Read Darkening Skies (The Hadrumal Crisis) Online

Authors: McKenna Juliet E.

Tags: #Fantasy

Darkening Skies (The Hadrumal Crisis) (9 page)


Ferl, Caladhria

3rd of For-Autumn



a normal parliament, this would be the high day of a festival. If Corrain was still a guard captain, he and his men would be at liberty to go out and get drunk after their lord had attended the day’s debates by the parliament. With a little blessing from Halcarion, he could hope to find a girl willing to let his hand feel her frills.

Well, this was no normal festival and Corrain no longer believed in the goddess of love and luck. He wasn’t a guard captain. He was the new Baron Halferan, even if he was currently lodging in this rancid tavern.

With the likes of Lord Karpis hiring entire inns for themselves and their retinue, only the meanest accommodations had been left for latecomers to the parliament. Not even the Archmage’s coin could buy him some more dignity. Corrain sighed and drank the sour small beer that the tapster had offered for breakfast. He chewed on a slice of bread so full of chaff it was more fit for horses than their riders.

Voices grew loud outside the empty taproom’s door. He threw the bread down and hurried outside.

In the morning sunshine in the yard, Fitrel was glowering at a handful of Karpis men.

Corrain didn’t waste any time on courtesies. ‘What do you want?’

He could see all the rest of the Halferans coming down the wooden stair from the stable loft where they had been sleeping. Karpis men and Halferans alike bore the bruises from their earlier encounter.

‘We have a letter for you.’ The Karpis sergeant proffered a sealed parchment with bored insolence.

‘Linset!’ Fitrel jerked his head at the nearest Halferan trooper.

It took Corrain a moment to place the boy. Of course. The son of that new blacksmith who’d come to Halferan while he’d been a corsair prisoner. The lad had some growing to do, if he was ever going to match the breadth of his father’s shoulders. Linset might be tall enough for his head to reach the required measure on the old manor shrine’s door but he was thin enough to hide behind the stable yard’s hitching post if he turned sideways.

The instant before the boy’s fingers touched the letter, the Karpis sergeant let it fall to the straw-strewn cobbles.

‘Too slow,’ he mocked.

Corrain saw Linset’s face turn ugly, his hand going to the short sword at his belt.

‘You don’t want to soil your hands, boy.’ Fitrel stepped between Linset and the Karpis man and smiled as merciless as a mantrap. ‘How about you? Got a new blade yet? Not going to crumble away, I hope? You lads need steel the likes of ours.’

All the Karpis men recoiled. The panic on their faces was almost comical.

It took Corrain a moment to realise that the Karpis troopers were ready to believe the Halferans were still carrying ensorcelled blades. Weapons deadly with that same black enchantment which the lady wizard Jilseth had sent sliding along every Halferan sword to cut down the corsairs.

And these Karpis men had more reason than most to fear the meek and mild lady wizard, as modest as her plain grey gown. Corrain had heard that tale the evening before in this very tavern.

Their fat baron had heard, back in the spring, that Master Minelas had abandoned Halferan. Karpis hadn’t bothered with legalities, arriving instead with a troop of his guards and relying on force of arms to seize control of Lady Zurenne, her children and the household.

Before a chime had sounded, the Karpis troop and their baron had retreated, humiliated and defeated. Wizardry had rusted their blades and chainmail away in an instant, their sword scabbards warping and splitting.

That was all very well but Corrain didn’t have such magecraft to back him now, whatever the rumours troubling this parliament. He also didn’t want to attend the day’s session with news of another brawl following hard on his heels.

‘Enough!’ he snapped. ‘Halferans, you’re dismissed, all of you. Karpis, you may go!’

The sergeant had the grace to look guiltily down at the letter lying on the ground. He didn’t pick it up though, hastily marching his men away instead as Fitrel drove the Halferans on into the tavern for bread and sour ale.

The Karpis troop’s pace was ragged and their posture worse. If Corrain was their captain, that lad so completely out of step would win an extra day of stable duty. That duffer twisting his head to look back at the Halferans would be washing up the whole troop’s dinner plates for three days.

