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Stormed Fortress, Page 2

Janny Wurts

  Summer 5671


  Binding Ties

  Alestron the Bull whipped Adruin at darts. Kalesh slipped behind with a knife in the dark. Atwood’s secure, but East Halla’s at war, and the widows are ever in mourning.– From an eastshore water-front lay, Third Age

  On the night that the portents had named to the elders, stars blazed in white splendour over the obsidian sands of Sanpashir. Their icy light flooded the vista in mercury, knifed with black shade where the ruin cast shadow over a landscape of crumpled dunes. As the signs had bespoken, when the hour foretold by the seers became manifest, the laid pattern of the Paravian stone circle did not arouse to harness the raw powers of the elements. Lane forces did not waken. The indigo coils of starred light did not bloom, as they would for the workings of Sorcerers.

  Where nothing had been but barren stone and the trackless waste of bare sand, the figure of the man just arrived seemed to shimmer, then settle into firm form. Naked, he sprawled as though asleep at the grand junction of the ancient focus.

  His appearance summoned the tribesfolk who lurked, alert and waiting amid the cragged ruin. They sang. Soft chanting that whispered under the starlight: of a hope renewed, promised to them for millennia. They moved out of cover, silently approached. Their seamed hands were gentle as they gathered him up and wrapped his chilled frame in rough blankets. His skin was not marked, except by old scars. Yet the rifts that he bore in the weave of his aura ran deeper than flesh, bone, and blood.

  ‘Keir’ve arish,’ the oldest cautioned in dialect. ‘Take him most softly.’ She pressed forward, brushed back the man’s tangled, black hair, and touched a crabbed finger to still the lips that quivered as though to cry out from a nightmare memory of an unbearable agony. ‘The shock to his life-force has been deep and harsh. He must not arouse through our handling.’

  Such damage demanded their vigilant care. Many hands lent assistance. Attentive to need, swift and silent, the desert-folk lifted his form, without jostling.

  Respectful, they bore him on, past the looming, brick walls of the ruin. Through the cracked, weathered arches that marked the east gate, they turned their steps towards the dawn and made their way into the desert.

  The path they walked held no sign-post. Shifting, dark sands erased all past traces of the ancestor’s steadfast footprints. Here, guidance lay in the notes of the stars, heard by the ears of their wisest old man. Staff in hand, with slow steps, he led the company bearing the litter.

  Yet before they reached the rock outcrops and the spring that promised them shelter and ease, the crone in their midst raised her palm and charged the procession to stop. ‘I will require eight dartmen to serve. For there is another. Before night is done, a traveller will set foot on our shores from the decks of a ship bearing in from the west.’ To the chosen handful of warriors, she pointed the way, and declared, ‘I name him as our guest. Fetch him back.’

  The waves crashing onto the black shingle at Sanpashir’s cliff head had a muttering voice all their own. From the decks of the Sunwheel Alliance’s flagship, under the ghostly flutter of the gold-blazoned banners, Sulfin Evend watched the white spume jet up and subside, bright and brief as the sparkle of diamond. Sable waters reflected the brilliance of stars, small light to his dark apprehension. This brooding shore-line of rock was a desolate destination. Only adamant use of his superior rank had brought the state galley to anchor. This territory was proscribed, demarked as free wilds, and no town-born man’s place to trespass. Even the lord who held the command of the Alliance of Light’s amassed war host should shun the prospect of landing.

  Sulfin Evend took no comfort from the disciplined industry of the deck-crew, launching off the small tender at his insistence. His charge to leave the safe decks of the galley and pursue the unknown course of a promise was unlikely to settle his wracked peace of mind. He could scarcely stem the dread course of the future. Yet the hand-wringing nerves of his subordinate troop captain failed to unseat his resolve.

  ‘Why should you do this?’ Gold braid and Sunwheel surcoat reduced to pin-prick glints under starlight, the kindly man tried one last time to dissuade his conflicted Lord Commander. ‘The desert tribes are not lenient with strangers. They poison the barbed points on their weapons.’

