Once again, prejudices against the use of chaos magic force Beltur and his companions to flee their refuge in Axalt. The rulers of nearby Montgren have offered them sanctuary and the opportunity to become the Councilors of the run-down and disintegrating town of Haven. Montegren lacks any mages—white or black—making this seem like the perfect opportunity to start again. However, Beltur and the others must reinstitute law and order, rebuild parts of the town, deal with brigands—and thwart an invading army…
L. E. Modesitt Jr. returns to the Saga of Recluce with The Mage-Fire War, the third book in a story arc which began with The Mongrel Mage and Outcasts of Order—available August 13th from Tor Books. Get started now with the first three chapters, below!
For Beltur and Jessyla, eightday at Lord Korsaen’s near-palatial dwelling was quiet, although the two spent some of the day talking and worrying, and some eating excellent fare, and Beltur spent some of it in Korsaen’s library looking for anything that might shed light on Haven, the town where he, Jessyla, Lhadoraak, and Tulya would be councilors. He found nothing. He even scanned The Wisdom of Relyn to see if Relyn had written anything about Vergren or Haven. Relyn hadn’t.
Oneday was much different. By eighth glass, Beltur and Lhadoraak were in the library sitting at a table looking at a stack of documents, as well as two slim volumes, one of which contained the code of laws of Montgren and the other of which set forth tariff procedures and schedules. Beltur started with the tariff volume and handed the legal book to Lhadoraak.
The fashion in which the duchy assessed tariffs was unlike anything Beltur had seen or heard of. The first surprise was that every building in Montgren paid a yearly tariff to the duchy and to the nearest town. The town got two parts in three; the duchy the other part. Likewise, every crafter and every shop or other business paid a tariff every season. Finally, every inn or public house paid an additional tariff based on the number of rooms and the amount of spirits consumed. One of the duties of a town council was to verify and keep track of both.
Beltur took a deep breath. He’d only read ten pages. He looked up at Lhadoraak. “I hope you’re enjoying what you’re learning more than I am.”
“I was hoping the same,” returned the blond black mage.
“Our consorts are going to have to read these as well,” said Beltur.
“You can tell them both,” said Lhadoraak, glancing toward the library door through which Jessyla and Tulya had just entered.
“Tell us what?” asked Tulya.
“That you’re going to need to read what we’re reading when we finish,” said Beltur. “About tariffs and laws. Since we are the Council of Haven, or will be shortly…”
“Is there anything in these documents about whether there’s a healing house?” asked Jessyla.
“I don’t know,” said Beltur. “Why don’t you two read through the papers and see what you think is most important. Oh… and let me know if there are maps of the town, or the roads around it.”
He struggled on with the tariff book, and for a time, there was silence in the library.
Abruptly, Tulya looked up. “I found a town map! It shows the square, a town hall, and lots of buildings, two inns with names, a rendering yard at the edge of town, and roads coming in and out.”
“Is it recent?”
“It doesn’t look that way. The paper is yellow.” After several moments, Tulya added, “It says that it faithfully represents Haven in the fifth year of the rule of Duke Korlaan.”
“If you’d keep looking for other maps…”
After a time, Jessyla said, “There was a healing house, because there’s an old letter here to a Duke Korslyn informing him that there are no healers in Haven and that the town can no longer afford to maintain the healing house.”
Almost another glass passed before Korsaen entered the library. “I thought you’d like to know that Korwaen, Taelya, and Maenya are enjoying themselves together. I also thought you might like to take a break from your studies and have some refreshments.”
“We’d appreciate that,” said Beltur. “We do have a question. The only town map seems to be one made in the time of a Duke Korlaan. Do you know when that was?”
“Korlaan was Korlyssa’s grandsire,” replied Korsaen.
“I’m confused,” said Jessyla, although Beltur doubted anything of the sort. “Korlyssa is the Duchess, and she’s your aunt. You said that she was the only heir and had a daughter who would succeed her. That means either your father or mother was a brother or sister to the Duchess, and the Duchess-heiress is your cousin. Where do you fit in?”
“I said the Duchess was the only surviving heir. My mother was her younger sister. She died having me. My father was killed in a border skirmish with Lydian raiders when I was ten.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jessyla contritely.
“I should have made that clear to you. It’s something everyone in Montgren knows. I sometimes forget that others don’t.”
“There’s rather a lot we don’t know,” said Beltur wryly, gesturing to the pile of documents.
