In which fear takes on an added dimension
When Kai regained consciousness, he found he was sitting on a cold stone floor and leaning against a cold stone wall. It was probably the pungent aroma assailing his nostrils that had brought him round. He wished it hadn't - on both counts. The great bell inside his head was clanging sonorously and the pain in his side had doubled. His arms, held high above his head, ached abominably. He tried to move them and a dull clanking told him why he couldn't.
"Oh no," he groaned, "not again "
He became aware that the stark coldness seeping into his body was due in large part to the fact that he was wearing nothing save his undershirt of fine white lawn. He groaned again.
A voice, soft and evil and horribly familiar, said, "So, my friend, you are awake at last."
A deadlier chill trickled through Kai's body.
"Vash'târik!" he breathed, with deep foreboding.
He raised his head and looked up into the cruel mocking face of Zervan's son.
"You don't know how much I've looked forward to this moment, dear Caspar," he drawled. His voice had an unpleasantly hard edge to it. If Kai didn't know, he could imagine very well.
He glanced around and didn't like what he saw any more than Valarien had, when he had awoken in the same surroundings. There were no other prisoners there now. They were alone save for a large blackavised ruffian with more than a hint of hobgoblin about him. Kai had never liked hobgoblins, but right now they had the edge over humans in the popularity stakes.
He looked back at Vash'târik. He was a darkly handsome young man of muscular build. His features were marred only by his malevolent expression. Not so long ago, he had been quite a womaniser. Yes, Kai could imagine only too clearly what Vash'târik's feelings were at this moment - and what he intended to do . . .
"Tether his feet, Glitch," said the captor, drawing a stiletto slowly from his belt.
Kai winced. He prayed for the swift arrival of the dwarves - anyone - then he noticed that the crumpled heap by the hole in the wall was a couple of bodies. Valarien could have named them for him. Kai knew, then, that he was doomed. The dwarves must have been through here already. He prayed for courage as Glitch fastened his feet well apart.
Vash'târik was stropping his stiletto, slowly and lovingly. He watched Kai at every stroke, enjoying every bead of sweat that appeared on his brow. Both men were thinking of that last meeting - the chase over the sun-baked rocks - Vash'târik at bay - the arrival of Vash'târik's men - Kai's stroke gone astray - the necessity of flight, leaving the job unfinished
Now Vash'târik was going to finish it in his own inimitable fashion. Grinning evilly, he bent over his victim, holding the sharp and shiny blade before his eyes. With a chuckle of sadistic glee, he went over to the nearest pillar. Kai blenched as he ran the stiletto up and down the pillar several times, and banged its edge against the stone.
"Well, you didn't really think I'd use a sharp knife - did you?" he asked, casually tossing the stiletto from hand to hand as he stood between Kai's feet. Kai already knew the meaning of fear. He had experienced it several times in his life. This was something else again. He looked helplessly up at his tormentor.
Vash'târik was looking puzzled. He raised a hand to his neck as the stiletto slipped from his slackened grasp. His eyes glazed over and he crumpled where he stood. Kai gave a sob of overwhelming relief as Vash'târik slumped against his chest and tears sprang to his eyes. He blinked to clear them.
Relief was short-lived once the immediate threat had, by some miracle, been disposed of. All his pains demanded his attention with renewed vigour and he longed for a return to blessed insensibility.
A dim corner of his consciousness registered a sinewy figure emerging from the hole in the wall and watched it with mild interest. It came over to him, dragged Vash'târik away and dumped him casually to one side. Kai felt it behoved him to take a more active interest in one to whom he owed his life - and more . . .
"Thank you," he said simply.
"No trouble," replied his saviour in a quiet, slightly nasal, voice.
He had taken a small bent strip of metal from his scrip and was applying it to the shackles at Kai's wrists. They sprang open and Kai's numbed arms dropped like leaden weights. The ache in them was overtaken by an unpleasant prickling sensation as his blood resumed its usual course through his veins. He flexed his fingers as the power of movement returned and massaged his arms as his rescuer untied the ropes round his ankles. The wiry man, whose slim frame belied his strength, helped him to his feet.
"You wouldn't happen to know where Valarien is?" he asked pleasantly.
Kai struggled to make his mind function. It seemed very reluctant to recall the circumstances in which he had last seen the one he had become accustomed to thinking of as a friend. As he tried to get to grips with the memory, he felt a soft current of air swirl around him. On the breeze he seemed to smell a subtle fragrance and hear a voice on the edge of sound.
"Valarien," it whispered, " save Valarien. He must not die . . . "
And as suddenly as it arrived, it was gone. Kai's brain snapped abruptly into gear.
"Yes, I know where Valarien is," he said, "and I think we'd better hurry."
