Authors: Janny Wurts
The Ships of Merior
The Wars Of Light And Shadows:
To my husband,
with all my love;
for understanding of desperate, long deadlines
above and beyond the call of duty.
This one’s for you.
On the morning the Fellowship sorcerer who had crowned the King at Ostermere fared northward on the old disused road, the five years of peace precariously reestablished since the carnage that followed the Mistwraith’s defeat as yet showed no sign of breaking.
The moment seemed unlikely for happenstance to intrude and shape a spiralling succession of events to upend loyalties and kingdoms. Havish’s coastal landscape with its jagged, shady valleys wore the mottled greens of late spring. Dew still spangled the leaf-tips, touched brilliant by early sunlight. Asandir rode in his shirtsleeves, the dark, silver-banded mantle lately worn for the royal coronation folded inside his saddle pack. Hair of the same fine silver blew uncovered in the gusts that whipped off the sea; that tossed the clumped bracken on the hill crests and fanned gorse against lichened outcrops of quartz rock. The black stud who bore him strode hock-deep in grass, alone beneath cloudless sky. Wildflowers thrashed by its passage sweetened the air with perfume and the jagging flight of disturbed bees.
For the first time in centuries of service, Asandir was
solitary, and on an errand of no pressing urgency? The ruthless war, the upsets to rule and to trade that had savaged the north in the wake of the Mistwraith’s imprisonment had settled, if not into the well-governed order secured for Havish, then at least into patterns that confined latent hatreds to the avenues of statecraft and politics. Better than most, Asandir knew the respite was fated not to last. His memories were bitter and hurtful, of the great curse cast by the Mistwraith to set both its captors at odds; the land’s restoration to clear sky bought at a cost of two mortal destinies and the land’s lasting peace.
Unless the Fellowship sorcerers could find means to break Desh-thiere’s geas of hatred against the royal half-brothers whose gifts brought its bane, the freed sunlight that warmed the growing earth could yet be paid for in blood. With the restored throne of Havish firmly under its crowned heir, Asandir at last rode to join his colleagues in their effort to unbind the Mistwraith’s two victims from the vicious throes of its vengeance.
Relaxed in rare contentment, too recently delivered from centuries of sunless damp to take the hale spring earth for granted, he let his spirit soar with the winds. The road he had chosen was years overgrown, little more than a crease that meandered through thorn and brushbrake to re-emerge where the growth was browsed close by deer. Despite the banished mists, the townsmen still held uneasy fears of open spaces, once the sites of forgotten mysteries. Northbound travellers innately preferred to book their passage by ship.
Untroubled by the after-presence of Paravian spirits, not at all disturbed by the foundations of ancient ruins that underlay the hammocks of wild roses, the sorcerer rode with his reins looped. He followed the way without misstep, guided by memories that predated the most weathered, broken wall. His appearance of reverie was deceptive. At each turn, his mage-heightened senses resonated
with the natural energies that surrounded him. The sun on his shoulders became a benediction, both counterpoint and celebration to the ringing reverberation that was light striking shadow off edges of wild stone.
When a dissonance snagged in the weave, reflex and habit snapped Asandir’s complaisance. His powers of perception tightened to trace the immediate cause.
Whatever bad news approached from the south, his mount’s wary senses caught no sign. The stallion snorted, shook out his mane, and let Asandir rein him over to the verge of the trail. Long minutes later, a drum roll of galloping hooves startled the larks to songless flight. When the messenger on his labouring mount hove into view, the sorcerer sat his saddle, frowning; while the stud, bored with waiting, cropped grass.
The courier wore royal colours, the distinctive scarlet tabard and gold hawk blazon of the king’s personal service snapped into creases against the breeze. No common message bearer, he owned the carriage of a champion fighter. But the battle-brash courage that graced his reputation was missing as he hauled his horse to a prancing, head-shaking halt.
The man was a fool, who eagerly brought trouble to the ear of a Fellowship sorcerer.
Briskly annoyed, Asandir spoke before the king’s rider could master his uncertainty. ‘I know you were sent by your liege. If my spellbinder Dakar is cause and root of some problem, I say now, as I told his Majesty and the realm’s steward on my departure: there is no possible difficulty that might stem from an apprentice’s misdeeds that your High King’s justice cannot handle.’
The messenger nursed lathered reins to divert his eye-rolling mount from her sidewards crabsteps through the bracken. ‘Begging pardon, Sorcerer. But Dakar got himself drunk. There was a fight.’ Sweating pale before
Asandir’s displeasure, he finished in a crisp rush. ‘Your spellbinder’s got himself knifed and King Eldir’s healers say he’ll bleed to death.’
‘Oh, indeed?’ The words bit the quiet like sheared metal. Asandir’s brows cocked up. Features laced over with creases showed a moment of fierce surprise. Then he started his black up from a mouthful of grass and spun him thundering back toward the city.
Alone in the derelict roadway on a sidling, race-bred horse, the royal courier had no mind to linger. He was not clan kindred, to feel at ease in the wild places where the old stones lay carved with uncanny patterns to snag and bewitch a man’s thoughts. The instant his overstrung mare quit her tussle with the bit, he nursed her along at a trot, relieved to be spared the company of a sorcerer any right-thinking mortal knew better than to presume not to fear.
