“Frostborn: The Master Thief” Excerpt

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Chapter 1 – Wings

Forty-one days after it began, forty-one days after the day in the Year of Our Lord 1478 when blue fire filled the sky from horizon to horizon, Ridmark Arban moved alone through the forest.

Something felt wrong, and he wanted to have a look around.

The forest was quiet, the gray light of dawn just brightening the trees. It was the end of spring and the beginning of summer, and new green leaves whispered in the breeze. He moved in silence through the trees, his boots making no sound against the forest floor, his heavy staff ready in his right hand. The forest was quiet, but it did not mean it would stay that way. Warbands of pagan orcs might come down from the hills of Vhaluusk to the north or the mountains of Kothluusk to the west. Packs of lupivirii prowled the forest, and bands of dvargir and kobolds raided from the Deeps in search of captives and loot.

And there were older dangers in the woods. The wild forest had been the site of many wars over the centuries, battles amongst the tribes of orcs, between the orcs and the dwarves of the Three Kingdoms, between the men of Andomhaim and the urdmordar.

Between the men of Andomhaim and the Frostborn.

Ridmark looked northwest. He saw nothing but trees in that direction, trees and boulders and fallen leaves.

But he knew what waited for him to the northwest. The spell-haunted Torn Hills and the massive ruined citadel of Urd Morlemoch, the fortress rising like a tower of bones jutting from the earth. The undead Warden, ancient and mighty and cruel.

And the answer Ridmark had sought for so long.

The secret of the return of the Frostborn.

But he could not learn the secret if some creature in the forest killed him first.

So Ridmark kept going, remaining watchful.

Something uneasy rattled in his mind. Of course, he was never at ease, not really. Not since the day he had pursued Mhalek to the great hall of Castra Marcaine, had seen Aelia’s blood spill upon the black and white tiles of the hall…

He pushed that out of his mind. This was not the time to dwell upon it.

Given that a more immediate danger might lie at hand.

Ridmark had spent the last five years wandering from one end of the Wilderland to another, seeking answers about the Frostborn and finding very little. Yet he had grown familiar with the forests of the Wilderland, and this one felt wrong.

Too quiet, and no sign of any animals. Ridmark could think of any number of reasons for that, and none of them were good. The creatures of the dark elves haunted the woods, urvaalgs and ursaars and worse things. If Ridmark encountered one, he would die. He had no weapon that could harm a creature of dark magic. Once he had carried the soulblade Heartwarden into battle, but he had lost that, too, through his own folly. Though there were any number of more mundane predators that would frighten away animals – fire drakes, swamp drakes, wyverns, manticores, and others.

He stopped and stood in silence, listening.

Perhaps he was simply being paranoid.

But he had not survived this long by ignoring his instincts, and his instincts told him that something was wrong.

Ridmark needed a better look around, and he knew where to find one.

He moved at a quick, silent run through the trees, weaving around boulders as the ground grew rockier. The terrain sloped upward, and the trees cleared to reveal a tall, stony hill jutting from the earth. Atop the hill rose a half-ruined tower of rough stone. Ridmark had no idea who had built it. Perhaps an orcish war chief had used it as a stronghold. Or maybe a group of fleeing dwarves had constructed it as a hasty, temporary refuge. Or perhaps the knights of Andomhaim had raised it in the past as a stronghold against the dark elves or the urdmordar or the Frostborn.

But whoever had built the tower had been dead for centuries, and it stood abandoned atop the hill. Yet its crumbling shell still had a commanding view of the surrounding forest.

Ridmark made his way up the path to the top of the hill, staff ready in his hand. The tower had been abandoned when he had last passed here, but someone or something might have claimed occupancy since. Yet the tower remained undisturbed. Flowering bushes grew around its base, and the interior was empty. Half-rotted timbers slumped against the walls, covered with lichen and mushrooms, and a rough stone staircase wound its way to the tower’s top. Ridmark climbed the stairs, taking care to keep his balance upon the uneven stones. It would be a grim joke to have survived Urd Morlemoch, two female urdmordar, a renegade Eternalist, and a crazed orcish shaman only to trip and break his neck upon a loose step.

