Read The Dragon Lord Online

Authors: Peter Morwood

Tags: #Fantasy

The Dragon Lord (4 page)

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
7.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

And then they stopped. One horse snorted; another stamped, scraping at the sand with one forehoof as its head nodded up and down, up and down like a mechanical toy until the rider shortened his reins. There was silence now; all but the ever-present wind.

“Captain ar Korentin?” That was the officer again—a light, youthful voice contrasting sharply with his ominous appearance. A boy’s voice. The entire troop was probably composed of such youngsters; men who had never trained under him, never served under him, never heard of him except as a name—and a foreigner’s name at that—in distant Cerdor.

Very clever—and very wise, for if men of his own command had been ordered to take him Dewan knew that they would have disobeyed. Theirs was the old, old loyalty which King Rynert had so arrogantly flouted in his dealings first with Aldric Talvalin and now with Dewan himself; a loyalty based on the ancient Honor-Codes, born of obligations and duties between a lord and his retainers, and something which Dewan himself respected through nothing more than common courtesy.

“Captain ar Korentin, you must lay down your weapons!” The lad was trying hard to be officious, without much success. “You must come with us!”

“I must do
nothing
!” Dewan’s parade-ground bellow slapped out across the beach, and he had the small satisfaction of seeing two troopers jump in their saddles with startled jerks so pronounced that even at this distance they were visible. “What I do is my own affair—and by the king’s own leave!” That shook them even more. “And what I do now is no affair of yours!”

“You shouldn’t have said that,” muttered Gemmel at his back.

Dewan glared at the wizard, then at the soldiers, and clamped down on his anger far, far too late. Just because this officer was young didn’t mean he was a fool as well. Such words out of his quarry’s own mouth were a gift— and one which was put to immediate use.

“But it is, Captain; it is.” The voice seemed older now, harder and more sure of itself. “You are trying to leave this country in a most suspicious manner—that
is
my concern!” His sword gestured and the troop moved forward a little, closing knee-to-knee before halting for what Dewan knew would be the last time. The officer rose in his stirrups. “You-will-come-with-us-now!”

Gemmel laid a restraining hand on Dewan’s shoulder and stepped in front of him to plant the Dragonwand upright in the sand. It was an action oddly reminiscent of the way in which an archer might drive home a palisade stake, and for the same reason—as a defence against cavalry. But Gemmel was no bowman and the reptilian spellstave was much more than sharpened wood.

“What of me?” the old man demanded, and though he did not shout Dewan knew from his own experience that the soldiers would hear him well enough. “I am Gemmel Errekren,” the wizard said. A small fidgeting ran down the line of horsemen. “Do I not warrant a threat or two?”

There was no response. Either the troopers had not been told about Gemmel and were at a loss—or else they knew as much of his reputation as any other man in Alba. And that was sufficient to make anyone fall silent.

“Hear me well, for I will say this only once.” A bleak serenity was lacing Gemmel’s words as he closed the fingers of his left hand around the Dragonwand, just below the carven firedrake’s head. Dewan felt a single pulse of power well out of the adamantine talisman, a pulse that clad his entire body in gooseflesh. There was a sonorous humming in the air and the sorcerer’s hard voice sliced through it like a blade. “You are all meddling with forces which you cannot comprehend. And you are meddling with me. And I am subject to the human failing of impatience. So be warned.
Leave me alone
!”

His clenched fingers snapped open like the talons of a hawk and unleashed a great dry crack of thunder which sent all eight horses bucking and plunging madly across the beach. Two of the riders were unseated and slammed against the wet, unyielding sand inside all the dragging weight of their armor. Only one got up again.

The remaining six wrenched their steeds back under control more by brute force than any skill; then, staring and confused as the animals they rode, they huddled into a poor copy of their original formation and sat quite still. The officer, one of the two fallen men, took an unsteady pace forward and tried to support himself with his sword—as best he could, for its unsheathed blade sank easily into the sand. His plumed helmet had been lost, and without it he was indeed the boy that Dewan had suspected—beardless rather than shaven, fair both of hair and of complexion. But now the fresh pink of his cheeks was darkened by a flush of rage and his voice held all the shrill spite of youth. “Ride over them!” he screamed. “Cut them down! Kill! Kill!
Kill
... !”

