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Fourteen: Spring, 997 afe

Fourteen: Spring, 997 afe

While They Were Enemies They Were Reconciled

A month had passed. Ragnarson, bin Yousif, and their associates had become certain of what they had suspected for some time: Varthlokkur wouldn’t appear for the payoff. For at least the hundredth time, Ragnarson asked, “Are you sure he said he’d meet us here?”

And bin Yousif, gazing out an open window at the morning sun, replied as always, “I’m sure. He said, ‘The Red Hart Inn, Itaskia.’ You think it’s too early for ale?”

“Ask Yalmar. It’s his tavern. Yalmar!”

An aging man limped from the kitchen, without speaking drew and delivered two mugs. As he left, though, he smote his forehead suddenly and said, “Oh. Meant to tell ye. There were a fellow here after ye last night…”

Both jerked to attention. “Dusky old man with a nose like mine?” bin Yousif demanded.

Yalmar considered Haroun’s aquiline beak. “Nay, can’t say so. Fortyish, black hair, heavy sort.”

Bin Yousif frowned. Ragnarson was about to ask something when Elana descended the stair from the rooming floor, her step portentous. “He’s gone,” she said. “Sometime during the night.”


“Who else?”

They had been keeping him tied for his own protection, to prevent his charging off after Varthlokkur and Nepanthe—which might also compromise their chances of getting paid.

Bin Yousif sighed. “Well, it’s come. I was afraid it would. A mad stab at a hornet’s nest, and us without legs to run on.”

“What do you mean?” A vacant question. Ragnarson’s interest was all in Elana, who had gone to stare out a side window. She seemed terribly distant of late.

“I mean that Mocker’s making us help him, like it or not. He knows damned well that to Varthlokkur we’re a team. So, whether or not we’re involved, he’ll take a shot at us when he finds out Mocker’s after him. Just in case. Wouldn’t you? What’s Elana’s problem?”

“I don’t want anything to do with Fangdred. But, if we’re going to get killed anyway, it might as well be facing the enemy. I guess she’s worried about Nepanthe. They got pretty close.”

Elana wasn’t worrying about Nepanthe. Nepanthe’s predicament had become secondary. Her problem was her newly discovered pregnancy. How could she tell Bragi and not get herself excluded from his plans? She did feel a little guilty, though, because she was concerned with herself when Nepanthe’s problems were so much nastier.

Ragnarson called for more ale, asked the innkeeper, “The man who asked about us. What did he want?”

“Would’na say. Did say ye were friends.”

Ragnarson scratched his beard, which had faded to its normal blondness, and asked, “What was his accent?”

“No need to go on about it. He’s here.”

Haroun glanced up from his drink. Ragnarson turned…

The latter dove to his left, stretched out like a man plunging into water. He rolled, tripped Yalmar intentionally, shouted, “Elana!” Bin Yousif rolled into cover behind a table Bragi was overturning, thundered, “Haaken! Reskird!”

Four men in monkish garb halted in the doorway, startled by the explosive reaction to their appearance. One suddenly fell to his knees, tripped from behind. Before he could rise, a hand was beneath his chin and a blade across his throat. Both were Elana’s. In hard tones she told the others, “Turran’s dead if anybody even twitches!”

They believed her. They might have been stone for all the life they showed.

Ragnarson, slipping from table to table in a crouch, reached a rack where swords hung, tossed one to bin Yousif, drew another for himself, and moved toward the door. A rapid clumping came from the stairs. Blackfang and Kildragon, half dressed, arrived. They took stations to either side of Elana.

Ragnarson and bin Yousif closed in.

Rolf Preshka appeared behind the Storm Kings, sword in hand. “Damn!” he grumbled. “Jumped out that window for nothing. Ah. Nothing like old friends dropping in.” He stared at the four both with frank curiosity and wry amusement.

Elsewhere, the innkeeper made the safety of his serving counter, like a curious owl paused to watch from its cover. He had been schooled well by his long proprietorship. The Red Hart had the most unsavory reputation in all Itaskia.

“You react quickly,” said Turran. “Might almost think you had guilty consciences.” Though he spoke lightly, there was fear in his eyes. “No need for this. We’re unarmed.”

