the armies of daylight (darwath #3) Page 3


"Ingold?"

Gil paused in the narrow doorway, all but invisible in the harlequin shadows that spangled the room. One of the other mages, the wizened little guru Kta, had told her that he was here, in a tiny chamber hidden deep within the secret levels of the Keep-the subterranean levels of whose very existence nine Keep dwellers out often were ignorant. Looking into the room, Gil saw that it was a miniature version of the "observation chamber" up on the second level, in whose stone and crystal table Rudy had once seen the possessed Archmage from afar.

Ingold was sitting on the edge of the circular, black stone table, looking into the changeable brightness that flowed upward from its heart. He raised his head at the sound of her voice, his face checkered with light and shadow; then he held out his hand to her, and the white light faded.

"I was on the point of sending for you," he said quietly as she took a seat on the table's edge beside him. Then, seeing the tautness of her mouth and the way her long, hilt-blistered fingers fidgeted with the buckle of her sword belt, he asked, "What is it, my dear?"

"Is it true what Rudy said?" she demanded. "That you're going to lead the reconnaissance to Gae?"

For a moment he studied her in silence. It seemed to Gil that, as the cold brightness of the light faded, the lines of his battered face deepened momentarily. "After Saerlinn's death, I am the only one who can lead it," he replied.

She cried in despair, "You're going to be killed!"

At that the blue eyes lightened. Ingold's smile was a curious thing, for it transformed him as sunlight could transform a Highland landscape, making what was grim and angular suddenly young and wild. "You wound me, Gil," he chided. "My very own cloaking-spell…"

"This isn't a joking matter." In Gil, concern for others had always taken the form of anger. Her voice was rough and harsh as she spoke. "The Dark Ones took Lohiro, and he was the goddam Archmage."

"Lohiro went to them willingly," pointed out the man who had loved the Archmage as a son. Against the chill, shifting luminosity of the crystal's light, the scar he'd taken in killing Lohiro stood out jaggedly raw on the flattened corner of his cheekbone.

"Well, if they could hold him as their prisoner," Gil snapped, "they sure as hell won't have any problems killing you ."

An echo of that wild lightness still lingered in his eyes. "They'll have to catch me first."

Gil looked across the flickering fountain of light at him for a moment, struggling with anger and caring. Then she sighed, disarmed. "Well, all I've got to say is, you have the flakiest way of hiding out from them that I've ever seen, but that isn't any of my business."

" Ah." Ingold smiled regretfully. "But it is your business, Gil. I have rather effectively made it your business, by bringing you to this world against your will and by getting you trapped here."

Gil shook her head. "That wasn't your fault. You couldn't have known the Dark Ones would try to get through the gap in the Void."

"It's kind of you to say so. But I should have reasoned it out earlier than I did." Amid the darkness of the wall, his huge shadow stooped forward like a giant as he took her hand and drew her to his side. "I knew of the possibility. But at the time I rescued Prince Tir, flight into your world seemed to be my only recourse, and I needed a confederate on the other side of the Void. And believe me, it has been a grim lesson to me about the inadvisability of tampering with worlds beyond my own."

Oil shrugged. "If you hadn't tampered, Rudy would still be painting bikes for the Hell's Angels. You can't say that was just coincidence."

"I don't believe that there is such a thing as coincidence," Ingold said, and for a moment their eyes met. "And in any case," he went on, "if I had not tampered, you would not have been dragged from the life you were working to build for yourself at the university, your research, and your friends. If it had not been for the danger that the Dark could follow you back across the Void and devastate your world as it has destroyed ours, you would have returned to all that long ago. And that, my dear," he concluded quietly, "is why I came here tonight." He drew her forward. Light pulsed suddenly in the crystal inset in the table's center, bathing them in a white kaleidoscope of brightness. "Look into the crystal, Gil."

She obeyed him, bending over it and blinking against that coruscating glare. "I- I don't understand," she stammered.

The brightness drew her sight, blinding her to the room, the shadows, and the robed figure at her side. Though there was a silence, she felt as if she were looking at music; only the faint buzzing throb of the machinery in the nearby pump rooms broke the utter stillness of the vision in which she was caught.

