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In his quest for power, Bundhi, Lord of Darkness and stealer of souls, has taken family, vision and freedom from Surata, the last surviving adept in tantric alchemy, before selling her into slavery in a distant land. But he has underestimated the depth of Surata’s power and he could not foresee that destiny would bring her a champion,...
In his quest for power, Bundhi, Lord of Darkness and stealer of souls, has taken family, vision and freedom from Surata, the last surviving adept in tantric alchemy, before selling her into slavery in a distant land. But he has underestimated the depth of Surata’s power and he could not foresee that destiny would bring her a champion, Arkady, soldier of fortune and destined hero. As their mutual trust deepens and the wellspring of power from which Surata draws her magic is steadily revealed, the two form an unbeatable force as they challenge their enemy in the very heart of his empire."
Afternoon was fading into evening when the Margrave finally summoned Arkady Sól to his headquarters. The herald who brought the cordial message delivered the words so woodenly that Arkady felt dread go through him in spite of the flowery references to "our most-favored captain" and "your loyal and devoted leadership in the presence of the enemy."
"Very well," he said to the herald as he shoved his straight brown hair out of his eyes. "I am almost finished with mending this hilt. It will be an honor to go to the Margrave within the hour."
The herald cleared his throat. "Captain Sól, the Margrave is waiting for you now. He would not ... look kindly on a delay. He is going to hear Mass shortly."
Arkady sighed and got up from the three-legged campstool he had been perching on. "All right. Let it be now." He stared at the herald. "Do you accompany me, or am I to go alone?"
"I have other messages," the herald said, his eyes firmly fixed on some distant spot over Arkady's left shoulder.
"Then I am not under arrest," Arkady said, not making it a question. He forced his lips to smile. "The Margrave is gracious."
"Your years of service stand for much," the herald mumbled, then turned away before he could embarrass himself and Captain Sól any further. He fingered his tabard. "Other messages."
"Deliver them," Arkady said lightly. "Don't let me detain you." He offered the man a half-salute before he turned away, not permitting himself to walk slowly no matter how much he desired to postpone the confrontation. He carried only one weapon, his cinquedea tucked into his belt and lying now horizontally along his back, as its Luccan smith had intended. So used was he to carrying it that he almost forgot he had it with him now.
Three officers guarded the entrance to the mill where the Margrave had established his headquarters. They raised lanthorns to see Arkady's face, though all three knew him well and recognized his voice.
"For the love of God, Vencel," Arcady protested to the nearest. "Must you do this?"
Vencel had the grace to cough before he replied. "You are under orders, Sól. We are under orders as well." He looked away. "The Margrave is in the main room."
"Yes, I assumed that. Why are you pretending that I know nothing of this because of ... what happened?" He did not bother to wait for an answer—there would be none given, he was certain—but permitted Vencel to open the door for him. "Thank you," he remembered to say before the door closed behind him.
The servants inside the mill came to escort Arkady into the main room of the mill, where once the family of the miller had gathered to eat and talk in happier times. One of the servants could not resist looking at Arkady as he indicated the open door. "It's a shame, Captain Sól."
"Yes, it is," Arkady said, trying not to reveal how bitter he felt at that moment. "Thank you for escorting me." He could see the distress in the servant's eyes and could not bring himself to make it worse.
"I will pray for you," the servant promised him as he turned away.
The Margrave Fadey sat with one leg propped up on a stool, his arm resting on the table, a document beneath it. "Captain Sól," he said with distaste as Arkady came into the light.
"You wanted to see me," Arkady said, because he felt he must say something. "I've come."
"Yes," the Margrave said quietly. "I assume you know why you are here."
What possessed the man to draw this out so much? Arkady asked himself. Why would he not simply inform him that he was discharged and in disgrace. "I know."
"And you have no sense of shame for what you did?" the Margrave demanded. "You do not cringe at the sight of men of honor."
"There is no honor in riding into an ambush. I told Captain Kamenetz that at the time." He said this wearily, having repeated it more often than he could bear in the last few days. "I did not want my men to be killed."
"You admit to your own cowardice," the Margrave Fadey accused him, his moustaches quivering more than his indignant voice.
"If refusing to permit my men to be massacred is cowardice, then I own it freely." He folded his arms. "I will take the writ and I will leave. That is what you want me to do, isn't it?"
"What I would want, Captain Sól, is for you to have followed orders. None of this would be necessary now." The Margrave Fadey glared his disapproval.
"Only a Requiem for all of my men," Arkady said as gently as he could. "I'll take the writ, Margrave, and I will leave you."
The Margrave kept his arm on the parchment. "You must also sign an oath, very binding, on the graves of your parents and your hope of salvation." He took a deep breath. "You are to vow that you will never, for any reason whatsoever, aid our enemies, the Turks, or give council, advice or instruction to them."
