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THIRTY-FOUR: Road to Palmisano

"Goddamnit, lemme alone!" Kildragon snarled. He pulled his blanket over his head.

The cold, thin fingers kept shaking him.

"Prataxis, I'm gonna cut you."


Reskird surrendered, sat up. His head spun. His gut tried to empty itself again. It had been a hard night. A lot of wine had gone down. He fumbled with his clothing. "I said don't bother me for anything but the end of the world."

"It's not that." But it was earth-shaking.

"They are pulling out," Reskird whispered, awed. He hadn't believed Derel. The sun hadn't yet risen and already the besiegers were moving. Engines and siegeworks burned behind them. A rearguard awaited the inevitable reconnaissance-in-force.

"Got to be a trick," Kildragon muttered. That Shinsan should give up, and liberate him from the interminable political hassle of this walled Hell, seemed too good to be true.

A dragon glided lazily overhead. It was a reminder that Shinsan wasn't departing in defeat.

"Something happened up north," Prataxis reasoned.

"What was your first clue?"

There had been no communication with Itaskia since the fall of Portsmouth. Marco had, occasionally, tried to, and had failed to, penetrate the dragon screen. The Unborn, apparently, wasn't doing courier duty.

"We better get moving," Kildragon sighed. "Bragi will need us. Tell the Regents they can join us-if they'll stop fussing about money long enough to give the orders."

Kildragon had spent eons listening to complaints about the cost of defending the city.

Ragnarson sent a few companies across the Scarlotti. They met no resistance. Light horse scouts followed.

"I don't understand him," he told Haaken. "Why didn't he try to stop us here?"

Badalamen served the Pracchia. And the Pracchia were divided. Receiving conflicting orders from the old man and Norath, Badalamen could do nothing adequately. Each failure deepened the split between his masters.

The once invincible army of Shinsan now twitched and jerked like a beheaded man.

"Palmisano," Ragnarson mused, finger on a map. There was a fateful feel to the name. It sent chills down his spine.

The Pracchia closed ranks temporarily. Badalamen turned tofight.

Palmisano, in Cardine, lay close to the Scarlotti. The survivors of thirty legions waited there, an ebony blanket on a rolling countryside. Tens of thousands of steppe riders, Argonese, and Throyens guarded river-girdled flanks.

"We have to go to him this time," Ragnarson muttered. He had scouted the region. The prospects didn't look favorable.

He didn't need Badalamen's letter to tell him this would be their last meeting. He didn't need the prophecies of Varthlokkur and his cohorts. He knew it in his bones. The winner-take-all was coming. This would be the gotterdammerumg for Bragi Ragnarson or the born general. One war chieftain wouldn't leave this stage....

He had little hope for himself. Just when he had found new reason to live. Each morning the armies stared at one another across the ruins of Palmisano. The captains, generals, and kings with Ragnarson howled at the delay. Badalamen's incoming occupation forces swelled his army. The snows in the Savernake Gap were melting.

Two quieter voices counseled delay. Varthlokkur and Visigodred had something up their sleeves.

News came that Reskird was approaching. His ragtag army had skirmished its way up from Hellin Daimiel, preventing several thousand foemen from rejoining Badalamen. Ragnarson and Blackfang rode to meet their friend.

When they returned, next day, the sorcerers were abuzz.

Visigodred and Varthlokkur were ready.

Valther, Mist, Trebilcock and Dantice had reappeared.

The council was a convention of Kings and Champions. Twenty-seven monarchs attended. Hawkwind, Lauder and Liakopulos attended. Harteobben and Blittschau, Moor and Berloy, Lo Pinto, Piek, Slaski, Tantamagora, Alacran, Krisco, Selenov.... The list of renowned fighters ran to a hundred names. The old companions, wizards' and Ragnarson's, were all there too. And his son, and Derel Prataxis with the inevitable writing box. And near Iwa Skolovda's King Wieslaw, an esquire, unknown and untried, whose name had puzzled wizards for years.

