ll this riding is playing havoc with my rhoids, Grift."
"I know what you mean, Bodger. But it's good for one thing, though."
"What's that, Grift?"
"Regularity, Bodger. There's nothing like a good gallop to have you running for the nearest bush."
"You're a wise man, Grift." Bodger nodded his head in agreement while trying to keep his mule on track. "Of course I'm not so sure that you were right about us volunteering for this journey to Bren. I had no idea we'd be assigned the worst duty in the whole crew."
"Aye, cleaning up after the horses leaves a lot to be desired, Bodger. It was bound to fall to us, though. You and me being the lowest in rank. I still say that we were lucky to be allowed to come on this mission in the first place. They wouldn't let any old soldiers go along with the royal guard. It's a distinct honor."
"So you keep reminding me, Grift." Bodger looked decidedly skeptical. "I just hope the women in Bren are as willing and comely as you keep saying."
"They most certainly are, Bodger. Have I ever been wrong about women in the past?"
"I've got to give you that, Grift. There's not much you don't know about women."
The two men were bringing up the rear of a large column. They were over eight score in number; five score of royal guard, a score of Maybor's own, together with various camp attendants and pack horses.
"I think I know what makes the Halcus so mean, Grift. This weather is terrible. A blizzard every day and wind so cold it could freeze the juice from a tallow maker's molding."
"Aye, Bodger. Three weeks of this is more than enough for any man. In normal weather we would have been in Bren by now. As it is, we're barely out of Halcus territory. Of course the chilliest thing around here ain't the weather."
"What d'you mean, Grift?"
"Lord Maybor and Baralis, that's what I mean, Bodger. Those two make the north wind seem like a cool breeze."
"You're right there, Grift. They've been flinging each other looks as dark and deadly as an executioner's hood since the day we started out." Bodger had to pull hard hard on his reins, as his mule had its own idea of where it wanted to go, and it wasn't along with the pack.
"There's no love lost there for sure. Have you noticed the way they won't even pitch their tents within a tourney's length of each other?"
"That I have, Grift. Not to mention the fact that Maybor rides at the fore all day, fancying himself a king, while Baralis brings up the rear like a wounded soldier."
"So you think me a wounded soldier, do you?" The two men turned around, startled, as Baralis rode up between them. His face was deathly pale and his eyes glittered harshly with the reflected luster of the snow.
Neither guard spoke: Bodger because he had been almost frightened from his saddle and was trying to right himself, and Grift because he was clever enough to know when it was best not to speak.
The king's chancellor continued, a smile threatening but not quite forming, around his thin lips. "Come, come now, gentlemen. Why so tongue tied all of a sudden?" His beautiful voice belied the coldness of his eyes. "You appeared so talkative only a moment ago. Am I to take it that the north wind has suddenly frozen your tongues? Or is it that you are beginning to regret your glib words?"
Grift could see that Bodger was about to reply, and although his every instinct willed him to remain silent, he knew that if he didn't speak up now, Bodger would get himself into even worse trouble. "My friend here is young, Lord Baralis, and he partook of a little too much ale at breakfast. He meant nothing by his remark. A jest, no more."
The king's chancellor reflected a moment before replying. A gloved hand rubbed idly at his chin. "Youth is a poor excuse for stupidity, ale is an even poorer one." Grift opened his mouth to speak, but Baralis forestalled him with a sudden gesture of the gloved hand. "Nay, man, protest no more. Let the matter rest here, with you in my debt." He met the eyes of both guards, allowing his meaning time to be fully comprehended. Satisfied, he rode forward, his black cloak spread out over the dock of his mare.
So even the camp attendants were gossiping about him! Still, there was solace to be gained in the fact that both of the sniveling dolts were now beholden to him. Baralis had long since learned the value of having people around who were indebted to him. It was a more valuable coinage than gold in a locked chest. One could never tell when one might need to call upon the services of men such as those. After all, guards usually guarded something of value.
Oh, but it was cold. Baralis felt chilled to his very soul. He longed for the warmth of his chambers and the comfort of his own fire. It was his hands that suffered the worst. Even now, donned in fur lined gloves, the wind still cut through to the bone. His weak deformed hands, so beautiful in youth, now ruined by his own ambition. The scarred and scant flesh was no match for the wind.
