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Chapter One

Soulless hounds and cursed wights,
Groaning shadows with deadly knives,
Tracked the sharp tang of his blood,
From dale to vale to lightless wood.

—Gundal, The Doom Of Gleoras, ch 9, vi

Snow was falling on eastern Khatris. From the topmost spires of the Rukang mountains to the Girdle Hills encircling Besh-Darok, a carpet of large powdery flakes was being laid down, mantling the fields, softening battlefield scars and debris, masking the blackness of charred ground and burnt-out farm buildings.

Besh-Darok was becoming a white city. Roofs already icicle-bearded were growing pale and shrouded, their chimneys and vents fuming as the mid-morning cooking commenced. Children were sent out from under busy feet to caper in the streets, laughing and catcalling as volleys of snowballs flew to and fro. Dogs snapped at drifting flakes but dray horses just twitched their ears and breathed out foggy fumes.

Seamstresses and embroiderers were hard at work finishing pennons and bannerets; bakers were carefully packing special orders; taverners were taking delivery of fresh kegs and new leather jacks; city wardsmen were salting the icy roads leading down to the Five Kings dock; Earthmother priestesses were singing long canticles from towers scattered across the city; mummers were cavorting in the squares, while street sellers hawked their wares with blandishments and ribald doggerel. For this was the day of the Low Coronation, a day of celebration for commoners, tradesmen, guildsmen, officials, soldiers and sailors, as well as delegations from other towns and cities. It might be that the first true days of winter were upon them, and that terrible enemies still plotted from far to the north, but the roads and lanes were busy with people looking forward to a new Emperor, an event unthinkable just two short months ago.

Other parts of the city utterly lacked this kind of bustling activity. The district which bordered the sawmills, the lairages and the shipyards were full of houses that were as silent and empty as the slipways by the river. But shadows still crept there, and one abandoned street was playing host to a grim drama of blades.

* * *

Nerek was passing through a small square in the empty quarter when five men stepped out from doorways surrounding her. They were gaunt, hard-eyed men in shabby, mismatched armour, mostly leather and splint, but their weapons looked well-maintained. Almost at once she cursed herself for not having varied her route. City living had softened the edge of her caution.

“Now,” said one, a fair-haired swordsman in a patched brown cape. “You’ll be coming with us, I think, and peaceably if you please.”

She took in the details of the square in one, quick glance, the broken fountain, the shattered cart half-blocking one of the alleys, the few boarded-up windows and doors.

“Why would I do a thing like that?” she said evenly.

“Well, a merchant of my acquaintance wishes you brought to him, and seeing as I am in the taking and bringing business I offered my services.” He spread his hands and a silken cord swung loose from one. “Gave him my word that I’d bring you to him.”

Nerek reached for the Wellsource and was surprised to feel its strength and sensual potency rise at her command. But only for a second before it all drained away, leaving her angry and hollow. The man with the cord smiled.

“Seems they were right about your witchery, too.” He nodded at the man nearest her, who moved towards her.

“No…” she said, making her voice quaver. “Please!” She flung out one hand, palm outwards as if begging for mercy, while the other gripped the barbknife’s hilt beneath her long blue robes. The brigand grabbed her outstretched wrist, leering as he pulled her up against him.

“I never had me a witch 'fore,” he began…

She thrust the barbknife into the soft flesh below his ear. Blood spurted forth as she tore the knife free and leaped past his collapsing form. With a chorus of angry shouts at her back she dashed towards a nearby open door. Diving inside, she whirled with both hands on the door, slamming it shut, dropping the hinged latch bar into the iron slot. An instant later someone struck the outside of the door, which shook in its frame but held.

By the time it was kicked open, Nerek was climbing onto the roof and desperately seeking an escape route. Discovering that a lower building adjoined the house, she lowered herself down then leaped across the gap separating it from a flat-roofed stable slippery with snow. A frost-coated, iron ladder led up to a cambered slate roof, the first of an entire row curving up the hill, away from the river.

