Roger Zelazny. Dawn of Amber [chpt.1]

    A heavy pounding on the door down-stairs roused me from sleep.
    "Obere!" came a distant shout.
    Damnable timing. I squinted into near darkness, frowned. The hour lay somewhere between midnight and dawn, and blades of moonlight slid between the window shutters, cutting an intricate pattern of light and darkness across the checkered quilt. Off in the night I heard plodding hooves and creaks from some passing merchant's wagon, and from farther off still the distant baying of packs of wild dogs as they scavenged the battlefields a mile to the north of Kingstown.
    The pounding on the door resumed. Feigning sleep wouldn't work; somehow, King Elnar's agents—probably that all too efficient Captain Iago—had tracked me down.
    I tried to sit up and found a soft arm pinning my chest. Helda hadn't yet heard a thing; her breathing remained deep and regular. I half chuckled to myself. Too much wine, too much love. She would sleep through the sacking of Kingstown, given half a chance.
    As gently as I could, I slid out from under her, leaving the warm sweet smells of perfume and sweat and incense that filled her bed. I made a reassuring murmur at her puzzled sound and quickly gathered up pants, shirt, boots, and sword.
    Damnable timing indeed. My first night alone with Helda in nearly two months, and King Elnar couldn't wait till dawn to summon me back. Price of being one of his right-hand men, I supposed. Still, Captain Iago—or whoever the king had sent to find me—might have had the sense to let me stay lost at least a few hours more. It was seldom enough we had time to rest, but since the hell-creatures had been quiet now for nearly a week, King Elnar had granted me a night's leave. I had tried to make the best of it, drinking my way through Kingstown's half dozen taverns before joining Helda at her house to continue a more private celebration into the late hours.
    Carrying my belongings, I padded quickly down the steps. First things first. I had to halt that racket before the whole town was up in arms. The hell-creatures had driven us back steadily over the last six months, and with the front lines of the war close to Kingstown, King Elnar's troops now policed the streets—not that they needed much attention, since three-quarters of the inhabitants had fled. No need to rouse the night watch for a mere summons back to camp. I sighed, half in apprehension. What calamity had befallen us this time? Something bad must have happened to drag me back in the middle of the night. Had our scouts spotted new enemy movements? Or perhaps the hell-creatures had mounted another sneak-attack on our supply lines?
    The pounding ceased as I rattled back the bar and flung open the heavy wooden door.
    "By the six hells—" I began.
    My curse died away unfinished. It wasn't Captain Iago—or any of the other officers under King Elnar's command. It was a stranger, a thin little man of perhaps forty with long black hair tied behind his head and a sharp gleam in his eye. He raised his lantern and peered up at me.
    "Obere?" he demanded.
    I towered a good head and a half over him, but that didn't matter. He had a powerful presence, much like King Elnar—the sort of man you instinctively looked at whenever he entered a room, or listened to whenever he spoke. He was clean-shaven, dressed in red-and-gold silks with a strange rampant-lion crest stitched in gold and silver thread on the blouse, and I caught the scents of dressing-powder and lavender.
    "Maybe," I said cautiously, feeling for my sword's hilt, wondering who he was and what he wanted. "You are . . . ?"
    "It is you!" he said, grasping my arm. "The years have changed you—but it is good to see you alive!"
    "Who are you," I demanded, shrugging off his hand, "and what in all the hells do you think you're doing here at this hour?" No matter who he was, I did not appreciate being awakened from my much-needed and much-deserved rest. It was one thing to receive the king's summons and quite another to be roused by a stranger.
    His voice was quiet. "Has it been so long you no longer know me?"
    "I have no idea who—" I began. Then I paused and looked at him. Really looked at him.
    "Uncle Dworkin?" I whispered. It had been ten years since I'd last set eyes on him. He had worn his hair cropped short in those days, and he had seemed much, much taller.
    Dworkin smiled and bowed his head. "The very same."
