the armies of daylight (darwath #3) Page 15


The dream returned to Rudy, as it had haunted him time and again. But his fever gave it the clarity of hallucination, and he could not, as he had so often done, waken himself by screaming. His cries stifled as stillborn moans in his throat.

His dream was of darkness, thick as smoke, hot, damp, and clinging. He knew he dreamed of the Nest, for he could smell the wet, black moss and taste the powdery choke that came from the disintegrating patches of brown that spotted the leprous walls. He was deep, deeper than he had ever gone in waking exploration, and the black weight of the earth crushed down on his consciousness like a burden of hopeless grief with the knowledge that there was no escape.

No herds came here. Only the Dark covered the walls, ceiling, and floor in a squirming swarm of blackness. The cluttering scratch of their claws was like the faint, steady gnawing of rats at his nerves. He could see them, though there was no light to throw even the smallest gleam from those pulsing backs. And he could see what it was, stretched upon the rocks, that they swarmed over. Horribly, he could not see the man's face. But he recognized the hand, thick, and strong, and blunt-fingered, nicked with the old scars of swordsmanship, and he saw it grip the rocks as if in sudden agony.

He woke sobbing, drenched with terror-sweat. The room around him was pitch-black, but the darkness was familiar; the weight above him was only the weight of the Keep. His wizard's sight showed him his own cell in the Corps complex. He had a vague sense that he should not be there, but could not, for the moment, recall why. He could only lie there, crushed by the memory of an unspeakable horror, telling himself over and over again, Ingold is dead. He's dead. He's got to be dead .

And, like an answer, he heard the echo of that calm, scratchy voice, above the memory of the grasslands wind. I would know it if Lohiro were dead .

Rudy rolled his head back and forth on the pillow, trying to clear it of the sticky cobwebs of the dream. Ingold is dead , he told himself again, sweating, frightened, and desperately fighting a growing conviction that this was not entirely true.

Vaguely, he knew he had slept for a long time-days, by the weak hunger he felt and the scratchy growth of his beard. Cloudy images of voices and of people sitting near him swam like specters to his mind, then swirled away again like mist. He wondered if Eldor had changed his mind and if, when he got to his feet and tried to open the door, he would find nothing but a brick wall.

But that's stupid , he told himself tiredly. The walls of this cell are so thin I could damn near kick my way out .

He wondered what Eldor had said to Alde when she'd told him that the Inquisition was trying the wizards for heresy.

A dim, white gleam appeared under the door, and he recognized Gil's light, cautious tread. The gleam shifted; he heard the quick spatter of spilled water and realized that he was parched with thirst. He managed to sit up when she came in and took the cup she gave him. His head still ached, but the sickening dizziness had passed. The water tasted very cold to his dry mouth.

Gil regarded him with pale, disinterested eyes. "Think you'll live?"

"Are they placing bets in the barracks?"

"Five to seven against."

He fished clumsily in the pocket of his painted vest and found a few coppers. "Put these against." He sank back onto the rumpled pillow. "Where are the others?"

She seated herself casually at the foot of the bed. "About fifteen miles the far side of the Pass."

He sat up with a jerk, so quickly that the motion almost made him sick. "What?"

Cold as ice, her bony hand pressed him back. "You had a long nap, punk. Kara sat up with you most of yesterday, but she had to hit the road with the rest of them at sunset last night. You were in no shape to go anywhere. Neither Elder nor Alwir nor Govannin bothered to see the mages off, and if they were one short, Janus wasn't going to say anything about it."

Her bony fingers traced the fold of the blanket under which he lay-a gesture, Rudy thought, that she had picked up from Ingold. "Officially, Janus knows nothing about your being here," she went on, "but he did mention to me that he hoped any wizards who might have lingered would remember that if Eldor sees one, that order of banishment could just as easily get switched back to death."

Rudy nodded, the slight movement bringing on a pang of nausea. "Nobody will see me," he said faintly. "A cloaking-spell isn't invisibility; but, as long as I move quietly and don't call attention to myself, it should amount to the same thing. People might have the impression there's somebody else in the room, but they'll also have the impression it's somebody they know and that everything's okay. It should take care of me long enough for me to collect supplies and get out of here. The only person who could see me when I'm being quiet and moving slowly is another wizard, and that," he added bitterly, "doesn't seem to be much of a problem around here anymore."

The shadowy gleam of the glowstone Gil had set beside the door made her eyes look frost-colored as she turned them toward him. Her voice was neutral and uninflected. "Not anymore," she agreed.

