the armies of daylight (darwath #3) Page 12


PART TWO

THE FACELESS KING

Chapter Eleven

"Is he himself?" Rudy asked.

Ingold did not answer at once. In the black mists that now filled the Vale like a sea of clouds, all sounds were changed; some were muffled, and others were thrown into a curious distinctness, so that the clink of a single bridle bit or the sharp chuff ! of a horse's blown breath sounded louder than the murmur of the ranks drawn up in the meadow below them, invisible in the fog.

"Do you mean, are the Dark using him as they used Lohiro?" The wizard shook his head slowly. "No. Nor is he mad in the usual sense of the word."

Rudy shivered. He had seen the High King's eyes at the Winter Feast and again yesterday, in that terrible turmoil of reshuffled allegiances, unspoken accusations, and oaths of problematical fidelity. And one thing he knew: whatever else he was, King Elder Andarion was not sane.

No surprise . The hideous, clammy darkness of the Nest returned to him, as it had in dreams past counting; he shuddered, trying to realize what it would be like to be trapped there, without hope of rescue… The fear of it had ridden his pillow through sleepless nights, ever since he himself had seen the Nest. It lurked in Ingold's eyes always, and Rudy heard it now in the disembodied voice.

"He say how he busted out?"

The hooded, shapeless head turned toward him; in the shadows between the drawn-down cowl and the gray muffler, he caught a silver glint of eyes. "He said he followed you, Rudy. He knew his way around the Nest fairly well by that time -he'd been there nearly four months."

Like a troop of ghosts, the Wizards' Corps was assembling around them in silence, cloaked and hooded as best they could manage against the wet, bitter morning. Far off in the black trees, Rudy thought he could discern the creak of leather and mail and the shrill scrunch of boots in the snow as the Army of Alketch marched down from the caves. Some distance away, before the doors of the Keep, torches burned, woolly slurs of dirty yellow in the mist.

Ingold went on quietly. "We had left the rope, of course. I don't know why no one suspected it. No one ever saw his body. By all accounts, the Icefalcon and his company rescued only half of those taken by the Dark from the final battle. The finding of Eldor's sword in the hand of a corpse was really very poor evidence, when you think on it."

"Maybe everyone preferred to think him dead rather than-than where he was."

The hooded form nodded. "I did." Ingold spoke slowly, his words slurred, like a man tired to death. It was the first time Rudy had seen or spoken to the old man since that hideous afternoon and he doubted whether Ingold had found sleep or rest in all that time.

Rudy wondered if any returning king had ever walked into such an utter bummer of a homecoming-to find his wife all pink and giggling in some other man's arms; to have his son reach out to that other man, shrieking, '"Udy! 'Udy!" in terror of that gaunt, mad wolf of a father.

Probably not , he decided. Books were full of wives who stayed loyally celibate for twenty years …

Aide! What the hell had he said to Alde when they were finally together alone?

He's her husband , Rudy thought desperately, and that is none of your goddam business .

But he hurt for her, with terror and grief.

He had not seen Alde since she'd twisted from his arms and fallen to her knees at her husband's feet. He remembered her dark hair spilling down over the gaudy, painted vest and her red skirts like blood in the muddy snow. He remembered Alwir, materializing as if out of nowhere at her side, holding out his gloved hands and saying, "My lord, I told them you could not be dead."

And in those somber eyes had been no more expression than in a couple of ball bearings, set in a mask of clay.

Drifts of fog blew about Rudy. He saw the Guards move down the steps to their places in the line. They would be the shock troops of the invasion, spearhead and rear guard of the Darwath companies. Vair na Chandros had his own storm troopers for the companies under his command.

Of Stiarth of Alketch nothing more had ever been seen.

Rudy caught a glimpse of Gil's face, looking sharp and odd in the frame of the mail coif she wore. She was joking with Seya and the Icefalcon, her hands hooked loosely in her sword belt, as if she had never known any world but this one or any life but that of a warrior. The shy, gawky UCLA student seemed to have vanished in the smoke that had consumed her notes in the common room fire. For her the coming battle would be her last, to die or to return afterward to California, having fulfilled her vows in the Guards.

Other companies were passing, Melantrys and the firesquad, with the yellow torchlight of the gates slipping like water over the bulky weapons of glass and twisted gold, and grim, ugly Tomec Tirkenson, walking beside Maia of Penambra to where the outland troops were drawn up beside those of the Church. In the sudden slit of yellow light that appeared in the passage of the opened gates, Rudy saw the gaunt, spiderlike form of Bishop Govannin silhouetted, her red cowl drawn up over her head; beside her, drowned in pious gloom, was Inquisitor Pinard.