He spotted his gear on the rack and nearly tripped over another body in his haste to collect them. In a detached way, he registered that the inert form was Glitch, and that the Unknown was responsible for its present recumbent position. As he struggled into such of his clothing as could not be donned on the move, he sought enlightenment, and began by introducing himself.
"I call myself Kai."
"I know," the other stated calmly, extracting a small dart from Glitch's neck.
Kai expected him to continue and was slightly irritated when he did not. Perhaps the knowledgeable one thought him similarly well-informed. He pursued the matter.
"I would know to whom I am indebted?"
"Oh? I'm Ewan," replied Ewan, looking mildly surprised. In a burst of eloquence, he added, "they call me Ewan the Silent."
Kai paused in the act of putting on one boot and stared.
"The nightranger?" he asked.
Ewan nodded, his face expressionless.
Kai's mouth framed a soundless "Oh."
A variety of conflicting thoughts fought for prominence in his brain. The winning thought was that he could no longer take exception to Ewan's joining the "elite force". He gathered up his remaining belongings. Thankfully all were intact. He motioned Ewan to follow him.
As they approached the entrance hall, they heard sounds of conflict. Kai drew his sword.
"If speed is desirable, I suggest we avoid the halls," Ewan said, " - if that is possible?"
Kai gave him an enquiring look.
"I came in with the Saghan' îl," he went on, almost apologetically. "Your dwarves seemed capable of handling them, so I thought I'd be more usefully occupied looking for you and Valarien."
Kai nodded. Under the circumstances, he couldn't fault that programme. He cast around in his mind for an alternative route to Valarien's last known whereabouts, then back-tracked to a narrow staircase. It lead up to the gallery which overlooked the entrance hall. There they found Leon picking off such members of the enemy forces as offered him a clear shot.
Glancing over the balcony, Kai saw that the dwarves had indeed got everything under control. With Zervan's body prominently displayed, all the fight seemed to have gone out of the Saghan'îl. Their most diligent efforts were now directed towards escaping an unkind fate.
Kai and Ewan hurried on and reached Perizada's chamber without hindrance. The gallery outside bore an impressive reminder of the preceding events, and Kai marvelled that he had escaped so lightly.
Within the chamber, Valarien had lain beside his dead lady and wept, his body racked by great sobs and his mind emptied of all but a desperate sense of loss. Time had no meaning as he drifted on a sea of hopelessness, his life suddenly stripped of all purpose.
Slowly he realized that the world had not come to an end as it undoubtedly should have done, and furthermore, that he was still living in it. Well, that, at least, could be put right. His own robes had been returned some days ago, once Zervan had been convinced he had nothing to fear from the wizard. From within, he pulled out herbs.
"Here's rosemary, in remembrance of the sweetest love in the world," he whispered, scattering the pungent leaves around Perizada's body, " . . . and nightshade for the bitter end of that sweet love . . . rue for the dawning of this evil day . . . and wormwood for the bitterness with which it ends. Now, columbine, bring your peace to this sweet lady . . . heartsease, grant me serenity as I take my leave of this land of sorrow . . . and poppies, bring me gentle to that long sleep I crave."
With this last, he drew out a phial of poppy syrup and set it to his lips. Slowly and deliberately, he tilted the phial and allowed its contents to trickle down his throat. He resumed his place beside Perizada with grim resolution. As the effects of the syrup spread pleasantly through his system, he spread his hands and cried aloud.
Instantly, flames sprang up around the edge of the bed and spread inwards towards the lovers.
It was at this point that Kai and Ewan burst into the room. At first, they were rooted to the spot in disbelief and horror. At that precise moment, a sudden draught - perhaps from the door? - fanned aside the flames. Quick as thought, the pair grabbed a leg each. Together they dragged the wizard from his funeral pile. As he slid clear, the curtain of flame closed again.
Fighting off the effects of the poppy syrup and his rescuers, Valarien strove desperately to rejoin his lady.
"Let me die. Oh, let me die !" he begged.
Kai thrust himself between the bed and the struggling wizard. A short tussle ensued. The two were evenly matched. Kai was well below his best while Valarien's strength was amplified by his consuming madness. It was Ewan that ended the scuffle. A tap on the wizard's shoulder, a nicely judged jab to the jaw, and Valarien slid into oblivion and Kai's arms.
There was no time to hang around. Perizada's pyre was rapidly becoming an inferno. Coughing in the asphyxiating smoke, warrior and nightranger half-carried, half-dragged their limp burden out into the gallery. Gently, they laid him down on the flags and Kai sat down beside him. He was breathing deeply, and this was obviously troubling his injury. Ewan looked on thoughtfully for a moment.
"Be back soon," he said, and disappeared down the stairs at the far end of the gallery.
