"By the good God, open your door!" a man shouted, and once more a spear-butt was thumped against the timbers. It was a Rimmersman's voice, with an edge almost, Deornoth thought, of madness. "Are you all asleep?! Let us in! I am Isorn, Isgrunnur's son, escaped from the hand of our enemies."
"Look! See how the clouds break! Don't you think that is a hopeful sign, Velligis?"
As he spoke. Duke Leobardis swung his pointing hand in a broad arc to the cabin's open window, nearly smacking his mailed arm against the head of his sweating squire in the process. The squire ducked, swallowing a silent oath as he juggled the duke's greaves, and turned to cuff a young page who had not gotten out of his way fast enough. The page, who had been trying to make himself as unobtrusive as possible in the ship's crowded cabin, renewed his desperate efforts to shrink out of sight entirely.
"Perhaps we are, in some way, the thin end of the wedge that will put an end to this madness." Leobardis clanked to the window, his squire scrambling along the floor behind him, struggling to hold a half-fastened greave in place. The gravid sky did indeed show long, rippled streaks of blue, as if Crannhyr's dark and bulky cliffs, looming over the bay where Leobardis' flagship Emettin 's Jewel rolled at close anchor, caught and tore at the lowering clouds.
Velligis, a great round man in golden escritorial robes, stumped to the window to stand at the duke's side.
"How, my lord, can throwing oil on the fire help to extinguish it? It is, if you will pardon my forwardness, folly to think so."
The hammering of the muster-drum echoed across the water. Leobardis brushed lank white hair out of his eyes. "I know how the lector feels," he said, "and I know he directs you, beloved Escritor, to try and persuade me out of this. His Sacredness' love of peace... well, it is admirable, but it will not come about by talking."
Velligis opened a small brass casket and shook out a sugar-sweet, which he delicately placed on his tongue. "This is perilously close to sacrilege. Duke Leobardis. Is prayer 'talking'? Is the intercession of His Sacredness the Lector Ranessin somehow of less validity than the force of your armies? If that is so, then our faith in the word of Usires, and of his first acolyte Sutrines, is a mockery." The escritor sighed heavily, and sucked.
The duke's cheeks pinkened; he waved the squire away, bending creakily to fasten the last buckle himself, then waved for his surcoat of rich blue with the Benidrivine kingfisher gold-blazoned on the chest.
"God bless me, Velligis," he said testily, "but I haven't the mind for arguing with you today. I have been pushed too far by the High King Elias, and now I must do what is needed."
"But you do not go into battle by yourself," the large man said, speaking with some heat for the first time. "You lead hundreds, nay, thousands of men—of souls—and their well-being is in your care. The seeds of catastrophe are fluttering in the wind, and Mother Church has a responsibility to see they do not find fertile soil."
Leobardis shook his head sadly as the small page shyly lifted his golden helmet, with its crest of blue-dyed horsehair.
"Fertile soil is everywhere these days, Velligis, and catastrophe is already growing—if you'll forgive my theft of your poetic words. The thing is, we must try and nip it while it is budding. Come." He patted the escritor's fleshy arm. "It is time to go down to the landing-boat. Walk with me."
"Certainly, my good Duke, certainly." Velligis turned slightly to the side to ease through the narrow doorway. "You will forgive me if I do not accompany you ashore just yet. I have been somewhat unsteady on my legs of late. I am getting old, I fear."
"Ah, but your rhetoric has not lost its vigor," Leobardis replied as they moved slowly across the deck. A small figure wrapped in a dark robe crossed his path, pausing to nod briefly, hands folded on its breast. The escritor frowned, but Duke Leobardis returned the nod with a smile.
"Nin Reisu has been with Emettin's Jewel a long time," he said, "and she is the finest of seawatchers. I forgive her the formalities—Niskies are strange folk anyway, Velligis, as you would know if you were a sailing man. Come, my boat is this way."
The harbor wind made of Leobardis' cloak a sail, billowing blue against the uncertain sky.
