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Daley, Brian - Coramonde 01 - The Doomfarers of Coramande UC

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Daley, Brian - Coramonde 01 - The Doomfarers of Coramande UC

For

    Fred, Jim* Judyand

    anyone else with the breadth of

    spirit to embrace dreams

    A Del Key Book

    Published by Ballantine Books

    Copyright ? 1977 by Brian Daley

    All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada, Limited, Toronto, Canada.

    Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 76-30343

    ISBN 0-345-30972-3

    Manufactured in the United States of America

    First Edition: March 1977 Fifth Printing: August 1982

    First Canadian Printing: April 1977

    Map by Robert C. Giordano Cover art by Darrell K. Sweet

    T

    Of Deaths, Of Departure

    Chapter One

    Man is soul and body, formed for deeds of high

    resolve.

    SHELLEY, Queen Mab, iv

    "EARTHFAST," that place was called, aspiring skyward from roots of caverned bedrock. There was nothing that a palace demanded that it didn't boast, and no feature it lacked that was required in a fortress. From it, the sovereigns of Coramonde ruled.

    Earthfast's formal gardens were extensive and elaborate, and so it took Queen Fania's personal guardsmen some time to find Prince Springbuck as he brooded near an orchid bower on an out-of-the-way path. He passed his time resisting despair, for he now lived under a death sentence of sorts.

    Not particularly noteworthy to see, he was slightly under average height; at nineteen, he hadn't yet come into his full growth. He was an open-faced young man with straight, dark hair, some of his late mother's swarthlness of skin, and eyes a light brown like that of his dead father Surehand. He kept his sparse facial hair self-consciously clean shaven and had no scar or other feature, as yet, to set him apart in a crowd. Sollerets rang across marble and two soldiers, a captain and a ranker wearing gilt corselets of the Household, came to him there. The Prince resigned himself to a mandate to appear in his stepmother's Court, There was a modest bow and a barely concealed command to accompany them. He did so with a sinking feeling, and some true premonition told him that blood would soon be let. That this was to happen was no fault of

    the Prince's, though it stood as high probability that the blood in question would be his own.

    4 THE DOOMFARERS OF CORAMONDE

    When Springbuck's father, Surehand, had died, he'd made no clear provision as to his chosen heirwho should, by custom, have been

    Springbuck. The old Suzerain's second wife meant to see her son on the throne and had garnered a good deal of support. There'd been dispute, argument and, in the end, a decision that the matter must be settled in combat.

    Events had coalesced in such short order that Springbuck, a good-natured unaggressive young man, found himself under a tacit house arrest, slated to measure swords with his half brother Strongblade. It was disheartening enough that the ferocious Strongblade, at seventeen, was the bigger of the two and more accomplished in arms. But Springbuck was not so naive as to think that his stepmother and her adherents would leave this critical issue to chance. After all, the writ of the Protector Suzerain of Coramonde ran for the entire eastern half of the Crescent Lands, that tremendous sweep of lands which arcs around the Central Sea.

    Even Springbuck's last-ditch offer to abjure his royal heritage without trial was rebuffed with a cold reminder that it was his duty to put the affair squarely hi the laps of the gods.

    Just as they'd said at Court, Springbuck was not the fighter his father had been. Surehand, a stubborn man with a quick temper, had been aware of his own shortcomings and had tried to school them out of his firstborn son. "Think first," he would tell worshipful Springbuck, "and don't let your hand be hasty to move. Have I not told you that haste is the thing that has caused me more regret than any other? Pause, reflect and weigh your options."

    In the end, some impulse of self-preservation or awakening of the mettle of his ancestors had moved the Prince to plan escape to preserve his life. But he was unprepared for the events of this evening. He attempted to maintain his dignity as he strode through the great doorsstalwart things of hard ebony bound up in iron and studded with thick rivetsand into the brightness of Court, so familiar in hours spent

    Oj Deaths, Of Departure 5

    at his father's side, and now seemingly the camp of the enemy. Lanterns cleverly wrought in brass and blown glass lit the spacious, tapestried room and filled it with their sweet scent. The windowless walls were hung with the banners of various legions and houses. Over the dais hung the royal standard, a snarling tiger, scarlet on black, and beneath it the personal ensigns of Springbuck, his stepmother Fania and his half brother Strong-bladea stag's head, dolphin and bear,

respectively.

    The^ throne was vacant; across its arms rested Flare-core, the greatsword reserved for the ruler of Coramondethe Ku-Mor-Mai, as the

    Protector Suzerain was called in the Old Tongue. Springbuck's stepmother held Court seated in an ornate chair at the foot of the dais; she wanted no accusations that she was disrespectful of her late husband's memory or custom. She wore a robe of imperial white which contrasted well with her thick, raven's wing hair.

