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Authors: Jr. L. E. Modesitt

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BOOK: The Death of Chaos
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5.Death of Chaos
XI

 

A COLD WIND blew through the door, and scattered snowflakes danced into the waystation. A thin carpet of snow lay inside the doorway.

   I climbed out of my bedroll, somewhat stiffly, and struggled with a few scraps of wood and some twigs I collected from the scrub bushes. Before too long, a small fire burned, heating water in my single battered pot. I needed tea or something.

   Gairloch had whuffed and whinnied the whole time I gathered wood and twigs, and I went back out and untied him.

   Whheeeee... eeeeee... eeee.

   “I should have untied you first? Is that it?” I led him to the spring, and then let him browse as he could while I used my pot to make too-strong tea to go with biscuits that had gotten hard enough to use my chisels on. Instead I dunked them in the tea, ignoring the tea-smoky taste. Then I had some raisins and the last of the olives. Olives don't travel that well, except in brine, and brine's heavy.

   My washing up was cursory, with no shaving, since I wasn't likely to sweat, not with the chill wind off the higher peaks and the scattered snowflakes reminding me that it was almost winter, although the pass was never supposed to be closed by snow. Or not for long, because it was so far south.

   I looked at the clouds before I went back into the waystation and stood in front of my little fire. While order-mastery did keep my body from getting too cold, a fire helped, too.

   A small piece of older cedar wedged in the corner of the near empty wood bin caught my eye, and I wriggled it free. It wasn't that long, perhaps a third of a cubit and maybe three spans wide, but it had been rough-sawn at both ends, and discarded as too short for firewood, I guessed. The grain was even, and while I warmed myself as the fire died down, I took out my knife and began to experiment. Carving hadn't been my greatest strength, and it could use some improvement.

   A face lay under the wood, but whose face it might be remained to be seen as my carving progressed. I couldn't tell with the little I did before the fire died and before it was time to head onward toward Hydlen. Then I fastened my jacket and packed the cedar into one of the bags on Gairloch.

   Gairloch whinnied. His breath steamed, and the whiteness mixed with the snow flurries.

 
  “Let's go, old fellow.”

   The road climbed gradually, and the snow got heavier. I had a sense that it was not going to get too heavy, but I worried, since it was beginning to stick on the road and especially to build on the scattered patches of grass and on the cedars.

   So Gairloch put one hoof in front of the other, and I worried, and we traveled east until we reached the top of the pass. We didn't rest there, not only because of the snow, but because, according to Yelena, the descent was longer, and the road twisted more. I didn't want to be too high in the hills if my senses were wrong about the amount of snow.

   For a time the snow got heavier, but the wind dropped off, and the flakes fell almost straight down. A light blanket of white coated just about everything, Gairloch's mane included, until I brushed it off.

   Then it stopped, but the air remained still, and the only sounds were Gairloch's breathing, my breathing, and the stolid clop of one mountain pony's hoofs.

   The white blanket got blotchier, with boulders sticking through, and the snow began to slide off the bowed branches of the trees, mostly cedars in the higher sections of the road. In time, the way followed another stream, narrow and with only a trace of water, but the trace became a brook, and then a stream as the road wound its way lower.

   Whheeee... eeee...

   “All right. You're thirsty. We'll stop, but not here. Down there where the bank isn't so steep.”

   I guided Gairloch toward a flattened space by the stream, mostly clear of snow. The little that remained was melting away, although the sun remained hidden by the woolly gray clouds.

   The earth thrown loosely over blackened branches, the rodent tracks, and the scrapes in the ground showed others had camped there, though not too recently. I walked Gairloch down to a sandy bank, and he lapped the water greedily.

   “Easy... easy... That's cold water.” I knew. I touched it with my finger, and it was cold enough to chill right to the bone, order-mastery or no order-mastery. Cold as it was, it smelled clean, with just a hint of evergreen resin.

   After he drank, I gave him a little grain before I remounted and continued downward on the road to Faklaar.

   Somewhere on the way eastward, I noticed the change in the trees. On the far west side of the Lower Easthorns had been cedars, twisted low cedars clinging to the reddish and sandy soil between rocks and boulders, with only patches of grass, and scrub bushes.

   I was seeing oaks now, black and white, with softer woods, and an occasional lorken tucked into a grove-good supplies and healthy trunks for a woodworker. The trunks were straighter, and some were old-older certainly than the impressive trunks in the woods south of Land's End in Recluce and some of those Recluce trees dated back to Creslin and Megaera-the mythical Founders. The trees in Hydlen felt older, even if they weren't bigger. But the trees of Recluce reportedly had been planted by the ancient order-masters. That would have given any tree a certain advantage.

