“Frostborn: The Gorgon Spirit” Excerpt

BNGorgonSpirit

A BRIEF PROLOGUE

In the Year of Our Lord 538, Malahan Pendragon led the survivors of the High King Arthur Pendragon’s realm through a magical gate to a new world. There Malahan founded the realm of Andomhaim, and raised the banner of the Pendragons above the walls of his citadel of Tarlion, and in time his realm expanded far and wide. Yet Malahan’s heirs were not alone in their new land, for many other kindreds dwelled upon this world. The bold men of Andomhaim waged wars against the sorcerous dark elves and the fierce pagan orcs, against the grim dvargir and the skulking kobolds. In time the men of Andomhaim found allies as well, for some nations of orcs accepted baptism and the Dominus Christus, swearing to the High King as vassals, and the halflings swore fealty to the nobles of the High King as servants, grateful to their liberators.

Yet in time the men of Andomhaim encountered a kindred that would be neither foe nor vassal.

To the east of Tarlion lay broad, dry grasslands, and there dwelled the manetaurs, a kindred strange to human eyes. For the manetaurs possessed the proud mane and head of a lion, the arms and torso of a strong man, and the lower body of a mighty lion. They had the strength and speed of a hunting lion, yet had the reason and intellect of a man. The manetaurs dwelled upon the grasslands in a mighty kingdom called the Range, lords over all they surveyed.

Three times the manetaur warred against the men of Andomhaim, until at last the High King of Tarlion and the Red King of the manetaurs concluded a truce, agreeing to respect their borders and to aid each other in war. When the terrible Frostborn assailed the realm, the manetaurs honored their word, and fought valiantly against the Frostborn and their servants.

After the defeat of the Frostborn, it is said that the manetaur prince Murzanar and his trusted retainers went to the fallen ruins of the dwarven citadel of Khald Azalar, seeking a treasure hidden within its dark vaults.

Yet they never returned.

CHAPTER 1: BLUR

Ninety-nine days after it began, ninety-nine days after the day in the Year of Our Lord 1478 when blue fire filled the sky from horizon to horizon, Ridmark Arban moved northeast through the thick forests of Vhaluusk. Patches of golden sunlight fell through the thick branches overhead, throwing patterns of light and darkness across the forest’s tangled floor. Despite the uneven ground, Ridmark moved without sound, his gray cloak hanging loose around him, his black staff in his right hand. His eyes scanned the trees for danger, his ears listening for the sound of predators. Vhaluusk was a perilous land, but no trace of danger came to his eyes or ears, and Ridmark kept walking.

He knew where he was going. For the first time since his wife had died, Ridmark Arban knew where he was going.

That was a new feeling.

Sometimes it was so strange that he did not quite know what to make of it.

A long time ago, both the urdmordar Gothalinzur and the Warden of Urd Morlemoch had warned Ridmark that the Frostborn would return to destroy the world. After Aelia had been killed and Ridmark had been banished from the High King’s realm, he had devoted himself to finding the truth about the Frostborn. It had been partly because no one heeded his warnings. It had been partly because Ridmark held himself responsible for Aelia’s death and he wanted to die. Certainly he had expected to die in his quest.

Instead, with the aid of his friends and by the grace of God, he had found the truth.

The Frostborn were returning.

They had not been wiped out, merely defeated. For a year and a month after the omen of blue flame, a powerful wizard could open a gate between Andomhaim and the world of the Frostborn. The corrupted high elven wizard Shadowbearer, master of the Enlightened of Incariel, sought the empty soulstone that Calliande carried. If he claimed the soulstone and killed Calliande, he would open the gate and bring forth the Frostborn again.

So, at long last, Ridmark’s task was clear.

He would keep the soulstone from Shadowbearer for another nine and a half months, until the conjunction of the moons had passed and the way to the world of the Frostborn could not be opened. He would help Calliande find her staff in Dragonfall, hidden in the depths of Khald Azalar, and she would take up the mantle and power of the Keeper of Andomhaim once more.

And then they would defeat Shadowbearer and root out the Enlightened of Incariel.

After five and a half long years of searching, Ridmark Arban knew what he had to do.

Now it was just a matter of surviving long enough to do it.

Though as he looked around the forest, he conceded that survival might prove a challenge.

Ridmark kept moving. He was not far from the foothills of the mountains of eastern Vhaluusk, and the earth had developed a noticeable slope. A few more miles and they would reach the foothills proper. The ground, tangled with roots and stones, did not lend itself to preserving tracks.

But tracks he saw nonetheless.

