For a moment the life of the Primate of Cimmura hung in the balance as Sparhawk, for the first time in his life, contemplated the deliberate murder of an unarmed man. But then he seemed to hear a light, girlish voice and saw before him a wealth of pale blonde hair and a pair of unwavering grey eyes. Regretfully, he let the velvet drapes close again and went to serve his Queen, who, even in her slumber, had reached out with her gentle hand to save his soul.
‘Another time, Annias,’ he whispered under his breath. Then he went on down the corridor past the chancel towards the entrance to the crypt.
The crypt lay beneath the cathedral, and entry was gained by walking down a flight of stone stairs. A single tallow candle glittered at the top of the stairs, set in a grease-encrusted sconce Careful to make no noise, Sparhawk snapped the candle in two, re-lit the fragment remaining in the sconce and went on down, holding his half-candle aloft.
The door at the bottom of the stairs was of heavy bronze Sparhawk closed his fist about the latch and twisted very slowly until he felt the bolt grate open. Then, a fraction of an inch at a time, he opened the thick door The faint creaking of the hinges seemed very loud in the silence, but Sparhawk knew that the sound would not carry up to the main floor of the church, and Annias was too caught up in his personal agonizing to hear anyway
The inside of the crypt was a vast, low place, cold and musty-smelling. The circle of yellow light from Sparhawk’s bit of candle did not reach far, and beyond that circle, huge expanses lay lost in darkness. The arched buttresses which supported the roof were draped with cobwebs, and dense shadows clotted the irregular corners. Sparhawk placed his back against the bronze door and very slowly closed it again. The sound of its closing echoed through the crypt like the hollow crack of doom.
The shadowed crypt extended back to unrelieved darkness far under the nave of the cathedral. Beneath the vaulted ceiling and the web-draped buttresses lay the former rulers of Elenia, rank upon silent rank of them, each enclosed in a leprous marble tomb with a dusty leaden effigy reposing on its top. Two thousand years of Elenian history lay mouldering slowly into dust in this dank cellar The wicked lay beside the virtuous. The stupid bedded down with the wise The universal leveller had brought them all to this same place The customary funerary sculpture decorated the stone walls and the corners of many of the sarcophagi, adding an even more mournful air to the silent tomb.
Sparhawk shuddered. The hot meeting of blood, bone, flesh, and bright, sharp steel were familiar to him, but not this cold, dusty silence He was not sure of exactly how to proceed, since the spectre of Sir Tanis had provided him with few details. He stood uncertainly near the bronze door, waiting. Although he knew it was foolish, he wrapped his hand about his sword hilt, more for comfort than out of any belief that the weapon at his side would be of any use in this dreadful place.
At first the sound seemed no more than a breath, a vagrant movement of the stale air inside the crypt. Then it came again, slightly louder this time ‘Sparhawk,’ it sighed in a hollow whisper
Sparhawk lifted his guttering candle, peering into the shadows.
‘Sparhawk,’ the whisper came again.
The whisper seemed to be coming from somewhere among the more recent burials. Sparhawk moved towards them, growing more certain as he did so. Finally, he stopped before the last sarcophagus, the one bearing the name of King Aldreas, father of Queen Ehlana. He stood before the lead effigy of the late king, a man he was sworn to serve but for whom he had had but little respect. The sculptor who had created the effigy had made some effort to make Aldreas’ features look regal, but the weakness was still there in the slightly harried expression and the uncertain chin.
‘Hail, Sparhawk.’ The whisper came not from the sculptured form atop the marble lid, but from within the tomb itself.
‘Hail, Aldreas,’ Sparhawk replied.
‘And dost thou still bear me enmity and hold me in contempt, my Champion?’
A hundred slights and insults leapt into Sparhawk’s mind, a half-score years of humiliation and denigration by the man whose sorrowing shade now spoke from the hollow confines of his marble sepulchre. But what would it prove to twist a knife in the heart of one already dead? Quietly, Sparhawk forgave his king. ‘I never did, Aldreas,’ he lied. ‘You were my king. That’s all I needed to know’
‘Thou art kind, Sparhawk,’ the hollow voice sighed, ‘and thy kindness rends mine insubstantial heart far more than any rebuke’
‘I’m sorry, Aldreas.’
‘I was not suited to wear the crown,’ the sepulchral voice admitted with a melancholy regret. ‘There were so many things happening that I didn’t understand, and people around me I thought were my friends, but were not.’
‘We knew, Aldreas, but there was no way we could protect you.’
‘I could not have known of the plots which surrounded me, could I, Sparhawk?’ The ghost seemed to have a desperate need to explain and justify the things Aldreas had done in life. ‘I was raised to revere the Church, and I trusted the Primate of Cimmura above all others. How could I have known that his intent was to deceive me?’
‘You could not have, Aldreas.’ It was not difficult to say it. Aldreas was no longer an enemy, and if a few words would comfort his guilt-ridden ghost, they cost no more than the breath it took to express them.
‘But I should not have turned my back on my only child,’ Aldreas said in a voice filled with pain. ‘It is that which I repent most sorely The primate turned me against her, but I should not have listened to his false counsel.’
‘Ehlana knew that, Aldreas,’ Sparhawk said. ‘She knew that it was Annias who was her enemy, not you.’
There was a long pause ‘And what has become of my dear, dear sister?’ The late king’s words came out as from between teeth tightly clenched with hate.
‘She’s still in the cloister at Demos, your Majesty,’ Sparhawk reported in as neutral a tone as he could manage ‘She will die there.’
‘Then entomb her there, my Champion,’ Aldreas commanded. ‘Do not defile my slumber by placing my murderess at my side in this place.’
‘Murderess?’ Sparhawk was stunned.
‘My life had become a burden to her. Her sycophant and paramour, Primate Annias, arranged to have her conveyed in secret here to me. She beguiled me with wildest abandon, wilder than I had ever known from her. In exhaustion, I took a cup from her hands and drank, and the drink was death. She taunted me with that, standing over my nerveless body with her flagrant nudity and her face contorted with hatred and contempt as she reviled me. Avenge me, my Champion. Take vengeance upon my foul sister and her twisted consort, for they have brought me low and dispossessed my true heir, the daughter I ignored and despised throughout her childhood.’