The man stumbled along the alleyway, a hand held to his bleeding chest. He was a small man, with graying black hair long uncut. He wore the dark jerkin and breeks of the thieves' pack. He lurched on unsteady legs, coughing blood at times, and his eyes were pale as marbles. In his hand he held a torn sheet of yellowed parchment.
Where an iron balcony overhung the street, he reeled dizzily, bumping into the stone wall. A sound rose up in his throat, half a plea for help, half a moan against the agony in his chest which told him better than any leech that his life was ebbing.
A square of light grew on the paving stones of the alleyway up ahead as a tavern door swung open. For a moment the dying man stared into the tavern common room, saw a wooden-topped table and a bench where a man in a quilted gambeson and mail shirt above a kilt of black and yellow tiger fur sat beside a slim girl with nut-brown skin and long brown hair. The dying man's eyes opened at the sight of the man with the tawny hair whose arms, bare almost to the shoulders, rippled with muscles.
"Kyrik," the little man whispered, and tried to move.
He could not stir a muscle. The life which oozed out of him in little rivulets of blood, that his hand so vainly sought to stop, was fast escaping him. If he moved a leg, he would fall to the paving stones. He closed his eyes, leaned his head against the building wall, and sought to gather all his strength.
While inside the tavern—
The gypsy girl who sat beside Kyrik of the Victories suddenly shuddered. Her eyes opened wide and fear came alive inside their depths. She tried to lift her hand, to reach out and touch the man beside her, to warn him, but could not. A whimper grew inside her.
Be quiet, girl I shall not harm you. The presence in her mind was like a silent melody. It held her still as a graven statue as its power, its very life forces, went questing along her muscles and her nerves. Myrnis of the Romany gypsies waited, scarcely breathing.
I am within you now. Yet—I need your help. What can I do? I'm only a gypsy girl, companion to this man beside me. Nothing more. I have no powers, no wisdom. Her thoughts ran on helplessly, like frightened mice inside a cage.
I know this. Just relax. Forget me. I am in need of your body, but I shall not harm you. Not ever. You are as I am, from this moment on.
The presence in her mind slept. And Kyrik growled, "I tire of this place. The wine fumes are going to my head. I want fresh air. Come, Myrnis."
A big hand caught her wrist, drew her upward. The gypsy girl followed after him as his bulk pushed an easy path between drunken men and shrill, laughing harlots. His hand pushed the wooden door and the night air swept about them. Then they were outside, the man reaching a thick arm to hug the girl against him and grin down at her.
"Are you tired yet of our wanderings?" he asked. "When we left Tantagol City and I gave the throne to Almorak and Aryalla instead of taking it myself, you seemed eager to go with me."
Myrnis glanced at him from under long lashes. "You were dead a thousand years, Kyrik, imprisoned in that statue from which the sorceress Aryalla freed you. You have a need for living."
"I was alive in that statue, it was me," he growled. "Yet it was death of a sort, until Aryalla freed me. And you're right. I've missed too much in those thousand years. I do want to live, to sample the foods and the wines of this changed world."
"And the women?"
Kyrik rumbled laughter. “Na, na. You're woman enough for me."
"Kyrik," a voice croaked. The Tantagolian turned his head, saw the little man in the dark jerkin with the bright scarlet blood stains as he tried to push away from the stone wall against which he leaned. He staggered a few steps and fell headlong.
At the same moment, Kyrik rasped out an oath and let go of the gypsy girl. "By Illis! I've seen that man before."
The smaller man grinned as the Tantagolian dropped to a knee beside him. "Aye. I was in the jail at Tantagol when you freed Almorak's men to help you fight Devadonides. Thief though I am, I was grateful, and fought beside you until you won."
He coughed, blood flecking his lips. "I'm dying, Kyrik. Here in my hand . . . map of the Doom-day Swamps . . . island of Ikthoros . . . old ruins there, and the bells of Salmalinda . . ."
Kyrik stared down at the clenched fist that held the parchment map. His heart beat faster. Somewhere in the back of his mind was a memory of the bells of Salmalinda, but he could not bring it into focus.
