Back | Next

Fifteen: Spring, 997 afe

Fifteen: Spring, 997 afe

The Light of Arrows as They Sped, the Flash of a Glittering Spear

Tooth and Claw nervously patrolled the reorganized study, in no mood for loafing by the fire. Billy lay curled in Visigodred’s lap, sleeping fitfully, plagued by unhappy monkey dreams. Perhaps the leopards of his mind were closing on the running ghost of his monkey-imagination. Servants came and went, bringing refreshments and carrying away dirty mugs and dishes, or tending the roaring fire. They were as jittery as the pets. At the table where Visigodred and Ragnarson hunched over one of the wizard’s seeing-stones, the tension was doubly thick. Mocker had moved to within fifty miles of Fangdred. And Varthlokkur had shown signs, finally, of getting ready to defend himself. An assassin had been sent out from the Castle of Wind. He and Mocker would meet in a matter of hours.

But hours there were, and worrying before the fact was useless. Ragnarson said as much.

“You’re right,” Visigodred replied softly, with a tremor. “But it’s not the encounter that worries me. We’ll get him past the ambush. Zindahjira’s studying the terrain now, setting it up. The problem is, how do we do it without getting caught?” He paused, chuckled, continued, “That ham-hand Zindahjira wanted to use a smoke-demon. Might as well write our names in fire on a midnight sky.”

Ragnarson, from beneath his brows as he watched the crystal ball, studied Visigodred’s face. Behind the gray beard and nonchalance, the wizard was pale. Beads of perspiration glittered on his forehead. Was the dread attached to Varthlokkur really that well-founded? Varthlokkur hadn’t done anything remarkable that he could see. He considered hints dropped during his conversation with Haroun the previous evening, via the crystals. Zindahjira was scared silly.

He jumped when he felt the touch on his shoulder. The hand slipped down his back. “Anything happening?” Elana whispered.

“No. We’re waiting for the guy to pick his ambush. Then we’ll decide what to do about it. It’ll be hours yet.”

She ran slim fingers through his hair, stepped behind him, massaged his neck and shoulders. “You’ve got to get some sleep,” she said.

Bragi turned, smiled weakly, put his hands on her shoulders, gave her a peck on the forehead, said, “You’re a regular mother hen. Practicing?”

“Pooh! Typical male reaction. I was just telling you what you’re too numb to notice for yourself. Really, you’re going to pass out if you don’t get some rest.”

“Uhm. Guess I am a little groggy. I’ll rest after we get Mocker through this.”

Visigodred leaned forward, peered into the globe. “I think this’s what we’re waiting for,” he said, his voice more animated than earlier.

Ragnarson and Elana jostled behind him, trying to watch over his shoulder. Tooth and Claw stopped pacing, waited expectantly. Billy stirred in Visigodred’s lap, uncurled, sat up, rubbed his eyes with his monkey fists. Visigodred caught him beneath the arms and sat him on the floor.

“Go over by Tooth, Billy. I’ve got work to do.”

The leopards returned to the fire and stretched out, but didn’t relax. They remained tense, as if about to spring. Billy sat between them, a hand on a shoulder of each. He remained unnaturally quiet.

A servant came in, asked Visigodred if he needed refreshments.

The wizard said, “Will, call everybody in. We’re about to begin.”

The servant’s eyes widened. He set his pitcher on the nearest table, hurried out.

“Ah, yes, this’s the place,” the wizard murmured, after returning to the crystal. “Note the cover.”

Ragnarson had. The assassin had chosen an ambuscade where the road hung in the side of a steep mountain and was so narrow that a traveler could do little to evade an attacker. The assassin, on the other hand, from the canyon’s opposite wall, could operate from rocky cover perfect for his purpose. He had concealment, protective shelter, and a view of a mile of road.

After a time, Visigodred grunted, “Ah!” He had noticed the servants at the door. Waving a thin, blue-veined hand in the direction of another table, he said, “Over there. Each one watch a ball. Tell me if anything happens.”

The servants shuffled to seats before balls similar to those before Visigodred. The wizard asked, “Where’s Mocker?”

A man described Mocker’s surroundings.

