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Five: Spring, 996 afe

Five: Spring, 996 afe

By Every Hand Betrayed

Night in Iwa Skolovda, at the end of a savage storm—probably the last of winter. The Kratchnodian Mountains and the valley of the Silverbind were buried by sparkling snow, and temperatures were barely above melting. The Silverbind was high in the flatlands, a foot below flood outside the east wall. Ice jammed the river a few miles down, backing the flow. The wind sang a lonely dirge around the Tower of the Moon. It was a night for earthshaking events, a night for the Wind of Fate.

Nepanthe had slept better since the arrival of the fat man. He hadn’t been able to banish the demons of her mind, but he had tamed them a bit. That night, however, she paced, though not from old terror. A premonition rode the wind whispering through the windows and curtains. Apprehension forbid all sleep. Occasionally the future touched her lightly, though seldom clearly. Something was terribly wrong in Iwa Skolovda. She had felt it for hours, yet could not discover what.

Glancing out the window facing north, she finally found a visible wrongness. The sky glowed away toward the north wall. The glow steadily brightened. She knew what it was. Fire. But what flames they must be! To cause such a widespread glow, the fire must be beyond all control. Her apprehension increased. She turned to the clothing set out for the morning.

She had just finished dressing—and was cursing a broken fingernail—when the knocker at her door sounded.

“Enter!” she called, certain she sounded terrified.

Rolf came in, face grim.


“Bad news, Milady.”

“I’ve seen the fires. What’s happening?”

“An attack. Hillmen bandits have crossed the wall. There must be a thousand of them, killing, plundering.”

Nepanthe frowned. What the devil?

Rolf continued, “The troops are fighting well, under the circumstances.”

“Rolf, I don’t want to call you a liar, but… well, we both know none of the hill tribes are that big. Hardly any could muster a hundred warriors, counting cripples, old men, and boys. Fighting well under what circumstances?”

“Perhaps I exaggerate, but I’ll swear there’re more than five hundred. I saw at least a dozen tribal totems. They’ve got some kind of overall warchief.

“The circumstances are these: your enemies here have joined the bandits. They’re attacking us from behind. Our partisans are attacking them. It’s absolute chaos. I can’t keep civil order and defend the city both.”

“When did it start?”

“Three hours ago, Milady.”

“Why wasn’t I informed?”

“There seemed no need at first. Then I didn’t have time.”

Faintly, the roars of fighting and fire reached Nepanthe’s ears. Furtive shadows raced through the streets below her window, some away from, some toward, the stricken quarter. “The hillman warchief, did you see him? What did he look like?” Unreasonably, she was certain what Rolf’s answer would be.

“Tall, thin, dark of skin, face like a hawk’s, eyes that look like you can see Hell’s fires burning through them. He’s not a hillman, northman, or Iwa Skolovdan, nor a westerner. A southerner, I’d guess. From the deserts. I heard his name, but can’t remember it. They called him Wizard.”

“Varthlokkur!” Nepanthe spat, freighting the name with anger and fear.

“Milady?” Rolf frowned. He had heard the name before. Where? Ah. The old chanson, The Wizards of Ilkazar. But that made no sense. That Varthlokkur had lived hundreds of years ago.

“For years I’ve dreaded that name, Rolf.” Her spirits sagged. She became a lost, frightened little girl. “What can I do? Why did Turran leave me alone? He’d know what to do.” She wept. It had been a long time since she had. Then she grew hysterical, began raving.

Awed, distressed, and uncertain how he should react, Rolf ran to Saltimbanco’s apartment.

The fat man wakened with a long-winded, flowery curse in which Rolf’s hopefully illegitimate children were damned for generations.

“Mocker, shut your goddamned mouth and listen!” He drew back, ready to slap the fat man.

Saltimbanco considered the grim face above him, and the name that had been spoken. “What happens?”

“Haroun’s here. Early. He’s outnumbered, but I’ve confused things so much he can’t help but win.”

“Self, assume this is plan.”

