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TWENTY-EIGHT: A Friendly Assassin

Marco brought the news to Ragnarson at Gog-Ahlan. Megelin had retreated to the Kapenrungs. The blood of half his followers stained the desert sands.

El Murid had suffered as bitterly. Nevertheless, he had ordered Badalamen to lead the ragged, war-weary victors into Ravelin.

Ragnarson increased the pace again.

As the army entered the Savernake Gap, Varthlokkur toid him, "We have a problem. Mocker. Something was done to him. He's lying,..."

"He's acting strange, yeah. Wouldn't you if Shinsan had had a hold of you?"

"Shinsan has had a hold of me. That's why I'm suspicious. Something happened in Throyes that he's not admitting."

"Maybe."

"I know what you're thinking. The spook-pusher is getting antsy about moving in on Nepanthe. Keep an eye on him anyway."

Later, after the army had passed Maisak and started eagerly downhill into its homeland, Varthlokkur returned. "Nepanthe is gone," he announced.

"What? Again?"

"Your fat friend did it this time."

"Take it from the beginning." Ragnarson sighed.

"He left her at Maisak."

"Why?"

"You tell me."

"I don't know."

"To remove her from risk?"

"Go away."

He didn't like it. Varthlokkur was right. Something had happened. Mocker had changed. The humor had gone out of him. He hadn't cracked a smile in weeks. And he avoided his friends as much as possible. He preferred remaining apart, brooding, walking with eyes downcast. He didn't eat much. He was a shadow of the man who had come to the Victory Day celebration.

Challenging him produced no answers. He simply denied, growing vehement when pressed. Haakenand Reskird no longer bothered.

Ragnarson watched constantly, hoping he could figure out how to help.

Kavelin greeted them as conquering heroes. The march lost impetus. Each morning's start had to be delayed till missing soldiers were retrieved from the girls of the countryside.

"I don't like it," said Haaken, the morning Bragi planned to reach Vorgreberg.

"What?" There had been no contact with Gjerdrum. Vorgreberg seemed unware of their approach.

"How many men have you seen?" Haaken's way was to let his listeners supply half the information he wanted to impart.

"I don't follow you."

"We've been back for three days. I haven't seen a man who wasn't too old to get around. When I ask, the people say they've gone west. So where are they? What happened to the garrison Gjerdrum was supposed to send to Karak Strabger?"

"You're right. Even the Nordmen are gone. Find Ragnar. And Trebilcock and Dantice. We'll ride ahead."

Varthlokkur joined them. They reached Vorgreberg in midafternoon. The city lay deserted. They found only a few poorly-armed old men guarding the gates. Squads of women drilled in the streets.

"What the hell?" Ragnarson exploded when first he encountered that phenomenon. "Come on." He spurred toward the girls.

Months in the field had done little to make him attractive. The girls scattered.

One recognized Ragnarson. "It's the Marshall!" She grabbed his stirrup. "Thank God. sir. Thank God you're back."

The others returned, swarmed round him, bawled shame-lessly.

"What the hell's going on?" Ragnarson demanded. "You!" he jabbed a finger at the girl at his stirrup. "Tell me!" He seized her wrist. The others fled again, through quiet streets, calling, "The Marshall's back! We're saved."

"You don't know, sir?"

"No, damnit. And I never will unless somebody tells me. Where're the men? Why're you girls playing soldier?"

"They've all gone with Sir Gjerdrum. El Murid.... His army is in Orthwein and Uhlmansiek. They came through the mountains somehow. They might be in Moerschel by now."

"Oh." And Gjerdrum had little veteran manpower. "Haa-ken...."

"I'll go," Ragnar offered.

"Okay. Tell Reskird to pass the word to the men. One night is all we'll spend here. Nobody to wander. Go on now."

He watched his son, proud. Ragnar had become a man. He was nearly ready to fend for himself.

"Thank you, Miss. To the Palace. We'll fill in the gaps there. Varthlokkur, can you reach Radeachar?"

"No. I'll have to wait till he comes to me."

"Damn. Ought to take ages to cross those trails. How did they get through? Without Radeachar noticing?"

They hadn't. Badalamen had, simply, moved more swiftly than anyone had believed possible, and Gjerdrum, unsure if he were attacking Megelin or Kavelin, had waited too long to respond. Then, thoughtlessly, he had ordered his counterattacks piecemeal. Badalamen had cut him up. He had taken to Fabian tactics while gathering a larger force in hopes of blocking the roads to Vorgreberg.

