He paused near the crest of the mount in order to catch his breath. His breathlessness was not merely due to the wound he had received earlier, nor to the fact that he was rising fifty, nearly past the time of life when he should have been taking part in battle.
His breathlessness came from his awareness that nothing today had occurred in the pattern he had expected.
He had prepared himself for the possibility of death at the hands of the enemy. He had not expected his King to die in the moment of his victory.
He had been running toward the King's mount when it happened, trying to reach the King in time. He had barely seen what happened: merely a glimpse of a man plunging a sword into Brandin, newly proclaimed King of the Western Palm. He had heard Brandin's cry of despair at that moment. He had not been able to hear what the King's final words were.
All that Lomus could be sure of was that the assassin, whoever he was, must have been in the service of the rebels whom Lomus and the other members of the King's Guard had been sent to overcome, and whom they had failed so bitterly to defeat.
Lomus looked down toward the valley below, at where the others waited to see whether he would succeed in his task.
"He'll kill us," Daimin had said flatly, less than an hour before, minutes after a trumpet had sounded the end of the battle and their defeat by the rebels. "He'll kill us all."
Lomus looked up from where he sat on the ground, trying to overcome his dizziness as Carth bound the wound at his side. "But who is he?"
"Someone who hates Brandin enough to kill him," replied Elke tersely. He had his sword out, still wet with the blood of the Barbadians who had fled the field, driven back by Brandin's army and by the King's sorcery. "Doesn't that tell you who he is?"
"He's not a Barbadian," said Carth, concentrating his gaze on the bandage he was using to try to staunch Lomus's blood. "He turned the power of his wizards against Brandin, and then, when the Barbardians thought they were victors, he withdrew his wizards' power from them. He wanted the Barbadians to be defeated."
"He wanted both sides to be defeated," said Lomus bitterly. Then, as the other stared blankly at him, he said, "Don't you see? Thanks to this nameless enemy, Brandin had to use all of his sorcery to defeat the Barbadians – every bit of it, including the sorcery he uses to defend himself. That's how the enemy's assassin was able to get past Brandin's defenses. The enemy wanted to drive out the Barbadians and to drive out the Ygrathens as well, by killing our King."
It was mere speculation on his part, but what he said fit the facts so well that nobody responded. Finally, Elke said heavily, "Well, he succeeded. The King is dead – Brandin, who ruled Ygrath and who would have brought peace and unity to all the provinces of the Palm if this enemy had permitted him. The question is: How long do we have before the enemy turns his forces against the remaining Ygrathens in this land? Do we have long enough to be able to reach the ports and return home to Ygrath?"
"No!" cried Carth, jumping to his feet.
"No," Daimin agreed. He had unsheathed his sword and was using it to prick at the corpse of a Barbadian in an unpleasant manner. "I do not allow the murder of my King to be forgotten in so offhand a manner."
Nobody, knowing Daimin, had any doubts as to what he meant. After a pause, Elke said, "You wouldn't get within a hundred paces of him. The rebel bowmen would cut you down." He waved his hand toward the mount where the King had sat during the battle, protecting his soldiers with his sorcery. Now Brandin lay motionless on the ground, and he was surrounded by the strange rebel force that had appeared out of nowhere on the day of the battle and had defeated both sides.
"No," said Lomus before Daimin could speak. "I will do it."
They all turned to stare at him, still sitting on the ground, bloodied from the earlier attempt by the King's Guard to reach the rebels.
The only reason he was alive after that engagement was that he had been sent back. He remembered his incredulity when Rhamanus, who was leading the King's Guard, grabbed him and told him to return.
"But we have nearly won!" he cried, amazed that Rhamanus would send him away in the moment of victory. He was only lightly wounded from the sword of a rebel who now lay dead at his feet. He knew that he could fight on.
"Look," said Rhamanus grimly.
He looked, raising his gaze toward the summit of the ridge they were trying to scale. Somewhere up there were the wizards who were defeating Brandin's sorcery, and whom the King had ordered them to kill. And near the wizards stood two men, one black-haired and the other brown-haired.
