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Down Among the Dead Men
A Forest Kingdom Novel
By Simon R. Green
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Simon R. Green
All rights reserved.
Silence Carved in Stone
Duncan MacNeil reined in his horse and looked around him. Narrow shafts of golden sunlight pierced the Forest gloom, shining down through the occasional gaps in the overhead canopy. Tall trees stood close together on either side of the beaten trail, their branches heavy with the summer's greenery. The hot, muggy air was thick with the scent of earth and leaf and bark. A handful of birds sang in the higher branches, warning the creatures of the wild that man was moving through the Forest.
MacNeil stirred impatiently in his saddle. After two weeks' hard traveling, the Forest's charms had begun to pall. In fact, MacNeil was beginning to think he could live quite happily if he never saw another tree again. He glanced back down the trail, but there was still no sign of the rest of his party. MacNeil scowled. He hated being kept waiting. He looked at the trail ahead, but the tightly packed trees cut short his view. MacNeil signaled his horse to move on again at a slow pace. The border fort couldn't be far ahead, and he was itching to take his first look at it.
The Forest moved slowly by him, his horse's steady muffled hoofbeats sounding loud and clear in the quiet. The birds slowly stopped singing, and no game moved in the surrounding shadows. MacNeil dropped one hand to the sword at his side and eased the blade in its scabbard. Everything seemed peaceful, but he didn't believe in taking unnecessary chances. His gaze fell on a clump of dead trees to his left. They were twisted and hollow, eaten away from within by decay. The gnarled branches were bare, the bark mottled with lichen. Even after ten years there were still parts of the Forest that had never recovered from the long night.
The trees fell suddenly away to either side of him, and MacNeil jerked his horse to a halt at the edge of a clearing. He leaned forward in his saddle, shading his watering eyes against the bright sunlight, and smiled slowly. Square in the middle of the huge clearing stood the border fort, a vast stone edifice with two massive iron-bound doors and only a series of arrow slits for windows. MacNeil looked the fort over carefully. The two doors were firmly shut, and there was no trace of movement anywhere in or around the fort. The great stone walls brooded silently and enigmatically in the late afternoon sunshine.
MacNeil sat back in his saddle and frowned thoughtfully. There were no guards at the doors, and no one walked the high battlements. There were no flags flying, no pennants at the watchtowers, and no smoke curled up from the dozen or more chimney pots. If there was anyone in the fort, they were going to great pains to hide the fact. MacNeil looked back over his shoulder. There was still no sign of the rest of his party. He looked back at the fort, scowling unhappily. Normally he'd have more sense than to get so far ahead of his own people, but this business with the border fort worried him, and the sooner he got to grips with it, the better he'd feel.
There was a storm coming. He could feel it. Dark clouds were gathering in the sky, and the air had been close and muggy all day. MacNeil looked up at the lowering sky and cursed mildly. He had planned to look the fort over thoroughly from the outside and then spend the night in the Forest, but all the signs suggested it was going to be a filthy night. And MacNeil had no intention of sleeping on muddy ground in a thunderstorm when there were comfortable beds to be had close at hand. He and his team had spent too many nights in the field of late, and this summer had to be the wettest he'd ever known.
He stretched slowly and eased himself in the saddle. Somehow he'd thought the border fort would look more impressive, given the commotion it had caused at court. The panic had begun when it was discovered the fort hadn't communicated with the outside world in almost a month. No messengers, no carrier pigeons, nothing. The king sent messengers to the fort. None of them ever returned. Magicians and sorcerers tried to make mental contact with the fort, but some kind of barrier kept them out. The king listened to all the reports and grew steadily more worried. This particular fort lay on the border between the Forest Kingdom and its neighbor, the Duchy of Hillsdown. It had always been a disputed boundary, even to the point of war, and in the chaos that had followed the long night, Hillsdown had made several attempts to settle the question permanently in its favor. The new border fort had been built at the Forest King's command expressly to discourage such actions, and shortly after it was completed, that particular stretch of the frontier became suddenly very peaceful again. The Duke of Hillsdown sent several threatening letters and backed unobtrusively down, and that was that. Until last month.
MacNeil's hand settled comfortably on the pommel of his sword as he studied the silent fort. There were no outward signs that anything was wrong—the great stone walls were unmarked by fire or violence, and the clearing looked still and peaceful—and yet there were no signs of life either. MacNeil stirred restlessly, and his horse shook its head uneasily, responding to his mood. He patted the horse's neck comfortingly, but his eyes never left the fort.
