She was away and up the stairs, but Paul was directly on her heels. Halfway up the stairs he was met by a stifling cloud of smoke; but Melisendra had disappeared into the smoke, and he ripped away his shirt, tied it over his face, and dropping below the smoke level, began to crawl up the stairs on his hands and knees.
And in some strange doubling, as if he and Bard were truly linked in mind, he saw Bard try to dash into the building after Melora, and saw and felt the guardsmen who caught him, holding him fast.
“No! No, my lord, it’s too dangerous!”
“We’ll send someone in to get the
out, my lord, but you must not risk yourself. You are the king. . . .”
Bard struggled with them, fighting, seeing Melora running up the stairs, forcing her way over fallen debris, and through and above all this, the picture of Erlend, lying peacefully in his bed, the starstone at his throat clutched in his hand, and the curls of smoke overpowering him, turning his sleep to stupor as the walls above him began to burn.
“Let me go! Damn you. I’ll have all your heads for that! It’s my son—he’s in there, burning!”
He fought against them, tears running down his face. “Damn you! Damn you all, let me go!”
But the guardsmen held him, and for the first time in his life, Bard’s giant strength availed nothing. “They’ll get him out, sir, but the whole reign’s depending on you. Ruyvil, Jeran—help us hold his Lordship!”
And even while Bard struggled in their hands, some part of him was with Paul, climbing those stairs, he
Paul, so that in the guardsmen’s hands he choked, his own eyes streaming tears as Paul struggled upward. . . .
Paul, feeling the smoke blind him, dropped on hands and knees to the floor. Behind him, Bard was suddenly lax in the hands of his captors as the essential part of him that fought upward was Paul; trying with every atom of his strength to lend his own strength to Paul, to
for him, if he must. It seemed, to both of them, that they crept
up those stairs, and at the top, inched their way along the corridor . . . found the door by touch, for the smoke was so thick Paul could not see. And just inside the door, Melisendra, lying overcome by smoke, her face dark and congested. For a terrifying moment Paul could not feel her breathing. The whole room was heavy with the acrid stuff, aching in Paul’s lungs, and without Bard’s strength he knew he could not have gone on but must have dropped to the floor there beside her, unconscious.
But somewhere a child whimpered, as if crying in his sleep, and Bard’s awareness, in Paul, made him struggle, cursing, to his feet. The walls were beginning to blaze, and the edge of Erlend’s mattress smoldered, sending now coils of thick smoke upward into the thick haze in the room. Paul—or Bard, he never knew which—hauled the child upright, hearing him shriek in pain and terror as he saw the flames blazing up. He smashed a carafe of water beside the bed, grabbed some garment off the floor and soaked it, tied it around his face; then, Erlend clinging weakly to his breast, knelt again beside Melisendra, slapping at her face with the wet cloth. He must rouse her! Perhaps, Bard’s strength in him, he would have left Melisendra to rescue his son . . . but no, Melisendra was the child’s mother, he could not leave her here to burn!
He smelled singing hair, the acrid smell of burning cloth, and Melora, her face blackened by smoke, was standing over him.
“Here! Give Erlend to me—” she said, coughing, choking, trying to force the words out. “You can carry Sendra, I can’t—”
Paul wondered, in a fragment of separate consciousness, if she thought he was Bard, but the part of him that was Bard had already stretched out his arms, handing over the unconscious child into Melora’s arms. He knew that tears of relief and thankfulness were flooding down his face, even while all of his doubled attention turned to Melisendra. He saw Melora stumble on a half-burned board at the edge of the door, fall heavily with the child in her arms, haul herself upright, clutching at a blazing beam and somehow, miraculously, stagger into the burning corridor, Erlend’s face hidden on her bulky breasts. She was crying, he could hear her sobbing in pain and terror, but she stumbled on with the little boy in her arms.
Paul hoisted Melisendra to his shoulder, and a fragment of memory from another world and another life came irrelevantly into his mind, that this lift was called the fireman’s carry and he had never known why. The walls were blazing now, an inferno, a hell of heat and smoke, but he hurried back the way he had come, bumped into Melora, who was at the top of the stairs, staring down in horror at the blazing stairs. How could they get down there?
Melora’s breathing was loud and harsh, rasping in and out of her lungs, and her voice so hoarse that she could not speak above a shaky whisper. He saw her draw something from around her neck.
“Go on! Go down! I . . .
. . . the flames. . . .”
He hesitated, and the thick voice was frantic.
