Read Fires of Azeroth Online

Authors: C. J. Cherryh

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

Fires of Azeroth (9 page)

"I do not completely believe them," Vanye said, when they had been settled in a small and private tent. "I fear them. Perhaps it is because I cannot believe that any
qhal's
interests-" He stopped half a breath, held in Morgaine's gray and unhuman gaze, and continued, defying the suspicion that had lived in him from the beginning of their travels, "-that any
qhal's
interests could be common with ours . . . perhaps because I have learned to distrust all appearances with them. They seem gentle; I think that is what most alarms me ... that I am almost moved to think they are telling the truth of their motives."

"I tell thee this, Vanye, that we are in more danger than in any lodging we have ever taken if they are lying to us. The hold we are in is all of Shathan forest, and the halls of it wind long, and known to them, but dark to us. So it is all one, whether we sleep here or in the forest."

"If we could leave the forest, there would still be only the plains for refuge, and no cover from our enemies there."

They spoke the language of Andur-Kursh, and hoped that there was none at hand to understand it The Shathana should not, having had no ties at all to that land, at whatever time Gates had led there; but there were no certainties about it,... no assurance even that one of these tall, smiling
qhal
was not one of their enemies from off the plains of Azeroth. Their enemies were only halflings, but in a few of them the blood brought forth the look of a pure
qhal.

"I will go out and see to the horses," he offered at last, restless in the little tent, "and see how far we are truly free."

"Vanye," she said. He looked back, bent as he was in leaving the low doorway. "Vanye, walk very softly in this spider's web. If trouble arises here, it may take us."

"I shall cause none,
liyo."

He stood clear, outside, looked about him at the camp, walked the tree-darkened aisles of tents, seeking the direction in which the horses had been led away. It was toward dark; the twilight here was early and heavy indeed, and folk moved like shadows. He walked casually, turning this way and that until he had sight of Siptah's pale shape over against the trees . . . and he walked in that direction with none offering to stop him. Some Men stared, and to his surprise, children were allowed to trail after him, though they kept their distance . . . the children with them, as merry as the rest; they did not come near, nor were they unmannered. They simply watched, and stood shyly at a distance.

He found the horses well-bedded, with their saddle-gear hung well above the damp of the ground, suspended on ropes from the limb overhead. The animals were curried and clean, with water sitting by each, and the remnant of a measure of grain . . .
Trade from villages,
he thought-
or tribute: such does not grow in forest shade, and these are not farmer-folk by the look of them.

He patted Siptah's dappled shoulder, and avoided the stud's playful nip at his arm . . . not all play: the horses were content and had no desire for a setting-forth at this late hour. He caressed little Mai's brown neck, and straightened her forelock, measuring with his eye the length of the tethers and what chance there was of entanglement: he could find no fault. Perhaps, he thought, they did know horses.

A step crushed the grass behind him. He turned. Lellin stood there.

"Watching us?" Vanye challenged him.

Lellin bowed, hands in belt, a mere rocking forward. "You are guests, nonetheless," he said, more sober than his wont.
"Khemeis,
word has passed through the inner councils . . . how your cousin perished. It is not something of which we may speak openly. Even that such a thing is possible is not knowledge we publish, for fear that someone might be drawn to such a crime . . . but I am in the inner councils, and I know. It is a terrible thing. We offer our deep sorrow."

Vanye stared at him, suspecting mockery at first, and then realized that Lellin was sincere. He inclined his head in respect to that. "Chya Roh was a good man," he said sadly. "But now he is not a man at all; and he is the worst of our enemies. I cannot think of him as a man."

"Yet there is a trap in what this
qhal
has done-that at each transference he loses more and more of himself. It is not without cost. .. for one evil enough to seek such a prolonged life."

Cold settled about his heart, hearing that. His hand fell from Mai's shoulder, and he searched desperately for words enough to ask what he could not have asked clearly even in his own tongue. "If he chose evil men to bear him, then part of them would live in him, ruling what he did?"

"Until he shed that body, yes. So our lore says. But you say that your cousin was a good man. Perhaps he is weak; perhaps not. You would know that."

A trembling came on him, a deep distress, and Lellin's gray eyes were troubled.

"Perhaps," said Lellin, "there is hope-that what I am trying to tell you. If anything of your cousin has influence, and it is likely that it does, if he was not utterly overwhelmed by what happened to him, then he may yet defeat the man who killed him. It is a faint hope, but perhaps worth holding."

"I thank you," Vanye whispered, and moved finally to pass under the rope and leave the horses.

"I have distressed you."

Vanye shook his head helplessly. "I speak little of your language. But I understand. I understand what you are saying. Thank you, Lellin. I wish it were so, but I-"

"You have reason to believe otherwise?"

"I do not know." He hesitated, purposing to walk back to their tent, knowing that Lellin must follow. He offered Lellin the chance to walk beside him. Lellin did, and yet he found no words to say to him, not wanting to discuss the matter further.

"If I have troubled you," Lellin said, "forgive me."

"I loved my cousin." It was the only answer he knew how to give, although it was more complicated than that simple word. Lellin answered nothing, and left him when he turned off on the last aisle to the tent he shared with Morgaine.

He found his hand on the Honor-blade he carried: Roh's ... for the honorable death Roh had been given no chance to choose, rather than become the vessel for Zri-Liell. An oath was on him to kill this creature. Lellin's hope shattered him, that the only kinsman he had yet living . . . still might live, entangled with the enemy who had killed him.

He entered the tent and settled quietly in the corner, picked up a bit of his armor and set to adjusting a lacing, working in the near dark. Morgaine lay staring at the ceiling of the tent, at the shadows that flickered across it. She cast him a brief look as if she were relieved that he was back without incident, but she did not leave her own thoughts to speak with him just them. She was given, often, to such silences, when she had concerns of her own.