Two days had passed since there had been any news from Gjerdrum. Rumor had a big battle shaping up. Gjerdrum had drawn every able-bodied man to Brede-on-Lynn in the toe of Moerschel, twenty-five miles south of the capital.

Ragnarson had passed through the area during the civil war. "Gjerdrum smartened up fast," he told Haaken. "That's the place to neutralize big attacking formations. It's all small farms, stone fences, little woods and wood lots, some bigger woods, lots of hills.... And a half-dozen castles within running distance. Lots of places to hide, to attack from if he loses, and no room for fancy cavalry maneuvers. Meaning, if that's the way this Badalamen wants to fight, he'll have to meet our knights head on."

Varthlokkur observed, "He'll refuse battle if the conditions are that unfavorable."

"He wants Vorgreberg. He'll have to fight somewhere. Us or Gjerdrum. The maps. They'll tell us." They moved to the War Room, set out maps of Moerschel and neighboring provinces. "Now," Ragnarson said, "try to think like Badalamen. You're here, over the Lynn in Orthwein. There's a big mob waiting at Brede. The ground is bad. What do you do to get to Vorgreberg?"

"I might split my strength," Trebilcock replied. "Hold Gjerdrum at Brede and circle another group around. If he has enough men. Gjerdrum couldn't turn even if he knew what was happening."

"Till we hear from the Unborn, or the dwarf, we're guessing. I'd bet he's outnumbered. Gjerdrum's probably mustered twenty, twenty-five thousand men. But Badalamen's soldiers are veterans."

Trebilcock fingered a map. "If he circles, he'll go east, up the Lynn." He traced the stream which formed the southern boundary of Moerschel. It ran toward Forbeck and the Gudbrandsdal Forest, approaching the Siege of Vorgreberg, emptying into the Spehe. As a river it wasn't much, yet it formed a barrier of sorts. An army crossing would be vulnerable.

Ragnarson joined Trebilcock. "Yeah. The hills and woods are rough in Trautwein. The roads would be easy to hold. But that don't mean he won't go that way. He's never been to Kavelin."

Haaken snorted. "You think Habibullah and Achmed were sleeping the last five years? He probably has maps better than ours."

"Yeah. Well. I agree with Michael. I'd come up the south bank of the Lynn too. So we'll get lost in the Gudbrandsdal. He should cross the Lynn at Norbury, where it runs into the Spehe. There're bridges both sides of town. We'll hit his flank while he's crowded up to cross. The woods aren't a hundred yards from the one bridge. They run right down to the banks of the Spehe."

The arguments continued. Ragnar returned, bringing Mocker.

"We're fussing too much," Bragi declared later that evening. "We can't plan to the last arrow. We shouldn't. We'd get too set on a plan. We'd try sticking to it no matter what. Sleep will do usmore good. Mocker, the room you and Nepanthe used before should be empty. Make yourself to home."

Jarl Ahring arrived, drew Haaken aside. A moment later they approached Ragnarson. "Sir," said Ahring, his steely eyes evasive.

"Well?"

"A problem."

"What?"

"One of my sergeants wants to talk to you. A personal matter."

"Important enough that I should see him?"

"I think so," Haaken said.

"All right. Bring him up."

"I warned you," Haaken muttered as Ahring departed.

"Oh-oh. Ragnar and that girl...."

"She's pregnant."

"Get Ragnar back here. He know?"

"Probably. I expect he made time to see her."

Sergeant Simenson was a tough buzzard Bragi wouldn't have wanted to face in a fracas. His scars showed he had been in the thick of it throughout his service, which had begun before Ragnarson's appearance in Kavelin. Nevertheless, he was as nervous as a child asked to explain a broken vase.

Haaken brought Ragnar. Ragnar nearly panicked when he saw Simenson.

Bragi growled, "Boy, you've been aping a man. Let's see if you can be one. You and the sergeant have some talking to do. Do it. I'll just listen-till somebody acts like an ass. Then I'll crack heads." Simenson he admonished, "It's too late to change anything. So confine yourselves to the future. Sergeant, did you talk to your daughter?"

Simenson nodded. He was angry, but was a good father, mainly worried about his daughter's welfare.

