Two days later, they departed for what should be the last part of Ghyll’s quest. With a careless gesture, Bo brought the Companions with their horses and mules to Rabogst, their point of departure for the west.
The moment they emerged in the portal, the smell of aromatic oils and the sound of singing from the sanctuary let them know that the temple was back in service.
Torril was the first to step outside into the sun and he stopped short on the threshold, exclaiming loudly. Ghyll hurriedly joined him, and saw why. In the short time since their first visit, Rabogst-Village had come to life. The empty houses had all been repaired, and people had returned to them. Chickens scratched in the streets, clean laundry fluttered between the walls like banners – a street scene like a thousand others in the kingdom.
‘They must have used magic,’ Olle said, ‘to manage all this so quickly.’
From the shadow of the temple a young, blonde girl stepped shyly forward. Ghyll recognized her as the new portal adepta whom the Red Order had sent. He couldn’t remember her name.
‘Avelore,’ Bo said, and the tone in his voice had Ghyll look back in astonishment. Bo?
The firemage’s face as he stared at the girl bore a strange mixture of desire and uncertainty.
The young adepta bowed. ‘Welcome, Royal Highnesses.’
‘There’s been some hard work done here,’ Ghyll said.
The girl beamed. ‘Oh, Sire, all temples have done their best to put the village and the castle back in order as fast as possible. Now all those poor people who were lured to Derivall have come back and there even are Rabogst sheep on the heath again! We hoped secretly that you would come to see it when it was ready.’
‘Am I too early then?’ Ghyll said with a smile.
Avelore blushed. ‘No, Sire, certainly not. The work is almost finished. You know,’ she said, ‘At first I wasn’t happy that the temple sent me here after that foolish thing I did with a fire elemental in Leudra City, but now it’s all so nice again, I don’t mind anymore.’
Over her shoulder, Ghyll gave Bo, who had opened his mouth to say something, a warning frown. Then he looked at the girl.
‘Was it you who let that branneman escape?’ he asked quietly.
Avelore brought her hands to her mouth. ‘Oh,’ she said in a small voice. ‘Mainal help me, you were the one who defeated the monster. O Sire, it was an accident. I’m so sorry, it was the cat, you see. My cat…’
‘The cat?’ Bo said. ‘What cat?’
‘My cat, magister; look.’ Her hand disappeared into her robe and pulled out a small orange kitten. ‘Tibas!’ she said proudly.
The creature mewed plaintively and Avelore put it down. ‘You can play here, Tibas,’ she said. ‘It’s safe now.’ The look she gave Ghyll was disarming in its artlessness. ‘You see, I had forgotten to pick him up before I called that fire elemental. Tibas is so playful, he had one of my ward stones before I knew what was happening. I was too late; the branneman had already escaped before I could place the ward back. Oh, that poor Father DeLamon, it’s my fault.’ The girl burst into tears. ‘I’m so terribly sorry.’
‘DeLamon was an idiot,’ Bo said fiercely. ‘That he was slain by the fire elemental was his own fault, don’t worry about it. But to take a cat to a summoning isn’t such a good idea.’
Avelore sobbed. ‘No, I will never leave him alone again when I am practicing.’
‘That seems very sensible,’ Ghyll said. ‘Well, what’s done is done, and as magister Bernabo said, Father DeLamon should have known better. Let it be forgiven, adepta.’ He nodded kindly to her and turned to the others. ‘Let’s go and admire the village.’
‘You’re not taken in with her artful smiles, I hope?’ Keri said.
‘Jealous?’ Ghyll said with a smile.
The queen blushed. ‘No!’ she snapped. ‘There’s something wrong with that girl. Something false.’
‘I don’t know.’ Keri looked puzzled. ‘That silly innocent act; no adepta can be that stupid.’
Slowly they rode through the main street, while chickens ran away cackling and flapping their useless wings. Small children stopped in the middle of their game to stare after the noble procession, while their mothers kept reverencing and wishing them eternal good health. Ghyll and Kerianna thanked them for every wish and waved back laughing, and they approached the castle in a jovial mood.
