|‘When the change-winds blow, the wise man|
hides his animals, his women and his self.'
–ancient proverb of the Nineteen Kingdoms of the Plain.
Klovis sensed the riders when they were half a league away. It was just a crawling sensation in the muscles of his back at first. Then he heard their shouts of laughter as each attempted to top the coarse jokes of his fellows. Klovis was sitting near the brow of a hill, which commanded a view of stretches of the track as it wound through thin woodland by the river. A great fire had roared through the area, ignited by lightning the previous summer. The forest was recovering well but it remained low, soft and green in this area.
Soon, Klovis caught a glimpse of uniforms in dress blue and red. The eight riders were of the castle guard at Praeding, making extravagant boasts of their intended exploits in tavern and brothel on their return. Klovis had made his camp well off the track but it was his destiny to be disturbed by common mortals.
Klovis, born of the Elven kind, had been cast up by the storms of passage at one of the secret watching places. He was fostered for his first year in this world at a watch-home, high on a rocky crag. When he could pass for human, the watch-women gave him to a childless couple to raise as their own. Klovis was of this world now, but never entirely a part of it.
He was orphaned again at the age of twelve, fighting bravely beside his second father, left for dead during one of the minor incursions from the Northland, when small bands of fur-clad warriors go forth in winter in stealth and in search of blood and plunder. An old witch-woman, scavenging in the debris of sundered lives, recognized him for what he was, bound his wounds and saved his life.
Klovis repaid his debt by collecting wood for the fire and herbs for the witch-woman's potions, tending her vegetable garden and hunting for small game in the endless forests and glades. Morwenna, in her turn, instructed him in all that she knew of Elf-lore, his heritage, and revealed to him his healing touch.
After four years, he eased her passing into death's black night, and buried her in her favourite glade, beside the rushing waterfall. Klovis learned that death has no cure and that all life must end at its due time. Morwenna had taught him to develop his Elven powers with his growing body. Klovis had grown to a good size, strong beyond his spare frame, and wise in brisk Morwenna's care. He had also learned to develop the patience needed to outwit impulsive enemies.
Klovis became a traveller for eight years, living off the land and the gratitude of those whom he healed of wounds and ills. He journeyed to the southern-most of the Nineteen Kingdoms of the Plain to view the boundless ocean. He braved the deserts of the east, he gazed upon the snow-bound, northern bergs and he hunted in the lush forests of the west.
As he travelled, he became aware of a gradual shift in the seasons. Cold winds from the north brought winter earlier, and deeper snows to delay spring. Klovis had seen sunlight sparkle brightly from broad mountain glaciers. Old men had told him that the ice was on the move again, its summer retreat not yielding part of each winter's advance.
Tradition told of a great blanket of ice stretching clear across the plain to the southern ocean in times past. The ice had claimed and surrendered just a few leagues of northern valley over many years in modern times. The glaciers' advance heralded a time of change. Unease hovered in city and village, in field and forest, in the very air of the Nineteen Kingdoms. The old order had prevailed for too long. Duty had become tedious ritual in many places, shed for silver and gold. The very stones of city walls creaked a dismal message as they settled, season by season, year by year, century by century.
Men became more daring and less bound by conscience. Raids from the north increased in frequency and ferocity. Spies risked all to bring news of dreadful preparation. If life itself could be lost in the change, the men of the plain adopted a philosophy of taking today because death comes tomorrow – a pleasure neglected is lost forever.
When the barbarians marched out of their ice-bound lands, new strengths and new alliances would be forged in the fire of war on the plain. New great houses would arise from the rubble of conquest and relief. New villages, towns, even cities would rise after the time of change. It was a pattern as old as the world itself – chaos, order, chaos, new order. This knowledge was scant comfort to the people of the plain as the chill change-winds blew closer to the southern ocean.
Klovis heard the riders crash off the track to waste arrows on a fast-leaping buck-rabbit. He drained his silver cup, the gratitude of a desert chieftain saved from blindness, and returned it to his pack. He tossed the bones of a forest fowl onto his cooking fire and leaned back against a broad oak, which he had padded with his sheepskin coat.
The castle guards gave up their chase. They spotted a tethered horse while looking for new sport. They spurred up the hill to Klovis and looked down at him – they resplendent in blue and red, he in the neutral green of the forest.
"Well, what do we have here?" boomed their leader.
He was a man entering his third decade with greasy, black hair and a bull neck. The riders had reined to a halt in a shower of grass, earth and twigs. They were trying to understand why none had landed on Klovis, who showed no outward sign that he was not entirely human.
"Poaching the queen's livestock?" bellowed another young bully, excitement freeing his tongue from restraint. He pointed an accusing finger at scattered brown and red feathers in the lush, summer grass.
Klovis just sat leaning against his tree while looking up with an expression of amused contempt.
"Cat got your miserable tongue?" bellowed the leader. "Alvin, what's the penalty for poaching?"
"Confiscation of all valuables," recited a man with blond ringlets and a two-handed sword slung on his back.
"Search him," ordered the leader.
Rough hands sought and found Klovis's purse. The leader poured seven silver coins onto a grimy, callused palm, then slid them back into the leather drawstring purse. The silver cup tumbled out onto the grass when one of the blue and red-clad riders up-ended the deerskin pack.
"Be grateful we didn't beat the lesson into you," roared the leader. "On, lads! Sally Fox's girls await us, panting eagerly, and the taverns of Praeding cry out for good silver."
Klovis let them ride half a mile at a furious pace, then he began the hand-passes. The final motion was a graceful, scooping sweep. The weight of the silver cup and his purse settled into his hand. Klovis had the power to recover that which was taken from him, or ‘gifts' of his property made without his consent. If the riders failed to discover their loss beforehand, there would be a fight in the tavern, or a brawl in the brothel, when their reckoning arrived.
Klovis kicked loose dirt onto his fire and then saddled his horse, which looked like a bare-boned nag, not worth the stealing, to all but the Elfborn. He had four hours of daylight left on a warm, summer evening – time enough to reach Praeding before the gates closed. He knew that he would meet greater danger on the road soon, from a source that remained unclear to his Elf-sense, but it was a destiny that he could not evade.
He rode at a brisk pace, alert for ambush, on a track that wound through belts of dense wood beyond the fire-damaged area. Soon, he could hear the eight ruffians, who had slowed to give their tired horses some rest. The animals would have died under them had the castle guards continued at their initial mad pace.
Klovis could sense, in addition, two larger groups of horsemen – one to the south of him, on the river side of the track, and one to the north, deeper in the woods. Both presences had a curiously muffled quality, telling Klovis that each group contained someone capable of using primitive rune-spells for concealment.
He took his casting stick from his belt and moved the quiver of foot-long darts round to a convenient position. The stick of black wood was an elegant curve away from a hand-grip to a grooved, flat section with a stop. When he placed a dart in the groove and butted it to the stop, Klovis could hurl the dart with devastating force and accuracy at close quarters with a flick of his supple wrist.
Klovis's inherited Elven powers showed him much of the world around himself, but he had to mutter a rune-spell to penetrate the mystery of the two large groups of riders. To the north were men from Praeding, searching. To the south were barbarians, sneaking.
Klovis stopped his horse, planning to let hunters and raiders move well ahead before he continued to Praeding. Horns blared, foiling his plan. Drumming hooves closed in from all directions. Swords flashing, the group of castle guards, who had tried to rob him, bolted across the track, reduced from eight to three. Barbarian horns sounded on their heels. Klovis had barely time to draw his own sword before he found himself enclosed in a desperate skirmish
He allied himself with the blue and red of Praeding and struck at the tanned leathers of raiders from the Northland. Yet he had to defend himself against many cuts from men in blue and red. Klovis whirled his flagging mount constantly, creating space with her flying hooves. Then the battle flowed away from him as more riders arrived and the raiders retreated to look for another route home.
"This would be the spy?" said a deep voice as Klovis was recovering his breath.
"Aye, my Lord. We saw him on the track but he outran us," said the leader of the robber guards. Blood still flowed freely from a deep cut in his scalp.
Klovis wiped his sword then sheathed it. Five archers of the nobleman's company had their bows at full stretch, aimed at him.
"He looks little like a barbarian," said the nobleman, a dusty figure in steel helmet and half-armour. His shield was slung on his back, concealing the device on it. He had the look of an experienced fighting man, who could command his men through the force of his personality and considerable experience.
"If he did, he would be a poor spy, my Lord," said the guard slyly.
"You, fellow, what name?" said the nobleman.
"Strangers call me Klovis, my Lord," said the suspected spy politely.
"And what do your villainous friends call you?"
"The same as my honest friends, my Lord."
"Give me one good reason why I should not hang you with your own belt as a spy, fellow."
Klovis held his hand at chest level, palm vertical, and made a slow, pushing motion toward the wounded guard leader. A vigorous young man turned pale, fought for balance, then toppled backwards off his horse. Five arrows sped as one toward Klovis. All missed from a range of six yards and disappeared into the trees. The heat of battle had roused dormant protection rune-spells.
The nobleman drew his sword to display the pattern of runes on the blade. "You have no power over my steel, Master Klovis. Where will you pass this night?"
"At Praeding, my Lord," said Klovis calmly. He knew that his destiny lay there, but not what it would be. He thought of making the blade fall from the nobleman's hand. He decided not to show his full powers too soon.
Trumpets sounded a recall. The force from Praeding abandoned the pursuit and turned its attention to the fallen. Badly wounded barbarians received a final thrust with sword or hunting knife. Prisoners able to work in the ore mines were bound at wrist and neck and formed into an easily controlled snake.
Klovis moved among the fallen of Praeding, closing simple wounds, administering his touch to the forehead of badly injured men, who needed to be held out of pain and aside from life until they were brought to other healers in the walled city.
Lord Porteus and an escort took Klovis on ahead when the column began to move back to the city. After half an hour in the saddle, they cleared the forest and reached the first of a series of massive, stone watch-towers. Messages flashed by sun-power ahead to Praeding. They passed reinforcements on the road, heading toward the returning main force, which was still enclosed in the forest.
Praeding's city walls curved between towers at the cardinal points of the compass. Twin towers guarded the south gate. The troops clattered on cobbles through a bustling city to the castle in the northern corner, at the point of greatest danger. Lord Porteus led the way across the drawbridge, through the gatehouse and across the outer courtyard.
Klovis dismounted with the rest in the castle's stable yard. He was struck by the general cleanliness. The long rows of stalls for the horses were neat and in good repair. Soiled straw and dung were cleared away regularly. Hostellers moved with a sense of purpose. There was an air of alertness, of readiness for an immediate response to any threat to the city.
Klovis removed his saddle bags and slung them about neck, letting the twin pouches fall front and back. He travelled light in this world. He could reach his small corner of beyond, where he stored a modest supply of essentials, from any part of this world. His escorts allowed him to keep his weapons but eight men in blue and red formed a close, hollow square around him.
They tramped in grim silence to the great hall. Klovis shed the grime of the road gradually on the move. By the time they halted in an ante-room, he shone like a jewel in a midden. Lord Porteus had shed his helmet and cuirass on the move. A fresh doublet in blue and red echoed the livid bruise on his jaw and bright red cheeks produced by vigorous application of a damp cloth to clean dust and sweat from his strong face.
Servants rushed over to shine the lord's black boots and brush dust from his chain-mail hose. Lord Porteus, a man of thirty years, combed out his dark curls, wiped his hands and then wiped his face again. When the court steward announced him, Porteus looked as clean and perfumed as any of the noble loungers in the great hall.
Queen Nerian sat on the edge of the famed Eagle Throne of Praeding, communicating the general urgency of the castle. Her black robe merged with the great black wings, which formed a shell behind her and served the practical purpose of shielding the occupant of the throne from draughts. As her symbol of authority, she wore a simple, golden circlet on cropped hair of purest black.