“Go! Go on! Only . . . hold fire . . . an instant . . . starstone. . . .”
Before him the flames wavered, drew back, and Paul stood frozen gasping in amazement . . . but Bard, within him, accepted the sorcery of this world, the way in which a trained
could handle flame, took a firmer hold on Melisendra and hurried down the stairs. Melisendra was limp in his arms, unconscious, but Erlend was screaming in terror in Melora’s arms. The flames retreated, wavered before them as they stumbled down the stairs, Melora’s step heavy and blundering because all of her conscious will was focused on the starstone, on the flames that died, sprang up, drew back and hung there in terrible menace. He plunged through the burning door and into the blessed air, and again with the frightening split consciousness, saw Bard, with a last, berserker strength, fight away from the guardsmen and come to take Melisendra from his arms as he fell, half conscious, his tormented lungs sobbing air in and out with a whistling sound. A dozen women rushed to take Melisendra and lay her on the grass, and Bard, frenzied, plunged through the last flames, blazing up as Melora fell, unconscious. Bard grabbed Erlend from her arms, passed him quickly to a Varzil’s waiting arms. Geremy, stumbling after him, held Bard upright as he caught at Melora in relief and dread.
She fell against him, so heavily that even Bard’s giant strength stumbled and for a moment he thought they would roll to the ground, all three of them, but the arms of guardsmen steadied them all. Melora’s face was covered with soot and smoke and she screamed in pain as Bard’s arms went around her, but as he loosened his grip, fearfully—had she paid with her own life for rescuing his son?—she clutched at him again, weeping.
“Oh, it hurts—I’m burned, Bard, but not badly—for the love of the Goddess, get me a drink, something—” She choked, coughing, sobbing, tears running black with soot down her face. Someone thrust a tankard of water into her hand and she gulped at it, choked, spat, coughed again and again. Bard held her, bellowing for someone to come and attend to her, but she drew herself upright as Master Gareth came to them.
“No, Father, it’s all right, really, just a little burn,” she said. Her voice was still thick and hoarse. Geremy, kneeling on the grass beside Erlend now, raised his face to Bard, in deep thankfulness.
“He breathes, thank the gods,” he said, and as if to underline that, Erlend began to wail loudly. But he stopped when he caught sight of Bard.
“You came to get me, Father, you came and got me, you didn’t let me burn up, I knew my father wouldn’t leave me to burn . . .”
Bard started to speak, to disclaim it, to say it had been Paul who physically climbed those stairs while he, the child’s father, had been held helpless by his own guards, king or no; but Paul said loudly from where he bent over Melisendra, “That’s right, my Prince, your father came to fetch you out of the fire!” He said fiercely in an undertone, “Don’t you ever tell him anything else! You
there! I couldn’t have made it without your strength! And he’s got to
His eyes met Bard’s, and suddenly Bard knew they were free of one another forever. He had given Paul life, from the death of the stasis box; and now Paul had given him back a life more precious than his own, the life of his only son. No longer bound with a deadly tie, dark twins, but brothers, lord and respected paxman, friends.
He bent over Erlend and kissed his son. This
heir should never feel himself unloved, or suffer the torments he had known. Melora might never bear him a child—she was older than he, she had worked long as a
and healer in the blighted zone—but she had given him Erlend’s life. And as he watched Carlina, in her dark robes, bending over Melisendra’s limp body—now tortured with the racking coughs as they forced the smoke from her lungs—he knew that he was free of them both. Melisendra would find her own happiness with Paul; and Carlina’s life was given to the Goddess. He would deny it no further. In his lifetime, he would see the priestesses of Avarra leave their Lake of Silence and come into the world as healers under Varzil’s protection. The priestesses and the Sisterhood of the Sword would form a new Order of Renunciates, and Carlina would be one of their founders and saints; but that was all in the future.
With a tremendous roar, the roof of the main wing of the castle fell in and the flames engulfed it. Bard, sitting beside Melora as the healers dressed the burn on her arm and breast, shook his head and sighed.
“I am a king without a castle, my beloved. And if the Hasturs have their way, a king without a kingdom; lord of no more than my father’s estate—I should think they’d give me that. Will you be a queen without a country, Melora, my own love?”
She smiled up at him, and it seemed that the morning sun was no brighter than her eyes. Bard beckoned to Varzil, smiling up at him, and said, “After the wounded are cared for, there is a Compact to be sworn. And an alliance to be made.”
And, turning back to Melora, he kissed her full on the lips.
“And a queen to be crowned,” he said.