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THIRTY-SIX: Home

Feng didn't go peacefully or quietly, with his tail between his legs. He went in his own fashion, in his own time, underscoring the fact that he was leaving by choice, not compulsion. He wouldn't be pushed. In Altea, when the Itaskian became too eager, he gave Lord Harteobben a drubbing that almost panicked the western army. In Kavelin, with Vorgreberg in sight, Feng whirled and dealt the overzealous pursuit ten thousand casualties they need not have suffered.

Ragnarson got the message that time. His captains, though, had trouble digesting it.

Feng was going home. But he could change his mind. The Gap was open. Bragi put his commanders on short leash. Feng was no Badalamen, but he was Tervola, bitter, unpredictable, and proud. He could still summon that vast armyat Gog-Ahlan.

The west had no new armies. Feng had to be let go with hisdignity intact.

"Nothing's changed," Prataxis sighed their first night back in Ravelin's capital. "In fact, they've shown a net gain. Everything east of the mountains."

"Uhm," Ragnarson grunted. He had other problems, like learning if his children had survived.

Vorgreberg had been deserted. But as Feng withdrew beyond the eastern boundary of the Siege, people began drifting in. Sad, haggard, emaciated, they came and looked at their homes like visitors to a foreign city. They had no cheers for their liberators, just dull-eyed acceptance of luck that might change again. They ,were a shattered people.

There were, too, the problems of putting the prostrate nationonto its feet, and of driving Feng through the Savernake Gap.

The first faced every nation south of the Silverband.

The latter task Ragnarson surrendered to Lord Harteobben. Derel, he hoped, would manage the economic miracle....

And a miracle it would be. Shinsan now bestrode the trade route which, traditionally, was Ravelin's major economic resource.

It was too much. "I'm going walking, Derel."

Prataxis nodded his understanding. "Later, then."

Bragi had never seen Vorgreberg so barren, so quiet. It remained a ghost city. Dull-eyed returnees flittered about like spooks. How many would come home? How many had survived?

The war had been terrible. Derel guessed five million had lost their lives. Varthlokkur deemed him a screaming optimist. At least that many had been murdered by Badalamen's auxiliaries. The small villages round which western agriculture revolved had been obliterated. Few crops had been sown this spring. The coming winter would be no happier than the past.

"There'll be survivors," Bragi muttered. He kicked a scrap of paper. The wind tumbled it down the street.

From the city wall he stared eastward. Distantly, dragon flames still arced across the night.

He lived.

What would he do with his life? There was Inger, if their hospital romance hadn't died. But what else?

Kavelin.

Still. Always.

He stalked through the lightless city, to the palace, saddled a horse. A sliver of moon rose as he neared the cemetery gate.

He visited the mausoleum first.

Nothing had changed. The Tervola hadn't let their allies loot the dead. He found an old torch, after several tries got it sputtering half-heartedly.

Fiana looked no different. Varthlokkur's art had preserved her perfectly. She still seemed to be asleep, ready to rise if Bragi spoke the right words. He knelt there a long time, whispering, then rose, assured his service to Kavelin hadn't ended.

He would persist. Even if it cost him Inger.

He almost skipped visiting Elana's grave. The pain was greater than ever, for he had failed abominably at the one thing she would have demanded: that he care for the children.

The torch struggled to survive the eastern wind. It was, he thought, like the west itself. If the wind picked up....

He almost missed them in the weak light.

The flowers on Elana's grave were, perhaps, four days old. Just old enough to have been placed there as Feng came over the horizon.

"Ha!" he screamed into the wind. "Goddamned! Ha-ha!" He hurled the torch into the air, watched it spin lazily and plunge to earth, refusing to die despite dwindling to a single spark. He grabbed it up and, laughing, jogged to his horse. Like a madman, by moonlight, torch overhead, he galloped toward Vorgreberg.

They arrived two days later. Gerda Haas, Nepanthe, Ragnar's wife, and all his little ones. They had been through Hell. They looked it. But they had grown. Gerda told him, "The Marena Dimura were with us. Even the Tervola couldn't findus."

Ragnarson bowed to the chieftain who had brought them, an old ally from civil war days. "I'm forever in your debt," he told the man in Marena Dimura. "What's mine is yours." He spoke the language poorly, but his attempt impressed the old man. "It is I who am honored, Lord," he replied. In Wesson. "I have been permitted to guard the Marshall's hearth."

There was much in the exchange that went unspoken. Their use of unfamiliar tongues reaffirmed the bond of the forest people to the throne, a loyalty adopted during the civil war.

"No. No honor. The imposition of a man unable to care for his own."

"Nay, Lord. The Marshall has many children, of the peoples. It was no dishonor needing help with the few when he cared for so many."

Bragi peered at Prataxis. Had Derel staged this? The Marena Dimura's remarks were a taste of things to come. Despite Bragi's conviction of his incompetent conduct of the war, he became a hero. Those he considered the real architects of victory went unheralded. People and wizards alike preferred it that way.

