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ELEVEN: Marshall and Queen

Ragnarson's party reached Karak Strabger at midnight. Bragi grumbled about the castle's disrepair. It hadn't seen mainte-nance since the civil war. Something needed doing. Baxendala was crucial to Kavelin's defense.

Fortifications were like women past thirty. They required constant attention or quickly fell apart.

He gave his mount to one of the tiny garrison, glanced at Varthlokkur.

"Not time yet. She's resting. We have a day."

"I'll go see her. For a minute. Ragnar, stay with Mr. Eldred. The duty corporal will find you someplace to sleep."

"I need it," Ragnar replied. A shadow crossed his brow.

"I'll be down in a minute." He hugged his son. They had lost a lot, and had had too much time to remember while riding.

Ragnarson wasn't a demonstrative man. His hug startled Ragnar, but clearly pleased him. "Go on. And behave. Everybody in the army has permission to wax your ass if you act up."

It was a long climb. Gjerdrum and Dr. Wachtel had wanted Fiana inacessible.

She was alone except for a maid asleep in a chair. Only a candle beside her bed illuminated the room.

He stood over Fiana awhile, staring at beauty wasted by pain. She slept peacefully now, though. He wouldn't disturb her after what Varthlokkur suggested she had been through.

Gone was the elfin quality that had stunned him when first they met. But she had been barely twenty then, and tormented only by the cares of office.

The maid wakened. "Oh. Sir!"

"Shh!"

She joined him.

"How is she?"

"Better tonight. Last night....We thought.... It's good you're here. It'll help. That you couldn't be.....That made it hard. Can you stay?"

"Yes. There's no reason not to anymore."

The maid's blue eyes widened.

"Do I sound bitter?" His attention returned to the pain lines on Fiana's face. "Poor thing."

"Wake her. I'll go."

"I shouldn't. She needs the rest."

"She needs you more. Goodnight, sir."

He settled on the edge of the bed, stared, thought. A good man, that innkeeper had said. And he had brought Fiana to this.

He liked to believe he was one of the good guys. Wanted-even needed-to think so. By the standards of his age, he was. So why was it that every woman who entered his life got nothing but pain for her trouble? How happy had he made Fiana? Or Elana? He never should have married. Pleasure he should have taken in chance encounters and houses of joy. Elana would have been better off with Preshka. The Iwa Skolovdan would have done right by her....

He was holding Fiana's hand. Too tightly. Her eyelids fluttered. He stared into pale blue eyes pleasantly surprised.

"You came," she murmured.

He thought of Elana. A tear escaped.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Nothing to worry your pretty head about. Go back to sleep."

"What? Why? Oh! You look terrible."

"I didn't clean up."

"I don't care. You're here."

He smoothed her hair on her cerulean pillow. The blue framed her blondness prettily. The maid had taken good care of her hair. Good girl. She knew how to buoy sinking spirits.

"You're exhausted. What've you been doing?"

"Not much. Haven't slept for a couple days."

"Trouble? Is that why you came?"

"No. Don't worry about it. Come on. Go back to sleep. We'll talk in the morning."

She eased over. The mound of her belly was incredibly huge. Elana had never been that big. "Here. Lay down with me."

"I can't."

"Please? You've never stayed with me all night. Do it now."

"I brought my son. I told him I'd be back down."

"Please?"

He bit his lip.

"It might be the last time we can." Fear crossed her face. "I'm scared. I won't live through it. It's so bad...."

"Now wait a minute. There's nothing to worry about. You'll be all right. Funny. Women always get so scared. They go through it all the time. Elana..."

She wasn't offended. "It's not like before. It hurt last time, but only when the baby came." Her eyes moistened. Her daughter, a precocious, delightful blonde elf, had died mysteriously soon after the civil war. That had been one of Fiana's great sorrows. Another had been the passing of her husband, the old King, an event which had precipitated the civil war.

"Come on. Stay."

He couldn't refuse her. The look in her eyes....

"Now," she said after he slipped in beside her, "tell me what happened."

"Nothing. Don't worry."

She was persistent. And he didn't need much encouragement. He had to loose the grief sometime.

She cried with him. Then they slept.

And no one disturbed them. Her people were discreet.

It was afternoon when Ragnarson wakened. Fiana immedi-ately asked, "You think it's Shinsan again?"

"Who else? Wish I had a way to hit back. If it weren't for you, and Kavelin, I'd head east right now, and not stop till I had my sword through O Shing's heart." Someday, he thought. Maybe with Varthlokkur's help. The wizard had his own grudge against Shinsan.

He hadn't mentioned Varthlokkur. What he had revealed had troubled Fiana enough. And had done her good. Worrying about Kavelin distracted her. Knowing her condition had drawn Varthlokkur from his eyrie might crack what control she retained.

"Darling, I've got to go downstairs. Ragnar will think I abandoned him. And Wachtel is probably dancing in the hall, trying to decide if he should stick his nose in."

"I know. Come back. Please? As soon as you can?"

"I Will."

