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Hyrn - a Cloven Land prequel

 

Hyrn

The Cloven Land Trilogy, a prequel

Simon Kewin

For Granny, supplier of books

Hyrn

The world changed one bright morning in spring.

Black Meg sat in the glow of the sunrise, drained but contented from her work. A difficult birth. Young Liana had laboured through a day and a night. As was so often the way with the first. Meg had been there throughout, sitting beside the girl’s mother and the wide-eyed lad who was the father. Most of the time Meg had been nothing more than an encouraging word, a reassuring grip. Only towards the end had she worked spells to draw off the worst of the girl’s pain, take it into her own body. She was accustomed to it. Over the years she’d lived through hundreds of births. Only two had been her own children. And now baby and mother were sleeping, curled together in their exhausted bliss.

Meg sat against the cool stone exterior of Liana’s house, her black shawl pulled around her shoulders. Away in the east, Anwards, a deformed sun bulged from the horizon. She closed her eyes, savouring the first warmth on her face. The world was a troubled place, but a birth brought with it the promise of possibilities. A renewed hope. Satisfied, she let herself drift into a welcome half-sleep.

The dragon’s approach rumbled in her bones before the beat of its wings reached her ears. The aura of despair seeped into her, sucking out her remaining energy. She opened her eyes. Couldn’t they give her a little peace? But no. A witch’s work was never done. Groaning from the effort, she forced herself to stand, muttering words to shield herself from the worst effects of the creature’s baleful influence. She wasn’t strong enough to stave it off, not at the moment, but she could hide herself from it. Let it slip around her like water around a rock. It was a simple enough spell, one she used often as she went about her work in Angere.

The dragon glided low over the treetops, wings swept wide, the leaves lashing at the creature’s passing. It pitched to one side, turned and thumped to the ground, its bulk dwarfing Liana’s home. In truth Meg rarely saw a wyrm up close. They were a shadow blotting out the sun as they flew by on some errand. They were a roar echoing off the hillsides. She wondered how far this one had come. There was an archway at Wyrmfell, the opening of one of the roads the riders used to criss-cross Angere. But she had no knowledge of where the archways led or which connected with which.

The beast’s body bore signs of fighting. Livid scorch marks and more than one open wound scarred its scales. The stench of singed flesh came to Meg as the dragon’s ruby eyes warily studied the sky. The sight of the beast sent dread flooding through Meg. Only one creature could gouge such marks on a dragon. Another dragon.

Of late she’d been haunted by fears of her world tearing in two, of things tumbling out of control. Rumours about the King and his fascination with the arts of the death mancers swirled throughout the land. Her anxieties returned to her now. Dragons were fighting dragons. It could mean only one thing. King Menhroth had made his decision, undergone the rites. Now everything would change. Friends would became enemies and wounds too wide to heal would be opened. She’d told herself it wouldn’t happen; that her fears were unfounded. But she’d been wrong.

She thought about the baby she’d just helped deliver. What would his life be like now? What sights would his eyes see? And how long would he live to see them?

In one fluid motion, the dragon’s rider slipped from her mount’s back and strode towards Meg, leaving her serpentine sword in its scabbard strapped to the flanks of the great beast. She carried something beneath her cloak, something she didn’t want Meg to see. The rider, too, bore signs of recent combat. She was Crimson Wing, the tattoos winding all across her skin bright red. Blood running from cuts to her cheek and arms blurred and smudged the hard lines. The rider had to be in considerable pain, as did the dragon, but of course the minds of both were closed to her.

“My Lady,” said the rider. “The witches of Morvale Wycka said you would be here. We have need of your help. Great need. The thing long-feared has happened. Ilminion the necromancer…”

Meg held up a hand to stop the young rider. “Your wounds tell me the tale. So Ilminion has succeeded in working this death magic of his on the King?”

“Yes. But Ilminion is dead, my Lady. I mean truly dead. I slew him myself at the door of the throne room.”

That threw her. She hadn’t foreseen such an occurrence. Death was never a good thing, but some people would be less lamented than others. A surge of hope spilled through her. “And King Menhroth? Did Ilminion complete his work?”

The rider lowered her gaze. “I, too, have been at a birth, Lady of the Witches. A foul birth. And it was we who guarded the doors as Ilminion performed his rites. Stood unmoving when we should have acted. Watched as hundreds and hundreds were led into the King’s chamber to be slaughtered. Heard their screams. After two days the King was returned to a twisted mockery of life, his veins flowing with the life-spirit of all the sacrifices. The look on his bloated purple face when his eyes reopened was finally too much. The horror in them. The madness. It was only then we acted. Too late, we acted.”

From inside the house, the baby stirred and began to bawl urgent cries.

Meg touched the arm of the rider. The wyrm lord was little more than a girl herself. “You’re sure? Ilminion completed his rite and returned Menhroth to this … unlife?”

“Menhroth lives. We interceded before the end, the necromancer’s final words still unspoken on his lips, but not soon enough to make a difference.”

“Ah,” said Meg. She wondered if that was true. Perhaps it would be important one day that the rite was incomplete. She knew little enough of the mancers’ arts, especially those of one like Ilminion. She did know Ilminion was devious and might have foreseen such an eventuality.

“And the riders? There is fighting?”

“Rider fights rider and dragon fights dragon. Those who remain loyal to the name of Menhroth and those like me who say he is no longer what he was. And so we tear ourselves apart. Caer D’nar is in turmoil. In the far north, Xoster the mother of all the dragons howls in despair as her children hack and flame one another.”

“And which side have most riders taken?”

“The King’s. Our oath to his name is too much for them to overcome. They hunt our dragons and they hunt us. I don’t think we’ll survive for long.”

Meg drew a deep breath. With the rising of the sun, all the birds of Angere trilled and twittered from the trees. Strange that they were continuing as if today were simply one more day. But everything had changed. If what they said about Ilminion’s researches was true, the King reborn would blaze with power, fuelled by the lives of those sacrificed to him. He would never age, never die, so long as he fed on the life-spirit of others. And it wouldn’t end there. She saw how it would go. He would raise others like him, less powerful but still fearsome. Guards to protect him. Soldiers to fight for him. He would offer this ascension to his trusted allies, the lords and ladies of his court, and by doing so bind them to him.

The canker would spread, growing all the time. One day soon it would cover the world. The King would need more life-spirit, and more and more, and invasion would deliver it to him. There were other worlds, so the stories said. Shadow pathways that could be opened across the aether if you had the means. Other lands might learn to rue the day the ageing, vain King of Angere let Ilminion the necromancer work his death magic.

Black Meg saw all this while the birds called from the greenery and the sun, perfectly round now, crept higher in the sky. The sickly, rich smell of early blooms came to her nostrils.

“And why have you sought me out?” Meg asked the rider. “I can not fight what Menhroth has become. I can not cross swords with those who remain loyal to him.”

“You are the wisest and strongest witch on this side of the An, Black Meg.”

“Perhaps, perhaps not. It makes little difference. I can heal a body if it isn’t too broken and I can sometimes persuade a rain cloud to fly elsewhere if a betrothal ceremony is threatened. That’s about it.”

The rider reached inside her cloak and pulled out the thing she’d been concealing. A book, bound in red leather, gold outlines of skulls and skeletons blazoned across it. Meg knew at once what it had to be, but she asked the question anyway.

“What is that?”

“The Shadow Grimoire. Ilminion’s book of necromancy. I took it and fled. Perhaps you can use it. Turn the magic against itself. Stop it working. Stop the world going mad.” The rider held the book out for Meg.

For a moment she was tempted. What horrors, what wonders had Ilminion unearthed in his years of research? The promise of eternal life was there. She was old, as Menhroth had been old, and she didn’t want to die either. But she shook her head. There was an order to things. A cycle of life and death.

“No. I know nothing of spell books and incantations. And I want to know nothing. Take it to a mancer. Travel the wyrm roads on your dragon while you still can. Take it to Telerion or Asya the Wise. Or seek out young Akbar. He’ll be on your side. And if he isn’t I’ll have words to say to him. He’s another I helped bring into the world.”

The rider looked dismayed, as if all her hopes had rested on her mission. “But what will you do?”

Meg looked to the sky, as if there might be answers written there. “Return to Morvale Wycka. Muster the coven. Talk to our sisters across the An. Decide what is to be done. Time is suddenly short.”

“And what can be done? Can you fight the King?”

“Oh, we can fight him easily enough. And others will join us. Ordinary folk who don’t ride dragons and who don’t work magic but who are repelled by what Menhroth has become. But defeating the King, now. That’s a different matter completely.”

The rider slipped the book beneath her cloak as if ashamed. She nodded and turned away. Her dragon, neck snaking into the air, bellowed a thunderous roar. It extended its wings and the sulphurous rush of air on Meg’s face made a fresh wave of despair wash over her.

“Tell me, rider,” shouted Meg. “What is your name?”

“Dervil. I am Dervil.”

“May fortune smile on you, Dervil of the Crimson Wing.”

“And on you, Black Meg of the Morvale Witches.”

Dervil leapt onto the dragon’s back. With a few huge downbeats of its wings, the creature lurched into the sky.

