Read an Excerpt
Into the Darkness
By Harry Turtledove, Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1999 Harry Turtledove
All rights reserved.
Ealstan's master of herblore droned on and on about the mystical properties of plants. Ealstan paid him no more attention than he had to, no more attention than any other fifteen-year-old boy would have given him of a warm summer afternoon. He was thinking about stripping off his tunic and jumping in the stream that flowed past Gromheort, about girls, about what his mother would fix for supper, about girls, about the health of the distant and ancient Duke of Bari, about girls ... about everything under the sun, in short, except herblore.
He was a little too obviously not thinking about herblore. The master's voice came sharp as a whipcrack: "Ealstan!"
He started, then sprang to his feet, almost knocking over the stool on which he'd been perched. "Master Osgar!" he said, while the other boys whom Osgar taught snickered at his clumsiness — and in relief because the master had caught him instead of them.
Osgar's gray-streaked beard seemed to quiver with indignation. Like most men of Forthweg — like Ealstan himself — he was strong and stocky and dark, with an imperiously curved nose and with eyes that, at the moment, flashed fire a wardragon might have envied. His voice dripped sarcasm. "Perhaps you will do me the honor, Ealstan, of reminding me of the chiefest property of the herb snake's-grass." He whacked a switch into the palm of his hand, a hint of what Ealstan would get if he did not do him that honor.
"Snake's-grass, Master Osgar?" Ealstan said. Osgar nodded, anticipation on his face: if Ealstan needed to repeat the question, he hadn't been listening. And so, indeed, he hadn't. But his uncle had used snake's-grass the year before, which meant he knew the answer: "May it please you, Master Osgar, if you set the powder of snake's-grass and three-leaved grass under a man's pillow, he will not dream of himself afterwards ever again."
It did not please the master of herblore. His expression made that plain. But it was the right answer. Reluctantly, Osgar nodded and said, "Resume your seat — without making the countryside fear an earthquake, if that be possible. And henceforth, make some effort to appear as if you care what passes here."
"Yes, Master Osgar. Thank you, Master Osgar." Ealstan sat as carefully as he could. For a little while, till the master of herblore stopped aiming glances sharp as a unicorn's horn his way, he paid attention to Osgar's words. There were apothecaries in his family, and he'd thought more than idly of going into that trade himself one day. But he had so many other things to think about, and ...
Thwack! The switch came down, not on his back, but on that of his cousin Sidroc. Sidroc had been thinking of something else, too, and hadn't been lucky enough to get a question he could handle with what he already knew. All the boys in Osgar's class looked diligent then, whether they were or not.
After what seemed like forever, a brazen bell released them. As they filed out, Osgar said, "Study well. We meet again tomorrow afternoon." He contrived to make that sound like a threat.
To Ealstan, tomorrow afternoon felt a million miles away. So did his morning classes in Forthwegian literature and ciphering. So did the work he would have to do tonight for all of those classes and more besides. For now, as he left the gloomy corridors of the academy and stepped out into bright sunshine, the whole world seemed his — or, if not the whole world, at least the whole town of Gromheort.
He glanced back over his shoulder at the whitewashed stone keep where Count Brorda made his residence. As far as he was concerned, neither Brorda nor Gromheort got their due from King Penda, nor from anyone else in Eoforwic, the capital. To them, Gromheort was just a medium-sized town not far from the border with Algarve. They did not grasp its magnificent uniqueness.
That this was also Count Brorda's view of the situation, and one he assiduously cultivated in the folk of Gromheort, had never crossed Ealstan's mind.
It didn't cross his mind now, either. Sidroc made as if to hit him, saying, "Curse you, how did you come up with that about snake's-grass? When I strip off for the baths, everyone's going to tease me about the welt on my back."
"Uncle Wulfher used the stuff, remember, when he thought he had a sending of nightmares," Ealstan replied.
Sidroc snorted. He didn't want an answer; he wanted sympathy. Ealstan was his cousin, not his mother, and had scant sympathy to give.
Bantering with their friends, they made their way through the streets of Gromheort toward their homes. Ealstan blinked against the impact of the strong northern sun against whitewash and red tile roofs. Until his eyes got used to the light, he sighed with relief whenever he ducked under an olive tree or one full of ripening almonds. Good-byes came every couple of blocks as one boy after another peeled off from the group.
Ealstan and Sidroc were halfway home when one of Count Brorda's constables held up a ceremonial sword to halt foot traffic and wagons on their street. He shouted curses at a luckless man who didn't stop fast enough to suit him. "What's going on?" Sidroc asked, but Ealstan's ears had already caught the rhythmic clip-clop of cavalry.
