A BRIEF PROLOGUE
Do you want to know how to create monsters, my disciple?
The power comes from the shadow of Incariel in our blood.
Our sundered cousins, the high elves, inhabited this world first. For when God created this world and called the high elves into being he gave them a mission. They were to guard this world, to act as its custodians and caretakers, for a great evil had been imprisoned within the earth. And our ancestors fulfilled this mission for millennia beyond count.
But some of us were wiser. We spoke to the imprisoned darkness, to Incariel, and in return we received power. Incariel’s shadows imprinted themselves upon our very blood. Our sundered cousins turned upon us and named us the dark elves, and we warred against each other for a hundred thousand years.
And in time we learned how to use our blood to create loyal servants.
The urvaalgs and ursaars were first. By fusing our blood with common wolves and bears, we transformed them, made them stronger and faster and smarter, granting them immunity to common steel and a bloodlust that fired their limbs.
But when we opened doors to other worlds, summoning other kindreds to serve as our slaves and soldiers, we learned how to create powerful servants. For our blood, when fused with the blood and souls of lesser kindred, gives them power. Such creatures possess great cunning and greater strength, and are our most effective servants.
Yet though the power in their blood compels them to obedience, the stronger their will the more likely it is that they will hate our domination and seek to escape it.
You would do well, my disciple, to heed this lesson, lest it destroy you.
-The Warden of Urd Morlemoch
CHAPTER ONE – THE SOULSTONE
Fifty-five days after it began, fifty-five days after the day in the Year of Our Lord 1478 when blue fire filled the sky from horizon to horizon, Ridmark Arban moved in silence through the twilight forest.
He had spent years traveling through the Wilderland’s forests, but this time, he did not go alone.
Late spring had given way to early summer, and the branches of the trees over Ridmark’s head were heavy with green leaves. A thick layer of fallen leaves covered the floor of the forest, though they made no noise beneath Ridmark’s quick footsteps. The only sound was the buzz of insects and the faint whisper of the wind against the trees, the air heavy with the smells of wet earth and grass.
He certainly did not hear the movements of the woman next to him, and if he did not glance at her from time to time, he would quickly lose track of her position.
Morigna was about twenty, her long black hair tied back into a thick tail, her hard black eyes stark against her pale face. She wore leather boots, trousers, and a well-worn leather jerkin, a cloak of tattered gray and brown strips hanging from her shoulders. Her wooden staff, carved with odd sigils, had been slung over her shoulder, its leather strap clenched diagonally across her chest. In her hands she held a short hunting bow, an arrow ready.
She moved through the trees and over the tangled branches without a hint of sound. She was even better at it than Ridmark. Part of it was that she was fifty or sixty pounds lighter than he was, and so made less noise. A bigger part of it was that she had spent nearly every day in the woods since she had been a child, had spent years surviving on her own.
Of all those who had followed Ridmark since the day of the great omen, Morigna was the best choice for what he had in mind. Kharlacht and Gavin and Caius could move quietly enough, but next to them Morigna was a ghost. Calliande could move with stealth, but her magic would not be as useful if the patrols found Ridmark. And Jager…the halfling moved like a shadow, but he was more comfortable in a city, and ever since they had left Coldinium he had been staring at the trees like he expected them to grow claws and attack.
Morigna stopped. For just a moment her black eyes closed, and her face turned towards the dimming sky. Then she nodded, opened her eyes, and kept moving.
She had certain other useful skills.
They climbed the wooded slope, moving from tree to tree. Ridmark had his staff slung over his shoulder, the enchanted axe the Taalkaz of Coldinium’s Dwarven Enclave had given to him hanging from his belt, his own bow ready in his hands. He was not as good a shot as Morigna, though if necessary he could put a shaft through a man’s throat.
Ridmark hoped it would not come to that. He did not want to kill any of Sir Paul Tallmane’s men, not if he could help it. They might not know about Sir Paul’s allegiance to the Enlightened of Incariel, might not know about the Dux Tarrabus Carhaine’s treachery.
