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Eleven: Autumn, 996 afe

Eleven: Autumn, 996 afe

The Fires that Burn…

Again, Saltimbanco sat in the chair before Nepanthe’s fireplace—but she was away, Downdeep, tending the wounded. She should be back soon. Her workload had eased as wounds healed. She now had time to spend with her man—for so she sometimes thought him, and so everyone named him. Only Saltimbanco himself was unsure he fit the part. With matters so nebulous between them, she seemed little closer than a friend. Away, as now, she disturbed him not at all. In her presence his soul turned chill. There was something about her, icy and strange, incomprehensible, that made him feel stark emotional nothingness when she was near. He went through the motions she permitted, but they somehow seemed directed toward someone else, an imaginary construct, not the genuine woman. An emotional vacuum separated them, one he couldn’t fill while her fears persisted. Oh, he had found sex less important than he had earlier thought—but her unreasoning fear! It birthed an unnatural tension devouring the hope of their relationship. Seldom had he been so far at sea—almost as far out as she claimed to be herself.

As he sat thus thinking, examining the relationship, peering at the fire through half-closed eyes, there came a knock at the door. He rose, went, found Elana. “Woman is in Deep Dungeons.”

“I know. Look, Haaken is out of his coma. They’re going to talk to him. You want to come down?”

“Maybe later. Am needing report, though. Meanwhile, must talk with strange woman.” He was silent a moment, then asked, “What is problem for same? Am unable to breach mental walls thicker than ramparts surrounding Ravenkrak.”

“She’s afraid…”

“Am making no such demands. Woman’s body is her own. Am living without that. Is total aloofness and coldness which makes for sadness of this one.”

“That’s not her only fear. She’s afraid she’ll hurt you.”

“Is stupid! Crazy.”

“Foolish, anyway, but real enough for her. If we weren’t besieged, she’d run away. She feels trapped. All her fears are closing in. She’s uncomfortable. More than she’s ever been. There’s nowhere to run; she’s afraid to accept; so she fights.

“There’re cycles in her moods, you know. Sometimes she loves you and wants you—then the fear takes over. Then she can’t fight. Or won’t.”

“What can this one do?”

“Be patient. What else?”

“Self, am being patient for many months. Love grows…” There! He had admitted it at last. “… but patience wears tinsel-thin. Is little finger of frustration-born wrath curling like serpent in back of mind. Is getting very difficult of control. Times are, self is tempted to scream, ‘An end!’ and go over wall, away, and damned be crazy woman with weird inside-of-head. Many pieces gold is not so tempting as surcease from mental mix-up. Wine and women soon make this one forget, is hoped. Soon, very soon, will do same. Beating head against wall is like for men outside castle. Gets nothing but sore spots. Ravenkrak wall is impossible of scaling: no booty for men outside. Nepanthe wall is impossible of scaling: no treasures for sad fool. Will leave very soon.”

Elana started to say something, stopped as a door slammed below.

“Weird woman comes,” said Saltimbanco. “Am no longer in mood for seeing. Will slip out back way. Come tell what Blackfang says.”

Nepanthe arrived in time to witness his retreat. “What?…”

“He’s unhappy.”

“We’re supposed to lunch together.”

“He loves you, and you’re not playing fair. He’s thinking of going over the wall.”

“He wants to desert?”

“Not desert. Escape. He feels trapped.”

“Aren’t we all? But it’ll be over come winter.”

“Don’t be dense!” Elana snapped, harsher than she intended. “You’re the reason he feels trapped. After getting nowhere for so long, he’d rather run and forget. Why should he beat his head against a wall?”

“But you know the trouble I have even been talking about that…”

That isn’t the problem. It’s the other barriers you put up.”

“Like what?”

“So many things. Your opinion of yourself, for one thing. You think you’re not good enough for him. So you put him off. And then there’s the things you talk about doing when the war’s over. They aren’t very realistic. But you hang on to them to keep the real world from getting to you. Only you keep Saltimbanco out too. And being moody all the time doesn’t help.”

“You’re harsh, Astrid.”

