A small, motley band led by a brave warrior and a visionary priest has finally reached the land to the north. They have seen wonders and endured terrifying experiences, barely escaping from a dizzying series of perils, magical and otherwise. But the direst hazards lie before them as they approach the dread power that is terrorizing and enslaving all who oppose it. Finally, the Wanderer, fated to face the ultimate test, will confront his destiny. A world and its trembling masses await the outcome.
Fresh and powerfully told, this epic tale will satisfy fantasy readers as few other legends have done.
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A Fire In The North
Annals of Lindormyn: II
By David Bilsborough
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2008 David Bilsborough
All rights reserved.
Elfswith and Ceawlin
"They look like Bolldhe's boots."
(Pounding; dull, but mighty enough to shake the world to its foundations; unrelenting, constant; rhythmic as a heartbeat; all around him. Bombardment.)
"No, his are always covered in kack. Leave them — it's probably just another bloody thief."
(Pressure; painless, but immense enough to squeeze him out of this world; enveloping; uterine; crushing as a landslide; all around him. Entombment.)
"No, seriously. I'm sure they're his. I think I recognize the heels."
(Words from outside, words of mirth, words before birth — smell of earth — Mother Earth — mother tongue — no, another tongue; words familiar to him, but in this state, under all this weight, too wearisome for him to translate.)
"Well, pull him out anyway. If it is a thief, we can always break his neck and claim he was dead when we found him."
The words meant little to Bolldhe, and came to him muffled, as if his head were wrapped in a heavy blanket. His concern right now was only with the immense pressure all around him ... and then the feel of hands tugging at his feet. Tugging hard.
"... probably not such a good idea at this moment. Come what may, it looks like we'll have to put aside our differences with these thieves for now. We're not even out of Eotunlandt yet."
Bolldhe could finally feel himself being pulled out from the suffocating mass. Like an earthworm plucked from the soil.
"Come on now," another voice was saying through the din, a shaky voice, but which carried within it the hint of a smile. "You can do it — just one more push."
Then, from crushing darkness Bolldhe emerged suddenly, into the glare of orange torchlight, and all about him there were smiling faces.
"It's a boy!" came a voice in delight. "What shall we call him?" Bolldhe sucked cold air deep into his tormented lungs, then continued with huge, bovine gasps. That hefty pounding noise still continued from outside, shaking clumps of earth and fragments of stone onto him from the tunnel roof and filling the close air with a choking dust.
Moments later, the terrible bombardment from without began to fade away. Within minutes, it had ceased altogether and, as its last echoes rolled on up the tunnel, so too died the rumor of the storm behind it.
Into the silence that followed, there rose a collective sigh of relief.
Retching violently, Bolldhe opened his eyes, blinking furiously. Above, regarding him closely, were three creatures apparently made of stone, like rocks that had come to life and assumed human form. Judging from their faces, though, they had not done a very good job of it; the features were distorted, the skin no more than crude masks of clay.
But their eyes, at least, looked human, and through them the humanity of souls deep within could be detected clearly through the stoniness of those visages. Already the freshets of sweat and tears streaking their dust-plastered faces were expanding and converging to wash away the clay that would claim them, until they had made a muddy delta of each face.
Nibulus, Finwald, and Kuthy: these three, at least, had made it through. They looked weary, and several years older than Bolldhe recalled, but they were clearly alive.
"All right, Bolldhe?" Nibulus grunted. "You really do leave things to the last second, don't you?"
Nibulus. Of course. If there was but one member of their company who could be counted on to survive any catastrophe, weather any storm, or come through any battle, it was that solid, dependable bastion of strength and pugnacity, Nibulus Wintus. Son of the warlord Artibulus, Wintus Hall's finest Peladane, he would still be around, Bolldhe suspected, long after he himself had been snuffed out. Besides, since it was the warlord's money that had funded this entire expedition, Nibulus was not the type to let a mere herd of two-hundred-foot giants come between him and his father's investment. What would the bards have to say about that?
Still half-buried, Bolldhe spluttered and spat out gobbets of spittle-soaked soil. He then convulsed in a fit of coughing that further tortured his frame. But, in the midst of this convulsion, it occurred to him that at least no bones were broken.
Then he felt something warm nudge him gently, and immediately recognized the familiar musky odor of his horse.
"Zhang!" he croaked, and reached out to clasp the Adt-T'man's muzzle closer to him. "Zhang," he continued in a half-whisper. "Friend-horse. My only friend, you came back to save me." He held the animal's head close, stroking it fondly with a shaking hand, and within moments his face was streaked with a muddy delta all of its own.
Eventually, he let go and wiped the grime from his eyes, focusing his gaze beyond his immediate rescuers. Through the dim, dust-infused light of a few torches, he recognized that they were confined somewhere inside a long tunnel. Its rough-cut walls were only about four feet apart, but the roof was higher. With his companions' help, he gingerly pulled himself out from the mound of debris and got to his feet. He looked behind him, and saw how the cave-mouth they had entered was now in ruin, totally blocked off by rock and soil. Not even the thinnest sliver of daylight penetrated from the other side.
