The grey twilight had warmed to a soft golden glow spreading slowly behind a layer of thin cloud. Kai regarded its translucent beauty with disfavour. There was rough weather to come in the next day or two he thought moodily as he mounted a glossy black stallion. Sadique, a magnificent example of equine power, had been a gift from a grateful potentate restored to power. Not all Kai's exploits had been unprofitable.
Valarien's mount was a stout grey cob named Dapple which he'd picked up at a horse fair some weeks earlier. He was clearly no judge of horseflesh but the animal was sturdy and reliable. Moreover, the wizard rode with all the grace and elegance of a sack of potatoes, and his long legs dangled low over the horse's flanks. The appearance of horse and rider drew laughter and a number of derogatory remarks from early-morning rustics on the way to their labours.
The ill-assorted pair of riders took the south road out of the village. Kai was much inclined to argue about this.
"I think it would be advisable to - um - lay a false trail for Vashtârik and his men," Valarien explained.
"Well, they'll have no difficulty in following us, wherever we go," Kai grumbled, "with you dressed up like Queen of the May."
The wizard maintained a poker-faced silence as they rode out of the village. His travel plan took them through gently rolling countryside patterned with verdant pastures, pale fields of newly sprouted wheat, and orchards of orange trees whose blossom yielded a delicate fragrance to the air. Here and there, the landscape was dotted with cypress trees and cork oak.
In other circumstances, the journey would have been one of pure pleasure. Right now, Kai was not in a mood to appreciate it. The fresh air had cleared his head a little but his expression remained sour.
After a couple of hours travelling, the countryside became more rugged. Tidy fields and orchards gave way to sheep pasture and vineyards. The road, or lane, as it had now become, crossed a low ridge by way of a shallow col. Here, in small wood of wild olive trees, the main north-south route intersected a narrow, stony track that ran along the crest of the ridge - the Ridgeway.
They rode on down the southern slopes until they came upon a young shepherd boy idly playing a syrinx. He left it to his worried-looking sheep to watch over their adventurous lambs. Valarien stopped and addressed the lad.
" - Um - excuse me. Could you tell me if we are on the right road for - um - Ramara, and - um - how much further we must travel?"
The boy replied that Ramara was indeed some ten leagues further along the road they were on. Valarien thanked him profusely, and tossed him a couple of copper coins as they moved on.
When they were well out of sight and sound of the shepherd boy, Valarien reined in.
"This is where we - um - walk," he said. He dismounted with some difficulty, having caught one foot in a dangling rein.
"Walk?" echoed Kai in disgust.
"Oh, only back as far as the - um - Ridgeway," Valarien assured him cheerfully, leading Dapple down the rocky bed of a dry runnel to his left.
Kai could see that the wizard was not to be dissuaded, so he sighed and slid off Sadique's back. He followed his companion down the runnel checking, almost automatically, that they had left no indication of their passing.
"What's the idea, anyway?" he asked.
"Well, when Vashtârik comes this way, the - um - shepherd boy will tell him that we're on our way to - um - Ramara, when actually, we'll be heading - um - east."
"What?" Kai exploded. "East? I don't want to go east. Chances are, we'll walk bang slap into some of the Saghan îl, maybe even Zervan himself. And the Halcyon Ocean is west of here, in case you'd forgotten."
"Head still - um - bothering you?" asked the wizard solicitously.
"It doesn't seem to be working too well."
"Pardon?" Kai growled ominously.
"Vashtârik will 'follow' us as far as Ramara. He'll spend ages searching the town for us before he realizes that we've - um - given him the slip. Then he'll spend even longer searching the countryside all around because, of course, we might have - um - skirted the town without actually entering it. One thing we can rely on - the last place he'll expect to find us is in the east."
Kai had to concede the last point, but continued to fret about the length of the diversion.
"I assure you," Valarien insisted, "it is essential if we are to succeed in selling the - um - deception."
By now, they were rounding a rocky spur which shielded them from the shepherd boy, and continued northwards. It was just past midday by the time they reached the stony track along the ridge. They mounted up again and there was a further dispute because Valarien, having declared his intention of travelling east, wanted to ride back to the crossroads.
"I have a job to do there," was all he would say.
In the event, he pulled up short of the crossroads. They went a little way into the shelter of the olive wood to make camp for lunch and to rest the horses.
