Master Of The Planes (Book 3) (9 page)

BOOK: Master Of The Planes (Book 3)
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“She told me that tale too,” Giseanne said. “Probably with the same purpose.”

“A priest or priestess of the Goddess can earn the power to open a gate between too very disparate places.  At the king’s bidding, Archbishop Forven created such a portal to send a spy from Morwencairn to Sturmcairn.  The same device could allow us to send a party to the Lady Isobel and the boy Prince Yannuck.”

“What happened to the spy sent to Sturmcairn?” Kimbolt asked.  He had been in that captured fortress and was sure no agent from Morwencairn had delved into the secrets of its fall.

“He was trapped in the planes while the sands of time ran out decades of his life, before returning to his starting point an hour or so after the king had seen him on his way. He came back a wizened old man with barely enough breath to describe his failure before the withering of age claimed him.”

“And you would risk the same fate?” Kimbolt demanded in horror.

“The spy was doomed by Quintala’s treachery and Maelgrum’s artifice.  She had plenty of time to tell the Dark Lord of Gregor’s plans.  It would have been a simple matter for him to cast an enchantment to intercept and trap the unfortunate man.  But Quintala has no ear on our deliberations here. Maelgrum will have neither knowledge nor opportunity to waylay us.  If we are swift I am sure we can journey in safety right to the Lady Isobel’s side.”

“You’re going to Nordsalve then, my lady,” Kaylan said with dull resignation.

She nodded. “I am.  I have decided.”  She turned to Sorenson.  “The spell requires someone with knowledge of both the point of departure and of arrival.  You alone, Bishop, stand high enough in favour with the Goddess and sufficiently acquainted with our destination to meet our needs.”

“I will do anything to serve your Majesty and my Lady Isobel.”

“Then go and pray for the granting of this power. You have a long night ahead of you. I mean to be in Nordsalve tomorrow.”

A sound escaped Kaylan’s frame, it may have been a sob.  The queen rose and patted the thief on the shoulder.  “Fear not Kaylan, I will meet with the embassy of the ten clans and we may find a way to decline their offer with honour and good grace.  But Undersalve had five years of my life fighting for its freedom.  Others must have their call on my attention, before Undersalve can claim me again.”

***

“Your return to thessse hallsss isss mossst timely. Quintala.  There isss a tasssk to be undertaken and I doubt I could entirely entrussst it to anyone elssse.”  Maelgrum’s form sat motionless in his great stone throne.  Quintala had this audience entirely to herself.  Amusing as it was to taunt Rondol infront of the lich, she prized such moments of private communion and the reassurance that she still stood highest in his favour.

She gave a slight bow.  “I am at your service, as always.”

“Yesss,” Maelgrum stretched out the affirmative in a sibilant hiss. His blackened fingers drummed a brief but complex tattoo as he contemplated his next words.  “I have to travel away.”

“Will you be gone long?”

“That dependsss on what I find.  It isss a plane I have not visssited in a thousssand yearsss.  It isss peopled, like ssso many, by greedy creaturesss of rude temperament.”

“Our kind of people then.”

There was a deeper flicker of scarlet in the Dark Lord’s eye sockets. “Quite ssso, Quintala.  Of old they were my mossst formidable mercssenaries.  Even the orcsss trembled at their passssing.  A few of them were quite sssuffficient to ssstiffen the sssinews of my alliesss, while melting the resssolve of my adversssariesss.

“I had not thought to call on them again.  In the passst there ssservice was marred by a certain lack of reliability.  But given the ssstubbornesss of thisss wretched witch queen I am minded to enlarge my force. These creaturesss will ssserve more continuousssly than the dragon, more ferociousssly than the orcsss and, if well led, more obediently than the undead.”

“Formidable allies indeed.” Quintala wondered at what mythical creatures could embody all those virtues.

“However, they are a racsse of limited witsss and in the centuriesss that have passst sssince my lassst visssit, it isss possssible they have forgotten me.”

“Surely not.”  Quintala felt she might have over-egged her indignation, for the Dark Lord paused in his slow nodding recollection his head frozen, ear cocked to hear the sarcasm.

“It isss possssible, and retraining thessse creaturesss in the waysss of obediencsse may take sssome time.”

