People, Places & Things
Just Add Dice
It Came from the SlushPile
A King for Hothar
copyright 2000 Christine Morgan
A serial novel written exclusively for Sabledrake Magazine
Vol. VII -- The Rat-Master
"It's no good," Jherion Lendrin said, flinging his gloves on the table in disgust. "Those tunnels could have taken him anywhere by now."
Alkath Halan exhaled in grudging agreement. "We'll not find him until he wants to be found, if ever."
"A pox on me for not killing him when I had the chance!" The king dropped heavily into his chair and looked over at Gedren Ephes. "He means your magician-husband ill, my friend, and I'll not let that happen."
"I'm delighted to hear it, Jherion," Gedren said with a faint smile. "Cassidor himself will be too, if ever I can prise him away from his cast-stones. He's as determined as you to find Nerrar. Moreso, mayhap."
Jherion turned to Alkath. "Are you certain their new chamber is secure?"
"As certain as we can be. I've had men prowl through every inch of the passages we discovered, and none come close to that room. But if there are other sets of hidden halls ..." he spread his hands helplessly, shaking his head. "Which is why I've posted guards, and why Ithor himself insists on keeping close watch."
"What of the safety of the rest of the castle? The queen, the guests, yourselves?" Gedren asked. "True, Nerrar may hold a personal vendetta against Cassidor, but surely he harbors some flame of ire in his heart for others of us. Particularly you, Jherion."
"Let him try." Jherion curled a fist menacingly. "I'd like to see it."
"Don't think that he'd fight you fairly," Alkath said. "He is more the sort to resort to a knife in the back, an arrow from on high, or a draught of poison."
"Hardly honorable," Jherion needled, knowing full-well Alkath's adherence to codes of gentlemanly conduct.
"Which is why he was never a knight. Davore foisted him off as the magician's apprentice because no one else would take him."
"And Cassidor was reluctant to refuse, though Nerrar lacked interest or inclination," Gedren added.
"Tell me again, though, what they were doing that night," Jherion said. "With the stones ... what was that?"
"My darling husband has been tight-lipped about it, even more than is his usual wont with his art. He ... needed spirit advice on a rather difficult matter I'm not at liberty to discuss. But I believe that the magic was his doing, and Nerrar somehow stumbled into it. What troubles me is the business with the rats."
"Yes," Alkath said, frowning. "A giant rat attacks Magician Ephes, and then a second appears in his quarters. Or could they have been the same rat?"
"Cassidor said he struck the first one with that blackmetal box, hard enough to feel bones give way. The blow knocked the rat through a hole in the floor, which had to have been a fifteen-foot drop at the least. The rat I saw was uninjured, until I struck it with the fireplace poker."
"You are a fearsome soldier, Dame Gedren, and I wonder that my High Commander never impressed you into military service," Jherion grinned.
Gedren sniffed archly. "While you boys were off at war, someone had to stay and protect your bride-to-be. Not that I did all that grand a job, given that we ended up in the dungeon of the Ministry of Justice ... but I tried."
"For which Olinne and I both thank you." He bowed, or would have had he not been seated. "So, my most trusted advisors, what now? I'm supposed to be crowned -- again -- in a few short hours. Do we carry on, or delay until Nerrar is located?"
"Carry on," Alkath said. "Delaying will solve nothing, for I do believe we won't find him. I'd like to think that he's fled for good ... it looked it, from the condition of his ... his lair. But if he hasn't, and he does mean to try something, better to give him an opportunity when we're prepared."
"Ah, this is a fine plan," Jherion said sourly. "Put myself up as bait, that he might try to assassinate me as your father puts the crown on my head?"
"A time when you'll be in full armor, enough to stop an arrow for all it's ceremonial. You'll be surrounded by armed men."
Gedren leaned forward. "But Alkath, your sister won't be armored. Nor will your parents, or Cassidor, or myself. Are we willing to take so many chances?"
"We're also speaking of Nerrar here," Alkath said. "Who has never to my knowledge so much as drawn a bow, and likely couldn't hit the ground if not for the pull of the earth. Even if he could, he is a base coward."
"Alkath's words speak sense to me," Jherion said. "I think we should proceed as planned. I have the Premier of Narluk, the visiting royals from Westreach, and nearly every highborn in Hothar here to see this coronation, and I don't want to disappoint. Though, if I am shot, I'll have to reconsider putting you in charge, brother-in-law."
"What I want to know is how Nerrar survived," Gedren said. "Alkath, you told me what was done to him --"
"And his was probably a version adapted for the sake of a lady's ears," Jherion cut in, cracking his knuckles ominously.
"So how?" she finished. "He should have died from those wounds long since, or starved or perished from thirst."
"Perhaps once we catch him he'll enlighten us," Alkath said. He glanced out the window. "If you'll excuse me, Jherion, I promised the princess Idasha a tour of the castle grounds."
Jherion snorted. "That's, what, the fourth tour you've given her in as many days? I didn't know the castle was quite so big."
