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Authors: Peter Morwood

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The Dragon Lord (5 page)

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
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There was a thin, doleful note threading down the wind, a monotonous reedy piping like a dirge played on a solitary flute, and as if the whining melody had summoned them, things moved in the cloud. Amorphous obscenities squirmed slowly in a tangle of serpentine limbs, unclean creatures with a shocking suggestiveness in their grossly deformed outlines. Dull yellow eyes glared down at King Rynert’s troopers with heartstopping malevolence and a perverse lust that went far beyond mere hunger after flesh and blood.

A moment more of this, thought Dewan ar Korentin queasily, and they must break. Or
I
will. His stomach was churning, sending sour bile burning up a throat that was already clogged and overcrowded by the beating of his heart, and he was so centered on his own misery that he did not see the ripple of disturbed water streak up out of the southern ocean and lift clear of the sea with a quick spume of spray that whirled up to join the writhing horrors in the air.

And without warning—certainly without any bidding from Gemmel—all movement ceased. The cloud hung monstrous and immobile over its creator’s head for just an instant before contracting in a single spasm to a shape that was unmistakable. Reason and logic insisted that this too was an illusion conjured out of frozen water— but neither reason nor logic had a place here, not from the instant that ar Korentin glanced sideways and saw the look on Gemmel’s face change.

For a single beat he caught the remnants of the wizard’s grin, mixed with an air of confusion that was almost puzzlement. Then that had gone. And only the twist of naked fear remained.

“Lady Mother Tesh… !” Dewan unconsciously blessed himself at lips and heart. His soft exclamation had been no oath, but a sincere prayer for protection in this moment when all the defences of his scepticism had been shattered and the very structure of his mind was reeling under a shock that left him sick and giddy.

No matter now that he had seen something of this sort before, even in the coolly unquestioning company of Aldric Talvalin; still Dewan couldn’t comprehend how something so huge could remain airborne. Its flight, and[* *]indeed its very presence here, made nonsense of everything he had ever been told.

Not that anyone had deigned to tell him much about dragons…

Rearing back its awesome spined and crested head, the icedrake roared—in challenge, maybe, or in scorn of the little scraps of humankind who cowered beneath the shadow of its wings—and the sound that it made was beyond imagination. Impossibly bass, unbelievably piercing, it was a noise like the rending of sheet steel and a music like the harmony of choirs, a cry of incalculable strength and majesty that made the air tingle and the earth shake.

It was power given a voice.

But from the terror stamped deep into Gemmel’s features, that power was not his to command.

Yet as the dragon’s silvery head swung down and around to regard him with great calm eyes that were the translucent blue of glacier ice, the wizard flung both arms wide in a greeting that was almost a salute. Gripped near its spike butt by his right hand, Ykraith the Dragonwand swept an arc through the cold, clear air and left a trail of pearly vapor in its wake. The stuff hung like smoke for a moment before sifting softly as snow onto the beach.

For a man so plainly frightened, Gemmel carried himself well and his studied arrogance betrayed nothing; only Dewan was close enough to read the truth in the sorcerer’s dilated eyes. A sweat of exertion which had filmed his skin was frozen now into a cracked mask; each hair of his beard was as stiff as wire and his skin was crusted and crumbling like the time-fretted visage of an antique sculpture. If any vestige of his grin remained, it was now no more than the rictus born of hidden fear, and when he leaned on the Dragonwand it was the action of an old, old man, with an ordinary walking-stick. For Gemmel looked
ancient
.

And then he seemed to recover himself, straightening his back with a heave as though throwing off some ponderous weight. The semblance of extreme age faded and was gone as if it had never been, and once more Gemmel Errekren assumed the aura of an enchanter at the peak of his powers. Watching, Dewan wondered how much of that was real and how much just another illusion.

The icedrake hung above them on barely moving wings, gazing with huge patience at the small creatures whose efforts had called it into being and waiting for their reasons. The few seconds it had filled the sky seemed hour-long.

“Time stops,” said Gemmel hoarsely, “as it stands still.”

The enigmatic words meant nothing to Dewan, creating no answers but only questions. “What will—?” he tried to ask, but was hushed by a peremptory flick of the sorcerer’s finger.

