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They came creeping through the woods just before dawn, four of them, weary but resolute, like hunters on the trail of a wounded stag. They halted at the edge of the trees, silently regarding summer fields thick with oats and the brooding castle beyond.
“Castle Coorm,” the leader, Fallion, whispered. “As promised.” The sight of it filled him with nostalgia and soothed his frayed nerves like mulled wine.
The pre-dawn sky still had one bright star in it, and the castle mostly lay in shadows, the limned walls looking soft blue instead of white. There were pinpricks of yellow in the tower windows, and watch-fires burned outside the city gates like blistering gems. The dancing fires, the smell of the smoke, beckoned him. But Fallion merely stood silently regarding the scene. The castle was falling into ruins, but was obviously still inhabited.
He had seen too much devastation, too many ruined cities since his return to Mystarria. The Courts of Tide had been laid waste. Its once-fair streets were now dark lanes, blockaded by gangs that fought like wild dogs to protect their few scraps of food and clothing. The women and children there had a haunted look. They had suffered too much rape, too much plunder.
The sight of it had left Fallion reeling. In a more perfect world, he told himself, the women would wear flowers in their hair, and children would not learn to fear strangers.
Upon the death of Fallion’s father, Gaborn Val Orden, assassins from a dozen lands had descended upon Mystarria, hoping to strike down Fallion and his brother. These weren’t ordinary assassins. These were powerful runelords that had taken brawn, stamina, speed, and grace from their subjects, making them warriors that no commoner could hope to withstand. And though Mystarria had been a wealthy country then, with many strong runelords of its own, it could not withstand the sustained onslaughts of such men.
Only by strengthening its forces could it hope to survive, but that required forcibles—magical branding irons that could draw out an attribute from a vassal and then imbue it upon the lord.
But there was a dearth of forcibles. The rare blood metal from which they were made was running out. Rumors said that the lords of Kartish, far to the west, were hoarding what little they found, intent on protecting their own realms in the dark times to come.
Chancellor Westhaven, who had been left in charge of Mystarria, had even taken a journey to Kartish, hoping to sway those who had once been allies.
He had never returned. Some said that his mournful spirit could be seen at night in the towers at the Courts of Tide, wandering the hallways, rummaging through the empty lock-boxes in the treasure room.
And so Mystarria had been attacked on a dozen fronts, like a great bull taken down by jackals that ripped it apart and gorged themselves while leaving their prey still only half alive. Its treasuries had been looted, its towers knocked down, its farms and cities burned, its lands divided. The Warlords of Internook held the coast, while Beldinook took the east, and Crowthen to the north split the rest.
Frankly, after the rapes, the looting, and the murder, Fallion did not see that there was much of a country left worth fighting over.
He eyed the remains of Castle Coorm, dully surprised to see it still intact.
The towers of the castle stood, but dark stands of ivy grew up them, looking like rents in the darkness. The eastern-most walls were a decrepit gray, most of the lime having washed away after years of winter storms. A lone bullfrog bellowed amid the placid reeds of the moat.
Fallion held to the shadows. He wore a gray half-cape, fastened with a silver cape pin in the form of an owl, long black hair sweeping back over his shoulders, brown eyes so full of light that they seemed a perfect mirror for the distant fires. A naked blade gleamed silver in his hand.
He studied the fires, and for an instant an image came to mind of a vast rune made of flames, encircled by flames—The Seal of the Inferno. It had been almost three years ago that he had first seen it in a dream while staring into the hearth after a midwinter’s dinner. Since then he had begun practicing his skills as a flameweaver, listening to the many tongues of fire, seeking inspiration in sunlight. He knew which direction the seal lay, deep in the Underworld. The wheel of fire haunted him, came to mind a hundred times a day. He could not so much as glance at the sun or even a silver moon without seeing the afterimage of the rune imprinted on his retina.
He had crossed the oceans to find it. Just a couple hundred more miles now, and he would descend into the Mouth of the World, hoping to locate the Seal of the Inferno and repair the damage to it. By mending its defects and binding it to the Seal of Heaven and the Seal of Earth, he hoped to restore balance to the world, to remake it in the perfect image of the One True World of legend.
