“Frostborn: The High Lords” Excerpt

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CHAPTER 1: FROST AND BLOOD

One hundred and forty-two days after it began, one hundred and forty-two days after that day in the Year of Our Lord 1478 when blue fire filled the sky from horizon to horizon, Ridmark Arban stood in the great hall of Dun Licinia’s keep and stared at the corpse of Morigna.

“Ridmark,” said Brother Caius.

Ridmark didn’t hear him.

Around him the keep’s great hall erupted into chaos. Knights and men-at-arms shouted orders to each other, and pale blue light shone through the great hall’s narrow windows. The sounds of panic and alarm came to Ridmark’s ears as the townsmen noticed the blue light. Somehow the world gate had opened. Ridmark had killed Shadowbearer, had watched the ancient, malignant wizard die with all his vile plans.

Yet somehow the world gate had opened. Apparently not all of Shadowbearer’s plans had died with him.

At the moment, Ridmark did not care.

“Ridmark,” said Caius again.

Ridmark ignored him, ignored the sounds of panic, and stared at Morigna.

Her black eyes were open, unblinking, the pale blue glow of the ghostly fire from the mountain reflecting in them. She was fully dressed, which did not surprise him. After they lay together, sometimes she became restless and went for a walk alone. Even in the dangerous wilderness, she had done that.

Here, in the safety of Dun Licinia, it had killed her.

Something had opened her throat, and another wound had been torn into her chest. Either wound would have been fatal. He could not tell if she had struggled, yet no alarm had been roused, which meant that someone had killed her instantly and quietly.

He hadn’t even known.

“Ridmark,” said Caius once more.

“I will find Calliande,” said Kharlacht, his voice harsher than usual. “Perhaps she can do something.”

She couldn’t. Calliande’s magic, backed by the power of the Keeper’s mantle, could heal almost anything. She couldn’t raise the dead, and Morigna was dead.

Ridmark’s hands had tightened into fists.

Morigna had been murdered, and Ridmark knew who had done it.

He had seen claw wounds like that before. The Weaver had killed Morigna. That meant Imaria was here as well.

Ridmark could not look away from Morigna. Despite the noise rising from the town, it seemed as if the world had ceased to exist, that only Ridmark and Morigna’s body remained. Some part of him knew it was the shock of finding her dead.

And he knew that when his mind snapped into focus, the fury was going to burn through him like a storm.

He felt it building already, like poison about to burst from a corrupted wound.

Ridmark Arban was going to find Imaria Licinius and the Weaver and kill them both.

###

Calliande, the Keeper of Andomhaim, stood rooted with horror at her window.

Her window overlooked the courtyard, the Black Mountain rising away to the north like a massive shadow. A slender pillar of harsh blue fire stabbed upwards from the foothills, slashing across the darkness like a blade. To Calliande’s Sight, the pillar blazed with tremendous magical power, and she saw the vortex of power pulsing around the base of the mountain. It was a maelstrom of dark magic, dark magic that seemed somehow familiar…

“Impossible,” she whispered.

Shadowbearer was the only wizard who could have opened a world gate in the circle of standing stones below the Black Mountain, and Shadowbearer was dead. Ridmark had killed him with Heartwarden, putting an end to his millennia of corruption.

Then how had the gate opened?

Calliande shook her head, stepping back from the window. This was utterly impossible. Shadowbearer was dead, and even if some other wizard had the power to open a world gate, he needed the empty soulstone, and Calliande still had the stone…

She looked at the small table next to her narrow bed and flinched.

The soulstone was gone.

“Antenora,” said Calliande. “The soulstone. Where is it?”

The other woman shook her head. Once, a long time ago, Antenora had been a beautiful and wild young woman, willful and proud and reckless. Fifteen centuries of wandering in search of redemption had taken that from her. Her face was gaunt and gray, her eyes a harsh shade of yellow, and her long, hooded black coat made her look like a specter of death.

At the moment, she looked just as startled as Calliande felt.