A voice barked orders. The tread of marching men sounded suddenly close. Through fog and darkness, Rudy distinguished them, rank on rank, moving out of the trees. He made out the bulkier forms of the mounted officers, the dull sheen of gold on burnished mail, and the upraised flash of curved metal hooks. Against the matte charcoal backdrop of the predawn fog, Rudy saw the prick of the horse's ears and the single stabbing spike of the Commander's helmet. Horns blew, a distant groaning. Like a serpent sluggish with the cold, the columns of the South poured on down the Vale, to take their places in the line of march, while their Commander halted by the doors of the Keep.

He was within yards of the Wizards' Corps. Rudy wondered if he was aware of them, standing like a troop of wraiths in the fog; if he was, he gave no sign of it. But Rudy glanced nervously from that chiseled, black profile, framed within its gilded mail, to the cloaked and hooded silent old man who stood at the Commander's side. He was aware that, since Stiarth's disappearance, Vair had spent a good deal of time with the Inquisitor.

The Inquisitor raised his hand now in formal blessing. The dark Commander removed his spiked helm and bowed his head. "… to save you from all darkness, to trample your enemies beneath your feet."

Nice , Rudy thought. Let's have a prioritized list and a dictionary definition of enemies .

Red- liveried servants were bringing another horse to the steps of the Keep, a black mare with flames of scarlet silk braided into the mane. In the spreading bar of gold thrown by the torchlight, a shadow lanced down the steps, rippling long and black like an arrowhead; the troops murmured like the distant surge of the sea. Alwir stood for a moment at the top of the steps, gloved hands resting on his hips, surveying the army as if it were still his to command. Then, with a curt nod of satisfaction, he strode down, the dirty slush scrunching beneath his boots, and mounted the waiting steed.

A little snuffle of wind stirred in the mists. Rudy sensed the darkness graying, like watered ink; around him, he could distinguish the faces of the Corps. Another horse was brought up, white trapped in black; someone in the ranks cheered.

Then two more shapes appeared, backlit by the glow of the passage light, at the top of the Keep steps. More cheering sounded, rank on rank taking it up. The tall, rawboned man turned his head, the light glittering like silver dust on close-cropped gray hair. The slender woman at his side hung back, jewels tangled like stars in the embroidery of her gown, and Rudy felt his heart turn over in his breast. Against the light he could see neither the face of the woman he loved nor that of the man to whom she belonged, but what was between them was starkly implicit in the distance between their two bodies, in the formal handclasp of farewell, and in the way the King turned from her briskly and surveyed the obscure army before him in the fog-shrouded dawn. Alde stood, head up, chin set, as the King strode down to join the commanders with never a backward glance.

The horns blew again, the rawness of the sound muffled oddly by the fog. Banners unfurled in the smoky dawn-the gold eagle of Darwath, the black stars of the House of Bes, the unrelieved blood color of the Church. Like distant thunder, the kettledrums boomed farther down the Vale. Eldor reined his horse from the Keep and moved on down the road between the ranks, his commanders following behind. Beside Rudy, Ingold pulled his shabby mantle tighter about him and led the wizards after them, leaning on his staff like a half-frozen beggar in the snow.

The army had begun to move. As he turned to follow the Corps, Rudy looked back, his eyes seeking the lighted doors of the Keep once more. The Bishop and the Inquisitor had gone; someone had shut one side. In the long, narrow rectangle of saffron light, a single form still stood, proud and slender and shivering in its black fur cloak. He looked back twice more, and each time she was still there, until the road, the fog, and the army hid her from his view.

It was a bitter road to Gae. Rudy had scouted it, going and coming, on their first reconnaissance of the Nest, and even then he had found it terribly changed from the way taken by the refugees from Karst. In the low ground, the original road had been flooded out, and leaden marshes or the still sheets of pewter lakes covered the land, their silver ice prickled with the rotting limbs of drowned trees. Where the road hugged the foothills closer to Renweth, the going was not as bad. But as they progressed north, through what had been the green heartland of the Realm, the land was a desolation of waters, and the army sought the path that the wizards had marked, over what had been the summits of tall hills.

