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Eight: Summer, 996 afe

Eight: Summer, 996 afe

Her Strongholds Unvanquishable

The vanguard of the allied army, hurrying ahead of the main force, reached the Candareen days earlier than Turran expected. He had to lock his gate long before he wanted. Luxos and Ridyeh were still away, snuffling along Haroun’s backtrail.

As expected, bin Yousif commanded the expedition. And, as Grimnason, Turran’s leading mercenary officer, predicted, the man persisted in the unexpected.

Redbeard and Turran crouched in moonlight atop the tall tower over Ravenkrak’s gate, watching the camp at the foot of the Candareen. “There!” said the mercenary, indicating a flash of silver on the slope.

“You win.” Turran paid out a handful of silver. “I would’ve bet anything his men would be too tired and his numbers too few.”

“That’s why he’s coming. He knows how people think.”

Turran turned to peer over the rear of the parapet into an apparently deserted courtyard. Half the garrison were hidden down there, waiting. He signaled them to be ready.

Bin Yousif’s commandos reached the foot of the wall.

“They could’ve made it,” Turran observed. “They’re good. Wish I’d hired him first. No offense. You’ve proven just as able.”

Arrows with light lines attached arced over the battlements.

“Metal arrows,” said Grimnason. “They’ll hook one in the crenellations, then send up their lightest man.”

So they did. A climber quickly reached the battlements, pulled up a heavier rope, made it fast, turned to watch the castle.

“Haroun himself!” Turran growled softly. “We’ve got him this time.” He glanced at the camp down the mountain. Its fires burned bright, supporting the appearance of the attackers waiting there for the rest of their army. But here and there on the mountain, moonlight glinted off metal. Those flashes would have remained undetected had it not been for Redbeard’s insistent warnings.

One by one, twelve men clambered onto the battlements. They whispered, then spread out. Four followed Haroun down to the courtyard, to the base of the tower, to the tunnel leading through the wall. The others divided equally between the two gatehouses. Haroun’s four tried to raise the inner of the two stone blocks sealing the tunnel.

Raiders left the gatehouses.

“We should’ve left somebody down there,” Turran whispered. “They’re bound to suspect something.”

“But it’s too late,” Grimnason replied, chuckling. “They’re already in the trap.” He leaned over the parapet, signaled soldiers hidden among the rocks outside the gate.

A moment later, from below, “Stop! Drop your weapons!”

A bugle sounded two notes. Soldiers rushed into the courtyard and to the wall.

There was an uproar at the gate. Men screamed. Crossbows twangled. Steel rang on steel. Haroun and four of his men broke out, raced downslope. Bin Yousif shouted, “Back! Trap! Get back!”

Torches flared along Ravenkrak’s wall. Ready trebuchets hurled their missiles. Arrow engines discharged volleys. Bowmen commenced loosing. Naphtha bombs from the trebuchets scarred the slope with fire. Soldiers with clothing aflame ran like beheaded chickens.

“That was easy,” Turran observed. “But more serious assaults worry me. He’s too damned crafty.”

The others had gone inside. Nepanthe and Saltimbanco, with the wall to themselves, stared down the Candareen. Pools of naphtha still sputtered here and there, painting the broken rocks with eerie lights and shadows. Some of those shadows walked. Haroun’s men were collecting their dead.

They stood in silence. Saltimbanco thought about Redbeard—Rendel Grimnason—Bragi Ragnarson. Why on earth had the man warned Turran? Ravenkrak would have fallen, otherwise, and they would have finished the job they had been hired to do. And he would have been in the enviable position of a tool that had never needed to be taken off the shelf.

What the hell was the man up to?

Nepanthe worried, too. She now understood the women’s amusement—and didn’t like it at all. She had fought herself since her first vague realization. Something deep inside her kept saying it would lead to something wicked.

But that dark corner of her mind relaxed her thralldom while she was with Saltimbanco. The romantic, light part of her soul stole mastery. Saltimbanco’s very unconcern with it helped bring it forth.

