Authors: T.O. Munro
Vlyndor was alone when Odestus came bent backed into the karib’s simple shack. The wizard took a seat and murmured, “I am sorry, Lyndat was a good karib.”
Vlyndor took a deep breath, twin eyelids shuttering up and down across his H shaped pupils. “Grithsank is a dangerous place, Odestus. Every moment one spends beyond a shelter such as we have here, one is in peril from the sky above and from the sand beneath. You know that.”
Odestus nodded, remembering another occasion when Vlyndor was much younger and a foolish wizard had dared to revisit a place his foul master had shown him. “If you and Lyndat hadn’t found me that time, my bones would have been long ago bleached white under a Grithsank sun.”
The karib gave a guttural laugh. “If it had been my decision, wizard, that is exactly what would have become of you. It was Lyndat took pity on you.” He emitted a sibilant sigh. “Who knows, maybe that was what happened, she found another foolish sunburnt lobster she was minded to take pity on. Maybe that is what she was doing when….” His voice faltered and he closed his eyes.
“You are good people, Vlyndor. That is why I brought Persapha to you. I knew you and Lyndat would keep her safe and raise her well. And I owe you more than I can ever repay.”
“Each kindness brings its own reward, Odestus. There is no need of payment. The child has brought us much joy in exchange for the safety we have been able to offer her.”
“But it cannot last. She is growing and changing.”
“That does not mean she must fall into her mother’s ways.”
“I do not know how far your gentleness can protect her from her nature. Her mother tried and ultimately failed to keep the monster at bay.”
Vlyndor turned his head slightly to scrutinise Odestus with an unblinking stare from his right eye. “You have some plan, Wizard?”
Odestus nodded. “I think so, but to execute it I need to be back in my own realm. I cannot stay here.”
“You have been here nearly three months, wizard. Will your people back there not have noticed your absence.”
Odestus flicked the concern aside. “With the planes out of step as they are, a mere three days have passed at Listcairn. My door is firmly locked and I am becoming known for my reclusive nature.” He frowned, thinking on how far he had pushed the envelope of Galen’s suspicions and Vesten’s capacity to cover for him. “But I must go back now.”
“And how long before your plan comes to fruition?”
Odestus pressed his palms together, rested his chin on his thumbs as he breathed into a mask of his own hands. Vlyndor waited patiently for his friend’s answer. “Weeks, months more like,” the wizard admitted at last.
“Weeks? Months? In your world? That means years will pass in Grithsank, years where the girl grows up into the inheritance you fear.”
Vlyndor’s thin tongue flicked out as he considered the problem. “Can you not take her back with you? In your world a few weeks or months would not wreak too terrible a change in her.”
Odestus stood up abruptly, banging his head on the ceiling as he spluttered his refusal. “No Vlyndor, I’m sorry. I can’t take her back, not as she is. I couldn’t hide her and there are people who would try to use her. It is too dangerous.”
“So you would leave her here with us for the years it will take her to become an adult?”
“I ask too much I know, but Vlyndor, what else can I do?”
The karib raised a hand, three fingers splayed in a sign of peace. “Odestus, old friend. We raised that child from an egg, Lyndat and I. My wife would not have forsaken her, and neither will I. Do what you have to do, we will keep Persapha safe.”
“Thank you.” Not for the first time Odestus was overwhelmed by karib generosity.
“But Odestus, one thing.”
“Do what you have to do quickly!”
Kimbolt’s previous experience had been ill-preparation for the intricate protocols of dwarven politics. A few brief encounters in the high markets of Morwencairn may have brought him some finely crafted dwarven jewellery to bestow on the latest girl to catch his eye. However haggling over the price of a necklace was hardly a rehearsal for placing twenty delegates from ten clans with sufficient precision to properly reflect their order of precedence. It had been difficult enough finding sufficient chairs in Rugan’s palace that were suitably sized for the beggars to be seated with all due dignity. To remember the formal titles and their corresponding place in the dwarven hierarchy was just too much, notwithstanding the intense briefing he had been given by their leader the blond bearded one called Pardig.