He was silent for a moment. Then he whispered, "He did let them all go, then?"

"Oh, yes," she replied calmly. "Govannin wasn't happy about it, but Janus kept an eye on them, as much to make sure they left safely as for anything else. I was with the Guards who escorted them to the Pass. We left about two hours before sunset, actually; it's a long way to the top of the Pass. On the hill of execution across the road, Kta met us- the Inquisition's soldiers never caught him at all. It was a bitter climb," she said, still in that cool voice, "freezing cold, with the wind keening down off the rocks like the screaming of the damned."

Rudy remembered that road-it was the way he has taken with Ingold, the first steps of the road that led to Quo. But Quo no longer existed; the ashes of its Archmage were long ago scattered by the wet winds of the sea. Only that black-walled Pass remained with the rocky, snow-covered road running through it, leading nowhere.

He closed his eyes, as if he could blot out the vast sensation of wretched exile that swamped him-first exile from his own world, and now from this one as well, as soon as he was strong enough to be on his feet and away.

The soft, colorless voice went on. "We stopped to rest- Kara's mother was about done in. The Red Monks roughed her up pretty badly. It didn't shut her up much. The things she said about Govannin would have made a construction worker squirm."

He clenched his teeth, remembering the struggle and Kara's voice begging mercy for her mother when she herself could have been beaten to death without a sound. "Damn them for turning her out," he whispered tiredly. "Even if she is a vicious old biddy. Besides," he added, "I kind of like her."

Gil chuckled dryly. "She'll make out. It's Tomec Tirkenson I feel sorry for."

"Who? What?" He opened his eyes and blinked at her, confused by this non sequitur. "What the hell does it matter to Tomec Tirkenson?"

Her wry grin broadened without becoming any more relaxed. "Well, we reached the foot of the Pass, as I said, when the last light was going. Most of the Guards turned back; a couple of us stayed to bid the mages goodby, though none of us had any idea where they'd go. There was me, Seya, Melantrys, the Icefalcon, Gnift, and Janus. We'd smuggled them some food-they were turned out without rations, you know."

Rudy looked away. "Goddamnit," he whispered.

She shrugged. "It doesn't matter. Because about fifteen minutes later, when we were getting ready to leave, Kta pointed back down the road, and we could just see, coming through the woods, Tomec Tirkenson and his people-the whole caravan of them, all his troops, his horses, and what supplies he could browbeat out of Eldor. All of them were heading back to Tirkenson's Keeps in Gettlesand. He drew rein by us and sat looking down from the saddle for a long time at Kara, with the strangest expression on his face. Then he reached down and offered her his hand."

Something seemed to stir under the ice in Gil's eyes at that memory; the bitter, too-sensitive mouth relaxed. "He didn't look as if he thought she'd take it," she went on in a gentler tone. "But she did. Then he kissed her fingers and picked her up, to sit on his saddlebow, like that, in the curve of his arm. And he turned to one of his retainers and sort of growled, 'Get my mother-in-law a mule.' And, by God, they did, with Dame Nan gazing up at him with those wicked, sparkly eyes, as if she were looking forward to playing hell with him for the next forty years of her life.

"Then he said to the rest of them, "The Keeps in Gettlesand aren't as sure and strong as this, but for the likes of you and for a damned magelover excommunicate the likes of me, they're a damnsight safer. If you want it, you've a home there, until we're all devoured by the Dark.' And they rode off up the Pass, with Kara on Tirkenson's horse, Nan behind them on a mule, and the whole bobtail rabble of mages and Gettlesand cowboys following behind them, down into the West."

Rudy closed his eyes again, tasting the snow-winds and seeing in his mind the wintry gloom closing on the Pass, with the blown snow slowly covering the tracks as the last creak and jingle of harness faded. At least they survived , he thought. At least there was somewhere for them to go in this bitter, dying world .

"Did they ever find out what happened to Thoth?" he asked quietly.

Gil sighed. "I have a theory," she said, "about what happened to Thoth. You know Wend's gone back to the fold?"

Rudy nodded wearily. "He was at the trial in Govannin's suite."

"Don't judge him too harshly," Gil said. "She's been at him night and day since he came to the Keep-something that cost him all his peace of mind to begin with. It was only a matter of time until he broke. They had a big ceremony this afternoon-you were still sacked out like the proverbial log-sort of a formal exorcism of evil-minded people from the Keep. The Church was packed with people all up and down those little stairways and hanging chapels. And Brother Wend and Bektis formally renounced wizardry…"

"Bektis?"