Snow two hands deep covered their path. It shifted with crafty precision with every bluster of air. As a result the way was treacherous. The fore guard had already lost one horse to lameness. The unfortunate creature had mis-stepped by only an arm's length, but it was enough for it to find itself in a deep gully masquerading as a benign stretch of snow. They had slaughtered the gelding where it fell.
They were now only a week away from Bren. Yesterday they had crossed the River Emm. There was not a man in the party who hadn't sighed in relief upon traversing the mighty river. Not only was it a great danger in itself, but more importantly, it marked the end of Halcus territory. The company had thought themselves lucky to have successfully traveled through the lands of the enemy for ten days yet remain undetected and unchallenged. Baralis knew differently.
The idea of using his contacts with the Halcus to sabotage the party and slaughter Maybor had been tempting. There was nothing Baralis wanted more than the death of the vain and swaggering lord. It was just too risky, though. A raid on their party could easily get out of hand. He, himself, might be endangered. No, it was better not to chance his own safety. There were other less hazardous ways to rid himself of Maybor.
The Lord of the Eastlands had to be eliminated: it was a fact beyond questioning. Baralis would not tolerate any interference with his plans in Bren. The betrothal negotiations would take subtly and cunning - two qualities that Maybor was sadly lacking in. More than that, the man was a threat: not just a physical threat - though Baralis did not doubt that his own assassination was never far from the great lord's thoughts - but also a threat to the whole betrothal. Maybor had wanted his daughter to marry Prince Kylock. His failure to secure such a union had embittered him against the new choice for bride.
Baralis scanned the column of men, searching. Near the front astride a magnificent stallion, he spied the object of his thoughts. Extravagantly robed in scarlet and silver was the lord himself. Even the way Maybor sat his horse told of his over-bloated sense of self importance. Baralis' lip curled into well-worn lines of contempt at the very sight of him.
He simply could not allow Maybor to reach Bren alive. As king's envoy, the man was actually superior to him! The queen had pulled a dirty trick with that particular appointment. He, king's chancellor, the very person who was instrumental in bringing about the match between Prince Kylock and Catherine, should have preeminence in Bren. Instead the queen had appointed him prince's envoy, and in doing so had made him subservient to Maybor.
He could not and would not endure such an indignity.
The Duke of Bren and his fair daughter were his concern. Maybor had no business bringing his pot to this fire. Baralis was aware of the politics of both appointments, but the queen would find all her cleverness unrewarded when news of Maybor's demise reached the kingdoms.
There was no doubt about it. Today, this chill and frosty noon, with the north wind blowing like a siren from the abyss, Maybor would meet his death.
Melli knew better than to open the shuttered window. There was a gale coming and the scant stretch of wood was the only thing between them and its ravages. As it was she wasn't sure the latch would hold. Still, she suspected it might - she had always been lucky that way. The famous Maybor luck had served her family well through the centuries. Or more accurately it had served the Maybor men well, as they seemed to drain all the luck from their women.
Not her, though. She was the first female of her family to be endowed with that most capricious of gifts.
Melli put her eye to the knot-hole and peered out onto the northern plains of Halcus. Almost dazzled by the brilliance of the snow, it took her a moment before she could discern any details of the land. The wind had picked up since she'd last looked and was carrying the snow in its thrall. There was little to be seen; white land against white sky. The snowy expanse was probably grazing pasture in the spring, but for now it was laid out defenseless for winter to takes its toll.
The bite of the cold grew too much for her eye and Melli withdrew her gaze inward. With a scrap of dirty oilcloth she plugged the knot-hole. Turning, she caught Jack looking at her, and for some reason her face flushed. Almost against her will her hand smoothed her hair. It was foolish, she thought, that after being away from the court and its customs for so long, she still had the instincts of a court beauty. The women of Castle Harvell had so many rules to live by; rules of conduct, rules of dress, rules of form. Now that Melli had distanced herself from the great court, she realized all the rules could be summed up in one: a woman must at all times strive to please a man.
Even now, after experiencing things that a court beauty could only guess at, Melli found herself falling into the old habits of femininity. Most particularly the habit of wanting to look nice for a man.