Ridmark spotted the marks of heavy booted feet, slightly larger than his own. Orcish men, he thought, hunters and trappers from the nearby villages. From time to time he saw the spoor of deer and rabbits and the feral turkeys that wandered the forests of Vhaluusk.

There were other tracks, ones that he did not like.

The tracks were long and narrow, shaped like an inverted wedge. Holes the size of Ridmark’s fingers marked the impact of sturdy claws. The tracks started in clusters of two, but then shifted to four, as if whatever creature had produced them had dropped to all fours for additional speed.

Like the creature was running down prey.

A shadow flapped overhead, and a raven perched on a branch, its beady eyes glinting. Ridmark looked at it for a moment, smiled to himself, and went motionless. He considered his surroundings, and looked at a thick tree ten yards to his right.

“You can come out now,” said Ridmark.

For a moment nothing moved, and he felt slightly foolish.

Then a scowling young woman came out from behind the tree. She wore leather and wool, sturdy clothes for the wilderness, and a cloak of tattered green and brown strips hung from her shoulders. A long wooden staff, its surface carved with sigils, had been slung over her shoulder, a leather strap across her chest holding it in place. A hunting bow rested ready in her hands. Her long black hair had been bound in a braid, and her black eyes were deep and stark in her pale, lean face.

Right now she looked annoyed. Or more annoyed than usual, anyway.

“How did you know that I was there?” said Morigna.

“I didn’t,” said Ridmark. He waved his staff in the direction of the raven. “The bird gave it away.”

Morigna sighed. “Alas. The ravens are useful scouts, but the concept of stealth simply does not enter their minds. One suspects that they consider stealth the province of lesser creatures.” She spoke Latin with a peculiar, stately formality that had been archaic decades ago.

Given that the man who had taught her magic had fled the realm of Andomhaim a century and a half past, it was not surprising.

“The ravens’ opinions do not concern me,” said Ridmark.

“One certainly hopes not,” said Morigna, a smile almost flickering over her thin lips. “That would be troublesome.”

“I am more interested in their observations of the forest,” said Ridmark. “Have they seen anything?”

The faint smile faded. “Nothing at all. No creatures, no orcs, not even any animals.”

“That is unusual,” said Ridmark.

“It is,” said Morigna. “It is clear that a great many orcs lived here recently. Now I find no trace of them.”

Ridmark nodded, thinking it over. They stood in comfortable silence as he considered the problem. Other thoughts intruded upon his mind. He was alone with Morigna. He remembered the taste of her mouth beneath his, the feel of her body as they lay together in the night. If he pulled her close and kissed her, she would not stop him. She would welcome it. And then…

He rebuked himself. His ardor for Morigna had almost gotten them killed once before in the Torn Hills, when they had succumbed to it long enough for a group of urvaalgs to surprise them. Granted, the forests of Vhaluusk were not nearly as dangerous as the spell-haunted wilds of the Torn Hills, but they were still perilous enough. He had to remain focused.

There was a glint in Morigna’s eyes. Likely she had guessed his thoughts. She had gotten good at that.

“Kharlacht says there is a village not far from here,” said Ridmark. “Another mile or so. We’ll have a look, and then rejoin the others.”

Morigna shrugged. “Perhaps it will be empty. We have seen many empty villages in Vhaluusk.”

“Aye,” said Ridmark. He slung his staff over his shoulder, hanging it from its own leather strap, and lifted his bow. He wasn’t as good a shot as Morigna, but he had spent five years wandering the Wilderland, and the necessity of hunting for meals had improved his skills with a bow. “Vhaluusk…emptied itself.”

“What happened?” said Morigna.

“It was five years ago,” said Ridmark, starting forward. “Vhaluusk had never been unified. There were a score of different orcish tribes, all of them worshipping the old blood gods. Then an orc shaman decided that he was the incarnation of one of the blood gods. He convinced many of the tribes of Vhaluusk, and they marched south at his command…”

“Mhalek,” said Morigna. “Then he and his followers met you.”

“No,” said Ridmark. “You…know what happened then.” He did not like to talk about that day, though God and the saints knew that it was always in his thoughts. “I suspect that is why we have had little trouble with Vhaluuskan orcs on our way to Khald Azalar. All the true believers perished with Mhalek and Qazarl, and those that remain are cynical and have lost their faith in the old blood gods of the orcs.”

Morigna laughed. “Do not tell Brother Caius. Else the dwarf shall be eager to win converts at every village and crossroads.” She considered for a moment. “Do you think that is what happened? That the men of this village followed Mhalek to his doom?”

“No,” said Ridmark. “The tracks are too recent. I think there were orcish men in this forest yesterday.”

“Aye,” said Morigna. “And those other tracks, too, the long ones with the claw marks.”

Ridmark nodded.

