Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 4
Next: CHAPTER 6

They marched, an army now, and gathered scattered bands from woods and hills as they came. "The King!" the newcomers shouted, undeniable in Auld Syes' declaration and the witness of the Shadows that moved with them, a waft of wind, a chill and a movement in thickets.
Two boys, Elwynim peasant lads in ragged clothes, armed with makeshift spears, joined them from across a meadow, knelt briefly in the grass to profess their allegiance, and ran to join the beckoning troop that marched beside the lords' guards: Aeself marshaled them, an unruly mob in some part, but Aeself's men rode in order, and instructed the newcomers, nothing more than how to stand in a line if they brought shields or pikes or instructions to shoot from the woods if they brought bows: most of all Aeself instructed them to respect the red bands and make no mistake in it.
Tristen had refused the honor they gave: to Crissand and Cevulirn and Umanon, riding beside him, he said, "I don't wish it. But I fear wishing against it… I daren't. Can you understand?"
Umanon blessed himself with a gesture, a Quinalt man, and solid in that faith, like Efanor, clearly wishing not to think about it.
Cevulirn said, "Auld Syes has always told us some form of the truth.
But that, you'd know better than I, Lord of Althalen. And I'd not go against her."
No longer did Cevulirn call him Amefel: he had made that Crissand's honor, and given that banner and the Amefin Guard into Crissand's command, while he took command of all the army—not because he wanted it, but because if magic favorable to him was flowing that direction, he dared not refuse it. "I wish Cefwyn well," Tristen said under his breath, with as much force as he could put into the wish: for he felt an abiding fear now, the sense that something weighty resisted him. He wished Cefwyn well hourly, when circumstances allowed him; he did it mindfully and fiercely, but all the while feared making Cefwyn so evidently the center of his thoughts… and that… that was a dangerous fear in itself. Magic worked to advance Tasmôrden's cause, but magic resisted his own will as nature never had: it was wild and unpredictable, shifting its center moment by moment, as if he contested right of way with someone in a narrow hall. Every move found a counter. It was like swordwork.
It was not like Hasufin at all.
This other thing reached into the world… not everywhere, but at Ilefínian; and, if he sent his senses abroad, from several other discrete points in the map, south and west, and over toward Ynefel, and south toward Henas'amef, and east again, toward Guelemara, and the altar he had set Efanor to ward… he felt not a scattered assault, but a simultaneous one, as if something vast struggled to escape. Force skipped and thrust against those scattered portals, a force changing direction by the moment, able to do this, do that, change footing, no consulting its charts and awaiting its proper moment.
In the haste and confusion of Unfolding world he had not early on noticed a difference in the effort it took him to do things, or known why some things worked easily and some eluded him with unpredictable result. It was like Paisi, whose young legs darted up stairs without thinking: it was easy for Paisi, so he did it: but Emuin, aching in every bone, planned his trips on the stairs carefully and begrudged every one.
Magic was easy for him. Everything had been easy for him in Ynefel.
Think! Mauryl had had to tell him. Flesh as well as spirit! Don't let one fly without the other!
Mauryl had pinned him to earth, and made him do things the slow, the thoughtful way. Emuin had taught him to reckon his way through difficulties, how to govern Men without wishing them capriciously one way or the other… how to deal with friends, and how to have Men of free will about him: that was the greatest gift, greater than life itself.
What must it have been for a wizard like Mauryl, bound to times and seasons, to try to teach such a creature as he was? I never know what you'll take in your head to do, Mauryl had complained to him, and now he understood that saying, that it was not just running naked in the storm on the parapet, but willing and wishing and having his own way.
What must it have been to try to teach one ready to wish this and wish that, a dozen spells in a day, and power Unfolding to him by the day and the moment, events tumbling one over the other? A passing moth had been as fascinating to him as a lightning stroke, and when he wanted something, tides flowed through the gray space that he had not yet perceived existed: to him in those days, the world had drowned all his senses in color and taste and noise.
Flesh as well as spirit, Mauryl had taught him… and that spirit in him was a perilous spirit, and able to do things Mauryl could not possibly prevent, breaking into utter, reckless, joyous, ignorant freedom.
But could magic work harm?
Oh, easily.
He wanted advice. He wanted someone to tell him the right way.
Auld Syes, he called, for he dared not reach to Emuin. He reached out in an instant of fear and uncertainty, and a blast of wind came up in their faces and out of nowhere. Dys came up on his hind legs.
Horses shied off from it.
And when Dys came down on all fours and danced forward, a gray old woman walked between him and Crissand.
"Grandmother," Crissand whispered to her.
