Tiamak found the empty treelessness of the High Thrithing oppressive. Kwanitupul was strange, too, but he had been visiting that place since childhood, and its tumbledown buildings and ubiquitous waterways at least reminded him a little of his marshy home. Even Perdruin, where he had spent time in lonely exile, was so filled with close-leaning walls and narrow pathways, so riddled with shadowy hiding places and blanketed in the salt smell of the sea, that Tiamak had been able to live with his homesickness. But here on the grasslands he felt tremendously exposed and utterly out of place. It was not a comforting feeling.
They Who Watch and Shape have indeed made a strange life for me, he often reflected. The strangest, perhaps, of any they have made for my people since Nuobdig married the Fire Sister.
Sometimes there was solace in this thought. To have been marked out for such unusual events was, after all, a sort of repayment for the years of misunderstanding that his own people and the drylanders on Perdruin had shown him. Of course he was not understood–he was special: what other Wrannaman could speak and read the drylander tongues as he could? But lately, surrounded again by strangers, and with no knowledge of what had happened to his own folk, it filled him with loneliness. At such times, disturbed by the emptiness of these queer northern surroundings, he would walk down to the river that ran through the middle of the camp to sit and listen to the calming, familiar sounds of the water-world.
He had been doing just that, dangling his brown feet in the Stefflod despite the chill of water and wind, and was returning to camp a little heartened, when a shape flashed past him. It was someone running, pale hair streaming, but whoever it was seemed to move as swiftly as a dragonfly, far faster than anyone human should travel. Tiamak had only a moment to stare after the fleeing form before another dark shape swept past. It was a bird, a large one, flying low to the ground as though the first figure was its prey.
As both shapes vanished up the slope toward the heart of the prince’s encampment, Tiamak stood in stunned amazement. It took some moments for him to realize who the first shape had been.
The Sitha-woman! he thought. Chased by a hawk or an owl?
It made no sense, but then she–Aditu was her name–made little sense to Tiamak either. She was like nothing he had ever seen and, in fact, frightened him a little. But what could be chasing her? From the look on her face she had been running from something dreadful.
Or to something dreadful, he realized, and felt his stomach clench. She had been heading toward the camp.
He Who Always Steps on Sand, Tiamak prayed as he set out, protect me–protect us all from evil. His heart was beating swiftly now, faster than the pace of his running feet. This is an ill-omened year!
For a moment, as he reached the nearest edge of the vast field of tents, he was reassured. It was quiet, and few campfires burned. But there was too much quiet, he decided a moment later. It was not early, but still well before midnight. People should be about, or at least there should be some noise from those not yet asleep. What could be wrong?
It had been long moments since he had caught his most recent glimpse of the swooping bird–he was certain now it was an owl–and he hobbled on in the direction he had last seen it, his breath now coming in harsh gasps. His injured leg was not used to running, and it burned him, throbbed. He did his best to ignore it.
Quiet, quiet–it was still as a stagnant pond here. The tents stood, dark and lifeless as the stones drylanders set in fields where they buried their dead.
But there! Tiamak felt his stomach turn again. There was movement! One of the tents not far away shook as though in a wind, and some light inside it threw strange moving shadows onto the walls.
Even as he saw it he felt a tickling in his nostrils, a sort of burning, and with it came a sweet, musky scent. He sneezed convulsively and almost tripped, but caught himself before falling to the ground. He limped toward the tent, which pulsed with light and shadow as though some monstrous thing was being born inside. He tried to raise his voice to cry out that he was coming and to raise an alarm, for his fear was rising higher and higher–but he could not make a sound. Even the painful rasp of his breathing had become faint and whispery.
The tent, too, was strangely silent. Pushing down his fright, he caught at the flap and threw it back.
At first he could see nothing more than dark shapes and bright light, almost an exact reflection of the shadow puppets on the outside walls of the tent. Within a few instants, the moving images began to come clear.
At the tent’s far wall stood Camaris. He seemed to have been struck, for blood rilled from some cut on his head, staining his cheek and hair black, and he reeled as though his wits had been addled. Still, bowed and leaning against the fabric for support, he was yet fierce, like a bear beset by hounds. He had no blade, but held a piece of firewood clenched in one fist and waved it back and forth, holding off a menacing shape that was almost all black but for a flash of white hands and something that glinted in one of those hands.
