the armies of daylight (darwath #3) Page 9


"The ice in the north," Ingold said quietly, folding his scarred fingers together and gazing into the distances beyond the walls of his narrow cell. "Lohiro spoke of it as he lay dying. The bitterest winter in human memory…" He glanced up at Gil, the movement of his shadow making the gold-leaf embellishments of his manuscripts flicker like autumn stars. "It is… a fantastic explanation. Can you prove it?"

"I don't know!" Gil threw up her hands in despair. Her explanation to him had taken some time, for the old man had not been familiar with the concept involved, but when she finished, his face was grave. "I know it's true. It's the only explanation that covers everything-why the Nests were deserted in the North, why they haven't risen in the South. I can't point to a single source and say, This is why.' But-I know."

The muscles of Ingold's jaw grew taut under the white scrub of his beard. She thought that he looked tired these days, driven and vulnerable, as if he lived with some knowledge or dread that he could scarcely endure. "Alwir won't want to hear it," he said at last. "Can you prove it, before the Winter Feast?"

"I can try."

In the days that followed, Gil was little to be seen by anyone in the Keep of Dare. Her friends in the Guards-the Icefalcon, Seya, Melantrys-spoke with her at training, which she still attended, though Janus had given her leave from regular duty. Sometimes Alde came to the little room that Gil had taken for her study in the midst of the Corps complex and spoke to her while she herself waited for Rudy to emerge from his work in the labs. Rudy visited her, too, bringing the slim ration of stew and bread from the Corps kitchen at mealtimes, and reminded her to eat. But they all found her distracted, her mind elsewhere.

Ingold helped her, as much as he was able. He was often to be found in her study, sitting cross-legged on the rug with one of the Quo chronicles on his knees, taking notes by the flickering gleam of St. Elmo's fire that burned above his head. But more often Gil worked alone, hearing the watches change in the corridors outside without much idea of whether they were day or deep-night.

Occasionally she would be seen in the Corps common room, talking to the tall Raider shaman. Shadow of the Moon, or to Ungolard, the diffident, black-skinned professor who had left the University of Khirsrit to answer Ingold's summoning. Once she buttonholed Caldern, a big, brawny north-countryman in the Guards, and asked him questions regarding his childhood; once she spent most of an evening in the fourth-level Church, where Maia ruled his gaudy slums of garlic-eating Penambrans, taking notes and listening while that lanky, gentle prelate told her things without asking why she wished to know.

One evening while the other mages were playing ball-and-ring-toss with moving fireballs in the commons, she took Kta aside, and he told her, in his rambling, piping voice, of certain strange matters that he had seen with his own eyes during the endless years of silence in the Gettlesand deserts, or of things that the dooic had told him.

"I didn't know that dooic could tell anyone anything," Gil said, looking up, startled, from her notes.

"No more can they," Dame Nan's voice crackled from the curtained doorway of the kitchen. The old witch poked her head around the curtain of gray burlap, her pale eyes glittering with malicious challenge. "Dooic are speechless beasts, for all that old faker may clatter on about them. I'd drive them away from my dooryard with a broom, the cowardly, rotten, thieving lizard eaters."

"Do you drive them off with a broom," Kta retorted with shrill indignation, "no wonder they will never speak."

"They've no more speech in their tongues than my donkey," she snapped.

"At least they use not tongues for malicious speech as old women do," the hermit returned, his black-current eyes sparkling with entertainment.

"Pah!"

"Pooh!"

Witch and hermit made ritual spell-throwing gestures at each other, and Dame Nan vanished behind her curtains as suddenly as she had appeared. Sitting on the far corner of the hearth and plying her needle, Kara only sighed. A moment later Dame Nan could be heard cursing her kitchen fire, which had unaccountably gone out.

Other evenings Gil spent in the little observation chamber near Rudy's lab, staring into the crystal table, one hand on the latest of her growing collection of record crystals and the other jotting what notes she could concerning that bright and beautiful world of sunlight, intrigue, and flowers. Upon occasion Rudy came into her study and found her, her feet propped amid the shoals of Church records, borrowed from Govannin. and iron-locked, spell-twined chronicles salvaged from the ruined library of Quo, reading one or the other of the old romantic novels that Minalde had brought from the library at Alwir's villa in Karst in preference to worthier tomes.

Because the books had belonged to the Royal House of Gae, they bore the High King's crest, the gold eagle stamped into the black leather of their well-worn covers.