"Tut, tut, Jherion, it takes time to fully explore every hayloft in the stables, alcove in the gardens, and secluded corner of the galleries," Gedren said with a wink.
"Dame Gedren!" Alkath gasped, burning crimson. "We -- I -- it's nothing of the sort!"
The site of the butchery-tannery had been chosen carefully, on the downwind side of Hothar Castle and the surrounding city. It had originally been built a half-mile outside of the city, but over the intervening century the walls had grown to encompass it.
The stench was so strong that it could almost be seen, a tallow-yellow miasma drifting on the air. The dye-shops and perfumeries, all also located in that section of town, added their contributions.
Consequently, the gate in that wall was so infrequently used that no one could recall the last time it had been opened. The guards assigned to duty there were usually so stationed out of disciplinary action, and if they were lax, their superiors weren't unduly concerned. Had any enemy actually tried to storm the city from that direction, the stink would drop soldiers faster than a hundred bowmen.
No one who could do otherwise chose to live in the shadow of the butchery-tannery. Those who did were the poorest of the poor, dwelling in lean-tos and hovels made from cast-off materials, living on what they could glean, beg, or find.
They lived side-by-side with no sense of community, only the competitive urge for survival seen among stray hounds -- of which there were also aplenty, as well as carrion-birds. It wasn't rare for these hounds or birds, seeking food, to be instead eaten themselves by the people, or each other.
Since the Restoration of King Jherion and the generous outpouring of gold and supplies from the royal stores, many of those unfortunate people had made good on the chance to seek a better life. Now all that were left were the truly miserable, the lunatic, or the criminal.
One such group, comprising a few of each category, was gathered in an alley that had been converted to a crude shelter by means of planking and sheets of oilcloth. A fire blazed in the center of a messy ring of bedrolls, lice-ridden blankets, and other stolen or scavenged goods.
A lone elderly woman crouched by the fire's edge, poking listlessly at a pot that had once been a helm before being put to use as cookware. She dropped a handful of wizened roots into the bubbling mixture and dippered out a spoonful to blow on before tasting.
Her actions went largely unnoticed by the rest of the group. They numbered six, and beneath the rags and dirt they might have once been mostly hale and hearty men. They were scrawnier now, and none unscarred, though only two bore the marks of serious injuries.
One lacked part of an arm; it ended just above the elbow and the stump showed the scars of cautery. Another kept half his head swaddled in tattered strips of cloth, concealing the ruined landscape of his face.
The wooden bench-seat of a wagon was placed close to the fire. It had been taken from a cartload of hides that had broken an axle and overturned on the way from the tannery to the leatherworkers' shops. In addition to the seat, the men had taken as many hides as they could carry, plus the coins from the unconscious carter's purse, his belt knife, his boots, and they would have had his clothes as well if the carter's apprentice hadn't begun squawking enough to draw the guards.
Most of the hides were wrapped around the men, giving them a barbaric appearance that went well with their wild hair and beards. The rest were piled upon the wooden seat to pad it into something approaching comfort, and the man sitting there was the only one of the company to be clean-shaven.
That man was of youngish-indeterminate years but his eyes were hard and old. His ink-black hair was recently washed, his clothes shabby but not filthy. The carter's boots were on his feet, the carter's knife at his belt.
He stared into the fire wearing a grim frown, and neither his gaze nor his expression moved when the woman brought him a mug of the steaming stew. He accepted it and made a gesture of acknowledgment with one hand, and the woman retreated in a fawning scuttle.
Once he had his mug in hand, the rest of the men pushed forward in an eager yet orderly fashion. Someone produced a loaf of bread from a sack, tore away the mold-crusted ends, and passed it around. They squatted in a ring, dunking the hard bread into the stew to soften it enough for chewing.
They alone in the city were not celebrating the day's glorious event, the coronation ball of King Jherion. What conversation there was centered on their lack of supplies and how they might do something about it. The black-haired man listened as he ate but did not contribute.
" ... sister's husband was a dyer," a thickset man with an angry purple scar along his jawline was saying. "And when this time of year came, they'd bring in the hummockberries to boil down for that orangy-red dye."
"Hummockberries!" Another man, short and lean and missing both thumbs, spat into the flames. "They taste as your foot-sweat smells."
"Maybe," the first man said, "but they're still food and we've scant little of it. The dyers bring them in by the basketful. I say we keep a watch and raid them."
Another man, whose skin seemed to hang on his body, nodded. "Tunok is right. What's more, we'll need fruit and berries and greens. Can't live forever on bread and crow stew. Our bodies need more."
"Your body may, Cooky!" the short man chuckled. "You're half the man you were, and that's no lie! Why, you get much thinner and I might start mistaking you for a woman!" He squinted, and added, "an ugly one and in poor light, that is."
Rough laughter greeted this, but the once-portly man was not amused. "Laugh as you will. I was a cook. I know these things. That's why, no matter how short the rations were getting, we'd be sure to serve up some sort of fruit or greens twice a week."
