CHAPTER 1: SCOUTS
Five hundred and one days after it began, five hundred and one days after the day in the Year of Our Lord 1478 when blue fire filled the sky from horizon to horizon, Ridmark Arban saw yet another dead village.
He had seen so many dead villages in the year and a half since Imaria Licinius Shadowbearer had opened the world gate for the Frostborn, and he suspected he would see far more before this ended.
Anger pulsed through him at the thought. The Frostborn had laid waste to the Northerland, destroying countless villages and enslaving or killing their people. The survivors had either fled to the walls of Castra Marcaine, praying that the fortress did not fall to the Frostborn, or to the invincible wards of Queen Mara’s realm of Nightmane Forest.
But this village had not fallen to the Frostborn.
Ridmark and his companions on the western edge of the duxarchate of Calvus, and the Frostborn had not yet come this far south. Instead, the Dux of Calvus had sworn himself to Tarrabus Carhaine…and Tarrabus and his men had destroyed this village.
Ridmark grimaced, anger roiling through him again, and walked forward.
He knew this village well. It was named Regnum and had once been a stop on the Moradel road that stretched from the gates of Tarlion to the Northerland. Long ago, some monks had raised a monastery on a hill overlooking the river, and the village had grown up around it. Regnum was the last stop on the Moradel road before the ferries of Castra Carhaine, and travelers wishing to avoid the Dux of Caerdracon’s tolls had crossed the river here to take their chances with the Shaluuskan Forest. Ridmark had passed through this village dozens of times during his travels, and it had always been a thriving place, its forum filled with merchants, its inns overflowing with travelers.
Now it was a tomb.
Ridmark kept walking forward, his bow in hand, an arrow resting at the string, his staff slung over his shoulder and his dwarven war axe at his belt. It was a hot summer day, and the sun blazed overhead, sending sweat slithering against his back. It was silent around him, save for the monotonous buzz of insects.
He made his way unchallenged down the main street of Regnum. Roofless houses stood around him, their charred interiors gutted by fire. Here and there bones lay scattered on the ground, yellowing in the sun. Tarrabus’s men had left the dead to rot where they had fallen.
The village’s forum was in no better condition. The inns surrounding the forum had been burned, the shops smashed. Regnum’s one church had been burned as well, and the name of Incariel had been scrawled across the walls and the doors in black paint. Beyond the village stood a hill at the edge of the River Moradel, a ruined stone fortress sitting atop it. The monastery of Regnum had stood for centuries, but Tarrabus and the Enlightened had smashed it.
A dozen crosses stood outside the walls of the monastery, bones clinging to the rough wood. The Enlightened had crucified the monks.
That might have been a kinder fate than what awaited those Tarrabus had sold to the dvargir.
Regnum was dead, but for now, it ought to be safe enough. Ridmark needed to cross the River Moradel somewhere, and this was as good a spot as any. Ridmark had first hoped to traverse the river at Castra Carhaine, but Prince Arandar’s army had already marched south to confront Tarrabus Carhaine at Tarlion. With Arandar gone, there was no reason to visit Castra Carhaine, and Ridmark had no doubt the spies of the Enlightened watched the castra’s ferries.
Best to keep Calliande away from them. The Enlightened had already made one attempt on her life since she had left Arandar’s host, and Ridmark had no doubt that they would try again.
He did regret that he would have to take her through Regnum. The sight of the ruined village would sadden her, and she might fall into one of her dark moods, blaming herself for failing to see the danger that Imaria Licinius represented before it was too late. Ridmark understood how she felt, but his regret had grown fainter.
Now his anger was far stronger.
A column of blue fire swirled next to him, and a woman stepped from the flames, her boots making no sound against the dusty flagstones of the forum.
She was tall for a woman, just about Ridmark’s height. Her face was too angular to be human, her ears too pointed, her skin a little too pale. Thick black hair hung in curtains alongside her narrow face, and she wore close-fitting armor the color of wet ashes, wrought by some secret art known only to the dark elves. Her eyes were usually as black and dead as her armor, but now they glimmered with blue fire, the same blue fire pulsing through her veins and shining through her skin.