“Yes. But when I reported the attack and described Haroun, the woman got hysterical, started raving about Varthlokkurs, Fangdreds, El Kabars. You better quiet her down, or she’ll blow the whole operation…”

“Self, am acknowledged master of hysterics-soothing. Am also one distressed by naming of secret names. Mocker is dead…”

Moments later, Saltimbanco burst into Nepanthe’s apartment, seated himself with her in his ample lap, began comforting. He tried to discover what lay behind her collapse, but failed. She had regained control.

“Self,” he declared suddenly, rising abruptly, catching her just before she hit the floor, “will brave barbed shafts of barbarian hordes to speechify rallyment to stouthearted troops!” He vanished before she could protest.

Nepanthe, while seated where Saltimbanco had deposited her, regained her Storm King turn of mind. Coolly, she shouted, “Rolf! Send a man to Ravenkrak with news of what’s happened, and the name ‘Varthlokkur.’ Turran’ll know what I mean. Oh, ask for reinforcements. Then muster my guard and horses. Secure a path of retreat. And see if you can catch Saltimbanco before he gets himself killed.”

Asking for reinforcements, she knew, was futile. The battle would be lost or won before Turran received her message. But he might bring enough men to retake the city.

Fast, faster than his bulk portended possible, Saltimbanco hurried to the north quarter. Here and there he demoralized the troops with stout patriotic speeches, promises of imminent victory, and exhortations to counterattack mightily. His perfect record for selecting the wrong convinced the men they were already defeated.

The fighting slopped over into the east quarter, which was populated primarily by small merchants and artisans—the bulk of them furriers whose products were internationally renowned—who were Nepanthe’s ardent supporters. The attack bogged down as those supporters defended their homes vigorously. It was a pity there were no fresh formations available to take advantage of the situation.

Saltimbanco suddenly appeared near the North Gate, at the command post of the invaders. Shrieking loudly, he alerted his accomplice before hillmen could spit him with spears. The man called Haroun hustled him into a captured house.

Saltimbanco faced the raider across a splintered oak table. “Self, am thinking Great General strikes early—though boldly, with success.”

The thin, dark man opposite him remained silent for a long moment before hissing, “I’ve got a talent. Its buyer paid well. I give value for money.”

“Self, am doing same.” Saltimbanco was disturbed.

Haroun was cold, remote. Had something gone sour? Then he sighed. The man was always this way at the crisis point in his cameo guerrilla wars. He had to be. Total detachment was necessary. “Is great operation, plan-perfect. Mad-blind, Storm Kings.” He chuckled, thinking of the pot of gold at the end of this particular bloody rainbow. “Gold-lined old man, what of him?”

“Nothing. Not a word since last fall. I don’t like it. Paid a few people to keep an eye on him. He’s recruiting hire-swords in the Lesser Kingdoms.”

“Self, am student philosophic of mighty mental thews, yet am unable to reason to end of twisty old man’s twisty plan. Am not liking darkness. Am fearful, here, here, here.” He smote himself on forehead, heart, purse.

“For the pay, I’ll tolerate the mysteriousness. Look, I’ve got a battle to run. I haven’t got time to chat, and nothing to tell. Give Rolf my congratulations. He’s learning. Might make a full partner someday. And give my regards to Bragi and Elana. Now go away. We can talk after Ravenkrak falls.”

“Hurry-hurry. Always hurry. Self, being keen of eye and keener of keeping head attached, spotted interesting list and copied same. Spies working for Valther. Same might prove handy.”

Irritably, bin Yousif grabbed the list. He gestured at the door.

At sunrise Rolf’s patrols found Saltimbanco wandering aimlessly near the South Gate. Vainly, the sun strove to drive its rays through the smoke over the city. The fat man, apparently in shock, was unceremoniously tied into a saddle and drafted into Nepanthe’s retreat.

Turran was moving south with the vanguard of his little army, passing through one of those evergreen groves lying in the depths of a canyon of the high range. The wind moaned. Avalanches up the peaks made the canyon roar. Then messages began arriving from the south.

