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TONGUES OF LIGHTNING
Truth is stronger than many armies, and the wicked shall fall before it.
A proverb of the Ah'kellah
Night had fallen in earnest while the Brotherhood of the Wolf rode south, but when the warriors reached Carris there was light to see by. An inferno blazed in a stone tower, its roof and inner chambers incandescent, as if it were a giant torch. Watch fires licked the city walls.
Lightning split the night on the southern horizon, like the flickering tongue of a serpent that spoke words of thunder.
The riders let their horses race the last two miles, harnesses and armor jangling. Of the forty lords in the retinue, only three had brought lances. They rode point, lest they should come upon a reaver in the darkness.
Ash mingled with rain so that mud pummeled them from the sky with the weight of mercury. It oozed through Myrrima's cloak.
As the riders crested the hill above the Barrens Wall, the men around Myrrima gasped in amazement. "See there!" one cried. He pointed to the yawning pit from which the world worm had risen. It looked like a small volcanoa cone two hundred yards across and three hundred high. Steam billowed from its crown.
Only fires lit the scene. Yet with the endowments of sight, smell, and hearing that Myrrima had recently taken, everything seemed preternaturally clear.
Myrrima had taken endowments only yesterday. She could still almost hear theyelps ofpain from the pups as they gave their sight and hearing to her.
Myrrima's heart pounded. She wondered if the worm might still be about, but saw no sign of a worm trail. It had retreated into the hole from which it had sprung.
It was hard to comprehend the devastation, to try to imagine the battle that had taken place here. Gaborn had driven his troops to Carris, heeding the Earth's summons, believing that he would find the city besieged by Raj Ahten's troops. Instead he'd found Raj Ahten surrounded by a ghastly horde of reavers, trapped.
He'd used his newfound powers as Earth King to summon a world worma beast of legendfrom the Earth's core to dislodge the reavers.
The aftermath of that battle would be sung for a thousand years, Myrrima felt sure. The carnage took her breath away.
To the south lay a field of dead reavers, enormous and black in the darkness, their wet carapaces gleaming in the wan light as if they were a plague of dead frogs. Men and women swarmed among them, torches in hand. The plains were terribly broken and uneven, pocked with thousands of burrows. Squads of troops armed with spears and battle-axes were searching every nook for live reavers. But not all of the people out there were warriors. Some were coming from the city to cart off the dead and woundedmothers looking for sons, children hunting for parents.
A reaver suddenly lunged from a burrow three quarters of a mile away, and out on the plain screams arose with the blaring of warhorn The reaver charged straight for a knot of footmen. Knights on chargers galloped to intercept the monster.
"By my father's honor," shouted one lord of Orwynne, "there's still reavers about! This battle's not won yet!"
The lords spurred their mounts down to what was left of the Barrens Wall. Beneath its arch, beside a bonfire, a dozen footmen huddled beneath muddy capes with hands wrapped around their longspears.
"Halt!" they called as the lords approached. A couple of guards struggled up. They wore mismatched armor, marking them as Knights Equitable.
Their bright eyes reflected the firelight. Jubilantly their leader shouted, "Most of the reavers are in a routfleeing south the way that they came. Skalbairn asks that any man who can bear a lance give chase with him! But there's still a few of the damned things holed up in their burrows, if you've a mind to fight here."
"Skalbairn is chasing the horde in the dark? In the rain?" Sir Hoswell shouted. "Is he mad?"
"The Earth King is with us, and no one can stand against us!" the guard shouted. "If you've ever had a fancy to slay a reaver and win some glory, tonight's the night for it. Some simpleton from Silverdale killed a dozen on the city walls today with nothing more than a pickax. True men like you should do as wellor better." His tone was challenging.
The guard raised a wineskin in salute. Myrrima saw that the man's eyes gleamed from more than mere jubilation. He was half drunk, reveling in the victory. Obviously Skalbairn's men didn't know that Gaborn could no longer warn his Chosen warriors of danger.
Even though they'd been Chosen only a few hours ago, Myrrima could see how these men were already becoming complacent. Why should they keep a close guard so long as the Earth King would warn them of danger?
Obviously, Skalbairn's men hadn't heard the latest. Gaborn had used his abilities to dislodge the reavers from Carris, but in the aftermath of the battle, he'd sought to use his gift to kill Raj Ahten.
For misusing those protective powers, the Earth had withdrawn themincluding the ability to warn Gaborn's Chosen warriors of danger.
These men, blithely celebrating their victory, had no idea how much trouble they were in. The Earth had charged Gaborn to help "Save a seed of mankind through the dark times to come." Full night was not yet upon them.