    Because Earthfast was the best fortified place in Coramonde there were only eleven men-at-arms hi the throne room itself. Eight archers watched, weapons at ready, from ledges above the milling courtiers, four at either side of the room. They wore brown leathers, had quivers of barbed arrows at then: shoulders and were now sworn to Fania by secret oaths. On the dais itself, behind the Queen, were three fighting slaves, family heirlooms after a fashion, yielded to Springbuck's grandfather by a conciliatory king after the epic battle at Skystem Crag. They were not members of the race of men, and many called them ogres. Bigger than humans, coarse and mighty as oaks, they were dressed cap-a-pie in plate armor thicker than any man might wear.

    Springbuck heard muted laughter and murmurings from the throng as his entrance drew attention. The lush smells of their mingling perfumes and oils came to him, and the dainty scuffing of slippers and stirrings of extravagant clothing. The Court had, beforetimes, been composed of wise advisers, faithful deputies and stern fighting men. Under Fania it consisted of carpet knights

    6 THE DOOMFARERS OF CORAMONDE

    and dissipaters; Surehand's old confidants didn't come often or stay for long.

    He realized that, aside from the titterings, there was an unaccustomed silence in the chamber, then spied the figuredifficult to discern,

    since his vision was somewhat weak at a distanceof the famous and

    formidable Duke Rolph Hightower.

    The Prince's entrance must have interrupted an exchange. With the note of one resuming a train of thought, the Queen said, "And here now is our stepson, come at his own good time from sulking alone in our gardens." Her voice was rich, vibrant, but always cold and closed to Springbuck, however, much he'd tried to ingratiate himself to her. Still flanked by the two guardsmen, he forebore to reply; Fania was as expert at these skirmishes as his instructor in arms, Eiiatim, was with the sword "He cringes from meeting Strongblade in combat,'* she persisted, "and would like to think up a way to avoid battle, but take the throne of the Ku-Mor-Mai nevertheless. But he will not! Not while my son and I live."

    At this the Prince struggled to master his anger, refusing to be drawn

    into another contest of words with Fania. But the powerful voice of Duke Hightower rose then, with an edge to it to prove that he and the Queen had already had their differences that night.

    "Who would not, facing a death under these circumstances?" he countered. "I'm very sure that Your Grace means what she says, that you mean for Strongblade to rule, but any man with sense in his head and a bit of spine might question the truth of your motives and the legality of this pending duel."

    Springbuck studied the Duke, who stood defiant and alone in the exact center of the wide floor. Not Springbuck's friend particularly, he had still been a staunch ally and supporter of the Prince's father, though rarely a visitor to Court. He was even more conspicuous than usual in these surroundings, tall and broad-shouldered, contrasting the gleaming finery of the courtiers with plain, service-worn traveler's attire of gray. He bore an unadorned broadsword at his side and a cap held sol-

    Of Deaths, Of Departure 7

    dierly in the crook of his left arm. Greaved legs widespread, he set his right fist on his hip and glared at Fania without deference. The lantern jaw was set, the high forehead creased by beetling brows and beneath the flaring mustachios the Duke's mouth was drawn into something dangerously resembling a snee'r of contempt, displaying large horse-teeth.

    "Legality," Fania said, rolling the word off her tongue with a kind of languorous menace. "The Duke implies that I'm committing some crime? Hightower, who comes so seldom to our councils, would now countermand me? Too long has his insolence gone unchecked, I think."

    The Duke's voice was brittle with rage. "Insolence? Insolence?" He slammed his chest with a battered, vein-mapped fist. "/ am Coramonde's bastion in the East; from the shadows of Spearcrest to the foot of the Keel of Heaven I am the arm and eyes of Coramonde! How many times has my family defended our stone donjon with our lives at risk? Do you even know, you who were born in another country? I have paid my homage, aye, and paid again. Who questions Hightower's right to say his say at Earthfast?"

    Fania couldn't speak to this, nonplussed in the face of truth so furiously set forth. But an inhumanly calm voice spoke next, one that had always sent fear shooting through every inch of Springbuck's being. He didn't have to turn or squint to know that "it was Yardiff BeyYardiff

    Bey who was a figure of awe even among other sorcerers.

