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The Lair of Bones
By David Farland, David G. Hartwell
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2003 David Farland
All rights reserved.
THE MOUTH OF THE UNDERWORLD
Rofehavan has always been bounded by the sea to the north and to the east, by the Hest Mountains to the west, and by the Alcair Mountains to the south. In an effort to assure that no war was ever waged over a desirable piece of land, Erden Geboren reached a concord with kings of Old Indhopal and the elders of Inkarra. He set the southeast border of his realm, where the three great realms met, in the most undesirable place on earth: at the opening to a vast and ancient reaver warren called the Mouth of the World.
— from A History of Rofehavan by Hearthmaster Redelph
"Milord, there you are," someone called. "I was growing worried. We've been waiting for hours." Averan woke. She recognized the voice of The Wizard Binnesman. She found herself in a wagon bed filled with sweet- smelling hay, new from the summer fields. For a pillow she used Gaborn's rucksack filled with chain mail and leather padding. All of Averan's muscles felt heavy and overworn, and her eyes were gritty. She lay with her eyes closed. Yet almost by instinct she reached out for her staff, her precious staff of black poison-wood. She touched it, felt the power in it surge beneath her hand.
Gaborn answered, "I hurried the best I could. But the horse was on its last legs, so I turned it loose and left the driver to care for it."
"So, the Earth King pulls a wagon to save a horse?" Binnesman scolded gently, as if worried that Gaborn might be pushing himself too hard. "Even those with great endowments have their limits — both horse and man." Binnesman laughed. "You look like an old farmer, hauling a load of rutabagas to market."
"It was only thirty more miles," Gaborn said. "And my cargo is far more valuable than rutabagas."
Averan found herself startled to greater wakefulness. She had been sleeping so soundly that she hadn't been aware that she slept in a wagon, much less that the Earth King himself pulled that wagon by hand.
Binnesman offered, "Here, let's hitch up my mount."
The wagon came to a complete halt as the wizard got off his horse and unsaddled it.
Averan sneaked a peek upward. Overhead, stars arced through the heavens as if intent upon washing the earth in light. The sun would not crest the horizon for perhaps an hour, yet light spilled like molten gold over the snowy peaks of the Alcair Mountains. To Averan it seemed that the light was sourceless, as if it suffused from another, finer world.
The heavenly display fooled even the animals. Morning birdsong swelled over the land: the throaty coo of the wood dove, the song of the lark, the jealous squawk of a magpie.
Close by, knobby hills crowded the road and the dry wheat growing along their sides reflected the starlight. Leafless oaks on the slopes stood black and stark, like thorny crowns. A burrow owl screeched in the distance. Faintly, Averan could smell water from a small stream, though she could not hear it burble.
She watched the steady rain of stars. The bits of light came arcing down in different directions, creating fiery paths against the sky.
"So, Averan is well?" Binnesman asked softly.
"It was hard for her," Gaborn answered. "She stood before the Way- maker all day, holding her staff overhead, peering into the monster's mind. Sweat poured from her as if she were toiling at a forge. I was afraid for her."
"And has she learned the way to, to this ... Lair of Bones?"
"Aye," Gaborn said. "But I fear that the lair is far in the Underworld, and Averan cannot describe the path. She will have to lead us — that is, if you will come with me."
"If?" Binnesman asked. "Of course I'll come."
"Good," Gaborn said. "I'll need your counsel. I don't want to put too much burden on a girl so young."
Averan closed her eyes, feigning sleep, and took guilty pleasure in listening to them talk about her. She was but a child, yet in all the world she was the only person who had ever learned to converse with reavers, mankind's most feared enemy.
Gaborn had recognized that she went through an ordeal to see into the mind of the Waymaker, but even he could not guess how painful it had been. Her head ached as if a steel band bound it, and she felt as if her skull might split on its own accord. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of scents crammed her mind — scents that gave her the names of places and passages in the Underworld, scents that in some cases had been handed down from reaver to reaver over generations. In her mind's eye, Averan could envision the reaver tunnels in the Underworld, like vast arteries connecting the warrens. There were tens of thousands of tunnels, leading to mines and quarries, to ranches and hunting grounds, to egg chambers and graveyards, to deadly perils and ancient wonders. Given a lifetime, Averan could not have mapped the Underworld for Gaborn.
Even now, she feared that she could not retain so much lore. The brain of a human is a tenth the size of that of a reaver. Her mind couldn't hold so much knowledge. She only hoped that she could recall the way to the Lair of Bones.
I have to remember, Averan told herself. I have to help Gaborn fight the One True Master.
She heard footsteps crunching on the road and tried to breathe easily. She wanted to rest, and hoped that by feigning sleep she could continue to do so.
Binnesman set his saddle in the back of the wagon. "Poor girl," he said. "Look at her, innocent as a babe."
"Let her sleep," Gaborn whispered. He spoke softly, not with the commanding voice one would expect from a king, but with the gentleness of a worried friend.
Binnesman moved away, and wordlessly began hitching the horse to the single-tree on the wagon.
"Have you any other news of the reavers?" Gaborn whispered.
"Aye," Binnesman said, "Most of it good. We harried them all day. Many of the monsters died from weariness while fleeing our lancers, and our knights attacked any that slowed. At last report there were only a few thousand left. But when they reached the vale of the Drakesflood, they dug into the sand. That was about midafternoon. Our men have them surrounded, in case they try to flee, but for now there is little more that they can do."
Averan pictured the monsters at the Drakesflood. The reavers were enormous, each more than sixteen feet tall, and twenty in length. With four legs and two huge forearms, in form they looked like vast, tailless scorpions. But their heads were shaped like spades, and the reavers could force their way under the soil just by pushing down and then crawling forward. That is how they would have dug in at the Drakesflood. The move would afford them good protection from the lances of the knights.
