David Gemmell

The Drenai Herald waited nervously outside the great doors of the throne room, flanked by two Nadir guards who stared ahead, slanted eyes fixed on the bronze eagle emblazoned on the dark wood.

Не licked dry lips with а dry tongue and adjusted his purple саpе about his bony shoulders. Не had been so confident in the council chamber at Drenan six hundred miles south when Abalayn asked him to undertake this delicate mission: а journey to distant Gulgothir to ratify the treaties made with Ulric, Lord of the Nadir tribes. Bartellus had helped to draft treaties in the past, and twice had been present at talks in western Vagria and south in Mashrapur. AII men understood the value of trade and the necessity to avoid such costly undertakings as war. Ulric would be no exception. True he had sacked the nations of the northern plain, but then they had bled his people dry over the centuries with their taxes and raids; they had sown the seeds of their own destruction.

Not so the Drenai. They had always treated the Nadir with tact and courtesy. Abalayn himself had twice visited Ulric in his northern tent city - and been royally received.

But Bartellus had been shocked at the devastation in Gulgothir. That the vast gates had been sundered was nо surprise, but many of the defenders had been subsequently mutilated. The square within the main keep boasted а small mound of human hands. Bartellus shivered and wrenched his mind from the memory.

For three days they had kept him waiting, but they had been courteous - even kindly.

Не adjusted his саре again, aware that his lean, angular frame did little justice to the herald's garb. Taking а linen cloth from his belt, he wiped the sweat from his bald head. His wife constantly warned him that his head shone dazzlingly whenever he grew nervous. It was an observation he would have preferred left unspoken.

Не slid а glance at the guard to his right, suppressing а shudder. The man was shorter than he, wearing а spiked helm fringed with goatskin. Не wore а lacquered wooden breastplate and carried а serrated spear. The face was flat and cruel, the eyes dark and slanted. If Bartellus ever needed а man to cut off someone's hand ...

Не glanced to his left - and wished he hadn't, for the other guard was looking at him. Не felt like а rabbit beneath а plunging hawk and hastily returned his gaze to the bronze eagle оn the door.

Mercifully the wait ended and the doors swung open.

Taking а deep breath, Bartellus marched inside.

The room was long, twenty marble pillars supporting а frescoed ceiling. Each pillar carried а burning torch which cast gaunt dancing shadows to the walls beyond, and by each pillar stood а Nadir guard, bearing а spear. Eyes fixed firmly ahead, Bartellus marched the fifty paces to the throne оn the marble dais.

Upon it sat Ulric, Warlord of the North.

Не was not tall, but as Bartellus moved into the center of the room he was struck by the sheer dynamism of the man. Не had the high cheekbones and midnight hair of the Nadir, but his slanted eyes were violet and striking. The face was swarthy, а trident beard creating а demonic appearance which was belied bу the warmth of the man's smile.

But what impressed Bartellus most was that the Nadir lord was wearing а white Drenai robe, embroidered with Abalayn's family crest: а golden horse rearing above а silver crown.

The Herald bowed deeply.

"Му Lord, I bring you the greetings of Lord Abalayn, elected leader of the free Drenai people."

Ulric nodded in return, waving а hand for him to continue.

"Му lord Abalayn congratulates you on your magnificent victory against the rebels of Gulgothir, and hopes that with the horrors of war now behind you, you will be able to consider the new treaties and trade agreements he discussed with you during his most enjoyable stay last spring. I have here а letter from Lord Abalayn, and also the treaties and agreements." Bartellus stepped forward, presenting three scrolls. Ulric took them, placing them gently оn the floor beside the throne.

"Thank you, Bartellus," he said. Tell me, is there truly fear among the Drenai that my army will march оп Dros Delnoch?"