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Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley

Darkover: First Contact (76 page)

BOOK: Darkover: First Contact
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He said, and knew that his voice was shaking with the emotion he could no longer pretend not to feel, “Welcome to Asturias, cousin. It is a sad welcome indeed, and based on a bereavement—my father and brother are not yet at rest, but lie unburied until there is some order in this kingdom. We are under attack from Aldaran, and I find myself, undesired, on a throne I do not know how to fill. But although it is a poor welcome, I am glad to have you here—” and his voice broke. He stopped, knowing he would break down and weep in the sight of them all if he did not. He felt Geremy’s hand, hard, over his.
“Would that I could bring you some comfort—foster brother,” Geremy said, and Bard swallowed hard. “I grieve deeply for your bereavement. I did not know Dom Rafael well, but I knew Alaric and loved him, and he was overyoung to be torn so swiftly out of life. But even in this hour of sorrow we must care for the living. Varzil has told me news which I believe you have not yet heard. Varzil, kinsman, tell Bard what your sentry birds have seen.”
“Aldaran has joined this war,” Varzil said. “We knew from Master Gareth, last night, and his
leroni,
that they had sent the sorcery which broke the castle walls. Now there is an army on the march from the Darriell forest, and he is allied with Scathfell and other little kingdoms to the north. They are still many days north of the Kadarin, but I believe they think they will take you in chaos and bereavement. But I have later news still. Tramontana has sworn neutrality; they will make no more
laran
weapons. And they are the last of the Towers to swear, for Arilinn has so sworn to the Hasturs.”
“So,” Geremy said, “the martyrs at Hali died to some purpose, then. For now there is no single Tower in this land which will manufacture clingfire, or bonewater dust, or the blight which has attacked the Venza hills. I came to ask Dom Rafael, not knowing of his death—I came to ask him, for a second time, to swear Compact, and join with me and my
leroni,
if only to disable the stocks of
laran
weapons which remain. We have sworn not to use them, but we can defend ourselves against them.”
Bard considered this, silently, staring at the fallen wing of the castle. Aldaran had come against him with
laran,
and how did they know what he had left in his arsenal? At last he said, “I would gladly do so, Geremy. When there is peace again in this land, I will swear to Compact, and woe to any man who breaks it, and the
leroni
may go back to telling fortunes for lovesick maidens and telling breeding women whether they will bear sons or daughters, or to healing the sick and sending relay messages faster than an express rider. But while the land is at war, I dare not. I must put my army on the road within three days if I am to stop Aldaran and hold him on his own side of the Kadarin!”
“For that, I offer you an alliance,” Geremy said. “I am empowered by Carolin to send his men beside you against Aldaran. He is welcome to reign across the Kadarin, but we do not want him in the Hundred Kingdoms.”
“I will accept Carolin’s help gratefully,” Bard said. “But I cannot swear to Compact until I have put my kingdom in order. And I will swear an alliance with the Hasturs.” He knew, as he spoke, that he was tearing down, in a few words, all that his father had fought to do. But it had been his father’s ambition, not his own. He would rule, but he had no further desire to conquer. Let those who owned and ruled over the land possess it in peace. He had enough trouble with a kingdom; he shuddered at the thought of ruling over an empire. He was only one man; he had set his dark twin free.
Geremy sighed. “I had hoped you were ready for Compact, Bard, now you have seen what the lack of it has done to this land. And it is worse in Hastur country. Have you seen the children being born in the Venza hills and near Carcosa?”
Bard shook his head. “I said, Geremy, we will talk of it again when Aldaran is resigned to staying on his own side of the Kadarin. And now, if you please, I have to set my army ready for the march.” Who would rule while he was with the army? Could he trust Carlina to reign as his regent? Could he induce Varzil to stay at his court and see all things done well? How could he decide? He smiled grimly, thinking that once again he needed to be in two places at once, on his throne here, and with his army on the march! Would the army follow Paul? Should he put it into his hands of one of his father’s experienced veteran commanders?
He summoned four or five of his father’s men, veteran commanders, and talked with them for a considerable time about the deployment of the army. He stepped briefly into the Great Hall to move for a few minutes among the wounded men there. The army had organized plenty of orderlies, and the women were being tended by every woman in the castle who was not busy elsewhere. He recognized Lady Jerana’s own personal maid, and realized even she must be dressing herself this morning.
