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Two: Autumn, 995 afe

Two: Autumn, 995 afe

Down from the Mountains of Fear

Ravenkrak was an ancient castle built so deep within the Kratchnodian Mountains, on a high peak called the Candareen, that few people down in the settled lands knew that it existed. Yet seven people who followed a winding mountain trail would soon put the name on countless pairs of lips. Six were called Storm Kings by those who knew them not. Their destination was the capital city of the northernmost of the Cis-Kratchnodian kingdoms, Iwa Skolovda.

At their head rode Turran, Lord of Ravenkrak. Behind him, eldest, cruel-faced and graying, Ridyeh came, then Valther, the youngest brother, who was quite handsome. Next came stolid, quiet Brock and his twin, Luxos. Luxos was tall and lean as a whippet; Brock was short and heavily muscled. Jerrad came last. His sole interest in life was the hunt, be it for a mountain bear or a dangerous man. Six strange men then.

The seventh was their sister, Nepanthe, the last-born. Her hair was black and long, a family trait. She rode proudly, as befit her station, but hers was not a conquering, militant bearing. She rode not as the virgin mistress of Ravenkrak, but as a sad and lonely woman. She was uncommonly beautiful in her waning twenties, yet her heart was as cold as her mountain home. But her aloofness, here, was caused by opposition to her brothers’ plans.

She was weary of their plots and maneuvers. A week earlier, braving eternal damnation, she had summoned the Werewind to seal the passes through which they now rode, in order to keep her brothers home. But she had failed, and now they no longer trusted her left behind.

The party approached Iwa Skolovda’s North Gate nervously. They were dead if recognized. A feud as bitter as blood, as old as the forests, as enduring as death, existed between Ravenkrak and the city. But their entry went unchallenged. It was autumn, a time when northern trappers and traders were expected with summer pelts for Iwa Skolovda’s furriers.

They rode to the heart of the town, through thick foreign sounds and smells, to the Inn of the Imperial Falcon, where they remained in hiding for several days. Only Turran, Valther, and Ridyeh dared the streets, and that only by night. Days they spent in their rooms, honing their plans.

Nepanthe, alone and lonely, stayed in her room and thought about things she’d like, or things she was afraid, to do. She slept a great deal and dreamed two repeated dreams, one beautiful, one dreadful. The bad one always grew out of the good.

In the first dream she rode out of the Kratchnodian Mountains, south, past Iwa Skolovda and Itaskia, to fabulous Dunno Scuttari, or the cradle of western culture, Hellin Daimiel, where a beautiful, intelligent woman could make herself a place in the sun. Then the dream would shift subtly till she was afoot in a city of a thousand crystal towers. She wanted one of those towers as her own. Warmth flooded her when her gaze touched one in particular—always emerald—and she was inexorably drawn. Both fear and eagerness grew as she moved nearer. Then, at twenty paces, she laughed joyously and ran forward.

Always the same. Nightmare then came roaring from the dark dominions of her mind. Touch the spire—it was a spire no more. With a roar like a fall of jewels, the thing crumbled. From its ruins a terrible dragon rose.

Nepanthe fled into a dreamscape that had changed. The city of crystal towers became a forest of angry spears, striking. She knew those spears meant no harm, yet she feared them too much to question the cause of her fear.

Then she’d awaken, perspiration-wet, terrified, guilt-ridden without knowing why.

Though her nights, because of the dreams, were anything but dull, Nepanthe was bored by day. Then all she had to occupy her mind was the dreariness of her life at Ravenkrak. She was weary of gray mountains snow-shrouded and ribboned with rivers of ice, and of continually howling arctic winds. She was tired of being alone and unsought and a tool for her brothers’ lunatic plan. She wanted to stop being a Storm King and get out in the world and just be.

Finally, there came a night, their fifth in Iwa Skolovda, when the Storm Kings set things in motion. Under a cloudy midnight sky, with intermittent moonlight, the brothers left the inn. Armed.

Valther and Ridyeh ran toward the North Gate. Turran and the others ambled to the Tower of the Moon, an architectural monstrosity of gray stone from which city and kingdom were ruled.

