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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Queen of Demons

The second book in the epic saga of 'The Lord of the Isles'

Lord of the Isles (Volume 2)

David Drake

Tor Fantasy


Day 2 of the Fourth Month (Heron)

Garric or-Reise leaned on the rail of a balcony that existed only in his fancy, watching his physical body practice swordsmanship in the garden below. He wasn't asleep, but his conscious mind had become detached from the body's motions. In this reverie he met and spoke with the ghost of his ancestor who had died a thousand years before.
Garric gestured toward where his physical self hacked at a post with his lead-weighted sword. "It's as boring as plowing a field," he said. "And there at least you have a furrow to show for it."
"You've got the build to be a swordsman, lad," said King Carus from the railing beside Garric. He grinned engagingly. "At least they always told me I did, and my worst enemies never denied my skill with a sword. But to be really good, you have to go through the exercises till every movement is a reflex."
He pretended to study the clouds, picture perfect in a blue sky. "Of course," he went on, "you can always save yourself the effort and let me take over running your body when there's need for that sort of work."
Roses climbed a supporting pillar and flooded their red blooms across the balcony's solid-seeming stone. When Garric was in this state he had the feeling that nothing existed beyond the corners of his vision: if he turned his head very quickly, he might see formless mist instead of the walls of the building from which the balcony jutted.
Garric grinned at the king, pretending that he hadn't heard beneath the banter a wistful note in the voice of the man who hadn't had a physical form for a thousand years. "My father didn't raise me to shirk duties in order to save myself effort," Garric said. "And I don't care to be beholden to another man for work that I ought to be able to do myself."
Carus laughed with the full-throated enthusiasm of a man to whom the strong emotions came easily, joy and love and a fiercely hot anger that slashed through any obstruction. "You could have had a worse father than Reise," he said. "And I'm not sure that you could have had a better one."
He turned his attention to the figure below, Garric's body swinging the blunt practice sword. The men who guarded the compound of Master Latias, the rich merchant who was sheltering Garric and his friends here in Erdin, watched the exercises with approval and professional interest.
"You lead with your right leg," Carus said, gesturing. "One day a smart opponent will notice that your foot moves an eyeblink before your sword arm does. Then you'll find his point waiting for your chest just that much before your own blade gets home."
"I'm tired," Garric said. "My body's tired, I mean."
Carus smiled with a glint of steel in his gray eyes. "You think you're tired, lad," he said softly. "When you've been through the real thing, you'll know what tired is."
"Sorry," Garric muttered. Even as the words came out of his mouth he'd been embarrassed. He'd reacted defensively instead of listening to what he was being told. He grinned. "A scythe uses a lot of the same muscles, but I never had the wheat swing back at me. I'll practice till I've got it right."
The king's expression softened into bright laughter again. "Aye, you will," he said. "Already the strength you put into your strokes makes you good enough for most work."
The two men on the dream balcony were so similar that were they visible no one could have doubted their relationship. Carus had been a man of forty when wizardry swallowed down his ship. He was broad-shouldered, long-limbed, and moved with a grace that gulls might envy as they slid across the winds.
Garric would be eighteen in a month's time. He had his height and strength, but compared to the full adult growth of the king beside him he looked lanky. Both were tanned and as fit as an active life could make a man. Garric was barefoot with the wool tunic and trousers of a Haft peasant. Carus wore a blue velvet doublet and suede breeches, with high boots of leather dyed a bright red.
On the king's head was a circlet of gold, the diadem of the Kings of the Isles. It had sunk with him a thousand years before.
"There's more to being King of the Isles than just being able to use a sword," Carus said. His elbows were on the railing; he rested his chin for a moment on his tented fingers, an oddly contemplative pose for a man who was usually in motion.
He turned and looked at Garric. "Part of the reason I failed and let the kingdom go smash," he said, "was that my sword was always the first answer I picked to solve a problem. But you'll need a sword too, lad, when you're king."
"I'm not a king!" Garric said, grimacing in embarrassment. "I'm just a …"
What was he really? A youth from Haft, a backwater since the Old Kingdom fell. A peasant who'd been taught to read and appreciate the ancient poets by his father, Reise, an educated man who had once served in the royal palace in Valles and later had been secretary to the Countess of Haft in Carcosa.
A peasant who'd faced and killed a wizard who'd come close to assembling all the power of evil. A youth who had in his head the ghost of his ancestor, the last and greatest king the Isles had ever known.
"Well, I'm not a king," Garric finished lamely.
"But you will be," Carus said, his tone genial but as certain as the strokes of his mighty sword arm. "Not because you're of my blood; that just lets me speak with you, lad. You'll be king of the Isles because you can do the job. If you don't, the crash that brought down civilization when I failed will look like a party. All that'll be left this time will be blood and plague and slaughter till there's no one left to kill."
Carus smiled. "But we won't let that happen," he said. "On our souls we won't, king Garric! Will we?"
Two of Garric's companions had joined the spectators in the garden below. Cashel or-Kenset was nearly Garric's height and built like the trunk of an old oak. He and his sister Ilna came from the same village as Garric, Barca's Hamlet on the east coast of Haft. They and Garric's blond sister Sharina had been friends for as long as any of the four of them could remember.
Tenoctris, the old woman with Cashel now, was as complete a contrast with Cashel as Garric could imagine. A force that she refused to call fate had plucked her from her own time and carried her a thousand years forward to deposit her on the coast of Barca's Hamlet. Tenoctris was a wizard. She was a wizard with very little power, she said; but she understood where others merely acted—and by their actions brought destruction on themselves and those about them.
