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Ring of Destiny

Dance of the Rings: Book Three

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Fantasy readers are well familiar with the concept of the "man in black," the pesky character who comes onstage and will not go away or stay quietly in the background.   Most books have them; the Ring books were no exception.

I thought at first my "man in black" was Mikhyel himself.  Ring of Lightning was Deymorin's book; what right had his little brother to prove so interesting?  Well, he was--I couldn't get around it--but I could justify Khyel: he was, after all, one of the brothers in a story about sibling-hood. 

Then along came Ganfrion.  I managed to keep him "quiet" through Ring of Intrigue but once I was into the third book, I knew my respite was over . . .

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The Man-in-black Speaks

Chapter I

Night gave way reluctantly to morning. The glitter in the misty air confused the transition, making ghosts of the rows of field tents, corpses of the blanket-wrapped bodies littering the ground outside the tents.

Assuming, of course, they weren't, in fact, dead and that Ganfrion of No Family and No Node wasn't the only man still living on this hell-blasted mountainside--a mountainside with the unmitigated gall to appear, in dawn's light, as a perfectly ordinary summer morning in the Khoramali foothills.

But hell-fire had filled the sky last night, blazing an unnatural iridescent web from the northeast to southwest: that was to say, from Khoratum to Rhomatum, as any man here knew. It had been a battle between the Towers, not the honest blaze of gunfire or the clash of steel in hand to hand combat--a battle the likes of which he had never heard, a battle in which these men had had no part, but a battle that, in its aftermath, had rained who knew what down on their heads all night, here in the open as they'd slept, having been given license by the Rhomandi himself to leave their underground haven.

License to leave when they should have been ordered to stay in the caverns until the world was normal again.

Why else had they chosen this cave-riddled spot for the semi-permanent base camp?

Ganfrion propped himself against a marker post that proclaimed this block of tents the nesting ground of the Seventh Eagle, and scanned the rows, looking for any sign of movement, for the sort of stirring that ought to occur among seasoned troops as the sun's first rays touched the tops of the mountains--never mind most had lain awake watching that web disintegrate into sparkling motes of energy, and watching those motes that had drifted down from the sky hovering and darting and floating on a breeze like a billion fireflies on Midsummer's Eve.

The Rhomandi had declared those motes if anyone, even the certain-to-be-legendary (if he pulled this current gambit off) Deymorin Rhomandi dunMheric, could predict the effect of a night inhaling that ley-touched air.

And this morning...the bodies lay still as death.

Ganfrion took a long pull from the flask he carried, staving off the cough that threatened. Stolen, that flask, or given to him sometime last night before men turned to corpses: he honestly couldn't recall how it had come to his hand. He had refused to so much as lie down as long as the glitter filled the air. He'd dared the gods along with all the other men, and damned if he hadn't cheated them of yet one more chance at him.

And yet--

And yet, even now, he had to wonder whether the glitter was gone or simply overpowered by the light of dawn.

And considering the flask, still full after so many hours and so many throat-quenching drafts, perhaps the gods had won. Perhaps he was dead after all.

The precisely aligned field tents rippled, faded and fluxed back into focus before they disappeared altogether. Caught in mid-stride by that overwhelming darkness, Ganfrion felt his boot encounter an unexpected lump. The lump produced a curse; a glancing blow caught Ganfrion's already uncertain knees.

His mercenary blood surged, his vision cleared and strength returned to his limbs. Battle-honed instincts held him upright, wavering but ready--eager, even--for a fight. A good, honest fight would be a welcome relief after the recent ambiguity of his life.

But the lump ignored him, rolled over and burrowed deeper into its cocoon of blankets, returning to its former corpse-ish condition.

Cheated of his fight, Ganfrion responded with the only sensible alternative: he slid down to sit cross-legged next to the lump and offered it a drink. The lump rolled over, produced a heavy-lidded eye that took in the flask, blinked slowly, and a reluctant grin joined the eye above the blanket.

"A bit early, don't you think?"

"Can't be." Ganfrion took a carefully measured sip, then extended the flask again. "Haven't been to bed, yet."

The lump's eyes followed his moves, showing a healthy suspicion, a keen analysis. A good border man, like all those other lumps lying about. Grant Rhomandi that much: luck, good advice, or more sense than Ganfrion had once granted him, he'd recruited a good lot for his personal guard. Six--seven hundred, perhaps, encamped here in the southwest shadow of Mt. Khoratum. Large for a personal guard, but the Rhomandi hadn't truly gathered them for his personal protection.

"I have been to bed. I'm in it." The border lump made as if to return to sleep.

"So?" Ganfrion nudged him with a toe. "Hell, man, first call isn't until midday. Rhomandi's own order. --Breakfast." He shook the flask suggestively. Eyes and grin above the blanket edge developed a stubbled face atop a hairy chest, then a hand that accepted the flask. The man sniffed and pulled back. "Whew. That stuff'll kill you."

Ganfrion snorted and gulped a mouthful. "Where'd the Rhomandi pull you from, missy? A Kirish'lani slave market?"

