The SteelMaster of Indwallin
Book 2 of The Gods Within
Can one ever rule both the steel within, and the shadows without?
J. L. Doty
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.
THE STEELMASTER OF INDWALLIN, BOOK 2 OF THE GODS
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Copyright © 2012 J. L. Doty. Updated 2013 and 2014. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical without the express written permission of the author. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials.
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The SteelMaster of Indwallin
Book 2 of The Gods Within
Can one ever rule both the steel within, and the shadows without?
Beware the power of the self-forged blade,
for the heart of the steel is ice,
the soul of the steel is fire,
and the child of the steel is blood.
Only the master knows the steel as the steel was meant to be
Only the master shapes the steel as the steel was meant to be shaped.
Only the master rules the steel as the steel was meant to be ruled.
But the heart of the master is the steel, for the steel was ever meant to rule.
The strength of the steel is the master,
the power of the steel is the master,
the glory of the steel is the master,
but always the life of the master is the steel.
Beware the power of the self-forged blade.
Morgin looked at his reflection in the mirror and nodded with satisfaction. It had taken some doing, and of course careful planning, but he’d managed to alter the outfit Olivia had chosen for him into something more to his liking. He’d cut away the white lace at the cuffs, replaced the bright red vest with a soft brown leather one, then discarded the skin-tight red pants in favor of a pair of well-cut and well-made, loose-fitting, tan breeches. He’d kept the knee high black boots—they were comfortable and extremely well-made—and as a concession to Olivia he’d decided not to discard the bright red coat she’d chosen. He completely ignored the pretty little blade she wanted him to wear, and instead buckled on his own sword. As another concession, he’d polished and cleaned both it and its sheath; though try as he might the old steel refused to shine.
He looked again in the mirror, and decided that while he was not up on the latest fashions, he was at least dressed well, and in good taste. Avis would be a little upset at his modifications, and Olivia would be downright furious, but she wouldn’t know about it until they stood face-to-face in public, and then it would be too late for her to demand a change.
At a discreet knock on the door Morgin called out, “Enter.”
The door swung open and Avis stepped into the room. He stopped beside Morgin, and looking at them both in the mirror Morgin noticed he stood more than a head taller than the servant. He’d grown a great deal in the last few years, and was now taller than most of the other young men. And while he didn’t carry the bulk of a Malka, he was stronger than most, with a lean and wiry frame not unlike that of Tulellcoe.
Avis looked at the changes Morgin had made to his clothing and raised an eyebrow, but he said only, “I am to inform you the banquet will begin shortly, and the Lady Olivia would like you there early so you may greet the other clan lords as they arrive.”
Morgin nodded. He understood the title of warmaster carried with it certain responsibilities, and he had learned to accept them, if only Olivia would accept him. “Would you tell the Lady Rhianne I’ll stop by her apartments shortly to escort her downstairs?”
Avis’ eyebrows shot up happily. “Yes, my lord. Will that be all?”
“Yes,” Morgin said, “And thank you.”
“Certainly, my lord.” Avis bowed and left the room.
Morgin hesitated for a few minutes to give Avis a good head start, then followed. He wasn’t sure how he’d handle the situation with Rhianne. She still spurned him, was still angry he’d believed she had betrayed him, and the foul way he’d treated her certainly hadn’t helped matters. They were both trying to start over, but the best they could do was a strictly civil and polite peace, and always there remained a wall of formality between them they couldn’t breach.
He tapped lightly on the door to her apartments. A wide-eyed young girl answered and quickly admitted him to a waiting room, then she nervously offered him some wine. He declined politely and added, “Tell my wife I’m here.”
“Yes, my lord,” the girl said breathlessly, curtsied, then disappeared into another room.
Morgin had thrown Rhianne’s staff into an uproar. He heard muffled voices in her boudoir, then suddenly Rhianne entered the room alone, though Morgin was left with the faint impression her servants had hovered nervously over her up to the last instant before she came into sight. They were probably making last moment adjustments in her gown and makeup, and then had peeled away from her to avoid creating just that impression. She paused, composed herself, and when she spoke her tone was cold and indifferent. “My lord, it is gracious of you to come.”
Morgin almost melted. As he looked at her a small lock of hair broke loose from the elaborate tangle atop her head and floated down over one eye. He’d seen the same lock of hair floating over her eye a hundred times, and he wondered sometimes if it wasn’t a subconscious manifestation of her magic. He said, “I thought it would be . . . proper.”
He winced. That had been a poor choice of words, though it didn’t seem to bother her.
She nodded. “Yes. A husband and wife should be seen together, especially at times such as this.”
Morgin winced again. He turned toward the door, opened it, and held it. She took his arm and they walked out into the hall, then down the long procession of stone steps. They walked in silence, and Morgin sensed that, like he, she wanted to say something, but could think of nothing that wouldn’t sound forced, or trite, so instead he took those few moments to prepare for Olivia.
The old woman had spent a busy winter trading messengers with all of the Lesser Clans, carefully negotiating the conditions of the yearly meeting of the Council. Using Morgin’s newfound notoriety and his victory at Csairne Glen, she’d arranged to have the Council meet at Elhiyne this year. And so, with the arrival of spring, the walls of Elhiyne had quickly filled with the high born of the four Lesser Clans.
On the surface nothing had happened during the first two weeks, mostly a lot of entertainment, and of course they all went hunting quite frequently, most often in small groups, though sometimes in large expeditions. But it was on these hunting trips, or in small rooms in the back of the village inn, or perhaps on a pleasant stroll through the forest, that clan leaders conducted most of the serious business, though hunting did seem to be the preferred method of getting someone alone for a quiet chat.
But three days ago that stage of the negotiations had ended when the more formal and public meetings in the Hall of Wills had begun, though Morgin came away from the preliminary negotiations with the impression that Olivia was not pleased with the results. She wanted the other clans to back Elhiyne in a bid to crush the Greater Council, but Penda and Tosk and Inetka were all skeptical of her chances at victory. Tomorrow they would meet for the last time in the Hall, and there seemed little doubt Olivia had failed to achieve her desires, though everyone could see she blamed Morgin for that failure.
The old woman had had the Hall arrayed in splendor for this night’s banquet. The servants had spent days cleaning everything they could find to clean, and at Olivia’s orders had positioned a grouping of long tables in the shape of a horseshoe at the center of the Hall. When Morgin and Rhianne entered the Hall, Olivia, in the midst of giving some poor servant a tongue-lashing, interrupted her tirade to bark at Morgin, “In another moment you would have been late.”
Morgin looked at her coldly. “But I’m not late, am I?”
“Well that’s about the only thing you’ve done right.”
Morgin tried to ignore the rebuke. “Where do you want me to sit tonight?”
“Why, at the head of the table, of course, oh ShadowLord.”
Rhianne looked at him kindly, and for the first time in a long time showed him some sympathy. “I’m sorry, Morgin.”
He shrugged. “We’re all sorry I can’t be what she wants, aren’t we?”
Rhianne’s face saddened. “I didn’t mean it that way.”
Morgin shook his head. “I know.”
In short order the other lords and ladies of the Lesser Clans arrived and were seated. As Olivia had instructed, Morgin sat at the head of the table. On his right sat Olivia, then BlakeDown and Tulellcoe and a long line of noble men and women. At the far end of the table sat Valso and Illalla, each with a heavily armed guard standing immediately behind him. On Morgin’s left sat Rhianne, and next to her BlakeDown’s son ErrinCastle—the heir to Penda was about Morgin’s age, and he constantly paid far too much attention to Rhianne. JohnEngine had seen to it that he and France were seated far down the table where they could get drunk and enjoy themselves.
The servants moved quickly to fill everyone’s goblet or tankard with wine or ale, though as yet they’d served no food. When the servants stopped moving about Olivia stood slowly and all eyes fell on her. She waited for some moments until the room was absolutely still. “My Lords and Ladies of Penda, and Tosk, and Inetka. We of House Elhiyne welcome you. We give you thanks for the wisdom you have lent to this council of equals, and we are humbled by the sage council of the Lords BlakeDown et Penda, PaulStaff et Tosk, and Wylow et Inetka . . .”
Olivia’s words dropped to the back of Morgin’s thoughts as he noticed ErrinCastle whispering something in Rhianne’s ear. The Penda looked Morgin’s way and their eyes met. ErrinCastle grinned and leered, though Rhianne, with her head turned to listen to the whisper, did not see his face. The Penda was a handsome young man, and could have had a dozen of the most desirable young women at the drop of a hat, but he focused his attentions on Rhianne. And more than that, his advances were so blatant he seemed to be trying to goad Morgin into jealous anger, as if challenging Morgin to confront him. It was absolutely idiotic, for nothing good could come of such a public display. So for the good of Elhiyne, Morgin was determined to swallow his pride and avoid making an issue of it. At least Rhianne had been careful not to encourage him, though if ErrinCastle continued to be so obvious, eventually Morgin would have to do something. If only Rhianne would do more to actively discourage him.
Morgin became conscious of Olivia’s eyes upon him.
“. . . And so, my lords,” Olivia finished. “Tomorrow will be the last day of the Council. We have come to many agreements, and we have come to many disagreements, but we have not lost our unity, and I believe we all agree the unity of the Lesser Council is the only thing that keeps the jackals off our backs. So let those jackals be warned.” She looked down the table at Valso and Illalla. “If our enemies seek contest with us, they will again face the shadows of Elhiyne.”
Someone in the back of the Hall—Morgin suspected one of Olivia’s lackeys—shouted, “ShadowLord!” Several Elhiyne clansmen took up the cry, and a few Inetkas as well, but Morgin didn’t encourage it, and none of the Pendas or Tosks joined in, so it died quickly.
“Enjoy the hospitality of Elhiyne,” Olivia said, and sat down.
The servants moved quickly, filling the tables with food while the Hall filled with the buzz of laughter and idle conversation. Morgin wanted to talk to Rhianne, but while ErrinCastle monopolized her interest, Olivia was determined to monopolize Morgin’s.
“Lord BlakeDown was speaking to you,” Olivia chided him, forcing his attention away from Rhianne.
“I’m sorry,” Morgin said politely. Olivia’s eyes narrowed angrily; she’d told him time and again he must never apologize in public. The ShadowLord, the Warmaster of Elhiyne, should never appear to debase himself before another. Morgin tried to sound less apologetic as he asked, “What were you saying?”
BlakeDown smiled insincerely. “I was wondering what ransom you will demand for the Decouixs.”
Morgin looked at Valso and wondered how the Decouix prince could maintain such an air of unconcern in captivity. “I don’t know,” Morgin said flatly. “I think if I really took what I wanted, it would be their heads. But I’m afraid I’ll have to be content with something less.”
ErrinCastle demanded, “And why is that? Why don’t you just kill them?”
Morgin shrugged. “They’re more valuable alive.”
“Is it because of the story I heard about you?” ErrinCastle demanded loudly, glancing about the table at several of his friends with a sly grin. “Is it because of these gods I’m told you speak with? I’ve heard they told you not to kill the Decouixs. But then perhaps I heard the story wrong. Please. Tell me about it.” One of ErrinCastle’s friends smirked into his handkerchief.
Morgin reached for a piece of roast pheasant and said flatly, “Maybe I’m just tired of killing in general.”
Rhianne tried to rescue him. “Well now, in my opinion, that’s a very good thing to be tired of.”
“I believe it’s your power,” Olivia said, knowing full well his power was dead. “I believe it’s giving you wise council, though it’s quite common for one to be unaware of such a subtle manifestation.”
“You know it’s the oddest thing!” ErrinCastle observed to no one in particular. “I’ve heard so much about your power, Lord AethonLaw, and yet I’ve never seen the slightest hint of it.”
Morgin wanted to show him the power of his fist, but had to be satisfied with a simple comment. “I see no reason to flaunt my abilities.”
Most of the evening went that way, with ErrinCastle baiting him, BlakeDown looking on like an observer at a cock fight, Rhianne trying to rescue him, and Olivia always trying to gain some advantage from even the slightest tension. Morgin was relieved when he finally got away. He wanted to find JohnEngine and France and have a little fun, but they’d disappeared somewhere so he drifted toward the stables where Mortiss, at least, would not talk back to him.
He didn’t scratch her between the ears as he’d done with poor old SarahGirl. Mortiss had no need of such comforting. “What a rotten evening this has been!” he said to her.
She snorted, as if saying she didn’t really feel like listening to his troubles.
“I know,” he said, “I know. But I have to talk to someone.”
She rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“I wish you could tell me what happened to my power,” he said. “And I wish I knew what to do with Rhianne. Ellowyn was right. I do still love her, even if I don’t want to admit it.”
“And why don’t you want to admit it?”
For an instant Morgin thought Mortiss had actually spoken, but then Rhianne stepped out of the shadows. “Why don’t you want to admit it? Tell me. I do want to know. And who is this Ellowyn you speak of? And what did you mean when you said you wished the horse could tell you what happened to your power. What did happen to your power?”
Morgin shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s just gone. It died some place; I think at Csairne Glen.”
Rhianne stepped closer and frowned. “What do you mean died?”
He wondered for a moment if he should be telling her this, but if he ever hoped to trust her at all, he must trust her now. “Just that! My power is dead. It’s as if I’ve lost an arm, or a leg. No! It’s as if I’ve lost my sight along with both arms and legs. I’m almost helpless.”
She reached up and touched his cheek gently. “I’m so sorry.”
“That makes two of us.”
She looked into his eyes for a long moment, as if trying to understand him better, then she withdrew her hand from his cheek. “And why don’t you want to admit you still love me?”
He didn’t try to answer that question, but instead asked one of his own. “Aren’t you getting a little tired of ErrinCastle?”
“Of course I’m getting tired of him,” she said. “I don’t like it when he baits you, and he’s mooning over me like a puppy. His advances are getting downright embarrassing.”
“Then why don’t you get rid of him?”
“I would if I could,” she said defensively, frustration in every word. “If he were at least discreet I could turn him down discreetly, but he’s become so blatant I’d have to openly insult him in public to discourage him. And your grandmother has specifically forbidden that. So I’m doing the best I can.”
Morgin shook his head. “I do know what it’s like to be caught between my grandmother’s desires and my own.”
“It’s maddening,” she said.
