Читать онлайн «The Elvenbane»
She actually had been part of the frantic search effort, as Rathekrel sent every able body out looking for the vanished maiden, or at least some hint as to her whereabouts or who could have taken her.
But a complete search of the entire manor had yielded no clues, and no sign of forced abduction. Alara had been very careful about covering her tracks.
This, so the humans were whispering, could only mean that the elven maid had left of her own accord. Not a very flattering scenario for Rathekrel. And a considerable blow to more than his pride; with the number of glamories he had placed on the child as she accepted his ring, she should not have been able to even voice so much as her own opinion if it contradicted his. That she had escaped him and his magical influence did not auger well for his perception nor for his power.
Now the Lord found himself in the humiliating position of having to call the family, and inform them that their daughter, his affianced bride, had apparently run away.
Alara had insinuated herself into the handful of servants sent to the library; it hadn’t been difficult, as most of the other young men of the household had sought other duties, any other duties, as soon as it became obvious that Yssandra was nowhere on the estate. They knew very well what would happen to Rathekrel’s temper if the maiden was not found.
Those assumptions were entirely correct. The Lord was angry and humiliated, and when an elven lord was unhappy, his humans generally suffered.
In fact, ran the fear-filled rumors, there might well be some deaths in the slave quarters before the day was through. If Rathekrel could not find a scapegoat, he tended to create one.
The library was the last place any human wanted to be stationed right now. Alara noted from her vantage point that it was a remarkably unlikely setting for violence, entirely furnished in white and silver. The house colors were present even in the private quarters; Alara wondered at Rathekrel’s incredible Clan-pride. But these were not the austere surroundings he had placed his ‘guest’ among; the library was a comfortable place, with soft white curtains shrouding all the harsh angles, a white carpet so dense that even heavy-footed humans made no sound to disturb the silence, and formless seats that embraced the user, seats that could have been clouds come to earth. The desk was another such construction, with its top planed off to a glossy, flat surface. Lord Rathekrel contemplated that surface with his narrow face creased with frown lines, and his shoulders tensed.
Alara would have liked to try touching his thoughts, but decided to be very cautious about doing so. She did not want to chance the elven lord’s detection of someone probing his mind. She doubted that he would suspect her, but there was no point in taking that kind of risk.
Most especially now, when he was about to invoke magic, and would be most sensitive to a probe. She decided to wait until his concentration was so occupied that he would be unlikely to notice anything else.
So she waited patiently, one more ‘invisible’ slave among the rest. Finally he waved his hand over the desk, and a bottomless black rectangle appeared in the surface before him, as the substance of the desk seemed to dissolve away, fading, rather than melting. He placed his hands, palms down, on either side of the newly formed space.
The elven mage stared at the place for a moment, then let out his breath in a hiss.
His fingers flexed, and blue sparks crackled out from them to slither across the surface of the desk. Some of the humans shuffled their feet uneasily, and one youngster on the end looked to Alara as if he would very much like to run away. The sparks danced and crawled for some few moments, finally consolidating in the area of the rectangle, until that empty space between Rathekrel’s flattened palms flared to life in a glowing rectangle.
A voice called, seemingly out of nowhere. The humans started, and one looked about covertly for the speaker.
The Lord shifted his position to look down upon his creation, and Alara could not see anything of the rectangle itself, only the light coming from it, reflecting oddly upwards into the elf-lord’s face. Now was the time to insinuate that little probe.
Rathekrel, from the little Alara could read of his thoughts, was expecting immediate recognition; after all, Yssandra had been sent as a tacit proposal of alliance, and by all rights he should have been responding to that proposal.
But to his surprise, the underling was startled to see him in the teleson. ‘My lord, what can our house do for you?’
‘I want to speak to your Lord,’ Rathekrel snarled, his thoughts telling Alara that he suspected insult in being answered by a subordinate. ‘Now.’
He waited, with visible impatience, and beside Alara one of the humans shivered, nervous sweat running down his face. Finally the quality of the light coming from between Rathekrel’s hands changed, and Alara knew that someone else had taken the underling’s position at the screen. From Rethekrel’s nod of stiff recognition, she knew it was V’Heven Myen Lord Lainner.