  Sulfin Evend breathed in the sea air, freighted with blown salt and the rock-scented dew swept off the crags of the headland. ‘Because the cause that we serve is grievously flawed. I cannot engage Lysaer’s orders to recruit, or bear the Alliance standard to assault the s’Brydion citadel. Not before doing all in my power to secure a defensive talisman against the wanton destruction posed by Desh-thiere’s curse.’

  ‘Such strength and courage may not save your skin,’ the galley’s master broke in from the side-lines. Experience backed up his claim, that no task in this wasteland should ever be tried, even for dire necessity.

  ‘What is my life, if not the desire to stand true at the side of a friend who’s endangered?’ Sulfin Evend shrugged under the weight of a mail shirt that offered haphazard protection from darts. ‘Best I die here than fight at Alestron, leading a force of deluded fanatics blinded by Light, with no heart.’ Beyond any words, the thought never spoken: the memory of Lysaer’s private anguish, turned into a pillow to silence an onslaught of weeping fit to tear spirit from flesh. The stamp of the Mistwraith’s design on such greatness was a sorrow not to be borne.

  The davits squealed, and the tender struck the face of the sea with a splash that slapped wavelets against the state galley. Its crew of four oarsmen scrambled down the side battens. The coxswain assumed his post in the bow and pronounced the craft ready to board.

  Since danger was unlikely to change the granite set to the Lord Commander’s intent, the galley’s master stepped back, his face creased with concern under the glow of the deck-lamp. ‘Fare safely, then, and may the Light’s blessing guard you until your return.’

  Sulfin Evend snapped off a nod, then strode to embrace the poised jaws of his fate.

  Settled in the boat, he claimed a seat in the stern, where his anxious, hatchet-nosed equerry awaited, clutching his hobnailed boots. ‘I’ve brought your cloak,’ the servant added with diffidence. ‘The night wind has a bite.’

  The Light’s Lord Commander clapped the man’s shoulder as thanks, while the reluctant rowers threaded their looms into the rowlocks, and slashed into black water with the launching stroke. The prow of the boat knifed into the darkness, towards the restless thread of cream surf and the stark shore of Sanpashir.

  A landing through snags of rock and tumbling breakers taxed the seamanship of the men, accustomed to harbour-side docks, and the light chop behind sheltered jetties. When the craft reached the strand, the keel jarred against the obsidian sands, tossed like a chip in a mill-race. Sulfin Evend leaped the thwart, boots clutched to his chest, his cloak left behind in the white-knuckled grasp of the servant. Soaked to the waist, and buffeted by cold combers necklaced with foam, he helped steady the boat, shouting against the thundering waves that he would require no escort.

  Since the craft would upset if the men stalled for argument, the coxswain shrilled orders for the oarsmen to change seat and reverse stroke back to the flagship.

  Sulfin Evend strode free of the clawing surf. Barefoot and chilled, stumbling in the ebb currents, he stepped onto the wet sand under the vertical crags of the cliff head. Here, the clammy sea-breeze smelled of flint. The forbidding summit reared above, punch-cut against pre-dawn stars. Except for the wind and the tide, nothing spoke. The night of the dark moon cloaked the rock-face in secretive shadow. All civilized movement seemed far removed from this vista of primal wildness.

  Or so Sulfin Evend was wont to presume, until he arrived at the weathered rock above the shingle. He had little chance to stamp on his dry boots. A male warrior issued a challenge out of the night. His speech was in dialect, most likely a fierce demand that the stranger stand forth and declare himself.

  Sulfin Evend lost the last hope he
had to soften his moment of reckoning. Answer, and he would be tagged by his town-bred, Hanshire accent. Stand silent, or try to run, and his infringing presence must provoke a lethal reaction. Never mentioning the fact that his Alliance rank as Lysaer’s first commander, and his birth as the son of a mayor, marked him out as an enemy.

  ‘I come on a mission of peace,’ he announced, and gave nothing else but his name.

  No sound attended the flurry of movement arisen out of the shadows. Eight men stepped forth, clad in loose, desert robes, with blow-tubes and darts at the ready. Sulfin Evend’s blood ran chill at the sight. No routine patrol, this many warriors suggested the uncanny thought that his arrival had been expected.