This was the first time in years they’d actually spoken more than a few words in a private setting. More frightened than he’d ever been in any battle, more fearful of this moment than he’d ever feared death, he took a chance. She stood within arm’s reach, so, looking into her eyes, he reached out carefully and put his hand behind her, pressed it into the small of her back and pulled her toward him. He did so carefully, gently and tentatively, ready to yield if she showed the slightest bit of resistance. But she came to him almost gladly, and as he drowned in her eyes he saw that twinkle appear, the twinkle he hadn’t seen in so long a time. She pressed her body lightly against him and stopped with her lips almost brushing his, her arms still at her sides, the soft scent of her skin washing over him.
He hesitated, not sure where to go with this, and in that instant she smiled coyly and said, “Well husband, are you going to kiss me or not?”
He said, “I wasn’t sure if—”
She didn’t let him finish, but wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her lips to his. As their tongues danced together, he pulled her tightly against him, and he realized they had never kissed before, not like this, not hot and passionate, both of them sensing each other’s desperate need. When the kiss ended and their lips parted she rested her chin on his shoulder, and they held each other tightly for a long moment. Then she leaned back, looked at him carefully and smiled.
He blurted out, “I’m sorry I was stupid enough to believe you went to Valso’s bed. I was a fool.”
Her eyes narrowed, though the twinkle remained. “Yes, you are.” She stepped out of his arms, turned and walked out of the stables.
He was alone again, with only Mortiss to keep him company. She snorted and shook her head, as if telling him she agreed with Rhianne.
“You promised me you’d discredit him,” DaNoel said angrily. Then, thinking of the enspelled guard dozing in the corridor, he lowered his voice. “You promised.”
Valso sat down on the cot in his cell and spoke as if lecturing a child. “And I fully intend to keep that promise. My methods are effective, but they cannot be rushed. Take, for instance, the Penda whelp ErrinCastle.”
“What does he have to do with discrediting my bro—the whoreson? He’s a fool who can’t keep his head about women. That’s all.”
Valso shook his head carefully. “You don’t actually believe he’s that much of a fool, do you? He’s making a complete ass of himself over Rhianne. His father has told him more than once to stop being such an idiot, and each night he resolves to maintain his dignity the next time he sees her. But the next morning, when he does see her, my spell takes over, and he loses all control.”
“So you’re responsible for that?” DaNoel laughed and looked at Valso with new respect. “That’s driving the whoreson crazy.”
Valso nodded happily. “Yes, it is. ErrinCastle’s advances are putting him under a great deal of stress right now, and tomorrow that will be very important.”
“Why?” DaNoel demanded. “What’s going to happen tomorrow?”
Valso intertwined the fingers of his hands, cupped them behind his head and leaned back comfortably on his cot. “I really can’t tell you that, though I will tell you the whoreson has two very carefully kept secrets, both of which will be revealed tomorrow and create quite a bit of excitement. Don’t miss the final session of the Council in the Hall of Wills, or you’ll miss all the fun.”
“Listen to me, Decouix,” DaNoel spat angrily. “I want to know what’s going to happen, and you’re not going to evade the answer.”
Valso sat up and his eyes narrowed. “I’m not, am I?” he asked through an unpleasant smile, and DaNoel’s eyes grew heavy. In seconds he drifted off to sleep standing on his feet. Valso stood, approached him, and spoke softly. “You can’t even conceive of the power I command, you ignorant fool. I’ve a mind to kill you where you stand, but traitors can be a valuable commodity so I’ll let you live, for the time being.
“Now you’ll remember nothing of this. You’ll leave here, return to your room and go to sleep. And tomorrow you’ll not remember coming to me, nor leaving, nor anything that happened between. But you’ll instruct the stable boy to saddle and provision a horse for you, and to hold it ready. And when the excitement begins in the Hall of Wills you’ll come to me immediately. Is that clear?”
DaNoel’s eyes opened and his head straightened. There was no hint in his features that he was not fully in control of himself. “Is that clear?” Valso repeated.
“Yes, my lord. Will that be all?”
“Yes. You may go.”
DaNoel bowed. “Thank you, my lord.” He turned and left.
Valso laughed openly. He controlled that one so easily, and some day it would be just as easy to control them all. Someday, he and his god would rule the Mortal Plane as it was meant to be ruled.
Morgin had trouble getting up the next morning. He’d had a fitful night’s sleep, filled with dreams he couldn’t remember and a struggle he couldn’t name. He awoke late, groggy and slowwitted, and found it impossible to move with any degree of haste. His sword filled him with unease, and he couldn’t put it out of his thoughts. But he pulled himself together, headed for the kitchens, wolfed down some food, then made his way to the Hall of Wills.
The central floor of the Hall was recessed three steps below the periphery, with a high vaulted ceiling overhead. With everyone packed around the edges of the Hall the difference in elevation gave the central floor the air of a stage, while the three steps that raised the surrounding periphery above it formed a boundary beyond which those who were merely observers dare not pass.
The last session of the Council was well under way when Morgin arrived. The twelve council members—three chosen from each of the Lesser Clans—were seated at a heavy, wooden table placed in the center of the main floor. Everyone else stood along the outer periphery, and anyone who wished to address the council would step forth and do so from that floor.
As was customary, though not required, none of the clan Leaders had chosen to place themselves on the Council, perhaps feeling they could be more effective addressing the Council from the floor. To address the Council one needed to walk down the three steps to the central floor and wait patiently to be recognized. At any given moment there were usually two or three clansmen or clanswomen, already recognized, standing in the middle of the floor before the Council, discussing or arguing the topic of the moment, while a half dozen more waited quietly to be recognized at the bottom of the steps along the periphery. Morgin had observed that the speed with which one was recognized was quite dependent upon one’s status within the Lesser Clans—status through rank, money, power, birth, it really didn’t matter. And if one weren’t highly placed, it would be foolish to speak without proper recognition.
He slipped quietly through the observers standing on the periphery and headed toward the back of the Hall. There were more than a few eyebrows raised at his tardiness, though Olivia showed no reaction whatsoever. But Morgin knew that steel-gray stare too well to be fooled by her apparent impassivity, and there was no doubt in his mind she would have words with him later.
It was customary to come armed to the Council, but to place one’s weapons aside once there. At the back of the Hall Morgin unbuckled his sheathed sword and placed it on a rack among a great number of weapons against the wall. But just as he put it down his fingers refused to release it, and it took a decided effort of will to let go, though doing so heightened his unease. He turned back toward the crowd feeling almost ill, spotted JohnEngine not too far away and moved quietly to his brother’s side.
JohnEngine looked worse than Morgin felt. “What’s the trouble?” Morgin whispered.
JohnEngine took a ragged breath and exhaled it slowly. “Too much wine last night. Or not enough. I’m not sure which.”
“Be silent!” someone hissed at them.
At the moment a Penda lord named Tarare was carrying on an argument with Alcoa, marchlord of the western Elhiyne lands that bordered Penda. Morgin knew Alcoa only vaguely, for the man kept to his own lands. Nor did he personally know Tarare, but it was common knowledge the Penda lord was simply a mouthpiece for BlakeDown.
“They are always a threat,” Alcoa said loudly, “And until they are taught the proper lesson, they will always be a threat.”
“And what lesson would you teach them?” Tarare demanded. “That you can take our hands from the fields and turn them into soldiers? That you can march them off to a war in a distant land while our crops wither without care? That you can—”
“Enough of this,” Alcoa said angrily.
AnnaRail stepped onto the edge of the central floor, and she commanded such respect that a Penda councilman recognized her almost instantly. A Penda! “My lords,” she said carefully. “We speak of war, and we speak of peace, as if our lives are carried on in either one or the other state. But that is rarely the case, for most often we live in a gray limbo between the two . . .”
While AnnaRail debated with Tarare, Olivia ambled her way through the crowd at the periphery. She hesitated here and there, to have a whispered word with this lord or that, but she worked her way slowly, purposefully, toward Morgin, and when she reached him she took him by the arm and pulled him to an empty corner of the Hall. He was careful not to make a scene by resisting her.
“That wife of yours,” she hissed at him, trying to keep her voice to a whisper. “You need to control her better. She’s allowing ErrinCastle to make a fool of himself.”
For the first time Morgin realized he now towered over the old woman. He had spent so many years as a young boy looking up at her, but now she had to look up at him. He stepped in close to her to emphasize the difference in their heights. “My wife has done nothing untoward or inappropriate. But ErrinCastle has come close to crossing the line. Tell BlakeDown ErrinCastle needs to control himself, because if he doesn’t I’ll kill him.”
Morgin yanked his arm out of Olivia’s hand and turned away from her. But she stepped quickly around him, stepped in front of him. “Oh Lord of Shadow,” she hissed quietly. “Lord without power. You can no longer even claim the rights of a clansman, can you?”
Morgin ignored her, stepped around her and elbowed his way back into the crowd on the periphery. She’d have to make a scene if she wanted to stop him.
The debate had grown even more heated, and Tarare was snarling something at AnnaRail. Morgin’s unease grew, his stomach churned, and the ErrinCastle situation seemed a distant problem for another day.
Olivia stepped down to the floor and didn’t wait to be recognized by the Council. “If Lord Tarare et Penda feels so strongly about peace, we of Elhiyne will not fault him if he chooses to lay his arms aside when his enemies plunder his lands.”
The crowd buzzed momentarily at the open insult in her words, but the old witch outclassed the Penda lord and he knew it, so he wisely chose not to strike back with an insult of his own. “But my enemies have not plundered my lands, most gracious lady. It is your lands that have suffered. It is your fight, and a wise man does not champion another without careful consideration.”
Olivia smiled that stone-hard, straight-lipped smile of hers. “Be careful, Tarare, that you are not too careful, for you might find your lands have already been plundered before you finish your consideration.”
BlakeDown stepped down from the periphery and moved to join his kinsman. “Is that a threat, Olivia?”
AnnaRail started to speak, but BlakeDown cut her off. “Silence, woman,” he shouted. His magic flared for an instant, but he brought it under control quickly.
AnnaRail’s eyes grew livid, though she held herself in check, but Morgin sensed her anger as if it were his own. His magic flared within his soul, a magic he thought he no longer possessed; it washed slowly over him, crawled up the back of his spine like a living creature from beyond life. He sensed something growing within the Hall, something wrong, something evil. For a moment he thought only he sensed it, but in the midst of the argument raging about her he saw AnnaRail perk up and cock her head, and then slowly she turned her eyes toward the back of the Hall.
Morgin was close to the end of the Hall where the weapons had been placed, and she was at the other end, but even from that distance he saw the fear in her eyes. She began walking toward him, slowly at first, then more rapidly. But just as she approached him she veered away and walked past him, and he realized her goal was the back of the Hall.
There came a clattering of steel from the weapons there, not a loud or alarming sound, but Morgin couldn’t see anyone near enough to the weapons to have caused such a disturbance. AnnaRail hesitated, blocking Morgin’s view of the weapons. She tensed, and the sudden sound of steel sliding clear of a sheath cut through to everyone’s ears. A harsh, red light flared near the amassed weapons, and raw, uncontrolled power filled the Hall with a severe note of anger and rage.
Not understanding what was happening, but knowing only that AnnaRail stood between him and his sword, he charged at her as if she were an opponent in battle. He hit her from behind, slammed her protectively to the floor and hurtled over the top of her. He caught only a glimpse of an angry red power as it arced up from the pile of weapons high over his head. He tried to convert his forward momentum into a leap, stretched his muscles to the limit to intercept it in midair and caught something in his outstretched hand that felt like the hilt of a sword. Its momentum jerked him back in midair, pulled him toward the center of the Hall where he crashed painfully to the stone floor in a tumbling sprawl.
There was an instant of stunned silence as he lay there with one hand wrapped about the hilt of his sword, all eyes in the Hall questioning him. But he sensed what was coming, and there was no time to explain or cry out a warning, so he brought his free hand around to join the other in a two handed death grip, and the sword screamed at him to release it, to free it so it could taste blood and sate its desire. He was still lying on his back as it jerked and bucked in his grip, swinging from side to side and cutting chips of stone from the floor. But in his soul he sensed the carnage it would lay upon the land if he released it, and he vowed to hold it, even if it pulled him into the depths of the Ninth Hell itself.
Suddenly it stopped jerking about and shot upward, lifting him high off his feet and well into the air. Then just as suddenly it let go, and still holding onto it he crashed to the floor. It then started pulling him down the length of the Hall, dragging him on his back toward the lone figure of BlakeDown, who stood at the far end entranced with fear. Morgin swung his legs about, got his heels in front of him and dug them in. It pulled him to his feet, then crashed through the table of councilmen, upending the heavy plank table and sending them all sprawling.
Desperately Morgin wrapped both legs about a table leg and locked his ankles, tried to use it as an anchor, but the sword jerked and pulled in his hands, slowly dragging both him and the massive table forward. But he’d slowed it, and that enraged it. The sound of its hatred became a growl, and it now turned upon him, cutting spasmodically toward his own throat while he struggled to hold it at bay. He fought it with nothing but the strength in his arms, sensing that it would choose him over any other victim if it could have him. But when it couldn’t it turned outward, and to his surprise it sought Rhianne. “Nooooo!” he screamed, and a momentary flood of power crashed through his soul.
It changed tactics, chopped toward the table and bit deeply into the wooden planks, sending a shower of splinters in all directions. Blistering waves of black-hot hatred washed over him, igniting the splinters and scorching his tunic. With a dozen blows the blade dismembered the table into four large pieces, and with the size of its anchor now diminished it began dragging Morgin again in spasmodic jerks across the floor.
At the far end of the Hall BlakeDown backed fearfully up the steps to the periphery as Morgin unlocked his legs and released the last remnant of the table. The sword pulled him in a long skid the length of the Hall, but at the last moment he swung his legs in front of him, got them beneath the sword so that he slid on his heels and butt, and caught his heels on the lowest of the steps beneath BlakeDown. He put his back into it, pulled with all his might, brought the sword to a momentary halt.
He was on his back with his heels locked against the lowest step, stretched to his full length, but the sword slowly started lifting him off his back, like a rigid timber raised as a flagpole. Gritting his teeth, trembling with the strain of holding the blade back, he looked down the length of the sword at BlakeDown, whose eyes were filled with stark terror. Only then did he realize the Penda leader was the sword’s intended prey, and that he could no longer restrain it. Morgin gave one last effort, knowing he could only delay the blade, and through his gritted teeth he growled at BlakeDown, “I . . . can’t . . . hold it . . . I have . . . no . . . power.”
