Authors: Eric Van Lustbader
He came and sat on the thin bed.
“But you, my dear boy”—a heavy bejeweled hand stroked softly Ronin’s arm—“you also serve my purpose. I have labored long and hard to make you a Bladesman unmatched by any bound to the Saardin of the Freehold. Tomorrow you will enter the Square of Combat for the last time as a student.” His voice held a quivering note of triumph which he did not bother to conceal. “You will stun the Instructors who will be there to judge you and then, when you have emerged from Combat a Bladesman, the Freehold’s finest Bladesman, while the Instructors and the Saardin are still babbling to each other of your skill, then you will return here to be my Chondrin.”
A stillness eddied in the room, as absolute as a vacuum. For a time it ruled and then, quite slowly, it seemed to Ronin, the tiny background sounds of the Level returned to his ears, drifting male voices, the comforting slap of boot soles against the wooden floor, the distant metal clangor of Combat practice, sounds which had comprised the environmental context of his life for so long. Changed now, these noises came to him as harsh and brittle and without meaning, as if, of a sudden, he found himself in an alien world, wondering just how long he had been there. And looking into the glittery, obsidian eyes so close to his, he saw nothing whatsoever.
They dropped silently into the void, from time to time using hammer and spike to gain footholds along the sheer face of the cliff, or to circumnavigate an otherwise impassable section. It seemed that they had descended for hours, through the mist and the small snowfalls like choking dust storms flung against them by fierce updrafts. They paused neither to rest nor to eat, gulping handfuls of snow occasionally to slake their thirst, to keep them going.
Borros’ urgency had become infectious. For Ronin it was perhaps the stench of the monstrous creature, still crawling in his nostrils, which had finally severed the twanging chord of his grief, once as raw and painful as an exposed nerve, and which now allowed him to focus on the reason for this journey. He had gone to the City of Ten Thousand Paths on Borros’ urgings. The Magic Man was convinced that a terrifying menace was threatening to engulf the world of man. Perhaps Ronin only half believed him when he first journeyed forth but after encountering Bonneduce the Last and Hynd, after the battles with the thing that killed G’fand, he felt within him a peculiar kind of personal confirmation of what Borros had told him. And the journey had been successful. The Magic Man had sent him on a quest for an ancient scroll, which Ronin had found in the house of dor-Sefrith, purportedly the most famed and feared sorcerer of the legendary isle of Ama-no-mori, now no more than mounds of cracked stone and masonry beneath some far-off sea, Ronin mused. Pity. But I have the scroll now and, as Borros has told me, it is the key to stopping this inhuman menace. He smiled to himself. Despite Freidal’s efforts, despite the Salamander’s attempted interference. Only I have the scroll. He glanced at the thin face, drawn and haggard with fatigue, the yellow tinge sickly in the failing light. I have yet to tell him. That should bring a smile. And when we find out what it says, we shall return.
Ronin indeed returned from the Square of Combat a Bladesman. He had, as the Salamander had correctly predicted, stunned the Instructors and the Saardin, who had never before seen his like in skill and speed in Combat. Their excited talk sickened him. Yet in one important decision the Salamander would be proven wrong.
Ronin returned Upshaft to the Senseii’s Level not in the least elated. He had had no doubts as to his ability and therefore felt no trepidation when it came time for his Trial. On the contrary he felt that the Salamander had dawdled over him, procrastinating, postponing again and again his Trial date. In his own mind, he had been ready many signs ago. Now it seemed to him that the date itself meant more to the Salamander than the Trial itself.
The Salamander was waiting for him in the Hall of Combat. His enormous figure was draped in ceremonial robes of jet. His hair was newly coifed and oiled and the fan that he could wield as dexterously and as fatally as a sword or dagger protruded from his wide scarlet sash. He wore a sword on his left hip, sheathed in a formal scabbard of openwork silver with an ebon tip, intricately carved in the shape of a rampant lizard on a bed of black flame.
On either side of him, dwarfed by his bulk, stood two of his Bladesmen. One held the bands which went obliquely from left shoulder to right hip across the tunic of each Chondrin. These bands were differing colors to identify which Saardin the Chondrin was bound to. The Bladesmen held black on black bands, the Salamander’s colors.
