Authors: Juanita Coulson
The Markuand would surely do what anyone of wit would—strike at Krantin. Krantin was the sole remaining power of any consequence and had the only military force left which could offer Markuand a battle. Once Krantin had been crushed, the invaders might take their leisure in subduing Irico and Sarlos.
Danaer needed no visions to see what must happen. They would come. Markuand would gobble the remainder of Clarique's islands, and then they would
strike across the river, following the timewom route of the Ryerdon pilgrimage. If they could, they would sweep Destre-Y before them with weapons and wizardry, stabbing at the heart of Krantin.
Suddenly Danaer's gloomy speculations were thrust aside. General Nurdanth was turning to him once more. "Troop Leader, what the sorkra have shown us makes this evening's undertaking far more vital than I had supposed possible. We require something of you."
"My life is yours to command. Lord General."
It was a mere formal response, but Nurdanth treated it with all seriousness. "Matters may well come to that—though I beg the gods it will not be so." The officer drew a sealed paper from a map case and handed it to Danaer. "You must deliver this."
Some years earlier Captain Yistar had taught Danaer the rudiments of letters, a necessary tool used in deciphering the army's maps. Thus he was able to puzzle out the few words written on the message, repeating them aloud with amazement: "To Gordt te Raa, Sovereign of all the Destre Tribes."
Sovereign—the style a lord of The Interior would employ to describe the ruler of the plains people. Among the Destre-Y, Gordt te Raa was called Siirn Rena, the Azsed Rena, leader of the strongest clans inhabiting the Vrastre, chieftain of chieftains.
And to deliver such a message to such a man, Danaer would be forced to enter Siank Zsed.
General Nurdanth avoided Danaer's stare. "I realize what I ask. Worse, I must command that you act as a courier and travel unaccompanied. It is the king's desire, and it may not be changed, I regret to say."
Yistar could not restrain his anger and growled a blunt obscenity. Then he blushed as Lira Nalu smiled, apparently understanding the raw soldier's term despite her gentle bearing and youthfulness.
Danaer had taken oath, and he was a warrior. He would not dishonor his word, though this be a most grim destiny. Yet the goddess would never scorn a man for using whatever cunning he might to survive. He asked carefully, "Lord General, may I dress as a
tribesman? The Zsed's outriders might overlook me the longer, and I should have more chance of success . . ."
The nobeman was shaking his head. With pain, he said, 'T would most willingly allow you that favor if I could, Troop Leader. But that, too, is forbidden. You have been chosen as our best hope. You are a Destre by birth and know their language and customs as no outsider could. But you must go as the representative of the King's army."
Nurdanth was still regretting that he must be the instrument of command in this undertaking. "I will give you as much as I can, Troop Leader. Here—• there is nothing in the task of courier that prevents your wearing of tribal mantle, and your faith-ring. Perhaps those will help convince the Destre-Y that you are not their enemy." He gave the striped cloak back with an obvious eagerness.
Danaer weighed the precious message in his hand. It was very light, a small thing to cost his life. The ways of the gods were ever unfathomable. 'T shall do my best, my lord. If the goddess grants her favor, I vow I will place this in the hands of the Destre Siim himself."
A stirring entered his spirit, a sensation he had known before, when readying for battle. Ai! He would succeed, if possible. And if not, then he would show Siank Zsed that a warrior of Nyald knew how to die well.
General Nurdanth nodded. "This message must be given to none save the Sovereign Gordt te Raa. Oh, and you will impress upon him that the words come in all good faith from myself, from Royal Commander Malol, and from King Tobentis." Yistar snorted derisively, his furry eyebrows arching toward his hairline. The nobleman went on with some irritation. "It is true that the responsibility for that last claim is my own. But by Peluva's heavenly orb, if we do not establish communication, and quickly, with Gordt te Raa, Tobentis will not be King at all. His head will decorate the gates of Kirvii while a Markuand warlord sits on the throne!"
Nurdanth turned to the white-bearded wizard. "Traech Sorkra, perhaps you might give the Troop Leader some sign, to encourage him in this mission, that he will know he acts on behalf of those worthy of such risks?"
Ulodovol was sunk in brooding. His mouth parted and silently formed the word "Web," Then he waved absently at Lira, delegating this minor feat of magic to his apprentice.