Varthlokkur announced, "Valther and Mist have returned." He indicated Dantice and Trebilcock. "Protected by these men, they visited the Place of the Thousand Iron Statues."

"Nobody ever got out alive," Zindahjira protested. "I used to send adventurers there. They never came back. The Star Rider himself animated the killer statues."

"The Star Rider came and went at will," Varthlokkur replied.

"Armed with a Pole of Power."

"As were my friends." Varthlokkur smiled gently. "The Monitor of Escalon wasn't lying." He held up the Tear of Mimizan, so bright no one could gaze upon it. His fellows babbled questions.

"It was the supreme test. And now we know. We go into battle perfectly armed."

Ragnarson held his peace. Point, he thought. Do you know how to use it? No. Point. The old man over there does.

Getting him, too, had become an intense personal goal. The man had shaped his life too long. He wanted to settle up on the one-to-one.

"The Tervola who remain," Varthlokkur continued, "can be rendered Powerless. My friends accomplished that. They exceeded the Monitor. We control the thaumaturgic game. But let them tell it."

Michael Trebilcock did the talking. He didn't emblish. They had crossed Shara, the Black Forest, the Mountains of M'Hand, and had hurried to The Place of the Thousand Iron Statues. They had penetrated it, had learned to manipulate the Tear and living statues, had discovered secrets concerning the Star Rider's involvement in the past, then had reversed their course, reaching

Itaskia soon after Ragnarson had begun pursuing Badalamen. Michael skipped dangers, ambushes, perils that would have become an epic on another's tongue. His stage fright compelled brevity. He communicated his belief that they now possessed the ultimate weapon.

Ragnarson shook his head. Softly, "Fools."

The crowd demanded action. They were tired of war. They weren't accustomed to prolonged, year-round campaigns, dragging ever on. The exiles were eager to return home and resume interrupted lives.

Varthlokkur, too, was eager. He had left Nepanthe in Ravelin.

"Not yet," he shouted. "Tomorrow, maybe. We have to plan, to check the augeries. Those legions won't roll over."

Ragnarson nodded grimly. The Tear might disarm the Tervola. But soldiers had to be beaten by soldiers. What Power remained to Varthlokkur and the Unborn, through the Winterstorm, would be devoted to the creatures of Magden Norath.

Badalamen had anchored his flanks on a tributary of the Scarlotti and the great river itself, footing a triangle. He couldn't withdraw easily, but neither could he be attacked from behind. Refusing to initiate battle himself, he had repeatedly demonstra-ted his ability to concentrate superior force at any point Bragi attacked.

Ragnarson knew there would be no finesse in it. The terrain didn't permit that. The armies would slaughter one another till one lost heart.

He and Badalamen were sure which would break. And that, with the pressures received from his masters, was why Badalamen had opted for this battle.

Why he had chosen the imperfect ground of Palmisano remained a mystery, though.

Ragnarson attacked at every point, his probes having revealed no weaknesses. His front ranks were the stolid pikemen of Iwa Skolovda, Dvar, and Prost Kamenets. Behind them were Itaskian bowmen who darkened the sky with their arrows. While the legions crouched beneath shields, suffering few casualties, otherwise unemployed westerners scuttled between pikemen to fill the trench preventing Ragnarson from using his knights. Badalamen's men countered with javelins. It was an innovation. Shinsan seldom used missiles.

Here, there, Badalamen had integrated Argonese and Throyen arbalesters....

Ragnarson's men crossed the ditch several times, and were hurled back.

That was the first day. A draw. Casualties about even. Ultimate point to Badalamen. He was a day nearer the moment when the Savernake Gap opened.

The witch-war was Varthlokkur's. His coven gathered over the Tear and round the Winterstorm, and taught the Tervola new fear.

The bent old man could have countered with his own Pole. He didn't. His situation wasn't so desperate that he was willing to reveal, undeniably, his true identity.