"So that's the good news," Gaborn said heavily, "now what of the bad?"
Binnesman answered, "At the Mouth of the World we found reaver tracks heading in. It looks as if three reavers circled through the hills after the battle at Carris. Somehow they got past our scouts."
"By the Seven Stones!" Gaborn swore. "How soon before they reach their lair, do you think?"
"It's impossible to guess," Binnesman said heavily. "They may have already told their master how you defeated their army at Carris, and even now she will be considering how to respond."
Binnesman let that thought sink in.
"But how did they elude my scouts?" Gaborn wondered.
"I suspect that it would have been easy," Binnesman answered. "After the battle at Carris, the horde fled in the night while rain plummeted like lead. We had only brief flashes of lightning to see by. With our soldiers busy at the front, they left before we ever thought to try to cut them off."
Binnesman and Gaborn hooked the horse to the wagon, and both men climbed onto the buckboard. Gaborn gave a whistle, and the force horse took off at a brisk trot.
"This has me worried," Gaborn said.
Binnesman seemed to think for a long moment. At last he sighed. "Beware the Lair of Bones. Beware the One True Master. My heart is full of foreboding about this creature. No beast of this world could be so well versed in rune lore."
"You suspect something?" Gaborn asked.
"Seventeen hundred years ago, when Erden Geboren prosecuted his war in the Underworld, do you know what he fought?"
"Reavers," Gaborn said.
"That is the conventional wisdom, but I think not," Binnesman answered. "In King Sylvarresta's library are some ancient scrolls, levies for men and supplies written in Erden Geboren's own hand. In them, he asked for men not to fight reavers but to fight something he called a locus. I think he was hunting for a particular reaver. It may even be the one that Averan calls the One True Master, though I cannot imagine that any reaver would live so long."
"And you think that this creature is not of our world?"
"Perhaps not," Binnesman said. "I begin to wonder. Maybe there are reavers in the netherworld, more cunning and powerful than our own. And perhaps reavers here are but mere shadows of them, in the same way that we are mere shadows of the Bright Ones of that realm."
"That is a sobering thought indeed," Gaborn said.
The wizard and the Earth King rode in silence. Averan lay back again, eyes closed. Her mind felt overwhelmed.
The road had been leading down, and abruptly Gaborn jolted the wagon to a halt. Averan stealthily rose up on one elbow, and saw that they had reached a town, a small knot of gray stone cottages with thatched roofs. Averan recognized it as Chesterton. Here the road forked. One highway headed almost due east toward the Courts of Tide. The other road went southwest toward Keep Haberd — and beyond that, to the Mouth of the World.
Overhead, a fireball lanced through the sky, huge and red. Flames streaked from it with a sputtering sound. As it neared the Alcair Mountains, it suddenly exploded into two pieces. They struck the snow-covered mountains not thirty miles away. The ground trembled, and moments later came sounds like distant thunder, echoing over and over.
"The Earth is in pain," the wizard Binnesman whispered.
Averan heard a child squeal in delight. Up the road, beside one of the cottages, a woman squatted on her lawn. Three girls, none older than six, stood with her, looking up at the heavenly display in wonder.
"Pretty!" the youngest child said, as she traced the trail of the fireball with her finger.
An older sister clapped in delight.
"Oh, that was the best one yet," their mother said.
Other than these four, the town slumbered. The cottages clustered in dark, tired mounds. The farmers within would not dare rise until the cows began bawling to be milked.
Gaborn drove the buckboard through town. The mother and her daughters watched them pass.
Now the earth shivered beneath them like an old arthritic dog. Binnesman had spoken truly. Averan recognized the earth's pain by more than just the earthquakes or the fall of stars. There were less definable signs that perhaps only one who loved the land could discern. She'd been able to feel it for days now as she walked, a wrongness in the soil, an ache among the hills.
"You know, Gaborn," Binnesman said at last, "you say that you will lean upon my counsel. Therefore, let me say this: I think you take too much upon yourself. You plan to seek out the Lair of Bones, and hope there to kill the One True Master. But you have not been called to be the Earth's warrior, you are the Earth King, the Earth's protector. You also talk of war- ring with the reavers, killing ... perhaps thousands. But more than just the fate of mankind hangs in the balance. There are owls in the trees, and mice in the fields, and fishes in the sea. Life, every kind of life, may fade with us. The Earth is in pain."
"I would rejoice if we could heal its pain," Gaborn said, "but I don't know how."
"The Earth has selected you well," Binnesman said. "Perhaps we will find the way together."
The wagon raced over the road, and Averan lay back with a heavy heart, feigning sleep.
And what of me? Averan wondered. As a skyrider, she'd often had to travel far from home, and she had found some special places that she loved. She recalled a clear pool high in the pines of the Alcair Mountains where she'd sometimes picnicked, and the white sand dunes forty miles east of Haberd where she had played, rolling down the hills. She'd perched with her graak on rugged mountain peaks that no man could ever climb, surveying vast fields and the forests that undulated away in a green haze. Yes, Averan loved the land, enough even to live every day in its service.
That's what makes me an Earth Warden's apprentice, she realized.
The wagon rolled through the night with Averan lost in thought. It wound up into the hills. All too soon it came to a halt just outside a vast cavern, where dozens of horses were tethered. A bonfire crackled within the cave, where scores of knights were engaged in rowdy song.
"Averan, wake up," Gaborn called softly. "We're at the Mouth of the World."
He reached into the back of the wagon and as Averan raised her head, he retrieved the sack that held his armor, along with his long-handled war hammer. Binuesman got up and hobbled stiffly toward the cave, using his staff as a crutch.
Excerpted from The Lair of Bones by David Farland, David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 2003 David Farland. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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