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In the summer of 1987 I went to Iceland with my wife and son. The trip wasn’t my idea—travel rarely is, as my PTSD made airports very uncomfortable environments even before 9/11—but I gained a great deal from it.

Partly I saw a lot of really neat things. Some of these were obvious: glaciers and volcanoes and geysers (including Geyser itself) and waterfalls and similar sorts of things that are featured in tourist brochures. Others were a lot less obvious. For example, once the driver carrying us to a glacier stopped, rushed out of the van, and came back cradling between his hands the plover that he’d seen hiding in the tundra. (Yes, he put the plover back.)

Besides the things I saw, however, I got books and pamphlets which took me deeper into Iceland’s unique physical and cultural environment. These weren’t all unique to the country: probably the most valuable single book I brought back was Hollander’s translation of The Poetic Edda, published by the University of Texas Press. But I also bought many small volumes on Icelandic history and culture, as well as translations of lesser known sagas; books that I wouldn’t have found back home.

Iceland is one thread of this story’s background. The other thread is Andre Norton, who may have been the SF writer who most influenced me and the other writers of my generation.

The first SF book I bought (for 35 cents) was Andre’s The Stars Are Ours. Through the ad pages in the back of that volume I ordered more of her books. In addition to being exciting stories, Andre’s work made me think. My Ranks of Bronze grew directly out of Star Guard, and The Last Planet provided a glimpse of a recognizable human future in which my present was a myth lost in shadow. As well as being marvelously entertaining to a 14-year-old, her works were subtly educational.

In 1998 one of my friends was in correspondence with Andre, who commented that she was putting together a new volume in her Catfantastic anthology series. Did my friend suppose that Mr. Drake might be interested in doing a story for her? (She separately commented that she loved her fans, but that the book could use a greater leavening of professionals and of males.)

I became a writer by doing short stories, and I continued writing stories for a quite while after I learned to write novels. (A process which took twelve years after my first story sale.) After the length of my novels increased in the ‘90s, however, I simply didn’t have time for stories except in exceptional circumstances.

A request from Andre Norton was as exceptional as circumstances come.

A notion had been kicking around in the back of my mind for the decade since I read the collection of Icelandic folklore. I reread the folktale and checked a few other references for visuals (I like to have a picture of the setting in front of me when I’m describing a scene). With that background, I wrote the story and sent it to Andre, who told me in a handwritten note how much she liked it.

The boy who bought The Stars Are Ours still lives inside the much older, much more cynical Nam vet who became a professional writer. I continue to glow because Andre Norton liked my story

* * *

David Drake has been one of the most visible presences in horror, fantasy and science fiction for the last two decades. He is the author of the multi-volume Hammer’s Stammers series, a saga of intergalactic mercenary warfare, and co-editor of The Fleet shared-world anthologies of military science fiction. In 1991, he wrote The Jungle, a sequel to Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s classic tale of human civilization on Venus, “Clash by Night.” His fantasy volume Vettius and His Friends, collects his stories of a legionnaire confronting marvels and monsters at the twilight of Roman civilization, and his collection From the Heart of Darkness features his groundbreaking tales of contemporary horror fiction, many with a Vietnam setting.

* * *

Through the forest’s bare branches glittered stars as cold as shattered hope; there was no moon. Hardin the Wizard shouted the final word of his spell and threw down the book bound in pale cockatrice skin. Lightning flashed from the empty sky and rent the great oak.

Hardin flinched from the power he had summoned, but the cat, his familiar, arched her back and spat at the hissing ruin. The air was dense with the dry odor of seared wood and the biting, sulfurous stench of the thunderbolt.

The oak swayed, then with a long groan of despair toppled away from Hardin and his familiar. Branch and bark and heartwood that was old when men first came to the island crashed through the lesser vegetation and hammered a trench deep in the soil. The ground continued to vibrate long after the impact.

Hardin muttered a word and snapped his fingers. Witchfire lighted above him, casting its sickly glow over the scene. He stepped cautiously into the crater the oak’s roots had stirred when they ripped out of the earth. The cat hopped to a stone turned up by a twisted rootlet, then gathered herself and made another graceful bound to where an iron-bound box rested at the bottom of the pit.

Hardin pointed to the latch of the box; he spoke a word to no effect. Scowling, he uttered a second word. Pins clattered, but the lock held, and the cat turned her face up to Hardin and laughed.

Hardin shouted a final word of power. A white flash tore from his fingertip, splitting the lock and twisting the straps back.

Throwing open the lid, Hardin drew out the ancient book within. On the front board the leather binding showed dimples from which great feathers had been plucked, and on the back were the lesser pits of a mammal’s fur; but all the cover was from a single hide.

