by Derek Paterson
Copyright © 1999
Three ancient castles guard the passes between the northernmost civilized territories and those icebound wastelands populated by the barbarian tribes known collectively as the Caledon. Their builders are widely accepted by scholars to be early Teuton knights from the First Era. The origin of the stones used in the building remains unknown. These stones are notable for their resistance to time and weather.
The vacant fortresses were occupied by Sudlander forces in the 30th year of King Osric's reign and were renamed Hawkwing, Bloodfalcon, and Darkraven. (Their original names in the Caledon tongue were: Brynaghar, Talnaghar, and Shanaghar.) Two years later, their garrisons were wiped out by Caledon rebels who attacked in great force and without formal declaration of hostile intent.
The castles were extensively upgraded and re-garrisoned in the 37th year of King Osric's reign. An expeditionary force under Lord Peyter ventured forth from Castle Hawkwing and destroyed several Caledon villages. Rebel leaders were arrested and impaled as punishment for their grievous crimes. The Caledon tribes have since been silent, having been taught an enduring lesson by the iron fist of their Sudlander masters.From "A Brief Historie of the Northern Wastelands" by Abbot Henrey of Dunward
Wind howled through gaps in the rotted doors and shutters of the old watch tower. Despite the kindling fire he'd lit in the rusted iron brazier, Declan was damned cold. He rubbed his hands together, trying to restore feeling to his fingers. He hated skulking like some vile assassin in the middle of the night, most especially in this filthy weather, but he had little choice in the matter. If he didn't conclude this business soon then there would be hell to pay, in more ways than one.
"Ah tell ye, ye're takin' a terrible risk," Makdoor said. The cold and the snow didn't bother Makdoor. Nothing did, not any more. Declan shrugged. He knew he was taking a risk, but he'd had enough of talking and planning and hiding. It was time for action—time to match the enemy's cunning with ruthless determination. He'd laid the bait for the traitor and would deal with him in his own way—directly, with the point of his sword. He wasn't so old that he couldn't take care of this situation himself.
"Someone comes," Makdoor said.
Declan stepped away from the brazier, swept his cloak back to free his sword and turned to face the door. "Hide yourself," he said to Makdoor.
"As ye wish."
The locking-bolt lifted and the door creaked open. Declan held his breath, expecting to see a gloved hand, a masked face—
The brazier's flame guttered and died, plunging the room into darkness. A barely seen shadow closed about Declan, who only had time to scream once before he was crushed in an icy embrace that turned his bowels to liquid.
The shadow cast the corpse down. It paused then, looking around the tower room as if expecting to see something or someone else there, but nothing presented itself. The creature focused on the dead man and, bending down, drove its claw into his chest and tore out his heart.
Sentries came running in response to the horrific scream. When they finally puffed and panted their way to the top of the tower's icy stairway they found the twisted corpse of the King's Lord High Accuser lying beside the extinguished brazier, staring at them with unseeing eyes.
There was no sign of his murderer.
A chill ran up Lochalain's spine as he regarded Castle Brynaghar's bleak, forbidding walls. There were far too many painful memories for him here, but Duty and Fate had conspired to bring him back regardless of his personal wishes. He sighed heavily. Had he truly believed he could avoid his past forever? Declan always said that past, present and future were intertwined and inseparable. Perhaps he was right.
Lochalain rode up to the gatehouse, raised his lance and pounded the butt against the wooden door. "Ho, the castle! Is anyone awake?" he shouted, puzzled that no lookout had challenged him.
"Who goes?" a thin voice called down from above, sounding thoroughly inconvenienced. Dawn was still an hour away but Lochalain hadn't ridden through the night to be delayed by a lazy sentry.
"Open the gate, in the King's name!" he shouted, banging the door again.
Bodies stirred within the gatehouse and muffled footsteps approached the other side of the door. Heavy bolts grumbled, then the door swung open and lamplight flooded the entry. Swords and spears gleamed, but were lowered when the suspicious soldiers recognized Lochalain's scarlet surcoat and the golden badge upon his lance's pennant. They identified him as the King's Herald, who had right of access to anywhere in the Realm.
The sight of the dark blue Brynaghar uniforms evoked more unwanted memories in Lochalain. He had worn these same colors himself, what seemed like a lifetime ago. But his nostalgia faded an instant later when he saw that the inner portcullis gate lay open. The stupidity of these guards astonished him—had he been an enemy, he could have charged past them and inside the castle. When Lochalain had lived here, Brynaghar had been a front-line fortress defended by staunch warriors. Times had evidently changed.
"Who commands here?" he demanded.
A tall Sudlander with a weathered face stepped forward, his expression hostile. "I do," the man growled, his hand on the pommel of his sword.
"Erlun. Sergeant Erlun to you, boy."
Lochalain threw back his hood and leaned down so their faces were almost level. "If it were up to me, Sergeant Erlun, I'd have you reduced to raking horse-muck for opening the inner and outer gates at the same time. Look to the walls, man. Post lookouts who know how to stay awake, if you value your rank."
Erlun gaped in surprise for Lochalain's long dark hair, piercing green eyes and accent betrayed him as a Caledon, one of the native tribes defeated by the invading Sudlanders when they'd conquered these lands twenty years past. But the dark days of bloody persecution were gone; now the Sudlander king permitted his Caledon subjects to serve him and they enjoyed equal rights under Sudlander law. In theory, at least.
Lochalain touched his heels to his horse's flanks, urging the gelding forward. The soldiers parted for him, none of them questioning his right to enter Brynaghar. At last they closed the outer door and barred it again. Lochalain was at a loss to understand their lax discipline. Most Caledon hereabouts lived in relative peace with their Sudlander conquerors, but many still brooded in the distant forests and high mountains, refusing to acknowledge King Methelir's authority. Patrols were sent out regularly from the forward watch outposts to keep a watchful eye on the activities of the so-called rebels. Sometimes these patrols didn't come back, which fact ought to warn the Sudlanders that greater precaution was warranted.
He emerged into the inner courtyard. Dogs barked and lights flared inside the Keep, as those within were alerted to the fact they had an unannounced visitor. Lochalain dismounted and waited by his horse, calming the animal, talking quietly in the Caledon tongue until it forgot all about the dogs and the noise. A fair-haired Sudlander boy wrapped in a woolen cloak and shivering with the night cold came running to take Lochalain's reins. Lochalain tossed him an iron half-coin. "Cover her with a warm blanket, and feed her well." The boy nodded and led the horse toward the stables.
Lochalain turned and saw Foxworth standing in the Keep's doorway. The Chamberlain's hair had turned silver with age, yet he came down the steps and marched across the courtyard like a young man, his stride long and powerful. When they met he gripped Lochalain's forearm with a strong hand and said, "It's good to see you again, lad." His smile appeared genuine.
"Thank you," Lochalain said, warmed by the greeting. Truthfully he hadn't known what to expect. He glanced up at the Keep's slit windows. "Not everyone in Brynaghar is likely to share your opinion."
Foxworth shrugged. "There's no avoiding that fact, but I'm glad to see you again, and that's the truth."
"And I you. Will you tell me how Declan died?"
The older man frowned. "Perhaps Lord Varin should—?"
"I want to hear it from you first," Lochalain said.
Foxworth gave him a speculative look. "Very well. The Lord High Accuser arrived here four days ago, unannounced and alone. Lord Varin welcomed him as an honored guest, naturally. They dined in private, then Declan retired to a guest room in the West Tower. Or so we thought. The night sentries heard a cry from the old watch tower—not the West Tower—and ran to investigate. They found Lord Declan's body. He'd been killed by a sword-thrust to the heart."
Lochalain concealed his grief over Declan's death and said, "Did they also find his murderer?"
Foxworth shook his head. "No."
"Didn't they search the watch tower?"
"Of course they did, but they found no one else. Only Declan."
"If the sentries who did the searching are anything like those you trust to guard Brynaghar, it's little wonder they failed to find Declan's killer. The gatehouse watch was asleep when I arrived. Their sergeant is a surly fellow who needs a firmer hand."
"I know who you mean," Foxworth said. "And perhaps you're right. I'll mention it to Lord Varin at a more suitable time, if you'll leave the matter with me?"
"Gladly," Lochalain replied, doing everything he could to stop himself from directing his anger at Foxworth.
"One thing you'd do well to remember, Lochalain. This is Castle Hawkwing now, not Brynaghar. Some people can get touchy about that kind of thing."
"I'll try to bear it in mind."
The Chamberlain ushered Lochalain up the steps and into the Keep just as Lord Varin came downstairs. Varin stared at Lochalain in disbelief. Lochalain returned his stare without a word. Foxworth stood off to one side as if ready to intervene should violence erupt between the two men, as well it might. Memories tumbled through Lochalain's mind of that fateful event, five years ago. Had he not fled into the night, forewarned and aided by Foxworth, his blood would have stained Varin's dagger.
At last Varin spoke. "So, the King chose to send you, did he? Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse."
"I assure you I'm not here through choice," Lochalain told him, deliberately avoiding any mention of receiving orders from the King. If Varin wanted to question such orders it would take a week for a rider to bring confirmation—or denial—from the court.
Varin glanced at Foxworth. "Attend to your other duties, Chamberlain. I'll see to our visitor." Foxworth hesitated and Varin snapped, "D'you expect me to harm the King's Herald? Have more faith in me."
Foxworth bowed his head and left them alone, with obvious reluctance. Lochalain waited, wondering what dark thoughts were going through Varin's mind. Plainly his feelings toward Lochalain were undiluted by the passing of years. Nor would Lochalain have expected otherwise. The past hung between them, as solid as Brynaghar's walls. And just as cold.
"I'd heard you were in the King's service, so I shouldn't be surprised to see you," the older man said. "Although I will confess, I didn't think you'd ever have the courage to return. I presume you are here because of Lord Declan's murder?"
Lochalain ignored the jibe, and the absurd question. How could his being here not have to do with Declan? "Where lies his body?" he said.
"In the pond house."
Of all places!
"Is the corpse diseased, that you'll not bring it inside?"
"I sought to prevent its decay," Varin said testily. "Had I ordered it brought inside, the heat from our fires would have spoiled it."
"If that's so then why did you have him removed from the watch tower? He would surely have kept as well there?"
Varin's temper flared. "I couldn't just leave him up there in the tower! He was the Lord High Accuser, damn it all. That demands some respect, if not from you then from me. Besides," he went on, his voice becoming gruff rather than angry, "any sign that might have lent a clue as to who murdered him was already ruined by the idiots who found the body. By the time Foxworth and I arrived, a dozen men had disturbed the snow. It proved impossible to identify any particular set of footprints."
"I wish to inspect the body."
"You have the King's authority and may do as you wish. I'll not stand in your way. Make note of that, Herald. I shall not hinder you."
"And I shall not give false report against you, whatever history stands between us. Be assured of that, m'lord."
Varin stared at him for a further moment, then turned into the passageway that went through the Keep and led to the rear courtyard. Lochalain followed him, sensing his agitation. Varin might well be expected to be agitated—after all, the King's Lord High Accuser had died while visiting his castle. The circumstances of that death reeked of suspicion. It could cost Varin everything, and he knew it. Lochalain's unexpected appearance had shaken him further. Under other circumstances Lochalain might have experienced a certain satisfaction, but Declan's death lay heavy upon him. This was not the time to gloat.