He reached the tower’s top and found that he could see for miles, the green forest spreading like a mottled carpet over the ground. To the northeast he saw the distant grim shapes of the mountains of Vhaluusk. Kharlacht had shown little interest in ever returning to his homeland, and having visited, Ridmark could not blame him. To the west he glimpsed the massive, white-crowned shapes of the mountains of Kothluusk. The pagan orcs of Kothluusk lived among the vales and slopes of those mountains, while the dwarves of the Three Kingdoms maintained their fortresses beneath the mountains, forever at war with the orcs.

And to the northwest, Ridmark just made out a faint white haze.

The mist rolling through the spell-ravaged lands of the Torn Hills, haunted by spirits and urvaalgs and worse things.

Urd Morlemoch waited beyond those hills.

It was not much farther now. Another ten days to Urd Morlemoch, Ridmark thought. Then they could enter the ruined citadel and confront the Warden. For all his power and magic, the Warden was imprisoned within Urd Morlemoch, and the Warden was bored. He enjoyed games, lethal, cruel games. Ridmark had survived one of the Warden’s games, and he thought he could so again.

Just as he had thought he could save Aelia from Mhalek.

Ridmark stood motionless, watching the sun rise.

There was no sign of anything unusual.

Then why did he feel so ill at ease?

Ridmark scratched as the stubble on his jaw in irritation, and then started back down the tower. It was past time to get back to camp. He had left Kharlacht on watch, and he trusted the orcish warrior. But Brother Caius would soon rise to greet the dawn by singing the twenty-third Psalm, as was his custom. Morigna would complain at the noise, and she and Gavin might start quarreling. Calliande would take Gavin’s side, and the entire thing would degenerate into an argument.

If not for his presence, Ridmark suspected, his companions would all be at each other’s throats within a day.

A flicker of guilt went through him. They followed him. He had saved each of them at one point or another, and in gratitude they would follow him to Urd Morlemoch. He wished he could have dissuaded them, convinced them to remain behind.

Especially Calliande.

Ridmark reached the base of the tower and stopped. A flash of color caught his eye among the gray stones of the tower’s foundation. Staff ready in hand, he stepped closer. A small green bush flowered at the foot of the tower, dotted with deep red berries.

He blinked in surprise, went to one knee next to the bush, and plucked one of the berries. He lifted it to his nose, sniffed, and then put the berry into his mouth. Surprise flooded through him at the sweet taste, and he smiled.

Well. He had expected to find an urvaalg or a next of rock drakes, not this. Ridmark drew a dagger and cut the berries from the bush, securing them in a pouch. He straightened up and looked around one final time.

It still seemed too quiet.

The sooner he returned to camp, the sooner they could depart, and hopefully leave behind whatever was making his instincts twitch.

He started down the hill.

###

Calliande tended the campfire, lost in thought.

To her surprise, she knew how to make a fire. As it happened, she knew how to do a great many things. She knew how to tend to the donkeys Sir Michael Vorinus had given them. She knew how to treat wounds, how to use herbs and roots to make medicines to treat numerous illnesses. She could speak Latin and orcish and the dark elven tongue, among other languages.

And she knew how to wield the magic of the Magistri, how to heal and ward and drive back creatures of darkness.

But she could remember learning none of those things.

She remembered nothing that had happened before the last forty-one days, before the day the blue fire had filled the sky. Before she had awakened in the vault below the Tower of Vigilance, alone in the silent darkness.

A Tower that had been burned and abandoned ninety years past.

Calliande had no idea how old she was.

She didn’t even know who she was.

But she had learned some things. A spirit called the Watcher spoke in her dreams, giving her what counsel he could. She needed to find her staff at a place called Dragonfall, and once she found the staff she could recover her memories. And she had to recover her staff and her memories, because without them she could not stop the return of the Frostborn. It was her responsibility, her duty, and she would not flinch from it.

That was why she followed Ridmark to Urd Morlemoch. The Warden had warned him about the omen of blue flame, nine years before it had happened. The Warden would know how the Frostborn would return and how to stop them.