She smiled at her own folly. Jack, catching the mood of her smile, grinned in response. His keen and handsome face, made all the more appealing by his winter color, caused Melli to feel unaccountably happy. Suddenly she was laughing: bright and high and merry as a tinker. Then Jack joined in. They stood at opposite ends of the small hut that had once been a chicken coop and laughed with each other.
She didn't know why Jack laughed, didn't even know why she herself laughed, she only knew it felt good to do so. And for so long now there had been so little that felt good.
The weather had been against them from the start. Once they crossed into Halcus territory it had become even worse. They had no knowledge of the land, and had quickly lost their bearings. That, together with the necessity of changing their course whenever they spotted another human being, had caused them to lose their way. Melli had read tales in her childhood of people taking long journeys guided only by the sun and the stars, but the reality was much different. What the tales failed to tell was that in winter both the sun and the stars didn't put in an appearance for weeks on end. In the day time the sky was pale and filled with cloud, in the night time the sky was dark and filled with cloud.
The result was that they had little idea of where they lay in relation to Bren and Annis. The only thing they knew for sure was they were still somewhere in Halcus. The fact that they were still in the lands of the enemy had been proven only two days back.
The weather had been getting progressively worse, and Melli had noticed that Jack was still having problems with his injured shoulder. Oh he tried to hide it, men always did things like that, both in tales and reality. He had developed the habit of always slinging his pack over his left shoulder, thereby keeping the strain from his right. Knee-deep in snow they walked, the wind robbing them of what little warmth their clothes could muster. Eventually they came upon a derelict farm house. The farmer had long since left, and for good reason: the place had been burnt to the timbers, leaving only a snow covered ruin.
A storm was threatening. Dark clouds gathered on the horizon and the wind wolfed at their heels. Weary and bone cold, their spirits soared when behind a clump of bushes they discovered the chicken coop. Located some distance from the farm house, the coop had fallen short of any inflammatory sparks.
Melli knew there would be trouble when the door failed to give, and the strain of a latch could clearly be heard within. No door latched itself. Someone else had taken refuge in the coop. Jack's eyes met hers. She could tell he was sizing up just how much she needed shelter. Without cover the coming storm might be their last. She shook her head slightly: better to walk away. The latched door meant people, and people meant danger. Jack looked at her a second longer, registering her warning, and then turned his gaze to the horizon. The storm lay paused to strike like a predator.
With a sudden, violent gesture he kicked down the door. The latch gave way. The door collapsed backward, its top hinge failing. In the coop were two men. Knives drawn.
The first thing Melli felt was Jack's arm slamming into her chest, pushing her back out of harm's way. She looked up from the snow in time to marvel at how quickly he drew his blade. A pig-farmer's blade. Melli could detect the sharp, loamy smell of ale. The two men had been drinking. They moved apart warily, seeking to flank Jack. Jack stepped back from the threshold. Even to Melli's untutored eye it seemed like a smart move. When the men attacked now, they would be forced to come through the doorway one at a time.
The first man came forward. Knife before him, he slashed wildly at the air. Jack fell upon him. It was the only way to describe it. Melli felt she was seeing him for the first time: he was wild with fury. What he lacked in skill he made up for in rage. It seemed to Melli that Jack was fighting much more than the man beneath him. In the struggle - which the stranger was destined to lose - Jack was fighting against fate and circumstance and even perhaps himself. Every vicious blow was a strike against something less substantial, yet more threatening than his opponent.
The second man moved forward. Melli screamed a warning. "Jack! Look out! He's behind you." He swung around and the man, probably scared at what he saw in Jack's face, fled. He ran awkwardly through the thick snow, leaving deep pits where his feet had stepped.
The first man was dead: a pig-knife to the gut. Jack stood up. He would not look at her. He'd stumbled into the hut and she'd followed, carefully skirting the body and the blood.
Neither had mentioned it since. Melli's thoughts were another matter. Jack was growing more withdrawn. He was as considerate as ever, yet there something within him that could quickly turn and show an edge. The Halcus soldier had seen the sharpness of it. In a way, Melli was grateful the man had been killed by a knife, the alternative was worse. Jack had a greater potential for destruction within him than an armory of blades.