“I would say they were kobold tracks,” said Morigna, “but they are far too large. Kobolds stand three or four feet tall. Whatever left those tracks, to judge from their stride, was far larger.”

“You have a good eye,” said Ridmark, his own eyes moving back and forth over the trees.

“Calliande is right about you,” said Morigna.

That startled him so much that he almost stopped. “You and Calliande never agree about anything.”

“She says you keep secrets out of habit,” said Morigna, “and that you would rather make a point in a dramatic fashion than go to the trouble of explaining something. Like the marsh gas near Moraime. Or that carnivorous plant in the Torn Hills. Or…”

“Yes, I see your point,” said Ridmark. “I think those are troll tracks.”

“Trolls?” said Morigna. “Truly? There are such creatures as trolls?”

“You’ve never encountered them?” said Ridmark. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t have. They prefer it colder. They rarely come as far south as Moraime, and prefer the peaks of Vhaluusk or the Mountains of Ice to the north. They are to kobolds as a lion is to a barn cat.”

“A pleasant thought,” said Morigna.

“Not really,” said Ridmark. “Their hides change color for camouflage. Not as effective as an urvaalg’s ability to become invisible, but they’re much smarter than urvaalgs. They regenerate, too.”

“Regenerate?” said Morigna.

“Heal themselves,” said Ridmark. “Not as quickly as Calliande can heal wounds, but close. Fire and acid are the only things that do lasting harm, and the only way to permanently kill trolls is to cut off their heads and remove their hearts. Otherwise they can regrow anything.”

“Even their heads?”

“Even their heads,” said Ridmark.

“That,” announced Morigna, “sounds grotesque.”

“It’s not a pleasant sight,” said Ridmark.

“You think trolls attacked the orc village,” said Morigna.

“I suspect so,” said Ridmark. “Let’s find out. No more talking until we’re there.”

“I shall send the ravens ahead to scout,” said Morigna. Her black eyes went glassy for a bit, her expression distant as she used her magic to command the ravens. Wings flapped overhead, and the dark shapes of ravens flew away to the northeast. Ridmark beckoned, and they kept moving.

The trees thinned around them as the slope grew steeper, and suddenly Ridmark and Morigna came into cleared fields, a wheat crop waving in the breeze coming down from the cold mountains. The hillside had been carved into terraces. A tall hill rose from the center of the terraces, topped by a fortified village. The houses had been built in the fashion of the pagan orcs of Vhaluusk, with round walls of fieldstone topped with thatch.

The village’s gates stood open, and utter silence reigned within.

“Anything?” said Ridmark after a moment.

Morigna’s eyelids fluttered as she communicated with her ravens. “Nothing. There is no one inside. One thinks the orcs were negligent in leaving their gates open, no?” She closed her eyes, her frown deepening. “The ravens smell…”

“What?” said Ridmark.

“Blood,” said Morigna. “Quite a lot of blood…oh.”

Her eyes popped open, and she took a cautious step back.

“What do trolls eat?” she said.

“Anything they can catch,” said Ridmark. A dark thought occurred to him. “You know what happened to the orcs.”

“There is a pyramid of skulls in the center of the village,” said Morigna. “Fresh ones, too. Bits of blood and meat are still stuck to them.”

“Like the trolls stacked them there,” said Ridmark, “after they had finished dining.”

“One suspects so,” said Morigna. “The ravens…are quite excited.”

“We had better get back to the others,” said Ridmark.

###

Calliande stared at the shapes of the mountains to the east.

They had come into sight a few days ago, and had gotten larger with every step. Now they loomed like the wall of a vast fortress. They did not really take up half the sky, she knew.

In her mind, it felt as if they did.

Because she knew what lay beneath those mountains.

What waited for her.

“My lady Magistria?” said a deep, smooth voice.

Calliande shook off her reverie. “Oh?”

A short halfling man stood a few paces away. He wore a vest of black leather and a white shirt that he somehow managed to keep crisp and clean despite the rigor of travel. His black trousers and boots matched his vest, and a sword and dagger rested in scabbards at his belt. He had large, amber-colored eyes with a square chin, his brown hair thick and curly. A glittering brooch held his dark cloak pinned in place, and in his right hand he held a biscuit.

“I must say, my lady Magistria,” said the halfling with a flourishing bow, “I have never seen anyone look so dismayed at the prospect of breakfast. I do hope it is not a commentary on Brother Caius’s cooking. I fear his feelings shall be crushed.”