And from a more practical note, killing one man might alert the others.
A raven flew overhead and perched upon a branch. Morigna stared at the bird for a moment. Then she turned, beckoned to Ridmark, and hurried in silence towards the raven’s tree. Ridmark followed suit, and Morigna ducked against the base of the tree, wrapping her tattered cloak around her. The cloak’s long strips of brown and gray made for effective concealment. Ridmark wrapped his own gray cloak around him. The high elven archmage Ardrhythain had given it to him years ago, and some property of the cloak turned aside hostile eyes when Ridmark needed concealment.
They waited, and a moment later the man-at-arms came into sight.
He wore chain mail beneath a blue tabard adorned with a black dragon’s head, the sigil of the Dux of Caerdracon. A sword and a dagger waited at his belt, and a heavy shield had been slung over his shoulders. The man-at-arms carried a loaded crossbow in his arms, his eyes scanning the trees. The twigs snapped and crackled beneath his armored boots. Ridmark fought off an urge to shake his head in dismay and kept motionless. A proper scout should have been wearing leather, not mail, and a crossbow was a poor weapon in the dense trees. Better to send out a man with a hunting bow or a longbow, a weapon that could be strung and drawn quickly at need.
But, then, no one had ever accused Sir Paul Tallmane of being clever. His master Dux Tarrabus crafted the plans. Paul was merely the armored fist that carried them out.
The man-at-arms blundered through the woods with the air of a man who wanted to finish his patrol and return to his tent. Ridmark remained motionless. He was close enough to Morigna that he felt his right leg against her left, felt the warmth of her body seeping through her clothes. It made him uncomfortable. Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe he enjoyed it, which made him more uncomfortable.
It made him think about Aelia, about that awful day in Castra Marcaine’s great hall.
Ridmark dismissed the thought. This was most certainly neither the time nor the place to think about his dead wife and the guilt he felt. He turned his head, peering around the tree, but the man-at-arms had vanished.
“Any others?” muttered Ridmark.
Morigna’s eyes darted back and forth behind closed lids as she worked her magic and summoned her mental link to the ravens. “None. At least none that the birds can see.” She had grown up in a forest, but spoke Latin with a stately, almost archaic formality.
Given that her teacher had been born centuries ago, that was not surprising.
Ridmark grunted and got to his feet, throwing back his cloak.
“Though if the last two are any indication,” said Morigna, “one suspects we could hear the blundering fools from a mile off.”
Ridmark shook his head. “Sir Paul is many things, but clever is not one of them.”
Morigna raised a black eyebrow. “Was that Sir Paul himself, then?”
“No. One of his patrols,” said Ridmark. “But the patrols are sloppy and disorganized. The scout was not equipped properly. A wise commander would have taken better precautions.”
“And you would know,” said Morigna, “since you commanded men in battle.”
He looked at her.
“That was not sarcasm,” said Morigna. “It speaks ill of your realm of Andomhaim that Sir Paul has power and prestige and you are a branded exile. You would use such power wisely.”
Ridmark said nothing. He had had this argument with both her and Calliande, and he had no wish to repeat it. He deserved death for what had happened to Aelia, had earned his brand and exile. Many men, he knew, would have despaired and slain themselves, or sunk into dissipation and debauchery.
But Ridmark knew something.
The Frostborn were returning.
Within a year and a month of the great omen of blue fire, Agrimnalazur had said. The omen had been fifty-five days ago. The Frostborn had been destroyed two centuries ago at great cost, but they would return within the year.
Unless Ridmark found a way to stop it.
“This is not the time for such a discussion,” said Ridmark. Nor was it the time for him to brood upon his doubts.
“Agreed,” said Morigna. “Though this would be much simpler if you would simply let me shoot them.”
“No,” said Ridmark.