Varin opened the door. Snow covered the courtyard and gathered against the walls in deep drifts. Light from a flickering storm lantern revealed two soldiers, wrapped in cloaks and armed with spears. They huddled together inside the pond house, stamping their feet against the cold. As soon as they saw Varin they came to attention.
Lochalain paused, lost in memories. The pond was frozen over and lifeless. As lifeless as Jane had been when he'd found her floating there, her innocent blue eyes staring sightlessly at the sky. His sigh clouded the air, then vanished. Lochalain wished the memories would vanish as easily.
Varin climbed the pond house steps and nodded to the guards. "Go inside and warm yourselves. I'll summon you if I need you."
He didn't have to tell them twice; the pair pushed past Lochalain in their haste to begone. Varin smiled without humor, but Lochalain said nothing. The sentries didn't concern him. He climbed the steps, entered the pond house and crouched beside Declan's body that lay upon a stone bench covered by his black cloak. Lochalain lifted the cloak and stared at his friend's face. Perhaps someone had composed him, for Declan looked at peace and content. Lochalain pulled the cloak down further and discovered the hideous wound in the middle of Declan's chest. He sucked in a deep breath, then let it out slowly, concealing his sorrow as best he could.
"Were his eyes open when he was found?" he asked Varin.
No answer. Lochalain looked up. Varin wasn't paying him any attention. Yellow light from the lantern spilled across the pond, reflecting off the uneven layer of frost covering the ice. Perhaps Varin was remembering, too.
"I said, were his eyes open when he was found?"
"Does it matter?"
"Aye, it does matter, so I'd be obliged if you'd answer the question, m'lord."
Varin's angry gaze met Lochalain's and he frowned, as if trying to understand the significance of what was being asked. "They were open," he said at last. "I know because I closed them myself, with my own hand."
Lochalain nodded. He pulled the cloak completely free of the torso, then set to probing the wound with his fingers. The frozen skin had sharp edges. Lochalain went deeper, until his suspicions were confirmed.
"In Daras's name, what are you doing?" Varin demanded, his voice filled with horror and disgust. Lochalain fully shared that disgust. He was violating his friend's corpse, denying Declan the respect he deserved in death.
"I have to know what killed him," he said through clenched teeth.
Varin took a step forward. "Any fool can see what killed him. A sword-thrust took him through the heart. 'Twas a mortal blow. What kind of ghoul are you?"
"It must have been a truly wondrous sword," Lochalain said, "to penetrate the double-mail vest the Lord High Accuser wore beneath his surcoat."
Puzzlement creased Varin's forehead, but only momentarily. "What you suggest is far from impossible," he said. "You and I both know that a spear or even a broadsword can be driven through chain mail. It takes a strong warrior and a sharp point, but it can be done."
"Damn you, are you blind?" Lochalain snarled, unable to hold his anger in check any longer. He waved a hand, indicating the wound. "I could pass my fist through the hole in his breast. No broadsword killed him, nor was he slain by lance or spear. His heart no longer resides within its cavity. Explain that when you stand before the King and explain how his Lord High Accuser died while under your protection—if you can!"
Color drained from Varin's face. Lochalain lurched past him and down the steps. He stood beside the frozen pond, his head lowered. Jane had died in this damned place. And now so had Declan, whom he had loved. Could Brynaghar possibly wound him further?
"His murder is none of my doing, that I swear," Varin said.
Lochalain turned to face him and, using the power that Declan had cultivated and refined in him through years of secret training, sensed the truth of Varin's words. Declan's death was as inexplicable to Varin as it was mysterious.
"I believe you," Lochalain said.
"What?" Varin was taken aback.
"I said, I believe you. And the King will believe me when I deliver my report. But there is one other thing I must ask you, m'lord."
Varin exhaled a shuddering sigh of relief. "Name it," he said.
"Why have you still sent no news of the Lord High Accuser's death to Caernelor?"
Varin stared at him for long seconds, incomprehension written across his face. "What brought you to Brynaghar, if not the message Roger conveyed to the King?"
Lochalain could hardly breathe, such was the weight of his memories. They poured through his mind as if a floodgate had been opened. He and Roger, playing hide-and-seek together in the gardens with Roger's younger sister, Jane. Laughing in the sunshine, unaware of the tragedy that lay ahead.
"When did Roger leave Brynaghar?" he said, surprised his voice didn't shake with emotion.
"The morning after the death was discovered, of course," Varin said. "Such was the importance of the news that I did not wish to entrust it to any ordinary messenger. I sent Roger instead."
Lochalain's father had been Varin's most skilled falconer, whose birds always won prizes in the annual competition that drew entrants from Caernelor, Talnaghar and further afield. When his father died of a shaking malady, Varin had taken Lochalain into his household as a companion for his son, Roger.
"The morning after, you say?"
"Aye. Foxworth will confirm this. Ask him, if you will. Roger departed Brynaghar three days ago, with two men riding as escort."
Roger had begun his compulsory military training at the age of twelve. Incredibly, Varin had permitted Lochalain to join him. It was the first time a Caledon had ever been allowed to learn the war strategies and tactics of their Sudlander conquerors. He and Roger had raced each other across the hills every morning, strengthening their bodies, and in the afternoons they'd fought side by side, crossing blades with the grim warmasters Varin fetched north from his native land, men who were as hard and as deadly as their gleaming weapons of steel. Lochalain still bore the scars to prove it. But he had excelled, surpassing all their expectations. He recalled with pride the time when one of the warmasters, making ready to return home at the end of his tour, had presented Lochalain with his sword. For the first time since Lochalain had known him, the cold, scarred warmaster had smiled. Finally a Caledon had won the respect of Sudlanders. He'd shown the sword to Roger, who took it for his own since Caledon were forbidden at that time to own any weapons upon pain of death. But the memory would remain with Lochalain forever.
"Then I cannot explain how I did not meet him," he said to Varin. "I rode from Caernelor three days ago. Even had Roger been delayed, for whatever reason, we should have passed each other on the road."
Varin shook his head. "If you did not meet Roger, how did you know the Lord High Accuser had been murdered?"
At the age of fifteen Roger left Brynaghar to attend the King's School in Caernelor. Lochalain had thought his life would change, that he'd become a servant, no different from the rest. Instead, Varin had presented him with a dark blue uniform and offered him a place in his service. Lochalain's heart had nearly burst with joy that day. And Jane's smile had poleaxed him, as bright and as warm as the sun, turning his knees to water and squeezing his heart. He'd cursed his own stupidity. How could he have been so blind? Jane was no longer a childhood playfriend, she'd grown into womanhood, and possessed a breathtaking beauty as well as a kind and generous nature. With Roger absent from Brynaghar, their relationship deepened. They sought each other's company daily, strolling in the gardens, or riding amid the rolling hills surrounding Brynaghar. Varin had never once indicated, by look or word or deed, that he'd any objection to his daughter's friendship with his Caledon esquire.
Two years later Roger had returned to Brynaghar, a stranger to Lochalain, who hardly recognized the arrogant lordling. Roger had no time for his boyhood friend; he preferred instead the companionship of his own kind, of Sudlander knights and soldiers. Disappointment had wounded Lochalain, but he still had Jane. Her warm friendship more than made up for Roger's haughty coldness.
Varin was staring at him, waiting for his answer. The lie came smoothly to Lochalain's lips: "Declan carried messenger birds in his pannier. He released one the night he reached Brynaghar, confirming he'd arrived safely. He was to have released a second in the morning, bearing further news. It never arrived. The King ordered me to discover why."
And then, shortly after Roger's return, Jane had drowned in the pond, the blame falling inexplicably upon Lochalain, whose world had collapsed that day. Had Foxworth not bundled him out of Brynaghar and sent him to stay with some friends in Caernelor, Varin would surely have slain him.
The memories faded. Varin's confusion had become concern. He turned and hurried back inside the Keep without another word.
Lochalain waited until he was certain Varin was gone before he knelt beside Declan's body and prized his frozen eyelids open. Upon meeting Lochalain for the first time, Declan had told him that he'd seen something within him, the rare power that the Caledon Druids had sought among young children. The Druids called it the Sign. Declan had cultivated Lochalain's hidden abilities, extending them beyond anything he'd ever imagined possible. Now he used his talent to search Declan's final memories, frozen within his dead brain. He saw what Declan's eyes had seen in the moments before his death. Lochalain watched, with a mixture of fascination and horror, as the black shadow spilled into the watch tower and slew Declan. The demon had possessed incredible strength. Alone and unprepared for such a confrontation, Declan hadn't stood a chance.
"I am sorry, my friend," Lochalain whispered. Hot tears burned their way down his cheeks. "I should have been here with you. Together we might have defeated the enemy." He closed Declan's eyelids again.
As he rose, Lochalain realized he'd forgotten something. What had happened to Makdoor? There was no sign of him here. Lochalain had no way of knowing when Declan and Makdoor had become separated—or if Makdoor had also been taken by the demon. He shuddered at the very thought.
Hearing footsteps, he covered Declan again and went quickly to the doorway. The same two soldiers came trudging across the courtyard. They climbed into the pond house and stamped snow off their boots.
"Lord Varin bids you join him inside," one of them said. "If you will follow me—"
"Where is he?"
"In the library."
"I know the way. Remain here at your post."
Lochalain left the pond house, never looking back.
Little had changed inside the Keep. The paintings and tapestries, the statues and busts, were all familiar friends. Lochalain climbed the stairs to the second floor and found Varin, Foxworth and two unknown knights in the library, studying a map spread across the table. Varin looked up from the map as Lochalain entered.
"Lochalain, allow me introduce Sir Galdor and Sir Trefall, from Castle Talnaghar. Their patrol arrived yesterday and was due to return to Talnaghar today. They have volunteered their services, without reservation."
Lochalain had nodded to each man as Varin named them. Galdor was perhaps Varin's age. His hair had turned iron gray and his tanned face bore scars from several campaigns. Trefall—he knew that name, surely?—appeared to be Lochalain's age and was marked by narrow features and pale blue eyes. Galdor returned Lochalain's nod easily but the younger Trefall stared at him coldly, making no acknowledgement of the formal introduction. Lochalain presumed Trefall disliked the Caledon. That attitude came as no surprise, Lochalain had encountered hostility from Sudlanders all his life. The difference now was that Caledon servants of the Sudlander king were permitted to carry weapons. Because of this, Sudlander prejudice rarely strayed beyond chill looks and sneers.
Varin continued, "Lochalain, I realize you have important business to attend to—"
Lochalain held up a hand, interrupting him. "Lord Declan's corpse will keep. I'll join the search willingly if you can lend me a fresh horse," he said.
"Good," Varin said, and studied the map again. Lochalain had neither wanted nor expected any thanks, but Foxworth smiled at him even if Varin did not. The Sudlanders could be trusted to carry out a competent and thorough search but Varin wanted Lochalain's Caledon hunting skills and instincts to improve their chances of success, that much was obvious.
"How many men do you have?" Lochalain said.
"I have twenty men under my command," Galdor said. "If Roger's disappearance is a foretaste of hostile Caledon rebel activity then perhaps 'twould be best if Brynaghar's garrison remained at full strength."