Both boys shouted cheers as the unicorns trotted by. One of the officers made his mount rear for a moment. The sun shone bright as silver off its iron-shod horn and off its spotless white coat, a white that put whitewash to shame. Most of the troopers, though, had sensibly daubed their mounts with paint. Dun and sand and even muddy green were less likely to draw the notice of the foe and a streak of spurting fire, even if they seemed less magnificent than white.
A couple of slim, fair, trousered Kaunians, a man and a woman, cheered the cavalry along with everyone else. In their hatred of Algarve, they and the rest of the folk of the Kingdom of Forthweg agreed. After the constable waved traffic forward, Ealstan watched the woman's hips work in those revealing pants. He licked his lips. Forthwegian women went out in long, loose tunics that covered them from neck to ankles and kept their shapes decently disguised. No wonder people talked about Kaunians the way they did. And yet the woman strode along as if unaware of the spectacle she was creating, and chattered with her companion in their own sonorous language.
Sidroc watched her, too. "Disgusting," he said, but, by his avid voice and by the way his eyes kept following her, he was perhaps not altogether disgusted.
"Just because they dressed that way in the days of the Kaunian Empire, they think they have the right to keep on doing it," Ealstan agreed. "The Empire fell more than a thousand years ago, in case they haven't noticed."
"Because the Kaunians de-gen-er-ated from wearing clothes like that." Sidroc pronounced with exaggerated care the long word he'd learned from the history master earlier in the year.
He and Ealstan had gone a couple of more blocks when someone came running up the street behind them shouting, "He's dead! He's dead!"
"Who's dead?" Ealstan called, but he was afraid he knew.
"Duke Alardo, that's who," the man answered.
"Are you sure?" Ealstan and Sidroc and several other people asked the question at the same time. Alardo of Bari had been at death's door more than once in the nearly thirty years since his domain was forcibly detached from Algarve in the aftermath of the Six Years' War. He'd been vigorous enough to pull through every time. If only, Ealstan thought, he'd been vigorous enough to sire a son ...
But the man with the news was nodding vigorously. "I have it straight from my brother-inlaw, who has it from Count Brorda's secretary, who heard the message with his own ears when it reached the keep by crystal."
Like everyone else in Gromheort, Ealstan fancied himself a connoisseur of rumors. This one sounded highly probable. "King Mezentio will claim Bari," he said grimly.
"If he does, we'll fight him." Sidroc sounded grim, too, grim and excited at the same time. "He can't fight Forthweg and Valmiera and Jelgava all at once. Not even an Algarvian would be crazy enough to try that."
"Nobody knows what an Algarvian is crazy enough to try," Ealstan said with conviction. "He may have more enemies than that, too — Sibiu doesn't like Algarve, either, and the islanders are supposed to be tough. Come on — let's hurry home. Maybe we can be first with the news." They both began to run.
As they ran, Sidroc said, "I bet your brother will be glad to get the chance to slaughter some stinking Algarvians."
"Not my fault Leofsig was born first," Ealstan panted. "If I were nineteen, I'd have gone into the King's levy, too." He pretended to spray fire around, so recklessly that, had it been real, he would have burned down half of Gromheort.
He dashed into his own house shouting that Duke Alardo was dead. "What?" His sister, Conberge, who was a year older than he, came in from the courtyard, where she'd been trying to keep the flower garden flourishing despite Forthweg's savage summer heat. "What will Mezentio do now?"
"He will seize the Duchy." That wasn't Ealstan; it was his mother, Elfryth. She'd hurried out of the kitchen, and was wiping her hands on a linen towel. "He will seize it, and we will go to war." She did not sound excited, but about to burst into tears. After a moment, she gathered herself and went on, "I was about your age, Conberge, when the Six Years' War ended. I remember the uncles and cousins you never got to know because they didn't come home from the war." Her voice broke. She did begin to cry.
Ealstan said, "Leofsig will fight for Forthweg. He won't be dragooned into Algarve's army, or Unkerlant's either, the way so many Forthwegians were in the last war."
His mother looked at him as if he'd suddenly started speaking the language of the Lagoans, whose island kingdom lay beyond the isles of Sibiu, far southeast of Forthweg. "I don't care under which banner he fights," she said. "I don't want him to fight at all."
"Losing the last war didn't teach the Algarvians their lesson," Ealstan said. "This time, we'll hit them first." He smacked a fist into the palm of the other hand. "They won't stand a chance." That should have convinced his mother; none of his masters could have faulted his logic. For some reason, though, Elfryth looked less happy than ever.
So did Hestan, his father, when he came home from casting accounts for one or another of Gromheort's leading merchants. He had already heard the news. By then, very likely, all of Gromheort, all of Forthweg but for a few peasants and herders, had heard the news. He didn't say much. He seldom said much. But his silence seemed ... heavier than usual as he drank his customary evening glass of wine with Elfryth.