BlakeDown’s eyes widened with fear, but too they widened with a strange mixture of triumph and gladness, and in an instant he backed through the heavy plank door at the end of the Hall, slammed the door shut and threw the bolt loudly into place. Morgin’s strength finally reached its limit; the sword tore from his grip, dropping him on his back, and without the least faltering it buried itself to the hilt in the planking of the door. The blade hesitated for an instant, then pulled itself half way from the door, and slammed back into it with such force the door’s hinges groaned with the sound of overstrained iron.
Morgin scrambled to his feet, shot up the steps, locked his fingers about the hilt. It shot backwards, slamming the hilt into his stomach, knocking the wind from him and driving him out into the center of the Hall where it dropped him painfully on his back. It turned on him, and he screamed as he struggled against it. Then it picked him up, swung him from side to side, tossed him onto the steps of the periphery, and like the time it had cut the Kulls to pieces he could only hold on, and hope his strength would not fail him.
But his strength was not inexhaustible, and soon his battle narrowed to his hands, and the death grip he had upon the hilt, until the world about him receded and he saw only the sword, and the chasm of power it had opened before him.
Rhianne almost fainted when the storm of power hit the castle. It flooded her soul as if the ground beneath her had split and a volcano of malevolent power was erupting within the castle itself, a power with a consciousness and will of its own, specifically conscious of her and Morgin. For a single moment it tried to attack her, but Morgin held it back. She leaned heavily on a vanity and tried to reassure herself the attack would not come again. And then she realized she was safe only because Morgin held the monster back by taking the brunt of its assault.
She reached the Hall of Wills just as the massed nobility of four clans were pouring from every exit imaginable. The malevolent power she sensed within was like a scar on her soul, and deep within she knew she was probably the only person who could help Morgin. But the panic of the crowd was a current she could not oppose, and they nearly trampled her as they swept past her. Then Olivia appeared, took Rhianne by an arm and stood her ground like a granite monolith on the shore of an ocean storm. “Seal the Hall,” she commanded angrily. “We must seal the Hall, and Ward it against the possibility he may fail. We cannot allow whatever it is he has unleashed in there to turn upon the land. It would devastate the countryside.”
“Let me go,” Rhianne shouted. “Let me go. I have to help him.”
The old woman’s hand arced out of nowhere and resounded loudly against Rhianne’s cheek, stunning her momentarily. “There is nothing you can do, girl. At least not at this time.” She pointed to the barred doors of the Hall. “That battle he must fight alone.”
As if in answer to the old woman’s words Rhianne heard Morgin’s voice raised in a terrified scream, followed quickly by an inhuman growl of hatred as vast waves of power crashed outward from the Hall. A large crack raced down the stone of a nearby wall, as if the power trapped with Morgin in the Hall would escape by tearing down the castle itself.
Olivia cursed and cried out angrily. She turned upon the crack and cast her power at it like a spear, and the stone was once again whole, and again the old woman stood rock still against the forces that reached out against them. Rhianne looked on as the old woman called her power forth. It coalesced about her like a shield, then she fed it into the stone walls of the Hall. She turned upon Rhianne, and her eyes burned with the power in her soul. “Help me, you foolish girl. You’re a grown woman. Don’t just stand there like a child.”
Rhianne obeyed without question, casting first a small spell to calm her reeling thoughts, then moving up to the more demanding task of imitating the old woman. And as she concentrated she sensed others who were far ahead of her—BlakeDown, AnnaRail, JohnEngine, NickoLot, Brandon—already lending their power to the aged stone of the Hall. She joined them carefully, and as she touched her power to the veil they had constructed, she sensed again the special affinity the malevolence within held for her. But she did not retreat, and with the others she settled down to a long and exhausting vigil.
“There’s a horse waiting for you near the man-gate,” DaNoel told Valso. But then DaNoel hesitated, for he had no recollection of how he’d come to be standing with Valso in the Decouix’s tower prison. He shook his head to clear it, but was careful not to mention his lapse to the prince. The pandemonium in the Hall of Wills was a muffled roar in the distance.
DaNoel tried to reconstruct his memory of recent events: Morgin’s fantastic struggle with the talisman he had unleashed, and his open admission to BlakeDown, within everyone’s hearing, that he had no power. Thinking of that moment in the Hall, DaNoel bit back a shout of triumph. “He never did have any power, did he? It was all in that talisman, wasn’t it?”
Valso, in the midst of sorting and packing the few belongings he wished to keep, looked up and shrugged indifferently. “Does it matter now?”
“No,” DaNoel said joyfully. “No, it doesn’t matter in the least. He’s discredited himself to such an extent that even if he does survive the talisman, some clansman will kill him soon enough.”
DaNoel had a sudden thought. He looked carefully at Valso. “Were you responsible for that?”
“For unleashing that talisman, and at the worst possible time, and in the worst possible place?”
The Decouix prince didn’t answer, but the corners of his mouth curved upward in a satisfied smile, answer enough for DaNoel.
“I assume you’ve provisioned the horse properly?” Valso asked.
“Twelve days’ trail rations. I’d give you better, but trail rations weigh little and they go far. And once the cry is raised you’ll need to move with all possible haste.”
“Well enough,” Valso said. “I’ve lived on worse.” He finished packing, turned abruptly and walked out of the room. DaNoel followed him down the stairway to Olivia’s veil of containment. The old witch’s spell, so complex and powerful before, was failing quickly as she concentrated more and more of her strength on the struggle to contain the talisman within the Hall. The veil was now tattered and rent in a dozen places, though Valso still needed the help of someone with Elhiyne blood to escape without alerting the old witch.
DaNoel chose a weak spot in the veil and enlarged it carefully. He stepped through and Valso followed without hesitation. As DaNoel closed the veil, the Decouix turned to the guard dozing under DaNoel’s spell and took the man’s sword.
“What are you doing?” DaNoel demanded.
“I need a weapon,” Valso said as he pulled the sword from its sheath and looked it over. “This isn’t much of a blade, but it’ll do until I find better.”
The guard groaned and opened his eyes. He looked at DaNoel, then at Valso, and his hand shot instinctively to his side, but of course his sword was in Valso’s hands.
DaNoel reacted instantly, smothering the man’s consciousness with a hastily constructed spell. “You did that,” DaNoel hissed at Valso. “You woke him on purpose.”
The Decouix shrugged. “You can handle one minor clansman, can’t you?”
“But if I tamper with his memories Olivia will surely sense it, and she’ll trace it to me.”
“Then kill him.”
DaNoel took a frightened step backward. “I didn’t agree to murder.”
Valso shook his head sadly. “Treason is acceptable, eh, but not murder?” The prince turned his back on DaNoel, pulled the tower door open just a crack and looked carefully outside. He turned back to DaNoel. “I’d really like to stay and discuss your strange code of honor, but I’m afraid I don’t have the time. We’ll meet again, Elhiyne.” And with those words Valso slipped through the door and was gone.
DaNoel turned toward the guard. He struggled to find some other way of handling the man: a bribe perhaps. But Olivia had chosen her guards for their personal loyalty to her. Reluctantly DaNoel pulled his dagger, hesitated for an instant, then drove it between the man’s ribs into his heart, though even then it took some moments for the guard’s spirit to depart fully.
DaNoel cleaned his dagger carefully on the man’s tunic and returned it to its sheath, then checked the man one last time to be certain he was truly dead. Satisfied, he stood, turned to leave, but his heart almost stopped at the sight of NickoLot standing in the tower door, looking at him oddly. “What’s going on here?” she demanded, her eyes narrowing suspiciously.
DaNoel said, “The Decouix escaped. Killed this guard on his way out.”
NickoLot’s eyes narrowed further. “You’re lying.”
DaNoel looked at her carefully. “Lying about what?”
“I don’t know, but I do know you’re lying.”
“And what did you see with your own eyes, little sister?”
“I didn’t have to see it with my eyes. You’re tainted with the scent of the Decouix’s power. What have you done here?”
DaNoel reached out and gripped her viciously by the throat. “I’ve done nothing. I’ll deny any accusation you make, and since you can’t prove it, you’ll only hurt mother and father if you speak out.”
He threw her to the floor in a heap of petticoats. “Little girls should not interfere in the affairs of men,” he said, then walked quickly out of the tower to raise the alarm for the Decouix. He’d better do everything he could to appear innocent just in case the little bitch did speak up.
With experience Morgin had become quite adept at recognizing the texture of his dreams, and knowing almost instantly when he had awakened in one. But this was different, for memories of a past from within this dream clouded his mind with hatred and pain and exhaustion, as if he had been part of it for years. For quite some time he walked down a muddy, dirt road beneath a dark and gray sky, carrying an unsheathed sword in his right hand, concentrating on his footsteps only enough to avoid the muddiest of the potholes, and thinking instead of the small Benesh’ere village in which he’d been born, and of the days he’d spent helping his mother Eisla at the forges as she shaped the finest of Benesh’ere steel, and of the warm nights when his father Binth taught him the notes of the pipes, while Eisla looked happily on . . .
Morgin stopped in the middle of the road in mud up to his ankles. He shook his head and shouted, “No!” He looked up at the dark clouds above him. “I am not Benesh’ere, and I was not born in a village named Indwallin. My mother was not named Eisla and she did not pound steel at the forges, and my father was not Binth and he did not play the pipes.”
He was shaking with fury, so he took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. He looked quickly at his sword—it was his sword—and at the hand holding it—but not his hand. He looked carefully at both hands, for they were rough, scarred hands that had seen long days of hard fighting, and long nights of swinging a hammer at the forges. Dirt had ground its way deep into the skin about the nails, and in places untended blisters had finally grown over into hard, knobby calluses. But the thing that made them most obviously not his hands was the color of the skin beneath the dirt and grime, a white so pale it reminded him of bones long bleached in a hot desert sun, the white of the skin of the Benesh’ere. He shook his head to clear it, and became aware of shoulder length, coal black hair that had not been washed in many a day.
He took hold of himself, acknowledged that he was dreaming again, though this dream had not the misty and dreamlike sense of unreality of his past dreams, but seemed instead very real, too real. And in it he haunted the soul of a Benesh’ere warrior named Morddon, though it was the whiteface warrior who commanded this body, while Morgin seemed to be only a passenger along for the ride.
He looked about, found that this dream had deposited him in the midst of nowhere, standing alone in the middle of a long and narrow road that wound its way through a hilly and green countryside before disappearing over the next hill. The strange memories that swirled through his thoughts told him that in this dream he had been walking for some days now, and his muscles complained that he had covered many leagues with little rest.
His stomach growled, but he tried not to think of food. He had no cloak, and the clouds above looked as if they might burst at any moment. His only possessions in this dream were the begrimed tunic on his back, the dingy leather jerkin about his shoulders, a pair of loose fitting breeches made of a rough and coarse material, an old, scuffed pair of calf-high brown boots, and the unsheathed sword in his hand, but no sheath. A dozen small cuts and bruises distributed uniformly over his body brought back memories of the confusion of a large battle, and a gray and dingy bandage high on his left arm was marked by a red stain some days old. His memories told him a sword cut had recently opened a fresh wound there, and he was lucky it had been a glancing blow, for otherwise it would have taken off his arm.
He looked again at the sword, and there was no doubt it was the sword he knew, though wholly unlike the sword he remembered. Plain and functionally unadorned, it bore no baubles and would never be a pretty blade. But it now lacked the centuries of tarnish that couldn’t be wiped away in Morgin’s time, and it lacked many of the scars of battle he remembered, the nicks and scratches he knew so well. It might now be only a few years old, not centuries. But he knew this blade for a certainty, for in this dream he had an awareness of the steel that defied understanding or analysis, as if the steel were a living thing, an old friend that spoke to him of a place called Indwallin, and a woman called Eisla the SteelMistress, and a man called Binth the Pipist. Both names touched his heart with longing, and with sorrow. “No!” he shouted again. “Those are lies.” But he could not refute the pale whiteness of his skin, or the black cascade of hair that streamed over his shoulders.
He shrugged. At least he had the sword, and that gave him some small feeling of confidence, though that also frightened him a little too. It didn’t appear the dream was going to end in the next instant, and just standing there waiting for it to end seemed ridiculous, so he resumed his walking, though he had no idea what lay at the end of this road.
Later that day it began to rain, a steady drizzle that continued through the afternoon and into the approaching night. It plastered his hair down against his shoulders, soaked his clothing to the skin and chilled him to the bone. But luck was with him, for just as the last of the gloomy day turned into an even gloomier night, he spotted an old animal shelter some distance off the road.
Someone had tended the surrounding fields at one time, but the shelter had been abandoned long ago and was now riddled with leaks, though he managed to find a dry corner and there he curled into a tight ball. He didn’t expect to sleep well, for his clothes were wet through and through; there was no hope of lighting a fire, and the chill of the rain reached into his soul. But the constant roar of the rain pounding on the roof of the shelter pulled him toward sleep, and he drifted slowly into a light doze where he was still half-conscious of his surroundings.
A faint movement—just a flicker of motion—in one corner of the shelter brought him to full wakefulness. His Benesh’ere reflexes startled Morgin, for like a cat he rose from a tightly curled ball on the floor to a full upright stance in one fluid motion. He stood in a crouch and faced the corner where he’d sensed the movement, though he couldn’t have seen it for there was no light in the dark interior of the shelter on such a black, stormy night.
The Benesh’ere warrior in him tensed, ready for a fight, but recognizing the being in the corner as a shadowwraith Morgin tried to reassure him with his memories. Facing it, the being’s name came to him. “Soann’Daeth’Daeye,” he whispered. “Why do you haunt my dreams?”
The being spoke, but its words touched his ears as if they were no more than the sigh of a gentle wind. “Beware, oh King of Dreams,” the wind sighed. “Beware that which comes from beyond these walls.” And then the being was gone, and Morgin’s senses told him he was alone in the shelter.
By touch he examined the corner where the being had crouched, and while he was doing so its words finally registered on his consciousness. He stood erect for a moment, waited and listened, but heard nothing beyond the pounding of the rain on the roof. But conscious of the warning, he crossed the floor of the shed and slipped out through the door into the open field, fearing the shelter might become a trap with no escape. He pressed his back against a nearby tree, tried to become part of its nighttime silhouette, and waited, though not for long.
