Authors: Karen Miller
Tags: #Fantasy, #Epic, #Magic, #Paranormal, #Science Fiction
The crimson glow around Gar was fading fast. His face had emptied too, of fury, of passion, leaving only pain. He looked confused. Bewildered. “My lords—I don’t—I feel—” An enormous shudder racked him head to foot, and he blanched dead white. “Barl help me,” he murmured as his eyes rolled back in his head.
Asher leapt and caught him before he thudded to the road. “Gar!”
The prince was a sprawling dead weight, he had to let him go, let him sag to the ground despite his wounds and broken bone.
“His Highness shouldn’t be here,” Asher said to Holze as the cleric knelt and took Gar’s unharmed wrist to chafe. “He needs to go home.”
“He needs a good physicking first,” said Holze, and looked about him. “Conroyd … ?”
Without a word, Jarralt came forward. Dropped to one knee, slipped his arms beneath Gar and stood easily, the prince cradled against his chest.
“Into the carriage with him, Conroyd,” said Holze, regaining his feet with Asher’s help. “He must be seen by Nix as soon as possible. The rest of us will have to make do in one of the wagons. I’m sure the experience won’t kill us.” Realizing what he’d said, he flinched.
“You ain’t goin’ back with him?” said Asher, surprised.
Holze shook his head. “No, no. There are things to do here first. A shrine. A prayer candle. I brought all the necessaries with me.”
Asher nodded. “Reckon Gar’ll appreciate that. And the king.”
“Yes, well…” For a moment, fresh grief threatened. Then Holze mastered himself and flapped a hand at Jarralt. “Don’t just stand there, Conroyd! Go!”
Trailing after them, Asher waited until Gar was stowed safe and silent in the lushly upholstered vehicle with Conroyd Jarralt by his side. “Take His Highness to the palace infirmary, my lord,” he said as the carriage door was pulled shut between them. “I reckon Nix must be waiting for him on pins and needles.”
Jarralt’s handsome face was all sharp lines and smooth planes. Cold. Remote. Like the Flatlands in the depths of winter. “Yes. I expect he is.”
“My lord. ..” Asher hesitated, then plunged on. “I can’t believe this weren’t a terrible accident, but if Captain Orrick finds otherwise … you have to know. Gar ain’t the one responsible.”
For a little while Jarralt sat in continued silence. Then he turned his head, just enough, and met Asher’s gaze directly. “Nor am I.”
Asher nodded. Lied. “I believe you. Sir.”
Jarralt’s look was icy enough to freeze a man solid where he stood. “And what makes you think I give one good damn about what you do or don’t believe?” His hand slapped the carriage door’s painted panel. “Coachman! To the Tower!”
Pellen Orrick patted Asher’s shoulder as he joined him in the middle of the road. Together they watched the glim-lit carriage disappear around the first bend. “Well done, Asher,” he said. “A nasty moment neatly turned. If ever you get tired of life in the prince’s employ I’m sure I could find a place for you in the Guard.”
“I got to go,” said Asher. His head was aching so badly he thought it might explode. “There’s folks back at the Tower wondering what’s amiss, and prob’ly ready to raise the roof by now. What are you goin’ to do about the bodies?”
“Tonight?” Orrick shrugged. “Nothing. Even with magic and glimfire it’s too dangerous to retrieve them in the dark. I’ll leave the lads here to keep watch and return with help at first light.”
Cautiously, Asher nodded. “Just one problem with that. You’re forgettin’ Matcher. We got his wife and family sit-tin’ at home as we speak, expectin’ him to walk through the door any minute. And then there’s the lads at the palace stables. They’ll miss the horses.”
“Damn,” said Pellen Orrick. “Yes. All right. Leave it to me. I’ll send senior officers. Make sure the news doesn’t spread.”
“Fine,” he said, relieved. “So I’ll be off, then. See you tomorrow some time.”
Orrick nodded. “Yes. You will.”
Asher trudged away. Cygnet was anxiously pleased to see him, all snorts and whickers and impatient stamping. Holze conjured a small ball of traveling glimfire to light his way home and blessed him with unsteady hands.
“You served Barl well tonight, young man,” the cleric said as Asher hauled himself into the saddle. “I shall remember you in my prayers.”
Looking down at him, Asher nodded. “Reckon we’re all goin’ to need prayin’ for by the time this mess is sorted.”
“Indeed,” Holze said soberly. “Indeed.” And stood back as Asher clapped his heels to Cygnet’s sides and bounded away.
