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Madia awoke with a start. She sat up, a fateful dream fading slowly, and held her breath as she stared into the blackness of her chambers, listening. She saw nothing, heard nothing, yet one image from the dream remained in her thoughts, and she knew she had to find Frost.

Her dress these days was usually that befitting royalty, whether she liked it or not, but for now that didn't matter—only time mattered now. She pulled a robe over her nightdress and rushed out of the room, still barefoot, into the darkened hallway. Which was odd since lamps were kept lit at all hours. Whatever hour it was, she thought, perhaps close to sunrise.

She hurried on, feeling her way through the darkness until she found the stairs and started down. It wasn't until she reached the bottom that she realized something untoward was indeed going on: That was when she fell over the body.

The cold stone floor met the top of her head as she tumbled forward, though she managed to turn the fall into a roll that spared her skull the full force of the impact. She expected the worst after that—an attack by someone, or several someones. She tensed, ready. Nothing happened. Nothing stirred.

She gathered herself up and went on her hands and knees back to the still figure at the foot of the stairwell. A man, she determined, not very large and certainly not very strong, and absolutely dead, though she couldn't feel any wounds, or any blood. His hands held no weapons, but she found a rather substantial sword soon enough, lying near the body.

Light glowed behind her in the hallway, drawing near; not a lamp or candles, this light had a cold paleness and a rose hue, and did not flicker at all.

"Frost?" she whispered.

"Good morning," Frost answered, his voice low and steady, unaffected.

Madia could see his very large form now, a robust silhouette dressed in robes and floppy hat. The light followed as if tethered to him. She had never seen this particular shade of sorcery before, but Frost seemed to have a nearly endless supply, and to delight in them all.

Madia let down her guard. No one else would still be about now that Frost had shown himself, of that she could be sure.

"What in the name of the Greater Gods are you up to?" Madia asked, rising from the floor.

She saw the others then, Sharryl and Rosivok, Frost's two remaining Subartan warriors. They emerged from the darkness just behind the great wizard, following him precisely in step. Madia had been the other, the third corner of Frost's defensive triangle, but an entire kingdom needed her now. She had resigned herself to that, and to the idea that she might never again fight at their sides. Soon enough Frost would choose another, though she knew of no one in all Ariman who could fill a Subartan's boots. At least these three had decided to stay in Kamrit for a time, Madia thought, so they could talk about all they had been through together, all the changes to be made, and the possibilities to come. And give her time to talk them all into staying even longer.

"He's one of yours," Frost said. He raised his left hand and waved it slowly. One by one the lamps on the walls came to life, illuminating the great hall as it should have been and the body at Madia's cold feet. She looked down, examining the man. She didn't know his name, but he was a personal servant in the castle. A cook, she thought, or a meal server. She'd seen him about his duties. Frost's handiwork was evident now. The man's hair was utterly white, his face and hands shriveled as if by very great age, his clothes far too bulky. A lifetime burned up in a matter of minutes. A victim of the spell that had given the large sorcerer his name, unknown decades ago.

"He hoped to find the Blade unattended while I slept," Frost went on. "He ran."

"He took the false sword," Madia added, glancing at the weapon that lay nearby. The last man to do so had ended the same way. She looked up then. Frost was capable of kindness, she thought, and Madia was anything but quick to judge these days, but they'd agreed that anyone caught trying to steal the Demon Blade should be dealt with swiftly, and permanently. Such action would set an example, but it also eliminated the chance of a repeat offense.

"I'll have him removed," Madia said quietly.

"That makes three in all," Sharryl said. She was looking about the room as if some unnoticed hazard might still be about.

"Three too many," Rosivok said.

"At this rate, you will be running low on staff by midsummer," Frost sighed, a bit dramatically, while the magic glow faded behind him.

Madia chuckled at this. "Agreed," she said, "but we of course have many more servants, most of them more sensible. At least I hope so, and summer is still three months off."

"Some things," Frost said, "cannot be put off."

"What things?" Madia asked, noting only now that Frost was fully dressed in his traveling tunics, that both the Subartans were wearing their cloth and leather armor under heavy tunics, and had satchels on their backs. Madia felt a lump form in her throat.

"Simple servants are already throwing away their lives, men who do not have even the smallest knowledge of what the Demon Blade is. They imagine its value, and feel its pull, perhaps. But they are only the beginning, the first chill breezes of a coming storm."

"You and the Blade are safest here within these walls, protected by my army—and my sword as well, if it comes to that," Madia said. "We have had this conversation."

Frost shrugged. "There were fewer dead men at the time." He turned to his two Subartans, a silent exchange, then they all stepped nearer. Frost held out one thick, steady hand. Madia put her hand in his. Even in the dim glimmer of lamplight she could see the truth in his eyes.

The good-bye.

"Where will you go?"

"Where I must go, especially now. And all as well; this journey is something I have put off for far too long." Frost took a breath, and let his eyes close for just an instant.

"I will require a mule with pack," he said.

"When?" Madia asked.

"I leave with the dawn."


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Title: Frost
Author: Mark A. Garfield & Charles G. McGraw
ISBN: 0-671-31943-4
Copyright: © 2000 by Mark A. Garfield & Charles G. McGraw
Publisher: Baen Books