The sun was setting, and Lanovar sat slumped against the stone, the last of the sunlight bathing him in gold. There was a little heat in the dying winter sun, and the brightness felt good against his closed lids. Lanovar sighed and opened his eyes. The huge figure of Jaim Grymauch stood close by, gazing down at him.
“Let me carry you to the Wyrd, Lan,” he said. “She’ll cast an ancient spell and heal you.”
“In a while, my friend. I’ll just rest here and gather my strength.”
Grymauch swore and turned away. Loosening the strap at his shoulder, he swung the massive broadsword clear of his back. The black hilt was almost a foot long, crowned with an iron globe pommel. The curved quillons were beautifully crafted to represent the flared wings of a hunting falcon. Drawing the fifty-two-inch blade from the scabbard, Grymauch examined the sword in the fading light. There were still bloodstains on the blade, and he wiped them away with the hem of his black cloak. Beside him Lanovar lifted clear the wedge of blood-soaked cloth he had been holding to the wound in his side. The bleeding had slowed, and the pain was almost gone. He glanced up at Grymauch.
“That monstrosity should be in the Druagh museum,” said Lanovar. “It is an anachronism.”
“I don’t know what that means,” muttered Grymauch.
“It means out of its time, my friend. That blade was created to rip through plate armor. No one wears plate anymore.”
Grymauch sighed. Returning the blade to its scabbard, he sat down beside his friend. “Out of its time, eh?” he said. “It is like us, then, Lan. We should have been born in the days of the real highland kings.”
Blood was leaking slowly from the cloth plugging the exit wound in Lanovar’s lower back, a dark stain spreading across the outlawed blue and green cloak of the Rigante. “I need to plug the wound again,” said Grymauch.
Lanovar made no complaint as the clansman pulled him forward, and he felt nothing as Grymauch pressed a fresh wad of cloth into the wound. Lanovar’s mind wandered briefly.
He saw again the standing stone and the tall black-clad man waiting there. Regrets were pointless now, but he should have trusted his instincts. He had known deep in his heart that the Moidart could not be trusted. As their gaze had met, he had seen the hatred in the man’s dark eyes. But the prize had been too great, and Lanovar had allowed the dazzle of its promise to blind him to the truth.
The Moidart had promised that the turbulent years would end: no more pointless bloodshed, no more senseless feuds, no more murdered soldiers and clansmen. This night, at the ancient stone, he and the Moidart would clasp hands and put an end to the savagery. For his part the Moidart had also agreed to petition the king and have Clan Rigante reinstated to the roll of honor.
Lanovar’s black warhound, Raven, had growled deeply as they walked into the clearing. “Be silent, boy,” whispered Lanovar. “This is an end to battle—not the beginning of it.” He approached the Moidart, extending his hand. “It is good that we can meet in this way,” said Lanovar. “This feud has bled the highlands for too long.”
“Aye, it ends tonight,” agreed the Moidart, stepping back into the shadow of the stone.
For a fraction of a heartbeat Lanovar stood still, his hand still extended. Then he heard movement from the undergrowth to the left and right and saw armed men rise up from hiding. Six soldiers carrying muskets emerged and surrounded the Rigante leader. Several others moved into sight, sabers in their hands. Raven bunched his muscles to charge, but Lanovar stopped him with a word of command. The Rigante leader stood very still. As agreed, he had brought no weapon to the meeting.
He glanced back at the Moidart. The nobleman was smiling now, though no humor showed in his dark, hooded eyes. Instead there was hatred, deep and all-consuming.
“So your word counts for nothing,” Lanovar said softly. “Safe conduct, you said.”
“It will be safe conduct, you Rigante scum,” said the Moidart. “Safe conduct to my castle. Safe conduct to the deepest dungeon within it. Then safe conduct up every step of the gallows.”
At that moment a bellowing war cry pierced the air. A massive figure rushed into sight, a huge broadsword raised high. His lower face was masked by a black scarf, and his dark clothes bore no clan markings. Lanovar’s spirits soared.
It was Grymauch!
The surprised soldiers swung toward the charging warrior. Several shots were fired, but not one ball struck him. The massive broadsword swung down, slicing a soldier from shoulder to belly before exiting in a bloody spray. In the panic that followed the clansman’s charge Lanovar leapt to his left, grabbed a musket by the barrel, and dragged it from the hands of a startled soldier. As the man rushed in to retrieve the weapon, Lanovar crashed the butt into his face, knocking him from his feet. A second musketeer ran in. The warhound Raven gave a savage growl and then leapt, his great jaws closing on the man’s throat. Lanovar raised the musket to his shoulder and sought out the Moidart. The nobleman had ducked back into the undergrowth. More shots rang out. Smoke from the guns drifted like mist in the clearing, and the air stank of sulfur. Grymauch, slashing the great blade left and right, hurled himself at the musketeers. A swordsman ran in behind the clansman. Raising the captured musket, Lanovar fired quickly. The shot struck the hilt of the swordsman’s upraised weapon and ricocheted back through the hapless man’s right eye. Across the clearing three more muske- teers came into view. Raven, his jaws drenched with blood, tore into them. One went down screaming. The others shot into the snarling hound. Raven slumped to the ground.
Lanovar threw aside the musket and ran toward Grymauch. The musketeers, their weapons empty, were backing away from the ferocious clansman. The swordsmen were dead or had fled into the woods. Lanovar moved alongside the blood-spattered warrior.
“We leave! Now!” he shouted.
