Farsight, less commonly known as Prince Clerebold, ruler of Dawnlight since the death of his father by mischance, stood on the highest, narrowest tower of his keep and looked down upon his realm. From here, far higher than the birds swooping from tree to tree, he could see clearly his people: castle dwellers walking to and fro across the drawbridge under the watchful eye of the soldiers, tradesmen bumping carts against each other in the busy streets of the town under the keep's shadow, craftsmen working in their village houses with steady concentration, commoners spreading seed in the fields under the spring sun, and, most clearly of all, the nervous soldiers near the gold-filled mountain that stood by Dawnlight's northern border with Duskedge. Within Duskedge itself, Farsight could faintly sense fear and pain, especially the prolonged agony of men held captive in a faraway castle. But the darkness that Farsight had sensed during the past weeks was quiescent, perhaps driven into sleep by the light.
Kneeling on the ledge of the crenel that provided a gap in the tower's stonework, Farsight stared down at the hundred-foot drop and murmured to himself, "If only I could see the people near me clearly. They seem so dim."
"That will be your death."
Startled, Farsight turned so suddenly that he nearly matched his father's death by pitching through the crenel into open air. Standing behind him, near the trap door leading to the winding stairs, was a man not much younger than Farsight, wearing the clothes of a commoner. He was standing so close to the prince that Farsight could see little more than mud-colored hair and eyes that matched the burnished blue sky.
"Who are you?" asked Farsight sharply, his hand moving to the gold-hilted dagger at his side. "Why are you here?"
Farsight's abrupt words seemed to startle the young man. He stepped backwards onto the trap door, stumbling as he did so. The sound of his heavy swallow followed, and the blur of his outline shifted. Narrowing his eyes to better his sight, Farsight realized, with amusement and something more, that the young man's hands had tightened nervously like those of a boy facing scrutiny.
The gesture reassured him, as did the faint sound of footsteps below the trap door, which told him that the guard was still at his post. "Why are you here?" he asked in a more moderate tone. "The guard had orders to let no one through."
"The guard?" The young man's voice was breathless and somewhat puzzled. "He wasn't at the landing when I came up. I saw him— Well, he was at one of the windows of the stairwell, fiddling with his breeches."
Farsight sighed, wondering again what sort of men he was training to be in his personal guard. He tried not to let too much of this show in his voice as he said, "That was careless of him. So – the fault is not yours, but why are you here?"
He heard the young man swallow again. "That's why. To warn you to guard yourself better."
Farsight frowned, trying to read what lay inside the young man, but he was too close. Pulling himself out from the crenel ledge, which had begun to turn warm under the morning light, the prince walked toward the eastern side of the tower, until he was as far from the young man as he could go. The young man, perhaps sensing his need, obediently stepped backwards until he was at the opposite side of the tower.
He was still too close, but Farsight could at least see now the man's features: a heavy jaw, lips too asymmetrical to attract lovers, a broken nose, a scarred temple, and blue-lit eyes bearing nothing except uncertainty. As Farsight watched, the man licked his lips anxiously.
His hand, though, was resting with practiced ease on his dagger hilt, and his cheeks were shaven – he was not a field commoner, then. "You're a soldier?" Farsight guessed aloud.
"A guard, my prince." The young man hesitated, then added, "My name is Amyas. I've been with Lord Grimbold's household until recently." With delicate timing, he allowed his hand to drop from his dagger.
Farsight felt the blood thrumming through his throat and resisted the impulse to call for his guard's protection. "You're far from home," he said. "I wouldn't have thought you'd have left Duskedge at time of war. And why call me your prince?"
"My prince, I—" Amyas faltered, staring at his mud-wrapped boots. "Because you are my prince. I was born in Dawnlight, near the border. I would have stayed here, but I couldn't find work in this land. So I went over the border and took service with Lord Grimbold, but part of our agreement was that if war broke out between our two lands, I'd be released from his service to return home."
"War broke out four months ago," Farsight observed. "That's when Royston turned his hungry eyes toward our gold-mountain near his border."
"Yes, my prince, and I left Lord Grimbold's service at that time. It occurred to me, though, that you might be in need of information, so I went to King Royston's castle and listened to the gossip there. I'd been there in the past, so no one took notice of me."
Amyas spoke with a pure simplicity, as though risking his life as a spy were the most natural activity in the world. He had a habit, Farsight noticed, of shuffling his feet on the ground, as though he were a boy who might be noticed at any moment and would need to flee the room to escape his elders' wrath.
