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Six: Summer, 996 afe

Six: Summer, 996 afe

At the Heart of the Mountains of Fear

Tall, cold, lonely was Ravenkrak, a vast, brooding fortress built of gray stone set without mortar. It had twelve tall towers, some square, some round, and crenellated battlements like massive lower jaws. Ice rimed the walls in patchlets of white. Glassless windows seemed empty eye sockets when seen from the outer slope. A huge tunnel of an entrance, with portcullis down—like fangs—put the finishing touch on the castle’s appearance of a skull.

Cold and drafty the place appeared. Cold and drafty it was.

Nepanthe stood in the parapet of her Bell Tower, braving an arctic wind. Shivering, she took in forbidding visions of bald rock and fields of snow. Yes, the fortress seemed invincible, though she was certainly no expert. It was built triangular on a pointed upthrust. Only one wall, the tallest, could be reached by an enemy. The others blended into the sheer flanking cliffs of the upthrust. But she wasn’t happy as she studied Ravenkrak’s strength. She thought it was all for nothing, that the enemy they faced couldn’t possibly be stopped by weapons and walls. The great dooms brushed defenses aside as a man did spiders’ webs while walking through a forest; with scant cognizance, with but an instant’s irritation.

The wind’s moaning rose to a howl. It slid claws of ice through her garments.

From an open hatchway, a heavy, robed figure climbed into the wind: Saltimbanco. Glancing at him, Nepanthe whispered sadly, “I wish it were over.”

The clown was in a rare good humor. “Ah, fair Princess!” he cried (he and her loyal Iwa Skolovdans insisted on the title). “Behold! Steel and silver-encladded knight comes across dangers of half world, scales mighty mountain, impregnates impregnable fortress, comes in knick to rescue fair maiden. ‘But what’s this?’ cries stout knight—in guise of own stout self—‘Where hides the bloody dragon?’ Self, being warrior of mighty thews, shall smite him hip and thigh, thus… and thus… riposte… left to jaw… got ’im!”

Despite her abysmal mood, Nepanthe laughed at his antics, especially the improbable “left to jaw.” Laugh she did, then, realizing that the dragon he meant was her mood, laughed a little louder, forcedly. She remembered a time when she couldn’t laugh at all, and anticipated such a time for the future. The near future.

“Alas and alack, Sir Knight,” she moaned in feigned despair (which nudged the borders of becoming real), “’tis no dragon which holds me in thralldom bound, but ogres and trolls in number six cavorting through the castle below.”

“Hai! Tusse-folk, say you? Woe!” Saltimbanco lamented. “Self, very much fear, maybeso, same left trollsword behind.”

“And that’s no way to talk about your brothers,” said a third voice, good-naturedly.

Saltimbanco and Nepanthe peered at Valther, each with his or her suspicions, each wondering what machinations were behind his appearance. However, Valther was nothing more than he pretended—for the moment.

Seeing her first statement tolerated, Nepanthe spat, “No way to talk about my brothers? You, with the minds of weasels and hearts of vultures? If not ogres and trolls, pray tell what?”

“Careful, Nepanthe. In anger secrets all winged fly. And you’re treading close to the drawn line, talking that way.” He glanced downward, reminding her of the Deep Dungeons, then changed the subject. “But I didn’t come up to argue. Just to view our frigid domain with my baby sister.”

All three stared out over the stark, glacier-cleft mountains. The grasping talons of winter never completely released Ravenkrak, merely lightened their grip in summer’s season.

“You seem poetically inclined today,” Nepanthe observed.

Valther shrugged, pointed outward. “Isn’t that a subject fit for a poem?”

“Yes. An ode to a Wind God, or Father Winter. Or maybe an epic concerning the odyssey of a glacier. Certainly nothing human or warm.”

“Uhm, truth told,” Saltimbanco muttered. Then, assuming Valther wanted to talk to Nepanthe privately, he headed for the hatchway.

