The Kingless Land
By Ed Greenwood
Blackstone Audiobooks Copyright © 2001 Ed Greenwood
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780786195206
The Lady of Jewels
The River Coiling is cold at night. It slid endlessly and restlessly past Hawkril's shoulders as he swam steadily closer to the solid stone darkness of the castle walls, hoping no alert guard would hear Craer's teeth chattering beside himand that they'd not meet with a watersnake.
But then, what was one more pair of hungry fangs now? They were outlaws, every man's hand raised against them. As a ripple slapped his face with chilling water, Hawkril recalled their desperate scheming, over a meager fire high in the Wildrocks.
It had been cold then, too, and he'd challenged his clever-tongued, spiderlike comrade to find them a warm lair before the winter snows.
"With what?" Craer had snarled.
"Your wits, Longfingers," the armaragor had told him, almost merrily, knowing they hadn't even coins enough between them to buy an ax to hew firewood. Craer Delnbone was quick-witted, too (no army procurer prospered for long who wasn't). After all, "procurer" was just a handsome title for a word most folk knew rather better: thief.
"The onlyplaces that seem to have coins to spare are Sirlptar," Craer had reasoned, "which holds far too many prying mages for my likingand Silvertree, which already regards us as foes to be slain."
"I knew we were going to end up charging right at the throat of the strongest foe you could find," Hawkril had answered. "How are we going to find out where Faerod keeps his gold? His castle fills an entire island! He's got that wizard Gadaster, too!"
Craer had smiled, and shared his one good bit of news: "I heard two merchants in Dranmaer hawing on about how important they were and how much they'd make off of Silvertree. One of them said old Mulkyn died whilst we were away at war. They wondered about his replacementsand if Aglirta has heard nothing of them, they can't be powerful mages hired from someone else in the Valeand so can only be more feeble at magic than Gadaster was ... and thus hopefully less likely to find and track down two gown thieves."
"'Gown thieves'?" Hawkril had asked patiently, as he'd known he was supposed to.
"Who's the richest woman in the baronies?" Craer had asked briskly.
He hadn't had to frown for long. "The Lady of Jewels," he'd replied, "or so rumor has it."
"Exactly," the procurer had agreed, proceeding to make a show of leisurely taking a tiny bite of the stolen lamb they were sharing.
The armaragor had put the toe of one of his boots into Craer's thigh, not ungently, and the procurer had added hastily, "A tall, beautiful thing, or so we're told, whom no one ever sees these daysnot that many folk have ever been welcome to step into Castle Silvertree, or wanted to. She wears gowns festooned with gems; everyone still agrees on that, and she certainly did when she was a wisp of a girl; I saw her ... and her forty-three guards."
"Not a pleasant memory?"
Craer had shrugged, licking grease from his fingertips. "I'm sitting here talking to you with all of my limbs intact, am I not?"
Hawkril had given him a grin. "Yet I'd not be mistaken in thinking she lost no gems that day?"
The procurer had sighed theatrically, and told his fingernails, "I thought that if I let the girl be, she'd grow much larger ... and of course, her gowns would grow with her, so I'd have more and bigger gems to harvest, some day...."
"We set off to conquer the Isles," Hawkril had growled slowly, "and now we're talking about stealing a lady's dress."
"Not just any lady," Craer had reminded him. "And recluse or not, this one can hardly be innocent or even niceafter all, she's Baron Faerod's daughter! The Lady of Jewels, famous for her life of indolent luxury. She probably has forty gowns festooned with gemsand only one body to wear them. Why, she probably has wardrobes and even whole robing chambers full of gowns she's tired of and won't wear. We'll be doing her a favor by taking one off her handsand one, just one should be good for five or six seasons of guzzling wine and searching for just the right woman in Sirlptar, or even fabled Renshoun across the Spellgirt Sea."
Hawkril had shrugged. Craer had done it again. "Well, if you put it that way ...," he'd said slowly.
"Yes, we may well die in the trying," the procurer had hissed in his ear, "but why not go splendidly, fighting and striving, instead of shivering away cold winter nights of hunger, waiting for the wolves to end it all?"
Water slapped his face again, jolting Hawkril out of his memories of warm dripping lamb. If he'd dared to speak at all, he'd have dared the procurer swimming at his elbow to justify stealing a gowna lady's gown, sargh and bebolt it!again.
But they were close in under the grim gray walls now, and he dared not say a word. The icy breeze ghosting past could well be carrying the ears of a listening wizard. A mage whose boredom would die swiftly in the glee of slaughtering two outlaws daring to intrude on the island that was Castle Silvertree.
Why, oh why, did he let Longfingers talk him into such madnesses? They'd agreed to get in, steal a gown or whatever else of substantial worth they could easily carry off that didn't look magical, and get out without tarrying to explore or get greedy.
Castle Silvertree occupied an entire island in the Silverflow ... or at least its walls enclosed the isle. Walls that now towered up into the night like a black hand raised against thema black gauntlet waiting to close down and crush what it grasped.