"No," Garric said. "We won't let that happen."
He'd have given anything to return to the life for which he'd been raised, the son of the innkeeper in a tiny village where nothing was expected to change except the seasons of the year. He couldn't go back, though.
The forces that ruled the cosmos were reaching another thousand-year peak. In the days of King Carus, a wizard with unbridled power had broken the kingdom into individual islands warring with one another and within themselves. Civilization had partly risen from that ruin; but if the cycle were repeated, Barca's Hamlet would be ground into the mud as surely as great cities like Carcosa on Haft, capital of the Old Kingdom of the Isles, had been shattered when Carus died.
"Join your friends," Carus said with a cheerful gesture. "Besides, you shouldn't overdo or you'll take more from the muscles than you get back from the exercise. Though you're young and you won't believe that any more than I did when I was your age."
The king, the balcony, and the sky above dissolved. Garric's mind slipped from reverie back into his sweaty, gasping body on the exercise ground. The shield on his left arm was a fiery weight, and all the muscles of his right side quivered with the strain of swinging the practice sword.
Garric reeled back, wheezing. Every time he'd struck the unyielding target, his hand had absorbed the shock. Garric's palm now felt as though a wagon had rolled over it. He struck the sword down in ground he'd stamped hard.
"Ho!" Garric said, clearing his lungs. He fumbled with the strap that transferred some of the shield's weight to his shoulders. Cashel's big hands were there before him, lifting the buckler of cross-laminated wood away as easily as if it had been a lace doily.
The captain of the guards stepped forward. Serians like Master Latias were pacifists, unwilling to use force on another human being. That didn't prevent them from hiring men who had different philosophies, though. The men guarding this compound in Erdin were hard-bitten by any standards, and their chief looked to be the equal of any two of his subordinates.
"You said you hadn't any experience with a sword, sir," he said to Garric. "But that's not what I'd have thought to see you using one just now."
Garric had gotten back enough of his breath to speak. "An ancestor of mine was a great swordsman," he said, half-smiling. "Perhaps some of his skill passed to me."
He touched his chest. A coronation medal of King Carus hung from a silk ribbon beneath his tunic. Garric's father had given him the medal the day Tenoctris washed up in Barca's Hamlet. From that day everything started to change.…
"Tenoctris and I thought we'd go for a walk around the harbor," Cashel said. His voice was slow, steady, and powerful, a mirror of the youth himself. He shrugged. "My sister's got Sharina and Liane weaving with her. It's some special idea, she says."
Cashel and his sister Ilna had been orphaned when they were seven, making their way since then by skill and dogged determination. Garric was stronger than most of the men he'd met, but he knew his friend Cashel was stronger than anyone he was likely ever to meet.
"It's been a great many years since anyone called me a girl, and nobody ever mistook me for a weaver," Tenoctris said. She spoke with a bright, birdlike enthusiasm that made her seem only a fraction of the age Garric's eyes judged her to be. "We thought you might like to come with us, though if you want to practice more…?"
She nodded to the post. Despite the blunt edge of the practice
sword, Garric had hammered fresh chips away all around the wood.
"No, I'm done for the day," Garric said. "Let me sponge off and I'll come with you."
He chuckled. "If you overdo with exercise," he added, "Your muscles lose more than they gain."
Neither his friends nor the guards understood Garric's amusement, but the king lurking somewhere in the back of Garric's mind laughed his approval.
* * *
Cashel or-Kenset was satisfied with life as he sauntered along Erdin's busy waterfront with his friends. He was usually satisfied. Cashel didn't require much to be happy, and he'd found hard work would bring all but one of the things he needed.
The only thing missing had been Garric's sister, Sharina, the girl Cashel had secretly loved for as long as he could remember. Now he had Sharina too.
Cashel and Garric strolled at a pace Tenoctris found comfortable. Though she was a frail old woman, she nonetheless moved faster than the sheep who were Cashel's most frequent companions.
He'd watched flocks on the pastures south of Barca's Hamlet since he was seven years old. As he got his growth he'd been hired more often for tasks that required strength: ditching, tree-felling, moving boulders in locations too cramped and awkward to admit a yoke of oxen to do the work. Folk in the borough had quickly learned that you could depend on Cashel to do a careful job of any task you set him.
"Is that a shrine to the Lady?" Garric asked. He nodded toward an altar at the head of a brick quay stretching out into the channel of the River Erd. It would be discourteous to gesture too openly toward a deity, and in a strange place—as Erdin certainly was to a pair of Haft peasants—there was the chance someone would get angry with the boorish strangers.
Not that men the size of Cashel or Garrie were likely to be attacked. Even so, they'd been well brought up and didn't want to give offense.
The altar was a carved female figure holding a shallow bowl. Three sailors were burning incense in it. The statue wore loose pantaloons and a sleeveless jacket that left her limestone breasts bare. Cashel had never seen garments like those, and certainly not on an image of the Lady, the Queen of Heaven. The incense surprised him into a sneeze.
"That's the Lady as she's worshipped on Shengy," Tenoctris said. She grinned ruefully. "I should say, in my day that was the costume the Lady wore on Shengy. But you have to remember that in my day, Erdin was an uninhabited marsh and the Earls of Sandrakkan were a coarse lot who lived like a gang of bandits in a castle on the eastern tip of the island."
"But the sailors aren't from Shengy, are they?" Garric said. "I thought folk from there are short and dark."