"Aye, and most of the time we'd never eat it," the biggest of the men, he with only part of an arm, muttered.
"And you wonder why so many of you came down with the sores." The cook rolled his eyes. "We need greens, fresh meat --"
The elderly woman brandished her dipper at him. "If you know so much, why'm I slaving over this fire all the day? Why'rn't you doing the cooking?"
"That's not cooking! That's swill and leavings in a pot and putting it to simmer."
The short man elbowed him and grinned. "If you're quick you could serve us up a nice roast of rat. Look yonder ... that one's big as a suckling pig!"
They all looked at the hunched, low-slung shape in the shadows at the edge of the flickering firelight. The rat was enormous, nearly six inches high at the shoulders, with a coarse coat thickening to a shaggy manelike ruff of white fur. At the sigh of its well-fed plumpness, several stomachs were heard to rumble.
"Coming right over here," Tunok said. "Must have the bollocks of a wolf, that one!"
"Someone give me something to throw," the short man said. "Ah, pox on me but I wish I'd a bow and the thumbs to draw it!"
The rat was joined by another of nearly the same size, and then by a third with the slightly smaller and sleeker form of a female. The three stood steady as stones, just within the firelit circle. Their eyes glittered with the reflection of flames.
The old woman hissed and shrank back. "Spirits! Spirits a'come to us in the shapes of rats! It's an omen ... an omen, I say you!"
The black-haired man ignored her, rising and drawing his knife. He expected the rats to flee at the movement, but they didn't. A third, this one an ordinary brown rat, moved to stand beside the first.
"I've never seen rats to act like that," Cooky murmured.
The short man hurled a rock. His aim was bad, and it bounced a few feet from the rats. They didn't scatter, didn't even budge. A ripple of unease passed through the rest of the men and more than a few followed the old woman's lead in making a gesture to protect against evil spirits.
Shifting the knife to a point-down throwing grip, the black-haired man advanced on the quartet of rats. As he poised to throw, he saw light flashing in more pairs of eyes. Many more pairs of eyes, ranging in color from ruby-red to an unwholesome yellow.
Two dozen rats filed out of the darkness and lined up in ranks behind the four leaders. They were mostly large and shaggy, though a few of the smaller browns were mixed in.
The rest of the men, excepting the one whose head was swaddled in cloth, got up with alarmed mutterings. They came to stand with their black-haired leader, bringing what weapons they had -- clubs and short knives.
"Are they going to overrun us?" the big man asked softly.
"If they do, they do," the black-haired man replied. "Funny, I never thought our end would come like this."
Yet the rats did not move. They held their positions even as the five men spread out. The silent, watchful intensity of those half-a-hundred eyes sent the hair on the back of each man's neck to prickling. The old woman whined and tried to edge closer to the biggest man for protection but he pushed her aside with a grunted growl.
The black-haired man made a mock lunge, slashing with the knife. Only the leader of the rats, the largest and first to appear, showed any reaction. Its lips split and skinned back from teeth that looked capable of rending a human throat to shreds.
A single deliberate footstep broke the eerie hush. All of those present felt a sudden peculiar heaviness, as of the air preceding a thunderstorm.
As one, all of the rats sat back on their haunches.
The old woman moaned and two of the men took an involuntary pace backward.
A hunched figure emerged from a cramped side-alley. It looked to be a man, wrapped in a worn and threadbare dark cloak.
For the black-haired man, the memories of his childhood came back in a flash. He knew in his heart that the cloaked figure was a magician, and leapt into action. The knife in his hand rotated almost of its own accord.
The instant he started forward, warning squeals chorused from two dozen mouths. They came at him in a disciplined charge, so unnerving him that he froze in place. His men cried out in fear and alarm, and he heard the rapid drumming of their feet as they retreated.
The rats stopped inches from him as if daring him to kick out. Some of them were crouched to spring with haunches quivering in anticipation, and the fibery raspy rustle of their bare, tough-skinned tails sweeping the stone made the man's arms bump with gooseflesh.
He held his ground, hand fisted on the knife.
The magician limped closer and shook his head so that the hood fell from it. Firelight illuminated that which should have stayed in shadows. A face once-handsome despite a certain sharpness of features was now a vulpine, ghoulish mask of scars and fractures. Shiny marks of healed burns and blisters ringed the mouth. The nose was canted severely to one side.
The black-haired man exhaled slowly, incredulously, but did not loosen his grip on the knife. "Nerrar."
A stabbing pain thrust into his brain so fiercely that his first thought was of an arrow piercing his skull. He brought his hands up to clench the sides of his head so suddenly that he almost gave himself another stabbing pain courtesy of the knife he yet held.
When it eased and he could breathe again, he realized that there had been words in that pain. Words in a voice that was almost familiar, and in the language of Kathan.
G'deve, Felin ... you dyed your hair.
