The Sword of the South - eARC (5 page)

BOOK: The Sword of the South - eARC
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“Then what
is
your interest in me?” he asked softly.

“At this moment? To keep you alive,” the wizard said simply.

“Really?” The hairs rose on the back of the red-haired man’s neck. “And why shouldn’t I stay that way on my own?”

“Because ignorance doesn’t change what you are. You’re a danger to too many who follow the tradition of the Dark Lords of Carnadosa. Perhaps you’re safe from the one who stole your memory, but there are others who not only can but certainly will kill you if they even suspect you’re alive. And the reason will be simple. You threaten them, whatever you know or don’t know…so long as you remain alive.”

“So.” The younger man studied the wizard as the fire roared to the gusts sucking across the chimney. “You may be telling the truth—or
a
truth, at least. But how do I know your truth is one I’d like?”

“No one wishes to know
all
the truth.” The wizard’s voice went gray and old. “Believe that, young sir.”

“I do,” the red-haired man said softly, “but I can’t just take the word of the first wizard I meet. I remember another proverb. ‘Trust not in wizards. The best are none too good, and most of them are evil.’”

“All proverbs have a core of truth,” the old man agreed. “The art’s fallen on sad times. There’s no Council, and the majority of my brothers and sisters in the art are at best some shade of gray. But if you
don’t
trust me, you’ll be dead within twenty-four hours.

“Not by my hand,” he went on quickly, raising a palm against green eyes that were suddenly burning ice. “If I wanted you dead, not even Bahzell could keep me from killing you now, while you’re too ignorant even to understand the reason for your death.” Power seemed to smoke above him, and the red-haired man’s mouth dried as the shabby old man suddenly became a perilous menace that belied his wet, bedraggled appearance. Danger hovered about him like some invisible fog, but then he shook his head, smiled, and the peril withdrew. Yet it never quite disappeared entirely, and his flaming eyes gleamed between his lashes.

“As it happens, however, the last thing I want would be your death,” he said. “If you die, I’ll undoubtedly accompany you to Isvaria, and I still have much to do. I’ll admit to selfish as well as selfless motives, but you have enemies, both mortal and of the art. Your own skills may protect you against the former, but only I can aid you against the latter.”

“But why?!” The red-haired man half-shouted. “Damn you
and
your cryptic hints!” He mastered himself with a visible effort. “At least answer me this much Wizard—how did you find your ‘puzzle piece’?”

“I didn’t
find
you; I waited for you.”

“Very helpful.” The younger man drummed on the table, frowning, and tried another approach. “Give me one good reason to trust you—one reason I can understand now, Wizard!”

“I still honor the Strictures of Ottovar,” the flame-eyed old man said softly.

“Words! This is my
life
, Wizard! I don’t know one single thing about you, and even less about your damned puzzles. I know nothing at all about altogether too much, so give me a better answer. How will trusting you keep me alive? Tell me,
Wizard!

“I never said it would.” The old man’s voice deepened and his fiery eyes flashed. “But if you trust me, you won’t be the first, and no man who’s ever trusted me has been betrayed, though many have died of knowing me. They died attempting to aid me, or simply because they came too close to my world of darkness and half-shadows. Don’t mistake me! I offer you no promise of life, only a
choice
. I live in the shadows at the edge of what you’re pleased to call ‘the world,’ and I’ve lived there a very long time. But I’m not part of the darkness.”

“How can I know that?” the red-haired man whispered. “I want to trust you—the gods know I’d sell my soul to know who I am! But I don’t know
how
to trust you. I don’t even know who you are!”

“Remember what I said about asking ‘who,’” the old man said gently. “I can’t tell you that, but I can tell you what men call me. After that, you must judge for yourself. Perhaps you may even know my name. But beware! Reputation is only hearsay, and even if I mean you no ill, you may yet come to curse the day we met.”

He paused, his face cold with warning, and the red-haired man felt a sudden urge to disavow his questions before he could hear their answers. The strange eyes burned brightly, their polychromatic depths dancing, and when the wizard spoke again, his deep, measured voice rang like iron on an anvil.

“I am called Wencit of Rūm, last Lord of the Council of Ottovar, Keeper of the Strictures of Ottovar, Chief Councilor to the Gryphon Throne of Kontovar, and I’ve waited thirteen centuries for this conversation!”

