THE GODS RETURN — snippet 35

This book should be appearing in the bookstores by now, so this will be the last snippet. Eric



THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 35



"Ah, your highness . . . ," said Lord Tadai, looking around the room in which Sharina had told him to meet her. "Wouldn’t we be more comfortable discussing this religious problem, ah, elsewhere?"


No, I wouldn’t, Sharina thought grimly. Obviously.


They were in the little chamber off the bedroom of her suite, intended for the maid or manservant who’d normally be attending a noble at night. There was only room for a cot, a wash stand with a chest of ease beneath it, and ordinarily a rack holding additional sheets and blankets for the main bedroom.


Sharina’d had the rack replaced by the chair in which she now sat; a cloak hung over the back of it. She gestured Tadai to one end of the cot and said, "We won’t be here long, milord," she said. "There’ll be a one more – ah, here he is. Master Dysart, close the door behind you, if you will."


Liane’s deputy seemed more like a coney than a mouse: plump, soft and timid. That can’t have been true – well, he was plump enough – but nonetheless Sharina felt a pang at Liane’s absence. Even though Dysart had to be competent to hold his position, she still missed her friend’s presence and advice.


"Before we proceed to the matter of Scorpion worship . . . ," Sharina said.


Dysart was still standing, though he’d pulled the door to. It was very quickly going to become close in this small chamber with three people and the flames of a two-wick oil lamp.


"Please sit, Master Dysart," Sharina snapped, gesturing to the other end of the bed. She had no right to be irritated with the man for being afraid to do the obvious without permission, but the night’s business had disturbed her.


She cleared her throat. "There’s another matter you need to know as my closest advisors," she said. "Master Burne, you may come out now. Master Burne helped me -"


The rat squirmed from behind a fold of the cloak. He rose to his hind legs, bowed, and hopped to Sharina’s lap. Both men kept blank expressions, but Lord Tadai had stiffened to leap up before he caught himself.


"A new pet, your highness?" he said in a neutral voice.


"Not exactly, milord," said Burne. "Though it’s probably better if most people think that’s what I am. Otherwise they’ll start whispering that the princess is a wizard herself, you know, and there’s no telling where that will end."


"By the Lady," Tadai said quietly.


"Master Dysart, do you have any comment?" Sharina asked, raising one eyebrow.


"I defer to your highness’ judgment," the spymaster said. He didn’t shrug, but there was a shrug in his tone. "If I might suggest one thing?"


"Just speak, Master Dysart," Sharina said, her voice again sharper than she’d intended. "We all want to get out of this closet as soon as we can."


"Yes, your highness," Dysart said, making a seated bow. "A gold chain or the like around the . . . around Master Burne’s neck might be useful to prevent an accident with your guards or the palace staff."


Sharina looked at the rat. "Oh, he’s right, I know that," Burne said disgustedly. "You wouldn’t believe the prejudice -"


He paused and wrinkled his whiskers. "Well, you probably would," he said. "And to tell the truth, I find my fellow rats a rather unsavory crew – though there are rough diamonds among them, I assure you, gentlemen. Still, I think a ribbon will be satisfactory, don’t you? Because chains chafe my fur. Yes, a nice ribbon of bleached linen will do admirably."


"Now that we’ve seen Master Burne," said Tadai with a flick of his perfect manicure, "perhaps we can remove to more a comfortable meeting place, your highness?"


"We’re here because I’m afraid of being overheard," Sharina said, "by scorpions. There are suddenly a lot of scorpions in Pandah -"


"Yes indeed," said Tadai. He might not have interrupted Princess Sharina at a formal council meeting, but she’d noticed that the prefect had a tendency, despite his formal politeness, to disregard things that a woman said. "That’s why I requested a meeting, your highness. The infestation of scorpions in concert with the new worship, that is."


"City Prefect Tadai," Sharina said in clipped syllables. "Will you please listen to me?"


Tadai’s face became very still. "Your highness," he murmured, dipping his head.


"Burne believes that the scorpions are communicating with one another," Sharina resumed. "Ordinarily if I wanted to speak to you without being overheard I’d go out in the middle of a park, but we couldn’t possibly avoid such small eavesdroppers there. It should be possible to keep this room clear for the time we’ll be here."


