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The Drenai herald waited nervously outside the great doors of the throne room, flanked by two Nadir guards who stared ahead, slanted eyes fixed on the bronze eagle emblazoned on the dark wood.
He licked dry lips with a dry tongue and adjusted his purple cape about his bony shoulders. He had been so confident in the council chamber at Drenan six hundred miles south when Abalayn asked him to undertake this delicate mission: a journey to distant Gulgothir to ratify the treaties made with Ulric, Lord of the Nadir tribes. Bartellus had helped to draft treaties in the past, and twice had been present at talks in western Vagria and south in Mashrapur. All men understood the value of trade and the necessity to avoid such costly undertakings as war. Ulric would be no exception. True he had sacked the nations of the northern plain, but then they had bled his people dry over the centuries with their taxes and raids; they had sown the seeds of their own destruction.
Not so the Drenai. They had always treated the Nadir with tact and courtesy. Abalayn himself had twice visited Ulric in his northern tent city — and been royally received.
But Bartellus had been shocked at the devastation in Gulgothir. That the vast gates had been sundered was no surprise, but many of the defenders had been subsequently mutilated. The square within the main keep boasted a small mound of human hands. Bartellus shivered and wrenched his mind from the memory.
For three days they had kept him waiting, but they had been courteous — even kindly.
He adjusted his cape again, aware that his lean, angular frame did little justice to the herald's garb. Taking a linen cloth from his belt, he wiped the sweat from his bald head. His wife constantly warned him that his head shone dazzlingly whenever he grew nervous. It was an observation he would have preferred left unspoken.
He slid a glance at the guard to his right, suppressing a shudder. The man was shorter than he, wearing a spiked helm fringed with goatskin. He wore a lacquered wooden breastplate and carried a serrated spear. The face was flat and cruel, the eyes dark and slanted. If Bartellus ever needed a man to cut off someone's hand…
He glanced to his left — and wished he hadn't, for the other guard was looking at him. He felt like a rabbit beneath a plunging hawk and hastily returned his gaze to the bronze eagle on the door.
Mercifully the wait ended and the doors swung open.
Taking a deep breath, Bartellus marched inside.
The room was long, twenty marble pillars supporting a frescoed ceiling. Each pillar carried a burning torch which cast gaunt dancing shadows to the walls beyond, and by each pillar stood a Nadir guard, bearing a spear. Eyes fixed firmly ahead, Bartellus marched the fifty paces to the throne on the marble dais.
Upon it sat Ulric, Warlord of the North.
He was not tall, but as Bartellus moved into the centre of the room he was struck by the sheer dynamism of the man. He had the high cheekbones and midnight hair of the Nadir, but his slanted eyes were violet and striking. The face was swarthy, a trident beard creating a demonic appearance which was belied by the warmth of the man's smile.
But what impressed Bartellus most was that the Nadir lord was wearing a white Drenai robe, embroidered with Abalayn's family crest: a golden horse rearing above a silver crown.
The herald bowed deeply.
"My Lord, I bring you the greetings of Lord Abalayn, elected leader of the free Drenai people."
Ulric nodded in return, waving a hand for him to continue.
"My lord Abalayn congratulates you on your magnificent victory against the rebels of Gulgothir, and hopes that with the horrors of war now behind you, you will be able to consider the new treaties and trade agreements he discussed with you during his most enjoyable stay last spring. I have here a letter from Lord Abalayn, and also the treaties and agreements." Bartellus stepped forward, presenting three scrolls. Ulric took them, placing them gently on the floor beside the throne.
"Thank you, Bartellus," he said. Tell me, is there truly fear among the Drenai that my army will march on Dros Delnoch?"
"You jest, my lord?"
"Not at all," said Ulric innocently, his voice deep and resonant. "Traders tell me there is great discussion in Drenan."
"Idle gossip merely," said Bartellus. "I helped to draft the agreements myself, and if I can be of any help with the more complex passages I would consider it a pleasure to assist you."
"No, I am sure they are in order," said Ulric. "But you do realise my shaman Nosta Khan must examine the omens. A primitive custom, I know, but I am sure you understand?"
"Of course. Such things are a matter of tradition," said Bartellus.
Ulric clapped his hands twice and from the shadows to the left came a wizened old man in a dirty goatskin tunic. Under his skinny right arm he carried a white chicken and in his left hand was a wide, shallow wooden bowl. Ulric stood as he approached, holding out his hands and taking the chicken by the neck and legs.