Kicking near Camaris’ feet was an even less decipherable muddle, although Tiamak thought he saw more black-clothed limbs, as well as the pale nimbus of Aditu’s hair. A third dark-clad attacker huddled in the corner, warding off a swooping, fluttering shadow.
Terrified, Tiamak tried to raise his voice to call for help, but could make no sound. Indeed, despite what seemed to be life-or-death struggles, the entire tent was silent but for the muffled sounds of the two combatants on the floor and the hectic flapping of wings.
Why can’t I hear? Tiamak thought desperately. Why can’t I make a sound?
Frantic, he searched the floor for something to use as a weapon, cursing himself that he had carelessly left his knife behind in the sleeping-place he shared with Strangyeard. No knife, no sling-stones, no blow-darts-nothing! She Who Waits to Take All Back had surely sung his song tonight.
Something vast and soft seemed to strike him in the head, sending Tiamak to his knees, but when he looked up, the several battles still raged, none of them near him. His skull was throbbing even more painfully than his leg and the sweet smell was chokingly strong. Dizzy, Tiamak crawled forward and his hand encountered something hard. It was the knight’s sword, black Thorn, still sheathed. Tiamak knew it was far too heavy for him to use, but he dragged it out from beneath the tangle of bedding and stood, as unsteady now on his feet as Camaris. What was in the air?
The sword, unexpectedly, seemed light in his hands, despite the heavy scabbard and dangling belt. He raised it high and took a few steps forward, then swung it as hard as he could at what he thought was the head of Camaris’ attacker. The impact shivered up his arm, but the thing did not fall. Instead, the head turned slowly. Two eyes, shining black, stared out of the corpse-white face. Tiamak’s throat moved convulsively. Even had his voice remained, he could not have made a sound. He lifted his shaking arms, holding the sword up to strike again, but the thing’s white hand flashed out and Tiamak was knocked backward. The room whirled away from him; the sword flew from his nerveless fingers and tumbled to the grass that was the tent’s only floor.
Tiamak’s head was as heavy as stone, but he could not otherwise feel the pain of the blow. What he could feel were his wits slipping away. He tried to lift himself to his feet once more but only got as far as his knees. He crouched, shaking like a sick dog.
He could not speak but, cursedly, could still see. Camaris was stumbling, wagging his head–as damaged, seemingly, as Tiamak. The old man was trying to hold off his attacker long enough to reach something on the ground–the sword, the Wrannaman realized groggily, the black sword. Camaris was prevented from reaching it as much by the dark, contorted forms of Aditu and her enemy rolling on the ground beneath him as by the foe he was trying to keep at bay with his firelog club.
In the other corner, something glittered in the hand of one of the pale-faced things, a shining something red as a crescent of firelight. The scarlet gleam moved, swift as a striking snake, and a tiny cloud of dark shapes exploded outward, then drifted to the ground, slower than snowflakes. Tiamak squinted helplessly as one settled on his hand. It was a feather. An owl’s feather.
Help. Tiamak’s skull felt as though it had been staved in. We need help. We will die if no one helps us.
Camaris at last bent and caught up the sword, almost over-balancing, then managed to lift Thorn in time to hold off a strike by his enemy. The two of them circled each other, Camaris stumbling, the black-clad attacker moving with cautious grace. They fell together once more, and one of the old knight’s hands shot out and pushed away a dagger blow, but the blade left a trail of blood down his arm. Camaris fell back clumsily, trying to find room to swing his sword. His eyes were half-closed with pain or fatigue.
He is hurt, Tiamak thought desperately. The throbbing in his head grew stronger. Maybe dying. Why does no one come?
The Wrannaman dragged himself toward the wide brazier of coals that provided the only light. His dimming senses were beginning to wink out like the lamps of Kwanitupul at dawn. Only a dim fragment of an idea was in his mind, but it was enough to lift his hand toward the iron brazier. When he felt–as dimly as a distant echo–the heat of the thing against his fingers, he pushed. The brazier tumbled over, scattering coals like a waterfall of rubies.