"Wearing a hair shirt with ashes in his very beard," Gil mused reminiscently. "It's the first time I'd ever really seen a hair shirt. I understand now why they were considered such a penance in the Middle Ages."

"What is a hair shirt?"

"Basically, it's a tunic made of industrial-weight burlap."

Rudy writhed at the mere thought.

"Anyhow, Bektis pulled a sentence of bread and water and a hair shirt for the rest of his natural life and reassignment, in a menial capacity, to Alwir's household."

He looked up and caught the cynical glitter of her eyes. "Wonderful." He sighed. "So as soon as the stink dies down, Bektis gets his old job back."

"You got it," she agreed. "Maybe somebody's twigged to the fact that they may need a wizard around here later in the winter-if the Raiders should attack, for instance-and Govannin would rather have it be somebody like Bektis than someone as powerful as Thoth. Or maybe it's just a bribe to Alwir. I don't know. For the moment, Bektis is scrubbing floors." She shrugged disdainfully.

"And Wend?" The utter misery of the little priest's face came back to him as he had seen it above the candlelight in that dark, clamoring room.

Gil removed an invisible speck of dust from the frayed sleeve of her surcoat. "Wend was allowed to take a vow of lifelong solitary contemplation," she informed him in a colorless tone. "And was readmitted to the Church, in view of -'services rendered,' was how Govannin phrased it, I think."

Rudy was silent.

"You see, Thoth was a damn powerful mage," Gil continued in that same quiet, almost casual voice. "He was the only survivor of the Council of Wizards, and I guess he'd been one of the most powerful people on the Council. I'm told the only way to handle a wizard like that is to slip him a Mickey Finn and take care of him while he's asleep. And I don't think," she concluded, "that Thoth would have let anyone other than another mage that close to him. Wend was his student, too, in the arts of healing. He'd have had the opportunity."

For a time Rudy said nothing, and Gil folded her bony hands in silence. Faintly, the measured tread of the Alketch patrols in the halls came to him; the Alketch troops now garrisoned most of the Keep. He thought of Alwir and the hook-handed Commander Vair, but they had little meaning to him now. He felt crushingly weary, as if, like the tortured figure he had seen in his dreams, he lay beneath the rock weight of all earth and all darkness, without hope of rescue or chance of escape.

He glanced up at Gil again. Her lips were folded in a very slight, cynical smile; veiled behind fatigue-bruised lids, her gray eyes were cold and unsurprised by this sordid tale of treachery and tyranny. Rudy found himself thinking that she had become very much like Melantrys and the Icefalcon, as ruthless and impersonal as the edge of a sword.

Yet she'd put herself in danger to save the music of his harp.

He did not want to ask the next question, but knew that he could not bear not knowing. "And Aide?"

The long fingers pleated the edge of the blanket restlessly. "Eldor may not have both oars in the water," she said after a moment, "but he's smart enough to know that Alde wasn't pleading for the wizards' safety out of regard for Kara's mother's health. I knew it would backfire on her," she went on, her voice muffled as she turned her face from him, "but I literally couldn't think of any other way to stop the trial. The Church's high-handed use of power has been a sore point with Eldor all along. I was betting he'd let you go just to black Govannin's eye."

Rudy seized her hand impatiently. "What about Aide?"

The delicate nostrils flared with scorn. "What the hell did you expect?" she snapped. "He'll let her out eventually-he can't keep her a prisoner forever."

What the hell did I expect ? he wondered dully. He had known in his heart that she was Eldor's prisoner. I did this to her . And yet in the beginning it had all been so easy, had felt so right. From the first moment he had met Aide, that last golden afternoon at Karst, and had mistaken her for Tir's junior nursemaid, he had had no doubt that their love was right.

"We should never have started," he whispered softly, his bleak gaze shifting to Gil's face once more. "All I've done for her is screw up her life, and I wouldn't have hurt her for the world, Gil."

Gil shrugged and toyed with the hilt of her sword. "I don't suppose you could have hurt her," she observed, not meeting his eyes, "if she didn't love you-not that that's any excuse. But it just might be that loving you saved her life."

Rudy frowned, startled.

Gil went on in that almost absent-minded voice. "When you have lost the only person you loved-whether he ever loved you back or not-when you have lost your world and everything you ever had and are fighting your way forward without even a goal to fight for, it's tremendously easy to die, Rudy."

