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The Dark Hand of Magic
By Barbara Hambly
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Barbara Hambly
All rights reserved.
Sun Wolf's capture, as Sun Wolf himself reflected at his execution, was sheer, stupid ill luck, which Dogbreath of Mallincore would have told him was only to be expected under the circumstances.
The arrow that brought him down took him high in the back from the shelter of a pile of stones he'd have bet his last silver bit—which happened to be in his pocket at the time—couldn't have hidden an emaciated coyote. He hit the sand of the dry arroyo bed in a second's whirling disorientation and sickening pain and the next moment got a gritty faceful of gravel, kicked up as his horse bolted. His first thought was, So much for the King of Wenshar's guarding our backs.
His second thought, through a descending curtain of gray weakness, was that, if he blacked out, he was a dead man.
Hooves throbbed in the sand under his unshaven cheek. He made his good eye open and, with odd, tunneled clarity, saw his partner, Starhawk, spur after his escaping horse. It was like her, he thought detachedly, watching her lean from her saddle to grab at the trailing rein, to go after the horse before ascertaining that he still lived. They had been lovers for nearly a year, but she'd been a mercenary soldier for eight, and knew precisely how long a ride it was over the black granite mountains of the Dragon's Backbone to safety.
He knew who'd ambushed them, of course, and why.
Lying in the deep sand of the wash with an arrow in his back, he wondered why he'd been under the impression that this wasn't the sort of thing that people had to put up with after they became wizards.
Shirdar warriors, the fast-moving cavalry of the deep desert, were already coming down the canyon wall, their horses springing down trails for which goats would have demanded hazard pay. By this time of the afternoon, the foothill canyons were drowned in dove-colored shadow, though the rim of sky above was amber-hot. In the burnished light, the warriors' white robes billowed with dreamy slowness. The Wolf knew he was going into shock and fought to stay conscious and to keep his breathing slow and deep. He had to fight, too, not to spring up and make a run for it. Besides making a target of him—provided he managed to get on his feet at all—with the Hawk as far off as she still was, it would only waste his strength. Long experience of being wounded in the battles that he'd spent most of his forty years fighting for other men's pay told him now that he had none to spare.
Healing spells, he thought belatedly. I'm supposed to be a wizard, dammit.
His mind fumbled at the words to call forth power and to slow the blood welling stickily between the thick muscles of his back and the scuffed sheepskin of his jerkin, but the pain of the wound itself clouded his mind and made it difficult to concentrate. It was a very different thing from healing others, totally leaving aside the fact that, when he'd worked healing-magic on others, he hadn't had half a dozen irate warriors getting set to play cat's cradle with his entrails.
Starhawk was riding back already, the captured horse on a rein, weaving and ducking the arrows that flashed around her—a tallish, rangy woman in her late twenties whom most men were blind and stupid enough to call plain. She still wore the metal-studded green leather doublet of the King of Wenshar's guards, in which she'd lately been employed; short-cropped hair the color of old ivory whipped in strings across a face that was thin, cool, and marked with an old scar down one cheek and a blackly recent bruise the width of a sword blade. Their stay in Wenshar, southernmost of the Middle Kingdoms, had been brief but wildly eventful.
Her distance to him shortened. So did the shirdar's. This was going to be close. There was just time, he thought, if he could mount fast and unaided. With two horses they should be able to hold that slim lead over the lizard-dry mountains to the more settled lands of Dalwirin to the north, where the shirdar dared not hunt.
Gathering his limbs under him, he reflected, with grim detachment, on what a hell of a word "if" was.
It wasn't his wizardry, but thirty years of soldiering that got him on his feet, breathless with pain as the arrow grated in the wound—a massive, tawny, craggy-faced man with a broken nose that jutted like a granite cliff above an unkempt gold mustache and a buckskin patch covering the empty socket of his left eye. His right, under a long brow the same dusty hue as his thinning, shoulder-length hair, was cold and yellow, a wolf's eye, gauging the equidistant approach of rescue and death. He was perfectly well aware that the pain of the arrow in his back was a mosquito bite compared to what the shirdar would do to him if they took him alive.
The horses were still fifty feet away when Starhawk's mount went down. Sudden though it was, Sun Wolf thought the beast hadn't been shot—had only tripped in some unseen pocket of the deep sand. But the result was the same. Starhawk was flung clear as the horse somersaulted, dust and sand flying everywhere in a yellow curtain. The lead horse skidded, balked, head up and eyes white, then veered away like a startled gazelle. The Wolf made two steps of a staggering run to catch Starhawk's fallen mount before it scrambled to its feet and followed, then nearly fell himself. Around him the yells of the shirdar bounced shrilly from the rocks as they drew near. Though he stood in the open, they weren't shooting at him—a very bad sign. They knew he was theirs.
He glimpsed Starhawk's body lying like a broken marionette, twenty feet away, unmoving in the sand.