Back inside, the newborn baby boy rooted at Liana’s breast. The girl’s eyes shone with wonder, but there was worry there too. They all knew about the necromancer, and what the fighting among the dragonriders meant.

“What should we do, Black Meg?” Liana’s mother asked. “What will happen now?”

She didn’t know. She had no answers. Despite all her fears she was unprepared. How could they hope to fight such evil?

“Do you have relatives across the river?” she asked.

“A sister who went to live in Andar a few years back. Some cousins.”

“Then … I’d say go there. Rest this day, enjoy what you have. Then head for the bridge.”

The alarm on the woman’s face was clear. “You think we should leave?”

“I think … I think it might be for the best.”

“You think all Angere is endangered by this?”

She was reluctant to say it, as if speaking the words might make the events more likely to happen. But it was what it was. “Perhaps, yes.”

“And will we be safe across the river?”

Meg wanted to reassure them, tell them all would be well. That Andar, far across the wide River An, would survive. That somewhere would survive. But she couldn’t bring herself to lie.

Instead she said nothing. She turned to close the door behind her. Pulling her woollen shawl around her shoulders once more she set off.

Morvale Wycka was two days walk Anwards. She could have taken to the air and flown – slower than the mighty dragon, perhaps, but quick enough to get her there by evening. She decided against it. She was weary; her bones ached. And she needed to think. Walking always helped her think. There was another reason, too. She might never have the chance to walk through the woods of Angere again. The thought was almost too large to fit into her head. So, she would cut through the forests that clung to the rolling hills and head for the Babblerush. Follow that river and it would take her home soon enough.

She set off toward the rising sun, breathing the air, mind’s eye wary of the woods around her as she followed winding pathways through the trees. Other riders might be about, perhaps those loyal to Menhroth. And who knew what the King would do, how quickly he would act? Hard to believe anything could threaten her in these beautiful, old woods but it was best to be careful.

Had she done the right thing with the book? She’d recoiled from it when perhaps she should have taken it. Maybe Dervil had been right and they should use it, turn it against the horror the King had become. The thought was repugnant, but sometimes you had to fight fire with fire. An evil deed might prevent greater evil later on, like a mother exposing her child to a pox knowing the danger would be greater when they were grown. Or perhaps the book, with its promises of eternity, would corrupt anyone who used it. How could she know?

These thoughts whirring around in her mind, and despite her earlier caution, she wasn’t aware of the white stag until she saw it, standing on the far side of a little clearing in the trees. The sight of it stopped her dead in her tracks.

The beast stood watching her, brown eyes like polished chestnuts. Its head was crowned with splayed antlers, moss and ivy strewn between them like the branches people sometimes decorated at Midwinter. Its creamy hide shone, but a livid red gash on one of its flanks ran freely with blood. As Meg stared, the wound seemed to grow, the flap of flesh curling wider, the blood flowing down the magnificent beast’s rear leg. Its muscles twitched. Steam billowed from its nostrils. One hoof raked at the ground as if it was preparing to charge.

She didn’t need to be a witch to know this was no mere woodland creature. A normal stag would have fled. And white stags were the stuff of the old tales. It was a messenger. Or a warning. She tried to reach into its mind, see what it was about, as she might any creature she encountered. Instead of the usual flitter of urges and hungers she saw only light: a huge, blazing light, too bright to gaze into.

She had a long way to travel. But a sign like this, on this day of all days, could not be ignored.

“Very well then my beautiful friend,” she said to the creature. “Let’s see who or what you are, shall we?”

As Meg approached the beast turned and stepped into the shadows of the trees, but slowly, in no fear from her. Meg followed. For a few paces the spatters of blood on the ground were clear, but the creature soon led her into thicker woods where there were no paths and the sun was replaced by shifting shadow. She began to lose sight of the beast, always twenty or thirty paces ahead of her, antlers hard to distinguish from the latticework of low branches. Then a flash of white would reveal the creature in the distance, disappearing behind the boughs. Meg kept walking, letting herself be led.

The shifting light between the trees played tricks on her eyes. She began to think it was no longer a stag she was following but a tall, powerful man, a crown of antlers upon his head. She smiled to herself at that. In all her long years she’d never met or seen this being. Heard plenty of tales, of course. That he’d chosen to appear now couldn’t be good. Still, she couldn’t prevent a girlish thrill running through her.

After an hour or more of her slow pursuit, light glimmered up ahead. Detail and colour returned to the leaves as the sun found them once more. The woods were thinning. She wondered where in Angere she was. Some deep corner of the forest she’d never visited. There was a clearing before her, the sun blazing bright after the gloom beneath the branches. As she stepped to the edge of the trees she had the strange sensation of approaching a stage, like an actor in one of the mummers’ companies that toured the land with their travelling plays.

The being she’d pursued stood on the far side of the clearing, waiting. He was completely naked and definitely, impressively, a man. His body was lithe and powerful. Sometimes, according to the stories, he was old and grey. At other times, in the spring of the year, he was young and handsome. He was like this now, the first wisps of a beard on his face. But the antlers on his head were large, festooned with garlands of green. For a moment, his transition incomplete, he had cloven hooves and cloven hands but as she looked on they became feet and fingers. He nodded to her, so she thought, as she entered the ring. His green eyes sparkled. The open wound was still there, a brutal gash on his left thigh, although he paid it no attention.

Between them in the clearing stood two deer, one buck, one doe. They were a normal colour, hides dappled tan, but Meg didn’t bother to reach into their minds. They were clearly unnatural. A part of the show she’d been brought to see.

The horned man walked forwards to stand between the two deer. He stroked their necks, murmuring words to them Meg couldn’t hear. The creatures had no fear of him; they nuzzled his hands, delighting in his touch. Something in the man’s stance or the angle of his head suggested sadness, though, as if he was saying a goodbye.

Then there was a weapon in his hand, a long blade of sharpened horn. With a swift movement, the man plunged the blade into the soft underbelly of one of the deer. He slid the knife forwards to disembowel the creature.

Meg called out in alarm, but she didn’t move. This was no simple act of destruction. There was meaning here. A message.

Blood and gore splattered the green of the clearing. The ruined deer stood for a moment as if unable to understand what was happening, then it collapsed to the ground. The horned man went down with it, cradling it, crouching beside the stricken creature. The deer’s sides heaved once, twice, three times as it laboured to breathe, and then it was gone.

The horned man lingered for a moment, the blood from his own wound mingling with that of the deer. The sorrow in his eyes was stark as he stood. He studied the horn blade he still held, then let it drop. He placed one hand onto the neck of the other deer and caressed the creature gently, murmuring reassurance.

Finally he looked to Meg, as if to tell her the scene was complete.

She stepped towards him. Time to play her part. She knelt to no one, but she bowed her head to the being in front of her. The Horned Man. The Spirit of the Green. Hyrn the Hunter, who had walked these woods when there were only woods in the world. The untamed shepherd of all the lands of An.

She looked down at the carcass of the dead deer lying upon its carpet of blood, trying to make sense of what she’d seen. “This … this one is Angere? And this one that still stands … this is An beyond the great river? This is Andar?”

The antlers nodded in assent.

“And is this a warning or a prophecy of what might happen?” she asked.

Hyrn spoke at last. His voice was the creak of old oaks and the babbling song of the river. “This is what will be. A sickness is born in the land. A wound has been opened.”

“But surely you can do something? You of all people.”

“I can do nothing. I do not dream the woods and the peoples. They dream me.”

She considered Hyrn. Considered the dead deer and the living one. “So by sacrificing Angere, Andar survives? That’s what you’re saying?”

The great head dipped in assent, or sorrow.

“But how is that possible?” said Meg. “The An is vast and wide, but the King and his ilk can use the bridge as well as any of us. Andar isn’t any safer than Angere.”

Hyrn didn’t reply, waiting for her to answer her own question. Perhaps he couldn’t tell her what to do, and she had to work it out for herself. She tried to think clearly. Much might turn on this strange, woodland meeting.

“We … we have to protect Andar,” she said. “Seal it off. Destroy the great bridge before the King can use it?”

The antlers dipped again, in agreement now. “The land cloven. Half sacrificed and half saved. It is the only way. You and the other children must do this thing. Unleash the flood waters locked in the northern ice. Sweep the bridge away.”

Was such magic possible? She had no idea. The witches were good at sorting out people’s everyday problems, healing them when they were sick, helping them see sense when they were being foolish. That was what they did. But this? This was a different scale. This was the whole land.

Well. There were those on both sides of the An who could help. Perhaps between them they could attempt such a thing. But the scale of it was dizzying.

“You will help?” she asked. “Lend your strength?”

“I will play my part. The ice is not my domain, but I am river as well as wood.”

She considered. Flight across so much running water was impossible, as she knew well. One reason there were no dragons in Andar. But there was a more obvious threat. “Even with the bridge gone Andar won’t be safe. The King can build ships.”

“I will protect Andar,” said Hyrn. “I shall fill the deep waters with serpents that coil and crush any craft attempting the crossing. There are creatures in the deeps you have no knowledge of.”

She nodded. “And what of you, Hyrn?”

