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Chapter Nine

Another barrage of blue lightning and deafening thunder pummeled Urik from above. The lightning-limned figure of the Raamin queen vanished with the afterglow and didn't reform. In the tumult, the sound of one man collapsing slowly on the marble tiles was heard only by Hamanu, who bent a thought around the blond templar's heart to keep it beating.

This Tyr-storm seemed fiercer than the last such storm to pound Urik's walls. Indeed, it seemed fiercer than any since the firstperhaps because like that storm, this one had arrived unexpectedly. Five years ago, Urik's most exalted templars had succumbed, at least temporarily, to the madness Tyr-storms inspired. Now the survivors stood impassively in the flickering blue light. If they were not confident that the storm would spend itself quicklyand Hamanu discerned their doubts through the lightning and the thunderthey were at least determined not to let their neighbors see their weakness.

Hamanu tolerated any mortal trait in his templars, except weakness. The men and women in his throne chamber were hard, often to the point of cruelty; competent, to the point of arrogance; and strong willed, even in his presence. They'd hesitate to ask the questions the Raamin queen's voice had raised in their minds, but inevitably, one of them would overcome that hesitation.

To forestall the death that would follow such insubordination, Hamanu reached into the blond templar's mind.

Who sent you? What do you know about the message and the object you bore?

Spasms rocked the Raamin templar as he lay unnoticed on the marble floor. He'd need a miracle to survive interrogation by a champion other than his mistress, and despite whatever promises the Raamin queen might have made while she lived, champions couldn't conjure miracles.

Don't fight me, Hamanu advised. Answer my questions. Recount.

The templar complied, giving Hamanu vision after vision of a Raam fallen in anarchy deeper than any he'd imagined. Five years after the woman Raamins called Abalach-Re, the grand vizier of a nameless, nonexistent god, had disappeared, Raamin merchants, nobles, templars, and the worst sort of elven tribes had carved her city into warring fiefdoms.

Her templars, as ignorant as ever of the true source of their power, had tried to reestablish their magical link with the god that Uyness had claimed to serve. Small wonder, then, that these days the despised, dispirited Raamin templars struggled to hold their own quarter and the gutted palace. Small wonder, too, that when some of them began seeing a familiar face in their dreams, hearing a voice they'd despaired of hearing again, they'd done whatever it had told them to do. They went down to the dust-scoured wharves where the silt schooners tied up. There they found the shard among the rocks that were sometimes visible along the shore

Without moving from the dais, Hamanu turned his attention to the elven runner who'd brought the second shard.

Recount, he commanded.

The elf's heart skipped a beat or two, but he was young and healthy, and he came to no permanent harm.

A pair of messengers, O Mighty King, came to the Todek registrator claiming to be templars from Balk

Another city, far to the south of Urik, but also on the Sea of Silt.

Our registrator, she disbelieved. They were afoot, rat-faced and worse for traveling, with nothing in their scrips but a handful of ceramic chips so worn there was no telling what oven baked them or where. But they knew the things templars know, O Mighty King, and there was one among us who'd been to Balic and knew they had the city pegged aright: merchants and nobles in charge, just as in Tyr. Templars all dead or in hiding. So, the registrator listened

We all listened close, O Mighty King, when the pair said King Andropinis wasn't dead, but that he needed help before he could give them power again. He'd said they'd find help in Urik if they delivered a message.

Hamanu interrupted, And the message was the leather-wrapped parcel?

No, O Mighty King. The parcel was to be a gift, a truth token from King Andropinis himselfor so they said. The registrator, she ordered them to unwrap it. They wouldn't, until we threatened them. I laughed, O Mighty King, when they cast lots and the loser made his death-promises. But he died a bad death, and the thing was still all wrapped in silk

Sighing, Hamanu withdrew from the elf's mind while his templar was still recounting the fate of the Balkans. Would a lightning-limned image of Albeorn Elf-Slayer rise in the storm-lit chamber if he unwrapped this second shard? Would it spew a mix of truth and error, promises and threats? Were there, at this very moment, messengers from the championless city of Draj headed for Urik's walls with a deadly shard bundled under their arms?

Hamanu let the bundle under his left arm slide back onto the hard seat of the throne behind him. He was ready to deal with his elite templars, ready for the storm to be over, but not quite ready to raise a figurative fist against the powers that spawned it.