Klovis had heard that the queen was so hideously disfigured that she had to wear a leather hood in public and communicate in grunts. Queen Nerian's face was pale, natural flesh framed with a golden skeleton-mask. The light framework had the character of decoration but it covered her left cheek completely.
"What wonder has my Lord Porteus brought me among so many guards?" The queen offered a smile of welcome to a court favourite. Her voice was strong and melodious but it carried a weary edge.
"A suspected spy, my Liege," said Porteus in a respectful tone after a deep bow at the steps to the throne.
"Does he lack a belt strong enough to stretch his miserable neck?" said the queen. "Or would you rather cast your spy from the north wall for our amusement?"
"He might fly like a pigeon if I tried, my Liege. And he has the healer's touch. His life is not to be snuffed out lightly."
"Let him step forward," said the queen.
The guards parted reluctantly. Klovis moved forward to stand beside Lord Porteus and offered a deep bow.
"You have our permission to speak," said the queen.
"Klovis at your service, my Lady." Klovis kept his hands joined, clasped over his belt buckle and well away from the hilt of his sword. He could see crossbowmen in the gallery, waiting to pepper him with feathered quarrels if he made a wrong move. One of the guards was standing directly behind him, dagger drawn, ready to plunge it into his back at the slightest sign of a threat to the queen.
"Your birth-place, Master Klovis," said Queen Nerian.
"No man may say, my Lady. And no woman either." The answer put Klovis in an order of bastards, changelings, criminals and nobles on quest.
"Are you a spy, Master Klovis?"
"No, my Lady. I am a traveller. I have crossed the Nineteen Kingdoms from northern bergs to southern ocean, from eastern desert to western forest. And I fought with our common enemy from the North an hour since – when I was not defending myself against the blue and red."
"He saved a dozen lives when the battle was done, my Liege," Lord Porteus volunteered. "The fellow is a healer of great skill."
"A healer's neck is too valuable for hasty stretching," said the queen. "Would you don the blue and red, Master Klovis?"
Her message was clear. In the time of change, there were friends and there were enemies. Nobody would be allowed to remain neutral and a healer could not be allowed to roam free in case he was compelled to restore the queen's dying enemies to fighting health.
"If my Lady feels the need of one more servant when she has so many," Klovis said humbly.
"A man who might fly like a pigeon should aspire to a higher rank than mere servant," said the queen.
Klovis unbuckled his front saddle bag, slowly and carefully, reached inside and turned his hand beyond. If his destiny in Praeding was to be a soldier-healer, it would be more comfortable if he became an officer, if he bought that rank with a gift. He drew out yard after yard of silk, broad and the deep blue of lapis lazuli. The queen's level gaze told him that she was not impressed. Klovis thrust the mass of deep blue softness into Lord Porteus's reluctant arms.
"A gift for the ladies of the court, my Lady," he said. "From beyond the southern ocean. And now, a fitting gift for a warrior queen." He drew out a jerkin of the lightest, strongest chain mail, fashioned by desert craftsmen and said to be tempered in the blood of prisoners. The mail had a golden hue and it rustled as softly as summer leaves when Klovis held it up.
The queen rose to her feet. She was tall and slender, dressed in a gown of deepest black, wearing a silver belt and a plain, fighting sword. The court steward rushed the mail jerkin from Klovis to the top of the steps. Two ladies of the court hurried across the great hall to help the queen into the jerkin. There were gasps of alarm when Queen Nerian drew her sword and slashed at her own left arm. The blade slithered away from the gold-tinted mail with a liquid hiss.
"A gift fit for a queen, indeed, Captain Klovis," said the queen.
"A gift in two parts, my Lady." Klovis reached beyond again and drew out the lost sword Stamheim, which had fallen into his hands by chance on the road.
There was a collective gasp from the court as he drew a weapon a yard and two spans long from a saddle bag that was just a forearm's length deep. Here was magic indeed.
The double-edged blade was of plain, unadorned steel, with the name Stamheim in tiny letters at the forte. The guard and the pommel were engraved with complex spirals and the handle was wound with untarnishing coppery wire. Stamheim had no need of any elaborate scheme of decoration. Its presence alone was a visible expression of its power.
Queen Nerian advanced to take the sword from Klovis's own hands. She swung it with an expression of child-like delight. Such a weapon felt light and perfectly balanced in the wielder's hand. It struck enemies with the force and penetration of a battleaxe in the hands of a giant.
"Colonel Klovis must be dry and hungry after his long journey. We must offer him our hospitality." Queen Nerian strode to the back of the great hall, still swinging her new sword at imaginary foes. An elderly nobleman in the black and white robes of a justice took her place on the throne to continue the business of the court.
"From spy to colonel in the blink of an eye," remarked Lord Porteus. "Were you of noble birth, you might be master of Praeding by nightfall, Master Klovis."
"We must follow our destiny, my Lord," Klovis told him with a smile. "If you are part of mine, I may be part of yours."
The court steward bowed and extended a hand to direct the visitor to one of the doors at the back of the great hall. Klovis passed under ancient banners, bright with rune-life, and wondered if they were destined to endure through this time of change into the next.
The cleanliness of the stables was a token of standards in the keep. Servants were sweeping the corridor behind the great hall and sucking piles of dust into a bellows engine. Klovis followed the short, urgent steps of the steward with his easy stride. Even when nobles and the stewards were busy elsewhere, the servants continued their busy bustle. Klovis noted in passing that they looked well fed and healthy, if worried about their prospects of remaining so as more and more bad news arrived from the North.
The queen's private apartment was comfortable in a basic way. Hangings covered the stone walls. The ceiling was painted with a map of the kingdom. A cheerful fire of logs burned against the cool breath of a cloudless evening. Two chairs stood on either side of the grate - carved, black wood with embroidered cushions of royal blue trimmed with red. Queen Nerian sat stiffly upright in one of the chairs. Klovis wondered if she ever relaxed. She looked ready to leap to her feet at the first trumpet, sword drawn, more than ready to defend her realm to her last breath.
Klovis unbuckled his weapon belt and handed it to the steward. There were two brawny guards in the corridor outside. He surrendered his saddle bags too. A royal hand waved him to the other fireside chair. Klovis accepted a silver cup from a lady in waiting, a young woman with soft hands and eyes full of tension. The queen dismissed her attendants with a nod. Her hand strayed to her belt when they put on worried frowns. She was still wearing her jerkin of mail and Stamheim had found a new home in her scabbard.
"The wine is to your liking, Colonel Klovis?" the queen enquired.
It was a robust red from the West, a man's wine.
"The wine and the company both, my Lady," said Klovis. "How may I serve my queen?"
"With honest answers. If Lord Porteus brought you to me, you must be a healer with exceptional powers. I would know your business in my realm. Why are you here in a time of change, risking your life, when you could be making your fortune in the South?"
"In a time of change, all must follow their destiny, my Lady. I know that mine lies in Praeding. But not its form."
"Show me your hand. Show me your left hand," the queen added significantly.
Klovis moved from his chair to his knees in front of her, and offered his hand. He became aware of a delicate fragrance, a reminder that the severe figure in black was a woman of marriageable age, of perhaps two dozen years – the span of his own existence in this world.
The queen peered closely at his fingertips. Green eyes with hazel flecks lifted to look squarely into his blue. "You have the double-spiral on your finger ends, Colonel Klovis. And so you drew Stamheim truly from your saddle bag, not from your breeches, like a conjurer – at much risk to your manhood. You are not entirely of this world?"
"Like sees like, my Lady."
"Thinned by many years, in my case. They say my grandmother's mother was of the Elven kind. I had thought you to be a healer with Elven blood perhaps a generation or two younger than mine. I see now that your gifts of arms and armour are as much protection to my weak body as the old man waiting in the next room, ready to summon guards to defend his queen."
Klovis returned to his chair and recovered his cup of wine. "My queen need beware only of her enemies, of which I am none. My reception in her realm has been mainly cordial. And extremely gracious at Praeding Castle."
"Our enemies arrive hot for battle at our city's gates without any provocation on my part," said the queen. "Or they appear among us by stealth, bearing poison. You know of our recent history?"
"King Raedweil, your father, ruled Praeding when I was here last, my Lady. On my travels, I heard a story of two sisters, one dark and one fair, who battled for a throne following his death by treachery. One prevailed to become queen. The other retired to private life. It is said the dark queen became a tyrant, but the teller of that tale may have been a supporter of the defeated sister."
"Recalling your pledge of honesty, what signs of tyranny did you see on your journey through my realm, Colonel Klovis?"
"I saw order and discipline, my Lady, and abundant preparation for war. I saw soldiers drunk and abusing your people, but I saw their officers make restitution sometimes. I saw barbarians from the marshes, from the far desert and from the mountains in the Northland sneaking about at night. I saw death and scattered destruction, and a kingdom ready to face and fight the barbarians when they come together in great force. As come together they must, following their destiny."
"Prepared in many ways but one?" said the queen.
"My Lady has youth and beauty, and an ordered realm to offer. An alliance by marriage would seem appropriate at any time, and more especially in times like these."
"I have seen two dozen years turn, Colonel Klovis. Four from the Eagle Throne. But what prince would wed a face such as this?" Queen Nerian ripped off her golden skeleton-mask and turned her left cheek to catch the firelight. The flesh was a patchwork of black, erupted scars.
Klovis looked at the ravaged cheek for twenty heart-beats, then met the luminous green and hazel eyes resolutely. "The queen's beauty shines undiminished."
"You would wed this face?" scoffed Queen Nerian.
"If a mere colonel could aspire to such a high honour, my Lady."
"And thus you escape your peril," smiled the queen. "Should I cover myself to spare your stomach? My face can may a grown man ill."
"I see your beauty masked or unmasked, my Lady. Whichever makes you most comfortable."
"I shall enjoy the company of a man who is strong enough not faint at the sight of my naked face. And pray for a prince with your vigorous constitution."
"Would it be impertinent to ask if my Lady intends to marry soon?"
"Part of me cannot bear the loss of a lone queen's sole authority. Part of me wishes to end the uncertainty for my people. With no heir and no established line of succession, what comes after I fall? Only my good-natured sister, who would let parasites strip the realm of all its valuables while they smile at her."
"On my travels, I passed through a realm where the queen had a husband and her throne, my Lady," Klovis said thoughtfully.
"And what sort of husband did she have?" scoffed Queen Nerian. "A mouse, who suffered the private scorn of even the lowest.?"
"A man of quiet strength and noble birth, my Lady, honoured as the prince consort – the queen's companion, advisor, champion and the father of her three sons."
"Join us," said the queen.
Klovis blinked at her, then he realized that she was talking to her unseen guardian in the next room. Queen Nerian replaced her mask. An old man entered the apartment respectfully. He wore a soft cap of royal blue velvet and the deep green robe of a scholar, which dragged across the rush flooring. His face was deeply lined. Klovis could imagine the castle's servants using the bellows engine to suck dust from such crevices.
Klovis offered his chair to the old man and fetched another from a group set against the window wall. He noticed that the sun had set and the long, summer twilight had begun. The queen indicated with her sword hand that he should put his chair beside hers, within touching distance. Klovis fetched the jug of wine and an extra cup for the old man. He saw no shame in making himself useful in the presence of his elders and social betters.
"Lord Borvein is the keeper of our archives," said the queen. "Have you ever heard of a prince consort, my Lord?"
"Many years ago, in a far land, there was a king with a son and a daughter, my Liege," said Lord Borvein in a surprisingly strong voice. "The daughter grew up with the younger son of a count, the commander of the king's personal guard. The princess said from an early age that she would marry her childhood friend, and when her brother died in a hunting accident, she would have no other.