“Those are things you can learn. The skills you can’t learn from papers and books are the reason why you’re here. There’s one other thing I might mention. Captain Raelf heads the post in Weevett. He’s very good, and he understands both the Hydlenese and the Lydians.” Korsaen offered a wryly amused smile. “He should. He served in both forces.”
“Did he come here, or was he another one of your ‘finds’?” asked Beltur.
Korsaen shook his head. “One of Maeyora’s. Sometimes… let’s just say that she sometimes knows how things should turn out.”
“Druid foresight? Like that of Ryba?” asked Jessyla.
“How would we know?” replied Korsaen almost enigmatically.
Jessyla raised her eyebrows, but only said, “Oh, and one other question. Duke Korslyn?”
“He was Korlyssa’s father and my grandfather.” Korsaen looked quizzically at Jessyla.
“There was a letter to him about closing the healing house in Haven because there were no healers and not enough silvers to keep it open,” she replied.
“I can see where that would concern you. Are you ready for some refreshments?”
All four smiled and rose.
As they left the library, Beltur glanced back. You never thought…
He shook his head. He could definitely use an ale.
By dinner on twoday, a light rain was falling, but it ended within a glass, and on threeday morning, Beltur and the others were up early, getting ready to ride to the gates of the palace to meet the armsmen who would escort them to Haven. Beltur took special care in seeing that the proclamations and documents were well-sealed in oilcloth. He also checked the other belt under his tunic, the one with the two hundred golds from the Duchess in it. His hidden wallet held his own personal golds, all twenty-one of them, while his belt wallet held silvers and coppers. He also checked to see that the load on the mule was securely in place.
Korsaen led his own mount out of the stable and joined the group as they were preparing to mount. “I’ll ride over with you and introduce you to Captain Karch.”
“Did you have any difficulty arranging for the armsmen?” asked Beltur.
“No. There’s always one company ready to ride on a day’s notice, and most towns are within a day’s ride of a company. No town is more than two days’ ride. That’s one advantage of being a small land.”
“Another being that, like Axalt, the effort to conquer you would never repay itself,” said Beltur.
“Only because we maintain a very effective battalion of armsmen.”
“Does your title mean Lord Commander?” asked Jessyla.
“No. I offer suggestions, but Commander Pastyn is in charge.” With a smile, Korsaen swung himself up into the saddle.
Beltur and the others mounted, as did the two guards, who moved into position behind the others.
Once everyone was moving smoothly, with Beltur and Jessyla flanking Korsaen, Beltur said, “You know that settling down everything in Haven is going to take time.”
“Most constructive things do. The Duchess is well aware of that. It took time to find the four—” Korsaen glanced back at Taelya. “—the five of you.”
Beltur had to smile at the addition of Taelya, but didn’t say more as they neared the avenue and then turned onto it.
As they rode north, Korsaen gestured ahead. “I see Captain Karch has everything in position.”
The mounted troopers were in double files stretching back in the direction of the palace something like half a kay, including the two supply wagons and the four-horse teams. The captain and two scouts or outriders were drawn up even with the outer gates to the palace grounds.
As he rode closer, Beltur studied the captain, who looked to be about Beltur’s size, if slightly heavier, and at least a good twenty years older, with gray hair streaked with white. He wore, as did all the troopers, a uniform of what looked to be almost faded blue, or light grayish blue, a color, Beltur realized, that would make a man far harder to see during the morning mists or twilight.
Korsaen reined up short of the captain, and the others reined up behind the lord.
“Captain, meet the new Council of Haven. Mage Beltur, Healer Jessyla, Mage Lhadoraak, Councilor Tulya. The younger woman is mage-apprentice Taelya.” Korsaen gestured to each as he spoke. “I suggest that, for the ride through Vergren, the new council all ride with you at the head of the column. Beyond that, the deployment of your forces should be as you and Mage Beltur determine is necessary.”
Karch inclined his head. “I accept this duty and mission, Lord Korsaen, in full knowledge of my obligations and duty to the duchy.”
Korsaen eased his mount to the side of the avenue. “My best to all of you.”
Karch gestured to the outriders and then guided his mount forward. “If you, Mage Beltur and Healer Jessyla, will flank me, and if the other councilors will follow us, then we will proceed.”
In moments, the column was moving toward the center of Vergren.