Tyr-storms weren't long-lived. Their violence worked against them. Hamanu listened outside his palace and heard the wind swirl itself into knots and die. Lightning paled quickly; thunder faded. Cold black rain pelted the city as the air cooled to a midnight chill. The pounding of countless drops was as loud as thunder. Every wall, every roof, every market square and street would have to be scrubbed clean. The Lion-King's monumental bas-reliefs that paraded around the outer walls would have to be repaintedan enormous expenditure of labor and wealth that couldn't be avoided, not even when every army in the heartland seemed to be marching toward Urik.

Hamanu cast his netherworld net beyond the city. The corners of his mouth pulled upward with relief: the Tyr-storm's fury was so tightly centered above the palace that the fields outside the walls had suffered no worse than a steady rain. The workers were safe in whatever shelters they'd found for themselves, and the seeds they'd planted were safe, as well.

His elite templars wouldn't sleep before midnight. As the storm grumbled to a close, Hamanu crafted orders for his men and women. He'd meet immediately with his war-bureau commandants and a few others in the map room, but most of his elite templars would find themselves with civic duties in the storm's aftermath. Keeping order was the templars' responsibility. There'd been casualtieshe could feel the Urikite dead and dyingand property damage: collapsed buildings; fires, despite the black rain; and a smattering of mad folk, some pathetically helpless, and others more dangerous than any arena beast.

Hamanu's yellow-robed templars would see to it all. They'd dispatch the dead to the knackers; the injured to whatever healers they could afford; and they'd keep the city safe from looting, riot, and madmen. They'd organize the work gangs to put out the fires and dig out survivors. They'd get their own hands dirty, if he told them to.

And he would.

"I retire to consider what I've learned," Hamanu announced before any templar had overcome his or her reluctance to ask questions. "You will each do what your office commands in the aftermath of a Tyr-storm." The individual orders he'd crafted flowed simultaneously from his mind to theirs. "Are there any questions?"

He looked around the chamber, meeting and breaking the stare of anyone who considered a time-wasting inquiry. The templars began departing. As soon as there was a clear path to the corpse, the slaves left the treadmills. They took up the blond Raamin's body and bore it respectfully from the chamber.

Hamanu picked out one particular dark-haired head among those moving toward the door. Flicking a finger through the netherness, he tapped the man sharply on the shoulder. Pavek's face slumped forward even as his spine straightenedan impressive physical performance in its helpless, hapless mortal waybut otherwise no one suspected that he'd been singled out for private conversation with his king.

Pavek was learning the tricks of his new trade.

"I gave you no orders," Hamanu said once they were alone. He narrowed his eyes and got a good taste of common-born fear before Pavek managed to swallow it.

Slowly, Pavek raised his head. Dark mortal eyes, wide with dread, found the strength to defy the Lion-King. "O Mighty King, I was following the commands of my office. There are Quraite farmers planting seed north of the walls"

"Eight of whom are more competent druids than you'll ever be! If all of Urik were so well protected, the fiercest Tyr-storm would be tamed to a breeze long before it got here."

Pavek gulped. Guilty thoughts swirled in his mind. He'd known about six of the druids, but not eight. He was afraid for himself, more afraid for them. It was the latter fear that stiffened his spine. "O Mighty King, you said it was time for Quraite to pay the price of your protection. It was their choice. More would have come"

"But you thought six was enough. I tell you, Pavek, they sneaked an extra two in without your knowledge."

The man broke at last. His posture went limp; he stared at his feet and muttered, "It was their choice, O Mighty King. They know their magic is forbidden, but they came anyway. You made them understand that Quraite is as much a part of Urik as the Lion's fountain."

Even in defeatespecially in defeatPavek spoke the words that formed in his heart. Once, never more than twice, in a human generation, Hamanu found a man who'd tell the truth, no matter the risk.

"I need you here, Just-Plain Pavek."

"O Mighty King, I'm yours to command."

"Good." Hamanu smiled, baring pointed golden teeth, but the illusion went for naught because Pavek continued to stare at his toes. He reached around for the wrapped bundle he'd left on the throne seat. It was heavier now and definitely inert. "You will take this to my workroomLook at me, Pavek! Look at me when I'm giving you an order!"

"I meant no disrespect, O Mighty King."

