Read Master of the Cauldron Online

Authors: David Drake

Master of the Cauldron

For Dorothy Day
A friend, resource, and archive
Also a darned good cheering section

Author's Note

Those of you who've read previous books in the Isles series will note some repetition in these notes, but I go to a good deal of effort to make each book accessible to people who've never read anything of mine before. Bear with me.

The religion of the Isles is based on that of Sumeria. The magic, however, is derived from that of the Mediterranean Basin during classical times (and probably originally Egyptian). The words of power are the
voces mysticae
of real spells, intended to get the attention of demiurges whom the wizard is asking for aid. I don't believe in magic myself; but a lot of other people, folks who're just as smart as I am, did and do. I'm not comfortable speaking the words of power aloud.

I use classical models for the literature of this series. For the most part this isn't important for
Master of the Cauldron,
but Celondre is modeled on Horace; the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicles
were the template for some of the documents; I used a snatch of the Homeric
Hymn to Aphrodite
; and there's a brief echo of the Ullman-Henry elementary Latin texts on which I learned to love Latin a very long time ago.

Prologue

Water dripped somewhere within the cavern. It echoed among the stalactites into the sound of a distant stream, but the basalt on which Countess Balila of Sandrakkan stood with her companions was dry. Their two lanterns did little to illuminate the high dome, but the flames raised occasional iridescence from the pearly flow rock deposited there before the volcanic upheaval of a thousand years before.

The wizard Dipsas squatted before the eight-pointed figure she'd traced on the basalt in powdered sulfur. She tapped one angle with her athame as she called in a cracked voice,
“Phrougi panton!”

To Balila, only a few feet away, the words of power were lost in the murmur of the cavern breathing and the earth's unfelt trembles. She hugged herself and trembled also, though the air in the chamber was warmer than that of the palace from which she and her companions had descended not long after sunset.

Balila had taken good care of her appearance. In the cave's dim light she could even now pass for the pink-cheeked, strawberry blonde of fifteen who'd married Earl Wildulf of Sandrakkan twenty years before. She was fearful and uncomfortable in this place, but she remained there because of the same determination that had preserved her looks through exercise and control of her appetite for sweets. Balila wasn't ambitious for herself, but there was
nothing
she wouldn't do to make her husband King of the Isles.

“Picale zamadon!”
Dipsas intoned, tapping her athame, a knife of black horn cut out of a scale from the back of a huge reptile. Dipsas herself didn't understand some of the symbols carved into the blade. The athame had been found in the sarcophagus of a wizard of millennia past. As she dipped and raised the point in time to her words of power, quivers of vivid red and blue shone through its opacity.

“Alithe zamadon!”
said Dipsas, her voice rising. Her wrinkled face had
the settled blankness of burgeoning fear. Her pronunciation of similar syllables had changed during the course of the incantation. The ancient words, the language of the demiurges who could adjust the powers on which the cosmos turned, were twisting themselves on her tongue.

The countess's pet and bodyguard was a flightless, hook-billed bird from the island of Shengy far to the southeast. It wore a silver collar with a staple to attach a chain, but she'd left it free to pace; its claws clicked on the basalt. The angry bird's head, as large as a horse's, darted from side to side like a grackle's. Occasionally it kicked viciously at something hinted in the shadows, but the blows never found a target.

Balila was of middling height for a woman. The bird was taller even when it stood relaxed; now the great bronze feathers of its crest were raised, glittering higher than the helmet of any human guardsman.

“Alithe atithe hupristi!”
Dipsas said. She held an open scroll, but her left hand trembled too badly for her to read the vermilion writing. Nonetheless the words curled off her tongue: partly from memory, partly from the weight of their own power.
“Thestis!”

The last of Balila's companions was a three-year-old boy. His hair spilled down his back like molten gold, and his only clothing was the harness that attached gilt wings to his shoulders.

The boy alone was unaffected by the psychic atmosphere. He ran prattling from the lamplight to the shadowed darkness, then back to clutch the countess's skirts and urge her to play with him. He had no more intelligence than a puppy, and like a puppy his disposition was sunny and laughing.

Dipsas' athame touched an angle of the figure again. A spark of red wizardlight snapped from the blade, igniting the sulfur. Tiny blue flames crawled in both directions from the point of contact. They provided almost no illumination, but smoke spread in a choking cloud just above the stone floor.

“Darza!”
the wizard said.

“Darza,”
the deeps rumbled.
“Badawa balaha!”

The bird screamed in fury, spreading its stub wings as its tongue shrilled between the black shearing edges of its beak. The child bleated in wide-eyed surprise.

