the armies of daylight (darwath #3) Page 16

The Rune of the Chain hung roped to Rudy's right hand. In the vague dreams of his half-conscious state, it took on other shapes and other meanings-visions of horror and disgust, vileness and pain. At other times, as his mind cleared briefly, he saw it as it was, a round lead seal marked with that terrible Rune, turning slowly on its black ribbons. The aura that flowed from it was a corruption that smothered all magic. In its presence his mind felt blotted; the hope and knowledge upon which magic was founded were swallowed in fetid pits of despair.

Rudy wondered where the Dark Ones were. The night was dead still and brutally cold, and the moonlight shone through the breaking clouds to turn the snow into a hard, brilliant crust of diamonds. It was the kind of night they loved. Their darkness could smother the moonlight; their illusion could stretch out the long, hard shadows of the black Keep to creep toward him across the buried road. He wondered if having the flesh pulled off his bones would be any more painful than the slow soaking away of his life from the cold, and found that he couldn't much care. His shoulders ached, half-wrenched from their sockets by the drag of his body weight against the chains that suspended him between the pillars. Now and then he tried to stand to relieve the drag on his arms, but exhaustion, cold, and the numb dizziness from the blows he'd received when he had fought against the Guards robbed him of strength. Then he fell, and was brought up short by the agony of his arms again.

In the silence of the Vale, he could hear the wolves howling, as they had howled out on the plains. Without the rushing of the wind in the dark trees, it seemed to him that he could hear everything in the night around him; his senses spread like the great blazing net of the Milky Way over the blackness of the earth. The smell of his own blood on his wrists was very clear to him, as was the scent of the glaciers moving inexorably down from the high peaks. He felt that he could hear the faint, crinkling music that the stars made as they moved and all the sounds of the night world. He could hear the distant groan of the ice in the north, advancing a few inches every year, and the rippling of the wind in the curtain that separated universe from universe. And far below the earth, he sensed the clatter and whisper of claws in the dark and Ingold screaming.

He came to suddenly, to a shock wave of pain. In the brightness of the moonlight, he saw a grim, pale face close to his and felt the warmth of a hand on his frozen arm through the rags of his torn shirt. He must have cried out in pain, for a voice whispered, "Shut up, punk." Thin, scarred fingers worked at the key.

The release of his left wrist was like a lightning bolt of agony. Gil caught his body as he sagged on the remaining chain and eased him down as gently as she could. Her breath was a steam cloud of diamonds in the moonlight, her eyes frost-white under the thick shadows of curving lashes.

To hell with all the movie pin-up girls and even Minalde , Rudy thought groggily. At this moment Gil Patterson is absolutely the most beautiful lady I have ever seen .

"What the Sam Hill is this?" she whispered, drawing back in sudden revulsion from the dangling seal.

He managed to say, "The Rune of the Chain. What they used to imprison Ingold back at Karst. Govannin brought it out for me, special."

"Sweet of her." Gil wiped her palm instinctively on her breeches. Then she drew her sword, as Rudy had done when he'd first come in contact with the thing, and gingerly cut the sable ribbons. The lead seal fell with a little scrunch into the snow; Gil kicked it aside, as far as she could. Then she set to work with the key again.

Rudy's breath felt dry and burning in his lungs, the numbness of his body broken only by fiery shoots of agony at the slightest movement. When the chain fell away, he crumpled like a soaked blanket into the snow, and darkness gathered him and warmed him.

From several miles away, he felt his body being shaken and heard Gil say, "You pass out on me now, punk, and I'll kill you."

He tried to explain to her that he was perfectly all right and he'd feel fine after he woke up again, but somehow the words never made it past his throat. Every muscle in his back screamed in red agony as he was jerked to a half-sitting position against a bony shoulder. Someone threw what felt like a ratty old army blanket over him, tipped his head back, and dumped several gallons of napalm down his throat.

Rudy came to gasping. "What the…" He struggled, trying to break clear of Gil's cloak and recognized the taste in his nasal passages as guardroom gin.

"Shut up and lie still," Gil ordered briefly. She pulled off her surcoat-it had been inherited in the first place from some other poor soul who was currently feeding the worms and was far too big for her-and threw it over the cloak. "Think you can make it as far as Gettlesand? I brought some food, but I couldn't carry much. I'll let Alde know you got away safe."

"Thanks," Rudy whispered. "Gil, thanks. I don't know how you managed to do all this, but…"

"I pinched the keys from Janus," she replied. "I suspect he knows-or anyway, he won't ask. The Icefalcon's on gate guard tonight."

Rudy tried to move one arm and was rewarded by what felt like a terminal case of cramps. "You'd better get on back, then," he whispered. "You'll both be in trouble if someone comes by and finds the gate open."

"The gate's not open," Gil said, shocked at the suggestion. "You think, after all we've been through, I'd leave the gate open?"