“Hold on! Saltimbanco, you don’t have to leave.” Valther pretended horror at the notion. “There’ll be no secrets discussed here. And Nepanthe’s mood would fail if you left. If there was ever an elixir of the heart, a potation to buoy the spirit, then it’d be found in you. Proof? Nepanthe. Fair Nepanthe, sweet Nepanthe, once lost in her vapors, a stick of wood for all the heart she showed. And who’s to blame for the changes? Even Turran’s remarked on it. ’Tis yourself, Knight Ponderous.”

Nepanthe stared at Valther, amazed.

And Saltimbanco, who was wont to absorb the most outrageous praise as his due, was embarrassed by Valther’s out-of-character speech—though not too embarrassed to remain.

“Harken, sister,” Valther continued. “Harken, O wind like a dragon’s dying groan. Who salvaged the spirits of a defeated clan? Who brought heart to the heartless? This man who so wisely plays the fool! I think he’s no fool at all, but a most clever rogue of an actor and clown!”

Though Saltimbanco wore a slash of a self-conscious grin, his insides were a’boil with fear. Questions threw up sprouts of terror in the guilt-fertile fields of his mind. What did Valther know? Were these allegations? Was he being warned he was suspect?

Nepanthe broke his thought train by asking, “Valt, what’s made you so prosy? Did?…” She bit her tongue with mock viciousness, pulled a face, continued, “I was going to say something nasty. I guess I’m pretty poor company. I mean, here’re two gentlemen trying to entertain me, and all I do is howl like a Harpy.”

Both men protested, but she silenced them with a wave. “Who knows better than me what I’ve become?” Then she broke out laughing. The mock horror on Saltimbanco’s face was that extreme. Evidently, she had just violated some mad philosophical tenet.

When the fat man spoke, however, he had nothing philosophical to say. “Woe!” he cried. “Hear old Ice-Wind howl! Self, am protected by wisely accumulated layers of guardian flesh. Am self-admitted obesity, yet am still to become frozen immobility before tramontane stream. Am pleading, Lord and Lady! May we move party to where great warm fires burn?”

One look at the granite sky, at the snow flurries around them, at the barrenness on every hand, assured the two of Saltimbanco’s wisdom.

“Hai!” Valther cried, mimicking Saltimbanco. “The man’s right again! Hot mead in the Great Hall, eh? A warm fire, hot wine, a joint of lamb, and friendly conversation. Let’s go.”

“I’m coming,” Nepanthe said, with a little trill of laughter. “But I’ll forgo the mutton. Redbeard’s wife, Astrid, told me too much meat is bad for the complexion.”

Valther and Saltimbanco stared, poised on the borders of laughter—but checked themselves when they realized she was serious. It was laughter at the unexpected, anyway, for when had Nepanthe ever expressed such a feminine concern? Then Valther glanced at Saltimbanco, a new breed of laughter in his eyes.

A dozen huge fireplaces roared merrily around the Great Hall. Every time he entered, Saltimbanco marveled at the hominess of the place. Dogs and small children, without regard to sex or tribe or station, frolicked and fought, snarled, and chewed on discarded bones amidst the deep straw upon the floor, brawlingly thick. Yet seldom did the servants or men-at-arms tread on pup or child…

Turran’s soldiers, and Nepanthe’s Iwa Skolovdans, were seated at the countless tables, drinking, singing, telling lies, or suffering drunken dreams. Some paid half-hearted attention to their own or others’ wives. Turran himself was there, at the head table, locked in a prodigious arm-wrestle with one of Redbeard’s brawny sergeants. The nether end of the hall rang metallically as men practiced with dulled and blunted weapons. Banners overhead swayed in an almost imperceptible draft, dancing a quiet, shadowy dance in the flickering light of fires and torches.

In another dance, women (wives and daughters of the soldiers) moved among the tables with wine and pitchers of ale, with huge trenchers heaped with roast lamb, with rare beef, or an occasional lonely fowl.

Nepanthe, Valther, and Saltimbanco wound through this shifting, noisy press, their goal the head table. Nepanthe and Saltimbanco acknowledged greetings from the crowd. Saltimbanco was popular with the troops because he was entertaining. Nepanthe was well-liked simply because, as a woman, she lent glamour to the crusty old castle and its bizarre ruling family. All the Storm Kings were popular, for that matter, being, probably, the best masters these mercenaries had ever known. A man serving their banner had little cause for complaint.

