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THIRTY-FIVE: Palmisano: The Guttering Flame

It seemed he had been chopping at black armor for days. He had trained and trained, but his instructors hadn't told him how arduous it would be. Here, unlike the practice field, he couldn't rest.

"Almost through!" Wieslaw screamed, gesturing with his bloody sword. Only a thin line screened the open ground beyond Shinsan's front.

The esquire glanced back. The hundreds who had followed Wieslaw now numbered but dozens.

The youth redoubled his attack.

The line broke. They were through. Wieslaw cavorted as though the battle itself had been won. His standard bearer galloped to his side. More knights surged through the gap, rallied round, congratulated one another weakly.

The respite lasted but moments. Then a band of steppe riders attacked. While the westerners turned that threat their bolt hole closed behind them.

"Badalamen," said Wieslaw. "We have to plant a sword in the dragon's brain."

The esquire stared across the quarter-mile separating them from the born general. Badalamen's bodyguards had sprung from the sorcerous wombs of the laboratories of Ehelebe. And crowds of Throyens masked them.

Wieslaw assembled his people to charge.

The Throyens put up little fight. In minutes the knights reached the tall, expressionless guards surrounding Badalamen.

Ragnarson cursed as his mount screamed and stumbled. Her hamstrings had been cut. He threw himself clear, smashed a black helmet with his war axe while leaping. He continued hacking with wild, two-handed swings, past pain, rage, andfrustration, exploding in a berserk effort to destroy Shinsan single-handedly.

He knew no hope anymore. He just wanted to hurt and hurt until Badalamen couldn't profit from winning.

His companions felt the change. Morning's optimism was becoming afternoon's despair. The invincible legions were, again, meeting their reputation. Soldiers began glancing backward, picking directions to run.

Varthlokkur, too, despaired. He had recognized his antago-nist at last. Shinsan, Tervola, Pracchia, Ehelebe, all were smokescreens. Behind them lurked the Old Meddler, the Star Rider. He knew, now, because someone was negating his manipulation of the Tear. Only the other Pole's master could manage that.

The devil had come into the open. He needed anonymity no more.

It seemed but a matter of time till the tide turned and the Power became Shinsan's faithful servant once more. Not even Radeachar, frantically buzzing the old fortress, would help. The Tervola had learned to neutralize the Unborn.

How long? Two hours? Four? No more, certainly.

Varthlokkur watched Mist and longed for Nepanthe.

Four still lived. The esquire. Wieslaw. His standard-bearer. A baronet of Dvar. Bodies carpeted the slope.

Badalamen fought on, alone, surrounded.

The born soldier struck. The esquire fell, a deep wound burning his side. Hooves churned the earth about him. He staggered to his feet. The baronet fell. The standard-bearer cried out, followed. The esquire seized the toppling standard, murmuring, "It can't fall before His Majesty."

Badalamen seemed to strike in slow motion. The youth's thrust with the banner spear seemed even slower.

Wieslaw collapsed. Badalamen, speartip between his ribs, followed. The esquire, Odessa Khomer, fell across both.

A mystery long pursued by sorcerers of both sides consisted of a youth with makeshift weapon. Thus the Fates play tricks when revealing slivers of tomorrow.

Megelin whipped his horse, surged out of the river. Fighting greeted him, but Beloul quickly routed the Argonese pickets. Megelin surveyed the battleground. Nothing barred him fromreaching the main contest. Shinsan's encampment appeared undefended. Only the few pickets weren't in the battle line.

He gathered his captains, gave his orders. Wet horsemen, tired-eyed, formed their companies.

"Three hours, Beloul," the young King remarked, glancing at the westering sun.

Beloul didn't reply. But he followed. His mind had stretched enough to see the national interest in a defeat of Shinsan.

Their charge swept through the eastern camp and round the hill where the old fortress stood. Megelin and a handful of followers invaded the stronghold. They found nothing, though in a courtyard they so startled a winged horse that it took flight and vanished into the east. Puzzled, Megelin left, led his men against the enemy rear. He swept past the drama of Badalamen and Odessa Khomer only minutes after its completion, and never learned what had happened there.

A centurion informed the Tervola.

Only a dozen survived. Each had pledged himself to Ehelebe in times gone by. The Star Rider had saved each from the Unborn. But command was devolving on unready Aspirants and noncoms.

They repudiated their oaths, reelected Ko Fengcommander.

"That's all. We're done here," Feng said. "Though the cause isn't necessarily lost, I propose we withdraw."

The Tervola agreed. Shinsan's destiny could no longer be pursued through the fantasy of Ehelebe. Nor could it without legions which, pushed to win today, might be pushed too far. The army's skeleton had to be salvaged so Shinsan could rebuild against tomorrow.

The bloody mind-fog lifted. For a moment Ragnarson stood amidst the carnage, shield high, axe dragging, puzzled. The pressure had eased. His men had stopped backing up. An army tottering at the brink, already disintegrating, had stiffened unexpectedly....

Or had it?

He caught a hobbling, distraught horse, mounted for the instant needed to discover that Shinsan was disengaging. As always, in good order, evacuating the wounded first, still attacking along a narrow aisle to relieve the force waiting on the hilltop.