   Trees or no trees, I kept riding, and the clouds eventually broke enough that once or twice in the afternoon there were patches of sunlight.

 

 

5.Death of Chaos
XII

East of Lavah, Sligo [Candar]

 

AFTER DRAWING BACK the drapery that covers the shelves of the rough bookcase against the cottage wall, the man in brown smiles. His eyes stop on each volume, as if to drink the words and the knowledge within.

   “What you could tell...” He laughs. “What you do tell. What you are already telling!” Then he shakes his head. “For so long, so long, you have been hidden.”

   The clopping of hoofs on the hard ground outside drifts through the half-open window by the crude door. Sammel lets the cloth drop across the front of the case, leaving what appears as a draped but narrow table.

   He turns and walks to the door, which he opens. He steps out and stands on the crude stone stoop, looking westward toward the small river valley that holds the town, although Lavah is more of a hamlet than a town.

   On the stoop he waits for the two figures who have tethered their horses to the rude hitching rail beside the first of the irregular stones that form a rough walk to the cottage door. The high thin clouds turn the sun's golden-white light into a bright grayish-white.

   “Greetings.”

   “Greetings be to you, Master Sammel.” The thin trader walks toward the cottage.

   Sammel steps inside and walks to the crude table, where he picks up a single scroll.

   “What is there of value in a scroll?”

   “This one contains a way of separating natural waxes and fats. It will give you a means to make better candles.” Sammel hands the scroll to the trader.

   “Better candles? When they have gas lamps on Recluce? And good oil lamps in Freetown and Hydolar?”

   “How many candles are sold every year? How many people buy lamps and how many buy candles?” Sammel shakes his head. “People will pay more for better candles.”

   The thin trader nods his head. “Aye... I suppose so. Theryck would pay for it. He's the renderer in Tyrhavven.” He sets a pouch on the table and steps back.

   Sammel leaves the pouch where the trader placed it.

   “Master Wizard Sammel, begging your pardon, ser, but what do ye suggest we do about the Duke's taxes?” The shorter trader glances nervously from the man in brown to the doorway of the small cottage.

   The cold light coming through the window glistens white.

   The trader wipes his forehead and tugs at his salt - and - pepper beard.

   “I doubt that Duke Colaris will be worrying about trying to collect taxes in Sligo for much longer.” Sammel's voice is smooth and deep. He smiles politely.

   “What's that mean?” The shorter trader halts his pacing by the door to look at the balding wizard.

   “Refuse to pay his taxes. He has no claim over Sligo.”

   “An' maybe not, but he's got an army, and that's something we don't.” The thin trader studies the white shaft of light coming through the window, and finally lifts his arm through it. The sparkling white dust motes dance, and the sunbeam shimmers enough to cast faint shadows on the dark walls.

   “Then wait,” counsels Sammel. “Make an excuse to his tax-collectors. There will be more than enough chaos in Freetown to keep them and the Duke busy before long.”

   “You saying that Duke Berfir's goin' to strip the hide right off old Colaris? Don't see how as that can be, seeing as Colaris's got near on twice as many troops.”

   “Then why do you bother to consult me? You know more than I do.” Sammel's voice remains calm, almost soft. He smiles a warm smile, focused into a distance the others do not see.

   The thin trader glares at the shorter one by the door.

   The short trader looks at the floor. “Beggin' your pardon, ser. That be not so. You know more, but we don't know enough to know what we don't know.”

   “That was well put, Master Trader.” Sammel chuckles, a warming sound, and looks at the hearth, on which the fires seem to intensify their flames and heat. “Duke Berfir has a strong wizard, perhaps not strong enough for all eventualities, but strong enough to hold the south against the autarch. Duke Berfir also has weapons that spew fire. They are terrible weapons, and little that Duke Colaris has will stand against them in the open field.”

   “What's to keep Duke Colaris from making such weapons?”

   “Nothing-except he has not the knowledge to construct them. Knowledge is power, especially for a ruler. That's a lesson that has been forgotten.”

   The short trader looks at Sammel. “Why you telling us this? What's in it for you?”

   “For me? Call it the love of knowledge. Say that knowledge is a friend who was buried too soon and for too long.”

   The shorter trader rolls his eyes.