Three shadows appeared out of the night, slogging through the wet grass of the field, creeping stealthily up to the shed. They listened for a moment, and one asked the other, “Is he in there?”
“Must be. He come this way.”
“Think maybe he’s asleep?”
“He ain’t makin’ no noise. Either he’s asleep or he ain’t in there. Let’s move quiet like, kill ’im fast.”
The three thieves melted through the door into the shed. Morgin would have run the other way, but Morddon stepped quietly into the shed behind them.
“Guess he ain’t in here.”
“Guess I am,” Morddon said in a gravelly voice.
Startled, all three figures jumped, hesitated for a moment, then moved quickly to the attack. But again the Benesh’ere reflexes left Morgin’s thoughts behind, and the thieves lay dead on the floor of the shed before he realized the action was over.
He searched them quickly, took the best cloak they had among them, and a small purse of coins one had tied to his waist. Then, with the cloak to keep him a little warm, he returned to his corner and curled up for the night.
The next morning the dream had not ended, and that disappointed Morgin, though at least the rain had stopped and the sun had come out. Morddon returned to the road and began walking again in the same direction as the previous day. After two more days of walking the weather became warm and dry, and the countryside about him turned quite flat and featureless, though by no means barren for he passed tilled and carefully tended fields bearing grain of an unfamiliar type. He watched carefully for a farmstead, but only after quite some time walking did he spot one a good distance off the road at the end of an arrow-straight cart track. He thought of food and his stomach growled, so he turned toward the farmhouse.
The farmer met him in the middle of the cart track where it opened out into the farmyard. He held a pitch fork in both hands across his chest like a soldier carrying a pike, and while he did not level it at Morddon, he was clearly prepared to defend himself if need be. The man was short of stature, far shorter than Morddon, and he was quite terrified, though he stood his ground bravely.
“Who are you?” the farmer demanded. “What do you want? And why would a whiteface come to my farm?”
Only then did Morgin realize the man was not unusually short, but Morddon was unusually tall, for in this dream he inhabited the towering, spindly body of a Benesh’ere, and by that he stood head and shoulders above ordinary men. “I’m just a soldier,” Morddon said. “As you can see I’m a bit down on my luck, but I mean you no harm.”
“What do you want here?”
Morgin followed Morddon’s thoughts as he gave up the idea of food. “Just a drink of water.”
The farmer pointed at an animal trough with his pitchfork. “Drink your fill. Then be gone.”
Morddon gulped at the water mechanically for a few seconds, then left the farmstead quickly.
As he walked down the road he saw more farms to either side, and an occasional horseman rode past him in one direction or the other. From then on traffic on the road increased steadily, and he passed several crossroads where other, smaller paths joined the main road, until it finally descended into a dryer, browner landscape, and in the distance Morgin caught his first sight of a strange and beautiful walled city of tall glasslike spires that glistened in the sun. Morddon knew the city to be Kathbeyanne, the city of the gods, but Morgin scoffed at such a notion.
Like most large, walled cities, the great majority of Kathbeyanne’s inhabitants lived outside its walls. And in fact many of the most interesting and lively markets were located there. The road he traveled appeared, from a distance, to lead straight to the city’s main gates. But as it entered the sprawl of shops and booths at the base of the wall it widened and split and separated, and the traffic became so heavy—mostly foot and cart traffic—he found it impossible to determine exactly where the road itself led, and he soon became lost among the vendors, though most people made way quickly for the filthy Benesh’ere carrying a naked blade.
He stopped at a weapons maker’s shop, feeling a strange affinity with the various tools of death on display. But this was no true weapons maker, for the steel in the shop called out to him, and the flaws in it grated at his nerves. His eye caught the motion of his own reflection in the face of a polished brass shield. He stopped and looked into it carefully, and he saw Morgin’s face reflected there, though reshaped to conform to the long, narrow lines of a Benesh’ere.
“Would yer lordship be interested in tryin’ the shield out?”
Morddon turned slowly to face the shop owner, but the owner, seeing for the first time the naked sword in his hand and noticing now his unwashed and road-weary condition, stepped back one frightened pace. “You’ve no need to fear me,” Morddon said. To Morgin it felt odd to speak, because it was Morddon who chose the words. “I carry the sword this way because I have no sheath for it.”
“Ah!” the shop owner said, relieved, turning and sweeping a hand toward the center of his stall. “If it’s a sheath you want then step this way.”
Morddon followed him, but the flawed steel about him bothered him, so he chose a sheath quickly, paid for it, and buckled it on. “Are you sure you don’t want the shield?” the shop owner asked him. “It’s a good shield, finely crafted.”
“I don’t want a shield,” Morddon said. “But I do want directions. Aethon’s hiring mercenaries. I want to know where, and how I get there.”
A small boy appeared at Morddon’s feet. “I can show you the way, whiteface, and for no more than the price of a small copper.”
“He’s my customer,” the shop owner growled at the boy.
Morddon turned carefully to the shop owner and spoke with deliberate malice. “But it’s the boy’s wares I choose to buy.” The shop owner wisely chose not to argue with a Benesh’ere warrior.
The boy led Morddon through the gates at the wall and into the city itself. Kathbeyanne was far bigger than any city in Morgin’s experience, and each time they walked from one section to the next he was forced to revise his estimate of its size. They passed through a thieves quarter much like that in any city, but scaled up with the size of Kathbeyanne, and a merchant’s quarter where families of wealth and worldly power lived in luxury, and an oddly small clan quarter where the aristocrats of otherworldly power lived in arcane mystery. But ultimately the boy led Morddon to the heart of the city, buried in the center of the clan quarter, and for the first time his eyes fell upon the palace of the Shahotma King. Morgin knew he would never forget that first sight, of spires that reached toward the heavens, of balconies and balustrades that soared high above the city, with level upon level of parapets and battlements.
There was a large open parade ground in front of the palace itself, and after rightfully demanding his copper coin, the boy left Morddon there to seek his own fate. At the far end of the parade ground, close to the gates of the palace itself, there were a number of contestants practicing their weapons skills. Most were in pairs refining their swordsmanship, and the almost dance-like cadence of the ring of their swords was hypnotic, though the parade ground was of such a size that the distance muffled the sound considerably. But the constant activity raised a hint of dust in the dry afternoon air that gave an eerie quality to the entire scene.
To one side of the parade ground stood several large barracks, and in front of each, with one exception, stood two smartly-dressed and well-armed guards with their backs arrow straight and their eyes keen and piercing to any who might pass by. Also, with one exception, the stone of each barracks had recently been scrubbed clean, and above each barracks door fluttered the banner of the company of warriors occupying its interior. The exception, however, had no banner whatsoever, had not been scrubbed nor cleaned in any way in a long time, and had no guards neither smart nor slovenly standing at its entrance. Instead, close to the door they’d placed a plain wooden table behind which sat three rather hard and unsavory looking warriors of unknown rank. A long line of men of no better seeming character snaked out from the table far across the parade ground, and Morddon took a place at the end of that line.
Several men nearby in the line looked at him oddly, and Morgin noticed then that he was the only Benesh’ere there, for he stood head and shoulders above the tallest of the rest. But he also remembered his image in the shield, and he probably appeared the most unsavory of the bunch, so he settled down to a long wait, while whatever happened at the front of the line happened. And slowly, one step at a time, the hours passed while he moved closer to the plain wooden table with the three men seated behind it.
He lost track of the time, and in the warm afternoon sun, with the cadence of the swords ringing in the distance, he slipped slowly into the depths of his own thoughts, moved almost unconsciously with the advancing line. Morgin now understood that he and Morddon jointly inhabited this Benesh’ere body. But where there might have been strife in such a relationship, he and the Benesh’ere were so alike as to be almost indistinguishable, and yet when it came to reflexes, to moving with one’s instincts, the body always moved with the reactions of its Benesh’ere soul, and Morgin understood well which of them was dominant.
Morgin started as a sharp, unpleasant sound cut at his nerves, a sound like that of a badly tuned harp. The other men in the line stepped fearfully away from him.
The sound came again, an unpleasant, harsh ring cutting through the dry afternoon air. Morgin, or maybe it was Morddon, recognized the sound of flawed steel, though the distance muffled it enough to be bearable. But without question the wrongness of it commanded his attention and his eyes unerringly picked out the blade and its owner. And even though they were at the extreme limit of the parade ground, and to his eyes they were no more than shadowy blurs, he knew somehow, having once heard the flaw in the steel, he would recognize that blade instantly if he and it ever met again.
The line moved forward; Morddon moved with it.
He glanced upward and noticed a large black speck against the bright blue of the afternoon sky, some sort of bird gliding on a warm, dry thermal. He kept an eye on it as it circled the parade ground in a careful descent, drifting ever closer until finally Morgin heard the beat of giant wings and saw that the shape of this bird was wrong. But not until it settled to the ground in front of one of the distant barracks did he comprehend the enormity of this animal that flew but was not a bird. Part eagle and part lion, a strangely misshapen creature easily larger than any horse, coal black from head to foot, it turned its head and looked Morgin’s way with blood red eyes that pierced the distance and cut into his soul. Morddon identified it as a griffin.
A dozen Benesh’ere poured out of the barracks in front of which the griffin had landed, and Morgin noticed then that the two guards standing in front of it were Benesh’ere. But among them came a warrior who wore only black, and walked with a grace and surety of step beyond that of any mortal man. Even at that distance Morgin recognized Metadan.
All of the Benesh’ere but one bowed deeply in the presence of the griffin. That one, and Metadan, bowed courteously to the griffin, but only as equals. Then all, including the griffin, entered the Benesh’ere barracks.
The line moved forward; Morddon moved with it.
Sometime later a horse-drawn carriage left the palace through its main gates at the far end of the parade ground. It raised a cloud of dust as it crossed to the Benesh’ere barracks and came to a halt there. A tall Benesh’ere woman stepped out of the carriage. She wore robes that spoke of wealth and power, and like the griffin, Metadan and a dozen Benesh’ere warriors emerged from the barracks to greet her. Again, all but one of the Benesh’ere bowed deeply to her, while Metadan and that one bowed courteously to her as equals. Then they escorted her into the barracks and the carriage pulled down an alley to wait.
The line moved forward; Morddon moved with it, and eventually arrived at the table facing the three surely mercenaries. One of them eyed him carefully, and asked, “What can we do for you, whiteface?”
Morddon answered, “You’re hiring mercenaries. I’m here to be hired.”
The mercenary rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Hmmm! I never hired a whiteface before. What’s yer name?”
“Morddon,” he answered. “And you won’t do better.”
“Aye, I don’t doubt that,” the mercenary said. “Never met a whiteface wasn’t worth two ordinary men in a fight. What’s yer price?”
“What do you pay these other men?”
“One copper a day. A bonus of twelve at the end of each month if they’re still alive.”
Morddon nodded. “Then you’ll pay me twelve coppers a day and a bonus of one silver at the end of the month, if I’m still alive.”
The mercenary’s brow wrinkled. “Are you worth that much?”
“And then some,” Morddon said flatly.
The mercenary captain rubbed his chin and considered Morddon carefully. But while doing so one of the men seated next to him leaned toward him and whispered in his ear. The captain frowned and nodded unhappily. “Hadn’t thought of that,” he said, then looked up at Morddon. “Sorry whiteface. Deal’s off. Won’t be hiring none o’ yer kind here.”
This time Morgin saw it coming and managed to keep up with the speed of Morddon’s actions. While his right hand tore his sword from its sheath, his left reached across the table, closed in a vise-like grip about the mercenary captain’s throat, lifted him out of his chair and well off his feet. He slammed the choking mercenary on his back on the table and raised his sword high in the air in preparation for decapitating the man then and there, and not one of the mercenary lieutenants had yet managed to even get out of his seat. “What made you change your mind?” Morddon growled in the captain’s face, relaxing his grip on the man’s throat a bit so he could talk.
“Not by choice,” the mercenary coughed out. “Gilguard wouldn’t like it.”
The man choked out, “Warmaster of the Benesh’ere.”
“What does Gilguard have to say about who you hire?”
“Ordinarily nothing. But he’d spit me and roast me alive if I hired one of his precious whitefaces.”
Morddon nodded, knowing well the pride of the Benesh’ere. “Well then. Let’s go talk to Gilguard.”
Again he picked the mercenary up by his throat, and dragging him on his heels like a piece of baggage he marched toward the Benesh’ere barracks, trailing a crowd of curious mercenaries behind him. As he passed the other two barracks he noticed the guards in front of one were ordinary human men, and those in front of the other were angels.
At the Benesh’ere barracks the two guards eyed him curiously, and one grinned at the sight of the poor mercenary captain slowly turning blue in Morddon’s grip. But when Morddon tried to walk past them they crossed their lances in front of him, and one of them demanded, “I don’t recognize you. What do you want here?”
“I have business with Gilguard.”
The guard looked Morddon up and down, made no attempt to hide his contempt for the obviously low caste of the Benesh’ere who stood before him. “You need a bath,” he said.
Morgin sensed Morddon’s anger building, and he couldn’t understand why the Benesh’ere seemed bent on picking a fight with everyone he met. “I’m not here to see Gilguard about a bath,” Morddon said.
The guard shook his head. “Well I don’t think you’ll be seeing the warmaster about anything.”
Morgin felt Morddon tense. “Are you going to tell him I’m here?”
“Gilguard’s too busy to be bothered with the likes of you. And if you’re smart, whiteface, you’ll get yourself—”
The term whiteface was a common enough reference to the skin color of a Benesh’ere, and the Benesh’ere tolerated its use by ordinary men. But no Benesh’ere would use it in that tone of voice and in reference to another except as the most derogatory of insults. Morddon kicked the talkative guard in the crotch and simultaneously slammed the hilt of his sword into his partner’s chin. The one doubled over groaning and clutched his groin while the other went down with a crash. Morddon then hit the one groaning in the back of the head and walked over the top of him through the ceiling high double doors of the barracks.
Just inside he met a wall of Benesh’ere warriors with swords and lances leveled at him. He halted, dropped the poor mercenary captain on the floor, gripped his sword in both hands, and at the possibility that he might now die, Morgin sensed in him joyous anticipation.
