The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 96)

Gael’s heart clenched within him when the messenger led the way through the tower’s entrance gate—all three of its portculli retracted into the ceiling vault—to the adjacent melee gallery. The scene awaiting him was all too familiar.

A Ghriana prisoner knelt before Carbraes, the two of them—regenen and captive—illuminated by shafts of sunlight from the upper southern embrasures. A cluster of warriors lurked in the shadows cloaking the edges of the space.

A few details differed from the last time. This Ghriana warrior was older, his physique burly with the muscles that only full maturity brought, his wooly hair grizzled gray. Nor did he droop, but glared Carbraes full in the face. This prisoner carried no false hope. He knew his death approached, and he defied it even as he accepted it.

Just behind Carbraes stood Uwen and another legionary of the Peregrine opteogint, each supporting one end of a pike from which the gong of Olluvarde hung on makeshift leather straps. The gleaming disk shone more silver than before.

Carbraes was quick to spot movement on his periphery, as always. The instant Gael stepped from the entrance passage into the greater space, the regenen turned to survey him.

Gael quickened his stride. The regenen did not look to be in a patient mood. The relaxed alertness of his stance possessed an edge of tension, and his face—Gael saw as he drew nearer—bore an uncharacteristic sternness.

Gael bowed. “My lord Regenen.”

Carbraes nodded, his gaze sharp. He gestured to the Ghriana, who knelt and glared. “Assess him,” he ordered curtly.

So. The first test of Gael’s oath to Arnoll’s memory was upon him already. So soon. So immediately. Would it ever be thus in a troll citadel?

Arnoll would have deemed the Ghriana man outside his protection, but Gael could not. He did not see an enemy, but a hero, a man brave enough to court the gravest risk in defense of his people, his home, his family. Gael could not participate in his destruction. He would not.

Carbraes might order the man’s execution. Likely he would. But it could not flow from Gael’s word.

“I cannot assess him, my lord Regenen,” Gael said.

Twin lines appeared between Carbraes’ eyebrows. “How is this? Have your endeavors at the forge so weakened your magery?”

There was a tempting excuse, but Gael would not take it.

“My apologies for my imprecision, my lord. I will not assess him,” Gael corrected himself.

“You will not?” said Carbraes, his voice grim. “Have you forgotten who you serve?”

“Not at all,” answered Gael. “You are my regenen, and I owe you my loyalty and my obedience. Which you have. But not in this.” He gave a tiny jerk of his head toward the Ghriana man.

“I gave you a test of your loyalty,” said Carbraes, sterner still.

“You did,” agreed Gael.

“Is this your answer?” demanded Carbraes.

“This was not the test,” said Gael. How reasonable might Carbraes be in this conflict? In the past, Gael could have predicted that Carbraes would indulge his secretarius. In this moment? Gael didn’t know. Too much had changed. But he would not fail in his duty to Arnoll now.

Carbraes scrutinized him. Nodded. “Very well. You make conscientious objection. Which I have allowed you before, although not in like circumstances.” He scowled at the Ghriana man, then beckoned two of his warriors forth. “Guard him,” he told them.

The pair thumped their chests with closed fists and took station to each side of the prisoner.

Carbraes turned back to Gael. “So. You deny me in my first request. Will you also deny me in a second?”

Gael refused to back down. “Speak it, my lord Regenen,” he said evenly.

“I wish to know the results of your labor over the gong. Is it harmless? Is it safe?” asked Carbraes.

Gael nodded. “I wish answers to those questions too,” he said.

Carbraes glowered at him. Gael was definitely courting the edge of the regenen’s tolerance.

“You know that the opteon-smith—Arnoll—died when he joined his magery to mine and Nathiar’s?” said Gael.

Did Carbraes’ expression soften? “It would take five trolls to accomplish all that Arnoll achieved, and I have not five of such quality,” said Carbraes, his voice low.

Gael swallowed hard. It seemed the regenen valued Arnoll almost as he ought.

Gael continued his caveat. “I believe that Nathiar, I, and Arnoll succeeded in our attempt, but I will not know certainly until I sound the gong. It could yet be dangerous. Or even more perilous than before. Would you wish me to risk all present?”

