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TWENTY-TWO: Eye of the Storm

Protected by the Unborn, Ravelin became bucolic. The common folk accepted that happily.

At the Palace they smelled the electricity of the calm before the tempest, yet couldn't keep an edge on. The quiet became possessive.

Even problems like Altea's refusal to permit Oryon passage didn't alter the atmosphere of well-being. Ragnarson quietly arranged transit through Anstokin and Ruderin, and asked caravaneers headed west to follow Oryon. Altea's mercantile houses depended on the eastern trade as much as Ravelin's. The new Altean leadership quickly became less obdurate.

The swift-flying rumor that Haroun had abandoned his armies to his son disturbed no one either. Ragnarson didn't believe it. He felt it a ploy to lull Al Rhemish.

The Thing did little to find a new King. Their one candidate, Fiana's baby brother, fourteen-year-old Lian Melicar Sardygo, didn't want the job. He and his father were downright rude in their refusal of the committee's invitation to visit Ravelin. They said they would come only to visit Fiana's tomb.

Ragnarson, often with Ragnar and Gundar, made a daily pilgrimage to the cemetery. He had the boys pick wild flowers along the lane. Then, till after dark, he would sit by Elana's grave. Too often, he counted headstones. Elana. Inger. Soren. Rolf. And two earlier children who had died soon after birth, before they could be named. He had had them moved here.

Sometimes he took a few flowers to the Royal Mausoleum, to Fiana's plain, glass-topped casket. Varthlokkur's artifices had restored her beauty. She looked as though she might waken.... The old, secret smile lay on her lips. She looked peaceful and happy.

There were times, too, when he would visit Turran's grave, his face clouded. Once they had been enemies, and had become allies. He had considered the man almost a brother.

Yet strange things happen.

He felt no resentment, except against himself.

The days passed into weeks and months. He spent evermore time on his morbid jaunts. Prataxis, Gjerdrum, Haaken, Ahring assumed more of his duties. Ragnar began to worry. He had idolized his mother, and, though a little frightened by him, loved his father. He knew it was unhealthy to spend so much time mourning.

He went to Haaken. But Haaken had no suggestions. Blackfang remained steadfast in his belief that the family should return to Trolledyngja. The political compulsion for exile no longer obtained. The Pretender had abdicated-by virtue of a dagger between his ribs. The Old House had been restored. Heroes of the resistance were collecting rewards. Lands were being returned.

Bragi never considered returning, neither when the news first came down, nor now.

Someday he would go. He had family obligations there. But not now. There were greater obligations here.

Except that he was getting nothing accomplished.

Then Michael Trebilcock returned.

Trebilcock finally sought Haaken at the War Office. He had waited hours with Prataxis, and Ragnarson hadn't shown.

Haaken listened. An evil, angry smile invaded his face. It exposed the discolored teeth that had given him his name.

"Boy, this's what we've been waiting for." He strapped on his sword. "Dahl!" he called to his adjutant.

"Sir?"

"It's war. Spread the word. But quietly. You understand? It'll be a call-up."

"Sir? Who?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you. Get on it. Come on, man," he told Trebilcock. "We'll find him."

Dantice had remained to one side all afternoon. Now he said, "Mike, I'd better see my father."

"Suit yourself. He could wait another day, couldn't he? If you want to see the Marshall...."

"Marshall, smarshall. What's he to me? My Dad's probably half-crazy worrying."

"Okay."

After they parted with Aral, Haaken observed, "I like that boy. He's got perspective." He didn't elaborate, nor did he speak again till they reached the cemetery. Blackfang was no conversationalist.

Trebilcock replied, "The trip changed him."

They found Bragi, Ragnar, and Gundar at Elana's grave, with the usual flowers and tears. Haaken approached quietly, but the boys heard him. Ragnar met his gaze and shrugged.

Haaken sat beside his foster brother. He said nothing till Bragi noticed him.

"What's up, Haaken?" Ragnarson tossed a pebble at an old Obelisk. "More bureaucratic pettifoggery?"

"No. It's important this time."

"They've got it made, you know."

"Huh? Who?"

"These people. Nothing but peace under the ground."

"I wonder."

"Do you? Damnit, when I say...."

"Father!"

"What's your problem, boy?"

"You're acting like an ass." He wouldn't have dared had Haaken not been there. Haaken always took his part. He thought.

Ragnarson started to rise. Haaken seized his arm, pulled him back.

Bragi was big. Six-five, and two hundred twenty-five pounds of muscle. His years at the Palace hadn't devoured his vitality.

Haaken was bigger. And stronger. And more stubborn. "The boy's right. Sit down and listen."

Trebilcock seated himself facing them. He wrinkled his nose. He was fastidious. He picked dirt and grass, real and imagined, off his breeches the whole time he told his tale.

Ragnarson wasn't interested, despite Michael's rending the veils of mysteries that had plagued him for months.

"Why didn't you bring them out?" Haaken asked. Michael hadn't told it all earlier.

"They separated her from Ethrian. She wanted to stay. And they had a man there, who wore black, and a golden mask.... He would've found us in minutes if he'd known we were there. Probably before we could get out of town."