She rolled her eyes. “I would be doing them a favor. The way they blunder through the underbrush, they shall draw the ear of every urvaalg for a hundred miles.”
“You cannot admire my wisdom in one breath,” said Ridmark, “and disregard it in the next.”
“I can if you abandon wisdom between one breath and the next.”
“If you shoot the patrol,” said Ridmark, “they will not return to deliver their reports. Even Sir Paul will not fail to notice that something is amiss when all his scouts disappear.”
“Given how much he hates you,” said Morigna, “perhaps you can sound a trumpet and challenge him to knightly combat.”
“No,” said Ridmark.
“That was a joke,” said Morigna.
“If you want to trade witticisms,” said Ridmark, “wait until we return to our camp. I am sure that Jager will be more than happy to oblige.”
“The man never stops talking,” said Morigna. “Both him and Caius. Once they start talking, they stop for neither food nor rest. They would die of thirst if we let them.”
“Then let us not follow their example,” said Ridmark, turning back toward the slope.
She scoffed at that, but followed him, moving in silence.
They made their way up the slope, one cautious step at a time. Ridmark’s ears strained for any sounds, but heard only the buzz of insects and the wind rustling the branches. Yet as they drew closer, he heard sounds rising over the hill. The neighing of horses and the shouts of men. The tramp of boots and the clatter of armor. Ridmark dropped to his hands and knees and gestured for Morigna to do the same, and together they crawled on their stomachs to the top of the hill.
A wide valley stretched below them, and Ridmark saw the camp of Sir Paul Tallmane.
The camp, as Ridmark had expected, was a mess. This far from the frontier of Andomhaim, Paul should have raised a fortified camp, surrounding it with a ditch and a palisade in the style of the legions of the Romans of Old Earth. Instead a score of tents sprawled along the banks of a small creek, the horses tethered at random. No proper guard had been placed, and Ridmark saw men-at-arms and knights wandering about and laughing, some of them gathering around the campfires to eat.
Paul had a hundred men, and if Ridmark had possessed a third of that number, he could have launched a surprise attack that would have swept these complacent fools from the field. But he did not have thirty men. He had himself, an orcish warrior, a dwarven friar, a Magistria, a half-trained boy who had the potential to become a good swordsman, a renegade sorceress, and a halfling who liked to make jokes. Together they had faced dangerous foes and prevailed, but Paul simply had too many men to fight.
They would have to use cleverness instead of strength, then.
Ridmark studied the camp for a moment longer. Sir Paul’s pavilion, larger and more elaborate than the other tents, rose from the center of the camp. He spotted Paul Tallmane himself in front of the pavilion, a tall, strong man in gleaming steel plate and a blue surcoat, a skin of wine in one hand. He looked relaxed, certain that nothing threatened him.
The stolen soulstone was likely within his pavilion.
Ridmark wondered at that. Was Paul foolish enough to disregard even the possibility of an attack? Perhaps Paul was certain that the Red Family and the Mhorites would kill Ridmark in Coldinium. Yet while Paul would take a risk that foolish, Tarrabus Carhaine would not. The Dux had to have known that Ridmark might escape and go after the soulstone. Why entrust it to Sir Paul?
Of course, if the soulstone got to the Iron Tower, it would never come out again. Not until Shadowbearer came to claim it.
Morigna turned her head to the right and closed her eyes. Then she opened them again and inched closer to Ridmark, bringing her lips to his ear.
“We should go,” she whispered, her breath hot against his skin. “The ravens saw another patrol around the side of the hill. If they catch us up here, we shall have half the camp after us before we can escape.”
Again he found that her proximity both pleased and unsettled him. But this was certainly not the time to dwell upon it. Ridmark nodded and crept back down the slope. Once they were a safe distance away, he got back to his feet.
“Now what?” said Morigna.
“Back to our camp,” said Ridmark. “We have a theft to plan.”
