It has been twenty years since Prince Bifalt of Belleger discovered the Last Repository and the sorcerous knowledge hidden there. At the behest of the repository's magisters, and in return for the restoration of sorcery to both kingdoms, the realms of Belleger and Amika ceased generations of war. Their alliance was sealed with the marriage of Bifalt to Estie, the crown princess of Amika. But the peace--and their marriage--has been uneasy.
Now the terrible war that King Bifalt and Queen Estie feared is coming. An ancient enemy has discovered the location of the Last Repository, and a mighty horde of dark forces is massing to attack the library and take the magical knowledge it guards. That horde will slaughter every man, woman, and child in its path, destroying both Belleger and Amika along the way.
With their alliance undermined by lingering hostility and conspiracies threatening, it will take all of the monarchs' strength and will to inspire their kingdoms to become one to defend their land, or all is lost....
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Among Old Friends
In the mellow sunshine and cooling breezes of a gentle afternoon, Klamath rode without haste among the billowed hills of southwestern Belleger. He had always liked these rides. They pleased him. At heart, he was a man of fields and farms. He loved seeing Belleger at peace.
The purpose of his journey was another matter.
He had left the camps of the army outside the Open Hand two fortnights ago, wending first to the south, then gradually turning eastward, visiting villages, hamlets, and farmsteads as he went. In the early hours, the sun reached his eyes uncomfortably, but when it did, the broad brim of his slouch hat protected them. Now his shadow led him on his way; and he rode with his hat pushed back, enjoying the warmth and air on his face, the hints of cooling weather in the winds, the vistas around him.
This was sheep-grazing country, fertile enough for crops, and well fed with streams wandering through the shallow valleys, but too hilly for wheat or barley, millet or hay or sugar beets. The only signs of cultivation were occasional olive groves and vineyards. As a result, thickets of scrub oak and rhododendron grew wild, and flowers sprang up where they willed. But the soft slopes dipping here and there into wooded hollows or marshy swales were ideal for sheep. Animals almost ready for shearing wandered wherever their shepherds and dogs allowed them, cropping the sweet grasses in contentment.
From time to time, a distant shepherd hailed Klamath. More than once, he saw a sheepdog lose its head and chase a rabbit into a thicket. But he did not pause to speak with the shepherds or watch the dogs frighten their quarry. He was in no hurry, but he did not dally. He still had a long way to go. His manner and his gait may have been casual, but he took his duty seriously.
He had come far enough from the Open Hand and Belleger's Fist to see the Realm's Edge Mountains high on the horizon to the south. Even now, the tallest peaks remained wrapped in their cloaks of snow and ice, vestments white with dazzles when they struck reflections from the sun; and even the lower slopes were clotted with winter among their granite bluffs. The sight of them used to lift his heart whenever he rode this way. Now they made him uneasy. They held secrets he could not have imagined in earlier times.
Ever since Belleger's new army had begun to take shape, he had required these rides of himself every three years or so. Despite his new instructions from his King, and his more recent awareness of the dangers of the Realm's Edge, he still relished the ride itself. The beauty of the countryside, like the increasing health and prosperity of its people, and the open air in every kind of weather, refreshed his spirit. The effects of peace wherever he went-the growing families, the better farms, the new abundance of staples, fabrics, and tools supplied by the merchantries-touched him where he lived inside himself. And this was especially true since sorcery had been restored to the realm. The benefits of theurgy were everywhere. The weather could be wet or dry, according to the needs of the region. Diseases were rare: fires, rarer. Before his eyes, Belleger was recovering from its long war with Amika. The new vitality of his homeland made him glad.
Apart from his two mules and their diminishing burdens, he had no one with him. He wore the homespun shirt and trousers of a farmer. At need, he could wrap himself in a canvas rain-cape. Hats like his were worn by half the men in south Belleger, and by a good number of women. Even his saber was packed away. Only the rifle slung over his shoulder, and the satchel of ammunition at his saddle-horn, marked him as a soldier: only those things, and the high moccasins rising to midcalf that he had learned to wear during his time in the eastern desert with Prince Bifalt and Elgart, searching for the Last Repository. To any cursory glance, Klamath looked like a farmer riding to market, or returning home.