"The count persuaded his son to renounce his claim on her and travel to the northern watch-towers to fight barbarians. Princes arrived to court the princess. She would have none of them. She would have the count's son or no husband. And when they told her that he had died in the fighting, she vowed that she would retire to a distant estate and lead a life of quiet mourning. In the end, the count's son had to be recalled. The report of his death was just a device that failed. They were married on the understanding that she would remain sole ruler and he would be her prince consort.
"There was trouble at first, of course. Life was difficult for the prince consort. Men sneered at him because he was merely the queen's husband, not the king. But companions who had fought with him in the North silenced many of the mockers, taking their words as a reflection on the honour of all who had fought with him. And the prince consort himself spilled the blood of certain equals who dared to doubt his manhood. On the whole, he came to be accepted and the compromise worked."
"Did they have sons?" asked the queen.
"Two, my Liege," said Lord Borvein. "After three daughters. There have been a handful of princes consort since. Some such Houses fell, some overcame all challenges. Coming from the watching places in the far south-east, Colonel Klovis must have passed through the Kingdom of Heitain, where the queen and her prince consort have three sons, and a daughter, newly born."
"They were preparing to celebrate the birth of a royal child when I left Heitain," nodded Klovis.
"Might I see your hand?" said Lord Borvein. "I have never had the opportunity to look for the double spiral of the Elfborn on a man's hand in a long life."
Klovis stood beside the old man's chair so that he would not have to turn his back on the queen, and offered his left hand. Lord Borvein lit a candle and studied Klovis's fingertips through a magnifying glass.
"Do you have any ancient prophecies in your archive, my Lord?" said the queen. "That tell of a handsome messenger coming from the South or the East, bearing one of the lost swords of antiquity? And claiming the hand of a queen by that token."
"For a hand such as this, my Liege, I could have an archive crammed full of prophecies before morning," said Lord Borvein. "My mother's mother was Elfborn. She told me the male children die by the score so that the few survivors may be strong and adept."
"You say your destiny brings you to Praeding," said the queen. "If you would aspire to the hand of a queen, but not her throne, return to me in one hour and we shall talk further, Klovis Elfborn."
Klovis bowed then and left the room with Lord Borvein, who took him along the corridor to a short flight of stairs. They stepped from a tower to the broad fighting-step beside the crenellations. It was a fresh evening, darkening slowly and alive with the sounds of a garrison facing up to conflict and possible siege.
Lord Borvein leaned on a battlement and looked toward the north. Grassland stretched for a mile or more to the first beginnings of the encircling forest. There was a clear field of fire for the defenders and a great deal of open ground for an invading army to cross. Whoever had built Castle Praeding had attended well to its defences.
Klovis was feeling stunned by the turn of events and not a little apprehensive. He had assumed that the resolution of his destiny would involve a great deal of hard fighting in a time of change. Marriage, even to a lass of his own station, had never crossed his mind. To take the hand of a queen, stepping on the ambitions of noble rivals, would put him into great danger.
"King Raedweil had two daughters," said Lord Borvein. "One with hair the colour of ripe corn, tall and strong, the firstborn and the King's favourite. Princess Soriya could swing a sword as well as any man of the same age. Her sister Nerian came along two years later. Smaller, dark-haired like her mother, she was born with an evil temper.
"Princess Nerian's life was a constant struggle to beat a sister who was always bigger, stronger and quicker. Her poor mother died in her fifteenth year. When her father died five years later, she challenged Soriya's right to the throne."
"The queen's father died by treachery, I heard," said Klovis.
"His death was suspicious. A simple wound got in a skirmish with raiders from the marshes. It turned poisonous before the night was out. It looked so slight that he had not troubled the healer. His leg burst like an overripe fruit when servants were washing his body before the funeral. Both flesh and bone were a deep, corrupt black.
"Princess Soriya raised a massive funeral pyre on the plain yonder, in the faces of his enemies. She sought to release his spirit whole and unblemished, cleansed of corruption by fire. There were some who said the poison had burned to deep that he would remain in this world forever, trapped as a wandering spirit."
"And did he?" said Klovis.
"None has seen him," said Lord Borvein with a faint smile. "None sober or in his right mind."
"And the talk of treachery, my Lord?"
"Nerian suspected one of her sister's counsellors. That was one of the reasons why she challenged Soriya – to remove the fellow from a position of power and influence in order to prevent him from profiting by her father's untimely death.
"It was Soriya's counsellors who advised her to accept her sister's challenge to combat when Soriya wavered. They were confident that she would not, could not, lose. And matters would be settled once and for all time. Nerian, humbled, would be forced to give up her claim to this realm and marry a princeling in a distant land."
"Which princess won their duel is clear," said Klovis. "The only question remaining is how the inferior swordswoman won."
"An unfortunate accident in the heat of combat," said the old man with a slow, sorrowful shake of his velvet cap. "Soriya's superiority was clear from the start. She was just looking for an opportunity to disarm her sister so that Nerian could surrender with honour. But Nerian fought like one possessed. She fought so fiercely that Soriya found herself hard-pressed, and it became a matter of honour to humble Nerian without killing her.
"After half an hour of exchanging blows, Nerian was almost done. She was bleeding from a dozen small cuts. Soriya had been striped just twice – both times through sheer carelessness. They were fighting in the great hall below. Fighting all over it. The hall had been cleared for the occasion – no furniture, no people, no obstructions. They were near one of the fires when Nerian threw everything into a final, despairing lunge.
"She slipped – most think on her own blood – in her recklessness. She flew into the fire, scattering burning logs. If she had stopped then and sought treatment, her face could have been saved. I think she lost her reason them. The pain drove her out of her mind. All she could think of was victory or death.
"Nerian recovered her sword and turned on Soriya with a fury I have never seen before or since. She broke Soriya's sword blade with an expert swing of edge to flat. She would have killed her if Soriya had not turned and fled for her life and Lord Porteus had not seized hold of Nerian until she stopped screaming and came to realize that there is no honour in killing an unarmed opponent, and only disgrace when the opponent is her own sister.
"Nerian stayed an hour in the hall, waiting for her sister to return and settle matters finally. That was the length of time that I and her other advisors required to bring her to her senses. By then, her face was a mess – swollen, charred, bloody with charcoal driven deep into the flesh. Soriya left the kingdom the next day. She had lost. She had fled the field of battle. Nerian became queen."
"And tyrant, some believe."
"Strength and bitterness are the twin pillars of her reign. Her temper remains quick but her years on the throne have taught her that sound diplomacy solves more problems than impatient force. She rules with a firm hand, true, she sets high standards and woe betide those who fail her. There is also bitterness, the knowledge that any husband of hers will have to be blind or desperate for a wife. Or Elfborn."
"The queen is a very beautiful woman," said Klovis. "And Praeding offers one of the best chances of survival in this time of change. How will the lords of the realm react to an outsider becoming their equal?"
"Relief," Lord Borvein said with a short bark of laughter. "That they were not chosen to be her consort. And they all owe allegiance to Queen Nerian. A marriage that changes the balance of power not at all, but offers the possibility of a legitimate male heir, or even a female heir with the strength of character of her mother, will be accepted wholeheartedly after careful explanation. The queen's enemies will become yours also – but every great prize has its hazards in the attainment. And news of your origins will make a difference..."
"Any suitors with thwarted ambition will blame my success on the base sorcery of the Elfborn?" said Klovis.
"There is little disgrace in losing to one not of this world."
"Watch-home foundling to prince of Praeding," said Klovis thoughtfully. "Only a time of change could offer such a destiny. If the queen will accept me as part of her destiny."
"I think Nerian has promised herself that she will take the first man to look on her face without flinching," said Lord Borvein. "She must count herself lucky that the man is young, handsome, Elfborn and willing. Which means a busy night for me in the archives, I fear. When Colonel Klovis has been assigned suitable quarters, I must find an appropriate prophecy."
The other officers left him to his own thoughts when Klovis found the mess the next morning. He ordered a simple breakfast of bread, fried sausage and sweet delsimy tea. He had just started his meal when Lord Porteus planted himself opposite the newcomer and rested his elbows on the long table. Both men were wearing uniforms of royal blue with red edging. Lord Porteus's attire was appropriately grander.
"Good morning, my Prince," Porteus said with a dangerous smile. He kept his voice to an intimate murmur, which barely travelled across the table. "I hear yesterday's suspected spy is destined to stand with the highest at noon. The prophecy old Borvein found in his archives is the talk of the castle."
"You approve, my Lord?" Klovis asked in a neutral tone.
"It could be a short step from prince to king."
"Would Queen Nerian share her throne, though? Or surrender any part of authority won through so much pain?"
"All queens are mortal. I've seen proof that you may be very hard to kill, my Prince," said Porteus bluntly.
"A prince consort has no claim to the throne, my Lord. Lord Borvein must have made that perfectly clear to you."
"Are you truly the man of the legend, Colonel Klovis?"
"I brought the lost sword Stamheim to Praeding."
"And her ladies say you gazed upon the queen's naked face without flinching."
"So may any man who looks for the real person beneath the mask. It was a terrible wound, made worse by the effect on so fair a face. But every long-experienced healer has seen worst still."
"Aye, Soriya was the brightest star in the royal household but Nerian turned many a head before their trial by combat. They say the Elfborn can't be poisoned. Is that another of your truths, Colonel Klovis?"
"Lord Borvein summoned me to his quarters a short time before the queen dined last night. He showed me a tray bearing nine identical silver cups and warned me that eight contained poison. I drained a cup of pleasant, yellow wine before his eyes. He poured the other eight into a bucket of sand without delay, making sure that no one would taste them. Such as a servant eager for his betters' leavings."
"How did you know which one to drink?" frowned Porteus. "Unless you wish to preserve your secret?"
"There is no secret, my Lord," smiled Klovis. "Poisoned food and drink reek of new-turned graveyard earth to the Elfborn – a fore-taste of the destination of anyone foolish enough to consume them. No matter how subtle the poison, or how highly spiced the dish, the Elfborn know death when they smell it."
"You were told of the five attempts on the queen's life?"
"Lord Borvein mentioned them when I became the royal food-taster," nodded Klovis.
"You ask for my approval," said Lord Porteus. "Tell me plainly your true ambition."
"To marry a beautiful wife, and to keep her safe so that I can enjoy a life of comfort after my many years of wandering." Klovis shrugged. "And as far as my usefulness to the court and nobles such as yourself is concerned, I offer constancy. No strange, intruder king with strange ways come to take over the reins of power. If we are blessed with children, no sudden crisis of succession – for what would happen to the queen's favourites if her sister took her place? My ambition it to find a secure place to stand in a time of change and the fulfilment of my destiny, the reason why I was placed in this world instead of my own. I most certainly do not aspire to Queen Nerian's throne."
"On that basis, and on that basis alone, you have my approval," said Lord Porteus. "I suggest you use all your Elfborn powers to give the queen a son at the earliest moment, Prince Klovis." His face told Klovis that it was not a task that Lord Porteus envied.
"And if I prove false, not even my Elfborn powers will save me?" Klovis added, looking directly at the older man.
"We understand each other very well," nodded Porteus.
Klovis returned to his meal as Lord Porteus left to confer with others of his rank. Having brought Klovis into the castle, he felt responsible for the stranger's actions. His solitary meal over, a steward took Klovis to Lord Borvein's apartment for instruction on the protocols of the wedding ceremony and the layout of the castle.
The prophecy discovered in the archives said that a messenger would deliver the lost sword to the queen and become her husband before the sun reached its highest point in the sky the next day. Nerian was leaving little time for argument. Klovis had a sense of being swept along by forces beyond his control, but that was nothing new for an Elfborn, who lived out a destiny in one world that had been charted in another.
The castle had been abustle with preparation since before first light. Nobles within travelling distance were admitted right up to the last moment. Lord Borvein, by virtue of his age, presided over a simple ceremony in the great hall. To the general relief of the court, there was no suggestion that the newly created prince would be crowned.