"Sailors tend to take spiritual help from whoever offers it," Tenoctris said. "They're more aware than most people of how much their safety depends on things they can't control."
In a softer voice, one meant as much for herself as for the ears of her companions, the old wizard added, "I sometimes wish that I could believe in the Great Gods myself. All I see are powers, and it's only because of my human weakness that I even call them Good and Evil. I'm sure that the cosmos doesn't put any such labels on the forces that move it."
"The cosmos may not care if people serving Malkar sink the Isles into the sea," Garric said as he fingered the medallion he wore under his tunic. "But we care, and we're not going to let it happen."
"I believe in the Lady and the Shephered," Cashel said without anger. "I believe that Duzi watches over the flocks of Barca's Hamlet…not that the sheep didn't need me as well, silly beasts that they are."
Tenoctris was a good woman, and a smart one who was even better educated than Garric. She could believe whatever she pleased. But the truth for Cashel was usually a simple thing, and what other folk believed didn't change that truth.
Cashel was big. He moved with deliberation because he'd learned early that a man of his size and strength broke things by being hasty. He counted on his fingers, and the only reason he could write his name was that Garric had spent days teaching him to laboriously draw the letters.
A lot of people thought Cashel was stupid. Well, maybe he was. But a lot of people thought an ox was stupid too because it was strong and slow and did its job without the shrill temperament of a horse.
The people who thought an ox was stupid were wrong.
The three of them skirted a stack of hardwood being unloaded from an odd-looking twin-hulled freighter. The logs had a pronounced ring pattern that would stripe boards like lengths of Ilna's fancy weaving.
"Tigerwood from Kanbesa," Garric said in wonder.
"Brought here, all the way across the Inner Sea to panel some merchant's house. Erdin's certainly grown since the Old Kingdom fell."
Cashel eyed the wood with critical appraisal. Pretty enough, he supposed, but he'd take oak—or hickory, like the quarterstaff he carried here in Erdin just as he had in the pastures back on Haft.
Cashel didn't carry the quarterstaff just for a weapon He'd shaped the tough wood with his own hands. It was a part of Haft and a part of Cashel before he left Barca's Hamlet to wander the Isles. The smooth, familiar hickory made him feel more at home among these close-set buildings and a crowd as thick as fishflies in spring. Why shouldn't he carry it?
"Doesn't Sandrakkan have forests?" he asked. He found Garric's comments about the Old Kingdom odd. Cashel understood when Tenoctris said somthing about the world of a thousand years ago: She'd lived in it, after all. Sometimes Garric sounded as though he had too.
"There're a lot of forests, especially in the north," Garric said, "but they don't grow fancy species like tigerwood. It's just for show, so that a rich man can brag that he brought wood a thousand miles to cover his dining hall"
Cashel frowned as he planned what he wanted to say. A merchant passing in the other direction gave him a startled look. The man's bodyguard gripped the hilt of a sword that certainly wasn't for show. Cashel took no notice.
"There're goods from just about everyplace here," he said. He grinned slowly, the even-tempered youth from Barca's Hamlet again. "Bags of wool from Haft. I shouldn't wonder. People seem happy enough. It's peaceful and they get on with their lives."
Tenoctris nodded, waiting for Cashel's point. Garric was listening intently also.
"But if it turns to fights and demons and dead things walking, they all lose," Cashel said forcefully. "Why do they let that happen? Why do people make that happen?"
The old wizard shook her head. "Partly it's the way people are, Cashel," she said. "Not you and certainly not me. I never wanted any kind of power, just quiet in which to study."
She smiled broadly, shedding a decade with the expression. "I avoided power, all right, but it looks as though I'm not going to have the quiet study because we're trying to keep the world from going the way you describe."
She sobered instantly. "But that's the other thing: forces reached a peak a thousand years ago, and before they subsided they'd brought down the kingdom—what your age calls the Old Kingdom. The powers from outside don't cause disaster in themselves, but they amplify tiny imbalances, petty anger and ambition and jealousy."
Tenoctris looked out over the river. Cashel guessed she was
really viewing things more distant than the barges crawling down the brown Erd and the larger vessels that brought cargoes from all across the Inner Sea.
"Wizards with some power find that they have many times that power now," the old woman continued softly.
"They can sink islands or raise demons who have the strength to wreck cities. But the wizards don't have any better understanding than they did before."
She looked at Garric, then Cashel, with eyes as fierce as an eagle's. "And they understood nothing before, though they thought they did. Because they were fools!"
"But you understand," Garric said, placing his big tanned hand on Tenoctris' shoulder. "And we won't let Malkar win this time. Evil isn't going to win."
Cashel scratched the back of his left ear, thinking. Sharina had left Barca's Hamlet; forever, it seemed. She hadn't known how Cashel felt about her because Cashel hadn't had—and wouldn't ever have had—the courage to tell her.
So Cashel had left home also, going no particular direction—just away from the place where so many memories tortured him. In the end he'd found Sharina again, and he'd saved her when nobody else could have. Nobody but Cashel or-Kenset.
"I think things will work out all right," Cashel said aloud. "Things pretty much do if you work at them."
The others looked at him in surprise. Cashel smiled slowly. Garric and Tenoctris were smart people who read all sorts of things in books. Cashel had nothing but the life he lived himself to base his judgments on. Other folks could believe whatever they wanted to, but that didn't change the things Cashel knew in his own heart.