CHAPTER TWO

Friends at Need


Wencit of Rūm!
” The red-haired man stared open-mouthed for at least ten seconds, then shook himself as if to fight his shock physically. “
You’re
the wizard who destroyed Kontovar?!”

“Like all tales, that one’s less than completely accurate,” Wencit sighed, turning his head to look into the fire. “But, yes. I spoke the Word of Unbinding, yes, and freed the Council from the Strictures to let us strike our enemies.”

He sat silent for a long, still moment, as if his wildfire eyes saw memories in the flames, then looked back at the younger man.

“We were three hundred strong, and we were powerful. Oh, yes! We were
powerful
, my friend.” His voice was soft, and he sighed again. “And we poured out our strength like water and wasted our lives like fire. The world had never seen a working like it, not since Ottovar ended the great Wizard Wars ten thousand years and more before…and when we finished, there were four white wizards in all the world. Just four, and two of them were mad.…”

His face was wrung by an ancient pain as his flaming eyes bored into the red-haired man like augurs.

“Kontovar was destroyed,” he said, still softly, “but only its corpse. Everything which had ever
made
it Kontovar, the Kontovar Ottovar and Gwynytha carved out of the darkness and brought into the light, had died already. Fire had consumed the Gryphon Throne. Trōfrōlantha, the city of Ottovar and Gwynytha, lay in ruins, the Dark Lords had triumphed, and they were poised to pursue the refugees even here, even to Norfressa, to complete the Dark Gods’ victory. The only hope of those who’d fled was for us to cripple the victors, because we lacked the power to kill them, though we did our best.” He laughed mirthlessly. “Oh, yes, we certainly did do our best! But we couldn’t kill them all. Only the gods themselves know how many of their slaves we
did
kill, or how many lesser wizards died, but too many of the arch-wizards lived. Hacromanthi they called Kontovar after that—the Grave of Evil—but not even the grave truly lasts forever, and the evil wasn’t dead. It only slept, and that sleep was uneasy.”

He fell silent, staring into the fire again, and the red-haired man fought to comprehend the impossibility the old man represented. Somehow he couldn’t doubt the word of his strange, shabby-majestic companion, yet it was preposterous. The second most fabled wizard of history wasn’t supposed to be found in a tavern kitchen! And yet…and yet…

He watched tiny motes of wildfire hang before the wizard’s glowing eyes and knew he heard the truth. And that terrified him to the marrow of his bones, for what conceivable business had he with a man who’d brought death to an entire continent? And then an even worse thought occurred to him. If Wencit of Rūm himself required his services, could he even hope to refuse?

“And now,” Wencit shook himself, rousing from a moody inspection of the flames, “I’m the last white wizard of Kontovar—may my friends recall me with fondness in Isvaria’s halls! The gods know I gave them grief enough when they were alive!” He smiled at memories, then frowned. “But if their tasks are ended, mine isn’t, and I need your help. I said you were an important puzzle piece, but that isn’t entirely accurate. Or, rather, it’s not
specific
enough, because the truth is that you’re a key piece. I might almost say
the
key piece.”

“But—” The red-haired man swallowed sharply. “I still don’t understand,” he went on, his voice much quieter, almost plaintive, his anger supplanted by confusion. “You’re Wencit of Rūm! Every schoolboy knows the legends about you, the things you’ve accomplished. You can’t need
me!

“Wencit of Rūm is my name, not what I am,” Wencit said. “Not necessarily, at least. I’m many things to many people—and for you, at this moment, I’m far more important than a maker of legends.” He snorted in self-derision. “Nor is legend-making all it’s said to be, my friend! They’re uncomfortable things, legends. They’re usually made by people who wish with all their heart they were somewhere else, and any sane person avoids them like the plague. But that’s beside the point, because whatever I am to other people, to you I’m the only man who knows how you fit into the struggles of wizards. I know a path through them, though honesty compels me to warn you that there aren’t any easy roads, and a journey with me won’t be pleasant. Oh, it may have its moments, but you’ll curse me as often as you thank me.” He grinned suddenly. “Bahzell could tell you I’m not the easiest trail companion even under the best of conditions, but you’re committed to
a
journey, no matter what. Unfortunately, it will almost certainly be a very short trip if you leave this tavern without me. For that matter, honesty compels me to admit that the odds are against survival whatever you do, I’m afraid. The only absolute certainty I can give you is that you
won’t
survive without me; the rest of the outcome is still…to be determined.”