“What of me?”

“You are already wounded. What will this cleaving do to you? You are the land, or I haven’t understood any of the tales told to me as a girl.”

“You need have no fears for me, child. People may die, you all may die, but life goes on. I will go on.”

“No. That thing the King has become isn’t life. It’s death. Death will spread and you are the land you walk. You are An. If half of you is death and half is life, where will that leave you? Caught between, the two halves warring in you. You will not escape that struggle unscathed, I fancy.”

Hyrn snorted steam from his nostrils and for a moment it was a beast standing there, huge and powerful and dangerous, eyes wild. She thought he was going to attack, toss her lifeless body to the ground for daring to speak to him with such words.

Then the light of understanding returned to him. The antler-crowned head bowed. His voice was a breath as he replied. “Yes. You are right. This wound we are about to inflict will be my wound. I am strong, but the cut will not heal. Slowly the light will fade and the frost creep across the forests. In time it will claim me. Until the land is healed. Only then will I be whole again.”

“And will that ever be?”

“I do not know.”

“And if the cleaving remains for the rest of days?”

“Then there will be nothing left of me except the wound. It will consume me, and I will become it. I will be the spirit of the An that cuts the world in two and nothing more. I will be river serpent and flood and flow and no more of tree and meadow.”

“That would be a sad loss, Hyrn of the Green.”

“Yes. But this is what must be, child of the wycka. The days draw short. The wound is widening.”

She dipped her head in assent. His suggestion was alarming. But the wisdom of it was clear. Very well. Time to get on with it. But she’d become disorientated in the trek through the wood. Twilight was gathering among the old trees. “Then tell me, hunter of the wild wood, which is the quickest way to Morvale Wycka?”

Hyrn waved towards the trees on his left. “A river rises among the rocks a short distance that way. Follow it and it will take you where you need to go.”

“And will I see you again?” she asked. “Whether we live or die?”

“Who can say? But I will be there when you work your magic. Trust in that.”

“Well,” said Black Meg. “We’ll do our best.” She turned and headed back into the gloom of the trees to find the river that was, presumably, the rising Babblerush. Glancing back once, she saw Hyrn crouching beside the dead deer, gently stroking its lifeless neck. He didn’t look up at her.

The aether around Morvale Wycka teemed with a hubbub of voices: arguing, questioning, some more shrill, edged with panic. Meg slipped her mind into the confused rush of the coven’s conversation, trying to follow the ebb and flow of the arguments.

She’d walked for nearly a day and was still some way from the building itself. The red tower of the Wycka stood on a crag of rock thrusting upwards from a wide wood. The river she’d followed on the day’s march circled around the crag before running another fifty miles or so to the An. A half-hour’s climb and she would reach the ancient stones that many of the witches in Angere called home. But she was near enough to sense the conversation that buzzed in the air like a swarm of bees.

She’d never known so many to come together in coven. As well as the familiar voices of the witches and wise men who lived at the Wycka, there were numerous hedge witches from the surrounding countryside, those that normally shunned the coven and its traditions. There were charm-mumblers and those who claimed to read the future in the night-time stars and even one or two mancers. News had spread quickly.

The witches of Islagray Wycka were also present, speaking at great effort from the other side of the An, two hundred miles away. Meg had travelled there twice in her life, made the long crossing of the great bridge to Andar. Islagray Wycka stood on an island in a lake, but in all other regards it was the same as their own Morvale Wycka. A spiritual home. A place of safety.

Until now.

Meg said nothing as she approached. They would hear what she had to say when they noticed her presence. Everyone was equal in the coven, but the words of the eldest would always be given special attention. Even as she wound her way up the path that spiralled through the woods on the slopes, a hush fell. They’d noticed her. In her mind’s eye she saw herself walking into the middle of a great room thronged with hundreds – thousands – of people, all suddenly waiting for her to tell them what was happening. What they should do.

When she’d finished recounting her experiences of the last two days, her meeting with Dervil and then Hyrn, the hubbub resumed immediately. Now there was alarm and doubt and open fear in their voices. Meg heard clear hostility to her suggestions. A rejection of the very idea of abandoning Angere. She said nothing more. She understood their doubts, their fears. She had them herself. But here was the world as it was, not as they might wish it to be. She could see no other way, desperate as the plan was. She’d turned it over and over in her mind on her day’s march but had found no alternative she preferred.

Her feet finally reached the stone tower. Her heart was hammering from the climb and her chest was heaving. Lost to the coven, she’d barely noticed the ascent. She took a moment to catch her breath.

There were many caves and tunnels beneath the Wycka, miles and miles of them, all unexplored. But one cavern they did use. The Songroom. She could feel the deep, resonant hum echoing from there: the eternal, unending music the witches took their turns to chant. There was a clear edge of wrongness, of discord, to the song of Angere. Another sign, another portent. Would the singing ever stop? It was unthinkable, impossible. But now, also, inevitable.

When her breathing had calmed, Black Meg strode into the courtyard of Morvale Wycka to a barrage of questions and complaints from the assembled witches. The arguments raged on for several minutes until another voice cut through them. Thin and quiet with the distance, but unmistakable. Alice Beetle, the eldest witch of Andar. Like Black Meg, she was just one witch among many. But also like Meg, when she spoke, people listened. Alice was, in fact, a year or two older than Meg, which made her the eldest of them all.

“And how long do we have before this miraculous flood must be released from the north to destroy the bridge?”

Was Alice mocking her plan or consenting to it? It was hard to tell. Rare enough for the witches of their own coven to agree to anything. Reaching consent with the Andar witches was more or less unknown. Perhaps Alice and the others would see what the King had done as a problem for distant Angere, not something threatening them all. And if they did, that might be the end of everything then and there.

“The King will take time to recover from his ordeal,” said Meg. “His attention will be drawn to the fighting around him for a while. That won’t last long. He’s no fool. I’d say we have a week before he looks our way, certainly no more. If we set off immediately we’ll maybe have enough time to reach the north and attempt the magic.”

“A week to travel to the snows and work the witchcraft?”

“I think that’s all the time we have.”

“But the cost to us, Black Meg. The price to be paid. How many will be crippled or killed by the effort of it? Do you even think spellmaking on such a scale is possible?”

“Truly, Alice, I don’t know. Hyrn seemed to think so. The An swells in the spring anyway as the ice melts. We simply need to hurry it along. And the river narrows at the bridge, which I suppose is why it was built there. That will funnel the force of the flood. And also … also I don’t see what else we can do. Do you?”

Alice ignored her question. “But even if this worked, anyone on the bridge when the flood waters struck would be washed away too.”

“Yes.”

“And Andar and Angere would be separated for ever. Whoever the ancients who built the bridge were, we certainly don’t have the skill to recreate it even if we wanted.”

“True.”

“And those on your side of the river would be stranded, with no hope of escape from this thing Menhroth has become.”

“And that’s also true. But if we don’t try, that will be the fate of all of us. And perhaps those that remain will be able to fight back. Take to the woods or the mountains where Menhroth can’t find them.”

There was a silence in the aether for a moment, and Meg thought maybe Alice had finished her list of objections. But then the Andar witch continued. “Have you considered, also, that not many who live in Angere will be able to reach the bridge in a week? Let alone cross it? You would be condemning those left behind.”

She thought about the girl she’d just helped through childbirth. Liana. And her baby boy. “They are already condemned, Alice Beetle. We are saving all we can.”

“And once the King sees everyone fleeing for the bridge he’ll act. He’ll guess what’s happening. He’ll stop you reaching the north. He’ll send his loyal dragonriders down the wyrm roads to find you and kill you.”

“Then we have to keep our plans secret. We have to hope he won’t believe anyone would attempt such an act of destruction. Maybe he’ll think people are trying to put some distance between themselves and Angere. But you’re right. There is much that could go wrong. Yet it’s either this or sit and wait to be slaughtered.”

A vision of the deer Hyrn had killed flashed before her eyes, its quivering legs as the blood spattered from it. They couldn’t simply wait for that to happen to all of them. That was what Hyrn had showed her.

There was silence for a moment as Alice and the others conversed among themselves. Meg wished she could hear what was being said. Without the witches and mancers of Andar, they had no chance of succeeding.

Finally Alice spoke. “We must consider this further. We will bespeak you when we have decided what to do.”

“Decide quickly, Alice Beetle.”

“An hour, no more. You have my word.”

“An hour then.”

With that, the Andar witches were gone. Meg sank to the cold stone of the floor, suddenly exhausted. If Andar refused to help, what was the point of any of it?

A young witch, recently arrived at Morvale Wycka, knelt down beside her, offering her a cup of honeyed tea and a platter of bread and cheese. Meg accepted it gratefully. She hadn’t slept for three days. Her muscles felt like dry old ropes within her flesh.

“Will they help us?” the girl asked. Fyr was her name, Meg recalled. A serious, sombre girl from a village near the bridge, eager to do right in the world.

Meg ate a mouthful of the bread and cheese and sipped at the tea. It tickled as it trickled down inside her. “They may. And they may decide Menhroth is our problem and do nothing.”

“But that’s madness.”