They walked on, passing men who unloaded spices from a square-bowed Serian ship. Slim, brown-skinned sailors brought the sturdy chests up from the vessel's multiple holds, but local men loaded the goods on handcarts to be wheeled to a warehouse. A Sandrakkan factor oversaw the business. The carg's owner, a silk-robed upperclass Serian who was taller and much fleshier than the sailors, stood impassively while at his side a secretary jotted the count onto a tablet of bamboo sheets.
"If the Isles were really united again," Garric said, "there'd be even more trade. Maybe that's just a dream."
It was Cashel's turn to look with curiosity at his friend. Not the sort of dream that came to Haft peasants, he'd have thought.
"The forces turned toward Malkar aren't in league with one another," Tenoctris said. Her train of thought didn't flow directly from what had been said before, but it fit well enough with Cashel's musings. "Evil people hate one another as bitterly as they hate what I suppose we may as well call the good. That's the real advantage good has over evil."
She smiled wryly. "Unfortunately," she went on, "there's very little that's purely anything. Including good."
They were passing a ship of moderate size whose deck cargo, dried fruit in pitch-sealed baskets, had already been unloaded. The crew was using the mast and yard as a crane to bring casks up from the hold one at a time, then swing them onto mule-drawn wagons.
A tin plate nailed onto the vessel's stem showed a gull and a name in cut-out letters. The captain was a red-bearded man as stocky as Cashel but not as big. He directed his sullen crewman from the deck, while the merchant receiving the goods waited with the first in the line of wagons.
Cashel paused. His skin felt prickly as though sunburnt, something that almost never happened to him since he spent most of his time outdoors in all seasons. He stared intently at the ship.
"She's the Bird of the Waves," Garric said, thinking his friend was trying to cipher out the nameplate.
"There's something about it…" Cashel said. He slid his left hand slowly up his quarterstaff.
Garric started to speak but closed his mouth again in stead.
Tenoctris knelt on the brick quay and picked up a piece of straw that had been used to cushion cargo.
"Hey!" a carter shouted angrily. "Get out of the way or I'll drive over you!"
Cashel stepped between Tenoctris and the lead oxen. He set one of his staff's iron ferrules on the ground in front of him and stared at the carter.
"Ah, go back to your farm!" the carter said; but he swung his team to the side. Popping his whip he went around the trio with his load of grain packed in terra-cotta storage jars.
Tenoctris had drawn words in the grime of the street. Now she murmured a spell, touching each syllable in turn with the piece of straw. At the climax she released the straw, which spun away as though in an unfelt breeze. It landed on the cask being lowered to the lead wagon.
"I think…" she said in a shaky voice. She started to rise but would have fallen if Garric hadn't steadied her; the powers a wizard set in motion came with a price. "I think we should learn what's in that barrel."
"Right," said Cashel. He took a fresh grip on his quarterstaff. With Garric beside him, he walked toward the merchant.
They were going to learn what was in the cask. Like most other things, that should be pretty simple to manage.
* * *
Sharina paused to watch Ilna twist the shed stick, feed through a warp thread, and beat it flat in less time than it would have taken Sharina—or Liane on the third loom-just to make the shed. "You make it look so simple," she said ruefully.
Ilna looked up with a hard smile. Her fingers continued to feed warp threads from both sides of the loom frame with a speed and precision that would have been unnatural in any other weaver.
"It is simple," she said. "I've just got more practice than you do."
Which was true in a way. Any village girl on Haft learned to weave the same as she learned to cook, but in Barca's Hamlet for the past eight years or so Ilna os-Kenset did all the serious weaving. Most of the other women merely spun thread for her.
Ilna's fabric was tighter, her designs cleaner, and her rate of production ten times higher than that of her nearest rival in the borough, old Chantre os-Chulec. Even Chantre admitted that on the nights when she'd had more than her share of the beer in the taproom of Reise's inn.
But practice wasn't the whole answer, and the skill Ilna had when she left Barca's Hamlet was nothing compared to the genius she showed now. Something had changed, and from the look in Ilna's dark eyes more had changed than the way her fingers moved over a loom.
During the months Ilna and Sharina had gone their separate ways, Sharina had faced death and a demon. From the story Ilna's eyes told, she had seen far worse—and been worse as well.
"Ilna," said Liane, the girl Sharina had met at Garric's side here in Erdin three days before. "My father traveled the world. He brought Mother and me gifts when he returned. I've seen cloth from all over the Isles and beyond, but I've never seen workmanship to equal yours."
She called herself Liane os-Benlo, but Garric had told Sharina in a private moment that Liane was born to the noble house of bos-Benliman. Her father, a wizard, had died in a fashion that Garric didn't choose to discuss.
Liane's hair was as black as Ilna's, but she had the pale complexion of the Sandrakkan nobility whereas Ilna-like Garric—was tanned to the color of walnut heartwood. Either girl would pass as beautiful, but Liane was doll-like and delicate to look at, while Ilna…No one would ever call Ilna plain, but "severe" would be the first word a stranger used to describe her.
"Yes, well," Ilna said. "Perhaps it's compensation for my not being able to read books the way you and Garric do, do you think?"
Liane blushed.
"I'll teach you to read, Ilna," Sharina said sharply.
"You know how many times I've offered before. You always said you didn't have enough time."
She didn't know Liane, but she knew Garric liked the girl and had gone through a lot with her. Sharina knew Ilna very well. She wasn't about to let her friend begin working on an undeserving Liane with a tongue as sharp as the bone-handled knife Ilna used for household tasks.
Thought of knives drew Sharina's mind to the weapon that was now hers, hanging behind her from a wall hook meant for cloaks in colder weather. The scales of the hilt were black horn riveted to a full tang, and the heavy single-edged blade was as long as her forearm.
