Authors: T.O. Munro
“And you just let him in here?”
Vesten cowered as Odestus surveyed the upturned packing cases in the once locked wine cellar.
“He can be most forceful, particularly with his guards in attendance, Governor. I had not the martial prowess, the magic art, or the platoons of soldiers to stand in his way.”
“That arse searching through my property, the impudence of it.”
“He claimed he was looking for orc fire-spirit.”
“I know, Governor, I know” Vesten wrung his hands. “He was searching for some evidence to discredit you with the master.”
“And what did he find?”
“He was most puzzled by your chameleons, Governor.”
“He could not understand what purpose you had for them. He asked me.”
“And what did you tell him?” Odestus was suddenly fearful.
Vesten shrugged. “I told him I knew nothing.”
“And he believed you?”
“He found it a very believable statement.”
“Good,” Odestus nodded.
“I didn’t tell him anything about the other chameleons.” Vesten bowed his head, the obsequious gesture hiding his face from Odestus’s scrutiny.
“Which ones?” Odestus leant close in, tipping the secretary’s head up with a finger beneath his chin.
“The ones you had delivered to Woldtag, the ones you took into your private workroom.” Vesten blinked disguising his nervousness behind his perpetual worried frown.
Odestus scowled. Was this an overture to blackmail from his loyal secretary. “What do you mean Vesten? Is there something you are after?”
The sharp tone brought a whimper from Vesten. “Governor, where did you go? Where have you been for the last four days? And what happened to your clothes, they are worn threadbare and faded in that short time?”
“What is it Vesten? Are you taunting me with the titbits you could throw to that arsehole? Is it money for silence you are after?”
Vesten’s face went white, spots of colour forming high on his cheeks. “No, Governor,” he insisted, imbuing those two words with more authority than the sum total of every previous utterance that Odestus had heard him make. “I would never betray you, and certainly not to that man.”
Odestus’s suspicious anger retreated like a broken wave before Vesten’s affronted dignity. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But why all the questions. Why probe on the very points that Galen wants answers on?”
“I want to know what I am protecting. I want to understand what you are hiding from him, Governor. Not in its entirety, but well enough to make sure I keep it hid and let nothing slip by some unfortunate mischance.”
Odestus smiled. “You are a loyal servant, Vesten and I do not deserve you. But please believe me, ignorance is your best protection.”
“It will not protect me, Governor, if you have another period where neither friend nor enemy can find you. These last days have been very... difficult.”
“I’m sorry, Vesten.” Odestus’s shoulders slumped with the admission of guilt. It was a dangerous path he trod and it exposed his few remaining friends to unwarranted risk. There was Vesten here and Vlyndor and the karib in Grithsank, not to mention Dema’s daughter. “It was careless of me to leave you so exposed to Galen’s whims and artifices. Be assured I will not do so again. I shall make sure I am in future never more than an hour from answering your call.”
“I thought it would be bigger,” Niarmit said.
Standing beside her cousin, Hepdida gripped the Helm more tightly. The oval window hanging in the side of the council chamber seemed big enough to her. Taller than Kimbolt, wider than Deaconness Rhodra, what size of opening did she want?
Sorenson flustered at the queen’s implied criticism. He stroked his own crescent symbol for reassurance before speaking. “If my communion with the Goddess has told me true, your Majesty, then this portal is near perfectly formed. The nature of these gates is to allow only the passage of a single soul at a time, what need have we of a larger doorway?”
Niarmit shrugged. “I guess the one I saw before had a somewhat larger creature to admit. I am sure it will serve admirably. Tell me, your reverence, where is it we are seeing.”
Hepdida peered through the wafer thin window at the simple chamber beyond. A desk and a few chairs in an austere stone walled room. There was a fireplace with an empty grate. Above it hung a carving of the prophetess bound to a stake atop a mound of brushwood. The iconograph had been positioned so that the sunlight from some high window just out of vision would play across the woman’s beatific expression.
“These are my own private apartments, your Majesty, within Prince Hetwith’s castle. I understand it is best for the caster of this enchantment to fix on somewhere they know well and this seemed suitably familiar but also discrete. It seemed safest given we have had no word from Nordsalve since you set off on your ill-fated journey along the Pale of the Silverwood.”
“Your Majesty,” Sergeant Jolander could restrain himself no longer. “Will you not allow the lancers to accompany you. There could be unknown dangers in that castle, just as there were when you left us behind for your trek by the Silverwood.” He broke off abruptly, bowing his head shamefaced at having so publically offered a reproach to his queen.