“What would you do in their situation? Destroying the bridge is a terrible thing to do. And the scale of the magic involved is frightening. A lot of us will kill ourselves with the effort of it. And if we succeed, villages and towns all along the banks will be devastated. Alice Beetle knows that as well as we do.”

“Even so, it would be madness to do anything else.”

“True,” said Meg. “But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that people can be relied upon to do the daftest things. We just have to hope they see sense. Any more of this tea?”

“I’ll bring you some.”

“Lovely. More of this bread and cheese would go well with it, too.”

The girl bustled off. But when she returned her expression was more troubled than before, if such a thing was possible.

“What is it?” asked Meg.

“Someone has come to see you. Insists on talking only to you.”

“And who is it?”

“A mancer. A necromancer. Thaniel is his name. Says he has important tidings about Ilminion.”

“And he’s come here?”

“He’s in the Temple of the Moon. We thought it best not to bring him to the Wycka. He may be a spy or an emissary of Menhroth.”

“And yet you let him climb the hill?”

“He said he had news vital to our future. We thought it best to hear him out.”

Meg chewed on the last of the bread and drained the second cup of tea. “Very well. Best go and hear what he has to say. Give me a hand up, girl. A witch’s work is never done.”

The Temple of the Moon stood half a mile from the Wycka itself, atop sheer cliffs that dropped far down to the woodland floor. It was a simple stone building, open on all sides to the night air. A place for peace and solitude. Twilight was already gathering, and coloured glass jars holding candles had been hung from the ceiling of the temple, casting a flickering light. Night-time insects flitted and fluttered around them.

Thaniel paced to and fro beneath. He was a pudgy, balding man, more like a tavern keeper in appearance than a necromancer. But then, she’d never actually met a necromancer. Probably best not to make assumptions about their appearance.

“I am Black Meg,” she said. “Eldest and possibly weariest witch of Angere.”

“Thaniel. I am grateful to you for meeting me.”

“And have you come to threaten us with ritual slaughter? Demand our surrender to the dead King reborn?”

“What? No. Of course not. I’ve come with tidings. Something you must know. I’ve come to help.”

“Go on then. Tell me your news. Only, excuse me while I sit. It’s been a long couple of days.”

“Of course.” Thaniel hesitated for a moment, clearly uncomfortable. Then he began. “Up until a few months ago, as you may know, I worked with Ilminion on his researches.”

“You mean, you experimented on the transfer of spirit between creatures, buying life for one with the deaths of others?”

Thaniel looked as if she’d struck him. “It truly wasn’t like that, not at first. We wanted to defeat death. We wanted to end all the suffering and loss. But Ilminion … he went too far. His researches took him to dark places. He lost sight of what we’d set out to do.”

“And yet you stayed around to help.”

“I thought I could convince him to stop. He was a good man once, truly. But he changed. And then the King learned what we’d done and there was no going back.”

“Ah. Go on.”

“King Menhroth summoned Ilminion, made demands of him. There was a blazing argument. I wasn’t present but I heard Ilminion’s account.”

“Ilminion argued with the King? A dangerous game.”

“Perhaps. But they had power over each other. Menhroth was dying and Ilminion offered him the possibility of salvation.”

“So they come to an arrangement.”

Thaniel bobbed his head from side to side in a gesture that suggested uncertainty. “In the end Ilminion didn’t have much choice. When he returned from the palace he was furious. He ranted and raged for a day at what the King had demanded. He was … quite violent. Frightening. But we carried out our work under the King’s permit, and Menhroth could have cut off our supplies, had us imprisoned or killed. Ilminion had to agree. But in secret, to me, he swore he’d get his revenge, swore the King wouldn’t get away with it.”

“And what exactly was the agreement they came to?”

“The King was no fool. He was well aware Ilminion would have power over him once he’d undergone the Ritual of Seven Ascensions. So, as well as giving him eternal life, Menhroth demanded Ilminion transfer the greater part of his knowledge and power. To make Menhroth the greater necromancer of the two.”

“Is that even possible?”

Thaniel looked more and more uneasy at her questions. “There are ways. By using his own blood in the rite, Ilminion was able to do as the King instructed. But he was furious about it. I think … I think perhaps he had some quiet plan to usurp the King, just as Menhroth suspected. The look in Ilminion’s eye as he vowed his revenge was what finally showed me I had to leave, have no more to do with any of it.”

“And what was that look, would you say?”

“Madness.”

“And so you left. Yet you helped him all that time. You are still partly to blame for what has happened.”

Thaniel looked down to the distant ground, as if he might hurl himself to his own death then and there. “Yes. But I am here now. Doing what I can to make amends.”

“I really don’t see how you can make amends,” said Meg. “Unless you know some terrible incantation that can turn back time and put everything right in a moment?”

“No. But there is something. It’s the blood, you see.”

“What of it? Blood’s blood. We all have it. And it’s far too easy to spill and splash around. Nothing special about blood.”

“I explained. Ilminion had to use his blood in the rite. You must have heard the same rumours I have. Ilminion was killed before the sealing words could be uttered. Don’t you see? The rite is incomplete. And that makes Menhroth vulnerable. He’ll need more and more life-spirit simply to prolong his existence.”

She didn’t see. Magic like that was hideous, an abomination. “The simple truth is Menhroth was brought back to life whether or not Ilminion finished mumbling his incantations. And Ilminion’s dead so Menhroth can’t get his hands on the blood he needs to complete this binding.”

“But he can.”

Here it was. This was what he’d come here to say. “What do you mean?”

“You see, it’s not just blood. It’s the blood line. That’s the way it works.”

“But Ilminion has no children. Too caught up in his arcane researches that one. And I imagine a necromancer finds it hard to find love, no?”

Thaniel ignored her barb. “Actually you’re wrong. Ilminion had a child three months ago. He kept it a secret because he knew it would make him vulnerable, give Menhroth a bargaining piece.”

That was news. “Ilminion had a child? A boy or a girl?”

“A girl called Weyerd. Her mother died giving birth to her.”

“Is that so? And was any help brought to the poor woman as she laboured or did Ilminion fear someone finding out too much?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

“And where is this girl?”

“In Ilminion’s palace in the far west, a long way from the river and the court. But once Menhroth finds out he’ll stop at nothing to seize the baby. With her blood he can complete the rite himself. Everything depends on this girl. She’s Menhroth’s one chance to secure complete invulnerability. But if we have her, we have a weapon against him.”

“She’s a baby, necromancer. An innocent. Not a weapon.”

“Yes. Yes of course. I just meant that all our fates depend on her.”

Meg simply snorted in reply. Was that true? Perhaps it was and perhaps it wasn’t. But this child was clearly in terrible danger. She pitied the girl, growing up with such a weight of destiny hanging over her. If she even got the chance to grow up. Menhroth would be sure to learn of her sooner or later and then he’d come for her, for her blood. He wouldn’t care what he had to do to get it. Kill her, most likely. Which couldn’t be allowed to happen. Maybe there wasn’t much Meg and the other witches could do to fight the King, but they couldn’t stand by and watch such horror.

“You’re thinking about how you can rescue her,” said Thaniel. A sly tone she didn’t like had crept into his voice. “Take her to safety somewhere? Hide her away?”

“Perhaps.”

“You don’t have to go that far you know.”

“And what do you mean by that?”

“We have to face facts. If the girl were killed before Menhroth got to her we’d be safe. Ilminion’s blood line would truly be ended then.”

“You’re suggesting we kill this child before the King does?”

Thaniel was gripping his own hands tightly, rubbing them, uncomfortable at what he was suggesting. “A terrible notion, of course. Still, isn’t one death better than the whole world being at Menhroth’s mercy? Isn’t one death better than many?”

For a moment she didn’t know how to reply. “You really think you can count up lives and deaths like that? As if they were nothing more than stones on the ground?”

Thaniel looked as if he was about to reply, but thought better of it. He sagged visibly. “I don’t know. No. I suppose not.”

“Very well,” said Meg. “We’ll have no more talk like that. Thank you for coming here and telling us of the girl. We’ll do what we can.”

“There is something else,” said Thaniel. “Something you should know. The King wasn’t our first subject. There were many previous attempts, some more successful than others. Some lived only a few moments. Others had to be killed for everyone’s sake. But some survived and these will be guarding Ilminion’s home, guarding his child. Ilminion called them his undain.”

“What does that even mean?”

“He was originally from the southern deserts. In his native tongue it means something like the new people or the next people. You must be very careful. Some of these creatures are truly fearsome. Not much human left in them.”

“Well. That’s just lovely,” said Meg. She held out a hand to Thaniel.

For a moment he didn’t act, puzzled at what he was supposed to do. Then he helped haul her to her feet.

“Best get started then,” said Meg. “You’re welcome to stay the night if you wish. We don’t get many necromancers here but now that I’ve had a look at you, you don’t seem too terrible. Be warned though. Try any death magic, do so much as utter a few syllables under your breath, and you won’t see the morning. You have my word.”

“I believe you.”

She was about to say more when she heard pounding footsteps.

Fyr raced up, out of breath, face flushed. “Black Meg. You’re needed. It’s the Andar witches. They’ve given their reply.”