Whilst the soldiers hung back uneasily, Gemmel raked them with a dispassionate stare that ended disdainfully on the raving officer. Then he pulled the Dragonwand out of the beach as a man might draw a sword. “Oh, thou fool,” he murmured. “Watch, and learn, and be wise.”

Gripped in both the old enchanter’s hands, the spell-stave reared up to poise over his head like an executioner’s blade. The wind from the sea died to a moan and thence to silence as if the world held its breath. And perhaps it did.


Ykraith
,” invited Gemmel softly in the stillness, “
abath arhan
.”

And the air went cold…

Dewan ar Korentin felt a shudder rack him as midwinter rigor bit with icy teeth at the exposed flesh of face and hand; he shuddered again—though not this time with the cold—as the remnants of fog turned pure white and tumbled with a tiny crystal tinkling to coat the beach with frost. Underfoot the sand crackled with the crisp noise of rimed grass on a freezing night, and puddles of sea-water snapped like sheets of glass beneath his weight. Breath hung like smoke on the unmoving, bitter air, then sifted down like snow to join the frozen fog.


Ykraith, devhar ecchud
,” said Gemmel; the words almost visible in the milky exhalation from his bearded lips.

They were whipped into nothingness by a sourceless gale which scoured the long beach clean of frost and piled the million, million sparkling motes high above the sorcerer in a vast inverted cone whose apex centered on the upraised Dragonwand. It was a wind to cut the breath from a man’s lungs, a wind to flog clouds helplessly across the sky or raise a ship-killing storm. It was a wind which all but tore Dewan off his feet.

It was a wind which had been given birth by the jolt of energy unleashed by the spellstave, a jolt which sent a solitary ripple scudding out across the surface of the sea far faster than any arrow from a bow.

And yet it was a wind which scarcely ruffled Gemmel’s beard.

The island was an uninviting place. Except for one small inlet and an even smaller beach, it rose sheer out of the ocean, rimmed by ragged talons of rock that tore wounds of white surf in the dark and swirling water. It did not encourage visitors; and nothing had disturbed its brooding solitude for months now, save the whisper—or the storm-driven shriek—of wind through the mantle of vegetation that concealed whatever dwelt upon it from the gaze of casually prying eyes. Not that there had been any such for a long time; no ship had even come close. Until now.

She was a deep-sea patrol vessel of the Second Fleet and she was hunting pirates in the disputed waters of the Thousand Islands group, south and west of Alba. The
Ethailen Myl
, although that term was neither recognised by the Drusalan Empire nor used on their charts. And pirates whose attacks, directed singlemindedly against the Imperial convoys, suggested rather more than just a taste for the most profitable victims afloat. It suggested that they might be more than simply pirates after all.

For all her bulk, the warship came dipping delicately as a swan around the headland and into the shelter of the island’s solitary cove. As her crew made ready to drop anchor and to lower a boat for closer investigation—or just to replenish the water-barrels—her commander up by the stern batteries was studying everything most intently through a long-glass. So intently that when the deck lifted beneath his feet, he did not look to see the cause.

A ripple crossed the flat surface of the bay; its movement, a wrinkle on the oily calm of the water, was that of a current, or a breeze, or something monstrous moving rapidly beneath the surface. But though it was none of these things—for the water was sheltered and still, because the wind was from the south, and there was plainly nothing in the deeps alongside—yet it was in very truth something monstrous. And it swept towards the island far, far faster than any arrow from a bow…

So fast, indeed, that few afterwards could attest to having seen its passage through the sea, though there were many who could swear to seeing all that followed. It struck the beach and crossed it with a hiss of disturbed sand and gravel which many heard aboard the warship, even above the sounds and distractions of shipboard activity; and that crisp rustling of unexpected noise where no noise should have been drew the eyes of those on deck who should have been about their own affairs.

So it was that many saw the trees wave madly with a movement that, for all it happened with great force and at blinding speed, exactly matched the passage of a harvest wind across a field of ripened wheat; saw the shiver of the trees sweep up and up until it was no more than a tremor crossing the scrubby grass on the island’s solitary peak; and saw the unexplained disturbance sink into solid rock as a wave sinks into sand.

