Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2008.
‘There’s no way out this time, is there?’ said Maelys, wiping the teeming rain from her eyes.
Nish glanced at her and managed a smile, for she was even grubbier than he was; her small figure was clotted with mud from head to foot. ‘I can’t think of one.’ He rubbed his nose and winced. His battered face was so swollen that he was almost unrecognisable.
It was mid-morning on the Range of Ruin, and everyone had gathered in a ring around him, hoping for a miracle, but it wasn’t going to happen. The enemy held the surrounding ridges, trapping them in a clearing in the forested valley; they had been ordered to take Nish and Maelys alive, and put everyone else to death. All their struggles over the past weeks, and all Nish’s agony, had been for nothing.
He and his Gendrigorean militia had driven themselves to the limit of human endurance to climb the rain-drenched range and reach Blisterbone Pass before his father’s army, and they would have succeeded had their treacherous guide, Curr, not led them astray. The pass was only a league away in a direct line, yet it was as unreachable as the moon, for the enemy’s advance guard had beaten them to it and the rest of that monstrous army could not be far behind.
For supporting Nish and daring to oppose his corrupt father – the God-Emperor Jal-Nish Hlar – the peaceful little nation of Gendrigore was going to be obliterated and its men, women and children taken into slavery. Nish felt responsible, for the Gendrigoreans had not wanted to go to war; he had talked them into coming and now he bitterly regretted it.
Their situation was hopeless, yet he could not give in. During the lyrinx war they had snatched victory from defeat many times, and surely there had to be a way to do it again. But they could not win by force of arms, which left only the Secret Art.
‘Flydd?’ Nish said quietly. ‘We really need your help.’
‘What if you made another portal with the mimemule?’ said Maelys, for Flydd had used that little mimicking device to create the portal that had brought her, Flydd and Yggur here.
Xervish Flydd, the mancer who had led humanity to an impossible victory in the war against the lyrinx ten years ago, swayed on his broad feet. Though he had regained some of his lost gift for the Art, he had never been the same after casting that terrible renewal spell upon himself almost six weeks ago.
It had replaced his aged and failing body with that of a bigger man in middle age, but Flydd was in constant pain and he seemed meaner, harder and … Nish resisted the thought for as long as he could – less trustworthy. A few minutes ago, Flydd had been gazing at the Profane Tears, Gatherer and Reaper, the source of the God-Emperor’s power, as though he wanted to snatch them for himself.
‘I can’t!’ Flydd said, clutching at his belly. ‘Bringing so many people through that second portal took everything I had, and the aftersickness –’ He doubled up as though he was going to vomit, gagged, and straightened painfully. ‘I don’t have the power to use the mimemule again.’ He looked around blearily. ‘I don’t know this place. What’s our line of retreat?’
‘There isn’t one,’ said Nish. ‘We’re in a valley shaped like a tilted oval bowl. It’s a good league long and half a league wide, and the upper end runs up to the white-thorn peak, the mountain guarding this side of Blisterbone Pass.’
With his sabre, he gestured towards the towering mountain, barely visible through the blinding rain. ‘The upper part of the valley ends at the cliffs; I don’t think anyone could climb them. The enemy holds the ridges to either side of us and they’re bare, rain-washed rock with no cover – we’d never fight our way up. They also guard the only way out, a gorge spanned by a natural arch of stone.’
He pointed downslope, though nothing could be seen in that direction save a wall of rainforest marking the lower edge of the clearing. ‘The valley floor is covered in forest, apart from another clearing lower down, near the gorge.’
‘Is it more defendable than this one?’ said Flydd.
‘I don’t know. What do you think, Tulitine?’ Nish said to the tall, striking woman to his left.
The old seer had used a Regression Spell to temporarily restore herself to a relatively young age, then made a desperate attempt to reach Nish’s militia and warn them that they had been betrayed, but she had arrived just as the trap had been sprung.
Tulitine thought for a moment. ‘I don’t think so, for the valley narrows down there. The enemy archers could fire into the clearing from the stone arch, and from the nearby ridge.’