"Auld Syes," Tristen said. "What is this thing in Ilefínian?"
Auld Syes was gone before he had quite finished saying it, but streaks ran through the meadow ahead, and in the gray space a storm broke, sweeping the pearl gray cloud into slate-colored strands.
There Auld Syes stood, assailed by the winds, and attempting to bold her place.
There Owl flew, scarcely maintaining against the gale.
—So, said a voice that sent shivers of ice through the air. Mauryl's Shaping. So, so, so, come ahead.
He had never met the like, and yet it seemed he might have dreamed it, long, long ago, a Wind that rattled the shutters and set the faces in Ynefel's walls to moaning.
Mauryl's enemy, he surmised. Not Hasufin this time.
Hasufin, the Wind scoffed. Hasufin the bodiless. Hasufin who has no shape, nor life, nor wit. I've missed Mauryl, and lo! He sent me a surrogate.
A presence flew near him. Owl settled on his shoulder. Auld Syes, her substance streaming gray threads, arrived on his other side, his guides, the defenders of wizardry and magic.
You were at Ynefel, Tristen said. And you are not Hasufin.
Oh, names, names, names. Names have no power. Places have none. I have many Places.
Mauryl had despaired of his Summoning's actions, and warded the windows, and warded his dreams and nights as well, with especial care.
Feared you? the Wind mocked his thoughts. Oh, with great reason Mauryl feared you. Afraid, are you? Afraid to draw breath? Afraid you'll break these fragile things?
In his unfettered anger was the terror of any soul who could rend its protectors and its home apart. He posed a fearful danger to those he loved. And Mauryl had held him, restrained him, taught him, and kept him out of the world long enough, as long as Mauryl's strength lasted.
And what have you done since? the Wind asked him. Wished this, wished that, turned a king of men to your bidding, all to bring you here, to me? Do you value him? I think you do.
Leave him be!
Can you bid me? I think not. Hasufin thought he could bid me.
Mauryl brought the Sihhë out of their retreat, and last of all brought you… only one, this time. The old man was at the end of his strength, and Hasufin's become a shell of a creature… both mortal, in the end.
I wish another such, I think
It tried him. It reached for Crissand, and for Cevulirn, nearest to him, but Tristen was as quick and they were wary, so that instantly the gray space cleared, and Auld Syes stared at him, her gray hair all disordered, her eyes dark as cinders.
The same kind, Auld Syes said, but not the same. King thou art.
Take up the sword!
"What is it?" Crissand asked, and Cevulirn, silent, stared grim-faced toward the north.
But Tristen found no Name for it: he perceived only the sweep of winds toward an abyss out of which that Wind had come.
"Magic," was the best Word he could find. " Magic gone to sorcery.
Not Hasufin. It was Hasufin opposing us, but he's gone. This remains."
He could only think of the cloud in the gray space, pouring continually over the Edge. And the gray space continued to pour out its force, as if magic had no limit and the flood would never cease.
"What's amiss?" Uwen asked, looking from them to the north and back again. The horses were restive, disturbed by the streaks in the grass. "Summat's goin' on."
"He's gone," Tristen said again. A magic gone amiss: in the pre-cise way Men parsed words he found no words for it. Sorcery was wizardry turned askew. What could Men know of what he had felt opposing him, its power and its grip on the elements?
If it existed, it was nameless, unless someone had bidden it into Shapeless existence long, long ago; it owned no master now, and it was by all he perceived every other creature's enemy. What it wanted, it willed, and what it willed, it willed without a thought to any creature but itself. It was magical, and it was free, and set no limits on itself such as Mauryl had continually dinned into him. It had learned no patience with frustration such as Emuin had taught him.
And to wield magic after that unfettered fashion when there was only oneself with that power… that was inconceivable to him: what if there were no Mauryl, no Emuin, no Uwen or Cefwyn? What if there never could be for him a Crissand or a Cevulirn?
Lord Sihhë! the people cried in the streets of Henas'amef. Lord Sihhë, the word had gone through an army discouraged from calling him King.
But what was this thing?
And what was he?
Sihhë? And what was that?
That was the question of all questions, the one question no one of his friends could answer. He was not sure even Mauryl could have answered it completely—although Mauryl had known to call on the Sihhë to deal with the threat Hasufin posed.
And did that not inform him something? Mauryl had known that magic would stop Hasufin, when his student Hasufin turned. So Mauryl had understood: Mauryl had known the source of Hasufin's wrongdoing.
