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Master of the Cauldron: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Saturday, July 31, 2004 12:38 EDT



    Earl Wildulf greeted Garric at the door of his suite with an unintended belch which embarrassed the black scowl off his face. He’d been drinking and still held the silver-mounted bison horn full of wine because he couldn’t put it down. His hand gripped the flaring lip, and its long tapering length rested on his forearm.

    “Milord, he insisted!” the commander of the squad on guard said quickly. He kept his eye on the horn with a degree of concern that suggested he thought it might be slung at him.

    “He’s the Prince, you backwoods numbskull!” snarled Lord Attaper, who’d taken charge of the escort personally when he learned that Garric intended to interview the Earl in his apartments. “And the only reason the Prince didn’t have us use your head to batter the door down is that he is a more forgiving man than I am!”

    “Gently, milord,” Garric said. “Earl Wildulf, I’d like to talk with you privately about what happened this afternoon.”

    Generally Attaper was perfectly professional, but the business at the coronation had rattled him. He knew how dangerous it would’ve been if the whole city turned on the ‘Ornifal oppressors’, and he seemed to have taken as a personal failure the fact it hadn’t been possible to capture Lord Tawnser. Attaper really had come very close to letting out his anger and frustration when a mercenary in Sandrakkan pay denied the Prince of the Isles access.

    Wildulf snorted. “Talk?” he said bitterly. “All right, we’ll talk. Are you behind those accursed demons in the sky?”

    “No, milord, I am not,” Garric said evenly. “My understanding is that they’ve been appearing since long before my companions and I arrived on Sandrakkan. Now, shall we sit down and talk like gentlemen?”

    Garric didn’t add an “or else”, because he was trying hard to calm the situation instead of fanning Wildulf’s anger and resentment... and fear, no doubt, as there was good reason for fear. He found it very hard to keep a bridle on an angry retort, though, since he’d been frightened too. Who wouldn’t feel frightened, watching a smear of evil blackness reaching down out of the sky for him?

    The Earl’s suite was a south-facing bay, a central space surrounded by three wedge-shaped rooms where the occupant could determine how much breeze and light he wanted at any time of day. Wildulf huddled in the central round. The outer rooms were shuttered and curtained, so the only illumination was by narrow clerestory windows of ribbed glass. Garric would’ve been luxuriating in the returned sunlight if he hadn’t needed to see Wildulf, but he understood perfectly why the Earl wanted to avoid all sight of the sky for a time.

    A pair of sad, nervous servants stood against a wall. They watched with silent concern as Garric and his guards followed Wildulf into the suite.

    There was a square table in the middle of the room. The top was patterned marble, pretty enough to be decorative but able to function for meals and conferences as the need might be. Liane had explained that Sandrakkan etiquette was based on circles of intimacy. Visitors of the very highest rank were admitted to the bedchamber, which therefore had the most ornate and expensive decoration in the house.

    Garric hadn’t brought Liane with him. This discussion was between men.

    “Ah,” said Wildulf. He gestured to the bench across the table from where he’d been sitting. “Ah, be seated, your highness. I, ah, there’s wine if you’d like. And I’m drinking ale, though I don’t suppose....”

    When the Earl hadn’t appeared at the planned reception in the courtyard—the Countess and her wizard were present, and about half the nobles who’d attended the coronation--Garric had decided to go find him.

    Wildulf couldn’t ignore what was going on. If he tried to, Garric didn’t dare let him.

    “Where I was born, on Haft,” Garric said as he pulled the bench a little out from the table before sitting down, “Sandrakkan ale was the drink of the Gods according to the folks who’d travelled enough to have drunk it. I’d like some—but in a mug, if you please.”

    He added the last with a grin and a nod to the Earl’s drinking horn. Wildulf turned to bark an order at the servants, but one of them was already bringing Garric a goblet of carnelian carved with ivy leaves and berries. A far cry from the masars of polished elmwood in which Reise served customers in his taproom in Barca’s Hamlet; but the ale was smooth. When he drank it, Garric thought of other men all over the Isles drinking similar beer and dealing with the problems that were just as important to them as his were to him.

    Wildulf took a deep draft from his horn. “I suppose you think I’m a coward,” he said with a morose belligerency. “Because those cursed clouds scare me. Scare me!”

