Luthien's Gamble by R. A. Salvatore


  “And all of this with Greensparrow away on holiday in Gascony!” the duke roared at Thowattle, a short and muscular cyclopian with bowed legs, bowed arms, and only one hand, having lost the other and half the forearm as well while feeding one of his own children to a lion in Princetown’s famed zoo. The one-eyed brute had fashioned a metal cap and spike to fit over his limb, but the stump was too sensitive for such a device and so he could not wear it. Even with the loss, Thowattle was the toughest cyclopian in Princetown, unusually smart, and unusually cruel, even for one of his race.

  “They are just Eriadorans,” Thowattle replied, spitting the name derisively.

  Paragor shook his head and ran the fingers of both hands through his wild hair, making it stick out all the farther. “Do not make the same mistake as our king,” the duke cautioned. “He has underestimated our enemy to the north and the breadth of this uprising.”

  “We are the stronger,” Thowattle insisted.

  Paragor didn’t disagree. Even if all of Eriador united against Greensparrow, the armies of Avon would be far superior, and even without the fleet that had been stolen, the Avon navy was larger, and manned with crews more acclimated to fighting from such large ships. But a war now, with many of Avon’s soldiers away in southern Gascony, fighting with the Gascons in their war against the Kingdom of Duree, would be costly, and crossing the mountains or Malpuissant’s Wall, fighting on the Eriadorans’ home ground, would help to balance the scales.

  “Fetch my basin,” Paragor instructed.

  “The one of red iron?” Thowattle asked.

  “Of course,” Paragor snapped, and he sneered openly when Thowattle’s expression turned to doubt. The cyclopian left, though, and returned a moment later carrying the item.

  “You’ve been using this too much,” Thowattle dared to warn.

  Paragor’s eyes narrowed. Imagine a cyclopian scolding him concerning the use of magic!

  “You told me yourself that divining is a dangerous and delicate act,” the cyclopian protested.

  Paragor’s stare did not relent, and the cyclopian shrugged his broad shoulders and fell silent. Paragor would not discipline him for his insolence, and indeed the duke heard the truth in the cyclopian’s words. Divining, sending his eyes and ears out across the miles, was a delicate process. Much could be seen and revealed, but often it was only half truths. Paragor could locate a specific familiar place, or a specific familiar person—in this case, as in the last few, it would be Estabrooke—but such magical spying had its limitations. A real spy or scout collected most of his information before he ever got to the target, and could then use whatever he learned from the target in true context. A wizard’s eye, however, normally went right to the heart, blinded to all the subtle events, often the more important events, surrounding the targeted person or place.

  Divining had it limitations, and its cost, and its trappings. Great magical energy was expended in such a process, and like a drug, the act could become addictive. Often during this process, more questions were formed than answers given, and so the wizard would go back to his crystal ball, or his enchanted basin, and send his eyes and ears out again, and again. Paragor had known of wizards found dead, drained of their very life force, slumped in their chairs before their divining devices.

  But the duke had to go back again to Eriador. He had seen the defeat at Port Charley, the massacre on the fields of Montfort, and the ride of Eradoch, and all of it was inevitably leading his way, to Malpuissant’s Wall, which was under his domain.

  Thowattle placed the basin on a small round table in the duke’s private study, a scarcely furnished and efficient room containing only the table, a large but rather plain desk and chair, a small cabinet, and a wall rack of several hundred compartments. The cyclopian then went to the cabinet and took out a jug of prepared water. He began to pour it into the basin, but it splashed a bit and an angry Paragor pulled the jug from his one hand, slapping him aside.

  Thowattle just shook his ugly head skeptically; he had never seen the duke so flustered.

  Paragor finished filling the basin, then produced a slender knife from under the voluminous folds of his brownish-yellow robes. He began to chant softly, waving one hand over the basin, then he stabbed his own palm and allowed his blood to drip into the water.

  The chanting continued for many minutes, Paragor slowly lowering his face to within an inch of the bowl, peering deeply into the swirling red waters.

  Peering deeply, watching the forming image . . .