Leobardis saw his youngest son Varellan waiting at landfall, looking too small to fill out his gleaming armor. His thin face peered anxiously from the hollow of his helmet while he surveyed the gathering Nabbanai forces, as if his father might hold him responsible for any slipshod formations among the milling, swearing soldiers. Several of them pushed past him as unconcernedly as if he were the drummer boy, cursing cheerfully at a pair of horses who, frightened by the confusion, had leaped off the gangplank into the shallow water, taking their handler with them. Varellan backed away from the splashing, whinnying chaos, his forehead wrinkled in a frown that did not go away even when he saw the duke step from the grounded boat and wade the last few paces to the rocky shore of Hernystir's south coast.
"My lord," he said, and hesitated; Leobardis guessed he was wondering whether to climb down from his horse and bend a knee. The duke had to restrain a scowl. He blamed Nessalanta for the boy's timidity, since she had hung on to him as a drunkard to his jug, unwilling to admit that the last of her children was grown. Of course, he perhaps owned some responsibility himself. He should never have poked fun at the boy's half-formed interest in the priesthood. Still, that had been years ago, and there was no turning the boy's path now; he would be a soldier if it killed him.
"So, Varellan," he said, and looked around. "Well then, my son, it looks as though all is in good order."
Although the evidence of his eyes told him his father was either mad or overkind, the young man flashed a grateful smile. "We shall be unshipped in two hours, I would say. Will we march tonight?"
"After a week at sea? The men would kill us both and find a new ducal family. Although I suppose they would have to dispatch Benigaris, too, if they wanted to finish the line. Speaking of your brother, why is he not here?"
He spoke lightly, but he found the absence of his eldest child irritating. After weeks of bitter argument over whether Nabban should cling to neutrality, and a stormy reaction to the duke's decision to support Josua, Benigaris had turned his coat and announced his desire to ride with his father and the armies. Benigaris could not give up an opportunity to lead the Legions of the Kingfisher in battle, the duke felt sure, even if it meant giving up a chance to rest his hocks for a short while on the throne of the Sancellan Mahistrevis.
He realized he was woolgathering. "No, no, Varellan, we must give the men a night in Crannhyr, although merrymaking may prove scarce with Lluth's war gone so poorly to the north. Where did you say Benigaris was?"
Varellan colored. "I didn't, my lord. I'm sorry. He rode up to the town with his friend Count Aspitis Preves."
Leobardis ignored his son's discomfort. "By the Tree, I would not have thought it too much to expect my son and heir to meet me. Well, so, let us go and see how things are with our other commanders." He snapped his fingers and the squire brought the duke's horse up, harness bells jingling.
They found Mylin-sa-Ingadaris underneath his house's white and red albatross banner. The old man, who had been Leobardis' cordial enemy for years, hailed the duke over. He and Varellan sat watching as Mylin oversaw the final unloading of his two carracks, then joined the old earl in his striped tent for a flagon of sweet Ingadarine wine.
After talking marching squares and fewtering—and putting up with Varellan's half-successful attempts to join in—Leobardis thanked Earl Mylin for his hospitality and went out, youngest son trailing behind. Taking the reins back from their squires, they continued on through the bustling encampment, paying brief courtesy visits to the camps of some of the other nobles.
The pair had just turned about to ride back up the strand when the duke caught sight of a familiar figure on a big-chested roan charger, sauntering down the road from town with another rider at his side.
Benigaris' silver armor, his most cherished possession, was so thick with engravings and costly tracings of ilenite inlay that light declined to reflect from it properly, making it appear almost gray. Corseted by his breastplate, which corrected the overabundancy of his figure, Benigaris looked every inch a brave and doughty knight. Young Aspitis beside him also wore armor of beautiful workmanship: the family osprey crest had been inlaid on his breastplate in mother of pearl. He wore no surcoat that might cover it up, but went, like Benigaris, plated all over like a gleaming crab.
Benigaris said something to his companion; Aspitis Preves laughed, then rode away. Benigaris came down the road, crunching across the gravelly beach toward his father and younger brother.
"That was Count Aspitis, was it not?" Leobardis asked, trying to keep the bitterness he felt in the back of his throat from his voice. "Is the Prevan House now become our enemy, that he cannot come and salute his duke?"