It was well known that a forested garden grew at the heart of the island, between the palace wherein dwelt the Lady Embra Silvertreethe tall, beautiful, never-seen Lady of Jewelsat its downstream end, and a dock and fortress, the true Castle Silvertree, at the "prow," or eastern end. Walls as steep and crenellated as any bold baron's linked them, rising from the rocky roots of the isle like a huge shield to wall out unwanted intruders. Two desperate outlaws from the ruin of Ezendor Blackgult's army, for instance.
The Golden Griffon badge they'd been so proud to wear would now mean their deathsand a ruthless man somewhere on the island ahead seemed a few swift battles away from claiming the kingdom Blackgult had fallen short of, with the baronies of Brostos, Maerlin, and Ornentar bowing to his writ and wishes. A greater snake than anything the Silverflow might hold.
The river rippled again, carrying away most of Hawkril's deep growl of anger.
Craer had led the way, striking out from shore the moment full night was down and the river mists had risen, hopefully cloaking them from any watchers on the frowning battlements. Their only hope of reaching the isle without tiring was to swim for the dock and let the river carry them down the length of the fortified island, to the rough outcropping in the otherwise sheer castle walls, where a jetty had been torn away at the orders of Faerod Silvertreeto keep unwanted visitors far from his daughter.
Their only hope of even reaching the castle alive was to get to it before the moon rose and transformed the river into a sheet of rippling silver. Even a yawning guard could hardly miss two heads moving steadily nearer.
Tarry, old moon ... for once....
"Close, now," Craer gasped, so quietly that Hawkril only just caught the words. As their fingertips brushed wet and slimy stone at about the same time, the procurer added in an almost soundless breath, "Seems like we've been in this bebolten river all night!"
He shivered like a swift-wriggling eel as he clawed himself up the broken face of rock, a dark and glistening shadow in front of Hawkril's nose. They both wore carry-sacks and bore their weapons lashed into goose-greased scabbards ... and they were both cold, wet, and having second thoughts about this boldah, by the Three, call it true and call it "foolish"plan.
"Ready?" Craer asked in Hawkril's ear, as the armaragor clambered up onto a rock shelf beside him and tugged off one boot to let far too much river water spill out.
"No, but if we meet a guard, I can always drown him," the swordmaster muttered, carefully working his boot back on. They both wore their light fighting-leathers without the battle padding that, when wet, would have made it too heavy to climb in. At least the walls here were rough set and easy to scale. No doubt the Lords Silvertree, down the years, hadn't given much thought to the steadily diminishing ranks of thieves idiotic enough to try to drop in on a succession of barons known for their cruelty, slave-dealings, and love of torture. It seemed that the latest flowering of the line, Baron Faerod, was no more vigilant.
"Well, that's it: he's doomed now, the fool," Craer told himself in silent sarcasm, as he wiped his fingertips on the stone walls until he judged them dry enough and reached up to find his first fingerholds.
The palace was somewhere on the far side of the island, with a Silvertree Riverboataccording to local gossip, the home of restless Silvertree soldiery set there to intercept attempts by enemies of the baron to use his ferryanchored not far off its walls.
Hopefully no one and nothing dwelt or guarded the walls just here, where the pavilion and jetty had been torn down, and two desperate men were now making their way up. "Desperate, or just foolish," Craer grunted, not realizing he'd spoken aloud until he heard Hawkril answer from below.
"Master it, Longfingers: you're desperate. I'm just foolish, look you?"
Craer grinned into the darkness and climbed on without answering. The going was easytoo easy, old instincts were shrieking at himand they were almost at the crenellations that topped the wall already. He'd heard and seen no sign of sentries, but ...
Straining to make no sound, and to hear even the slight whistle of sliced air a stealthily swung weapon might make, the procurer hauled himself up onto smooth stone strewn with bird droppingsa thankful sign of neglectbetween two merlons. The wall was thick and showed not the slightest signs of weathering, here at its top. Not the slightest signs ...
The hair rose on the back of his neck. A frowning Craer unlaced the ties on two of his daggers. Then, swallowing, he crawled forward to make room for Hawkril. The armaragor was patting his leg impatiently, wanting to get clear of the danger of a killing fall back down to the cold, waiting river.
A simple, railless walkway ran along the inside of the walls for as far as the lastalan's eyes could see in either direction, without stair or tower or platform to break its run. It seemed deserted, silent trees standing in thick ranks right in front of them. The walkway was perhaps the height of three men aboveground. It didn't seem to bear any traps or pitfalls but was in truth largely lost in darkness.
Some spells give off a faint, high singing, an endless keening of aroused magic ... but there was no such sound here. The trees had been trimmed to keep ambitious boughs from reaching out to overhang the walkway. Craer looked up and down the deserted curve of the wall, frowning, but could see nothing amiss. Behind him, he could feel more than hear Hawkril's heavy breathing on his shoulder. Something was wrong....
