Domes of Fire Part 53

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'You're the expert on that, Krager.'

'Petty, Sparhawk. Very petty.' Krager smirked. 'Before you engage in an orgy of self-congratulation, though, you ought to know that this was just another of those tests a friend of mine mentioned to you a while back. I told my associates all about you, but they wanted to see for themselves. We arranged a few entertainments for you so that you could demonstrate your prowess and your limitations. The catapults definitely confused the Cyrgai, and your mounted tactics against the Trolls were almost brilliant. You also did remarkably well in an urban setting here in Matherion. You really surprised me on that score, Sparhawk. You caught on to our sign and counter-sign much faster than I'd thought you would, and you intercepted the message about the warehouse in a remarkably short period of time. That Dacite merchant only had to walk through town three times before your spy stole the note from him. I'd have expected you to fail miserably when faced with a conspiracy instead of an army in the field. My congratulations.'

'You've been drinking for too many years, Krager. Your memory's starting to slip. You're forgetting what happened in Chyrellos during the election. As I recall, we countered just about every one of the schemes Martel and Annias cooked up there as well.'

'That wasn't really a very great accomplishment, Sparhawk. Martel and Annias weren't really very challenging opponents. I tried to tell them that their plots weren't sophisticated enough, but they wouldn't listen. Martel was too busy thinking about the treasure-rooms under the Basilica, and Annias was so blinded by the Archprelate's mitre that he couldn't see anything else. You really missed your chance there, Sparhawk. I've always been your most serious opponent. You had me right in your hands, and you let me go just for the sake of a few crumbs of information and some exaggerated testimony before the Hierocracy. Very poor thinking there, old boy.'

'This evening's festivities weren't really designed to succeed then, I gather?'



'Of course not, Sparhawk. If we'd really wanted to take Matherion, we'd have brought in whole armies.'

'I'm sure there's a point to all this,' Sparhawk said to the illusion. 'Do you suppose we could step right along? I've had a tiring day.'

'The tests have all been designed to oblige you to commit your resources, Sparhawk. We needed to know what kinds of responses you had at your command.'

'You haven't seen them all yet, Krager-not by half.'

'Khalad, isn't it?' Krager said to Sparhawk's squire. 'Tell your master that he should practise a bit more before he tries lying. He's really not very convincing. Oh, convey my regards to your mother. She and I always got on well.'

'I sort of doubt that,' Khalad replied.

'Be realistic, Sparhawk,' Krager went on. 'Your wife and daughter are here. Do you really expect me to believe that you'd hold anything back if you thought they were in danger?'

'We used what was necessary, Krager. You don't have to send out a whole regiment to step on a bug.'

'You're so much like Martel was, Sparhawk,' Krager observed. 'You two could almost have been brothers. I used to despair of ever nursing him through his adolescence. He was a hopeless innocent when he started out, you know. About all he had was a towering resentment directed primarily at you and Vanion-and at Sephrenia, of course, although to a lesser degree. I had to raise him from virtual infancy. God, the hours I spent patiently grinding away all those knightly virtues.'

'Reminisce on your own time, Krager. Get to the point. Martel's history now. This is a new situation, and he's not around any more.'

'Just renewing our acquaintance, Sparhawk. You know, "the good old days" and all that. I've found a new employer, obviously.'

'I gathered as much.'

'When I was working for Martel, I had very little direct contact with Otha and almost none with Azash Himself. That situation might have had an entirely different outcome if I'd had direct access to the Zemoch God. Martel was obsessed with revenge, and Otha was too sunk in his own debauchery for either of them to think clearly. They were giving Azash very poor advice as a result of their own limitations. I could have given him a much more realistic assessment of the situation.'

'Provided you were ever sober enough to talk.'

'That's beneath you, Sparhawk. Oh, I'll admit that I take a drink now and then, but never so much that I lose sight of the main goals. Actually, it turned out better for me in the long run. If I'd been the one advising Azash, He'd have beaten you. Then I'd have been inextricably involved with Him, and I'd have been destroyed when He confronted Cyrgon-that's my new employer's name, by the way. You've heard of Him, I suppose?'

'A few times.' Sparhawk forced himself to sound casual.