“What’s going on here?” a voice called out. The warriors facing Morddon parted, and the Benesh’ere who had bowed to the griffin and the lady as equals filled the gap. A moment later Metadan joined him, and with an ungainly shuffling the black winged griffin, towering over them all, took a place behind them.
“You’re Gilguard,” Morddon said. “Well I’ve come to see you about keeping me from gainful employment.”
The Benesh’ere warmaster frowned, so Morddon kicked the mercenary captain in the ribs. The poor fellow coughed and spluttered and rolled over. Morddon picked him up by his tunic and threw him at Gilguard’s feet. “He won’t hire me because he says you wouldn’t like it.”
Gilguard looked at the mercenary at his feet, then at Morddon, then at the mercenary again. He frowned and shook his head. “But of course he can’t hire you. And you wouldn’t want to work for him. He’s a mercenary.”
“I know,” Morddon said, “So am I.”
A female voice said, “No! That cannot be!”
To Morgin it sounded like Rhianne’s voice, but he was careful not to react in any way, for he saw in a dozen pairs of Benesh’ere eyes he’d be spitted on a dozen lances were he to move quickly.
“Let me through!” the woman demanded angrily. The warriors facing Morddon parted again, and the tall Benesh’ere woman from the carriage stepped confidently into the open gap. She was unlike any of the Benesh’ere women Morgin had seen in his own time, who had all worn breeches like a man. This woman wore a gown that would be proper in any king’s court, and in the bone white skin of her face he saw Rhianne’s features, but like his own that face was reshaped to conform to the long, narrow lines of a Benesh’ere.
“Pardon, my lady?” Morddon asked. “What cannot be?”
She looked at Morddon and her eyes narrowed with distaste. “No Benesh’ere would draw his sword for a few coins of gold.”
Morddon bowed. “You are quite right, my lady. I draw my sword only for many coins of gold.”
Her eyes flashed hot and angry. “Well you’ll find no employment here.”
Morddon frowned. “But I am a mercenary and Aethon is hiring mercenaries.”
“But not the likes of you,” she spat.
“And why not me?” Morddon asked. “I’ve never fought for the Goath.”
“Since when is a mercenary so particular about the choice of his employer?”
“And since when is an employer so particular about the choice of her mercenaries? Perhaps you yourself would like to employ me, my lady? I’m also good in the bedroom.”
At that insult the warriors Morddon faced tensed angrily, but Gilguard stopped them with a shout, “Hold!”
“Ah ha!” the griffin laughed. “A mercenary Benesh’ere is rare indeed. But a Benesh’ere with a sense of humor? Now that is an even rarer bird.”
Gilguard, however, was not impressed with Morddon’s wit. He carefully drew his sword, leaned forward and put the tip of it beneath Morddon’s chin. “Benesh’ere or not. No vagabond speaks to her ladyship that way.”
Gilguard was leaning forward in an awkward stance, his arm fully extended. There would be a single instant before he could thrust effectively with his sword, so the sword tip at Morddon’s chin was not an instant threat. And too, Morddon believed Morgin would help him in some way against the steel of the other soldiers. Then, for the first time, Morddon acknowledged Morgin’s presence. Whatever you are that haunts my soul, do not act to hinder me, or we will both die.
Morddon looked into Gilguard’s eyes, and smiling viciously he said, “If you and your men choose to kill me, you may perhaps succeed. But many of you will die with me, and to die for nothing but a few unimportant words would be a shame.”
“Enough of this,” the griffin said. “Put your sword away, warmaster. I command it.”
Gilguard looked at the griffin angrily. “But he—”
“But nothing,” the griffin said. “He is certainly rude, and he has a loose tongue, and the gods know he stinks to the Ninth Hell, but he has done nothing that gives you the right to kill him.”
Gilguard bowed his head. “Yes, my lord,” he said, and withdrew the tip of his sword from Morddon’s chin, though he did not sheath it.
The griffin looked at Morddon, and if the beak of an eagle could be said to smile, it seemed this one did. “I myself may choose to hire you.”
“But how can you trust him?” the woman demanded.
Morgin sensed the shift in Morddon’s emotions, and the words that came from his lips were bitter and harsh. “I am a mercenary, my lady. I trust no one, and no one trusts me.”
“Ahhh!” the griffin said sorrowfully. “Such bitterness in one so young. But then I see you are young only in years, mercenary, and not in battles, eh?”
The woman persisted. “How do we know he doesn’t bring some nameless evil with him?”
The griffin shook his head. “No, AnneRhianne. There is no evil in this one’s heart, only sorrow. Tell me mercenary,” he said to Morddon. “What fills your heart with such sorrow?”
Morgin sensed the sorrow the griffin spoke of, but Morddon only laughed. “The only sorrow in my heart, half bird, is for the lack of coins jingling in my purse.”
The griffin nodded as if he knew the truth behind such a lie. “We shall see, mercenary.”
Metadan, silent and unmoving until that moment, stepped forward to stand almost chin to chin with Morddon, though his chin was quite a bit lower. “What is your name?” he asked.
“And how old are you?”
“I have seen two twelves of summers,” Morddon said. “And why do you ask all these questions?”
“Because I might hire you myself.”
“No!” the woman said, but Metadan ignored her.
“How much fighting experience do you have?”
Morddon shrugged, considered the question carefully, and a kaleidoscope of horror and death flashed through his thoughts. “I first fought the Goath hordes with Karre on the Sangee Plain, and I’ve been fighting them ever since.”
“That was twelve years ago. Do you mean to tell me you’ve been a soldier since you were a boy?”
Again Morddon shrugged. “Believe me. I was never a boy.”
“And where have you fought most recently?”
“I fought with Elish at Mount Tadour—” someone gasped “—but on the way here I heard you’ve all started calling it Grim Dying Hill.” Memories of the carnage there flooded through Morddon’s soul. He threw his head back and laughed maniacally. “A good name that. We did do a lot of dying there, didn’t we? But a bit confusing there at the end. Tell me, how many of us are left alive?”
Metadan’s eyes were steel hard. “Not twelve twelves.”
“But that was only twelve days ago,” Metadan said. “How did you get here?”
“Impossible,” Gilguard said. “You’d have to walk day and night.”
Morddon looked at the warmaster angrily. “Not exactly. I slept for a few hours one night.”
“And why did you come here to Kathbeyanne?” Metadan asked.
“Because here is where you’re hiring mercenaries.”
Metadan nodded. “I’ve heard of you. Elish told me about you a few years ago. He said you were the most bloodthirsty man he’d ever met, and the most bitter, and the most sad. He told me when other men tire of fighting you go forth to fight the Goath alone, if necessary.”
“Elish is dead,” Morddon said. “Are you going to hire me? If not I’ll find someone else.”
“I’ll hire you,” Metadan said calmly. “How much do you want?”
“One gold each month,” Morddon said, then added the customary phrase that ended every mercenary contract, “if I’m alive to collect it.”
“Agreed,” Metadan said, extending his hand. “And for a period of one year neither of us may break this contract without the consent of the other.”
Morddon sheathed his sword and shook the archangel’s hand. “Agreed. Now when do we go to battle?”
The archangel shook his head. “We don’t. The First Legion is commanded to remain in the city as His Majesty’s guard.”
“Then the deal’s off,” Morddon said. “Our contract is for fighting.”
“The deal is not off,” Metadan stated flatly. “For I do not give my consent. You are my man for a period of one year. You will obey the orders I give you. And you will stop shouting at everyone.”
“You tricked me.”
“No. You tricked yourself. Now report to the legion barracks and tell the archangel Ellowyn you are now part of the First Legion. And take a bath.” Metadan turned away from Morddon, and the crowd of Benesh’ere parted as he walked through them.
The woman AnneRhianne joined his side. “I’ll be glad to be away from him,” she said angrily. “The stink of his body offends me not half as much as the stink of his soul.” She looked at the griffin. “Are you coming Lord TarnThane?”
“In a moment,” the half bird answered her. He looked at Morddon. “You are a curiosity to me. Perhaps some time we can speak of the battles you’ve fought.”
Morddon shrugged. “I’ll speak of anything you wish, if you have the price to buy my time.”
The griffin laughed, and turned to follow AnneRhianne and Metadan. “Come, Warmaster Gilguard. We still have much to discuss.”
Morddon turned unhappily and stormed out of the Benesh’ere barracks, but as he stepped outside the harsh ring of that flawed blade struck at Morgin’s soul again. No longer able to ignore it, he walked the length of the parade ground and approached the two men whom he’d seen earlier, and who were still practicing beneath the wall of the palace. “You there,” he said to the man with the flawed blade. “Your blade is flawed. It will fail on you some day.”
The two men, both obviously noblemen, halted their practice and looked at Morddon curiously. “What did you say?” the man asked.
Morddon pointed at the blade. “That blade’s flawed.”
The nobleman looked at his sword, then at Morddon, then he frowned angrily. “This steel was forged by the finest armorer in all of Kathbeyanne. Now go away before I call the palace guard and have you flogged.”
Morddon persisted. “But the blade—”
“I said go away.”
By now the scene had attracted the attention of a small crowd. “Ah, to the Ninth Hell with you!” Morddon said, and turned away. But as he did so he caught sight of a young man standing on a balcony in the palace high above them and observing the incident curiously. Morddon didn’t recognize the young man, but Morgin remembered Aethon from another dream.
Rhianne, alone in her boudoir, and sensing now the ebb of the power in Morgin’s sword, withdrew from the netherworld enough to concentrate again on the worldly matters of her mortal senses, though under the circumstances she dare not withdraw completely. She had dismissed her servants and handmaidens two days ago when Morgin’s ordeal had first begun, latched the door to her apartments from the inside, and set the most powerful Wards she could conjure. Then lying upon her bed she entered the netherworld to help Morgin with his lonely battle, and by virtue of the pandemonium in the Hall she had remained undisturbed. But during those two days she had only been able to glimpse Morgin’s soul from a nether distance, as if some power far greater than her own were determined to keep her from his side. Nevertheless, she sensed she had a role to play in this game, and she understood now that her part had only just begun.
She recalled her servants, though they were unusually quiet for they sensed the strangeness that hung about her. She had them bath and perfume her, dress her, prepare and apply her makeup, curl and shape her hair high atop her head. To help Morgin she must confront the old woman first, and there her appearance would be all-important. If she showed the slightest weakness in any way, the old woman would surely oppose her, so she must appear fresh, ready, powerful; to the old woman, and to all those about her. But at the last moment, as she stood at the threshold of her suite with her hand upon the door’s latch, her own doubts threatened to overwhelm her.
She threw the latch, stepped out into the corridor, and racing to stay ahead of her fears, though taking great care to maintain her dignity and never to run, she stormed down the stairs to the main floor of the castle, leaving a retinue of nervous handmaidens swirling in her wake. She sensed her own power building within her, much as she sensed that of the sword weakening under Morgin’s constant onslaught, and that gave her the confidence to move through the castle as if she were Olivia herself, and no one would dare refuse her access to any portion thereof. She knew she succeeded when wide-eyed clansmen stood aside fearfully to let her pass.
There were a dozen men guarding the main entrance to the Hall of Wills, though Rhianne was relieved to see they were all clansmen of lesser power. Now that the flow of power from the sword appeared to be waning, those of the highest caste had gone to rest, having exhausted themselves maintaining Wards to seal Morgin and the sword within. Not one of them, Rhianne thought bitterly, had thought to aid him, only to trap him inside with the sword so they might save their own souls.
One guard, braver than the rest, and perhaps for that reason their leader, stepped in front of Rhianne, blocking her path to the doors of the Hall. Rhianne did not allow the man time to speak. “Stand aside,” she barked at him angrily.
The man was smart enough to sense her power, and to fear it. “I’m sorry, my lady,” he said. “But the Lady Olivia has left strict instructions no one may enter the Hall, and that I will answer to her if I—”
“Stand aside now!” Rhianne snapped at him. “Or you’ll answer to me this moment.”
The man cringed, stepped back but not aside, appeared to waver for a moment of indecision, then seeing something or someone behind Rhianne, his confidence returned and he stood his ground.
Olivia’s voice crackled in Rhianne’s ear. “What is this?”
Rhianne did not turn to face the old woman, but instead remained facing the guard and the doors of the Hall behind him. “She wishes to enter the Hall,” the guard said.
“Face me, girl,” Olivia demanded.
Rhianne refused to turn away from her goal. There was a moment of silence, during which she sensed Olivia’s power probing at her own, and then the old woman walked carefully around her and stepped in front of her. Rhianne sensed others entering the room behind her, among them Roland and AnnaRail and JohnEngine, and the swordsman France, and BlakeDown and PaulStaff and Wylow. A crowd was the last thing she wanted.
Olivia looked into her eyes carefully, and smiled like a cat about to make a leisurely meal of a small, helpless mouse. “What are you about, girl?”
Rhianne tried to imitate the cold and disapproving look she’d seen the old woman use to cow clansmen. She said, “I think the term girl no longer applies, not since the night I had to endure the brutality of two twelves of Valso’s halfmen, endured because I tried to defend Elhiyne.”
There, she’d said it, out in the open. They’d all heard the rumors, but no one had openly acknowledged the brutal gang rape she’d suffered.
Olivia nodded acquiescence. “Very well, woman, what are you about?”
“I have to bring my husband back from the netherlife.”
“Why you?” Olivia asked carefully, her eyes narrowing. “Why not me?”
“Because you could not resist the temptation of that power in there, and to defend itself that blade would awaken again. You cannot defeat it, and in his present condition Morgin can’t defeat it a second time. It would devour him, and you, and the countryside about us, and only the gods know when it would finally be sated, if it would be sated at all.”
AnnaRail appeared at Rhianne’s side, though Rhianne did not turn from the doors of the Hall to look at her. “Then I will go,” AnnaRail said softly.
Rhianne, still looking directly into Olivia’s eyes, tried to reply as softly. “No. You mustn’t. Your kindness would be as honey to a bear, and that sword would come forth to devour you as readily for its own pleasure, as for its own defense. The result would be the same.”
The old witch looked at Rhianne for a moment, her eyes afire with godlight and boring into the depths of Rhianne’s soul. “You have told us why we should not enter. Now tell us why you should.”
