The War Of The Black Tower (Book 2), страница 1
THE WAR OF THE BLACK TOWER:
by Jack Conner
All rights reserved
Cover image used with permission
NOTE TO READER:
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The survivors drifted all over Oksilith, scattered here and there by the fires and winds of the explosion. Eventually, in fits and starts, they began to coalesce and in the days ahead formed into larger and larger units. Ultimately they formed one host and moved north toward Celievsti. All were stunned, shocked into numbness. All wore the same blank gazes, staring off into unfathomable distances. Over sixty thousand men and elves had assaulted Gulrothrog, not to mention the tens of thousands of slaves that had already been there. Less than three thousand now returned, and these were burned and reeling.
Shortly after the eruption, Baleron and Shelir gathered together some survivors and formed a ragged band that came to include Elethris and the Archmage Logran Belefard. On the third day they found Rolenya and Lord Albrecht Grothgar.
They camped on the wastelands that night in the artificial snow, as ash rains drifted down and chill winds scoured the land.
Baleron huddled, shivering, in the makeshift tent with his arms around Shelir, and together they gazed out upon the wastes and the ruins of Oksil, where flame and magma still spewed high into the sky past swirling clouds of pulverized rock. He shook his head and wept, but her grief was the greater, for she had lost Ficonre, who had been her only family and with whom she had been very close. Baleron didn’t tell her of his role in the captain’s death. For his part, he had lost three of his own brothers, but they had not been close, so his grief was the lesser, at least on that point. Also, he still had the sister he had come so far to save, though he and Rolenya spoke little, as the tragedy weighed heavily on them both.
“Oh, Baleron,” Shelir said. “I can’t bear it. All those brave soldiers ... the prisoners ... everyone ... all gone ...”
He rubbed her back and kissed her golden head and told her it would be all right, but inside he shook. It was a staggering loss to Havensrike and Larenthi, to countless families. As the gray days went on, he saw that on no heart or mind did the tragedy weigh more heavily than upon King Grothgar’s. He brooded silently when he wasn’t giving orders, and there were precious few orders to give and precious few to give them to. Baleron asked himself why he’d survived when so many others had died, but he knew. His purpose was unfulfilled. For, he knew, deep in his heart, that this was all the work of his Doom.
If this were how Gilgaroth would use him, what next would the Lord of the South have him do? Gilgaroth had further plans for him, that was clear. He must, if Baleron was to accomplish all the Beast had said he would.
Baleron reckoned that all this could only mean one thing: that indeed the Final War was coming. Il Nefigor. Perhaps it had already started.
All his life, he had been told that Gilgaroth was building up his strength for some future war, some Great War, and that there was no reason to now be afraid. But the future was here, and it was grim. The armies of Havensrike and Larenthi were broken. The true war would come soon, while they were weak—the war to usher in the End Days, il Nefiltas, the Apocalypse, when the Omkar would wage their second, last war. And, as it stood, Gilgaroth would surely win, for the gods of the Light were weak and scattered.
It began to make sense to Baleron, the Shadow’s designs.
He thought he understood now an additional reason why he’d been held as a slave for three years at the Hidden Fortress. It had to be Gulrothrog that he escaped from, so that he could draw the map, and it had to be a period of years to make his escape seem more legitimate. Those three years had caused King Grothgar to lose hope of ever seeing Rolenya again, so that when Baleron had shown up the king had leapt at the chance to rescue her, never mind how. And those years of toil had made his story sound more plausible to Elethris, as well.
Gilgaroth, thought Baleron, was clever. Very, very clever. And Baleron truly was his spider, spinning a web of death—yes, of doom.
But that did not fully satisfy Baleron. He took his questions to Elethris one day as the company had stopped for a break, and the Lord of the White Tower took him into his tent. “I want no one else to hear this,” Elethris explained as the flap closed behind him. “They have enough on their minds.”
“So what do you think really happened? Was it truly a trap all along, the working of my Doom”
Agitated, the elf paced back and forth in the small space. “I do not know. I had not thought your Doom so powerful. I sense that Gilgaroth’s ends were met here, but whether bursting Oksil was his design from the start I cannot say. If so, he is more willing to sacrifice his resources than I had supposed.”
“But why? We could have been obliterated by other means. Grudremorq could have shaken us off as we mounted Oksil’s slopes, if he was already prepared to destroy the mountain. But they waited until after the attack. There was some end met there ... something we’re missing.”
“Perhaps neither Gilgaroth nor Ungier ordered the eruption. Perhaps Grudremorq took it upon himself to aid his Master. Or perhaps he has designs of his own.”
“But don’t you see, they allowed us to escape!”
Now it was Elethris’s turn to frown. “How do you mean?”
“We could have been utterly destroyed to a man. Did you notice that no glarumri attacked us as we fled? If the eruption had been designed to kill us all, they would have been waiting in the skies to ambush our escape. No, we were meant to survive. But why?”
Elethris looked at him for a long moment, saying nothing.
Baleron sagged. “This is all my fault.”
