the armies of daylight (darwath #3) Page 8

The booming of kettledrums echoed like thunder against the ice-pure silence of the Vale of Renweth. Above it, like the thin cry of wind, Gil could distinguish the high, mellow sweetness of horns.

It seemed to her that every man, woman, and child in the Keep was gathered before those black walls, carpeting the hill of execution with its sinister, chain-hung pillars and blackening the snow of the lower meadow. A shifting lake of humanity spread out beyond the lines of the Guards, the ranked masses of the scarlet troops of Alwir's private corps, the Church regiments, and the long, disorderly row of the Gettlesand rangers. Now and then gusts of talk would swell over that close-packed, uneasy body and spread like wind ripples to its edges-rumor, speculation, and fears. Only at the end of the Guards' rank, where Gil stood on the lowest step of the Keep, was there silence, centered upon the Guards' burly Commander Janus and the old man who sat on the ground at his feet.

At length Ingold stood up and put away the yellowish crystal into whose depths he had been peering. "I make their numbers some three thousand," he said, brushing the snow from his robe.

Janus did some rapid calculation in his head. "We've over half that strength here of fighting men, not counting volunteers. Even with the flame throwers, it will be a near thing."

To that Ingold did not reply.

The drums boomed louder, an insistent, throbbing rhythm that seemed to engulf flesh and bone, and someone in the lower meadows cried out as the first glittering ranks of the Army of Alketch broke through the trees.

Except for the small corps of halberdiers, the Army of the South was composed solely of men; an Imperial Army, gleaned from the half-dozen races that acknowledged the sway of the lord who sat in Khirsrit. It emerged from the woods like a gilded serpent, spined with spears, rank after rank of haggard, grim-faced men who had fought their way here from beyond the swampy ruins of the Penambra Delta through hundreds of miles of freezing, haunted countryside. From the crowd in the meadow a cheer rose, sweeping all the watchers, echoing against the flat walls of the Keep.

Gil had to admit that they were a brave sight, these stern and hard-faced men beneath the gaudy rainbow of banners, and the roar of the drums and wave after breaking wave of the sound of horns would have stirred the coldest blood. But she could see that Ingold was not cheering, and the ranks of Penambra and Gettlesand were silent.

Like the shrill whinny of stallion answering stallion, horns sounded in the passage of the Keep gates. Looking up, Gil saw them emerge, remote and hieratic as chess pieces beneath a black velvet canopy-Alwir, Minalde, Prince Altir Endorion, Maia, and Govannin, scarcely human at all in their formal robes; the cold, brittle daylight sparkled on the bullion embroidery of their pennants, on ivory and ebony, opal, sapphire, and pearl.

The honor guard that surrounded them blew a final blast on its trumpets. Before them, the kettledrums fell silent. Hooves scrunched daintily in the crusted snow as a white horse emerged from the front ranks, and Gil recognized upon its back that graceful young courtier who had tried to murder the Icefalcon-Ambassador Stiarth of Alketch, clothed in primrose satin and gilded chain mail. Dismounting, he bent himself almost double in a deep salaam.

"My lord," he said in his lilting voice, "my lady. I greet you in the name of the Emperor of Alketch."

Minalde stepped forward, opals flickering like chains of misty stars in the coils of her hair. Carefully, but with a grave confidence possibly imparted to him by his stiff-cut brocade gown, Tir toddled at her side, one fat, pink hand clutching hers. Gil was conscious of Rudy standing beside Ingold, his face glowing like a two-hundred-watt bulb with pride.

Aide's voice carried clearly in the silence. "In the name of my son Altir Endorion, Lord of the Keep of Dare and heir to the Realm of Darwath, I greet you, and through you, your Imperial Uncle, the Emperor of the South and the Lord of the Seven Isles. I bid you welcome as guests in this Realm and to this fortress."

Stiarth bowed again. Another man, both taller and stockier than the slender Ambassador, dismounted and handed the reins of his charger to a kneeling groom. Then he, too, stepped forward and made his obeisance. "My gracious thanks for your greetings, my lady Minalde," he said, his voice harsh as unpolished stone under the lisping accent of the South. "I am Vair na Chandros of the Imperial House of Khirsrit, and I greet you in the name of the head of my House, Lirkwis Fardah Ezrikos, Emperor of the South and Lord of the Seven Isles, whose name and ancestors are revered from the White Coasts to the Black and on all the Islands of the Ocean. I am designated Commander of this expedition-and your humble servant."