“Ignore his witticisms, my lady,” said Brother Caius, straightening up from the campfire. He was of the dwarven kindred, broad and strong, his skin the color of granite. His hair was fighting a losing battle against his forehead, and his black beard was streaked with gray. His eyes were like blue marble, and a wooden cross hung from a cord around his neck, resting against his brown robes. “I fear that Master Jager is too used to the luxurious cooking of Coldinium. Alas, the simple fare of travelers is far too humble for his refined stomach.”

Jager, who had once been the Master Thief of Coldinium, snorted. “As I recall, when I prepared breakfast yesterday you compared my cooking to one of the ten plagues God visited upon the Pharaoh of Egypt on Old Earth.”

“You misunderstand me,” said Caius. “Your cooking was quite adequate.”

“Adequate,” snorted Jager. “He damns with faint praise. How like a preacher!”

“I said one of the ten plagues of Egypt would be preferable to hearing a tale of your exploits yet again, Master Jager,” said Caius.

Jager opened his mouth to reply, but Calliande spoke first.

“Behave, children,” she said.

“Children?” said Jager. “You look younger than me.”

“Unless you spent the last twenty-two decades sleeping below a ruin of the Order of the Vigilant,” said Calliande, “I fear I am somewhat your elder, good sir.”

Jager laughed and again flourished his cloak in a bow. “I stand corrected. And may I say, my lady Magistria, that you do not look a day over one hundred and twenty.”

Despite herself, Calliande laughed. Jager was boastful and argumentative and abrasive, yet he nonetheless had his charm. And he was a brave man who had risked everything to save his wife.

“With a honeyed tongue like that,” said Calliande, “I can see how you won Mara’s heart.”

She looked at Jager’s wife, expecting Mara to offer a droll comment of her own, but Mara was silent. She sat on the other side of the fire, her legs drawn up to her chest, her arms wrapped around her legs. Mara was a tiny woman, barely five feet tall, and Caius could likely have picked her up with one hand. Her large green eyes were distant, her ragged blond hair hanging loose to conceal the delicate elven points of her ears.

“Mara?” said Calliande. “Is everything all right?”

Mara looked up from the fire and offered a faint smile. “I…don’t know. Not yet. I need to think for a moment.”

“Foes?” said Caius, reaching for the mace of bronze-colored dwarven steel that hung from his broad leather belt.

“No,” said Mara.

“Something with the Sight?” said Calliande.

“No,” said Mara. “I’m…not sure. Let me think for a moment. If something is wrong, I will let you know.”

With that, Mara turned her gaze back to the fire.

Jager shrugged. “She was always the contemplative one.”

“A virtue made all the more obvious by her contrast with you,” said Caius.

“Ha!” said Jager. “That’s the spirit.”

“Thank you for breakfast,” said Calliande. Suddenly she wanted to think in peace, and watching Jager spar with Caius or Arandar or Kharlacht was not conducive to quiet contemplation. “I am going to take a walk around the edge of the camp. See if Ridmark and Morigna have gotten back yet.” They had gone off to scout. Of course, Calliande was well aware that they often used their scouting excursions for things other than scouting. Yet she did not think Ridmark had done so today. There had been a faint edge of concern to his voice. He thought was amiss.

“Of course, my lady,” said Caius, turning back to the fire.

Calliande walked across the clearing, slinging her green cloak over her shoulders. It was the middle of summer, yet the days this far north were still cool. Last night they had made camp in a large clearing that commanded an excellent view of the surrounding trees.

Two men stood at the edge of the camp, speaking in low voices. The first was orcish, a tower of a man who stood seven feet tall. His head had been shaved save for a black warrior’s topknot bound in a bronze ring, the black hair a stark contrast to his green skin. He wore armor of overlapping blue steel plates, and the hilt of a massive greatsword rose over his shoulder. Like Caius, he wore a wooden cross around his neck. The second man was human, about forty years old. He had a lean, weathered face, a hawkish beak of a nose, and hard brown eyes, his mane of black hair streaked with gray. A longsword rested at his belt, its hilt wrapped with leather.

“Kharlacht, Arandar,” said Calliande. “Any news?”

“Not yet,” said Kharlacht. The big orc remained solemn, as he almost always did. “But I do not expect the Gray Knight and Morigna to return for some time yet.”

Arandar scowled. “He spends too much time with her. That woman is not trustworthy.”

Kharlacht shrugged. “She is arrogant and opinionated, aye. But she has been a reliable comrade in many dangers.”

“What Ridmark does,” said Calliande, “is not our concern, Sir Arandar.”

Arandar gave her a hard look, but nodded. “You speak truly, my lady Keeper.”

A tingle of unease went through Calliande at the title.