Meg glanced at Thaniel, listening with a puzzled look on his face. Meg strode away, leading Fyr by the arm so they couldn’t be overheard. “They’ve decided not to help, is that right?”

It was probably just as well now. They had no chance of rescuing this baby in a week. It would take at least that long to travel into the far west, and the same again to make the return journey. It would be the better part of a month before they could get the child safely to Andar. By then the crossing wouldn’t be possible, the bridge held by Menhroth, the witches all dead or enslaved. But there was nothing to be done.

“No,” said Fyr, her voice all excitement. “No, they’ve agreed to help. They’re already preparing to move north and begin the spellcraft. Alice Beetle says she’s sending word ahead to all the witches and mancers she trusts, telling them to gather at the ice. Now we can do the same. If we leave immediately we can easily make it within the week. Isn’t it wonderful?”

Early the following morning, Meg stood alone at the vast stone archway that crowned the steep hill known as Wyrmfell. It was the nearest of the dragonriders’ gateways to Morvale Wycka, and she’d come to meet a dragon and a rider.

Was she doing the right thing? The other witches had already set off, striking northeast so they could pick up the bank of the An and, hopefully, assemble more and more spellweavers as they raced to the ice. She should have gone with them. They would need all the magical strength they had. But this innocent baby girl, Ilminion’s daughter, changed everything. Meg needed to rescue her, bring her to safety. And she had to do so in one week. They could spare no others in the attempt.

Seeing no other course she’d turned to the riders, or at least those few that were opposed to Menhroth. She’d found Dervil’s presence in the aether after only an hour of seeking. In the dead of night, questing out with her mind, she’d found the particular glowing light in the darkness that represented the rider.

Dervil. I have urgent need of your help.

Dervil’s mind, unusually, was open to her. Pain and anger burned brightly in the rider, her thoughts little more than a jumble of tattered emotions. Rage. Despair. Loss. It soon became clear why. Her dragon was dead, slain in battle with the King’s riders. Dervil’s raw anguish echoed in the aether, terrible to touch, the colours swirling storm-cloud purple and blood-red. Meg offered what comfort she could, although it was precious little. To the riders, the dragons were everything.

It took most of an hour to soothe Dervil, bring her back. Meg waited as patiently as she could. Some hurts were too deep. Eventually she was able to get sense out of the rider, piece together what had happened. Dervil and two others had been attacked by a wing of dragonriders loyal to the King, ten or twelve of them. Dervil’s crimson dragon had been ripped to shreds, one wing torn from its body in mid-flight. Dervil had barely escaped alive, the dragon’s last act to cushion her fall to the ground with its own body.

Did you know them? Meg asked. The riders who attacked you?

We knew them all. A week ago they were trusted friends. Now they are killing us, and we are killing them in payment. Wyrms a thousand years old or more have seen their last sunrises.

And Ilminion’s book. Do you still have it? More than ever she wished she’d taken it now, brought it to Morvale Wycka. Done something. How costly might that mistake be?

I have it still, said Dervil. We escaped the dragons attacking us, fled into the woods where they couldn’t follow.

And where are you taking the book?

Akbar is with a rebel army ten or twenty miles Anwards. I will take it to him. As you instructed.

Instructed? Was that how it seemed? Perhaps you should just destroy the book instead, Meg said across the aether. While you still can.

No. It may still be useful. One day, somehow, we may have need of it. I shall take it to Akbar. Or die trying.

It was clear Dervil wasn’t going to be persuaded. Clear, also, that she couldn’t help Meg reach the far west. The wyrm roads opened to the riders even when they were without their dragons, but Dervil was two days from the nearest archway at walking-pace.

And so another rider had come to Meg’s help, at Dervil’s request. This was Bordun, Red Wing like Dervil. His dragon, when it exploded out of the archway, wings wide and swept back for full-speed flight, was like the oncoming storm, huge and terrible as it roared searing flame. But as it blasted through the air above Meg she could see that it, too, was hurt. Blackened scorch-marks patterned its torso. One of its wings was holed, the skin ripped right through.

The dragon arced into the sky. For a moment Meg thought they were going to fly away, ignore her. Then she saw they were manoeuvring to lose speed. She’d seen birds of prey perform similar acrobatics. The dragon climbed, slowed and then, its wings pulled in close to its body, stalled. It began to fall from the sky. But after a few moments, with exquisite skill, it extended its wings, one more than the other so that it spiralled to slow its descent. All the time Bordun remained on its back, leaning into the tight turns, rider and dragon in perfect harmony. At the last moment, as she thought they would thump into the ground in a jumble of broken bones, the wyrm fanned out both wings fully and beat the air with huge downdraughts, the blast strong enough to make Meg step backwards. For the briefest moment the dragon hung in mid-air, perfectly stationary a few feet above the ground. Then it dropped the short distance and landed gently upon its four feet.

Meg approached them warily. It always surprised her how big the wyrms were close-up. The creature’s scarlet scales were beautiful, iridescent like the wings of a butterfly, each a slightly different hue. The dragon’s head was as big as she was. It turned to regard her. Were they intelligent? Or simply huge and terrible beasts? She had no idea. Its jewel eyes were impenetrable, its mind hidden. But the familiar aura of despair washed over her as she approached. She was so insignificant, so weak. How could she ever hope to do anything, achieve anything, in the face of such might?

Once again, with an effort, Meg set the feelings aside. She’d learned over the years not to fight the crippling gloom, not to try and blot it out, but to accept and ignore it. To simply watch it encroaching from one side, and by doing so rob it of its power. In truth it wasn’t always easy to do.

In one fluid motion, Bordun slid from the wyrm’s back and strode towards her. His armour, red like the dragon’s, was scraped and charred.

“I am Bordun of the Crimson Wing. Dervil asked me to come to your assistance.”

His manner was terse, impatient, as if helping her was an inconvenience.

“You were with Dervil when she was attacked? When her dragon died?”

“Yes. And I should be hunting those responsible for that act now.”

“I understand. And I am grateful, Bordun. To you and your dragon. But my need is great.”

“And what is this terrible emergency?” His tone of voice remained level as he spoke. Nevertheless it was clear he didn’t think her need great at all.

“I have to travel to the far west of Angere to find someone. Then bring them safely back to the bridge. And such speed over such huge distances is possible only to a rider who can fly down the wyrm roads.”

“And who is this person who requires rescuing?”

Could she trust this angry rider? She had little choice. Dervil said she had complete faith in him. “A baby girl. Her name is Weyerd.”

Bordun didn’t reply for a moment. She thought he was going to turn and walk away there and then. Or worse. But eventually he controlled himself enough to reply. “I have fled the battlefield to hare off into the west to rescue a baby girl?”

“You were sworn to protect the land and all its people, I believe?”

“Which is why I have been fighting the dragons loyal to the monster the King has become for the last two days. Fighting and fleeing and fighting again. We can’t stop every time some bawling child is in danger.”

His anger was clear in his eyes. He must have come close to death many times recently. And he was being torn in two; caught between his oath to the King he’d sworn to protect and his revulsion for the thing Menhroth had become. She shouldn’t have riled him.

“Forgive me, Bordun. This is no ordinary child. She is Ilminion’s daughter and we have to reach her before Menhroth does. She is important to the necromancy. To the rites Ilminion used. We have to take her to safety, far from the King.”

The surprise on Bordun’s face was clear. The riders were normally so inexpressive, so reserved, but Bordun was too tired, too angry. It was clear, also, he had no idea about the girl.

“You intend to take her to Andar?”

“Yes.”

“She won’t be any safer there.”

For a moment she thought about revealing their plans for the flood. But no. The fewer who knew the better. She wished she could tell him what they intended, give him that thin thread of hope. But she couldn’t afford to. “She may be. For a time at least.”

“And where is this child?”

When she gave him the name of the place Thaniel had described, Bordun looked thoughtful for a moment. All the riders had memorized maps of the wyrm roads. The archways were dotted across Angere, hundreds and hundreds of them, and only the riders knew which connected with which. Not even the King, it was said, was granted that knowledge. The roads were never drawn onto parchment, except she’d heard there were charts at Caer D’nar, the dragon riders’ tower in the north. Maps used to teach each generation of rider how the wyrm roads criss-crossing Angere connected.

“It will be dangerous,” he said at last. “We will need to make three separate jumps, and one of the connections will take us through Fiveways, which is sure to be heavily guarded.”

“So we will be attacked? The journey is impossible?”

“It’s not impossible. Just difficult. The archways are close together but a skilled rider would be able to fly between them at great speed, angle his flight so that he was aligned on the next arch as he emerged from the last.”

“And are you skilled enough for such riding?”

“We shall have to see, won’t we? Tell me, have you ever ridden a dragon before?”

She couldn’t resist teasing him just a little as she replied. Dragonriders could be so self-important. “I’ve ridden on donkeys from time to time. Is it very different?”

She regretted her words the moment they took flight. Whether Bordun threw them around to punish her, or whether such flight was perfectly normal, she had no idea. She spent most of her time simply trying to cling on. She sat in front of Bordun, and more than once the rider had to grasp hold of her to keep her in place on the dragon’s back.