    “Well, they scare me too,” Garric said. “Maybe it’s just a cloud, but you can’t tell me it doesn’t mean something—and mean something bad. There’s evil in this world, milord. It doesn’t like men, and it’ll wipe us away if we don’t fight it with all the strength there’s in us.”

    “I’m not afraid of anything I can fight!” Wildulf said. “Only—“

    He looked at Garric, drank, and went on, “What good’s my sword against a cloud, eh? Tell me that!”

    Garric nodded. “Milord, I can’t give you an answer to that,” he said. “But there’s a place for swords. And if men stand together, then we have only the monsters to worry about. If you stand me with and with Count Lerdoc of Blaise and with all the other rulers. Working together, for the sake of our families and our subjects and of Mankind.”

    He sipped and smiled. The ale was good beyond question, but maybe it was too good for a boy raised on dark germander bitters brewed in a peasant community where hops were an expensive import.

    “Milord,” Garric continued. “If we fight each other, the blackness that waits outside will take us all, sure as death. For a thousand years the separate Isles have been squabbling with one another, holding each other back. That’s going to stop now, either because we stop it ourselves or because the Dark comes in from outside and stops everything. Come with me to the reception. Stand beside me, and know that I’ll stand beside you with all the strength the Shepherd gives me. For Mankind’s sake.”

    Wildulf drank and dropped his empty horn clattering on the table. He rose to his feet. “Right,” he said. “We’ll go. Now!”



    Instead of leaving through the formal entrance to the suite, Wildulf strode toward the back stairway obviously intended for servants. When Attaper realized what was happening, he spoke a curt order that sent two Blood Eagles sprinting ahead with a clatter from their hobnails and their skirts of studded leather straps. He himself followed Garric as Garric followed Earl Wildulf: the stairs were too narrow for two to walk abreast.

    At the bottom, four landings below his suite, the Blood Eagles stepped aside so that Earl Wildulf could push back a hanging woven from coarse grasses. The squad of guards at the entrance stepped aside, then stiffened when they saw Garric following. Attaper glowered at them as he fell into step at Garric’s side.

    They were in a service hall. To the left were the palace’s inside kitchens, while on the right were the backs of tables placed in arches of the central courtyard as they had been during the reception of the previous day.

    A senior household functionary wearing a silken snood noticed the Earl and his unexpected entourage. She snapped an order. All the servitors turned and bowed, some of them dropping or spilling food and beverages.

    Wildulf ignored them as he strode through an archway that wasn’t blocked, but Garric offered servants a smile and a dip of his head. He’d served guests in the inn for too many years not to think of servants as human beings.

    The nobles and officials already in the courtyard turned with a flutter of sound to greet the newcomers. It was like watching brightly colored geese change direction, the heads twisting around and then the bodies following. The locals were even more rigidly segregated from the royal officials than they had been the day before.

    They’d all been watching something on the other side of the courtyard. The crowd parted as Wildulf stepped through with Garric pointedly at his side.

    The focus of attention had been a tented table on which dozens of small figures moved. A puppet show, Garric thought... but they weren’t puppets, they were live mice and frogs, wearing armor and standing on their hind legs as they battled with tiny swords. Wizardlight, faint azure sparkles, danced over the helmets and sword points.

    Lest there be any doubt that they weren’t illusions, a number of fighters sprawled dead or dying on the stage. A frog leaked pale blood from a throat wound, its broad mouth opening and closing spasmodically. Nearby was a mouse whose belly had spilled intestines for a hand’s-breadth before death stiffened its little limbs.

    Countess Balila’s great bird prowled behind the stage, fluffing its stub wings and making angry metallic sounds deep in its throat. It smelled the blood and didn’t like it—

    Any better than Garric did.

    Balila herself stood beside the stage with the naked cherub prattling at her feet. She spoke through the side of the tent, then gave Garric a cold smile and said, “Does our entertainment impress you, your highness?”

    The wizardlight vanished. The frogs and mice reverted to their natural selves, capering and rolling in desperate attempts to free themselves from the equipment hooked about them. Their terrified squeaks would’ve roused pity in a butcher’s heart.

    Dipsas stepped out of the tent. She looked worn, but her eyes were feverishly bright. The reptile-scale athame hung loosely from her right hand.

    “Your entertainment disgusts me!” Garric said. He spoke much louder than he’d intended, but he didn’t regret the outburst. Liane was at his side, touching his arm to reassure herself and him as well.

