Kachil the brigand, Feluce the rogue, and Havor the gallant--a night of blood and blood-red flames unites them in a grim siege, fabulous theft, and a journey fraught with peril. For their prize is the jeweled and golden cup of Avilllis, and their road will not end until the Force of Darkness destroys them...or yields to a far greater Power.
The Ring, The Jewel, The Bone:
These are the Relics. The Mysteries of the Shrine, known only to the priestess. Only to Oaive. Yet he knows of them--the wolflike stranger from beyond the mists. And when he profanes them, there begins a game of cold sorceries and burning shadows to be played through all eternity...one way or another.
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The night they took Avillis was a night of blood, and blood-red flame.
It was the last city this side of the Great River, the end of the King’s long autumn campaign. The trees were already stripped black and bare as old bones when the troops came marching from the South, the skies white with snow-waiting. The King and his captains had expected a long siege, and there had been a deal of unease among the men, the soldiers squatting by their fires, the officers talking too loudly round their wine in the tents. For a certain thing had been said all along the muddy tracks and the broken roads, said more softly, yet more insistently, as city after city fell to the King, and the embattled lines moved farther and farther North.
That night, the night Avillis was to fall, this certain thing swirled and breathed about the camp like fog. For the Lord of Avillis, so it was said, was in league with the Powers of the Dark.
Havor of Taon was sitting at his own fire when the early dusk came down. It was the second day of the siege, and, like the rest of them, he expected it to be a long one. There was a weary sense of unfulfillment on him that twilight that had something to do with the dreariness of the coming winter, but was mostly his own disillusion with the King’s war, which he had fought for two years.
Havor was an outlander from the far North beyond the Great River, tall, slender, long of leg and pitch-black of hair, with the orange-brown eyes of a hawk which had acquired for him the relevant nickname among his soldiers. For, though younger than most, he had earned himself a command on the autumn campaign, albeit a small one. Now, at eighteen, he wore the badge of the King’s Bear, and was a captain of thirty men. For anyone who had wanted to make a career for himself in the King’s armies, that was a fair start. All in all he had not done badly out of the war, but the smells of it, the sights of it, and the cries of pain that attended it like the vultures, had sickened and soured him. Yes, he could fight well enough. And kill efficiently. He feared death, like other men, but could put that from his mind in battle, and he was no fool with a sword or knife. But several smoking ruins ago there had come a curious shift inside himself. He had lost his sense of purpose in the war; he supposed because it was not truly his own purpose but that of the King.
His kin were long since dead; he had scarcely known them. There had been a plague, so people had told him after, and soon he was an orphan, to be brought up in one of the great religious hostels of those lands. There had been little kindness in that place, asprawl with homeless children, and no love. When he was ten he had run from it, and since then made his own way in the world. He had been merchant’s boy, and baker’s boy, blown bellows for a blacksmith, crossed the River and rigged sails, sold horses in the markets to the East, grown older, learned a little, hardened a little, been recruited at last to the King’s army in the summer drought three years before because the King’s propaganda had promised each man a stoup of water both morning and night—which had been, as it turned out, a lie.
He was going over all this, his past, outside besieged Avillis on that night of whispers.
A little way down, in a hollow among some trees, his men were cursing and laughing over their beer, but their laughter had a strange, false note to it.
“Well,” said someone from behind, “what a broody hawk you are tonight, Havor.”
It was a light, pleasing voice, but it did not please Havor. Feluce, his Second—though not appointed by him—had stolen up like a shadow. His tone was, as always, derisively polite. Feluce was the son of a Southern cloth-vendor, anxious at all times to appear better than he was, as he judged better to be. He came round the fire to face Havor, and stood smiling, his thumbs hooked in his belt, elegant, handsome, snow-blond and unspeakably arrogant. He produced in Havor an anger as bitter and enduring as it was without apparent reason. But it was an anger he never showed, and he sensed that Feluce, trying always to goad him, found this frustrating.
“Well,” Feluce said again, “have you heard the latest tale about the Lord of Avillis? Apparently he shape-changed into a black cloud and flew off across the setting sun. At least a hundred men will swear to having seen it, and make the sign of the holy circle to protect themselves while they’re telling you.”
“No, I hadn’t heard that.”
“Oh, well, it’s been nothing but stories and nightmares for twenty miles back. Blood sacrifices to the Forces of Evil—the Lord is the Arch Magus, seemingly, his son a warlock, his daughter a sorceress. They say she has golden hair,” Feluce remarked. He took a certain pride in his way with girls. “At any rate, a family so well-loved by devils and demons should make light of escaping our paltry little siege, should it not?”
“I’ve heard the Lord and his children are hated in Avillis,” said another voice.
Havor did not need to turn; he was good at voices. This one belonged to Lukon, a boy also from his own command, a very young boy, an obedient soldier on the march, as yet untried in the war. This last battle, if it came, would be his first.
“Ah, here’s the baby,” Feluce said. He always called Lukon this, sweetly, and Lukon, locked by the discipline of his rank, would redden with a painful suppressed hurt and fury.
“Feluce,” Havor said quietly, “go and see if the men got their rations, will you? There was some bother earlier.”
Feluce laughed in a melodious, soft way he had, and bowed like an actor before turning and nonchalantly idling off, roughly in the direction of the hollow. It was only an excuse and he knew it. Havor had sensed in Lukon a bewildered fear, a need to speak. Yet it had always been difficult to give an order to Feluce and at the same time prevent bickering.
“Sit down if you want,” Havor said to the boy. “Have you eaten?”
Lukon sat opposite to him, across the weary little blaze. Overhead, stark white winter stars were coming out. The camp, the great walls half a mile ahead, had been reduced to an amalgamated blur by the thickening dusk, picked out only here and there by the red chalks of the fires.
