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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 poisonwood. 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 warring 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. Binnesman got up and hobbled stiffly toward the cave, using his staff as a crutch.
"I had a dream last night," Erin Connal whispered to Celinor as they stooped to drink at a stream in South Crowthen, nearly a thousand miles to the northeast of Averan. The sun would not be up for half an hour, yet the sky glowed silver on the horizon. The early morning air felt chill, and dew lay heavy on the ground. "It was a strange dream."
She glanced suspiciously at South Crowthen's knights nearby, who were busy breaking camp. Captain Gantrell, a lean, dark man with a fanatical gleam in his eyes, stood ordering his men about as if they'd never broken a camp before. "Sweep the mud off that tent before you put it in the wagon," he shouted to one soldier. To another he called, "Don't just pour water on the campfire, stir it in."
By the surly looks he got, Erin could tell that his troops did not love him.
As the men bustled about, occupied with their work, for the first time since last night, Erin felt that she could talk to her husband with a measure of safety.
"You dreamed a dream?" Celinor inquired, one eyebrow raised. "Is this unusual?" He drowned his canteen in the shallow creek almost carelessly, as if unconcerned that Gantrell's men surrounded them, treating the crown prince and his new wife as if they were prisoners.
"I think it was more than a dream," Erin admitted. "I think it was a sending." Erin held her breath to see his reaction. In her experience, most people who claimed to receive sendings showed other signs of madness too.
Celinor blinked, looking down at his canteen. "A sending from whom?" he asked heavily. He did not want to hear about his wife's mad dreams.
"Remember yesterday, when I dropped my dagger into the circle of fire at Twynhaven? The dagger touched the flames and disappeared. It went through the gate, into the netherworld."
Celinor nodded but said nothing. He watched her suspiciously, daring her to speak on.
"I dreamt last night that I saw a creature of the netherworld, like a great owl that lived in a burrow under a vast tree. It held my dagger in its beak, and it spoke to me. It gave me a warning."
Celinor finished filling his canteen, then licked his lips. He trembled slightly, as if from a chill. Like most folk, he felt uncomfortable when talking of the netherworld. Wondrous beings, like Bright Ones, peopled it, but there were tales of frightening creatures too--like the salamanders that Raj Ahten's flameweavers had summoned at Longmot, or the Darkling Glory they gated at Twynhaven. "What did this…creature warn you about?"
"It warned me that the Darkling Glory could not be slain. A foul spirit possessed its body, a creature so dangerous that it strikes fear even into the hearts of the Bright Ones. The creature is called a locus, and of all the loci, it is one of the most powerful. Its name is Asgaroth."
"If you are convinced that this Asgaroth is a danger," Celinor asked, "then why are you whispering? Why not shout it to the world?"
"Because Asgaroth may be nearby," Erin whispered. A squirrel bolted up the side of a tree, and Erin glanced back at it furtively, then continued. "We can slay the body that hosts the spirit, just as Myrrima slew the Darkling Glory, but we can't kill Asgaroth himself. Once a locus is torn from one body, it will seek a new host, an evil person or beast that it can control." She paused to let him consider this. "When Myrrima slew the Darkling Glory, a whirlwind rose from it--and blew east, toward South Crowthen."
Celinor looked at her narrowly, anger flashing in his eyes. "What of it?"
"You say that your father has been suffering delusions…."
"My father may be mad," Celinor said curtly, "but he has never been evil."
"You were the one who was after telling me how his far-seer turned up dead." Erin reminded him. "If he killed him, it may have been an act of madness. Or it may have been evil."
"I only suspect him," Celinor said. "There is no proof. Besides, his odd behavior began before Raj Ahten's sorcerers summoned the Darkling Glory. Even if you received a true sending, even if your 'locus' is real, there's nothing that should lead you to suspect my father."
Celinor didn't want to consider the possibility that his father might be possessed. She didn't blame him. Nor could she argue that his father's odd behavior had begun weeks ago.
Yet something that the owl of the netherworld had told Erin caused her concern. It had shown her the locus, a shadow of evil that inhabited one man, even as it sent out tendrils of darkness around it, tendrils that touched others--seducing them, snaring them--filling them with a measure of its own corruption.
