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The towers were squat, built low and thick to shelter within the surrounding crags, and ancient. Few had survived the combination of weather, continuous sea wind, salt and years: Cracked, slimed stone jutted into a stormy sky, gutted rings straggled toward the bay. Several had disintegrated under their burden of years, stone buried under vine and shore-grass and drifted sand. One was impassable: The roof timbers, rotted through, had caved in to block the passages and rooms below.
The bay was a natural harbor and so shielded from the worst of the winter storms by sandstone ledges behind the towers: Even so, the black-sailed, sleek ships anchored well apart, and they swung alarmingly as the wind rose. Two small rowboats were fled to the long stone mole on the inland side. Against the south arm of the harbor were other ships, ghosts of ships, as old as the towers themselves. Sails rotted on ancient masts. Of one or two, only the masts could be seen, the rest having long since settled to the bottom.
Mountainous slabs of rock formed a protective arc around the welter of broken towers. More water then, and beyond that a stretch of sand widening like a spear-point, wedging toward buildings, green fields, low sandstone bluffs. Fogbanks hid the land beyond.
Three of the great towers remained barely usable, and only in the most protected did light show. It stood well back from the water, so near the southern ridge one could touch tower and ledge simultaneously. Sullen candle-flame flickered in narrow, deep, glassed openings; heavy wooden storm-shutters blocked the lowest windows from without, barred many upper ones from inside. The sun, briefly escaping heavy cloud, glared mercilessly across drifting sand, greened stone, greyed wood, mildewed tapestries, then vanished again. Wind shrilled across the cliffs.
Light traveled across a low window, reappeared one level higher: A slender, golden-haired woman was climbing the winding stair that led to the topmost chamber. She held her dark furlined cape and mauve silk skirts close so they would touch nothing. At her insistence, the tower had been thoroughly cleaned. But they couldn't fight five hundred years of rot and neglect.
A breath of roses followed her; cinnamon and clove scented the hall, but under all—and far stronger—was a reek of stale salt water and mildew, dead kelp and the faint but pervasive odor of dead fish.
Marrita seldom noticed these things: Three years had inured her. Yet she was not reconciled to this place. Never that.
She kept her eyes on the uneven stairs as she climbed; to do otherwise was to court an accident. With each step, the familiar litany ran through her mind, the vow was renewed: "For his mockery of my Lyiadd, the Sirdar my father will pay. The old fools who counseled I should not be allowed to wed my Lyiadd, they will pay. The Nedaoan woman who dared set steel against him will watch all she loves die before I kill her. Beware, Father! And Ylia of Nedao, I have not forgotten you."
Lyiadd. Three years and a half since she would have sacrificed anything, everything—her very life!—to save him. Three years since she'd brought him here—weak, ill, reft of Power and memory alike—since she'd sealed the bargain with the Sea-Raiders so as to gain time and safety for him, until his recovery could be complete. It would. It must!
He was safe for now. No one would challenge the blackshipped Raiders in their own ports. And no one had believed the Nedaoan half-blood when she told her wild tale. Who would believe Lyiadd a renegade, who would believe he had found the long-deserted halls of the Lammior—the dreaded Night-Serpent of legend or that he hoped to tap the greater Power that was the Lammior's and to turn that Power against the Peopled Lands?
Her father's Council might have searched, of course. But they would have found nothing but a deep, thickly forested bowl of a valley, inhabited by deer, bear and owls. Oh, ruins: There were those. Dead, empty piles of stone, with no sign of human inhabitants, no trace of Power, clean, evil or otherwise. She'd seen to that, for the Lammior's Power had left those walls with her, in her, and with her it would stay.
But Lyiadd; he was becoming restless. The planning sessions were good for him, but he was still not completely healed and that made him irritable. He's as strong as time and care will make him, she realized. The transfer of the Lammior's Power from me to him will either kill or cure him. And I know he cares nothing for which way it goes, if life must otherwise drag as it does now. It was wrong, the way things were: He'd sought that Power for so long, going without sleep, without food, searching for answers, not finding them. And then Ylia's dagger had struck deep and Marrita—who'd never used her own AEldra skills save to keep her hair soft, her skin unlined—she had offered herself and had taken it all. Set the ceremony.
She stopped on a wide, dry landing for breath, gazed across sand, fallen stone and the rotten hulks of five-hundred-year-old Nedaoan ships toward the grey, white-capped sea. She could sense more irritation than Lyiadd's, up there at the top of the stairs—Mal Brit Arren, Lord Captain of the Sea-Raiders; his constant companion Jon Bri Madden.
Brit Arren's anger was palpable, his thought clear: It was none of his bargain that brought these sorcerers to the Great Isles, and he held himself to the letter of the bargain made between Marrita and his predecessor only by what he doubtless would call the honor of his kind.