Gil thought about Eldor while she sat in the silence of her study, listening to the murmur of Thoth's voice instructing the junior mages in the common room or to the haunting, rain-pure music of Rudy's harp. She thought about her one sight of the man, tall and austere, the candlelight flickering from the gold eagle embroidered on his black surcoat as he stock gazing down at his sleeping son. The cold of that miserable night came back to her-how she had shivered in the shadows of the window embrasure and watched the rubies in the hilt of his sword twinkling like stars in the dim light with the movement of his breath. A King has a right , he had said, to die with his country … He had only asked that Ingold save his son.

Ingold had saved his son, she thought to herself. The Palace had fallen; the following morning Janus had pried that ruby-hilted sword from the burned hand of an unrecognizable corpse and brought to the refugees at Karst the news that their King was dead.

It had been the night of the Palace's fall that Alde and so many others had been carried off as prisoners to the underground realms of the Dark, the night Alde had been rescued on the brink of those hideous stairs by the Icefalcon and a handful of Guards. No wonder , she decided wearily, Alde was off her head for forty-eight hours with grief and horror . The wonder of it was that she'd survived at all. But Aide, Gil had long since come to know, had unsuspected reserves of toughness beneath her timid and gentle compassion.

This was an ugly and disquieting time. The rumors relayed to Gil by the Guards were conflicting and largely improbable: the Southerners were planning to return home without risking themselves in the battle for Gae; Vair had a second army waiting to attack the Keep the moment its defenders had departed with the first; Gae would be held in the Emperor's name when it was retaken; Alwir had sworn fealty to the svelte Ambassador; plans were afoot to assassinate the Chancellor and establish Govannin in a theocracy. No sooner was one rumor quashed than three others sprang up in its stead, and all of them, Gil sensed, carried the ugly taint of mistrust and schism.

Aide did what she could to counter the rumors, spending much of her time on the fourth and fifth levels, where Tomec Tirkenson's rangers were bunking on floors, in halls, and in storerooms among the already overcrowded Penambran refugees. But Gil could see that Alde was pushed to the end of her tether. She and Rudy had ceased altogether to meet in her rooms in the Royal Sector; as the days went by she would more and more often wait for him in Gil's study. The strain was telling on her, and there was a fevered desperation in her meetings with Rudy that made Gil's heart ache.

Rumor was not the only evil in the Keep in those days.

The bitter animosity felt by all the people of Darwath against the men of Alketch was returned in kind and fourfold. The bodyguards of Stiarth and Vair were always in the Keep, and by day the southern troops, who drilled with Alwir's forces under a joint command, came and went freely.

The hatred was felt particularly among the Gettlesand rangers and among the Penambrans, who had lived along the borderlands of the southern Empire. There were rangers whose families had been butchered or enslaved by the borderlords of Alketch and Penambrans whose houses and goods had been ravaged by Imperial freebooters along the warm, mosquito-ridden coasts of the Round Sea. Bitter fights became common, and revenge was not always taken directly on the instigating parties.

Racial and political hatred was not the sole cause of contention. Few camp followers had dared to accompany the Army north. Ugly stories began to circulate of women or young boys raped, either in the woods or in the back corridors of the Keep itself, so that it was considered dangerous to go about alone. Three flat-faced Delta Islanders ambushed Gil one night as she returned from visiting Alde in the Royal Sector; she told Janus of it only so that everyone's story would be straight when the bodies were finally found.

Enclaves formed. No Southerner, whatever his business, ventured above the third level of the Keep. Ingold was the only wizard who would go into the Church-ruled mazes at the east end of the Keep, where Govannin and the Inquisitor Pinard kept their council among Pinard's shaven, silent warrior-monks, and Gil found herself prey to growing uneasiness every time he did so. Old statutes regarding the spheres of power of Church and civil government were hauled from Govannin's cherished library and debated hotly in Council. Moreover, Gil became aware of a song in circulation among the Guards regarding the sexual proclivities of the Alketch leadership; since she recognized the tune, there was no doubt as to its source. The lilting march was whistled at all hours in the corridors by the deep-night watch and did nothing to remedy matters.

"I don't know how much more of this I can stand," Minalde said one evening, sitting on the ramskin-covered bench by Gil's desk with her child asleep at her side. "It's like waiting for lightning to strike and not knowing where. I know they hold 'informal' Council meetings, Alwir and Stiarth. They present me with things to sign that they've clearly negotiated between themselves, and there's nothing I can do about it." Her fingers curled restlessly at the fleece of her vest-a ski vest Rudy had made for her, like his own, painted with the black and gold eagle of the House of Dare. "I feel so helpless."

