The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 6)

Later, sitting before his desk in his tally room once again, he thought about what he’d observed.

Sounding the gong impelled its living energea to action, draining energea from—all who heard it?—funneling that energea into the gong’s heart, and then sending it out into the world to . . . where? Or whom? And why? He didn’t know, but he had to find out.

In the meantime, he’d checked the balcony outside his chambers, and no one had fallen from that height to the floor of the great hall below it. Thank Tiamar. He’d sent a messenger to the privy smithy, requesting a bronze padlock for his storeroom door to be ready immediately. Meaning tonight, before the privy smith put the forge to bed. And he still had this morning’s tallies to format for tomorrow’s review, as well as the rumor about sword breakage to follow up. (Was it really true that the breakage rate was up? He doubted it.)

In other words, he had his normal work to do.

It was almost automatic, after seven years of tallying and preparing compiled reports of his tallies. Dividing his attention, he could keep his quill sharp and filled with ink, transfer the rough tallies from their parchments to the comparison compilations without error, and sand the wet ink so it did not smudge, while another part of his mind entertained thoughts altogether unrelated to his tallying tasks.

His quill scratched, and the parchments rustled. Faint shouts drifted up from the artisans’ yard below, barely heard through the glass of his casements and the wood louvers of the inner shutters. Footsteps sounded in the stairwell outside the closed door—normal traffic—swift and pattering messengers, slow and tramping porters carrying heavy loads, decisive magnos climbing to attend the march. The tallow dips burned steadily in the still air.

Gael found himself considering again the matter of loyalty and how accurately any one man—or troll—could assess another’s loyalty. Carbraes had assessed Gael’s loyalty well. But who could match Carbraes’ acuity? Could Gael do so?

How well did Gael know even his friends, here in Belzetarn?

Take Arnoll, the armor smith. Gael had known him longest, right from the moment of his arrival in Belzetarn’s bailey. He’d never forget that moment, as he lay bleeding in the snow, more dead than alive and uncertain if he even wished for life.

The scouts of the First Cohort in the Second Legion had dragged him in—although he’d not known their status at the time—tossed him down, and summoned the regenen.

Gael had figured he was done for.

Certainly his wanderings in the wild—starving, cold, and lost—were over. Either the regenen would take him in (Gael didn’t think he wanted that) or the regenen would kill him. (Gael knew he didn’t want that. But what choice did he have?)

Carbraes’ icy blue gaze had felt as piercing as the scouts’ spears when they had captured him. “Check him,” the regenen ordered the troll standing beside him. Arnoll.

Ah, Arnoll.

Gael had barely noticed the smith’s burly shoulders, his curling iron gray hair, or the small char marks on his buff apron of calfskin, burned by sparks flying from his forge. Arnoll’s blue eyes were warm, where Carbraes’ were cold, and Arnoll’s tanned and leathery face was kind.

He’d knelt beside Gael, saying, “Fear naught, lad. You’ve come home, given I see what I expect to see.”

Arnoll’s gaze went distant as he consulted his inner sight. Then he nodded and rose. “Troll,” he said to Lord Carbraes.

“Get him up,” commanded Carbraes.

The scouts hauled Gael to his feet.

Carbraes faced him square, quite close. “Belzetarn is my citadel. All who dwell here obey me. Without exception. In return, I grant shelter, food, clothing, and my unshakeable defense. While you reside under me, none of my enemies shall strike you down unopposed.” The regenen paused, studying Gael a moment before he continued. “The unafflicted are my enemies. Every single one free of the truldemagar. Is that clear?” The regenen’s voice was crisp. His authority emanated from him like heat from the sun.

Gael shook his head, confused and in pain, but Carbraes seemed to take his ‘no’ for a ‘yes.’

“Swear loyalty to me now, and you will live and heal. Deny me, and you die.”

Gael wondered if he dreamed. The scene—a snowy bailey bounded by stone fortifications and paced by troll warriors, his own blood spotting the ice crystals, a tall black tower farther up the slope reaching toward the overcast sky—seemed unreal. And yet Carbraes’ words were real. Gael knew, deep in his gut, that Carbraes meant them.

“No,” he choked.

Carbraes nodded, unoffended by Gael’s refusal. The regenen lifted a hand, about to order Gael’s execution.

“Wait!” Arnoll caught his regenen’s arm. “Let the physician see to his wounds. Let me make cogent argument to him. This is a man who responds to reason, where he will not respond to bare force. My lord.”

How had Arnoll known?

Carbraes met Arnoll’s entreating gaze, his own stern. He turned to scrutinize Gael. “Very well. Summon me when you deem him ready to make that reasoned choice.” Had there been sarcasm in that word ‘reasoned’? Gael still didn’t know.

But Arnoll had convinced Gael. Not through reason, as things fell out, but through Arnoll’s almost fatherly care for the trolls for whom he forged armor in the smithy at Belzetarn’s roots. Arnoll was no enemy to the unafflicted ones, but he was a staunch partisan to the trolls.

“Would you exile a man because he contracted lung fever?” Arnoll argued. “Or because a blow to his head stole his wits? The afflicted deserve care and healing, not exile and death.”

Gael wasn’t convinced that was a fair comparison. He himself had contracted the truldemagar while dragging men into the earth by magery, there to suffocate. No innocence gilded his past. Surely many of Carbraes’ trolls had performed deeds equally foul to bring the disease upon them.

Not that Gael regretted his choice. He would protect his king, Heiroc, all over again in just the same way, had he to do the past over. But he was not innocent in the way a man sickened by plague or maimed by an accident was innocent.

Despite his lack of innocence, when Gael’s wounds had healed and Arnoll brought Carbraes to hear Gael’s oath, Gael had sworn fealty to the regenen. And, thus far, had not regretted it. Carbraes was . . . worthy of loyalty.

Gael shook his head, smiling, and pulled his thoughts away from the past. How was it that memory had claimed him so thoroughly? Twice, now. Was it the gong? Or something else that prompted him to visit what he normally avoided? Every troll learned that there was little profit to gain from remembering one’s losses. For every troll had lost his former life, the one he led before his vile transformation.

Enough.

The morning’s routine tallies were ready for the morrow. He shook the sand from the final parchment, laid it atop the stack, and set that stack in the low pigeonhole he reserved for the most recent records.

Where was Keir? Surely the boy should have finished re-tallying the tin.

Gael wanted to check that re-tally against the original before he visited the quartermaster about sword breakage and before he consulted the various smiths about melting down that injurious gong. Should he go in search of Keir? Or assume Keir would catch up with him when the re-tally was complete?

Gael brought his assistant before his mind’s eye: ash blond; gray-eyed; slim and slight, still more a child than a young man, and yet with the cool control and the cool logic of one fully grown. Coolly observant, too. Keir missed little.

Cool.

The word might have been coined to describe Keir. And yet Gael did not find the boy cold or heartless. He would swear that hidden beneath Keir’s collected demeanor lay the potential for heat, passion, and anger. Even vengeance.

Although . . . just as Gael knew nothing of Arnoll’s past—genial, protective Arnoll—so Gael knew nothing of Keir’s either. Just how well did he know Keir? How accurate were his perceptions of the boy?

Gael snorted in irritation with himself. Nothing wrong with thinking and assessing, but he was doing altogether too much of it this day. Enough of pondering hidden realities and secrets.

Keir was quick, focused, and diligent. And it was not like him to be late.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 2 (scene 5)

Chapter 2

Gael let the warriors lugging the artifact precede him, although he followed close.

It was a long, hot climb from the tower’s main gate to his chambers over the tally room. The stones of the walls and steps held their chill, welcome in summer, but the air flowing in through the arrowslits was too warm.

