Mar 17 2010 2:56pm
The Jewel in the Skull Part Four: Chapters Five and Six
The Awakening of Hawkmoon
Count Brass passed Dorian Hawkmoon a fresh cup of wine and murmured, “Please continue, my lord Duke,” as Hawkmoon told his story for the second time. In the hall of Castle Brass sat Yisselda, in all her beauty, Bowgentle, thoughtful of countenance, and von Villach, who stroked his moustache and stared at the fire.
Hawkmoon finished the tale. “And so I sought help in Kamarg, Count Brass, knowing that only this land is secure from the power of the Dark Empire.”
“You are welcome here,” Count Brass said, frowning. “If refuge is all you seek.”
“That is all.”
“You do not come to ask us take arms against Granbretan?” It was Bowgentle who spoke, half-hopefully.
“I have suffered enough from doing so myself—for the time being—and would not wish to encourage others to risk meeting a fate I only narrowly missed myself,” replied Hawkmoon.
Yisselda looked almost disappointed. It was plain that all in the room, save wise Count Brass, wanted war with Granbretan. For different reasons, perhaps—Yisselda to revenge herself against Meliadus, Bowgentle because he believed such evil must be countered, von Villach simply because he wished to exercise his sword again.
“Good,” said Count Brass, “for I’m tired of resisting arguments that I should help this faction or that. Now—you seem exhausted, my lord Duke. Indeed, I have rarely seen a man so tired. We have kept you up too long. I will personally show you to your chambers.”
Hawkmoon felt no triumph in having accomplished his deception. He told the lies because he had agreed with Meliadus that he would tell such lies. When the time came for kidnapping Yisselda, he would pursue the task in the same spirit.
Count Brass showed him into a suite consisting of bed-chamber, washing room, and a small study. “I hope it is to your taste, my lord Duke?”
“Completely,” Hawkmoon replied.
Count Brass paused by the door. “The jewel,” he said, “the one in your forehead—you say that Meliadus was unsuccessful in his experiment?”
“That is so, Count.”
“Aha…” Count Brass looked at the floor, then, after a moment, glanced up again. “For I might know some sorcery that could remove it, if it troubles you…”
“It does not trouble me,” said Hawkmoon.
“Aha,” said the count again, and left the room.
That night, Hawkmoon awoke suddenly, as he had awakened in the inn a few nights since, and thought he saw a figure in the room—an armoured man in jet and gold. His heavy lids fell shut for a moment or two, and when he opened them again the figure was gone.
A conflict was beginning to develop in Hawkmoon’s breast—perhaps a conflict between humanity and the lack of it, perhaps a conflict between conscience and the lack of conscience, if such conflicts were possible.
Whatever the exact nature of the conflict, there was no doubt that Hawkmoon’s character was changing for a second time. It was not the character he had had on the battlefield at Köln, nor the strange apathetic mood into which he had fallen since the battle, but a new character altogether, as if Hawkmoon were being born again in a thoroughly different mould.
But the indications of this birth were still faint, and a catalyst was needed, as well as a climate in which the birth would be possible.
Meanwhile, Hawkmoon woke up in the morning thinking how he might most speedily accomplish the capture of Yisselda and return to Granbretan to be rid of the Black Jewel and sent back to the land of his youth.
Bowgentle met him as he left his chambers.
The philosopher-poet took his arm. “Ah, my lord Duke, perhaps you could tell me something of Londra. I was never there, though I traveled a great deal when I was younger.”
Hawkmoon turned to look at Bowgentle, knowing that the face he saw would be the same as the nobles of Granbretan would see by means of the Black Jewel. There was an expression of frank interest in Bowgentle’s eyes, and Hawkmoon decided that the man did not suspect him.
“It is vast and high and dark,” Hawkmoon replied. “The architecture is involved, and the decoration complex and various.”
“And its spirit? What is the spirit of Londra—what was your impression?”
“Power,” said Hawkmoon. “Confidence…”
“I am incapable of knowing what is sane and what is not, Sir Bowgentle. You find me a strange man, perhaps? My manner is awkward? My attitudes unlike those of other men?”
Surprised by this turn of the conversation, Bowgentle looked carefully at Hawkmoon. “Why, yes… but what is your reason for asking?”
“Because I find your questions all but meaningless. I say that without—without wishing to insult…” Hawkmoon rubbed his chin. “I find them meaningless, you see.”
They began to descend the steps toward the main hall, where breakfast had been laid and where old von Villach was already serving himself to a large steak from a salver held by a servant.
“Meaning,” murmured Bowgentle. “You wonder what insanity is—I wonder what meaning is.”
“I do not know,” Hawkmoon answered. “I only know what I do.”
“Your ordeal has driven you into yourself—abolished morality and conscience?” Bowgentle said with sympathy. “It is not an unfamiliar circumstance. Reading ancient texts, one learns of many who under duress lost the same senses. Good food and affectionate company should restore them to you. It was lucky you should come to Castle Brass. Perhaps an inner voice sent you to us.”
Hawkmoon listened without interest, watching Yisselda descend the opposite staircase and smile at himself and Bowgentle across the hall.
“Are you well rested, my lord Duke?” she asked.
Before Hawkmoon could reply, Bowgentle said, “He has suffered more than we guessed. It will take our guest a week or two, I should think, before he is fully recovered.”
“Perhaps you would like to accompany me this morning, my lord?” Yisselda suggested graciously. “I will show you our gardens. Even in winter they are beautiful.”
“Yes,” replied Hawkmoon, “I should like to see them.”
Bowgentle smiled, realizing that Yisselda’s warm heart had been touched by Hawkmoon’s plight. There could be no-one better, he thought, than the girl to restore the duke’s injured spirit.
They walked through the terraces of the castle gardens. Here were evergreens, there winter-blooming flowers and vegetables. The sky was clear and the sun shone down, and they did not suffer much discomfort from the wind, muffled as they were in heavy cloaks. They looked down on the roofs of the town, and all was at peace. Yisselda’s arm was linked in Hawkmoon’s, and she conversed lightly, expecting no reply from the sad-faced man at her side. The black jewel in his forehead had disturbed her a little at first, until she had decided that it was scarcely different from a jeweled circlet such as she sometimes wore to keep her long hair from her eyes.
She had much warmth and affection in her young heart. It was this affection that had turned to passion for Baron Meliadus, for it needed as many outlets as it could have. She was content to offer it to this strange, stiff hero of Köln and hope that it might heal the wounds of his spirit.
She soon noticed that a hint of expression only came into his eyes when she mentioned his homeland.
“Tell me of Köln,” she said. “Not as it is now, but at it was—as one day it might be again.”
Her words reminded Hawkmoon of Meliadus’s promise to restore his lands. He looked away from the girl and up at the wind-blown sky, folding his arms across his chest.
“Köln,” she said softly. “Was it like Kamarg?”
“No…” He turned to stare down at the rooftops far below. “No… for Kamarg is wild and as it has always been since the beginning of time. Köln bore the mark of Man everywhere—in its hedged fields and its straight watercourses—its little winding roads and its farms and villages. It was only a small province, with fat cows and well-fed sheep, with hayricks and meadows of soft grass that sheltered rabbits and fieldmice. It had yellow fences and cool woods, and the smoke from a chimney was never far from sight. Its people were simple and friendly and kind to small children. Its buildings were old and quaint and as simple as the people who lived in them. There was nothing dark in Köln till Granbretan came, a flood of harsh metal and fierce fire from across the Rhine. And Granbretan also put the mark of Man upon the countryside… the mark of the sword and the torch…”
He sighed, an increasing trace of emotion entering his tone. “The mark of the sword and the torch, replacing the mark of the plough and the harrow…” He turned to look at her. “And the cross and gibbet were made from the timber of the yellow fences, and the carcasses of the cows and sheep clogged the watercourses and poisoned the land, and the stones of the farmhouses became ammunition for the catapults, and the people became corpses or soldiers—there was no other choice.”
She put her soft hand on his leathern arm. “You speak as if the memory were very distant,” she said.
The expression faded from his eyes, and they became cold again. “So it is, so it is—like an old dream. It means little to me now.”
But Yisselda looked at him thoughtfully as she led him through the gardens, thinking that she had found a way to reach him and help him.
For his part, Hawkmoon had been reminded of what he would lose if he did not carry the girl to the Dark Lords, and he welcomed her attention for reasons other than she guessed.
Count Brass met them in the courtyard. He was inspecting a large old warhorse and talking to a groom. “Put him out to graze,” Count Brass said. “His service is over.” Then he came toward Hawkmoon and his daughter. “Sir Bowgentle tells me you are wearier than we thought,” he said to Hawkmoon. “But you are welcome to stay at Castle Brass for as long as you like. I hope Yisselda is not tiring you with her conversation.”
“No. I find it… restful…”
“Good! Tonight we have an entertainment. I have asked Bowgentle to read to us from his latest work. He’s promised to give us something light and witty. I hope you will enjoy it.”
Hawkmoon noticed that Count Brass’s eyes looked at him acutely, though his manner was hearty enough. Could Count Brass suspect his mission? The count was renowned for his wisdom and judgment of character. But surely if his character had baffled Baron Kalan, then it must also confuse the count. Hawkmoon decided that there was nothing to fear. He allowed Yisselda to lead him into the castle.
That night there was a banquet, with all Castle Brass’s best laid out on the large board. Around the table sat several leading citizens of Kamarg, several bull breeders of repute, and several bullfighters, including the now-recovered Mahtan Just, whose life Count Brass had saved a year before. Fish and fowl, red meat and white, vegetables of every kind, wine of a dozen varieties, ale, and many delicious sauces and garnishes were heaped upon the long table. On Count Brass’s right sat Dorian Hawkmoon, and on his left sat Mahtan Just, who had become that season’s champion. Just plainly adored the count and treated him with a respect that the count seemed to find a trifle uncomfortable. Beside Hawkmoon sat Yisselda, and opposite her, Bowgentle. At the other end of the table was seated old Zhonzhac Ekare, greatest of the famous bull breeders, clad in heavy furs and with his face hidden by his huge beard and thick head of hair, laughing often and eating mightily. Beside him sat von Villach, and the two men seemed to enjoy each other’s company a great deal.