"I doubt they'd have me," Arkady said lightly. "A Pole fighting with a company of Polish and Ukrainian soldiers? They'd be more apt to kill me than seek my advice."
The Margrave folded his arms. "You may jest if you wish, but you will sign the oath."
"Gladly," Arkady said at once. "Then you will be rid of me and you can go back to your battles for glory." He had not wanted to sound bitter, but he could hear his own words and they shocked him.
"You are still under my command, I will not tolerate your insolence. It is sufficient that you are a coward." He held out a quill. "The ink is there. Read this and sign it."
Arkady sighed. He had the rudiments of letters, but it was always a chore to go over documents. He came and leaned over the table, staring down. He pieced the words together, grateful that the Margrave had not insisted in writing in Latin or Russian or Greek. The intent was clear and not even the courtly language could disguise the severity of the vow. He reached for the quill and dipped it in the ink. Arkady Todor Sól, from Sól, on the Feast of Saint Stanislas he scribbled, not caring if the ink spattered. "There." He gave the quill back to the Margrave Fadey.
"This will be sent to Sól and entered in the roles of your church." The message was plain: everyone would know of his disgrace and he would not be permitted to return home.
"If that is necessary, by all means," Arkady said. "I will not argue with you." He felt more weary than before. "What else? Do you give me the writ, or is there more?"
"The company will watch you leave camp. You will be allowed to take your weapons and your horse. The rest remains here." He paused. "You have some prize money. If it were up to me, I would claim it, but I have been told that I am not empowered to do so. You may take it with you." This last certainly galled him.
"Do my weapons include my armor?" He had paid a high price for the armor and hated the thought of leaving it behind.
"You may take the steel-studded leather, but the rest is forfeit," the Margrave told him, knowing that this would distress Arkady.
"If you insist," Arkady said. He would not give the man the satisfaction of losing his temper.
The Margrave rose slowly. He was over forty and battle had taken a toll on him: he moved like an old man. "Here is the writ. It is signed by me and both our priests, as witnesses. You will be expected to leave here before sunset tomorrow."
"So long," Arkady marvelled. "A pity that you could not require me to leave tonight."
"Yes," the Margrave agreed, not aware of the irony in Arkady's tone. "Your men will be given disciplinary action and a reduction in prize mon—"
Arkady faced the Margrave Fadey, making an effort to contain his fury. "My men only did what good soldiers must do, and followed my orders. They accepted my judgment. If I had ordered them into action and they had not gone, you would punish them. But they did not go because I would not permit it. If there is to be any more punishment, it should not fall on my men." His head ached as he spoke and he could feel the blood pound in his neck. He was able to keep a reasonable level to his speech, but he could not disguise his feelings completely. "You are concerned about the morale of the other men, those who fared so badly in the last fight. Their morale would be much worse if a third of your forces had been hacked to bits and what was left of them hung out on hooks for trophies."
"They should have fought," the Margrave persisted, his hands trembling.
"Yes, they should," Arkady said unexpectedly. "They were eager to fight, and I was proud of our chance to face the Turks. But what were we to do in the face of certain ambush? The defile was narrower than the scouts told us at first, and the walls of it too sheer for men in armor to climb. The Turks were waiting around the rim, with others to close in behind us. What chance would any of us had?"
"There is a Turkish fortress above that defile. Until we take it, we are held back from our advance. The Turks have come too far as it is, and they are not being rebuffed as they should be." The Margrave wore a large crucifix on a thick chain around his neck. "Ever since Constantinople fell, God has seemed to turn His back on us for that failure. If we are to redeem our faith as well as our souls, we must turn these despicable heathens back into their own lands and purge our soil of their presence."
"You and the Archbishops are agreed on that," Arkady said quietly. "Most of the men in my unit fear for their homes and their families. They do not want to return to find burned-out ruins and scattered crops, with no way to learn if their wives and parents and children have been taken as slaves or killed. You and the Archbishops may not think highly of such reasons, but I would pledge my honor—if I had any to pledge—on such men."
The Margrave Fadey sighed. "You are not the sort of soldier who can understand what is at stake here." He leaned back. "Very well. Be gone with you. The entire camp will be told of my action against you, and there will be a formal escort of disgrace when you leave the camp."
Arkady sighed and saluted. "It will have to be as you wish."
"You are a disappointment to me, Captain Sól. You were sent here with such high praise and recommendations for your valor and your tenacity."
"It is good to know that my former lord thought well of me," Arkady said, his attitude suddenly gentler.
"He will also be informed of your disgrace." The Margrave sat back with a sour expression of satisfaction on his old features. "You will not be able to find honorable employment in Poland anywhere."
'Of course," Arkady said. He stood quietly, wishing the Margrave would finish it.
"Here is your writ," he said, handing a smaller piece of parchment to Arkady. "You are no longer a part of this or any other Polish or Ukrainian force of Christians opposing the advance of the Turks."