Hamanu seldom explained himself or apologized for anything. He hid his cursed fangs within blunt-edged human illusions and considered that sufficient. He shoved the bundle into Pavek's reluctant arms. "You will take this to my workroom; I judge it harmless enough now, but it warrants further examination. You'll find a table covered with vellum. Put it on the table and wait for me to return. While you're waiting, you'll see an iron-bound chest against the far wall. Keep a careful eye on it, Pavek, but otherwise, leave it alone."

"I will not touch anything, O Mighty King. I wouldn't consider it."

"Keep an eye on the chest. Don't fret over the rest. It's loot, mostly, from Yaramuke and other forgotten places. With all the flooding, the palace is as damp as the rest of Urik. There's water below and history piled everywhere that's still dry."

Another man hearing of Yaramuke's fabled treasure might be tempted with greedy thoughts. Not Pavek. His thoughts were utterly guileless when he said, "I will wait, O Mighty King, and watch the iron-bound chest, as you ordered."

"You might read the vellum," Hamanu suggested, tamping the seeds of curiosity firmly into Pavek's consciousness.

"If you so command, O Mighty King."

Hamanu silently bemoaned the frustrations of tempting an honest man. "You might be waiting a while, Pavek. You might grow bored. You might read the vellum, if you do grow bored."

"I will remember that, O Mighty King."

Like as not, Pavek would never succumb, and Hamanu would have to order the man to read what he'd written, as he had before. "Go," he said wearily. "Wait, grow bored, and remember whatever you wish."

"Your will, O Mighty King." Pavek bowed awkwardly he'd never have the grace of a properly obsequious courtierand retreated toward the door.

Hamanu had slit the air before him in preparation to entering the Gray when the mortal man stopped suddenly and turned around. Misty tendrils of the netherworld wafted between them. Pavek affected not to notice, but the man was a druidhowever rudimentary his training, he had the raw talent to see the mist and know what it was.

"Yes, Pavek?"

The scarred templar blinked and shuddered. He'd almost forgotten why he'd stopped. Then the thought reformed in his mind. "O Mighty King, the iron-bound chest that I'm supposed to watch. What am I watching for? What should I do if... if something happens to it?"

"Nothing, Pavek, nothing at all. If anything happens, you'll simply die."

Hamanu didn't wait for Pavek's reaction. He thrust one arm, then one leg, into the netherworld and strode from the throne chamber to the map room where his war staff had assembled. The Lion-King didn't stand on ceremony with these men and women.

"We fight for Urik's very life," he told them as he sealed the netherworld rift. "Armies from Nibenay and Gulg pin our flanks while Dregoth sends undead hordes our way from Giustenal. Raam sends messengers, Balic, too, and it's safe to wager they'll be marching before long. It's only a matter of time before we hear from what's left of Draj."

There was a collective intake of breath, a muttered curse or two, and a question: "What of Tyr?"

That Hamanu couldn't answer. The free folk of Tyr, having slain their king, a dragon, and returned the War-Bringer to his prison, had become a realm unto themselves, obsessed with laws and councils and taking little interest in the heartland beyond their borders.

They didn't ask their king what he'd done to incur the wrath of his peers. For the most part, that question didn't occur to them: But other questions did: practical questions about another levy and overextended lines of supply, a shortage of weapons in the city's armory, and the havoc that floods were wreaking on Urik's normally reliable roads. Hamanu listened more than he answered. He'd been Urik's supreme commander for thirteen ages, but, together, the mortal minds he'd assembled had more experience. Individually they offered insights and perspectives he might have overlooked.

The Lion-King's armies were unbeaten because the Lion-King was not too proud to take his advisers' advice.

Evaporating puddles from the Tyr-storm made for a sultry, sticky afternoon. Men, women, and Hamanu himself shed their ceremonial garmentsor the illusion of them and, clad in plain linen, thrashed out a battle plan. Night had fallen when Hamanu gave his approval to the best notions that mortal and immortal minds could devise, never hinting that it wouldn't be enough if he were right about the enemy they faced.

Enemy or enemies.

Try as he might in odd moments in the map room, or afterward, alone on his storm-tossed rooftop, Hamanu could not wrestle the day's events into a single pattern. Rajaat's champions had weaknesses deriving from their own human natures and the spells that created them. They'd contrived to keep their weaknesses secret, but after ages of spies and spells, Hamanu could scarcely believe that he'd been any more successful keeping his secrets from his peers than they had been keeping theirs from him. He'd had Windreaver, of course, but he didn't know that he was the only champion whose victory was one ghost shy of complete. And Gallard had talked to Borys, who'd known why the Lion of Urik would never become the Dragon of Urik.

