Chapter 19 of Uninvited Guests
Valentin had been about to say in response to Kelson's question went
unsaid as an authoritative hand rapped at the chamber door.
"Now what?" Kelson muttered. He raised his voice to call to the guard on the opposite side of the door. "Paget, I gave strict orders that I wasn't to be disturbed. Are you going to let all of Gwynedd in here?"
The door opened to admit Prince Azim ibn Hassan ar-Rafiq dressed in the mail and surcoat of his Anviller order. He made Kelson a low bow, his right hand brushing heart, lips and forehead in salute.
"I beg your pardon for my presumption, Sire. But I was visiting my niece in Coroth and she begged me to go to you and offer you whatever help I can in rescuing Lady Richenda and little Briony. And here I am."
"Lord Azim, you do have a talent for arriving unexpectedly," Kelson said. "Were you anyone else, I'd send you about your business. But as an old and trusted friend of Richenda's and as a Deryni, I'm not too proud to accept your aid in this mission. Wouldn't you agree, Alaric?"
Morgan nodded, gazing across at Azim. "Thank you for coming," was all he said, but everyone in the room felt the gratitude expressed in his quiet words.
"For my part, I had not expected to see Your Graces in Dhassa," Azim smiled. "I thought I'd have to ride clear to Rhemuth to offer you my assistance." His smile faded. "Time is truly of the essence, my Lords. I know this Alekseyevich by reputation although I've never met him in person. He was originally a petty lordling from Szatmar, one Zinovy Kirilovich Csazago. His reputation as a murderer and a trouble-maker precedes him wherever he goes, and he has many enemies, including some members of my Order."
Azim turned and gave Valentin a very stern look. "I'm surprised and disappointed in you, Valentin. You were a promising pupil once. How did you fall in with Zinovy, of all people?"
Valentin bowed his head. "I was tricked, then forced, *Domine*," he whispered. "I'd give all I have to be free of him. But he holds my lady's child hostage. I must get him back for her sake."
"Hopefully we shall all be free of Zinovy soon enough, especially those unfortunate enough to be his prisoners," Azim nodded. "You have given His Majesty your word to serve him?"
"A wise move," Azim nodded. "Alone, there is little enough you could have done against him. But together we'll finish him off."
"He seeks your life and crown, Sire," Azim continued turning back to Kelson. "And I have heard rumors that he's ingratiated himself with Duke Mahael. It must be true that he has backing and money from somewhere, or he wouldn't have dared maked the demands he did to Duke Alaric. Zinovy himself is not a wealthy man, and his regular band of loyal followers is relatively small."
"He had plenty of men when he ambushed us," Alaric pointed out bitterly.
"I expect he or his allies hired them for that task and paid them off when it was accomplished," Azim said. "I investigated the place, and I estimate there must have been fifty men at least. Zinovy could never afford to feed so many or keep them disciplined and loyal for long."
"He doesn't" Valentin said. "He has no more than twenty regular men, I'd say."
"Do you know where Zinovy has hidden himself now?" Azim asked.
"I don't know for certain, but I think he's using an old fortress up on Skaggarak Island."
"Enh," Azim frowned. "That is not good."
"That's where he's taken his prisoners?" Kelson asked.
"Aye, and he's picked his ground well," Azim said bitterly. "The violent winter storms up there will make it nearly impossible to reach the island by boat at this time of year, and I'm sure he didn't pick his fortress because it was easy to find or lay siege to." Azim frowned chewing on his thumbnail. "There must be a portal, though. If we could just find it." His voice trailed off.
"Renaud," Alaric said suddenly. "He said he'd found a transfer portal."
"Show me!" Azim urged, gripping Alaric's arm. "As you value Richenda's life, I beg you to link with me."
The link was forged before Alaric could even agree verbally. Azim was swift and disciplined in his reading, and lingered over the memory of the transfer portal in particular.
**There!** he sent back to Alaric in triumph. **I've got the coordinates, and it's enough, I'm sure is is! We can transport in and rescue them!**
**I must ask you this,** Alaric sent back swiftly. **You know this Renaud. Will he be able to do undo what he's done to Richenda? Or will she be Blind permanently?**
** I do not know,** Azim admitted, more subdued now. **I hope so, but if he cannot.**
Alaric broke off the contact so swiftly that Azim reeled for a moment.
"Alaric?" Kelson asked in concern. Alaric did not answer, but went to stand by the window with his back to them all, staring down at Lake Jashan.
"Let him be for now, My Prince," Duncan said quietly. "My Lord Azim?"
"We now have a way to get to Zinovy's lair and rescue Richenda and the others, Sire," Azim said. "All the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place. Renaud, who contacted Duke Alaric is also known to me by reputation. His ability to take Deryni powers away is unique as far as I know. He and his wife disappeared from their home in West Tralia two months ago, but I didn't realize the signficance then. Now I'm sure Zinovy means to use him against you and young Liam, and then against any other Deryni who displeases him, including Mahael eventually."