“Lord magister,” said the woman, her voice cold and flat and without emotion as the fire faded.
“Third,” said Ridmark. She refused to answer to any other name. She could not remember her name, not after all the centuries that had passed since her birth. Mara had suggested that Third could perhaps take another name, but she had refused. Her third life had begun when Ridmark and Mara and Caius had freed her from the curse of her dark elven blood, and so Third she would remain.
“Did you find anything?” said Ridmark.
“Yes,” said Third. “Is the village empty?”
“As far as I can tell,” said Ridmark. “It doesn’t look as if anyone has been here in weeks. Tarrabus and his jackals picked the place clean and left it to rot.”
“This would appear to be so,” said Third. “Nevertheless, I have seen a large group of tracks south of the village. They came from the woods and crossed the Moradel before us.”
Ridmark frowned. “Dvargir tracks?”
“They are,” said Third. “How did you know?”
“There is an entrance to the Deeps about a half day’s journey south from here, in the woods along the banks of the Moradel,” said Ridmark. “The Dux of Calvus used to keep a guard there.” His mouth twisted. “Since the Dux of Calvus sided with Tarrabus, I doubt the entrance is guarded any longer.”
“Likely not,” said Third. “I suspect that a party of dvargir have emerged from the Deeps, crossed the Moradel, and set an ambush for us.”
“Agreed,” said Ridmark. He thought for a moment. “It is possible they’ve come to capture slaves from the ghost orcs of the Shaluuskan Forest. Apparently, ghost orc slaves fetch a high price in the markets of Khaldurmar.”
“They do,” said Third, who likely knew firsthand. “But with the dvargir taking so many slaves from the men of Andomhaim, why take the risk of raiding the Shaluuskan orcs? I recall a proverb about the bird in hand fetching a higher price than the two in the bush.”
“Aye,” said Ridmark. “The dvargir are nothing if not pragmatic.” He thought for a moment. “We will return to the others and head north to Castra Carhaine instead. Arandar will have left a garrison there, and they can ferry us across the Moradel. Almost certainly the Enlightened have left spies to watch for Calliande, but if we are attacked, at least we can call on aid from the garrison.”
“The Keeper will not be pleased with a delay of even an extra day,” said Third. “She wishes to reach Khald Tormen as soon as possible.”
“Arriving a day later is better than never,” said Ridmark. He understood Calliande’s urgency. Every day they delayed was a day the Frostborn could use to grow stronger. Already Queen Mara and the Anathgrimm battled against the Frostborn, and the manetaurs were marching from the Range to attack the Frostborn. Even combined, those two armies would still not be enough for victory. The Keeper needed more if the Frostborn were to be defeated.
She needed the armies of the Three Kingdoms of the dwarves. She needed the men-at-arms of a unified Andomhaim.
Even then, all that might not be enough. The delay of a day could change the course of the war.
But Ridmark would not knowingly march into a dvargir ambush. Not when it might cost Calliande’s life.
“I concur,” said Third. “Crossing at Castra Carhaine carries its own risks, but these risks are smaller than walking into a potential ambush.”
“Let’s hope the Keeper sees it that way,” said Ridmark.
Third seemed surprised. “She will do whatever you tell her. Do you not realize it?”
“Then let us hope that I am not wrong,” said Ridmark. He looked around. “I’ve been wrong before, and Regnum paid the price for it.”
“What do you mean?” said Third.
Ridmark hesitated. He did not want to talk about this with anyone, and he certainly did not want to talk about it with Third, but she would persist until he answered the question. Mara had commanded Third to keep Ridmark safe, and evidently Third concluded that command included the state of Ridmark’s mind and heart.
“A long time ago,” said Ridmark, “I passed through Regnum on my way to the High King’s court at Tarlion. I was a squire in Dux Gareth’s court, and the Dux was coming to attend to the High King. Tarrabus and I were both squires.” He pointed at one of the burned inns. “We stopped there on our way back to Castra Marcaine. We both ate and drank, and practiced at swords with the other squires in the yard.” He gazed at the ruined inn. It had been barely fifteen years ago, but it felt as if a thousand years had passed. “And now everyone here is dead because of Tarrabus. Dead, or enslaved.”