"I know they talk to each other," the rat said. "It’s arm signals, a regular little semaphore with their pincers, and they can see each other in what’s the dark to you or me. Now, though, they’re saying more than the usual, ‘This is my patch,’ or ‘I’m too big for you to eat.’"


He shook his head in disgust. "I’d say that scorpions didn’t have any more society than a pile of rocks does," he said, "but at least rocks don’t eat each other."


"Are you saying that scorpions are intelligent, Master Burne?" Dysart said. He carried a document file of heavy black leather, much like Liane’s collapsible travelling desk. Unlike his mistress, he kept the case locked while he was in conference.


"Them?" Burne jeered. "You could have a more intellectual conversation with the lamp up there."


His muzzle twitched toward the simple pottery appliance hanging beside the door. Because the suite’s wealthy occupant was never expected to look into this alcove, the lamp’s only decoration was a leaf pattern impressed around the filler hole on top.


"But whoever’s sending the beasts here must be pretty intelligent," he added.


"The same person who’s behind the scorpion worship, presumably," Tadai said. He raised an eyebrow in question. "There’ve been hundreds of people stung by the creatures in the past few weeks. That’s not serious -"


"Not serious?" Sharina said in amazement.


Tadai waved a hand. "Your highness, we must keep the matter in proportion," he said. "There’ve been that many knifings in the dives that the drovers and rivermen frequent. And soldiers, I’m afraid. For the most part a scorpion sting is merely unpleasant."


"Yes, your highness," said Dysart. He stretched out his right leg and pointed to a welt the size of a thumbnail just above the inside of his ankle. The swelling was red, but the center was dead white. "It’s numb, is all. Though I’d rather it hadn’t happened."


For an instant Dysart’s eyes rested on Burne, grooming the base of his tail. He continued, "We made a sweep of the offices after this happened and found seven more, but they keep creeping back in the nighttime."


"Is it possible that the priests of this new scorpion god control the scorpions themselves?" Tadai said, frowning in concentration. "That they have real power, in other words?"


"I think . . . ," Sharina said, pausing to consider how much to say. If Liane were here, she’d discuss her dreams fully; but though Sharina trusted these men’s ability, she didn’t care to disclose her secret fears to them. "I think that there’s someone or something beyond the priests. I think if we question a priest, though, we’ll get . . . closer to the source of the plague."


"Right," said Tadai, nodding agreement. "I’ll give orders to the city patrols to report to their district headquarters immediately if they see signs of another gathering, and for the watch officers to report to me."


"If I may suggest, your highness and milord?" Dysart said, running the tips of his pudgy fingers over the document case.


"Speak," Sharina said, this time with icy calm.


"Rather than the uniformed patrols, let my department locate the gathering," Dysart said. "If the Prefect would keep a strong body of his patrolmen ready to respond at once, I think we may have better results."


"What about the city garrison?" Sharina said. "Milord, you have four regiments, do you not? Have one company ready to move instantly with the rest of the regiment to follow in ten minutes."


"Yes," said Tadai, nodding and frowning. "Yes, a very good idea. I’ll have to talk with Lord Quernan, my military advisor, however. Though the city garrison is under my command, quite frankly I don’t know very much about soldiers."


"If I may suggest -" Sharina said.


Burne, crouching on her right thigh, snickered. She realized that she’d just used the form that Dysart had irritated her with.


"Of course, your highness," said Lord Tadai – of course. But the matter really was in his department, and Sharina didn’t want to seem to be acting arbitrarily.


"You might use Lord Baines’s regiment for the purpose," she said.


"If you have confidence in Lord Baines, that’s quite enough for me, your highness," Tadai said.


"I have nothing against Lord Baines," Sharina said with a wry smile, "but as I chance to know his Camp Marshals, men named Prester and Pont. They’d probably be in charge of a task like this, and I have a great deal of confidence in them."


"Then if we’re agreed on a plan . . .?" said Tadai.


Burne launched himself from Sharina’s lap to her shoulder, then sprang to the top of the closed door. His long chisel teeth clicked as he bounced back onto the bed between the two men.


Tadai started sideways. Dysart thrust his arm out to protect the rat, then withdrew it when he saw that Tadai hadn’t tried to strike.


Scorpion legs spurted from the edges of Burne’s mouth. "Scarcely a mouthful," he said, "but it could have sent word to whatever wants to know. I heard it on the top edge of the door, but I had to wait till it came out enough for me to snatch it."


Sharina rose to her feet. "Thank you, Master Burne," she said. "I’m going to be very pleased when we’ve found the source of this problem."


* * *


"You’ve become an exceptional horseman," Reise said in muted surprise as he and Garric trotted in the midst of the escort. They were within half a mile of Barca’s Hamlet, but only the tall slate roof of the millhouse was visible. Since the Change a pine forest covered what had been the Inner Sea east of Haft.


"Thank you," said Garric. Carus was almost as skilled a rider as he was a swordsman, and there’d been no better swordsman in the kingdom while he ruled it. "You’ve learned to ride well too."


His father chuckled. "I’ve known how to ride since before you were born," he said. "I was part of the entourage which accompanied the Countess. It wasn’t a skill I needed in Barca’s Hamlet."


"Ah," said Garric. In the borough where he grew up, plowmen followed oxen and the only horses were those on which a few drovers arrived during the Sheep Fair. He tended to forget that Reise’s life extended beyond being a father and the keeper of a rural inn.


"The difficulty wasn’t remembering how to ride," Reise said. He gave Garric a rueful smile. "It was in managing not to scream from the pain until my thighs got back in shape. Or as close to shape as is possible at my age."


Garric and Carus laughed together. "I’m familiar with the problem," Garric said. Carus provided a horseman’s instincts and techniques, but the ghost could do nothing to train muscles which weren’t used to gripping the flanks of a horse.


The leading troops of cavalry had ridden into the hamlet and were lining both sides of the only street. Attaper and the first section of Blood Eagles followed, their horseshoes clinking and sparkling on flagstones laid during the Old Kingdom.


"Duzi!" said Garric. He’d never seen the street when it wasn’t covered by a layer of dirt, save for the doorsteps of the more fastidious householders. "They’ve swept it!"


"Mucked it out, rather," Reise said proudly. "The prince is visiting them, you know."


There’d been changes at the mill; indeed, clay soil heaped to either side of a new channel showed that work was still going on. A tall man whom Garric didn’t recognize stood in front of the building at the head of his household: his wife holding an infant, three other children in ascending order of age, and a servant boy with the features of Arham or-Buss – a farmer from the north of the borough who raised more children than he did any other kind of crop.


The tall man took off his velvet cap – an Erdin style, like the short matching cape – and waved as he cheered. The whole household did the same, causing the startled infant to begin screaming.


"Mordrig or-Mostert," Reise murmured. "He’s the Sandrakkan merchant who bought the mill from Katchin’s widow. He had to convert it from tidal operation to a flume brought down from Pattern Creek now that Barca’s Hamlet isn’t on the sea any more."


There were more people in Barca’s Hamlet than Garric had ever seen before, even during Sheep Fairs and the Tithe Processions when priests from Carcosa dragged images of the Lady and the Shepherd on large carts through the hamlet. There were outsiders, the various sorts of entertainers who’re drawn to large gatherings the way flies find a fresh corpse, but mostly they were people from the borough and neighboring boroughs.


He recognized many faces, though not always with a name attached; but mostly he recognized the sort of folk they were. They were the same as Garric or-Reise had been, but he didn’t belong here any more.


"I didn’t expect all these people!" Garric said. It wasn’t that the crowd was huge in absolute terms: Valles and now Pandah had larger populations than the whole eastern coastline of Haft, and an address by the Prince brought out a good proportion of either city.


But it was too many for Barca’s Hamlet. They were overwhelming the eighteen years of Garric’s memories.


"You should have expected them," his father said quietly.


Garric wore his silvered breastplate, but the helmet with flaring gilt wings was miserably uncomfortable to ride in and unnecessary now, even though he was well ahead of the main body of the army. Instead he wore a lacquered straw hat with a wide brim – in the latest Valles style, he’d been told, but practical nonetheless. Hidden beneath the colorful straw, because he was the prince and Lord Attaper had insisted, was a leather-padded steel cap.


He didn’t want to uncover the armor by waving the straw hat to the crowd, so he waggled his right arm high instead. The saddle raised him as much as a dais would in a more formal setting.


"Fellow citizens of the kingdom!" Garric called. He doubted anybody but Reise and the closest Blood Eagles could hear him, because the crowd was screaming its collective heart out. The sound seemed thin, though: open air didn’t give the cheers the echoing majesty that he’d become used to in squares framed by high stone buildings.


Garric swept his arm down, hoping to cut off the shouting. "Fellow citizens of Haft!" he cried.


The gesture worked pretty well. When a few people decided they were supposed to stop cheering, those around them had an excuse to quit also. He wondered if everybody in the borough would be speaking in raw whispers tomorrow morning.


"Friends!" Garric said. "Not only because I see the faces of many who have been my friends since childhood, but because all those who stand firm against evil and chaos are my friends. My duties will carry me away soon – but please, since you are my friends and neighbors, give me a chance to visit the inn where I grew up. I’m not here for reasons of state: I’m here because Barca’s Hamlet was my home and is still the home of my heart!"


Garric thrust his arm skyward again; the cheers resumed as he’d hoped and expected. He clucked to his horse and gave it a touch of his left knee, turning it toward the gate arch of the inn.


He didn’t have to worry about the crowd respecting his privacy: the troops of his escort would make sure of that. Making it a matter of courtesy which the soldiers were merely enforcing was better policy than giving the impression of being an aloof brute, however. And as for claiming that Barca’s Hamlet was still home to him –


I lied to them, Garric thought bitterly.


The ghost of his ancestor shrugged. "Sometimes kings have to lie," Carus said. "I didn’t mind that – or mind killing people, to tell the truth – nearly as much as I minded sitting through arguments on tax policy. But sometimes kings have to do that too."


Laughing, Garric rode under the archway. There was room for two horsemen – or a coach, not that there’d been a coach in Barca’s Hamlet since the fall of the Old Kingdom – but Reise held his mount back for a moment to follow rather than accompany the prince.


Bressa Kalran’s-widow, who’d sold their poor farm when her husband died and supported herself – poorly – with spinning and whatever else she could find, and her son – he must be fifteen now; he’d gotten his growth since Garric left the hamlet – stood to either side of the well in the center of the yard. The boy bowed so deeply that his carrot-blond forelock almost brushed the ground. Bressa threw herself onto her knees and elbows gabbling, "Your highness! Your royal highness!"


"Get up, for Duzi’s sake!" Garric said. Shouted, rather; he was shocked and disgusted.


"Arise, Mistress Bressa," said Reise, swinging from his horse to lift the widow by the hands, politely but firmly. "You honor neither your prince nor your old neighbor Garric by this sort of antic. We’re free citizens of Haft, you and I and Prince Garric."


Bressa got up with a stunned expression. She dabbed her face with the kerchief pinned over her bosom, a poor woman’s alternative to an expensively embroidered outer tunic. "Begging your pardon, your highness, I’m sure," she said in a frightened whisper.


Of course Lara would need to hire help for the inn, Garric realized. She couldn’t run it by herself with Reise and both children gone. And where is-


His eyes went to the door of the inn. His mother stepped out as though she’d been listening to his thoughts. She was wearing a light gray tunic over a white one. Both were so well made that they might have been Ilna’s work were it not for the cloth-of-gold borders appliquéd at the throat, cuffs, and hems. Even so, they were excellent examples of peasant dress, not a peasant’s garish idea of what the nobility wore.


Lara lifted her skirts and dipped in a perfect curtsey. She didn’t raise her eyes or speak, because one didn’t do either of those things when greeting royalty. Lara knew the correct etiquette because she’d been maid to the Countess of Haft.


Garric dismounted. He – Garric or-Reise, not Carus – had first ridden a horse here in the innyard, a guest’s mount being exercised. He’d been bareback and used a rope halter. At the memory, he was eight years old again.


Lara was smaller than he remembered, a doll of a woman. Even after decades of work in a rural in, her face and figure would allow her to pass for a beauty at any distance at all. When she was younger . . . . Well, it wasn’t a surprise that the Count of Haft had found his way into her arms.


"Mother," he said, stepping toward her. Could it really have been only three years?


Lara looked up with an expression of anger and pain. "Pardon me, your highness," she said, "but I’m not your mother. Your father, Lord Reise, has made that abundantly clear to me!"


Garric looked at her for a long moment. No one who’d known Lara for even as much as a day would deny that she was a shrew: utterly focused on appearances and in lashing others with her barbed tongue until they did her will. Garric and his sister had been under her control for their first eighteen years, so they knew her personality better than most.


Reise had educated the children. He’d given them a wider and more sophisticated understanding of the world than they would have gotten if they’d been raised as royalty in Valles. And yet, and yet . . .


The ghost of King Carus had taught Garric many things about war and fighting, but he hadn’t had to give the boy a backbone. Garric had been a man before he became a prince, and he’d learned to be that from Lara, not Reise.


He stepped forward and put his arms around Lara. She was even smaller than she looked, as delicate as a bird.


"You’re the only mother I ever had," Garric said.


Still holding her, he stepped back so that their eyes could meet and continued, "Listen to me! When I was a boy, merchants coming to Barca’s Hamlet looked forward to the meals they’d have at the inn here. They were better than they’d get in Erdin or Carcosa or even Valles. I hope you can find food for a pair of hungry men today."


Lara didn’t move for a moment, her eyes glittering like sword points. At last she said, her voice wobbling with emotions Garric didn’t care to speculate on, "I’ve never turned away a hungry man with the price of a meal in his purse; and for the sake of the relation, there’ll be no charge to you."


"Right!" he said, kissing her on the cheek. He didn’t remember ever doing that before.


"But!" Lara said. "You’ve grown to a husky young fellow, so you can draw me some water so that I can wash up later."


Laughing, Garric strode into the inn to get the cauldron. Chickens scattered from before his boots.


"Kalmor?" he called to the red-haired boy, hoping he remembered his name correctly. "Water our horses and give them each a peck of oats. But don’t overfeed them, because we’ll be riding to the camp after what I expect to be the best meal I’ve had in three years!"


* * *


Ilna backed to the edge on her elbows and knees, then eased herself over carefully. She’d already dropped the free end into the cavern, so the rope wouldn’t rub at all if she avoided swinging.


She smiled wryly. It made no practical difference: she could scrape the linen against the soft limestone for the next three days and it’d still be strong enough to hold her. She just didn’t want to hurt a good rope more than she had to. She tried to be equally thoughtful toward her fellow human beings, but it didn’t come naturally to her.


Ingens’ worried face was the last thing Ilna saw before she let herself down into the open air. The lantern was dangling beneath her.


Ilna went down hand over hand rather than choosing a more complicated method that the short distance didn’t require. She could see the cave floor, a glitter of grave goods, as the lantern twisted back and forth on the length of silk. She didn’t see bodies or the remains of bodies, though, and the air smelled of mold but not corruption.


"Mistress, are you all right?" Ingens called.


"Yes, of course I am!" Ilna said, pausing her own height above the ground to make a real assessment of what was around her. "I see Hutton, I suppose. Is he wearing a gold robe?"


"Yes, cloth-of-gold," Brincisa said. "Do you see the box? It was tied to his chest."


The voices from above echoed off into the considerable distance. Ilna was certain she felt a current of air and thought there was a tang of salt in it.


"Wait," Ilna said. She pulled up the lantern, hooking a little finger over the loop, and handed herself down the rest of the way. At the last she twisted sideways to drop beside Hutton instead of on top of him.


She untied the lantern and turned slowly, surveying the cave. "Mistress Brincisa?" she called. "I see the box, but there are no more bodies here. This place hasn’t been used as a burial chamber."


"You’re wrong," the wizard said, "but that doesn’t matter. Untie the box and send it up as quickly as possible."


The corpse lay on its side. Hutton’s face was that of a sixty-year-old man; the features were cruel rather than merely ruthless. He’d worn a skullcap of cloth-of-gold like his robe and slippers, but it must’ve slipped off when the ropes that’d lowered him were jerked away. His hair was iron-gray and cut short.


As Brincisa had said, a box the size of a document case was tight against his chest. Hutton’s hands grasped it, but beneath them a filament as thin as spider silk tied it to his torso. Ilna moved the lantern carefully to every angle, shifting the corpse with her left hand.


The knots were amazingly subtle. How had this Hutton, however great a wizard, been able to tie them? Why, no human being could have reached behind himself to make some of –


Oh. Hutton hadn’t created this fabric of knots himself. Ilna could have tied them, and so might the Power Who had taught her to weave in Hell. She doubted that there was a third possibility.


Brincisa’s voice echoed down: "Are you going to be able to loose the casket?"


"Be silent!" Ilna said as her fingers began to undo the majestic detail.


Brincisa had said that Ilna wouldn’t like Hutton if she’d known him in life. Now that she knew who Hutton’s friends had been, she was more than ready to agree.


Brincisa must have been telling the truth about people being buried here. The bodies had vanished but all around were robes, jewelry, and weapons – the sorts of things people buried with the dead. The lantern glinted on a lavaliere of cloisonné and jewels; its thick gold chain had been raggedly cut.


The atmosphere had a silent chill, very different from the normal unpleasantness of rocks dripping lime water in a cave. Ilna supposed it was a result of Brincisa’s spell. It didn’t affect her, precisely, but she felt like she was moving in something thicker than air.


Ilna began to work. She smiled, remembering the secretary’s blithe offer to cut the box free. These knots bound far, far more than merely a wooden box. Some of what they controlled was harmless or even beneficial when properly treated, but even those aspects were dangerous if they weren’t respected.


And they were only part of the greater fabric with the box at its center. The remainder could blast the world and beyond the world if freed by the drag of a blade.


Mind, Ingens couldn’t possibly have cut the filament. Uniquely, Ilna didn’t know where the pale strand came from or what it was. All her fingers felt was sunlight, sweeping and dancing and flooding all things.


Nothing but pure light could have bound the powers gathered here; but the work had been done for an evil man, by a thing that was the soul of Evil.


Ilna was aware of that the same way she was aware that she was breathing in and out. None of it mattered now, because she had work to do.


Brincisa had been right to believe no one but Ilna herself could unknot this shimmering fabric. If she’d therefore arranged the earthquake that brought Ilna to Ortran, that too was a matter for another time.


The work came first. Nothing existed save the work. She was Ilna os-Kenset.


She undid the last knot and paused, breathing deeply. She felt a vast crackling: the universe, bound by the pattern she’d untied, had broken free like a creek at the spring thaw. The filament lay about her like the sun spilled on crystal. It shone brighter than the feeble lantern that should have been the only light down here.


"Mistress Ilna!" Brincisa called from above. "Have you succeeded? Tie the casket onto the end of the rope and I’ll bring it up."


The candle was little more than a smudge of wax. It wouldn’t have mattered if it had guttered out after Ilna began. Her eyes hadn’t – couldn’t have – guided her on a task like the one she’d just completed.


"Mistress Ilna!" the wizard repeated. "Answer me!"


Irritation brought Ilna out of the mood of soft accomplishment she’d been basking in. Well, softness was for other people.


"I’ll be up shortly," Ilna said. She deliberately didn’t raise her voice; that expressed her opinion of Brincisa daring to give her orders better than a shout would’ve done. "I assure you that I don’t want to stay down here longer than I have to."


She wished she had something to wet her throat. A pitcher of the bitters Reise brewed in his inn would be the best. It was one of the few things Ilna remembered about Barca’s Hamlet that had remained constant, utterly trustworthy. Even water would do, though.


Ilna smiled coldly. A moment to breathe would be sufficient. She was used to making do with what she had, rather than having the things she wanted.


"Just tie the casket onto the rope," Brincisa said. "You can do that, can’t you? Then I’ll let the rope down again. You can bring up some of the grave goods. There must be a king’s ransom accumulated over the years in the cavern."


Ilna frowned. Does Brincisa really think that I care about baubles?


Aloud she said, "I’ll bring the box up myself. It won’t be long."


She smelled decay. To her surprise, Hutton’s cheeks had fallen in and his eyes, gray and staring a moment ago, were covered by bluish fungus.


Something moved in the depths of the cave. Ilna heard a dull clicking, the sound stones made when weight made them slide against other stones. She’d loosed more than the box, it seemed.


"Send up the casket!" Brincisa said. "You mustn’t try to carry it. Send it at once!"


Ilna had started to tie the box with her silken rope the way she’d carried the lantern when she came down. Something shifted slightly inside; it wasn’t particularly heavy. She paused and looked up at the opening. "Master Ingens!" she called. "Ingens!"


"Mistress, I’m giving you a last chance!" Brincisa said. "Send up the casket alone. Otherwise you’ll stay down there and I’ll send one of my servants to fetch it at a later time."


"Nothing goes up until Master Ingens assures me that he’s standing by the rope and that it’s secure!" Ilna said. "I’ll bring the box up or it won’t come!"


Heavy footfalls thudded closer from the darkness. She wondered how deep the cave was and what lived in it.


The rope rustled down, flailing like an angry snake. Stone clacked above. Ilna didn’t recognize the sound until there was a second clack and a moment later something massive crunched, then settled. Brincisa had knocked the chocks out so that the roller returned to its resting position over the entrance.


A massive shadow lurched toward the lantern’s faint circle of light.




"Hail, Lord Archas!" the new recruits shouted raggedly. They were probably weak with relief not to have been executed. Or fed to the Worm, of course; they had to be thinking about that. "Hail, the Prince of the East!"


"By the Shepherd!" muttered Tam, Archas’ deputy, as he watched the Worm writhe through the ruins of the fallen city. He rubbed his scalp with the knuckles of his right – and only – hand while gripping his helmet in his fingers. "I tell you, Archas, I wish you’d send it away."


"Members of the Army of the East!" Archas said. "You’ve sworn obedience to me on your lives and souls. Don’t think those are just words! It won’t be some lady or shepherd in Cloudcuckooland waggling a finger at you if you foreswear me! Look and look well at what your oath means!"


He gestured toward the Worm with a curved sword. In his other hand was the talisman wrapped in golden hair, the tool by which he raised and – thus far – dismissed the monster on which his power rested.


A row of walls collapsed in powder. The Worm had destroyed the rear of those buildings as it squirmed through city previously, but Archas had learned it was best to let the creature completely raze the cities he loosed it on. Otherwise it resisted his efforts to send it back into the gray wasteland it had turned its homeworld into.


"Go with the captains I’ve given you!" Archas said. His voice boomed over the terrified recruits, about two hundred survivors from the ruin which was now being ground into the bedrock. "Obey their every command."


Women had been saved as well, the younger, prettier ones. No children, though.


"You’ll have wealth and power beyond your dreams, all the best of everything," Archas said. "But -"


He waggled the sword again.


"- never dare disobey me!"


The cities here on Charax had walls of brick instead of using stone over a rubble core like those of Telut. A furlong of wall – what was this city’s name? Archas wasn’t sure he’d ever heard – still stood, including one square tower. The Worm, moved by some impulse of its own, bent suddenly in a hairpin and advanced on the remaining section. Its circular maw pulsed open and closed. The creature’s body towered over the thirty-foot battlements.


"You can send it away, can’t you?" Tam asked uneasily. "Archas! Are you listening to me?"


"Of course I’m listening to you, Tam," Archas said with false good-humor. He bobbed the talisman in his left hand as if he were estimating its weight. "And of course I can send the Worm back. You’ve seen me do that a score of times already, haven’t you?"


It was easy to underestimate his one-armed deputy. Tam wasn’t smart, exactly; nobody would say that. But he was perceptive in a way few smart people ever were. In the old days he’d twice noticed plots against Captain Archas – and had quashed them with strokes of his axe before anybody else knew what was going on.


"I’m just giving a warning about what it means to try to fight us," Archas said. "It’ll be easier yet if they open their gates when we arrive, the way places had started to do by the end on Telut."


Tam sighed. "I suppose," he muttered. "I don’t like it, though. I’m no saint, Archas, but . . . ."


The last of the ramparts disappeared in a rumbling earthquake, partly crushed but also swallowed by the enormous mouth. Orange-red dust rose in a cloud that staggered forward like a line of cavalry advancing. It covered the foreparts of the creature that had worked the destruction, but hundreds of feet of gray horror continued to grind forward like an unending landslide.


"Even if they surrender, it’s all the same for most of them," Tam said. "You give the city to your, your thing. And all the ones who don’t join us. Who we don’t let join."


"Well, what do you care?" Archas shouted. "What did cities ever do for you, Tam? Why, if we’d tried to get in here a year ago, they’d have arrested us at the gate and likely hung us just for what we looked like!"


And he and his men sure wouldn’t have attacked a place like this, whatever its name was. Archas had never had more than six ships under his command – three hundred men, maybe; certainly not more. They’d have had as much chance trying to gnaw through these walls – the walls that the Worm had just finished destroying – as they would assaulting them.


Archas looked at the army he’d assembled in his march north, straggling across the landscape. There were several thousand men, now. Most were slaves and farm laborers who’d joined the band because the life was better than what they were used to. They weren’t very different from the pirates he’d commanded before the Change.


The men Archas had taken from captured or surrendered cities were generally soldiers who came with their weapons and knew how to use them. Despite how they feared the Worm they might’ve been dangerous to him if there’d been more of them, but he saw to it there weren’t.


The Army of the East had been attacked several times during its advance. Because it had proper scouts and flankers, only one of the ambushes had forced Archas to loose the Worm.


He hadn’t been sure the creature was going back to its own world that time. Hill tribesmen had attacked in a rocky gorge. They were after loot, not trying to halt the column, though by luck they’d swept down on the carriage in which Archas rode in state. He’d had to bring out the Worm to save himself, but there hadn’t been much for it to destroy once it’d devoured the mountaineers’ meager village.


The Worm had taken his orders at last, but he hadn’t been sure it would until the last moment. He’d allowed it to destroy the next city they reached, down to the last mouse and pebble. He hadn’t given the populace even a chance to surrender.


"I know, captain, I know," said Tam with a sigh. "I never thought I’d have all the wine and all the women I wanted, all the time. We’ve got it good, I know we have. Only . . . ."


He’d turned his eyes toward the women. There were more of them than the men by now and almost entirely captives from the cities. Not all whores, either: there were councillors’ wives and priests’ daughters. They’d volunteered after they learned the alternative, too, because Archas’ men didn’t need to bother with the unwilling.


Except for the men who liked a struggle, of course. The Army of the East had no few of those, but they generally discarded the women after they’d used them, picking out fresh companions when the next city fell.


"Look, Tam," Archas said. He was cajoling his deputy, but it was really his own heart that he was trying to convince. "They’re lucky we’re here, that’s the truth. If they waited for the rats to spread this far, you know what’d happen. They’d all be sacrificed, right? They’d ask us to capture them if they knew the truth."


There was nothing left of the walled city but a pall of dust which continued to churn as the Worm writhed through it. Archas held the talisman close. He’d use it shortly, but he needed to ready himself for what he knew would be a struggle.


"Have another drink," he said to Tam, offering the wineskin he’d slung over his left shoulder. It was almost empty, but there were others.


Tam tossed his helmet to the ground to free his hand. He took the skin and drank deeply. Gesturing toward the helmet with his toe, he said, "Wouldn’t be much use against that thing, would it? And there’s nothing else I’m worried about here."


"You!" Archas shouted to a man standing nearby, staring transfixed at the Worm’s continued progress. "Find some wine and bring it here. Now!"


Tam hadn’t needed to explain what "that thing" was.


"I just keep thinking . . . ," Tam said. He looked critically at the wineskin, then shook it; there was enough left to slosh. "Pretty soon the rats are going to swarm over the whole rest of the world, right? Everything’s going to be Palomir, except us. What’s going to happen then, captain?"


"Don’t worry about that, Tam," Archas said with a confidence he didn’t feel. "As soon as we take Dariada, everything’s going to change. Everything’ll be all right as soon as we do that!"


He touched his tongue with his lips. He was sure that things would change.


But he wasn’t sure that they’d be all right.




About Eric Flint

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