"That would fit," Kelson nodded. "What do you recommend we do, Lord Azim?"
"I have the coordinates of Zinovy's portal, I'm sure I can transport in, then come back and give the rest of you the coordinates," Azim said. "I say we strike him in his own fortress tonight and rescue his hostages."
"Wait, wait," Kelson shook his head. "None of us have ever used this portal. It could be set as a trap. To jump in blind."
"Will be dangerous, but it's the only way to act in time, Sire. We must strike Zinovy before he can make whatever move he's planning. At this time of year, sailing to Skaggarak and trying to run him to ground would take too long and be almost equally dangerous. The portal is in an enclosed room. We can transport in two at a time, and then make our move."
"Assuming we all transport there safely, what if something goes wrong when we arrive?" Kelson objected. "There'd be no quick way to get all the men and the hostages out of there if we can only transport out one or two at a time. And some of us might be needed to mount an arcane defense. I owe it to my men to give them the best chance of success, and there are too many factors that can go wrong here."
"Kelson, I can't argue with your reasoning," Alaric put in, rejoining the discussion. "The risks are very real and we can't spare you, God knows. But whatever happens, I'm going with Azim tonight."
"We're both going or neither of us will go," Kelson told him sharply. "He has my cousin hostage, too. I'm not going to sit at home toasting my feet at the fire while the rest of you risk your lives on Skaggarak. Suggest that again, Alaric and I'll demote you down to a Baron!"
"And if something does go wrong and this Zinovy captures you?"
"And I'm going!"
King and Duke stood glaring at one another for a moment, both rigid from the contest of wills.
"All right," Kelson finally gave in and grinned ruefully. "I know you'll never consent to stay here, so we'll both go."
"Come my friends," Azim said quietly. "I'd say we'll need a group of about twenty men including ourselves. Two of those men can be the Anviller Knights I've brought with me. They're skilled fighters and scouts, and powerful Adepts in their own right. For the rest, choose the best fighters you have, particularly if they won't be alarmed at traveling by portal. We have to plan this very carefully so that everyone knows exactly what he's supposed to do."
"There's one other thing we must accomplish aside from rescuing the prisoners," Azim finished quietly. "We're cleaning out a nest of vipers, Sire. Whatever happens on Skaggarak, Zinovy Kirilovich must die tonight."
Hundreds of miles to the North, that same Zinovy Kirilovich made a cheerless supper in his chilly fortress. Outside, a violent winter storm dashed itself repeatedly against the sea-wet cliffs and the fortress walls. The tower shuddered continually from the blasts of the wind. Zinovy's warding and weather spells kept out the worst of the drafts, but the relentless storm slipped in a knife blade of cold wind every now and then.
**Should've stayed in Kharthat,** Alekseyevich thought, as a candle flame guttered to one side and went out. **Not this miserable place. Nothing here to eat but fish, fish, fish. Even the ale tastes of fish. If I have to spend the whole winter here, I'll go mad.** He relit the candle with an impatient flick of his fingers.
Troubles were already brewing here. Skaggarak did not provide it's own amusements, particularly not on this Northern end of the Island. His men, trapped indoors by the storm in cramped quarters with monotonous food, and few distractions, were already challenging his leadership and all too ready to pick fights among themselves. As always, there was the problem of money. He had very little of his own, and without it he could not provide comforts or pleasures for his men. The Master was always carping about money, and it was no use appealing to Duke Mahael just yet. The man wanted results before rewarding anybody for anything.
**A woman,** Alekseyevich thought. **A nice, young girl captured will do wonders for the men's morale.**
He stopped all at once, and smiled. **That Renaud was up to something yesterday when I was meeting with Mahael, I'm sure of it. His wife is a nice-looking wench. Not in the same class as the Duchess of course, but not bad, not bad. If I were to threaten Renaud with making his wife entertain my men that would get back at him for conspiring against me. The mere threat of being turned over to my men would keep the Duchess in line, I think, although she's far too good for them. Perhaps I should try ransoming her.**
"Pavel!" Alekseyevich roared.
The ruffian who had captured Briony opened the door. "What is it now?"
"Bring Renaud to me. I'm bored and wish to speak to him."
Renaud was brought to him some minutes later. The man looked exhausted and eyed Alekseyevich as he might have watched a hungry bear. He moved stiffly and painfully from the light beating Alekseyevich had given him the day before.
Alekseyevich drank his ale and watched Renaud over the rim of his drinking horn. This regard plainly made Renaud uneasy,and Alekseyevich smiled behind the cup.
"You might as well confess," he told Renaud abruptly. "I know exactly what you've done." He was amused to see Renaud blanch in fear, and quickly look down at the floor. There was something going on with the Healer all right, and the man had no idea how often Alekseyevich had used this method to trick a confession out of his cohorts or prisoners.
"You know nothing," Renaud answered. But his voice shook and he still wouldn't look Alekseyevich in the face.