One arm draped for support over Zhang's shaggy neck, Bolldhe peered around to see who else had survived. Over there, slumped against the wall, was the aged mage-priest Appa, one hand folded limply around his precious amulet. But for once, not rapping his ring against it constantly, an irritating habit whenever he felt stressed. Was he even alive ...? Yes, bless him, there was a bare first hint of movement beneath that grubby, biscuit-crumb-stained woollen mantle cloaking the scrawny collection of brittle bones he called a body. Bolldhe managed a smile. So the old bugger had survived Eotunlandt after all, frayed, but unbroken, like a thin piece of hairy string that refuses to snap.
There, too, was the dark mercenary Odf "Paulus" Uglekort, standing with his back to them, but easy to recognize from his crow's-feather cowl. Now there was another nut not to be easily cracked. Maybe one day Paulus would succumb to the fits that occasionally racked his body, or to the creeping necrosis that already disfigured his face and made him a pariah even among his own comrades, but it was doubtful he would ever fall to an enemy's sword. Paulus, the mercurial, murderous, but elite mercenary from Vregh-Nahov, had his blade drawn even now, as he stood between their company and a separate group of shadowy figures huddled miserably just beyond the halo of torchlight. How many of those bandits had managed to reach the tunnel in time, Bolldhe as yet did not bother to guess. All he knew for sure was that, of his own companions — counting them off in his dizzy head — six had made it safely through. Out of how many? He could not think straight, but he was sure there was someone missing....
He glanced back at the three men who had pulled him out of the rubble. Nibulus was already unstrapping the various pieces of his elaborate armor from the solitary horse and was trying to put them on before the thieves got a chance to recover their nerve and maybe launch an attack. Ever the soldier, ever the professional, but not so professional that Nibulus could control the trembling in his fingers. If those thieves were going to attack, Bolldhe reckoned, they would be well-advised to do it now, while the Peladane was so cumbrously distracted.
Finwald, the younger mage-priest, sat silently upon a large boulder all by himself. He cradled something long and metallic in his arms and Bolldhe peered at it, then almost cried out in disbelief as he recognized the serpentine blade that snaked out from the hilt. Flametongue! That bloody sword again! After all they'd just come through, after escaping being giant-crushed into oblivion by the narrowest hair's breadth imaginable, was that antique weapon all the priest could concern himself with?
Bolldhe just could not fathom how a Lightbearer, of all people, should care so much about a weapon of war. And one which was not even his own possession either. Finwald already owned a sword, that little silver one he'd had forged especially for this quest. "The only way to destroy Drauglir," he had proclaimed to the council Moot before they set out, "is to pierce its heart and brain with a magical blade. Failing that, silver plated iron will do...." So when Bolldhe had discovered this strange, spell-woven flamberge sword down in the mines, somehow in the possession of the gruesome Afanc, it had seemed like a particular stroke of fortune.
Bolldhe grimaced. Having rejected the ways of the Peladane in his youth, he loathed swords beyond all loathing, and everything they stood for. He wished now, more than ever, to have his plain old axe back. Had it not been stolen from him earlier by a sneak thief, he never would have picked up yon cursed flamberge in the first place. But now that that enchanted sword had fallen into their hands, Finwald seemed to think their quest was as good as won. He seemed to even think the weapon was more important than the lives of his companions. Bolldhe still could not believe how, in their moment of danger, the priest had just snatched up the flamberge and run off with it to the safety of the tunnel, abandoning his companions to the giants without so much as a backward glance. Finwald was a good man at heart, Bolldhe knew, and much liked by everyone, but clearly nothing — not even his friends — came before his precious quest.
Unlike Kuthy Tivor over there. That one had no friends, and the only quest precious to him was looking after himself. The aging soldier of fortune had started tagging along with them only a couple of weeks ago, but had proved nothing more than a pain in the backside ever since. At the moment, he was busy brushing the dust out of the writhing liripipes adorning the hat that still miraculously clung to his head. They now stood out from the cap itself like the hairs on a frightened cat, and were trembling at the tips. Kuthy was murmuring to them soothingly as he stroked them in turn, but it looked as though it would be a long while before his hat settled down to normal.
In spite of his trauma, Bolldhe could not help but grin. Serves him right. He's got nobody to blame but himself. After all, it was Kuthy ("the last of the living heroes") who had persuaded them to take this route in the first place, through enchanted Eotunlandt, this "fairest, most wonderful land that has ever beglammered my eyes." Some shortcut — it had damn near been the death of them! Bolldhe shuddered at the memory of it....