Straightening up, he surveyed man, woman, and child on the steps before him with eyes that were cold, honey-colored, and anything but humble. Like Stiarth of Alketch, Vair na Chandros was black-skinned, his features haughty and aquiline, more Arabic or Pakistani, Gil thought, than Negroid. His hair reminded her of an Arab's, thick and closely curled, silvered to pewter but still retaining a few streaks of black. His one hand, the left, rested on the turquoise-crusted hilt of his cross-hung sword. His right arm ended in an ivory stump, equipped with two steel hooks inlaid with silver. The metal glinted palely in the cold daylight as he introduced the third of the men who had ridden at the head of the Army.

In contrast to these dark members of the Imperial House, this man was of the ivory-fair race of the Isles, his eyebrows over his green eyes proclaiming that, before he had entered the Church and shaved his head, he had been red-haired. Like Maia and Govannin, he wore the arcane white of the High Church panoply; he was a tall, kindly-faced, elderly man whom Vair introduced as Pinard Tzarion, Inquisitor-General of the Army of Alketch.

"Aye," Gil heard one of the Guards in the back ranks mutter in a thick northcountry brogue, "come to make sure we're all in't' Faith proper."

"As long as we fight their battles for them," Gnift's rather hoarse voice replied, "they don't care if we worship sticks and old bottles. So," he added maliciously, "you can breathe easy, Caldern, my pear blossom."

"Garn to your sticks and old bottles. If they'll eat our porridge, they best not squeak over't' grace we says."

"They best not," Melantrys' purring voice agreed, "but what will you bet they do?"

Odds were given-Gil had long ago learned that the Guards would bet on anything-while, on the steps of the Keep, Alwir was continuing his gracious welcome, looking like Lucifer in his Sunday-best. The hook-handed Vair did not seem pleased about bivouacking his men a mile and a half from the Keep, but Stiarth smiled suavely and said, "Of course this excepts our personal bodyguards, servants, and key members of the General Staff-a minor point which you must forgive my even mentioning, since certainly that was your intent."

"Indeed it was," Alwir beamed, with a determined amiability that reminded Gil of the old tale of the Spartan youth and the fox.

Stiarth tested his boundaries. "The way there is not too rocky for you to send the daily rations to the troops? But naturally, it wouldn't be."

"It's a matter that will have to be discussed," the Chancellor informed him affably.

"Ah!" White teeth flashed in his dark face. "But then, so much will."

Vair na Chandros barked a summons, and an officer came hurrying from the ranks, scarlet plumes nodding in the thin, snaking wind. He rasped a string of orders in the singsong tongue of the South; the man bowed deeply and effaced himself. In a moment the drums began again, a deep, hollow booming that vibrated in Gil's bones. The ranks began to move, following the men whom Alwir had appointed as guides. Cold sunlight flashed upon their spears.

"My lord Vair's-incapacity-has ever prevented him from the field generalship that was his chosen career," Stiarth purred, as he and those around him on the steps watched the hook-handed Commander summon the bodyguards forth from the main host. "But his years as Prefect of Khirsrit, and in particular his expeditious handling of the autumn food riots in the city, have given him more than ample experience to head these forces. I'm sure you will find him an able military co-Commander, my lord Alwir." His dark, slender fingers toyed with the ruffles of his extravagant gloves. "But I am nominal head of the Expeditionary Force. It is with me that you will negotiate the final terms of the treaty of alliance with my uncle."

Alwir's sapphire gaze cut sharply sideways at him. "I had thought, my lord Stiarth, that the final terms had already been negotiated."

The Ambassador sighed. "So had I, regretfully. But upon returning to the South, I received new instructions from my Imperial Uncle. It has been a bad winter in the South as in the North. Though we have not, of course, experienced the depredations of the Dark Ones, the harsh weather has caused crop failures, and many troops that my uncle would otherwise gladly have committed to your aid were needed to suppress unrest." He looked up, the diamonds in his earlobes glinting no less brightly than his teeth. "But with good faith on both sides, all things are possible, are they not?"

"Indeed they are."

The last time Gil had seen a smile like that, it had been on the face of the loser of a tennis championship as he'd shaken hands with the winner.

