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NINETEEN: Funerals and Assassins

Haaken rode at his brother's side. Gjerdrum and Derel trailed them. It was the morning after the day following Eanredson's return. He had arranged the funeral quickly, for Victory Day, for whatever symbolic value that might have.

Behind them. Dr. Wachtel rode in a small carriage. He was too fragile for a horse. He would be an important speaker. His honesty was beyond question. His testimony would dispel rumors surrounding the Queen's passing-though he wouldn't tell the whole truth.

The word had spread quickly. The streets were human rivers flowing northward.

Ragnarson told Haaken, "Keep a sharp watch. This mess is perfect for an assassination."

"I'm watching." He glanced around. "Something we should talk about. Ragnar."

"Oh?"

"He's bound for trouble. And he won't listen."

"What is it?"

"A girl."

"That all? Well. The little devil. Ain't fifteen yet.... You remember Inger, Hjarlma's daughter, back home? I was about his age when...."

"If you won't take it.serious either...."

"Wait. Wait. I do. These southerners worry about that crap. Never understood why. She somebody's daughter?"

"No. Her father's one of Ahring's sergeants. It wouldn't be a political thing. I'm just thinking we've got trouble enough already."

"Okay. I'll talk to him. Where is he, anyway?"

"With Valther and his bunch."

"Maybe I'll keep him closer."

"You keep saying that."

"I get distracted. Damn, I miss Elana." He sagged in his saddle, momentarily overwhelmed by past emotions.

They encountered Valther on the road. Ragnarson asked, "You found anything, Valther?"

"No. Except that there were three men involved in Nepanthe's disappearance. I found their hostelry. The landlord thought they were guards off a caravan from Throyes."

"Ah. And Throyens look pretty much like desert people."

"Same stock. But they wouldn't have told the truth, would they?"

"Why not? Still, even if they were, they were just hired blades. Anything else? Mist?"

"I can't find much. No Nepanthe. No Haroun. No Mocker. Nothing here in Kavelin...."

"Trebilcock," Valther said.

"I'm getting to it."

"What about him?"

"I located him. He and a man named Dantice are in the Savernake Gap. Apparently following Nepanthe."

"What the hell? I told him to keep his ears open, not to.... Following? You sure?"

"No."

"I hope so. This could be a. real break."

"You want I should send a squadron after them?" Haaken asked. "In case they need help?"

"Let them run free. Trebilcock don't attract much attention. They might lead him to the guy running the assassins. But I'm not doing this right. Valther. She's your sister. What do you think? Should we risk it?"

The spymaster pondered, looked to his wife for support, thought some more. "She seems safe, doesn't she? If they meant her harm, they'd have done it already.... I don't know. Using your own sister...."

"You've done it before. For smaller stakes."

"All right. Let it ride. We have Turran to avenge. And my other brothers. Brock. Luxos. Ridyeh. Okay. But I hope this Trebilock is competent."

"I think so. There's a man under that weird facade."

"I'm trusting you. Now, what about Oryon? He going peacefully?"

"Yes. He's in a hurry to find out what's up at High Crag. I don't like him, but he's okay. He believes in the Guild. Which's a plus now. If someone in the Citadel is conspiring with Shinsan he'll root them out. He'll leave at sunrise. Which reminds me. Gjerdrum. What's planned for tonight?"

There was little festivity this Victory Day, despite Ragnar-son's proclamation asking Vorgreberg to give the Guildsmen a good send-off.

"Won't be much," Gjerdrum replied. "Nobody's interested. This." He indicated cemetery and mob. "And politics."

Ragnarson had been elected Regent but his position wasn't unshakeable. The Nordmen already were accusing him of dictatorial excess. And he had been high-handed occasionally, especially in preparing for mobilization. He had explained to a handful of supporters in the Thing, but hadn't yet taken his case to the opposition.

He would have to make time. The sympathy generated by his announcement of Elana's murder wouldn't last.

They went up to the Royal Mausoleum. "Everybody in town must be here," Haaken observed. Crowds packed the hillside.

Trumpets sounded in the distance.

"Jarl's coming," Gjerdrum said.

The procession could be seen clearly from the hilltop. The Queen's Own Horse Guards, in full dress, rode ahead of the hearse, behind the heavy battle of Haaken's Vorgrebergers. Immediately behind the hearse were scores of knights in gleaming armor, many of them carefully chosen Nordmen barons. Behind them, afoot, came the leaders of the otherethnic groups, including chieftains of the Marena Dimura. Bringing up the rear was another battle of light horse. So that the glory of the knights wouldn't be eclipsed, no regular heavy cavalry had been included.

