Young Ostrael of Runchester stood shivering on the curtain wall and reflected on what his



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She struck at him, and he caught her arm. She was strong despite her slendemess, and she slapped him twice with her other hand before he could roll atop her and pinion her.
"Peace, lady, peace!" he said, and then laughed, although his face stung. Vorzheva scowled and struggled. "You are right," he said. "I have done you insult, and I ask your apology. I sue for peace." He leaned down and kissed her on the neck, and then again on her anger-reddened cheek.
"Come nearer and I will bite you," she hissed. Her body trembled against his. "I was frightened for you when you went to battle, Josua. I thought you would die."
"I was no less frightened, my lady. There is much in the world to fear."
"And now you feel you are alone."
"One can be lonely," the prince said, offering his lip to be bitten, "in the highest and best of company."
Her arm, now free, closed around his neck to pull him closer. The moonlight silvered their intertwined limbs.
^
Josua dropped his bone spoon back into the soup bowl, and angrily watched the small eddies wash back and forth across the surface. The dining hall hummed with the rush of many voices.
"I cannot eat. I must know!"
Vorzheva, eating in silence, but with her usual good appetite, shot him a disquieted glance down the table.
"Whatever is happening, my prince," Deornoth said shyly, "you must have your strength."
"You will need it to speak to your people. Prince Josua," Isorn commented around a mouthful of bread. "They are upset and puzzled. The king is gone. Why no celebration?"
"You know damnably well why not!" Josua snapped, then raised his hand to his temple in pain. "Surely you can see it is some trap—that Elias would not give up so easily?"
"I suppose," said Isorn, but did not seem convinced. "That does not mean the people who have been crowded in the inner keep like cattle—" he gestured with a large hand at the milling folks pressed around the prince's table on all sides, most sitting on the floor or against the walls of the dining halls, chairs too precious for any but the noblest, —"that they will understand. Take it from one who spent a hellish winter snowbound in Elvritshalla." Isorn bit off another great hunk of bread.
Josua sighed and turned to Jarnauga. The old man, his serpent tattoos strangely mobile in the lantemlight, was deep in conversation with Father Strangyeard.
"Jarnauga," the prince said quietly. "You said you wished to talk to me of a dream you had."
The old Rimmersgarder excused himself from the priest. "Yes, Josua," he answered, leaning close, "but perhaps we should wait until we might speak privately." He cocked an ear to the clamor of the dining hall. "Then again, no one could eavesdrop in here even if he sat under your chair." He showed a frosty smile.
"I have had dreams again," he said at last, eyes jewel-bright beneath his brows. "I have no power to summon them, but they sometimes come unbidden. Something has happened to the company sent to Urmsheim."
"Something?" Josua's face was shadowed, slack.
"I only dreamed," Jarnauga said defensively, "but I felt a great rupture—pain and terror—and I felt the boy Simon calling out... calling out in fear and anger... and something else..."
"Could what has happened to them be the cause of the storm you saw this morning?" the prince asked leadenly, as if hearing bad news long expected.
"I do not think so. Urmsheim is in a range farther east, behind Drorshull lake and across the Wastes."
"Are they alive?"
"I have no way of knowing. It was a dream, and a short, strange one at that."
They walked later in silence on the high castle walls. The wind had rolled the clouds away, and the moon turned the deserted town below to bone and parchment. Staring out in to the black northern sky, Josua exhaled steamily.
"So even the faint hope of Thom is gone."
"I did not say so."
"You had no need. And I suppose you and Strangyeard are no nearer to discovering what has become of Fingil's sword Minneyar?"
"Sadly, no."
"Then what more needs to be done to assure our downfall. God has played a cruel joke on..." Josua broke off as the old man clenched his arm.
"Prince Josua," he said, gazing squint-eyed at the horizon, "you convince me never to taunt the gods, even those who are not your own." He sounded shaken, old for the first time.
"What do you mean?"
"You asked what more could be done to us?" The old man snorted in bitter humor. "The storm clouds, that black storm in the north? It is moving toward us—and very swiftly, too."
