Domes of Fire Part 52
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'I sort of thought you might feel that way. And you, Emperor Sarabian?'
'Your wife just nailed my feet to the floor, Sparhawk. How could I possibly run off and hide while she's standing up here on the wall like the figurehead on a warship?' The emperor looked at Sephrenia. 'Is this insane foolhardiness a racial characteristic of these barbarians?' he asked her.
She sighed. 'You wouldn't believe some of the things they're capable of, Sarabian,' she replied, throwing a quick smile at Vanion.
'At least someone in that mob's still thinking coherently, Sparhawk,' Vanion said to his friend. 'He's just realised that there are all sorts of unpleasant implications in the fact that they can't get in here or out of the compound. He's out there trying to whip them up by telling them that they're doomed unless they take this castle.'
'I hope he's also telling them that they're doomed if they try,' Sparhawk replied.
'I'd imagine that he's glossing over that part. I had some misgivings about you when you were a novice, my friend. You and Kalten seemed like a couple of wild colts, but now that you've settled down, you're really quite good. Your strategy here has been brilliant, you know. You actually haven't embarrassed me too much this time.'
'Thanks, Vanion,' Sparhawk said dryly 'No charge.'
The rebels approached the moat tentatively, their faces filled with apprehension and their eyes fixed on the night sky, desperately searching for that first flicker of fire which would announce that Sir Bevier was sending them greetings. The chance passage of a shooting-star across the velvet throat of night elicited screams of fright, followed by a vast nervous laugh. The gleaming, brightly-lit castle, however, remained silent. No soldiers lined the battlements. No globs of liquid fire sprang into the night sky from within those nacreous walls. The defenders crouched silently behind the battlements and waited.
'Good,' Vanion muttered after a quick glance out of one of the embrasures in the turret. 'Someone saw the potential of those barges. They've clapped together some scaling ladders.'
'We have to rupture those barges now, Vanion!' Ehlana exclaimed urgently.
'You didn't tell her?' Vanion asked Sparhawk.
'No. The concept might have been difficult for her to accept.'
'You'd better take her back inside the castle then, my friend. What's going to happen next is likely to upset her a great deal.'
'Will you two stop talking about me as if I weren't even here?' Ehlana burst out in exasperation. 'What are you going to do?'
'You'd better tell her,' Vanion said bleakly.
'We can start that fire at any time, Ehlana,' Sparhawk said as gently as he could. 'In a situation like this, fire's a weapon. It's not tactically practical to waste it by setting it off before your enemies are around to receive its benefits.'
She stared at him, the blood draining from her face. 'This wasn't what I'd planned, Sparhawk!' she said vehemently. 'The fire's supposed to keep them away from the moat. I didn't want you to burn them alive with it.'
'I'm sorry, Ehlana. It's a military decision. A weapon's useless unless you demonstrate your willingness to employ it. I know it's hard to accept, but if we take your plan to its ultimate application, it may save lives in the long run. We're outnumbered here in Tamuli, and if we don't establish a certain reputation for ruthlessness, we'll be over-run the next time there's a confrontation.'
'You're a monster!'
'No, dear. I'm a soldier.'
She suddenly started to cry. 'Would you take her inside now, little mother?' Sparhawk asked Sephrenia. 'I think we'd all rather she didn't see this.' Sephrenia nodded and took the weeping queen to the stairway leading down from the turret.
'You might want to go too, your Majesty,' Vanion suggested to Sarabian. 'Sparhawk and I are more or less accustomed to this sort of unpleasantness. You don't have to watch, though.'
'No, I'll stay, Lord Vanion,' Sarabian said firmly.
'That's up to you, your Majesty.'
A sheet of crossbow bolts rattled against the battlements like hail. It appeared that the rebels had been repairing the results of Khalad's tampering. Then, fearfully, splashing in panicky desperation, swimmers leapt from the edge of the moat and struggled their way to the barges to slip the mooring lines. The barges were quickly pulled to shore, and the rebels, their makeshift scaling-ladders already raised, swarmed on board and began to pole their way rapidly across the moat to the sheer castle-wall.
Sparhawk stuck his head out through the doorway of the turret. 'Kalten!' he hissed to his friend who was crouched down on the parapet not far from the turret. 'Pass the word! Tell the Atans to get ready!'
'But tell them not to move until they hear the signal.'
'I know what I'm doing, Sparhawk. Quit treating me like an idiot.'
The urgent whisper sped around the battlements. 'Your timing's perfect, Sparhawk,' Vanion said tensely in a low voice. 'I just saw Kring's signal from the compound wall. The Atans are outside the gate.' He paused. 'You're having an unbelievable run of good luck, you know. Nobody could have guessed in advance that the mob would start up the wall and the Atans would arrive at precisely the same time.'
'Probably not,' Sparhawk agreed. 'I think we might want to do something nice for Aphrael the next time we see her.'