Nerrar eased himself down on the wooden wagon seat. At his silent command, most of his little army dispersed into the clutter of debris littering the alley. Four stayed with him, the smallest on his shoulder, one on each side, and the biggest crouched at his feet.
Felin Kathak paced back and forth in front of the fire. He rubbed fitfully at his head, casting frequent evaluating, wolfish glances at Nerrar.
His men sat in a protective group on the other side, as far as they could get from the newcomer. Their air was one of superstition and dread.
The old woman hesitantly offered Nerrar a mug of the watery stew. He took it greedily. It wasn't much better than what his rats could scrounge but it was warm, the first hot meal he'd gotten into his belly for weeks and weeks.
"So you are alive," Felin said. "How did you avoid the executioner's blade all this time? Where have you been hiding? How came you here, to me? And ... what is this strange magic that makes these rats do your bidding?"
Nerrar fixed his will upon Felin, turning his thoughts into a piercing awl. By the way you winced when I greeted you, can you bear such a long story?
Felin raised a hand to his brow and groaned. "What is this? I seem to hear you speak but not with my ears, as if your voice comes from within my very head!"
Your mind is different from those of the rats, Nerrar told him. Stronger. Stop resisting, and this will be easier for both of us. And tell your men that I mean you no harm. Were glares arrows, I'd be holed through.
"How do I know you mean me no harm?"
Don't be a fool, Felin. If I did, my rats could have swarmed you where you stood. Oh, you would have slain several, but the rest would have made short work of you. Most of them are of Kathani descent, our spirit-cousins as it were. Their ancestors came with the army of your father and uncle twenty years ago. I can reach their minds and yours with far less effort that those purely Hotharan.
"How is this possible? You were only an apprentice, Nerrar, and I never heard of even your master doing such feats!"
My master, Nerrar mentally snarled, kept many secrets from me ... but this, I think, would be an unpleasant surprise even to him. We are together in this, Felin. We have the same enemies. Therefore, it makes sense that we ally. Tell your men.
Felin turned toward the watchful group. "This is Nerrar, brother to Beris who was once our queen. He is my distant kinsman, and claims to be no foe of ours. Nerrar, these few are what remains of the Red Sword Army. The short fellow there is Eradan ... that is Tunok ... the giant next to him is Belorva ... and he with the bandages is Urdevik. We are, far as I know, the only free survivors of the massacre at Trevale. Cooky here, and Shentha, were camp followers that joined us later. We lost four others on the way back to the city."
Why did you come back? Nerrar asked. What can you possibly hope to do with four soldiers -- two crippled and one insane -- a cook, and an aged whore?
"Aged laundress," Felin corrected with a wry curl of his lip. "We came here because it was the only place we might hide out unnoticed for a time. Between here and Trevale, the country consists of one small picturesque village after another, where every inhabitant knows and is related to each of his neighbors. We would have been seen for what we were, and either beaten to death by gleeful commonborn or dragged here in chains to be put to the block."
Nerrar absently stroked Curdnibbler, who had crept down to his lap to poke his inquisitive nose into the empty bowl. And the famed High Commander, the Red Wolf with hair like a battle flag, dyed it so as not to be recognized.
Felin touched his hair and nodded. "Ever since, we've been making do on what we can find. When winter is past, I mean to travel to Kathan."
There, with the support of your ancient uncle King Deveran, to raise an army and smite these Hotharans to the ground?
Nerrar almost chuckled at the way Felin's men were frowning in concentration as they tried to piece together the unspoken other side of his conversation. He pushed out experimentally at their minds, making them all recoil, but couldn't penetrate without causing them even more severe pain than he'd inflicted on Felin.
"You say that as if you think it an impossibility."
On the contrary. You are now the rightful king. Oldered claimed this land by right of conquest, and since Davore died without heir, the crown falls to you.
"Alkath Halan cut down my father on the field ... an act for which, for all I respect the fortunes of war, I mean to make him answer. But as for my being the rightful king, I'm sure this Lendrin brute would have something to say about that."
Brute, indeed! Hate boiled from Nerrar's mind. He thrust out his hands with their crooked juttings of bunched and branchlike fingers. He it was that did this to me! Took a hammer to each knuckle as if he sought to crack hazelnuts from their shells! And *this --
Nerrar gaped wide his jaws, an act that cause him near-swooning pain. Felin took one look and went ashen.
"I see why it is that you do not speak," he said. "But how ... with all they did to you ... how is it that they let you live?"
They did not *let me. It was a hard-won privilege, and to this day I wonder if I might not have been better off to stay and die instead of drag myself to safety. You wish to know how it is that I survived, and how I came to be in the company of rats? Here, Felin. Know.
The gate-guards tried to be gentle as they carried him into the great hall, but their every step brought him to new heights of agony.
As they lowered him to the floor, Nerrar heard a babble of stunned and revolted outcries. He knew it was their sight of him, of his condition, to be the cause, and held no blame for any of the lords and ladies. Had he been able to see himself, had he been able to cry out, he would have well done the same.
