It hung like a heavy, motionless curtain over the shallow valley between two isolated hills, frozen in place, yet with an odd, internal swirling movement. Although the spring night was cool, the fog was chill as ice and thick as death, and it ignored the stiff breeze that whispered across the endless miles of grass, as if no mere wind could touch it.
There was no moon, and jewellike stars glittered and gleamed in a velvet sky clearer than crystal. Yet for all their beauty, their light seemed to sink into the fog, absorbed and deadened . . . devoured.
The night sounds of the Wind Plain—the sighing song of wind, the counterpointing songs and hums of insects, the distant noise of a small stream chuckling to itself in the dark, the shrill squeaks of bats, and the occasional cry of some nocturnal bird—flowed over the grasslands. But all stopped short at the edge of the fog. None penetrated it, or crossed the unnatural barrier it erected.
Then new sounds added themselves. Not loud ones. Hooves thudding into the soft earth made little more noise than the creak of saddle leather, or the jingle of a bridle. A single rider came cantering out of the night, straight towards the eerie wall of fog. But the horseman slowed as he neared it. Not because he chose to, but because his mount balked. The horse slowed, tossing its head, then turned sideways. It fought the reins, ears flat, shaking its head and sunfishing while it whistled its protest.
The rider swore and wrenched his mount's head back around, trying to force it onward, but the horse planted its hooves, and when he drove in his spurs, it bucked wildly.
The rider was no Sothōii. That much was obvious when he parted company with his saddle and went flying over the horse's head. Yet however clumsy he might have been on horseback, he displayed an unnatural agility as he flew through the air. He tucked and rolled somehow in midair, twisting his body about, and landed on his booted feet with an impossible lightness. He didn't even stumble, and his right hand flashed up and caught the bridle cheek strap before the startled horse could flinch away from him. There was a dreadful strength in that hand, and the horse whistled in panic, fighting vainly to wrench away from it. But the other hand came up, reaching not for the bridle, but for the horse's throat. It closed, squeezing with that same hideous strength, and the horse's whistle became a strangled sound of terror as it was pulled remorselessly to its knees.
A sound came from the dismounted rider then—a snarling, hungry sound, as animallike as any noise the horse had made, but uglier, more predatory—and his eyes blazed with green fire. The horse's struggles began to weaken, and the rider's snarl took on a vicious note of triumph.
The single word came from the fog bank behind the rider. It was not really very loud, yet it echoed and reechoed with irresistible power, and the other sounds of the night seemed to stop instantly, as if terrified into silence by that infinitely cold, infinitely cruel voice.
The rider straightened, snatching his strangling left hand away from the semiconscious horse's throat, and whirled to face the fog.
"Fool," the voice said, and it was filled with bottomless contempt. "It is ten miles and more to the nearest habitation. If you wish to walk that far, then finish what you were doing."
The rider seemed to hover on the brink of saying something in reply, but then he thought better of it.
"Wiser, far wiser, so," the voice said. "Now come. I will see to it that your beast remains where it is."
The rider obeyed without so much as a backward glance at the horse which was feebly attempting to climb back to its feet behind him.
He walked into the opaque, blinding fog with the confident stride of one who could see perfectly . . . and as if the charnel stench which infused it did not bother him at all. The stench grew steadily stronger as he moved deeper into it, and then he stepped out of the fog, crossing a dividing line between vapor and clear air as sharp as the line he had crossed to enter it.
If he had believed for an instant that the fog was natural, he would have known better as he stepped out into the wide space it surrounded with its protective barrier. The protected area was at least two hundred yards across, perfectly circular, its air still and calm, and free of any trace of the enveloping mist. The pinprick stars shone down upon it without distortion or obscuration, but for all the clarity of the air, the dreadful stench was stronger and more choking than ever.
A woman—or something shaped like one—stood at the exact center of the circle. She towered above the rider, at least eight feet in height, and clustered about her, like a sea of fur, fangs, and poison-green eyes, lay scores of wolves. They seemed to shift and flow strangely—sometimes wolves, and sometimes crouching, misshapen forms, almost humanoid, but with snouted, piglike heads and batlike wings folded tight to their spines. Their eyes blazed the same malevolent green the rider's had, regardless of their forms, and that same glare clung to the woman who stood surrounded by them. She wore it as if it were a second skin, and it hung about her like a nimbus of airy ice.
That cloak of dim brilliance illuminated her, despite the moonless night. She stood wrapped in an aura of deadly power and debased beauty. Despite the perfection of her features, despite the long, intricately braided black hair and the exquisite diadem upon her head, there was something about her fit to repulse and terrify any living creature. Something that whispered of violated crypts and the power of corruption. When she turned her head to look at the new arrival, he could see the brilliant green flare of her eyes, like slickly polished ice, and the floating black skulls which were her pupils. They studied him with a cold, dead indifference, and his own head rose. His eyes glowed with a dimmer light than hers, and his nostrils flared hungrily to the scent of death—of long dead flesh rising from an opened grave—as it flowed over him from her like some corrupt perfume.