The first was, ostensibly, a report from Nepanthe, but in reality came from one of Valther’s spies: Rolf. After reflection, Turran summoned his brother, who appeared quickly. By then a second message had arrived.

“I’ve got a couple of messages from your man Rolf. One says it looks like Nepanthe’s found herself a lover.”

“Should we kill him?”

“No. Not yet. Might settle her down.”

With a grin, Valther suggested, “Let’s help him, then. She’s a little overdue, don’t you think?”

Turran’s laughter drowned the avalanches momentarily. “About fifteen years overdue.” His expression soured. “Mother’s fault.” Valther knew his mother only by hearsay. She had died giving Nepanthe life, only a year after his own birth. The “mother” Turran meant, and to whom all often referred, was their father’s second wife, a grimly antisexual woman. “She told Nepanthe about men, and no one’s proven her wrong…”

“Wrong. What’s wrong?”


“You didn’t call me here to talk about Nepanthe’s sex life. Or lack of one.”

“No, but that’s part of it. This fellow she’s falling for. Crackpot of some kind, supposedly harmless, with a knack for beating her moods. No, the problem’s what your man tacked on the end of the report. And what he wrote later.”

“What?” Valther was growing impatient.

“The night the first message was sent, hill bandits attacked Iwa Skolovda. The city, not outlying hamlets. They came down the Silverbind undetected, crossed the wall, opened the gate—all without being noticed.”

“Treachery. Someone was paid.”

“Of course. And you haven’t heard the worst. Rolf says they were five or six hundred strong.”

“No. Impossible. That’d mean someone’s united the tribes.”

“But they’ve been feuding for ages.”

“Right. I watch these things. There hasn’t been a rumor out of that country, except that a wizard took up residence near Gron last fall. I checked him out. An herbalist, a witch-doctor, no real magician.”

“Yet somebody organized the tribes if they attacked? Right?”


“So that somebody has to be your witch-doctor if he’s the only foreigner around. You accept that?”

“Again, yes. None of the chiefs would take orders from any of the others. But that still doesn’t make sense.”

“No. No charlatan would have the skill to lead an army. Unless he was something else entirely…”

“I still don’t think it’s possible…” Valther blanched. “Oh, what a fool! Haroun bin Yousif!”


“It was right in front of me all the time. I should’ve done something six months ago. Gods, I’m blind. That witch-doctor was Haroun bin Yousif.”

“What’re you gibbering about?”

“Think! If you can’t afford the Guild or ordinary mercenaries, want to make war and have a shot at winning, what do you do?”

After a minute, Turran sighed, nodded gloomily. “Hire Haroun bin Yousif, the King Without a Throne. The ‘hero’ of Libiannin and Hellin Daimiel. I’ll buy it. It fits too neat. What’s he doing here?”

Valther shook his head. “Last I heard he was supposed to be working with the staff of the Itaskian Army, developing tactics for the Coast Watch militia to use against Trolledyngjan raiders while they’re waiting for the regulars to arrive.”

“Find out!” Turran’s command was as cold and sharp as the winter wind. “I want to know why he left a sinecure to lead savages. I want to know every word he spoke the month before he left, with whom, and why. And every move he made. I want it all, and I want it quick. Flood Itaskia with agents. Because the other message was nasty. Nepanthe couldn’t hold Iwa Skolovda. The old King’s supporters rebelled in concert with the bandit attack. She claims it was planned. I should’ve left Redbeard with her. Preshka the pupil isn’t Grimnason the master.”

“Will we retake the city?”

“No…” A thoughtful gleam entered Turran’s eye. “Nepanthe’s retreating north with three hundred loyal Iwa Skolovdans. I’ll bet the bandits are ahead of her. And we’re here…Tell Redbeard to get ready for a forced march.”

Chuckling, Valther went after Grimnason.

However, the jaws of the mercenary’s trap snapped shut only on bandit rabble. Somehow sensing his peril, bin Yousif abandoned his savage allies and vanished.

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