Seventeen people watched the duel, and not a sound could be heard above the whispering of the blades and the discordant music of steel upon steel. The Earl rolled his wrist and sent a lancing stroke towards the face-mask of his opponent, but the man dropped his shoulder and swayed aside, P ashing a riposte which the Earl barely parried. For some minutes the two duellists were locked in a strategic battle, then the Earl launched a blistering attack. His opponent – a tall, lean man wearing the grey habit of a monk beneath his mask and mail-shirt – defended desperately. With a last hissing clash the swords came together, the Earl’s blade sliding free to touch the monk’s chest.
The duellists bowed to one another, and a light ripple of applause came from the spectators. The Earl’s wife and his three sons moved out on the floor of the hall.
‘You were wonderful, Father,’ said the youngest, a blondheaded boy of seven. The Earl of Talgithir rufP ed the boy’s hair.
‘Did you enjoy the exhibition?’ he asked.
‘Yes, Father,’ the boys chorused.
‘And what was the move by which your father defeated me?’ asked the monk, pulling off his mask.
‘The Classic Chare,’ replied the eldest.
The monk smiled. ‘Indeed it was, Lord Patris. You are studying well.’
The Earl allowed his wife to lead his sons from the hall and waved away his retainers. With the hall empty he took the monk’s arm and the two men strode to the south gallery where a pitcher of fruit juice and two goblets had been set aside.
The Earl filled the goblets. ‘Are you really content here?’ he asked.
The monk shrugged. ‘As content as I would be anywhere, my lord. Why do you ask?’
The Earl gazed into the eyes of the man before him. The face he saw was strong, the nose long and aquiline, the mouth full below a trimmed moustache. ‘There are many legends concerning you, Chareos,’ he said. ‘Some have you as a prince. Did you know that?’
‘I have heard it,’ Chareos admitted. ‘It is unimportant.’
‘What is important? You are the finest swordsman I ever saw. You were one of the heroes of Bel-azar. You could have been rich beyond the dreams of common men.’
‘I am rich beyond the dreams of common men, my lord. And that is what is important. This life suits me. I am by nature a student. The libraries here in Gothir are among the best anywhere. Far south, they say, the libraries of Drenan contain more books, but here are the complete works of Tertullus. It will take me many years to study them all.’
‘It doesn’t seem right,’ said the Earl. ‘I remember my father putting me on his shoulder so that I could see the heroes of Bel-azar as they marched through the streets of New Gulgothir. I remember everything about that day. You were riding a white stallion of some seventeen hands, and wearing a silver mail-shirt and a helm with a white horsehair plume. Beltzer was behind you, carrying his axe. Then Maggrig and Finn. People in the crowd reached out to touch you, as if you were some lodestar. It was a wonderful day.’
‘The sun shone,’ agreed Chareos, ‘but it was only a parade, my lord – and there are many parades.’
‘What happened to the others?’ asked the Earl. ‘Did you remain friends? I have heard nothing of them for years.’
‘Nor I,’ Chareos answered. The dark-eyed monk looked away, seeing Beltzer as he had been on the last day – drunk, red-eyed and weeping, his axe auctioned to settle his debts. The farmer had become a hero, and it had destroyed him in a way the Nadir could not. Maggrig and Finn had been there; they had left Beltzer alone in the back room of the inn and walked with Chareos out into the sunshine.
‘We are going back to the mountains,’ said Finn.
‘There’s nothing there,’ Chareos told him.
Finn had smiled. ‘There’s nothing anywhere, Blademaster.’ Without another word the black-bearded archer had taken up his pack and moved off.
The youth Maggrig had smiled, offering Chareos his hand. ‘We will meet again,’ he said. ‘He probably only needs a little time to himself, away from crowds.’
‘How do you suffer his moods and depressions?’ asked Chareos.
‘I do not see them,’ Maggrig answered. ‘I see only the man.’
Now Chareos sipped his fruit juice and gazed out of the tall window. He was sitting too far back to see the courtyard and the gardens beyond. But from here he could look over the high wall of the monastery and off into the southern distance, where the forest lay like a green mist on the mountains. His gaze swept across to the east, and the ridges of hills which led to the Nadir Steppes. For a moment only, he felt the touch of icy fear.