Truly, only an enemy could hate them, and that only because they were the foe. They had already proven themselves merciless toward adversaries, implacable in pursuit of their goals. They cared for their own with the same intensity. Mocker would gladly have thrown in with them, had his loyalties not been bought already.

They reached Turran’s table. Turran still grunted in his struggle with Sergeant Blackfang. Glancing up, he smiled. His face was reddened by too much wine and the effort of the contest.

“Ho! Watch me put this bragging rogue down! Oof!” He had lost his concentration. Blackfang took him. He laughed thunderously, smote the sergeant on the shoulder, bellowed for servants.

Valther slipped into the seat beside his brother. Nepanthe and Saltimbanco settled in across the table. Several women appeared with knives and platters and mugs for ale and wine. More came, bearing the liquid refreshments, the mutton, the this and that which made up the staples of Ravenkrak’s never-ending meal.

“Hai!” Valther said, pinching a girl at the same time. “Cabbage soup for my sister. No meat in it, mind! She’ll ruin her fair skin.”

Nepanthe was surprised by the tittering of the women. Why were they?… Because Valther was fondling everything in reach? Her regard fell heavily on the women. Their laughter died. But their silence persisted only till they reached the kitchens, which were soon a’hum.

For there was a secret abroad amongst the women of Ravenkrak, a secret they found delicious, a secret that was no secret at all, save to Nepanthe. It was a secret known to the men as well. How could they avoid knowing it in a place where a man couldn’t escape the wagging tongues of wives and daughters? It was known to all men save Saltimbanco himself, and he was getting suspicious. Everyone but Nepanthe knew that Nepanthe had fallen in love.

There were those who claimed that Saltimbanco shared the feeling, citing his steady weight loss as evidence. Others argued that that had been caused by the rigors of the retreat to Ravenkrak and the quality of life in the castle. Whatever the truth, though, Saltimbanco was indeed shedding the pounds.

The tittering of the serving girls caused Nepanthe to blush an attractive crimson. She scowled at Valther.

“Ha!” said Turran, after reflection on Valther’s statement. “Well!” He burst into laughter.

Nepanthe glowered. She thought of a hundred vicious things to say—but her brothers, the serving girls, Saltimbanco, indeed, the entire hall, suddenly fell silent.

Birdman, the keeper of Ravenkrak’s falcons and pigeons, a man so old and infirm he often needed help getting about, had come running into the Great Hall, howling as if his personal banshee was close behind. The silence deepened to that of a mausoleum. Only guttering torch-flames moved. Hundreds held their breaths, anticipating dreadful news. Birdman hadn’t left his cotes for months.

The spell broke when a child wailed in fright. The exorcism complete, voices surged and rose like the rush of incoming tides. Birdman staggered the last few steps to the head table.

“Sir!” that ancient stick-figure of a man croaked. “Sir!” and again, “Sir!”

Turran, who had a deep affection for the old fellow, checked his impatience, initiated a friendly inquisition. “Now, then, Birdman,” (no one remembered his real name anymore), “what’s this? How come so much activity in a man your age?”

Birdman instantly forgot his mission, began arguing his haleness. His greatest fear was forced retirement.

“Your report, Birdman,” Turran kept reminding. “The reason for all this excitement?”

The old man banished his fears long enough to say, “Your brother, sir. A message from your brother.”

“Which one? Which one?”

“Why, the Lord Ridyeh, of course, sir. To be sure, yes, Ridyeh.”

“And what does my brother say?”

“Oh! Why, of course, that’s why I’m all the way up here in the Great Hall, isn’t it? Uhn… oh? Yes!” He searched his rumpled, unchanged-for-a-week clothing. “Aha! And here he is, here the little devil be.” Chortling, he clawed a crumpled, dirty piece of parchment from deep within his greasy tunic.

Turran accepted the ragged bit graciously, bade the old man to sit and sup a mug of wine, then leaned back and read by torchlight.

His face became a battlefield of emotion. His dark eyes radiated displeasure, unhappiness. His long, drooping mustachios seemed alive in the light dancing on his visage. Anger came and went, and something akin to sadness. His nostrils flared, relaxed, flared as he read and reread. At length, having convinced himself of its verity, he crushed the parchment in his fist, rose.