He had fluffed it, he could tell from the grim visage of Pardig and the laughter in the corners of Kaylan’s eyes. He did not care what the thief thought of him, though he would rather have Kaylan’s curses than his laughter. Niarmit’s opinion was a different matter. He glanced across at the queen, impassive in her throne while the dwarves tried to re-impose the correct order to their bowing introductions in the face of his fumbled announcements. She greeted each dwarf pair in turn with a courteous word. For two in particular she spared a special welcome. “Glim-ap-Bruin, Mag-ap-Bruin, I have heard much of you. You have done me the great service of saving the life of my friend Kaylan, and he in turn has saved my life, so you could say by proxy that my life is in your debt.”
“Our clan may not be the oldest, your Majesty,” Mag replied with a sideways glance at Pardig. “But my brother Bar-ap-Bruin has always said the greatest deeds are done by new muscle not old blood. I will convey your gratitude to him.”
Kimbolt caught a twitching of the tapered ends of Pardig’s moustache. The council chamber seemed suddenly a more complex mosaic of forces than any battlefield he had ever encountered. And in the midst of it the queen smiled her peace at everyone from the forlorn Tybert, bereft of thought without his brother, to the brooding Rugan, scowling his prejudice at the newcomers.
Kimbolt wished he could tell them all ‘I saved her life too’ but they had never spoken of that moment in the narrow defile where he had struck the medusa down. He had felt too much shame to voluntarily speak of Dema’s life or death. Niarmit for reasons of her own seemed also to have kept secret the last moments of their most formidable foe save Maelgrum himself.
At last the delegates were all seated and, while Tybert ineffectually stifled a yawn, Niarmit called on their spokesman. “Well Pardig-ap-Lupus, please share your news with us.”
“Your Majesty,” the blond dwarf stood and bowed low as a precursor to any declamation. “As you know the ten clans have held the passes of the Hadrans since before the time of the Vanquisher. No man or beast has crossed the mountain range from north to south, or south to north without our knowledge or our blessing.
“Indeed, we have ever bridged the way between the Kingdom of the Salved and the Province of Undersalve. My grandfather could even remember the time before King Bulved, the first of that illustrious name, when that province was still a collection of lordships. Lords of Swalle, they called themselves, fiercely independent. But Bulveld tamed them, bringing the land within his juresdiction to their eternal blessing as the fourth Province of the Salved Kingdom.”
“Forgive me Pardig-ap-Lupus,” Rugan interjected with an unapologetic air. “But is this to be a history lesson?”
The dwarf’s moustache rippled with annoyance. “The past is the key both to understanding the present and unlocking the future, Prince Rugan.” Pardig accompanied his retort with a bow, though Kimbolt noted it was an obeisance of significantly slighter degree than the one that had been granted to the queen.
“Please continue,” Niarmit urged.
Pardig tucked his thumbs into his richly jewelled belt. “The ten clans have watched the rise and the fall of the power of the salved, south of the Hadrans. We have been a bulwark against the evil forces which sought to break free of the fallen province. No orc or nomad has passed our guard.”
“There were twenty thousand of the buggers fought against us at the battle of the Saeth,” Rugan snapped.
Pardig bristled. “We keep no vigil on the marshes, nor do we answer for the elf Feyril and his forest watchers. However, they came against you, Prince Rugan, it was not through the mountain passes.”
“I’ll tell Major Darbon’s widow, I am sure it will be a great comfort to her.”
“Prince Rugan,” Niarmit snapped. “A little of your famous courtesy would be most welcome now.”
Rugan had the good grace to raise an eyebrow at the rebuke, in admission that, whatever he might be famous for, it wasn’t courtesy. Then with a nod to the queen and a slight opening of his palm to Pardig, he bid the dwarf continue.
“In the Hadrans we know well that two great armies of the enemy have been stripped from the fallen province of Undersalve. And we of the ten clans have kept our ears close to the ground.”
