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Starlight and Ash

A Runelords Story

David Farland

As the knights of Mystarria rode through the Dunnwoodin evening, all grew quiet. Avahn knew that her guards rode in silence in part because they were weary to the bone and, in part, because they feared the Toth.

The creatures were still a mystery.

They’d appeared two days ago, floating in the Carroll Sea on great gray ships that appeared to be carved from stone. The boxlike vessels were like nothing any human would construct.

What the creatures wanted, no one knew for sure. There was no way to communicate with them; they had not tried to parlay.

Instead, some of them merely stepped off their ships and walked along the bottom of the sea, and then climbed out along the coasts only to set fields of crops afire.

Winter would be hard, Avahn knew. Famine was coming.

* * *

An animal cry rose in the woods, like the keen of a hound—desolate, bereft.

A shiver raced up Dval’s spine as his mount leapt forward a pace. He whirled to see King Harrill upon his warhorse, the gray color of cold ash spotted by snow. The king gazed upward, hazel eyes blank, brow crinkled, and merely wailed like a trapped animal.

The dark pine boughs overhead echoed the cry and diffused it, so that the wail seemed to both rise from the ground and descend from the sky. “Mehrel?” the king called to his dead wife. “Mehrel?” He stretched his hands out, palms outward, begging heaven for succor.

Eleven-year-old Dval had never seen a man so broken.

He knew that King Harrill suspected Dval of the queen’s murder, though Dval’s only crime was to have found her dead. That, and to have been born into an enemy clan, to have been born a Woguld.

Among the Woguld, grief was for children. True men did not wail like this. Dval wondered if such excesses were common among these day-lighters, these Mystarrians.

From the corner of his eye, he studied King Harrill. The man was hefty, short, and unimposing, with old muscle going to fat. He wore a deep blue riding robe over his breastplate, and no helm, only a simple crown carved from oak, polished smooth and darkened by age over the centuries. Aside from a haughty bearing, nothing suggested that he was a king.

He began to blubber and sniff, wiped his nose with one sleeve.

Dval’s own father had been found murdered six months earlier, yet Dval had never wept for him like this. Dval wondered if he should have wept.

No, Father would not approve. It is not wailing that he would want, but vengeance.

So far, Dval had not been able to grant his father vengeance, or shed tears on his behalf.

Dval looked to the king’s retinue to see their reaction to this mad howling.

Ahead and behind, the king’s knights rode with hunched shoulders, faces forward, as if distressed to hear the king’s outburst. Their mail jangled with each plop of a hoof.

So, it is not common even for these savages to cry. Dval suppressed a mocking grin. Mystarrians were no better than animals.

Weariness tugged at Dval like an undertow. The air so close to the sea felt thick and wet in his throat. Even in broad daylight, he rode through a landscape that seemed more shadow than leaf and tree.

Twisted pines brooded above, keeping the road in perpetual gloom. He could feel the trees all around, as ancient as legend, moldy and rotten, like King Harrill himself. With the dying of the day, linnets had begun to flutter upward, wings of amber flashing in the slanting light, glimmering like garnets. The woods smelled of mold, decay.

The king noticed Dval’s smile, and whirled. “Warum starren Sie?” the king hissed, flashing his teeth.

Dval did not understand his uncouth tongue, but guessed at the question. He answered proudly, knowing that it might cost him his life. “I see a king who cries like a girl.” He did not hide the contempt in his voice.

The king growled and pulled a long dirk from his boot-sheath, waved it threateningly, though he was well out of reach.

Dval urged his mare forward, ignoring the mad king’s glare.

* * *

“Father, stop!” Avahn cried. She rode next to Dval, painfully aware of the older boy’s color as they passed through a crop of sunlight.

Dval had a Woguld’s skin, white as a swan, with long silver locks and eyes so pale green that they were almost colorless. For two hundred years, his people had warred with Mystarria.

“Oh, am I to take orders from a child now?” the king demanded.