There was a certain barbaric splendour about Queen Nerian in her gown of deep blue silk - the ladies of the court had turned Klovis's gift into a wedding gown - her skeleton mask of gold and the precious sword Stamheim hanging at her left side. The mask looked almost like a whimsical decoration instead of a shield to protect sensitive eyes from a terrible injury. That sword reminded those present that the power remained with Queen Nerian. Colonel Klovis was armed, of course, but with a plain, fighting sword.
Lord Borvein rose to begin the ceremony. Lord Porteus interrupted him at once, marching up the steps to the throne in full battle armour. He turned to face the court, threw down a leather gauntlet then drew his sword. Slowly, he let his eyes travel from one side of the great hall to the other, then back again. No one chose to accept his invitation to dispute the queen's right to marry whom she chose.
Nerian and Klovis exchanged rings with their vows. After a public kiss to seal their union, Lord Borvein proclaimed them queen and prince consort. There was a note of relief in the cheers – relief that one area of uncertainty had been removed in uncertain times. There had been no alliance with one of the neighbouring kingdoms but Praeding had solved a problem on its own terms.
The queen glowed with good humour though the wedding feast. Stewards, who had lived in fear of the lash of her tongue, wondered how long the new mood would last while resolving to enjoy it while it lasted. Prince Klovis sat beside his bride and greeted countless new faces, all wondering what sort of man could bear to marry the woman in the golden mask.
Afterwards, he stood beside Nerian on the southern wall of the castle while the citizens of Praeding cheered their queen and her new husband – and the castle guard kept a careful watch for assassins. There were always those abroad eager to force change in the hope of shaping new circumstances to their own advantage – and they grew more daring in a time of change.
In the evening, Klovis sat beside Nerian through another long meal, talking with guests and enjoying the entertainers. There was a festive atmosphere but it had a desperate edge, as if those present knew that there would be little to celebrate in the coming months. Relief from uncertainty would be won with shedding of much blood.
Eventually, the queen retired to her private apartment. Klovis slipped away to join her after a decent interval, followed by a few knowing looks – and many mute expressions of disbelief at his outward display of boldness and strong stomach.
Nerian was wearing a simple white, knee-length tunic and her golden mask when Klovis reached her bed-chamber. Her feet were bare, allowing her to tug nervously at the long tufts of a fireside rug with her toes. Klovis brought two cups of wine over to the fire and exchanged one for a long kiss.
"No second thoughts, my Prince?" murmured Nerian.
"None," said Klovis firmly. "If I frowned, it was surprise. I expected to find you wearing your sword."
Nerian blushed, glowing redder than the firelight on her right cheek. Klovis followed the direction of her eyes to the sword hanging beside the canopied bed.
"A warning that I had better please you, my Lady?"
"A reminder that I have more experience of swords than men, my Lord. When I was the king's daughter, no man dared seek the depths of my affections. When I became queen, no man wanted to."
"A healer learns to look beyond surface imperfections to the person beneath. You remain very beautiful, Nerian."
"Could you heal my face, Klovis? So that your wife may appear in public without frightening strong men?"
"Others must have told you that your face has healed, as far as the natural course of events goes. Healing merely makes that process go faster so that it can be finished while an injured person is still alive. What you need is some form of change, not healing."
"And you are a healer, not a changer?" said Nerian with the sad resignation of one long used to disappointment.
"I can offer no promises." Klovis shrugged. "But I do have some powers beyond those of most healers. Being Elfborn at no remove. If it lies within my powers to change your face in a way that you would wish, it shall be done. Would you permit me to remove the mask?"
"You are my husband," smiled Nerian. "Am I not yours to command, my Prince?"
"I very much doubt that," chuckled Klovis.
Marriage had a temporary mellowing effect on the queen. Distracted by the intimate company of an attractive husband, her fiery temper was slower to ignite but her essential strength remained evident. If there was less direct punishment for displeasing her, a hard look from the gold-caged face reminded all offenders that the queen's expectations remained as high as ever.
Klovis watched from the gallery when the queen held court in the great hall, leaning on the rail near the crossbowmen, watching the comings and goings below and the guards prowling in their endless search for assassins. Some of those guards, he knew, were watching him to protect a new channel of attack on the queen. His close alignment with the sovereign brought danger as well as security because an enemy could strike at Nerian through him.
He had resisted a suggestion that he take his place beside the queen on a lesser throne during court business. Lord Borvein had taken the decision as agreement with his belief that their greatest security lay in keeping the queen's authority visibly undivided. Lord Porteus, on the other hand, had sensed Klovis's relief at the escape from a tedious chore.
Nerian seemed to know when he was in the gallery. Her luminous green eyes would look up to seek him when she was thinking. She never smiled at him, but her posture became more relaxed when she knew he was there. She no longer perched on the edge of the Eagle Throne, like a hawk scanning for prey. But even when she sat more easily, her hand rarely strayed far from the hilt of Stamheim, and she wore her jerkin of golden mail clearly visible over her black, official gowns.
In the council chamber, Klovis sat on the queen's left, a human shield on the side opposite her sword arm. He rarely spoke when domestic matters were discussed – he felt unqualified to comment until he knew more about the realm – but he was able to offer accurate assessments of the strengths, weaknesses and characters of others of the Nineteen Kingdoms of the Plain having visited all of them at least twice during his journeying.
In her bedchamber, as the queen slept in his arms, passion spent, Klovis devoted his last waking moments to his wedding-night pledge. No one in this world knows how Elfborn healers speed the recovery of a damaged body by closing up wounds and driving out alien humours. Klovis had never heard of a healer accomplishing change of the sort that he desired.
And yet, as a male child straight from a watch-home, his blood was unthinned by the blood of this world. Morwenna, the witch-woman, had always told him that he was special. She could feel his difference. Klovis had always trusted her judgement and he drew strength from her faith. If the charcoal-stained crust of ravaged flesh on the queen's left cheek could be changed, he knew what he would find a way to change it.
As the days slipped by, Klovis began to find his place in the court. If he wanted to talk, Lord Borvein's door in the hall of archives was ever open to a traveller with tales to exchange. If he wanted to ride or drink, he sought out the members of Lord Porteus's circle. A group of sons of the queen's nobles served at the castle, waiting to claim their family's titles or hoping to receive an estate in their own right for meritorious service. There were also hostages and spies among the ranks of fortune hunters.
Porteus had seen the turn of thirty years and he had become a leader of the younger members of the court. He was prepared to allow Klovis the title of prince consort for as long as he made no claim on the throne. Porteus was completely loyal to the crown because he had a wife and four children to protect. If Praeding fell, so did he. Others, however, were less loyal and the pursuit of spies and half-hearted allies continued with silent ferocity.
As her first commission, Nerian asked her prince consort to take the mood of the court from outsider's viewpoint. She had a suspicious eye on those whom she believed would take advantage of the prospect of a division of her authority to further their own ambitions.
Klovis, the newcomer, had every excuse to visit all parts of the castle and the walled city in search of diversion – and look for signs of treachery. As an adventurer living on insubstantial ground, one whose fortune depended on one woman with many enemies, he received his share of veiled hints of ways to achieve a more secure future. Yet there was nothing that would stand close examination. The implied message was always ‘when the time was right', and that time had still to come. Many alliances would be made and broken before the point of commitment was reached.
Queen Nerian's mood blackened as the news from beyond the borders of the Nineteen Kingdoms worsened and intrigues at home divided her strength. The wandering tribes of the eastern desert had made another alliance with the barbarians of the Northland. They were feeling strong enough again to invade softer, greener lands for plunder and slaves. It was their destiny and the only way to join the names of a new generation to those remembered in songs and sagas.
Advancing ice in the north had reduced the span of the growing season. When grain ran short, the northern tribes preferred raiding to trading. Their boldness grew with strength of numbers as the people of the marshes joined them. Soon, the northern watch-towers were overrun. The garrisons withdrew, following ancient plans, fighting when they had no choice, moving by stealth to preserve their strength when they could.
The city of Lakstat burned, filling the great lake at its fringes with fiery tints, turning the forests around it black with soot. Corben burned and the great dome of the palace melted in flames that turned night to day. Synnlan burned and the fourteen bridges cast mountains of stone into the river, causing a great flood below the doomed city. The funeral pyres of many great cities clawed a fearful sky, raising smoky thunderheads to cloak the sun in black and rival the highest peaks of the northern bergs.
Queen Nerian returned almost to her former impatient self as the administrative problems of preparing for war, stock-piling food and weapons and dealing with refugees accumulated with crushing weight. At times, she would leave her throne in the great hall to attack one of the specially erected tree trunks in an antechamber, working out her frustrations with Stamheim, the named-sword which had been lost for twelve generations.
If he had anything to offer in the way of counsel, Prince Klovis would join her and wait until she had worked off her anger in a fury of swordplay. Otherwise, Klovis waited in the gallery, watching the court remain frozen into immobility until its focal point returned.
Enemies, and those prepared to accept a new master, spread fresh tales of the tyrant queen's black rages, of her assaults on furniture and even the living bodies of servants. Klovis and the queen's personal guard attempted to silence the slanderers but there were whisperings in every dark corner. The times were uncertain.
Slogans appeared on walls, painted in the dead of night, proclaiming a longing for Good Queen Soriya, the Fair. Some writers dared to condemn the reign of Black Nerian, the Tyrant. The mood of Praeding could be judged from the tardy removal of some such slogans. It was unfair to blame the queen for ruling in a time of change, but the times did not encourage reason.
After a month of diplomatic wrangling, the five great cities to the north of the shallow River Garth agreed to close their gates. The kings at Alvinsheim, Frankstor, Medrian, Turmbane and Valegage agreed to stand siege and release that part of their forces which had patrolled the area beyond their walls for a confrontation to the south, at the River Garth.
The barbarians from the Northland, and their desert- and marsh-bred allies, were moving slowly, allowing their prey to gather the harvest before plundering granaries and root-stores. Great convoys of animals and slaves, and wagons packed with food, gold and silver, household goods and anything that caught the invaders' fancy, meandered in the reverse direction, carrying plunder back to their harsh lands.
When the tide reached Frankstor, it broke across a land stripped of grain and herds and all useful possessions. Death from sharp arrows and crushing boulders awaited when the invaders tried to scale sheer walls. Their fallen lay in hundreds in communal grave-pits when they moved on.
As they advanced to the river, mobile forces of light cavalry harried their flanks and rear, killing men and running off cattle and horses. Queen Nerian sent her least trustworthy nobles to lead the parties of skirmishers. Some deserted on the road, confirming their disloyalty. Those who fought bravely were promised fitting rewards when the peril eased as an inducement to remain loyal to Queen Nerian.
Spirits in the barbarian horde dropped lower when its scouts sighted a mighty force encamped with its back to the River Garth. Taking a stand before the protection of the river conveyed a clear message that there could be no retreat for the defenders. If the barbarians wished to advance, they would have to achieve a total rout. There would be no hope of scattering the defenders and picking them off in smaller numbers at their leisure.
There had been no plunder, no hand-to-hand fighting, no ale by the barrel and no screaming wenches to violate for several weeks. When night fell, the camp fires of the defending force stretched for a mile on either side of the only fordable stretch of the river. Their force looked formidable. Yet the leaders of the barbarian horde were able to rally their troops with a persuasive argument.
The defending forces, they had concluded, had spread themselves too thinly. With the river at their backs, the kings of the plain had left no room for manoeuvre, no space to move reinforcements. All the invaders had to do was attack parts of that thin line with greater local force than the defenders could raise, split the defenders into smaller groups and then annihilate them at their convenience.
The barbarians made camp two miles short of the river. As the night darkened, the noise of their preparations for a decisive battle became uproar. They ate, drank, wenched with their band of camp-followers, sharpened weapons and told stories of great deeds past and great deeds to come. Scouts sneaked south, returning with reports of a buzz of activity all along the river. The defenders were readying themselves in fearful anxiety for the slaughter to come.