The lump growled and grabbed the flask, coughed as the potent liquid hit his throat, and swallowed again. "Shit, just my luck, the Rhomandi'll call a surprise muster." Which expectation did not stop the lump from helping himself to another hefty sample.

"He won't."

The man snorted and tossed the flask back. "And you, of course, are in his direct counsel."

Ganfrion just lifted a suggestive brow and took a swig that should have emptied the flask. It didn't. But he didn't wonder at that phenomenon any longer. After what he'd witnessed in the past few days, he refused to wonder at anything ever again.

"Who are you?" the lump asked.

"Ganfrion," he answered, then recalled: "Captain Ganfrion newly anointed gorMikhyel." As if he could forget. The flask made another round. "And as your superior, I order you. It's your sworn duty. For Princeps and Node and . . . --Hellsabove, drink to my promotion!"

The lump guffawed, but forced himself to obey the direct order. The return pass was accompanied by one more of those Looks. "Captain Ganfrion. Heard of you. You're the man the Barrister pulled out of prison and the Rhomandi himself elevated to Captain. And gorMikhyel? Hadn't heard that. The Barrister's sworn man? Should I be worried?"

"Suit yourself," Ganfrion replied with a frown, and under cover of his coat, twisted the ring itching and cutting off circulation to his smallest finger. Damned spider-fingered pen-scratcher. In one brief moment, Mikhyel dunMharic had saddled him with a ring several sizes too small and an associated oath that choked his whole gods-be-damned philosophy of life.

"Heard tell the Rhomandi's brothers showed up in camp last night. Guess you're proof of that, eh?"

He shrugged, tacitly avoiding the details of that arrival.

A handful of returns later: "What's he like?"

"Hm?" he grunted, forcing his eyes to focus.

"You're shat, man. Better stop."

He growled and the man raised a warding hand. It was lack of sleep, not too much drink that slurred his tongue and made his eyes droop, but damned if he'd explain that to the lump. "Wha's who like?"

"The Barrister. Met the kid brother once. Visiting the Rhomandi on the border back when he was still Deymio even to the likes of us. Solid man, Deymio. I like 'im. Proud, I was, when he included me in his special muster. But what about this city-man? As hard as they say?"

What was Mikhyel dunMheric like? Certainly nothing like his older brother. Deymorin dunMheric, the princeps of Rhomatum and The Rhomandi of the House Rhomandi looked the part of a leader. Big man. Solid, as this lump said. A true descendant of Darius. The image of those who had emigrated from Mauritum. Nikaenor, younger, softer third brother, was still unquestionably the same breed.

Mikhyel dunMheric, however, had been pulled from an entirely different mold. The first time he'd seen him, Ganfrion had mistaken him for a hiller--

No. That had been the second time. The first time, he'd been in a sentencing pit and dunMheric had been on the uppermost judgement dais. Mikhyel had seemed--taller, then.

The second time they'd crossed paths had been in the depths of Sparingate crypt, with all three of the Rhomandi dumped there like the commonest murderers. Someone had wanted the brothers dead--particularly likely in the case of Mikhyel, since every man in that place had been sentenced by him directly. Not one to shirk his duty, that was Mikhyel dunMheric. Only chance had prevented his instant exposure. Chance and the strange absence of the beard that had been the Barrister's signature for years. That hiller-smooth jaw had thrown them all, including him.

That beard had just as mysteriously reappeared, soon after Mikhyel escaped the Crypt--one more in a long line of the mysteries that surrounded his employer--but the pale, thin, beardless young hillerman with the world-weary eyes of a centenarian had born little resemblance to the man the underworld knew as Hell's Barrister, a name, so rumor had it, given him by his own brother.

The Crypt-scut had called him pretty, crypt-slang for powerless new meat. The Crypt-scut had been in error: he doubted Mikhyel dunMheric had ever been powerless. He could imagine Mikhyel dunMheric determining the moment of his own birth from the dark depth of his mother's womb, some twenty-seven years ago.

Twenty-seven. Damned baby, he was. Damned babe who'd been calling the shots for the entire Syndicate of Nodes for ten years.

What was Mikhyel dunMheric like?

"Lives up to his name," Ganfrion answered, then cleared his throat and spat, aiming at a nearby rock.

"Which name?"

The damp splotch traced a mostly red path down the stone.

"Take your pick."

His employer was above all else a Rhomandi: Mikhyel lived and breathed for the City named for his ancestor--more The Rhomandi in that sense than his legally crowned brother had yet proven to be. And he was a dunMheric: definitely a man formed by his cursed father.

And Hell's Barrister? Mikhyel dunMheric was as fair . . . and as ruthless . . . as any man ever birthed.

"I wouldn't cross him, if I were you." Ganfrion drew hard on the flask and passed it again.

"And you gave the Oath." The raised flask was a silent toast to his perceived daring.

Gave? He wouldn't put the matter that way. He'd had the damned ring thrown at him along with an order to get himself out of hell alive--Where was the honor in that? Where the choice?

"Since you have the rail in this race, bein' so tight with the Princeps and all, how 'bout explainin' what that was all about last night?"

Explain. Explain what? That the Northern Crescent had staged a major coup?

