TWENTY-THREE: The Hidden Kingdom
The winged horse settled gently into the courtyard of Castle Fangdred. The fortress was even more desolate and drear now that Varthlokkur had departed. The small, bent man stalked its cold, dusty halls. When he came to them, he had no trouble passing the spells that had kept Varthlokkur from the chamber atop the Wind Tower.
He paused but a moment there, apparently doing nothing but thinking. Then he nodded and went away.
The winged horse flew eastward, to the land men named Mother of Evil when they didn't call it Dread Empire. From there he flew on to a land so far east that even the Tervola remained ignorant of its existence. The bent man believed it time to employ tools named Badalamen and Magden Norath.
It was morning, but light scarcely penetrated the overcast. Great shoals of cloud beat against the escarpments, piled up, and were driven upward by the Dragon's Teeth. From their dark underbellies they shed heavy, wet snow.
The air stirred in the chamber atop the Wind Tower. Dust moved as if disturbed by elfin footfalls.
A single muscle twitched in the cheek of the old man on the stone throne. Varthlokkur had said his former friend neither lived nor was dead. He was waiting. And his next passage through the world would be his last. He had been burned out in a life extended beyond that of any other living creature (excepting the Star Rider), and by the things he had had to do.
He had even died once and, a little late, been resurrected. It remained to be seen how much the Dark Lady had claimed of him.
An eyelid, a finger, a calf muscle, twitched. His naked flesh became covered with goose bumps.
His chest heaved. Air rushed in, wheezed out. Dust flew. Minutes passed. The old man drew another breath.
One eye opened, roved the room.
Now a hand moved, creeping like an arthritic spider. It tumbled a glass vial from the throne's arm. The tinkle of breakage was a crash in a chamber that had known silence for years.
Ruby clouds billowed, obscuring half the room. The old man breathed deeply. Life coursed through his immobile limbs. It was a more powerful draft than ever he had wakened to before, but never before had he been so near death.
He heaved himself upright, tottered to a cabinet where his witch tools were stored. He seized a container, drained it of a bitter liquid.
He operated almost by instinct. No real thoughts roiled his ancient mind. Perhaps none ever would. Lady Death had held him close.
The liquid refreshed him. In minutes he had almost normal strength.
He abandoned the room, descended a spiral stair to the castle proper. There he drew waiting, ready food from a spell-sealed oven and ate ravenously. He then carried a platter up to the tower chamber.
Still no real thoughts disturbed his mind.
He went to a wall mirror. With sepulchral words and mystic gestures he brought it to life.
A picture formed. It showed falling snow. He placed a chair and small table before it. He sat, nibbled from his tray, and watched. Occasionally, he mumbled. The eye of the mirror roamed the world. He saw some things here, some there. Like a navigator taking starshots he eventually got enough references to fix his position in time. Bewilderment creased his brow. It had been a short sleep. Little more than a decade. What had happened to necessitate his return?
Thoughts were forming now, though most were vagaries, trains of reasoning never completed. The Dark Lady had indeed held him too tightly.
Much of what he had lost could be called will and volition. Knowledge and habit remained. He would be a useful tool in skilled hands.
The hours ground away. He began uncovering events of interest. Something mysterious was happening at the headquar-ters of the Mercenaries' Guild, where soldiers ran hither and yon, parodying an overturned anthill. Smoke billowed and drifted out to sea. Curious debates were underway at the Royal Palace in Itaskia, and in the Lesser Kingdoms princes were gathering troops. The tiny state called Kavelin was a-hum.
Something was afoot.
A footfall startled him. He turned. A tall, massive man in heavy armor, in his middle twenties apparently, dark of hairand eye, met his gaze. "I am Badalamen. You are to come with me."
The absolute confidence of the man was such that the old man--his only name, that he could remember, was The Old Man of the Mountain-rose. He took three steps before balking. Then, slowly, he turned to his sorcery cabinet.
The warrior looked puzzled, as if no human had ever failed to respond to his commands.