Ragnarson looked thoughtful when Michael mentioned theman in the mask, then lapsed into indifference again.

"I never saw a city that big.... It made Hellin Daimiel look like a farm town. Oh. I almost forgot. She said to bring you this. Well, Varthlokkur, but he isn't around. It might not wait till he finds me." He handed Ragnarson an ebony casket.

Bragi accepted with a slight frown. "Elana's thing." He turned it over and over before trying to open it..

The lid popped up....

The ruby within was alive, was afire. It painted their faces indevil shades.

"Please close it."

They jumped. Swords whined out. They looked upward.

"Close it!"

Ragnarson kicked the lid shut.

Varthlokkur descended from the sky, his vast cloak flapping about him. Above him floated the Unborn.

Trebilcock, Ragnarson thought, at least had the decency to be surprised. Hopefully, someday, he would be afraid too.

"Where the hell did you come from?" Haaken demanded.

"Afar. Radeachar came for me when he saw the pale man and his companion coming through the Gap. You were hard to locate. What're you doing here?"

Haaken made a gesture which included Ragnarson, Elana's grave, and the Royal Mausoleum.

Meantime, Bragi lost interest again. He sat down, reopened the casket.

"Damnit, I said close it!" Varthlokkur growled.

Ragnarson quietly drew his sword.

High, high above, a tiny rider on a winged steed spied another red flash. He circled lower, passing over unseen because he was invisible from below. He recognized three of the men. "Damn!" he spat. He soared, and raced northward. He didn't notice the great bird which circled higher still.

Varthlokkur shuddered and glanced around, feeling some-thing. But there was nothing to see.

The Unborn darted this way and that. It had felt the presence too. After a moment it settled into position above Varthlokkur'shead.

The others felt it too. Bragi lowered his blade, looked around, realized what he was doing. Attacking Varthlokkur? With simple steel?

It was getting dark. Ragnar lighted the torches he alwaysbrought because his father so often dallied till after nightfall.

The flames repulsed the encroachment of night....

Something shifted, made a small mewling sound beyond the light.

Weapons appeared again. A soft, hissing voice said, "Enough. I come in friendship."

Ragnarson shuddered. He knew that voice. "Zindahjira."

That sorce'rer's life-path had crossed his before. The first time had been once too often. Zindahjira wasn't even human-or so Bragi suspected. When this wizard went abroad by daylight, he wrapped himself in a blackness which reversed the function of a torch.

Varthlokkur was the more powerful, the more dread magician, but, at least, came in human form.

Must be what we sensed, Ragnarson thought.

Something else moved at the edge of the firelight. Bragi had the satisfaction of seeing Michael Trebilcock startled.

Two more things appeared. One went by the name The Thing With Many Eyes, the other, Gromacki, The Egg Of God. Each was as inhuman as Zindahjira, though not of his species.

They were sorcerers of renown and had gathered from the far reaches of the west. With them were a half-dozen men in varied costume. Not a one spoke. Each seated himself on the graveyard grass.

"This's the right place," Haaken muttered.

"Who are they?" Ragnar asked, terrified. Gundar, luckily, had fallen asleep during Michael's story.

Trebilcock kept his sword ready. He was wondering too.

"The Prime Circle. The chief sorcerers of the west," Haaken whispered.

Cold steel fingers stroked Ragnarson's spine. Fear stalked his nerves. It was a dark day when this group covened, putting their vicious grievances in abeyance. "One's missing," he observed.

When last they had gathered it had been for Baxendala, to greet the eastern sorcery with their own.

An implacable enmity for the Tervola was the one thing they had in common.

"He comes," said the mummylike being called Kierle the Ancient. His words hung on the air like smoke on a still, muggy morning.

An inhuman scream clawed the underbelly of the night. Torchlight momentarily illuminated the undersides of vastwings. A rush of air almost extinguished Ragnar's brands. Anxiously, he lighted more.

The flying colossus hit ground thunderously. "Goddamned clumsy, worthless, boneheaded.... Sorry, boss."

A middle-aged dwarf soon strutted into the light. "What the hell is this? Some kind of wake? Any of you bozos got something to drink?"

"Marco," said a gentle voice.

The dwarf shut up and sat. Ragnarson rose, extended a hand. The newcomer was an old friend, Visigodred, Count Menda-layas, from northern Itaskia. Their lives had crossed frequently, and they almost trusted one another.

"We're all here," Varthlokkur observed. "Marshall...." "Who was that on the winged horse?" Visigodred asked. Everyone looked puzzled. Including Varthlokkur, who should have understood.

Ragnarson caught it, though. He remembered seeing a winged horse over Baxendala missed by everyone but himself. He remembered thinking the rider was a mystery which needed solving.... But by someone else. Even this convocation couldn't excite him for long.

Varthlokkur went on. "Marshall, I tracked bin Yousif into Trolledyngja, where he had overtaken Colonel Balfour. He's back in the south somewhere now."

Since Bragi didn't ask, Haaken did. "What happened?" "I don't know. Bin Yousif was thorough. He didn't even leave a shade I could call up. But he got something, fast as he rode south."