The guards at the gate brought their fists to their shoulders when the Companions passed, and clarions sounded from the walls. In the courtyard, the garrison was mustered, with Davall proudly on horseback at their head.
‘Welcome, Royal Highnesses,’ he said, as he saluted.
Ghyll raised his hand. ‘Glad to see you, Davall. You’ve collected a new rank, I see?’
Davall smiled broadly. ‘Yes, Sire. Now this unit has grown so much, the marshal thought it better. Druyel and Andure are both captains.’ His face clouded for a moment. Druyel has received a new lieutenant, instead of Embit-Koy. He is still devastated; they were good friends, I understand. His efficiency does not suffer, though; the garrison of Perelann is first class.’
Ghyll and Davall rode past the immobile guards. Everyone had shaved, he noted with satisfaction. All of their armor was spotless and their weapons polished to a shine. Uncle Jadron had taught him that those things proved the men were proud of their unit,.
‘I’m glad to see your men look first-class, Davall.’ At the end of the front row, he saw a face he remembered from the first time. ‘Sergeant Major Redrill, congratulations on your promotion.’
The soldier beamed. ‘Thank you, Royal Highness,’ he said, stiffly at attention.
‘Redrill is now the leading subofficer, Sire,’ Davall said with satisfaction. ‘The exact title is yet to be determined, as Guard Command hasn’t found a proper name for us.’
Davall laughed. ‘Staff has been fighting over it for days already, Sire. Here you have created a situation that is unique to our force. The Guard has no unit between kolonne and captaincy, let alone a name for it.’
Ghyll looked over his shoulder at Damion. ‘Would you have a suggestion from one of your books?’
Damion scratched at his hair and thought. ‘I remember an old work from before the Dead Centuries, about the wars of the principality of Dikkurat. In that book, one of the often-discussed forces was a battalje, a unit of similar size to Davall’s one. It was under the command of – roughly translated – a major, or a battalje or half-colonel. It was primarily a unit for special tasks, Sire.’
‘Davall’s Battalje of the Margautainen; how does that sound?’ Ghyll asked.
The major nodded slowly. ‘It has the right note. Battalje… Yes, you got it, Sire! Can I pass it on to Guard Command?’
Ghyll nodded and turned to the troops. ‘Guards! Your commander told me this unit lacks an appropriate name. By Royal Decree, your unit is now a battalje. To the world, you are Davall’s Battalje of the Margautainen. May your enemies fill their pants when they hear your name on the field of battle!’
For a moment, discipline gave way and the guards roared with laughter.
Ghyll raised his sword and while Childegard enthusiastically flamed, he shouted: ‘For Rhidauna, Davall’s Battalje!’
Rows of glittering swords were raised and the shout ‘Davall! Davall! For Rhidauna, Davall!’ echoed against the castle walls.
Ghyll waited until peace had returned and said formally, ‘Major Davall, you will be listed as the 1st Battalje, immediately after the 9th Corps. Send in a proposal for a proper coat of arms; then the Quartermaster’s department will make new badges for you.’
Davall saluted. ‘Thank you for your confidence, Sire. We will not let you down.’ He turned to his men and called, ‘For King and Country!’
Again echoed the ‘Davall! Davall! For King and Country, Davall!’ The men seemed genuinely excited over their new identity.
‘Battalje-sergeant major Redrill, you can dismiss the men.’
‘Yes, sir.’ The sergeant major made a sign to the trumpeter beside him. On his signal, the guards turned and marched off to their quarters.
‘How is your state of readiness, Jerann?’ Ghyll asked when they were alone.
‘Rabogst is ready for anything you can throw at us, Sire,’ Davall said proudly. ‘The same applies for Derivall. Perelann is not quite finished with the renovation, but the castle is defensible and morale is as high as here.’
‘Excellent. Have you perhaps seen or heard of visitors from the North?’
‘From the Nhael? No, Sire; I imagine they want to know which way the wind blows first. I have leaked word it is business as usual, so it will probably be just a matter of time.’
‘Then we’ll wait; there is no immediate hurry. We have a long journey before us first. From here we’ll go to Derivall and then westward.’
‘Westward?’ Davall said as they walked into the great hall. ‘There isn’t much more past Derivall?’