Now that the thing was in front of him, it was almost impossible for Arkady to take it. Fierce resentment against this stupid, vainglorious nobleman welled up in him, making his head hurt more than before. "Honor and glory to the defenders of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ," he mumbled as he took the document and crossed himself.
"You may leave me, Captain Sól. If it were for me to decide, you would lose your rank, as well, but only your lord may do that." Clearly this irritated the Margrave. "Inform the bailiff of the camp when you are ready to leave."
Arkady did not trust himself to speak; he saluted and turned on his heel. He was out of the room quickly, brushing past the two men who guarded the door.
Night had come, bringing its own rustlings. The camp was quieter now, with most of the men tending to their gear, for in two days they would all be on the march again. Many fires glowed, and where they burned, men gathered around them, some silent, some talking, some singing, a few throwing dice, though such activities were forbidden. Arkady walked back to his tent through the familiar huddle and clutter, missing it already.
"How bad was it?" Hedeon asked as Arkady appeared in the flap of the door.
"I can keep the leather armor, but I have to leave the steel. I can keep my weapons and my horse." He held out the crumpled writ. "This declares me coward, Hedeon, for trying to save my men from destruction. The Margrave Fadey wants someone to blame for the way the battle went." He kicked his saddle in anger. "He's an old fool, and dangerous. Take care he doesn't get you all killed."
"He wishes to save us from the Turks," Hedeon said, his voice cracking, for although he had been serving as an aide for more than a year, he was just twelve years old.
"At this rate, he will save us by sending us all to Heaven or Hell, to save the Turks the trouble." As soon as these words were out, he lifted his finger. "No. Do not repeat that. You would be cast out, too, if you did, and you have less chance of making your way in the world than I do, and that is little enough for me." He stared at the lanthorn, which was the only light in the tent. "Is there any wine left? I'd like to get roaring drunk tonight."
"One skin," the lad said apologetically. "You didn't ask for it, and so—"
Arkady waved him to silence. "Probably just as well. My head is bad enough now; tomorrow it would be intolerable if I drink." He looked at his gear. "Do you think they'll let me take the helmet if I leave the helm?"
Hedeon did not venture an opinion, but he winked.
"Well, pack it for me in any case. I may need to sell it one day, to buy food."
"It won't come to that," Hedeon said with false certainty. "You will find another unit to take you on."
"I will?" Arkady said bleakly. "Who will take me? What for? Contract soldiers might let me sign on, perhaps. Then it will be take any man's battle if he has enough gold. Or I could do what many another man in my position has done, and turn robber. Until they caught me and cut off my hands, or blinded me, or hanged me, I would live adequately, I suppose." Abruptly he flung the writ away from him. "Thorns of God! What right has the Margrave to do this?" He went on without allowing Hedeon to speak. "Yes, I know, rank and place and all the rest of it. He believes he must make an example and I am it." He dropped down onto the pile of blankets that served him as a bed. "What sorrows me the most is knowing that he will try and try to take that Turkish redoubt until every single soldier in his forces is dead. And what is the worst aspect to all of this is that it doesn't matter. That breastwork fortress means almost nothing to the Turks. Taking it would change very little."
Hedeon listened nervously. "You're not being cautious, Captain Sól," he warned. "There are those who can hear you."
"What difference?" Arkady asked, then relented. "Very well. I don't want to see you compromised. If you have good sense, you will go to Captain Pliecs when I'm ... not here. He is a good and sensible man and he will not abuse you."
"Captain Tworek already has asked that I serve for him," Hedeon said, trying to sound pleased.
Arkady shrugged. "He's a sensible man. He won't treat you badly. He's got more fleas on him than a heartsick camel, but there's nothing new in that." No soldier was free of them, and if one officer attracted more than another, what did it matter?
"I'll take care," Hedeon said, relieved that this was the only comment that Arkady made.
"And God guard you," Arkady added as an afterthought. "You will need His protection, I am afraid." He started to lean back. "See that my leather armor is packed, and my weapons." He drew the cinquedea out of his belt and handed it to Hedeon. "I'll want to carry this with me, but the two swords and the maul ... pack them as usual." With that he leaned back and closed his eyes.
By morning, Hedeon had attended to his chores and had brought Arkady's horse around to the tent, where he waited now, bridled but not saddled, while Arkady went about the rough business of shaving with a knife edge. "There is food, Captain, if you want it," the boy called out.
"Cheese will do. See if you can swipe a few extra rounds for me, so I'll have something to eat on the road. Don't get caught at it, or the Margrave will see you flogged for helping me." He kept up his chore, dragging the blade over his wet face, wincing every now and then at the little cuts he gave himself.
"The priest has come to hear your confession," Hedeon added a moment later.
Excerpted from To the High Redoubt by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Copyright © 1985 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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