‘You think the Nadir will attack come summer?’ asked the Earl, as if reading his thoughts. Chareos considered the question. The Nadir lived for war – a dour, nomadic tribal people, joyous only in battle. For centuries Gothir kings had held them in thrall, sure in the knowledge that the tribes hated one another more than they detested the conquerors. Then had come Ulric, the first great warlord. He had united them, turning them into an invincible force, an army numbering hundreds of thousands of F erce-eyed warriors. The Gothir were crushed, the King slain and refugees fled here to the north-west to build new homes. Only the great Drenai citadel of Dros Delnoch, far to the south-east, had turned them back. But a century later another warlord arose, and he would not be thwarted. Tenaka Khan had crushed the Drenai and invaded the lands of Vagria, his armies sweeping to the sea at Mashrapur and along the coastline to Lentria. Chareos shivered. Would they attack in this coming summer? Only the Source knew. But one point was as certain as death – one day the Nadir would come. They would sweep across the hills, their battle cries deafening, the grass churned to muddy desolation under the hooves of their war ponies. Chareos swallowed, his eyes fixed to the hills, seeing the blood-hungry hordes flowing across the green Gothir lands like a dark tide.
‘Well?’ queried the Earl. ‘Do you think they will attack?’
‘I could not say, my lord. I do not listen to the reports as once I did. It is said that the Drenai are in rebellion again, led by yet another who claims to be the Earl of Bronze reborn. I think that makes it the fifth in the thirty years since Tenaka Khan stormed Dros Delnoch. But perhaps such an uprising will put off the Nadir plans.’
‘He went the way of all the others,’ said the Earl. ‘He was caught and crucified; the rebellion was crushed. It is said the new Khan has ordered his troops north.’
‘People have been saying that for years,’ said Chareos. ‘There is little here for them. The spoils they took from the conquests of Drenan, Vagria and Lentria made them rich. We have nothing to offer them – we are not even a gateway to richer kingdoms. Beyond New Gulgothir is the sea. Perhaps they will leave us alone.’ Even as he spoke, Chareos felt the lie sitting cold in his throat. The Nadir did not live for plunder but for blood, and death, and conquest. It would matter nothing to them that the riches were few. No, they would be fired with thoughts of ancestral revenge on the Gothir people.
‘You do not believe that, Blademaster. I see it in your eyes,’ said the Earl, standing. ‘No, the Nadir hate us for the past, and they are tormented by the memory of Bel-azar – the only defeat to stain the reputation of Tenaka Khan.’
Chareos rose and assisted the Earl into his caped coat. He looked into the younger man’s face. ‘Bel-azar was a miracle. I do not know how we did it – nor why Tenaka Khan allowed us to hold. But it was twenty years ago; I very rarely think of it now.’
‘The old fortress is in ruins,’ said the Earl. ‘It’s as good as Nadir territory now. Thank you for the lesson. I think I am getting closer to you.’
‘Better than that, my lord. You beat me today.’
‘Are you sure you did not let me win – just because my sons were watching?’
‘You won fairly, my lord. But next week I will be better.’
‘Next week, you come to the castle. Afterwards we will ride out into the Hunting Woods and see if we can flush out a boar or two.’
Chareos bowed as the Earl strode from the hall. There was still some juice in the pitcher, and he reF lled his goblet and wandered to the window, watching as the Earl’s retinue rode from the monastery.
It had been a long time since those names had been voiced: Beltzer, Maggrig and Finn. He could still see the red-bearded giant hammering his battle-axe into the Nadir as they swarmed over the gate-tower wall. And each evening the bowmen, Maggrig and Finn, would compare scores and write them in charcoal on the granite wall. Maggrig killed eleven today, making his tally 31. Death to the Nadir! Old Kalin would dispute their figures as he cooked the evening meal over the brazier. Such a way with food, that man, Chareos remembered – he could make sirloin steak taste like sheep’s bowels. He had died on the last day.
The gate-tower section took the most casualties throughout. Of the original complement of forty-five only Beltzer, Maggrig, Finn and Chareos had survived. The Nadir had taken the fortress, but Beltzer had leapt from the gate-tower and singlehandedly retaken the Gothir standard, hacking and cutting his way back to the tower door. Once inside, the soldiers had barricaded themselves in and defied the encircling Nadir warriors. For most of the day the enemy had scaled the wall, only to be repulsed by the swords and axes of the defenders.
That night Tenaka Khan himself had walked, with his shaman, below the gate-tower.
‘Surrender to me, and you may leave here alive,’ he had called.
‘That would be contrary to our orders,’ Chareos had answered him.
‘What is the most important to you, duty or freedom?’ the Khan had asked.
‘An interesting question, sir,’ Chareos had replied. ‘Why not come up here and debate the point?’
‘Throw down a rope,’ the Khan had answered.
Chareos smiled at the memory now as he heard footsteps in the hall behind him and turned to see the Senior Brother approaching.
‘Am I disturbing you?’ asked the old man.
‘Not at all, Parnio. Please join me.’
The white-robed Senior sat by the table and gazed up at the sky. ‘The Heavens are incredible,’ he whispered. ‘Ever changing, yet constant in their beauty.’