“Peace. Be silent. Be still.” As if knowing he would be obeyed, Gemmel turned from the Vreijek and glanced towards the watching soldiers—fascinated like small birds before a snake. He raised Ykraith two-handed, the spellstave’s dragon tip pointing towards the leisurely hovering icedrake. Its chill, remote eyes blinked once and it seemed to listen as the wizard spoke again, this time in a language which was neither Alban nor any of the Imperial dialects even though it had audible affinities with them all. “
Sh’ma, trahanayr
,” he intoned. “
Y’shva pestreyhar

y’men vayh’t r’hann arhlaeth
...”

It was a strange tongue, jarring and glottal, somehow incomplete and yet somehow familiar, and with it Dewan guessed that the sorcerer was trying to assert his mastery over the summoning. Yes, trying, for by the tremor in Gemmel’s voice he was still far from certain of success. Staring up at the great, graceful being, ar Korentin wondered apprehensively what its response would be—and even, in a dark and secret corner of his mind, whether an adverse reaction would hurt.

The thing which punched wetly between the bones of his left forearm did not hurt. Not for the age-long second after it struck home.
Time stops
...

But then it felt like the icy anguish of a razor.

Dewan flinched as it hit, clapping one hand to the wound as if that would do any good. His blood felt very hot as it washed over spell-chilled skin, and though he had been wounded many, many times before he still felt sick. Yet there was more offended outrage than anything else in his mumbled protest to an uncaring world: “But I was
sure
they didn’t carry bows…” Then he looked down, and saw the stub-shaft of the small steel dart, and knew he had been both right—and very stupid.

None of the troopers had had a bowcase amongst his gear. But they were Alban horse-soldiers and the paired
telekin
holstered either side of the high pommels were as much a part of military saddle-furniture as the double girths. It was a fact—one so obvious that only a foreigner, and one preoccupied with other matters at that, could be excused for the oversight. But Dewan’s disgusted oath did not excuse himself, neither for forgetting about the Alban
telek
nor for failing to watch the youngster who commanded this patrol. Even before his shock-blurred gaze had focused on the missile’s point of origin, he knew which of the men had shot at him. There was really only one candidate.

As if in confirmation, the young officer knelt on one knee and racked another dart from his spring-gun’s magazine. The hard
click-click
of reloading carried clearly in the still, cold air. This time the weapon’s stock was gripped in both his outstretched hands and he was squinting along it with one eye while the other squeezed shut in a demonic wink of aim. There was killing on his boy’s face.

The
telek
steadied, unwavering now, and Dewan stared into its black bore for a time that seemed as long as the years of a man’s life. Time enough to live—and time enough to die.

Time stops
, he thought, and closed his eyes.

Preoccupied with his magic and with fighting his own fears, Gemmel had not seen the shooting. But he had heard that sound which is unlike any other—the meaty slap of sharpened metal piercing flesh. In that same long, long time which in real-time was less than half a second, he turned—registering another somehow significant double click even as he moved—and he
saw
.

Saw the levelled
telek
and the spurting wound, saw Dewan ar Korentin trying vainly to hold his own arm together, and saw not these things but another, older image. Not an injured companion, but a tableau which had haunted his most secret dreams for years. A sequence of inexorable events whose grim ending he was for ever helpless to avert. The inevitable conclusion which had taken away his son.

Gemmel saw, and knew, and ceased to care about himself. “
Trahan-ayr
!” he screamed, and above him the great white-armored wedge that was the dragon’s head moved fractionally, expectantly, its eyes slitting like a cat’s. “
Tchu da sh’vakh! TAII-CHAI”

And the power which terror said was not his to command obeyed him.

The icedrake’s jaws yawned wide, a frigid blue-white cavern lined with ragged icicles, and it sent forth a smoky silver blast of unimaginable cold. A seagull rash enough to fly too close tumbled from the freezing air and shattered like a bird of blown glass when it struck the beach: Yet the dragon’s blast was itself silent as midwinter. No storm, no blizzard, no howling rush of wind; only the faint brittle sounds of icy stillness which told of an end to warmth and life.