Melli was secretly intrigued by the thought of sorcery. Oh she'd been taught as a child that it was evil, and that it was only practiced by those close with the devil. Her father flatly refused to believe in it, saying it was a thing out of legend like dragons and fairies, but she'd heard tales here and there. Tales that told of how at one time, sorcery was common in the Known Lands, and that people who used it were neither good nor bad. Surely Jack was proof of this?
If anything, since she'd witnessed his power the day they'd escaped from the mercenaries, she found herself more attracted to him. Before he had been almost a boy: unsure of himself and awkward, with long legs and long hair. The power he'd drawn seemed to fill him out, like fluid poured into a waterskin. His presence was more compelling, his body more his own. He was maturing fast, and sorcery with all its accompanying hearsay and heresy, endowed him with an aura that Melli found hard to resist.
Jack had his weakness', though. Melli worried in case the bitterness she had glimpsed in his attack upon the Halcus soldier, might settle and form part of the man.
Suddenly Melli didn't feel like laughing anymore. She resisted the urge to unplug the knot hole and check the horizon one more time. They had paid dearly for this chicken coop, and there might yet be an even higher price to pay.
As if reading her thoughts, Jack spoke to comfort her. "Don't worry. No one will come," he said. "The soldier can't have gone far, and even if he made it to a village, no one is about to go chasing the enemy in this weather."
It was her fault. If she hadn't spoken up in warning, the man would never have known where they came from. Yet she had, and the sound of the lilting accent of the Four Kingdoms had been clearly heard. If she had only kept silent, the man might have mistaken them for his own. He would of course have been no less pleased about having his shelter and his companion taken from him. But such incidents were all too common in both countries, and it might have gone overlooked. Until she spoke.
Now the man who had escaped across the snowy field, knew they were from the Kkingdoms. If he were to make it to a village, he could bring whatever forces were at hand down upon them with just two words: "The enemy."
The Halcus hated the Four Kingdoms with the deep hate that only comes with closeness. Neighbors they had been for centuries, but everyone knows it's one's neighbors one despises the most. The war had raged bitterly for five years now. The same war over the same river that had been fought countless times before. More blood than water flowed along the River Nester's bitterly disputed banks. The kingdoms had the advantage at the moment: a fact that served to make the Halcus hate them all the more.
"He might not have recognized your accent. You only said a few words." Jack took three strides across the coop and was beside her.
Melli shook her head gently and offered her hand. He took it and they stood side by side, and listened to the sound of the advancing storm. They were trapped here; for fleeing under these conditions would surely bring a more certain death than staying put and hoping no one would come. As long as the storm raged they would be safe. Only fools and the love-sick dared to venture out in a blizzard.
Her hand rested in his. There was no pressure in his touch, but part of her wished that there was. Inexplicably, her thoughts turned towards the king's chancellor, Lord Baralis. And then, as she realized the common thread between the past and the present, she withdrew her hand from Jack's. It was the touch; a touch remembered - many weeks back now - a touch that thrilled and repulsed in one. The memory of Baralis' hand upon her spine. Curious how the mind weaves its associations, sometimes weaving with unlooked for irony. Two men, both with more than muscle to lend them strength.
Melli wondered if she had offended Jack by withdrawing her hand. She couldn't tell. He was so difficult to read, and the time they'd spent together had only made him more so. She couldn't begin to guess what he thought of her. That he cared for her safety was the only thing she knew for certain. The force with which he had pushed her away from the two men was proof of that.
Still, what did he think of her? A court lady, daughter of Lord Maybor. A noblewoman standing next to a baker's apprentice.
Sometimes Jack was tormented in his sleep. With eyes closed and face slick with sweat he would flay restlessly on his bedroll, calling words she seldom caught the meaning of. Just over two weeks back, within the shelter of an evergreen wood he'd had his worst night of all.
Melli had awoken, she knew not why. It was one of those rare nights were the wind had ceased and the cold stopped biting. Instinctively she looked over to Jack. She could tell right away he was having a nightmare. His cheeks were hollow and the tendons on his neck were raised and taut. He became agitated, pushing his cloak and blanket from his body. "No!" he murmured. "No."
Melli sat up, deciding she would go over and wake him. Before she could stand a chilling sound broke the silence of the wood.
