Cover design by Clarissa Yeo.
A BRIEF PROLOGUE
An excerpt from the chronicles of the High Kings of Andomhaim:
In the four centuries after Malahan Pendragon and the Keeper of Avalon led the survivors of Camelot through the portal from Old Earth to a new world, the men of Andomhaim faced many fierce foes. They strove against the savage kings of the pagan orcs and the vile sorcery of the dark elves. Their knights rode against the fierce manetaur warriors and descended into the Deeps to battle against the skulking kobold tribes. Time and time again the knights of Andomhaim faced terrible enemies, with orcish hordes driving to the very gates of the High King’s citadel of Tarlion.
Yet the men of Andomhaim stood fast, and God favored their swords. Though the orcs outnumbered them and the dark elves commanded fell magic, the knights of Andomhaim prevailed and tamed the land. After a crushing defeat, the pagan kings of the orcs submitted to baptism and accepted the High King’s authority. The manetaurs agreed to a treaty of peace, offering homage to the High King, and the kobolds and the dark elves were driven into the Deeps. After four centuries, peace settled over the realm of the High King at last.
And then, in the Year of Our Lord 953, the urdmordar came south.
The knights of Andomhaim had never faced foes as terrible as the great spider-devils of the north. Neither earthly steel nor flame harmed the urdmordar, and they wielded dark magic as easily as a man might breathe. The orcs and the kobolds worshipped them as goddesses, and the urdmordar kept the dark elves as useful slaves.
And the urdmordar and their slaves came to the gates of Tarlion in a tide of blood and death, gorging themselves upon their victims…
CHAPTER 1 – CLAW AND FANG
Nineteen days after it began, nineteen days after the day in the Year of Our Lord 1478 when blue fire filled the sky from horizon to horizon, Ridmark Arban gazed across the River Moradel.
Had something been moving on the far bank?
“What is it?” rumbled his companion, a towering orcish man armored in blue metal. The hilt of a greatsword rose over his right shoulder, and his green-skinned head had been shaved, save for a black warrior’s topknot.
Ridmark raised a hand, and Kharlacht fell silent. They stood motionless for a few moments, watching the western bank of the River Moradel. The trees were quiet, their branches budding with the fresh leaves of early spring. A wind whispered past, and the river splashed against its banks.
Nothing else moved.
At last Ridmark lowered his right hand, his other tight against his staff.
“Foes?” said Kharlacht.
“Perhaps,” said Ridmark.
“I’ve never traveled this part of the Wilderland,” said Kharlacht. “What manner of foes might we encounter?”
Ridmark shrugged. “Beastmen hunting for prey, or perhaps a wyvern or two. A pack of urvaalgs. Perhaps some of your kinsmen raiding down from Vhaluusk.” He thought for a moment. “No kobolds, though. God himself could force a kobold from its hole during the day, but no one else could.”
Kharlacht made the short, rumbling sound that passed for his laugh. “I have had enough of kobolds to last the remainder of my days.”
“Truly,” said Ridmark, remembering his frantic fight with the kobolds of the Blue Hand in their stronghold. He had almost died there, as had Kharlacht and Brother Caius and Calliande.
He felt a twinge of guilt when he thought of Calliande. But his decision to leave her at Dun Licinia had been correct. He had promised to help her find her lost memories. But her memories were tied to the return of the Frostborn, and to learn the truth about the Frostborn, Ridmark had to travel to Urd Morlemoch and confront the Warden once more.
He would almost certainly die in the attempt.
Better to go alone. Ridmark deserved death, but no one else needed to die with him.
He would have gone without Kharlacht, had the orc not insisted on following him.
Ridmark shook off the dark thoughts and gazed at the western bank. Death could very well find him at Urd Morlemoch. Unless, of course, he made a mistake and died long before he even reached the dark elven ruin.
Nothing moved on the far bank.
“Come,” he said. “It’s not far to the ford. Keep your wits about you, and your sword close at hand. This is the only ford over the River Moradel for fifty miles in either direction.”
“An ideal spot,” said Kharlacht, “for an ambush.”
“Anyone seeking prey,” said Ridmark, “will look for it there.”
Ridmark made his way north, the river to his left and the forest to his right. Fallen leaves covered the uneven ground, yet long practice let Ridmark move without making any noise.
“Prey?” said Kharlacht. “You expect to find beastmen?”
Kharlacht was many things, but he was not a fool.
“Aye,” said Ridmark.
