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Twelve: Autumn-Winter, 996 afe

Twelve: Autumn-Winter, 996 afe

They Drink the Wine of Violence

Saltimbanco yawned and stretched, reaching the last leg of a long and lazy approach to wakefulness. He stretched again. He was as relaxed as a cat. His extended left arm came down on something soft and warm and swathed in a mass of silken hair. He yawned again, rolled so he could look into the smiling face of his new wife. He reached slowly, stalking a wisp of dark hair peeping from a fold of coverlet, caught it between thumb and forefinger, curled and twirled it while watching her sleep. Then he drew a fingertip lightly over one soft, rosy cheek, following the line of her jaw, ended by tickling the dimple on her chin. The caress excited something at the corner of her mouth, a something seldom seen before last evening, a happy, demonic something that had spent years in hiding, a something now out and winking merrily. Her smile so lightly grew, drawing with its warmth. Those ruby cushions for his kiss parted slightly, permitting the flight of a sigh. She extended a small, delicate hand to cover his own, pressed it to her cheek. Slowly, so as not to disturb her slumber, he leaned and kissed that taunting quirk at the corner of her mouth.

“Uhm,” she sighed, eyes still closed.

“Self, have something to confess.”

She opened one sleepy eye.

“Self, am not Saltimbanco. Am not simple, wandering fool…”

“Shhh. I know.”

“Hai! How? Am still breathing.”

“Deduction. Valther’s lists. You were the only one who could’ve gotten to them and have communicated with bin Yousif. In Iwa Skolovda.”

Fear smote deeply. “Ridyeh?” he gasped, unable to articulate his question.

“I hated you then. But it wasn’t your fault, really. I… uh… Why talk about it? It’s over. Don’t make me remember. I don’t want to. Kiss me. Touch me. Love me. Don’t talk. Just make me forget.”

“No hate? Ravenkrak will die, and self, in one guise, am prime killer.”

“Ravenkrak’s dead. Only Ravenkrak hasn’t heard.”

“You change so.”

They were interrupted by a knock. Neither moved. It grew insistent. “You’d better go,” Nepanthe said. “Probably one of my brothers.”

It was. Valther eyed the gown of Nepanthe’s Saltimbanco had donned, chuckled, said, “Turran wants Nepanthe in the Lower Armories. Luxos just got home. We got him through the gates three steps ahead of bin Yousif’s men.”

“Self, am dismayed by lack of respect…”

“My own thought exactly,” Valther replied, cutting him short. “But Turran wants her, and what he wants, he gets. Got to run.” He chucked Mocker under the chin. “The robe becomes you.” Laughing, he ducked a spiritless punch and hurried away.

Mocker found Nepanthe dressing when he returned. Her face clouded. She was still afraid.

“Was Valther. Meeting in Lower Armories. Luxos came back.”

“I heard. Will you help me?” She quavered when he touched her. A moment later, in a tremulous whisper, she asked, “What do your friends call you?”

“Many names. Hai! Not good for lady’s ears, most. But mostly Mocker.”

“Mocker, we have to leave.”


“My brothers might find out. We should get out first.”

“To where? How to live? Moneys from speechifying in Iwa Skolovda repose in secret place in Tower of Moon—lost forever!” This was a wail.

“I don’t care where. And I’ve got lots of valuable things.”

“How to escape?”

“There’re ways. But you know bin Yousif, don’t you?” There was no accusation in her voice.

“Long time.”

“You’re friends?”

“When gold is right.”

“Anyone else?” She smiled, easing his tension. He understood.


“What?” She was startled.

“Rendel Grimnason. True name is Bragi Ragnarson.”

“And Astrid?”

“Name is Elana. And Blackfang, Kildragon, Rolf, also. And guess where loyalty of troops lies.”

“Oh! Poor Turran. Surrounded by enemies. Even his sister, now. When’s it supposed to end?”

Mocker shook his head. “Employer, closed-lip man of first class, tells nothing. Not even name. But we find out. Is magical Machiavelli.”

“A magician?”

“Yes. Question still is, why so interested in Ravenkrak?”

“What’s his name?”

“Is Varthlokkur…”

“Varthlokkur!” She dropped to the bed. “I told Turran, but he wouldn’t listen.”

Her reaction startled Mocker. “What is trouble?”

“You know what he wants from Ravenkrak? Me! For years he’s been after me to marry him. Probably for my power. Not the Werewind, but the power within. Storm King blood is strong with it. Our ancestors were nobles of Ilkazar. Matched, little could resist us. Controlling weather would be child’s play. Which is why I always turned him down.” She flushed. He knew that wasn’t her primary reason. “I was afraid Ravenkrak would be first to feel his new strength. I guess he’ll destroy us anyway. Sooner or later, destruction overtakes all the children of the Empire. Be ready to leave when I get back. See if your friends will go with us.”

