Authors: David Gemmell
Tags: #Fantasy, #Epic, #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy - General, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Fantasy fiction, #Drenai (Imaginary place), #Slavery, #Heroes
David A. Gemmell
Some men climb mountains, or found empires, others make fortunes or create classics. But
Quest for Lost Heroes
is dedicated with love to Bill Woodford, who took on the role of stepfather to a shy, introverted and illegitimate six-year-old boy, and never once let him down. Through his patient encouragement, his quiet strength and his endless affection he gave his son the pride and the confidence to fight his own battles – both in life and on the printed page. Thanks, Dad!
Grateful thanks also to Liza Reeves, for the direction, Jean Maund for copy-editing, and Tom Taylor, Stella Graham, Edith Graham and Val Gemmell for the test reading.
Three men were down, the other four formed a half circle around the huge, ugly man in the bearskin jerkin.
'You want to know what it's like on the mountain?' he asked them, his voice slurred. He spat blood from his mouth, which stained his red and silver beard. His attackers hurled themselves forward and he met the first with a crashing blow to the chin which sent the victim sprawling to the sawdust-covered floor. Blows rained in on him. He ducked his bald head and charged at the remaining three, but his foot slipped and he fell, dragging a man with him. A booted foot lashed into his face but he swung his arm to knock the man from his feet. The ugly man staggered upright and leaned back against the wooden counter, his eyes narrowing as two of his attackers drew daggers from their belts. Dropping his right arm, he pulled a long skinning-knife from his boot. It was double-edged and wickedly sharp.
The innkeeper moved silently behind him and the blow to the back of the ugly man's neck was sudden. His eyes glazed. The knife dropped from his fingers and he fell face down to crash alongside his victims.
'I'll cut his puking heart out,' said one of his attackers, moving forward.
'That would not be wise,' the innkeeper told him. 'The man is a friend of mine. And I would be obliged to kill you.' The words were spoken softly, but with a confidence which cut through the atmosphere of anger and sudden violence.
The man slammed his dagger home in its sheath. 'Someone will kill him one day,' he said.
'Sadly that is true,' the innkeeper agreed, opening the flap on the counter and kneeling beside the unconscious man in the bearskin. 'Are your friends alive?'
Two of the men were groaning, and a third struggled to sit. 'Yes, they're alive. What was that nonsense about a mountain?'
'It's not important,' replied the innkeeper. 'There's a pitcher of ale by the barrel. You're welcome to it - and there'll be no charge for your drinks this evening."
'That's good of you,' said the man. 'Here, let me give you a hand with him.' Between them they hauled the ugly man upright and carried him through to a room at the rear of the inn, where a lantern burned brightly and a bed was ready, the sheets drawn back. They laid the unconscious warrior on the bed and the innkeeper sat beside him. He looked up at his helper; all the man's anger had disappeared.
'Go and enjoy your ale,' said the innkeeper. 'My wife will bring it to you.'
After the man had gone the innkeeper checked his friend's pulse. It was beating strongly.
'You can stop pretending now,' he remarked. 'We are alone.'
The ugly man's eyes opened and he eased himself up on the thick pillows. 'I didn't want to have to kill anyone,' he said, smiling sheepishly and showing a broken tooth. 'Thanks for stopping it, Naza.'
'It was nothing,' Naza told him. 'But why do you not let it rest? The past is gone.'
'I was there, though. I was on the mountain. No one can take that from me.'
'No one would want to, my friend,' said Naza sadly.
The ugly man closed his eyes. 'It wasn't what I dreamed of,' he said.
'Nothing ever is,' replied Naza, standing and blowing out the lantern.
Later, after Naza and his wife Mael had cleared away the tankards, pitchers and plates, and locked the doors, they sat together by the dying fire. Mael reached over and touched her husband's arm; he smiled and patted her hand.
'Why do you put up with him?' asked Mael. 'That's the third fight this month. It's bad for business.'
'He's my friend.'
'If he was truly your friend, he would not cause you so much grief,' she pointed out.
He nodded. 'There's truth in that, Mael my love. But I feel his sadness; it hurts me.'
Moving from her seat, she leaned over to kiss his brow. 'You are too soft-hearted. But that is one of the reasons I love you. So I won't complain too much. I just hope he doesn't let you down.'
He pulled her into his lap. 'He will; he can't help it. He climbed the mountain, and now he has nowhere to go-'
'The worst kind, Mael. The kind that first you climb - and then you carry.'
'It is too late for riddles.'
'Yes,' he agreed, surging to his feet and holding her in his arms. 'Let me take you to bed.'
'Which bed? You put your drunken friend in ours!'
'The upper guest room is free.'
'And you think you're still young enough to carry me there?'
He chuckled and lowered her to the floor. 'I could - but I think I'll conserve what little strength I have for when we get there. You go up and light the lantern. I'll be with you in a little while.'
He wandered back to his own room and pulled the boots from the sleeping man. A second knife clattered to the floor. Covering his friend with a blanket, he crossed the room.
'Sleep well,' he whispered, pulling shut the door behind him.