After they'd eaten, Valarien sent Kai to the top of the ridge to look back over the road to the north. The wizard himself had to collect the things he would need. Kai rather resented the way Valarien threw his orders around as though he, Kai, were a mere menial. It was not what he was accustomed to and he didn't like it. However, as he had the best of reasons for watching their backs, he held his tongue and disappeared into the wood. There would be time later to set the wizard straight . . .
The northern edge of the wood ended in a rocky outcrop which provided an excellent look-out point over the road they'd travelled in the morning. Overhead, clouds were beginning to obscure the sun though it still cast a soft radiance over the landscape below. To the west, a bank of thicker cloud was building up along the horizon. Kai observed with grim satisfaction that his expectations regarding the weather seemed likely to be realized. On the plus side, there was no sign of Vashtârik and his troops.
Or was it a plus? Maybe Vashtârik had given it up as a bad job and gone home, leaving him to follow a lunatic magician on a wild goose chase. On the other hand, Vashtârik was not one to give up easily, especially not after. Kai smiled sardonically. The recollection gave him a certain sadistic pleasure - not that Vashtârik hadn't deserved all he'd got . . . Or lost. Kai chuckled. No, Vashtârik wouldn't have given up.
Or maybe Vashtârik had never been within a thousand miles of Lascany? Kai thought he'd covered his tracks pretty well . . . Maybe Vashtârik had just been a ruse to coerce him into this madcap scheme. It definitely bore thinking about. What was Valarien up to?
The mention of Gyldenburg had caught him on the raw. He'd thought that that part of his life, so long ago, was buried forever, but the name, spoken aloud yesterday for the first time in more than a decade, had pierced his very soul. Despite the sedative effects of the alcohol, it had cost him a great effort not to betray the tumultuous emotions which had surged through him. An icy thrill trickled down his spine as he thought of Gyldenburg again, and he shivered, hardly knowing how he truly felt.
Was it fate that had made the wizard seek him? Valarien clearly knew more than he was letting on. He appeared to be above board, if slightly unhinged, but then, "fair is foul, and foul is fair," runs the adage. Maybe - awful thought - Kieran had sent him, or then again, dear Merle, or . . . ?
One thing was sure - there were a hell of a lot of 'maybe's in this venture, far more than he liked.
Another unsettling thought suddenly struck him. He'd blithely gone off to do Valarien's bidding, leaving the wizard with the horses and all his gear. If Valarien wasn't on the level . . .
He cursed. What a fool he'd been! Suckered, conned and mugged! He must have been even drunker than he'd thought last night. He sprang up from the rock and went crashing back through the wood, careless alike of the racket he was making and of the cuts and scratches inflicted by the trees.
The camp, when he reached it, was exactly as he'd left it. Sadique snickered a welcome and stamped a hoof as if keen to be on the move again. Of the wizard there was no trace. Kai then recalled that Valarien had mentioned the cross-roads, and so set off along the track to look for him.
He had not gone far when he spotted the blue-cloaked figure ahead of him. The wizard was placing something at random intervals along and around the Ridgeway from its junction with the main route. He seemed unaware of Kai's presence.
The bold fighting man decided to take advantage of Valarien's absorption and stepped quietly among the trees. He crept softly along until he was almost on a level with the wizard. Valarien finished whatever it was that he had been doing and searched through his cloak, muttering to himself. Finally he pulled out a roll of parchment. He cleared his throat, unrolled the parchment and began to speak:
"Olee ai kwerki kway,
Ettalia rarborees, kwod serri bam,
Gliski tay, creski tay, per kreb eski tay,
Senn eski tay, immiski tay sikut nemmod
Ispikit vesterex ordyum outfinnim."
Nothing happened for several seconds, then Kai became aware of a soft rustling. As he watched, seedlings sprang up among the grasses and stretched into saplings. Under his fascinated gaze, the saplings grew and matured until they blended in perfectly with the rest of the wood. They concealed some fifty feet or more of the eastern arm of the Ridgeway. Any stranger would ride past that part of the crossroads and never know it was there. What the locals would make of it heaven alone knew.
Kai stepped out of his hiding place, clapping his hands in acknowledgement of the wizard's achievement. Valarien nearly jumped out of his skin.
