Read an Excerpt
The Dragon's Doom
A Tale of the Band of Four
By Ed Greenwood
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2003 Ed Greenwood
All rights reserved.
To Conquer a Kingdom
The rattle of keys awakened an echo in that dark and stone-walled place, and then a heavy door scraped open, flooding torchlight into a damp darkness that had lasted for decades. Old Thannaso, who kept the locks and hinges — and the manacles that waited on the gigantic wall wheel within, gleaming now in the leaping flames — well oiled, was as blind as deep night, and so had no need to light his way when he worked.
A lithe, slender man who wore skintight garb of soft, smoky-gray leather on his body and a half-smile upon his darkly handsome face held the torch high and behind his own shoulder, to peer into all corners of the cell. A little water was seeping in high on the south wall, glistening as it ran down the stone, but of intruders — beyond a small, scuttling legion of spiders — he saw none. Craer Delnbone was one of the best procurers in all Asmarand ... which is to say that after too many years of escapades enough for a dozen thieves, he was still alive. If Craer's bright eyes saw no intruder, none was there.
The woman who followed at his elbow saw nothing either. She was much of Craer's size, and moved against him with the familiarity of intimate companions, but she was no thief. Tshamarra Talasorn was a sorceress from a proud family of Sirlptar, the last of her line — and her tongue could be every bit as sharp as her wits, as Craer had learned to both his fascination and cost. His "Tash" wore garments cut like his but of shimmerweave and silk, that flashed back torchlight every bit as much as her large and alert eyes. She, too, saw no peril in the cell — though most of her thin-lipped attention was bent upon the burden being carried behind her.
That burden was a large, stout man in rich garments, frozen in a pose as stiff and rigid as stone save for his furious eyes — eyes that darted this way and that, seeking to see all as one does who knows he will soon have very little to look upon at all. An armaragor of great size and thews carried the straight, immobile man, with the legs-steadying aid of a slightly smaller, older warrior who strode along with the easy authority of one born to command.
Hawkril Anharu was a gentle giant of a man, unless one crossed blades with him in battle. He carried their captive as lightly as if the man weighed nothing, and had to stoop and turn his broad shoulders at an angle to pass through the narrow door of the cell. He resembled an amiable bull in armor more than anything else.
The formerly raven-dark hair of the older armored man behind Hawkril was going gray and white now, but Ezendor Blackgult — once infamous across Asmarand as "the Baron Blackgult," a dashing warcaptain, decadent noble, and seducer of ladies high and tow — was still handsome ... and every bit as alert, as they moved through the dungeons, as Craer at the front of the band.
A radiance far paler than the torchlight flickered about their captive's head — the light of magic, lancing forth from a mottled stone carried in the palm of a tall, slender woman who walked at the rear of the group. Above a slight frown, her eyes were also fixed upon her captive.
Embra Silvertree had once been best known as "the Lady of Jewels" for her elaborately decorated gowns, but she much preferred the simple leather breeches, warriors' boots, and open silk shirt she was wearing now. Her long, dark hair swirled untamed down her back as if it was a half-cloak, and men best knew her now in Aglirta as the most powerful sorceress in the land.
Like the others who walked with her, she was an Overduke of Aglirta — and like them, she was carrying out a distasteful but necessary duty this day. Her gaze never left their dark-robed captive as Hawkril swung the frozen-limbed man upright — boots uppermost — as if he weighed no more than the petals of a flower.
Craer and the Baron Blackgult deftly plucked and fitted dangling manacles, the slender procurer trying the smaller key Thannaso had surrendered to him in each cuff. They locked and unlocked flawlessly, and with a nod to the baron, Craer fitted them to the arms of their captive, then accepted Blackgult's cupped hands to boost him to where the procurer could reach higher manacles, and so secure their captive upside down to the great wheel on the cell wall.
A tremor ran through those limbs as they were secured — gods, but the man must be part dragon, to struggle so in the thrall of Dwaermagic! — and Embra let out a sigh of pain. Hawkril gave her a quick glance as he stepped back from the chained man, but she gave him a reassuring smile through the ribbons of sweat now running freely down her face.
"I'm ready," the shorter, darker woman murmured at Embra's elbow, and the sorceress gasped and nodded, gesturing to her to proceed. Tshamarra Talasorn smoothly cast a spell, stepping forward at the end of her weaving to hold her spread hands on either side of the chained man's head — just outside the flickering aura of Embra's Dwaer-spun magic.
That light promptly faded and died — only to be replaced by a brighter, more golden radiance flooding from Tshamarra's fingers.
"Spare your trouble," the chained man said, more wearily than bitterly. "I'm not going to try anything — not with a Dwaer-Stone that can blast me to spatters, or cook my mind like spittle sizzling into a fire, close enough to almost brush my nose. I'm guilty of occasional ambition, not utter foolishness."