Once he was satisfied the Karpis men were out of sight, Corrain drew a deeper breath and went to pick up the dropped letter. He might as well see what their noble baron had to say for himself, before he headed for the parliament hall.

A man stepped out from behind the stable yard gate. The white linen of his shirt and the black broadcloth of his sleeveless summer jerkin echoed Tallat’s chequered standard.

‘Captain Mersed.’ Corrain bowed as one equal to another since there were no censorious barons around to see.

The wiry, long-limbed man was much his own age and with similar experience of life as a baron’s guard captain. Up to the point when Corrain’s liege lord had been murdered, he himself had been enslaved, and all his struggles against that fate had sunk him deeper into this mire.

‘Baron Halferan.’ Mersed looked warily at Corrain. ‘My lord would speak with you in private. Since you have the Archmage’s ear.’

Which Lord Tallat believed because Mersed, this loyal and honourable captain, had dutifully told him Corrain’s bare-faced lies; that the Archmage Planir was secretly helping Halferan despite all his insistence on that ancient edict forbidding magecraft in warfare.

Corrain swallowed an urge to explain and to ask for Mersed’s forgiveness. But how else could Corrain have convinced the guardsman that they could successfully lie in wait and slaughter a whole boatful of corsairs?

Halferan had needed allies and the Tallat captain would never have believed the prosaic reality; that Corrain and his one-time friend Kusint had scoured their recollections of life chained as oar slaves in the galleys. The two of them had identified one of the inlets in the marshes where the prowling galleys took on fresh water and calculated the likeliest tide for the raiders’ next assault. Then simple luck had brought them their victims in timely fashion.

Not that Corrain would be thanking Talagrin, lord of the wild places and the warrior’s god. After all that he had endured, Corrain had abandoned his belief in all such deities, just as they had abandoned him. Since he need not fear answering for his life’s misdeeds to Saedrin, he need not ease his guilty conscience by confessing to his deceits now.

Corrain looked steadily at Mersed. ‘I will be at Lord Tallat’s disposal after today’s debate.’

He owed the guard captain a debt of honour but he had no such obligation to Mersed’s lord. If Tallat hadn’t looked on Halferan with the same greedy eyes as Baron Karpis, he had been as ready to believe in Master Minelas’s forged grant of guardianship.

Fitrel had already reported what Tallat men were saying in the taverns in their lord’s support. It was ridiculous to suppose he should have consulted Lady Zurenne when Minelas had already told the parliament of his dealings with her late, lamented husband.

Everyone, from highest rank to humblest knew that a lord’s duty was to protect his family, his home and his loyal tenantry while it was his lady wife’s duty to ensure his comfort, to manage his household, to nurture his children. No woman had a voice on questions of business, governance or law. Why should she, when wise and loving husbands, brothers and fathers stood ready to take on such burdens?

Lady Zurenne should have sent word to her sisters if she was unhappy. Their husbands would have judged if she had any real cause for complaint, over and above a woman’s usual fancies.

If only Corrain could have cut that bastard Minelas’s throat and saved everyone all the grief that followed. It was no consolation to think that the villainous wizard had died an agonising death, betrayed by his own black-hearted greed as he sought to profit from Lescar’s interminable wars. Or so the lady wizard Jilseth said. Assuming she could be trusted. Could any mage be trusted?

Captain Mersed was still standing in the yard, looking at Corrain. ‘He would like you to convey his gratitude to the Archmage, that Tallat was spared the worst in the most recent spate of attacks.’ Mersed looked a trifle embarrassed.

‘So I heard.’ Corrain managed a curt nod, much as he disliked to lie to the man. ‘I can do that.’

After all it wasn’t as if Lord Tallat was likely to uncover the falsehood by talking to any wizards himself. Last night, Corrain had also heard the story of Jilseth wrapping the whole Kevil market place in magical silence when Tallat had somehow insulted her. A couple of years ago he’d have scorned such a story as chimney corner embellishment. Now he knew better.