Thus the locus's influence spread, rotting the hearts of men, burning away their consciences, preparing them to act as hosts for others like it.
Erin had never met Gantrell before, but the fanatical gleam in the captain's eyes, the way he had his men guard Celinor, the crown prince, as if he were a captured spy, made her suspect that he had been touched by a locus.
And then there was Celinor's father: claiming to be the Earth King, plotting against Gaborn, spreading lies about him to far-off lords who ought to have been Gaborn's allies.
Perhaps Celinor's father did not host Asgaroth, Erin thought, but he was dangerous by any standard.
"What are you two doing over here, all alone?" Captain Gantrell called out. He came sauntering up, the grin splitting his face only a thin veneer to hide his suspicion.
"Plotting my escape back to Fleeds," Erin said in a jesting tone.
"That wouldn't be wise," Gantrell said, attempting to mimic her light-heartedness and failing miserably. Erin could tell that he had no sense of humor. He looked approvingly to his knights, who had mounted their horses, and were now nearly ready to leave. "Well, let's see if we can make good time while it's still cool."
Erin forced a smile, but she grew more and more uneasy about Gantrell. Instinct warned her that rather than grin politely as if he were some unwelcome courtier, she'd be better off to slit his belly open and strangle him with his own guts.
Erin mounted her horse, exhausted from lack of sleep, and rode through the pre-dawn. Every few miles they passed small contingents of knights, all riding south. Camp followers in the form of smiths, washwomen, and squires rode in wains or trudged down the dusty roads. Drivers rode war wagons filled with lances, arrows, food, and tents, everything one needed for an extended campaign.
After passing a train of twenty ballistas mounted on wheels and drawn by force horses, Erin blithely asked Gantrell, "All this movement before the sun's even up. What country do you plan to invade?"
"Invade, Your Highness?" Gantrell asked. "It is but a normal repositioning of our defenses." He rode close enough so that she had to urge her horse aside, lest they bump legs.
"If you were afraid of invasion," Erin argued, "you would strengthen your fortifications, not mass troops on your southern border. So, who will you invade?"
"I couldn't say, milady," Gantrell answered with a maddening little smirk.
So they rode through the morning. The horses nearly pranced as they raced through the chill. The knights' ring mail chinged like cymbals to the drumming of the horses' hooves, as if making music to accompany some vast empyreal hymn.
Erin's fatigue lent the ride a surreal, dreamlike quality. Some thought South Crowthen to be a beautiful country, and it was true: the trees on the hills danced in particolored raiment of autumn colors, and in the more settled areas Erin would ride round a bend and discover a picturesque stone cottage dozing beneath a sprawling oak or elm. Nearby, a milk cow would crop the grass in some green field misted by morning dew, while stone fences that had stood for longer than men could remember neatly parceled out the quiet farmland. But when she rounded the next corner, she'd see another quaint stone house beneath a sprawling elm, with the milk cow's sister cropping the grass by the barn, and another endless stone fence parceling out the squares of dirt, and on and on and on it went until Erin thought that she would never again admire another cottage or cow or meadow or tree.
So she closed her burning eyes. "I'll only let my eyes rest," she told herself. "I won't sleep."
Erin feared that she would lose her mind. The dreams that came every time she succumbed to sleep were so vivid that she felt that now her horse was galloping through a dream, and when she slept, she would awaken to some truer world.
She dreamt. Only a vague flash of vision, an image of the great owl in its dark burrow. It had moved from its previous roost, and now huddled farther in the shadows. The gray-and-white pattern of its feathers looked like dead leaves plastered above bones.
Erin peered into its unblinking golden eyes, and said, "Leave me alone. I don't want to speak to you."
"You fear me," the owl said, its thoughts piercing her mind with more shades of emotion and insight than mere words could convey. "You need not fear me. I am not your enemy."
"You are madness," Erin said, willing herself to wake. The image faded.
The horses rounded a bend just at sunrise, and Captain Gantrell called, "Troo-oops, haw-aalt!"
Erin opened her eyes, imagining that they were stopping to let another wagon train pass.