“I do not know, Keeper,” said Antenora. “I last saw it with you when you went to sleep.” Antenora had no need of sleep, and usually spent her nights guarding Calliande’s door. “No one entered your chamber, I swear it.”

Calliande looked at the window, which was large enough to allow someone entry. Had someone crept into her room and made off with the empty soulstone? It seemed impossible, yet the world gate was open.

A tremor went through her. She had fought against Shadowbearer and the Frostborn her entire life. She had spent two hundred years asleep below the Tower of Vigilance to prevent him from bringing the Frostborn back. Calliande had lost everyone she had ever loved and everything she had ever known to defeat Shadowbearer.

And she had failed.

She had utterly, profoundly failed, and her sacrifices, and the sacrifices of all those who had helped her, had been in vain.

For a moment utter despair crushed her.

“Keeper,” said Antenora, “what shall we do?”

Calliande looked at her apprentice.

“Yes,” said Calliande.

They had to act right now. The world gate could not have been open for more than a few moments. The Frostborn and the various enslaved kindreds they used as soldiers would start moving through the gate, preparing a bridgehead for their invasion. If Calliande acted at once, perhaps it was not too late. The vassals of Dux Gareth Licinius, the fighting men of the Northerland, were still gathered at Dun Licinia, and Mara’s Anathgrimm camped outside the walls. Together they made a formidable army, an army that had defeated the Mhorite orcs. If they marched at once, if they made for the Black Mountain, they could seize the gate and hold it long enough for Calliande to collapse it.

But only if they acted immediately. The Frostborn were deadly warriors, and they knew their danger just as well as Calliande did. Their Order of the Vanguard would strike at once.

In fact, they were likely preparing to attack Dun Licinia right now.

“Yes,” said Calliande again, forcing resolve into her voice that she did not feel. “We have to seize the gate so I can collapse it. If we rouse all of Dux Gareth’s men and all of the Anathgrimm, we can attack and hold the gate before the main force of the Frostborn arrives.”

“Can we?” said Antenora. “I faced the locusari upon the threshold, and they were fell creatures. The Frostborn woman Arlmagnava wielded potent spells.”

“All the Frostborn wield magic,” said Calliande, “and the locusari are some of their weaker servants. Yet we have no other choice, Antenora.” She turned to the chest that held her clothes. “If we do not stop the Frostborn now, the war will last years, even decades. And the High Kingdom might not even win it.” With Shadowbearer’s defeat, Calliande thought she had the time to root out of the sinister Enlightened of Incariel. Now, with the world gate open…she did not think Andomhaim could face the Frostborn and prevail, not with the Enlightened consuming the realm like a cancer. “So we must win today. I…”

The door to her room swung open, and a young man in chain mail stepped inside. He had curly brown hair and brown eyes, and the sheathed soulblade Truthseeker rested at his belt, blazing with power to Calliande’s Sight.

“Gavin Swordbearer,” said Antenora.

Gavin hesitated, a flicker of embarrassment going over his face, and Calliande remembered that she was dressed only in her shift. Then Gavin’s expression hardened. He was only sixteen years of age, but he had come a long way from the reckless boy Calliande had first met outside of Aranaeus.

“You must come at once,” said Gavin. “It…

“The world gate, I know,” said Calliande. There was no time to waste, so she pulled on her green tunic and her trousers as she talked. “We have to attack as soon as possible. Can you find the Dux and tell him to rouse his men? Mara needs to go to the Anathgrimm, and…”

“Aye,” said Gavin, “but it’s Morigna, and…”

Kharlacht stepped into the room behind Gavin, already wearing his armor of blue dark elven steel, his massive greatsword strapped to his back. The orcish warrior always looked grim, but today his expression behind his tusks was bleaker than usual.

“Morigna is slain,” said Kharlacht.

The words hit Calliande like a physical blow. “What?”

“Someone slew her in the great hall,” said Kharlacht.

For an instant Calliande was too stunned to react.

Had whoever taken the soulstone also killed Morigna? That made no sense. Morigna was dangerous, but she was nowhere near as powerful as Calliande. Why had they killed her and not Calliande?

