The Master [Time Master Trilogy Book 3]
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by Louise Cooper
Description: Tarod had won his freedom; but the cold white jewel that contained the key to his sorcerous power had been lost, together with the girl he loved, in a supernatural storm. With a price on both their heads, he had to find her before the Circle did. Only then could he hope to fulfill his self-imposed pledge to confront the gods themselves--for they alone could destroy the stone and the evil within it. But if that evil once touched him, Tarod would be forced to face the truth of his own heritage. A heritage that could trigger a titanic conflict of occult forces, and set him on the ultimate quest for vengeance...
eBook Publisher: Mundania Press LLC/Mundania Press LLC, 2008 1985
eBookwise Release Date: June 2008
20 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [370 KB]
Reading time: 238-334 min.
T"he Master is the climactic ending to the story of Tarod. In the end, the theme of this book is a combination of the studies of betrayal and loyalty begun in The Initiate and The Outcast, as well as showing the value of independence. Like The Outcast, this is a fast-paced and excellent read."--The North Spire
At this early season the dense forests which covered most of the western half of Chaun Province provided scant shelter for any traveler. In places the spring buds had burst in isolated explosions of green, and on the forest floor bracken and brambles were showing tentative new shoots. But apart from the occasional glowering bulk of a giant conifer, most of the woodland trees were still leafless.
In a clearing not far from the forest's northern edge, a tall iron-gray gelding foraged disconsolately in the undergrowth, the broken reins of its bridle trailing behind it and catching on the briars. Its saddle had slipped halfway round its body and now and then one loose stirrup banged on a hind leg, making the animal flatten its ears and snap at the unseen irritant while sweat broke out on its withers. Though otherwise it seemed calm enough, there were tell-tale flecks of foam around its mouth and ringing the saddle like scum. And every now and again the gelding would pause in its browsing for no apparent reason and jerk its head up suspiciously, alert for some imagined threat.
In the three hours since its extraordinary and terrified arrival in the clearing, the horse had ignored the still figure lying sprawled across the protruding roots of a large oak tree. Strict training had conditioned it not to leave its rider, whoever that rider might be, and wander off, but until the rider showed signs of consciousness, the horse had no interest in her. With the terrors of the last few hours all but forgotten, it was content to stay in the relative safety of the wood and continue grazing until it should be called upon to move.
The girl, clinging frantically to the gelding's saddle as they exploded out of the howling insanity that had snatched them in its grip and hurled them here, had been thrown from the animal's back as it crashed down screaming into the undergrowth. She had slammed against the oak's bole and fallen like a shot bird to lie unmoving among the roots. Her face, half hidden under a tangle of near-white hair and the tattered hood of a cloak, was drained and pallid, her lips bloodless, and a bright scarlet stain had spread from her skull across her forehead, mingling with other, older bloodstains that were not her own. But she breathed. And at last she began to stir.
As she returned to consciousness Cyllan had no immediate memories of the events that had brought her to the forest. She was dimly aware that she lay on hard, cold and damp ground, and thought at first that she was in the hide tent which she had called home during her years as an apprentice drover. But there was no claustrophobic sense of enclosure, no stink and bawl of milling cattle, no ill-tempered yelling from her uncle, Kand Brialen. Her droving days were over. A dream, nothing but a bad dream. Surely, she was still in the castle?
That thought brought clarity back to her mind like a hard slap in the face, and involuntarily she jerked upright, her peculiar amber eyes opening and a cry, a name, breaking from her throat before she could stop it.
The gelding lifted its head and regarded her curiously. Cyllan stared back, bewildered, knowing only that she had never seen this place before. Hammers were beating in her skull; wincing with pain she slumped back against the tree trunk, and every muscle twinged at the movement, making her feel as though her body were on fire. Her mind struggled to assimilate the impossible evidence of her senses. Where was the castle? What had happened to Tarod? They had found her in the stable when she was trying to reach him, dragged her out into the black-walled courtyard where the High Initiate waited, then, as the Warp storm had come shrieking overhead, Tarod had appeared.
The Warp. Abruptly, Cyllan remembered, and with the memory came a sickness that clutched at her empty stomach and made her retch, violently and uselessly, doubled up against the tree's unyielding bark. She recalled the confrontation in the courtyard, her own escape--she had kicked the High Initiate, bitten the burly man who held her--and her precipitous flight when, cornered, she had taken her sole chance and leaped on to the gelding's back. She had had some wild idea of riding down anyone who stood in her path and forcing a way through to Tarod, but the horse had panicked, bolted and careered out through the castle gates, straight into the path of the monstrous supernatural storm that raged outside.