    He waved me to silence. "Later. You must come with me, and quickly. I have sent for a carriage. I assure you, this cannot wait. You will come with me. Now."
    It was a command, not a suggestion.
    I gave a bark of a laugh. "Go with you? Just like that?"
    "I can't. I'm due back at camp in the morning. I'm no longer a child, Dworkin—I have duties and responsibilities you cannot imagine."
    "It is a matter of life and death."
    "Yours—and King Elnar's. I cannot say more than that."
    That made me pause. "What about King Elnar?" I asked slowly. My duty was clear: to protect and serve first the king and second all of Ilerium. If Dworkin knew something of such great importance that it endangered King Elnar's life, I had to report it at once.
    He shook his head, though. "Later. When we are safely away from here."
    I took a deep breath. Dworkin wasn't really my uncle—he had been a close friend of my parents. When my father died at the hands of pirates from Saliir shortly after my birth, Dworkin had practically adopted my mother and me. Perhaps it was because he had had no children or family of his own, but I had come to view him as almost a father. It had been Dworkin who played soldier with me, brought me treats on high holidays, and took me hunting in the fields beyond our house at Piermont as if I were his own true son. It had been Dworkin who presented me with my first real sword, and Dworkin who began the training in arms that had ultimately become my livelihood. That is, until he disappeared following my mother's death from the Scarlet Plague. That had been just after my fourteenth birthday. Those had been crazy times, mad times, with death in the air and fear in every heart. After the death-cart took my mother's body away, she and Dworkin were both simply gone. I had always assumed he'd died in the plague, too.
    And now he stood before me, smug as you please, expecting me to drop everything and go off with him for reasons he wouldn't share beyond claiming it was a matter of life or death to both the king and me. It was impossible.
    Instead of filial love and devotion, I felt a sudden towering rage at having been abandoned.
    "I'm not going anywhere," I growled at him, "unless you explain exactly what you mean. See my orderly in the morning, if you like, and I'll breakfast with you in my tent. We can catch up with each other then. And you'd better have a damned good explanation—for everything!"
    I started to shut the door.
    "You will not be alive in the morning if you remain here," he said softly.
    I hesitated, looked into his face, searching—for what, I didn't know. Truth, perhaps. Or maybe some sign that he still cared for me. After all, my mother was gone now. Perhaps he had only befriended me to get to her.
    "Explain," I said.
    "There is no time!" He glanced up the street as if expecting to see someone or something, but the street remained deserted. "My carriage will be here soon. Dress yourself, and be quick about it. We must be ready."
    "What does this have to do with the king? You said it involved him."
    "Yes, though he does not yet know it himself. But if you come with me now, I promise that the invasion of your world will be over within the week. I can say no more."
    The invasion of your world. I did not like the sound of that, but I held back a flood of questions demanding to be asked. Somehow, though I didn't understand why, I found I wanted to trust Dworkin.
    And if he really knew something that could end our war with the hell-creatures, I owed it to King Elnar to listen. I had never known Dworkin to lie. For the sake of my oath to the king and Ilerium, for my childhood and all the kindness Dworkin had showered on my mother and me, I decided I would take him at his word . . . for now.
    "Very well." I handed him my sword and hurriedly began pulling on my pants.
    He remained nervous and apprehensive, glancing up the street every few seconds. He had volunteered little information, I realized, but perhaps I could extract more with an indirect line of questioning.
    "Where have you been all these years?" I asked. "I thought you were dead."
    "Traveling," he said absently. "My . . . business took me far from here."
    "You could have sent messages."
    "You didn't need them. I would have been a distraction for you. Had you known I was alive, you would have given up your commission and come looking for me."
    I pulled on my shirt and began lacing the front. "You don't know that!"
    "Of course I do. I know you, Obere, better than you know yourself."
    He shifted slightly, glancing again in the direction of the battlefield outside town. I paused, straining to hear, but even the distant scavenging dogs had grown silent. That seemed an ominous sign.