‘Greetings, my lord –’ a tired voice said cautiously. ‘I beg your pardon for having to wait, but there is a problem at –’
‘There’s more than one problem in your house, my Lord,’ Rathekrel growled. ‘Your daughter seems to have vanished from her quarters. After accepting my proposal of marriage, I might add. I had thought better of your training than that.’
The speaker’s reply came as a startled yelp. Not a sound one normally heard from a powerful elven lord. ‘My what?’
Rathekrel’s face contorted, and the human beside Alara winced. ‘Your training, man! No daughter of mine would dare walk off after accepting a proposal of marriage! What’s wrong with your house when mere females –’
Rathekrel’s voice rose steadily as his anger increased, and it was obvious that he was building into a fine froth of rage. But the angrier he became, the more humans around Alara relaxed, and several of them sighed with relief. She knew what was on their minds, for all that she could not read their actual thoughts. The Lord had found a way to blame his humiliation on someone else. Oh, humans would die, no doubt of it, but it would be the fighters and gladiators in challenge, not the house-slaves. They were safe.
‘Where is she?’ Rathekrel thundered, standing up suddenly and pounding the desk with his fist. ‘Where have you hidden her? She couldn’t have gotten off this estate without magic aid, and we both know it!’ He remained standing over the mage-crafted construct, staring down into it in self-righteous wrath. He did not expect the answer he received.
‘My lord,’ came the stiff reply, ‘I do not have a daughter of an age that a normal-minded man would consider nubile. My children number three: two boys, of thirteen and six, and a girl of ten. Kevan, Shandar, and Yssandra.’
Rathekrel froze, his fist halting in midair above the desktop. Alara controlled her face as he realized that he had never bothered to check on the age of ‘Yssandra,’ only that the Lord in question did, indeed, have a daughter of that name. He had not wanted to advertise the fact that he was considered a less-than-desirable mate by actively seeking a spouse among his inferiors; he had been hoping one would offer so that he would be able to look ‘gracious.’ When ‘Yssandra’ had appeared at his door, he thought his prayers had been answered, and had been so busy sweeping her off her feet he had neither chance nor time for anything else. Alara’s credentials had been perfect; the message she bore plausible. They should have been; Alara had stolen them from an excellent source.
‘I would suggest, my lord,’ continued the other, a certain smug, self-assured arrogance creeping into his tone, ‘that you have been the victim of a very poor joke. And if I were you, I should be grateful that the joke never went so far as wedlock. I –’
But that was too much.
‘A joke? Is this your idea of a joke?’ Rathekrel exploded with anger, backing a single pace and destroying teleson, desk, and all with a single mage-bolt.
The slaves scattered to the corners of the library, ducking to avoid the shower of debris. Difficult though elven thoughts were for a dragon to decipher, his rage made them clear enough to Alara, and they were everything she could have wanted. The unfortunate choice of the word ‘joke’ had triggered a set of assumptions and reactions Lord Myen never intended.
There were any number of people who would profit by Rathekrel’s embarrassment, and Lord Myen was high on the list. Furthermore, Myen could argue that he, too, had been injured by this unknown prankster, since his name had been stolen for the ruse.
But the last time someone had played a double-dealing trick on Rathekrel – and apparently upon another lord as well – the perpetrator turned out to be the same person who claimed equal injury …
Therefore, by Rathekrel’s logic, Myen was the guilty party.
And since he was the perpetrator, Rathekrel would see him punished for it. Lord Myen would regret this ‘joke.’ Lord Myen would pay, in ways he had not even imagined.
It was truly amazing how a few, ill- (or well-) chosen words could set a spark to the dry tinder of Rathekrel’s uncertain temper.
He whirled, and only then noticed the humans, as one of the youngest shrank back, cowering in his corner, and whimpered.
‘OUT!’ he screamed, his face white, his pupils dilated so that his eyes were black holes of rage, rimmed by a thin line of emerald.
The slaves sprinted for the door, only too happy to obey, Alara with them. And as she slipped into the corridor, she heard a rumble, followed by a tremendous crash. It sounded like a great block of stone being ripped up from the floor, and flung across the room.
She did not stay to investigate.
But for the moment, she also could not leave. There were limits to her powers and abilities, and she was reaching them. The perimeter of the estate was still sealed off, and there were guards on all of the entrances to the manor itself. While she would have no trouble passing the perimeter, there was still the matter of getting outside to do so. She didn’t particularly want to shift into something the size of, say, a house cat. She was already pushing her resources to stay human-sized. She planned to leave on the wing, but in the form of a Great Kite, a bird with a wingspan rivaled only by the ice-eagles, and massing about the same as a human male. And a bird that was particularly ill omened. That should set Rathekrel on his pointed ears, and confirm in most minds that Rathekrel was losing his luck, and quickly.