“What I ask,” Avahn said softly, in order to appease him, “I ask out of love. Spare him. Dval saved my life. I am in his debt.”

Dval’s stomach growled, and she realized that no one had offered him food since his capture. Yet he showed no sign of fatigue. He held his back straight, head high—every bit the warrior, from a race of warriors.

King Harrill’s voice cracked like a whip: “Don’t get too comfortable with that…grosse wurm at your side.” The epithet grosse wurm was a slur used when speaking of the Woguld. Their skin was the sickly color of giant earthworms found in Southwest Mystarria.

Avahn had just turned nine. She was not used to her father’s unsteady temper. She’d been sheltered at court, raised among nannies, learning the lore that every princess should know.

“I want to keep him, Father,” she pleaded. “He fought back the wolves again and again.” Her father bit his lip. “Please? I never ask you for anything.”

“It’s not so simple,” her father grumbled. “He’s not a pony or a bear cub.” He gave Dval a dark look, and the king’s entire demeanor changed. His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “How do we know that he’s not a spy? If I do as you bid, take him to court, train him as a guard, he’ll learn our deepest secrets. He could kill you in the night.”

“What more does he need to do?” Avahn asked. “The world is falling into ruin, what with the Toth. Shouldn’t we plan on fighting our real enemies?”

Her father grimaced, glanced at the boy, with the hood of a green riding cloak pulled protectively low over his eyes, his long tan loincloth and moccasins, and the deep-blue tattoos of a tree winding up his right leg. Dval couldn’t be more than twelve, Avahn felt sure. He wasn’t a warrior, out to learn the kingdom’s secrets. He was hardly more than a child.

The king stiffened, as if he’d come to a decision. “There is only one way that the boy can prove his loyalty: he must betray his own people. He must lead our troops into the Woguld’s underground strongholds and help us wipe them out.”

Avahn’s heart hammered. It seemed impossible. He could prove his loyalty only by being disloyal to his own people? “But—”

Her father cut her off. He said firmly, “His people have rejected him. He owes them nothing.”

Avahn glanced at Dval to see if he reacted, but he merely stared ahead. He showed no sign that he understood.

In her mind’s eye, she remembered the archer in the woods, his silver elk’s mask gleaming in the sun, its antlers wide, as he drew an arrow on his crimson bow. She heard the whistle of the arrow as its goose feathers winged through the air.

Dval’s own people had tried to kill him—simply because he’d saved her life. Perhaps it was true that he no longer owed them anything, but she doubted that he would turn against them.

“Train him then,” Avahn begged. “Let him learn to love Mystarria, make it his home. In a year or two, perhaps he’ll do what you ask.” She said this last only to appease her father, not because she believed it.

“I’ll not have that worm in the palace,” King Harrill affirmed.

“Take him to the House of Understanding then,” Avahn suggested. The House of Understanding was more than a house, of course. It was a great school near the Capitol. In ancient days, it was a school where lords and soldiers trained at an inn, but soon grew in reputation so that one building could not contain it all. Now there were dozens of “rooms” to the house; entire buildings and arenas where one could specialize in various crafts. “He can train in the Room of Arms to develop his fighting skills, and he can learn our language in the Room of Tongues.”

The king did not answer.

The forest had begun to thin ahead, and suddenly a war horn blew, deep blats that sounded like three sharp barks.

Immediately, Sir Adelheim, her father’s captain, pulled his horseman’s battle axe from the sheath on his back and charged ahead. Her father reined in his own mount, which leapt a pace, eager to join the fray.

“Stay back!” Avahn’s father warned her as he reached for his own battleaxe.

The horses danced in place, and the troops that had been riding behind charged forward, their faces set like stone, drawing weapons as they streamed into the forest.

Avahn peered forward, straining every sense. She smelled ash, and realized that they were coming out of the Dunnwood. She smelled smoke—not the smoke of a campfire, but of burning fields.