‘All of Zihaen, among all else,’ Ghyll said, smiling. ‘My quest is not done yet, Jerann.’
‘Ah, how many men do you want?’
‘None. It’s not an expedition!’
Ghyll raised his hand. ‘Our neighbors could misunderstand it. Our group is already large; if we’d add the Guard, they could think we were invading them.’
Davall wanted to argue, but Ghyll held up his hands.
‘We are enough,’ he said, laughing. ‘We have among ourselves sufficient combat power for all possible occasions. Unless you have a spare signaler somewhere.’
The Guard officer shook his head. ‘Unfortunately, I only have the one, and that’s Prolaun, an older man. He wouldn’t suit you.’ He paused. Then he shook his head. ‘I heard…’ he said hesitantly. ‘Do you know the new portal adepta of the temple here?’
‘Avelore?’ Bo said quickly. ‘We do; why?’
‘I heard she has telepathic abilities. I don’t know how, for she is a Red magia, but I understand these things aren’t what we used to believe.’
Bo nodded. ‘True. It’s all much more complicated than the temples told us. Shall we ask her?’
Ghyll heard an unusually tense tone in Bo’s voice and he chuckled softly. ‘If she really can relay messages that could be useful. You know what, Jerann; let your signaler contact her telepathically. Ask her to come over here. If she picks it up to your man’s satisfaction, we take her along. If she wants to, of course.’
At his side, Kerianna made a derisive sound, but she didn’t say anything.
Prolaun, a stout middle-aged man, knew the adepta. ‘She isn’t a real signaler, Sire,’ he said with a hint of pompousness. ‘But for an outsider, she’s doing nicely. She even helped me a few times when it was very busy. Not with the secret things,’ he added hastily, ‘but she managed the routine messages well enough. I don’t know her range, but as long as you don’t go to the other continent, Sire, she will be fine. Do you want me to call her?’
Ghyll didn’t look at his wife. ‘Go ahead.’
The girl received the message in the proper way and within half an hour she joined them.
‘Signaler Prolaun?’ she said, after she had bowed to Ghyll and Davall. ‘Can I assist you with anything?’
‘Not me,’ the portly signaler said. ‘His Royal Highness has a question for you.’
The girl looked at Ghyll with big eyes. ‘Sire?’
‘You’re Avelore?’ Ghyll said, in a friendly voice.
‘Yes, Sire. Avelore anThelander from Luriaun.’
‘A village in Mathauna, Sire; near Kiltoch. It’s only a few small houses, you see, hardly anyone has heard of it.’
‘Rhidauna must have a lot of villages I’ve never heard of,’ Ghyll said apologetically. ‘You have telepathic abilities, I understand?’
The girl looked confused. ‘Yes, Sire. I don’t know where I got them from, because I really am an adepta of Mainal, When I was twelve years old and had my first bleedings, I found I could pick up some of the thoughts of the signaler at our castle. I’d already been admitted to the temple of Mainal in Leudra, and I didn’t think anything more of it until I was posted here. With Master Prolaun’s help I’ve been trying to improve my sending and receiving.’
‘The signaler tells me you do a good job of getting messages across. Now we,’ Ghyll gestured to his Companions, ‘will be going to Zihaen; on horseback. I can use a signaler, so if you want a break for a few weeks, then you’re welcome to come along. It is not without danger, but as a fire magia that shouldn’t be a problem for you.’
He looked at the adepta, who stared back at him, her kitten in the crook of her arm. A pretty girl, he thought appreciatively. No wonder Bo was smitten. Blonde, with a somewhat round face, a stubborn chin, full lips, gray eyes and light eyebrows. She was small, but Bo didn’t seem to care about that.
‘I’d like that, Sire,’ she said, and her face was remarkably expressionless. Then she blushed and lowered her eyes. The kitten purred gently and stretched her claws.
‘That’s settled, then,’ Ghyll said. ‘Major Davall will have a suitable mount for you. Go and pack some stuff, then we’ll leave for Derivall. We’ll meet you in an hour at the portal.’
‘Wait,’ Bo said. ‘I’ll show you the stables and escort you back to the temple.’