Visigodred nodded. “Less than an hour now. Well, what’s happening in the Wind Tower?”

“Nothing I can hear, Lord. They’re quiet, waiting.”

“I don’t like not being able to see into that place,” Visigodred complained. “They could be doing anything, and I can only listen. Is Zindahjira ready?”

“Yes,” a woman replied, fearfully. Zindahjira was no pleasant sight, even shrouded in darkness. Which he always was. He sought shadows as green plants seek the light. “He wants to talk to you.”

“Bring the ball.”

Ragnarson and Elana moved back, but watched as Visigodred murmured to the crystal. It murmured back, softly, like the susurration of a gentle sea, or of a breeze in pines. Visigodred mumbled some more, then nodded. Turning, he told Ragnarson, “We can do it without getting caught. He had the same idea I did. Just a matter of waiting, and of casting a few spells. One to protect your friend from ordinary weapons. I’ll tend to that now.”

The couple withdrew to the table displaying the larger battery of crystals. Over a man’s shoulder, Ragnarson watched Mocker labor up a steep trail toward his brush with the Dark Lady.

“Oh! Look!” Elana whispered excitedly. “Nepanthe!”

Bragi moved to her side, looked over another shoulder. Yes, there she was, Mocker’s wife, seated in her room in Fangdred, perhaps praying. When he asked, the servant observing said she’d just been told about Varthlokkur’s intentions. From all appearances, she was steeling herself against the inevitable. Tiny in the crystal, she began pacing her chamber nervously. Her face was both frightened and hopeful.

After what seemed several hours, but was really just one, the wizard called, “Bring me Mocker’s crystal, please.” Bragi did so. Visigodred studied it, nodded, and whispered the final cantrip of a spell he had been casting. After another eternity of waiting, he said, “We’re about to start.”

Ragnarson’s beard and head cast a strange shadow as he studied the crystals before the wizard. Elsewhere, the low talk of the servants died to a silence broken only by heavy breathing, leopards’ claws on naked stone as the cats paced before the hearth, and Visigodred softly murmuring another spell. Tension grew as he finished the incantation. “What’re Varthlokkur and the Old Man doing?” he asked of the other table.

“Nothing I can hear, Lord.”

Visigodred nodded. Another minute passed. Elana called, “Nepanthe’s left her room. Looks like she’s headed for the tower.”

The wizard nodded again. In one crystal, Mocker strained up that last steep mile to the ambush. In another the assassin moved slightly, getting into position. “It’s time,” said Visigodred.

The assassin moved again. Visigodred leaned forward, the last cantrip of a powerful spell ready to roll over his lips. Ragnarson gripped the back of the sorcerer’s chair so hard his knuckles cracked. Across the room, Elana bit her lower lip white.

There was a little flash of something in sunlight before the assassin’s rocks. Ragnarson, eyes on Mocker’s globe, saw his friend stagger, fall against the mountainside, slide down to his knees. Then the fat man scrambled for cover with the haste of a rat noticing an approaching terrier. Another flash of crossbow bolt in the assassin’s crystal. It hit rock near Mocker’s head, scattering bits of stone, stinging him into greater effort.

“Ah,” Visigodred sighed. “Here it comes.” Ragnarson saw motion on the mountain above and behind the killer. Ice and snow were moving there, drifting down majestically, like a waterfall in low gravity. The whole mountain seemed to be crumbling.

The avalanche swept toward the assassin, a flood of frozen death. It seemed to take forever to reach him. He had plenty of time to notice it and start running. And, once it arrived, it was another forever departing. But once the flow had passed, so had the immediate threat to Mocker. Who, in his crystal, resumed his journey grinning like a boy who knew a secret.

“That should do for a while,” said Visigodred, sighing wearily. “You people can go back to work.” The servants fled.

“You suppose Varthlokkur’ll believe it was accidental?” Ragnarson asked.

“Don’t see why not.”

“What’ll he try next?”

“Who knows? But you needn’t worry yet. Why not get some sleep?”

“Hey, Turran,” Marco shouted from the cottage door. “The boss wants you. Got work to do. Varthlokkur tried to get your friend.” The dwarf was the only one who paid the crystals much mind. As he was willing to do little else, the Storm Kings had left him that as his share of the work.