In the moat below, the barges bumped against the castle walls, and the rebels began their desperate scramble up the ladders towards the ominously silent battlements. Another urgent whisper slithered back around the parapet.
'The barges are all up against the wall now, Sparhawk!' Kalten whispered hoarsely.
'All right.' Sparhawk drew in a deep breath. 'Tell Ulath to give the signal.'
'Ulath!' Kalten shouted, no longer even bothering to whisper. 'Toot your horn!'
'Toot?' Ulath's voice was outraged. Then his Ogre-horn rang out its message of pain and death. From around the parapet, great boulders were lifted, teetered a moment on the battlements and then plummeted down onto the swarming decks of the barges below. The barges ruptured, splintered and began to sink. The viscous mixture of naphtha and pitch spread out across the surface of the moat. The spreading slick was rainbow-hued and, Sparhawk absently thought, really rather pretty. The towering Atans rose from their places of concealment, took up the lanterns conveniently hanging from the battlements, and hurled them down into the moat like a hundred flaring comets. The rebels who had leaped from the sinking barges and who were struggling in the oily water below screamed in terror as they saw flaming death raining down on them from above.
The moat exploded. A sheet of blue fire shot across the naphtha-stained water, and it was immediately followed by towering billows of sooty orange flame and dense black smoke. There were volcano-like eruptions from the sinking barges as the deadly, unspilled naphtha still in their holds took fire. The flames belched upward to sear the rebels still clinging to the scaling ladders. They fell or jumped from the burning ladders, streaking flame as they plunged into the inferno below. The screams were dreadful. Some few of the burning men reached the far bank of the moat and ran blindly across the tidy lawns of the compound, shrieking and dripping fire. The rebels who had stood at the brink of the moat impatiently awaiting their turn to cross the intervening water to scale the walls recoiled in horror from the sudden conflagration that had just made the gleaming castle of the Elenes as unreachable as the far side of the moon.
'Ulath!' Sparhawk roared. 'Tell Kring to open the gate.'
Once more the Ogre-horn sang. The massive gates of the compound swung slowly open, and the golden Atan giants, running in perfect unison, swept into the imperial compound like an avalanche.
'I don't know how they did it, Sparhawk,' Caalador replied with a dark scowl. 'Krager himself hasn't been seen for days. He's a slippery one, isn't he?' Caalador had come in from the city and located Sparhawk on the parapet.
'That he is, my friend. What about the others? I wouldn't have thought that Elron could have managed something like that.'
'Neither would I. He was doing everything but wearing a sign reading "conspirator" on his forehead-all that swirling of his cape and exaggerated tip-toeing through back alleys.' Caalador shook his head. 'Anyway, he was staying in the house of a local Edomish nobleman. We know he was inside, because we watched him go in through the front door. We were watching every single door and window, so we know he didn't come back out, but he wasn't inside when we went to pick him up.'
There was a crash from a nearby palace as the Atans broke in the doors to get at the rebels hiding inside.
'Did your people check the house for hidden rooms or passages?' Sparhawk asked.
Calador shook his head. 'They stood the Edomish noble barefoot in a brazier of hot coals instead. It's faster that way. There was no place to hide in that house. I'm sorry, Sparhawk. We picked up all the second-raters without a hitch, but the leaders-' He spread his hands helplessly.
'Somebody was probably using magic. They've done it before.'
'Can you really do that sort of thing with magic?'
'I can't, but I'm sure Sephrenia knows the proper spells.'
Caalador looked out over the battlements. 'Well, at least we broke up this attack on the government. That's the main thing.'
'I'm not so sure,' Sparhawk disagreed.
'It was fairly important, Sparhawk. If they'd succeeded, all of Tamuli would have flown apart. As soon as the Atans finish mopping up, we'll be able to start questioning survivors-and those underlings we did manage to catch. They might be able to direct us to the important plotters.'
'I sort of doubt it. Krager's very good at this sort of thing. I think we'll find that the underlings don't actually have a lot of information. It's a shame. I really wanted to have a little talk with Krager.'
'You always get that tone of voice when you talk about him.' Caalador observed. 'Is there something personal between you two?'
'Oh, yes, and it goes back a long, long ways. I've missed any number of opportunities to kill him-usually because it wasn't convenient. I was usually too busy concentrating on the man who employed him, and that may have been a mistake. Krager always makes sure that he's got just enough information to make him too valuable to kill. The next time I come across him, I think I'll just ignore that.'
The Atans were efficiency personified as they rounded up the rebels. They offered the armed insurgents one opportunity to surrender each time they surrounded a group, and they didn't ask twice. By two hours past midnight, the imperial compound was quiet again. A few Atan patrols searched the grounds and buildings for any rebels who might have gone into hiding, but there was little in the way of significant activity.
Sparhawk was bone-tired. Though he had not physically participated in the suppression of the rebellion, the tension had exhausted him more than a two-hour battle might have. He stood on the parapet looking wearily down into the compound, watching without much interest as the grounds-keepers, who had been pressed into service for the unpleasant task, gingingly pulled the floating dead out of the moat.