The city known as the jewel of the southwest coast flung an ungainly sprawl of battlements across the crown of a cove. Built over warrens of limestone caves once used as a smuggler’s haven, the architecture reflected twelve centuries of changing tastes, battered as much by storms as by war, and bearing like layers in sediment the mismatched masonry of refortifications and repairs. Sea trade provided the marrow of Ostermere’s wealth. Walls of tawny brick abutted bulwarks of native limestone, scabrous with moss and smothered in lee-facing crannies by salt-stunted runners of wild ivy. The whole overlooked a series of weathered ledges that commanded a west-facing inlet, each tier crusted with half-timber shops and slate-roofed mansions still gay with bunting and gold streamers from celebration of the king’s accession. If the merchant galleys docked along the seaside gates no longer flew banners at their mastheads, if the guards by the harbourmaster’s office had shed
ceremonial accoutrements for boiled leather hauberks and plain steel, a charge of excitement yet lingered.
In all the realm, this city had been honoured as the royal seat until the walls at Telmandir could be raised out of ruin and restored to the splendours of years past. An alertness like frost clung to the men hand-picked for the royal guard. Out of pride for their youthful sovereign, they had the unused north postern winched open and the shanty market that encroached upon its bailey cleared of beggars and squatters’ stalls when Asandir’s stallion clattered through.
In a courtyard still gloomy under overhanging tenements, the sorcerer dismounted. He tossed his reins to a barefoot boy groom grown familiar with the stud through the months of change as town governance had been replaced by sovereign monarchy. Without pause for greeting, Asandir strode off, scattering geese and a loose pig from the puddled run-off by the wash house. He dodged through men in sweaty tunics who unloaded tuns from an ale dray, avoided a bucket-bearing scullion and crossed without mishap through the tumbling brown melee of a deerhound bitch’s cavorting pups.
Just arrived, all but brushed aside with the same brisk lack of ceremony, the captain of Ostermere’s garrison pumped on fat legs to join the sorcerer. A capricious gust snatched his unbelted surcoat. Clutching scarlet broadcloth with both hands to escape getting muffled by his clothing, he relayed facts with a directness at odds with his untidy turnout.
‘It was a damnfool accident, the Mad Prophet so drunken he could barely stand upright. He’d visited the kitchens to meet a maid he claimed he’d an assignation with. Muddled as he was, he kissed the wrong doxy. Her husband came in at just the right time to lose his temper.’ The city captain gave a one-handed shrug, his brows beetled over his beefy nose. ‘The knife was handy on the butcher’s block, and the wound-’
Asandir cut him off. ‘The details won’t matter.’ He reached the servants’ postern, flung it open fast enough to whistle air, and added, ‘Your gate guards are missing their gold buttons.’
Ostermere’s ranking captain swore. An unlikely, swordsman’s agility allowed him to nip through the fast-closing panel. ‘The meatbrains got themselves fleeced at dice. Not a man of them will own up, but since you ask, there were bystanders who fingered Dakar as the instigator.’
‘I thought so.’ Light through an ancient arrow-slit sliced across Asandir’s shoulders as he traversed the corridor behind the pantries and began in long strides to climb stairs. Instructions trailed echoing behind him. ‘Inform your royal liege I’m here. Ask if he’ll please attend me at once in Dakar’s bedchamber.’
Dismissed with one foot raised to mount an empty landing, the city captain spun about. ‘Ask my liege, indeed! I know a command when I hear one. And I’d beg on my knees for Dharkaron Avenger’s own judgement before I’d shift places with Dakar.’
From far above, Asandir’s voice cracked back in crisp reverberation. ‘For the Mad Prophet’s transgressions this time, Dharkaron’s judgement would be too merciful.’
High-browed, intelligent, and shrewdly even-tempered for a lad of eighteen years, King Eldir arrived in a state of disarray as striking as his ranking captain’s. Swiping back tousled brown hair, sweat-damp from a running ascent of several flights of tower stairs, he heaved off cloak, sash and tabard, and shed a gold-trimmed load of state velvets without apology onto a bench in a lover’s nook. In just dread of Asandir’s inquiry, he jerked down the tails of an undertunic threadbare enough to have belonged to an apprentice labourer and mouthed exasperated excuses to himself. ‘I’m sorry. But the drawers the
tailors’ guild sent had enough ties and eyelets to corset a whore, and too much lace makes me itch.’
Eldir broke off, embarrassed. The sorcerer he hastened to meet was not attending his injured charge, but standing stone-still in the hallway, one shoulder braced against the doorjamb and his face bent into shadow.
The young king paled in dismay. ‘Ath’s mercy! We reached you too late to help.’
Asandir glanced up, eyes bright. ‘Certainly not.’ He inclined his head toward the door. Muffled voices issued from the other side, one male and laboured, another one female, bewailing misfortune in lisping sympathy.
Eldir’s interest quickened. Even in extremis, it appeared the infamous Mad Prophet had pursued his ill-starred assignation. Then, practical enough to restrain his wild thoughts, Havish’s sovereign sighed in disappointment. ‘You’ve healed him already, I see.’