She sat up straighter, some of her former animation coming back to her pretty face. When images began to form again in the air above the table. Lira Nalu was smiling, no longer tense. A charming little conjurer, she wove pictures out of nothing, now and then looking at Danaer coyly, hoping that he would be pleased by what she created.
Smoke-that-was-not-smoke swirled and became a mountain highway, and a marker stone proclaimed that this scene was some distance away, westward, not far from Kirvii and the palace. A military party proceeded along the road, heading for Fort Siank. There were royal banners and various smaller flags identifying several lords of The Interior. Danaer leaned forward, and he seemed to hear names spoken within that picture.
At the forefront rode Royal Commander Malol te Eldri. He was the King's own viceroy of the armies. Malol's red cloak was trimmed in gold, and his helmet was crested with the sacred plumes of the snow eagle. His countenance was patrician and lean, his manner cultured and as proper as his dark and neatly trimmed mustache and beard. Malol te Eldri looked the part of a Royal Commander. But besides the keen intelligence and courtesy he must share with Nurdanth, there was also a sense of a core of that strength necessary in any true battle lord.
Another name was heard, and Danaer's belly tight-tened at the sound. A young officer rode at the stirrup of Malol te Eldri, and the Royal Commander smiled fondly at his protege, repeating that name which had drawn Danaer's keen interest.
Branraediir! The Destre clans of the west, the
Tradyans, had met this soldier in war, to their great sorrow. Minstrels had carried the laments to all the Zseds and warned: Beware of Branra of the Bloody Sword, the favorite of the Royal Commander! Branra, the man who bows to no god and trusts only the blade which has drunk the blood of many a brave Destre-Y!
The famous sword was there at his side. Its silver hilt caught the sun's rays, and black gems, embedded in the metal, sparkled. Despite that costly adornment, it was a true weapon and one to fear, as Destre-Y had learned to fear the man who wielded it.
Branra was stocky and broad-shouldered, and he was swarthy from seasons spent out on the western Vrastre, not locked away in his castle like so many lords of The Interior. He was younger than Danaer had supposed—of an age with the Troop Leader himself. His features were sharp and broken now and then by a reckless grin which bespoke a courage his reputation confirmed.
The smoke melted and twisted, and for an instant Danaer saw Lira Nalu's face instead of Branraediir's. Then he looked upon an island of Clarique. Not Jlandla Hill—another place not far off, where a motley army had gathered in dismay and rage. The ragged forces had come to help Clarique, but the battle was done, and now they milled about uncertainly and tasted frustration. Some were Clarique peasants and some little curly-headed Sarli brigands. A large number were warrior women who had followed a virago leader here to Clarique, in quest of bloody triumph over Markuand.
That virago now struggled to draw an army out of chaos and rally them to fight the white-clad enemy elsewhere. Jlandla was lost, but the war had only begun. She was now called Ti-Mori, though born to an honored lineage in The Interior of Krantin. Moved by some personal fury, she had burst the bonds of her class and become a warrior, leading a horde of battle priestesses, each intent on slaking her blood lust with the deaths of the Markuand. These wild females had become an army—an army which was still intact and able to wage war, though Jlandla Hill had been over-
run and the Markuand seized more and more of the Clarique domain.
The visions evaporated. Malol te Eldri, Branraediir and his bloody sword, Ti-Mori and her women warriors—all were gone. Lira Nalu spoke and shattered her own creations. "You see that we will not face the invader alone. There are still many gallant comrades and those who will champion us, men and women who do not frighten easily, whether the threat be weapon or magic."
Yistar's hand fell on Danaer's shoulder with a hearty slap. "You have your orders. We will need an answer to this message quickly, in order to carry forward the Royal Commander's battle plans." He spoke with bluff confidence, to cheer himself and his subordinate, a tactic Danaer knew of old and appreciated.
The General was getting to his feet, and all the others save Ulodovol copied him. The old sorkra remained seated, staring into nothing, and none dared disturb him, not even his apprentice. Lira Nalu pointedly did not look at her mentor, continuing to force an encouraging smile as Danaer said, "My lord, at least in the Zsed I will not lack someone of Azsed to chant a prayer to the goddess, should I be slain."
