Authors: Glen Cook
Book Four of the
Copyright © Glen Cook 1980
Cover art by Kinuko Y. Craft
First Printing: March, 1980
ePub edition v1.0 by Dead^Man Jan, 2011
Cradled In Swords, The War-Child Comes
October. When the leaves turn blood and the wind turns bone: a time for doings dark and strange. The princess bears a child to the winged thing and the cries are heard far beyond the peaks of Dragon's Teeth, at the end of the world's Beginning, where Nepanthe and Mocker wait for the war that wizard's dread...
ONE: Unto Us A Child Is Born
I) He made the darkness his covering around him
Like a whispering ghost the winged man dropped from the moonless winter night, a shadow on the stars whose wings fluttered with a brief sharp crack as he broke his fall and settled onto the sill of a high glassless tower window of Castle Krief. H is great wings he folded about him like a dark living cloak, with hardly a sigh of motion. His eyes burned cold scarlet as he studied the blackness within the tower. He turned his terrier-like head from side to side, listening. Neither sight nor sound came to him. He did not want to believe it. It meant he must go on. Cautiously, fearfully-human places inspired dread-he dropped to the cold interior floor.
The darkness within, impenetrable even to his night seeing eyes, was food for his man-fear. What human evil might wait there, wearing a cloak of night? Yet he mustered courage and went on, one weak hand always touching the crystal dagger at his hip, the other caressing his tiny purse. Inaudible terror whimpered in his throat. He was not a courageous creature, would not be in this fell place but for the dread-love he bore his Master.
Guided by whimper-echoes only he could hear, he found the door he sought. Fear, which had faded as he found all as peaceful as the Master had promised, returned. A warding spell blocked his advance, one that could raise a grand haroo and bring steel-armed humans.
But he was not without resources. His visit was the spear thrust of an operation backed by careful preparation. From his purse he took a crimson jewel, chucked it up the corridor. It clattered. He gasped. The noise seemed thunderous. Came a flash of brilliant red light. The ward-spell twisted away into some plane at right angles to reality. He peeked between the long bony fingers covering his eyes. All right. He went to the door, opened it soundlessly.
A single candle, grown short with time, burned within. Across the room, in a vast four-poster with silken hangings, slept the object of his mission. She was young, fair, delicate, but these traits held no meaning. He was a sexless creature. He suffered no human longings-at least of the carnal sort. He did long for the security of his cavern home, for the companionship of his brothers. To him this creature was an object (of fear, of his quest, of pity), a vessel to be used.
The woman (hardly more than a child was she, just gaining the graceful curves of the woman-to-be) stirred, muttered. The winged man’s heart jumped. He knew the power of dreams. Hastily, he dipped into his purse for a skin-wrapped ball of moist cotton. He let her breathe its vapors till she settled into untroubled sleep.
Satisfied, he drew the bedclothes down, eased her night garments up. From his pouch he withdrew his final treasure. There were spells on the device, that kept its contents viable, which would guarantee this night’s work’s success.
He loathed himself for the cold-bloodedness of his deed. Yet he finished, restored the woman and bed to their proper order, and silently fled. He recovered the crimson jewel, ground it to dust so the warding spell would return. Everything had to appear undisturbed. Before he took wing again, he stroked his crystal dagger. He was glad he had not been forced to use it. He detested violence.
II) He sees with the eyes of an enemy
Nine months and a few days later. October: A fine month for doings dark and strange, with red and gold leaves falling to mask the mind with colorful wonders, with cool piney breezes bringing winter promises from the high Kapenrungs, with swollen orange moons by night, and behind it all breaths and hints of things of fear. The month began still bright with summer’s memory, like a not too distant, detached chunk of latter August with feminine, changeable, sandwiched September forgotten. The month gradually gathered speed, rolled downhill until, with a plunge at the end, it dumped all into a black and wicked pit from which the remainder of the year would be but a struggle up a mountain chasing starshine. At its end there was a night consecrated to all that was unholy, a night for unhallowed deeds.
The Krief’s city, Vorgreberg, was small, but not unusually so for a capital in the Lesser Kingdoms. Its streets were unclean. The rich hadn’t gotten that way squandering income on sweepers, and the poor didn’t care. Three quarters was ancient slum, the remainder wealthy residential or given over to the trade houses of merchants handling the silks and spices that came from the east over the Savernake Gap. The residences of the nobles were occupied only when the Thing sat. The rest of the year those grim old skullduggers spent at their castles and estates, whipping more wealth from their serfs. City crime was endemic, taxes were high, people starved to death daily, or any. of a hundred diseases got them, corruption in government was ubiquitous, and ethnic groups hated one another to the sullen edge of violence.
