The last caravan had departed ten days before, and the next was not expected for at least a fortnight. Skelleth's market lay still and almost empty in the watery sunlight of early spring. No merchants or farmers disturbed its silence, though a few loafers and strolling pedestrians were in sight. On the east side of the square the door of the new Baron's house was closed, indicating that its occupants were not to be disturbed. Garth, one of only two overmen still in Skelleth, sat in the King's Inn, staring out the window at the lifeless market, with nothing to distract him from his own sour mood and gloomy thoughts.
No news had come down from the Northern Waste since the last snows had melted. That meant that Garth had received no word of his family, nor a report about his latest petition to the City Council of Ordunin, asking that his sentence of banishment from the Waste be revoked. He was still an exile from his homeland, stranded in Skelleth for lack of anywhere better to go.
From the overman's point of view Skelleth was not a particularly pleasant place to dwell, but it did have certain advantages. First, it was on the border, the closest human habitation to his native city of Ordunin; therefore, his family could visit him more easily here than elsewhere, and his petitions and letters to the Council could be delivered more quickly.
Second, he was on good terms with the local rulers. Saram, Baron of Skelleth, before being elevated to his present position, had been the closest thing Garth had to a human friend. The Baroness Frima was the only other person who might possibly be considered for that title; Garth had brought her to Skelleth himself, after rescuing her from a sacrificial altar in her native city of Dûsarra. It was he who had introduced Frima to her husband.
Furthermore, the Treasurer and Minister of Trade was the former master trader, Galt of Ordunin, the only other overman still in Skelleth. Garth had brought him down from the Waste to aid in opening trade between Skelleth and Ordunin. That trade was flourishing now, despite the fact that Galt, like Garth, was under sentence of exile.
Third, although the local populace did not, in general, like or trust Garth, it had learned to accept his presence. The people of other human towns might not be so accommodating. Three centuries had passed since the Racial Wars between human and overman had dwindled away to nothing, but hatred, Garth knew, could linger long after its cause was forgotten.
Fourth, at least at the moment, Skelleth was at peace, and that was an increasingly rare distinction. Although the news from the lands to the south and east and west tended to be muddled and sometimes contradictory, Garth knew well that most of the world was at war. No one, including the Eramman barons themselves, seemed to have a clear idea which side any given baron was on in any given war, yet by all accounts that uncertainty had not impeded the fighting one whit. The greater wars provided the excuse for settling old border squabbles or for simple raiding and looting. The civil war in Eramma, begun almost three years earlier when the Baron of Sland rebelled against the High King at Kholis and declared him to be a false king and foul usurper, had settled down into an apathetic lack of cooperation after Sland had been defeated in a long and messy battle. The war between Eramma and Orûn, which had been launched by the opportunistic King of Orûn in hopes of taking advantage of Eramma's seeming dissolution, appeared to have reached a bloody stalemate along a front somewhere to the southeast of Skelleth. Despite the justification of an ancient border dispute, the war was not popular in Orûn and had created such discontent that there were now rumors of impending civil war in that land as well.
Vague reports came in of wars in the western realm of Nekutta, though no one seemed to know who was fighting whom, and no word at all reached Skelleth from Mara, Amag, Tadumuri, Yesh, or the other lands of the far south.
A possible fifth reason for Garth to stay was a result of the fact that Skelleth was peaceful and in a far happier state under Saram than it had ever been under his predecessor. With so many of the world's trade routes disrupted by war and insurrection, Skelleth's very worthlessness had helped to make it a center of commerce. No conqueror in his right mind would bother with so desolate a piece of land, so far from all the traditional caravan roads; that left Saram and his patchwork government free to pursue untraditional trade wholeheartedly and unhindered. The merchants of Skelleth, with their lord's active encouragement, dealt impartially with the men of Eramma, the overmen of the Northern Waste, and the mixed society of the Yprian Coast. With no assets but peace, a willingness to trade, and a manageable location, the town had grown prosperous for the first time in mortal memory.
It had also, in Garth's opinion, grown placid and boring.
No one else seemed to share his feeling. Galt was too busy buying and selling, planning new routes and new methods, or setting prices and taxes and tariffs to be bored. He had become far wealthier than any other overman since the Racial Wars, yet he appeared interested only in expanding trade, enriching the treasury, and acquiring still greater wealth.