In cellars, in dark places, rough men met and sharpened swords. This would be a night for settling scores with Council and King.

Valther and Ridyeh neared the gate and its two sleepy guardsmen. One growled, “Who goes?”

“Death, maybe,” Ridyeh replied. His sword whispered as he drew it from its scabbard. The tip stopped a hair’s breadth from the watchman’s throat.

The second guard swung a rusty pike, but Valther ducked under, pressed a dagger against his ribs. “Down on the pavement!” he ordered, and down the man went, pike clattering. The other followed quickly. Valther and Ridyeh bound them, dumped them in the guardhouse.

Ridyeh sighed. “When I saw that pike coming down…” He shrugged.

“The gate,” Valther grumbled, embarrassed. Grunting, they heaved the bar aside, pushed the gate open. Ridyeh brought a torch from the gatehouse, carried it outside, wigwagged it above his head. Soon there came sounds of stealthily moving men.

A giant of a man with a red beard emerged from the darkness, followed by sixty soldiers in the livery of Ravenkrak.

“Ah, Captain Grimnason,” Ridyeh chuckled. He embraced the shaggy giant. “You’re right on time. Good.”

“Yes, Milord. How’re things going?”

“Perfectly, so far. But the end remains to be seen,” Valther replied. “We’ve got the hardest part to do. Follow me.”

Arriving as Valther and Ridyeh were opening the city gate, Turran and the others found the door of the Tower of the Moon held by a single guard. Politely Turran said, “Bailiff, we’re Itaskian merchants, fur traders, and would like an audience with the King.”

The watchman inclined his head, said, “Tomorrow night, maybe. Not tonight. He’s tied up in a Defense Council meeting. And isn’t it a bit late?”

“Defense Council?”

“Yes.” Lonely posts make men eager for company. This watchman was no exception. Leaning forward, whispering, he confided, “Ravenkrak is supposed to be stirring up the rabble. One of the men thought he saw Turran, the chief of the mad wizards. Old Seth Byranov, that was. Probably looking through bad wine. He’s a souse. But the King listened to him. Huh? Well, maybe the old fool knows something we don’t.” He chuckled, clearly thinking that unlikely. “Anyway, no audiences tonight.”

“Not even for the Storm Kings themselves?” Luxos asked. He laughed softly when the old man jerked in astonishment.

“Brock, Jerrad, take care of him,” Turran ordered. They bound and gagged the man quickly. “Luxos,” Turran called, holding a ragged piece of parchment to torchlight and squinting at it. “Which stair?” He held a plan of the tower that had been put together for Valther by those men sharpening swords in cellars.

“The main if it’s speed we’re after.”

Turran led the way. They met no resistance till they reached the door of the council chamber at tower’s top. There another bailiff tried to block their way. Leaning forward to look at their faces, he discovered the naked steel in their hands. “Assassins!” he cried. He scurried back, tried to close the door. But Brock and Turran used their shoulders, burst in over his sprawling form. Jerrad offered him a hand up after planting a boot on his sword.

Councilmen panicked. Fat burghers threatened to skewer one another as they scrambled for weapons while retreating to the farthest wall. Their ineffectual guardian joined them. The King alone didn’t move. Fear kept him petrified.

“Good evening!” said Turran. “Heard you were talking about us. Come now! No need to be afraid. We’re not after your lives—just your kingdom.” He laughed.

His mirth died quickly. The Councilmen still kept their weapons presented for battle. “Ravenkrak must have this city!”

“Why?” one asked. “Are you reviving a feud so ancient that it’s hardly a legend anymore? It’s been centuries since your ancestors were exiled.”

“It’s more than that,” Turran replied. “We’re building an Empire. A new Empire, to beggar Ilkazar.” He said it seriously, though he knew that to his brothers the business was more a game, chess with live players. For all their planning and preparation, he and his brothers hadn’t devoted much thought to consequences or costs. Brock, Luxos, Jerrad, and Ridyeh were playing out Ravenkrak’s age-old fantasies more for the excitement than from devotion.