Niarmit shook her head. “Your loyalty and your courage as ever do you credit, Sergeant, but had you come with me there would simply have been more broken victims of the harpies to join Fenwell’s body in the snow on Morsalve.”
“The threat in Nordsalve is human, your Majesty.” The sergeant lowered his head in diffident persistence. “I doubt that Lord Torsden could sing my men into stupid fascination, while some of our cold steel could put another note on his treacherous lips.”
Sorenson laughed. “It is a charming notion, Sergeant and I for one would like to see the rogue sing to some other tune than his pride and ambition. Unfortunately it is quite impossible. These conjured gates are fragile things. Everything that crosses through them is a blow to their stability. Physical matter makes its mark which is why we must travel light, but it is each living soul that does the most to threaten their collapse. My prayers and research tell me that few have been known to outlast more than a dozen crossings and some as few as eight.”
“There are but four of you, your reverence.” The sergeant waved a hand across the little line of queen, bishop, princess and seneschal with their small collection of possessions. “That leaves room for another couple at least.”
“But we need to be able to come back, Sergeant,” Kimbolt intervened. “If something is amiss in Nordsalve then all four of us need to be sure we can go there and return. That makes up the eight crossings we have confidence that we may enjoy.”
Giseanne gazed through the window at Sorenson’s meagre chambers. “Are we sure that the enemy has not intercepted this gate, as he did the one Archbishop Forven set.”
“I have cast the spell as perfectly as I have ever delivered the Goddess’s grace, be assured there is no flaw in it.”
“But each soul that passes through it may send a ripple through the planes.” Rugan had been observing the exchange from his own seat of honour. The elevated position beside the queen’s own throne on the rudimentary dais enabled him to appear aloof from the business of departure while still witnessing everything that passed. “Those ripples may reach the senses of the foul defiler and alert him to what we attempt here.” The warning drew another moustache twitching show of anxiety from Jolander, who seemed poised to make a further suggestion.
“Then we must be quick,” Niarmit said.
“I will go first, your Majesty,” Sorenson volunteered. “To test the portal. I suggest you follow next.”
Niarmit nodded. “Hepdida third and Kimbolt at the rear.”
Hepdida’s mouth twitched in a smile at her placement between her cousin and the seneschal. She was not sure what she might have interrupted by throwing over her furniture the previous evening. Perhaps her own suspicions, aroused by Maia’s innuendo, were groundless. Maybe not, but if not was it really any business of hers? Kimbolt and Niarmit in some romantic attachment, or worse still some purely physical attraction. She shuddered. It was too awful to contemplate. They were both dear to her in different ways, but together? It was like imagining her parents in bed, it was just wrong.
In the moment of her thought, the bishop had stepped lightly through the oval window. There was a gasp from those around her as she looked and saw Sorenson hale and hearty standing in his own chambers in Hetwith’s castle and beckoning the rest of them to follow.
“Thank the Goddess,” Giseanne breathed. “It is safe.”
Niarmit followed in an instant and then Kimbolt was at Hepdida’s back. “Step lively, your Highness,” he said.
It was an odd sensation, like pressing against and through a silken membrane which slid across the Helm she held before her and across the skin of her hands and face, parting and then closing again behind her. Niarmit reached for her forearm and tugged her deeper into the room. They were both shivering for, cool as Rugan’s tented council chamber might have been, this room was colder still. There was a porcelain hand basin on the commode by the door filled with a layer of perfect ice, so slowly formed that it was transparent all the way to the heraldic crest at the bottom.
“I am sorry, your Majesty,” Sorenson said, thumping his hands together. “But no fire has been lit in this room since I left on my embassy to Prince Rugan’s court.”
Kimbolt stumbled through the portal to complete their party. There was a dull chattering sound behind them and turning Hepdida looked back through the same oval window into the council chamber she had just stepped out of a second ago and a hundred leagues away. The little party which had assembled to see them off had broken into spontaneous applause. Giseanne’s face split in a broad smile, while even Rugan wore a slight grin of admiring appreciation. Sorenson, delighted with his achievement, gave them a conjuror’s bow. Then he pulled up a chair near the gate and carefully hung his crescent symbol upon it.
“How long will the opening last, your reverence?” Niarmit asked. “In case we have to make a hasty return.”
“I don’t know, your Majesty. Usually it is the caster who closes them once they have served their purpose. It will otherwise stay open as long as I leave my crescent nearby. It is the artefact I used to cast the spell; while it remains the spell remains.”
