Part Three: Chapter 32
“Apparently your father’s…parting words…had an unexpected effect on the council, lord,” spoke the menial, nervously wringing his hands. “Some of them have had a change of heart! Even now their propaganda swarms through the…”
“I can see that, you imbecile!”
The fragile servant’s knees went weak at this sudden outburst, and he almost fell back down the steps he’d recently ascended. When he found Baeldrin’s face again—wincing from his new cherished position as a filthy dog groveling before its master—his pallor was a definite shade whiter. “Please…don’t harm me, lord. It’s just that…”
“Out with it!”
“They mean to supplant you with a…a governor…like the one they have in Relinydd!”
A pause. The ever-present noise floating up from the streets suddenly rose a notch and quickly fell again.
“And to whom, should I guess, might the traitorous crones have this governor report? Themselves?” Baeldrin snorted, clearly disgusted. “A few more names for the list—along with all the others yet to be punished for insulting me. That’s all it is.” Looking over at the tower’s portly, balding steward to grab the man’s attention, he nodded then at the wiry servant underfoot: “Add this one’s name as well.”
But before the steward could acknowledge the command or the servant spit out his next frantic plea, a third voice rose from the tower’s stair and spilled out onto the open top floor. “Perhaps you should’ve made an effort to hide it from them.”
"It, Zera?” replied Baeldrin indifferently, recognizing the familiar voice. His attention had already returned to the streets below.
“The truth. That you’re exactly what your father said you were. A puppet dangling from the witch’s strings.” The Mardothan ambassador walked brazenly to Baeldrin’s side and gripped the man’s shoulder; but the king was too lost in his own troubled thoughts to register Zera’s goading for what it was and didn’t even flinch in response. For a moment both men stood staring down from the tower at the riotous insects packed in Rardonydd’s slums, then Nephos faced Baeldrin: “Yet he who struggles in the web merely gets stuck tighter. Is it not so?” A tiny smile came to his lips as he stole a glance over his shoulder.
The voices were twined with Baeldrin’s thoughts. Slowly the king reached into his robe and closed a fist about the stones he’d concealed there, heeding the spectral warnings. “So it’s you,” he replied at last, rotating his head to meet the ambassador’s gaze; and as he did so, he caught the kneeling menial’s confirming nod from the corner of his eye.
For an instant Nephos actually appeared hurt by the accusation…then his smile resurfaced wider than before. “You made a mistake, friend, in supposing those you turned traitor would unlearn treachery on their own. What terrible fear did you set in their bones, that they’d rather take their own lives than risk you hurt? Or what unshakable loyalty did you win from them through your noble deeds and charm?” The Mardothan chuckled his derision. “You were so consumed with your own goal that you gave no mind to the tools that helped elevate you. Did you not think it would show?”
Baeldrin’s face had grown hot now with rage, but somehow for the present he held violence in check. There can be times in a man’s life when pride swells so high that it even wars against the basic instinct to survive. Baeldrin felt the noose swiftly tightening around his neck, yet he wouldn’t be denied a final say: “And still the old fools mean nothing! They’ve no power of their own. I always knew Saedus would cross me, Zera—so the only mistake I made was trusting you!” Suddenly he shoved Nephos with such force that the man fell backwards and landed sprawled out before a band of soldiers just beginning to fan out from the stairs. Malicious intent was plain on their faces. No doubt begging whatever god he worshipped to let him go unmolested but a moment longer, the quivering servant was last seen crawling off behind—and the tower’s steward had already vanished.
“I’ll not be the witch’s scapegoat!” said Baeldrin, offering the newcomers his deepest scowl. Extending an open palm, he turned it sideways, letting the two pebbles spill out. “Come forth, if you dare!”
Two of the mercenaries did so without further ado, naked blades gleaming in the afternoon sun. They were a fairly imposing pair, each rivaling the king in stature if not quite in girth—yet their advance lasted but a single step. Dropping to their knees, each man cast his sword aside. Their eyes began to bulge as hands clawed at necks in their frantic efforts just to breathe.