Unless Rajaat were still behind it all. If Rajaat had cast the spells that brought Uyness's voice to the Lion-King's throne...? But, no, Hamanu hadn't recognized the personality behind the spell, and whatever enmity the surviving champion peers had toward one another, it wouldn't dull their wits where the War-Bringer might be involved.

Or had Rajaat found a way to conceal his sorcerous essence?

Hamanu found no answers on the rooftop above his moonlit city. The sounds of rescue and repair, of mortal life determined to continue, no matter the price, rasped his nerves. He slashed the air and returned to his workroom, where the city's noise was masked by walls and Pavek was enthralled by the unfinished story written on the vellum sheets.

The Lion-King's sandals and jewelry were illusion. They made no sound as he approached the lamplit worktable.

"Were you bored?"

Pavek shot out of his seat before Hamanu finished his question. The chair toppled behind him and the table in front of him. Loose vellum, the ink stone, the stylus and not to forgetthe leather-wrapped shard went flying. The air snapped as Hamanu, moving faster than sight or sound, caught the leather a handspan above the floor. For a moment, they both stared at the innocent-seeming parcel, then at each other; then Pavek, who'd barely caught his balance after his leap, dropped hard on his knees.

"I am an oaf, O Mighty King," Pavek insisted breathlessly, though his agitated thoughts implied that the Lion of Urik might have given a poor man a bit of warning.

"And I might have warned you, mightn't I?"

Wisely, Pavek said nothing. Hamanu righted the table, returned the shard to its top, and collected a handful of vellum sheets.

"You were reading. What do you think?" A veritable storm of thoughts stewed in Pavek's mind, but they were all half-formed and elusive. As impatient as any fountain-side poet reciting for his supper, Hamanu had to wait for the man's spoken words.

"That's all? No greater understanding of me, of the choices I made and make? It is not the version you were taught in the orphanage," Hamanu said with certainty. That versionthe Lion-King's official historywas a god's tale, full of miracles, revelations, and infallibility, nothing like the human frailties the vellum revealed.

It was embarrassing to beg a mortal's opinion. It was degrading. Worse, it stirred the dark fire of Hamanu's anger. "Speak, Pavek! Look at me! Ask a question, any question at all. Don't just kneel there like a poleaxed inix. I've told you secrets I've kept for ages. Don't you want to know why?"

"O Mighty King, forgive me, but I couldn't hope to understand. I have so many questions, I wouldn't know where to begin"

"Ask, Pavek. Look at me and ask a question, ask as if your life depended on it, for it does!"

The head came up, wide-eyed and very mortal, very fragile. The question flowed exactly as it formed in Pavek's mind

"Were you Rajaat's favorite? Is that what you became after?"

Two questions: twice as many as he'd commanded and an excuseif Hamanu needed oneto slay the trembling man where he knelt. But, strangely, the rage was gone. Hamanu walked around the table, righted the chair, and eased his illusory self onto its seat.

"The answer that comes to me, Pavek, is no. I was never Rajaat's favorite. I hated him before I knew what he was, before he made me what I became, and he knew I hated him. I wouldn't have tolerated his favor, and for all these years I have believed that I didn't have it. Tonight, though, it's not me who asks the question, but you, a mortal, whom some might call my favorite. Hatred doesn't protect you from my favor, dear Pavek, and so I realize I have become what I hated when I was a man.

"Today is a sad day, Pavek. Today I've realized that my hatred amused Rajaat, amuses him still, as yours amuses me. I was the last of his creationsbut not because we imprisoned him. No, he'd had two hundred years to ponder his mistakes before he created me. I was the last because I was everything he meant a champion to be. I loathed him, but, yes, Pavek, I was Rajaat's favorite. I carried in my bones his hopes for a cleansed and purified Athas; I still Hamanu recalled the mortal man he'd been and felt the weight of his immortal age as he'd never felt it before. Looking across his worktable, he saw the gray dust and empty memories of an unnatural life. He didn't see Pavek at all, until the man said

"I don't loathe you or hate you, O Mighty King."