And he did, with Varthlokkur and Wachtel. Varthlokkur had conjured sorcerer's devices from Fangdred-and had frightened half the Queen's staff out of Karak Strabger.

What wild rumors were afoot in Baxendala?

Ragnarson kept his promise, but Fiana never knew. Her siege of agony had resumed. She screamed and screamed while Bragi and the doctor held her so she wouldn't hurt herself.

"It's worse this time," said Wachtel. He was a kindly old gentleman who winced with every contraction. He had been Royal Physician for longer than Fiana had been alive, was one of those rare Kaveliners of whom Ragnarson had heard no evil at all. Like Michael Trebilcock, he was unacquainted with fear. Varthlokkur didn't impress him except as a respectable physician.

Wachtel knew the wizard's history. Varthlokkur had learned life-magicks from the Old Man of the Mountain, who was believed to be the master of the field.

"Hold her!" Varthlokkur snapped. "I've got to touch her...."

Bragi pressed down on her shoulders. She tried to bite. Wachtel struggled with her ankles. The wizard laid hands on her belly. "Never seen a woman this pregnant. You're sure it's only eight months?"

"That's what disturbs me," Wachtel said, nodding. His face was taut, tired. "You'd think she was delivering a colt."

"It's overdue. You're positive...? Oh!" He touched hastily, his face smeared with sudden incredulity. "Wachtel. You have anything to quiet her?"

"I didn't want to give her something and be sorry later."

"Give it to her. She'll need it. We'll have to cut. No woman could dilate enough to deliver this."

Wachtel eyed him-then released Fiana's ankles. The wizard assumed his place.

"Over twenty pounds," Varthlokkur murmured.

"Impossible!"

"You know it. I do. But that thing in her womb.... Tell it, Doctor. Marshall?"

"Uhm?"

"I don't know how to tell you.... I'm not sure I understand. This isn't your child."

A sneak attack with a club couldn't have stunned Ragnarson more. "But.... That's impossible. She...."

"Wait! This's the part that's hard to explain."

"Go. I need something."

"Remember the plot hatched by Yo Hsi and the Captal of Savernake? As the Captal confessed it before you executed him?"

The Captal had been a rebel captain during the civil war. The Demon Prince had been his sponsor. Shinsan, to aid him, had put in the legions Ragnarson had defeated here at Baxendala. The plot had opened with the artificial insemination of Fiana, in her sleep, to create a royal heir controllable from Shinsan. To complicate their duplicity, the plotters had substituted another child for the newborn, ensuring a disputed succession.

Yo Hsi had made one grave error. Fiana's child had been a girl.

That had complicated matters for everyone.

Then Yo Hsi and Nu Li Hsi had been destroyed in Castle Fangdred. The plot lay fallow till Yo Hsi's daughter, Mist, resurrected it.

The ultimate failure of the rebel cause had brought the girl home to her mother. Then, during the winter, she had died of a spider bite.

"All right. Get to the point."

"This is the child meant to be born then."

"What? Bullshit. I ain't no doctor. I ain't no wizard. But I know for goddamned sure it don't take no fifteen years...."

"I confess to complete mystification myself. If this's Yo Hsi's get, then, necessarily, Carolan was your daughter."

Fiana's struggles lessened as Wachtel's drug took effect.

"Wizard, I can believe almost anything," Ragnarson said. "But there ain't no way I'll believe a woman could have my baby five years before I met her."

"Doesn't matter what you believe. You'll see when we deliver. Doctor. You agree we'll have to cut?"

"Yes. I've feared it all month. But I put off the decision, just hoping.... It should've been aborted."

"When?"

"I'll have your help?"

"If I can convince the Marshall...."

"Of what?"

"That this isn't your get. And that you should let me have it."

Ragnarson's eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"I know what you're thinking. You don't trust me. I don'tknow why. But try this. We'll deliver the child. If you want to acknowledge it then, that's your choice. If you don't, I get it. Fair enough?"

Why would Varthlokkur lie? he wondered. The man was wiser then he.... "Do it, damnit. Get it over with."

"We'll need some...."

"I've been at birthings before. Nine." Elana had had three children who had died soon after birth. "Wachtel, have what's-her-name get it. Then explain why it's not ready already."

"It is ready. Sir." Wachtel was angry. No one questioned his competence or dedication.

"Good. Get at it." Ragnarson settled on a chest of drawers. "The man will be here watching." He rested his sword across his lap. "He won't be happy if anything goes wrong."

"Lord, I can't promise anything. You know that. The mothers seldom survive the operation...."

"Doctor, I trust you. You do the cutting."

"I plan to. The man's knowledge I respect. I don't know his hand."

Wachtel began. And, despite the drugs, Fiana screamed. They bound her to the bed, and brought soldiers to help hold her, but she thrashed and screamed....

Wachtel and Varthlokkur did everything possible. Ragnar-son could never deny that.

Nothing helped.

Ragnarson held her hand, and wept.

Tears didn't change anything either.

Nor did the most potent of Varthlokkur's life-magicks. "You can't beat the Fates."

"Fates? Damn the Fates! Keep her alive!" Ragnarson seized his sword.