She settled her dress more comfortably, gave him a small kiss. “I love you.” She struggled with words, but they came. “I’ll be back soon.”

As Nepanthe left the tower, shawl tightened about her neck and head against the worsening snow, she examined, and marveled at, the changed state of her mind. Though she still feared, her being, like a magnet being drawn, was orienting itself toward one lodestone. Saltimbanco. No, Mocker. But what was the difference? A rose is a rose. Funny. She could almost feel her fears evaporating. She wanted to sing. It was icy cold. A wind had begun driving the already fallen snow (escaping be a grim, miserable undertaking), but she didn’t feel it, didn’t care. Her sexual fears had already begun to appear foolish—it hadn’t been bad at all—yet thoughts of future encounters still disturbed her.

Nepanthe was last to reach the Lower Armories. She found her brothers waiting impatiently. No one criticized her lateness. After offering belated well-wishes for her marriage, Luxos demanded everyone’s attention.

“These are Ridyeh’s things. What I could recover,” he said, indicating a clutter on the table. “A gold coin bin Yousif spent after a meeting with an old man at an Itaskian tavern. Given him by that old man. The mercenaries outside are being paid in the same mintage. Turran?”

Turran examined the coin. “Ilkazar. Scarce these days.”

“Thousands are being spent.”

“Somebody found the Treasure of Ilkazar?”

“Don’t forget, an old man’s the source. What old man might know where to find that treasure?”

“Varthlokkur!” Turran snarled.

“Brilliant deduction!” said Nepanthe. “What’d I tell you six months ago?”

“Okay, I apologize. I didn’t think he wanted you that bad. That means we’ve got real trouble. We’ll have to fight sorcery and soldiers both.”

“I have more,” Luxos said. “Concerning who gave that spy list to bin Yousif. I found this paper in Ridyeh’s pocket. The river water almost ruined it. But two names are clear: Bragi Ragnarson and Mocker. Meaningless? Rumor has it that bin Yousif operated with men of those names during the El Murid Wars. And one of them was in Itaskia at the time, and was seen talking with the same old man. Where are they now? What’re they doing? I think they’re here. In Ravenkrak.”

Nepanthe racked her mind for a diversion.

Offering the paper, Luxos said, “There’s another readable line.”

Turran frowned over ink badly run, read, “‘… short and fat. Ragnarson is blond, tall…’ That’s all?”

They were at the marches of discovery. Nepanthe knew she had to warn her husband… The thought startled her.

Her declaration to Mocker, a half hour earlier, of a shift of allegiance, had lacked conviction. In the meantime it had matured and grown firm. She rose. To Turran’s inquiring glance, she replied, “Bathroom,” and left them bent over Ridyeh’s effects like ghouls over an open grave.

“Does this mean anything?” she heard Turran ask. And, as she drew almost beyond hearing, Valther replied.

“The only fat man here is Saltimbanco…”

Which precipitated a brief silence. Nepanthe started to run—and collided with a breathless soldier. “Milady!” he gasped. “They’re striking camp. Looks like they’re pulling out.”

Turran’s strategy had been vindicated. “Thank you. I’ll tell my brothers. Return to your station.” She pretended to return toward the blue glow of the meeting room. She stopped when the soldier passed out of sight. She had no intention of telling Turran that he had won. Let him stew awhile, arguing, while she and Mocker got away. Anyway, she had a feeling his victory might not be what it seemed.

Diminished by distance, she heard Turran’s anguished, “But we couldn’t have married our sister to an enemy!”

“We did!” Valther retorted. “I’d swear, now that I think about, nobody else could’ve gotten to the lists. Not and have gotten them to bin Yousif. Maybe we can hold his merry hanging after all.”

“Damn!” Turran roared. Metal rattled as he smote the table. “Well, that’s one. What about the other?”

“Grimnason,” Valther said sadly.

“What? No! He’s been our best man.”

“A hunch.”

“Ridyeh said blond.”

“Hair can be dyed. It doesn’t matter anyway. We’re inundated by enemies, inside and out. We’ve been outmaneuvered all the way down the line. Which figures with a fox like Varthlokkur. So, after four hundred years, Ravenkrak falls, unvanquished by arms. Treachery’s victim, as we always knew she would be. Hail the Empire.”

Nepanthe had heard all she wanted. She ran.

