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Authors: Peter Morwood

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BOOK: The Dragon Lord
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Eldheisart
ar Korentin,” Gemmel retorted. If Dewan was taken aback to hear his old Imperial rank spoken aloud by such a man as this, he gave no indication of it. “Now do you believe?” the enchanter continued. “Was I so very wrong?”

“Not wrong—but not entirely right.”

“How so? I lost one son to the Empire many years ago—I will not stand by and lose another for the… for the good of the state!”

“We should walk,” said Dewan in a flat voice, his eyes indicating the sentries flanking the doorway of the Hall of Kings. None was obviously listening; in the presence of their captain they stood rigidly to attention and stared straight to their front. But they had ears even so…

Gemmel nodded once, minutely, and walked.

“Now hear me,” ar Korentin began again, once he judged them a safe distance away. “Rynert has—”

“—Forefeited what little allegiance Aldric or I might have owed him!”

Dewan ar Korentin was a patient man and slow to anger, but his patience was rapidly wearing thin. Both hands came up to grip Gemmel’s shoulders and if necessary shake him back to coherence, but something in the old man’s expression suggested that anything approaching violence would be countered tenfold. He hesitated, hands in the air as he considered, then contented himself with a spread-armed shrug.

“Just once, wizard, try listening to someone besides yourself!” he snapped. Gemmel’s teeth shut with a click, and his indrawn breath was an audible hiss; but Dewan pressed home his advantage in the relative silence. “As I was saying,” the irony was if anything overdone, “
mathern-an
Rynert has granted me permission to go after Aldric. Into the Empire.”

Gemmel lifted an eyebrow. “Tacit permission, of course. Nothing direct, and certainly nothing committed to paper… ?”

“Certainly not!” Dewan’s sense of propriety was outraged by the suggestion. “This is of the utmost delicacy.”

“So much so,” the enchanter’s voice was flat and nasty, “that your worthy lord might need to wash his hands of it at short notice. Mm?”

That possibility had not occurred to Dewan; but he had only to consider how Aldric had been—and was being—used, to realize that Gemmel was not making idle criticism. Yet he persisted: “Will you come with me? After all, Talvalin is your—your son.”

“Foster-son,” Gemmel corrected absently. “What you really mean is, will I come and help pull Rynert’s political fat out of the Imperial fire before it flares into—Lord God, ‘incident’ wouldn’t begin to describe it.” The cold, clear emerald eyes transfixed Dewan like needles. “No. I won’t.”

The shock of that refusal could not be hidden, and ar Korentin floundered for several seconds before he managed to say anything remotely sensible. “So what do I do—go alone… ?”

“Not necessarily.
You
could come with me.” With each emphasis the enchanter’s long finger poked Dewan in the chest.

“What’s the difference?”

“Between black and white. My way—you know and I know. His way—who knows who knows… ?” Gemmel was plainly recovering what passed for his sense of humor.

“All right,” Dewan conceded. “Where do we go?”

“First, to the coast. By
my
route.”

“And afterwards?”

Gemmel grinned a swift, vulpine grin which showed most of his teeth. “Restore all the marks of rank to that Imperial armor of yours. No. More than all. Exaggerate it. Promote yourself. It may be more useful that way than you think. But as for afterwards…” The grin flickered again. “Leave afterwards to me.”

“This place is supposed to be secure—so how did it get in?” Both the harsh voice and the man who used it were out of place in this room of graceful furnishings and delicately muted colors. He was burly, florid and middle-aged, with a spade-shaped iron-gray beard, and he was encased to the neck in vivid scarlet-lacquered armor which was brilliant with the precious-metal geometric shapes of lofty rank. A sharp reek of oily metal hung about him—cutting discordantly through the fragrance of incense smouldering in a burner by the door—and leather creaked whenever he moved, as he did now in leaning forward to smooth an already-flat sheet of paper with blunt fingers. It creaked again when he twisted to stare at a tall, lean figure outlined by sunlight at the window. “I asked you a question.”

The other man turned. “And I thought you were being rhetorical,” he replied mildly, seeming undisturbed by his companion’s brusqueness—although because of the glare at his back and the deep cowl which covered his head, no expression could be read from his shadowed features. “Set aside its delivery. Is it genuine?”