When the feast was almost complete and pastries and sweetmeats and rich Kamarg cheese had been cleared, each guest had placed before him three flagons of wine of different kinds, a short barrel of ale, and a great drinking cup. Yisselda, alone, was given a single bottle and a smaller cup, though she had matched the men for drinking earlier and it seemed to be her choice, rather than the form, to drink less.
The wine had clouded Hawkmoon’s mind a little and given him what was perhaps a spurious appearance of normal humanity. He smiled once or twice, and if he did not answer his companions jest for jest, at least he did not offend them with a sour expression.
Bowgentle’s name was roared by Count Brass. “Bowgentle! The ballad you promised us!”
Bowgentle rose smiling, his face flushed, like the others’, with the wine and the good food.
“I call this ballad ‘The Emperor Glaucoma’ and hope it will amuse you,” he said, and began to speak the words.
The Emperor Glaucoma
passed the formal
guardsmen at the far arcade
and entered the bazaar
where the ornamental
remnants of the last war,
and the Ottoman,
hosts of Alcazar
and mighty Khan,
lay in the shade
of temple palms
and called for alms.
But the Emperor Glaucoma
passed the lazar
while pipes and tabor
of the Emperor’s parade.
Count Brass was looking carefully at Bowgentle’s grave face, a wry smile on his own lips. Meanwhile the poet spoke with wit and many graceful flourishes the complex rhyme. Hawkmoon looked about the board and saw some smiling, some looking puzzled, fuddled as they were by the drink. Hawkmoon neither smiled nor frowned. Yisselda bent toward him and murmured something, but he did not hear it.
in the harbour
set off a cannonade
when the Emperor
to the Vatican Ambassador
“What does he speak of?” grumbled von Villach.
“Ancient things,” nodded old Zhonzhac Ekare, “before the Tragic Millennium.”
“I’d rather hear a battle song.”
Zhonzhac Ekare put a finger to his bearded lips and silenced his friend while Bowgentle continued.
gifts of alabaster,
and Paris plaster
from the tomb
where the nightshade
and the oleaster
Hawkmoon hardly heard the words, but the rhythms seemed to have a peculiar effect on him. At first he thought it was the wine, but then he realized that at certain points in the recitation his mind would seem to shudder and forgotten sensations would well up in his breast. He swayed in his chair.
Bowgentle looked hard at Hawkmoon as he continued his poem, gesticulating in an exaggerated way.
The poet laureate in laurel
and orange brocade
chased with topaz
and lucent jade,
fragrant of pomander,
redolent to myrrh
of Samarcand and Thrace,
in the marketplace,
“Are you well, my lord?” asked Yisselda, leaning toward Hawkmoon and speaking with concern.
Hawkmoon shook his head. “I am well enough, thanks.” He was wondering if in some way he had offended the Lords of Granbretan and they were even now giving the Black Jewel its full life. His head was swimming.
and while choral
in slippers of gold
upon him trod
and throngs applaud
the mortal god.
Now all Hawkmoon saw was the figure and face of Bowgentle, heard nothing but the rhythms and the vowel rhymes, and wondered about enchantment. And if Bowgentle were seeking to enchant him, what was his reason?
From windows and towers
with garlands of flowers
and fresh bouquets
the children sprayed
roses and nosegays
of hyacinth into
where Glaucoma passed.
Down to the causeways
from steeples and parapets
plum blossoms, lilies
when Glaucoma passed.
Hawkmoon took a long draft of wine and breathed deeply, staring at Bowgentle as the poet continued with his verse.
the hot sun swayed
and still delayed
the stars bestrewn
would stand before the sacred ruin
and lay his hand upon that door
unknown to time
that he alone
of mortal man may countermand.
Hawkmoon gasped as a man might when plunged into icy water. Yisselda’s hand was on his sweat-wet brow, and her sweet eyes were troubled. “My lord…?”
Hawkmoon stared at Bowgentle as the poet went relentlessly on.
with eyes downcast
the grave ancestral portal
inlaid with precious stone
and pearl and bone
and ruby. He passed
the portal and the colonnade while trombone
sounds and trumpets blast
and earth trembles
a host assembles
and the scent of ambergris is
burning in the air.
Dimly, Hawkmoon glimpsed Yisselda’s hand touching his face, but he did not hear what she said. His eyes were fixed on Bowgentle, his ears were concentrated on listening to the verse. A goblet had fallen from his hand. He was plainly ill, but Count Brass made no move to help. Count Brass, instead, looked from Hawkmoon to Bowgentle, his face half-hidden behind his wine-cup, an ironic expression in his eyes.
Now the Emperor releases
a snow-white dove!
O, a dove
as peace is,
that love increases
Hawkmoon groaned. At the far end of the table von Villach banged his wine-cup on the table. “I’d agree with that. Why not ‘The Mountain Bloodletting’? It’s a good…”
The Emperor released
that snow-white dove
and it flew
till none could sight
it, flew through the bright
air, flew through fire,
flew still higher,
still flew higher,
into the sun
to die for
the Emperor Glaucoma
Hawkmoon staggered to his feet, tried to speak to Bowgentle, fell across the table, spilling wine in all directions.
“Is he drunk?” von Villach asked in a tone of disgust.
“He is ill!” called Yisselda. “Oh, he is ill!”
“He is not drunk, I think,” Count Brass said, leaning over Hawkmoon’s body and raising an eyelid. “But he is certainly insensible.” He looked up at Bowgentle and smiled. Bowgentle smiled back and then shrugged.
“I hope you are sure of that, Count Brass,” he said.
Hawkmoon lay all night in a deep coma and awoke the next morning to find Bowgentle, who acted as physician to the castle, bending over him. Whether what had happened had been caused by drink, the Black Jewel, or Bowgentle, he still could not be sure. Now he felt hot and weak.
“A fever, my lord Duke,” Bowgentle said softly. “But we shall cure you, never fear.”
Then Yisselda was there, seating herself beside his bed. She smiled at him. “Bowgentle says it is not serious,” she told him. “I will nurse you. Soon you will be in good health again.”
Hawkmoon looked into her face and felt a great flood of emotion fill him. “Lady Yisselda…”
“Yes, my lord?”
“I… thank you…”
He looked about the room in bewilderment. From behind him he heard a voice speak urgently. It was Count Brass’s voice. “Say nothing more. Rest. Control your thoughts. Sleep if you can.”
Hawkmoon had not realized Count Brass was in the room. Now Yisselda put a glass to his lips. He drank the cool liquid and was soon asleep again.
The next day the fever was gone, and rather than an absence of emotion, Dorian Hawkmoon felt as if he were numbed physically and spiritually. He wondered if he had been drugged.
Yisselda came to him as he was finishing breakfast and asked if he were ready to accompany her on a walk through the gardens, since the day was fine for the season.
He rubbed his head, feeling the strange warmth of the Black Jewel beneath his hand. With some alarm, he dropped his hand.
“Do you still feel ill, my lord?” asked Yisselda.
“No… I…” Hawkmoon sighed. “I don’t know. I feel odd—it’s unfamiliar…”
“Some fresh air, perhaps, will clear your head.”
Passively, Hawkmoon got up to go with her into the gardens. The gardens were scented with all kinds of pleasant smells, and the sun was bright, making the shrubs and trees stand out sharply in the clear winter air.
The touch of Yisselda’s arm linked in his stirred Hawkmoon’s feelings further. It was a pleasant sensation, as was the bite of the wind in his face and the sight of the terraced gardens and the houses below. As well as these, he felt fear and distrust—fear of the Black Jewel, for he was sure that it would destroy him if he betrayed any sign of what he was now going through; and distrust of Count Brass and the rest, for he felt that they were in some way deceiving him and had more than an inkling of his purpose in coming to Castle Brass. He could seize the girl now, steal a horse, and perhaps stand a good chance of escaping. He looked at her suddenly.
Sweetly, she smiled up at him. “Has the air made you feel better, my lord Duke?”
He stared down into her face while many emotions conflicted within him. “Better?” he said hoarsely. “Better? I am not sure…”
“Are you tired?”
“No.” His head had begun to ache, and again he felt afraid of the Black Jewel. He reached out and grasped the girl.
Thinking that he was falling from weakness, she took his arms and tried to support him. His hands went limp and he could do nothing. “You are very kind,” he said.
“You are a strange man,” she replied, half to herself. “You are an unhappy man.”
“Aye…” He pulled away from her and began to walk over the turf to the edge of the terrace. Could the Lords of Granbretan know what was going on within him? It was unlikely. It was likely, on the other hand, that they were suspicious and might give the Black Jewel its life at any moment. He took a deep breath of the cold air and straightened his shoulders, remembering the voice of Count Brass from the night before. “Control your thoughts,” he had said.
The pain in his head was increasing. He turned. “I think we had better return to the castle,” he told Yisselda. She nodded and took his arm again, and they walked back the way they had come.
In the main hall, Count Brass met them. His expression was one of kindly concern, and there was nothing in his face to confirm the urgency of tone Hawkmoon had heard last night. Hawkmoon wondered if he had dreamed that or if Count Brass had guessed the nature of the Black Jewel and was acting to deceive it and the Dark Lords who even now watched this scene from the palace laboratories in Londra.
“The Duke von Köln is feeling unwell,” Yisselda said.
“I am distressed to hear it,” Count Brass answered. “Is there anything you need, my lord?”
