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Authors: Peter Morwood

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The Dragon Lord

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
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To Anne McCaffrey, Dragon Lady,

For all you are and have been,

And all you were, unasked:

This book. And much love.

Preface

“... by the style and tytle of an Empyre, and as soche held Domination over all those landes for nygh an hundred yeares.

Men full wys in War and Politickes do make assured declaration that, by enbuilden of great Shipes and ye subtleties and Wickednesse of ye Necromancer Duergar Vathach (ysenden hither by ye War-Lorde Etzel! to make mischief), this Empyre did desyre and make essay to take enseizen of this lande of
ALBA
.

Yet by
HEAVENES
intervention are all preserved from soche sore Distress, for in Spring-tyme of this yeare did Droek Emperor of Drusul go unto his Ancestores, and since that his first-born sonne is dead before him and ye Succession thus ymaden doubtfull, ye Empyre now is rent by great Confusion whereas its Lordes do stryve each against ye other to have power and Mastery— for they are men of no Honor and shew not that Respect which all retainers owe by Duty unto their Lordes and which obligation demandes from those same Lordes unto their vassals…

Now it was yknowen unto all what reasones were en-given that
LORDE
ALDRIC
of ye clan
TALVALIN
did journey to this Empyre: being full of Sorrow. Yet there are men whose wordes are recognised as Truth in all thinges, who do Declare that this
LORDE
did but execute a very certain Strategem commanded unto him by
RYNERT-KING
, and that small Honor if at all was done him by soche a Taske…”

—Ylver Vlethanek an-Caerdur,
The Book of Years, Cerdor

Prologue

Night and fog lay heavily on Tuenafen, and heaviest of all in the narrow streets of the port’s Old Quarter. Nothing moved there save errant skeins of mist. Most of the houses were in darkness, their doorway lanterns shattered in the riots of the past few weeks. The few lamps which remained served only to emphasise the depth of shadows into which their light could not reach.

The horseman emerged from a silent swirl of fog that drew back like the curtain of an ill-lit stage: a black-clad man, astride a coal-black horse. Both were featureless silhouettes against the slow shift of gray, sable outlines lustrous with a sheen of condensed moisture.

The horse moved. Its hooves struck hollowly against damp-slick paving slabs, muted echoes slapping up and down the street between the blankly shuttered houses. Three paces only. Three heavy clanks of iron on stone; a blacksmith sound. Then silence once more as reins were twitched and the black horse stopped.

Its rider rose a little in his stirrups, turning warily from side to side. There was a tenseness in him, in the angle of his head and the set of his shoulders. For all his ominous appearance he seemed as nervous as a cat.

Somewhere close, a clock began to strike the hour and startled his horse into sudden, stamping movement. The sound of its shoes against the ground mingled with a crackle of invective as the rider’s hands jerked back on shortened reins. Doubly betraying after those three unconsidered steps of half-a-hundred racing heartbeats past, the noises made by man and horse rang clearly in the muffled quiet.

All too clearly…

Boots clattered at his back and a voice was raised in the harsh imperatives of command. The rider’s heels kicked home and his mount plunged forward, away from the wan fog-filtered unlight and into the dark maw of a nearby alley.

There was an impact; the sound of something falling heavily to the ground; a muttering of satisfaction.

Then nothing but the noiseless movement of the mist…

Chapter One
King’s Gambit

The Hall of Kings in Cerdor was an awesome place, a vast reverberant emptiness lined with pillars of stone to support the carven magnificence of its vaulted ceiling. Autumn sunshine slanted down through windows of painted glass to splash the tinctures of Alba’s high-clan crests across a floor of tessellated marble. Flames danced and flickered in nine great hearths to drive chill from the air, but their heat could not thaw the ice which edged the voice of Gemmel Errekren.

“Do you know what you have done?” he snarled. The old enchanter was in such a passion as he seldom allowed to possess him, and the energies summoned up by high emotion swirled in lambent coils about his hands and the black, dragon-patterned stave they held.

A lesser man might well have flinched from the rage of such as Gemmel—and with good reason—but Rynert the King remained at least outwardly unruffled, sitting straight-backed and aloof in his great chair. “I do what must be done,” he said calmly, “for the good of the state.”

Portentous yet indefinite, such a statement might have sounded good in the ears of a councillor, but it failed to satisfy Gemmel. His teeth clenched so that cords of muscle stood out on his face beneath his beard, and the pulsing nimbus of his wrath grew more intensely visible.

“For the good of the state,” he echoed in a flat sneer. “You give my son to the Drusalans and then you say it is for the good of the state… ?”

“Your foster-son, wizard. My vass—”


Enough
!” The Dragonwand in Gemmel’s hands struck once against the floor—a sharp, punctuative noise—and glowing shreds of power fluttered free like incandescent moths. “Don’t
ever
quibble with me… !” There was an unsteady shrillness in his musical old-young voice which had not been there before. “Your ‘reason’ is no reason at all, King, and well you know it. No excuse— for all it can excuse so much…”

Rynert shot a glance towards the only other occupant of the hall, hoping maybe for support—but Dewan ar Korentin’s face was as stony as the wall at his back. There would be no approval from that source.

The king’s gaze returned reluctantly to Gemmel. “Explain,” he said.

“Must I?” The enchanter was openly scornful, but Rynert chose—as he had perforce chosen all along—to ignore the lack of courtesy.

“Yes. You must. I am… curious.”

“I wonder that you need be. Your… your reason has birthed too much misery down the years for any right mind to give or accept it without question. Save perhaps in matters of convenience…”

Gemmel’s voice was lower now, introspective, as though he spoke mostly to himself, and there was a brooding shadow on his face which Rynert could see plainly even at ten paces distance.