It was a sealhunter's knife from Pewle Island in the Outer Sea, well north of the main circuit of the Isles. The man who'd carried it, Nonnus, had come to live as a hermit in the woods outside Barca's Hamlet before Sharina was born.
Nonnus ate the game he killed with wooden javelins and the crops he planted with a pointed stick. He set the bones of folk who injured themselves and could bring down a fever or soothe a cough with simples made from the herbs he grew. Beyond such help he'd had little to do with the community.
"Oh, I don't think I'd have the talent for reading," Ilna said, more with resignation than sadness. Her fingers worked as she talked, never hurrying but never putting a thread out of place. "And It's not a skill that a peasant needs, after all. Or a weaver either, so far as I've noticed."
Sharina got up for her frame loom. She'd go back to her design in a moment, but she wanted to stretch her muscles. She'd been raised as an innkeeper's daughter. Her duties had involved more moving and carrying than sitting in one place with her fingers doing most of the work.
They were staying in one of the buildings of Master Latias' walled compound. It was a single room divided by folding paper screens with brush drawings of fanciful landscapes. The occupants had greater privacy than any peasant in a hut in Barca's Hamlet did.
Master Latias had provided the looms and thread also. Cashel had done the Serian merchant a service, and in return Latias treated Cashel and his companions as his own close kin. He'd offered silk, but Ilna said for her purpose wool would do as well.
Whatever that purpose was. Sharina had agreed when Ilna asked her and Liane to spend the afternoon weaving. She didn't understand the request, but Ilna asked very little—and never without an implicit promise to repay any favor many times over.
"Reading's a way to meet people of distant times and places," Liane said. She wasn't arguing, exactly, but she had her own opinions and she wasn't about to listen without response as things she cared about were disparaged. "And when a work has survived the collapse of the Old Kingdom, it must have something special to it. Celondre said, ‘My verses are a monument that will last longer than bronze,' and he was right."
"There're plenty of people in this time and place that I haven't met yet," Ilna said. She gave a half-chuckle, half-sniff. "And no few that I have met and sooner wouldn't have. My uncle Katchin, for example."
Ilna sobered, though there'd been little enough humor in her tone before. She added, "Well, there's some who'd say the same about having met me. They'd have good cause to feel that way too, I'm afraid."
Sharina touched the hilt of the Pewle knife in its sheath of black leather waterproofed with seal fat. She hadn't intended to walk here. She'd just gotten up stretch.…
But it wasn't in her muscles alone that Sharina felt an ache.
Pewlemen were a hardy lot, well used to weapons and brutal conditions. Generals hired them as irregular troops to accompany the main body of cavalry and armored infantry.
Nonnus had served as a mercenary soldier. While serving he'd done things that sent him to a forest on Haft, praying for the rest of his life to the Lady for forgiveness.
Nonnus had been closer to Sharina than to any of the other folk in Barca's Hamlet. He'd left the island with her when she needed a companion she could trust completely, and in the end he'd died for her in a mound of her enemies.
He'd done that because she was blond and beautiful; and because he couldn't do anything for the blond, beautiful child whose throat he'd laughingly cut one terrible afternoon when a king fought for his crown and nothing mattered but victory.
Sharina would have given all she possessed to bring Nonnus back, but she knew in her heart that death was the thing the hermit had wanted most after forgiveness. She could only pray, as Nonnus himself had prayed, that the Lady would show mercy to humans with human failings.
Sharina turned. The other women were staring at her, though Ilna's fingers continued to work across the loom frame.
"What is it that you're weaving, Sharina?" Liane said in a bright, false voice. She looked quickly down to her own project.
"A collar edging in red yarn," Sharina said, her lips smiling faintly. Her fingertips still rested on the hilt of the big knife. "A small thing, but one I could do well enough to pass. I could weave a whole lifetime and never be competition for Ilna."
Sharina looked at her friend. "Ilna," she said, "I don't know what you've done or think you've done, and I don't want to know. But you've got to remember that it doesn't matter, it doesn't make you bad."
She paused, swallowed, and blurted, "Nonnus did worse things than you ever could have, and there was never a better person in the world than him. Never!"
Sharina hadn't expected to start crying. Liane was a sensitive girl, brought up in a household where there was enough wealth to allow the luxury of sentiment. It wasn't surprising that she got up from her stool and squeezed Sharina's hand.
But it was a great surprise that Ilna held Sharina's other hand, the one that gripped the hilt of the Pewle Knife.
* * *
The merchant turned from the cask swinging down to his wagon when he noticed Garric and Cashel walking toward him. His surprise quickly became concern as he realized just how big the two strangers were. "Hey, who do you think you are?" he cried.
The ship's captain took a mallet from a rack at the base of the mast. To Garric's surprise the six common sailors went on with their work as stolidly as so many plow oxen. He'd have expected more reaction from them if only because the strangers were more interesting than lifting barrels from the hold.
"We're friends," Garric said easily to the merchant. He nodded toward the vessel. "Your friends at least, sir; I don't know if the shipper there is going to like what I have to say."
"What do you mean by that?" the captain roared. He hopped down to the quay. That was a mistake, because it made obvious how much smaller he was than the two youths. The oak mallet he brandished was no threat compared with the quarterstaff Cashel balanced easily in one hand.
"I'm an innkeeper's son, sir," Garric continued, ignoring the captain. "Garric or-Reise from Haft. Are you paying for full casks here?"
"Of course I'm paying for full casks," the merchant said. "What sort of question is that?"
