I looked at the young man who was making my bed. He had a scowl on his face as usual when he was in my presence. I knew he could smile, I had seen him, though he hadn't seen me. I wondered why he even bothered. Making my bed that is, I hadn't even slept in it.
I thought of the years of loneliness and my excitement when I heard I was going to get a Konvar servant of my own. At eleven I had seen some from the Principality which I supposedly ruled, but I had never met any. Even those who lived in Barda never called on me and the ambassador, who lived just down the hall, ignored me. In fact I had no friends, period. My father had during the last few years of his life lost all the respect that he had gained during the early part of his reign. The Kalusian's therefore considered me to be so unimportant that even the servants ignored my attempts to make friends. I had hoped that Wellen would be different, but he had been worse. Far worse.
He had made it plain from the very beginning three months ago that 'he was here unwillingly, don't bother to try and make friends' though he hadn't said so out loud. I had decided that if he couldn't take me as I was, then I wasn't going to try to force myself on him.
I thought of the book I had found yesterday in the library, the book from which I had memorized ten very special pages and very carefully destroyed page by page in my fireplace last night.
I had been ecstatic when I had found it yesterday morning. A book in my own language. They were so very rare here. There were only five others in the whole library. But as I found out when I had gotten to my room, it wasn't really in my language as I thought. Or at least not quite. The title and introduction were in modern Konvar, but the rest was in a very ancient version. It had taken me several hours to work it out.
The differences were because it had a lot of Dwarven words in it, but I was fluent in three Dwarven languages, so it wasn't as difficult as I had thought it would be.
Well it was time to get Wellen's cooperation if not his liking. I said to him, “I don't know why you bother, I never sleep in the bed, in fact I haven't slept since I was six, something I inherited from my Dwarven ancestors.” One hour in a trance substituted for the sleep that other peoples used.
He started to say, “That's why you're so sm…” and then he clamped his mouth shut, he didn't intend to get that close.
I answered his cut-off question as if Wellen had said it. “Yes, that's why I'm so small, though I'm also somewhat stronger than boys of my actual age, though not a lot stronger. I don't have the stockiness of Dwarves either. I get my slenderness from my human ancestors. I know you don't like me, Wellen. But that doesn't matter, I need to know if I have your loyalty.”
He drew himself into a stiff posture, saying, “Of course you have my loyalty. You are my Prince.” he finished sourly.
I said ironically, “You started off fine, but acknowledging that I was your Prince showed your feelings about me. You've heard I'm fluent in a dozen languages and you dislike me. Why? Because I've never used our language? I didn't try to speak our language because I wanted a friend as well as a servant, but you needed to take me as I am. I speak much more than a dozen languages. I speak twenty-one fluently and I can be understood in another twelve.”
I let out my breath in a sigh, I made a gesture of dismissal before continuing, “It's not really that important, but we're going home. They never liked my father, I just ended up being ignored. Get a trunk from housekeeping and start packing my things. It basically doesn't matter what you choose, it's all Kalusian anyway. I don't have any personal possessions that I want to take with me.”
I thought I had seen a little sympathy on his face as I was talking about my wish for a friend, but it was gone and the scowl was back, as he left to fetch the trunk.
I reached out with my mind, to see if Leftenant Wiss was in his quarters. He was apparently a minor member of the Kalusian Royal Family, a ne'er do well, who dabbled at playing the soldier, when he wasn't getting drunk. He was in his quarters and he was still asleep. It wasn't that far from my quarters. This section of the Palace held the unimportant members of the household.
I woke up with Perian shaking my shoulder. I was completely alert, though as usual I seemed to have a hard time waking up. It was a good idea to play your part all of the time, every minute of every day, or you might end up in trouble. Finally I looked at Peri still apparently half asleep. I asked, with apparent annoyance, “What in the Gods names do you want? I told you to let me sleep until noon.”
Peri had a solemn look on his face. He told me, “Herel, the Prince of Konvar is here to see you, Sir.”
I growled, “I hate kids, tell him to go away.”
“I wouldn't advise it, Sir. He said Servants of Kalb.” Peri said with a look of fear on his face.
I said quietly, “You didn't have to become a Servant, Peri. It wasn't a necessity.”
His face relaxed. He said, “I chose to do so, sir, because I believe in His tenets. I haven't changed my mind about that.”
I nodded and throwing back the covers, I put the dressing gown he offered me, to cover my nudity. I checked to make sure that both daggers and strangling cord were where they should be, just in case and I went into the sitting room. The boy was standing looking at the painting over the mantelpiece. He was small for eleven and his bowl cut hair was the shiniest black I had ever seen. When he turned around the light gray eyes in a dusky face somehow didn't fit. His eyes should be as black as the rest of his people.
He smiled, saying, “A trait that I received from my Dwarven ancestors, along with several others.”
I felt a jolt go through me. It was almost as if he had read my mind. He inclined his head, saying, “I did. That of course is how I know that you’re a Servant of Kalb.” My hand in my pocket curled around the dagger. If I had to, I would silence him, though I had never killed a child before. The thought was a distasteful one.
“I don't think that will be necessary. I have no intention of telling anyone else, I just wanted you to know that I'm aware of what you are.” Prince Herel looked at me and his gray eyes were serene. “I'm going home. The Chancellor has been suggesting it for the last year and when I told him, he was quite happy to see the back of me. He's already chosen the head of the bodyguard they intend to send with me and that is going to be you.” He smiled again, “Another embarrassment they want to get rid of. You played your part too well, Leftenant. From what he's been thinking, I doubt if you would have stayed here another two weeks. Your cousin would have figured some excuse to get rid of you, even if I hadn't decided to leave.”
I decided to be honest with him, “You know what the Servants of Kalb do?”
He nodded, saying, “Oh, yes, Leftenant. You fight evil. On occasion to fight evil, innocents get in the way and have to die as well. I've always thought they were foolish to outlaw your order because you destroyed Shen-ya. As a Prince, even the Prince of a conquered people, I know that sometimes you have to be ruthless. The destruction of Shen-ya saved over ten thousand lives. I think that the exchange was a good one, two hundred lives for ten thousand.”
That had been the most painful time our Order had ever faced, but I agreed with the Prince. It was necessary.
Prince Herel sighed and his gray eyes looked thoughtful, as he said, “I've found a possible way to get a Vendri army in behind the Kalusian's in Konvar. Once that happens, those of your people in my country will be between a hammer and an anvil. They've only been able to stop the Vendri in the last two hundred years because there's only the three narrow passes leading from the south into my country. If the Vendri get into my country, they'll roll down the steppes and the Kalusians don't have the troops to fight them. Not in the south. They've always been so confident that those three passes are a barrier that can't be breached.”
I didn't show my excitement. It could be a pipe dream. But my Order had been trying to limit my people's advances for as long as the Vendri had and as he said, Konvar was the key.
“To be honest.” Herel said, “they can't, not without help from the north and my people can't do it. There are too few of them and the periodic rebellions they stage makes it worse. Each time they lose several hundred fighters. Don't get me wrong, I'm proud of my people for the fight they've staged. The fact that they still hold one third of the country is a miracle, because the Kalusians have tried to take that part of the country. Not as hard as they could have. As I said their best fighters are in the north, except for the ones covering the passes.”
Herel turned to look into the fireplace. He told me, “I'm going to need your people, Leftenant. The two wilderness scouts especially. It's been four years since the last rebellion and one is overdue. To get the Vendri through, if it's possible, is going to take time and I may have to discourage a rebellion. Take out the leaders at the right moment and hopefully they'll have to delay, even if only for a couple of weeks to reorganize.”
I asked with curiosity, “Why don't you just talk to them? After all you can read minds. I imagine that you can also project so you don't have to meet them to talk to them.”
The Prince smiled wryly, saying, “The company that they persuaded to enlist from my people, are stationed here. They want to make sure they're where they can watch them. There's one hundred and seven men, gathered from the conquered portions of my company. Do you know how many of them have even a partial shield? None.”
There was frustration on his small face and he threw up his hands, saying with exasperation, “I know how a shield works obviously. I think I could even construct a shield for one of those soldiers. Do you know how long one of my people who suddenly gained a mind-shield, would keep his freedom?”
I got his point. Our spies were chosen because of their ability to read minds. If somebody suddenly gained a mind-shield, if the spy couldn't penetrate it, they'd have the person arrested and try to find out why, using drugs and/or torture.
I suddenly got worried, if he could read my mind, could my people do so as well? I saw Herel shaking his head and he said, “No. You've got very good shields, you've been taught very well and so have the rest of your people. In fact you have two shields and anyone reading your mind would normally just see the first one and the information which is behind that. I imagine you had help to construct the false shield and the false memory.”
He explained, “Your real shields are very hard to detect. You wonder how I did it. Well I'm better, as I said I had Dwarven ancestors and one of the traits that I inherited was the ability to read minds. You have to realize that my people's Dwarven ancestors lived over two thousand years ago to understand exactly how long ago I'm talking about. The Dwarves from my area had developed mind-magic to the highest level that we know of, but as they were absorbed by the other Dwarven races, it's become diluted over time.”
Herel informed me, “I'm a throwback to those Dwarves and along with a few other traits, I gained their mind-magic in full measure. Normal range for a mind-reader of exceptional ability nowadays is about a mile. My normal range is twenty miles, sometimes as much as twenty-five. My ability to kill with my mind is much less, only about two miles, but didn't you think it was awfully convenient that General Harn died all of a sudden of a heart attack just when you were ordered to kill him?” he asked me.