He reached back and tapped the armaragor's arm deliberately, twicethe Blackgultan signal to wait silently until bidden otherwiseand then eased himself forward, keeping low and inching with infinite care, looking for a tripwire that might bring death out of that close and dark foliage. He found nothing.
Unlacing the cords that secured his needle-thin whipblade shortsword, Craer thrust it out before him and waved it around. Its blade was black and dull finished, but the grease that might keep it from rusting glistened in the first light of the rising moon. Nothing happened, even when he touched the walkway and pressed down hard. Then he sighed, shrugged, and stepped forward and down, knowing this was going to be a mistake.
It was, but Hawkril had joined him before something brushed Craer's leg. He spun away, and felt leather tear. Looking down, he stared at a humanlike arm that had sprouted out of the stones to clutch at him. Another was reaching for Hawkriland a third!
"'Ware!" he snarled, shoving the armaragor away from him. His skin crawled as he saw a forest of fingertips growing out of the stones, now. "Jump!" he hissed. "We've got to get gone before"
Cruel stone fingers clutched them from all sides.
"Horns!" Hawkril swore, and put his whole body behind a swing of his war sword. Craer heard stone shatter and shards clack and clatter off the stones around the swordmaster, an instant before he bent to hammer with the pommel of his own blade at the stony hands now tightening with crushing force around his own ankles.
"Get off the wall!" he snarled in Hawkril's direction, twisting and stamping his feet as he whacked aside stabbing fingers of stone.
He heard the tall armaragor grunt with effort, and something struck his leg a numbing blow. Craer felt wetness in his bootand sudden freedom. He spun away into space, drawing up his knees to land in what he hoped was earth and not spikes or the waiting jaws of some guardian beast.
His heels found soft earth and leaves that tore under himand then he was rolling desperately out of the way, as an off-balance armaragor, arms flailing, toppled down out of the night almost on top of him. The procurer felt another blow on his leg ... and then silence fell. He drew in a deep breath and sprang to his feet, tugging at Hawkril.
"There may be a warning spell! Come!"
The armaragor answered him with a groan and then a curse. As he rolled over to find his feet almost reluctantly, what was left of some spiny, berry-bedecked shrub fell from his back and shoulders. Hawkril looked down, found that he'd crushed whatever it was thoroughly, and waded rather stiffly out of its shattered ruin onto what must be a moss path. The garden ahead was a maze of moon-silvered tree trunks, winding paths, and beds of half-seen, shadowed flowers and shrubs. It seemed to be a succession of gentle hills.
Craer was already a few paces down the path, crouching and peering intently as he drew on soft (and sopping) leather gloves. "They say the baron hunts stags here," he murmured, "and that his daughter wanders idly about in floral gardens that are probably that way."
Without another word the procurer set off in the direction he'd pointed, in a sort of crouching run. He seemed to be limping. Ignoring his own pains, Hawkril dug in his heels and lumbered along in pursuit, grumbling, "If she's wandering around a garden right now, in the dark, it won't be for idle purposes ... not unless she's a deal less sane than most of us."
Neither of the intruders saw the wall behind them ripple and bulge, for all the world as if it was pudding being mixed vigorously and not old and massive stone.
One of the crenellations toppled suddenly, and seemed to flow through the walkway and downward rather than crashing and shattering. When it reached the torn flowerbed where the two men had landed, it stopped, and its shape seemed to shift subtly. When it moved again, it walked like a mana lumbering knight in full armor, visor down and stony blade raised to slay, its free hand wearing a massive spiked war gauntlet.
It moved stiffly, as if a little uncertain of its surroundings, but its course was clear: it was following the intruders, sword raised and ready to slay.
Hawkril thrust his head forward, listening intently. Faint crashings of disturbed foliage could be heard far back along the way they'd come. He frowned. "Dogs?" he asked, puzzled. "No, something that moves more slowly ..."
"Come," Craer said, moving on at a trot. He was limping, and his smile was tight and mirthless. "No doubt we'll learn what it is soon enough." A few paces on, he changed direction. "Formal plantings!"
"Whence this sudden fancy for flowers?" Hawkril growled. "'Tis a bit dark, surely, to be admiring blooms!"
The procurer gave him a pity-the-poor-dullard look and explained. "If the Lady Embra wanders idly in floral gardens from time to time, said floral gardens are therefore probably free of sentries or guardian beasts. Through the thick helm yet, Tall Post?"
The rustlings and crashings were growing steadily nearer. "Getting there," Hawkril told his brother-in-arms dryly, and joined the gasping procurer in a last sprint toward flowers and open moonlit spaces. The moon was very bright now; the open space ahead shone like a row of candlelit swords in a swordsmith's shop. Against that shining rose a dark bulk: a rampant watch-wyvern, its fearsome beak poised and its glittering gaze bent upon them.