The moment Ronin saw the bands, his decision was made. He knew quite clearly what he should do, what he had after all been trained for. He stopped before the Salamander and bowed stiffly, his face a mask, thinking, I know too what I must do. There was a great sadness within him. The Salamander inclined his head solemnly. He was more to Ronin than Combat Instructor, Senseii, Saardin. Yet still Ronin would have no man his master; would have no one now impose his will upon him, that time was surely passed forever. Free at last, he would not enslave himself within the complex political labyrinth of the Freehold society. He had his strength and power; he required nothing more.
“Now you are Bladesman,” the Salamander said formally. Was there a trace of pride in his voice? Oh, surely not from the Salamander. “You are henceforth my vassal. You obey my commands; are subject to my disciplines, my ordinances, and my will. No other may command your arm or your mind so long as I shall live. In return, you have my protection, the power of my office as Saardin and my power as Senseii of the Freehold. In honor I offer you the bands of the Salamander, Saardin, Senseii of the Freehold, as my Chondrin, to advise, to defend, to command my Bladesmen, to obey me.”
The Bladesman holding the bands stepped forward.
“Do you accept the bands of Chondrin and by so doing pledge your arm and your mind to me?”
“Salamander,” said Ronin hoarsely, “I cannot.”
“Not much more to go,” Borros said over the crying of the wind. Ronin looked down. The mist and snow had thinned enough for him to see that several hundred meters below them the cliff face ceased its precipitous plunge earthward and became a widening slope upon which they could likely walk downward the rest of the way to the ice sea.
The expanse was lit now by the wan silver light of the moon, its mottled face hanging large and hungry in a sky of trembling cloud. Ronin stared at the oval, then back again to the ice sea still far below them.
And still they descended, though weariness gripped them like a tightening vise.
In the end it would be his face that stood out in Ronin’s memory. For just an instant, a sliver so brief that perhaps only Ronin could have caught it, the seemingly impenetrable facade of the decadent and rather bored Weaponsmaster, refined and honed for so many years, appeared to crack and, like the onrush of a spring waterfall, sending rainbows into the light, a score of emotions seemed to dart across his visage. So quickly were they covered that Ronin could not even be sure. Had he seen sadness, shock, anger, hurt? All of them, Ronin surmised. He had been too wrapped up in what he had to do to understand then the larger pattern.
“You cannot!” bellowed the Salamander. “Cannot? What are you saying, you cannot? You will! You must! It cannot be any other way!” Still impaling Ronin with his furious gaze, he reached out, clutched at the Chondrin’s bands, waved them at Ronin. “You mock this trust! Just as you mock me!” His face was red and spittle flew from the glistening surfaces of his wet lips. He crumpled the bands and threw them in Ronin’s face. Ronin felt unable to move or to speak.
The huge face quivered before him. “You cannot? You do not even understand the meaning of those words.” He raised a huge fist. “I saw in you what no one else could, what you yourself were blind to. It was
vision which created you,
ideas which molded you into the Freehold’s finest Bladesman.” His voice had risen in volume and force; now his entire frame shook as if within him a fierce storm raged. “I trained you, accepted you, offer you the highest honor!” He advanced on Ronin. “And you spit in my face!” The voice was a shriek now, echoing off the high walls. Abruptly he swiped with the back of his hand, the motion so swift that Ronin could not have reacted if he had wanted to. But he had not wanted to; he knew with a chilling finality that if he moved at all he was a dead man.
The blow caught him full on the face, the rings scouring his cheek. It was a gesture of disdain and that hurt him more than the enormous force of the blow, more than the cuts opening up the skin of his face. Those would heal eventually.
“You do not understand. You know nothing of honor!” The Salamander hurled the words out as if they were somehow tainted. Then he hit Ronin again, and a third time with his hand now a clenched fist, crying out in rage because Ronin would not fall, would not retreat, would not retaliate. “How dare you! How dare you!” A litany of humiliation. Pounding at Ronin. Now his Bladesmen attempted to restrain him. He shook them off like droplets of water.
“Get away from me!” he screamed. “Get out of here! Get out!” And they scrambled obediently from his presence.
Still he beat Ronin, howling “Aaahhh!” beyond coherent speech now, staggering, irrational, inhuman.
He reached thick fingers into his sash, grasped the fan, about to draw it forth, spread its lethal edge, a supple guillotine. Then he stopped, his breathing hard and irregular.