He had been born to command, bred to command, trained from birth to command. His creator-father, Magden Norath, Master of the Laboratories of Ehelebe and second in the Pracchia, had designed him to be unresistible when he issuedorders.
His amazement lasted but a moment. He revealed the token Norath had given him. "I speak for he who gave me this."
That medallion changed the Old Man. Radically. He became docile, obedient, began packing an old canvas bag.
There was an island in the east. It was a half-mile long and two hundred yards at its widest, and lay a mile off the easternmost coast. It was rugged and barren. An ancient fortress, erected in stages over centuries, rambled down its stegosaurian spine. The coast to the west was lifeless.
It had been built during the Nawami Crusades, which had broken upon these shores before Shinsan had been a dream.
This land and its ancient wars were unknown in the west. Even the people of the so-called far east were ignorant of its existence. A band of lifeless desert a hundred miles wide scarred that whole coast.
No one remembered. There were few written histories. But the Crusades had been bitter, enduring wars.
The great ones always were. The man who orchestrated them made certain....
The born soldier led the Old Man from the transfer portal toaroom where a man in a grey smock leaned over a vast drawing table, sketching by candlelight. Badalamen departed. The man on the stool faced the Old Man.
This was the widest man he had ever seen. And tall. His head was bald, but he had long mustachios and a pointed chin beard. His facial hair and eyes were dark. There was a hint of the oriental to his features, yet his skin was so colorless veins showed through. Dark lines lurked at the corners of his eyes and mouth, and lay across his forehead like a corduroy road. His head was blockish. He was a gorilla of a man. He could intimidate anyone by sheer bulk.
The Old Man wasn't dismayed. He. had seen many men, including some who had exuded more presence than this one.
"Hello." Any other visitor might have snickered. The man's high, squeaky voice was too at odds with his physique.
There was a scar across his throat from an attempt on his life.
"I'm Magden Norath." He flashed the medallion Badalamen had shown before. "Come." He led the Old Man to the battlements.
The Old Man began remembering. The near past was gone, but, like a senile woman reliving her childhood, he had no trouble recalling remote details. He had been a player in the drama of the Crusades.
"It's changed," he said. "It's old."
Norath was startled. "You've been here before?"
"With Nahamen the Odite. The High Priestess of Reth."
Norath was puzzled. He had been led to believe that no one knew who had built the fortress.
He knew nothing about it himself, nor did he care. He saw it only as a refuge where he could continue the researches that had caused him to be driven from his homeland, Escalon, a decade before it fell to Shinsan.
"There is no need, then, to explain where we are."
"K'Mar Khevi-tan. It means The Stronghold on Khevi Island.'"
Norath eyed him speculatively. "Yes. So. It's that for the Pracchia." A smile bruised his lips. "If Ehelebe has a homeland, this is it. Come. The others have arrived by now."
"The Pracchia. The High Nine."
Enfeebled though his mind was, the Old Man didn't like what he saw.
They had gathered, sure enough, and most wore disguises. Even the bent man, whom he recognized instantly.
Only Badalamen and Norath didn't hide. They had no need.
Norath was the creative genius of the society. Beside Badalamen, he had filled the fortress with the products of other experiments. Most had to be caged.
There was a Tervola in a golden mask. A woman of middle-eastern origins. A masked man clothed as a don of the Rebsamen. A masked general from High Crag, Two more, whose origins the Old Man couldn't place. And one empty seat.
"Our brother couldn't join us," said the small man. "He couldn't leave his bed. It behooves us to consider replacements. He has cancer of the blood. No one survives that--though he whom I have summoned, had he his whole mind, might have arrested it. Sit, my friend."
The Old Man took the empty chair.
The Tervola spoke. "Question. How do we deal with this monster created by Varthlokkur? It betrays our agentseverywhere."
Others agreed. The Mercenary added, "It's demoralized th working Nines. We're on the run. Our people are cowering in the Hidden Places to escape the Unborn. In Kavelin it merely collected them. Now that it haunts the entire west, it's killing. Cruelly. It's kept us from moving for weeks. I've lost touch with what's going on in Ravelin. Maybe our brother from Shinsan, with his sight, has seen,"
Golden Mask shook his head. "Not only the Unborn is there. Varthlokkur is. Mist is. They've veiled the country. Only the living eye itself can see there."
