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Master of the Cauldron
By David Drake
Baen Books Copyright © 2004 David Drake
All right reserved.
Chapter One Ilna could see her reflection in the silvered backplate of the man who'd been her childhood friend Garric, the innkeeper's son-but who now was Prince Garric of Haft, the King of the Isles in all but name. He was speaking to his fiancée and secretary, Lady Liane bos-Benliman, as she jotted notes onto a thin board with a small gold pen.
As she watched, Ilna's fingers knotted and unknotted patterns from the lengths of cord that she kept in her left sleeve. The patterns were simple, as simple as so many knives; and like knives, they could be tools or weapons if the need arose.
Ilna's reflection was distorted, of course. She smiled-not bitterly, or at any rate without any more bitterness than her usual expression. Ilna prided herself on clear thinking, but there'd been a great deal of distortion in her view of her possible future a few years ago when she lived in the backwater of Barca's Hamlet on the east coast of Haft. For example, she'd imagined then that she'd make a suitable wife for her neighbor Garric.
"Easy!" bellowed the sailing master, leaning out from the pintle of the port steering oar. The Shepherd of the Isles was backing toward the beach on the reversed strokes of only one of its five banks of oars. "Easy! Easy!"
"Now you see why the men who aren't needed on the oars crowd into the bow, child," said Chalcus at Ilna's side. He held her ward, the nine-year-old Lady Merota, on his shoulder. "With their weight in the bow, we can back up onto the beach instead of crunching into it."
"Crowd more, you mean!" said Merota. "Will we have real rooms here, Chalcus?"
"Depending on the words our friend the Prince has with the Earl of Sandrakkan," Chalcus said laughing, "we'll have rooms or at least ground to pitch a tent on, I'm sure. The Shepherd of the Isles is as big as a warship gets, but I'll grant that with four hundred souls aboard you could find more room in a clothes press."
Chalcus dressed in as many different bright colors as a clown and had a clown's smile and cheerful laughter. As he spoke, he gestured with his free hand to point out this or that part of the business of landing which only an expert would see.
He was indeed an expert sailor. He'd learned his skill in the same hard school that taught him to use the slim, in-curved sword he carried stuck through his sash of vivid orange silk. As a youth he'd roamed southern waters with the Lataaene pirates, where the wrong choice meant death and the right choice didn't guarantee survival.
Under his long-sleeved saffron tunic and his red-dyed leather breeches, Chalcus' body bore the scars of wounds that should have been fatal a dozen times over. That he'd survived said as much for his will as it did for the undoubted strength of his tautly muscular body.
Ilna smiled again. Lady Merota was her ward, as amazing as that seemed to an illiterate peasant girl. Chalcus was her friend and her lover and... well, not her man, because he wasn't the sort to be anybody's man save his own, but a man; and even at age nineteen Ilna was aware of how rare a thing real men were in this world.
Ilna's fingers wove, then opened the coarse fabrics to weave again. She'd always had a skill with cloth. She could run her hand over a bale of wool and hear it murmuring of meadows and clover, of the brook south of Barca's Hamlet and the insistent warmth of the lamb nuzzling your udder.
Then she'd made a mistake, a wrong turning that took her to Hell and brought her knowledge fit only for demons. She'd returned to the waking world without leaving Hell, becoming Evil's most skillful minion for a time. It hadn't been long by most reckonings, but Ilna knew that if she lived forever she couldn't undo the harm she'd done while Evil rode her like a mettlesome horse.
"Here we go, child," Chalcus said in an eager voice. The Shepherd scrunched onto the sand, beginning to wobble as it ground to a halt.
The officers wore broad leather belts over their short tunics instead of sashes or simply breechclouts like the oarsmen who came from Shengy, Sirimat, and perhaps a few of the other southern islands. They shouted a confused medley of orders, but so far as Ilna could see the crew was already in motion.
Sailors from the lower oarbanks stepped to the outriggers, leaped into the sea, and splashed shoreward carrying ropes. Those from the top bank had already withdrawn their oars from the rowlocks on the outrigger; they thrust the blades down into the sand, bracing the vessel which for the moment rested only on its narrow keel.
"Put your backs into it, Shepherds!" Chalcus shouted as though he was still a sailor instead of being one of Prince Garric's companions. His right arm pointed to the ship sliding onto the beach beside them, the five-banked flagship of Admiral Zettin, the fleet commander. "You're not going to let those scuts from the City of Valles berth ahead of us, are you?"