Behind him came Rhianna, following so close at Fallion’s back that she touched him. Her fierce blue eyes looked troubled, and she clung to her quarterstaff as if she was lost at sea and it was the only thing that might save her from drowning.
“I remember this place,” she said, her voice shaky. “I remember . . .”
She placed a hand on Fallion’s shoulder and just stood. Her flawless face was white with shock, a grimace of pain formed by the slash of her lips.
For nearly a decade, Rhianna had blocked out her memories of this place. But now, Fallion could see, they threatened to overwhelm her.
At her back stood Fallion’s younger brother, Jaz, followed by their foster sister, Talon. Jaz carried a war bow carved from ruddy red reaver’s horn. Talon bore a light saber that some dainty gentleman might have worn for a night on the town, but in her practiced hands, the blade would never be confused for a mere adornment.
“What do you remember?” Fallion asked Rhianna.
Rhianna’s brows drew together in concentration; she recalled racing down a mountain on a force horse that had been richly endowed with runes of brawn and metabolism. Fallion sat in the saddle ahead of her, and she clung to him for dear life. Even then she realized that she was falling in love with him. She remembered thinking him strong and handsome, and she prayed that he would be able to save her. They must have been traveling at eighty miles per hour, for the pines at the margin of the road seemed to fly past. Her heart pounded as if trying to beat its way out of her chest, and in her young mind, she could not imagine that she would live until she reached the castle. Her stomach had ached, and she worried that something was eating her. A strengi-saat had placed its eggs in her womb to hatch, and the young were eating their way out. She remembered it all.
“We were being chased by monsters,” Rhianna said, suddenly planting her staff firmly in the ground. She had been a child back then, with a child’s fears. But for years she had been practicing with weapons, and she was growing dangerous. The staff that she bore now was bejeweled and covered in runes. It had once belonged to the Earth King himself. She grimaced. “Now we’re back, and we’re the monsters.”
Jaz laughed. He always seemed to be light of heart lately. Rhianna had come on this journey because she loved Fallion, because she would throw herself in death’s path to protect him. But Jaz had come because, as he’d said, “I’ve been following him around since I could crawl. I don’t see why I should stop now.”
Jaz said, “I was sure we’d blundered past this place ten leagues back. And look, there are people inside. You think if we beg nicely, they’d part with a mug of ale?”
Jaz sat down and tried pulling off a boot. It had mud inside and came free with a sucking sound.
“People will do astonishing things for money,” Fallion said, “even part with perfectly good ale.”
He turned back to the castle. The long war had taken its toll. A village had once thrived on the hill below, a place named Weeds. A few dozen cozy mud-and-wattle cottages had grown up here with roofs thatched from wheat straw. As a child, Fallion had imagined that they were living things, lounging among the herb and flower gardens, partitioned with rock walls. The homes had been shaded in the long summer by fruit trees.
He regarded the ruins of a cottage on a knoll, and suddenly had a memory from when he was a child of three. In it, his father had come home from his wanderings, and had taken him out into the village among the crowds. Fallion had ridden on his father’s shoulder, until his father stopped beneath a cherry tree on the knoll. There, Fallion pulled the red cherries from the tree, and they were so ripe that they burst at his touch, and juice ran thick down his fingers. He licked it off and picked his fill, all the while begriming his father, he was sure now.
But his father had only laughed with delight.
Fallion remembered riding upon the shoulders of a king, being taller than everyone, looking down upon men that had dwarfed him, wishing that he could be that tall forever.
He smiled. It was a good memory, and one of only a handful that he recalled of his father. The journey across the ocean had been worth making just for that.
But no cottages graced the fields anymore. Nothing was left but burned-out remains: their rocky husks down in the distance looked like dead beetles.
The folk in the castle had probably burned the houses so that the monsters would not be able to hide in them. Strengi-saats, the enemy was called in the old tongue, the “strong ones.”
And it was rumored that worse things had begun to haunt the woods. It was rumored that one of them might even haunt Castle Coorm.
“Castle Coorm has become an island, a refuge of stone besieged by a wilderness of trees,” Fallion mused. “Now there’s not a hamlet within thirty leagues.”
“We should know,” Talon groused. “We just floundered through every bog between here and the Courts of Tide.” She crouched, resting on her heels.
