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The plague came and the plague went, and a third of the adult men in the cold, snowswept kingdom of Eron went with it, and one in nine of the women, with the bulk of all casualties in their prime. No clan or craft was spared in that land of scholar-artisans, but some were dealt harsher blows than others, with many crafts being virtually obliterated, while others — those that remained sequestered in the remoter winter holds — managed to survive relatively intact.
The upshot was an alarming decline in the population of that realm, which would not have been so troubling had Eron not possessed an adversary across the sands to the south: Ixti, which sometimes cast covetous eyes not only on the resources of its northern neighbor, but also on the works of its fabled craftsmen. And while Ixti, too, had felt the plague's lash, it was not so severe in that hot, arid realm, and so Ixti's population recovered more quickly.
It was in part to meet that threat (real or imagined — for an ominous desert called the Flat divided the two kingdoms, making casual contact difficult), that the High Sovereign of Eron, acting in concert with the Council of Chiefs, ordained that all Eronese women of childbearing age must produce at least three offspring. So it was that, eighteen years after the plague, young Eddyn syn Argen-yr, great-grandson of the Craft-Chief of his clan, and one of the three most acclaimed smiths of his generation, raped Strynn san Ferr of Warcraft, hoping thereby to get her with child and force her into marriage — for no Eronese children were allowed to be born without an acknowledged father, whether or not that man was theactual sire.
Strynn, however, had other plans, and promptly wed her childhood friend, Avall syn Argen-a, who was at once Eddyn's cousin, her own bond-sister's twin brother, and (along with Strynn herself), one of the other two most accomplished smiths. Complicating matters was the fact that Avall and Eddyn each had a powerful patron within their mutual clan — patrons who had been rivals for three generations and had no qualms about using their talented two sons to continue their decades-long game of one-upmanship. Eddyn's patron even commanded sufficient influence to save him from the exile normally granted rapists, but the whole affair threatened to cause sufficient trouble that the three — Eddyn, Strynn, and Avall — were dispatched to remote Gem-Hold-Winter to sit out the cold season, during which Strynn's child would be born. Nor would that time be spent idly. All three were assigned to complete one item apiece for the royal regalia: a sword, a helm, and a shield, each to be decorated with a gem of the craftsman's own finding.
And so, at the end of the autumn festival called Sundeath, Avall, Strynn, and Eddyn set out for Gem-Hold-Winter, in the company of more than a hundred of their countrymen. Among this number was a young man from Priest-Clan named Rrath syn Garnill, whose quick mind and interest in natural history had brought him to the attention of a secret cabal within that clan dedicated to preserving its ascendancy in an ever-more-secular age. A longtime admirer of Avall's, Rrath continued to shadow the young goldsmith — until, during an attack by a birkit — a wild carnivore something between a cougar and a bear — Avall seemed willing to let Rrath die rather than face the beast himself. Rrath promptly attached himself to Eddyn, who welcomed even that minor victory over his rival.
And there matters rested in Eron.
Meanwhile, in Ixti, Prince Kraxxi and his younger brother, Azzli, had begun to chafe at the restrictions of royal birth, as well as at King Barrax's obvious favoritism of Azzli, who was the child of love rather than politics. Eventually, neither brother could stand the tensions at court any longer, and so they conceived a plan to sneak into Ixti's wilder regions in order to hunt geens -- man-sized reptiles that walked on their hind legs, and that were rumored to possess more than bestial intelligence. Such a foray would soon have been necessary in any event, all highborn young Ixtian men being required to kill a geen before they could be considered adults — and Kraxxi having just reached his majority.
Unfortunately for Kraxxi, the hunters became the hunted, and their camp was attacked by geens. Even worse, during the ensuing confusion, Kraxxi accidentally slew his beloved younger brother. Since kinslaying was a capital offense in Ixti, Kraxxi found himself with few options, and chose what he considered to be slow suicide: daring the desert wastes of the Flat in hopes of reaching Eron, which he had long desired to visit. Though he began his journey alone, he soon found himself joined by his three best friends: Elvix, Olrix, and Tozri, a set of half-Eronese triplets who constituted his personal guard.
Against remarkable odds, all four reached Eron's southern-most citadel: War-Hold, where Avall's martially inclined twin sister, Merryn, had been stationed for the winter. And where Kraxxi, in his assumed identity of Krax, a merchant's son, managed to fall in love with Merryn, even as his royal father laid a price on his head.