That the fact that the Rhomandi had called the stand-down for the troops following last night's atmospheric pyrotechnics indicated to him that the coup had failed?

That he himself had serious reservations about what the Rhomandi brothers had done to halt that coup?

Not for the first time, Ganfrion regretted having been singled out by some decidedly ill-humored fate to have these insights into the Rhomandi brothers' business.

He took a hasty pull from his flask. Too hasty: the swallow dissolved in a choking cough. The now-constant ache in his side flared to blinding brilliance, and he gripped his elbow tight, holding cough and pain at bay. The morning light dimmed; the sparkling motes returned, and it seemed to his pain-hazed eyes as if they swirled around him and gathered at his waist--where, beneath his stolen coat, the equally pillaged shirt-turned-field-bandage oozed a sluggish trail down his side.

Saturated--from a wound that by rights should have drained him dry sometime around midnight last night. He should be dead and lying unnoticed and unmourned in a back alley of a mountain node-city a good two days' journey away from this camp.

Dead. In Khoratum. Covering Mikhyel dunMheric's escape.

"Captain? --Captain!"

The motes disappeared between one blink and the next. The blanket-lump had gained a body and legs, was on its knees now, gripping his shoulders, shaking him. Shouting for help. Loudly.

From the pounding in his head, maybe it was the alcohol after all.

"Shut up," Ganfrion snarled, and when the lump appeared not to notice: "I said, shut the fuck up. I'm a hell of a way from dead!"

But the shouts had done their damage already. Other lumps developed arms and legs and loud voices asking questions he didn't want to answer. He staggered to his feet, snatched up the flask and backed away from the lump's growing suspicion. "That's it. We're finished. See if I ever offer you breakfast in bed again!"

He escaped between tents, wishing he had his old strength, his accustomed skill at vanishing into any convenient shadow, of which there were plenty here. It was all he could do to maintain an even pace until he was on the edge of the camp, well away from the lump's campfire, and even farther from the growing number of permanent structures rising here, structures that included among other things, the infirmary he should, without question, be reporting to even now.

He relented, then, to his body's silent protests and caught himself against a tree.

Damned sloppy. They should have been all over him. The lump's suspicions more than enough to detain him for further questioning. And that would mean lying to men who deserved better, which he didn't want to do, or facing the Rhomandi brothers, which he didn't want to do, or landing in the infirmary . . . which might not be a bad idea, excepting a morbid curiosity had taken him regarding his wounds: he was waiting for them to commit to the task of killing him.

From the shouts, a man would think he'd disappeared. And perhaps he had. Apparitions were inclined to do that. He'd seen dead men walking last night. Perhaps it wasn't these men rising from their beds who had died, but a man called Ganfrion. He'd survived a fight that should have killed him, found a dancer that should be dead, delivered that animated corpse to Mikhyel dunMheric fifty damned miles as the hawks flew from where they all were supposed to be. He had wounds that refused to kill him, a flask that refused to empty, hunters who couldn't find him . . .

Death was the least improbable of all explanations.

Leythium fire surrounded him again, lit his skin with tingling energy.

Iridescent rain. Leythium fireflies. Motes of pure energy.

Leythium was not humanity's friend, for all that the ley, controlled by the node-based ringtowers, provided humanity with the light and heat for the luxuries of the cities, and power for the steam engines that drove the manufactories. Everyone knew that that energy came at a terrible price to those who controlled it, knew that liquid leythium would eat the flesh right off a man's bones.

Hell, it consumed the damned city sewage for desert.

And yet, they all of them, Rhomandi, soldier and mercenary alike, had stood in the fallout, gazing up into that lethal wonder like a flock of turkeys staring up into the rain. Drowning in their own stupidity.

An honest man had asked him what had happened. Had asked him, gorMikhyel, who should have been in Mikhyel dunMheric's confidence.

What can be done has been done whether I'm here or in Rhomatum.

Mikhyel dunMheric's response when he'd urged his employer to get the hell out of Khoratum, where near-certain imprisonment, if not death, awaited him.

What did you do, Mikhyel dunMheric? he thought, and worried anew about how plans had been made at such distance without the use of the rings and without his help, he who had been Mikhyel's eyes and ears.

I have my ways, Ganfrion . . . you're not my only source. . . .

"Damn you, Khyel," he whispered aloud. "Why didn't you trust me?"

He clenched his fist until the ring turned his fingertip to ice.

Fools. They were all of them fools.

Perhaps this was death. Perhaps he had died in that Khoratumin alley. Perhaps Khyel had, as well. Perhaps Mikhyel dunMheric's foolhardy dancer had died on the Khoratumin rings and they'd all journeyed into death together.

Certainly the celestial pyrotechnics that had greeted him upon his arrival here, the wound that neither healed nor destroyed him--the endless torment of a cursed soul--those would fulfill the lightning-blasted, hell-fired image the True Believers of Maurii had brought into the valley three hundred years ago.

Funny: he'd never imagined he'd spend his time awaiting rebirth among the likes of the Rhomandi brothers.

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Contents of this page copyright Jane S. Fancher 1999

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