Duncan MacNeil was a tall, muscular man in his late twenties. Long blond hair fell raggedly to his shoulders, kept out of his face by a simple leather headband. Cool gray eyes studied the world from a broad, smiling face. His shoulders were wide, his chest was broad, and there wasn't an ounce of spare fat on him. He worked hard to keep it that way. His clothes were simple and functional, and he sat his horse with the unthinking ease of a man who'd spent most of his working life in the saddle. His sword hung at his side in a well-worn scabbard, and his hand rarely moved far from it.
He'd lied about his age and joined the guards at fifteen, keen as mustard for a life of action and adventure. The Demon War had knocked most of that nonsense out of him, but deep down he was never content just to do his job and pull his pay. He needed a little excitement in his life to give it spice. His constant search for a little excitement had got him into trouble more than once, and lost him as many promotions as he gained. After one particularly unfortunate incident, involving the wrecking of a fashionable tavern after the innkeeper objected to MacNeil's complaint about watered ale, he was presented with a simple choice by his superiors: join the Rangers or spend the rest of his life turning large rocks into smaller ones in a military prison.
Rangers worked in small mobile teams, sent out ahead of a main force to investigate dangerous or suspicious situations. Such teams tended to be brave, competent, and ultimately expendable. The money was good, but truth be told, MacNeil would have done the job for nothing. Though of course he never told them that. They might have taken him up on it. Being a Ranger had given him all the excitement he could handle and then some. It was his life. He studied the fort before him and smiled happily. This one was going to be a challenge, he could tell. MacNeil loved challenges.
His smile faded slowly away. The trouble with challenges was that they were often time-consuming, and he was working under a strict deadline. He and his team had just three more days to find out what had happened at the fort. After that a full brigade of armed guards would arrive to man the fort again. And if there wasn't an answer ready and waiting for the commander of that brigade, Ranger Sergeant Duncan MacNeil and his team were going to be in big trouble. Heads would roll. Possibly quite literally.
Hoofbeats sounded on the path behind him as the witch called Constance rode out of the Forest gloom to join him. She steered her horse in beside MacNeil's, flashed him a quick smile, and looked out into the clearing with darting, eager eyes. The witch was a tall, striking brunette who sat her horse with more determination than style. She was only just out of her teens, and wore a smart blouse and trousers of black cotton topped with a billowing cloak of bright scarlet trimmed with gold. MacNeil thought she looked like a mobile target. He got nervous just riding beside her. Her face was raw-boned and sensual, with sparkling dark eyes that missed nothing and a great mane of night black hair held back out of her face by strategically placed ivory combs. She was a bit skinny for MacNeil's taste, but she moved with an unself-conscious grace, and her smile was bright and challenging.
MacNeil still wasn't quite sure what to make of Constance. She'd only joined his team a few weeks back, and this was her first mission, her first chance to show what she could really do. If she was half as good as she claimed to be, she'd be worth watching. MacNeil frowned slightly. Constance was replacing a witch called Salamander, who had died three months before. Three months almost to the day. Salamander had been a pretty good witch, in her way, but she had always thought herself a swordswoman as well as a magic-user, and in the end that killed her. She had drawn her sword when she should have cast a spell, and the bandit had been just that little bit faster with his ax. She took a bad wound in the gut, the wound became infected, and Salamander died in a filthy village tavern, out of her mind with fever and calling for a husband who'd been dead five years.
MacNeil had killed the bandit, but it didn't help. He'd led his team into that village. He'd told them it was safe.
He'd had a lot of trouble finding someone to replace Salamander. Every Ranger team had to have a magic-user; there were far too many magical creatures and occurrences lying in wait in the Forest these days, left over from the Demon War. Unfortunately, most of the kingdom's magic-users had been killed in the war, so instead of a sorcerer or sorceress he'd had to settle for a witch—first Salamander, then Constance.
Although he hadn't exactly chosen Constance. Truth was, he'd spent so long hedging over his choice that his superiors got impatient and appointed a witch for him. Constance had been a lot younger than he'd expected, but since she'd been raised and trained in the all-woman Academy of the Sisters of the Moon, he had no doubt as to the power of her magic. The sisterhood didn't turn out underachievers. You either graduated with honor or they buried you in an unmarked grave and scratched your name off the academy rolls.