The countess stopped hugging herself; her face was set. She had a notebook of waxed boards in her left hand, a bronze stylus in her right. She was as literate as most women of her class. Though not enough of a
scholar to write in the cursive Old Script, modern minuscules were sufficient to jot down the earth's responses phonetically.

Balila held her notebook so that light from the oil lamp in a niche beside her fell across the waxed surface as she began to write. When she'd filled one page, she flipped it out of the way on its leather hinges and went on to the next.

Dipsas coughed as she chanted, but her cracked voice and the thunderous antiphony from below continued for so long as the sulfur burned. Only when the blue flicker dimmed and finally died did the responses end.

The wizard slumped forward, her sleeve smearing the molten residue of the sulfur. If it burned her, she was too exhausted by the effort of her spell to react.

Balila tried to close her notebook. The thin maplewood boards clicked against one another; then the whole assemblage dropped to the floor. She bent to pick the notebook up, aware for the first time of the child bawling at her feet. She knelt, hugged him to silence, then put the notebook in the sleeve of her robe before walking over to the wizard.

“Dipsas?” she said. She shook the other woman's shoulder. Balila wasn't strong enough to carry the wizard back to the surface, and the child would probably need help as well. “Dipsas, get up. I have the responses. You can copy them off for the next time we come.”

The wizard lifted herself with difficulty. For a moment her face was that of an ugly, frightened old woman; then she consciously re-formed her features into a mask of cunning and power. “Yes, yes,” she said, her voice gaining strength as she spoke. “I'll be ready in a moment.”

The bird screamed. Sensing departure, it stalked toward the fissure by which they'd entered the dome, calling its challenge ahead.

Balila suddenly began to tremble, but she caught herself at once.
Wildulf the First, King of the Isles
…

Chapter One

Ilna could see her reflection in the silvered backplate of the man who'd been her childhood friend Garric, the innkeeper's son—but who now was Prince Garric of Haft, the King of the Isles in all but name. He was speaking to his fiancée and secretary, Lady Liane bos-Benliman, as she jotted notes onto a thin board with a small gold pen.

As she watched, Ilna's fingers knotted and unknotted patterns from the lengths of cord that she kept in her left sleeve. The patterns were simple, as simple as so many knives; and like knives, they could be tools or weapons if the need arose.

Ilna's reflection was distorted, of course. She smiled—not bitterly, or at any rate without any more bitterness than her usual expression. Ilna prided herself on clear thinking, but there'd been a great deal of distortion in her view of her possible future a few years ago when she lived in the backwater of Barca's Hamlet on the east coast of Haft. For example, she'd imagined then that she'd make a suitable wife for her neighbor Garric.

“Easy!” bellowed the sailing master, leaning out from the pintle of the port steering oar. The
Shepherd of the Isles
was backing toward the beach on the reversed strokes of only one of its five banks of oars. “Easy! Easy!”

“Now you see why the men who aren't needed on the oars crowd into the bow, child,” said Chalcus at Ilna's side. He held her ward, the nine-year-old Lady Merota, on his shoulder. “With their weight in the bow, we can back up onto the beach instead of crunching into it.”

“Crowd more, you mean!” said Merota. “Will we have real rooms here, Chalcus?”

“Depending on the words our friend the prince has with the Earl of Sandrakkan,” Chalcus said, laughing, “we'll have rooms or at least ground to pitch a tent on, I'm sure. The
Shepherd of the Isles
is as big as a warship gets, but I'll grant that with four hundred souls aboard you could find more room in a clothespress.”

Chalcus dressed in as many different bright colors as a clown and had
a clown's smile and cheerful laughter. As he spoke, he gestured with his free hand to point out this or that part of the business of landing that only an expert would see.

He was indeed an expert sailor. He'd learned his skill in the same hard school that taught him to use the slim, in-curved sword he carried stuck through his sash of vivid orange silk. As a youth he'd roamed southern waters with the Lataaene pirates, where the wrong choice meant death, and the right choice didn't guarantee survival.

Under his long-sleeved saffron tunic and his red-dyed leather breeches, Chalcus' body bore the scars of wounds that should have been fatal a dozen times over. That he'd survived said as much for his will as it did for the undoubted strength of his tautly muscular body.

Ilna smiled again. Lady Merota was her ward, as amazing as that seemed to an illiterate peasant girl. Chalcus was her friend and her lover and…well, not
her
man, because he wasn't the sort to be anybody's man save his own, but
a
man; and even at age nineteen Ilna was aware of how rare a thing real men were in this world.

Ilna's fingers wove, then opened the coarse fabrics to weave again. She'd always had a skill with cloth. She could run her hand over a bale of wool and hear it murmuring of meadows and clover, of the brook south of Barca's Hamlet and the insistent warmth of the lamb nuzzling your udder.