"A masterly touch, magician," Kai complimented him.
"I am not a m-magician," stammered Valarien in confusion and annoyance. "I'm a w-wizard - and a mage. Magician indeed! Don't ever let me hear that word cross your lips again at least, not about me!" he snarled and stumped off down the track in high dudgeon.
Kai, following, wondered whimsically if there was such a thing as 'low dudgeon', and concluded that if there was, Valarien was too tall for it.
By the time they arrived back at their camp, the wizard had calmed down a little, though he was still noticeably bristling. Kai opened his mouth to apologize, then thought better of it. He would probably only make things worse. He picked up his saddle - and was wrong-footed again. Valarien had pulled out his bedroll and was muttering his incantation over it.
"What are you doing?" he asked nonplussed.
"Getting some sleep, of course," Valarien snapped.
" Or had you in mind riding along the ridge in broad daylight?" he asked with heavy sarcasm as he stretched out on his floating blanket.
Kai could have kicked himself. Staying away from the skyline was one of the first lessons he'd learned in guerilla warfare. He looked down at the dozing wizard and wondered if muddle-headedness was catching.
The idea of a siesta on a bed of tree roots was not an appealing one so he took himself off back to his look-out rock. The sky was overcast by now and the wind had got up. Fortunately, as it was south-westerly and backing, the olive trees acted as a windbreak.
As the afternoon wore on, the wind increased considerably and the temperature plunged sharply. Kai was debating with himself whether it was worthwhile going back to the little camp for his cloak, when he saw it - a tiny smudge on the edge of sight. He watched closely as the smudge resolved itself into a swirl of dust, still minute but growing steadily. Vashtârik? It certainly gave the impression of a body men riding fast even at this distance.
The light was fading rapidly as large drops of rain began to fall. Vashtârik, if it was he, had covered about half the distance to the ridge and was approaching a little hamlet. As Kai watched, the dust cloud reached the hamlet - and stopped. Perhaps Vashtârik planned to wait out the approaching storm in comfort. If so, Kai felt sorry for the hamlet's inhabitants.
He hung on for a few minutes longer to see if his enemy was merely seeking information, not that there was much chance of his seeing a great deal. By now, the gloom had deepened and the rain, which would soon turn the dust to mud, was coming down in torrents. He didn't think there was any further movement, however.
Making his way back through the wood in the dim light and pouring rain proved a severe trial. In the end, he tried a low whistle and was relieved to hear a reply. The wizard was obviously awake and alert. He followed its direction and whistled again. The response was much closer. He stepped forward and a dead branch cracked under foot. There was a squawk and a clatter of wings.
Kai cursed roundly. Had he been following some damned songbird? His curses produced better results than his whistles. Sadique recognized his voice and whinnied. Kai had no difficulty in homing in on that.
The wizard was neither alert nor even awake. Kai was irritated though not surprised to find that he was bone dry. He shook him, then shook him again - to no effect. Valarien was out cold. Kai wondered if he was all right.
A rare pickle he had got himself into, he thought, as he reviewed his situation. In less than twenty-four hours, he'd let himself be talked into throwing in his lot with a half-witted wizard, dragged several leagues across Lascany - in the wrong direction - and dumped in the middle of nowhere in the pouring rain with a semi-corpse on his hands and Vashtârik hot on his trail - probably as a result of his conspicuous companion. And it was too wet to light a fire to brew some coffee. And the wizard hadn't allowed him time to stock up with alcohol . . .
He was roused from his dismal reverie by a muffled thump. The spell had expired, and Valarien was awake. Wide awake. And cheerful. Semi-corpse? Well, the other half could be arranged, Kai thought nastily.
The wizard, dry and refreshed, was positively exuberant. He was also hungry. Kai pointed out with grim pleasure, that whatever he ate would have to be cold. Not so. Kai was forgetting he was with a Wizard.
Within half an hour, they were sitting in a bubble of dryness round a crackling fire and eating a hearty 'breakfast' washed down with gallons of aromatic coffee. Kai had been concerned that the size of their fire up on the ridge would advertise their presence like a beacon, but Valarien dismissed his apprehension and begged him to have a little more faith in him. Kai let that one pass.
The bubble spell ran out and they returned to a cold wet reality. Valarien declined to renew the spell.