“I could go in your place, I am sure I could whip them into shape.”

Maelgrum’s mouth spread in a grinning display of ancient teeth set in a gumless jaw.  “I think I prefer you, Quintala, with your armsss and legsss ssstill attached to your body. I am sssure you do too.  These creaturesss lack the intelligence to underssstand you or the wit to fear you. There isss only an inssstinct to dessstroy which requiresss ssskill and exssperience to handle.  Thisss tasssk isss mine alone.”

“And my task?”

A thin veil of mist descended from Maelgrum’s sleeves as he gazed over Quintala’s shoulder at the emptiness of his throne room.  “I had occasssion to sssubdue a town, a placsse called Colnham, in the north-eassst of thisss province of Eadran’sss.  It ssseemsss that the foolish folk have not learnt the lesssson well enough. They have sssent my appointed freeholder another headlessss orc.”

“I think I’ve been in that tavern,” Quintala quipped.  “The ale’s not as good as the Wingless Harpy though.”

Maelgrum rose, vapour streaming from his robes.  “Thisss isss no time for idle jessstsss, Quintala.  Give thisss matter your mossst ssserious contemplation, or I will put Rondol in charge of it, with you asss hisss deputy.”

“You have my earnest attention, Master,” Quintala said with a low and honest bow which seemed to placate the Dark Lord’s fury.

“Your tasssk isss to sssubdue thisss rebelliousss quadrant entirely.  It hasss a certain ssstrategic sssignificance.”

“It is the salient that separates Nordsalve and Medyrsalve.”

“Exssacttly.  It mussst belong to usss utterly.  You are to take up the overlordship of that corner of the land. Punisssh thossse ssservantsss who have failed usss and thossse ssslaves who have defied usss.”

“What force may I have?”

“Whatever you need.”

“Rondol and the wizards? The outlanders and the orcs?”

Maelgrum assented with the merest waft of his hand.

“Haselrig?”

“Of courssse your pet go.  I certainly have no need of him. Take them all.  You may even have Marwella, once the winter chill has easssed enough for the undead to walk abroad unfrozen by the cold.”

“I am honoured by your trust.”

“There isss a hill by thisss town, they call it Colnhill.  Eadran’sss kind have not ssseeen fit to fortify it.  They missstakenly thought their barrier would protect them from all illsss.  I have ssstood atop the peak and ssseen how it could command the land. Their’sss isss an omissssion I want you to addressss. 

“Build me a cassstle at the top of Colnhill.  Make it ssstrong.  Ensssure it cassstsss a long ssshadow over the land ssso that they will all know the futility of defiancsse.” Maelgrum’s red eye pits flared bright with the image in his mind. 

The half-elf bowed.  “It will be done.”  She turned to go, but Maelgrum called her back.

“Quintala.”

“Yes.”

“Impressss me, ssshow me what kind of blood runsss in your half-bred veinsss.”

The half-elf’s bow was a little stiffer, her voice a touch more brittle. “Of course,” she said.

***

The first time Kimbolt had met Kaylan, the thief had laid him out with a crunching blow to the jaw.  From the scowl on his face the seneschal judged Kaylan was a hair’s breadth away from attempting a repeat performance. His ill-humour was tempered neither by the impassive guards of Rugan’s household, nor the two lancers that Sergeant Jolander had insisted on posting as additional protection at the door to the queen’s quarters. Kimbolt curled his fingers into a soft preparatory fist.  That first blow had caught him unprepared, exhausted after days of continuous riding. He would not be so easily struck again.

Still, the thief stood in the doorway unwilling to leave but uncertain on what pretext to stay.  Kimbolt looked back down the long hall of the queen’s new quarters.  Once Rugan had recognised Niarmit’s royal overlordship and also the vulnerablity of her former rooms to magical scrying by Quintala, there had been a rapid transposition to the most opulent apartments that his palace could afford.  The whole expansive network of rooms was reserved for family and servants. Kaylan was assigned his own separate room, itself more luxurious than a thief from old Woldtag could ever have expected to enjoy.

“You should get some rest, Kaylan.”  Kimbolt spoke softly, his voice belying the tension in his body.  “We all should.”