His brother-in-law Davore's voice rose rantingly above the rest. That a royal messenger would be so treated --
Messenger ... Nerrar no longer recalled nor cared what his message had been in the first place. His indignant incredulity at the cocksure Lendrin heir's refusal to honor the traditional immunity was likewise a thing of no consequence.
All that mattered was the encompassing pain.
Oh ... and something else? Wasn't there was something he needed to tell them?
Nerrar fought to think, fought to remember.
Tell them? An impossibility! No man could speak with tongue removed!
No, that was far too tidy a word. It had been ripped out, held with pincers and the root sawed at until --
Removed ... for the sake of sanity, he would keep with removed.
Neither could he write them a warning, for his hands were gloves stuffed with nails and fire and raw meat sewn to the ends of his arms.
He heard Davore demand information of the hog-drover --
The hog-drover! That was it!
A trick! A deceitful, dishonorable, murderous trick! The supposed commonborn who claimed to have found the savagely-treated messenger and carried him to the city was in truth none other than the usurper himself!
But Nerrar could only utter a thick and glottal moan ... too late.
He was helpless as the sudden battle erupted around him. Ladies screamed, swords clashed, and panicked fleeing feet nearly trampled him where he lay.
And then, when only moments before he had yearned pleadingly for unconsciousness or death, a fierce will to live welled up in him.
A linen-draped table was only a few yards away. Thanks to his surreptitious snoopings in earlier years, he knew that it happened to be positioned just above a trap door that gave onto a disused stewards' stair.
The strength of desperation let him move, pulling his battered body inch by inch over the cool marble floor. The few yards seemed like miles. His limbs shook with strain. Breath rushed in and out, parching the blisters that covered the inside of his mouth and freezing the sockets where some of his teeth had been knocked out.
No one noticed him, no one tried to stop him. He reached the edge of the table and crawled under as Davore was raising the Red Sword for the last time.
The trap door was a marble stone laid flush with the others, its devious design not readily apparent. Nerrar spied an eating knife that had fallen from the table when the court rose in alarm. Gripping it clumsily between the heels of both hands, he maneuvered it until the tip was resting between the stones. He slid it along the crack, feeling the catch-and-release as the blade tripped the latch.
Quickly now, quickly, he told himself as Beris' wail announced Davore's doom.
He couldn't bear to press down with his hands, so hitched himself up and used his elbow. The stone tilted down on a hidden hinge.
A puff of cold air hit Nerrar's face from the opening below. He swung himself around so that he was feet-first and slithered into the narrow, steep stairwell. The hard angles of the steps dug into him.
He carefully raised the trap door back into place. With his least-damaged thumb, he reset the latch, moving by feel now because he was in a blackness so complete it was like being swallowed by the living night.
Hard to believe that at one time servants had used these stairs to bring trays of food to the feasting hall above. Even a small woman would have had to stoop to avoid hitting her head on the slow, slanted ceiling, and there were no handrails.
One wrong move and he would slide joltingly all the way to the bottom, but if that happened it would surely kill him so there was little point in worrying about it.
The chill settled heavily into him as he reached a landing. He sensed open space to the left, and encountered only blank walls ahead and to the right. Nerrar shuffled slowly along with his arms crossed in front of his face so that he wasn't leading with his poor, abused hands.
He came to a doorway so thickly cobwebbed that it might have been curtained in bridal lace. The door itself was halfway ajar, and its hinges squalled so loudly that he was sure it would alert the castle and bring his enemies down on him. He stepped through, and fell.
The floor was sunken by only a few inches, but it was enough to send him plunging helplessly forward. He retained the presence of mind to keep his arms crossed rather than try to catch himself.
He slammed down elbows-first, and the impact jarred him from head to toe. His every injury burst at once with new pain. And still he did not die, did not lose consciousness -- the gods were cruel!
Mewling, he scrabbled onward and bumped into a moldy, dusty pile of coarse cloth. He hitched himself onto the pile, which offered more softness than the stone floor, and lay shuddering until the worst of it had passed.
When it had, he explored what he could feel of the cloth. Grain sacks, all empty and flat, the fabric ragged and brittle. The heat of his own blood from reopened wounds made him realize how cold he was, and he burrowed under a layer of sacks.
Death might be denied him, unconsciousness might be denied him, but after a while, sleep at least was not. He sank into it with a plaintive murmur.
When he woke, he was not alone.
Small, warm bodies were crowded all around him. Rats, a hundred or more of them, curled beside him and atop him like a blanket, like a cocoon.
He could feel the fluttering beat of tiny hearts through their sides ... all beating in time with his own. He could smell them, the dusty musk of their fur, the sour reek of their breath.
And more ... he was aware of their minds. Their thoughts were simple animal thoughts driven more by instinct than reason, and had commanded them to come to him. As if he'd sent out some sort of call or compulsion that they could not resist. As if they ... as if they recognized him as one of their own.
His next realization was that not only could he read their minds, but he could use their senses as his own.