And a certain mirror, but the Old Man volunteered nothing.
He who was first said, "I was there last night. In the evening. Iwas bound toward High Crag when I noticed a red light.
Descending, I saw Varthlokkur, the Regent, and three moremen gathered over the Tear of Mimizan...."
A susurrus ran through the room. Norath growled, "I thought it had disappeared."
"It reappeared. In a cemetery, with five men. And, about to join them, every wizard of consequence in those parts." The susurrus ran round again.
"They're forewarned. And forearmed. We'll have to move fast," said the general.
"That will require the strength of Shinsan. And Shinsan is not yet ours," said Golden Mask. "O Shing remains reluctant."
"Then we have to buy time."
"Or convince O Shing."
"I can't overcome the Unborn," said Golden Mask. "We can't buy time without that."
"We could," said the bent man. "Unless O Shing moves, they have the edge-while their sorcery holds. But they're not united. My Lady," he said to one woman, "prepare your army. General, move your Guild forces east. Find a provocation. Secure that pass and hold it till O Shing arrives. Itaskia won't interfere. El Murid's no threat either. He's fat and weak. We may use him to add to the confusion."
"And their wizards?" Golden Mask asked.
"They'll be neutralized."
The Tervola peered intently. "And ourselves? Will we be deprived too?"
"There are cycles of Power. We're entering an epoch of irregularity. My contribution is the ability to predict the shifts. Unfortunately, the effect isn't localized. But we can take advantage. It becomes a plain military matter, then, for the general and Badalamen. Why worry so?"
"Because things are happening that surpass my understand-ing. I feel forces working and can't control them. There're too many unpredictables."
"That gives it spice, my friend. Spice. There's no pleasure in the sure thing."
The man in the mask said no more. But spice didn't interest him.
"Enough," said the other. "Return home, to your assign-ments. We'll meet monthly after this. Quickly, now. The Power will wane soon."
When the last had departed, the bent man shed his disguise, approached the Old Man. "Well, old friend, here we are again. Am I too secretive? Would they tear me apart if they knew? You say nothing. No. I suppose not. You're not the man you were. I'm sorry. But there's'too much to keep up with. It seems the scope of things, to be successful, has to be bigger each time. And the bigger, the harder to control. And these days there's ever less time to plan, to prepare. Now I have to keep several currents running, have to anticipate next stages before present ones are finalized. The Shinsan era is still a-building toward climax, andalready I have to input Ehelebe. Time was, we had centuries. We had almost four between the Ilka/ar and El Murid epics. The birth epic of Shinsan lasted two generations. The Nawami crusades spanned five hundred years. Remember Torginol and The Palace of Love? A masterwork, that was.... Old friend, I'm tired. Old and tired. Burned out. The sentence, surely, must be near its end. Surely They must free me if there's nothing left when this's done."
He whispered in the Old Man's ear. "This time it's the holocaust. There are no more ideas. No more epics to play out on this tortured stage.
"Old friend, I want to go home."
The Old Man sat like a statue. A handful of memories had been cast into the turgid pool of his mind. He struggled to catchthem.
He had lost a lot. Even his name and origins.
The bent man took his hand. "Be with me for a time. Help me not to be alone."
Loneliness was a curse that had been set upon him ages past.
Once, in some dim, unremembered yesterday, he had sinned. His punishment was countless corporeal centuries, alone, directing diversions which would please Them, and possibly move Them to forgive....
He had said it himself. Things had become too complex tocontrol.
The Guild general stepped from the portal into his apartment-and the cauldron of an unbelievable battle. He had no opportunity to learn what had happened. Two elderly, iron-hearted gentlemen, to whom the Guild meant more than life itself, awaited him.
"Hawkwind! Lauder! What...?"
They said nothing. Sentence had been passed.
They were old, but they could still swing swords.