“No,” Hawkmoon replied thickly. “No—I thank you.” He walked as steadily as he could toward the stairs. Yisselda went with him, supporting one arm, until they reached his rooms. At the door he paused and looked down at her. Her eyes were wide and full of sympathy; she lifted a soft hand to touch his cheek for an instant. The touch sent a shudder through him and he gasped. Then she had turned and half-run down the passage.
Hawkmoon entered the room and flung himself on his bed, his breathing shallow, his body tense, desperately trying to understand what was happening to him and what was the source of the pain in his head. At length he slept again.
He awoke in the afternoon, feeling weak. The pain had nearly gone, and Bowgentle was beside the bed, placing a bowl of fruit on a nearby table. “I was mistaken in believing the fever had left you,” he said.
“What is happening to me?” Hawkmoon murmured.
“As far as I can tell, a mild fever brought about by the hardships you have suffered and, I am afraid, by our hospitality. Doubtless it was too soon for you to eat rich food and drink so much wine. We should have realized that. You will be well enough in a short time, however, my lord.”
Privately, Hawkmoon knew this diagnosis to be wrong, but he said nothing. He heard a cough to his left and turned his head but saw only the open door leading to the dressing room. Someone was within that room. He looked questioningly back at Bowgentle, but the man’s face was blank as he pretended an interest in Hawkmoon’s pulse.
“You must not fear,” said the voice from the next room. “We wish to help you.” The voice was Count Brass’s. “We understand the nature of the jewel in your forehead. When you feel rested, rise and go to the main hall, where Bowgentle will engage you in some sort of trivial conversation. Do not be surprised if his actions seem a little strange.”
Bowgentle pursed his lips and straightened up. “You will soon be fit again, my lord. I take my leave of you now.”
Hawkmoon watched him leave the room and heard another door close also—Count Brass leaving. How could they have discovered the truth? And how would it affect him? Even now the Dark Lords must be wondering about the odd turn of events and suspecting something. They might release the full life of the Black Jewel at any moment. For some reason, this knowledge disturbed him more.
Hawkmoon decided that there was nothing he could do but obey Count Brass’s command, though it was just as likely that the count, if he had discovered the purpose of Hawkmoon’s presence here, would be as vengeful as the Lords of Granbretan. Hawkmoon’s situation was an unpleasant one in all its possibilities.
When the room darkened and evening came, Hawkmoon got up and walked down to the main hall. It was empty. He looked around him in the flickering firelight, wondering if he had not been induced to enter some sort of trap.
Then Bowgentle came through the far door and smiled at him. He saw Bowgentle’s lips move, but no sound came from them. Bowgentle then pretended to pause as if listening to Hawkmoon’s reply, and Hawkmoon realized then that this was a deception for the benefit of those who watched through the power of the Black Jewel.
When he heard a footfall behind him, he did not turn, but instead pretended to reply to Bowgentle’s conversation.
Then Count Brass spoke from behind him. “We know what the Black Jewel is, my lord Duke. We understand that you were induced by those of Granbretan to come here, and we believe we know the purpose of your visit. I will explain…”
Hawkmoon was struck by the oddness of the situation as Bowgentle mimed speech and the count’s deep voice came as if from nowhere.
“When you first arrived here at Castle Brass,” Count Brass continued, “I realized that the Black Jewel was something more than you said it was—even if you did not yourself realize it. I am afraid that those of the Dark Empire do me little credit, for I have studied quite as much sorcery and science as they, and I have a grimoire in which the machine of the Black Jewel is described. However, I did not know whether you were a knowing or unknowing victim of the Jewel, and I had to discover this without the Granbretanians realizing it.
“Thus on the night of the banquet I asked Sir Bowgentle there to disguise a rune as a pretty set of verses. The purpose of this rune would be to rob you of consciousness—and thus rob the Jewel also—so that we could study you without the Lords of the Dark Empire realizing it. We hoped that they would think you drunk and not connect Bowgentle’s pretty rhymes with your own sudden infirmity.
“The rune speaking began, with its special rhythms and cadences designed for your ears. It served its purpose, and you passed into a deep coma. While you slept, Bowgentle and I managed to reach through to your inner mind, which was buried deeply—like a frightened animal that digs a burrow so far underground that it begins to stifle to death. Already certain events had brought your inner mind a little closer to the surface than it had been in Granbretan, and we were able to question it. We discovered most of what had happened to you in Londra, and when I learned of your mission here I almost dispatched you. But then I realized that there was a conflict in you—which even you were scarcely aware of. If this conflict had not been evident, I would have killed you myself or let the Black Jewel do its work.”
Hawkmoon, pretending to reply to Bowgentle’s non-existent conversation, shuddered in spite of himself.
“However,” Count Brass went on, “I realized that you were not to blame for what had occurred and that in killing you I might destroy a potentially powerful enemy of Granbretan. Though I remain neutral, Granbretan has done too much to offend me for me to let such a man die. Thus, we worked out this scheme in order to inform you of what we know and also to say that there is hope. I have the means of temporarily nullifying the power of the Black Jewel. When I have finished, you will accompany Bowgentle down to my chambers, where I will do what must be done. We have little time before the Lords of Granbretan lose patience and release the Jewel’s full life into your skull.”
Hawkmoon heard Count Brass’s footfalls leave the hall, and then Bowgentle smiled and said aloud, “So if you would care to accompany me, my lord, I will show you some parts of the castle you have not as yet visited. Few guests have seen Count Brass’s private chambers.”
Hawkmoon realized that these words were spoken for the benefit of the watchers in Granbretan. Doubtless Bowgentle was hoping to whet their curiosity and thus gain time.
Bowgentle led the way out of the main hall and into a passage that ended at what appeared to be a solid wall hung with tapestries. Pushing the tapestries aside, Bowgentle touched a small stud set in the stone of the wall, and immediately a section of it began to glow brightly and then faded, to reveal a portal through which, by stooping, a man could pass. Hawkmoon went through, followed by Bowgentle, and found himself in a small room, the walls hung with old charts and diagrams. This room was left and another entered, larger than the first. It contained a great mass of alchemical apparatus and was lined with bookshelves full of huge old volumes of chemistry, sorcery and philosophy.
“This way,” murmured Bowgentle, drawing aside a curtain to reveal a dark passage.
Hawkmoon’s eyes strained as he tried to peer through the darkness, but it was impossible. He stepped cautiously along the passage, and then it was suddenly alive with blinding white light.
Revealed in silhouette was the looming figure of Count Brass, a strangely wrought weapon in his hands pointed at Hawkmoon’s head.
Hawkmoon gasped and tried to leap aside, but the passage was too narrow. There was a crack that seemed to burst his eardrums, a weird, melodious humming sound, and he fell back, losing consciousness.
Awakening in golden half light, Hawkmoon had a sense of astonishing physical well-being. His whole mind and body felt alive as if it had never been alive before. He smiled and stretched. He was lying on a metal bench, alone. He reached up and touched his forehead. The Black Jewel was still there, but its texture had changed. No longer did it feel like flesh; no longer did it possess an unnatural warmth. Instead it felt like any ordinary jewel, hard and smooth and cold.
A door opened, and Count Brass entered, looking down at him with an expression of satisfaction.
“I am sorry if I alarmed you yesterday evening,” he said, “but I had to work rapidly, paralyzing the Black Jewel and capturing the life force in it. I now possess that life force, imprisoned by means both physical and sorcerous, but I cannot hold it for ever. It is too strong. At some time, it will escape and flow back into the jewel in your forehead, no matter where you are.”
“So I am reprieved but not saved,” Hawkmoon said. “How long does the reprieve last?”
“I am not sure. Six months, almost certainly—perhaps a year—perhaps two. But then again, it could be a matter of hours. I cannot deceive you, Dorian Hawkmoon, but I can give you extra hope. There is a sorcerer in the East who could remove the Black Jewel from your head. He is opposed to the Dark Empire and might help you if you could ever find him.”
“What is his name?”
“Malagigi of Hamadan.”
“Of Persia, then, this sorcerer?”
“Aye,” nodded Count Brass. “So far away as to be almost out of your reach.”
Hawkmoon sighed and sat up. “Well, then, I must hope your sorcery lasts long enough to sustain me for just a little while. I will leave your lands, Count Brass, and go to Valence to join the army there. It gathers against Granbretan and cannot win, but at least I will take a few of the King-Emperor’s dogs with me, by way of vengeance for all they did to me.”
Count Brass smiled wryly. “I give you back your life and you immediately decide to sacrifice it. I would suggest that you think for a while before you take any action of any kind. How do you feel, my lord Duke?”
Dorian Hawkmoon swung his legs off the bench and stretched again. “Awake,” he said, “a new man…” He frowned. “Aye—a new man…” he murmured thoughtfully. “And I agree with you, Count Brass. Vengeance can wait until a subtler scheme presents itself.”
“In saving you,” Count Brass said almost sadly, “I took away your youth. You will never know it again.”
The Battle of Kamarg
“They spread neither to east nor west,” said Bowgentle one morning some two months later, “but carve their way directly south. There is no doubt, Count Brass, that they realize the truth and plan revenge upon you.”
“Perhaps their vengeance is directed at me,” Hawkmoon said from where he sat in a deep armchair on one side of the fire. “If I were to go to meet them, they might be satisfied. No doubt they think of me as a traitor.”
Count Brass shook his head. “If I know Baron Meliadus, he wants the blood of all of us now. He and his wolves lead the armies. They will not stop until they reach our boundaries.”
Von Villach turned from the window where he had been looking out over the town. “Let them come. We will blow them away as the mistral blows the leaves from the trees.”
“Let us hope so,” said Bowgentle doubtfully. “They have massed their forces. For the first time they seem to have ignored their usual tactics.”