Mauryl could not defeat this magic without help, and then had defeated only Hasufin, and that not completely. Not even the five Sihhë-lords had completely overcome this threat, for through Hasufin this threat found its way into Althalen after the five were gone.
The question began to gnaw at all confidence… it came as an assault, an opening thrust from the enemy.
What was he?
Lord of Shadow, with the Lord of the Sun. His blade was Illusion and Truth, dividing one from the other.
"Where," he asked those with him, "where do you suppose the Sihhë came from?"
"The north," Uwen said. "As they say."
"But before that?"
"It was never recorded," Cevulirn said. "Not in any account."
"They were not good," Tristen said. "It's nowhere recorded that they were good, only that they were strong."
"Barrakkëth was the friend of our house," Crissand said They wielded magic; they lived together under one roof and rode and fought together in the south. But they were not all kind, or good, or gentle—in fact the histories recorded the opposite: yet they had never wielded their magic to seize all will from their subjects never turned it to have their own way from each other, fought no wars within the five. They had that much wisdom.
Only five, and no children, no women: could such as the Sihhë arise by nature… or were they something created, as he was created creatures of less than a lifetime?
There were no tombs such as Ulernan's, no trace of their passing It was never recorded that they died, only, the records said, that Barrakkëth passed the rule to another, and that was all.
He felt cold in all his lims, the chill of earth and darkness His gloved fingers maintained their grip on the reins. His eyes maintained a hold on the sky and the horizon: he would not slip into that dark would not go over the Edge, where the Wind alone held sway Lord of Shadows, Lord of the Sun: without shadow and light never settling.
"Speak to me," he begged those with him.
''M'lord?" Uwen answered, that potent, commanding voice that brought the land and the day and the war back to him. And Uwen experienced of such demands, heaved a great sigh and remarked how fair a day it was: "As there's a good breeze, ain't there? Which wi' the sun beatin' down on armor is a good thing, ain't it?"
"A good thing," he said desperately. His heart was hammering against his ribs. He breathed as if he had run a race. He had met the enemy. Crissand and Cevulirn gazed at him with alarm.
But he looked to the horizon, where trees met meadow… where still more stragglers, peasants and battered men-at-arms, survivors of lost battles and defeated lords, came to join their march. They had flowed to him since last night with the currents moving in the world, and after what he had seen, he knew that all things opposed to what sat in Ilefínian must flow to his banner… all that was Elwynim, all that was the south, whoever would, be could not deny them now. Auld Syes was the voice that spoke for them, but the summoning magic ran through the land and the woods and hour by hour the rocks gave up fugitives such as Aeself and his men… he felt pres-ences far and wide; he felt their moving through the land though to the east he was blind… a veil he himself drew over that one force his heart yearned to see, with all that was wrong in it.
"The Sihhë ruled for hundreds of years," he said, thinking of Cefwyn and Ryssand. "They never fought each other."
"It's not recorded that they did," Cevulirn said to him, and, perhaps thinking of the same conflict: "Wiser than we, it seems."
Restraint ran between the lines of all that Barrakketh had written in his Book… he remembered. Line after Line Unfolded to him, not alone the nature of magic, but the Shape of the world, the restraint that let the world Unfold in its own time.
He had burned that Book to keep it from other hands, and now it seemed to him that he might have possessed and destroyed that for which the junior archivist had murdered his senior: that not only Men had yearned to find among those mundane letters and requests for potions the very thing he had had… and destroyed.
Knowledge of the enemy was there.
The fount of those words was in himself, but now that he inquired of it, he found of all the words that Barrakketh had ever poured onto parchment, the two true ones were written on opposite sides of his sword: Truth, and Illusion.
"They never fought each other," he said aloud.
And the truest thing of all was the Edge between the two, the dividing line, the line of creation and destruction, dream and disillusion. There had to be both, for there to be movement at all in the world.
In his heart he could all but hear Mauryl's voice saying, Boy! Boy, listen to me! Pay attention, now! This is the crux of the lesson!
"Ye're woolgatherin'," Uwen observed. "Lad, are ye with us?"
He drew a deep breath. He smiled at Uwen, who alone of them could wake him to the ordinary world.
"You still have that power," he said to Uwen.
"What power, m'lord?"
"To call my name." He glanced solemnly aside at Crissand and Cevulirn on the other side. "I obey Uwen's voice as no other," he said, "and I gave him the calling of me. It's a magic he can do.
Wherever I wander, Uwen can always find me."
"As I'd follow ye to hell, m'lord," Uwen said. "Ye know that."
"I'd rather you called me out of it," he said. He had no true knowledge what the Quinalt meant by it, but he knew where he had fared when he faced Hasufin Heltain.