Their eyes showed him the room in which he lay in dim shades of purple, grey, and black. Their noses let him identify each of them by scent and smell the sickness and infection that were advancing in his flesh. Their ears heard the dim thunder of his own pulse, the whispering creep of insects, the distant dripping of water.
They were awake but quiescent, waiting, as he tested this strange new awareness. He thought of the water and how thirsty he was, and issued a tentative command. At once, a dozen of the larger rats detached themselves from the heap and scurried away.
When they returned, they presented themselves to him one by one. The first, whose mind named himself Findersniff, brought his wet, whiskery muzzle to Nerrar's lips.
Nerrar parted them and took water from the mouths of the rats.
They fed him next, chewing the food into a thin paste that he could swallow despite the condition of his mouth. Others did what they could for his wounds, cleaning them in the manner of low creatures.
He felt none of the revulsion he would have expected. The rats were his, he was theirs, their thoughts were filled with an adoration so basic that he could not question it. In their minds, and soon in his, he was simply the Master.
In the days that followed, he learned more of himself, the rats, and his new abilities. They led him to their home in a storage chamber far beneath the castle. There, stuffing pulled from cushions and unraveled threads from rolled tapestries provided the materials for nests, and the stacks of old furniture offered many hiding places.
The tribe numbered near two hundred, counting the most recent litters of pink, naked, squirming young. Of those, three-fourths were of the larger Kathani-descended breed, whose minds were more open to Nerrar's control.
He'd found that he could take them over fully, dancing them around like children's' toys if he so desired, but to do this for too long was to risk having a lifeless-yet-breathing rat when he was done. He could punish them with only an effort of will, by touching that part of the brain that had to do with pain ... and reward them with the converse. He could make a rat starve amidst plenty by telling it that the stomach was sated, or force the same rat to overeat until death.
Then, one night, he'd made another discovery. The aging leader of the tribe had been challenged by a younger and stronger rival. At the end of a fur-flying, tooth-gnashing, fight, old Houndkiller was dead. But Quickbite had come out of it little better, his belly gashed wide.
The dying rat had fallen at Nerrar's feet, his thoughts pleading. Nerrar had gone into his mind meaning to will him to a merciful death, but had stumbled across a new trick instead. He found the part of Quickbite's brain responsible for the body's own natural healing, and seized control of it.
With Quickbite restored to health, Nerrar wondered for the first time if he could use this incredible power on himself. He found it more difficult with his far more complicated brain, but was able to rid himself of the lingering infections that had corrupted his wounds and bid the flesh knit up faster.
But by then, his bones had begun to re-set in their own uneven joinings, and short of re-breaking his fingers and ribs, he could not change that. Nor could he regrow what was lost, either tongue or ... or other portions too personal to mention.
Felin shook himself all over like a drenched fanghound as the images driven into his mind came to an end. He coughed and pressed his tongue against the roof of his mouth, more conscious of it than ever before and very glad indeed to find it whole and unharmed. The same went for other parts of him ... too personal to mention.
"Hold," he commanded his men, who were on the brink of violence. "I'm well."
"He is using some evil magic on you," Belorva said, towering over Nerrar and only held at bay by the threatening squeals from the three large shaggy rats.
"Magic, yes ... but not evil. Sit, Belorva, before Quickbite there takes it on himself to go for your throat." Felin looked at Nerrar with a mixture of fear and respect, both emotions he'd never before felt in connection with Queen Beris' sly younger brother. "So all these weeks, you've lived among the rats? Why do you come to me now? And how did you know to find me, that I yet lived?"
Nerrar's voice stabbed into him again. You were believed dead, true. But last night, I learned differently. So too may have Cassidor Ephes, and if he knows, then by now the inner circle of the court will as well. Oh, yes ... I learned many fascinating things yestereve and last night, your survival not greatest among them.
"Shentha, the cask of ale. We could all use some, I think." As she scuttled to obey. Felin sat on an upended barrel and rested his chin on his knuckles and studied Nerrar. "How did you learn differently?"
Your father told me.
He jerked, nearly spilling the mug that Shentha was holding out to him. "My father! He ... no, I saw him die!"
Yes ... but last night, I spoke to him and your mother both. I walked where the spirits do, Felin.
Felin listened in astonishment as Nerrar described how he'd made use of the many secret passages that honeycombed Hothar Castle, and set his rats to spying. How Findersniff had followed Cassidor Ephes to the chamber of the previous magician, and was wounded in a failed attempt on Ephes' life -- here one of the rats lowered his head in abject shame -- and how Nerrar and Whiskertwitch had gone to Ephes' chamber to investigate.
I was drawn into the place of the spirits, Nerrar continued. But Ephes' wife came in and broke the spell, forcing us to flee into the secret passages. They began a search. An inept one, true, having to tear down the very wall just to come in after me, but I knew that sooner or later they'd have a stroke of luck. Or Ephes himself might divine the whereabouts of the den. I healed Findersniff and Whiskertwitch, then told the rats that I had to leave. Some chose to accompany me. And that is how we come to be here.
