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SIX: The Attack

Three men lurked in the shadows of the park. They appeared to be devotees of the Harish Cult of Hammad al Nakir. Dusky, hawk-nosed men, they watched with merciless eyes. They had been there for hours, studying the mansion across the lane. Occasionally, one had gone to make a careful circuit of the house. They were old hunters. They had patience.

"It's time," the leader finally murmured. He tapped a man's shoulder, stabbed a finger at the house. The man crossed the lane with no more noise than the approach of midnight. A dog woofed questioningly behind the hedges.

The man returned five minutes later. He nodded.

All three crossed the lane.

They had been studying and rehearsing for days. No one was out this time of night. There was little chance anyone would interfere.

Four mastiffs lay rigid on the mansion's lawn. The three dragged them out of sight. Poisoned darts had silenced them.

The leader spent several minutes examining the door for protective spells. Then he tried the latch.

The door opened.

It was too easy. They feared a trap. A Marshall should have guards, enchantments, locks and bolts protecting him.

These men didn't know Kavelin. They couldn't have comprehended the little kingdom's politics had they been interested. Here political difficulties were no longer settled with blades in darkness.

They searched the first floor carefully, smothering a maid, butler, and their child. They had orders to leave no one alive.

The first bedroom on the second floor belonged to Inger,

Ragnarson's four-year-old daughter. They paused there, again using a pillow.

The leader considered the still little form without remorse. His fingers caressed a dagger within his blouse, itching to strike with it. But that blade dared be wielded against but one man.

To the Harish Cult the assassin's dagger was sacred. It was consecrated to the soul of the man chosen to die. To pollute the weapon with another's blood was abomination. Deaths incidental to a consecrated assassination had to be managed by other means. Preferably bloodless, by smothering, drowning, garroting, poisoning, or defenestration.

The three slew a boy child, then came to a door with light showing beneath it. A murmur came through. Adult voices. This should be the master bedroom. The three decided to save that room for last. They would make sure of the sleeper on the third floor, Ragnarson's brother, before taking the Marshall himself, three to one.

The plans of mice and men generally are laid without considering the fbibles of fourteen-year-old boys who have been feuding with their brothers.

Every night Ragnar booby-trapped his door certain that some morning Gundar would again sneak in to steal his magic kit....

Water fell. A bucket crashed and rattled over an oaken floor. From the master bedroom a woman's frightened voice called, "Ragnar, what the hell are you up to?" Low, urgent discussion accompanied the rustle of hasty movement.

A sleepy, "What?" came from behind the booby-trapped door, then a frightened, "Ma!"

Ragnar didn't recognize the man in his doorway.

The intruder pawed the water from his eyes. His followers threw themselves toward the master bedroom. The door was locked, but flimsy. They broke through.

Inside, a man desperately tried to get into his pants. A woman clutched furs to her nakedness.

"Who the hell... ?" the man demanded.

An assassin flicked a bit of silken handkerchief. It wrapped the man's throat. A second later his neck broke. The other intruder rushed the woman.

They were skilled, these men. Professionals. Murder, swift and silent, was their art.

Their teachers had for years tried to school them to react tothe unexpected. But some things were beyond their teachers.

Like a woman fighting back.

Elana hurled herself toward the bodkin laying on a nearby wardrobe, swung it as the assassin rounded the bed.

He stopped, taken aback.

She moved deftly, distracting with her nakedness. Seeing him armed with nothing more dangerous than a scarf, she attacked.

He flicked that scarf. It encircled her throat. She drove the dagger in an upward thrust. He took it along his ribs.

Gagging, Elana stabbed again, opened his bowels.

Ragnar suddenly realized that death was upon him. He scrambled to the shadowed corner where he had hidden the weapons Haaken had been training him to use. They were there by sheer chance. He had been too lazy to return them to the family armory after practice, and Haaken had forgotten to check on him.

He went after the assassin in the wild-swinging northman fashion before the man recovered from the drenching. His blows were fierce but poorly struck. He was too frightened to fight with forethought or calculation.

The assassin wasn't armed for this. He retreated, skipping and weaving and picking up slash wounds. He watched the boy's mad eyes, called for help. But there would be none. Through the door of the master bedroom he saw one of his comrades down. The other wrestled with a woman.... And someone was stirring upstairs.

The man. though, was dead. He lay halfway between bed and door, silk knotted round his throat.