She and the wolves and not-wolves were not alone. Four other humans (or as "human" as the rider, at any rate) stood dotted about among the wolves, and behind her loomed a herd of shapes. They were indistinct and wavering, those shapes. Impossible for even the rider's unnaturally acute vision to see clearly. But they might almost have been horses—huge horses—standing with hanging heads and ragged manes like an army of slaves.
"So, you arrive at last, Jerghar," she said, and he inclined his head to her in obeisance. His eye-glow dimmed further, banking itself in submission to her greater power.
"I came as rapidly as I could, Milady," he said, his voice fawning.
"So I already knew . . . and because I did, and because you have arrived in time, however barely, despite your tardiness, you will continue to survive and serve Me."
Jerghar bowed more deeply still, saying nothing, but he knew she sensed what would have been the quicker, harder throbbing of a living man's pulse.
"I exist only to obey, Milady," he said.
"Yes, you do," she agreed. "Only to obey and to feed . . . or to be fed upon. Now come, join your brothers and sister."
Once again, Jerghar obeyed, walking through the ranks of her shardohns like a man wading through a waist-deepswamp. They parted to make way, without a sound, gazing at him with those lambent eyes filled with hate, fear, and hunger, and he passed among them to join the other once-human servants standing about his mistress.
"The trap has sprung," she said, speaking to all of them, "yet it has closed not upon Tellian, but upon the accursed hradani Bahzell and his companion."
Something went through her listeners. In another time and another place, it might have been called a stir of uneasiness. But only a fool would dare to display uneasiness in the presence of that mistress.
"It was not what We wished for, but it will serve Our purposes well," she told them. "Brandark's death is worth more even than Tellian's, and Bahzell's is worth more than the destruction of the entire Sothōii Kingdom."
Jerghar stiffened. He'd known his mistress and her allies were determined to destroy Bahzell, Brandark, and Tellian, but he still didn't know why. Nor could he understand how the death of a single hradani, even one who was the son of Prince Bahnak of Hurgrum and a champion of Tomanāk, could be that vital to the triumph of the Dark.
"I know that the prospect of facing a champion of My never sufficiently damned uncle is a frightening one," she continued, and this time Jerghar was astonished, for it was not her way to concern herself with anything so insignificant as her servants' hopes or fears. "So it should be, for of all Our enemies, he is the most powerful, after Orr himself, and by far the most relentless. But his arrogance will be the downfall of his champions, just as it will one day be his own. He sends them out by ones and twos, bragging to himself about their 'strength,' and their 'courage.' And he restricts himself, as his precious Compact requires, limiting his own power only to that which he may channel through them. It may well make each of them more powerful, more dangerous, but they are only a handful, and you are many—just as he is one, and We are many. And where his strength is limited only to them, and by the amount of his power each can touch and survive, My strength fills you all, just as your service and the souls upon which you feed strengthen My grip upon this mortal world. He will come to you, this Bahzell, and he will bring with him his friend, and his kinsmen, and you—all of you—" her blazing green eyes swept over the wolves, as well as her once-human servants "—will fall upon them. You will feed, as you have never fed before, upon the blood and the soul of one of his champions, and it will be sweet, and rich beyond your dreams."
The seductive power of that cold, hungry voice reached out to them all, entwining them in her power, binding them to her will, and behind her, a wave of hopeless desolation and horror swelled up from the torn and tattered shades which had been coursers.
"You will serve Me, and in the serving you will find such power as even you have never before dreamed might be yours," Krahana Phrofressa, Lady of the Damned, promised her Servants, and she smiled.
* * *
"Is your information certain, Darnas?"
Baron Cassan leaned forward in his chair, his handsome face intent. His study's lamplight picked out the gems on his ringed fingers and gleamed on his golden hair, and the buillon embroidery of his black velvet tunic flickered in the mellow glow when he shifted position. The man before him had dark, thinning hair, brown eyes, and a weathered complexion. In contrast to his lord's elegance, his clothing was plain, durable and practical, but cheap. Indeed, he was almost as nondescript as Varnaythus, but unlike the wizard-priest, Darnas Warshoe had been in Cassan's service for almost nine years. At the moment, he looked rather the worse for wear, unshaven and tired, his boots spattered with mud.
"Aye, Milord Baron," he said wearily. "No one made any great secret of it, and I confirmed the stories myself." He gave his liege lord a tired smile. "I've not forgotten how to mend riding tack, Milord, and there's always need for a few extra sets of hands this time of year. That got me into Hill Guard, and there was plenty of gossip amongst the castle's garrison."