Fallion was more leg-sore and hungry than he had ever been. Worse, he had a bad cut on his calf. It wasn’t much, but the smell of congealed blood drew strengi-saats.
He wasn’t sure if he should try to rest here. He had heard a strange rumor of this place, the strangest that he’d heard in his life. It was said that several years past, a woman of Coorm had given birth not to a child, but to a tree—a short, stunted tree with a handful of roots and two gnarled limbs. The tree, it was said, had bark that was a ruddy gold. Fallion wondered at the tale. It was said that the woman’s flesh was green, like one of the wizardborn filled with Earth Powers, and some speculated that her offspring was a “World Tree,” like the One True Oak of legend that had spread its branches wide, giving shelter to all of mankind at the beginning of creation.
Among the peasants, the idea of a woman giving birth to a World Tree somehow did not seem beyond the realm of possibility. After all, since the coming of the Earth King, Fallion’s father, the world had changed. The children born after his coming were stronger than men in times past, wiser and more purposeful, even as the world around them grew stranger and more treacherous. Men were becoming more perfect.
So was evil.
The tree, so the tale went, had been planted in the castle green, where it could be protected and admired, but then a bandit came from the woods, Lord Hale, a man of great power.
It was said that he slaughtered the wizardess.
Many had fled from Coorm then, and for years now, there had been no news from the castle.
Suddenly, a woman screamed down below.
“What’s that?” Jaz asked. He pulled on his boot, leapt up. It was not the drawn-out wail of someone grieving past loss. It was announced first by grunts and short yelps of pain, shrieks of terror.
“Someone is fighting,” Fallion said.
“Someone is dying!” Rhianna corrected.
From across the fields, at the eastern verge of the woods, a deep snarl erupted, like the sound of thunder on the horizon, followed by the strange bell-like cry of a strengi-saat.
In the woods just up the hill, a pair of crows suddenly cried out, “Claw, claw, claw.”
Fallion glanced up. The woods here and been burned back, blackening the great oaks, searing away the brush, leaving the strengi-saats fewer places to hide, Fallion speculated. Up in the nearby trees, he spotted the crows. The birds were half asleep, but they watched the castle as if it were the sprawling carcass of a dying giant.
The woman screamed again, her voice echoing from the castle walls. Fallion, willed his heart to slow, and listened.
The sounds of the scuffle at Coorm came to him with unnatural clarity, as often happened in the mountains on a clear morning.
He wished for more, half-wished that he had taken endowments of hearing or sight from others. Some had offered when he left—the children that had served under him in the Gwardeen, there in the outposts at the Ends of the Earth. But he had declined. It was an evil thing to take an endowment from a man, for if a man gave you his strength, his heart might fail thereafter. Fallion could not bear the thought of using another person that way. Still, he had nearly three hundred forcibles in his pack as part of his inheritance, and if the need was great enough, he knew that someday he might yet have to take endowments.
There was a gruff cry, a man shouting, “Damn the wench,” followed by a smack, the sound of a fist pummeling a face. “She bit me.”
The woman’s wail went silent, though she grunted and struggled still.
“Open the gates!” the attacker cried in his deep voice. “Open the damned gates, will you?”
In the hills, strengi-saats roared.
“They’re going to give a woman to the strengi-saats,” Rhianna whispered.
The thought horrified her. She found her heart pounding so hard that she was afraid it would burst.
The strengi-saats wouldn’t simply eat the woman. Though they were fierce carnivores, with claws like reaping hooks and teeth like scythes, they didn’t simply rend one’s flesh. No, one of the females would rape the woman, inserting a long ovipositor into the woman’s womb so that it could incubate half a dozen leathery eggs.
Then the strengi-saat would drag the woman into the woods, hide her high among the limbs of a tree, and keep her, terrified but alive, until the eggs hatched, and the young ate their way from the woman’s body.
“Fools,” Fallion growled. “What are they thinking? In killing her this way, they only reinforce the numbers of their enemies.”
“Something more heinous is going on here,” Talon concluded. “Perhaps that is what they want—to increase the numbers of the strengi-saats.”
The castle’s gate began to creak open. Talon clutched her blade, which was as long as her arm and two fingers in width.