"Don't bother to lie to me, I find it very annoying. And you're in enough trouble already, Healer. Didn't I warn you just yesterday about treading softly with me?"
Renaud went even paler and swallowed hard, but kept his head bent.
"I didn't think you were this hard-hearted, Renaud," Alekseyevich told him after a long silence. "I must say I'm impressed. But this resolve of yours will be very hard on the Duchess."
"What do you mean?" Renaud shot him a look of fearful suspicion.
"I told you yesterday that if I were to find that you and the Duchess were conspiring against me for any reason, I'd have to separate her from her daughter, didn't I? What sort of man would I be if I didn't follow through on my threats?"
"Come along," Alekseyevich added, rising suddenly. "We're going to pay the two of them a visit."
"You can't do this!" Renaud burst out. "It's too cruel!"
Alekseyevich laughed heartily. "Little Healer, when have you ever found me kind? You can't appeal to my better nature. I'm the man with no conscience, remember?"
The soft whisper roused Richenda out of a near doze. She stroked Briony's soft hair back from her forehead, thankful she wasn't feverish. "What is it, darling?"
"When will Babba come for us?"
"As soon as he can, sweetheart. I'm sure of it."
"Don't like it here," Briony whimpered. "Want to go home." Her blue eyes filled with tears.
"I know it's not at all nice here. But darling, right now we must be very brave and patient while we wait for Babba to come." Richenda was grateful Briony was awake. She found it much easier to put up a brave front for her daughter's sake although she'd never felt less brave or patient in her life. Being locked in this bare little room all day with nothing to distract her from her fears was bad enough. It was even worse to be forced to wait passively for help to come when she badly needed to be doing something. She refused to accept that her Deryni powers might be gone forever.
"What's the first thing you'd like to do when we get home to Coroth? " Richenda asked.
"Go watch boats," Briony whispered. "Down in the harbor."
"Always boats," Richenda smiled. "Why..." She froze and went silent as the door to their cell opened with a squeal of rusty hinges. Alekseyevich stood in the doorway with a frightened Renaud just behind him.
"Is your child over her fever?" Alekseyevich asked.
Richenda nodded and clasped Briony close. There was something awful in Alekseyevich's toothy smile, and she was all too aware of her own vulnerability and Briony's.
"Good. Renaud, take the brat from her."
"I won't do your dirty work for you!"
Alekseyevich reached out and backhanded Renaud across the mouth. "This is no time for you to be disobedient."
"You can threaten all you like," Renaud answered. "But I won't do this."
"You chose a fine moment to grow a spine," Alekseyevich muttered.
"No matter. I'll do it. Give me the child," he told Richenda. "And neither one of you will be harmed."
Richenda sprang to her feet with Briony in her arms. "No! I'll never let you take her from me!" She backed away swiftly, but there was very little room for her to maneuver. Alekseyevich advanced on her without hurrying, but watching everything she did. Briony clung to her with both arms and legs, her face buried in Richenda's shoulder.
"Give the little girl to me right now, or I swear I'll rip her out of your arms!"
"You'll get her only over my dead body!"
"That can be arranged!"
Alekseyevich sprang, and Renaud winced at the crack of Alekseyevich's hand against the Duchess' face. He heard the thud as the lady hit the floor.
"Muuuummmmmmmeeeeeeeeeee!!!!" Briony shrieked as Alekseyevich yanked her away from Richenda.
Renaud sprang too, instinct sending one hand to grab Alekseyevich's arm while the other went to his forehead. For just a moment, he read Alekseyevich's stunned horror as the loss of his powers registered. Then the tall body fell heavily to the floor, consciousness gone too.
Renaud knelt on the floor beside the toppled Alekseyevich, pawing at the heavier man to turn him over and get at the manacles Alekseyevich kept at his belt. Once his enemy's hands were locked behind his back, Renaud went to tend the Duchess. Briony stood beside her mother, sobbing.
"I'll take care of her, don't worry little one."
It took only a quick, light Healing touch to mend Richenda's nose, broken by Alekseyevich's blow. When it was straight and clean again, Renaud reset Richenda's trigger point.
Richenda's eyes flew open and Renaud could feel the rebound of her shields as she snapped them closed. The blaze of joy in her face reassured him at once thather powers were as they had been before he'd Blinded her.
"Oh, thank you!" Richenda flung herself at Renaud and hugged him tight.
She pulled back at once smiling and wiping joyful tears from her eyes. "I'm sorry Renaud, I'm just so relieved! I was afraid you might not be able to put everything right again. I think both my husband and your wife would understand in the circumstances."
She settled back on her heels and scooped her crying daughter back into her arms. She looked past Renaud's shoulder to where Alekseyevich lay sprawled and the lovely face grew hard.
"Have you Blinded him?"
"Yes. My Lady, I think we'd best truss him up well, free the other prisoners and get out of here as quickly as we can." Renaud smiled nervously. "We won't be anything but dead if we're still here when he wakes up."