The night was almost a success. The primary mission had been accomplished.

The leader fled.

Ragnar chased him to the front door before he realized that his mother was fighting for her life. He charged back upstairs. "Ma! Ma!"

The house was all a-scream now. The little ones wailed in the hall. Haaken thundered from the third floor, "What's going on down there?"

Ragnar met the last assassin coming from the bedroom. His mouth and eyes were agape in incredulity.

Ragnar cut him down. For an instant he stared at the bodkin in the man's back. Then he whipped into his parents' bedroom. "Ma! Papa! Are you all right?"

No.

He saw the dead man first, his pants still around his knees.

It wasn't his father.

Then he saw his mother and the disemboweled assassin.

"Ma!"

It was the howl of a maddened wolf, all pain and rage....

Haaken found the boy hacking at the assassin Elana had gutted. The corpse was chopped meat. He took in the scene, understood, despite his own anger and agony did what he had to do.

First he closed the door to shield the other children from their mother's shame. Then he disarmed Ragnar.

It wasn't easy. The boy was ready to attack anything moving. But Haaken was Ragnar's swordmaster. He knew the boy's weaknesses. He struck Ragnar's blade aside, planted a fist.

The blow didn't faze Ragnar. "Like your grandfather, eh, Red?" He threw another punch. Then another and another. The boy finally collapsed. Ragnar's grandfather had, at will, been capable of killing rages. Berserk, he had been invincible.

Shaking his head dolefully, Haaken covered Elana. "Poor Bragi," he muttered. "He don't need this on top of everything else."

He poked his head into the hall. The surviving children and servants were in a panic. "Gundar!" he roared. "Come here. Pay attention." The ten-year-old couldn't stop staring at the assassin lying in the hall. "Run to the Queen's barracks. Tell Colonel Ahring to get your father. Right now."

Haaken closed the door, stalked round the bedroom. "How will I tell him?" he mumbled. He toyed with disposing of the dead man. "No. Have to do it in one dose. He'll need all the evidence.

"Somebody's gonna pay for this." He inspected the chopped corpse carefully. "El Murid has got himself one big debt."

The hand of the Harish had reached into Vorgreberg before.

There was nothing he could do there. He slipped out, sat down with his back against the door. He laid his sword across his lap and waited for his brother.

One oil lamp flickered on Ragnarson'sdesk. He bent close to read the latest protest from El Murid's embassy. They sure could bitch about petty shit.

What the hell was Haroun up to?

Haroun was what he was, doing what he thought necessary. Even when he made life difficult, Bragi bore him no ill will. But when bin Yousif stopped conforming to his own nature....

There hadn't been a serious protest in a year. And Valther said there had been no terrorist incursions for several. Nor had many bands of Royalist partisans passed through Kavelin bound for the camps. Nor had Customs reported the capture of any guerrilla contraband.

It was spooky.

Ragnarson wasn't pleased when people changed character inexplicably.

"Derel. Any word from Karak Strabger?"

"None, sir."

"Something's wrong up there. I'd better...."

"Gjerdrum can handle it, sir."

Ragnarson's right hand fluttered about nervously. "I suppose. I wish he'd write more often."

"I used to hear the same from his mother when he was at the university."

"It'd risk letters falling into unfriendly hands anyway." The Queen's condition had to remain secret. For the good of the state, for his own good-if he didn't want his wife planning to cut his throat.

Bragi didn't know how to manage it, but the news absolutely had to be kept from Elana.

Rumors striking alarmingly near the truth ran the streets already.

He massaged his forehead, crushed his eyelids with the heels of his hands. "This last contribution from Breidenbach. You done the figures yet?"

"It looks good. There's enough, but it'll be risky."

"Damned. There's got to be an honest, legal way to increase revenues."

In the past, when he had been on the other end, Bragi's favorite gripes had been government and taxes. Taxes especially. He had seen them as a gigantic protection racket. Pay off or have soldiers on your front porch.

"By increasing the flow of trade."

Economics weren't his forte, but Ragnarson asked anyway. "How do we manage that?"

"Lower the transit tax." Prataxis grinned.

"Oh, go to hell. The more you talk, the more I get confused. If

I had the men I'd do it the Trolledyngjan way. Go steal it from the nearest foreigner who couldn't defend himself."

Prataxis's reply was forestalled by a knock.

"Enter," Ragnarson growled.

Jarl Ahring stepped in. His face was drawn.