Lochalain nodded agreement, though he suspected Declan's death and Roger's disappearance might be related, and both had nothing at all to do with the Caledon who still refused to accept Sudlander rule. As for Brynaghar—if attacked, Varin would certainly need every man he could muster, if Sergeant Erlun and the gatehouse sentries were anything to go by.
Trefall continued to look daggers at him and realization came suddenly upon Lochalain. The chaos of Declan's death had masked the memory. Trefall was the son of Lord Sander, Master of Talnaghar, Varin's friend and ally. Before her death, Jane had been promised to Trefall. A political marriage, she'd told Lochalain, her voice oddly distant as they'd sat beneath the apple tree the day before she'd died, watching the sun sink slowly toward the hills. He'd said nothing. What was there to say?
"All other business must wait," Lochalain said, staring directly at Trefall, "until we find Roger."
The young knight apparently understood Lochalain's meaning for he gave a barely perceptible nod. But the message in his cold blue eyes was clear. Before Lochalain left Brynaghar, there would be a reckoning.
Galdor rode between Lochalain and Trefall as they traveled south from Castle Brynaghar. Whether this was by accident or design Lochalain didn't know, but he was thankful for it. The last thing he wanted was an "accident" to befall him, courtesy of Trefall's malevolence. He couldn't help but think Trefall would have made Jane a poor husband. She'd been a gentle, kind soul. Trefall would never have appreciated her or nurtured her love.
They were an hour out from Brynaghar and the skies were beginning to clear to the south when Trefall said, "I propose I take some men and ride on ahead, to cover the ground more quickly. If I find anything, I'll send a rider back to summon you."
Galdor readily agreed. He assigned four men to accompany Trefall, who galloped off down the road at full speed. His troop struggled to keep up with the young knight. As soon as he was out of sight, Galdor said, "How do you rate his chances of finding anything?"
Lochalain shook his head. "I saw nothing on my way to Brynaghar that suggested any kind of struggle had taken place on the road."
Galdor nodded thoughtfully. "Two of Lord Varin's best men accompanied Roger," he said. "I know them. They're good soldiers. Had they been attacked, they would have given a fair account of themselves. You don't strike me as the kind of man who falls asleep in his saddle, Lochalain. If there had been any sign of a struggle, I think you would have noticed."
Lochalain ignored Galdor's subtle compliment but nodded agreement with his logic. "Perhaps you ought to have mentioned this to Trefall?"
"Hell, no. Better to let him forge ahead and check the road is clear. Trefall makes a poor traveling companion. Less kind souls might say he makes a poor anything, for that matter."
"So he's not the man his father is?" Lochalain said, wanting to draw Galdor out a little more.
Galdor looked at him sharply, then smiled. "I ought to watch that tongue of mine. It wags much too often." He sighed, as if resigning himself to finish what he'd started. "No, Trefall is nothing like his father, whom I am privileged to serve. Lord Sander is a soldier who commands loyalty from his men. His son, on the other hand, is a wastrel who cannot be trusted to venture forth from Talnaghar alone. There are too many taverns on the road to distract him from his duties. Every time Trefall rides, an escort must accompany him."
"He's fond of ale, then?"
"Since it's hardly a state secret, aye, he is. He and Roger were regular visitors to the alehouses." He shrugged. "Lord Varin chose to look the other way, what with Lord Sander being his friend, but even the most generous among us thought Trefall was hardly the best influence young Roger could wish for." He grinned at Lochalain. "You'll think me a tattle-wife if I keep this up."
Lochalain laughed, liking the older man. "Not at all. You are simply more honest than most. What's been said will go no further, I promise you."
"If I thought it would, I would not have spoken. Foxworth told me you can be trusted. I bow to his judgment in such matters."
They rode in silence for a while, then Galdor said, "So tell me, Lochalain, what do you think might have happened to Roger?"
Lochalain gave Galdor the honest answer he deserved. "I think he and his escort were attacked on their way to Caernelor, driven off the road, and murdered."
Galdor pulled his horse to a stop and stared at him. The riders behind them also halted. Lochalain noted they didn't just sit waiting—two men turned about and trotted back down the road to ensure they weren't being followed, while others rode up onto the high banks on either side of the road to examine the surrounding countryside. Evidently Galdor had trained his soldiers well in the art of caution. They made stark contrast to the Brynaghar's lax sentries.
"Have you proof of this?" Galdor demanded.
"No. But you asked me what I think, so I told you."
Galdor pursed his lips. "So I did, and so you have."
They continued on their way and Lochalain sensed Galdor's mood change. It was as if he'd suddenly accepted Roger must be dead and was now considering how best to impart this news to Lord Varin, his master's close friend.
After a while Galdor called another halt. He turned in his saddle and addressed his men. "Let's start looking around," he said. "Spread out, in pairs. Keep within sight of each other at all times. Use your the horns if you find anything. When I blow five notes, rally on my position."
The riders, armed with a mix of lances and crossbows, the latter a favorite Sudlander weapon, left the road and picked their way across the snow-covered land. Lochalain chose his own way. He guided his horse over the rise and down among some bushes that were nearly invisible beneath their thick blanket of snow. His keen eyes searched for broken, churned ground beneath the snow. Animal tracks were all about but there was nothing that might have been caused by a struggle of any kind.
Galdor's men quartered the land, searching rapidly and efficiently. Lochalain took his own path through the bushes. Two riders ahead of him neared a copse of trees heavy with a mushroom cap of snow. He watched one of the men dismount. The second man rode slowly around the copse, checking out an area of dead ground. The soldier who'd dismounted peered into the copse, searching among the trees.
Sudden movement caught Lochalain's eye. A fox in its white winter coat leaped over a depression in the ground that marked the path of a frozen stream. The fox glanced back over its shoulder at him, then vanished into a hole. Lochalain looked back toward the trees and saw a riderless horse struggling up the slope, driven by fear and panic. The second man was still checking out the dead ground—Lochalain could see his helmet and lance bobbing up and down. Where was the soldier who'd dismounted?
Lochalain pulled his sword free of its scabbard and rode hard toward the trees. As he drew near he saw a twisted shape that might have been the soldier, lying in the snow. Something stood over the body. It turned its head to look at Lochalain and he sucked in a sharp breath, for the creature's face was terrible to behold, the face of a beast, with huge jaws lined with broken fangs. Yet its yellow eyes burned with intelligence.
His horse reared up, terrified. Fearing being trapped if the horse rolled, Lochalain kicked his feet free of the stirrups and jumped from the saddle. The thick snow served to cushion his fall. His horse bolted, its eyes rolling with fear. Lochalain staggered upright and waded through the knee-deep snow, his sword gripped in both hands. He didn't have a horn to summon Galdor and his men, worse luck. But he wasn't willing to let the creature escape.
He was close enough now to see that the soldier's throat had been torn out. Blood turned the snow scarlet. Lochalain shouted a wordless challenge. The creature spread its black wings—wings! No tracks in the snow!—and leapt at him. He received an impression of a wiry, powerful body that absorbed light, of arms and legs that terminated in hooked claws instead of hands and feet. Its wings blotted out the world and it smashed into Lochalain with stunning force. Talons raked the chain mail he wore beneath his surcoat, parting the iron links as if they offered no more protection than cloth. It bore down upon him, crushing him to the ground. Snow filled his mouth and the creature's fetid breath clogged his nostrils. He gasped, but maintained his grip upon his sword and stabbed upward, almost by reflex. The creature's head snapped back and it screamed, twisting away from him and staggering backward, giving him a brief respite. Lochalain rolled onto his side, spitting snow. His sword protruded from its torso, the blade half-buried in its black flesh. He watched with a mounting sense of disbelief as the creature's claw closed about the sword and effortlessly pulled the weapon free. Its blood splashed across the snow, gleaming black like its flesh. It threw the sword away, contemptuous of the human weapon, then crouched low and slowly advanced on Lochalain. He tried to retreat but the snow tripped him, pulled him down, made every movement clumsy.
The creature's chest suddenly sprouted a crossbow bolt. Then another. Galdor's men were closing in fast from all directions, but not fast enough to satisfy Lochalain. The creature swept an arm down, snapping the shafts as if they were nothing more than annoying insects, and hissed at him. The hiss was a promise of death.
Galdor galloped past Lochalain and urged his horse to leap. The powerful and fearless stallion bore the winged creature to the ground and crushed it beneath iron-shod hooves. Galdor's longsword hacked through one wing and into the creature's neck. It tried to rise, its remaining wing flapping feebly, but Galdor circled around and struck again, stabbing it in the back. The creature collapsed and lay unmoving, an obscene black shape upon the blanket of churned snow.
Lochalain lay on his back, trying to catch his breath. Galdor dismounted and helped him to his feet. "Are you all right, lad?" the knight said, inspecting him for any sign of injury. Lochalain probed the place where the claws had torn his mail shirt, but the flesh beneath was miraculously intact.
"My pride's sore wounded, but aside from that, I appear to be unharmed." His words belied his fear. Every inch of him was trembling from the encounter. "I thank you for your help."
Galdor grunted. "No need, lad. You did your part." He went to where Lochalain's sword lay and picked it up, returning it to Lochalain hilt first. Then he looked at the creature. "What is that thing?"
"It is a creature of Shadow," Lochalain told him.
Galdor crossed himself. "Daras protect us! We must be thankful you are still alive."
"Aye." Lochalain drew his sword through the snow to wipe it clean of the winged demon's ichor, then dried it on his cloak before sliding it back into its scabbard. At last the second rider galloped back to see what had happened. He gazed at his comrade's body, plainly shocked by the unexpected death. Galdor glared at him as the man dismounted but didn't berate him—there was no need, the man knew his failing. Instead, Galdor directed the soldier to check the copse. Another pair of riders dismounted and went into the trees after him, their crossbows held ready.
There were no more winged monsters lurking within, but Galdor's men found Roger and the two soldiers who'd escorted him from Castle Brynaghar. They dragged the frozen bodies out of the copse. Their flesh was as white as the snow that lay about them for they had been drained of all blood, as the horrible fang wounds in their necks testified.
Lochalain knelt down and studied Roger's corpse. Horrific damage had been inflicted upon the body. Lord Varin's son, once Lochalain's friend, had sustained enough mortal wounds to kill a dozen men. By contrast, the soldiers beside him had only received a couple of wounds apiece, sufficient to kill them. They'd not been mutilated like Roger.
Galdor beckoned to his sergeant. "Lochalain and I will take Lord Varin's son back to Brynaghar. You stay here and tell Sir Trefall what happened. Follow us when he returns."
The sergeant nodded, then ordered Roger's body wrapped in a cloak and tied to the horse that had belonged to the dead soldier. Galdor led the horse back toward the road. Lochalain spared the winged creature a final glance, and rode after him.
The early winter night overtook them long before they reached Brynaghar's gates. Galdor shouted at the sentries and the outer gates finally swung open. They rode into the entry-way and waited until the outer gates were closed and the inner portcullis raised. It seemed Foxworth had spoken with Sergeant Erlun, which was all to the good.
Servants carried the bundle containing Roger's body into the Keep. Foxworth directed them to the library. A table was cleared, and the frozen body laid upon it and unwrapped. The servants hung more lanterns, then left Galdor and Lochalain alone.