"It is- not easy to explain," that deep, grainy voice at her side said. "This observation chamber, like the one up on the second level, was originally built to monitor the defenses of the Keep-a logical expedient, considering the miles of corridor involved. But, as Rudy learned, magic crystals have many uses. What you are seeing now is a construct, a simple visible expression of ideas too vast to be comprehended by ordinary means."

Gil frowned, as her eyes slowly adjusted to the brilliance of that river of light that seemed to pour up around her.

For a time she was not certain that she even saw what she thought she saw, for she had no consciousness of the crystal itself. She thought that she looked down through an infinity of space, bathed in burning whiteness, and that, like bubbles in shining solution, gold spheres were moving, circling one another in the slow patterns of an unknowable dance. Their opalescent surfaces swam with colors that she neither recognized nor comprehended, revealing stars, galaxies, ages- cosmic vistas of something that was neither space nor time. The spheres grew infinitely smaller with distance, though there was neither horizon nor wall to break her line of sight; as far as she could see in that blazing ether, they were moving, merging, parting, and drifting around one another in endless patterns whose meaning whispered at the verges of her understanding. They shimmered like oiled gold as they touched, pressed together like the hands of joining dancers in those veils of light, and then, with infinite slowness, parted.

Ingold spoke again, his words seeming to her to come from some great distance. "What you see is the Void, Gil, the Void between universes-the Void that you crossed to come here. The spheres are worlds-universes-eons of time-each one a limitless cosmos of matter and energy, entropy and life. This is the closest I can come to explaining it to you, and it bears about as much relationship to reality as a child's five-point drawing bears to the wonder and complexity that is an actual star. Do you see the joined spheres that lie closest to us?"

She nodded. "Are they-? They look as if they're moving apart."

"So they are," he murmured. "They are your world and mine, Gil. Last summer they had been drifting together, until they lay so close that the curtain between them thinned. It is possible for one who understands the nature of the Void as I do to travel from this world to any other. But on the night that I first spoke to you, in the courtyards of Gae at the first quarter moon of autumn, they lay so close that a sleeper, a dreamer, could be drawn across unknowingly, as you were. It is this closeness that has prevented me from sending you back, for any rent in the tenuous fabric that divides your world from mine would set off a series of gaps through which the Dark Ones could find their way-as, in fact, one did.

"But our worlds are parting, drifting out of their cosmic conjunction. In six weeks or so, at the time of the Winter Feast, it will be safe for me to open the gate in the Void and return you to your world, without endangering the civilization that gave you birth."

When he spoke of her return, she looked quickly up from that shining well to meet his eyes.

"And that, my dear, is why I am here tonight," he repeated, as gently as he could. "For you are right. I do not know what awaits me in Gae. Danger, certainly, and perhaps my death. I had hoped to return you to your own world tonight, lest you should be trapped here forever."

Gil whispered, "Tonight?" She was shocked at the suddenness of it, the fact that she might eat her dinner in the bleak Vale of Renweth and finish the evening with a midnight snack at a cafe on Westwood Boulevard. Indefinable emotions beat upon her, and she could only stare at him with blank, startled, stinging eyes.

Ingold took her hands gently and said, "I am sorry, Gil. Was that why you sought me out?"

She could not reply. Beside her, his voice went on. "Since the night the Dark Ones tried and failed to break the gates of the Keep, you know that they have haunted the Vale of Renweth. It may be that they are waiting for our guard to slacken or that they look for the opportunity to trap me outside the walls. But it could be that they are waiting for me to tamper again with the fabric of the universe, to open a gate through the Void. And that I dare not do."

Still she remained silent. Below her, the crystal had gone dark, and the room was drowned in shadow. But it seemed to her that she still could see vague infinities of dark spheres and the suggestion of slow, turning movement through blackness. Quietly, she said, "It's all right."

His hands rested upon her shoulders, warm and comforting, banishing fear as they always had the power to do. "I am sorry," he said again.

"It isn't that."

