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Chapter Three

In the mirror of souls
Strange things take root

—The Book Of Earth And Stone

Kulberisti Longmarket, also known as the City of Stalls, was a canopied street which led from the end of Respil Road to the east side of Five Kings Dock. Archmage Bardow had spent most of the morning in three important meetings, the last of which had involved arguing over tariffs and embargoes with Besh-Darok’s richest merchants in Trade Guild offices near the Gauntlet Gate. When the time came to leave for the Low Coronation, Respil Road was the obvious route to take.

But it seemed that everyone else in this quarter had arrived at the same conclusion - Kulberisti Longmarket was one continuous, chattering mass of people shuffling north towards the narrow alleyway bottleneck which was the main way to the docks. On either side of the noisy throng food and drink stalls were doing a roaring trade but that was no comfort to Bardow and his companions who were stuck at the centre of the river of bodies and had scarcely moved in nearly ten minutes.

Serjeant Jamek, the commander of Bardow’s small six-man escort, had been surveying the crowds ahead and turned to speak.

“They are making almost no progress, ser Bardow. It also appears that a brawl has now broken out at the far end of the market and the city guards are having trouble reaching it. Perhaps for the safety of yourself and the lady Ffion we should consider making a detour.”

“Through one of those houses?” said Ffion. “But there are people living there.”

Bardow’s red-haired assistant had journeyed from Krusivel soon after the Battle of Besh-Darok, and in resuming her role had shown a welcome aptitude for paperwork. Bardow also found her kindness and warmth a much-needed balance to his daily struggle with city politics.

“All we need is a way through to the back alley, Ffion,” Bardow said reassuringly. “But we shall only ask, not demand. Serjeant - you and your men clear a way through to those buildings there. Be firm, but try not to break any heads.”

“As you say, ser.”

Jamek was tall and broad shouldered, and had been a Second Rul in the city militia before he was recruited to the Knights Protectorate, one of the four new orders founded by Mazaret. He and his men wore polished leather harness decorated with silver inlay, black iron collarettes, and long, dark blue cloaks. They forged a swift and efficient path through the crowd to the mean, two-storey buildings behind the stalls. The surly, bearded landlord of one dim house soon turned eager and cooperative when Bardow produced a couple of silvers from his moneybelt.

A few moments later they were stepping out into a cold alley where thick snow had gone to grey-brown slush.

“Is there another way to Five Kings Dock from here?” Ffion asked him.

“Indeed there is,” Bardow said.

“Do you have a map?” she asked.

“Indeed I do,” Bardow said, tapping his forehead. “In here. I grew up in this city, remember. Now, if we head along this way we should find a side street to take us down to the coast road…”

He urged them all on at a brisk pace, sensing that another snowfall was imminent. Although Jamek and his men were well-wrapped against the weather, Bardow and Ffion had on thin robes over fine indoor garb. Shivering, he wished they had brought a carriage from the palace.

As they walked, Bardow’s thoughts went back to the morning’s meetings. The first had been with coronation officials at the palace, a summary of final, unresolved details which were promptly dealt with. The next had taken place in a small room in the Keep of Day: there he spoke to a small gathering of mages, most of whom had been reluctant to attend, and after some intense discussion persuaded them to agree to a further meeting in the next day or two.

For the third meeting, Bardow had left the palace and crossed the city to Gauntlet Square where senior merchants were gathering at the offices of the Trades Guild. There, the arguments had been labyrinthine, a convoluted tangle of specious precedent, dubious legalities and sheer arrogance which all came down to one basic premise - that the merchants of Besh-Darok be allowed to trade whatever goods they liked with whomever they liked, with no tariffs while paying minimal taxes to the Crown. Bardow had listened to all this with a mounting sense of incredulity and the realisation that even after the fall of the Empire and sixteen years of occupation, these greedy men still did not understand the nature of the evil that threatened them all. The world teetered on the brink of an abyss and they thought only of lining their own pockets.

Yet the new government of Besh-Darok needed them, their experience and their webs of contacts. With the prospect of further savage conflict looming in the spring, there was a great need for huge amounts of iron and wood for the weapon forgers, horses for the cavalry, stone for fortifications, textiles for military tailors and sail makers - the list was near endless and the treasury’s funds were finite. So, without making any important concessions, Bardow had to appear sympathetic to the Guildsmen while persuading them to sign a few vital contracts. Bardow had brought with him a personal message from Yasgur (who had dealt with them in previous years), a scroll which he had passed to Serjeant Jamek before entering the conclave hall. Later, while preparing to leave with the signed documents, Bardow had mused on the persuasive effects of a seal- and ribbon-adorned letter full of manly exhortations read aloud by a steely-eyed, six foot four, strikingly attired Knight Serjeant.