  The man at the fore changed tongue and addressed him again, clipped as sparks hammered off hot steel. ‘Whom do you serve with your heart? Whose loyalty binds your body? Whose cause rules your mind?’

  Sulfin Evend clamped his jaw. A year ago, he could have given the query an honourable, direct answer. Then, his oath to Avenor and Lysaer had not yet been flawed by the shoals of moral conflict. His hesitation drew the eyes of the dartmen, measuring him with cruel calculation.

  Courage could not stem the blank well of his terror. Yet he answered with truth. ‘Heart, body, and mind, I’m blood-bound to the land though the ache of that weighs like a shackle.’

  The leading desertman arched his brows in surprise. ‘What would you give for release, then?’

  ‘No coin is left,’ Sulfin Evend replied. ‘None that won’t cost me my life, or far worse, the ruin of a friend who’s endangered.’

  Again, the ring of robed dartmen advanced, the one at the forefront closest of all. The dusky features under his hood held a scouring intensity that might read a man’s very thoughts through his skin. ‘Sacrifice brings you to Sanpashir’s free wilds?’

  The sorrow welled up, then, too fierce to deny. Sulfin Evend shook his head. ‘No. Concerning a pledge to a Fellowship Sorcerer, I have come to your tribe to consult.’

  If that startling statement was greeted by murmurs, the lead dartman’s gesture restored his warriors to formal silence. ‘Your friend,’ he said carefully. ‘He needs no defence. Not if he still lives, and so has the power of choice.’

  Sulfin Evend disclosed the unsavoury fact. ‘He is cursed. A vile binding that clouds his sight and warps his nature until he cannot know how much his will has been compromised. I have given my pledge to stand guard for him, and for that claimed burden, I place my appeal.’

  The lead dartman bowed his mantled head. ‘By your will, then, disarm. All your weapons. You will also strip off every item you own that is not woven or braided from sun-ripened fibre.’

  At Sulfin Evend’s stiff resistance, the lead dartman smiled, a flash of white teeth in the gloom. ‘This is our way, town-bred! You are advised. One chance is given to respect our customs and stand on the truth that has brought you. Do you merit?’

  Sulfin Evend shot back his most cynical smile. ‘Surrender, or else I’ll be taken?’

  The lead dartman bridled. ‘Did you think the least step of your path is not known? Our eldest has Seen you! Your trespasser’s foot on our shores bears a portent, locked tight in the wheels of destiny. You will come, town-bred man. Though how you embrace the fate that awaits you as yet remains to be written.’

  Sulfin Evend caught back his self-deprecative laughter. Had he wished to turn back, the moment was forfeit, gone with his past consent to a Sorcerer’s knife cut. He had no option but to lift off his helm, doff his belt and surcoat, shed his coat of mail, then peel off his laced leather gambeson. Stripped to his linen shirt and soaked breeches, and still braving the cruel rocks, barefoot, he unhooked the thong that secured the wrapped bundle that hung at his neck. The sheathed knife inside should not be left with the other steel weapons abandoned to rust on the beachhead.

  He extended the wrapped dagger. ‘This blade is flint, and not fashioned for killing. The deer-hide still shrouds it, as it was entrusted to me by the woman who made me its bearer.’

  The lead dartman stepped forward, a wraith in jet robes. Backed by his tense dartmen, he lifted lean hands. His clasp, light and warm, briefly caged the slim bundle, overtop of the townsman’s cold fingers.

  ‘Feiyd eth sa!’ he snapped to his dartmen, in dialect. The inflection sounded amazed. Then he tipped his head, perhaps with respect. ‘I will take charge of this knife, town-bred man. It will be unveiled, and its purpose made known to you if you come to win the petition you’ve asked for.’

  Upon his signal, the robed dartmen closed in. They offered no word, no grace of assurance. Sulfin Evend found his hands strapped at the wrists. A blindfold obscured his vision. Then an impatient prod urged his stumbling, first step into an unknown future.

  The same stars that wheeled above Sanpashir’s headland bathed wan light over the vista of waste, due east of the Paravian circle. The ruin’s gapped wall, with its forlorn tracery of carved arches, was not visible from the barren vale where the desert tribe’s elder signalled her people to pause. The litter-borne man was let down on black earth, his blanket-swathed frame aligned to the north.