Benigaris leaned over in his saddle and patted his horse's neck. Leobardis could not see if he looked up through his thick, dark brows. "I told Aspitis that you and I would speak privately, Father. He would have come, but I sent him away. He went out of respect for you." He turned to Varellan, who looked aswim in his bright armor, and gave the boy a brief nod.
Feeling slightly overbalanced, the duke changed the subject. "What took you to town, my son?"
"News, sire. I thought Aspitis, since he has been here before, might help me to gather useful tidings."
"You were gone a long time." Leobardis could not summon the strength to be angry. "What did you find, Benigaris—anything?"
"Nothing we had not already heard from the Abaingeat boats. Lluth is wounded and has fallen back to the mountains. Skali controls Hernysadharc, but has not the armies to extend himself any farther, not until the Hernystirmen in the Grianspog have been subdued. So the coast is yet free, and all the ground this side of the Ach Samrath—Nad Mullach, Cuimhne, all the river lands up to Inniscrich."
Leobardis rubbed his head, squinting at the glaring streak the sun made on the surface of the ocean. "Perhaps we could best serve Prince Josua if we were to break this nearer siege. If we were to bring our two thousand men against Skali Sharp-nose's back, Lluth's armies would be freed up—what's left of them—and Elias' back would be naked as he lays siege to the Naglimund."
He weighed the plan and liked it. It seemed to him something his brother Camaris might have done: swift, forceful, a stroke like a snapping whip. Camaris had always approached warfare like the pure weapon he was, as straightforward and unhesitating as a shining hammer.
Benigaris was shaking his head, something like real alarm on his face. "Oh, no, sire! No! Why, if we were to do that, all Skali would have to do is melt into the Circoille, or climb up into the same Grianspog mountains. There we would be pegged down like a stretched hide, waiting for the Rimmersmen to come out. Meanwhile Elias would reduce Naglimund and be free to turn on us. We would be cracked like a hazelnut between the High King and the Raven." He shook his head emphatically, as if the idea frightened him.
Leobardis turned away from the dazzling sun. "I suppose you make good sense, Benigaris... although I seem to remember you arguing differently not long ago."
"That was until you made your decision to put the army in the field, my lord." Benigaris lifted his helmet and rolled it in his hands for a moment before hanging it back on his pommel. "Now that we are committed, I am a Nascadu lion."
Leobardis took a deep breath. The tang of war was in the air, and it was a scent that filled him with unease and regret. Still, the sundering of Osten Ard after the long years of John's peace—the High King's Ward—seemed to have brought his headstrong son back to his side. It was something for which to be grateful, however insignificant in the tide of greater events. The Duke of Nabban offered a silent prayer of thanks to his confusing but ultimately beneficent God.
"Praise Usires Aedon for bringing you back to us!" Isgrimnur said, and felt tears coming again. He leaned over the bed and gave Isorn's shoulder a rough, joyful shake, earning a sharp glance from Gutrun, who had not left her grown son's side since he had come in the night before.
Isorn, no stranger to his mother's stern ways, grinned weakly up at Isgrimnur. He had the duke's blue eyes and broad features, but much of the sheen of youth seemed to have vanished since his father had seen him last: he was drawn, shadowed. Something seemed to have been drained from him, for all his stock-shouldered bulk.
It's just hardship and worry that's been at him, the duke decided. He's a strong boy. Look at him, how he puts up with his mother's fussing. He'll be a fine man—no. He is a fine man. When he's duke after me... after we send Skali shouting down to Hell...
"Isorn!" A new voice sent the errant thought fluttering away. "It is a miracle to have you back among us." Prince Josua leaned forward and clasped Isorn's hand with his own left hand. Gutrun nodded approvingly. She did not rise to curtsy to the prince, motherhood apparently overriding manners on this occasion. Josua did not seem to mind.
"The devil it's a miracle," Isgrimnur said gruffly, and frowned to keep his swelling heart from causing him any embarrassment. "He got 'em out through wits and courage, and that's God's truth."
"Isgrimnur..." Gutrun warned him. Josua laughed.