Nervous laughter. Someone said, “A world empire? Ravenkrak? With a handful of men? When Ilkazar failed with her millions? You’re mad.”

“Like a fox,” Turran replied, pushing his dark hair back. “Like a fox. I’ve already taken Iwa Skolovda. And without blood lost.”

“Not yet!” A Councilman shuffled forward, sword ready.

Turran shook his head sadly, said, “Take care of the fool, Luxos. Don’t hurt him.”

Luxos stepped up, smiling confidently. His opponent’s certainty wavered. Then he made a lunge that should have slain. But Luxos brushed his blade aside, launched his own attack. Steel rang on steel three times. The Iwa Skolovdan stared at his empty hand.

The lesson wasn’t lost on the others.

Turran chuckled. “Like I said, we’re taking over. We’ll do it without bloodshed if we can. But we can hold a festival for the Dark Lady if you want it that way. You there. Look out the window.”

A sullen fat man did so. “Soldiers!” he growled. “What’re you doing?”

“I told you, taking the city.”

Deep-throated rage sounds came from the Councilmen. They started forward…

“Tower’s secure, Milord,” said a bass voice from beyond the doorway. The red-bearded captain led a squad into the chamber. He glanced at the bewildered Councilmen, laughed, asked, “What should I do with them?”

“Lock them in their own dungeon till Nepanthe’s secure. Where’s Valther?”

“You want me?” Valther entered, panting from the climb up the stair. His face was flushed with excitement.

“Yes. Collect your revolutionaries. I want to start organizing the new administration tonight. And get our troops out of sight as soon as we can.”

Valther departed.

Turran continued, “Ridyeh, take a squad and get Nepanthe. I want her moved in here before sunup.”

Ridyeh nodded, left.

Turran’s captain led the Councilmen off to their cells. Then the Storm Kings sat down with the King of Iwa Skolovda and dictated his abdication announcement.

Nepanthe came. The men from the cellars brought their sharpened swords. She became their Princess and they her army and police—though no Storm King trusted them. They had proven treacherous already.

Nepanthe took to her role, played it better than her brothers expected. She didn’t approve of the conquest, had risked much to prevent it, yet, when forced, plunged into the act with a will. This was a squalid, festering city unlike any in her dreams—she feared there were none that marvelous—but, at least, Iwa Skolovda provided a shadow of an answer to her needs. She would take what she could from her stolen moment of glory.

The deposed King announced his abdication formally at noon next day, though the city already knew and seemed disinclined to resist. People seemed to think nothing could be worse than the fallen government, so corrupt had it been.

Because he didn’t want to flaunt his power, to aggravate historically based animosities, Turran led his soldiers back to Ravenkrak, leaving just one platoon, commanded by Grimnason’s lieutenant, Rolf Preshka, to be Nepanthe’s bodyguard. The other Storm Kings remained, to help their sister establish her administration, but they worked impatiently, looking forward to their next easy conquest.

Nepanthe stood at a window in a dark chamber of the Tower of the Moon, alone. She looked out on a garden bathed in moonlight. It was almost morning. Her black hair, flowing over her shoulders, shone from recent brushing. Her dark eyes danced, searching the garden. Her lips, full and red when she smiled (so rarely), were pulled into a tight, pale line as she pondered something unpleasant. An almost permanent frown-crease rose between her brows. Suddenly she drew out of her slouch, turned, began pacing. Her walk was graceful but asexual. Despite her beauty, she seemed unfeminine, perhaps because she had lived too long in the company of hard men, perhaps because she was always afraid. The evil dreams came to her every night now. But Ravenkrak, not her dreams, haunted her at the moment.