A wounded man, not far downslope, screamed as his comrades lifted him. Nepanthe shuddered and moved nearer Saltimbanco. Her hand seized his. She was unaware of what she had done. He pretended not to notice.

A while later there was a sound from along the ramparts. Saltimbanco glanced up, expecting another of the sentries who passed regularly. Instead, his eyes met those of Grimnason and his wife. His narrowed. Nepanthe would have been startled by his expression. He showed unwonted hardness and anger. It fled instantly, but wasn’t overlooked by the other couple. The man flinched. His wife stared back defiantly.

“Ah,” said Nepanthe. “Captain Grimnason. Astrid. Astrid, you look lovely tonight.”

“Uhn,” Grimnason grunted. “Took a while to talk her into it. What do you think of the dress?” He wouldn’t meet Mocker’s eye.

“Fantastic. Astrid, really, riding clothes don’t become you. You’d be the envy of every woman here if you went to the Great Hall like that. Don’t you think so, Saltimbanco?”

“Huh? Oh, verily.” His gaze and that of the officer sparked like rapiers meeting. “Madame Grimnason will make very fine Colonel’s lady.”

Nepanthe’s hand tightened on his. “Oh, now you’ve let the cat out. It was supposed to be a surprise.” To the others, she said, “Turran’s endorsing you for promotion. He said he’d file with the Guild as soon as we raise siege.”

“I’m not with the Guild anymore, Milady.”

“They still claim you.”

The captain shrugged. “They don’t want anybody to get out. But they don’t make it worth your trouble to stay in.”

“Well, try to look surprised when he announces it. He thinks a lot of you, Captain. How do you always know what Haroun’s going to do?”

“Hai!” Saltimbanco cried. “Thank great stars in sky Redbeard knows mind of invidious enemy! Elsewise, where we be now, eh? Maybe all done for, eh? Whole war thing done, and Ravenkrak fallen, maybeso.”

The mercenary caught his meaning, but ignored him. “Milady, my people have been soldiers for generations. Tricks get passed down. One is to study the outstanding commanders of our times in case we have a run-in with them. I think I know Haroun fairly well, although I don’t think I’d be able to trap him again.”

“Is very good general, this Haroun,” said Saltimbanco. “Has conquered Iwa Skolovda with bandits, outnumbered. Self, am afraid this obesity will soon be prisoner of same. Great castle is this, but great general is out there. Many men he has, more than we. Is miracle absolute he does not sit in Great Hall tonight. Is miracle absolute all is not done for Ravenkrak.” Again, anger edged his voice. Nepanthe mistook it for fright. The Captain understood.

As did his wife. “Lady,” she said, “can I talk to you about something? Alone? I’d like to borrow some things, and another dress. But we can’t talk about it in front of the men.”

Nepanthe nodded. She withdrew her hand from Saltimbanco’s, realized for the first time that it had been there. She was startled. She hadn’t been hurt. Something tingled inside her. For a second she was flustered, but collected herself and followed Astrid. They strolled into the shadow of the gate tower.

Mocker hardly waited till they were out of earshot. “What is game, Bragi? Mess should be done, but big thickhead opens mouth! Goes tootling off on path of own. Playing treason? Self, am six months unpracticed with rapier, but still can kill fast as lightning…”

The soldier flinched. He didn’t doubt that the smaller man could outfence him. Few men alive could match Mocker with a blade. “I’m playing a hunch,” he said. “There’s something rotten in this setup, but I can’t figure what. I stopped Haroun so we’d have time to find out. And I wanted to catch him so I could talk to him. Last time I had a chance at it I had to use all my imagination to keep Turran from laying hands on him.”

“Last time?”

“Coming back from Iwa Skolovda. Shhh!”

A sleepy sentry passed, muttering a greeting. He paid them no special heed. As usual, Saltimbanco was arguing the roundness of the Earth.

The guard gone, Saltimbanco snapped, “Speak on. Am very curious about empty purse that should be full tonight.”