And if they learned how to stop the Frostborn, then perhaps Calliande could find Dragonfall, her staff, and her true identity.

She moved alone through the camp, humming quietly to herself as she tended to the donkeys. Ridmark had gone to scout alone, as he often did. The others had been concerned about leaving Calliande alone in the camp, but she had calmed their fears. In truth, with her magic, she had a better chance of defending herself than did the others.

Especially if Shadowbearer came for her.

Her humming faltered as a chill went down her spine, and her hand strayed to the pouch at her belt that held the empty soulstone. Shadowbearer had tried to kill her and bind her power within that soulstone. Ridmark had saved her from that, but Shadowbearer and his servants had pursued her and the soulstone. Her friends were brave, but they could not stand against the power of Shadowbearer’s magic.

Even Calliande could not stand against the wrath of Shadowbearer’s spells.

At least if he came for her this morning, she would be alone.

“Morbid thought,” muttered Calliande.

Well, work was the best cure for worry. She brushed down the donkeys and made sure they were fed, and then turned to the fire. Kharlacht and Morigna were confident they could bring back a deer, and the fresh venison would be welcome. Still, they had an ample supply of sausages from Moraime, and Calliande could fry them up with the mushrooms Gavin had found last night.

She turned back to the donkeys, intending to retrieve a pan, and Ridmark appeared out of nowhere.

The man could move like a ghost through the woods. And his gray cloak had been given to him by the high elven archmage Ardrhythain himself, in gratitude for saving the bladeweaver Rhyannis from the pits of Urd Morlemoch.

“Ridmark,” said Calliande.

“Did I startle you?” said Ridmark. “I fear stealth is a hard habit to unlearn.”

She smiled. “Only a little.”

He did not smile back. He hardly ever smiled. He was tall and strong, with close-cropped black hair and eyes like shards of blue ice, cold and unyielding. The brand of a broken sword marred the lines of his left cheek. He did not deserve that, no more than he deserved the burden of guilt he carried, but it was there nonetheless.

“Where are the others?” he said. “Is something amiss?”

“Nothing,” said Calliande. “Morigna’s ravens spotted a deer. She and Kharlacht thought they could catch it, and Caius and Gavin went with them.”

He frowned. “They left you alone?”

Calliande shrugged. “I am safe enough. As safe as I can be, I suppose. With my magic I can defend myself better than any of us. If Shadowbearer comes for me, I don’t think it will matter if I am alone or not.”

“Nevertheless,” he said, his frown unwavering, “they should not have left you alone.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You are one to talk. Where did you wander off?” He opened his mouth, and she pointed at him. “And don’t tell me you know what you are doing. I might have stayed in the camp alone, but you are the one who has walked into a nest of drakes, challenged an urdmordar, lured a mzrokar into a trap, and God knows what else.”

He snorted. “I suppose I cannot argue that. I wanted to have a look around. This section of the forest is too quiet for my liking.” He rubbed his chin. “It heartens me that Morigna’s birds saw a deer.”

“You think something like an urvaalg frightened the animals away?” said Calliande.

“Perhaps.” Ridmark shrugged. “Or maybe I am overcautious. That reminds me.” He reached for the pouch at his belt. “I have something for you.”

“Really,” she said.

“Have you ever had a stoneberry?”

Calliande shook her head. “Not that I recall.” She sighed. “Which is hardly conclusive. But I don’t remember having eaten one.”

“Not surprising,” said Ridmark, drawing a number of red berries from the pouch. “They mostly grow in the south, along the banks of the River Moradel near Tarlion and Taliand. I have never seen one this far north. Try one – they’re quite pleasant.”

Calliande gave the berry a dubious look. “It does not look…healthy.”

To her surprise, Ridmark laughed. “They do look poisonous. But I imagine that’s to scare off scavengers.” He ate one of the berries. “Try it. I suspect you will like it.”

“You only suspect? You’re not sure?” said Calliande, but she grinned as she said it. “Very well.” She took one of the berries from his callused hand and popped it into her mouth. The sweet, sharp taste flooded her tongue. “That’s…not bad. It would…”

She staggered back, her eyes widening.

