Authors: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
“… assassins’ guild…”
“… you don’t have to talk to him, Derrild. Just pay him… couldn’t get his like for two golds anywhere else.”
Creslin smiles faintly at the overestimation of his abilities.
“… what do the wizards want now, besides everything between the Easthorns and Westhorns?”
“… thank the light… never have to go back to
Land’s End. Why anyone thinks the place is worth having…”
“… you can buy anything you want, dearest, once we get to Fenard.”
The chipped crockery bowl of stew arrives in the same unceremonious way as the soapy ale had. A battered tin spoon protrudes from one side of the bowl, and the thin brown liquid drips onto the table, almost onto the wide and crusty slab of bread strewn beside the bowl.
Creslin lifts the spoon. Although the stew is nearly as heavily seasoned as Sarronnese burkha, the combination of peppers and assorted spices drown out the taste of whatever had been passed off for bear. Still, the spiced potatoes, wilted carrots, and shredded meat are an improvement over the field rations he has eaten since he skied off the Roof of the World. The bread is harder than anything carried in his pack, but both stew and bread are improved by eating them together.
“Doesn’t look like a wizard. Too young…”
“A wizard can look any age he wants.”
Creslin ignores the speculations, although his foot nudges his pack and sword to reassure himself of their availability. He spoons in the mixture, interspersed with bites from the heavy brown bread, until the bowl is empty. The ale, warm as it is, and even with its faintly soapy tang, cuts the bitter aftertaste of the so-called bear stew. But he is careful to drink as little from the mug as possible.
Creslin has not finished the ale when he stands and shoulders his pack.
“You be done, ser?” The serving woman, who has scarcely seemed to notice him, suddenly appears.
Creslin represses a smile and slips her a copper, guessing that her presence signifies her belief in an undeserved reward of sorts.
“Thanks be to you, ser.” Her voice is polite but not edged.
Creslin swallows his relief at his judgment, and with his pack half on his shoulder, slips around the two sheep-reeking individuals, brushing the shoulder of the nearer with the edge of the pack.
“Hey…” The man, with a scraggly black beard, looks at Creslin as if to stand.
“I beg your pardon,” Creslin offers flatly.
The man takes in Creslin’s face and the short sword on the pack and sits down. “Sorry, ser.”
Creslin nods and continues toward the doorway.
“Polite… like one of the prefect’s killers.”
“Still say he’s a witch.”
Once outside the Common Room, Creslin turns left and down the stone-walled corridor that leads to his room. A single oil lamp flickers halfway down the hall. Before he enters his room, he pauses, listening, trying to sense whether someone might be within, although he cannot fathom why anyone would take the trouble. The room is empty, and he eases open the door. From what he can tell, no one has been there since he left, and his parka remains on the hook, his gloves protruding from the pockets.
He closes the door.
The bar in place, he sets his pack on the far side of the bed, where he can reach the sword instantly if need be. Then he sits down on the bed, which sags but does not creak, and eases off his boots, followed by the leathers. He folds the leathers on the table.
With the warm coverlet, underclothes are enough, and Creslin still does not like sleeping in his clothes. As an afterthought, he walks to the foot of the bed and checks the underclothes spread out there. They are only damp now. Likely they will be dry in the morning, at least dry enough to put in his too-empty pack. The stone is not as chill under his bare feet as he would have thought, perhaps because of the thermal springs underneath the inn.
His eyes are heavy by the time he slips under the coverlet and blows out the candle.
The room is still dark, pitch dark, when he wakes. He does not move, for someone is in the room. He knows this even though there has not been a sound. Through slitted eyes, and with his other methods of sensing objects, he studies the room as well as he can. The bar on the door remains undisturbed.
Finally he rolls over, as if turning in his sleep, not sure that he is really awake.
“That is unnecessary.” The voice is low and husky, feminine. “You know that I am here, and I know that you know.”
Creslin sees a woman in a pale garment seated on the end of the bed. In the darkness, he cannot tell the color of her hair, except that it is not blond or pale. That darkish hair glitters with the tiniest of red sparks.
He struggles to a sitting position, not sure but whether he isn’t dreaming. “Who are you?”
“You can call me Megaera.”
“That’s an odd name.”
“Only if you do not know the legend behind the Legend.” She moves closer to him. “Unfortunately, I am yours, and you do not even know me.”
The huskiness of the voice causes him to shiver even as he reaches for her, not knowing whether she is real.