“I have never encountered the lupivirii before,” said Kharlacht. “I saw a dead one, when I was a child, slain by the warriors of my village. But I have never seen a living one.”
“I am not surprised,” said Ridmark. “They range across the southern parts of the Wilderland. The dark elves and the urdmordar exterminated those in the north.” He stepped around a root. “The lupivirii think differently than humans and orcs and dwarves and halflings.”
“How so?” said Kharlacht.
“Humans and the other kindreds have rational minds and animal passions,” said Ridmark. “A man can give into his savage side and kill, or he can follow his rational mind and refrain. The beastmen have rational minds, but their animal passions are far stronger. They live like beasts, and disdain the use of tools and weapons as crutches for the weak. If we must fight, it will be like fighting a pack of hungry wolves.”
“Show no fear,” said Kharlacht, “and strike down the biggest male.”
“Precisely,” said Ridmark.
They kept walking, and a mile later came to the ford.
By the time the River Moradel flowed past the High King’s stronghold of Tarlion and entered the sea, it was almost a mile wide. Here it was sixty yards across, and no more than twenty feet deep. A ragged ford cut across the river to the western bank, a few damp white stones jutting from the water.
“An odd place for a ford,” said Kharlacht.
“It isn’t natural,” said Ridmark. “In ancient days, dark elven strongholds stood to the west of here. The dark elves built a bridge so their slave soldiers could come and go more easily. The bridge fell into the river, and the ford built up around its wreckage.”
Kharlacht frowned. “How do you know this?”
“One of the high elves told me,” said Ridmark.
Kharlacht looked at Ridmark’s gray elven cloak and grunted. “Ah.”
“Over the ford,” said Ridmark. “Stay watchful.”
He walked into the ford, Kharlacht following, the water splashing around his boots. The river’s current was strong, and from time to time Ridmark drove his staff into the silt to catch his balance. Kharlacht hopped from stone to stone, boots scraping against the wet rock. Ridmark kept his eyes on the far bank. If anyone wanted to attack, now was an excellent time to do it.
But no one stirred on the western side.
Ridmark climbed onto the western bank, Kharlacht a few steps behind.
“Where now?” said Kharlacht.
“There’s a human village a half-day from here,” said Ridmark. “A place called Aranaeus. We’ll head there and purchase supplies, and continue to Urd Morlemoch.”
“A human village? Are we not outside the boundaries of the High King’s realm?” said Kharlacht.
“We are,” said Ridmark, “but there are settlements of humans scattered outside the boundaries of Andomhaim, men who wished to live away from the High King’s authority for whatever reason and struck out on their own. A bold way to live, but dangerous. They are outside of the High King’s protection, away from the Swordbearers and the Magistri, and have no way to defend themselves from creatures of dark magic.”
“Are the men of Aranaeus dangerous?” said Kharlacht. “Worshippers of the urdmordar or the orcish blood gods?” He scowled, his tusks making his green face look fierce and bestial.
“Perhaps,” said Ridmark. “I passed through Aranaeus nine years ago, when I first traveled to Urd Morlemoch. The villagers were baptized sons of the church, though fearful and clannish. As one might expect of a lone village surrounded by the ruins of the dark elves. If they are hostile, we shall continue on…but some supplies would be welcome.”
“And a warm meal and a bed,” said Kharlacht.
“Aye,” said Ridmark. “If we make haste, we can reach Aranaeus by nightfall. Let us…”
The trees rustled, and Ridmark stepped back. Kharlacht growled and drew his greatsword, the blue dark elven steel flashing in the sunlight. Ridmark swept his eyes back and forth over the trunks, watching for any signs of movement.
And then a naked man stepped out of the shadows of the trees and into the sunlight.
Or, at least, a creature that was not quite a man.
He stood eight feet tall, his lean body knotted with sinewy muscle and old scars. Stripes of black fur marked his arms and legs and torso, stark against his pale skin, and his hands and fingers ended with heavy black claws. His furred ears rose in points, and a steady stream of clear mucus came from his nose, a mouthful of yellow fangs waiting behind his thin lips. Brilliant golden eyes, like the eyes of a wolf, stared at Ridmark and Kharlacht.
The creature was a beastman. Ridmark’s ancestors had called them the lupivirii, the wolfmen.
And the lupivir was hunting them.
Ridmark had seen the tactic before. One beastman would challenge the prey, holding its attention, while the rest of the pack circled around to attack from the sides. The beastmen must have been watching from the far bank, and waited until Ridmark and Kharlacht had crossed the river.