“Perhaps,” the armored man conceded, turning the paper this way and that as if closer scrutiny might reveal some stamp of authenticity. “The codes were correct and the seals unbroken when it was found?”

“They were.”

“Or so we must assume… But this translation,” he slapped at it with the back of one hand, “is it accurate?”

“You wrote it. You translated it. You should know…”

“Most evasive.” The armored man’s chuckle was a dry sound, devoid of all humor. “But that’s only to be expected.” He set aside the enigmatic piece of paper and lifted the slim dossier to which it referred. Originally secured by wires, and by seals of both lead and wax, the folder’s contents were plainly not meant for idle fingers to flick through.

As it was prised open once more, the man by the window left his place in the sun and walked lazily across the room. Each step was marked by the austere click of a long ash cane gripped easily in the fingertips of his left hand.

Flimsy sheets drifted across the table-top like the leaves of autumn; half-a-dozen pages in which—he knew—a man’s life was laid open for inspection like something gutted on a surgeon’s slab. “Impressive, is it not?” he asked softly.

There was no reply at first; each document was set out, carefully spaced and minutely shifted. Then, inevitably, one in particular was singled out for closer scrutiny. It was a portrait—or more correctly a likeness, for it boasted little in the way of artistic excellence. But its accuracy was uncanny, almost inhuman, for surely no human hand could capture tones and textures and nu-ances of color with such painstaking and subtle precision. It was as if the image in a mirror had been printed on paper.

“Impressive,” said the armored man at last, “is scarcely adequate.” He glanced up with a crooked smile, but as usual could discern no response to his comment even though by now he could see within the deep, dark hood.

There was only his own face, distorted and reflected back at him from the surface of a mask of polished metal…

The ash cane rattled slightly as it was laid down on the table; then gloved hands came up to throw back the cowl and burnished silver emerged from its concealment like a weapon being drawn. There was that same cold, impersonal menace; yet at the same time a very human satisfaction in the way the masked man purred, “I had sketches made. And distributed wherever they might prove useful…”

“Such as?”

“Every west-coast seaport which runs the Elherran trade to Alba. I have agents in them all.”

“Of course…” The armored man nodded once, as if he had expected nothing less. His eyes were inexorably drawn back to those of the portrait: dark eyes, gray-green and icy as the northern sea in winter. Looking at those eyes, he had no difficulty in believing what he had already skimmed from the dossier about this young man. “Talvalin,” he mused. “Aldric Talvalin. An Alban clan-lord. And you still think that Rynert sent this—betrayed one of his own?”

“I know he sent it.” Now voice and mask were one, for there was something remote and terrible in that short sentence; and as the metal-shrouded face moved slightly, light slid sparkling away as though flinching from any prolonged contact with its surface. “I have known for two months now. And I have not found him yet.”

“But that still leaves him loose in my… our… jurisdiction.”

“Loose… ? I think not.”

“What?”

“He may seem… loose, if you prefer the word.Because we do not know his whereabouts. Yet. But he must leave us,”—a quick gesture recovered the cane and stirred the papers on the table—”and we know where he will try. And then…” The leather-skinned fingers of his right hand spread wide, like a claw. The armored man looked at it, then at the mirror-blank masked face beyond. “Then we will have him and we will hold him.
Here
!” The fingers closed.

Chapter Two
Perfidious Alba

The beach edging Dunacre Bay was almost four miles long; it curved away below the Morhan Hills to the south-west, and out in a great shallow arc past the old fortress which gave the bay its name, off north and east towards the Ring Rocks and Sallyn Point. At low tide it was featureless and flat, admirable for walking and the exercise of horses; for then the surf-line—such as it was, except in stormy weather—lay seven hundred yards or more from the necklace of pebbles which divided sand from marram grass and bracken-covered dunes. The beach shelved leisurely out into the sea, and only those who knew this coast were aware of the sudden precipitous plunge as the sea-bed fell away into black depths which would grant access to ships of even the deepest draught.

Gemmel Errekren was one with such knowledge.