"Indeed. Wizards rise and fall in the Vale as the years pass," Baron Blackgult said, "and the Serpent returns, and the Faceless and outlander mages alike clash and scheme — and yet the Master of Bats lives on. Powerful enough to hurl back those who'd seize your power by force, and wise enough not to step into anyone's trap."
"Save yours, Band of Four — and Blackgult. Or are you a member, good Baron, and this wench whose magic now constrains me the fifth, the outsider? I'd not heard that the boy king was proclaiming new overdukes ... but then, I've not had the leisure to hear or see much of anything in the Vale this last while, with you hunting me. And if, as you say, I'm so wise as not to put a foot wrong, why this chasing and capturing? I was unaware that I'd slighted the Young Majesty. What quarrel has he with me?"
"None to speak of, Huldaerus," the Baron Blackgult replied grimly. "Yet your power is a danger to Aglirta of the sort we can no longer ignore. With shapeshifters busy and dozens of threats still menacing the River Throne like drawn blades, it's time — and past time — to scour the realm, collecting foes of the crown ... or wizards who refuse to kneel to King Raulin and pledge loyalty. Your refusal was, you must admit, rather spectacular." He examined one of the chains critically, and told it, "At last, we're gathering enemies before they show up in the Throne Chamber with swords or flaring spells in their hands."
The Master of Bats made a face, his hands trembling from the force of a surreptitious attempt to tear free of his manacles. "So if I go upstairs right now and kiss the royal slipper and say the right words, I can go free? Surely 'twould have been easier to try that first, ere —"
"No, Arkle Huldaerus," the Lady Silvertree said softly but firmly. "Things might be different if you meant your pledge, and so swore loyalty in all heartfelt honesty, but this Dwaer can power spells I'd not dare to weave — or trust — by myself, and it has told me one thing very clearly, more than once since your capture: You feel no shred of loyalty or fair feeling to the King, or to Aglirta."
"So that's why you were forever asking me to swear fealty, or if I would — or could," the chained wizard murmured, his face now flushed deep red from his inverted position. "I thought you meant it as some sort of taunt."
"No," Embra told him calmly, "you thought nothing of the kind. You thought we were trying a new spell on you, to urge you to loyalty. You also thought that we were a lot of fools who'd be tyrants if we weren't so addle-witted, that this Dwaer was wasted in our hands, and that you'd been very clever thus far to hold back when Serpent and Dragon were contesting on Flowfoam, and in the troubles before that. You then went on to think that you were quite clever enough to weather this latest storm of foolishness on our part, and break free with the aid of the three bats that, even now, you're concealing upon yourself."
"My, my, that unlovely lump of rock shows you everything, doesn't it?" the Master of Bats replied, more wearily than mockingly.
"Three bats?" Craer snapped. "Where? I felt him all over, good and proper, and graul if I think he could have hidden even one of the little chitterers from me. Where did he hide them?"
"Right now," Embra replied, "they're under his manacles, where the metal will best hide them from us. Before, when you were searching, they were in a dark place we all have, that's fashioned for expelling what our bodies are ready to be rid of."
"Why," Tshamarra murmured, "am I unsurprised?"
She watched Craer slip a long dagger under one manacle and slide it around the trapped wrist swiftly. A dark wing twitched momentarily into view, and then its owner exploded out of the other side of the manacte — and burst into blood that became threads of smoke in an instant, as Embra frowned, waved a hand, and her Dwaer flashed.
Anger darkened the face of the chained man, but he launched no futile struggle this time. Craer drove forth the other two bats, and they met similar ends. "He can fashion more of them from this, can't he?" he murmured, plucking at the wizard's dark and much-crumpled robes, and holding up his knife meaningfully, but Embra shook her head.
"No, Craer," she said. "I'm not going to be so cruel as to leave a man bared down here, to shiver in the dark and be dead in two hand-counts of days."
"No," the wizard told her flatly, "you're only going to be cruel enough to let me starve here, forgotten, until my bones fall out of these chains one by one onto yon floor — unless, of course, this dungeon has crawling gnaw-worms or other little welcoming beasts who'll come out to feed as soon as you take the torch away."
"I've almost as little liking for this as you do," Ezendor Blackgult told him heavily, "believe me. Or not, as is your right. You'll be fed regularly, rotated upright, and we will visit you from time to time, to ask questions — and perhaps, if your manner permits it, share news with you of events in the Vale."
"You realize," the wizard asked calmly, eyes moving from face to face, "how dangerous a foe you're making, don't you?"
"Huldaerus," the Lady Silvertree replied coolly, "we know how dangerous a foe you already are. You may have forgotten your casual cruelties at Indraevyn and since — as they seem to matter so little to you — but I haven't."
Eyes that held coiling flames of fury fixed on hers, but their owner's voice was as icily calm as Embra's as he responded, "And so 'tis time for you to practice casual cruelties upon me now, is that it?"