Three hours had gone since midnight. As an autumn day was breaking, a tremor of confusion rippled through the fringes of the barbarian horde. Low, desert tents blossomed into flame. Food animals and heavy draught animals stampeded, flattening everything in their path – people and possessions alike. Horns sounded. Shouts of alarm, warning, panic and pain drifted across the plain. And yet there were no banners of the plain raised for conflict, no battle cries in civilized tongues, no trumpet signals.
A broad wedge from the north drove deep into the invading horde before its leaders, in the van of the force, realized the danger. Figures in the shaggy hides of the Northland, the acid green of the marshes and dull, desert robes began to stream away from the main force. Archers, concealed in the flanking woods, took a terrible toll of the deserters. The invaders found themselves driven toward the river, to plunge into stake-lined pits when the ground opened beneath them.
By sunrise, a broad stain of mud greased with blood marked the course of the battle from barbarian encampment to riverside plain.
Klovis fought at his wife's side, struggling to keep up with the figure in plain armour, who swung her sword like a stripling's training wand. Stamheim drank deep that day. By mid-morning, the battle was done. The fragments of a mighty horde had fled to east and west – empty-handed or carrying just blood-stained weapons and shedding gore from any wounds. Garth, the middle river, flowed red from bank to bank below the battle.
Klovis refreshed himself with strong, red wine and bread dipped in honey, then he joined the healers. His work had just begun. Long after that day's night fell and victorious warriors sank into exhausted sleep, red-eyed healers, lost in dream-like fatigue, would be continuing their work of saving live.
Queen Nerian exchanged a warrior's helmet for a crown and a woman's skeleton-mask of gold, scarred and dented armour for an ankle-length gown of royal blue edged with red and her jerkin of mail, and boots of armour for knee-length black leather. Stamheim, clean and bright, keen and thirsty as ever, hung ready at her side, the visible symbol of her right to join the kings and nobles gathered on a hill above the battle ground.
Each arrival at the hill-top assembly drew frank stares and covert glances. There were great gaps in the ranks of the nobility. Some had yet to arrive, some lay in the healers' tents and many had gone forever. One prince had become a king on the battlefield. One realm had lost its heir. Many new faces would take the place of highest authority in ancient castles and halls as the time of change unwound to a new order of stability.
Messengers had raced away with the news of victory almost before the dust of battle had settled and the last fleeing rags of the barbarian army were out of sight. At noon on the day of victory, the grand army began to disperse. Companies within half a day's march or ride of home left to pass the night under their own roofs, finding new strength from victory.
New glades were cut in the forests to provide the wood for funeral fires. Friendly and barbarian spirits rose alike into the perfect blue sky to join their ancestors. A mountain of bleeding flesh became white, wind-blown ash among the eternal forests.
Queen Nerian sent Lord Porteus ahead with most of her force to secure Praeding. In a time of change, the realm of a queen whom some called tyrant was at greater risk from within than from invading barbarians. Its greatest peril would come when the kingdom felt the liberation from fear that came with news of victory.
Klovis pleaded with his queen to go on ahead too and let him follow when his work was done. Nerian, being Nerian, insisted that the queen and her consort would return home in triumph together. When her mind was made up, Klovis knew, there was no arguing with her.
Two days after the battle, Queen Nerian led her column home while her husband lay in total exhaustion, asleep in a wagon. He had not closed his eyes for three days. When the column emerged from the dense forests and sighted Praeding, Klovis was awake, if heavy-eyed behind the concealment of the shading brim of his hat, and riding beside the queen.
Cheering crowds waved from the battlements as the column circled to the west gate. Tired as he was, Klovis detected a strange quality to the cheers but Nerian seemed unperturbed. Lord Porteus was waiting to greet them at the city's west drawbridge, flanked by an honour guard in blue and red.
"Home at last, my Lord Porteus," called the queen as her mount clattered onto the wooden boards of the drawbridge.
"Treachery, my Liege," shouted Porteus before a knife-thrust felled him.
Archers drew their bows. A tall woman in white leather stepped out of the ranks of blue and red, waving a sword in challenge. A golden crown rode on corn-coloured hair.
"Yield, tyrant!" she called in a strong, melodious voice. "Or die! Yield Prince Klovis, or your lady dies."
"The odds are slightly against us, my love," Queen Nerian murmured calmly to Klovis. "See to Lord Porteus."
Klovis swung from his horse and pushed his way to the fallen nobleman. Porteus was dying rapidly, his life gushing out with a tide of bright red blood, but Klovis was able to catch that thread of life and hold it in the borderland on the edge of death.
"Take him to his quarters," ordered the fair usurper. "Save him if you may, Master Klovis. Praeding needs such brave men. And take the black tyrant to the dungeons, where she belongs."
Klovis looked back to his queen. His destiny was tied to hers and he remained at her command alone.
"Go with Porteus, my Prince," said Nerian. "And leave me to enjoy my sister's hospitality."
The queen turned in her saddle to address her company.
"Praeding shed much blood on the battlefield while these traitors skulked at home or shirked their duty. Give them no excuse to shed honest blood here. On them be the shame of greeting heroes thus."
The queen's company shed their arms and armour with sneers and mocking smiles for the victors of their civil war. Klovis studied the usurper while waiting for a stretcher party to bear Lord Porteus away. Soriya had no need of a mask to hide any of her smooth, even features.
She had the look of her sister but in a softer, less driven way. Her eyes were far-seeing blue, her corn-coloured hair rippled like a golden wave with each breath of wind. The rest of her body shimmered with gold. She wore a bulky torque at her slender neck, arm-bands and bracelets, a golden belt and golden tracery on white knee-boots. Her sword was decorated with gold wire set into the hilt and finger-guard and her white dress with a counter-thread of gold returned the sun at every flick of motion.
Queen Nerian, dismounted, was shorter, plainer, almost mannish in comparison. Her pure black hair was cut short for comfort inside a padded steel helmet. Her gold was practical, not decorative. It served the function of concealing her wounded face. The golden hue of her chain-mail jerkin was just an almost iridescent, surface sheen created by the mélange of alloying metals and base iron. She was dressed in dusty, sweat-stained black otherwise.
Soriya was a leader of grace and beauty and, Klovis guessed, full of compassion and easy justice. No one would ever call her tyrant while Black Nerian's memory lived. Nerian ruled with steel and hard looks tempered by scrupulous fairness. She had been forged in pain and danger. She was a warrior and the best war-time leader to be had.
Soriya was a queen for gentler, more prosperous days, a ruler by smiles and favours. Now that the invasion from the Northland had been crushed, she was challenging for the throne on a wave of popular resentment whipped up by her agitators against a ‘tyrant' of their own creation.
Stewards in the familiar blue and red, but serving another mistress, carried Lord Porteus to his quarters. Klovis found himself again in the typical retreat of a fighting man. Bare stones between plain hangings showed where racks of weapons had been removed. A few books, cups for wine and mementos of an hundred journeys lay scattered about the tower room.
When he had a few moments free in the battle for his friend's life, Klovis looked into the adjacent rooms. There was no sign of Lady Porteus and their four children. One of the quartet of guards in the corridor admitted, somewhat shame-facedly, that they were confined in the dungeons with other loyal ladies of the court and their children.
Lord Porteus opened his eyes for the first time toward sunset on that black day. He was deathly pale and he looked too weak to move any other part of his body, but Klovis knew that he had done his work well. Sleep and food and time would restore the fallen warrior to full health. Klovis rubbed gritty eyes and yawned mightily. He felt drained and in need of a long period of restoring sleep.
"Welcome to the next world, my Prince," murmured Porteus. "Even if it looks depressingly like the one we left."
"Welcome back to this world, my Lord." Klovis raised Porteus's upper body with pillows in preparation for feeding him warm broth. "You have very little strength left for idle chatter but I'm sure you're bursting to tell me what happened."
"Men caught up in celebration. Men we expected to see replaced by strangers in blue and red. An entire guard shift of traitors. Men locked in barrack rooms and persuaded to surrender their arms to avoid being burned alive. Or hear their women and children slaughtered. Give me some wine, Klovis."
"After the broth, my Lord. You have greater need of nourishment."
Lord Porteus surrendered to his fate, and was rewarded with wine.
"The dungeons are filled to overflowing," he continued. "All empty store room are packed now with prisoners and the smell of unwashed bodies and ordure is becoming so thick that the healers warn Good Queen Soriya hourly of the risk of plague."
"The rightful queen can still command an army?"
"If she can get them from dungeon to armoury while they retain their spirit and their anger. My family is hostage but I could hardly stand by and watch my queen ride into a trap without a warning."
"A noble gesture that almost cost you your life," said Klovis. "I wish we could reward you."
"Just see that no harm comes to my wife and children," said Lord Porteus. "I'm tired and I ache, Klovis."
"Sleep is your best medicine for now. I'll come back to you in the morning."
Klovis made his friend comfortable. Porteus was asleep in moments. A sword blade flew to his throat when Klovis opened the heavy door to the corridor. Klovis fixed the sentry with a black stare learned from his wife. The lone sentry withdrew his sword with uneasy haste. He knew that threatening one of the Elfborn could be a gesture to be regretted.
"Fetch his steward to stand watch over Lord Porteus through the night in case he wakes," Klovis said in a commanding tone. "Then take me to Soriya."
The sentry tapped urgently on the stone floor with his calling stick. A corporal hurried round the corner, sword half-drawn. He was short and dark and clearly an outsider. He looked uneasily at a man of the Elven kind as the sentry repeated Klovis's demands. The corporal had heard more stories than were good for him about the powers of the Elfborn.
When the steward had been located and brought up from his cell, the corporal took Klovis to the prince consort's own quarters. To his surprise, Klovis found Soriya laying on his favourite couch, gazing at a view of distant tree tops moving in a gentle breeze, lit by the last rays of the sinking sun. She looked perfectly at ease outwardly, although Klovis could detect a certain suppressed unease.
"I admire your taste in furnishings and their placement, Brother," said Soriya. "Praeding looks very beautiful from here."
Klovis nodded acknowledgement to a person of equivalent rank, then scanned the faces of the four advisors, who were sitting on the other side of the room, enjoying his wine. All were high on Klovis's list of undependables. Two of them had deserted the forces of Praeding rather than lead skirmishing forces against the barbarians.
"But I cannot admire your taste in wives," added Soriya. "How could a healer marry a heartless tyrant?"
"Cheap insults diminish even the mightiest conqueror, my Lady," said Klovis evenly. "The queen is ruthless because she has to be such in a time of change, and quick to anger. But she fought as bravely as any man against the barbarians while others skulked at home, plotting treachery, or deserted before catching sight of the enemy." Klovis stared pointedly at the advisors.
The youngest leapt to his feet, sword half-drawn.
Klovis fixed him with a challenging stare. "I would offer you my regrets at the death of your brother, my Lord. If I didn't know that he would have embraced his fate on the battlefield if it could have spared his house the shame that you have brought upon it."
"I order you not to let yourself be provoked, Lord Wellen," warned Soriya. "There is no honour in killing an unarmed man and even Master Klovis knows my sister is evil."
"If we say evil is overcoming great pain to beat her sister in a fair fight," said Klovis. "If we say evil is setting standards that made this the best regulated of the Nineteen Kingdoms of the Plain. If we say evil is strong and wise rule, even if it upsets certain delicate blossoms," Klovis looked directly at Lord Wellen, "who can say any great wrong lies in being evil on those terms?"
"I had hoped to win you over, Brother," Soriya told him regretfully. "Praeding can ill afford to lose an Elfborn healer of your skill. I had thought my sister forced you into marriage. I see now that you married her for your own personal advantage. I admire you, none the less, for having the loyalty to sink with her."
"My Lady is too kind," said Klovis with a gentle smile. "But I must follow my destiny wherever it may lead me."
