Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 2
Next: CHAPTER 4

Ere's that pesky bird!" Uwen exclaimed as a shadow passed them, and, indeed, Owl glided past, a petulant, difficult Owl, who had flown behind them and now was ahead, and off to the right hand again, off toward the hills, granting them only a brief sight of him.
So Tristen's own thoughts ranged out and abroad, following Owl for a time, searching the near woods. Owl was put out with him, perhaps, after he had refused Owl's leading, yet Owl still guided him, still spied out the territory ahead… Mauryl's, Tristen was convinced, a wisp of the Ynefel that had been, still bespelled and hard to catch and hold: direction, to urge him toward one purpose.
But he did not need Owl to move him forward, did not need Owl to extend his awareness in the world. He felt every small watcher and every bird aloft as if they brushed against him, and was reassured to feel that there was no hostile presence broken out in their immediate vicinity.
He thought he knew now where Cefwyn was, as the wedge of hills drove toward Ilefínian: he was to the east behind that stone barrier.
More, he knew where the enemy was, and knew with more and more certainty that the attack would come not at his magic-defended force… but at Cefwyn. If only Cefwyn would hold back and let him come at Ilefínian and deal with this threat as he could, but no, the Guelen lords must have their honor… and Cefwyn was deaf to magic as to wizardry, Cefwyn had sent away his one advisor who knew a wizard-sending when she heard it and knew when to regard what Uwen called premonitions. There might be others with minor gifts that might at least feel the currents of the gray space and mutter to their comrades in arms that they had this or that worry, but the question was whether their lords would believe… whether Cefwyn would if they brought their premonitions to him. It lent a Man a certain peace of mind, Tristen supposed, to ride through threats and terrors unhearing: it even lent a man a certain real protection, for he could not hear temptation and bad advice to be swayed by it, but it was no protection at all when power reached out with tangible results and brought down the lightning.
So it was his to make what speed his force could, without tents, the wagons left behind at the camp with a garrison of Imorim, Olmernmen, and a dozen Lanfarnesse rangers, men set to assure they had a bridge open if they needed to retreat. That was prudence, for the sake of the men he led, if matters went utterly wrong. Some might make it home.
But for the rest, down to the Imorim, even Umanon had resolved to bring his men along Ivanim-style, each man with his warhorse and his relief mount, his shieldman and packhorses, each man with his own supplies: beyond the habits of Guelenfolk: they came with only muted complaint, learning new ways, foraging in the meadows at their rests, making progress through woodland with their heavy horses and heavy armor faster than any heavy horse company had ever moved, so Umanon swore in his pride in them.
So Tristen rode, and so did Uwen, both of them armed after the Guelen fashion, in brigandine and plate. Dys and Cass, who were accustomed either to their paddocks or their exercises of war, were not accustomed to a long journey under saddle, and after their first burst of anticipation and high spirits, sulked along the brush-encroached road, the same as the Imorim horses. Owl's swooping appearances invariably drew a sharp lift of both massive heads, a flare of nostrils and a bunching of muscle, but Dys would give a disgruntled snort and Cass another, learning to disparage the sudden apparition out of the trees.
In the same way Crissand and his guard and the Amefin Guard, lighter-armed, rode sturdy crossbreds of Petelly's stamp, while the Ivanim light cavalry, near the rear, fretted at a far slower gait than their hot-blooded horses were accustomed to keep. With them, sore and swearing, rode Sovrag and his handful of house guard, armed with axes—intending to turn infantry the instant a fight was likely, and sore, limping at every rest: they endured, being no woodsmen, either, and accustomed to a deck underfoot, not an overgrown road, and not a saddle. The Lanfarnessemen, however, moved as they always did, which was to say no one saw them at all. Lord Pelumer, who rode a white horse among his light-mounted house guard, said they were both ahead and behind the column… out as far as the hills and as far south as the river and across it.
On that account no one, Pelumer swore, would surprise the column on the way, and because of them Tristen himself dared reach out a little farther than he might have dared: Pelumer's men were indeed within his awareness when he did so, furtive and quiet as the wild creatures of the woods, the badger and his like, who also knew their passage and themselves served as sentinels.
Their enemy waited, that was the impression he gathered, the breathlessness before storm, but to an unwary venturer there might appear nothing at all opposing them. And it hid something, he was not sure what: it hid something as Emuin could hide things, by creating a fuss elsewhere, by simply being silent.
That was the subtlety of what they faced: for as he apprehended now it was magic they faced, he could only think it was something like himself, whether cloaked in flesh or not… and increasingly, thinking of Orien's example, he asked himself how Hasufin had turned from Mauryl's student to Mauryl's bitter enemy.
He had met Hasufin. He had driven Hasufin in retreat, not without cost, but not so that he feared him in any second encounter. He had seen all his tricks, dismantled his wards, and of Hasufin he was not afraid.
Of what he had suspected in the Quinaltine… of that, he had been afraid.
Of what nameless fear had chased him through the mews, he had been afraid.
Of the wind at his windows, he had been afraid, the insidious Wind, against which he had warded the windows of the Zeide, as Mauryl had warded his, at Ynefel, warning him to be under the roof when darkness fell, when storm raged, when the wind blew.
It was not of rain and wind that a wizard of Mauryl's sort needed be afraid.
All along it had been something else whispering at night against the shutters.
And it was even possible Mauryl had not known what to call it, except as it turned Hasufin against him, and took his teachings and turned them, and took Hasufin's heart. Mauryl might not have known all he faced, but his remedy, to bring Galasien down, to bring down the Lines… and to invoke magic from the north…
More, to gain that help, which he did not think had come to everyone who sought it…
… to bring down the walls and the wards and the Lines, so that nothing of any great age persisted in the world… what did Mauryl think to do?
What were the faces in the walls of Ynefel but a sort of Shadow, bound to the Lines and the wards, protecting what became a fortress, from which Barrakketh had ruled… had redrawn its Lines, made them to stand against all its enemies… but not everything had Barrakketh redrawn. He had laid down the Lines of Althalen, built the Wall at Modeyneth.