The night was Shinsan's. Savan dalage in scores stalked the darkness, trying to reach the Inner Circle and Bragi's commanders. Captains and a wizard died....

Now Bragi knew why Badalamen had chosen Palmisano.

A half-ruined Empire-era fortress crowned a low hill beside the eastern camp. Within it, after coming west, Magden Norath had established new laboratories. From it, now, poured horrors which ripped at the guts of the western army.

The second day was like the first. Men died. Ragnarson probed across both rivers, had both thrusts annihilated. His men filled more of Badalamen's ditch.

Again the night belonged to the savan dalage, though Varthlokkur and his circle concentrated on Norath's stronghold instead of the Tervola.

Marco predicted the Gap would be open in eleven days.

The third day Ragnarson sent up mangonels, trebuchets, and ballistae to knock holes in the legion ranks so Itaskian arrows could penetrate the shieldwalls. His sappers and porters finished filling the ditch.

That night the savan dalage remained quiet. Ragnarson should have been suspicious.

Next morning he stared across the filled ditch at lines of new cheveaux-de-frise. There could be no cavalry charge into those.

The fringe battles picked up. The bent man threw in his surviving dragons. Norath's creatures, excepting the light-shunning savan dalage, swarmed over the cheveaux and hurled themselves against the northern pikes.

"The tenor is changing," Bragi told Haaken. "Tempo's picking up."

Haaken's wild dark hair fluttered in the breeze. "Starting to realize the way the wind's blowing. Their day is over. Them spook-pushers are finally doing some good."

It looked that way. Once Norath's monsters disappeared, Varthlokkur could concentrate on Shinsan's army....

Ragnarson's heavy weapons bombarded the cheveaux with fire bombs. Behind the western lines, esquires and sergeants prepared the war-horses. Above, Radeachar and Marco swooped and weaved in a deadly dance with dragons. Bragi waved. "What?"

"There." Ragnarson pointed. Badalamen, too, was observing the action. He waved back.

"Arrogant bastard," Haaken growled. Bragi chuckled. "Aren't we all?"

Ragnar galloped up. "We'll be ready to charge at about four." He had spent a lot of time, lately, with Hakes Blittschau, enthralled by the life of a knight.

"Too late," Bragi replied. "Not enough light left. Tell them tomorrow morning. But keep up the show."

Badalamen didn't respond. He recognized the possible and impossible.

That night he launched his own attack. Savan dalage led. As always, panic surrounded their advance. Radeachar swept to the attack. Above, Marco tried to intimidate the remaining dragons. Following the savan dalage, unnoticed in the panic, came a column of Shinsan's best.

As Haaken had observed, Badalamen had sniffed the wind. This move was calculated to disrupt Ragnarson's growing advantages.

The attack drove relentlessly toward the hill where the captains and kings maintained their pavilions, and where the war-horses were kept.

Kildragon and Prataxis woke Ragnarson, Reskird shouting. "Night attack! Come on! They're headed this way."

The uproar approached swiftly. Norath had committed everything he had left. Panic rolled across the low hill.

Ragnarson surveyed the night. "Get some torches burning. Fires. More light. We've got to see." And light would turn the savan dalage.

Ragnar, Blittschau, and several knights ran past, half-armored, trying to reach the horses. If the enemy scatteredthose....

"Haaken?" Bragi called. "Where the hell's my brother?" He looked and looked, couldn't find Haaken anywhere.

Blackfang hadn't been able to sleep. For a time he had watched Varthlokkur work, marveling both at the Winterstorm and Mist, who manipulated some symbols from within the construct. He shook his head sadly. He had never had a woman of his own, just chance-met ladies for a night or a week, their names quickly forgotten. No doubt his own had slipped their minds as quickly.

He had begun feeling the weight of time upon him, his lack of a past. His life he had devoted to helping Bragi build Bragi's dreams. Now he realized he had never spun a dream of his own.

The noise from the front was different tonight. Badalamen was up to something. He rushed toward the clamor, torch in one hand, sword in the other. He didn't fear the savan dalage. He had met them before. A torch could hold them at bay till Radeachar arrived.