She got to her feet and adjusted her sword belt around her narrow hips. Her eyes met his, forbidding, defying him to reply or say anything to her of love or loss. "If you get on the road tomorrow, you can probably catch up with the Gettlesand party," she added prosaically. "I'll send you a birthday card when spring breaks."

But dawn brought a messenger to the gates of the Keep, a thin, brown boy on a winded horse, his crimson tunic sewn with the emblems of the Empire of the South. Janus sent one of the day watch running to fetch Vair from his quarters in the Royal Sector. Rudy, persistently unnoticeable in the cloak of his spells, had made his silent way down to the gates to sniff the weather and he saw at once that something was badly amiss.

Black clouds buried the peaks that loomed over the Vale; the distant Pass lay invisible under a gray roil of vapor and snow. By the direction of the wind, Rudy guessed that the weather would break sometime late that afternoon-very cold but clearing, he thought. If he left as soon as the gates were opened at daybreak, supping unobtrusively out with the woodcutters and hunters, he would still be able to catch the Gettlesand cavalcade within a day or so.

From the shadows of the gate passage, he watched Janus talking to the messenger while the herdkids swarmed around them. None of them so much as glanced at Rudy. Behind him in the tunnel, Alwir's deep, beautiful voice sounded, with Eldor's breaking in like a screeching counterpoint. The dark

Alketch Commander walked silently between. Rudy stood very still. Perhaps due to their preoccupation, perhaps due to his spells, none of them happened to be looking in his direction as they passed within a foot of him, though Eldor's cloak brushed his shoulder.

He remembered that one of the mages-Dakis the Minstrel?-had once recounted to him how, by judicious use of such cloaking-spells and his own native caution, he had lived for three weeks in an enemy's house without anyone's becoming aware of his presence. Rudy doubted the story was true, chiefly because Dakis could never have kept his mouth shut for three weeks. But throughout the interview on the steps, neither Janus not Elder nor anyone else ever looked in Rudy's direction. It was as if he were simply not there.

The messenger fell to his knees before Vair, his words a quick liquid babble in the southern tongue. Rudy saw the black Commander's eyes widen and his face grow ashen, as if he had been struck suddenly ill. The cold, yellow eyes flickered to the sky, the weather, and the road; an electric tension seemed to galvanize his body. Rudy knew what the message had been before Vair turned back to speak to the Lord of the Keep.

Gil was right , he thought without surprise. Gil was right, after all .

The Commander said, "The Dark have risen in Alketch."

Alwir's mouth opened in a quick gasp, as if he had taken an arrow through the throat. But Eldor flung back his head and let out a long shriek of wild laughter. He could not seem to stop himself; the weird, distorted cackling went on and on, until Janus took him by the arm.

"My lord…"

The King choked, gasping behind the black, faceless leather of the mask. "I knew it!" he cried. "We are doomed, after all! The earth is doomed! God, what a jape!"

"My lord…" the Guard repeated worriedly, and Alwir seized Eldor's other arm and shook him angrily.

"Is that all you can do?" Alwir demanded, his face livid. "The only Realm remaining whole and stable, the only seat of true civilization, falls to the Dark, and you laugh?"

Eldor was cackling to himself again; but, from his unseen post in the shadow of the dark walls, Rudy saw how the long white fingers of his good hand dug to the knuckles in the flesh of Janus' arm. "Civilization?" he gasped, fairly rocking with unholy mirth. "You call that bloody welter of intolerance and slavery in the South civilization? I laugh, my dear lord Chancellor, because our friend here-" He waved his twisted red claw at the rapidly purpling Vair. "-has been strutting about the Keep like a dunghill cock, for pride that the Dark did his conquering here for him. Fate seems to spread her favors with an even hand, my friend," he said, inclining his head to address the hook-handed Commander. The quickened draw of his breath flattened the soft leather into weird and terrible patterns over the disarranged points of his features. "Who knows what you will find upon your return?"

Alwir's gaze whipped from the rage-engorged face of the Alketch Commander to the invisible one of the King. "The treaty stated that a garrison would be left us for defense until such time-"

Vair opened his mouth to disagree, but Eldor cut him off with a kind of unbalanced delight. "Not when the scramble starts, my lord Alwir. Not when our left-handed friend here has the only stable, standing force in the land and when all Alketch is stricken in panic, with wealth and power there-" He held out one strong white hand, the fingers crooking and curling like claws. "-for the seizing." The face was gone, but the whippy restlessness of that agile body was like the lift of an eyebrow, the quirk of sardonic lips. "Going to take your chances at becoming Emperor is a lot more entertaining than helping the Inquisition slaughter poor little wizard-lings-isn't it, my lord Commander?"