“So for all that time the door in the planes is open,” Kimbolt said quickly.
“Aye, Seneschal. But we still cannot journey in safety more than a handful of times through it.”
Niarmit’s enthusiasm had been fired by the captain’s questions. “But we can see through it and we may even talk through it. We can communicate with our council while still remaining here.”
The bishop shrugged unhappily. “In theory, it is possible, your Majesty. But these openings were never meant to last by those who created and used the spells. I am sure there may be some decay that sets in. I doubt it could last for ever, or maybe it would not stay safe for ever.”
“But be it a few days, weeks, months even. It would all be useful. Think how many heralds have risked their lives journeying across the pale of Silverwood. Here we have a means to stay in instant contact across half the width of the Salved Kingdom.”
“But it relies on my symbol, your Majesty.” The bishop’s protest was almost a wail. “All the time that my crescent must stay here to sustain this portal, I will be barred from gaining the Goddess’s healing grace and sustenance.”
Niarmit gave him a faint smile. “It is a small and temporary sacrifice, your Reverence. Now come, you know this fortress, lead us to the Lady Isobel and Yannuck the boy prince.”
Abroath urged his horse forward alongside Elise’s. “He likes his solitude our noble thief.” The prior gave a nod towards Kaylan, walking his horse some way infront of the double column of marching dwarves.
“I do too.”
The prior ignored her laconic reply. “Do you think success will attend our mission, Mistress Elise? Do we have the Goddess’s blessing?”
She looked across at him, arching a sceptical eyebrow as she scanned him from sandaled feet to tonsured head. “Well if you don’t know, father Abroath, then I certainly don’t. The Goddess and I.” She hesitated, “we are estranged.”
“Come now, Mistress Elise. No one is beyond the Goddess’s love. All those who do her work in whatever form and with whatever overt intent still lie within the circle of her grace.”
“You do know I am a sorceress? A human sorceress?”
“That doesn’t mean you’re not a nice person.”
“I cast spells, Prior. I break the law. Prince Rugan put me in a cell for it.”
“Is that why you chose to come with us then, rather than stay at the palace?”
She frowned. “The queen ordered me to accompany you.”
Arbroath’s mouth bent in a grin. “The way I followed the discussion, I would say Her Majesty heard the implicit suggestion in your words and merely reflected your own proposal back at you.”
Elise sniffed and clicked her tongue to move her horse a little faster, closing the gap on the fast paced dwarven infantry. Abroath urged his own horse forward to keep alongside her. “Which brings me back to my original question. Our Kaylan likes his solitude doesn’t he?”
This time Elise followed his gaze to the lean thief on his roan mare, circling on the spot some way down the track, impatient with the pace the dwarves maintained. “He has a lot of thoughts he wants to be alone with,” she said. “As do I.”
“He couldn’t set off sharp enough this morning. Barely waited to let the queen bid him good bye.”
“Perhaps he is eager for the fight, keen to reclaim his lost homeland.”
“Hurrying towards something?” Abroath weighed the thought carefully. “Or running away from something else?”
“We are all running, Prior. Fuck knows there’s plenty enough to run from.”
Abroath was silent for a moment or so before observing, in the same tone he might have commented on the inclement weather, “you have a coarse tongue, Mistress Elise.”
“It’s one of my better qualities.”
“But I forgive you.”
Again her eyebrows rose and she managed to splutter. “That is gracious of you.”
“Provided you tell me true, what chance do you think our mission has of success?”
“Ah, Prior. Well for allies we have ten rival dwarf clans with such speed of action and decision, that it took them a week to decide what order they should march to Laviserve in. For soldiers we will have whatever sweepings of the barrack room floor Rugan and Sir Ambrose can muster to make up the five hundred that the queen has promised Pardig. Against us stands an entire occupied province with, I am sure a lot more fit and eager orcs and nomads than the dwarves let on.” She wagged a finger at Abroath. “Dwarves do not ask for an army, when they only need a batallion. That would not be good business sense.”
She gave a sweeping wave of her hand from the distant Kaylan to the prior at her side before pressing her palm to her chest. “Leading this forlorn hope we have a moody thief, an idealistic prior and a scarred and cranky old hag. I’d rate our chances somewhere below fuck-all.”
Abroath harrumphed his displeasure. “Come now Mistress Elise, you do yourself a disservice. You are not old!”
She smiled at that. The prior was growing on her.