Slowly Ulric raised it above his head — then, as Bartellus' eyes widened in horror, he lowered the bird and bit through its neck, tearing the head from the body. The wings flapped madly and blood gushed and spattered, drenching the white robe. Ulric held the quivering carcass over the bowl, watching as the last of its life-blood stained the wood. Nosta Khan waited until the last drop oozed from the flesh and then lifted the bowl to his lips. He looked up at Ulric and shook his head.
The warlord tossed the bird aside and slowly removed the white robe. Beneath it he wore a black breastplate and a belted sword. From beside the throne he lifted the war helm of black steel, fringed with silver fox fur, and placed it on his head. He wiped his bloody mouth on the Drenai robe and carelessly tossed it towards Bartellus.
The herald looked down at the blood-covered cloth at his feet.
"I am afraid the omens are not pleasant," said Ulric.
Rek was drunk. Not enough to matter, but enough not to matter, he thought, staring at the ruby wine casting blood shadows in the lead crystal glass. A log fire in the hearth warmed his back, the smoke stinging his eyes, the acrid smell of it mixing with the odour of unwashed bodies, forgotten meals and musty, damp clothing. A lantern flame danced briefly in the icy wind as a shaft of cold air brushed the room. Then it was gone as a newcomer slammed shut the wooden door, muttering his apologies to the crowded inn.
Conversation which had died in the sudden blast of frosty air now resumed, a dozen voices from different groups merging into a babble of meaningless sounds. Rek sipped his wine. He shivered as someone laughed — the sound was as cold as the winter wind beating against the wooden walls. Like someone walking over your grave, he thought. He pulled his blue cloak more tightly about his shoulders. He did not need to be able to hear the words to know the topic of every conversation: it had been the same for days.
Such a little word. Such a depth of agony. Blood, death, conquest, starvation, plague and horror.
More laughter burst upon the room. "Barbarians!" roared a voice above the babble. "Easy meat for Drenai lances." More laughter.
Rek stared at the crystal goblet. So beautiful. So fragile. Grafted with care, even love; multi-faceted like a gossamer diamond. He lifted the crystal close to his face, seeing a dozen eyes reflected there.
And each accused. For a second he wanted to crush the glass into fragments, destroy the eyes and the accusation. But he did not. I am not a fool, he told himself. Not yet.
Horeb, the innkeeper, wiped his thick fingers on a towel and cast a tired yet wary eye over the crowd, alert for trouble, ready to step in with a word and a smile before a snarl and a fist became necessary. War. What was it about the prospect of such bloody enterprises that reduced men to the level of animals? Some of the drinkers — most, in fact — were well-known to Horeb. Many were family men: farmers, traders, artisans. All were friendly; most were compassionate, trustworthy, even kindly. And here they were talking of death and glory and ready to thrash or slay any suspected of Nadir sympathies. The Nadir — even the name spoke of contempt.
But they'll learn, he thought sadly. Oh, how they'll learn! Horeb's eyes scanned the large room, warming as they lighted upon his daughters who were clearing tables and delivering tankards. Tiny Dori blushing beneath her freckles at some ribald jest; Besa, the image of her mother, tall and fair; Nessa, fat and plain and loved by all, soon to marry the baker's apprentice Norvas. Good girls. Gifts of joy. Then his gaze fell on the tall figure in the blue cloak seated by the window.
"Damn you, Rek, snap out of it," he muttered, knowing the man would never hear him. Horeb turned away, cursed, then removed his leather apron and grasped a half-empty jug of ale and a tankard. As an afterthought he opened a small cupboard and removed a bottle of port he had been saving for Nessa's wedding.
"A problem shared is a problem doubled," he said, squeezing into the seat opposite Rek.
"A friend in need is a friend to be avoided," Rek countered, accepting the proffered bottle and refilling his glass. "I knew a general once," he said, staring at the wine, twirling the glass slowly with his long fingers. "Never lost a battle. Never won one either."
"How so?" asked Horeb.
"You know the answer. I've told you before."
"I have a bad memory. Anyway, I like to listen to you tell stories. How could he never lose and never win?"
"He surrendered whenever threatened," said Rek. "Clever, eh?"
"How come men followed him if he never won?"
"Because he never lost. Neither did they."
"Would you have followed him?" asked Horeb.
"I don't follow anyone any more. Least of all generals." Rek turned his head, listening to the interweaving chatter. He closed his eyes, concentrating. "Listen to them," he said, softly. "Listen to their talk of glory."