Saram seemed content to enjoy the rewards of his new position as Baron while others did the work. He held elaborate feasts to greet every new envoy or caravan master, dressing himself in fine furs and embroidery--overman work, imported from Ordunin--and growing steadily plumper, thus losing the trim fighting form he had had when he served as a lieutenant in the guard under the last hereditary Baron of Skelleth.
Frima didn't appear to mind her husband's added weight. She had arrived in Skelleth with nothing; even the clothes on her back had been borrowed from Garth. She had been no one of importance, a tinker's daughter who worshipped the night-goddess Tema and was kidnapped by the rival cult of Sai, goddess of pain. Garth had rescued her and brought her to Skelleth against her will, leaving Dûsarra, long the greatest city of Nekutta, devastated by fire and plague. He had not wanted the inconvenience of caring for her and had turned her over to Saram. That had led to their marriage, and thus to her present position as Baroness. She seemed far more grateful to Saram, who had taken her in, than to Garth, who had saved her life. Though she still treated Garth as a friend, her primary interests in life now were pleasing Saram and enjoying their sudden wealth. Despite certain disappointments--her only child so far, a son, had been born dead--she was happy. She did not find her new station at all tedious or boring.
The other humans of the village might have been bored, but Garth ignored them entirely. They, in turn, avoided him for the most part. They could not forget that it was Garth who had murdered the old Baron some thirty months earlier, Garth who had led a company of overmen in the sacking and burning of the village. Men, women, and children had died. All the Baron's guardsmen had perished except the disgraced Saram, who had been removed from the guard for refusing to kill Garth in a previous confrontation. It had been this elimination of all other candidates, rather than any real qualifications for the job, that had made Saram the new Baron of Skelleth.
Galt had gradually been accepted and forgiven; his part in the battle had been small, and his trader's expertise had so benefited the village since its reconstruction that he was now something of a hero. Garth, however, remained an outcast.
At first there had been others among the surviving overmen who had chosen to stay in Skelleth after its destruction, and even after the rebuilding had been completed, but they had gradually drifted away with the passing months. Some had returned home to the Northern Waste and been pardoned for their part in the attack, though the Council steadfastly refused to pardon Galt and Garth, the two supposed leaders. A few had gone to explore the Yprian Coast and had not returned. One had been sent a special envoy to the court of the High King at Kholis, whom Skelleth's government still recognized as the rightful lord of all Eramma.
At one point there had been talk of using the overmen as the nucleus of a new company of guardsmen, but nothing had come of it; Skelleth had no military at all at present, save for the handful of warbeasts that the overmen had brought. The great animals were now tended by a special contingent of the Baron's staff, an entirely human contingent. Garth believed this to be the first time in history that warbeasts had been under human care.
He had considered demanding that he be put in charge of the creatures, on the grounds that it was not fitting for warbeasts to be tended by mere men and women, but he had never actually done so. He had feared that he would be turned down, as he had been turned down for every other duty in Skelleth. To be refused a position as a keeper of beasts would be too much for his pride; he preferred not to risk it. There had been enough blows to his self-esteem already.
The aversion to his presence that the townspeople displayed did not bother him; he was accustomed to it, could understand it, and furthermore cared very little for the opinions of most humans. There were, however, other matters.
His three wives, one by one, had come to Skelleth to see him, once the City Council had revoked his chief wife Kyrith's house arrest, imposed for her part in the sacking of Skelleth. Each had come, but each had refused to give up her home in Ordunin to join him in exile.
His children had visited as well, accompanying trading caravans, but he had not even troubled himself to ask them to stay; they were old enough to fend for themselves and make their own homes without his meddling.
Overmen did not have the strong family ties that humans had, but the triple rejection by his wives, and the failure of any of his five offspring to volunteer to settle in Skelleth, still hurt.
The City Council had refused petition after petition, so that he could not rejoin his wives in Ordunin. The councilors had, in truth, not even taken the time to consider his requests; they were too busy trying to deal with the worsening depredations of human pirates along their coasts and could spare no time from that obsession to discuss clemency for a troublesome renegade prince. Garth had tried to argue, by proxy, that he had fought pirates before and could be of sufficient value in fighting them again to make his pardon a real public benefit, but the Council had continued to ignore him nonetheless.