"But the Dark…"

She shrugged. "The Icefalcon lent me this." She pulled a little token of wood from her belt, hand-carved and old, on which Rudy could make out the carven Rune of the Veil. There seemed little point in asking how the Icefalcon had reacquired it from the late Imperial Nephew. "It should be plenty warm in the cattle pens, and I know how to get in past the wolf traps around them. Don't worry about me, punk."

He looked up at her face, as chill and aloof as marble, and wondered that he had thought of her as a mere bookworm spook when he'd met her in the warm dream world of California. He rolled up onto his side, the effort bringing blinding pain.

"Gil," he said softly, "listen to me. You've saved my life-I'll never be able to pay off that debt. But I need your help. I need it bad."

She frowned, puzzled. Stripped to her shirt sleeves in the deep cold of the night, she had begun to shiver.

Rudy sighed and tried to pull himself to a sitting position. He sank back with a stifled moan, the packed snow buckling suddenly under the hand that he dropped to catch himself. He was only barely aware of the cold of it. "Gil," he went on, "I can't go to Gettlesand just yet. There's something I have to do first, and I can't do it alone. I…" He fell silent, his eyes going past her to the moon-washed steps of the Keep.

Alwir stood there, as dark as the shadows of the Dark Ones, his great sword gleaming naked in his hand.

He came lightly down the steps, the moon's sheen like pewter on the folds of his velvet cloak. As he crossed the road and came up the path that Eldor's Guards had trampled to the top of the execution hill, Rudy could hear his boots squeak on the dry powder snow. Gil stood up as he came near, clots of snow clinging to the darkness of her worn breeches and tattered gloves.

Alwir stopped. "Get away from him, Gil-Shalos," he said, his voice deep and musical in the hard, crystal air. "I may even be willing to pretend that I never saw you. But I am afraid, Rudy, that I cannot allow you to leave Renweth."

He took a step nearer. Gil's sword hissed from its sheath and caught the moonlight like a flicker of pale lightning. Faint contempt glinted in Alwir's eyes.

"What the hell does it matter?" Rudy demanded, struggling unsuccessfully to rise and slipping suddenly on the icy, treacherous surface. "I thought you wanted me to leave the Keep, for Chrissake! Eldor will never know the difference."

"There are risks that a wise man never takes," the Chancellor replied smoothly. "Allowing for the possible return of a mageborn royal lover who holds a grudge against me is one of those risks." He moved the sword. Light slithered along the blade like luminous blood.

"But I won't ever return!" Rudy argued frantically. "You don't have to unless Eldor dies." Gil's light, cool voice held no trace of cynicism. Her body swayed with the slight movement of the armed shadow before her; there was a tautness in her, a tension that all but crackled the air around her, a readiness that had nothing to do with either anger or fear. "Isn't that right, Alwir?"

Rudy looked from one to the other, seeing the comprehension and shared knowledge between them. "I don't understand," he stammered.

"Come on, Rudy," Gil said roughly. "A King who's lost his Realm and his honor and everything he ever knew- wouldn't you think he'd have had enough after he found his wife in the arms of his best friend's disciple? What did you give him, Alwir? Poppy juice? Or did your pal Vair slip you something a little stronger before he left?"

"You've grown quick," the big man said with a thin, ironic smile. "His Majesty has taken poppy to help him sleep every night since his return from below the ground. Bektis always mixes it for him. And it is well known that the dosage is a chancy thing. Stay where you are, Rudy." He shifted, as if to counter Rudy's clumsy effort to rise. He took another step forward, his footing cautious on the packed and slippery snow. A brief gleam of silvery moonlight caught in the jewels he wore and along the killing edge of his poised sword.

Gil moved forward to meet him, the tip of her blade raised and thinly glittering. Rudy saw that her face was calm; her eyes were as expressionless as snow water -and as cold.

Alwir sneered. "As you will," he said. "I can no longer afford to deal with a madman or with the whims of a love-struck chit of a girl. It has become necessary for me to clear my way of them, once and for all."

Like an avalanche, he struck. Steel whined on steel as Gil caught his blade on her own, parried it in a single whipping motion, and slid from beneath its burning arc, her arms half-numbed from the force of his blow. He was both heavier than she and more experienced-he knew how to use his weight against a lighter opponent. Nevertheless, she squared off, gauging the dark bulk of his massive shape against the cruel glitter of the packed snow of the path. Curiously, she felt no fear, for she had neither the hope nor the intention of saving her own life, and this freed her. She was fighting purely for the pleasure of revenge.

"My dear child," Alwir said pityingly, "I was killing men with a sword before you were born."

He rushed her with a great swinging blow like an ax stroke, driving her back before him. Her feet skidded on the powder snow that lay fresh and unbroken beyond the trampled ring about the pillars. As she ducked and sidestepped she felt the hot trickle of blood down her face and the stinging burn of the air in the opened flesh. She sprang back again, parrying, and Alwir floundered, his greater weight breaking the snow beneath him and all but throwing him to his knees. But as Gil swept in, he was up again, parrying, striking, driving. The weight of his blows jarred the bones of her wrists and grated on all the old wounds she bore in shoulder and collarbone. He struck at her again, his rushing drive slowed by the depth of the drifts. The snow creaked under Gil's boots as she sprang back, but it gave no more than an inch.

