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Authors: Peter Morwood

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BOOK: The Dragon Lord
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Gemmel laid Dewan gently athwart the stern of the boat; then he raised the sail, steadied the tiller and spoke the soft sibilants which summoned up an offshore breeze, and though he was tired, unutterably drained and wearied by fear and physical effort and mental strain, he did all in the same abstracted manner—automatically, without thought.

For his thoughts were elsewhere now. They were out
there
: across and beyond forty miles of gray water, a distance too far for even a suggestion of the Empire’s coast to shadow the horizon. All his thoughts, his hopes, his fears both real and imagined. Out in that far place. With the son who was not his son.

And he wondered if his son was safe.

Chapter Three
Fire in the Night

Outside was dark and cold; an autumn night already edged with the oncoming winter. A scimitar moon cut fitfully through weak places in the overlay of rain-swollen clouds.

Inside was almost as dark, but within the small anonymous tavern the night was distinctly warmer. Flame-lapped pine logs burned slowly in a hearth of black wrought iron. Sparks glowed and spat; the blue, smoky air was scented with a sharp tang of resin; nimble shadows danced among the rafters. From one corner of the common-room came the protracted minor chords of a three-stringed rebec—each note nasal, penetrating, cruel as loss.

The few patrons sat uncomfortably around low tables, drinking from plain pottery cups and thus convinced that they behaved with the elegant austerity just now fashionable in the Drusalan Empire. Several looked back and the rest forward to days where a certain degree of luxurious excess was—or would again be—more socially acceptable. Their quiet conversation was overlaid with a falsely carefree tone which made the unease beneath it all the more apparent; and the source of that unease was not difficult to find.

He was dressed severely, all in black; and he sat alone with his thoughts and a redware cup of cheap corn spirit, bent over and staring into the amber liquid as if it contained the secrets of infinity rather than the oblivion which he had sought since sundown.

Uncertain of strangers at the best of times—and these were not such times—even a friendlier people than the sullen few who sipped and murmured well away from him would have been deterred by his appearance. He needed a shave, the pallor of his face throwing both a five-day beard and the bruise-dark shadows under his eyes into sharp relief, and his shoulders were hunched almost to the point of deformity by a
coyac
, a sleeveless jerkin of dense black fur. It made him seem not entirely human.

The number of empty jugs strewn across his table told of how long and hard he had been drinking, and by rights he should have slumped onto the floor an hour ago. But he had not; the quick, economic movements which filled and refilled his cup were still improbably sure and precise, and his icy gray-green eyes remained unglazed. That, too, was not entirely human.

There was a sheathed longsword lying on the table amid the clutter, its hilt within easy reach and its unsubtle presence a blatant threat to peace. The innkeeper had wanted to take the weapon from him after the first two jugs had been drained far too quickly, but he had been warned off in a grotesque mixture of stilted high-mode Drusalan sweetened by gutter Jouvaine, both threaded with an accent that had nothing to do with either.

Silver—a great deal of silver—had changed hands immediately afterwards, as if the stranger repented of his hard words. He spent the Empire’s florins as if they had no value, and now was left alone to drink himself into a stupor since this had plainly been his intention all along—except that the stupor seemed as far away as ever.

Aldric Talvalin poured more spirit into his cup and gulped down half of the raw liquor with the wrenching swallow of someone taking a medicinal draught. It burned, making his nostrils flare and his eyes squeeze shut. Tears jewelled their corners, tears which were not born of mere maudlin drunkenness. Maybe tonight, if he drank enough, there would be no dreams.

Dreams. Memories. And within the dreams and memories, nightmares. Fear and fire and candle-light. Again they came, rising through the haze of alcohol which was trying to fog his conscious mind. It was an ill thing to jolt awake in the dark stillness of deep night, soaked with sweat and strangling in the sheets with the echoes of your own cry of terror in your ears. But it was worse by far to be awake already and to be jolted stone-cold sober.

Aldric sat as he had sat before, trembling all over, while the drink which should by now have laid him gratefully senseless on the floor became no more than an acid heat in his gullet. And still the dreams returned to haunt him.