Things had started to go wrong when he found the so-called Sword of Bheleu in Dûsarra. Until then his word had been good and his actions his own, but at his first sight of the weapon he had begun to lose control. He had taken it from the altar of Bheleu, god of destruction, without any conscious decision to do so, and thereafter had been seized every so often by fits of what appeared to be a form of bloodthirsty madness. He had gradually come to realize, though, that some external power was possessing him, using the sword as a conduit. Even knowing that, he had been unable to free himself.
As the power had gained in influence and clarity, it had declared itself to him, claiming to be Bheleu himself, come to assert his dominance over the dawning Fourteenth Age, the Age of Destruction, through his chosen mortal host.
Garth had declined to serve willingly as host to the god, if god it truly was. His refusal had done little good; the god had controlled him anyway, and he had been unable to put down the sword.
While under the sway of the god and his sword, Garth had slain the previous Baron of Skelleth and destroyed much of the village.
In the days that had followed, as he became more aware of the sword's nature and seemingly limitless magical power, his companions had grown to trust him less and less. That had been the period when Skelleth's new government had taken shape, and Garth had been excluded on the basis of the madness the weapon had induced. He had not argued with that decision; he had been conscious of his own erratic behavior and therefore had been far more concerned with freeing himself of Bheleu's control than with village politics.
The sword was a magnificent weapon, a great two-handed broadsword with an immense red gem in its pommel. It was supernaturally indestructible, able to cut through stone or metal with ease, and could control the elements, summon or disperse storms, even shake the very earth. It gloried in fire and could burn in a hundred strange ways without being consumed. Had it not been under the evil aegis of Bheleu, dedicated to wanton destruction, Garth would have been proud to be the chosen wielder of such a thing.
As it was, though, he had wanted nothing but to free himself and he had at last done so. He no longer had the sword. The sword alone had been responsible for his madness, so that with its loss he was himself again; for these two years and several months past, he had been as sane and trustworthy as ever in his life, yet he was still not allowed to hold any post in Skelleth's little bureaucracy for fear he would again turn berserk. He resented this exclusion.
Perhaps the deepest hurt to his pride and self-esteem, however, was a personal matter, one closely tied to the malevolent power of the Sword of Bheleu and to his freedom from that power. The voice of the professed god of destruction had told him that he, Garth, had been born to serve Bheleu; indeed, he alone had been able to wield the sword, and on his own he had been utterly unable to resist its hold.
He had not freed himself alone.
Just to the north of its market square Skelleth had an ancient tavern called the King's Inn, and in this tavern dwelt an old man who called himself the Forgotten King. It was the presence of this individual that, more then anything else, made Skelleth a center for important events.
Garth was not entirely sure whether, on balance, the King's presence was good or bad.
He had originally come to Skelleth seeking the King, because an oracle had told him that only the Forgotten King could grant him the eternal fame he had, at that time, thought he wanted. He had returned to Skelleth a second time, after getting over that particular aberration of desire, because the King had pointed out the possibility of trade. He had gone to Dûsarra at the behest of the mysterious old man and had brought back Frima, now the Baroness, as well as the Sword of Bheleu and the knowledge of trading prospects on the Yprian Coast. His life, and the influence he had upon Skelleth, seemed to have been inextricably linked to the old man since Garth first left Ordunin.
In Dûsarra he had learned something of the King's history; the old man was apparently the one true high priest of the god of death, the chosen of The God Whose Name Is Not Spoken, just as Garth was the chosen of Bheleu. As such, the King could not die; he had lived through several ages and now desired nothing but the death that was denied him.
In pursuit of his own destruction, the Forgotten King had sent Garth on several errands. He sought to perform some great suicidal magic; from various clues, Garth had tentatively decided that the old man hoped to manifest the Death-God himself in the mortal world, so that the King might renounce the bargain made so long ago. The problem was that the proposed magic, whether Garth had correctly determined its nature or not, would involve many deaths, by the King's own admission. Garth did not care to contribute to unnecessary deaths and had therefore refused to aid the King further.