"Michael," said Haaken, "tell the wizards your story." Varthlokkur was in a state before Trebilcock finished. "Shinsan, Shinsan," he muttered. "Always Shinsan. They've done this to force me to obey. How is it that they always cloud my mind? Must be something they did while I studied there.... Was she well? Was she safe? Why Argon? Why not Shinsan? Marshall, what'd you do with the jewel? That we must unravel if we're to repulse O Shing again. It won't be just four legions this time."

His words gushed. The man in the golden mask-he must be one of O Shing's craftiest Tervola-had conjured one hell of a dilemna for Varthlokkur.

Dull-eyed, staring at Elana's grave, Ragnarson handed himthe casket. Varthlokkur frowned, not understanding Bragi's lassitude.

Haaken touched his cloak diffidently. He beckoned Visigo-dred, led both a short distance away, explained Bragi's problem.

Behind them, having grown bored, Zindahjira created balls of blue fire, juggled them amongst his several hands. He threw them into the air. They coalesced into a whirling sphere which threw off visible words like sparks flying from a grindstone.

He was a show-off. A loudmouth and a braggart. For some quirky reason, he liked being called Zindahjira the Silent.

The blue words were in many languages, but when they queued up in sentences they invariably proclaimed some libel on Visigodred's character.

Their feud was so old it was antique. What irritated Zindahjira most was that Visigodred wouldn't fight back. He simply neutralized every attack and otherwise ignored the troglodytic wizard.

Visigodred ignored him now, though his assistant, the dwarf, made a few remarks too softly to reach his master's ears. Zindahjira became furious....

This sort of thing had driven Ragnarson to distraction in the past. It symbolized the weakness of the west. The wolves of doom could be snuffling at the windows and doors and everyone would remain immersed in their own petty bickerings. Right now Kiste and Vorhangs were threatening war. The northern provinces of Volstokin were trying to secede to form an independent kingdom, Nonverid. The influence of Itaskia was the only stabilizing force in the patchwork of little states making up the remainder of the west.

It was hard to care about people who didn't care about themselves.

Visigodred and Varthlokkur came to an agreement. The former returned with Haaken. The other went to the Mausoleum of the Kings.

The Prime Circle watched in silence.

The necromancy didn't take long. Neither woman had been dead long.

Even now, with ghosts walking, Michael Trebilcock showed no fear. But Ragnar whimpered.

That alerted Bragi. He drew his sword. What devilment...?

He recognized the wraiths, saw the sadness in their faces,their awareness of one another. "Have you no decency?" he thundered, whirling his blade.

Invisible hands seized him. His weapon slipped from numbed fingers, falling so that it stuck in the soft graveyard earth. The hands compelled him to face the ghosts.

A voice said, "Settle it. Finish it. Make your peace. Slay your grief. A kingdom can't await one man's self-pity." It was no voice he knew. Perhaps it was no voice at all, but the focused thought of that dread circle.

Both women reached out to him. Hurt crossed their faces when they couldn't touch him.

He was compelled to look at them.

There was no hatred, no accusation in his Queen. She didn't blame him for her death. And in Elana there was no damnation for his having failed her, in life or in death. She had known about Fiana. She had forgiven long before her death. In each there was a stubborn insistence that he was doing himself no good with his morbid brooding. He had children to raise and a kingdom to defend. All Elana asked was that he try to understand and forgive her, as she had done for him.

He had forgiven her already. Understanding was more difficult. First he had to understand himself.

He believed he had always done poorly by women. They always paid cruel prices for having been his lovers....

He tried to tell Elana why he had buried Rolf Preshka nearher....

She began fading back into her new realm. As did Fiana. He shouted after one, then the other, calling them back. Fiana left him with the thought that the future lay not in a graveyard. He had maneuvered himself into a Regency. Now he must handle it.

Kavelin. Kavelin. Ravelin. Always she thought of Ravelinfirst.

Well, almost. She had allowed Kavelin to come second occasionally, and had paid a price, her belly ripped by the exit of a thing conceived in the heart of darkness. That darkness was responsible for Elana, too. And two dozen others. His friend Mocker....

Something could be done.

Tendrils of the anger, the outrage, the hatred which had driven him during his ride from Rarak Strabger insinuated themselves through his depression. He glanced round, for the first time fully grasped the significance of this gathering.

203

Ravelin's peace was a false peace behind which darkness marshaled. This mob would not be here were the confrontations not to begin soon.

Nepanthe. Argon. It was all he had to work on. He would pick it up from there....

"Michael. Walk with me. Tell me about Argon." He recovered his sword and strode from the circle, eyes downcast but mind functioning once more.

Early next morning, as the sun broke over the Kapenrungs, he figuratively and literally followed an innkeeper's advice. He went onto the ramparts of Castle Krief and stomped and yelled. This was no quiet alert to the army and reserves, this was a bloody call to a crusade, an emotional appeal calculated to stir a hunger for war.

That innkeeper had been right about the mood of the country folk, the Wesson peasants and Marena Dimura forest-runners.


TWENTY-ONE: The King Is Dead. Long Live the King | All Darkness Met | TWENTY-THREE: The Hidden Kingdom



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