‘Forget it,’ said Flydd. ‘We’ll make our stand here.’ He turned towards the river which ran down the centre of the valley; it could just be made out through the trees. ‘Can they cross the river and attack us from behind?’
‘I’m afraid so,’ said Tulitine. ‘It’s partly dammed by fallen trees just upstream; that’s how I got here.’
‘Can you stop them crossing with your Art?’ said Nish.
‘I only know healing charms. Besides, the Regression Spell is already fading, and when it comes undone …’
Tulitine had hinted earlier at what it would do to her. The consequences were going to be horrific and there was nothing anyone could do to stop the spell failing. That left only Yggur, who towered to Nish’s left, craggy as an ancient cedar and seemingly as indestructible.
‘I know you’ve got power, old friend,’ Nish said, ‘and we’ve never needed it more. If you could create a concealing mist or …’
‘Ordinarily, that would be the easiest of spells,’ said Yggur. ‘Especially here, where there’s water everywhere …’
‘But?’ cried Nish. Yggur had been his last hope.
‘Gatherer is watching everything I do, and the moment I try to draw power Reaper blocks me. I’m not strong enough to take on the greatest force on Santhenar.’ Yggur rubbed his inflamed wrists. For seven years he’d been held prisoner by the Numinator, whose enchanted bracelets had continually drained him of his powers of mancery to bolster her own. ‘Besides, I feel strangely hobbled in this place.’
‘What do you mean, hobbled?’ said Maelys sharply. She pressed a hand between her breasts, and frowned.
Nish had seen her make that unconscious gesture many times, and knew that she was making contact with her taphloid, the mysterious little device she’d worn around her neck since childhood. Touching it normally comforted her, but she seemed troubled now.
‘I don’t know.’ Yggur’s gaze flicked towards the red-hot caduceus, the height of a small tree, embedded in the centre of the clearing. Whatever uncanny force drove its internal fires, it was unquenched by the teeming rain. ‘There may be a way to hide what I’m doing from Gatherer, but … it will take time to find it.’ He headed towards the caduceus, shielding his eyes from its glare.
Time we don’t have. Nish could feel the radiance beating upon his bruised face. The caduceus, a winged shaft tightly entwined by a pair of open-mouthed serpents, was made of black iron forged from the heart of a meteorite and, when Stilkeen had hurled it down, its point had penetrated half a span of solid rock.
Hostage! For – white-ice-fire! that tormented being from the void had cried as it seized the God-Emperor and carried him off, but what had it meant?
Had Stilkeen meant that Jal-Nish was held hostage until it regained the chthonic fire – the force that had once bound its physical and spirit aspects together – stolen from it in ancient times?
Or did the caduceus signify that the whole world was Stilkeen’s hostage? Either way, Nish had no idea what to do about it. No one on Santhenar had faced an immortal being before and not even Yggur, oldest of them all, knew how to deal with it.
‘Then I’d better organise our defences.’ Nish turned away, sick at the thought of the coming massacre. The professional soldiers up there were going to tear his rag-tag militia apart.
His eye fell on the ginger-haired cook’s boy, Huwld, a cheerful, scrawny lad of eleven.
‘What the blazes are you doing here?’ Nish cried.
‘Got better,’ grinned Huwld.
He had suddenly appeared halfway up the range, as though the militia had been hiding him from Nish all that time. Nish had sent the boy back with the third of his militia who had contracted dysentery, but somehow Huwld was still here, and it made the coming battle so much worse. The boy was going to die, along with all his people, and Nish couldn’t bear it.
The Gendrigoreans seemed to have no idea what an army was really for, or how brutal and savage warfare was. And why should they, Nish mused. No enemy had successfully crossed the Range of Ruin into Gendrigore in over a thousand years.
At first he’d thought of them as little more than carefree, pleasure-loving innocents, impossible to turn into a decent fighting force, but he knew better now. Inside, they were tough as the gnarled roots of an old tree.
Huwld had vanished again and, as he scanned the militia for the boy, he saw Aimee, a young woman so small and slender that she made Nish look tall. Whatever had possessed him, allowing her to join the militia? She was as brave as any warrior, but what use was she going to be when the fighting started? A heavy blow would break her in half.