His hands part the pale garment. Her body is warm against his, and her lips burn…
But Creslin awakens alone in the middle of a rumpled bed, the predawn light as bright as any sun to his night sight. He squints and turns.
The shadowy lady is gone. Creslin frowns, looking from the rumpled coverlet beside him to the barred door and the narrow window. The dark-haired beauty has vanished, yet no human frame could fit through the hand-span clearance of the window, even were it full open. And how could she have barred the door from the outside?
Yet the bar remains in place across the door, and the dust on the floor by the window and on the window ledge remains unmoved. Though the fragrance of ryall had seared his nostrils as he had crushed her to him, no fragrance remains on the coverlet where he thought she had lain. Had it been a dream?
He flushes as he recalls the details.
Megaera-is that her name? What is it that she had said? The words that had seemed so portentous in the evening are near lost in the sunlit morning. Near lost, but not totally lost. Creslin begins to recall the darkness…
“… the Legend. Unfortunately, I am yours, and you do not even know me. Now, harsh wizard, though you try, never will you escape me, neither through purpose nor deed, for I am sealed to your soul . . â€¢. and for that, you will pay.”
Who is she? How did she find him? And why will he pay? She had resisted-but not for long-and she had shared his bed.
He swallows, not quite believing that he could have forced himself on her… but had he?
He swings his feet onto the stone, recognizing that one reason he is not chill is that he wears his underclothes. He had worn underclothes to bed, taking to heart the innkeeper’s admonition that the nights in the Westhorns were cold, even with the inn’s fires stoked high. Yet he recalls warm skin on warm skin. Even in the empty room, alone, he flushes.
So why is he shivering as though the ice of the Westhorns has knifed through his heart? Megaera?
He shakes his head and stands, shuffling to the basin of cold water, where he splashes another kind of chill upon his face. Thinking about the natural hot baths at the other end of the inn, he stops, then purses his lips.
After a moment, when he looks out through the narrow window at the patterns of frost upon the grass in the field across the road from the inn, he continues his ablutions with the clean, cold water he had not used the night before.
After he dries his face and hands, he folds the towel over the wooden peg on the edge of the table and then unfolds the heavy leathers. By the second bell, he must meet Hylin and Derrild.
But his eyes flicker back to the pillow as he pulls on his boots, and his thoughts linger on a mirror, although he cannot say why.
IN CONTRAST TO the ice-rain and the gloom of the day before, the morning dawns bright and clear, the sun-thrusting its light through the sole gap in the eastern peaks of the Westhorns and thus through the narrow windows of the Cup and Bowl long before half the travelers have struggled awake.
In the stable, his breath steaming like the caldrons in the kitchen, Creslin studies the horse, taller and more fragile than the battle ponies of Westwind’s guards. Finally he touches the chestnut gelding’s shoulder, avoiding an old scar, and concentrates on reassuring the beast. In time, he checks the bridle and the rest of the fittings before beginning to saddle up.
“I never got your name… or what you’d be called if the name’s a problem.” Hylin watches but for a moment before saddling his own horse, a heavier and younger gray. “Derrild’ll be here ‘fore long.”
“I’ll be ready.” Creslin wears his sword in the shoulder harness, as he has been battle-trained, outlandish as it may appear to the easterners. Only on ceremonial occasions do the guards wear sword-belts. “Call me Creslin.”
“Creslin…” The thin man rolls the sound across his tongue. “Weren’t for that beard you had the other day, and that silver hair, you’d pass for one of those devil guards.”
“You know. Haven’t you heard of them? Those women fighters off the Roof of the World. The ones that destroyed Jerliall two years ago.” The small man tightens the straps on a pack mule, then stacks the fitted bags onto the harness.
“Jerliall?” The name is unfamiliar, but then, Creslin realizes, there is so much he does not know.
“You really don’t know, do you?”
Creslin shakes his head.
“Stop the jabbering, and let’s get on the road.” Derrild’s voice is even thicker than on the day before. The trader jabs a heavy arm at Hylin and then toward the half-open stable door.
â€¢ In turn, Hylin turns toward the youth. “Give me a hand, would you, Creslin?”
Creslin skirts the gelding and begins to hand the cargo bags to Hylin one at a time as the trader wrestles another mule out into the yard and into cart traces.
Silently, Hylin and Creslin load a second pack mule while Derrild mumbles and stacks bags and boxes in the cart. “Frigging cold. Hell of a time to trade… got to be crazy to be a trader.”