Then she'd made a mistake, a wrong turning that took her to Hell and brought her knowledge fit only for demons. She'd returned to the waking world without leaving Hell, becoming Evil's most skillful minion for a time. It hadn't been long by most reckonings, but Ilna knew that if she lived forever, she couldn't undo the harm she'd done while Evil rode her like a mettlesome horse.

“Here we go, child,” Chalcus said in an eager voice. The
Shepherd
scrunched onto the sand, beginning to wobble as it ground to a halt.

The officers wore broad leather belts over their short tunics instead of sashes or simply breechclouts like the oarsmen who came from Shengy, Sirimat, and perhaps a few of the other southern islands. They shouted a confused medley of orders, but so far as Ilna could see the crew was already in motion.

Sailors from the lower oarbanks stepped to the outriggers, leaped into the sea, and splashed shoreward carrying ropes. Those from the top bank had already withdrawn their oars from the rowlocks on the outrigger; they
thrust the blades down into the sand, bracing the vessel, which, for the moment, rested only on its narrow keel.

“Put your backs into it, Shepherds!” Chalcus shouted as though he was still a sailor instead of being one of Prince Garric's companions. His right arm pointed to the ship sliding onto the beach beside them, the five-banked flagship of Admiral Zettin, the fleet commander. “You're not going to let those scuts from the
City of Valles
berth ahead of us, are you?”

Ilna's brother, Cashel, stood across the narrow deck from her, one hand on his hickory quarterstaff and the other on the waist of his fiancée, Sharina—Princess Sharina of Haft and Garric's sister. She was lovely and blond-haired and tall; taller than most men in Barca's Hamlet, though a hand's breadth shorter than Cashel and with a willowy suppleness that made her seem tiny beside him.

Cashel was a massive oak of a man, his neck a pyramid of muscle rising from his massive shoulders. He looked anxious. Ilna knew his concern wasn't about what was happening, just that he wasn't part of it. For choice Cashel would be down in the surf, gripping a hawser and helping drag the
Shepherd
up the beach with the strength of any three other men.

He couldn't do that because he'd become Lord Cashel, a nobleman by virtue of being Garric's closest friend during the time they both were peasants growing up in Barca's Hamlet. If he jumped into the water and grabbed a rope, the officers would be embarrassed and the common sailors shocked and worried; so he didn't, because the last thing Cashel would willingly do was hurt or embarrass anybody unnecessarily.

Of course when he thought it
was
necessary, Cashel's ironbound hickory quarterstaff could do quite a lot of hurting.

Seated cross-legged on the deck between Cashel, Sharina, and the railing was Tenoctris, an old woman whose talents included being generally cheerful despite the things she'd seen in her long life. There she'd drawn a figure on the deck planking with a stick of red lead. She was muttering the words of a spell as she gestured with a thin split of bamboo.

Tenoctris was a wizard. A wizard of slight power, she repeatedly noted, even now that the forces on which the cosmos turned were reaching another thousand-year peak, but a person whose craftsmanship had gained her Ilna's respect.

Tenoctris' art never did anything that she didn't mean it to do. At a time when the hedge wizards of a decade ago could rip mountains apart—
generally by accident—Tenoctris' care and scholarship had a great deal to do with the kingdom's survival.

With the
Shepherd
firmly aground, the men from the lowest oarbank came up from the hold, sweating like plowmen. They stepped onto the outriggers. Many of them poised there a moment instead of dropping immediately to the sand into the knee-deep water nearer the stern.

They'd backed the great warship onto the beach by themselves, while the men of the other four oarbanks stood on deck to slant the stern into the air. Though the deck gratings had been removed before the vessel began these final maneuvers, there'd still been very little ventilation in the hollow of the hull.

The largest stern anchor was a stone doughnut attached to a section of cypress. The trunk was reeved through the central hole, and the three branches spreading just below the stone were trimmed to points to grip in the sea bottom. A pair of sailors lifted the anchor from where it'd been stowed, beneath the tiller of the starboard steering oar, and walked to the rail.

The sailing master leaned over the side, and shouted, “Ware below!” then nodded to the sailors. They half dropped, half threw the anchor onto the sand.

“Chalcus?” said Merota. She pointed toward the strait separating the little islet where they were landing from the mainland of Sandrakkan. “Why are those ships there still rowing? Isn't there room for them here?”

The child's high, clear voice cut through the scores of male shouts and snarls. For some reason, people always sounded angry at times like this. Maybe they
were
angry, frustrated by the complexity of what was going on.