But Morigna had carried a piece of the Warden’s magic within her. If she was slain, that dark magic could be trapped within the soulstone and used to empower the gate. Calliande realized that was why the dark power of the gate seemed familiar. It was the same dark magic that Morigna had carried, amplified and augmented a thousand times over.

Then her thoughts turned to Ridmark.

Ridmark Arban, who had not been able to save his wife from Mhalek. Ridmark, who had spent five years wandering the Wilderland seeking to stop the return of the Frostborn, driven by his grief and despair.

Ridmark, who had fallen in love with Morigna.

“We’ll have to tell Ridmark,” said Calliande, rubbing her face. “It…”

“He already knows,” said Kharlacht.

Calliande nodded, pulled on her boots, seized her green cloak, and took up the worn staff of the Keeper. Without another word she rushed out of the room, the others following. Perhaps it was not too late. Perhaps the wounds were not too severe. Maybe Calliande could yet heal Morigna.

Maybe she could keep Ridmark from plunging into his well of destructive grief once again.

She sprinted down the stairs as fast as she could manage.

A strange sort of confusion hung over the great hall. Knights and men-at-arms stood at the windows and the doors, and Calliande heard shouts coming from outside. It seemed the entire town had seen the blue fire. That was good. The Dux and the Anathgrimm would be awake and preparing for action. Yet despite the tumult, everyone in the hall spoke in low voices.

It was respect for the dead.

Morigna lay in her own blood on the floor, her throat cut, a wound in her chest. One look told Calliande that it was too late. Caius stood over her, his balding head bowed, his wooden cross gripped in both hands as he spoke a silent prayer. Arandar waited next to the dwarven friar, his face as hard and set as it was when he went into battle.

Ridmark gazed at Morigna. His blue eyes were blank, and his face could have been carved from stone. He was motionless, yet his hands were curled into fists at his sides, the knuckles shining white against the skin.

As she approached, he seemed to come to himself, and his eyes met hers. He looked calm, so utterly calm, and that frightened her. Calliande had such an expression before when men fell into a grieving rage so profound that it took them to a sort of cold, lucid madness.

“Calliande,” said Ridmark.

“Oh, God, Ridmark,” said Calliande. She wanted to touch him, to comfort him, but she had endured enough losses of her own to know that no comfort was possible. “I’m sorry. It’s too late. I can do nothing for her.”

“I know,” said Ridmark, still calm. “It’s not your fault.”

“I don’t know who did this,” said Calliande, “but…”

“Imaria did this,” said Ridmark, looking at Morigna again, the cold around him seeming to deepen further. “Imaria Licinius and the Weaver. The Weaver’s claws left wounds like that. The soulstone is gone, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Calliande. “I don’t know how.”

“Imaria took it and left,” said Ridmark. “She killed Morigna in vengeance. Out of spite. No other reason.”

Calliande started to say that Imaria had likely killed Morigna to trap the Warden’s stolen dark magic, but stopped herself. It would not help.

She stared at Ridmark, at a loss about what to do. She was the Keeper of Andomhaim, yet she had grown used to deferring to Ridmark’s judgment. He took command of a crisis as easily and as naturally as a bird taking to the air. She had never seen him…frozen like this.

But she could not blame him.

Calliande looked at Morigna’s staring eyes and shivered. Morigna hadn’t deserved that. She hadn’t deserved anything remotely like that. To have escaped Coriolus and the Warden and Shadowbearer only to fall to Imaria’s petty spite…

“My lady Keeper,” said Arandar, snapping Calliande out of her dark reverie. “We should take Morigna’s body from here.” He glanced at Ridmark, who seemed not to hear. “But after that we should act at once. If the world gate has opened, the entire realm is in terrible danger.”

“Agreed,” said Calliande, glancing at Ridmark once more. “We…”

A blue blur shot through one of the hall’s windows and landed upon the floor, claws rasping against the stone.

###

Ridmark had encountered many strange creatures in his travels, but he had never seen one like this.

