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It was the dead of winter when he reached Ar-tolor.
Dusk was falling, and gold lights shone from the windows of the castle on the hill above, beckoning with the promise of crackling fires and steaming cups of wine. He could not remember the last time he had been warmtruly warmand these last few leagues had been the coldest yet. His feet might as well have been lumps of stone, and despite the rags he had wrapped around them, his fingers were raw and bleeding. All he craved was to ride up to the gates and beg hospitality.
Instead, he turned his gelding away from the road and urged the beast toward a grove of trees that clung, feathery as fog, to the slope beneath the castle. That was where he would find hernot in the bright halls of Ar-tolor, but here, where blue shadows gathered.
He brought the horse to a halt at the edge of the trees, climbed from the saddle with clumsy motions, and threw the reins over a branch. The horse snorted, breath ghosting on the air, and dug at the snow with a hoof. It was Geldath now, the Ice Month; the beast would find nothing to eat. He left the gelding and trudged deeper into the grove, boots crunching on newfallen snow.
Branches wove themselves overhead, sharp and black as ink on parchment, making a broken mosaic of the colorless skyjust as the webwork of scars made of his face. Here and there, where branches intersected, he fancied he could make out the familiar shape of a rune. There was Lir. Light. And over there, three twigs that sketched Krond, the rune of fire. He imagined stretching his fingers toward dancing flames. . . .
Those were foolish thoughts; the cold had frozen his mind as it had his hands and feet. However, he knew he had to thaw his wits, for if he did not choose his words with care, they would betray him. Just as he meant to betray her. He muttered Ber, the rune of strength, and kept walking.
It was the silence that warned him. Somewhere off in the grove, a mourning dove had been singing. The music ceased. He turned around, and his heart became a lump of ice in his chest. A figure in a black robe stood next to a tree. The hem of the robe fluttered, though there was not a breath of wind. Only one set of footprints marred the snow: his own.
He shivered, and not simply from the chill. Every instinct told him to flee. Instead he willed his stiff legs to move, bearing him toward the other. He clutched a hard bundle beneath his cloak as he came to a halt an arm's reach away. At her feet lay a dove, its neck twisted. Blood spattered the snow like winter berries.
A voice emanated from within the robe's hood, sharp as breaking sticks. "Why has it taken you so long to come?"
"It is a long journey from the Black Tower." His lips seemed molded of clay; it was an effort to speak. "I rode with all possible haste."
"Is that so? Your steed did not seem overly exhausted when I came upon it."
He peered back the way he had come. Through the trees, he could just make out a large form sprawled on the snow, slender legs splayed. "That was my third mount. The last dropped beneath me in eastern Calavan."
"What fragile things they are. I would not tolerate such weakness in my servants."
He said nothing, and she drew closer, drifting over the snow. A precipitate of frost dusted the fabric of his tunic.
"Are you certain," she said, "you did not stop at the fortress of your brethren before coming here? It is not so far away from Ar-tolor. Perhaps you desired to show them what you've found."
"They are my brethren no longer. I am forbidden ever to return to my homea condition I believe is familiar to you."
Within the cowl, he caught the glint of a milky eye. "Be careful, mortal man!"
He laughed, no less surprised by this reaction than she. "Don't you think it's far too late for that, Shemal?"
She clucked her tongue. "So, do you have it?"
"Quicklyshow it to me!"
He drew out the cloth bundle he had kept next to his heart all these leagues. Forgive me, my friend. Hoping she thought his trembling due to cold alone, he unwrapped the cloth, revealing a disk of creamy stone as large as his splayed hand. Inlaid in its surface was a silvery rune. Tal. Sky.
She reached out hands as pale as the disk.
"Do you want to hold it, then?"
A hiss escaped her, and she snatched her hands back. "Do you mock me?"
He kept his tone disinterested. "I shouldn't think so." However, as he wrapped the bundle again, he felt a spark of triumph. He had guessed she would not dare touch the rune; surely its magic was at odds with her own. She needed him still, to bear the rune. And to break it.
True, there were two others in the world Shemal might have used to break the rune of sky. However, the runelord Kelephon served the Pale King, not her. And the man the Witches believed was the Runebreaker of prophecy, Travis Wilder, was a tool of her foe Melindora Nightsilver. So Shemal had sought out another Runebreaker, one she could make her slave, and she had found him. She had made him bow before her, and he had done so eagerly, pledging himself to her.
In all, the plan was nearly perfect. There was just one problem. He did not know how to break runes. And if she discovered that fact before he found a way to break the rune of sky, all hope was lost.
"You're thinking of something," she said. "I see it in your eyes. Tell me what it is."
"I was thinking of our master," he lied quickly, trying not to look at the dead dove as he spoke. "He has been banished for more than an eon. Will he truly have the strength to do what he seeks?"
"Such petty thoughts! I had not believed you to be as weak as Liendra. How can you doubt the power of the Lord of Nightfall?"
"He was defeated once. He was banished beyond the circle of the world by the elder gods and the deities of Tarras, just as you and I were banished ourselves."
"Yet we will all have our victories in the end. And those who dared to cast us out will prostrate themselves at our feet before we destroy them." She brushed slender fingers against the trunk of the tree, and its bark turned black where she touched it.
"You will see," Shemal said, her words soft now. "I confess, not long ago, I felt doubts such as yours. The Great Stones Krondisar and Sinfathisar were lost, and the sorcerers of Scirath proved as worthless as insects. So powerful they claimed to be. They would open a gate between worlds, letting Mohg step through. All I had to do was show them how to dig up some dead city lost in the sands of the south." A sharp laugh escaped her. "Of course, I knew nothing of this city they sought, but I told them I would reveal it to them if they did what they said. I knew it wouldn't matter, that once the Lord of Nightfall returned to Eldh the Scirathi would be his slaves or be annihilated."