Impatience, anger—amusement. Vess' amusement. Her mouth set in a tight, disapproving line. Three. It had never been meant this way, it was Marrita and Lyiadd, the two of them only, his to be the Lammior's unrelenting Power, hers to support, aid and back him, to solace him when he was worn, hers to ...
Vess. The hated Ylia's cousin, son of King Brandt's sister.
Nala—Lyiadd's son. He was a slap in the face, a betrayal.
She stopped, waited on the stairs until she could calm her temper: Lyiadd could still read her thought. And he knew the poor bargain he had for a son, but he would hear no word against Vess, from her or anyone else.
Had I given him a son ... But she couldn't. That many years ago, she had feared to lose her form and beauty, to lose Lyiadd's love. But once she'd been certain enough of both her AEldra skills and his affection, she'd discovered the truth: Like many of her class, she was barren.
She climbed the last of the circling stairs, crossed a torchlit hallway that curved like a new moon around Lyiadd's planning chamber. Seven broad stairs led to a heavy iron-bound door. It had been carved by a master crafter, but time and neglect had worn the designs to vague traceries. Beyond the door was another world, a room that was warm, high-ceilinged, well lit. Delicately patterned Ragnolan carpets overlapped to cover the floor. An exquisite Osneran tapestry obscured most of one wall. The only visible window was shuttered and barred against the wind and rain. Fire burned in a central pit, drafting through a covered hole in the roof.
A chalcedonwood table was placed below the tapestry: Chairs of the same rare wood, comfortably cushioned, surrounded it. It had been crafted for a Lord's halls but no Lord would have taken it now: Stained and cut, its gloss destroyed by candle wax and ill treatment, it was strewn with the remains of a meal, maps, a chart pinned down by two jeweled knives, candles, winecups and two copper jugs.
Three men huddled over one of the maps; they looked up as she let the door click shut behind her. "My apologies, if I have detained you. There were other matters to concern me."
The solidly built Mal Brit Arren cast an irritated glance at his younger companion. "Lady. Your convenience is ours."
Her eyes remained hard above a sweet smile. She seethed. Sea-Raiders! This Mal Brit Arren never failed to make clear to all Three of them, but particularly to her, that he tolerated them, but that he would never fear or respect them.
The boy, Jon Bri Madden, was so young his moustaches were pitiful, his thick blond braid was still covered with the red scarf of a two-year novice fighter. The arrogant look on his face meant nothing, inside he was one cringing ball of terror. Brit Arren's gensyl, she thought viciously. She liked thinking such things, knowing neither man could guess what she thought. Of course, she was merely tapping the anger and letting it go with that kind of thought: Raiders occasionally took boys, but Brit Arren wasn't that kind.
But he infuriated her, this boy Jon with his swagger and the sneer that curved his lips when he was away from the Three. It was the same sneer Brit Arren wore openly, even now. Wait, she promised herself and them. Wait.
Mal Brit Arren sprawled in his chair, dagger tapping at the pinned chart. Nothing about his garb proclaimed his rank: His shirt and padded jerkin were filthy from spending his morning salvaging goods from the rapidly flooding Kraken, helping the crew beach her so the hull could be repaired. His oiled short cloak had already dripped a small lake about his chair; his thick red hair had dried in sticky, salty points. He glanced up to meet Marrita's eyes, looked away again as though disinterested. He'd been drinking; there was as much red as white around the compelling blue eyes.
He resented waiting. They could use me out there. I'd be of more real use there than here. These Three didn't listen to him. Well, at least he had some ghost of an idea what They planned, if he was here. What was she doing that was so important, rearranging her hair?
He dragged one of the jugs across the table, shoving a sextant, a gutted candle and several loose bits of thick paper to the floor. He ignored them, poured wine, slammed the jug back to the table. Then, with a derisive smile, he stood, filled another cup and handed it to her with a flourish. She took the cup and turned her back on him.
Jon Bri Madden flushed, took an involuntary step toward her, but Brit Arren caught his arm and minutely shook his head. His eyes were hooded, blackly smoldering. Wait, he told himself in a corner of his mind he hoped They could not read. Wait.
Marrita stopped to warm her feet at the fire before she slid into her chair. "Lyiadd?"
A long-fingered hand caught hers, squeezed it, fell away. Lyiadd pushed his chair back, walked the length of the table for wine, stopped to stare into the firepit. She gazed at him from under long lashes, taking care that he neither saw nor sensed her at it. He was still too thin for her liking, though he'd regained much of his muscle. The somber red shirt was already too snug around his chest and upper arms, but the matching breeches he'd let hang over soft indoor boots were loose.
He came back to sit next to her. "Regarding our attack against Yls, and the timing of it—"
"I have said before, it is impractical, at least until spring," Mal Brit Arren said flatly. Marrita glared at him for the interruption. "Storms make the sea treacherous. The men who serve you are not seamen."