She spotted a tree that had been blasted by lightning, stripping it of bark. She remembered this place. Ahead, a small town named Moss End hugged the woods. It had an ivy-covered fortress, quaint but stout, while a beautiful stone bridge arced above the river. A trio of inns hugged the shore near the forest, while on the other side of the bridge squatted rows of ancient cottages, their roofs piled with heavy straw thatch.

Ahead, warriors’ cries echoed through the wood, and for several moments Avahn listened to the sounds of battle. Soon, Sir Adelheim came cantering back on his black destrier. As the sun dipped behind the mountains, darkness deepened, almost as if he brought the night with him.

“Milord,” he called. “A few miles ahead—we’ve been attacked!”

Here? Avahn wondered. Why would anyone attack Moss End?

* * *

Dval rode from under the ancient trees after sunset, just as stars had begun to come alive in the dying day, lanterns swinging in the rafters of heaven. Beneath the shadow of the old forest, they came upon the site of a massacre.

Cottages lay in ruins beside the road, roofs ripped off as if by a tornado. Stone walls from fine hostels had been shoved inward, and a bit of smoke still wound up from the rubble of hearths.

Of the fortress, an ancient tower, only a pile of rubble remained.

In the courtyard lay a woman, her belly ripped open and guts strewn all about. A child was not far away from her, and she reached toward its corpse. Nearby, Dval spotted the head of a knight, still in its helm with visor down, staring blankly from the roadside.

All had been murdered, as senselessly as his father had been murdered.

Seven red hens raced from the courtyard at the approach of the troops.

Dval had never seen such destruction. Last night, he’d witnessed the fires burning from the mountains and had wondered if the folk of Mystarria were at war. But this was like nothing he had ever imagined.

Kommen hier!” a soldier shouted at the backside of the ruins, and other soldiers raced toward him across the green, past more bodies. Behind the fortress, Dval came upon one of the king’s champions, the hill giant Bandolan. The giant stared down at a monster.

“Toth!” the savages whispered in hushed tones, some of them aiming war lances down to a dead creature at their feet. “Toth.”

Dval stared, amazed. The beast looked to be two times taller than a man, but it was nothing like a man. It had an exoskeleton covered in thick gray hide, much like that of a reaver, but it was thinner than a reaver. It had four legs and two long arms, each of which ended with three talons and a thumb-like claw.

Its head was large, with a bony plate fanning out from the skull. On the end of the plate were wormlike philia, with which it tasted. In life, the philia could stand up and move, much like snakes rising to peer about. But now that the creature was dead, they hung limp.

The creature’s long jaw had dozens of fangs, and a purple tongue filled its mouth, but did not extend to the teeth. It had nine air-holes on each side of its snout.

In many ways, it resembled a reaver’s head, but there was one amazing difference: reavers have no eyes. This creature had four. They were nothing like human eyes. One pair was as large as Dval’s fist, its surface a bloody red. A smaller eye just beneath it was purple-black.

There were few plants or animals that had adapted to living both in the underworld and the outer world. Obviously, this was a creature of darkness that could still somehow see in the light.

The Mystarrians backed away from the monster in terror, like children, but Dval had lived most of his young life in the underworld among his people’s burrows.

He was familiar with the plants and animals that grew deep underground, where heat from thermal vents allowed life. There were huge worm-like glue-mums there, and strange spider-like creatures, and cruelest of all, the reavers.

But this was something new. “Toth,” he repeated aloud.

He crouched down near the creature’s abdomen. It had been crudely hacked with axes, and the air vents there were broken and fouled.

He sniffed at its rectum, trying to catch the creature’s “death scent,” and smelled something very much like lavender and rotten garlic.

The Mystarrians sniggered.

* * *

“He’s a butt sniffer,” Sir Pwyrthen jested. “I’ve got a hound that does that to me.”

Avahn stiffened in embarrassment for the Woguld, but said nothing.