    More slowly, Dworkin went on. "Friends have been sending me reports now and again of you and your career. From raw soldier to lieutenant in ten years is quite a remarkable feat. You have done your parents proud."
    "King Elnar rewards deeds more than accidents of birth." I shrugged and began to link my shirt-cuffs. "Less than half his officers have noble bloodlines."
    "So I have heard."
    "And I owe much to your training."
    He nodded slightly. "You were an apt student. But don't discount your own talents—you were born to greatness."
    As I buckled on my swordbelt, I found I began to share his apprehension. A strange, almost expectant hush had fallen over the street . . . over all of Kingstown. Not an insect chirped, not a bat winged overhead, not a single dog howled in the distance. An unpleasant tension hung over everything around us, like the calm before a storm.
    "They are near, I think," Dworkin said softly. "Even the animals sense it . . ."
    "The enemy. Those you call hell-creatures."
    "You say it like they have some other name."
    "They do." He looked at me and smiled. "But in this place, they are merely soldiers, like you or I."
    "Not like me! And when have you ever been a soldier?"
    He chuckled, a strange gleam in his eye. "You have more in common with them than you realize. We both do."
    I gave a derisive snort, not enjoying the idea. That hell-creatures should be here in Kingstown, behind our lines, seemed unlikely. And yet Dworkin certainly appeared to know more about them than King Elnar's own agents. Nobody on our side knew where they came from originally, or how many they numbered—they had swept down from the north a year ago in a vast horde, destroying villages, murdering men, women, and children alike by the thousands. King Elnar had marched his army against them at once and fought them to a standstill. But slowly, over the months, their numbers swelled and they advanced on us again and again, driving us ever back, until presently they controlled half of Ilerium.
    How did Dworkin know so much, when our own agents knew so little? I found it disconcerting to say the least. And it raised more than a few danger flags in my mind.
    I tried to take a mental step backward. It was a trick I had taught myself, to try to see more than what was readily apparent. Who was Dworkin, really? What business could possibly have taken him away in the midst of the Scarlet Plague, when every country in the world had shut its ports to our ships?
    I suddenly realized then how little I actually knew about my "uncle." When you are a child, you take adults for granted. Dworkin had been a part of my life for so long, I had never thought to question his origins or his business or even his phenomenal skill with a sword, for he had certainly been on par with any master I had trained with in the last decade.
    As I leaned against Helda's house and pulled on my boots, I studied him. His strange clothing, his long absence, his swordsmanship, and his ability to keep track of me . . . I could only reach one conclusion: he had to be a spy. But for whom?
    At least he seemed to fear the hell-creatures. No man who has looked into their slitted red eyes, or fought against their wickedly barbed swords and fire-breathing horses, can come away unchanged.
    I finally decided that he had to be working for one of the neighboring kingdoms. And they had good cause to fear—if the hell-creatures continued their advance, they would control all of Ilerium within the year, and then they would be free to attack Tyre or Alacia or any of the other Fifteen Kingdoms.
    "Where is your carriage?" I asked, taking back my sword.
    He looked to the right, down the street. "I hear it coming now."
    I loosened my blade in its scabbard and stood straighter. Clearly Dworkin had gone to a lot of trouble to track me down—I had made doubly sure nobody knew where I would be sleeping tonight, from King Elnar to my orderly. And clearly, from his unceremonious pounding on the door, Dworkin truly did fear for my life.
    But why should my life be in danger? I frowned. I was but one of a dozen lieutenants under King Elnar . . . a well decorated hero, true enough, but hardly a pivotal figure in the war. It didn't make sense.
    The clatter of iron-shod wheels on cobblestones slowly grew louder. Dworkin exhaled heavily and seemed to relax as an odd little carriage sped around the corner half a block away.
    I gaped at it. It was shaped almost like a pumpkin, with smooth curved sides that might have been made of milky glass, and it glowed with an eerie phosphoric light, illuminating the whole street. Strangest of all, it had neither horses to pull it nor a driver to steer it, though it had an empty bench on top.