Her breath rasped in her throat like an icy saw. In and out, before he has time to touch you , Ingold had said. It was her only defense against the driving strength that smashed her sword aside and razored a gash several inches long in the flesh of her side. The blades sang against each other, moonlight searing down their stained edges, and Gil drove in, bringing blood from the big man's thigh.

Alwir cursed, lunging after her, hard specks of snow whirling about him as he surged free of the drifts and foundered again. He came after her nevertheless, slowed by the snow but never faltering in the treacherous footing, hacking at her with heavy cuts that crumpled her lighter attacks. She felt his blade rip her flesh like a talon of fire; as she twisted clear of him, she was struck by the sick weakness of blood loss and shock. She danced back, her feet slipping in the icy drifts, with darkness closing around her vision as she skidded and stumbled.

Wet cold bit her knees. Aching, she staggered to her feet, propelled by the memories of thousands of hours of Gnift the swordmaster's drills; her eyes cleared as she ducked and spun away from Alwir's floundering stroke. In spite of the intense cold, she saw how his face glittered with sweat in the moonlight, saw how the breath rolled from his mouth in great steaming clouds of white.

She thought. He's rusty. He's breathing like a bellows . She herself was exhausted by fighting for footing; Alwir must be half-dead with it.

As she backed, she saw the dark, splattering trail of her blood on the snow. Alwir was driving her, knowing her to be weakening; she saw his mouth twist with ugly fury and frustration as the ever-deepening snow underfoot slowed him down with his own weight. She sprang back before his cuts, then in, sweeping his blade aside, the metal whipping in a tight circle before he threw hers off and cut, floundering in a drift. She angled for position. He blocked her feint, surged up out of the drift in a flying storm of crystals, and slashed in great whirling strokes. Back again, then in, parrying and striking, faster and faster, their feet sliding on the hard crust. She retreated, cutting, her muscles burning with fatigue, watching for the one opening in his guard that she would buy at the cost of her own life.

Feint, parry, dodge! Her wrists were numb with the force of his blows. The roar of his breath and her own filled the night around her. Strike and counterstrike! The world narrowed to the dark bulk of his body. Flounder, slip, recover, and counterattack. Move back, drawing him toward the deeper drifts-dodge under the staggering force of his blows-back, then in! She was conscious of nothing but the burn of air in her lungs and the light, cold joy of battle.

He struck her blade aside, floundering clear of a drift, his sword cleaving the darkness as he fell upon her. She sprang back, then in-and kept on moving in.

His blood erupted out over her hands, unexpectedly hot in the freezing air of the night. For a moment, impaled on her blade, he simply stared at her, incredulous. Then the astonishment fixed on his face as his eyes turned back, and his body began to slump. She jerked the blade free and stepped back, crimson-handed, to let him fall at her feet, and he lay dead before her in the trampled drifts, a great black shadow of spread velvet and pooling blood.

The night silence seemed for a time to fill the earth. Gil stood above him, looking down at that still form and the black puddles that were already seeping into the snow, lost in a kind of detached wonderment. She had won a fight which she had not even expected to survive. She was avenged and alive. For a time it seemed to her that she felt nothing, neither joy nor gratification, only a deep, impossibly brilliant consciousness of how beautiful the night was, how the moon edged each footprint in the trampled snow with a transparent fringing of diamonds, and how clear was each single star above the ice-edged glimmer of the black mountains. Chill sweat was already freezing on her face, but the blood still warmed her hands; in them, the weight of her sword seemed suddenly immense. It was a quick-burning ecstasy that left her detached, relaxed, and filled with an indescribable sense of peace.

Rudy's voice broke that magical stillness. "Hell," he said rather shakily. "I wanted to do that."

Gil drew a deep breath, as if she were waking up, then expelled it in a tremulous laugh. She bent and cleaned her hands in the snow, wiping her blade on the corner of her dead foe's cloak. By the time she reached Rudy, she was trembling uncontrollably.

"Can you walk?" she asked him.

"Christ, lady, I should be asking you that!"

She pulled him to his feet, staggering a little at his weight against her. He drew the cloak around both their shoulders; under the sweat-drenched, blood-daubed shirt, he felt her flesh like ice. A moment ago she had been almost terrifying to him, a coldhearted, deliberate killer; but now he felt protective of her as she nestled gawkily against his side beneath the warmth of the cloak.

"How long has it been since I was put out here?" he asked.

Gil frowned, her concentration bent on negotiating the slippery snow of the hill. "Three hours or so."

"Then I might still be able to save Eldor, if I can get hold of some medicines."

She looked up at him, startled. "But the gates won't be opened until dawn."

"You think so?"