Gael pushed past the burn in his tiring leg muscles, ignoring the fierce click in his ankle, thinking. Was he as loyal as he’d assured the regenen?

Carbraes was right that Gael didn’t covet more power than he currently possessed. His position of secretarius was an exalted one, no question. But with more power would only come increased obligation to use it. The more powerful castellanum—Theron—governed all of Belzetarn: the kitchens and the cooks, the artisans and their yard, the messengers, the provisioners, the hunters, and more. It must be a tedious business, overseeing every last detail and all the disciplinary proceedings that were surely required to get the work done.

Theron seemed to enjoy it, and he certainly ranked above Gael in the hierarchy, but Gael shuddered at any possibility of stepping into his shoes.

Belzetarn’s march, Dreas, possessed power close to that of the regenen’s, commanding the regenen’s legions. But Dreas and Carbraes were like the fingers on one hand. They went back, way back, comrades before ever they came to Belzetarn, and comrades under the regenen who’d held the citadel before Carbraes.

The march would never betray Carbraes. Nor did Gael covet his job. It came too close to the realities of the troll stronghold that troubled Gael.

He was grateful to have this safe haven, grateful for Carbraes’ protection, grateful to have come to rest in peaceful waters after the turbulence of war under Heiroc, and then exile in a denuded wilderness when the truldemagar claimed him.

But although his tally room was peaceful, Belzetarn as a whole was not.

The citadel harbored warriors—troll warriors—and all the paraphernalia of war. It gave birth to war, standing opposed to near the entire North. As Carbraes once said: unless we carry the war to them, they will bring it to us. And what they bring will be defeat. Utter defeat. Annihilation.

The ‘they’ he referred to were the unafflicted, the healthy, those free of troll-disease.

There was no lawful place in all the world for the truldemagar. Only exile to the more inhospitable reaches that no one else wanted. The deserts of sand, rock, or ice that required magery to survive.

Trolls who hoped to survive more than mere months banded together under the strongest of their number they could find. The stronger, the better.

Carbraes was strong. He had to be.

But the unafflicted ones, the unmarked ones—

When Gael brought the faces of the undiseased into memory, he thought not of the king who had banished him, nor of the knights who backed that king. No. He remembered his littlest sister, with her mop of curly black hair and her trilling laughter. He remembered his mother, sweet-faced and low-voiced. He remembered his older brother patiently explaining the proper way to sharpen a quill pen. He remembered the innocent ones.

And the knowledge that Carbraes—and Belzetarn—brought blood and death to those who deserved protection bothered him.

There lay the weakness in Gael’s loyalty.

So long as he could ignore the reality that underpinned Belzetarn, Gael was loyal. Unshakably so. But if ever he had to choose between Carbraes and an innocent . . .

Gael frowned.

He’d arrived at the door to his chambers, a heavy bronze-bound affair, like all the doors in the citadel, and padlocked. The warriors, weighed down by the gong, were waiting for him to unlock it.

He did so and steered them through his sitting room—a dim, comfortable space with cushioned divans, wall hangings, and shelves packed with scrolls of ballads, epics, and legends—to the small storeroom off it. He would need to order a bronze padlock for the storeroom door. Tonight.

In the meantime, the outer door must suffice. At least every troll and his brother wouldn’t parade past the cursed gong as they would if he’d secreted it in some more frequented spot—the armory, where warriors were issued new weapons; the armor vestry, from which they were issued leather cuirasses or scale mail; or the oxhide vault, where the mule teamsters carried the large copper ingots from the mines.

These warriors used appropriate care in setting their burden down—flat on the floor—apparently as wary as he of the dreadful effects of sounding the resonant bronze.

Gael barred his outer door behind them, lit two tallow dips, and returned to scrutinize his unwanted prize. He’d promised Carbraes that.

No, he’d promised much more than that, but inspection was where he would begin. First he would look with his eyes, again, paying attention to detail, because outer form often hinted at inner structure. And then he would deploy the inner looking that Carbraes desired.

The metal disk was large. Were he to suspend it from straps or chains—using the pierced and beaded holes at its rim—and stand before it, touching one edge with his right fingertips, the other edge would reach his left shoulder. It was not flat, but curved like a great shallow bowl upended on the floor, the center rising three handspans from the flagstones with the central iron boss another handspan above that, and the bronze edges also furling up a handspan.

Its polished surface gleamed, bouncing the light of the tallow dips around the storeroom, creating strange patterns of shadow over the oddments stacked on the shelves and hanging from the wall hooks. The bronze possessed a warm, rosy tint—almost as though it were made of pure copper—but with a film over it, like frost.

Gael wondered if it were the arsenic in the bronze producing that effect or the forging technique used. His friend Arnoll would know.

He resisted the urge to descend to the smithies right now and fetch Arnoll out of his deep refuge to view this thing. That must come later, after Gael had done his duty by it.

Did he feel such repugnance because of the nature of the artifact itself? Or because of what it might require: the use of Gael’s magery?

Etched into the metal, abstract curves sprawled from rim to iron boss, creating a crisscrossing lattice that reminded Gael of the energea patterns that accompanied magery. Near the center, the design came together to depict a phoenix nesting in flames, its wings upraised to encircle the boss.

Was there significance to the image? Resurrection via ultimate loss and suffering? He’d not registered its presence during his first encounter below.

He crouched to study the composition. Did flames emanate from the boss, as though it were the sun? Or did the boss represent the egg from which the phoenix would be reborn? The latter, he thought. For within the thumb-sized dimples covering the black iron swirled deliberately irregular whorls, similar to those on peregrine eggs.

Gael’s ankle creaked as he straightened, and the flames of the tallow dips wavered, making the shadows dance. His next observance would take longer, and Gael refused to complete it with the aching joints that would follow poor posture.

He stepped out to his sitting room, noting the angle of the sunlight on the stones of the arrowslits beyond the glass casements. The day was passing, and he had still his regular work to do—counting this morning’s tallies and issuing orders to the various offices, plus hearing Keir’s report from the re-tally of the tin ingots and reviewing the discrepant tallies from yesterday.

He selected the thick fleece carpeting the floor in front of his favorite divan and hauled it into the storeroom, laying it next to the gong. Sitting crosslegged upon it, the wool cushioned and warmed his haunches. He leaned forward a little, then back, seeking that upright position that would let his tailbone drop while his crown rose. As unwelcome as this inner scrutiny of the gong might be—approaching close to the source of its enweakening groan—done properly, his body could benefit from breath linked to posture.

Ah! His shoulders lowered that last smidgeon as the old discipline claimed him. It felt good, even though it shouldn’t have.

He fell into the slow rhythm of breathing in while focusing on the lift in his crown and breathing out while noticing the relaxation at his root. In, for seven beats. Out, for seven beats.

The silver scrolls of his arcs unfurled in his mind’s eye, and his nodes—drifting—flushed with color. He directed his attention away from his own familiar lattice of energea to the gong that lay before him. He hissed. It, too, possessed a pattern of energea, but not the quiescent and linear lattice of normal bronze, like a board for the game of draughts, no. This bronze was active.

Curving scrolls of silver—distinctive of living organisms, not inert metals—followed the etchings in the bronze, flowing into and then out of a glowing green node at the central boss.

Tiamar on high! Did this artifact possess a heart node just like that of a man? Or a troll?

Gael focused his inner sight on that green lambency, wanting to discern its inner structure. The corona held a soft diffuseness, just as did the corona of a human node. The mantle within intensified, shining with greater brilliance. And, at the core, the light solidified around a faint pattern of closed diamonds—anchorage.

Tiamar’s throne! It was a human node.

Gael wasn’t sure if he beheld miracle or abomination.