    The Prince knew that he could never have emulated Hightower, who looked to where Bey stood, near the Queen, and met that mesmerizing stare without qualm. Bey's dark countenance was transformed into something unearthly by the eerie ocular of green malachite and silver that he

    wore in replacement of his left eye. All emotion was habitually hooded on his face, and it took an effort of will to speak with him and not somehow fall under his subtle influence. Springbuck had been moved to speak up a moment before as the words of Hightower had filled him, if not with courage, then at least with

    8

    THE DOOMFARERS OF CORAMONDE

    some transient burst of outrage. But before Yardiff Bey he held his peace.

    "Hightower are you," the sorcerer agreed in that voice so remote from the merely mortal, "who spurns the decisions of the Court when he so chooses. High-tower who withholds levies, contending that he mounts a more perilous watch than the rest of Coramonde. Sanctimonious Hightower, poised and ready against imaginary icemen."

    " 'Imaginary,' you say?" the Duke shot back. "Lies are your nature as venom is a snake's, I say. Send any doubters out with me to rural villages to see. Something malignant is growing in Coramonde, and it wears many faces. I have seen it, I have fought it. Still it grows. Last month came a call to me from her people and I went, to find the mistress of a great estate torturing children. She'd been extracting their spleen and marrow for love potions. She had once been a friend, but I knew her no more and I slew her there myself." The Duke's palm brushed once, uneasily, across the hilt of his sword.

    Fania, recovered now that Bey had intervened, soothed, "We are not unaware of these things. It has become clear to us that such incidents come at the instigation of Freegate, the so-called independent city east of the Keel of Heaven. Even now are leaders gathered in Earthf ast to discuss it, and legion musters will soon follow, for a war of defense against Freegate. We ask Hightower to look to nis own array and prepare to see the crimson tiger into battle." She waved her hand at the royal standard and smiled a lovely, truthless smile, finishing sweetly, "As he has done so bravely and so well in the past." But the Duke was having none of that, not from anyone fair or anyone fey. "These things I talked about are not come from Freegate but from Coramonde herself. Freegate has always been circumspect of us and everyone here knows it. To blame them is a lie."

    A risky accusation to say the least, Springbuck reflected. Hightower was ever the brave warrior but never the diffident diplomat. Speaking so to Fania was a far different thing from saying the same to Yardiff Bey.

    From the ranks of the courtiers as if on cue

    Of Deaths, Of Departure 9

    markstepped an elegant man in plum and amber, whom Springbuck recognized as Count Synfors.

    "I would be honored to answer the Duke's insult," Synfors said. "If the coward will draw steel, I'll make my argument"

    Hightower, head cocked to one side, was studying the urbane young Count with a hint of amusement. "How long," he asked, "have you been groomed for this occasion, little man? Never mind, never mind; shall we call the armigers, or shall I kill you without all that ironmongery?" The ends of the Count's lips curled for an instant and for answer he detached from his sash a case of swords, twin rapiers decorated en suite, hilts flattened on one side so that they fit together in one sheath. Synfors took the two hilts and, with an abrupt jerk, sent the sheath flying free and held a wicked-slim weapon ready in either hand. Unarmed, Springbuck thought for a moment to intervene but checked himself. This was a personal contest, if unorthodox, and, it seemed to,him, not to be meddled with since it had been fairly challenged and freely accepted.

    Hightower tossed his cap aside, and the scrape of his sword coming clear of its scabbard was, to Springbuck's mind, a terse announcement of imminent death.

    They closed upon one another with no further word, as quiet wagering began among the onlookers, who pressed inward a bit. Though Hightower was well seasoned, young Synfors was supple and generally known to be expert with his unusual blades.

    They clashed for a moment, the hurried conversation of blades too quick to follow well, and were apart again. The Count had thrust with his right-hand rapier and replied to the Duke's instant parry with a second thrust from the left-hand one. Surprisingly, Hightower had managed to bring his big sword around in time to block that move too, but not in time to avoid sustaining a cut along his shoulder.

    The conduct of the duel, as everyone there knew, was not according to form or custom. The inequity of weapons and the failure of the Queen to attempt mediation

    10 THE DOOMFARERS OF CORAMONDE

    were improprieties of the first water. But in that entire room, no one thought that the Duke would live to register a complaint, whatever the outcome of the match itself. Springbuck was certain that all of this had been forseen and that the Duke's famous temper had triggered the spontaneous-seeming contest quite in accordance with some plan. The Prince wondered vaguely where his stepbrother was and why Strongblade wasn't present. Perhaps Fania hadn't wanted her son to be involved, fearing even Strongblade's ability to cope with the fierce Hightower. Synfors began his predatory glide again, nearing the Duke and initiating the same double-stroke attack, but suddenly found out to his brief dismay the difference between his own sportman's accomplishments and the battle skill of his opponent, the wage of a

lifetime of war and drill.