Color rushed into her bone-white cheeks. Keep Law was knitted into her nerve endings. It had never occurred to her that Alwir would have violated it. But she didn't even need to follow Rudy's gaze to the darker slit among the shadows of the Keep's western face to know the truth. "That-" she began, and continued at length. Rudy noted that swordsmanship wasn't all Gil had learned in her training with the Guards. Looking back toward the prostrate body, she delivered the final, crushing judgment. "It figures. Let's go, punk. We've been lucky so far. If…"

Her words stuck in her throat. At the same instant Rudy turned, knowledge and awareness like a chill smoke twining around his heart. Around them, the moonlight failed.

Gil's arm tightened around his body, not in fear, but in a businesslike effort to drag him toward the Keep before they were overtaken. Rising wind whirled at their hair, and it seemed that all the trees in the Vale began to toss and whisper. As they stumbled across the road, the sense of the awful numbers of the Dark Ones rose like the rising tide. Over his shoulder Rudy could see the river of illusion and death pouring down from the somber trees that hid Sarda Pass; unguessable numbers of the Dark Ones swirled the snow in glittering eddies, killing the light.

His feet caught on the edge of the lowest step and he fell, bringing Gil down with him. His every muscle cried out at the jarring blow. After that fight, she wouldn't be in much better shape than he was, he thought as they both struggled to rise. The winds stung his face, the smell of them harsh, acid, metallic…

… and looking up, he saw the Dark Ones turn aside.

Within a dozen yards of the half-open gates of the Keep they flowed, filling the earth, covering the sky like a cloud. But they paused for nothing, howling past the silent fortress and away like an elemental storm.

"What's happening?" Gil whispered, kneeling on the snow-covered steps above him, her fingers nerveless on the hilt of her sheathed sword. "I didn't know there were that many Dark Ones in the Nests of Gettlesand. You don't think the-the wizards-had anything to do…"

"No," Rudy said softly. "No wizard in that group, or all of them together, could touch the Dark."

"Then what is it?" she murmured as the directionless winds tore at the cloak they shared and stung their faces with blown snow. "Where are they going?"

With a wizard's understanding, Rudy knew the answer, though he shuddered to think of the reasons for what he knew. He glanced sideways at Gil and replied unwillingly.

"They're going to Gae."

"Christ, I wish I knew more about healing." Rudy stood against the light of the banked glowstones, looking down at the fevered body that writhed on the narrow bed. Without the mask, Eldor's face was hideous, not only from the sunken masses of shiny, twisted scars but from the marks of the last extremities of suffering. "I'll tell you one thing, though-poppy wouldn't do anything like that." He knelt beside the King and felt the racing pulse under the hot flesh of the wrist. Eldor regarded him unknowingly, the glazed eyes half-hidden under lashless lids. His breath came in a fast, steady whine through his teeth.

"Where did Alde go?"

Gil shook her head. "When I told her what was going on, she stuck around only long enough to wrap up Tir before she took off at a run."

"Can't say I blame her," Rudy muttered. He dragged the covers away from the restless body. "You know where Bektis keeps his medicines?"

She glanced up from the hearth, where she had been setting a kettle of water to heat. The firelight glittered on the half-dried blood on her drawn face. "The Inquisition destroyed everything of his," she said, and Rudy muttered something savagely about the Inquisition. She added, almost shyly, "But I have all of Ingold's stuff. It's-it's under my bunk, where I stashed your harp. I'll go get it." She rose to her feet, brushing ashes from her hands.

Rudy slung the covers back where they had been. Outside the closed door, the Icefalcon's cool voice could be heard, turning away servants, clerks, and Guards who had been drawn by the commotion. Rudy tried to think, his mind clouded by the long exhaustion of that horrible night. "I think you'd better stay with Eldor, Gil," he said at last. "I'll see what kind of purgatives I can find in the commons and stop by the barracks on my way back here." He shivered, realizing for the first time how damp his own clothes were. He couldn't look much better than Gil did.

From the darkness of the hall came the sudden, muffled tread of many feet and the Icefalcon's light, warning voice. "It's Govannin!" he called, and Rudy groaned.

"Christ, that's all we need," he said. A hoarse, dry voice rapped out an order, and he heard the rattling of scabbards and mail. A moment later the door opened, and the Bishop of Gae stepped into the room.

Bitter, dark eyes under those graceful, curving brows studied him, like a gardener contemplating a snail. "So you returned, mage."

He stood up, conscious of the smarting of his bruises, the ache in his shoulders, and the sting of the life returning to his frostbitten fingers. The weariness of the eternal night seemed to be grained into the flesh of his body, but anger stirred in him, like a swig of fiery brandy. In a shaking voice he said, "I was told there was a man sick here, my lady."

She gave a single dry sniff of contemptuous laughter. "I should think he is the last man you would aid."

"Yeah, you would think so," Rudy said tiredly. "And considering he's tried to break your power over the people of the Keep, he might be the last man you would aid. But whatever else I am, I'm a wizard; and though we don't make any vows and we don't preach about what people ought to do, there's an understanding among wizards that we hold our power as a trust and we help whoever needs it, whether that person has just got done cursing us, or whether it would be more convenient for our love lives if he died, or whatever. Now, if you're not going to help me, lady, you get the hell out of my way."

