Authors: T.O. Munro
The air was stale in the great subterranean chamber that was Maelgrum’s audience hall. Magical light of unparalleled power still failed to penetrate into the dark recesses of its vaulted ceiling or the dim alcoves and passageways to left and right. The fetid atmosphere was rich with the scent of fear and despair sweated out by the living, and the soon to be not living, visitors to the undead lord in the weeks since his return to his old abode.
When Quintala had first ventured into the huge space seventeen and a half years earlier, there had been a dusty dread to the place, a malevolent shadow that had been superimposed on the darkness. Now, though, the evil was alive, a tangible sense of something worse than hatred. This was a place which did not loath the living, it was simply indifferent to them. No life was of any value, save the service it could offer when bent to the Dark Lord’s will.
In truth, there were a few individuals who, in foiling Maelgrum’s ambitions, might have incited in him a thirst for the cruellest vengeance his mind could devise. But for the vast majority, be they orc or human, warrior or wizard, the lich’s interest went no further than the advantage they could offer him in life, or the amusement they might provide in the drawn out suffering of their deaths.
For seventeen years she had been through the dizzying daily ritual of communicating with her distant master. The groping fingers of Maelgrum’s consciousness had intruded on her mind, while in turn her own awareness had leached into the dark bubbling cavern of Maelgrum’s malice. Treachery had been exhausting, his direction demanding and autocratic. In turn her attempts to steer her straying into her master’s conscience had been clumsily unyielding. Between the deep vertiginous ravines of his unthinking cruelty, were filaments of memory she longed to pursue, to probe into his history and answer questions about her own past and her future. But in seventeen years she had discovered nothing of consequence.
If Maelgrum had been aware of her determination to pry he had never let it show. In truth she suspected it would merely have amused him, shutting off another opening in the voluminous folds of his awareness, letting her glimpse an irrelevant excursion into thoughts of some parallel plane of existence long since turned to dust. She had been the mouse and he the cat in an incidental chase around the corners of his mind, an inconsequential side show to the main business of betraying the entire Kingdom of the Salved.
But now the need for magical communication, brokered by the black medallions of treachery, was at an end. She stood alone before the throne of Maelgrum and the flames in the Dark Lord’s eye sockets glimmered faintly, his skeletal head tilted to one side in anticipation of her question.
“So,” she said. “Tell me again about my mother?”
His head rocked back, toothy mouth gaping in a black grin. “Alwaysss the sssame quessstion, Sssenesschal!”
“I think you may call me Quintala. My title I abandoned in my brother’s palace.”
The eye pits pulsated with the gentlest flicker of undead annoyance. “And you may call me Massster!”
She raised an eyebrow at that. “Am I really to rank on a level with that idiot Rondol and the crone Marwella?”
“Both have been my loyal ssservantsss, enduring hardssship in the domain beyond the barrier, while you have been living a life of sssome comfort and luxury.” Maelgrum’s tone was still amused as though debating some academic detail in an irrelevant episode of history.
“You forget. Without me, Bulveld would be hale and hearty and still on the throne. Xander would have taken himself off as mercenary to the Eastern Lands and probably died in some inconsequential skirmish or maybe a whorehouse. Haselrig would be in harmless thrall to his books and,” she paused breathing back the anger. “And your soul would still be imprisoned in a gem in this very chamber. I think my service outranks all others.”
“Hassselrig thinksss that it wasss he who wasss the heart and sssoul of your conssspiracy.”
“Only because I let him think that.”
Maelgrum nodded “I find it ssstrange that you would go to sssuch lengthsss asss you have to protect the little librarian from the red wizard’sss anger. Hasselrig wasss your dupe. What further purpossse can he sssserve?”
Quintala shrugged. “Maybe I have a weakness, maybe I just want to annoy that bearded imbecile whom you rate so highly. But you still haven’t answered my question.”
The lich stirred in his throne, shifting his rotted frame sideways in a gesture of relaxation. His fingers ran lightly over the space where his lips would have been. “Tell me about your brother, Quintala.”
“What of him?”
“He interessstsss me. I am intrigued by hisss patiencsse. Hisss actionsss are not hasssty.”
“He’s a coward.”
There was a deeper red flare of irritation in the hollow eye sockets of Maelgrum’s skull. “Your hatred for him isss a weaknessss, Quintala, a greater failing than your fondnessss for your pet librarian.”
“I learned my hatred from you.”
“You were full enough of hatred before I ever met you,” Maelgrum observed. “But where I have hated it wasss alwaysss with purpossse. I have unleassshed my hate where it could bessst sssserve my ambition. Your hate isss asss much a flaw asss that meaninglessss emotion called love. It can missslead and enssslave you. Your brother’sss patiencssee…”
“My brother should be dead. I was a split second from destroying him, before the witch arrived.”
