opportunity. First things first, though, and Ilna's first concern was for Merota. If Davus said Arrea's agreement was necessary for them to enter the place where they'd have the best chance of finding Merota, then they would pay Arrea's price.

    And they would deal with whatever happened next. Because of what she'd seen in Arrea's eyes, Ilna would find as much pleasure as she took in anything to deal with Arrea as an enemy.



    The parasites had sorted out their hierarchy and returned to pretty much the locations in which they'd started. A few of those at the worm's far end were beginning to settle back into their routine, probing for the spot where they'd stab down again.

    Ilna was frequently angry but almost never felt pity. When she thought of this worm, though.... What could a worm have done to deserve the torture it was receiving?

    She'd expected to dance back through the parasites the same way that she'd come from the tail to the head. To her surprise, the ugly creatures now edged away like cats from a sudden blaze, leaving an alley down the middle of the worm's back. They stood quivering on the edges with their beaks raised.

    Ilna suspected it was a trick and darted quick glances over her shoulder as she went on. The parasites she'd passed remained where they were until she was several times her own length beyond them. When they did move, it was simply to resume feeding on the worm's white flesh.

    It was good, of course, that the parasites avoided her... but she'd gotten through them once and had no doubt that she'd have made her way back safely as well. The difference this time was, must be, the jewel she carried. Ilna didn't know what that meant, but both instinct and judgment caused her to distrust the thing if only because Arrea wanted it. Well, she'd be shut of it soon.

    Ilna'd reached the worm's slowly writhing tail. She could jump to the wall of the cocoon easily enough and climb down, the reverse of the way she'd gotten here; but that meant having her hands free.

    She smiled grimly, then pulled the neck of her tunic out and squeezed the jewel down the front of the garment to where the tie around her waist held it. The stone's warmth against the skin of her belly was vaguely unpleasant, like the heat rising from freshly-turned compost.

    She jumped to the cocoon, catching double handfuls of silk. After hanging for a moment to kick footholds, she slanted crosswise and down toward the path to the cliff. There must be a similar tube floating out to sea, siphoning in fresh, cool air to expel what the worm had breathed.

    Ilna started up the tube with the wind at her back. Its soughing and the splash of the creatures swimming in the worm's wastes were the only sounds behind her. She'd rarely been more willing to leave a place.

    She smiled. If it came to that, there weren't a lot of places she'd wanted to remain, either. She was going toward Chalcus and perhaps Merota if--luck, fate; perhaps another word that her mind shied away from. Toward Merota too, if the universe was willing that they find her.

    Ilna went upward at the same quick pace by which she'd gone down into the cocoon. She wondered why Chalcus and Davus hadn't been able to see the silk and wondered why she could. She didn't often think about her mother. Her father Kenset had left Barca's Hamlet for adventure. He came back with two infants and no ambition but to drink himself to death. No one else had seen her mother, and Kenset never talked about her.

    Ilna's unknown mother wasn't an answer, only a longer series of questions. It was empty nonsense to think about things that nobody could answer!

    She saw daylight and walked out into it. Her heart lifted to a degree that surprised her, certain though she'd been as she climbed that she'd be glad to be out of the cocoon forever.

    The tube ended high enough above the water that the worm wouldn't be drowned when storms lashed the pale violet sea. Ilna continued sure-footedly up the sheet of silk that would shortly split into bundles and then individual cords. She was tempted to take the jewel out of her tunic so that she'd have an excuse to walk up the final line instead of using her hands to crawl, but that would mean putting her dignity ahead of Chalcus' concern for her safety. She wouldn't do that.

    Chalcus shouted and waved. Davus was waving also. Ilna raised her hand to wave back, a little puzzled that her companions were so demonstrative.

    Davus wasn't waving: He was launching a large stone from the sash in his right hand.

    Ilna looked over her shoulder in sudden realization. The giant bird, larger than a warship, was sailing toward her on rigid, silent wings. Its toothed beak was open, and its eyes glittered like the sun on polished coal.

    The right eye splashed and went dull. The left wing convulsed and the huge bird tilted sideways, then plunged toward the sea without making a sound. It was so close that its death throes flapped a storm wind which almost lifted Ilna off the cord.

    She walked the rest of the way to the cliff's edge as steadily as she'd begun, but she was breathing quickly through her open mouth. As she neared the rock and her friends, she heard the shrill voice of Arrea calling, "The jewel! Bring me the jewel!"



