A kingdom besieged, p.32
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       A Kingdom Besieged, p.32

           Raymond E. Feist
 

  ‘Thank you,’ said Sandreena.

  As they rode away she heard Nazir ask, ‘The Baron’s son?’

  ‘A lucky guess,’ said Sandreena. ‘He looked the eager type who’d convinced his father to let him man the barricades. Not a lot of locals with military experience serving in the militia. The real soldiers are up with Sutherland in Port Vykor.’

  Nazir said, ‘These poor fools won’t even slow the Keshians.’

  ‘This is their home,’ was all Sandreena said in response.

  The Baron’s estate was easy enough to find, being the only large estate house overlooking the town. From a vantage point it was clearly visible from the road and they took the ride up to the house. Sandreena was struck by its construction. It was close to a villa in style, but two storeys tall. A low stone wall surrounded the estate, to keep sheep and cattle from wandering around, rather than to repel any invading army.

  This was a community that had known a relative peace despite being on the frontier. It was clear it was a place no one else wanted.

  Servants came out, looking oddly comic in ill-fitting tabards bearing the crest of Land’s End: a stylized stone keep on an up-thrust rock, white tower, black rock, and deep olive green background.

  Sandreena said, ‘Wait here,’ and if Nazir didn’t care to be left out, he kept his own counsel. On this journey he was at her mercy and he knew it.

  Sandreena entered the estate building and was appalled at what a musty, dreary old shambles of a place it was. She knew Land’s End to be a backwater, but surely they could afford better than this.

  The Baron was standing in front of a fire in his office, and by the massive roaring flame and the pile of parchments and papers he was feeding into it, didn’t plan on staying long. He glanced up and said, ‘You’re the woman who was rude to my officer?’

  ‘I’m the woman who told your son to mind his manners,’ she returned, then almost as an afterthought, added, ‘my lord.’

  ‘You came through the Keshian lines?’

  ‘Yes, my lord.’

  There was a resemblance between the Baron and his son: both were round-faced, but whereas the boy simply looked callow, this man looked already in ruin from excessive drink and food. And the way he kept staring at Sandreena, despite her armour, road dirt and less than charming behaviour, told her he was a lecher as well. Despite being less than fifty, he looked a man of sixty years or more. His armour would have appeared comic if it wasn’t so worthy of pity.

  She put aside her personal, instantaneous dislike of the man and said, ‘I have seen the entire Keshian army arrayed against you, my lord, on my travel to Land’s End.’

  The Baron didn’t even flinch: he kept on throwing documents into the fire. ‘They mustn’t have any of these,’ he said. ‘These are vital to Kingdom security.’

  More than likely a record of bribes paid and taken, accounts of taxes withheld from the Crown and other felonious activities. Sandreena merely said, ‘They don’t seem to be in a hurry. I think you have ample time to destroy all your . . . sensitive papers, my lord.’

  ‘Are you sure?’

  ‘They are dug in, my lord.’

  ‘Ah, afraid to advance,’ he said suddenly infused with false bravado. Then he returned to the edge of panic. ‘Are they waiting for reinforcements?’

  Sandreena said, ‘My lord, they appeared content to wait upon orders, perhaps from the Emperor himself, to advance. But they have ample forces in the field deployed against your position and can advance with little difficulty. If I may suggest, you might do well, once you’ve finished denying them this critical intelligence, to remove yourself and your forces to Port Vykor. Lord Sutherland’s commanders could certainly use the help.’

  ‘Are you certain?’

  ‘Most assuredly,’ she said. She knew that he would use this as his sole reason to abandon his home and run like a scalded rabbit up to Vykor. At least it saved him the pain of leaving his son to die on the barricade while he ran, assuming he was capable of feeling parental love. She knew many fathers who did not.

  She saw his calculating expression and realized that when he reported to whoever was in charge at Vykor, he would claim he had been ordered to withdraw, by someone whose name he could not recall, but a knight of some sort, bearing heraldic badges (he would neglect to recall they were temple badges without any rank or standing within the King’s Army of the West).