Footsteps came from the landing. Varin appeared in the doorway. Lochalain couldn't read his expression but he sensed the measure of his feelings as Varin stared at his dead son. Lochalain looked away. Varin entered the room. Foxworth came after him and moved to join Galdor. They had a whispered exchange and Foxworth showed surprise at Galdor's news, glancing once at Lochalain.
Varin slowly circled the table, stopping when he stood face-to-face with Lochalain. "Did those clever eyes of yours tell you who killed my son?" he demanded.
"He was slain by a creature of Shadow, m'lord," Lochalain said. The very air in the room seemed to turn colder at the mention of the name. He hadn't meant to sound blunt or callous. There was simply no other way to convey the news.
"How do you know this?" Varin said.
"We found the demon, and slew it," Lochalain said.
Varin stared at him for long seconds. "You expect me to believe such tales?"
"It's true, m'lord," Galdor said. "The demon murdered one of my men and attacked Lochalain. It was not an easy thing to kill, but we killed it." He drew in a deep breath, then went on, "We found Roger, and his escort, in the demon's lair."
Varin shook his head. "Surely he was slain by Caledon rebels?"
Lochalain pointed at the body. "His silver rings and the chain he wore around his neck are untouched. Had he been slain by mortal men, they would have looted his body. But no creature of Shadow will willingly touch silver. It is known to cause them great pain."
Varin's expression slowly changed as the truth of it all began to sink in. Sympathy grew in Lochalain's chest but he crushed the emotion ruthlessly. He'd lost Jane all those years ago. Instead of offering him sympathy, Varin had tried to murder him.
"I'll see that burial arrangements are made," Foxworth said. Varin nodded slowly, but Lochalain stopped Foxworth before he could reach the door.
"If Roger was killed by Shadow, the possibility exists he may rise again, as a servant of Shadow," he said. "You must permit me to perform a Sealing."
Foxworth stared at him, surprised, and so did Galdor. The Chamberlain was genuinely shocked but the knight slowly nodded, as if his worst suspicions had been confirmed.
"How is it that you possess the knowledge to do such a thing?" Varin asked.
Lochalain said, "I mean no disrespect, m'lord, but if we are to save Roger's soul we must act swiftly." Declan would have been displeased with him, he knew. The strength of the Circle lay in its secrecy, as he'd never tired of telling Lochalain. But sand was trickling through the hourglass, and the dark of the night was fast approaching.
Varin lowered his head. "Then let it be done," he said at last. "I do not wish my son to become a servant of Shadow." His voice quivered with emotion.
Relief flooded Lochalain. The consequences had Varin refused to allow the Sealing would have been unthinkable. Once Roger rose, if he did, it would take considerable sorcery to be rid of him. If they could be rid of him. The Possessed were not easily vanquished.
"None of you need be present," Lochalain said. "It would be better, in fact, if I performed the deed alone so there are no distractions."
Varin exhaled slowly. "For that, at least, I am thankful," he said. He turned away and lurched to the door. Foxworth moved to help him but Varin waved him away.
"I'll stay with you if you like," Galdor said.
Somehow Lochalain managed a smile. "Thank you, Sir Galdor, but I will manage, and there is little you can do in any case."
"Very well. But I'll be halfway up the stairs, with my sword ready. If you need me, shout and I'll come running."
"I will. Thank you."
Galdor went out. Foxworth would have followed him, but Lochalain placed a hand upon his sleeve. "I'll need a jug of wine. Pour a quarter of it out first. There's no need for a cup—I won't be drinking it. Hurry, please."
The jug was quickly brought. Lochalain smiled at Foxworth in a vain attempt to lessen his former tutor's obvious concern, then closed the door on him. He was alone, save for the corpse of his childhood friend.
Lochalain unfastened his cloak and threw it over a chair. Roger was dead two days already. If the powers of Shadow intended to take him for their own, they'd be working on Roger now. It would be close—damned close.
He drew his dagger and cut the palm of his own hand, allowing his blood to run into the wine. As he did so he whispered the first words of the Sealing, invoking elemental powers. The wine jug grew warm. He put it down and tore a strip of cloth from his shirt which he used to bind his cut hand. Lifting the jug again, he tilted it and poured the bloodwine onto the floor, shuffling backwards around the table. He drew two circles, one inside the other, surrounding the table and Roger's corpse.
In the gap between the circles he painted the Druidic runes required by the Sealing, using his fingers as a brush to form the characters. A strong wind gusted outside suggesting a storm might be on the way, natural or otherwise. Lochalain opened Roger's mouth and poured some of the bloodwine down his throat. He put the jug down again and watched for any reaction. None was forthcoming, which added to his growing sense of relief. He was about to speak the final words of the Sealing, which would forever deny the forces of Shadow access to Roger's soul, when the corpse suddenly sat up on the table with its eyes wide open.
Sweat broke upon Lochalain's brow. He spoke rapidly, his voice becoming higher and more frantic with each heartbeat as he hurried to finish the Sealing. The last words faded, leaving only a hollow echo. He moved away from the table, but didn't dare step across the circles he'd drawn. That way lay certain death. The same forces that were to have shielded Roger's body from Possession would just as easily destroy Lochalain if he dared abuse them. They hung in the air, unseen but sensed, neither benevolent nor malevolent—simply powerful. Lochalain licked his lips. Declan's training hadn't covered this contingency.
Roger swung his legs off the table. His dead eyes regarded Lochalain incuriously for a moment. Then he looked down at the circles drawn upon the floor. His full lips formed a cunning smile. At the same time, Lochalain noticed that the silver chain and the rings that Roger had worn were now missing. They'd been removed. When, and by whom? Varin, Foxworth and Galdor were all unlikely suspects. One of the servants? Lochalain couldn't recall anyone approaching the table, but someone obviously had.
Roger's mouth opened and he spoke with a voice from beyond the grave—a voice that was not his own. "You seek to deny me the use of this body, but you are too late." Lochalain shivered, alone and afraid. An obscene chuckle came from deep within Roger's throat.
"Who are you?" Lochalain demanded.
"My name is not yours to know," the corpse told him. "I am my master's servant, and my master shall have a foothold in this world soon. Tremble in fear, little Caledon. You can do nothing to stop us."
Lochalain's shaking fingers sought the silver locket he wore about his neck—the locket Jane had given him on the day she'd told him she must leave Brynaghar forever. She'd pressed it into his hand, trying to hide her tears. No matter what happens, Lochalain, I will always be your friend. He snapped the chain and threw the locket with all his strength. Roger's eyes widened in the split-second before the locket and chain struck him full in the face. Dazzling light blinded Lochalain and thunder hammered his ears. Storm winds picked him up and threw him headlong out of the protective circle. He slammed against the door and slid to the floor, his senses scattering.
Thick, choking smoke filled the room. Lochalain coughed and retched until the door was pushed opened and Galdor pulled him out through the gap and onto the landing. Varin and Foxworth were with him, as were two of Galdor's soldiers, their swords drawn and their faces grim.
"Are you all right, lad?" Galdor asked, his voice fainter than it should have been. Lochalain wondered whether his hearing had been permanently damaged by the release of raw power. He held up a hand, requesting a moment to catch his breath, then slowly climbed to his feet, leaning against the door frame for support. Galdor made ready to catch him if he fell, but Lochalain shook his head. Smoke still spewed from the room but he could see Roger, lying on his back upon the floor, his eyes closed and his expression peaceful. The twin circles Lochalain had drawn on the floor were gone, wiped away—only a charred, blackened outline of each remained. The symbols were unreadable. Of Jane's silver locket, there was no sign. It was lost to him forever, like its former owner.
Varin grabbed Lochalain's sleeve. "Is it done? Is the Sealing done?" he demanded, shaking him until he had Lochalain's attention.
"Aye," Lochalain replied, pulling his arm away. "It's done." He didn't add, Though not in the way I'd intended! It had been a close thing. "You may bury your son, m'lord," he said. "Shadow cannot claim him now."
Galdor gave a signal and the two soldiers entered the room. One covered Roger's body with a cloak while the other went to the window and opened the shutters to let the smoke out.
"I am in your debt, Lochalain," Varin said, whispering the words. Then he looked up, and his expression hardened. "But make no mistake, what happened here is insufficient to wipe clean your slate. Don't think this will stay my hand when the time comes for settlement of our grievance, as it surely will. The King cannot protect you forever."
Having said his piece Varin stepped past Lochalain into the room. Galdor glanced at Lochalain, clearly surprised by Varin's outburst. Then he followed Varin inside.
"Come," Foxworth said, putting his arm around Lochalain and supporting him. "Let me show you to the quarters I've prepared for you. A warm fire, hot food and a flask of strong wine await you. You certainly look as if you need it."
Lochalain didn't argue.
He knew before he even opened his eyes that it was the middle of the night. Lochalain sensed two sentries outside his door and a third man waiting by the stairs at the end of the corridor. He wondered whether Foxworth or Varin had assigned the guards, and why they'd thought such precautions might be necessary. For his protection? Or to watch him?
He put his suspicions away for the moment, and rolled over onto his other side.
Makdoor sat in the chair alongside the bed. The old Druid smiled at Lochalain, who smiled back. "I hope I didna wake ye," Makdoor said.
"I can't tell you how pleased I am to see you," Lochalain said, rising up onto one elbow. "I was worried about you."
Makdoor nodded. "I know. But it was impossible for me to reach ye before this. Ye've not been alone for a single moment."
Lochalain pushed back the blankets and swung his legs off the bed. He discovered he was wearing a long flannel nightshirt. He vaguely remembered putting it on before collapsing upon the bed and falling into a deep slumber.
"Tell me what happened," he said, as he took off the nightshirt and started dressing himself. "How did someone as clever as Declan allow himself to be trapped and killed?"
Makdoor lowered his gaze and sighed. He was, in many ways, the most unusual member of the Circle. Lochalain often found himself forgetting that Makdoor was dead, for the old Druid retained all the aspects and manners of his previous existence. He almost appeared solid, sitting there in the dark, wearing his earth-brown robes and the thick leather belt that had been fashioned by skilled Caledon craftsmen in ages past, before the Sudlanders came and changed everything.
"Declan dined with Lord Varin," Makdoor said. "They discussed the political scene in Caernelor over dinner, and the current situation with the Caledon tribes. Then Varin asked why Declan had come to Brynaghar. Declan told him he'd come to unmask a traitor."
Lochalain pulled thick woolen socks over his feet, silently cursing himself for not mending the ragged hole his big toe kept pushing through. He stood and stepped into his calfskin trews, looping the fasteners about his waist and tying a slipknot.
"That wasn't too clever of him," he said. "What then?"
"Varin demanded to know who the traitor was. Declan said he didn't know yet, but would by morning. Then he retired to his quarters, leaving Varin to mull over what had been said. Declan had told me to remain behind and watch, and so I did. Varin ordered the servants out of the room—all but one, to whom he passed a written note and an iron key. I followed the servant, but lost him when he left the Keep and passed through a barrier."
Lochalain stopped in the act of pulling his shirt over his head. He stared at Makdoor through the neck-hole. "A barrier, you say?"
"Indeed. It prevented me from entering the North Tower."
Lochalain pulled the shirt down and tied the collar against the chill night air. "So, whoever dwells in the North Tower is a sorcerer?" he said.