Gil was silent. Her idle scratch-pen picked herringbone patterns in the wax of the note tablet before her; the shadows of her fingers were black and bony over the translucent, creamy surface. From outside in the common room, they heard Dame Nan's gibing voice and Tomec Tirkenson's disgusted cry: "Let be, woman! Can't I say hello to your daughter without you scratching at me like a broody hen?"

Gil raised her eyes to meet Aide's. "Your brother's set on this alliance, isn't he?"

Aide sighed and brushed the hair back from her face. Her white, too-slender fingers looked like bones against the thick braids. "He's like a-a man in love, Gil. You know Stiarth came north with gifts, things we haven't had since Gae fell – bolts of velvet and musical instruments, scissors and books. He gave me these…"

She drew her dark skirt hem aside, to show beneath her white petticoat the pointed toes of slippers of heliotrope satin, brocaded and stitched with pearls. "Alwir goes on for hours about trade with the South, about renewing the civilization we've lost, once we've taken Gae. Alwir always wanted things to be the best, you know. He loves the fine things, the beauties of civilization. He's an aesthete at heart. The crudities of living here at the Keep rankle him like a sore. You know it. You've seen him."

Gil reflected upon the Chancellor's immaculate tailoring, the fineness with which he surrounded himself, and the scent of soap and perfume. Being this pedestal of perfection had served to set him apart from his increasingly shabby subjects. But she had also noticed that Aide, in her peasant skirts and painted ski vest, had lost none of her subjects' hearts.

"But it isn't only that," Alde went on quietly. "If we're going to try to retake anything from the Dark, it has to be now. Who knows what will happen by spring? Of all the landchiefs of the Realm, only Tomec Tirkenson answered Alwir's call, and we know at least four others survived. Alwir's right in one thing -if we can retake the cornlands around Gae, we can establish some kind of alliance with Alketch based on trade, rather than face them next year as our invaders."

Gil bit back a cynical remark and carefully began to Crosshatch the patterns she had scratched in the wax.

Witchlight brightened into the room, twinkling on the grainy edges of the piled record crystals. Rudy entered, disheveled and unshaven, his eyes red from strain, his hands and face marked with soot that he'd washed off without the aid of a mirror.

"Hi, spook," he greeted Gil, then bent to kiss Aide, drawing her up into his arms in a mingled fever of joy and grief.

Waking, Tir raised eager arms and cooed sleepily, " 'Udy! Udy!"

With a wry grin, Rudy went to pick him up. "What's your mom been feeding you, Pugsley, rocks? Everybody in the Keep's griping about food and swiping food from each other, and you just keep on getting fatter. How come that, hunh?"

Tir only laughed joyously. The accusation was hardly true, for he was a small baby and gave promise of growing into a boy as slim and compact as his mother. As far as anyone could ascertain, he was absolutely fearless, his increased mobility-he could toddle, after a fashion-simply widening his scope for adventures.

"I think we've just about killed the supply of firing chambers." Rudy sighed, sinking down on the bench beside Alde and rubbing his eyes. "We've come up with a total of fifty-two, and that's by searching the storerooms from top to bottom. There are nearly eighty in the firesquad; we'll have to use the extra people as alternates. This inventor noise is for the birds," he added, as Alde stood behind him and kneaded his shoulders with her fingertips. "I shoulda stayed at Wild David's Paint and Body."

"Is it true the Ambassador has asked for a demonstration of the firesquad?" Alde asked.

"Melantrys is already drilling her people for it," Rudy replied, his eyes closed in ecstasy. "Have you ever thought of going into back rubs as a profession? I'll have something ready for his Nibs in a day or so." He reached up, stilling Aide's hands, and opened his eyes to look up into hers. "He's worried about his troops," he explained unnecessarily. "Christ, I'm worried, too."

With very good reason , Gil thought, but she held her peace. After they had gone, she sat for a long time, thinking of Rudy and Aide, of the Winter Feast, and of the Dark. Silence settled upon the black mazes around her. The glow-stone on her desk cast her shadow huge and hard on the grimy wall behind her, picked out, as that white light had a way of doing, every splinter and nick in the grain of her wooden table, and edged every parchment in shadow, every crystal in light. It showed up the dirtiness and pokiness of the tiny room, the claustrophobic atmosphere that Gil had begun to grow used to-the lack of furniture, the trestle table, the heaps of furs, the worn straw pallets, and the frayed edge of her surcoat sleeve. A faint odor of cooking grease and unwashed bodies pervaded everything. No wonder , she thought, that Alwir finds himself seduced by purple satin slippers and a steady supply of soap. He's probably the only man with a stock of whole clothes in the Keep. God knows where he came up with the banners he used to greet Vair. But he knows his supplies are limited .