Ragnarson exited that confrontation admiring Ragnar. His son hadn't tried weaseling. He was truly enamored. He got down to cases and worked out a marriage agreement. Bragi couldn't have handled it as well himself. He hadn't with Fiana.

That was that. Except that the story leaked, and eventually won support for Ragnarson's Regency. Prataxis-generated tales showed Bragi as incorruptible. He wouldn't bend to benefit his own son.

It was late when he retired, a return to the field awaiting him beyond the dawn. He fell asleep hoping his men wouldn't waste themselves drinking and skirt-chasing, and knowing the hope vain.

Something wakened him. It wasn't a sound. The intruder moved with the stealth of a cat.

Dawn would soon break. The slightest of grey lights crept through the window.

He sensed rather than saw the blow, rolled away. The knife ripped through the bearksins and slashed his back, sliding over ribs and spine. He bellowed, pulled the covers with him to the floor.

The assassin pitched onto the bed.

Ragnarson staggered to his feet. Warm blood seeped down his back. He whirled the bearskins into the killer's face, wrapped him in his arms, bore him off the far side of the bed.

He was a short man, heavy, yet agile as a monkey. His knee found Bragi's groin as they hit the floor. Bragi grunted and clung, smashed the man's knife hand against the bed post. The blade skittered under a wardrobe.

The assassin kicked, gouged, bit. So did Ragnarson, and yelled when he could.

His antagonist was tough, skilled, and desperate. He began getting the best of it. Bragi grew faint. His wound was bleeding badly.

Where the hell were the guards. Where was Haaken?

He stopped blocking blows, concentrated on getting an unbreakable hold. He managed to get behind the assassin and slip an arm around the man's throat. He forced his hand up behind his own head. He arched his back and pulled with his head.

"Now I've got you," he growled.

It was a vicious hold. Applied suddenly, to an unsuspecting victim, it could break a man's neck.

The assassin kicked savagely, writhed like an eel out of water. He slapped and pounded with his free hand. Bragi held on. The assassin produced another dagger, scarred Ragnarson's side repeatedly.

Where the hell was Haaken? And Varthlokkur? Or anybody?

The murderer's struggles weakened.

That, Bragi suspected, was feigned.

Slowly he dragged the man upright....

The assassin exploded, confessing his fakery.

Enough, Bragi thought. He leaned forward till the man was nearly able to toss him, then snapped back with all the strength and leverage he could apply.

He felt the neck go through his forearm and cheek. He heard the crunch.

The door burst inward. Haaken, Varthlokkur, and several soldiers charged in. Torchlight flooded the room. Bragi let the would-be murderer slide to the floor.

"Oh, my gods, my gods." He dropped to his bed, wounds forgotten, tears welling.

"He's alive," said Varthlokkur, touching the pulse in Mocker's throat.

"Get Wachtel!" Bragi ordered.

Varthlokkur rose, shedding tears of his own. "Stretch out," he told Ragnarson. "Let me stop that bleeding. Come on! Move!"

Ragnarson moved. There was no resisting the wizard's anger.

"Why?" He groaned as Varthlokkur spread the cut across his back.

"This will lay you up for a while. Wachtel will use a mile of thread. Cut to the bone. Side, too."

"Why, damnit? He was my friend."

"Maybe because they have his son." The wizard's examina-tion wasn't gentle. "I had a son once...."

"Damnit, man, don't open me up."

"... but I think he died in an alley in Throyes. The Curse of the Golmunes again. But for Ethrian he wouldn't be lying there now."

Wachtel bustled in. He checked Mocker's pulse, dug in his bag, produced a bottle, soaked a ball of wool, told Haaken, "Hold this under his nose." He turned to Bragi.

"Get hot water. Have to clean him before I sew." He poked and probed. "You'll be all right. A few stitches, a few weeks in bed. It'll be tender for a while, Marshall."

"What about Mocker,?"

"Neck's broken. But he's still alive. Probably be better off dead."

"How come?"

"I can't help him. No one could. I could only keep him alive."

While Wachtel washed, stitched, and bandaged Bragi, Varthlokkur reexamined Mocker carefully. Finally, he ven-tured, "He won't recover. He'll stay a vegetable. And I don't think you'll keep him that healthy long. You'll have trouble feeding him without severing his spinal cord." His tone betrayed his anguish, his despair.