Cyllan shuddered as images of the horrors she had glimpsed in the split second before the Warp engulfed her slid past her defenses. The mountains, twisted to impossible shapes and dimensions; the sea seeming to rear in a titanic wall of water; wild, monstrous faces manifesting from cloud and lightning, serpent tongues darting and voices bellowing insensately--then a black wall had thundered in to meet her and she knew only darkness and madness until she had burst in a howling cacophony of noise and brilliance and buffeting pain on to a scene that almost smashed her sanity with its sheer normality. She had been flung from the saddle as the gelding fell, and the uncompromising solidity of the tree trunk obliterated her consciousness.
At last the sick spasms faded and she pulled herself to a less cramped position. She was alive, and whatever her predicament, that in itself was cause for gratitude. Everyone in the land was brought up from childhood with a paralyzing terror of the Warps. There was not a soul alive who had not heard the high, thin wailing out of the far north, and seen the bands of sickly color marching across the sky, announcing the onset of one of the appalling supernatural storms. The Warps were a legacy of Chaos, a last remaining manifestation of the pandemonium that had once ruled unchecked in the world before the rise of Order, and when they came, terrifying and unpredictable, every man, woman and child took shelter. Those who failed to find it had fervent prayers said for their souls by the Sisters of Aeoris, and left behind friends and relatives who knew that no trace of them would ever be found. Legend had it that the wailing scream which accompanied a Warp was the massed lamentation of all those lost and damned, borne on the winds of Chaos.
But twice now Cyllan had survived the horror of the storms; twice she had found herself carried by the maelstrom and left, battered and bruised but alive, in some distant and unfamiliar place. If the legends were credible, then she should be dead, and damned to whatever hell awaited the Warps' victims. Yet she lived. And the knowledge of why she lived made her shiver as she recalled the cold, calculating being who had pragmatically chosen to offer her his protection. Yandros, lord of Chaos, who claimed kinship with Tarod and whose machinations had sparked off the whole chain of events at the Castle of the Star Peninsula. Yandros had answered her desperate prayers for help when there was no other hope left. She remembered the smile on his beautiful face when, as she cowered before him, he had revealed his part in preserving her life and bringing her to the castle when the Warp struck in Shu-Nhadek. As the gray gelding plunged through the castle gates and into the storm she had screamed his name in a frantic, involuntary cry for help, and it seemed that, again, he had answered her. Cyllan had no illusions about Yandros's loyalty or patronage. He protected her because she was useful to him, but should she fail in the task he had set her she could expect no mercy from him. And she knew, as he knew, that, now she had turned her face once from her fealty to the ruling lords of Order, she would find no forgiveness if she ever came to repent what she had done. By casting her lot with Chaos she had irrevocably damned herself in the eyes of her own gods.
Cyllan shivered again, and reached to the neck of her dress, fumbling at the bodice until she drew out something that lodged between her breasts. She had not lost it in the wild flight from the castle, and she felt a mixture of relief and disgust as she looked at the small, clear, multi-faceted jewel lying in the palm of her hand The jewel winked back at her, reflecting the drab daylight. The Chaos stone. A source of power and terror. And the vessel that contained the soul of the man she loved.
Reflexively her hand closed over the stone, hiding it from view. Tarod was torn between hatred of the jewel's nature and the painful knowledge that without it he was incomplete. He had warned her of its influence; an influence, he had said, that corrupted and tainted anything it touched or anyone who possessed it. Bitterly Cyllan reflected how right he was. The stone had already helped her to kill once, firing her with a demonic bloodlust that made her revel in the act of murder. The stigmata of that deed still remained, in the dried red-brown stains that smeared her hands and clothes, and she knew how easy it was to fall under the stone's dark sway. Only Tarod could exert any control over it, and he needed it, for without it he was bereft of all but a fraction of his power. With the Circle, of which he had once been a high adept, pledged to destroy him, his life would be in danger until the jewel was in his possession once more.
If he was still alive...
It was not in Cyllan's nature to cry. Her harsh life had taught her the futility of displaying any of the traditional feminine weaknesses, but now she found herself on the verge of tears. If Tarod lived. The last thing she recalled before the gelding had bolted was seeing him on the steps by the castle's main door, unarmed and pressed by sword-wielding initiates bent on cutting him down before he could use sorcery to retaliate. The Warp had been howling overhead and she had seen no more of him. But surely even his diminished power would have been enough to save him? He could have escaped from the castle, and if he had, he would be looking for her. Though where he would begin, with the entire world to choose from, was beyond imagining.