Vair said stiffly, "The question does not arise." The ice winds ruffled in the ribbons of his gorgeous costume, its gay embroideries flashing like a rainbow against the drab obsidian wall of the Keep. "We have been ordered back to our homeland with all speed. The Dark rose in all places at once, on a night some three weeks ago. I do not know what has happened by this time, but my lord the Emperor has said that he needs every sword."

He turned again to Eldor, who stood rocking a little on his heels with a swaying motion like a serpent's, the scarred root of his left hand stuck loosely in the jeweled buckle of his sword belt. "Our undoing amuses you, my lord," he said bitterly. "But what you see is the ruin of humankind-the death knell, not only of our civilization, but of all hope for refounding your own."

"Indeed," Eldor said, shrill mockery edging his voice. "That is what amuses me."

"You're mad," Alwir said quietly, and there was no question now in his tone.

"No, no, my darling," Eldor crooned, laying a.long, soothing hand upon Alwir's quilted velvet shoulder. "Not mad. Hell has merely altered my sense of humor. There was once a man, they say, who could raise the dead-he was killed out of hand."

Alwir jerked his arm free of that mocking caress. "You're mad," he repeated, and Eldor laughed.

"Not as mad as you are, my friend, to lose your foreign troops." The King turned on his heel and went striding off into the Keep, his wild, metallic voice echoing into the dark vaults with the news that Alketch had fallen and the Dark Ones had overrun the face of the world.

Vair started to follow him, but Alwir reached out to stay the Commander, grasping the puffed and pearl-embroidered blue sleeve. A glance passed between them in the bruised dawnlight. Then they both went after the mad King, into the rising chaos of the Keep.

The day was one of utter confusion, as if the Keep, like a scientist's nest of ants, had been upended and shaken. As Rudy flitted here and there, hidden by his cloaking-spell and collecting provisions for his own departure, he was conscious as he never had been before of the perils of any sudden change to such a small and precariously balanced community.

The departure of the surviving troops of Alketch meant more than just two thousand fewer mouths to feed. It meant the collapse of power structures and the hasty rebuilding of provisional alliances; it meant fights over foodstuffs, and the Guards ranged en masse with hundreds of armed volunteers around the gates of the food compounds, forbidding the departing soldiers to take so much as a stale piece of barley bread for the road home.

"You've fed off us long enough!" yelled Melantrys, who had appointed herself captain of the defenders. "You can forage for yourselves when you get to the river valleys, as we did!" She brandished one of the handful of remaining flame throwers left in the Keep.

There were other fights, wicked, dirty scuffles with the Alketch troops in the passageways of the Keep over possessions stolen or alleged stolen and over old grudges. Vair was furious over the reports from his captains of men ambushed and murdered in the back corridors, but he could do nothing. Any soldier of Alketch who left the Keep doors was pelted with snow and garbage by the growing mob on the steps and refused readmittance.

Once, late in the afternoon, Rudy thought that he glimpsed from the Keep gates the shadowy, wolf-colored forms of White Raiders, watching the preparations with unconcealed interest from the hill of execution across the road.

The Army of Alketch marched away through the stinging swirls of snow about two hours before sunset, the cursory notes of their horns a brief echo of the brave fanfares that had heralded their coming. Rudy could have told them they would be bogged down by snow in the lower Pass and lose many more men to the cold that night, had anyone known he was there to be asked. Even Bektis could have told them that. But Bektis had begun to serve his penance and was absent from the steps where the crowds watched the Southerners on their way.

Bektis was one of very few to miss the sorry spectacle. All the Guards were there and all the Red Monks, ranged with Govannin, steel-eyed and disapproving, at their head. Maia stood there with all his Penambrans, Rudy himself took the risk-a small one-of being seen and recognized despite his cloaking-spell, in order to stand like a ghost on the fringes of the crowd, picking out faces that he knew he would never see again after he left the Keep at tomorrow's dawn: Winna and the Keep orphans; Bok the carpenter; that skinny little old man who kept chickens in his cell despite all Alwir's injunctions about livestock in the Keep; Gil, standing between Gnift and the Icefalcon; Alwir, the black velvet wings of his cloak stirring in the bitter winds; and Eldor, faceless, somber, his thrawn body taut with barely contained amusement.

There was no sign either of Minalde or of Tir.