Nish shook off the gloom and self-doubt before it became despair, and looked up. Above the western ridge, Jal-Nish’s deputy, the dwarf General Klarm, stood spread-legged on a drifting air-sled the size of an emperor’s bedroom. He appeared to be issuing orders to his troops, who were lined up along the ridge like pegs on a washing line. Nish estimated their number at a thousand, three times his militia, and they were big, brutal men, twice Klarm’s height. The God-Emperor’s white standard, mounted on a wooden pole at the bow, flapped high above him.
Nish still couldn’t come to terms with the betrayal, for Klarm, who had been a friend and ally during the war, was one of the bravest men Nish had met. Yet after Jal-Nish seized power ten years ago Klarm had, inexplicably, taken service with him and was now his commander-in-chief, even trusted with the Profane Tears in his liege’s involuntary absence. And because Nish’s militia had refused to surrender, Klarm would show no mercy.
‘They’ll shoot us down from the edges of the clearing,’ said Gi, a gentle, sturdy young woman, one of Nish’s lieutenants and his closest friend in the militia. ‘No need to risk their own lives.’
‘The God-Emperor doesn’t give a damn for his soldiers’ lives,’ said Flydd, ‘but he would not risk his only surviving son’s life, and neither can Klarm. They’ll have to come on foot, and an agonising death awaits any soldier who harms you, Nish.’
Nish took no comfort from that, for no one could control the course of a battle, and in its chaos soldiers were often killed by accident, or even by their own people. Besides, he would sooner die in battle than be captured and see all his friends and allies slain.
‘Take them!’ Klarm’s amplified voice rang out from the air-sled, and his troops began to move down the steep ridges towards the rainforest covering the floor of the valley.
‘What if we run into the forest?’ said Gi. ‘It’s dark in there. Some of us might escape.’
‘They’ve ringed the valley and they hold the only exit,’ said Nish. ‘Klarm will make sure that no one escapes. We’ve got to stay together.’
He raised his voice. ‘Form into a circle, facing out. Archers at the front, lancers behind them and swordsmen at the rear. Archers, when I give the order, fire until they’re just ten seconds away, then fall back. Lancers, hold firm and make them come onto your spears. They won’t dare fire at you for fear of a stray arrow hitting me or Maelys.’ At least, Nish hoped they wouldn’t.
The militia formed a tight circle, about forty paces across, surrounding the caduceus and with their backs to it.
‘What good will it do?’ said Hoshi, a big, enthusiastic youth who had been an apprentice potter in Gendrigore. Nish had tried to train him in leadership but Hoshi had no head for it, his only tactic being to go straight at his opponent, whacking furiously.
Nish rubbed his scarred left hand, which was aching again. Many years ago, on the battlefield of Gumby Marth, his father had thrust Nish’s hands into the tears in an attempt to control him, but the compulsion had failed and Nish’s feeble, unreliable clearsight had appeared instead. Last month, in a cavern at the clifftop of Mistmurk Mountain, he had put his left hand into Reaper in a desperate effort to enhance his clearsight and find Flydd’s lost Art, and had partly succeeded, though his hand had been hideously burned.
He kneaded the scars as he considered Hoshi’s question. The poorly armed and untrained militia stood no chance in hand-to-hand combat with Klarm’s crack Imperial Militia, but Nish’s archers were skilled hunters and could do great damage if he used them well.
‘From the edge of the clearing it’ll take the enemy at least a minute to reach us through the mud, and our archers can fire ten arrows in that time. If we can even the numbers, and even delay them a minute or two, Yggur might be able to do something …’
‘He’d better get a move on!’ snapped Flydd, for he and Yggur had always been rivals and, clearly, Flydd felt his own helplessness keenly.
‘I don’t think you should use your Art so close to the caduceus, Yggur,’ called Tulitine, who was standing a few paces from it.
‘Why ever not?’ said Yggur imperiously. He did not appreciate being told what to do.