The red-haired man blinked, but his green eyes had lost their glaze of shock. He rubbed his scarred chest absently, considering Wencit’s words. Then he surprised himself by smiling suddenly.

“Well, you’re plainspoken—in some things—for a wizard,” he chuckled. “Basically, I’m damned if I trust you, but doomed if I don’t!”

“Not a pleasant choice,” Wencit conceded. He fished out a battered pipe and filled it, his fiery eyes watching the younger man unreadably. Then he kindled a splinter at the fire and lit the pipe with care.

“If you can’t tell me who I am,” the red-haired man said in a strangely dignified voice, “can you at least tell me what I’m supposed to do?”

“Not entirely.” Wencit blew blue smoke at the waxed cheeses hanging from the kitchen rafters, yet his voice was compassionate. “I can only repeat what I said before. You’re a fighting man, and fighting men are always useful. But you’re much more than that, as well—potentially, at least—and there are things within you which I dare not disturb. Things which may make you of incalculable importance.”

Gwynna delivered two mugs of hot tea, and the red-haired man thanked her and sniffed the steam, grateful for the interruption while he grappled with the wizard’s words and his maimed memory. He couldn’t believe anything special was hidden within himself, yet with only an empty void for a past, neither could he refute Wencit’s statements.

He watched the grim figure of legend solemnly produce a silver whistle from one of Gwynna’s tufted ears, and he smiled as the girl clapped her hands in delight. She hugged the wizard’s neck tightly, whispering into his ear before she took her new treasure to show her mother.

Leeana paused to admire the whistle properly and then touched the red-gold hair gently as she released Gwynna from her tasks. The girl curled down with the direcat, and the huge beast lifted his head from his paws to let her perch comfortably upon his forelegs and lean casually back against his chest. Blanchrach’s head was almost the size of her entire torso, but he rumbled with a powerful purr and rested his chin on her slight shoulder, amber eyes half-slitted.

Wencit’s glowing eyes followed Gwynna, and the red-haired man recognized the fierce tenderness in the wizard’s momentarily unguarded expression. It did more than any words to win his heart, that tenderness, but he wasn’t prepared to surrender his doubt just yet.

“Suppose,” he said quietly, leaning forward, “suppose I accept you’re who you say you are and that, impossible as it seems, I really am important. Let’s even say I
have
to trust you. If I do, though, what—if it doesn’t sound self-serving—is in it for me?”

“A reasonable question,” Wencit said gently. “And a simple one. But I have no simple answer. I can’t even promise you your life, only the meaning of it.”

“Riddles within riddles,” the red-haired man sighed.

“Of course!” Wencit chuckled suddenly. “I’m a wizard, after all.” Then he fixed the younger man with a kinder gaze. “But I will promise you this. I swear by my art that someday, if we both live, you’ll know your own name and the reason for all my actions. For now, I can’t tell you any more than that. Not
won’t
tell you, but
can’t
tell you.”

“I’m afraid I believe that,” the red-haired man said unwillingly.

“And, believing it, will you let me guide you?”

“What other choice do I have?”

“Only those I’ve described to you,” Wencit said softly.

“Then what can’t be cured must be endured, mustn’t it?”

“I’m pleased you take it so well.” The wizard’s tone was desert dry.

“I wouldn’t if I could help it!”

“I expect not.”

Wencit fell silent and sipped tea while the red-haired man slowly digested what had been said and tried to envision the implications of his own agreement. Wencit’s pipe smoke curled in strange swirls and patterned clouds that seemed to hold secret meanings just beyond comprehension, and it was the wizard who finally broke the silence.

“I suppose you need a name, don’t you?”

“It might be useful,” the red-haired man said tartly, stretching his arms high in a spine-arching yawn. He held the stretch for a heartbeat or two, then settled back on his bench. “I can’t go on being ‘my friend’ forever. But a man’s name should say something about his life. So would you care to suggest one?”

Unveiled irony glittered in his tone, but Wencit declined to rise to the bait.

“Names are very personal,” he demurred. “I suggest you pick one for yourself.”

“All right,” the red-haired man agreed, concealing any trace of disappointment as his probe bounced off the armor of the wizard’s silence. “How does ‘Kenhodan’ strike you?” he asked finally, green eyes glinting with bitter humor.

“So you remember the Old Tongue,” Wencit said.

“Some of it.”