The sky's countenance had darkened, broiled, and from the churning black mass of clouds that rolled out across this land of giants, outpoured its full fury upon their heads. Amid the deluge of the storm, and the blinding white light that scorched the earth all about them, they had run for their lives, tempest-lashed, their wits wholly departed. Summoned into being by the bloodletting between the travelers and the bandits they had encountered, the giants had come for them, and chased both venturer and thief alike over the inundated uplands, while hell's rolling barrage thundered from horizon to horizon.
But Kuthy, for once, had not failed them, but brought them as he had promised to the secret doorway leading out of this land. Keenly they had plunged beneath the clay, just before the giant's foot, like the Hammer of God, smote down upon them. Night had obliterated day with one immense detonation, and flooded its victims like ants down into their nest.
But with the two clashing groups of interlopers now safely sealed into their temporary grave, those phantom but very real-seeming giants had retreated from this land, this reality. Now, down through the rocks that were the crumpled ruin of the gate, seeped the rain and turned all to slurry....
Forsooth's sake, Bolldhe reflected, that was a close one! He began to quake violently at the memory, having himself been the tiniest fraction of a second away from utter annihilation. Death by giant. And though he hated to dwell on it, he could not help wondering what it would have felt like. Would it have been simply too quick to register, or would there have been time for him to feel every bone in his body crunch, every muscle rupture, and his innards shoot forth from his mouth?
"Just how flattened can the human frame get?" he wondered aloud.
"About as flat as the ants we used to crush when we were little boys," came the reply from a large boulder resting atop the rubble where the portal had once stood.
It was Wodeman. As caked in dust as the others, he now looked like a permanent part of the cave. He lifted himself with difficulty from his crouching position, letting fly a fall of loose soil from his shaggy wolf pelt, and clambered down to squat next to Bolldhe.
Number seven ... Bolldhe thought to himself with relief. There was something he had to say to the shaman, but he could not think of the word.
"By Kulhuch, did you see the size of those things, Bolldhe?" Wodeman muttered. "And I'm sure the one in the front was carrying a steaming kettle...."
Bolldhe regarded his savior with concern. There was a definite look of shell shock in the shaman's eyes, and he was having difficulty keeping the hysteria from his voice.
"This is getting worse and worse by the day," Wodeman went on, "the farther north we journey. And it won't get any better, either. If you think this is bad, wait till you get to Melhus itself. I ask you, Bolldhe, what can insects like us possibly do against beings like those? Eh? If we ever get out of this, I swear I'm heading straight back to Nordwas. And when I get there, I'll not stop either; I'm going to pick up the kids, and whichever of their mothers want to come along, and just carry on south as far as I can go. The farther away from these hellish northern lands, the better ... But we'll not get back out that way again," he pointed to the pile of rubble, "though dig we might for a week and a day. We're trapp —"
"Thank you," Bolldhe interrupted him. That was the word he had been trying to think of.
Wodeman stopped in mid-sentence, and stared at him.
"You came back for me," Bolldhe went on. "You could've been killed — by rights you should have been killed — but you came back anyway. Nobody's ever done that for me before. Thank you."
Wodeman continued to stare into Bolldhe's eyes. He beheld the steadiness there, something he had never noticed in the traveler before. He held onto it, and gradually grew calmer himself. And Bolldhe, for his part, enjoyed for the first time a brief feeling of warmth toward his unwanted mentor. Nobody had asked Wodeman, this self-appointed "Dream-Giver," this "messenger of the Earth-Spirit," to join them on this quest; not Bolldhe, who had always resented the shaman's intrusions into his private thoughts, and the visions he wove into Bolldhe's mind; not the priests, who considered Wodeman's pagan meddling with their protégé something of a threat to their own monopoly on proselytizing; and certainly not their Peladane leader, who deemed that any association with such "coppice-hoppers" was, to be honest, embarrassing. But Wodeman had come anyway, ever counseling Bolldhe, weaving dream-spells into his tired mind, essaying to enlighten him as to his divine calling.
They were, of course, all mad, the three priests: Wodeman, Appa, and Finwald. Of that Bolldhe was sure. He no more believed that he was the Chosen One than he believed that their gods were anything other than the worst disaster that had ever afflicted the world. Any devotion he had was to himself and himself alone. Nevertheless, this weird priest Wodeman had snatched him out from under a giant's foot, and for that, at least, Bolldhe could feel beholden.
"The giants are gone now," he assured the shaman. "They won't trouble us anymore. We beat them. Whatever lies on the other side of that heap of stone, forget it. It's none of our business now; we're headed the other way."
The sorcerer's eyes, after flitting back to the blocked portal, did appear to regain some composure. He nodded, and clamped his hand upon Bolldhe's shoulder.
"Forget the tunnel entrance," Bolldhe reassured him. "We've crossed that threshold, and there'll be no going back now. Just keep thinking of the other exit. And that lies up there. Come on, I think the others are ready to move."
Excerpted from A Fire In The North by David Bilsborough. Copyright © 2008 David Bilsborough. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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