The hour-bell tolled across the walled city. A muffled shouting seeped up from below. It lasted just a few heart-beats and ended with a mighty cheer. The advisors scowled resentfully at Klovis, as if he had been the cause of the disturbance.
"Might I be permitted to visit my wife, my Lady?" said Klovis. "And Lady Porteus? And also your guest quarters in the cellars? Where the queen's loyal subjects, who fought for Praeding at the River Garth, are in danger of starting a plague that could sweep through the entire city and make a mockery of your own conquest."
Lord Wellen leapt to his feet again. Klovis realized that he had touched another raw nerve, even if he had no idea what it was. Soriya turned to the corporal of the guard, who had remained standing behind Klovis, a naked dagger poised inches from his back. "Watch him well," she told the corporal, giving her permission.
There were children sleeping all around the walls of the store room and ladies of the court sitting in anxious attendance on their queen. If Soriya's reputation for compassion was to be believed, then none was in any danger. Yet it was a time of change and that brought its own uncertainties. Soriya was no stranger to bending to the will of her circle of advisors, who might see danger in the families of deposed nobles.
Nerian had been reduced to her golden mask, a black gown and shoes of red leather, which gave her an unaccustomed touch of frivolity. She looked off-balance somehow when she rose to her feet to greet Klovis. He realized that she lacked the weight of a sword on her left side.
Some of the ladies of the court stared at them in frank astonishment when Klovis kissed Nerian warmly and drew her into a close embrace. There were some who still believed that the marriage was purely one of convenience, and that the prince consort was excused the chore of kissing a woman with a ravaged face.
"My Lady Porteus?" Klovis said over Nerian's shoulder, scanning the dark room for a familiar face.
A tall woman with a face full of care rose from the shadows in a corner of the long room.
"You husband lives, Gwenned," Klovis told her with a smile. "He'll need more than one nervous traitor to guard him by tomorrow night. The blade went deep, but not deep enough."
"We shall be in your debt for ever, my Prince," said Lady Porteus, a sad smile shining in eyes misty with tears of relief.
"Nonsense," Klovis returned with a smile. "I was merely repaying part of our debt to a family that has shown so much loyalty, no matter what the cost to yourselves, to the rightful queen."
"Who will be queen again, if that she-wolf Soriya will give me my sword and stand against me," said Nerian fiercely.
"You think she'd dare to fight you a second time?" said Klovis.
"You think she can afford not to?" countered Nerian.
"I doubt her council will permit her that choice, my Lady. By the by, what was that shouting when the hour-bell rang?"
"A taunt for the usurper, my Prince," said Lady Porteus. "When the hour-bell rings, the heroes of the River Garth shout: ‘Where was Soriya when Nerian fought for Praeding?'"
"No wonder young Lord Wellen was so upset," laughed Klovis. "If they call him and his false queen coward at every hour."
"Convey my challenge to his false queen, my love," said Nerian.
"I was on my way to the dungeons to look at conditions there, my Lady," said Klovis thoughtfully. "Perhaps if I tell your loyal troops there of your challenge first, when they taunt the guards with it, news will spread all over the castle. Perhaps Soriya will have come to realize that she has no other choice when I see her next."
"See to it, my love," said Nerian with a grim smile of satisfaction.
One of the ladies approached Klovis, apologetically, as he was about to leave. He applied his healing touch to two children with coughs, and to another with the stomach ache. Then he descended into the depths of the castle.
The stench of the dungeons oppressed prisoners and guard alike. Klovis met a mixture of respect and superstitious fear when he entered the upper guardroom with the corporal. The guards were reluctant to offend a healer in case they needed his services in the future, and wary of the unknowable talents of the Elfborn.
Klovis convinced the new captain of the guard that plague would ravage his forces too as it filled the cells with dead enemies. The captain allowed himself to be persuaded to move the majority of his charges to the training ground, where they would be surrounded by high, stone walls and easy to watch. The night would be mild and fresh air would do the prisoners good, Klovis felt. He also managed to shame the captain into providing decent quantities of food and drink for the men who had fought to make the kingdom safe for himself and his family at the River Garth.
He was encouraged to find most of the returning army confined in the dungeons. A certain number had turned their coats and joined Soriya's cause, proclaiming that they were glad to be free of the black tyrant Nerian. The nobles, the officers, the sergeants and the corporals who had commanded divisions of her force had remained loyal to her almost to a man.
Klovis organized working parties of those who had to remain in the dungeons, those deemed to pose the greatest threat to the new queen. Their incentive for cleaning up their quarters was food and the prospect of being able to sleep on clean straw instead of struggling for rest in a room packed with standing men. Forced ventilation with blankets helped to drive foul, over-used air out of levels carved deep into the castle's bedrock.
The guards became noticeably less edgy as their working conditions became more bearable. As a reward for their co-operation, Klovis healed several minor ailments among their ranks and set one man on the road to recovery from a painful lung disease, which would have killed him before winter if left untreated. By the time his escorting corporal took him back to his requisitioned quarters, the news of Nerian's challenge had spread from deepest crypt to highest tower top.
The prince consort's apartment had become a conference centre. In a room aglow with lamps, Soriya's council was rigid in its opposition to risking all of their easy gains on a battle between two women, even though Soriya had devoted several hours of every day throughout her long exile to swordplay and developing suppleness and strength.
Nerian was known to vent her rage on furniture, and also on the occasional unlucky servant, if her slanderers were to be believed. That she had given a good account of herself at the River Garth was beyond dispute. But the burden of ruling a kingdom had taken precedence over personal considerations – such as training herself into the perfect fighting engine. Soriya was confident of her victory. Her counsellors feared an unlucky accident and they saw no point in putting at hazard that which they held already.
Some speedy poet had composed a ballad on hearing of the proposed duel. Klovis had heard verses of it being sung during his journey back to the dungeons from the training ground. It was full autumn night by then, and the new garrison of the castle should have been enjoying the feasting that follows an easy victory. The hourly chant and cheer from the prisoners had been replaced by a more insidious taunt that survived all threats of reprisals.
Every time the new masters paused in their revels, the intrusive chorus seeped out of the very walls of Castle Praeding. The singing was not loud. Rather, it was a low, provocative celebration of the bravery of a dark queen contrasted with the cowardice of a fair usurper, who had failed to come to her realm's aid at a time of desperate need. It preyed on the nerves of Soriya's company like the creaking of a mighty, unstoppable engine. They, in their turn felt obliged to prove that they could ignore it.
No one made any mention of the duel when Klovis thanked Soriya for allowing Nerian's supporters to be housed in cleaner surroundings. She dismissed him with a regal nod. Klovis and the doggedly patient corporal tramped down stairs that had recently felt their climbing feet. A long day was about to end for the deposed prince consort. His powers were well-nigh exhausted.
"What news?" said Queen Nerian eagerly when Klovis was shoved with token roughness into Nerian's new royal apartment – the former quarters of the captain of the dungeon guard.
"From their faces, Soriya says yes and her council says no, and every voice loyal to Queen Nerian sings the challenge," said Klovis. "All we can do now, my love, is sleep and await Soriya's pleasure."
The iron-shod door to the stone corridor opened. Nerian threw her cup at a face that had dared to intrude on a queen. "Will she fight, my love?" she murmured urgently, when the face had withdrawn, wet and startled.
"Small events can rock a kingdom," murmured Klovis. "Soriya must know that every time something goes wrong for her, someone will remember an old song and a chant demanding to know where she was when Nerian fought for Praeding. As your father's daughter, Soriya has her pride. I saw Lord Fadden among her counsellors. He may be wise enough to realize that now is the time to end any threat from you."
"Sit and let your wife bring you a cup of wine," Nerian said with a warm smile. "You told me once, your destiny brought you to Praeding. What do you see now? Exile? A cold grave? Or, perhaps, a new beginning beside my fair sister?"
"I see my future at a crossroads but not the direction of the new road," said Klovis thoughtfully. "One thing I've never seen is having to live the life of a traitor. I made my choice months ago. And if I turn traitor now, who will ever trust me again? We stand or fall together." Klovis drank some of the wine then offered the cup to Nerian. "I think you gave yours to the guard," he chuckled.
"The black queen has a foul temper," laughed Nerian. She drained the cup, sealing their pledge. "Together, whatever may come. And now I think the time has come to sleep."
Klovis took the lantern to the window and extinguished it, letting the smell of the scorched wick blow out into the black night. Nerian rolled tight against him on the lumpy bed.
"If you paid your gaoler more, he could afford to sleep in comfort, my love," whispered Klovis.
"If my gaoler remains loyal, he may have the softest bed in the realm when I regain my crown," vowed Nerian.
Sudden light and stealthy movements woke the deposed queen and her consort. Both reached for a sword, then relaxed. They were captives, unarmed, and as defenceless as they were harmless.
"Fear not, little sister," murmured a woman's voice. "Join me when you are awake. We have an issue to resolve."
"Lead on, sister," said Nerian with sleepy defiance.
Nerian kept her head turned away from the lantern until she had secured her golden skeleton-mask in position. Klovis looked at the window. There was the faintest touch of grey in the night sky. Soriya and her escort led them down and inward, to the heart of the rock on which the castle had been built, where daylight was unknown.
Lords Fadden and Wellen, and two others unknown to Klovis, formed their escort. All seven wore a long, dark cloak with a hood. Lord Wellen exchanged counter-signals for challenges from the guards, who remained ignorant of the identities of the rest of the group.
The seven entered a large chamber, which still bore the marks of the chisels used to carve it from dark granite centuries before, lending it an unfinished look. The secret implements of human destruction lined the walls – engines of wood and steel designed to tear flesh and crush bones. The ancient stone of the chamber had heard countless screams but repeated none to the rest of the castle. None, save those present, would hear the clash of blades.
"Ready yourself, sister," said Soriya as one of her men took a torch around the walls, lighting the torches set in iron rings to bring the chamber to full brightness. "Your prince can act as your squire."
Lord Wellen showed Nerian and Klovis to a bare anteroom. Nerian changed quickly into tunic and leather britches, and her jerkin of golden mail. The stone walls seemed to exhale a chill breath, but she knew that she would be warm enough when the second battle for the throne began.
Klovis eased her into her black fighting boots and took charge of her skeleton-mask. He claimed a kiss before she donned a steel helmet. Cheek pads drowned her face in deep shadow. When they returned to the main chamber, Lord Wellen took delight in snapping a manacle around his left wrist to chain Klovis to the wall. Klovis, his powers in this world drained and exhausted, was forced to accept the indignity.
"Did you dare to bring my sword?" Nerian asked in a challenging tone.
"Perhaps the new queen should wield the queen's sword," Soriya replied cooly.
"Fool!" mocked Nerian. "Could any creeping usurper draw a gift from the Elfborn?"
Soriya frowned at her, then lifted Stamheim from a sturdy table by the hilt. She tried to flick the scabbard away. It remained stubbornly in place. She pulled at it impatiently. Then she ceased her efforts before her failure became too evident and too embarrassing.
Klovis realized that the table was the bed of a rack, with loops of rope lying ready to encircle a prisoner's wrists and ankles and twin poles standing up from the windlass. A selection of weapons had been scattered on the ancient surface. Nerian approached the improvised table and lifted each of the remaining swords in turn. Then she offered the one with the worst balance to her sister.
"If you deny me my sword, will you fight with one of my choosing?" she demanded.
"I'm content to use my own sword," Soriya said with a mocking smile.
She shed her cloak, unbuckled her belt and tossed the scabbard onto the rack. Despite the lavish ornamentation of the hilt, the weapon that she revealed was a warrior's sword. The blade rippled in the steady torchlight, boasting damaskeen strength. Flecks of light caught by minor cuts and blemishes indicated constant use.
Nerian threw the ill-balanced sword back onto the rack. "Perhaps I should stand here, empty-handed, with my feet nailed to the floor to give you the easy victory you crave."