Govannin glanced over her shoulder at the Red Monks who filled the doorway at her back. "Arrest him."

There was a thin metallic whine as Gil pulled her blade free of its scabbard, and the light of the glowstones sang along its edge. The Red Monks hesitated visibly.

Govannin's vulture eyes never shifted. "Arrest them both. Eldor's illness is a judgment upon a man who would choose to deal with magic and the work of wizards."

Rudy shouted, "For a lady who'd use the Rune of the Chain, you talk mighty big about magic!"

The monks, startled, looked curiously at their Bishop, and her flat black eyes narrowed dangerously. "Silence me this liar."

"Is he a liar?" a soft voice inquired from the corridor. The warm white light of the room reflected off a shaved skull in the darkness, and Govannin swung around, her lips growing tight with anger.

"What affair of yours is this, you peasant upstart?"

"Peasant or not," that gentle voice replied, "I am duly ordained and chosen Bishop of Penambra, and if you, my lady, have indeed tampered with a thing as God-cursed as the Rune of the Chain, it is fully within my powers, both sacerdotal and actual, to place you under arrest for heresy."

Maia of Penambra, followed by half a dozen of his ragged warriors, limped into the brightness of the room. In his shadow walked two others who were not warriors: a slender, dark-haired woman, the black smudges of exhaustion like bruises beneath her eyes; and a stocky young man, barefoot and shivering in a dust-streaked hair shirt, carrying a little bundle of medicines under his arm.

Even a few days ago, Rudy knew he would probably have thrown his arms around Alde and kissed her-not only for locating Brother Wend but for having learned enough of Gil's political savvy to get a military backup first. But now their eyes only met, and she turned hers away. Though he was bruised and aching in spirit as well as in body, Rudy understood. She had made up her mind, and there was far too much at stake now to confuse the issue. They each had a clear duty, though it would destroy forever whatever chance they might have had to rejoin their love.

Govannin's eyes flickered from one to the other in baffled hate, then to Brother Wend, who bent over Eldor's bed. "Heresy!" she jeered. "You talk of heresy to me, you ignorant butcher! What shall we say of a prelate who deals with mages? Or of a monk who has sworn himself to lifelong solitude, but who cannot wait three days before violating his vows?"

Brother Wend flinched at that, as if at the flick of a whip, but he did not look up from the sick man.

Maia turned back from helping Alde to a chair in the shadows of the hearth and replied calmly. "We shall say, my lady, that neither the prelate nor the monk can be proven to have tampered with black magic-as the Rune of the Chain, according to the unanimous ruling of the Bishops at the Council of Gae, undoubtedly is."

"All magic is the same!" she snarled at him furiously. "It is all the dealings of the Devil!"

"Not," the Bishop of Penambra said, "according to the Ecumenical Councils."

"Solipsistic hairsplitting!" she cried. Looking at her eyes, Rudy was reminded of a rattlesnake about to strike.

Brother Wend glanced up, his sick, dark eyes filled with misery. "It was not she who drew the Rune on the door," he said wretchedly. "It was I. She isn't mageborn; she could not have drawn and spelled the Rune of the Chain…"

Govannin whirled on him. "Be silent, you filthy heretic!"

"What door?" Gil asked suddenly. "The Rune of the Chain was on a seal. It was hundreds of years old, by the look of it."

"Be silent, on penalty of eternal hellfire!"

Gil gripped the young monk's sleeve, and there was desperate urgency in her voice. "What door did you draw the Rune on?"

But Wend was looking up at Govannin, confused. "Seal? What seal?"

Rudy supplied the answer. "Govannin had the Rune drawn on a seal-and it wasn't the first time she'd used it, either. Alde can testify to that. Your Bishop gave it to Alwir at the place of execution tonight."

Wend's eyes grew huge, staring up at his terrible preceptress, the sick man on the bed before him momentarily forgotten. "You used it yourself, then," he whispered. "The door that Bektis and I sealed- It wasn't the first time that you tampered in black magic."

"What door was this?" Gil demanded. "Where?"

"If you speak," Govannin whispered, and her eyes held Wend's like a snake's, "I swear to you, by my power as Bishop of Gae…"

"Get her out of here," Maia said. There was not a Red Monk who moved in protest as the Penambran soldiers surrounded the enraged Govannin. "Where is this door, Wend? What cell did you seal? It could be Eldor's life or death."

Wend shook his head helplessly. "I don't know. It was on the first level, in the Church territory. We were blindfolded and taken there. The cell had been spelled before. It was a small one, but no magic could be used therein. Bektis and I only renewed things that were already there."

Maia glanced over at Gil. "Gil-Shalos? You know the back corners of the Keep. Will you take my men and search?"

Gil nodded briefly and stood up. Though it was hot in the royal bedroom, with its fur rugs and braziers of coals that burned redly in the shadows about the bed, the door let in a draft of icy air from the hall. Rudy stripped off the shabby black surcoat Gil had lent him and threw it to her. She pulled it on loosely over the slashed and blood-smutched shirt and headed for the door.