"Then you are either an innocent or a fool," Hamanu said wearily, indulging himself in a moment of self-pity and eager to stifle a favorite, whose voice, at this moment, sounded too much like his own.

"Telhami says not, O Mighty King."

Perhaps Rajaat was right. Rajaat had already lived two thousand years or more when he began creating his champions. Perhaps a man needed several ages to learn the ropes of immortalityto learn to pick his favorites from the ranks of those who hated him.

When Telhami lived in Urik, Hamanu had forgotten Dorean and every other woman. Her eyes, her hands, her laughter had made him human again. For how long? A year?

Twenty years? Thirty? He'd lived an enchantment. Every day had been bright and sparkling, yet different; every night was the stuff from which men's dreams were spun. Then, one morning she was dressed in traveler's clothes.

She'd had a vision during the night of a place beyond the Ringing Mountains, a place where the air was cool and moist, where the ground was a thick, soft green carpet, and trees grew halfway to the sun. Cold springs bubbled year around in the place she'd envisioned, and at the center of everything was a waterfall shrouded in mist and rainbows. Her life in Urik was over; she had to find her waterfall.

Druids cannot stay, she'd saidas if that explained everything.

And he, of course, could not go. Urik had already suffered from his neglect. A generation of templars had succeeded to power thinking that their king was a besotted fool. The ordinary folk on whose shoulders he and the templars stood did truly curse the Lion-King's name.

Will you return? he'd asked, as countless other men and women had asked their departing lovers, but never Hamanu, never the Lion-King, not before or since.

Telhami had returned, in her way. She'd settled her druids close enough to Urik that he knew roughly where she was, but on the far side of lifeless salt, where his magic couldn't reach her. Until one night, when this Pavek, this stolid, stubborn lump of humanity who stirred forgotten memories, gave his king passage across the waste. Hamanu had saved Telhami's village from one of his own. He would have saved her, too, but she chose to die, instead.

He never knew if she'd found her damned waterfall. Because he'd loved her, he hoped she had. Because she'd left him, he hoped otherwise. Pavek might know, but thirteen ages had taught a farmer's son not to ask questions unless he truly wanted the answers.

"Go home," he told Pavek. "I'll watch the chest overnight. Come back tomorrow or the day after."

The templar rose to one knee, then froze as a breeze spiraled down from the ceiling, a silver-edged breeze that roiled the vellum and became Windreaver.

A fittingly unpleasant end to an unpleasant day.

"I thought you'd gone to Ur Draxa."

"I have a question, O Mighty Master."

"I might have known."

A breeze and a shadow, that was all the influence the troll had in the material world, but he could observe anything Rajaat in his Ur Draxan prison or a scarred templar reading sheet after sheet of script-covered vellum.

"Your little friend might find the answer interesting, O Mighty Master if you're inclined to answer."

Hamanu could pluck thoughts from a living mind or unravel the memories of the naturally dead; he could do nothing with his old enemy, Windreaver, except say"Ask for yourself. Don't involve Pavek in your schemes."

"O Mighty Master, it's his question as well as mine. I heard it off his own tongue as he turned the last sheet over."

Poor Pavekhe'd said something that Windreaver had overheard, and now he was using every trick he'd learned as a templar, every bit of druidry Telhami had taught him, to keep his wayward thoughts from betraying him. It was a futile fight, or it would have been, if Hamanu weren't wise to Windreaver's bitter ways.

"Ask for yourself!"

His voice blew Windreaver's silver shadow into the room's four corners. It was no more than a moment's inconvenience for the troll, whose image reappeared as quickly as it had vanished.

"As you command, O Mighty Master. Why did Rajaat choose a thick-skulled, short-witted, blundering dolt, such as you were, to replace Myron of Yoram?"

He almost smiled, almost laughed aloud. "Windreaver, I never asked, and he never told. He must have had good reasonsnot from your view, of course. You would have beaten Myron, eventually, but once I was Troll-Scorcher, my victory was inevitable."

A blunt-fingered shadow hand scratched a silvery forward-jutting jaw. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. Someone taught you strategies and tactics Yoram never imagined, and you never guessed while you were..." Windreaver's voice, his deep, sonorous troll's voice, trailed off to a whisper.

"Alive?" Hamanu finished for him. "You cannot accept that the son of a Kreegill farmer conquered the trolls. You'd prefer to believe that Rajaat conjured some long-dead genius to inhabit my body."