The days were gray and freezing; by night, blinding storms howled down from the mountains, surrounding the camp in a whirlwind of spitting rain and snow. The bitter cold of these storms was made no easier by the knowledge that the wizards themselves were responsible, using the storms as a shield against the Dark. Once, after such a storm, they came upon a little family of beggars, gypsies, in the pitiless land, dead of exposure in the lee of a hill.

"They would have died in any case in this cold," Thoth judged, standing on the road above the huddled bodies and surveying the dripping rags that covered the blue, emaciated flesh.

"All things die in any case," Ingold replied quietly. "Nevertheless, the thing was our doing."

Brother Wend, who was with them, turned away in tears; Rudy was silent, confused and unable to speak. Most of the army passed by without even seeing what lay in that hollow by the road.

Rudy saw very little of Gil during that journey, for she stayed with the Guards. Twice, crossing the camp at night in the black fury of the winds, he thought he glimpsed her bony figure with its trailing scarf pacing along at Ingold's side as the wizard made his restless rounds of the camp. But Ingold did not speak of it; indeed, the wizard spoke very little these days at all. By day, he kept among the wizards, and Rudy found himself thinking that it was odd that he did not ride with the commanders of the expedition. By night, as he had done on the road down from Karst, he wandered the camp through the rising gales, doing what he could with his spells of ward and guard. Between grief and terror of what he knew was to come, Rudy often sat awake far into the night in the outer cubicle of the two-room tent they shared, playing his harp in the darkness. But he seldom was awake when the old man came in.

The armies pitched their tents in the fields before the gates of Gae, in the shadow of Trad's Hill. The stump of the cross that had once surmounted its summit had been broken and eroded away, yet none pitched their tents in the place where it had been. As the sun bloodied the torn western clouds, Maia of Penambra held battle services there, with his sword belted at his waist. Northern or southern, the troops darkened the frosted ground in all directions as they knelt. As an excommunicate, Rudy did not attend, but the prelate's voice, oddly carrying for one so soft-spoken, could be heard wherever Rudy walked in the camp. He passed Kara and Tomec Tirkenson-another excommunicate-hand in hand on the fringes of the crowd around the cart-tail altar and saw at a distance Brother Wend, his face like a dying man's, watching the rites from the shelter of the tents.

The sun set and the winds rose. Endless as the winter nights were, it would be only a short time until dawn.

Rudy lay in the darkness of his sleeping cubicle, prey to a horrible case of funk.

It was not that he doubted the ability of the flame throwers- our side's secret weapon , he reminded himself wryly- to wreak havoc in the Nest. Nor did he doubt the necessity of the invasion itself. As far as he knew, the Dark Ones were still taking live prisoners to supplement their dwindling herds. If the Nests were not burned out, cauterized one by one, there was always the lingering chance that someone he cared for-Aide, Gil, or Tir when he got older-might end up there, exiled from light. He noticed the Eldor had not questioned the invasion.

Yet Rudy was mageborn enough, artist enough, to bear the curse of a vivid imagination. The thought of going into battle at all terrified him. To fight in the lightless mazes underground, to descend willingly into that hell of fire and darkness… Sweat iced his face at the thought.

He knew their losses would be high. The counterspells of the Dark Ones could damp magelight-maybe kill it entirely. And most of the mages were half-trained, their power weak. We could be trapped down there …

He shoved the thought away. We ain't gonna be trapped and we ain't gonna be killed , he told himself stubbornly. We'll do what Dare of Renweth never did – attack the Nests of the Dark and wipe out their whole ecosystem so, even if we haven't the forces to reoccupy Gae , they won't have, either .

Lohiro, dying, had whispered of the moss, the herds, and the ice in the north. He had known then what Gil had puzzled out: that they were all bound together. Sleepily, Rudy's mind groped at the remains of his high-school biology class, ten years in the past and not much attended at the time.

Gil was right, of course. The moss was the – what had she called it ?- the nitrogen fixer of the whole Nest ecology. It was dying already, and flammable nitrogen compounds remained in the brown, dried decay. Burn off the moss and you'd knock the base out from under the whole food chain, just like those vaguely recalled diagrams of grass, antelopes, and lions …

Rudy drifted toward slumber.

Ironic that the basis of the Nest ecosystem would be its destruction. The whole Nest must be saturated in nitrogen compounds, Gil had said.

What the hell was a nitrogen compound?

Just before he dozed off completely, it floated through Rudy's mind that the secret weapon was perhaps not as secret as he'd thought.

The Dark knew they were going to be attacked with fire.

Then he slept.