This wasn't just a send-off for a monarch, it was a major politicalevent, with shows of unity and fence-mending. Key men had to be honored. Selected loyalists from each ethnic group would deliver eulogies. Members of the diplomatic community would contribute remarks-and watch closely for weaknesses.

Ragnarson's heart throbbed with the measured beat of Vorgreberger drums. "Derel, Gjerdrum, I appreciate this. What would I do without you?"

"You'd make do," Prataxis replied. "You got along without me before I came." Yet he was pleased. His employer tended totake for granted the competence of his associates.

It was a beautiful morning. The sky was intensely blue. A few stately cumulus towers glided sedately eastward. A gentle, chilly breeze teased through the graveyard, but the morning promised a comfortable afternoon. It was that sort of spring day which made it hard to believe there were shadows in the earth. It was a day for lying back in the green, courting cloud castles, thinking how perfect life was. It was a day for dreaming impossible dreams, like the brotherhood of man, world peace, and freedom from hunger.

Even a funeral that was a national enterprise couldn't blunt spirits sharpened by the weather.

The blunting came later, with the endless speeches already wearing the edge off.

Ragnarson had made his speech earlier. Like every speaker before and since, he had been windier than necessary. He had discarded the unification theme prepared by Derel, speaking instead of Fiana and her dreams, then of the threat Ravelin faced. He revealed almost everything, which unsettled his associates.

"Just trying to warn them," he told Valther. "And let them know it's not hopeless."

Secrecy was a fetish with Valther. He didn't tell anybody anything the person didn't absolutely have to know.

The crisis came during act ing ambassador Achmed's strained praise of Fiana.

Three men plunged from the crowd, short swords in hand. One went for Valther, one for Mist, the third for Ragnarson. Bragi, arguing with Valther, didn't see them.

Haaken threw himself in front of his brother. He took a stroke along his ribs while dragging Bragi's assailant down. He also tripped the man going for Valther.

Gjerdrum and Derel tried to intercept the third assassin. Both failed.

Mist's eyes widened. Surprise, fear, horror plundered her beauty. The sword bit deeply....

Something like a shouted song parted her lips.

Thunder rolled across the blue sky.

Haaken, two assassins, Gjerdrum, and Prataxis stopped rolling across the hillside. Ragnarson gave up trying to smash heads. Valther stumbled, flung headlong from the impetus of his charge toward his wife. The crowd stopped yelling.

For an instant Mist was enveloped by fire. Then the fire stepped away, leaving behind a feminine silhouette in thick fog. The fire wore Mist's shape.

The assassin screamed and screamed, thrashing like a broken-backed cat. The fire-thing was merciless. It grew brighter and brighter as its victim became a wrinkled, sunburned husk sprinkled with oozing sores.

Finally, it left him.

And turned to the man who had tried for Valther.

The crowd began withdrawing, threatening panic.

"Wait!" Ragnarson bellowed."It'stheenemy ofourenemies. It won't harm anybody else."

Nobody believed him. Common folk didn't trust anything about sorcerers and sorcery.

The man who had attacked Haaken ran for it. He and his comrades had been pledged to die, but not like this.

The fire-thing caught him.

"You all right?" Bragi asked Haaken.

"In a minute. He kneed me."

Bragi examined the sword cut. Haaken would need new clothes, and his hauberk the attention of an armorer, but his only injury would be a bruise.

M ist's fire avatar finished the third assassin, floated up thirty feet, hovered. Ragnarson again tried to calm the crowd. A few braver souls listened. The panic began dying.

The fire avatar drifted, hunting enemies.

"Mist," Ragnarson growled, "stop it. You might nail somebody we don't want to lose."

The fire thing seemed interested in the Nordmen knights. With Nordmen, sedition was a way of thought.

It drifted to the shadow-Mist. They coalesced.

Ragnarson ordered the ceremonies resumed, joined Valther.

Mist was badly wounded, but didn't seem concerned. "I'll heal myself," she gasped. "Won't be a scar." She touched Valther's cheek. "Thank you for trying," she told Gjerdrum.

Then Ragnarson noticed Prataxis. He rushed to the man. What would he do without Derel's steady hand directing the everyday work of his offices?

But Prataxis wasn't dead. He had the same problem as Haaken.

Those who spoke after Achmed gave short speeches. Crowd noise settled to a buzz.

Then the Unborn made its public debut. It followed the road from Vorgreberg, floating twenty feet high. Beneath, three men marched with jerky steps, frequently stumbling.

The people didn't like what they saw.

Neither did Ragnarson.

The thing in the milky globe was a malformed fetus thrice normal birth-size, and it radiated something that drove people from its path. Its captives, strutting like the living dead, wore faces ripped by silent screams.