"Stop!" cried Jack.
With that cry, the nature of the night and the universe seemed to change. It become more vivid, more intimate and then more terrible. The torment and the sense of urgency conveyed in that one word, made Melli's blood run cold. Jack was silent once more and drifted into a more restful sleep. No such sleep for her that night. The moonlight had withdrawn upon Jack's call and now came the darkness. Melli lay awake through the artificial stillness of the night, afraid that if she fell asleep and then woke in the morning, the world might have changed whilst she slept.
She shuddered and brought her cloak close. Jack was back in his corner, slicing the wet bark from the logs. The hut was too small to have a fire, and with the shutters closed there would be no ventilation, but he prepared one anyway. He didn't like to be idle.
Melli unplugged the knot-hole for the tenth time that day. She told herself it was to check on the progress of the storm. But the storm was coming from the east and Melli's gaze was to the west. Almost blinded by the whiteness, Melli searched for movement from the direction where the second man had headed.
Tavalisk lifted the cloth from the cheese and inhaled deeply. Perfect. Amateurs might first check the look of the cheese, seeing if the blue veining was substantial but still delicate. He knew better. It was the smell that told one all one needed to know. Blue cheese should have no mincing, milk maid odor. No, this most regal of cheeses should smell like a king. Preferably a dead one. Unfortunately not everyone appreciated the smell of delicate decay wrought by the millions of spores that burrowed their way through the virgin cheese.
Yes, mused the archbishop, the smell was everything. Sharp, tantalizing, challenging, never subtle. It should rise to one's nostrils like a whip to the back: unwanted at first, and then, as one grows accustomed to its particular pleasures, welcomed for all the delights it could bestow.
Tavalisk was a surgeon at his table as he cut into the cheese. With his little silver knife he freed himself a sizable wedge. Once its outside was breached the odor from the cheese became even more intense. It was almost dizzying. The archbishop was, at such times, as close to religious ecstasy as he was ever likely to get.
A knock sounded upon the door.
"Enter, Gamil." Tavalisk now found that he could tell which of his various aides were awaiting his pleasure just by the sound of their knocking. Needless to say Gamil had the most annoying knock of all: timid and impatient in one.
"Good day to Your Eminence," offered Gamil, a little less humbly than usual.
"What news this day, Gamil?" Tavalisk did not deign to turn from his cheese.
"Your Eminence will be most interested in the news I bring. Most interested indeed."
"Gamil, your job is merely to keep me informed. My job is to decide what is interesting." Tavalisk raised the crumbly cheese to his mouth. The sour taste of the mold met his palette. "Come now, Gamil, out with it. Stop sulking like a maiden with no new dress to wear at the dance."
"Well, Your Eminence, do you remember the knight?"
"What night? Was it moonlit or overcast?" The archbishop was beginning to enjoy himself.
"No, Your Eminence. The Knight of Valdis, Tawl."
"Oh, you mean the knight. Why didn't you say so in the first place? Of course I remember the knight. Handsome chap. No liking for the whip, though, if I remember correctly." Tavalisk was contemplating feeding his cat some of the cheese.
"Does Your Eminence remember we were having him followed as he made his way north?"
"Do you think me a toothless dotard! I most certainly remember. There is nothing," the archbishop showed his teeth, "nothing, you hear, that I ever forget. You would do well to remember that, Gamil."
"Please accept my apologies, Your Eminence."
Tavalisk could not resist. "I will accept your apologies, but I won't forget your impertinence." He cut a portion of cheese and held it out to his cat. The creature took one sniff and then beat a hasty retreat. "Carry on with your news, Gamil."
"Well, as you suspected, the knight was headed to Bevlin's cottage."
"Do we know what transpired in that meeting?" Tavalisk was now crouched down by the base of the couch, trying to tempt his cat to eat the cheese.
"We do now, Your Eminence. One of our spies made haste back to the city just to tell us."
"He came himself? This is most unusual. Why could he not send a messenger?" The archbishop had now caught the cat by its neck and was trying to force the cheese into its mouth.
"He deemed the news so monumental, Your Eminence, that he could not risk sharing it with another."
"Hoping for a promotion, is he?"