Cyllan forced herself to look at the stone again, grimacing as it shone like a malign, disembodied eye through the lattice of her fingers. Then she tucked it carefully back into her bodice, feeling it settle cold against her skin. However ambiguous her feelings towards it, the stone was a talisman, her one link with Tarod, and if such a thing were possible it would call him to her. Yandros might not be able to help her directly, but the Chaos lord wanted the gem restored to Tarod, and if that was her only hope of finding him then she would do all she could to further Yandros's aim. All that mattered was that she and Tarod should be reunited, and she had closed her mind to any thoughts of what might happen beyond that.
But a forest clearing, in the gods alone knew what part of the world, was hardly the most auspicious starting place for a search. In the short time since she had regained consciousness the light had faded noticeably. She had no food, water or shelter, and no idea how far she was from the nearest village or even drove road. With the sun hidden behind solid cloud she had no way of judging the time of day; it might be near dusk, and the forest wasn't a safe place to spend the night. It was high time she put aside her speculations and looked to the more practical and immediate problems of survival.
She struggled to her feet, and the gelding raised its head suspiciously. Brushing debris from her crumpled clothes--her skirt was ripped at one side, she noticed--Cyllan put two fingers in her mouth and gave a peculiar, low whistle. The gelding laid its ears back; she whistled again, and this time the animal reluctantly obeyed the summons and approached. Cyllan took hold of its bridle, and as she re-tightened the saddle girth and checked for broken straps she was thankful, perhaps for the first time in her life, for the years she had spent traveling the roads on pony-back as an apprentice in her uncle's drover band. The whistle was one of the first tricks she had learned, and could command the most recalcitrant animal. The gelding would give her no trouble, and she was inured to long hours in the saddle. With Aeoris--she mentally corrected herself--with luck on her side, she should make good enough speed to the nearest habitation.
The harness was secure. Balancing on a tree root to gain height, Cyllan swung herself into the saddle. She sat for a moment, considering, then swung the horse's head around to what instinct told her was roughly southward. Most of the forest belts which crossed the western and central parts of the land ran east to west, therefore if she rode south she should reach the edge of the woodland before long, and from there be able to pick up a drove road without too much difficulty.
She did not know and didn't care to speculate what might await her on her journey. If Tarod had escaped, word would soon be out and the hunt under way for him; perhaps for her too, though it was more likely that the Circle would believe her to be dead. Somehow, she must find him before they did.
She touched her heels to the gelding's flanks, and urged it forward among the dense trees. * * * *
The singing that drifted from the direction of the main hall in the Castle of the Star Peninsula would have been a delight to hear, had it taken place under less dismal circumstances. The massed women's voices were beautiful, their harmonies rising and falling on the light evening breeze, but Keridil Toln couldn't for a moment forget that the Sisters of Aeoris were singing a requiem for the son of the man who sat opposite him in his study.
Gant Ambaril Rannak, Margrave of Shu Province, listened to the choir with head bowed, one hand unmoving on the stem of his wine cup. Occasionally he looked up at the open window as though expecting to see something or someone, and Keridil glimpsed the momentary glitter of suppressed rage in his eyes.
At last Gant spoke, his voice quiet and calm. "The Sisters' singing is very moving. I appreciate the gesture, High Initiate, on their part and yours." He blinked, then frowned painfully. "I only regret that their anthems can't bring Drachea back from the dead."
Keridil sighed. He had dreaded having to break the news that the Margrave's son and heir had been murdered while under the Circle's protection. Gant had arrived with his wife and entourage only that day, rejoicing in the knowledge that Drachea had single-handedly thwarted the machinations of Chaos and performed a great service for the Circle. His son was a hero--but instead of sharing in his glory, the old man had been greeted instead with the shock of his bloody and ignominious death. Keridil had anticipated ranting, lamentation, accusation, but the Margrave's quiet, bitter grief had proved far harder to withstand. The Margravine had collapsed and now lay in the castle's best guest suite, tended by Grevard the physician. Gant, though, had refused all offers of sedatives or calmatives, and after seeing his son's corpse, requested a private interview with the High Initiate.