Instead, near the road ahead lay a serene little pond covered in morning mist, and above it loomed a purple pavilion with gold trim: royal colors.
King Anders himself knelt beside the pool, his shirt off, washing himself in the cool morning air. He stood tall, lean, almost haggard in appearance, with a skeletal head and only a wisp of beard.
His Days, a historian who chronicled his life, brushed down a horse nearby, preparing to ride.
Near the king a plump old woman dressed in grayish rags squatted on a large rock, while squirrels darted around her in play. She would crack a hazelnut between her tough fingers and then toss it in the air. The squirrels made a game of racing over her shoulders or leaping into her lap to catch the nut before it touched ground.
Celinor nudged Erin, nodded toward the woman. "The Nut Woman, an Earth Warden from Elyan Wood."
In her dreamlike fog, Erin thought it to be one of the strangest scenes in her life.
So, this is mad King Anders, she thought, looking back at the pasty old lord with his sagging breasts--the man I may have to kill.
He didn't look frightening at all.
The king half turned, peering up from his morning ablutions with a frown, as if worried to hear the approach of troops. Yet he spotted Celinor and the frown disintegrated, blossoming into a heartfelt smile.
"My son," King Anders called, his tone conveying only solemn joy. "You've come home!" He grabbed a towel that lay draped over a nearby bush and dried himself as he rushed forward. Celinor leapt from his saddle, and hugged the old man as they met.
The hug was short-lived. Celinor pushed his father away. "What's the meaning of all these troops on the border, Father? Are you going to start a war?"
King Anders managed to look hurt as he answered, "Start a war? My dear lad, I may finish a war, but I've never been known to start one." Anders held his son's hands, but peered over Celinor's shoulder at Erin.
"And who have we here?" he asked. "Erin Connal? Your picture doesn't do you justice, fair lady."
"Thank you," Erin answered, surprised that he would recognize her face from a tiny picture painted on a promise locket nearly a decade past.
King Anders smiled a genuine smile, a smile of welcome and warmth and gratitude. His gray eyes seemed to stare into Erin, through her. He left Celinor, came to gaze upon Erin more fully.
Her horse shied away, but when he reached out and touched it, the animal immediately calmed.
King Anders raised his left hand in the air. "I Choose you, Erin Connal," he said. "I Choose you for the Earth. If ever you are in danger and hear my voice whisper within you, obey it, and I will lead you to safety."
Erin leaned back in her saddle, a grunt of surprise rising from her throat. Of all the words that he could have said, she expected these the least, for he used the very phrase that Gaborn had spoken when, as Earth King, he had Chosen her to be one of his warriors. Could it be that Anders, too, now had the ability to Choose, to select her as one of his soldiers and use the Earth Sight to recognize when she was in danger, then send her warnings?
No, it was blasphemy.
"By what right?" Erin asked. "By what right do you do this?"
"By every right," King Anders said. "I am the Earth King. The Earth has called me to save a seed of mankind through the dark times to come."
Erin stared at King Anders, dumbfounded. His manner seemed perfectly sincere. His gray eyes looked kind, thoughtful, and benevolent. He held himself with certitude. He smiled in a manner disarmingly warm. In physical appearance, he looked nothing like Gaborn. Yet in his bearing, it was as if Gaborn had been reborn in him.
"What do you mean, you're the Earth King?" Celinor asked.
"It happened but yesterday, in the morning. I must confess that I had been feeling strangely for days. I'd sensed that dark times were coming, that great things were afoot, and so I retired to the woods to ponder them. The woods seemed quiet, tense. All of the squirrels were gone. I went searching for the Nut Woman--"
At this, the Nut Woman got off her rock, and ambled over to the party, squirrels prancing madly around her feet.
King Anders continued, "I found her in her cave, packing some dried herbs and whatnot. She told me that she had taken the squirrels to safety, and only returned to get a few things. Then, she led me deep into the woods, to a certain grotto."