He was wary but no longer frightened, and the angry edge had left his voice. The carters driving his half-dozen wagons had gotten down from their seats, holding their whips, but they kept a respectful distance from the discussion.
"See the bead on this barrel stave?" Garric asked. "It's not bilgewater, you know."
The cask had settled onto the bed of the wagon, resting on end. Garric wiped a finger across the wet patch he'd seen while the cask was still in the air. The sailors were loosing the sling as though nothing untoward was taking place on the dock.
Garric sniffed, noted the sharp tang of alcohol as he'd expected, and offered his finger to the merchant to make his own examination. It was cider royal—cider which had been left out in the winter. By skimming the ice that formed, a skilled man could create a drink much stronger than ordinary applejack. It was a drunkard's beverage, and one that Reise rarely stocked for his inn.
"Somebody's drilled this cask for a length of reed, I shouldn't wonder," Garric said, smiling nonchalantly at the furious captain. "The hole's plugged with wax, but if I were you I'd see how much was really left before I paid for the cargo."
"May the Sister drag you down to Hell for a liar!" the captain shouted. His beard bristled out like a bright flame. "These casks are just the way I loaded them at Valles!"
Men who've done heavy labor together learn to anticipate one another; otherwise a load slips and crushes the hand or leg of the fellow on the low side. Cashel and Garric had spent a decade shifting tree trunks and boulders. Neither needed to tell the other what to do now.
Cashel tapped the cask with the ferrule of his staff. It boomed, obviously empty or nearly so.
"Right!" said the merchant. "My name's Opsos, lads. Let's get this open right now!"
"By the Lady!" the captain said. "If you're going to start a cask, you're going to pay me for it first. You'll spill half of it over the docks, you will!"
Despite the captain's vehemence, he was by now only going through the motions of protest. The black scowl he threw in the direction of his crewmen showed who he thought was responsible. They were lowering the sling into the hold for another cask.
Cashel stepped onto the wagon bed, using his staff as a pole to thrust himself the last of the way. The axle groaned a complaint as though a second barrel had been set on it.
"Sister take me!" the captain said, throwing the mallet to the ground in disgust. He looked furtively at the hull of his ship, perhaps considering how many more of the barrels his men might have tapped during the voyage.
Cashel raised his staff like a flagpole, then brought the ferrule straight down on the cask. One of the top's three boards flew into the air with the crossbraces still pegged to it, but there was no splash as there would have been if the barrel were full.
Opsos clambered onto the wagon with the driver's aid. Garric stayed on the ground where he could shelter Tenoctris against the press of spectators strolling over to see the show.
Cashel shouted. He tossed his staff down; Garric caught it without thinking. Hands freed, Cashel tilted the cask with one hand so that he could get his other under the lower rim. He lifted it overhead, an impossible task even for him if it had been filled with a hundred gallons of cider royal, and dumped the remaining contents onto the quay. Garric jumped back.
Only enough cider to darken the bricks remained. Doubled over, packed for preservation in the liquor the sailors had sucked out unknowing, was a corpse.
The corpse wasn't that of a human, or at any rate not wholly that of a human. It had two arms and two legs, but the skin was gray and had a pebbled texture between the scales.
The creature was hairless. Its head was the size of a man's but flattened and wedge-shaped, like that of a gigantic serpent.
"A Scaled Man," Tenoctris said as the bellowing crowd stampeded away from the scene. "Indeed, there's a great risk to the world if the Scaled Men have entered it again."
* * *
"I'm all right now," Sharina said. She snuffled deeply. Ilna nodded and stepped away. Liane offered the handkerchief she'd had ready since she jumped from her stool.
Sharina didn't notice the square of lace-fringed silk. She pulled a sturdier handkerchief from her sleeve and wiped her eyes before blowing her nose.
Ilna sniffed with amusement at Liane's quickly hidden discomfiture. The rich girl had yet to learn that other people usually didn't need help, or want it. Some other people, anyway.
"I'll tie off my collar band now," Sharina said, her voice under control again. She glanced over at Ilna. "Or would you like me to make it wider?"
"It's your design," Ilna said. She examined her friend's work.
The strip of red fabric would add color to the tunic a farmwife wore when she made her Tenth Night sacrifice: the splash of beer and pinch of ground meal sprinkled before the household altar with miniatures of the Lady and Her Consort the Shepherd. For major occasions—a wedding or the annual Tithe Procession, when priests came to the borough from Carcosa with mule carts bearing life-sized images of the Deities—the same woman would wear ribbons and garments of patterned fabric bought from a peddler. If she could afford purchased finery, that was; but Barca's Hamlet was a prosperous community in which anyone who was willing to work made out reasonably well.
"It's nice piece," Ilna said. Sharina nodded, gratified by the praise.
As everybody in the borough knew, Ilna didn't lie about craftsmanship. The closest she came was silence. Even then—and that slight kindness was the exception rather than the rule—anyone who pressed Ilna got the truth as Ilna saw it, with no more embellishment or delicacy than millstones show for the grain between them.
Ilna ran her fingers slowly across the collar band. Cloth spoke to her, telling her things which the folk who wove or wore the fabric often didn't know about themselves. She'd always had the ability, just as she'd always been aware of patterns where others saw only a loom frame and a mass of yarn waiting to be strung on it.
She'd never discussed her talent with anyone; not her brother Cashel, not Garric, whom she'd loved all her conscious life without giving the least overt sign of her feelings. Especially not Garric. If others thought at all about Ilna os-Kenset, it was merely that she wove well and that her assessments of other people were rarely charitable but were almost always accurate.