I must admit I hadn't thought about it. My people and I were just glad we didn't have to reveal our presence at that time, because we might be needed much more at a later date. Herel picked up a snuff box from the table and he hung it in the air. There's no other way to put it and I stared at the box just floating there with no one touching it.
He told me, “I simply stopped his heart from beating. You didn't want to reveal who you were and I wanted to keep you alive so that I could use you in the future. Not that the advantages of killing him weren't evident. He was about to take the border fortress Krowl and that would have allowed him to take Grathen. His successor simply didn't have the ability Harn had. Since most of his plan was in his head, his staff only knew bits and pieces of it and with him gone Krowl held out until winter forced Kalus's army to withdraw.”
Prince Herel smiled with satisfaction, saying, “By the time they could resume their activity in the spring against Krowl under a competent leader, it was too late. Krowl was heavily reinforced and it's been a virtual stalemate for the last year. Of course that's why your superiors were willing to sacrifice you. There's no telling how many lives that the death of Harn saved. Certainly in the thousands and if Harn let his troops loose to loot and burn, as he has in the past, twenty or thirty thousand or more wouldn't have been out of the bounds of possibility.”
Herel reached up, took down the snuff box and put it back on the table. He told me, “Before we leave, I want you to acquire another servant. This is him.” and suddenly I seemed to be in the main city square watching a boy. He had the dusky skin that the Prince had, but his hair was blond. I saw him brush up against a pompous young man, one I knew quite well. The boy just drifted away again and disappeared into an alley. We seemed to follow him and he looked around puzzled as if he knew he was being watched, but then shrugged and out of his loincloth he pulled a pouch. I realized he was a cutpurse and I felt amused.
The Prince said, intently, “See him closely, especially his face and eyes, ignore the fact that his hair is blond.” and I did as I was instructed and I realized with astonishment that he looked almost exactly like Prince Herel and even had the gray eyes.
Herel told me, “His name is Ravel and I have no doubt from his looks that we are related in some way. He's a half-breed and though he doesn't know who his father is, there's no doubt he was from Kalus, not with that hair. However he's an honest thief, if you can call a thief honest. He's quite often used as a lookout for housebreakers and just as a watcher, because people know he's trustworthy. Also he already has shields, since you can't be a successful thief here if you don't.”
“Once I get home, I'm going to need a double, because I'll need to disappear for a while. Dye his hair and teach him how to use your language properly and it'll be impossible to tell us apart. Pay him well and we can buy his loyalty.”
“But how do we make sure that nobody notices how much he looks like you?” I asked and then suddenly saw myself as I sometimes was in disguise, with the large scar that drew people's attention. I asked the Prince with amusement, “Do I have any secrets from you, Your Highness?”
“I leave you alone when I know you just intend to spend the night with a woman, I'm too young to be much interested.” Herel said solemnly. “and I must be clear. I don't spy on you because of who you are, but for what you are. As a Servant you are kept informed of what goes on in all of the lands that Kalus has conquered. While I can't say the news is of vital importance to me, I must admit it is interesting. As the Prince of a conquered country, on a few occasions I learned things about my own people that I needed to know.”
He waved his hand toward the city, saying, “If the boy is taken by your two wilderness scouts, people will ignore it even if they see it. It'll just be one more person who is made to disappear by a powerful noble, for whatever reason. Despite the fact that you're only a minor member of the Royal Family, you still have the power that your blood gives you.” Herel said. “Have your men offer him ten gold nobles for his presence and his silence.” and he put coins down on the table.
“And if the boy refuses to play your game, what do you do then?” I asked, curious to see how ruthless he was.
Herel said, with a grave look on his small face, “Not that ruthless, not when I don't need to be. I have the power to remove memories, so I simply wipe them from his mind. He's the type of person who can get along anywhere whether it's here in Barda, the capital of Kalus, or Konva, the capital of Konvar. If he says no, we'll keep him with us as your servant until we reach Konva and then release him.”
They were good. I didn't even hear them before I was grabbed by the arm. I started to yell but as soon as I realized that they were in uniform, I let out the breath I had taken in. Nobody would answer my yell anyway. One of them said with amusement, “He's a smart boy, Evar.”
The other said with a sour sound in his voice, “I hate the way a noble can just make people disappear, Teval.”
“I must admit I do as well, Evar, but it's proved useful at times.” the man who had a hold of my arm said, leaving me wondering just what I had gotten into.
After a few blocks they stopped in an alley, which made me wary. The one who was holding me, took a good look at me, saying, “He's clean, Evar, that right there has to be an amazing fact.” Since I knew it was, I didn't bristle. He looked through my hair, “No lice either, for a wonder.”
The other one showed me some coins in his hand and I realized with astonishment that they were gold. He said, sternly, “Pay attention, boy. Ten gold coins for your presence. Take off your loincloth and put these on.” and he handed me a bundle of clothes. I looked at them closely, while not of noble quality, they were of a noble's servant quality which meant they had no holes or tears and they were clean and fairly new as well. I felt in my loincloth and one of them held up my little knife and asked, with amusement, “Looking for this? Well you'll find there's a sheath knife on the belt of those clothes.”
I got dressed. The new loincloth was of much thinner cloth than mine
had been. Used as an undergarment, it would fit any boy of around my
age. For a wonder the rest of the clothes even fit me, the breeches
coming to my knees and the short sleeve shirt and the sleeveless vest.
The sandals were also made for a boy of about my age and I only had
to tighten the straps a little to make them fit. They felt odd, since
I had never worn anything on my feet before.
Ten minutes later we were on horseback and heading south. It was interesting at first. I had never been on a horse before and I was well above the crowd I would normally have been part of, until we passed through the southern gate. After about half an hour with my butt starting to ache, I asked, “How far are we going anyway?”
The one called Teval asked with amusement, “Sore bottom already, Ravel? Well, get used to it. Whether you accept the offer or not, you're going all the way with us to Konva. Five hundred miles. Sixteen to eighteen days riding. Your butt will be used to it by then. But immediately, about three or four hours since the Leftenant said they'd be stopping early.”
I looked at him sourly. A half hour was an interesting experience, sixteen to eighteen days wasn't. He looked at me and laughed, saying, “Don't worry. I've got a Healer's potion, I'll put on your butt tonight and for the next couple of nights and by then your ass will feel just fine. If you want to blame someone for the trip, blame your mother's Prince, he's the one who made the decision that you'd be coming all the way. Be glad little one. If he was different and you decided to say no to his proposition, we might be burying you tonight.” as if that was supposed to make me happier.
I answered him seriously, “Do you really feel that you're from Kalus? From what I read in your mind you would have done almost anything to get out of it. But that was yesterday. Do you feel any differently today?”
He hesitated and then reluctantly he shook his head, saying, “No. I don't want to stay, but why do you think I want to live in Konva?”
I explained, “You have family in Konvar and your mother told you how to find them before she died. Kalusians, at least most of them, won't accept half-breeds. You know that you were never really accepted except for a few friends. Your relatives in Konvar will accept you, since they only care that one of your parents is family.” knowing they were much harder on Princes.
“What do you want me to do anyway?!” Ravel demanded.
I told him, “After we get to Konva, I need to disappear for about a week or ten days. With your hair dyed black you will look exactly like me. The differences are so slight that they are almost unnoticeable.”
“Yeah, you want to decoy an assassin, I suppose? Get yourself another boy!” he said, making an obscene gesture.
I giggled. I couldn't help it. Ravel really would make a better Prince than I would. He had much more spirit and he'd have no trouble making friends. I managed to control myself by clearing my throat. “No. I see no danger to you. I simply need a replacement for a few days after I arrive.”
“What are you, a freaking Seer that you can see the future?!” he yelled furiously.
I sighed, saying, “Yes. That is one of my abilities. Before I decided to head south, there were so many possible futures that they couldn't be counted, now there are only a few hundred, if you say yes, then it will go down to around one hundred. But if you say no, then the number is substantially higher.” And if he said yes then all one hundred whether we succeeded or failed ended in darkness about a month and a half or so from today. Death. Possibly. Then I paused, I had never lied to myself, it was no time to start now. My death in fact was inevitable.
Wiss said to me, “You didn't tell me you were a Seer. How much of a chance of success is there?”
I told him honestly, “About twenty-five percent. One in four. Not bad odds if you're a betting man and sometimes you have to let everything ride on one throw of the dice. In this case it's the future of a continent, a chance to crush Kalusian expansionism. Few of your people see or know of what takes place in those conquered countries. I don't know how they'd react if they did know. Probably they wouldn't care. Their life style has become much too comfortable in the last two hundred years for them to be willing to give it up, though I may be doing your people an injustice.”
Ravel said, “What do I get out of it?” It was still a demand but somewhat softer.
I took out one of the coins and threw it to him and he caught it easily. I told him, “Ten of those and before you say anything it would be a good idea to look at the size of the coin first.”
Ravel looked at me and then turning the coin to the firelight, his tongue sticking out the side of his mouth, he read the amount which was one hundred and his mouth dropped open. I said, “One thousand gold coins in total for a couple of weeks work. You can go to your family a person of substance, money honorably made.”
I felt him still hesitate so I told him, “That one is yours whether you say yes or no. You might think if you say no, then you might end up in a shallow grave. Well as Teval said, I'm not that ruthless, not when I don't have to be and I have the ability to remove this conversation from your memory. All that you will remember is that you earned that coin honorably.”
I explained, “At nine you're a couple of years younger than I am, but I'm somewhat small for my age, so we're very close in size and besides which, the only ones who are going to see us together when your hair is dyed black, are all right here.”