For complex it was. Ilna couldn't count beyond the number of her fingers without beans or pebbles for a tally, but she knew that there was a ten of tens of ships in Garric's fleet, the royal fleet—and perhaps several tens of tens. Many were backing onto the beach to either side of the
Shepherd of the Isles,
others had anchored well out in the channel, sending the soldiers they carried to land in small boats.

In a few cases swimmers had dragged lines from vessels to the islet and tied them to the columns of ruined mansions lining the shore. Tunic-clad skirmishers armed with javelins and a hatchet or long knife clung to the lines with one hand as they splashed to land, safe even if they weren't able to swim any better than Ilna herself could.

“Sandrakkan hasn't any real fighting ships, dear one,” Chalcus said, speaking to the child on his shoulder but pitching his voice so that Ilna
could hear also if she wanted to. “Just some fifty-oared patrol boats to chase smugglers, you see. But somebody had the notion, Lord Attaper I shouldn't wonder, that even little ships might attack Prince Garric while he's all tangled up with landing.”

Chalcus laughed. “Attaper is a fine man, to be sure,” he went on, “but I think he worries lest a stone fall out of the clear sky and strike the prince down. Regardless, there's thirty triremes sloshing the sea between Garric and the mainland. It's good practice, I'm sure, and there's never a crew that wouldn't benefit from a little more practice.”

Ilna allowed herself a slight smile at Chalcus' description of the commander of Garric's bodyguards, the Blood Eagles. Attaper was a fit, powerful man in his forties. At the moment he stood watchfully just behind the prince. Ilna was sure he was ready to react if Lady Liane tried to stab Garric with the nib of her pen.

Ilna's fingers knotted a tracery of cords, then undid them before their pattern was quite complete. Had she finished the design, a man who saw it clearly would hurl himself away, shrieking and trying to claw the horror out of his eye sockets. She didn't need such a thing here and now; but it was available, like the warships patrolling the strait and like the curved sword at Chalcus' side.

The equipment of all the Blood Eagles was blackened bronze, but Attaper's helmet and cuirass had been chased with gold so that they looked more like parade armor than anything meant for war. His sword hilt, though, had the yellow patina that ivory takes when a hand grips it daily at the practice butts if not to wield against living foes.

Ilna couldn't fathom the minds of men who made it their life's work to kill other men—and that was what soldiers did, when you boiled away all the nonsense about duty and courage and honor put on the business by the Old Kingdom poets that Garric so fancied. She couldn't understand, but she knew craftsmanship and honored it above all other things.

Craftsmanship meant doing a thing the single right way instead of any of the unnumbered wrong ways others might do it. The Blood Eagles were volunteers, veterans who'd proved themselves in other regiments before they were even permitted to join. By the standard of craft, the only standard that had ever mattered to Ilna os-Kenset, the Blood Eagles were worthy of her respect.

Lord Waldron, commander of the royal army, stood on the stern of another five-banked warship backed onto the beach a few places down
from the
Shepherd of the Isles
. His aide raised a silver trumpet and blew a ringing note that was answered a moment later by the deeper, richer calls of several curved horns from the shore. The troops who'd already landed were milling like ants from a stirred-up hill, an image of hopeless chaos.

But it wasn't chaos, Ilna knew. Those scrambling troops were forming shoulder to shoulder with their fellows, under the standards of their proper units. Many were soaked to the waist and some had lost their shield or spear or helmet in the process of coming ashore, but even so they were an army rather than a mob.

Sailors were bracing the
Shepherd
's hull upright with spars so that the crewmen who'd steadied her when she first grounded could ship their oars and jump down. Half a dozen men under a bosun's mate hauled the anchor and its trailing hawser farther inland to hold the ship even if an unexpected storm raced down the strait.

Ilna knotted her pattern, shaking her head in marvel at the scene around her. It was as if every thread in a loom had its own mind, but they
chose
to weave themselves into a complex tapestry instead of twisting off each in its own direction. It was a marvelous thing, but she didn't understand it, didn't understand how it could even be possible.

Chalcus and Merota laughed at some joke Ilna had missed in her reverie. She smiled also, though at a thought of her own.

Ilna understood very little about the world in which she found herself living. No doubt people like Garric and Sharina, whose father had educated them far beyond the standards of Barca's Hamlet, understood more than she did, but she was sure that even their grasp was slight compared with the world's enormous complexity.

Still Garric and Sharina and the others went on, guiding a kingdom through the darkness of their own ignorance; because if they didn't the kingdom—the
people
, the uncounted numbers of ordinary peasants and traders and fishermen—would surely be crushed into the mud by masterless chaos. Ilna didn't really believe in Good personified, but she had no doubt of the existence of Evil.

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