The real surprise arrived ten days after Vorgreberg'sliberation.

He was at home in Lieneke Lane, busting his tail helping clean the place, wondering how Inger would respond to his message. Yes? No? Gjerdrum brought a summons from the

Thing. Bragi hugged his children, and grandson (whom his daughter-in-law Kristen had named Bragi), and went.

Kristen had soared in his regard. It was she who had maintained her husband's family graves. She, Nepanthe said, had been strong for all of them, optimistic in the darkest moments. She had lost her husband and parents and still could smile at her father-in-law as he departed.

He met Prataxis outside the warehouse parliament. "Damned Nordmen trying to pull something already?" he snarled. "I'll kick the crap out of the whole damned Estates right now." The noble party had begun calling itself The Estates during the exile.

"Not yet." Prataxis gave Gjerdrum a secretive smile. "I think it's news from the Gap."

"Aha! Harteobben grabbed Maisak. Good! Good!" He strode inside, took a seat on the rostrum.

The Thing was a raggedy-assed comic imitation of a parliament now. Only thirty-six delegates were on hand. Most of those were self-appointed veterans. But it would do till some structure could be created for Kavelin's remains.

Assuming the chair, Derel immediately recognized Baron Hardle of Sendentin.

Ragnarson loathed Sendentin. He had a big mouth, and had been involved in every attempt to weaken the Crown since the civil war. Yet Bragi grudgingly respected him. He had served uncomplainingly against Badalamen, and had been a doughty fighter. In the crunch he had stuck to Kavelin's traditions and had closed ranks against the common enemy.

"News has come from Maisak," the Baron announced. "The Dread Empire has abandoned the stronghold. Not one enemy occupies one square foot of the Fatherland. The war is over."

Ragnarson wanted to protest. The conflict could never end while the Tervola existed. But he held his peace. Hardle's remarks had drawn unanimous applause.

Hardle continued, "I suggest we return to the task we faced before the invasion. We need a King. A man able to make decisions and stick to them. The near future will be harrowing. All parties, all classes, all interests, must repudiate the politics of divisiveness. Or perish. We need a leader who understands us, our strength and our weakness. He must be fair, patient, and intolerant of threats to Kavelin's survival."

Bragi whispered, "Derel, they wanted me to hear self-serving

Nordmen campaign speeches?" Hardle, when wound up, could talk interminably.

Hardle spent an hour describing Kavelin's future King. Then, "The Estates enter a consensus proposition: that the Regency be declared void and the Regent proclaimed King."

Bragi's dumbfoundment persisted while the Wesson party seconded the proposal.

"Hold it!" he bellowed. He realized that all this had been orchestrated. "Derel.... Gjerdrum...."

Both feigned surprise. "Don't look at me," said Prataxis. "It's their idea."

"How much help did they have coming up with it?" He glared at Varthlokkur, who lurked in the shadows, smiling smugly.

The Siluro and Marena Dimura minorities accepted the proposal too.

"I don't want the aggravation!" Bragi shouted an hour later, having exhausted argument. "With no war to keep you out of mischief you'd drive me crazy in a month."

He now suspected the motives of The Estates. A King was more constrained by law and custom than a Regent.

They out-stubborned him. They were planning the corona-tion before he yielded. His election, Derel insisted, would be lent legitimacy by the attendance of the K ings with the western army.

"You know," he told Prataxis, "Haaken never wanted to come south. He wanted to fight the Pretender. If I'd known leaving would lead to this, I would've stayed."

Prataxis grinned. "I doubt it. Kavelin was always your destiny."

Kavelin. Always Kavelin. Damnable, demanding little Kavelin.

A sweating courier rushed in. He bore Inger's response. Bragi read it, said, "All right. You've got me. Gods help us all."

In his rags, with sores disfiguring his hands and face, the bent man didn't stand out. He was but one of tattered thousands lining the avenue. The King's Own Horse Guards pranced past, followed by Gjerdrum Eanredson, the new Marshall, then the Vorgrebergers.

The King and his wife approached. The Royal carriage wasn't much. Fiana's hearse converted. Kavelin had few resources to waste.

The old man hobbled away on feet tortured by hundreds ofmiles. He stared at the flagstones, hoped he wouldn't catch Varthlokkur's eye.

He squeezed the Tear shape in his pocket.

The wizard had been singularly careless, leaving it unat-tended.

But that was the nature of the Poles. To be forgotten. His own was the same.

Varthlokkur might not check on it for years.

He hobbled eastward, gripping the Tear with one hand, tumbling his gold medallion with the other. An hour outside Vorgreberg he began humming. He had had setbacks before. This one hadn't been so terrible after all. The Nawami Crusades had gone worse.

There were countless tomorrows in his sentence without end.



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



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