So. He’d studied this thing, inside and out. He could report his findings to Lord Carbraes. And then . . . ?

Why did he hesitate? He longed to close his inner sight and get away from this curiously disturbing energea. But he had the sense that there was . . . One. More. Thing. One more thing he should do before he called his scrutiny complete.

Reluctantly, inner sight still open, he reached toward the furled bronze and tapped it with his forefinger.

A soft humming shivered on the air, pulsing in and out.

The scrolling arcs of the gong, leading from its edge to its center, brightened and quickened, sparks traveling inward along their curves. The gong’s heart node throbbed—incandescent, mellower, incandescent, mellower. Then the arcs flowing away from the gong’s center came to life, generating scrolls of blue energea that radiated off the metal into the world.

Gael’s own energea dimmed. His legs felt like lead, heavy and immovable. His spine slumped like a jelly, while his head alternated between painful density and dizzying dispersion. Crushing, expanding, crushing. He swallowed down nausea. Swallowed again.

Then the resonance ceased, and the gong’s energea quieted.

Gael’s strength returned. He heaved to his feet, tottered out to his sitting room, and closed the storeroom door firmly behind him.

Gaelan’s tears!

He didn’t think that draining hum had escaped his chambers. He hoped not. There was a balcony just the other side of the storeroom’s back wall. Cayim’s hell!

He half-fell half-sat on his favorite divan, leaning against its slanted arm. He could feel the suede buttons through the thistlesilk of his sleeve.

The warriors must have dropped the gong to produce the groan that had echoed through Belzetarn’s stairwell earlier, but the resonance from a finger tap was equally bad at close proximity.

He should check that balcony. Be sure no one had fallen. He really should.

And he would, as soon as he could gather his scattered . . . self.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 4)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 4)

With effort, Gael wrenched his thoughts from the old, painful memories.

Where he stood right now—in a dusty and cluttered storeroom full of wooden practice weapons, cutting butts, pillars, and mats—was a direct result of the events in those memories, but his attention needed to be on the present. Not the past.

One of the page boys in the cluster behind him murmured.

Gael’s gaze fell to the bronze gong resting on the stone floor between the two warriors. Its metal gleamed in the dim light, beckoning, inviting Gael’s scrutiny as his regenen had requested.

Lord Carbraes awaited Gael’s response, his stance relaxed within his aura of command, and his eyes steady. “Secretarius?”

Gael sighed. “Surely the magus is better qualified, Regenen. I renounced my magery when I entered your service. As you requested. As you request of all who dwell under your command.”

“You did.” Carbraes’ face did not change—composed. Waiting.

Almost did Gael submit. He valued his place here in Belzetarn. It was his home. He valued the reason and firm control Carbraes exerted over Belzetarn’s denizens. This refuge existed only because of Carbraes’ power and sanity. Gael had always been content—or almost always so—to give whatever Carbraes required of him.

But not now. Not this. Of all the trolls gathered in Belzetarn—who renounced magery at Carbraes’ command—there was one who still performed it. Also at Carbraes’ command.

“The magus would resent my usurpation of his prerogative,” Gael suggested.

A slight warmth entered Carbraes’ ice blue eyes. “No. He will resent my insistence that another share his privilege.” That was true. “Which is my privilege.”

Also true. But the magus of Belzetarn would add yet another grudge to those he already held against Gael, for the two were old acquaintances. Enemies? Maybe even enemies. At this juncture.

For the magus of Belzetarn had been the magus of Pirbrant, serving Erastys seven years ago.

Nathiar would yield no forbearance to Gael even when it was commanded by their mutual lord. Although . . . it was not Nathiar’s animosity that concerned Gael.

Many of the trolls seeking refuge under Carbraes renounced their magery reluctantly. Its power and convenience were seductive. Why hone one’s sword with whetstone and oil and labor, when magery would do it faster and better? Why fight with that sword on the battlefield, when magery could deliver far more devastating attacks?

But every troll in Belzetarn—or anywhere else—suffered the truldemagar because of magery gone wrong. They’d wielded magery too ambitious, too extreme, or too powerful for unafflicted arcs and nodes to withstand it and yet keep their healthy anchoring. And each time a troll pulled energea through his drifting nodes, those nodes drifted a little farther from true, farther from health, closer to deformity and madness.

Gael had renounced his magery willingly.

This artifact of Olluvarde threatened a return to his relinquished power. Why would Carbraes have Gael examine the sinister metal unless Carbraes intended Gael to meddle further with the gong? And Gael suspected that such meddling would require . . . magery. Not trivial magery either, but skilled and potent magery. The kind of magery that turned safe blue energea to lethal gold. There was a reason that Nathiar’s straight, shoulder-length hair shone silver now, while Gael’s black locks remained merely threaded with gray.

Abstinence from magery possessed great benefits, and Gael was not anxious to forego them.

“My skills are rusty,” he persisted. “The results will be more certain, if the more practiced magus—if Nathiar investigates this cursed thing and disposes of it.”

“Nathiar believes me wrong to eschew troll magery,” said Carbraes. “Would you believe me wise to tempt him to it, beyond strict necessity?”

Gael widened his stance and stood taller.

He would be blunt. Carbraes never faulted a man for stating his position, even when that position differed from his own. Just as Nathiar could be quite frank about his preference that Carbraes use more magery in his operations, so Gael would now be frank about his own distaste for it. “No, you would not be wise to give Nathiar more cause to do magery than he already possesses. But just as Nathiar craves magery, so do I detest it. And just as you request that I take responsibility for this gong, so do I request that you give it to someone else.”

He jerked his chin in an abrupt nod.

One corner of Carbraes’ mouth quirked up, and he relaxed his stance further, which surprised Gael. He’d expected the regenen to match his own tension with a ramping up of power, not a diminution of it. But the regenen often departed from one’s expectations. That was a good part of why he remained regenen over the aggressive and prone-to-rage trolls who obeyed him.

Carbraes gestured to the pages—standing very quietly, no doubt shocked—behind Gael. “Leave us,” he said. “Await me at the west stair.”

The pages shuffled off, and then Carbraes turned to the warriors standing guard over the gong. “I would speak with the secretarius alone. Restrain the pages from too much horseplay and return to me when I call.”

Both bowed and departed.

Carbraes stepped closer to Gael, placed an arm over his shoulders, and drew him away from the gong to a front corner of the storeroom. “There is another matter in question, Gael,” he murmured. “I trust you. But I have reason to doubt your old friend.”

Gael sometimes wondered at Carbraes’ ability to hold the loyalty of his troll followers. It was true that their lack of welcome elsewhere might compel them to remain true. But the very problem that drew them close—their disease—made them quarrelsome, unruly, and drawn to violence. Yet Carbraes mastered them.

Gael wouldn’t have expected a traitor amongst the most privileged, however. “Wherein lies your lack of trust?” he inquired.

“Nathiar remains in Belzetarn purely for his own advantage. And I can use him so. But only if I do not give him too much.” Carbraes gripped Gael’s shoulder. “Surely you see this? You were never a fool.”

“Mm.” Gael conceded the point reluctantly.

“But I think it is different with you,” continued Carbraes. “You are here, because . . . where else should you be? But you would not betray me for mere gain, even substantial gain. Is it not so?”

How in Cayim’s hell did one answer a question like that? Yes, I would betray you for substantial gain? Although he wouldn’t. Carbraes was right about that. No, I would never betray you? Gael couldn’t be sure of that.

“I am loyal, Regenen,” he said, his tone even, hiding his irritation.

Carbraes touched his shoulder again. “I know it. I think you might betray me to preserve your own life, but not for less cause, and maybe not even then. Is it not so?”