And back at Gem-Hold-Winter, Avall had been reunited with his bond-brother, Rann, for whom he cared more than anyone in the world, and had met Kylin, a talented blind harper only a little older than he, Rann, and Strynn. In spite of their proximity to each other, Avall and Eddyn maintained an uneasy peace — until Avall, working in Clan Argen's private vein in the mines that mazed the hold's foundations, found a curious gem the like of which he had never seen. His initial intent was simply to mount it in the helm he was crafting for the High King, but in the process of fitting it, he let it touch an open cut on his hand — whereupon he found his senses altered, so that he could suddenly do much finer work than heretofore. Intrigued, he soon discovered that the gem had other powers as well, notably that it could confer the ability to share minds upon any group of people who primed the stone with blood. He and Rann were the first to join that way — by accident. But Strynn, from whom he had become somewhat estranged, was not far behind, and the two of them promptly began to grow closer.
Then came the great discovery. One night as Avall lay awake clutching the gem, he found himself in mental contact with his sister, Merryn, far away in the south. Thoroughly shaken, Avall quickly realized that control of instantaneous communication across great distances would cement Argen-a's position as most powerful of the three septs of Clan Argen, as well as ensuring its continued close access to the King.
Trouble was, Eddyn had spied on Avall and had discovered, to his dismay, that his rival was doing even better work than before — and doing it too quickly to be natural. Determined to locate the source of Avall's advantage, Eddyn learned of the gem — and drew the same conclusions as Avall regarding the role such a discovery would play in clan politics, namely that it would make his sept ascendant, as well as possibly redeeming his damaged reputation.
Meanwhile, Avall and Rann had decided to dare the unthinkable: a cross-country trek through the dead of winter to Eron's capital, Tir-Eron, in order to inform Avall's patron of their find. Little did they know, however, that two days after their departure Eddyn and Rrath would also leave Gem-Hold, seeking to waylay Avall's party and capture the gem for themselves. But even Eddyn was unaware that Rrath had a second agenda: to secure the gem for his own faction within Priest-Clan. For the gem, it seemed, provided strong evidence that the soul was not confined to the body and could perhaps access Eron's eightfold god directly, eliminating the need for Priest-Clan's intercession. Rrath therefore drugged Eddyn and the two of them detoured by a secret Priest-Clan holding, where they were interviewed and given a means of locating the gem, as well as a patrol of experienced warrior-priests to accompany them.
Nor were Avall, Eddyn, and their accomplices alone in having their lives disrupted by the gem. Kraxxi had been witness to Merryn's first contact with her brother, and had quickly determined how that had been accomplished. Realizing that instant communication would give Eron an advantage in any war, and knowing that his father desired war with Eron, Kraxxi decided to take news of Eron's new potential weapon back to his father's court, hoping thereby to gain a pardon for himself. And so he, too, set out in the dead of Eronese winter, heading south into the Flat, having tricked Merryn into facilitating his escape. Furious — and hurt, for she truly did love Kraxxi, and he her — Merryn pursued him, but was captured by outriders of the Ixtian army, who promptly took her to their main camp, where she was briefly reunited with Kraxxi. For his part, Kraxxi would say nothing save that he would speak only to King Barrax — who was not in camp. Bloodwinter ended with both Merryn and Kraxxi under threat of torture.
Back in Eron, Avall and Rann had encountered a hardy woodswoman named Div. But scarcely had that association begun when the party was attacked by birkits. During the ensuing struggle, Avall's blood primed the gem, and he found he could speak to the beasts mind to mind — and that they were, as Rrath suspected, semi-intelligent. Recognizing fellow hunters, the birkits called off their attack and offered Avall, Rann, and Div shelter from a blizzard in their den. During that enforced incarceration, Div and Rann became lovers, while Avall discovered that under certain circumstances it was possible to use the gem to draw energy from what he assumed was the Overworld — the realm of The Eight — thus confirming its use as a potential weapon.
Desperate to reach Tir-Eron at any cost, Avall, Rann, and Div continued on when the blizzard lifted, and soon reached the ruins of an abandoned way station. While preparing to camp there, they were attacked by mysterious, white-cloaked figures bent on acquiring Avall's gem. Div was shot with an arrow, and Rann clubbed to near unconsciousness, but not before he saw Avall also take an arrow in the back and fall from an escarpment into the icy waters of the river below.
Filled with despair at the loss of his best friend — and the gem, which Avall wore on a chain inside his clothes — Rann barely cared when their attackers were suddenly set upon by birkits, presumably those they had befriended earlier. All their enemies fled or were killed, but Rann scarcely had strength to drag Div to shelter in the ruins' basement and tend their wounds before yet another massive blizzard closed in.