Rhianne held her back straight and refused to flinch away from the old woman’s gaze. “I don’t know why. I only know it is what I am meant to do.”
Olivia’s eyes narrowed even further, and Rhianne sensed the old woman’s power dancing about her like a wild animal pulling mindlessly at its leash. But then the old witch smiled, and with a predatory laugh she said, “You are much like your husband, Rhianne esk et Elhiyne. Much like him indeed.”
Olivia turned with lightning speed to the guard. “Let her pass. Either she will bring him out to us, or together they will both perish within.”
The guard bowed respectfully, then turned toward the two massive wooden doors that sealed Morgin and his sword within the Hall of Wills. Rhianne was expecting to see the doors thrown open quickly now that she had passed the test of Olivia’s scrutiny, but instead she had to wait while the guard and two of his subordinates began prying away a patchwork of timbers that had been hastily added to the planks of the doors, and only then did she take notice of their condition. Beneath the added timbers the doors themselves, once so massive Rhianne alone would have found it difficult to move them on their hinges, were now splintered and pitted with holes where Morgin’s sword had punched through them time and again.
The guards were careful to remove only the timbers needed to allow her access. They propped one of the doors open slightly and held it there, waiting for her, and she noticed they took great care to avoid looking through the gap into the Hall itself.
Rhianne had still not turned away from her destination, though somehow she knew France was standing in the crowd behind her. “Swordsman,” she said softly.
France stepped carefully into her field of view, though he remained to one side as if reluctant to stand between her and the Hall. “I’m here,” he said flatly.
“Do you know the measure of that blade in there?”
He shrugged. “When it’s just a blade, I do.”
“Then please find me a sheath within which it will find comfort.”
“Aye, my lady,” he said, then disappeared from sight. She heard movement in the crowd behind her, then the swordsman said to someone, “Give me your sheath.” She heard a sword being drawn, then more movement within the crowd, and France appeared again at her side. He held before her an empty sheath.
Rhianne’s confidence was beginning to falter, so without further ado she took the sheath in one hand, crossed the space to the gap in the doors, and entered the Hall with all of her defenses up, as if she were entering the Ninth Hell itself. The guards closed the gap quickly, and immediately began pounding the extra timbers back in place.
As Rhianne’s eyes took in the interior of the Hall her heart raced with fear. A haze of white dust drifted on the air, made the sunlight visible as rays splashing across the Hall from a high window near the ceiling. The dust filled her lungs and eyes and mouth, coated everything, covering the floor, the walls, the remnants of the table where the council had sat. But then, as if by instinct, her eyes pierced the haze and settled on the shape of a stone pillar, one of many that lined the edge of the Hall to support the high vaulted ceiling. As wide as two men standing back to back, the blade had nearly cut it in two, and about its base lay a pile of stone chips as mute evidence of its fate. Deeper into the dusty haze she saw other pillars in even worse condition, and at her feet the stone steps that led down to the central floor of the Hall were chipped and broken; the floor itself was pitted and scarred to the point where it would be easy to turn an ankle when walking across it. She wanted to turn and run, but something pulled her toward the center of the Hall where, almost hidden by the dust in the air, she saw a dark and still form huddled close to the floor.
She walked down the three steps carefully, then started slowly across the floor toward the dark shape, her heart threatening to pound its way out of her chest, squinting desperately to make out the form of the thing on the floor. His face was hidden by hunched shoulders and a bowed head. He was resting on his knees, sitting back on his heels, arms extended forward and down, hands gripped together about something on the floor.
She stopped at a point that would be just out of the sword’s reach, and facing him she lowered herself slowly to her knees. She tried to relax, closed her eyes, let her magic expand outward carefully. Morgin’s hands gripped the hilt of the sword, and he had buried the blade itself deep within the stone of the floor. For the moment it lay quiescent and still, though oddly it filled the entire room with its power.
Too late, she realized her mistake. The power of the blade did fill the room, and now that she had entered its trap it would consume her with its hatred. It flared angrily, and with a shower of stone chips it lifted itself out of the floor, flooding her soul with wave after wave of torment, allowing her to glimpse for a moment the vastness of its power and the malevolence of its desire. But then another power arose behind it, equally as vast and equally as malevolent. It met the power of the blade, surrounded it, squashed it, compressed it with agonizing slowness ever smaller and smaller, both powers coalescing into white-hot sparks that receded into the depths of Morgin’s soul, farther and deeper, until Rhianne could no longer sense them.
The Hall became again quiet, though Rhianne’s thoughts shouted with the revelation of the vision she had seen. Morgin had not lost his power, not as he believed. He had instead used his power to control and imprison that of the blade, and equally matched, both had become compressed and tightened until they were locked away in some deep recess of his soul unknown even to him. And now that Rhianne knew what to look for, she saw the constant struggle within him, and knew now that she must help him at any cost.
Morgin awoke to a fierce headache and a churning stomach. His mouth tasted like last night’s ale and the air about him smelled of old urine and stale vomit, and even before he opened his eyes he understood he was dreaming from within Morddon’s soul again. “Damn!” he growled through Morddon’s lips.
When he did open his eyes he was lying on filthy straw in a dark, damp, musty dungeon, and the previous night’s memories flooded unwanted into his mind with merciless clarity: drinking alone in an inn near the center of Kathbeyanne, waiting day-in and day-out to go back to the wars and the battles and the bloodletting, practicing his sword skills with the strange and enigmatic angels by day, trying each night to drink himself into oblivion, and most often succeeding. The other Benesh’ere hated him openly—one of their own who sold his sword to the highest bidder—and last night, sitting alone, pouring one tankard of ale after another down his throat, trying not to think of the hatred that drove him, their taunts and insults became intolerable.
The bolt on the door to his cell slammed back loudly; the door crashed open, spilling a cascade of light onto the straw. A guard with a loaded crossbow stepped warily into the cell, keeping his back to the wall and his eyes on Morddon. The dungeon master followed close on his heels and said, “Up with you, scum. On your feet for your betters.”
Morddon pulled himself slowly to his feet, and only then did Gilguard and Metadan enter the cell. Metadan’s anger was almost palpable, but Gilguard looked at him with a calm, cold hatred, though when he spoke his voice came out almost a whisper. “Why?” he asked simply.
Morddon shrugged. “They started it. I finished it. Besides, it was seven to one.”
The Benesh’ere warmaster nodded slowly and for a long moment he considered Morddon’s answer. “I’ve spoken to the innkeeper, and he confirms that my warriors did start it, and they did outnumber you seven to one, otherwise I would kill you myself.”
Morddon tensed. “Would you like to try? I’d like to see you try, but you’d better have more than seven of your comrades to help you.”
The guard with the crossbow tensed. Metadan looked at him and shook his head.
Gilguard shook his head at Morddon. “No, I don’t want to try to kill you, and not just because I probably couldn’t win. I just want to know why you take your hatred out on your brothers.”
“I don’t have any brothers,” Morddon said.
“Two of them are dead,” Gilguard continued as if Morddon had said nothing. “Another lost an arm last night, and another a leg this morning, and the other three: broken arms, legs, ribs, noses, jaws, skulls. Do you feel no remorse?”
Again Morddon shrugged. “They picked a fight, and I know of only one way to fight.”
“Is it that simple?” Gilguard asked. “From what I’ve seen you’re the best fighting man I’ve ever come across, though to look at you one would not know it—you look rather scrawny and underfed—but single-handed you take on seven of my best warriors, kill two and nearly kill the rest, and to you it’s just a brawl. Is it that you fight anyone you can, any place, any time, for any reason? Is it really that simple?”
Morddon shook his head. “Nothing’s that simple.”
“Then explain it to me.”
“I don’t care to.” Morddon looked at Metadan. “You’ve questioned the innkeeper? You know I was minding my own business, and it was not I who picked the fight?”
Metadan nodded without expression.
“Then I’m free to go?”
“You’re free to go,” Metadan said. “But go straight to the legion’s barracks. Tomorrow, at dawn, we leave for the wars.”
Morddon threw back his head and laughed. “Finally! Now I can have some peace.” And with that he brushed Gilguard aside and walked out of the cell.
Gilguard frowned, looked carefully at Metadan. “Going to war will bring him peace?” he asked, and his frown deepened.
Metadan nodded, though as always there was no expression on his face. “That one’s soul is a curiosity to me. And each time I meet him, my curiosity deepens.”
The voice, soft and gentle, was the only thing in Morgin’s universe, and even though exhaustion and fatigue threatened to devour him, he struggled onward, following it blindly in the vain hope of a respite from the constant battle within his heart.
“Morgin . . . Morgin . . . Morgin . . .”
Cautiously he opened his eyes, parted his lips and tried to swallow, but a coarse, gritty dust caked his mouth and throat. The sword!
As if his thoughts were a trigger the sword flared in his hands, lifted itself high over his head and screamed its hatred at him. He pulled at it with weary muscles, threw his own hatred at it and forced it to the floor where it bit into the stone and raised another shower of chips. Again it grew silent.
Fatigue clouded his mind, but he understood he was on his knees in the center of the Hall, with the sword gripped in both hands before him, trying to control it with no power. How long? he wondered. How long have I held it so?
“Two days and nights,” Rhianne said softly.
He was glad for the sight of her, even if she was a hallucination.
She shook her head. “No. I am real.”
I’m sorry, he thought, thinking of all the years of pain he had given her. He struggled constantly just to hold onto consciousness.
Rhianne shrugged. “We were both stupid, and for that we must both bear the blame.”
The words meant nothing to Morgin, and for some moments this beautiful girl kneeling before him was an unrecognizable stranger. The sword demanded too much of him. If his diligence failed for only an instant . . .
“Morgin . . . Morgin.”
Morgin opened his eyes again, looked again at the beautiful hallucination kneeling before him. In her right hand she held an empty sheath extended toward him. “Here,” she said. “It will be easier if you cage the beast.”
She was right. But how was he going to take hold of the sheath when he needed both hands to hold the sword’s hatred in check?
The beautiful hallucination turned the open end of the sheath toward him. “I will hold the sheath, but I’ll not touch that blade.”
Morgin looked down at the tip of the sword where it rested in the last gouge it had cut from the floor, then he looked at the distance between it and the open end of the sheath. It might as well have been the distance between heaven and hell, for all it mattered.
“You must do it now,” the hallucination said, “while you still have the strength.”
Morgin nodded, lifted the blade slowly from the floor, sensed the evil within it tensing for a struggle, but with his will he clamped down on it mercilessly and it subsided. He held the tip out toward the sheath, though it wavered unsteadily before him. But just when he could go no further the beautiful hallucination moved with lightning speed and slammed the open end of the sheath down over the blade with a loud metallic crash, and suddenly Morgin felt free again. He felt as if he had been carrying a great weight for many leagues, then someone had taken the weight from his shoulders, and now nothing mattered but sleep.
He let his shoulders slump toward the floor, prepared to curl up right there and sleep for a century, but a hand arced out of the midnight surrounding his soul and struck his face with enough force to rock him back on his heels. His thoughts were as slow as winter honey, but the hand struck again, and again, and each time it stung more, until finally he saw Rhianne raise her hand to strike him a fourth time, and he raised his own hand to block the blow.
Rhianne hesitated, withheld the blow, looked at Morgin carefully. “Good. You’re lucid. You must stay that way. When you leave this Hall every major clansman in the Lesser Clans will be watching you, and you must appear to be in control.”
Morgin nodded. He understood her somewhat, but the fatigue was far too demanding. “Keep talking,” he said. “Don’t stop. It helps me stay anchored to this world. And let’s don’t waste any time.”
“Then get on your feet. Now.” Rhianne jumped to her feet, stood over him, helped him struggle to a standing position, though he had a tendency to stagger. “That won’t do,” she said. “You’ll have to stand straight, walk straight, look straight.”
“You sound like Olivia.”
Rhianne laughed as they started toward the doors of the Hall. “And you sound like me.”
They waited while the extra timbers were again removed from the doors, then one door creaked open no more than a miserable crack. Morgin thought of Morddon, and decided the angry Benesh’ere’s harshness might act to his advantage here. So with the last bit of strength he possessed he put a shoulder to the door, pushed hard, and at the same time growled, “Out of my way before I lose my temper.” He shoved the door well open and stepped out among the waiting clansmen, who in turn stepped fearfully away from him. He looked at them carefully, as they all looked at him suspiciously. “Well?” he demanded. “What are you looking at?”
All of them but Olivia stepped back a pace, while she stood her ground and looked through him as if she understood well the game he played. But she did not interfere.
“Of course I look like hell,” he said, and like sheep they stepped back again. “I haven’t had any food or sleep for two days, a situation which I intend to remedy shortly.”
He started walking with long great strides, approaching the impenetrable wall of the crowd as if he would walk right over any who stood in his way, and the crowd parted fearfully. All the way to his apartments he did not look back, though he knew Rhianne was close behind him and in his heart he thanked her for that again and again. But just before he reached his rooms his legs gave way beneath him. Rhianne stepped around him quickly, and pretending to be an obedient cow of a wife, she opened the door and held it for him, saying only, “My lord.”
He walked past her on trembling legs, barely managed to get to his bed before passing out.
Morddon awoke long before dawn on the morning of his departure from Kathbeyanne, though with the exception of a single angel sitting on the cot next to his, he was alone in the barracks of the First Legion. He often wondered if any of the damn angels ever slept, which reminded Morgin of his own thoughts concerning Ellowyn that seemed so long ago, but, from the perspective of this dream, was actually still in the distant future. As he wiped the sleep from his eyes the angel sitting on the cot nearby said, “You are to follow me, Benesh’ere.”
Morddon nodded, reached under his cot and retrieved a long, thin, gray canvas sack, about the length of an ordinary man, though considerably shorter than his own Benesh’ere frame. Beneath the stiff canvas his hands recognized the shape of the most powerful of the Benesh’ere weapons: the longbow. Fashioning the bow had been the only worthwhile thing he’d done during his weeks in Kathbeyanne, and it and his sword were now his only permanent possessions.
The angel led him to a large staging area well outside the walls of the city where thousands of men and horses and hundreds of supply wagons were gathered. They went directly to a temporary corral in which several hundred horses had been penned. “Choose your own mount,” the angel said, and without another word he turned and walked away.