“Aye, the fools,” muttered Count Brass. “I admired them for the way they spread out in a widening semi-circle. That way they could always strengthen their rear before advancing. Now they have unconquered territory on both flanks and enemy armies capable of closing off their rear. If we beat them, they’ll have a hard time retreating. Baron Meliadus’s vendetta against us robs him of his good sense.”
“But if they win,” Hawkmoon said softly, “they will have built a road from ocean to ocean, and their conquering will be the easier for that.”
“Possibly that is how Meliadus justifies his action,” Bowgentle agreed. “I fear he could be right in anticipating such an outcome.”
“Nonsense!” von Villach grumbled. “Our towers will resist Granbretan.”
“They were designed to withstand an attack from land,” Bowgentle pointed out. “We did not reckon for the aerial navies of the Dark Empire.”
“We have our own army of the air,” Count Brass said.
“The flamingoes are not made of metal,” Bowgentle replied.
Hawkmoon rose. He still wore the black leather doublet and breeches given him by Meliadus. The leather creaked as he moved. “Within a few weeks at most, the Dark Empire will be at our door,” he said. “What preparations must be made?”
Bowgentle tapped the large map he had rolled under his arm. “First, we should study this.”
Count Brass pointed. “Spread it on yonder table.”
As Bowgentle spread the map, using wine-cups to keep the edges down, Count Brass, von Villach, and Hawkmoon gathered round. The map showed Kamarg and the land surrounding it for some hundred miles.
“They are more or less following the river along its eastern bank,” Count Brass said, indicating the Rhone. “From what the messenger said, they should be here —” his finger touched the foothills of the Cevennes—“within a week. We must send out scouts and make sure we know their movements from moment to moment. Then, when they reach our borders, we must have our main force grouped at exactly the right position.”
“They might send in their ornithopters ahead,” Hawkmoon said. “What then?”
“We’ll have our own air scouts circling and be able to anticipate them,” von Villach growled. “And the towers will be able to deal with them if the air riders cannot.”
“Your actual forces are small,” Hawkmoon put in, “so you will be depending heavily on these towers, fighting an almost entirely defensive action.”
“That is all we shall need to do,” Count Brass told him. “We shall wait at our own borders, with ranks of infantry filling in the spaces between the towers, using heliographers and other signalers to direct the towers to where their power will be most needed.”
“We seek only to stop their attack on us,” Bowgentle said with a hint of sarcasm. “We have no intention of doing more than withstand them.”
Count Brass glanced at him and frowned. “Just so, Bowgentle. We should be fools to press an attack—our few against their many. Our only hope of survival is to depend on the towers and show the King-Emperor and his minions that Kamarg can resist anything he cares to try—whether open battle or long siege—attack from land, sea, or air. To expend men on warfare beyond our borders would be senseless.”
“And what say you, friend Hawkmoon?” Bowgentle asked. “You have had experience of battle with the Dark Empire.”
Hawkmoon paused, consulting the map. “I see the sense of Count Brass’s tactics. I have learned to my cost that any formal battle with Granbretan is out of the question. But it occurs to me that we could weigh the odds further to our advantage if we could pick our own battleground. Where are the defenses strongest?”
Von Villach pointed to an area south-east of the Rhone. “Here, where the towers are thickest and there is high ground where our men could group. At the same time, the ground over which the enemy would have to come is marshy in this season and would cause them some difficulty.” He shrugged. “But what point is there in such wishful discussion? They will pick the point of attack, not we.”
“Unless they could be driven there,” Hawkmoon said.
“What would drive them? A storm of knives?” Count Brass smiled.
“I would,” Hawkmoon told him. “With the aid of a couple of hundred mounted warriors—never engaging them in open battle, but constantly nibbling at their flanks, we could guide them, with luck, to that spot as your dogs drive your bulls. At the same time, we should have them always in sight and be able to send messages to you so that you would know at all times exactly where they were.”
Count Brass rubbed at his moustache and looked at Hawkmoon with some respect. “A tactician after my own heart. Perhaps I’m becoming overcautious, after all, in my old age. If I were younger, I might have conceived a similar scheme. It could work, Hawkmoon, with a great deal of luck.”
Von Villach cleared his throat. “Aye—luck and endurance. D’you realize what you’re taking on, lad? There’d be scant time for sleeping, you’d have to be on your guard at all hours. It’s a grueling task you’re considering. Would you be man enough for it? And could the soldiers you take stand it? Then there’s the flying machines to consider…”
“We’d only need to keep watch for their scouts,” Hawkmoon said, “for we’d strike and run before they could get their main force into the air. Your men know the terrain—know where to hide.”
Bowgentle pursed his lips. “There’s another consideration. The reason they’re following the river is to be near their water-carried supplies. They’re using the river to bear provisions, spare mounts, war engines, ornithopters—which is why they move so rapidly. How could they be induced to part company with their barges?”
Hawkmoon thought for a moment, then grinned. “Not too difficult a question to answer. Listen…”
Next day, Dorian Hawkmoon went riding across the wild marshland, the lady Yisselda at his side. They had spent much time together since his recovery, and he was deeply attached to her, though he seemed to show her little attention. Content enough to be near him, she was yet sometimes piqued that he made no demonstration of affection. She did not know that he wanted nothing more than to do so but that he felt a responsibility toward her that made him control his natural desire to court her. For he knew that at any moment of the night or day he might become in the space of a few minutes a mindless, shambling creature bereft of his humanity. He lived constantly in the knowledge that the Black Jewel’s power could burst the bonds Count Brass had cast around it and that shortly afterwards the Lords of Granbretan would give the Jewel its full life and it would eat his mind.
So he did not tell her that he loved her and that this love had first stirred his inner mind from its slumber and that because he saw this, Count Brass had spared his life. And she was, for her part, too shy to tell him of her love.
They rode together over the marshes, feeling the wind in their faces, tugging at their cloaks, galloping faster than was wise through the winding, hidden causeways through the lagoons and swamps, disturbing quail and duck, sending them squawking into the skies, coming upon herds of wild horses and stampeding them, alarming the white bulls and their wives, galloping to the long, lonely beaches where the cold surf spread, splashing through the spray, beneath the shadows of the watchful guard towers, laughing up at the lowering clouds, horses’ hoofs beating on the sand, and at length bringing their steeds to a halt to stare out to sea and shout above the song of the mistral.
“You leave tomorrow, Bowgentle tells me,” she called, and the wind dropped for a moment and all was suddenly still.
“Aye. Tomorrow.” He turned his sad face to her, then quickly turned away again. “Tomorrow. It will not be long before I return.”
“Do not be killed, Dorian.”
He laughed reassuringly. “It’s not my fate, I think, to be killed by Granbretan. If it were—I’d be dead several times over.”
She began to reply, but then the wind came roaring in again, catching her hair and curling it about her face. He leaned over to disentangle it, feeling her soft skin and wishing with all his heart that he could hold her face cupped in his hands and touch her lips with his. She reached up to grasp his wrist and keep his hand where it was, but he withdrew it gently, wheeled his horse, and began to ride inland, toward Castle Brass.
The clouds streamed across the sky, above the flattened reeds and the rippling water of the lagoons. A little rain fell, but hardly enough to dampen their shoulders. They rode back slowly, both lost in their own thoughts.
Clad in chain mail from throat to feet, a steel helm with nasals to protect head and face, a long, tapering broadsword at his side, a shield without insignia, Dorian Hawkmoon raised his hand to bring his men to a halt. The men bristled with weapons—bows, slings, some flame-lances, throwing axes, spears—anything that could be hurled from a distance. They were slung across their backs, over their pommels, tied to the sides of their horses, carried in their hands and at their belts. Hawkmoon dismounted and followed his outrider toward the crest of the hill, bending low and moving cautiously.
Reaching the top, he lay on his belly and looked down into the valley where the river wound. It was his first sight of the full might of Granbretan.
It was like a vast legion out of hell, moving slowly southward, battalion upon battalion of marching infantry, squadron after squadron of cavalry, every man masked so that it seemed that the entire animal kingdom marched against Kamarg. Tall banners sprouted from this throng, and metal standards swayed on long poles. There was the banner of Asrovak Mikosevaar, with its grinning, sword-wielding corpse on whose shoulder a vulture perched; beneath it were stitched the words DEATH TO LIFE! The tiny figure swaggering in his saddle close to this standard must be Asrovak Mikosevaar himself. Next to Baron Meliadus, he was the most ruthless of all the Warlords of Granbretan. Nearby was the cat standard of Duke Vendel, Grand Constable of that Order, the fly banner of Lord Jerek Nankenseen, and a hundred other similar flags of a hundred other Orders. Even the mantis banner was there, though the Grand Constable was absent—he was the King-Emperor Huon. But in the forefront rode the wolf-masked figure of Meliadus, carrying his own standard, the snarling figure of a rampant wolf; even his horse was caparisoned all in armour with fancifully wrought chamfron resembling the head of a gigantic wolf.
The ground shook, even at this distance, as the army moved on, and through the air came the jingle and clatter of its arms, the stench of sweat and of animals.
Hawkmoon did not look for long at the army proper. He concentrated on the river beyond, noting the vast numbers of heavily laden barges that lay side by side, so thick that they almost hid the water. He smiled and whispered to the scout at his side, “It suits our plan, you see? All their watercraft bunched together. Come, we must circle their army and get a good distance behind it.
They ran back down the hill. Hawkmoon climbed into his saddle and waved for his men to move on. Following him, they rode at speed, knowing there was little time to spare.
They rode for the best part of that day until the army of Granbretan was merely a cloud of dust to the south and the river was free of the Dark Empire’s ships. Here the Rhone narrowed and became shallow, running through an artificial watercourse of ancient stone, with a low stone bridge spanning it. The ground on one side was flat, and on the other it sloped gently down to form a valley.
