Rek was drunk. Not enough to matter, but enough not to matter, he thought, staring at the ruby wine casting blood shadows in the lead crystal glass. A log fire in the hearth warmed his back, the smoke stinging his eyes, the acrid smell of it mixing with the odour of unwashed bodies, forgotten meals and musty, damp clothing. A lantern flame danced briefly in the icy wind as a shaft of cold air brushed the room. Then it was gone as a newcomer slammed shut the wooden door, muttering his apologies to the crowded inn.
Conversation which had died in the sudden blast of frosty air now resumed, a dozen voices from different groups merging into a babble of meaningless sounds. Rek sipped his wine. He shivered as someone laughed – the sound was as cold as the winter wind beating against the wooden walls. Like someone walking over your grave, he thought. He pulled his blue cloak more tightly about his shoulders. He did not need to be able to hear the words to know the topic of every conversation: it had been the same for days.
Such a little word. Such a depth of agony. Blood, death, conquest, starvation, plague and horror.
More laughter burst upon the room. ‘Barbarians!’ roared a voice above the babble. ‘Easy meat for Drenai lances.’ More laughter.
Rek stared at the crystal goblet. So beautiful. So fragile. Crafted with care, even love; multi-faceted like a gossamer diamond. He lifted the crystal close to his face, seeing a dozen eyes reflected there.
And each accused. For a second he wanted to crush the glass into fragments, destroy the eyes and the accusation. But he did not. I am not a fool, he told himself. Not yet.
Horeb, the innkeeper, wiped his thick fingers on a towel and cast a tired yet wary eye over the crowd, alert for trouble, ready to step in with a word and a smile before a snarl and a fist became necessary. War. What was it about the prospect of such bloody enterprises that reduced men to the level of animals? Some of the drinkers – most, in fact – were well-known to Horeb. Many were family men: farmers, traders, artisans. All were friendly; most were compassionate, trustworthy, even kindly. And here they were talking of death and glory and ready to thrash or slay any suspected of Nadir sympathies. The Nadir – even the name spoke of contempt.
But they’ll learn, he thought sadly. Oh, how they’ll learn! Horeb’s eyes scanned the large room, warming as they lighted upon his daughters who were clearing tables and delivering tankards. Tiny Dori blushing beneath her freckles at some ribald jest; Besa, the image of her mother, tall and fair; Nessa, fat and plain and loved by all, soon to marry the baker’s apprentice Norvas. Good girls. Gifts of joy. Then his gaze fell on the tall figure in the blue cloak seated by the window.
‘Damn you, Rek, snap out of it,’ he muttered, knowing the man would never hear him. Horeb turned away, cursed, then removed his leather apron and grasped a half-empty jug of ale and a tankard. As an after-thought he opened a small cupboard and removed a bottle of port he had been saving for Nessa’s wedding.
‘A problem shared is a problem doubled,’ he said, squeezing into the seat opposite Rek.
‘A friend in need is a friend to be avoided,’ Rek countered, accepting the proffered bottle and re-filling his glass. ‘I knew a general once,’ he said, staring at the wine, twirling the glass slowly with his long fingers. ‘Never lost a battle. Never won one either.’
‘How so?’ asked Horeb.
‘You know the answer. I’ve told you before.’
‘I have a bad memory. Anyway, I like to listen to you tell stories. How could he never lose and never win?’
‘He surrendered whenever threatened,’ said Rek. ‘Clever, eh?’
‘How come men followed him if he never won?’
‘Because he never lost. Neither did they.’
‘Would you have followed him?’ asked Horeb.
‘I don’t follow anyone any more. Least of all generals.’ Rek turned his head, listening to the interweaving chatter. He closed his eyes, concentrating. ‘Listen to them,’ he said, softly. ‘Listen to their talk of glory.’
‘They don’t know any better, Rek, my friend. They haven’t seen it, tasted it. Crows like a black cloud over a battlefield feasting on dead men’s eyes, foxes jerking at severed tendons, worms . . .’
‘Stop it, damn you . . . I don’t need reminding. Well, I’m damned if I’ll go. When’s Nessa getting married?’
‘In three days,’ answered Horeb. ‘He’s a good boy, he’ll look after her. Keeps baking her cakes. She’ll be like a tub before long.’
‘One way or another,’ said Rek, with a wink.
‘Indeed yes,’ answered Horeb, grinning broadly. The men sat in their own silence allowing the noise to wash over them, each drinking and thinking, secure within their circle of two. After a while Rek leaned forward.
‘The first attack will be at Dros Delnoch,’ he said. ‘Do you know they’ve only 10,000 men there?’