At least the enervating sense of despair had faded now she was riding the wyrm. Whether the creature had accepted her presence in some way, or whether riders were never afflicted by their dragon’s aura once they were mounted she also had no way of knowing.

Banking and twisting at speed, they passed through the Wyrmfell archway. They emerged over woods and rolling hills that she didn’t recognize. Bordun had shown her how to hook her feet beneath the scales on the dragon’s flanks, and at times it seemed she was only holding on with the tips of her toes. They swooped over rises in the ground, and sometimes she wasn’t so much riding the dragon as falling through the air beside it. The cold air streaming into her face made her eyes water and her cheeks burn. Her hair lashed around her head despite the long pins she’d slid in to keep it in place.

Slowly, though, she began to relax. And even enjoy herself. The dragon’s back was much more comfortable than she’d imagined. She’d eyed the beast’s spiky hide with some trepidation, but the scales at the base of its neck were smooth and even slightly yielding. She began to get a feel for flying. She had to lean with the dragon, flow with it rather than panic at each twist and turn. How fine it must be, she thought, to have the trust and understanding of such a magnificent beast. A part of her envied Bordun.

The rider pointed at something up ahead. They were thundering along a winding valley between tree-lined hills. Meg peered forwards. Another of the stone archways stood in the distance. Would the wyrm road open with her there? Bordun obviously thought so. More than once she’d quietly tried stepping through one, hoping it would work for her. It never had. They opened only for the dragons and their riders.

“Be ready,” Bordun shouted. “We’ll fly through three more archways in rapid succession. We may be attacked and we’ll have to cut some very tight turns. If you black out I will try and catch you, stop you from falling.”

“Well, that’s reassuring. I…”

But her voice was ripped from her mouth by the wind as the dragon dived. The forest rushed up to meet them, suddenly so close that they were brushing the tops of the trees. The stone archways were vast when you stood beneath them, but the one up ahead looked impossibly tiny. They sped faster and faster, the dragon’s great wings hurling them forwards with each beat.

Bordun angled to one side of the archway, aiming almost at the stone pillar. When they were nearly there, the dragon pitched sharply to the side, one wing tip pointing down, one to the sky. Meg couldn’t help herself screaming as she slipped from the dragon’s back. Only Bordun’s grasp on her tunic held her.

The stones of the archway flashed by her head and instantly the light and air changed. Icy cold gripped her, and there were rocks, the craggy sides of mountains, all around. For a moment she couldn’t work out which way was up and which way was forwards or quite who she was. They were still canted right over, the ground so close that the dragon’s outstretched wing-tip would surely touch and bring them cartwheeling to the earth. There were cries and roars from somewhere, and a hot burst of flame, and then another archway flashed by. Suddenly the air became warmer again, the light brighter. The dragon banked sharply in the opposite direction, the wind sucking the breath from Meg’s mouth as she tried to scream again. Another archway engulfed them, and another. At last they levelled out and the dragon began to climb, huge muscles bunching and straining to haul them skywards.

Another arch lay ahead, this one spanning the col between two jagged, snow-covered peaks. It seemed impossible they could climb quickly enough to reach it. They were flying more or less directly at the sides of the mountain, the wyrm desperately trying to angle upwards. The rock was a blur beneath Meg’s feet. Oddly, rather than panic, a strange sense of calm came over her. Even as the rock face raced nearer and nearer, it occurred to her she was glad to have experienced dragon flight before she died. Life still brought wonders even when you were as old as she was. At least the end would be quick.

Then the dragon roared flame and with one titanic effort hurled itself towards the archway. Its wings scraped the stone floor of the col, nearly pitching Meg and Bordun off. But then they were through. Warmer air engulfed them and they glided over grassland, wooded valley slopes on either side once more.

They circled slowly a few times, seemingly in no hurry, then thumped to the soft ground. Bordun slid from the dragon’s back and held up a hand to help her down.

“There,” said Meg. “Like riding a donkey, just as I said.”

For a moment she thought he was going to laugh. But he stopped himself. “We are here. The far west of Angere.”

The anger in him was still plain to see, despite his mind being closed to her. But she understood it wasn’t directed at her. It went further than that. He was angry at himself, angry at what the King had done, angry at everything that had happened. She could hardly blame him. The riders were the people’s heroes and protectors. Fearless, never defeated, they were sworn to defend the land and everyone in it. And what would it do to them when all that was torn in two? How wide would their wounds be? She felt sorry for him. A bitterness like that could eat you up from the inside, drain the light from your life.

“I may have lost count,” she said, “but by my reckoning we flew through at least four archways after the Wyrmfell one.”

“Five. I had to improvise, change the route. We were being pursued.”

“We were?”

“Don’t worry. I was able to leave them behind. They won’t know where we’ve come. Or at least, they’ll think we’ve travelled elsewhere before they try here. But we’ve come much farther west than I intended. We’ll have to fly some distance over land to reach the palace.”

“How far?”

“If we fly non-stop, three days.”

“Three days?”

Bordun showed no emotion as he replied. “The nearer archway was too well guarded. There was nothing I could do.”

It was cutting things very fine. Three days there and three days back meant they’d only have one day to rescue the child from the clutches of Ilminion’s minions. She just had to hope that was enough time.

“That last archway. When we had to climb so steeply. Were you sure we could make it?”

Bordun looked pensive for a moment. “I thought we had a good chance.”

Meg nodded, and reached out to touch his arm. “Then I thank you, Bordun. That … that really was quite wonderful.”

She walked round to stand in front of the dragon’s head. “And my thanks to you too,” she said. As she had with Hyrn, she bowed her head.

Bordun busied himself walking along the dragon’s flanks, inspecting the creature for signs of damage. Several black scorch marks that hadn’t been there before marked the creature’s sides. How close had their pursuit been? She’d been too confused, too overwhelmed to properly sense what was going on around her. A pretty useless dragonrider she’d make.

She looked back at the archway they’d emerged from, a quarter mile or so up the valley, its carved stones shining in the sun. No sign of pursuit. Raucous crowds of rooks flocked in the trees up the valley sides, but other than that all was silent. Down the valley stood a ring of standing stones. The scale was hard to make out but they had to be large, each of them taller than any person. She’d never seen their like before.

“What are they?” she asked. “Another of the ancients’ wyrm roads?”

“None that we’ve ever been able to use,” said Bordun. The sagas say the ancients used circles like that to travel to other worlds.”

As a girl she’d heard plenty of stories of the other worlds. Wonderful tales, but she’d always had trouble believing them, in truth. Did such lands really even exist? Most of the stories were surely little more than fairytale nonsense.

“The roads across the aether are closed now?” she asked.

Bordun came back to stand beside her. “So it seems.”

“Perhaps that is for the best, now that Menhroth has become what he has.”

“Yes.”

“We should move away, in case pursuit does come.”

“Yes.”

With a practised movement, Bordun flipped himself back onto the dragon. “We’ll fly low and slow, keep to the valleys. That way we may not be seen. Are you up to it?”

She gave him the withering look she kept for those who dared patronise her. “I can manage it if you can.”

This time their flight was gentler. They glided most of the time, the dragon only occasionally beating its wings to gain them some height. Rooks scattered in alarm at their passing as their wide shadow darkened the tree-tops. They flew with the light, landing only when the sun set, or to replenish their supplies of water, or when Meg’s bladder demanded a stop. They saw no one else, either in the sky or upon the ground, save for the distant glimpse of some palace or tower among the hills. The far west of Angere appeared to be largely uninhabited.

They talked little, even at night as they sat together around a low fire. Bordun was lost in his own thoughts, and Meg left him in peace. On the second evening though, thinking about her own two children, she asked him if he had a family.

His reply was terse. “Betrothed.”

“And she or he is a rider too?” That was, Meg knew, the normal way of things among the wyrm lords.

In reply, Bordun only nodded and wouldn’t look at her. She thought she understood something about him then. Bordun’s betrothed was on the other side, loyal to the reborn Menhroth. Another wound. She wished there was something she could do for him, something she could say to help. She was only grateful that her own two children, Selene and Arne, were already across the bridge. Their desire to travel, go off and see the world, had often been a secret source of sadness to her. Now she was glad of it.

Late on the third day they landed in the flat of another valley. The sun was directly overhead, scorching in the lifeless air. The dragon drooped its neck and drank hungrily from the little rill that babbled through the valley, and Meg and Bordun did the same.

“Ilminion’s palace should be over that ridge,” said Bordun, indicating the slope with a nod of his head. “Best we creep to the top and peek over rather than announcing our arrival on dragon back.”

“Very well.” In truth she’d be glad to feel the ground beneath her feet once more.

Bordun led them up through the woods, crossing backwards and forwards across the slope to make the climb less steep. She wondered if he was doing that because he could discern paths through the undergrowth, or if he was just making the climb less arduous for her. She had to stop again and again, pretending to admire the view while fetching the breath back into her body. Bordun, by contrast, was utterly untroubled by the climb. When she paused, he raced ahead to scout out the land. The dragon was a dot in the far distance, soaring on upcurrents, indistinguishable from raven or buzzard to the casual glance.

