Read Hand of the King's Evil - Outremer 04 Online

Authors: Chaz Brenchley

Tags: #Fantasy

Hand of the King's Evil - Outremer 04 (83 page)

BOOK: Hand of the King's Evil - Outremer 04

It was a little while before she realised that he had been expecting this, waiting for it, placed there to receive it; that he was defending not his own life, but Elisande's working. Her confirmation of that lay on the north bank, where the Princip was fighting also. No question that his opponents were 'ifrit,
and several of them: great scuttl
ing creatures with burning eyes and pincers snapping at his sword-arm, trying to avoid the blade but trying more crucially to pass him by, to reach those cords of light.

Julianne turned her urgent gaze back to Elisande, willing her to hurry. That was all she could do; she had no way to help her friend, nor the old men on the banks. She still didn't understand what Elisande meant to do with all this spellcasting, but whatever it was, she should complete it soon and make it powerful, make a weapon of it, or there would be two more great names among the dead of the day, and their bodies probably doomed never to find the honourable silence of the Princip's crypt. Whatever it was, this was pivotal; the 'ifrit betrayed themselves with this sudden assault. The battle on the north bank might be as good as won - thanks to Marshal Fulke, and she hoped, she did hope to have the chance to force herself to thank him — but that on the southern bank was equally well lost, she thought. Give the 'ifirit a foothold in Outremer, and men would never prise them from it.

Something surged in the water, that was not itself water nor rock; she caught a glimpse of something long and sleek and black where the light danced against it.
Hurry, Elisande; that is us they are coming far now

Elisande threw her head up, stretched her arms out, turned slowly full circle. All her arcs and cairns, her threads and skeins of light pulsed gently, throwing strange patterns of glare across her skin as she moved, as she swayed to another pulse altogether: an alien not in rhythm with a power she could touch and use but never own, something not for human possession but gifted to her in her need, or else claimed by her in her urgent desire, or else simply Elisande massively overreaching herself, dressing herself like a child in a robe that could never be cut to her fit.

She drew both arms up, moving like a dancer, like a child to some stately, heavy music that Julianne could not hear; and her hands came together in a silent clap that would not disrupt the music, and the world was disrupted in its stead, the world changed.

Julianne's body shook in response to a thunder that made no sound, but had only impact; it felt as portentous as an earthquake, except that the ground did not shake, it was only her

No, not that. The first thing Julianne did was to check on her friend, and Elisande looked more than shaken. Not dancing now, neither imperious nor overdressed: terrified, rather, terrified and helpless. Like a child again, a child who has done something terrible and important but doesn't know quite what, or what will result. She stood still, hand to mouth, staring all around her; Julianne was looking only at her, and was none the less aware of a momentous alteration in the valley. It was as though a power beyond measure had seized it at her friend's asking, no greater imperative than that; had gripped it and reshaped it, and yet done it no harm at all

Had Folded it, in fact: folded and refolded it like a map refolded to hide something crucial in the crease, and she and Elisande were there in the fold of it, they could see the world as it was and the world as it appeared to be also, without themselves being anywhere within it.

Julianne ran to her friend across an island that still felt solidly rooted, in defiance of what her eyes were telling her. The two girls held tight to each other, and Elisande whispered, 'Did I, did I do that

don't think so, no.'

think someone, something else did that, through you. Who do you think you are, girl, the God's own self, to go making or unmaking His needlework?
She'd save the rest of that for later; it didn't matter what she said now, Elisande wasn't truly listening.

Julianne wasn't truly speaking either, not speaking her heart. Her heart she thought was in her eyes, just as her friends was: bewildered, scared, not daring to be triumphant.

What Elisande had done — or something else, some power that worked through her, Julianne emphatically did not want to believe that her little friend could make such things happen of her own will, her own words and nothing more — what had been done was to Fold the river out of the valley, as the valley itself had once been Folded out of the Kingdom.

That latter had been a fact that Julianne had lived with all the sixteen years of her life, a simple mystery that was too far away in time or miles to be frightening, just another miracle of the Sanctuary Land, as ambiguous as any that had gone before it. Even seei
ng it unmade, seeing Surayon unf
olded had been a moment that lost its wonder, in the terror of what else was happening or would result. This, though

She supposed that this was technically a lesser miracle — just a river, after all, the islands in midstream and the rushing water and the banks to either side, nothing like as all-encompassing as the valley and the hills that made it, which Elisande

s grandfather had Folded and kept so for thirty years — but it felt monumentally greater, because she was here at the heart of it. She had seen it done, and the mere act of witnessing bound her into the event and the power and the arrogance of it, that the world might be swiftly and heedlessly stitched into a new shape simply to help one side or the other in a petty battle between mortal men and spirit creatures that actually belonged in another world altogether. She thought that the God of her people, the God of the Sharai, any god else should be enraged by such a meddling, such a usurpation of heavenly prerogatives.

There was no sign of temper from above, though; and just as well, when what was happening here below was so tremendous.

They couldn't stare for ever at each other, learning this new world only through flickers of reflection in the other's eyes and impressions at the corners of their own. They had to turn, to look, to see. At least they could turn together, though, arms stil
l tightl
y bound around each other's bodies; that was something to cling to against the impact of the moment, that they still each had someone to cling to.