“Now the hurt puppy look? What’ll move you? Everybody’s been patient so long. If a beating would help, I’d tell Rendel to give you one. For your own good. Nepanthe, we’re talking about a man whose whole life revolves around you. You’re killing him and you don’t much seem to care. In fact, you’re doing everything you can to make him more miserable. Yet you say you love him! Look, you’re both twenty-nine. That’s a lot of lost years. You can’t make those up. And you want to throw the rest away? Grow up, Nepanthe! Wake up! You’re wasting something precious.”


“You always have an excuse, don’t you? Think about this. Ten years from now, when you’re sitting here in your tower, what will your past be? A wasteland as barren as these mountains?”


“I don’t want to hear it! I haven’t got time. I’m going down to my husband. He’s real. You’re about to make a nail-biter out of me, too.”


But Elana left, ignoring her plea. Nepanthe slumped, entered her sitting room, strode to her fireplace. After a moment, she snatched a figurine off the mantel, hurled it across the room.

The crash brought the maid. She found Nepanthe attacking her embroidery with a dagger.

Elana stamped across the courtyard, still fuming.

Valther burst from the tower where old Birdman kept his pigeons. He was pale, stricken.

“Is Nepanthe in the Bell Tower?”

She nodded. As he ran past, he shouted, “Get your husband, and Saltimbanco if you see him, down to the Lower Armories. Fast!” He vanished into the Bell Tower.

Something had happened. What? Then she remembered that Bragi was in the Lower Armories talking to Haaken. The game could be up if they were overheard.

Minutes later she hurtled through a door, gasped, “Something’s happened. Valther’s running around screaming, collecting everybody for a meeting in the sorcery chamber. Bragi, you’re supposed to be there.”

Ragnarson froze, thought. “Kildragon.” He indicated his brother. “Gag him and hide him. Stick with him. Everybody else, down to the Deep Dungeons. Play ‘visit the wounded.’ Elana, where’s Mocker?”

“I saw him a little while ago, but I don’t know where he is now. He’s got it bad. Nepanthe isn’t helping.”

“Sometimes he goes up where the back walls meet and just stares into the canyon,” said Kildragon, knotting the gag behind Blackfang’s head. “That’s where he’ll be if he wants to think. It’s the loneliest place in Ravenkrak.”

“All right, let’s get,” Ragnarson growled.

Ten minutes later, exhausted, Elana reached the top of one of the short rear walls. A few yards away, staring into the canyon behind the Candareen, were Jerrad and Saltimbanco. They passed a wineskin while grumbling to one another. Silence greeted her approach.

“Something’s happened,” she said. “Valther wants you in the Lower Armories.”

“What is it now?” Jerrad demanded.

Saltimbanco said nothing. After a glance at Elana, he turned back to the canyon… What? What was that? Up the face of that impossible cliff? So! He turned, threw his arm across Jerrad’s shoulder. “Come, old friend. We make them happy, eh? But we take this wine, too. Make us happy, too. Hai! We raise some hell at meeting, eh? Good! We go.”

The others were waiting when they arrived. Jerrad took his usual seat. Saltimbanco assumed Ridyeh’s, saying, “Old plan of fat rascal big failure, eh? New intrigue for finding spy? Maybe still chance for same to be here?”

“Don’t sit there!” Valther snapped. “Take a chair off the wall.”

Eyebrows rose. Valther hadn’t yet divulged his secret. He did so once Saltimbanco settled himself.

“I just picked up a message from Luxos. He used his last pigeon to send it…” He paused. Sorrow and anger fought for control of his face. “Ridyeh’s dead!” It was almost a scream.



“Are you sure?”

Ragnarson and Saltimbanco sat quietly, unsure what to say or do. The operation had just turned nasty. A member of the family had been killed. Their treachery could be pardoned no longer.

“Shut up!” Valther bellowed into the clamor. “All I know is that he was murdered two weeks ago by one of bin Yousif’s assassins. Luxos says he was onto something. He went to buy information and never came back. They found him floating in the Silverbind, tied wrist to wrist with the informer. They’d both been knifed. Luxos says he’s coming home before he gets the same.”

Into the stillness that followed, Turran interjected, “All right, it’s no game anymore. We’ve got a debt to repay now.”

