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TWENTY-FOUR: Kavelin A-March

The volunteers poured in. Campfires dotted every patch of unused land.

"They must be coming out of the ground," Ragnarson observed.

Haaken stood beside him on the wall. "It is hard to believe. So many. Who's doing the work?"

"Yeah. Some will have to go home. You sorted out the ones we want?" Haaken, Reskird, and his other staffers had found trebled work dumped upon them. Kavelin, preparing for war, could no longer proceed on inertia.

Ragnarson had to devote his entire energy to being Regent. He had to browbeat the Thing into accepting this venture, and to prepare a caretaker regime for his absence. Gjerdrum had gotten that job, primarily because his father, Eanred Tarlson, had been a national hero trusted by every class.

Gjerdrum thought being left behind worse than being accused of treason.

Haaken, Reskird, and the other zone commandants had selected six thousand men for Ragnarson's expeditionary force. On a backbone of regulars they had fleshed a corpus of the best reserves and most promising volunteers. A force of equal strength would be left with Gjerdrum.

It would be essentially an infantry force. The venture had raised little enthusiasm among the Nordmen, whence the trained knights came. Ragnarson would take a mere two hundred fifty heavy cavalry, counting those of the Queen's Own. Fleshed out, Ahring would field a thousand men, only half of whom were real horse soldiers. Most were light horse, skirmishers, messengers, and the like.

The infantry would be the Vorgrebergers, the Midlands

Light, the South Bows, a battle each from the Damhorsters, Breidenbachers, and Sedlmayr Light, plus a hodgepodge of engineers, select skilled bowmen, and Marena Dimura aux-iliaries.

Ragnarson was an inveterate tinkerer. He would have fiddled till he had his force balanced to the last billet. Only Haaken's nagging got him moving.

Ragnarson understood what few of his contemporaries did. That training and discipline were the critical factors in winning battles. That was why little armies whipped big ones. Why Shinsan was so dreaded a foe. Her army was the most disciplined ever formed.

Ragnarson's plan depended on trickery and surprise, and his cabal of wizards.

"I'm nervous," he told his brother. "We're not ready for this."

"We'll never be ready," Haaken countered.

"I know. I know. And it pains me. All right. Get them moving. I'm going back to the Palace."

He soon joined Gjerdrum in the empty War Room. Every available map of the east was posted there. Scribes directed by Prataxis had made copies for field use. His intended route was sketched in red on a master.

He kept worrying. Could he make it without being detected? Could he feed his men on the wild eastern plains?

What about water? Could he trust the maps to show genuine creeks and water holes?

I've got to stop this, he thought. What will be will be.

There was no turning back. If nothing else, even failure would startle Shinsan. His spunk might make O Shing back off awhile, giving the west time to respond to Varthlokkur's warnings.

This was the second time Kavelin had had to be the bulwark. It wasn't fair.

Varthlokkur arrived. He was a pale imitation of the wizard of a week earlier.

"It's still dead?" Bragi asked.

"Absolutely. Even the Unborn is weakened."

For no reason the wizards could determine, the Power had ceased to function six days past. Only the Unborn retained any vitality, and that because it drew on the Winterstorm, partially tapping different sources of energy.

The weakened Radeachar was busy. A spate of enemies had

2I3pelted against Kavelin's borders after the Power's failure. Visigodred's assistant, flying the huge roc, was as pressed, scouting beyond the borders.

Radeachar would stay with Gjerdrum. His presence would keep the Nordmen in line.

"Marshall," Prataxis called from the door, "you have a minute? There's a man here you should see."

"Sure. Come on in."

Derel's man wore a Guild uniform. Ragnarson frowned, but let him have his say.

"Colonel Liakopulos, General. Aide to Sir Tury."

Ragnarson shook his hand. "Hawkwind, eh?" He was impressed. Hawkwind was the most famous of High Crag's old men, and justifiably so. He had performed military miracles.

"Colonel Oryon asked me to come. The General approved."


"Oryon was my friend."


"He died last week."

"Sorry to hear it. What happened?"

"Trouble at High Crag. Oryon was in the thick of it. You know how he was."

"Yes. I know." The main message wouldn't register. Guildsman fighting Guildsman. It couldn't happen. "What?... Explain."

"He threw some wild charges around after he got back. Not at all in character. He always kept his mouth shut before. So people listened. And started digging. I believe he mentioned rumors of a junta trying to take over?"

"He did."