Keridil had now told Gant the full story of Drachea's death at Cyllan's hands. He had wanted to confess to his own sense of responsibility for the young man's murder, but apologies seemed grotesquely inadequate. All he could do was wait for Gant to say whatever he wanted to say. Knowing the Margrave, Keridil had little doubt that he would speak his mind.
The singing faded on a final, poignant harmony, and the Margrave nodded his head as though in approval. Then he looked at Keridil again, and this time his eyes were iron hard.
"Well, High Initiate. Just one question remains in my mind. What is to be done to avenge my son's murder?"
Keridil glanced at the notes which he had made earlier in the day. Though it would bring Gant small comfort, he could at least report that he had not been idle.
"I've already set matters in train, Margrave," he said. "You may have heard of the recent experiments carried out in Wishet and Empty Provinces, with message-carrying birds?"
"I've heard of it. In fact, I suggested that the idea might be employed in the search for my son when he first disappeared."
Keridil flushed at the older man's tone. "Yes ... well, the early experiments were successful enough for us to put the idea into practice here at the castle. We have a master falconer visiting us from Empty Province, and his birds have proved reliable and far faster than any relay of horsemen."
Gant's eyes lit. "Then you can send out--"
"I already have, sir. Three birds were dispatched at noon today, to carry word of what's happened here to west High Land, Han and Chaun. As soon as they land, more birds will leave for the other provinces. The news should reach the furthest outposts tomorrow, and even the High Margrave will hear of it within the day."
Gant's eyes narrowed. "And the girl--that murdering little demon--you've conveyed her description to every Margravate? To every militia leader, every--" His fist clenched involuntarily on the table top. "She must be found, High Initiate, and she must be executed!"
The Margrave's single-mindedness was understandable in the circumstances, but Keridil had more than Cyllan's whereabouts on his mind. Of the two people he sought, she was by far the less dangerous; Tarod was a much more urgent priority. Nonetheless he was well aware that Gant must be handled with care. Any hint that his son's murder took second place to other considerations would mean more trouble than Keridil could cope with at present.
He said, "Indeed we've circulated her description, Margrave, and I'm confident that she won't be able to escape the search for long. If she's still alive, that is, which is a matter of conjecture. The militia are to be put on full alert, and I've asked for the utmost cooperation from every province. However, I must add that we're dealing with something that could have even greater ramifications than Drachea's murder." He glanced up, saw Gant's expression and continued cautiously, "You know now what's happened here at the castle recently, how it came about, and who perpetrated it. Tarod is still at large--and he's a thousand times more dangerous than Cyllan Anassan. Please--" he added as Gant seemed about to protest, "I share your anxiety to find the girl and punish her. But I dare not neglect the search for Tarod. He's far more than just a killer, he's an incarnation of Chaos." He leaned forward, intent. "What you've seen and heard is just a fraction of the havoc he's capable of wreaking. Can you imagine what the fate of all of us would be if such a monstrous power of evil were let loose on the world?"
Gant was silent, and Keridil knew his words had found their mark. "I don't want to cause undue alarm among the populace, especially not at this stage," he added. "But I'd be failing in my duty if I didn't spread the warning, and spread it fast. To be brutally honest, our world could be facing a danger the like of which has been unknown since the fall of the Old Ones. And I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm afraid."
Had he made a mistake in being so frank? The Margrave's face had taken on a pinched, tight look, and his gaze flicked to the window and back. "High Initiate, I find it hard to believe--" he coughed to clear his throat as his voice cracked involuntarily "--to believe that the Circle, which holds the power and the sanction of Aeoris himself--" He made the god's sign over his own heart but seemed unable to finish the sentence.
Keridil sighed. "I wish that half the tales told about the Circle's abilities were true, Margrave, but the bald fact is that, whilst we might have Aeoris's sanction, it would be folly to assume that we have his power, or anything resembling it." His expression hardened. "That's a lesson I've learned through bitter experience, and I'd be a fool if I tried to pretend it were otherwise." He clasped his hands together, the knuckles whitening. "Without his soul-stone, Tarod's by no means invincible. But if he should find that girl before we do, and recover the stone, he would regain his full power. Which means the power to summon back the full forces of Chaos and darkness to the world."
"But surely no man can command such sorcery!"
"No man, no. But this isn't a man we're contending with. Tarod is kin to Chaos, born of Chaos. Don't doubt his capabilities, Margrave. I once made that mistake."