   “Think that I am mad, do you? Watch!” Sammel thrusts a hand, index finger extended, toward the glass of water on the table. From the water a line of fire rises and unfolds into a flower. Then it vanishes. “All vanishes except knowledge.”

   The two traders shake their heads.

   Sammel looks at the two, and his deep-set eyes glow. “You think that I am just a mad wizard.”

   The two step back involuntarily.

   "What is the knowledge of the price of a spice worth? The knowledge of the value of a cargo? You deal in knowledge, and you cannot see its value? You purchase knowledge, and you cannot see its power?

   “Knowledge is my friend, and my ally, and he is far more powerful than any Duke, far more powerful than even the Emperor of great Hamor.”

   “Beggin' yer pardon, Ser Wizard... we never said it wasn't so.”

   “Then I would ask you not to roll your eyes at me, Ser Trader.”

 
  “No, ser. No, ser.”

   Sammel watches as the two back out the door.

   Once the sound of hoofs fades, he laughs.

 

 

5.Death of Chaos
XIII

 

ON MY RIDE through the hills of Hydlen on the road beside what I later discovered was the Fakla River, I was reminded once again that everything took longer than I planned-whether it was a desk or a trip.

   The road, despite the intermittent sleet and freezing drizzle, was passable, and with his heavy coat, Gairloch plodded on in stride. I brushed the ice off my cap and jacket, sniffled through the cold, and tried to keep the dampness away.

   The scattered trees turned into forests, with clearings, first for grazing, and then for fields, though they were but turned stubbie in the winter drizzle. The huts I passed were snug enough looking, with thin lines of smoke from stone and clay-caulked chimneys, but small.

   In the air the faint smell of burning wood mixed with the underlying hint of rotten leaves, and, occasionally, the resin of evergreen needles. I rode past one stolid soul, pulling a cart, and nodded. His eyes fixed firmly on the road, he trudged by me, his face blank, his beard tangled, and his boots squushing through the rain-softened clay that was not quite mud. On the cart were two lopsided gourds, one gashed.

   Whuffff...

   I patted Gairloch, glad I was riding and not walking, as we continued eastward.

   Faklaar stood at the first wide bend in the river, where the hills and most of the woods ended, and the high river plains began. In the late afternoon's winter drizzle, the clump of houses and the inn and store recalled a damper version of Howlett, the town where I had first met Justen. The inn at Faklaar stood in a swamp of churned earth, with muddy planks leading from its main door to the store next door and to the stables behind.

   I wasn't thrilled about the place, but I wasn't going to learn much by skulking around, and, besides, people get suspicious of those who avoid other people. So I rode Gairloch past the newly painted sign that displayed a platter heaped with a brown steaming mass and back to the stables.

   The stable girl looked at me. “Pony's same as horses. Two coppers, three if you want a cup of grain.” Her ragged hair barely covered her ears, and her bony knees protruded from holes in overlarge trousers cut raggedly over wooden clogs.

   “All right.”

   “Before you stable him.”

   “I'm supposed to trust you?”

   She shrugged. “I steal from Jassid, and he beats me. Don't take beatings for three coppers.”

   I dismounted, trying to avoid the worst of the mud and horse droppings and dug in my purse for the coppers. I gave her four.

   She looked at me.

   “End stall?” I asked.

   “Nope. You can take the corner one there, though. Small enough that Jassid won't double-stall.”

   “I'm Lerris.”

   “Daria. I'll get you the grain. Good stuff.”

   While she walked toward a set of large barrels, I led Gairloch into the low-ceilinged corner stall. Daria was right. The stall was narrow enough for Gairloch, but it was dry, and relatively clean. I racked the saddle and began to brush him, after setting my bags and staff in the corner.

   Daria returned with a large measure of grain.

   “He bite?”

   “He never has.” I paused. “Except once. He kicked and bit a liveryman who whipped him. That was before I got him.”

   “Don't like whips.” She shivered as she poured the grain into the manger.

   Gairloch whuffed and began to eat.

   “Stableboy! Where's the stableboy?”

   Daria scuttled out into the yard.

   After brushing Gairloch, and recalling Justen's handling of our stay in Howlett, I checked the hayloft. It was dry, and looked halfway clean.

   “What you doing?” demanded Daria as I dropped from the stall half-wall to the ground.

   “Checking the hayloft.”

   “You've been around.”

   “Some.”

   “Better than the inn,” she said.

   “You sleep there?”

   Her eyes narrowed. “Don't sleep with nobody.”

