At the same time Ghyll crowned his wife, Vasthul was already eighty miles to the west. He had to see someone there. Someone recommended as an illegal divinatrix. She would give him a prediction of Hardingraud’s plans.
He progressed but slowly; his legs felt tired and stiff, his entrails painful, and walking was an effort. It was broad daylight, but around him, the gloomy pine forest was so dark that it seemed evening. He felt uneasy. A kind of oppression hung over him, a foreboding, without knowing why or what.
Impatiently he shook his head. Vasthul wasn’t a man with a rich imagination. Guilt, the memory of his many victims; all that didn’t enter his mind. It hadn’t even when he was a child. He had never known his parents, and the woman who raised him was a nasty old hag. On his tenth birthday, she died of an overdose of alembin in her mead, an overdose that he himself had stirred gently through it. The heavy-handed peddler with whom he traveled around for a year became his second victim, after which he went to stay with a dissolute mage. With him, he first set his steps on the path of magic, but his apprenticeship came to an abrupt end when the man suffered a crippling stroke. First stripping their house of all valuable things, Vasthul disappeared without a thought for his helpless master.
Thus it went, until at sixteen he joined the Dar’khamorth. There his qualities came to fruition, and after ten years, he was already a neophyte. Now he found himself here, on an important mission for the great leader, the Exhumyst himself.
Suddenly he saw something white move through the trees. Moments later came a second and a third. Soon there were more. Mistwolves! They moved in a circle around him, an ever-tightening circle, and suddenly one howled. The sound echoed through the trees like the cry of a demented banshee. Vasthul smiled grimly. He stopped and raised his right arm to the sky. With his hand, he began a rotary movement and a fiery thread spun from both sides of his fist. When the two ends touched, the burning ward was complete. Slowly, it sank to the ground, until Vasthul stood in a fiery circle. The sorcerer moved his fingers and the circle spread out. The flames passed harmlessly over leaves and branches, but every mistwolf it touched caught fire and soon there wasn’t a living monster left. Vasthul moved his arm quickly up and down and the spell dissolved into nothingness. Exhausted, he sank to his knees. A coughing overtook him and his entrails knotted themselves until he wanted to scream in pain. There he sat among the smoking wolf carcasses, with his hands clawing his bowels and the terrible cramp crippling his body.
The throne room filled slowly. Dukes, counts, barons, dressed in stark steel or costly garments; senior officers of Guard and fleet – whoever held his fief or office directly from the king had to repeat the oath of allegiance today.
Ghyll sat on the throne of his ancestors, with Kerianna at his side. He glanced at her and marveled at her glowing looks. Then he emptied his mind as Wyllander of Leudra stepped forward, the first of a seemingly endless row to swear allegiance. For every noble Ghyll had about a minute; otherwise the ceremony would have gone on until deep into the night. Many vassals came accompanied by their eldest sons, who according to tradition were presented to the king. Hundreds of sword hilts raised to his touch, hundreds of eyes looking up at him, hundreds of mouths pledging loyalty, all melted together in a foggy, formless mass.
The only new faces he remembered were Lorover Drat, the count of Oromander, and his son Lissander. Ghyll had heard their names mentioned before, and he understood that they were descended from an illegitimate branch of the royal family. He was fully prepared to accept them as distant relatives, but they didn’t seem interested. Oromander was a man of late middle age, well groomed and affable, with a sonorous voice and a little too much smile. His son Lissander was an athletic young man who seemed very pleased with himself and irritated Ghyll to the bone. The count took the oath clearly, articulating carefully, and avoided any trace of familiarity.
At last, the row of nobles and dignitaries ended. Wet with sweat, hoarse and with trembling hands, Ghyll retired to the sitting room, while downstairs the first musicians tuned their instruments.
‘I never realized how much that thing weighs,’ he said, placing the crown on the table.
Olle laughed. ‘You haven’t tried to spend hours at attention in antique armor like this. Pure sweaty bronze,’ he said, running his knuckles over his chest piece.