    “Aye, he’s right,” Wildulf said. In the heat of the moment, Garric had forgotten the Earl’s presence. “You! You’re a wizard, you say?”

    Dipsas backed from the threat in Wildulf’s voice, looking surprised and frightened like a rat startled in the middle of a large room. In her place the Countess said, “She’s a great wizard!”

    “Then let her do something about those damned clouds!” Wildulf said. “Portents or not, I want them stopped. And you, wizard—“

    He groped unconsciously at the place on his belt where the hilt would be if he were wearing a sword.

    “—if I thought for an instant that you were behind those things, if I ever learn that, your best hope is for a quick death. Because you’ll be luckier than you deserve if I grant you that kindness.”

    “She’s not responsible, Wildulf!” Balila cried. “Lady Dipsas is going to save us and get you your deserts! You’ll see. You’ll all—“

    She turned and swept Garric with a blazing glance.

    “—see. You will!”

    The Countess laid an arm around Dipsas’ shoulders. She walked through another archway, half hugging and half supporting the old wizard. The bird thrust out its black tongue in a hissing skreek! and stalked off behind them. When the cherub noticed they were leaving, he burbled in terror and followed--stumbling and paddling forward, half the time on all fours.

    Garric hugged Liane close without taking his eyes off Balila and her wizard until they’d disappeared from sight. In a quiet voice he said, “Do you suppose Dipsas is behind the portents? Or whatever the clouds are?”

    “I don’t know,” Liane murmured. “But I’ll have more information shortly, I believe.”

    A few of the frogs and mice were still pawing at the fine wire screen closing the front of the stage, but for the most part they’d subsided into trembling misery against the walls of the enclosure. Occasionally a mouse flailed against its armor, then gave a whimpering squeal and stopped.

    I understand how they feel, Garric thought; but he didn’t allow the words to reach his lips.



    The wall stretched east and west to both horizons. It was stone and taller than a man—taller than either of Ilna’s companions, at any rate. They could easily climb over, but the watchtowers every few furlongs were obviously intended to prevent that from happening without discussion.

    A wooden trumpet called from the nearest tower. It was a blat of sound, not in any sense music, but it seemed to have done the job. A gong rang from the manor house that sprawled on the opposite ridge. Ilna could see the figures of men running toward the stables.

    Chalcus waved his left arm enthusiastically. “May as well convince them we’re friendly,” he said in a cheerful tone. “And I surely am friendly, since I see how many of them there are: and them having bows too, or I’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

    They started down the slope of sharp-edged grass and flowers on central spikes. The plantings on the other side of the wall were darker green. The figures working among the rows straightened to watch the strangers until the wall cut off further view.

    “The fields are irrigated,” Davus said. He held a fist-sized rock in his right hand, but he didn’t convert his sash into a sling at present. Like Chalcus—and Ilna herself, of course—he was of the mind that fighting was a last resort against such obvious power. “There must be several hundred people in the community. Maybe more, depending on how far north it stretches where we can’t see.”

    “Is there a habit of being hospitable to wandering strangers here, Master Davus?” Chalcus asked. “Strangers who come in peace, I mean, of course.”

    Davus shrugged. “In my day the Old King enforced such a custom,” he said. “But my day is long past, as we all know.”

    The estate’s southern gate was hung in a high archway, but there were no guard towers nor was the wall wide enough to stand on and throw things down on an attacker. Even Ilna—not by any stretch of the imagination a soldier—could see that it would be impossible to defend from a single determined person with a hatchet, at least until after he’d managed to whittle his way through a gate-leaf.

    As they approached, Ilna walked a little ahead of the men flanking her. Chalcus could be charming, but looking harmless was completely beyond him. Davus, she’d begun to realize, wasn’t any better in that respect for all that she couldn’t have asked for a more polite and pleasant companion.

    The gate creaked inward, then jerked open further. The tall leaves hogged, so the inward corners plowed curving furrows in the ground. Two horsemen with swords and quivers of short javelins rather than arrows hanging from their saddles rode through. They pulled up just outside the enclosure, trying to look menacing while the four men who’d opened the gate remounted and followed them.

    When all six were in a line, a man so fat that Ilna felt sorry for his poor horse—he’d have done better on an ox—came out, keeping carefully behind the others. This last fellow wore a sword, but he looked as though the horse would be more dangerous wielding it.