They hurried through the trees, and Morigna kept part of her mind focused upon maintaining a quick and stealthy stride. Paul Tallmane’s scouts were blundering fools, but even a fool might notice the obvious if you waved it in front of his face. Best not to give them the opportunity.
Another part of her mind focused upon her magical link to the ravens she had bound. She had them circling over the camp and the surrounding forests, watching for any sign of movement. Ravens were predators, but they were also scavengers, and convincing them to circle above the camp had not taken much magical persuasion. Sooner or later their instincts would override her control, but for now they kept watch.
The rest of her mind considered Ridmark.
As it so often did, these days.
She marveled at his determination. He had not walked away from the fight with Coriolus, though he owed Morigna nothing, and had defeated the Old Man. He had refused to accept Kharlacht’s impending death from wyvern venom, and had saved the orcish warrior’s life at great risk to his own. He had aided Jager and risked the wrath of the Red Family and the Mhorite orcs. Now he was preparing to snatch the soulstone out of the heart of his foe’s camp.
She had only seen him falter once, when Imaria Licinius had accused him of Aelia’s death.
And when Calliande, infected with Imaria’s memories after the Challenge of Magistri, had thrown that death into his face.
It still made Morigna angry to think on it.
Of course, Calliande claimed she had been infected with Imaria’s memories at the time, but Morigna had her doubts. And it was not as if the haughty Magistria could understand the kind of pain she had inflicted. Calliande had lost the memory of her past life, but Morigna would not have been surprised if it turned out Calliande had never known a man’s touch. She wouldn’t understand the pain of such a loss.
But Morigna did.
Morigna had seen Nathan Vorinus die before her eyes, slain by an urvaalg’s talons, and she had loved him with all her heart. She had blamed herself for his death, but in time she had realized that if Nathan had listened to her, if he had not pursued that deer into the standing stones, the urvaalg would never have found him.
And then she had learned the Old Man had orchestrated his death.
Well, he had paid for his crimes.
Morigna had vowed to become strong, to have power enough that she would never again know a loss like that.
And Ridmark was so strong. He ought to have been a lord, maybe even a Dux, ruling over lesser men and bringing order to his lands. Any people he ruled would have been prosperous and orderly beneath his firm hand. If grief for the death of Aelia Licinius Arban had not crippled his heart, he could have been a powerful lord. And he still might be. He would never entirely forgive himself for Aelia’s death, she knew, but in time he could move past it as Morigna had moved past Nathan’s death. She need only convince him of that.
And she had a few ideas on just how to accomplish it.
Later. After she had repaid her debt to him by helping to stop the return of the Frostborn. But before they did that, they had to get that soulstone away from Sir Paul. And Morigna had no idea how Ridmark intended to do that.
A mile later they came to their camp.
Kharlacht saw them first. The big orc was a tower of green-skinned muscle clad in blue armor. His black hair had been shaved into a warrior’s topknot, bound with a ring of bronze. The hilt of a massive two-handed greatsword rose over his right shoulder, and Morigna had seen him use that weapon to behead foes with a single blow.
“You found them?” said Kharlacht.
“They were hard to miss,” said Ridmark. “Anything here?”
Kharlacht shook his head. “Nothing of note. One of the men-at-arms approached, but he was too lazy to take proper note of his surroundings.” The orcish warrior shook his head in disapproval, the wooden cross hanging from his neck scraping against the blue steel plates of his armor. “I could have walked up and picked his pocket.”
“A lazy scout indeed, if he failed to notice a seven-foot tall orcish man watching him,” said Morigna.
“Indeed,” said Kharlacht.
“Aye, the foe is lax,” said Ridmark, “and that is our best chance for retrieving the soulstone. Come. We must speak with the others.”
He led the way into their camp.