So while she waited for an opportunity to reach the roof, she decided to create another episode in a long-running ploy most of the Kin had played with at one time or another –
The Prophecy of the Savior of Humanity, the Elvenbane.
She found a pile of bags in the corner of the kitchen, filled one with the rest, and headed down into the cellar.
She had discovered some time ago, that if she acted as if she had business in a place and was under orders, humans tended to leave her alone. She had only to avoid elven overseers, who questioned everyone and everything out of the ordinary. This time was no exception; she carried the overstuffed burlap bag right past the cook and the kitchen overseer – who was, fortunately, human – and opened the cellar door without ever being challenged.
Since there was quite a bit of traffic up and down the cellar stairs, the staircase was well lit, as were most of the areas where common things were stored. Cool, damp air, fragrant with onions, garlic, sausage, and the earthy smell of vegetables, struck her in the face as she hurried down the steps.
She waited a few moments to ensure that she was alone, then she shifted form again, this time into that of an old, seemingly blind human woman. She could see perfectly well through what looked to be milky cataracts, but no one looking at her would know that. Clothing herself roughly in the burlap sacks, and hiding her white-and-silver tunic, she seated herself just under the light at the bottom of the cellar staircase, and waited for the next servant to be sent after something.
In fact, the next slave down the stairs was as near to perfect a victim as she could have asked for; young, female, and so burdened with a stack of empty boxes that she couldn’t see and was having to check for each stair with a cautiously outstretched bare toe. Alara waited until the girl had reached the bottom of the staircase, then spoke, in a voice like a rusty hinge.
‘Hast thou heard the Word, child?’
The girl shrieked in startlement and jumped, boxes flying in all directions. She wound up with her back to the wall, her eyes round with fear and surprise, her hair straggling over one eye in untidy curls. Alara sat like a statue, white-flamed eyes staring straight ahead.
‘Gods’ teeth, ol’ mam!’ The girl panted, one hand at her throat. ‘Ye ’bout frighted me t’death!’
Alara said nothing.
The girl pushed away from the wall, and peered at Alara, her eyes still round with alarm. ‘How ye get down here, anyways? Ye don’ b’long t’ th’ Lor’ Rathekrel –’
Alara raised one hand, and pointed upwards; the girl looked up involuntarily, then dropped her gaze to Alara’s ‘sightless’ eyes. ‘The Voice of Prophecy belongs to no one, mortal or immortal,’ Alara intoned, doing her best to sound mysterious. ‘Only to the ages.’
The girl’s brow wrinkled in puzzlement. ‘I don’t know no Lor’ Ages.’ She started to edge away, and cast longing looks up the stairs. ‘Belike I better get th’ cook –’
‘Hear the Prophecy!’ Alara cried, forestalling the girl by standing up with a swiftness at odds with her apparent age, interposing herself between the slave and the staircase. ‘Hear and remember! Remember, and whisper it, and pass it onward! Remember the foretelling of the Elvenbane!’
The girl uttered a strangled yip as Alara stood, and backed away. Alara gathered her rags around her as if they were the silken robes she had lately worn, and stared straight at the girl, her expression stern and forbidding. Since she looked blind, this unnerved the girl even more. ‘There will come a child,’ Alara whispered. ‘One born of human mother, but fathered by the demons, possessed of magic more powerful than the elven lords! By this shall you know the child, that it shall read the very thoughts upon the wind, travel upon the wings of demons, and master all the magics of the masters ere it can stand alone! The child shall resemble a human, yet its eyes will be those of the demons; of the very green of the elf-stones. The child shall be hunted before its birth, yet shall escape the hunt. The child shall be sold, and yet never bought. The child shall win all, yet lose all.’
Standard prophetic double-talk, she thought to herself. If the slaves had any belongings of their own, she could make a fortune in preaching. You could tell them anything as long as it sounded impressive and mysterious, and they’d believe it.
‘And in the end,’ she concluded, her voice rising, ‘the child shall rise up against the masters and cast them into the lowest hell, there to make of them slaves to the demons of hell!’
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