Farsight suddenly felt very old. He smiled at Amyas and said, "So you have come to me with that information. Thank you."
Amyas looked up at him. For a moment, on the edge of his expression, something seemed on the point of breaking through. Then his eyes grew sober, and he said, "Yes, my prince. I came to warn you to guard yourself. King Royston has sent his Night Shadow to seek you."
A wind, chill from the north, travelled through the crenel behind Farsight and played like a cold blade against his back. When he could breathe once more, Farsight said, "Well. I suppose that is the easiest way for him to win this war."
Amyas took a step forward, faltered, then said in an impassioned voice, "My prince, forgive me, but— In Duskedge, I always kept to my place, so I do not wish you to think I was ill-trained there—"
Farsight managed to pull his smile back from the black pit where it had dropped. "We handle matters differently here in Dawnlight, as you'll recall from your childhood. You needn't be afraid to offer advice – I welcome your thoughts."
"Then, my prince—" Like the surge of a blade, Amyas flung the words forward: "Prince Clerebold, you're as close to death at this moment as you were when you were kneeling on that ledge! Do you know how easy it was for me to enter your presence? No guard challenged me at the drawbridge, your soldiers in the courtyard were indifferent to my presence, your courtiers gave me detailed instructions on where to find you, and your bodyguard was off making water when a man from Duskedge arrived looking for you. My prince, if I were an assassin, you'd be dead now!"
Farsight let out his breath in a long sigh and walked forward until Amyas's face blurred into the stones. "No, I wouldn't be. My guard is close by; the Night Shadow never allows himself to be seen, and he never kills anyone except his mark."
This answer appeared to disconcert the young man. A moment passed before he said, "And what if the Night Shadow decides to change its pattern for this kill? My prince—"
"Call me Farsight," the prince said mildly. "You've been too long away from home."
"Farsight . . ." Amyas fumbled with the name. "Farsight, the Night Shadow always wins. Everyone knows that. That's how Royston keeps his people in terror. And you . . . Your soldiers are the best trained in the world; Royston dare not attack you again through battle. That's why he's sending the Night Shadow. My prince, how can you have such fine soldiers at the border and such poorly trained guards at home?"
Farsight closed his eyes, released a long breath, and opened them once more to the blur that was the young man. "I'm farsighted," he said.
"My prince?" Amyas's voice was tentative.
"I'm farsighted. I can't see you unless you're far away; I can't see anyone unless they're far away. The soldiers I train at a distance – I can see them. The people I rule from a distance – I can see them. But the people I work with from day to day – I can't see them. I can't understand them, I can't know them. So I make mistakes. In some cases, mortal mistakes."
The wind rattled grit across the tower roof. Faintly from the sky above, birds called to each other, but Farsight could hear nothing more, not even the shouts of the guards on the drawbridge as they changed their watch. Below the trap door, the guard continued to shuffle in his place. By now, he must have heard Amyas's voice, but Farsight's moderate tones had apparently reassured the guard as to the nature of the interview. With exasperation, Farsight wondered whether the guard thought that Amyas had flown to the tower from one of the trees.
"Are the stories true?" Amyas's voice was subdued.
This collection of Alistair MacLean's short works ends with a rather sad essay by the author, in which he disavows any intentions to be literary or me...moreThis collection of Alistair MacLean's short works ends with a rather sad essay by the author, in which he disavows any intentions to be literary or meaningful - sad because his first novel, "H.M.S. Ulysses," was in fact both literary and meaningful, and all the more entertaining as a result. Alas, he reports that a couple more of his meaningful novels didn't go over well with the readers. (I suspect that one of them must have been "The Last Frontier," which, for all its virtues, includes long monologues about the benefits of peace between nations.) MacLean concluded from the readers' reactions that "messages are for Western Union," rather than concluding, as he should have, that a skillful writer must make his messages entertaining and must integrate them carefully into the storyline.
Fortunately, Alistair MacLean's disavowal of meaningful content was not applied to many of the works in this collection.
The subtitle "Collected Short Stories" is misleading, because eight of the works in this collection are actually narrative nonfiction on World War II maritime disasters . . . but are no less compellingly written than MacLean's fiction.
When the Hood was with you, nothing could ever go wrong. Every man in the Royal Navy knew that.