"There was one. We cleaned it out. The leader, General Dainiel, had disappeared from his apartment just before Oryon's return. Hawkwind and Lauder moved in. Six days ago Dainiel reappeared out of thin air. A transfer. It had that Shinsan smell. They cut him down. None of his intimates knew for sure, but thought he'd been to Shinsan to meet with other cabal heads. Dainiel had hinted that they were ready to grab control of the west."

Ragnarson looked for someone to tell "I told you so." Derel was the only one handy. Telling him wouldn't give any satisfaction.

"Thank you for your courtesies. Thank the General. I feelbetter about the Guild now. Oryon probably mentioned my suspicions."

"He did. The General apologizes for the pressures. The Citadel never planned to force its protection on anyone. That's Dainiel's doing. He wanted a strong force kept near the Savernake Gap.

"We can't offer much restitution right now. It's not much, but Hawkwind offers my talents."

Ragnarson raised an eyebrow. "How?"

"Training soldiers is my forte, Marshall. You appear to be mounting an expedition. Yet your men aren't ready. It'll take imaginative leadership to teach on the march."

"It's my biggest headache."

"I can handle it."

There was no arrogance in his manner.

"All right." Ragnarson made the snap decision based on Hawkwind's reputation. "Derel, take Colonel Liakopulos to Blackfang. Tell Haaken to put him in charge of training, and don't bother him."

He remembered the name Liakopulos now. The Colonel had a reputation equal to his self-confidence.

"Thank you, Marshall."

"Uhm." He returned to his maps.

Too late to turn back. Advance parties were already in the Gap. A force had occupied Karak Strabger, to stop eastbound traffic at Baxendala so word wouldn't cross the mountains. Maisak backed the play. No one not authorized by the Marshall traveled east of that stronghold.

The cessation of eastbound trade would itself be a warning that something was happening in Kavelin. Bragi had sent loyal mercantile factors through to hint that another civil war was brewing. The trade community expected something savage to follow Fiana's death.

He had run himself and everyone else ragged. What more could he do?

Go, of course. And hope.

He went.

A post rider overtook him slightly east of Maisak. He brought news from Valther.

"Haaken, listen to this. That kid of Haroun's has invaded Hammad al Nakir." He hadn't anticipated that. "Twenty-fivethousand men, Valther says, in six columns. Headed for Al Rhemish."

And Ragnarson had expected Haroun's movement to collapse without him.

This Megelin bore watching.

"What about it?" Haaken asked.

"Will it affect us?"

"How? Unless people think we closed the Gap to cover his rear."

"Possible." His friendship for bin Yousif was well known.

"I hope Megelin makes it. This'll give El Murid an excuse for war."

"Should I turn back?"

"Go on," Varthlokkur advised. "Megelin will hurt him even if he loses. El Murid won't be able to do anything. Cooler heads will prevail before he recovers."

"The numbers worry me," Ragnarson told Haaken. "I didn't realize Haroun could scare up that many men." He turned to Visigodred. "Could Marco fly down there occasionally? To keep track?"

"Too damned much trouble," Marco protested. "Got me hopping like the one-legged whore the day the fleet came in now. What do you think I am? I need to sleep too. You guys think because I'm half size I can do twice the work?"

"Marco," said Visigodred.

The dwarf shut up.

"Skip some of your visits to your girlfriends."

"Boss! What'll they do? They can't manage."

Haaken rolled his eyes. Bragi whispered, "He's for real. I've seen him in action.

"So," he said aloud, "we continue. Ragnar, let's catch Jarl."

Ahring commanded the vanguard, a day ahead. He filtered westbound caravans through, then kept anyone from turning back.

The entire Gap was confusion. This was the height of the caravan season. In places several were crowded up nose to tail, their masters muttering obscenities about being shoved around. Ragnarson saw more than one wound. Jarl had had trouble here and there.

He asked questions. Kaveliners returning home answered. His advent in the east remained unanticipated.

After riding with Ahring a day he took Derel, Ragnar, Trebilcock, and Dantice and forged ahead, to overtake the scouts. In time he passed them, too.

He knew the risk was wild, yet his spirits soared. He was in the field again. Political woes lay a hundred miles behind. He let his beard go feral. Boldly, he took his friends to Gog-Ahlan, He and Ragnar spent a day prowling the ruins and ramshackle taverns and whorehouses.

Rumors of unrest in Kavelin were thick. Less daring traders were staying put till they knew what was happening.