Nish would have been cowed, but Tulitine was unfazed. ‘If you do, it may go ill for you.’
‘Death may go ill for us all,’ said Flydd wryly.
The enemy were skidding down the wet slopes and moving into the forest; they would reach the edge of the clearing in minutes. It was still pouring, Nish was sweating rivers in his sodden clothes, and the humidity was so thick he could have sliced it with his sabre.
‘We can’t get away,’ said Tulitine. ‘We’ve got to concentrate on saving you, Nish, so you can rebuild your forces and fight again.’
‘I led my militia here,’ Nish said, ‘and I’m not running out on them now.’
‘You must,’ she said urgently. ‘When your father took over with the tears, you swore to return, bring down his corrupt realm and restore freedom to Santhenar.’
‘And I’ve failed,’ he ground out. ‘Again and again.’ Nish deeply regretted that despairing vow after Jal-Nish had slain his beloved Irisis, for he was never going to fulfil his oath. The enemy was too strong.
‘You’ve got to try harder,’ said Tulitine. ‘You gave hope to a million desperate souls – indeed, your vow has been the people’s only hope over the ten years of your father’s brutal rule, and you cannot let them down.’
‘I can’t do it, Tulitine.’
‘You’ve got to try and get away. Even if you die in the attempt, striving valiantly to keep your word, you will become a beacon of hope for generations to come – just as Irisis’s self-sacrifice has strengthened you.’
‘What kind of a man escapes at the cost of his friends’ lives?’ said Nish, ‘and the loyal militia who has followed him all this way?’
‘A man who does what he has to do for the greater good,’ said Flydd, ‘no matter how hard it is.’
‘Or a man who abandons his friends in their most desperate need,’ Nish retorted. ‘When Father returns, as I’m sure he will, he would call me a coward and an oath-breaker. How could that make me a beacon of hope?’
‘It’s a difficult choice, but you have to make it.’
‘I’ve made it.’ Nish turned and passed through the circular lines towards the centre. ‘I can’t stand in front of my troops and tell them I’m running away.’
‘I’ll tell them,’ said Tulitine, ‘because it must be done for the good of the empire.’
‘No, you won’t! I will not abandon my people.’ He walked away.
‘I can’t bear it either,’ Maelys said quietly, going with him.
‘The waiting?’ said Nish, glad she was there. Though only nineteen, and of a quiet, shy disposition, Maelys had an inner strength the equal of anyone here, and he felt better for having her at his side.
‘The knowing that everyone else is going to die, while I’ll live because of the possibility that I may be bearing your child.’
After an interval he lowered his voice and said, ‘And are you?’
‘Of course not,’ she muttered, meeting his eyes. Hers were the colour of dark chocolate and showed nothing, though a pink flush spread across her pale cheeks. Maelys blushed easily, and rather prettily, despite the mud on her face. ‘I made that story up to save our lives.’
She had told his father that she had gathered Nish’s nocturnal seed months ago, while nursing him, and placed it inside herself so as to become pregnant. And Jal-Nish, desperate for a grandchild, had believed her.
‘You did save our lives,’ said Nish, ‘so it was worth it.’
‘It cost me my friendship with Colm. Afterwards, he looked on me as no better than a – a whore!’ Her flush deepened.
‘You can’t be a virgin and a whore.’
‘In Colm’s eyes I was,’ she said plaintively. ‘I really liked him, Nish. He was good to me, in the early days.’
Nish restrained the urge to tell her just what he thought of Colm, who had lost his clan’s estate in the war and would forever be bitter about it, as he was about a number of other injustices. Colm also resented the stain on his clan’s name left by his distant relatives Karan and Llian, once heroes of the Time of the Mirror, who were now known as Karan Kin-Slayer and Llian the Liar.
Nonetheless, Colm had treated Maelys better than Nish had in the first month they had travelled together. But Colm was gone. He had accepted Klarm’s offer of amnesty and was now their enemy; he and Nish could be fighting each other in minutes.
It was time to make amends. He put an arm across Maelys’s mud-covered shoulders and drew her closer. ‘I’m sorry it’s come to this. And sorry for the way I treated you, after all you’d done for me. Can … can you forgive me?’