Sharina's fabric gave Ilna the feel of Barca's Hamlet, the simple houses and the warm tranquillity of a place where events had the virtue of being predictable even when they weren't desirable in themselves. Neither that nor the underlying strength and decency permeating the work were surprising to Ilna, who'd known Sharina since infancy.
The deep sadness was new, but Ilna had seen her friend cry as she remembered the protector who had died for her. Sharina's feelings toward Cashel were new also; Ilna jerked her fingers back from the fabric as though from boiling water. The truth can be an awkward thing.
"There," Liane said as she wrapped the selvage of the work she'd finished. Liane stood and swung the stool out of the way so that Ilna could get as close as she wanted to the frame.
After Ilna left the borough, her arrogant determination had brought her to a place she'd thought was gray Limbo but which she later realized was Hell. Ilna had come back from that place as a minion of Hell with skills no human was fit to wield.
The skills remained. She'd been rescued from the Thing that had possessed her, but nothing could ever rescue Ilna from the evil she'd done while the Thing used her the way her own fingers used a loom.
Liane stood as straight as a shed stick, waiting for Ilna to examine her work and pronounce on it. She met Ilna's eyes without flinching. She knew Ilna too well to expect mercy, but pride kept her even from wanting that.
Ilna smiled with a vague humor directed primarily at herself. She understood pride at least as well as the rich girl did.
She bent to examine the work without touching it. Instead of weaving a narrow band the height of the frame the way Sharina had, Liane had strung warp threads only in the center. She'd filled a square no bigger than her palm with an intricate zigzag design in rust-red and butternut yellow. The workmanship was painstaking and excellent.
The cloth buyers who'd carried Ilna's fabrics away for sale to wealthy folk all over the Isles made sure that she knew the fashions of Erdin and Valles, but this was like nothing she'd ever seen before. She looked at Liane and asked, "Is this a Sandrakkan pattern? Or did you see it when you were in Valles?"
"Neither," Liane said. "A panel like this hung over my crib when I was a baby. It's something my father brought back, I don't know from where. As I told you, he traveled widely."
Ilna's lips curved in what was for her broad smile. "And the work itself? Did they teach you to weave when you were at your school for girls?"
"No," Liane said crisply. "Of course Mistress Gudea taught weaving in her academy along with all the other accomplishments proper to a young lady, but my mother had already taught me to weave. She was wonderfully talented, but she wasn't as skilled as you are."
Ilna sniffed. "Neither are you, Liane," she said. "But you're better than anyone else you're likely to meet. You missed a wonderful career."
And, as the other girls digested what they'd just heard her say. Ilna touched the square of fabric for the first time.
The hard thread and tight weave made the woven plaque feel slick. Ilna let her mind slip deeper into the fabric, merging with it.
Goats nipped the leaves from bushes as they wandered on rolling, rocky hills. In the distance lay the ruin of a castle built with Cyclopean blocks. Ilna was seeing the source of the pattern, though she had no more idea than the goats themselves did of where that source might have been.
The other girls murmured softly to each other. Ilna continued to stroke the cloth. She was aware of the world around her, but for the moment she wasn't part of it. There was a bustle at the door. Tenoctris and the men were returning, all three talking at once in the greatest excitement.
Liane's personality illuminated the fabric as the sun did the surface of the sea. She was calm, steadfast, and kind, with a spirit that could never be broken so long as life was there to sustain it. Everything Liane bos-Benliman seemed, so she was in fact.
Ilna stepped away from the loom and shuddered.
"We found a creature in a cask on the docks!" Garric said with keyed-up enthusiasm. "It was shipped here from Valles, but—"
He paused, his eyes on Ilna.
"Do you need to sit, Ilna?" Tenoctris said. Cashel, silent but more direct, had already hooked a stool closer with one hand as the other guided his sister onto it.
"I'm all right," Ilna said, though she allowed Cashel to seat her. It was pointless to resist when her brother decided that you needed to move.
She smiled at Garric, then Liane. "I'm quite all right," she repeated. "What did you find at the docks?"
Not that she cared. Not that she would have cared if the Isles and every soul upon them sank straight into the sea.
Garric would go far. He had strength, a fine mind, and—thanks to his father—an education equal to that of any noble from Valles. Besides all that, Tenoctris had said that Garric, not Sharina, was the real descendant of the ancient kings of the Isles.
Fabric didn't lie to Ilna, and Ilna didn't lie to herself. She could no longer imagine that the rich, well-educated Liane bos-Benliman wasn't a fit companion for Garric.
As an illiterate peasant like Ilna os-Kenset could never be.
* * *
Garric looked at his companions, aware that there was one more person present than eyes could see: King Carus watched intently from somewhere between reality and dream. Carus grinned, as he generally did; but one hand generally rested on the hilt of his great sword also.
"The Scaled Men inhabit a separate plane of the cosmos," Tenoctris said quietly. "One so distant from ours that there was only once contact is myth rather than history."
She smiled. "Was myth. I'm learning a great deal about things I used to think were myth. Including Good and Evil, I suppose."
"They're demons?" Cashel said, leaning minusculely forward. It was like seeing a boulder tilt. "Scaly men are demons?"
Cashel asked the question with anticipation. His huge hands flexed the way a wrester loosens up for a bout. He'd fought a demon with his bare hands, Sharina said. Cashel hadn't talked to Garric about that or anything else which could be considered bragging.