Kaylan thumped the door frame with the heel of his fist. His mouth worked in a vain search of words to vent the frustration which consumed him. 

“The queen has given you a task of great importance.”  Kimbolt’s tone must have betrayed some undertone of doubt, some suspicion that the thief was unequal to the demands Niarmit had made of him, for Kaylan’s eyes widened in anger.

Kimbolt shifted his weight to his back foot in preparation for the simmering outburst that seemed desperate to find release in the thief’s fists.  But in the end Kaylan simply thumped the door frame again and said hollowly, “She’s sending me away.”

“She needs you to be her spokesman with the dwarves.”

“Then why send Prior Abroath too, and Mistress Elise?  This is just an excuse. She does not trust me anymore.”

Kimbolt reached out a hand, suddenly moved to offer the lean bruised thief some gesture of reassurance. “Abroath adds a little political weight, but it is your knowledge of the land and good favour with the dwarves that she needs.”  He clapped his palm against the thief’s shoulder; it nearly bounced off the iron tension in Kaylan’s corded muscles.  “She is sending you five hundred men-at-arms.  That is three times as many men as you ever had before, and the dwarves will help you.  Think what you can achieve in a province held only by the crippled and the old of the enemy’s forces!”

“We should be marching in there at the head of an army, not skulking in through some dwarven back door.” Kaylan nodded his head towards the queen’s chamber.  “My lady should be leading them.”

“She has made her decision,” Kimbolt repeated wearily.

Kaylan pursed his lips.  “She has,” he murmured softly staring over Kimbolt’s shoulder.  “And she has trusted in you for this excursion to Nordsalve, to rescue the bishop’s damsel in distress.”

“I am honoured by her trust.”

Kaylan spoke on over Kimbolt’s reply.  “My lady’s trust has been misplaced before.”

“It isn’t now.”

The thief gave him a level stare.  “My lady, likes you,” he said.

Kimbolt attempted an insouciant shrug, though his ears were burning red. 

“I don’t.” Kaylan added.  “Your failure cost the princess dear.  You were the guarantor of her safety and she nearly died at Grundurg’s hands, while you dallied in a medusa’s bedchamber capering to the lascivious hissing of her snakes.”   

Kimbolt’s skin stretched white taught across his knuckles as he held his clenched fists by his side.  “You should rest, Kaylan,” he ground out the advice.

“You should too,” the thief told him. “You need your rest.  Fail my lady or the princess again, in the merest detail, and I will seek you out and find you even if you try to hide in Maelgrum’s throne room.”

“I don’t need your threats to bind me to my duty.” Kimbolt kept his gaze locked on Kaylan’s grey eyes.

“It’s not a threat Kimbolt, it’s a Goddess-sworn prophecy.”  The thief jabbed a finger in the seneschal’s chest for emphasis and then, at last he turned and left.

Kimbolt could hear the thumping of his own heart echoing in his ears.  He glanced around at the quartet of guards who had been witness to the thief’s parting words.  They stared straight ahead, far too disciplined to show they had heard, but too enthralled to not have listened.  This would make for good gossip in the guardroom at the end their watch.

Kimbolt gulped down his rage and embarrassment and shut the door on their impassive curiosity.

“What kept you?” Hepdida asked as he walked back into the sitting room which adjoined her and her cousin’s bed chambers.

“Kaylan wanted a word.”

Niarmit swung round from the litter of papers upon her desk.  “Is he still grumbling?”  Her eyes were tired beneath the weary frown.

Kimbolt shook his head quickly, not to shelter the thief from Niarmit’s disapproval but to protect her from being troubled by it.  “It was nothing, your Majesty.”

“It was a long nothing,” Hepdida scowled.

“He doesn’t like me, that’s all.”

“Kaylan’s not a liking kind of person,” the queen observed. “Don’t take it personally.  You will earn his trust eventually and then you will have it forever.”

Kimbolt’s lips twitched in a wry grin.  “Is that a human eventually or a dwarven eventually, your Majesty?”

She laughed. He loved to make her laugh.  “Probably an elven eventually, Kimbolt, but don’t let it worry you all the same.”  She looked across at the crown princess, settled comfortably on a well upholstered chair.  “You’d better go to bed, Hepdida.  It will be a long day tomorrow.”