Badalamen drove through the juncture of Iwa Skolovdan forces with those of Dvar, into the Itaskians behind. Men of all three countries shrieked questions, got no intelligible answers. Some fought one another in their confusion.

A solid, single black column poured through.

Blackfang, through sheer lungpower, assembled company commanders, calmed panic, gave orders, led the counterattack.

Pikemen and arrows. A deadly storm tore at the legions, opening gaps. The Iwa Skolovdans insinuated themselves, broke the unity of the column. Blackfang, howling, brought more men to bear. That part of Shinsan's advance devolved into melee. Haaken, with a woodcutter's axe, inspired those near enough to see. Always, when not shouting other orders, he called for torches and fires.

Forty-five minutes later the gap was gone. The line was secure. He turned his attention to the thousands who had broken through.

The headquarters hill was aflame. It looked bad for its defenders.

Though near exhaustion, Blackfang ran to help his brother.

The savan dalage caught him halfway. There were three ofthem. He couldn't swing his torch fast enough. He went down cursing his killers.

The dwarf kicked the roc into a screaming, sliding dive. Fear and exhilaration contested for his soul. One dragon side-slipped winging over, the air rippling its wings. They fluttered and cracked like loose tent canvas in a high wind. The monster vanished in the darkness.

"One away," Marco crowed. "Come on, you bastards."

The other two held the turn and took the dive, wingtip to wingtip, precisely, their serpentine necks outthrust like the indicting fingers of doom. They were old and cunning, those two.

The fire and fury of the battlefield expanded swiftly, rocking and spinning as the roc maneuvered. To Marco it seemed someone had hurled him at a living painting of the floor of Hell. The roar swelled. His heart hammered. This was his last chance. A do or die game of chicken. They had to pull up first....

They were old and wise and knew every molecule of the wind. They stayed with him. Their wings beat like brazen gongs when they broke their fall.

Marco glimpsed startled faces turned suddenly upward. Screams. A dragon shriek when one pursuer's wingtip dipped too low and snagged a tent top.

"Eee-yah!" Marco screamed over his shoulder. "Let's go, you scaly whoreson. You and me. We got a horse race now." One on one he could outfly the granddaddy dragon of them all.

He didn't see the winged horse quartering in. He didn't see the spear of light.

He felt pain, and an instant of surprise when he realized there was nothing but air beneath him. The stars tumbled and went out.

Six columns of two thousand men each followed scattered trails, captained by old killers named Rahman, El Senoussi, Beloul. A seventh's path defined their base course.

It was tired, deserted country they rode. The few survivors vanished at the sound of hooves.

The young King had led his tired, grumbling old terrorists through night-march after night-march till, now, they saw dragons scorching the northern sky.

"It's begun," Megelin sighed. He planted his standard and waited for his commanders.

He fell asleep wondering if his gesture had merit, if his father's ghost would approve.

The night stalkers pursued the creature calling himself the Silent, who for centuries had been anything but. He hated light almost as much as they, but in his terror spelled anything to keep them at bay. Balls of flame floated overhead. He flailed about with swords of fire.

The long span of his arrogant bluster was scheduled to end. The Norns had scribbled-in Palmisano as the destination that ended his life-road.

The nearness of savan dalage stampeded a herd of war-horses. In the fractional second while they distracted him, Zindahjira died.

The stampeding mounts battered Ragnar. He scuttled beneath a haywagon. It nearly capsized in the equine tide.

The smell of savan dalage overrode that of horse fear and manure. Sweat soaked Ragnar's clothing. He had no torch. "Hakes!" He heard Blittschau bellowing, but the Altean didn't hear him. The clang of metal on metal rose against the drumming of hooves.

Shinsan's men had reached the horses.

The last screaming, lathered stallion hurtled past....

Ragnar rose slowly, his palm cold and moist on his sword hilt. A tiger-masked Tervola and three dark soldiers advanced with scarlet swords.