^
Young Ostrael of Runchester stood shivering on the curtain wall and reflected on what his father had once said.
" 'Tis good t'serve thy prince. Tha 'll see a bit o'th' world as soldier, boy." Firsfram had told him, folding his leathery farmer's hand over his son's shoulder, even as his mother, red-eyed, silently watched. "Maybe an' tha'll go t'Southern Islands, or down Nabban-way, an' get thasel' out o' this be-damned Frostmarch wind."
His father was gone now. He'd disappeared last winter, dragged off by wolves during that terrible cold Decander... wolves or something else, for no trace of him was ever found. And Firsfram's son, the southern life still untasted, stood on a wall in the freezing wind, and felt the cold penetrating his very heart.
Ostrael's mother and sisters huddled below, with hundreds of the other dispossessed, in makeshift barracks inside Naglimund's heavy stone keep. The walls of the keep provided far better shelter from the wind than did Ostrael's high perch, but even stone walls, no matter how thick, could not keep out the dreadful music of the approaching storm.
His eyes were drawn, fearfully but irresistibly, up to the dark blot roiling on the horizon, spreading as it came like gray ink poured into water. It was a smear, a blank space, as if something had rubbed away the stuff of reality. It was a spot where the very sky seemed to tilt, fimneling the clouds downward into a slow-swirling mass like the tail of a whirlpool. From time to time bright prickles of lightning leaped across the top of the storm. And always, always, there was the horrible sound of drumming, distant as a spatter of rain on a thick roof, insistent as the chattering of OstraePs teeth.
The hot air and fabled sun-dotted hills of Nabban seemed more and more to Firsfram's son like the Book-stories told by priests, a bit of imaginary comfort to drag one along, to hide the terror of inescapable death.
The storm came on, throbbing with drums like a hive of wasps.
^
Deornoth's lantern guttered in the stiff wind and nearly flickered out; he shielded it with his cloak until the flame grew steady once more. Beside him, Isorn Isgrimnurson stared out into the cold, lightning-scratched darkness.
"God's Tree! It's black as night," Deornoth groaned. "Just past noon, yet I can scarcely see at all."
Isorn's mouth opened, a dark slash in his pale, lantern-lit face, but no sound came out. His jaw worked.
"All will be well," Deornoth said, frightened himself by the strong young Rimmersman's fear. " 'Tis just a storm—some evil, petty trick of Pryrates'..." Even as he said it he felt sure it was a he. The black clouds that masked the sun, dragging night to the very gates of Naglimund, brought with them a dread that pressed on his very being like a weight, like the stone lid of a casket. What magician's summoning was this, what mere wizardry, that could push an icy spear of horror right into his very guts?
The storm trudged toward them, a clot of darkness spreading far beyond the castle walls on either side, looming above the highest battlements, shot through with the blue-white flicker of lightning. The huddled town and countryside leaped into relief for a moment, then vanished again in the murk. The throbbing of drumbeats echoed against the curtain wall.
As the lightning flashed once more, momentarily counterfeiting the stolen daylight, Deornoth saw something that caused him to turn and grasp Isorn's broad arm so tightly the Rimmersman winced.
"Get the prince," Deornoth's voice was hollow.
Isorn looked up, his superstitious fear of the storm overcome by the strangeness of Deornoth's manner. The young knight's face had gone slack, empty like a meal bag, even as his fingernails drew an unnoticed rill of blood from Isorn's arm.
"What... what is it?"
"Get Prince Josua," Deornoth repeated. "Go!"
The Rimmersman, with a backward glance at his friend, made the sign of the Tree and staggered along the battlement toward the stairs.
Numb, heavy as lead, Deornoth stood and wished that he had been killed at Bullback Hill—even that he had died in disgrace—rather than see what was before him.
When Isorn returned with the prince and Jarnauga, Deornoth was still staring. There was no need to ask what he saw, for the lightning illuminated all.
A great army had come to Naglimund. Within the storm's swirling mist stood a vast forest of bristling spears. A galaxy of bright eyes gleamed in the darkness. The drums rolled again, like thunder, and the storm settled over castle and town, a great, billowing tent of rain and black clouds and freezing fog.