Hardin raised the book Gryphon and opened it. “There is no wizard more powerful than I!” he shouted to the starlit sky.

“Bishop Holar is a greater wizard yet, Hardin,” said the cat with a cat’s grin.

Hardin looked down at his familiar. “Bishop Holar has been in his tomb this hundred years past!” he said.

“Aye, Hardin,” said the cat. “And still Bishop Holar is a greater wizard than you.”

Hardin closed Gryphon. There was a sound like distant thunder. “We will go home, now,” said the wizard.

Hardin stood in a corner of his loft, turning the pages of Gryphon on the lectern before him. The shutters at his shoulder were thrown back. Through them came the light of sunset and the odor of blooming honeysuckle. The cat slept beside the layer of ash which insulated the coals smoldering on the open hearth in the center of the room.

Glaring at the cat, Hardin said, “Gryphon will make me greater than Bishop Holar ever was!”

The cat grinned and stretched, but she did not turn toward the wizard. A pole sturdy enough to be the forepost of a warship jutted from the wall, holding a pot over the coals. The oak shaft was carved with the likenesses of a cockatrice; and a gryphon swallowing the cockatrice; and a dragon engulfing the lesser pair.

“Bishop Holar was buried with the book Dragon in his arms, Hardin,” the cat said. “You will never be as great as he while he holds Dragon and you do not.”

Hardin strode angrily around the lectern. “I will open the wall of Holar’s tomb so that you may bring the book to me,” he said.

The cat twisted onto her other side and looked at the wizard. “You sent my mate to fetch fire from the cell of the Younger Kalias, Hardin,” she said. “The—”

“He lost the path!” Hardin said. “Had he followed my instructions—”

“The rock closed over him,” the cat continued. As she spoke, she showed her claws and sheathed them again. “For three days I heard him wailing; then he died.”

Hardin grimaced and touched the lectern. “That was before I had the book Gryphon,” he said. “With Gryphon I could have protected him, as I can protect you.”

The cat rolled from the hearth and walked past Hardin. Her tail was high. First lifting her forepaws, she hopped to the window ledge with a surge of her hindquarters. The sun had sunk to a pool of bloody light on the horizon.

“Bishop Holar has Dragon,” said the cat. She turned to face the wizard. “I owe you service, but I do not owe you my life. You will not send me to fetch Dragon, Hardin.”

Hardin’s right hand clenched in a fist. With an oath he struck the cabinet on the north wall, making the pewter plates jangle within.

The cat grinned at him.

The moon was at zenith. Cold light flooded through the open southern windows, by its angle twisting into knowing leers the faces carved on the casement. At the lectern, Hardin read Gryphon by a glow like foxfire which hovered over the pages of the book.

The cat entered by the window and leaped down, her pads thumping on the pine floor as she landed. The wizard stared at her with brooding eyes.

The cat licked herself, eyeing Hardin over her shoulder. At last she paused and said, “You’re up late, Hardin. Are matters well with you?”

“I am well,” said the wizard, hiding his anger as best he might. “I have all the power of Gryphon in my tongue now, cat. I will draw Bishop Holar from his tomb, and he will give me the book Dragon.”

The cat laughed, a throaty rasping with more of mockery than humor in it. “You are not strong enough, Hardin,” she said. “If you try, you will burn, and all the world will burn with you.”

“I will force Bishop Holar to my bidding!” Hardin said. “You are my servant and must stand by me. When I signal, you will quench the flames so that the world remains for me to rule!”

“I will save the world and your body from the flames, Hardin,” the cat said. “But Bishop Holar will have your soul as his toy for all eternity, for he is a greater wizard than you.”

Hardin closed Gryphon with a sound like mountains splitting. He lifted the book from the lectern.

“Come!” he said. “This night I will make you human so that you have hands to do my will.”

Hardin took the brazier from its cabinet and the crystals he kept in an ivory casket. With them in his hands and his familiar following, the wizard strode from his house and into the neighboring grove.

The leaves of the oaks whispered like the wings of demons.

Moonlight through the leaves cut shadows as sharp as appliques of black cloth. Hardin set his brazier in the center of the grove and arranged the crystals in its bed. He laid no fuel of the ordinary sort for his fire.

The cat lay at her full length as she watched him. She was silent, but her tail twitched away her tension in sudden strokes.

Hardin whispered and touched the array. Pale flames, yellow and blue and the green of burning copper, sprang from the brazier. Hardin took up the book Gryphon and began to chant.

The words echoed softly, as though from the walls of a cavern. The cat rose to her feet and paced about the brazier with a mincing step unlike her usual stride.