    He was overdressed and badly dressed, both. His cloak was of blue wool dyed in several different lots, and his black tunic had started to fade in patches. Both were embroidered with gold thread. The seamstress who’d worked on the left side of the garments was skilled enough to receive Ilna’s silent approval, but that only served to point out the childish incompetence of the two different hands who’d done the rest of the embroidery.

    The leader of the six horsemen wore a mail shirt and trailed a red pennant from the peak of his helmet. He looked at the fat man, then glowered at Ilna and said, “Get on with you! Lord Ramelus doesn’t allow vagabonds on his land!”

    Ilna smiled faintly. She was thinking of how this flunky in armor would look dangling by his own intestines from a limb of one of the chestnut trees growing beside the manor house.

    “We’re travellers, not vagabonds,” she said in a mild voice, hoping that her smile had been misinterpreted. “We’d appreciate a little food and drink, but we’re more than willing to work for our keep.”

    She glanced at her companions, keeping her face bland. Chalcus grinned engagingly at a pair of the mounted men; Davus was digging at the ground with his big toe. To a stranger he’d look embarrassed, but Ilna noticed that he’d uncovered a wedge-shaped shard of limestone. A piece like that could very nearly decapitate a man if it was well-thrown.

    The chief guard glanced again to the fat man who was obviously Lord Ramelus. Ramelus frowned, then said in a squeakier voice than his bulk suggested, “They can have water, Gallen. We don’t need their labor--or their presence here, either one.”

    “All right, Lord Ramelus says you can have water,” Gallen said, twisting to get the skin of water slung from the back of his saddle where it balanced the sheaf of javelins.

    Ilna smiled again, her fingers weaving a pattern of cords. It struck her as amusing that Lord Ramelus and his flunkies were just as safe as they thought they were, but only because she and her companions didn’t want to kill them all. It would’ve been quite simple, at least if Davus was what she thought he was; and possible even if he wasn’t, given Chalcus’ skills and her own.

    But they weren’t going to do that. There were far too many men—and women too, hurling loom weights and wielding turnspits—in the community for the three of them to take their simple needs by force, even if they'd killed the leader and his immediate guards. No, there were better ways to get food and something better than a drink of water from a sheepskin bottle.

    The horseman leaned forward, holding out the skin. Ilna reached up, but instead of taking the water from him she spread the pattern she’d just knotted, saying, “I can weave a hanging that will make everybody who sees it feel better about themselves and their neighbors.”

    “Oh!” said Gallen, staring transfixed. The waterskin slipped slowly forward, forgotten in his amazement. “Oh, milady, that’s wonderful....”

    “What is?” Lord Ramelus demanded. “What are you doing there, Gallen? Seifert, what’s Gallen doing?”

    Ilna folded the pattern between her palms. It was a little thing, nothing of lasting effect, but Gallen groaned when it vanished.

    “I can weave a hanging that will make your subjects happier, milord,” Ilna said, stepping around the head of Gallen’s mount so that she could meet Ramelus’ eyes. The horse whickered; she touched its muzzle with her left fingertips. “For that we’ll have food and drink while we’re here, and another portion of food and drink to carry us on our way when I’ve finished the task to your satisfaction. Do you agree?”

    “What is that?” Ramelus demanded. “The thing in your hands—show it to me!”

    Ilna walked through the line of guards, stretching the pattern between her thumbs and forefingers again. Ramelus squinted, but he was apparently nearsighted. He leaned slightly forward in the saddle; he was too heavy and awkward to bend down the way a more supple rider might’ve done. “Hand it up!” he ordered in irritation.

    Ilna frowned minusculely. “It only works if I keep the tension correct,” she said. “The one I’ll weave for you will be larger. It’ll be able to hang in the open air and still have its proper effect.”

    Ramelus glared at her, then dismounted with a degree of care worthy of masons lowering a keystone into an arch. Wheezing slightly, he stepped around his horse and peered at the pattern in Ilna’s spread hands.

    For a moment, Ramelus’ expression became hostile, even angry. It softened but almost instantly shifted to one of shielded cunning. Ilna folded her pattern and, by straightening, implied a greater separation between them than the distance itself involved.

    The quickly knotted design lost its positive effect on a spectator who'd stared at it for a few minutes, but Ilna really could weave a larger panel that would act more subtly but for as long as it hung. Of course she could do that: she’d said she could, hadn’t she?

