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Authors: Peter Morwood

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The Dragon Lord (8 page)

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
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His thought led nowhere; with this much straw about, no wonder the fire had spread so fast. But even so, the tavern wasn’t full of straw.

That too meant nothing; it drifted across the surface of his mind even as he tucked his head down and sprinted for the nearest doorway. His legs were unsteady beneath him and once-solid objects were shimmering in the haze of hot light and smoke. Then all concerns and idle notions were swallowed in the vast rending as the stable caved in on itself. And on him!

The surge of heat made his senses swim as it consumed what little air remained, and a searing gale tugged at his hair as it funnelled through the blazing doorway; a doorway that receded down an endless corridor of fire even as he ran vainly towards it. He was conscious of the rush of movement at his back as something came scything down like a headsman’s sword—

—heard the impact as it smashed between his shoulders like a giant’s fist—

—saw the sparks exploding like a halo around his head—

Too late! You left it too
...

And that was all.

“How did you find him in Tuenafen?” The man in scarlet-lacquered armor planted both his hands palm-downwards on the desk and leaned forward, his spade beard jutting pugnaciously. “How did you know?”

“I told you.” Pinched between finger and thumb of a black-gloved hand, the scrap of parchment looked utterly insignificant and the writing on it was minute. But it afforded a certain degree of pleasure to the man who held it, for all that his glistening metallic mask concealed whatever smile might have curved his lips. Yet the smile was there, and plainly audible in the smug coloration of his laconic words: “I told you long ago—”

“Three weeks—”

“And now I too have been told.”

“I didn’t somehow think it was coincidence.”

“I abhor coincidence.” The masked man might have shuddered theatrically at the very thought, had he been prone to such gestures; but the armored man could see no tremor in the misshapen bearded face that reflected back at him.

“Of course.” There was the merest touch of acid in his voice. “Except when you create it. I know.” He straightened, pressed hands palm to palm and touched their steepled fingertips thoughtfully to the end of his hawk nose as he pondered a moment. “Now, Tuenafen.” The hands clapped decisively. “The quickest route is by sea. I’ll put a battleram at the disposal of your squad.”

He stalked to the window and looked out, then turned back to the masked man who had not stirred from the highbacked chair in which he lounged with such elegantly irritating indolence. And the armored man smiled thinly. “
Teynaur
is moored in the estuary,” he said. “Use her.”

His smile widened as the masked man sat bolt upright, his lazy assurance gone in an instant. “
Teynaur
... ? But she’s an—an augmented ship.”

“Of course. Why not?” There was a long beat of silence. “Of course, if you don’t like the idea, then let Voord go alone. Such things don’t worry him—rather the reverse.”

“To an unhealthy degree!”

“No matter. He is efficient—you employed that very word when he was sent to Seghar. Why—have you changed your views?”

“No.” The reply was sullen. “He is still most capable, regardless.”

“Good. Then it’s agreed.” The armored man gathered up his rank-marked helmet and settled it comfortably in the crook of one arm, obviously preparing to leave. Then he hesitated. “You want Talvalin alive?”

“Of course. Why?”

“So do I. And untouched. There is a distinct difference. Make sure that Voord remembers it.”

“The wound is new. And he has a beard.”

“The
beard
is new—and it isn’t so much a beard as a need to shave. That’s something I’m better qualified to know than you, my lady. But the wound was old when I saw it.”

“When you saw it? When you thought you saw it—or when you saw what you wanted to see?”

“I saw what I saw. Look for yourself and then say I was wrong.”

Paper rustled crisply.

“Close. Very close. This is an excellent likeness… of somebody. But is it close enough?”

“Close enough for me. I sent the messages last night and this morning: one by courier, one by pigeon. The usual.”

“Without consulting me?”

“I saw no need; I thought you would approve.”

“Never presume what I will or will not do. But yes, I do approve.”

“And the Lord-Commander? What will Voord say?”

“Voord will be… very pleased.”

It was surely a dream; a soft murmur of sound that droned like insects on a warm summer night. The sound took shape and became voices, a man’s and a woman’s. They ebbed and flowed, weaving patterns of words. But whatever language it was that the voices spoke, none of the words made sense.