"My father ... my mother ..." Felin rubbed his chin again, still missing the spade-shaped beard he used to wear. "But how did you find me?"
My power, if magic it is, seems to work best on those of Kathani descent. I cast with my mind as a fisherman might cast with his nets, and when I sensed your presence, I bade my spies go and search. Curdnibbler -- who, oddly, is almost purely of the other breed and yet bends most willingly to my control -- led us here.
"Now that you've found me, what would you have of me? You mentioned an alliance."
Don't look so mockingly at my rats as you say that. You've seen how large and fierce they are, and they are obedient. To them, I am their Master, their own spirit-god. If I will it, they'll take on a foe ten times their size. They can get unobserved into places where a man cannot; no one remarks on a rat.
"So you'd have me lead half a hundred rats overland to Kathan?"
No, no, no! Use your head, Felin! The bulk of them would stay here, perhaps finding a new den near to one of the gates. Then, when we return with the army your uncle will provide, my rats will let us into the city!
"By opening the gates, I suppose."
Why not? Enough of them working as one could overpower the guards and operate the mechanism.
"Relying on rats ... how do you know that your power over them will hold once you've gone?"
I know, Nerrar stated flatly.
Felin sighed. "If you're right, they could be useful, I won't deny it. Very well, Nerrar, I accept the offer. But you're welcome to come with us, home to Kathan, either way."
Oh, my offer isn't over yet. There's something else my little spies learned yestereve that you'll find very interesting indeed.
"What might that be?"
Only this -- Jherion Lendrin is not a Lendrin at all. There was, it seems, a bit of a mixup at the midwife house in Westreach. The *real child of Princess Meryve was a girl ... and she's here in Hothar this very moment.
"Where did my tunic end up?" Alkath Halan asked, digging through the hay.
Idasha stretched lazily and smiled at him. "I think I threw it behind those bales in a fit of passion."
"Ah ... so you did."
She watched as he went to retrieve it, leaning at an angle because the sloped pitch of the roof was too low for his height.
The loft was warm from the heat of the sheep, goats, and herdbeasts below. They'd added their own warmth to it, to offset the brisk morning chill. Stirred-up motes of dust and chaff danced in the beams of pale light that filtered through the thatch, that cold sunlight almost the very color of Alkath's pale blond hair.
"How is it," she wondered aloud, "that a man such as you can be as gangly and aimless as a pack-beast colt one moment, and graceful as a mountain cat the next?"
"How is it that you can be a daunting and forbidding warrior-woman one moment, and a sweetly-surrendering maid the next?" he countered, returning to sit on the blanket they'd spread across the hay.
"Surrendering? Me?" She had donned smallclothes and vest already but her long legs were still bare, and she extended one to walk her toes over his taut belly. "You were the one pleading for mercy."
"I remember now ... you simply have that effect on me." His playful grin faded to a worrisome expression. "Idasha ... I ... I fear that there are those who suspect."
He cupped her calf, slid his hand toward her knee. "This. You and I. Together."
"Oh. Well, Alkath, I don't think you need trouble yourself about it. I'm sure no one suspects."
"Do you think so?"
"Of course I do." She sat up, shaking hay from her unbound mass of burnished-bronze hair. Twining her arms around his neck, she looked deeply into his winter-blue eyes. "They know."
"What?" He tried to draw back, but she held him firm. "Who?"
"Everyone, most likely. Your king, my brother ... everyone."
"Calm yourself! What do you think he'd do, call you out in a duel for compromising my chastity?"
"I have seen your brother fight; his practice bout against Baron Eastmarch was the talk of the garrison! This is no laughing matter, if he knows of us!"
"Alkath, Alkath ... what am I to do with you? Our meetings might be scandalous by your Hotharan standards, but believe me, we Westreachers are far less concerned about such things. What I do, and who I'm with, is my business. For what it's worth, my mother and brother both like you very much, if that eases your mind."
"Your mother knows as well?"
"Of course. Doesn't yours?"
He chuckled shakily. "She'd be furious if she did!"
Idasha narrowed her eyes in mock anger. "Not good enough for you?"
"Hardly that, my darling! Hardly that! No, if my mother harbored for an instant the notion that I had seduced you without swearing an oath to take you to wife, she'd think me the lowest creature on the face of the earth!"
"Oh, yes ... Hotharan girls, first the wedding and then the bedding."
"The very same."
"Beg pardon?" His brows shot upward.
"Foolishness. A man of Westreach would rather have a proven woman than an untried girl, and as for the women, they'd far prefer to test the virility of their men before choosing a husband."
He goggled at her. "Have you ... have you tested the virility of many men?" As she started to speak, he raised a hand sharply. "No, I take back the question!"
"Was I your first?" she asked pointedly.
"Well ... no ..."