"Graul," Hawkril gasped, losing his breath for the first time. "What's this, friend Craer? Rush to thy doom evening?"
"Yon-look! The wyvern!"
"A statue, thick helm ... see? There's another, there, and"
"In this place, they're probably all real wyverns, made statues by magic until we try to walk past them," Hawkril complained.
Craer asked mockingly, "Want to be an adventurer, laddy, and use that sword?"
The armaragor noticed, however, that as they ran the procurer shook his strangling wire out of his glove and let it dangle ready in his handand that the point of the short sword he bore in his other hand never dipped in the direction of its sheath.
The garden glades were lovely by moonlight; 'twas a pity something was chasing them and that they dared not linger for even a single look into each bower they passed. Ahead, the silver light touched stone balconies and gleamed back from windows....
That were blotted out an instant later by something large and furred and silent, springing through the air with its gaping jaws agleam!
"Horns!" Hawkril swore, driving his blade at the thing as it plunged past. "'Tis a wolf!"
His steel met the leaping form solidly and tore along its ribs with a rattling impact that sent blood spraying and nearly tore the sword from his grasp. The wolf made no sound of rage or painonly the snap of its jaws as it pounced on Craer and drove him over backward, biting viciously at his face.
The armaragor swallowed a curse and chopped at the wolf's head. Its jaws were caught on Craer's strangling-wire, which the procurer had hastily stretched from hand to hand to bar the way to his throat. The beast was ignoring the long, jagged wound Hawkril's blade had opened in its sidea rent out of which much dark liquid was pouringbut it couldn't ignore the blows that nearly severed its head from its body.
Craer was making wet choking sounds under all the gore, and Hawkril bent to snatch the wolf off of his ...
The sudden blow to his ribs drove the wind from him and tore both hot and cold; Hawkril cried out despite himself as he went to the ground, sword flailing the air in futility. There was a second wolf.
Gore burst from the jaws and cloven throat of the wolf atop Craer, half drowning him in a hot, wet, blinding flood; he spat and coughed and tried to keep breathing, smashing at lolling jaws with his elbow in an attempt to get out from under. These must be a pair of the legendary smoke wolves, who always kept silence as they slew ... at least, he hoped there were only two.
Hawkril was gasping in pain, the sound almost drowned out by horrible gnawing noises. Craer struggled desperately to roll away from the wet and dead weight on top of him. He had to get to his friend in time.
He was free! Rolling to his feet, Craer stumbled and fell onto his knees as the ground shook, and something large and dark blotted out the moonlight. It loomed over the struggling forms of Hawkril and the wolf, now rolling and kicking, and a massive stone sword swung ponderously upby the Three, a knight of stone!and then down, ringing sparks from ornamental stones set in a floral planting. Hawkril was a hand's width away from that descending blade, but the wolf that had savaged him was thrashing and sagging on the ground, cut cleanly in two.
Craer was sprinting by then, dodging past the rising stone sword to pluck at his groaning friend. "Up! Up and run!" he gasped. "Run, you thickheaded sword swinger!"
Hawkril swayed to his feet, made a sort of a sob, and stumbled out of the floral bed into a staggering, lumbering run, the procurer at his elbow urging and tugging.
"Come on, come on, hurry, come on." Craer glanced back at the approaching stone guardian and saw it striding after them, sword raised, staring stone eyes blank. If he was wrong about the magic that moved it, the lives and careers of Craer Delnbone and Hawkril Anharu bid fair to be soon over. The open moonlight of the gardens was close ahead, now, and he'd find out soon enough.
Was it ever soon enough to die?
The ground shook beneath their desperate boots; the stone knight was gaining on them. Just a stride or two more, though, and ...
They were out, gasping, into the moonlight, with the tattered leaves of a last bush whirling around them, and a tranquil fountain ahead. Craer caught at Hawkril's arm as the armaragor staggered sideways, cursing, and risked a look backjust as the knight took a step out into the open.
It did not freeze, as he'd hoped it would. Soon they'd be close enough to the palace for even snoring servant-maids to hear its lumbering progress, and then it really wouldn't matter if that heavy stone sword chopped them downor if they died by guards' blades or wizards' spells.
Dead was dead.
"And not a gown to show for it," he muttered, as the stone knight loomed up over them and swept its blade up, heedless of snapping, dancing branches.
"Hawkril," he hissed, "there's a statue yonder! Get around the other side of ituse it as a shield!"
The armaragor lifted a face that was tight with pain, and nodded. "And you?"
"I'll be busy doing something clever," Craer told him, and was rewarded with the ghost of a smile. It vanished as the thundering fall of the stone blade turned into a scream of stone clawing stone, and an ornamental pavingit might have been a gravestoneburst up in shards from the ground ...
Stone shards that kissed the heels of the staggering armaragor, goading him into a stumbling run, and almost beheaded a desperately diving procurer. Craer rolled, spitting out dirt and carefully groomed grasses, finding his feet again with the patiently striding stone knight close behind him.