Avelore looked up at him and smiled. She put her small hand on his arm and together they walked outside.
Damion grinned broadly. ‘I thought I could hear his heart pounding from over here.’
‘I don’t know,’ Uwella said. ‘Bo is as green as a freshly sprouted pea and that doxy is not nearly as innocent as she looks.’ She and Kerianna exchanged glances, but neither said anything more.
An hour later, they found Avelore with her luggage packed on a mouse-gray tsenevazer horse. Bo couldn’t take his eyes off her.
Ghyll pretended he saw nothing. ‘Are we all ready? Bo, bring us to Derivall.’
A moment later, they frightened some workmen by suddenly appearing in their midst.
‘Gods, Royal Highness,’ their foreman said later, after the shock had ebbed away. ‘We didna think the portal already worked, seein’ you’re the first ones passing through.’ His accent resembled that of Archodea, the high wikke.
Ghyll smiled. ‘Sorry to scare you, friends.’ He handed the man some coins. ‘Here, buy yourselves a drink on the Crown.’
The workmen pulled their caps. ‘Thankee, Sire. That way you may frighten us more often,’ the foreman said with a laugh.
The portal in Derivall was built into a renovated barn, very sober-looking and efficient. Bo looked contently around him. ‘That’s the way it should be,’ he said. ‘Only a portal, without fuss. Every town, every village and every castle ought to have one. The temples have enough adepts to operate them, and that would give them something useful to do. Keep them from getting bored and unruly.’
Olle looked at him. ‘And you are saying that? Boom-Is-Bo Lusindral?’
Bo nodded impassively. ‘Yes. I know what I’m talking about; I’m an expert, after all.’
The castle itself hadn’t changed much since the last time, when Ghyll had taken it from the Dar’khamorth mercenaries. The gate had a new wicket door and everything looked cleaner, but the real difference was in the faces and the attitude of the residents. The people were excited and walked with a springy step, as if each day brought a new wonder. Ghyll’s arrival caused a wave of enthusiasm among the population. The people crowded around him and many wanted to touch him or his horse.
Ghyll grabbed Kerianna’s hand and people started cheering. Then the crowd moved apart for a young man in the uniform of the Guard. ‘Welcome, Royal Highnesses, welcome! Derivall is grateful you are here.’
The people clapped and shouted: ‘Listen! Hear! ‘
‘We are pleased to see all goes well, Captain Andure. Things look so wonderful.’
‘Thank you, Sire. Everyone has worked hard, but Derivall is now ready for whatever you ask from us.’
‘For now I desire only one night’s hospitality, Andure. We leave again early tomorrow morning.’
‘My house is yours, Sire.’ The young baron turned and shouted: ‘Good people, the Royal Highnesses would like some freedom of movement. All thanks for your welcoming, but now back to work, please.’
Laughing and talking, the residents returned to the order of the day, while the royal party followed Andure to the great hall.
Ghyll wondered a bit about the general enthusiasm and good cheer in the castle. Apparently, the new baron was a popular lord, but so was Davall, and in Rabogst folks were satisfied, but they lacked this exuberance. He leaned over to Keri and said softly, ‘It wasn’t like this the first time. This is unbelievable, all those happy people, I don’t know how he does it.’
‘He loves his people,’ a voice behind his shoulder said.
Ghyll turned around. ‘Father Dennarias! Still here?’
The Judge of Dragos nodded. ‘Yes, Sire. So many farmers have lost their land at the hands of Baron Ridaud, and all must be repaired. Baron Andure asked me to give back what his uncle had stolen, with proper compensation. He has used all his personal finances to right what he sees as a great injustice done. He is a good man, the new baron.’
Ghyll nodded thoughtfully. ‘If there isn’t enough gold, please contact the chancellor. The lack of governmental oversight has made this injustice possible and the crown should do its part to set it right.’
The priest smiled. ‘I will keep it in mind, Sire, but I’m not certain Andure would accept your offer. It has become a matter of principle for him to do it all himself.’
‘That is laudable, but Derivall is a royal garrison, and security shouldn’t suffer.’