Out of the darkness that surrounded them, a faint thread of bluish light flickered into being. As Ingold helped her to her feet, the gleam widened and strengthened, showing the room small, black, and Spartan, the crystal plug set in the center of the table opaque and sparkling, a faint and frosted gray. The light drifted along above Ingold's head, and their shadows lumbered, black and sprawling, about their feet as they went through the narrow door. It illuminated the gray fog of dust stirred by their feet as they passed through the deserted corridors of the empty hydroponics chambers. It winked on the disassembled components of flame throwers beyond the shadowed doorway of Rudy's laboratory. Like a vagrant ball of foxfire, it preceded them up the narrow stair to the inhabited levels of the Keep and through the dark succession of closets, doorways, and interconnecting halls that made up the headquarters of the Wizards' Corps.

The Corps common room was deserted, its only light the dim apricot glow that pulsed from the embers that lay, like a heap of jewels, on the wide hearth. Their two shadows moved clumsily through the greater darkness of that long room, passing, like the shadows of clouds, over the paraphernalia of habitation there: the jewel-bound books, salvaged from the wreck of Quo or shamelessly stolen from the archives of the Church; Kara of Ippit's satin pincushion, sparkling like a diamond hedgehog among a great tumble of homespun cloth; the knuckly, knobby braids of herbs and onions hanging above the hearth; and the silver rainfall that was the strings of Rudy's harp. The round, gold eyes of the headquarters cats flashed at them from every gloomy corner.

Ingold sighed, breaking his bitter silence, and there was a note in his voice which she had never heard before. "I had never meant to put you in such peril, Gil. It is said that wizards, among their many faults, have a horrible way of endangering their friends. I only hope to get you safely away from here, back to your own world, before disaster strikes. Those who are close to me seem to have a shocking rate of mortality."

The beaten regret in his voice shocked her. "That isn't true," she said.

In the darkness he was only a darker shape, edged with the tawny colors of the fire. "You think not?" With his face hidden, the pain and irony of his words sounded all the clearer. "Rudy has inherited the staff of one of my dearest friends, child, and the widow of another."

"That had nothing to do with you."

"No?" Like a spark rising, his eyebrow was tipped with reflected gold. "One of them I deserted in the hour of his death; another I killed with my own hands. I don't see how much more I could have had to do with it."

"Either of them would have commanded you to do what you did, and you know it." When he tried to turn away from her, she caught at his robe, the rough homespun bunched in her fist. "You were all trapped together by forces you couldn't control," she whispered savagely. "Don't torture yourself because you were the survivor."

Still he was silent, except for the thick draw of his breath. In the fading ember light, he was only a dim shape to her, but she was aware of him as she had never been aware of anyone or anything in her life. The touch of the patched wool clenched in her hand, the scent of sweet herbs and soap and woodsmoke that permeated the cloth, the stippling of fire outlining the edge of his white hair- with a heightened consciousness, she felt that she would have known him anywhere, without sight or hearing, merely by his nearness alone. When he raised his fingers to touch her wrist, she felt it like an electric shock.

In a softer voice, she said, "Quit tearing at yourself, Ingold. None of it was your fault."

"But your death here would be."

"Do you think that matters to me?"

"It matters to me ." Then suddenly her hand was empty. She heard the dry swishing of the curtain that covered the door of the alcove where he slept, but her eyes could not pierce the gloom at that end of the room. His grainy voice came to her as a disembodied murmur from the shadows. "Good night, Gil. And goodby. Forgive me, if I should not return from Gae."

Elsewhere in the Keep, other goodbys had been said.

The hour was late. Rudy thought he had heard the changing of the deep-night watch some time ago; but though he was more aware than most people of the span of time that had elapsed since then, it cost him conscious effort to translate it mentally into hours and minutes. He knew, in one sense, that it was two-thirty or so in the morning. But this was something that had lost its importance. He had lost his impulse to check the time, just as he no longer automatically felt for a light switch when he walked through a door.

The calling of light was an easy matter, like whistling. Seeing in the dark was easier still.

He trod the lightless corridors of the second level soundlessly, taking his memorized turnings as surely as he had once known that you got off the San Bernardino Freeway at Waterman Avenue, and two right turns got you to Wild David Wilde's Paint and Body Shop. He threaded his way along a black, dusty passage between the cells that housed Alwir's private guards and a storeroom where he was sure the Chancellor was illegally storing undeclared food for one of his merchant buddies. He passed through a closetlike cell that had been partitioned off an old scriptorium and turned down a cutoff through a dark, disused latrine.