  “An easy victory,” a young man—the Crimson Shadow! Paragor realized by the cape he wore—was saying. He was in a large tent, surrounded by an odd crew: a foppish halfling, an old man that Paragor did not know, and three women, all very different in appearance. One was tall and strong, with hair the color of a rich sunset, another was much smaller of frame—perhaps with the blood of Fairborn—with angular features and long wheat-colored tresses, and the third was a rugged woman, dressed in the furs of a highlander. Paragor knew this one, Kayryn Kulthwain, the woman Estabrooke had beaten to take control of the folk of Eradoch.

  “But this army was up for a fight,” the foppish halfling replied in a thick Gascon accent. “And now we have no fight for them!”

  Paragor didn’t quite understand, but he didn’t let his mind wander at that time. He sent his gaze to the edges of the basin, seeking the object of his divining. There was Estabrooke, seated passively on a stool, resting against the side of the tent. What had happened to so quiet the commanding cavalier? the wizard-duke wondered. The resignation on Estabrooke’s face might be the most unsettling thing of all!

  Gradually Paragor realized that he was meandering from his course. Already he could feel the weight of the magic; his time was short. Near the center of the tent, of the basin, the Crimson Shadow was speaking once more.

  “As the fingers of a hand have the folk of Eriador assembled,” he said, waxing poetic and holding his own hand up in the air. “Come together into a fist.”

  “A fist that has punched King Greensparrow right in the nose,” the old man said. “A solid blow, but have we really hurt him?”

  “Eriador is ours,” the red-haired woman declared.

  “For how long?” the old man asked cynically.

  That set them all back on their heels. “Greensparrow is in Gascony, that much we know,” the old man continued. “And Greensparrow will return.”

  “The plan was yours, I remind you,” the halfling protested.

  “It did not go as planned.”

  “The objective was gained more easily,” the halfling said.

  “But not with the same effect as Oliver’s Bluff,” the old man snapped right back. “We are not done, I fear. Not yet.”

  “What is left?” the halfling asked.

  “Forty-five miles is not so far a march in the spring,” the old man said slyly.

  The image in the divining basin faltered, Paragor’s concentration destroyed by the sudden shock. Blanching white, the skinny wizard-duke fell back from the bowl. Princetown—the upstart fools were talking of marching to Princetown!

  Paragor understood the peril. This was no small force, and Greensparrow had not acted quickly enough. The armies of Avon were not assembled for march and were nowhere near Princetown. And what other fight had the group declared already won?

  Malpuissant’s Wall?

  The skinny duke ran his fingers through his hair again repeatedly. He had to think. He had to sit down in the dark and concentrate. He knew a little, but not enough, and he was tired.

  Such were the limitations, and the cost, of divination.

  • • •

  “Princetown,” Siobahn reasoned, following Brind’Amour’s logic. “The Jewel of Avon.”

  “The stakes just rose for Oliver’s Bluff,” Brind’Amour confirmed.

  “Greensparrow, he will never expect it, and never believe it,” Oliver said. Then in quieter tones so that only Luthien could hear him clearly, he added, “Because I am standin
g right here and I do not believe it.”

  “Princetown is isolated,” Brind’Amour explained. “Not another militia of any size within two hundred miles.”

  Siobahn wore a confused expression, half doubting the possibility, half intrigued by it. “They could send another fleet,” she pointed out, “around the wall to cut us off from our home ground.”

  “They could,” Brind’Amour conceded. “But do not underestimate the willingness of those Eriadorans who have not yet joined with us. The folk of Chalmbers, a fair-sized town, are not blind to the events along the mountains and along the wall. Besides,” the old wizard added slyly, rubbing his wrinkled fingers together, “we will strike quickly, within the week.”

  Oliver understood that this might be his one chance to become a part of history, with his name attached to the daring assault. He also understood that the possibility existed that he, and all the rest of them, would be slaughtered on a field south of Eriador. Quite a risk, considering that the original objective of the rebellion (which, in fact, had only begun by accident!) had already been apparently attained. “Princetown?” he asked aloud, drawing attention. “To what point?”