Morddon leaned on one of the beams of the corral and shook his head sadly. “Damn angels!” he muttered, closing his eyes and running his fingers through his knotted and unkempt hair. He opened his eyes just in time to see a tall black mare separate herself from the jostling mass of beasts in the corral and trot his way. She was coal black, without a single feature to mark her coat, and as she approached Morgin sensed a familiar magic about her, and he instantly recognized Mortiss. She trotted up to him, snorted derisively as if to remind him what a fool he could be, and waited impatiently for him to saddle and ride her.
That first morning out of Kathbeyanne, riding with the First Legion of Angels, Morddon’s heart soared with joy like a prisoner freed after many years in a dark and deep dungeon. It turned Morgin’s stomach to see the Benesh’ere ride so joyfully to war, and to feel that joy himself. But the joyful sense of freedom died quickly in the choking dust of several thousand horses, and as the leagues passed beneath Mortiss’ hooves Morgin noticed that the closer Morddon got to the wars the more he managed to relax, to put the tension and the hatred behind him, and to view life without the harsh edges of his bitterness. Morgin, however, plagued with Morddon’s memories of many years of slaughter, and his own memories of Csairne Glen, grew morose and fearful of the days to come.
He was part of a combined force of the first four legions of angels, two full companies of Benesh’ere, one company of mercenaries, and a flight of about one hundred of the black, winged griffins. As a common soldier Morddon’s only responsibilities were to take care of his horse and weapons, and to keep up with the general pace of the march. And since his riding companions were angels of the First Legion, all of whom he found inhumanly boring, he was left to himself for the most part, which suited him nicely.
On the eighth day out of Kathbeyanne he awoke at sunrise, used a small portion of his water ration to shave and wash—as they approached the wars he was beginning to pay attention to his personal appearance again. He rolled up his kit, and to kill time before his breakfast ration he left the camp, found a small, clear hillock some distance from the outer perimeter. There, he began a series of stretching exercises he used when a real workout was not possible. With his sword drawn, and his eyes closed, he concentrated on each muscle carefully, extending it, then contracting it, until he felt the knots and tension relax. He must now prepare his body for the battles and the warring that would soon come, and he drifted slowly into a mild state of self-hypnosis at the pleasure that came with Morddon’s knowledge and control of his body.
“Harrumph! Um . . . excuse me.”
At the sound of the voice Morddon froze, then after many seconds opened his eyes. A young Benesh’ere lad stood cautiously in front of him. Morddon spoke softly, “What do you want, boy?”
The boy frowned, obviously thinking of the stories he’d heard of the maniac that towered over him. “You’re Lord Morddon, are you not?”
“I am Morddon, but I’m no lord. And who are you?”
“I am WindHollow,” the boy said.
Morddon nodded. “A powerful name that. What do you want with me, WindHollow?”
“I was told by the warmasters Metadan and Gilguard to bring you to them.” The boy stood uncertainly, as if Morddon might burst into a murderous rage at any moment.
Morddon tried not to smile, but he failed. He sheathed his sword. “Then lead the way.”
Near the tents at the center of camp several men and angels and one woman were leaning over a table full of maps, while not far to one side two of the black griffins sat quietly on their haunches. Even from a distance Morddon recognized one as TarnThane himself, the Griffin Lord, for the strange winged beasts were massive towers of taloned might. Closer yet, he saw gathered about the table Gilguard and two of his lieutenants, the Benesh’ere princess AnneRhianne, Metadan and two archangels whom Morddon did not recognize, plus Ellowyn, though weeks earlier Morgin had learned she didn’t recognize him.
Morddon and WindHollow stopped near the group at the map table and waited silently for the ongoing conversation to cease. TarnThane was giving a scouting report: “. . . Most of the countryside is unoccupied. We saw no sign of the Goath, but we caught an occasional glimpse of the hounds.”
Several of them started at that. “In large numbers?” Metadan asked.
TarnThane shook his head. “No. Just a few. Probably scouts.”
Metadan considered that carefully. “I wonder if WolfDane himself is considering some action against the Goath.”
Morddon had heard of the hellhounds, and their king WolfDane, but he himself had never seen one. They were reputed to be giant hounds as large as a horse, with jaws that could snap a man in two. Legend had it they had escaped from the netherhells when Beayaegoath was first exiled there, and had never stopped fighting against the hordes he commanded. But they shunned man and all things of mankind, and they fought their own battles against the Goath, refusing to work in any way with the mortal forces fighting their common enemy. Morddon had heard a story that Metadan had once saved WolfDane’s life, but no one knew if there was any truth to it.
“If the hounds intend an attack upon the Goath,” Gilguard said thoughtfully, “I would dearly like to know where and when.” He looked at Metadan. “Is there any chance you could get them to work with us. If they trust any of us, it would be you.”
Metadan shook his head. “It’s not a matter of trust. Their ways are just too different from ours. We’ll have to depend on our griffin friends here.”
TarnThane threw his head back. “And we need someone working with us from the ground.”
At that Metadan turned to Morddon, nodded for him to come forward. He did so, and politely greeted the group assembled at the map table, and as a formality he apologized for being absent when they needed him.
“Polite words?” AnneRhianne asked sarcastically. “And an apology? And all in the space of a single sentence! And he’s shaved, and washed! I begin to believe you, Metadan, when you say he is a changed man.”
Morddon stifled an angry retort.
“Now I want no arguments here,” Metadan said carefully, looking at each of them, “unless you’re arguing the business at hand. This is a council of war, and we have decisions to make.”
“Why am I here?” Morddon asked, “A common soldier among such hallowed company?”
The griffin TarnThane spoke with a hearty laugh. “Because you’re not that common, my sad Benesh’ere friend.”
Morddon kept his eyes on Metadan. “What does he mean by that?”
Metadan answered with a question. “How long have you been fighting in the wars?”
Morddon shrugged. “Better than twelve years.”
“And how old are you?”
“I’ve seen twenty-four summers. But we’ve been through this before so what’s the point?”
“From childhood to manhood,” the griffin cried sorrowfully, “with no boyhood between. Ahhh! A hard life indeed!”
“No breaks?” Metadan asked. “Fighting for twelve years without rest?”
Morddon shook his head and wondered at all the questions. “A day or two here and there. Sometimes more. This last stretch in Kathbeyanne was the longest I’ve ever been away. Why?”
Metadan nodded. “As near as we can tell, you have more experience out here than anyone among us. When I question the more experienced commanders, and jog their memories a little, not one of them can remember a time when you weren’t out here, though they remember you only because of your longevity and not because of any great deeds. And AuelThane there—” Metadan indicated with his hand the griffin perched next to TarnThane, “—tells us you scout these hills with such stealth not even the griffins can spot you from the air, even if they know you’re down there somewhere.”
Morddon nodded, remembering the other griffin now from battles past, and how he’d used Morgin’s shadowmagic through the years to conceal his position from his enemies, and apparently from his allies too. Sharing such memories reminded Morgin he’d always been a part of this dream, and that, he did not like. “What do you want of me?” Morddon asked the archangel.
“Your knowledge of these hills,” Metadan said, stabbing a finger into the map on the table. “I could use a scout with your abilities. Would that suit you?”
Morddon nodded. “I like working alone.”
“I thought you might.”
“What is this?” AnneRhianne demanded. “A mercenary accepting extra duties without demanding additional pay? I don’t believe my ears.”
Gilguard grinned, though he turned his face aside to conceal it. But Morddon could not hide his own anger as he looked at the tall Benesh’ere princess, and Morgin kept wanting to call her Rhi. “I hadn’t really thought of it that way, Your Highness,” Morddon said to her, then grinned. “But now that you mention it I should be paid more.”
“Fine,” Metadan said. “You can have whatever you want. I really don’t care about the gold.”
“No,” Morddon said flatly. “I won’t hire out to you as a scout. Our agreement was for one year of my services as a common soldier, nothing more.”
Metadan actually frowned, the first expression Morddon had ever seen on the angel’s face. Metadan shook his head. “But I thought you said—”
Morddon interrupted him, pointed at AnneRhianne, “If you want me as a scout then she must hire me, and she must pay me, with coins from her own purse, and by her own hand.”
If there were any color in the white of a Benesh’ere face, it disappeared from AnneRhianne’s in that moment. “Never,” she said.
TarnThane crowed with laughter. “You thought he had no pride, my princess.”
“Shut your beak,” she said the griffin, though even Gilguard saw the irony in Morddon’s demand and his grin widened. “Wipe that grin off your face,” she said to him.
“If you won’t pay me,” Morddon said, “then your sharp tongue has cost this army the best scout it could have had, for there are no other circumstances under which I will accept.”
AnneRhianne was ready to explode, but with a visible effort she controlled herself. She looked at Morddon closely, and when she realized he would not yield, she said, “Very well, what’s your price, mercenary? Another gold coin for your purse?”
Morddon shook his head. “No. One small copper coin, to be paid to me each day, and by your own hand. And when I am out of the camp, and unavailable, you will hold the coins for my return. But remember, it is you who must seek me out, and you who must pay me.”
Her eyes narrowed further at the added insult of such a small price. “It appears I have no choice,” she said. “I agree. And now that we have a bargain, mercenary, never doubt that I will keep my end of it. Just see that you keep yours.” She looked at Metadan. “Am I required further, my lord?”
Metadan shook his head. “You may go.”
She looked once more at Morddon, and the hatred he saw in her eyes saddened him.
AnnaRail’s attention drifted away from the heated debate raging in the center of the Hall of Wills, and settled on the scarred and pitted walls that surrounded them all. The Hall had received only a cursory cleaning for this unprecedented extended session of the Lesser Council, and as yet no real repairs had been attempted. The magnitude of the destruction drew her eyes again and again away from the debate. It struck a cold shaft of fear into her heart, and served as a constant reminder to them of the topic of discussion.
Olivia and BlakeDown had argued through the afternoon and well into the night, though AnnaRail knew they’d soon settle the issue. But even though Morgin’s life hung in the balance, she stayed far back in the crowd and was careful to avoid participating in any way, for nothing she said would serve in his favor. Instead she waited quietly near an exit, ready to leave the instant she determined the battle was lost.
“He has endangered us all,” BlakeDown said, speaking loud enough for everyone to hear. “Each and every one of us, and our families, and our kinsmen far from here, for he cannot control that beast he has brought into this world, and who can say what will stop it when it begins devouring the countryside? Certainly not I, and you all know I am a sorcerer of more than trifling power.”
BlakeDown paced back and forth in the middle of the Hall as he spoke, stopping occasionally to look fearfully at one of the stone pillars Morgin’s sword had whittled down to a splinter of rock. “All of us here have sensed the magnitude of its evil. We stood outside for two days while he fought it, and I grant you it was a valiant fight. But it was through his own stupidity such a power was allowed access to this world, and by his own admission he has lost his power, and he lays now in a stupor of fatigue and exhaustion with no remaining strength for the next battle we all know will come. So I can have no pity for the man. He has brought this fate upon himself, and now he must bear the responsibility for his actions.”
BlakeDown paused and looked at Olivia, who alone stood with him in the center of the Hall. Under normal circumstances the old woman would have spoken out long ago, but the odds had been stacked against Morgin all afternoon, so she was moving carefully lest she incite public opinion even further against him. But AnnaRail sensed within the old witch that the battle was lost, that she could not sway the Council sufficiently to save Morgin; believing his life was the only thing that held the power of the talisman within this world, the Lesser Council would soon place him under sentence of death, then move speedily to carry out the sentence while he lay unconscious and defenseless. As Olivia spoke AnnaRail slipped quietly out of the Hall.
She kept her pace to a calm, even walk, knowing any appearance of haste might alert Morgin’s enemies to her purpose. When she knocked softly on the door to Morgin’s suite the answer that came to her ears was a muffled, “Who’s there?”
She said nothing, but touched the door with the palm of her hand and knew all those of power within were satisfied. She heard muffled words behind the door, then the sound of heavy furniture being moved aside, then the door opened a crack.
France peered out, looked up and down the hall, then, holding a bare sword in one hand, he opened the door to admit her. Within, Morgin lay on his bed in a stupor, one hand unconsciously gripping the hilt of his sword, the other gripping the sheath. Rhianne sat beside him trying to comfort him with her power, and JohnEngine, Brandon, Roland, the Surriot and the Balenda stood nervously ready with swords of their own. AnnaRail was surprised to find DaNoel absent, and NickoLot present. Nicki seemed much older. “What are you doing here?” AnnaRail asked her.
Nicki’s eyes hardened. “No one is going to murder my brother, not without a fight from me.”
“It won’t be murder,” AnnaRail said flatly. “It will be a proper execution carried out under a legal sentence of death.”
“Call it what you like,” the young girl said. “I’m going to fight.”
There came no rousing chorus of cheers from the others, but their eyes held the same determination as Nicki’s.
“Are they really going to kill him?” Nicki asked.
AnnaRail nodded. “Yes. We don’t have much time.”
“Then we fight,” JohnEngine said flatly.
“No we don’t,” AnnaRail snapped angrily, shaking her head. In that moment she saw in the eyes of the swordsman that he, at least, understood the futility of such a battle.
JohnEngine’s eyes widened. “But—”
“Be silent and listen,” AnnaRail barked at him more harshly than she intended. “If you make a stand here you’ll die, and then he’ll die too, and you’ll have gained nothing.”
“I won’t abandon my brother.”
AnnaRail found it difficult to hold her temper in check. “And you believe I will?”
JohnEngine shook his head, lowered his eyes contritely. “No. Of course not.”
“Then be silent and listen, for I intend to keep him alive, and all of us with him.”
“How?” JohnEngine demanded.
“Shortly the Council will declare him an outlaw, and then not even we can legally help him without starting a full scale war. So he must leave. Now.” She looked at France; he nodded his agreement. “But it’s obvious he cannot travel on his own so someone will have to go with him.” Still looking at France, she asked, “Will you go?”
France nodded, though he said nothing.
“I’ll go with you,” the Surriot said without emotion.
“And I,” the Balenda added flatly.
“I’ll go too,” JohnEngine said.
AnnaRail shook her head. “No. House Elhiyne must stay out of this. Besides, you’re going to be our diversion.”
