In which Kai hears the worst,
It was late afternoon when they bid Désirée a fond farewell. Almost, they expected her to tag along with them, and it had indeed crossed her mind. Reluctantly, she chose business before pleasure so they had to make do with her very best wishes and a generous supply of her excellent cooking. This was a more than adequate recompense though, naturally, no one said so.
She was delighted to see the transformation of the four travellers as Valarien cast the spell of disguise. This was essential as Beauregard arrived with the information that the town was crawling with soldiery. The hunt was up for the escaped prisoner and his accomplices and a detail had just arrived in the Street of Mummers.
Fearing that Désirée might be recognised, Valarien answered the knock at the door. In softly hypnotic tones, he planted in the enquirer's mind the belief that no one in that household had been involved, and that there was no necessity to return.
Not long afterwards, they were on the road again. No one challenged them as they left the town though carts and wagons were being thoroughly searched. They took the north-east road across the broad plain of Brienne between the Mavorean Mountains and the western end of the Kadina Bassa.
There was no sign of pursuit. Constant vigilance remained the order of the day nevertheless. If dark forces were ranged against them, it were well to beware of further attempts at diversion. Valarien was of the opinion that while their, as yet unseen, enemies would not be desperate enough to try an outright attack against them east of the ocean, it would no doubt suit them to keep the party chasing their tails - indefinitely if possible.
One evening, some four days after they had left Harlonne, they made camp in the lee of a small outcrop of rock that marked the extreme end of the Kadina Bassa. A day's ride ahead lay the small town of Orlo. Valarien suggested that it might be safer to camp outside, and pass through the town in daylight, as he had planned to do at Harlonne...
It was tacitly agreed that there would be no more excursions of pleasure until after the job was done.
Kai had ridden in silent absorption since their departure. He did not seem to be unduly downcast, however. Rather, he wore a look of ardent anticipation. During supper, his mood of abstraction deepened as though he were debating with himself about something. As the first stars pricked the darkening vault of the heavens, he seemed to reach a decision and tentatively entered the conversation.
"I've been thinking, Valarien," he said carefully. "I've always felt that you know more than you told me when first we met. I have given you my story. Now, I would know the whole whatever pain it may cause. It cannot be worse than I have already suffered."
The wizard looked sceptical.
"Perhaps you're right. It would be better - now - that you should know what - um - lies ahead."
Valarien paused to gather his thoughts.
"I have travelled through Belsaria on two occasions," he began. "The first was during your father's lifetime. It was a fair land as I said, and the people, for the - um -most part, were happy. Your father was a great lord. He took a strong interest in the - um - welfare in his people, so that none might fear injustice. Anyone with a grievance was guaranteed a fair hearing, as was the person with whom he was at odds. I do not say that all King Walden's decision's were the - um - right ones, but few people were dissatisfied. He was held in great respect throughout his realm. He was, however, a somewhat - um - taciturn man. Lacking warmth, he did not inspire affection also."
"I think he feared to show his feelings lest it be taken for weakness," Kai said, a little defensively.
"So I can imagine," Valarien went on. "His kingdom was the envy of his neighbours. A show of - um - sensitivity might have been misconstrued as frailty and, as such, invited them to - um - take advantage. He always did right by his subjects as he saw it, and they honoured him for it.
"How different was my second visit, last year. The land, once so fertile, wore a look of - um - long neglect. There didn't appear to be enough workers to care for it and the faces of those who had remained were - um - haggard with worry - fear even. None dared speak openly about this great change, so I went to Gyldenburg itself.
"Bit by bit, I pieced together the story. Your abrupt departure caused something of a stir so the king let it be known that you had been sent on - um - a diplomatic mission and it was soon forgotten. Several months later, Heloise died. It was about three days after the - um - birth of her daughter, Aislinn. Reyner was distraught. Merle took charge of the baby, letting no one near her but herself. During the following winter, your brother - um - Linden, had an accident "
"No! Not Linden! Not dead?"
The wizard's solemn face confirmed what he had already suspected.
"He was the best of us all. Oh, gentle heart, what became of you?"
The warrior's troubled face gave Valarien pause. His own grievous loss still fresh and sorely felt, he watched in silent compassion until Kai mastered his feelings.
"It was a fine morning after a snowy night and he had - um - gone sledging. The sledge ran out of control and carried him across the frozen lake. As he reached the middle, the ice broke and he - um - fell through "
"That's impossible! He hated the cold. Oh, he went out in bad weather when he had to, but he never revelled in the snow like the rest of us." Kai looked grim. "He wasn't alone, was he? He had Kieran with him, hadn't he?"
Valarien had no need to answer. Kai read it in his face.
"Ye Gods! Someone must have seen through Kieran's plotting then, surely?"