“It’ll be just as long as yours,” she replied.  “Aren’t you going to bed too?”

“The seneschal and I have matters to discuss first.”

She looked from one to the other with a frown.  Her mouth opened, closed and opened again, her first unspoken comment traded for another. “I’m the crown princess, surely anything you have to discuss is something I need to know about too.  You’ve involved me in all your other conferences.”

Niarmit pinched the bridge of her nose.  “Not everything, Hepdida, not this thing.  Now just go to bed. I’ve had my fill of both arguments and diplomacy today.  No more.”

The princess stood up giving both Kimbolt and her cousin a shrewd glance. She crossed to the door of her chamber and then looked back at both of them.  Puzzlement creased her brow.  Kimbolt felt the heat of her gaze as she softly announced, “I don’t like secrets.” She nodded towards Niarmit.  “Both our fathers kept their secrets, and probably died because of them. Secrets and lies, they kill people.”

Niarmit shook her head.  “I’m not lying to you, Hepdida, I’ve not lied to you. Now just go to bed.”

Hepdida sniffed and left, noisily pulling the door closed behind her.

Kimbolt wanted to say, ‘alone at last’ but it did not feel like they were alone.  Spectres of their friends’ suspicion or disapproval vied with the haunting pressures of matters of state to fill the room with much more than two people remembering a night when they had been so close. Niarmit stood a little awkwardly by the desk.  He wondered if he should wait for her to move, or should he take it on himself to close the gap between them and if so how close. 

He ached to seize her and hold her tight against him, but he could not read her expression.  There was the faintest smile on her lips or was that his imagination.  As a young army officer his romantic liaisons had been relatively simple affairs. His rank and occupation made him the catch for those none too chaste women who had allowed him to chase them.  Here was a woman so far above his station, whom he longed to embrace but dared not approach.

“So.” It was Niarmit who broke the silence.  “Nordsalve tomorrow.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

“Niarmit,” she corrected him.

“Yes, Niarmit.”

“Come here Kimbolt.”  She sat on the couch and patted the space next to her.  “We don’t seem to have found much chance to talk, these last three days.”

“No, Niarmit.”

She laughed.  “My, and what a conversation we have been missing.”

He felt suddenly oafish and foolish.  “I’m sorry Niarmit, I am not well versed in how to talk to a queen.”

“Sometimes I don’t want to be queen.  How would you talk to me if I wasn’t, if I was just another girl?  There must have been women in your past.  Imagine I was one of them.”  A girlish smile played across her lips.  “One of the more decent ones of course.”

“None of them were at all like you, queen or not.”

She smiled at that, then hurriedly checked, “is that in a good way?”

“Oh yes.  Crown or not, I would always think you immeasurably above my station.”

“Is that what it is? You think yourself beneath me?”

“There are others would hold the same opinion about me.  I am a coarse blunt soldier with a chequered past.”

“You can be gentle though, so very gentle,” she said raising her hand to stroke his cheek.  It was the easiest thing in the world to bend his head in towards hers, tilted to one side, lips parted.  They melted into a kiss that was everything he had remembered it to be. For a long silent moment they kissed, then she broke the contact and pulled his head against her shoulder.  “Is it wrong of me to want this?” she whispered in his ear.

“Nothing you did could be wrong, Niarmit,” he replied.

There was a thunderous crash, something heavy falling over, in Hepdida’s room. They sprang apart.  “It’s all right!” Hepdida’s voice called out.  “I just knocked over a couch.”

They both glanced at the crown princess’s door.  “I should go,” he said.  She didn’t contradict him.  He mumbled on. “There is a lot to be done tomorrow.  We don’t know what trouble we may find in Nordsalve.”

She reached across to him, letting her hand rest on his neck, lightly flicking his earlobe with her thumb. He caught her hand in his and brought it to his mouth, brushing her wrist with his lips.  “I should go,” he repeated.  This time she nodded sadly.

He stood up.  “Rest well, your Majesty.”

“You too, Kimbolt,” she sighed.

BOOK: Master Of The Planes (Book 3)
6.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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