Authors: David Weber
“Out of the way, you idiot!”
The drayman snarled, the heavy goods wagons swerved, and a red-haired man slid from under the horses’ very hooves into the gutter. The wagoneer’s round Belhadan accent drifted back in a picturesque curse, but the grating roar of iron-shod wheels drowned his profanity. And despite his anger, the wagon neither slowed nor stopped, for this was Belhadan, commercial hub of the north. Those who served the port’s voracity had little time for idle pleasantries with strangers.
Muddy water flowed over the pedestrian’s legs as the stamp of horses and rattle of wheels faded. The mingled smells of salt, tar, and garbage overlaid the scents of hemp and fresh timber, and thunder muttered. Night cooking smells rode a sullen breeze from the west, but their comfortable aroma couldn’t cloak the sharp, damp smell of the looming tempest. There was thunder in those clouds, and lightning, and the promise of cold, drenching rain.
The red-haired man shook his head and rose. He dabbed at his worn clothing, but it would never again attain sartorial splendor and he gave up with a shrug and peered into the wind. Gusts fingered his hair, and he leaned into them, feeling the approaching storm on his cheekbones. Belhadan loomed before him, laced with strands of glowing streetlamps, windows gleaming against the darkness. Much of the dwarven-designed city was buried in the bedrock of the steep mountainside and foothills its walls and fortifications crowned, but its broad streets were thickly lined with the above-ground houses, shops, and taverns preferred by the other Races of Man. Now the red-haired man scratched his jaw thoughtfully, then moved off towards the streetlamps leading towards the city’s heart.
He wasn’t alone. An old man in an alley straightened from his slouch against a handy wall and squinted warily at the low-bellied clouds. Then he raised the hood of his Sothōii-style poncho with resigned hands and waited until the red-haired man had half-vanished into the dark before he hitched up the sword belt under that poncho and followed softly over the paving.
* * *
The thunder’s mumbled promise was redeemed in a downpour. The wind died in a moment, leaving the air still and hushed, prickly and humming. The next instant was born in the stutter of lightning and the hiss of rain. The wind returned, refreshed by its pause, billowing the skirts of the old man’s poncho and forcing the red-haired man to hunch into the raindrops which rode it.
The old man muttered balefully into his neatly trimmed beard as the younger man continued at the same pace. Tolerance for thunderstorms was a youthful vice sensible old bones no longer boasted. Rain pelted the old man’s shoulders like pebbles and wind threatened to snatch the hood from his head, but he grunted with something like satisfaction as he peered at a passing corner marker.
Ahead of him, the red-haired man scanned the darkened shops and warehouses as he trudged into the downpour, shielding his eyes against the rain with a cupped palm as he sought a haven. No one walked the streets in such weather—indeed, the approaching storm helped explain the drayman’s surly haste—but he glanced constantly over his shoulder, as if somehow aware he wasn’t alone on the deserted street. Yet no matter how quickly he looked, the old man always contrived to place a corner, a shutter, or an out-thrust stone buttress between them just before he turned.
His present neighborhood seemed singularly lacking in the shelter for which he searched, and the water gushing from rooftops and downspouts filled the street’s gutters. They were well-designed, those gutters, yet the last month had been rainy. They were already half-filled by older runoff, and the sudden, massive deluge flooded them and sent a sheet of water swirling out across the hard-paved street. It washed about the red-haired man’s ankles, and he grimaced as its icy outriders found the leaks in his worn-out boots. His feet squelched with every step, adding a fresh stratum of wretchedness to the night’s misery.
He turned a corner and paused suddenly as diamond-paned windows poured light out into the night, turning raindrops into plunging topazes in the instant before they slammed into the flooded street in dimpled explosions of spray. Then a door opened between two of those windows, spilling light and laughter, and a pair of sailors staggered out of it, arms draped about one another, loudly proclaiming their disdain for such a paltry zephyr.
They wandered down the street, drunkenly bellowing an utterly reprehensible ditty to the thunder, and the red-haired man’s smile was etched in the welcoming light before the door slammed once more. Taverns offered warmth, even to those with empty purses, he thought, provided one didn’t attract too much attention to one’s poverty.