A thin veil of mist trailed from Maelgrum’s wrists as his eyes flared with a deeper anger at the interruption. “You did not ssshare that part of your plan with me.”
“There wasn’t always time to tell you everything,” she said coldly. “You didn’t tell me the witch had survived her fall from the sky.”
“I didn’t know.” He admitted his ignorance softly. “I have not ssspiesss in every camp, Quintala.”
Quintala seethed at the recollection of a vengeance foiled. “How did she escape? Haselrig told me she was chained to a stone block in a sealed cavern with a dragon for company.”
“It wasss unexsspected,” Maelgrum conceded.
Quintala scowled in dissatisfaction. “I delivered her to you, exactly as you wished. I managed and manipulated her movements as well as any sheepdog ever corralled a lamb. She never knew how far she’d been my puppet, until you let her slip through your blackened fingers and escape to despoil the moment I finally struck back. Your failure cost me dear.”
“Take care, Quintala,” Maelgrum admonished, bright eyed and enveloped in a mist of anger. “Lessst your intemperate ssstyle of addresss ssshould draw sssome painful sssanction from me. There are few who have sssspoken thusss to me and sssurvived, certainly none who have done ssso before witnessesss. My patiencsse, like your brother’sss isss great but not infinite.”
Quintala shivered. She told herself it was the wave of cold which had rolled out from the lich’s frozen corpse. For all the fire that raged within her, she had to remind herself that she was still the mouse and Maelgrum the cat. Her survival depended on how far she inspired his amusement and curiosity, more than his anger. Her lips worked in silence for a moment and then she gave a short bow of her head.
The Dark Lord’s bony jaw dipped in the slightest nod of acknowledgement at her submission. “The lassst to challenge me in thisss hall, wasss the one who asssisssted the witch in her essscape. He knew hisss actionsss had sssealed his fate and chossse to vent hiss ssspleeen while he died.” Maelgrum paused, head titled as he scanned his memory. “Or wasss it I who vented hisss ssspleen.”
The lich’s mouth widened in a grin as he waited for Quintala to share his amusement. She let her own lips shape a wry smile as she retorted, “I daresay you vented his liver as well!”
Maelgrum clapped his hands together in pleasure at a riposte in keeping with his own twisted humour. “Indeed I did, Quintala, indeed I did.”
“Did he suffer?” Hepdida asked.
Niarmit and Giseanne exchanged glances at the question. The queen’s hand went instinctively to the royal ankh around her neck. At the heart of the jewel was the pale pink gem which had flared into a blazing heat against her chest at the moment of the death of her Uncle and heir, Bishop Udecht.
Rugan’s wife massaged the great sapphire ring on her hand, through which she had been privy to her distant brother’s state of mind and through which she also had learned of his remote death, just as she had learned of the passing of her other brothers, Xander and Gregor.
They both knew and had always known, that Udecht’s end had not been easy and they both hesitated to share that fact with his daughter.
The princess looked from her aunt to her cousin and back again. Niarmit shrugged off the question. “He’s with the Goddess now, past all pain and distress.”
“You believe that? You believe there is a Goddess?” Hepdida ran a hand through her hair, teasing out the central white strands. The pale lock and a few tiny pockmarks on her skin were the only legacy of the disease with which Quintala had cursed her, the disease which had tied Niarmit to her cousin’s bedside.
The two pairs of straight parallel scars on the girl’s cheeks, however, were an older injury left by the orc Grundurg from whom Niarmit had rescued her. Niarmit remembered similar marks she had seen on the bishop’s face, broader stripes made by fingers not a blade, inflicting frostbite not a cut, but still a deliberate imitation of the wounds on Hepdida’s face. She shivered at the thought of he whose touch could have caused such injury to the father, and at the traitor who would have told the Dark Lord exactly what scars the daughter bore.
“Your father believed in the Goddess,” she told her cousin. “He trusted her and used her grace to heal me.” She flexed her fingers, clenching and unclenching them while marvelling at the power of the Goddess’s grace that Udecht had released. A power in an instant to restore to full use, two sacks of bone that had been crushed between stone and an orcish mace.
“He trusted her? And now he’s dead. Doesn’t sound like much of a Goddess to me.”
“She is overwrought, your Majesty,” Giseanne quickly interjected keen to deflect any accusation of blasphemy. “She knows not what she’s saying.”
“I think she knows exactly what she’s saying, your Highness,” Mistress Elise dourly observed from the doorway where she stood supervising the visitors’ audience with her patient. “The princess and I have both experienced enough suffering in our lives to be entitled to ask some questions of the Goddess.”
“Please, Mistress Elise,” Giseanne implored. “These are times of doubt and suspicion. Let us not add to that with any unwise words which might be overheard.”