  ‘Now, to the business of your being here,’ he said.

  ‘I need a boat.’

  ‘Well, I won’t stand in your way. Go to the docks and see what’s there. I suspect everything that floats is already heading north, but if you can find one you’re free to buy or hire it.’

  Sandreena thought of several things to say, none of them respectful, thought better of it and said, ‘If your dock warden is doing his job, my lord, he’ll need authorization from you to permit a boat to leave.’

  The pasty-faced man blinked for a moment, then said, ‘Oh, yes, that.’

  He stopped tossing documents into the fire, reached out and took a blank sheet of parchment from a stack and scrawled a hasty note. When the ink was dry, he picked up a candle and melted a dollop of wax on it, into which he pressed his baronial signet ring. ‘There, that should suffice, I think,’ he said as he handed the document to Sandreena.

  ‘Thank you, my lord,’ she said and withdrew.

  As she left the building she realized they could have ridden past straight on to the harbour and no one would have noticed or even cared. And she could probably have bullied the dock warden. Assuming he was still at his post and not sailing north as any wise man should.

  As expected, the dock warden was absent, and there were few boats left, but one enterprising owner smelled a panic coming soon and was determined to get the most out of the situation as possible. Sandreena knew if the world caught flame, people like this would be trying to sell water.

  She quickly convinced him to take her where she wanted to go in exchange for a fair price: the four horses, three sets of arms and armour, and staying on her good side. It was a single-masted, lateen-rigged coaster easily crewed by two men, designed to ferry cargo and people to and from larger ships at anchor, but it would serve.

  The trip was straightforward. They beat a tack up the coast as the Keshian fleet was lying off to the north-west, in a line that ran to the south of Queg, and then when they were far enough away and the Quegan sails could not be seen, they turned their course for Sorcerers’ Isle. As they were sailing on the Kingdom side of the line with an almost-illegible scrawled note from the Baron of Land’s End, Sandreena thought it unlikely that any Kingdom captain would prevent them from reaching their destination.

  Sandreena ordered Nazir and his two bodyguards to divest themselves of their false gear and they were now dressed like the thugs she thought them to be.

  The wind was favourable and they made the journey in less than three days, a half-day earlier than expected. Nazir and his companions slept on the deck with the captain and his one deckhand, while Sandreena occupied the solitary berth below but, given the stench in the cabin, she considered the others had got the better part of the bargain.

  The captain deposited them in the waist-deep surf, as close as he was willing to get to avoid the risk of the boat getting beached.

  By the time they got out of the water, three men waited to greet them. ‘Pug, Jim, Magnus,’ said Sandreena.

  ‘Greetings,’ said Pug. ‘Who are your friends?’

  She laughed. ‘Hardly that, but they are under my protection and you should listen to them.’ She turned to her companions and indicated the first of them. ‘This is Nazir. He is the leader of the group I ran afoul of down in Kesh: the Black Caps.’

  Jim said, ‘The ones that beat you, raped you, and threw you over a cliff?’

  She nodded.

  ‘You’re more forgiving than I am,’ said Jim.

  ‘Hardly that, but we have a truce and I’ll honour it, and I expect you to as well.’
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  He put up his hands, indicating he was willing to abide by her decision.

  ‘The Black Caps are also a splinter of another group you know very well, Pug: the Nighthawks.’

  Pug’s brow furrowed, and he looked from face to face. Finally Nazir, the man in the middle, said, ‘What she says is true. I have an offer for you.’

  ‘You know who I am?’

  ‘Of course. Pug, the Black Sorcerer. We are trained to know our enemies.’

  ‘What do you offer, and what do you expect?’

  ‘I offer truth, and I expect only this: that when you hear me out, you arrange for transportation for myself and my men to a tiny little corner of the Empire which is relatively calm, where I will be content to hide until this insanity is over. After that, feel free to come looking for me and my brethren. You will not find us.’

  ‘No more than that?’

  ‘No amnesty, no pardon, no forgiveness. Just a head start.’