She was the Keeper. When Malahan Pendragon had led the survivors of Arthur Pendragon’s realm to Andomhaim, the Keeper has been their guardian. Just as Merlinius Ambrosius had advised Arthur and his father on matters of magic upon Old Earth, so had the Keeper guided Malahan and his heirs. Even after the Magistri and the Swordbearers had been founded, armed with magic from the high elven archmage Ardrhythain, the Keeper had been the chief wizard of the realm, the High King’s advisor of all things magical.

Until the last Keeper had been killed fighting the Frostborn.

Or so Calliande had thought.

The Warden had told her the truth with his cold, malicious glee. Calliande had been the last Keeper, the architect of the High Kingdom’s victory against the Frostborn. But she had seen the truth, had seen that Shadowbearer had summoned the Frostborn and would one day do so again. Future generations might not see the peril. So she had put herself into deep sleep beneath the Tower of Vigilance, trusting the Order of the Vigilant to awaken her when the time had come.

Yet Shadowbearer had unraveled her plans. He had destroyed the Order of the Vigilant. He had created the Enlightened of Incariel to eat out the realm of Andomhaim like a cancer. And when she had awakened on the day of the blue fire, the day of the great omen, he had been waiting for her. If Ridmark had not intervened, if he had not saved her from the dark altar upon the slopes of the Black Mountain, she would have died.

Her plans would have come to nothing, and the Frostborn would have returned.

Calliande had forgotten everything that she had ever known, had sealed herself away below the Tower of Vigilance in deathlike sleep for centuries. Had Shadowbearer killed her, it would have all been for nothing.

And she would never have known why.

Her memory was still gone. The Warden had told her the truth, but she could not remember anything that had happened before she had awakened in that dark vault ninety-nine days ago. Her memories waited with her staff, the Keeper’s staff, in Dragonfall within Khald Azalar. The Keeper was a figure of legend, a woman of power and stern judgment. What sort of woman, Calliande wondered, had she been? What sort of woman would willingly leave everyone she had ever known and seal herself in sleep for centuries? Would she become that woman again when she retrieved her staff and memory?

Did she even want to become that woman?

Calliande realized that both Kharlacht and Arandar were looking at her with mild alarm.

“Forgive me,” said Calliande. “My mind wandered for a moment. I am going to have a look around. I should be back in a moment.”

“I will accompany you,” said Arandar.

“Thank you, sir knight, but I shall be fine,” said Calliande. In truth, she wanted to be alone to think. “I will return shortly.”

“I advise you not to go far,” said Kharlacht. His deep voice was grimmer than usual, his eyes narrowed behind his tusks. “There is something amiss here. Most of the villages of the foothills did not follow Mhalek in his fool’s quest. We should have seen more people by now.”

“I will not go far,” promised Calliande, and she walked past them and into the woods.

Part of her realized that this was foolish. She ought to remain in the camp, with the others. She still carried the empty soulstone at her belt, Shadowbearer hunted for her, and Ardrhythain could not delay him forever. Sooner or later he would find her. Yet she wanted to be alone, to think over the things that troubled her. She desperately wanted to talk to someone about her fears. Ridmark, most of all, but Morigna would have grown suspicious if Calliande had spent any time alone with him. Perhaps…

A branch snapped, and Calliande spun, her left hand coming up to work a spell, her right hand falling to the hilt of the dagger that Ridmark had given her. Coming out here alone had been foolish indeed…

A young man of sixteen or seventeen years came into sight. He had brown eyes and curly brown hair, his expression distant. He wore blue steel armor of similar design to Kharlacht’s, armor of dark elven metal looted from Urd Morlemoch’s armories. At his belt he carried a longsword of identical design as Arandar’s weapon. Arandar bore the soulblade Heartwarden that Ridmark had once carried. Gavin now bore the soulblade Truthseeker, recovered from the shadows of Urd Morlemoch. She had seen him wield that blade with great effect in the final desperate battle below the Warden’s great circle, had seen him slay an urvuul, a feat that few Swordbearers in all of Andomhaim’s history could claim.

He seemed older, much older, than the boy Calliande had met outside the village of Aranaeus, the rash boy who had hoped to travel to Castra Marcaine to seek the help of Gareth Licinius. That courage was still there, but it had been tempered into something harder.

Gavin blinked. “Lady Calliande. I did not think you were there.”

“Swordbearer,” said Calliande with a smile.

He blinked. “I…suppose that I am, aren’t I? Isn’t that an odd thing?”

“Not really,” said Calliande. “There have been Swordbearers of your age before, in the most desperate days of the wars against the urdmordar and the Frostborn.”

“Aye,” said Gavin, “but I never thought that I would be one of them.” He shook his head. “I did not mean to intrude. I shall go back to camp.”

“Actually,” said Calliande, “I think I might be the one intruding here.”