“Should your warriors rise against you, I suspect I would be better served defending you than seeking to save my own skin by joining them,” he answered dryly. “I doubt I should like such a regime as rebel trolls would create.”

Carbraes chuckled. “I press you unreasonably. But, Gael”—he straightened—“I trust you. And I must not trust Nathiar. Help me with this foul artifact of Olluvarde. It bears an evil taint, and you were a skilled magus before you came here.”

Gael stifled another sigh. He’d known it would come to this in the end. Command, guile, persuasion. Carbraes had them all and knew when to use each.

Gael glared at the gong—so like a shield, but not one—glimmering in the dimness.

“Bid the warriors carry it up to my chambers. I want the hellish thing behind double locks.”

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 3)

Seven years earlier, Gael had stood on a vast plain beneath a hurrying sky, tattered gray clouds racing below a light overcast, and wheeling crows screaming their hunger.

The river to the north—the Havreyn—lay beyond sight, but a fringe of trees along the nearer Givenlangid feathered the southern horizon. The stink of river mud well mixed with blood rose nauseatingly from the trampled oats underfoot.

The battle had moved off to the west.

Gael tested his inner senses. Was his king safe? That was the important thing. So long as Heiroc remained hale and whole—unwounded, uninjured, his energea coursing strongly—all was well. Gael bent his full concentration to that task. It was his task as the magus of Hadorgol to protect the king and thus protect them all.

So long as Heiroc lived, all Hadorgol would live.

And he lived, blessed be!

The hurly burly of the fighting—thick about Gael and the king a moment ago—had bludgeoned Gael’s inner sight to darkness. And the outer sight could not tell so much as the inner.

But there, some ways off, shone the king’s characteristic arcs and nodes, blazing silver like a beacon among the less brilliant energea of his honor guard. Gael spared a thought to wonder if it were Heiroc’s bright energea that generated the compelling charisma of his character or the reverse, his charisma that generated his shining energea.

It didn’t matter. Gael loved his sovereign like a brother and always would.

He swung abruptly to the north, sensing something . . . very wrong.

What in Cayim’s hells?

A shivering on the horizon. A rippling movement. Rushing, rolling, an advancing wall of water that was here.

Gael went down under its weight, water in his nose and eyes, sucking mud slamming up to knock him senseless.

He came to an instant later, battered by tree branches and struggling to find footing in the flood, struggling not to gulp river water into his lungs. He clutched at an arm that smashed against his palms and then was torn away. A dead body? He kicked at something less resilient at his feet. A chariot wheel?

And then the wave dumped him down and drained away, while he sat in water up to his neck, coughing.

The king! Where was his king?

Frantic and gasping, Gael swiped water from his eyes and scanned his surroundings. There would be no reopening of his inner sight without the ability to take a slow breath in followed by a slow breath out. His outer sight would have to do.

A smashed and tumbled chariot met his gaze, then the dead charioteer, flung against the cutting blades jutting from the spokes of the battle wheels.

Gael jerked his head around to see a cluster of corpses, all clad in the blue and green tabards of Hadorgol, merciful goddess! No!

Had none survived the marauding river?

But there was Heiroc, climbing to his feet, cropped blond hair sodden, gold-threaded aqua tabard over a coat of bronze scale mail equally so, and his bearded face dragged long by grief for the dead around him: his people, his warriors, his defenders.

The receding flood swirled at his knees. Then his gaze met Gael’s, and his expression lightened. He picked his way forward, saying, “Quickly now, Magus! There’s time yet to salvage something, if we hasten. Come!”

Gael was still coughing too hard to do anything but choke and gasp.

The king heaved him to his feet and led him around the tumbled chariot.

On its far side stood another chariot, this one intact and upright, lacking its charioteer, but possessing a trio of horses still harnessed, snorting and stamping.

“My king, I cannot drive,” protested Gael.

Heiroc grimaced. “But I can!” he answered.

Gael felt his face heating. Of course. He’d forgotten the king raced—most dangerously—in the hippodrome for his rare amusement.

The king went to the horses’ heads, gentling them with low murmurs and the calm of his hands. Then he boosted Gael into the chariot itself, robes dripping, and climbed in to take the tangled reins.

A moment later he’d cleared the reins of snarls and they were off, the horses trotting west.

Gael labored to regain some degree of equilibrium, enough to be more than a hindrance to his sovereign. He had to stop hacking and coughing. Had to.

The expanse of the plain glimmered silver in dimpled ripples. The flood was down to a mere hand’s breadth in depth. It splashed up from the chariot wheels, forming great fans of water whipping away from the wheel rims and blades. In the distance, a lone tree, pricked out in spring green, stretched out spiky limbs against the ragged sky. Beyond it, a mass of men seethed, blades flashing, shields thrusting, the echoes of clashing metal punctuated by earthier thuds and strained cries.

Not every warrior had drowned.

Gael took in a long, slow breath, and his inner sight opened on his out breath.

Tiamar in his Mother’s paradise!

The receding waters gleamed with threads of searing gold.

“That’s troll magery!” snapped Gael.

“Say again,” said Heiroc, focused on guiding the horses over the chancy terrain.

“Your enemy”—Gael hesitated—“your brother has a troll-magus in his train!”

Heiroc hissed. “Dastard! He dares!” The king dropped his hands, and the horses surged forward, breaking out of their trot.

He was right to curse. No civilized regime permitted a troll to remain in its midst, much less cossetted and courted and constrained to work magery for his sovereign’s benefit! Gael was a magus. But he was not a troll magus.

What had Erastys—the king’s brother—done?

And what had Nathiar—Erastys’ magus—become?

Gael squinted, urgent to discern any movement in the troll magery through the gouts of spray flying under the chariot’s increased speed. For those filaments of blistering gold were not quiescent. They writhed and gathered, forming, shaping—Gaelan’s tears!

Beneath the mirror of the waters, the broken blades and lost spearheads stirred, like fish working free of the mud after their winter’s hibernation.

Gael abruptly withdrew his attention from the world of the outer senses. It was the inner world that would protect his king. He breathed in. He breathed out. The soft silver of his arcs sparkled into his awareness. The more vivid glow from his nodes—violet at his crown through aqua and green to silver at the root node, a brighter silver than his arcs—bloomed at each connecting link.

His inner lattice of energea glistened with the health of the unafflicted, and he drew on it, like a man pulling water from a well.

Curling arabesques of silver-edged blue spun from the arcs of his fingers, weaving a net around the energea lattice that marked his king, weaving and brightening and growing to create the shield that would protect Heiroc and Gael and the chariot and its horses.

Just in time.

The web of scorching gold that crawled in the litter of sword blades and spearheads shivered and jerked, then lifted into a spinning whirlwind.

Gael’s vision abruptly doubled. The inner sight showed him a cyclone of shredding gold and amber and black-edged copper light. The outer sight revealed a storm of whirling metal, spattering blood, and flying gobbets of hacked flesh.

The leaves and twigs of the lone tree fountained into hurled confetti. Low-soaring crows became explosions of feathers. And the undrowned warriors—fighting so valiantly for their king—went down to death.

Tears streaked Gael’s cheeks as he strained to uphold his juddering energea under the onslaught.

He knew these men.

Young Laron. Old Milas. And musical Iorgo. Ah, Seya’s son!

If only his shield were great enough, strong enough, enough enough to preserve them all. But it was not. His king must suffice.

More blades lifted from the mud. Ghosts of arrows and halberds, maces and morningstars tore at Gael’s energea.

His shield . . . Must. Not. Fail.

Lightning cracked, flashing blue white.

Was it the storm clouds in the heavens? Or the storm of troll magery drawn from the earth? The rebounding shock kicked Gael from the chariot, the mud rising up to smack his face and knock the breath from his body.