So, a city like most, surrounded by a small country populated with normally foibled men, special only because a king held court there, and because it was the western terminus for caravans from the orient. From it, going west, flowed eastern riches; to it came the best goods of the coastal states.
But, on a day at the end of October when evil stirred, it also had:
A holiday morning after rain, and an old man in a ragged great cloak who needed a bath and shave. He turned from a doorway at the rear of a rich man’s home. Bacon tastes still trembled on his tongue. A copper sceat weighed lightly in his pocket. He chuckled softly.
Then his humor evaporated. He stopped, stared down the alley, then fled in the opposite direction. From behind him came the sound of steel rims on brick pavement, rattling loudly in the morning stillness. The tramp paused, scratched his crotch, made a sign against the evil eye, then ran. The breakfast taste had gone sour.
A man with a pushcart eased round a turn, slowly pursued the tramp. He was a tiny fellow, old, with a grizzled, ragged beard. His slouch made him appear utterly weary of forcing his cart over the wet pavement. His cataracted eyes squinted as he studied the backs of houses. Repeatedly, after considering one or another, he shook his head.
Mumbling, he left the alley, set course for the public grounds outside the Krief’s palace. The leafless, carefully ranked trees there were skeletal and grim in the morning gloom and damp. The castle seemed besieged by the gray, dreary wood.
The cart man paused. “Royal Palace.” He sneered. Castle Krief may have stood six centuries inviolate, may have surrendered only to Ilkazar, but it wasn’t invincible. It could be destroyed from within. He thought of the comforts, the riches behind those walls, and the hardness of his own life. He cursed the waiting.
There was work to be done. Miserable work. Castles and kingdoms didn’t fall at the snap of a finger.
Round the entire castle he went, observing the sleepy guards, the ancient ivy on the southern wall, the big gates facing east and west, and the half-dozen posterns. Though Ravelin had petty noble feuds as numerous as fleas on a hound, they never touched Vorgreberg itself. Those warswere for the barons, fought in their fiefs among themselves, and from them the Crown was relatively safe, remaining a disinterested referee.
Sometimes, though, one of the nearby kingdoms, coveting the eastern trade, tried to move in. Then the house-divided quickly united.
The morning wore on. People gathered near the palace’s western gate. The old man opened his cart, got charcoal burning, soon was selling sausages and hot rolls.
Near noon the great gate opened. The crowd fell into a hush. A company of the King’s Own marched forth to blaring trumpets. Express riders thundered out bound for the ends of Kavelin, crying, “The King has a son!”
The crowd broke into cheers. They had waited years for that news.
The small old man smiled at his sausages. The King had a son to insure the continuity of his family’s tyranny, and the idiots cheered as if this were a day of salvation. Poor foolish souls. They never learned. Their hopes for a better future never paled. Why expect the child to become a king less cruel than his ancestors?
The old man held a poor opinion of his species. In other times and places he had been heard to say that, all things considered, he would rather be a duck.
The King’s Own cleared the gate. The crowd surged forward, eager to seize the festive moment. Commoners seldom passed those portals.
The old man went with the mob, made himself one with their greed. But his greed wasn’t for the dainties on tables in the courtyard. His greed was for knowledge. The sort a burglar cherished. He went everywhere allowed, saw everything permitted, listened, paid especial attention to the ivied wall and the Queen’s tower. Satisfied, he sampled the King’s largesse, drew scowls for damning the cheap wine, then returned to his cart, and to the alleyways.
III) He returns to the place of his iniquity
Once again the winged man slid down a midnight sky, a momentary shadow riding the beams of an October moon. It was Allernmas Night, nine months after his earlier visit. He banked in a whisper of air, swooped past towers, searched his sluggish memory. He found the right one, glided to the window, disappeared into darkness. A red-eyed shadow in a cloak of wings, he stared across the once festive court, waited. This second visit, he feared, was tempting Fate. Something would go wrong.
A black blob momentarily blocked a gap between crenellations on the battlements. It moved along the wall, then down to the courtyard. The winged man unwound a light line from about his waist. One end he secured to a beam above his head. With that his mission was complete. He was supposed to take wing immediately, but he waited for his friend instead.
Burla, a misshapen, dwarfish creature with a bundle on his back, swarmed toward him with the agility of the ape he resembled. The winged man turned sideways so his friend could pass.
“You go now?” Burla asked.
“No. I watch.” He touched his arm lightly, spilled a fangy smile. He was frightened too. Death could pounce at any moment. “I start.” He wriggled, muttered, got the bundle off his back.