He did a little dance for it, weaving away from the statue he'd seensome Lord Silvertree waving his sword at the stars to make the stallion beneath him rear, a pose that by the looks of things vastly impressed all the incontinent birds on the islandto be sure it didn't follow Hawkril yet. The stone face never looked at him, and the stone eyes stayed blank, but its shoulders turned toward the procurer who hated to be called Longfingers, and its blade rose again to smite.
A seeking spell, then, and not some wizard awake in a room of the Castle directing it to smite thus and so ... thank the Three at least for that!
Craer caught his breath, watching it loom up over him, and cast another glance at the statue. Yes, 'twas tall enough, and Hawkril was safely in its shadow, gasping loudly enough to be heard from here.
This would be a slim, deadly chancebut slim, deadly chances were all they had just now ... were all they'd had for some time.
"Come on, then," he murmured. "Hew down the hero."
The stone knight's blade rose again and fell. It didn't have to be fast, if a foe couldn't flee. One strike of that stone swordas large and as heavy as a horsewould kill even someone as large as Hawkril. It would probably reduce Craer Delnbone to bloody pulp, not even worth the bother of burial.
Stone whistled down, and Craer leaped for his life.
The ground trembled dully behind himvery close behind himand then he was sprinting through the moonlight, racing across the neatly trimmed sward as if there were more wolves plunging after him.
Perhaps there were, in some distant glade of the garden. A worry for later; he had worries enough to keep him busy now. The procurer swarmed up the stone statue, his wet hands slipping all too often, and thanked the Three for sculptors whose flowing tails and high-backed saddles made easy footholds for desperate climbers. He saw Hawkril peering up at him as he reached the horse's head, kicked a bird nest from its mouth, and saw the stone knight bearing down on him.
Its sword was rising, and its head was tilting back as if it could see him. If there wasn't some way to knock its head off, they were probably doomedunless Craer could get it to fall over the statue somehow. He stood above it on his sculpted perch, waiting tensely. He'd have only one chance to leap.
Its sword swept around in a chop that rang off the statue's sword, turning the knight slightly, and would have missed Craer by inches. He let the stone sword go past, and then leaped almost delicately onto the knight's shoulder, clawing at its head.
No, there was no seam here, and no wobbling weakness. It might have been a living man, it felt so alive. Alive, and as solid as stone, and he was going to die, here and now, as the stone sword swept back again to shear him off the knight's head.
At the last instant Craer swung himself around the far side of the head and dropped, clinging by his fingertips. The knight smote itself hard on the head, and Craer's world rocked.
Brief lightnings crackled through his fingertips, raging over the curved stone, and the procurer fell away, pain stabbing through him in a rush that left him unable to even cry out. He bounced on the damp grass, and far above him, the dark bulk of the knight swayed, blotting out the moon, and then started to fall, in a dark and looming rush he knew he could not escape....
A strong arm snatched him by one elbow and threw him into a flowerbed.
"Can't you keep out of tr," Hawkril snarled, before the deep, ground-shaking crashes began, drowning out whatever else the swordmaster was trying to say. The knight's fall threw Hawkril helplessly up into the air, and in the moonlight Craer saw his tumbling friend arch in silent agony before a different part of the flowerbed swallowed him.
And silence, after ponderous pieces of stone stopped rolling, finally fell.
Craer rose into a low, tense crouch, keeping his eyes on the shattered knight, but its parts did not move again, and he let out his breath in silent thanks as he peered all around, seeking running wolves or armored figures or other guardians and finding blessed nothing.
"Hawk," the procurer hissed, "it's down. How badly?"
"Do I look like a master healer to you? How the horns should I know?" the armaragor snarled, from not far away. "My ribs ... gone. Everything ... wet and open ..."
Craer scrambled through floral displays to pluck Hawkril's arm away from his side and look at the wounds, but the armaragor shook him away, wincing and gasping, and staggered to his feet, stumping off across the grass toward the fountain.
The procurer frowned at the wounded warrior's back for a moment, and then slowly sat down on the smooth turf and took off his left boot. It held about as much water as Hawkril's hadbut it also held something else: a flat glass vial that Craer unstrapped, held in his hand for a moment as if reluctant to let it go, and then sprang up, bootless, to offer to the swordmaster.
Hawkril sank down on the stone lip of the fountain and swallowed the healing draught without query or hesitation. Craer held him firmly by one arm as the usual brief, teeth-chattering seizure wracked the armaragor.
When it was done, Hawkril looked up, the creases of pain gone from his face, and said softly, "Have my thanks. That's a very large thing I owe you, Craer."
"We'll be wed come morning," the procurer joked, stepping into the fountain. The waters were cold and the stone beneath his boots slimy with greencreep, but he had to get rid of the wolf blood, or there wouldn't be a blind hound in all the Vale that wouldn't be able to follow him.