“If it wouldn’t discommode you, ser,” said Karch to Beltur, “once we get through Vergren and are established in good order on the old south road, it might prove helpful for me to spend some time riding with each of you.”
“Then I’d suggest you begin riding with Jessyla and me, and then when you think you have learned what you need to know, at least for now, you can let us know, and we’ll switch positions.”
“Thank you, ser.”
Given that it was barely past sixth glass, there were few people on the main street that led to the square, but all those who were there definitely stopped and looked at the riders as they passed. Instead of continuing through the square to the road that had brought Beltur and the others to Vergren, the outriders turned left at the square and then followed that road out of the city. Roughly two kays later, as they passed the last of the cottages that were clearly in the city, Lhadoraak, Tulya, and Taelya dropped back to ride with the rearguard squad.
Karch wasted no time in looking to Beltur. “Lord Korsaen said you were an undercaptain and war mage in Spidlar.”
“I was, during the invasion. So was Lhadoraak. Jessyla was one of the healers.”
“I’ve never thought of black mages as warlike.”
“We didn’t have much choice.”
“Might I ask how…”
“I was assigned first to a recon company. I discovered that Slowpoke, here, was strong enough that if I expanded my shields, we could smash through a line of troopers…” Beltur went on to explain how he’d used shields in battle, including blocking chaos bolts, and how iron arrows helped weaken white mages. “… and it turned out that when the whites couldn’t use their chaos bolts, we could break their lines.”
Karch nodded, then said, “Lord Korsaen mentioned your doing something to kill brigands.”
“I can place a containment around a man tightly enough that he’ll suffocate. But I have to hold it until he actually dies. It’s rather time-consuming and takes effort.”
“Then, might I ask how you killed white mages?”
“I had archers loose iron-headed arrows at them, and I put more order into the arrowheads. Usually, it took a number of arrows.”
“Then you were close to the front?” Karch’s words verged on the skeptical.
“Too many times, Captain,” interjected Jessyla, almost acidly, “he was the front. He almost died twice. Five other blacks did die.”
Karch stiffened in the saddle for a moment. “I see.” His tone was placating, almost condescending.
“I don’t think you do,” said Jessyla coldly. “Without Beltur, Spidlar would have lost. The Council never appreciated what he did. In fact, they tried to kill him afterwards. I do hope you don’t make that mistake.”
“Healer… I was just trying to learn what you and the mages can do.”
“I can do this.” Jessyla abruptly threw a containment around Karch, holding it until he began to turn reddish before releasing. Beltur could tell that it had taken quite an effort on her part. Then she said, “I’m not just a healer, and Beltur is far more than just a mage.”
Karch coughed several times, then managed a wry smile. “I apologize for any condescension you may have felt. I’ve never dealt with strong blacks before. I also suspect that the renegade traitors in Haven will be more surprised than I was.”
Beltur could sense the truth behind the captain’s words, as well as other feelings, one of which might have been consternation at Jessyla’s words and actions. He also couldn’t help but notice that Karch was not breathing as well as he had been, although he couldn’t detect any wound chaos in the older captain’s chest.
“I do have another question, one I ask out of ignorance. You mentioned shields. What if you should be taken unawares… ?”
“Lhadoraak, Jessyla, and I have some shields up all the time. Those don’t take much effort. We don’t shield many others for very long because the larger the shield the more strength it requires. So if someone loosed a shaft from a distance, we might not detect it fast enough to protect others.” That wasn’t completely true for a number of reasons, but Beltur didn’t want to go into details.
“Then you don’t require armsmen to shield you. What about the girl? Lord Korsaen said she was an apprentice mage.”
“That was a courtesy. She has magely abilities, but not yet those of a full apprentice. She can raise very light shields for a short time. Enough to stop one or two shafts.”
“That’s more than some full-grown blacks.”
“Taelya’s had to learn more, earlier. She wasn’t exactly welcome in either Elparta or Axalt. She showed magely abilities far earlier than most mages. That was considered less than propitious. That was why Lhadoraak and Tulya had to leave both.”
“That’s incredibly shortsighted. We’ve had to…” Karch broke of his words.
“Lord Korsaen has mentioned that. He was the one who let us know that we’d be welcome here.”
“He and the Duchess and her daughter are the reason Montgren has not been conquered.”
“We gathered that it might be something like that.”
“Lord Korsaen also said,” added Jessyla, “that you and your men are part of the best battalion of troopers in Candar.”