And not only in the Navy. It is seventeen years now since the Hood died but none of the millions alive today who had grown up before the Second World War can forget, and will probably never forget, the almost unbelievable hold the Hood had taken on the imaginations and hearts of the British public. She was the best known, best loved ship in all our long naval history, a household name to countless people for whom Revenge and Victory were only words. The biggest, most powerful ship of the line in the inter-war years, she stood for all that was permanent, a synonym for all that was invincible, held in awe, even in veneration. For millions of people she was the Royal Navy, a legend in her own lifetime . . . But a legend grows old.
And now, with the long night's high-speed steaming over, the dawn in the sky and the Bismarck looming up over the horizon, the legend was about to end forever.
In these accounts, MacLean shows himself to be a first-rate nautical history writer, with a fine eye for detail and for the human aspects of the story. I suspect (though I can't verify it, since he usually doesn't cite his sources) that he is also demonstrating his talent for investigative journalism, digging down to find the deeper reasons why the disasters occurred.
The remaining stories include a quietly moving fictionalization of a typical day for minesweeping boats during World War II; a boating melodrama that first won him his fame; and four light comedies, including the wryly witty story, "McCrimmon and the Blue Moonstones."
Shocked into comparative sobriety and hoarsely uttering the war cry of his clan, McCrimmon leapt back. A high-speed camera would have recorded but a blur as his hand streaked for his Stilson wrench. Wild Bill Hickok, at his best, would have stood in silent wonder. Alas for McCrimmon, the miraculous speed of his draw was grievously hampered by the plethora of assorted cutlery in his pocket. True, it caused but a second's delay: but it is a scientifically established fact that a heavy stool, impelled by the arms of an enraged Armenian, can cover a distance of four feet in less than half that time.
But the star of the fictional works in the collection is surely "Rendezvous," a World War II naval espionage tale that begins with as effective a hook as any of MacLean's novel-length thrillers.
It was quite dark now and the Great North Road, the A1, that loneliest of Europe's highways, almost deserted. At rare intervals, a giant British Roadways truck loomed out of the darkness: a courteous dipping of headlamps, immaculate hand-signals, a sudden flash of sound from the labouring diesel - and the A1 was lonelier than ever. Then there was only the soothing hum of tyres, the black ribbon of highway, and the headlights of the Jaguar, weirdly hypnotic, swathing through the blackness.
Loneliness and sleep, sleep and loneliness. The enemies, the co-drivers of the man at the wheel; the one lending that extra half pound of pressure to the accelerator, the other, immobile and ever-watchful, waiting his chance to slide in behind the wheel and take over. I knew them well and I feared them.
But they were not riding with me tonight. There was no room for them. Not with so many passengers. Not with Stella sitting there beside me, Stella of the laughing eyes and sad heart, who had died in a German concentration camp. Not with Nicky, the golden boy, lounging in the back seat, or Passiere, who had never returned to his sun-drenched vineyards in Sisteron. No room for sleep and loneliness? Why, by the time you had crowded in Taffy the engineer, complaining as bitterly as ever and Vice-Admiral Starr and his bushy eyebrows, there was hardly room for myself.
MacLean does such a good job at depicting the shifting fortunes of the characters in "Rendezvous" that one yearns for a theme which is equally memorable - one of those Western Union messages which MacLean deliberately dropped from his later fiction. But the reader can remain grateful that, over the span of his lifetime, MacLean gave us as much as he did. This collection is testimony to that fact.(less)
The first novel of the Administration series fits with Dorothy L. Sayers's subtitle of one of her novels: "A Love Story with Detective Interruptions"...moreThe first novel of the Administration series fits with Dorothy L. Sayers's subtitle of one of her novels: "A Love Story with Detective Interruptions" – provided that one treats the word "love" broadly. It's the tale of a torturer and an opponent to torture trying to best one another and being a little too interested in each other to make for an easy power play. Then fate intervenes in the form of a corpse.
At the time of the merger with Investigation, Toreth had been at the Interrogation Division for a year and he'd enjoyed his work. However, it hadn't taken him long to see where the brighter future lay. He'd worked hard to win a place in the first round of appointments for the newly created post of para-investigator, a job that theoretically combined the skills of both investigator and interrogator.
Interrogation was a profession that had certain basic requirements. Primarily, the ability to hurt people, sometimes kill them, and not care. Plenty of interrogators had applied for the conversion course, and few had made it. The successful ones were on the more socially adept end of the spectrum – those who could be let near citizens of the Administration without the precaution of a damage waiver. At the time, Toreth had heard the term "high-functioning" used.
Or, as Sara put it in her less tactful moments, the difference between paras and interrogators was that the former weren't quite so dead behind the eyes.