Tiamar! He couldn’t breathe.

Shield. Must. Not. Fail.

He upheld it. Somehow. Through darkening vision and lancing pain. He would protect his king, if it killed him. And it might.

His ears were ringing, and his eyes beheld nothing but blackness. But he could feel the drain on his nodes as his will fed the shield of energea amidst the storm. Upheld it. Upheld it. Upheld . . .

And then the storm died.

Gael let his shield fade.

As his inner sight snapped shut, the outer world demanded his attention. Aching ribs. Throbbing head. Stinging across all exposed skin. And a viciously stabbing agony in his left shin. Broken?

He fought the red darkness closing his outer vision. Gael might be down, but his king was not. Was he? And while Heiroc yet stood, this battle was not over.

Gael’s pain won for an interval.

Three cold drops of rain on the back of his neck cut through the fog of injury. He felt river mud oozing through his robes at belly and breast. He rolled up on his side to see Heiroc climbing to his feet beneath the black branches of the denuded tree. The king had suffered his fall from the chariot without harm, thank Tiamar!

The stamp of boots on the wet earth and the clink of scale mail drew Gael’s blurry gaze away from Heiroc.

Cayim’s death!

The battle might not be lost, but it would be all too soon.

Five warriors wearing the scarlet and orange tabards of Pirbrant over their mail approached, with their king at their head, his magus at his side.

Dizzily, Gael brought King Erastys into focus. He wore a long red tabard, silver-threaded, over a silvered mail coat, and his sword was in his hand. Save for his black hair, clubbed into a thick braid—dark against Heiroc’s blondness—he looked so like his brother that it hurt.

Erastys and Heiroc had been the best of friends and comrades as boys and as young men. Even when their uncle gave Pirbrant to Erastys, the two brother kings had lived as good neighbors. Gael had always counted Erastys a friend. Until Erastys decided he wanted not merely kingship—an unusual honor for a younger son—but sovereignty over his homeland of Hadorgol.

Gael would never forget the pain in Heiroc’s eyes when Erastys’ herald brought his declaration of war.

Hadorgol and Pirbrant—Heiroc and Erastys—had fought a dozen inconclusive battles over the last year. And now Erastys of Pirbrant would win.

Gael’s own heart ached at the thought of Heiroc’s defeat and surrender.

But—there was that drawn sword and murder in Erastys’ eyes. Was it surrender Heiroc faced? Or something darker?

A crow cawed and alit on the shoulder of the man at Erastys’ side. His magus Nathiar.

Gael’s hot belly chilled.

Nathiar, too, had once been his friend: a thin and laughing man with a sardonic sense of humor. They’d learned to manipulate the energea together under old Korryn’s tutelage, sat together in Hadorgol’s court, and served the brother kings together, side by side.

But when a choice had to be made, Nathiar had chosen Erastys.

As Gael studied his old friend, Nathiar veered toward where Gael lay. Nathiar had been human at their last encounter. Now he was a troll. His olive skin remained smooth and unmarred. His straight jet black hair showed no threads of gray. They would come. Only the slight slant to his eyes and the curving elongation of his nose revealed his troll-disease to the outer sight. But, to the inner, his drifting, unmoored nodes left no doubt.

So the rumor was true. Nathiar had attempted to cast a glamour, the most intricate and demanding of magery. Tried and failed. And brought the truldemagar upon himself in the trying.

It explained the flood he had summoned and the deadly whirl of the bladestorm, feats too great for the clean magery of the unafflicted—energea. But not too great for troll magery. What would Nathiar do when the madness came upon him—which it would—given what he had done already?

Gael swallowed down nausea at the memory of the blood and gore exploding under the awakened sword shards and spearheads.

How was it that Erastys could refrain from banishing his magus? How could he dare the risk he courted?

Gael’s patch of ground was more puddle than mud, and Nathiar’s footsteps splashed as he drew near. The water stilled when he stopped to look coldly down upon Gael. Nathiar’s lips pursed, as though he would speak. Gael could not speak, could not find the breath to utter a word, could not find even the strength to be afraid, though he should be. Nathiar could kill him as he lay.

But Nathiar merely shook his head and turned away, hurrying to catch up with his king.

Erastys reached his brother first, ahead of his honor guard, but Heiroc’s blade was out also, and he was ready, receiving the cut of Erastys’ sword on the flat of his own, angling it aside and thrusting Erastys back with his shoulder.

Then Heiroc’s back was to the trunk of the lone tree.

But, Cayim! Seven to one?

Gael tried to get his good leg under him and rise. As though that would do any good—seven to two, and one of those two with a broken leg.

He fell back on his butt as the first of Erastys’ honor guard closed with Heiroc.

Heiroc did something—he was a notable swordsman—and the warrior leaped away, tangling Erastys’ sword arm as he went.

Gael gathered his pain-scattered wits as the next warrior charged in to the detriment of all three. Energea! It was energea he must call on in this last moment. In energea lay his only chance.

It was hard to withdraw his attention from the outer world when his king fought for his life.

The ring of sword on sword, the stamp of lunging feet, and the abrupt thunk of blade on tree sounded as he drew breath and followed the curling silver tracery of his arcs, as they emerged in the inner sight along with his brightening nodes. There was power here, his to use. But what should he do with it?

The crow on Nathiar’s shoulder cawed again, and Gael let his sight go double.

Gaelan’s tears!

Nathiar stood some paces away from the knot of warriors besieging Heiroc at the tree, but his hands were moving in the passes he used for magery. Troll magery.

If Gael failed to act now—

He acted.

The silvery blue of his energea streaked like spears toward each one of his seven enemies, encircled their ankles, and dove down.

With a ghastly sucking noise, the hungry mud simply swallowed the five honor guard warriors, hauling their feet into its deeps and burying them to their heads. Cayim’s blood! Could they breathe?

Gael couldn’t think about that now. His king needed him. Two of the seven foes—Erastys and Nathiar—were yet free, the magus gesturing further magery.

Why had Nathiar left Gael free? But he couldn’t think about that either.

Gael pulled harder on the energea noosing Nathiar’s ankles. Down! He must go down!

Gael’s blue energea flashed green edged with gold, on the verge of troll magery from his effort.

Nathiar drew both arms low behind his hips to throw—

—and Gael yanked his energea with all his might. Gold-edged green flashed to black-edged gold, searing in its intensity. Gael felt something rip within him—instant, scorching fire from crown to root.

And the earth swallowed again, sucking Nathiar elbow deep, just sufficient to trap his arms.

Nathiar’s roar of rage in his ears, Gael blacked out.

The incongruous scent of almonds perfumed the darkness. A woman laughed. Who? Silk hushed against silk. The notes of a lute sounded. Was this forgotten memory? Or dream? Then sounds and scents together whirled away in dizziness to unadulterated darkness.

Slowly, Gael’s awareness climbed out of its sink, returning to the battlefield.

The stink of the mud flooded his nostrils. The moan of someone wounded sounded in his ears. He blinked his eyes open.

Blood dripping down one temple, Erastys wilted against the tree, his brother’s sword at his throat.

“Do you yield?” growled Heiroc, his sword arm tense.

Erastys paled, but shook his head. “No,” he whispered.

Heiroc’s sword arm tightened, and they hung there an instant: the dark brother pinned to the tree, garbed in silver and red, wet with blood; the light brother clothed in bronze and aqua, drenched in river water.

Gael’s vision pulsed in and out as he lay stunned, watching.

Heiroc’s voice an edged hiss, the king commanded, “You shall yield!”

Erastys grew more pale yet, but his eyes narrowed.