“Keep watch,” said Ridmark in Latin, grateful that Kharlacht knew the language. “Others will circle around behind us.”
Kharlacht gave a sharp nod.
Ridmark watched the beastman, staff ready in his right hand. He expected the creature to issue some sort of challenge. Or the creature would snarl to keep his attention, or draw upon its innate magic and change shape to full beast form.
“Where are the children?” said the lupivir, speaking in the orcish tongue.
Ridmark blinked. He hadn’t expected that.
“The children?” said Ridmark, switching to orcish.
“The children!” said the beastman, inching closer. “We saw you take them. We know the scent of human and orc, and we smelled you as you took our young. Where have you taken them?”
“I know nothing of what you speak,” said Ridmark. He did not dare take his eyes from the beastman’s, since the lupivir would interpret that as a sign of weakness. Yet he was certain other wolfmen circled through the trees, preparing to strike.
“Lies!” roared the lupivir. “I know how humans and orcs and halflings think. You fashion tools because you are weak, and you fashion cunning words because you lie! You will tell me where you have taken our young!”
“I know nothing of this,” said Ridmark. “On the name of the Dominus Christus and all his saints, I swear that I have only today returned to this land.”
“Returned?” said the beastman. “Then you have traveled this land before, yes? You stole our young!”
“I did not,” said Ridmark. He started to shake his head, and realized the beastman would not understand the gesture. “I have not traveled in this land for nine winters.”
The golden eyes widened. Likely the beastman was no more than fourteen or fifteen years old. The lupivirii rarely lived beyond thirty. They died of disease, of hunger when prey grew scarce, of cold in the heart of winter, or beneath the claws of their kin in the endless struggle for dominance within their hunting packs. And the dark elves and the orcs and dwarves exterminated them without mercy as vermin, or enslaved them to use as war beasts.
The beastmen looked down upon those who used tools, but those who used tools had the advantage.
“How many winters have you seen?” said the beastman. “Both of you!”
“Twenty-eight,” said Ridmark.
“Twenty-four,” said Kharlacht.
“Then you are elders,” said the lupivir, “and you are wicked, for humans and orcs grow more wicked as they age. The great memory of the True People knows this.”
“Perhaps I am wicked,” said Ridmark. God knew he deserved death for what he had done, but he would prefer not to meet it beneath the claws of a confused lupivir. “But I know nothing of what you speak. I have traveled in this land before, aye, but that was many winters ago. I have only now returned, and you know I speak the truth, because you saw me cross the river. My friend and I travel to a place far from here, and if you let us go we will depart in peace.”
And they would likely never return.
“You lie,” hissed the beastman. “You fashion cunning lies from words. Tell me what you did with our young, or you shall perish!”
The beastmen changed.
He grew broader, extra muscle covering his limbs, and black fur sheathed his pale skin. His claws grew longer and sharper, and the lupivir’s face distorted, fangs sprouting from his lips, and became a terrifying blend of human features and a wolf’s muzzle. His limbs stretched and changed, allowing the lupivir to travel on either two legs or four. The beastman stretched, snapped his jaws, and snarled.
“The children!” he growled, his voice far deeper. “You will tell me where the children are, or I shall…”
Ridmark whirled, his staff a blur, and the heavy weapon connected with the jaw of a beastman erupting from the trees.
He had expected the attack. The towering lupivir’s transformation had been intended to distract attention from the others circling around from the side.
The lupivir Ridmark had struck tumbled to the ground with a snap of bone, dead leaves rattling around him. The creature rolled to his hands and knees with smooth, deadly grace, just in time to catch Ridmark’s heavy staff on the forehead. The beastman’s head snapped back with the crack of breaking bone, and the creature slumped motionless to the earth.
Kharlacht dueled another lupivir, blood flashing crimson on the blue steel of his sword. The leader of the lupivir pack charged at Ridmark, and he could spare no more thought for Kharlacht. The creature snarled, reaching for Ridmark with clawed hands and yawning jaws. There was no subtlety to his attack. The beastman intended to drive him to the ground and tear out his throat.
Ridmark decided not to oblige.
He dodged the charge, his staff blurring in a two-handed swing. He aimed for the beastman’s head, but caught him at the joint of the right arm. Bone shattered, the vibration shooting up the staff, and the lupivir stumbled with a yelp of pain. He caught his balance and raked at Ridmark with claws sharp enough to part skin and muscle in a single swipe. Ridmark dodged the blow and thrust his staff. The steel-capped end slammed into the lupivir’s jaw, and the creature stumbled. The beastmen reared up, ready to bring his clawed fingers down on Ridmark.
