Read an Excerpt
A Sword from Red Ice
Book Three of Sword of Shadows
By J. V. Jones, James Frenkel
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2007 J. V. Jones
All rights reserved.
Raif woke with a start, immediately sitting upright. His heart was pumping hard in his chest and there was a rawness in his throat as if he had been screaming. A quick glance at Bear showed the sturdy little hill pony's ears were twitching. Probably had been screaming then.
Raif shook his head, hoping to drive away all thoughts of her. Nothing could be gained by them. Madness lay in wait here, in the vast and shifting landscape of the Great Want, and to worry about Ash March and crave her presence was a sure way to drive himself insane. She was gone. He could not have her. It was as simple and as unchangeable as that.
Rising to his feet, Raif forced himself to evaluate the landscape. Thirst made his tongue feel big in his mouth. He ignored it. Light was moving through the Want and the last of the bright stars were fading. In the direction that might have been east, the horizon was flushed with the first suggestion of sun. The landscape seemed familiar. Scale-covered rock formations rose from the buckled limestone floor like stalagmites, craggy and jagged, silently farming minerals as they grew. On the ground, a litter of lime fragments and calcified insect husks cracked beneath his boots like chicken bones. Bear was snuffling something that a while back might have been a plant. As Raif's gaze moved from the distant purple peaks floating above the mist, to the canyon lines that forked Want-north across the valley floor, he felt some measure of relief. It looked pretty much like the place he had set camp in last night.
Anchored, that was the word. The Want had not drifted while he slept.
Grateful for that, Raif crossed over to Bear and started rubbing down her coat. She head-butted him, sniffing for water, but it was too early for her morning ration so he pushed her head back gently and told her, "No."
The puncture wounds caused by the Shatan Maer's claws had stiffened his left shoulder muscle, and as he worked on Bear's hooves he felt some pain. When he made a quick movement up her leg, a cold little tingle traveled toward his heart. Stopping for a moment, he put a hand on Bear's belly to steady himself. Something about the pain, a kind of liquid probing, had unsettled him, and he couldn't seem to get the Shatan Maer out of his head. He could smell its rankness, see its cunning dead eyes as it came for him.
Shivering, Raif stepped away from the pony. "Do I look mad to you?" he asked her as he massaged the aching muscle.
Bear flicked her tail lazily; a pony's equivalent of a shrug. The gesture was strangely reassuring. Sometimes that was all it took to drive away your fears: the indifference of another living thing. The pain was just the last remnants of an infection, nothing more.
Although he didn't much feel like it, Raif set about taking stock of his meager supplies. Fresh water had become a problem. The aurochs' bladder rested slack against a block of limestone, its contents nearly drained. The little that remained tasted of rawhide. Raif doubted whether it would last the day. There was food — sprouted millet for the pony, hard cheese and pemmican for himself — yet he knew enough not to be tempted by it. He wanted to be sure where his next drink was coming from before he ate. Yesterday he'd learned that it wasn't enough just to see water. In the Want you had to jump in it and watch your clothes get wet before you could be absolutely certain it was there. Yesterday he and Bear had tracked leagues out of their way to pursue a glassy shimmer in the valley between two hills. They stood in that valley today. It wasn't just dry, it was bone dry, and Raif had been left feeling like a fool. You'd think he would have learned by now.
Unable to help himself, he flicked the cap off the waterskin and squirted a small amount into his mouth. The fluid was gone before he had a chance to swallow it, sucked away by parched gums. He was tempted to take more, but resisted. His duty to his animal came first.
As he poured a careful measure into the pony's waxed snufflebag, Raif wondered what heading to take next. As best he could tell, five days had passed since he'd left the Fortress of Grey Ice. The first few days were lost to him, gone in a fever dream of blood poisoning and pain. He did not recall leaving the fortress or choosing a route to lead them out of the Want. He remembered waking one morning and looking at his left arm and not being sure that it belonged to him. The skin floated on top of the muscle as if separated by a layer of liquid. It leaked when he pressed it, clear fluid that seeped through a crack Raif supposed must be a wound. The strange thing was it hadn't hurt. Even stranger, he could not recall being concerned.
At some point he must have regained his mind, although there were times when he wasn't sure. The wounds on his neck were healing. He'd stitched the deepest one without use of a mirror, so gods only knew what he looked like. As for his arm, it certainly looked a lot better. And he was definitely sure it was his. His mind was a different story though, a little foggy around the edges and prone to fancies. The first day that he tried to ride his head had felt too light, and he'd convinced himself he was better off walking instead.