Straight to Ragnarson they came. Haaken's Guards interposed themselves. They had seen the Gosik of Aubuchon at Baxendala, had seen fell sorceries, but they were frightened. Yet they stood, as they had stood at Baxendala, while facing the terrible might of the Dread Empire.

"Easy," Ragnarson said. "It's on our side."

Unhappy faces turned his way. Men muttered. It wasn't right to form alliances like this.

The automaton-men halted five paces away. Ragnarson saw no life in their eyes.

One's mouth moved. A sephulcral voice said, "These are your enemies. Ask. They will answer."

Ragnarson shuddered. This thing of Varthlokkur's.... Powerful. And terrifying.

The crowd began evaporating. Fiana had been popular, especially with the majority Wessons, but folks weren't going to bury her if it meant suffering a constant barrage of unpleasant surprises. All they wanted was to run their homes and shops and pretend, to hide from tomorrow.

"What's your name?" Ragnarson demanded.

"Ain Hamaki."

"Why are you here?"

"To slay our enemies."

"Who sent you?"

No response. Ragnarson glanced at the Unborn.

Another captive replied, "He doesn't know. None do. Their leader brought them from Throyes."

"Find the leader."

"He lies behind you."

Ragnarson glanced at the withered bodies.

One husk twitched. Its limbs moved randomly. Slowly, grotesquely, it rose.

The more bold and curious of the crowd, who had waited to see what would happen also left for town. Even a few soldiers decided they had seen enough.

"Ask," said the dead man.

Ragnarson repeated his questions. He received similar answers. This one had had orders. He had tried to carry them out.

He collapsed into the pile.

Another spoke. He was a leader of Nine. He believed there were eight more Nines preparing Ravelin.

"Preparing Kavelin for what?"

"What is to come."

"Shinsan?"

The Unborn replied, "Perhaps. He didn't know."

"Uhm. Scour the kingdom for the rest of these....Whatever they are."

The three collapsed.

The Unborn whipped away so rapidly the air shrieked.

"Grab them," Ragnarson ordered. "Throw them in the dungeons."

He worried. Their organization had the earmarks of a cult like the Harish, or Merthrgul, being used politically. He didn't recognize it, though he had traveled the east in his youth.

"Derel. Gjerdrum. You're educated. That tell you anything?"

Both shook their heads.

"We keep getting information, but we're not learning anything. Nothing fits together."

"If that thing really is going to help," Valther said, "I'd say we've taken the initiative. It should free us of assassins."

Ragnarson smiled thinly. "And save you some work, eh?"

"That too. It dredges up all those people, I'll have time to concentrate on my real job. Keeping tabs on home-grown troublemakers."

"How's Mist?"

"Be like new in a week." Softly, "I'd hoped she wouldn't get involved. Guess our enem-ies don't see it my way."

"O Shing owes her."

"I know. Nobody ever believes a wizard has retired. We'd better be careful," he added. "When they realize they're doomed, they might try to do as much damage as they can."

He was right. Before week's end Ragnarson had lost Thorn Altenkirk, who commanded the Royal Damhorsters, theregiment garrisoning Kavelin's six westernmost provinces, plus three of his strongest supporters in the Thing, his Minister of Finance, the Chairman of Council in Sdelmayr, and a dozen lesser officials and officers who would be missed. There were unsuccessful attacks on most of his major followers. His friend Kildragon, who commanded the Midlands Light in the military zone immediately behind Altenkirk's, established a record by surviving four attacks. The bright side was that the enemy wasn't overly selective. They went for Ragnarson's opponents too. For anyone important.

Many of the assassins taken were native Kaveliner hirelings.

Terrorism declined as the Unborn marched foreigner after foreigner into imprisonment. He captured sixty-three. A handful escaped to neighboring states. Radeachar followed. When its actions couldn't be traced, it amused itself by tormenting them as a cat might.

Kavelin soon became more peaceful than at any time in living memory. When Radeachar patrolled the nights, even the most blackhearted men behaved. A half dozen swift bringings-to-justice of notorious criminals convinced their lesser brethren that retribution was absolute, inevitable, and final.

It was a peaceful time, a quiet time, but not satisfying. Beneath the surface lay the knowledge that it was just a respite. Ragnarson strove valiantly to order his shaken hierarchy and prepare for the next round. He trained troops relentlessly, ordered the state for war, yet pressed the people to extend themselves in the pursuits of peacetime, trying by sheer will to make Kavelin strong militarily and economically.

Then Michael Trebilcock came home.


EIGHTEEN: The Unborn | All Darkness Met | TWENTY: The Dragon Emperor



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