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SEVEN: The Old Dread Returns

The wind never ceased its howl and moan through the wild, angry mountains called The Dragon's Teeth. It tore at Castle Fangdred with talons of ice and teeth of winter. The stronghold was the only evidence that Man had ever braved these savage mountains. The furious wind seemed bent on eradication.

It was a lonely castle, far from any human habitation. Only two men dwelt there now, and but one of those could be called alive.

He was old, that man, yet young. Four centuries had he lived, yet he looked not a tenth of that. He stalked Fangdred's empty, dusty halls, alone and lonely, waiting.

Varthlokkur.

His name. The west's dread.

Varthlokkur. The Silent One Who Walks With Grief. Also called The Empire Destroyer.

This man, this wizard, could erase kingdoms as a student wipes a slate.

Or such was his reputation. He was powerful, and had engineered the downfall of Ilkazar, yet he was a man. He had his limitations.

He was tall and thin, with earth-toned skin and haunted mahogany eyes.

He was waiting. For a woman.

He wanted nothing to do with the world.

But sometimes the world assailed him and he had to react, to protect his place in it, to secure his own tomorrows.

The other man sat on a stone throne, before a mirror, in a chamber high atop a tower. Its only door was sealed by spells which even Varthlokkur couldn't fathom. He wasn't dead, but neither was he alive. He, too, waited.

A malaise had descended on Varthlokkur. Evil stalkedabroad again. Not the usual evil, everyday evil, but the Evil that abided, awaiting its moment to engulf.

This evil had struck before, and had been driven home.

It waxed again, and its burning eyes sought a target for its wrath.

Varthlokkur performed his divinations. He conjured his familiar demons and sped them over the earth on wings of nightmare. He sang the dark songs of necromancy, calling up the dead. He wheedled from them secrets of tomorrow.

It was what they wouldn't, or couldn't, tell him that inspired dread.

Something was happening.

It had its foundation in Shinsan. Once again the Dread Empire was preparing to make its will its destiny. But there was more.

For a while Varthlokkur concentrated on the west and unearthed more evidence of sprouting evil. Down south, at Baxendala, where the Dread Empire had been turned before....

If one word could describe Varthlokkur, it might be doleful. His mother had been burned by the Wizards of Ilkazar. His foster parents had passed away before he was ten. Obsessed with vengeance for his mother, he had made devil's bargains in Shinsan-and had rued his decision a thousand times. The Princes Thaumaturge had taught him, then used him to shatter forever the political cohesion of the Empire.

And then? Four centuries of loneliness in a world terrified of him, yet constantly conspiring to use him. Four centuries of misery, awaiting the one pleasant shadow falling across his destiny, the woman who could share his life and love.

And there had been pain and sadness in that, too. She had taken another husband-his own son, from a marriage of convenience, ignorant of his paternity, by then known under the name. Mocker....

Those blind hags, the Norns, snickered and wove the threads of destiny in an astounding, treacherous warp and woof.

But he had beaten them. He and Nepanthe had come to an understanding. He had the sorcery to enable it.

Upon her he had placed the same wizardries that had made him virtually immortal. In time Mocker would perish. Then she would share Varthlokkur's destiny.

So he waited, in his hidden stronghold, and was sad andlonely, till the undertides of old evil washed against his consciousness and excited him.

He performed his divinations, and they were clouded, irresolute, shifting, revolving on but one absolute axis. Something wicked was afoot.

The first nibble of the beast would be at the underbelly of that little kingdom at the juncture of the Kapenrungs and Mountains of M'Hand. At Kavelin.

His final necromancy indicated that he had to get there quickly.

He prepared transfer spells that would shift him in seconds.

Thunder stalked the morning over the knife-edged ridges of the Kapenrungs. Lightning sabered the skies. A hard north wind gnawed at the people and houses of Vorgreberg.

In the house on Lieneke Lane, sad and angry men paused to glance outside and, shivering, ask one another what was happening.

Suddenly, in the bedroom where the lips of Death had sipped, a mote of darkness appeared. Preshka spied it first. "Bragi." He pointed.

It hung in the air heart high, halfway between bed and door.

Ragnarson eyed it. It began growing, a little black cloud taking birth, becoming more misted and tenuous as it expanded. Within, a left-handed mandala revolved slowly, remaining two-dimensional and face-on no matter from what angle Ragnarson studied it.

"Ahring! Get some men in here."

In seconds twenty men surrounded the growing shadow, shaking but ready. Their faces were pale, but they had faced sorcery before, at Baxendala.

The mandala spun faster. The cloud grew larger, forming a pillar. That pillar assumed the shape of a man. The mandala pulsed like a beating heart. For an instant, vaguely, Bragi thought he saw a tired face at the column's capital.

"Be ready," he snarled. "It's coming through."

A voice, like one come down a long, twisted, cold cavern, murmured, "Beware. Shield your eyes."

It was powerfully commanding. Ragnarson responded automatically.

Thunder shook the house. Lightning clawed the air. Bluesparks crackled over the walls, ceilings, and carpets. Ozone stench filled the air.