“I—didn’t feel much like eating, sir.”
Havor tossed a leather flask across to the boy.
“Here. Drink some of this.”
The boy gulped with an embarrassed gratitude, and Havor wondered at himself. He thought: In a week, a month—whenever the siege breaks and the troops disband—I shall ride away from this life and its responsibilities, and then there’ll be no more Lukons trying to explain their terrors to me across a fire.
Then Lukon surprised him.
“Sir, I’ve not been with the army for long—but—can I ask you for a favor—a special favor?”
“What is it?”
“It’s my family, sir, my mother, and my two sisters. We’ve got a farm southwest from here, a little way from Venca. It’s not good land. I said I’d try to save some of my pay to send them. And well . . . if anything—if there’s a fight for Avillis, and I. . . . Can you get this to them?”
He held out to Havor a small cloth bag that gave off a little clinking sound, as if Lukon’s hand was trembling. Havor sat still, not taking the bag. The boy’s trust moved him, disorganized him.
“I know it’s a deal to ask,” Lukon said, the bag wavering now.
“Lukon,” Havor said slowly, “how do you know I won’t keep this money for myself, whether you live or die?”
“Oh, no, sir. You wouldn’t do that.”
Havor smiled wryly. “Is my honesty so transparent?” He reached and took the bag. “All right. Don’t fret. I’ll keep it for you till our King has Avillis. Then I’ll give it you again and you can take it to your mother yourself.” Lukon stood up. He said very gravely, “Thank you, sir. There’s an old road runs near—you’d know the house by a great crippled pine on the west side.” Then he relaxed a little, and added, half embarrassed again, “I can sleep easier now. So, if you don’t mind, sir, they’re grilling fish down there, and my appetite seems to have come back. . . .”
Odd, how different different men’s fears could be.
Later, Havor rolled himself in his blanket under the stars and let the fire drowse him. He anticipated no danger or event of that night. As he slipped into sleep he heard a wolf howl, far off somewhere in the black bone woods—the first wolf of the winter.
* * * * *
Half a minute later, it seemed, a man was shaking his shoulder.
“Camp alert, captain. Rouse your men.” Havor stared around through the moonlit night. The wind smelled of smoke and urgency.
“What is it? Are they attacking us?”
“No.” The man grinned. “We them. The city hates its Lord and won’t suffer siege for him. Some traitor’s opened the gates and given us a signal.”
“It may be a trap.”
“The King doesn’t think so.”
And the man moved off about his shaking-waking work.
Havor got his men awake; while they were ordering and arming themselves and kicking dirt over their fires, Havor stood on the ridge, observing the camp. Preparation for battle was a familiar sight, yet this night made unfamiliar and stealthy by the dark and the need for deception. Horses stamped, smokes blew. Here and there came the monotonous bees-droning of the four or five camp priests hastily shriving those who asked for it. Havor’s men, on the whole, were an irreligious lot. Only Lukon had slipped off, and was shortly back with that curious look of having been comforted that Havor could not understand. He had been too near the hard facts of religion as a child to find it soothing. The priests had beaten him and starved him, and so that was what he associated with the holy circle of eternal life.
Half an hour later they were riding soft up the sere grassy hillocks to the city’s Goat Gate, that drovers’ entry now left unbarred for them. Men slunk ahead to deal with possible sentries, slipped in and out again, reporting that the watch seemed to have deserted and that nothing moved on the streets but rats, for it was the slum-quarter they would be entering.
For Havor, that entry had a dreamlike, macabre quality. So dark, so silent, the great mass crept in at the narrow gate, only three riders at a time, to be greeted by the darkness and silence of hovels and alleys where they must split into companies and ride single file. No one peered out at them, not a light showed. They surely knew in there what moved in Avillis. Was it the hatred of their Lord, the Magus, or only terror of the invader that kept them so still?
It was nearly midnight. The black quiet and the stealth began to oppress him, but action came presently.
The streets broadened. Among the mansions of Avillis the war cry rose and spread, torchlight burst yellow and red and leaped to embrace the city and the sky. Havor saw the first house catch ablaze, the embroidery of the flame, the struts standing out like bones on the bright core within, while human ants came scurrying out from it. Avillis was the last city of the campaign and the most insolent. The King, Havor knew, reckoned on his own brand of justice. Avillis would be sacked and razed, and no quarter given. That she had betrayed herself to him would only make his hand heavier. The King hated treachery, so he said, though it had helped him often enough in his war.
As the dark bled into carmine, the confusion of battle overcame Havor. The winding streets were alive with flame and screaming. Afterwards he had only dim memories, fire-edged but inconclusive, of galloping up the sloping avenues toward the citadel. They took the garrison, caught slovenly and unawares, sword met sword with a dull and brutal clangor, and here too, the black night was exchanged for scarlet and the whirling of sparks.
The soldiers, so uneasy before, now vented their fear in violence. Finding nothing important opposed them, they whipped Avillis as they would have done in their villages the charlatan who had claimed to be a witch. The citadel, crouching like a black animal atop Avillis, cracked suddenly on fire, plumes of smoke erupting into the purple winter sky.
Havor found himself alone in the rabid shadows, trying to ease the excited horse, his sword too red in the flame-glare. All around men ran hooting, and somewhere frenzied bells were tolling. Up there, the palace of the Lord of Avillis burned.
He watched it to the end, wondering vaguely if the Lord, his son and his daughter had surrendered themselves to the King. Strangely, he felt a conviction that they had not. That was their funeral pyre, then, that flaring mound which gradually sank down into itself, leaving only a ruined lacework of blackened stone to filter the promise of dawn which finally drained the fires from Avillis.