He had a second glass of wine with supper, something he rarely did. And, all through supper, he kept looking, not east toward Algarve but to the west. He had nearly finished his garlicky stew of mutton and eggplant when, as if unable to contain himself any longer, he burst out, "What will Unkerlant do?"
Ealstan stared at him, then started to laugh. "Your pardon, sir," he said at once; he was, on the whole, a well-mannered boy. "The Unkerlanters are still digging out from their Twinkings War, and trying to fight Gyongyos in the far west, and snapping and snarling at Zuwayza, too. Don't you think they have enough on their plate?"
"If they hadn't fought themselves in the Twinkings War, they would still rule most of Forthweg," Hestan pointed out. Ealstan knew that, but it felt like history as old as that of the Kaunian Empire to him. His father resumed. "Anyhow, what I think doesn't matter. What matters is what King Swemmel of Unkerlant thinks — and, by all I've heard, he doesn't know his own mind from day to day."
* * *
Tealdo studied himself in the little hand mirror. He muttered something vile under his breath: one of the spikes of his mustache was not all it might have been. He applied a little more orange-scented wax, twisted the mustachio between thumb and forefinger, and studied the result. Better, he decided, but kept fiddling with the mustache and with his imperial even so. Better wasn't good enough, not here, not now. Even perfection would be barely good enough.
Panfilo came swaggering up the aisle of the caravan coach. His own mustaches, even more fiery of hue than Tealdo's, swept up and out like the horns of a bull. Instead of a chin beard, he favored bushy side whiskers. He paused to nod at Tealdo's primping. "That's good," he said. "Aye, that's very good. All the girls in the Duchy will want to kiss you."
"Sounds fine to me, Sergeant," Tealdo said with a grin. He patted the sleeve of his drab tan uniform tunic. "I just wish we could wear something with a little style to it, the way our fathers and grandfathers did."
"So do I, and I'll not deny it," Panfilo said. "But our fathers went into the Six Years' War in gold tunics and scarlet kilts. They looked like they were already blazing, and they burned — how they burned!" The sergeant went on up the aisle, snarling at soldiers less fastidious than Tealdo.
The caravan hummed south along the ley line. A few minutes later, Lieutenant Elio came through the coach and snapped at a couple of men Panfilo had missed. A few minutes after that, Captain Larbino came through and growled at men Elio had missed — and at a couple he hadn't.
Nobody growled at Tealdo. He leaned back in his seat and whistled an off-color song and watched the Algarvian landscape flow by outside the coach. Redbrick and timber had long since replaced whitewashed plaster; the southern part of the realm was cool and cloudy and not well suited to the airier forms of architecture in fashion farther north. Here, a man wanted to be sure he stayed warm of nights — and of days, too, a good part of the year.
Halfway through the afternoon, the almost subliminal hum of the caravan deepened as it drew less energy from the line over which it traveled. It slowed to a stop. Captain Larbino threw open the door to the coach. "Form up in order of march outside," he said. "Remember, King Mezentio has done us great honor by allowing this regiment to take part in the return of the Duchy of Bari to its rightful allegiance. Remember also, any man failing to live up to this honor will personally answer to me." He set a hand on the basket hilt of his officer's rapier; Tealdo did not doubt he meant that. The captain added, "And finally, remember that we are not marching into a foreign country. We are welcoming our brothers and sisters home."
"Hang our brothers," said the soldier next to Tealdo, a burly fellow named Trasone. "I want one of our sisters in Bari to welcome me home, and then screw me till I can't even walk."
"I've heard ideas I liked less," Tealdo said as he got to his feet. "Lots of them, as a matter of fact." He filed toward the door, then jumped down from the coach, which floated a couple of feet above the ground, and took his place in the ranks.
Captain Larbino's company was not the first in the regiment, but was the second, which let Tealdo see ahead well enough. In front of the first company stood the color guard. He envied them their gaudy ceremonial uniforms, from gilded helms to gleaming boots. The man in the middle of the color guard, who had surely been chosen for his great height, bore the banner of Algarve, diagonal slashes of red, green, and white. The soldier to his left carried the regiment pennon, a blue lightning bolt on gold.
Just ahead of the color guard stood a squat brick building also flying the Algarvian national banner: the customs house on the border — what had been the border — between Algarve and Bari. Its turnstile was raised, inviting the Algarvian soldiers forward. An almost identical brick building stood a few feet farther south, on the other side of the border. Bari's banner, a white bear on orange, floated on a staff beside it. Its wooden turnstile still made as if to bar the road into the Duchy.
Out of that second building came a plump man in uniform. His tunic and kilt were of different color and cut from those of the Algarvians: not tan, but a brown with green mixed in. Duke Alardo, powers below curse his ghost, had liked running his own realm; he'd been the perfect cat's-paw for the victors of the Six Years' War.
Excerpted from Into the Darkness by Harry Turtledove, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 1999 Harry Turtledove. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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