Read Storms of Destiny Online

Authors: A. C. Crispin

Tags: #Eos, #ISBN-13: 9780380782840

Storms of Destiny (3 page)

“Likely,” Barus agreed. “We’ve got at least two hours before then. We should make it.”

“Don’t forget to bring my blade. I don’t want to have to fight with this,” Jezzil said, resting his hand on the pommel of the Taenarith sword. “Clumsy thing.”

“You said it,” Barus nodded. “Don’t worry, I won’t forget.”

“Good. Hurry.”

When his friend was gone, Jezzil walked a little way down the tunnel to relieve himself, then waited impatiently, striding back and forth to keep warm in the dankness of the tunnel. He found the sentry’s half-eaten supper and drank the half cup of overly sweet wine, then chewed determinedly at the tough, grainy bread and nearly tasteless cheese. Even though he was not hungry, he knew the food would give him energy.

The faint sound of footsteps finally reached his ears, and he straightened, hand on his weapon. Recognizing his Amato in the lead, he saluted briskly and signed, “Quiet here, sir.”

Gardal’s fingers moved in answer. “Good. Follow me, Risore.”

Jezzil joined the small troop of soldiers, all clad in surcoats taken from captured Taenarith soldiers. His heart hammering, the young Chonao fell into step beside Barus, who handed him his sword. As he belted it on, the other Risore gave him an excited grin and a wink.

The troop of Silent Ones climbed the ladder leading into Zajares’s stronghold. They found themselves in a small wooden guard chamber. Outside lay a courtyard. Sentries were stationed on the walls surrounding the fortress, but the doors leading into the stronghold were unguarded. Barus, with Jezzil beside him, moved up to take the lead.

Soft-footed, the Silent Ones scattered and crossed the courtyard, unseen. Stealth was their speciality; each warrior melted into the shadows like something spawned from the darkness. The sentries never heard a thing as the Pen Jav Dal crossed the hard-packed surface.

Barus led them to the western dome. Gardal signaled to the young Risore to take twenty of the men and head right, into the main hall. Jezzil knew the plan. They would fire the hall, making it appear as though there was a troop rebellion in progress.

The other thirty Silent Ones followed their Amato into the western dome. They waited around the curve in the corridor, backs pressed against the stone, for their signal to begin the planned attack.

Despite the chill air, Jezzil was sweating, and he was vaguely sorry he’d eaten. The food roiled uncertainly in his stomach, and the wavering dance of the smoky torches added to his queasiness. He couldn’t stop remembering the way it had felt when his knife had punched upward through the sentry’s vitals, ending his life.

What had his name been? Had he had a mother, father, perhaps brothers and sisters? Or a wife, children? Was he young, or old? He would never know.

As they waited, breathing shallowly, evenly, every muscle poised to explode into action, they heard shouts and crashes from behind them, in the direction of the main hall. The others were doing their part.

A minute or so later a dozen or more guards came thundering down the ancient wooden staircase, shouting harried orders and directions at each other: “Buckets! Get them from the stables!”

“You, Ranla, stand by at the well!”

“Weapons at the ready! This is sabotage!”

“I told you Adlat wasn’t to be trusted!”

As Zajares’s men charged around the corner, the Pen Jav Dal were ready. Blades flashed, throwing discs whizzed.

Meaty thunks, grunts, and a muffled scream or two— —and it was done. Fourteen guards lay dead. Gardal’s troops made no effort to hide their bodies. At this stage in their attack they wanted their work to be seen, to strike fear into the hearts of Zajares’s soldiers. The troop merely pulled the bodies out of the way, stacking them up along the wall to leave a clear path, should a retreat be necessary.

All the while, the sounds behind them had intensified.

Jezzil smelled smoke, then heard the pounding of running feet. He checked his fighting stance, then relaxed as he heard a familiar whistled signal. Moments later Barus and the others appeared and saluted quickly.

Mission accomplished, the young Risore signaled.

Gardal acknowledged the message, then the Amato pointed to the rightmost corridor, making a questioning sign.

The young Chonao scout nodded. Zajares’s quarters lay in that direction. At Gardal’s signal, the Silent Ones followed their Amato deeper into m’Banak.

In response to a silent order, Jezzil and two other men grabbed torches off the wall and fired the next two rooms they came to. The main structure was stone and would not burn, but there was plenty of wood around, and oil lamps to kindle it with.