"So Tellian sent Trianal to Festian," Cassan mused aloud, leaning back in his chair and crossing his legs. He waved Darnas towards the sideboard, with its wine bottles and gleaming decanters, and his henchman accepted the silent invitation with alacrity. Cassan was never niggardly with those who served him well, and Darnas unhesitatingly poured himself a snifter of outrageously expensive Saramanthan brandy. All the same, Cassan noted with dry amusement, it was a rather small snifter.
The baron didn't care. As far as he was concerned, Darnas' report entitled the man to the entire decanter. Of course, precisely what Cassan was going to do with that information remained to be seen.
He gazed into the fire—kindled more for custom and emotional comfort than for need, now that spring was moving steadily towards warmer days and nights—and thought hard.
He'd always anticipated that Tellian would send some sort of assistance to Festian. He almost had to, given the pressure Saratic, Garthan, and Dathian were exerting. But Cassan hadn't really considered the possibility that he might send a youngster like Trianal as his proxy. In some ways, it was a most shrewd move on Tellian's part, but in others . . .
Trianal was young, very young, for such a responsibility. The Bowmasters had a tradition of testing members of their clan young, and from all of Cassan's reports, the cub had acquitted himself well in the face of the opportunities which had already arisen. Yet despite all that, he had a young man's judgment and experience. It would be much easier for a youngster his age, especially one eager to make a good impression and justify his uncle's faith in him, to let enthusiasm or overconfidence lead him into disaster an older, wiser head might have avoided.
Cassan had hoped Tellian might have been concerned enough to personally lead a contingent of his troops to Glanharrow. Or, failing that, that he might have sent that infernal, interfering busybody "Prince Bahzell" as his proxy, given the Gullet's proximity to the area of Dathian's raids. In either of those cases, Darnas' expertise with bow and arbalest might have proven most useful.
In the end, not even Saratic would willingly have launched a personal attack upon the Baron of Balthar. Accidents might have happened, had Tellian insisted (as was his wont) upon leading his men in person, but no mere lord warden would be prepared to risk the killing of one of the Kingdom's four barons. The penalty for an "accident" like that would be . . . extreme, and it was almost certain that King Markhos would dispatch his Crown investigators to look into the death of a great magnate like Tellian.
But that was the reason Cassan had infiltrated Darnas into Saratic's employ. The Lord Warden of Golden Vale thought Darnas was only one more skilled scout. He had no way of knowing that before a certain unfortunate lapse in judgment had led to his fall from grace, Sergeant Warshoe had been an instructor in the King's Own Regiment. Darnas could thread a needle with a horsebow at two hundred yards, and he was almost equally skilled with a steel-bowed arbalest. More importantly, Darnas had no qualms whatsoever about putting a yard-long arrow, or a steel-pointed arbalest quarrel, through any baron ever born if Cassan told him to.
It would have been so neat, Cassan thought wistfully. Everyone would have suspected, accurately enough, that Saratic was the primary instigator of the attacks upon Festian's lord wardenship. But everyone who knew him would also have known he would never intentionally kill Tellian. So the only reasonable conclusion would have been that it truly was an accident. In that case, Cassan's protection of his vassal would probably have been enough to preserve Saratic from fatal consequences. And if that protection had proved inadequate, Saratic would not have been an irreplaceable loss, however useful he might have proved if he survived. Indeed, Cassan would cheerfully have cut the man's throat himself if that was what it took to bring about Tellian's death.
Killing Tellian in what was obviously little more than a border squabble between minor feuding lord wardens would have decapitated the opposing faction on the Royal Council in a way which could never have pointed the finger of suspicion at Cassan. Even better, Tellian's death would have provoked the very succession crisis in Balthar about which Cassan's proxies and cat's-paws on the Council had been warning everyone for years. And when that happened, those same proxies would be prepared to urge the King to give his royal stamp of approval to Rulth Blackhill's offer for Leeana Bowmaster's hand. Under the circumstances, Cassan had estimated that there were at least three chances in four that Markhos would have agreed to marry the girl off to the Lord Warden of Transhar rather than risk seeing the Balthar succession collapse into uncertainty.
The chances of getting Tellian into the open and killing him there had always been problematical, but the prize was certainly worth making the attempt. And if he couldn't kill Tellian, he'd hoped that Darnas would at least manage to get a clear shot at "Prince Bahzell." Killing him off would put an end to the entire grotesque sham created by Tellian's shameful and humiliating "surrender" to the horse-murdering barbarians. It would also prove once and for all that no hradani could truly be a champion of Tomanāk, no matter who Bahzell and Wencit had managed to fool and manipulate into accepting such a blasphemous absurdity. And with just a little bit of luck, Bahzell's death might very well have provoked the war Tellian's gutless "surrender" had postponed. It might not be as satisfying as removing Tellian and marrying Balthar's heir conveyant off to one of Cassan's kinsmen and allies—especially one who would be as . . . demanding as Rulth. But ending all threat of a united hradani Kingdom on the flank of the Wind Plain before Prince Bahnak was firmly in control was certainly a worthy goal in its own right.