He had had no glimpse of Melora; where had she gone? He hungered to have a sight of her, although till this tangle with Carlina should be settled, he knew he could not say a word to her about what was in his heart. Master Gareth came toward him, and he asked, “What is doing, my old friend? Are there enough
leroni
to maintain the shield of the castle?”
“We’re trying, sir,” Master Gareth said, “although I don’t know how long we can keep it up, and I’d take it kindly if you’d ask Lord Geremy Hastur to lend you his sorcerers too.”
“I’ll do that, or you may ask him yourself.”
“Ah, but the request would mean more from you, sir.”
“And what of Mistress Melora? The Lord Varzil lent her to you last night to care for the sick—”
“She’s leaving that to the Mother Liriel, the priestess, you know, this morning,” said Master Gareth. Bard, in a split-second flash of insight, realized that Carlina, Mother Liriel as she was now calling herself, had no more wish to recognize that lapsed marriage contract and handfasting than he did. Was he truly free? He and Carlina must talk together, have it clear and understood, but his spirits lifted, even as Master Gareth said, “I sent Melora to fly her sentry birds; she’s the best at handling them that I ever knew. She sent me to tell you there’s a great column of priestesses on the road from the Island of Silence, and they’re being escorted by riders in red.”
“So the Sisterhood of the Sword has done as they said—” Bard began, but at that very moment Melora appeared at the back of the lawn, waving her arms and calling frantically, distraught.
Bard ran toward her, Master Gareth puffing behind on his elderly legs.
“What is it, Melora?”
“Send for Varzil! Oh, in the name of all the gods, send for Dom Varzil,” she cried out. “Rory, who has the Sight, has seen for us! The
laran
shield had remained in place, but there are air-cars heading this way, and we have now no defenses against them! Get the army to it—we must get the wounded into the open air before the roof falls in on them!”
Master Gareth’s face paled, but his voice was severe.
“Nothing can be gained by panic, Melora—you can reach Varzil easier than I!”
Melora’s face went still and remote. Bard, falling into swift rapport with her, heard her soundless cry to Varzil, and within seconds he saw not Varzil alone but Geremy, on unsteady feet, hurrying toward them.
“Bard,” Geremy snapped, “you haven’t enough
laran
to be any good at this, not yet—you attend to getting the wounded out of the hall, in case we can’t stop them!”
It did not occur to Bard that Geremy, who was not even in his own kingdom, was giving orders to the reigning king. What Geremy said seemed so completely rational that he hurried to obey. As he ran he beckoned to a guardsman.
“Find me Paolo Harryl and the Lady Melisendra!” And then, with his new
laran,
he wondered if he could use his closeness to either of them. He had always been in contact with Paul’s mind. And this was a time when he needed to be in two places at once!
Paul! Get enough men up here to carry the wounded out safely!
From a corner of his eye he saw Melora and Geremy, Master Gareth and Varzil of Neskaya, hands linked, incongruously looking as if they were about to join in a ring and dance one of the children’s dances! But even Bard, newly opened to
laran,
could see the psychic force, an almost tangible barrier building around them. Then he hurried inside the hall and started giving orders to the soldiers.
“Everybody who can walk, get outside, and as far away from the buildings as you can! Orderlies, help the people who can walk with a little help! We’ve had warning, we may be fire-bombed! Get everybody outside!” he commanded. “We’ll have all the stretchers we need, pretty soon—don’t panic, anybody, we’ll get you out!” He could feel the fear like a visible miasma, and he raised his voice. “Walk, I said, don’t run! I’ll court-martial anyone who falls over another hurt man! Take it easy, we’ve had plenty of warning!” He stepped into the other room. “Carlie—Mother Liriel, have the ones who can walk help the ones who can’t, we’ll get stretchers up here soon!”
Carlina spoke softly to the women, and Bard saw, within minutes, orderly rescue being made. Paul had arrived, leading a whole squadron of stretcher-bearers. He stopped beside the stretcher of one of the women who lay with her newborn child in her arms.