“A good choice, then,” the wizard agreed calmly, and silence fell once more, emphasized by the crackle of the fire and the hiss of raindrops dying in its flame. Both men knew the name was both acceptance and challenge, for in the Old Tongue of High Kontovaran, “Kenhodan” meant “born out of silence.”

* * *

A conspiracy of thunder, wind, and lightning-shot rain ruled Belhadan as the night dragged towards a stormy climax. Even the most optimistic finally abandoned hope of a lull, and one by one the Iron Axe’s patrons paid their scores and made their unhappy ways out into the blustering dark. In the end, only a handful of diehards remained, and Bahzell gave up the bar to an assistant and joined his guests in the kitchen.

The staff had withdrawn, leaving their mistress with her daughter and guests. Gwynna’s bedtime had been extended in honor of the visitors, and she half lay across the direcat’s forelegs with the fanged head laid gently but watchfully across her lap. She drowsed sleepily, but her mother sat in deep conversation with Wencit and the man now called Kenhodan.

Leeana’s distrust had been conquered by Wencit’s acceptance of the stranger, and now she sat across the table from Kenhodan, beside Wencit with her head propped against the wizard’s shoulder as she sipped tea and sought to help Kenhodan come to terms with his maimed memory. She couldn’t be many years older than he was himself, yet she approached the mystery of his amnesia with a calm far beyond her years. Her lively sense of humor was never far from the surface, but her verbal jabs were reserved for Wencit, not Kenhodan, and there was something almost…maternal about her. That wasn’t the right word, but it came closer than any of the others he could think of, for there was a wisdom behind her compassion which seemed oddly out of place in someone who couldn’t possibly be a day over thirty—thirty-five at the most. Whatever the “right” word might have been, however, he certainly wasn’t about to complain. He found her quiet sympathy and acceptance, now that Wencit had vouched for him, soothing to the raw wound in his mind, and the little group floated in the warm comfort of people who hear violent weather rage beyond a snug roof.

And then Bahzell burst upon the quiet like a jovial thunderbolt, his deep voice echoing until Gwynna roused enough to demand her father’s lap while Leeana shushed them both. Bahzell lifted his daughter from her perch on the direcat, and Blanchrach’s deep purr rumbled as his head butted the hradani’s knee affectionately. Gwynna snuggled her arms about her father’s thick neck as he swung a mighty leg over Wencit’s bench and cuddled her close. Leeana poured tea for him, and their eyes met warmly.

“And would it happen you’ve been and unraveled our mystery, love?” Bahzell asked, bussing her heartily and pressing another kiss to his daughter’s hair.

“Bits and pieces of it,” Leeana replied serenely. “At least our guest has a name and he and Wencit have reached an understanding.”

“As far as we may in a single night,” Wencit threw in, rotating his head slowly to stretch stiff muscles.

“And who could be asking more? By the Sword, though, it’s enough to make a man come all over nervous to hear Wencit of Rūm admit a limitation!”

“I’ve never claimed omnipotence,” Wencit said mildly.

“Just acted the part!” the hradani snorted. “I’m not complaining, mind. It’s more than one scrape you’ve gotten me out of with my hide in one piece—more or less—over the years.”

“But it’s such a large hide,” Wencit said wistfully. “Surely you don’t begrudge a little piece of it every so often?”

“It’s in my mind Tomanāk never promised I’d not bleed a bit now and again,” Bahzell replied cheerfully. “It’s welcome enough any foe of mine is to my blood, if it should so happen he can get it.”

“A hazardous undertaking,” Wencit murmured. “But enough pleasantry. Bahzell, this is Kenhodan, another servant of the Sword God. Kenhodan, I realize it may seem unlikely, but this lump of muscle is both a champion of Tomanāk and swordmaster of the Belhadan Chapter of the Order of Tomanāk. He had too little wit to choose a safe god, so don’t ask his advice about anything important. But if you need counsel on the shedding of blood, you couldn’t find a better advisor.”

Wencit’s warning about the nature of this peculiar household stood Kenhodan in good stead. So did the fact that he’d encountered sufficient impossibilities already for his preconceptions to have acquired a certain punch-drunk elasticity. None of which was enough to keep his eyes from widening in an echo of his astonishment. A Sothōii war maid might have no business in the Empire of the Axe, especially wed to a hradani, yet that was a mere bagatelle beside the notion of a hradani champion of Tomanāk! Of any God of Light, to be fair, but of
Tomanāk?

BOOK: The Sword of the South - eARC
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