Ilna's brother Cashel stood across the narrow deck from her, one hand on his hickory quarterstaff and the other on the waist of his fiancée Sharina-Princess Sharina of Haft and Garric's sister. She was lovely and blond-haired and tall; taller than most men in Barca's Hamlet, though a hand's breadth shorter than Cashel and with a willowy suppleness that made her seem tiny beside him.
Cashel was a massive oak of a man, his neck a pyramid of muscle rising from his massive shoulders. He looked anxious. Ilna knew his concern wasn't about what was happening, just that he wasn't part of it. For choice Cashel would be down in the surf, gripping a hawser and helping drag the Shepherd up the beach with the strength of any three other men.
He couldn't do that because he'd become Lord Cashel, a nobleman by virtue of being Garric's closest friend during the time they both were peasants growing up in Barca's Hamlet. If he jumped into the water and grabbed a rope, the officers would be embarrassed and the common sailors shocked and worried; so he didn't, because the last thing Cashel would willingly do was to hurt or embarrass anybody unnecessarily.
Of course when he thought it was necessary, Cashel's iron-bound hickory quarterstaff could do quite a lot of hurting.
Seated cross-legged on the deck between Cashel, Sharina, and the railing was Tenoctris, an old woman whose talents included being generally cheerful despite the things she'd seen in her long life. Here she'd drawn a figure on the deck planking with a stick of red lead. She was muttering the words of a spell as she gestured with a thin split of bamboo.
Tenoctris was a wizard. A wizard of slight power, she repeatedly noted, even now that the forces on which the cosmos turned were reaching another thousand-year peak, but a person whose craftsmanship had gained her Ilna's respect.
Tenoctris' art never did anything that she didn't mean it to do. At a time when the hedge wizards of a decade ago could rip mountains apart-generally by accident-Tenoctris' care and scholarship had a great deal to do with the kingdom's survival.
With the Shepherd firmly aground, the men from the lowest oarbank came up from the hold, sweating like plowmen. They stepped onto the outriggers. Many of them poised there a moment instead of dropping immediately to the sand into the knee-deep water nearer the stern.
They'd backed the great warship onto the beach by themselves, while the men of the other four oarbanks stood on deck to slant the stern into the air. Though the deck gratings had been removed before the vessel began these final maneuvers, there'd still been very little ventilation in the hollow of the hull.
The largest stern anchor was a stone doughnut attached to a section of cypress. The trunk was reeved through the central hole, and the three branches spreading just below the stone were trimmed to points to grip in the sea bottom. A pair of sailors lifted the anchor from where it'd been stowed beneath the tiller of the starboard steering oar and walked to the rail.
The sailing master leaned over the side and shouted, "Ware below!" then nodded to the sailors. They half-dropped, half-threw the anchor onto the sand.
"Chalcus?" said Merota. She pointed toward the strait separating the little islet where they were landing from the mainland of Sandrakkan. "Why are those ships there still rowing? Isn't there room for them here?"
The child's high, clear voice cut through the scores of male shouts and snarls. For some reason, people always sounded angry at times like this. Maybe they were angry, frustrated by the complexity of what was going on.
For complex it was. Ilna couldn't count beyond the number of her fingers without beans or pebbles for a tally, but she knew that there was a ten of tens of ships in Garric's fleet, the royal fleet-and perhaps several tens of tens. Many were backing onto the beach to either side of The Shepherd of the Isles; others had anchored well out in the channel, sending the soldiers they carried to land in small boats.
In a few cases swimmers had dragged lines from vessels to the islet and tied them to the columns of ruined mansions lining the shore. Tunic-clad skirmishers armed with javelins and a hatchet or long knife clung to the lines with one hand as they splashed to land, safe even if they weren't able to swim any better than Ilna herself could.
"Sandrakkan hasn't any real fighting ships, dear one," Chalcus said, speaking to the child on his shoulder but pitching his voice so that Ilna could hear also if she wanted to. "Just some fifty-oared patrol boats to chase smugglers, you see. But somebody had the notion, Lord Attaper I shouldn't wonder, that even little ships might attack Prince Garric while he's all tangled up with landing."