It wasn’t till he was long past Jarralt’s sedately traveling carriage and almost back at the Tower that Asher realized he’d spent the last little while giving orders to some of the most powerful Doranen in the kingdom … and the Doranen had obeyed him.
Arrived at last in the Tower stable yard, after handing Cygnet over to Boonie for a rubdown and his mash, he found Matt tending a colt that had kicked its way out of a transport cart and was pincushioned with splinters for its trouble. A look and a headshake were all he needed to give the bad news. Matt’s face lost some color, and his hands shook a little as he eased another spike of wood from the injured colt’s neck.
“Barl bless them,” he said, dropping the splinter into the basin at his feet. “We’ll talk later?”
“Aye,” said Asher, turning away. “Later.”
It was a short walk from the stables to the Tower. Hollow, dreading the confrontations to come, he dragged his feet through the pathway’s raked gravel and thought it might be nice to drop down dead of a seizure just about now. So he wouldn’t have to open the Tower’s front door. Wouldn’t have to go inside. Wouldn’t have to see the faces of the people he knew were waiting there, for him, for news.
Waiting to be told not to worry, it were all a false alarm. Waiting in vain.
The Tower’s front doors stood slightly ajar. He took a deep breath. Wrapped his fingers around each brass handle. Pushed hard and stepped inside.
“I sent everyone home,” said Darran, rising from his chair at the foot of the staircase. “It seemed pointless to keep them loitering about here for hours on end.”
“Pointless,” Asher said slowly, shoving the doors shut behind him. “Aye.”
Fingers laced precisely across his concave middle, Darran took three steps forward then stopped. “Well?” Anyone who didn’t know him would think he was in complete control of his emotions. “Is he dead?”
Adrift in the middle of the empty foyer, Asher blinked. “No.” All of a sudden he was feeling very tired. He needed a chair. Hadn’t there been more chairs in here this morning? “Just banged up a bit. Jarralt’s takin’ him to see Pother Nix now.”
Jarralt,” said Darran automatically. “Asher?”
He dragged his sagging eyelids open. “What?”
“Is anybody dead?”
He turned away. The maggoty ole fool was goin’ to go
when he heard.
Turning back, he shoved his hands into his pockets. Forced himself to look into Darran’s haggard face. “Not Durm. Durm’s alive. Or he was when I saw him last.” He shrugged. “Just.”
“I don’t care about Durm,” said Darran.
“You should. ‘Cause if he don’t pull through and speak up for Gar’s magic I reckon we’re all in a mess of trouble.”
Darran hardly seemed to hear him. “Who else? You said not Durm. Very well. Who else lives … aside from him and Gar?”
It was the first time he’d ever heard the ole scarecrow refer to Gar as anything other than “the prince” or “His Highness.” It frightened him. “Nobody,” he said, brutal. “All right? His whole family’s dead. Oh, and Matcher too. And the horses. Better not forget the poor bloody horses, eh? All of ‘em dead. Lyin’ in bits and pieces on the side of Salbert’s Eyrie. Now, were there anythin’ else you wanted to know?”
A thin, disbelieving moan escaped Darran’s alarmingly blue lips. His fingers unlaced. Clutched at his chest. He began to sag at the knees.
Asher leapt at him. “Don’t you dare! You fart, you bugger, you silly cross-eyed crow! Don’t you bloody
Grunting with the effort he lowered Darran to the tiled foyer floor and wrenched open the sober black coat and the weskit beneath. Scrabbled at the old man’s plain cravat, loosening its knot, then tugged open the pristine white shirt. The old fool’s chest heaved for air, thin as a toast-rack covered with a tea towel. There were tears in his eyes, welling and welling like a magic fountain. He needed a pillow or something to rest on. Asher looked around, grabbed a cushion from the solitary foyer chair and rescued Darran’s head from the floor.
Then, helpless, he chewed at his lip. Now what? He weren’t a pother, he had no idea what to do next. Dimwitted ole fart, sending away all the staff, even the messenger boys. He grabbed Darran’s right arm, shoved back the coat and shirt sleeves and chafed the blue-veined wrist, thin and pale and knobbly.
“Come on, now,” he said desperately. “There’s been enough death around here for one day, you ole crow. Gar won’t thank you for peggin’ out on him. He’s to be king now, he’ll need you for that. If you ain’t here to keep him organized they might ask Willer, and that little sea slug couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery!”
Darran tried to frown. His lips worked soundlessly for a moment, then he whispered, “Willer—my assistant— you show respect—”
“That’s more like it,” he said, grinning with relief. “Just you lie there and breathe, Meister Scarecrow. In and out, in and out, and don’t you dare think of stoppin’.”
