Driven by the Sight, Ilhandar must journey to the land of his enemies to save his people.
| The air was stuffy and the light low in the great hall of Cobadacil. The smoky air was hot from the crowd of seated men and the lusty flames of the two great hearths, enormous furnaces that stood in the walls at either end of the hall. The roaring fires served to provide heat as well as a great portion of the room's light, which explained why it was so poor. The remainder of the light, for what good it was, was shed by torches that burned fitfully in iron sconces placed sporadically about the hall. Between the torches and the hearths the room was laced in shadows--and the occasional stray patch of light--that shifted and flickered intermittently over the faces of the men who were crammed on the benches and long tables that nearly filled the entire hall.
Darkness and shadows suited his mood. From his seat--among the mercenaries in the far back corner of the room--Ilhandar looked toward the raised dais where the king of Cobadar sat. Even from that distance he could see the grim face of the king and his chief lords. Talk there seemed sporadic and forced, and the minstrel playing a lute near the foot of the dais was largely ignored, which was probably fortunate for him from the bits and snatches Ilhandar was able to catch. The king's table was not alone in its joylessness. Despite the smoky air and poor lighting Ilhandar was able to see the faces of most of the men around him. Men that should have been smiling and jesting, or raising their glasses in toasts or voices in song to celebrate their great victory were silent. Most voices were heard only in subdued whispers, their faces somber and downcast and their talk troubled. Ilhandar did not escape the mood of the men around him, despite his being a stranger here. He knew why the Cobadarans behaved this way at their victory feast, and what was more he understood it. Casting his eyes about again, for the tenth time that night he nodded in a grim way to himself. Shadows belonged here tonight.
"It's not wise to stare when you sit in chamber filled with your enemies," a voice whispered in Ilhandar's ear, jolting him out of his private thoughts. Turning back ruefully to the table, he cast a hard frown at the tall, red-haired man sitting across from him. Seemingly oblivious to his irritation, Corin went right on eating the piece of mutton he held in one hand. He knew his friend better than that, however. Corin was a master of deception; though he might appear totally occupied with whatever he had at hand to the exclusion of all else, he nevertheless kept a close eye on everything that happened around him. Nothing ever escaped his notice.
He leaned over toward Corin as if he were trying to find a more comfortable position on the hard wooden bench. "I was not staring," he whispered fiercely. A quick glance at those Cobadarans near at hand seemed to indicate that none of them had noticed his careful study of their mood. That was good; for though he knew he would take the whole lot of them on if it came to a fight and he had no choice, still, it would serve no purpose to provoke an episode that would surely lead to his death.
Slowly Corin turned his head and sent a flat look in his direction. "You've got that look on your face again, Ilhandar," he said levelly. "The one that says you're looking for trouble. I don't particularly wish to die here."
Ilhandar was somewhat startled to find that his friend's thoughts were running along lines similar to his own. Purposely he made his expression bland. "Relax. I won't start anything. But I do find caution to be rather ironic coming from you. Especially after our last voyage to Talthanya." Noting Corin's face color at the mention of the seaport in Teleria, he decided to talk about that for a while. "You know, you're quite colorful when you want to express yourself, Corin. I don't think I've ever heard anyone tell a Vilmaran to take a goat and--"
"Well, that is beside the point, anyway, Ilhandar," Corin broke in testily, his face flaming red now, nearly bright enough to match his hair. He wagged a long finger under Ilhandar's nose. "I know what you are up to, you fiend, and it won't work. Besides, if you keep bringing up such embarrassing memories you'll cause trouble by getting some of the Cobadarans too curious." Taking a long swallow of his ale, he breathed deeply and turned seriously to Ilhandar. "Anyway, it seems to me as if the Cobadarans are not too happy with their victory. I've seen happier funeral pyres, I think."