‘Indeed they are,’ agreed Chareos, sitting opposite the old man.
‘Have you touched the power of the Source yet, my son?’
‘No, Father. I am still a doubter. Is this a concern to you?’
The Senior waved a slender hand. ‘Not at all. Those who seek Him find Him . . . but in His own time. But you have been here two years now, and I wonder what holds you. You do not need to wear the robes in order to use the library.’
Chareos smiled. ‘There is comfort in belonging, Father. There is a certain anonymity.’
‘If it was anonymity you were seeking, you would not have kept your own name, and certainly you would not have acceded to the Earl’s request to teach him the finer techniques of swordsmanship.’
‘True. Perhaps the answer is, simply, that I do not know. Yet I have no desire to leave.’
‘By my lights, my son, you are a young man. You should have a wife and children; there should be love in your life. Am I at fault in my thinking?’
Chareos stood and moved once more to the window. ‘Not at fault, Senior Brother. I loved once . . . and in truth I could love again. But the pain of loss was too much for me. I would rather live alone than suffer it.’
‘Then you are here to hide, Chareos, and that is not a good reason. The gift of life is too great to waste in such a fashion. Think on it. Why should the famed hero of Bel-azar fear such a wondrous joy as love?’
Chareos swung on the old man, his dark eyes hooded and angry. ‘Bel-azar! I have heard that name twice today. It means nothing. I had a sword . . . I used it well. Men died. I see nothing heroic in that, Senior Brother. A long time ago I watched an old man, crippled in the joints, try to aid a woman who was being attacked. One blow from a fist killed that old man. But his action was heroic – for he had no chance. Do you understand what I am saying? The soldier always has a chance. There are men and women in the world who perform heroic acts daily, and no one sees them. But I – because of a good eye and a fast arm – I am one of the heroes of Bel-azar. My name is sung in the long halls and the taverns.’
‘You are wrong, Chareos. Men sing of you. But the action of that old man was sung before God. There is a difference.’
‘There would be – if I believed. But I do not.’
‘Give it time – and beware of the Earl, my son. There is strength in him, but there is cruelty also. And when you go to teach him at his castle, do not wear the Grey. We are not warriors here; this is no Temple of the Thirty.’
‘As you wish, Father.’
The old man rose. ‘When I came upon you,’ he said softly, ‘you were lost in thought. Will you share your memories?’
‘I was thinking of Bel-azar and Tenaka Khan. I was wondering about that last night when he climbed the wall alone and sat with us until the dawn. He talked of his life and his dreams and we spoke of ours. Beltzer wanted to hold him for a hostage, but I overruled him. At dawn he climbed down from the gate-tower and led his force away. We still had the Gothir standard, so – in theory, at least – the victory was ours.’
‘You admired the man?’
‘Yes. There was a nobility of spirit. But I do not know why he let us live.’
‘Did he not tell you?’
‘No. But he was not a man to act without a reason and it has haunted me for years. When he died I journeyed into Nadir lands and stood before the great tomb of Ulric, where Tenaka Khan was buried. I was drawn there. I rode into the camp of the Wolves and knelt before the shaman. I asked him why we were spared on that day. He shrugged. He told me we were the Shio-kas-atra – the ghosts-yet-to-be.’
‘Did you understand him?’
‘No. Do you?’
‘I will pray on it, my son.’
Beltzer awoke to a roaring sea of pain within his skull. He groaned and hauled himself to a sitting position, his stomach heaving. He pulled on his boots and staggered upright, wandered around the bed to the window and opened it. Fresh air drifted in on a light breeze. He hawked and spat; his lip was split and a little blood could be seen in the phlegm. There was a mirror on the dresser and he sank down into the seat before it and stared at his reflection. One eye was swollen and dark; his forehead was grazed and there was a shallow cut on his right cheek; his red and silver beard was matted with dried blood. He felt sick. The door opened behind him, causing the curtains to billow. He turned to see Mael entering, bearing a tray on which was a platter of toasted bread and cheese and a jug – he prayed it contained ale.
‘Thank you,’ he said, as she set down the tray. She looked at him and shook her head.
‘You are a disgrace,’ she told him, planting her hands on her ample hips.
‘No lectures, Mael. Have pity! My head . . .’
‘Your pain is your own affair. And I have no pity for drunken louts. Look at the blood on these sheets! And the stink is enough to turn a decent man’s stomach. How long since you bathed?’
‘It was this year, I know that.’
‘When you’ve finished your breakfast, you will go to the woodshed. There you will work until you have settled your bill. Axe and saw will clear your head.’
‘Where’s Naza?’ he asked, straining to focus on the flaxenhaired woman.