“No,” said Gavin. “I…just needed to think.”

“If you wish to speak,” said Calliande, “I am ready to listen.”

For a moment she thought that Gavin would say nothing.

Instead he shook his head. “I’m…not sure I know who I am any longer.”

Calliande said nothing, waiting.

“This is what I wanted, you know,” said Gavin. “I wanted to go to the High Kingdom and become a knight, and do great and daring deeds. And then…”

“And then you would return home to Aranaeus and wed Rosanna?” said Calliande.

“Aye,” said Gavin. “But she has wed Philip by now. Aranaeus will be rebuilt, if we stop the Frostborn…but it will not be the same. It will not be the place I grew up.” He shrugged. “It shouldn’t trouble me…but it does.”

“Perhaps you are simply putting aside childish things and becoming a man,” said Calliande.

Gavin snorted. “Brother Caius says that. I think he is quoting Saint Peter.”

“Paul, actually,” said Calliande. “I think you are feeling lost. That the world you knew is gone, and you don’t know how to make your way in a new one. That you have new abilities and new responsibilities, and you don’t know how to use them.”

“Yes,” said Gavin. “How did you know?”

“I feel a little of that myself,” said Calliande.

Gavin blinked, and then his eyes went wide. “Oh. I…should have realized. The things the Warden told you. Forgive me. My fears seem a small thing next to…ah, next to the things that you must fear.” He took a deep breath. “I do not know what it is worth, my lady, but you shall have my help until the end of our quest.”

“Thank you,” said Calliande. “And that is worth far more than you know. I think you shall be a worthy Swordbearer.”

“You are kind,” said Gavin.

“Kindness has nothing to do with it,” said Calliande. “I saw you fight at Urd Morlemoch.”

“I suppose if I live long enough, we shall see if you were right or not,” said Gavin.

Calliande laughed. “Now you sound like Ridmark.”

Gavin shook his head. “I think…”

His eyes narrowed, and Truthseeker swept out of its scabbard, the soulstone worked in the blade shining with a pale white glow. Calliande spun, raising her hand for a spell.

A woman’s voice came to her ears, low and sardonic. “Did we startle you?”

A man and a woman came from the trees. The woman was black-haired and black-eyed, a bow in her hands. The man was tall and strong, with cold blue eyes in a hard face, his black hair close-cropped. A brand of a broken sword marred his left cheek. He wore a leather jerkin and a gray cloak over blue dark elven armor, a black staff slung over his shoulder, a hunting bow ready in his hands.

“Ridmark,” said Calliande. A peculiar welter of emotions went through her at the sight of him. Gratitude for all the times that he had saved her life. A bit of longing, too. She could have very easily fallen in love with him. Perhaps it was just as well. The Keeper of Andomhaim did not seem like the kind of woman who should have personal entanglements.

Mostly, she was just glad to see him.

“Calliande, Gavin,” said Ridmark. “We had better had back to camp. There might be a problem.”

###

Gavin followed Ridmark, Calliande, and Morigna to the camp.

He kept quiet as they discussed the situation. Ridmark had seen far more fights than Gavin, and Calliande and Morigna could bring powerful magic to bear. Yet if Ridmark or Calliande commanded, then Gavin would act. He could act far more effectively than he could have a few weeks ago.

The sword at his side ensured that.

Even without concentrating, he felt his link to the soulblade at his side, the sword’s power waiting at his call. Long ago, the archmage Ardrhythain had forged the soulblades, giving them to the High King of Andomhaim to wield against the urdmordar. To Gavin, Ardrhythain had been a figure of distant history, and then Gavin had met him twice outside the walls of Urd Morlemoch.

Gavin was a Swordbearer now, a Knight of the Order of the Soulblade. He could barely grasp the idea. A year ago he had been a boy of Aranaeus, angry at his father, hoping to win Rosanna’s attention.

It seemed like it had been a century ago. Gavin had seen wonders and terrors beyond imagination since then. What would his father think of him now?

Who had Gavin become?

He wasn’t sure he knew. He almost hoped that a fight was coming. In a battle there was no time to brood. That was why Ridmark and Kharlacht had him practice every day, working the movements of blade over and over so they became imprinted upon his very muscles.

They returned to the camp. Mara, Caius, and Jager sat at the fire, Jager and Caius arguing good-naturedly while Mara stared at the flames. Kharlacht and Arandar stood on watch a short distance away. Gavin’s eyes flicked to the soulblade at Arandar’s belt. Ridmark had once carried Heartwarden as a Swordbearer, but the sword had been taken from him after Mhalek’s death. Gavin had always respected Ridmark, but that respect had risen after he had taken up Truthseeker. To lose his link to his soulblade would be as devastating as losing a hand.