She would be back in her room , Rudy thought, alone .

Unguarded.

The thought of her seemed to kindle all his flesh, like fire in dry wood. Between his fear for her and the longing that had tormented him for these aching weeks, he scarcely stopped to think; it seemed impossible to him that he would leave the Keep forever without once more hearing her voice. For months, in good times and bad, he had lived with the reality of her love, the comfort of her presence, her sweet seriousness and good-natured teasing, and her boundless capacity for affection. It seemed to him that no matter how painful their parting would be, he could not forgo speaking to her one more time.

It was tricky to pass through the crowd-tricky to go within a few feet of Eldor, who, he devoutly hoped, had no idea that he had remained at the Keep, contrary to the order of banishment. He pulled the illusion of-a kind of gray facelessness about him. If asked, any one of those Rudy jostled would have been reasonably certain that he had been brushed against by someone he knew, only he could not quite recall by whom, in any case, everyone was far too preoccupied with watching the troops of the South to care.

The corridors of the Keep were empty, echoing eerily with his hurrying feet. Rats scurried out of his way; cats paused in the darkness, turning flat, feral heads to observe him with their insolent eyes. Only when he passed the hallways that led into the mazes of the Church did he sense movement in the vast, dark hollowness around him-a dim suggestion of chanting somewhere far off and a vagrant breath of incense.

The corridor outside Aide's room was dark and empty. A thin line of candlelight showed beneath her door. His hand brushed over the door bolts as lightly as a passing breeze.

He paused, listening, extending his senses and stilling his mind, as if he could see into the room through the shut and bolted door. The soft creak of the carved chair came to his ears, the tiny sibilance of skirts sliding over a shifted knee. A breath of beeswax mixed with a hint of new bread and butter. Aide's soft voice was singing, as she did to herself when she was alone.

"You were the love that I should have met,

Had the roads we walked on crossed-

But time and the stars forbade it then

And the days of the summer were lost.

Now the white snow covers the hillside.

The wedding chimes are rung,

And my harp strings mourn the music

Of a song that was never sung."

He heard her voice crack a little. There was a long, desperate silence, her breath fighting sobs. Then she whispered to herself, "Don't do this. He's gone, it's over. Don't torture yourself. He's safe, and that's all that matters."

Tir's voice spoke, babbling and unintelligible, and Alde replied with a forced and broken lilt. Rudy turned away from the door, feeling as if nails were being pulled from his flesh.

If she thinks I left with the wizards , he thought, so much the better. She's taken the worst impact of the hurt already. It would be senseless cruelty to make her go through another farewell .

He stumbled down the black hallways with an ache in him that he had never dreamed possible. You wanted to hear her voice , he told himself bitterly, and you did . It was the last time he would hear it, the last time he would walk these halls. And Alde would remain, virtually a prisoner of a mad, twisted husband- He shoved the images from his mind, as he had shoved those other dreams of the crushing weight of stone and darkness. There was nothing that he could do. Tomorrow he would slip quietly from the Keep and take the long road for…

Where?

Gettlesand was the logical choice.

People had begun to drift back into the Keep; he heard the footsteps of patrolling Guards and drew around himself the protective veils of illusion long before they came into sight. Against his will, other possibilities formed within his brain of where he might go when he took the road.

Quo ? He saw Ingold's hands again as they passed reverently across the gilded bindings of the books in the ruined library. Like the harp Tiannin, they would lie sleeping, sunk in a lake of timeless stasis, until they could be brought to safety. The thought of braving the Walls of Air again chilled him, but he realized that only he and Kara of Ippit, in all the world, had ever been through those terrible roads. All the others were…

Dead?

There was another choice, and he turned his mind from it, shivering as if with fever. He hastened his steps down the murky corridors, passing an occasional servant like a ghost in his cloak of illusion. He barely noticed the old man he walked by, a thin old creature in a grubby burlap tunic lugging water in a pail. He certainly did not see the smoldering resentment in the dark eyes that followed him down the thick gloom of the hall or the spiteful curl of the lips in the hacked-off remains of what had once been a very splendid, white, silken beard.

In spite of-or perhaps because of-the unnatural silence of the Keep, Rudy's sleep was fitful, tortured by feverish dreams. He had searched for Gil since the closing of the great gates, but had not glimpsed her among the Guards, and had not liked to reveal himself to anyone by asking. He had an idea that some of them knew that he had not left the Keep-those who had gone up the Pass with the other wizards certainly knew-but he did not know whom he could trust. The sensation of being there and not there was beginning to prey upon his nerves. To walk unseen in the Nest of the Dark was one thing; to walk unseen among people who had been his friends was quite another.