Dval stood up straight, strolled around the creature. He reached toward a soldier who held a spear, gave a hand-it-hither gesture. The soldier smiled dubiously, gave the Woguld his spear.

Dval took the spear, went to the creature’s thorax, leapt in the air, and tried mightily to plunge the spear into the monster’s exoskeleton. But even with three tries, putting all of his weight behind the blow, he could not break the beast’s skin.

The men laughed. Captain Adelheim joked, “It’s dead enough, boy. Give it up!”

Most of her father’s men were runelords with endowments of strength. Perhaps they would have not had such a tough time piercing the monster’s hide, and so they mocked Dval’s efforts.

But Avahn’s father leaned forward on his mount, peering into the gloom. The boy took his spear, stood back, and plunged it beneath the creature’s forearm, into its armpit, and this time the spear entered a good foot.

“The boy is testing its defenses.” The king’s tone was curious, but not convinced. “Watch him, lads. We might learn something.”

Now Dval went to its head, stabbed at the eyes, and once again the spear was rebuffed. But he sought out a point between the eyes, where three prominent points met, and once again threw all of his weight behind a blow.

The spear pierced the dead Toth’s skull, its tip driving six inches into its brain, and then snapped.

“Huzzah!” the men cheered.

Dval looked up triumphantly. The lesson was learned. The men who had killed this creature had hacked at its thorax ineffectively and had barely managed to slay it. But Dval had just discovered two points where a man might strike and make a quick kill.

King Harrill’s eyes narrowed, and he peered about the dead town. “Why here?” he wondered. “What are they up to? This place has little strategic merit.”

Sir Adelheim suggested, “We’re at the edge of the forest. Maybe the Toth are creatures of the wood.”

“Right,” Sir Pwyrthen agreed. “The Toth could be like dogs, marking the edge of their new territory.”

“Or the mountains.” King Harrill sounded uneasy, as if he did not want to assert motives quite yet. “We’re at the feet of the mountains here.”

Off in the trees, a soldier called out, “Milord, there are tracks leading into the woods. Two more of the monsters came this way.”

The king smiled. “Light some torches, men. We’ll run them down!”

He peered at Avahn. “You’ll stay here with your…the wurm. Sir Bandolan will watch over you.”

He nodded toward the hill giant, who puffed out his chest and brandished his war staff. The troops raced off to the forest’s edge.

* * *

Dismissed from the action, Dval did not concern himself with the monster any longer. The giant and Avahn climbed up into the remains of the old stone fortress, found a corner of standing walls perhaps twenty feet off the ground, and crouched there. Night was coming quickly, and bats danced overhead, taking gnats on the wing.

Dval had not eaten for a day and a half.

He remembered the red hens, decided to eat one. They would be sluggish with the coming night, trying to settle on their roosts. The stars were coming out, but the waxing moon had not yet risen.

He walked through the town, and found many dead villagers. He eyed the bodies, searching for gold or silver, but King Harrill’s soldiers had already claimed everything of value.

But Dval noticed something odd, a mystery. The men had all been clubbed to death, but he found three women, and each had been gutted, as if a single talon had pierced her beneath the navel and ripped upward. Then her entrails were flung about.

This was not the kind of work performed by reavers. Reavers went mad from time to time and committed terrible atrocities. But there was a surgical precision to this attack.

But why had the monsters defiled the women?

Dval spotted the remains of a henhouse behind the ruins of a cottage, a few cages still standing on stilts. He drew close to one, smelled warmth and feathers. A hen was inside.

He reached in gently, hoping to ease her from the roost, but the hen squawked and leapt out, flapping her wings as she took to the air.

To his surprise, Dval missed grabbing her.

All he got for his trouble was…an egg, lying warm in his palm. He’d seen hens crap eggs in fear before, but he’d never had one lay an egg in his hand.

He laughed, cracked it, and swallowed the fluid.

Dval checked two other boxes, but they were empty.