He stamped his feet, trying in vain to warm them inside his boots. She had deceived the sorcerers, just as he was trying to deceive her. Could he really hope to best her at her own game? Look what had happened to the Scirathi.
"The sorcerers were destroyed," he murmured.
Fear gripped him. He had not meant to speak that last thought aloud. However, she seemed not to notice the slip.
"Melindora Nightsilver saw to that, blast that bitch! She and the fool bard and that Runebreaker whelp of hers. How I wish them dead! I would forge their cadavers into shambling husks and make them serve me." Her hood slipped a fraction, revealing the curved corner of a mouth, lips as black as bruises against snowy skin. "But that will come soon enough. The raven you sent found me, and the news it carried changes everything. Krondisar and Sinfathisar have returned to Eldh. The Pale King's minions failed to gain them at the Black Tower, but Berash will soon ride forth himself to retrieve them, and he will place them beside Gelthisar in the iron necklace Imsaridur. When that happens, you will break the rune of sky"
"and Mohg will return to Eldh," he said, his breath a fog of dread and wonder. "He will take the Imsari from the Pale King, and with them he will break the First Rune. He'll destroy the world, then remake it in his own dark image."
Never, since the first day she had come to him in twilight at the ruins of the White Tower of the Runebinders, had she been so talkative as this; the message he had given to the raven must have intoxicated her indeed. "What of the Dominions?" he dared to ask. "What if they stand together and wage war against the Pale King, preventing him from gaining the Imsari? The queen of Malachor has been revealed. Will she not unite the Dominions?"
Shemal laughed, a sound like icicles shattering. "What Dominions? Eredane and Brelegond lie under the fist of Kelephon and his Onyx Knights. Much as I loathe him, he has done well in his task. Embarr shall soon follow, and Perridon and Galt are weak and worthless."
"And what of Toloria and Calavan?"
The black hood turned, facing up toward the castle on the hill. "Do not concern yourself with them. I have seen to it they will never stand together. And as for your little Malachorian queenthe Pale King will take care of her. Even Berash should be able to accomplish that much."
He should not ask more questions; surely she would grow suspicious. However, the cold had numbed his fear. "And once the Pale King does gain the Imsari, what if he decides not to surrender the Stones to Mohg, but instead to wield them and rule Eldh himself?"
It was getting darker now; her robe merged with the dusk. "What you speak is possible, and it is why I trust neither him nor his slave Kelephon. For a thousand years, Berash has ruled alone in Imbrifale. He believes he is the dark lord whom we all serve. But once Mohg returns, the Pale King shall recall who is the master and who the slave. Or he shall perish like the others."
He tried to speak again. However, his lips would not seem to move right.
"Hush," Shemal said. "The cold has nearly made a corpse of you. I have seen the rune of sky, and that is all I need for now. Go to the castle. I have told Liendra to receive you, and even she cannot fail to comprehend such simple instructions."
"What of Ivalaine?" he managed to croak. By Olrig, he was not a corpse yet.
"Don't concern yourself with the Witch Queen. She spends most of her time pacing in her chamber, muttering and pulling out her pretty flaxen hair. But you must take care what you speak in earshot of Ivalaine's counselor, Tressa. That witch still has her wits, and I fear Liendra has not always been prudent around her. I would crush Liendra like a gnat if I did not need her to make the Witches do my bidding."
With a noise no louder than the sound of snow falling, Shemal was gone. A full moon had risen, setting the world aglow, but there was no point searching the night for her. He would not see the Necromancer again. Not until she wished to find him.
With stiff motions, he bent and picked up the dove. Its little body was frozen solid. He let it fall back to the ground, then started trudging toward the road. However, after only a dozen steps, he stumbled and dropped to his knees. He couldn't make it to the castle on foot; he was too cold.
"Hey there, get up! This is no time for napping."
The voice was a croak, harsh and commanding, yet not without kindness. Light encapsulated him, too soft and golden to be that of the moon. A delicious warmth seeped into his flesh and bones, making his joints ache. He was lying on the ground; he must have fallen into the snow to die. Only he hadn't. Shivering, he pushed himself up to his knees.
An ancient woman stood above him. Her body was a shapeless lump inside myriad layers of rags, and her humped back was nearly bent double.
"Is that the best you can do?" she said, a sour expression on her withered face. "Some Runebreaker you are."
Clenching his jaw, he gained his feet. He was still stiff, but his hands and feet tingled with pinpricks of fire. He was going to live.
"I'm not a Runebreaker." He wasn't certain why he told her this; if Shemal knew the truth, he would be dead in an instant, his neck twisted just like the dove's. However, there was something queer about the old hag. The golden light welled forth from somewhere behind her. It was tinged with green and made him think of a forest in summer.
She let out a snort and peered at him with her one bulbous eye. "Well, if you're not a Runebreaker, you should be. You have the face for it."
Without thinking, he reached up and touched the fine scars that crisscrossed his visage. He had gotten them as a boy, after he had shown a talent for runespeaking. As a reward, his father had tried to cut out his tongue.
"So," she said, jabbing a bony finger at his chest, "are you keeping him safe?"
He moved his hand to the bundle of the rune, and as he touched it, he understood. The light, the warmthit had to be. "You're the one he served, aren't you? Sky. You're the one who created him."
"You mean the Ones," she said, and for a moment it wasn't a crone who stood before him, but a gray-bearded man. He was tall and powerful, with a storm in his eyes and wisdom on his brow. On his right hand shone O'rn, the rune of runes. His left wrist ended in a stump.
Before he could speak, the hag stood before him once more.
"Do you truly mean to break it?" she said.
Despite the warmth, he could not stop shivering. He felt weak, sick, and stupid. All the same, he nodded. "It's the only answer."