"Oh course. Let me say then, Isorn, that your courage and wit were miraculous."
Isorn sat higher in the bed, readjusting the bandaged leg that lay, pillowed atop the coverlet like the relic of a saint. "That's far too kind, Your Highness. Had not some of Skali's Kaldskryke-men been without the stomach for torture of their fellows, we would be there still—as ice-stiffened corpses."
"Isorn!" his mother said, annoyed. "Do not speak of such things. It flies in the face of God's mercy."
"But it's true. Mother. Skali's own Ravens gave us the knives that permitted our escape." He turned to Josua. "There are dark things afoot in Elvritshalla—over all of Rimmersgard, Prince Josua! You must believe me! Skali is not alone. The town was full of Black Rimmersmen out of the lands around Stormspike. It was them that Sharp-nose left to guard us. It was those God-cursed monsters who tortured our men—for nothing! We had nothing to hide from them! They did it for pleasure, if such a thing can be imagined. Nights we went to sleep hearing the cries of our fellows, wondering who they would take next."
He moaned softly and lifted his hand from Gutrun's restraining grasp to rub at his temples, as if to scour the memory. "Even Skali's own men found it sickening. I think they are beginning to wonder what their thane has gotten them into."
"We believe you," Josua said gently; the look he lifted to standing Isgrimnur was etched with worry.
"But there were others, too—ones who came by night, hooded in black. Even our guards did not see their faces!" Although Isorn's voice remained quiet, his eyes were round in the remembering. 'They did not even move like men—the Aedon be my witness! They were out of the cold wastes beyond the mountains. We could feel the chill of them as they passed our prisoni We were more frightened of being near to them than of all the Black Rimmersmen's hot irons." Isorn shook his head and lay back on the pillow. "I am sorry, Father... Prince Josua. I am very tired."
"He is a strong man, Isgrimnur," the prince said as they walked up the puddled corridor. The roof here was leaking, as so many were in Naglimund after a winter of hard weather, and a spring and summer of the same.
"I only wish I had not left him alone to face that whoreson Skali. Be-damned!" Skidding on the wet stone, Isgrimnur cursed his age and clumsiness.
"He did all that could be done, Uncle. You should be proud of him."
They walked on for a while before Josua spoke. "I must confess, having Isorn here makes it easier for me to ask of you... what I must ask."
Isgrimnur tugged at his beard. "And what is that?"
"A boon. One that I would not beg if..." He hesitated. "No. Let us go to my chamber. This is a thing that should be discussed in solitude," He hooked his right arm through the duke's elbow, the leather-capped stump on his wrist a mute reproach in advance of any rejection.
Isgrimnur tugged at his beard again until it hurt. He had a feeling he would not like what he was about to hear. "By the Tree, let's get a jug of wine to take with us, Josua. I sorely need it."
"For the love of Usires! By the crimson mallet of Dror! The bones of Saint Eahlstan and Saint Skendi! Are you mad?! Why should I leave Naglimund?" Isgrimnur trembled in surprise and anger.
"I would not ask it if there was any other way, Isgrimnur." The prince spoke patiently, but even through the mist of his rage the duke could see the anguish Josua felt. "I have lain awake two nights without sleep, trying to think of another way. I cannot. Somebody must find the Princess Miriamele."
Isgrimnur took a long swallow of wine, feeling some dribble down his beard, but not caring. "Why?" he said at last, and set the jar down with a table-rattling thump. "And why me. God damn it all? Why me?"
The prince was all strained patience. "She must be found because she is vitally important... as well as my only niece. What if I die, Isgrimnur? What if we hold off Elias, break the siege, but I stop an arrow, or tumble from the castle wall? Who will the people rally behind—not just the barons and the warlords, but the common people, those who came nocking into my walls for protection? It will be hard enough to fight Elias with me at your head—strange and fickle as I am thought—but what if I die?"
Isgrimnur stared at the floor. "There is Lluth. And Leobardis."
