north side of the square, leaving no opening to the streets beyond. The alley, now accessible only by a winding route through the maze of byways that made up most of Skelleth, had sunk into a state of decay and filth unequaled throughout the known lands; yet the King's Inn remained an island of comfort amid the surrounding squalor and retained a steady clientele. Among its regular patrons, so regular in fact that he had never been seen outside its walls, was a strange old man, so very old that none remembered a time when he had not been there daily, crouched silently over his corner table. This man Garth knew as the Forgotten King, having been given this title for him by the Wise Women of Ordunin, but the townspeople had no name for him at all. Until the overman first came, some three months earlier; few ever spoke to him, fewer received an answer, and none sought him out; but in recent days, since being expelled from the Baron's guards for insubordination, Saram had spent many hours sitting at his table, trying to coax him into conversation and receiving only a few cryptic words for his trouble. Among those few words were instructions that when-not if, but when-Garth returned, Saram should bring him immediately to speak with the mysterious ancient.

Saram led the way through the stinking streets, fortunately dry from the recent lack of rain, and Garth followed, his reluctance concealed by the casual stroll he affected. The slanting sunlight had not yet made its way past the upper story of the inn in its slow daily crawl down the building's sagging half-timbered facade; the ordure that lined the alley was still hidden by shadow, but its smell was not so easily to be concealed and not for the first time Garth marveled that humans could live with it. He held his breath as he and Saram picked their way to the door and wiped their feet on the stone step before entering.

The tavern's interior was a welcome change from the filth of the alley; not so much as a speck of dust marred the ancient floor, worn by centuries of shuffling feet into a subtle wooden landscape of low hills and gentle valleys that showed clearly that its furnishings had not shifted nor its patrons changed their habits in many a long year. Each table crowned a hillock, each chair rested in wide grooves cut by the dragging of its legs. The great barrels of ale and wine that lined the western wall loomed above flooring so stained and worn that Garth wondered how it still held-he had no way of seeing the thickness of wood beneath, but only that this most popular part of the room had a good two inches less floor remaining than elsewhere. The slate hearth that stretched along half the eastern wall before the vast cavernous fireplace showed little wear, being harder stuff than the soft floorboards; curiously, the ancient stair that crossed the back wall had only the slightest indentation in each tread. Plainly, it was as a tavern rather than an inn that the establishment survived, since those stairs were the only access to the rooms upstairs.

Though every inch of the room was clearly old, worn, and well-used, none could ever think it deserted for it was spotlessly clean, save for the oft-scrubbed stains left by centuries of spilled wine. The morning sun had not yet climbed high enough to pour unchecked through the polished and age-purpled windows, yet the brass fittings on the barrels gleamed dully, the stacked mugs of pewter and china and glass glistened on their shelves, the blackened hearth shone dimly. The only spots of uncleanliness were two drunken farmers adorning opposite sides of a small table near the door, clad in dirty gray homespun, with greasy hair and smudged faces, who slouched forward muttering to one another. The innkeeper, though a plump middle-aged man wearing a well- stained apron, gave the impression not of disarray, but like his tavern, of well-worn comfort. The room's only other occupant, sitting alone in the corner between chimneypiece and stair, seemed somehow beyond such mundane concerns as cleanliness.

It was this lone figure that Garth and Saram were interested in. The innkeeper watched apprehensively as the pair entered and crossed the room, and twice opened his mouth to protest their presence, but each time lost his nerve and remained silent. When they had seated themselves across from the old man, he gradually relaxed and returned to his task of polishing mugs that already showed a flawless silken sheen; but he polished the same mug for a good fifteen minutes with short, nervous strokes, and cast frequent glances at the overman who had intruded upon the peace of his place of business.

For a moment after they had settled in their chairs neither Garth nor Saram spoke; they considered the strange figure across from them, who sat motionlessly, seemingly oblivious of their presence.

The old man whom Ordunin's oracles hail called the Forgotten King wore tattered yellow rags from head to foot, and despite the summer warmth he kept them wrapped tightly about him, his cloak closed and his hood up, so that its shadows hid much of his face. A long, scraggly white beard reached down across his sunken chest, and what could be seen of his hands and face was skin as dry and wrinkled as that of a mummy, with as little evidence of anything between skin and bone. His eyes were lost in darkness; in all their conversations with him neither Garth nor Saram had ever seen his eyes, and only on the rarest occasions had either so much as caught a glimmer of light from them. The shadows gave the illusion that he had no eyes, but only empty sockets; perhaps that, more than anything else, was why generations of taverngoers had seen fit to leave him sitting alone and unmolested.

Garth studied him, but saw nothing he had not seen before. Garth was a typical member of his species in most respects, and as such he was not particularly good at recognizing human faces or reading emotion in them; still, there was something about the Forgotten King's face that made him uneasy. He shifted in his chair, which creaked beneath his weight. He was out of proportion with his surroundings in a tavern designed for mere men; he towered above the others, his natural height of near seven feet augmented by a woolen trader's hat that not only shaded his red-eyed, sunken-cheeked horror of a face, but hid a steel half-helmet. Peaceful mission or no, Garth was given to caution; despite his orders to his companions and hiding most of his armor and weaponry with his warbeast, his flowing brown cloak concealed a sturdy mail shirt, and a stiletto lurked in his right boot-top-the latter a precaution that was incidentally rather uncomfortable, as its hilt, though safely hidden by his leggings and the sparse black fur that adorned his leathery hide, chafed when he walked.

He studied the old man, but said nothing.

Beside him Saram glanced from the overman to the King and back again, his finger poking idly at a small circle of mismatched wood in the table-top-a circle that was the sawn-off shaft of a crossbow bolt Saram had fired at Garth, on the Baron's orders, during Garth's previous stay in Skelleth. The overman had used the table as a makeshift shield, and the barbed quarrel had proven impossible to remove, so that the innkeeper had cut it off and sanded it down to blend with the oak.

After a moment, when it appeared that neither Garth nor the old man was willing to speak first, the ex- soldier cleared his throat and said, 'I have brought Garth here, as you asked.'

The old man nodded very slightly, but gave no other sign that he was aware of the presence of others at his table.

There was another pause, this one briefer than the first. It was broken when the overman finally announced, 'I am here at your request. Speak, then, and tell me what you want of me. I have business to attend to.'

The old man spoke, in a voice like the rustling of long-dead leaves. 'Garth, I would have you serve me further.'

The overman suppressed the shudder that ran through him at the sound of that voice; he had heard it before, but it was something that one could not truly remember-or want to remember. He replied, 'I have no desire to serve you, nor any person other than myself.'

The Forgotten King raised his head slightly and spoke again. 'There are very few in these waning years of the Thirteenth Age who are fit to serve me. I do not care to wait for another.'

'That may be; I do not deny that you may have uses for me. But why should I serve you? You offer me nothing, and I have little cause to trust you after the outcome of my last venture in your service.'

'What would you have?'

'I would have nothing of you but to be left alone. When you promised me fame, my service yielded nothing but a dozen deaths and much trouble to no purpose.'

'I did not slight you.'

'Is my fame then so great? I see little evidence of it, old man.'

'Did you then fulfill your service to me with a single trial?'

'No. I saw my folly after the single trial and went home.'

'Yet you have returned, upon my advice.'

Garth paused. That much was true; it had been the Forgotten King who pointed out the possibility of trade through Skelleth and its potential benefits.

'What of it? I did you a service, and you paid me with a simple suggestion I should have thought of for

Вы читаете The Seven Altars of Dusarra
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