Still hungry, he went to the dead Toth. He’d smelled the creature’s death, and instinct warned that the others would return. There was a secret known among the Woguld about reavers. Their death cries were carried in their scent.

The smell of a dead reaver confused its fellows, made them cower in fear.

He hoped that the same was true of the Toth.

So he took his hand and wiped it on the wormlike philia hanging down at the back of its abdomen, then spread the scent in a bar across his forehead, painted stripes on his cheeks, and one on his chin. Thus he wore a war mask that only a Toth might discern.

When he finished, he climbed up into the old fortress, stood in the shadow of the giant Bandolan, and peered across the horizon.

To the west were plains, with fields aplenty. They’d been burned, and the ground lay blackened under a net of stars. In some places, where brush was heavy or logs lay in the grass, little fires still sputtered, so that the stars seemed to light the ground in the distance.

The Toth burned the fields. He wondered why, and could think of only one reason. The Toth didn’t come to conquer this people, but to supplant them completely. That’s why they tear the wombs from women.

* * *

King Harrill’s men charged along in the night, over fields of dry ash black under the starlight, crossing a shallow river several times, sluggish from summer and never rising higher than his mount’s withers.

He was so weary, so weary, and he struggled in vain to remain awake.

In the soft sand at the water’s edge, his men stopped to study some Toth’s footprints, like those of a giant bird. In the darkness, the starlight shining on the sand left an impression, something like a human face.

King Harrill suddenly imagined his dead wife again, lying beside the wreck of the royal carriage, her beautiful features torn by wolves, leaving only a mouth of perfect teeth surrounded my bloody meat.

The image overwhelmed him, a whirlwind bowling him over. He hunched in his saddle as if he’d taken a blow.

“Damn the heavens,” he wailed. “Blot out the stars! Let rot cull the tender seeds from our ground!”

He was dazed by fatigue, and his head spun. He clenched his legs tightly against his horse’s ribs, trying to hold on.

He blacked out from the emotional pain, and roused moments later to find Sir Adelheim at his side, holding his elbow to keep him from falling from his mount.

King Harrill was keening uncontrollably, a low whine emanating from his throat. He bared his teeth, struggled to regain some control, but continued to sob.

“Are you better, milord?” Sir Adelheim asked.

He fought for control, reeling.

“Hold me, my friend,” King Harrill begged. “Hold on to me.”

“I’m here, milord,” Sir Adelheim whispered. He leaned close, his forehead almost touching the king’s, and held him firmly, as if to lend him strength.

“Do you know where we are?” Sir Adelheim asked.

The world was spinning, night and darkness and stars turning above. Thought came slowly.

“I forget,” King Harrill whispered, and he struggled to hold on to a thought, but sleep was like a quicksand, pulling him under.

“Toth,” Adelheim whispered. “We’re tracking them. Remember?”

“Yes,” King Harrill whispered, clinging to the thought. Two Toths had survived. It was terrible to think that such creatures could be so powerful that they could take out a garrison of twenty good troops, and kill a hundred villagers, with only one casualty.

He hoped that the Toth had suffered for it; he looked at the ground, hoping for signs of blood, but saw none. One of the monsters had three toes on each foot. A much larger Toth had four.

The tracks were very fresh, their sides crisp.

“They seem to be wandering,” Sir Adelheim said. “They’ve moved around tonight, but never moved more than about five miles from the fortress.”

King Harrill seemed to struggle free from his stupor.

They’re aimless, King Harrill thought. Maybe dazed or wounded. Perhaps my men have pushed them beyond their endurance.

The Toth had circled back toward the fortress twice now, and he’d managed to send lancers ahead to cut them off. But what could they want there?

The only thing at the fortress was his daughter.

The thought unmanned him. He’d lost his wife to these monsters already.

Now he recalled the women he’d seen in town. He’d only seen one up close, a couple of others from a distance. All had had their organs ripped out.

My daughter? he wondered.