"Apparently not. Your mother believed the family was - um - under a curse "
"As well she might!"
" and called in seers and wise men. Although they sensed a malign presence, no one could find the - um - source of the curse. In despair, the Queen left the city, and went into seclusion with the - um - Fravashi Sisterhood. I believe she lives there still, though not in this world. I fear her mind could no longer tolerate the weight of sorrow that - um - Fate had laid upon her. She is happy now - in her own way," he added quickly, seeing the pain in Kai's face.
"And I not there to comfort her! She is cursed in me - to have deserted her - and Linden, too!"
"You must not blame yourself, my friend. Be sure, she would not. To have stayed would probably have been - um - suicidal. What else could you have done?"
"I need not have run away - cried craven. I could have stayed near at hand... couldn't I?"
There was almost a pleading note in the warrior's voice, as though entreating exoneration.
"You could," Valarien agreed sharply, " and where would that have got you? Do you think you could have intervened to - um - change anything then? You said yourself that your family's eyes were blind to what was going on Rather like the way our eyes have been - um - turned from things we were not intended to see, now I come to think of it. And thinking further still, my mind has been led astray again! I said the - um - wise men detected a malign presence. Without considering what I said, I assumed it to emanate from Kieran. And so it might - but then again Remember what we saw in the - um - scrying crystal."
There was an arrested expression on Kai's face.
"You mean, the evil may not come from Kieran himself?"
The pleading tone was stronger.
"That may well be the case. Throughout the whole episode - from the very beginning, it seems - people have been seeing and yet not seeing. In the past weeks we have wondered many times at our not noticing things that were - um - right under our noses, haven't we? How much has been missed altogether over the years? Hmm. Maybe they've - um - outsmarted themselves, though... It may be some consolation to you, Kai, but having kept you away for so long, they now have a warrior of - um - great skill and experience facing them instead of a raw youth, untried and untested. They also have myself, and of course Ewan and - um - Leon."
"They?" asked the barbarian. "Who are 'they'?"
"Don't you remember? Or have you just not been - um - paying attention? Oh, forget I said that. Our minds have all been clouded. You may recall, when we were with - um - Scipius, that Ewan produced a parchment he'd picked from Glitch's pocket in Del-e-ziba? Yes? Well, perhaps you didn't get a look at what was on it. It bore the - um - sigil of Glasyalabolus - and it wasn't the first time Kai and I had seen it on this mission."
"Who's Gay-see-a-bobbalus?" asked Leon heedlessly, struggling with the name.
"If you will refrain from interrupting," replied the wizard frostily, "I shall tell you. Glasyalabolus is one of the - um - High Lords of Daemonkind. They are masters of the - um - thirteenth order of magic. You may have heard it referred to as - um - 'black' magic. Daemon Lords don't normally involve themselves so closely in the affairs of mortals. They prefer to - um - delegate the dissemination of evil to their minions. Fortunately for the world, their minions tend to be rather stupid and - um - incompetent. The fact that Glasyalabolas has shown his interest in this affair suggests that someone, somewhere, has - um - screwed things up."
"So that could be a good thing for us?" Leon asked brightly.
"Yes, and - no," Valarien replied repressively. "Yes, it's good that there's been a cock-up - or two. No, it's not good to have aroused one of the immortals... "
Somewhere in the west a wolf howled, long and mournfully. Ewan shivered.
"I know they're friends of yours, Leon," he said, "but that sound always gives me the creeps."
"What sound?" Leon asked, looking puzzled.
"That wolf howling."
Leon looked scornfully at the nightranger.
"That wasn't a wo "
His eyes widened in alarm.
"It wasn't a wolf," he said slowly.
The wizard was on his feet in a trice. It was too dark to see anything. He began muttering and wiggling his fingers.
"Don't " exclaimed Kai, as a brilliant light appeared in the sky over the rising spine of the Kadina Bassa, " do anything to draw attention to us... "
"Oh. Ah... um. Sorry," stammered the wizard. "Wasn't thinking. Still, I don't think it'll - um - pinpoint us exactly."
The light persisted for several minutes during which time Leon and Ewan carried out a swift recce. Nothing was to be found.
"I don't think you'd finished telling what you know of Gyldenburg since I left," Kai prompted.
"No. I hadn't," Valarien replied, looking searchingly into the warrior's face. Apparently satisfied by what he saw there, he continued.
"After the Queen left, the king sank into a mood of profound melancholy ruling more out of - um - habit than of genuine concern for his subjects. Reyner, seemingly reconciled to the loss of his young wife, threw himself into affairs of state. In some ways, it seemed that he was acting as his father's - um - regent, and was showing great promise.