Chalcus laughed. "Attaper is a fine man, to be sure," he went on, "but I think he worries lest a stone fall out of the clear sky and strike the Prince down. Regardless, there's thirty triremes sloshing the sea between Garric and the mainland. It's good practice, I'm sure, and there's never a crew that wouldn't benefit from a little more practice."
Ilna allowed herself a slight smile at Chalcus' description of the commander of Garric's bodyguards, the Blood Eagles. Attaper was a fit, powerful man in his forties. At the moment he stood watchfully just behind the Prince. Ilna was sure he was ready to react if Lady Liane tried to stab Garric with the nib of her pen.
Ilna's fingers knotted a tracery of cords, then undid them before their pattern was quite complete. Had she finished the design, a man who saw it clearly would hurl himself away, shrieking and trying to claw the horror out of his eyesockets. She didn't need such a thing here and now; but it was available, like the warships patrolling the strait and like the curved sword at Chalcus' side.
The equipment of all the Blood Eagles was blackened bronze, but Attaper's helmet and cuirass had been chased with gold so that they looked more like parade armor than anything meant for war. His swordhilt, though, had the yellow patina that ivory takes when a hand grips it daily at the practice butts if not to wield against living foes.
Ilna couldn't fathom the minds of men who made it their life's work to kill other men-and that was what soldiers did, when you boiled away all the nonsense about duty and courage and honor put on the business by the Old Kingdom poets that Garric so fancied. She couldn't understand, but she knew craftsmanship and honored it above all other things.
Craftsmanship meant doing a thing the single right way instead of any of the unnumbered wrong ways others might do it. The Blood Eagles were volunteers, veterans who'd proved themselves in other regiments before they were even permitted to join. By the standard of craft, the only standard that had ever mattered to Ilna os-Kenset, the Blood Eagles were worthy of her respect.
Lord Waldron, commander of the Royal Army, stood on the stern of another five-banked warship backed onto the beach a few places down from The Shepherd of the Isles. His aide raised a silver trumpet and blew a ringing note that was answered a moment later by the deeper, richer calls of several curved horns from the shore. The troops who'd already landed were milling like ants from a stirred-up hill, an image of hopeless chaos.
But it wasn't chaos, Ilna knew. Those scrambling troops were forming shoulder to shoulder with their fellows, under the standards of their proper units. Many were soaked to the waist and some had lost their shield or spear or helmet in the process of coming ashore, but even so they were an army rather than a mob.
Sailors were bracing the Shepherd's hull upright with spars so that the crewmen who'd steadied her when she first grounded could ship their oars and jump down. Half a dozen men under a bosun's mate hauled the anchor and its trailing hawser farther inland to hold the ship even if an unexpected storm raced down the strait.
Ilna knotted her pattern, shaking her head in marvel at the scene around her. It was as if every thread in a loom had its own mind, but they chose to weave themselves into a complex tapestry instead of twisting off each in its own direction. It was a marvelous thing, but she didn't understand it, didn't understand how it could even be possible.
Chalcus and Merota laughed at some joke Ilna had missed in her reverie. She smiled also, though at a thought of her own.
Ilna understood very little about the world in which she found herself living. No doubt people like Garric and Sharina, whose father had educated them far beyond the standards of Barca's Hamlet, understood more than she did, but she was sure that even their grasp was slight compared with the world's enormous complexity.
Still Garric and Sharina and the others went on, guiding a kingdom through the darkness of their own ignorance; because if they didn't the kingdom-the people, the uncounted numbers of ordinary peasants and traders and fishermen-would surely be crushed into the mud by masterless chaos. Ilna didn't really believe in Good personified, but she had no doubt of the existence of Evil.
So she'd act to help Garric and Sharina, Tenoctris and Attaper and yes, Liane-the people who knew more than she did. She'd act without hope, without real certainty except in one thing: that whatever Ilna os-Kenset did, she would do with all the skill at her disposal.
Cashel looked over his shoulder. He gave Ilna the broad smile that was as much a part of him as cold stiffness was to Ilna's own lips.
Ilna's fingers made a last knot; she raised the completed pattern into the air. Everyone who caught sight of it laughed and pointed it out to their neighbors. It was only a rough, knotted fabric, but it brought a flash of joy and hope.
Even to the woman who'd knotted it.
Excerpted from Master of the Cauldron by David Drake Copyright © 2004 by David Drake. Excerpted by permission.
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