Not all the attackers were dead, however. Though the ambush had been mounted by members of Priest-Clan's secret cabal, Rrath and Eddyn had also been present. Fleeing the carnage — and allies whose agendas seemed increasingly alarming — Rrath and Eddyn took shelter in a small boathouse near the ruined station, where the same blizzard that had driven Rann and Div to ground forced them to hold up for several days.
Eventually the storm passed, with Rann and Div being the first to emerge. Faced with a difficult decision, they finally agreed to return to Gem-Hold to inform Strynn that Avall was almost certainly dead -- any hope otherwise being due to the fact that the gem conferred remarkable healing properties upon those who wielded it. Nor did Strynn accept Avall's death as given. Linking with Rann through another gem she had uncovered, Strynn was able to determine that Avall was alive but very, very cold.
As for Avall himself, he was indeed very cold — and very wet — and then, when both seemed certain to claim his life, he found himself suddenly warm again.
Prologue I: Orphans of the Storm
(Western Eron, near Woodstock Station
Deep Winter, Day xxxiii — night)
The lowest log in the wide stone fireplace collapsed to blocky coals, bringing down the sturdier wood atop it in a rush of sparks. A stretch of unseared bark reached well-banked embers and flamed up. Red glare danced around waist-high stone walls four spans long, above which more stone alternated with rotting shutters as tall as a man. Rough-hewn corner posts leered with the eyes and mouths of demons. More stared down from the rafters of the steep-pitched roof.
The sudden light roused the nearer of two young men huddled in furs beside the hearth. He blinked long-lashed lids, grunted, almost slept again — then recalled the plan he'd been formulating when the day's fatigue had claimed him.
He tensed, caught himself, and relaxed — slowly, lest his companion sense that aberration and awaken. A breath, and he opened his eyes, as alert as he'd been lethargic.
This was his chance. Maybe. If he were careful. If he didn't lose his nerve. If he didn't change his mind and choose escape over stealth or confrontation.
He listened warily. One would be mad to dare what lay beyond these walls; what he could hear even above the crackling fire. The winds waged war out there, this latest sally winging in from the east, bearing new, seaborn snow to heap atop the days-old drifts that shrouded this wretched, abandoned place that had not been built as long-term shelter.
Not that he begrudged it. Still, their stony sanctum had been intended as temporary refuge in which riverside revelers could change clothes, eat light meals, and store boats.
In High Summer.
This was Deep Winter — and the direst part of that season howled without: a blizzard that had caught him and his companion unprepared. And for all that, they were luckier than some, whose corpses cluttered a sprawl of ruins a quarter shot upriver, victims of a birkit attack that might not be coincidental.
If the beasts were intelligent, as his floor-mate, more than once, had vowed...
No! He dared not think about that now, though those beasts — and those dead — were in large part why he was here. Him, Eddyn syn Argen-yr, protégé of the most powerful woman in Eron. The second-best goldsmith of his generation, by the ranking of his craft. And a proclaimed rapist, who'd only escaped unclanning and exile through that same kinswoman's machinations — and the fact that throughout his whole cold-blasted homeland there was a shortage of healthy young men, courtesy of a plague eighteen years gone by.
Eddyn syn Argen-yr.
Holding his breath, he rolled onto his left side, giving that movement the casual crude grace of sleep. That faced him full toward the fire, perfectly poised to observe what he'd noted as he and Rrath settled in for a long, cold, and far too indefinite term of waiting.
Rrath's travel pack.
Not remarkable of itself, but inside the well-oiled leather were secreted certain herbs and potions with which Rrath and his dubious accomplices had kept Eddyn sedated into mindless pliancy, content to plod numbly through the silent empty woods between Gem-Hold-Winter and Tir-Eron.
Those accomplices were all dead now — the so-called ghost priests. And Eddyn had managed to shake off the soporific. He would not succumb again.
Slowly he eased his arm beyond his bedroll, grateful for proximity to the fire that kept the worst of the cold at bay. A wave of black hair slid into his eyes. He brushed it back, the better to assess his goal. A little farther, and...
Gritting his teeth, he rolled onto his belly, gaining a handspan's reach. Fingers stretched, and...
Success! Not the pack itself, but the flap above the side-bag in which the drugs were cached. The clasp was snug and took forever to free one-handed, yet he managed.
A pause to flex his fingers, and he eased them inside, feeling for a certain velvet pouch that wrapped a number of small glass phials. Found it...
But there was also a second pouch — which he hadn't expected. He snared both, wincing when glass clicked against glass as he withdrew them. Rich blue nap showed. Good: He'd found the right one. But this other — the red sylk — he'd never seen it before.