"The thought had crossed my mind. I was there in the sinking lands, Manu of Deche. I saw you: a stringy human. You looked young, acted younger, standing behind your bright steel sword with your jaw slung so low that a mekillot could crawl down your gullet. You were unworthy of the weapon you held. I watched as your own men came to kill you for die shame and defeat you'd brought them. Then I blinked, and you were gone. The next time I saw you"

"Were we betrayed?"

Windreaver inhaled his tears. "Betrayed?"

"Did Myron of Yoram sell my veterans to your trolls? Did you know where to find us?"

"We retreated to the sinking lands whenever the yora plants there had grown high enough to harvest. The Troll-Scorcher never followed us; you learned why"

"I followed you."

"Yes, O Mighty Master, you followed us everywhere, but Myron of Yoram did not. I think he did not expect you to return, but he didn't betray you, not to us. I didn't guess the great game Yoram played until I looked over Pavek's shoulder and read your recounting."

They stared at each other, through each otherimmortal ghost and immortal champion. The air was thick with unspoken ironies and might-have-beens.

Pavek, the mortal who didn't understand, couldn't possibly understand, cleared his throat. "O Mighty Kingwhat happened after the battle? How did you escape from the prison-hole?"

Hamanu shook his head. He hadn't escaped, not truly, not ever.

"Yes," Windreaver added, breaking the spell. "Rajaat must have prepared quite a welcome for you."

"Not Rajaat," Hamanu whispered.

No sorcery or mind-bender's sleights could alter those memories. He could feel the walls as if they were an arm's length away, just as they'd been when he realized he'd been stowed in a grain pit. The remembered bricks were cool and smooth against his fingertips. Give a man a thousand years, and he wouldn't scratch his way through that kiln-baked glaze or pry a brick out of its unmortared wall. Give him another thousand, and he wouldn't budge the sandstone cap at the top of his prison, no matter how many times he pressed his limbs against the bricks and shinnied up the walls, no matter how many times he came crashing down to the layer of filth at the bottom.

"Not Rajaat?" Windreaver and Pavek asked together.

Hamanu spied the brass stylus on the workroom floor. He picked it up and spun it between his fingers before closing his hand around the metal shaft. "The Troll-Scorcher, Myron of Yoram, plucked me out of the sinking lands. He had me thrown in a grain pit on the plains where his army mustered"

"A grain pit," Windreaver mused. "How appropriate for the pesky son of a farmer."

The Lion-King said nothing, merely bared his gleaming fangs in the lamplight and bent the stylus over a talon as black as obsidian, as hard as steel.

"At night" Hamanu's lips didn't move; his voice echoed from the corners and the ceiling. "At night I could hear screams and moans through the walls around me. I wasn't alone, Windreaver. The Troll-Scorcher had pitted me in the midst of my enemies: the trolls. Big-boned trolls who could stand, maybe sit cross-leggedif they were young enough, agile enoughbut never stretch their legs in front of them, never lie down to sleep. Not once, in all the days and nights of their captivity, which was, of course, as long as mine... or longer. And mine was...

"When did you harvest the yora plants, Windreaver? While the sun ascends, while it's high, or while it descends? The Troll-Scorcher's army mustered at High Sun, so I suppose I was in that pit for less than a year, though it seemed like a lifetime. A human lifetimebut trolls live longer than humans, don't they, Windreaver? A troll's lifetime would seem longer, standing the whole time."

Hamanu clutched the bent stylus in his fist, squeezing tighter, waiting for the old troll, his enemy, to flinch. But it was Pavek who averted his eyes.

"Shall I tell you how I got out of the pit?" Hamanu asked, fastening his cruelty on one who would react, lest his own memories overwhelm him. "First they threw down burning sticks and embers that set the filth afire. Then they lowered a rope. Burn to death or climb. I chose to climb; I chose wrong. Spear-carrying veterans circled the pit, according me a respect I did not deserve. I could stand, but I'd forgotten how to walk. The sun blinded me; tears streamed from my eyes. I fell on my knees, seeking my own shadow, the darkness I'd left behind.

"A man called my name, Manu of Deche; I opened my eyes and beheld the Troll-Scorcher, Myron of Yoram. He was a big man, a huge, shapeless sack of a man wrapped in a tent of flame-colored silk. Two men stood beside him, to aid him when he walked. Another two carried a stout and slope-seated bench that they shoved behind him after every step because he had no strength in his legs and could not sit to rest.