Carbraes’ lips straightened. “You are overcautious, Lord Gael.” The regenen’s nostrils flared slightly. “Test it,” he ordered. “And thoroughly.”

“Very well.” Gael stepped around Carbraes to where Uwen and his cohort stood, the gong between them. Carbraes swung around to face them as well.

Gael studied the artifact. He’d paid it very little heed to it in the wake of Arnoll’s death in the smithy. Not only was the silver sheen atop the bronze more prominent than before, but the etched traceries adorning the metal had changed. The phoenix was still present, but in place of the scrolling sun-like rays were fabulous beasts, prowling the curving bronze as though it were a meadow in Cayim’s hells. Gryphons served as escort to the phoenix, a sinuous dragon crawled the gong’s lip. And three noble fauves—hound-like and fierce—coursed the middle reaches.

Gael saw that Uwen held a leather-padded mallet in his free hand. The warrior proffered it to Gael.

“Be ready,” said Gael, accepting it.

Uwen nodded, his eyes tense.

Gael scanned the entire melee gallery. The stone floor and the stone walls were bare. A few of the clustered warriors leaned against the buttress below the inner portcullis.

“You there! Stand straight, or sit. And not below the portcullis,” ordered Gael. He didn’t think the gong’s resonance would affect the tower, but he didn’t want to take chances.

He turned back to the gong, measured his distance from it, and swung the mallet. The padded striking surface hit one of the fauves square on, and a deep resonance bloomed on the air. Deep and shimmering, near and far, near and far.

Along with the sound came . . . not weakness, no . . . but rather strength. Gael’s very bones felt unbreakable, his limbs as though he could lift Belzetarn itself, his courage so audacious that he could dare anything.

Behind him, he heard a heavy, meaty thud, horribly reminiscent of Arnoll’s fall. Belatedly he opened his inner sight.

The gong’s golden node fairly blazed, the open scrolls of its lattice almost blinding in their incandescence. Flows of amber sparks followed the courses of the gryphons and then the coiling dragon outward, feeding Gael’s nodes, feeding the nodes of every troll present.

Black-tinged sparks of red swirled inward through the jaws of the hunting fauves and into the gong’s radiant heart.

Gael traced the source of that black-edged tributary of red. The Ghriana’s anchored nodes overflowed, a glistening filigree of silver where the energea emerged, transitioning through pearlescent white to gold, and then to that deadly red-black.

The Ghriana was human—but Gael had known it was so—and the prisoner lay collapsed on the stone flagstones. Dead? Dear Tiamar, no! If he were dead, then Gael had refused to condemn him only to slay the man by his own hand.

As the gong’s resonance faded, the flow of energea ceased with it.

Gael saw that the Ghriana still breathed, though he seemed lost in a long faint.

Uwen and the other troll warriors wore a look of ebbing exaltation on their faces. Carbraes merely looked pleased.

“Well done, Gael,” said the regenen. “It would seem you’ve completely reversed the gong’s effect. Instead of draining trolls to strengthen . . . humans, I presume . . . it now drains humans”—he looked pointedly at the fainting Ghriana—“to strengthen trolls.”

Gael agreed with that assessment, but his lips curved down in a grimace. Rather than merely protecting the afflicted from danger, he’d given them another weapon against the unafflicted.

“I’ll dismiss you now,” said Carbraes. “No doubt you’d prefer to avoid my sentencing of the prisoner.”

Hells. Gael’s stand of principle had done absolutely no good there. Not that he’d expected to be able to save the man, but . . .

“The gong should still be secured behind locks,” asserted Gael. No longer a hazard, it was precious now. “Do you not wish me to usher it to safety, my lord?”

“One of the march’s quartermasters will see to it,” said Carbraes indifferently.

Hells. Hells. Hells! The idea of Dreben employing the artifact on the battlefield was far worse than the late Dreas doing so.

“When next I summon you, Gael, you will swear fealty to me anew,” said Carbraes. “Now go.”

Gael went.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 21 (scene 97)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 95)

Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

*     *     *

Buy the book:
The Tally Master