She heard a shout and looked back to see two men clambering out onto the roof of the last house, while the other two came running into view down in the street, pointing up at her.

The chase was on.

* * *

The villa of the merchant Hevrin was hidden by a barrier of snow-laden ankeril trees, behind which was a stone wall. One of the estate wardens had greeted Keren as she rode up from the main road, past busy barns and pens, past labourers in the icy fields and gangs of carpenters putting up new stables. At the gate to the villa grounds, she had to give her horse into the care of the ostlers and hand over her sword to the guard at the gatehouse. Once, such a demand would have provoked her into cold, unbending refusal. But she had learned that a blade was not the only weapon, and surrendered hers without a word.

Beyond the gate were gardens through which a paved path curved to the villa’s entrance, twin torwood doors banded with black iron and carved with a simple crest of a ship, a bell and a torch. Even as Keren and the warden climbed the few steps to the porch, the doors opened inwards and a tall, elderly man strode out to greet them, his breath smoking in the chill air.

“Lady Keren - you honour me and my house by your visit. Please enter and be welcome.”

Hevrin had clearly been a man of imposing stature in his youth, and some of that presence remained in his autumn years. It was said that when his first ship had been captured by pirates in the Gulf of Noriel one stormy winter, he had portaged two smaller vessels overland to Rauthaz and led the raid which regained his ship and much else besides. Today, he wore the kind of sturdy, weather-beaten jerkin preferred by working captains, along with plain moleskin breeks tucked into high boots that were well-tooled, almost ostentatious.

“My thanks, ser Hevrin, for your courteous reception,” she said stiffly. “And your invitation.”

Lady Keren? she thought wryly as the merchant ushered her into a warm, low-ceilinged hall lit by oil lamps. And here am I in a rider's jerkin and troos, and smelling of horse...

Hevrin ordered one of his servants to bring refreshments, then guided Keren through the hall to a room hung with tapestries and warmed by a log fire. He sat her in a high-backed chair near the hearth then left the room, only to return moments later with a flat box under one arm and a servant following in his footsteps. Once a tray of glasses and delicacies was laid on a table near Keren’s elbow, Hevrin dismissed the servant then opened the box and took from it a leather-bound volume.

“The tale that you seek lies within those pages, Lady,” he said, offering it to her. “I’ve marked it for you with the ribbon.”

The book was a little larger than a pocket journal yet quite thick, and as Keren ran her fingers over the ridges on the spine and the edges of the covers she found herself recalling that terrible journey through the tunnels of the Oshang Dakhal. At the dreadful climax of that struggle in Trevada she had seen how weak they all were in the face of the ancient powers of the world. She knew that if they were to survive the coming clash between the Earthmother and the Shadowkings, they had to have allies, namely the Daemonkind.

When she spoke of this to Bardow he was sceptical, pointing out that they had been the first servants of the Lord of Twilight and were unlikely to risk themselves on behalf of creatures they affected to despise. And then there was the near-insurmountable problem of penetrating the veil between the realms in order to exchange messages with their domain. The Archmage had paused and frowned, then admitted that there was an ancient myth which told of a hero who sang his way to the Daemonkind’s realm to solicit their aid. Such bare bones were all he knew, but that was enough to set Keren on a path of questions. Six weeks of asking and begging for entry to private libraries, hunting through rooms of dusty shelves, listening to the random outpourings of market storytellers, questioning the few Earthmother archivists still alive, and finally paying for information from an antiquities chandler who knew of the merchant Hevrin’s love for old books.

She opened the cover. The pages were a mixture of parchments, their edges coarsely cut and unevenly matched, and written on the first leaf in Old Mantinor script, were the words -

‘The Codex Of Northern Sagas, Gathered And Arranged By The Learned Vrasteyn Stulmar And Scribed By His Apprentice, The Humble Edric Of Bereiak, In The Fifteenth Year Of The Reign Of King Tavalir The Second, May His Illustrious Name Live Forever.’