The cold drift of wind woke him as the outer door of the tent was opened on the other side of the separating curtain. Werelight flickered through the chinks. He heard the creak and clatter of battle gear, the clinking of buckle and spur. It was later in the night, he could tell-though nowhere near dawn. Eldor's harsh, rasping voice came to him, and Alwir's melodious drawl, along with the sinister purring of Vair and Ingold's scratchy, flawed, unmistakable tones. Their talk was of flame throwers and maps and guides, of where the companies would divide to cover the two main segments of the Nest, and of which mages would lead them down. Vair said stiffly that he would rely on maps, rather than on the directions of any servant of Satan; Ingold replied mildly that he was welcome to do so, of course, but unless he was planning to dispense with the wizards who would cover his advance with such light as they could summon, he might as well include one more as a guide. Alwir told the Alketch Commander not to be a fool.

Shortly after that, another blast of cold air seeped through the tent curtains; Rudy heard the voices saying good night.

Feet scrunched on the frosted ground, and Vair cursed a slave for dropping a torch. From the other chamber, Rudy heard the thick rustle and creak of the curtain falling and the rattle of the outer leather flap in the wind. Beneath the dividing curtain, the bluish light moved.

Ingold's voice said softly, "So you are determined to do this thing?"

"Don't start on it," Eldor's voice grated.

"What are you trying to do? Alwir's hoping for his own aggrandizement-at your expense, I should add-and that soulless Alketch tiger is out for whatever's left of the Realm, but you are King already. You have no need…"

"We all have a need." Rudy heard the creak of the chairbraces under shifting weight and the soft, restless crunch of frozen ground under pacing feet.

"You were down there, Eldor. You know what you're leading these people into.

Alwir thinks the Nest is something like a slightly larger version of his own wine cellars, but you know how much hope we have of…"

"Do you think I fool myself about it?" Rudy could almost see the taller man rounding on Ingold from the shadows. "After lying in the muck and eating wet moss and raw fish and fearing every second for my life, don't you think I know just how hopeless it is?" There was something akin to satisfaction in the voice- a pleasure in the justification of despair. "You forget, Ingold, that I remember . I remember-everything."

"I had four long months to think, in the dark of the Nest; and, as they tell me is the case of-my sweet wife, I had new sights to stir old memories. Dare of Renweth did lead a force down the stairways-twenty thousand men. The men of the Times Before were not more wise or foolish than they are now, and they could foresee what we have all foreseen-that their empires would not last five years. They had their flame thrower corps-oh, yes!-and other things besides. They had their wizards to cast light about them, for all the good it ever did. I know what happened to them down in the Nests. In the darkness I remembered it. When I returned to Dare's Keep, I could have laughed aloud to see how proudly our Alwir strutted his feathers like a dunghill cock. Dare's army was three times the size of this one. Do you know how many of them survived?"

For a long moment there was nothing, only that blazing, shocked, terrible silence. Lying in the darkness, Rudy knew that Ingold stared into the face of the man who had once been his friend and saw there only a stranger's hate.

When the wizard spoke, his voice was a whisper. "Why?"

The sound of pacing resumed, along with the click of scabbard buckles and the slurring whine of a cloak. "I remembered other things down there, Ingold. The Dark took none of it from me, though I prayed they would. I never forgot that I was High King of Darwath." As that harsh voice rose and fell, the long, light tread of the pacing increased, the shadow under the partition whirling and moving, as if with the unseen motion of an arm.

"I remembered how I used to sit up nights sweating out a judgment over which nobleman had what rights over the souls of his people," Eldor went on, in that low, harsh, terrible voice. "I remember endless councils and dickerings with the Church, with the Empire, with the merchants- going without sleep over the Raiders in the plains and the Alketch pirates in the Round Sea. And for what? So that I could end up squatting on my hunker-bones, chewing roots in the dark, with all the Church and Raiders and merchants scattered like the fragments of some meaningless dream. What was the use of it? Why had I bothered to sweat and worry at all? If I'd lived like my father and wenched and drunk and taken all the sweet pleasures of life, I would have ended up in exactly the same position. I had been King, and for what?"

"So what do you want?" Ingold demanded, his voice suddenly very angry. "Do you want to go out in a blaze of honored glory so that people can make songs about how great the last King of Darwath was? Do you want to die and take thousands of your followers with you, to make your death look a little more like heroism and a little less like suicide? Are you choosing to leave your people leaderless and defenseless, because you would rather die with an army at your back than demean yourself to look after a few thousand peasants huddled in a stone blockhouse who lock themselves in every night out of sheer terror of the Dark?"