"My power is not unlimited," he said. "I see no point in draining it unnecessarily. Not afraid of - um - getting wet, are you, Kai?"
"Certainly not," he replied, nettled, "but given a choice of being wet or being dry, I'd opt for dry."
They were riding at an easy pace eastwards along the Ridgeway.
"Not had much contact with - um - wizards?"
"I try to avoid it," Kai said frankly. "They're a capricious lot, for the most part."
Surprisingly, Valarien didn't take umbrage at that statement. He seemed to consider it for some moments then said,
"Wizards are not normally capricious as such. Some of my brothers can be a little - um - fey upon occasions, but capricious? No."
He paused again.
"Are you sure you've ever really met a wizard?" he continued. "There are many practitioners of the - um - magical arts but very few wizards, though some claim to be who aren't."
Kai recalled his faux pas.
"I'm sorry I caused you offence."
"When I called you a - you know . . ."
"Oh that. Well, perhaps I - um - over-reacted slightly. You clearly spoke from ignorance."
The wizard's voice took on a pedagogic tone as he continued.
"There are nine orders of - um - pure magic, and three other applications. The first order - ha! the lowest rank you might say - is the - um -conjuror. Mere tricksters, they are. Pull rabbits out of hats, and gold out of your scrip - and they - um - cheat at cards.
"Next come the warlocks and - um - witches. Now they are capricious - noted for it - but if you want crops blighted or a beautiful girl to fall in love with you, they're your people. Of course, they're just as likely to - um - blight the girl and make you fall in love with a toad, but there you are. You pays your money and you takes your - um - chance, as the saying goes . . ."
"Shouldn't that be choice?" Kai asked pedantically.
"Not with witches and warlocks, no."
There was a minatory "Do-not-interrupt-me-again" note in his voice.
"The third order is the - um - magician."
It was said with particular emphasis and followed by significant pause to allow the information to sink in thoroughly.
"They try to mix politics with entertainment, and sell themselves to the - um - highest bidder. Magical prostitution!"
There was a long pause after that as the wizard seethed in silence. Kai was glad of that. At least no recriminations had been hurled at his head - as well they might, he thought. Eventually, the wizard took up his thread again.
"Sorcerers and - um - sorceresses fill the fourth rank. They're a bad lot, too. Like magicians, but without the - um - entertainment . . . Got no sense of humour at all. They don't dabble in politics, they're up to the - um - elbows in it - run your life for you if you let them - or even if you don't. Especially if you're a king or a lord, or some such - um - high-ranking personage.
"Enchanters - and enchantresses, of course - are a much better class of magical practitioner, if emotionally rather cool - well, completely - um - cold-blooded in fact . . . No, that's not quite right. They - um - just do what has to be done. There's no malice in it, but no love either. Mind you, they mostly deal with inanimate things, so usually there's no harm done.
"The sixth order is - um - illusion. Now, you might think of an illusionist as - um - a failed wizard. In fact some of the lesser practitioners do so themselves - and carry a sizeable chip on their shoulders because of it. But a really powerful illusionist is a force to reckoned with, believe me.
"The seventh and eighth orders are pretty much on a par, but it was decided that the - um - necromancer should take the higher rank, ostensibly because of the numerological significance of the number eight, but mainly, I suspect, because no one wanted to offend Gorgurtur, the - um - Great Necromancer. Can't say I blame them. As you will be aware, necromancers deal in - um - death magic. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, but somehow, they usually seem to end up taking the - um - left-hand path...
"Anyway, in consequence of that, we wizards have the seventh rank, but we do not complain. The - um - resonances of seven are more in harmony with the discipline of wizardry. We harness the powers of the elements . . ."
The wizard lapsed into silence, presumably contemplating the music of the spheres. Kai waited for him to continue, but he evinced no sign thereof.
"I thought you said there were nine orders?" he said, dragging Valarien out of his reverie.
"Eh? Oh - yes, there are."
"Well, what's the highest?"
"Oh - ah - um . . . well - um - mage, of course," he finished, with a hint of unconscious pride in his voice.
"You - um - sound tired, Kai Can you sleep in the saddle?"
"It has been known. Why?"
Under his breath, the wizard muttered . . .
|Index Page||Chapter 3|