‘Then let us thank Talagrin for his mercy to Tallat.’ Corrain smiled too briefly to convey any real meaning. ‘Now, if you will excuse me, I must attend the parliament.’

‘Until this evening then.’ Mersed bowed and retreated.

Corrain watched him go. He would far rather spend the evening drinking ale with that straight-forward man rather than sipping wine with his weaselly master. He would also welcome Mersed’s thoughts on that particular puzzle. Why had that final onslaught been so ferociously intent on Halferan?

Granted, Tallat’s villages and crops had been trampled underfoot as the raiders swept across their barony but the Archipelagans hadn’t lingered to indulge in the wholesale destruction which they had inflicted on Halferan.

Three chimes rang through the morning air. Corrain cursed. He should already be at the parliament hall. He headed out of the yard at a trooper’s jog keeping to the back alleys.

He felt at home here, as he did in market towns across Caladhria. There was little difference in the sizes and styles of the modest dwellings, the merchants’ houses and workshops, beyond variations forced on local builders by the materials to hand. More building stone was found in the north and more thatch across the breadbasket fields of the midland plains compared to the brick and tile of the coast which Corrain had grown up with.

As his route took him on to the main thoroughfares, he passed the weathered remnants of Tormalin Imperial grandeur here and there. In the biggest towns like Ferl, a grand house or a merchants’ exchange could endure through successive rebuilding over the twenty generations since the Old Empire fell into the Chaos.

Later grand edifices stood as testament to some long-dead baron’s pretentions when Caladhria had sought to challenge Ensaimin’s great trading cities. Embellished with carved stone canopies and fussy garlands such buildings were as outdated as a dowager’s frayed furbelows. Sterner lines and clean-cut facades in the Rational style now appeared as heirs returned from their education in Vanam, Col or Toremal to declare their independence in architecture, while abiding by the established consensus in the parliament.

Arriving at the central square, Corrain was forced to slow, to approach the parliament itself at a more sedate walk. Only as he reached the steps to the portico did he recall that unopened letter from Karpis left lying in the horseshit.

No matter. Whatever cutting words the fat baron had come up with, Corrain was used to fighting in the gutters with harsher tongues and real knives. These noble lords would do well to recall that.

As he entered the hall, he braced himself to meet the censorious gaze of the already assembled barons. His arrival prompted a murmur that swept through the gathering like a breeze through a wheat field.

‘Captain Corrain.’ Baron Ferl acknowledged him with a curt nod.

‘My lord.’ Corrain bowed politely as to an equal. ‘Kindly honour the barony of my birth and my lady wife’s inheritance with my present title.’

Every movement within the hammer-beamed hall stilled. Good.

Over his rudimentary breakfast that morning, Corrain had decided to make it plain that he wasn’t some suppliant desperate for the parliament’s approval. Nor would he satisfy those expecting a common trooper’s bluster and belligerence. Not after that first day’s scuffle contrived by Karpis had stirred all their noble lords’ prejudices.

Nor, by all that was sacred and profane, was he going to sit through another day of tedious head-shaking and hand-wringing over each and every barony’s summer travails, even of those towns and villages two hundred leagues from the sea.

Baron Ferl’s fleshy lips thinned. ‘My Lord Halferan.’

On the bench opposite, Baron Karpis snorted with audible contempt. ‘That remains to be seen.’

‘My lord?’ Corrain bowed to Baron Karpis with precisely measured courtesy. ‘You have some doubts as to my marriage? After you and your household guard heard Lady Ilysh of Halferan declare it, gladly and unprompted? When you have seen the contracts for yourself, signed and sealed all according to proper form? You have heard firsthand witness that Lady Ilysh and I were wed with every necessary rite observed before Drianon’s altar.’

Corrain surveyed the rest of the assembled nobles, challenge in his eye if not in his tone. ‘We married with the full consent of Lady Zurenne and with her husband dead, a mother has the right to give her daughter into wedlock under Caladhrian law. In accord with tradition and precedent, in the absence of any male heir of the bloodline, I am now Baron Halferan.’

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