'Good. That saves us a lot of time. Pay attention now, Sparhawk. We're getting to the significant part of this little chat. Cyrgon wants you to go home. Your presence here on the Daresian continent is an inconvenience nothing more, really. just an inconvenience. If you had Bhelliom in your pocket, we might take you seriously, but you don't-and so we don't. You're all alone here, my old friend. You don't have the Bhelliom, and you don't have the Church Knights. You've only got the remnants of Ehlana's honour guard and a hundred of those mounted apes from Pelosia. You're hardly worth even noticing. If you go home, Cyrgon will give you His pledge not to move against the Eosian continent for a hundred years. You'll be long dead by then, and so will everybody you care about. It's not really a bad offer, you know. You get yourself a hundred years of peace just by getting on a ship and going back to Cimmura.'

'And if I don't?'

'We'll kill you-after we've killed your wife and your daughter and everybody else in the whole world you care about. There's another possibility, of course. You could join us. Cyrgon could see to it that you lived longer than even Otha did. He specifically told me to make you that offer.'

'Thank Him for me-if you ever see Him again.'

'You're declining, I gather?'

'Obviously. I haven't seen nearly as much of Daresia as I want to see, so I think I'll stay for a while, and I'm sure I wouldn't care for the company of you and Cyrgon's other hirelings.'

'I told Cyrgon you'd take that position, but He insisted that I make the offer.'

'If he's so all-powerful, why's He trying to bribe me?'

'Out of respect, Sparhawk. Can you believe that? He respects you because you're Anakha. The whole concept baffles Him, and He's intrigued by it. I honestly believe He'd like to get to know you. You know how childish Gods can be at times.'

'Speaking of Gods, what's behind this alliance He's made with the Troll-Gods?' Then Sparhawk thought of something. 'Never mind, Krager, I've just worked it out for myself. A God's power is dependent on the number of worshippers he has. The Cyrgai are extinct, so Cyrgon's no more than a squeaky little voice making hollow pronouncements in a ruin somewhere in central Cynesga-all noise and no substance.'

'Someone's been telling you fairy-tales, Sparhawk. The Cyrgai are far from extinct-as you'll find out to your sorrow if you stay in Tamuli. Cyrgon made the alliance with the Troll-Gods in order to bring the Trolls to Daresia. Your Atans are very impressive, but they're no match for Trolls. Cyrgon's very sentimental about His chosen people. He'd rather not lose them needlessly in skirmishes with a race of freaks, so He made an arrangement with the Troll-Gods. The Trolls will get the pleasure of killing-and eating-the Atans.' Krager drained the rest of his wine.

'This is starting to bore me, Sparhawk, and my cup's gone empty. I told Cyrgon I'd present you with His offer. He's giving you the chance to live out the rest of your life in peace. I'd advise you to take it. He won't make the offer again. Really, old boy, why should you care what happens to the Tamuls? They're nothing but yellow monkeys, after all.'

'Church policy, Krager. Our Holy Mother takes the long view. Tell Cyrgon to take His offer and stick it up His nose. I'm staying.'

'It's your funeral, Sparhawk,' Krager laughed. 'I might even send flowers. I've had all the entertainment of knowing a pair of anachronisms-you and Martel. I'll drink to your memories from time to time-if I remember you at all.' And then the illusion of the shabby scoundrel vanished.

'So that's Krager,' Khalad said in a chill tone. 'I'm glad I got the chance to meet him.'

'What exactly have you got in mind, Khalad?'

'I thought I might kill him just a little bit. Fair's fair, Sparhawk. You got Martel, Talen got Adus, so Krager's mine.'

'Sounds fair to me,' Sparhawk agreed.

'Was he drunk?' Kalten asked.

'Krager's always a little drunk,' Sparhawk replied. 'He wasn't so far gone that he got careless, though.' He looked around. 'Would everybody like to say "I told you so" right here and now?' he asked them. 'Let's have it out of the way right at the start, so I don't have it hanging over my head. Yes, it probably would have been more convenient if I'd killed him the last time I saw him, but if we hadn't had his testimony to the Hierocracy at the time of the election, Dolmant probably wouldn't be the Archprelate right now.'

'I might be able to learn to live with that,' Ehlana murmured.

'Be nice,' Emban told her.

'Only joking, your Grace.'

'Are you sure you repeated what he said verbatim?' Sephrenia asked Sparhawk.

'It was very close, little mother,' Khalad assured her.

She frowned. 'It was contrived. I'm sure you all realise that. Krager didn't really tell us anything we didn't already know-or could have guessed.'