'Why don't you go to bed, Sparhawk?' It was Khalad. His bare, heavy shoulders gleamed in the torchlight. His voice and appearance and brusque manner were so much like his father's that Sparhawk once again felt that brief, renewed pang of sorrow.
'I just want to be sure that there won't be any bodies left floating in the moat when my wife wakes up tomorrow morning. People who've been burned to death aren't very pretty.'
'I'll take care of that. Let's go to the bath-house. I'll help you out of your armour, and you can soak in a tub of hot water for a while.'
'I didn't really exert myself very much this evening, Khalad. I didn't even work up a sweat.'
'You don't have to. That smell's so ingrained into your armour that five minutes after you put it on, you smell as if you haven't bathed for a month.'
'It's one of the drawbacks of the profession. Are you sure you want to be a knight?'
'It wasn't my idea in the first place.'
'Maybe when this is all over, the world will settle down enough so that there won't be any need for armoured knights any more.'
'Of course, and maybe someday fish will fly too.'
'You're a cynic, Khalad.'
'What is he doing up there?' Khalad demanded irritably, looking up toward the towers soaring over the castle.
'Who's doing what where?'
'There's somebody up in the very top of that south tower. This is the fourth time I've caught a flicker of candle-light through that window.'
'Maybe Tynian or Bevier put one of their knights up there to keep watch,' Sparhawk shrugged.
'Without telling you? Or Lord Vanion?'
'If it worries you so much, let's go take a look.'
'You don't sound very concerned.'
'I'm not. This castle's absolutely secure, Khalad.'
'I'll go have a look after I get you ready for bed.'
'No, I'll go along.'
'I thought you were certain that the castle's secure.'
'It never hurts to be careful. I don't want to have to tell your mothers that I made a mistake and got you killed.'
They went down from the battlements, crossed the courtyard and went into the main building. There were loud snores coming from behind the bolted door of the main dining hall.
'I'd imagine that there are going to be some monumental headaches emerging from that room in the morning,'
Khalad laughed. 'We didn't force our guests to drink so much.'
'They'll accuse us of it, though.'
They started up the stairway that led to the top of the south tower. Although the main tower and the north tower had been constructed in the usual fashion with rooms stacked atop each other, the south tower was little more than a hollow shell with a wooden stairway rising up through a creaking scaffolding. The architect had evidently added this structure primarily for the purposes of symmetry. The single room in the entire tower was at the very top, a room floored with wooden beams roughly adzed square.
'I'm getting too old to be climbing stairs in full armour,' Sparhawk puffed when they were about halfway up.
'You're out of condition, Sparhawk,' Khalad told his lord bluntly. 'You're spending too much time on your backside talking about politics.'
'It's part of my job, Khalad.' They reached the door at the top of the stairs. 'You'd better let me go in first,' Sparhawk murmured, sliding his sword out of its scabbard. Then he reached out and pushed the door open.
A shabby-looking man sat at a wooden table in the centre of the room, his face lit by a single candle. Sparhawk knew him. The years of hard drinking had not been kind to Krager. His hair had thinned even more in the six or so years since Sparhawk had last seen him, and the puffy pouches under his eyes were even more pronounced. The eyes themselves, nearsighted and watery, were discoloured and seemed to be overlaid with a kind of yellow stain. The hand in which he held his wine-cup palsied, and a continual tic shuddered in his right cheek. Sparhawk moved without even stopping to think. He levelled his sword at Martel's threadbare former underling and lunged. There was no feeling of resistance as the sword plunged into Krager's chest and emerged from his back.
Krager flinched violently, and then he laughed in his rusty, drink-corroded voice. 'God, that's a startling experience!' he said conversationally. 'I could almost feel the blade running through me. Put your sword away, Sparhawk. You can't hurt me with it.'
Sparhawk pulled the sword out of Kragers substantial-appearing body and swept it back and forth through the man's head. 'Please don't do that, Sparhawk,' Krager said, closing his eyes. 'It's really very unnerving, you know.'
'My compliments to your magician, Krager,' Sparhawk said flatly. 'That's really a very convincing illusion. You look so real that I can almost smell you.'
'I see that we're going to be civilised about this,' Krager said, taking a drink of his wine. 'Good. You're growing up, Sparhawk. Ten years ago, you'd have chopped the room into kindling before you'd have finally been willing to listen to reason.'
'Magic?' Khalad asked Sparhawk.
Sparhawk nodded. 'And fairly sophisticated too. Actually Krager's sitting in a room a mile or more away from here. Someone's projecting his image into this tower. We can see him and hear him, but we can't touch him.'
'Pity,' Khalad murmured, fingering the hilt of his heavy dagger.
'You've really been very clever this time, Sparhawk,' Krager said. 'Age seems to be improving you-like a good wine.'
Domes of Fire Part 52
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Domes of Fire Part 52 summary
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