"That may not be so," Makdoor said. Lochalain looked at him. "The barrier had an odd feel about it. A feeling of—I don't know, of antiquity. I believe it may have existed for some time. The servant might not even have known it was there."
"And I returned and informed Declan. He decided against entering the North Tower because of the barrier, and settled on the old watch tower instead. He knew he was being observed, but that was all part of his plan. He wanted to set himself up as bait, to lure his enemies within range of his sword."
Lochalain digested this while tucking in his shirt and then shrugging on his fleece-lined jerkin. Over the top of this went his double-layered mail vest, another gift from Declan, torn where the Shadow demon's claws had eagerly sought his flesh. Lastly he put on his scarlet surcoat, recalling as if it were only yesterday the day King Methelir had presented him with the surcoat and a scarlet pennant for his lance. Methelir had ordered Lochalain to kneel, then touched the flat of his great sword to Lochalain's right shoulder, declaring him Herald. Only Declan had smiled, while the rest of the assembled Sudlander nobility had frowned in disapproval at a Caledon being given official title and rank.
Makdoor looked up at him. Lochalain would have sworn that tears brimmed in the ghost's eyes. "I daresay I might have been able to help him, if only by distracting the Shadow demon so Declan could escape," the old Druid said. "But I did not, coward that I am."
Lochalain wanted to place his hand upon Makdoor's shoulder, to assure him he'd done no wrong, that Declan's death was nobody's fault except Declan's, but such a physical gesture was impossible. Damn Declan! He should have known better than to challenge the enemy himself—he should have summoned Tarelius or Brecht or any of the others to help him. Sadness squeezed Lochalain's heart but he told himself his grief must wait until later. There was still Circle business that needed doing, and now that Declan was gone the responsibility fell upon Lochalain's shoulders. Damn Declan, for throwing away his life and leaving him alone. He wiped the stinging tears from his eyes and said to Makdoor, "The choice was his, not yours. He gambled and he lost."
"Aye." Makdoor didn't sound convinced.
Lochalain sat down again and pulled on his boots, then rose from the bed and took up his cloak, turning it inside out so that the white inner lining replaced the King's scarlet. He settled the cloak about his shoulders and fastened it in place using the bronze Caledon brooch that had been his mother's, in a distant life he could barely remember.
"Where are ye going, Lochalain?" Makdoor asked.
"Where d'you think? To the North Tower, to study this barrier of yours."
"Just before he died," Makdoor said, "I told Declan he was taking a terrible risk. He ignored my heed and paid an awful price. How can ye not be afraid?"
Lochalain buckled on his belt, adjusting the scabbard and pouch so they sat comfortably. "Declan feared what he saw in a dream-vision," he said. "So much so that he rode to Brynaghar with all haste to challenge whatever evil lurked here. I can give no less urgency to the task. The Circle exists to battle Shadow wherever it rears its foul head. If one of us stumbles, the others must take up the banner and continue the struggle. That's what Declan taught me. I'll not let him down, though I'm frightened by what awaits me out there, believe me."
"Is there anything I can say that would persuade ye not to go?"
Makdoor gave an audible sigh that passed through Lochalain like a cold wind. "To reach the North Tower from within the Keep," the ghost said, "ye must pass through an outer door guarded by two sentries. They recognized Varin's servant and let him pass, but they will try to stop ye."
"Then I'll have to make my own route."
"And what of me?" Makdoor said. "What can Makdoor do to help?"
"Remain here. If I've not returned by morning, assume the worst. Go to Caernelor, find Tarelius and convey what's happened. It may need a full gathering of the Circle to rid this place of its evil stench."
"Ye cannot do this alone, Lochalain."
"I can damned well try."
Before Makdoor could say anything to stop him Lochalain pulled the heavy drapes, opened the tall windows and stepped outside onto the narrow balcony, immediately closing the doors behind him. The icy wind chilled him despite his heavy clothing. He looked down upon the courtyard below, seeing the outline of the pond house and the soft glow of the lantern within.
He climbed over the slippery balcony rail and didn't give himself time to think about it—he simply jumped, aiming for the highest snowdrift. It cushioned his fall but the impact still knocked the wind out of him. He rolled out of the drift, pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, then held his breath and remained perfectly still as a cloaked figure emerged from the pond house and trudged through the snow, heading back toward the Keep. The figure carried a lantern that splashed yellow light over the ground but from this angle Lochalain couldn't see his face. He imagined one of the sentries had just been relieved by a comrade and was eager to find warmth and shelter inside the Keep. No one was moving inside the pond house. Lochalain made his way to the second wall.
An iron gateway gave access to the smaller garden adjoining the North Tower. The gateway was locked, but Lochalain's training had included lockpicking and certain other tricks which a professional thief might have envied. He had the lock open in a moment and winced as the frozen hinges squealed in protest, but again no one stirred within the pond house. He closed the gate once he was through. He could do little to hide his tracks, but it seemed unlikely that the sentries would stray from the pond house to carry out a search of the gardens for no reason. They were probably huddled inside their cloaks, cursing their bad luck and wondering why Declan's corpse needed guarding anyway. No one was likely to steal it.
When Lochalain had lived in Brynaghar the North Tower had been used to quarter garrison troops. Now Talnaghar was the more important of the two fortresses because of its closer proximity to rebel lands. The North Tower now stood abandoned and unused, with no light showing from any of its slit windows. There were two ways to enter the tower: through the ground level entrance, which was completely blocked by snow and thick branches thrown down by recent ill weather, or across the narrow access bridge that linked the Keep to the North Tower's uppermost floor.
Lochalain stepped back to obtain a better view. From down here he could see the doors at either end of the bridge. The heavy Keep door was guarded on the inside, according to Makdoor. The North Tower bridge door was a low, narrow portal reinforced with iron. Was it guarded, too? Hopefully not. He judged the height as he took the coiled line and its iron grappling hook from his pouch. He carefully unwrapped the grappling iron from its protective leather covering. Its curved talons were razor-sharp, which was why the Caledon called it the Eagle's Claw. He began circling the Claw around his head, playing out the line until the Claw produced a high-pitched whine audible even above the howling wind. When Lochalain let go, the Claw sailed up and over the bridge. He took hold of the dangling line and started climbing, entirely confident of the Claw's grip on the bridge's stonework. Many a Sudlander lord had wondered how thieves could possibly have gained access to his castle and made off with his valuables. The Eagle's Claw would have provided an answer.
The wind suddenly turned Lochalain around and he saw the bulky, menacing shape moving rapidly through the snow toward him. He let go of the line, twisting as he fell so he landed on his hands and feet. He kicked off again instantly, avoiding the sword blade that slashed through the air where his head should have been.
He had no time to draw his own sword. Instead he threw himself at the figure, snapping his head forward so it connected solidly with his unknown assailant's face. The man uttered an agonized cry and stumbled backward, half-blinded, but his sword came up and around to strike Lochalain's shoulder. The blow failed to penetrate Lochalain's mail armor but the impact rendered his left arm useless. He slipped on the snow, narrowly avoiding a deadly cut aimed at his neck. Enraged by the pain in his shoulder and by his assailant's cowardly attack, he charged headlong into the swordsman and bore him bodily to the ground. There he drove his fist into the unseen face again and again, until the body beneath him stopped moving.
At last Lochalain rolled off his attacker, gasping for breath. The unconscious swordsman gurgled, choking. Lochalain wearily pulled him over onto his side; he wanted the swordsman alive for questioning, not drowned by his own blood. He pushed himself up and looked around, half-expecting more would-be assassins to appear, but nothing stirred in the dark and no challenge reached his ears. The swordsman was alone. Lochalain kicked the unmoving body. Thanks to the injury to his shoulder he'd no chance of climbing up onto the connecting bridge now.
Suddenly curious, he knelt down and turned the swordsman's head so the faint light caught his face. It was Erlun, the sergeant he'd encountered when he'd arrived at Brynaghar. The Sudlander's nose was broken and Lochalain had knocked his front teeth out. Well, a few missing teeth wouldn't stop Erlun from talking once he regained consciousness. Who'd given him his orders? Varin? Lochalain would find out soon enough.
Instinct—what Declan had called Lochalain's sixth sense for danger—saved him again. He threw himself away from Erlun, then came up onto one knee, this time with his sword drawn and ready to defend himself against his new attacker.
Something blotted out the sky, something black and evil that absorbed all light and chilled Lochalain more than the icy wind and the freezing snow. The creature hissed at him, its eyes glowing in the dark like twin coals. He snarled back at it, daring it to attack, for here was a second fell creature of Shadow, brother to that which had slain Roger on the road to Caernelor.
Instead of launching itself at him, and before Lochalain could even think about trying to prevent it the Shadow demon turned and plunged its black-scaled claw into Erlun's chest. The claw withdraw, clutching Erlun's heart. Erlun's body shuddered and his legs kicked spasmodically, then became still.
The creature straightened and hissed again at Lochalain, laughing at him. Lochalain rushed to attack but the snow impeded him, made his strike slow and clumsy. The creature spread its great wings and lifted into the air with a single bound so that Lochalain's sword only cut falling snow. He stumbled and slid to a stop, knowing he'd missed his one and only chance.
The Shadow creature ascended on flapping wings until it was lost from sight, leaving Lochalain with only Erlun's heartless corpse for company on this cold and lonely night.
Lochalain took shelter beneath snow-covered bushes until he recovered some of his strength. No one came running from the pond house or from the Keep. Presumably the howling wind had masked his encounter with Erlun, which suited Lochalain well because this night's activity was far from over.
Stirring himself, he went to satisfy his curiosity. Beyond the next gate, in a third, smaller garden, he found what he was looking for. Brynaghar's cemetery contained thirty or more square headstones, laid in neat rows, each stone carved with the name of the person who'd been laid to rest here, surrounded by trees and bushes and, in summertime, beds of flowers.
He brushed snow off the line of stones nearest the gateway until he found the one he was looking for, the newest headstone in the cemetery. The Sudlanders had an odd habit of recording the year, month and day of a person's death, as if this was of great importance to them. Caledon graves by contrast consisted of unmarked stone cairns. The family and friends of the dead knew who lay there, and that was all that ever mattered.
Lochalain took off his glove and ran his fingers over the foreign characters, forming the syllables with his lips. The man's name was Marten and he'd died only days ago. If not for the freezing weather, Lochalain could probably have dug down into the earth with his hands until he reached the shroud. Not that he needed to; he already knew what he'd find. Marten had been murdered.
Declan had described the sorcery involved in a Summoning. A sacrifice was required to open a temporary gateway between this world and the horrible realm of Shadow. Most likely Marten's death had been attributed to illness or disease; his body had been lowered into the earth without anyone even suspecting otherwise. Why should they? But Lochalain knew. Marten's death had opened a gateway to Shadow and a winged demon had answered the call.
He nodded slowly to himself, seeing how it must have been. The summoner—the traitor Declan had tried to flush out?—had directed the demon to the watch tower where Declan hoped to confront his unknown foe. The demon had taken Declan's heart and returned to the Shadow realm with its trophy.