Premonition gripped Ragnarson. "What is it? What's happened, Jarl?"

Ahring gulped several false starts before babbling, "At your house. Somebody.... Assassins."

"But.... What... ?" He didn't understand. Assassins? Why would... ? Maybe robbers? There was no reason for anyone to attack his home.

"Your son.... Gundar.... He came to the barracks. He was hysterical. He said everybody was dead. Then he said Haaken told him to have me find you. I sent twenty men over, then came here."

"You checked it out?"

"No. I came straight here."

"Let's go."

"I brought you a horse."

"Good." Ragnarson strapped on the sword that was never out of reach, followed Ahring at a run. And then at a wild gallop through deserted streets.

A quarter mile short of home Ragnarson shouted, "Hold up!" A patch of white in the park had caught his eye.

The man was on the verge of dying, but he recognized Ragnarson. Surprise shown through agony. He tried to use a dagger.

Bragi took it away, studied him. Soon he was dead. "Loss of blood," Ragnarson observed. "Somebody cut him bad." He handed the knife to Ahring.

"Harish kill-dagger."

"Yeah. Come on."

The news was spreading. Lean, sallow Michael Trebilcock had arrived already, and Valther and his wife, Mist, showed up as Bragi did. Their house stood just up the lane. Neighbors clogged the yard. Ahring's troops were keeping them out of the house.

Bragi took the dagger from Ahring, passed it to Valther's wife. "It is consecrated?"

That tall, incredibly beautiful woman closed her oval eyes.

She moaned suddenly, hurled the blade away. A soldier recovered it.

Mist took two deep breaths, said, "Yes. To your name. But not in Al Rhemish."

"Ah?" Ragnarson wasn't surprised. "Where, then?"

"It's genuine. A Harish knife. Under your name is another, without blood."

"Stolen blade. I thought so."

"What? How?" Ahring asked.

"There still some here?" Bragi asked. Harish assassins usually worked in teams. And they didn't leave their wounded behind.

"Yes sir," a soldier replied. "Upstairs."

"Come," Ragnarson told Ahring, Valther, and Mist. "You too, Michael."

Trebilcock was a strange young man. He had come from the Rebsamen with Gjerdrum when Ragnarson's aide had graduat-ed from that university. His father, Wallice Trebilcock of the House of Braden in Czeschin of the Bedelian League, had died shortly before, leaving him an immense fortune.

He didn't care about money, or anything but getting near the makers and shakers of history.

Ragnarson had felt a paternal attraction from their first meeting, so the youth had slipped into his circle through the side door.

Ragnarson, though unaware of the extent of his losses, was already in a form of shock. It was a protective reaction against emotion, a response learned the hard way, at fifteen. It had been then that disaster and despair had first overtaken him, then that he had learned that swords don't exclusively bite the men on the other side.

He had learned the night he had watched his father die, belly opened by an axe....

Others had died since, good friends and brothers-in-arms. He had learned, and learned, and learned-to stifle emotions till the smoke had cleared, till the dust had settled, till the enemy had been put away.

He knelt by the dead man in the hallway, opening his clothing. "Here." He tapped the man over his heart.

"What?" Valther asked. "He has the tattoo. They always do."

"Look closer," Ragnarson growled.

Valther peered intently at a tricolor tattoo, three cursiveletters intertwined. They meant "Beloved of God." Their bearer was guaranteed entry into Paradise. "What?"

"You see it?"

"Of course."

"Why?"

Valther didn't reply.

"He's dead, Valther. They fade with the spirit."

"Oh. Yes."

So they did, with a genuine Harish assassin, supposedly to indicate that the soul had ascended. Some cynics, though, claimed they vanished to avoid an admission that a Cultist had failed.

"Somebody went to a lot of trouble here," Bragi observed. "But for that, the frame would've worked." It should have. Not many men outside the Harish knew that secret. Most of those were associates of Haroun bin Yousif.

Ragnarson's mysterious friend had researched the Cult thoroughly. He'd had to. He had been its top target for a generation.

And he was still alive.

"There's a trap here," said Bragi.

"What now?" Valther demanded.

"You've got the mind for this. Suppose these are part of the plan? If they failed, and we didn't jump to the conclusion that El Murid was responsible? Who would you suspect then?"

"Considering their apparent origins...."

"Haroun. Of course. There're other folks like them, but who else would be interested?"

"A double frame?"