    Hightower took a double grip on the hand-and-a-half hilt of his sword and stepped deeply forward and to the left, windmilling the heavy bastard blade to the right. Such was the speed of the older man that Synfors missed his thrust as his point passed by his antagonist's shoulder, and such the force of the Duke's stroke that the beautiful guard of the Count's right-hand rapier was smashed, the hand beneath it broken and laid open to the bone.

    Synfors screamed, dropping his right-hand sword and bringing the left up hi futile gesture. Another time, Hightower might have let him live, but there was no restraint hi him tonight. The second rapier was swept away, no more than thin procrastination, and the would-be executioner was himself dead a heartbeat later.

    Fania was plainly shaken at this quick brutality, but she turned to Yardifl Bey. When she turned back to face the Court she seemed to have drawn strength and control from some quarter, and the Prince began to wonder, between Queen and sorcerer, who was subordinate to whom. She rose to her feet, thowing back the white-furred splendor of her robe, and cried, "Murderer! This fight

    Of Deaths, Of Departure 11

    was not condoned; you had not my let to brawl, either one. The Count is.beyond my retribution, but I shall visit my anger twofold upon you." Springbuck expected to hear the order go out and see deadly shafts throw back the lamplight on their way to the Duke's heart.

    But instead, Fania commanded, "Archog, slay me this man." At this Archog, the largest of the ogres and the captain of them, drew his huge broadsword from its scabbard at his back and shuffled forward.

    Springbuck watched in horror. The match between Hightower and Synfors had been one thing, a bout between men by challenge given and taken. The assault of Archog was something elsea deliberate, merciless

    executioner about to do his work. The Prince's impulse was to go to the Duke's side and stand with him. Yet that impulse was drained, and the heir of the Ku-Mor-Mai immobilized at the ogre's terrifying aspect. His mouth had gone dune dry and he realized that to oppose Archog or, in his killing rage, even to impede him, would mean death. What would it profit to die?

    But for a scant second, Hightower tore his gaze from the creature tramping to confront him and fixed the Prince with his eye. That look said nothing of expectation or resentment; there was no bitterness because Hightower had come to help him only to lose his own life. It was, Springbuck saw in that one instant, the Duke's way of ensuring that the Prince would see and understand. It simply said, "I am Hightower. This is how I live, and how I can die, if it comes to that." And that stark message came through so well that the Prince lurched

    forward to join the Duke, and hi the impact of the moment, none noticed the sob that escaped him. But he was seized from either side by the guardsmen and held fast in armored hands; in a moment the eight archers had leveled unswerving arrowheads at his breast. He stopped struggling to watch as the ogre closed with Hightower.

    The Duke waited, perhaps bitter with himself for leaving his own liege men outside Earthfast; he exhibited none of the confidence he had shown with Synfors.

    12

    THE DOOMFARERS OF CORAMONDE

    He shifted his grip on his sword and, uttering a piercing war cry, threw himself forward at his new enemy, swinging a savage blow. But Archog met the Duke's weapon with his own with such terrific energy that the man's sword broke hi two. Stunned, Hightower fell back on one knee, holding the useless quillons and stump of his blade before him as if his sword were still whole.

    With a scream that had no message but animal anguish and loss, the Prince, beyond any care or caution for his own life, shook his captors loose and fumbled at the ranker's belt for his sword. The captain should have jumped back and let the archers do their work, which would have pleased his Queen well; but in the heat of the moment he instead brought down an iron-girt fist and dashed Springbuck into semiconsciousness. Archog advanced and swung again, this time knocking aside the Duke's sword stump and beheading him. The ogre stood over his victim's body, which streamed its hot life's blood across the floor, and his bone-chilling gaze lifted slowly to Fania, no trace of elation or rancor hi it, awaiting further instruction.

    Fania, whey-faced and glassy-eyed at the ghastly scene, tried to find her voice but couldn't. Again she turned to Yardiff Bey, and once more appeared to summon composure from that source.

    "Take the . . . remains of the traitors away,'* Fania managed at last in a subdued tone.

    Archog stooped and straightened, to move toward the portals, the Duke's body under one arm and the head cupped in the other gauntleted paw. Synfbrs' body was carried away, too. Finally the Prince was lifted by the two guardsmen.

    In the whirling haze that had settled around him, Springbuck shrank back before the realization of his failure to aid Hightower as before the heat of a bonfire.

    Chapter Two

    This before all else: be armed.

    MACHIAVELLI

    NERVOUS, whispered conversations sprang up among the courtiers. Fania glanced about her in sudden, imperious anger.