A gentle breeze had begun blowing in from the sea for the evening.

“Send the men ahead to chase those bastards,” King Harrill suggested. “But let’s keep a few men back. I think they’ll try to head for the fortress again. We’ll go to the far side of that stand of pine over there and wait under the trees.”

Sir Adelheim nodded, cut three lancers from the group, and sent the rest ahead.

King Harrill smiled. His madness earlier today could be forgiven. King Harrill the Cunning was back.

* * *

Avahn, Dval, and Sir Bandolan sat in the rocks atop the keep, and peered about. Sir Bandolan said in a grumbling voice, in the way of such giants,

“The stars grow tired,
“Night runs deep.
“’Tis time for a child
“To go to sleep.”

Avahn smiled up at him. Sir Bandolan shook his head, the rat skulls in his beard rattling together.

“Is that an order?” she asked.

Sir Bandolan grumbled and pointed with his heavy oaken staff toward the ground. His was a weapon favored of giants, bound as it was with iron rings and tipped with a brass point. It could be used as either a spear or a cudgel—and, in a pinch, a walking stick.

“All right,” Avahn said, and she crept to the corner and lay down. The stones here still carried the heat of the day.

She pulled part of a tapestry over herself.

Avahn lay in the starlight, eyes gritty and tired. She and Dval had been trapped by wolves the night before, and she found that she could not sleep, she was so worried.

She opened her eyes and saw Dval crouched on a stone. A rising moon had turned his skin to silver. Somewhere he had managed to scavenge a spear, and now he peered down at her gravely—a silver gargoyle with death shining from his eyes.

“Ashoo. Ashoo,” he whispered softly. Sleep. Sleep, and she obeyed his command.

* * *

Above her, Dval watched and waited. There was a clearing around the fortress. The land had been burnt off each year, kept free of brush. Nothing could reach them without being seen.

Yet he worried. If the Toths’ sense of smell was as strong as he believed, they would come for Avahn.

His heart hammered, and he watched the fields.

There was a villager lying askew at the edge of the woods, a knight in ringmail, his cape twisted around him.

Dval’s own father had been found like that, dead at the food of a crevasse.

Most in the burrows thought that he had taken a fall by accident while on guard duty, but Dval did not believe that. His father had been a warrior, honored as a Supreme Man. He was not careless or blind.

He was so much better than me, Dval thought. I have not even earned a title beyond my family name. I suppose now that I never will.

Dval had been convinced that his father had been murdered, but the elders of the clan had not investigated.

Who would want to kill Dval Kartinga, hero that he was?

Suddenly, Dval recalled his uncle, with his crimson bow and silver elk mask, taking aim.

Never had he imagined such a thing. His uncle, Dval Oormas, had shared a womb with Dval’s father.

Could Dval Oormas have killed his father?

The pieces fit together like the scales on a fish.

Of course. Dval’s father, as the Supreme, had been the chief elder to the clan, next in line to become its leader. If he died, it left an opening for those who might want to take his place.

Dval’s uncle might harbor such hopes. As an uncle, it was Oormas’s responsibility to raise Dval to be a warrior, like one of his own. But it was a responsibility that Oormas had hated.

Dval remembered the constant sneer in his uncle’s tone, the insults and belittling.

His uncle had sent Dval over the mountains into enemy territory to find his blood mare, and Dval had seen moccasin prints while following her trail. He’d imagined that one of his cousins had driven the horse over the mountains, playing a cruel trick.

But what if it was his uncle who had done it?

Of course, Dval thought. Why else had he shown up at just the right time?

Dval was a strong young man. As his mother had put it, “Your father’s blood runs strong in you. You shall be Supreme someday.”

That was reason enough for someone to try to kill me.

Perhaps when I entered the carriage, Dval reasoned, my uncle hoped that the wolves would finish me, so that my blood would not be on his hands. Or perhaps when the Mystarrians showed up, he imagined that they would kill me.