"Levels. Always there're these levels. Direct attack is too unsubtle...."

"Is something beginning?"

"Something has begun. We've been into it for a long time. Too many impossible things have happened already."

Bragi rose, kicked the corpse, growled, "Get this out of my house." Then he dropped to a knee beside Haaken. He slid an arm around his brother's shoulders, crushed him to his chest. "Haaken, Haaken, it was an evil day when we came south."

Tears still rolled down into the wild dark tangle of Haaken's beard.

He sniffed. "We should've stood and died." He sniffed again, wrapped both arms around Bragi. "Bragi, let me get the kids andwe just go home. Now, and the hell with everything. Forget it all. Just you and me and Reskird and the kids, and leave these damned southrons to their own mercies."

"Haaken...."

"Bragi, it's bad. It's cruel. Please. Let's just go. They can have everything I've got. Just take me home. I can't take it anymore."

"Haaken...." He rose.

"Don't go in. Bragi, please."

"Haaken, I have to." There were tears in his own eyes. He knew part of it now. Elana. She was a loss more dire than his father. Mad Ragnar had chosen his death. Elana.... She was a victim of his profession.

Blackfang wouldn't move. And now the younger children, Ainjar and Helga, clung to his legs, bawling, asking for Mama, and what was wrong with Inger and Soren?

Ragnarson asked a question with his eyes. Haaken nodded.

"My babies? No. Not them too?"

Haaken nodded again.

The tears faded. Ragnarson turned slowly, surveying the faces in the hall. Every eye turned from the flame raging in his. Hatred was too mild a word.

Blood would flow. Souls would spill shrieking into the outer darkness. And he wouldn't be gentle. He would be cruel.

"Move aside, Haaken."

"Bragi...."

"Move."

Haaken moved. "You lead, Bragi," he said. "I'll follow anywhere."

Ragnarson briefly rested a hand on his shoulder. "We're probably dead men, Haaken. But somebody will carry the torches to light our path into Hell." For an instant he was startled by his own words. Their father had said the same thing just before his death. "Valther! Find out who did this."

"Bragi...."

"Do it." He shoved into the bedroom.

Valther started to follow him. Mist seized his arm.

She had the Power. Once she had been a Princess of the Dread Empire. She knew what lay behind that door.

Ragnarson had his emotions under control again. He kept hand on sword hilt to remind himself. This was a battlefield. These had fallen in a war....

"Oh."

Haaken tried to pull him out.

"No. Valther. Come here."

The man with his pants half on was Valther's brother Turran.

Their eyes met over the corpse, and much went unsaid- words which couldn't be spoken lest blood be their price.

"Take care of him." Ragnarson moved round the bed to his wife. First he dropped to one knee, then he sat. He held her hand and remembered. Twenty years. Sixteen of them married. Hard times and good, fighting and loving.

That was a long time. Nearly half his life. There were a lot of memories.

Behind him, Valther shed tears on his brother's chest.

An hour passed before Bragi looked up.

Rolf Preshka, Captain of the Palace Guards, sat on the edge of the bed. His grief mirrored Ragnarson's.

Bragi had never known for sure, but he had suspected. Rolf had joined him when Elana had. They had been partners before.... But there hadn't been a moment's dishonor since. He knew Preshka that well.

There was that, beneath the grief, which said that Rolf, too, meant to extract payment in blood and pain.

But Preshka was in no shape for it. He had lost a lung in the war. He refused to die, but he was never healthy either. That was why he held the unstrenuous Palace command.

Later still, Nepanthe came. She cried some. Then she and Mist calmed the children and moved them to Valther's house.

"You are my hand that reaches beyond the grave," Bragi told Ragnar before he left, and went on to explain what he knew and felt. Things Ragnar should know in case the next band of assassins succeeded.

The boy had to grow up fast.

Throughout the night Michael Trebilcock observed in silence. Trebilcock remained an enigma. He was a sponge, soaking up others' pain and joy and never revealing any emotion himself.

Once, though, he came and rested a comforting hand on Bragi's shoulder. For Trebilcock that was a lot.

Before sunrise all Bragi's old comrades had come, except Reskird, whose regiment was on exercise around Lake Turntine.

Shortly before dawn, thunder rolled over the mountains. Lightning walked the cloudless night.

It was an omen.


FIVE: A Traveler in Black | All Darkness Met | SEVEN: The Old Dread Returns



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