As if unaware of the hundreds of questioning eyes, he turned to his companions. “Valther, Nepanthe, come with me. You, too, fat man.” He wheeled on the soldier he had been arm-wrestling. “Blackfang, find my brothers. Send them to the Lower Armories.”

He strode toward the main exit like a king, ignoring the humming speculation of the Great Hall. His companions were hard-pressed to match his pace.

The Lower Armories were far beneath the roots of Ravenkrak. They were, with the exception of the Deep Dungeons, the deepest chambers of the fortress. It was there the Storm Kings practiced their sorceries. There their most potent theurgies lay hidden. There, also, lay the treasures of Ravenkrak, the gems and monies that paid spies, bought traitors, hired assassins, and purchased arms. There too, perfectly protected, lay the Horn of the Star Rider. The Storm Kings had tamed it only to the point where it would provide food, clothing, occasional gold, and firewood. It hadn’t become the keystone of power they had hoped.

They were dank places, the Lower Armories, filthy, smelling of old mold, dark and haunted by rats and spiders. Moisture oozed down the ancient walls, slime made the floor treacherous. The ceilings remained lost in shadow. Unlike the homely, lived in atmosphere of the upper fortress, those deep warrens smelled of something Saltimbanco believed vaguely unholy.

This was his first venture into those deep places. Slipping repeatedly in his futile effort to match Turran’s pace, he plunged into a dreadful mood wherein he foresaw evil at every turn. He expected a sudden and ignominious end. He did, however, survive the journey, which ultimately led to a dimly lighted room. The cleanliness of the place was to him as water to a thirsty man. He marveled only a moment at the strange blue lighting and the weird thaumaturgical devices ranged about the walls. These Storm Kings had been called sorcerers: here he saw the proof.

They took seats at a round table surrounded by seven chairs, waited silently. No one questioned Turran. He would speak when the time came.

Brock arrived a few minutes later. His eyes widened when he saw Saltimbanco. “What’s he doing here?”

“Nepanthe’s eating cabbage now: mutton’s bad for her complexion,” Valther replied, as if that explained everything. It did, except to Saltimbanco and the woman.


Time passed. Turran grew impatient. His fingers drummed the tabletop. Brock and Valther began fidgeting. Saltimbanco, as he often did in waiting situations, began snoring.

There was a nervous shuffling beyond the door.

“Well?” Turran snapped, irritated. Then, “Oh, it’s you,” less gruffly. “Come in, Blackfang. Where is he?”

The sergeant entered warily, as if walking on coals. He was awed and frightened and vainly trying to conceal it. “Sir, Jerrad has left the castle. A bear hunt. He may not return this week.”

“This month, likely!” Turran grumbled. “I wish he’d tell somebody when he leaves. Thank you, Sergeant. You can go.”

Blackfang bowed, took a last awed look at the chamber, made his retreat.

“Nepanthe, will you waken your friend?”

Fingernail in the ribs! Bane of pleasantly dreaming men since the dawn of time. Curses heartfelt and black, also an ancient custom. Saltimbanco erupted into reality.

“Ridyeh sent a message,” Turran told them, scowling. “He says our friend bin Yousif turned up in Iwa Skolovda ten days ago. There were several killings afterward. He vanished, reappeared in Prost Kamenets, and there were more murders there. Later, he was seen at the Red Hart Inn in Itaskia, where he passed out gold like it was water. How he managed to come by it so quick is something I’d like to know. Then he disappeared. There were another dozen murders that night. And every victim, in Iwa Skolovda, Prost Kamenets, and Itaskia, was one of Valther’s spies.”

“What?” Valther jumped up, enraged. “How?…”

“I don’t know,” Turran growled. “He must’ve gotten a list. I’ll figure it out if I have to put everybody in the castle to the question.”

“I do keep records,” Valther murmured. “Who’s where.”

“Oh? That’s not very bright, is it? You’re supposed to be the spy… What the hell did you think you were doing?”

Valther ignored his brother’s ire. “Why would he be desperate to keep us from backtracking him? He’s out free.”