    "I stood the regiment to when that black monster appeared in the sky, your highness!" Lord Rosen said as Garric and the Blood Eagles came to a clattering halt at the main gate of the palace. He leaned closer to Garric and added, "Truth to tell, I figured the men'd be steadier shoulder to shoulder with their mates than they would sitting around and wondering about what all this wizard nonsense meant."

    The Blaise armsmen were drawn up in four ranks, the whole regiment together in front of the building. That meant there weren't squads in the Audience Hall and other important rooms the way Garric had directed when he left for the temple that morning.

    Rosen had been right to change the troop dispositions. Garric had scattered squads throughout the palace to remind Wildulf's intimates that they were part of the kingdom. Now that open rebellion had flared, splitting the royal forces was asking for them to be massacred in detail.

    Liane was talking to one of her clerks, a mousy little man of indeterminate age. He nodded and went into the palace. He was unlikely to arouse attention even though he was walking quickly.

    "Right," said Garric. The ammonite in the sky had dissipated while he and his troops jogged back through streets deserted due to terror of the omen. It'd been another illusion, an empty threat; but a threat nonetheless. "Hold them here in readiness. I'm taking Attaper's men into the palace to arrest Balila's wizard and at least discuss matters with Balila herself. I don't know how Wildulf's going to react to that."

    "It's going to happen no matter how he reacts," Lord Attaper said in a bleak voice.

    Garric looked at his guard commander sharply. "Yes it is, milord," he said. "But I trust you and your men haven't forgotten that we're in Erdin not to start a war. If you have, I'll take Lord Rosen and a section of his men in with me."

    "Honored to accompany you, your highness!" Rosen said, stiffening to attention. The Blaise nobleman looked pudgy, but there was real muscle under the layer of fat and a quicker intelligence than Garric was used to finding among soldiers.

    "Don't get above yourself, Rosen," Attaper said. There was a chuckle rather than a snap in his voice, the tone you'd use to reprove a puppy who wanted to play at an inappropriate time. "Your highness, we kept the lid on at the temple an hour ago. We'll do the same here till you give us different orders. Let's go talk with Dipsas, shall we?"

    Several of Wildulf's mercenaries guarded the palace entrance, but there wasn't the full squad that'd usually been on duty. Garric wondered if others had run away when the image appeared in the sky. In any event, those present got out of the way as he and his escort of Blood Eagles trotted through the archway and into the central plaza.

    One of the Sandrakkan courtiers stood there alone, hugging himself with his eyes turned to the ground. Garric remembered him from the levee following the coronation.

    "Lord Ason," Liane said--trust her to remember a name she'd only heard once. "Where are the Earl and Countess?"

    The courtier twitched and continued staring at the stone pavers. "Wildulf's in his Audience Hall right there," he said. "I don't know where she is."

    He looked up at last. With a flare of anger he added, "But if she and that wizard of hers are behind the things that're happening, I hope they're in Hell! I don't care how much Wildulf thinks of her, I hope they're in Hell!"

    "Can't say I disagree with him," said Carus, who'd stayed watchfully quiet in Garric's mind since the fighting ended. The ancient king was a constant presence and resource, but he knew better than to be distracting when Garric had to concentrate.

    Nor do I, Garric agreed silently as he and his escort double-timed across the courtyard. The Blood Eagles' boots made a sparkling cacophony on the stone. And it may be we'll be sending them there very shortly.

    Somebody'd started to shutter the colonnade between the courtyard and Audience Hall. Only a few of the hinged partitions had been closed, though. They formed a fourth wall during severe weather, but under normal circumstances the open plaza was additional space for the public to hear the Earl's pronouncements.

    The threat hadn't been weather this time, but the thing in the sky. Earl Wildulf sat slumped on his throne, leaning on his left elbow. A score of courtiers and servants remained in the big room, but others must've fled.

    The pair of servants who'd started to shutter the room were sobbing by a half-closed partition. They'd worked blindly until a pin had stuck in its track. Terror hadn't left them enough courage or intelligence to overcome even a trivial setback; instead they'd broken down completely.

    The priestess, Lady Lelor, stood by the throne. She turned on Garric and shouted, "You don't know what it's like! You've only seen them a few times. If you'd had to live with those things in the sky for a month, you'd understand why we're, why we're...."

    She couldn't finish the sentence. She didn't need to, of course.

    "Earl Wildulf," Garric said without ceremony. "Where's your wife, and particularly where's the wizard Dipsas?"

    "She hadn't anything to do with it," Wildulf said, straightening. Anger replaced his previous dispair and he regained some of his manhood. "They were both here when it started. They weren't responsible!"

    "Dipsas may not be behind the apparitions," Garric said, "but she was in league with Tawnser. I'm not going to give her another chance to bring the kingdom down. You say she was here? Where's she gone, milord?"