“You must yield!” Was Heiroc begging?

Gael suspected his hearing was as injured as his sight and the rest of him. What had happened, there at the end, when something ripped inside him? He feared the answer.

Heiroc cast his sword to the ground, where it clattered against the tree’s roots. “I cannot kill you.”

Swift triumph gleamed in Erastys’ eyes, and Gael would have cried out, had he been able. My king! My king! No!

As Heiroc turned away, Erastys shed his drooping stance—suddenly powerful—and seized his brother by the neck, thrusting him against the bloody bark where, a moment ago, Erastys had languished.

Erastys lifted his sword.

“Do you yield? Brother?” he exulted.

“No,” breathed Heiroc.

“You shall,” gloated Erastys.

“Never.”

“But, yes, my brother. Oh, yes!” Erastys’ teeth gleamed.

“You trade upon my mercy,” snarled Heiroc.

Erastys’ nostrils flared. “I had not surrendered.”

“No. You had not. Nonetheless.” Heiroc’s spurt of temper calmed.

“I shall not be so weak as you. I can kill,” Erastys said.

“I do not doubt it. Brother. Nonetheless. You trade upon my strength, not my weakness.” Heiroc’s tone was stern, and yet something lay under that sternness. What was it, thusly concealed?

“Does that mean you trade upon my weakness, since I trade upon your strength?” mocked Erastys.

Heiroc laughed. Gaelan’s tears!

Erastys tensed his sword arm; and then cast his sword after his brother’s—to the ground—and fell upon Heiroc’s neck in a weeping embrace. Heiroc’s arms went hesitantly around his brother’s shoulders and then snugged him in tight.

It had been love, Gael realized, love beneath Heiroc’s sternness. Even after a year of war, a year of bloodshed, a year of battle after battle. Dastard’s hells!

Awe scudded through Gael’s disorientation, rendering him breathless. When else had he witnessed such compassion? Such forgiveness? Such . . . a bloody waste. Heiroc might cherish tenderness beneath his anger; Gael was not so saintly beneath his awe.

How many warriors had died in the senseless quarrel between brother and brother? How much blood had been shed? How many men now eked out crippled lives, missing arms or legs or both? How many mothers, wives, and daughters lacked sons, husbands, and brothers? How many fields—such as this one—lay trampled by battling armies and fated to yield no harvest come fall?

Gael could not blame his king for defending his kingdom. But if the brothers were going to reconcile their differences in the end—and well they should—why in Cayim’s hells couldn’t they do it at the first, instead of the last? Why in hells hadn’t they done it before that dreadful rip tore through something essential at Gael’s core?

He fell back into a pulsing haze of pain and nausea. The world strobed in and out. The mud under him went hot, went cold, went hot. The cawing crows faded out, faded in. The wheeling sky turned white, turned black.

Gael shuddered. What had happened to him?

Uneasily, he pried open his inner sight. His arcs shivered, their silver edged with gold. His nodes shone the wrong colors: the root red instead of silver, the belly amber instead of white. No! And worst of all—worst—each node floated free of its mooring, no longer properly anchored. He was afflicted.

The brother kings’ open sobs of reconciliation had been cleansing.

Gael’s repressed sob was bitter.

Death or maiming in service to his sovereign was a sacrifice to glory in. This . . . was not.

The truldemagar had claimed him.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 4)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 2)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 2)

On the landing outside his tally chamber, Gael quelled the impulse to skip necessities in urgent haste. One always had the time to do over that which was done improperly. Better to do it properly in the first place.

Removing his heavy keyring from the fibula pinned at his waist, he selected the proper key and unlocked the bronze padlock from its anchorage on the tally room door jamb, passed its shackle through the hasps of door and jamb, and pressed the shackle home. It clunked satisfyingly. Some dastard might steal Carbraes’ precious tin, but he would not gain access to the tallies—Gael’s tallies—that revealed the miscreant, damn him.

Gael unset his teeth, nodded calmly to Keir as the boy turned left to head up to the metal vaults, and then himself turned right to the steps down.

It was a long descent to the tower gate, and his weak left ankle clicked. Not that his tally chamber perched anywhere near Belzetarn’s battlements. But the view from its arrowslits—when he latched the inner shutters open—was a scary height above the artisans’ yard and the warriors’ bailey.

Passing two upward-bound porters carrying a heavy chest, Gael moved to the outside of the treads where they were so broad as to require an extra step to reach the riser. He had to duck an empty torch bracket. It would be filled, come nightfall, but the sunlight shining in through the open arrowslits provided illumination enough by day. A young messenger scampering in the porters’ wake grinned as he hugged the central column, letting Gael keep the comfortable middle territory. Evidently the boy didn’t mind the narrowness of the inner treads.

Gael shook his head. If that uncanny throbbing groan were to sound again, Gael was uncertain of his own welfare even on the broad surfaces of the outside treads. How would those on the narrow inside treads avoid a fall?

Five twists around the central column and three landings later, Gael reached the floor of the main place of arms. Muffled thumps, shouts, and the erratic clash of metal on metal carried through the stub of corridor connecting the stairwell to the larger space.

The cool of the stone floors felt good by the time he arrived at the lower place of arms adjacent to the melee gallery. Filled with shadows and strong beams of sunlight channeled by the deep embrasures burrowing through the massive walls at the base of the tower, the vast space was uncharacteristically empty of warriors. A cluster of page boys at a storage room doorway showed Gael where Lord Carbraes no doubt awaited him.

Wishing for a long draught of cool clean water—a man could grow just as warm and thirsty descending stairs as he did ascending them—Gael crossed the place of arms, his measured strides echoing under the high vault.

The pages made way for him respectfully, two bobbing quick bows as he passed into the storage room.

Gael barely saw the litter of wooden practice weapons, cutting butts and pillars, and leather mats pushed to the walls of the small chamber.

Lord Carbraes captured one’s focus—not through mannerism or mere posturing, but because of the aura of absolute assurance that cloaked him. Gael had never witnessed the regenen at a loss, which was startling given that he was losing the long war with the unafflicted enemies who assailed the trolls. Gael figured the troll-lord must think in numbered matrices. He always had a second plan when the first failed, and a third after that.

Carbraes stood just a touch taller than Gael, but his shoulders were considerably broader and bulkier. Rumor insisted that the regenen did sixty handstand push-ups every other day to keep his strength. Gael suspected rumor—in this instance—was correct. The expression in Carbraes’ ice blue eyes said he would tackle and succeed at any feat, no matter how challenging.

Despite his strenuous regimen, the truldemagar marked Carbraes’ physique. Deep crow’s feet bracketed his eyes and reached back across his temples to his hairline. His skin was roughened and chapped red. His nose possessed the typical upward curve and bluntness. He wore a short and neatly clipped blond beard and mustache—perhaps to hide the lines around his mouth and the blurring of his chin? His curling blond hair was equally short and threaded with silver, revealing his still shapely ears, unusual in a troll.

He went garbed in a white thistlesilk blouse under a knee-length tunic of cream suede ornamented with bronze rivets at the hem and other stress points along the seams. An ecru thistlesilk cape flowed back from his shoulders. Brown leather warrior’s boots were laced up his shins.

The natural colors were easy on the eye, or at least on Gael’s eyes. He disliked the garish costumes sported by Belzetarn’s castellanum and the magus, blessedly not present at this moment.

Carbraes finished instructing the two page boys kneeling before him. “You”—he tapped the brown-haired one on the shoulder—“run to the castellanum’s cabinet chamber and tell him just what I told you.” The boy nodded, sprang to his feet, and dodged around Gael to dash away through the place of arms. Carbraes tapped the black-haired boy on the chest to re-gather his straying attention. “Go to the field quartermaster and bid him compile a tally of the blades broken across the last three moons versus the number broken three years ago in the same season.”