Aide had shown him this route after he'd returned from Quo. It was the quickest way from the Wizards' Corps commons to her rooms, allowing for a detour to avoid Church territory. Alde and Gil had spent weeks exploring the Keep, digging out the mysteries of its building, and either of them could get through the stygian warrens of jerry-built walls, spiraling mazes of old brick and grimy plaster and up and down the drunken spiderweb stairways with the swift, unthinking ease of a second-grader getting through the Pledge of Allegiance. As for the mysteries whose answers they had sought, they had uncovered no answers, but only more mysteries.

They had found fuel less, everlasting lamps and the component parts of flame throwers; they had found the ancient machinery that the Keep's builders, the wizard-engineers, had used to power the air and water pumps; they had found riddles as enigmatic as the frosted gray polyhedron crystals that littered the lower labs in such useless numbers. But they had discovered no evidence that the vast hydroponics gardens had ever been used, no records of the early days of the Keep, and no sign of how the wizard-engineers had so suddenly vanished.

There was no evidence of how Dare of Renweth, builder of the Keep and founder of the line of High Kings, had defeated the Dark-nothing at all as to why the Dark Ones had ceased their ancient depredations upon humankind and returned to the black abysses that had spawned them.

Rudy stepped cautiously around an oblique corner and through a dark complex of cells where, even at this late hour, a soft flicker of greasy yellow lamplight winked through a crack in a door and quarreling voices brushed his awareness like wind as he passed. Rodent eyes sparked redly at him from the murk; somewhere a chicken clucked loudly, followed by the sodden thump of a thrown boot.

Had it been the flame throwers that defeated the Dark?

He didn't think so; the pieces he'd found in the labs were few and incomplete. Besides, the Dark had been around for centuries after Dare's time. Had some other champion of humankind arisen, some other warrior who had dealt the Dark Ones so crippling a blow as to render them unwilling to continue the attack?

How had humankind defeated the Dark?

The question is the answer , Ingold always said.

The question is always the answer.

But Rudy had cudgeled his brains over all possible answers and had found himself faced with only that question.

Maybe Tir would remember how. Maybe his father Eldor would have remembered eventually, had he not perished in the blazing ruin of the Palace at Gae. Though Tir was yet too young to speak, the baby prince gave evidence of having inherited that terrible and mysterious legacy common among the descendants of Dare of Renweth, not only from his father, but-by carrier, as it were-from Minalde as well. Her memories were vague-recognition rather than recall- but if the flame throwers were the answer, wouldn't she have known it?

And if not the flame throwers, what?

White light gleamed palely before Rudy, reflecting against the slick, black stone of the walls. He passed the head of one of the main stairways of the Keep, its smooth construction announcing that it had been built at the time of the founding of that colossal maze itself. In a cage over it hung a single glowstone. a warning to the unwary.

How else had humankind defeated the Dark? Had the wizard-engineers stood at the top of those hellish stairways that led down to their hideous domains and dumped barrels of glowstones into that chasm?

Unlikely. Early experiment had shown that sufficient numbers of the Dark Ones could damp the light of glow-stones, just as they killed fires or sucked the strength from a wizard's spell of light.

Some other weapon, buried in the deeps of time? Something Ingold might have learned of in his years of study and wandering? Some piece of knowledge that lay like an unexploded bomb in the depths of that complex mind?

Rudy would have swapped several of his younger siblings for the answer to that one.

A drift of warmer air rose from the stairway, stirring his long hair. It bore on it the soft, musical chanting of the night offices of the Church, and Rudy turned away, uneasy at the thought of the minor empire that filled the first-level warrens around that fluted Sanctuary. He had heard too many tales from the other mages in the Corps-rumors of rooms where magic would not operate and where a wizard could be imprisoned, as Ingold had been imprisoned in the doorless cell of Karst. There were whispers of black magic or such things as the Rune of the Chain, which bound and crippled a wizard's power and left him helpless to his ancient, ecclesiastical foes.

Rudy had seen the Rune of the Chain. The memory was not a pleasant one.

He turned down another corridor, past a guardroom where voices hummed above the rattle of a dice cup. For a moment the haughty, intolerant face of Bishop Govannin floated through his memory, as he had seen her in the dawn light on the steps. It pays to count one's enemies .