“For it has created lies. Betrayals… And deaths. Oh, so many, many deaths! Both by the hand which holds a blade, Lord King—and by the hand which offers gold…” The enchanter’s green eyes bored into Rynert’s translucent hazel as though reading the secrets buried deep behind them in the hidden places of the king’s mind, and Rynert dared not be first to break the contact for fear that by doing so he would betray himself.

“Yours is a reason I have heard before,
mathern-an arluth
—but the language was not Alban then…”

Only he could hear the whispered words; they were no more than a thread of sound, quiet as the metallic exhalation of a drawing sword, but they seemed to flay Gemmel with the lash of some reawakened shameful memory. Something other ears were not meant to overhear… but Rynert heard it.

“Once there was a village. Small. Ordinary. An Imperial village. And its people—small, ordinary people— had committed some infraction of the Empire’s laws. They were being… chastised. I could have helped them. I did not. Instead I asked why the soldiers were doing what was being done; their Serjeant told me that it was for the good of the state and none of my affair. And it was not. So I did nothing. Though it would have cost me so very little of my power, even then. But my son tried. And it cost his life.”

The enchanter hesitated, as a man will when he rea-lizses he has said too much, and shook his head before staring again at Rynert. “I lost more than a son that day. More than your mind can grasp, King. Much more. I lost the ability to go ho— Everything. So do not use that excuse to me again. Ever.”

Rynert drew in a swift, ragged breath. He was not and never had been a sturdy man, and now the heart within his chest was jerking like the legs of a snared rabbit so that it took all his small store of physical strength just to conceal the fact. Anger, outrage and affronted dignity; all these and more blended most incongruously with a pain that went deeper than his own frail flesh. Gemmel’s story troubled him, touching a guilt which his own conscience had failed to rouse, and reflected endlessly to and fro in his mind like a candle poised between two mirrors; guilt begetting shame, begetting still more guilt…

“I am as you say, wizard. King.” The word snapped out, a verbal whiplash laid across the white-bearded face before him, righteous anger that a man could hide behind… “I must make such decisions whether I will or not. The way of kingship is like a narrow path: it must be walked alone.”

Once more the studied, courtly phrases failed to impress. Gemmel was no longer angry, merely saddened by his own ancient griefs—and he was a man very conscious of his own dignity, regardless of how he treated that of others. So he did not follow his first impulse, which was to spit the sourness from his mouth on to the stones at Rynert’s feet. Instead he gazed levelly at the slight, crook-shouldered king.

Then turned his back and stalked in silence from the hall.

Dewan ar Korentin broke that silence. Straightening from the wall where he had leaned, and watched, and carefully said nothing, he padded forward on soft-shod feet to where Ykraith the Dragonwand had notched the marble floor. “Statecraft,” he muttered, looking at the damage. “Be careful, Rynert. It could well be the death of you.” On Dewan’s face was an expression close to that on Gemmel’s.

“Then what,” asked Rynert, not liking what he saw, “is
your
word on this?”

“You already know it. I warned you before about Aldric Talvalin and my protest is on record. Again I warn you—and again I wish it recorded. Do not play with him as you do with the other diplomatic games-pieces you employ. He is different, he is… strange. And his notions of honor are strange. Archaic, sometimes. Especially in the matters of duty and obligation.”

“Qualms, old friend?” The smile which curved Rynert’s thin lips did not quite fit. “I had not expected scruples from you.”

Dewan’s nostrils flared a little at that and he did not even attempt to mirror the smile. “Neither qualms nor scruples. Simple caution. And simple decency. You commanded him to perform what is a foul act for one of his rank—”

“A killing, foul… ? For that one? He merely does for me what he has already done for himself! I remind you, Dewan, that he is my vassal…”

“Vassal maybe, but he deserves better. Much better. I can speak as an outsider here: and I say that deceit may have its place, but that place is not in matters of Alban honor. It cuts two ways, Rynert. He owes you duty—but you owe him respect. And the situation seems just a little one-sided. May I remind
you
—with first-hand authority—that he was not named Deathbringer in idle jest. Perhaps… just perhaps, he will understand why you betrayed him—” he raised one hand to forestall Rynert’s protest, “for I assure you, that is how he will see it.”

“For his own safety’s sake… !”

“For reasons of state, you said. Well… Perhaps he’ll accept it. Or perhaps not. But if not, Rynert, then I wouldn’t wish to wear your collar. Not if you were king of all the world…”

Perhaps deliberately, Dewan ar Korentin’s accented voice no longer used the formal mode of the Alban language. There were some at court who would have regarded his addressing of the king in any other way as an insult, but Rynert was not one of them. He understood.

“It no longer matters, even if it once did,” Rynert said dismissively. “The piece has moved; now I must watch how it affects play.”

“Publicly. You must be seen to support your own decisions. But in private—as secretly as you sent Talvalin— could you not send me… ?”

“Dewan, you grow overwrought. Go away. Return when you feel calm again. And convey my compliments to your lady wife.”

Ar Korentin stiffened, bowing acknowledgement of his dismissal with a marionette’s rigidity, then strode towards the great double doors with disapproval plain in the arrogant straightness of his back. Rynert’s voice followed him up the hall.

“But until you come back—feeling calm, of course— please regard your time and business as your own affair…”

Dewan halted, stood quite still for perhaps two seconds and then turned to face the king. Rynert had that suppressed brightness around the eyes and mouth which accompanies the concealment of a smile. Dewan watched it fade and felt uneasy even as he snapped through the punctilious movements of an Imperial parade salute. Then he bowed from the waist, Alban-fashion, and took his leave, knowing deep inside that there was an ugly wrongness about this whole affair.

But able to fathom no more than that. Yet…

Gemmel was waiting for him. Indeed, Dewan would have been more surprised had the enchanter not been there. “Wizard,” he said quietly.

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
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