“When do we kill Itaskia?” Brock asked. He made it sound like a simple, unarguable balancing of the scales: a city for a brother.

“No, we can’t do that,” Valther growled. “We can’t afford any more enemies. And it’s not Itaskia’s fault anyway. Bin Yousif did it.”

“Bin Yousif is a damned Itaskian War Ministry client,” Brock countered. “He’s their hole card against El Murid and Lord Greyfells both. Anything he does, you can bet the Ministry is in it up to their necks.”

“Damn it!” Nepanthe cried. “Can’t we break this siege?”

“No,” said Turran. “We don’t have the strength. I can’t ask Rendel to commit suicide. What’s that got to do with it, anyhow?”

Nothing. She was looking for a path of escape from other problems.

One of Ragnarson’s mercenaries burst in, put an abrupt end to the meeting. “Captain, they’re comin’!”

“Sound the alarm, Uthe.”

“Been ringin’ a couple minutes. The companies are on station. The cats and ballisters are firin’.”

“Well, let’s have a look.” He rose. “Get moving!” Turran thundered. “The walls!”

When Ragnarson reached the main courtyard he found it a-riot with hurrying men and women. There seemed no apparent purpose to their motion, yet it was without panic, and quickly sorted itself out. The hurry had, in fact, been drilled in during long training, as support for those on the walls. There, men plied bows and served heavy weapons with cool efficiency. The women handed up fresh ammunition. A storm of death fled the battlements.

Ragnarson reached the command post atop the gate tower, quickly surveyed bin Yousif’s assault. Haroun had brought up ladders and grapnels, but his attack teams were retreating already. Just a probe. Had Haroun found a weak point? Would he exploit it before Turran finished doing his sums and cleansed his castle? Ragnarson knew he didn’t have much time to get Haaken’s information. His margin was getting damned narrow. Self-preservation demanded that he plant his feet firmly somewhere, soon.

“Congratulations,” said Turran. “Your drills paid off.”

“He wasn’t serious, just probing. Will you excuse me?” Awaiting no answer, he hurried down to Haaken’s hiding place. “The gag!” he snapped on entering. Kildragon removed it. “Well, Haaken, you remembered anything?”

“Yes,” Blackfang grumbled. “There was this old codger who looked like he was in charge. I figured to put him in the ground when the odds looked right. So when he wanders off by himself, I go after him. I swear, I never made a sound, but when I’m ten feet away, he jumps around, points a finger, and the next thing I know for sure Elana’s waking me up. Bragi, he was some sort of spook-pusher.”

“That’s it? That’s all?” Bragi tried shaking his brother, but Haaken had lost consciousness again.

“Don’t get excited,” Elana told him. “He already told me most of it. He said the old man kept talking to himself. That he remembers him standing over him, looking sick, and muttering something like, ‘Varth, you’re doing it again. Should’ve stayed in Fangdred. Should’ve never left the Dragon’s Teeth. This’s all it gets. More blood on your hands.’“

“The Dragon’s Teeth, eh? Ah! The Old Man of the Mountain? Sonofabitch!” His last word was a bellow.


“I’ve got it. The Old Man of the Mountain. Gold of Ilkazar, paying us and Haroun. A sorcerer named Varthlokkur. The things Rolf said Nepanthe raved about in Iwa Skolovda. There’s a Varthlokkur in The Wizards of Ilkazar. Legends are, he lives with the Old Man of the Mountain. Add it up. If this’s the same one, we’re in it big. He’s supposed to be the greatest wizard ever.”

“So what?” Kildragon asked, unimpressed. “So we know who he is. We don’t know why he dragged us in.”

“Power, probably. There’re things here he’d want bad. The Horn of the Star Rider. The weather control things.” Ragnarson shook his head. The theory seemed inadequate. Yet nothing else came to mind.

Slowly, in a dark mood, Saltimbanco stalked the icy corridors. The question of the old man occupied but a tiny portion of his attention. The remainder went to Nepanthe, to dark arguments and fierce recriminations. A bitter conflict was rehearsing in his head. He felt down, trapped, frustrated, and obliquely angry. He loved, and was continually thwarted. Nepanthe also loved, he knew, but her strange fears and little-girl dreams stood between them like a barrier as impenetrable as time.