Now, as they hurried along the coast road, buffeted by cold gusts coming in from the bay, a bleak mood stole over the Archmage. Only he and a few others - Medwin, Alael and Terzis and some of the mages - truly understood the threat of the Shadowkings. The Crystal Eye certainly made use of the Lesser Power easier, and stronger in some cases, while serving as a sentinel against Wellsource adepts in and around the city (Nerek it seemed to recognise as an ally). But those who worked with it the most found themselves gaining unsettling insights into the darkness surrounding them. With his perceptions of the sorcerous landscape waxing, he became increasingly aware of the Shadowkings themselves and the sheer scale of the powers at their command. Every so often he had felt the dread weight of their gaze across the hundreds of miles like a black, insidious pressure upon his consciousness. For these brief periods, he had a focus for his purpose, a foe to struggle against, a beguilement to deny. At other times, he threw himself into work on the city’s innumerable problems, hoping to evade contemplation’s burden of despair.

Yet it seemed unavoidable. Even now, with the sound of thundering drums growing as they neared Five Kings Dock, his attuned senses could feel the faint, patient expectation of distant observers. The fine threads of some malefic intrigue were being drawn together this day and even with the Crystal Eye he had been unable to discern its nature.

Crowds milled around the street level archways that led into Five Kings Dock, but Bardow pointed out a wooden ramp, one of several newly-built ones which led up to the first and second tiers. Snow was swirling about them as they hurried up to the first tier. Pillared walkways ran along the rear and either side of the Dock, part of the original stone yard that was built over five hundred years ago. The massive wooden superstructure with its roof was only added a century ago by Emperor Tavalir IX, who had grown weary of conducting ceremonies in the open air.

They were part way along the rearward gallery when Bardow spotted someone familiar among a group of soldiers climbing one of the stairways that went up the outside of the Dock to the second tier. It was Yarram, the new Lord Commander of the Knights of the Fathertree. Bardow saw him for only a moment or two but the man’s grim demeanour was starkly apparent and the mud streaks on his battle harness spoke of an urgent purpose. Then he was gone, ascending out of sight.

Frowning, Bardow slowed to a halt. Yarram had come seeking Yasgur, he was sure of it, probably to pass on some dire news. Unease welled within him - was this the opening move in the enemy’s intrigue?

“What is wrong, ser?” said Ffion. His companions were regarding him with puzzlement and concern.

With eyes closed, Bardow pinched the bridge of his nose. Even though the din of the drums had subsided to a muted four-stroke rhythm, a dull ache was unfurling behind his eyes. He had been on his way to see the Steward of Ceremonies, but that would have to wait.

“We must go up to the State Chamber,” he told them. “I have to speak with Lord Regent Yasgur at once. Jamek - lead the way.”

“By your command, Lord Archmage.”

Pushing through tall, layered curtains they emerged in one of the Dock’s many arbour halls. At any other time, Bardow would have paused to admire the wall hangings, the tiny fragrant garden with its dwarf litrilu blooms, the Cabringan wood carvings, and the roselight lamps, all donations from rich merchants and some of the freed cities. But he hurried them on through a doorway and onto a stone staircase which gave access to all the tiers, and afforded a magnificent view of the entire Dock. The banks of seating, the long balconies and the high cupolas were filling with people, while along either side of the dock stood attendants bearing standards or holding lines trailing from the shadowy ceiling. Pale daylight filtered in via high, narrow windows, but scores of torches and lamps burned at every level, providing a suffusing golden glow which struck gleams from the great tree symbols picked out in gold and silver leaf on the gigantic doors at the dock’s far end.

As Bardow climbed, thinking thoughts as dark as the waters of the dock itself, he chanced to glance over the balustrade at the citizens pouring down the aisles of the second tier. His gaze passed upwards to the crowded walkway behind the topmost bank of benches, then with uncanny accuracy settled on just one face out of those jostling hundreds, one face which caught his attention and doggedly held on to it.

It was Nerek he saw, with her close-cropped hair and the customary battered leather jerkin, except that she seemed more relaxed than usual, less stiff and reserved. There was even a smile, faint and languorous, and when she turned in her progress through the crowd Bardow saw the line of her jaw and the shape of her ear, and suddenly knew that he was looking at an imposter.

Then she caught sight of something on the other side of the dock, and Bardow felt a trickle of horror at the cold, implacable intent that came over her features as she gripped the handrail and stared out. Swiftly he followed that gaze across, searching the people milling about on the first and second tiers….and spotted Keren down on the first in a doorway, nodding and talking with a woman in a flowery headscarf. When he looked back to the other side, the false Nerek was gone and something like panic welled up inside him.