Wading through this part of the river as evening came, Hawkmoon looked carefully at the stone banks, looked up at the bridge, and tested the nature of the river bed itself while water rushed around his legs, chilling them as it crept between the links of his mail stockings. The watercourse was in poor condition. It had been built before the Tragic Millennium and hardly repaired since. It had been used to divert the river for some reason. Now Hawkmoon intended to put it to a new use.
On the bank, waiting for his signal, were grouped his flame-lancers, holding their long, unwieldy weapons carefully. Hawkmoon climbed back to the bank and began pointing out certain spots on the bridge and the banks. The flame-lancers saluted and began to move in the directions he had indicated, raising their weapons. Hawkmoon stretched his arm toward the west, where the ground fell away, and called to them. They nodded.
As the sky darkened, red flame began to roar from the tapering snouts of the weapons, cut its way into stone, turned water into boiling steam, until all was heat and tumbling chaos.
Through the night, the flame-lances did their work; then suddenly there was a great groan and the bridge collapsed into the river in a great cloud of spray, sending scalding water in all directions. Now the flame-lancers turned their attention to the western bank, carving out blocks that tumbled down into the dammed river, which was beginning to spread out around the bridge that blocked it.
By morning, water rushed down a new course into the valley, and only a small stream flowed along the original bed.
Tired but satisfied, Hawkmoon and his men grinned at one another and mounted their horses, turning away in the direction whence they had come. They had struck their first blow against Granbretan. And it was an effective blow.
Hawkmoon and his soldiers rested in the hills for a few hours and then went to look at the Dark Empire’s army again.
Hawkmoon smiled as he lay beneath the cover of a bush and looked down into the valley at the scene of confusion there.
The river was now a morass of dark mud, and in it, like so many stranded whales, lay the battle barges of Granbretan, some with prows jutting high and sterns buried deep in the stuff of the river bed, some on their sides, some bow-first in the mud, some upside-down, war engines scattered, livestock in panic, provisions ruined. And wading among all this the soldiers attempted to haul the mud-encrusted cargoes to land, free horses from their entangling ropes and straps, and rescue sheep, pigs, and cows that struggled wildly in the morass.
There was a great noise of bellowing animals and shouting men. The uniform ranks that Hawkmoon had seen earlier were now broken. On the banks, proud cavalrymen were being forced to use their horses like dray animals to haul barges closer to firm ground. Elsewhere, camps had been erected as Meliadus had realized the impossibility of moving on until the cargoes were rescued. Although guards had been posted around the camps, their attention was on the river and not on the hills where Hawkmoon and his men waited.
It was coming close to dark, and since the ornithopters could not fly at night, Baron Meliadus would not know the exact reason for the river’s sudden drying up until the next day. Then, Hawkmoon reasoned, he would dispatch engineers upriver to try to put right the damage; but Hawkmoon was prepared for this.
Now it was time to ready his men. He crept back down to the depression in the hillside where his soldiers were bivouacked and began to confer with his captains. He had a particular objective in view, one he hoped might help demoralize the warriors of Granbretan.
Nightfall, and by the light of brands the men in the valley continued their work, manhandling the heavy war engines to the bank, dragging cases of provisions up the steep sides of the river bed. Meliadus, whose impatience to reach Kamarg allowed his men no rest, rode among the weary, sweating soldiers urging them on. Behind him, each great circle of tents surrounded the particular standard of its Order, but few of the tents were fully occupied since most of the forces were still at work.
No-one saw the approaching shapes of the mounted warriors whose horses walked softly down from the hills, each man swathed in a dark cloak.
Hawkmoon drew his horse to a halt, and his right hand went to his left side, where the fine sword Meliadus had given him was scabbarded. He swept the sword out, raised it for a moment, then pointed it forward. It was the signal to charge.
Without warcries, their only sound the thunder of their horses’ hoofs and the clank of their accoutrements, the Kamargians plunged forward, led by Hawkmoon, who leaned across his horse’s neck and made straight for a surprised guard. His sword took the man in the throat, and with a gurgling murmur the guard collapsed. Through the first of the tents they went, slashing at guy ropes, cutting down the few armed men who tried to stop them, and still the Granbretanians had no idea who attacked them. Hawkmoon reached the centre of the first circle, and his sword swung in a great arc as he chopped at the standard that stood there—the standard of the Order of the Hound. The pole cracked, groaned, and fell into a cooking fire, sending up a great shower of sparks.
Hawkmoon did not pause; he urged his horse on into the heart of the huge camp. On the riverbank there was no alarm, for the invaders could not be heard over the din the Granbretanians themselves made.
Three half-armoured swordsmen ran toward Hawkmoon. He yanked his horse sideways and swung his broadsword left and right, meeting their blades and striking one from its owner’s hand. The other two pressed in, but Hawkmoon chopped at a wrist, severing it. The remaining warrior backed away, and Hawkmoon lunged at him, his sword piercing the man’s breast.
The horse reared, and Hawkmoon fought to control it, forcing it through another line of tents, his men following. He broke out across an open space, to see his way blocked by a group of warriors dressed only in nightshirts and armed with swords and bucklers. Hawkmoon shouted an order to his horsemen, and they spread out to charge full tilt at the line, their swords held straight before them. Almost in a single movement they killed or knocked flying the line of warriors and were through into the next circle of tents, guy ropes twisting in the air as they were cut, tents collapsing upon their occupants.
At last, his sword glistening with blood, Hawkmoon fought his way to the centre of this circle, and there stood what he sought—the proud mantis banner of the Order of which the King-Emperor himself was Grand Constable. A band of warriors stood round it, pulling on helmets and adjusting their shields on their arms. Without waiting to see if his men followed, Hawkmoon thundered toward them with a wild yell. A shiver ran up his arm as his sword clanged against the shield of the nearest warrior, but he lifted it again, and the sword split the shield, gashing the face of the man behind it so that he reeled back, spitting blood from his ruined mouth. Another Hawkmoon took in the side, and another’s head was shorn off clean. His blade rose and fell like some relentless machine, and now his men joined him, pressing the warriors farther and farther back into a tighter and tighter ring about the mantis banner.
Hawkmoon’s mail was ripped by a sword-stroke, his shield was struck from his arm, but he fought on until only one man stood by the banner.
Hawkmoon grinned, leaned forward, tipped the man’s helmet off his head with a movement of his sword, and clove the skull in twain. Then he reached out and yanked the mantis banner from the earth, raised it high to display it to his cheering men, and turned his horse about, riding for the hills again, the steed leaping corpses and tangled tents with ease.
He heard a wounded warrior yell from behind him, “Did you see him? He has a black jewel embedded in his skull!”—and he knew that before long Baron Meliadus would understand who had raided his camp and stolen his army’s most precious standard.
Hawkmoon turned in the direction of the shout, shook the banner triumphantly, and laughed a wild, mocking laugh.
“Hawkmoon!” he cried. “Hawkmoon!” It was the age-old battleshout of his forefathers. It sprang unconsciously to his lips now, bidden by his will to let his great enemy Meliadus, the slayer of his kin, know who opposed him.
The coal-black stallion on which he rode reared up, red nostrils flaring, eyes glaring, was wheeled around on its hindlegs, and plunged through the confusion of the camp.
Behind them came mounted warriors, hastily riding in pursuit, goaded on by Hawkmoon’s infuriating laughter.
Hawkmoon and his men soon reached the hills again and headed for the secret encampment they had already prepared. Behind them blundered Meliadus’s men. Looking back, Hawkmoon saw that the scene on the dried-up riverbank had turned into even greater confusion. Torches moved hurriedly toward the camp.
Knowing the country as they did, Hawkmoon’s men had soon outdistanced their pursuers and at length come to a rocky hillside where they had camouflaged a cave entrance the previous day. Into this cave they now rode, dismounting and replacing the camouflage. The cave was large, and there were even larger caverns beyond it, big enough to take their whole force and stable their horses. A small stream ran through the farthest cave, which held provisions for several days. Other secret camps had been prepared all the way back to Kamarg.
Someone lit brands, and Hawkmoon dismounted, hefting the mantis standard and flinging it into a corner. He grinned at round-faced Pelaire, his chief lieutenant.
“Tomorrow Meliadus will send engineers back to our dam, once his ornithopters have reported. We must make sure they do not destroy our handiwork.”
Pelaire nodded. “Aye, but even if we slay one party, he’ll send another…”
Hawkmoon shrugged. “And another, doubtless—but I rely upon his impatience to reach Kamarg. At length he should realize the pointlessness in wasting time and men in trying to redivert the river. Then he will press on—and with luck, if we survive, we should be able to drive him south-east to our borders.”
Pelaire had begun to count the numbers of the returning warriors. Hawkmoon waited until he had finished, then asked, “What losses?”
Pelaire’s face was a mixture of elation and disbelief. “None, master—we have not lost a man!”
“A good omen,” Hawkmoon said, slapping Pelaire on the back. “Now we must rest, for we have a long ride in the morning.”
At dawn, the guard they had left at the entrance came back to report bad news.
“A flying machine,” he told Hawkmoon as the duke washed himself in the stream. “It has been circling above for the last ten minutes.”
“Do you think the pilot has guessed something—made out our tracks, perhaps?” Pelaire put in.
“Impossible,” Hawkmoon said, drying his face. “The rock would show nothing even to someone on the ground. We must bide our time—those ornithopters cannot remain airborne for long without returning to re-power.”
But an hour later the guard returned to say that a second ornithopter had arrived to replace the first. Hawkmoon bit his lip, then reached a decision. “Time is running out. Before the engineers can begin work we must get to the dam. We shall have to resort to a riskier plan than I’d hoped to use…”
Swiftly he drew one of his men aside and spoke to him; then he gave orders for two flame-lancers to come forward, and, last, he told the rest of his men to saddle their horses and be prepared to leave the cavern.
A little later, a single horseman rode out of the cavern entrance and began slowly to ride down the gentle, rocky slope.