He crossed the street and relief sighed from the old man’s lips, but he didn’t follow into that oasis of light and warmth. He watched the red-haired man enter the tavern without him, instead, for he knew something more than tempest prowled the night. He’d searched his mind at length and found no hint of what was to come, which was even more worrisome than it was unusual, but he cocked one eye speculatively upward and probed the storm for clues once more.
Finally, he shook his head, muttered something under his breath, and clapped his hands once, sharply. The sound of his clap vanished in a roll of thunder—a roll unaccompanied by any flash of lightning—and a blue hemisphere whuffed into existence about him. It was faint, its glow more sensed than seen even in the darkness, yet rain hissed into steam upon its surface, and he peered about alertly, eyes slitted against the faint blue haze. A longsword materialized in his gnarled, scarred hand, swinging easily, edged with a glitter of silver-blue radiance.
Something, yes…but what? His enemies wouldn’t wish to draw attention to their art: not in Belhadan. Wizards might be tolerated—barely—in some realms; with one notable exception, however, they received short shrift and a long rope in Belhadan. So what form would the attack take?
His eyes flicked to the clouds, and he grinned. Of course. He lifted his sword’s tip to touch the underside of the hemisphere, then closed his eyes and murmured more words under his breath. Power welled, filling the blue shield with vibrating urgency, and the old man smiled at the familiar tingle and cracked his left eye to scan the clouds.
Well, such things took time. He closed both eyes and settled into a hunch-shouldered wait. He was reasonably certain what was about to happen, and he had no wish to carry it into the tavern. Indeed, he had every reason to keep any danger away from that inn. And at least his wards kept off the rain.
His wait was shorter than he’d feared. Thunder rumbled again, and a lance of lightning, blue-white and screaming, forked from the clouds. It smashed into his shield, rupturing the rain-shrouded darkness with prominences of destruction that splintered back towards the heavens which had birthed them. The old man swayed, and his grip on the sword hilt went white-knuckled as the lightning sheeted back in clinging waves of flame. The shaft of brilliance lingered unnaturally, ramming sullenly against the old man. It seemed to endure for hours, shifting and probing at his defenses with self-aware malevolence as his mind flashed through the calculations of a wizard lord, beating back the attack with his own shifting strength. The battle swayed back and forth as minds and wills clashed and struck like edged steel in skilled hands.
And then, finally, unwillingly, the bolt of light withdrew into the clouds and the savagery at its heart bled away into the all-absorbent earth. The old man straightened and opened his eyes, grinning up at the storm lashed clouds.
“Nicely played,” he told the storm calmly, sheathing his blade with a snap. “A lightning bolt. What could be more natural? A nice touch, but not, I think, quite good enough, My Lady!”
He bowed ironically to the raging sky and crossed to the tavern. The blue light retreated into his body as he touched the latch. It clung for a moment, like glittering blue frost, then vanished as he opened the door.
* * *
The red-haired man paused inside the door and peered about. The place was crowded, the air thick with the smell of food and drink. Pipe smoke hazed the rafters, drifting overhead in a lazy canopy, and freshly spread sawdust covered the floor. Voices rumbled, glass clinked, and eating utensils clattered about him.
Most of the Races of Man seemed represented. Stocky dwarves brushed shoulders with ivory-horned halflings and the tall, broad-shouldered men of the northern provinces. There were even half a dozen patrons with the slashed eyebrows of the half-elven, and the dark-faced harper perched on the end of the bar boasted Wakūo blood, to judge by his hooked nose and bold, black eyes. Slashed doublets and silk breeches matched their finery against the plain shirts and canvas trousers of seamen while life and vitality bubbled like simmering porridge, rising even stronger and more welcomingly against the pound of rain on roof slates and the echoing rolls of thunder beyond the tavern’s stout eaves. It all made the red-haired man even more aware of his own bedraggled appearance, and he hesitated before plunging into the press in search of some corner in which a man with an empty purse might find a haven from the storm.
“Ho! Look what the wind’s blown in!”