He could not see their faces; the sun was in his eyes. But with nearly thirty years' of experience in swordplay, he could read the stance of the blades in their hands.
He felt his heart clench. "We are the King's Guard," he heard himself say. "We can defeat anyone."
Rhamanus shook his arm. "Go back," he repeated. "Tell the King we may not succeed. Tell him he must send more men."
He had reached the bottom of the ridge and was near to fainting from his wound when he looked back, just in time to see the brown-haired man slice open Rhamanus in a wickedly beautiful curve of his blade that told of his skill.
Rhamanus was the last to fall; all of the other Ygrathen soldiers who had tried to kill the rebels were dead. Lomus had stared a minute, unable to believe that the King's Guard, with its deadly skill, had been unable to defeat so small a force.
Then he had begun to race toward the King to bring the news. He was halfway there when he raised his eyes to the mount, just in time to see Brandin take the death stroke.
He had fainted then. When he came to his senses again, he heard the trumpet announcing their defeat and found that the battlefield had gone utterly still. Kneeling next to him were three soldiers who had seen Lomus fall and had come forward to help him because of their past links with him. Carth and Elke had served alongside Lomus during his years in Chiara, the northernmost province of the Palm, where Brandin kept his palace. Holding his head was Daimin, whom Lomus knew from much further back. He and Daimin had served alongside each other in Lower Corte.
Now, an hour after Brandin's death, Lomus labored his way slowly up the mount, each breath a dagger-blade against his wound. He was the only man climbing there; everyone else seemed content to wait and see what the enemy wished of them. Or they were too afraid to come near the enemy. Any man who had managed to defeat both the Barbadian army and Brandin's army was worth fearing.
He looked down at the soldiers massed in the valley below. Some, like himself, were Ygrathens, part of the invading force that Brandin had brought to the Palm twenty years ago. But some were from the provinces of the Palm that Brandin had conquered: Chiara, Asoli, Corte . . . even Lower Corte, though the men from that province had more reason to hate Brandin than any others.
The King had won them all over during the past months with his vision of a united Palm living in peace. He had stripped himself of his title as King of Ygrath, and he had sent his army home – all but the Ygrathen soldiers who shared his vision and were willing to be treated hereafter, not as privileged conquerors, but as fellow citizens of the Palm. Lomus remembered the first day he had heard Brandin speak of his vision of peace; Lomus had been incredulous, thinking that he must be asleep and dreaming. Then he had seen a man from Lower Corte kneel and pledge his loyalty to the King, and Lomus had known that it must be true.
Others from Lower Corte, he knew, still hated Brandin. Their province, alone among all the other provinces, had suffered bitterly ever since their Prince, Valentin bar Paeten, killed the King's son. Brandin still hated the men and women of Lower Corte for that.
So did Lomus.
He had been there on the day that the body of Brandin's young son had arrived, mangled and torn after the battle he had led. Lomus had seen the King fall to his knees and weep at the loss of his heir. No man, Lomus had decided, his fists clenching, should be forced to show his grief in so public a manner, least of all a King.
He had volunteered the next day to take part in the force that destroyed Lower Corte.
He paused again on the slope, unsettled this time by the feelings of hatred that flowed through him. He did not like to think about Lower Corte, that dark, dingy province where every Ygrathen soldier travelled with fear of death, knowing how greatly the people there hated them, since the King of Ygrath had tortured and killed Valentin, Prince of Lower Corte. Or rather, Prince of a province whose name was never heard. That was part of the defeat, Lomus had slowly come to understand: the people who lived in the province of Lower Corte could speak the name of their province, but nobody else could hear it; nor could anyone remember what their land had been like before the arrival of Brandin. Their past had been taken from them by Brandin's sorcery.