"Select your blade and take leave of your husband, sister," Soriya told her grimly. "Or elect to go into immediate exile. Either way, your tyranny must end tonight."
Nerian snatched a sword from the rack, careful selection behind apparent impulse, and marched over to her chained husband. Klovis took a firm grip on her left wrist to make her listen.
"Don't waste your strength in anger, my love," he murmured. "Remember, you've beaten her once and that has to be on her mind constantly."
"We shall celebrate my victory in the great hall tonight," Nerian said loudly. "Unless these jackals plan to slaughter the victor and then fight for the throne among themselves."
Lord Wellen's hand flew to the hilt of his sword as yet another insult to his honour struck home.
"Ready, sister?" called Soriya.
Nerian strode to the middle of the large chamber to join her. They touched blades in brief salute then joined battle at a furious pace. Klovis tugged cautiously at his chain as steel rang on steel. The bolt sunk into the stone was deeply rusted. If he jerked on it with all his strength, he hoped, the head might fly free and release him. If Soriya was as accomplished a swordswoman as her reputation suggested, Nerian might need a healer within instants of a final sword thrust. Klovis could only hope that his depleted powers were equal to the task.
He could turn weapons away from his own body but not from his wife's. He had nothing stored beyond that could aid her. If Nerian fell, he knew that her only chance of life would depend on his ability to reach her side with all speed. And the same applied to Soriya. Klovis was reluctant to burden his wife with the knowledge that she had killed her own sister.
The duel slowed to a more sustainable tempo when each sister had tested her opponent. Nerian lacked Soriya's technique but she bridged the deficiency with superior fighting spirit. Klovis could see that her style required more effort, however. If Soriya could contain her sister's assaults for long enough, then she was bound to overcome a flagging Nerian.
The stone chamber seemed alive with the clash of blades, each cut and parry ringing round the walls on the heels of those gone before and merging with those to come. The din of battle assaulted the ears with enough force to rouse the whole city, it seemed, but it was confined to that single room.
Klovis stole a glance at Soriya's escorts. The four lords were standing behind a broad, iron bench, ready to retreat further if the combat strayed in their direction. White-haired Lord Fadden had retreated right into a corner. The other men had eyes only for the two grunting, sweating women and their dextrous sword-play.
Klovis took a firm grip on his chain then jumped up. Falling, his full weight made the bolt in the wall bend. He jumped again, and again, ignoring the pain as the manacle dug into his wrist. Something pattered softly to the dusty floor. Klovis picked up the iron head of the bolt, a thumbnail-size bead of flaking, rusty metal. He was free now and, he realize, he was also armed with a serviceable length of chain.
If necessary, Klovis knew now, he was prepared to intervene in the duel to save Nerian's life. There was as much honour in doing so as in stealing the throne while the rightful queen was away, fighting an invasion of barbarians, but Klovis was prepared to adopt the ethics of his rivals, if he had to.
Nerian was tiring visibly. Soriya's younger escorts were calling encouragement to their champion. Soriya was meeting each attacking cut with lazy confidence and driving her sister back with her counter-strokes. Then Nerian fell.
Her heel found a patch of grease from an ancient candle. Her feet flew from beneath her. Nerian crashed to the stone floor with a thud that drove every ounce of breath from her body. Her helmet flew across the chamber and her sword bounced out of her grasp. Soriya stepped in for a telling thrust to seal her victory. She stopped, staring, with her arm drawn back.
Klovis flung the bolt-head across the chamber and made a dive for the rack to add a sword to his rusty flail of steel chain. Soriya's head turned in the direction of the impact on her helmet. Her escorts stood and stared, unable to fathom how Klovis had freed himself.
Nerian's boot flailed at her sister's ankle. Soriya crashed onto her back. Nerian recovered her sword and rolled onto the fallen usurper, holding the sword to Soriya's throat.
"Hold, my Lords." Soriya croaked as her younger escorts faced up to Klovis at bay, weapons drawn.
Three swords clattered to the stone floor. The young nobles looked almost relieved that they had not been required to attack a being with supernatural powers, whom chains could not hold. Lord Fadden led the others into one of the anterooms, a cube of emptiness in solid rock. Klovis dropped a heavy locking bar across the sturdy door. Then he picked up Stamheim by the scabbard and let the rightful queen draw his gift.
"Strike quickly, Nerian," said Soriya defiantly. "If you have a grain of mercy in your black heart."
"Not yet, sister," smiled the queen. "We need to keep you alive for the moment. You took my castle by stealth. My turn has come to recover it the same way. Do we have chains fitting for a usurper, my love?" she called to Klovis, who was clanking in a dusty corner.
"Enough for a whole tribe of usurpers, my Lady." Klovis found a belt with manacles to lock the prisoner's wrists to her waist. A chain hobble allowed Soriya to walk slowly, at a dignified pace, but not to run.
Nerian sheathed Stamheim and recovered her golden skeleton-mask. Klovis left Soriya's left hand free for the moment so that she could use a wet cloth from a leather bag to wipe away dust and sweat.
"I had no idea the Elfborn could break chains, my love," remarked Nerian as she was wiping away her own stains of battle. "And did you throw something at my dear sister to distract her? That was cheating."
Klovis shrugged as he struggled to use his depleted healing touch to close her wounds. "It was hardly a fair fight. You had spent a day in the saddle, riding home. After that, you had a few bites of food and perhaps an hour's sleep. Then you were brought to face a woman who's taller and stronger than you, who was also well rested and more practised in the art of sword-play than yourself. Of course, I cheated when she looked like killing my wife. She didn't knock you from your feet. I merely evened the surprises when I made her helmet ring. And I make no apologies for my actions."
"Taller, stronger, more beautiful, more just, more loved by the masses," said Nerian contemptuously. "But still without a husband. And yet one of the Elfborn chose the black tyrant. What went wrong, sister?"
"What will happen to my followers?" Soriya coloured but she refused to respond to the taunt as she let Klovis heal her wounds.
"If they surrender, everyone will receive the same consideration you gave my followers," said the queen grimly. "Measure for measure. Come, we have a castle to recover, and then a kingdom."
Lord Fadden had brought light wine to refresh the victor. When Soriya had drained her cup, Klovis secured her left wrist, gagged her and enveloped her in a hood and cloak. Klovis led the way from the chamber to the upper levels. Nerian kept a firm grip on her sister's belt through the cloak, and the point of a dagger against her spine.
They passed a whole level of cells before they reached the first of the night guards. Klovis surprised him, disarmed him, showed him their captive's face and sent him to the guard room with an ultimatum. A bleary-eyed sergeant, swearing softly under his breath, brought a bunch of keys into the corridor, just in case the quaking guard had not been joking. A look at the prisoner's face convinced him that it would be wise to open the cells on his floor.
The queen and her consort proceeded to the upper floors, gathering strength level by level. Cells shed loyal officers and filled with new prisoners. A new shift in blue and red relieved the night guard an hour early, complaining about new routines for a time of change. One company of prisoners marched quietly from the confines of the training ground – to be replaced by confused former victors, still living the euphoria of a tyrant's downfall.
Soriya had felt honour-bound to fight her sister but she had known that her full council would restrain her. She had descended to the dungeons with her four closest followers, intending to present the council with a deed accomplished the next morning. Her secrecy aided the recovery of Castle Praeding. None but a handful of intimately involved people knew or suspected that Nerian was not locked away safely until the truth was revealed to them at sword-point.
There was some fighting, and some settling of scores, which produced casualties on both sides as Nerian's forces swept through Castle Praeding. But there were no outward signs of conflict beyond the closed world of the castle. There were fewer of them than usual, but the men-at-arms visible patrolling the battlements wore the blue and red of Praeding and there was no great din of battle rising from the castle. Thus the city beyond its walls within walls awoke expecting to see a new queen crowned at noon.
A crowd began to gather at the castle's southern gate-house as the sun climbed higher into the autumn sky. Entertainers performed in the strip of land left clear between the people and the ditch surrounding steep, stone walls. Queen-for-a-day Soriya watched with a heavy heart from a barred window in a high tower, hoping that the people would storm the castle when the wrong queen appeared before them, knowing that they would not dare to do so.
Soriya knew now that she had been misled of her advisors. She had assumed that once she had declared herself, the kingdom would desert Nerian and come over to her side, glad to throw off a tyrant. She had been shaken the previous day to find that most of the army had chosen to be imprisoned. Now, she was wondering why someone who could inspire such loyalty from the highest and lowest alike had ever been called a tyrant.
A door opened behind her. Soriya turned from the window to see Klovis in a dress uniform of royal blue with red edging.
"Comfortable, sister?" Klovis's tone invited a comparison between Soriya's relative luxury and the room in which the queen had been confined for the night.
"Her face?" said Soriya. "What happened to her face? The ablest healers were summoned. None could help her. When her helmet flew off and I saw her left cheek as smooth and white as the other, it was like a hammer blow. I was helpless. How could any woman born of this world stand against such powerful sorcery?"
"The remedy cost me hours of sleep," smiled Klovis. "I still don't know exactly how it happened. I only know it was my final thought every single night before sleep overtook me. And then, one day, there was a black smudge on a white pillow in the morning. A week later, Nerian dared to admit that there had been a change – soot-stains working out of her skin, hard, melted flesh softening.
"As you told me yesterday, I married her partly for my own personal advantage. But I did so freely in fulfilment of my destiny. I agree, it was to my advantage to make my wife happy, to give her a face that she could show naked to others as well as her husband. To turn her from a figure of terror, who could strike grown men sick, to the person she was born to be.
"But what I achieved was done from love of your sister, despite your expression of disbelief, Soriya. And if I were the sorcerer you believe me to be, would I not have restored her face on our wedding night as my wedding gift? And would I have permitted you to subject your queen to yesterday's indignities?"
"So I defeated myself with my own superstitious fear?" said Soriya bitterly.
"You proved your urge to be queen isn't as strong as Nerian's. She would have delivered that last thrust without hesitation. And that's the difference between you, sister. You were both bred to rule and you believe you have an automatic right to do so as your father's elder daughter. But you lack the will to make difficult decisions. Nerian can do so, and that's why she has ruled through four very difficult years. And where were you through all that time? In retreat at Fountain Head, practising your duelling techniques, sewing sedition and waiting for the time of change to sweep the black tyrant from her throne."
"And waiting for my sister to send her assassins to finish me off as quietly as possible."
"Her council opposed the idea, as your spies would have told you if they had been allowed to report directly to you. To be honest, you were too popular to kill like that. Her council advised her to let you be, and that's exactly what she did. Nerian, the tyrant, does take their advice, sister."
"Indeed?" said Soriya sceptically.
"In fact, if you had taken your place with us against the greater danger of the invaders from the North, I believe I could have talked Nerian into a reconciliation with you, as her council wished. It would have removed a threat to the kingdom and provided you with a fitting estate in the west. You chose to steal her throne instead. And gave her supporters an extremely powerful weapon against yours."
Soriya's face tightened into an expression of frustration.
"All they had to do was ask ‘Where was Soriya when Nerian fought for Praeding?' I saw how angry and ashamed that hourly chant made your prison guards last night. And how their shame grew when breaking the heads of unarmed men failed to stop it. Perhaps it would have been better for you, sister, if barbarians had come riding out of the forest instead of your queen, if you could have won the kingdom on the battlefield here in Praeding with Nerian dead in the North. If you too could have been a heroine, rather than a usurper."
Soriya had the grace to look embarrassed.
"Not that it matters now," smiled Klovis. "Nerian the black tyrant fought at the River Garth at the side of the bravest warriors of the Nineteen Kingdoms. Soriya the fair stayed at home. Soon, the people may be lamenting that King Raedweil didn't have a third, better advised daughter to save them from the tyrant."