She was setting out on the final push to the top of the hill when Bordun returned to her, sliding down the hillside in his sure-footed, cat-like manner. Despite the swirling tattoos on his face she could see he was troubled.

“What is it?” she asked. “What’s happened?”

“We’re too late,” he said. “The palace. Menhroth is already here.”

A minute or two later, they lay side-by-side at the crown of the hill, peering down on Ilminion’s palace. Bordun was right. Three dragons were there, circling around the spires, occasionally unleashing their fire.

“You’re sure they’re the King’s?” asked Meg.

“I’m sure. I know them.”

Meg closed her eyes and reached out with her mind to discover how many defended the palace. And whether the baby still lived.

She found … nothing. Puzzled, she tried again, reaching into the deepest recesses of the palace, through the thickest walls. Still there was nothing, save for a single glow. A thin, dim light deep underground. Gently she touched it with her own mind. A child. A baby. Weyerd, Ilminion’s daughter, alive and well. But where were the defenders, the protectors? Who were Menhroth’s wyrm lords fighting?

She watched as a swooping wyrm unleashed an arc of flame towards one of the towers, picking out a figure hiding up there. Flames engulfed the defender, turning them into a raging torch. Meg expected them to plummet to the ground. Instead the figure stood unmoving and then, when the banking dragon was at its nearest point, leapt into the air. Trailing fire like a shooting star it jumped the impossible distance and crashed into the dragon, grasping hold of one of the beast’s wings near the joint.

The rider reacted by diving for the ground but the flaming figure, seemingly untroubled by the fire, began to flail at the rider. Unprepared, sword not drawn, the rider tried desperately to defend himself and his dragon. The dragon’s head lashed around but it couldn’t reach back far enough to come to the rider’s assistance. The flaming undain fought its way onto the dragon’s back and seized the rider in a deadly embrace, turning them both to flame.

In a few moments it was over. Two burning figures plunged to the ground. The riderless dragon roared its rage but could do nothing.

Watching, Meg caught an echo of the rider’s agonies. They cut out as the rider died. On the ground, one figure stood. The defender, still no more than a raging shape of fire. How was it still alive? Thaniel had said these undain were barely human. He hadn’t been exaggerating. The creature had been given demonic powers. And how many people had died to buy them? The horror of it made her insides lurch.

The burning undain finally succumbed, collapsing besides the slain rider. Why hadn’t she been able to sense the creature with her mind’s eye? She had to know if there were others in the palace.

Closing her eyes, Meg reached out into the aether again.

This time she caught an echo of one of them. A patch of deeper darkness in the shadows. A void, an emptiness where there should have been light. She should, she thought, write that down. Perhaps, one day, it would be useful to some as-yet unborn witch who would have to face the nightmares Menhroth and Ilminion had created. As she became better at finding them she began to see others. Three of them moved within the walls of the palace. One was on the battlements and one near the gates, but the third was deep underground, seemingly near Weyerd.

So these were the undain. These abominations, unliving but fuelled by the life stolen from others. This was what Menhroth had become. She shuddered to think about the victims Dervil had described at the King’s ascension. All those women and men expended, spent. And what powers did the King yield now? What miracles could he perform if this lesser experiment of Ilminion’s could do what they’d just witnessed?

“We should wait,” said Bordun, his voice quiet beside her. “The riders won’t make the same mistake again, but they will retaliate.”

“Well they’ll need to hurry up about it,” said Meg. “Time is short. We must begin the return journey tonight. First thing tomorrow at the very latest.”

The confusion on Bordun’s face was clear. “Why? We’re losing this war, clearly, but what difference will another day or two make?”

She wanted to tell him. But she held her tongue. The fewer who knew, the more chance the witches heading north had of making it to the ice. “You’ll have to trust me, that’s all.”

He looked like he was going to challenge her, demand to be told why. Instead he turned away to the battle for Ilminion’s palace.

The three dragons, one of them riderless, still soared around the palace, but at a greater distance now, their wariness clear.

“What will they do?” asked Meg.

“Land, perhaps. Attack on foot as well as from the air. Even those horrors won’t survive being cloven in half by a serpentine blade.”

“Can they defeat the defenders?”

“Maybe. This palace wasn’t built for war and there are a hundred ways inside. But who knows what they’ll encounter once they’re there?”

Meg nodded. “And tell me. These riders on Menhroth’s side. If the King offers them this ascension, offers them eternal life and terrible power and all the rest of it. What would their dragons do?”

“A dragon would never allow itself to be ridden by such an abomination,” said Bordun.

“You’re sure?”

“I am.”

“So what if the King offers the riders a simple choice? Become like him, undying, or remain dragonriders?”

Bordun didn’t reply for a moment. Perhaps he was communing with the huge winged beast somewhere in the distant sky.

“I don’t know,” said Bordun eventually. “Some may choose to leave their dragons behind. It is a hard thing to believe or understand, but they might. Those closest to the King, perhaps.”

“And what would become of their wyrms then?”

“They would not understand. They would rage and burn in their anguish. No one would be safe from them.”

“Menhroth could not allow them to live.”

“No.”

It was a terrible thought, but encouraging in a way. She’d imagined riders with terrible powers on undain dragons. Would such a creature be able to cross the An? Perhaps. She didn’t know. But at least it seemed the possibility would never arise.

Meg and Bordun watched and waited for several more hours, Meg growing more impatient with each passing moment. The sun set behind them, shadows pooling in the valley then advancing up the slope towards them. Still there was no sign of further attack from the riders. Torches were lit all about the palace walls, as if the defenders were inviting attack. But none came.

“We’ll have to wait out the night,” said Bordun. “Most likely the riders will attack again with the sun. For all they know the defenders can see in the dark.”

He was right. Still, the thought of wasting more hours was galling. They couldn’t afford to wait longer than the following morning. If the riders hadn’t attacked by then, she and Bordun would have to try and get inside the palace. Fight or trick their way through. She lay awake for many hours, trying to think of ways of gaining access, the thoughts jumbled up with worries about the witches travelling to the ice and the timing of the flood they would unleash.

So much could go wrong with it all. Bordun was right. They were losing this war.

He proved to be right about another thing, too. When the dawn came, the first rays of sunlight cutting through the eastern clouds, the wyrm lords attacked. The three dragons flew in together, roaring their flame onto the towers and battlements of the palace before diving aside to circle around again.

One of the undain was lurking among the crenulations and spires of the battlements, and this one tried to do what the other had the evening before. Picking its moment, it leapt into the air towards one of the wyrms. The distance was huge, far beyond anything any normal person could leap. Nevertheless the undain made it, catching hold of the neck of a dragon.

The creature roared and lashed around, spraying fire into the air, but it was unable to reach the undain holding on behind its head. The dragon dived for the ground while the undain, letting go with one hand, drew a blade from somewhere and hacked at the dragon’s neck. The dragon roared as it plummeted.

The other two wyrms, seeing what was happening swooped past, trying to knock the undain off with their talons. It made little difference. Two, three more blows and the stricken dragon went limp. It turned from graceful, flying beast to mere weight in the sky. A dead weight. It fell silently to crash into the ground.

The undain, somehow, managed to pull itself free. But now the other two dragons could use their fire without worrying about their fellow wyrm. They swooped low over the ground, scorching everything with flame so intense it burned blue at its heart. The undain was caught, lit up like a torch. As before, the fire didn’t stop it. It continued to move, racing for the palace walls. More flame lanced down and finally the undain slowed and staggered. A few more steps and it toppled to the ground to move no more.

Bordun, lying beside her, touched her on the arm. “See.”

While the dragons had been fighting she hadn’t noticed the two riders approaching warily on foot, swords drawn, hoping to remain unnoticed. She knew at once it wasn’t going to work. The undain she’d detected the previous night was still at ground level, waiting for such an attack. As the riders crept to the palace she felt it stir and move forwards. Then the gates of the palace were thrown wide and the undain defender stepped into the light.

It was huge, the height of two normal men. It held a vast sword in its hand, the blade six-feet long. A creature from some species of giant, perhaps, brought from distant lands. Except, something in the way the creature lumbered forwards, something in its ungainliness, suggested another possibility.

What had taken place here? What horrors had Ilminion worked? Was it possible that this hulking mountain of flesh was sorcerous, assembled from the parts of others, its bones and tissues held together by necromancy? She didn’t know. She didn’t want to know.

The riders, looking like children before the giant defender, moved apart and circled around their foe. Their intentions became apparent. As soon as the giant lunged at one of them the other could attack from behind, attempting to inflict some mortal wound. The slow dance continued for some time as riders and giant sought an opening in each other’s defences. Then one of the riders feinted forwards. It was enough to goad the giant into action. Despite its clumsiness its strength was immense, and with a blur of speed it swung the great blade around in an arc. The nearest rider, still off-balance from the feint, tried to leap over the blow. They didn’t move quickly enough. The scything blade caught the rider in the midriff, sending him spinning to the floor. The other rider, with a few moments more to evade the blow, ducked. The blade arced over the rider’s head.