He knew where he would go now when he faced the enemy.
"Guard Uwen," he said to Crissand and Cevulirn. "Make sure he's safe."
"That's the wrong way about, m'lord, them guardin' me."
"Yet that's His Grace's word," Crissand said.
"A Man," Tristen said. "And my friend, and wise as wizards."
"Oh, that I ain't!" Uwen cried.
"Trust Uwen," Tristen said to his friends, and in his mind's eye he saw Barrakkëth's Book, its pages curling as it burned.
When he had cast the Book into the fire he had been armed as now, ready to ride against Hasufin: so he was now, astride Dys and armed and with Uwen beside him.
He used great care when he let anything in that Book well up out of the dark: its answers informed him there was much of illusion in what he loved.
Past and present and time to come mingled in the old mews, and in Ynefel, and in those other places: had been and might yet be were interchangeable in those places: they were the easiest path for magic, and his enemy had found a toehold in each and every one.
He found the meadows and woods gone dim around him, and the light gone to brass.
He saw a child dancing across the dry gold grass before them. A wind blew the grass and followed that child, and that wind suddenly smelled of storm.
"That's odd," Uwen said. "Smells like rain an' the sun's shinin' and the sky is blue. An' I swear that's a cloud just come above the ridge."
"I wish it mayn't rain," Tristen said, but spent little strength to wish it.
He still saw the child, but no one else did, not even Crissand or Cevulirn.
Troops of Shadows seemed now to follow the child, Auld Syes'
daughter, who had lived once, he was sure, and danced in the meadows, a long, long time ago: as there had been nothing ordinary about Emwy village, where Auld Syes had seemed to be in authority.
Men had died, and thereafter Emwy village had perished, lost, perhaps not for the first time.
In magic, time itself came unhinged, and Emuin's Great Year governed the progress of the world only so far as to say that strange appearances were easier than at other times.
Mauryl had brought the Sihhë from the north. But who had Summoned them? And out of what?
He looked at the sky, looked at the bare trees and at the sun on Dys'
black mane. The world was so beautiful, and there was so much of it: he could gaze forever at the wonder of leaves and not see them all: could inhale the wind and not smell all its scents, hear the sounds of men and horses and not hear all the sounds of the woods, and taste the thousand flavors in stale water and still find it wonderful…
because it was not darkness.
The darkest night in the darkest room in the world was not that darkness which was behind his first memory of Mauryl's fireside.
And that was not the worst that might befall.
He would fight to live. He knew that now. He would fight to keep these things, aside from all reasons Mauryl had Summoned him. He had gathered his own reasons, and was not, now, Mauryl's creature.
Barrakkëth, some said, even his dearest friends.
But he said Tristen, and he said it with every breath he drew.
The dagger rested concealed in Cefwyn's boot, for if Idrys had come by stealth, Cefwyn thought it wise to keep the secret, and hid that weapon which some eyes might recognize. He rode Danvy at the head of the Dragon Guard. Anwyll's contingent being newly joined to the main body, Anwyll was close by him; and he ordered the Guelens to bring up the rear and the Prince's Guard to hold a place at the middle of their line of march, lest any surprise attack should try to split the column of less experienced provincials.
The land was roughest here, so the maps had indicated and so it was.
Rocks encroached from the left and the trees spilled down off the heights and across the road. Weeds had grown here during more than one summer, legacy of Elwynor's civil conflicts.
It was the third day, and from Ryssand and his allies as yet he had had no dissent, possibly the longest period of peace with Ryssand he had known since he had come to his capital. Knowing that Ryssand was about to be a traitor was a distinct relief from wondering what Ryssand was about.
But now there was more worry, which had arrived with the dagger and the message.
A traitor near him. A traitor to whom he might have confided all his plans, when plans were hard come by, and hard to change.
Unfair, he said to Idrys, scanning the trees and the rocks and wondering whether Idrys watched the column from that rough outcrop or from the depths of the woods. He was vexed with Idrys, not an uncommon thing in dealing with the Lord Commander, but no signal he could give would order Idrys in.
He needed advice on a matter far more important than Ryssand's treason and Ryssand's conspiring with someone he trusted.
We have a war to fight, have you noticed, perchance, master crow?
Should I care that one more of my barons would put a dagger in my back? I am not destined to be a well-loved king, but thus far and somewhat by my own wits I am a live one. Come in! Stop this skulking in the bushes… it ill behooves a commander of the king's armies.
Damn, he said to himself as birds flew up, startled from a thicket.
