The major from the King’s Heralds didn’t look a soldier. He was short and slender, with graying, close-cropped hair and a carefully tended beard. Instead of a guards uniform, he wore a knee-length tunic; though a faint sound when he sat down betrayed he wore a chainmail shirt underneath. At first sight, no one would take him for a soldier. He could be anything: a merchant, a craftsman, even an artist. Or, thought Ghyll with a trace of his old humor, a spy.
‘You seem to me a man of many faces, Major,’ he said.
Tibaun smiled. ‘That is part of my job, Baron Halwyrd. Adaptability is very important for a Herald. Well, the lord steward said you wanted to see me. What can I do for you?’
Ghyll tried to organize his thoughts. DeGrathain had warned him to be careful with this man. Tibaun wasn’t supposed to find out who Baron Halwyrd really was. Ghyll swallowed at the thought. Am I trying to lead my own intelligence service by the nose?
He sat up cautiously, stretching out his leg to ease the strain on the wound. ‘I understood from Baron DeGrathain that you keep the reports on the deaths in the royal family?’
Tibaun stilled. His smile remained, but the humor faded from his eyes, giving way to something else Ghyll could not immediately identify.
‘I have the reports,’ the major said slowly, ‘although I never worked on any of them myself. Guard Command tasked General Davall with the inquiries. It’s been so long… may I ask why you are interested in these matters?’
The echo of suppressed bitterness in the major’s voice surprised Ghyll. ‘It was the regent’s idea,’ he said without a blush. ‘You will be aware of the murderous attacks on Castle Tinnurad and the village of Haspen?’
Something flickered in Tibaun’s eyes. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘The news of Tinnurad’s fall and Baron Jadron Halwyrd’s death were a great shock to the Heralds. But what…’
Ghyll’s hands gripped the armrests of his chair. ‘Tinnurad had been destroyed by both firebirds and golems; in Haspen’s case there were only golems involved. Once the enemies at Haspen had been defeated, the guards found among the disabled makemen a dead human male in a black robe, possibly the sorcerer who steered the constructs.’
Tibaun stared at him without moving. ‘Such corresponds to my information,’ he said finally.
Ghyll nodded. ‘There is a strong resemblance between this sorcerer with his makemen and the assassins who killed King Idrami of Opit, nine years ago.’ He watched the major as he said this, but Tibaun only raised his eyebrows.
‘Indeed? I heard of the murder, but not who did it.’
‘Prince Zinobad told me,’ Ghyll said. ‘Warriors in black leather, who couldn’t be slain by fire or arms, he said. I would describe the destroyers of Tinnurad the same. That’s not all, Major Tibaun. Early this year, black-clad men with firebirds raided several villages on the Nhael Islands.’
‘Is that so?’ the major said slowly. ‘It is rare to get news from the Nhael. How did you come by this knowledge?’
Ghyll bit his lip. Careful now. ‘From an impeccable source, Major. According to my informant the attackers were only interested in the drakenboats.’
Tibaun blinked his eyes. ‘Drakenboats…’
‘Which, in turn, were used in the assaults on Tinnurad and Haspen,’ Ghyll added. ‘Can you follow the regent’s thoughts, Major? Opit, the Nhael, Tinnurad – do our own royal deaths fit somewhere in that list? It is my task to find out.’
‘There were no golems involved in the royal accidents,’ the major said, startled.
‘Not as far as we know.’ Ghyll looked at his visitor. ‘But what exactly do we know about those strange deaths?’
Tibaun drummed on his knee as if struggling with something.
‘Too little,’ he said. ‘Davall’s investigation wasn’t a miracle of efficiency. That was not the general’s fault, but of the people who gave him his instructions. Davall, then colonel, had to do the entire investigation besides his daily work as the adjutant of the 6th Corps, and he lacked time. Of necessity, he had to leave the interrogations and all other footwork to a subordinate, an inexperienced junior officer. That didn’t make for a sound inquiry, I’m afraid.’ Tibaun frowned. ‘Those stupid interdepartmental jealousies! The Heralds should have done the investigations. That is our job after all. My predecessor did not sit well with the Guard Command of those days, and we were passed over in this whole matter. Extremely regrettable.’
For a moment, neither man spoke and in the sudden silence wafted the voice of a fishmonger through the window, extolling her ‘Fresh whiting, this morning’s ca-atch!’
The major shifted in his chair. ‘The court was incapacitated by the events and Davall did the best he could. I remember from his notes his conviction that all the deaths had been willful murders. He lacked evidence, however and thus the three cases are still booked as accidents. I would like to go after the truth, but I have neither the money nor the people. Had I known of a relationship to happenings outside our country, I might… no, as long as the Heralds are part of Guard Command, my hand stay tied. Still, I will keep my eyes and ears open. Is that why Prince Zinobad is here at the inn?’
Ghyll laughed. ‘There isn’t much you miss, is there? That has to do with it, yes.’
‘We are supposed to miss nothing,’ Tibaun said. ‘I know everyone in your company.’ He coughed. ‘Except the boy. We haven’t been able to trace his identity yet. You weren’t going to tell me?’