“How much danger is there going to be? I want to know that I'll get my money.” Ravel asked his voice almost normal now.
I told him, “For you, virtually none, for Wellen the same, for the rest of us it's going to be somewhat dicey. However I'll give the money to Leftenant Wiss and he can give it to the Temple of Kalb to hold for you. You already tithe to him, so I assume that you've chosen him as your personal God and you trust his priests as much as you trust anyone.”
Ravel nodded. He said, self-confidently, “My name is Ravel Venmar. Put it under that name.”
I didn't tell him that my last name was also Venmar and that he was a distant cousin. Our lives were complicated enough as it was. We didn't need any further complications.
I said briskly, “It's going to be a busy time Ravel. I must teach you how to speak Kalusian properly,” Ravel started to open his mouth in protest, I stopped him by saying, “I'm aware that you already speak it, but don't tell me that you speak it like a noble would. You know yourself the way you speak is the language of the streets. You've also let your Konvar slip in the last couple of years, between us Wellen and I can correct you. Not that you'll be using it, but you'll want to be able to speak it properly when you go to your family. You'll also need to learn how to read and write, since I can do that, not just numbers so you know how much loot you've gotten.”
Konva was one of the wonders of our world. It didn't house a lot of people only about forty thousand, but almost all of it was chiseled out of the solid stone that rose to a cliff. Behind it rose Kintar, one of the highest mountains in the known world. Konva had never been taken, with the fortifications on the cliff perhaps couldn't be taken, not without a great deal of magic. It had simply surrendered when ordered to do so by the conquered Prince two hundred years ago. Konvar soldiers patrolled the streets but Kalusian troops controlled the walls.
As we traveled through the streets towards the Palace, Wiss looked around and said sardonically, “You don't seem to be very welcome?”
I told him somberly, “Just be glad we aren't being greeted like my grandfather was. They threw things at him. Unfortunately for him one of them was a knife that caught him in the neck. He was never the same after that. Of course death does that to you.”
“You have a macabre sense of humor, my young Prince.” he said to me.
I shook my head, saying with amusement, “That's strange, I've never been accused of having a sense of humor before.” Then more seriously, “However most of my people are somewhat naïve. They think that we stay away because we want to and just come here occasionally to stir up trouble. They aren't aware that the Kalusian Royal Family keeps us away from here and only allows us back when they want to cause trouble. Of course the end result is the same in both cases. Trouble.” I turned my face to the front and ignored the glares that we were getting.
It didn't get much better in the Palace. We were shown to my apartments and then we were ignored, except by the servants. The Chancellor might or might not show up in the next day or two, but unless I actually summoned him, he'd probably take the easy way out and stay away. In theory he ruled for me. In practice he ruled for the Kalusians, was chosen by them and therefore he always favored them.
I really wasn't very important in the scheme of things. The servants would obey me. Well in theory they would, as long as I didn't go overboard and ask for something unusual, like decent food for instance or at least what they thought I would consider decent food. Konvar food was heavily spiced. What we got was more heavily spiced than normal and for some reason the food intended for me in particular, was spiced more heavily than anybody else's. Of course the servants knew that most Princes in the past had tended to favor Kalusian food and feeding them Konvar food, which was a trifle over-spiced, quite often made them go back to Barda. Once we made an appearance, even the Kalusians didn't care how long we stayed.
Well, they were out of luck. I happened to love heavily spiced food and so did Ravel, which was just as well, because that's what I was going to get and what he would get when he replaced me. Of course if I had protested, I would get the answer that Princes had always gotten in the past, 'Why Your Highness, we are simply honoring you, giving you some of our precious spices.' Of course no Prince could refuse the honor, they simply tended to cut their visits short.
As the servants left after leaving us our first meal, I looked at the Kalusians wondering how they would feel about the food. I knew most of their men quartered with the guards would get decent enough food. Leftenant Wiss said to me, with a grin, “Don't worry about us, Your Highness. We can eat even this stuff and enjoy it.”
I nodded, saying, “It's just as well. If you protested, the spices would change all right. If you were lucky they'd just double it. What they served me has about four times as much spice as what you're eating. One of their not so subtle hints that they don't really consider me their Prince and I should go back to Barda where I belong.” I speared a big chunk of lamb with my knife and bit off a large piece. After chewing and swallowing it, I continued, “Fortunately for me and for Ravel as well, we both like highly spiced food.”
I told them, “For some reason, I don't know why, they wanted to keep the good opinion of the so called Konvar ambassador. Perhaps because they wished to keep up the pretext that Konvar actually is still a separate country. But the cook prepared food for him that was spiced as he liked it and he's from Farla an area in Konvar that in fact eats one of the spices as a vegetable. Raw.”
I held up a little piece of the spice I was talking about, telling them, “This one in fact. Normally in most parts of Konvar, before using it, it's soaked for a week in water. They use the water as a basis for spice wine, then the spice is cut up and cooked and only then is it used in most of Konvar cooking.”
I explained, “When I was about seven I snitched about a dozen of the spices from the kitchen and I ate one. I had no idea that the Ambassador was from Farla or that the food they ate there was the most highly spiced in Konvar. It was Konvar food and bravely and without trepidation I put one of the little spice balls in my mouth and bit down.” I continued with amusement, “Suddenly a firebomb exploded in my mouth. I did the first thing I thought of, I swallowed it and the fire went down my throat into my stomach. I spent the next three hours drinking water, trying to cool down my mouth and stomach.”
I waved my hand in the air, at the others who were laughing out loud or trying to politely restrain it and not having much success. I said, “I forgive you your laughter. But it was Konvar food and I thought I should like it, so I persisted, I ate one of those spice balls a day for the next eleven days and do you know, by the twelfth day it was no longer as hot as it had been. So I began to snitch more and in fact some of the other Konvar dishes and amazingly enough there was always enough for the Ambassador, so obviously the cook knew that someone else was eating it. He was kindly making enough for me, without ever saying anything of course.”
I reflected for a moment, then said, “Of course I could have just asked for it, but part of the enjoyment was in the fact that I snitched it.”
I said with satisfaction, “So this is one Prince at least who they're not going to get rid of by serving over spiced food.” I looked at those sitting at the table with me and some of the crushing loneliness I had felt most of my life came flooding back. Despite the fact that most of them were Kalusian, I knew these were people I could make friends with. That would be unfair with my death so close, so with an ache I made my face go blank, putting a wall between us.
After supper I said, “Wellen, if anyone comes to see me, which is doubtful, but anything is possible, tell them we've all gone to bed early, after our long trip.” I turned to the others, “Leftenant, we'll take your wilderness scouts and Ravel and I'll show you where we'll be going. It's best to start right away before people have time to count noses and become aware of just how many people there are.”
Wiss nodded and the four of them got up. I led them into the Prince's bedchamber, which was lit by a couple of lanterns. While we used lanterns now, the old torch sconces were still in place. Going over to one, I stood on the chair which was just under it. Pulling on the top it moved forward a couple of inches and turning it one quarter turn to the right, I pulled again and it came out a further two inches. This time I turned it all the way around and then let it go and it returned to it's original position.
The wall right behind the chair opened away from me. Moving the chair I went through the entrance, I entered the room behind it, the others following me. The room had shelves on one of the walls and I went to it and picked up a torch. While there was iron and flint on the shelf with the torches, I didn't need them. I concentrated on the head of the torch until it began to burn.
Picking up a second torch I lit it from the first one and handed it to Wiss and the first one to Ravel. I said, “The torch sconce on the right side of the opening shuts it simply by turning it to the right.” and I turned it to demonstrate, the door to the secret passage closing. “To reopen the door just turn it to the left. There was no need to make it hard to open the door from this side. You close it on the other side by simply pulling on the torch sconce and it’ll swing shut.”
I turned back to the shelves and gestured to them. Telling them, “My father on several visits brought food, water and these torches, plus some packs to put them in. He was a Mage and he put a preservation spell on them, so they would last almost forever. Teval and Evar start making up three packs, with enough food and water for twelve to fourteen days. It shouldn't take nearly that long, but we want enough to last in case it takes longer than I think. Also take plenty of torches. They're spelled so that they'll burn more slowly then normal, but you don't want to run out of them.”
It only took them about ten minutes to make up three packs and bedrolls Since the food consisted of special travel rations, most of what went into the packs was water and torches. I took the pack they offered me and put it on and settled it comfortably.
I asked if everybody was ready and got four agreements. I said, “I'll lead the way.” and gestured at the blackness of the doorway opposite the secret door. “The passage is about five hundred yards long and it's somewhat uneven so be careful, then we'll come to some steps.”
I started toward the dark doorway, paused for a minute and closed my eyes until my ability to see in the dark kicked in. When I opened my eyes, it was as bright for me as if it were a sunny day. I walked into the passageway, hearing the others follow me.
I was moving more slowly than I had to because the others were relying on torchlight and as I had told them, the floor wasn't completely level. After about fifteen minutes I saw where the stairs began. I yelled over my shoulder, “The stairs are only about twenty yards ahead so watch your step!”
I reached the stairs and began to climb down them. I counted them and I reached three hundred thirty-three steps and five sloping levels of varying lengths, before we reached the bottom. I waited there until the others were all down. Once they were I said, “We've got another five hundred yards and then we'll come to an opening. This passageway will be much more level than the one above, because it was fashioned by Dwarves.”