With good reason, Lomus thought as he remembered the sulky, sly faces of the inhabitants of Lower Corte. They, like all the other people of the Palm, had been provincial of mind, quarrelling amongst themselves, engaged in acts of petty revenge, unable to unite even in order to defeat the conquering King of Ygrath. Brandin alone had possessed a wider vision: a vision of unity and peace throughout the Palm, including the provinces held by the Barbadian conquerors. This vision had deepened over the years, until Brandin had sacrificed his kingship in Ygrath for it. He was now of the Palm, he had announced, and so was any soldier from Ygrath who chose to stay with him.
Brandin had looked at Lomus when he spoke. No doubt that was mere chance; the King barely knew Lomus, though Lomus had served in his Guard for the past eight years. But Lomus had taken the words into his heart, as though they had been spoken to him alone, and he had set out to help his King unite the Palm.
Now all that was destroyed. The Palm would return to what it had been in the years before Brandin's arrival: a place where province squabbled with province, where forgiveness and mercy had no place.
It was no good; he would not be able to reach the top of the mount without resting. He sat down heavily under a pine tree, its bark hot from the midsummer sun, and tried to catch his breath. A breeze turned the sweat on his skin chill, as though the day had turned to spring. He closed his eyes and remembered.
It was a memory that came to him often, though he had tried to thrust it away for many years. He had been young then, in his late twenties, but already he had been a lieutenant in charge of a company of Ygrathen soldiers. He had used his power in the manner he knew that Brandin would have wanted, tormenting the lives of the sullen inhabitants of Lower Corte, making them feel the punishment they deserved for what they had done to Brandin's son.
The inhabitants of Lower Corte had nobody to lead them after the capture of their Prince. Prince Valentin's two eldest sons had been killed in battle; the third son, too young to fight, had disappeared. He was rumored to be dead. The only leader they could turn to was Brandin, yet they refused to acknowledge this. In their stubborn pride, they refused to recognize what their conqueror had to offer them.
"These brats are going to name their city and their province," Lomus had announced on that spring day, nineteen years ago.
One of the boys his company had waylaid was of about age fifteen; the other was a couple of years younger. The younger boy, fear on his face, had stammered out the name that none of them could hear, and Lomus and his men had laughed, mocking the boys with the evidence of their defeat. Daimin had emitted his shrill rooster-laugh, the one that always fooled people into thinking he wasn't dangerous.
The older boy, though, had refused to speak. He had stood motionless and defiant to Lomus's order. Which was bad, because by then a crowd had gathered in the square, a crowd that could all too easily turn murderous if they saw any sign of weakness in the soldiers.
Daimin had stopped laughing.
Lomus had had no choice but to protect his men. He had drawn blood, he remembered, but so little blood that it could hardly be held to his account – a mere scratch of his sword upon the older boy's chest. The boy was a stone-worker; he might bleed as much from a single day's labor. There was no reason, no reason whatsoever, that the boy should have defied him further.
And yet he had. He had shouted the forgotten name of his province – shouted it, lifting his head to cry it aloud to the sun above.
Lomus and his men had not been able to hear the cry, of course. But the other men and women in the square, the inhabitants of the province now known as Lower Corte, had heard the name. He sensed, from their expressions, that they were now closer than they had ever been before to rising up and killing the Ygrathen soldiers.
All of the soldiers, not just Lomus's men.
And so he had beaten the boys. He and his soldiers, using their fists and their feet and the flats of their blades. When he had finished, he had dispersed the crowd, left the square, dismissed his men for the day, and had gone away alone to be sick.
He had beaten into defeat Brandin's enemies.
He had beaten into defeat two young boys.
These were the twin truths that had haunted him over these years, and he still did not know how to reconcile them. He had done his duty to his King, and yet he could not bear the knowledge of what he had done.
He had transferred out of Lower Corte soon afterwards. The younger boy had disappeared; Lomus suspected he had killed him with the beating, which increased his feeling of sickness. The older boy was still alive, but Lomus had met him in the street one day, and the look that the stone-working boy gave him was such that Lomus suspected that, if he had stayed in Lower Corte much longer, he would have received no more measure of mercy than Brandin's son had received.
