Authors: Brian Daley
Tags: #science fantasy
Of Deaths, Of Departure
soul and body, formed for deeds of high resolve.
“EARTHFAST,” that place was
called, aspiring skyward from roots of caverned bedrock. There was nothing that
a palace demanded that it didn’t boast, and no feature it lacked that was
required in a fortress. From it, the sovereigns of Coramonde ruled.
formal gardens were extensive and elaborate, and so it took Queen Fania’s
personal guardsmen some time to find Prince Springbuck as he brooded near an
orchid bower on an out-of-the-way path. He passed his time resisting despair,
for he now lived under a death sentence of sorts.
particularly noteworthy to see, he was slightly under average height; at
nineteen, he hadn’t yet come into his full growth. He was an open-faced young
man with straight, dark hair, some of his late mother’s swarthiness of skin,
and eyes a light brown like that of his dead father Surehand. He kept his
sparse facial hair self-consciously clean shaven and had no scar or other
feature, as yet, to set him apart in a crowd.
across marble and two soldiers, a captain and a ranker wearing gilt corselets
of the Household, came to him there. The Prince resigned himself to a mandate
to appear in his stepmother’s Court.
There was a
modest bow and a barely concealed command to accompany them. He did so with a
sinking feeling, and some true premonition told him that blood would soon be
let. That this was to happen was no fault of the Prince’s, though it stood as
high probability that the blood in question would be his own.
Springbuck’s father, Surehand, had died, he’d made no clear provision as to his
chosen heir—who should, by custom, have been Springbuck. The old Suzerain’s
second wife meant to see
son on the throne and had garnered a good
deal of support. There’d been dispute, argument and, in the end, a decision
that the matter must be settled in combat.
coalesced in such short order that Springbuck, a good-natured unaggressive
young man, found himself under a tacit house arrest, slated to measure swords
with his half brother Strongblade. It was disheartening enough that the
ferocious Strongblade, at seventeen, was the bigger of the two and more
accomplished in arms. But Springbuck was not so naive as to think that his
stepmother and her adherents would leave this critical issue to chance. After
all, the writ of the Protector Suzerain of Coramonde ran for the entire eastern
half of the Crescent Lands, that tremendous sweep of lands which arcs around
the Central Sea.
Springbuck’s last-ditch offer to abjure his royal heritage without trial was
rebuffed with a cold reminder that it was his duty to put the affair squarely
in the laps of the gods.
Just as they’d
said at Court, Springbuck was not the fighter his father had been. Surehand, a
stubborn man with a quick temper, had been aware of his own shortcomings and
had tried to school them out of his firstborn son. “Think first,” he would tell
worshipful Springbuck, “and don’t let your hand be hasty to move. Have I not
told you that haste is the thing that has caused me more regret than any other?
Pause, reflect and weigh your options.”
In the end,
some impulse of self-preservation or awakening of the mettle of his ancestors
had moved the Prince to plan escape to preserve his life. But he was unprepared
for the events of this evening.
He attempted to
maintain his dignity as he strode through the great doors—stalwart things of
hard ebony bound up in iron and studded with thick rivets—and into the
brightness of Court, so familiar in hours spent at his father’s side, and now
seemingly the camp of the enemy.
cleverly wrought in brass and blown glass lit the spacious, tapestried room and
filled it with their sweet scent. The windowless walls were hung with the
banners of various legions and houses. Over the dais hung the royal standard, a
snarling tiger, scarlet on black, and beneath it the personal ensigns of
Springbuck, his stepmother Fania and his half brother Strongblade—a stag’s
head, dolphin and bear, respectively.
The throne was
vacant; across its arms rested Flare-core, the greatsword reserved for the
ruler of Coramonde—the
as the Protector Suzerain was called
in the Old Tongue. Springbuck’s stepmother held Court seated in an ornate chair
at the foot of the dais; she wanted no accusations that she was disrespectful
of her late husband’s memory or custom. She wore a robe of imperial white which
contrasted well with her thick, raven’s wing hair.
Earthfast was the best fortified place in Coramonde there were only eleven
men-at-arms in the throne room itself. Eight archers watched, weapons at ready,
from ledges above the milling courtiers, four at either side of the room. They
wore brown leathers, had quivers of barbed arrows at their shoulders and were
now sworn to Fania by secret oaths.
On the dais
itself, behind the Queen, were three fighting slaves, family heirlooms after a
fashion, yielded to Springbuck’s grandfather by a conciliatory king after the
epic battle at Skystem Crag. They were not members of the race of men, and many
called them ogres. Bigger than humans, coarse and mighty as oaks, they were
dressed cap-a-pie in plate armor thicker than any man might wear.
heard muted laughter and murmurings from the throng as his entrance drew
attention. The lush smells of their mingling perfumes and oils came to him, and
the dainty scuffing of slippers and stirrings of extravagant clothing. The
Court had, beforetimes, been composed of wise advisers, faithful deputies and
stern fighting men. Under Fania it consisted of carpet knights and dissipaters;
Surehand’s old confidants didn’t come often or stay for long.
that, aside from the titterings, there was an unaccustomed silence in the
chamber, then spied the figure—difficult to discern, since his vision was
somewhat weak at a distance—of the famous and formidable Duke Rolph Hightower.
entrance must have interrupted an exchange. With the note of one resuming a
train of thought, the Queen said, “And here now is our stepson, come at his own
good time from sulking alone in our gardens.” Her voice was rich, vibrant, but
always cold and closed to Springbuck, however much he’d tried to ingratiate
himself to her. Still flanked by the two guardsmen, he forebore to reply; Fania
was as expert at these skirmishes as his instructor in arms, Eliatim, was with
from meeting Strongblade in combat,” she persisted, “and would like to think up
a way to avoid battle, but take the throne of the
But he will not! Not while my son and I live.”