“Said the sorcerer, laughing,” bin Yousif muttered. “Do you keep your lightning bolts in scabbards now?”

“Sorry,” Ragnarson apologized, not meaning it at all. “We’re expecting trouble.” His eyes flicked over the four, assessing. “But not from you. Let’s move to a table.” A moment later the four were seated, surrounded by the six, and a pitcher was on its way. “What do you want?” Ragnarson growled.

“To talk to Saltimbanco,” said Turran.

“Mocker,” Kildragon interjected.

“Saltimbanco, Mocker, that’s neither here nor there. He was Saltimbanco to us, but we’ll call him Mocker if you want. We want to see him. About Nepanthe.”

“She’s a big girl. She knew what she was doing,” said Elana, falsely sweet. “You won’t interfere.”

“No, of course not. We didn’t plan on it. Even after Ravenkrak, we can’t help but be happy for her…Though it hurts that she took sides against her own family.” Turran wearily pushed his hair out of his eyes. The slump of his shoulders, the way he held his head, the manner in which he avoided their eyes, all bespoke a tired and defeated man, a man who had seen all his dreams become fuel for merciless flames. “We want her taken away from Varthlokkur, gotten out of Fangdred, so she can’t be used in any of his schemes.” Even after having known the wizard for years, Turran couldn’t picture him as free of evil designs. “Once that’s accomplished, she’s free to go where she wants, do what she wants, with whomever she wants.”

“Uhm!” Ragnarson grunted, his heavy brows pulling together thoughtfully, a small scar on his forehead whitening.

“Look,” Turran said with a hint of desperation, “we don’t hate you for what you did. Rendel, you were my friend. I think you still are. Astrid…”

“Make it Bragi and Elana,” Elana said.

“Whatever, you’re the only friend Nepanthe ever had. We’d be fools to hate you just because you were duped by a wizard…”

“Who never paid us,” Blackfang growled.

“We’d like to discard the past, make friends, come to terms. With Nepanthe’s rescue in mind.”

Softly, bin Yousif interjected, “You’d forget real quarrels? Like Ridyeh?”

Four grimaces. Turran visibly struggled with his emotions. “Yes. He’s dead now. Hatred won’t help him. Nor revenge help the living. And Nepanthe is alive. She can be helped. We’ll court devils if that’s the cost of getting her away from Varthlokkur.”

“I almost believe you,” Ragnarson told him. “What do you want from us, anyway?”

“Mocker’s help. She’s his wife. And he has the know-how to pull this sort of thing off…”

“Too bad. The idiot’s left already.”

“For Fangdred? By himself?”

“Yes. Mad as a hatter, isn’t he? Your sister’s fault. He’s in love. Thinks he should charge around like the fool knights in the stories she used to like. I don’t know. I might be wrong. He never showed any symptoms of the disease before. He could be flat crazy. Hey! What happened to Luxos?”

Turran’s face darkened again. He replied, “We couldn’t get him to leave Ravenkrak. He fought to the end. Even after everybody else surrendered. He was my brother and I’m kind of proud. He was brave, but he was a fool, too. A hundred lunatics like him could’ve stood off the world. In the end, bowmen shot him down.” After a thoughtful moment, “Why do men give their utmost to a lost cause? Look at all the great heroes. None of them were winners in the end.”

Ragnarson observed, “Fangdred supposedly would be an even tougher nut than Ravenkrak. We don’t have an army anymore. And no money to hire one. How do you figure we can pull this off?”

“Uhn. How?” Turran mumbled dully. He and his brothers, apparently, kept going only because they believed they had to do this one more thing. They were treading water amidst the broken timbers of shipwrecked dreams. “I don’t know.”


“We’ll do what we can. With swords or the Werewind. Minus Ridyeh, Nepanthe, and Luxos, our control won’t be much good. We could manage rain or snow, but nothing like the blizzard we sent to Dvar.”

“Even that could be helpful, properly timed,” Haroun mused.

“My thought, too,” Turran agreed.

“Bragi, I don’t like this,” Blackfang observed.

“Neither do I, Haaken. But it’s not really your fight anymore. You and Rolf and Reskird I’ll give what’s left of the pay accounts. Elana, find the drafts.”