And so he had left the boy and left the memories and had come north to serve his King in an easier way. Here in the north, he had treated the King's new subjects with courtesy, knowing that such action would please Brandin. If he had never gone to Lower Corte, he would never have experienced any time in his life when his duty to his King required him to commit acts that he could not abide in his memory.
He had not killed the younger boy, he reminded himself as he opened his eyes to the sight of the pine needles swaying in the breeze. He had seen the younger boy – now full-grown to a man – amidst the rebel force that day. By the time he saw him, the man was dead, but Lomus had not been the one who had done the killing. He was glad of that. He had been able to serve the King today with full heart, without unpleasant memories of Lower Corte swaying his actions.
But to no avail. He felt the bitterness again as he rose to his feet. His King had shown mercy to the people of the Palm, had sought to bring peace to them, and now the King was dead. And Lomus was left with only one duty more to Brandin before he too died.
There were fewer people on the mount than he had expected. He breathed easier with that realization. Most of the rebel force – those who had not been killed earlier by the King's Guard – had apparently been sent away, once their leader had determined that the assassin had done his work properly. That was foolish of the rebel leader, but Lomus could take advantage of that fact.
He looked around, trying to locate the man he was searching for. It was not hard to determine who he must be. Out of the four persons left on the mount, one was a woman, and while he recognized the young man beside her as a soldier, that man was far too youthful to be of any real threat.
That left the two men standing over Brandin's body, one black-haired and the other brown-haired.
The brown-haired man had his sword out from the moment Lomus came into sight. Probably the only reason he did not attack immediately was that Lomus had stripped himself of his sword and belt-dagger before climbing the mount. Lomus looked him over quickly, then turned his attention to the black-haired man. Despite the greying at his temples, this man appeared to be in his thirties. He had quiet, watchful eyes that did not waver from Lomus's, and he had not yet touched his blade.
"You are the leader here," Lomus said.
The black-haired man nodded silently.
"And you ordered the King's assassination." It was a risk, he knew, to make clear his purpose for coming here, but he had to be sure he had identified the right man.
To his surprise, the black-haired man shook his head. "His Fool killed him," he said, waving his hand. "Or so I have been told. We had not anticipated this happening."
Lomus could not help but glance down, though he remained very aware of the sword in the hand of the rebel leader's companion. There, lying crumpled next to the King, was the stunted body of the Fool. Had the King had time, then, to kill his assassin? Lomus could not be sure, but he did not doubt what the rebel leader had told him. Everyone knew that the King had held his Fool's mind in captivity during all these years, for his own purposes. Once the Fool was free . . .
Lomus raised his eyes to the rebel leader, who was still watching him. "Whether you intended the King's death or not," he said, "it is due to you that the King died. You forced him to strip himself of his defenses in order to defeat you – in order to defeat the Barbadians, who cared nothing for the Palm except to exploit it."
He felt the words wild on his tongue, and he struggled to rein himself in. If he spoke in this manner, he would never be allowed to come close to the rebel leader. And he must come close; that was now clear.
It was some time before the rebel leader responded. He was not, it seemed, a man who acted on mere impulse. When he spoke, it was in words that Lomus had not anticipated.
"He died because of me," the black-haired man acknowledged. "And if the Fool had not killed him, I doubt that matters would have been different. Brandin would have forced me to kill him, for he would not have accepted my offer of peace. He could not, given who I am."
Lomus stared at him, trying to make sense of the words the rebel leader had spoken. "Forced," the man had said, as though Brandin's death had not cheered his heart. "Peace," he had said.
He was aware of the leader's companion, his sword held utterly still, awaiting command before he sliced through the intruder. The stillness bothered him; he felt he had known it before. "Who are you, then?" His voice came out more hesitant than he had intended.
"I am Alessan bar Valentin, Prince of Tigana."
"Tigana?" he said blankly. And then he took note of the rest of what the man had said, and he understood.
And in the same moment, he knew where he had encountered this stillness before.