Then, though, the Sword of Bheleu had possessed him, and there was no power Garth could find that could free him from it, save the power of the strange old man. Of all the Lords of Dûs, the dark gods, only the god of death was more powerful than the god of destruction; thus only the chosen of the Final God, in his own right perhaps the most powerful wizard who had ever lived, could break the link between Bheleu and his chosen one.
To free himself, therefore, Garth had sworn to aid the Forgotten King. He had promised to fetch for him the final item needed to complete his magic, an object of great arcane power that he called the Book of Silence. Garth had sworn that oath knowing he had no intention of keeping it, and the suppressed knowledge that he was an oathbreaker, a being devoid of honor, in thought if not yet in deed, had gnawed upon him ever since.
As an injured man would probe at an open wound, fascinated by the pain, Garth found himself haunting the King's Inn and watching the Forgotten King for hours on end. The King had told him, when first he swore his oath, that he was free to roam, as long as he checked back every so often. The old man had not yet told him where the mysterious Book of Silence might be found; he said that he had left it somewhere, centuries ago, and was trying to recall where. When he did remember, Garth would be sent to retrieve it. Until the memory returned, Garth could do as he pleased.
There was nothing else, however, that he felt any need to do, and so he stayed in Skelleth, alternately wandering aimlessly through the streets and sitting silently somewhere, glowering at the village, as he now sat in the King's Inn and glowered at the quiet marketplace.
The Forgotten King was there as well, seated at his usual table. His presence there, at almost any time the tavern was open for business, was so reliable that he was thought of by the villagers not so much as a regular patron, but as a permanent fixture, like the dark wooden paneling of the walls or the heavy oaken tables. Day after day the old man sat alone, unmoving and silent, in the back corner beneath the stairs, wrapped in his ragged yellow mantle, his face hidden by his tattered cowl.
As he had a hundred times before, Garth turned away from the window and its view of the square and stared instead at the ancient human.
The King gave no sign that he was aware of the overman's scrutiny, but Garth had no doubt that he knew he was being watched.
Half a dozen more ordinary humans were in the tavern and they had all certainly noticed the overman's presence. Most had seen him turn away from the window as well. Overmen were unmistakable, and highly distinctive in Skelleth. Garth's size, quite aside from any other details, marked him as something different from the common run of humanity; he stood almost seven feet in height, but was so heavily muscled as to look almost squat. He dwarfed the chair he sat upon and seemed out of proportion with the entire taproom, though in truth he was of only average size among his own species. His eyes were large and red, the oversized irises bright blood-red, though his pupils were as round and black as any human's. Unlike human eyes, no white showed, only black pupil and red iris.
His hair was dead straight, dead black, coarse, and thick; it reached his shoulders and no farther, though he had never cut it. Sparse black fur covered his entire body, save his hands and feet and face. Where no hair or fur hid it, his skin was leathery brown hide, like that of no other species that ever existed and certainly unlike anything human.
His face was as beardless as a woman's; overmen grew no facial hair, and his body fur stopped well short of his chin. His cheeks were sunken by human standards, normal to his own kind. He had no nose, but two close-set slit nostrils. To human eyes, a healthy overman bore an unsettling resemblance to a human skull; the hollow cheeks, missing nose, great red eyes, high forehead, and hairless jaw all contributed.
Garth's hands, too, were unlike a human's. Rather than having a single thumb at one side, his hands had both the first and fifth fingers opposable, making possible acts of manipulation that humans had trouble even imagining.
It was hardly surprising that men and women feared overmen, as they feared anything that seemed monstrous and strange. Nor was it startling, therefore, that the other patrons of the King's Inn should glance occasionally in Garth's direction, wary of what he might do. Garth in particular, of all overmen, they feared; the possibility of a new berserk rage such as those brought on by the Sword of Bheleu was always at the back of the villagers' minds.
When he turned away from the window, therefore, to look across the taproom at the yellow-clad figure at the back table, what little conversation there had been faded and died. The townspeople watched, to be sure that the overman was not looking at any of them.
Garth rose, and even the rustling of clothes and the bumping of chairs ceased.