As Craer crouched down and watched dark threads of blood drift away from him across the water, Hawkril followed him in. He growled, deep in his throat, at the water's chill, and then sank down as the procurer had done, wincing as the slimy wet touched his ravaged side. He touched himself there rather gingerly, then looked up and asked, "Well, shall we press on? By now she's either up and waiting for us, or she's deaf."
Craer lifted his lip in a mirthless grin and led the way through a still and coldly beautiful succession of paths, lawns, bowers, and little arched bridges over ponds. It was a surprisingly long way; if the Lady of Jewels had only her ears to rouse her, and not the promptings of magic, Hawkril might be wrong ... and they just might live to see another morning. Beyond that, the procurer wasn't willing to entertain any bets.
The westernmost outcropping of the castle stretched away along the wall out of sight, in a series of towers and buttresses and balconies that looked for all the world like some great and many-legged stone beast sprawling asleep along the ground. In front of them, though, its grim gray stone launched out into space in a trio of slender hanging bridges, covered and windowed walkways that led to the Lady Turret, built of ivory stone to house the many wives of a long-dead Lord Silvertree ... and now the home, it was said, of the Lady of Jewels. The balconies and arched windows they'd seen from afar were, of course, larger than they'd thought, but the two intruders reached their shadows at last and held still for a long time, looking and listening for any sign of sentries or something stirring. Only in bards' tales had wizards so much magic to waste that they cast field upon field of nightly watchings and wardingsbut, as the old saying went, it took only one.
Craer threw back his head and drew in a deep, soundless breath, shaking his shoulders and fingers to relax. Then he plunged his hands to his belt, drew his sodden tunic up to his armpits, and began to unwind what looked like ridged armor from around his midriff. It was a long, dark waxed cord, and it piled up in a coil by his feet with only the faintest of wet slitherings. As Hawkril watched, the procurer adjusted his wet gloves and went up the wall with the slow, deliberate ease of a master climber. He'd chosen a fluted column that ascended beside three tiers of balconies, and he moved up it like a slow shadow, as silent as Hawkril's held breathpast one balcony, then the second, onto the third. After a moment or two came the ripple along the cord that told the armaragor to start climbing.
Hawkril set booted feet against fluted stone, gathered a winding of rope around his arm, and grimly hauled himself toward the stars.
It was a long way in the bright moonlight to that third balcony, and Hawkril was breathing heavily when he crouched down beside Craer and made the double finger-tap that told his brother-in-arms that he was ready to proceed. The procurer put his mouth to Hawkril's ear and breathed, "I mislike the look of all these doors. A simple cord-and-bells would serve as a night alarm, with never a spell needed."
Hawkril looked at the row of balcony doors. They were little more than ornate metal frames set with glass, with closed draperies behind them forming an endless dark wall veiling all view of any treasuresor guardswithin. He shrugged and muttered, "You're the procurer. Whither on, then?"
Craer pointed at a small, shuttered window along the wall, a good way out above a sheer drop. Hawkril rolled his eyes and then smiled, shrugged, and made a be-my-guest gesture. The thief surged along the balcony like a shadow in a hurry, bent double to keep below the height of its parapet, and without hesitation swarmed along the wall, finding holds with uncanny ease and in eerie silence.
Clinging to the wall with his fingertips, Craer reached the shutters and pulled ever so gently, first on one and then the other, only to find them both fastened firm. He glanced down for the first time, checking on what lay below, and then reached for the top of the shutters, clung, and slowly shifted his weight onto them.
If Hawkril hadn't been straining to hear the faint groan of protest from wood and hinges, he wouldn't have heard it. The procurer hung there like a patient spider for a moment, drawing a knife from a sheath along his forearm. Hawkril watched him run it up the crack where the shutters met with slow careand then, as it lifted an unseen hook fastening within, saw the shutter Craer was still holding onto swing open under his weight, heading for a crash against the wall.
The procurer shifted during that brief journey so that his shoulders took the impact with waiting stones. Shutter and procurer shuddered togetherthe silence was uncannyand Hawkril saw Craer grimace in pain before the procurer heaved, swung his legs up, and vanished into the tower.
In a torn and ravaged flowerbed that lay in full, bright and cold moonlight, a stone larger than a man shudderedand then slowly rolled over.
There was no one there to push it, no monster thrusting up from beneath it to break the earth and send the stone rolling, but it was rolling, now, slowly and in eerie silence.
Rolling out of the flowerbed, to clack against another stone it had been attached to, not so long ago. A stone shaped like a giant human hand.
A stone that rose on its fingertips like a dark, dog-sized spider to creep tentatively through shadows to touch a shattered row of stones that had been its arm. Stones that shuddered and drew together, clacking like stones bowled by gamblers that strike each other in a long, rippling line.