She looked up at him and her dark eyes were shining. How little it took. ‘Of course, Nish. I – I wasn’t honest with you in the early days; I should never –’
‘They’ll be through the forest any minute!’ cried Flydd. ‘Yggur, are you ready?’
‘Not yet.’ Yggur was walking in a spiral around the caduceus with his right hand upraised, the fingers hooked as if he were clinging onto a bar.
‘What’s he doing?’ whispered Maelys, pulling away and turning to stare at Yggur.
Nish knew that she was fascinated by mancery. Maelys had been told that she had a gift for it, but it had never been trained and now she might be too old to learn.
‘He’s trying to find a point where Gatherer can’t penetrate the field surrounding the caduceus,’ said Flydd in grudging admiration. ‘Yggur is taking an awful risk, but if he can find that point, he may be able to use his fog spell there without Gatherer instantly cancelling it.’
‘Assuming that the caduceus doesn’t cancel him,’ muttered Maelys. ‘I can feel the power radiating out from it. It’s a horrible, alien thing and we shouldn’t go near it.’
‘Tulitine was right,’ said Flydd. ‘By its very nature, or the nature of the being that created it, the caduceus affects all spells done nearby.’
Nish was also afraid of it, but Yggur was their only hope now. Nish headed towards him and she followed but, as they approached, Yggur’s hooked fingers clenched and the caduceus flared white hot.
Momentarily, Nish felt a throbbing pain behind his temples. One of the iron serpents around the shaft was displaying its forked tongue, while the other had its mouth wide open, baring two pairs of fangs. The upper ones were huge, the lower pair smaller and curved backwards to hold its prey, and in a flash of clearsight he noted that the serpent with the fangs had something burning at its core.
‘Stilkeen is in pain,’ said Maelys, wrapping her arms around her chest and squeezing hard. ‘Terrible pain, just from being in our world.’
‘Tell it to bugger off, then.’ Nish turned away, for there was no more time.
He called his signallers and his four lieutenants – Hoshi and Gi, Clech the giant fisherman, and the dapper joker, Forzel – and they agreed on signal codes, both flags and horn blasts, in case Yggur succeeded and there came an opportunity to retreat.
‘Chief Signaller Midge,’ Nish said to the fuzzy-haired young woman whose size belied her name, for she was tall and solidly built, ‘stay close to me. If Yggur manages a fog, we’ll need to retreat at once.’
‘How will we find our way?’ asked Midge, wiping her muddy face on a yellow flag and turning it brown.
‘Not on the signal flags, Midge, please.’ Nish scraped the mud off with his sabre and handed the flag back. In some respects they were like children, his loyal Gendrigoreans; he didn’t think he’d ever turn them into soldiers. ‘If we get a chance to retreat, we’ll head downslope and gather at the lowest edge of the clearing. We can tell we’re going downslope even in fog.’
‘What then?’ said Hoshi.
‘How would I know?’ Nish snapped. He thought for a moment. ‘We’ll go through the rainforest to the lower clearing and try to get out via the gorge.’ There was still no sign of the enemy. He raised his voice. ‘Lancers, ready your spears. Archers, fire the moment they come out of the forest, and again as they rush us. Keep firing until they’re twenty paces away, then draw back so the lancers can meet their attack.’
The clearing, which was shaped like an egg, was about four hundred paces by three hundred. Running soldiers, even on this boggy ground, would not take long to reach the centre.
‘How’s Yggur going?’ Nish said to Flydd.
‘Do you see any fog?’ Flydd snapped. He’d been really cranky of late.
‘Isn’t there anything you can do?’
‘I’ve already tried. Curse this body. Why did I let Maelys talk me into taking renewal?’ Flydd scowled at her.
‘If I hadn’t, you’d probably be dead by now,’ she said quietly.
‘At times like this, I wish I was,’ Flydd muttered. ‘I feel as though my new body is fighting me all the way; after all this time, it still doesn’t fit.’
‘I’m sure you’ll get used to it,’ said Nish.