"If my cause is lost, will this tower be may home for the rest of my days?" said Soriya. "With Lady Porteus waving a dagger at me every time I move?"
"Her husband nearly died on your account, sister. If you were married to a man instead of your sword, you might learn that there are feelings stronger than personal advantage. Perhaps we can send you back to Fountain Head in time. When you've had a chance to think about what you really want. I must take you to the gallery sometime when Nerian holds court. Perhaps, when you see how hard she works, and when you learn what sort of a woman your sister has become, you might have second thoughts about wanting to sit on the Eagle Throne. Or would you be content to sit there like a puppet and let the gentlemen of your council rule through you?"
"I admit there is much for me to learn here," said Soriya. "And I sense that while you are not my friend, you are not my enemy."
Klovis shrugged. "You are my wife's sister and a king's daughter, and entitled to special consideration by virtue of both. It would be in the interests of the realm if you were to learn exactly what being queen involves, and recognize that your sister is better fitted to that role."
"And the Elfborn are unwilling to shed blood unnecessarily?"
Klovis smiled. "Inform me if you need anything for your greater comfort, sister. And remember that my next duty is to stand beside the black tyrant at noon when she disappoints a mob expecting to see yourself."
Soriya smiled too. "Not a duty I envy, brother."
"Remember also, it is one that I perform willingly."
Food and a great deal of drink were circulating in the crowd below the castle wall. Ribbons and banners decorated the chains of the drawbridge and the gallery over the gate house, a mid-point in the climb to the battlements, where kings and queens appeared before the citizens of Praeding.
Trumpets sounded when the crouching autumn sun reached its highest point. Cheering broke out when a figure in a gown of deep, lapis lazuli blue stepped up to the balustrade. She wore a war-helmet of polished steel and a jerkin of golden mail. A sword in a plain scabbard hung at her left side. Caps flew in the air with the cheers. Men held children above their heads to see their monarch.
The queen lifted off her helmet and passed it back to a blue and red uniformed officer of the guard. A stunned silence rolled across the crowd when the queen shook short, pure black hair. The sun caught angles of the crown as Klovis lowered it onto her head. The crowd began to notice that there was no golden sparkle from her face, that the black queen's customary mask was absent.
Queen Nerian drew Stamheim and lifted the sword high above her head. Golden sunlight seemed to run down from the tip of the blade, like lightning, to envelope her in a glow of power.
"The true Queen has won a great victory," bellowed a herald. "The barbarians have been crushed. The realm is secure."
Ragged cheers strengthened – containing a note of desperation.
"The time of change is ending," bellowed the herald. "The Queen has granted three days of celebration of the great victory. Long live Queen Nerian! Long live Praeding!"
The cheers strengthened further. Any holiday was worth cheering, even one granted by a black tyrant. Nerian sheathed her sword and withdrew into the castle. The crowd continued to cheer. Nervous folk sneaked glances at their neighbours, looking for secret agents, who were said to made it their business to remember the faces of those who failed to show proper enthusiasm on such occasions.
There were gaps in the ranks of loyal nobles when the queen took her place on the Eagle Throne. Some had fallen at the River Garth, others were recovering from wounds still. Lords Porteus and Revin were notable absentees, who had received their wounds at Praeding. Lord Borvein had not survived the rough handling of the men sent to arrest him when Soriya had taken Praeding. Two younger lords had reached their swords and had died fighting. All were represented by heirs, male relatives or wives. Klovis, unusually, was sitting beside the queen on a chair brought over from the wall of the great hall.
Two ranks of shields stood propped against the steps of the Eagle Throne, leaving a passage in the middle. Each shield represented an estate confiscated from a traitor. Beyond them, in an arc, sat the principal nobles of the realm, and beyond them, unlanded younger sons, who had earned a prize in battle, and heirs claiming inheritances. The chairs around the walls of the great hall were filled with ladies, children and elders from the city, come to witness the ceremony.
"Before we begin our sad and pleasant duties," said the queen, "let the captain of my dungeons approach."
A thin, nervous officer in blue and red knelt on the first step to the throne. "Sir Ronal at your service, my Liege."
"Sir Ronal, I had the misfortune to spend part of the night in your bed," said the queen severely. "While you enjoyed a night in one of your own cells. I command you to replace that bed immediately with a comfortable one of your wife's choosing. At our expense. No wife should be forced to endure those lumps one night more."
"At once, my Liege." The gaoler looked enormously relieved and embarrassed at the same time. He bowed repeatedly as he retreated to the line of chairs, then he left the great hall almost at a run.
"My Lady Porteus has duties elsewhere and an injured husband to attend," continued the queen. "Your husband has long dreamed of the Anmarch Tower and hunting in the forests of the east. Take the shield of Anmarch to him as our reward for loyal service, Countess Anmarch."
There were murmurs of congratulation and regret as the new Countess Anmarch carried the shield up to the throne and knelt to kiss the queen's hand. There was no real surprise that Queen Nerian's favourite had claimed the greatest prize.
"Heirs and claimants," called the court steward, receiving a nod from the queen. "Grevill of Elmstor."
A young man on the back row rose to his feet, holding a shield, which had been battered almost in twain by a barbarian axe. "My Liege, I am Grevill, true-born son of Lestor, slain in the defence of the realm. I claim the shield of Elmstor to defend my Queen."
"Let any rival claimant come forward," called the court steward. After a ritual pause that passed in tense silence for the young claimant, he added, "Approach, Grevill of Elmstor."
There was always tension in the air when a young, possibly hot-blooded man drew his sword in front of the seated queen. Klovis glanced over his shoulder to make sure that the crossbowmen in the gallery were alert and ready to shoot at the slightest sign of danger. Grevill knelt and handed his sword, hilt first, to the queen, trying not to stare at her face. Nerian was wearing her golden skeleton-mask – it was almost a badge of office now – but the left cheek-plate had been removed. She now showed her subjects an almost naked, unblemished face, outlined in gold.
"Let the rightful Count Elmstor, accept with his sword the lands, titles and privileges of his birthright," said the queen.
The young nobleman kissed the queen's hand, returned his sword to its scabbard and backed down the steps to the floor of the great hall. When he reached his seat, on somewhat unsteady legs, the court steward called on the next claimant, who raised another battered shield.
"My Liege, I am Borse, uncle of Wyrran, slain by traitors in defence of the realm within the very walls of Praeding Castle," said a scarred, middle-aged man. "I claim the shield of Hrotha to defend my queen on behalf of my grandnephew Vaklan, true-born son of Wyrran."
With regal grace, Queen Nerian accepted this next in a succession of pledges of allegiance, awarding Borse a vacated title in his own right as a personal reward for his loyalty. Steward brought cups of wine when the rows of heirs and guardians had been acknowledged. Then the queen awarded the remaining titles and privileges to those who had earned them, cementing new bonds of mutual dependence.
At last, she rose to her feet and signalled to Klovis to join her. Together, they descended to the floor of the great hall.
"My friends," said the queen, speaking to just the seated group, "we are in sight of an end to this time of change. We have seen the greatest upheaval for many generations. Few monarch return victorious from the battlefield to find their loyal warriors crammed into dungeons, the highest standing packed beside the most humble, sharing their misery. Few queens and their consorts endure the lumps of their chief gaoler's bed."
The queen returned the smiles of her loyal followers.
"A song of defiance forced my sister to challenge me last night. Those who remained loyal to me when all was lost have seen the Queen's gratitude. Serve me loyally now and I shall serve you with equal fidelity.
"I offer you just arbitration of all disputes and secure borders. I also warn you of the black tyrant's foul temper. In a time of change, people change too. I have a husband who is not afraid to counsel patience, and now that the barbarian danger is past, until the next time of change, we can all relax somewhat. But do not be surprised if I fly into a rage in the face of idleness, incompetence and corruption."
The queen stripped off her skeleton-mask.
"Few have seen my naked face in the past four years. Only my prince consort has looked upon it without flinching. This miracle was completed one week ago. I wanted to proclaim it throughout my realm, and pile my husband's arms high with vacated shields. He would have none of it.
"It was no time for celebration. There was a great deal of hard fighting in prospect. We had to march men to the battlefield, either from loyalty to crown and realm, or in fear of a black tyrant, whose rage they dreaded more than the approaching barbarians.
"A time of celebration and consolidation has come now. Many things have changed, some have not. We must all learn to live with the new balance. I wish a safe journey to those who wish to leave for their homes, new and old, without further delay, to those whose families in distant parts await news of them with fearful hearts. A special banquet is in preparation for those who wish to stay."
The queen replaced her skeleton-mask, her unique badge of office. With Klovis at her left side, she began a tour of the barracks. She wanted to show her restored face all over the castle as proof of her continuing authority, but first, she wished to offer personal thanks to loyal members of the depleted guard, to pay rewards in gold and silver coin and confirm promotions.
That guard spent an alert night while the court caroused in the great hall. The soldiers were well aware that a third change of power in as many nights would cancel their hard-won bounties and advancements. A new day was breaking when the queen and her consort retired to their quarters.
"My head will ache in the morning," sighed Nerian as she gazed at the silver stars on the canopy of her bed. "From so many toasts."
"You married a healer, my love," chuckled Klovis. "If you can wake me before noon. I had scarcely a wink of sleep on last night's lumpy bed."
"You told me it was softer than the hard ground in winter. Speaking as a traveller who has often slept with a canopy of real stars and woken with a blanket of fresh snow."
"Just words of encouragement in desperate circumstances," Klovis admitted. "I admire your stamina, my love. Fighting for your life before dawn, tramping the castle all day and entertaining your court until well into the next day."
"All parts of the burden of queenship," yawned Nerian.
"What will you do with Soriya to prevent her from making a third attempt to relieve you of that burden?"
"Keep her under guard somewhere until you have given me an heir, then marry her off to some ugly old king, far to the south. In return for valued hostages."
"What a terrible fate for the fair pretender."
"She's lucky the black tyrant didn't have her thrown to her death from the north wall," said Nerian fiercely.
"No true tyrant would dare to joke about her tyranny."
"Do you ever think you married a tyrant, Klovis?"
"Occasionally, when I catch the rough edge of your tongue, or you raise your fist to me," chuckled Klovis. "But I know you have to be strong to hold your realm together. Tyrant is a name used by a usurper to blacken a dead monarch's memory. Or to blacken a living queen when it's coupled with promises to deliver other people's property to traitors. Or the name belongs deservedly to a monarch who grinds his subjects' faces in the dust and condones injustice and corruption. Nerian is guilty of forcing her realm to thrive and survive. Only the ignorant and her enemies ever called her tyrant. In anything other than jest."
"You should have been a minstrel, my love," mocked Nerian. "You tell a pretty tale. Perhaps I should send you round our realm to warn my trembling subjects that Queen Nerian, though fair of face now, remains as foul of nature."
"You are mellowing, my love," yawned Klovis, drawing her closer as he felt himself sink into slumber. "You go and chop something to pieces instead of screaming out your frustration before the court. You apologize to me when you vent your rage on me. You'll be mellower still when you're fat and pregnant in the spring."
"They say a healer can ease the pains of childbirth," yawned Nerian. "The sorcerer who healed my face should be able to provide Praeding with a son at the first attempt."
"We'll see when the time comes," yawned Klovis. "The Elfborn who live in this world must follow where their destiny takes them. But I feel sure we'll have sons of sons of sons or daughters to wear the blue and red of Praeding into battle when the next time of change comes. And daughters of daughters of daughters and sons to carry forward the name of Nerian, the fair of face, and keep alive the memory of the mightiest warrior of the Nineteen Kingdoms of the Plain."
"Flattery used to make me quite angry when I had to hide my face," mused Nerian. "Now, I quite enjoy it from those who would never use it as a weapon. I really must be mellowing. Good night, my love."
"Good night, my love," replied Klovis with the quiet pride of one who had travelled far, risked all and landed firmly on his Elfborn feet. ■