Creslin looks toward the hulking and bearded man, then toward Hylin.
“Don’t mind him.” Hylin checks the harness. “He talks to himself a lot, but he’s careful. He doesn’t get drunk, and he pays. Can’t say that about too many traders. It’s a hard life, being a trader.”
“Must be harder being a guard.”
“Some ways, but we get paid whether he makes money or not.” Creslin frowns, not having considered that a trader might well lose money. “Does he do… well?”
“Can’t say as I know. But he’s still in business, and has been for a long time, and he has a solid house in Jellico, with a stable. His son takes the shorter runs, north to
Sligo, or south to Hydlen.”
Creslin nods as he hands the last bag to Hylin. “What about the east?”
“Ha…no money trading there. Not much risk. Not even someone like Frosee messes with the wizards’ road guards.” The thin man tightens the last of the straps and begins to lead the pair of mules out of the stable. “Same thing’s true out west. Between those devils of the mountains and the Tyrant, not much thieving goes on. So anyone can be a trader.”
“They just think they’re traders,” rumbles Derrild as he finishes loading the cart. “They carry a wagon load of cabbage twenty kays and they’re a trader. Bah!”
Creslin holds the reins of both the gray and the chestnut; his breath steams in the chill air. He has strapped his pack behind his saddle, between the near-empty saddle bags that contain grain cakes, presumably for the horse.
“Let’s go. The sooner we get moving, the sooner I can warm myself before the fire at home.” Derrild levers himself onto the cart seat, his right hand touching the leather-wrapped handle of some sort of weapon.
After readjusting the stirrups, Creslin swings into the saddle.
Hylin merely grunts. “Where to?” the younger man asks. “You haven’t been this way?”
“This is as far east as I’ve ever been.” The mercenary raises his eyebrows under the hood of his stained leather cloak but says nothing as he nudges the gray forward.
Creslin rides half a length back, his eyes already on the narrow deft at the edge of the snow-covered meadow-a cleft that points eastward. The weight of the blade on the shoulder straps reminds him that he is, for now, a guard of sorts, with a horse that will carry him eastward faster than his legs will. He eases up closer to the mercenary. “Tell me about Gallos… whatever you can.”
Hylin snorts, then half-smiles. “We’re headed for Fenard, named after, I’m told, the great King Fenardre. The storytellers claim he was the one who beat back the Legions of the West. And his was the first kingdom that didn’t swallow the tyranny of the Legend. Fenard sits on a high plain and has two walls. The lower wall is more than ten times the height of a man…”
THE COACH RUMBLES northward along the main post road from Bleyans, through Suthya, northward to the
Megaera looks down at the white leather case that contains the mirror, then shakes her head. Why is it that using the mirror now leaves her stomach twisting? Can it have something to do with the lifelink? She tries to call up the familiar sense of the whiteness. Her wrists tingle, even though the iron bracelets are gone.
So far, she has managed to send her soul out after the silver-haired target three times-once to even touch his mind, the evening before, from her inn to his inn. Her lips tighten. “Men-even the most innocent-are violent beasts, even in their thoughts.”
Her eyes fix on her sleeves, long enough to cover the scarred wrists, but her eyes fail to focus, and she feels lightheaded. Is it her imagination? Is there a reason why, at times, her head spins like the winds she can sense but cannot touch?
“No! Why him and not me?”
“Are you all right, my lady?” The guard leans down and peers through the open coach window.
“The Legend be damned if I know…” Megaera glares at the guard. Her eyes spark with a white flame even as her head begins to ache.
The guard’s visage jerks back, vanishing from Megaera’s sight, just before a line of fire flares through the window.
Megaera purses her lips and listens to the driver and the guard, straining to hear their low voices above the rumble and the rattle of the coach.
“… careful there… Tyrant warned you…”
“… be damned glad when we get to Rulyarth… damned glad.”
“Look at it this way, mate. Anyone tries to stop us, and look what they’d get! Ha!”
“… sooner she’s headed east where she belongs, the happier-”
“Relax. Just be glad you’re not after her boyfriend. He’s worse, they say.”
“He’s not my boyfriend!” The words hiss through Mega-era’s teeth and rattle in her mind. “Damn you, sister…” But the tears roll from the corners of her eyes as she recalls two girls stalking each other in a courtyard. Then it had been in play.