The War Of The Black Tower (Book 3), страница 1
THE WAR OF THE BLACK TOWER:
by Jack Conner
All rights reserved
Cover image used with permission
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Ravening nightmares chased Baleron from sleep.
He shot up gasping, drenched in sweat, to find himself in a small, dark room, propped on a narrow bed. A hideous face hovered over him, tusked and horrible, and he shouted in surprise.
The face drew back, its owner visibly startled.
It was a Borchstog, but a Borchstog unlike any Baleron had ever seen. It was bigger, for one. For another, it was not bristling with hostility, and something in its face even hinted at gentleness.
The Borchstog recovered itself. It held a damp cloth; it had been wiping the sweat from his brow while he slept. A nurse?
It smiled down at him—not prettily, no, but it seemed to be heartfelt, and in this place such a thing was beautiful.
“From the deep pool one comes,” it said, and its voice was different from any other Borchstoggish voice Baleron had ever heard. It was . . . soft.
He tried to ask it a question, but the effort proved too much for him. He grunted something and fell back on the bed. The world grew hazy for awhile, and terrible beings chased him, drooling, and he heard Rauglir’s laughter from the darkness. Upon waking he found himself in the small room once more.
The same Borchstog nurse checked the bandages on his left wrist.
Groaning, he sat up a little and tried to see what she was doing. What he saw surprised him, and he moaned something interrogatively. The Borchstog looked up and smiled again.
“Roschk ul Kunraggoq,” it said, a common greeting here. Looking down at the end of his left arm, it asked, “What think you?”
He stared. For, terminating his left arm, was in fact his left hand. It had been reattached. A ring of ugly and uneven stitches marked the juncture, and the whole mass was swollen and bruise-colored, and it hurt terribly, but it was there.
He tried to wiggle his fingers. They wiggled.
“Bleh?” he asked.
The Borchstog listened patiently. “I am Olfrig. I am the head nurse here and have been personally assigned to oversee your recovery.”
He mumbled another question. He felt very woozy. They must have given him something.
“We nurses see to the healing of our injured slaves—at least, the ones valuable enough to keep,” the nurse explained. “I had a dwarf in yesterday, for example: an excellent metalworker. And there’s an elf just down the hall who is very good at laying charms on works-in-progress. But you’re even more special, you know. Of course you do. It’s an honor to serve you, Ravast-rul. You’re going to help us win the War. You may have already.”
He mumbled something.
“That’s right, the War. We have both Glorifel and Clevaris under siege as we speak, and the other countries are overrun. It’s only a matter of time.” The Borchstog seemed very proud.
Despair filled Baleron, and guilt; he’d abandoned his people in their darkest hour. Of course, he reminded himself, the reason he’d left was because he could do them no more good; his time would be better spent avenging them. And so he still would, he vowed.
He had to get out of here—had to get back home. Maybe there was some way he could still help—
A coldness gripped him, like an icy claw about his heart. His Doom had triggered that thought. He knew it. Father was right, he thought with a shudder. How do I know where it ends and I begin?
Working carefully, he said, “M’ot.”
The nurse frowned, then brightened. “Mrot?” Water?
Glad to assist, she ladled some water into his mouth from a nearby bowl, and he drank it down greedily. Rank and bitter, it was the best thing he had ever tasted. Feeling much better, he wiped his mouth and said, slowly and carefully, “You’re a female?”
She laughed, and he tried not to cringe. “Yes,” she said. “Olfrig is very female. Olfrig has over a hundred sons.”
She patted his thigh. “We Borchstogs have few daughters, but we are large and can fend for ourselves. The males do what we say or we eat them.”
He cleared his throat. “Did you say Glorifel is still under siege?”
“For five, six months now.”
That sobered him. He’d been tortured for more than a quarter of a year. “What of Larenthi?”
“Clevaris is the only city left, and it’s ready to collapse, its rivers poisoned, its gardens aflame. The Queen’s powers are exhausted, and most of her House are slain.”
Olfrig seemed very cheery about all this, as if she didn’t understand that Baleron was on the opposite side. Though the attitude vexed him, it was good that his nurse felt on the same side as her patient, and he didn’t disabuse her of the notion.
“Prince Jered?” he said. “Does he still live?”
She scratched her scarred face. “He’s been in some battles . . . Olfrig has heard name . . . but can’t remember.”
“And the other countries . . . Esril, Felgrad, Crysmid . . . all of them . . . they’re overrun?”
“Oh, yes. They sent their armies to Clevaris to break siege. Grudremorq destroyed them. Their homes were defenseless. The Flame and the Shepherd both sent out hosts to raid and burn, and the Master sent more. Some of our foes still live, but they run and hide, they do not fight. The Crescent is fallen. All that is left are two cities, and Master builds another army, the greatest yet, to bring them down utterly Himself.”