‘I heard it was less than that. Abalayn’s been cutting back on the regulars and concentrating on militia. Still, there’re six high walls and a strong keep. And Delnar’s no fool – he was at the battle of Skeln.’
‘Really?’ said Rek. ‘I heard that was one man against ten thousand, hurling mountains on the foe.’
‘The saga of Druss the Legend,’ said Horeb, deepening his voice. ‘The tale of a giant whose eyes were death, and whose axe was terror. Gather round, children, and keep from the shadows lest evil lurks as I tell my tale.’
‘You bastard!’ said Rek. ‘That used to terrify me. You knew him, didn’t you – the Legend, I mean?’
‘A long time ago. They say he’s dead. If not, he must be over sixty. We were in three campaigns together, but I only spoke to him twice. I saw him in action once, though.’
‘Was he good?’ asked Rek.
‘Awesome. It was just before Skeln and the defeat of the Immortals. Just a skirmish really. Yes, he was very good.’
‘You’re not terribly strong on detail, Horeb.’
‘You want me to sound like the rest of these fools, jabbering about war and death and slaying?’
‘No,’ said Rek, draining his wine. ‘No, I don’t. You know me, don’t you?’
‘Enough to like you. Regardless.’
‘Regardless of what?’
‘Regardless of the fact that you don’t like yourself.’
‘On the contrary,’ said Rek, pouring a fresh glass, ‘I like myself well enough. It’s just that I know myself better than most people.’
‘You know, Rek, sometimes I think you ask too much of yourself.’
‘No. No, I ask very little. I know my weaknesses.’
‘It’s a funny thing about weakness,’ said Horeb. ‘Most people will tell you they know their weaknesses. When asked, they tell you, “Well, for one thing I’m over-generous.” Come on then, list yours if you must. That’s what innkeepers are for.’
‘Well, for one thing I’m over-generous – especially to innkeepers.’
Horeb shook his head, smiled and lapsed into silence.
Too intelligent to be a hero, too frightened to be a coward, he thought. He watched his friend empty his glass, lift it to his face and peer at his own fragmented image. For a moment Horeb thought he would smash it, such had been the anger on Rek’s flushed face.
Then the younger man gently returned the goblet to the wooden table.
‘I’m not a fool,’ he said, softly. He stiffened as he realised he had spoken aloud. ‘Damn!’ he said. ‘The drink finally got to me.’
‘Let me give you a hand to your room,’ offered Horeb.
‘Is there a candle lit?’ asked Rek, swaying in his seat.
‘You won’t let it go out on me, will you? Not keen on the dark. Not frightened, you understand. Just don’t like it.’
‘I won’t let it go out, Rek. Trust me.’
‘I trust you. I rescued you, didn’t I? Remember?’
‘I remember. Give me your arm. I’ll guide you to the stairs. This way. That’s good. One foot in front of the other. Good!’
‘I didn’t hesitate. Straight in with my sword raised, didn’t I?’
‘No, I didn’t. I stood for two minutes shaking. And you got cut.’
‘But you still came in, Rek. Don’t you see? It didn’t matter about the cut – you still rescued me.’
‘It matters to me. Is there a candle in my room?’
Behind him was the fortress, grim and grey, outlined in flame and smoke. The sounds of battle filled his ears and he ran, heart pounding, his breathing ragged. He glanced behind him. The fortress was close, closer than it had been. Ahead were the green hills sheltering the Sentran Plain. They shimmered and retreated before him, taunting him with their tranquillity. He ran faster. A shadow fell across him. The gates of the fortress opened. He strained against the force pulling him back. He cried and begged. But the gates closed and he was back at the centre of the battle, a bloody sword in his shaking hand.
He awoke, eyes wide, nostrils flared, the beginning of a scream swelling his lungs. A soft hand stroked his face and gentle words soothed him. His eyes focused. Dawn was nearing, the pink light of a virgin day piercing the ice on the inside of the bedroom window. He rolled over.
‘You were troubled in the night,’ Besa told him, her hand stroking his brow. He smiled, pulled the goose-down quilt over his shoulder and drew her to him under the covers.
‘I’m not troubled now,’ said Rek. ‘How could I be?’ The warmth of her body aroused him and his fingers caressed her back.
‘Not today,’ she said, kissing him lightly on the forehead and pulling away. She threw back the quilt, shivered and ran across the room, gathering her clothes. ‘It’s cold,’ she said. ‘Colder than yesterday.’
‘It’s warm in here,’ he offered, raising himself to watch her dress. She blew him a kiss.