I began leading the way again and the sense that let me see in the dark, hadn't been affected by the torches the others had been carrying. It was an ability of the mind and didn't rely on sight. Another ten minutes and we were at the end but for an opening on the right and I led the way out. It was about four feet wide and twisted and turned a couple of times before we were outdoors on grasslands.
I turned around saying, “We've come completely through the cliff. To get here any other way, you would have to go around the cliff into which Konva is built. It extends about seven or eight miles and a total of twenty to twenty-two miles to get to this point from Konva.”
I saw that Leftenant Wiss had a inquisitive look on his face, “Surely you didn't come all this way to show us an opening?” he asked.
I shook my head, saying, “No, I simply wanted you to know what was here. What we want is inside. We'll go back in and I'll show you.”
I led the way back into the passageway. I stood staring at the dead end for a moment and then using my mind, I said, *I am of the blood that made you. Open for me.*
The spell which had been placed, examined me closely to make sure that I was telling the truth, Then with almost no sound so perfectly had my ancestors fitted it, the massive doorway opened inward. I felt reverence, as I looked into the passageway which was revealed. After a few minutes I said, solemnly, “This is Seltanhome. It is very very old and it was abandoned around two thousand years ago. I don't know why.” I shook my head, telling them, “There are dangers which exist inside the mountain, but that's true of all Dwarven mountain homes and it has never deterred Dwarves from occupying them.”
I explained soberly, “But more importantly, there was a book in the Kalusian Royal Library, written by one of my ancestors. It was made up of a language which was about half Konvar and half Dwarven. It told me of Seltanhome and the fact that it goes completely through the mountains, almost thirty miles and there is another entrance above the Vendrian city of Eskan. The passageways can take men and horses. This way we can get a Vendrian force through, on this side of the mountain passes.”
Wiss asked intently, “How in all the Seven Hells do you expect to find your way through it? From what I heard Dwarves have a warren of passageways in their homes.”
I told him, simply, “Dwarves never get lost. Never. That's one of the abilities I inherited. The book contained a rudimentary map, showing the main passageways. Also passageways are spelled to tell a Dwarf whether they're long or short. We simply avoid the short passageways and take the long ones going in the right direction. According to what I know about Dwarves, since I have a map in my mind, I should instinctively be able to find the right tunnels. Then again I don't know exactly what abilities I inherited and what I didn't. Once we find the way through them, then if the Vendri accept my offer, they'll send Dwarves through with me. Stationing them at intervals will allow the Vendri to start coming through almost at once.”
I told them, “This opening can be closed as easily as the passageway in my room, but I'll leave it open and I'll do the same at the opening on the far side of the mountain.” I looked at the two wilderness scouts. I said solemnly, “I know neither of you have problems with tunnels, however this is going to be much different from anything you've ever been in. That was done deliberately by my ancestors, to make anyone, except for them and their descendants, very uncomfortable. If you're aware of it from the beginning it doesn't seem as bad, but it's not going to be a comfortable period for you.”
They looked at me with apprehension but their faces told me they were determined as well and I nodded. I looked at Ravel and asked, “Are you lost?”
He shook his head, eyes glinting in the flickering torchlight. He said, “No. I can remember everything that we did. I never got lost in Barda and even those who've lived there all their lives could sometimes get lost. Now I know the reason why it never happened to me.”
I nodded in agreement and then said, “You should be able to make it back with one torch. We'll take one of them and keep the others in reserve. You two carry it.” I said to the scouts. “As I've demonstrated, I don't need light to see.”
I took chalk my father had spelled, out of my belt pouch as we approached the first of the tunnels. It would glow in the dark and would be even brighter in torchlight. My mind told me that this wasn't one that I wanted so I put an X beside it and we continued following the main tunnel. We passed half a dozen similar tunnels and I put an X beside each of them. The seventh tunnel was different and my lips curled into a snarl as I knew that this tunnel was dangerous.
I made a triple XXX, much larger than the ones for any of the other tunnels. I said to Evar and Teval. “I spoke of dangers in Dwarven mountain homes. Well this is one of them. What's at the other end I have no idea, but it's deadly though my ancestors travelling in two or threes wouldn't have worried about it.”
They shuddered as if a chill had gone up their back and they nodded agreement. It was quite possible that they were even more sensitive to the danger than I was. They were always the point men, the ones who were the first to come into contact with danger. That's one of the things scouts have to be able to do. Detect danger.
After about three hours we came to an open area. It was about one hundred yards in diameter and about twenty yards high, with tables and benches in it. I commented, “This is one of the communal centers. The many smaller tunnels you see each lead back to a home. One person might live in them or ten, so some of them can be very large. They would cook their food either in their homes or out here on the fireplaces, but the food would normally be eaten here.”
Evar asked, “How many families would there be and is this the usual size?”
for a second, then shook my head, saying, “Probably about twenty-five
to thirty families and no, this isn't the normal size. In fact it's
quite small, most of them were double or triple this size and in Seltanhome
itself there were probably three or four thousand families. We'll be
going through the throne room, probably sometime tomorrow and it'll
be about five hundred yards in diameter and one hundred and fifty yards
high. That's where the more important members of the community lived.”
About six hours later, after passing through several more of the communal halls, I stopped at one of them, saying, “It's time for a meal and then some sleep I think. As I said, there are dangers, but I'll be up so I'll stand watch. I'm a throwback and while I don't look like a Dwarf, I have many of their other traits and one of those is the fact that I don't sleep. I go into a light trance for an hour or so, which gives me plenty of rest and at the same time, I'm completely aware of what's going on around me.”
of them were particularly talkative and right now those oppressive feelings
were hitting them. With a grunt they took out food and water and after
we had a quick meal, they spread out their bedrolls on the floor and
quickly went to sleep. They didn't snore, that would have been a fatal
flaw in a scout and I was alone with my thoughts as I had always been.
I felt my depression as usual and fought it down – I couldn't afford
it now. My ability as a Seer had told me that soon I would be leaving
it behind me. I only hoped that the next world would be more kindly.
We had been travelling about six hours since the others had woken up and we'd had to backtrack a couple of times, but fortunately it hadn't delayed us very much. I could see a light ahead of us and Evar came up to me and asked, “Is that sunlight?”
I shook my head, saying, “No. My time sense tells me that it's after dark. There is a shaft which goes up to the surface of the mountain, it's about one hundred yards in diameter, but the light you see is a Orb of Gomra. It collects the sunlight during the day and glows with it during the night. They aren't hard to make for a good Mage. While my ancestors had mostly mind-magic there were Mages among them as well. The Orb was too large to move and they left it for Glitterwane to use.”
Evar went still and then asked with some apprehension, “Who is Glitterwane?”
I giggled, I couldn't stop myself. After a minute I regained my composure, saying, “Glitterwane is a dragon. She had a lair off of the Royal Throne Room. Since it was no longer going to be occupied, she told my ancestors that she'd move into the Throne Room.
I heard the gong sound, to get my attention and I came out of my light sleep and reached for the mind of the one who had rung it. Entering the mind, I shied away from it, very quickly. It wasn't that the mind itself was unpleasant, but the scars caused by emotional hurt were so deep I wondered how he could still function.
I opened my eyes and looked at the one who had rung the gong. He was just putting the beater back on the stone floor and was turning to look at me. Obviously he was completely human, but at the same time his mind felt familiar. Being where I was, it wasn't hard to realize that he was a descendant of the Dwarves who had once inhabited Seltanhome.
He bowed to me and said, “Greetings Glitterwane. I am Herel the present Prince of Konvar. Not really the ruler since the Kalusians conquered most of my country two hundred years ago, but they like to maintain the fiction that Konvar is still independent.”
I asked with intense interest, *How do you function? Those with the weight of loneliness that you bear usually take their lives, finding it is simply not worth living.*
*With the deep anguish I feel, it's hard at times.* Herel said somberly, *I have contemplated taking my life, but while not the ruler of Konvar, I am its Prince. Duty forced me to stay alive in case they needed me to perform some service for her. Within three weeks it will no longer matter. As a Seer I see my death coming and I will welcome it. I just regret that I will have to hurt my people deeply before I can rest at last.*
Prince Herel was silent for a couple of minutes and then he said, *My ancestor Mollar told you that if ever we had need to use Seltanhome for any reason, we would tell you. I have a need. The Kalusians hold the three passes through the mountains. It's impossible for Vendri to take them as things stand. However I found a book in the Kalusian Royal Library. How it got there I have no idea, but it was written by one of my ancestors, which is how I know your name.*
Herel said, *As you know, The Arnica Mountains splits the continent in half except in the east. Two hundred and fifty years ago, Re'el, which is on the eastern part of the continent, was conquered by their southern neighbors, Tasan. Up to that point Vendri could go through Re'el into the northern part of the continent and that put controls on Kalus, knowing that if they embarked on a campaign of conquest, they would have to face Vendri.*
He told me, *Re'el and Tasan had been enemies for centuries. The Vendri offered to protect Re'el, but the stubborn nobility of that country refused. The last time Tasan attacked, they had almost double the number of fighters that their country could produce, half of them were mercenaries. Kalus provided them with the money to hire the mercenaries. Since then they've been bribing Tasan to keep Vendri out of the northern part of the continent.*
He waved his hand toward the North, saying, *Fifty years later Kalus conquered my country and with that there was no way for Vendri to get into the north. After taking my country, Kalus began expanding vigorously. Today Kalus is three times the size they were and they're harsh rulers. They have an absolute monarchy to start with, where anyone in uniform can make a person disappear without anyone daring to comment. They're even harsher with conquered countries than they are with their own people.*
Herel paused looking at me calmly and said, *The book told me about Seltanhome and the fact that it was possible to get men and horses through the passages. On the far side of the mountain is Eskan, which is the capital of Vendri's northern province. Occasionally the Vendri try the passes, more to let the Kalusians know they haven't forgotten them than anything else, but a great deal of the army is stationed there. That'll make it easy to gather the men they need.*
I saw him smile, as he said, *I'm aware that I'm probably boring you, since you don't really care what happens to human countries. You live so long that something like this has probably happened many times in your lifetime.*
I nodded my head, Prince Herel was right about that, but I had been dipping cautiously into his mind. He was doing his duty despite the fact that his own people had treated him dreadfully. I could respect that and him. He reached into his belt pouch and pulled out some coins. He said, *Since that's the case I'll appeal to your greed. Ten gold coins for a Prince. One silver coin for each of my two companions for safe passage there and back.* and he threw them onto my hoard, *One silver coin for each soldier and horse, two for an officer and one gold coin for a noble and two for a Mage or priest.*
I was intrigued, it had been many years since I had added that much to my hoard. Ingesting that much gold and silver would allow me to breed for the first time in a thousand years. It was an opportunity that I couldn't resist.