His foster brother grinned. ‘Well, you’re done with it.’ He looked at his brother. ‘My Defender,’ he said. ‘You truly defended the Crown today. Who was the intruder?’
Olle shrugged. ‘A Dar’khamorth accomplice. He didn’t fight badly at all, so he must have had some training. But he was no Rhidaunan, that’s all Tibaun could tell me.’
Ghyll shook his head. ‘It was a bit chaotic,’ he confessed. ‘I saw Bo use magic? In Dragos’s temple?’
‘His magic was white,’ Olle said. ‘Dragos was with him this afternoon.’
Ghyll pulled Childegard from its sheath. Faint red sparks moved over the bare blade. ‘His light was white, too.’
Dragos gave us the magic of paladins, Sire, the sword said aloud. ‘That way we wouldn’t dishonor his House. It was strange; I never used holy magic before. I’ve always been rather… profane.’
‘I’ve heard you once or twice,’ Ghyll said. ‘There wasn’t a pious word to it. But you have my thanks, Childegard.’
‘It was nothing, Sire. Anytime. Congratulations on your marriage.’
The festivities were already in full swing when Ghyll was about to go downstairs again.
‘There you are!’ a voice said in his ear.
‘Damion!’ Ghyll looked searchingly at his younger friend. ‘Where have you been all this time?’
‘Can we talk?’
‘Of course; walk with me.’ He closed the door of the sitting room behind him. ‘Something’s troubling you; spit it out, man.’
Damion took a deep breath, ‘I don’t know what to do. Asharte is my grandfather.’ Quickly he told of his conversation with the old duke the night before. ‘I must choose between you and Asharte, and I don’t know. Curse it,’ he burst out. ‘I want to choose for you; you’re my best friend and you and Olle saved my life. On the other hand, my grandfather needs me. And there’s Uwella.’
‘What does Uwella want?’
‘I haven’t told her yet that I have spoken with Asharte, but her plan is very clear. She wants us, together…’ He blushed a moment. ‘…to take the throne. A marriage alliance between DeGry and DeAsharte is the only way to stabilize the country.’
Ghyll whistled softly. ‘A grand plan. It seems to me that she’s right. Look, if you accept that you are a prince of Asharte, you can’t swear allegiance to me, just as Torril couldn’t. He offered me his sword because he wanted to be my squire, not because he had to. You can do the same as Zino, who is my friend and brother in arms, but on his own terms.’
Damion looked up. ‘You don’t mind?’
‘No, man. Everyone has his own obligations. As long as you don’t demand land of me, there’s no need for oaths.’
The young beastmaster’s face clouded over again. ‘Too late, I swore an oath already, that night in the Crown.’
‘Had you known then what you know now, you wouldn’t have made that vow. I absolve you of it.’
‘Thank you, Ghyll. Great Gods, four months ago I thought my father’s demands so hard to bear, and now I worry about kingdoms. What’s happening to us, Ghyll? Where will this stop?’
The young king took him by the shoulder. ‘I don’t know, Damion, at the moment I live from day to day. But I do know Kerianna wants her first dance with me.’
‘And I’m keeping you! Come, hurry! ‘
As he walked to the throne, Keri smiled at him and his heart lifted. The minstrels raised their instruments for a new dance. Ghyll bowed to his bride and offered his hand, leading her to the floor. Once there, he forgot everything. His world narrowed to his feet, the stately cadence of the music and the sequence of elegant poses that were part of the courtly dadaune. Halfway across the floor a jab of pain in his leg warned him and by the time the fiddlers fell silent, he barely made it back to the throne.
Kerianna gave him an anxious look. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘My leg.’ Briefly, Ghyll told her about the wicked athame and what it had done to him.
‘Then we won’t dance,’ she said firmly. Then she frowned and stared over the heads of the gathering at the doors. ‘Trouble?’