As a historian, Gil was too familiar with the economic domination of a depressed, underpopulated, and largely rural area by a wealthy manufacturing one. And what's more , she thought, Alwir wouldn't half mind being someone's satrap, if he could do it with comfort and prestige. Better a rich man's house nigger than a starving poor white .

A sound came to her ears from somewhere in the cells that surrounded her study. It was very late, and the other sounds of the Corps HQ had sunk away into silence and sleep.

Otherwise, distant and muffled as the sound was, Gil would never have heard it. But it came to her, faint yet startling in its harsh violence-the sound of a man crying.

Gil sat for a moment, disquieted and almost ashamed. Like most unmarried women, she had never seen a man weep and she felt a horrible sense of eavesdropping, more shameful than if she had overheard the sounds of lovemaking. It wasn't inconceivable that someone of that enchanted rabble who occupied the surrounding cells would have the horrors and regrets of a destroyed home to mourn. And she had seen for herself the look that lurked behind the eyes of all those who had been down into the Nests.

But the despair and horror of that heartbroken sobbing drove her away, and she abandoned her research and her study to seek the silence of the common room. Such grief was none of her business. She knew that, if ever she were driven to weep as that man wept, she would sure as hell not like to think that she was being overheard.

It was almost pitch-dark in the common room. The muted flicker of writhing embers showed where the hearth lay, but it illuminated nothing. Gil stumbled against a chair, catching herself on its curved back, and spared a curse for wizards who saw so effortlessly in the dark.

The only other light in the room was the marshfire flicker of bluish light that outlined the curtain of Ingold's cubicle. As she approached it, she could hear the soft scratching of his pen.

"My dear." He held out his hands to her as she came in, the frayed brown mantle that he had draped shawlwise about his shoulders sliding down over the back of his intricately carved and much-mended chair. As always, his hands were warm; and as always, his touch seemed to transmit to her some of his buoyant strength. For a moment, he studied the marks of fatigue on her face, the bruised look to the eyelids, and the sharpness of that hard, delicate bone structure, but said nothing; he was too much a night owl himself to comment. But he cleared a place for her to sit in the confusion of the corner of his desk top and went to the narrow hearth to pour her some tea.

Gil looked down at the parchment upon which he was working. Spaghettilike in their intricacy, the tunnels and caverns of a map of the Nest writhed over the page. She looked up at the old man kneeling beside the hearth, the warm light seeming to shine through his extended hands. "You don't think Alwir's going to buy it, do you?"

Ingold glanced up. "Do you?"

Gil was shocked. "He has to," she protested. "I have proof-dammit, I have a truckload of proof! He can't just disregard it!"

The wizard got stiffly to his feet and came back to her, wraiths of steam curling around his face like mephitic smoke. "Perhaps not," he assented. "I hope not.

You see, I was not deceived by the Icefalcon's glib nonanswers. He was brought here by a band of White Raiders, and I suspect that band is still somewhere in the Vale. They'll know how many men depart for the Nest at Gae and they'll know how many return."

Gil sat looking up into his face for a moment-the flat, curiously shaped cheekbones and the determined chin outlined by the glow from the hearth. She felt, as she had often felt, that she had known that face forever.

"Ingold," she asked quietly, "why are the Dark Ones after you? I asked you that once before, when you left for Quo last autumn. I think you've found out the answer since then."

He evaded her eyes. "I don't know," he replied, his voice almost inaudible. "I used to think it was because of something that I knew. Now I fear it is because of what I am."

"And what's that?"

"The Archmage," he said in a colorless tone. "The holder of the Master-spells over the others."

Gil frowned, puzzled at the sudden wretchedness in his voice. "I don't understand."

"Good." Ingold smiled suddenly and laid a hand comfortingly over hers. "Good. And in any case, if it did come to an invasion, as a mage I would have a better chance than most to survive it. Moreover, if I did not accompany the army, my alternative would be to remain here at the Keep with the civilians, Govannin, and Inquisitor Pinard."

And to that, Gil realized, there was no reply.

"The Church in the South is different from what it has been in the Realm of Darwath," he continued. "Here the Church has always observed the bounds of laws. But in the South, it in the law. It crowns their kings as well as blesses them; in some cases, it has selected them as well. Govannin recognizes the spiritual authority of the Inquisition."

"You mean she'd take orders from Pinard?"