“Calliande?” said Ridmark. He grabbed her arm. “What’s wrong?”

“I…” she said, her voice a hoarse whisper, “I…”

Images burned through her mind, a memory ripped from the past. It often seemed that her memory was a landscape cloaked in a thick mist that never lifted. Sometimes Calliande caught glimpses of shapes from her past, like mountains draped in fog, but never more than outlines. It often frustrated her to the point of rage.

But now, for just an instant, she remembered things.

The River Moradel lapping at its blanks, broad and wide as it flowed into the southern sea.

White towers rising on the far side of the river, the High King’s proud citadel upon its crag, the red Pendragon banner flying from its ramparts.

A middle-aged man, his face kindly and seamed from the sun, a coil of rope in his hand and a set of scaling knives at his belt.

She sat next him on a dock, her feet dangling in the water as they ate berries together…

The very same berries she now tasted upon her tongue.

“Ridmark,” whispered Calliande. She grabbed his arms for balance and looked up at him. “I…I remember these…”

“From before, you mean,” he said.

“Yes,” said Calliande. “My father…I think he was a fisherman. The…the stoneberries, I would pick them for him, and then…and then…”

She closed her eyes, trying to pull more from the mist choking her memory.

Nothing came. She remembered her father, the berries, the dock as they ate together.

But nothing else.

“That’s it,” she said. “That’s all I can remember. My father’s face.”

“I’m sorry,” said Ridmark.

“No, don’t be,” Calliande said. “I can remember my father’s face. Ridmark, I couldn’t remember anything else before.” She let out a deep, shuddering breath. “If I can remember that…maybe I can remember more.”

“The berries,” said Ridmark. “They must have been a strong memory for you. Enough to pull the recollection from your mind, regardless of what has happened to you.”

Calliande nodded, for a moment too overcome to speak.

Her father’s face. How could she have forgotten that? She had done it to herself, or so the Watcher claimed. But how could she had forgotten something so important?

“If the berries triggered a memory,” said Ridmark, “then in time perhaps other things will recall additional memories to your mind.”

Calliande worked moisture into her dry mouth. “Maybe I ought to wander around the forest eating things at random.”

A faint ghost of a smile flickered over his lips. “I would not recommend that.”

Calliande laughed. “Nor would I. But, Ridmark…thank you.”

“For what?” said Ridmark. “The memory? That was not my doing.”

“But you brought me the berries,” said Calliande. “That was…that was kind of you, even if you could not know what would happen. And I can remember my father’s face again. I had lost everything…but I can at least remember a piece of my past now. Thank you.”

“You will get your memory back,” said Ridmark. “After we return from Urd Morlemoch, after we stop the Frostborn. We will find Dragonfall and your staff.”

“I have more confidence of that now,” said Calliande.

She leaned up and kissed him on the cheek, the stubble rough beneath her lips.

Ridmark stared down at her without blinking.

She realized that she was still holding on to his arms, that he had not released her either. They were alone in the camp, and the others would likely not return for some time.

And as her heart hammered against her ribs, she realized that none of those things troubled her.

“Ridmark,” she said, her voice a faint whisper, and then he pulled her close and kissed her.

Calliande went stiff, and then melted against him, her lips parting to accept the kiss. Her heart beat faster, a warmth spreading from her chest and into her arms and legs. Some small part of her mind realized that this was a bad idea, that Ridmark was poisoned with grief from his dead wife, that for all Calliande knew she had a husband and children asleep beneath some other ruined tower.

But right now she did not care about anything but the taste and feel of his mouth against hers.

She broke away from him with a little gasp, still breathing hard. Ridmark stared down at her.

“Calliande,” he said, his voice hoarse. “I…”

She never found out what he intended to say.

A harsh metallic scream drowned out his words.

For a furious, irrational moment Calliande wanted to curse in frustration.

And then her mind caught up to her ears, and she realized that they were likely in deadly danger.

Ridmark was already moving, his staff in hand as he turned in a slow circle. Calliande summoned power, preparing spells to ward against harm or to drive off creatures of dark magic, her hands glimmering with white light.