Elise gave a snort of displeasure. “And there was I thinking we were all friends now, all past sins forgiven. Let me guess, your husband the prince still wants me imprisoned and exiled for the crime of human sorcery?”
Giesanne shook her head a little too quickly. “He understands how much he has to be thankful to you for, Mistress Elise, whatever he may have said in the past. However, I would rather we did not jeapordise that accord with any ill-judged aspersions on the deity.”
Elise was about to reply, pure white hair shaking as, beneath the multitude of pockmarks her face twisted into an expression of anger. But Niarmit waved her fury down with a splayed hand.
“I have had my moments of doubt too, Lady Giseanne. I, a priestess of the Goddess no less, cast my symbol of faith aside into the mountains.” She ran a finger along the intricate filigree of the wrought gold crescent about her neck. “The Goddess saw fit to restore both it and my faith to me.” She let her hand rest on the young princess’s shoulder. Hepdida flinched at the first touch but then relaxed beneath the soothing stroke of the queen’s hand. “I can take comfort in the certainty that your father is in her safe hands now, all the more blessed for the suffering and sacrifice he endured.”
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel, Niarmit,” Hepdida said in glum confusion. “I lived in his household all my life, first in Morwencairn and then in Sturmcairn. But I never knew he was my father until that night by the river. Am I supposed to cry for him? Vlad was the only father I’d known, a drunkard and dishonourably discharged soldier pretending to be some retired veteran while my mother waited in castles and temples.
“I keep thinking back on things the bishop said and did. But there was never any sign, not ever. No indication that I was anything other than a servant’s daughter. If he wouldn’t recognise me when he was alive, should I mourn for him now he’s dead?”
“He was a bishop and a prince,” Giseanne spoke up for her dead brother. “He’d made vows. It would have been complicated for him.”
The girl frowned at her aunt’s equivocation and turned to Niarmit. “Do your mourn for Gregor?” She asked. “After all you were his bastard just as much as I was Udecht’s?”
Niarmit foundered in her bid to respond. Gregor on his death had passed, not beyond the realm of mortal men, but into the hidden plane the Domain of the Helm, wrought by Eadran the Vanquisher. Unlike his brother Udecht, he rested not with the Goddess but in a sealed pocket of existence where all creation was shaped by the imaginings of its inhabitants, the king’s own dead predecessors.
The only means of entry was by wearing the Great Helm of the Vanquisher, a journey Niarmit had made three times. On each occasion she had been lucky to escape, twice thankful for her dead father’s intervention. For he shared the hellish world with the maddest of their forbears, the insane King Chirad the Third, the Kinslayer.
There was no simple answer to whether she mourned Gregor or not, and even a complicated answer was impossible to give. The protective dweomer of the Great Helm prevented anyone who wore it from speaking of its true nature. Any attempt she made had always ended in tongue tied confusion.
Giseanne, moved either by the affront to the queen’s dignity or to her brother’s memory felt obliged to comment. “Hepdida,” she said with uncharacteristic severity. “You may have suffered much, but you are only fifteen and should speak with more courtesy to and of your elders.”
Hepdida gave her a bleak look. “Suffered much?” she played with the phrase. “Well, my lady, sitting where I am I’d say my elders had pretty much fucked it up.”
Two spots of colour flared on Giseanne’s cheeks, while Niarmit struggled free of the cloying contemplations of the Helm. The thought of Gregor had roused a half-remembered image from the brief moment of her last wearing of the Helm. She had put it on for just a second, using its magical protection to turn herself into a shield for Giseanne against the vengeful Quintala’s lightning spell. But in that split second before she had wrenched it from her head, she had glimpsed into the Domain of the Helm and the recollection of what she had seen made her shudder.
“Enough, Hepdida,” Niarmit snapped. “You are not a back corridor servant girl anymore. You are a princess, the crown princess, you are my heir now that your uncle is gone. You should bear both your grief and your joy with more dignity and less rudeness.”
The crown princess scowled petulantly. They had argued before over Hepdida’s changed status and the expectations laid on her, but this time at least the princess chose not to argue back. Niarmit used that moment of calm to turn to Elise. “Tell me, Mistress Elise.” Her manner was brisk and business like. “How is your patient? Well enough to do some royal service?”
Elise screwed up her scarred face. “The curse is gone, quite gone. All that remains is the weakness and wasting of days spent inactive abed and not eating. Another day or two of rest and good eating should see her as fit as she has ever been.”
“But she can stand, and walk now?”
“I can talk too,” Hepdida interrupted crossly. “And hear, all by myself. I don’t need Elise to translate for me.”
“Good,” Niarmit said. “There is a task I need done, which only you can do. Elise, get the princess dressed and bring her to our new council chamber.” She turned to Giseanne. “My lady, please summon Seneschal Kimbolt, and have him bring some rope, strong rope.”