‘He’s gone into the city. It’s market day. When he returns you will be gone – you understand that?’
‘He . . . owes me.’
‘He owes you nothing. You hear me? Nothing! You’ve been here two months. You’ve not paid a single Raq for food, lodging or ale, and in that time you’ve insulted our customers, picked fights and generally done your best to ruin the trade my husband lives on. You will chop wood and then you will go.’
His fist slammed down on the dresser and he surged to his feet. ‘You dare to talk to me like that?’ he stormed. ‘You know who I am, woman?’
‘I know,’ she said, moving closer. ‘You are Beltzer. Beltzer the drunkard. Beltzer the sloth. Beltzer the braggart. And you stink. You stink of sweat, sour ale and vomit. Of course I know who you are!’
He raised his hand as if to strike her, but she laughed at him. ‘Go ahead, mighty hero of Bel-azar. Come on!’
Beltzer pushed past her and out into the empty room beyond, but she followed him, her anger lashing him with whips of fire. He stumbled out into the yard beyond the tavern, blinking in the harsh sunlight. The woodshed was to his right; open fields lay to his left.
He took the left path and headed off into the high country, but he had travelled only a half-mile when he sat down on a rock and gazed over the rugged countryside. Three miles ahead was his cabin. But there would be no one there: no food, no drink; merely the howling of the wolves and the emptiness only the lonely could know.
His heart full of shame, he turned back towards the woodshed.
Stopping at a stream he stripped himself of his bearskin jerkin and grey woollen tunic. Then placing his boots beside his clothes, he stepped into the water. With no soap to cleanse himself, he scrubbed at his body with mint leaves and washed the blood from his beard. When he returned to the bank and lifted his tunic the smell from it almost made him nauseous. ‘You’ve fallen a long way,’ he told himself. He washed the tunic, beating it against a rock to drive out the dirt, then wrung it clear of excess water and struggled into it. His bearskin jerkin he carried over his arm.
Mael watched him walk back into the yard and cursed softly under her breath. She waited until she heard the sound of the axe thudding into the tree rounds and then returned to the kitchen, preparing the pies and pasties the farm workers and labourers would require at noon.
In the woodshed Beltzer worked hard, enjoying the heft of the single-bladed axe and the feel of the curved wood. His arm had lost none of its skill and each stroke was clean, splitting the rounds into chunks that would burn on the iron-rimmed braziers at each end of the tavern’s main room.
Just before noon he stopped and began to cart the wood across the yard. Then he carried it into the tavern to stack beside the braziers. Mael did not speak to him, and he had no desire to feel the sharpness of her tongue. She handed him a plate of broth and some bread when the noon-time custom died down and he ate it in silence, longing to ask for a tankard of ale but fearing the inevitable refusal.
Naza returned at dusk and carried a pitcher of ale out to the woodshed.
‘How are you feeling, my friend?’ he asked, F lling a tankard and passing it to the grateful Beltzer.
‘Worse than death,’ he replied, draining the tankard.
‘You didn’t have to do all this,’ said Naza. ‘You should have rested today. You took quite a beating last night.’
Beltzer shook his head. ‘Your wife understands me better than you. This is what I need,’ he said, lifting the tankard. ‘You know, there’s an insanity to it all, Naza. I was the most famous person in Gothir. I was the standard-bearer. I was wined and dined, money and presents poured into my hands. I was on top of the mountain. But there was nothing there. Nothing. Just clouds. And I found that you can’t live on that mountain. But when it throws you off – oh, how you long for it! I would kill to climb it again. I would sell my soul. It is so stupid. With fame I thought I would be someone. But I wasn’t. Oh yes, the nobles invited me to their castles for a while, but I couldn’t talk to them in their own language, of poetry and politics. I was a farmer. I can’t read or write. I stood with them and sat with them and I felt like the fool I am. There is only one skill I know – I can swing an axe. I killed a few Nadir. I took the standard. And now I can’t even become a farmer again. The mountain won’t let me.’
‘Why don’t you visit Maggrig and Finn? They still have that house in High Valley. They’d be glad to see you and you could talk of old times.’
‘They were always loners and we were never close. No, I should have died at Bel-azar. Nothing has gone right since then.’
‘Death comes soon enough to all men,’ said Naza. ‘Don’t wish for it. Come inside and have a drink.’
‘No, tonight I will sit out here and think. No drinking. No fighting. I will sit here.’
‘I’ll send a jug out to you – and a hot meal. I’ll have some blankets brought out too.’
‘You needn’t do this for me, Naza.’
‘I owe you, my friend.’
‘No,’ said Beltzer sadly, ‘you owe me nothing. And from now on I work for my food.’