    I'd seen a few itinerant sorcerers visit King Elnar's court over the years, but such were few and far between in this part of the world, and usually their magics were more flash and fancy: parlor tricks and elegant illusions to delight ladies after dinner. For Dworkin to have a sorcerer of considerable power at his disposal showed how important his mission here must be.
    I'd had some little acquaintance with magic myself over the years. As a boy, I'd discovered I had the ability to change the features of my face when I concentrated on it, and I'd practiced secretly until I could make myself look like almost anyone I'd ever met. When they found out, both Dworkin and my mother had strongly discouraged this talent. And since such tricks are little use in combat, I'd barely even thought of it for years.
    As the carriage neared, white lace curtains at the side windows fluttered briefly. I thought I glimpsed a woman's pale face peering out at us, lips blood red and eyes dark. Could she be steering it from inside?
    "Hurry," Dworkin said urgently, taking my elbow and propelling me toward the carriage. I quickened my pace to keep up. "We must—"
    At that second, the building behind us exploded. The force of it knocked me flat to the ground, and I scrambled awkwardly to my feet, palms and elbows and knees all stinging from scrapes on cobblestones.
    Unbelieving, I stared at what remained of Helda's house. Emerald flames shot a hundred feet in the air. The whole building, from stoop to attic, blazed with an unholy green fire. I had seen its like before on the battlefield—sometimes hell-creatures hurled fiery missiles at us, and they burned with those same green flames.
    The heat was incredible. From somewhere inside I heard a woman screaming. Helda—I had to save her!
    I started for the door, but Dworkin caught my arm and yanked me to a halt. His grip had iron in it, and I could not wrench away despite my own great strength.
    "Obere, no!" He had a crazed, almost desperate look in his eye.
    "I love her!" I screamed. "I love her—"
    "She is dead!" He had to shout to be heard over the roar of the flames.
    Above the conflagration, the roof suddenly fell in with a grinding crash. Green sparks streamed up toward the night sky. The whole building began to sag, threatening to collapse inward as the support beams burned through.
    I staggered back, imagining her soul flying up to the heavens. Ash and embers began a gentle, hot rain on our heads.
    Dworkin. He had known, somehow, that this attack was going to happen. How?
    Whirling, I grabbed him by his silk shirt and with one hand raised him a foot off the ground. It's an impressive trick at any time, and over the years I'd taken the fight out of a dozen barroom brawlers by one-handing them into the air, then tossing them out the nearest door or window as though they weighed nothing. "Do you know who is responsible for this?" I demanded, shaking him. "How did you know the hell-creatures would attack here tonight? Who are you spying for? Is the king in danger?"
    He broke my grip with a sudden toe to the stomach that sent me reeling back, gasping for breath. I hadn't been hit that hard since the time a horse kicked me during the battle at Sadler's Mill. Dworkin's blow would have stunned or perhaps even killed most men, but I shook it off and came up growling, ready for a fight. My blade hissed from its scabbard as I drew it and pointed the tip at his face.
    "I knew an attack would come against you tonight," Dworkin said warily, staying beyond my reach. "But I did not know what form it would take."
    "And the king. How is he involved in this?"
    "He is not . . . yet. The hell-creatures are searching for something. King Elnar is just in the way. Now, do not be a fool, my boy. You are alive because of me. Had I wanted you dead, I could have left you in the house to burn."
    I hesitated, looking at the house, unable to deny the truth. She was dead, my Helda, my sweet little Helda—she was dead, and there was nothing I could do about it now, except make an offering to the gods who guard the underworld.
    Then Dworkin's head jerked to the side and he stared, tense all over, like a rabbit about to bolt. In that second, I heard the horses too. There were perhaps a dozen, perhaps more, approaching fast. I pivoted, sword ready.
    They rounded the corner and came into sight. The moon lay to their backs, but I could see the riders' glowing red eyes and the fiery red breaths of their black steeds. They pounded toward us, swords raised, and let loose wild, gibbering war-cries.