The fire popped. A coal spun toward him. He flinched — and lost his grip on the more slippery cloth, barely retaining the velvet. Glass shattered on the flagstones; liquid stained stones and sylk alike. "Eight," he swore silently. But maybe he could still cover—
"What?" a groggy voice mumbled at his back, issuing from a thatch of tousled mouse-colored hair shorter than his but thicker.
"What?" Again. More sharply.
"Fire," Eddyn grunted, as though he'd just awakened.
A squirm of movement became a panicked flurry. A hand clamped down on his forearm as Rrath flung his whole torso atop him in a desperate scramble to snare the scarlet bag. "No!" the Priest blurted, in something between a wail, a shout, and a yawn. Then: "Oh, Eight, not that one!"
But Eddyn was a third again Rrath's size and commensurately stronger, and in one smooth, practiced twist, he bucked his assailant aside then rolled atop him. Additionally blessed by a head start on alertness, it was a simple matter for Eddyn to pin the smaller youth beneath him: straddling his hips and forcing both arms against the floor. The surviving pouch was a hardness between his palm and Rrath's left wrist. By the resigned grimace contorting the Priest's bland features, Eddyn knew he'd won. "And why not that one?" he snapped. "Have I found another secret, Rrath?"
Rrath's eyes blazed with anger. "I can't tell you."
"Eight, you can't, you sneaky little turd. What was that stuff?"
"I can't tell you," Rrath repeated. "Remember what I said about conditioning? There are some things I literally can't reveal. But I can say that what you just destroyed will hurt you as much as it does me. It's ... No, I can't say — I can't!"
"Try," Eddyn growled. "Try to tell me. Maybe then I'll believe you."
Rrath grimaced wretchedly. "That phi—"
He broke off, gasping for breath. The cords in his neck stood out like ropes. His jaw went hard. Panic washed his eyes.
"What—?" Eddyn demanded.
"What you saw," Rrath spat. "Paralysis of the throat and tongue. And pain in my head, like my brain was going to explode. I can't—"
"Not good enough," Eddyn retorted, oblivious to Rrath's discomfort. "What was that stuff? It has to be important, for you to act like this."
Rrath's breath was coming harsh and fast. He swallowed hard. "Compass," he gasped — then gasped again, louder, panting like a bellows. Eddyn could feel his pulse racing beneath his hand.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Eddyn persisted ruthlessly, increasing the pressure on Rrath's wrists. "How can a phial of ... whatever it was be a compass?"
Rrath swallowed again. "Like calls to ... like," he muttered, eyes going wide as he realized he'd managed the whole phrase. Then, almost recklessly: "I'm ... a .. weather-witch."
Eddyn's eyes narrowed in confusion, then widened in turn as realization dawned. He relaxed his grip minutely. "So you're saying ...?"
"I can't say," Rrath cried. "Not directly. Maybe this way, apparently. Obliquely. If it doesn't kill me with pain — which it could."
Eddyn gnawed his lip, fighting for patience. "So something in that phial was ... like something else?"
Rrath's head rose once, as though to nod. But then he was gasping again. "I can't. Even that—"
"Like what, then? Like Avall? Or like the gem?"
Silence. Rrath was crying, almost sobbing. But then he took a deep breath. "Earth calls to earth," he dared, wincing in anticipation of what could not be feigned agony. His whole body shuddered again. Sweat shimmered on his brow.
Eddyn sat back, using that interval to thrust the remaining pouch down the neck of his tunic. He'd store it more properly later. Or destroy it. "Get up," he growled.
Rrath mumbled something unintelligible and wriggled out from under him, divesting himself of his bedroll in the process. Like Eddyn, he'd stripped to woolen hose and undertunic. Fortunately, Eddyn's had been belted; he could feel the pouch against his skin.
"Might want to stoke up the fire," Eddyn continued, his voice ominously soft. "Oathbreaking goes better in the light."
"And with something in one's belly," Rrath suggested hopefully.
"Not much but brandy, actually."
Rrath scooted off to retrieve the jug while Eddyn adjusted the fire, adding a piece of oak bench that would burn a good while. He had no idea how long this blizzard would last, and such resources had best be husbanded.
Red light became gold as Rrath returned. Side-lit, his smooth features looked very young. He was, too — within an eighth of Eddyn's age, since they'd both been part of the same Fateing. Eddyn doubted he looked much older himself, though he felt as if he were a thousand.
"Ask," Rrath prompted sullenly, uncorking the jug. "Maybe we can find a way around this, if you ask exactly the right questions. I don't think I can volunteer much at all."
Eddyn's brow wrinkled in thought. "So ... something in the phial — some liquid — was like something Avall had, or else like something connected to the gem. And then you said earth calls to earth, and the gem came out of the earth, so that's probably what you meant. Right?"