Vision darkening and legs turning watery, he tried to remember some spell that would get him out of this and failed. Magic was a newfound art to him, an unknown and scarcely comprehended power that had blossomed, late and agonizingly, barely a year ago. For most of his forty years, he had made his living by his sword. As the mounted shirdar closed around him, he groped blindly for his weapon, knowing what they'd do to him and determined, if possible, to get himself killed in the ensuing fray.
But he didn't have any luck with that, either.
"She's coming around ..."
The voice was directly above her, Starhawk thought. Eyelids shut, she kept her breathing slow, the deep breath of unconsciousness. The speaker was kneeling beside her, at a guess. She could tell she lay on sand, likely still in the arroyo. Dreams of pain and urgency—of the smothering heat of the King of Wenshar's dungeons and the scorch of cherry-red iron inches from her flesh, of splattered blood crawling thickly down the walls of a stone room—all flicked away with the split-second wakefulness of a warrior's training, and Starhawk struck straight up and silent at the man leaning over her, thumbs going for his eyes, knowing this would be her only chance.
There was a yell, an oath, and strong hands grabbed her arms from behind. She was dropping her weight and twisting like a cat at this new assailant—she'd already known by the first man's speaking that there were more than one—when her vision cleared.
She relaxed, then jerked disgustedly free of the suddenly slacked grip.
"If I knew you'd be in hell when I got here, Dogbreath, I'd have tried to be a better person." She scratched the sand out of her hair, and took the water-skin he offered her. The tepid fluid was ambrosia to her dry mouth.
The man who'd first grabbed her, accepting back the vessel and slinging it around his shoulder again, responded gravely, "I always told you you should have given more money to the Church." Then he grinned, bright black, beady eyes sparkling in a tanned face between long, inky hair braided with ribbons, and they embraced, Dogbreath of Mallincore thumping her happily on the back while the others—dim shapes against a luminous channel of twilight sky—grouped in around them.
"Believe me, I'll try it, you damn heretic." He'd been her sergeant in Sun Wolf's mercenary troop when she'd been a squad-leader, later promoted to squad-leader himself. Hugging the sinewy hardness of his rib cage was like hugging a tree.
The fair-haired blond youth whose eyes she'd tried to gouge out upon awakening held out one hand like a beggar. "You can give money to me," he volunteered hopefully. "I was a choirboy in the Church back home."
"If those are your credentials, she's the wrong sex to be interested in you," retorted a stocky little woman named Firecat, getting a general laugh, even from the members of the group who nominally worshiped the Triple God, and a stone flung at her by the youth.
"That's okay, Choirboy, you can sing at my dinners anytime," Starhawk promised, grinning, and the youth drew himself up and made a dignified retreat. She turned back to Dogbreath, still kneeling in the sand beside her, and her gray eyes hardened as she took in the lapis depth of the sky behind his head. "They've got the Chief," she said simply, and in one swift movement was on her feet and heading for the horses. She barely noticed how sore she was from her impact with the ground; in any case it didn't matter. With the shirdar you had to work fast. "Shirdar warriors, six of them ..."
"We saw the blood." Dogbreath strode at her side, the other two behind. "By the tracks they took him out of here on foot on a lead-line ..."
Starhawk cursed dispassionately.
"It means they can't be going far," Firecat pointed out.
"Of course they're not going far, they're going to kill him the minute they find an anthill big enough to stake him out on." Starhawk looked around as another man came up—the Little Thurg, stocky and tough, with a round, open face and blue eyes, dragging a couple of saddlebags.
"I found these. By the tracks they took the horses."
"Stuff the horses," Starhawk responded. "It's the books in those bags that the Chief wants."
"Books?" Thurg looked disgusted and dismayed as Starhawk continued to fire orders, tightening cinches all the while.
"Thurg, Choirboy, you stay here ..."
"The name is Miris, thank you," retorted the youth with mock dignity. She didn't recognize him—he must have joined the troop after she and the Wolf had left it, almost exactly a year ago. Had it really been that long? With them around her, it was as if that year had never been.
"They've got a couple hours' start on us," she went on, gauging the four warriors with a practiced glance, deciding which could best be spared from the upcoming fight. "We have to catch up with them before sunrise ..."
"You're going to need more than two swords," Choirboy pointed out. "You'll have to steal back the horses anyway, so why take an empty saddle when you can take a fighter?"
"Because I don't want one of my men left here alone, afoot." The words "my men" came easily to her—hers to command and to answer for. "There's still bands of shirdar around, sonny—you won't like what happens when they show up." Past the horses, she could see the dark patches of blood-soaked sand where Sun Wolf had been cornered and she hoped to the Mother that blood wasn't all his. Scuffed tracks led away down the wash toward the desert—hoofprints, stumbling footprints, a dark dribble of gore.