"Gil- Shalos?" Maia stayed her and turned her face gently to the light with one crippled hand. "Are you all right?"

"I'll be fine," she said. Most of the wounds Alwir had dealt her had stopped bleeding, probably including the biggest one, which was in her right side and which Rudy had patched crudely before starting to examine Eldor. It had surprised him a little that Gil literally could not remember receiving most of the wounds-only the first one, which was on her cheek. By the look of it, Rudy could tell already that she'd be scarred for life.

The few Penambrans who had remained after Govannin's removal followed Gil silently into the dark hall, accompanied by the Bishop's confused and whispering monks. Brother Wend looked up from his patient, his hollow eyes tortured by doubt.

"Who is it?" he whispered. "Whom do you seek?"

"Yeah," Rudy said, confused. "Who do they have sealed up?"

The Bishop of Penambra raised an eyebrow, and wrinkles laddered all the way up his high, narrow forehead. "You have not guessed?"

The sensitive hands resting on Elder's wrist trembled. In a shaken voice, Wend murmured, "She told me that he was dead. I killed him. I…" He bowed his head, unable to go on.

"I sincerely doubt," Maia said, bending down to touch the priest's shoulder in a faint rustling of patched brocade, "that with your small skill you would be capable of concocting a poison strong enough to kill Thoth the Scribe. Nor do I believe that my lady Govannin would permit any wizard simply to die painlessly – It was painless, wasn't it?"

Wend nodded wretchedly.

"To die painlessly or quickly, if it were in her power to make it otherwise. So take courage, Brother-her spite may well have been her undoing in this." He straightened up and moved back toward the door as Wend returned shakily to his task. Only to Rudy did Maia turn a worried face, in the shadows that shrouded the doorway. "By the look of my lord Eldor," he said in a low voice, "it will take all Thoth's great skill to save him. I pray that he can be found."

But the night hours wore into morning, and Gil and her squad did not reappear. Rudy and Brother Wend did what they could, using Wend's stock of herbs and Ingold's medicines and working with their combined magic to hold soul and body together, but Rudy could feel Eldor's life slipping away.

His own mind and body were numb, and his hands fumbled at their tasks. He was barely cognizant of the passage of time or of his surroundings, scarcely aware of hunger or thirst. All he knew was the task before him and a weariness that became a dull torture. The golden flicker of the fire on the embroidered hangings around the bed began to swim before his tired eyes, and his occasional speech with Wend grew less and less connected. He wondered that it had been only yesterday morning that the messenger had ridden to the steps of the Keep- a little over twenty-four hours since the Army of Alketch had departed.

Alwir must have begun to plan it then , Rudy thought, and he had been mere bait, the ostensible trigger for the larger trap. With what feeling remained to him, he felt a dull anger at Alwir, lying stiff with cold and rigor mortis in puddles of frozen blood on the hill. He would have stamped me out like a cockroach, disgraced – maybe killed – his own sister, and slain Gil more or less in passing – all as a cover-up for the real thing .

And yet, beside the silent passing of the Dark Ones toward Gae, Alwir, Eldor, and even he had already begun to seem very small and insignificant. His suspicion had strengthened to virtual certainty; he knew in his heart what was awaiting the Dark there. And he knew what would have to be done.

He sank, exhausted, down on a bench and leaned his head against the mingled colors of the tapestry behind him. The bullion stitching of it scratched his cheek; distantly, dark against the shaded glow of the banked white lamps, he saw Brother Wend wiping his hands, his dark eyes weary and defeated. Eldor had ceased to toss and rave. Exhausted and broken from repeated purgings, he lay with his half-open eyes sunk into skull-like sockets, staring blindly at the ceiling above him. Rudy's glance crossed Wend's, and the little priest shook his head.

Rudy sighed, mumbled a curse, and tried to find the energy to stand. "Maybe if we…"

"No," Wend said. "I do not think there is anything we can do for him now." His head and face had been shaved anew for his return to grace, and the razor burns stood out red and ugly against his pallor.

"There's got to be," Rudy said doggedly. "Where the hell is Gil?"

"Perhaps she could not find the sealed door." Wend moved stiffly to a carved chair and slumped down on its yellow silk cushions. The coarse burlap of his sleeves had been rolled up over his elbows; he continued to wipe his hands, slowly and mechanically, as he spoke. "Perhaps Thoth is dead, as my lady said. The poison-I-I did not mean…"

"Hell, I know Govannin." Rudy sighed. "I'd hate like hell to try and stand against her will on something I was sure of, let alone something I wasn't." He tried to remember how long it had been since the arrest of the wizards, but the days slipped from his mind as the pestles and tubes and herbs had slithered from his nerveless fingers. He ran his hands through his long hair, as if trying to clear cobwebs from his brain. "There's got to be something…"

Wend shook his head. "We have done what we can," he said quietly. "Elder has been weakened by his wounds and by the long debilitation and undernourishment in the Nest."