"I mocked him," Hamanu said, remembering the exact words that had earned him another ruthless beating. His mortal eloquence hadn't been limited to long words and flowery phrases. Between his farmyard childhood and his years among the veterans, he'd become a champion of coarse language long before he'd been a champion of anything else. But time was unkind to vulgarity. His profanity had lost its sting; his choicest oaths were quaint now, or forgotten entirely. He was left with paraphrase: "I dubbed him a sexless man, a stinking mound of dung."

"You'd figured out where you were and what was about to happen. You'd decided to get yourself killed, no doubt," Windreaver suggested.

"I recognized the place, yes: the plains, the mustered army, the trolls staked out on either side of me. Seeing him, though... seeing what he was, the Troll-Scorcher who'd let Deche and a hundred other human villages die, I wasn't thinking of death, only of my hatred. You cannot imagine my hatred when I looked at him."

"Oh, I can, O Mighty Master, each time I look at you."

Once again Hamanu locked eyes with the ghost. Windreaver's hate was his most tangible aspect, yet it paled beside the memory of Myron of Yoram.

"He was a failure, a coward who could not face his enemies. He was a glutton for pain and sufferingwhen he had nothing at risk"

Windreaver's silver-edged shadow bent low across the table. "When were you ever at risk, Hamanu?" the troll demanded, his voice a cold, bitter whisper. "When did you ever fight a fair battle to an honorable end?"

"I fought to end the war," Hamanu snarled back, though there was no need to defend himself to a defeated adversary and a thoroughly cowed mortal man. "Peace was my honor"

And the risk? What had he risked after he faced Myron of Yoram?

"I told the truth. I exposed the Troll-Scorcher to the veterans of his army. I accused him of human deaths, countless deaths, pointless deaths. For Dorean and Deche and all the others whose voices were stilled, I raised mine for judgment. I named him Betrayer and Deceiver. I cried out for vengeanceand he struck me with the eyes of fire.

"My blood grew hot in my veins. It simmered. It boiled in my heart. I opened my mouth to scream; my tongue"

There were no more words in the workroom, just as there had been no more words that hot High Sun afternoon on the plains. Writhing under the assault of the Troll-Scorcher's fiery sorcery, Hamanu's mouth had filled with a tongue of flame, not flesh. The last sounds he heard were his own ears crackling, like fat in the fire. Myron of Yoram's corpulence grew vast before his heat-swollen eyes burst. Mortal Hamanu died in a black inferno of heat, silence, and torment that neither words nor memory encompassed.

The ropes that bound him to the mekillot stake had burnt through. He'd fallen slowly toward the ground, toward death, but Hamanu hadn't died. Myron of Yoram had seized the filaments of his existence and hauled him away from eternity's threshold to agonies redoubled.

"I would not die," the Lion-King whispered. "Death ceased to have meaning. Life ceased. Pain ceased."

Hamanu blinked and shuddered free of the memory, as free as he ever was. Windreaver and Pavek were staring at him, at his hand. He looked down. Thick, greasy smoke seeped from the depth of his clenched fist. The stench of charred flesh belonged to the present as well as the past, to reality and illusion. With unfamiliar effort, Hamanu found the muscles of his fingers and straightened them.

A pool of molten bronze shone brightly in the palm of Hamanu's hand. He felt nothingnothing new, nothing different, but the long-suffering human core of him shuddered, and the liquid metal dribbled onto the table. While the more benign aromas of burning wood and tempered metal cleansed the workroom air, Hamanu stared at the new crater in his already black and ruined flesh.

There were other sounds around him, other movements. He ignored them until Pavekmortal Pavek, who did not understandstood before him with a length of cloth torn from the treasures of ancient Yaramuke in one hand and the critic-lizard's honey pot in the other.

Windreaver stirred, casting his shadow between them. "You waste your time, manikin. The Troll-Scorcher neither feels nor heals."

Pavek said nothing, and his thoughts were tightly shuttered in his druid-templar way. He poured the honey over Hamanu's woundan old soldier's remedy, Javed would approve, Telhami, toothen wrapped the cloth around it, hiding it from sight. Hamanu closed his eyes and reveled in a newfound pain.


* * * | The Rise and Fall of a Dragon King | Chapter Ten







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