For all that, Dewan ar Korentin was not yet wholly convinced that the wizard knew what he was doing, no matter how well he claimed to know the vagaries of sea and shore. This very beach was an instance of his doubt. The tide was out, just at the turn; consequently there was a long, conspicuous walk before they reached the water and the safety of whatever vessel had been provided for their use. Hopefully the sentries on Dunacre’s ramparts would think them fishermen, or crab-catchers, or gatherers of seaweed. Anything except what they were: two men creeping illegally out of Alba and even more illegally into the Drusalan Empire.

And maybe the sentries wouldn’t see them at all, for though Dewan flattered himself that his eyesight was[* *]better than most, he was unable to penetrate the opalescent wall of mist and spray-spume which had rolled in from the sea just as their feet touched the sand… Again he glanced thoughtfully at Gemmel’s back, as he had done more than once since the weather took its so-convenient turn for the worse; and again shrugged it aside as common sense took over…

In so far as any man could shrug under the burden which he carried.

Gemmel had insisted that they leave their horses stabled at the tavern and merely walk towards the shore, having hidden their baggage in that direction during the previous night. Unencumbered by the necessities of travel—he had elaborated, as he inevitably did—they would seem no more than two gentlemen taking their ease with a constitutional stroll along the beach.

They might have been unencumbered when they left the inn, thought Dewan wearily to himself, but they weren’t bloody unencumbered now—though it was remarkable how Gemmel had contrived to foist all the truly heavy gear on to Dewan’s broad shoulders whilst he stalked elegantly along with no more than his staff and an oiled-leather satchel of books. If he was such a powerful sorcerer as young Aldric Talvalin had insisted, then why couldn’t he just wave that magic Dragonwand of his and make the bundles float out by themselves… ?

Even as he thought it, Dewan knew his notion was little more than nonsense. He had seen very little sorcery— although even that was more than enough—but it had made him aware that the Art Magic was as exact as any science. Certainly too precise to lift the weight off
his
back… ! He grunted, swore to himself as the unbalanced stuff he carried slipped still further to one side and hitched at it so ferociously that it continued to slip… this time down the other side.

“Wizard! Where’s the bloody boat, wizard?” Gemmel showed no sign of having heard him, which was hardly surprising; the wind from the sea pulled Dewan’s words right off his lips, tugged them to meaningless syllables and noise, then tried to push the fragments back down his throat.

And that was another thing—how the hell could any fog remain so solidly in place when there was such a wind to disperse it? Any natural fog, at least…

It brought a recollection of the fog which had blanketed the battlefield of Radmur Plain: a fog created and locked in place by this same slender, scholarly old man.

As if sensing the trend of his companion’s thoughts, Gemmel hesitated and half-turned with the shadow of a smile still crooking one corner of his mouth. “Oh, yes, Commander”—and although Dewan’s shout had been lost on the tumbling wind, the enchanter’s soft voice carried clearly and without strain—”I caused this fog as well. But note: it’s a mere disruption of sight, no more. So I can spare more energy to secure it. Much more…”

The explanation, if that was what it was, told Dewan ar Korentin little that he understood; only that he need have no worries about being exposed on an open beach half a mile from any shelter by some vagary of the weather. It didn’t reassure him; for his concern was not now so much with the possibility of betrayal, but with its consequences.

Mist or no mist, he still felt like some small black bug crossing a vast expanse of floor, with the same choked-back anticipation of a lethal swat coming out of nowhere. With one difference: he knew exactly where the swat would come from.

Dunacre…

His rank and position as Captain of the King’s Guard—his
late
rank, he reminded himself, for it was certain that he had left it behind along with everything else but his self-respect—had given him access to such military information as the disposition of Alba’s coastal defences; and while Dunacre was far from the newest of the south-eastern fortresses, it was by no means the weakest or most poorly manned. There were at least three wings of heavy horse stationed there—that much he knew for a certainty, because one of them had recently been stiffened by a training troop seconded from his own personal command, the Bodyguard Cavalry. And they were good. Very, very good.

Far too good for comfort in fact, especially when he was anonymously and illegally walking along a shoreline that was tailor-made for the kind of shattering Imperial style charge he had taught the Bodyguard to execute. And in the name of the High Headsman at Cerdor, “execute” was definitely the best word for it.

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
3.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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