The Nut Woman put a hand on the king's shoulder, as if begging him to let her continue the tale. "There," she said, with a voice filled with awe, "the Earth Spirit appeared to us, and warned us that dark times are coming, darker than any this world has ever known. The Earth warned your father: 'Be faithful! Cling to me, and my powers will attend you. Abandon me, and I shall abandon you: as I have abandoned the Earth King before you!'"
Anders turned away as if the thought of a man losing his Earth Powers wounded him to the core. "Poor Gaborn, to be so cursed," Anders lamented. "Dear boy. I fear that all the good he tried to do will turn to evil. I doubted him. But he was called of the Earth, if only for a while. Now I must carry on in his stead, and see if I can undo the great harm I've done him."
Erin stared at them both darkly, unsure what to do, unsure what to think. She'd been prepared to meet a madman, and dispatch him quickly. Yet a niggling worry crept into her mind: What if he really is the Earth King?
The Mouth of the World, Averan thought, as she looked at the gaping cavern. I've flown over it a dozen times and seen the sheep cropping the grass on every hilltop near here. I'm not fifty miles from home.
The memory of home brought an ache to her heart. The reavers had destroyed Keep Haberd a week past. Just about everyone she'd ever known had been killed.
She leapt out of the wagon on legs that were still rubbery from sleep, and landed on the stony ground. To both sides of her lay a rut, as if this were an ancient road. But Averan knew better. She'd landed in the massive footprint of a reaver, the four-toed track of a huge female. It measured a yard in length and four feet in width. Countless other tracks surrounded it.
The "road" was really a reaver trail. A week past, tens of thousands of the monsters had boiled out of the Underworld here and spilled over the countryside. They had worn a rut in the ground sixty to seventy feet wide and several feet deep. Their trail, which wound over hundreds of miles, led through dozens of devastated cities.
Averan planted her staff in the ground, and found herself leaning on it wearily.
"Are you ready to take your endowments?" Gaborn asked as he shouldered his armor.
"You mean I'm going to do it here," Averan inquired, "not in a Dedicates' tower?"
"We're a long way from any towers," Gaborn said. "Iome brought a facilitator and some folk to act as Dedicates. Go find something to eat, and then we'll see to your needs."
Averan pulled her robes tight against her face. The air up so high had an autumn chill to it, and the wind came a bit boisterous, circling this way and that, like a nervous hound. She followed Gaborn to the mouth of the cave.
With each step they took, the singing grew louder. It reverberated from the cavern walls. "Why is everyone singing?"
"They're celebrating," Gaborn said. "The reaver horde has been brought to ground."
No wonder they sing, Averan thought. Seventy thousand reavers vanquished. There hasn't been a battle like that in ages. Still, so much wanton killing--even of reavers--left a sour taste in Averan's mouth.
At the cave's throat at least two hundred men crowded round the bonfire. Most were minor lords out of Mystarria and Heredon, though many were also Knights Equitable who called no man their king, and some were dark-skinned warriors who still wore the yellow colors of far-off Indhopal.
Still, dozens of peasants looked as if they had followed Gaborn's troops in from nearby villages. Most of them wore lambskin jackets and knit woolen hats. Some were just curious farmers and woodsmen out to see the Earth King, but most carried heavy axes and yew longbows, as if eager to swell the ranks of Gaborn's army.
Now that Gaborn had arrived, someone cried, "All hail the Earth King!" and wild cheers erupted.
Averan hung back at the mouth of the cave and glanced up. The flickering light of the bonfire illuminated the smoke-gauzed ceiling where gray-green cave kelp dangled in curtains. An enormous blind-crab crept along the ceiling precariously, clinging to rocks as it fed on kelp.
Even here at the cave's mouth, the flora and fauna of the Underworld looked strange and unearthly. Averan hesitated, for once she stepped into the cave, she feared that she would be leaving the world behind forever, and her journey down would begin.
She glanced back at the star-filled heavens. She breathed deep of the pure mountain air, and listened to the peaceful coo of a wood dove, then stepped over the threshold of the cave. Her journey had begun.
Nearby, a young knight sat on a stone, trying to knock a dent out of his helm. He glanced up at Averan with shining eyes. Local boys were breaking camp--pulling cooking pots from the fire, checking and rechecking their packs. A grizzled knight of Indhopal knelt on the ground with an oilstone, honing the steel bodkins on his arrows.