The boy followed his fellow with equal alacrity.

Lord Carbraes looked up and spotted Gael. “Hah! Secretarius! You come in good time. Look on what the scouts of the Third Cohort have brought me.”

A pair of warriors stepped from behind the regenen. Gael’s gaze passed over their tunics of bronze scale armor—light and shining and flawless, made by Arnoll in the armor smithy—to fasten on the massive bronze shield they carried between them.

No, not a shield. Surely not. Wider than the full length of a troll’s arm, etched with curling traceries, and deeply furled around its circumference, the artifact would be far too heavy to serve as a shield in battle. So what was it?

Two punched and beaded holes near the top edge gave Gael the answer: a gong.

“Examine it,” Carbraes instructed him. “First with your eyes.”

Gael frowned, not liking where this was going.

The central boss of the piece—matte black and oddly dimpled—was surely meteoric iron, rarer than tin and deucedly hard to melt or work. It required forges far more powerful than those lurking in Belzetarn’s roots. Who would possess such resources? And why had they been deployed on this gong?

Gael stiffened his knees, resisting the memory of the groan uttered by Belzetarn’s regenen stair recently. It had not been the stair—or the tower—from which hailed the muttering reverberation, surely, but this trophy Carbraes bade him study.

The bronze surrounding the iron boss held a silvery sheen atop its warm coppery tints, no doubt made of an arsenical alloy, rather than a tin one. The abstract traceries adorning its surface were finely drawn, the curves displaying perfect mathematical symmetry.

Gael spoke his assessments aloud, concluding with, “Exceptional work by an exceptional smith in an exceptional forge. I shouldn’t think the Ghriana-folk of the mountains had the capability.”

Carbraes lifted an eyebrow. “What?” He gestured to the warriors to lay the gong down on the stone floor, instructing them, “Carefully,” when they moved too quickly for his liking.

Gael was getting a very uncomfortable feeling about this prize of war, if battle were indeed where it had come from.

Carbraes said, “No, this didn’t come from the Ghriana-folk. It’s old, far older than they.”

“Where did it come from?” asked Gael, moderating his emphasis on did.

“The scouts pulled it out of the ruins of Olluvarde after some chucklehead tossed a pebble down a dry well and the resulting resonance brought them all to their knees.”

Olluvarde. A city of the ancients built a thousand years ago or more, when the fabulous airships of Navellys still sailed across the sea, bringing riches. Or so legend said. What had the ancients wanted with a gong that weakened trolls? No trolls had ever marred their paradise. The dread truldemagar swept the world only after Navellys was drowned.

“Open your inner senses, Gael,” said Carbraes. “Tell me what you see. I must understand the essence of this thing, that I may choose its fate—and ours—wisely.”

Gael felt his heart clench within him. He’d feared Carbraes would make this request from the moment the regenen said, first with your eyes. Why specify, unless a different looking would follow? And . . . while such looking to check his own energea, or Keir’s, or even that of a random notarius or messenger, was innocent enough . . . scrutinizing an artifact forged by the potent energea of the ancients might lead him to magery. Or worse.

Gael remembered the worse all too well.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

FIRST DAY

Theft

Chapter 1

Hunched over the welter of creamy parchments scattered on the dark wood of his pigeonhole desk, Gael stroked his smooth, clean-shaven chin and straightened. Normally his chair before this desk in his tally chamber was the most comfortable spot in the world.

Never mind that the old and darkened wood of the chair went uncushioned, hard on his sit bones. Never mind that the chair was backless. Never mind that its curving arms were too low to support his elbows, low to fit under the desk without jamming.

The tally chamber was his. His domain, secure and inviolate.

He coveted the security his dominion bought. That above all else.

This noontide, his tally chamber didn’t feel so comfortable. Or so inviolate. And he resented the change.

He’d closed the inner shutters over the narrow glass casements that filled the two arrowslits in the outer wall, and angled their wooden louvers down. He was lucky to have such casements. Many of the openings in the thick stone walls of tall and massive Tower Belzetarn remained open to the bitter weathers of the cold North-lands, or were paned with horn, not glass. Not that the weather was cold, or even cool, now. The summers of the north brought warm sun and long days.

His tally room remained cool though, protected by the bulk of the stone tower within which it resided. And while the outer casement shutters were hooked open, flat against the stone of the arrow slits, the closed inner shutters kept the chamber dim, the space lit only by the scattering of rush lights flickering on his desk around the scattered parchments. Bright sun slicing into deep shadow provided no decent working light for counting ink tally marks. Better the dimness, even were it a strain to the eyes.

Gael rotated his shoulders and neck, his joints creaking a little as he did so.

To each side of him and before him, against the wall at the back of his desk, the tall, dark cabinets loomed—their pigeonholes filled with the records of years, scrolls of lists and tally marks. More pigeonholed cabinets lined all the walls of the chamber. A cluster of three, placed in the center of the space, guarded Gael’s back.

He should have felt utterly at home within this enclosing wood with its load of parchment rolls. Like an ice leopard in its lair, or a gryphon in its eyrie.

He had certainly felt so from the moment, seven years ago, when Lord Carbraes ensconced him here and bade him monitor the flow of metals—precious tin and useful copper—coming by mule from the northern mines to Belzetarn, and then carried down to the deep smithies at the roots of the citadel to be forged into swords and scale armor and helmets.

The tally chamber was his retreat and sanctum, perfumed by the flat odor of ink threaded with a warm hint of game from the parchments.

But now . . . ?

Now an ingot of tin had gone missing—tin so rare, tin so precious, tin so necessary for the forging of the bronze swords that armed the citadel’s warriors. Eighty-two ingots rested in their coffers in the tin vault. There should have been eighty-three.

There remained a chance the discrepancy could be innocent. Perhaps he’d mistakenly inked one tally too many in the morning, when he released the tin ingots to the blade smithy, the armor smithy, and the privy smithy. Perhaps—in the evening—he’d omitted one tally, when he locked away the new-minted ingots from the smelters into their guarding vaults.

It could still be innocence.

But Gael didn’t think so.

There was evil intent at work in this missing ingot of rare tin.

His back ached with the tension he’d felt checking and re-checking his tally records all this morning. But, of course, it wasn’t merely the hunching and the tension that produced the aches. The truldemagar—troll-disease—brought sore joints and aching bones in its wake, along with other symptoms: enlarged ears, curved and lengthened nose, and sagging skin.

But worse than these physical signs was the insanity that marked its ending deichtains—weeks, or sometimes moons—in the approach to death.

Gael drew in a slow breath and breathed it out, slower still, opening his inner senses to observe and assess the secret energea that marked both the health of those unafflicted by troll-disease and the progression of the sickness in those that were afflicted.

There in his mind’s eye sparkled the arcs of energea, pale silver, curving between the nodes marking the important anchorages of his body. And there pulsed his crown node, a translucent violet sphere floating just a bit below where it should be, dragged down in turn by his brow node—lambent indigo—which also hovered too low.

This was the heart of troll-disease—the illness that lurked within every denizen of Belzetarn, the illness that drew them together against the unafflicted.

The healthy ones, themselves unmarked by disease, exiled every troll they discovered.

Gael’s ink-smudged fingers traced the marks of the disease on his own face: the deep crow’s feet bracketing his eyes and the pouches under them; his elongated nose, curving downward like a hawk’s beak and growing pointed, unlike so many of his cohorts, whose noses grew blunt and curved upward; the slight sag in that chin he kept so carefully shaved.

A hank of his straight, black hair—threaded with dark gray—slipped over his shoulder to hang at his collarbone.