The eyes gazed up at the walls—thousands of shining eyes, all full of fierce anticipation. White hair streamed in the wind, narrow white faces turned upward in their dark helms, staring at the walls of Naglimund. Speartips glinted blue in another flash of skyfire. The invaders peered silently upward like an army of ghosts, pale as blindfish, ethereal as moonsheen. The drums pulsed. In the mist, other, longer shadows stalked: giant shapes cloaked in armor, carrying great gnarled clubs. The drums pulsed again, then fell silent.
"Merciful Aedon, give me rest," Isorn prayed. "In Your arms will I sleep, upon Thy bosom..."
"Who are they, Josua?" Deornoth asked quietly, as if merely curious.
"The White Foxes—the Norns," the prince answered. "They are Elias' reinforcements." He lifted his hand wearily, as if to block the spectral legion from his sight. "They are the Storm King's children."
^
"Your Eminence, please!" Father Strangyeard tugged at the old man's arm, gently at first, then with increasing force. The old man clung to the bench like a whelk, a small shape in the darkness of the herb garden.
"We must pray, Strangyeard," Bishop Anodis repeated stubbornly. "Get you down on your knees."
The throbbing, percussive sound of the storm intensified. The archive-master felt a panicky urge to run—somewhere, anywhere.
"This is... it is no natural twilight. Bishop. You must come inside, now. Please."
"I knew I should not have stayed. I told Prince Josua not to resist the rightful king," Anodis added plaintively. "God is angry with us. We must pray to be shown the rightful path—we must remember His martyrdom on the Tree..."He waved his hand convulsively, as though swatting at flies.
"This? This is not God's doing," Strangyeard replied, a scowl on his usually pleasant face. "This is the work of your 'rightful king'—he and his pet warlock."
The bishop paid him no need. "Blessed Usires," he babbled, crawling away from the priest toward the shadowy tangle of the mockfoil bed, "Your humble supplicants repent of their sins. We have thwarted Your will, and in doing so have drawn Your just wrath..."
"Bishop Anodisi" cried Strangyeard in nervous exasperation, taking a step to follow him, then halting in surprise. A dense, swirling cold seemed to descend over the garden. A moment later, as the archive-master shuddered in the deepening chill, the sound of drumming stopped.
"Something..." A frosty wind napped Strangyeard's hood in his face.
"O, yea, we have sinned m-m-mightily in our haughtiness, we puny men!" Anodis sang out, rattling through the mockfoil. "We p-pray... we... p-p-pray... ?" he trailed off, his voice rising curiously.
"Bishop?"
There was a shudder of movement in the depth of the mockfoil. Strangyeard saw the old man's face appear, mouth agape. Something seemed to catch at him; dirt began to gout up all around, further obscuring events in the shadowy vegetation. The bishop screamed, a thin, keening sound.
"Anodis!" Strangyeard shouted, plunging into the mockfoil. "Bishop!"
The screaming stopped. Strangyeard halted a moment later, standing over the bishop's huddled form. Slowly, as if the old man were revealing the end of some elaborate trick, the bishop rolled to one side.
Part of his face was a wash of red blood. A black head sat on the ground beside him, like a doll thrown aside by a forgetful child. The head, chewing rapidly, turned grinning toward Strangyeard. Its tiny eyes were white as bleached currants, the scraggly whiskers shiny with the bishop's blood. As it reached a long-fingered hand out of the hole to pull the bishop closer, two more heads popped from the ground on either side. The archive-master took a step backward. A scream lodged in his throat like a stone. The ground convulsed again—here, there, on all sides. Thin black hands wriggling like mole-snouts pushed up through the soil.
Strangyeard stumbled backward and fell, dragging himself toward the path, certain that any moment a clammy hand would close on his ankle. His mouth was stretched wide in a rictus of fear, but no sound came. He had lost his sandals in the undergrowth, and he lurched up the path toward the chapel on noiseless bare feet. The world seemed damply blanketed in silence; it choked him, and squeezed at his heart. Even the crash of the chapel door behind him seemed muffled. As he fumbled the bolt home a curtain of featureless gray came down before his eyes, and he fell into it gratefully, like a soft bed.