"I think when Your Eminence finally hears what I have to say," a touch of frustration could be heard in Gamil's voice, "that you might indeed wish to reward the man in some small way."
"Oh might I? What news could this possibly be? Has Tyren been struck by lightening? Has Kesmont risen from the dead? Or has the knight himself turned out to be Borc incarnate?"
"No, Your Eminence. Bevlin is dead."
Tavalisk released his hold on the cat. He stood up slowly, his weight almost too great to bear. In silence he walked to his desk. Selecting the finest brandy that waited there, he poured himself a brimming glass. It did not occur to him to offer Gamil a cup. Only after he had taken a deep draught of the potent liqueur did he speak.
"Are you sure of what you say? How reliable is this man?"
"The spy in question has worked for you for over ten years, Your Eminence. His loyalty and professionalism are beyond repute."
"How did Bevlin die?"
"Well, our spy turned up at Bevlin's cottage in the early hours of the morning. He looked in through the window and saw the wiseman dead on the bench. Stabbed in the heart. Anyway, he watched and waited, keeping a low profile, and then our knight came into the room. He found the dead body, and then went over the barrel, as they say."
"Over the barrel?"
"Lost his senses, Your Eminence. According to our man, the knight crouched there with the dead man in his arms for over four hours - rocking him back and forth like a baby. Our spy was just about to leave, when the young low-life who was traveling with the knight came in the room. The boy helped him up and so forth, but then, as soon as he left the knight alone for a minute, the knight was off: galloping into the sunset. The next day, having buried the body and secured the cottage, the boy followed him west. Our spy then made haste to Rorn."
"Who killed the wiseman?"
"That's the strange thing, Your Eminence. Our spy had been watching the cottage from a distance all night. No one came or went after the knight and his boy arrived."
"Our man didn't see the murder?"
"Alas, Your Eminence, even spies must sleep."
The archbishop rimmed his glass with his finger. The smell of cheese which was being wafted his way due to an open window, was for the moment distasteful to him. He covered the blue-veined round with the cloth, damping the odor.
"So, Gamil, are you saying it was the knight who did this?"
"Yes and no, Your Eminence."
"Meaning that his hand might have been upon the blade, but his actions were not his own. His distress when he found the body must attest to the fact that he was an unwilling accomplice."
"Larn." Tavalisk spoke quietly, more to himself than Gamil. "Larn. The knight was there less than two months back. The elders of that island have long had their own agendas, and the most ingenious ways of carrying them out." The archbishop mustered his lips to a plump parody of a smile. "Bevlin has finally paid the price for his interference."
"Larn bears a long grudge, Your Eminence."
"Hmm, you've got to admire them for that." Tavalisk settled back in his chair. "Still, it seems a rather vindictive act. I can't help thinking that there is more to this meal than flavor alone."
"How so, Your Eminence?"
"Larn knows too much for its own good. Thanks to those damned seers, it has a decidedly unfair advantage when it comes to gleaning intelligence. I think that doddering old fool Bevlin was up to something they didn't like."
"If you are right, Your Eminence, then perhaps the knight has some inkling of Bevlin's intent."
Tavalisk nodded slowly. "Are we still tracking him?"
"Yes, Your Eminence. I expect to know in a day or two where he was headed. Bren seems the most likely of places at the moment. If he is there, our spies there will keep us informed of his actions."
"Very good. You may go now. I have much think on." The archbishop poured himself another glass of brandy. Just as his aide reached the door, he called him back. "Before you dash off, Gamil, could you do me one small favor?"
"Certainly, Your Eminence."
"Close all the windows and build me a fire. I am chill despite the sun." Tavalisk watched as his aide went about piling logs upon the hearth. "No, no, Gamil. That won't do. You must first strip the logs of their bark. I know it will be time consuming, but there's no point doing a task if you're not prepared to do it properly."
Baralis was amongst the last to crest the rise. What little protection the slope of the hill had afforded was snatched away, and the north wind cut deep once more. Absently, he massaged his gloved fingers at the reins. This journey was yet another toll upon them. The frost had worked its insidious trade upon his joints, robbing him of precious mobility. It seemed that his hands always paid the highest price for his actions.