He hadn't been on Bear since then, and he'd spent the last three days stubbornly walking. Occasionally Bear looked at him quizzically, and had once gone as far as head-butting the small of his back to encourage him to ride. She had wanted to help, he knew that, and the one thing she had to offer was her ability to bear his weight.
Raif licked his lips. They were as dry as tree bark. Reaching inside the grain bag, he scooped up a handful a millet. Bear, whose thoughts were never far from food, trotted over to investigate. She ate from his hand, lipping hard to get at the grains that were jammed between his fingers. She didn't understand that in many ways she was the one who was caring for him. Her company alone was worth more than a month's worth of supplies. Bear's stoic acceptance of her situation lightened his heart. Caring for her needs — making sure she had enough food and water, tending to her coat, skin, and mouth, and keeping her shoes free of stone — kept him from focusing on himself.
And then there was her Want sense. The little hill pony borrowed from the Maimed Men had an instinct for moving through the Great Want. Instead of fighting the insubstantial nature of the landscape, she gave herself up to it, became a leaf floating downstream. As a clansman trained to navigate dense forests, follow the whisper-light trails left by ice hares and foxes, and hold his bearings on frozen tundra in a whiteout, Raif found traveling through the Want frustrating. The sun might rise in the morning, but then again it might not. Entire mountain ranges could sail on the horizon like ships. Clouds formed rings that hung in the sky, unaffected by prevailing winds, for days. At night a great wheel of stars would turn in the heavens, but you could never be sure what constellations it would contain. Sometimes the wheel reversed itself and moved counter to every wisdom concerning the stars that Raif had ever been taught. Orienting oneself in such an environment was close to impossible. As soon as you had established the direction of due north, decided on a course to lead you out, the Want began to slip through your fingers like snowmelt. Nothing was fixed here. Everything — the sky, the land, the sun and the moon — drifted to the movement of some unknowable tide.
The Great Want could not be mastered or explained. Ancient sorceries had scarred it, time had worn away its boundaries, and cataclysmic disasters had scoured it clean of life. The Want was no longer bound by physical laws. To attempt to traverse it was folly. The best you could hope for was rite of passage. Somehow Bear knew this, knew that relinquishing — not asserting — control would carry one farther in this place.
Every night since they had left the fortress the pony had stumbled upon a suitable place to set camp. She found islands elevated above the vast mist rivers that flowed across the Want at sunset, sniffed out caves sunk deep into cliff faces, and hollows protected from the harsh morning winds. She'd even located a riverbed where ancient bushes had been sucked so dry of life juice that they burned as smokeless as the purest fuel. The hill pony hadn't found drinkable water yet, but Raif knew that out of the two of them she had the best chance of discovering it.
That, and the way out.
Frowning, Raif scanned the horizon. A constant bitter wind blew against his face, scouring his cheeks with ice crystals and filling his nose with the smell of ozone and lead; the scent of faraway storms. Part of him was content simply to drift. As long as he was here, at the Want's mercy, he need make no decisions about the future. Questions about whether to return to the Maimed Men or head south in search of Ash had little meaning. In a way it was a kind of relief. The past three days were the most peace he had known since that morning in the Badlands when his da and Dagro Blackhail had died.
That sense of peace would not last for long. Mor Drakka, Watcher of the Dead, Oathbreaker, Twelve Kill: a man possessing such names could not expect to live a peaceful life.
Kneeling on his bedroll, Raif reached for the sword given to him by the Listener of the Ice Trappers. The once perfectly tempered blade was warped and blackened, its edges blunted and untrue. Plunged into shadowflesh up to its crossguard, the sword had been irrevocably changed. It would never be more than a knock-around now, the kind of blade a father let his son train with until the boy developed a proper degree of skill. Raif began to grind the blade regardless, using a soft shammy and a makeshift paste of limestone grit and horse lard. The rock crystal mounted on the pommel flashed brilliantly in the rising sun, and Raif found himself recalling what the Listener had said when he handed over the sword.
It should serve you well enough until you find a better one.