Ravelin's army turned north twenty miles short of the town, following a side valley. It debouched on the plains away from routes frequented by caravans. A screening force broke contact and began herding cognizant caravaneers westward.

Ragnarson tightened his formation. He allowed his light horse troops to roam only a few miles. Marco would watch the plains nomads. Bragi increased the pace, and turned away whenever Marco reported riders approaching.

Marco also patrolled their back trail, to frighten off any nomads threatening to discover it.

A hundred miles east of the ruins of Shemerkhan, following marches of forty miles per day, the Power reasserted itself. The wizards scrambled to take advantage, but it faded before they could get organized.

The Power quickened again next afternoon, and again it faded rapidly.

The sorcerers debated its meaning for hours.

Ragnarson suspected that little man on the winged horse. In the lonely, quiet hours of riding he tried to think of ways to capture the man, to find out who he was and what he was up to. If legends were to be believed, that would be impossible. It had been tried a thousand times. Anyone who attempted it came to grief.

Nearing lands tributary to Necremnos, the army turned south. Bragi took Varthlokkur, Prataxis, Trebilcock, Dantice, and Ragnar into the city. He left Haaken with orders to move to the Roe halfway between Necremnos and Argon, in the narrow zone beholden to neither city.

People lived there. He counted on Marco and the horsemen to cut their communication with Argon.

He didn't plan on staying long. Just while he visited anacquaintance, a Necremnen wizard named Aristithorn.

He wasn't sure the man still lived. His own wizards had heard no reports of Aristithorn's death, though the man had seemed on his last legs back when Bragi had helped him make Itaskia's King Norton honor a debt.

Necremnos hadn't changed in twenty-some years. Varthlokkur said it hadn't since his own last visit, centuries earlier. Old buildings came down and new ones arose, but the stubborn Necremnens refused to borrow from foreigners. New buildings were indistinguishable from those demolished.

Aristithorn maintained a small estate outside the city proper. A miniature castle graced its heart. Continuous moans and wails echoed from within.

"He's very dramatic," Bragi told Varthlokkur. The wizard didn't know Aristithorn.

Aristithorn's door was tall and massive. Upon it hung a knocker of gargantuan proportions. It struck with a deep-voiced boom. That was followed by a sound like the groan of a giant in torment.

"Is this the man who married that princess?" Ragnar asked. "The one that you...."

"Tch-tch," Bragi said. "You forget I told you that story. He's old and retired, but he's still a wizard. And a cranky one."

The massive door swung inward. A voice which could have been that of the tormented giant boomed, "Enter!"

"He's changed the place some," Ragnarson observed.

They stood in a long, pillared chamber done in marbles. The only furnishings were several dozen suits of armor. Even whispers echoed there, playing around the chuckling of a fountain at the center of the hall.

Varthlokkur stood at Ragnarson's left. Trebilcock and Dantice remained a step behind, to either flank, facing the walls, their hands on their weapons. Prataxis and Ragnar tucked themselves into the pocket thus formed. The place was intimidating.

"Cut the clowning and get your ass out here," Bragi yelled. "That'll get him in here," he whispered. "He's got this this about scaring people. Bet you he runs a bluff about turning us into frogs."

He was right, though newts were the creatures mentioned. Decades had passed, but Aristithorn hadn't changed. He hadbecome more of what he had always been. Older, meaner, crankier. He didn't recognize Ragnarson till the third time Bragi interrupted to explain who he was.

And then Aristithorn wasn't pleased. "Back to haunt me, eh? Ye young ingrate. Thought ye got away with it, didn't ye? I tell ye, I knew it all along...." He was speaking of a woman. One of his wives.

Ragnarson had had even less sense about women when he was twenty.

"Let me introduce my companions. Michael Trebilcock. Aral Dantice. Soldiers of fortune. Derel Prataxis, a don of the Rebsamen. Ragnar, my son. And a colleague, Varthlokkur."

"... saw ye two and yere wickedness.... Eh?"

"Varthlokkur. Also called The Silent One Who Walks With Grief and Empire Destroyer."

Varthlokkur met Aristithorn's gaze. He smiled a smile like the one worn by the mongoose before kissing a cobra.

"Eh? Oh, my. Oh. Oh my god. Pthothor preserve us. Now we know. The visitation of Hell. I recant. I plead. Give me back my soul. I should have known when the Power failed me...."

