Read Fires of Azeroth Online

Authors: C. J. Cherryh

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure

Fires of Azeroth (10 page)

"Those questions are direct and very apt. And I do read much of the nature of you and your enemies in the suspicions you hold of us. I do not think that I like that accounting. As for answers . . . my lady, that someone has passed the Fires and come here frightens me in itself. We have not found it good to make use of that passage."

"Then you are wise."

"Yet you have done so."

"Our enemy has no reluctance in the matter. And he must be stopped. You know of other worlds. You are too knowledgeable of the Gates not to know where they lead. So you will understand me if I say that the danger is to more worlds than this one. This is a man who will not scruple to use Gates recklessly in all their powers. How much more need I say to a man who understands?"

A great fear crept into Merir's eyes. "I know that much passing of that barrier may work calamity. One such disaster came on us, and we abandoned use of that passage, and made peace with Men, and gave up all that tempted us to that evil. So we have remained at peace . . . and there is none hungry but that we will feed him, none harmed-no thief or murderer nor abuser of his people. We live in the consciousness of what we can do ... and do not. That is the foundation on which all law rests."

"I was at first amazed," said Morgaine, "that the
qhal
and Men are at peace. It is not so elsewhere."

"But it is the only sanity, lady Morgaine. Is it not very evident? Men multiply far more rapidly than we. Shorter lives, but ever more of them. And should we not have respect for that abundant vitality? Is it not a strength, as wisdom is a strength, or bravery? They can always overcome us ... for war with them we can never win, not over the passing of much time." He leaned forward and set his hand on Vanye's shoulder, a gentle touch, and his gray eyes were kind. "Man, you are always the more powerful. We reached beyond our knowledge in bringing your kind among us, and though you were not the beginning of our sorrow, you have the power to be the end-all of it... save we make you our adopted sons, as we have tried to do. How is it that you travel with lady Morgaine? Is it for revenge for your kinsman?"

The heat of embarrassment rose to his face. "I swore her an oath," he said: half the truth.

"Long ago, Man, there was your like here. You are reckless in your lives, having so much life. But we took
khemi,
and that life agreed well with such Men and left others free to lead quiet lives in the villages. The hands of the
khemi
administer justice and do unpleasant things that want doing, and sometimes brave things, risking themselves in the aid of others. Such recklessness is natural to Men. But when a
qhal
dies young, he often leaves none behind him, for once and perhaps twice do we bear, and that after some years. In hostile times our number shrinks rapidly. It is always in our interest to keep peace, and to deal fairly with those who have such an advantage over us. Do you not see that it is so?"

The thought amazed him; and he realized how seldom he had seen children of the
qhal,
even among halflings.

Merir's hand left his shoulder, and the old lord looked across at Morgaine. "I shall lend you help, lady, asked or unasked. This evil has come, and we must not let it touch Shathan. Take Lellin with you, him and his
khemeis. I
send my heart with you. He is my grandson, my daughter's child, of a line that is fast fading. He will guide you where you will to go."

"Has Lellin consented in this? I would not take anyone who did not clearly reckon the danger."

"He asked to be the one, if I reached the conclusion that I should send someone."

She nodded sorrowfully. "May he come home safely to you, my lord. I will watch over him with all the force that I have."

"That is much, is it not?"

Morgaine did not answer that probing, and silence hung between them a moment. "My lord, I asked you once for help to reach the master-hold, that would control the Gate at Azeroth. And I still ask that."

"Its name is Nehmin, and it is well defended. I myself would not be allowed to pass there freely. What you ask of me is more than difficult."

"That comforts me. But Roh's allies spend lives recklessly, and they will simply spend them until they have broken its defenses. I must have access there."

Merir sat a moment the fires of the lamp leaping upon his downcast features. "You ask power over us."

"No."

"But you do ... for with your hand there, you have choices, regarding more than your enemy. Perhaps you would choose what we would choose . . . but you are utterly a stranger, and I wonder if that is likely. And might you not, in that power, be as deadly to us as the enemy you fight?"

Morgaine had no answer, and Vanye sat still, fearful, for Merir surely understood ... if not the whole truth, surely truth enough. But the old
qhal
sighed heavily. "Lellin will guide you; and there will be others along the way who will help you."

"And yourself, my lord? Surely you will not be idle . . . and should I not know where you will be? I have no wish to harm you or to expose you to the enemy by mistake."

'Trust to Lellin. We will go our own way." He rose stiffly. "The Mirrindim were amazed at your map-making. Bring the lamp, young Vanye, and let me show you a thing that may help you."

Vanye gartered up the lamp from its hook and followed the ancient
qhal
to the tent wall. There was a map hung there, age-faded, and Morgaine came and looked on it.

"Here is Azeroth," said Merir, stretching forth his hand to the great circle in the center "Shathan is all the forest; and the great Narn and its tributaries feed the villages-see: each has accessible water. And this is a walk of many days-Mirrind is here."

"Such circles cannot be natural."