‘I’m sorry, Major. The boy doesn’t threaten the safety of the realm and the regent knows his credentials. You will have to make do with that.’ Ghyll smiled politely and the major smiled back. Both knew that the Heralds wouldn’t rest until they had found out who Torril was.
‘I understand,’ Tibaun said. ‘Well, I will have the inquiry reports delivered to you. You can keep them; what you will get is a copy. I assume you will treat them discreetly.’
‘With every report comes a list of the people who were involved and who were interviewed. I can’t say whether the addresses are still correct. After all, the information is eighteen years old.’
‘Thank you.’ Ghyll hesitated. ‘Davall. Is he related to Lieutenant Davall at Gromarthen?’
‘That’s his son. By all accounts a capable officer, just like his father.’
Ghyll nodded slowly. ‘Where can I find General Davall?’
‘The general is now the commander of the 6th Corps. He has his headquarters in Leudra City. You will have to go a bit further south, though, because the 6th is on maneuver. Their camp is located deep in the forest. To get there, you’ll need an escort; Davall’s headquarters will assist you.’ The major stood up and looked straight at Ghyll. ‘Your role is not yet clear to me either, Baron. You appear out of nowhere–oh yes, I know all about your flight from Tinnurad and your alleged relationship to the late Marshal Halwyrd–but who you really are, remains in shadows. You fight with mysterious monsters nobody saw before. You visit the regent, a man who rarely opens his door even for the highest ranks in the kingdom. Moments later, you walk out again with a title that has you outranking almost everyone in court and army. Am I supposed to find that normal? Frankly, I find it very strange.’
Ghyll grinned. ‘I work for Rhidauna, Major. Only for Rhidauna.’
‘If I thought otherwise, Baron, I would have had you locked up first and asked questions afterwards.’ Tibaun turned to the door. ‘Still, I wish you success. I, too, would be happy with the truth.’ He hesitated. ‘I heard of that knife attack in Theridaun. Do you have an idea who did it?’
‘Oh, yes,’ Ghyll said. ‘That was a sorcerer called Vasthul.’ Without further ado, he told Tibaun about the little man with the birdlike scar on his face, and all the times he had tried to kill Ghyll.
‘A small man with a striking appearance like that can’t go unnoticed,’ Tibaun said. He bowed. ‘Thank you for your openness, Baron. I will notify all the heralds and the Guard headquarters in Rhidaun-Lorn. Once we have him, you will hear from me.’
Tibaun left and Ghyll limped back to the dining room. ‘The major’s gone.’ He gave a summary of what they had discussed. ‘Our spymaster is distrustful. He finds Torril and me extremely suspicious.’
‘I?’ Torril cried. ‘I’m not suspicious! I’m Torril Nikkelsen, Prince of the Nhael.’
‘I couldn’t very well tell him that. For the good major you are still an enemy of our country.’
Torril paled and Ghyll continued quickly. ‘Just kidding. Once we have solved the murders, anyone may know who we are, but until then I keep my kingship a secret–and you too, friend.’
‘Have you told that major about Vasthul?’ Olle asked.
‘Yes. He’ll have the heralds look out for him. That will give me time to go after those so-called accidents that befell my family.’
‘I hope it is enough,’ Torril said darkly. ‘Vasthul is a rat and they don’t give up easily.’
In his heart, Ghyll knew the young Nhael was right about Vasthul–the sorcerer wouldn’t let himself be caught easily. He stood up and rubbed his lower back. ‘My leg needs some exercise. Let’s go into the city. We’re probably not done with traveling, so Torril needs a horse and some armor.’ He looked at the muscular young Nhael. ‘That could prove difficult. You’re wide as a man but not tall enough. Did you train much, back home?’
Torril had to think deeply. ‘Six or seven hours a day, if you don’t count the running, otherwise longer.’
‘That much?’ Even Olle was amazed. ‘Whatever did you train in then?’
The boy thought for a moment. ‘Sword fighting with single and twohanders, axes, javelin throwing, archery, horse riding, wrestling. Everything about the sea: knots, rowing and sailing, swimming and diving, spear fish hunting. Running. I ran every day at least six miles. I do miss that,’ he said unhappily.
Uwella stared at Torril with raised eyebrows. ‘You’re a prince, second in line to the throne. Didn’t they teach you anything more than fighting and sailing?’
‘Is there more?’ the boy asked, surprised.
‘Reading and writing,’ the wikke said. ‘Knowledge of the world, politics, the important things.’
‘Oh those,’ Torril’s eyes wandered off. ‘School. Nah, that’s for priests and girls.’
They all laughed and the boy looked up indignantly.
‘No, friend,’ Ghyll said. ‘For people like Zino and me the things you named school are as important as fighting. Look, you battle and win. What will you do next?’
Torril stared at him with eyes full of innocence. ‘Well, then you’re the boss.’
‘And what do you do as boss? Do you sit on your throne all day? What is it your father and your uncle do?’
Torril thought so hard his face contorted in a grimace. ‘They must dispense justice,’ he said after a while.
Ghyll nodded. ‘That’s important. What more do they do?’