He bowed politely to the witch beside him. "Well, Constance, this is it. That fort is what all the fuss is about."
"Poxy-looking place," said Constance airily. "Any sign of life?"
"Not so far. As soon as the others catch up, we'll go and take a closer look. See if it's still habitable."
Constance looked at him quickly. "You're not thinking of spending the night in there?"
MacNeil shrugged. "There's a storm coming, and a bad one by the feel of it. You can sleep out here in the rain if you want to, but personally speaking, I'm not at all averse to the idea of having a solid roof over my head for a change. You're new to field work, Constance; the first thing you learn in this business is to take your comforts when you can, and be grateful for them. They're few and far between in our line of work. There's plenty of time to give the fort a thorough inspection before nightfall."
Constance shook her head. "I don't know, Sergeant, I—"
"Constance," said MacNeil easily, "there's only one leader in this team, and that's me. I've taken the time to explain some of my reasoning to you because you're new to this group and this is your first mission, but I'm not going to make a habit of it. When I give an order I expect it to be obeyed, without question. Is that clear?"
"Perfectly clear," said Constance coldly. She turned away from him and studied the fort with great concentration. "I take it you have noticed that there are no guards on the battlements."
"Could they all have deserted, do you think?"
MacNeil shrugged. "It's possible. But if that's the case, what happened to all the messengers the king sent?"
Constance pursed her lips thoughtfully and tried to look like she was thinking hard. She wanted very much to impress MacNeil, but at this distance she couldn't See anything useful about the apparently deserted fort. She was still learning how to use her Sight, that mystical mixture of foresight and insight, and there were limits to what she could do with it. Unfortunately, the only cure for that was experience, which was why she'd applied to become a Ranger. It was one of the quickest ways to graduate from witch to sorceress. If you survived.
She heard a noise behind her and looked back sharply into the Forest as the rest of the party appeared out of the shadows. Flint and the Dancer guided their horses along the difficult trail with casual ease. They both looked extremely competent and completely relaxed.
Jessica Flint was a good-looking brunette in her late twenties. She was a little over average height, wore her hair cropped like a man, and had a figure that would have been voluptuous if she hadn't been so muscular. Flint was a trained swordswoman and looked it. She wore a long chain mail vest that had seen better days but left her sinewy arms bare. Her cotton blouse and leggings were old but well maintained. Her face was open and cheerful, even in the heat of battle, of which she'd seen more than her fair share. She was one of the few survivors of those who'd fought in the last great battle of the Demon War, outside the Forest Castle itself. She still bore some of the scars, and there were only three fingers on her left hand. She carried her sword in a long, curved scabbard covered with delicate silver scrollwork. The scabbard was worth more than her sword and her horse put together, and Flint was very proud of it.
Giles Dancer rode at her side, as he always did. He wore quiet, nondescript clothes and no armor. He was just a little shorter than average and slight of build, and his flat, bland face showed little trace of personality. Put him in a crowd and you'd never notice him, until it was too late. The Dancer was a Bladesmaster, a man trained to such a peak of perfection that he was almost literally unbeatable with a sword in his hand. Bladesmasters had been rare even before the Demon War; now there were said to be only two left alive in all the Forest Kingdom, and the Dancer was one of them. He was always quiet and polite, and his eyes had a vague, fey, and faraway look. No one knew exactly how many men he'd killed in his time; rumor had it even he was no longer sure. He and Flint had been partners from well before they joined MacNeil's team, and they had a reputation for getting the job done, no matter what the cost. They weren't always popular, but they were always respected. They'd been with MacNeil almost seven years, at least partly because he was the only one able to keep them under control. They respected MacNeil. Mostly.
The Dancer looked absently at Flint as they rode forward to join the others. "We're almost there now, aren't we, Jessica?"
"Almost," said Flint patiently. "I don't know why you're so eager to get there. So far everyone else who's approached this fort has disappeared off the face of the earth."
"They were amateurs," said the Dancer. "We're professionals."
"You're getting complacent," said Flint. "One of these days you're going to run into someone who's as good with a sword as you think you are, and I won't be there to back-stab him for you."
"Never happen," said the Dancer.
Flint snorted loudly.
Excerpted from Down Among the Dead Men by Simon R. Green. Copyright © 1993 Simon R. Green. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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