The red-haired man turned towards the deep, jovial bellow…and froze in mid stride, as he found himself face-to-face with two fathoms of midnight-black death. He stood there, not daring even to breathe, as the immense direcat gazed up at him out of amber eyes. It was one of the great direcats of the plains, almost seven feet in length, not counting its tail, and well over three feet at the shoulder, with five-inch bone-white fangs. It was also the most feared predator of Norfressa, with absolutely no business in a Belhadan tavern.
He waited, frozen, anticipating its spring. But it merely seated itself and wrapped its yard-long tail neatly about its toes like some enormous house cat. It cocked its massive head to gaze straight across at him out of those frighteningly intelligent yellow eyes. And as it did, he realized no one else in the entire tavern seemed to consider its deadly presence the least bit out of the ordinary.
He inhaled cautiously, pulling his gaze away from the direcat by sheer force of will to look at whoever had spoken, and his nostrils widened in fresh astonishment. No stripling himself, he was overtopped by the man he faced, and his green eyes widened as he recognized a hradani. Not just any hradani, either. This was a giant among them; at six and a half feet, the red-haired man’s head barely topped the other’s shoulder. The white apron over the leathers of a fighting man—and the sheathed Wakūo hook knife at his hip—only added to the aura of unreality, for the hradani were the only foes more savage in combat than the huge direcat which sat with such bizarre daintiness at the giant’s side.
“It’s a powerful thirst as brings a man out on a night like this!” the hradani laughed, and the red-haired man studied the massive figure carefully, reassured by the other’s cheerful manner…and the fact that the direcat hadn’t yet pounced. He glanced back at the beast, and it yawned through its fangs as it returned his regard.
“Not thirst so much as an excess of drinking water,” he said, kicking his wits back to life, and smiled. The hradani’s tufted ears, foxlike and mobile, twitched in amusement, and his huge laugh bounced back from the rafters like enclosed thunder.
“Aye, I’m thinking Chemalka and Khalifrio are after having their heads together this night,” he agreed. “Myself, I’m one as prefers my drink in a mug and not so cold! If it’s something stronger than water you’re seeking, you’ve come to the right place in the Iron Axe.”
“I may have, but I fear the contents of my purse haven’t,” the red-haired man confessed candidly.
“No money?” The hradani eyed him thoughtfully, then shrugged. “No matter. I’ll not turn any man out on a night such as this. We’ll fire your belly with rockfish stew while the fire’s after drying your hide.”
He chuckled rumblingly at his own humor and turned to plow through the crowded taproom like a barque under full sail. The press parted before him like foam, and the red-haired man trailed gratefully in his wake. He stayed carefully clear of the direcat, but the beast only glanced at him as he passed and began grooming a scimitared paw. The red-haired man met its incurious gaze respectfully, for the cat must have weighed at least eight hundred pounds which made it worthy of all the respect he could muster.
The hradani’s bass bellow was as loud as before, and the red-haired man wondered if he ever spoke at less than full volume. Even as he wondered, however, his strange host was answered by a sweet contralto. The contrast was astonishing, but the volume of the response almost matched that of the summons.
“‘Leeana,’ yourself! What now? Another drinking bout to oversee?”
Customers moved aside to let the speaker pass. She was tall for a woman, within three inches or so of the red-haired man’s own height, though she seemed tiny beside the giant, and her red-gold braids fell below her waist. A flowing skirt of deep green wool swirled about her ankles, covered by a spotless apron; opals gleamed in the silver bracelet clasped around her left wrist; and a massive golden necklet set with a single ruby flashed about her slender throat. The red-haired man’ eyes flickered past her leather headband, then returned with a jerk. What had seemed a simple band was in fact many windings of a thick rawhide thong, and what he’d taken for large wooden earrings were carved wooden grips, instead. He eyed her with the same respect he’d shown the direcat as he recognized the Sothōii garrote for what it was.
“And what are you and your cronies up to now?” she demanded, hands on hips as she gazed up at the towering hradani through green eyes a shade darker than the red-haired man’s own.
“No cronies this time, love…though Wencit did say it might be as he’d drop by for a visit.”
The hradani swept her off the floor, huge hands more than spanning her slender waist, and kissed her enthusiastically before he set her down and tucked her comfortably under his left arm. Then he turned with her to face the red-haired man…who noticed the matching silver bracelet around the hradani’s left wrist.