He had returned to his cell in the deserted complex, made his final preparations for tomorrow's departure, and fallen into a restless sleep in which his terrible dream of darkness alternated with the vision of the rain-slashed ruins of Quo, the mewing sea birds, and the possessed Archmage's empty, soulless eyes.

It was from this sleep that he woke in the hour before midnight, to feel the sudden warmth of a woman's body pressed to his, a silken river of unbound hair across his cheek, and warm lips clinging frantically to his. He caught Aide's body in his arms and crushed her to him, half-awake, feeling her sobbing against him in the dark.

"My love, my love, you're all right? Rudy, tell me you're all right. They said you'd gone-all the wizards had gone- that you'd be killed if you stayed. Then they said…"

"I'm fine, babe," he whispered back and pressed his lips to hers to stop the flow of her muffled, half-hysterical words. "Christ, I thought I'd never see you again. I wanted to come to you…"

Her arms clung more fiercely around his neck. "I was so afraid," she moaned.

"Here…" His hands stroked her hair and her shoulders, trying to soothe the violence of her tears. She turned her face against his shoulder; in the darkness, his wizard's sight showed it white, tear-blotched, and thin, as if she had not eaten in days. He clutched her to him again and wondered how he could possibly have thought of going without speaking to her one more time. "Babe, I'm all right," he murmured. "I'm fine, I'm safe. It's you I was worried about. Are you okay?"

She moved back a little from him, her midnight-blue eyes enormous in the gloom of the cell. She nodded, the tendrils of her hair swinging down over her face. Her voice was trembling as she lied, "I'll be all right."

Rudy felt his heart contract in his chest. "Does Eldor-" He broke off, knowing that he had no right to ask it of her. She looked away, and he saw the tears glittering on her face.

Softly, he asked, "Do you want to come with me? To Gettlesand, to the Keeps of Tomec Tirkenson?"

Until he spoke the words, he had not so much as thought of it. But in her silence and the sudden tremor that passed through her body, he could feel the possibilities of that solution. Her lips parted a little, her eyes wide and filled with a sudden flare of desperate hope.

Then she looked away and said in a small, flat voice, "I can't leave my son."

"Bring him, then. I can get both of you away from here under a cloaking-spell. We could go to the Keep at Black Rock…"

"No." The violence in that low-voiced denial told him how fierce was her temptation. Against the dark red velvet of her gown, her face was dead white in the darkness, her hands trembling in his. "If I had our son, do you think he'd ever let us be? He would follow us, Rudy. Then Tirkenson would have to decide which one of us to betray, me or his King. We'd be fugitives wherever we went, Rudy," she whispered. "I wouldn't do that to Tir-or to you."

"Does Eldor care that much for you?" he demanded angrily.

"I don't know!" Her voice cracked over the words. Unbidden, to Rudy's mind rose the grim scene he had witnessed, the grotesque shape of the mutilated King looming in the shadows, looking down at his sleeping son. Was Tir the only one Eldor had looked upon? And was the single incident that Rudy had seen but one of a series of stealthy visits? Did Alde have to lie there, feigning sleep, every night?

In a strangled voice, he said, "You've got to get out of here. Aide. God knows what he's likely to do. I'll go back for Tir…"

"No," she said, soft but unyielding.

"We'll find some place…"

"No," Alde repeated. "It isn't only for Tir." She shivered, and he drew her down to him again, warming her in the circle of his arm.

She went on softly. "Rudy, I may be the only person capable of bringing Eldor back to his senses. I can get through to him somehow-I know I can. I can't leave him."

"He might kill you!"

She was silent, but he felt the shudder that passed through her flesh.

"Do you love him?"

"I don't know," she whispered. "I don't know."

He felt the warmth of her tears through the coarse fabric of his shirt and cradled her head against his shoulder. She sighed, her bones relaxing in his grip, and for a time it was as if she had fallen asleep. He turned his head, and her scented hair tickled his nostrils.

"Aide," he said quietly, "I think I'll always love you. I only want to see you happy." He spoke slowly, the words difficult. "If you ever need me-no matter for what-don't let anything keep you from asking."

He sensed her nod, and her arms tightened about his body.

"Send Gil for me," he went on, though he knew in his heart that, because of his love, she would never call on him for help. "If anyone can find me, she will."