Ilhandar glanced around warily again, but the mood and demeanor of the men around them had not changed. Only at their table was the mood not so dark, being that the men seated here were all mercenaries--mostly Silarans--not Cobadarans. Yet if they were little concerned for the loss of Cobadaran lives, they were very watchful of their own. Every man there, with the exception of Corin, had touched little of the wine or ale before him, but rather spoke quietly and cast frequent, wary glances around when they thought they would be inconspicuous. "I think it is partly that, my friend, but I believe there is more to it. It is always bad when men who should be brothers fight, but all the worse when the one responsible for the bloodshed escapes the justice that he is owed, and the vengeance owed the dead. I think the men here are more angry and bitter at the escape of their enemy than aught else."
"And fearful of what more damage he may wreak." Corin nodded his head in agreement and sat in quiet thought for a moment. "That leads us then to something else that is on my mind, Ilhandar," he said finally. "What now of us? The war in Cobadar is over. We may be sitting here in the feasting hall of the king, in whatever lowly spot we were given," at that he looked ready to spit, "but that does not mean we will get the promised wergild for coming to the aid of Gilban. Do you think he will honor his agreement and reimburse us for our trouble or will he send us away like beaten dogs?"
"That remains to be seen, Corin. From what I have seen of him so far, his mood seems black enough for any deed, fair or foul. But I think he is a man of his word, and he will honor the agreement to pay us, even though we arrived too late to fight." Brushing back a stray lock of his raven-black hair, he risked another look at the dais, and was surprised to see Gilban, king of Cobadar, looking thoughtfully in their direction. Their eyes locked, and for a long moment Ilhandar and the king traded studying stares. The moment grew long and uncomfortable. It was the king who the finally broke the contact, turning his attention away to speak with a page that approached him at that moment. Ilhandar let out his breath slowly, relieved that the king's attention was diverted elsewhere. He wanted nothing so much as to return to Silar unscathed; engaging in a staring contest with the king was not the way for him to go about it. Nonetheless, he had been able to take a measure of Gilban, knowing all too well that he had been measured in turn. Unfortunately, it reminded him much too closely of two men who had begun to duel, when the first few strikes of their weapons were meant only to probe and get a feel for the way the enemy carried himself before the fight began in earnest. He only hoped that tonight’s events did not lead to a contest between him and the man. Whatever his personal strengths, he was at a serious disadvantage here in Gilban's halls.
Gilban was a strong man, a king who ruled by force of will and was accustomed to being obeyed. Ilhandar was most impressed with the strength revealed in Gilban's hard eyes. "The eyes of a wolf, fierce in battle and pitiless." He did not realize he had spoken the words until he noticed Corin's baffled look. "I'm sorry, but I was speaking my thoughts aloud," he apologized. "I noticed Gilban had taken a fancy with us and I returned his scrutiny. He will honor his agreement, on that I am willing to wager. He is too wily a warrior to do aught else. He knows that if we return unpaid we will simply extract the payment in increased raids on his coasts. That is the reason he sent word to us, his mortal enemies, to come and aid him in the first place. It was cheaper for him to hire Silaran warriors than take the chance they might aid his enemy or draw off much of his strength through heavy raiding. It would have been a perfect opportunity for us to attack, as you and I well know."
"Yes, that I do know. Why else do you think I urged you to reconsider this foolish agreement to aid him?" Corin gesticulated vehemently, slashing the air with his hand. "What do we care if he keeps his throne or not? If he were overthrown, the winner would have had to fight quite a few of his own lords to make his throne stable. This would only have weakened them further. The same if Gilban won. His weakness would have made it easier for us to attack him. Either way, the situation was good for us, leaving Cobadar ripe for the taking."
"Perhaps. But you are forgetting that without our help, Gilban did win. Gilban's strength is less now than it was before the war." Ilhandar leaned forward then, lowering his already quiet tone until Corin had to lean forward to hear him. "Despite this, you saw his army. His strength is still very great. The host he has marshaled on the field is greater than any we could muster." Corin started to interrupt and protest, but Ilhandar forestalled him with a raised hand. "Don't argue. You know as well as I the strength that my father is able to gather. For us to gather a host such as marched behind Gilban, we would have to empty all the holds of Silar, from barefaced youth to toothless graybeards. Think of what that army could do, as hot with anger as they are and fresh from victory in battle. If we provoked them while still assembled? I would not doubt Gilban would even take them to Silar, to teach the 'pirates' a lesson they would not forget."