   I shook my head. “I didn't mean that.”

   “No. Live out at the edge of town. Ma cooks for Ystral. The stew's better than the chops.” She left almost before she finished speaking.

   I threw an ordered light shield around my staff and supplies. What people couldn't see, they were less likely to steal. Then I walked across the muddy splattered planks to the inn. The door was pine, not evenly planed and not varnished. I knocked the mud off my boots, and used the boot brush no one else had.

   A bulky man with a short gray beard and a stained leather apron looked like he owned the place.

   “Are you the innkeeper?”

   “None other. Ystral, at your service. You don't want a job, do you, young fellow?”

   “No. I wanted a meal and a place to sleep.”

   He smiled the innkeeper's smile.

   “Bed is half silver, and the fare's simple but good. Four coppers for the stew, five for the chops, and good chops they are, too.”

   “How about the stable?”

   “Three for a horse.”

   I smiled. “How about for me, sharing the stall.”

   “Three if you go for that sort of thing.”

   I handed him three coppers. “My horse gets lonely.”

   “Takes all kinds.” He took the coins, still smiling, and moved toward two soldiers in crimson-trimmed grays.

   I eased away. The public room at the Overflowing Platter was none too large, less than twenty cubits on a side, and the air was greasy, smoky, and reeked faintly of horse and sheep droppings carried in with the mud and duly boots.

   There was a small table on the wall where I could watch the door, and I took it. The table, pine-finished with years of grease, wobbled, and one of the back braces on the chair was cracked.

   “Beer or berry?” The woman rubbed a damp hand across a grease splotch on her gray shirt.

   “Berry. Stew. How much?”

   “Two for the berry. Stew's four, and you get half a loaf.”

   “Stew.” I showed a silver, but held it.

   “Pay when you get the berry.”

   “All right.”

   She was gone, back to the kitchen, and I studied the others in the room, trying to extend my hearing to pick up what I could.

   “... beef pies... better than fowl...”

   “... Berfir never hold Hydlen... only a herder with a long sword from Asula...”

   “... tell him I want real chops... come back and spit him over his own fire...”

   “... pretty face and waggles those lace-covered titties in front of 'em and they think she's a lady...”

   I tried not to blush or to react too strongly to what I heard, but little had to do with other than the commonplace.

   “Here's your berry.”

   The mug came down on the grease-polished wood with a slight thump, and I handed over the silver. I did get four coppers back.

   “Stew coming up. Next trip.”

   As I watched, the two soldiers came in and sat three tables away. I tried to listen, but the serving woman was back.

   “Here's your stew and bread, fellow!” She waited and scratched her stomach.

   I forced a smile and offered her a copper, getting a smile in return.

   “You're all right.”

   Daria had been right. The stew was good, and the bread wasn't half bad. The redberry had been badly watered, and I orderspelled it, which made it blander, but safer.

   I concentrated on listening, extending my senses toward the two troopers.

   “... stay away from the chops... dog meat from what I hear...”

   “... better than the goat those Kyphrans eat...”

   “... say Berfir's wizard is like the great old ones...”

   “... Colaris couldn't fight his way out of a Temple... still wants the valley...”

   “... take the Ohyde over our knives...”

   I frowned and took another mouthful of stew. People were talking, just talking, and there wasn't much to most of it. I kept listening and eating, slowly.

   “... Stenafta... daughter's something, I'd bet, get beneath those stable clothes...”

   Was Daria Stenafta's daughter? I sipped another mouthful of the redberry and tried to hear what the troopers said, but they just ate.

   “... these aren't chops! Sliced mutton no matter how you cut it!” The muscular man in a stained blue shirt stood up and flung the platter at the serving woman, spraying her with grease and mutton.

   She cringed, and the muscular figure turned without looking at her. Ystral scuttled into the public room.

   “Innkeeper! When I order chops, I want chops! Not sliced mutton!” The man in the blue shirt stood half a head taller than Ystral.

   “You have the best we have, ser,” Ystral offered evenly.

   “Charging for chops! Theft! It's theft!” His hands reached for the innkeeper, shaking the smaller man. He grabbed for Ystral's neck with a lurch.

   As I watched, the big man's hands waved, and his mouth opened with almost a gurgle. Then he sank to the floor, red welling across the blue of his shirt.

   Ystral stepped back and wiped the knife on the fallen figure's shirt.

   Ystral turned to the cringing serving woman. “It's your fault. Clean up the mess. Get this carrion out of here.”