But neither had happened. The Princess Avahn had begged her father for mercy.

So Oormas had taken matters into his own hand, and had shot an arrow at Dval.

Suddenly, it all fit together in Dval’s mind, and he was so excited, so eager to take the idea back to the burrows and tell the clan, that he almost did not see the two Toth emerge from under the trees.

Before he knew it, they were halfway across the clearing, racing soundlessly, four arms folded tight against their chests. One of them was small and fast, about twelve feet tall. The other was much heavier, a large female, and ran sluggishly.

She held what looked to be a long rod of crystal that glimmered under the starlight, and blazed red, as if fire leapt up from its heart.

The grass had been burned all around the city, so she could not have intended to burn that. Only one thing stood to reason. She would burn the last of the humans standing atop the fortress.

“Ya-chaa!” Dval whooped a war cry as he leapt over the fortress wall and charged the enemy.

* * *

“Oh, schiesse!” Sir Bandolan shouted, and Avahn leapt up from her corner, fighting sleep.

The giant grabbed his great war staff and stood firm, a wall between Avahn and the Toth. Avahn peered out into the darkness, and could see little.

A huge Toth was out there, and it wielded a club that blazed like living fire, whirling it in the darkness. On the ground beneath it, the boy Dval was shouting, his white frame turned red beneath the spinning flames.

He had his spear out, and did battle with two Toth at once.

“The boy is fearless!” the giant said in amazement.

More than that, he moved now as quick as a serpent. His foe was a smaller Toth, one with the shadows, and Avahn could barely see it in the darkness. It leapt and twisted away, teeth gaping. It hissed and shrieked, an alien sound, and bore a huge axe with three double heads.

It swung at the boy, but for some reason, as Dval pressed the attack, the creature kept fading back, the philia waving madly upon the frills of its head-plate, as if terrified and unbelieving of what it faced.

“Go save him!” Avahn shouted to Bandolan, for she feared that no mere human could face two Toth at once.

But the giant shook his head, wagged his great black beard. “My duty is to save you!

Dval dodged beneath the smaller Toth’s swing, leapt back. No fighter of Mystarria could have evaded that blow in darkness, Avahn thought. None of her men could see so well in this infernal darkness.

But Dval leapt away, and for a moment, he disappeared in the shadows.

Suddenly his enemy gave a keening shriek and halfway collapsed to its left. The bigger Toth swung her flaming club overhead, and for an instant, Avahn saw the image of Dval, engaging the smaller monster.

He’d stabbed it beneath the arm, plunged his spear into its chest. Now he danced backward and disappeared into the shadows again.

The wounded Toth staggered a bit, fell back, and then swung its mighty axe. Dval was a white shadow in the starlight and moonlight, dancing away.

But he went flying, and Avahn shrieked as she realized that the Toth’s ax had found its mark. With a sickening crunch, Dval flew back a dozen feet.

The smaller Toth stopped and peered up toward the fortress, and for a moment it held its axe in both hands, then staggered forward and crashed to the earth.

Only one Toth was left. The big slow one.

“Get down!” Sir Bandolan grumbled, his voice issuing from his cavernous chest like rolling thunder. He shoved her to the ground.

* * *

Dval’s head spun. He felt as if he were caught in a tornado, his head spinning around. He clawed his way out of the darkness, and found himself on the ground.

Blood smeared his chest.

The Toth. The male had given him a mighty battle, and the end of the ax had nicked him, sent him flying.

A sense of urgency filled him, and Dval leapt to his feet. “Ya, kanah!” he shouted. To eternity!

He leapt up, thinking that while he was unconscious, the female must have charged the fortress, but to his surprise, she stood not more than a dozen feet from him.

She whirled and raised her flaming crystal staff overhead so that it whistled and hissed at the same time. The staff was at least fourteen feet long, and as thick as a large sapling.

His chest hurt, and Dval was in terrible pain. He staggered forward and realized that his feet would not move. He felt shocked, wounded.