As Tiamak collapsed, choking, the last things he saw were his own soot-blackened hand curled like a spider and, beyond it, an army of tiny flames licking at the bottom of the tent wall.
“We don’t need any more damnable questions,” Isgrimnur grumbled. “We have enough to last three lifetimes. What we need are answers.”
Binabik made an uncomfortable gesture. “I am agreeing with you. Duke Isgrimnur. But answers are not like a sheep that is coming when a person calls.”
Josua sighed and leaned back against the wall of Isgrimnur’s tent. Outside, the wind rose for a moment, moaning faintly as it vibrated the tent ropes. “I know how difficult it is, Binabik. But Isgrimnur is right-we need answers. The things you told us about this Conqueror Star have only added to the confusion. What we need to know is how to use the three Great Swords. All that the star tells us–if you are right–is that our time to wield them is running out.”
“That is what we are giving the largest attention to, Prince Josua,” said the troll. “And we think we may perhaps be learning something soon, for Strangyeard has found something that is of importantness.”
“What is that?” Josua asked, leaning forward. “Anything, man, anything would be heartening.”
Father Strangyeard, who had been sitting quietly, squirmed a little. “I am not as sure as Binabik, Highness, that it is of any use. I found the first of it some time ago, while we were still traveling to Sesuad’ra.”
“Strangyeard was finding a passage that is written in Morgenes’ book,” Binabik amplified, “something about the three swords that are so much concerning us.”
“And?” Isgrimnur tapped his fingers on his muddy knee. He had spent a long time trying to secure his tentstakes in the loose, damp ground.
“What Morgenes seems to suggest,” the archivist said, “is that what makes the three swords special–no, more than special, powerful–is that they are not of Osten Ard. Each of them, in some way, goes against the laws of God and Nature.”
“How so?” The prince was listening intently. Isgrimnur saw a little ruefully that these sorts of inquiries would always interest Josua more than the less exotic business of being a ruler, such as grain prices and taxes and the laws of freeholding.
Strangyeard was hesitant. “Geloe could explain better than I. She knows more of these things.”
“She should have been coming here by now,” Binabik said. “I wonder if we should be waiting for her.”
“Tell me what you can,” said Josua. “It has been a very long day and I am growing weary. Also, my wife is ill and I do not like being away from her.”
“Of course. Prince Josua. I’m sorry. Of course.” Strangyeard gathered himself. “Morgenes tells that there is something in each sword that is not of Osten Ard–not of our earth. Thorn is made from a stone that fell from the sky. Bright-Nail, which was once Minneyar, was forged from the iron keel of Elvrit’s ship that came over the sea from the West. Those are lands that our ships can no longer find.” He cleared his throat. “And Sorrow is of both iron and the Sithi witchwood, two things that are inimical. The witchwood itself, Aditu tells me, came over as seedlings from the place that her people call the Garden. None of these things should be here, and also, none of them should be workable…except perhaps the pure iron of Elvrit’s keel.”
“So how were these swords made, then?” asked Josua. “Or is that the answer you still seek?”
“There is something that Morgenes is mentioning,” Binabik offered. “It is also written in one of Ookekuq’s scrolls. It is called a Word of Making–a magic spell is what we might be naming it, although those who are knowing the Art do not use those words.”
“A Word of Making?” Isgrimnur frowned. “Just a word?”
“Yes…and no,” Strangyeard said unhappily. “In truth, we are not sure. But Minneyar we know was made by the dwarrows–the dvernings as you would call them in your own tongue, Duke Isgrimnur–and Sorrow was made by Ineluki in the dwarrow forges beneath Asu’a. The dwarrows alone had the lore to make such mighty things, although Ineluki learned it. Perhaps they had a hand in Thorn’s forging as well, or their lore was used somehow. In any case, it is possible that if we knew the way in which the swords were created, how the binding of forces was accomplished, it might teach us something about how we can use them against the Storm King.”
“I wish I had thought to question Count Eolair more carefully when he was here,” said Josua, frowning. “He had met the dwarrows.”