    “You’re a wizard,” Ramelus said, breathing hard and looking at her with an expression she couldn’t read; couldn’t read, and probably didn’t want to read.

    “No,” Ilna said. “I’m a weaver. If your women will loan me a loom—“

    All the garments she saw were homespun, with the possible exceptions of the Lord’s own cloak and tunic.

    “--I can do a thing like this—“

    She held up the hank of cords that her fingers had already picked out again.

    “—on a larger scale. For our keep while we stay here, a day or so should be enough; and for supplies to go off with, which we'll do as soon as I’ve finished the design to your satisfaction.”

    The horsemen had crowded together to hear their commander trying to describe what he’d seen in Ilna’s pattern. In fact he hadn’t seen anything, for all that he was waving his hands to suggest shapes and objects. All it’d been was a feeling of bliss and beauty, the sort of pleasure some people said they remembered from dreams.

    Ilna wouldn’t know of her own experience, of course. Mostly she didn’t remember dreams at all, and when she did they were of a very different sort.

    “Food and drink for you, that’s your price?” Ramelus said. “That’s what you said.”

    Ilna looked at him without affection. The landowner reminded her of her Uncle Katchin, the wealthiest man in Barca’s Hamlet and easily the most disliked. Katchin had boasted of his own dignity and importance; but in his heart he’d known he was a joke to his neighbors, albeit a joke they told behind his back for fear of his malice.

    “Food and drink for the three of us,” Ilna said in a cold voice, seeing the cheat in the words. That was like Katchin also: the letter of the law, but by policy veering as far from justice as that law permitted him. “Space in a manger to sleep if you choose, though we can do without that. And food and drink for the three of us when we go off—tomorrow, I would hope, but whenever that is.”

    “Done!” Ramelus said. He clasped hands with her to seal the bargain. He looked around him at his guards. “You’re all witnesses!”

    In gripping the landowner’s hand, Ilna let her fingertips caress the embroidered sleeve of his tunic. He’s going to cheat us, she thought. For no reason other than to prove to his tenants that he can cheat a stranger and get away with it.

    She backed away, dusting her palms together and smiling as she watched Ramelus struggle to mount his horse. Ramelus planned to cheat, and she planned to keep her word. And there was no doubt in Ilna’s mind that she would have the better part of the bargain.



    Either the dome of Ronn’s vast Assembly Hall had become perfectly clear or it’d somehow been slid off to the sides since Cashel was here in the morning. The moon was overhead and looked bigger than he was used to seeing it. Nobody had a better chance to study the night sky than a shepherd. Maybe that had something to do with the dome, if the dome was still there.

    “Citizens of Ronn!” said the female wizard. She seemed to’ve become leader of the Council of the Wise for all intents and purposes. The old man hunched in his chair, his limbs drawn up to his body like a dead spider. “We and our city face the greatest danger of all time!”

    Mab, at this moment a slender, gray-haired woman, sniffed and said tartly, “Councillor Oursa is getting a little above herself if she believes she knows what the future will bring. And if she means, ‘the greatest danger in the past thousand years,’ that’s true only because of our weakness, not the enemy’s strength.”

    “The images of the Heroes no longer protect our walls,” Oursa said. “We must protect ourselves!”

    Cashel tried to imagine Oursa and the other Councillors waving swords as the Made Men charged across a field at them. The thought made him smile, which seemed to bother the people nearby in the big hall. For some reason everybody around him and Mab was looking at them instead of up at the stage.

    The Councillor’s voice sounded from the air like she was standing just arm’s length away, the way all the speakers had in the morning levee. The light was the same way, kind of: everything in the room, the walls and floor and even the air itself, glowed. No part of it was brighter than a firefly’s tail, but from everything together Cashel could see all over just the same as he would during daylight.

    There was a whisper of sound, nothing that the room picked up so that everybody could hear, though. Suddenly a voice rang out, “How can we protect ourselves? We don’t know how to fight!”

    Cashel saw the Sons of the Heroes coming toward him and Mab through the crowd. Herron turned toward the stage and shouted a reply. His words vanished in the great room, smoothed away by the air--though as close as the boy was, Cashel figured he should’ve been able to hear normally. He wondered just what—or who—decided what was said that was worth other people listening to.