“Ah, this is one of my new subjects? Well, mother, don’t worry, she’s a fine child, and she’s going to be safe, believe me,” he said, and passed on, hearing the murmur behind him.
“That’s the
king!

“Don’t be silly,” said another woman on the next stretcher, “The king wouldn’t come down here, that’s the paxman of his, the one who looks so much like him.”
“Well, whether it was or not,” said the first one, “he spoke to me kindly, and I’m going to call the girl Fianna, after him. And the king’s paxman is as good as the king, anyhow!”
Bard was supervising the last of the stretcher cases, stopping here and there to speak to a veteran he recognized, a courtier friend of his father’s, a servant he had known for many years. Not all of them remembered to call him Sire, or Your Majesty, and he was just as glad. There would be time enough for formality in the years to come, and he was proud of being the Kilghard Wolf. And if it eased the terror of an ancient servant to call him Master Bard, it couldn’t diminish him any, he supposed.
“Are they all out?”
“All but the old woman in the corner there. I’m afraid if we move her, she’ll die,” Carlina said, hesitating, “and I don’t want to send four men with a stretcher—” She was white with fear, and he remembered that Carlina too had
laran,
and perhaps a touch of foresight. At that moment there was a strange droning sound, and a cry from the circle of
leroni
standing hands joined in the garden. Bard ran into the corner of the Great Hall and bent over the old woman. She stared up at him, her face gray with fear and pain.
“You get out, son, I’m done for.”
“Nonsense, granny,” Bard said, bending over her, and scooped her up in his arms. “Can you put your arm around my neck? There you are—come on, let’s get out of here!” As he ran he suddenly remembered that Carlina had feared to move the old woman even on a stretcher, for fear she might die if she was moved. Well, she would certainly die if he left her there and the roof fell in on her! He ran, stumbling, into the air, and as he came out on the lawn there was a tremendous concussion, a blast of air struck him and he stumbled and fell heavily atop the old woman, feeling that his ears would burst with the noise.
When he knew what was happening, Paul and one of his guardsmen were picking him up, and the old woman, still miraculously breathing, was taken gently from his arms and lain on a stretcher.
One of the remaining wings of the castle sprouted a tall, graceful plume of dust and collapsed with a roar. Bard, who had himself given the order to have all fires extinguished, even cooking fire, saw with relief that there was no flame rising. There was another explosion and another, and a stable collapsed, but the army under Paul had been working; the horses were all outside by now. There was another explosion, and screams followed; it had landed in the very center of a little cluster of soldiers around the wounded men, and Bard, looking, sickened, saw arms and legs flying, and writhing, shrieking bodies.
Overhead the droning noise grew louder. Then a blue light shot up from the clustered
leroni
under the trees, and suddenly, with a roar as of a thunderclap, an air-car fell out of the sky, dropping like a stone. It fell into the orchard, landing in an apple tree from which flames suddenly sprouted sky-tall.
“Buckets!” bellowed one of Bard’s commanders. “Get that fire there!”
A dozen men went running in the direction of the fire.
Another blue light; and another air-car went down in flames, this one striking harmlessly on a rocky peak and tumbling over and over until it came to rest in shattered fragments. Another soared over the main turret of the castle, dropping small, harmless-looking eggs as it came, which split asunder as they dropped.
“Zandru’s hells!” Bard yelled. “Clingfire!” And indeed, as they struck, fire was shooting up from the very rock walls of the castle. The hellish stuff, Bard remembered, would burn
anything,
even rock, and go on burning and burning. . . .
So Alaric, and his father, would have a funeral pyre.
The last of the air-cars exploded in a rattling roar and fell out of the sky, but Bard saw Melora break away and run directly toward the castle. Was she mad? He had tried so hard to get everyone
out
of there—what was she doing?
Paul, working with the guardsmen to clear away burning debris from the stables, suddenly heard Melisendra cry out, as if with his physical ears. Gods above, had contact with Bard made him able to reach out that way too? He could see her, clearly, hurrying up those back stairs from the garden where he had first seen her, and heard her thoughts, panicking.
Erlend! Erlend! He was up late last night, running errands for the
leroni,
he still sleeps in his room! Oh, Merciful Avarra, Erlend!
BOOK: Darkover: First Contact
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