“Don’t blame yourself, Baleron.” He seemed to deliberate on whether or not to say something. “I foresee that you can help turn the tide of this war.”
Baleron snorted. “In which direction?”
“That’s quite enough of that. We have already discussed this.”
Baleron held up the chain holding the white stone Elethris had gifted to him. Candlelight stroked it, revealing the thin black veins now running through the quartz. Elethris’s face grew ashen, and Baleron stared at him levelly. “My Doom is strong.”
Slowly, Elethris nodded, stepping backward. “So I see ...”
“Is there naught then to be done about it?”
Elethris’s grim look turned grimmer still. “I can think of only one thing.”
Baleron stood. “As I thought. I ... will see to it now. Oh, and keep this.” Bitterly, he flung the stone at the elf’s feet and turned to go.
“No! Wait. I meant it, that you can do some good in this war. You—and that sword.”
Baleron turned back. “The sword? But how? Rondthril’s a cursed thing, an evil thing, loyal to the dark powers. You said so yourself. And I’m just a man, and not a particularly bright man, or good man.”
Elethris smiled gently. “You are not so bad. And you do have a purpose.”
“To cause the downfall of the north?”
The elf’s expression soured. “No.”
“Then what? You said there is no such thing as purpose, anyway.”
“Before I spoke in broad terms, but you burn brightly, Baleron, and not all for ill.”
“Purpose!” Baleron snorted. “For most of my life, I never had a purpose, and I was unhappy because I wanted one. Now you tell me I have one, even if you don’t know what it is, and Gilgaroth has already given me one, and do you know what I realize? That I don’t really want one at
“Who would not? But we are not home. We are here. And, though you do not know it, you have greatness in you. And it is here that you can realize it. At home it would be unfulfilled. Sometimes it is only in catastrophe that one’s potential can come forward.”
“I may be important because of factors beyond my control, but I am not great.”
“Maybe you weren’t before. But now, if you choose wisely, you will be.”
“And what are my choices? To live or to die? If I live, I carry out my Doom. Don’t you see? Whatever purpose I have, it’s an ill one.”
Elethris stroked his chin thoughtfully. “True, you were likely meant to come to me after your escape from Gulrothrog and galvanize me into planning invasion. That was probably the Enemy’s design, his curse, and it is done.”
“But that can’t be the whole of it! You didn’t hear what Gilgaroth said to Ungier. And what about your stone? No, I must end myself or condemn the world.”
“No!” Elethris’s voice was stern. “Do not even consider it. Gilgaroth thinks you a sword in his hand, but a sword you remain, for such has he fashioned you. And a sword can turn against its wielder.”
Baleron was not cheered as he quit Elethris’s tent. He brooded on what he knew he must do as the days went on and the company grew larger as more and more stragglers were drawn to it. Still the troops remained stunned. King Felias, who had joined their group, led his elves in songs of mourning. Some were old, some they began to weave on the spur of the moment. It helped them deal with the cataclysm and Baleron tried to lend his voice when Shelir sang with the others of her kind, but his voice was poor in comparison and he was too ashamed to continue.
Sometimes he would look to Rolenya at these times, wondering if she would raise her angelic voice, but she never did. In fact, there was little angelic about her these days: she was weary and sad. Almost, she seemed empty, very unlike the Rolenya he knew, and this caused him to despair further. Had he risked so much to save her only to lose her to grief, and to her bitter experiences with Ungier?
It was during this time that Shelir found out what had transpired between Baleron and Ficonre on the battlefield. One of the newcomers had seen it and reported it to her. After that she could not look Baleron in the eye.
“Whenever I look on you I see only my brother’s killer,” she told him.
“I ended his suffering.”
“I know,” she said, touching her head, “here. But here—” she touched the place over her heart “—I will always wonder if there was something you could have done.”
“What could I—”
“You could have brought him to a healer! Made him well!” She turned away crying and he knew she could not be dissuaded. Her heart had turned. With mixed feelings, he let her go. Part of him thought, I am free. But then there were nights when he reached to hold her and did not find her.
The weight of the holocaust loomed over them all, and he felt it most keenly, especially now that he was alone. Whenever he looked south to the fiery, smoking remains of Oksil, he saw a ruin of his own making.
Finally, one night as he watched the smoke rise to the south, listening to the sad songs of the elves in their circles to one side of the camp, smelling the endless ash of the waste and feeling the gritty air, it came to him that Elethris was wrong. The elf underestimated his Doom, and Baleron must put an end to it in the only way he knew. He rose and slipped out of camp unobserved, gripping Rondthril tightly.
“Don’t worry,” he hissed at the blade. “Others may go hungry tonight, but you won’t.”
He strode out into the wasteland. Shortly he came upon an outcropping of rock overlooking a vast canyon. A river of magma cut through it far below so that the rock walls glowed in the red-orange light and it seemed as though he teetered on the very brink of hell. A likely spot.
He wedged Rondthril’s handle in a fissure of rock so that the blade stuck up from the ground at an angle.