But Men called the Quinaltine hill their own, and defended it, war after war, until a great fortress grew there, and all those Shadows went into the earth.
He drew a great breath. For a moment to his eyes he could see Ynefel as it had been. He could see the land as it had been when there was no Ylesuin and when Elwynor's name was Meliseriedd, and a chill breathed over his nape.
He led Men not all of whom were deaf: Cevulirn and Crissand were very close to him no matter where they rode, the one half their column distant and the other at his very knee, no difference at all.
They maintained a quiet, wary presence, learning, but not, perhaps, apprehending all he feared. They were in the greatest danger, and it wrung his heart that he could find no words that would both tell them and restrain them from the curiosity that would plunge them over the brink into a fight they could not win.
All the friends he loved and most regarded were in danger. Every one of them was in danger of his life; but the wizard-gifted went in peril of their souls and their honor… and for them he was increasingly afraid.
Go back now, he might say; and he might try to face it alone. He might survive. He might drive it in retreat.
But to take this army back left Cefwyn with no help against the Men that had joined this Shadow of magic, and collectively, if they did not fight the Shadow and win, then none of them would wish to see the rule that presence would impose. He was the only barrier against the attention it wished to pay the world: Mauryl and the Sihhë-lords had stood against it as long as anyone remembered, and now he did, and he knew now beyond a doubt that this contest was for his life and its existence.
And oh, he loved this life, as he loved these men, as he loved the world and he would not yield it while there was any will left him, but when the battle came, he knew how far it would take him. Knowing how thin the curtain was that divided the gray space from the world, and on how thin a thread the present order of time itself was strung, he cherished the voices around him and the creature under him.
Knowing everything could ravel and fly away from his grasp, he savored every scent in the air he breathed, from the damp forest earth to the smell of horses and leather and oiled metal, the scent of the woods and the meadows as they woke, waterlogged and cold, from winter. He found wonder in the light on Dys' black hide and on the bare boughs of the trees. He looked out at the subtle grays and browns of the forest, finding shades as subtle as a wren's wing and evergreen dark and stubborn at the woods' edge—and there, oh, like a remembrance of summer, an unlovely sapling had half-broken buds.
Everything he loved was around him and he loved all he saw, the kiss of a chill breeze and the warmth and glitter of a noon sun, the harsh voices of soldiers at their midday rest, the soft sound of a horse greeting its master, the voices of friends and the laughter of men who knew the same as he did that these days of march together might be all that remained to them in the world.
One heart was not enough to hold it all. It overflowed. It required several. It required sharing. He pointed out a squirrel on a limb, and Uwen and Crissand, as different as men ever could be, both smiled at its antics. He heard Cevulirn and Umanon and Sovrag talk together as if they had always been good neighbors; and Pelumer joined them, doubtless to tell them how things had been before they all were born.
Strange, he thought, to hold so many years in memory: it was strange enough to him to hold a single year and know that, indeed, he had lived into the next, and found new things still to meet.
He enjoyed the taste of cold rations and plain water, for in the dark whence he had come there was nothing at all, and he might go back into that dark again without warning, for the world was stretched so thin and fine the enemy might rupture it, as he might, unwittingly rending what was and what might be. In the gray space, time itself was not fixed: nothing was fixed or sure: he had been in the mews.
He had held a boy's hand, and carried out a newborn. He had slept in Marna Wood, and felt a presence coming through the woods, which was his own.
He adjusted a buckle at his shoulder with particular concentration, thinking he could not leave things until a further moment, and the closer he moved to Ilefínian, the more he could not trust the next moment to remain stable and fixed… though he willed it: he willed it with all the magic he could command. Every glance at the woods was a spell, every breath a conjuration.
"Ye're uncommon quiet, the both of ye," Uwen said, as if he had taken Crissand, too, in his charge. "Not a word to say?"
"None," Crissand said with a small, brave laugh. "I was thinking about the lambing."
"M'lord'll like the lambs," Uwen said. "Havin' not seen any but half-grown."
"I look forward to it," Tristen said. He clung to Uwen's voice as to life itself: for if all in his thoughts was gray and uncertain, Uwen's voice gave him back the solidity of earth, the rough detail of a gray-stubbled face, the imperfect beauty of eyes lined with long exposure to the world's bright suns. Uwen made him think of lambs, which he imagined as like half-grown sheep, but smaller… but that might not be so, thinking of Tarien's baby, and how little Elfwyn looked like a grown man.
It was spring. The world still held miracles. The forest around him did. About them he wove his spells.
Desperately he asked, with a glance aside, "What tree is that?"
"Hawthorn," Uwen said.
Hawthorn, ash and oak, wild blackberry and wild currant. Everything had a name and kept its separate nature. With all the flux in the gray space, the earth stayed faithful and solid under him, and the buds on the trees held an event yet to come, the promise of leaves, and summer yet unseen, precious promise, full of its own magic, an incorruptible order of events.
He embraced it, held it, bound himself to it with a fervor of love.
"There's blooms to come," Uwen said. "These little scraggly 'uns'll surprise ye, how they shine. Ye don't see 'em all summer when the great old oaks is leafed. Then you just curse 'em for bein' brush in your way, but they'll bloom to theirselves come the first warm days an' be pretty as maids at festival. Same's the blackberry vines, as ain't pleasant to ride into, or to catch your feet if ye're chasin' some stray sheep, but they dress fine for spring an' give ye a fine treat in the summer… ain't never complained about 'em, meself, if the thorns catch me unawares. As I was a boy, I knew all the patches 'twixt my house an' the hills, an' me mum'd bake up cakes… ain't had the same, since."
"I know a few patches," Crissand said. "I'll have my folk send you some."
"Oh, but ye have to pick 'em yourself, Your Grace, and eat a few as they're warm in the sun."
"Then I'll show you where they are," Crissand said, and the earl of Meiden and the captain of Amefel made their plans, as they said, to go blackberrying in the country, so only half the berries might reach the kitchen.
Their idle chatter, their plans—they held promises and order, too, and Tristen wished with all his heart to go with them and taste the blackberries.
And about that thought, tenacious as the vines, he feared he had begun to weave a more perilous magic: he had thought of the three of them together, after the battle that was to come, and he had wished, and that wish coming from his heart had as much power as he had bound between himself and the earth. The more he decided not to wish that day to come, the more easily it might not, and the more easily one or all of them might perish beforehand.
Bind Crissand and Uwen's fate to his, for good or for ill, and set the integrity of the world at issue in that simple, homely wish of friends to eat blackberries… dared he? Had he done such a fatal, reckless thing?
That was the peril and the strength of Sihhë magic, that it worked so easily, and fear of what he had done sent him to the threshold of a tortuous course of half-doing and half-undoing that Emuin himself could not riddle out, Emuin who labored over his wizard-work and consulted charts and stars and seasons to which he himself was not bound. The plain fact was that he could wish it, and halfway in and halfway out was an untenably dangerous position.
Flesh as well as spirit, had not Mauryl said it? He was both.
"I wish it," he said suddenly, aloud and with all his heart. "Pray to the gods, if they hear you: we may need it!"
"My lord?" Crissand asked, alarmed, but Uwen, who was a plain Man, said, quietly:
"M'lord's worked a magic, an' wants help in it; and if prayer'll do it, why, I'll dust mine off and do my best, m'lord, that I will."
So they rode, after that, sometimes silent, sometimes in converse, talking on things that, like the blackberries, assumed an unaccustomed seriousness.
In this, perhaps Uwen even more than Crissand and Cevulirn understood how grave the crisis had been in him, and how dangerous the choice he had made. Cevulirn rode up the column to join them a time, not a talkative man on a day less fraught with consequence, and now seeming content to be near them, a presence at the edge of the gray space, as they were to him… perhaps after all Cevulirn had felt more of what happened than seemed likely, and offered his strength, such as it was. They had become friends, beyond that meeting Auld Syes' had foretold; and friendship was its own reason now, three of them, their touch at each other in the gray space as solid as their sight of each other in the world, with Uwen to support them all.
"Getting dark," Crissand remarked. "We may have to camp in this wood."
Tristen shook his head, for he had the sense of a place farther on, where water ran, where one of Pelumer's men waited. He hoped so, for as they passed into the wood beyond a small ruined wall, shadows ran like ink deep among the trees, and the wood grew colder, the branches seeming to rattle without a wind.
"Shall we stop?" Uwen asked.
"No," he said. "Half an hour more."
A glance upward through bare branches gave the only proof day still lingered, and conversations grew quieter, until there was only the crack of dry branches, the scuff of hooves on old leaves, the steady creak of leather. Shadows began to move and flow, Shadows indeed, Tristen thought, and caught Crissand's sudden turn to try to see one.
Cevulirn, too, looked askance, and Uwen took alarm from them.
"Nothing harmful to us," he said, though he was less than sure, wary lest the Shadows turn prankish or become more aware of them than they were. As it was, they tended to be harmless: but he reminded himself it was not Amefel, and these were not Shadows he had met before. He had no idea to what authority they did answer, or whether they had any dealings with Ynefel, to the south… or worse.
Something else, a wisp of something, begged his attention, but was gone when he tried to ask what, and it seemed to him that neither Crissand nor Cevulirn had noticed it. He almost thought it was Ninévrisë, and that thought greatly worried him, as if something might have gone amiss at Henas'amef, something he dared not pursue. He had to trust Emuin for that: he had to remind himself he could not be everywhere, informed on everything at once.
So they rode a moment more in the silence that followed; but now the trees were thinning to a last curtain of scrub before a meadow, and they crossed a rill that wended its way through the last of them, not to a soggy water-meadow as they had found at their last rest, but by the last of the light, onto grassy dry ground.
And there one of the Lanfarnesse rangers sat waiting on a flat rock, expecting them, having spied out this place.
"Safety for the night," Pelumer rode up to declare, and so it seemed, under the fair evening sky, under the first stars. So Tristen felt some of his fear depart.
But he cast a glance back at the dark wall of the wood. Strange territory in every sense, and strange musings lurked under those bare branches: Owl had not joined him, and he was anxious, still ahorse, while men waited, looking to him to dismount first.
He settled the reins and stepped down from Dys' tall back, landed squarely and looked back a second time, as if he could surprise a Shadow, or Owl, watching him.
"Is something amiss?" Crissand asked.
He shook his head. "Disturbed," he said, and the truth came to him as he began to speak it. "Troubled, but not against us. Still, better here, than among the trees. Better to be who we are. Tasmôrden's men would fare very badly here, if they came."
"They haven't," Cevulirn observed.
"They have not," Tristen said, but with a sudden dread. It was suddenly sure in his heart that indeed Tasmôrden had moved from where he had last felt his presence, that the main force of the enemy army had moved the other direction from Ilefínian, away from him.
That conviction lent a chill to the evening wind, one that made him gather his cloak about him, and wish Cefwyn every protection he could offer.
"M'lord?" Uwen asked, distracting him. And he felt now pulled in two directions at once, one the desire to bid them all ride on— that was folly: they would defeat themselves if they wore themselves with a further march. And he wished to go back into the woods and learn what moved there, but that, too, was folly. They were well out of it, and lucky, Uwen would say, because with the sinking of the sun, the Shadows gathered in this land to which they were strangers and intruders, and he wished safety on the rangers, that they, too, might go against their habit and come into the camp tonight.
By twilight the carts creaked and squealed their way about the weedy meadow on the lines of a camp in formation, dumping off tents as they went. Tents already distributed went up like white mushrooms at the edge of an unculled, brush-choked wood in the fading light.
Groups of men dug bare earth patches for campfires… not for every man, in this overgrown area, but sufficient: Cefwyn had no wish to burn the wood down to give notice of his presence, but there was no persuading Guelenmen to camp like the Lanfarnesse rangers, and fight on cold rations, either. And there was no concealing the approach of an army that moved with carts. But not every man had a tent tonight, and fewer would have them on the following night. They shed canvas like a snake its skin, and hereafter trusted a handful of carts with the most essential supplies, but every man would carry dry rations, and every man had a good woollen cloak, the king's gift, that was blanket, litter for the wounded, and windbreak at need. The Guelen book of war insisted the baggage was everything, and that if they lost their heavy gear, the army was doomed; but Guelenfolk nowadays were no longer invaders far from home, and he saw how even his grandfather had relied on old wisdom. Tristen urged otherwise, their feckless lord of shadows and cobwebs, as Idrys had been wont to call him: but not feckless on the battlefield, far from it, and not feckless now, leading an army northward in support of him.
Tristen had spoken against carts and baggage and a long wait until spring; and he had gone instead on his own advice, to the very brink.
Now that things went astray it was Tristen's advice that guided him, and it was huntsman's economy he meant to practice: that was how he explained it to lords who had never ridden Ivanim fashion to war.
Maudyn was dismayed to hear he meant to abandon the careful fortifications he had made, and worse, to make every individual man responsible for his own food and warmth hereafter. All day long the line of carts on a narrow, perilously forested road had kept Ryssand at his tail, for Ryssand had not been able to maneuver past.
Ryssand had surely taken the point, for Ryssand had not sent so much as a messenger forward to hack his way through the brush and seek converse with his king. The carts having gotten onto the bridge ahead of Ryssand's forces, and the army having moved past Lord Maudyn's camp without stopping, and some of those carts having maneuvered into the road, why, there they were, all day long, moving through wooded land well suited for scattered ambush by archers, but utterly safe from large movements of cavalry such as Tasmôrden commanded. If an army of fools was bound to quarrel in enemy territory, it was an area as forgiving of folly as he could hope for…
for this one day.
After this, dissent became deadly, but he did not count on Ryssand to care overmuch. He did hope to make as much of a fool of Ryssand as he could manage, and be sure the others that might follow his leadership at least knew how recklessly Ryssand conducted himself.
Now the last contingents arrived: now Ryssand came, with, indeed, Murandys and Nelefreissan. So the banners declared, as contingent marched in from the wood-girt, well-manured road.
It was the first look he had had at Ryssand's forces, and to his mild surprise, indeed, they all came with more than their household guards: they brought all the peasant muster he had once asked for and which he had now as lief not have trammeling up his battle plan…
and with those men, they could not keep up with the cavalry as he meant to press them.
Nor could the Ryssandish peasantry avoid heavy losses in what he was sure their lord meant to do, a certainty that drove all vestige of humor from the situation. There were dead men, very likely not even in Ryssand's concern. There were men about to make their wives widows and their children orphans and their farms a fallow waste.
Damn, he said to himself, seeing the trap of his own making. Here were men that should have been left in camp: here were men who should not have advanced farther than Maudyn's first camp, and who certainly should not march from this one. Here were the innocent, no matter that they were Ryssand's. It was Ryssand and Ryssand's house guard on whom he looked blackly, and beyond them, indeed, Ryssand's own baggage train would come hindmost of all: clearly, once it had become a race for the bridge, the traditional force Ryssand commanded had not a chance of crossing in time, not without deserting his infantry.
So Cefwyn stood with arms folded and his guard around him, under the red-and-gold Dragon Banner of the Marhanen. Lord Mau-dyn, too, came from the edge of his notice and joined him, leaving his sons to deal with the camp-making. He was touched by that sensible loyalty, not disappointed in Maudyn's common sense to see a situation and act, no matter how strange his king's orders throughout the day.
But, gods, he missed Idrys in what would ensue in the next few moments. He wished Idrys could have the satisfaction, for one thing, and missed that wry, acerbic, and critical counsel that reasonable men learned to respect.
Idrys was not here to impose his chilling presence, and so he met these would-be traitors not with his accustomed smile but with Idrys'
own black stare.
"Late!" he said, before Ryssand could get a single, carping word out of his mouth. "Late, and out of the order of the camp!"
"Surely Your Majesty knew we would not fail your orders," Ryssand countered.
"Did I? Am I a wizard? I think not!" Cefwyn spared a glance at Prichwarrin and the lord of Nelefreissan, and settled a second, baleful stare on Ryssand. "On the other hand, wizards advise Tasmôrden!
Does Cuthan, perchance, give you their advice? Have you brought him? We can begin our war with a hanging. That for a start!"
"Your Majesty." Murandys' dismay at this wide-ranging attack was no pretense, Cefwyn was sure: Prichwarrin was too cautious a man and Ryssand too grossly affronted to say what he would wish to say.
It was too early for them to launch a rebellion; it was possible that Prichwarrin himself was ignorant of what Ryssand planned and Ryssand might not want him to know it. And by the gods he was of no disposition to smooth rebels' feathers.
"Have you brought him?" he repeated his question regarding Cuthan, and used his grandfather's temper, nothing held back. " Parsynan, perhaps, the hero of Amefel. Do I see him in your train?"
"No, Your Majesty," Ryssand said in cold formality.
"A pity," he said with sudden and equal coldness. "Set your tents in what space you can find tonight. I trust after this debacle there'll be no tardiness on the field."
That, imprudently, perhaps, he sent straight to the heart of Ryssand's intentions, but Ryssand never blanched.
"No, Your Majesty."
On that, Cefwyn began to turn away, allowing them time to show their real expressions, and suddenly spun about and measured one after the other sour face with a long stare, ending with Ryssand, at whom he gazed a long, long moment.
Then he said in unfeigned disgust: "I need you. Have I your observance of your oaths?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," Ryssand said for all the others, with never a blink or a glance down in shame, but Ryssand's eyes burned.
"Heavy horse to the center," he said. "Your infantry to guard the camp."
"Your Majesty,—"
"To guard the camp, I say! And your horse to the center! I've a notion where I'll meet that blackguard, if I can rely on my maps… if you have better, provide them."
"I've received no such information, Your Majesty. Nor have any of us, save from Cuthan, of course, in whom Your Majesty has no confidence."
Damn you, he very nearly said. The effrontery was at the surface now, the other barons standing well behind, obscure in the twilight, perhaps asking themselves how far indeed Ryssand was prepared to go. Corswyndam's temper had almost leapt into flame. It smoldered, it very clearly smoldered. So did his.
But they were neither of them utter fools.
"Then expect an encounter tomorrow or the next day," Cefwyn said shortly, "depending on Tasmôrden's speed on his own roads. Have your men in order. No drunkenness in the ranks tonight, and early to break camp tomorrow. Here's the redemption of our differences, sir.
Make me your friend. I can be courted."
"Your Majesty." Three heads bowed. Three lords backed as if they were in the throne room, despite the informality of a martial camp, and withdrew to their own counsel.
He remained with Lord Maudyn and with his bodyguards and Panys', and told himself he had been laudably calm throughout the encounter, remarkably cold-blooded. Now he found tremors of anger running through his limbs and asked himself whether he should order Ryssand's arrest and execution tonight.
It might bring Nelefreissan and Murandys into line. It might be the prudent thing. He might survive the action, and Ylesuin might.
Or might not. Dared he do that, and then lead the army into battle with questions unanswered and regional angers broken wide open?
He could not answer what Murandys and Nelefreissan might do…
and that might rest on how much evidence they feared might come to light if he came home again. He had no idea, that was the difficulty.
March home again to settle matters, his war unfought and Tas-morden glorying in a temporary victory… that was a mouthful he could not swallow. Ylesuin had not wanted his war, but Ylesuin would come asunder in regional and religious bickering. Ryssand had his supporters among the clergy even yet, and as yet he could prove nothing of his charges against the man but his illicit traffic with Parsynan and the fact he had lodged Cuthan and taken messages from Tasmôrden. Both offended the king's law, but the fact that Cuthan had betrayed his brother lords in Amefel was nothing at all to Guelenfolk, who detested the Amefin.
But if Ryssand died, he had, gods help him, Artisane, and whatever man besides his brother he found to sacrifice to that marriage: if Ryssand was a brigand, Artisane was a lying baggage who with a duchess' title would lie louder and with more credible virulence.
Two heads at the Guelesfort gate might bring a wholesome silence, vacate the duchy, and take the consequences of unrest and claimants to vacant lands.
And for a moment Ryssand's life trembled on the knife's edge of his temper. But it was wise to consider who would stand with him: Osanan, who had joined them, had been Ryssand's man in most questions: the lord of Osanan had always inclined himself that way in matters of regional import, the questions of fishing rights and the doctrinist Quinaltines. Where would Osanan stand if he killed Ryssand?
Or would Osanan and many another simply lack enthusiasm to advance in the battle, and retreat at the first reverse on the field?
Every man for himself it would be if that sentiment took hold in various units.
Sulriggan? The lord of Llymaryn was no hero. If the army began to break, Sulriggan would trample the foremost riding to the head of the pack, and take his men with him.
Maudyn would stand. Panys. And the Guard.
No. He had laid his plans during this long day's ride, he had settled what he would do with Ryssand, even how he would shape the battle so that units like Osanan could make their choice and units like Panys and the Dragons and Guelens would have their honor.
Let Ryssand fold or hold, as he planned matters: the outcome would be the same. And they would still push Tasmôrden back to Ilefínian, with Tristen, he fondly hoped, coming from the other leg of the triangle, to catch Tasmôrden from the other side—the last of the pretenders to the Regency, with an army large only because it was the scourings and the survivors of the long struggle. Honest men had taken to the hills. Bandits took Tasmôrden's hire. And if they pressed Tasmôrden back and if the Elwynim saw Ninévrisë's standard, Tasmôrden would find no support among the commons. It was Ninévrisë's hope and it was his, that one defeat would shatter the pretender's army and honest Elwynim would rise out of the thickets and the hills.
Trust Tristen, that if wizardry could arrange it, Tristen would be there, where he needed him, no blame, no recrimination: Tristen was coming, with Cevulirn and Pelumer and all the south, where he should have placed his trust from the beginning.
And of all unexpected things, a flight of birds soared above the wood's edge and turned.
Pigeons, for the gods' good sake! Pigeons. He stared after them amazed.
When did pigeons become forest-dwellers? They were not. They never had been, not these birds.
Tristen was there, he was surely there, just the other side of this cursed ridge.
Captain Gwywyn, of the Prince's Guard, and in Idrys' absence over the Dragons and the Guelens as well, approached him from the side, bringing a practical and immediate question. "The west for the latest to camp, Your Majesty?"
"The west and north," he said, for there was room in the meadow on that side, and while the petty notion occurred to him to move the horse pickets on the east and let Ryssand and his allies pitch on that soiled ground, the same as they had marched on it all day, the peasant levies did not deserve it, and he did not indulge the whim. "I'll cool my anger. Bid them join us at supper."
"As Your Majesty wishes."
"Advise all the lords to join us at supper. We'll settle our marching order. Hereafter we have the enemy to quarrel with, not each other."
Gwywyn went aside on his mission. Lord Maudyn, who had walked with him, gave him a questioning look and a blunt question: "Will Your Majesty inform Ryssand of all the plans?"
"We have to stand on the same battlefield and face the same enemy,"
Cefwyn said with a sigh. "We'll leave no lord out of our councils. I've no wish to expose the men afoot to risk of their lives: gods know they're not at fault, and I'll not face the widows." He walked a few steps farther in the lord of Panys' company. "But you and I have somewhat to say together. Perhaps we won't tell Ryssand everything."
"I would be easier in my sleep," Maudyn said, "if Ryssand knew less."
"I'm very sure," he said. "To tell you the very truth, I have more doubt of Prichwarrin's courage to defy me than I have of Ryssand's, and that alone frets me: I don't know what the man may do. Ryssand, on the other hand, has courage; but he doesn't give a damn for his servants, his staff, his men, or his horses, not when he sees what he wants. His sworn men and his peasants have no worth, save as they serve him: I pity them. He doesn't, and no few will die."
"Then I pray Your Majesty arrest him. Others stand with the Crown.
No honorable man could misunderstand."
It was exceedingly comforting to hear Maudyn say so, and he wished he knew it was true. It was almost like hearing Idrys' voice saying: kill Ryssand.
And when he recalled how often and why he had denied Idrys that satisfaction, he became quite clear in his own thoughts.
"No," he said. "No, my dear friend. Much as I wish it… much as I regard your advice and your wisdom… no. Let him at least do what we accuse him of. Let it be clear beyond even Murandys'
ability to find excuses. They think him simply clever at going to the brink. I know how far he'll go, but they don't believe it yet."
"Stand by and let him bring a sword against my king's back?"
"That's not what I expect of him."
"What, then?"
"Oh, he'll run—and not he, no, never say Ryssand bolted. Some unnamed man of his will turn and start a panic, and the officers will turn and the company will run, leaving the peasants to face Tasmôrden's heavy horse and leaving the rest of us to the slaughter.
And if it's found out later, blame will fall on some poor wretch of a lieutenant, but mark me! Ryssand deals with Tasmôrden, makes a treaty, and marches home with clean hands. Therefore I set him in the center. Remember I said so beforehand, and report it in the court later, but say not a word of this even to your sons. I fear I can't help Ryssand's peasants. But the rest I can deal with."
Maudyn gave him a look of intense distress. "Surely—"
"He'll retreat. We'll advance," Cefwyn said. "Trust in me, sir. And hell take Ryssand."
Owl called, in the world, and Tristen opened his eyes on stars above him, aware of Uwen sleeping on one side, aware of Crissand not so far away with his household guard and the Amefins all around: aware of the Amefin, the Ivanim, the Olmernmen, and the Imorim, with a handful of Pelumer's rangers tucked away to the side, in their own group.
That awareness went on to all the camp and the lay of the land.
Horses slept. Almost all the camp slept.
But the woods did not.
A second time Owl called. And Tristen gathered himself to his feet, feeling the stir of a wind out of the woods, a wind that smelled of rain and green things, a wind that rushed at him and blew and blew, and yet Men slept. Uwen slept. Only Crissand and Cevulirn waked, and roused to their feet as well, seeking shields and swords and helms, for they had simply loosed buckles and slept in their armor.
So indeed Tristen had done, but what he perceived was not a threat that would stop at leather and metal, nothing a shield could turn: Shadows moved in the woods, and with a thought of that Elwynim force left dead in the snow near Althalen, he felt the hair rise at the nape of his neck: he would not fall to it, but he was determined his friends would not perish: Uwen would not perish, nor would the men who came here trusting him.
The horses grew uneasy: to have them break the picket lines was a disaster they could not afford, either: the beasts smelled danger, but except for the three of them, and a slight stirring here and thefe across the camp, no man roused out of sleep.
Peace, he wished the Shadows, and was instantly confident they heard him, instantly reassured, for out of the wood came a whisk of wind that flattened the meadow grass in the starlight, and there skipped a child, blithe and happy and as perilous as edged iron. She skipped and she played in the starlight, and beyond her, around her, came other streaks in the grass, and other children that laughed with high, thin voices, distant and echoing as in some far and vacant hall.
Seddiwy, he named her, and looked for her mother in the shadows.
So Auld Syes came, a white-haired woman as he had first seen her, in homespun and fringed shawl, like any grandmother of the town; and as he had first seen her, the shadow-shapes of peasant folk came following her, the inhabitants of some village, he took them to be, but dim even for starlight.
Then he recognized an old man, and another, a lame youth, and a chill came over him, for they were the folk of Emwy village, dead since summer, young and old.
"Auld Syes," he said to the old woman, and in the next blink saw banners among the trees, a sight that alarmed him for an instant, but Auld Syes turned in slow grace and held out a hand toward those that came. It was the Regent's banner, and the men with it were Shadows as that banner was a Shadow itself.
It was Earl Haurydd, who had died facing Aséyneddin at Emwy Bridge, Ninévrisë's man, and her father's; and with him were others of that company.
And there was Hawith, one of Cefwyn's men, killed at Emwy, and there… there was Denyn Kei's-son, the Olmern youth who had stood guard at Cefwyn's door, Erion Netha's young enemy turned friend.
He saw his own banner, the Tower and Star, and the shadowy youth bearing it, and felt the deep upwelling of loss, for it was Andas Andas-son, who had joined him so briefly to carry that banner at Lewenbrook. The dark had rolled over the boy, and he had gone bravely into it, and never out again.
He trembled at the sight, he, who was no stranger to Shadows, but it was not fear that shook him, rather that he felt his heart torn to the point of pain. It was not harm the Shadows brought with them, but their loyalty, their fidelity, faith kept to the uttermost.
"My lord," Crissand whispered, having moved close to him, and Cevulirn arrived at his other hand.
"I know them," Tristen said. "I know them all."
But it was not the end of visitations, and at the next the brush rattled and moved to the presence of living men, and a handful of peasant villagers appeared, ragged lads carrying spears and one of them a makeshift standard.
Then from another quarter, from the road, appeared a handful of men on horseback, and them with well-made banners, and one of them the Tower Crowned.
Aeself was one of them, and slid down from his horse and walked forward as sleeping men began to wake to the commotion, hearing sounds in the world. Men leapt up, seizing weapons and shields, and calling out in alarm.
"Friends!" Aeself called out. "His Grace's men!"
A third time Owl called, and the Shadows all were gone. More and more men came from out of the wood, men on horseback and peasants afoot, and a scattering of banners among well-armed and lordly folk.
Aeself went to one knee, and so did the others. "The King," Aeself said, and so the others said, one voice upon the other, "the King."
"There is a king," Tristen protested, but there were more and more of them, spilling out of the trees, while the wood could in no wise have concealed all of them and he could not have been so deceived about their presence. They arrived like the Shadows, as if they had risen out of the stones and the earth, and a wind skirled through the clearing, startling the horses, lifting the banners half to life.
And Aeself rose, foremost of the rest, while Ivanim and Amefin, Imorim knights and Olmern axemen, and a scattering of Lanfarnesse rangers stood utterly dismayed, no less so than their lords.
Auld Syes arrived in their midst like a skirl of wind, fringed shawl flying like threads of cobweb, gray hair shining like the moonlight, and her daughter danced, holding her hand and skipping about her skirts.
King in Elwynor, King Foretold: deny nothing! The aetheling has found his King, and peril to deny it!
He hoped with all his heart none of the men heard. He wished Auld Syes' aid for all of them, and by no means rejected Aeself or the Shadows… how could he turn from Andas Andas-son and Earl Haurydd or deny the outpouring of so many wishes? If Men could bind a magic, he found himself snared in it, caught in their wishes, their long, faithful struggle in what he feared was his war, always his war… but now theirs, as well.
"My name is Tristen," he said to them all as he had said to Hasufin Heltain. He said it as a charm and as the truth which anchored him in the world. "My name is Tristen. Nothing else."
"King of Elwynor!" some cried, among the living, and the Amefin cried, "Lord Sihhë'!" But he shut his ears against it, and turned away, and in doing so, met the faces he most dreaded to meet: Uwen, as Guelen as ever a man could be; and Cevulirn, steadfast in his oaths; and Crissand Adiran, Amefin, aetheling, king of Amefel… all his friends, all with claims impossible to reconcile, one with the other.
"Lord Sihhë!" the Amefin all shouted now, and so the Elwynim took it up: "Lord Sihhë! Lord Sihhë! Lord Sihhë!"
That was the only truth he heard. He turned again to confront Auld Syes, but in that moment's distraction the very light had changed to earliest dawn: there were no Shadows among them to answer, there was no lady and no child, only the shapes of trees and the shapes of Men still indisputably among the living. He knew what he had seen, but he could not believe that every man in the company had seen the same, and could not reconcile what he knew and what they knew, or reason out how much they had heard. They shouted for him: they wanted him with such a fervor it shook him to the heart, and yet he wanted nothing of it, nothing but Cefwyn's safety.
And in hailing him, they turned from Cefwyn. The Elwynim and the Amefin hailed another king: they made him their lord, and would hear nothing else, while the southern lords who had followed him at risk of life and honor stood dismayed, not knowing what to do at this sudden turn of loyalties on the borderlands.
Tristen held up his hands, begging silence, and it was difficult to obtain, in the dim gray light that only hinted at the dawn.
"Lord Sihhë I am," he said. "Lord Sihhë I am willing to be." The cold dark seemed to gape beneath his feet, threatening to drink him in, and yet he strained to see their faces, in that hour that stole the stars. But no more than that, he wished to say… yet all along he had listened to Auld Syes, and was not sure she was wrong.
"Cefwyn is my friend," he said, difficult as it was to speak at all. "Her Grace is my friend. Crissand is the aetheling, and Amefel has a king, the king of the bright Sun! But my name is Tristen!"
And with that he could bear nothing more, and turned away, past Crissand's reaching hand, past Cevulirn's grave face. Only Uwen went with him in his withdrawal, and his guard shadowed him until he had found a refuge at the edge of the horse pickets, where Dys and Cass stood and offered mute comfort.
He had left confusion behind him. He had left Aeself and Crissand and Cevulirn with wizardry unexplained. He had left the lords of the south with their understanding challenged. He thought he should have done better. But he could not find how.
He was aware of Owen's presence, of his new guards, Gweyl and the others, and at this moment he sorely missed Lusin, who would stand by Uwen come what might. He ached heart-deep with what he feared, and what was laid on him to do, with no choice of his: it was what he was made to do. He apprehended at least that Auld Syes was not in charge of him, nor beyond mistakes, only charged with truths as she perceived them. He could refuse.
And his heart cried out against their expectations. It was not Cefwyn's doom to fall. It was not his own to sit in a hall signing and sealing and rendering judgments, when this single judgment was so difficult.
He drew a deep breath when he knew that, as if bands had loosed about his heart. He looked up at a sky in which the stars had all perished, and at Uwen's sober, stubbled face. Love shone there, brighter than the dawn; and he opened his arms and embraced Uwen, for all that Uwen was; in his heart he embraced Crissand, and Cevulirn, and the lords of the south, too, and Aeself, who had come by no ordinary road to find him, whether or not Aeself understood what company he had had or how unnaturally he had arrived.
He heard Owl complaining of the sun. He stood still, cold to the very heart of him, as if his very next breath hung suspended between day and dark.
Lord of Shadows he could be. That, more than Lord Sihhë, he might be. He knew the gray space: it would open for him, and he could draw power out of that realm, hurl the hapless dead against the dead that Hasufin summoned until between them they laid waste to the gray space as well as the lands of Men. The last struggle had imprisoned Shadows within the walls of Ynefel and brought down the towers of Galasien. Between them, Mauryl and Hasufin, they had done that: Mauryl, wielding wizardry, and Hasufin, wielding wizardry, had not seen the consequences of the struggle. But he saw that it would not last. At the last, Mauryl had seen the wards falter, he was sure of it: Galasien had perished in vain. It did not hold.
And Efanor and a small band of priests walked a perilous Line in Guelessar, as Emuin and Ninévrisë warded the south and Ni-névrisë's father and Drusenan's Wall held the border of Amefel.
It was to keep those barriers strong that he had arrived on Mauryl's hearth.
"I dreamed," he said to Uwen, who most knew the youth who had come to Amefel. "Such, at least as I do dream… that there's something behind Hasufin, and the Sihhë-lords fought it, all those years ago."
"Lad, such as I couldn't tell."
"This is true." He could no longer bear to wait, not for the men who stood in doubt and debating among themselves what he had said, not for the disturbance in the wood where Shadows hid for the coming day. He would not be the king Auld Syes foretold. He was never suited to it: it was not—he was as sure of it as of the coming day.
"Mauryl didn't Summon me to sit on a throne," he said. "Cefwyn hates it… but he's a good king. I'm not what he is. None of us is what he is."
Uwen was silent, in what mind he could not read.
"You don't ask me what I am," he said, curious, for curiosity was always his fault, and he could never understand the lack of it.
"Ye don't rightly know, do ye?" Uwen answered him with a wry smile. "Nor me. Nor do I need to. Ye're my good lad."
"Uwen is what you are," he said, "and the captain of my guard, and my right hand." He reached out to Uwen's leather-guarded shoulder, as much to feel his solid strength as to reassure Uwen. "Set us to horse. Make these men move. Cefwyn needs me. That's what I know."
"Aye, m'lord," Uwen said with relief.
That was Uwen's answer.
And for his own, when he went back to Cevulirn and Crissand, he took their hands, and embraced them in the murmurous hush of the army. He embraced Sovrag's huge shoulders, and Umanon's stiff back, and Pelumer's thin and aged frame: he opened his arms to Aeself, when Aeself would have cast himself to his knees, and made him stand and have that, and not a lord to worship.
"My lord," Aeself whispered.
"You can't make me King," Tristen whispered back. "Mauryl didn't, and you can't. But Sihhë, yes, as the five were, that I do fear I am."
Ice came to him, as strong a vision as if it had Unfolded for the first time, ice, and the fortress of the Qenes, a dizzying long view, a dizzying long remembrance, for memory it might be. He did not know where he had begun, but he knew what the boundaries of the world should be.
"Yet," Aeself said, "others will join us, my lord, if only they see there's hope: they'll come as these men have come—not for me, not even for my cousin, gods save her: they'll come to the name of the King."
"Then believe there is such a King," he said, for he drew that certainty out of his heart, breathless with the urgency with which he knew it. "He'll be born: Ninévrisë's child, and Cefwyn's. And Crissand aetheling will sit the throne in Amefel. But my banner is not the High King's."
Loyalty that so yearned to bestow itself somewhere worth its hopes shone in Aeself's eyes. "Then whatever that banner is, I am your man, and so are the rest of us. The forest brought us here. The earth poured us out. I don't know how we came, but we've come here, and nothing frights us after this."
"Auld Syes brought you. She may bring others. Until there is a King, I can say what is and what's to be, and I set you in charge of all the Elwynim that come to my banner."
"I am no experienced man—"
"I say what is."
" Yes, my lord." So Aeself said, and Tristen turned to a clearing filled with men and horses, and more men and horses within the trees.
Their company had become an army, between dark and dawn.
"We go on!" Tristen said. "Everyone to your horses! Cefwyn needs us!" And turning from Aeself, he encountered Crissand, and pressed Crissand's arm, for he saw confusion on Crissand's face: the dawn showed it to him, a silent, but heartfelt distress.
"Auld Syes said it: aetheling. King of Amefel. —But Uwen I keep for myself."
"My heart you keep, my lord! Have no doubt of it!"
He clapped Crissand on the arm. In the next moment he heard Uwen shouting at the men:
"Arm an' out, arm an' out, you lads, and get them horses ready. We're off to give Tasmôrden 'is comeuppance."
It was a voice to give courage, a voice that had soothed his night fears and his darkest hours: give Tasmôrden his Comeuppance…
there was a Word that by no means Unfolded to him, and yet did, as an outcome wider and more true than justice a king might deal out…
it was justice for the Shadows that had joined them in the night, justice for Crissand's father and Cefwyn's messenger, for the old archivist and the soldiers dead at Emwy and on Lewen field… justice for very many wrongs: not a justice of death for death—rather the settling of balances back into true and the world back to peace.
Men moved, horses snorted and pulled at their tethers: the whole clearing seethed with an army setting itself rapidly in an order of march.
So Tasmôrden had moved, carrying the threat against Cefwyn, to deal hurt where their enemy could, to gain an advantage, a hostage, a distraction.
The five first Sihhë had retreated to the ice to avoid this very conflict as long as possible: had met it once in its ascendency and brought down Galasien. In its slow working, in retaliation, the enemy had seized Althalen… and lost it, destroyed Ynefel, and lost it.
Now it bided the second assault against its domain, beneath all the movement of armies and threat of iron: five Places in the land, where Shadows seethed, a Working of wizardous sort: five points of attack to confront five Sihhë-lords who afflicted it. Ynefel was last to fall to this onslaught: the old mews in the Zeide was the next to last, where now Emuin and Ninévrisë stood guard over Orien's restive spirit. The third was Althalen, where Uleman now warded the way; the fourth he had set Efanor to watch, to shut the very first door it might ever have used…
All these ways it had had once at its command, and one by one he had denied it use of them, if the wardens he had set in place could hold firm the Lines.
All but one was shut, that in Ilefínian's fortress, the way Crissand had discovered, when Tasmôrden had lost his banner.
And it Unfolded to him with the breaking of the dawn that their enemy might have arranged them to come to this conflict: but equally they were here because of what they were. There was no turning back now. The Sun King and the Lord of Shadows had come together to set the world and the gray space in balance as best they knew how, while their enemy meant to confound it entirely, and they had no choice. Whatever the grief it brought either of them, whatever the loss or the pain, they had come to do what neither wizardry nor magic yet had done, and not, this time, be held in check, one power with the other.
Halfway had not sufficed, and Mauryl had surely known it when he Shaped him out of fire and Shadow.
And he had known when he looked the first time at the aetheling, that he had found something essential to what he was. Mauryl's spell had finished its Summoning, and he was here, finally, where all along he had needed to be, wizardry and magic opposed to the Wind that had torn Ynefel's stones apart.
Previous: CHAPTER 2
Next: CHAPTER 4