The wagon frame ground into his back....

The western line bent, bowed, withdrew a hundred yards under Badalamen's predawn general attack. But he committed auxiliaries and allies, spending their lives to tire and weaken his toes. They didn't break through. The panic of the night hadn't gotten out of hand.

Ragnarson, having shed his tears, rose from beside his dead. He shook off Reskird's sympathetic hand. "I'm all right." His voice was cold and calm. He glanced at the crown of the hill where, till last night, his headquarters had stood. The surviving attackers were heightening their earthworks.

They had completed their mission. Now they would await relief from their commander.

Visigodred departed the tent concealing the remains of his oldest and dearest antagonist. Mist held him momentarily, whispering. Radeachar had just found Marco.

Like scenes were occurring everywhere. A dozen national ensigns flew with hastily stitched black borders. Death had shown few favorites during her midnight rampage.

Bragi glimpsed a winged horse settling into the remains of the Imperial fortress. He growled, "We begin."

Trumpet voices filed the air. Drums responded. The knights advanced. Their pennons waved bright and bold. Their spirits were high. King Wieslaw of Iwa Skolovda had made a speech to stir the souls of veterans as old as and cynical as Tantamagoraand Alacran.

This would be their finest hour, the battle remembered a thousand years. The greatest charge in history.

An infantryman walked at each stirrup. Some were the knights' men. Most were doughty fighters Ragnarson had assigned: Trolledygnjans, Kaveliners, Guildsmen, veteran swordsmen who had been withheld from the front. They were rested and ready.

Aisles opened through the pikes and bows. Arrows darkened the air. Mangonels and trebuchets released.

The Iwa Skolovdan battle pennon dipped, signaling thecharge.

How bright their crests and pennons! How bold the gleam of their armor! How brilliant their countless shields! The earth groaned beneath their hooves. The sun itself seemed to quake as the army shouted with a hundred thousand throats.

The drums changed voice as Wieslaw spurred his charger. Lockstep, the men in black marched backward.

Not many pits appeared, but enough to blunt the charge.

"Damn!" Ragnarson growled, watching the gleaming tide break on the black wall, slow, and swirl like paints mixing.

The knights abandoned their lances, flailed with swords or maces. The men who had run at their stirrups guarded thehorses.

The bowmen, unable to ply their weapons without killing friends, grabbed swords, axes, hammers, mauls, rushed into the melee.

Bragi had kept no reserve but the pickets round last night's raiders, and the pikemen, who would screen any withdrawal.

From river to river the slaughter stretched, awesome in scale.

"Even the Fall of Tatarian wasn't this bloody," Valthcr murmured.

Derel Prataxis, without glancing up from his tablet, observed, "Half a million men. The biggest battle ever."

He was wrong, of course, but could be pardoned ignorance of the Nawami Crusades.

"Need to fall back and charge again," Ragnarson grumbled. But there was no way to order it. He could only hope his captains didn't let their enthusiasm override their sense.

Not that time. Wieslaw, Harteobben, and Blittschau extricated themselves, returned to their original lines. The easterners pressed the pikemen hard till the Itaskians again hid the sun behind arrows. Then the knights and stirrup men charged again.

Ragnarson and his party talked little. Grimly, Bragi watched Harteobben and Blittschau, on the wings, begin to be devoured. Only Wieslaw's echelon maintained momentum.

Ragnarson considered fleeing to Dunno Scuttari. He could take ship to Freyland and rally the survivors there.... No. Inger wouldn't be there. He had left too many dear ones behind already. His role in this war had been to leave a trail of his beloved. There had to be an end. He would share the fate of his army. He would fulfill the letter of Badalamen's message.

He saw to his weapons. His companions watched nervously, then did likewise. Prataxis rode through camp collecting cooks, mule-skinners, grooms, and the walking wounded.

THIRTY-THREE: Itaskia | All Darkness Met | THIRTY-FIVE: Palmisano: The Guttering Flame