The Second Empire

The Second Empire by Paul Kearney Read Free Book Online

Book: The Second Empire by Paul Kearney Read Free Book Online
Authors: Paul Kearney
only let it happen, Bardolin, I could be with you always,” she said. “We have the same nature now, and it is not such a bad thing, the black change. He is not a good man, I know, but he is not evil, either, and most of the time he speaks the truth.”
    “Oh Griella!” Bardolin groaned. She was the same and not the same. An instinct told him she was some consummate simulacrum, a created thing, like the imps Bardolin had grown as familiars. But that did not make her face any less dear to him.
    “He says I can be your apprentice, once you accept your lot. You told me once, Bardolin, that shifters cannot also become mages. Well, you were wrong. How about that? I can be your pupil. You will teach me magic, and I will teach you of the black change.”
    Bardolin’s gaze strayed to where Murad lay in twitching sleep across the fire.
    “What about him?” he asked.
    She looked confused, then almost frightened. “I remember things. Bad things. There was a fire. Murad did things… no, I can’t see it.” She raised a hand to her face, let it drop, pawed at her mouth, her eyes suddenly empty. In the next moment, she had winked out of sight with the same preternatural swiftness as Aruan.
    “Child, child,” Bardolin said mournfully. She was indeed some form of familiar, a creature brought to life through the Dweomer. And he felt a furious rage at Aruan for such a perversion. The games he played, with people’s lives and the very forces of nature. No man could do such things and be wholly sane.
     
    I N the morning Hawkwood and Bardolin told Murad of the gunfire in the night. He seemed neither surprised nor overjoyed by the news. Instead he sat thoughtfully, picking at the scar which distorted one side of his head.
    “When the firing ended it meant that the fort has either beaten off the attack or has been overrun,” Hawkwood said.
    No-one commented. They were all thinking of the fantastic creatures which had butchered their comrades in Undi. A massed assault by such travesties would be hard for any group of men to withstand, especially since they could only be permanently slain by the touch of iron.
    “Let’s go,” Murad said, rising like some emaciated scarecrow. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
    By midmorning they had glimpsed a line of high ground rising off to their right, broken heights jutting through the emerald jungle like decaying teeth. Hawkwood stopped to study it and then called to the others.
    “Look, you know what that is? It’s Circle Ridge:
Heyeran Spinero
. My God, we’ve only a mile or two to go!”
    It was almost three months since they had set out, and they were finally back at that stretch of coastline they had explored in the first days of the landing. They went more cautiously now. After all this time, they were almost reluctant to admit any hope into their hearts.
    They found the first body close by the clear stream from which the settlement drew its water. A middle-aged woman by her dress, though she had been so badly mauled it was hard to tell. Ants and beetles were already at work upon the carcase in their thousands, and it stank in the morning heat.
    Even Murad seemed somewhat shaken. The three men did not look at one another, but continued on their way. Here was the slope they had toiled up on the first day—now a churned-up mire. Things had been discarded in the mud. A powder-horn, a scrap of leather gambeson, a rent piece of linen shirt. And under the bushes at the side of the clearing, two more bodies. These also were civilians. One was headless. Their intestines were coiled like greasy, fly-spotted ropes in the grass.
    They trudged down the slope with their hearts hammering in their breasts, and finally the rainforest rolled back and they were stumbling over hewn tree-stumps, cleared space. Before them, the sagging and skewed posts of the stockade stood deserted, and there was a stink of burning in the air, the reek of corruption. Beyond the clearing, they could glimpse the sea

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