“Yes, and they told him of their part in the history of Bright-Nail,” Father Strangyeard added. “It is also possible, however, that it is not the making of them that is important for our purpose, but just the fact that they exist. Still, if we have some chance in the future to send word to the dwarrows, and if they will speak with us, I for one would have many questions.”
Josua looked at the archivist speculatively. “This chore suits you, Strangyeard. I always thought you were wasted dusting books and searching out the most obscure points of canon law.”
The priest reddened. “Thank you, Prince Josua. Whatever I can do is because of your kindness.”
The prince waved his hand, dismissing the compliment. “Still, as much as you and Binabik and the rest have accomplished, there is still far more to do. We remain afloat in deep waters, praying for a sight of land…” He paused. “What is that noise?”
Isgrimnur had noticed it, too, a rising murmur that had slowly grown louder than the wind. “It sounds like an argument,” he said, then waited for a moment, listening. “No, it is more than that–there are too many voices.” He stood. “Dror’s Hammer, I hope that someone has not started a rebellion.” He reached for Kvalnir and was calmed by its reassuring heft. “I had hoped for a quiet day tomorrow before we are to ride again.”
Josua clambered to his feet. “Let us not sit here and wonder.”
As Isgrimnur stepped out of the door flap, his eyes were abruptly drawn across the vast camp. It was plain in an instant what was happening.
“Fire!” he called to the others as they spilled out after him. “At least one tent burning badly, but it looks like a few more have caught, too.” People were now rushing about between the tents, shadowy figures that shouted and gesticulated. Men dragged on their sword belts, cursing in confusion. Mothers dragged screaming children out of their blankets and carried them into the open air. All the pathways were full of terrified, milling campfolk. Isgrimnur saw one old woman fall to her knees, crying, although she was only a few paces from where he stood, a long distance from the nearest flames.
“Aedon save us!” said Josua. “Binabik, Strangyeard, call for buckets and waterskins, then take some of these mad-wandering folk and head for the river–we need water! Better yet, pull down some of the oiled tents and see how much water you can carry in them!” He sprang away toward the conflagration; Isgrimnur hastened after him.
The flames were leaping high now, filling the night sky with a hellish orange light. As he and Josua approached the fire, a flurry of dancing sparks sailed out, hissing as they caught in Isgrimnur’s beard. He beat them out, cursing.
Tiamak awakened and promptly threw up, then struggled to catch his breath. His head was hammering like a Perdruinese church bell.
There were flames all around him, beating hot against his skin, sucking away the air. In a blind panic, he dragged himself across the crisping grass of the tent floor toward what looked like a patch of cool darkness, only to find his face pushed up against some black, slippery fabric. He struggled with it for a moment, dimly noting its strange resistance; then it flopped aside, exposing a white face buried in the black hood. The eyes were turned up, and blood slicked the lips. Tiamak tried to scream, but his mouth was full of burning smoke and his own bile. He rolled away, choking.
Suddenly, something grabbed at his arm and he was yanked forward violently, dragged across the pale-skinned corpse and through a wall of flame. For a moment he thought he was dead. Something was thrown over him, and he was rolled and pummeled with the same swift violence that had carried him away, then whatever covered him was lifted and he found himself lying on wet grass. Flames licked at the sky close beside him, but he was safe. Safe!
“The Wrannaman is alive,” someone said near him. He thought he recognized the Sitha-woman’s lilting tones, although her voice was now almost sharp with fear and worry. “Camaris dragged him out. How the knight managed to stay awake after he had been poisoned I will never know, but he killed two of the Hikeda’ya.” There was an unintelligible response.
After he had lain in place for a few long moments, just breathing the clean air into his painful lungs, Tiamak rolled over. Aditu stood a few paces away, her white hair blackened and her golden face streaked with grime. Beneath her on the ground lay the forest woman Geloe, partially wrapped in a cloak, but obviously naked beneath it, her muscular legs shiny with dew or sweat. As Tiamak watched, she struggled to sit up.
“No, you must not,” Aditu said to her, then took a step backward. “By the Grove, Geloe, you are wounded.”