^
The flames of countless torches now rose among the Norns like blossoms in a poppy field, throwing the horridly beautiful faces into scarlet half-silhouette, adding grotesquely to the stature of the battle-garbed Hunen lurking behind. Soldiers clambered up onto the castle walls, only to stare down in shocked silence.
Five ghostly figures on horses pale as spider silk rode out into the open space before the curtain wall. The torchlight played on their hooded white cloaks, and the red pyramid of Stormspike glimmered and pulsed on their long rectangular shields. Fear seemed to surround these hooded ones like a cloud, reaching out into the hearts of all who saw them. The watchers on the walls felt a terrible, helpless weakness fall upon them.
The lead horseman lifted his spear; the four behind him did the same. The drums sounded three times.
"Where is the master of Ujin e-d'a Sikhunae—The Snare That Traps the Hunter?" The first horseman's voice was a mocking, echoing moan, like wind blowing down a long canyon. "Where is the master of the House of a Thousand Nails?"
The hovering storm breathed for long moments before the reply came.
"I am here." Josua stepped forward, a slender shadow atop the gatehouse. "What does such a strange band of travelers want at my door?" His voice was calm, but there was in it a faint quaver.
"Why... we have come to see how the nails have rusted, while we have grown strong." The words came slowly, forced out in a hiss of air, as if the horseman was unused to speech. "We have come, mortal, to have a little of our own back. This time it is man-blood that will spill on the soil ofOsten Ard. We have come to pull your house down about your ears."
The implacable power and hatred of the hollow voice was such that many of the soldiers cried out and began to scramble down the walls back into the castle below. As Josua stood on the gate, unspeaking, a cry shrilled above the groans and frightened whispers of the Naglimunders.
"Diggers! There are diggers within the walls'"
The prince turned at a movement close by. It was Deornoth, climbing up on unsteady legs to stand at his side.
"The gardens of the keep are full of Bukken," the young knight said. His eyes were wide as he looked down on the white horsemen.
The prince took a step forward. "You speak as though of revenge," he shouted to the pale multitude below. "But that is a lie! You come at the bidding of the High King Elias—a mortal. You serve a mortal, as a tickbird does a cockindrill. Come then. Do your worst! You will find that not all the nails of Naglimund are rusted, and that there is iron here that can still deal death to the Sithi!"
A ragged cheer went up from those soldiers still atop the walls. The first rider spurred his horse forward a pace.
"We are the Red Hand!" His voice was cold as the grave. "We serve no one but Ineluki, the Lord of Storms. Our reasons are our own—as your death will be your own!"
He waved his spear above his head, and the drums burst out again. Shrill horns wailed.
"Bring up those wagons!" Josua shouted from the gatehouse roof. "Block the way! They will try and throw down the gate!"
But instead of bringing up a ram to try and shatter the heavy steel and stout timbers of the gate, the Norns stood silent, watching as the five horsemen rode unhurriedly forward. One of the guards atop the wall loosed an arrow. It was followed by a score of others, but if they struck the riders it was only to pass through them: the pale horsemen faltered not a step.
The drums beat furiously, the pipes and strange trumpets groaned and shrieked. Dismounting, the riders appeared and disappeared in flashes of lightning as they strode the last few steps to the gate.
With dreadful deliberateness, the leader reached up to pull open his hooded cloak. A scarlet light seemed to spill forth. As he tore it away, it was as though he turned inside-out; suddenly he was all formlessness and smoldering red glare. The others did the same. Five beings of shifting, flickering lines grew and stood revealed—larger than before, each tall as two men, faceless, billowing like burning vermilion silk-
A black mouth opened in the leader's eyeless face as he lifted his arms to the gate and placed his burning hands against it.
"Death!" he bellowed, and his voice seemed to shake the very fundament of the walls. The iron hinges began to glow a dull orange.