He returned with four dwarves bearing makeshift stretchers, and wizard and warrior were carefully transferred to one of Istvan's guest chambers. These were being used as a temporary infirmary. Leon was there awaiting their arrival. It so happened that he had some knowledge of healing and was assisting in the treatment of the injured.
He first examined Kai's side which had developed heavy bruising. His ribs appeared to be intact, but Leon feared some internal damage. He applied a cold compress and administered a pain-killing soporific, then moved on to the wizard. Valarien had slipped into a deep and peaceful sleep, and Leon was of the opinion that he had taken no physical harm. The rest must be left to nature.
The morning dawned cool and misty with a distinct smell of sulphur on the air. Kai's condition had deteriorated. He was feverish, tossing about then moaning as the pain bit more deeply. Leon gave him another draught of the soporific and he slept fitfully.
As the day wore on towards evening, Kai became more and more feverish. The wizard slept on, but he was sleeping more naturally now. Ewan, who was himself half elven, watched over him. He and Leon had developed an easy-going comradeship. Neither felt completely comfortable in the company of dwarves, though this was no reflection on the dwarves hospitality. They took great pains to make their guests feel at home.
Leon was somewhat apprehensive about Valarien's finally waking up. Magic and wizardry were alien to his culture. He communicated his misgivings to his companion.
"He's all right," Ewan reassured him, "good-hearted . . . loyal . . . well-meaning - even if his plans do go a bit awry sometimes. Can be a bit tetchy now and then, but it soon blows over."
He paused thoughtfully, considering Valarien's spirited attempt at self-immolation.
"Never seen him like he was yesterday, though . . . Know what's been going on here?" Leon shook his head, and they lapsed into companionable silence.
During the night, Valarien began to talk in his sleep, or rather, mumble. The two who kept vigil could only make out the occasional word. His ramblings caught Kai during a brief period of lucidity. Glancing across, he saw a beatific smile spread across the wizard's face.
Shortly afterwards, Valarien lapsed into dreamless sleep and Kai into delirium as the fever raged. Everything that could been done, had been done, but still he was slipping away. Leon began to fear for the warrior's life. Their acquaintance had been of short duration, but they had already been through much together, and the shared experiences had forged a strong bond of friendship. Leon grieved to think it might so soon be broken.
With dawn, came the wizard's awakening, a very ordinary awakening as of one who hasn't a care in the world. He sat up, yawned, stretched and looked around bemused.
"Peri?" he asked, looking around for his beloved.
Then it all came flooding back. Choking on a sob, he flung himself back on the bed, buried his face in the pillows and wept anew. Ewan and Leon exchanged dismayed glances. It did not last long, however. The shudders that shook his slender frame eventually ceased and he lay still.
Leon, regarding Kai with much anxiety, drew Ewan's attention.
"Your wizard friend, would his magic cure Kai, do you think?" he asked awkwardly.
"He is not a healer as such," the other responded, " but he carries with him many wonderful things."
He gave the barbarian a searching look, and nodded. Leon gave him a grateful smile. The nightranger laid a hand gently on the wizard's shoulder.
"Valarien," he said softly, "there is one here who needs your help . . . "
At first, there was no reaction, then slowly, the wizard raised his head. He looked blankly at Ewan, his face devoid of all expression.
Ewan repeated his statement and added, "We fear he may be dying."
"It matters not," Valarien said, dully. "Nothing matters any more."
"It matters to those who serve the Goddess," Ewan shot back with uncharacteristic astringency.
The wizard's eyes focussed unwillingly on the nightranger. Ewan was not one of those who stood out from the crowd, either in face or form, and by cultivating an impermeable expression of impassivity, contrived to be almost invisible without such magical aids as others required to pass unnoticed.
A strange thing now happened to this bland exterior. As Valarien looked, a pale amethyst flame flickered above the nightranger's head and his features developed a fluidity like reflections on the surface of a pool. Mesmerized, the wizard stared as they flowed first into a semblance of Perizada, then the Goddess herself. For several seconds, the images shifted from one to the other - then were gone. Valarien bit his lip to control its quivering, a quiet anguish in his hazel eyes.
"So, maybe it was not just a dream, after all," he murmured to himself.
Ewan was nonplussed by this somewhat cryptic remark, unaware of any unusual happening. It seemed that the wizard was coming to his senses at last which was all to the good. Slowly he arose from his bed.
"Where is this - um - dying man?"
Ewan directed his attention to the stricken warrior.
"Kai?" he asked, uncomprehending.
Kai was indeed barely clinging on to life. His breathing was quick and shallow, his pulse faint and fluttery and his face had assumed a waxy pallor. His side was grossly distended and hideously coloured.