‘You’re fine to romp with, Rek. But I’ll have no children by you. Now, get out of that bed. We’ve a party of travellers coming in this morning and the room is let.’
‘You’re a beautiful woman, Besa. If I had any sense, I’d marry you.’
‘Then it’s a good job you have none, for I’d turn you down and your ego would never stand it. I’m looking for someone more solid.’
Her smile took the sting from her words. Almost.
The door opened and Horeb bustled in bearing a copper tray containing bread, cheese and a tankard.
‘How’s the head?’ he asked, placing the tray on the wooden table by the bed.
‘Fine,’ said Rek. ‘Is that orange juice?’
‘It is, and it’ll cost you dear. Nessa waylaid the Vagrian trader as he left the ship. She waited an hour and risked frostbite just to get oranges for you. I don’t think you’re worth it.’
‘True,’ smiled Rek. ‘Sad but true.’
‘Are you really heading south today?’ asked Besa, as Rek sipped his fruit juice. He nodded. ‘You’re a fool. I thought you’d had enough of Reinard.’
‘I’ll avoid him. Are my clothes cleaned?’
‘Dori spent hours on them,’ said Besa. ‘And for what? So that you can get them filthy in Graven Forest.’
‘That’s not the point. One should always look one’s best when leaving a city.’ He glanced at the tray. ‘I can’t face the cheese.’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ said Horeb. ‘It’s still on the bill!’
‘In that case I’ll force myself to eat it. Any other travellers today?’
‘There’s a spices caravan heading for Lentria – that will go through Graven. Twenty men, well-armed. They’re taking the circular route south and west. There’s a woman travelling alone – but she’s already left,’ said Horeb. ‘Lastly there’s a group of pilgrims. But they don’t leave until tomorrow.’
‘Not quite,’ said Besa. ‘But almost.’
‘Now, girl,’ said Horeb, smiling broadly, ‘it’s not like you to be catty. A tall girl with a inne horse. And she’s armed.’
‘I could have travelled with her,’ said Rek. ‘It might have made the journey more pleasant.’
‘And she could have protected you from Reinard,’ said Besa. ‘She looked the part. Now come on, Regnak, get dressed. I’ve not the time to sit here and watch you breakfast like a lord. You’ve caused enough chaos in this house.’
‘I can’t get up while you’re here,’ protested Rek. ‘It wouldn’t be decent.’
‘You idiot,’ she said, gathering up the tray. ‘Get him up, Father, else he’ll lie there all day.’
‘She’s right, Rek,’ said Horeb, as the door closed behind her. ‘It’s time for you to move, and knowing how long it takes you to prepare your public appearance I think I’ll leave you to get on with it.’
‘One must look one’s best . . .’
‘. . . when leaving a city. I know. That’s what you always say, Rek. I’ll see you downstairs.’
Once alone Rek’s manner changed, the laughter lines about his eyes easing into marks of tension, sorrow almost. The Drenai were finished as a world power. Ulric and the Nadir tribes had already begun their march upon Drenan and they would ride into the cities of the plains on rivers of blood. Should every Drenai warrior kill thirty tribesmen, still there would be hundreds of thousands left.
The world was changing and Rek was running out of places to hide.
He thought of Horeb and his daughters. For six hundred years the Drenai race had stamped civilisation on a world ill suited to it. They had conquered savagely, taught wisely and, in the main, ruled well. But they had arrived at their sunset and a new empire was waiting, ready to rise from the blood and ashes of the old. He thought again of Horeb and laughed. Whatever happens, there is one old man who will survive, he thought. Even the Nadir need good inns. And the daughters? How would they fare when the hordes burst the city gates? Bloody images flooded his mind.
‘Damn!’ he shouted, rolling from the bed to push open the ice-sealed window.
The winter wind struck his bed-warmed body, snatching his mind back to the reality of today and the long ride south. He crossed to the bench on which his clothes had been laid out and swiftly dressed. The white woollen undershirt and the blue hose were gifts from gentle Dori; the tunic with gold embroidered collar a legacy of better days in Vagria; the reversed sheepskin jerkin and gold ties a present from Horeb and the thigh-length doeskin boots a surprise gift from a weary traveller at an outland inn. And he must have been surprised, thought Rek, remembering the thrill of fear and excitement as he had crept into the man’s room to steal them only a month since. By the wardrobe stood a full-length bronze mirror, where Rek took a long look at his reflection. He saw a tall man, with shoulder-length brown hair and a well-trimmed moustache, cutting a fine figure in his stolen boots. He looped his baldric over his head and placed his longsword in the black and silver sheath.