"And it may be," a woman's soft voice added, making both men turn in surprise, "that he has no further desire to live."

Aide rose quietly from the corner where she had been sitting so silently that neither of the mages had remembered her presence in the room. She still wore the dark red velvet dress that she had worn when she had come to Rudy the night before. Within the frame of her dark hair, her face looked haggard. Rudy tried to recall what he had been saying to Wend at intervals during the last few hours. He knew he had described Alwir's death, and, although Alde had long since ceased to believe in her brother's love, she need not have heard of his death so callously. Her eyes and nose looked raw from weeping, but he could not remember having heard a sound.

As she came into the brighter light and sat on the edge of Eldor's bed, Rudy could see the glisten of two white threads among the unbound blackness of her hair. She took the King's good hand, his unburned one, in hers. When she spoke, her voice was low and tired. "They are much alike, you know-Gil and Eldor. Having lost everything, they are too stubborn to die. And they are both the kind of person who would rather die under torture than admit their true feelings or ask anyone for anything." She turned Eldor's hand over in hers, stroking the fine shape of the fingers, the split and bitten nails, and the scars left by the hard mastery of the sword. "I never knew what he did feel for me," she went on quietly. "Maybe it was that he didn't trust Alwir and feared I would be his pawn. Maybe he just did not trust himself."

Rudy sagged back against the embroidered hangings and looked up into her still, ravaged face. "Maybe he just didn't know how to show love. There are people like that, too. It's hard to tell the truth, even when you want to very badly."

The long white fingers clenched suddenly over Aide's. Looking down, she saw the gun-metal eyes blinking up at her, heavy and sardonic and half-asleep. "Aide?" the King whispered.

It was the first time that Rudy had heard Eldor address his wife by her name.

"I'm here," she said.

"Are you well?"

She touched the tops of his protruding knuckles with gentle fingertips. "Yes," she murmured. "Yes, I'm well."

"It is true, as they said?" he whispered. "Alwir is dead?"

"Yes," Alde replied softly. "The girl Gil-Shalos killed him in a duel."

There was silence, and then the faint, creaking breath of a laugh. A sliver of the old, amused malice gleamed in the sunken eyes. "He must have been surprised."

The corners of Aide's mouth tucked in, very slightly. "Perhaps," she said and transferred her light touch to his forehead. "No one else was. Rest yourself, my lord. Later…"

"Rest." The hideous features twitched in a grimace. "Rest indeed." His breath was coming in thick wheezes through half-uncovered teeth. "No later," he whispered, "no light. Only dreams. Tir?"

"Tir's asleep." In the grate, the log broke and crumbled, the sudden spurt of golden light showing Aide's lashes beaded with amber tears. "I'll send someone to Maia's church to fetch him if you want."

The King moved his head slightly, dissenting. "No. Look after him. Ingold promised me he would."

"And so he did," she murmured.

His hands moved restlessly, then stilled again in hers. "Ingold-where is he?" he muttered.

She hesitated and cast an agonized glance at Rudy.

"He's at Gae," Rudy said softly.

"Ah." Eldor frowned suddenly, as if at something forgotten. The effect on the rucked, scarlet flesh was horrible. "I struck him," he murmured finally. "Tell him -I am sorry."

"He knows."

Eldor sighed and shut his eyes. "You spoke of love," he said at length, "and of truth. A man may love a kitten, or a child, or a woman. My kitten, do you love this boy?"

"I love you," Alde whispered, and the burned, red fingers twitched, waving her back from him.

"You need not kiss this face to prove it."

"A woman never loves a man's face, Eldor." She leaned forward and touched his lips with hers.

They twisted into the ghastly mockery of a grin. "A brave kitten. A brave woman, maybe… Do you love this boy?"

Aide was silent for a long time, holding his hand, listening to the slow drag of his laboring breath. She finally said, "Yes. I do. I don't know how it's different, but-I love you both."

"A woman may worship a hero," the King whispered, "and love the man whom she was born to love. I was fond of the kitten and I might have loved the woman. But I never met her. I wronged her-and perhaps myself as well."

"There is time," Alde said softly and bent to kiss his lips again.

The door opened quietly, and Gil entered, the wizard Thoth leaning on her shoulder. The old man looked weary and ill, his hairless face and head as white as a skull's above the black folds of his grimy robes, but the gold eyes had lost none of their haughtiness. Silently, Wend bowed his head. The Scribe of Quo had a bitter turn of invective when he chose.

But Thoth only shook off Gil's supporting arm and moved to the side of the bed. His light fingers searched Eldor's wrist, then his forehead, the deep-sunk eyes narrowing to slits, as if the old man listened to the King's dreams. Then he said, "Leave us. No-" He shook his head as Wend rose thankfully to go. "I'll need-" He paused. The chilly amber eyes widened, resting for a long moment on his betrayer's white face. Then, without change of inflection in his harsh voice, he said, "I would like your help, little Brother. But not," he added acidly, "if it means an unseemly display of redundant contrition."

Wend blushed hotly and wiped his eyes.