"Gil!" Alde pulled free of his arms and sat up with a gasp.

"What about Gil?"

"Gil sent a message to me." She shook back her rumpled hair with fingers that trembled. "That's why I came here. She-she said you were dying."

"What?" Rudy pushed himself up to a sitting position. " Gil said that?"

"She sent me a note."

"Tonight?"

"Just now. Just…" She fell silent, her eyes staring, huge and frightened, into his. There was the sudden reflection of torchlight under the door, the tramp of boots in the hall.

"Oh, Christ." Rudy made a move to roll off the bed, to do something-anything -when the door was hurled open with a crash, and the glare of torches and the whiter light of glowstones stabbed into the dark heart of the room. Alde stumbled to her feet, her face blanched with terror, and hurried to meet the man who came striding out of that blaze of brightness.

Eldor did not so much as look at her. With terrible strength he hurled her aside, and the Guards who filled the doorway and crowded the hall beyond caught her and held her when she tried to run back to the King.

For a long instant, Rudy and Eldor faced each other in silence. Behind the eye slits of the featureless mask lay nothing but darkness, but Rudy could feel the King's bitter gaze resting on him in smoking hatred. Then Eldor stepped forward and knocked him to the floor with a backhand blow.

Rudy caught himself on one knee and forced himself to stay down in spite of the consuming wave of rage that went through him. It would help neither him nor Alde to return the blow. As he knelt there, his head ringing with the force of it, he looked at the Guards in the doorway and saw that the man who held Alde back, the man who stood foremost of them with a slight, scornful smile on his full lips, was Alwir.

He knew then who had sent Alde the note that had brought her here.

A shadow fell over him, and he looked up into the blackness behind the slits in the mask.

"You love an impatient woman, young man," Eldor said softly. "It would have been better had you waited until I was away from home."

There was a hypnotic quality to that featureless face that dried Rudy's voice in his throat. He stammered, "It's not- not how it looks."

The King laughed bitterly. "Is it ever?"

"Eldor!" Alde pulled desperately at her brother's grip. "It isn't his fault. I came to him. He told me to leave. Eldor, listen to me! I had to speak to him…"

He faced around on her, and she shrank from the demon glitter that she saw deep behind the mask-holes. He took a step toward her with that swaying gait that was so oddly terrifying, and she pressed back against Alwir's immovable, velvet bulk.

"If you went to him," Eldor whispered, his voice poison-soft, "he had more than time enough to send you away. I understand your whoring after him when you thought that I was dead, and perhaps even now, when you wish that I might be." He reached out to touch her face, and she flinched from the deformed hand.

There was a kind of amused satisfaction in his harsh voice. "I suppose that even in the dark, you would know that you shared the pillow with this face. But you are the Queen and the mother of my heir. There are ways of making sure of the paternity of my other heirs."

He loomed so close above her that his shadow seemed to cover her; her eyebrows stood out like streaks of ink against a face chalky with terror. But her voice was steady as she whispered, "Let me talk to you. Alone. Please, before you do anything."

The twisted fingers caressed her tousled hair, then her cheek, and this time she did not pull away. "There will be time," he replied, "for you to plead your case at leisure. As I said, I understand your desire for a young and well-favored lover, with time on his hands to entertain you. You are young, and the young bore easily. But I will not have all the Keep saying that the King is a cuckold, not even to oblige you, my sweetest of queens."

"It's not like that."

His voice hardened suddenly. "Then perhaps you can tell me what it is like when a woman bribes and suborns her way out of her room, to creep in darkness down to join her lover."

"He is not my lover!" she cried, and the King laughed, a high, wild, screeching laugh, as he had laughed that morning when word had reached them that the Dark Ones held sway now over all the earth. He laughed on and on, the sound harsh and terrible but not hysterical, and Rudy felt his flesh creep.

Eldor choked himself silent at last, the gasp of his breathing pulling the mask flat over the twisted remains of nose and lips. "If he is not your lover, my sweeting," he rasped, "he is at least a mage who has defied my order of banishment and remained behind in the Keep when ordered to go. And since he has-for what reasons we can only surmise-chosen this fate, let him have the death that my other sweet lady, my lady Govannin, would originally have meted out."

He turned to the Guards. "Take this man out and chain him on the hill."

"Tonight?" Janus asked uneasily. "But the gates are shut…"

"I said tonight!" the King shrieked. "Let the Dark Ones take him, if they'll have him! And count yourself fortunate, my lady, that I do not give you leave to bear him company as well!"