All of Morgin’s instincts pulled him urgently toward consciousness, but his body remained locked within a sea of lethargy. In the background of his soul he sensed Rhianne and AnnaRail feeding him strength with their own power, but when he peeled open his eyes his lids hung heavy with exhaustion, and it required a constant effort to remain awake and conscious. The sound of heavy rain pounding on the roof of the castle dominated his thoughts, a constant, numbing roar that threatened to lull him back to sleep.
“You must stand,” AnnaRail told him, “And you must move on your own. If you lean on us someone will surely notice and alert the Council. And by the name of the Unnamed King keep a tight rein on that sword!”
Morgin wanted to ask a hundred questions, but the urgency in AnnaRail’s voice drove him to obey in silence. He shook his head to clear it, though that didn’t help, then sat up, stood unsteadily, and asked, “What’s going on?”
Rhianne answered. “This moment the Council is declaring you an outlaw, and within the hour they’ll come for your blood. There’s no time to explain further. We’ve prepared an escape, but you must move quickly. A second’s delay might mean your life.”
Fear helped sober Morgin. “What do I do?”
AnnaRail handed him a dark, hooded, sleeved cloak, said, “Put this on, and make sure the hood shields your face.”
Morgin noticed then that both women were wearing similar garments. He pushed his arms into the sleeves, pulled the hood over his head, fumbled at the cloak’s clasp for a moment before securing it.
AnnaRail adjusted her own hood, burying her face in shadows. “Now follow me. We’re going to the stables. If someone tries to stop us, Rhianne and I will take care of them, but you must not stop. Keep your face turned away from the light, and keep walking, but do not run, for that will certainly attract attention.”
Rhianne opened the door a crack, peered out into the hallway, then opened the door fully and stepped out. Morgin followed her, with AnnaRail close behind.
The castle was unusually dark and badly lit, and it occurred to Morgin that AnnaRail had probably seen to that. Out in the hallway the roar of the rain was even louder, and while it would be miserable outside, he couldn’t have hoped for better if he must become a hunted fugitive.
They moved cautiously down the large stairway at the center of the castle. Once on the main floor he heard raised voices coming from the Hall, punctuated occasionally by the growl of an angry crowd. AnnaRail quickened her pace, but they had barely reached the castle’s front entrance when the doors of the Hall burst open and the growl became a roar, and with only an instant to spare they slipped out into the night. A driving wind slanted the rain horizontally into their faces.
AnnaRail shouted above the wind, “We have only a few moments before they reach your room and find you’ve gone.” She turned, and with Rhianne following close behind, she started across the castle yard toward the stables. Morgin followed, splashing through mud up to his ankles, knowing he would make an easy target for an ambitious bowman. When they reached the stables AnnaRail raised a hand to pound on the stable doors, but before she could do so one of them creaked open.
Inside, the stable boy Erlin held a hooded lamp with one hand, and with the other slammed the door shut. Someone grabbed Morgin and pushed him toward Mortiss, who was saddled and ready. He climbed up into her saddle, marveling that he had the strength to do so. JohnEngine mounted a horse nearby, and by the dim light of Erlin’s lamp Morgin noticed four more horses behind JohnEngine’s, all saddled, and each with a sack of grain tied in its saddle and a hooded cloak tied about the sack. JohnEngine grinned at him. “The cloaks were my idea,” he said proudly. “Makes ’em look just a little more like riders crouching low in the saddle, eh? The night and the rain’ll have to do the rest.”
Rhianne gripped Morgin’s left hand tightly. “Ride out of the stable alone,” she said, “And keep your horse at a walk. The guards opened the gates earlier for Val, and with a few small spells we’ve managed to keep them that way. Try to get out of the castle unnoticed, and as soon as you reach the woodland between here and the village, cut off the road to the right. Val and Cort and France are waiting there for you. Go southwest, to Aud. Aiergain would not allow the clans to hunt you there.”
It occurred to Morgin that in many ways his life was coming to an end. He was no longer a wizard, nor a clansman, nor an Elhiyne. They had given it all to him when he didn’t want it, and now they were taking it away when he did. His soul and heart filled with bitterness, and he asked, “But they’ll hunt me tonight, eh?”
Rhianne shook her head. “No. When the mob comes looking for you JohnEngine and his sacks-of-grain are going to lead them in the opposite direction. They’ll hunt him, not you.”
She threw her hood back and her eyes filled with tears. Morgin had so many things to tell her, but all he said was, “I love you.”
She clutched at his hand, tears now streaming freely down her cheeks. “And I you.”
“You must go,” AnnaRail hissed sharply. “Now.”
Erlin shielded his lamp and pulled the stable door open, again only a crack. Morgin touched his spurs to Mortiss’ flanks and she trotted forward at an easy pace that should arouse no suspicion, though the very fact of a rider going out in this weather would not go unnoticed.
The rain was pouring down even harder now, cutting his visibility to almost nothing and pounding with a roar into the mud of the castle yard, and yet at the same time the yard was possessed of an eerie quiet, as if the castle and MichaelOff’s ghost were waiting for something.
As Morgin approached the open castle gates they loomed out of the blackness of the night like the jaws of some enormous beast. There were always crossbowmen and archers on the battlements above, and with the gates jammed open they would be uneasy and watchful, so he fought the growing urge to spur Mortiss into a charge. He watched the gates grow larger before him as she trotted forward, all going well, but then at the last instant, only a stone’s throw from freedom, a voice called out from above, “Halt! Identify yourself.”
Morgin tugged gently on Mortiss’ reins and brought her to a stop. He couldn’t answer them. He was too well known. His voice would be recognized.
“Identify yourself,” the voice called again. “Speak now, or we’ll drop you and your horse where you stand.”
In that instant an angry mob burst out of the castle and began spilling into the yard. The next instant JohnEngine and his sack-of-grain riders charged out of the stables heading straight for the gates and Morgin. At the same time a cloaked figure—whom Morgin later realized was Rhianne—pointed at JohnEngine and shouted above the rain, “It’s the outlaw wizard!”
Morgin heard the twang of a crossbow, waited through an eternity of an instant for the bolt to punch its way through his chest, but saw it bury itself instead in one of the sacks of grain as JohnEngine and his horses raced past him. On foot the mob charged chaotically across the yard to the gates, so Morgin pulled his sword, waved it above his head, pointed it through the gates at the fleeing figure of JohnEngine and shouted, “It’s the outlaw wizard. I’ll get him.” Then he spurred Mortiss into a charge, slapped her flank with the flat of his sword, and raced through the open castle gates.
He had to trust Mortiss to sense her own footing, for the rain and the gloom of the night blinded him completely, and at full charge the drops stung his face like grains of sand in a high wind. He kept low in the saddle, waiting for an arrow to pierce his back, or for Mortiss—like poor SarahGirl before her—to collapse beneath him. But no arrow came out of the night, and then he reached the edge of the forest, and there JohnEngine waited.
“Turn off here,” JohnEngine said. “Stay close to the edge of the forest and ride hard. Don’t try to find Val; let him find you, and by the gods don’t hide in your shadows or he never will.”
JohnEngine looked sharply toward the castle. “They’re coming,” he said. He nudged his horse next to Mortiss, reached out, gripped Morgin’s forearm tightly. “We’ll meet again, brother. I swear that now before you, and next time we’ll stand and fight, eh?” And with both of them seated atop horses, he leaned over and tried unsuccessfully to kiss Morgin, but gave up as their two horses jostled beneath them. JohnEngine spun his horse about, and with his horses and sacks of grain charged off into the night.
Morgin spurred Mortiss off the road, but on the uneven ground there he was forced to keep her pace to a slow trot, and after what seemed only seconds his ears caught the sound of the mob on the road behind him: the thunder of many hooves and the shouts of angry riders. Quickly he pulled Mortiss just within the edge of the forest and waited breathlessly. The cries and hoof beats approached, then dwindled slowly into the distance, but even after they were gone some instinct told him to wait longer.
While he waited the rain slackened, and after what seemed an eternity he heard the creak of saddle leather, a horse moving at a slow walk. Then out of the darkness a lone rider appeared and pulled his horse to a stop at the point where Morgin had entered the forest. Morgin moved his hand carefully to the hilt of his sword.
“Elhiyne,” the rider called out. Morgin recognized ErrinCastle’s voice. “I know you’re there. But unlike my father I’m not here to hunt you. Not that I have any great liking or admiration for you, but I owe you a debt, and I am here to repay it. My conduct toward your wife was unforgivable. I know now that I was enspelled by the Decouix, but to use him as an excuse would be as dishonorable as my previous actions were unforgivable. I therefore grant you your freedom, and I give you my word I will do nothing to hinder your escape. But this makes us even, Elhiyne. The next time we meet, I will kill you for the outlaw you are.” And with that, ErrinCastle yanked his horse’s reins angrily toward the road, and disappeared into the night.
Morgin waited a few moments more, then continued on. As he rode through the driving rain the trees of the small forest beside him were almost invisible in the darkness of the night’s gloom, and just to keep them in sight he stayed uncomfortably close to them. He traveled for a good distance, following the curve of the forest as it turned slowly away from Elhiyne, and began to wonder if he’d missed his friends. But then three mounted riders loomed out of the darkness before him with swords drawn.
There came no greeting. France merely said, “Let’s ride, now, fast and hard, before that mob finds out who they’re really chasing.”
An odd silence descended on the castle yard as the last of the mob raced through the gates on hastily saddled mounts, and AnnaRail breathed a sigh of relief. She crossed the yard quickly to get in out of the rain, but she met Tulellcoe standing just inside the main entrance, and at the look on his face her heart almost came to a stop.
“What have you done?” he demanded coldly.
She ignored him, tried to walk past him, but he grabbed her arm and spun her to face him. “What have you done?”
She yanked her arm out of his grip. “No more than any mother would do.”
“You’re a fool!” he said, then turned away.
She reached out desperately and caught his arm, but he refused to be stopped and pulled her along beside him. “Where are you going?” she pleaded.
He halted, turned to face her. “I’m going to find him myself, and carry out the Council’s sentence.” He hesitated, looked in her eyes, and, as if reading her thoughts, added, “And you can believe I’ll not be foolish enough to follow horses ridden by sacks of grain.”
She reacted without thought. Her magic came upon her unbidden, coalesced into a black, hot spark of hatred cupped within the palm of her hand. She swung it at him like a club, realizing she had lost control and might well kill him. But his hand shot out instinctively and caught her wrist in an iron grip, stopping it only inches from his face. They stood that way for several seconds, facing each other silently while she fought for control, and slowly the power she had called forth faded, though not until she had released it completely did he release her hand. Shamefully she dropped it to her side.
Tulellcoe’s face could have been chiseled from stone for all the expression it held, but his eyes cut into her soul like white-hot steel. “As much as I hate that damn Council, I have to admit they’re right.”
“You don’t know that,” she said.
“And you don’t know they’re wrong.”
Roland, speaking softly, startled them both. “I do.”
Tulellcoe turned to face him. “What did you say?”
“I said I know the council is wrong.”
“You know nothing.”
Roland shook his head sadly. “The only thing I don’t know, is how I know what I do know. But I do know the Council is wrong, as only I can know such things.”
Tulellcoe shook his head, but while outwardly he scoffed, AnnaRail saw that Roland’s words had stung him, and she understood then that he was forcing himself to do what he thought was right, even while he hated the doing of it.
“Use your own judgment,” she said to him. “Don’t follow the dictates of the Council blindly.”
He frowned uncertainly, then looked at Roland, and the silence between them grew heavy and stilted. Then he turned about, threw the doors of the castle open, and walked out into the stormy night.
Olivia stepped out of a shadow near the base of the stairs. “Well done, Roland. You may have just saved Morgin’s life.”
AnnaRail exploded. “What do you mean well done? You betrayed my son to that pack of wolves and now you speak of saving his life.”
The old woman threw her head back and laughed hatefully. “Oh you foolish woman! Do you think there is anything you do within these walls that I do not know about long before the doing of it? If I had wanted those jackals to have him, they would have had him. Do you believe for an instant you could have spirited him away without my help? Who do you think instructed the guards to open the gates for the swordsman and the twonames? Had it not been for me those gates would have never been opened in the first place.”
Speechless, AnnaRail spluttered, “But—”
“But nothing!” the old woman said. “Your greatest danger was Tulellcoe, and you didn’t even realize it. He feels responsible for Morgin. He knew about this talisman even before Csairne Glen, but he failed to help Morgin then, and he failed to help him during the intervening months, so he blames himself now that Morgin is under sentence of death, and he would rather kill Morgin himself, kill him cleanly, than let those jackals have him.”
“But why didn’t you stop him?” AnnaRail demanded.
Olivia shook her head. “The only way to stop Tulellcoe when his mind is made up is to kill him, and not even Morgin is worth that. Tulellcoe can be as stubborn as Morgin, and as uncontrollable when his mind is set. The two of them are alike in so many ways, if I didn’t know Tulellcoe better I’d wonder if he didn’t do a little whoring about nine months before Morgin was born. The only way to stop Tulellcoe is to convince him to stop himself, and Roland began that process by introducing doubt with his intuition. But you had to lose control like a stupid young girl, and in doing so you hurt Morgin’s cause in Tulellcoe’s mind. We can only hope the doubt Roland introduced will grow, for Tulellcoe will find the whoreson, and if that doubt fades between now and then, then Morgin will die. It is that simple.”
Rhianne stumbled up to her room, conscious only of the sword and its power. A part of her knew she should feel some triumph at Morgin’s escape, but the talisman demanded too much of her for her to feel anything beyond a need to find a place where she would not be disturbed.
Her handmaidens were waiting for her excitedly, and immediately they began a flood of gossipy twittering that threatened to overwhelm her. But she silenced them with a single, angry bark, and when they finally took notice of the magic in her eyes they understood what was required of them. In silence they helped her out of her wet clothing, wrapped her in a dry nightgown and put her to bed. But she was barely conscious of these things, for all of her power was devoted to the sword, to holding it at bay during the first critical hours of Morgin’s escape so he could concentrate on the world about him.
She shut out the world around her, thought only of Morgin and the blade, placed her own magic between his power and that of the sword, and let the hours pass without rest or comfort. She had never done anything so terrifying, for as she penetrated deeper into the depths of the talisman’s magic, a malign intelligence hovered there, an unwholesome consciousness that, until then, had been aware only of Morgin. But now, with her interference, it had grown aware of her, and never again would she be able to lower her defenses fully and rest with ease.
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