But he was not truly alone. He had an escort. Years ago, two men were enough. Now, at his King's command, he was guarded by a squad of ten. Oh, they stayed out of sight among the hills; even out of earshot. They camped without him, rode on without him. But his path and his stopping-places were well known to them, and they followed a parallel track. He could summon them with a shot. They would reach him in minutes.
The King of Belleger considered Klamath too valuable to lose.
His purpose was an awkward one. Often unpleasant. Sometimes cruel. Being too valuable to lose was not a status that Klamath had ever wanted. He considered himself a common man, despite his uncommon experiences. He belonged among other common men. Yet it was only his elevated status that allowed him to insist on rides like this when his King argued against them.
The halloo of a shepherd reached him from a far-off hillside. Dogs barked, seconding their master. Klamath waved to them and their flock, and rode on. He was nearing his next destination. Under other circumstances, he would have been eager to reach it. Now he could imagine the distress it would cause. But it was his duty, and he did not delay facing it.
After another league, he rounded a hill near its crest and came in sight of the place where he expected to spend the night. Below him lay a dell that cupped a flourishing copse of birch and sycamore beside a languid stream; and across the water stood the cottage he sought. Sunlight still held the tops of the trees. It gilded the tall chimneys of the house. The rest of the farmstead-the barn and sheep-pens, the cottage itself-lay in the spreading shadow of the hill.
It was a welcome sight. The cottage was unharmed. Under its meticulously thatched roof and the high peak of its rooftree, its walls were snug and sturdy. The windows on all sides had only sheets of canvas for shutters, but they were open to catch the softer evening air. The smoke curling from the kitchen chimney became spun gold in the light of the setting sun; and when the breeze brought the smoke to Klamath, he smelled clean wood and mutton.
In the south, the flock he had noticed a short time ago was coming closer, herded homeward by its sheepdogs. Now he recognized the shepherd. And as he started down into the dell, a child who may have been playing or hiding or doing chores among a cluster of bushes beside the stream stood up and looked in his direction. Then the child gave a squeal and ran for the cottage.
A young girl, Klamath saw. Knowing the family, he did not have to search his memory for her name. It was Mattilda. And she did not sound frightened. She sounded excited, announcing a visitor. A visitor her parents had learned to expect in this season every third year.
Trotting down the slope, Klamath smiled as an anxiety left him. The family here was one of his favorites. He did not think that they were close enough to the Realm's Edge to be in danger. Being who he was, however, he had feared they were. That fear did not leave him entirely now. He knew too little about the secrets hiding in the mountains. But for one night, at least, he could let himself relax.
His visits here were always awkward. This one would be more than unpleasant. But despite his gentle disposition, he was a veteran of Belleger's battles with Amika. He knew killing and savage sorcery. He did not shy away from unpleasantness and hurt.
As he made his descent, a woman came out onto the porch. Stout and strong. Flaxen hair raddled with grey, just like her husband's. Hands and forearms red from washing dishes or cooking. She did not smile when she recognized Klamath; but he did not expect that. Her wave was welcome enough.
"Matta!" he called in answer. "My blessing on this house, and the King's as well! You are a sight to make a weary man glad."
Her reply was a scowl, but she did not turn her back.
In a moment, her husband, Matt, joined her on the porch. He was a tall man, upright and solid, with a frame made for heavy lifting and sturdy construction. The sun had baked his face bronze. His hair and beard were the same mixed hues as his wife's, showing his years. But his eyes were an unclouded blue, while hers were a stormy grey.
His daughter, seven-year-old Mattilda, the youngest child, accompanied him. She stood close beside him, staring at their visitor with wide eyes. He rested one broad hand on her head as if she needed his protection, although of course she did not.
"Matt," said Klamath with pleasure. "You look well. And your home"-he glanced around the front of the cottage-"looks strong enough to withstand the Decimate of earthquake. The King will be relieved to hear it."
"Klamath." Matt did not smile. His smiles were rare. But when they came, they lifted his face like a new day. "Be welcome in our house. While you stay, it is yours."