The dream faded. His eyes remained shut; other than the slow rise and fall of his chest and the never-ending tic of pulses beneath his skin, he did not move. But with a swiftness that fell between one breath and the next, Aldric was totally aware of his surroundings.

There was softness above and below him; that was the yielding warmth of quilts, and it was comforting in its familiarity. Light surrounded him, for he was conscious of its brilliance beyond his eyelids. A faint taste of bitter herbs left a flavor like steel in his mouth, and there was a scent of flowers in his nostrils—the arid, delicate fragrance of dried blossoms set out to perfume the air. He opened his eyes to see them, to see where he was—

—and saw only featureless white, and knew that he was blind.

Sweat beaded on Aldric’s skin and now he could not,, would not move, even though each breath was coming faster and faster and the blood-pulse in his ears was running wild.
The fire
!

Memories crashed back into his brain: monstrous heat, smoke and flames surging in his wake as he fled for ever; the roof coming down, the blow across his back and the midnight embrace of oblivion. The long fall into the dark which had never reached bottom.

A fall as black as blindness…

His skin was no longer beaded by perspiration, but slickly sheathed in it. Aldric could feel each droplet forming, running down his ribs, his jaw, his temples. What had happened could never, never have been so subtly selective as to destroy only his sight. Not that inferno. And if blindness was black, as the proverb claimed, then was this flaring whiteness—

Death
... ?

With that thought came the great uncontrolled intake of breath which could only return as a scream.

Or a gasp; for in the same instant someone took the light bandage from his face and pressed a cool, moist pad against each eye in turn, and when they opened again Aldric’s world lurched back to reality and equilibrium with a vertiginous jolt. The unborn cry became a hissing exhalation that trickled out between his teeth, for he was shamed by the sleek lacquering of fear that glossed his skin and by the—surely audible!—thudding of his heart. But the woman who sat by his bed and gazed down at him either did not or courteously feigned not to notice.

Without her furs and her guards and her imperious air, she looked very different. Her hair was unbound now, and in the lamplight which filled the room it was the deep rich russet of a fox’s pelt. She was smiling.

“I thought…” he faltered; the admission was going to sound foolish, or cowardly, or both. “I thought that I was dead.”

“Quite so. There was a time, indeed, when we thought that we had lost you.” She spoke in the purring Jouvaine language and her voice was as Aldric remembered it: soft, throaty, surprisingly deep. A purr indeed. If foxes purred.

“Lost me?”

“Lost you,” she repeated. “You were lucky—very lucky. The timber which hit you wasn’t properly aflame, as you were running hard in the right direction. Otherwise you would never have got out.”

“I should never have gone in,” he muttered, deciding not to sit up as his stomach gave a little warning heave. His words, indeed his thoughts, were forming easily and that surprised him; he had been stunned before and the concussion had jumbled brain and stomach both. As she said: he must have been very, very lucky. He knew that he had certainly been something else. “Stupid—”

“Unselfish, courageous. You didn’t have to stay after you freed your own horses—but you did, and you saved mine. That was typical, I suppose. You are fond of horses.” Again the smile. “I know a little about Albans.”

If she had hoped for some sort of reaction, the lady was disappointed. Aldric had never tried to conceal his nationality, because it was both difficult to maintain such a deception and immediately suspicious if discovered. His identity, though, now that was quite another matter. But the mere possibility of an ulterior motive behind her casual remark was enough to coil another worm of nausea through him, masked only by a smile of sorts to disguise whatever else might be read from his features. “Most people do,” he replied carefully.

Or think they do
. The words were on the tip of his tongue, but stayed there. For one thing, he was in no mood for opening his mouth more than was absolutely necessary, and for another this lady was his hostess—or so he guessed the lady to be, and the house around him, hers.

There could be nothing left of the tavern in which he had awoken last night, nothing at all. Of that he was certain. Even though he was very far from certain that it
had
been last night, or even the night before that. Aldric closed his eyes and shivered as he wondered how many days and nights he had really lost. And what had happened while they passed him by.