Hardin turned the page, continuing to call out the spell. The fire burned brighter. Its flames had the weight of stained glass, hinting at scenes of another world.

The cat danced, pirouetting on all fours. Her throat pulsed with her cries, but no sound could be heard over the booming thunder of the spell.

The cat rose to her hind legs. The flames were a bright, throbbing crimson like that of blood ripped from a rabbit’s lungs. The oaks twisted their limbs away from the power in their midst.

Hardin shouted the final word of his incantation. The flames vanished with the suddenness of spiderweb burning, and the wizard slumped to the ground.

The cat continued to dance, spinning and rising onto her toes. Moonlight was white on her skin, and the flood of her long hair was as black as the night between the stars.

Hardin watched her, his face sallow with exhaustion. The cat laughed, at the wizard and at the moon.

* * *

The bishop’s seat had been moved to Witsted after Holar died, and the parish of Vann had withered like wheat slain by a black frost. The sea breeze that rose up the cliffs covered the ruined churchyard in an eternal fog. Gravestones had toppled, yews had grown to mounds of shaggy gloom, and rust had frozen the gates open.

Hardin led, carrying the brazier and crystals as well as the book Gryphon. The cat had refused that burden or any. She wore a cape for the sake of modesty, and even that with bad grace. Her legs, as bare as the wind, scissored beneath the fur-trimmed hem.

The churchyard’s back wall was in a swale, and the ground near the three tombs there was wetter even than the rest of the enclosure. Tree branches dripped into pools of standing water. The cat hissed in irritation as she followed the wizard.

They were alone in the churchyard. The cat unpinned the cape and swept it from her shoulders. It dropped, partly on a fallen marker and partly in the water pooling over a sunken grave.

Hardin arranged his crystals within the brazier: quartz and tourmaline; chrysoprase and chalcedony; and in the center, a jagged piece of bloodstone whose red streaks ran like arteries through a green matrix. He spoke a word to light his witchfire, and the flames sprang up red.

The cat looked at the fire, then looked at Hardin. Her lips drew back in what could have been either a smile or a sneer.

“Are you ready?” Hardin asked. Gryphon was open in his hands and his face was tense.

“I will serve you as I must, Hardin,” said the cat. “But if you proceed as you intend, you will regret it for all eternity, for Holar is greater than you.”

“Enough!” said the wizard. “You will do my will, and I will do all else that is needful.”

Words stood out in letters of cold fire from the pages of the book Gryphon. Hardin began to intone them; the night trembled to the rhythms of his voice. The flames brightened, and the cat shook her long hair loose in the night breeze.

The three bishops’ tombs had walls of flint nodules set in mortar and their roofs were of local slate, but the doors had been fashioned from imported marble. Crosses were carved on the first door and the second; but if there had ever been a cross on the door of Holar’s tomb, it had rotted from the stone. The marble was black with damp, and the firelight hinted at faces in the stains.

Hardin chanted. Distant thunder echoed his words, and the gulls on the cliffside below called nervously. Heat from the brazier cleared the air around it, but the atmosphere of the churchyard took on a brooding weight more oppressive than the fog.

The flames climbed. Gray light oozed through the door of the tomb on the left. It coalesced as Hardin spoke, as though the words of his incantation were hammerblows that forged formlessness into the wraith of a stern old man.

The cat postured before the figure, arching and twisting her nude body. The wraith looked at her in fury. He would have raised his hand for a blow, but chains of fire gripped him. To Hardin, the wraith said, “Stop while you can, you fool!”

Hardin paused, panting with the effort past and awareness of the labor yet to come. “I dare not stop,” the wizard said. His face was bleak and set. “And I shall not stop!”

Hardin resumed chanting. The cat laughed as she danced, but her throaty gurgle was lost in the sound of syllables thundering like waves driven onshore by a winter gale.

The flames blazed yellow. At each syllable they leaped higher than the top of the ancient cypress whose roots had crumbled a corner of the wall before squirming through a dozen graves. Hardin’s voice rose in pitch but did not falter. The pages of Gryphon turned at the bare touch of his fingers.

Another blob of light formed on the door of the center tomb, the way water beads as it soaks through canvas. Hardin spoke and the light congealed, becoming the figure of a man with a thin, ascetic face. This wraith nodded to his predecessor, still locked in fiery constraint, then gazed sadly at Hardin.

The cat grinned and offered herself, thrusting her pelvis toward the second figure. He would have signed the cross before him, but bonds of fire shackled his limbs as they had his predecessor’s.

“Young man,” said the saintly figure to Hardin, “cease now; for the sake of your soul and for the world of men.”