Ghyll followed her look and saw a naval officer standing at the edge of the crowd. The man looked at the thrones and seemed relieved to see his king. His face was vaguely familiar from the group of general officers whose oaths Ghyll had taken that afternoon, but the man’s name escaped him. Politely but deliberately the newcomer pushed his way through the crowd and approached the throne. He saluted and bent over so that only Ghyll and Kerianna could hear him. ‘Marhaunse-Wrodd, Sire, Admiral of the Southern Fleet. I’m sorry that I must disturb this festive day, Royal Highnesses, but I bring bad news. Unknowns have just now invaded Yanthemonde and are attacking the reserve fleet.’
Ghyll clutched the armrests. ‘A phoenix attack? Flying birds that spit fire?’
The admiral looked at him in surprise. ‘We think so, Sire. Contact with the naval base has been lost, but the duty signaler who passed the message said something about birds, before… before his thoughts stopped.’
‘What action have you taken?’
‘I ordered two lines of Naval Guards to the base, Sire, and a flight of Storm Riders.’
‘What time did they leave?’
‘The alarm came at half past eight. At that time you were still taking oaths, so we could not inform you immediately, Sire. The skyboat sailed almost two hours ago.’
Ghyll looked around. Torril was close by and he beckoned to him. ‘Get Bo, Olle, Damion and Zino together in the stables. Tell them to prepare for action. Dar’khamorth firebirds are attacking Yanthemonde. Do it quietly, Torril! It must remain a secret.’
To the admiral he said, ‘Duke Sillaine will go. Who commands the base?’
‘Port Captain Rabaun is harbormaster, Sire, but we don’t know if he’s still alive.’
‘You stay here, Admiral; I want as little fuss as possible. Find Marshal Gard-Galleth and ask him to keep himself available. Maybe I will talk to you both later, or else early tomorrow.’
The admiral saluted and withdrew. Ghyll looked at Kerianna.
‘Curse the Dar’khamorth!’ he said, forcing himself to appear calm. It wouldn’t do to alarm the whole court. ‘And that right now, when I can’t go.’
Kerianna’s eyes flashed. ‘Can’t go? Of course you’ll go. It’s your duty.’
Ghyll blinked. ‘But I cannot leave you alone with all those guests,’ he began.
Keri made an impatient gesture. ‘Don’t worry about me, I can handle them. You go to Yanthemonde and kill some of those murderers for me. For my father and for Meri.’
Ghyll touched her stiff face. ‘I will.’
‘Then go,’ his wife said. ‘Do your duty. Damned golems.’
The curse coming from her mouth pierced Ghyll’s heart and he kissed her. Then he slipped back down the hall.
At the stables, he found his Companions saddling their horses.
‘Are you coming?’ Olle said, surprised. ‘Keri didn’t mind?’
‘I wanted to leave it to you, brother,’ Ghyll said wryly. ‘But she ordered me.’
‘Our women are most warlike,’ a voice said from the shadows. It was Mo, Keri’s royal brother. ‘My mother is the same. I saw her when my father died. She came to get us out of the burning palace wing. Sword in hand, she commanded the troops as if she’d never done anything else. Ha, our women are furies; graceful and pretty, but dangerous inside.’ He said in Ghyll’s ear, ‘A word to the wise: take my sister very seriously. She hasn’t yet learned my mother’s restraint and she always goes armed. Besides, as the youngest daughter, she is used to getting what she wants.’ He gave a fleeting grin. ‘You’ll find out.’ Then, aloud: ‘Well, if you don’t mind, I’m coming too. I want to see those firebirds in action.’
‘You’re welcome, Mo, but beware, those beasts are dangerous.’ Ghyll looked at the others. ‘We’re not going to fight, let that be clear. I want to know what’s going on and how it could have happened; the rest is up to the Naval Guard. Bo, do you have a contact in Yanthemonde?’
The firemage nodded. ‘There is a portal near the harbor.’
‘Take us there.’ Ghyll breathed deeply and closed his eyes. Chaos. Then they stood in the portal of the temple of Hathnorm, the patron God of travelers.