  ‘Softly, now. His deep shock will release, soon.’ The wise crone who spoke as the voice of the tribe settled herself on the ground at the crown of the unconscious one’s head.

  Stillness reigned then, while the night sky revolved around the pole star that glimmered at its fixed axis. The dark moon passed nadir, reversed its fierce grip, and gave way at last to the hush that preceded the dawn. At that hour, the life tide that swept through land and air breathed through all things on Athera. First herald of the paean that came with the sunrise, its current was acknowledged by the circle of male elders, also seated in cross-legged stillness.

  To their listening presence, the subtle quickening recharged the nerves like a sweet flare of lightning. The wounded survivor tucked in the blankets would not be overlooked by that benison. In thanksgiving for all things that lived, the ancient woman raised her voice and sang welcome, eyes trained upon the man at her knees as though his limp flesh held the flame of a lamp indescribably precious …

  Arithon Teir’s’Ffalenn recovered the full range of his senses one disparate strand at a time. The alkaline tang of dry mineral came first: the unmistakable, signature scent of the wind hissing over the bleak sands of Sanpashir. With sound came the lilt of an old woman’s voice, crooning over his head. His limbs were kept warm by a rough, goat-hair blanket that bristled his sensitized skin. That discomfort lost meaning, undone by the joy that moved through the song. Though the crone’s aged tone held a rasping quaver, her wise intent showered his mage-sense in glittering waves of sweet harmony.

  Terror lurked outside, a drowning, black fear held at bay by the singer’s lines of protection: the agonized memory, not formless! of bone knives and un natural, dark seals wrought to seed dire torment and ensnare the spirit at the threshold of death.

  Arithon loosed a shuddering sigh and wept through a flood of relief: first for the clean air that entered his lungs, then for the gift of mage-guided company.

  He responded in thanks with his eyes shut. ‘Mother Dark’s blessing. Increase to the tribes, for your kindness.’

  The grandame’s evocative melody ceased. Not her warding, which shimmered still, an ephemeral embrace wrought from moving light that laced her guest’s form in sealed quiet.

  ‘What can a destitute teidwar return?’ said Arithon Teir’s’Ffalenn, quite undone by the piercing tenderness of her insight. The word he had chosen was in deep desert dialect, meaning ‘outland, strange person, who fares through another’s place, kinless.’

  Clothing rustled, to movement. His benefactress laid her tender hand on the blanket. Even that brief instant of pressure over his heart caused a flinch.

  Her murmur held sympathy. ‘There, do you see? The scar remains, yet. Though your body has knitted, and the ritual cuts are closed over, the etheric mark you still bear is not healed. Lie calm. Here is safety. Nor are you teidwar. Spirit
who serves the true light, and this land, D’aedenthic himself has delivered you.’

  ‘Fire Hands?’ whispered Arithon in puzzled translation. The desert-folks’ habit of speech often wound through convoluted, layered meanings. Since given names rarely were spoken aloud, he guessed with a wry twist of irony, ‘Kewar’s Sorcerer. You know him? Then I must apologize. Given the choice, I would not have burdened your people with my infirmity.’

  The crone clicked her teeth. ‘We asked. Yes, harken! You are here because your distress is our provenance.’

  That direct claim shot Arithon’s eyes open. As refined vision darkened to sensory sight, he stared upward: into crinkled, brown features, framed in wind-tangled snags of white hair. The woman sat against the wide, lucent sky, tinted aqua by on-coming daybreak. Her fringed head-dress was patterned with the beautiful yarns the tribes spun from silk and dyed goat hair. The gaudy colours seemed fit to stun his uncertain grasp on recovery.

  ‘Your problem, old one?’ He searched her burled face. Respectful, as Masterbard, he chose to use her cultural phrasing for absolute clarity. ‘I don’t see how our lines cross. Therefore, I don’t understand.’

  She cackled, amused. Seamed fingers brushed his cheek like a child’s, while her patience chided his insolence. ‘Lines! They are ancient. Older than Biedar have lived on Athera. Mother Dark has shown us your name for that long. The winds speak your voice, at each birthing.’