Yet Ridmark had carried on nonetheless.

“Gray Knight,” rumbled Kharlacht. “What news of the village?”

“There is no longer a village,” said Morigna.

They all looked at Ridmark.

“Something killed every single orc in the village,” said Ridmark. “Men, women, and children. Morigna’s ravens spotted their skulls piled up in the square. It seemed unwise to enter the village, so we came here to warn you.”

Calliande offered a faint smile. “By your usual standards of recklessness, that was prudent.”

“What slew the pagan orcs?” said Arandar. “Raiders from other villages?”

“No,” said Ridmark. “Trolls.”

“Trolls?” said Jager. “Are not such beasts mythical?”

“I have never encountered one,” said Arandar.

“You’ve never come this far north before,” said Ridmark. “I have. Kharlacht has, too, I would wager.”

The big warrior offered a curt nod. “They dislike warmth, and prefer to keep to the mountains of Vhaluusk and the Mountains of Ice. I am surprised they have come down from the mountains. You are sure trolls slew the folk of the village?”

“There were troll tracks everywhere,” said Ridmark. “It happened recently, within the last two days.”

“What can you tell us about these creatures?” said Arandar. “If we are to fight them, then it is wise to know as much about them as we can.”

“They are large,” said Kharlacht. “Eight nor nine feet tall. As strong as five men, and deadly quick. In appearance they resemble large kobolds.”

Calliande shuddered at that. She had been taken captive by kobolds, Gavin remembered, before her powers as a Magistria had returned.

“They are also clever and cunning,” said Ridmark, “and have some ability to camouflage themselves. They are intelligent, fearsomely so, but do not have any kind of society or civilization. Their ability to heal, it seems, makes them averse to the company of their fellows, and they eat anything they can catch.”

“Anything?” said Jager.

“Anything,” said Ridmark.

“One imagines they would find halflings to be particularly toothsome,” said Morigna.

“Compared to you, certainly,” said Jager without missing a beat. “You would be far too bitter. And stringy.”

Morigna’s black eyes narrowed, but Ridmark kept speaking before Morigna could respond. “I hope to avoid them if we can, but if they pick up our trail we will have to fight. They can heal from almost anything, save for fire and vitriol. If we fight them, take them down and cut off their heads, and let Morigna burn the wounds with her acid mist.”

“Would not the soulblades harm them?” said Gavin.

“They are not creatures of dark magic,” said Ridmark. “Their strength and healing come from their flesh, not from any dark power.”

“We are but a day from Khorduk,” said Kharlacht, “and from there we can hire guides through the High Pass and the Vale of Stone Death. Perhaps we can elude the trolls entirely and reach the gates of Khald Azalar without incident.”

Calliande swallowed at that.

“Perhaps,” said Ridmark. “Once we leave camp, we’ll circle south of the village and then head for the foothills. From what Kharlacht has said, it should be a straight path to Khorduk from there.”

The others nodded and started to move, but a quiet voice interrupted them.

“I fear,” said Mara, straightening up from the fire, “that we might have another problem.”

They all looked at her. Gavin liked Mara, but she inspired fear in him in a way that not even Morigna managed. Certainly Mara was the most level-headed among the Gray Knight’s followers. She never quarreled with anyone, never complained about anything, and never even raised her voice. She was short and pretty and soft-spoken and pious, and yet Gavin had seen her mow her way through the Warden’s orcs like so much wheat, the power of her dark elven blood making her disappear and reappear so fast that his eye could barely follow. If she felt like it, she could probably kill half the people in the camp in the space of a few heartbeats.

He was very glad she was on their side. Though he did wonder what Jager had done to charm her.

“What kind of problem?” said Ridmark.

“I think my father is coming here,” said Mara.

It took a few moments for that to sink in.

“The Traveler,” said Ridmark. “He’s coming to Vhaluusk.”

Mara nodded, her face tight. “He might be here already.”

“How do you know?” said Calliande.

“I can hear him,” said Mara. “No, that’s not quite right.” She searched for the words. “Since my…change started, I’ve been able to sense the auras of powerful dark elven lords and wizards.” Ridmark and Gavin nodded. “My mind interprets it as a song. A beautiful, compelling song. That’s why the urvaalgs and the ursaars and the other creatures of dark magic have to obey the dark elven lords. They hear the song…and it makes them want to obey. They do it willingly. Joyfully, even. I have my own song now, which is why they cannot compel me.” She shook her head, frowning, and Jager stepped to her side and took her hand. “But I wander from the point. The Traveler’s song, my father’s song, has been changing.”

“Changing how?” said Calliande.