    "Where are my stepson's mentors, Eliatim and Faur-buhl?" she demanded. The majordomo, resplendent in filigreed cloak and bright sash, carrying his staff of office, stepped forward and bowed. "Your Majesty," he intoned, "Eliatim accompanies guests of state home to then1 embassy houses and the philosopher Faurbuhl seems nowhere to be found." "In that case, have the Prince taken to his rooms and left in the care of the Lady Duskwind."

    Springbuck was hoisted and carted away as she turned to the Court. "Have the servants rinse clean the floors. Fetch drink and chargers of food and let the musicians strike up."

    As the Prince's bearers exited the Court, he groggily heard the crowd call tentatively for an air wherewith to dance. In quick fashion the arena was changed back to a ballroom; delicate feet would soon mince where the blood of men had been but a short time before. Springbuck ascended slowly from his bodiless fog, jounced along, slung over an armored shoulder for a trip that seemed endless. Then there was the sound of a discreet knocking, the officer's respectful voice: "My Lady Duskwind?"

    "Yes?"

    "It's Captain Brodur, and we have the Prince with us, my Lady." What odd inflection was that in Captain Brodur's

    13

    14

    THE DOOMFARERS OF CORAMONDE

    voice? Springbuck wondered dazedly. Was it urgent, almost nervous? His wits were beginning to return and he felt a growing desire to vomit. "He is somewhat, umm, incapacitated," Brodur continued, "and the Queen instr"

    "Oh! Bring him in and leave him on the bed. I shall attend to him. Only wait a moment when I unbolt the door, then you may enter." The enlisted man made a rude, whispered jest at the Lady's expense and was rebuked by his officer as the two brought their burden into the room and dropped him onto the brocatelle spread of his wide bed. He bounced once on the soft mattress and lay in a sprawl, holding down bile.

    The instant Springbuck heard the door close, he vaulted clumsily from the bed to stand and take his bearings, bracing himself both literally and figuratively. With Eliatim, his instructor-in-arras and warfare, away, he wouldn't be under the close scrutiny he'd endured lately. Had the captain left for good, thinking he'd be unconscious for a while? The certainty was suddenly hi him that his chance to escape had come on this least likely occasion.

    He couldn't see Duskwind and so assumed that she was in the bath chamber. Crossing to one of his wardrobe chests, he extracted three broad, silken

    headbands, then leaped back to stand beside the door leading to the bath. Watching it carefully, he groaned as realistically as he could. "Coming, my love," Duskwind called from the next room. "You drank overmuch, perhaps? I'll ease your sufferings; we'll see what steam and massage can do to help it".

    So saying, she opened the door and walked into the bedroom. She must have been preparing to bathe when the guardsmen had knocked, he reflected in the brief moment in which she stood with her back to him, puzzled by his absence. She was naked, her honey-streaked hair unbound and the big knuckle-shield rings missing from her slim hands.

    He pounced on her from behind, snatching her wrists from her sides and drawing them together at the small

    Of Deaths, Of Departure 15

    of her back. She gasped in surprise but couldn't turn around, as he confined her hands with two deft loops of a headband.

    "Springbuck, is that you? Stop it! This is no time for drunken games, you idiot!" There was a strange, sharp note in her voice that he'd never heard there before. She squirmed and struggled in his grip and he couldn't have answered her if he'd wanted, because he held the remaining two headbands in clenched teeth.

    Tightening the second loop, he whirled her around, tripped her and lowered her to the thick carpet on her stomach, straddling her. Alarmed now, she shrilled, "You mustn't do this! Listen to me" \

    He'd used the second headband as a gag. The third he fastened around her vigorously kicking legs, fettering her at the ankles. Lifting her as carefully as he could manage under the circumstances, he carried the wildly protesting Duskwind to the bed. Even then he found himself marveling at the warmth of her smooth, brown-gold skin and the fragrance of her, as he threw her across the covers. As a precaution to her thrashing efforts to free herself, he added extra bindings and, out of modesty, pulled the covers over her, leaving only her' head and graceful feet exposed.

    He bent to peer into her gray eyes. "I'm sorry," he told his lover, "but I'm leaving and I've decided that there's no place for a highborn and gentle Lady on the journey I mean to make." At this her eyes went wide and she began to shake her head violently, attempting to speak through the gag.

    He nodded sadly. "Yes, I must go and I cannot take you, though life will be desolate without you." This last was rather an exaggeration; he looked forward to going forth a free agent. But he was fond of her, had been happy with her. She had even consoled him against his pending combat with the vague reassurance that something would happen to prevent it.

    Well, now something would.

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