Myrrima glanced right and left at the lords of the Brotherhood of the Wolfsober men with hard faces. They'd come to fight, but hadn't bargained for such madness.
"I'll warn Paldane's men," Sir Giles of Heredon offered.
"Wait," Myrrima said. "Are you sure that's wise? Who knows where the rumors might fly, how the tale might grow in its travels?"
"The Earth King warned us that he has lost his powers in order save our lives," Baron Tewkes of Orwynne said. "He can't hide the truth, and we can't hide it for him."
If she were to tell Gaborn's secret, Myrrima feared she might betray a man who had never unjustly sought to harm another. Yet if she withheld the news, innocent men would die. To tell was the lesser evil.
Sir Giles took his leave of them and galloped toward Carris.
"The rest of us will need to warn Skalbairn," Tewkes said. He dismounted for a moment, cinched his saddle for a fast ride. Others drew weapons, and more than one man brought out a stone to sharpen a lance or a warhammer.
Myrrima licked her lips. She wouldn't be riding south with the others tonight. Gaborn had said that she would find her wounded husband a third of a mile north of the city, near the great mound. But reavers were still hiding out on the field. She tried not to worry.
"Do you want me to come with you, milady?" a voice asked, startling her. Sir Hoswell's horse had sidled up to her, and he was bending near. "To find your husband? I told you that if you ever need me, I'll be at your back."
She could barely make out his face beneath his hood. Hoswell leaned close, as if expecting her to fall into his arms at the first sight of blood.
Hah! she thought. Maybe when the stars have all burned down to ashes!
He had tried to seduce her once. When she resisted his advances, he'd tried to force her. He'd apologized, but she still didn't trust him, even though she had enough endowments now that she knew he would never try to force her again.
"No," she said. "I'll go alone. Why don't you find some reavers to kill?"
"Very well," Hoswell said. He drew his steel greatbow from its pack, began carefully to unwrap the oiled canvas that protected it from the rain.
"You'll fight with that?" she asked.
Hoswell shrugged. "It's what I use best. A shot to the sweet triangle ..."
Myrrima spurred her own mount away from the other lords, rode under the arch toward the largest knot of dead reavers. Borenson would have fallen in the thick of battle. She imagined that he would be there.
In the distance, she could hear others searching the battlefield, calling for loved ones. They shouted different names, but all were the selfsame cry: "I am alive; are you?"
"Borenson? Borenson!" she called.
She had no way to know how severe his wounds might be. If he lay trapped beneath a fallen reaver, she'd make light of it. If he was disemboweled, she'd stuff his guts in and nurse him back to health. She tried to steel herself for whatever she would find.
She imagined what she would say when she found him, rehearsed a hundred variations of "I love you. I'm a warrior now, and I'm coming with you to Inkarra."
He would objectperhaps on good grounds. She had only gained a little skill with a bow.
She would persuade him.
As Myrrima drew close to the fell mage's final battleground, she smelled the remnants of the monster's curses. Residual odors clung like a mist to the low ground.
Even two hours after the mage's death, the curses' effects were astonishing. "Be blind," a curse still whispered, and her sight dimmed. "Be dry as dust"; sweat oozed from her pores. "Rot, O thou child of man"; her stomach knotted and every scratch felt as if it might pucker into a festering wound.
She rode in the shadows of reaver corpses that loomed on every side. She gazed in awe at crystalline teeth like scythes. She caught movement from the corner of her eye. Her heart leapt in her throat to see a reaver's maw open.
She yanked her mount's reins to turn it back, but realized that the reaver did not hiss or move.
It was dead. Its maw merely creaked open as the monster cooled. Its muscles were contracting like a clam's as it dries in the sun.
Myrrima looked around. All of the reavers' mouths were opening by slow degrees.
The air seemed heavy. No katydid buzzed in a thicket. No wind sighed through the leaves of any trees, for the reavers had uprooted every plant.
"Borenson!" she shouted. She scanned the ground, hoping the reflected firelight might reveal the form of her husband buried beneath a layer of soot.
A trio of gree whipped past her head, wings squeaking as if in torment.
Through the tangled legs of a dead reaver, she glimpsed a flickering light, and suddenly she had the wild hope that Borenson had lit the fire.
She spurred her mount. Around a bonfire had gathered a crowd of warriors from Indhopal. Myrrima felt unnerved by them, even though today they'd fought beside her people against the reavers.
These were no ordinary warriors. They were dark nomads who wore black robes over their armor, as some symbol of status. Their headgear bore steel plates that fell down over the ears to protect the shoulders.