Darran’s eyes fluttered closed, but his chest continued to rise and fall. Asher released the old man’s wrist and sat back on his heels. He could feel sweat trickling down his spine and gluing his hair to his scalp. He needed a bath. And food. His empty belly growled at the thought. But bloody Darran had sent the cook away. He’d have to risk her wrath and raid the kitchen for whatever was lying about. And he would, too … just as soon as he could be sure Darran wasn’t going to cause him even more trouble than usual by dying.
Then he looked up, because the Tower doors were swinging open. It was Gar. On his own two feet and walking. A step behind him, Conroyd Jarralt. They saw Darran and halted.
“Barl save me,” said Gar. Looking and sounding like a man who’d lost his last hope of happiness. “Is he—”
“No,” he said, scrambling off the floor. “What are you doin’ here, you’re s’posed to be on your way to see Nix!”
“I came to tell Darran what happened.”
He spared Jarralt an accusing glance, then said, “Aye, well, I already told him. Can you get him to Nix? Now?”
Not looking at Jarralt, Gar nodded. “My lord?”
In searing silence Jarralt helped Asher get the groggy old man out to the waiting carriage. Gar followed behind, somehow managing to keep his own self upright.
“You need me?” said Asher, once Darran was settled against the plush velvet cushions and Gar had climbed in beside him.
“Yes,” said Gar.
“Ride with the coachman,” said Jarralt curtly, and climbed into the carriage.
Biting his tongue, Asher obeyed.
The Royal Infirmary was located in a wing off the palace’s main building, with its own driveway and entrance and courtyard for privacy and peace. Willing hands assisted Darran inside. Offered to help Gar and were coldly rebuffed. No longer required, Jarralt departed with little more than a correct bow. Gar nodded austere thanks, Asher heaved a sigh of relief and the infirmary assistants barely noticed.
A carry-chair was produced for the ailing old man to rest in and a couple of servants summoned to do the carrying. A spare pother, hastily produced, took one look at Darran and Gar, tut-tutted, and trotted them off to the person who knew best how to handle difficult patients.
Asher, hovering close by Gar in case of another collapse, prayed hard under his breath for strength. The smells in this place were making his head swim. If he didn’t get out of here sooner rather than later the infirmary’s manky bone-botherers were going to have one more patient on their hands.
After a short trip along narrow, quiet corridors they found Nix standing in some kind of three-sided reception area, complete with desk and chairs and several potted plants. There was a closed door in each wall, each painted a different color: blue, green and deep crimson. The Royal Pother stood before the crimson door, washing his bloodied hands in a basin held by one assistant, while dictating notes to another.
“—twice hourly, with a goodly compound of urval, goatsfoot and stranglepus rubbed well into the unstitched wounds,” Nix recited, his eyes half-closed in thought. Reaching for the towel draped over the basin-holder’s forearm, he pursed his lips. “For the stitched wounds, dust every four hours with powdered grassle. In an hour we’ll—” Suddenly aware of a wider audience, he stopped drying his hands and refocused his attention. Saw Darran slumped in the carry-chair, tossed aside the towel and went to him.
“Well?” said Gar.
Nix looked up from his gentle examination. “He’ll do.” “And Durm?”
Nix turned to the basin-holder. “Wulf, fetch Pother
“Tobin.” To the chair-carriers he said, “Take His Highness’s secretary into the green chamber.”
“Tobin?” said Gar, watching Darran’s departure. “No. I want you to—”
“Tobin will see your Darran right, never fear,” said Nix. “He’s had a heart spasm but he’s in no immediate danger.”
“Very well,” said Gar after a moment. “Then take me to Durm.”
Nix shook his head. “Not yet.”
Beneath the churning pain in Gar’s eyes, a flare of heat. “It wasn’t a request, Nix.”
“Not yet,” said Nix stubbornly. “He needs quiet, not company. Think of him, sir, not yourself.”
Asher risked a touch to Gar’s rigid, uninjured arm. “Durm’s in good hands. Get yourself seen to. You’re set to fall arse over eyeballs any moment.”
Gar’s glance was like a whiplash. “Did I ask you?”
“No,” said Asher, holding his ground. “Don’t mean I’m wrong, though.”
Nix held out his hand. “Come, Your Highness.” His voice was gentle now. Coaxing. “Let me heal you. And then I’ll take you to Durm.”
Swaying on his feet, Gar capitulated. Allowed himself to be led away like a docile child.
Uninvited, Asher followed.