    Mab slashed her right hand through the air in a gesture that suggested more than it showed. A dazzle of wizardlight the same sapphire color as her nails struck skyward, marking her to everyone in the chamber. In a ringing voice she cried, “Your homes still hold the weapons and armor of your grandfathers’ grandfathers. Go back to your hearths. Get the swords and spears of your forefathers and face the Made Men!”

    In place of the night sky, the air above the hall showed giant images of what’d happened on the ramparts earlier: the Made Men coming on, and Cashel knocking them down with short, quick strokes that each ended an opponent with the certainty of a thunderbolt. Cashel’d never seen himself moving like that, from the outside. His lips pursed. He wasn’t one to give himself praise--but judging what he saw with a critical eye, the first thing that went through his mind was that he wouldn’t look forward to fighting somebody as good as the fellow he was watching.

    Again there was a whisper of response, the brilliantly clothed folk of Ronn talking among themselves. The Sons clustered around Cashel and Mab, their expressions a mix of hopeful and frightened. Cashel understood: this was the big chance they’d hoped for, trained for; but they must have a good notion, at least since he’d taken them apart with his quarterstaff that afternoon, that they weren’t up to the job they’d set themselves.

    “We don’t know how to fight!” the voice of the assembly said. The Council of the Wise remained silent on the stage, the woman still standing but none of them trying to lead the discussion. “The big stranger fought the Made Men. Will he fight them for us again?”

    Cashel gripped his quarterstaff harder. Everybody was looking at him. Everybody: the floor of the assembly hall wasn’t flat any more, it sloped up in every direction like a bowl with him in the center and Duzi knew how many people staring. He supposed it was some trick of the light, or else the Councillors were more powerful wizards than he’d been thinking they were. Regardless, it was happening and he sure didn’t like it.

    “Tell them, Cashel,” Mab said with her cool smile. She spoke to him alone, her hands tented before her. No matter what the rest of her appearance was, Cashel could always tell Mab by those dazzling fingernails. “Tell them what you think.”

    This is none of my business! Cashel thought. But because he was more angry than he was embarrassed, he blurted aloud, “You people can fight these Made Men yourselves! You saw them up there—“

    He waved his left hand toward where the images had stepped and swung; the moon was back now.

    “They can’t fight, they’re no more real soldiers than you are. If you’ve got swords, get them. When the Made Men attack you just fight. That’s all you have to do.”

    “We need a leader,” the assembly said. Some body, some individual, had spoken the words but they were what the whole huge gathering thought. “In the past, the Heroes led the citizens of Ronn. Give us a Hero. Let the stranger lead us!”

    Cashel looked at the faces, the tense and frightened faces, staring down at him. Suddenly he smiled. The answer was simple and so obvious that he didn’t need the verbal push Mab was opening her mouth to provide.

    “I can’t lead you,” Cashel said, “because you wouldn’t follow me. You need one of your own people to lead, if you mean really lead and not stand out in front till I’m hacked to death and the rest of you turn and run.”

    He knew he was being more honest than they were going to like hearing. While Cashel wasn’t as bad as his sister about not caring who his words hurt—nobody else was as bad as Ilna that way—he knew this was one of those cases where folks had to understand the truth. If they didn’t really understand instead of just hearing words in a way that let them ignore them, they were going to die or face whatever other thing the King and his monsters decided to do instead of kill them.

    “We’ll lead you!” Herron cried, his right arm raised with the fist clenched. He’d been shouting, Cashel could see. When his voice boomed through the hall, he looked as though he’d been dropped into ice water. Stumbling on his tongue he managed to add, “The S-sons will lead you!”

    “You’re only boys!” replied the assembly; the massed faces staring down at Herron. The people sounded irritated but not too much so, much the way adults would be when a child piped up in the middle of a serious discussion.

    They’re as old as I am! Cashel thought, but he didn’t say that or anything because the Assembly was right. Cashel couldn't lead Ronn because he wasn’t part of Ronn; the Sons couldn’t lead because they weren’t fit to lead.

    “Master Herron?” Mab said, speaking for the assembly in a tone of cool superiority. “Are you and your friends willing to serve the city by doing something that is within your powers? Are you willing to wake the Heroes in their cavern?”

    The Sons went slack-faced in amazement. Enfero in particular had the look of a rabbit frozen by the eyes of a viper.