As they swung away, the Moidart stepped from behind a tree. Grymauch saw him—and the long-barreled pistol in his hand. Vainly he tried to move across Lanovar, shielding him. But the shot tore through Grymauch’s black cloak, ripping into the outlaw leader’s side and out through his back. “That is for Rayena!” shouted the Moidart.
Lanovar’s legs gave way instantly. Grymauch reached down, hauled him upright, and draped the paralyzed man across his shoulder. Then he ran into the thicket beyond the trail. At first the pain had been incredible, but then Lanovar had passed out. When he awoke, he was here on the mountainside and the pain was all but gone.
“How are you feeling?” asked Grymauch.
“Not so braw,” admitted Lanovar. Grymauch had plugged the wound again and had settled him back against a rock face. Lanovar began to slide sideways. He tried to move his right arm to stop himself. The limb twitched but did not respond. Grymauch caught him and held him close for a moment. “Just wedge me against the rock,” whispered Lanovar. Grymauch did as he was bidden.
“Are you warm enough? You look cold, Lan. I’ll light a fire.”
“And bring them down upon us? I think not.” Reaching down, he pressed his left hand against the flesh of his left thigh. “I cannot feel my leg.”
“I told you, man. Did I not tell you?” stormed Grymauch. “The man is a serpent. There is no honor in him.”
“Aye, you told me.” Lanovar began to tremble. Grymauch moved in close, pulling off his own black cloak and wrapping it around the shoulders of his friend. He looked into Lanovar’s curiously colored eyes, one green and one gold.
“We’ll rest a little,” said Grymauch. “Then I’ll find the Wyrd.”
Jaim Grymauch moved out along the ledge and stared down over the mountainside. There was no sign of pursuit now, but there would be. He glanced back at his wounded friend. Again and again he replayed the scene in his mind. He should have been there sooner. Instead, to avoid being seen by Lanovar, he had cut across the high trail, adding long minutes to the journey. As he had crested the rise, he had seen the soldiers crouched in hiding and watched as his greatest friend walked into the ambush. Masking his face with his scarf, Jaim had drawn his sword and rushed down to hurl himself at the enemy. He would willingly have sacrificed his own life to save Lanovar from harm.
The sun was setting, the temperature dropping fast. Jaim shivered. There was precious little fuel to be found that high. Trees did not grow there. He moved back alongside Lanovar. The Rigante leader’s face looked ghostly pale, his eyes and cheeks sunken. Jaim’s black cloak sat on the man’s shoulders like a dark shroud. Jaim stroked Lanovar’s brow. The wounded man opened his eyes.
Jaim saw that he was watching the sky turn crimson as the sun set. It was a beautiful sunset, and Lanovar smiled. “I love this land,” he said, his voice stronger. “I love it with all my heart, Jaim. This is a land of heroes. Did you know the great Connavar was born not two miles from here? And the battle king, Bane. There used to be a settlement by the three streams.”
Jaim shrugged. “All I know about Connavar is that he was nine feet tall and had a magic sword crafted from lightning. Could have done with that sword two hours ago. I’d have left none of the bastards alive.”
They lapsed into silence. Jaim felt a growing sense of disorientation. It was as if he were dreaming. Time had no meaning, and even the breeze had faded away. The new night was still and infinitely peaceful.
Lanovar is dying.
The thought came unbidden, and anger raged through him. “Rubbish!” he said aloud. “He is young and strong. He has always been strong. I’ll get him to the Wyrd. By heaven, I will!”
Jaim rolled to his knees and, lifting Lanovar into his arms, pushed himself to his feet. Lanovar’s head was resting on Jaim’s shoulder. Moonlight bathed them both. “We’re going now, Lan.”
Lanovar groaned, his face contorting with pain. “Put . . . me . . . down.”
“We must find the Wyrd. She’ll have magic. The Wishing Tree woods have magic.”
In his mind he saw the woods, picturing the path they must take. At least four miles from there, part of it across open ground. Two hours of hard toil.
Jaim could feel Lanovar’s lifeblood running over his hands. In that moment Jaim knew they did not have two hours. He sank to his knees and placed his friend on the ground. Tears misted his eyes. His great body began to shake. Jaim fought to control his grief, but it crashed through his defenses. Throughout his twenty years of life there had been one constant: the knowledge of Lanovar’s friendship and, with it, the belief that they would change the world.
“Look after Gian and the babe,” whispered Lanovar.
Jaim took a deep breath and wiped away his tears. “I’ll do my best,” he said, his voice breaking. His mind, reeling from the horror of the present, floated back to the past: days of childhood and adolescence, pranks and adventures. Lanovar had always been reckless and yet canny. He had a nose for trouble and the wit to escape the consequences.
Not this time, thought Grymauch. He felt the tears beginning again, but this time he shed them in silence. Then he saw Gian’s face in his mind. Sweet heaven, how would he tell her?
She was heavily pregnant, the babe due in a few days. It was the thought of the child to be that had led Lanovar to trust the Moidart. He had told Jaim only the night before that he did not want the child growing up in the world of violence he had known. As they sat at supper in Lanovar’s small, sod-roofed hut, the Rigante leader had spoken with passion about the prospect of peace. “I want my son to be able to wear the Rigante colors with pride and not to be hunted down as an outlaw. Not too much to ask, is it?” Gian had said nothing, but Lanovar’s younger sister, the red-haired Maev, had spoken up.
From the Hardcover edition.