With restrained eagerness, Keren sought the pages marked by a faded green ribbon, opened them wide and peered down at the stanzas of neat script. A moment later, she looked up in confusion.

“Ser Hevrin, what tongue is this?” she said.

The merchant had poured himself a goblet of pungent spirit and was settling into a chair on the other side of the hearth.

“According to scholars more sage than I, Lady Keren, the language is ancient Othazi, conveyed in a mid-Yularian dialect of the time.” He smiled. “Which, sadly, I cannot read. You see, Stulmar was only interested in authentic renditions of tribal legends, thus his book contains stories written in a score of languages.”

“Do you perchance have a translation of this tale, ser?” she said, feeling increasingly irritated.

“Only of its title, Lady - 'How Raegal Sang A Road To The Land Of The Daemons.' When my slightly reputable associate mentioned the details of your enquiry, I knew immediately what you sought and sent my invitation, hopeful that you would also accept this volume as a small token of my goodwill.” He sipped his drink. “A translation should not difficult to arrange. The guild colleges employ several scholars of note, most of whom would not be averse to earning a little extra gilt.”

A small token of my goodwill. Keren’s initial surprise began turning into suspicion.

“Your generosity surprises me, ser. Do you intend to ask something of me in turn?” Her voice was relaxed but her gaze held him cold and level.

The merchant was untroubled. “No, my Lady, it is a gift, nothing more. I expect no token or favour from you, nor would I ask for one. It is enough to have done a small service for one who came face to face with the Earthmother herself.”

Keren studied him for a moment. He does not have the manner of a zealot, she thought. No doubt for some their belief is a deep slow river, while for others it a raging torrent. Perhaps I should keep the details of what happened to myself.

“It is no small service you have done me, ser, but a great boon.”

“You are kind to say so, Lady Keren. Now - “ He finished his drink and stood. “I must beg your forgiveness for taking my leave, but there are many pressing duties which demand my hand on the tiller. Please stay and enjoy the fire and seclusion for as long as you wish. Will you be attending the Low Coronation?”

“I have been invited, ser.”

“Well, when you are ready to leave, speak to my house warden and your horse will be brought to the grounds gate.”

“You are very kind,” she said.

Hevrin gave a slight but grave bow, then left.

Keren returned the book to its box and waited for a short while before going in search of the house warden. Minutes later she was packing the box away in one of her horse’s saddlebags, then hauling herself up into the saddle. She sat there a moment, letting her gaze wander across the frosty buildings and fields of Hevrin’s estate, over the wide farmlands to the great, grey fortified walls of Besh-Darok where immense banners hung by the Shield Gate and pale smoke trailed from signal fires all along the battlements.

Somewhere in the city there might be a scholar familiar with ancient Othazi, but could she find one by this evening? That was when she and Gilly and Medwin were due to leave by ship for Sejeend and from there overland to Scallow in Dalbar. 'An undertaking of some importance' Bardow had called it, which probably meant they would encounter trials of unsurpassing horror and peril.

Then she cursed herself and dug her heels into her mount’s flanks, startling it into a canter. If a few hours are all I have, I’m not going to waste them. First the coronation, then the scholars.

As Keren rode down the track leading back to the main road, she saw a group of riders galloping madly along it towards the city. One of them carried a fluttering standard that she recognised, the tree-and-bull device of Yarram, Mazaret’s former deputy and now acting-Lord Commander of the Order of the Knights of the Fathertree. She knew that Yarram had left only days ago with a large contingent of knights to deal with brigands who were raiding villages west of the Rukang Mountains. But what urgency could have brought him haring back to the capital so soon, and with only a small escort?

Keren spurred her horse into a gallop, determined to find out.

* * *

Nerek ran through the gloomy, vacant house to the back door, emerged in a courtyard enclosed by high wooden paling and immediately felt trapped. There was a gate on her left and another straight ahead. She chose the latter. It opened onto a rough lane which ran long and straight in either direction.

Which way can I take when each seems as ruinous as the other, and my powers remain as elusive as before...