    “You said you'd face the King and his Made Men,” Mab said. Her words seemed carved from blocks of ice. “Do you have the courage to face the dark? Or are you little boys who’ll shiver in the sunlight till the darkness comes to you?”

    “We’ll go,” Orly said in an angry voice. “We’ll find nothing but dust and bones, I think, but we’re not afraid!”

    “Yes, we’ll go,” Herron said to Mab, suddenly calm. “You’ll lead us, mistress?”

    “Of course,” said Mab. “And I believe Master Cashel will accompany you as well, will you not, Cashel?”

    Cashel wished there weren’t all those faces looking down at him with desperate expressions, but he couldn’t help that there were. “I said I’d help, didn’t I?” he muttered, scowling because he sounded ill-tempered when he was really just embarrassed. “Anyway, I will. I’d be glad to.”

    And that much was true. If it really was a dangerous place to go, then maybe he could be of some real help for the first time since he came here to Ronn.



    “Funny,” said Trooper Lires, looking to both sides of the flagstone path with his usual bright interest. He grinned at Sharina to show he was speaking as much to her as he was to his fellow Blood Eagles. “In the old days there’d be half the clerks in the palace camped out here, hoping to get the king to sign something or do who knows what. It just about never happened, mind.”

    “Lires,” said Captain Ascor, “the less talk about what happened here in the old days, the better I’ll like it.”

    “Right, Cap’n,” the trooper said. Perhaps he was mildly abashed, though Sharina couldn’t be sure. The Blood Eagles were chosen from the line regiments on the basis of courage, military skills, and complete loyalty to whoever they were guarding. Social graces and the willingness to bow and scrape to their superiors weren’t high in the selection criteria.

    Sharina and her escort came around a high wall of prickly euonymus to see a low brick residence set near the wall of the palace compound. Two Blood Eagles were at the front door, alerted by the ringing of hobnails on the path. They smiled to see their fellows. “Hey Ascor,” one of them said. “I thought you guys were off in Carcosa still.”

    Valence III had retired to this bungalow, within the palace grounds but at a distance from the Chancellery, while he was still as much of a ruler as the kingdom had. In the final days of his rule, he’d turned to wizardry and an alliance with black Evil to preserve his power. When his closest friends had transferred real power to Garric with themselves as his advisors, Valence had sunk into religious mania and guilt over what he’d done and allowed to be done.

    “No, we’re with her highness the princess here,” the captain said. “She needs to talk to himself-as-was. Any problem with that?”

    “Not if he’s sober enough to talk,” the other guard said. “Which he generally is, not that he has much call to be. He spends most days with a couple old friends. They’re with him now.”

    So speaking, the guard pulled the door open and called through, “Your highness? Princess Sharina’s here to see you.”

    He nodded the newcomers forward. Ascor and Lires stepped inside ahead of Sharina, while the rest of her escort waited outside with their fellows.

    There was no doorman in the anteroom, though with guards outside there didn't need to be. Sharina didn't see servants in the bungalow's single large room either, however.

    Valence had just thrown the dice and was moving his pieces on the board, playing Bandits with two cronies. One was a former courtier named Geddes who hadn't been important enough either to promote or to imprison when Garric became prince, the other a very old man named Rylon who'd been chamberlain a decade before. At a sideboard stood Lord Lichter--still the royal chaplain, Sharina supposed, since nobody'd bothered to replace him.

    The four men looked around in dull surprise. Valence frowned, then reached again for the game piece he'd begun to advance.

    Ascor sized up the situation and thumped his heels on the thick carpeting. "Princess Sharina of Haft!" he announced loudly. That brought two startled servants out of a side chamber, tripping over one another. The male still held the jam-filled pastry his face showed he'd been in the process of eating.

    Sharina pointed at them. With the anger of a woman who knew from personal experience how servants were supposed to behave, she said, "You two! Report yourselves to the chamberlain now. I'll discuss your situation with him later."

    She knew it was a trivial thing to become exercised about, but the room was filthy and the servants obviously thieves as well as lazy pigs. Part of the reason the kingdom was in its present dreadful state was that for too long people had shown as little concern for Mankind as a whole as a ewe has for the pasture where she grazes and voids her bowels.

    The male servant opened his purple mouth to protest. The woman, though wearing silk tunics which she couldn't have purchased on her salary, at least showed the judgment to slap him on the ear and pull him back into the room from which they'd come. Presumably there was a back hall to the anteroom.