“Down!” he cried to the others, who had clustered around him on the busy stairway. “We must go back down - ”

“But why, Bardow?” Ffion said. “You don’t look well.”

“Be more concerned about Keren,” he said. “They’ve sent an assassin after her! Jamek, get us down to the first tier…”

And pray that we’re not too late.

But even as they started back down the way they had come, bells rang all around and horns brayed as the huge doors of Five Kings Dock began to open outwards. Tauric had returned from the Earthmother temple at Wybank with the Crown of Flowers.

* * *

To Keren it was almost as if the woman in the headscarf had her under a spell. She had made the mistake of answering the woman’s query about the name Five Kings Dock, that it had been named after five ships that were built here, and that opened the floodgates. Now the woman just would not stop talking, spinning out a long skein of woes and anecdotes about her family and the long journey to Besh-Darok and the state of the roads and the price of food and aren’t city folk rude and…

Then inspiration struck.

“In the Mother’s name!” she cried, pointing. “Isn’t that your husband about to eat a poisonous naqroot?”

As the woman shrieked and looked round, Keren turned and ducked through a nearby curtained archway. Just then bells began to ring and horns blew a fanfare, and there was a rush for the tier seats. Standing by a pillar, Keren avoided being swept down the aisles yet with the phalanx of taller people now standing in front of her she could see nothing but the upper halves of the dock’s doors opening outwards.

Deciding to find a way up to the next tier, she hurried along a gallery past several arbour chambers, one where children played around a fountain, or another where two lovers sat kissing beneath a spiraleaf tree, their arms enfolding each other in oblivious passion. One of the main staircases at the rear was in sight when nearby someone uttered her name in an urgent whisper. She turned and was startled to see Nerek standing partly obscured between the folds of closed hall curtains.

“Keren - I need to speak with you in private.”

“Now? - but the ceremony will be starting soon.”

A slight nod, half-hidden by the curtains. “I know, but this won’t wait.” Her voice was hoarse and flat. “There’s a small staircase in the next chamber - leads up to a seclusion room. Go there and I’ll join you shortly.”

Then she was gone, heavy drapes swaying in her wake. Keren cursed under her breath then stalked along to the adjoining chamber, where several games of Advance lay abandoned, and climbed the narrow spiral staircase in the corner. She came up in a small lamplit room decorated with sumptuous hanging and tapestries, with three quilted settles and thick woven rugs on the tiled floor.

She heard no movement but felt a feather-touch of cold air from a curtain parting at her back. Instinct took over and she went into a turning crouch but a blow still glanced off her temple, sending her staggering sideways to trip over a low table. When she looked up at the face of Nerek, she was ready to unleash a stream of invective….until she looked longer into those wide-eyed, unblinking features.

“The mask of the first to kill the second,” the false Nerek said in a deep, rich voice. “Then the mask of the second will serve the Well.”

A small dagger, scarcely more than a noblewoman’s graceknife, came into view and Keren went utterly still when she saw the gleam of moisture along the edges of the blade. Poison, she thought. The merest cut and I am dead

The false Nerek, still staring eerily, tilted her head to one side and leaned in closer.

“The Well is served,” she said.

She drew the dagger back for a slash at Keren’s face, but another hand grabbed her wrist and forced it up and away. Keren gaped to see the real Nerek, her bruised, grazed features snarling with anger and effort. The imposter fought against this intervention, her unwinking gaze flicking from Nerek to Keren and back. As Keren pushed herself away from the dagger, Nerek overcame her imposter and with a cry threw her back onto one of the settles which collapsed under the impact.

There were running footsteps outside, a voice saying “In here!”, and Keren looked up to see Bardow and several cloaked Knights enter. Nerek had armed herself with an iron candlestick but the Archmage waved her back. He was about to speak when the imposter sat up on the wrecked settle and raised the poison dagger before her, pointing out.

“The Well shall be served,” she said.

Before anyone could move, the false Nerek slashed the dagger across the palm of her other hand. Then she smeared the bloody wound down one side of her face, and smiled a frozen smile as she toppled backwards, eyes already full of death.

“Nobody touch that dagger, nobody!” Bardow said. “Or the body either. There is no knowing what traps it carries.”

“Traps, ser?” said one of the knights.

“Fish hooks,” Bardow said. “Or pins similarly poisoned, or insects, or even slow poison in fine powder. Touch nothing with bare skin.”