Dismay filled Baleron. If it were possible to escape, he wondered if there were some way he could aid the Crescent. But if he tried, what guarantee was there that he wasn’t simply carrying out his Doom? He was alive for a reason, after all, and nothing in his life since Gulrothrog had been an accident, it seemed.
To keep her talking, he brought up something she’d said that puzzled him: “You said the nurses treated your . . . slaves. What of the injured Borchstogs? Don’t they need healing?”
“Not in Krogbur. Here the strength of our Lord is at its greatest. It’s here where the strands of His web cross each other, and one of His children who is wounded need merely bask in His power, and he is healed.”
“Your kind must like this place then. Is it to replace Ghrastigor as his fortress?”
She shrugged. “Not privy to Master’s designs is Olfrig. I do know, yes, that He has planned long for this, for the raising of His Tower. The Shadowneedle. The Rooted Lightning. The Doorway. And you helped bring it about. You must be very proud.”
Catching him by surprise, she pinched the small finger on his left hand. He yelped.
“Is well,” she noted. “Feeling has returned.”
Later, when exhaustion tugged him back down into slumber, he dreamt that his left hand bristled with wolf fur and attacked him. Claws extended from its fingers, and a snapping wolf mouth had opened in the palm. Rauglir’s laughter chased him.
Olfrig nursed him back to health over the next few days, putting salves on his abrasions, giving him medicines and potions to drink, applying poultices, removing and replacing bandages. Slowly, he began to recover, though he did not know to what end.
In the beginning he would ask her why he was being seen to, why he was being made well, but she never had an answer—it was not her place to know, and she didn’t—so gradually he quit asking. He thought he knew without being told: the Dark One was ready to use him again.
For the thousandth time
Just as often he dreamt of Rauglir. Creatures mocked him in his slumber and hounded him so that he got no rest. Soon he dreaded sleep.
Something was wrong, he felt, wrong with him—with his body, with his mind, he did not know.
He was suspicious of the hand. Sometimes he would hold it up to the light and stare at it. He would flex it and twist it; it obeyed him. The fingernails were growing back, the scars fading and the cuts healing, faster than normal thanks to Olfrig’s potions. Just why had Gilgaroth forced him to cut it off, then ordered it reattached? The Dark One did nothing without reason.
What bothered Baleron nearly as much was Olfrig’s and the other Borchstogs’ conviction that he was ul Ravast. Surely they were wrong. Gilgaroth might use him as a tool, but he hadn’t been born to be that tool. It was merely an accident of circumstance that he was the sort of person the Wolf needed to further his designs, someone who could have access to the nobility and sorcery of both Havensrike and Glorifel. Otherwise, why Baleron? Why not a human that already served the dark powers?
One Olfrig entered the room and said brightly, “You’re awake. Is good. Master invites you to the Feast tonight.”
“Your Master . . . wants me to come to dinner?”
She nodded happily.
Stranger and stranger.
And strange it was.
The Feast was held in a huge high chamber, the Feasting Hall, the most bizarre dining hall Baleron had ever seen, and he’d seen dining halls in numerous palaces from four out of the six Crescent States. The domed stretched high overhead, so wreathed in smoke from torches and braziers and pipes that it was nearly impossible to see. The long wooden dinner tables were tiered on a sloped floor, somewhat like that of a theater, but where the stage would be was in fact a sunken pit—a sand-floored arena, in fact.
Thousands of Borchstogs roared and laughed and talked at their seats or standing up. Their din shocked the prince, used to the silence of his hole. Most of the Borchstogs seemed to be chiefs of their broods or cities. They engaged each other in braggadocio and fights and contests of various sorts. Two stuck pins in a thrashing elvish captive, chained to a wall. They gambled on who could make her scream the loudest. A group of Borchstogs sat around a table littered with gore; they competed to see who could assemble the best musical instrument out of the provided body parts: a flute with a thigh bone; drums with skin stretched tight over a pelvis; a stringed instrument with spine, ribs and cartilage.
The creatures’ smell repulsed Baleron, which surprised him; he thought he’d become accustomed to their stench by now. But there were so many here, and the smell so concentrated.
Growling wolves, pets or companions of the Borchstogs, lounged under the long wooden tables or fought each other for scraps and bones. Many wore spiked collars with chains attached; others were loose.
Huge steaming platters on silver and golden dishes of raw-looking meat (which Baleron did not want to inspect too closely) lay in large quantities upon the tables, and the Borchstogs picked at them with their fingers and ripped at them with their teeth. A few experimented with crude forks, though more than one of these wound up in another Borchstog’s eye.
They drank wine or mead from slopping, jewel-encrusted goblets, and Baleron wondered if they’d share. He could use a drink.
Many shouted “Roschk ul Ravast!” as he passed. Several dropped to their knees before him, and one even shouted something that sounded like, “Take my soul!” This Borchstog offered him a dagger and bared his throat.
Baleron took the dagger. His guards did not stop him. “If only you were all this accommodating,” he said, and slit the demon’s throat.