“Who did this to you?” he growled. “By Illis, he'll pay for it, I vow."
Endole shook his gray head. "No time for vengeance. Map. Get the bells. Take them to. . . ."
The old man stiffened. His eyes bulged. For an instant he was rigid, then his body slumped into the big man's arms. A shadow moved across his pallid face, and Kyrik glanced up into the face of the gypsy girl. Sympathy was etched on her lovely features, but there was a brilliance and aliveness in the green eyes glistening in the flare of a wall torch that made the Tantagolian stare.
“Your eyes," he muttered. "They mind me of other eyes I know."
Myrnis glanced sideways at him, slyly. "Never mind my eyes. The man's dead. Take his map, and swiftly."
Kyrik grunted and put his hands to those slim fingers, loosening them gently, drawing the bloodstained parchment from their clasp. He slipped it inside his belt-pouch.
"Move, girl. This is no place for the street guard to catch us loitering, beside a dead man."
They went at a run down the alleyway into a wider thoroughfare, where drunken sailors off the trading boats from far lands like Pthesk and Thakispan roamed the walkways. They ran with the sea winds off the docks fluttering their garments, and Kyrik gripped the scabbard that held his great sword Bluefang so it would not interfere with his movements.
As they slowed their pace to mingle with the crowd, Kyrik asked, "What know you of the bells of Salmalinda?”
Myrnis frowned. "Once in other times there was a legend handed down since the days of dread Makonnon, about bells with such a name. But what was it? I can't recall."
"Think, girl. I don't want the old man to have died in vain. If this was some rascality of his—he was a thief, I recall—well, I can get the bells and sell them to buy a stone to put over his grave. But if it's something more than that, and my every instinct tells me it is. . . ."
"I will have to think, to try to remember." They were close to the edge of the port-side town by this time, beyond which lay the ill-paved road to Domilok, which was a city of Karalonia. In the distance, Kyrik could see the trees of a great forest and above them sky that was curiously black, as if empty of all stars, though the night was clear. A worn wooden sign swung overhead on creaking chains, showing where the Keel and Anchor tavern opened its doors to sailor-men.
"In here, Myrnis. We'll need our cloaks and our saddlebags for such a journey."
His big hand fumbled in the leather belt-purse at his middle, bypassing the folded parchment map to get at the golden griffs and silver rhodanthes. "We'll pay our bill, buy food for the trip."
"The island of Ikthoros lies many days gallop away," the gypsy girl muttered in a dreamy voice.
Kyrik was startled, and swung on her. "What do you know of Ikthoros? I recall it from that other life I led, so long ago, before Jokaline laid his wizard spell on me. But you’re a gypsy girl.”
Myrnis seemed to shake herself. "As a Romany, I have traveled far roads, Kyrik."
Yet within her, she knew she had not spoken those words about Ikthoros. Whatever was inside her, of which she was not allowed to speak, had made her say them. Had even answered for her now, making an excuse.
Kyrik grunted as he went with her inside the smoky tavern where torch flares threw a reddish reliance over wooden tables and benches, where the smells of roasting meat vied with those of baking bread and spilled wine. There were half a hundred men and women still seated on the benches at this late hour. A naked slave-girl postured in a cleared space for their amusement.
Kyrik brought Myrnis with him between the tables, handing over three silver rhodanthes to the man behind the counter.
“Fill a bag with food and throw in a fat wine-skin," he said. "Tonight we leave for the mountains."
"What's in the mountains, Kyrik?" a man bellowed.
"Trees," grinned the Tantagolian. A roar of laughter went up, leather wine-cups banged the tabletops. Amid the sound, Kyrik and the gypsy girl made their way toward the street door, the canvas sack of food over one of his broad shoulders. They went to the stables where the wanderer saddled a roan mare for the girl and a great black warhorse for himself.
“We ride to the Doom-day Swamps, Kyrik, not to the forest," Myrnis muttered.
His teeth glittered in the light of a torch. "Aye. And some of those fools may track us to the hills. They will wonder what takes me out of here at such an hour. They will think I am after treasure and may follow. If they go to the forests, they'll never find us."