"Sir, you may be Marshall," Wachtel shouted. "You may have the power to slay me. But, by damned, this's my field. Sit down, shut up, and stay the hell out of the way. We're doing everything we can. It's too late for her. We're trying to save the baby."

There was a limit to what Wachtel would tolerate, and the soldiers saw it his way.

Ragnarson's aide, Gjerdrum, and two men got between Ragnarson and the doctor.

While Wachtel operated Varthlokkur began a series of quiet little magicks. He and the doctor finished together. The child,brought forth from a dead woman, floated above the bed in a sphere the wizard had created.

Its eyes were open. It looked back at them with a cruel, knowing expression. Yet it looked like a huge baby. "That's no son of mine," Ragnarson growled sickly. "I told you that," Varthlokkur snapped. "Kill it!"

"No. You said...."

Gjerdrum looked from man to man. Wachtel confirmed Varthlokkur's claim.

"Child of evil," Ragnarson said. "Murderer.... I'll murder you...." He raised his sword.

The thing in the bubble stared back fearlessly. Varthlokkur rounded the bed. "Friend, believe me. Let it be. This child of Shinsan.... It doesn't know what it is. Those who created it don't know it exists. Give it to me. It'll become our tool. This's my competence. Attend yours. Kavelin no longer has a Queen."

Kavelin. Kavelin. Kavelin. A quarter of his life he had given to the country, and it not the land of his birth. Kavelin. The land of.... What? The women who had loved him? But Elana had been Itaskian. Fiana had come from Octylya, a child bride for an old king desperately trying to spare his homeland the ravages of a succession struggle. Kavelin. What was this little backwater state to him? A land of sorrow. A land that devoured all that he loved. A land that had claimed his time and soul for so long that he had lost the love of the woman who had made up half his soul. What did he have to sacrifice to this land to satisfy it? Was it some hungry beast that ravened everything lovely, everything dear?

He raised his sword, that his father had given him when he and Haaken were but beardless boys. The sword he had borne twenty-five years, through adventures grim, services honorable and otherwise, and days when he had been no better than the men who had murdered his children. That sword was an extension of his soul, half of the man called Bragi Ragnarson. He took it up, and whirled it above his head the way his father, Mad Ragnar, had done. Everyone backed away. He attacked the bed in which his Queen had died, in which he had lain with her, comforting her, her last night on earth. He hacked posts and sides and hangings like an insane thing, and no one tried to stop him.

"Kavelin!" he thundered. "You pimple on the ass of the world! What the hell do you want from me?"

Into his mind came a face. A simple man, an innkeeper, once had soldiered with a stranger from the north, whom he believed had come to set him free. Behind him were the faces of a hundred such men, a thousand, ten thousand, who had stood with him at Baxendala, unflinching. Peasant lads and hillmen, their hands virgin to the sword a year before, they had faced the fury of Shinsan and had refused to show their backs. Not many had been as lucky as that innkeeper. Most lay beneath the ground below the hill on which Karak Strabger stood. Thousands. Dead. Laid down because they had believed in him, because he and this woman who lay here growing cold had given them a hope for a new tomorrow.

What had Kavelin demanded of them?

"Oh, Gods!" he swore, and smashed that faithful blade against stone till it flew into a hundred shards. "Gods!" He buried his face in his hands, raked his beard with his fingers. "What do I have to do? Why must I endure this? Free me. Slay me. Keep the blades from going astray."

Wachtel, Varthlokkur, and Gjerdrum tried to restrain him.

He surged like a bear throwing off hounds, hurling them against the walls. Then he sat beside the torn body of his Queen, and again took her hand. And for a moment he thought he saw a tiny smile flicker through the agony frozen upon her dead face. He thought he heard a whisper, "Darling, go on. Finish what we started."

He threw himself onto her still form and wept. "Fiana. Please," he whispered. "Don't leave me alone."

Elana was gone. Fiana was gone. What did he have left?

Just one thing, a tiny mind-voice insisted. The bitch-goddess, the changeable child-vixen which he had come to love more than any woman.

Kavelin.

Kavelin. Kavelin. Kavelin. Damnable Kavelin.

His tears flowed.

Kavelin.

Henceforth there would be no other woman before her....

He lay there with his head on Fiana's breast till long after sundown. And when he rose, finally, with night in his eyes and tears dried, he was alone except for Gjerdrum and Ragnar.

They came to him, and held him, understanding.

Gjerdrum had loved his Queen more than life itself, though not with the love of a man for a woman. His was the love of a knight of the old romances for his sovereign, for his infallible Crown.

And Ragnar brought him the love of a forgiving son.

"Give me strength," said Ragnarson. "Help me. They've taken everything from me. Everything but you. And hatred. Stand with me, Ragnar. Don't let hate eat me. Don't let me destroy me."

He had to live, to be strong. Kavelin depended on him. Ravelin. Damnable Kavelin.

"I will, Father. I will."


TEN: Lord of Lords | All Darkness Met | TWELVE: The Stranger in Hammerfest



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