She had first noticed a diminishing of her powers three weeks ago. Private discussions with Bardow led to the conjecture that the Shadowkings were exerting their dread influence from somewhere rather closer than Rauthaz and Casall, borne out, Bardow had claimed, by strange tales of ghost children near the Girdle Hills. Only the Lord Regents, Mazaret and Yasgur, and Abbess Halimer of the Earthmother priesthood, were privy to such speculation, fearing that wider public knowledge might lead to panic and worse.

Nerek looked down at her hands, one holding the dagger, the other open and empty. Keren’s hands, she thought. Keren’s face, Keren’s body. Nothing is mine alone. Am I only a hollow thing fashioned for another’s purpose?

Through broken and missing planks she could see the wrecked sheds and overgrown ways of a shipyard, all white from the falling snow. Then a cold fury took hold of her and she clenched her empty hand in a fist, tight and trembling. Her anger cracked the veil within her and there was a rush of familiar power, the acrid emerald taste that awoke new hungers. She grinned at the green fire that sheathed her hand, even as the gap in the inner veil began to close.

Running footsteps drew near, and she switched her dagger to the Sourcefire-wreathed hand, half-turning to conceal it. Just then, one of her pursuers dashed into view, skidding to a halt when he saw her. His face was a mask of malice as he levelled a broadsword at her.

“You’ll not get near enough tusk that pigsticker, witch. Give it over, 'reels.”

“Gladly,” she said, whipping her hidden arm out to hurl the fire-drenched dagger. Hot green flamelets trailed from it as it flew past the man’s sluggish parry and thudded into his chest. He cried out and staggered back a step, then his chest caved inwards, his eyes rolled back to show the whites, and he fell dead on the ground.

Nerek, drained of power once more, leaned shakily against the courtyard paling for a moment, senses spinning, her mouth tasting of ash. Then she lurched forward, pried the man’s sword from his lifeless hand, and ducked sideways through a gap in the high fence.

Down in the dead shipyards there were no allies and little in the way of a safe refuge, but with any luck she might find a boat.

* * *

The snowfall was showing no sign of abating as a shivering Gilly Cordale trudged along the battlements of the Silver Aggor, the high inner wall of the Imperial Palace’s fortifications. Up ahead were two unfortunate troopers, one wielding a long broom while the other scattered handfuls of salt on the flagstones. Gilly, bareheaded, found himself envying them their leather gauntlets and wax-proofed hoods while cursing himself for ignoring his page’s advice and just wearing a fur-lined short jerkin.

And why did Atroc insist on meeting outside the palace? he thought, blowing into cupped hands. Why did I agree?

A figure emerged from a guard tower near the Keep of Day. He was carrying a long object which unfurled to become a large curved fan. Thus sheltered from the snow Atroc strode towards Gilly.

“You southmen are like children,” the seer said as he approached. “At the first snow you huddle in mounds of fur.”

“That’s because we have blood flowing in our veins,” Gilly retorted with a smile, “rather than that fermented dog’s milk you folk drink day and night.”

The old Mogaun gave a gap-toothed grin as he produced an oval leather bottle from his shabby cloak. “Mare’s milk, mocker. You wish?”

“I see it as my duty,” Gilly said and took a hefty swig.

As the liquor sent warmth down into his chest and fumes up into his head, he looked at the old seer.

“So - how may this lackey of the crown be of service to the Chieftain of the Firespears?”

“Not everything I do is at Prince Yasgur's express command, but I am always heedful of his interests.”

Gilly stroked his beard. “You feel those interests are being thwarted in some way? Yet you would rather talk of this out here.”

Atroc grimaced. “Too many mice in this great stone hill, mice who whisper to bigger mice.” He eyed the two troopers armed with broom and salt, then shrugged and went on. “But here is the knot that grows tighter - the city’s regiments, which my Prince commands, are becoming dangerously under strength while at the same time the Fathertree Knights and these other new orders are overwhelmed by fresh recruits.” The old seer raised a wizened hand, pointing at Gilly. “And worse still are those southron soldiers who have been forced to leave the city regiments and join the new Orders by threats made against their families. Many companies, both horse and foot, are now composed solely of Mogaun warriors.”