“My soul is lost unless I gain Dragon,” said the wizard. His voice rasped like stone on stone, and his eyes were puzzled to be gazing again on things of this world rather than what they glimpsed in the pages of Gryphon. “I will not cease!”

Hardin chanted, and the brazier glared white as the light of the desert sun. The wraiths stood watching. The first scowled, but the lips of the second moved in prayer.

The earth groaned a low, dismal note like the call of an ox dying. The door of the third tomb split with a whipcrack. Through the opening stepped a dapper man in bishop’s robes, holding a book whose red leather binding still showed the pattern of great scales.

Bishop Holar looked at the wraiths drawn from the other tombs. The first figure glared at him, but the second continued to pray with the same sad expression as when he viewed Hardin the Wizard.

Bishop Holar chuckled and turned to Hardin. “Well done, boy,” he said in a silver voice, “far better than I had expected of you. But you may as well give over now and leave me to my—”

Holar smiled.

“To my rest, shall I say?”

The cat smiled back at Holar. Her expression was a mirror of the bishop’s own, each as cruel as a hook-bladed knife.

“I will have the book Dragon,” said Hardin in nearly a falsetto.

“Your familiar has used your pride to dig a pit for you, boy,” said Bishop Holar with a nod of respect toward the cat. “She has mocked you till you tried this thing, knowing that if you did it, I would break you or between us we would break the world. Leave off now. while you can!”

“I cannot leave off,” said Hardin in a despairing whisper.

Bishop Holar sniffed; his right hand, as white and delicate as a woman’s, stroked the cover of the book Dragon. “So I see,” he said. “Well, it will be as it must be, then.”

Hardin resumed his chant. All the world was silent except his voice.

The fire was a stake of white light through the heart of the sky. Through the shaft of flame could be seen the shapes of rocks and plants and figures; but not such as are seen in the world of men.

The cat paced, her face twisting with hope and eagerness; and with not a little fear as well. Hardin continued the incantation. His visage was set like a skull and his voice was a child’s piping, but still he spoke the words.

No longer did the wizard’s hands turn the pages of Gryphon. The parchment leaves turned of themselves, and as they turned, the light of the fiery letters on them hung in the air like the afterimage of a lightning stroke.

Bishop Holar sneered, but he, too, showed the tension. Holar took a step forward, unwilling to advance but doing so nonetheless.

Hardin’s lips moved, but no longer was the chant audible as words from his tongue. Pulses too deep to be sound throbbed through the cosmos, making the sky and ground tremble together.

The fire was a sword cleaving the heavens. The fronds of a nearby willow curled back; the trunk split with a despairing hiss.

Bishop Holar’s arm began to straighten, extending the book Dragon. His movement was slow, as slow as the face of a glacier grinding down the notch of a valley.

The fire was a pressure as palpable as stone, and it roared like an angry god. The fronds of the great cypress shriveled and burst into flame.

“Hardin!” said the cat. “Your fire will swallow you and the world with you unless I smother it now. Is it your will that I save you, Hardin, or do you choose to go to hell in a bath of flame?”

Hardin’s mouth formed the words of power; his tongue had no more volition than a boulder has, careening down a hillside. His right hand moved in a desperate gesture toward the fire he had lighted but could not quench.

The cat bent with a supple motion to grip one of the tripod’s three clawed feet. She straightened, lifting the brazier of chiseled iron with an ease that belied the slender delicacy of her arms. Grinning at Hardin, she overturned it and thrust the basin into the pool over a sunken grave. Steam from the stagnant water flooded the churchyard in a hot cloud.

A thunderclap threw Hardin backward, drowning Bishop Holar’s cry of triumph. The book Gryphon fell to the ground. It erupted into ruddy flames which blazed until they had consumed leaves and binding utterly. The soil where the tome had lain was baked to glass without even a dusting of ash upon its heat-crazed surface.

The two wraiths had vanished. Bishop Holar remained. He bowed low to the cat, then walked back into his tomb carrying Dragon in the crook of his arm. His step was unsteady, for the strain had been great for even such as he.

Hardin’s body lay where he had fallen. His chest moved, but his eyes were empty. From Hardin’s still form separated a wraith of gray light in the wizard’s semblance.

The wraith looked at the familiar, then looked for a last time at the world it was leaving. With the jerky motion of a marionette, Hardin’s soul followed Bishop Holar within the tomb. The edges of the cracked marble flowed together as though they had never ruptured.

From Bishop Holar’s tomb came a yowl like the agony of a starving cat, diminishing slowly into silence. On the blackened stone of the tomb door was an additional face, tortured and despairing.

Dawn was breaking. The cat laughed to the sky as she danced about the slack-jawed form of the one who had slain her mate.

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