"They don't know any better, Rek, my friend. They haven't seen it, tasted it. Crows like a black cloud over a battlefield feasting on dead men's eyes, foxes jerking at severed tendons, worms…"
"Stop it, damn you… I don't need reminding. Well, I'm damned if I'll go. When's Nessa getting married?"
"In three days," answered Horeb. "He's a good boy, he'll look after her. Keeps baking her cakes. She'll be like a tub before long."
"One way or another," said Rek, with a wink.
"Indeed yes," answered Horeb, grinning broadly.
The men sat in their own silence allowing the noise to wash over them, each drinking and thinking, secure within their circle of two. After a while Rek leaned forward.
"The first attack will be at Dros Delnoch," he said. "Do you know they've only 10,000 men there?"
"I heard it was less than that. Abalayn's been cutting back on the regulars and concentrating on militia. Still, there're six high walls and a strong keep. And Delnar's no fool — he was at the battle of Skein."
"Really?" said Rek. "I heard that was one man against ten thousand, hurling mountains on the foe."
"The saga of Druss the Legend," said Horeb, deepening his voice. "The tale of a giant whose eyes were death, and whose axe was terror. Gather round, children, and keep from the shadows lest evil lurks as I tell my tale."
"You bastard!" said Rek. "That used to terrify me. You knew him, didn't you — the Legend, I mean?"
"A long time ago. They say he's dead. If not, he must be over sixty. We were in three campaigns together, but I only spoke to him twice. I saw him in action once, though."
"Was he good?" asked Rek.
"Awesome. It was just before Skeln and the defeat of the Immortals. Just a skirmish really. Yes, he was very good."
"You're not terribly strong on detail, Horeb."
"You want me to sound like the rest of these fools, jabbering about war and death and slaying?"
"No," said Rek, draining his wine. "No, I don't. You know me, don't you?"
"Enough to like you. Regardless."
"Regardless of what?"
"Regardless of the fact that you don't like yourself."
"On the contrary," said Rek, pouring a fresh glass, "I like myself well enough. It's just that I know myself better than most people."
"You know, Rek, sometimes I think you ask too much of yourself."
"No. No, I ask very little. I know my weaknesses."
"It's a funny thing about weakness," said Horeb. "Most people will tell you they know their weaknesses. When asked, they tell you, "Well, for one thing I'm over-generous." Come on then, list yours if you must. That's what innkeepers are for."
"Well, for one thing I'm over-generous — especially to innkeepers."
Horeb shook his head, smiled and lapsed into silence.
Too intelligent to be a hero, too frightened to be a coward, he thought. He watched his friend empty his glass, lift it to his face and peer at his own fragmented image. For a moment Horeb thought he would smash it, such had been the anger on Rek's flushed face.
Then the younger man gently returned the goblet to the wooden table.
"I'm not a fool," he said, softly. He stiffened as he realised he had spoken aloud. "Damn!" he said. "The drink finally got to me."
"Let me give you a hand to your room," offered Horeb.
"Is there a candle lit?" asked Rek, swaying in his seat.
"You won't let it go out on me, will you? Not keen on the dark. Not frightened, you understand. Just don't like it."
"I won't let it go out, Rek. Trust me."
"I trust you. I rescued you, didn't I? Remember?"
"I remember. Give me your arm. I'll guide you to the stairs. This way. That's good. One foot in front of the other. Good!"
"I didn't hesitate. Straight in with my sword raised, didn't I?"
"No, I didn't. I stood for two minutes shaking. And you got cut."
"But you still came in, Rek. Don't you see? It didn't matter about the cut — you still rescued me."
"It matters to me. Is there a candle in my room?"* * *
Behind him was the fortress, grim and grey, outlined in flame and smoke. The sounds of battle filled his ears and he ran, heart pounding, his breathing ragged. He glanced behind him. The fortress was close, closer than it had been. Ahead were the green hills sheltering the Sentran Plain. They shimmered and retreated before him, taunting him with their tranquillity. He ran faster. A shadow fell across him. The gates of the fortress opened. He strained against the force pulling him back. He cried and begged. But the gates closed and he was back at the centre of the battle, a bloody sword in his shaking hand.* * *
He awoke, eyes wide, nostrils flared, the beginning of a scream swelling his lungs. A soft hand stroked his face and gentle words soothed him. His eyes focused. Dawn was nearing, the pink light of a virgin day piercing the ice on the inside of the bedroom window. He rolled over.
"You were troubled in the night," Besa told him, her hand stroking his brow. He smiled, pulled the goose-down quilt over his shoulder and drew her to him under the covers.