"I can cast a spell upon you that will keep you in dreams, if you desire," the Lady of Jewels replied gently. "It will seem as if no time is passing, in the times when you're not being actively roused by someone."
"No," the Master of Bats said firmly, "I would rather hang here and brood. Perhaps I can come to see my folly and even to embrace King Raulin Castlecloaks in my heart, if you leave me here long enough. Perhaps."
"You're refusing a spell of dream-sleep," Tshamarra Talasorn asked carefully. "Are you sure you want to do that, Master Wizard?"
"Quite sure, Lady," the upside-down man chained to the wheel replied politely. "I am the King's captive, arrested and brought here to my imprisonment by his loyal overdukes, my freedom taken from me to make Aglirta the safer. I want time to think on that."
"Very well. We shall depart, and leave you to it," the Baron Blackgult said, and turned away.
Craer watched the chained man carefully, and saw what he'd expected: Huldaerus open his mouth to say something — anything — to keep their company longer. Thereafter followed the next thing he'd expected to see: the wizard close his mouth again without saying a word, and smooth his face over into careful inscrutability once more.
Oh, yes, the Master of Bats was good at what he did.
Conferring with a few swift, wordless glances, the Band of Four and Tshamarra reached agreement and paced to the cell door together. Hawkril and Craer drifted to the rear, hands on hilts, to watch their prisoner narrowly.
He stared right back at them, his expressionless gaze almost a challenge. As Craer started to swing the cell door closed, the torch already behind him and the darkness coming down, the procurer saw the captive wizard's mouth tighten in angry anticipation of whatever taunt Craer might leave in his wake.
Craer shook his head, and said as gently as a nursemaid, "I wish you well, Arkle Huldaerus."
The heavy cell door boomed, and the Master of Bats was alone with the chill darkness. Not a kingdom many would choose to rule.
He waited, listening intently for the scrapes of their boots on stone to die away, as the darkness grew both heavy and deep around him.
And waited, growing used to the small, faint sounds of his new home. The whisper of seeping water flowing down stone, the slight echoes his own breathing awakened.
When at last he judged that time enough had passed, and young and triumphant overdukes of the kingdom couldn't possibly have patience enough to still be lingering outside the cell door of a prisoner they knew to be helpless, Arkle Huldaerus murmured the word that released a spell he'd cast a dozen years back — and held ready from that day to this, through all the tumult since. "Maerlruedaum," he told the darkness calmly, and patiently endured the creeping sensation that followed. Hairs pulled free of his scalp and slithered snakelike up his imprisoned limbs, to the place on his left shin where the legging under his boot had been so carefully soaked in his own blood: a place where that dark fabric was already stirring and roiling, rearing up ...
Three bats lifted away from his manacled body, whirring reassuringly past his face at his bidding, and the Master of Bats smiled into the darkness. There was a jailer's slot in that door, to let someone outside peer in at prisoners, and in a moment or four his three little spies would be out and about in the cellars of Flowfoam, watching and prying. He'd have to take great care to keep them unseen as he saw where the little thief Delnbone returned those keys to, but th —
Sudden fire exploded into his mind, and in its shattering pain he felt first one bat, and then the next, torn apart. Desperately he tried to claw at the last one with his will, snatching it back from — from —
"Not so subtle after all, Master of Bats," Embra Silvertree whispered in his mind, as the last of his bats flared into oblivion. "I barely had time to get comfortable out here."
Furiously the manacled wizard thrust out at the sorceress with his will, seeking to hurl her out from behind his eyes, but the magic that had lanced into him, leaping back along the links of his own casting, seared agonizingly wherever it went, and he was failing, quailing ...
"I'm not here to melt you witless," the lady baron said crisply, "or to bring you torment, Huldaerus — just to relieve you of all the magics you have ready to work mischief with. My thanks for providing so swift a road into your mind. This at least means I can leave you wits enough to remain yourself, and able to work magic in years to come."
"Mercy," the chained wizard hissed, his voice thin with warring fear and hatred, "I ... I beg of you, wench!"
"Most charmingly begged, to be sure. Rest easy, Huldaerus. I'm not here to work you any personal harm, just to do away with any other little surprises you may have for us ... there."
The Master of Bats felt several tiny, icy jolts as other prepared magics were forced into wakefulness and then broken and drained away ere they could take effect — and then a curtain seemed to roll back in his mind, and he was left with a fair and sunlit view down the Vale from Flowfoam not long after dawn, as the last mists stole away like hastening wraiths above the mighty Silverflow on some day in the past. The tiny figures of women come down to the banks to do their washing could be seen at the first bend. He peered at them, trying to see their faces and hear the chatter amid their laughter, as a waterswift flew past overhead, and ...
Excerpted from The Dragon's Doom by Ed Greenwood. Copyright © 2003 Ed Greenwood. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.