Watching from the cave. Hawkmoon saw the sun glance off the body of the great, brazen flying machine as its mechanical wings flapped noisily in the air and it began to descend toward the lone man. Hawkmoon had counted on the pilot’s curiosity. Now he made a gesture with his hand, and the flame-lancers brought their long, unwieldy weapons up, their ruby coils already beginning to glow in readiness. The disadvantages of the flame-lance were that it could not be operated instantly and it often grew too hot to hold easily.
Now the ornithopter was circling lower and lower. The hidden flame-lancers raised their weapons. The pilot could be seen, leaning over his cockpit, crow-mask peering downward.
“Now,” murmured Hawkmoon.
As one, the red lines of flame left the tips of the lances. The first splashed against the side of the ornithopter and merely heated the armour a little. But the second struck the pilot’s body, which almost instantly began to flare. The pilot beat at his burning garments, and his hands left the delicate controls of the machine. The wings flapped erratically, and the ornithopter twisted in the air, keeled to one side, and plunged earthward with the pilot trying to bring the flying machine out of its dive. It struck a nearby hillside and crumpled to pieces, the wings still beating for an instant, the pilot’s broken body flung some yards away; then it burst apart with a strange smacking sound. It did not catch fire, but the pieces were scattered widely over the hillside. Hawkmoon did not understand the peculiarities of the power unit used for the ornithopters, but one of them was the manner in which it exploded.
Hawkmoon mounted the black stallion and signaled his men to follow him. Within moments they were galloping down the rocky slope of the hill, heading for the dam they had made the day before.
The winter’s day was bright and clear, and the air was exhilarating. They rode with some confidence, cheered by their success of last night. They slowed down, eventually, when the dam was close, saw the river flowing on its new course, watched from the top of the hill as a detachment of warriors and engineers inspected the broken bridge that successfully blocked the water from its earlier course, and then charged down, the mounted flame-lancers in the lead, leaning back in their stirrups while they operated their temperamental weapons.
Ten lines of fire poured toward the surprised Granbretanians, turning men into living brands that ran screaming for the water. Fire swept across the ranks of men in the masks of mole and badger and the protecting force in their vulture masks—Asrovak Mikosevaar’s mercenaries. Then Hawkmoon’s men had clashed with them, and the air rang with the clangour of their weapons. Bloody axes swung in the air, swords swept back and forth, men screamed in death agonies, horses snorted and whinnied with hoofs flailing.
Hawkmoon’s horse, protected by chain armour, staggered as a huge man swung a great double-bladed war-axe at it. The horse fell, dragging Hawkmoon down, its body trapping him. The vulture-masked axeman moved in, raising the weapon over Hawkmoon’s face. Hawkmoon pulled his arm from beneath the horse, and there was a sword in his hand that swept up just in time to take the main force of the blow. The horse was clambering to its feet again. Hawkmoon sprang up and grabbed its reins while at the same time protecting himself from the swinging axe.
Once, twice, thrice, the weapons met, until Hawkmoon’s sword arm ached. Then he slid his blade down the shaft and struck the axeman’s fists. Hawkmoon’s adversary let go of the weapon with one hand, a muffled oath coming from within the mask. Hawkmoon smashed his sword against the metal mask, denting it. The man groaned and staggered. Hawkmoon got both hands on the grip of the broadsword and brought the blade around to chop deep into the head again. The vulture mask split, and a bloodied face was revealed, the bearded mouth screaming for mercy. Hawkmoon’s eyes narrowed, for he loathed the mercenaries more than he loathed the Granbretanians. He delivered a third blow to the head, staving in all of one side so that the man waltzed backward, already dead, and crumpled against one of his fellows who was engaged with a Kamargian horseman.
Hawkmoon remounted and led his men against the last of the Vulture Legion, hacking and thrusting in a fever of bloodletting, until only the engineers, armed with short swords, remained. These presented little opposition and were shortly all slain, their bodies strewn across the dam and drifting down the river they had sought to redivert.
Pelaire glanced at Hawkmoon as they rode away toward the hills. “You have no mercy in you, captain!”
“Aye,” Hawkmoon replied distantly, “none. Man, woman, or child, if they be of or for Granbretan, they are my enemies to be slain.”
Eight of their number were dead. Considering the strength of the force they had destroyed, they had again known great luck. The Granbretanians were used to massacring their enemies, they were not used to being attacked in this manner. Perhaps this explained the few losses the men of Kamarg had suffered so far.
Four more expeditions Meliadus sent to destroy the dam, each expedition of increasing numbers. Each was destroyed in turn by sudden attacks from the horsemen of Kamarg, and of the original two hundred riders who followed Dorian Hawkmoon, nearly a hundred and fifty remained to carry out the second part of his plan and harry the armies of Granbretan so that they turned slowly, encumbered as they were by their land-borne war engines and supplies, toward the south-east.
Hawkmoon never afterward attacked by day, when the ornithopters circled the skies, but would creep in by night. His flame-lances burned scores of tents and their occupants, his arrows cut down dozen upon dozen of the men assigned to guard the tents and the warriors who went out by day to seek for the Kamargians’ secret camps. Swords scarcely dried before they were wetted again, axes became blunt with their deadly work, and heavy Kamarg spears were in short supply among their original owners. Hawkmoon and his men became haggard and red-eyed, hardly able to keep their saddles at times, often coming within a hairsbreadth of discovery by the ornithopters or search parties. They ensured that the road from the river was lined with Granbretanian corpses—and that that road was the one they chose for the Dark Empire forces to tread.
As Hawkmoon had guessed, Meliadus did not spend the time he should trying to seek out the guerilla riders. His impatience to reach Kamarg dominated even his great hatred for Hawkmoon, and doubtless he reasoned that once he had vanquished Kamarg there would be time enough to deal with Hawkmoon.
Once and only once they came close to confronting one another, as Hawkmoon and his riders moved among the tents and cooking fires, stabbing at random and preparing to leave, since dawn was close. Meliadus, mounted, came up with a group of his wolf cavalry, saw Hawkmoon butchering a couple of men entangled in a fallen tent, and charged toward him.
Hawkmoon looked up, raised his sword to meet Meliadus’s, and smiled grimly, pushing the sword gradually backward.
Meliadus grunted as Hawkmoon forced his arm farther and farther back.
“My thanks, Baron Meliadus,” said Hawkmoon. “The nurturing you gave me in Londra seems to have improved my strength…”
“Oh, Hawkmoon,” Meliadus replied, his voice soft but shaking with rage, “I know not how you escaped the power of the Black Jewel, but you will suffer a fate many thousand times greater than the one you have avoided when I take Kamarg and once again make you my prisoner.”
Suddenly Hawkmoon moved his blade in under the brass quillons of Meliadus’s sword, turned the point, and sent the other’s weapon spinning away. He raised the broadsword to strike, then realized that too many Granbretanians were coming up.
“Time to be away, Baron, I regret. I’ll remember your promise—when you’re my prisoner!”
He wheeled his horse about and, laughing, was away, leading his men out of the chaos that was the camp. With an angry motion of his hand, Meliadus dismounted to retrieve his sword. “Upstart!” he swore. “He’ll crawl at my feet before the month is past.”
The day came when Hawkmoon and his riders made no further attacks on Meliadus’s forces but galloped swiftly through the marshy ground that lay below the line of hills where Count Brass, Leopold von Villach, and their army awaited them. The tall, dark towers, almost as ancient as Kamarg itself, loomed over the scene, packed now with more than one guardian, snouts of bizarre weapons jutting from almost every slit.
Hawkmoon’s horse climbed the hill, approaching the solitary figure of Count Brass, who smiled with great warmth and relief when he recognized the young nobleman.
“I am glad I decided to let you live, Duke von Köln,” he said humorously. “You have done everything you planned—and kept the best part of your force alive. I’m not sure I could have done better myself, in my prime.”
“Thank you, Count Brass. Now we must prepare. Baron Meliadus is hardly half a day’s march behind us.”
Below him now, on the far side of the hill, he could see the Kamargian force, primarily infantry, drawn up.
At most a thousand men, they looked pitifully few compared with the vast weight of warriors marching to meet them. The Kamargians were outnumbered at least twenty to one, probably by twice that amount.
Count Brass saw Hawkmoon’s expression.
“Do not fear, lad. We have better weapons than swords with which to resist this invasion.”
Hawkmoon had been mistaken in thinking Granbretan would reach the borders in half a day. They had decided to camp before marching on, and it was not until noon of the following day that the Kamargians saw the force approach, moving over the flat plain in a spread-out formation. Each square of infantry and cavalry was made up of a particular Order, each member of the Order pledged to defend every other member whether that member was alive or dead. This system was part of Granbretan’s great strength, for it meant that no man ever retreated unless specifically ordered to do so by his Grand Constable.
Count Brass sat on his horse and watched the enemy approach. On one side of him was Dorian Hawkmoon, on the other Leopold von Villach. Here, it was Count Brass who would give the orders. Now the battle begins in earnest, thought Hawkmoon, and it was hard to see how they could win. Was Count Brass overconfident?
The mighty concourse of fighting men and machines came eventually to a halt about half a mile away; then two figures broke from the main body and began to ride toward the hill. As they came closer, Hawkmoon recognized the standard as that of Baron Meliadus and realized a moment later that one of the figures was Meliadus himself, riding with his herald. He held a bronze megaphone, symbolizing the wish for a peaceful parley.
“Surely he can’t wish to surrender—or expect us to,” von Villach said in a tone of disgruntlement.
“I would think not,” smiled Hawkmoon. “Doubtless this is one of his tricks. He is famous for them.”
Noting the quality of Hawkmoon’s smile, Count Brass counseled, “Be wary of that hatred, Dorian Hawkmoon. Do not let it possess your reason the way it possesses Meliadus’s.”