Again that terrible brassy scream rang out, farther away than before.

“Fool,” muttered Ridmark, “fool, fool, fool.”

For a moment she was stung, and then realized that he was rebuking himself.

“I should have realized,” he said, looking at the sky, “that’s what scared all the animals away. They have better noses. Smelled it a ways off.”

Again the metallic scream filled Calliande’s ears. “Is that a drake?” she said, remembering the fire drakes on the slopes of Black Mountain and the swamp drake they had fought near Moraime. The drakes’ cries had sounded a bit like the metallic screams.

“No,” said Ridmark. “Not a drake.”

“Oh, that’s good,” said Calliande, watching the trees for any sign of movement.

“A wyvern,” said Ridmark.

Calliande blinked. Wyverns were some of the most dangerous predators of the Wilderland, and preyed upon both humans and orcs with ease. Even the dark elves had not always been able to tame wyverns and use them as war beasts, and more than one proud dark elven wizard had met his end beneath the talons of an irritated wyvern.

“That’s much worse,” said Calliande.

“Aye,” said Ridmark. “Helped kill a wyvern, once. Hunting party from Castra Marcaine, when I was still a Swordbearer in the Dux’s court.” He shook his head. “The beast took down three men before we killed it. And that was only a young male.”

Calliande heard another shriek, so close she looked over her shoulder, fearing that the wyvern had somehow crept up behind her. “What do we do?”

Ridmark looked at the sky again. “They only scream when trying to flush out prey.” The donkeys stirred, tugging at their tethers as they tried to flee. “It likely scented the donkeys. Get ready to run. Once a wyvern decides to take a kill, it kills anything that gets in its way. The pack animals are not worth your life.”

“And if it decides to come for us instead of the donkeys?”

“Then we’ll have to fight,” said Ridmark, one hand straying to the orcish war axe slung at his belt. “We’ll have only one chance. Eyes and the throat are its weak points. The scales get stronger as it ages. If I can’t kill it immediately, we’re finished.”

Calliande nodded. “I will use a spell to enhance your speed, and…”

A black shadow fell over the clearing, and the wyvern soared overhead.

The creature was enormous. The fire drakes nesting upon the Black Mountain had been the size of large dogs, and the swamp drake near Moraime had been horse-sized. The wyvern dwarfed them both. Its body had the bulk of an adult ox, the limbs heavy with muscle and topped with razor-edged talons. Its wings spread like the sails of a ship, and fierce yellow eyes gazed from a head crowned with a bony crest. Its greenish-black scales looked as tough as steel, and the wyvern’s long, thick tail ended with a barbed stinger glistening with black slime. A wyvern’s poison was one of the most lethal substances in the world, and could kill a strong man in moments. Though given the creature’s size, strength, fangs, and talons, the poisonous stinger seemed redundant.

At least the wyvern could not breathe flames as a drake could.

The beast swooped over the clearing and rose higher, its massive wings flapping. Calliande wondered why Ridmark had not tried to put an arrow into the creature, and then realized her folly. His arrow could not penetrate the thick scales. The wyvern might not even notice the attack.

Or the arrow would just draw its attention.

The wyvern screamed again and banked over the clearing, moving with terrible speed as the donkeys brayed in terror. Ridmark tensed, and Calliande expected the wyvern to swoop upon the donkeys. Yet the beast flew away to the east, its head turning back and forth upon the long, serpentine neck.

And it kept going.

“Why didn’t it attack us?” said Calliande, puzzled. “We would have been easy prey. The donkeys are even tethered.”

“Because,” said Ridmark, watching the wyvern’s receding shape, “it must have spotted something else. Something easier. They’re predators, but they’re not above scavenging. Or driving wolves or cougars away from their kills. It must have smelled blood. Fresh blood, and…”

She came to the realization at the same time that he did.

“Morigna’s deer,” said Ridmark.

“She shot it, the wyvern smells the blood, and it’s coming after them,” said Calliande.

“We’d better run,” said Ridmark, and he ran into the trees, Calliande following.

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