It occurred to him that, if he permitted it, the nonsense could go on forever. Elana had described her argument with Nepanthe, which had done little good. Nepanthe remained the same distant, fearful, dreaming woman-child. Well, he had decided, there had to be an end. There would be an end. He was done being an emotional handball. Purpose hardened. His stride quickened.

Outside, the first white flecks of winter fell. Time, it seemed, had finally rallied to the Storm King banner. The snow was weeks early.

In the Bell Tower he learned that Nepanthe was in the Lower Armories. Through a window he saw the snow, suddenly realized how near the end had come. He hoped the old man held no grudges, and Nepanthe likewise. When Haroun came, when Ravenkrak fell, he would have to show his true colors—and might then be trapped between parties thinking him traitor. Would the old man pay as promised? He’d have trouble if he didn’t. Haroun had an army, and was notoriously short on patience. And Nepanthe. Would she hate him? Would she reject him forever?

These thoughts, and a thousand as grim, stalked his soul as he awaited the woman. Settled in that fireside chair, engrossed in worry, he remained unaware of her entry till she spoke. He glanced up. “Hello.”

Her face was colorless. She was suffering her own worries. He almost relented. But the hardness grew within him. It would permit no further vacillation. There must be resolution. A beginning or ending.

“Nepanthe,” he said, voice edged with a steeliness previously unshown. “We are going where? Same nowheres? Or would you grow up?”

His hardness and obvious tension so startled Nepanthe that she could stammer only, “I… well…”

His determination hardened further. Through clenched teeth, he growled, “You must make big decision in day. By supper tomorrow. A set wedding day, or no. If no, despairing self is going over wall. Cannot endure off-again, on-again love. Ravenkrak falls before end of month.”


“Set wedding day, or no. Is ultimatum. No more games. Answer by tomorrow.” He strode out, dark and angry.

“Wait! You’ve got to give me time!”

“Am!” He slammed the door behind him.

Nepanthe stared at it as if it were a dragon astride her road to freedom. Everything was falling apart. She couldn’t marry! Couldn’t he understand? She loved him, yes, but the truth was, she wasn’t ready to accept him as more than someone to lean on when things got rough. She didn’t want him to be a someone she owed a responsibility. Biting her lip, she turned toward her bedchamber.

Anina blocked the door. “Tough, ain’t it?”

Nepanthe stared, surprised again.

“Ah, well.” Anina laughed weakly. “You’ll give him the gate now.” She returned to the bedroom, came out shortly. She carried a bag.

“Where’re you going?” Nepanthe demanded. “I need help dressing for supper.”

“Find somebody else. My man doesn’t want me around you anymore.” That man was Rolf, maneuvering in Mocker’s favor. Nepanthe was crushed. Even Rolf, her faithful commander and aide since those first days in Iwa Skolovda…

For the second time in minutes, her door slammed in her face. Another in her mind opened, releasing fears. She threw herself on her bed, wept and thought. She didn’t go to supper. Nor did she sleep that night.

As dawn arrived grayly through falling snow, she stood at a window staring toward Haroun’s camp, seeing nothing. Her eyes looked inward on rage at the world and people pushing her. What right had they?…

She began pacing. Slowly, as her anger grew, her face reddened. Long-forgotten tears dribbled from the corners of her eyes. “Damn-damn-damn! Why won’t they leave me alone? I don’t want anybody. I want to be myself!” And a little voice, mocking back in a corner of her mind which seldom allowed its denizens free of shadow, chuckled wickedly, You’re a liar! “I don’t want to be chained!” Ha! What’re your dreams, if not chains that bind? What’re the people and things with which you surround yourself, if not walls that keep you in? Run, and all life ahead will be a wasteland as desolate as the past. What’ll you do when your bright tomorrows have all become the skeletons of yesterdays? Weep? Why? You won’t know what you’ve missed, only that you were never complete.

It was a night worse than any from those nightmare-haunted years before Saltimbanco’s coming. She wept till tears would come no more, destroyed things, screamed, raged—and could discover no escaping a decision.