He turned his gaze to the Prince's companion. The man's eyes were dark with hatred and with memory; his grip was tight on the sword. His shirt had been torn during the fighting, and faint on his chest – oh, so faint – Lomus could see the scar that he had made there nineteen years before.
He closed his eyes, feeling the memory wash down upon him. He was lost, he knew. He would be dead within minutes, not only because of what he had done so long ago to the stone-working boy, but because the black-haired man was Prince of a province that Brandin had done his best to destroy. A man who had every reason in the world to kill all the Ygrathens.
"This cannot be true," he said as he opened his eyes and stepped forward. He barely heard the words he spoke. They meant nothing; they were merely words to distract Prince Alessan from what he was doing. "Prince Valentin's youngest son died two decades ago. I know that for certai—"
He stopped. The sword of the Prince's companion lay upon his breast, ready to spear him.
"Baerd." The Prince's voice was soft.
"Alessan, you don't know who this is!" The companion's voice was harsh with hatred. "I've known him in the past. He is—"
"I know who he is." The Prince's voice remained soft. "He is someone who has harmed you in the past. My dear, I want nothing more than to take this man's life-blood and spill it, for what he did to you. Believe me when I say that."
The Prince's companion was breathing heavily now. For a moment more he held the sword hard against Lomus's heart. Then, with something like a sob, he lifted the blade and stepped back, to allow his Prince the privilege of giving the death stroke.
Lomus felt his heart hammer as the Prince drew near. Just a little nearer. . . One step more . . . The Prince was within range now, and Lomus must move, he knew he must move, he would have no chance once the Prince drew his blade. And yet Lomus remained stiff and unmoving, as though he were truly a captive in this man's power.
"I know who you are," the Prince said softly. "You are a man who desires peace. Am I right?"
After a moment, Lomus nodded stiffly. The Prince held out his palm.
Lomus closed his eyes. Five thousand. Five thousand Ygrathen soldiers remained in the Palm, and their lives depended on what Lomus did next. Daimin, Carth, Elke . . . They would all die if Lomus did not act as he should.
He handed the Prince the blade that had been hidden in his palm. Then, unable to comprehend what he had done, he fell to his knees and sobbed, weeping for his failed duty to his King, weeping for the thousands of Ygrathen soldiers who would now die because of him.
Nobody disturbed him as he wept. Finally he raised his head. The Prince still stood above him, as though waiting for further word from Lomus. He forced himself to breathe slowly. Something – something – had made him act as he did. He must trust to his instincts now, since they had led him to this moment.
"Will you spare the others?" he asked. "The ones who didn't serve in Lower Corte?" He and Daimin were lost, their lives forfeit for what they had done. But if he could save Carth and Elke and others like them . ..
"Tigana," growled the Prince's companion. "The name of our province is Tigana. Not Lower Corte."
He paid no attention to those words; nor did the Prince. Instead, Prince Alessan stooped down and, before Lomus could understand what was happening, he raised Lomus to his feet.
"Alessan!" cried the Prince's companion, who appeared to understand all too well what was happening and was angry because of it.
"Baerd," said the Prince, looking his way finally, "I want nothing more than to take this man's life-blood and spill it, for what he did to you. But if I had my revenge on him, I would be doing only what Brandin did when he killed my father for killing the King's son. The cycle of blood-revenge must stop somewhere, or it will never end." He turned his eyes back to Lomus, standing numb and dumb before him. "You want such peace? An end to the battles?"
"The King wanted it," he heard himself say.
Something passed over the Prince's face then, something so fleeting that Lomus was not sure afterwards whether he was right in believing that, in that bare moment, he was closer to death than he had been all his life.
Then the Prince smiled, a quiet smile. "Tell me what your King wanted," he said. "I think we will find that it is not so different from what I want."
The sun had set. All around the battlefield, fires blazed, eating the corpses of the defeated Barbadian soldiers. The other soldiers who had fallen in the field were being taken away to be buried with respect and care, with due rites. Some of the soldiers, upon hearing the news brought from the mount, had settled down for the night, content to wait to see what the morning would bring.