"Varthlokkur!" Ragnarson gasped when he removed his palms from his eyes.

A mewl of fear ran through the room. Soldiers became rigid with terror. Two succumbed to the ultimate ignominy, fainting.

Ragnarson wasn't comfortable. They were old acquain-tances, he and Varthlokkur, and they hadn't always been allies.

Michael Trebilcock showed less fright and more mental presence than anyone else. He calmly secured a crossbow, leveled it at the sorcerer.

The idea hadn't occurred to Bragi. He appraised the pale youth. Trebilcock seemed immune to fear, unaware of its. meaning. That could be a liability, especially when dealing with wizards. One had to watch the subtleties, what the left hand was doing when the sorcerer was waving his right. To not fear him, to be overconfident, was to fall into the enemy's grasp.

Varthlokkur carefully raised his hands. "Peace," he pleaded. "Marshall, something is happening in Kavelin. Something wicked. I only came to see what, and stop it if I can."

Ragnarson relaxed. Varthlokkur, usually, was straightfor-ward. He lied by ommission, not commission. "You're too late. It's struck already." The rage that had been driven down by fear returned. "They killed my wife. They murdered my children."

"And Turran too," Valther said from the doorway. "Bragi, have you been downstairs yet?"

"No. It's bad enough here. I don't want to see Dill and Molly and Tamra. Just take them out quietly. It's my fault they died."

"Not that. I meant they didn't just kill everybody. They searched every room. Lightly, like they'd come back again if they didn't find what they wanted the first time."

"That don't make sense. We know they weren't robbers."

"It wasn't for show. They weren't just here to kill. They were looking for something."

Varthlokkur's expression grew strained. He said nothing.

"There wasn't anything here. Not even much money."

"There was," Varthlokkur interjected. "Or should have been. Looks like the secret was kept better than I expected."

"Uhn? Going to start the mystery-mouthing already?" Bragi had always thought that wizards spoke in riddles so they couldn't be accused of error later.

"No. This is the story. Turran, Valther, and their brother

Brock served the Monitor of Escalon during his war with Shinsan. In the final extremity the Monitor, using Turran, smuggled a powerful token, the Tear of Mimizan, to the west. Turran sent it to Elana by trade post. She had it for almost fifteen years. I thought you knew."

Ragnarson sat on the edge of his bed. He was confused. "She kept a lot of secrets."

"Maybe one of the living can tell us something," Varthlokkur observed, searching faces with dreadful eyes.

"I saw it once," Preshka volunteered. "When we were on the Auszura Littoral, when I was wounded and we were hiding. It was like a ruby teardrop, so by so, that she kept in a little teak casket."

"Teak?" Bragi asked. "She didn't have any teak casket, Rolf. Wait. She had one made out of ebony. Runed with silver. It just laid around for years. I never looked inside. I don't even know if it was locked. It was always around, but I never paid any attention. I thought she kept jewelry in it."

"That's it," Preshka said. "Ebony is what I meant. The jewel, though.... It was spooky. Alive. Burning inside."

"That's it," said Varthlokkur. "One of its most interesting properties is its ability to escape notice. And memory. It's incredibly elusive."

"Hell, it ought to be around somewhere," Ragnarson said. "Seems like I saw it the other day. Either in that wardrobe there, or in the clothes chest. She never acted like it was anything important."

"A good method of concealment," Varthlokkur observed. "I don't think it's here. I don't feel it."

Ragnarson grumbled, "Michael, Jarl, look for it." He buried his head in his hands. Too much was happening. He was being hit from every direction, with worries enough for three men.

He had a premonition. He wasn't going to get time to lie back and absorb his grief, to settle his thoughts and redefine his goals.

The search revealed nothing. Yet the assassin in the park had carried nothing. And Ragnar had said the man hadn't gotten into the master bedroom. "Jarl, where's Ragnar?"

"Mist took him to her place."

"Send somebody. It's time he saw what grown-up life can be like." He might not be alive much longer. There would be more assassins. Ragnar would have to be his sword from beyond the grave.

"Jarl," he said when Ahring returned, "bring some more men over here tomorrow. Find this amulet or talisman or whatever. Valther. Do you think Mist would mind taking care of my kids for a while? I'll be damned busy till this blows away." "With Nepanthe's help she can handle it."

Ragnarson eyed him. The strain remained. Valther must have known.... But that was spilled ale.

What would he have had Valther do? Rat on Turran?

Who else had known? Who had cooperated? Haaken? Haaken had been in the house.... No. He knew his brother. Haaken would have cut throats had he known.

He was starting to dwell on the event. He had to get involved in the mystery.

Varthlokkur beckoned him to an empty corner. "I appeared at an emotional moment," the sorcerer whispered. "But this wasn't what brought me. That hasn't yet happened. And it might, if we're swift, be averted."

"Eh? What else can happen? What else can they do to me?"

"Not to you. To Kavelin. These things aren't personal. Though you could suffer from this too."

"I don't understand."

"Your other woman."

Ragnarson's stomach tightened. "Fiana? Uh, the Queen?"