  ‘Very well,’ said Pug. ‘If we hear truth from you.’

  ‘Oh, that you will. As I told Sandreena, this is something you need to know, you more than anyone else, for while others will want to know what I am about to tell you, you alone can prevent utter destruction.

  ‘I know why Dahun was trying to enter Midkemia in disguise and what he was fleeing from.’

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Awakening

  CHILD SCREAMED IN DEFIANCE.

  Her small force arrayed behind her, every weapon they possessed presented. Those who were magically enabled began either defensive or offensive spells as they had been instructed and the flyers sprang into the sky of this alien world.

  Another band of demons, this one ragged and dispirited, backed into a defensible position, ready for combat. They were thin and weak, but they would fight with whatever ferocity was left to them and Child wished no injuries to her followers.

  She signalled and her band attacked. It was over almost as soon as it began, as her bull-headed males charged. They could withstand the feeble claws and fangs of those in the enemy’s vanguard, while the magic-casters were struck by her flyers, interrupting their conjurations. It was a quick battle and scant feast afterwards, but any food was better than starvation.

  She had come into this world through the portal and as soon as she had entered she had known she was in a different plane of reality. This place reminded her of the savage lands in her own world, but only superficially. It was rocky, barren, and strewn with volcanoes that spewed pillars of dark smoke and ash into the air, colouring the sky red and orange during the day and providing a canopy that hid the stars at night.

  There were demons everywhere, small pockets of them who fought over every scrap on this world. Newly come to this realm, Child and her retinue were more powerful than any they faced. The problem was that those they consumed provided the barest sustenance. She and Belog had thought that this world was in the mortal realm, a place demons had visited repeatedly, but one which was reputed to be abundant with life energy, providing endless feasting. But this planet was hardly that.

  The week before they had found a valley, and across it were strewn banners and other remnants of a mighty battle. Certain corners of it were blasted as if mighty magical spells had been used and weapons of all sorts littered the landscape.

  Upon a rise overlooking the valley was a faded, tattered banner that Belog claimed to have borne the mark of Maarg. Yet as long as Maarg was reputed to have vanished, this battle could only have occurred much more recently. Leather harnesses still retained their form, cloth tatters still waved as banner poles swayed in the acrid breezes. The acids in the air would have destroyed them long ago had this army been present when Maarg vanished. This was proof of a far more recent struggle.

  Belog had said, ‘Perhaps this is where he came. Perhaps his army raged across this world for years, decades. Now he is finally gone, having consumed all in his gluttony.’

  ‘But that is not the case,’ said Child. ‘Not all is gone. Most, but not all.’

  ‘Perceptive,’ said Belog.

  ‘We are at a place between,’ she said. ‘Between?’

  ‘I can smell the lingering aroma of blood that is not demon, the blood of lesser beings, yet still so savoury!’

  ‘Savoury perhaps,’ agreed Belog, ‘but hardly satisfying unless we have more. We are weakening: every day we are growing weaker.’

  ‘How do we stay strong?’

  ‘Magic, eating,’ he said.

  She closed her eyes and said nothing, extending senses she hardly understood, then her eyes snapped open and she pointed, ‘That way!’

  She led them through a long valley to an abandoned, ancient castle. She closed her eyes again. ‘Many lesser beings once resided here.’

  ‘What is this place?’ asked one of the male demons.

  Child snarled and the other fell silent. ‘Do not speak!’ she commanded and the other demon realized he had barely survived. He quickly lowered his eyes in the sign of submission.

  Despite the young male’s apparent subservience, Belog realized he was now physically strong enough to contest Child for the leadership. He had presumed himself above the others because he was the male with whom she mated most frequently, which in itself seemed strange, because mating required energy that could be harboured. It was as if she was seeking something in the act itself.

  ‘Come,’ said Child. ‘We have a distance to travel.’

  How did she know? Belog wondered.

  They came to a large complex of buildings, and from the skeletons scattered everywhere, the abandoned arms and armour, it had clearly been the scene of a vicious struggle.

  ‘They fought to protect this place,’ said Child.