Nepanthe rushed into the courtyard, looked around wildly, through the blinding snow barely discerned Ragnarson atop the wall. In a moment she was at his side, breathless. “Bragi, my brothers…”

“I know.” He didn’t turn. His gaze was fixed in the direction of bin Yousif’s encampment. His expression was one of weariness and sorrow. “Mocker told me you wanted to leave. I don’t know if we can, now. By stalling I may have cut all our throats. Haroun won’t be happy. He isn’t a forgiving man.”

“You don’t understand,” she said. “The game’s over. They know. Luxos brought proof. You’ve got to get out right now.”

Ragnarson’s shoulders slumped. He sighed. Turning, he replied, “Thank you, Lady. You’d better get your things. Don’t bring more than you can carry. Clothes and food. My men are packing already. Can you make it down the mountain in this?”

“I guess so,” she replied. “Be careful. They’ll do something pretty soon.” She left for the Bell Tower.

Ragnarson stood there for a while, staring down the mountain. One by one, as they were ready, his staff came to him. Rolf Preshka, Reskird Kildragon, Haaken on a litter borne by those two, Elana, and a handful of favored soldiers. Finally, he asked, “Where’re Mocker and Nepanthe?”

No one knew.

“I don’t like leaving the men,” Kildragon complained.

In his new, tired voice, Ragnarson replied, “I loathe it. But would you rather be dead?”

Preshka observed, “We’re not leaving any of our old people. Lif. Haas. Chotty…” He did the roll of old accomplices.

“Nevertheless,” Reskird protested, “there’s our reputation …”

“Shut up!”

A figure plunged through the drifts in the court, shouted from the foot of the wall, “Captain, they’re coming over the rear wall!”

Stunned, Ragnarson could ask only, “Who?”

“Bin Yousif’s men, I think.”

“How many?”

“Only a few so far, but more all the time.”

“Right. Thank you. Rolf, send everybody back there. That’ll distract them till we’re out. Hurry.”

Preshka departed.

“Elana, what about the costumes?”

“I hid them in the gatehouse.”

“Good. Where the hell are Mocker and Nepanthe?”

“This must be them.” Two dark shapes staggered from the direction of the Bell Tower. From beyond them came muted sounds of combat.

“May the Gods Above, or the Gods Below, or any Powers here present, cast down, disperse, and render unto destruction the agents of destruction, the Storm Kings of Ravenkrak,” Nepanthe said on arriving. “I prayed that at the beginning. Now it’s being answered, and I wish I could take it back.”

“All right, down to the gatehouse,” Ragnarson ordered. Moments later, Kildragon held the guard at sword point while Elana recovered white robes sewn from bedsheets. Preshka returned and claimed his as Ragnarson ordered the gate opened.

A scream, above the growing clamor of battle (from the sound of it, the defense had the upper hand), echoed through the courtyard. Luxos burst from the door to the Lower Armories. “Move out!” Ragnarson growled. Though he had little doubt of the outcome of a duel with Luxos, having practiced with the man, he paused to engage while the others won free.

Ragnarson had learned his fencing in a less than chivalrous school. For him survival meant a lot more than fair play and an honorable death. As Luxos lunged, Bragi swept a hand through the icicles hanging from the tunnel-like gate, hurling them into his assailant’s face. He followed up with a groin kick that propelled Luxos back amidst his brothers. Bragi fled only two steps behind his companions.

They took no more than a dozen steps. Then the slope came alive around them. Snowdrifts rose and became white-clad figures rushing the open gate. Ragnarson was hit, buffeted, knocked down, and trampled as bin Yousif’s men swept past.

He fell cursing himself for believing that Haroun would go away without one last, cunning attack. He should have foreseen this… The first wave passed, ignoring his people. But the attackers cursing behind the falling snow, down the mountain, wouldn’t be preoccupied with seizing a gate. Bragi knelt. He looked around, saw no one. His shout, drowned by the metallic racket behind him, brought no response. Wanting no attention, he kept his mouth shut from then on.

He stood, arranged his camouflage about him, continued down the mountain. Hopefully, the others would reach the place where they had agreed to meet if separated.

With a gasp of relief, Ragnarson dropped his end of the litter before Haroun’s tent. His arms and shoulders ached. Beside him, wary, shivering spearmen relaxed only slightly as he dropped to his hams.

He had found Kildragon and Haaken in the lee of a snow-covered earthwork a quarter-mile below the gate. Kildragon had been trying to drag his friend down the mountain unaided, but had not been able to go further. The others had vanished, scattered by the charge… Then Haroun’s troops had appeared and, apparently under special orders, had brought them here.

The flap of the tent whipped back. Lean, brown, clad in black, bin Yousif looked like a caricature of Death. “Send them in,” he ordered.

Grunting, frowning down the length of spearshafts, Ragnarson lifted his end of the litter. A moment later the tent flap closed behind him. Warmth from a dozen braziers assailed him.