Commander Vair returned to the group at the foot of the steps, the wan sun winking off the polished chain of his gilded mail and the rainbow hues of his brocaded surcoat and cloak, making him appear like some deadly, scintillant tropical fish against the dull, muddy background of dirt and snow. With his hooks he gestured for Inquisitor Pinard, as a prelate of the Church, to precede him up the Keep steps. But the motion froze in mid-gesture. His expression hardened and his pale eyes gleamed suddenly with the red glint of a hatred long cherished.

He had caught sight of Ingold, standing among the Guards near the bottom of the steps.

"You…" he whispered.

He came forward slowly, and the murmur of talk that had risen among the Guards at the mention of the Alketch bodyguard's being admitted to the Keep faded to utter silence. The silver hooks flashed as he lashed out with them. Without any seeming haste, Ingold intercepted them on the iron-hard wood of his staff. The wizard's brows were drawn down, his face puzzled.

The Commander whispered, "So you don't remember, do you?"

With considerably more haste than tact, Alwir intervened. "My lord Vair," he introduced. "Ingold Inglorion, the head of the Wizards' Corps and the Archmage -" His voice flourished almost mockingly over the tattered title, "-of the Wizards of the Western World."

Vair spat the words. "We've met."

And suddenly, Ingold's eyes widened with startled recognition.

The Commander went on bitterly. "So you were a mage all the time." His hooks clattered against the wood of Ingold's staff. "I should have known I lost my hand and all my chance for a life of glory through a wizard's tricks."

Ingold sighed. There was regret in his voice, but he never relaxed his guard against the dragon-bright warrior standing before him. "It was no magic that let me overcome you, my lord Commander," he said quietly. "I was no mage then, and if anything, you had the advantage of me."

"You were never my superior with a sword!" Vair lashed out. "You were a man grown. Fledgling Archmages don't come to their power so late in life." He turned to the discomfitted Alwir, his lip pulling back from his white teeth in scorn. "So this is your-ally," he rasped. "Your weapon against the Dark. See that it doesn't turn and cost you the hand that wields it, my lord."

So saying, the Commander thrust his way past those who stood on the steps and climbed to the gates, where Stiarth waited with a look of calculation in his eyes and Pinard with one of I-told-you-so. After one glance of bitter hatred at Ingold, Alwir hurried to catch up, and his fluent, melodious voice could be heard drifting placatingly back as they disappeared into the darkness of the Keep.

The sun would set soon. From her position on the high ground, where the track to the caves passed between the rock spur and the knoll in the forest, Gil could see the activity around the Keep. Men and women were coming in from the woods with cut kindling on their backs. Those fortunate enough to be possessors of cows or goats moved about the heavily fenced pens and byres to do their evening milking. The wind stung her cheeks like acid. It was time she returned.

To what ? she wondered.

She had spent the day combing the secret levels of the Keep, gathering record crystals. She knew that she would likely spend the night reading them patiently, one by one. Body and bones hurt for sleep, but she was aware that the Winter Feast was less than two weeks away, and after that the army would march, with the riddle of the Dark's former defeat still unsolved. So she had opted for a walk in the freezing air instead, and the promise-which had gotten her through her master's thesis at UCLA last year-that she could sleep when she'd done a little work.

Wolves were howling in the high Vale, and Gil spared a thought for horses of the Alketch and the cattle they had brought as part of their provisions. Well, they'd protected them thus far. But she drew her cloak more closely about her shoulders and hurried down the broad, trampled track that led back toward the Keep. The temperature was dropping- the soupy muck churned up by the feet of the army was already freezing. From somewhere above the gray, constant cloud-cover, winds sneered down from the glaciers.

"Gil- Shalos!"

The gray mists between the trees seemed to thicken, materializing into the Icefalcon's tall form. He fell into step with her, one pale eyebrow lifting. "Strolling?"

"Picking buttercups," she replied, and he grinned.

Clothed once more in the familiar black uniform of the Guards, he seemed to be as Gil had first known him, back in the noisy chaos of Karst. He'd gotten rid of the bones in his hair; his long white braids hung smoothly over his back. In fact, the only signs that he'd ridden with the Raiders at all were the slight darkening of his fair skin and the wariness in his eyes.

"I, too, seek buttercups," he said quietly. "Only I have sought them farther along the cliffs, near the pool under the caves."

Gil said, "Stiarth isn't there."

The fine- chiseled nostrils flared slightly. "He will be, one day." Like a cat, the Icefalcon picked his way around an ice-scummed puddle in the road, his boots making barely a sound in the decayed snow at the track's edge. "And when he is, believe me, my sister, he will pray for even half the poison that he dumped into my food that night in the river valley."