'The name Cyrgon hadn't come up before, Sephrenia,' Vanion disagreed.

'And it may very well never come up again,' she replied. 'I'd need a lot more than Krager's unsubstantiated word before I'll believe that Cyrgon's involved.'

'Well, somebody's involved,' Tynian noted. 'Somebody had to be impressive enough to get the attention of the Troll-Gods, and Krager doesn't quite fit that description.'

'Not to mention the fact that Krager can't even pronounce "magic", much less use it,' Kalten added. 'Could just any Styric have cast that spell, little mother?'

Sephrenia shook her head. 'It's very difficult,' she conceded. 'If it hadn't been done exactly right, Sparhawk's sword would have gone right through the real Krager. Sparhawk would have started the thrust in that room up in the tower, and it would have finished up in a room a mile away sliding through Krager's heart.'

'All right then,' Emban said, pacing up and down the room with his pudgy hands clasped behind his back. 'Now we know that this so-called uprising tonight wasn't intended seriously.'

Sparhawk shook his head. 'No, your Grace, we don't know that for certain. Regardless of what he says, Krager learned much of his style from Martel, and trying to shrug a failure off by pretending that the scheme wasn't really serious in the first place is exactly the sort of thing Martel would have done.'

'You knew him better than I did,' Emban shrugged. 'Can we really be sure that Krager and the others are working for a God-Cyrgon or maybe some other one?'

'Not really, Emban,' Sephrenia replied. 'The Troll-Gods are involved, and they could be doing the things we've encountered that are beyond the capability of a human magician. There's a sorcerer out there, certainly, but we can't be certain that there's a God-other than the Troll-Gods involved as well.'

'But it could be a God, couldn't it?' Emban pressed.

'Anything's possible, your Grace,' she shrugged.

'That's what I needed to know,' the fat little churchman said. 'It rather looks as if I'm going to have to make a flying trip back to Chyrellos.'

'That went by me a little fast, your Grace,' Kalten confessed.

'We're going to need the Church Knights, Kalten,' Emban said. 'All of them.'

'They're committed to Render, your Grace,' Bevier reminded him.

'Render can wait.'

'The Archprelate may feel differently about that, Emban,' Vanion told him. 'Reconciliation with the Renders has been one of our Holy Mother's goals for over half a millennium now.'

'She's patient. She'll wait. She's going to have to wait. This is a crisis, Vanion.'

'I'll go with you, your Grace,' Tynian said. 'I won't be of much use here in Tamuli until my shoulder heals anyway, and I'll be able to clarify the military situation to Sarathi much better than you will. Dolmant's had Pandion training, so he'll understand military terminology. Right now we're standing out in the open with our breeches down-begging your Majesty's pardon for the crudity of that expression,' he apologised to Ehlana.

'It's an interesting metaphor, Sir Tynian,' she smiled, 'and it conjures up an absolutely enthralling image.'

'I'll agree with the Patriarch of Ucera,' Tynian went on. 'We definitely have to have the Church Knights here in Tamuli. If we don't get them here in a hurry, this whole situation's going to crumble right in our hands.'

'I'll send word to Tikume,' Kring volunteered. 'He'll send us several thousand mounted Peloi. We don't wear armour or use magic, but we know how to fight.'

'Will you be able to hold out here until the Church Knights arrive, Vanion?' Emban asked.

'Talk to Sparhawk, Emban. He's in charge.

'I wish you wouldn't keep doing that, Vanion,' Sparhawk objected. He thought for a moment. 'Atan Engessa,' he said then, 'how hard was it to persuade your warriors that it's not really unnatural to fight on horseback? Can we persuade any more of them?'

'When I tell them that this Krager-drunkard called them a race of freaks, they'll listen to me, SparhawkKnight.'

'Good. Krager may have helped us more than he thought then. Are you convinced that it's best to attack Trolls with warhorses and lances, my friend?'

'It was most effective, Sparhawk-Knight. We haven't encountered the Troll-beasts before. They're bigger than we are. That may be difficult for my people to accept, but once they do, they'll be willing to try horses if you can find enough of those big ones.'

'Did Krager happen to make any references to the fact that we've been using thieves and beggars as our eyes and ears?' Stragen asked.

'Not in so many words, Milord,' Khalad replied.

'That puts an unknown into our equation then,' Stragen mused.

'Please don't do that, Stragen,' Kalten pleaded. 'I absolutely hate mathematics.'