Less than a day later, a second demon had been summoned to slay Roger and his escort as they rode for Caernelor. Who had died to allow that second Summoning to take place? Had any servants or guards been reported missing? Lochalain would have to ask Foxworth. But the demon hadn't been able to take Roger's heart because of the silver jewelry he wore, and so the fell creature had been trapped here until Galdor slew it. Lochalain cursed himself for being so stupid as to not make the connection before now. That was why Roger's body had been so mutilated—the demon had clawed at his corpse in frustrated rage.
Tonight a third demon had appeared, which suggested yet another sacrifice-death. The summoner must have directed the demon here. To murder Erlun? No, of course not—it had been sent to slay Lochalain. But Erlun had appeared and the demon was unable to tell them apart. Thus Erlun had died the death that should have been Lochalain's. It occurred to Lochalain that the demon would soon discover its error. Erlun's death would not open the gateway, allowing it to return to the Shadow realm. The demon would find itself trapped in this world and would return to seek Lochalain out. He looked up at the sky. He'd have to be extra careful from now on.
He made to turn away from Marten's stone, and by accident found Jane's grave. Merciless winds had blown through the cemetery, uncovering her stone. Lochalain sank to his knees, drained by emotion. Of course she'd be here—why hadn't he considered this before now? He bowed his head and wept hot tears for he'd loved her with all his heart. He would gladly have died for her, had anyone given him such a choice. He prayed she'd found peace in death.
"Is there a reason you'd dishonor our dead?"
Lochalain spun upon hearing the first word, his sword raised. But Varin was alone and made no move to attack him. Lochalain lowered his blade, though he didn't sheath it.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"Looking for you," Varin said.
Varin stared at Jane's grave for a moment, then at Marten's exposed headstone. "What are you about, Lochalain? Did you come here to apologize to my daughter for killing her? It's too late for apologies."
Lochalain reversed his sword and drove it point-first into the ground, like a spear. Varin started in surprise as Lochalain crossed the distance between them in two long strides and grabbed hold of him. He spun Varin around, pushing him against the wall and holding him there. Varin tried to break free but his strength was no match for Lochalain's anger.
"You'll not say I killed Jane again," Lochalain said, snarling the words into Varin's face. "I swear, I'll smash your damned teeth down your throat if you do."
"Caledon animal! Let go of me!"
"Animal, is it? I was good enough for you to treat me like your own son until the day she died. And then you blamed me for her death instead of blaming yourself. She did not wish to marry that arrogant swine Trefall, but you insisted, not seeing that she and I—"
He had to stop, as the memory of Jane floating in the pond pained him, but he shook it away and forced himself to go on.
"Her unhappiness drove her to end her own life, and I'll always grieve for her—but you've no right to accuse me of killing her. No right at all. Her death is not on my hands. Do you understand, old man?"
The anger died in Varin's eyes and he looked strangely at Lochalain, no longer struggling against him.
"Do you understand?" Lochalain said wearily, letting go of him and stepping back. His shoulder throbbed where Erlun's blade had struck him. He stalked back to where he'd left his sword and pulled it free. Wiping it clean of snow and earth, he thrust it back into its scabbard.
"Damn you," Varin breathed. "Damn you, Caledon."
"Damn yourself, you old fool," Lochalain said, making to push past him through the gateway, but Varin stepped into his path, denying him the hasty retreat he sought.
"I'll ask you this once, and never again," Varin said. "Tell me the truth, I beg of you." To Lochalain's surprise, Varin sank down onto his knees in the churned snow. "That's right, I'm begging. You've brought me to my knees. There, does this satisfy you?"
"What is it you want of me?"
"Did you murder my daughter? The truth, man! What point is there in lying? I could not hate you more than I do already."
Lochalain stared at him, wishing he was a thousand leagues away from this pain, wishing he never had to lay eyes upon Brynaghar ever again. Jane, murdered? The thought had never once occurred to him in all these years. Jane. Murdered. The two words didn't belong together, refused to share the same sentence.
He sucked in a deep breath, then said, "I swear on the soul of my father, I had nothing to do with her death. Other than, we loved each other, and that led to her unhappiness when you betrothed her to Trefall. I cannot tell you how much I loved her, and how much I miss her still."
Varin lowered his head. A huge, shuddering sigh racked his body and Lochalain, without knowing why, reached down and pulled him to his feet. When Varin looked up at him again his eyes glistened with tears. Lochalain drew back, shaking his head, not understanding any of it. And then he did. He knew, at last, why Varin had sought to kill him on that fatal day.
"You thought I murdered her? All this time—?"
Varin nodded. "Yes, I did. Forgive me, lad, I did."
Forgiveness would be a long time coming, but Lochalain didn't voice that thought. Instead he asked, "What brought you out here? Why did you come looking for me?"
"I came to your room to thank you again for what you did for Roger. Properly, this time, without antagonism. It took me a while to realize the service you did us both. But you were not there, and the sentries outside your door swore you'd not passed them. The hole in the snowdrift below your window told me how you'd got out." He shivered with the cold. "The question is, why?"
Lochalain shook his head. "Let's continue this conversation indoors, before we both freeze to death. There are certain things you and I must discuss, and quickly."
Varin didn't argue. He allowed Lochalain to help him back to the Keep. The door sentry must have been looking out for Varin's return because he opened the portal promptly and slammed it shut again the instant they were inside. Varin was still shivering. Lochalain fumbled with his cloak and removed it, draping it about Varin's shoulders.
"Next time," Lochalain said, "perhaps you'll have the sense to send a servant out to fetch me instead of freezing your own fingers and toes off." Varin didn't reply. Lochalain looked at the sentry. "Do they still keep a fire burning all night in the kitchen?"
The sentry nodded. "They do."
Lochalain led Varin along the hallway and down the circular steps. The temperature rose significantly when they reached the kitchen. Lochalain sat Varin down on a stool, facing the fire. There were no cooks about at this time of night; they'd arrive an hour before dawn to start baking tomorrow's bread. Lochalain filled an iron pot with water from the pump and put it on the plate above the fire. He added a couple of logs from the pile to build the fire up further.
"What must we discuss, Lochalain?" Varin asked through chattering teeth. He looked small and insignificant huddled inside Lochalain's cloak. His eyes were sunken and filled with pain, as if his exchange with Lochalain had re-opened deep, hurtful wounds. Lochalain certainly hoped so.
"Why do you say Jane was murdered?"
Varin stared at him for a moment, then lowered his gaze to the flames. "Of course. You wouldn't know, if it was not your hand that did the deed." He paused for thought, then said, "Jane was strangled. There was—" His fingers fluttered at his neck briefly, then his shaking hand fell away. "There was bruising around her throat. Roger said he'd seen you together in the pond house, just before her body was discovered."
Lochalain nodded. "That's true. She'd asked to see me because she was leaving the next day to visit Talnaghar with you. She gave me a silver locket as a parting gift." The locket—which he'd thrown at Roger—had contained a miniature painting of Jane. The unknown artist had failed to capture her beauty and her spirit, thus the tiny image remained flat and lifeless, but despite this it had always triggered fond memories whenever Lochalain looked at it, which was often. He didn't even have that now.
A parting gift. The significance of Jane's words took his breath away. He closed his eyes and saw it all again: Varin, slumped on his knees beside the pool, his face carved by anguish; Roger, staring across the garden at Lochalain, his expression unreadable; Foxworth, beside Roger, his arm around his shoulders as if consoling him, while one of the guards waded slowly across the pond to pull Jane's body out of the water. She'd seemed so peaceful floating motionless on her back, surrounded by the lilies and flowers, but she'd possessed an unnatural stillness. Her face lay just beneath the surface, distorted by rippling reflections and an occasional bubble of air that escaped from her lips.
And Roger had leaned forward to whisper into his father's ear, never taking his eyes from Lochalain while he poured lies and accusations into Varin's shattered mind.
The water in the iron pot began boiling. Lochalain stirred himself from his unwelcome reverie and found a herb jar on one of the shelves. He opened the lid and sprinkled the ground black powder into a cup, then poured water from the pot on top of the herbs. The sweet scent tickled his nose. He gave the cup to Varin, who accepted it with a grateful nod, wrapping his chilled fingers around it. Varin blew into the cup, cooling the drink slightly, then took a hesitant sip. "What are you thinking, Lochalain?" he asked.
"I am trying to understand the order of events over the past few days. Lord Declan was slain by a Shadow creature, a demon summoned to Brynaghar by sorcery. That sorcery involved the death of a man named Marten, whose grave I found in the cemetery."
Varin frowned, puzzled. "Sergeant Marten, you mean?"
"He died recently?"
"Yes. An unfortunate accident—"
"It was no accident," Lochalain told him. "Marten was murdered as part of the ritual of which I speak. His death opened a doorway to the realm of Shadow. Through that doorway flew the demon that slew Lord Declan."
Varin shook his head. "You purport to be the King's Herald, but there is another side to you, Lochalain, a dark side which I like not at all. You possess knowledge which decent men should not have."
"Were I you, m'lord, I'd worry less about me and more about the traitor who dwells in Brynaghar, and what he plans to do next."
Varin's cup wobbled, such was his shock, spilling hot water. He cursed and shook his hand to cool his burned fingers. "Traitor? What traitor?" he demanded, angry and wary at the same time. "Declan said the same thing yet I know of no traitor."
"Have you not been listening? The traitor who murdered Marten in order to summon the Shadow demon."
"What are you, Lochalain? How is it you speak of these evil things with no more concern than you might talk about the weather?"
"Declan came here to put a stop to whatever evil he knew was growing in Brynaghar—but he'd expected to meet and defeat a human adversary. He hadn't reckoned on coming face to face with a Shadow demon. Tell me, when was Erlun promoted to sergeant?"
Varin blinked in confusion at the sudden change of subject. "Erlun? Why, shortly after Marten died."
"Was his promotion your decision?"
"Of course it was my decision. Erlun was recommended as a suitable replacement for Marten—"
"Recommended by whom?"
Perhaps harsh Lochalain's tone alerted Varin, for his eyes narrowed and he peered at Lochalain suspiciously. "What are you getting at, man? What is the significance of these questions? Is Erlun under suspicion?"
"Erlun's dead," Lochalain said without emotion. "Another Shadow demon slew him tonight. You'll find him in the lesser garden, minus his heart. The creature took it from him before it flew off into the night."
"This is too much," Varin said, shaking his head. "What are we to do, Lochalain? How can we fight such horror?"
"By identifying whoever is responsible, and killing him," Lochalain said. "That's what Declan intended, and I've no better plan. The traitor may have employed demons to do his bidding but they're brainless things, as is proved by Erlun's death. Erlun must've seen me and decided he'd have no better opportunity to kill me. Alas for him, someone had summoned a demon and commanded it to seek me out. Poor Erlun. I really should have thanked him. He probably saved my life."
Varin threw the cup against the wall. It shattered against the stone, spewing steaming water across the kitchen floor.
"Damn you, Lochalain. Must you treat everything as if it is some childish game? First Declan, then my son Roger, and now poor Sergeant Erlun—"
"Who dwells in the North Tower?" Lochalain said.
"Eh? The North Tower? No one. It lies empty."
"You're lying. After you dined with Declan you wrote a message and gave it to your servant. He conveyed it to someone in the North Tower."
"How can you possibly know this?"
Lochalain grabbed the front of Varin's surcoat and pulled him forward. "Answer the damned question," he hissed. Varin tried to pull away but Lochalain held him again, denying him escape.