"I wondered how he'd done it," she said after a time.

The Raider sniffed. "I am not certain whether he meant me to die of the dose, or whether it was only to make me sleep. In the open ground in the valleys, it makes no odds." The colorless eyes glittered suddenly, like dirty ice. "He had been better to make sure of his job."

Gil sighed. She would not say so, for she knew that the Icefalcon had brushed sleeves with death, but it was in her mind that if Stiarth were to die, Vair na Chandros would be the leader of the Alketch troops. This doesn't concern me . she told herself despairingly. I'm getting out of here before the invasion, and what happens afterward is their problem . But she remembered the hatred in Vair's eyes as he had spoken to Ingold before the doors of the Keep, and she shivered.

"You'd think Stiarth would have made sure you were dead," she remarked. "If he brought poison on the trip in the first place, he must have planned to use it."

"Not necessarily." The Icefalcon skirted a steep place in the track, leaping down a snow-covered boulder to avoid the mud-wallow made by the slipping horses of the Southerners.

"Things are very different in the South. A man in Stiarth's position carries poison as a matter of course."

For some reason, the graceful, bejeweled people of the crystal came to her mind, flirting through the ceremonies on the ancient water-stairs. Had they, too been a race of poisoners? "Tell me about the South," she said.

He shrugged. "You have seen the men. The South is a land of all colors. The people dress like popinjays. There are flowers there, orange ones with stripes or purple ones like something you see in fever dreams. Even the ants are all hues of the rainbow." His light, terse voice formed the images curiously clearly to her mind, against this snowy waste of dreary mud and somber trees.

"The Round Sea is warm; Alketch is a land of jungles, palm trees, and mile after mile of untouched white beaches. There are high mountains, like a wall in the west." His hand sketched their mist-hung skyline. "The people are all colors, too -black and red and gold. They put too much spice in their food, stink of depilatories, and treat their women like cattle. There are no Dark Ones in the South."

"Why is that?"

He shrugged again. "Ask the Dark. Ask Ingold. Ask our lady Govannin, for that matter. She will tell you it is because the Church rules the Empire, where their Straight God is better honored. There are rumors in places-but there are always rumors. Rumors of people who have disappeared, or of matters that someone else saw. But all those I spoke to in the South seem to think of the Dark Ones as a sort of plague that has befallen the North."

Gil was silent as she slopped through the shadowy woods, suddenly troubled by the half-memory of something Ingold had once said. "Yeah," she protested, "but Ungolard-the old scholar from Alketch who joined the Wizards' Corps- says there was what he thought was a Nest buried under the ruins of an old city in the jungle near his home. And he says that historically the earliest records of civilization in his part of the world don't go back much farther than they do in this one."

The pale eyebrows quirked. The Icefalcon had little use for chronicles and books. "How long does parchment last?" he asked her. "Even words carved on stone can be broken to make way for a king's pleasure garden. The South is a warm land, and records perish easily there."

"How far back do records of your people go?" Gil countered, and he smiled.

"To the days of the gods," he replied softly. In his breathless voice she caught the echo of campfire light and shamans' songs, the taste of tundra and ice fields on the wind. His voice sank, half-chanting the words, as if they came from the distant memories of his wild boyhood among his own people. "To the days when the rain fell upon the grasses, and men stepped forth from the growing seed. To the days when the Long Songs were not made, and the List of Heroes was short. To the days when the Sun Chief fought the Wall of Ice, and drove it back to make the Sea of Grass for his people to dwell on, and caught the birds of the air in his hands, to make the horses for us to ride."

Gil frowned as some thought snagged at the back of her mind. Something in that soft, husky voice… something that Tomec Tirkenson had grumbled in the bitter snowfall of Sarda Pass. The hills of Gae above an arbor of tropical flowers… the dusty sole of a sandal, found in a midden in a cave.

She felt a stirring in her, a quickening, as images coalesced in her mind-the warm, putrid vapors of the Vale of the Dark and Minalde's night-blue eyes, tear- filled, gazing into the horrors of an earlier life…

Gil stopped, staring out into the gray, cold distance with unseeing eyes, as knowledge broke like an exploding star within her.

She saw it whole, a pattern resolving from meaningless shapes, and the understanding smote her like a blow. As surely as she knew her own name, Gil knew why the Dark had risen.