“What’s to be done?” bin Yousif asked, posing. Then, “Having a storm in your pocket could be handy, but we’d have to know where and when to send it.”

“A suggestion,” Valther interjected. “Visigodred and Zindahjira. My agents tell me you have an understanding with them.”

Those names silenced the table. They belonged to sorcerers. Powerful sorcerers, though they weren’t in a class with Varthlokkur. “You dug deep if you found out about them,” bin Yousif observed. “Those things were quietly done.”

“Time is a problem,” said Ragnarson. “Mocker has a good lead already. Chances are, he’d be dead before we could wrangle a deal with those two. I’m not sure I want to do business with Visigodred anyway. I owe him too much now.”

Turran recovered some of his former spirit as he suggested, “We could adjust the time schedule. We could pin Mocker with foul weather till you were ready to help him.”

“I suppose,” Ragnarson grumbled. To Haroun, “Would Zindahjira work with Visigodred? Aren’t they still feuding?”

“We’ll give them the Horn of the Star Rider and our storm-sending equipment if they’ll help,” Turran said. “They can work out who gets what.”

Haroun nodded. “Exactly the kind of thing that would convince Zindahjira. He thinks the world-machine only runs when it’s oiled with bribes.”

“I don’t like it,” Ragnarson grumped. “But, for lack of any other plan… Well, I’ll head for Mendalayas today.”

“We’ll follow Mocker toward Fangdred,” said Turran. “And keep the weather miserable. We don’t have the range we used to. We’ll set up camp in East Heatherland somewhere, close enough to Fangdred to hit it with our best, if it comes to that.”

Yalmar brought a last pitcher of ale. They toasted success, then plunged into their half-baked, precipitous plan.

Ragnarson and his wife reached a hilltop, paused to stare across a valley at gray, gothic Castle Mendalayas. Bragi’s thoughts drifted from his wonder at Elana’s recently revealed pregnancy to memories of past visits here. Though a sorcerer, Visigodred had proven a perfect host on each occasion. Ragnarson hoped that that state of affairs would persist.

“It’s a weird-looking place,” Elana said. She brushed a wisp of red hair from her eyes. Her hair color sometimes changed, in secret, piquing Ragnarson’s curiosity about the special sorceries of women. Some were better illusionists than master wizards.

“Uhm!” He, too, was having trouble with his hair. A strong, chill wind was blowing down off the Kratchnodians. The mountains lay just north of Mendalayas.

“Why’re we waiting?”

“I’m nervous. Are you all right?”

“Don’t be silly. Of course I am. It’s months before you have to worry.” She kicked her mare’s flanks.

Soon they were climbing the far side of the valley, through the vineyards surrounding Mendalayas. Those slopes were stark, the vines skeletal brown hands reaching for a leaden sky. They were dismal now, but beauty would return with spring. Next summer fat blue-purple globes would cluster among the browning leaves, wine’s parents…

A servant liveried in green awaited them at the castle gate. He bowed. “Good morning, Captain. Lady. Your mounts, if I may?” He led them inside. “I’ll see that your things are transferred to your apartment after I stable your animals. His Lordship awaits your pleasure in his study. Alowa, the young lady at the door, will show you there.”

Once beyond the servant’s hearing, Elana whispered, “This Visigodred is a wizard? He operates like a noble.”

“He’s that, too. County Mendalayas is his demesne. He holds it in fief from Itaskia, through Duchy Greyfells. Sorcery is just his hobby. At least that’s what he says. He’s a real hobby nut.”

“He knew we were coming.”

“One of his affectations. He watches this county like a hawk so he can impress people with his foreknowledge.”

The girl at the door, who also wore dark green, said, “My Lord sends greetings and asks if he might receive you in his study.”

“By all means. Lead on.”

As Ragnarson and Elana followed her through torchlit, richly decorated halls, the girl asked, “What are your dinner preferences? My Lord asked us to make you feel at home.”

“Whatever’s convenient for the cook,” Ragnarson replied.

“Thank you. He’ll be pleased to hear that.”