Although her words flustered the captain, from the reaction of his natural order and chaos, Karch gave no outward sign, but said, “Lord Korsaen is kind.”
“He’s also very practical,” said Beltur dryly. “That’s why all of us are here.”
Karch offered a hint of a smile. “Just so.”
The rest of Karch’s questions were more about how and why Beltur and Jessyla had ended up in Montgren.
Less than a glass later, Beltur and Jessyla dropped back to the rear guard and let the captain get better acquainted with Lhadoraak, Tulya, and Taelya.
Once there and riding alone at the head of Fifth Squad, Jessyla looked to Beltur and asked, “Did you notice that Karch struggled to breathe after I put that containment around him? There’s no chaos there, but his lungs are weak. I think he might be even older than he looks.”
“That might mean that Korsaen has trouble getting good officers.”
Jessyla nodded. “I have another question. If we’re successful and actually establish ourselves in some sort of position of power, what’s to stop the Duchess from throwing us out?”
Beltur laughed softly. “Because they’ve obviously tried everything else, and she’s not a fool. Even when we straighten things out, without us she can’t afford to hold on to Haven. The fact that she’s willing to give us the town is a desperate gamble on her part.”
“Isn’t it one on our part to try this?”
“Is it that much greater than what we did to leave Spidlar? Both of our interests lie in our success.”
“I like it that you didn’t say ‘if we’re successful.’”
So did Beltur. He just hoped he wasn’t being unduly optimistic. But then, both Korsaen and the gambler had reminded him that everything in life was a gamble.
And what’s worth gambling for more than the chance to direct our own lives from here on out?
Despite the early departure from Vergren, the white sun was low in the west when Karch pointed to the stone marker that listed Weevett as five kays ahead.
“We made good time, Mage.”
“Good weather helps.” Beltur wasn’t about to mention that he didn’t much care for the warm damp air with which much of Montgren seemed to be blessed.
“The post where we’ll be staying is on the west edge of the town.”
“Closer to the border with Certis,” replied Beltur. “How many companies are posted there?”
“Just one. Quarters are tight when two companies are there.”
“Have you had trouble with the Certans recently?”
“No. Their border guards are well-disciplined. They stay on their land, and we stay on ours.”
“What about Hydlen?” asked Jessyla.
“I suspect that’s why the Duchess wants you to put Haven right again. I don’t see the Certans as a problem. The Gallosians, maybe, because they might support the Hydlenese.”
While the size of the meadows and tilled fields around the cots flanking the road lessened somewhat as the group neared Weevett, all the cots were neat and well-tended, as were the flocks of sheep. The cottages at the edge of the town were of dusty yellow brick, and the roofs were of wooden shingles. The square in the center of the town still had vendors there, with others packing their carts, a good sign of a prosperous place given that few crops could possibly have been harvested besides early berries, and, of course, dairy products.
As they rode west from the square, the paved avenue soon gave way to a graveled but smooth road. Ahead, Beltur caught sight of yellow brick walls, set back no more than fifteen yards from the road, walls barely three yards high and not all that prepossessing. Nor were the iron-bound gates more than a few digits thick. The inner courtyard was brick-paved and spacious enough to contain a large quarters building, an equally large stable, and several other buildings.
Close to a glass later, after dealing with the horses, the mule, and other matters, Beltur and Jessyla stood in the small room for visiting officers, a space barely four yards by three with a narrow table with one pitcher and washbasin, wall pegs for clothes, and two narrow bunk beds. All the wood was the dark gold of aged oak.
Beltur looked at the two beds and shook his head.
“Four days in a lord’s mansion, and you’re already spoiled,” offered Jessyla with a smile.
“I could hope, especially with what’s waiting for us in Haven.”
“Right now, I’m hoping for a decent hot meal.”
After washing up, the two left the room and made their way toward the officers’ mess. They’d only taken a few steps when Lhadoraak, Tulya, and Taelya joined them. When they reached the officers’ mess, little more than a single table in a small room of the troopers’ mess, Karch was already there, standing by the table and talking to another officer, also a captain from his collar insignia, but one who was balding and whose remaining hair was a pale gray, yet he was clearly younger than Karch. A much younger undercaptain stood a few paces back. All three officers looked up as the five approached.
“Ah… mages,” said Karch. “This is Captain Raelf… and Undercaptain Cheld.”