‘Uh, talk with all those old men. About what? Well, what to plant, when the next draken hunt will be. Ordinary things, they don’t have to read.’
Ghyll scratched his hair. ‘Who does read at your courts? If I wrote a letter to your uncle, who will know what it says?’
‘My aunt. Reading is women’s work. If she thinks it necessary, she’ll tell my uncle, but often she won’t.’
‘Ah,’ Ghyll said. ‘So if I send a letter to the king of the Nhael, I can expect an answer from his wife.’
Torril shrugged. ‘Yes, but my aunt knows exactly what my uncle wants, and he wants nothing that she doesn’t like, so what difference does it make who writes it?’
‘Ooh, that’s an interesting point of view,’ Zino said, and he pursed his lips.
Damion glanced over the edge of his book. ‘Tonight after dinner I’m going to teach you to read,’
‘Oh, no,’ Torril said. ‘I won’t do it.’
‘You will. Tonight and every following night.’
‘Agreed,’ Ghyll said, tapping the table with his knuckles. ‘Now we’ll go buy a horse for you. A quiet, elderly animal.’
‘No!’ Torril cried, appalled. ‘Not some fat, old nag, Ghyll.’
‘Hmm.’ Ghyll rose, smiling. ‘Well, all right, we’ll find something suitable.’
The boy’s face brightened. With a wild cry, he stormed out of the room and pounded down the stairs.
Zino laughed. ‘Meri was like that, always active, always running.’
‘You weren’t?’ Uwella asked.
The prince gave a rueful shake of his head. ‘With my build?’ He patted his stomach. ‘No, I was the quiet one, who had to think up the excuses when Meri let things get out of hand again.’ He sighed. ‘Meri would’ve been prince of Mandaba. Now I’m stuck with the job and I hate it. I should have been like Keri. My twin sister would love ruling’
Damion grinned at the stout prince. ‘You are twins?’
‘That’s a common trait in our family. Kerianna and I are twins, but we’re very different. She’s ambitious and can be dominating. I’m neither. She would’ve made a great prince. I really loathe it.’ With his hand on the door handle, he paused, and his eyes began to shine. ‘You know what? I will stay here for a while,’ he said excitedly. ‘What you are doing is important for Opit as well and I need to know more about it. Any objections?’
Ghyll held up a hand. ‘Of course not. There is a spare bed in Bo’s room. I want to leave for Leudra City tomorrow, though, and arrange for an escort. Then we’ll go on to Davall’s army camp.’
Zino clapped his hands. ‘Adventuring! Ooh, that’s nice.’ He threw open the door to the hall, where his two advisors were still waiting. It took a while before they awoke and understood that their master didn’t need them anymore.
‘But Highness,’ the elder of the two began.
‘No buts,’ Zino said sternly. ‘I have decided. Baron Halwyrd’s investigations are in Opit’s interest and I want to be with him. You’ll go to the embassy, you will send my luggage here, and then you may return to Mandaba. You will take those two soldiers, the trumpeter and the fellow with the camel with you. I need only my horse. Got it?’
Long-faced, the two advisors nodded. They withdrew grudgingly, throwing anxious glances over their shoulders.
‘Ooh,’ Zino said, with an expression of ecstasy on his face. ‘I did it! I sent them away. Ooh, what bliss!’
‘How long will it take before your brother hears?’ Uwella said with a faint smile.
‘As long as it takes those two to get back to the embassy.’ Zino laughed elated. ‘The embassy secretary is a mentalist, who is in direct contact with Mo’s palace in Alunham. That’s no problem. Mo knows I won’t do something foolish.’
Luddeke screamed. Her old body resisted the steel bands that kept her tied to the iron cot while she shrieked like a demented animal.
Vasthul, his face distorted in pain, greedily sucked up the knowledge the transferium brought from her brain into his. The ancient hag knew more than he had expected. Much more. These things happen, he thought, as the fragments of knowledge sought their place in his brain. Sometimes, some unschooled, natural talent would prove unexpectedly strong. The ancient grimoire she’d possessed would certainly have contributed to it. That book alone was a find. A grimoire of the Revenaunt! Those yellowed pages bore the most powerful spells the world had known. He could read only a part of them; it was clear the book was meant for a high Sorcerer. Higher than Luddeke, because the knowledge he was stealing from her brain was insufficient to comprehend it all. He would study and learn to understand it. The power that the book would give him made him dizzy.
He pulled the tentacles of the buzzing transferium device from his head. Immediately, the old hag stopped her screaming. Her bony head fell to the side and a trickle of bloody saliva dripped from her mouth. She was unconscious, if she had any consciousness left.
Vasthul smiled grimly. The transferium gave him all that she knew, not only the magic. Luddeke’s whole being had been sucked out of her, to end up as a gibbering echo in the depths of his brain. Of the hag, nothing would remain but an empty shell.
A searing pain beneath his ribs convulsed him and he groaned. The cramps, those horrible cramps seemed to be getting worse. Panting, he sank down on the edge of Luddeke’s bed. ‘Oh Goddess, let it stop,’ he whispered. As always, She didn’t answer.