Strange, that. She didn’t worry the goods and bads of the decision Saltimbanco had thrust upon her, but whether or not it should be made. Decisions were anathema. Each became another brick in the wall of the cell of reality. Each committed her.

Next noon hunger finally drew Saltimbanco to the Great Hall. There he found Turran, Valther, and Brock, directing soldiers who were dismantling the plank-and-trestle tables. He seized a half-loaf and some wine before it could be spirited away, wandered over to the Storm Kings. “Self, am wondering what is happening.” All the excitement and anguish of the news of Ridyeh’s death seemed banished. He was glad, but wondered why.

“You don’t know?” Turran countered. “I guess not. That’s her style. Well, I’ll never tell.”

Brock, usually undemonstrative, gave Saltimbanco a friendly punch on the shoulder, but also refused enlightenment.

Anxious to remain as anonymous as possible these last few days, Saltimbanco left the Great Hall. He intended to stroll to the fortress rear to check the canyon, but found himself straying toward the Bell Tower instead. He surrendered to the impulse.

How haggard Nepanthe appeared when she answered his knock! In silence she let him in. He saw she had been mending her damaged embroidery. Once comfortable in the overstuffed chair, he leaned back, closed his eyes, acted his usual self, waited. Nepanthe had too many woes to worry Ridyeh’s death. Here he was safe.

She, biting her lip again (she had developed a sore from doing it so frequently), stared at him a long time. She was pale and more frightened than ever. Her decision troubled her deeply, tormenting the roots of her fear. But she was determined to stand by it.

She slowly moved toward his chair. Shaking. He pretended snores, through cracked eyelids watched anger cross her face. With that to impel her, it seemed she feared less.

He opened his eyes, looked up as she slipped her hand into his. Still biting her swollen lip, she gently tugged. He rose, followed her to her bedroom.

Drums echoed through Ravenkrak’s shadowed halls. Trumpets proclaimed the occasion. Bright silk banners flew from every tower. The garrison was out in full dress. The Storm Kings had clothed themselves richly, in contrast to their usual spartan dress. Saltimbanco, no longer of remarkable girth, wore formal clothing borrowed from Brock: a black cape edged with silver, scarlet tunic and hose, and the polished weapons of a Lord. Bathed and combed and dressed, he seemed not at all the clown.

Following Turran’s directions—the Storm King was as magnificent as any southern King—Saltimbanco positioned himself beside a dais a-head the Great Hall. The folk of Ravenkrak sat on benches athwart the hall, an ocean of restless white and brown and black faces. Suddenly he was terrified. As it was for Nepanthe, this was no day he had ever desired. Yet he needed her, had to be tied to her.

The drums took a new cadence. The trumpets sounded their final call. The bride had abandoned her tower. She would return alone nevermore.

Turran mounted the dais. His was the task of binding. Orange and gold, scarlet and purple, motionless, he loomed like a fire demon.

From the Bell Tower, proceeding along a dark, cleared aisle between banks of snow, though the continuing blizzard, the bride’s party started toward the hall. Six women, clad in dark green embroidered with thread-of-gold, carried Nepanthe’s train. Liveried pikemen marched at either hand. All moved with a slow, measured step despite the cold. Ravenkrak’s weddings were performed with regal pomp and deliberation.

The bride’s party reached the Great Hall. Valther and Jerrad drew their swords and assumed Nepanthe’s guardianship. They advanced on the dais slowly.

Saltimbanco experienced eternity during that approach. He stared, marveling anew at Nepanthe’s beauty, her dark eyes and hair, her soft skin and delicate features. She seemed beatific this evening, unworldly, under some ecstatic enchantment. Her brothers, too, were under the spell. Briefly, he forgot his fears, hoped this would amply distract them. For the moment they might have thought Ridyeh still living.

Nepanthe reached the dais. The drums fell silent. The ceremony began…

As if bounced through time, Saltimbanco realized it was over, done. Was it true? Yes. The people were leaving for the parties. Where had time gone?

Nepanthe finally looked into his eyes. He took her hand, squeezing gently. At that moment, in that place, she showed neither fear nor doubt.

It was too late for either. She had become committed. She would fight for the commitment as bitterly as she had resisted it.

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