Father Dennarias arranged his sleeves and coughed. ‘Major Davall keeps an eye on things, Sire. He most certainly won’t let it get out of hand.’
‘Ah, in that case I’ll my nose keep out of it. Is there any news of the sorcerer Kirogall?’
‘No, Sire, he has disappeared. The Guard found some traces of him at Castle Perelann, indicating that he had been hiding there for a while, but he had flown when the soldiers arrived.’
‘Too bad,’ Ghyll said. ‘I hate him escaping.’
‘If the gods want it, you will have another chance, Sire,’ the priest. said
‘I’m not sure the gods are a match for the Revenaunt,’ Ghyll softly said.
Dennarias looked worried. ‘The Revenaunt has been cast out. He cannot protect his followers now.’
‘That’s what I’m not sure of. Somehow the gods aren’t very successful, stopping the Revenaunt’s minions.’
The priest quickly made a sign of warding. ‘That is a troubling thought, Sire. If the gods cannot protect us, who will?’
Ghyll turned to go. ‘We’ll have to do it ourselves, Father,’ he said simply. ‘I’m sure the gods will do their best to aid us, but the actual work must be ours.’ With these words, he limped inside.
The young woman had her eyes closed. Her thin hands rested on the table. Although she had turned her emaciated face to Vasthul, she was far away.
‘I see him,’ she said suddenly. Her voice was ruined by alcohol and illicit drugs, and her whole body trembled. ‘I see him. Oh-aw, he’s handsome! Seems jest a prince! He drives through a swamp. A large swamp. With… toothy beasts, and snakes. He is not afraid; the prince is big and strong. There are houses. A town… the town is dead. Ha haa, HE killed the town. HE, the Master…’ Her voice trailed off into an unintelligible murmur.
Vasthul waited quietly. He knew whom she meant; after all, her master was his as well.
‘A castle,’ she said suddenly and there was disgust in her voice. ‘The bigots! The prince sleeps with the bigots!’
‘Bigots?’ The sorcerer remained calm. He seethed inside, but he knew that any trace of anger would break what little contact he had with the divinatrix.
‘Swordbrethren!’ It sounded like a hiss and her face contorted with hatred.
Vasthul nodded. Now he understood her and he shared her feelings. The Order knights had no mercy for Hamorthian sorcerers and the sentiment was mutual.
‘Where is he going next?’ he asked, almost friendly.
There was a long silence. ‘I see grass,’ she said suddenly. ‘Nomads. Broken cities. Grass, mountains and….’ She rose up from her stool and her face reflected supreme ecstasy. ‘The Owan Abai! They go to the Owan Abai! They seek him… they seek him! The Master does not… He…’ Her hands clawed at her throat, her bony body arched until her spine threatened to break and then she stiffened. Gurgling, she fell backward, while flakes of foam dripped from her mouth. Her foot kicked a trestle from under the table and the beer cups bounced through the deserted taproom.
Vasthul jumped aside and stared at the twisted, lifeless face of the divinatrix. Dammit, the excitement had been too much for her weak body. He felt no pity for the flawed female, only irritation that she had died before he could ask all his questions. He thought for a moment. Anyhow, he now knew where Hardingraud was going. The Owan Abai, his Master’s former seat! Holy ground… Bah, even that did not interest him. The old temple was an empty shell and nothing more. The real power lay elsewhere, with the Exhumyst. With that fool Kirogall in disgrace there had to be a place at the top for someone with Vasthul’s abilities. After that, who knows… the Exhumyst was only human behind that silly mask. Stop! Vasthul forced his thinking into a different direction. He needed warriors. Cheap warriors, because those guards in the capital had taken his money. Undead warriors? He knew how to raise them; his stolen grimoire described everything clearly. But he wasn’t strong enough for raising more than a few. The handful of undead that had helped him escape from that Guard dungeon were as much as he’d been able to resurrect. For an army – you had to be an archmage. Archmage… A sudden smile curled his lips. He made a quick movement of the hand and stepped cheerfully from the old tavern. While the flames inside the tavern spread and the first tendrils of smoke writhed through the cracks in the walls, Vasthul quickly left the doomed village.