Gant shifted uncomfortably on his chair, chagrined. "This is far more serious than I realized. I understand your concern, Keridil, and I share it." He made a bleak attempt at a smile. "Inasmuch as you have your duty, I also have mine, and I accept that personal considerations must take second place. How can Shu Province aid you?"
Keridil gave silent thanks for the hard edge of common sense which characterized the older man, shored up by twenty years of rigid governorship. As well as encompassing the largest and safest sea-port in the land, Shu Province also boasted a strong and efficient militia, and the Margravate's resources were among the best to be found anywhere. Gant would make an invaluable ally.
He said, "I'm grateful for your support, sir, and your generosity. And I don't mind admitting I'll need all the help I can find. Especially in terms of manpower."
"You'll have it, be assured. But you do realize, don't you, that once word of this spreads you'll also be running the risk of spreading panic throughout the world." Gant bit his lip. "Fear of Chaos is deeply rooted in all of us, and the thought that it might be summoned back..." His shrug, masking a shiver, was eloquent.
"I've considered that, of course. But I dare not minimize the danger." Keridil recalled the hours of mental torment as he struggled to assess the wisdom of the decision he had made. "People must be told, Margrave. In all conscience I can't keep back the truth."
Gant inclined his head. "I see your dilemma, and I think I must agree with you. However, to avoid hysteria it may be necessary to impose certain strictures over and above the laws of our land. In my own province for example--"
Keridil interrupted him. "I'll sanction anything you consider advisable that falls within my own jurisdiction, sir. And if the High Margrave's consent is needed, I'll do my utmost to secure it."
"Thank you. Speaking of the High Margrave, you said that one of your message birds is bound for Summer Isle?"
"It is, yes." Keridil hesitated, wondering whether it would be advisable to confide fully in Gant, then decided that there could be no harm in it. "I've also sent word to the Lady Matriarch Ilyaya Kimi, at her cot." He hesitated. "You may as well know now, sir, that I've asked the views of both on the possibility of calling a Conclave on the White Isle."
Gant stared at him, stunned, then swallowed. "Surely matters haven't come to that?"
"They haven't, no. But they could. And if they do, we might have no choice but to sanction the opening of the casket."
Gant made the sign of Aeoris over his heart again. His face had turned the unhealthy color of putty, and he tried not to think about the implications of what the High Initiate had said. Every child was brought up knowing the legend of the gold casket which had been Aeoris's legacy to his world and his followers after the fall of the old race, when Chaos was defeated and banished. The casket was held in a shrine on the White Isle, a small volcanic island off the coast of Shu-Nhadek, and guarded by a hereditary caste of zealots who were the only men allowed to set foot on the Isle's sanctified ground. Only in a time of gravest crisis could the High Initiate, High Margrave and Matriarch of the Sisterhood sail to the Isle where, in conclave, they might take the decision to open the sacred relic. If the casket were opened, it would summon Aeoris himself back to the world ... No, Gant told himself desperately; matters couldn't have reached such a pass as that.
Keridil watched the changing expressions on the older man's face, and could sympathize with his obvious distress. The thought of being forced to take a decision that had not been faced for centuries was enough to give him nightmares. But if it had to be done, he would do it.
"I believe--and hope--that the possibility is very remote," he said. "But it must be borne in mind." He paused, then added: "At dawn today I made an oath that I won't rest until Tarod has been found and destroyed, and I promise you now that I'm as determined to see Drachea's killer brought to justice. I mean to keep faith with both pledges, whatever the cost."
For a few moments Gant deliberated, then, slowly and with reluctance, he nodded. "I understand." He looked up, his eyes bleak. "And I like to think that, were I in your place, I would have the courage to make the same decision." * * * *
Full darkness had fallen by the time Cyllan at last urged the gray gelding through a dense thicket and, to her surprise, found herself clear of the trees, on a ridge that overlooked a narrow road. A steep but negotiable bank led down to the track, which gleamed the color of old, pale bone under the night sky, and beyond it the mass of the forest stretched away again into darkness. This was no main drove way, only a small, neglected tributary that would carry little or no traffic. But a road was a road, and a blessed relief after the nightmare of fighting her way through endless branches and undergrowth, with the superstitious fear of woods at night all too close to the surface of her mind.
The gelding was uneasy, tired and becoming rebellious, but Cyllan held it on a tight rein while she gazed around and tried to get her bearings. A single star hung far away to her right, but almost all the sky was obscured. Heavier cloud was driving in from what she guessed was the north-west, bringing a chill, dreary wind. The horse snorted and shook its head, smelling rain on the wind, and a few moments later the first drops stung Cyllan's face.