He suddenly realized that he had dropped his spear, and he bore no weapon at all in his hand.

His ears were pounding, blood drumming in tune with his heart, and he stared for one moment into the maw of the Toth as it gnashed its teeth, huge eyes peering at him without moving, much as a spider’s eyes will.

His whole world was reflected in the Toth’s eyes. He could see himself there, blood streaming from his wound, his face pale as death. The monster’s fiery staff whirled toward him, and time seemed to stand still.

The Toth lurched forward, a lance piercing through its abdomen, and a charger came out of the night, a warhorse with a leather helm painted white like a skull, and leather barding.

The Toth fell on top of Dval, crushing him, so that for a moment he lay on the ground and struggled to breathe.

* * *

King Harrill rode out of the woods, only a few strides behind Sir Adelheim and Sir Pwyrthen, and watched the big Toth succumb to death, her armored body crashing to the ground with a sound like trees falling.

To his dismay, Avahn came leaping down from the fortress in the starlight, as if eager to finish killing the Toth herself, and Sir Bandolan the giant was too slow to stop her.

Avahn raced to the dying Toth and grabbed her giant staff, then struggled to use it as a lever.

Only then did he see the fallen Woguld lying beneath the monster.

The giant came trudging down, too. He grabbed the Toth, rolled her over, and pulled the boy out.

The Woguld lay in the moonlight, struggling to breathe, and King Harrill drew near, wondering if the boy would survive.

To his surprise, Dval climbed to his feet and staggered to the fallen Toth. Only then did he reach into the pocket of his tunic and pull something out.

He laid it upon the dead Toth’s thorax, then grunted and pointed at it meaningfully. By the light thrown from the fiery staff, King Harrill saw a cracked shell.

“By the powers,” King Harrill said, “the damned creatures have laid eggs!”

The pieces came together for him then—the reason the Toth had wiped out this city, and why so few had invaded. Now he understood why the Toth had refused to leave the ruins at Moss End.

Avahn demanded of Sir Pwyrthen, who had some skill as a surgeon, “Sew up the Woguld’s wounds. I think his ribs are broken.”

Indeed, Dval now squatted beside the dead Toth, admiring his handiwork, as if there were nothing special about it.

* * *

By dawn, King Harrill’s men found the Toth’s nest, hidden on a sunny sandbar near the river, high on the bank. Two thousand eggs they shattered that day, and then combed the riverbank looking for more, just in case. Only a few eggs were kept whole, for King Harrill insisted that he learn how long a Toth took to hatch.

So Avahn found herself that afternoon, riding across fields of barren ash toward the Courts of Tide, its magnificent towers rising up from islands in the distant sea. The setting sun shone golden-red upon them, making them look like beaten copper, while ash swirled at their feet.

So much destruction, she realized, and from so few Toth. They never even bothered to land their ships.

Her father had sent men ahead to warn his knights, to warn the kingdom, to search everywhere for the monsters’ eggs. Fortunately, they were huge and easy to track, and she dared believe that they’d find them all.

As she rode, she glanced over at Dval, slumped in his saddle, his green robe pulled over his face. He clutched at his mount blindly, as if in pain.

“So, Father,” she said at last. “Can I keep him?”

King Harrill glanced at the boy. “There are some honors that cannot be given,” he said wearily. “They must be won.” Then, as his weary scowl transformed into a thin-lipped smile, she realized that she had won. “He saved you twice, I suspect, and he may well have saved our kingdom. I’ll let him train as a guard, and be glad of it.”

Avahn’s heart seemed to soar, and she smiled up at her father, but his face became haggard and drawn, and he warned, “Don’t become too attached. His training must be hard, if it is to be of any worth. He cannot be coddled. You will be forbidden to show him any favor. You will not be allowed to speak to him, or speak of him. Do not even think of him. He is a soldier, a shield. In times like those that are to come, such shields will be easily shattered.”

Avahn could only hope.

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