"Hei ma'akajao-zhaf" The massive spars blackened and smoked. Josua, tugging frantically at the dumbstruck Deornoth's arm, leaped down to the top of the wall.
"T'si anh pra INELUKI!"
As the prince's soldiers dove shrieking down the staircases there was a burst of light, a deafening crack louder than drums or thunder, and the mighty gate burst into steaming, sparkling finders. The shards hissed down in a deadly rain as the wall collapsed on either side, crushing men beneath it even as they tried to flee.
Armored Norns leaped into the smoking gap in the walls. Some lifted long tubes of wood or bone, touching them at the end with naming brands. Horrible gouts of fire leaped out of the pipes, turning fleeing soldiers into jigging, wailing torches. Great dark shapes pushed through the rubble: the Hunen, swinging long iron-studded clubs in their shaggy hands, howling like maddened bears as they crushed all in their path. Shattered bodies flew before them like ninepins.
Some of the soldiers, courageously resisting the choking fear, turned to fight. A giant went down with two spears in its guts, but a moment later the spearmen were dead, feathered with white-fletched Norn arrows. The pallid Norns were pushing through the fuming breach in the wall like maggots, shouting as they came.
Deornoth pulled a stumbling Josua toward the inner keep. The prince's soot-blackened face was wet with tears and blood.
"Elias has sown the dragon's teeth," Josua choked as Deornoth pulled him past a gurgling soldier. Deornoth thought he recognized the young pikeman Ostrael, who had stood sentry at the king's parley, buried beneath the squirming black bodies of a score of diggers. "My brother has planted seeds for the death of all men!" Josua railed. "He is mad!"
Before Deornoth could reply—and what reply, he briefly wondered, could he possibly make?—two Norn soldiers, eyes fire-gleaming within the slits of their helms, rounded the corner of the inner keep dragging a shrieking girl. Spotting Deornoth, one hissed something, then reached down with his dark, slender sword and dragged the blade across the girl's throat. She dropped twitching to the earth behind them.
Deornoth felt the bile rising in his throat as he threw himself forward, sword upraised. The prince was there even before him, Naidel flickering like the lightning that etched the black sky—afternoon, it was only afternoon!
This is the hour at last, then, he thought wildly. Steel rang on polished witchwood. There must be honor, the thought was desperate. Even if there is no one to see it... God will see...
The white faces, hateful and hating, swam before his sweat-stinging eyes.
^
No dream of Hell, no woodcut in any of his many books, no warning of any of his Aedonite teachers could prepare Father Strangyeard for the howling inferno Naglimund had become. Lightning sizzled across the sky, thunder roared, and the voices of slayers and victims alike rose to the heavens like the babble of the damned. Despite the wind and driving rains, fires were leaping up everywhere in the darkness, killing many who thought to hide behind stout doors from the madness outside.
Limping along in the shadows of the inner hallways, he saw Norns clambering in through the shattered windows of the chapel, and stood helplessly by while they caught poor Brother Eglaf, who was kneeling in prayer before the altar. Strangyeard could no more stay to watch the horror to come than he could do anything to help his fellow man of God. Slipping outside with his eyes full of blinding tears and his heart heavy as lead in his breast, he headed for the inner keep and the prince's rooms.
Hiding in the black depths of a hedge he saw stout Ethelferth of Tinsett and two of his guardsmen smashed to a red pulp beneath the cudgel of a barking giant.
He watched trembling as Lord Constable Eadgram bled to death standing upright, swarmed by squeaking diggers.
He saw one of the court ladies ripped limb from limb by another of the shaggy Hunen while another woman crouched on the ground nearby, face black with madness.
All through the shattered freehold these tragedies were mirrored a thousandfold, a nightmare seemingly without end.
Weeping out a prayer to Usires, certain that God's face was turned away from Naglimund's death throes but praying nevertheless in desperate, passionate reflex, he staggered around to the front of the inner keep. Two scorched, unhelmeted knights stood there in a tangle of corpses, eyes showing hunted-animal white. It was a long moment until he recognized Deornoth and the prince, and another heart-freezing wait before he could convince them to follow him.


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