It had taken us three more days to find the way through the mountain, having to backtrack half a dozen times. But now we were standing at the entrance on the Eskan side of the mountain. I said to the scouts. “I don't think it would be a good idea if you went with me into Eskan. Two obvious Kalusians might run into trouble with the Vendri. Also being so close to the passes, I imagine that there are plenty of Kalusian spies around.”
Evar asked, “What about you? Is there any danger of them noticing you?”
sourly, “I doubt it. I was never important enough that a spy would
ever bother to memorize my face and I speak Vendri, with only a slight
Kalusian accent. There'll be plenty of my people in the city, so I shouldn't
look out of place.”
I had lunch at the Okun Tree Tavern. It was only a couple of streets away from the Palace and after I finished eating, I ordered a bottle of fruit juice, intending to drink it slowly. I searched the Palace carefully, dipping into a dozen minds, starting with the gate guard and working my way inward. The last was a Royal page. He was heading for the Prince's rooms with a tray, so I stayed with him until he knocked on the door. Entering, he placed the tray on a desk at which a man in his early thirties was working.
He smiled at the boy and said, “Thank you Gilden.”
The boy smiled at the man and said, “You're welcome, Prince Fallan.” and turned to leave and I hopped from his mind to the Prince's.
Fallan had some mind-magic and he felt me enter. He had shields already positioned to protect the vulnerable areas of his mind. I said solemnly, *Good afternoon, Prince Fallan. My name is Herel and I'm the Prince of Konvar and I have a way for you to get an army into my country and in back of the soldiers protecting the passes.*
Fallan straightened and a flare of expectation went through his mind. As he asked intently, “Where are you?”
*I'm at the Okun Tree Tavern.* I told him.
“Would anybody notice if you come to the Palace?” he asked.
I shook my head, though of course, he couldn’t see it, saying, *I wouldn't think so. Except for the fact that I have gray eyes, I'm a typical Konvarian child. What I am wearing is the usual garb of a noble's child, from low noble to high. My mind-magic is very good and no Kalusian spy is going to be able to watch me without my knowing about it and I can simply blur his memory of me.*
I looked at the little boy sitting on the other side of the desk and his large gray eyes showed a melancholy so deep that it was almost tangible. A look I had seen in the eyes of children who had been brutally beaten for as long as they could remember and no longer had the will to live.
I called myself up sharply. This wasn't one of my people who I had to protect. This was the Prince of a country who was offering us the chance to take the passes into his country. We could finally face a brutal nation after a couple of centuries of helplessly watching them conquer and then rule the nations they subjugated. As rulers they treated those under their thumb worse than they treated their own people, which was bad enough.
Herel had been explaining for the last hour about Seltanhome and Glitterwane and he had just finished. He said gravely, “I have only one thing that I require before I will show you the way through Seltanhome.”
I went still then, wondering what demand he would make and whether I could accept it. Herel said, “I am a Seer and I know my death is close.” He took a sheet of parchment out of his shirt and handed it to me. “This is my will. Normally since I'm not of age, it would be ignored. I want you to accept this will despite my age. I chose Sherifa as my heir. I have closer relatives, but she and her ancestors have kept one-third of my country free for two-hundred years.”
“I admit I am prejudiced against my relatives. They left me to live a life of loneliness among a foreign people.” His voice broke then and his lips trembled and I felt the poignancy in his voice and a longing for acceptance which had never been given. “It would have taken little effort on their part. Simply a word to my people in Barda to acknowledge my existence.”
Prince Herel shrugged, then continued, now in a steadier voice, “However that isn't important. After two hundred years of being puppets, my relatives would have to learn how to rule all over again. The Princess has proven herself capable of ruling and ruling wisely and I would place my country into her hands.”
He smiled then, though there was still deep sadness in his eyes, as he told me, “I also have an ulterior motive. If you accept part of my will, you accept all of it. I have given you one of the passes outright and the right of passage through the other two in perpetuity. The Royal Library in Barda has told me that the rulers of small countries can sometimes make unwise decisions. This will prevent my successors from deciding to block the passages to your soldiers at some future date. Since you will be controlling the fortifications in one of them, there would be no sense in even trying to block the others.”
I sat back in my chair with astonishment. As a Seer if he saw his death, it would happen, yet I already mourned for the life that would be lost, for I saw incredible wisdom and foresight in the mind of this small child. He would have made a great ruler. I knew that as the Crown Prince I could easily accept his request. Before I had met this boy, Sherifa would have been our choice to become ruler. Though we wouldn't have interfered in the selection, this gave us the right to do so.
Keeping my voice as emotionless as I could though I would have liked to take him in my arms like one of my sons and try to comfort him. “As a Seer, what type of chance do we have?”
Herel said thoughtfully, “When we started south from Barda, it was about one in four, right now I would say the chances are fifty/fifty. Now that isn't the chance of taking the passes, that's to get your soldiers into the Aedan Forest. I am not a full Seer. I only have part of the ability. I can see my future and since I'm so intimately involved I can see what will happen. As I said, I can see you getting your people into the Aedan Forest. After that I see only darkness, so I don't know whether you will succeed or fail, I can only give you the chance.”
The Prince had agreed to my one request and accepted my will. Now we were back and I would have to do something today that I dreaded. I smiled when I heard Ravel squealing and protesting against the bath he was being given. That would wash the dye out of his hair. Not that it had been needed according to Wiss, the only ones who had entered my quarters were the servants and they did it as few times as possible.
I closed my eyes and reached out with my mind. I must have spent an hour sifting through peoples' thoughts before I found what I wanted one of the leaders of the rebellion planned for the day after tomorrow. I looked around and found the Kalusian spy who was watching him.
My people were determined and courageous. Even though they knew they were being watched, they still intended to rebel despite the knowledge that nothing but failure could come of it. I admired their bravery, but I couldn't allow the rebellion to happen. Not right now, because that would have the whole Kalusian army of occupation coming down hard on my country. Searching for rebels, they might discover the Vendri army before they had gotten enough men through Seltanhome that it wouldn't matter if they were found or not.
Going back into the rebel's mind, I began to gather names and addresses and there were a total of eighteen of them. I wrote their names down and then I looked at the sheet of parchment with a feeling of despair for what it appeared to represent. They must disappear and appear to die, so the list must be in the form of a death warrant. I signed my name at the bottom of the sheet of parchment. For the second and possibly the last time, I used my seal, the other time had been on my will.
I used the bell pull and when the servant came, I ignored the contempt on his face and told him to summon Captain Dwell.
When I entered the Prince's chambers he was standing looking out of the window. He asked me an unexpected question, “What would you do to free your country, Captain?”
I was so astonished by the question that I blurted out my answer, “Anything!!” before I had a chance to stop myself.
Prince Herel turned and looked at me with his large gray eyes and there was a solemn look on his face. He told me, “So would I Captain. I found a way to get a Vendri army into the country without having to go through the passes. They've already started to move. It will take about two days before the first of them actually arrive and seven to ten days to get them all here. Unfortunately my people are planning one of their periodic rebellions. That can't be allowed to occur.”
Herel came over to where I was standing and handed me a sheet of parchment. He explained, “A death warrant, Captain or at least that's what it looks like. Eighteen men and women. Take your men and gather these people in. I want them to disappear. All of them, so it looks like they're dead. Since they're the leaders, they know most of the other's involved. If the Kalusians know you took them alive, they'd want them turned over to them. They'd be able to get names. Of course they already have them, but this would make it official. The Kalusian's would have to take as many of them as possible. Hundreds at least, perhaps as many as a couple of thousand.”
He sighed, telling me, “More important, they're not all in Konva. The rebellion here would spark off a rebellion in all of the surrounding areas. By seeming to kill the leaders it will end an immediate threat of rebellion against the Kalusians. It will take several days to reorganize and then they'll shift the focus of the rebellion to replacing me.”
He stated soberly, “It's ironic Captain. All my life my people have ignored me, now they're going to feel a great deal of emotion about me. They'll hate me and my people are good haters, but they won't move right away. Without the important leaders, they'll need a new one and who will they choose? They certainly don't trust most of my relatives. They'll probably argue about it but eventually they'll want Princess Sherifa and it'll take up to a week to get her here. Then the rebellion will be directed against me and in that case the Kalusians won't interfere.”
I asked with astonishment, “Why do you trust me so much? You've never even met me.”