It was not what she had expected him to say, and her face mirrored her shock, though she kept silence.
Nurdanth was disturbed also. "You must not be slain! If you do not deliver the message safely to Gordt te Raa, all the prayers and sacrifices to all of Krantin's gods may not spare our land from ruin!"
Danaer was shaken by the force of Nurdanth's words. He did not trust himself to respond, saluting the commandant, then following Yistar and the sorkra woman out to the entry hall. Captain Yistar paused and caught at Danaer's sleeve, then brushed away a heavy layer of dust, wrinkling his nose in distaste.
"Put on a clean uniform before you leave," he instructed. "And guard yourself well in this. Keep out of trouble if you can, of course, but do not falter if it finds you, eh? I know you will not shame Nyald troop."
"I will go as if I rode for the honor of my clans," Danaer said.
"Mm! Yes, that will serve. And there will be a special mount for you, by order of the General. Maybe I can find you a Destre saddle as well, one padded with motge hide, such as you have wheedled at me for these years." With that, Yistar hurried out, barely taking time to give back Danaer's parting salute.
Danaer gazed after the ofl&cer a while, then said with bitter amusement, "Now he will agree to give me the saddle. Wrath ve dortu!"
"A SarU oath?" Lira Nalu asked.
"It is a phrase I learned from a trader from your country, my lady." Danaer drank in the sight of the woman, suddenly aware that he might soon go to Keth's portals and know no more of the pleasures of the world. If time were not so short, he might presume to . . .
But she was a sorkra, one of the wizard kind.
"Troop Leader, your eyes are embarrassing me," she said with a becoming blush.
"Your pardon, my lady." Yet Danaer did not turn away. Tiny things were now worth notice—a coppery chain clasped about her small waist, the curve of her boots along dainty ankles, the folds of yellow flowing over breast and hip. He saw as if for the first time that she knotted her Sarli headband on the left side, which meant she was an initiate of the minstrels. "Lady Lira Nalu, if I die, will you sing my memory in your next telling of the tales? There are none left of my clan to repeat my name. My last kinswoman is dead. If you forget me, I shall be lost in the winds."
Her hands crept to her throat. "I ... I shall do as you ask. But it shall not be necessary. You shall return to us unharmed."
The words troubled him more than a promise to seek favor of the gods might have. Danaer had learned long ago that when women spoke only of success, they often feared danger was most near.
Danaer sighed and went to his barracks, a long, smoke-filled chamber cut in the rock of the mountain. In his absence, Yistar's orderly had delivered a new
uniform to his pallet. Shaartre watched as Dairaer dressed, looking ever more worried. They had shared many hard campaigns and knew the dangers of patrol. Danaer put on the stiff new shirt and tunic and breeches, then frowned at the polished footwear he had been provided. Making a sudden decision, he put those aside and kept his well-worn Destre boots, using his blade to cut a necessary slash in the crisp hem of the breeches, the better to afford easy access to his old knife, sheathed snugly against his calf.
"Will not the commandant balk at that?" Shaartre asked.
Danaer settled his Destre sling and belt blade against the heavy leather of the new belt and shrugged. "I do not think so. Not for what I have to do."
"Some risk in it, eh? I thought as much."
With a grunt, Danaer picked up the boots he had scorned. "These should not be wasted. You take them."
"No. Keep the things. They were given to you and look too small for me, anyway. You will need them for muster tomorrow, besides."
"Perhaps they will fit one of the new men. That peasant boy with the sunny nature—Xashe?—he is my size, and a good rider. Give them to him."
The veteran snatched the proffered boots and flung them onto his pallet. "The accursed things will be here when you get back. I will hear no more of it." Without another word, he turned away, walking the length of the room and squatting down amid a circle of gamblers.
Danaer let him go, knowing the rules of this, a ritual he had played with Shaartre in times past, when they both knew what fate might bring. He draped his mantle about his head and shoulders and put on his helmet and sword, then ducked through the low door. A stable groom awaited him outside. The man was holding the reins of a magnificent roan stallion. General Nurdanth was said to be a fancier of the Destre horses and an ardent experimenter in crossbreeding roans with the army's own black stock. This beast was a prize of his efforts. On its back was the saddle Yistar