Hawkmoon stared straight in front of him and did not reply.
Now the herald lifted the heavy megaphone to his lips.
“I speak for Baron Meliadus, Grand Constable of the Order of the Wolf, First Chieftain of the Armies under the most noble King-Emperor Huon, ruler of Granbretan and destined ruler of all Europe.”
“Tell your master to lift his mask and speak for himself,” Count Brass called back.
“My master offers you honourable peace. If you surrender now, he promises that he will slay nobody and will merely appoint himself as Governor of your province in King Huon’s name, to see justice done and order brought to this unruly land. We offer you mercy. If you refuse, all Kamarg will be laid waste, everything shall be burned and the sea let in to flood what remains. The Baron Meliadus says that you well know it is in his power to do all this and that your resistance will be the cause of the deaths of your kin as well as yourselves.”
“Tell Baron Meliadus, who hides behind his mask, too abashed to speak since he knows that he is a graceless cur who has abused my hospitality and been beaten by me in a fair fight—tell your master that we may well be the death of him and all his kind. Tell him that he is a cowardly dog and a thousand of his ilk could not bring down one of our Kamarg bulls. Tell him that we sneer at his offer of peace as a trick—a deception that could be seen for what it is by a child. Tell him that we need no governor, that we govern ourselves to our own satisfaction. Tell him…”
Count Brass broke into a jeering laugh as Baron Meliadus angrily turned his horse about and, with the herald at his heels, galloped back toward his men.
They waited for a quarter of an hour, and then they saw the ornithopters rise into the air. Hawkmoon sighed. He had been defeated once by the flying machines. Would he be defeated for a second time?
Count Brass raised his sword in a signal, and there was a great flapping and snapping sound. Looking behind him, Hawkmoon saw the scarlet flamingoes sweeping upward, their graceful flight exceedingly beautiful in comparison with the clumsy motions of the metal ornithopters that parodied them. Soaring into the sky, the scarlet flamingoes, with their riders in their high saddles, each man armed with a flame-lance, wheeled toward the brazen ornithopters.
Gaining height, the flamingoes were in the better position, but it was hard to believe that they would be a match for the machines of metal, however clumsy. Red streamers of flame, hardly visible from this distance, struck the sides of the ornithopters, and one pilot was hit, killed almost instantly and falling from his machine. The pilotless ornithopter flapped on; then its wings folded behind it and it plunged downward, to land, birdlike, prow first, in the swamp below the hill. Hawkmoon saw an ornithopter fire its twin flame cannon at a flamingo and its rider, and the scarlet bird leaped in the air, somersaulted, and crashed to earth in a great shower of feathers. The air was hot and the flying machines noisy, but Count Brass’s attention was now on the Granbretanian cavalry, which was advancing toward the hill at a charge.
Count Brass made no movement at first; he merely watched the huge press of horsemen as they came nearer and nearer. Then he lifted his sword again, yelling: “Towers—open fire!”
The nozzles of some of the unfamiliar weapons turned toward the enemy riders, and there came a shrieking sound that Hawkmoon thought would split his head, but he saw nothing come from the weapons. Then he saw that the horses were rearing, just as they reached the swampland. Every one was bucking now, eyes rolling and foam flecking its lips. Riders were flung off until half the cavalry was crawling in the swamp, slipping on the treacherous mud, trying to control their animals.
Count Brass turned to Hawkmoon. “A weapon that emits an invisible beam down which sound travels. You heard a little of it—the horses experienced its full intensity.”
“Shall we charge them now?” Hawkmoon asked.
“No—no need. Wait, curb your impatience.”
The horses were falling, stiff and senseless. “It kills them, unfortunately, in the end,” Count Brass said.
Soon all the horses lay in the mud while their riders cursed and waded back to firm ground, standing there uncertainly.
Above them, flamingoes dived and circled around the ornithopters, making up in grace for what they lacked in power and strength. But many of the giant birds were falling—more than the ornithopters, with their clanking wings and whirring engines.
Great stones began to crash down near the towers.
“The war machines—they’re using their catapults,” von Villach growled. “Can’t we…?”
“Patience,” said Count Brass, apparently unperturbed.
Then a great wave of heat struck them, and they saw a huge funnel of crimson fire splash against the nearest tower. Hawkmoon pointed. “A fire cannon—the largest I’ve ever seen. It will destroy us all!”
Count Brass was riding for the tower under attack. They saw him leap from his horse and enter the building, which seemed doomed. Moments later the tower began to spin faster and faster, and Hawkmoon realized in astonishment that it was disappearing below the ground, the flame passing harmlessly over it. The cannon turned its attention to the next tower, and as it did so, this tower began to spin and retreat into the ground while the first tower whirled upward again, came to a halt, and let fire at the flame cannon with a weapon mounted on the battlements. This weapon shone green and purple and had a bell-shaped mouth. A series of round white objects flew from it and landed near the flame cannon. Hawkmoon could see them bouncing amongst the engineers who manned the weapon. Then his attention was diverted as an ornithopter crashed close by and he was forced to turn his horse and gallop along the crest of the hill until he was out of range of the exploding power unit. Von Villach joined him. “What are those things?” Hawkmoon asked, but von Villach shook his head, as puzzled as his comrade.
Then Hawkmoon saw that the white spheres had stopped bouncing and that the flame cannon no longer gouted fire. Also the hundred or so people near the cannon were no longer moving. Hawkmoon realized with a shock that they were frozen. More of the white spheres shot from the bell-shaped mouth of the weapon and bounced near the catapults and other war engines of Granbretan. Shortly, the crews of these were also frozen and rocks ceased to fall near the towers.
Count Brass left the tower he had entered and rode back to join them. He was grinning. “We have still other weapons to display to these fools,” he said.
“But can they fight such a weight of men?” Hawkmoon asked, for the infantry were now moving forward, their numbers so vast that it seemed not even the mightiest weapons could stop their advance.
“We shall see,” Count Brass replied, signaling to a lookout on a nearby tower. The air above them was black with fighting birds and machines, red traceries of fire criss-crossing the sky, pieces of metal and bloody feathers falling all around them. It was impossible to tell which side was winning.
The infantry was almost upon them when Count Brass waved his sword to the lookout and the tower turned wide-muzzled weapons toward the armies of Granbretan. Glass spheres, shimmering blue in the light, hurtled toward the advancing warriors and fell among them. Hawkmoon saw them break formation, begin to run about wildly, flailing at the air and ripping off the masks of their respective Orders.
“What has happened?” he asked Count Brass in amazement.
“The spheres contain a hallucinatory gas,” Count Brass told him. “It makes the men see dreadful visions,” Now he turned in his saddle and waved his sword to the waiting men below. They began to advance. “The time has come to meet Granbretan with ordinary weapons,” he said.
From the remaining ranks of infantry, arrows flew thickly toward them and flame-lances sent searing fire. Count Brass’s archers retaliated, and his flame-lancers also returned the attack. Arrows clattered on their armour. Several men fell. Others were struck down by the flame-lances. Through the chaos of fire and flying arrows, the infantry of Granbretan steadily advanced, in spite of depleted numbers. They paused when they came to the swampy ground, choked as it was with the bodies of their horses, and their officers furiously urged them on.
Count Brass ordered his herald forward, and the man approached, bearing the simple flag of his master—a red gauntlet on a white field.
The three men waited as the infantry broke ranks and began to clamber through the mud and over the corpses of the horses, struggling to reach the hill where the forces of Kamarg waited to meet them.
Hawkmoon saw Meliadus some distance in the rear and recognized the barbaric vulture-mask of Asrovak Mikosevaar as the Muskovian led his Vulture Legion on foot and was one of the first to cross the swamp and reach the slopes of the hill.
Hawkmoon trotted his horse forward a little so that he would be directly in the path of Mikosevaar when he approached.
He heard a bellow, and the vulture-mask glared at him with eyes of ruby. “Aha! Hawkmoon! The dog that has worried at us for so long! Now let’s see how you conduct yourself in a fair fight, traitor!”
“Call me not ‘traitor’,” Hawkmoon said angrily. “You sniffer of corpses!”
Mikosevaar hefted his great war axe in his armoured hands, bellowed again, and began to run toward Hawkmoon, who jumped from his horse and, with shield and broadsword, prepared to defend himself.
The axe, shod all in metal, thundered against the shield and sent Hawkmoon staggering back a pace. Another blow followed and split the top edge of the shield. Hawkmoon swung his sword around, and it struck Mikosevaar’s heavily armoured shoulder with a great ringing sound, sending up a shower of sparks. Both men held their ground, giving blow for blow as the battle raged around them. Hawkmoon glanced at von Villach and saw him engaged with Mygel Holst, Archduke of Londra, well-matched in age and strength, and Count Brass was ploughing through the lesser warriors, trying to seek out Meliadus, who had plainly decided to supervise the battle from a distance.
From their advantageous position, the Kamargians withstood the Dark Empire warriors, holding their line firm.
Hawkmoon’s shield was a ruin of jagged metal and useless. He flung it from his arm and seized his sword in both hands, swinging it to meet the blow Mikosevaar aimed at his head. The two men grunted with exertion as they manoeuvred about in the slippery earth of the hill, now jabbing to try to make the other lose his footing, now slashing suddenly at the legs or torso or battering from above or the side.
Hawkmoon was sweating heavily in his armour, and he grunted with effort. Then suddenly his foot slid from under him and he fell to one knee, Mikosevaar lumbering forward to raise his axe and decapitate his enemy. Hawkmoon flung himself flat, toward Mikosevaar, and grabbed at the man’s legs, pulling him down so that both men rolled over and over toward the swamp and the mounds of dead horses.