Fallion studied the sentries along the wall. He could see their shadowed forms, pacing. There were no more than half a dozen. Two were peering down inside the gates, watching whatever struggle was occurring, but the others showed better judgment, and kept their watch still.
The castle gate swung out, and a pair of burly guards in chain mail and helms dragged the woman outside, hurled her to the ground. The guards turned, trudged back into the castle, and slammed the gate.
Fallion could see a tangle of blond hair on the woman, a white night dress ripped and dirty. She cried in terror and tried to pull her torn dress up, covering her breasts.
She looked forlornly at the gate, went and pounded on it.
“Better run, lass,” one guard shouted from the wall. “In ten seconds, our archers open fire.”
She peered across the darkened fields. There was no shelter out there, only the ruins of a few cottages.
An arrow bounced off the ground at her bare feet, and then another. She leapt away from them, gathered her courage, picked up her skirt, and took off running.
West. She was heading west, toward a tall hill where a lip of woods protruded closest to the castle.
“Not that way, silly wench,” Rhianna hissed.
From the western hill, a strengi-saat raised a barking call, one that Rhianna recognized as a hunting cry.
The woman stopped in her tracks, spun, and headed east, closer to Rhianna’s direction, racing along a muddy track that looked black among the fields.
Rhianna saw where it would reach the woods, just two hundred yards to the north. With any luck, Rhianna thought, I could meet her there.
But it would be a race, with the strengi-saats hot on the woman’s trail.
Rhianna leapt forward, racing through the dark woods.
We’ll have to fight them, Fallion realized, chasing after Rhianna, leaping over a fallen tree, running through a patch of ashes. The morning air was wet and full of dew, thick in his nostrils, muting the biting tang of old ash.
Fallion pumped his legs, driving hard.
In a more perfect world, he thought, a rescuer could run with infinite swiftness.
As he raced, crows came awake, squawking and taking flight in the night air, black wings raking the sky.
“The strengi-saats are coming!” Jaz warned, as he and Talon raced up behind Fallion.
Out across the field, several large, nebulous shadows moved in from the east. Fallion could not see what lay within them. The strengi-saats drew in the light, deepening the darkness all about them. In the night, in the woods or upon a lonely street, so long as they remained still they would stay hidden, camouflaged among their shadows. But running across the fields, their strange ability did them little good. True, their forms remained indistinct, but their presence was easily detected.
The woman reached the woods just ahead of Rhianna, then halted and dropped to her hands and knees, gasping for breath, looking up to peer about in wide-eyed terror. She glanced in Fallion’s direction but seemed not to see him. It was not until Rhianna’s boot snapped a twig that the woman leapt in terror, rising up with a small branch as her only weapon.
“Don’t be afraid,” Rhianna whispered. “We’re friends.”
Rhianna turned and took a guard position, peering among the trees, her staff at the ready.
The young woman stood staring at them all, holding her stick out like a rapier. Apparently she could not believe that anyone would be out here in the forest by night, among the strengi-saats. “Who are you?”
Fallion peered hard. The woman looked to be eighteen or nineteen, a little younger than he. Her face was familiar.
“Ten years is a long time,” Jaz offered. “But not long enough so that I would forget your name, Farion. Your father was a good teacher.”
Farion stood rooted to the ground, shaking. “Jaz?” she said, incredulous, then looked to Fallion. “Milord?” she cried, dropping to one knee. Tears began to flow freely down her face. “I—we thought you dead. I thought you had died ages ago.”
“We’re sorry to have left,” Fallion said. “Our enemies were too numerous to fight. It had to look as if we were dead.”
“Have you come to take back Castle Coorm? Where’s your army?” she looked back into the woods, as if hoping that thousands of runelords marched at his back.
“There is no army but the four of us,” Fallion admitted.
The words seemed to break Farion’s heart. She sagged to the ground, as if all hope were lost, and just began to sob. Nearby, Fallion heard the rumbling growl of a strengi-saat.
Dawn was still minutes away, but it was dark here in the woods. He knew that a fire would keep the monsters at bay. It would also alert the soldiers at Castle Coorm to his presence.
“All is lost then,” Farion muttered. “All is lost.”