Blood, and flame, and shrieking. Things that were, but are not: things that are, but should never be. Huge wings in a starlit sky. A tall tower stark against iron clouds, and a swirl of snow. Sobbing… Blue smoke streaming upwards, the incisive reek of heated metal and the sweet, sweet scent of roses.

Aldric dreaded his dreams, for they seemed always to presage only evil and bitter experience had proven the truth of that foreboding. His ringed left hand reached out to a crumpled thing on the table near Widowmaker’s lacquered scabbard. It shifted as his fingers touched it, making a small, sere crackle. Once more he could smell roses. He had plucked this blossom from between the withered talons of an ancient corpse three months ago, standing at the heart of a burial mound in the Deepwood of the Jevaiden plateau. Now the rose, too, was withered: dry and dead, its baleful brilliance had faded to a more natural hue and the once-unwholesome richness of its perfume was diluted by time to a fragrance which was almost pleasant…

Even though it was dead, the Alban thought as he cradled the desiccated flower in the palm of his hand. Or
because
it was dead?

As dead as Crisen Geruath.

As dead as his own honor.

Although he had already contrived to send a note to Rynert the King—a terse, enciphered message of success at Seghar, delivered by the master of an Elherran merchantman—the task he had been set was still incomplete. There remained the messages locked by sorcery within his skull: proofs, he had been told, to Lord General Goth and Prokrator Bruda of Alban support, and confidences which might sway those overlords whose fealty yet wavered between one side and the other. Except that his part in the deaths of two other overlords made any meeting with these powerful men merely an elaborate form of suicide. Aldric had few illusions about Imperial judicial process; in all likelihood he had already been sentenced for the “murders” of Lord Geruath and his son. No matter now that had things gone otherwise it would have been Geruath himself whose introduction would have made any meeting easy.

Aldric had made his own decision after Seghar; the brutalities and the casual wickedness in that rotting heap of masonry had sickened him at last. He no longer cared that his tenuous hold on Dunrath remained subject to Rynert’s whim, and had said as much. He was getting out of the Empire’s sphere of influence as quickly as he could.

While he still could…

He should have been aboard the Elherran ship. Before God, the rendezvous had been arranged for long enough. And indeed, he would have been had not the sheer chance of an early morning canter led him to the crest of the ridge which towered high above Kenbane Haven, the only place along several miles of coast from which he could have seen the bay beyond the harbor wall—and thus the Imperial battleram which had come scything out of the dawn mist like a patrolling shark.

Kenbane had been one of five points of departure agreed in secret with Rynert and with Dewan ar Korentin. Now he wondered who else was privy to that supposed secret, for surely the warship’s inopportune appearance was no coincidence? Even if it was, Aldric no longer cared. The threat had been enough.

But that had been almost two months past, near a Vreijek port many miles south-west of here. The passage of time, and the onset of the autumn gales, must surely have made even the Imperial fleet if not exactly careless, then at least a little less enthusiastic. He would see, when he tried again to leave. Tomorrow.

What profit in an enterprise, Lord King
, Aldric rehearsed silently for perhaps the hundredth time,
when (ill chance of completing it is already lost
? Rynert proba-bly had a hundred valid answers to that rhetorical question. Or the single answer which was all a king required.

A young man had entered the tavern without attracting anyone’s attention; indeed, had any noticed him at all, they might have been much impressed by the pains he took to avoid that notice. He was nondescript to a studied degree—dirty, tired, and with an air of boredom as though occupied by a repetitive and so-far-unrewarding task. The gaze with which he swept the common-room had more sleepiness in it than anything else. Until his eyes reached Aldric. And then the weary half-yawn which had begun to carve notches in the corners of his mouth stretched much, much further as it changed to a wide grin of self-congratulation.

The grin did not go unnoticed by the innkeeper at least, for he sidled up the counter to draw the young man’s drink and to wonder casually—in the fashion of innkeepers—just what was tonight’s cause for such obvious happiness, and did it mean a celebration?

“I think,” murmured the young man, “that I may just have come into some money.” He drank thoughtfully, savouring the fine vintage which right now he felt fully justified in ordering, and jerked with his chin towards the drunkard in black. “That one isn’t a local, is he?”