It was false activity, his meddling with the harness-he muddled the lacing over and over again, but it gave him an excuse for silence and privacy, doing nothing that she would notice, until the trembling should leave his hands.

He knew that he had spoken too freely with the
qhal,
betraying small things that perhaps it was best not to have these folk know. He was almost moved to open his thoughts utterly to Morgaine, to confess what he had done, confess other things: how once in Shiuan he had talked alone with Roh, and how even then he had seen no enemy, but only a man he had once owned for kinsman. The weapon had failed his hand in that meeting, and he had failed her . . . self-deceived, he had reasoned afterward, seeing what he had wished to see.

He wanted now desperately to seek Morgaine's opinion on what Lellin had said to him . . . but deep in his heart was suspicion, long-fostered, that Morgaine had always known more of Roh's double nature than she had told him. He dared not, for the peace which was between them, challenge her on that, or call her deceitful . . . for he feared that she had deceived him. She might not trust him at her side if she thought his loyalties might be divided, might have misled him deliberately to have Roh's death: and something would sour in him if he learned her capable of that. He did not want to find out such a thing, more than he longed to learn the other. Roh's nature could make no difference in his own choices; Morgaine wanted Roh dead for her own reasons, which had nothing to do with revenge; and if she meant to have it that way, then there was an oath to bind him: an
ilin
could not refuse an order, even against friend or kinsman: for his soul's sake he could not. Perhaps she thought to spare him knowledge . . . meant her deception for kindness. He was sure it was not the only deception she had used.

There was, he persuaded himself at last, no help for himself or Roh in bringing the matter up now. War was ahead of them. Men died, would die-and he was on one side and Roh on the other, and truth made no difference in that

There would be no need to know, when one of them was dead.

 

Chapter Four

By night, fires blazed fearlessly throughout the camp, and in a clear space there burned a common-fire, where songs were sung to the music of harps. Men sang tunes that at times minded one of Kursh: the words were
qhalur,
but the burden of them was Man, and some of the tunes seemed plain and pleasant and ordinary as the earth. Vanye was drawn outside to listen, for their tent was near to that place and the gathering extended to their very door. Morgaine joined him; and he brought out their blankets, so they might sit as most did in the camp, and listen. Men came and brought them food and drink along with all the others as they sat there, for dinner was prepared in common as in Mirrind, and served in this fashion under the stars. They took it gratefully, and feared no drug or poison.

Then the harp passed to the
qhalur
singers, and the music changed. Like wind it was, and the harmony of it was strange. Lellin sang, and a young
qhalur
woman kept him harmony, that ranged the eerie scale fit to send chills coursing down a human back.

"It is beautiful," Vanye whispered at last to Morgaine, "for all it is not human."

"There was a time when thee could not have seen it." It was true, and the realization weighed on him, the more when he considered Morgaine, who saw beauty in what she came to destroy... who had always been able to see it.

This will pass,
he thought looking out over all the camp of
qhal
and Men.
It will pass when she and I have done what we came to do, and killed the power of their Gates. It cannot help but change them. We will destroy all this no less than we shall destroy Roh.
It saddened him, with that sadness he had often seen in Morgaine's eyes and never understood until now.

There came a stirring at their backs. Morgaine turned, and so did he; it was a young Woman who bowed to speak with them. "Lord Merir sends," she whispered, not to disturb the listeners nearby. "Please come."

They rose up and followed the young Woman, delaying to put their blankets inside, and Morgaine took her weapons, though he did not. Their guide brought them into Merir's tent. One light burned there, and within were only Merir and a young
qhal.
Merir dismissed her and the Woman, so that they were quite alone.

Both trust and power, it was . . . that this frail elder received them thus; Morgaine bowed courtesy, and Vanye did.

"Sit down," Merir offered them. He was himself wrapped in a cloak of plain brown, and a brazier of coals smoldered at his feet. Two chairs sat vacant but Vanye took the floor out of respect: an
ilin
did not insult a lord by sitting on a level with him.

"There is refreshment by you, if you wish," said Merir, but Morgaine declined it and therefore Vanye refused it also. His place was comfortable, on the mat nearest the brazier, and he settled at his ease.

"Your hospitality has been kind," said Morgaine. "We have been served all that we can use; your courtesy encourages me."

"I cannot call you welcome. Your news is too grim. But for all that your steps lie easily on the forest; you bruise no branch nor harm its people . . . and therefore we make place for you here. For the same reason I am encouraged to believe that you do oppose the invaders. You are perhaps dangerous to have for enemies."

"And dangerous to have for friends. I still ask nothing more than leave to pass where I must."

"Secrecies? But this is our forest."

"My lord, we perplex each other. You look on my work and I on yours; you create beauty, and I honor you for that. But not all that is fair is trustworthy. Forgive me, but I have not come so far as I have by scattering all that I know to every wind. How far, for instance, does your power extend? How much could you help me? Or would you be willing? And the Men here: do they support you out of love or of fear? Could they be convinced to turn on you? I do doubt it, but my enemies are persuasive, and some of them are Men. What skill have there
khemi
of yours in arms? Things here look to be peaceful, and it might be that they would scatter in terror from the first moment of conflict; or if they are practiced in war, then where are your enemies, and what would befall me at their hand if I took your part? How is this community of yours ordered, and where are decisions made? Have you power to promise and to keep your word? And even if the answer to all these questions should please me, I am still reluctant to let this matter pass into other hands, which have not fought this battle so long or so hard as I."

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