Punching and cursing, they came to a halt in the filth. Neither had lost his weapon, and now they stumbled to their feet, preparing to continue the fight. Hawkmoon braced himself against the body of a warhorse and swung at the Muskovian. The swing would have broken Mikosevaar’s neck had not he ducked, but it knocked the vulture helm from his head, revealing the white, bushy beard and glaring, insane eyes of the Muskovian, who brought his axe upward toward Hawkmoon’s belly and had the blow blocked by the sword whistling down.
Releasing his grip on the sword, Hawkmoon pushed with both hands at Mikosevaar’s chest, and the man fell backward. As he tried to scramble up, Hawkmoon took a fresh hold of his broadsword, raised it high, and plunged it at the Muskovian’s face. The man yelled. The blade rose and descended again. Asrovak Mikosevaar shrieked, and then the sound was suddenly cut off. Hawkmoon lost interest in the groaning thing at his feet and turned to see how the battle went.
It was hard to tell. Everywhere men were falling, and it seemed that the great majority were Granbretanians. The fight in the air was almost over, and only a few ornithopters circled the sky, while there seemed to be many more flamingoes.
Was it possible that Kamarg was winning?
Hawkmoon turned as two warriors of the Vulture Legion ran toward him. Recklessly he stooped to drag up the bloodied mask of Mikosevaar. He laughed at them. “Look! Your Grand Constable is slain—your warlord is destroyed!” The warriors hesitated, then backed away from Hawkmoon and began to run the way they had come. The Vulture Legion did not have the discipline of the other Orders.
Hawkmoon began to clamber wearily over the bodies of the dead horses, which were now liberally heaped with human corpses. The battle was thin in this area, but he could see von Villach on the hill, kicking the wounded body of Mygel Holst and roaring in triumph as he turned to deal with a group of Holst’s warriors who ran at him with spears. Von Villach seemed to need no aid. Hawkmoon began to run as best he could up to the top of the hill, to get a better idea of how the battle turned.
His broadsword was blooded thrice before he could reach his objective and look at the field. The huge army that Meliadus had brought against them was now scarcely a sixth of its former size, while the line of Kamagian warriors still held fast.
Half the banners of the warlords were down, and others were sorely beset. The tight formations of the Granbretanian infantry were largely broken, and Hawkmoon saw that the unprecedented was happening and that the Orders were becoming mixed together, thus throwing their members in confusion, since they were used to fighting side by side with their own brothers.
Hawkmoon saw Count Brass, still mounted, engaged with several swordsmen down the hill. He saw the standard of Meliadus some distance away. It was surrounded by men of the Order of the Wolf. Meliadus had protected himself well. Now Hawkmoon saw several of the commanders—Adaz Promp and Jerek Nankenseen among them—ride toward Meliadus. Evidently they wanted to retreat but must wait for Meliadus’s order to do so.
He could guess what the commanders told Meliadus—that the flower of their warriors was being destroyed, that such destruction was not worth suffering for the sake of one tiny province.
But no call came from the trumpets of the heralds who waited nearby. Meliadus was evidently resisting their pleas.
Von Villach came up, riding a borrowed horse. He pushed back his helm and grinned at Hawkmoon. “We’re beating them, I think,” he said. “Where is Count Brass?”
Hawkmoon pointed. “He is making good account,” he smiled. “Should we hold steady or begin to advance—we could if we wished it. I think the Granbretanian warlords are faltering and want to retreat. A push now, and it might make up their minds for them.”
Von Villach nodded. “I’ll send a messenger down to the count. He must decide.”
He turned to a horseman and muttered a few words to him. The man began to race down the hillside, through the confusion of embattled warriors.
Hawkmoon saw him reach the count, saw Count Brass glance up and wave to them, wheel his horse, and begin to return.
Within ten minutes, Count Brass had managed to regain the hill. “Five warlords I slew,” he said with a satisfied air. “But Meliadus slunk away.”
Hawkmoon repeated what he had said to von Villach, Count Brass agreed with the sense of the plan, and soon the Kamarg infantry began to advance steadily, pushing the Granbretanians down the hill before them.
Hawkmoon found a fresh horse and led the advance, yelling wildly as he chopped about him, striking heads from necks, limbs from torsos, like apples from the bough. His body was covered from head to foot in the blood of the slain. His mail was ragged and threatening to fall from him. His whole chest was a mass of bruises and minor cuts, his arm bled, and his leg ached horribly, but he ignored it all as the bloodlust seized him and he killed man after man.
Riding beside him, von Villach said in a moment of comparative peace, “You seem decided to kill more of the dogs than the rest of our army put together.”
“I would not cease if the blood of Granbretan filled this whole plain,” Hawkmoon replied grimly. “I would not cease until everything that lived of Granbretan was destroyed.”
“Your bloodlust matches theirs,” von Villach said ironically.
“Mine is greater,” Hawkmoon called, driving forward, “for half theirs is sport.”
And, butchering, on he rode.
At last it seemed that his commanders convinced him, for Meliadus’s trumpets shouted the retreat and the survivors broke away from the Kamargians and began to run.
Hawkmoon struck down several who threw away their weapons in attitudes of surrender. “I do not care for living Granbretanians,” he said once as he stabbed a man who had ripped his mask from his young face and begged for mercy.
But at length even Hawkmoon’s bitterness was satiated for a while, and he drew up his horse beside those of Count Brass and von Villach and watched as the Granbretanians re-formed their ranks and began to march away.
Hawkmoon thought he heard a great scream of rage rise from the retreating army, thought he recognized the vengeful sound as that of Meliadus, and he smiled.
“We shall see Meliadus again,” he said.
Count Brass nodded agreement. “He has found Kamarg invincible to attack by his armies, and he knows that we are too clever to be deceived by his treachery, but he will find some other way. Soon all the lands about Kamarg will belong to the Dark Empire and we shall have to be on our guard the whole time.”
When they returned to Castle Brass that night, Bowgentle spoke to the count. “Now do you realize that Granbretan is insane—a cancer that will infect history and will set it on a course that will not only lead to the destruction of the entire human race, but will ultimately result in the destruction of every intelligent or potentially intelligent creature in the universe?”
Count Brass smiled. “You are exaggerating, Bowgentle. How could you know so much?”
“Because it is my calling to understand the forces that go to work to make up what we call destiny. I tell you again, Count Brass, the Dark Empire will infect the universe unless it is checked on this planet—and preferably on this continent.”
Hawkmoon sat with his legs stretched out before him, doing his best to work the ache from his muscles. “I have no understanding of the philosophical principles you base your beliefs upon, Sir Bowgentle,” he said, “but instinctively I know you to be right. All we think we see is an implacable enemy that means to rule the world—there have been other races like them in the past—but there is something different about the Dark Empire. Forget you not, Count Brass, that I spent time in Londra and was witness to many of their more excessive insanities. You have seen only their armies, which, like most armies, fight fiercely and to win, using conventional tactics because they are the best. But there is little conventional about the King-Emperor, immortal corpse that he is, in his Throne Globe; little conventional about the secret way they have with one another, the sense of insanity that underlies the mood of the entire city…”
“You think we have not, then, witnessed the worst of what they can do?” Count Brass asked seriously.
“That is what I think,” Hawkmoon said. “It is not only the need for vengeance that makes me slay them as I do—it is a deeper thing within me that sees them as a threat to the forces of Life itself.”
Count Brass sighed. “Perhaps you are right, I do not know. Only the Runestaff could prove you right or wrong.”
Hawkmoon got up stiffly. “I have not seen Yisselda since we returned,” he said.
“She went to her bed early, I think,” Bowgentle told him.
Hawkmoon was disappointed. He had looked forward to her welcome. Had wanted to tell her personally of his victories. It surprised him that she had not been there to greet him.
He shrugged. “Well, I think I’ll to mine,” he said. “Good night, gentlemen.”
They had spoken little of their triumph since returning. Now they were experiencing the reaction of their day’s work, and it all seemed a trifle remote, though tomorrow, doubtless, they would celebrate.
When he reached his room it was in darkness, but Hawkmoon sensed something odd and drew his sword before fumbling his way to a table and turning up the lamp that stood there.
Someone lay on his bed, smiling at him. It was Yisselda.
“I heard of your exploits,” said she, “and wanted to give you a private welcome. You are a great hero, Dorian.”
Hawkmoon felt his breathing become more rapid, felt his heart begin to pound. “Oh, Yisselda…”
Slowly, step by step, he advanced toward the prone girl, his conscience in conflict with his desire.
“You love me, Dorian, I know,” she said softly. “Do you deny it?”
He could not. He spoke thickly. “You… are… very… bold…” he said, trying to smile.
“Aye—for you seem extraordinarily shy. I am not immodest.”
“I—I am not shy, Yisselda. But no good could come of this. I am doomed—the Black Jewel…”
“What is the Jewel?”
Hesitantly, he told her everything, told her that he did not know how many months Count Brass’s sorcerous chains could hold the life force of the Jewel, told her that when its power was released, the Lords of the Dark Empire would be able to destroy his mind.
“So you see—you must not become attached to me… It would be worse if you did.”
“But this Malagigi—why do you not seek his aid?”
“The journey would take months. I might waste my remaining time on a fruitless quest.”
“If you loved me,” she said as he sat down on the bed beside her and took her hand, “you would risk that.”
“Aye,” he said thoughtfully. “I would. Perhaps you are right…”
She reached up and drew his face toward hers, kissing his lips. The gesture was artless but full of sweetness.
Now he could not restrain himself. He kissed her passionately, held her close. “I will go to Persia,” he said at length, “though the way will be perilous, for once I leave the safety of Kamarg, Meliadus’s forces will seek me out…”
“You will come back,” she said with conviction. “I know you will come back. My love will draw you to me.”
“And mine to you?” He stroked her face gently. “Aye—that could be so.”
“Tomorrow,” she said. “Leave tomorrow and waste no time. Tonight…”
She kissed him again, and he returned her passion fiercely.