The Prince said softly, “My mind-magic is better than anyone I've ever heard of and though you and your men all have mind shields, they don't even slow me down. I know you can be trusted, Captain Dwell, because I've seen your mind.”
“Come with me, Captain.” and Herel turned and led the way into his bed chamber. He moved a chair in front of a wall, standing on a it and did something with a torch sconce. A doorway to a secret room opened up. Herel moved the chair away and we entered and he picked up a torch which was on a shelf. He just looked at it for about fifteen seconds and it burst into flame and he handed it to me. Turning a torch sconce, which was on the right side of the doorway, the door closed.
Herel knelt in front of the shelves and reached into the bottom shelf did something and the shelf began opening inward away from him. Standing up, he brushed off his trousers, saying, “You don't really need to know how these secret passageways work, but we'll have to come back this way once I've shown you what I want you to see. There is a level passage for about twenty yards and then we'll come to some stairs, which spiral downward. There's a railing on the wall to hold onto.”
He explained, “I have my father's diary and there are some very cryptic comments in it. I found a book in the Barda Royal Library and after reading it, I knew what the comments referred to. The book told me about this room and the two secret passageways leading off of it, my father's diary told me that he stocked the room with food and water and torches and put a preservation spell on them.”
I saw the Prince close his eyes briefly and when he opened them, he turned and walked into the dark passageway and I followed him. As he said, within a few yards we came to a staircase and I was just as glad that there was a handrail. In the flickering torchlight it was hard to see where you were walking and without it I would probably have fallen, since I stumbled a couple of times. Finally we came to a level area and he opened another secret door. I wondered how many hidden passageways that the Palace contained.
Herel answered my unspoken question. “The ability to see in the dark is not sight. I can feel areas where there are blank spaces behind walls. I can also feel three more passageways leading out of my quarters aside from the one we used. Dwarves wouldn't be able to feel them, because they're protected by magic spells which only allows my family to sense them. That is people in my family who have the mind-magic that our Dwarven ancestors had. From the comments in my father's diary, he didn't have the ability and wasn't aware of the other tunnels.”
Even in the torchlight I recognized this area. We were in the Royal Family Crypt. I always felt an uneasiness when I came here, thankfully it wasn't often necessary. I wondered if the Prince felt the same uneasiness and again Herel answered my unspoken question, “No, Captain, everyone here is a direct ancestor. Even though this is the first time I've been here I feel only… peace.”
We passed the closed doorways and there was a long line of them, his family had ruled Konvar in an unbroken line for two thousand years. No other Royal Family on the continent could say the same. Even Vendri, which had the second most stable monarchy on the continent, could only boast of four hundred years of direct succession.
We came to the last one which had an open door. Prince Herel put his hand on the side of the doorway and said with pride of possession. “This is mine. They began it when my father died and I became Prince.” He entered the crypt and I followed him. I looked around in the torchlight and I was struck by the plainness of the interior. I had only seen one other but the walls had been decorated with carvings.
The Prince said with desolation in his voice, “I'm not considered very important, Captain. I'm not worth the trouble to do a little decoration as most of my ancestors have in their crypts.” I saw him visibly shake himself and when he spoke again, his voice was calm, “However this is how I prefer it anyway. Plain like me.”
We left the crypt and continued along the passageway. Herel stopped when he reached a dead end. He waved at the wall, saying, “If this tunnel was continued, it would run into the dungeons about thirty yards from here.” He pointed at the last torch sconce, “That's a little high for me, turn it to the right all the way around, pull out and it'll come out about two inches and turn it all the way back to where it was originally.”
I did as I was told and I wasn't surprised when another doorway opened. He went through it and I looked with complete astonishment at the dozen cells, six on either side.
The Prince said with amusement evident in his voice and on his small face, “My ancestors haven't always been good people, some of them wanted people to disappear, yet they didn't want to kill them in case they were needed again. They were put here. Each cell will hold four people and they're larger than the dungeons. Most of the people who ended up here were of the nobility or of important merchant families, so the cells are somewhat more comfortable than most cells.”
Herel pointed to a large shelf, explaining, “My father was busy here as well. I don't know if he was also a Seer though if so, it would have been a magical gift and thus he knew what would be needed, or if he was simply thorough by nature. As you saw in the room off my chambers he replaced the supplies there and he did the same here, also protected by a preservation spell. There's a room at the far end of these cells with food and water. This shelf is for amulets.” and he picked up one off of the shelf. “These will stop anyone from detecting the wearer either through mind-magic or magic. That's how you make the leaders disappear, Captain, without killing them. Once Sherifa has taken control, you can reveal that the people are here.”
He sighed, saying, “You and your people won't be blamed for following orders. We blame the leaders not the followers, when something like this occurs. If I turned the names over to the Chancellor, the same orders would be given, except you would be ordered to take them alive and then turned over to the Kalusians. When you've finished the task simply turn the list over to the Chancellor and he'll make sure the blame is directed at me where it belongs. He'll probably be a little pissed at you for following my orders, but he can't do much to you since you're a mercenary company not a troop of regular Konvar soldiers. The Kalusians won't care one way or the other if a few of my people disappear.”
Captain Dwell and his men were very efficient. The leaders of the planned revolt had ndisappeared as I had wanted, The people of Konva were shocked and beginning to get angry. The rebel Mages had searched for the leaders. They couldn’t find them and word was beginning to spread that they were dead. I wanted them angry but not out of control, so I was reaching out to those leaders of the community still remaining, to get them to restrain my people. To use their anger so that my people would want to replace me with Princess Sherifa.
take about seven to ten days to contact her and then get her into the
city. She couldn’t just ride up to the city gates. The Kalusians wanted
her too badly to do that. If she was successful in taking the Palace
and I intended to make it easy for her, then the Kalusians would be
in the position of having to accept her, since they had done similar
things in the past.
Well, I got the ten days that I had wanted. In fact I got twelve days, which was just as well. Unfortunately the Vendri army had moved slower than I had expected and they were just now getting the last of their people through Seltanhome. That meant that, according to what Evar told us, the army would need another two days to get ready, before they could attempt to take Massar Pass, which was the largest of the three passes.
A disaster could still occur but with ten thousand men to attack fortifications which were designed to stop people from attacking from Vendri's side of the pass, it was unlikely. There were no fortifications to stop people from Konvar from attacking. They were going to be sandwiched between soldiers attacking from Vendri's side to create a diversion and then the Vendri army in Konvar would attack. I was confident that they would take the pass, then the Vendri army would pour through into my country and it would be free at long last.
I had my shields up and as tight as I could get them, but still I could feel the hate directed at me. I had deliberately invited it, yet it still hurt, especially since it came on top of the terrible loneliness I had always felt.
Or perhaps that was just an excuse, perhaps I simply wanted peace. But in any case I could finally leave this world and I was in my crypt preparing to pass into the next realm. I opened the book, explaining to Captain Dwell and Leftenant Wiss. “This is a very old spell. How old I don't know, but it's in a form of Konvarian that predates our present language. The extra consonants and vowels which are in our present language hadn't yet been imported from the Dwarven and Elvish languages.”
I explained to them, “It's called the Spell of Sleep. I know what it once did. It was to put a being into a magical sleep for a time, however there is a page missing, therefore the spell is no longer complete, though it can be used as it is. My father as a Mage wrote in his diary that he thought that there should be at least another half a dozen lines which would put a limit on how long the spell would last. Without those last few lines, the only thing it can do now is to put someone to sleep. One of my ancestors did some experiments using a dozen condemned prisoners. It put them to sleep and they all died within one to two years.”
As I explained what the spell would do, for the first time in my life I was almost happy. Soon the never-ending loneliness that I had fought all my life would be in the past, as I joined my parents in the next world. I looked up at Captain Dwell and told him, “With the Princess in the city, they've decided on tomorrow morning to attack, after the gate is normally opened.”
I didn't want them to kill me, then find out that nothing was as it seemed. One last duty I felt I owed my people. I said, “At daylight pull your men off of the walls and the gates into their barracks, leaving only enough men to open the gates, then pull them back as well. They're laid out for defense though you shouldn't need it, since my people are probably going to be puzzled rather than angry.”
Leftenant Wiss asked, “Herel, why don't you simply hide with the prisoners? There is no need to kill yourself.”
I answered him softly, “I have no desire to live, Lain.” calling him by his first name for the first time. “You and your people are the closest thing I've ever had to friends in my whole life. I only stayed alive out of duty. Now with my country on the verge of freedom because of me, my duty is done and I long for death,” tears blurring my eyes and beginning to fall slowly down my cheeks. “I have no wish to fight off the ache of loneliness anymore. I no longer even have the will to fight and I have no wish even to see if things would change.”
I told him somberly, “I'm sorry I got close to you. I tried to avoid it, since I knew this is how I wanted it to end.” I shrugged my shoulders, “It's not always possible to do what we plan. Goodbye to you and please make sure your men know that I am thinking of them. Sherifa will be the new head of the Venmar clan, so introduce Ravel to her.”
For the first time I saw Wiss let the mask fade from his face as he looked at me compassionately. He told me, “I'm sorry you feel this is necessary, Herel. Unlike your people, who will be puzzled by what you are doing, I saw what you went through. I've seen badly wounded soldiers fight for their lives and finally they can't fight any longer. I saw you fighting and I was always puzzled. I didn't realize how badly loneliness can wound. Worse even than the death wound a soldier suffers, because it goes on and on in a never-ending cycle.”