Raelf sat at one end of the table, with Beltur and Jessyla each sitting on a side next to him. Cheld was seated between Jessyla and Taelya, while Karch was at the other end of the table flanked by Lhadoraak and Tulya.
Once everyone was seated, two rankers immediately appeared with large bowls, baskets of bread, and pitchers. The bowls contained burhka and over-fried sliced potatoes. The only beverage in the pitchers, Beltur soon discovered, was an amber lager, almost as bitter as the brews Beltur’s uncle had preferred.
Beltur’s first mouthful of the burhka told him that it was as highly spiced as any burhka he’d ever had, and the potatoes that followed were about as greasy as any he’d ever tasted. At least it’s all warm and cooked.
After several moments, Raelf said pleasantly, “I understand you’re the new councilors for Haven. I can’t say that I envy you.”
“Have you seen the town recently?” asked Jessyla.
“Two eightdays ago, I accompanied a squad there. There was almost no one there when we rode in, although it was obvious that there had been many people at what pass for inns there. They departed just before we arrived.” Raelf shook his head. “It’s been like that for over a year. Last summer, a squad stayed for an eightday. No travelers or traders appeared. I’m sure there were people there within glasses of the time the squad left.”
“Has anyone considered posting a unit there permanently?” asked Beltur.
Raelf smiled gently. “I recommended that over a year ago. I’ve worried about Haven for some time.”
“What was the reaction?” asked Jessyla.
“I was asked to send a proposal to the Duchess, detailing how many men it would require and what the costs would be for a permanent post there. I did. I was commended for my efforts and told the matter was under consideration.”
“Can you tell us what the costs would be?”
“I reported it would take a minimum of two squads plus an undercaptain and a senior squad leader. Considering all the reasonable costs—I calculated that it would cost a minimum of ten golds an eightday, possibly even fifteen in the fall and winter. But then, costs tend to be more than you think.”
Beltur almost choked on the bitter lager. Between five hundred and seven hundred golds a year! “I don’t quite understand one thing,” he said, knowing as he spoke that there was far more than one thing he didn’t understand. “The Duchess doesn’t tariff goods that come and go from Montgren. So why are there smugglers?”
“The Viscount does. So does the Duke of Lydiar. The Duke of Hydlen tariffs outlanders but not his own people. The smugglers, especially the Gallosians, use the old road because it’s easier to avoid the Certan and Hydlenese tariff inspectors. They’re all rather tough, and they want things their way.”
“What would happen if we merely insisted that they behave?”
“They’d try to kill you or run you out.” Raelf smiled wryly. “If… if you beat them and outlasted them, before too long, things would go back the way they were years ago. They’d put up with being orderly because they’d still make silvers, but they haven’t had to for years.”
“What’s the worst thing we could do?” asked Beltur.
“Do nothing, but try to collect past-due tariffs,” replied Raelf.
“If you had been sent with a company, what would you have done first?” asked Jessyla.
“Restore order. For small offenses, give the offender a warning. For the second offense, give them the maximum punishment under the duchy’s laws. Don’t try to do everything at once. Make the inns safe for everyone, first. Then do what you can. Those are my thoughts.” Raelf grinned. “I’m just glad it’s you and not me.” The grin faded.
Beltur took another small swallow of the bitter lager.
Raelf cleared his throat and addressed Lhadoraak. “I understand that two of you were pressed into service as arms-mages against the Gallosians. He mentioned something I found interesting—you said that iron arrows could weaken white mages. What about strong white mages?”
Lhadoraak looked down the table. “Beltur had more experience with that.”
Beltur set down his beaker. “Iron holds order naturally. That makes iron arrows dangerous to chaos mages. They can block the arrows, but each one that they block weakens them. I added a little order to some of the arrows. In one instance, there were enough arrows aimed at a mage that they killed him, and he exploded when the ordered iron pierced his shield. It can be hard on the archers shooting at a mage, though, unless they’re shielded by a black.”
“Still… that bears some thought,” mused Raelf.
“Why do you say that?” asked Tulya.
“Montgren has few mages of any sort, and both Certis and Hydlen are known to have white mages that can accompany their troopers. Anything that could limit or weaken them might be useful.”
Hydlen has whites that accompany their troopers? Beltur didn’t recall that coming up before. He took another swallow of the ale. It was still bitter.
Excerpted from The Mage-Fire War, copyright © 2019 by L. E. Modesitt Jr.