Corin scowled and muttered a curse that caused even Ilhandar to raise his brows. "Bah! You give them too much credit, Ilhandar! Gilban would never attempt to bring an army such as this to Silar. Even if they would come--the wisdom of which even he would have to question after all that has happened--they would still have to cross the sea. We rule the water, and even blinded with rage the Cobadarans know it. Few of them would reach Silar, and even less return. Even if he made it with half his host, we could easily put that many men in the field. Fighting in our own land, with equal numbers, and the battle fit upon us because of it? We are not so weak ourselves, or not at least as weak as you seem to think. I do not think it would go well for Gilban if he tried such a rash deed."
"You may be right. But I myself do not discount his intentions or willingness to attempt any such 'rash deed' that easily. No matter how improbable or impossible the deed, there is always a way. That way may be unlikely or unthought-of, but it exists nonetheless. And men such as Gilban make their own luck. They find ways where lesser men give up or prove unwilling to look. And they do not turn aside from a deed, even if it may cause them pain, as long as they will still get what they desire from it." He paused and looked toward the dais again. As he turned he fancied that Gilban looked over at him again, though it seemed to him that the king turned away when he realized that Ilhandar's gaze returned.
"Well, my friend, you may have called Gilban a wolf, but I think that description might fit you as well." Slapping him on the shoulder, Corin poured more ale into the stout mug in his hand. He poured another for Ilhandar and laughed as he handed it to him. "Maybe the two of you are the get of the same wolf!"
Ilhandar did not laugh as he took the mug from his friend. He would have had words for any other of his men if they drank as much as Corin already had. Corin was a special case; Ilhandar doubted he would ever change, though the truth be told he would not want him to change. Corin had a way about him, a certain blunt honesty that always helped him to think difficult problems through. Besides, drunk or sober, Corin's hand always held a blade steady. As for his mouth, well..., sometimes Ilhandar thought Corin made more sense drunk. Sometimes. "I think you may be more right than you know, Corin." Nearly forgetting himself, he raised the mug to his lips to take a deep draught of the dark ale, but at the last instant he thought better of it put the mug down instead. Wearily he drew his hand across his forehead. "Still, we have done well for ourselves by answering this summons to Cobadar instead of raiding them. Trust me, you'll see."
"If you say so, my lord. If you say so." Corin inclined his head slightly toward Ilhandar, his voice mocking, but his face was grave and his eyes serious. "I hope you are right. When we are safely back in your father's hall in Silar we shall then decide."
An uncomfortable silence fell on both men after that. For a long while Ilhandar looked at nothing but the table before him as he pondered Corin's words. He always swore that with a strong will one could accomplish anything, but he knew for a fact that was not always enough. Try as he might, he had never been able to will himself the Sight. The Gift, others called it, the ability to glimpse, to see and experience a piece of the future as though it was happening here and now. Some of the men in his family line held the gift of Sight, though it had not manifested itself strongly among them for several generations now. Many believed that it was dying out in men. The closest any king of Silar had really come to the Sight in over a hundred years was what most people might term an intuition. His father had always taught him to rely upon a hunch if it occurred to him, and he had done his best to follow that advice. Even when it led him to answer a summons from an enemy. Corin's words had awoken that feeling within him just then; it was as if a weight had settled on his heart at that moment, leaving him with the feeling that they were a doom of sorts. He repeated the conversation over again in his head, looking for whatever had triggered the intuition, but nothing stood out that should have aroused this feeling of gloom in him. After a while he decided it must have been some misgiving within his own feelings that he had tried to ignore but Corin's words had dragged to the surface. Whatever it was, it was too late now to do much about it. About a month too late.