'Sorry. We don't know for certain whether Krager's aware that we've been using the criminals of Matherion as spies. If he is aware of it, he could use it to feed us false information.'

'That spell they used sort of hints that they know, Stragen,' Caalador noted. 'That explains how it was that we saw the leaders of the conspiracy go into a house and never come out. They used illusions. They wouldn't have done that if they hadn't known we were watching.'

Stragen stuck out his hand and wobbled it from side to side a bit dubiously. 'It's not set in stone yet, Caalador,' he said. 'He may not know just exactly how well-organised we are.'

Bevier's expression was profoundly disgusted. 'We've been had, my friends,' he said. 'This was all an elaborate ruse-armies from the past, resurrected heroes, vampires and ghouls-all of it. It was a trick with no other purpose than to get us to come here without the entire body of the Church Knights at our backs.'

'Then why have they turned round and told us to go home, Sir Bevier?' Talen asked him.

'Maybe they found out that we were a little more effective than they thought we'd be,' Ulath rumbled. 'I don't think they really expected us to break up that Cyrgai assault or exterminate a hundred Trolls or break the back of this coup-attempt the way we did. It's altogether possible that we surprised them and even upset them more than a little. Krager's visit could have been sheer bravado, you know. We might not want to get over-confident, but I don't think we should get under-confident either. We're professionals, after all, and we've won every encounter so far. Let's not give up the game and run away just because of a few windy threats by a known drunkard.'

'Well said,' Tynian murmured.

'We don't have any choice, Aphrael,' Sparhawk told his daughter later when they were alone with Sephrenia and Vanion in a small room several floors above the royal apartments. 'It's going to take Emban and Tynian at least three months to get back to Chyrellos and then nine months for the Church Knights to come overland to Daresia. Even then, they'll still be present only in the western kingdoms.'

'Why can't they come by boat?' The princess sounded a bit sulky, and she was holding Rollo tightly to her chest.

'There are a hundred thousand Church Knights, Aphrael,' Vanion reminded her, 'twenty-five thousand in each of the four orders. I don't think there are enough ships in the world to transport that many men and horses. We can bring in some, ten thousand perhaps, by ship, but the bulk of them will have to come overland. We won't be able to count on even that ten thousand for at least six months-the time it's going to take Emban and Tynian to reach Chyrellos and then come back by ship with the knights and their horses. Until they arrive, we're all alone here.'

'With your breeches down,' she added.

'Watch your tongue, young lady,' Sparhawk scolded her.

She shrugged that off. 'My instincts all tell me that it's a very bad idea,' she told them. 'I went to a lot of trouble to find a safe place for Bhelliom, and the first time there's a little rain-shower, you all want to run to retrieve it. Are you sure you're not exaggerating the danger? Ulath might have been right, you know. Everything Krager said to you could have been sheer bluster. I still think you can handle it without Bhelliom.'

'I disagree,' Sephrenia told her. 'I know Elenes better than you do, Aphrael. It's not in their nature to exaggerate dangers. Quite the reverse, actually.'

'The whole point here is that your mother may be in danger,' Sparhawk told his daughter. 'Until Tynian and Emban bring the Church Knights to Tamuli, we're seriously over-matched. Even as stupid as they are, it was only the Bhelliom that gave us any advantage over the Troll-Gods last time. You couldn't even deal with them, as I recall.'

'That's a hateful thing to say, Sparhawk,' she flared.

'I'm just trying to get you to look at this realistically, Aphrael. Without the Bhelliom, we're all in serious danger here-and I'm not just talking about your mother and all our friends. If Krager was telling the truth and we are matched up against Cyrgon, He's at least as dangerous as Azash was.'

'Are you sure all of these flimsy excuses aren't coming into your head because you want to get your hands on Bhelliom again, Sparhawk?' she asked him. 'Nobody's really immune to its seduction, you know. There's a great deal of satisfaction to be had in wielding unlimited power.'

'You know me better than that, Aphrael,' he said reproachfully. 'I don't go out of my way looking for power.'

'If it is Cyrgon, His first step would be to exterminate the Styrics, you know,' Sephrenia reminded the little Goddess. 'He hates us for what we did to His Cyrgai.'

'Why are you all joining forces to bully me?' Aphrael demanded.

Domes of Fire Part 53

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Domes of Fire Part 53 summary

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