The weight of the giant’s swing left a momentary opening. The remaining rider leapt in, serpentine blade swinging to land a blow on one of the giant’s thighs. The great creature bellowed with rage and staggered before collapsing to its knees. The rider jumped away before the giant could strike, barely escaping the great sword slicing through the air.

The first rider lay on the ground, unmoving. The second rider and the giant returned to their circling dance. The giant, one leg useless, was clumsier now. When the rider stepped behind the creature there was a moment while the giant had to swivel around to keep the rider in view. It was all the rider needed. Stepping into the giant’s blind-spot, the rider lunged, serpentine blade thrusting forwards to land a cruel blow to the giant’s neck. The giant bellowed, a cry of wordless fury.

The wound was terrible, surely fatal. But the giant had one final act. Swinging its blade even as it fell it caught the salmon-leaping rider in the back, spearing him like a fish.

Both rider and giant sagged to the ground. Meg watched, waiting for one of the three to stagger to their feet. But none moved.

In the sky, bellowing with useless rage, the three riderless wyrms soared around the spires of the castle. They’d been unable to attack the giant while their riders were so close. Now they descended. The ground around the palace was strewn with six bodies: the three dead riders, the giant, and the two undain who’d leapt from the battlements.

The wyrms nuzzled at their riders. At first she thought they couldn’t make sense of what had happened, why the riders had stopped moving. Then she saw that wasn’t it. The wyrms were separating the riders from the undain. The one who’d fallen the previous evening lay some way away. One of the dragons picked up the limp rider in giant talons and carried them to where the other two lay. When they were done the three dragons stood in a circle and breathed more fire onto the three dead riders. She understood then what this was. A pyre. A death-rite for the fallen.

When they were done, the dragons turned their attention to the three undain. These they didn’t heap into a pyre. Instead they took turns to immolate each where they lay, breathe relentless blue fire onto them. This was no pyre, no act of lamentation. It was an obliteration. A cleansing. Soon there was only ash and dust left.

When they were done, the wyrms roared one more time and took to the wing. They circled once, twice, then, flying in a V formation, flapped away into the sky.

“Where will they go?” asked Meg. “Back to Menhroth?”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps to the far north, away from the lands of men.”

“Still, we should assume Menhroth will find out what has happened. That he will come.”

“Yes,” said Bordun. “But we are fortunate. Our enemies have slain each other.”

“No. There is one left, guarding the child. We have to go in and face them.”

Bordun absorbed this information, his expression unchanging. “Can you tell what this remaining defender is capable of?”

“No. I’m sorry.”

“Very well. I’ll enter the palace to face it.”

“You mean we will enter it.”

“You wish to come too?” asked Bordun.

“Of course. Who else is going to look after you?”

This time the briefest smile did flash across the rider’s features. “Very well. Let us rescue the child together.”

They worked their way down the wooded slopes into the well-tended gardens that surrounded Ilminion’s palace. Neither spoke as they skirted around the smouldering remains of the riders, although Bordun stopped and lowered his head for a moment, his mouth moving as he uttered some silent words. They both tried to ignore the sickly smell of burning flesh.

Then Bordun stood and drew his sword. Together, he and Black Meg stepped inside the palace.

The wide courtyard was surrounded by highly-decorated walls, arched windows and doorways leading off into the palace. There was no one in sight. Nothing moved save for a few crows, scoffing at them from their perches on the spires. Warily, they stepped through a tall set of doors leading into the shadowy interior of the palace.

As her eyes adjusted she discerned a wide staircase, carved from polished stone, spiralling up and down. The walls were white, adorned with mirrors edged in gold. Here and there, finely-carved statues or vases stood on plinths. She generally had little reason to visit the homes of the nobles, but even they fell ill and felt pain, and sometimes a witch was needed. Ilminion’s palace was dazzling, a far cry from the dwellings of most of those in Angere. The sight of such opulence troubled Meg, as it always did. Who had need of so much room, such treasures, so many things? More rooms just meant more rooms to keep clean so far as she could see. It always felt like a sort of sickness to her. An endless need for more this and bigger that, when none of it seemed to make anyone much happier. Perhaps Menhroth, and what he’d become, was simply an extension of that disease.

“We need to go underground,” said Meg. “The child and the last guardian are there.”

Bordun nodded and, saying nothing, began to descend.

She’d expected to find grim dungeons and torture-chambers in the lower levels of the palace. Instead they descended to a series of spacious halls, as exquisitely decorated as those on the ground floor. Meg strained to see the shadow in the darkness that was the undain. Bordun held his sword at the ready. The silence of the corridors was almost worse than anything. Her senses were stretched to breaking point.

Finally, without being assaulted, they reached a golden door behind which the girl child and her guardian waited.

Bordun put his hand on the brass handle, ready to charge in. Meg stopped him. Something about the presence in the room ahead puzzled her. Perhaps she was getting better at seeing them, understanding what they were.

“Wait,” she whispered. “Let me go first. You can charge in screaming if things go badly.”

“But…”

She gave him a stern look, one she kept for the young and foolish. Which, these days, covered just about everyone. After a moment, Bordun relented and stood aside.

Meg drew a deep breath and stepped forward.

The scene inside the room confused her. How could she have made such a mistake? There was no undain here, no conjured horror. Instead there was just the baby girl, held in the arms of the woman who comforted her. A wet-nurse, clearly: the baby suckled at her breast, making urgent little whimpering sounds. Flickering candlelight suffused the whole scene with a warm, low glow.

Then the woman looked up and Meg saw she’d been right all along.

Had she been the child’s mother? Or just some other unfortunate Ilminion chose to care for his daughter? She was one of the undain, that was clear. Her eyes, when she looked up, were glassy and grey. Dead eyes.

Bordun, beside her, stood confused, no longer sure if he should use his sword or not.

“We’ve come to take the child,” said Meg.

The dead woman shook her head. Her voice was distant when she spoke, like the wind whistling around the eaves on a winter’s night. “No. You can’t take her. I have to wait here with her, protect her, until he comes back for her.”

He?

“Ilminion. My beautiful Ilminion.”

“Ilminion is dead,” said Meg.

The dead woman either didn’t hear or didn’t understand. “You can’t take her,” she repeated. “I have to wait here with her. Look after her.”

Perhaps they could despatch this creature with a few strokes of Bordun’s cruel sword. The thought of it repulsed Meg. This undain was no monster, no nightmare. It was a victim as much as the baby was a victim.

Bordun glanced at her and she saw that the rider was utterly lost. He understood fighting. But not this. He looked to her for answers.

Meg considered the grey-eyed woman, feeding the baby girl with milk from her dead breast. There were witches who dabbled in communing with such creatures, in freeing trapped spirits and the like. Meg had always shunned such things. It seemed only a small step away from the horrors people like Thaniel waded through. But she saw what she had to try. The thought of it sickened her, but there was little choice.

She stepped forward, trying to think how to work the unfamiliar, alien magic. It would cost her dearly. She would have to make up for a lack of skill with brute force. Carefully, afraid of triggering some response, she reached out to place one hand onto the woman’s head. The woman glanced up at her, the ghost of a smile on her face, as if she remembered the touch of others, caressing her, brushing her long hair.

Moving slowly, smiling in return, Meg knelt and placed her other hand onto the stone floor. Connecting the woman to the earth, completing the circle.

She began to work the magic, delving into the emptiness of the woman’s mind for the speck of light that was all that remained of her. It took several minutes but eventually she saw it: a flitting, bobbing spark in the shadows that crept towards her before dancing away.

Meg followed it with gentle persistence, as if gaining the trust of some nervous bird. Finally she drew close enough to the spark to cup it in her hands. She touched it, expecting it to fade or vanish. Instead it bobbed but remained, accepting her touch. Meg drew the little light into her own body. It felt wrong, unwholesome, accepting the fragment of dead soul inside her. She had to force herself to continue, not recoil in horror at what she was doing.

When she was ready she sent the tiny mote of light out of her again, through her other hand, committing the woman’s spirit to the ground where she could finally be at rest. The light resisted, as if fearing final oblivion. In the end Meg had to push at it, force it from herself. The struggle lasted for several minutes before the faint flame, finally, receded and faded away.

Opening her eyes, Meg cradled the baby as the dead woman slumped to the ground. There was silence for a moment in the chamber. Meg panted from the pain and effort of what she’d done.

“We wanted to have children.” Bordun’s quiet voice filled the silence in the room. It was the first time he’d volunteered any information about himself.

“You did?”

He actually smiled at the memory. “We used to argue about it. Not seriously I mean. It was a jest between us. I obviously thought Crimson Wing would be best. She thought Azure.”

“She flies for the Blue Wing?”

“Yes. Although she wears the black and grey regalia of the King’s Guard now.”

“I am sorry,” said Meg. The words were useless, powerless to help. “Sorry for everything.”

“You aren’t to blame.”

“Perhaps. And perhaps I might have done more to prevent all this.”

“Perhaps we all should have,” said Bordun. He stepped over to look at the baby girl. “She isn’t weaned. How will you feed her?”

“It’s a simple enough charm to work. One I’ve used many times. I may be old but I dare say my milk is more wholesome than that creature’s. