Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 3
Next: CHAPTER 5

The hills that had been only knowledge on a map became a forbidding rampart of stone and bristling evergreen distantly visible on the left hand, a rough land out of which small bands might come to spy or to harry the approach of an invader on the road that led to Ilefínian. Cefwyn had scouts out well ahead looking for just such a force, but they reported there was no sign of enemy presence.
It was troubling not to meet opposition: leaving unexploited the advantage that rocky ridge posed to its native lord was certainly not what Cefwyn would have done, were he defending Ilefínian, but then, Tasmôrden had failed all along to do those things that a prudent commander would have arranged—first of all not having a force at the bridge to have hindered their crossing, and archers in the woods to make their advance far slower than it had been for two days now.
And in that consideration Cefwyn heard the reports of the scouts and frowned, wishing his enemy would do predictable things that had to be fought: the man's brutal dealing with the villages was a terror to Elwynor. Pretenders to the throne and the Regency for a time had been thick as the leaves in this land. It was worth remarking that all the other pretenders were dead, including Aséyneddin, who had perished at Lewenbrook, and that this man was at last report among the living.
That argued that the man was not the easy mark he had seemed all winter, and it suggested that taking too many of Tasmôrden's gifts too recklessly might lead to the one gift an opponent should not have taken.
On the other hand, Tasmôrden might have a distraction from the other side of that ridge. Cefwyn hoped so. He imagined Tristen's army approaching from that quarter and making Tasmôrden's sleep entirely uneasy. Tasmôrden might have expected a Guelen army to move far slower and diverted resources to the western flank of that ridge to deal with Tristen and Cevulirn, who would come up from the south with the speed of light cavalry. That would trouble Tasmôrden's dreams, if there was wizardry in question. So it was possible, Cefwyn said to himself, that he was simply that lucky.
But he refused to rely on it. He kept looking for the traps. He traveled as quickly as he could, strewing baggage behind him in one camp after another, against every rule in the Guelen book of war, following the will-of-the-wisp of Sihhë tactics and accepting the tactics he had refused when he had had Tristen at hand to advise him. No, he had said repeatedly, and now he followed that advice headlong, constantly aware of Ryssand at his back and Idrys gods knew where… too far, for his comfort; but Ninévrisë was safe. Against all likelihood of success, he had persuaded her away to safety and left himself free to fight… if he could only find the enemy in front of him.
His reasoning and his thus far fruitless expectations of what Tasmôrden should do to prevent him of course supposed that Tasmôrden owned the land through which they marched, and that was not necessarily the case. Those previous pretenders had dislodged the honest peasantry, rent the country asunder in civil war, and left men outlawed, bandits both by trade and by necessity ranging the countryside at will, so Maudyn reported to him.
And if he were a bandit leader, instead of Tasmôrden, he would sit up in the hills in the rocks and watch all the armies come and go, siding with the winner whenever that came clear. At the very least a heavy-armed cavalry was no likely pickings, at least until there had been a battle.
Above all else he kept waiting for the blow to fall. He expected no deep thinking or strategy from hungry outlaws, but he did expect it from a man who styled himself High King and heir to the Sihhë kingdom. He counted it possible that Tasmôrden could raise no support in the east, where all along Ninévrisë had maintained she had the loyalty of people too frightened and too weak to fight Tasmôrden on their own. But he had seen no Elwynim, either, come out of the brush to rally to the banner he flew at the head of their advance, and by now he doubted he would see any until he had at least damaged Tasmôrden. In a practical sense, he doubted Tasmôrden had much fear of scattered peasants.
They came on a village, mere shells of houses, which the scouts reported vacant, and it was clear by what they saw that the people who had lived there had reason to stay low and quiet if they lived, perhaps hiding in those hills yonder… or gone across the river to Tristen. It was no recent ruin. Vines overgrew one charred doorway.
Weeds grew in the street.
"Gods know which pretender did this work," Lord Maudyn said.
"Shame on him, whoever it was," Cefwyn said, and added, with a chill in his blood and a thought of his own land: " Here's the sad end of a civil war: vacant streets and fallow fields. Who had the good of this work?"
"Not the sheep and the shepherds," Maudyn said.
A courier rode up beside them, presented courtesies, advised him Osanan was slowed by reason of a cart and a loose wheel.
Slowed by reason of Ryssand's courtship, Cefwyn suspected uncharitably, but he acknowledged the report.
The lords with him and those with Ryssand had all been uncommonly courteous one to the other when they met in council in the evenings.
They had pored over maps together in frosty amity and heard reports of the scouts. Ryssand's partisans asked why Tasmôrden had not confronted them, and then the pretense had slipped aside ever so little as he looked straight at Corswyndam Lord Ryssand, to see whether Ryssand himself seemed to know the answer to that question.
But he had not caught Ryssand looking as if he knew: he was forced in marginal charity to suppose the consultation between Ryssand and Tasmôrden was somewhat more distant.
He had pretended forgiveness once Ryssand had joined their line of march, Ryssand had pretended contrition, and so they got along, and spread out the maps by lanternlight and pretended to have reconciled, though he doubted Ryssand believed it, for he surprised dour looks from time to time when Ryssand was thinking, and when he himself presented the half of his plans to draw Tasmôrden out of his walls and meet him at a brookside near Ilefínian.
So he did plan, if Tasmôrden did not march out sooner and fall on their marching column before they cleared the end of the ridge, or if arrows did not begin to hail down on them from the heights, a natural archer's advantage. He had in fact dispatched a squad of the Prince's Guard to hold that position and warn him.
But the meaningful councils had been of himself and Lord Maudyn, with Gwywyn and Anwyll and the Guard officers, when he had sent out that squad to take the heights just before dawn yesterday.
Maudyn and Gwywyn were his most knowledgeable advisors, men who had spent their lives at such questions as supply and the lay of the land. They laid their plans in event of this and that ambush, on maps Ninévrisë had corrected, her own handwriting, her own blessing on the maps, as if she continued to advise him even though absent: her notes were on the backs of the stout parchment, and wedged between the representation of a forest and that of a brook.
But unlike Tristen's magical letter it could not speak to him with her voice and advise him what to do next.
It could not unfold the true sight of the ridge, for instance, to inform him how high and sheer the sides of it; or how deep the forest, or whether trees screened them from the rocks, trees that might stop arrows, or whether they would be exposed to fire if that squad failed its mission.
The map of this land was what he had to rely on, while he asked himself continually what in the gods' sweet name he could do if Tasmôrden turned out to have wizardry to help him.
Give him an open, flat field and a fair fight, that was all he asked, but he doubted Tasmôrden would oblige him. Chase Tasmôrden all the way to Tristen's army… that was his fondest hope, so he might catch Tasmôrden between the hammer and the anvil and be sure of him.
The bandits, the Saendal, who served Tasmôrden, would fight: here were men who would hang if they were captured. And since pretenders had succeeded one another, each killing the best of their enemy's men, there could scarcely be a remnant with Tasmôrden much better than the Saendal bandits.
It did not encourage surrender, if the tide turned: they would fight like rats in holes, escape if they could, but his own plans were to provide no hole through which they could bolt: the land had troubles enough of the sort that had made that village a weed-grown desolation. He intended to tame this unruly land to bring it gently to Ninévrisë"'s hand, a wedding gift, a gift—the thought was still new to him—for their own heir to come.
The bloody Marhanen, as the south called him, would earn the name twice over before this war was done; well, that was nothing new. But his lady of the violets would not start her reign dealing with Saendal bandits.
That, however, was skinning the deer before the hunt. There was Ryssand yet to deal with… whose betrayal might not come off if Ryssand saw the war going against Tasmôrden, and he did not intend to provoke tension if it were avoidable. It was sure Ryssand would be no truer to one lord than to another, and if they looked to sweep Tasmôrden before them, why, Ryssand might discover he was loyal after all.
Yet Ryssand might be the true reason Tasmôrden forbore to attack: that they awaited a place and a time Ryssand would strike.
And if Ryssand did strike, it would be in such a place Ryssand thought he could escape if things went badly.
Closer they marched, and closer still to Ilefínian, to solid walls, and to the friend and patron of Parsynan and Cuthan.
Closer to a refuge at need… and an assurance of safety for a traitor otherwise in jeopardy of his life.
If Tasmôrden were sure of Ryssand and Ryssand had never told Tasmôrden his king had suspicions of him, there was another reason Tasmôrden need not stir out and put himself to great effort: the war would come to him and the victory fall into his lap almost without bloodshed.
There was the reason, Cefwyn said to himself the farther they went without sight of the enemy. There was all the reason: Tasmôrden did not put himself to great trouble because he counted on the army of Ylesuin tearing its own throat and opening its veins quite obligingly on his doorstep. If things went completely his way, Tasmôrden might watch from the walls and enjoy the spectacle.
Ask whether Tasmôrden had the mildest suspicion that a man who would lie to his king would lie to him in his absolute assurances: if Tasmôrden were at all wise, Tasmôrden would ask himself such questions and doubt Ryssand's character.
That was the difficulty of being a scoundrel, he supposed: that to a lord of bandits and mercenaries, Ryssand and Murandys seemed so ordinary.
All day he waited for some sign of the enemy.
At evening they made their third camp, canvas going up like white flowers in the sunset, and after the bawling of oxen and the clatter and squeal of the oxcarts laying down the few essential tents, and after the quick dispersal of the evening's cold, fireless provender, quiet settled over the camp, the quiet of men ready, after a day's march, to settle close around the small fires. They had not the luxury of bonfires and a camp under canvas, but canvas strung up for windbreaks and spread as cover for essential gear, and as warm as the days had become and as warmly as the sun beat down on a helm, there was still a winter nip in the air at night and enough damp to soak in.
And with the men settled to their evening's occupation, the lords of Ylesuin set to their own pursuits, a sparse and plain supper in one of the few tents they had brought, with small ale and a session of politeness between enemies who eyed one another what time they were not putting on placid faces: but tonight Cefwyn brought out his second-best map in plain view and laid out the plans for encounter.
"Here," Cefwyn said, laying a pen across the map at the ford of that brook, a broad trail of ink, and annotations as to depth and direction.
"The long hill, first, and this brook between us and Ilefínian's outbuildings. Our battle line will be heavy horse to the center, excepting Sulriggan, you, sir, to the right wing. The brook is not above hip deep to a man at flood, save only there may be holes, needless to say; good bottom, so there's no fear of fording it if we find no bridge there. But I don't wish to cross it, nor shall we, unless you hear the signal from me. I'd rather let Tasmôrden have his back to the water."
There was doubt they could draw Tasmôrden across the bridge to encounter them on their chosen ground. So did he doubt it, and he little liked to practice the acts that might tempt a lord out of his citadel: burning fields and forests would not serve the peasant farmers they hoped to save, nor would it leave anything at all worth stealing after the bandits had had their way in the countryside. He did not say that he hoped for help when he crossed beyond the ridge. He never mentioned so curious a thing as a flight of pigeons in the wood.
But he went to his cot when the conference was done having had at last a satisfactory session with his entire command—and having had even Sulriggan, not the swiftest wit in the company, comprehend what he was to do, and what the signal was that would prompt him to advance. He had Sulriggan to the farthest right wing, Osanan to the left with Panys, and himself in the center… with Ryssand.
He had not anticipated to be so well pleased in dealing with Ryssand.
He had been grudging with Ryssand, then enthusiastic; he thought it a masterful use of persuasion. In the end, he hoped Ryssand had believed desperation had made them allies, and that if Ryssand was the traitor he thought, Ryssand would lie abed tonight smug in the belief he had gotten what he wanted and that revenge for his ox of a son was not so distant.
Cefwyn had not expected to find it so, but with the council disposed of, under the weight of thick blankets, under canvas in comfort, while many of the men slept triple and quadruple in their tents, and with the day's difficulties past, he heaved a deep sigh and found himself freed of his concerns of time and place and treachery. He let his imaginings drift southward and west to more pleasant thoughts and safer places.
He wondered what Ninévrisë thought tonight and whether she was asleep… whether the gift she had could make her aware of his thinking of her. Some claimed to know when a loved one was in difficulty, or when some great thing had happened completely over the horizon—so the peasants thought, at least, and them good Quinalt men.
Could not a true wizard-gift manage as much?
I love you, he said to the dark.
She was with Emuin, and master grayrobe would have his ear to the earth for very certain: his ear to the earth and his eyes to the sky for portents or whatever wizards looked for. If there was a magical breath stirring in the world, Emuin might know it, and pass it to Ninévrisë. He himself might be as deaf as his horse to such whispers out of the winds. But in the Zeide wizards and wizardry were constantly aware what went on. The old man likely knew exactly where Tristen was tonight, and where he was: that he was deaf to wizard-work might not help a wizard find him, but it had never seemed to hinder the ones he knew, either.
Had Ninévrisë met Tarien Aswydd? Almost certainly. He ached to think how she would have to face his cast-off lover and an unacknowledged child.
And when Ninévrisë and Tarien had met, had there been warfare? He imagined it, at least, but told himself Emuin would mute the quarrel and keep knives from the midst of it.
Might Ninévrisë forgive her? There was a question, too. He thought she might, for Ninévrisë could be astonishingly generous, but he feared that generosity.
And was Ninévrisë with child? He was sure of it as he was sure nothing else would have persuaded her to leave him. She was with child… gods help them both… for nothing wizards had a hand in could proceed without convolutions and calamities.
Her child… Tarien's son… both his. He deserved the consequences of his own folly, but he had never thought a bastard or two mattered; he had never counted on loving the woman he married, or loving the offspring he had—how could he have planned on it? The mother of his son was supposed to have been Luriel, and that Luriel might take exception to his sleeping elsewhere had simply been a quarrel to save for the right moment in the perpetual warfare of a state marriage.
He thanked all the gods he had escaped Luriel of Murandys.
And he wished to the good gods he had not taken to the Aswydd twins to spite Luriel, to set her in her place as one woman among his many.
Folly, folly, utter folly, and the result of it reached Ninévrisë, at Tristen's sending, of all unlikely sources. When he had gotten Tarien Aswydd a son he had not even known Tristen's name, nor met the woman he would truly marry.
And on that thought he heaved himself onto his other side.
An object slid atop the bedclothes.
He blinked, eased the covers off his arm, and reached for it.
His hand met a well-worn hilt, a scabbard, and a small roll of some sort attached to it.
His heart skipped a beat. Whatever it meant, it was not his, and it likely was not his guards'.
Who had come so close while he drowsed? How had a sheathed dagger gotten atop his covers while he lay protected by four trusted guards, one at each corner of his tent?
It was stealth bordering on wizard-work, but he could not account for it. If Ryssand or one of Ryssand's men had gotten in, why should they forbear killing him? In the battle there was far less certainty.
Whatever it was, there was not a light to be had in the tent; and he rolled out of bed and went out to his guard. "Bring a torch," he said, and waited with his hands on that leather-bound hilt and the small tight roll of paper. The hilt was cross-laced. It came to him even as he held it in his hands that he knew this dagger, having seen it day after day.
At Idrys' belt.
And was Idrys back? And was this some ill-timed jest at his expense?
Where are you? he asked the unresponsive air. Damn you, what game is this?
Surely, surely Idrys had left him this grim gift, and no enemy had done it: no one could have taken it from Idrys, surely not.
But if Idrys was back in camp—why not stay for questions? What in very hell was this nonsense of daggers and messages?
The guard brought a torch to the door, not inside, beneath the canvas.
But even at that range the light confirmed what his fingers knew, that it was Idrys' dagger.
He had to step outside into the full torchlight to read the crabbed small note tied to the hilt.
My lord king, it began, and that was indeed Idrys. She is safe. The south has crossed the Lenúalim. Keep your own counsel. Ryssand is not the only danger. Someone within the inmost circles, yours or mine, intends to betray us. Be sure I am near, but say nothing regarding me. I fear lest we make this person desperate.
Is that all? he asked his Lord Commander in silence. He was indignant, wildly angry with the man.
Standing at the door of his tent, blinded by the torchlight, he looked outward into a circle of bleached canvas, all of which informed him nothing, none of which revealed a traitor in his councils.
Was it one he had already excluded? Or was it one he still trusted?
Is that all you can say, crow?
Gods, give me more than this!
—Oh, gods, what have I said in council—and to which of my trusted officers?
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Next: CHAPTER 5