Marrita shifted. "We have waited so long, what is another winter? Lyiadd, give me your hands. She took them, closed her eyes. "We need wait no longer for the transfer, however. I will prepare for it at once."
"Good." Lyiadd spoke casually but she felt his exultation. He tamped it, hard, and turned to Vess. "You have some of the Power, as much as we can give you at present, but more will be yours. You have much to learn. There must be no weak place in our three—fold strength when we set upon the Peopled Lands, for as soon as Yls is taken we must attack Nar. Are you still willing to lead your armsmen to the Plain, and to take Koderra and its surrounding lands back from the Tehlatt?"
"I am." Vess' face was flushed.
Lyiadd smiled. "With Koderra, Yls and Nar in our hands, there will be no escape for Nedao. I would say to take more of the Plain, but even with the blessing of Chezad, their war god, the Tehlatt are unlikely to let you far up the river."
"I know the Tehlatt," Vess said grimly. He did, enough to still give him horrid dreams. They'd nearly killed him before Teshmor's gates that first night, when he'd helped Corlin's son escape with the warning for Koderra. They'd nearly had him more than once as he fled south to the temporary safety of the King's City. But then—Fool, to have spoken unthinking and so gained the enmity of your uncle, King Brandt! Well, that anger had not survived long, had it? He'd seen his way clearly, then; he'd left Koderra under cover of dark and smoke, made his way north through the Tehlatt to gain Teshmor's besieged walls. There had barely been time to spread what was still the false tale of King Brandt's death, to receive the homage of Dukes Corlin and Erken before the City fell. He'd had luck, though: Wounded and weak, he'd lain among the dead until nightfall, then crawled until one of his men had found him.
Yes, he knew the Tehlatt.
The thought of facing them again chilled his blood. But to have Koderra for his own ... ! It should have been mine! My uncle had no right to leave Nedao to an untrained girl-child of eighteen summers, a half-blooded witch! That thought skidded to an abrupt halt, and he cast a sidelong embarrassed glance at the tall, pale-haired AEldran at his side. Father. AEldran, sorcerer, Father. He and Ylia shared more than either would ever have thought.
Vess realized Mal Brit Arren was staring at him. He wanted to break Brit Arren, wipe that sneer from his face. He looked beyond the older man to smile at the younger; Bri Madden looked away quickly, his Adam's apple jerking up and down. That is right. Fear me, never dare to not fear me. I have plans for you. The boy would be his way to Mal Brit Arren.
He brought his attention back to the present as Lyiadd dragged the map over. "It will take time to gather the Mathkkra and Thullen again. I cannot move until there are sufficient of them here, and here," he touched rough country between New Nedao and Yls, between Nar and New Nedao, near Aresada. "Also here if possible, though I would rather not spread them thin."
Vess was still sceptical of those creatures Lyiadd and Marrita discussed so casually: A Nedaoan never really believed in what he couldn't touch, and Vess had yet to see either. At the same time, he was keenly aware of the Power Marrita had conferred upon him and Lyiadd was teaching him to use. If that was possible, anything was.
"With Nedao cut off, Yls reft of Power and therefore helpless, we can take Nar like we would pick ripe fruit. And Nedao—"
"Nedao's army was worthless three years ago, and the Tehlatt had most of it. Nedao has no chance against us," Vess said.
"Perhaps." Lyiadd closed his eyes briefly. His chest still hurt, particularly when the weather was chill and damp. Ylia's knife had severed muscle, sliced into his right lung. He still remembered none of that, but the proof was there whenever he drew a deep breath. "I do not leave anything to chance against her. Remember my experience, if you encounter her." Silence. "Remember your own."
Remember! Against all odds, she'd reached the Caves, challenged him for the crown, set that child Brelian against him, one of Nedao's greatest swordsmen! He'd lost because he'd been wounded, not due to the boy's skill, he knew that, And so he'd found himself afoot, deserted by his men. He'd finally been forced to accept charity—and sanctuary—from the Chosen, while she wore Brandt's crown. If not for his father, he might still be hugging the braziers in that chill hall in Osnera. He'd remember, when he took her apart a slow finger-worth at a time. "She had luck," he said.
Lyiadd shook his head. "A moment. Brit Arren, there's nothing further we have to discuss, if you wish to leave." It was a dismissal, but one as between equals.
"Wait." Marrita's voice stopped him. "There are things I need." Brit Arren leaned against the door, stared back at her impassively. "Get me silver mushrooms, a smoke pot and a small bag of Ragnolan herb. Mud and water from the footprint of a grey sea-bird, this last untouched by hands. Gather it in a dish or a spoon and transfer it to a corked or lidded jug. And," she finished cooly, "an infant."
Excerpted from On the Seas of Destiny by Ru Emerson. Copyright © 1989 Ru Emerson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted October 13, 2010
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