“I wasn’t sure at first,” said Mara. “I’ve only been able to hear the songs since I escaped from the Iron Tower. And in that time, the songs I could hear – the Matriarch, the Warden, the Artificer, and my father – they stayed in the same place. Then my father’s song started to change. I thought he was casting a spell, or working some great sorcery. When you came back to the camp just now, Gray Knight, you were talking…”

“And my voice changed as I drew nearer,” said Ridmark.

“Then I understood,” said Mara. “The Traveler’s song changed because it wasn’t really a song. It was an aura, and he was moving. He’s coming closer, and I think he’s coming here.”

“For you?” said Ridmark.

“Perhaps he simply wishes to meet his new son-in-law,” said Jager.

“The Warden failed to recognize what you were,” said Arandar, “and that undid all his work. Perhaps the Traveler has not made the same mistake.”

Mara shook her head. “I doubt he even knows that I am still alive, and he would not care if he did. Something else has brought him forth.”

“It must be something of grave import,” said Arandar. “In all the history of the High King’s realm, the Traveler has never ventured forth from his stronghold of the Nightmane Forest.”

Jager snorted. “Yes, such a long history the High King’s realm has.”

Arandar scowled, but Caius spoke first. “If you will forgive Master Jager’s flippancy, sir knight, he does have a point. Malahan Pendragon came to this world from Old Earth a thousand years past. My own kindred have dwelled here for thirty times that. And the high elves and the dark elves…who can say how long they have warred? You heard what the Warden shouted at Ardrhythain during their duel. A hundred thousand years, or perhaps longer. Who can say what the Traveler has done in the past?”

“True,” said Mara. “But Sir Arandar has a point. My father is a coward.” She said it without rancor. “He will never put himself at risk if he can help it. That is why he has ringed Nightmane Forest with warding spells and surrounded himself with an army of orcs and urvaalgs. He has not left Nightmane Forest in the last millennia because he fears the outside world. Something dire must have driven him forth at last.”

“If not you, then what?” said Ridmark, but Mara only shrugged.

“Dragonfall,” said Calliande, her voice tight. “My staff. The power of the Keeper. That has to be it. Why else would the Traveler come to Vhaluusk? He must have realized that Dragonfall and the staff of the Keeper are within Khald Azalar.”

“Not even Shadowbearer knew where you had concealed your staff,” said Ridmark.

“The Warden knew,” said Mara. “Maybe the Traveler figured it out as well.”

“He must not claim it,” said Calliande. “That power cannot fall into his hands.”

“He won’t,” said Ridmark. “Not if we get there first. Then the Traveler can beware.”

“Of what?” said Calliande.

“Of you,” said Ridmark.

Calliande blinked.

“The power of the Keeper,” said Arandar. “The chronicles of the High King speak of how the Keepers dueled dark elven princes, how they could defeat urdmordar with their spells. Ardrhythain did not create the Two Orders until five hundred years after the realm was founded, when Andomhaim stood on the very edge of defeat. Before that, the Keeper’s strength held the dark powers at bay. If you recover yourself, my lady Calliande, you shall have that kind of power once more.”

Calliande nodded, though Gavin thought she looked uneasy.

“Whether the trolls or the Traveler are after us,” said Ridmark, “the sooner we are gone from here, the better. Let’s…”

He stopped talking, frowning as he looked at the trees to the west.

At the same time Morigna’s head snapped in the same direction, and four dark shapes shot overhead. Ravens, their wings flapping.

“Ridmark!” said Morigna. “They’re…”

“Trolls!” said Ridmark. “Defend yourselves!”

Gavin turned, drawing Truthseeker from its sheath, and saw nothing at all.

The soulstone embedded at the base of Truthseeker’s hilt shone with a pale white light, but the sword did not react as it did in the presence of dark magic. Gavin’s eyes swept back and forth over the clearing as the others raised weapons or began magical spells. He saw nothing strange, nothing out of place.

Then a branch snapped across the clearing, and the air in front of the trees rippled, changing colors like cheap paint dissolving beneath water.

And suddenly, all at once, Gavin saw the trolls.

There were three of the creatures, their scaly hides changing colors to match their surroundings as they raced forward. They looked like a cross between a towering man and a hunting lizard. Long claws tipped their fingers and toes, and their tails coiled back and forth behind them like whips. Gavin would have expected them to have long snouts like lizards, but instead they had short, blocky heads with enormous fang-lined jaws, their necks corded with muscle like mastiffs. Those jaws would let them take devastating bites, ripping chunks of flesh from their prey. Their nostrils were black slits, and their eyes were yellow and divided by vertical black slashes, like the eyes of a serpent…

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