Nine of Raj Ahten's dead Invincibles lay before the fire. The nomads seemed to be preparing to consign the deceased to a funeral pyre.
Among the dead Invincibles lay a girl with dark hair, practically a child. She rested upon a riding robe of fine red cotton, embroidered with exquisite gold threads to form curlicues like the tendrils of vines. On her temple rode a thin silver crown that accentuated her dark skin.
She wore a sheer dress of lavender silk, and in her hand someone had placed a silver dagger.
Myrrima had come upon Saffira, Raj Ahten's dead wife. Gaborn had sent Myrrima's husband to fetch Saffira from Indhopal so that she might plead with him to cease his attacks on Gaborn's people. Gaborn could have searched the world and found no one better to sue for peace. Rumor said that Saffira had taken hundreds of endowments of glamour and voice. She would have been more alluring than any woman alive, would have spoken more eloquently.
Obviously Borenson had found Saffira and brought her to the siege at Carris. Now she lay dead among a few Invincibles. Myrrima imagined that the Invincibles had been her royal escort, and suspected that her husband would be nearby.
The leader of the Indhopalese was immediately recognizable. Every eye in the crowd rested on him, and many nomad warriors knelt before himsome on one knee, some on two.
He sat atop a gray Imperial warhorse, glaring down at the dead, talking in an even, dangerous tone. His dark eyes glowed in the firelight as if he struggled to hold back tears of rage. On the right breast of his black robe he wore the emblem of Raj Ahten, the three-headed wolf in red. Above the wolves were golden owl's wings, and above them flew three stars.
His insignia identified him as more than an Invincible or even a captain of Invincibles.
At his feet, several men in black burnooses knelt on hands and knees. One answered him in a frightened voice.
Myrrima seemed to have wandered into a confrontation. She didn't want to have anything to do with it.
A tall Invincible came up from the shadows behind her, a man with a forked beard and ivory beads woven into his black hair. The firelight reflected from his dark eyes and golden nose ring.
He grinned at her, and Myrrima could not tell if it was meant as a seductive grin or a friendly greeting. He jutted his chin toward the Indhopalese leader. He whispered, "You see? He Wuqaz Faharaqin, warlord of the Ah'kellah."
The news struck through Myrrima like a lance. Even in Heredon she had heard those names. Among Raj Ahten's warriors, Wuqaz Faharaqin was one of the most powerful. And of all the desert tribes, the Ah'kellah were the most respected. They were judges and lawgivers of the desert, hired to settle disputes among tribes.
The fact that Wuqaz Faharaqin was angry did not bode well for the object of his wrath.
The Invincible reached up a hand clumsily, as if he seldom greeted in this manner. "I am Akem."
"What has happened here?" Myrrima asked.
"His nephew, Pashtuk, murdered today," Akem said. "Now he question witnesses."
"Faharaqin's nephew murdered someone?"
"No, Pashtuk Faharaqin was murdered." He nodded toward an ugly dead Invincible who lay, as if in a place of honor, next to Saffira. "He was a captain among Invincibles, a man of great renown, like the others here."
"Who killed him?" Myrrima asked.
"Oh!" Myrrima breathed softly.
"Yes," Akem said. "One of slain live long enough to bear witness. He say, `Raj Ahten call to Invincibles after battle, and try to murder Earth King'a man who is his own cousin by marriage to Iome Vanisalaam Sylvarresta. To fight a cousin, this is a great evil. To kill one's own men, this is also evil." He did not say it, but Myrrima could hear in his tone that Raj Ahten would have to pay.
"These men"Akem indicated the kneeling Invincibles"found the dying witness."
Wuqaz Faharaqin questioned the witnesses one by one. As he did, his eyes blazed brighter and brighter.
Derisive shouts arose from the crowd. One lord strode forward, pointing at the witnesses. Myrrima did not need Akem to translate. "This man say the witness no good. Need more than one witness. He say Raj Ahten would not seek to kill Earth King."
Myrrima could hardly restrain her rage. "I saw it!"
Wuqaz Faharaqin growled at her outburst, asked a question in his native tongue. Akem looked up at Myrrima and translated, "Please, to tell name?"
"Myrrima," she said. "Myrrima Borenson."
Akem's eyes widened. A hush fell over the crowd as men whispered her name to one another. "Yes," Akem said, "I thought sothe northern woman with the bow. You slew the Darkling Glory. We have all heard! We are honored."
Myrrima felt astonished. News traveled fast. "It was a lucky shot."
"No," Akem said. "There is not so great luck in all the world, I think. You must tell your story."