  “To force a truce,” Brind’Amour replied without hesitation. The old wizard didn’t miss the cloud that then crossed Luthien’s face.

  “Did you think to take it all the way?” Brind’Amour scoffed at the young Bedwyr. “Did you think to go all the way into Avon and conquer Carlisle? All of Eriador would have to march south, and we would still be outnumbered more than three to one!”

  Luthien didn’t know how to respond, didn’t know what he was thinking or feeling. The completion had come easily—the wall was theirs and, for all practical purposes, Eriador was out from under Greensparrow’s shadow. Just like a snap of Oliver’s green-gauntleted fingers. But for how long? Brind’Amour had asked. It seemed to Luthien then that the fight was far from over, that Greensparrow would come back after them again and again. Could they ever truly win? Perhaps they should take it all the way to Carlisle, Luthien thought, and end the dark shadow that was Greensparrow once and for all time.

  “The common folk of Avon would join with us,” he reasoned, a hint of desperation in his resonant voice. “As have the common folk of Eriador.”

  Brind’Amour began to argue, but Oliver interrupted with a raised hand. “I am schooled in this,” the halfling explained, begging the wizard’s pardon.

  “They would see us as invaders,” Oliver said to Luthien. “And they would defend their homes against us.”

  “Then why is Princetown different?” Luthien asked sharply, not pleased at hearing the obvious truth.

  “Because it is merely Oliver’s Bluff,” the halfling said, and then came the predictable snap of his fingers. “And I want to see the zoo.”

  “Only then do we offer a truce to Avon’s king,” Brind’Amour explained. “With Princetown in our grasp, we’ll have something to barter.” Luthien’s expression was doubtful, and Brind’Amour understood. The young man had grown up on an isolated island, far from the intrigue of the world’s leaders. Luthien was thinking that, if Greensparrow was so powerful, the king could merely march northeast from Carlisle and take Princetown back by force, but what Luthien didn’t understand was the embarrassment factor. The only chance Eriador had of breaking free of Avon was to become such a thorn in Greensparrow’s side, such an embarrassment to him in his dealings with the southern kingdoms, particularly Gascony, that he simply didn’t want to have to bother himself with Eriador anymore. Princetown conquered might just accomplish that; then again, the wizard had to admit, it might not.

  “So there we have it,” Brind’Amour said suddenly, loudly. “We take Princetown and then we offer it back.”

  “After we let the animals go,” Oliver added, drawing amused smiles from all in the tent.

  Simple and logical, it outwardly sounded. But not one of the planners, not Luthien nor Oliver, Katerin nor Siobahn, Kayryn Kulthwain nor even Brind’Amour believed it would be that simple.

  • • •

  The army came upon Malpuissant’s Wall, among the most impressive structures in all of Avon, the next day. It stood fifty feet high and twenty feet wide, stretching nearly thirty miles from the eastern edge of the Iron Cross all the way to the Dorsal Sea. Gatehouses had been built every five hundred yards, the most impressive of these being the fortress of Dun Caryth. She reached out from the last sheer wall of the rugged mountains, blending the natural stone into the worked masonry of the wall. Half of Dun Caryth was aboveground, soaring towers and flat-topped walls brimming with catapults and ballistae, and half was below, in tunnels full of supplies and weapons.

  In viewing the place, Luthien came to appreciate just how important this easily won victory had been. If his army had gone against the Praetorian Guards of Dun Caryth, they would have suffered terrible losses, and no siege could have lasted long enough to roust the brutes from the fortress. The uprising had come from within the fortress walls, though, and Dun Caryth, and all of Malpuissant’s Wall, was theirs.

  Their welcome was warm and full of celebration, the Eriadorans all feeling invulnerable, as if Greensparrow’s name was no more than a curse to be hurled at enemies.

  Brind’Amour knew better, but even the wizard could not help but be caught up in the frenzy when the victorious armies came together. And it was good for them, realized the wizard-turned-general: celebration further sealed their alliance and ensured that the less predictable folk, like the Riders of Eradoch, were fully in the fold.