Unless she had misjudged, the road ran roughly north to south, and she turned in the saddle to gaze northwards, where the pale ribbon vanished among the folds of low hills. Far away in that direction, though how far she had no way of telling, was the Star Peninsula, and the castle where she had had her last sight of Tarod.
Was he there still? She didn't know how much time had passed since the Warp snatched her away; if the Circle had recaptured him, they would have killed him. She bit her lip hard, fighting down a powerful urge to turn the gelding's head to the north and ride it to the limits of its endurance until she reached the coast and the castle. That would be foolhardy. The Circle had marked her as a murderess, and to ride back into their embrace would be to court disaster. All she could do was pray that Tarod was alive, free, and seeking her.
She pressed her heels to the gelding's flanks and set it slithering down the bank towards the road. The rain was heavy now and the animal slipped several times on the wet grass; below, the track had taken on a slick sheen. Reaching the bottom of the slope Cyllan turned the horse southward, urging it ahead, and as it settled into a steady, ground-covering trot she pulled her cloak more closely about herself in an effort to keep out the worst of the wet. To either side the forest hissed as rain beat on the undergrowth, and the night took on an unreal edge, black silhouettes of trees flanking and looming with just the cold white strip of the road ahead to provide a narrow, mesmerizing focus. The muffled sound of her mount's hoofs seemed to echo her own heartbeats, and she began to feel an uneasy prickling in her scalp, as though a sixth sense warned her that some unseen shadow followed in her wake. She shook the thought off, convinced that it was triggered by tiredness and the tricky illusions of the dark. Nonetheless, there were real risks in plenty on a road like this, and she couldn't--dared not--stop in this lonely stretch of nowhere, at least until morning broke.
Without warning the gelding checked, breaking the hypnotic rhythm of its hoof beats and startling her back to wakefulness. Even as she realized that she had been on the verge of falling asleep in the saddle, she felt a sharp stab of instinct that urged her to look back over her shoulder.
This time it was no product of an overworked imagination. Her lungs and throat felt stifled and, aware that she was having to force herself not to shiver, Cyllan cautiously turned her head.
There were four of them, black, formless shapes in the gloom behind her, shadowing her track and closing. A terrible image leaped into Cyllan's mind--tales she had heard of ghouls and demons, dead things that left their dismal graves to pursue the unwary traveller. Then faintly on the wind she heard a restless metallic jingle as a horse chafed at its bit, and realized that her followers were made of flesh and blood.
Brigands. Irrational fears had clouded her mind to the threat of attack from a physical quarter, but the mounted men now closing on her were all too real. A woman riding a good horse alone at night would be easy prey and could anticipate nothing less than a slit throat, if she were lucky.
The gelding was dancing sideways, sensing something amiss. It was just possible that she could outrun her pursuers, though they probably rode fresh horses, while her own mount was close to exhaustion. But she couldn't stand and fight them. Flight was her only hope of survival.
She held the gelding back, trying to calm it and give the brigands the impression that she was unaware of their presence behind her. But they were moving closer. Now she could hear a faint after-echo of hoof beats that weren't those of her own horse. Carefully she reached to her throat and with shaking, fumbling fingers unpinned the clasp that held her cloak. As she did so she felt the Chaos stone press against her breast, and the unwonted reminder of its presence brought her a flicker of comfort. If Yandros of Chaos watched over her, then surely he would help her if he could?
She gathered up the reins, settled herself more securely in the wet saddle, pressed her thighs and knees as hard as she could against the gelding's flanks, then gripped the unfastened clasp so that the pin protruded from between her fingers. The gelding sprang forward with a shriek of protest as the clasp-pin jabbed through its hide behind the saddle cantle. Cyllan crouched over its neck, clinging precariously and praying that she wouldn't lose her grip and fall. Behind her, new sounds cut through the night; men cursing, the sudden thud of many more hoofs as the brigands spurred their mounts into the chase. Cyllan lashed the gelding's withers with the looped reins, screaming at it to gallop faster. It laid its ears back, eyes rolling, but she felt the powerful muscles beneath her bunch to greater effort. The road ahead veered crazily, trees seeming to fly past them, and she tried not to think of what might happen if some night animal should skitter across their path.