Seventeen people watched the duel, and not a sound could be heard above the whispering of the blades and the discordant music of steel upon steel. The Earl rolled his wrist and sent a lancing stroke towards the face-mask of his opponent, but the man dropped his shoulder and swayed aside, flashing a riposte which the Earl barely parried. For some minutes the two duellists were locked in a strategic battle, then the Earl launched a blistering attack. His opponent - a tall, lean man wearing the grey habit of a monk beneath his mask and mail-shirt - defended desperately. With a last hissing clash the swords came together, the Earl's blade sliding free to touch the monk's chest.
The duellists bowed to one another, and a light ripple of applause came from the spectators. The Earl's wife and his three sons moved out on to the floor of the hall.
'You were wonderful, Father,' said the youngest, a blond-headed boy of seven. The Earl of Talgithir ruffled the boy's hair.
'Did you enjoy the exhibition?' he asked.
'Yes, Father,' the boys chorused.
'And what was the move by which your father defeated me?' asked the monk, pulling off his mask.
,' replied the eldest.
The monk smiled. 'Indeed it was, Lord Patris. You are studying well.'
The Earl allowed his wife to lead his sons from the hall and waved away his retainers. With the hall empty he took the monk's arm and the two men strode to the south gallery where a pitcher of fruit juice and two goblets had been set aside.
The Earl filled the goblets. 'Are you really content here?' he asked.
The monk shrugged. 'As content as I would be anywhere, my lord. Why do you ask?'
The Earl gazed into the eyes of the man before him. The face he saw was strong, the nose long and aquiline, the mouth full below a trimmed moustache. 'There are many legends concerning you, Chareos,' he said. 'Some have you as a prince. Did you know that?"
'I have heard it,' Chareos admitted. 'It is unimportant.'
'What is important? You are the finest swordsman I ever saw. You were one of the heroes of Bel-azar. You could have been rich beyond the dreams of common men.'
'I am rich beyond the dreams of common men, my lord. And that is what is important. This life suits me. I am by nature a student. The libraries here in Gothir are among the best anywhere. Far south, they say, the libraries of Drenan contain more books, but here are the complete works of Tertullus. It will take me many years to study them all.'
'It doesn't seem right,' said the Earl. 'I remember my father putting me on his shoulder so that I could see the heroes of Bel-azar as they marched through the streets of New Gulgothir. I remember everything about that day. You were riding a white stallion of some seventeen hands, and wearing a silver mail-shirt and a helm with a white horsehair plume. Beltzer was behind you, carrying his axe. Then Maggrig and Finn. People in the crowd reached out to touch you, as if you were some lodestar. It was a wonderful day.'
'The sun shone,' agreed Chareos, 'but it was only a parade, my lord - and there are many parades.'
'What happened to the others?' asked the Earl. 'Did you remain friends? I have heard nothing of them for years.'
'Nor I,' Chareos answered. The dark-eyed monk looked away, seeing Beltzer as he had been on the last day - drunk, red-eyed and weeping, his axe auctioned to settle his debts. The farmer had become a hero, and it had destroyed him in a way the Nadir could not. Maggrig and Finn had been there; they had left Beltzer alone in the back room of the inn and walked with Chareos out into the sunshine.
'We are going back to the mountains,' said Finn.
'There's nothing there,' Chareos told him.
Finn had smiled. 'There's nothing anywhere, Blade-master.' Without another word the black-bearded archer had taken up his pack and moved off.
The youth Maggrig had smiled, offering Chareos his hand. 'We will meet again,' he said. 'He probably only needs a little time to himself, away from crowds.'
'How do you suffer his moods and depressions?' asked Chareos.
'I do not see them,' Maggrig answered. 'I see only the man.'
Now Chareos sipped his fruit juice and gazed out of the tall window. He was sitting too far back to see the courtyard and the gardens beyond. But from here he could look over the high wall of the monastery and off into the southern distance, where the forest lay like a green mist on the mountains. His gaze swept across to the east, and the ridges of hills which led to the Nadir Steppes. For a moment only, he felt the touch of icy fear.
'You think the Nadir will attack come summer?' asked the Earl, as if reading his thoughts. Chareos considered the question. The Nadir lived for war - a dour, nomadic tribal people, joyous only in battle. For centuries Gothir kings had held them in thrall, sure in the knowledge that the tribes hated one another more than they detested the conquerors. Then had come Ulric, the first great warlord. He had united them, turning them into an invincible force, an army numbering hundreds of thousands of fierce-eyed warriors. The Gothir were crushed, the King slain and refugees fled here to the north-west to build new homes. Only the great Drenai citadel of Dros Delnoch, far to the south-east, had turned them back. But a century later another warlord arose, and he would not be thwarted. Tenaka Khan had crushed the Drenai and invaded the lands of Vagria, his armies sweeping to the sea at Mashra-pur and along the coastline to Lentria. Chareos shivered. Would they attack in this coming summer? Only the Source knew. But one point was as certain as death - one day the Nadir would come. They would sweep across the hills, their battle cries deafening, the grass churned to muddy desolation under the hooves of their war ponies. Chareos swallowed, his eyes fixed to the hills, seeing the blood-hungry hordes flowing across the green Gothir lands like a dark tide.