"So be it," she said, and sprang atop him to pin him in the straw. After several moments of ardent kisses and caresses, she reluctantly pulled away. "But if you are to go riding with the son of the Premier of Narluk before they leave, you'd best get going."
"I'd nearly forgotten!" He started and whirled. "What was that?"
"What was what?"
"I saw something over there, movement."
"Oh ... it was just a rat."
"Not one of these giant shaggy rats of which you spoke. A plain brown rat, no bigger than this." She held her hands a normal rat-length apart.
"That's a relief, then." He resumed dressing.
Idasha found her trousers, shook the chaff from them, and pulled them on. "There's been no further word on this misplaced apprentice?"
"None. A full week, and nothing. I conclude he must be long gone by now. As I thought, the coward wouldn't dare turn up at the coronation." He combed through his hair with his fingers. "How's that?"
"Very presentable, if a little rumpled. And you really mean to ride one of those ill-tempered beasts?"
"I mean to try. Truth be told, I'm more than a little nervous. But at the Battle of Trevale, I saw some promising possibilities, if only the beasts could be better controlled."
"Still anticipating a war, then."
"I fear we must plan for it. The king of Kathan may have had little love for his nephew, but Kathani don't like to let insults pass unanswered. I wouldn't be surprised to see spring bring us green meadows, blossomed trees, and an army marching down from the north."
"If it does come to that, Jherion could probably call upon Westreach for aid. He and my brother Seric have hit it off well, and Gethrin always relies on Seric's judgement."
They descended from the loft and out into the stable yard. Idasha noticed several people noticing them, and for the first time Alkath seemed to as well. He coughed in embarrassment.
She elbowed him in the ribs. "Oh, go on and look smug, let them think you're proud of what you've done."
"I am! I'd just prefer it wasn't the talk of the castle."
"You're days too late for that."
The visiting dignitaries from Narluk had their ride-beasts stabled well away from the rest of the animals to avoid confrontations and bloodshed. As Alkath and Idasha headed that way, they heard screeches and roars and the yelling of men.
"Sounds as if those great lizards are fighting amongst themselves again," Idasha said. "And you're sure you want to ride one?"
"Safest place to be is on its back," he replied. "The claws and teeth can't reach me then."
"Make sure your saddle's well-cinched, then --"
She broke off as a ride-beast came lunging around the corner of a building, directly in front of them. It was the first time she'd seen one so close, without high and sturdy fencing between them, and the sight of it was so breathtaking that at first neither she nor Alkath realized their danger.
The ride-beast raced toward them on its powerful hind legs, a thickly-muscled tail extended straight out behind. Its forelegs were small but dexterous, equipped with scything claws. Its wedge-shaped head jabbed back-and-forth as it ran, and its jaws were slightly parted to reveal the dreaded double-row of serrated teeth.
Its hide was banded in shades of light green, orange-tan, and yellow, which let it hide itself on the plains of Narluk but stood out brightly against the dark grey and brown backdrop of the courtyard.
As Idasha belatedly grabbed for her lhote, she saw that the beast had a rider. His black hair was whipped back from his temples, his vivid green eyes were intense and determined, and the hand not guiding the ride-beast's reins brandished a dripping sword.
People were running and screaming in all directions. Arrows hissed from the high battlements, thudding into the earth. One grazed the ride-beast's flank and it shrieked in high fury.
Rider and mount charged down on Idasha. In his instinctive spirit of chivalry, Alkath put himself between them, with his own sword in hand. Their blades clashed, and then the maddened ride-beast was lashing at Alkath with its foreclaws.
Idasha swung her lhote and impaled the ride-beast in the crook of its elbow. Its head darted down, teeth coming for her. She ducked, but it snapped a mouthful of hair and tore it out by the roots.
Alkath and the rider exchanged another clanging round of blows, then one of them parried so that their weapons locked. The rider kicked, his booted foot striking Alkath square in the chest. He landed sprawled on his back.
The ride-beast slashed Idasha's shoulder with its good foreclaw. She wrenched out the lhote and swung again, but it turned and the tip of the short sharp-pointed pick sank into several inches of reinforced leather that made up its saddle.
She looked up, right into the merciless green eyes of the rider, an instant before he punched her in the jaw.
Dazed, Idasha lost hold of her lhote. The rider hooked his arm under hers and dragged her across the beast's back.
They bore down on Alkath. He rolled aside with scant inches to spare as the ride-beast's rear claws trampled and gouged the ground where he'd been.
More arrows streaked from on high. The rider grunted as one plunged into his upper leg, and wheeled his mount around. Alkath leaped to his feet with that uncanny grace of his, and tried to grab the reins.
The beast struck like a snake, and a spray of blood flew from Alkath's forearm. Then they were past and away, and above the heavy thumping of the beast's tread, above the yells and cries of alarm, Idasha could hear Alkath frantically calling her name.
She twisted and sank her teeth into the rider's knee, while at the same time striking out at him as best she could from her awkward position.
His fist crashed into her skull, and she tumbled into darkness.
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