“I said there’s something wrong. These Storm Kings are just bored people playing chess with live soldiers. Except for Turran, and maybe Valther, they don’t give a damn about resurrecting the Empire. There’s no real reason anybody should go to so much trouble to destroy them. So why’d the old man hire us? I want to know. I’ll keep stalling till I find out…”

“Conscience?” Saltimbanco snorted. “Large friend of self suddenly develops conscience after so many years?”

“No. Self-preservation. If I knew where we stood, and we were safe, I’d cut Turran’s throat in a minute—even though I like the guy. No, it’s not conscience. We’re being used, and I want to know why before my throat gets cut. I’m not changing sides. I’m just getting temporarily uncommitted. You’re the one, if any of us does, who’s got a reason for selling out.”


“Nepanthe. You two are getting awful thick.”

“Is job old man paid for, to divide Storm King family, in case. To be man on inside, in case. Shh! Women come. Is great orb, like ball childrens play with, only big-big.”

“What happened to the boat and the giant duck?” Astrid asked, chuckling.

“Hai! Yes. Is great round ball in boat on sea of Escalonian wine, propelled by web-footed duck through starry universe.”

Grimnason forced a laugh. His wife slipped under his arm, pulled him away. She slid her arm around his waist.

Nepanthe watched them go, staring at their arms.

Grimnason was a soldier of nebulous origins. Only his wife and a few intimates knew much more than his true name, Bragi Ragnarson, and his country of birth, which was Trolledyngja, north of the Kratchnodian Mountains. But most people he encountered didn’t care. They were interested only in his military skills. What employers didn’t know—and a couple had suffered for it—was that Ragnarson and bin Yousif were intimates. From opposite sides they engineered conflicts to their own profit, and with such finesse that even losing campaigns contributed to their reputations. Mocker usually played interlocutor.

They hadn’t gotten caught yet, though serious analysts at High Crag and on the Itaskian General Staff (each of which had cause to watch both men) were growing suspicious. Their cooperation during the El Murid Wars, and for a few years thereafter, couldn’t be concealed. Any serious background check would turn it up.

But they concentrated on minor employers, desperate men who hadn’t the time or resources to do much digging.

Unlike the old man who was their ultimate paymaster now, who had approached them with evidence in hand and a solid Grimnason identity for Bragi to assume.

Ragnarson had been born the son of a minor Trolledyngjan under-chieftain, Ragnar of Draukenbring. He had come by war experience, at ten, by sailing with his father through the Tongues of Fire to harry the coasts of Freyland. Then had come a Trolledyngjan war of succession in which Ragnar had followed the losing banner. Bragi and his foster-brother, Haaken Blackfang, had fled across the Kratchnodians and at sixteen had entered the Mercenaries’ Guild.

The El Murid Wars had broken immediately. Bragi had found employment aplenty, and opportunities to demonstrate his talent for command. And he had met Haroun bin Yousif, the King Without a Throne.

At twenty he had been confirmed Guild Captain. He might have, had he wished, risen high. But he suffered critical character defects: gold fever and an inability to accept peacetime discipline. He had felt he could prosper more outside Guild auspices, as Haroun’s accomplice, than as a colonel, or even general. The Guild was a mystery order, spartan, almost monastic, providing little opportunity for personal enrichment.

After a period of consistent failure free-lancing, Ragnarson had assembled a cadre of like-minded former Guildsmen and had returned to hire-swording. He wasn’t popular with High Crag, the Guild headquarters, where the old men of the Citadel viewed him as a renegade. They sometimes threatened to accept his resignation.

Nepanthe worked at her embroidery fitfully, thinking. Someone knocked on her door. She was grateful for the interruption, but prayed it wouldn’t be Saltimbanco. She didn’t want to be alone with him right now. “Enter,” she called, ringing for her maid.

Astrid came in timidly, daunted by the luxury of the sitting room. “I came about the clothes. Rendel wants me to wear them tonight.”

“I had Anina set them out in the bedroom.”

The maid arrived. “Milady?”

“Bring some wine please, then we’ll help Astrid with the things we set out this morning.”

