The SteelMaster of Indwallin
Book 2 of The Gods Within
Can one ever rule both the steel within, and the shadows without?
Copyright (c) 2012 by J. L. Doty
J. L. Doty
The Gods Within, Book 2, The SteelMaster of Indwallin by J. L. Doty
Copyright (c) 2012 by J. L. Doty
Revision release date: June 1, 2012
With the exception of brief quotations used in articles and reviews, no portion of this book may be copied, reproduced, duplicated or used, in part or in whole, without the express written consent of the author.
This is a work of fiction, and as such involves speculative content. Any resemblance to persons, places, things, names, characters and incidents are fictitious, and are the product of the author's imagination. Any similarities to real persons, living or dead, and events or incidents regarding them, are wholly coincidental.
All rights reserved.
Copyright (c) 2012 by J. L. Doty
Cover art copyright (c) 2012 by J. L. Doty
All included material copyright (c) 2012 by J. L. Doty
Note from the author:
Warning: this is still a work in progress. As such:
1. What you read here may change.
2. If you haven't already read the earlier books in this trilogy, don't read anything beyond the prologue, because it gives stuff away and might spoil the earlier stories for you. The prologue is the only thing you can read here without spoiling earlier books.
Prologue: The Tenets of Steel
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 known.
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 always the steel rules the master, 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 death of the master is the steel.
Beware the power of the self-forged blade.
Chapter 1: The Steel Within
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 that 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 at himself 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 discrete knock on the door Morgin called out, “Enter.”
The door swung open and Avis stepped into the room. He looked at the changes Morgin had made to his clothing and raised an eyebrow, but he said only, “I am to inform you that the banquet will begin shortly, and that the Lady Olivia would like you to be there early so you may greet the other clan lords as they arrive.”
Morgin nodded. He understood that 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 that 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 that he’d believed she’d betrayed him, and the foul names he’d called her certainly didn’t help matters. They were both trying to start over, but the best they could do was a strictly civil and polite peace, and always there was a wall of formality between them that they couldn’t overcome.
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 could see he 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 that her servants had hovered nervously over her up to the last instant before she came into his sight, 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 the same eye a hundred times, and he wondered sometimes if it weren’t a subconscious manifestation of her magic. He smiled. “I thought it would be . . . proper.”
He winced. That was 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, held it there. 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 could sense 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 himself 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 some weeks earlier, 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 that Olivia had failed to achieve her desires, though it was apparent to all 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 her sarcasm. “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 that 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 noblemen and noblewomen. 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 sat 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 it was Rhianne to whom his attentions fell. And more than that, his advances were so blatant he seemed to be trying to goad Morgin into jealous anger, as if he were 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 the young Penda lord, 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 suddenly 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 that 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 it was 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 cried, 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 seemed to monopolize 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, reminding him that she’d told him time and again that 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 lord 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 suddenly 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 as if he were 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 he knew that 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 that 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, becoming suddenly defensive. “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 me to do 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, frustration dripping from every word.
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 he was going 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 suddenly 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 suddenly 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 growled angrily. Then, thinking of the enspelled guard dozing in the corridor, he lowered his voice. “You promised.”
Valso took a deep breath, sat down on the cot in his cell and spoke as if he were 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 that 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 told you 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 a very unpleasant smile, and DaNoel’s eyes grew suddenly heavy. In seconds he was asleep standing on his feet. Valso stood, approached him, and spoke very 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, but Valso knew better. “Is that clear?” Valso repeated.
“Yes, my lord. Will that be all?”
“Yes. You may go.”
DaNoel bowed. “Thank you, my lord,” he said, then turned and left.
Valso laughed openly. It was so easy to control that one, and some day it would be just as easy to control them all.
# # #
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 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 large 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 all one needed to do was 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 it 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 deep 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 that 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 shouted.
AnnaRail stepped onto the edge of the central floor. It was a measure of the respect she commanded that she was recognized instantly, and by a Penda councilman at that. “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 that 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 very close to crossing the line. Tell BlakeDown that 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, or drag him back to that corner for more of her threats.
The debate had grown even more heated during his conversation with Olivia, and Tarare was snarling something at AnnaRail. Morgin’s unease grew, his stomach churned, and Rhianne suddenly seemed very distant.
Olivia stepped down to the floor, didn’t wait to be recognized by the Council. “If Lord Tarare ye 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 that your lands have already been plundered before you finish your consideration.”
BlakeDown appeared suddenly out of 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 could sense 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 as if it were a living creature from beyond life. He could sense 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 could see the fear in her eyes. She began walking toward him, slowly at first, then more quickly. But just as she approached him she veered away from him, walked past him, and he realized she was moving toward 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 growled at Morgin’s soul.
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 shout a warning, so he brought his free hand around to join the other in a two handed death grip, and suddenly the sword screamed at him to release it, to free it so it could taste blood as it was meant to. 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 very 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 was sliding 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 being 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. He realized then that 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 to . . . hold it.”
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 suddenly 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 that his strength would not fail him.
But his strength was not inexhaustible, and soon his battle narrowed to his hands, and the death grip they had upon the hilt, until the world about him receded and he could see 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 very ground beneath her had split and a volcano of malevolent power were 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 that the attack would not come again, that it was finished, and then she realized that it was finished only for her, not for Morgin.
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 she knew she had to 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 suddenly 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. It was followed quickly by an inhuman growl of hatred, and vast waves of power crashed outward from the Hall. A large crack suddenly 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, coalescing it about her as if it were a shield, then feeding it into the stone of the walls about them. She turned suddenly 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 began to sense 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 were constructing, she sensed again the special affinity that 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 suddenly realized 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 had to force himself not to shout with 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, and that was 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 very 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 week 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 suddenly 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 his power. “You did that,” DaNoel snarled 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 with himself 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 murder. You murdered the guard. Did you help the Decouix escape?”
When her eyes flashed DaNoel realized he’d given himself away with a look. He reached out and gripped her viciously by the throat. “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 growled at her, 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.
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