“That is correct,” said Third. “I fail to see how this is your fault, though.”
“It’s not,” said Ridmark. “But if I had killed Tarrabus that day…how much evil might have been averted?”
“A great deal,” said Third. “Or perhaps worse would have befallen. Perhaps a wiser and more dangerous man would lead the Enlightened, and they would have already prevailed. Or, more likely, the Keeper would have been killed on the day of her awakening, since you would have been executed for the murder of Tarrabus Carhaine and therefore would not have been available to save her life.”
“Perhaps not,” said Ridmark. “But if I had killed him at Dun Calpurnia, we might have avoided all of this.” Third started to speak. “Yes, yes, I know. But I let Tarrabus and Imaria and the Weaver get away from me before. Not again. Never again.”
“The future is always unknowable,” said Third. “You should not blame yourself for failing to know it. My father thought he would rule Nightmane Forest forever, yet he did not.”
“No,” said Ridmark.
“And this village has been destroyed before,” said Third. “I was there.”
Ridmark looked at her, a flicker of embarrassment going through him. She was centuries old and had seen wars and battle and deaths without end, and he thought to complain to her of his regrets? To her, fifteen years likely seemed like a long afternoon.
“It was during the first of the High King’s wars against the Traveler,” said Third. “An Anathgrimm warband destroyed Regnum. Later it was rebuilt, and then the urdmordar destroyed it as they marched against the walls of Tarlion.”
“I suppose such destruction is…familiar to you, then,” said Ridmark. “I’m sorry.”
Third shrugged. “It is what it is, lord magister, just as I am what I am. I have seen war and death on a scale that few can imagine. But Regnum has been rebuilt twice before. Perhaps it can yet be rebuilt a third time.”
“A third time?” said Ridmark. “Was that a joke?”
“No,” said Third, blinking in puzzlement, and then comprehension came. “Ah. I understand. But my point is that we cannot see the future. And Regnum may be rebuilt again.”
It was a hopeful thought.
But it would bring no hope to those already slain in the fighting. From what Ridmark had seen of the Frostborn and their power, Regnum might well never rise again, buried beneath the ice of their implacable advance.
This was not the time or the place for brooding.
“Let’s rejoin the others,” said Ridmark. “The sooner we set out for Castra Carhaine, the…”
He stopped, going motionless as something caught his attention.
Third did not move. Her posture was relaxed and casual, but her pale hands twitched towards the twin short swords of dark elven steel sheathed at her belt. Her head tilted to the side as if listening, her black hair stirring in the hot summer breeze.
“What is it?” said Third.
“The shadows in the common room,” said Ridmark, looking over her shoulder. “The inn where I drank with Tarrabus all those years ago. They just changed.”
“As if something was moving through the room,” said Third.
“Precisely,” said Ridmark.
“It is possible it is a survivor,” said Third. “Or some bandit hiding in the ruins.”
“Or a dvargir scout,” said Ridmark. “Let’s find out.”
Third nodded, and Ridmark stepped past her and toward the burned inn. She fell in alongside him, hands still resting on the hilts of her short sword. Ridmark kept his stance casual, but held the arrow ready against his bowstring, his eyes scanning the forum and the street for any sign of foes.
He was ready for the attack when it came.
A dark figure rose in the ruins of the inn’s common room. Ridmark just had time to glimpse a form in dark armor, a crossbow in its hands, and he ducked. A black blur shot over his shoulder, and he heard the crossbow bolt bounce off the brick wall of a nearby house. Ridmark raised his own hunting bow and released. He had never been as good of a shot as Morigna, and his hunting bow lacked the raw power of the crossbow, but the arrow nonetheless hit the dark figure in the shoulder.
Third was already moving. Even as the dark figure stumbled, she sprinted forward, her short swords leaping from their sheaths and into her hands. Blue fire engulfed her, and she disappeared in a flicker of flame.
