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Authors: Peter Morwood

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The Dragon Lord (7 page)

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
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The tavern doors slid open then, and stayed open while the cold, cold night flowed in. Heads turned and a voice was raised in protest—but it cut off short as armed men crossed the threshold. Six of them, wearing crest-coasts over light mail and with crossbows cradled capably in their hands. They fanned out to either side of the door with a crispness that bespoke drill and discipline.

Then stopped.

She glided into the common-room like an empress, wrapped in furs against the bitter air outside and with raindrops beaded on her high-piled auburn hair which flamed like rubies in the firelight. If the arrival of her guard—for such the soldiers were—had drawn a few eyes, then her own appearance summoned all the rest. Conversation ceased; the rebec’s thin music fell silent; everyone stared.

She was well worth staring at, and knew it; easily as tall as any man in the room, her willowy elegance gave unconscious grace to every movement. Nobody in the tavern had seen her before, nor was such foreknowledge necessary to realize what she was. Either the pampered daughter of some high and noble house, wilful enough to travel the Imperial roads alone. Or a courtesan of the highest rank.

The young man at her side provided a stark contrast to her finery, for he was nondescript to a studied degree, dirty, tired—and not entirely unfamiliar to the barkeep, whose tongue licked at lips which had gone far drier than his cup of wine would ever quench. The two men looked at each other; one plainly apprehensive, the other with an air of malicious satisfaction and a confidence which he wore like a cloak.

When the woman snapped her fingers the innkeeper jumped despite himself, then emerged from behind his counter to bow judiciously low. Still unsure of her station, he preferred to treat her as high-born rather than make a dangerously insulting error. And there were the half-dozen troopers of her escort to reinforce his choice.

“You have rooms here.” The fox-haired lady spoke even that simple fact in a smoky contralto purr. “I wish to rest here. See to it.”

If the innkeeper was startled by her decision to grace his establishment—which though clean enough, was certainly a class or more below where she would normally have chosen to stay—he concealed it well. Such an occurrence was rare, but not unheard-of; on any road there were those travellers who despite riches and importance— or maybe because of them—preferred for various reasons not to advertise the fact. His inn was only one amongst many which maintained two or three fine staterooms in anticipation of the day when Wealth might step through the door. As it had plainly done tonight.

It was not any innkeeper’s place to wonder the whys and wherefores of it all, merely to make from it everything he could. Bowing lower than ever, the man went about his business buried in calculation—which had less to do with setting a fair price than with how much he could safely overcharge.

The lady and her companion made private conversation for a moment, mouth to ear; then the young man nodded, smiled slightly and went out, taking the soldiers with him to the unspoken but obvious relief of the entire tavern. Aldric watched them go, but found his gaze tending to slide back towards their mistress.

Mistress
. His mind toyed caressingly with the word as he sipped wine and rolled the soft, sweet liquid over with his tongue.
Sweet
. The adjective in his native Alban— and the thought in his head—had nothing much to do with wine at all.

Granted, she was totally inaccessible. Granted, he had a failing for a pretty face and an attractive figure. Granted, that same failing had tripped him up more than once. And granted, finally, he was heading out of Tuenafen in the morning.

But he too could rest here for the night.

In the beginning there was fire, and a dream of fire; a dream of gazing down and down into the liquid seething of the world’s hot secret heart; a dream of rumbling, almost subaudible sound and a dream of the smell of burning, incongruously slashed by a sense of unbelievable blue-white cold.

The great Cavern on the Island of Techaur, and a thing of power exchanged for his given Word. Granted for a promise made to… Made to…

Speak and say
, kailin
Talvalin. Name my name
.

“Ymareth!” Aldric shouted the name aloud in his troubled sleep and so awoke, eyelids snapping back so that he stared straight up towards the darkness of the ceiling. Or at where the darkness should have been, for the ceiling was not dark any more. Light moved among the beams of rough-cut timber and it was not the light of dawn. Dawn did not flicker so; it did not roar beyond the shutters so; and it was not that awesome, awful amber.

Then there was awareness and full awakening, and the knowledge that this time his dream was real.

Aldric flung back the quilt from the narrow bed, rolling sideways to plant both feet square together on the floor—then clutched wildly at the wall as the whole room continued to roll around him. For just an instant, a few heartbeats, for the second which it took his naked skin to film itself in icy sweat, everything plunged sideways and only his fingernails gouging painfully into the plaster kept him from pitching onto his face.

There was a sourness in his throat, a queasiness in his belly and a pounding headache behind his eyes. He knew only too well what had caused
them
—but the bitter stink of fire, and the smoke which was making him cough? Steadying himself with an effort, Aldric crossed the room and flung the shuttered window open.

Heat slapped like a physical blow across his face and chest, the bellow of a fire out of control assaulted his ears—and mingled with that bellow was the squealing of terrified horses. To any ears it was a ghastly noise, but to an Alban horse-lord it was infinitely worse than that. “Lyard!” he gasped in horror, staring with wide, bloodshot eyes towards the stables where a solitary ribbon of flame was fluttering up its wall, a little insignificant thing no more than a handspan wide.

But the stable wall was wood—and the stable roof was thatch.

The Alban wasn’t sure afterwards just how he managed to scramble into his clothes so fast; certainly there were straps and laces left undone, secured too loosely or too tight, but shirt and boots and breeches were all in place before the little flame had grown much larger. He thrust his
tsepan
dirk into his belt, wincing as its pommel nudged his nauseated stomach, then scooped up Widowmaker and made for the swiftest exit he could see. It happened to be the open window.

Betrayed by his wobbly legs, Aldric went over when he landed and rolled like a shot rabbit while dirk and longsword each went in different directions. Just after the bone-jarring impact came the nasty realization that in his present state he was as likely as not to have broken his neck. There was no time even to shrug.

A swift glance told him what had probably happened: the flames were billowing from an incandescent framework where the tavern’s kitchens had once stood, and even in the instant that his eyes were on them they bridged the gap between courtyard and tavern proper. Thatch exploded like tinder, sparks and smoke filled the air, stinging and choking; a dense gray cloud rolled across his line of sight and something unseen collapsed with a tearing crash.

Where in damnation’s bloody name is everyone
? He saw them, someone, anyone, black silhouettes in the firelight, running about aimlessly or flinging meagre buckets of water. Some, more practical, were carrying their belongings clear of the doomed building.

No more time to watch.

Get the horses out!

All
of them—can’t let them burn.

Why won’t it rain that deluge it’s been promising all day?

The thoughts tumbled through Aldric’s confused brain even as he ran towards the stable-block, staring apprehensively at that ribbon of flame which—in the few long strides which took him to the door—had expanded to a flickering yellow scarf tipped and trimmed with dark smoke. Confused or not, they were the last thoughts of any coherence he was to have for a long, long time.

The stables were built to a familiar Imperial pattern: tall sliding doors at either end of a broad, paved walkway which was flanked on each side by cedar-faced loose-boxes strewn with deep, comfortable—and fiercely inflammable—straw. The animals were normally free to move about in these; but tonight of all nights, someone had secured their headstalls to the iron holding-rings in the rear wall of each box. A spasm of anger shot through Aldric at this evidence of some groom’s thoughtlessness; not so much because of the fire, and because his own task was immediately more difficult than simply flinging all the doors wide open, but for the simple reason that— tied up all night—none of the horses could reach food or water until someone came to release them.

It was simple; simply nasty. And had he the time, the “someone” responsible would be rooted out and made to dance for his neglect. Except that time was in very short supply.

Lyard knew his master and it was just as well. The Andarran’s rolling eyes showed little but white, and he was streaked with the sweat of his terror and the foam from where he had champed uselessly at his halter; but he still allowed Aldric to lead him out at a steady pace, even though the flames of his own private hell skipped eagerly only a plank’s thickness from his heels. Another minute, though. Another minute, and the big stallion would have pulped anybody in his path.

The pack-pony was next; Aldric flung the saddle-frame and then the boxes which contained his armor any whichway across the sumpter gelding’s neck, then jerked aside hastily as it barged after Lyard directly as it was loosed. As it always followed Lyard—he coughed as smoke throttled what might have been wry laughter— but a damn sight more willingly than usual!

It was the other horses which were the problem, even though they weren’t highly-strung, battle-schooled and consequently dangerous bloodstock like his Andarran courser, just a matched pair of carriage ponies and half-a-dozen riding hacks. But they were unfamiliar, and therefore risky. Scared, too; the laidback ears and bulging eyes would have told anyone that, even were they deaf to the piteous noises of fright. But it was just fright—not pain. Not yet.

Not ever, if he could help it!

The thatched roof caught as if hit by an incendiary just as Aldric went into one of the horses’ stalls—and in that same second he slammed backwards and then down to the floor as if hit by a mace. It was close enough to the truth: the horse had lashed out in a paroxysm of fear and its iron-shod hoof had clipped his thigh, stunning the big muscle and tearing his heavy leather riding-breeches like paper. Another inch and it would have ripped flesh from bone and crippled him.

Muttering something under his breath, Aldric clambered back to his feet and cuffed at hindquarters which swung round to pin him against the partition. The horse flinched away—then thumped back, and stars inside his head joined the sparks already floating through the air.

Something—a dark outline against the fireglow—swam into view. No,
someone
. Aldric shook glowing motes from his eyes and the world snapped back into focus. It… he… was a man, big and broad-shouldered. One of the lady’s escort? The man shouted something, but roaring flames made nonsense of the words.

“Get them out!” the Alban mouthed at him, enhancing his unheard words with mime, then returned his attention to the plunging horse. Its frantically jerking head had drawn the headstall’s knot far tighter than human fingers could hope to loose, but—a knife appeared in his hand from the scabbard down one boot—there were other ways than untying…

No point now in trying to quiet the beast; it had gone beyond the stage where gentle words would have any effect. All he wanted now was to free the ropes which tied each horse—they would make their own way out faster than he could—and then get clear himself before the roof came in.

As if stimulated by his thought, the blazing thatch overhead creaked ominously and seemed to settle on its rafters while a drizzle of sparks percolated through the[* *]tight-packed reeds and straw. Aldric spared a single instant to glance up, then sliced his blade across the braided halter just as the horse threw all its weight into a final, desperate heave. The hemp went taut as wire, humming with strain, and the first touch of the razor-whetted knife jumped and skittered across its fibres. Then the edge bit home and it parted with a deep sound like the strings of a great-bass rebec.

The horse floundered back on its haunches as the rope let go, then wheeled to bolt headlong from the stable. 

And Aldric sat down sharply, yelping with pained surprise as blood welled from the scar beneath his right eye, three years healed but laid open like an hour-old cut by the whiplash strike of the severed rope. He barely noticed the brief sting at the nape of his neck which might have been a spark. But was not.

As he darted from stall to stall, severing ropes and dodging horses as if taking part in some crazy rustic dance, he could hear the roof groan again as it settled further. Chunks of its structure fell away and the drizzle of sparks became a deluge, a torrent of burning fragments pouring onto the floor. A floor that, except for the paved walkway, was knee-deep in loose, dry straw. It ignited with the roar of a hungry animal and filled the confines of the world with fury. Heat washed over Aldric as he stumbled from the last stall on that side and into the main aisle of the stable, almost trampled as other horses—all the remaining horses—galloped past him on the way to open air and safety, and his mouth stretched into a tight grin. The trooper, if such he was, had been busy.

There was unknowing irony in the way that thought coincided with a rub at the sore spot on his neck—a rub which dislodged the tiny dart imbedded there.

He could see no trace of the man: too wise to linger in this incinerator, most likely. Aldric knew he would be wise to follow suit, for worms of smoke were already writhing from the wooden walls as they heated towards flashpoint, and the doorposts were already on fire. At each end of the building. The only other occasion where he had seen anything burn like this, it had been net ablaze deliberately.

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
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