They reached Visigodred’s study. It was as vast as the common hall of other castles. Its walls were concealed behind glazed cabinets containing collections of knives, swords, bows, crystalware, coins, books, almost everything else collectable. Shelves and shelves of scrolls and bound librums formed semi-partitions dividing the room, and among them stood a dozen tables piled high with as yet unclassified arcana. A carpet collection covered the floor. A hundred rare lamps struggled to overcome the gloom of the windowless hall. A pair of leopards dozed in the circle of warmth before a fireplace at the head of the room.

Something made a sound overhead. Bragi peered upward. A tiny, vaguely human face looked back, chittering. Its owner ran along an oaken beam. Ragnarson shuddered. Not having seen a monkey in years, he forgot the creatures and jumped to the conclusion that it was the wizard’s demonic familiar.

The monkey scampered to the end of the beam and dropped into the arms of a tall, thin, gray-bearded gentleman in plain, worn green clothing embroidered with thread-of-silver. He was obviously a man fond of green in its darker shades. His steely eyes radiated strength of character. He smiled and disengaged a hand from the monkey’s as Ragnarson approached.

“Welcome back, Bragi.” They shook. “It’s been a long time. What? Three years? Hush, Billy,” he told the monkey. “It’s all right.” To Ragnarson, “He’s frightened. Not many people come calling on a crusty old wizard. Go on, Billy. Go play with Tooth and Claw.”

The monkey slipped down Visigodred’s leg, carefully kept his master between himself and the strangers, ran toward the leopards. He glanced back to make sure all was well, then grabbed a spotted tail and yanked. The leopard, which had appeared to be sleeping, spun and boxed with a paw. But Billy wasn’t there anymore. He scampered away, chittering with monkey laughter.

“Are you collecting animals now?”

“No, not really. They were presents from a friend. A woman called Mist. Dump the books off a couple of those chairs and make yourselves comfortable.”

They recovered chairs while Visigodred cleared a small table near the fire. Soon they were comfortably seated, accepting wine from an attentive servant, and were ready to talk. Ragnarson produced a pair of heavy gold coins. Visigodred held them to the lamplight.

“Hmm. Ilkazar. Hammered. Reign of Valis the Red-Hand. Not the Imperial Mint. Mark of the Gog-Ahlan Occupational Mint on this one. I don’t recognize the other. Quatrefoil and roses. Shemerkhan, do you think? Extremely rare, the provisional coinage. Ilkazar didn’t hold the eastern cities long, and most of the Imperial strikings were remelted after the Fall. Any more where these came from?”

“Enough to ruin the market.”

Visigodred’s eyebrows rose. “The Treasure of Ilkazar?”

Ragnarson nodded.

“You’ve found it, then? Congratulations. I knew you’d make it someday. Any big plans?”

“It wasn’t me. Somebody else found it. You know the name. Varthlokkur.”

The wizard’s eyes narrowed. “That’s not a good name to throw around. What’s the connection?”

“Besides gold, he’s got another treasure—of sorts. My friend Mocker’s wife. You heard about the fall of the Storm Kings?”

“Who hasn’t? News travels fast in this business.” Visigodred’s eyes sparkled. There was a joke hidden somewhere in that remark.

“No doubt.”

“And I know Varthlokkur was involved. It’s been a long time since he’s stirred any trouble. He’s got the Brotherhood into a state you can’t imagine. And all because of a woman, eh?”

Elana nodded.

Visigodred lent her a quick, warm smile, and continued, “One Nepanthe, I believe. She catches his fancy, but not vice versa. So he destroys Ravenkrak and carries her off. Traditional sort of thing for people who have the power to make it stick. My colleagues are chasing their tails because of it. A reemergence of the Empire Destroyer…To understate, it’s disturbing.

“The thing is, see, he isn’t part of the gang.” Visigodred chuckled. “The boys in the Prime Circle don’t like it when we have these disturbances by somebody who doesn’t belong to the club. They can’t control him.” In a more serious tone, he added, “We don’t like having that nasty a potential enemy roaming around out here right now. Too many strange things are happening in the east. We’ve held several emergency sessions of the Prime Circle. Nothing got decided, of course. Nothing ever will as long as we have to put up with that blowhard Zindahjira.

“But let’s get back to the point. What’s your connection with all this?”