Ridmark cast aside his bow and yanked his staff from over his shoulder, pulling the long weapon free from its leather strap. The dark figure staggered from the doorway, casting aside its crossbow and yanking a black axe from its belt, and Ridmark got a good look. The creature was lanky, almost gaunt, but Ridmark knew that the thin limbs could grasp with terrible strength. It had greenish-yellow skin and pointed ears the size of Ridmark’s palms, and instead of eyes, it had a patch of thick veined flesh that encircled its skull almost like a blindfold. From what Ridmark understood, the strange organ allowed the creature to see heat in the same way that human eyes perceived light.
The creature was a deep orc. In ancient days, the dark elves had mutated some of the orcish kindred with their sorcery, altering them to function better in the lightless caverns of the Deeps. Ridmark had fought them before, but it was strange to see a deep orc on the surface during the day.
Then he closed with the deep orc, and Ridmark had no more time for thought. He drew back his black staff, preparing to strike.
Before he could, blue fire flickered to the deep orc’s right, and Third reappeared from nothingness. Her short swords thrust out with the blurring speed of a serpent’s fangs, and she drove the blades into the orc’s back. The deep orc staggered, blood frothing at his mouth, and toppled dead to the ground.
As the deep orc fell, Ridmark saw four more, all wearing identical armor, moving in silence through the ruined inn.
“Third!” he shouted.
She vanished again, and Ridmark dashed forward. His sudden action took the deep orcs off guard, and he burst through the door and into the inn. The brick walls of the building still stood, as did the stone chimney, but the interior floors had been gutted, leaving charred and broken timbers scattered across the floor.
It made for hellishly difficult footing.
The deep orcs got their crossbows up, and Ridmark used the footing to his advantage. He kicked, sidestepping as he did, and his kick knocked a chunk of ruined timber from the floor and into the face of the nearest deep orc. Since the deep orc did not have eyes, the obstruction could not disrupt the creature’s aim, but the piece of wood did snap the deep orc’s head back, and the orc stumbled, the bolt from its crossbow slamming into the wall. The deep orc also staggered into the path of another crossbow bolt. It tore through the orc’s black armor with a punching noise, and the creature fell.
Ridmark charged the remaining three deep orcs, leaping over another fallen timber. His staff was light and smooth in his hands, its surface carved with sigils. Ardrhythain of the high elves had given Ridmark the staff after his escape from Urd Morlemoch, and though the weapon was light, it struck with the force of a steel bar. Ridmark whipped the staff around, driving the weapon into the temple of the nearest deep orc. The orc’s head snapped to the side with the sound of cracking bone, and the creature collapsed.
The remaining two deep orcs charged, and Ridmark retreated, beating aside the blows of their axes with sweeps of his staff. Here the uneven footing worked to his advantage. The deep orcs could see heat, but the wreckage upon the floor did not give off any heat, and again and again they tripped, allowing Ridmark to dodge blows that should have killed him.
Blue fire flashed, and Third slew the deep orc on Ridmark’s left with an efficient slash of her blades. The remaining deep orc tried to retreat, only to stumble over a broken table.
Ridmark’s staff crashed on the crown of the deep orc’s head, ending the fight. The deep orc fell with a dying gurgle, and the sudden silence was shocking. Part of his mind noted that the last deep orc had fallen on the very spot where Ridmark had once sat and eaten and drank with Tarrabus Carhaine and the other squires.
The rest of his mind focused on the more immediate danger.
“They were scouts?” said Ridmark.
“Almost certainly,” said Third, tapping one of the dead deep orcs with her blade. The leather armor of the slain orc seemed to drink the light the way a sponge drank water, and Ridmark knew only one kindred capable of forging armor like that. “These weapons and armor are of dvargir make.”
“Scouts,” said Ridmark. “Slave soldiers the dvargir sent ahead.”
Third straightened up, and Ridmark met her gaze over the dead deep orcs.
“The Keeper is in danger,” said Third.
“Then we must return to the Keeper at once,” said Ridmark. “Go. I will catch up to you.”
Third nodded and disappeared in a swirl of blue fire. Before the blue fire had even vanished, Ridmark was already out the door, running hard to the east down the main street of Regnum, his gray cloak streaming behind him. The last ambush along the banks of the Moradel had almost killed Calliande, and Caradog Lordac had nearly taken her captive.
Ridmark had wound up killing Caradog with his own hands.
And if another the Enlightened of Incariel threatened her, he would do the same.