Josua shook his head harshly. "King Lluth is wounded, maybe dying. Leobardis is the Duke of Nabban—at war with Erkynland within the memory of some. The Sancellan itself is a reminder of a time when Nabban ruled all. Even you, Uncle, good and much-respected man as you are, could not hold a force together that would stand against Elias. He is a son of Prester John! He was raised to the Dragonbone Chair by John himself. For all his wicked deeds, it will take someone from the family to unseat him... and you know it!"
Isgrimnur's long silence was his answer.
"But why me?" he said at last.
"Because Miriamele would not come back for anyone else I could send. Deornoth? He is as brave and as loyal as a hunting hawk, but he would have to carry the princess back to Naglimund in a sack. Beside myself, you are the only one who could ever bring her unresisting, and she must come willingly, for it would be disaster if you were found out. Soon enough Elias may discover she is gone, and then he will set the south afire to find her."
Josua walked to his desk and absently ruffled a stack of parchments. "Think carefully, Isgrimnur. Forget for a moment that it is yourself we speak of. Who else has traveled as far, and has as many friends in strange places? Who else, if you will forgive me, has seen the wrong end of so many dark alleys in Ansis Pelippe and Nabban?"
Isgrimnur grinned sourly, in spite of himself. "But still it makes no sense, Josua. How can I leave my men, with Elias coming against us? And how could I hope to perform such a secret thing, well known as I am?"
"For the first, that is why it seems to me a sign from God that Isorn has come. Einskaldir, we both would agree, has not the restraint to command. Isorn does. Anyway, Uncle, he deserves the chance to make good. Elvritshalla's fall has battered his young pride."
"It's battered pride that makes a boy a man," the duke growled. "Go on."
"As to the second, well, you are well-known, but you have been seldom south of Erkynland in twenty years. In any case, we shall disguise you."
"Disguise?" Isgrimnur pawed distractedly at the braids of his beard as Josua walked to his chamber door and called out. The duke had a strange, heavy feeling around his heart. He had been dreading the fighting, not so much for himself as for his people, his wife... now his son was here, too, giving him another stone of worry to carry. But to leave, even riding into danger as great as he left behind... it seemed unsupportably like cowardice, like treason.
But I was sworn to Josua's father—my dear old John—how can I not do what his son asks? And his arguments make all too much bedamned sense.
"Here," the prince said, stepping away from the door to allow someone in. It was Father Strangyeard, his pink, eye-patched face creased in a shy smile, tall frame stooped over his burden: a bundle of dark cloth.
"I hope it fits," he said. "They seldom do; I don't know why, just another gentle reminder, another of the Master's little burdens." He trailed off, then seemed to find the thread again. "Eglaf was most kind to lend it. He is about your size, I think, although not quite so tall."
"Eglaf?" Isgrimnur said, mystified. "Who is Eglaf? Josua, what is this nonsense?"
"Brother Eglaf, of course," Strangyeard explained.
"Your disguise, Isgrimnur," Josua amplified. The castle archivist shook out the bundle, revealing a woolen set of black priestly vestments. "You are a devout man, Uncle," the prince said. "I am sure you will be able to carry it off." The duke could have sworn Josua was resisting a smile.
"What? Priest's robes?" Isgrimnur was beginning to see the outlines of the thing, and he was not pleased.
"How better to pass unnoticed in Nabban, where Mother Church is queen, and priests of every stripe nearly outnumber the rest of the citizens?" Josua was smiling.
Isgrimnur was furious. "Josua, I feared for your wits before, but now I know you have lost them completely' This is the maddest scheme I have ever seen! And on top of everything else, who ever heard of an Aedonite priest with a beard?" He snorted scornfully.
The prince—with a warning glance to Father Strangyeard, who put the robes down on a chair and backed toward the door—walked to his table and lifted a cloth, revealing... a basin of hot water, and a gleaming, fresh-stropped razor.
Isgrimnur's eruptive bellow rattled the very crockery in the castle kitchen below.
"Speak, mortal men. Do you come to our hills as spies?" A chilly silence followed Prince Jiriki's words. From the corner of his eye Simon watched Haestan reach backward, feeling along the wall for something to use as a weapon; Sludig and Grimmric glared at the Sithi who surrounded them, certain that any moment they would be set upon.