The room's furnishings were of Serian style-spider-legged stools only inches off the floor, placed around a low table. Liane and Tenoctris used the stools, Liane more comfortably than the old woman, but the quartet from Barca's Hamlet squatted on their haunches.
They were used to that. Reise's inn and the ancient millhouse
where Ilna and Cashel lived had chairs, but many peasant huts had only a stone bench along one wall as furniture.
"No, they're not demons," Tenoctris said. "They're men, nearly enough, with no more powers than men have. But the story, the myth—"
She smiled again, her way of poking fun at herself for her former certainties.
"—was that a wizard in the time of the Yellow King brought the beast-god of the Scaled Men here. He thought the god, the Beast, could help him seize the Throne of Malkar. The Yellow King destroyed the wizard and bound the Beast in a prison of living fire."
Liane's lips pursed. "According to Ethoman, the Yellow King reigned for ten thousand years," she said. Her tone was dry and factual, letting the absurdity of the legend, display itself without any help from her. "When he died, the waters rose and formed the Isles where before there had been a single continent."
"Yes, I said it was a myth." Tenoctris agreed, nodding.
"The Throne of Malkar isn't a myth," Garric said. Nor was it a myth that King Lorcan, the founder of the royal line of Haft, had concealed the Throne in a place that only his descendants could find. Wizards who sought power through Malkar, through evil, had hunted Garric and Sharina for that reason.
"The scaly man isn't a myth either," Cashel said. "I guess it's still lying where I tipped it onto the bricks. Though maybe somebody's dumped it in the river by now."
Tenoctris had said the Scaled Man wasn't important for itself, only in what it represented. Some traveling mountebank would probably claim the creature for an exhibit. Though…
The Scaled Man was so very nearly human that it disturbed Garric even now to think about it. Perhaps Cashel was right, and the River Erd was already tumbling the body toward the Inner Sea.
"The thing that concerns me is that if Scaled Men exist again in our world…" Tenoctris said. She straightened a pleat in her tunic while her mind considered distant matters. "Then the Beast they worshipped may exist too. If he's escaped from his prison, then this world has a serious problem. Because I'm quite sure…"
She smiled like the sun, though her words were grim enough.
"…that the Yellow King isn't here to put him back."
"We're here," Garric said. "You can do something, can't you, Tenoctris? And we can help you."
"I don't know that I can do anything," the old wizard said, "but I may have to try. And I would certainly appreciate help."
"We'll need to go to Valles? Liane said. "I have money left from my father's funds."
Garric noted with a feeling of quick pride that Liane simply assumed that she'd be part of the endeavor. Courage was to be expected in a noble, but Liane knew from past experience that she was letting herself in for dirt and nastiness as well as danger. In a girl brought up with all the advantages of wealth and position, that willingness was rare indeed.
"I think I should mention something else," Tenoctris said. "It may be that the corpse of the Scaled Man was sent here to bring us to Valles. That it's a trap set by someone of great power. Or something of great power."
"It doesn't really matter, does it?" Cashel said. "I mean, we want to get close to him. If he wants to get close to us too, well, we'll see who was right about being stronger, won't we?"
It didn't seem to Garric that all planning should be boiled down to the philosophy of a wrestling match: you bring the parties together and one slams the other to the ground. But despite doubting the theory of what Cashel had said, it really seemed that he was right this time. If the source of the threat wasn't in Valles, at least it had sent this missive through Valles. Therefore, that was the place they needed to start their search.
"And Valles is the throne of the Isles, now, lad," a voice chuckled at the back of Garric's mind.
"When I left home," Sharina said, "I thought I was going to Valles Father raised us to finish what we started, didn't he, Garric?"
She gave her brother a wistful smile. Deliberately, she put her hand on Cashel's shoulder. Cashel gave no sign of the contact except to become very still, even more like a rock than he usually seemed.
"I became wealthy from what I was doing here in Erdin," Ilna said, her hands folded on the table before her.
"Evil's quite profitable. I haven't seen my business manager in the few days since I stopped ruining people's lives, but I'm sure I can provide you with funds in any amount you need."
She looked at Liane, then to Garric. Her gaze and voice were perfectly steady, as always. The passionate self-loathing in the cold words was evident to anyone who knew Ilna; but only to those few.
Garric reached across the table. Ilna jerked her hands back. She gave him a curt shake of the head.
"As I said," she continued, "I'll help in any way you request. I won't be leaving Erdin myself, though. I'm not such a fool as to believe that I can undo all the harm I've done—there were suicides as well as lives ruined from the work I sold here. But I need to try."
Garric stood, You didn't argue with Ilna when she'd made up her mind. He didn't understand her. He'd known Ilna all his life and he still couldn't guess what she'd do-except to know that Ilna os-Kenset would do exactly what she said, or die in the attempt.
"I'll look into buying our passage to Valles," Garric said, "Passage for five."
"Ilna, I wish you'd come with us," Liane said. She touched Ilna's hands with her own, as Garric would have done if she'd let him.
Ilna looked at the other girl. "Yes," she said, "I know you would. Well, I suppose without people like me for the background color, good people wouldn't stand out so clearly. Thank you anyway, but three would be a crowd. For the third one at least."
Cashel got up with the deliberate grace of a bear stretching to mark a tree with his claws. "I'll come with you, Garric," he said. "I never liked walls around me, even when there's as much room inside them as Master Latias has here."
They were all rising. Sharina offered her hand to Tenoctris.
"And I," said Ilna, closing the discussion, "will finish the fabric I started this afternoon. I want to have it done—"
She nodded toward Liane.
"—before you leave."

Copyright © 1998 by David Drake