As Bardow asked for a pair of gauntlets, Nerek came over and offered a hand to Keren. Getting back on her feet, she muttered her thanks as she dusted herself off.

“Well, now, Keren - that’s the second time that Byrnak’s failed to have you killed,” said Gilly who was leaning leisurely against a pillar in the corner. “Mayhap he will tire of the game.”

Keren glared at him. “This isn’t a game.”

“No,” Nerek said, staring down at the dead woman. “He will never stop. Never.”

* * *

On the great balcony which overlooked Five Kings Dock, Yasgur stood to the left of the throne dressed in full furred cloak and ceremonial armour which spoke as much of his Mogaun heritage as it did of his adopted home. A roar of cheering, stamping and clapping came from the citizens who crowded the tiers and enclosures in their thousands. The chants of the choriants could hardly be heard and when the Imperial barge floated in past the open doors the thunderous din rose still further and clouds of petals began drifting down from the rafters.

On the other side of the podium stood Abbess Halimer, now recognised as High Priestess of the Earthmother faith. Yasgur glanced over at her - she was a tall, matronly woman with a steady yet imposing presence, which almost compelled others to be equally calm and even-tempered. He wondered what the Abbess thought of the many rumours about the Earthmother, that she had appeared in the Spire during the height of the battle to take back the spirits of the dead. He wondered if it were true. His own patron god was Vaarut, Lord of the Hunt, and there had never been tales of him stepping forth from the sagas to speak with mortals, apart from the delusions of the weak-minded. Perhaps he should convert, offer up oblations to a goddess who actually took a hand in the affairs of mortals.

Then Yasgur thought of what his senior officers might say and do, and smiled sardonically. Perhaps not. He was already walking a thin line with regard to the feelings and loyalties of the Firespear clan, especially since the start of these cowardly beatings meted out to a growing number of his warriors by masked ambushers. Murmurs of discontent were passing around, along with the notion that the Firespears had been tainted by this alliance with their former vassals. But their ingrained distrust of the other clans and tribes, coupled with the terrible dishonour committed against the spirit of Hegroun by the Shadowkings, was sufficient to maintain their discipline and loyalty to Yasgur. For now.

The crowd kept up its full-throated roar as the ceremonial barge let down its gantry and Tauric, wearing a long, pale blue cloak, crossed to the flagstoned wharf. Two men and a woman, known as the Keepers of Anointment, approached and bowed. Yasgur had gone over the rituals of the Low Coronation with the stewards, but some of the details had been unclear.

“In times past, my Lord, it was a senior priest of the Rootpower faith who stood to the left of the throne,” one had told him. “Under the circumstances, it seems appropriate for one of the Lord Regents to assume this role. So we thought.”

“What ritual words must I speak?” he had asked.

“None,” was the answer. “Only the heir speaks, once the coronation has taken place and then only to the citizens.”

As Yasgur watched, Tauric lowered his head and the woman stepped forward to place a seashell amulet around his neck. Tauric straightened and handed her a coronet woven of flowers, then the two men came forward, one giving him an iron lantern, the other a polished bull’s horn.

Yasgur frowned. Many signs and tokens were sacred to the Mogaun, and he knew that the iron lamp was a symbol of the Lord of Twilight while the bull’s horn was that of Orrohn, Lord of the Forest. The seashell, too, was familiar but beyond recollection for the moment. Not for the first time this afternoon, he wished he had ignored the palace advisors and brought Atroc with him.

Led by the three Keepers, and followed by his retinue, Tauric walked towards the stairs that rose in two flights to the great balcony. Red, yellow and blue petals lay like a fall of leaves over everything and very long, thin banners of a fine, gauzy material had unfurled slowly from the ceiling and were floating and undulating on the warm updrafts rising from the still-cheering crowds.

The small procession finally reached the foot of the podium where Tauric bowed to Abbess Halimer and gave her the bull’s horn, then bowed to Yasgur and gave him the iron lamp. The young man’s metal arms shone in the rich golden light of a hundred torches and Yasgur stared at the lamp in surprise for a moment, then remembered his next part in the ritual and went down on one knee. The female Keeper placed the Flower Crown on his head, and when he stood it was Tauric’s turn to kneel at the foot of the podium. All the Keepers moved to the rear of the balcony as two smaller figures stepped forward, a boy and a girl aged about ten, who climbed nervously up to the throne on which a large wooden crown lay. It looked dark and finely grained and had the dull sheen of something that had been through many hands over many years.