"You coward," Varin gasped. "If I were only twenty years younger, I'd—"
"I said, answer the question! Who was your message intended for? What did it contain?"
Varin's face took on a haunted look. "I cannot—"
"You cannot what? You can't tell me? Then prepare yourself to tell the King instead. His Lord High Accuser died here. So have others. The traitor Declan sought still stalks Brynaghar's halls. You'll be lucky to keep your spurs let alone this castle, you old fool."
Lochalain let go of him and watched while Varin contemplated that threat. Varin was involved in something, no doubt about it, though Lochalain didn't know what that something might be. Varin had apparently had no part in Declan's death, and his own son had been slain by a demon. Also, the suggestion that Marten had been murdered had surprised him. And yet—
The truth came to Lochalain as he continued to watch Varin. There were two separate, totally unrelated sets of events transpiring here. But one had somehow become entwined with the other. It had to do with Declan's arriving unannounced at Brynaghar's gates. That had set the cat among the crows.
"You thought he'd come to expose you," he said, and Varin's head jerked up, his rheumy eyes filled with guilt and fear of discovery. Lochalain nodded slowly. His guess had struck the target dead center, splitting the gold.
Varin got to his feet and opened his mouth as if to speak, to deny the accusation, but no words came. Instead he fell forward, forcing Lochalain to stoop and catch him. The sight of the crossbow bolt protruding from between Varin's shoulder blades shocked Lochalain, who'd been so focused on Varin's next utterance that he'd failed to react to the dark shape in the corridor and the dull click of the bolt's release. The bolt, intended for Lochalain, had pierced Varin instead.
Lochalain let go of the body, drew his sword and threw it in the same swift, fluid movement, sending it spinning toward the doorway. The black-clad assassin leapt to avoid the unexpected missile, which clattered loudly against the corridor wall. Seeing that Lochalain was how unarmed, the assassin calmly resumed cocking his crossbow, plainly intending to launch a second bolt. A fatal mistake. Lochalain came upon him like a vengeful wraith with Varin's sword in his hand. The point split the assassin's heart. He gasped once in surprise before he slumped, dead.
Lochalain looked left and right but the corridor remained silent and empty. The assassin was alone.
Going down upon one knee, Lochalain pulled away the black cloth mask. He felt nothing as he gazed upon the thoroughly astonished face of Trefall, Lord Sander's son.
The reckoning had come early, and Trefall had lost.
Lochalain knew he was on borrowed time. Once the bodies were discovered and the alarm raised, armed men would come looking for him. They might not harm the King's Herald, but they would certainly throw him into a dungeon cell until a messenger could be sent to Caernelor. Lochalain could only imagine what King Methelir would say when he learned what his Lord High Accuser and his Herald had been up to. Doubtless he'd order Lochalain brought to Caernelor for questioning, but that delay might well prove fatal to both of them if Lochalain's suspicions were correct. And in any case, would the traitor allow him to ever reach Caernelor? Would a dungeon cell provide defense against a Shadow demon?
He searched Varin's body and found the iron key in one of his pockets. Lochalain climbed to the top floor of the Keep and found the door Makdoor had described, guarded by two Brynaghar soldiers. The pair glanced at each other, then reached for their swords—far too slowly. Lochalain stabbed one man through the heart, ducked beneath the second man's wild swing and butted the soldier full in the face. His foe collapsed, his eyes rolling.
Surprised by how easily he'd defeated the pair, Lochalain unbolted the door and shoved it open. Snow blinded him for a second, then he saw the narrow access bridge that connected the Keep to the North Tower. He unhooked a lantern from the wall and traversed the bridge carefully. Its surface was slippery with ice. He glanced warily at the sky above, half-expecting the winged demon to re-appear to claim his heart, but nothing came of his fears. He glanced down into the garden below and saw the outline of Erlun's body, its arms and legs spread wide. Falling snow had almost covered the corpse.
Reaching the tower door, Lochalain sensed the invisible barrier Makdoor had been unable to pass through. It completely surrounded the North Tower. As Makdoor had intimated, it was a mystic shield against supernatural intrusion, and didn't hinder Lochalain in the slightest. Would a Shadow demon be able to pass within? Lochalain doubted it, but then he'd no real idea of the demon's strength. Galdor had slain Roger's demon in daylight, when its powers were at their weakest. Had they discovered it at night, things might have gone differently.
The North Tower door was locked, as he'd expected, but the key he'd taken from Varin's pocket fitted neatly into the hole. The lock clicked sharply suggesting the mechanism must have been recently greased. Lochalain nudged the door ajar with the toe of his boot, not quite knowing what to expect. The room beyond lay empty. A strong gust of wind blew an inner door open, revealing a stairway that led down into the bowels of the tower.
Lochalain descended cautiously, sword in hand, holding the lantern before him. Its flickering light revealed an arched doorway closed off by a heavy curtain. He shifted this aside with the point of his sword. The chamber beyond contained cots, chairs and a long table. Lochalain passed through the opening and entered a circular chamber. The slit windows had been blocked off with wood. Faded tapestries depicting hunting scenes and forest views covered the walls. Mice scuttled in corners, afraid of him. The long table contained several platters, cups, empty stone jugs. The food scraps hadn't begun to rot. Up to a dozen people had recently met here. They'd eaten, and then discussed—what? Varin could have told him, but Varin was dead. Lochalain had to think, and think fast, but he was deadly tired. Cold was beginning to spread through his body and take hold.
A trick of the lamplight revealed scratched runes forming a crude circle in the chamber's far corner. The runes were similar, but not identical to, those which Lochalain had drawn upon the floor around Roger's corpse. He walked around the circle, each step chilling him more. He could feel the power emanating from this obscenity, this gateway to the Shadow world. At the moment it was closed, but it could easily be opened again. All it needed was blood. The dark stains and splashes upon the flagstones told him that blood had already been spilled, on more than one occasion.
He sensed another presence in the chamber. "Will you come out, or must I come looking for you?" he said.
Long seconds passed, then the Druid stepped from behind one of the tapestries, which concealed a narrow alcove. He wore dark robes and a cloak trimmed with black fur, the hood thrown back. He slipped a thin dagger back into a scabbard on his belt. Plainly he'd hoped Lochalain would walk past the tapestry so he might stab him without warning. Lochalain didn't know him, but that was hardly surprising. Only three Druids had thus far agreed to join the Circle, recognizing that the evil power of Shadow presented a far greater enemy than the Sudlander invaders ever would.
The Druid said, "Ye are mistaken if you think ye can harm me."
"I wouldn't dream of it," Lochalain said. "I'm much more interested in what you can tell me."
"Why should I reveal anything to ye, a traitor to yer own people?" the Druid said. He stood with his hands folded within his sleeves, staring at Lochalain with an expression of utmost disdain—which vanished abruptly when the roof timbers above him creaked and shifted, showering him with fine dust. His eyes widened in realization that Lochalain had drawn upon the elemental forces surrounding Brynaghar, focusing them in this room. A twisting of these forces could bring the roof down—or might easily result in the entire tower collapsing about them.
"Ye have made yer point," the Druid said quietly, his arrogance tempered now with a respectful fear. He brushed the dust off his shoulders. "How much do ye know, and how much is still speculation?"
Lochalain shrugged, taking pains to conceal the strain of what he'd done. His head throbbed and his limbs were tired and weak. He needed a moment to recover his strength and his wits. Declan would have scolded him for such stupidity but he'd wanted the Druid's cooperation, and quickly. They might not be alone for much longer.
"I know Roger and Varin were involved in the conspiracy," Lochalain said. "And probably others of similar rank. I'll have their names soon enough."
"That knowledge cannot save him now. It is too late."
Lochalain wanted to ask, Save who? And then the answer came to him. Stupid of him not to have realized before now.
"You underestimate Methelir," he said. "He has survived assassination attempts before."
He watched the Druid carefully, hoping he'd guessed correctly. If not, the Druid would know how little information Lochalain really possessed.
"Those attempts ye speak of took place in Caernelor, where yer King is strongest," the Druid said. "This time, he will be lured outside Caernelor's walls. He will be unable to resist our bait."
Lochalain digested this while trying to think how best to continue the conversation. The Druid obviously wanted to delay him. For his part, Lochalain wanted more time in which to draw the Druid out therefore he was perfectly happy to sit where he was and keep talking. He glanced significantly around the chamber. "I presume the conspirators met here?"
"Ye presume correctly." The Druid's tone became more thoughtful. "Varin, Sander, Norfax and the other Sudlander lords who have reason to wish their King unseated. After the plan was agreed, they returned to their castles. Norfax instructed me to remain here, a secret guest of Varin's, until I received his signal to order my people to attack Brynaghar."
Lochalain could hardly believe it. Norfax, the King's own cousin? Then again, who better to occupy Methelir's throne? The ruthless Norfax would feign remorse while laughing up his sleeve.
"And Lord Varin?"
"He will depart Brynaghar to visit Lord Sander at Castle Talnaghar before the attack takes place. Those who ride along with him will live. Those left behind in Brynaghar will die."
Which explained the poor quality of the soldiers defending Brynaghar. Varin must have arranged to transfer his best men to Talnaghar and other guardian fortresses while receiving low quality troops in return, knowing they would be slaughtered when the rebels attacked. Perhaps Sergeant Marten had expressed concern at this odd rotation of personnel, thus earning himself a plot in the cemetery.
"What did they offer you?" Lochalain asked.
The Druid's eyes narrowed. Then he said, "Lord Norfax promised he would restore our lands to us once he usurped your King."
Lochalain grinned. "And you trust a Sudlander to make good his promises?"
The Druid shrugged as if it didn't matter, which gave Lochalain further reason for puzzlement.
"Why did Roger have to die?" he asked, changing the subject and hoping to catch the Druid unawares, but the older man simply stared at him.
"That decision was not mine."
"You summoned the demon that slew him, did you not?"
The curtain covering the doorway moved. Perhaps it was the wind coming down the stairwell, but Lochalain didn't think so. This was the moment he'd anticipated, and dreaded.
"Join us, why don't you?" he called to whoever was outside. "You'll catch your death of cold out there." Lochalain tensed, gripping his sword, not sure what to expect.
His heart sank as the curtain opened and Foxworth stepped into the chamber. Lochalain's misery and disappointment were beyond measure. He'd hoped it might be Galdor, or any one of half a dozen other Brynaghar officers. Foxworth let the curtain fall shut again. Lochalain didn't even try to speak; words were beyond him at that moment.
"You were asking our friend here why Roger had to die," Foxworth said. He bared his teeth. "I'll tell you why. Roger was a fool who thought he could play both sides against the other. While he pretended to act for us, he also sought to establish a presence in King Methelir's court so he could go with whatever side gained victory in the forthcoming conflict." His mood changed suddenly and he smiled at Lochalain. "Such stupidity brings its own rewards. I gave him the death he deserved."
"Then it was you who summoned the Shadow demon that murdered Roger?" Lochalain said, incredulous.
Foxworth nodded. "And the demon that murdered Declan. I see that fact surprises you."
"Not really," Lochalain said as casually as he could, while inwardly reeling at the revelation. "When did you become a sorcerer?"
"On the day I was initiated into the Black Circle."