He knew he looked like a man in his fifties or even sixties. His joints felt like those of an older man, although his body had not yet softened. He remained trim and muscular, despite his crow’s feet and gray-threaded hair. But Gael was thirty-eight. And he was lucky. Lucky beyond all deserving.

He lived. Many trolls perished with the onset of the disease—either because the symptoms crashed upon them so violently or because their unmarked neighbors—or, worse, family—exiled them to the wilds where they died like rabid dogs.

But Gael lived. He possessed a refuge—his tally chamber—and an honorable place under Lord Carbraes. Troll-lord Carbraes. Gael was fortunate indeed. He told himself that. Every day.

The rushing rhythm of swift steps broke out on the spiral stairs outside the thick door to the tally chamber, someone climbing hard and fast.

Gael shifted his feet, feeling the pressure of the leather thong where it crossed the bridge of each foot, securing his shoes. The chill of the stone floor penetrated the soft leather soles. He normally placed a sheep fleece beneath his desk in winter to keep his toes warm. Had he removed it too early this year? Or had his troll-disease advanced so far that his toes grew chilled even in summer? Early summer.

The steps on the stairs grew louder.

Gael held still, listening.

The Regenen Stair was the tallest in the citadel, a spiral rooted in the mead cellars below the kitchen annex and climbing all the tower’s great height, past the lofty chambers of the regenen—Lord Carbraes—to the battlements. There were three other major stairways that ascended from the smithies to the battlement terraces, and all four of them were heavily trafficked, with warriors climbing from the bailey to one of several places of arms or to the march’s war chamber, porters carrying charcoal from the yard to the many tower living quarters, or messengers running errands for the castellanum who managed the domestic logistics of Belzetarn.

Footsteps sounded on the Regenen Stair more often than quiet fell there.

Gael shrugged and rearranged the folds of the green thistlesilk caputum swathing his shoulders, recentering its hood on his upper back. His feet might be cold, but at least he didn’t need his wool caputum in the summer. His hand drifted down the brown suede of his ankle-length robe and then to the green thistlesilk of the sleeve at his wrist.

So many of the powerful within Tower Belzetarn preferred bright colors for their garb and costly adornments: brooches of shining gold, feathers dyed scarlet or purple, and lacings of braided orange thistlesilk. But not Lord Carbraes, most powerful of them all. And not Gael. Gael wore modest clothing and inhabited modest chambers just above his tally room. Reached by that same Regenen Stair, where the footsteps now echoed so furiously.

The latch of the tally chamber door clicked open as the footsteps slowed and entered.

Gael turned to look over his shoulder.

His assistant Keir stepped around the pigeonhole cabinets at the room’s center.

The boy, normally so self-contained, seemed perturbed. Several strands of his ash blond hair—blunt-cut at chin length—stuck to one flushed cheek, and a disquieted expression lay behind his steady gray eyes. Whatever disturbance had provoked his run up the stairs, he came to an ordered halt beside Gael and addressed him formally.

“My lord Secretarius.” His voice was clear and pleasant—not yet deepened, as surely it would be before the boy grew much older—and a bit blown with suppressed panting.

Gael looked Keir over.

His assistant was of medium height and slender, well-made for a lad of maybe . . . fifteen? Sixteen? Gael had never asked, and Keir never volunteered the information. His green suede tunic fell to his knee, his green thistlesilk hose covered slim legs, and his low-cut brown shoes were laced across the bridge of his foot, like Gael’s. He looked tidy, even in the aftermath of his rush up the stairs.

But the important view was on the inside where the secret flows of energea marked Keir a troll, like all the denizens of Belzetarn.

Gael’s inner sight was still open from his scrutiny of his own nodes and arcs, and he studied the configuration of Keir’s energea. The arcs curled from the boy’s hurry, relaxing their curves only slowly as he caught his breath, but his nodes remained centered over their mooring points as usual. Not anchored. Only the unafflicted possessed anchored nodes. But Keir had not been a troll long enough for his nodes to drift as Gael’s had done.

Keir’s nose was still straight, his skin bright and young, his ears small, and his body straight. The aches and pains of troll-disease were a decade away, at least, and the madness would wait until his old age. Thank Tiamar! Gael liked the boy and hoped he’d fare better than had Gael himself.

“Sir?” asked Keir, his brows contracting slightly at Gael’s silent inspection.

Gael hesitated a moment longer. He’d planned to admit his assistant to his confidence and share the problem of the missing tin. But . . . theft was ugly, and the apprehension of the thief likely to be uglier still. He’d spare the boy most of it. If he could.

Abruptly, Gael made his decision.

“There may be a mistake in yesterday’s tin tally.” He tried to keep the grim note out of his voice, but Keir’s eyes widened, and a hint of emotion—Gael couldn’t identify which one—crossed his face.

“Sir,” protested Keir. “You don’t make mistakes. You know you don’t.”

In less fraught circumstances, Gael might have smiled. “Well, we’d best hope I made an error yesterday.” His tone must have been a bit too dry, because Keir’s unease grew.

The boy swallowed. “You’ll be wanting another tally then.”

Now Gael did permit himself a slight smile. Having an assistant was agreeable. Having an intelligent one was better yet. Although Gael counted Keir as much a friend as anything else—a young friend with a store of energy both foreign and welcome to Gael.

Gael nodded. “Lock the coffers when you finish.” He’d believed the padlocked door on the vault sufficient protection, but now . . . “And take a fresh parchment.”

Keir’s smile, while cool as always, was nonetheless wider than Gael’s small quirk of the lips. “Cramped tallying yields error,” he recited, echoing Gael’s own oft-repeated dictum.

Gael removed the ring of coffer keys from the small wooden box on his desk and tossed them. Keir caught the jingling bundle easily.

“Tell me your message before you go,” said Gael.

Keir frowned. “Lord Carbraes bids you attend him in the store room off the melee gallery.

Gael felt his own frown mirroring Keir’s. Why would the troll-lord linger by the entrance gate, a place to which he sent others to do his will while he controlled all Belzetarn and its horde from his cabinet chamber or his war room? And why would he send Keir for Gael, rather than one of the usual messengers?

Gael pushed his chair back from his desk and stood, ignoring the protest in his left ankle. Keir went to his own desk, located amongst the pigeonhole cabinets on the outer wall between the two arrow slits, and began gathering parchment, ink, and a quill. Gael corked his own ink bottle and moved toward the door.

Keir, still bent over his desk, glanced up. “You think Belzetarn harbors a thief.”

Gael sighed. He couldn’t really complain that the boy was too clever, but it was inconvenient just now. “That is not certain,” he replied, reprimand in his tone. “Even were it not my error”—Keir looked skeptical—“there are others who might have erred.”

Before Keir could give voice to his doubt, a strange and deep throbbing sounded through the open door of the tally chamber, as though the tower itself moaned in pain, like some great beast given a mortal wound.

Gael’s knees went suddenly weak. His belly sank, nauseatingly hollow. And all strength drained from his limbs. He wondered—almost desultorily, as though it didn’t matter—if he would faint and fall. He swayed.

And then the tower’s groan ebbed away to silence.

His stomach settled. His knees steadied. And strength flowed back into his body.

“What in Cayim’s hells?” Gael’s anger felt good.

Keir looked shaken too, his face pale and his knuckles white in their grip on the portfolio of his notary supplies. He straightened his shoulders—their outline blurred by the overly generous caputum he preferred—and compressed his finely molded lips.

Gael understood the boy’s need to gather himself. Under his own reined-in ire, an uncomfortable uncertainty lingered.

“That,” said Keir, “is why Lord Carbraes summoned you.”

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 2)

 

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