Borchstogs cheered the sacrifice, and wolves began gnawing at the dead one’s still-twitching body.
Grimacing, Baleron continued on, and his guards led him down toward the arena. Would he be shoved into it?
Gilgaroth sat on his great black throne on the other side of the sunken arena. Dressed darkly, his living shadow had been drawn about himself so that his fiery eyes blazed from the darkness, as if charcoal clouds passed twin red suns. One of his armored hands stroked the neck of a massive wolf to his left. To either side of him lay one, an impressive form of beast Baleron had heard call cuerdrig.
Gilgaroth’s crowned, veiled head swiveled in Baleron’s direction, and Baleron’s guards stiffened, then shook themselves and hastened to lead their prisoner down the stairs to the bottom row, immediately overlooking the arena. There were already some Borchstogs seated there, and by their wide girths Baleron judged them to be leaders of a large Borchstog city. His guards chased them off and shoved him into the place where they had been. The guards remained standing, protecting Baleron lest one of their feral brethren attempt to put a blade through his back, whether in bloodlust or amusement. Ul Ravast or not, they were Borchstogs.
Baleron glared up at the Dark One, who inclined his head to him in a silent acknowledgement. Baleron did not nod back.
Gilgaroth raised a hand, and the wild throng stilled. All save Baleron’s guards quit their pursuits and sat down respectfully.
“All hail Lord Gilgaroth,” they chanted, and not dully either. He was their father, their god, their reason for being. What would it be like, Baleron wondered, to have such clear purpose and favor?
“Welcome, my children,” Gilgaroth said. “We have an honored guest tonight. Raise your cups and toast Prince Baleron, my Champion, for he has delivered the heads of many of my enemies—and he will deliver more still.”
The Borchstogs raised their goblets. “Prince Baleron! Ul Ravast!”
“Thanks to him,” continued the Dark One, “We shall end this stalemate that has trapped me here for thousands of years. We shall go forth into the world, and make it our own!”
They cheered lustily, hooting and banging on the tables. Baleron clenched his teeth.
“So, to amuse Our benefactor, let the games begin!”
Baleron had not noticed before, but there were large, barred doors set into the sides of the arena. Two of these slid away with a groan, and a pair of corrupted, monstrous Giants stormed out into the pit on opposite sides. Both their faces and forms were nightmarish, and without preamble they flew at each other. The Borchstogs howled in delight as the towering creatures struck with an earthshaking crash.
It was a short and bloody fight. The one with the pincers sliced killed the other one, but in its dying moments the fallen Giant bit the victor, injecting it with a deadly poison, and the two twitched out their lives side by side on the ground, until they lay utterly still.
Several rithlag attended the Feast. Gilgaroth indicated one, who descended into the arena, where it reanimated the dead Giants and, like a puppeteer, made them dance and make merry. Musicians played eerie stringed instruments as the dead things cavorted. The Borchstogs hooted and laughed.
Eventually the rithlag sat down and the Borchstogs shouted out, eager for the next act, which was not long in coming.
Baleron did not bother to hide his disgust, but as the fights went on, he couldn’t help but become engrossed in the sheer spectacle of it all. The thundering giants and monsters . . . the blood, the noise . . .
He saw sights undreamt of, terrors that defied his imagination. One fight showcased a monster the like of which he had never seen. It resembled a giant squid, but it floated, hovering above the ground. It could spray a red cloud to confuse its enemies—in this case, a host of wraiths, the demonic spirits chained to Gilgaroth’s will. Like living shadows, they assailed the great squid-thing,
The next fight featured a Grudremorqen fighting a gaurock, one of the giant Serpents. The Grudremorqen and the Serpent battled furiously, one with fiery sword, one with venomous fangs. Finally the Serpent knocked the sword away and drove at the demon. The Grudremorqen grappled with it, and they wrestled about on the blood-soaked sand until finally the burning claws of the demon gave blackened death to the gaurock, and the latter’s death throes shook the Hall.
And so it went. Many times Baleron blanched, but he couldn’t deny the allure of the barbaric, the primal. Still, he tried not to watch, but one of his guards jabbed him with a crude fork every time he mashed his eyes shut. And then, at last, Baleron discovered why Gilgaroth had brought him here tonight.
A door in the arena slid open, gaping darkness.
The Borchstogs had been clamoring and crying in the intermission between bouts, but now, overcome by curiosity at what new marvel waited their pleasure, they leaned forward, red eyes a-goggle, breath catching in their throats.
Baleron watched, too, but his gaze was wary.
Shortly the darkness in the doorway stirred, and, to Baleron’s surprise, a beautiful woman was ushered out of it and into the arena—an elf, he saw by her slightly pointed ears. Dark hair cascaded down her shoulders and over the creamiest, whitest skin he’d ever seen. Clear blue eyes, moist now, gazed out defiantly from her angelic, delicately-boned face. Full red lips refused to tremble.
Baleron gasped. It could not be . . .