They were, she thought, making a game of conquest, just as they had during childhood. But they were grown up and it was a real world now, a world they hardly knew. They had lived too long in droll, dead Ravenkrak. It had done things to their minds. A mad castle, she thought, up there on the highest of the high peaks, brooding in a land of knife-backed ridges and permanent winter. It just sat there crumbling away, its inmates occasionally attacking Iwa Skolovda. Poor city! Yet there was the old score to be settled… Their ancestors, the Empire’s viceroys in Iwa Skolovda, had been driven into the Kratchnodians when the Empire fell apart, and nearly every generation since had taken its stab at reestablishing the family suzerainty over the former Imperial province of Cis-Kratchnodia. Fools’ dreams took the longest to die.

Turran, as always, played the general. But what had he for armies? Ha! A few hundred men, of whom only Redbeard Grimnason’s renegade Guildsmen were fit for combat. Yet she pitied the cities of the west. They would fight, and Turran would smash their ancient walls and venerable castles with the Werewind. Never before had there been such command of the Power in the family. A way of life would end. A microcosmic culture, Ravenkrak’s, would fall because its people had to play their game. She grew increasingly angry as she considered the yet-to-die.

Without realizing it, she was making the same arrogant assumptions she despised in her brothers. She hated their bold confidence, yet could not herself conceive of anything but victory on the battlefield of witchcraft.

“Will the idiocy never end?” she asked the night.

Certainly it would, someday, if only when Lady Death’s couriers called her name. There would be an end: victory or defeat. Yet in either she could see no escape from the cramped, exclusive society of her home. Death seemed the only path to real freedom.

Oh, so terribly, she wanted done with this wearisome business of life. Her brothers didn’t understand. They were little fishes happy in the waters of their little happenings. They didn’t recognize the frightened child, the wondering, eager, world-curious child, hiding in Nepanthe’s mind. But Nepanthe didn’t understand Nepanthe either—least of all those fears that by day hid behind her fiery temper and by night ruled her dreams.

The dreams had changed during her stay in Iwa Skolovda. The pleasant part remained fixed, but, as she reached a tremulous hand for the emerald spire… Tower dissolves, dragon rises, she runs into strange land. Into the forest of spears, but no longer alone. On every hand, in graceful thousands, cats, twisting and dodging; spears leap from the earth and stab. Struck, cats accept the shafts with joy. Most make only token attempts to escape. Horrified, Nepanthe runs. To her sorrow, she always escapes alone.

Alone. She was always alone, even in the center of a city, at the heart of a kingdom.

Her dreams so troubled her that she fought sleep. Now, thinking of the horror, there was nothing she wanted more than to be able to cry. She couldn’t. Ravenkrak had weathered her tenderer emotions; even anger and hatred were growing pale. Soon she’d have nothing but the terror of her lonely nights.

Slowly, methodically, she cursed. Across her lips passed every abomination, every blasphemy, every obscenity heard during a life spent in the company of hard men. The moon passed the western horizon. Stars faded. Dawn came before she finished. And when she was done she was left with nothing. Nothing but fear.

But, for just a moment, childhood memory stirred. The daydream about the strange knight who would come to rescue her from the Candareen.

That memory was as bad as the dreams. It made her question what that innocent child had become; almost a harlot, letting her brothers prostitute her for the advancement of their game. Daily she was forced to endure the indignity of being ravaged by the eyes of the human trash her brothers had given her to rule. A curse on them all, and especially on her brothers for being too lazy to handle their own administration.

When she finally surrendered herself to her bed, she whispered a formal prayer:

“May the Gods Above, or the Gods Below, or any Powers here present, cast down, disperse, and render unto destruction the agents of destruction, the Storm Kings of Ravenkrak.”

One night, in the highest chamber of the Tower of the Moon, six people gathered, waiting for Turran. Five waited with disinterested patience, but Nepanthe…

“Blood!” she swore, her small fist striking the table in inelegant pique. “Will that sluggard never get here?”

“Patience, Nepanthe,” Ridyeh pleaded. “What’s the hurry? The weather’s terrible since you abused the Werewind. We’ll wait, no matter how long.”

She bridled at the reference to her past failing, but said no more.

“Just a bit longer,” Valther said. “He’ll be here soon.”