His position on top of the bluff did offer some conciliation for the discomfort of the wind. It gave him a clear view downward of the whole of the column. He spied Maybor immediately. No drab travelers clothes for him. Even on a long and hazardous journey like this, the portly lord still insisted in being decked out like a peacock. Baralis tasted bile in his mouth. He was not one to spit it out, so he let it run its course upon his tongue, burning the tender flesh. How he hated that man!
He scanned the lay of the land. There were rocks beneath the snow; their jagged edges biting through the white. The down slope was more treacherous than the rise. The path twisted and dipped to accommodate the disorder of the rocks. Baralis could see that the men ahead were picking their paths carefully.
The time was right. Maybor was still only half way down the slope. A fall from his horse at such a place, amongst a setting of rocks and sudden drops, would surely lead to death. The man's thick and hoary neck would snap like tinderwood when it hit the cold hard earth.
Baralis checked his own path. There would be a short time when he would be in danger too. Such a drawing as he would perform required great concentration, and so he might need some extra guidance for his horse.
He looked to his flank. Crope was there, sitting miserably on a huge war horse, hood pulled forward for concealment not warmth. Baralis knew his servant was hating every minute of this journey. He was shy of people, a natural wariness springing from the way he was usually treated by them. People were afraid of him when alone or in small groups. Once they had a safe number, however, they began to despise him. Even on this trip the taunting had begun. They called him "the stupid giant" and "scar features". Baralis would have enjoyed burning the skin from their cowardly backs -no one demeaned anything of his - but now was not the time to use indiscreet force.
Now was the time for discreet force. He beckoned Crope forth and the huge man drew close. Baralis motioned to his reins and his servant took them. Not a word was said, not a question asked. They were at the rear with only the pack horses to tell of what transpired.
Once confident that Crope was in charge of his mount, Baralis felt safe to work his drawing. His sights found Maybor and then dropped lower to the man's horse. A beautiful stallion in its prime.
Baralis reached deep within himself. The power, so familiar, yet so intoxicating, flared up to meet him. He felt a wave of nausea followed by the unbearable sense of loss as he forsook himself. The sour tang of horse sweat met his nostrils. Gone at last was the chill of the wind. He knew only warmth.
Pulsing, all-enclosing warmth. Through hair and skin and fat, through muscle and grizzle and bone. Speed was of the essence: danger awaited those who lingered too long in a beast. Quickly he bypassed the belly and all its beguiling intricacies. Up toward the core. He felt the mighty press of the lungs, and fought against their powerful suction. The heart beckoned him forth using its rhythm as a lure. The rest of the body danced to its beat.
Bounded by muscle, snarled with tubes, terrifying in its strength: the heart.
He fell into the pulse of its contractions, became one with the ebb and the flow. Into the hollow he went. A frightening rush of blood and pressure rose to meet him. Through the caverns he traveled, along the channels he sped, until he eventually reached the last. The beginning of the cycle. He found what he came for: a stretch of sinew as tough as old leather, yet thinner, so much thinner, than silk. The valve. He reached out, encircling it with his will. And then rent forth.
Back he snapped like a sapling in a gale. It was so cold and pale, and finally so dark. He tasted the bitter residue of sorcery in his mouth, and then he knew no more.
Maybor was well satisfied with the way things were progressing. He was at the head of eight score of men counting the attendants, and if he did say so himself, their loyalty - bar only two - was unquestioningly with him.
He saw the respect in the men's eyes, and noted their deference to him in all matters. It was just how it should be, after all he did hold superior rank. He noticed the way the men admired everything from his judgment to his fineness of dress. Not for him a dull traveler's gray. No. He was a great lord and it was fitting that he look the part at all times. Who could guess when they might chance upon someone in this white wilderness whom he might need to impress?
Traveling had definite drawbacks, though. The wind was a devil, and he was quite sure it was blowing the very hair from his scalp. He'd awoken several mornings to find hair on his pillow. The thought of going bald terrified Maybor and, deciding that it was indeed the fault of the wind, he had taken to wearing a large, furry bear-skin hat as protection. At first he had been a little worried about how he might look to his men in such a girlish thing as a hat. But now he'd decided that he looked like a legendary invader from beyond the Northern Ranges, and fancied that it added to his mystique.