Strange how he hadn't given the words much thought until now. This sword had once been the weapon of a Forsworn knight, its blade forged from the purest steel, its edge honed by a master swordsmith. To most clansmen it would be a prize to be treasured; oiled lovingly every tenday, drawn with silent pride for the inspection of honored guests, passed through the generations from father to son. Yet the Listener had hinted that for Raif there would be more.
Abruptly Raif resheathed the sword. It was time to move on.
Today was a good day in the Want. A sun rose, traveling at a constant speed and arc, and banks of low-lying clouds moved in the same direction as prevailing winds. Well, almost. Raif shrugged as he hiked along a limestone bluff. He'd take small discrepancies over big ones any day.
The bluff was rocky and hard going, riven with cracks and undermined with softer, lighter chalkstone that was crumbling to dust. Gray weeds poked through holes in the rock. They may have been alive; it was hard to tell. In the distance Raif could see a range of low-lying mountains, spinebacks, laid out in a course that fishtailed into the bluff. Realizing he was in for a steady climb, he reached for the waterskin.
Straightaway he knew it was a mistake. His mouth and stomach were anticipating water, his throat muscles were contracting in readiness to swallow, yet he could not take a drink. The waterskin was as good as empty. Nothing could be spared. Swallowing the saliva that had pooled under his tongue, he tucked the waterskin back into its place behind Bear's saddle. When his stomach sent out a single cramp of protest, he ignored it. He had to think.
Why am I going this way? Any other heading would lead him off the bluff and away from the mountains. No climb involved. So why accelerate his thirst? Why not simply head downhill and take the easy route? Chances were the Want would shift on him anyway. A day from now those mountains could have melted into the mist.
Raif squinted at the sun, thinking. It was a winter sun, pale and crisply outlined against the sky. When he looked away its afterimage burned in front of his eyes. As it cleared he became aware that his breath was purling white. The temperature was dropping. The Want had two degrees of coldness: bitter and glacially raw. Since leaving the fortress Raif had counted himself lucky to have encountered only the first. Bitter he could live with. Bitter was the normal state of things for the clanholds in midwinter. It gave you chilblains and sometimes frostbite in your ears and toes. As long as you were bundled up and well fed you could live through it.
Raw was something else. Raw killed. It froze your breath the instant it left your mouth, coating every hair on your face with frost; it numbed the most thickly wrapped hands and feet and then when it had numbed them it turned them into ice; and it altered the working of your mind, made you think it was hot when it was deadly cold, that you just needed to rest awhile and everything would be all right.
Raif shivered. He decided to stay on course, but could not say why. At his side, Bear blew air at force through her nostrils, forming two white clouds. The little pony had been bred to live at high elevations in the far north. Her coat was thick and wiry and her leg hair formed shaggy skirts around her hoofs. She would probably fare better than him, but he wasn't taking any chances. He unrolled her blanket and threw it across her back. As he fastened the toggles beneath her belly he contemplated for the first time having to kill her. He would place his sword here, well below her rib cage, and thrust up through her first and second stomachs to her heart. It was the swiftest death he could give, the instant cessation of blood pumping from her heart to her brain.
Heart-kill, it was called. All hunters aspired to it: that perfectly placed, perfectly powered, blow that would stop all animals in their tracks.
Oh gods. Why am I even thinking of this? Straightening up, Raif slapped Bear's rump, encouraging her to walk on.
For a while after that he did not think, simply walked. They fell into a rhythm, Bear matching him exactly in speed and rate of climb. Occasionally she would nudge him. Sometimes he nudged her back. As he walked he savored the pleasure of working his body hard and forcing his lungs to expand against his chest wall. It could last only so long. They had no water, and he had no choice but to consider his responsibility to Bear. She was his animal. He owed her food, water, shelter and safety. In the event of injury or sickness he owed her a swift death. Tem, his father, would have stood for no less. "You have an animal, Raif — I don't care whether it's a dog or a horse or a one-legged flying squirrel — it gets fed before you get fed, watered before you drink, and if it's sick you take care of it." Even then as a boy of eight he had understood all that his father had meant by "taking care of it."
Raif held himself back a moment, let Bear walk ahead of him on the trail. He wished it were that simple. Wished that he hadn't felt a small thrill of anticipation as he contemplated running his sword through the hill pony's heart.
Kill an army for me, Raif Sevrance, Death had commanded him. Any less and I just might call you back.
Excerpted from A Sword from Red Ice by J. V. Jones, James Frenkel. Copyright © 2007 J. V. Jones. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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