    "Well, well, well," said Rylon, chuckling. "About time somebody put'em in their place. Yes, indeedie."

    Sharina curtseyed to the king. "Your majesty," she said, "please forgive this intrusion. I want to ask some questions about your father."

    "Do I know you?" Valence said, blinking at her. He leaned back in his chair and finally took his hand off the game piece.

    The room was dim, though it'd be hours before there was a need to light the hanging lamps. The windows were shuttered but the large skylight was open; the cypresses planted around bungalow screened but didn't block the westering sun.

    "Of course you know her, Valence," Lord Geddes said. "She's the sister of the boy who's running things now, Prince Garric."

    Geddes' bland face clouded. "That's right, isn't it, dear?" he said. "Prince Garric's sister?"

    "Yes, milord," Sharina said. It wouldn't do any good to lose her temper in frustration. Besides, the situation was better than she'd thought it might be: Valence could've sunk too deep in prayer and flagellation to respond to her at all. He'd certainly been headed in that direction when she'd seen him most recently, some months earlier. "A man claiming to be your half-brother Valgard is stirring up trouble. Witnesses say he looks very much like Stronghand. Did you ever hear your father speak of another son?"

    "Another son?" Valence said, frowning. "I don't think so. But to tell the truth, I kept away from my father as much as I could. He was an angry man. He threw things a lot, though he couldn't throw them very well."

    He tittered. "'Stronghand' indeed!" he said, lifting the wine carafe from the tub of water on the fourth side of the table where they were playing. "Half the time he trembled so badly he had to have a servant hold the cup to his lips. Stronghand!"

    The carafe was empty. "Lichter!" Valence said peevishly. "Dip us some more wine, won't you? That's a good fellow."

    The chaplain took the carafe in his left hand and with the other pulled open the lower portion of the sideboard. It was a large drawer instead of a door-panel. Inside were two open storage jars with wine thieves, narrow bronze pitchers with vertical handles, hanging from their rims.

    "More Caecuban, Valence?" Lichter asked. He began to dip red wine into the carafe without waiting for an answer.

    "Stronghand," Geddes said in a musing tone. "Goodness, it's been years since I thought about him. And you say--"

    He turned quizzically to Sharina.

    "--that he had another son, dearie? Goodness, goodness."

    "I asked if you'd ever heard of Valence Stronghand having a son named Valgard," Sharina corrected the courtier firmly. "Even a rumor or a joke about a younger son. Supposedly Valgard was born to a female prisoner captured after the Battle of the Tides, though those present say all the People were men."

    "After the Battle of the Tides?" Rylan said. "Oh, my goodness me! Well, it wouldn't really matter if the prisoners were men or women after the battle, would it? Oh my goodness, no!"

    The old chamberlain started to laugh but quickly collapsed into a paroxysm of coughing. He raised his goblet; it was empty. Patting his chest with his left hand, he held the goblet out demandingly. Lichter took it from him, poured wine from the refilled carafe, and set the goblet in front of Rylan before passing the carafe to Valence.

    "What do you mean about it not mattering whether the prisoners were men or women?" Sharina said. She didn't let her voice rise, but she knew her tone had lost the pleasant warmth with which she'd begun the conversation. "Your majesty, gentlemen, this is really very important. There's a serious danger to the kingdom. And thus to your lives, you see."

    Lord Lichter cleared his throat, turning toward one of the frescoes set in the center of decorative frames. This particular one was a male centaur carrying a woman over his shoulder as he galloped away. The woman, bare-breasted with the remainder of her garments streaming behind her, reached out desperately toward the viewer.

    "Well, you see...," he said. "It's not the sort of thing that got talked about, of course, but many people knew. In a palace, well, things get around. The place Stronghand was wounded, you see...." Valence drank deeply. When the chaplain's voice trailed off, the king looked directly at Sharina.

    "Whatever else my father might be doing after the Battle of the Tides," he said in a harsh, challenging voice, "he wasn't fathering children. Because that spearblade didn't leave him anything to father them with. Do you understand?"

    Lord Geddes shook his head sadly. His eyes were on the game board, but his mind was in a distant place. "You can't really blame the old fellow for being angry most of the time, can you?" he said.

    "By the Shepherd!" said Lires. "You sure can't."

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