He felt the sharp steel with his fingers, running his fingertips along its length. The metal was cold, though in it he still felt the seething thrum of Ungier’s hate, the hate the Vampire King had channeled into it with part of his essence upon its forging. Baleron felt the vampire’s malice every time he unsheathed it: a black taint, a corruption. He felt it most strongly now.
He tore off his shirt and pressed his abdomen to the cold tip of the blade.
“There’s your prey. All you have to do is sit there.”
Steeling his nerves, he drew back ten paces. He looked at the sword to check his angle. The blade was raised so that its tip glinted by starlight. It was pointed directly at him. He wondered if he should bid Shelir goodbye, or Rolenya. Or even his father. But no. That would make it too difficult. They would just try to talk him out of what he knew he must do.
But why? hissed a voice inside his head. After all, the voice said, Gilgaroth had already won, that was plain. He’d used the prince and been rewarded. What more possibly could Baleron do for him? What further strands could he spin? Surely his web was played out.
The point was, he reminded himself—or his Doom, if that is where the voice came from—that he did not want to find out what further ruination he could achieve. Gilgaroth embodied the blackest ills and he had eons of time at his disposal; he could concoct a plan over the course of millennia to see it through, building it steadily over the ages. Perhaps now such a plan was at its peak, yet the plan was vulnerable: the Dark One needed Baleron. Without him, the plan would collapse.
Baleron took his last look at the world. Took a deep breath. Now.
He ran towards Rondthril.
The world seemed to slow. He could feel every particle of ash berating his skin, feel every finger of wind caressing his hair, smell every yellow strand of sulfur that washed his nostrils and taste the rot of death on the air. He did not want to die. He truly did not. He had too much to live for. He’d just barely started.
The sword drew closer. Its sharp tip seemed to rush up at him.
He did not dodge aside.
He ran onto the sword to impale himself, to plunge the blade into his belly, spearing him, tearing through flesh and blood and vital organs. That is what he meant to happen.
Instead, he threw himself onto the blade—and the blade threw him back.
It seemed to him that he bounced off an invisible wall just at Rondthril’s tip and was knocked away as if by the hand of a giant. The ground struck his backside, and rocks scraped his ribs. Gasping, he stared in shock at the weapon. Its gleaming length seemed to laugh at him.
“How can this be?” he demanded.
Rondthril did not answer.
He picked himself up. Dusted himself off. Glared at the disobedient blade.
“Why? You certainly didn’t aid your last master. And it’s not because you’re good. You’re evil.” He stared at it. That was when it hit him. “That’s why, isn’t it?” The black truth nearly made him laugh. “You’re an unthinking, evil thing, but you know I’m aiding your ... your side ... so you resist. Because ... I’m ul Ravast. Of course.”
He rose and strode over to it, ripping the sword from its fissure.
Veins standing out on his forehead, jaw clenched, sweat beading on his skin, he stalked up to the edge of the precipice and stared down into the red-glowing depths.
“If you won’t oblige me,” he told Rondthril, “I’ll just have to oblige myself.”
But, he decided, he would only jump when he had the satisfaction of seeing that the sword had gone ahead of him. He cocked his arm and prepared to throw it in.
“Don’t!” said a voice behind him.
He spun about. Rolenya stood twenty paces away with tears in her blue eyes, and the wind whipped her black hair in streamers behind her head. A filmy garment clung to her, nearly transparent in the moonlight.
“How ... ?” he began.
She moved forward and placed
“It saved your life once, as I watched,” she whispered. “I want it with you always.”
“You ... saw?”
She nodded. “I cried out to stop you, but the wind tore my words away.” She shook her head desperately. “Promise me you’ll never do that again, Bal.” She stared at him, imploring. Her hands brushed his cheek. “Promise.”
Reluctantly, he nodded. Rondthril sang out to him, and he shuddered.
Without another word, she turned and walked away, her bare feet taking her on a path perilously close to the abyss. Her white nightgown fluttered like a ghost. For a long time, he watched her go. The wind howled ominously.
He would be glad to be rid of this place.
A patrol of swan riders winging south from the Wall of Towers found them a few days later. The serathin circled the convoy a few times, likely trying to make heads or tails of the situation, and eventually Elethris and King Felias rode out to greet them. The swan rider captain set down and conferred with them, then returned to the air. Several days later a host of mounted elves arrived from the White Tower bringing with them a tide of horseflesh to make the homecoming swifter. After that, all those that could ride did so, the wounded being dragged in litters behind. The following days were wearying, but at least the survivors had hope now.
When Baleron finally saw Celievsti, that glittering spike of a tower, like a lance of sunlight sprouting from the earth, he felt a strange sort of peace wash across him. Somehow just the sight of it made him feel better. The tense places in him began to unknit, unwind.
He rode a horse and Rolenya rode behind him, her arms about his waist, her head against his back.
“Celievsti,” she whispered in tones of awe, and he was reminded that she had never seen it before. He could feel the rise and fall of her breasts against his back.