His gaze wandered for a moment from the old man to the great barrels of beer and ale along the western wall. His mug was empty; he picked it up, made his way through the tables and chairs, and drew himself afresh pint. The innkeeper, a plump, middle-aged man, stood nearby and silently accepted a coin with a polite nod.
Garth sipped off the top layer of foam, then let his gaze wander back toward the Forgotten King's table, where it settled once more on the silent old man. Without quite knowing why, he moved in that direction.
When he reached the table, he thumped his mug of ale down and seated himself across from the King, as he had done so very many times in the past three years.
"Greetings, O King," he said.
The old man said nothing.
Garth looked him over, as he also often had done. He noted again that the old man's eyes were invisible, lost in the shadows of his ragged yellow hood. No one, as far as Garth knew, had ever seen the Forgotten King's eyes. A thin wisp of white beard trickled from his bony chin well down his yellow-wrapped breast. His hands lay motionless on the tabletop, things of bone and wrinkled skin more like those of a mummy than the hands of a living man. The scalloped tatters of his robe hid the rest of him from sight, so that little else could be said of his appearance with any assurance, save that he was thin and seemed tall for so aged a human, though still shorter than any grown overman.
Garth wondered, once again, why the old man wore rags and why they were always yellow. Garth had heard him referred to as the King in Yellow, so it was scarcely a temporary or recent habit, yet there seemed no reason for it. The old man had money, the overman knew, and power, yet he spent his days in this ancient inn and wore only tatters. When Garth had first sought eternal fame, the Wise Women of Ordunin had described the yellow rags to identify the Forgotten King.
Garth had long ago lost interest in the pursuit of undying glory that had originally brought him to the King; the price had been too high and the rewards, upon consideration, too intangible. He no longer had a single goal he was consciously pursuing. In fact, he did not know any more what he wanted from his life, though he was sure of certain elements. He wanted to go home. He wanted the respect of his fellows, and to be rid of the stigma he now bore of being known as subject to fits of madness. Beyond that, he was unsure.
He did know, however, that he wanted nothing from the old man, unless it was the spontaneous renunciation of his oath. The King's gifts and bargains always seemed to have unwanted strings attached; Garth's dealings with him had been full of unspoken words and hidden meanings.
Still, Garth found himself at this back-corner table more and more often.
It was, he told himself, a natural curiosity in the face of the old man's enigma that drew him, that and the lack of anything better to do. He was without family or friends and had no job to occupy his time; why should he not take an interest in such a mystery? He could speak to the old man without making bargains, without being sucked into his plotting and planning.
If the thought had ever occurred to Garth that he sought out the King because the old man, alone in all of Skelleth, had absolutely no fear of Garth or the Sword of Bheleu, he had dismissed the idea as absurd and irrelevant.
He gulped ale, then said, "Greetings, I said."
The King moved a hand, as if to wave the overman away.
Garth was not willing to be turned aside that easily. He knew something of the King's background and had some idea of his immense power, but he was not frightened. Very little could frighten Garth; he would not allow himself such weaknesses as unnecessary fears. He shrugged at the old man's gesture and drank ale.
The King sat unmoving, watching with hidden eyes.
Garth finished the contents of his mug, motioned to the tavernkeeper for more, and stared back.
The King was old, Garth knew, older than anything else that lived in the world. He had survived for more than a thousand years at the very least, perhaps for several thousand. He had been in Skelleth since its founding three centuries earlier. He could not die in the natural way of things. It was hardly surprising that his behavior should be strange.
As Garth had pieced together the story, the King, in the dim and ancient past, had made a bargain with The God Whose Name Is Not Spoken, Death himself. The King had then been a monarch in more than name, the wizard-king of the long-lost and forgotten empire of Carcosa. He had sought immortality and agreed to serve as the Final God's high priest in exchange for eternal life. In time he had come to regret his bargain and had forsaken the god's service, only to find that he was unable to die. Blades could not cut him, blows could not harm him; the petrifying gaze of a basilisk had left him untouched. He still possessed knowledge and magical power far beyond anything known since the fall of Carcosa, but he had no call to use it, for it could not get him the one thing he wanted.
One great magic could attain his death, a mighty spell requiring both the Sword of Bheleu and the Book of Silence. He had the sword, but lacked the book. Garth had sworn to fetch the book in order to be free of the sword, but he did not intend to fulfill his vow.