Borc! but he needed a woman. Three weeks celibate! It was enough to drive a lesser man to perversion. Not him, though. If he couldn't have a woman then he preferred to drink himself into oblivion each night. Unfortunately oblivion had its price. His head felt dull and heavy from too much ale, and he had to concentrate to sit his stallion in the manner that befitted a lord.
To add to his troubles the path they were traveling was steep and treacherous. He hated riding downward. He preferred not to see the perils, just to take them blindly. However the way was so twisting and precarious that he was forced to bend all his concentration to the task in hand.
They had just come upon a particularly hazardous trail and were forced to ride one man at a time, when Maybor felt his horse grow skittish. He pulled hard on the reins. This was not the time for the creature to misbehave. He advanced a few feet further and then he felt the stallion tremble and lurch. The creature flayed its head and tried to buck the lord from his back. Maybor was having none of this and pulled on the reins with all his might. The horse became frantic and broke into a gallop. Maybor could feel the wild pounding of its heart beneath his thighs. Down the path it sprinted, forcing two other riders out of its way. Maybor was becoming scared. He held on as the horse picked up speed.
Then, suddenly, in a scintilla of an instant, the horse dropped beneath him. Maybor was flung forward by the force of his own momentum. He flew through the air and then down the hillside. His body was thrown against rocks and stones. Pain burst into his leg and back. Downward he careened towards a sheer drop.
He saw it coming and knew what it meant. He sped toward his end with a prayer on his lips. Then he hit a rounded boulder. The rock bounced him like a ball and altered his course. Instead of the drop, he landed, crash, in the middle of a growth of thorny bushes.
His head was reeling, his leg splitting with pain. Thorns bit into his flesh, perilously close to his vitals.
Then the men were upon him, helping him up and fussing and squawking. "Lord Maybor are you all right?" said one sap-faced boy.
"Of course I'm not all right, you fool! I've just been hurled down a hillside!" And then, as two others tried to pull him up, "Careful, you idiots. I am not a wish-bone to be pulled."
"Is anything broken, my lord?" ventured one of his captains.
"How in Borc's name would I know if anything is broken? Get me the surgeon."
The captain conferred with a junior for a moment. "The surgeon is awaiting your pleasure where the ground is more stable."
"You mean he is too lilly-livered to risk his neck by coming down here." Maybor slapped hard at the man who was trying to free his leg from the bush. "Tell the good surgeon that if he doesn't get down here this instant, I will personally perform on him the only operation I know how to: castration!" Maybor made sure his last word had enough strength to carry up the hillside.
Eventually he was freed from the bush and placed on a litter. Two soldiers carried him back to the path. The party had halted and tents were being raised. The first tent up was the surgeon's and Maybor was duly ushered in.
"So tell me, physician. Are there any bones a'broken?" Maybor was in considerable pain but was not about to betray that fact to anyone else.
"Well, my lord, these things are hard to ascertain-"
"All you damned physicians are the same," interrupted Maybor. "Mincing around the facts. Never committing yourselves to anything more than a maybe. Aagh!" The last syllable was uttered as the surgeon removed a long spiky thorn from the lord's posterior. Maybor looked around in time to see a smug expression quickly concealed. "Are they all out, then?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Are you quite sure you wouldn't like a conference to confirm that. It sounded suspiciously like a straight answer to me."
The surgeon was impervious to Maybor's sarcasm. "Perhaps my lord might like to try and stand?" He helped Maybor to his feet, where, to the lord's astonishment, he found he could walk.
"It is as I thought," said the physician. "No bones broken." Maybor was about to point out to the man that he had thought no such thing, when the physician thrust a cup of foul-smelling liquid into his hand.
"Here, drink this," he said.
Maybor downed the concoction in one. It tasted just like his first wife's holk; fishy and lacking the sting of a decent drink. He yawned. "What's this foul brew good for?"
"It's a sleeping draft. It'll make you drowsy in no time." Maybor felt his lids growing heavy. Suddenly worried, he hobbled back to the stretcher. Laying himself down he said, "Am I that bad that I need to sleep like an old man on his deathbed?" Maybor's eyes began to close of their own accord. Just as he fell into a warm dark trance he could have sworn he heard the physician reply: "No, you'll survive either way. But with this method I'll get some peace."