With a trembling effort, Geloe lifted her head. “No,” she said. Tiamak could barely hear her voice, a throaty whisper. “I am dying.”
Aditu leaned forward, reaching out to her. “Let me help you….”
“No!” Geloe’s voice grew stronger. “No, Aditu, it is…too late. I have been stabbed…a dozen times.” She coughed and a thin trickle of something dark ran down her chin, glinting in the light of the burning tents. Tiamak stared. He saw what he took to be Camaris’ feet and legs behind her, the rest of the knight’s long form stretched out in the grass hidden by her shadow. “I must go.” Geloe tried to clamber to her feet but could not do so.
“There might be something …” Aditu began.
Geloe laughed weakly, then coughed again and spat out a gobbet of blood. “Do you think I…do not…know?” she said. “I have been a healer for…a long time.” She held out a shaking hand. “Help me. Help me up.”
Aditu’s face, which for a moment had seemed as stricken as any mortal’s, grew solemn. She took Geloe’s hand, then leaned forward and clasped her other arm as well. The wise woman slowly rose to her feet; she swayed, but Aditu supported her.
“I must…go. I do not wish to die here.” Geloe pushed away from Aditu and took a few staggering steps. The cloak fell away, exposing her nakedness to the leaping firelight. Her skin was slick with sweat and great smears of blood. “I will go back to my forest. Let me go while I still can.”
Aditu hesitated a moment longer, then stepped back and lowered her head. “As you wish, Valada Geloe. Farewell, Ruyan’s Own. Farewell…my friend. Sinya’a du-n’sha e-d’treyesa inro.”
Trembling, Geloe raised her arms, then took another step. The heat from the flames seemed to grow more intense, for Tiamak, where he lay, saw Geloe begin to shimmer. Her outline grew insubstantial, then a cloud of shadow or smoke seemed to appear where she stood. For a moment, the very night seemed to surge inward toward the spot, as though a stitch had been taken in the fabric of the Wrannaman’s vision. Then the night was whole again.
The owl circled slowly for a moment where Geloe had been, then flew off, close above the wind-tossed grasses. Its movements were stiff and awkward, and several times it seemed that it must lose the wind and fall tumbling to the earth, but its lurching flight continued until the night sky had swallowed it.
His head still full of murk and painful clangor, Tiamak slumped back. He was not sure what he had seen, but he knew that something terrible had happened. A great sadness lurked just out of his reach. He was in no hurry to bring it closer.
What had been the thin sound of voices in the distance became a raucous shouting. Legs moved past him; the night seemed suddenly full of movement. There was a rush and sizzle of steam as someone threw a pail of water into the flames of what had been Camaris’ tent.
A few moments later he felt Aditu’s strong hands under his arms. “You will be trampled, brave marsh man,” she said into his ear, then pulled him farther away from the conflagration, into the cool darkness beside some tents untouched by the blaze. She left him there, then returned shortly with a water skin. The Sitha pressed it against his cracked lips until he understood what it was, then left him to drink–which he did, greedily.
A dark shadow loomed, then abruptly sank down beside him. It was Camaris. His silvery hair, like Aditu’s, was scorched and blackened. Haunted eyes stared from his ash-smeared face. Tiamak handed him the water skin, then prodded him until he lifted it to his lips.
“God have mercy on us…” Camaris croaked. He stared dazedly at the spreading fires and the shouting mob that was trying to douse them.
Aditu returned and sat down beside them. When Camaris offered her the water skin, she took it from him and downed a single swallow before handing it back.
“Geloe…?” Tiamak asked.
Aditu shook her head. “Dying. She has gone away.”
“Who…” It was still hard to speak. Tiamak almost did not want to, but he suddenly felt a desire to know, to have some reasons with which to balance off the terrible events. He also needed something–words if nothing else–to fill the emptiness inside of him. He took the skin bag from Camaris and moistened his throat. “Who was it…?”
“The Hikeda’ya,” she said, watching the efforts to quell the flames. “The Norns. That was Utuk’ku’s long arm that reached out tonight.”
© 1993 by Tad Williams. All rights reserved.
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