  ‘Who?’ asked Belog.

  ‘The taredhel,’ said Child. ‘Those elves who called themselves the Clans of the Seven Stars. This was the nexus of their transportation from world to world. This place is called Hub.’

  ‘How do you know this?’ asked Belog.

  ‘I do not know.’

  They moved along a broad street to a building at the end. Child climbed the broad steps and entered a huge room containing a circle of devices, each set upon a large round base. Two gracefully curving arms of wood and metal rose from the base inscribing a massive circle. One at the back of the room dwarfed the others.

  ‘That one,’ she said, ‘was the first, from a world called “Andcardia”. We troubled them there first, and last. It was their final refuge before they fled to another world.’

  Belog looked around the dark room and said, ‘But we cannot follow.’

  Child said, ‘We can. Just not through here.’ She looked slowly around the room. ‘We would not wish to. The elves would have death awaiting any who came through.’ The last was said with a tone conveying she expected him to know that already.

  Belog sighed quietly. She had now moved beyond his ability to comprehend. She knew things she could not know. She recounted things she had not been witness to, and she grasped things that should be beyond her capacity. She was unique. Yet there was something also familiar about her, as if he had known her for a very long time. He found that puzzling, as well.

  She turned and left, bidding the others to follow or not as they wished. Here only death remained.

  They wandered through broken lands and burning lands without a hint of life. Armies of demons had ravaged one another in battles of titanic proportions leaving only a few bones and scattered weapons covered by windblown dust. Banners long shredded by those acrid winds had tatters snapping angrily in a bitter breeze as a glowering orange sun rose to greet another lifeless day.

  Mounting the summit of a range of small hills, Child looked down into the shallowed valley below and said, ‘There. It awaits.’

  ‘What is it?’ asked Belog.

  ‘Can’t you see it?’ She looked at him with genuine confusion.

  ‘See what, Child?’

  ‘Come. I’ll show you.’

  She marched down the slo
pe with the remaining members of her band. There were fewer of them than when they had arrived. One flyer had misjudged how close he could come to a seemingly benign hillock only to be consumed in flame when the crest exploded with volcanic violence.

  Another stumbled on a narrow trail, injuring himself in the fall and was devoured by the rest. Child had torn the throat out of the presumptuous male after their last mating, when he had dared to question her leadership. She had devoured him alone, provoking sullen envy in the others, but they failed to realize that act prolonged their lives. Two others had had a falling out and fought, sustaining wounds, and the smell of blood and the unleashed rage swept aside all inhibitions and the others fell on them and feasted.

  Now there were six besides Child and Belog. One flyer, one male, and four magic-users.

  They trudged down the hillside, fatigue visiting again like an unwelcome companion. Hunger was rising up inside as well.

  They came to the centre of the little valley and Child said, ‘Behold.’

  Belog said, ‘Child, we see nothing.’

  ‘You do not see a portal, hanging in the air as if beckoning?’ Her tone was impatient, as if she expected more of them.

  ‘No,’ said one of the magic-users, risking his leader’s wrath. ‘Not by eyes or arts can I see.’

  She looked at Belog. ‘You?’ He strained as if trying to see. ‘No, nothing, Child.’

  With an odd, exasperated tone she said, ‘I see it as clearly as I see that rock over there.’ She pointed to a boulder.

  ‘What is it you see?’ asked Belog.

  ‘As I said, a portal. An energy vortex that will lead us from this place to another.’

  ‘Which place, Child?’ asked her first teacher.

  ‘I expected more of you,’ she chided. ‘There is nothing for us here. Here I will eventually devour all of you then myself perish from hunger. There is perhaps a better place on the other side of that portal, but it can be no worse than here. Even a quick death is better than a long, lingering, painful one.’

  With that, she turned and unleashed a shimmering bolt of silver-blue force, that struck the flyer and the male, sending them senseless to the ground, and shocking the magic-users to immobility. She leapt upon the powerful male, who was just regaining his feet. He had scant time to defend himself before she had her fangs in his neck.

 
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