It looked like a praying mantis, albeit a praying mantis the size of a hunting hound. Its carapace was a vivid shade of blue, and its eyes were like faceted, polished black stones. Twin gossamer wings rested against its back, and its antennae waved before its head. Its forelegs ended in serrated blades the length of a short sword, and its middle and hind legs ended in claw-tipped, flexible fingers. The creature could likely wield weapons with its middle and rear legs, though the serrated blades on its forelegs were deadly enough.

Ridmark had never seen a creature like this, but he recognized it nonetheless. Antenora had described such creatures to Calliande after she had encountered them in the threshold.

“A locusari scout,” said Calliande. “Stay back, all of you. Stay back! It…”

Two more of the scouts flew through the window and landed next to the first, their heads rotating back and forth, their eyes glinting like gems.

Ridmark had dropped his staff with the shock of Morigna’s death, but he picked it up. The length of black wood had been carried by the high elven archmage Ardrhythain for centuries, and was lighter and stronger than a normal weapon. It felt…right in Ridmark’s hand.

It matched his mood.

He had once heard sorrow described as freezing rain, but the sorrow within him now seemed indistinguishable from rage. Morigna had been taken from him, and the fury of it filled his veins like molten iron. The staff gave him an outlet for that rage, and there were targets readily at hand.

Ridmark was angry enough to kill for the rest of his life.

Of course, if someone had opened the world gate, the rest of Ridmark’s life might be measured in hours.

That thought did not displease him.

The locusari scout in the center scuttled forward and lifted its head.

“Query,” it said in a voice like tearing metal, its mouthparts vibrating as they produced an approximation of human speech. The locusari spoke Latin with a dull, flat inflection. “You will identify your leader.”

“Identify yourself first,” said Calliande, the staff of the Keeper beginning to glimmer with white fire in her fist.

The locusari rotated to face her. “This one is a scout drone of the Ninth Storm Legion of the Dominion of the High Lords, before whom all creation shall bow. Query: you shall now identify yourself.”

“I am Calliande of Tarlion, Keeper of Andomhaim,” said Calliande, “and I fought the Ninth Storm Legion long ago.”

“You are known to this drone,” said the locusari. “You therefore possession sufficient rank to hear our message. This world is now part of the Dominion of the High Lords. You will lay down your arms, open your gates, and voluntarily surrender to the High Lords. Otherwise blood shall be shed.”

“Return to your masters,” said Calliande, “and tell them that we will not surrender.”

The locusari made a clicking noise. “That is…”

“God’s teeth!” thundered one of the men-at-arms, striding forward with a mace. “Shall we bandy words with a giant insect? What will it do, threaten to buzz in our ears?” He raised the mace.

“Get back!” said Calliande, staring to cast a spell.

The locusari was fast. It whirled in a blue blur, rearing up on its hind legs, and its forelegs swept across in a horizontal blow. The strike opened the throat of the man-at-arms, and he fell to his knees, blood sheeting down his tabard. The locusari scouts exploded into motion with metallic shrieks, surging forward to attack. Two of them lunged at Calliande, and Ridmark saw the blurs as more locusari flew into the windows.

In that instant, Ridmark moved.

He shot forward, whipping his staff around, and caught one of the locusari scouts across the head. The impact sounded exactly like crushing an insect beneath his boot, albeit much louder. The locusari, for all its speed and strength, was not heavy, and Ridmark’s blow sent it tumbling backwards, its head caved in. The second locusari let out a horrible metallic scream and twisted with inhuman speed, lunging at Ridmark.

But he had already started moving. He had fought many creatures faster and stronger than humans, and he had noticed that the faster something could move the less quickly it could change direction. The creature’s lunge missed him by a few inches, and Ridmark brought his staff down. He caught the locusari across the wings, crushing them, and the insect-like creature hit the floor with a shriek of fury. It started to turn, but Arandar was already moving, and Heartwarden came down with a flash of steel, Ridmark’s head pulsing with pain from his broken bond with the soulblade. Heartwarden bisected the thrashing locusari, and the creature’s halves fell away from each other, leaking a thick yellowish slime onto the flagstones.