“No,” he gasped. “No. That would be too easy.” His hand came away empty and, turning, he lurched out the door.
Ronin stood in the center of the Hall of Combat, hearing the susurration of his harsh breathing like the pounding of wild surf upon a desolate shore, his head and torso aflame with throbbing pain he only dimly felt, and thought, Now we are both shamed.
“What now?” Borros called to him.
They twisted in the air. Some twenty meters below them beckoned the lower slopes of the cliff. But they were, literally, at the end of their ropes.
“We are short,” said the Magic Man. He kicked at the rock face to stop his twisting; it only made it worse.
“Quit that,” Ronin said. “Relax your body.”
“I have no strength left,” Borros called pitifully, “I am exhausted.”
“Then save your breath,” Ronin said reasonably. He peered down again. In the uncertain light, as dense clouds rode across the moon’s pale face, he could just make out the blanket of new snow covering the upper slope. But how deep was it? he asked himself. He took the small hammer off his wrist and let it go. It hit the snow and disappeared. He unhooked the bag of spikes and dropped that too. It hit the snow near the spot where the hammer went in and disappeared. Only one thing left to do, he thought. And let go the rope.
He heard a scream and it confused him momentarily and then he was into it, under it, its weight upon him, and he could not breathe and the blackness was a suffocating mass around him, above him but he pushed up, straining and clawing, and broke the surface, inhaling the chilled air in great lungfuls. He felt ice and rock beneath his feet.
The scream came again and he knew that it was Borros.
“All right, Borros,” he shouted, cupping his hands by his mouth. “I am in the snow below you. Can you hear me?”
The sobbing of the wind.
“Let yourself drop. The snow will cushion your fall.”
“I am afraid.”
“Close your eyes and let go the rope.”
“Chill take you! Do it!”
He heard the crunch against the crisp top layer of snow and was already moving, using sound as well as sight, as fast as he could to the spot. But the deep snow pulled at him and he panted, thinking of the Magic Man’s exhaustion, knowing that he would have to pull him free very quickly or he would suffocate.
The undulating expanse of snow was albescent in the moonlight. He waded through it, tired himself, and stumbled, face in the snow, and instinctively pushed up with his hands, sinking deeper into it. Then his brain began to function again and he pushed this time with his feet and knees against the ice and then he was up. He located the darkness of the hole, went to it and dug down hard, shoveling desperately with his fingers, feeling at last the body like a dead weight, and hauled upward now with all his strength, hauling at a weight that seemed inordinately heavy, feeling time slip away beneath him, willing his fingers not to slip.
Borros came up slowly, like an ancient galleon buried beneath a sea reluctant to part with its prize, and as soon as his head came into the open Ronin slapped it. The Magic Man coughed and sputtered and half-melted ice drooled from his slowly working lips. Ronin picked him up.
“All right,” Borros whispered, so softly that it could have been the moaning of the wind. “I am”—he choked, caught himself, then inhaled his first deep breath—“quite all right.”
Ronin shoveled snow with his arms, making a shallow depression along the lee of the slope just below the sheer face of the cliff, an implacable wall lifting black shadows, it seemed, into the reaches of the tremulous sky. Deep enough for them to huddle, taking respite from the constant bite of wind and frost while they rested. Borros attempted to rake out several small packets from within his suit but his hands were shaking badly and Ronin had to lift them out, feed Borros as he fed himself.
Across the trackless slope they went dazedly, down, ever down, the wind blowing the drifting snow into their faces mingled with sharp-edged ice crystals as the temperature plummeted. Their lips were frosted and their eyebrows and lashes rimed with ice. Beneath their hoods, their cheeks were already numb. Still they moved painfully onward and when Borros fell Ronin bent and lifted him, the weight as nothing now. He half dragged him, stumbling, along the downward slope, through the drag of the heavy snow, deaf from the wind and then blind in the night, animal instinct alone lifting one foot after another onward, onward…
His first thought was the warmth and he recalled a fire leaping and logs crackling and the cheery orange glow. He tried to move closer to the warmth and could not budge. Through a thick haze he understood that something was wrong. One side of his face was warm and— With a start he realized where he was, that he was face down in the snow. With infinite slowness he lifted himself centimeter by centimeter until he was sitting up. He touched the side of his face eventually and discovered that it was numb.