“Yes, Milady.” The maid curtseyed, left. A deep and abiding silence, of brooding women, engulfed the room. Astrid (whose name was Elana), wanted to offer advice and comfort, but fought herself. This woman was the enemy. Yet she couldn’t hate Nepanthe. She felt too much compassion for the woman, who had done her no harm. Damn the machinations of men! She would rather be friends than foes.

The silence grew unbounded, frightening, cold. It had to be broken. “I can’t thank you enough for loaning the clothes. A soldier’s wife doesn’t get nice things very often.” Her words were just noise to kill the fearful silence.

“Then why stay with Rendel?” Nepanthe asked. Her face revealed a fleeting moment of hope. Astrid sensed that their conversation would slide around to Nepanthe’s problem. “You’re beautiful and well-bred.”

Elana smiled involuntarily. Her mother had been an Itaskian courtesan of considerable notoriety.

“You’re mannered and capable of moving in elegant society. You’d have no trouble attracting a Lord of estate.”

She had, occasionally, early on, when younger and taking a few tentative steps along the red trail her mother had broken. Another reminiscent smile. “I guess I could have, if I’d wanted one. But Rendel caught my eye.” Being able to lower her guard a little and tell a part of the truth was infinitely relaxing. This castle contained no one she could call friend, no one with whom she could just sit and make idle woman-talk. Few of Bragi’s staff were married. “I don’t miss the luxuries—much—because I don’t get time to worry about them.” Her smile grew wan. She did miss things, things she deeply wanted. A home, children, a few luxuries… But Bragi wasn’t ever able to grab enough money… There was always that one more campaign before they could settle down. Maybe this one would really be the last, if that old man paid as well as he had promised, if Bragi decided to go ahead, if they weren’t found out… The ifs, all these terrible ifs

Nepanthe wore a shadow-frown of incomprehension.

“You don’t understand,” said Elana, voicing the obvious. She gathered her wits. Discussing Nepanthe’s problems would help submerge her own. “When you meet the right man you’ll know what I mean. They don’t come in shining armor these days. And when you do find him, the silks and fancies won’t mean much anymore. Fisherman, beggar, king, thief, it’ll be all the same to you. A tent will be as good as a castle and straw as soft as down as long as you’re together. But you’ve got to accept what comes. Look past the wrappings for the package’s contents. Or you might spend the rest of your life wondering why you were such a fool.

“And I’m getting awfully preachy, aren’t I?”

“You really love him, don’t you?” Nepanthe asked. “Rendel, I mean.” She grew flustered, feeling silly for saying the obvious.

Elana had spoken primarily to help Mocker, but, in retrospect, realized she was talking with her heart. “More than I knew, now that you ask. I’m surprised. The gods know it’s been no honeymoon—we’re both too bullheaded—but I don’t think there’s anything that could make me run him off. Yes, I love him. Even though I did the proposing myself.” She laughed.

“You asked him?”

“I certainly did. He was a real hard case. Took a lot of convincing.”

The maid brought wine, served them, told Elana, “If you come to the bedroom, I’ll help with the dresses.”

Nepanthe’s sitting room had been wonderful, but Elana found the woman’s bedroom a veritable fairyland. There, riches were thick as fallen leaves in autumn, and as comfortable. “Rendel promised me a room like this when we got married. Till now I never thought I’d even see one.”

“Just presents from my brothers,” Nepanthe replied, shrugging them off. “Jerrad killed the rugs. They’re bearskins, mostly. Ridyeh got the mirror in Escalon. It’s supposed to be magic, but none of us can work it. It’s awfully old. Luxos made the bed. Carved it by hand, after one he saw in Itaskia, he says.”

The maid moved behind Elana, began unlacing her clothing.

Nepanthe continued, “Valther gave me the paintings. Did you ever see anything like them?”

“Only once. In Hellin Daimiel, at a museum.”

“That’s where he got them—Hellin Daimiel. And I think they were stolen from a museum, but Valther wouldn’t do anything like that. I don’t think. He never did say how he got them. Brock gave me the little figurines.” Tiny little castles and warriors, perfectly shaped, stood on a board no bigger than Elana’s hand. “They’re hand-carved. The clear ones are diamonds. The red ones are rubies. They’re pieces for a game. I think they’re stolen, too. Only a king could afford them.”