The dreadful words hung in the air between them. At last the pieces fell together. The Black Circle planned King Methelir's death, using a Caledon uprising as a diversion.
"I stand before you revealed as your nemesis, lad," Foxworth said. "Or rather, as the nemesis of the fools you serve. The question is, what are we going to do about it?" He spread his hands. "Are we really going to kill each other? I truly hope not. I admit to having a genuine affection for you, Lochalain."
Lochalain forced a smile. "I'm touched, m'lord. A pity your affection didn't stop you from summoning a third demon tonight to kill me in the gardens."
Foxworth stared at him blankly for long moments. Lochalain expected him to deny it, or blame it on some terrible mistake or misunderstanding. Instead, Foxworth turned to the Druid. "Yaran, what does he mean?" he said, and Lochalain detected his barely concealed rage. If it was an act then it was a clever one, and flawless.
The Druid, named as Yaran, said, "He is too dangerous to be permitted to live. I performed a Summoning of my own. An unsuspecting Sudlander servant provided the necessary ingredient." He smiled thinly.
Foxworth exhaled slowly. "You performed... ?"
"It's plain that ye have plans for this traitor, who prefers the company of Sudlanders to his own kind." Yaran indicated Lochalain with a nod. "Perhaps ye intend to offer him a place by yer side, serving ye and yer Black Circle?"
Lochalain's heart skipped a beat. Him, a member of the Black Circle? It was utterly unthinkable. The Circle opposed Shadow in all its guises while the Black Circle employed Shadow's evil power for its own purposes. The two groups were sworn enemies, now and forever.
"That is none of your concern," Foxworth said.
The Druid shrugged. "Nevertheless, I decided I would not permit this to happen."
"You decided—?" Foxworth spluttered the words, his face crimson, his hands balled into fists. "You have exceeded your authority, Druid."
Yaran didn't reply. Instead he closed his eyes and stood immobile, his hands still within his sleeves. Lochalain sensed the power emanating from him. What was he doing?
Foxworth drew a dagger from its sheath on his belt and closed on the Druid with murderous intent, but he stopped in mid-step before he reached Yaran, his head jerking round as a tremendous crash came from somewhere above, startling him.
A chill breeze blew through Lochalain's mind, signaling the sudden failure of the mystical barrier surrounding the North Tower. Even as they'd conversed, Yaran had silently gathered his energies until he was ready to direct them against the ancient barrier—which had shattered instantly. The Shadow demon he'd summoned to slay Lochalain in the gardens entered the tower at once. It came hurtling down the stairway, its claws raking the stone. It tore the heavy curtain away and lunged at Foxworth, who raised his arms above his head and shouted terrible words of power, halting the demon and attempting to drive it back. But at this dark hour the demon drew upon the limitless depths of the night. It slowly advanced upon Foxworth, step by faltering step, its burning yellow eyes fixed upon him while its inhuman jaws opened and snapped shut in anticipation of consuming his flesh and crunching his bones to powder.
Yaran's eyes remained closed but his lips curled into a satisfied smile—and Lochalain knew he was controlling the demon, bending it to his will, directing it against Foxworth instead of Lochalain. Foxworth's voice rose in pitch, filled with panic. His words came out gabbled and distorted, missing the major keys required to fully invoke his sorcery. The demon was nearly upon him. All Foxworth had left to protect himself was his dagger.
Lochalain reached out to embrace the dagger's elemental core, shifting its substance so the metal was transformed into something approximating silver. The alchemy required supreme effort. His strength drained away and he fell to his knees as searing pain lanced through his head. Foxworth shouted something and plunged the dagger into the demon's breast. Crimson hellfire boiled through the chamber, plucking Yaran off his feet and casting him against the wall. The Druid's wailing scream cut off abruptly as his skull struck unyielding stone. He fell into the fire, which turned him into a torch. Drawing upon reserves he hadn't known he possessed, Lochalain rolled behind the thick table legs and threw his arms across his face, protecting himself as best he could. Fire washed over him, igniting his clothing and singeing his hands.
Foxworth screamed also, but the sound was swallowed by a titanic crash that shook the North Tower to its foundations. Thick dust fell upon Lochalain. He coughed and choked, hardly able to breathe, but the dust served to douse his burning sleeves, saving him from further injury.
The tower became still.
Slowly, so very slowly, Lochalain dragged himself around the table and across the flagstones. On the way he passed Yaran's smoldering remains, and a melted, twisted thing that had been Foxworth's dagger. The hellish violence of the Shadow creature's passing had nearly brought doom to them all.
Foxworth lay crushed and broken, bleeding from mouth, nose and ears. Yet he was still alive, his breathing ragged, a pulse beating at his temple. The ceiling above creaked ominously. Lochalain's twisting of elemental forces, followed closely by Yaran's removal of the barrier, followed almost immediately by the Shadow demon's demise, had all taken their toll upon the ancient structure. Lochalain ignored the warning sounds and reached out to touch Foxworth's shoulder. The older man opened his eyes and looked at him. Recognition came slowly, then his blood-flecked lips smiled.
"Best we get out of here quick, lad," he said softly.
"Hear me first," Lochalain said. "The Caledon rebels are playing their own game. They don't intend to fade back into the mountains once they attack Brynaghar and lure King Methelir out of Caernelor. The tribes are gathering. Once your forces ambush Methelir, the Caledon will attack."
Foxworth's eyes glittered. "How can you know this?"
"How can you not know? Yaran is proof that the Caledon are using you, just like you used them."
"We can talk about it later—"
"We'll talk about it now," Lochalain said.
Foxworth sighed. "There's nothing we can do to change things, lad. Our plans—" He winced, and a shudder ran the length of his body. "Our plans are already in motion. Soon Methelir will be dead and Norfax will take his crown. At last, the Black Circle will control the throne."
"Norfax will have to deal with the Caledon first," Lochalain said. "That'll be quite a challenge for a man already having to cope with a kingdom that's suspicious over Methelir's death. Suspicious enough to spark off a civil war, maybe."
Lochalain sensed old timbers shifting deep within the North Tower. Its strength was fading fast. Only seconds left....
"You must tell Varin—to leave for Talnaghar at once," Foxworth said, taking short, sharp breaths. "He must not trust the Caledon. Talnaghar must prepare—for their treachery."
"Varin's dead," Lochalain said. "Trefall killed him."
Foxworth's upper lip curled in distaste. "That puppy? Stupid to include him in our plans. But his father insisted. Filled with hatred, lad. Watch your back."
"Your warning comes too late. Trefall's dead, too."
Foxworth laughed, but then his expression turned to a painful grimace. He sighed again, then said, "The Caledon had better hurry—if they want to take Brynaghar—before you depopulate the bloody place." He looked at Lochalain. "Trefall always blamed you for Jane's death. He didn't know—the truth."
Lochalain took a slow, deep breath, then asked, "What is the truth? Tell me what happened, old friend."
"Roger, of course," Foxworth said softly. "An act of faith, proving his fitness to join the Black Circle. I recruited him, but I never dreamed—he'd murder his own sister. Ruthless little swine. I'm sorry, lad. I know you loved her. Things would have been different had Jane lived. I had such plans for you both. Even then, I knew you had the Sign and were destined for great things. And Jane...." He left the sentence unfinished. "But Declan found you before I could follow you to Caernelor and set things in motion—your education, then your initiation.... Ruined everything, damn him. Brought us to this."
Cracking and grinding sounds came from somewhere above, indicating how close they were to death.
"We have to go, lad," Foxworth said, staring at the ceiling as if he expected it to descend upon them at any moment, which well it might.
"Not yet," Lochalain told him, determined to see this out to the bitter end. "The Caledon aren't the only ones who tried to deceive you."
Foxworth grimaced again. "What do you mean?"
"You think you can use Shadow for your own purposes. The winged demons are proof of that. But the forces on the other side of that gateway are also playing their own game." All too clearly he remembered what the demon who'd possessed Roger's body had said: My master shall have a foothold in this world soon.
"We can control Shadow," Foxworth said.
"I think not. You forget, that gateway can be opened from the other side, given the correct circumstances. Do you think Shadow will not strive to open it permanently in order to unleash Hell upon our world?"
Foxworth frowned as he mulled over Lochalain's words. Then he said, "Mayhap you're right." He glanced toward the obscenity in the corner. "Do you intend to close it?"
Lochalain wouldn't have known how, but telling Foxworth this hardly seemed worthwhile. "I'll not have to. The barrier is gone. This tower will not stand long. The gateway will be buried." Another agonized shifting of stone came from somewhere above, confirming his prediction.
Foxworth's hand gripped his. "Will you not help me, lad? Are you not strong enough to carry me from this place?"
"Aye, I'm strong enough," Lochalain said. He wrenched his hand free, pushed himself to his feet and swayed, dizzy and weak. "But you can burn in Hell, bastard."
Lochalain staggered toward the doorway on hollow legs and lurched outside. He'd only just reached the stairway and collapsed upon the steps when the ceiling within the chamber suddenly gave way, crashing down upon the wailing Foxworth and obliterating everything in the place where treason, and much more, had transpired.
Once again a chill ran up Lochalain's spine as he looked back at Castle Brynaghar's forbidding walls. Aye, there were too many painful memories for him here, but he'd live with them now, knowing that Jane's death had at long last been avenged. Wherever she might be, he wished her spirit peace.
Since Makdoor had found him in the ruined North Tower and led him to safety, Lochalain had been filled with doubt. He might be the King's Herald but he was still a Caledon, and the thought of vengeance against the conquerors of his people thrilled him. Yet Declan had shown him that not all Sudlanders were evil. A struggle of conscience raged within Lochalain. Part of him wanted to order Makdoor to Caernelor so that the Circle might warn King Methelir of his cousin Norfax's deceit and the danger the Caledon represented. But another part of him, the Caledon part, said to hell with the Sudlander lords and the treacherous bed they'd made for themselves. Let Methelir ride north to his death at the hands of the traitors. If and when Norfax donned Methelir's bloodstained crown he'd soon discover the perils and dangers of kingship.
He shared his feelings with Makdoor, who had also been a Druid before a Sudlander sword ended his life. Makdoor seemed to give the matter much thought before he replied.
"'Tis not the Circle's place to interfere in the politics of mortal men. Methelir must defend himself against his enemies. Our task is to deal with Norfax if and when he gains power. We long suspected his true allegiance. Tarelius and Brecht will see to him when the time is right. His undoing is but one of Declan's many contingency plans." Makdoor looked up at Lochalain. "But if ye believe the Sudlander king is worth the saving, then tell me and I shall convey yer words to the others. Make haste, for the dawn comes soon."
Lochalain shook his head. "Declan always believed those who rule must make their own decisions and solve their own problems, for better or worse. I believe that, too."
"Then so be it," Makdoor said. "May yer journey be a safe one, lad. We shall speak again one day." And as the first rays of dawn touched the horizon the old ghost faded.
At last the snow stopped falling. Lochalain pursed his lips thoughtfully. Had he made the right decision? Only time would tell. Come what may, the struggle would continue. The Circle would always resist the Black Circle's treachery and Shadow's darkest evil, and Lochalain's sword-arm would lend weight to that struggle, as his friend Declan would have wished.
by Derek Paterson
Copyright © 1999
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