   Neither soldier said a word. The gray-haired one lifted his mug and shook his head. The younger one chewed on a corner of bread.

   Ystral walked out toward the front of the inn, and the buzz of conversation resumed, even while the serving woman tugged at the body of the man who had complained about the chops.

   I didn't feel like eating more, but I forced myself to finish the stew, taking one slow bite at a time.

   “... don't argue with Ystral... kill you as anything...”

   “... and I told her we'd go to Sunta, and she could get her finery sewed by the tailor there... but, no, she said that it had to be Worrak or Hydolar itself...”

   “... say he used to be a trooper...”

   After finishing the stew, I eased back to the stable, having heard nothing useful, at least directly. I was bothered, somehow, that the soldiers had just watched and done nothing. And that Ystral had neither smiled nor frowned.

   It was still half light when I pulled my bedroll and The Basis of Order up into the hayloft. I could hear the rain falling, again, and I had to shift my bedroll once to avoid the drops from the big rafter.

   I used the striker to light the candle and tried to read a few pages.

   “... the world works to buffer order and chaos, for seldom does it allow unalloyed order to meet the spirit of chaos unfettered by any material. Such a buffer is the basis of life. When the angels and the demons of light fought, their spears were pure, and the very stars in the skies were rent and torn. So is it always when unalloyed and opposing forces meet...”

   That wasn't terribly interesting. So I closed the book and took out the length of cedar and carved for a time, but it was slow, and I couldn't quite see the face beneath the wood.

   Besides, my eyes started to feel heavy after that, and I finally put the knife and cedar away, blew out the candle and put it into my pack. Belatedly, I set wards and went to sleep with the sound of the rain-trying not to sneeze from the hay.

   My dreams were strange, something about traveling down roads I didn't know, with a silver-haired woman offering advice I didn't want and couldn't understand.

   I woke with a start, the wards tingling in my skull, my fingers grasping for my staff.

   Outside, the sky was barely gray.

   “Easy!” Daria backed away.

   “You surprised me.” I lowered the staff and shook my head.

   “Didn't mean to start you up.” Daria eased into a crosslegged position on the planks of the hayloft floor. Her breath steamed.

   “What are you doing here?”

   “Come early. Ma has to get here. Jassid pays me half copper an eight-day if'n I'm here 'fore breakfast.”

   I extracted myself from my bedroll and set aside the staff. After pulling on trousers and boots, I shook out my jacket and put it on. My breath steamed, and I wasn't shivering, not quite.

   “You sleep outta your clothes. That safe?”

   “Probably not. But it's more comfortable, and my boots last longer if they and my feet get to breathe.”

   “Feet don't breathe.”

   “Your whole body breathes.”

   “You some kind a teacher? You use that staff like they say the black ones do.”

   “No.” My stomach twisted at the statement, and I frowned. I wasn't a teacher, but I didn't want to get into explaining about myself. Because I'd carried the black ordered staff of Recluce, I had been a blackstaffer when I'd started my exile, technically a dangergeld where I could return to Recluce if I satisfied the Brotherhood, but I didn't see myself ever doing that. Anyway, blackstaffers weren't exactly popular in Candar. “I'm a woodworker. Sometimes, I have taught apprentices.” That was certainly true enough.

   “You from Kyphros?”

   “I just came from there, but I was born a long ways away.” My system didn't protest too much at that evasion. “Why do you want to know?”

   “Ma says women run Kyphros. That true?”

   “The autarch-”

   “What's an autarch?”

   “She's the woman who rules Kyphros. The head of their... army is a woman, too. So are most of the officers.” I began to roll my bedroll up.

   “Yeah. The black blade. What Jassid calls one of 'em. He was a trooper for the old Duke on the coast. Said she killed couple score. Wish I could do that.”

   “Do you want to tell me why?”

   She looked at the planks.

   “Jassid-or someone else?”

   “... kill... the bastard... 'cept Ma have no coins. Khali'd starve. Pa died long time ago. Drowned in a fight.”

   “He was a soldier?”

   “... used to tell us stories 'fore the crops went bad. Signed for the bounty-the rebel Duke on the coast. That was 'fore the new Duke in Hydolar. One duke, another, same thing.”

   “Jassid...” I mused.

   “Don't say nothing. He'll beat me. Ma can't do nothing.”

   I thought as I strapped my bedroll tight. “I promise. I'll say nothing.” But I might not have to say anything.

   “Shouldn't said nothing...”

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