Turran swung his axe, burying its head deep in the chopping block. He gathered his coat. His dark eyes were piercing as he approached the dwarf. Marco was always as bold as his mouth. Unimpressed by anyone but himself, he returned the stare without flinching.

“Would you call my brothers?” Turran asked, pausing at the door.

“No need. Made a point of hollering loud enough the first time. They heard me. Look there. Running. Looks like Jerrad found us something to eat.”

Indeed. Even at a distance, Turran easily recognized the wild goat draped across Jerrad’s shoulders. He nodded.

“You talk to the boss,” said the dwarf. “I’ll start the tea. Damn! It’s lousy stuff. Why didn’t you bring something fit to drink? Wine. Ale.” He turned to the fire, muttering and shaking his head.

Turran grinned, remembering Marco’s promise to complain. Then his eyebrows rose. The dwarf was actually doing something. Never, since his arrival, had he done anything more helpful than watch the globes, or lounge around talking in endless streams. Mostly about women. His women. Idly, as he seated himself before a crystal, Turran wondered about Marco’s oft-touted, very secret “system.” Probably talked till they fell asleep from boredom, then made his move.

He touched the ball in the place Marco had shown him. Visigodred’s thin face, like a strange, bearded fish hurtling up from diamond deeps, swam into view.

“Marco says Varthlokkur’s made his first move,” he said. “We weren’t watching. How’d it come out? All right, I suppose, since you’re smiling.”

The crystal shivered in Turran’s fingers, made a soft sound like breezes in a field of ripe wheat. There were words in the whisper, words indistinguishable at more than a yard.

“It went well, with no reaction. They were unhappy at Fangdred, but not suspicious. At least not that I could detect. Just now, Varthlokkur’s railing at the Fates and Norns. The Old Man hasn’t said anything. He’s our real worry. He’s not as emotionally involved. Nepanthe’s still gloating, of course. Mocker’ll be there soon.”

“Excellent! Excellent!” said Turran. “My brothers will be pleased. Now then, what did you want?” He listened to the whisper-wind for several minutes, nodding occasionally. When Visigodred finished, he said, “Right away.”

“Marco! Visigodred wants you.” He placed the crystal before another chair. The dwarf bounded over, said, “Yeah, Chief?”

“You behaving?”

“Don’t I always?”

“Not often, but I muddle through. Somebody wants to talk to you.” The wizard disappeared, to be replaced by three young women. Turran’s eyebrows rose. All three spoke at once. Marco gave Turran a look that said, “This’s private.” Chuckling, the Storm King joined his brothers, who had just arrived and were ready to clean the goat.

When finished with his conversation, Marco came to supervise. “Poor girls!” he told the room, his demoniac eyes sad. “They’re so lonely without me. Poor dear things. What’d the boss want, Turran?”

“A storm around Fangdred, so Varthlokkur can’t send out any more ambushers.”

Midnight. Everyone was asleep, including Valther, who had the watch. From outside, spaced in a slow cadence, came the sounds of feet breaking crusted snow. The door, not locked, swung slowly inward; limned by moonlight off the snow, a stooped figure paused there, listened. Hearing nothing but heavy snores, the man stepped inside and closed the door.

Picking his way with a staff as though he were blind, this bent old man made a circuit of the room. He examined each sleeper by the glow of the stone on the table. Before leaving each he nodded his satisfaction—till he came to Marco. There he frowned puzzledly, but soon shrugged and moved on.

Across his back he carried a bulky bundle that he quickly, deftly exchanged for a similar bundle Turran had secreted beneath a trap in the cottage floor. Carefully, carefully, like a man with a fragile jar of precious oil, he carried the object out into the Storm Kings’ winter’s night.

Then, once his footfalls faded, a voice, as old as time, as distant as the first dawn, “Come, my beauty of the sky. We ride home with our treasure again.” A peal of laughter echoed over the snowfields. And, after a lightning flash without thunder, hooves crunched snow, then a huge white horse beat vast wings and scaled the night. Dwindling merriment trailed behind.

He always took it back once its damage had been done.

Back | Next