And Turran arrived within the hour. Head cocked, eyes appraising, a smile his only greeting, he stood a moment at the door, studying his family. He was the tallest of the seven and had a heavy, muscular body massing almost two hundred pounds. His eyes and hair were those of the family, black and shining. There was something about him, a charisma, that made people, especially women, want to forward his plans. He was a dreamer, though he dreamed less complexly, more grandly than Nepanthe, of leading victorious armies. He was handsome, pleasant, lovable, potentially a great leader—and more than a little mad.

“How’re things going?”

“Perfectly,” Ridyeh replied. “Our victory is written in the stars. The earth should be shaking.” Turran frowned. Subdued, Ridyeh continued, “You’re late. What happened?”

“The weather.” Turran settled into the one free chair. “There’s a permanent storm over the Kratchnodians. Result of Nepanthe’s experiment. It’s getting more powerful, too. Had a hell of a time getting back. We’ve got to fix it.”

Nepanthe didn’t miss his sarcasm. “You damned men!” she sputtered. “Always so lordly… Now we’re all here, let’s get on with the foolery. What’s your news, Turran?”

“Ah, always the same, aren’t you Nepanthe? Always rush-rush-rush. Well, it seems the world could care less what we do in Iwa Skolovda. Brock,” changing the subject, “is there any wine? It’s been a hungry ride.”

“Is that all you’ve got to say after keeping us waiting so long?” Nepanthe demanded. “Just: ‘Give me something to eat.’ ”

Turran’s reply expressed an anger long held in check. “We’ve put up with your pets too long, Nepanthe. What you did with the Werewind won’t happen again. I’ll warn you once: you’ll be treated the way you behave.”

She missed the danger-sound in his voice. “What can you do? Lock me in the Deep Dungeons so I don’t spoil your idiot scheme?”

The unanimity of their nods bought her silence. Shocked, she listened as Luxos, who often defended her, said, “If it’s the only way, I’ll take you Downdeep myself.”

“And throw away the key,” Valther added, the only brother to whom she felt really close.

She was overwhelmed. Turran’s madness had infected them all. And she knew they made no idle threats. She shut her mouth and kept it that way.

“Valther, what’s happened here?” Turran asked. Intelligence was Valther’s responsibility.

“We hold the Tower, the symbol of power. For the time being the people are satisfied. The shadow of Ilkazar doesn’t disturb them as much as it did a few generations back.”

Turran grew thoughtful. Finally, he asked, “Nepanthe, can we trust you if we leave you here alone?”

Not risking anything, she merely nodded. Anyway, Valther’s men would be watching every minute. What could she do to ruin their game?

“Good. I want to go home, work with the troops. We’ll leave in the morning, come back in time for a spring campaign. You take care. If you get an urge to sabotage things, remember the Deep Dungeons. Think about living there till this’s over. My patience will be short for a while.”

Nepanthe shuddered. The Deep Dungeons were places of slime and stench and horror far beneath Ravenkrak, supposedly haunted, so long abandoned that no one living knew them in their entirety.



“Will you get the sending gear ready? I stopped by Dvar’s embassy on the way. I don’t like their attitude. They won’t recognize our sovereignty. We’d better make an example of them. Show our power early.”

An eager blush colored Nepanthe’s cheeks. At last something interesting was going to happen. She enjoyed manipulating the Werewind.

(Aerial elementals haunted the high range, powers that ran with and sometimes controlled the Kratchnodian storms. Lowlanders, who thought in terms of ghosts and demons, called these the Wild Hunt, believing them to be malevolent spirits in search of souls to drag into their own special Hell. The Storm Kings knew better. During the generations following their flight after the Fall of the Empire, the family had learned to control the elementals, and thus the weather that followed them—especially raging wind. The Werewind.)

That evening, while people enjoyed a pleasant winter’s evening in cities like Itaskia, Dunno Scuttari, and Hellin Daimiel, Iwa Skolovda’s tributary Dvar groaned under the attentions of an unnatural storm. All night it raged and, when it passed on, Dvar lay under fifteen feet of snow. As her savaged people dug out, the Storm Kings rode north toward Ravenkrak.

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