Myrnis chuckled and swung up into the kak. Kyrik rose into his own saddle and together they toed their horses to a canter. With the sky black and empty above, they rode beyond the edge of town, and urged their horses to a gallop.
Myrnis rode easily, her brown hair flying in the wind. Kyrik grinned affectionately at sight of her. She had been at his side when he made his fight against Devadonides, who had been king in Tantagol before Kyrik overthrew him. She had ridden with him when he left that city, to share his nomad life.
By Illis of the tinted toenails! He loved this elfin sprite with her nut-brown skin and green eyes. Her eyes had changed, though, in that alleyway, when the dying thief had mentioned the map to the bells of Salmalinda. Their brilliance had seemed foreign to him. And yet! They reminded him of other eyes, those of Illis herself, who had come to aid him against the wizardries of Jokaline. Why should the gypsy girl's eyes remind him of those of the goddess?
No matter. It was a whim, no more. In that beige wool garment that reached to the middle of her thighs, belted by copper links from which hung a dagger and a small velvet purse, she was a fine companion and bedfellow. To think that he saw something of Illis in her was nonsense.
For hours they rode at the gallop until the mountain road forked to the right and the more narrow path led southward toward Ikthoros and the Doom-day Swamps. They trotted to the left and now they went more slowly, for theirs was a long journey and the Tantagolian would not tire out their mounts.
Sunrise found them moving through a wooded land, the tree branches of which were festooned with lacy creepers hung with thick red melons. Kyrik sliced open a few with his dagger and they ate in their saddles, the horses trotting. When he tossed the rinds aside, he scanned the lowering sky.
"It will storm soon, the thunderclouds are coming fast.”
He reached into a saddlebag, brought out the bloodstained map. His big hands spread it open.
"This thing was torn off a larger map," he muttered. "Over here where the jagged edges are, must have been a part of Karalonia where the caravan roads run. See this dotted line? That's the camel road to Samakkan."
Myrnis urged the mare closer, rode with her knee brushing his. Her finger stabbed out. “There. That's Domilok. About a dozen leagues to its east are the Doom-day Swamps."
"Know you where the island of Ikthoros is located? And what ruins lie upon that island?"
Myrnis frowned, her brows almost meeting in her concentration. "Vaguely I recall—but only vaguely—that there is a lake somewhere in the Doom-day Swamps. Ikthoros is an island in that lake. And I think that the ruins are those of a temple to Moforgon."
She ran brown fingers across her low, wide forehead. "Moforgon is a mighty demon, he dwells in far distant lands. He is very powerful. If the bells of Salmalinda were given to him as an offering, he may defend that gift against us."
"How know you so much about it?" he wondered, eyeing her oddly. It seemed that her eyes were very bright, as they had been in the alleyway.
Myrnis gave a breathless laugh, shrugged and glanced at him flirtatiously. “I am a Romany. I wander the world. I must have heard something of this from a traveling merchant."
Kyrik moved his vast shoulders. In that moment when Myrnis has spoken, it had seemed that her tongue was that of another. No matter, he told himself. This girl was Myrnis, no other. Yet a vague uneasiness ran in his veins.
His eyes touched the breasts pressing into the beige wool, slid over the shapeliness of her body, her beautiful face and long brown hair blowing fitfully in the wind. This was his gypsy girl, all right. He was a fool even to imagine anything else.
Just the same, her eyes looked different.
They rode on. They stopped to eat the food in their saddlebags as the sun was high in the sky. They were tired, they had ridden far since coming out of the Keel and Anchor tavern. They still had far to go. But Kyrik insisted that they rest, and that their horses have a breathing spell.
"No one follows us. I've watched our back trail too much to be mistaken about that. We'll sleep a while, then go on for another few hours. We'll make camp at the foot of the Ivareen hills."
They slept with their arms about each other. Inside the gypsy girl that which had taken possession of her smiled to pleasant dreams. Myrnis tightened her arms around the man on whose chest she slept, but it was not her own mind which caused that gentle caress.