“Nepanthe married Mocker the night before Ravenkrak fell. And now Mocker is headed for Fangdred. He thinks he’s going to rescue her.”

“Ah. So. I’ve overlooked your part in this, haven’t I? Rendel Grimnason? You could’ve picked a more melodic name. So. You’re scared the wolf won’t bother distinguishing the sheep from the goats, eh?” Visigodred chuckled. “Our fat friend has put you and bin Yousif into a tight spot, eh? He’s hung a sword over your heads, so to speak. Let me guess. You want my help.”

Elana’s head bobbed. Ragnarson nodded once, quickly.

“My Power is useless against his. That’s the man who crushed the Empire, Bragi. He defeated the wizards of Ilkazar, whom even the Tervola held in respect. He trained in Shinsan, with Chin, Wu, Feng, and the Princes Thaumaturge themselves. That’s something you shouldn’t ever forget. The entity we call Varthlokkur was, in a way, created in Shinsan. The Dread Empire will always be part of his story.”

“I know.”

He didn’t. To him the Dread Empire had the substance of a ghost. Shinsan was just a bogeyman supposedly hiding out somewhere in the far east. “We didn’t expect you to go it alone. The surviving Storm Kings and…” He let it trail off. Presenting the other name would be tricky.


“Zindahjira. Maybe. Haroun’s trying to sign him up now.”

“That stubborn fool? Bin Yousif will need a week just to get him to admit I’m alive. I have the audacity to survive everything he throws at me.”

“There’s a potent bribe. Turran is willing to give up the Horn of the Star Rider and his storm-sender if you’ll help. One thing for each of you.”

“The Windmjirnerhorn, eh? Tempting tidbit, Bragi, but everybody, except the Star Rider, who has anything to do with it gets the dirty end. Still, the proposition has merit. If I could be sure that Zindahjira would get the Horn. He deserves it. What would you want me to do?”

“Nothing that overt, really. Just protect Mocker so he has a chance to get where he’s going. And maybe give him a little help when he gets there.”

“Hmm. Let’s look at the Register. The wizard went to a table, dug deep into a pile of books. He found what he wanted, started back.

Billy the monkey, astride a leopard and wielding a wooden sword, galloped past, close behind a terrified rat. Visigodred dodged nimbly and continued to the table. “Billy’s hell on rats. He thinks. Tooth does the real work, though. Watch. She’ll bring the rat around to Claw.”

She did. Claw, who seemed to be asleep, moved one paw as the rat shot past. End of chase.

“Remarkably intelligent animals,” Visigodred noted. “So is Billy. Well, here we are. The Register. If Zindahjira and I complement each other, I’ll consider the job. Assuming he’ll go along. But there’ll be a price.”

“I thought so. There always is. But it seems to me that you owe me a favor.”

“And you owe me several. That more than cancels out, I’d say. I was thinking you could help me make sure the Horn goes where it’s best deserved. Ah. Here we are. Zindahjira.” He turned a page, peered at it closely. “Hmm. Uh-huh.” One thin finger raced across the page as he read. Then he looked up, smiling. “We’d make a good team if the old windbag could keep his temper under control. But we still wouldn’t be any match for Varthlokkur. Not in a heads-up fight. Really, the Princes Thaumaturge are the only men alive who could meet him one-on-one and have a chance.”

A shriek interrupted Visigodred. He turned. Tooth and Claw had caught a dwarf between them. The fellow wasn’t much bigger than Billy. “Tooth! Claw! Behave!” The cats let silent snarls relax into bored yawns, dropped onto their bellies. Their tails lashed slowly. Their eyes tracked the dwarf as he hurried past.

“My apprentice. What is it, Marco?” Visigodred asked. “And I do wish you’d stop teasing the cats.”

The dwarf grinned lopsidedly, as if he had a lot to say about keeping leopards in the house but had to keep it to himself because Visigodred had heard it all before. “There’s an owl in the parlor. Wants to see a Captain Ragnarson. Says he’s fagged and wants to deliver his message so he can get some sleep. Very polite, for an owl. But if you ask me, he’s found Gert up in the tower and it ain’t sleep he’s got on his feeble mind.”