  So they enjoyed that day at the wall, swapped their stories of hard-won victory, and of friends who had given their lives. The army from Caer MacDonald, and from the northern fields, camped on the plain north of Dun Caryth that night.

  Feeling invincible.

  • • •

  Back in his palace in Princetown, Duke Paragor paced the carpeted floor of his bedchamber. He was tired, his magic expended, but he wanted to call to Greensparrow.

  Paragor shook his head, realizing what that distant communication would offer. Greensparrow would dismiss the whole affair, would insist that the upstarts in Eriador were a mob and nothing more.

  Paragor considered his options. The nearest dukes, fellow wizards, were in Evenshorn, far to the south, and in Warchester, all the way around the southern spur of the Iron Cross, on the banks of glassy Speythenfergus. It would take them weeks to even muster their forces, and weeks more for their armies to trudge through the mud and melting snows to get to Princetown. The wizard-dukes could get to Paragor’s side, of course, by using their magic—perhaps they could even bring along a fair contingent of Praetorian Guards. But would they really make a difference against the force he believed would be coming down from Eriador? And what of his own embarrassment if he called to them and begged them, and then the unpredictable Eriadorans did not come?

  “But I have other allies!” Paragor snarled suddenly, startling Thowattle, who was sitting on the rug in a corner of the lavish room.

  Thowattle studied his master carefully, recognizing the diabolical expression. Paragor meant to summon a demon, the cyclopian realized, or perhaps even more than one.

  “Let us see if their will for war can be slowed,” the wicked duke continued. “Perhaps if the Crimson Shadow is slain . . .”

  “That would only heighten the legend,” the wary cyclopian warned. “You will make a martyr of him, and then he will be more powerful, indeed!”

  Paragor wanted to argue the point, but found that he could not; the unusually perceptive one-eye was right again. Paragor improvised—there were ways to kill a man’s spirit without killing the man. “Let us suppose that I can break the will of the Crimson Shadow,” Paragor offered, his voice barely above a whisper.

  Perhaps he could break the man’s heart.

  COLLECTING ALLIES

  It was a bare room, empty of all furnishings save a single brazier set upon a sturdy tripod near the southeastern corner. Each of the walls bore a single sconce holding
a burning torch, but were otherwise plain and gray, as was the ceiling. The floor, though, was not so unremarkable. Intricate tiles formed a circular mosaic in the center of the room, its middle area decorated as a pentagram. The circle’s outer perimeter was a double line, and within these arching borders were runes of power and protection.

  Paragor stood within the circle now, with Thowattle by the brazier, the cyclopian carrying a small crate holding many compartments strapped about his burly neck. The duke himself had placed the tiles, every tiny piece, years before—a most painstaking process. More often than not, Paragor would have finished one section and upon inspection discover that it was not perfect. Then he would have to rip up all the tiles and start again, for the Circle of Sorcery, the protection offered the wizard against whatever evil demon he summoned, had to be perfect. The design had stood the test for several years, against many demons.

  Paragor stood absolutely still, reciting the long and arduous chant, a call to hell itself interspersed with thousands of protection spells. Every so often, he lifted his left hand toward Thowattle and spoke a number, and the cyclopian reached into the appropriate compartment of his crate, took out the desired herb or powder, and plunked it into the burning brazier.

  Sometimes the component created a heavily scented smoke, other times, a sudden burst of flame, a miniature fireball. Gradually, through the hours of the sorcerous process, the fires in the brazier began to mount. At first, there had been no more than a lick of flame; now a fair-sized fire raged in the middle of the brazier, the heat of it drawing sweat on the already smelly cyclopian.

  Paragor seemed oblivious to it all, though in truth, he and his magic were the true source of the brazier’s life. There were two types of sorcery: lending and true summoning. The first, lending, was by far the easier route, wherein the wizard allowed a demon to enter his body. The true summoning, which Paragor now attempted, was much more difficult and dangerous. Paragor meant to bring a demon in all its unholy majesty into this room, and then to loose it upon the world, following a strict set of instructions given it by the wizard.

 
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