"Was he always like this?" Trebilcock asked. "How'd he stand up to that King Norton?"

"Don't pay any mind. It's all act. Come on, you old fraud. We're not here to hurt you. We want your help. And we'll pay." To the others, "He's got a lot of pull here. I don't know why. Guess they haven't figured out he's ninety percent fake."

"Fake? You.... You.... Young man, I'll show you who's fake. Don't come croaking in my pond when you're a frog."

"You admitted the Power deserted you."

"Ha! Don't you believe it!"

Varthlokkur interrupted. "Marshall, can we get to the point? Seconds could be critical now. You! Be silent!"

Aristithorn's lips kept moving but no sound came forth. He was doing as directed while indulging an old vice. He had to talk, Out didn't have to say anything.

"Old friend," said Ragnarson, "I've risen in the world since our adventure. I'm Marshall and Regent of Ravelin in the Lesser Kingdoms now. I'm marching to war. My army lies just beyond Necremnen territory. No. No worry. Necremnos isn't my target. I'm going to Argon. Yes. I know. Argon hasn't been invaded since Ilkazar managed it. But nobody has gone about it seriously.... Why? Because they attacked me. On orders from

Shinsan. They murdered my wife, two of my kids, some of my friends. And they kidnapped a friend of mine's wife and son. And maybe the friend, too. They're locked up in Argon's Royal Palace. I'm going to punish Argon."

Aristithorn's gaze flitted to Varthlokkur whenever the urge to verbalize became strong. Varthlokkur merely stared.

Aristithorn seemed a mouse, but that was pure show. He was a mortal danger to his enemies.

"What I want is boats. All the boats I can lay hands on. And don't forget, we'll be in your debt. Varthlokkur's ability to meet his obligations has never been questioned."

Ragnarson smiled to himself, pleased with his doubleentendre. A threat and a promise in one simple declarativesentence-which meant little. Varthlokkur was accepting noobligations himself. This wriggling in the worm pile of politicswas making a politician of him too.

Aristithorn changed. He sloughed the pretense, stood tall and arrogant. "You say Shinsan has its hooks in the Fadem? That would explain some strange things."

"Fadem?" Bragi asked.

"What they call their Royal Palace in Argon," Trebilcock reminded.

"Yes," Aristithorn continued, "Argon has behaved oddly the past few years. And I've heard that a man resembling a Tervola visits there frequently, and came here once. Pthothor gave him short shrift, the story goes. This's bad-if it's true. This's a sad enough earth without Shinsan creeping into its palaces like some night cancer. Yes. This explains things that puzzle the wise. Particularly about the Fadema."

"Queen of Argon," said Trebilcock.

"Boats? Did I hear right?"

"Boats, yes. As many as possible. Big, little, whatever can be had. But quickly. So I can arrive before they know I'm coming, before the Power returns and they can see me with their inner eyes."

"Ye might work it.. Argon's defenses be meant to stop land-bound armies."

"Told you he was sharp. Figured it without me telling him a thing."

"Yes, this must be stopped. And Pthothor, with his fear of things Shinsan, and his lust to be remembered as a conquer-or.... He may join ye."

The old coast reever in Ragnarson became wary instantly. Somebody was hinting about divvying the plunder. Before the booty was gained. "That might be useful," he said, trying to sound noncommittal. "As later support. But the enemy has agents everywhere. We dare not risk ourselves by including anyone in our plan just now. In a week...?"

"My sense of rectitude compels me to assist ye. But there must be balance."

"Derel. The man's ready to dicker. Don't give him the Royal silverware."

Prataxis was a master. With Varthlokkur to handle the intimidation he soon got Aristithorn to agree to what Ragnarson considered bargain terms. A modest amount of cash. A few items believed to be in possession of the Fadema. Kavelin to sponsor his children's educations at the Rebsamen. The university's fame had spread far and wide, and a man from these parts who could honestly claim to have been educated there was guaranteed a high, happy life.

What Ragnarson didn't realize was that Aristithorn had ch! -lren in droves. His wives were always pregnant, and often bore twins.

Later, as they strolled to the waterfront with the babbling wizard, they were spotted by a chunky brown man who scrambled into shadows and watched them pass. His face contorted into a mixture of surprise and bewilderment. Only Aral Dantice noticed him. He had no idea who the man was. Just another curious easterner....

TWENTY-THREE: The Hidden Kingdom | All Darkness Met | TWENTY-FIVE: The Assault on Argon