Gilly sighed a cloudy breath into the snow-filled air. “I know of this, Atroc, and I know who is behind it, but I’m in no position to voice such suspicions.”

Atros regarded him with narrowed eyes. “It is the Hunters Children, yes?”

“Who else could it be? The Mendicant Friars of the Needy?” Gilly gave a hollow laugh. “They cannot accept that Alael refused the crown, so they’ve been busy planting little seeds of poison here and there. Ever since the unmasking of Kodel and the Armourer, control of the Hunters Children seems to have slipped into the hands of an unknown group of officers.”

“I have heard the name Racho mentioned more than once,” Atroc said. “Can you not lay all this before Lord Regent Mazaret? After all, not only does he command the Office of Papers, he is also - ”

“My friend?” Gilly stared out at the cold white woods and fields of the city demesne. “Since Suviel died, he’s been a changed man, cold and distant. After the battle, he assigned me to the Office of Papers, supposedly to help build up a new network of spies. But all that has been done by his own placemen and I’ve had precious little to do, apart from keeping my eyes and ears open. Mazaret and I have scarcely exchanged a dozen words this last month.

“And even if that were otherwise, from this evening I shall be gone from Besh-Darok and unable to see him when he returns from his latest expedition.”

For the fourth time in six weeks, the Lord Regent had taken two companies of knights out beyond the Girdle Hills and along the Westerly Road to ‘seek out the Shadowkings spoor and protect villagers and townsfolk’. But from what Gilly had heard, almost all the inhabitants of central Khatris had fled, leaving behind a vast area of desolate farmlands whose villages and towns were burnt-out charnel houses and where bands of crazed outcasts roamed. And every time Mazaret returned, Gilly could see how the bitter despair had eaten into him a little deeper than before…

“I had wondered who was being sent to Dalbar,” Atroc said. “There are another two accompanying you, I understand. Who might they be?”

Gilly shook his head with mock solemnity. “Nay, friend Atroc, such information is highly secret.” Then he smiled. “But since you asked, they are Medwin and Keren.”

“Hmm, a shrewd negotiator, a skilled swordsman, and...ah, why are they sending you, pray tell?”

Mildly affronted, Gilly snatched the leather bottle from the old Mogaun's loose grip and helped himself to a throat-igniting mouthful of the potent drink. “I’ll have you know,” he said hoarsely, “that my spies and informants in Dalbar are many and talented. Once we reach Scallow, it will be the work of a single morning to….”

He trailed away into silence when he realised that Atroc’s attention was focussed on something beyond the city walls. Gilly followed his gaze and saw a group of riders galloping with all speed along one of the main roads leading to the Shield Gate. One of them carried a standard that Gilly recognised as Yarram’s.

“Now why is he back so soon?” he wondered aloud, then glanced at Atroc and caught his breath.

The old man’s wrinkled face had gone pale, his mouth hung half-open and his eyes gazed unblinkingly into midair. His lips twitched and he began to speak in a whisper.

“...a pale daughter his captor...sons born to no wife….the hollow father….”

He fell silent for a moment, then slowly blinked like a man roused from sleep, moistened his lips with a grey-pink tongue tip, and let out a long, shuddering sigh.

“We seers….stand by the Door of Dreams, which opens to the waking eye but rarely.” He fixed Gilly with an implacable stare. “Pray that it never opens for you, whatever else befalls you.” He turned to leave. “We shall speak on the matter later. Now, I must be gone.”

Gilly felt a chill of the spirit pass through him as Atroc walked away. Were the old man’s vision-words about him, or about Yarram? He recalled the final auguries of Avalti, dying in that razed village - an iron fox, eyeless to the hunt...

Then he laughed. “Words, mere words,” he declared aloud. With snow mantling his head and shoulders he hurried off back the way he had come, hoping to catch Yarram as he arrived at the palace and be the first to hear his news.

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