By now the noise of the crowds had diminished to a subdued rhythmic chant as the children carefully carried the crown between them down the steps. Tauric’s face was calm, almost serene as he bowed to each in turn, and when he straightened Yasgur noticed a small pendant protruding from the buttoned seam of his dark brown velvet doublet. It was only visible for a moment before it slipped back inside but Yasgur saw that it was a rearing horse cast in bronze.

Then the children were lowering the wooden crown onto Tauric’s head to an accompanying mass roar from the crowd. As the young heir turned to face the exulting thousands, Yasgur reflected wryly that in sixteen years they had never once cheered like that for him.

Tauric stepped up to the balustrade of the great balcony and raised his arms, one metal, one flesh and bone. Flanked by blazing pole-cressets and framed by heraldic banners, Tauric truly had the bearing of a monarch. After a moment or two the clamour subsided and he began to speak. This was the cue for Yasgur and the Abbess, and the others, to retreat to the shadowy rear of the balcony. Once there, Yasgur slipped between the dark, heavy drapes and emerged into a long, low chamber.

He was passing the Flower Crown and the iron lamp to an Earthmother priestess when there was a touch on his shoulder. It was Ghazrek, his friend and First Captain, looking sombre as he bowed smartly.

“My Prince - Lord Commander Yarram has returned unexpectedly. He has disturbing news.”

Yasgur snorted. “Disturbing enough to bother me with, eh? Why isn’t he at the palace, talking to Mazaret’s second?”

“It is do to with Mazaret, my Prince.”

Ghazrek’s face was grave, which made Yasgur stop and consider.

“Very well. Take me to him.”

In a small room off the main state conclave chamber, Yarram was standing by an arched window, peering through meshwork shutters at the city outside. As he turned, Yasgur could see the strain etched in his features, as well as the dust and grime that marred his clothing.

Yarram bowed. “Milord Regent.”

“Lord Commander,” Yasgur said. “What brings you back to Besh-Darok with such haste?”

“Lord Regent Yasgur, my men and I have for the last four days been harrying the brigands responsible for the many raids on either side of the Girdle Hills. Yesterday, we came face to face with their leader.” Yarram gazed levelly at Yasgur. “Milord, I am not a man given to flights of fanciful rumination, so please accept that there is no embroidering in what I am about to relate.”

“Your honesty is known to us, Lord Commander. Continue.”

“We followed the brigands into the Girdle Hills southwest of Besh-Darok. Our pursuit brought us to the ford of a river swollen by the snow and rain, but we arrived to find that the brigands had wrecked the bridge and were waiting to defy us. As we approached, their leader emerged on horseback - from where we were I could see that it was a woman, garbed in a winding gown as pale and hueless as her face and hair. She rode slowly out onto a flat boulder and said ‘Who commands?’.”

“I said nothing but urged my mount forward to the grassy bank of the spated river. Only when I halted by the river’s edge was I able to discern the woman’s features.” Yarram paused. “I am certain that you never met Suviel Hantika, the lady mage who was my Lord Mazaret’s beloved. I, on the other hand, saw her on many occasions - ”

“The woman is dead,” Yasgur said bluntly. “Or so that turncoat sorceress Nerek insisted. But you saw her alive and leading our enemies, is that what you’re saying?”

Yarram nodded. “She looked more wraith than living flesh, but it was her face that I saw and her voice that I heard speak, I am certain.”

Yasgur inhaled deeply, thinking - Atroc, you should be here to advise me

“What else did she say?”

“She said - ‘Tell your masters that Death has many doors and they cannot lock them all. And tell Ikarno that I shall await him at Blue axe Ridge’. Then she and her followers turned and rode off.”

Yasgur felt the hairs on his neck stir, and a chill go through him. In the Mogaun sagas there were many tales of the power of the words of the dead. The Shadowkings are close to us, stretching out their hands, sending forth their creatures to taunt us. And those words were meant for Mazaret - what will he do when he hears them?

He clenched his fists, burning with the need to act. “There is little sense in waiting here,” he said. “Let us return to the palace with all speed, and I shall call the High Conclave to meet - ”

“An excellent idea, my lord,” came a voice at his back. “I have already sent several people ahead to prepare for just such a gathering.”

It was Bardow, his eyes bright with purpose, his mouth curved in a small, hard smile.

“Greetings, my Lord Regent, Lord Commander, and my apologies for intruding, but I bring word of unsettling developments within the city itself.”

“A timely interruption, ser Archmage, as I have just received a disturbing report from the Lord Commander here. I suggest that we hasten to the palace and share around each others' dread news as we travel.”

“Mayhap one will cancel out the other, my lord,” said Ghazrek, grinning darkly as he went to open the door.

Bardow uttered a dry laugh. “An unlikely event, captain.”

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