They had ridden hard for nearly three days, leaving Coldinium and drawing nearer to the Iron Tower. They had avoided the road, using trails Ridmark knew from his years wandering the Wilderland, and had passed Sir Paul’s slow-moving column. Then Ridmark had led them to a ravine in the hills, concealed the horses, and taken Morigna to scout Paul’s camp.
Their ravine was narrow, lined with tough little trees and tumbled boulders, and the horses waited in a group, grazing. The other members of Ridmark Arban’s odd little band stood with the horses, their hands near their weapons.
Calliande, of course, was the first to approach.
Morigna kept the scowl from her face. She hated showing weakness to anyone, and she certainly would not show it to Calliande.
“Ridmark,” said Calliande. “You came back in one piece.”
Morigna had to admit that Calliande was beautiful, with long blond hair tied away from her face and clear blue eyes. The woman was two hundred years old, if not older, but looked no older than her middle twenties, which struck Morigna as unjust. Though Calliande had paid a price for that. She had spent most of those two hundred years asleep below the Tower of Vigilance in the shadow of the Black Mountain, and when she had awakened on the day of blue fire her memories had been gone. Calliande could remember nothing that had happened before she had awakened. Morigna had seen her parents murdered by Coriolus’s dvargir, had seen Nathan die, but the thought of forgetting them was dreadful. It made her feel a pang of sympathy for the woman.
She was still insufferable, though.
“For now,” said Ridmark.
Gavin stood next to her, a boy of about fifteen or sixteen with a ragged shock of curly brown hair and brown eyes. He gave Morigna a flat stare, neither threating nor hostile, but simply…aware. As if he was ready to take action if she lifted a hand against Calliande. Morigna had thought him a rural simpleton when they first met, but she had seen him keep his head in several fights.
The final two members of their party joined them.
“The Dominus Christus has guided you back,” said Brother Caius. The dwarf was short and stocky with muscle, clad in simple brown robes, a wooden cross hanging from his neck. His skin was the color of granite, gray and hard, and his strange eyes were like polished blue marble. His receding black hair and bushy beard were shot through with gray, giving him an air of solemn wisdom.
“The Dominus Christus,” said Morigna, “had naught to do with it. If he truly wants to help us, then he can deign to descend from heaven and snatch the soulstone out of Paul Tallmane’s grasp.”
Both Calliande and Kharlacht frowned. Morigna could never understand why Kharlacht had turned from the old blood gods of the orcs to follow the teachings of the church. The blood gods permitted an orcish man to take as many wives and concubines as his strength and wealth allowed, while the church restricted a man to just one.
Caius only smiled. “Does not God give us arms and legs? Does…”
“The two of you,” said the man next to Caius, his voice deep and mocking. He was a halfling, standing about four and a half feet tall, with a mop of curly blond hair and bright amber eyes in a pale, square-jawed face. His black leather boots gleamed, and he wore a black leather vest over a stark white shirt, his trousers crisp and spotless. Somehow the preening little dandy had kept his clothes clean even in the wilderness. A short sword and a dagger hung at his belt, and both weapons looked expensive and well-maintained.
“What does that mean?” said Morigna.
“The way you two fight,” said Jager, once the famed Master Thief of Cintarra. “Really, Caius, you ought to proposition her already and get it over with. Perhaps once she’s worked off that tension she won’t be quite so cross all the time.”
Gavin barked a short laugh, and then turned red.
Caius only smiled. “I am sworn to chastity.”
“And I,” spat Morigna, “prefer my men taller.”
“Just as well,” said Caius, calm as ever. “Human women are too tall.”
Gavin laughed again and covered his mouth.
Morigna drew breath to answer, but Ridmark spoke first.
“Enough,” he said. “You can amuse yourselves after we have gotten the soulstone back.”
“And after we have gotten Mara out of the Iron Tower,” said Jager.
They all had their own reasons for joining Ridmark on his quest to reach Urd Morlemoch and learn the secret of the Frostborn. Jager simply wanted to rescue his lover Mara from her imprisonment in the Iron Tower. Assuming that she was even still alive. From what Morigna had seen of Tarrabus Carhaine, the Dux seemed quite willing to kill people he found inconvenient.