King Rynert’s cavalry went down like wheat before a new-honed scythe, men and horses together in one heap. There was not even the clatter of their gear, for by the time they hit the ground all had been sheathed and muted by an inch thick crust of snow.

Nothing escaped—except the slender object which whirred like a wasp as it flicked clear of the settling blanket of frost…

Dewan uttered a small noise like a cough. His mouth opened to make the sound and remained open as one hand tried to touch his chest. Then he toppled backwards like a felled tree and did not move again.

Without any further word or sign from Gemmel, it was over. The sky above the wizard’s head was abruptly empty once more and the slowly warming air was as clean and clear as polished crystal. The soldiers and their mounts lay where they had fallen, moving sluggishly like sleepers in the grip of dreams. Gemmel spared them barely a glance; his concern was all for Dewan.

The Vreijek sprawled face-upwards, his spine bent at[* *]an ugly angle by the bundle strapped to his back, his half-hooded eyes neither open nor truly shut. A ribbon of blood crawled from the corner of his mouth and dripped to the sand behind his head, and when Gemmel ripped open his tunic there was a mangled welt over his breastbone where the last
telek
dart had driven home. The wizard scooped it up and found the missile had been bloated three times as thick as normal by the layered ice which caked it, and its needle point was no more than a rounded stub of frosted metal.

But it had still hit Dewan like a hammer right above the heart, and there was a bluish tinge about the Vreijek’s slack lips which Gemmel disliked most intensely. Ar Korentin was in the prime of his life, a strong, fit man—surely cumulative shock had not brought on…

Even as the thought formed, Gemmel was fumbling for a pulse with hands made clumsy by the cold which he himself had created, and when at last he found one he swore, viciously and with desperation; its fluttering was more a nervous tic than a pulse, too fast and totally irregular. Even as his fingers pressed down to confirm its presence the beat faltered, returned, faltered again once, twice…

And stopped.

No more blood dribbled from Dewan’s mouth. The trickle of fluids from his torn arm ceased. He no longer breathed.

He no longer lived…

Gemmel’s knuckles blanched as his grip tightened on the Dragonwand’s adamantine surface; but he had learned during the past few terrible minutes that he could no longer trust the talisman to do his bidding. Its powers had passed beyond his control—and he suspected to his own great secret shame that he knew the reason why.

Ykraith dropped with an unheeded thud as his hand opened, and when it closed again it was to form a clenched fist which with carefully-judged force slammed squarely against Dewan’s chest. Gemmel struck twice, then gripped his own wrist and began a rhythmic pressure with the heel of the free hand that was almost enough to break the bone beneath it. Almost, but not quite.

Push—push—push; fist, then pressure, then fist, then the firm steady pressure which tried to persuade Dewan’s heart to beat again for itself. Again, and again— a hard task for two people, it was well-nigh impossible for one alone. Gemmel was panting now, breathless and sweaty with exertion and with the fear born of his own increasing despair.

Suddenly the bruised and battered rib-cage expanded with a convulsive jerk as Dewan’s lungs wrenched in a whooping gasp of air. Gemmel felt the movement under his hands, and his fingertips sensed the drumming of a renewed heartbeat which pounded almost loudly enough to hear.

Ar Korentin began to breathe, and bleed, and live again.

The old enchanter, now feeling truly old, sat back on his heels and watched while his own heart-rate slowed and the sweat cooled on his trembling limbs. A little smile stretched his thin mouth thinner still as he realized that even without the Dragonwand, he had performed magic of a sort after all. Necromancy. Restoring the dead to life.

“I think,” he whispered to nobody at all, “that makes us even.”

After a short while he straightened, easing the kinks out of his spine, and cast a wary glance towards the other bodies which littered the beach. No worries there; they would be a quarter-hour or more just remembering how to use their legs. He squatted and slid the Dragonwand into the back of his belt, silently reminding himself for perhaps the hundredth time to buy or make the spell-stave some kind of shoulder-strap; then hunkered lower still and lifted ar Korentin from the ground.

There was no visible expenditure of effort now: only a smooth surge of strength that seemed somehow more than human. He cradled the big man’s limp body in both arms as he might a child; as he had once carried his dead son; as he had once carried the young Alban warlord who was now his son. His own, most honorable son.

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
6.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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