Kimbolt saw Rugan roll his eyes as he forsook the opportunity for a sharp comment at the dwarf’s expense. On the other side of the chamber Tybert, slower witted but less controlled, had to clap a hand over his mouth to stifle his giggling at Pardig’s unfortunate choice of phrase.
“What have you heard?” Niarmit asked before the dwarf should notice the trembling humour that had seized the Oostsalve Lord.
“The enemy is stretched too thin to firmly hold their stolen land. In the foothills of the Hadrans there have been no foul orcish patrols in months. There is a swathe of land where the invaders’ writ is observed in word but not in deed. We have trade again with tinkers, seeking our iron work. There are people in Undersalve who have hope of ploughing their land in freedom.”
“Undersalve, free?” The queen exhaled a breathless question.
“Not yet, your Majesty. Near the bigger villages and towns the vile invaders have large encampments of the vile orcs and treacherous nomads, but they are mostly the old, the infirm and the immature. The province has been stripped of virtually all that are able to bear arms and it stands now ripe and ready for reconquest.”
“How spirited of the ten clans to bring us this news,” Rugan murmured. “And with no thought of your own gain?”
Pardig gave the prince a cold hard stare. “A good dwarf has always an eye for honest business, there is no sin in that. Trade benefits all and we know well how the loss of Undersalve and the river route to the sea so crippled the trade wealth of Morsalve.” Pardig paused to stroke the luxuriant plaits of his beard. “Though, I hear the rise in tolls on the Eastway did no harm to your own revenues, my prince.”
Rugan’s lip curled in distaste but, with an arch of her eyebrow, Niarmit kept his retort in check.
“Expelling the invaders would be good for our business as well as meeting your ends,” Pardig went on. “The ten clans have agreed to offer you our services, our axes and our warriors, in reclaiming the lost province. Dwarves will march beside your armies and together we will seize back Woldtag and all of Undersalve.”
Kaylan clapped his hands together in a double beat of stillborn applause. Kimbolt’s eyes like the rest of the council were on the queen waiting to take their cue from her reaction to Pardig’s offer. Niarmit’s lips were parted, her brow creased in a frown, a look of haunted longing in her face. “My father’s province,” she murmured.
“Your province, my lady,” Kaylan echoed. “Our province, our home.”
It was too much for Bishop Sorenson. The prelate rose to his feet. “Forgot not your Majesty, that the Province of Nordsalve is both still a part of your kingdom and also in peril from without and within.” The role of gainsayer was not one which came easily to the ishop of compromise and he shot an apologetic look at Pardig. “I have no doubt that the ten clans’ offer is well meant and generous, but we have not the strength to expend in chasing senile orcs and nomad cripples south of the Hadrans. Not while the hardiest of our enemies still stand in their legions on the borders of Medyrsalve and Nordsalve poised to strike at us from fallen Morsalve.”
“My lady,” Kaylan hurried in to counter the bishop’s logic. “It would be a diversion, a way to draw the enemy’s strength. Let the first province to fall be the first that is won back. Let us learn from the enemy’s strategy.”
“This is not strategy,” Rugan growled. “It is a fantasy. Undersalve is an irrelevance in our current plight. There is no province now of Morsalve to benefit from its river commerce, nor does it provide a gateway to any other place than the desert and the ocean.” The half-elf stopped himself mid flow and offered Niarmit a brief apologetic nod. “I mean no offence to your father Prince Matteus or the battles you and he waged, but this is not the time to fight for Undersalve.”
“You would let our people languish in slavery,” Kaylan cried. “But then I should not be surprised. We know well how you let them fall into slavery, through the service you never rendered at Bledrag field.”
“Enough Kaylan,” Niarmit commanded before the incandescent prince could make his own pointed response. “This is no time for such recriminations. The ten clans’ offer deserves all due consideration as a matter of state along with all other matters that press upon us.”