Everyone bustled about. She felt a sense of urgency, as if these folks had been waiting for Gaborn for more than just a few hours, as if they had been waiting for him for all of their lives.
Binnesman's wylde stood conspicuously among the crowd. He had designed the creature to be a warrior for the Earth. She was one of few women in the group, and she stood holding a war staff of stout oak. She wore buckskin pants and a woolen tunic. To all appearances, she looked like a pretty young woman, but she had a disturbing complexion. Her huge pupils were so dark green they looked almost black, and her hair fell down her shoulders in avocado waves. Her skin, too, seemed to have been dyed a vigorous green, the color of young leaves.
Averan walked over to the wylde. "Hello, Spring," Averan said, calling her by the name she had used ever since she'd first seen the green woman fall from the sky.
"Hello," the wylde replied. Her language skills still were limited. On the other hand, Binnesman had only created the thing a little more than a week ago, and no babe could talk at a week of age.
"How are you feeling today?" Averan asked, hoping to start a conversation.
The green woman gazed at her blankly. After a moment of thought, she said, "I feel like killing something, Averan."
"I feel that way some days, too," Averan said, trying to make light of the answer. But it underscored a difference between the two. Averan had first thought of the green woman as a person, someone who needed her help. But no woman had mothered Spring, and no man had fathered her; Binnesman had fashioned her from roots and stones and the blood of the Earth. Averan could never really be her friend, because the green woman only wanted one thing in life: to hunt down and kill the enemies of the Earth.
Averan had thought that there might be two hundred warriors when she walked into the cave, but now she saw that she had underestimated the size of the band by at least half, for many men could be seen hovering about farther back into the tunnel, deeper in the shadows. The sight gave her some confidence. She would want all of the Runelords that she could find marching at her back as she led them into the Underworld.
She felt worn to the bone. For the past week, ever since she'd fled the reaver attack on Keep Haberd, she'd been pushing herself hard.
Averan went to the fire, where some farm boy shoved a plate in her hand. A knight carved a slab of meat from a roasting mutton and slapped it on her plate, then scooped buttered parsnips and bread pudding from a pair of iron kettles.
It was fine food for such a rough camp, a veritable feast. The knights here were serving their best, for this might well be the last decent meal they ever had. Averan took the fare and began looking for a bare rock to sit on.
She went to a shadowed corner of the cave, where dozens of others were eating, squatted in the sand. She hunched over her plate. Here, at her back, a few feather ferns grew. She cut a bite of mutton, then happened to glance up.
Every man within twenty feet seemed to be watching her. Their faces showed undisguised wonder mingled with curiosity. Embarrassment warmed her cheeks.
So, she realized. They've all been talking about me. They knew that she had tasted reaver's brain and had learned their secrets in doing so.
She skewered the mutton with her knife, took a bite. The succulent lamb had been delicately seasoned with rosemary and basted in a honey-mint sauce.
"Not as good as broiled reavers' brains," Averan mused aloud, "but it will have to do."
Several farmers laughed overloud at the jest, even though it wasn't very funny. At least she'd managed to break the tension. Suddenly conversations started up again. Averan began chewing in earnest when a beefy palm slapped her on the back.
"Need some ale to wash it down?" Someone thrust a tin mug into her hands. She recognized the voice and choked out a cry of surprise. "Brand?"
Beastmaster Brand, her old friend, stood above her, grinning hugely. He stretched his one arm wide, inviting her in to hug, and Averan leapt up and grabbed him around the neck.
"I thought you were dead!" she cried.
"You weren't the only one," he laughed. "I thought I was as good as dead a few times myself."
The laugh sounded genuine enough, but not as carefree as it would have a week ago. Averan heard pain in it.
She gazed at him. Brand had been her tutor. He'd taken Averan in as a child and taught her to ride graaks at the aerie in Keep Haberd. He'd taught her to read and write, so that she could deliver the duke's messages. He'd trained her in the care and feeding of graaks. For such kindness alone, she would have been eternally grateful. But he'd been more than a master. He'd been a mother and father, lord and family, and dearest friend. The relief she felt at seeing him again, the sheer joy, brought a flood of tears to her eyes.