Ragnarson’s eyebrows rose. It wasn’t every day you met a man who talked to owls. Visigodred smiled. “Show him in, Marco. No, go around the other way. I’ll let the cats have you one of these days.” To Ragnarson, “A message from Zindahjira, no doubt. But routed through you because of his pride.”

“Then Haroun must’ve made good time. It’s a bitch of a trip to the Seydar Sea.”

The dwarf returned with a huge owl perched on his shoulder. The bird made sounds in his ear. “He don’t like being out in the daytime.”

The owl fluttered to the table and stalked over to Ragnarson. It lifted a tufted leg. Bragi tried to avoid its wise, darkness-filled eyes as he removed the message. Then the bird took wing and was gone. Ragnarson examined the parchment, passed it on to Visigodred.

The wizard scanned it. “Ah, he’s willing. One small hurrah for greed, Bragi. It’s just a matter of negotiation now. And here comes dinner. Make yourselves comfortable. You’ll be here a while. Marco! Come back here! I’ve got a job for you.” Visigodred smiled again.

Ragnarson groaned silently, understanding. He and Elana were going to be hostages against the chance that they were working another hoax like the one that had destroyed Ravenkrak.

Visigodred began giving instructions to a terribly unhappy dwarf.

Turran and his brothers gave Iwa Skolovda a wide berth in passing. That city’s new masters would have liked nothing better than to have had Storm King heads to decorate pikes over its gates. A day and fifty miles east of Iwa Skolovda, riding hard and with a snowstorm running before them, they happened on an abandoned farmhouse.

“What should we send?” Brock asked as they settled in.

“All we can, here to Fangdred, till we find out where he is,” Turran replied. “After we get help from those wizards, we can relax.”

That night a heavy snow carpeted Shara and the western Dragon’s Teeth. Next night there was another fall, and another the night following, and so on till the end of the week. Travel in East Heatherland, Shara, and the Dragon’s Teeth became virtually impossible.

The eighth day brought a change in schedule. Toward sundown, with Turran readying the sending gear, taciturn Brock brewing tea, and Jerrad and Valther out collecting firewood, the air over the cottage was split by an echoing scream. Something hit the roof with a resounding thump, rolled off into the snowdrifts against the north wall. Muted, colorful invectives followed, then there was a knock at the door. Turran answered it, found a shivering, grumbling dwarf awaiting his response.

“Damned roc!” the dwarf snarled as he pushed into the cottage. “Sense of humor like you never saw. Likes to watch things fall. Especially when they kick and scream on the way down. Marco’s the name. Hey! You! How about some of that tea? I’m freezing my ass off. You Turran?” he asked, of Turran. “Yeah? Like I said, I’m Marco. From Mendalayas. Visigodred sent me, and a pox on the old sumbitch. All the way to the Seydar Sea, a week with that blowhard Zindahjira, and now the devil’s own time finding you guys. Ah. Tea. Fit for the gods. I’ll bitch about it in the morning, but it’s ambrosia tonight. Look, Turran, the boss sent some junk for you. A map.” He produced it. “And this thingee’ll put you through to Visigodred and Zindahjira when you want. They’re on twenty-four-hour watch at Mendalayas. Must be one hell of a broad.”

Marco talked and talked. Turran seldom slipped a word in. The dwarf anticipated all his questions. He pointed out the salient features of the land between the farmhouse and Fangdred. He located Mocker, astonishing Turran. The fat man had gotten a lot further than he had expected, having crossed Shara and made it well into the foothills of the Dragon’s Teeth.

“This gimmick,” said Marco, after taking a last item from his pack, “will give you a permanent view of what your friend is doing. Everything, so have a little respect.” It seemed to be a stone, a crystal, a duplicate of the object meant to provide contact with Visigodred and Zindahjira. “The boss would’ve sent more, but they’re all tied up. One for the woman, one for the wizard, one for the Old Man of the Mountain. And another to keep an eye on Zindahjira.”

Turran smiled thoughtfully, said, “And one for myself and each of my brothers, no doubt. And still another for you.”

The dwarf winked and said, “Let’s get on it. It’s cold out here, there ain’t no girls, and I can’t go home where there are till this crap’s over. First order of business is a conference. Visigodred and Zindahjira are hanging around waiting for you.”

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