Mesmerized by what was befalling their unfortunate companions, the rest of the soldiers instantly sprouted roots where they stood—till the first of the loosed spirits took visible shape before them. The nightmarish horror of the visage this one donned, coupled with the terrible wailing sound that issued from it, was too much for the hired help to take. Nearly all at once they turned and fled, crashing into each other like bungling dolts as they hit the staircase. At least one slipped or was pushed and took a screaming tumble down. Yet that did little to impede the others.
“Hold!” shouted Zera, having scrambled to his feet. “He can’t stop us…ah!" A spirit was on him, and he began to gasp and claw at his neck like the now face-down, unmoving pair had done. Laughing, Baeldrin advanced on him, pausing only to scoop up the closest of his two stones and a fallen soldier’s blade. Clearly he meant to run Nephos through with the latter, but as he came in stride with the spirit that was holding his prey, it turned its ghastly face on him and shrieked:
Get ye back! This flesh is mine!
“Fine! Take him!” It was hard enough for Baeldrin to keep from loosing his bowels as the wave of fear washed over—yet he needed to do much more than that. The enemy was down, but he was far from safe. Two spirits were free, and he was having trouble with just this one. Where was the other? He reached out for it with his mind. No response.
I taste your fear, mortal. With Baeldrin’s thoughts momentarily elsewhere, the spirit gripping Zera had loosed its hold on the ambassador; and now the king found himself penned against the tower wall. Panicked, he lashed out with his blade—only to have it snatched away. Another shriek even more awful than the first wracked his brain, and unseen fingers, cold as ice, began to constrict about his neck. Slowly. Agonizingly so. Recalling at last the one pebble returned to his grip—and heedless of whether it was the correct one to spare him from this unfortunate predicament—Baeldrin croaked out the words of banishment.
Immediately the frosty tendrils failed. The tormenting spirit retreated a few paces, allowing its spurned master a moment to believe his command had done the trick. Then, ripping forward like a blast of hurricane wind, it swooped the king up and hurled him straight out from the tower’s ledge. Screaming wildly, Baeldrin flailed his arms as if he might actually fly away from impending doom, while directly below—as if all eyes there had been eagerly locked on the events above—a space opened up in the crowd of bodies: a gaping maw eager to receive him.
But instead of greeting death in that dusty circle of earth, the king found himself standing in the midst of everyone, heart pounding but otherwise totally unharmed. Whether his savior had been the other spirit yet under his dominion, reacting tardily to the earlier unanswered summons—or merely the first specter intent on toying with him further before ending the game—he had little time to consider. Not three strides away an angry simpleton had just tipped off the mob, pointing his chubby finger at Baeldrin’s face; and now there was nothing to be done but flee.
An elder pushed down. A young mother, swaddled babe in arm, carelessly shoved aside. The king paid no heed to anyone as he barreled his way through the throng. Thus far the shouts of “usurper!” and “murderer!” and the like were only on his heels. Yet if he slowed, and the news passed him by…well…the first obstacle to halt his reckless advance would be the last.
“This way, lord!”
Baeldrin’s eyes turned instantly on the speaker: a hooded figure standing in an open doorway just up ahead, his thin arm beckoning to the shadows within. The voice sounded familiar…and under present circumstances, Baeldrin thought that good enough. Grabbing a young man by the shoulders and brutally hurling him into another to cause a distraction, he bulled through the stretch to the portal and flung himself inside.
The door slammed shut behind, immediately followed by the sound of a bolt being drawn. Angry shouts pummeled the heavy oaken barrier—then shoulders and fists.
Suddenly light flooded the passage. The candle’s holder doffed his hood to meet Baeldrin’s eyes.
“Martassin?” gasped the king. “But…” Something much heavier than a fist struck the door just then, threatening to rip it from the hinges.
“No time now,” spat the servant, his nerves clearly rattled. “Follow me!”