"Then one morning - it was the first day of spring - his body was found at the foot of the - um - White Tower. A note was found - supposedly written by your brother - indicating that he had taken his own life. Your father had - um - a seizure and for a while, his life was despaired of.
"He recovered sufficiently to - um - educate Kieran in the running of the kingdom and also to arrange the marriage of Merle to Crown Prince Esteban, heir to the kingdom of Caralonia. An excellent marriage. She took the little Princess Aislinn to live with her in safety and also your youngest sister, Ysa. You were not forgotten, but rumour had been flying around for some time that you had - um - been killed in battle in some far away land. Seemingly the stories rang true enough for you father to believe them."
Kai hung his head.
"This gets worse," he murmured, "but carry on. I may as well hear the rest."
"Well, Kieran was an apt pupil and learned fast. Your father's ministers began to have hopes that - um - all might yet be well, then, one month after Kieran's sixteenth birthday, your father had a second seizure from which he did not recover."
"How very convenient for Kieran that father should survive until he came of age!" Kai exclaimed disgustedly.
"Yes indeed. He lost no time in imposing his rule upon the country, extracting every last penny from your - um - subjects in taxes from rich and poor alike. Your father's ministers were rapidly replaced by men of Kieran's choosing. A secret militia force was set up to - um - spy on supposed trouble-makers and thus prevent insurrection. A word out of place - information laid against a neighbour - a tale told in anger against a parent. It was enough fetch the - um - militia. Those who were 'arrested' were never seen again, living or dead. In short, your brother has established a reign of tyranny exceeding even that of - um - Zervan and the Saghan' îl."
As he told his tale, Valarien had been staring, trance-like, into the little flames that danced over the glowing embers of their fire. Now he had finished, he withdrew his eyes reluctantly from their fascinating flicker. He looked across at the warrior, and suffered a shock. Kai seemed to have aged before his eyes.
"Are you - um - all right?" he asked in concern.
Kai nodded mutely, then made to turn in for the night. At least the darkness would grant him privacy.
They reached Orlo on the following evening and made camp in a shallow hollow a mile or so outside the town. They had had an uneasy feeling throughout the day that they were being watched. On one occasion Leon thought he had caught sight of a lupine figure behind a row of trees edging the far side of a cornfield. When he looked directly, there was nothing to be seen.
They set off early the next day, Valarien taking the precaution of renewing the disguise spell which he'd allowed to drop once they were out of sight of Harlonne. They rode sedately through the little town which had nothing to recommend it beyond its market. This was already bustling, early though it was.
Architecturally, it looked as if it had been cobbled together by a bunch of kids out of a giant-sized construction set. Most of the buildings were leaning to a greater or lesser degree and a sizeable number were buttressed against imminent collapse.
"There's a lot to be said for a roving life," Leon remarked.
Distaste was writ large on his face as he picked his way around a strut that stretched half-way across the main street. Kai gave him a curious look. Leon had never given any indication of having any aesthetic sense before.
"Keep your voice down," Valarien said curtly. "We're trying to avoid trouble, remember. So don't upset the - um - residents."
Trouble, however, was not trying to avoid them. As they were leaving the market place, they saw a gang of youths attacking another lad. Ewan caught sight of the barbarian's look of righteous wrath and hastily grabbed his horse's bridle.
"Calm down," he hissed. "We can't afford to get involved in a brawl right now."
"But it's not fair," Leon hissed back, "six on to one. We can't just turn our backs on him."
He flinched as a low punch doubled up the unfortunate victim who was being manoeuvred into a corner.
"No, we can't," Valarien agreed reluctantly, "but this one's mine."
The wizard rolled up his sleeves.
"Pugny kallibis," he muttered.
Aloud he shouted, suiting the action to the words, " ' It 'im wi' the right, lad!"
The surprised youth's fist connected heavily with the jaw of his nearest assailant. It surprised the bully even more - or would have done had he remained conscious. The youth looked at his hand in disbelief. Another opponent got in a hefty swing at his head. The four on horseback ducked as one, cringing in anticipation. At the last moment, the lad ducked too.
"Left upper cut," squawked the wizard, making another swipe through the air.
The second attacker went down. Valarien's companions exchanged surprised looks at his unexpected knowledge of fisticuffs. The lad, though still bemused, was looking more confident and decidedly pleased with himself.
"Come on, then. Let's see if four of yer can do what six of yer couldn't," he yelled provocatively.
The wizard winced. Fortunately, the remaining four thought better of it and took to their heels while their erstwhile victim hurled abuse at the retreating figures. Valarien shook his head, grimacing.
"The youth of today... " he sighed.
The others laughed.
Kai said darkly, "I think we'd better get away from here as soon as possible - before we're lured into more serious diversions."
"You think it was... set up?" Leon asked, much struck.
"I don't know, but let's not stay around and find out, huh?"