There was one he sure as hell didn't need a magnifying glass to find. But what, after all, could she do?

He found what he'd been seeking-a jury-rigged, ladder-like stairway leading down to a back corridor of the level below, at a healthy distance from the Church. Not even a glowstone marked it, for few people came this way; below lay only a chasm of darkness, stinking of dust and mice. The crazy rungs creaked under his weight. Steadying himself against the splintery wood, he jumped the last few feet to the floor.

It was only when he landed that he saw movement. His wizard's sight caught the glint of velvet and jewels; then, as faint as a whiff of the orris root perfume, he heard the unmistakable clink of a sword hilt on a belt buckle and the slurring whisper of a heavy cloak.

A rich, mellow voice spoke from the shadows. "Don't be so apprehensive, my dear boy. I have no intention of doing you harm."

Rudy let his breath out slowly. "That's nice to know," he remarked. "I mean, you know, halfway through the deep-night watch, you kind of wonder about the people you meet wandering around the back corridors."

"Indeed you do." Alwir opened a single pane of the lantern he bore, and dim, dappled white light filtered through the fretwork slides that surrounded the enchanted stone within. "You have let Ingold make you suspicious." He set the lantern on a ledge of projecting bricks and turned back to face Rudy, his handsome, fleshy face very white within the raven masses of his hair. "Yes," he continued, "one cannot but wonder about those who walk in the night."

Rudy realized, with a sudden chill in the pit of his stomach, that Alwir had been waiting for him. There was nothing that he could possibly reply; the smell of Minalde's perfume clung to his clothes. On the last night before we split , he thought, Alwir knew he'd be able to intercept me. Not that he'd have had much problem any other night since we got back from Quo . Rudy wiped his clammy hands on his breeches and waited in silence for what Aide's brother would say.

"They tell me you've made excellent progress in the arts of magic," Alwir went on in a conversational tone. "Your work on the flame throwers will, of course, be invaluable to us when we march against the Dark. Is it your belief that Dare of Renweth used something of the kind to invade the Nests?"

Rudy swallowed, put off balance by the small talk but unable to do anything except play along. "Uh-I don't know. We've never even found evidence that Dare did invade the Nests."

"Oh, come," Alwir chided patronizingly. "We both know he must have done so. The Dark were defeated somehow. I feel sure that your reconnaissance to Gae will reveal to us exactly how it was done-and how we, allied with the armies of Alketch, may do likewise."

"Yeah," Rudy said warily, still trying to understand this cat-and-mouse game. "There are good odds, anyway."

Alwir's smile was wide and false and cold, like something he'd stapled on. "And afterward?"

"If I'm alive afterward," Rudy replied, picking his words carefully, "we'll see."

"Indeed." Alwir was still smiling, but the lobelia-blue eyes would have scratched diamonds. As if to change the subject, he said, "I assume your liaison with my sister is a well-kept secret? Not that I don't understand her feelings," he hastened to add, cutting off Rudy's flaring words. "After all, she is young and lonely. She was grateful to you for saving her son's life-as were we all, of course. And she could hardly have fallen in love with Gil or Ingold." He sighed. "I would have prevented this if I could have. But the affair seems to have begun behind my back and was, I believe, well advanced by the time we arrived here. Was it not?"

His voice strained, Rudy asked, "What do you want?"

"My dear young friend." The Chancellor sighed, his face never losing that determined smile. "I am not trying to trap you. But a man has a right to do a little plain speaking with the man who is lying with his sister. I wonder if you have considered the consequences to her?"

When Rudy made no reply, Alwir shook his head with mingled patience and disappointment. "Presumably, as a wizard, you can prevent her conceiving by you-or if that hasn't occurred to you, I assume that she can get advice from her women friends among the Guards. And as far as I know, my sister was quite faithful to poor Eldor, and Altir is indeed the late King's child."

" As far as you know !" Rudy lashed, furious at the insult. "She worshipped him, dammit!"

"And mourned him intensely, I'm sure," Alwir purred. Rudy felt his face redden. Alwir went on. "It would be putting it mildly indeed to say that her reputation would suffer, were the news to come out among the people that their Queen was less than two weeks replacing their- worshipped-lord in her bed. I could probably protect her from actual harm," he mused, "but without a doubt she would be excommunicated."