As far as Garth was concerned, that put an end to the matter, save for one detail. He had not been called upon to carry out his promise; he was not yet truly forsworn. He was able to maintain a pretense of honor--a pretense he knew to be false--as long as the King did not demand that he fetch the book.
The King had not made that demand yet only because he had not recalled where, several centuries earlier, he had left the book. Garth hoped that the memory was lost forever; then he might never be forced to break his sworn word.
At the same time, though, he found himself wishing that the affair were over with, that the oath were broken and done, rather than still hanging over him.
He leaned back, his chair creaking a protest beneath his inhuman weight, and could not resist asking, "Have you remembered yet, O King?" His voice was expressionless, for overmen's emotions were displayed differently from humans'. The mixture of bitterness over his false oath and anticipation of its final ruination that had prompted the question was so well hidden that Garth was not really aware of it himself.
The King said nothing; his head moved very slightly, almost imperceptibly, to one side and then back.
"You must tell me where it is, old man, if you want me to fetch it."
The King did not reply and moved not at all. Garth felt a surge of anger at this silence.
"Speak, old man," he said.
No answer came. Garth's annoyance increased.
"Has your tongue shriveled in your head, then, O throneless King? Are you trying to imitate the corpses you resemble, since you cannot rightly join them? Have you now forsaken speech, the better to serve your foul black god?" He did not shout; his voice was flat and deadly, a dangerous sign among his kind.
The Forgotten King moved slightly, as if emitting a faint sigh, but still said nothing. Garth drew breath for another question, but was distracted by the arrival of the innkeeper with a fresh mug of ale. The overman snatched it from him, swallowed half its contents at a gulp, and then ordered, "Be off, man!"
The taverner risked a glance at Garth's baleful red eyes and inhuman face, then hurried away, wondering if it would be safe to cut the overman's next serving of ale with water. He knew the signs of Garth's anger; rudeness to underlings like himself was one such indication. He did not want to worry about dealing with an overman in a drunken fury--but an overman enraged at being cheated might be equally bad. He looked at Garth's mail-covered back and decided, at least for the moment, that his reputation for honest measure and good drink was worth preserving. He could only hope that the old man would calm the overman down.
Garth was in no mood to be calmed down. When the innkeeper had moved away, he asked, "Why do you not speak? Is it perhaps that I am unfit to address you, O King of an empire long since dust, monarch of a dying memory, lord of a realm unknown? Is the Prince of Ordunin, a lord of the overmen of the Northern Waste, suited only to serve your whims, but not to speak with you? Does the master of ashes and woe, wearing rags and tatters and dwelling in a single dim room of an ancient inn, not deign to answer the exiled killer, the disgraced berserker? Will the servant of Death not choose to acknowledge the pawn of destruction?" His voice was calm, as still as water pooled on black ice, and laden with far more threat than any shout as he said, "Answer me, old man."
The old man answered. "Garth," he said in a voice like ice breaking, "why do you disturb me? You know I prefer not to waste words in idle chatter."
The overman was wrenched momentarily from his anger by the sound of the old man's voice, a sound unlike any other, dry and brittle and harsh, so unpleasant to hear that it could not fully be remembered. He regained his composure quickly, however, and replied, "Is everything I say idle chatter? Have I not the right to an answer when I ask a polite question?"
"Hardly polite," the old man demurred. "I will answer, however. No, I have not yet recalled where I left the Book of Silence in those ancient days when last I held it."
"So I must linger here, still waiting?"
"Garth," the old man replied, "you are bored, frustrated by inactivity. You are a warrior, given to violent action, not to sitting about a peaceful village. I have told you from the first that you are free to leave Skelleth and that your oath does not hold you here, as long as you return at intervals to learn whether or not I have recalled where the Book of Silence lies. Why, then, do you not find yourself some task to occupy your time, rather than remain here disturbing my contemplation?"
So long a speech was unusual for the King, and Garth knew it well. He realized that he must have seriously annoyed the old man. His own anger, however, had not faded.