He chuckled. "Govannin Narmenlion has never taken orders from anyone in her life. But she listens to him when he tells her that God's ends justify whatever means His servants choose to employ. And she has never gotten over her anger at me for taking Brother Wend away from the Church. I suppose you could say that Pinard has corrupted her, though both of them feel nothing but the highest of intentions. And because Maia of Penambra will have none of it, he runs the risk of being charged as a schismatic himself."

"Whereas he's nothing but a simple Episcopalian." Gil smiled ironically and then said abruptly, "Did you really whack off Vair's hand in an unfair fight?"

"Of course." The old impishness twinkled suddenly in his eyes. "Considering that he was mounted and armed with a long sword, while all I had was a two-foot short sword and a chain that held me by one wrist to a post-yes, I suppose you could call it unfair. This was, as you may have gathered, back in my days as a slave in the cavalry barracks at Khirsrit. I had no idea that Vair had lost his hand as a result of that fight-I did not wound him that badly, though of course, without magic, the state of the healing arts in Alketch is notorious. In fact, I scarcely gave the matter any thought, once my own wounds were healed, and I did not see Vair again. Looking back on it, I suppose it was he who tried to have me killed shortly afterward, forcing me to escape." The wizard was silent for a moment, his eyes focused on that distant vision of another self.

"Vair was never much of a swordsman," he added, glancing over at Gil. "Despite what he claims. As I remember it, I knocked the sword out of his hand at exercises or did something which earned him a bad mark from his instructor, and against all rules of the arena, he lost his temper and came back to finish the job."

"Crowning the sin of wrath with the penultimate sin of stupidity," Gil grinned suddenly. And then, with a slight frown, she asked, "Were you a mage then?"

"Do you think that I could have been?"

She shook her head. "But if you were a grown man…"

The wizard sighed. "I was twenty-two. And old enough, as our left-handed friend has pointed out, to have come to my powers, which most mages find between the ages of nine and fourteen." He settled back in his chair and drew the mantle once more around his shoulders, as if to ward against a chill.

"But there was a war, you see, after I returned from Quo. My people were borderlords in Gettlesand; my father was the Lord of Gyrfire, a principality near Dele. In the last battle before the doors of my parents' fortress, I took a head blow which all but killed me. When I woke in the slave pens of Alketch, I had no recollection of my name, my powers, or-mercifully-my role in starting the war."

She regarded him in silence for a time, seeing with sudden clarity that brilliant, arrogant, ginger-haired young man who had been Ingold Inglorion at twenty-two. "And when did you remember?" she asked softly.

"After I escaped from Khirsrit. Out in the desert. I had a fever; I nearly died then. Kta found me." Ingold paused, staring into the fire as if through the flames he could contemplate that very distant young man. "After that, I was a hermit for many years. I remembered my power and who I was. But I also remembered that it was I who had started the war, between my use of black magic and my damned meddling in what was essentially none of my business.

"It was a long time before I had the courage so much as to light a fire without flint and steel. I got over their deaths-my parents', my younger brother's- Liardin…" He shook his head, as if clearing from it the echoes of half-forgotten voices. "But Gyrfire was never rebuilt. I am probably the only man living who remembers where it stood. We wizards are a dangerous people, Gil," he finished, reaching to take her hand again. "We are hardly safe to know. The Icefalcon was right. Only the brave should befriend the wise."

She dismissed the Icefalcon with a shrug. "I don't believe that."

"Being brave, you wouldn't." He smiled at her.

"So that's why…" she began and stopped herself. "There are times when I wonder if you're as wise as you think." To her own surprise as well as his, she bent down and kissed him lightly on the forehead before she turned and hurried from the room.

After the dim firelight of Ingold's quarters, the dark in the common room was like being struck blind. With an automatic caution she had learned from the Icefalcon, Gil did not pause before the curtain to let her eyes adjust, but stepped to the side, her back to the wall, where even the little light that leaked through the weave would not show her up. Thus, when a dark form emerged from the blackness of one of the many hallways that led into the room Gil had only to press back against the wall and freeze to remain unseen.

She knew at once that this intruder was no wizard-a thin, white hand caught at the back of the same chair that she herself had stumbled over in the dark. A shadow passed in front of the winking embers; a cloak whispered against a tableleg. As the form turned, Gil had a vague impression of a white, beardless face and a shaven head showing up briefly against the thicker darkness of the door to the corridors beyond. The skeletal hand groped for the doorframe. For a moment it rested there, and a vagrant glint of a sparking ember called, like a candle in darkness, the answering gleam of purple from an amethyst ring.