"The child is what caught my attention."

"But it's not due...."

"It's coming. In two or three days. The divinations, though obscure, are clear on one point. This child, touched by the old evil in Fiana's womb, can shake the roots of the earth-if it lives. It may not. There're forces at work...."

"Forces. I'd rid the world of your kind if I could...."

"That would leave you a dull world, sir. But the matter at hand is your Queen. And child."

"Gods, I'm tired. Tired of everything. Ten years ago, when we had the land grant in Itaskia, I griped about life getting dull. I'd give anything to be back there now. My wife would be alive. So would my kids...."

"You're wrong. I know."

Ragnarson met his gaze. And yes, Varthlokkur knew. He had lived with the same despair for an age.

"Karak Strabger.... Baxendala. That's almost fifty miles. Can we make it?"

"I don't know. Fast horses...."

"We'll rob the post riders." One of Ragnarson's innovations, which Derel had proposed, was a fast postal system which permitted rapid warning in case of trouble. Its way stations were the major inns of the countryside. Each was given a subsidy to maintain post riders' horses.

The system was more expensive than the traditional, which amounted to giving mail to a traveler bound in the right direction, to pass hand to hand to others till it reached its destination. The new system was more reliable. Ragnarson hoped, someday, to convince the mercantile class to rely on it exclusively, making his system a money-earner for the Crown.

"Jarl. Have some horses saddled and brought round front. Make it... three. Myself, the wizard, and Ragnar. Haaken's in charge till I get back. His word to be law. Understand?"

Ahring nodded.

"Valther?"

"I've got it." He eyed Bragi, expression unreadable.

Bragi realized that his going to the Queen would support the rumors. But he didn't comment. His associates could decide for themselves if they should keep their mouths shut.

He studied faces. His gaze settled on Michael Trebilcock. The pallid youth still held his aim on Varthlokkur. A machine, that man.

"Excuse me," Ragnarson told the wizard. "Michael, come with me a minute."

He took Michael downstairs, outside, round to the garden. Dawn had begun painting the horizon toward the Kapenrungs. Somewhere there Fiana lay in pain, this child of theirs struggling to rip itself from her womb before its time.

"Michael."

"Sir?"

"I don't know you very well yet. You're still a stranger, even after several years."

"Sir?"

"I've got a feeling about you. I like you. I trust you. But am I right?"

The garden was peaceful. From the rear Ragnarson's house looked as innocent of terror as were its neighbors.

"I'm not sure I follow you, sir."

"I don't know who you are, Michael. I don't know what. You stay locked up inside. I only know what Gjerdrum says. You don't give away a thing about yourself. You're an enigma.

Which is your right. But you've become part of the gang. I hardly noticed you doing it. You're unobtrusive.

"You hear things. You see things. You know everybody. I've got a feeling you've got the kind of mind that leaps to conclusions past missing data, and you're usually right. Am I wrong?"

Trebilcock shook his head. In the dawnlight he appeared spectral, like a mummy returned to life.

"The question, again. Can you be trusted?" Bragi waited half a minute. Trebilcock didn't respond. "Are you really with me? Or will I have to kill you someday?"

Trebilcock didn't react in the slightest. Again Ragnarson had the feeling that fear, to this young man, was meaningless.

"You won't need to kill me," Michael finally replied. "I've been here since graduation. This's my country now. You're my people. I am what I am. I'm sorry you don't see it. And you can't help thinking whatever you do. But I'm home, sir."

Ragnarson peered into Trebilcock's pale, pale eyes and believed. "Good. Then I've got a job for you."

"Sir?" For the first time since he had met Michael, Bragi saw emotion. And thought he understood. Michael was a rich man's son. What had he ever been able to do for himself or others?

"It's simple. Do what you do. Eyes and ears. Hanging around. Only more of it. Gjerdrum says you're always prowling anyway." Ragnarson stared toward the sunrise. "Michael, I can't trust anybody anymore. I hate it...."

Ahring came out. "The horses are ready. I had some things thrown together for you."

"Thank you, Jarl. Michael?"

"Sir?"

"Good luck."

Ragnarson left the pale young man in deep thought. "Jarl, I've changed my mind. You know what's happening with me and the Queen?"

"I've heard enough."

"Yeah. Well. There's not much point my hiding it now. But don't quote me. Understand?"

"Of course."

"Does it suggest any problems?"

"A thousand. What scares me is what might happen if she doesn't make it. Your witch-man friend sounded.... They say she had trouble with the first one."

"Yeah. Here's what I want. All capital troops but the Vorgrebergers and Queen's Own confined to barracks starting tomorrow, before what's happening leaks. And right now have Colonel Oryon report to me ready to travel. I'll keep one serpent in my pocket by taking him along. Oh. Put the provinces on alert. Militia on standby. Border guards to maximum readiness. Valther can drop hints about an intelligence coup. It'll distract questions about the confinement to barracks. Got it?"

"It's done."

It was well past dawn before three men and a boy rode eastward.


SIX: The Attack | All Darkness Met | EIGHT: The Prisoner



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