"He's right, Hawk," the Little Thurg said. "I'll manage."
She stood for a moment, reins gathered in her hand, sizing up the pair of them. She knew the Little Thurg well—tough, short, in his early thirties, with ten years of campaigning gouged into his hard little face, and obviously the better man in a fight than the yearling boy. But that cut both ways. If a roving band of vengeful shirdar did show up, Thurg could, as he'd said, "manage." Choirboy—obviously to everyone but Choirboy—couldn't.
"Right." With a curt nod she stepped up into the saddle. "Watch your back, Thurg."
"What do the shirdar want with the Chief, anyway?" Dogbreath demanded as they reined away down the canyon. "You don't get them coming in this close to the Middle Kingdoms on the warpath."
"Long story. I'll tell you that after you tell me what in the name of the Seven Torments you gruts are doing down here." The coarse, vivid slang of the mercenary armies slipped easily back to her tongue, like the ache in her muscles—in her soldiering days she'd seldom been without a bruise or two—and the habit of thinking in terms of many instead of one. Yet in another way these dusty, grimy figures in their iron-plated leather jerkins, their bits of spike and chain glinting coldly in the light of the lemon-colored moon, seemed specters of a dream, called forth from her thoughts by the most casually spoken of words. "I thought the troop would be on the road back to Wrynde by this time of year."
"That," Dogbreath said, "is also a hell of a long story. We been to Pardle Sho on the sniff for you and found the King's Citadel twittering like a cageful of finches—you ever kicked a cageful of finches? Hours of fun. Some pook there said you'd gone to some lost city out in the desert, but halfway there we met the King and he allowed as how you'd lit out north with half the shirdar in the desert on your tails ..."
"The Chief is supposed to have croaked a shirdar lord." Starhawk bent from her saddle to squint at the ground as they came clear of the canyon's shadows into the heartbreaking, liquid brilliance of the desert moon. The tracks were harder to follow now as the deep sand gave way to coarse gray pebbles that crunched under the hooves. "He's supposed to have summoned demons. They made pemmican of the poor bastard."
Leaning down, scanning the shapeless earth for the scuffy trail of unshod hooves and the occasional dark blood spoor, she still felt the look that passed between them over her head.
"He—he really did turn into a hoodoo, then?" The word Firecat used was merc slang, with all its lower-class connotations of dowsery and love drops and murder in the night. "Not that he offed that grut," she hastened to add. "But I mean—they seem to think he could have."
"Yeah." Starhawk straightened in the saddle, and something within her cringed from speaking of it to these friends who wouldn't understand. "Yeah, he's a wizard."
The silence was awkward, as if she'd admitted he'd suddenly developed a romantic attachment to boys, something they would at least have encountered elsewhere. They'd heard it last spring, when she and the Wolf had returned from Mandrigyn and the horrors of the citadel of the Wizard-King Altiokis, but she knew they hadn't really believed it then. And why should they? For as long as any of them had been alive, no wizard had dared risk murder by the Wizard-King by revealing himself; for at least three generations, fewer and fewer of the mageborn had lived long enough to pass their teachings on.
They knew he had changed. He'd been in their winter camp in Wrynde for a week or so before Ari, the troop's new commander, had led that band of killers south to the newest war, and he'd been very quiet then, still dealing with the fact that he would not, after all, be their commander, their Chief, anymore. Even the most disbelieving of the troop would admit that more had befallen him than the loss of his left eye and the breaking of his voice, of which now little more was left than a scraped, metallic rasp. In his remaining eye, cold amber under the long tufts of brow, was the haunted look of one who has leaned drunk over a ditch to vomit and found himself looking straight down to the bottommost depths of hell.
But knowing that he had changed, and believing what he said he had changed into, were different things.
It was clear to Starhawk from the reactions of her friends in the troop that they did not realize that she, too, had changed. But that, she reflected, was probably just as well.
Choirboy's puzzled voice broke into her thoughts. "If he's a hookum," he asked, "why can't he just make the shirdar all disappear?"
The same thought had crossed Sun Wolf's mind.
How long he'd been walking he didn't know; the moon had set, but through the feverish blur of pain and semiconsciousness he kept a wizard's ability to see in darkness, though some of the things he was beginning to see he knew weren't real. Poison on the arrow, he thought groggily; toadwort or poppy, something that would cloud the mind but not kill.
That, too, was a bad sign.
Other shirdar had joined the men who'd captured him; now and then he seemed to emerge from a black tunnel of hazy agony to find the night freezing on his face, the air burning the wound in his back, and all around him those white-robed riders who never spoke. He'd fainted once, and the shirdar had whipped their horses to a gallop and dragged him a dozen yards before stopping to kick and flog him to his feet; he was fighting hard not to faint again.
Excerpted from The Dark Hand of Magic by Barbara Hambly. Copyright © 1990 Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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