And assuming they could even find a way to get into the Tower. Morigna had never seen the place, but every account she had heard indicated it was a strong fortress.
“Yes,” said Ridmark. “But the soulstone is at hand now.”
Jager frowned, his amber-colored eyes glinting. “And once you have the soulstone, you’ll have no further reason to help me. You can continue on your merry way to Urd Morlemoch…”
“No,” said Ridmark. “I gave you my word that we shall rescue Mara from the Tower, and if I live I shall keep it.” The iron in his voice drained some of the insouciance from Jager, and the halfling offered a hesitant nod. “And if we happen to kill Paul in the process, that will throw the garrison of the Tower into disarray, which will make retrieving Mara all the easier.”
Calliande frowned. “Then you mean to kill Paul this time?”
“I told him,” said Ridmark, voice grim, “that if I ever saw him again, that I would kill him. But I let him go. And I put others in danger by doing so. I will not murder him in his cot, but if he fights, then I will not hold back.”
From another man that would have been an idle boast. But Morigna had seen Ridmark fight.
“If he repents of his crimes and seeks to make restitution you should spare him,” said Caius.
“The sun is more likely to rise in the west,” said Jager.
“I fear I agree with you,” said Caius.
“Well and good,” said Kharlacht, “but how shall we achieve this? Our foe has at least a hundred men, and we are but seven.”
“Distraction,” said Ridmark.
“Ah,” said Caius. “You intend something clever.”
“There is a stand of pine trees north of Paul’s camp,” said Ridmark. “It hasn’t rained much and the trees are dry. After midnight, you, Calliande, Morigna, Kharlacht, and Gavin will set the trees ablaze. Morigna, your acidic mist. Can you alter it to conjure a sleeping gas?”
“Of course,” said Morigna. “Quite easily. But I should warn you that the effect will not last long. Not when dispersed among so many.”
“It needn’t last long,” said Ridmark. “My hope is that the fire will draw most of the men to the northern end of the camp. When they gather, cast your spell over them…”
“And if they are all gathered together in one place,” said Morigna, “that will make it easier for the spell to stun them.”
“I fear you shall have to deal with any who come to investigate the fire,” said Ridmark.
Kharlacht grunted. “It will be done.”
Jager grinned. “There is opportunity in chaos.”
Ridmark looked at Caius. “Spare them if they surrender, and if it all possible overpower them without taking their lives. But if they resist, kill them. And if there are any members of the Enlightened of Incariel among their number, do not hesitate to slay them.”
Morigna felt her lips thin. Jonas Vorinus had been an Initiated of the Second Circle of the Enlightened of Incariel, the ruthless cult devoted to the worship of the great void of the dark elves, and he had betrayed them to Coriolus. She could not understand why anyone would join the Enlightened. They offered power, yes, that Morigna could understand. She wanted power herself. But the price for the power the Enlightened offered was obviously far too high.
“And you are up to sneaking into Paul’s tent?” said Calliande.
“My dear lady Magistria,” said Jager with a grand bow, “I am the master of stealth and the champion of thieves.”
“He stole the soulstone,” said Ridmark, “so it is only fair that he steal it back.”
Morigna gave the halfling a sidelong glance. She still thought Ridmark should have killed him, and she did not trust Jager. But perhaps Ridmark could make use of him.
“This is our best option,” said Ridmark, meeting Calliande’s gaze with his own hard blue eyes. “It will be difficult enough to get Mara out of the Iron Tower. The Tower is only a half-day’s ride from here, and Paul’s column will reach it by noon tomorrow. It has to be tonight.”
Calliande nodded. “So be it.”
“May God grant us strength,” said Caius.
“Aye,” said Ridmark. “We shall need all the help he can spare.”