“You are queen of all the Salved Kingdom, your Majesty, not just the Princess of Undersalve.” Giseanne spoke softly but was still heard by all.
Pardig frowned unhappily at the mixed reaction his great news had received, but he covered his disappointment well. “It is not the dwarven way to act in haste or without taking due counsel, your Majesty. We would expect no less careful consideration in responding to our offer than it took the gathering of the clans to formulate it.”
“How long was that, pray tell?” Tybert’s reedy voice made its solitary contribution to the debate.
“Seven days,” Pardig answered. “Though that did include the opening formalities and the ordering of this embassy.” A sweep of his stubby fingered hand encompassed his nineteen co-delegates.
“I think we can be a little quicker than that, Pardig-ap-Lupus,” Niarmit replied with a smile.
The dwarf bowed low again, the tips of his moustache brushing the floor in a gesture that was as much a feat of balance as of courtesy. “We will withdraw while you deliberate, your Majesty. I trust the courteous prince will be able to accommodate our needs.”
Rugan’s eyebrows shot up and he waved his hands in helpless compliance. “My hospitality is as famous as my courtesy, Pardig-ap-Lupus. Mien casta, dien casta as they say in the Eastern Lands.”
The dwarves retired observing the same precise hierarchy with which they had entered, though Kimbolt was glad they dispensed with the need for a formal announcement of each dwarf’s withdrawal. At a word from Niarmit, Rugan followed them out to ensure the honoured if numerous guests were properly quartered.
Kaylan, his patience barely able to wear the last dwarf’s departure, was the first to speak. “It is a golden opportunity, my lady. Your father would have seized it an instant.”
“Prince Matteus was a soldier,” Giseanne said. “He understood strategy as Rugan does. He would not want you to risk all in pursuit of pride.”
“Your Highness,” Kaylan spluttered. “This is a matter of honour, not mere pride.”
“Neither honour nor pride nor a recaptured Undersalve will console us when Medyrsalve and Nordsalve are overrun in our armies’ absence.” Sorenson said. “The council were agreed on a mission to Nordsalve as the most pressing priority some weeks ago. This delegation does not change that urgency.”
“What says Oostsalve?” Kaylan whirled on Tybert, clutching at a strawman to support his case.
The dilettante lord glanced from one face to the next in desperate search for a clue as to which answer would avail him best. In the end he gave a weak wave, “Undersalve and Nordsalve are each as much a distance from Oostsalve. I think either course has as much to recommend it as the other.”
Kaylan clucked his disgust at Tybert’s indecision, while Niarmit’s gaze settled on Kimbolt. “And what of your view, Seneschal?”
Kimbolt wet his lips. “I think your Majesty, that the bishop is right. Better to save one province from falling, than to retrieve another already fallen,” he said with some care.
Kaylan clapped his hands atop his head and strode to the chamber’s raised entrance, fuming with indignation. Then seized by a sudden thought he spun and jabbed a finger at Kimbolt. “Do you forget, Captain, how I was part of that last mission to Nordsalve. Me, Fenwell and the queen. Think what failure that ended in. One dropped to his death and two of us lucky to escape alive. D’you not see. We have no route by which to reach Nordsalve save travelling through the conquered northeast of Morsalve. Would you expose the queen to such risks again? I wouldn’t, but maybe a second seneschal is poised to send her into peril.”
“Kaylan!” Niarmit’s voice was as sharp and cold as ice. “Be civil or begone!”
“My lady,” Kaylan bowed, cheeks flushing as red as if she had slapped him.
“Kaylan has a point,” Giseanne conceded reluctantly. “Until we get word from Tordil of the Silverwood’s support, there is no safe route to Nordsalve.”
Niarmit sighed and folded her hands in her lap. “There is a way. Quintala and Maelgrum are not the only ones who can open the gates between the planes.” She smiled at their dumbstruck faces. “It was Quintala herself who told me. I see now she meant to scare me. She spoke of when Sturmcairn first fell and King Gregor wanted to send a spy to the fallen castle.”