Who are you? Where am I? What is this place?
What day is it
?

The questions were all there, waiting—needing—to be asked. Banal questions, obvious questions, stupid questions. But all lacking the answers which he needed to start making sense of what was going on.

“You are plainly still far from well, ‘tlei,” said the lady gently. “Sleep now. We can talk again later.” Her hand was cool on his brow. “Sleep.” He slept.

He slept.

He dreamed.

He died!

He woke. And woke knowing that he had been drugged, for this time he was wide awake and in full control of himself, his totally alert senses insisting on the fact and emphasising it with that faint metallic, medicinal flavor lurking under his tongue and at the back of his throat. It was a flavor he remembered, but had been unable or unfit to identify before; now it was unmistakably the after-taste of herbal soporifics. Mandragora, poppy—he was in the Empire now and the possibilities were endless, for the Drusalans had raised herb lore to an art-form and a science, whilst at the same time lowering it to a particularly unpleasant vice. Swallowing in an attempt to clear away the bitterness, Aldric realized just how very dry his mouth had become.

At least—his gaze slid left—there was an evaporation-cooled terracotta jug of water on a table near the bed. He rolled over and reached out, then hesitated momentarily with the thought of more drugs filling his mind. A brief consideration put paid to that idea; if he was to have been drugged, then he would never have woken up to worry about the fact. He ignored the cups to grip the jug itself, put the vessel to his lips and disposed of its contents in half-a-dozen rapturous gulps; stared for several seconds into the pitcher’s brick-brown interior; then tilted it that few degrees further and allowed the last drops of water to patter coolly across his face.

Only then did the questions once more play follow-my-leader across the conscious surface of his mind. Who, and where, and when—and
why
?

There were various answers to that one, few of which were appealing.

But the lady…

She of the fox-bronze hair and the purring, feline voice. The lady had something to do with all this. Yes, all of it. The fire and the trapped horses. The grinding roar of falling timber and the shower of sparks before the lights went out.

And how in the name of nine hot hells did I survive?

Aldric’s eyes raked the room, noting the understated elegance which plainly displayed the wealth and taste of whoever owned it—and by that intimation, owned the house as well. If it was intended to impress, then despite his cynical efforts to the contrary it succeeded. A quick grin bared his teeth as he saw those things which at first glance reassured him above all else; but it faded swiftly as comprehension of detail gave him cause for a deal of thought.

His saddlebags were set on a chair by the far wall. There was nothing wrong with that, although he was sure they had been opened and the contents carefully scrutinised. A garment of some sort—not one of his own-was draped across the linen chest at the foot of the bed, obviously meant for his use; well, his own clothes were either still packed away or in a smelly, smoky, unfit state unless someone had washed them. Or, he amended, caused them to be washed.

But his weapons…

Whoever was responsible for their disposition had known exactly what he—or she—was doing, for Isileth Widowmaker was not merely laid horizontally across a fine sword-stand of fumed oak as might be done by anyone who… what were her words? “Knew a little about Albans.” Oh no. This was much, much more.

The
taiken’s
weapon-belt had been wrapped closely around her black-lacquered scabbard in the interlacing style of
hanen-tehar
, as was proper for battle-furnished longswords; and his
tsepan
dirk had been placed on the cushion of a three-legged stool, then set close in beside the bed. It was an insignificant thing; but it meant that the honor blade was within the arm’s-length of its owner which tradition and the Codes required.

His own weapons told Aldric that whoever he was dealing with knew more than he liked about his homeland, his background and quite possibly himself. And that they were confident enough to flaunt the fact.

He glanced towards the door, the speculation in that glance born more of optimism than any real hope. If they—or he or she or whatever—were so sure of themselves, there might just be a remote possibility that the over confidence could extend further. Into foolishness.

The thought was no sooner completed than he was out of the bed, Widowmaker scooped neatly from her sword-stand; and the scabbard had been shaken from her long blade before he paused long enough even to consider wrapping himself in the garment which someone had so thoughtfully provided.

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
13.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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