Around Ridmark the hall exploded into violence as the men-at-arms and knights attacked. The locusari scouts might have been quick and deadly, but they were fragile, and could not stand against the swords and maces of the men of the Northerland. In a matter of moments a half-dozen locusari scouts had been slain, and three more escaped, leaping out the windows to fly away on their buzzing wings.

Antenora lowered her staff, the sigils cut into the dark wood smoldering with the fury of her magic. Ridmark was glad they had ended the fight before Antenora could bring her spells to bear. If she lost control of her fire, she might have killed everyone in the hall. Morigna’s spells would have been useful against the locusari, calling roots to pull them down or stunning them with sleeping mist…

Morigna.

He looked back at her corpse and shiver of pure, uncontrolled fury and grief went through him.

“All of you, quickly!” said Calliande. “To your posts. Quickly! The Dux will sound the alarm soon, and we must be ready. The Frostborn are coming for Dun Licinia. We must be ready to meet them.”

The men had been looking for someone to take charge, and the knights and men-at-arms hastened for the doors. Calliande looked at Ridmark and hesitated for a moment.

“Ridmark,” she said. “I am going to the northern forum. I will be needed there. You…”

“I will join you shortly,” said Ridmark. “I must attend to something first.”

She started to answer, but he turned away. He knelt over the dead man-at-arms and pulled away the man’s cloak. The dead man-at-arms had no further need of it, and in truth they might all join him soon enough.

He took the cloak, knelt next to Morigna, and closed her eyes. He wrapped her body in the cloak, picked her up, and carried her away from the great hall.

###

Sir Arandar of Tarlion, Knight of the Order of the Soulblade, watched the Keeper as Ridmark carried Morigna from the hall. Arandar could see the war upon Calliande’s face as plainly as lines drawn upon a map. She wanted to go after Ridmark, to comfort him, but her duty was plain. The Frostborn had returned, and the Keeper’s power was needed to throw them back.

Calliande was torn between her heart and her duty.

Arandar understood that. He understood that far, far better than he might have wished.

Though with a feeling of heavy dread, he realized it might not matter. They had undertaken the quest to stop the return of the Frostborn, and they had failed. Calliande’s plan to seize the world gate was a sound one, but it was the only plan they had left.

It would likely fail.

Yet they would do what they had to do. They would do their duty.

Even if they failed.

Calliande stared after Ridmark as he vanished through the door leading to the keep’s chapel, a muscle working in her jaw.

“Keeper,” said Arandar, and her blue eyes snapped to him, full of pain. “You said it yourself. We must act at once. The Dux and the Comes will have gone to the wall, and…”

“Yes,” said Calliande. “Yes, you are right, Sir Arandar. I will go at once.” She paused for one more instant. “I must ask a favor of you.”

“Of course,” said Arandar.

“Stay with Ridmark for the moment,” said Calliande. “Make sure that…”

“He does not slay himself in his grief?” said Arandar.

He understood that notion, too. It had occurred to him more than once.

“He won’t,” said Calliande. “Not Ridmark. Nothing would make him give up. Not even this. But in his grief…he might throw himself into the foe. He would leave a hundred of them piled around him, but in the end…”

“Very well,” said Arandar. “We will both join you soon.”

“Thank you,” said Calliande, and she headed for the keep’s doors, Kharlacht, Gavin, and Antenora following her. Brother Caius stepped to Arandar’s side, his face grim.

“A dire day,” said Caius.

“Aye,” said Arandar, and a flash of insight came to him. “But you’ve seen a dire day or two in your time, I would wager.”

The old dwarf smiled a little, his gray, granite-colored skin creasing with wrinkles. “So have you. Come, then. Let us help the Gray Knight through his dire day. For if we are to prevail, we will need his aid.”

Arandar looked out the window at the distant pillar of blue flame.

Even the Gray Knight’s help might not be enough to overcome the storm that had come to Andomhaim.

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