Then there was time for gossip, time for speculation, time for such a falling-off in normal duties that the captain himself stalked to the rail of his quarter-deck and barked his crew back to work. But there was no time for that work to resume. No time for anything at all—

—Before the island of Techaur blew up… !

It was a very little detonation, as such things were reckoned by those who survived them. Nothing like the blast—in living memory—which had flung a dozen small islands off the sea-bed near the coast of Valhol. But then the gods—or Heaven, or most appropriately the Father of Fires, depending on one’s beliefs—had never really finished making Valhol…

This, though, was another matter altogether.

A shock-wave of concussion slapped out across the bay, bringing with it shattered trees, lumps of red-hot rock and a steaming spray of gravel from the beach. The warship reeled and lost part of her rigging, but because—for various reasons—she had not been secured at anchor, she was able to ride out both the blast and the vicious twelve-foot wall of water running in its wake.

The island had lost maybe a hundred feet of height; most of that hundred feet was either smacking into the sea and raising columns of white water like good practice from a shore battery, or was still rolling skywards amid the dome-topped mushroom cloud of smoke and dust which reared above the abruptly-truncated mountain.

But it was the fire which flared around the abbreviated peak which most disturbed the warship’s captain and was most instrumental in his decision to put several clear miles of water between himself, his ship and this place. A decision to leave it to the pirates, or the Albans, or the Elherrans—or anybody mad enough to want it. Because whatever else it was, this fire was not that of a natural volcano; one of his crewmen, who had seen Val-hol’s
Hlavastjaar
—that great rip in the world aptly named Hell’s Gullet—had come babbling to him about the wrong way that this mountain was burning.

As if, the captain had wondered privately, there ever was a right way for stone to blaze like tinder.

But he could see exactly what the sailor meant: there was no thick spewing of honey-viscid rock, nor—save for the first explosion—any spray of ash and cinders. There was only that single intermittent jet of flame, so hot and white that it approached a shade of blue and so bright that it hurt the eyes even at this distance. He was not so foolish as to use his long-glass, but even unaided vision could see how the narrow flame sliced at the remnant of the mountain like a knife in tender beef. No, the captain corrected himself, like nothing so crude; this cut like the blade of a skilled surgeon, shearing with such precision that there might almost have been a mind directing it.

That was what frightened him most of all. The captain was a brave man—he would not have been commanding this police mission otherwise—but he truly did not want to meet whatever possessed that mind, and controlled that white fire.

For just a moment it was as if the sun had descended from the sky to poise in glory atop the ruined mountain of Techaur, and every man aboard the warship heard the sound which accompanied that glare of splendour. It was not the flat reverberation of another blast, nor was it the rumbling of falling rock.

It was a roar such as could only have been born in some colossal throat…

No orders were given by the captain or his under-officers; none were necessary. But someone flung the ship’s helm hard over, heedless of the submerged reefs nearby, and with that strong southerly wind still tugging at her sails the patrol vessel reacted like a scalded cat, heeling about with foam creaming up from her long ram as she accelerated towards the open sea on no particular course except out and away from Techaur.

And from whatever being roared and flamed and dwelt there.

The plume of frost roiled and twisted as though imbued with some eerie life of its own, and a wan light glimmered deep within it so that each writhing contour was backed by a chasm of shadow; black rifts in reality where anything might lurk unseen. Strange shapes formed and faded in its turbulent depths, flitting in and out of the darkness like bats half-glimpsed at dusk.

There was no sound now from the soldiers; even their officer had ceased shouting. He—all of them—gaped wide-eyed at the fugitives they had been sent to capture or to kill. A simple mission that was simple no longer. There was not a man of the patrol who did not plainly wish himself elsewhere.

The crystals of fog constricted more closely together, forming the curves and angles of a geometry that had no place this side of madness. Even to look at it was to court vertigo and nausea. A harsh grin was etched into Gemmel’s face as he used years of study to construct such nightmares as would make sleepers fear the night.

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
7.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Consumption by Kevin Patterson
Tiger Boots by Joe O'Brien
Dana Marton by 72 Hours (html)
Getaway - SF7 by Meagher, Susan X
The Devil's Looking-Glass by Mark Chadbourn
More: A Novel by Hakan Günday
The Good Provider by Debra Salonen
Magick Marked (The DarqRealm Series) by Baughman, Chauntelle
(2003) Overtaken by Alexei Sayle