Govannin's fanatic eyes seemed to glitter before Rudy. He swallowed, "You couldn't…"

Alwir's curved eyebrows lifted. "For lying with a wizard? In the South she would be burned for it."

Rudy stared at him in shock. "You're kidding."

"Don't treat yourself to false comfort at her expense," the Chancellor told him mildly. "If the scandal became open, she would certainly be excommunicated and, as such, would no longer be able to hold the Regency or to have custody of her son."

The words fell on Rudy's ears without meaning at first; then understanding came and the slow kindling of fury deep within him. He was surprised at how steady his own voice sounded. "Which you would get."

"Of course." Alwir sounded amazed that there would be any question. He laid a patronizing hand on Rudy's shoulder. "But believe me," he went on, his voice low and grave, "I have no desire to create such a scandal."

Through his teeth, Rudy said, "That's nice.'"

"I am quite fond of Minalde, you know. She's a dear child, for all she's headstrong; and I admit to a certain weakness for pretty young girls."

Rudy remembered the agonies of remorse Alde had passed through, fighting her instinctive loyalty to her brother, and the disillusionment that stemmed from the strength of her love for him. He found himself literally trembling with rage, overwhelmed with a primal urge to smash the smirking big man's teeth down his throat-not that that would help Alde any.

Alwir continued pleasantly, "But, you see, it is in my own best interests to protect her reputation, as well as her son's creditability, which scandal would certainly damage. I hope you appreciate my position."

What Rudy appreciated, at the moment, was how someone could see red and do murder in blind passion. He fought for calm, then asked, "And what is your position?"

Alwir raised his brows. "Why, to offer you my protection, of course," he said, as if the matter were self-evident. But his calculating eyes were on Rudy's face, gauging that startled break in his anger. "To 'cover' for you, as I believe the vulgar say," the Chancellor went on in a friendly voice, "until you depart from here to return to your own world."

Rudy looked stupidly at him, like a man looking at his own spilled guts before it dawned on him that he was dead. Numbed, Rudy could only listen to that smooth, casual voice run on.

"I can countenance my sister's passion for you, since it harms no one. It does not affect the succession and will in any case soon be at an end. Indeed, I think it good for a woman to have something to occupy her. Though I cannot approve of her actions, of course, it is better than mourning and brooding. And you did, in fact, always intend to make your stay among us temporary, did you not?"

"Yeah," Rudy whispered helplessly. Before Quo , he thought. Before the desert. Before I knew what I was, and called fire from cold wood and darkness .

"Then it is well," the Chancellor said contentedly. "And when Minalde marries again…"

"Marries?"

"She is, after all, only nineteen," Alwir pointed out suavely. "I should hope, for the sake of your relationship, that you know her well enough to know that she cannot hold power by herself, particularly not in the sort of world which we are now entering. Even after the Dark are defeated, we will face a long war against them. It will be a time when the strong take what they can get. She cannot hold power under those circumstances-but a man could hold it through her."

"As you do," Rudy said bitterly.

Alwir shrugged. "I am her brother. Naturally, I would prefer that she remain single, but it is hardly fair to her. And I have no intention of letting her develop an affair with someone-wholly unsuitable."

Or strong enough to make trouble for you , Rudy thought through a daze of misery. Oh, Christ, Aide, what have I done to put you in his power like this ? In helpless rage, he cried, "Why can't you just let her alone?"

"My dear Rudy." Alwir chuckled softly. "You must know by this time that those who by their very existence hold power are never let alone by anyone. What have you to lose? I understand that your little affair is temporary and I have no objections to its continuing as such. But what happens after you have left her is no concern of yours. So what will you have lost?"

Only everything , Rudy thought, the stunned, empty numbness beginning to give way to a cold despair, like the touch of death upon his bones. Magic and love. Hope. Things that I found after never thinking I would have them . Like a well of inconceivable grief, the future yawned at his feet, the bleak, desolate world of car paint and barflies made a thousand times worse by the awareness of what he would lose. Since he had come to this world, he had often been in fear of death, but this was a fate that he had never even imagined-to be raped of the only two things that mattered in his life and condemned to live on without them in a world where they did not exist, and never had existed.