“Simple,” said Nepanthe. “He’s not. He’s covering someone else. Whoever got him the list.”


Saltimbanco began sweating. The wolves were closing in. He had to distract them…

Turran asked, “Valt, who could’ve gotten to your papers?”

“Anybody. Anytime. I don’t lock my door. Never thought there was any need to. Anybody who had the time could’ve made a duplicate list.”

“Well, damn it, start locking your door.”

“Famous case of locking barn door after horse is fled,” Saltimbanco observed. “Great Lords, Lady, how many people in castle read and write?” He had found his diversion. He would set them to chasing shadows. “Start interviewing them, huh? But we don’t mention treachery. Maybe if not scared, traitor makes mistake. Maybe we plant new list. Not knowing everybody watching for him, he maybe does treasonous task again. Pounce! We get him! Hai! Big hanging party! Everybody turns out, much wine, much song, this humble one is hero for thinking of plan, has very good time…”

“Good idea,” said Turran. “But no hanging. I’ll want to question the man. Brock, tomorrow I want you to ask for men who can read and write. Say we’ve got some clerical work to do. Offer bonuses so they’ll all turn out. We can watch whoever responds. Now, for the bad half of Ridyeh’s message.”

“You mean there’s more, and worse?” Valther asked.

“Yes. Iwa Skolovda and Dvar have formed an alliance. They’re raising a mercenary army to attack Ravenkrak. They raised standard two weeks ago, and already they’ve gathered five thousand men. Remarkable, don’t you think? Especially considering that most of these mercenaries are southerners, up from Libiannin, Hellin Daimiel, and the Lesser Kingdoms. And their officers are Guildsmen.”

“Sounds like High Crag knew something ahead of time,” said Valther. “They’d actually march against Ravenkrak? How’ll they find us?”

“Our friend Haroun again. He’ll have command. Ridyeh says he visited the Kings when he was in Iwa Skolovda and Dvar.”

“But they can’t hope to take Ravenkrak…”

“They don’t know that. And we’re terribly undermanned. But that doesn’t worry me much. What does is why all that fuss is being made. Consider. Haroun bin Yousif is a man with a mission and a lot of talent. Between politicking, harassing El Murid, and advising the Itaskian General Staff, he’s been living twenty-five-hour days. Though in luxury, to be sure.”

“Why,” Valther mused, “would a man give up doing exactly what he wants in order to organize hill tribesmen?”

“That’s what I’m trying to get at. More, why, after he’d chased Nepanthe out of Iwa Skolovda, did he prematurely scatter them?” Fewer than fifty tribesmen had fallen into the trap Turran had set for bin Yousif.

“He’d finished his job.”

“Check. Somebody wanted us out of Iwa Skolovda. Enough to meet the outrageous price bin Yousif would have demanded for the job. And it wasn’t the Iwa Skolovdan Royalists. Remember, he was at work in the hills before we took over.”

“Foreknowledge,” Brock grumbled. “Necromancy.” He looked like he had just bitten into a crabapple. “The Star Rider getting even?”

“Possibly. But to the main curiosity. His killing spies while his army fore-recruited gathers. Why?”

“Something big is going on,” Valther averred.

“Brilliant. And it’s something we didn’t anticipate when we went to the flatlands. Something that started earlier and we didn’t notice. What?”

Turran spoke in a manner suggesting that his discourse was rhetorical till that final, plaintive “What?” Then it was clear that he was mystified, too.

“We’d better sit back and wait till we find out,” Valther said. “We can hold out here as long as we have the Horn.” Murmuring, he added, “It must be him. Trying to get it back.”

“That’s the plan. We’re undermanned, but I doubt that they can get to us. If we can hold them off till winter, we’ll whip them. They’ll be trapped by the weather, at the end of precarious supply lines. I imagine they’ll pull out with the first snow and fall apart as soon as they hit the flatlands. Neither Iwa Skolovda nor Dvar can afford to keep them together. They don’t have the credit.”

“And next summer can see us down in their territory again, against weaker opposition,” Valther mused.

“Sounds good, anyway,” Brock grumbled. “But I wish we had a better idea of what’s going on.”