    "You can't talk like that in my court!" Wildulf said. His belt and sword hung over the back of the throne; it wasn't practical to wear the long blade while seated in an armchair. A pair of Blood Eagles stepped behind him and removed the weapon.

    "She and the Countess went off together," Lady Lelor said in a harsh voice. "Toward the Countess's apartments. They left as soon as the thing appeared in the sky."

    She turned to Earl Wildulf and said, "Milord, I've pretended there was nothing happening for as long as I could. That Dipsas is a demon from the Underworld and she's tricked your wife into helping her!"

    "They couldn't have done this!" Wildulf shouted. "They were here in the chamber when it started!"

    "They may not be behind the things in the sky," Lelor said, "but they roused whatever it is that's doing it. Doing that and worse things. I'm as sure of that as I am of anything in the world."

    She shook her head and added miserably, "I don't know what else there is I can be sure of now. Not even the sunrise, the way those things cover more of the sky each time they appear. And they last longer besides."

    Garric glanced toward Liane. She was at an inner doorway, talking to the clerk she'd sent as messenger and to a younger man in the sash and tunic of a palace servant. The servant was protesting volubly.

    The spy, Garric realized. The spy who marked the route for us to follow through the tunnels beneath the palace.

    Aloud to Lady Lelor he said, "Were the Countess and her wizard alone?"

    "They had her boy with them, that was all," Wildulf himself said. "The boy and her bird."

    In a tired voice Wildulf added, "She brings the boy to bed with us. It's not natural and I know it, but I can't say no to her."

    "Your highness?" Liane said. "Master Estin knows the direct route to where Dipsas has probably gone. I suggest that we go with no more than a squad of soldiers--"

    She didn't bother to say "you send" because she knew full well that Garric wasn't going to leave the task for others.

    "--to arrest her, because a larger force will be dangerously cramped in some of the passages."

    "Right," said Garric. He turned to his guard commander and continued, "Lord Attaper, pick an officer and ten men who aren't bothered by tight places--"

    He grimaced.

    "--and wizardry to accompany me. We'll go immediately."

    "I'm the officer," Attaper said, as Garric knew he would. "Ensign Attarus, a squad from your section."

    "Yessir!" said a boy who wasn't having much luck growing a beard yet. "Squad Three, form behind me!"

    "I didn't say--" Attaper started angrily.

    Garric put a hand on Attaper's wrist. "It's all right, milord," he said, "your son can come with his men."

    If Attarus was man enough to command a doomed rear guard, then he can have what he and all his fellows consider a place of honor now.

    "You lied to me!" Estin said bitterly. "You've unmasked me before the whole court. What's my life worth now, do you suppose?"

    "It's worth less than the kingdom's safety," Garric said. He was repeatedly amazed at the way people saw themselves at the center of the universe. "As is my life. Take us to Dipsas and I'll make you a palace gardener in Valles if you're looking for safety."

    "Go," Liane said crisply. "We may not have much time."

    The spy led them into the north wing of the palace at a trot. Servants with frightened expressions squeezed into wall niches or stared at the running soldiers through doors that were barely ajar.

    "Her suite's to the left of the corridor," Estin said. He appeared to have gotten over his anger at being identified in public; that, or it'd been put on to begin with. "The Earl's suite's across from it. There, the one covered in blue leather."



    The door was set in an ornamental frame like the entrance to a miniature temple. No soldiers were guarding it, but it'd been barred from the inside.

    Garric stepped back to kick the panel. Attaper touched his shoulder and said, "A job for boots, your highness. Attarus, on three. One, two--"

    Father and son raised their hobnailed right feet together.

    "Three!" and they smashed the door open in splinters and torn leather facings. Estin slipped through behind the Blood Eagles with Garric and Liane following closely. The remainder of the squad brought up the rear.

    A few of the Blood Eagles carried javelins. Garric and the others had drawn their swords.

    The ground level was a reception area and servant's quarters; Balila's bedroom and intimate chambers would be up the stairs. A maid in silk tunics knelt over a chair seat with her face in her arms, weeping in terror.

    "Through to the back," the spy said. "The entrance is in Dipsas' quarters, and you can bet nobody but her and her mistress go there."

    He slid open a black velvet curtain. Attaper reached past left-handed and tore the hanging off its rod, then flung it to the side. There was a second curtain just inside the first. Estin wasn't able to tear it free, but again Attaper did.

    The windows of Dipsas' room were shuttered. The only light was from a lamp of scented oil. Rugs piled in the center of the room must serve as a bed. The only other furnishing was a tall cabinet standing in a corner.