Wachtel also reexamined Mocker. He could neither add to nor dispute Varthlokkur's prognosis.

"He'd be better off if we finish him," the wizard said. His eyes were moist. His voice quavered.

Bragi, the doctor, and Haaken exchanged looks. Ragnarson couldn't think straight. Crazy notions kept hurtling through his mind....

Mocker twitched. Weird noises gurgled from his throat. Wachtel soaked another ball of wool, knelt.

The others exchanged glances again.

"Damnit, I'll do it!" Haaken growled. There was no joy in him. He drew a dagger.

"No!" Varthlokkur snapped. His visage would have intimidated a basilisk.

"I'm the doctor," said Wachtel.

"No," the wizard repeated, more gently. "He's my son. Let it be on my head."

"No," Ragnarson countered. "You can't. Think about Nepanthe and Ethrian." He struggled up. "I'll do it. Let her hate me....She's more likely to listen if it was me.... Doctor, do you have something gentle?"

"No," said Varthlokkur.

"It has to be done?" Bragi surveyed faces. Haaken shrugged. Wachtel agreed reluctantly. Varthlokkur nodded, shook his head, nodded, shrugged.

"You men," Ragnarson growled at the soldiers who had come with Haaken and the wizard. "If you value your lives, you'll never forget that he was dead when you got here. Understood?"

He knelt, grunting. The cuts were getting sensitive. "Doctor, give me something."

Wachtel reluctantly took another bottle from his bag. He continued digging.

"Hurry, man. I've got a battle to get to. And I'm about to lose my nerve."

"Battle? You're not going anywhere for a couple weeks." Wachtel produced tweezers. "Lay one crystal on his tongue. It'll take about two minutes."

"I'll be at the fight. If somebody has to carry me. I've got to hit back or go mad."

He fumbled the little blue crystal three times.

Ragnarson stared across the Spehe at Norbury. Tears still burned his cheeks. He had scourged himself by walking all the way. His wounds ached miserably.

Wachtel had warned him. He should have listened.

He glanced up. It might rain. He surveyed Norbury again. It was a ghost town. The inhabitants had fled.

He fretted, waiting for his scouting reports. The Marena Dimura were prowling the banks of the Lynn.

Again he considered the nearer bridge. It was a stout stone construction barely wide enough for an ox cart. A good bottleneck.

Behind him archers and infantry talked quietly. Haaken and Reskird roamed among them, keeping their voices down. Up the Spehe, Jarl and the Queen's Own waited to ford the river and hit the enemy's rear.

If he came.

N ot today, Ragnarson thought as the sun settled into the hills of Moerschel. "Ragnar, tell the commanders to let the men pitch camp."

He was still standing there, ignoring his pain, when the moon rose, peeping through gaps in scurrying clouds. It was nearly full. Leaning on a spear, he looked like a weary old warrior guarding a forest path.

Trebilcock, Dantice, and Colonel Liakopulos joined him. No one said anything. This was no time to impose.

Mostly he relived his companionship with Mocker and Haroun. They, with the exception of Haaken and Reskird, had been his oldest friends. And the relationship with his fellow Trolledyngjans hadn't been the same. Haaken and Reskird were quieter souls, part-time companions always there when he called. There had been more life, more passion, and a lot less trust with the other two.

He reviewed old adventures, when they were young and couldn't believe they weren't immortal.

They had been happier then, he decided. Beholden to none, they had been free to go where and do what they pleased. Even Haroun had shown little interest in his role of exiled king.

"Somebody's coming," Trebilcock whispered.

A runner zipped across the gap between village and stream. He splashed into the river.

"Get him, Michael."

Trebilcock returned with a Marena Dimura. "Colonel Marisal, he comes, The Desert Rider, yes. Thousands. Many thousands, quiet, pads on feets of his horses, yes."

"Michael, Aral, Colonel, pass the word. Kill the fires. Everyone up to battle position. But quietly, damn it. Quietly." Of the scout, "How far?"

"Three miles. Maybe two now. Slow. No scouts out to give away."

"Uhm." Badalamen was cunning. He looked up. The gaps in the clouds were larger. There would be light for the bowmen.

"Ragnar. Run and tell Jarl I want him to start moving right away." Ahring's task would be difficult. His mounts wouldn't like going into action at night.

The men had barely gotten into position. Shadows were moving in the town. El Murid's horsemen came, leading their mounts. Soon they were piling up at the bridge.