He put his hand on my black hair and gently stroked it, saying softly, “Go to your peace, little one. I don't agree with it, but then I haven't gone through what you have done. I will miss you as I have missed comrades in the past. Goodbye and peace be to you.”
I put my hand up and touched his hand on my head. I nodded and said, “Thank you, Lain. Take the book, I no longer need it. I have memorized the spell. It's essentially harmless except for my family members. Only we can use the spell and it doesn't matter if we have magic or not.”
I laid down on my back on the ledge that had been prepared for my body, though it had been made for an adult and I began to recite the spell. When I reached the third verse things began to go dark and I began to feel sleepy. When I finished the last verse, I could feel the darkness claiming me. Inviting me. Welcoming me.
We were puzzled. The gates of the Palace were open, but there were no guards on the gate nor were there any on the walls. Personally I was just as glad, while the Palace wasn't big enough to stop the people we had, attacking it could cost a lot of lives. Still we entered cautiously.
There was only one man standing in front of the entrance doors of the Palace. He was dressed in the uniform of the guard captain. He just waited until we approached him and then bowed to me, telling me, “I am Captain Dwell, Your Highness, my men are in their barracks and while they are armed, by the Prince's order they will not fight unless attacked.”
Arneta demanded, “Where is that little bastard?”
The Captain looked at him and there was a look of dislike on his face. Astonishingly I realized that the Prince had managed to gain his loyalty and I wondered how. He said in a carefully controlled voice, “The Prince is down in the crypt.” that showed no emotion and that told me how emotional he was feeling.
To pre-empt another comment I said, “As soon as I talk to my people, I want you to show me where he is.”
Dwell nodded and I turned and addressing the crowd I said, “Take up positions on the wall and the gates. Leave the barracks alone. My men can do that, as for the rest of you, well we've taken the Palace, so there's no need for you. Go home and thank the Gods that we didn't have to spend lives to take it.”
to the Captain and said, “Lead on, sir.”
I looked at the little boy lying on the shelf in his crypt and there was a look of peace on his face. The Captain explained, “He's not dead, at least not yet. He performed something called the Spell of Sleep. He's in a magical sleep and apparently one of his ancestors used it on some condemned prisoners. They all died in something over a year. The spell is not complete. He believed the part which would have controlled the length of the sleep was in the page that is missing.”
Dwell handed me a book. There was a sheet of paper inside to mark a place and I opened it and I looked at the spell. I had heard the name from my father. Even though it was in an ancient form of our language it was a form that was quite easy to read. I had a bit of Mage ability and while I wasn't more than the equivalent of a high Apprentice, it was easy to see what the Captain meant.
When I looked up from reading the spell, Dwell said, “I have something that you must see, Princess.” He led the way back out of the crypt and headed further into the tunnel until he came to a torch sconce and he manipulated it and a doorway opened inward onto a lighted room. Entering we were astonished to find that it was filled with cells. Six of the cells were occupied with the Konva leaders we had been sure were dead.
I turned to the Captain and asked, “Why?” in amazement.
He shook his head, saying soberly, “I may not tell you exactly why right now. The Prince asked me not to, but I can tell you that he needed time. A rebellion was planned against the Kalusians and he couldn't allow it to happen, not twelve days ago. We gathered the leaders in and we used these spelled amulets.” and Dwell picked one up off of a shelf to show me what he meant. “Wearing these, the people in the cells couldn't be found with either mind-magic or regular magic. Assuming that their leaders were dead, the anger of the people of Konva turned toward replacing the Prince. He knew that they would settle on you as their new leader, which would give him the time he needed, since it would take you some time to reach Konva.”
The prisoners had been released and among the people of Konva there was no longer any hate. They were as puzzled as I was about what the Prince had been doing.
Two days after we, well it could hardly be said we took the Palace, so two days after we were given the Palace, Arneta burst into my chambers which I had taken next door to the Prince's rooms. For some reason I didn't want to take possession of them. He yelled exultantly, “Sherifa, the Vendri have taken the Massar Pass. They took it from behind. Somehow they managed to get an army into the Aedan Forest and they swept down and took it with almost no fighting. The Vendri are pouring into Konvar. The other two passes have already been abandoned and the Kalusians are withdrawing as fast as they can. Konva's walls, for the first time in two hundred years, are being held by our people rather than Kalusians.”
Captain Dwell had followed Arneta into the room, accompanied by a man who had to be Kalusian. For the moment I ignored him and asked the Captain, “This is what the Prince was working for, isn't it? But how did he do it?”
Instead the second man answered and there was a look of sadness and satisfaction on his face, “Yes, Princess. My men and I are Servants of Kalb, the Prince needed the help of my wilderness scouts. In the Barda Royal Library he found a book which told about the home of your Dwarven ancestors, Seltanhome and the fact that it was possible to get men and horses through the mountain that way. If the rebellion had been allowed to happen when planned, it would have had my people searching the countryside. They might have discovered the Vendri before they got enough troops through that it wouldn't matter.”
I ignored the fact that he and his men were Servants of Kalb, I didn't agree with their outlawing and I gather my young cousin didn't either. I asked, “Why did Prince Herel use the Spell of Sleep?” and I saw his face become almost emotionless but his eyes gave him away. There was anger in them, a great deal of anger.
He said in a voice that was as emotionless as he could make it, “It's not right for me to answer that question, Your Highness. My scout Teval, who was the last of the people through Seltanhome, said that the dragon Glitterwane would answer that question for you. She once lived with your Dwarven ancestors and now lives in Seltanhome alone. It'll take about twelve hours to reach the place she lives and you can't disappear right now, but once things have settled down, my scout will show you the way.”
I nodded, he was right, this certainly wasn't the time to be absent, not with the Vendri coming through, well probably all three passes now if the two they hadn't conquered, had been abandoned as Arneta had said.
Two weeks later I received the Crown Prince of Vendri, Prince Fallan. He bowed to me and said, “I have messages from couriers, Princess. General Hurtan has almost a hundred thousand men and the Kalusians are running and they won't stop, not even when they reach Barda. We're too close behind them. We'll take half of the present country before they can even get any of their best troops down from the north. But then again that's as far as we plan to go, anyway. Once they've abandoned the north, they'll find the countries they conquered rebelling and in a couple of years Kalus will be a shadow of what they once were. We don't intend to let them remain that way.”
“Ironically,” Fallan said, with a stern look on his face, yet also a little amusement in his eyes, “we feel a strong Kalus is vital for the stability of the northern part of the continent, so we intend to remake the country. They'll have to pay reparations to those countries which they have invaded, then we intend to start moving them away from an absolute monarchy, so the common people have more protection and then we'll withdraw. As long as we have access to the north through the passes, they won't dare to start a new bout of conquest.”
He stated, “Prince Herel wanted to make sure that we would always have that access. The only thing he asked for from us was that we would recognize his Will despite his age and we will gladly do so.” He smiled then, “Part of it you'll probably like, the other part I don't know.”
Fallan handed me a sheet of folded parchment and I opened it and began
to read it. It wasn't very long.
Last Will and Testament of Herel Venmar
As the Prince of Konvar I choose as my heir Sherifa Venmar. While I have closer relatives, they have all been under the thumb of the Kalusians for two hundred years.
Sherifa has proven that she knows how to rule wisely, which is why I choose her.
Secondly, I leave the Massar Pass to the Vendri and give them the right of travel in the other two passes in perpetuity.
Prince of Konvar
I looked at the brief Will of a child I had never known and I was astonished at his wisdom. I felt a little forlorn that I never had the chance to meet him. I looked up at the Prince.
Fallan said, “He said that sometimes small countries made choices that turn out to be not very wise. Giving us the pass was to make sure that we would always have the means to counter any moves that Kalus planned after we withdrew.” There was a reflective look on his face. “I heard what he did. I'm not surprised. He had the look of long time melancholy. I've tried men and women who treated their children brutally. I've seen that look in the eyes of children who have been brutally beaten all their lives and no longer want to live. I would have liked to take him in my arms and just hold him, like one of my children.”
It was almost two months before I felt I could go into Seltanhome to see Glitterwane. But now I was here, looking in awe at one of the legendary beings of my world. They pretty well ignored other beings so generally if you saw one, it was high in the air.
From the scout Teval I understood you rang the gong to get her attention, but I saw her eyes open and she looked at us and heard in my mind, *Greetings, Princess. I told the scout that I would tell you about the Prince, but what I will do is show you what I got from his mind. Be warned, it's not going to be a pleasant experience.*
She explained somberly, *Everyone feels loneliness at some time in their lives, Princess, even dragons, but few felt it like your Prince did. Here is how he felt when I met him.* and she put his feelings into our minds. I gasped as I experienced the anguish the Prince had felt. I couldn't help but go to my knees under the extraordinary burden that his mind had held. Shaking my head I saw that the other three, Dwell, Wiss and Teval had also gone to their knees.