By now, Elana was naked and shivering in Ravenkrak’s unheated autumn air. As she joined the maid beside a pile of silken undergarments, she asked, “What did Turran give you?”

“Nothing!” Nepanthe snapped. “Not a thing.”

“Milady!” said the maid, as though distressed. “Of course he did. There’s the dress, that he said was the easy half of his gift.” She giggled. She wasn’t more than fourteen, an age when everything is laughter or despair.

Nepanthe bit her lip, frowned, turned away. “Anina, you talk too much.”

The maid giggled again, went to a closet.


Anina brought out a magnificent gown. Elana gasped. There was enough fine silk there to rig sails for a ship. “A wedding dress!” she exclaimed. “Nepanthe, that’s the best gift of all.”

Nepanthe’s bitten lip turned white. Her small hands twisted within one another.

“It’s just half the present,” said Anina. “The rest’s the man to go with it. See, the Lord does the marrying here.”

“Enough!” Nepanthe spat. “Anina, get out! I’ll help Astrid. Maybe a turn scrubbing floors would teach you to watch your tongue.”

The maid tried to look contrite. She failed abysmally, giving way to a fit of giggles.

“Servants!” Nepanthe muttered.

“She meant no harm, Milady.”

“I have a name. Call me Nepanthe. Sure, she meant no harm. But she presumes too much.”

“I think it’s a beautiful present.”

Nepanthe jerked the laces with which she was fumbling. Elana gasped. “Which?” Nepanthe demanded.

“The dress, of course. I wore rags when I got married. What a dress! What a wedding would go with it! Like a coronation in old Ilkazar.”

“I do not plan to get married, ever,” said Nepanthe, each word measured. “I want no man crawling over me and pawing me like… like an animal in a breeding stall!”

Her intensity was frightening. Elana grunted as Nepanthe jerked savagely on another set of laces. She wanted to say something, anything, in rebuttal, comforting, or apologetic, but intuited that silence was best. The subject was closed—unless Nepanthe reopened it.

Silence, interrupted only by the rustle of clothing, hung thick in the bedroom, remaining unbroken till Nepanthe began helping with the shoes.

Elana sat on the edge of the bed. Nepanthe knelt before her, hooking the shoes. Staring at Elana’s feet, she stammered, “What’s it like, having a man?”


Nepanthe’s neck colored where her hair had parted and exposed the skin beneath. “You know, like that.

Her answer, Elana knew, would be critical both to her own future and to that of this strange woman. She tried to come up with an instructive answer, couldn’t. “What can I say? I can’t tell you what it’d be like for you.”

“Well, what do you think? Mother never liked it. She said it was wicked… that… well, I don’t know.”

“But she had seven children.”

“I mean my stepmother. My real mother died when I was born.”

“That’s a face some women put on in company. I don’t think very many take it to bed. It’s not dirty or evil…”

“But what’s it like?” Nepanthe asked plaintively.

Elana shrugged. She began with the basics.

“I know the mechanics…”

“Then what can I tell you? There’s only one way to find out. The hard way.”

Still looking down, Nepanthe whispered, “Does it hurt, the first time? I’ve heard…” She let it trail off.

“Some, for some women. You’ll forget it quick enough. I hardly remember…”

Nepanthe rose suddenly, walked away. “You’re done,” she said. “Take a look in the mirror.” Then, as Elana admired herself, “Astrid, I’m scared. I can’t change! Sometimes, when he’s here, I want to, but when I think about it… I don’t. I don’t want to change! I’m all mixed up. I wish I weren’t a woman. Anyway, I wish I were a normal woman.”

“Oh, not that abnormal, I think,” said Elana, trying to calm her. “We’re all afraid—deathly so—before, if we’re expecting it to happen. It seems… well… Oh, hell! I can’t explain! It’s just different, afterward. The fears go. Slow, for some, but they go. I can’t tell you anything except that it’s not wrong. Come on, dinner’s waiting. Rendel’ll be worrying, and Turran’ll be holding everything up.”

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