Sweat laced the gelding's neck and flanks. Sensing its rider's fear it was racing flat out, but even so Cyllan could hear the brigands closing on her. The last of her mount's stamina was draining fast, and its utmost efforts wouldn't be enough to save her. Almost sobbing with terror, she lashed it again and again, all the while knowing that she had minutes at most before the brigands would overtake her.
"Yandros!" The name broke from her throat in a cracking scream, a last cry of defiance. Ahead, the white ribbon of the track bent sharply, seeming to plunge back into the forest, and wild hope surged in Cyllan. If she could reach the trees she might still elude them--however slight, it was a chance!
The gelding careered round the bend in the track, sliding dangerously--and then it was rearing and skidding on the treacherous ground as the brilliant glare of torches sprang out of the dark and rough voices shouted a warning.
Cyllan felt the animal's hoofs sliding from under it; she pitched forward, clutched at a handful of mane and somehow stayed in the saddle. Then the gelding regained its feet, she saw a blade flash in the hot light, heard someone swearing. Hands took hold of her as the horse slithered to a halt and all but fell, and she was helped from its back to collapse to her knees on the sodden ground. Through her confusion she was aware of other horses shouldering past her, back on to the road down which she had come, then at last she was lifted to her feet and found herself looking into the astonished gaze of a middle-aged man.
"Aeoris preserve us, it's a woman!" The words were punctuated by the crackling and spitting of the torch flames as the rain tried to extinguish them. More faces loomed, grotesque in the flaring glow, and someone made a great fuss of opening and proffering a small metal flask. Cyllan accepted it gratefully, her throat too dry for speech, and took a good-sized mouthful of the warming, burning spirit.
"There, now." Concern laced the speaker's voice. "You're safe now, lady. Our men will catch those murdering devils, and they'll hang by morning!"
He had a Chaun Province accent. Cyllan tried to express her thanks, but her lungs were straining for air and still she couldn't speak. Someone took her arm to steady her, and another asked anxiously, "Are you harmed, madam? Can you tell us what happened to you?"
The deferential manner of his question made Cyllan realize that the men had taken her for a woman of some quality. Her clothes, and the obvious good breeding of the horse she rode, had created an impression that was very far from the truth, and shock made her want to laugh. She took a grip on herself, aware that she would be well advised not to disillusion them. But it would be a hard deception to maintain. She must invent a plausible story, and she felt in no condition for quick or clever thinking now.
Dissembling, she made a pretense of being about to faint as most well-bred women would have done in such straits. At once the men were solicitous and apologetic, helping her to the side of the track and insisting that she sit down. She smiled wanly at them and whispered, "Thank you ... you're very kind."
"It's nothing, lady. But what of your companions? You can't have been riding alone?"
The idea was unthinkable to them, and Cyllan realized that they would also have seen the bloodstains on her clothes, and the fact that her horse wore a saddle designed for a man. She swallowed. "There were six of us. My ... my brother and I, and--four servants." Anticipating the next question, she added, "One of our pack-horses cast a shoe, and we were forced to make camp for the night in the forest. We were attacked, and one of my brother's men died defending me." She hoped that the grief and fear she had tried to inject in her voice was enough to convince them. "In the confusion, my brother threw me on to his horse and set it galloping away." She looked up at the questioner, her amber eyes wide. "I don't know what became of them all...'
They believed her, at least thus far, and one said with determination, "We'll find them, lady, be assured of it!"
"If they live," another commented under his breath.
"Quiet, Vesey." The first speaker gave him a withering look. "The lady's suffered enough, without your gloomy remarks to make matters worse." He turned back to Cyllan. "We'll send searchers out straight away, and in the meantime two of us will take you to Wathryn town. It's but a short ride from here." He rose to his feet. "Gordach, Lesk, you'll act as escort for the lady. Take her to Sheniya Win Mar at the High Tree tavern, and I'll join you there later." Holding out a hand to Cyllan he bowed courteously. "We'll have news for you by morning, madam, I promise."
Cyllan nodded and thanked him, then let her escort help her on to the gelding, which stood at the side of the road, its head hanging with weariness. She assured them she could ride unaided, but the older of the two men insisted on taking the reins and walking at her mount's head while the other rode by her side, short sword drawn and resting across his lap. The circle of torchlight fell behind, and Gordach, the younger of her companions, assured her that they would be in no danger without light. The town was barely a mile away, he added, and besides the rain was clearing; any time now they would have one or even both moons to guide them. He was a talkative youth and kept up a flow of chatter as the horses plodded on. Cyllan learned that her rescuers were part of a volunteer militia formed by order of the Province Margrave in an attempt to stem the increasing deprivations of the brigand bands. Every town of reasonable size had such a force now, Gordach told her, and no less than fourteen outlaws had been brought to justice and executed in their own district alone. Now with this latest news from the north there would doubtless be yet more work for them to do.