Ragnarson was impressed with Badalamen. His maneuver seemed timed to reach Vorgreberg at sunrise.

A hundred men had crossed. Ragnarson guessed three times that would have crossed upriver. Five hundred or so had piled up on the south bank here.

"Now!"

Arrows hit the air with a sound like a thousand quail flushing. Two thousand bowmen pulled to their cheeks and released as fast as they could set nock to string.

The mob at the bridge boiled. Horses screamed. Men cursed, moaned, cried questions. In moments half were down. Fifteen seconds later the survivors scattered, trying to escape through brethren still coming from the town.

"Haaken!" Bragi shouted. "Go!"

Blackfang's Vorgrebergers hit the chill Spehe. Miserably soaked, they seized the far bank, formed up to prevent those already over the bridge from returning. Once bowmen joined them they forced it, compelling the horsemen to withdraw upstream or swim back.

Badalamen reacted quickly.

Horsemen swept from the village in a suicidal, headlong charge, startling the infantrymen screening Haaken's bridge-head. Arrows flew on both sides. More horses went down by stumbling than by enemy action.

Another force swept up the north bank of the Lynn, against the Kaveliners there.

The south bank riders hit the thin lines protecting the Spehe crossing, broke through. The arrows couldn't get them all.

The struggle became a melee. Ragnarson's troops, unaccus-tomed to reverses, wavered.

"Reskird!" Bragi called. "Don't send anyone else over. Spread out. Cover them if they break." With Liakopulos, Dantice, and Trebilcock helping, he scattered his forces along the bank, made sure the archers kept plinking. Victory or defeat depended on Ahring now.

Across the river Haaken Blackfang bawled like a wounded bull, by sheer thunder and force of will kept the Vorgrebergers steady. He seemed to be everywhere.

Something drifted down from the north. It glowed like a small moon, had something vaguely human within it....

The fighting sputtered. Both sides, awed, watched the Unborn. Here, there, El Murid's captains silently toppled from their saddles.

Haaken started bellowing again. He took the fight to the enemy.

A huge man on a giant of a stallion cantered from the village. In the moonlight and glow of the Unborn Ragnarson saw him clearly. "Badalamen," he guessed. He was surprised. The man didn't wear Tervola costume.

His appearance rallied his men. Ragnarson yelled at his bowmen. Some complained they were short of arrows.

"It's in the balance," he told Trebilcock. "Tell Reskird to send more men over."

Radeachar and Haaken cleared the west bank again. The Midlanders didn't have to fight their way ashore.

"Wish I could get my hands on that bastard," Ragnarson said of Badalamen. The reinforcements hadn't made much differ-ence. Badalamen's men were, once more, confident of their invincibility, of their god-given destiny.

For Radeachar had attacked the eldritch general with no more effort than a bee stinging the flank of an elephant. Badalamen had hardly noticed. His only response was to have archers plink at the Unborn's protective sphere.

Soon, despite their numbers, the Kaveliners were again on the verge of breaking.

Then Ahring arrived.

Not at the point of greatest danger, but up the Lynn, at the other bridge.

He led with his heavy cavalry. His light came behind and on his flanks. The knights and sergeants in heavy plate were unstoppable. They shattered the enemy formation, leaving the survivors to the light horse, then came against Badalamen from behind. The news reached him scarcely a minute before the charge itself.

Here Ahring had more difficulty. He was outnumbered, faced an inspired leader, and had little room to gain momentum. Nevertheless, he threw the desert riders into confusion. Haaken. and Reskird took immediate advantage.

Ahring and his captains drove for Badalamen himself, quickly surrounding the mysterious general and his boydguard.

Ragnarson laughed delightedly. His trap had closed. He had won. While his men slaughtered his enemies, he planned his march down the Lynn to relieve Gjerdrum.

In the end, though, it proved a costly victory. Though the last-gasp might of Hammad al Nakir perished, Bragi lost Jarl Ahring. Badalamen cut him down. The born general himself escaped, cutting his way through the Queen's Own as though they were children armed with sticks.

Radeachar was unable to track him.

His entire army he abandoned to the untender mercies of Ravelin's soldiers.


TWENTY-SEVEN: Mocker Returns | All Darkness Met | TWENTY-NINE: A Dark Stranger in the Kingdom of Dread



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