“He all right?”

Bin Yousif bent over Blackfang. Haaken mumbled, “Ready to take my turn carrying Reskird.”

A smile, half feral, flashed across bin Yousif’s face. “Fine.” Turning, “Bragi, you’re lucky you’ve got a good-looking, fast-talking wife. And that my men caught her first. I might not have given you a chance to talk.” Ragnarson had just noticed Elana crouched in a far corner, being intimate with a brazier. She offered a weary smile.

Bin Yousif continued, “Can’t blame you for holding off. My problem is that I don’t have a conscience. Well, it came out all right. No hard feelings. The old man’s going to pay us off in Itaskia. Ah. Must be some more.”

Ragnarson stepped to the flap with Haroun. Another prisoner, Rolf, had indeed arrived—but Bragi’s attention wasn’t caught by his lieutenant. Beyond and above Preshka, through a slackening snowfall, vermillion flared and fluttered.

“Ravenkrak’s burning,” Haroun said. “Come in, Rolf.”

Ragnarson smote palm with fist. He felt worse each time he betrayed an employer. He was evil, a maggot. A man’s oath had meant something once—but he had been a pup then, a fool in the fool’s paradise of Trolledyngja.

“If you have to stare, go outside,” bin Yousif growled. “Don’t leave the flap open.”

Ragnarson let the flap fall, masking the outcome of his treason.

From the brazier he had surrounded, Preshka asked, “How’d you know?”

Bin Yousif frowned questioningly, then smiled. “You mean that you’d break out today? I didn’t, for sure. But it seemed like a good bet. We spotted Luxos a couple days ago. I thought he might know enough to start you running. So I let him get through.”

“What now?” Preshka asked.

“We’re supposed to wait at the Red Hart in Itaskia. The old man will pay us off there.”

“I don’t like it.”

“It’s the best I could get. He doesn’t trust us anymore. Why should he? Blackfang head-bashed him. Bragi stalled forever. And I wouldn’t attack.”

Someone shouted outside. Haroun went to the flap. “Ah, all here now. Bring him in.” Two soldiers, dragging an unconscious and gaudily bandaged Mocker, entered. “Put him on the bed. What happened?”

“Wouldn’t surrender,” one said. “Wanted to find somebody. His wife, he said.”

“Wife? Mocker? Bragi, what’s this blather?”

“It’s true. Believe it or not. He’s married. To Nepanthe. Since last night.”

“Oh.” A vacant sound, that. Bin Yousif plopped onto a stool, frowned. “That’s not good. What’s wrong with him? He was supposed to suborn her, that’s all. Break up the family. Bad. Bad.”

“Why?” Elana asked. “Is there a law says he can’t get married?”

“There are a million women… Why’d he pick one the old man wants?”

“Don’t you care what she wants?”

“No. Hell no! I want to get paid. She’s merchandise.” He smote his forehead theatrically. “Merchandise. Why? Why not somebody else? And why me? Why am I soft-hearted about that fathead? Should’ve cut his throat when he stole my purse. Nothing but trouble since. I’ve got the fool’s weakness. Friendship.” After a lot of like natter, he ordered Nepanthe found and brought to him. While waiting, he prepared for a hasty departure, to escape Varthlokkur’s shadow.

Nepanthe couldn’t be found. Haroun and his allies searched three days. During that time they accounted for almost everyone, great and small, involved in the events at Ravenkrak. That fortress was now a smoke-stained ruin. Less than a score were missing, presumably buried in the snow-shrouded rubble. Among the missing, several Storm Kings were prominent.

Then Mocker, following the path he thought Nepanthe had taken after they had become disoriented and separated near the castle gate, happened on a curiosity. It was an area where snow had melted and refrozen. Others had seen it and thought it of no significance, and Mocker likewise—except that Haroun was with him and he had enough background in sorcery to recognize its telltales.

“A spell of concealment was worked here,” he said, surprising his companion. “Good deal of heat involved in twisting light around.”

“Witchery? What?…”

“I told you the old man wanted Nepanthe. Looks like he found her here, hid her with a spell, took her off down that way when the chance came.” He pointed along a track of lesser melting.

“We follow, eh? Catch him quick. Old mans not walk so fast…”

“Fast enough.” Knowing it vain, Haroun sent patrols in pursuit. They found neither wizard nor woman. Meanwhile, he disbanded his army, ruining his war chest in the process, and released his prisoners. He was desolate when the last trooper was paid off. Not a farthing remained as profit—because he had had to pay Bragi’s men, too.

The old man had to show in Itaskia.

Despite Mocker’s protests, Haroun led his allies southward in hopes of, if nothing else, salvaging their pay.

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