Yet now it seemed neither of those targets was about to come within range of Darnas' bow or arbalest. Cassan wondered if Tellian had been cunning enough to suspect the full depth of his enemy's plans and hopes. Had he been clever enough to send Trianal on the theory that the youngster would have so much less priority as a target that he would be, in effect, protected? Or, conversely, was Tellian cold-blooded enough to send the young man off expecting him to be targeted? Trianal was his nephew, yet any military commander worth his salt knew there were times when a diversion was necessary. And for a diversion to succeed, it had to be tempting enough that it might well draw an attack, which meant that sometimes one had to risk—or even knowingly and deliberately accept—that diversion's sacrifice.
"Tell me, Darnas," Cassan said, emerging from his reverie at last, "what do Tellian's armsmen and minor lords think of Trianal?"
"Well, Milord," Warshoe began with slow, obvious thoughtfulness, "I'd say they think well of him. He's handled himself well enough in the field, given how few chances he's had. And although he's young, most of Tellian's people think he's a shrewd and level head on his shoulders. They certainly prefer him to either of his brothers! Indeed, Milord, and bearing in mind Lord Transhar's offer for Lady Leeana, there's quite a few of Tellian's armsmen who think he ought to have settled the succession question by arranging a marriage between Trianal and his daughter."
"The Council would never have stood for it," Cassan said dismissively. "There's much too close a degree of consanguinity."
"I know that, Milord. And so do Tellian's armsmen. But you asked what they thought of him, and I'd say that wishing Tellian could arrange that marriage is a fair indication that they think pretty highly of him."
"Um." Cassan rubbed his lower lip, frowning, then nodded. "You're right," he conceded. "And, truth to tell, if I were Tellian, I might be tempted in the same direction, if I thought for a minute the Council might stand for it. Everything I'd heard suggested that Trianal's a likely lad—what you've just said only confirms it."
He thought some more. As he'd told Darnas, there was no way even Tellian's closest allies on the Council would have supported a marriage between Trianal and Leeana. But if anything happened to Leeana, and the gods knew illness and accident were no respecters of rank or birth, then Tellian might very well select Trianal as his heir adoptive. That would be well within the accepted framework of law and custom. And an heir adoptive that well thought of by Tellian's vassals would make a formidable opponent. Especially if Tellian had another ten or twenty years in which to train him.
"You've spoken with Lord Saratic and Lord Garthan more recently than I," he said aloud after another lengthy moment of consideration. "How willing do you think they would be to risk a little more escalation?"
"You mean over and beyond what you've discussed with them, Milord? Or over and beyond what you've discussed with me?"
"Beyond what you and I have discussed," Cassan replied.
"Well, Milord, I'd say Lord Garthan would have second thoughts, or even third thoughts. Not to put too fine a point upon it, Garthan's not only smarter than Saratic, but he's in it only for what he can do to strengthen his own position. Saratic, on the other hand . . ." Darnas shook his head. "That's a man who's being eaten up inside by hate. He wants Festian dead, and even more than that, he wants 'Prince Bahzell' dead. Truth to tell, I doubt he would have been at all upset, whatever he might have said openly, if I'd had the opportunity for the archery practice we discussed. With Tellian not even there to suffer an accident, I think Saratic would be willing enough to risk killing young Trianal."
"Willing enough to commit some of his own armsmen to the 'raids' on Festian's herds and farms?"
"If they were the right men, Milord—men he could trust both for their ability and for their loyalty and ability to keep their mouths closed—then, yes, I think he would."
"There, I'm not so sure, Milord," Darnas confessed with the ability to admit honest ignorance which made him so valuable. "I've not spoken directly to Lord Dathian, and I can't really say I know him at all. If you want my best guess, Milord, I'd say he hates Festian enough to be willing to let someone else across his holding to launch an attack on Festian, or even Trianal, directly. He'd not be willing to risk committing his own men to it, but he'd probably go as far as providing guides through the Bogs for someone else's men." The spy-assassin shrugged. "As I say, that's my best guess, Milord, but it's only a guess. I'd not want to think you were basing all your plans on something no more positive than that."
"I understand." Cassan nodded, and wished he had two or three more men whose judgment and ability—and, most importantly, loyalty—he could trust as he trusted Darnas'. But he didn't.
"Very well," he said finally. "Get some rest. I'm afraid I'm putting you back on the road tomorrow—early. I'll be sending written messages to Saratic in our private cipher, but the important ones will be making the trip in your brain, not on paper."