He found he was anticipating attack, not attack from one of his barons, but attack out of the woods that were no more than a thin screen between them and the ridge… not enough to prevent archery lofted over and down, if Tasmôrden were so enterprising. He had sent his scouts ahead to investigate the heights he had sent a squad to occupy, indeed, but the essential trouble with scouts was that they had to come back to report what they saw. A man with critical information might not be able to come back, might be lying dead with a dozen arrows in him.
So might Idrys, if he went poking and prying into the woods ahead, if he had his attention all for the barons and none spared for the enemy.
And which of the barons, or which of the officers, was a traitor to him?
He refused to suspect Maudyn or Maudyn's sons: Sulriggan's turning on him would be no news and no loss. He had never been sure of Osanan.
He led the rest, not reckoning any one of them a potent threat, not reckoning Murandys would dare cross him: that alliance of Murandys with Ryssand was lately frayed; and Murandys was not a man to take rash and independent action.
Anwyll was never suspect, either. Complicity could not possibly lie in that face, in those forthright blue eyes. There was never a man less given to conspiracy: Anwyll always expected honesty of the world, was indignant when he found otherwise; and for the rest of the officers, they had served Ylesuin in his father's reign and served with honor, no marks against any of them.
An owl called by daylight, and drew alarm from the men nearest.
Maudyn laid a hand on his sword. But then a true owl took to the air and flew off across their path, so Maudyn laughed, and no few of the men did.
Then a horseman came from around the bend of the road and toward them at breakneck speed.
Attack came: there was no question—and they had not reached the chosen battlefield. Cefwyn's heart leapt and plummeted, seeing the guardsman rode perilous in balance, the dark stain of blood on his red surcoat, an arrow jutting from his back.
"Form the line!" Cefwyn shouted, and already the banner-bearers halted and spread out across the meadow: they wanted all the open land they could take, the devil and Tasmôrden take the woods where heavy horse could not have effect.
They might have met the ambush attack of some bandit, some startled peasant farmer; or it might herald the presence of an enemy whose surprise was spoiled.
The scout came riding up, scarcely staying in the saddle, and managed his report:
"Enemies in the valley next, a line, a camp…" The man had used all the wind he had, and sank across his horse's neck.
"Tend this man!" Cefwyn ordered, and shouted orders next for the banners to advance and compact the army again into a marching line spearheaded by heavy cavalry. "Panys!" he shouted at Lord Maudyn.
"Take the left as we come through." They had a barrier of woods yet to pass to reach that place the scout described, which by the condition of the scout might mean hidden archers on either side of the road.
"Shields! Lances!"
Here was the battle he had come for. Tasmôrden had come out of his walled town, fearing, perhaps, that its surviving population was too hostile, its secrets were too well reported; and so they were: Ninévrisë had told them to him in great detail, and swore, too, that such townsmen as still lived could never love this lord, of all others.
The sun was shining, the hour toward noon: there was no impediment to the fight they had come for… and Tasmôrden came out to fight, relying most on traitors to do their work.
So Cefwyn instructed his Guard: "Watch my back!" They knew from whom to guard it; and there was no more time for musing. A page brought his shield and another his lance, young men themselves armed and well mounted, young men whose duty now was to ride with messages, and so he dispatched them down the line to advise the hindmost to arm and prepare, and the baggage train to draw up and bar the road with the carts, save only a gap through which they might retreat if they had to ride back through the woods: an untidy battle if it came to that, but the saving of some if the encounter went badly, the saving of part of an army that might come home to Ylesuin, to Efanor's command… if it came to that.
He took the precautions, but he had no intention of losing. His grooms brought Kanwy up, his heavy horse, and with the groom's help he dismounted from Danvy and mounted up on a destrier's solid force, settled his shield, looked on the descent of a low hill and the strand of woods that ran from the road to the left slope, screening all the land in that direction, away from the ridge: they had climbed gradually for two days. Beyond this, his maps told him there was one great long slope before they reached the end of the ridge, a long ride down to the valley where he most expected Tasmôrden to meet him, beside what his best map, Ninévrisë's map, warned him was wooded land.
He had fought in worse land, on the borders. They had come downhill out of the brush into a Chomaggari picket barrier, and had had to climb over it. Such hours came back to him, and with the high beating of his heart, the confidence that the Elwynim, aside from their bandit allies, were not disposed to such ambushes: it was heavy horse they were bound to meet ahead, lines that mirrored their lines: the shock of encounter and the skill of riders to carry through.
The king of Ylesuin, however, did not carry the center of the charge, not today.
Leave that to Ryssand and Murandys.
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Next: CHAPTER 6