Ridmark jabbed his staff into the beastman’s gut. The lupivir doubled over with a strangled grunt of pain, and Ridmark landed a blow on his head. As he did, he heard a gurgling scream, saw Kharlacht rip his blade free from the second beastman’s chest.
Kharlacht raised his greatsword. The remaining lupivir scrambled to his feet and looked at Ridmark, at Kharlacht, and then back at Ridmark.
The beastman turned and fled into the trees, vanishing into shadows.
Kharlacht growled and started forward, his eyes glimmering red with the battle rage of his orcish blood.
“Hold,” said Ridmark, lowering his staff. “Chasing a wounded lupivir into the forest is unwise.”
Kharlacht stopped and made a brief nod.
“Did they wound you?” said Ridmark, looking the dead lupivirii. Their bodies shrank as they reverted to their human-like form, the magic leaving their corpses in death.
“No,” said Kharlacht. “Why? If they wound me, will I turn into one?”
“What?” said Ridmark. “No. That’s a legend. But their claws are filthy, and if you don’t clean any cuts at once, they will fester and kill you.”
“I am unharmed,” said Kharlacht. He cleaned the blood from his blade.
“As am I,” said Ridmark, examining at the dead beastmen.
“What are you looking for?” said Kharlacht.
“Signs of disease,” said Ridmark. Both the dead lupivirii looked a bit gaunt, but otherwise healthy. Save for the crushed skull and the sword wound.
“You think they were rabid, then?” said Kharlacht. “This behavior was not normal?”
“No,” said Ridmark, “it’s not. I would like to know why. How does a bear react if you take her cubs? Or an orcish woman if you take her children?”
“Violently,” said Kharlacht.
Ridmark nodded. “I think that is what happened here.”
Kharlacht returned his greatsword to its sheath. “But who would take the children of the beastmen?” He shook his head. “I suspect they would be just as truculent as the adults.”
“I don’t know,” said Ridmark. “It is a mystery. The last time I encountered a mystery was when Brother Caius disappeared from Dun Licinia. A week later Qazarl came out of the hills and Dun Licinia was under siege.”
“If the Frostborn are truly returning,” said Kharlacht, “then their threat is far greater. Perhaps we should continue on to Urd Morlemoch.”
“Perhaps,” said Ridmark. The blue fire had been the omen the Warden had warned him against. Ridmark needed more information, and Urd Morlemoch was the only place he could find it.
Yet the question of why the beastmen thought orcs and humans had taken their children gnawed at him.
And perhaps, a small voice murmured inside him, perhaps if he looked into the matter, it would lead him to the death he had earned for his mistakes at Castra Marcaine five years past.
“We’ll go to Aranaeus for now,” said Ridmark at last. “Perhaps this was merely a coincidence, or perhaps the beastmen were mistaken or deranged from some disease. If so, we’ll continue to Urd Morlemoch. But if not, I may wish to look into it.”
To his surprise, Kharlacht nodded in approval. “As the Gray Knight would.”
Ridmark said nothing. He had once been a Swordbearer, a Knight of the Order of the Soulblade. After the battle at Dun Linicia five years past, he had been stripped of his soulblade Heartwarden and marked with a coward’s brand on the left side of his face. After that he had gone in pursuit of the mystery of the Frostborn, but his consequent deeds had given rise to the legend of the Gray Knight. Even Sir Joram and the other men at Dun Licinia had believed it.
After what had happened at Castra Marcaine, Ridmark did not deserve to live, let alone honor and renown. But he would not commit the final sin and take his own life. The Frostborn were returning, and neither the Magistri nor the Swordbearers nor the nobles of Andomhaim saw the threat. Ridmark would find proof so the realm of Andomhaim could prepare itself.
Or he would die trying.
“As you like,” said Ridmark. He peered into the trees. “There was a trail leading to Aranaeus from here. We…”
A howl rang out in the woods, followed by three more.
“They have found us!” said Kharlacht, yanking his sword from its sheath.
Ridmark listened for a moment.
“No,” he said, “they haven’t.”
Kharlacht scowled. “Can you not hear them?”
“I can,” said Ridmark, “but they’re chasing someone. They’re getting farther away.”
In the distance he heard the sounds of pursuit, the snarls of the beastmen.
“Perhaps answers to the riddle are at hand,” said Kharlacht.
“Indeed,” said Ridmark. “Follow me.”
He ran into the trees, Kharlacht following.