Desert-garbed men flew about behind them. The easterners ignored them, having already taught them the cost of getting too close.

The sun was nearing the horizon. In an hour it would be too dark to see....

Bragi swore, shouted, cajoled. His men leaned on their weapons, staring with eyes that had seen too much bloodshed. They didn't care if the foe were vulnerable. He was going. That was enough.

Bragi caught another horse, raged around looking for men who would fight on.

He glimpsed movement near the fortress. Someone with white hair scuttled toward a band of legionnaires. Megelin's riders chased him back inside.

A wild, evil glee captured Bragi's soul. He walked his mount toward the battered stronghold.

He passed the remains of Badalamen and hardly noticed. A mad little laugh kept bubbling up from deep in his guts.

The bent man watched the barbaric rider cross that field of death as implacably as a glacier. He studied Feng, a mile eastward, directing assembly of the pontoons Badalamen had prepared. He searched the sky. Nowhere did he see his winged steed.

He spat. A potent tool, the Windmjirnerhorn, the Horn of the Star Rider, from which he could conjure almost anything, remained strapped to the beast's back. He was naked to his enemies, defenseless-except for cunning and foresight.

And his Pole.

The rider loomed huge now, subjectively growing larger than life as their confrontation approached.

He scuttled into the fortress's cluttered recesses, through the shambles of Magden Norath's laboratories. What had happened to the Escalonian? The first rat to desert the ship, he thought. No guts. Lived his dreams and fantasies through his creations.

The Fadema, though, remained where he had left her, sitting with his ancient, mindless accomplice.

"Is it over?" she asked.

"Not yet, my lady. But nearly." He smiled, stepped past her to a cluttered shelf, selected one of Norath's scalpels.

"Good. I'm tired of it all."

"You'll rest well." He yanked her head back, cut her throat.

The Old Man frowned.

"The Fates have intervened, old friend. Our holocaust becomes a country fair. Hold this." The Old Man accepted the scalpel. The Star Rider began extinguishing lamps. When one remained he produced his golden token, placed it over his "thirdeye."

"The Tervola have decided to cut their losses. I should have known. Their first loyalty will always be to Shinsan. A foul habit. Ah! I can hear Them. They're laughing. My predicamentamuses Them."

He pocketed the medallion. "That'll scare hell out of somebody." He cocked his head, listening. The measured tread of boots echoed from a darkened passage.

"He comes." He selected an unconsecrated kill-dagger from the shelf. "The final scene, old friend."

Varthlokkur, Visigodred, and Mist, only survivors of the Inner Circle, sat, exhausted, watching the Winterstorm. Outside, dull-witted, disarmed, weary, the Unborn bobbed on the breeze, abiding Varthlokkur's command.

Valther burst in. "We've done it!" He was blood-filthy. A battered sword trailed from his hand.

They didn't respond.

He planted himself before them. "Didn't you hear? We've won! They're retreating...."

The Winterstorm exploded.

Valther shrieked once as flames consumed him.

Mist wept quietly, too drained to move.

Visigodred held her, softly observed, "If he hadn't been there...."

"We'd have burned," Varthlokkur said. "It was time. He had been redeemed. The Fates. They weave a mad tapestry.... He was the last Storm King. They had no further use for him." He didn't seem surprised that his enemy, suddenly, was able to overpower his creation.

Ragnarson paused. There was a wrongness about the dimly lighted chamber. Yet the entire fortress had that taint. The evil of Ehelebe?

He entered, knelt by the corpse. "Fadema. Thus he rewarded you." Blood still oozed from her ruined throat. She stared up with startled dead eyes.


Sensing something, Bragi whirled.

The blade slashed his already ruined shirt, turned on his mail. He drove hard with his sword. The old man groaned, clutched his belly, hurtled toward the remaining lamp as if yanked by puppet strings. It broke. In seconds the room was ablaze.

"Burn forever, you bastard." One of those mad chuckles escaped him. "You've hurt me for the last time."

A bone-weary Treblicock met him beside his mount. "Valther's dead," Michael said. "We thought you should know." He described the circumstances.

"So. He got in one last shot. Where's your shadow?"

"Aral? Him and Kildragon went around the sides. In case you came out over there. Why?"

"I think I might need somebody to carry me back."

"Mike!" Dantice's shout penetrated the remaining clamor of the battlefield. "Hurry up!"

They found Dantice kneeling beside a dying man.

"Reskird!" Bragi swore. "Not now. Not here."

"Bragi?" Kildragon gasped.

"I'm here. What happened?"

"My boy. Look out for my boy."

Reskird had a son who was a fledgling Guildsman. Bragi hadn't seen him in years.

"I will, Reskird." He held his friend's hand. "Who was it? What happened?"

The silver dagger had missed Kildragon's heart, but not by much. It had severed the aorta. Reskird gulped something unintelligible, shuddered, went limp in Bragi's arms.

He wept. And, finally, rose to assume command of the fields that were now his. Later Varthlokkur would suggest that Madgen Norath, unaccounted for, owed them a life.

"He was the last," Bragi mused. "None of us are left but me." And, after a while, "Why am I still alive?"

THIRTY-FOUR: Road to Palmisano | All Darkness Met | THIRTY-SIX: Home