No more than you
, was what the innkeeper almost said aloud; but considering what this new arrival had just spent on a single bottle of imported wine, he thought better of it. And there had been something about the idly asked question which struck him as peculiar. Nothing he could pin down, but it had been there all the same. “Him, local? Not by a long ride in whatever direction you care to choose!”

“I thought not. You must have many travellers from the seaport coming in here to drink, eh?”

“No—too far for most, I fancy.”

“Indeed…” Another grin split the young man’s face. “Or too far to stagger back, maybe?”

The innkeeper laughed. “Something like that.” Then he moved away to serve another customer and left the inquisitive young man alone with his wine, quite missing the intent expression which had settled on the dusty but no longer bored features.

Left in peace, the young man set down his cup with its contents barely tasted and began an unobtrusive study of this foreigner who didn’t like to do his drinking in the port of Tuenafen. It had taken ten hours and forty taverns to reach this stage—that and a sizable outlay in undrunk drink. Now, however, the whole thing seemed as if it might be worth the effort. When the Vixen was pleased, she had definite ways of proving it.

The sketch she had shown him was a good one: detailed and probably most accurate. An excellent likeness of the man he was looking at. Not as alike as two peas in a pod, maybe, but close. Very, very close. Moreover he was in the right place, give or take the few miles to Tuenafen, and behaving—bar this unfathomable determination to get drunk—in the right way. It was enough at least to let the young man proceed as he had been instructed.

A beckoning finger summoned the innkeeper and brought him leaning confidentially over the counter, full of ill-disguised curiosity.
You can smell a juicy scandal in the offing, can’t you
, the young man thought, keeping contempt off his face with an effort.
And you can’t wait to hear all about it
.

“That foreigner”—he used the insulting Drusalan word
hlensyarl
—”is to stay here.” There was a flat power in his voice which had not been there before.

“What?”

“Keep him here. Don’t let him leave. I don’t care how you do it—just
do
it!”

“But that sword… I can’t!”

“I think you can.” The young man straightened his back, squared his shoulders and shot a sidelong glance at the innkeeper. “Because if he isn’t here when I get back…”

He didn’t bother to complete the sentence.

Far steadier on his feet than he had any right to be— and far clearer in his mind than he would have liked to be—Aldric settled his bill with the innkeeper. For one who had tried at first to eject him from the premises,[* *]and then a little later to confiscate his sword, the man now seemed strangely reluctant to let him go. He fumbled more than usual as he made change from the fistful of florins which Aldric had slapped onto the counter, and as an apparent apology of sorts pressed a gratis bottle of wine into the Alban’s hands.

Aldric turned it over and squinted at the letters etched on the green glass; then blinked twice, very fast, and tried again with the conviction that his eyes were tricking him. This “apology” was a bottle of sweet white Hauv-erne,
matherneil
, the Kingswine which changed hands in Alba—if it ever got there—for rising thirty marks a time. At first he said nothing, but with his free hand dug into the pouch at his belt and poured a shining, chiming stream of silver coins over the counter and on to the floor, no longer caring that
silver
was a mere courtesy tide where the Empire’s money was concerned. In economic matters as in all else, Tuenafen was a part of the Empire. Let the useless currency buy something here, if nowhere else.

“For everyone,” he said, a frown insinuating its notch between his brows as he concentrated on the slurring High Drusalan diphthongs; but the words he sought eventually fell into place. “Fill all the cups. And---” the bottle of Hauverne thumped onto the bar-top—”open this and bring two of yonder good glasses. One for me.” His eyes locked with the innkeeper’s as his left hand freed Widowmaker’s shoulder-belt, and the slithering noise as the
taiken
dropped to battle position at his hip was like the sound an adder makes moving through long grass. “And one for you.”

Whatever suspicions he might have entertained about the extravagant gift were silenced as his host first sipped appreciatively, then drank with every sign of enthusiasm and none at all of hesitation. Aldric smiled thinly and followed suit. The wine was remarkable; rich, fruity and as fragrant as honey. Its fumes rose to the Alban’s head as the harsh corn spirit had never done—perhaps, observed the analytical part of his mind, because one was being drunk in the hope of its effect while brooding on the need for that effect, while this Hauverne was being drunk for the sheer pleasure of drinking it. If there was more than one road to oblivion, he thought, then this was the one he would choose. If he could afford it.

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
4.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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