Cyllan's skin crawled and she said, "Latest news?"
Gordach smiled proudly. "It was brought in by courier an hour before we left on our patrol, lady. We must be one of the first towns, save for the Province capitals, to have word of it." He paused for emphasis, then leaned towards her and whispered with a confidential air, "News from the Star Peninsula."
Cyllan's fingers tightened on the gelding's reins and she buried her hands in the animal's mane so that Gordach would not see them shaking. Trying to keep her voice even, she said, "I've heard nothing of it."
"Tell the truth, none of us knows the details as yet. The courier arrived exhausted, and his message won't be broadcast till morning. But I think," Gordach smiled at her again, clearly hoping to impress her, "that it concerns a dangerous killer who has escaped the Circle's custody together with his accomplice!"
Cyllan licked lips that were suddenly dry, and Gordach talked happily on. "We'll learn the details at dawn, and with luck we'll have a description of the two. I've heard that the news was brought from West High Land by messenger bird. If that's true, then it's a wonderful invention, for the message must have reached our Margrave in hours rather than days." He shifted eagerly in his saddle, gripping the sword across his lap, "I hope the wanted man comes to Chaun Province. It'd be a great triumph if we could be the ones to apprehend him!"
Cyllan did not reply, and the man who walked at her horse's head looked back over his shoulder. "Hush your noise, Gordach. The lady's in no mood for your babbling--begging your pardon, madam, but if he's not told, the boy will rattle on until his tongue drops out!"
Cyllan nodded, but still didn't trust herself to speak. Gordach fell silent, and when she looked up again she saw that they were nearing the town. The hunched silhouettes of buildings showed against the sky ahead. As they approached, an unseen watcher issued a sharp challenge out of the darkness and Lesk answered. Halting Cyllan's horse he hurried forward alone, and she heard a brief exchange of words as her presence was explained. Lesk came back and led the horse on; a man muffled in a heavy cloak touched a finger to his brow politely as they passed, and they rode on into the town.
Though not large by inland standards, Wathryn was clearly a prosperous and busy place. Acres of forest had been cut down as what had begun as a simple timber men's settlement grew, and Wathryn now boasted several merchants' houses of impressive size, a justice house where courts were held and local business conducted, and a paved market square. Now though, all was quiet, although Cyllan could hear the sound of a mill race somewhere near by where a small river had been tamed.
"Almost there now, lady," Gordach told her, undaunted by Lesk's disapproving scowl. The horses' hoofs set up loud echoes as they reached the market square, and on the far side Cyllan saw a long, low building, with a stylized painting of a spreading oak tree adorning its facade. A single light glowed in a downstairs window, and Lesk stepped up to the door, hammering on it with a heavy fist.
"Sheniya! Sheniya Win Mar! It's Lesk Barith--I've a guest in need of your hospitality!"
The door creaked open, and a plump middle-aged woman peered out, her eyes widening when she saw Cyllan and her escort. "Aeoris preserve us, what's this at such an hour? Lesk Barith, have you lost your wits?"
Lesk explained the bones of the story, while Cyllan sat mute in her saddle, trying to quell a rising sense of dread that threatened to suffocate her. The news of her escape was abroad, and there was a price on her head. By morning the townsfolk would have matched her face and all too distinctive hair to the description of the hunted murderess. She desperately wanted to flee, turn her horse about and run while she still could. But both she and the animal were exhausted. To flee would damn her immediately, and she couldn't hope to outrun a pursuit. She had at least a few hours' grace. Better to keep up her pretense and wait for an opportunity to leave unnoticed.
Sheniya Win Mar had by now heard enough for her mothering instinct to take over from indignation at the disturbance. She berated Lesk for keeping the lady waiting while he prated, then as soon as Cyllan was helped down from her mount she bustled forward.
"There now, madam, we'll soon have you warmed and comfortable! What you must have suffered; it doesn't bear thinking about! But you're safe now. Come, come in, and let me find you the best chair."
Cyllan heard the clatter of the gelding's hoofs as Lesk took it away. She resisted the impulse to look back over her shoulder and, taking a deep and nervous breath, allowed the tavern-keeper to lead her inside.