"And what task shall I pursue, then? Where am I to go? I am forbidden the Northern Waste and therefore cannot aid my homeland against the human pirates who assail it. What other task awaits me? I have little taste for roaming aimlessly, particularly when the world is strewn about with wars and battles that do not concern me. I have no reason to side with any human faction and no desire to kill merely for my own amusement, so I will not join in these wars. I am welcome no place outside Skelleth. I have seen Mormoreth and left it in the hands of men who comrades I killed in self-defense; will they greet me as an old friend? I have visited Dûsarra and left it aflame and plague-ridden, its every citizen my enemy. The other lands and cities of the south are unknown to me, and overmen are unwanted strangers throughout. Where, then, shall I go?"
"What of the Yprian Coast?"
"And what might I do there, but find another tavern wherein I might sit and be bored? I am no trader, I know that now; I have no desire to seek out new markets and new routes."
"Think you that is all that may be found there?"
"What else might there be? Farms and villages, markets and men and overmen. The caravans have told us what may be found there, and it does not interest me. Others have gone before me as well; where might I explore that they could not have preceded me?"
"Must you be first, then, as you were first in coming to Skelleth, first to think that overmen might trade here?"
"For all the good that did me, yes. What point is there in doing what has been done before?"
"I think, Garth, that you resent the ingratitude of those who have benefited from the trade you began."
"Perhaps I do, old man; what of it? Does it matter to either of us that I am scorned by those I have made wealthy? Or that my old companions allow me no responsibilities in the village I gave them? They are no concern of ours. I am sworn to aid you in your death-magic, O King; that is what concerns us. I am waiting for you to tell me how I may fulfill my oath."
"I have told you that I have not yet remembered."
"Then I must wait until you do."
"And plague me with angry questions?"
"Should I so choose, yes."
The King did not reply immediately; during the pause, Garth drank the rest of his ale and decided against ordering another.
"Garth, I would have you leave me in peace," the old man said at last, "so that I might be able to think more clearly and recall more easily what I wish to recall."
The overman shrugged. "I care little what you would have, old man. I am not sworn to heed your every whim, only to fetch your book and aid you in your magics."
"You are bored. What if I gave you a task that could harm no one, but would result in great benefit for many innocent people?"
Garth stared into the depths of his empty mug, then looked up, gazing across the table into the shadows that hid the old man's face.
"What sort of a task?"
"Slaying a dragon that has laid waste the valley of Orgûl."
Garth considered. His anger was fading, but his mind was slightly hazed with liquor. "A dragon?"
The old man nodded, once.
Garth thought it over. He was bored. He was irritable from inaction. It would be good to travel again, to see new places, to spend each night somewhere different from the night before. It would be good to get out of Skelleth, away from so many unpleasant memories. It would be good to accomplish something useful, and there could be little doubt that killing a dragon was useful. He had never seen a dragon, but he was familiar with the stories and legends about them. All agreed that the creatures were huge, dangerous, and phenomenally destructive. He himself had been a destroyer far too often in the past, he felt; here, then, he might find a chance to make up for some of that by destroying a menace worse than he had ever been.
In a way, it might be a step toward avenging himself on Bheleu. The god of destruction had used Garth as a puppet, and the overman resented that. He felt that it might be a small sort of retaliation to kill a creature that could be considered one of Bheleu's pets.
He nodded. The more he thought about the proposed adventure, the more it appealed to him. "I think I'd like that," he said.
The Forgotten King's mouth curved into a faint smile.
Far to the west, in a windowless chamber draped in black and dark red, a man stared at the image in his scrying glass and smiled as well. The image had been exceptionally clear and detailed, and he had been able to read the overman's lips. He had only the tail end of one side of the conversation, but it was obvious that Garth was being sent on an errand of some sort. That should provide an excellent opportunity for actions long delayed. Nearly three years had passed since the overman had defied the cult of Aghad, smashed the god's altar, and slain his high priest; much had happened during that period, but the cult had not sought vengeance. Haggat, the present high priest of Aghad, was a patient man, and had taken his time in gathering power and planning his actions. He had wanted to be sure that nothing would interfere with the proposed revenge. Now, at last, everything was ready.
He put down the glass, blew out the single candle that lighted the chamber, and went to give the order that would set the prepared machinery in motion.