They could look east or west and still see the river where it ran, where it must run. They could see all the visible course of it and guess the rest, from lost source high in the dim purple shadow of the mountains to its far flat mingling with th
e sea in salty marshland. Directl
y north and south of them, there were the high and stony banks that contained its fierce rushing; beneath their feet was the island, and Elisande's magic could shift that no more than the urgent water could, not one finger's width along the bottom.

And yet, and yet: they could look out and see another world spread like a tapestry over this one, if tapestry could ever be so real that image might be confused for substance, threads and stitchings for flesh and sun and water.

They could see wide grassland north and south, and no river to divide it; they could see armies north and south, and no river to divide them either.

More than water parted around the island now, and ran seamlessly together again. It seemed as though the valley did the same, so that where they stood was a loop knotted out of a thread, still a part of the whole but separated from it. They could stand and watch, but from here they could not touch; they had done their deed, and there was no further task for them.

North and south, too close to watch and too far to help even before this, two men were fighting for their lives; but the Folding was done now, they needn't protect the spell-casting any longer — the girls still stood in a matrix of light, like spiders at the heart of a burning web, but those threads had been drawn tight to pull two hems of land together, and the stitching was hidden from the world around - and the Princip and the King's Shadow were fighting on the same ground suddenly, where there had been a river to divide them.

Neither man was fool enough to fight alone, where he could stand back to back with a companion. It was her own father who moved, who turned and leaped away from the rage of serpents that confronted him when the Princip cried, 'To me, Coren, to me!'

A few long bounding strides should have brought him to the river, but that they brought him first to the boundary of Elisande's Folding, where he had stood himself to catch and hold the light. Julianne couldn't tell what he was seeing, only that he couldn't see her or the river, but some kind of border surely, to say that what he crossed here was nothing natural.

It delayed him not at all. He leaped across that line, however it was that he saw it; for a moment, Julianne didn't know where he was. There was nothing so unusual in that, he was her father and the King's Shadow and in both roles he had his own gifts of disappearance, but she'd never known him vanish so precipitately. He seemed to be neither in the one world nor the other, not there where he had been nor here where 'she was. She half expected to see him plummet suddenly out of the sky and into the river, a bird that failed, that could not fly; except that her father neither failed nor flew, he simply went from where he was to where he wanted to be, or else where he was sent.

And there he was abruptl
y, seeming to step out of the air a long moment after he had stepped into it. He had been south of the river and now he was north of it, except that there was no river for him and no great stride to cover that little ground between one footfall and the next. He had been far from the embattled Princip and now he was near, near enough almost to touch, near enough certainly to help.

Julianne stole a little satisfaction from seeing him stumble as his foot touched earth. She could almost persuade herself that she had felt his stomach twist as his face twisted, more fiercely than his ankle had; she could almost for a moment believe that he had the normal complement of human organs inside his shadowy skin, that could be wrenched about and distressed as normal humans' were.

But he was her father, and he was old and tired and hurt, there was blood on his clothes and skin; and he might have gone all Shadowy and walked away from this at any time, and had not for Surayon's sake, for the Kingdom's, perhaps for the world's.

For his sake, she wished she could overstep the river as easily as he had. Failing that, she wished she could overstep it with difficulty, with great difficulty, against any test of strength or will; she wanted only to stand with him, to set her slender frame and little skill at his side to prove what help they might.

But she was simple mortal flesh, and she couldn't make that leap. No more could Elisande, but at least the two old men could help each other now. King's Shadow and Princip of Surayon, old comrades and old friends though half the Kingdom might think them irretrievably at odds: they stood shoulder to shoulder and pressed forward against the 'ifrit, stubborn determination a good substitute for the strength and speed of the young men they used to be, a better match for the strength and speed of what they faced. The 'ifrit seemed to have lost their frantic purpose; now they fought only because they were being fought, or because that was what they did, or Julianne thought so. And they died also because that was what the 'ifrit did when her father fought them, when the Princip did.

She took the time for one anxious glance back, the other side of that impossible line that she could both see and not see as though the Fold were a tuck that stretched the one world tight across the looseness of the other, but the serpent-beasts clustered there were making no attempt to cross it. Stared and twisted balefully, rather, as though they yearned to cross but could not. Or dared not, perhaps.

There were 'ifrit in the river still, trapped in the Fold with only two girls to oppose them, she could see them when the broad stillness of their backs broke the roiling of the water. And if they rose they could destroy this Folding in a moment, she and Elisande could not resist them with a bare pair of knives between the two; and she could not say where the world might go then, only that it would follow a different and a darker path.

Elisande had seen them too, of course. 'Why don't they attack?' she asked agai
nst the silence, almost petulantl
y, why didn't they attack before we did this? They must have known it would happen, and it would work against them when it did, so why didn't they try to stop us?'

'They did not and they do not because I am here, and they dare not.'

It was a thin voice, a cold voice for all that it came from the heart of the fire; and it had a body of sorts, there was a fiery spirit rising



The djinni it was indeed, learning it seemed from Julianne's captivity and reversing the 'ifrits' own trick, keeping them at bay by its simple presence here.

Quickly Elisande said, 'I wasn't asking you,' but that was automatic defence, and almost meaningless. Ungenerous, too; if it had truly been the djinni that had saved them to let this happen, to let them save Surayon, Julianne thought they should begrudge it nothing, that Elisande in particular should give it service, freedom, whatever it might like in return. And disguise the gift as carelessness, a heedless question demanding a price, why not? For herself she had less cause to be grateful, she was uncertain what if anything had been saved for her.

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