A line that rippled, surged, and suddenly rose into the air, the hand atop the line questing into the moonlit sky like the head of an ungainly snake. The arm swayed upright atop a strange cairn of unbalanced stones and then swooped like a striking hawk to pounce on the stone that had first rolled out of the flowerbed. A brief fire of darting sparks laced from one stone to another, and suddenly stones everywhere in the moonlight and the shadows were shifting and stirring, roiling together with sepulchral gratings. A toppled head settled onto shoulders, a fallen sword rose, and a stone knight raised its head and stood up in the moonlight once more. Like a beast sniffling for scent it stood turning its head slightly this way and that. It was seeking something. Something it had failed to slay.
* * *
No lamps were lit, but the procurer could see enough to tell there was a table in front of him, in a long and narrow chamber whose walls all held curtained archways. Spindles of thread stood on shelves to his left; shears hung on a wallboard to his right. This must be a sewing and fitting roomand that shape across the room was no guard, but a dressmaker's wooden lady.
Well and good. A gentle, spicy aroma of mingled scents was already telling Craer he'd entered the chambers of a lady of high station. He perched on the sill, listening and looking and deducing, until he'd decided where best to proceed. First, secure and quiet footingsoand then to draw the shutters closed behind him.
Craer crouched in the shadows beside the table for another silent eternity, listening, and then crept catlike toward one of the archways. Parting the curtain with his knife, he peered. Ah, he'd guessed right: beyond lay a robing room. And what a robing room!
Fanlights above the draperies allowed faint moonlight into the chamber he was looking into, and by its blue-white glow he could see a low, ornate wardrobe whose glossy top displayed a row of wooden headsall of them sporting sparkling tiaras, dangling clusters of gleaming earrings, or finely graven metal masks. Hooks on the walls and harnesses hanging on chains from the ceiling all held gowns. Scoresnay, hundredsof vivid and stylish garments, all of them glistening with the cold fire of gems!
Cascades of gems, clusters and swashes and swirls, thumb-size here and larger there, never lone stones or paltry trios ... zelosters and blackamarls and even a starburst brooch as big as his hand, adorned with the rarest gems of all: the rainbow-hued, glistening teardrops known as scarmareenes. By the Lady's Horns, what riches! More than he'd ever dreamed Aglirta or even all Asmarand held! Whybut no, tarry gawking no longer. Take and flee, before any doom could awaken....
Craer took a handful of gowns, wrapped them around his arm, and turned with infinite care, careful not to make a sound that might bring
Blue fire snapped out of the darkness without warning, the fire of a spell that smashed into him, searing and piercing, and drove him reeling across the room in a numbed, gasping dance of agony.
Wreathed in lightnings, the procurer staggered through a row of gowns and another curtained archway beyond, into a chamber Hawkril must be crouching outside. With his last sobbing strength Craer ran into the curtains and tore at them, bringing them down.
Hawkril rose out of his crouch, sword in hand, and gaped through the glass at his writhing friend and the crawling, flickering radiance that was killing him. He snarled and swung his sword with all his might at the balcony doors, leaping from his feet to put all his weight behind the blow.
Glass sang and screamed into shards, guardian spells shattered in sighing silver smoke and sparkling dust, and the armaragor charged through the ruin into the room, to snatch at the convulsing procurer with a snarl.
The lightning was silver and green this time. It struck the swordmaster like a ram, plucking him from his feet and smashing him back against a wall. In his wake, the procurer was whirled along like a leaf and tumbled against the stones beside him, to be held there as helpless and breathless as Hawkril in the roiling, risen force.
He stared at its source, a room away but striding toward them as terrible as any angry baron shouldering through archways. Tall and terrible she came in her nightgown, with the witchlights of her risen power sparkling and swirling around her. The Lady of Jewels, it seemed, was a powerful sorceress.
The gray and slab-sided peaks known as the Windfangs stood like a shield between Coiling Vale and the worst of the winter winds that seared the rolling plains of Dalondblas to the north, piling up glittering snows there in drifts as high as tall castle towers.
Winter in the Windfangs meant mist-tattered gales howling down the clefts over the glittering corpses of frozen crag sheep, but in summer heavy carts groaned down from quarries through the prosperous barony of Loushoond, whose fat and wine-loving Tersept blinked pale, watery eyes at anyone complaining of brigands and sent armaragors in gilded armor to riding the roads in glittering display. Above the quarries rose tortured knobs and shoulders of rock called the Wildrocks. The frowning mountains rose behind them and betimes sent huge sheets of rock crashing down upon them. They were home to monsters and lawless, desperate men, wherefore law-abiding folk shunned the Wildrocks but spoke much of them, at night in taverns.
On the night when Flaeros set foot in Sirlptar, a tongue of flame rose in the Wildrocks. Crouching around it, cursing at how long it had taken them to bring down a sheep so their cookfire burned in darkness, visible from afar, were two of those lawless, desperate men.
"Oh, sargh!" Craer Delnbone snarled, as flame roared up the dry bough with which he was prodding the fire, scorching his fingertips. "Sargh, sargh, sargh!"