    "The entrance is through that!" Estin said, pointing. Garric jerked it open. The cabinet had hidden brick steps leading downward.

    "Wait!" said Liane, who'd pulled a pair of rushlights from her case. She held one in the lamp till the waxed pith ignited into pale yellow flame. She stepped to Garric's side and smiled, saying, "Now we can go."

    They started down the stairs. Garric was a step ahead with his sword forward, but Liane stayed close to give him the benefit of her fluttering light. Estin from immediately behind said, "We go right in the passage at the bottom."

    "Your highness--" said Attaper.

    "I've been here before," Garric said. "Just not by the short route. I belong in front."

    "With all respect, you do not belong in front," Attaper said in a tired voice. "But I won't knock you over the head and drag you out of here, so I've got to live with your bad decision. Your highness."

    "He's right," chuckled Carus. "But so are you, lad. These aren't times for a king who thinks about ways he could hang back. If there ever was that kind of time."

    They reached the passage, an interior hallway that survived from the building that'd been here a thousand years before. There were niches for decorative objects, but all had been removed except an alabaster urn that lay broken on the floor. There must have been people in every age prowling these tunnels, for loot or simply curiosity.

    "Dipsas might've been told about the chamber below," Garric murmured. "Instead of searching it out herself."

    "I wonder if we can block this up?" Liane said. Then, regretfully, she added, "I don't suppose so. There's just too much of it."

    "Left at the end," Estin said. "And watch it, it's steep."

    At the bottom of a natural cleft, Liane lit her second rushlight some moments before the first crumbled to orange embers. They went on, more quickly now because Garric recognized the route. In the darkness to the left was the way he and Liane had taken from their bedroom the previous night.

    "I hear something," Attaper said quietly. "Voices, or...."

    "Yes," said Garric. "I hear it too."

    He couldn't make out the words, but there were two voices. One was the deep rumble that he'd heard when they entered the caverns before, the sound that hadn't come from anybody present in the vault. The other was high-pitched and scarcely human. It shrieked words in counterpoint to the thunder of the deep voice.

    "By the Lady!" said a soldier farther back in the column. "By the Lady!"

    Occasionally Balila's pet screamed. The bird didn't like this business any better than Garric did....

    Violet light quivered through the vault's egg-shaped opening. Garric had seen hints of it before, but he'd told himself that it'd been his eyes tricking him in the near darkness.

    He glanced over his shoulder. "Master Estin," he said, "you can go back now if you like. I'll see to it that you're compensated for the dangers we've subjected you to."

    "I'll see it through," the spy said. He didn't have a weapon. "I'll make sure you get back so you can take care of that compensation."

    Garric shrugged. He crouched at the opening and looked through. Attaper moved Liane back with his arm and knelt beside Garric. He swore softly.

    A lamp burned from a niche in the sidewall, but a violet shimmer filled the air itself. It trembled as the bass voice thundered words of power.

    The great bird paced back and forth at the rear of the chamber, opening and closing its hooked beak. The horny edges clopped together, but the bird had ceased to scream. Its eyes flashed with rage.

    Balila and Dipsas stood on opposite sides of a circle chalked on the vault's basalt floor. In the center, hanging by his blond hair from a tripod made of wooden poles, was Balila's cherub. He still wore his gilt wings. When the bass voice ceased its thunder, the boy's lips began to shriek a response in a high treble. As he spoke, his dangling body rotated slowly.

    "They're demons," Liane whispered. "They're not human to do that to a child!"

    "We'll end it now," Garric said, forcing the words out past the thick anger in his throat. He stepped through the opening, his sword before him. Dipsas had information which would be of value to the kingdom, but in his heart Garric knew that nothing the wizard could say would please him as much as the knowledge he'd rid the world of her.

    The boy continued to swing and chant, but both women turned to face Garric. The air was alive with swirling phantoms, coalescing in the edges of his vision but never directly where he looked.

    "That's enough!" Garric said, raising his sword.

    Dipsas pointed her athame at his chest and shouted, "Temenos!"

    Garric tried to take one further step to bring the wizard's throat within reach of his steel. He couldn't move. The word bound him in violet light.

    "Sanbetha rayabuoa!" the bass voice and the cherub chorused together. Dipsas broke into cackling triumph.

    The vault's basalt floor cracked across the middle. The halves tilted upward, knocking over the tripod and making the women stumble backward. Things as pale as the mushrooms growing on corpses began to crawl up through the cracks.

    The wizard's laughter changed to a scream as one of the things grabbed her ankle.

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