Barus pointed to a stairway, then the young Risore’s hands moved in quick gestures. “Upstairs. Zajares has the upper-most apartment, right beneath the dome. There’s a back stairway down to the courtyard, the one I told you about.”

Gardal nodded. “Let’s go,” he signaled.

With Barus in the lead, the Silent Ones raced up the stairs.

Twice they had to pause, and each time when they moved on, a guard’s body was shoved to the side. The stairs dead-ended in a huge, timbered door. Barus stood before it.

“Locked,” he signaled.

Something flashed in Gardal’s hand, and the Amato positioned himself before the massive timbered portal. His fingers moved, twisted, slid, twisted … and the door swung open.

Gardal did not hesitate. He opened the door halfway, using his body to block off the sight of the troop, and began yelling at the occupants. “Help! They’ve turned against us!”

he screamed, his Taenarian accent perfect. “Adlat has rallied them!”

A babble of questions and orders followed. Gardal’s fingers moved in a quick signal, then, without warning, he kicked the door all the way open and leaped in, his troop on his heels.

So far Gardal’s bluff had worked—but the officer in charge was no fool. The moment he got a clear view of the newcomers, he shouted, “Kill them! They’re Chonao! Call for reinforcements!”

Chaos erupted around Jezzil as the guards fired their pistols. Several Chonao went down. Jezzil tried to stay beside Barus, but they were quickly separated. Chairs and furniture went flying as the Taenarith guardsmen surged forward.

Men shouted battle cries and curses, and someone was blowing a horn. He tried to listen for Gardal’s voice but couldn’t make it out. Jezzil realized he was nearly surrounded by Taenarith troops. So far they had taken him for one of their own, probably because of his stolen armor and helmet.

A hard blow resounded against his helm, and he found himself almost engaged with one of his own troop. Quickly, he shouted at Darin in Chonao, then yanked off the helm to prevent being attacked again. A blade whizzed by his ear, nearly cutting it off, and Jezzil whirled, his sword at the ready.

He found himself engaged with a burly Taenarith guardsman, fighting to stay on his feet and not trip over broken furniture or other men. The man attacked furiously, and Jezzil forced himself to concentrate on watching for an opening in his guard. All around him the Chonao forces were similarly occupied, and he was constantly being shoved and bumped.

Jezzil drew his dagger and used it to parry thrusts aimed at his left side. His curved blade flashed in the light of ruby-crystal lamps hung from the domed ceiling on silver chains.

There was a loud crash behind him, then a man’s shriek.

Jezzil smelled smoke, guessed that someone had knocked over a lamp and started a fire. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a flash of yellow. The tapestries were alight.

His opponent was immensely strong, but Jezzil was faster, far faster. The young Chonao forced himself to concentrate on the work at hand, and a few strokes later an opportunity presented itself. He did not even have to think about it; his blade turned and sought out the opening in the man’s guard, slipped through, and slid neatly into his throat like an extension of Jezzil’s arm. He gave his wrist a quick twist, then smoothly disengaged and looked for another Taenarith.

Smoke stung his eyes. The shouting intensified, suddenly, behind him. There seemed to be more Taenarith than before—where had they all come from? Jezzil turned in time to see the door behind him, which presumably led into Zajares’s bedchamber, slam back on its hinges. Armed figures poured out through the veil of smoke. Jezzil leaped forward, his sword at the ready.

The din was incredible, and it was nearly impossible to tell friend from foe in the welter of fighting bodies and the haze of smoke. A sword rang against Jezzil’s, and he half turned to engage again. A pale figure, short, half wreathed in smoke …

Parrying automatically, the Chonao blinked sweat and smoke-born tears out of his eyes, trying to clear his blurred vision. At that moment a gust of fresher air swept past his

face, parting the clouds of smoke. Jezzil’s eyes widened as he caught sight of his new opponent.

She was small, lovely, and naked.

Jezzil hesitated, completely taken aback. He had never fought a woman opponent; indeed, as a Pen Jav Dal, he was sworn to celibacy as a novice priest of the warrior god Arenar. He would serve Arenar as a soldier until he became too old or crippled to fight, then live out his days as a full-fledged priest. Women, especially naked ones, were completely outside his experience.