Thoth turned his enigmatic gaze on Minalde, who had risen likewise. "Perhaps, my lady, you had best stay as well."

The Icefalcon was waiting for Gil and Rudy in the hall. "If he dies," the Raider commented callously as the door was closed behind them, "he shall have none to thank but himself." His glance rested briefly upon Gil's scabbed, discoloring face, filthy tunic, and crusted boots. "Good work," he added. "You have bones to braid in your own hair now, my sister."

"He was out of training," Gil commented, and winced as the bandages on her side pulled when she moved her arm. "Christ, I'm tired."

The Icefalcon moved her gently into the light of a solitary glowstone in a niche and looked critically at the cut in her arm. "That should be seen to," he said, and she nodded.

"Gil- " Rudy caught at her sleeve as she turned to follow the Raider back to the barracks. She looked back at him, and he saw again how bad she looked, cut up and exhausted from the fight and from the long night of searching through the Keep. It's a helluva thing to do , he thought, to somebody who's just about running on empty; and poor thanks to her for saving my life .

"Gil," he said, "I have to talk to you."

"If it's to thank me, don't worry about it," she said fretfully as he drew her into a deserted cell near Elder's chambers. "He sure as hell had it coming."

Rudy shook his head. "I can't thank you enough," he said simply, "so it would be stupid to try. If I knew what to say, I would. It's-Gil, I'm leaving the Keep tomorrow morning."

She shrugged tiredly. "I don't think you'll have to."

"Not because of Eldor."

She frowned, brushing the hair out of her eyes, wincing again at the pain. "The Dark," she said, picking that single memory from the tangled events of the night. In the faint, grubby light that leaked into the room from the passage, Rudy thought she looked like a couple of teaspoons of warmed-over death. "You said they were headed for Gae. You know why, don't you?"

Rudy swallowed. Absurdly, he remembered a cartoon he'd once seen of a wife removing a Band-Aid from her husband's hairy arm and asking, "Do you want it in one agonizing rip or in a series of excruciating jerks?"

He knew that Gil was of the one-agonizing-rip school.

"I think Ingold's still alive."

Gil closed her eyes, took a deep breath, then opened them again and asked conversationally, "What makes you think that?" Only her worn, sharp face got whiter, and her mouth tensed, as if against the agony of a wound.

He went on, stumbling painfully over words. "I told you about what happened at Quo-about Lohiro. Well, all the way across the plains to Quo, Ingold kept saying that he didn't think Lohiro was dead. He said he'd know it. Partly because of the Master-spells and partly because there's a-a link between student and teacher. I think it's a link that works both ways.

"Ingold made me a wizard, Gil, and I love that old man like a father-more than any father I ever remember. I know he's alive. But the Dark have had him for weeks now. When he comes back-if he comes back-it won't be him."

She was crying without sobs, the tears sliding like ice water down her still face. She started straight ahead of her for a long time, only the rigidness of her mouth betraying the wrenching grief within. When she finally spoke, her voice was even, detached. "But he still has the Master-spells over you, doesn't he? And over every other wizard in the world. And his are the spells that bind the Keep gates against the Dark."

Rudy nodded miserably, thanking God for Gil's brutal quickness of mind that made it unnecessary for him to explain what had to be done or why.

"And what's more," she went on, as if she were speaking of a stranger, "you and I are probably the only people who would be able to detect anything wrong."

"Yeah," he agreed in a strangled voice.

Gil pressed her hands briefly to her face, so that her scarred fingers covered her mouth. From behind them, her voice was muffled and thin. "Oh, Rudy," she whispered, and was silent then, gray eyes gazing blindly into space.

"I'm sorry, spook."

She shook her head. "He was afraid of it all along, you know," she told him quietly. "He said something about it to me once, but I didn't understand. He said that they didn't want him because of something he knew, but because of what he was. With him on our side, we could fight a defensive war. With him on their side-we're gone."

Rudy said nothing. Outside in the hall, the day's traffic bustled back and forth, voices of the people calling anxious rumors to one another, feet hurrying on errands, far-off children's voices crying. With all its smoky air and endless, lightless mazes, its bleak, grimy cells and inescapable odors of unwashed clothes and cooked cabbage, the Keep of Dare was the last sure sanctuary humankind had.

"You think they're mustering for an attack, then?"

He looked back at Gil. Her hands were hooked in her sword belt again, her face like rain-streaked bone. "I think so." He paused, then said, "He's a helluva wizard, Gil. I'll need someone who can handle a blade."

She nodded as if it were something long agreed upon between them. Then she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and tossed the end of her braid over her shoulder. "I have to go get patched up," she said, still in that flat, calm voice. "I'll see you in the morning, punk."

Rudy followed her out into the corridor, wanting to offer some comfort, some apology, some mitigation to the hurt of her grief. But she brushed him off and strode away without a word. The white emblem of the Guards on her shoulders bobbed out of sight in the shadows, passing the black-robed figure of Thoth, on his way to give Rudy the news that Eldor was dead.