“You,” Turran told him, “I’m making siegemaster. Make this stonepile impregnable. Now, let’s tell the others. Be cheerful, make it a joke. Laugh because somebody is fool enough to come after us.”

Turran and his brothers went to the Great Hall, where they announced the forthcoming siege.

Saltimbanco and Nepanthe wandered through chilly hallways till they reached her quarters in the Bell Tower. Nepanthe settled onto a stool before a large frame and resumed work on her embroideries. Saltimbanco dumped his bulk into the comfort of a large, goosedown-stuffed chair facing the fireplace. Nepanthe’s serving girl brought mulled wine, then disappeared.

Nepanthe’s sitting room, perhaps the most comfortable in all Ravenkrak, was filled with womanly things. An abandoned summer frock hung in a corner, forgotten; a hastily discarded lace rebosa lay across one end of a vanity cluttered with cosmetics she seldom used. The rugs on the floors, the tapestries on the walls, the very scents in the air all bespoke occupation by a woman.

It was a room of sleepy comfort, so peaceful and quiet that Saltimbanco couldn’t remain awake. A scant five minutes after arriving, he lapsed into gentle snoring.

Leaving her embroidery to brush her hair, Nepanthe gave her guest a look which would have surprised her had she known she wore it, and wondered about him. He seemed to have sprung into existence fully grown, sometime shortly before having entered Iwa Skolovda.

Past? Did Saltimbanco have one? Indeed, though few men would have taken pride in it, had it been theirs.

His earliest memories were of a picaresque youth spent in company with a blind, alcoholic sadhu (source of much of the misinformation integral to his present act—that holy man had been a thorough fraud) wandering between Argon, Necremnos, and Throyes, with occasional forays into Matayanga. That sadhu early inspired in him a powerful loathing for honest work, and, from the blind man and others into whose company their travels had led them, he had obtained an intimate knowledge of pickpocketry, sleight-of-hand, ventriloquism, and all the mummery he now used to lend credence to his claims to magical powers.

After evening old scores with the sadhu, in finest picaro style (the old man had treated him cruelly, almost as a slave), and having stolen and gambled his way into the enmity of half the middle east, he had fled to the west. In Altea he had joined a carnival, following a gypsy life through the occidental kingdoms. Sometimes he claimed his name, Mocker, came from that of a character he had portrayed in passion plays, though that wasn’t true. When not on stage, or in his booth as “Magelin the Magician,” he had mixed with the crowds, lifting purses. He had been quite proficient.

But once he had slashed the wrong pursestrings and found his wrists seized in a painful grasp. He had found himself looking at a dusky, aquiline face, into rapacious eyes… He had jerked free, jabbed in a fashion learned in the east. They had scuffled, to no conclusion.

Later Haroun had come to talk, and Mocker had soon found himself in bin Yousif’s employ, as an agent to be insinuated into the camp of El Murid, leader of the horde of religious fanatics then besieging Hellin Daimiel.

Acting on inspiration, he had pulled off the coup of the El Murid Wars, successfully kidnapping the Disciple’s daughter Yasmid. The confusion in El Murid’s camp had allowed Haroun and his partisans the month or so necessary to break the siege of Hellin Daimiel and create a bloated bin Yousif reputation.

In later years he, Haroun, and their mutual “friend,” Bragi Ragnarson, had spent several years getting into and out of hare-brained adventures. Then Haroun’s conscience had nagged him into resuming his role of King Without a Throne, commander of the Royalists El Murid had driven from Hammad al Nakir when taking over. Then Ragnarson, the fool, had gotten married, and the fat brown man, in his later twenties, had found himself drifting around alone again, tagging along the carnival circuit or undertaking an occasional minor espionage mission. The relationship between the three had faded from others’ memories…

Then Haroun had materialized, accompanied by an old man filled with promises of vast wealth.

Mocker, a compulsive gambler, needed money desperately.

It had been a long road into the present, sometimes painful, usually dangerous, seldom happy. Here, in Ravenkrak, he was as at home and as near contentment as ever he had been. He liked these Storm Kings—yet the day would come when he would have to betray them…

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