Glitterwane said softly, *Few have ever carried the burden the Prince carried. I was astonished when I first read his mind, that he was able to function almost normally. His mind must be incredibly strong to have allowed him to do so.* Shaken I got back to my feet, my compassion going out to the Prince. *He has many of the abilities of your Dwarven ancestors Sherifa. He killed once by stopping a man's heart, he could very easily have done the same to himself. But he felt as the Prince, even one of a conquered country, that he had a duty to his people even though they were the ones who caused his incredible desolation.*
She explained, *Two-thirds of your country has been conquered for the last two hundred years. Yet in the main your people have accepted the Princes and Princesses who have ruled in that time. For some reason since this Prince was born, he has been ignored by the Kalusians and by your people. His own people numbered in the thousands in Barda and many important people visited Barda over the years. Do you know how many of them he met before he began his journey south to Konvar? I can tell you Princess. None, absolutely none. The only Konvarian he knew in Barda was his servant Wellen and Wellen didn't hesitate to show his dislike of Herel.*
Glitterwane said with disgust, evident, in her mind voice, *The Konvar ambassador lived just a few doors down from the Prince in the Palace and has done so for the last five years. Do you know how many times the Prince spoke to the ambassador? In fact he has never spoken to the ambassador. The man ignored him like every other person Kalusian and Konvarian in the Palace, except for those few who had no choice but to pay attention, such as the servants.*
She sighed and shook her massive head, *In the course of a year your people have many Feast Days to honor the Gods and none of your priests ever visited the Prince to invite him to one of them. In the past Princes and Princesses have been invited to those, but this Prince was always excluded. With his mind-magic he could join in, but it only caused him more sadness, that his people cared about him so little that they wouldn't invite him.*
matter-of-factly, *He has for several years longed for the peace that
death would bring, only duty kept him alive. In fact I devised the spell
for one of your ancestors. I have the last lines of the spell that the
Prince used. He will sleep for at least a year. If you complete the
spell then your people must know what they did to him, must accept that
they hurt him grievously. If they can't and it's hard to acknowledge
that you destroyed a person, then let him have his peace, because he
will know whether what the people feel is genuine or not.*
When we headed for home, I was still shaken by what my people had done. I couldn't absolve myself from any of the guilt. I knew that people from my part of the country had been to Barda. It would have taken little effort on my part to ask them to visit the Prince. He was a little boy and we had treated him so badly that he wanted only to die.
“How did it happen, Lain?” I asked him forlornly,
Lain Wiss thought for several minutes before answering, “My people began it Sherifa. Herel was born in Barda after his father died and his mother died at his birth. We had such a tight grip on two-thirds of your country, that they began the process of ruling it themselves, so they ignored Herel's existence. That sifted down from the Royal Family to all other members of the Palace household, including the servants. The Prince wasn't confined to the Palace and in fact he was given a generous allowance, but as far as I know, he never left the Palace. His upbringing left him very shy along with his loneliness and he wouldn't dream of pushing himself into Konvar society in Barda.”
He told me, “It was very evident that my people were ignoring the Prince. With his father, they were always putting him on display, inviting people to balls and such to meet him. Your people took their cue from mine and began to ignore Herel and it just developed from there.”
I said with some bitterness, “I can understand your people's viewpoint Lain, but that doesn't excuse us. We treated our Prince as if he didn't exist and that isn't our tradition. Throughout our history the Prince has always been included in everything we did. The Royal Family was much closer to the people than in other countries. It wasn't unusual in our history for the Prince or Princess to be invited into the meanest part of Konva to attend the celebration of the birth of a child or a wedding and the Prince quite often went. Even if he didn't go himself, there was always a representative of the Prince there and for a brief time the people could forget how poor they were.”
I explained, angrily, “It changed with Herel's great-great-grandfather, when the Kalusians invited him to Barda. Of course in reality the invitation was an order that couldn't be refused. The people were aware that he left reluctantly, but over the last one-hundred years they've forgotten what it used to be like. Herel's grandfather was even killed by a thrown dagger when he visited thirty-six years ago. That was an inexcusable crime, Lain, because he was one of the most effective Princes in the two hundred years that we have been conquered. Somehow he managed to get things done in spite of the fact that he was governing a vanquished country.”
Lain asked, “Did you ever find the killer?” and I shook my head and he continued, “Did you ever consider that it was done by Kalus? If the man was that effective, possibly he could have staged a rebellion that would have at least freed the passes for a time. Long enough for Vendri to get control of it and start bringing soldiers into Konvar.”
I smiled saying, “Yes, we considered it, but we simply couldn't confirm or deny it. Herel's father, who was almost forty when he became Prince, managed to smooth things over. He spent about half the time here and half the time in Barda. and he accepted some invitations, though none from the slum areas. We know that the Kalusians actually picked the invitations that he accepted though most of the people in Konva didn't. He reigned for twenty-five years. His wife, was only twenty when she married the Prince soon after his fifty-fifth birthday. He died just before Herel was born.”
Sherifa sighed, saying with regret, “He was a well-loved Prince, yet feelings about him began to change in the last fifteen years that he ruled. He became very erratic and developed a terrible temper. He even killed a respected and liked noble in a session at court, apparently for no reason and in the last ten years he stopped coming to Konva. Nobody knows why and he began to be hated and when Herel was born, the birth was treated with indifference.”
Lain explained, “Dovar was ill. The Healer's found a growth on his brain that was affecting how he was acting in the last years of his life. Since my family was quite happy that your people were beginning to hate him, it was kept very quiet.”
I felt even worse at that. In the five years since my father died, I had begun to create a spy network in my country and in Kalus, mainly in Barda. My direct ancestors had been remiss in that. They should have been created when our country was first conquered. While our people didn't have mind shields, finding those who did and disliked the Kalusians hadn't been hard, some of them were from Kalus itself. We should have known about the fact that Dovar was ill.
I thought about the little boy lying in his crypt with a look of peace on his face. Peace he had never gotten in life. How do you tell a people they've shattered a person's life in a way that should never have been allowed to happen? Unless we could demonstrate that fact, then I wouldn't use the last lines of the spell so that he would stay alive. He deserved peace and if we couldn't give it to him he was better off where he was.
Lain said thoughtfully, “Glitterwane showed us how badly the Prince was treated. She is very old and has an enormous amount of power and it seems that she admires Prince Herel. While she can't reach the whole country she can reach those in Konva. Gather as many people as possible especially the nobility and as many of the middle class as you can. If she agrees, she can show all of them how he was treated, yet in spite of that he performed his duty and arranged to free the country.”
I felt excited. I wondered if she would do something like that and I received my answer in my mind. Sherifa said gravely, *Yes, Princess, I will be glad to do so, however you must realize that it might not work. It must be done very subtly to show that they are responsible yet at the same time, they can't be made to feel guilt. They must sympathize with the Prince yet they can't be made to feel sorry for him. That could cause a backlash that would make things even worse.*
I thought out loud, “What if you put it in a dream? Some dreams can be completely realistic and the ones that we remember can affect us a great deal. Once everyone wakes up they're going to start finding out everyone in Konva has had the same dream. In that way they're a little separated from the actual event and can be more objective, yet at the same time they're going to know how badly we treated a little boy.”
Glitterwane radiated approval, saying, *That's a brilliant idea, Princess. I'm so used to talking to a conscious mind that I never would have thought of it, nor probably would anyone who has mind-magic.”
High Merchant Embra Florcar opened his eyes, troubled by the dream he had had the night before. He turned onto his side and found himself looking into Amma's big dark eyes and they were shiny with tears. He put out his hand and stroked her cheek. “What's wrong, my love?” he asked caringly.
She choked out, “I had a distressing dream last night, Embra. It was about Prince Herel and the loneliness he has felt all of his life. A loneliness so great that once he performed his duty to his country he just wished to die.”
His black eyes widened in astonishment, as he said, “I had the same dream.” An intelligent couple they realized that the only way they could share a dream was if someone put it into their minds. They examined the dream and they could still feel the presence in their minds. It told them that it was Glitterwane the dragon who had given them the dream. It was much more than a dream, for they knew that it was something that had actually happened.
Amma's tears began to flow in earnest and she choked out, “We're partly responsible Embra. We've been to Barda a dozen times and with our rank we should have visited the Prince. We had no problems going to two or three parties each time we went there. With his mind-magic he may even have known that we were there, yet we never gave a thought to the loneliness he must be feeling.”
He brought her head onto his shoulder and said bleakly. “We're both from merchant families. Our parents had to travel and we especially are aware of what being alone for several weeks or months can do to a child. Yet we had family who were taking care of us and the Prince had… nobody.”
The same dream was discussed in thousands of households in Konva that morning, yet Glitterwane as she had said had managed to convey Herel's plight in a way that evoked sorrow yet not overwhelming guilt. They knew they could never make up for what they had done to the little boy. They would regard him in a completely different way, if the spell was completed and he eventually woke up.
The Healer said, “He's beginning to wake up, Regent.” I reached out with my hand and took my husband Lain's hand and drew my adopted son, Ravel, in close. I saw the Prince's eyes start to flutter. After a few minutes they came fully open and he stared at the ceiling above his bed, realizing that it wasn't the ceiling of his crypt.
I let go of my husband and son and knelt on the floor beside the bed. Gently I said, “Reach out, Prince Herel. Reach out for your people.” and his face went blank as he began to concentrate. His small face showed his wonder and then delight as he felt the welcome from his people. His loneliness was finally over. He would always remember it, but the healing of his mind had finally begun. He closed his eyes and began to cry in happiness. I reached out my hand and took his small hand in mine and he squeezed it tight.
I had simply been wandering through Konva during the daylight hours for the last month, getting to know my people. Every day more and more of the loneliness left me. It would never be completely gone, I knew that, but it was covered by the welcome my people felt for me. I was walking down one of the meaner streets of Konva and the people were aware of me as I was aware of them.
A woman was standing in the doorway of her house calling her children to dinner. I went up to her and asked quietly, “May I join you for the midday meal?” She looked down at me and her face lit up with joy and she put her hand on the top of my head.
She said gladly, “The Prince is always welcome.” and as I entered her home it was for a while my home and my joy knew no bounds. It had taken me eleven years, but I had finally come home.