"Oh, Brand, how did you escape? When last I saw you…the reavers--"
"Were charging toward the keep," Brand said. In her mind's eye, Averan relived the moment. They'd been high above Keep Haberd, where she could look down over the castle walls and see the reavers charging. The reaver horde had charged in such vast numbers, and at such a fast pace, that he could not possibly have escaped.
"I set you aback old Leatherneck, and sent you into the sky," Brand said. "Then freed the last of the graaks from their tethers.
"Afterward, I just stood on the landing, looking down over the city. The reavers came in a stampede, and the world shook beneath them. They were like a black flood, rushing down the canyon. Most of the graaks fled. But young Brightwing, she kept circling the aerie, crying out, all mournful.
"The reavers hit the castle wall, and never even slowed. Our ballistas, our knights…" He shook his head sadly. "The reavers just shoved the walls down and rushed through the streets. Some folks tried to run, others to hide. The reavers were taking them all.
"With naught but one arm, I couldn't fight. So I stood there, waiting for the reavers to eat me, when all of a sudden something hits me hard from behind. The next thing I know, Brightwing is lifting me above the fray. She has my leather vest in her claws, you see.
"Now, I'm a fat old man, and I think that she's going to carry me to my death. But Brightwing flaps viciously and lugs me over the valley as if I were some young pig that she had a notion to eat. She wings along, and it seems to me that she's dropping faster than she's flying."
Averan stared in wonder. "How far? How far did she take you?"
"A mile and a half," Brand answered. "Maybe two."
Averan knew that the graaks could carry more than just the weight of a child. She'd seen old Leatherneck lift a bull calf out of a field, and the calf couldn't have weighed much less than Brand. And she'd heard that mother graaks would sometimes carry their enormous chicks from one nest to another, if the nest seemed to be in danger. But graaks could never bear such weight for any great distance.
"She must have taken you downwind from the castle." Averan knew full well that if they'd gone upwind, even at a distance of two miles, the reavers would have smelled him.
"Aye," Brand said. "That she did. And I had the good sense to stay put until the horde had passed."
"What of the rest of the town?" Averan asked.
Brand shook his head sadly. "Gone. A few got out on fast horses--Duke Haberd and some of his cronies--" He bit off the words he wanted to say, his voice choked with outrage at such an act of cowardice.
"But what of your adventures?" Brand asked more brightly, changing the subject. "You've grown much since last I saw you."
"Grown?" she asked. "In only a week?"
"Aye, you may not be a hair taller, but you've grown much indeed." He reached out and touched her robes. The old blue skyrider's robes were covered with tiny roots, as if seeds had sprouted in the wet fabric. Indeed, one could hardly see a trace of the blue wool anymore. The roots were twining together, forming a solid new fabric. It would be her wizard's robe, the garment that, as an Earth Warden, would hide her and protect her from dangers.
"Yes," Averan said. "I guess I have grown." She felt sad when she said it. She hadn't grown taller, but she felt a thousand years old. She'd seen too many innocent people die in the battles at Carris and Feldonshire. She'd seen more wonders and horrors in a week than she should have seen in a lifetime. And all of it had transformed her, awakened the green earth blood that flowed through her veins. She was no longer human. She was a wizardess with powers that mystified her as much as they did those around her.
Brand smiled broadly and said in a husky voice, "I'm so happy.…" He clasped her around the neck and just held her for a moment.
Then he pulled back, and his face became all business again. "So, you're going into the Underworld, are you?" Averan nodded. Brand seemed to be studying her. He continued, "I'd come with you, if I could. But I'm afraid that with naught but one arm, I'd be of no use. Sure, I can carry a pack full of food as well as the next man, but…"
"It's all right," Averan said.
"The thing is," Brand said, "there are other ways that I can help. I'm a strong man, Averan, always have been. I want you to have my strength."
Averan swallowed hard and blinked back a tear. "You want to be my Dedicate?"