Yet despite his training, his years of conditioning to reject and despise females, he was still a man, and he could not help noting her beauty—her long black hair, which rippled as she moved, the brown circles that surrounded erect nipples, and the dark thatch of hair between her legs. She must have realized her effect on him, for her teeth shone in a savage grin as she lunged at him inexpertly, swinging the huge sword that was far too heavy and long for her to wield.

Jezzil parried again, automatically. He could not fight her, he decided. It would be butchery. She was scarcely more than a child, she knew nothing of weapons … and she was so beautiful. It would be unthinkable to slay her. He blinked stinging sweat from his eyes, forcing himself not to stare at her breasts, her sex. In all his life he had never seen a woman naked, and the sight fascinated him the way a snake’s swaying form fascinated a tree vole. He parried another clumsy lunge, his mind formulating strategies for disarming her.

There was no doubt in his mind that she would not give up; her entire countenance fairly shouted determination. He admired her courage, even as he twisted his wrist, his blade engaging and then twisting hers from her grasp.

The girl gasped and made a frantic lunge for the sword that was already falling. As she did so, Jezzil found himself shoved violently from behind. His weapon, still extended, pierced her left breast, and her own impetus spitted her on the blade past any hope of survival.

Shocked, Jezzil jerked back, retreating from the spurt of crimson that followed his blade’s exit path. He had one final glimpse of her, eyes wide and accusing, before she fell forward and was lost amid the surging melee of struggling bodies.

Even as he stood gaping, he caught a blur of movement out of the corners of his eyes. Only years of training saved him; without having to think about it, he tucked and rolled away from the sweeping slash that would have turned his head into a wall trophy. Coming up to his feet, blade in hand, he engaged for a moment with his opponent before he recognized Barus, even as his friend did likewise. “Sorry!”

his comrade shouted, his wide, infectious grin nearly splitting his sweaty features. “Damned smoke’s in my eyes! We should—”

Jezzil caught another blur of motion, and leapt forward, but was a fraction of a second too late to deflect the mace that thudded against his friend’s helmet. Scarlet blossomed beneath the steel even as Jezzil’s sword pierced the throat of Barus’s attacker.

Grief-stricken, Jezzil shouted, “Barus!” and threw himself toward his friend. At the same moment a screaming, flaming form hurtled across the room and crashed into him, writhing and shrieking. Jezzil shoved the dying warrior away violently, then tried again to reach Barus, but dead and dying bodies were everywhere and he had lost his sense of direction. As he peered desperately through the smoke, Jezzil was horrified to realize he was the only Chonao still standing. His comrades lay strewn around him like straws from a child’s pickup game.

Gasping, half sobbing, Jezzil focused on his Amato’s features, grimacing horribly above the gaping red maw that had been his throat. Some of the Taenarith were still alive, and he knew Gardal would have decreed that he should fight to the death and take as many of his comrades’ slayers with him as he could.

Jezzil gripped his sword hilt in suddenly nerveless fingers. Across the smoke-wreathed room, one of the enemy had caught sight of him, shouted an order, and three of them staggered toward him, tripping on the bodies of the slain.

Stay and fight!
his brain ordered, but his body would not

listen. Whirling, Jezzil bolted away from them, seeking escape, shelter, refuge—he didn’t want to die! His mind kept yammering at him to obey his training, to turn and fight, but the panic driving his body was too strong. He tripped over something, looked down, saw a severed arm still clutching a sword, and a shriek burst from his throat unbidden.

Reaching an arras, he yanked it aside, searching for a door, but found none. The shouts of the Taenarith warriors came closer and closer, and he knew he was done for, and part of him was glad. He was a coward, after all, and did not deserve to live.

As he edged along the stone wall, gulping desperately at the cleaner air that had been trapped behind the arras, Jezzil saw a hand grab the curtain and jerk it violently. The entire drapery came tumbling down.

The young Chonao closed his eyes as the folds descended, and, with every particle of his being, willed himself to invisibility. It was a silly thing to do, he knew only too well he was no Caster, but in a moment they would see him, and he would be spitted on their blades like a piglet, and he did
not
want to die, he wanted only to vanish, to disappear, to— The last of the concealing folds pulled free, and the Chonao braced himself to feel steel sheath itself in his vitals.

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