"No. In some places the trees fail, and yet there is water; and Men have cleared the rest And where forest fails too much, thy have planted hedges and thickets to change the land so that trees may grow and wild things have their place. The circles are orderly and boundaries between farm and forest are thus distinct. It gives quiet passage for our folk ... we do not like the open lands; and Men do, who farm and herd. Also . . ." he added, and laid his hand on Vanye's shoulder, "it has prevented war and strife over boundaries Once men rode in great hordes where they would, and there was war. They endangered us ... but the vitality of Shathan itself is even greater than that of Men; they turned fire against us, and that was worst. . . always we are vulnerable to that kind of attack. But the woods regrew in the end; and the barricades of hedges were maintained by Men who sheltered with us. We are not the only forest or the only place where such a thing has been done; but we are the oldest. There are places outside, where Men have run to themselves, and make wars and ruin and-in some places-make better things, beautiful things. Of these folk too we have hope, but we cannot live as their neighbors; we are too fragile. We cannot admit them here above all, to the place of power:
that
must remain outside their reach. The
sirrindim,
we call them, these Men outside; they are horsemen and avoid our forests. But do you perceive why I am distressed, lady Morgaine, with the like of the
sirrindim
suddenly camped about Azeroth?"

"Nehmin is one dire concern, and I suppose that H is somewhere close about Azeroth, though I do not see it on your map. But the Narn itself . . . could become a threat, a road to lead them through your heart."

"Indeed you do see. It leads too close to the land of the
sirrindim.
It is a threat much beyond Mirrind ... we do see that. In war, we would swiftly decline and die. The invaders must be held in Azeroth . . . above all they must not open a way to the northern plains. Of all directions they might have gone, that is the most deadly to us ... and I think that is the direction they will choose, for you are here, and they will surely find that out."

"I understand you."

"We will hold them." There was sorrow etched deep in the old
qhal's
face. "We shall lose many of our numbers, I fear, but we shall hold them. We have no choice. Go now. Go and sleep. In the morning you will go with Lellin and Sezar, and we shall hope that you keep faith, lady Morgaine: I have shown you much that could greatly harm us."

She inclined her head, respecting the old
qhal.
"Good night, my lord," she murmured and turned and left. Vanye replaced the lamp carefully on its hanging chain near the old lord's chair, thinking of his comfort, and when the aged
qhal
sat down, he bowed too, the full obeisance he would have shown a lord of his own people, forehead to the ground.

"Man," said Merir gently, "for your sake I have believed your lady."

"How, lord?" he asked, for it bewildered him."

"Your manner-that you are devoted to her. Self-love shows itself first that
qhal
and Man cannot trust one another. But neither you nor she is afflicted by that evil. You serve, but not because you fear. You affect the manner of a servant, but you are more than that. You are a warrior like the
sirrindim,
and not like the
khemi.
But you show respect to an elder, and him not of your blood. Such small things show more truth than any words. And therefore I am moved to trust your lady."

He was stricken by this, knowing that they would fail that trust, and he was frightened. All at once he felt himself utterly transparent before the old lord, and soiled and unclean.

"Protect Lellin," the old
qhal
asked of him.

"Lord, I will," he whispered, and this faith at least he meant to keep. Tears stung his eyes and choked his voice, and a second time he inclined himself to the mat, and sat back again. "Thank you for my lady, for she was very tired and we are both very weary of fighting. Thank you for this time you have given us, and for your help to cross your lands. Have I leave to go, my lord?"

The old
qhal
dismissed him with a soft word, and he rose and left the tent, sought Morgaine's in the dark, on the rim of the gathering. The merriment there still continued, the eerie sounds of
qhalur
singing.

"We shall both sleep," Morgaine said. "And the armor is useless. Sleep soundly; it may be some time before we have another chance."

He agreed, and put up a blanket for a curtain between them, suspended from the cross-pole; gladly he stripped of the armor, and of clothing, wrapped himself in a blanket and lay down, and Morgaine did likewise, a little distance away on the soft furs provided for their beds. The makeshift curtain did not reach the floor, and the light of the fires outside cast a dim glow within. He saw her gazing at him, head pillowed on her arm.

"What kept thee with Merir?"

"It would sound strange if I said it."

"I ask."

"He said that he trusted you because of me . . that if there were evil in us, it would show-between you and myself; of course they take you for one of their own."

She made a sound that might have been a laugh, bitter and brief.

"Liyo,
we shall ruin these people."

"Be still. Even in Andurin, I would not discuss that; Andurin is laced with
qhalur
borrowings, and I do not feel secure in it. Besides, who knows what tongue these
sirrindim
speak, or whether some
qhal
here may not know it? Remember that when we travel with Lellin."

"I shall."

"Yet thee knows I have no choice, Vanye."

"I know. I understand."

Her dim face seemed touched by that, and a great sorrow was on it

"Sleep," she said, and closed her eyes.

It was the best and only counsel in the matter.

 

Chapter Five

Their setting out was by no means furtive or quiet The horses were brought up before Merir's tent, and there Lellin took leave of his grandfather and his father and mother and great-uncle . . . grave, kind-eyed folk like Merir. His parents seemed old to have a son as young as Lellin, and they took his leaving hard. Sezar too they bade an affectionate farewell, kissing his hands and wishing him well, for the
khemeis
seemed to have no kinfolk among the Men in the camp: it was of Lellin's family that he took his leave.

They were offered food, and they took it, for it was well-prepared for keeping on the trail. Then Merir came forward and offered to Morgaine a gold medallion on a chain, intricate, beautiful work. "I lend this," he said. "It is safe passage." And another he brought forth and gave to Vanye, a silver one. "With either of these, ask what you will of any of our people save the
arrha,
who regard no authority of mine. Even there it might avail something. These are more protection in Shathan than any weapon."

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