‘What a hero,’ he told his reflection, a cynical smile on his lips.
‘What a gem of a hero.’ He drew the sword and parried and thrust at the air, one eye on his reflection. The wrist was still supple, the grasp sure. Whatever else you are not, he told himself, you are a swordsman. From the sill by the window he took the silver circlet talisman – his good luck charm since he stole it from a brothel in Lentria – and placed it over his forehead, sweeping his dark hair back over his ears.
‘You may not actually be magnificent,’ he told his reflection, ‘but by all the gods in Missael you look it!’
The eyes smiled back at him. ‘Don’t you mock me, Regnak Wanderer,’ he said. Throwing his cloak over his arm, he strolled downstairs to the long room, casting an eye over the early crowd. Horeb hailed him from the bar.
‘Now that’s more like it, Rek my lad,’ he said, leaning back in mock admiration. ‘You could have stepped straight from one of Serbar’s poems. Drink?’
‘No. I think I will leave it a while yet – like ten years. Last night’s brew is still fermenting in my gullet. Have you packed me some of your vile food for the journey?’
‘Maggoty biscuits, mildewed cheese and a two-year-old back of bacon that will come when you call it,’ answered Horeb. ‘And a flask of the worst . . .’
Conversation ceased as the seer entered the inn, his faded blue habit flapping against bony legs, his quarterstaff tapping on the wooden boards. Rek swallowed his disgust at the man’s appearance and avoided glancing at the ruined sockets where once the man’s eyes had been.
The old man pushed out a hand of which the third finger was missing. ‘Silver for your future,’ he said, his voice like a dry wind whispering through winter branches.
‘Why do they do it?’ whispered Horeb.
‘Their eyes, you mean?’ countered Rek.
‘Yes. How can a man put out his own eyes?’
‘Damned if I know. They say it aids their visions.’
‘Sounds about as sensible as cutting off your staff in order to aid your sex life.’
‘It takes all sorts, Horeb old friend.’
Drawn by the sound of their voices the old man hobbled nearer, hand outstretched. ‘Silver for your future,’ he intoned. Rek turned away.
‘Go on, Rek,’ urged Horeb. ‘See if the journey bodes well. Where’s the harm?’
‘You pay. I will listen,’ said Rek.
Horeb thrust a hand deep into the pocket of his leather apron and dropped a small silver coin into the old man’s palm. ‘For my friend here,’ he said. ‘I know my future.’
The old man squatted on the wooden floor and reached into a tattered pouch, producing a fistful of sand which he sprinkled about him. Then he produced six knuckle-bones bearing crafted runes.
‘They’re human bones, aren’t they?’ whispered Horeb.
‘So they say,’ answered Rek. The old man began to chant in the Elder tongue, his quavering voice echoing in the silence. He threw the bones to the sandy floor, then ran his hands over the runes.
‘I have the truth,’ he said at last.
‘Never mind the truth, old man. Give me a tale full of golden lies and glorious maidens.’
‘I have the truth,’ said the seer, as if he had not heard.
‘The hell with it!’ said Rek. ‘Tell me the truth, old man.’
‘Do you desire to hear it, Man?’
‘Never mind the damned ritual, just speak and begone!’
‘Steady, Rek, steady! It’s his way,’ said Horeb.
‘Maybe. But he’s going a long way towards spoiling my day. Theynever give good news anyway. The old bastard’s probably going to tell me I shall catch the plague.’
‘He wishes the truth,’ said Horeb, following the ritual, ‘and will use it wisely and well.’
‘Indeed he does not and will not,’ said the seer. ‘But destiny must be heard. You do not wish to hear words of your death, Regnak the Wanderer, son of Argas, and so I will withhold them. You are a man of uncertain character and only a sporadic courage. You are a thief and a dreamer and your destiny will both haunt and hunt you. You will run to avoid it, yet your steps will carry you towards it. But then this you know, Longshanks, for you dreamt it yester-eve.’
‘Is that it, old man? That meaningless garbage? Is that fair trading for a silver coin?’
‘The earl and the legend will be together at the wall. And men shall dream, and men shall die, but shall the fortress fall?’
The old man turned and was gone.
‘What was your dream last night, Rek?’ asked Horeb.
‘You surely don’t believe that idiocy, Horeb?’
‘What was your dream?’ the innkeeper persisted.
‘I didn’t dream at all. I slept like a log. Except for that bloody candle. You left it on all night and it stank. You must be more careful. It could have started a fire. Every time I stop here, I warn you about those candles. You never listen.’