“Not all,” Fallion said. “I’ll gather an army soon.”
Farion shook her head. “Lord Hale tried to force me to his bed. I fought him, and he threw me out, as an example to the others. I’m afraid . . . he’ll make an example of my sister. She is only thirteen.” She looked forlornly to each side of the woods. Then she peered up into Fallion’s eyes. “Please, she’s all that I have left.”
“Damn,” Jaz swore, looking to Fallion, urging Fallion to fight. He added hopefully, “The men on the walls have ashen bows. Mine has a farther reach.”
“So,” Fallion said, “you’ll fire on the guards while I batter down the gate? I think your jokes are getting better.”
The group had not planned to stop at Coorm. They had more urgent business farther on.
Now they had to stop, Rhianna realized. They couldn’t leave these women to suffer. A woman alone might live a night or two here in the woods, but the strengi-saats would get her in time. Rhianna knew by the look on Jaz’s face that live or die, he would not leave Castle Coorm without a fight.
But Fallion seemed reticent.
What’s wrong with you? Rhianna wondered. We both know what it’s like to be children, to be held in the clutches of an enemy. Don’t you dare walk away from this, Fallion. If you do, I will stop loving you.
But Fallion looked to the west longingly, unsure.
He wants to mend the earth, Rhianna thought. The need presses him, and it breaks his heart to hold back, even for a worthy cause. He must weigh the risk that many might die during the time that is lost against the certainty that this one will die.
“All right,” Fallion said at last. “I’ll free your city. But afterward, we will have to redouble our speed.”
Relief flooded through Rhianna. I’m right to love him, she thought.
Fallion kicked some leaves into a pile, knelt over it, and sparked some flint against the hilt of his sword. The leaves were dry in midsummer and caught fire instantly. If Farion thought it strange that they took fire so fast, it did not show in her face. Only relief was revealed there.
In moments a fierce little blaze was going.
“Is your father well?” Fallion asked. “I have often missed his counsel.”
“His Dedicates were killed years back,” Farion said. “He lost his wit, his stamina, his metabolism. All of the lore that he once knew, it’s all gone. For a while, Lord Hale made him his fool, but now he is little more than a simpleton for me to care for. He fetches wood and can feed the cats, but he’s no use for aught else.”
Fallion grieved silently. In all of the realm there had not been a man who loved learning half as much as her father, Hearthmaster Waggit. Among the many ruins that Fallion had encountered in the week since his return to Mystarria, this one seemed to sadden him the most.
He peered into the flames for a long moment, and the Seal of the Inferno appeared, like a burning wheel, imprinted upon his retina. He pulled a log onto the fire. The dancing flames seemed to beckon him.
Off to his left a shadow moved, perhaps thirty paces from the fire. A strengi-saat. He peered in its direction, and the shadows thickened.
“Jaz,” Fallion warned. He picked up a stick from the fire and hurled it toward the shadow. The twig flipped end over end, hit something and blazed bright, revealing the strengi-saat.
It was a large one, perhaps eighteen feet from nose to tail, but had looked smaller as it bellied low to the ground. Its jaws were wide enough to carry a man whole, and its head was leathery and seemed to have scales instead of fur like that found on its back and belly. Ugly black hide stretched over a face as naked as a buzzard’s. It had no ears, only tympanums, round membranes the size of plates, just behind its enormous eyes. It whirled to race away.
Jaz fired. The arrow plocked into the monster’s chest, skewering a lung. Black blood gushed out in a fountain as the strengi-saat roared and began rolling among the pine needles. Rhianna shouted and rushed toward it, her staff at the ready, and the monster leapt away, hoping to escape. It lunged off into the shadows, leaving Rhianna far behind. Fallion knew that it would only find a quiet place to die.
The sun had not yet risen, but the sky was growing light. In a moment, the bright disk would rise and hang like a shield upon the shoulder of the world. Fallion warmed his hands by the fire, let its energy seep into him for a few moments longer.
For the past year, he had been seeking to master the flameweavers’ arts in earnest. He could feel the energy building inside him, a hidden inferno. When he judged that he could hold no more, he abruptly stood and announced, “Let’s go deal with this Lord Hale.”
Copyright © 2007 by David Farland. All rights reserved.