‘If I survive, you mean. And if I don’t, good riddance.’
‘Where are they?’ said Maelys, standing on tiptoes and scanning the forest all around. ‘Why are they taking so long?’
‘They know we’ve no way of escape,’ said Sergeant Flangers, cleaning his purloined Whelm jag-sword with a clump of grass. His friend, protector and constant shadow, Chissmoul, was at his side. ‘They’re taking their time to make us sweat.’
‘Still, it’s wonderful to have you here,’ said Nish.
Flangers, apart from being an old friend, was their only other experienced soldier, and a master of battlefield tactics, but he’d lost weight in his seven years of captivity and Nish wasn’t sure he was ready for the rigors of warfare.
‘It’s good to have the old team back together, surr,’ said Flangers. ‘We showed the enemy a thing or two in the past, and we can do it again.’
‘Of course we will,’ Nish said unconvincingly. ‘Archers, get ready –’
Maelys gasped, and all around, people were crying out and pointing.
Feeling the radiance beating upon the back of his head, Nish whirled; his head spun sickeningly and the pain behind his temples grew worse. The caduceus was keening, the note rising and falling, and it had brightened to white-hot again. The iron serpent with the fangs appeared to be staring at Nish, while the other snake was looking at Flydd, and Nish imagined, for one mad moment, that he saw its tongue flicking in and out.
‘What’s it doing?’ Nish cried.
Maelys caught at her taphloid. Yggur threw himself backwards away from the caduceus, tripped and fell, sending out a spray of muddy water. Fog wisped up around him but disappeared at once.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, scrambling out of the way, his frosty eyes wide. ‘But we meddle with it at our peril.’
‘At Santhenar’s peril,’ said Flydd. ‘Do you recall the volcanic ruin wrought upon the world of Aachan not so many years ago? Fifty thousand Aachim fled through a portal to Santhenar, and surely all those who remained behind on Aachan perished.’
‘What of it?’ said Yggur.
‘Chthonic fire caused Aachan’s ruin; the very fire Yalkara stole from Stilkeen in ancient times so her people could escape from the void. What dreadful forces might the caduceus contain?’
‘Then why did Stilkeen leave it here?’ said Yggur, scooping up handfuls of muddy water from a puddle and rubbing it all over his face, which was coming up in hundreds of little blisters. He winced, but turned back.
‘Stay away from it,’ said Tulitine. ‘I think it’s a trap.’
‘I’m sure it is, but with Klarm using Gatherer to block my powers, the one place I can use my Art is next to the caduceus.’
In an open space, Nish noticed the three healers setting up their station. Closest was lanky Dulya, her chin marred by a large strawberry mark, and behind her plump and palely pretty Scandey, one of the sisters of poor Tildy, the milkmaid who had been murdered by Vivimord in Gendrigore. After Scandey had seen Vivimord tried by ordeal above the Maelstrom of Justice and Retribution, and found guilty, she had been one of the first to join Nish’s militia.
The third healer was Ghosh, a stocky youth with an exceptionally long body and short, thick legs. Unlike the other Gendrigoreans, he never smiled. He found his healer’s duties too overwhelming.
Pulling his collar up to protect the back of his neck, Yggur backed towards the caduceus until his clothes began to steam, then stopped and raised his hands to try the spell again.
Nish’s gut tightened. What if Tulitine was right? Was Yggur doing just what Stilkeen wanted?
‘They’re coming out,’ Gi shrilled.
Nish ran out through the lines as the first of the Imperial troops appeared. Within minutes they had formed an oval ring around the edge of the clearing, surrounding the militia.
‘Archers, pick your targets,’ said Nish. ‘Lancers, get into line; don’t you remember anything you’ve been taught?’ He turned, his head throbbing worse than ever, and noticed Maelys beside him. ‘What the blazes are you doing out here – you’re unarmed. Get into the centre of the circle.’
She ducked through a gap in the line, towards the little rise where the healers were getting ready to work on the brutal fruits of battle.
Nish faced the enemy and tried to prepare himself for what was going to be a massacre.
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