Sternly, Matta corrected him. "General Klamath. He commands an army now." Her gaze held Klamath's like a challenge. "He may have a hundred men nearby at this moment."
Klamath did not look away. If he did, she would distrust him. "Now, Matta," he said kindly, "you know better. I am Klamath, nothing more. A title is only as good as its power to command. No one here has ever obeyed a command of mine. And you know as well as I do, your husband has never obeyed any command since he was released from the King's guard. Nineteen years ago now, that was. When Belleger and Amika finally found peace."
"When King Bifalt married Queen Estie," piped up Mattilda, eager to show what she understood.
At the same time, Matta objected, "But you took-"
Matt silenced her by putting his other arm around her shoulders. "Now, Matta." He almost smiled. "Mattwil left by his own choice. No one took him. And Klamath is more than our guest. He is an old friend. We know why he visits us. He does it because he must. But if we treat him well, he may give us the news of the realm. He may even give us news of our eldest."
Still scowling, Matta forced an unconvincing smile. "Then be welcome, Klamath, general or not. Our home is yours. Mattin is out with the sheep. He will return at sunset. But Mattson does chores in the barn. He will settle your animals. When you come into the house"-she wrinkled her nose-"and wash, you and Matt can tell old war stories while I do what I can to ready a meal."
Klamath was slow to answer. He was remembering the last time he had tried to convince King Bifalt that he was the wrong man to command the combined armies of Belleger and Amika. With his usual curtness, his air of suppressed impatience, the King had replied, No one who wants command should be allowed to have it. Then he had added, I will not command them. I am not trusted.
He may have meant, Not trusted by the Amikans. Or by the Magisters of the Last Repository. Or even by Queen Estie. But Klamath suspected he meant that he did not trust himself.
To cover his lapse of attention, Klamath swung down from his mount. Smiling as well as he could with King Bifalt on his mind, he replied, "I remember your cooking, Matta. You will give us a feast."
Then he turned away, leading his horse and his trailing mules to the barn.
Most of his memories of his King troubled him. Something deep inside King Bifalt had been changed by his time in the great library. Klamath had heard the tales, but he did not understand them. Prince Bifalt would not have hesitated to command any army.
Klamath spent a few minutes chatting with Mattson, Matt and MattaÕs third child, now around twelve years old. Klamath understood the similarity of the names. After the long depredations of the war, Matt and his wife had sought to renew or reinvent their sense of family by giving their children names that belonged together, names like their own. For a boy his age, Mattson asked piercing questions; but Klamath gave them inconsequential answers. The time would come when he would have to confess the truth about his visit, although Matt and Matta understood it already. But Klamath was in no hurry to arrive at that moment. As soon as he could without being rude, he left his animals with Mattson and went to the cottage.
When he crossed the porch and opened the door, he saw-as he had seen before-that the front room was more spacious than it appeared from outside. It reached from wall to wall, with the kitchen at one end to his left, a cluster of chairs and stools near the hearth on his right, and a large table for dining in the middle. Doorways in the back led to the bedrooms.
Matta was in the kitchen, working. With Mattilda beside him, Matt sat in a chair at the dining table instead of near the low flames wavering in the hearth. With summer lingering in the air, no one needed the hearth for warmth. But Klamath did not greet them, or walk into the room. He knew better.
Inside the door stood a washstand, soap, small towels, and a jug of water. Matta was imperious about cleanliness. Smiling for her sake as much as for his own pleasure, he leaned his rifle and ammunition against the wall, stripped off his shirt, and made himself presentable with liberal amounts of soap and water.
From her place by the stove, Matta scowled at his gun and bullets. While she watched him wash, however, her expression softened into a frown. He would have liked to think that she felt compassion at the sight of his various scars. But they were old now, faded, practically invisible. No doubt she was simply gratified by his respect for her wishes.
He did not need her to tell him that she would never forgive him for the departure of her eldest son.
As soon as Klamath finished washing, while he was buttoning his shirt, Matt waved him to a seat at the table. "Sit, old friend. You have had a long day in the saddle. Be comfortable."
Klamath murmured his thanks. So that Matta could watch his face while he talked with Matt, he sank into a chair at the end of the table.