Rrath didn't reply. Or couldn't. His mouth worked, but no words ensued.
"The phial had liquid in it," Eddyn stressed. "Which doesn't make sense — unless that liquid was connected to some liquid where the gem was found, except that I worked that vein myself and it was as dry as any of them are down there. On the other hand, something could be dissolved in that liquid. So ... " He broke off, staring at Rrath again. "Weather-witches drink water from Weather's Well when they want to predict the weather — find the weather, so folks say. Everyone knows that. So if you drank from a Well that had ... earth from the gem's vein dissolved in it, and then did the witching rite, you might--" He said no more, for he knew from the shock that crossed Rrath's face that he'd hit close to the mark. "That's it, isn't it?"
"I still can't tell you. Not that directly."
Eddyn eyed him carefully, his back to the fire. "It'll do," he conceded. "For now. For now," he repeated — and took a draught of brandy, straight from the jug. A deep breath, then: "When this ends — the storm, I mean — what do we do?"
Rrath looked startled. "Try to survive."
"And where do we do this surviving? Do we go forward, or do we go back?"
"That was ... clearer before."
Eddyn glared at him.
Rrath snared the jug, drank deep, and leaned back, wrapping a fur around his shoulders. He rubbed his neck where finger marks showed red even in the firelight. But wouldn't meet Eddyn's gaze.
"The way I see it," Eddyn went on, "Avall had the gem with him when he fell. But it's always possible he could've given it to Rann or the woman. We haven't had a chance to search their bodies."
"If there are bodies," Rrath countered. "We saw them wounded, but we've no proof they're dead, and the cursed birkits wouldn't let us close enough to check before this Eight-damned blizzard hit."
"But they seemed to be protecting the station," Eddyn noted. "Which would imply that Avall's friends were alive — if your notion of birkits having intelligence is valid."
Rrath shrugged. "In any event, I doubt they'll come calling tonight. If we're lucky, the storm will finish them — unless they've gone to ground in the ruins."
"Which raises another question. When this thing lets up, what's to stop them finding us? They'd be as anxious to seek Avall as we are. They know he went into the river; that would lead them here."
"Supposing they're alive."
Eddyn shrugged in turn. "They're wounded, in any case. That gives us the advantage — assuming their four-footed allies were an aberration, which I'm beginning to doubt, since we know the gem lets people contact other minds. But even if we could best them, we'd still have to decide where to go. Thing is, some of your dead ... friends would've been expected to report back to their hold. When they don't, more will be sent. That's how it works. If we go back, there's a good chance we'll run into them. I doubt that would benefit either of us."
Rrath nodded sagely. "But if we pushed on to Tir-Eron with Rann and the woman, we'd have to watch them every moment, never mind how we'd explain their presence and our conduct if we actually made it there."
"Besides which, we need to see if we can find Avall's body. He's still — he's still my kin, and I owe it to the clan to try to secure his remains."
An eyebrow lifted. "And if the gem happens to be among them?"
"Then this whole stupid mess won't have been in vain."
Rrath yawned hugely. "Suppose we ponder that tomorrow? I'm sorry, Eddyn, but I'm tired. I can't think. There'll be time to puzzle all this out, I promise you; time to consider every iteration until we're sick of them. But it's got to be close to midnight. We've been going steadily all day. I just lost a fight. I've to all intents broken a vow and barely evaded a compulsion, and have the mother of all great headaches to show for it. And of course there's no chance of me drugging you now. Or—" He paused, staring at Eddyn savagely. "Or of my murdering you in your sleep, just so you'll know. I swear on The Eight."
Eddyn huffed contemptuously. "And I'm supposed to believe that? After everything else you've done?"
Anger flashed in Rrath's eyes. "I didn't like doing it, if that helps. I'm not saying I had no choice, but in my case, you'd have done the same."
Eddyn didn't move. "Would I?" For a moment he thought to end it all here. It wouldn't take much to wrestle Rrath down again. He would resist, but Eddyn was stronger. Eventually he'd get his hands around Rrath's throat ...
And be guilty of murder.
On top of rape.
And he'd be alone in the Wild in the heart of Deep Winter. There was only so much luck in the world. And so much forgiveness.
He tossed back a final hit of brandy in disgusted silence. Rrath spared him a last challenging glare and burrowed into the furs. Before long, he was snoring. Eddyn sat immobile, gazing at the fire.
Fire changed things. Melted metals or blended them into forms more biddable. It made meat fit to eat. But it rendered wood useless save as fuel.
So what did cold do?
It was like fire, actually. Cold killed and cold preserved.
Both changed things. Eddyn wondered how being here in the maw of Deep Winter was changing him.