"Yes." The word came soft, ugly, as if its speaker stood inches from his listener, towering over him like a lightning-blasted pine. "Yes, that's exactly what I want."

"Then you're a coward."

There was the ringing slap of a blow, backhand and then forehand, and the slight scrape of some piece of furniture as Ingold caught his balance. Then there was only the fast, shaky breathing of a younger man's trembling rage.

"Do you feel better for that?" Ingold asked quietly.

"We're lost, Ingold," the King whispered. "And I know it-in some sense I have always known. There is nothing left, only fear and darkness. Every person who follows me knows it, too. Each has lived in the world before the Dark; and the comparison is not a nice one. Death in battle is not pleasant, but it has the virtue of being quick, and I know, in the marrow of my bones I know, that slavery to the Dark Ones, in fact or by fear, is infinitely worse. Why would any have followed me on this fool's errand if they did not all, in some sense, seek death?"

"They follow you because they have always followed you, Eldor-because they love you.".

"It's their misfortune, then," the King said, in that voice of soft hate. "Let them desert, if it suits them. I will die alone, if I must."

In the long silence after these words, Rudy could feel the strain of will against will, like a terrible tension in the air. There were no sounds from beyond the partition but the thick draw of breath and the rising cry of the gale winds surrounding the camp. In his blankets, Rudy shivered, feeling that hideous striving as if it were a vibration, sensed through the skin. As if with physical effort, Ingold was forcing the King to see what it was that he was doing to the last of his people; and the terrible thing was that Eldor saw it clearly and did not care.

When Eldor spoke again, his voice was quieter, but it tasted of poison more bitter than the acid of the Dark.

"You were my tutor," he said slowly, "and I followed you and adored you and trusted you, even when my father had you driven from the city like a criminal. Had you called me, I would have gone with you, forsaking everything I knew. I loved you that much. You made me what I was, Ingold; you made me love justice and law and you made me know my duty to my kingdom. You made me everything my father was not, and my love of you and hatred of him shaped my every action. There was a time when I would have died for you, Ingold, do you know that? I trusted you that much."

Then there was another long and terrible silence, with no sound but the sobbing of the wind. The harsh voice spoke again, jagged and bitter, like a broken thing. "You knew about them," he rasped. "You knew about them from the first. He is your disciple."

In the even longer silence that followed, Rudy knew that the wizard could not meet his accuser's eyes. When Ingold spoke, his words were almost inaudible. "Not from the first. It was done before I learned of it."

"But you never spoke."

"What would I have said? You were dead, Eldor, and she was alone and very frightened. She needs love, and at that point even the illusion of love would have served. He was good to her. I feared for them, yes. But I have never commanded anyone as to what they could and could not do."

"Then don't command me now!" Eldor shouted furiously. "You were swift enough to command Alwir to let her and her lover be!"

In the bitter pause that followed, a thousand other things could have been said- and possibly were understood.

"After tomorrow he may have her, for all of me, if he survives. I shall see you at dawn."

Footsteps retreated suddenly; there was the scrape of icy ground, the swift, muffled whisper of robes, and Rudy was reminded of how quickly Ingold could move. Then icy, terrible silence was broken by Eldor's cold, grating voice. "Let me go."

"For God's sake, Eldor-" Ingold pleaded, and was cut off by a harsh bark of laughter.

"God!" the King choked. "God! Do you know how many times, my dearest, oldest, most loyal friend, I called upon God, squatting in the moss in the darkness? How I pleaded and prayed for a deliverer?"

"And you were, in fact, delivered," the wizard returned quietly.

"By whom and to what? By the man who had been tumbling my wife within two weeks of my reported death? I suppose you could call it just payment, if you had a sense of humor."

"Maybe. But no one could call it sufficient reason to lead loyal men and women deliberately to their death, when you know the nature of the danger that will destroy them."

"No?" There was a sudden crack to that voice, a faint sliding up the scale onto the edge of shrillness, that brought sweat to Rudy's face. "But life is very unjust, is it not, Ingold Inglorion?"

Cold and the wail of the wind streamed briefly into the tent in the wake of the King's going. A moment later Rudy heard those quick, striding steps retreating in the direction of the royal shelter. He lay awake waiting for Ingold to come in to sleep, frightened of tomorrow and frightened of that cracked, mad note in Eldor's voice; but when he drifted into sleep a few hours before dawn, he had still heard no sign of movement in the room beyond.