At this the
Prince struggled to master his anger, refusing to be drawn into another contest
of words with Fania. But the powerful voice of Duke Hightower rose then, with
an edge to it to prove that he and the Queen had already had their differences
“Who would not,
facing a death under these circumstances?” he countered. “I’m very sure that
Your Grace means what she says, that you mean for Strongblade to rule, but any
man with sense in his head and a bit of spine might question the truth of your
motives and the legality of this pending duel.”
studied the Duke, who stood defiant and alone in the exact center of the wide
floor. Not Springbuck’s friend particularly, he had still been a staunch ally
and supporter of the Prince’s father, though rarely a visitor to Court. He was
even more conspicuous than usual in these surroundings, tall and
broad-shouldered, contrasting the gleaming finery of the courtiers with plain,
service-worn traveler’s attire of gray. He bore an unadorned broadsword at his
side and a cap held soldierly in the crook of his left arm. Greaved legs
widespread, he set his right fist on his hip and glared at Fania without
deference. The lantern jaw was set, the high forehead creased by beetling brows
and beneath the flaring mustachios the Duke’s mouth was drawn into something
dangerously resembling a sneer of contempt, displaying large horse-teeth.
Fania said, rolling the word off her tongue with a kind of languorous menace.
“The Duke implies that I’m committing some crime? Hightower, who comes so
seldom to our councils, would now countermand me? Too long has his insolence
gone unchecked, I think.”
voice was brittle with rage. “Insolence? Insolence?” He slammed his chest with
a battered, vein-mapped fist.
am Coramonde’s bastion in the East;
from the shadows of Spearcrest to the foot of the Keel of Heaven I am the arm
and eyes of Coramonde! How many times has my family defended our stone donjon
with our lives at risk? Do you even know, you who were born in another country?
I have paid my homage, aye, and paid again. Who questions Hightower’s right to
say his say at Earthfast?”
speak to this, nonplussed in the face of truth so furiously set forth. But an
inhumanly calm voice spoke next, one that had always sent fear shooting through
every inch of Springbuck’s being. He didn’t have to turn or squint to know that
it was Yardiff Bey—Yardiff Bey who was a figure of awe even among other
The Prince knew
that he could never have emulated Hightower, who looked to where Bey stood,
near the Queen, and met that mesmerizing stare without qualm. Bey’s dark
countenance was transformed into something unearthly by the eerie ocular of
green malachite and silver that he wore in replacement of his left eye. All
emotion was habitually hooded on his face, and it took an effort of will to
speak with him and not somehow fall under his subtle influence. Springbuck had
been moved to speak up a moment before as the words of Hightower had filled
him, if not with courage, then at least with some transient burst of outrage.
But before Yardiff Bey he held his peace.
you,” the sorcerer agreed in that voice so remote from the merely mortal, “who
spurns the decisions of the Court when he so chooses. Hightower who withholds
levies, contending that he mounts a more perilous watch than the rest of
Coramonde. Sanctimonious Hightower, poised and ready against imaginary foemen.”
you say?” the Duke shot back. “Lies are your nature as venom is a snake’s, I
say. Send any doubters out with me to rural villages to see. Something
malignant is growing in Coramonde, and it wears many faces. I have seen it, I
have fought it. Still it grows. Last month came a call to me from her people
and I went, to find the mistress of a great estate torturing children. She’d
been extracting their spleen and marrow for love potions. She had once been a
friend, but I knew her no more and I slew her there myself.” The Duke’s palm
brushed once, uneasily, across the hilt of his sword.
recovered now that Bey had intervened, soothed, “We are not unaware of these
things. It has become clear to us that such incidents come at the instigation
of Freegate, the so-called independent city east of the Keel of Heaven. Even now
are leaders gathered in Earthfast to discuss it, and legion musters will soon
follow, for a war of defense against Freegate. We ask Hightower to look to his
own array and prepare to see the crimson tiger into battle.” She waved her hand
at the royal standard and smiled a lovely, truthless smile, finishing sweetly,
“As he has done so bravely and so well in the past.”
But the Duke
was having none of that, not from anyone fair or anyone fey. “These things I
talked about are not come from Freegate but from Coramonde herself. Freegate
has always been circumspect of us and everyone here knows it. To blame them is
accusation to say the least, Springbuck reflected. Hightower was ever the brave
warrior but never the diffident diplomat. Speaking so to Fania was a far
different thing from saying the same to Yardiff Bey.
From the ranks
of the courtiers—as if on cue mark—stepped an elegant man in plum and amber,
whom Springbuck recognized as Count Synfors.
“I would be
honored to answer the Duke’s insult,” Synfors said. “If the coward will draw
steel, I’ll make my argument.”
cocked to one side, was studying the urbane young Count with a hint of
amusement. “How long,” he asked, “have
been groomed for this
occasion, little man? Never mind, never mind; shall we call the armigers, or
shall I kill you without all that ironmongery?”
The ends of the
Count’s lips curled for an instant and for answer he detached from his sash a
case of swords, twin rapiers decorated
hilts flattened on one
side so that they fit together in one sheath. Synfors took the two hilts and,
with an abrupt jerk, sent the sheath flying free and held a wicked-slim weapon
ready in either hand.