"Not just me," Brand said. He nodded toward some of the local woodsmen sitting in the cave. "Lots of us would give anything to help--anything. We might not be worthy to march beside folks like you and Gaborn as Runelords, but we will do what we can. The king's facilitators has brought hundreds of forcibles!"
"I don't want to hurt you," Averan said. "What if you died, trying to give me your strength?"
"I think that I would die of a broken heart if you didn't take it, and that would be worse.…"
"I couldn't bear it," Averan said. "I couldn't bear the thought of finding you now just to lose you again."
"If you won't take an endowment from me," Brand warned, "I'll give it to someone else."
Averan wanted to argue, but at that moment a facilitator hurried from the back of the cave. "Averan," he called. He wore black pants and a black half cloak, with the silver chains of his office upon his neck. As she got up, Averan looked down sadly at Brand, and stumbled through the crowd. She followed the facilitator's billowing black robes into the recesses of the cave. He said, "His Highness has sought a great many endowments for you, child. Twenty endowments of scent from dogs we found, and twenty of stamina, eight each of grace and brawn, twelve of metabolism, ten each of sight and hearing, five of touch."
Averan's head spun at the news, at the sacrifices others would have to make. She'd leave dozens of people blind, mute, or otherwise deprived of vital powers.
Perhaps as horrific would be the changes that the endowments wrought upon her. With twelve endowments of metabolism, she'd be able to move faster than others, to run fifty miles in an hour, though to her it would only seem that time had slowed. Each day she would age nearly two weeks. Each year, her body would be more than a dozen years older. In a decade, she would be an old, old woman, if she lived at all.
He led Averan to a corner back in the cave where a dozen potential Dedicates squatted. The facilitator had seven forcibles--small branding irons made of blood metal--laid out on a satin pillow. His apprentices already had a girl on her back and were coaxing the sight from her. She seemed a small thing, not much older than Averan. She had kinky blond hair, a thin face. Beads of sweat were breaking on her brow. One apprentice sang in a piping voice and held the forcible to her arm while the other whispered words of encouragement. "Here she comes now," the facilitator's apprentice whispered in an urgent voice, "the hope of mankind, she who must guide our lord through the Underworld, through the dark places. It is your sight that will let her see, your sacrifice that will give us hope of success."
Hope of success? Averan wondered. The task ahead seemed daunting. The paths through the Underworld were as tangled as a massive ball of yarn. And what could she do when she reached her destination? Kill the lord of the Underworld?
I'm not ready for this, Averan thought desperately.
But the facilitator's apprentice kept it up, this litany, and the girl stared at Averan with pleading eyes. "Save me," she mouthed to Averan. "Save us all."
I'm the last thing she will ever see, Averan realized. And with her gift, my eyes will pierce the deep shadows. I shall be able to count the veins in the wings of a moth at a dozen paces.
Averan went forward timidly, and took the girl's hand. "Thank you," Averan said. "I'll do…everything that I can."
At that, the forcible blazed white hot, and the girl screamed in pain. Her pupils seemed to shrivel like prunes and go white before her eyes rolled back in her head. The girl fell backward, dazed with pain, and the facilitator's apprentice pulled the forcible away. A white puckering scar showed the rune for sight branded on her arm.
The facilitator's apprentice waved the glowing tip of the forcible in the air experimentally. It left a white trail, like living fire, snaking in its wake. Yet the trail remained hanging in the air long after the forcible had passed. He studied the glow, the width and breadth of it, and then looked to the master facilitator for approval.
"Well done," the facilitator said. "Continue."
The apprentice reached down to Averan and slid the sleeve of her robe up, revealing the scars from endowments taken in the past. With all of her former Dedicates dead, the scars had all gone gray.
The facilitator's apprentice once again began his birdlike singing and pressed the forcible to Averan's flesh. The glowing white trail broke off at the Dedicate's arm, and flowed into Averan. As it did, the blood metal flared white, and then dissolved into dust.
Averan felt the indescribable ecstasy that comes from taking an endowment, and as the endowments of sight flowed into her, it seemed as if the dingy cave exploded into brightness.
After that nothing would ever look the same again.
Copyright © 2003 by David Farland