As he shook his hand in pain, the tall, mighty-shouldered man across the fire asked, "Need some help with words, there? Can I offer you a 'bebolt,' or perhaps a 'by the Three!'?"
Craer sent his companion a glare that seared as hot as the flames snapping between them, and hissed, "Graul you, Hawkril! Graul you!"
"Repetition is good, yes," the deep-voiced armaragor agreed, not quite smiling. "Helps us battered helms understand your drift."
"If you're quite finished bring clever, Hawk," Craer hissed, "set meat cooking before a wolf has itperhaps after it's made us its first two feasts!"
"I'll spread the last of the sauce on you, if you'd like to go first."
"We haven't even coins enough to buy another bottle of that," Craer said bitterly.
Hawkril shrugged. "As we don't dare go down to Loushoond to buy one, what boots it?"
Craer sighed as he watched the armaragor set two bloody slabs of lamb to cook, nod, and lounge back against the rocks, unconcerned by the grease and gore of the sheep he'd butcheredor the flies now buzzing around in enthusiastic profusion.
Hawkril Anharu was as good-natured with a price on their heads and no home to return to as he'd been swinging a sword in Ibrelm or peering his way through the brothels of Sirlptar with that same easy grin on his face. A tall, red-skinned mountain of an armaragor, better muscled than most, he wore the scarred bracers of a veteran swordmaster. His only traces of desperation were the words spilling out of him; usually Craer gabbled glibly while Hawkril saved his words, offering a quiet handful only when absolutely necessary.
Feeling Craer's gaze, he looked up, flashed that grin, and used the back edge of his sword blade to scratch an itch between his shoulderblades. "How fared you in Dranmaer, swordbrother?"
"No better than in Sirlptar," the short, spiderlike man replied. "Everyone remembers an overclever procurer who snatched a haunch or a handful of coins from them a season ago, it seems."
"Well, if you didn't taunt and sing and play jugglers' pranks when you stole things," Hawkril said calmly, "folk might not be so swift to remember your face."
"When I want you to slap my face with simple facts, Tall Post of an armaragor," Craer told him wearily, "I'll be sure to bid you to do so. Until then ..."
"Oho, a threat looms before me," Hawkril rumbled. "Unfurl it, pray, Master Clevertongue; quaking, I await the bright blade of your wit."
"As I suffer under the spiked bludgeon of yours," Craer snapped, snatching at his belt. A black-bladed knife spun from his fingers to find firewood with a solid thunkpinning slowly sliding lamb instants before it would have fallen into the flames.
Memory flared: a man of the Isle choking on that same knife and falling; a fate shared with many. Yet for all the deadly skill of Craer Delnbone, veteran procurer, the Isles of Ieirembor stood unconquered yet, and it was Hawkril and Craer who'd come scrambling home on leaking, overladen shipsto instant outlawry.
Baron Ezendor Blackgult had been a proud and handsome man with a swordarm of iron, a wit sharp enough to hew foes with, and a ready laugh. Under him, Blackgult had risen to become the largest and mightiest of the River Holds, richer than Ornentar and even Silvertree, with coins to spare for folk to hire bards to craft new songs ... coins enough almost to rival the Glittering City itself.
Perhaps that had been Blackgult's downfall. The rich merchants of Sirlptar had grown to fear the baron's rise, war wisdom, and reach. A prosperous barony upriver was one thingbut a barony with the stomach to snatch at the Isles of Ieirembor was quite another.
The Isles rose out of the sea like a wall sheltering the mouth of the Silverflow, five shoulders of forest-girt rock that were both Sirlptar's treasure garden and its rear battlements. The most populous, Ibrelm, rivaled only the smallest barony, but all five held rich stands of the timber that made the Glittering City's close-packed buildings soar, and the copper that gleamed as pots and pans in its every third shop. Perhaps those shopowners had hired wizards and swordmasters enough to break the warriors of the Golden Griffon.
Craer and Hawkril had never seen such endless, tireless foes before. The Baron's bold stroke had failed, and his few surviving loyal warriors fled home from bloody defeats to find their Lord Baron dead or fled and Blackgult conquered by his old rival Faerod Silvertree. The Golden Griffon badge now meant not only slim hopes of honest coin but also a price on the heads of its wearersand the long-mythical throne of Aglirta seemed very close to feeling the backside of proud and ruthless Baron Silvertree.
Hawkril stretched. "It's good to be back with you, Craer," he said slowly, squatting by the meat with his belt knife flashing bright in one hairy hand. "Shall we hunt together?"
The procurer shrugged, not wanting his brother-in-arms to see eager tears in his eyes. "I can think of no better road than one we share," he said awkwardly. "Meat done yet?"
The armaragor chuckled. "I'd miss that tongue of yours, if I wasn't around to hear it."
Excerpted from The Kingless Land by Ed Greenwood Copyright © 2001 by Ed Greenwood. Excerpted by permission.
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