"He is my Prince," said Lomus, echoing the words he had spoken not long before to Prince Alessan. "I have pledged my loyalty to him. I am his man until death."
He wondered, as he spoke, whether that death would be soon. Carth and Elke exchanged looks, then turned their attention to Daimin, who was carefully fingering the dagger in his hand.
Daimin condescended to look up finally. "He must be a sorcerer," he said, "if he has managed to capture your heart so quickly."
Lomus let out the breath he had not known he was holding and then told the rest. He knew that they knew the main parts already; even before Lomus returned to the foot of the mount, Alessan's messengers had spread the word of the Prince's peaceful intent to the soldiers of the Palm, as well as to the Ygrathens among them. But nobody except Lomus had actually heard the words spoken and could be sure whether to believe the Prince of Tigana.
When Lomus was finished, Daimin spat into the fire next to them, causing sparks to fly up. Then he looked up, his eyebrows hooding darkness over his eyes. "What does he plan to do with the King's body?" he snapped.
"I asked him that," Lomus replied. "He said that he will see that it is buried with due rites. He says he will honor King Brandin for his vision of peace and unity, even though that vision did not extend far enough for him to give the people of Tigana their freedom."
"Did he make this decision before your arrival," said Daimin sharply, "or after?"
He hesitated, but he could not lie to a man he had known for so long. "After, I think. I think my presence forced him to decide whether he would take any revenge at all for his father's death and his people's oppression."
Daimin spat again, then sheathed his blade. "Fine," he said. "I will pledge my loyalty to him as well."
Lomus knew that the dumbfounded expression which lay upon Carth's and Elke's faces must be on his face also, for Daimin gave a bark of a laugh. "If he had killed the King," Daimin said, "I would have butchered him. After I butchered you for being a traitor." His eyes lay lightly upon Lomus, who felt a shiver go through him that had nothing to do with the night breeze. Then Daimin shrugged. "From what you say, he would have made peace with the King if he could have done so. It is not his fault that Brandin remained obstinate in his revenge upon Lower Corte."
"Could we have done anything to change that, do you think?" he said, asking the question that had been on his mind for nineteen years.
Daimin was a long time answering. Perhaps he was reliving his memories as well. He said finally, "That moment in the square – you remember it? I thought on that day, 'If we do nothing to those boys, and if we die here, and if the province rises up against Brandon—' I could think no further than that." He shrugged again. "It would have been a bloodbath, I think, on both sides. It's better this way." He raised his eyes to look at Lomus and said quietly, "But I am also glad that, when you told us all that you were leaving Lower Corte and invited us to come with you, I was the one with sense enough to follow you. My lieutenant." And he sketched a salute in the darkness that Lomus acknowledged with a smile.
Alessan hit the pine tree hard, so hard that he bent over his fist a moment later, biting back sounds of pain. He could feel Baerd beside him, his hand on Alessan's shoulder.
"They tortured my father," said Alessan, his voice tight. "They murdered him. They beat you and they destroyed our cities and they crushed our people—"
"I know," said Baerd. "I know. I also know that I should be the one hitting that tree, not you. You're the Prince of Tigana, the level-minded man with no vision to drive him but one of peace and unity."
Alessan gave half a laugh, half a sob. "If only the others knew."
"I know," repeated Baerd, "and I couldn't decide whether to strangle you or kneel at your feet today for not giving that Ygrathen soldier what he deserved."
Alessan turned toward Baerd. He was not surprised to see that his brown-haired companion was smiling. "And what have you decided?"
Baerd's smile widened. "I've decided, my Prince, that we are both very much in need of wine. Shall we go drown our memories that way?"
Alessan considered him for a moment before saying, in a challenging voice, "And the Ygrathen?"
Baerd's smile turned to a grin. "We'll invite him to join us. He's probably more in need of wine than either of us. He recognized the moment when you were on the point of killing him."
Alessan let out his breath slowly. He nodded, and with a laugh, Baerd put his arm round the Prince's shoulders and steered him over toward where warmth and wine awaited them, in the victory of peace.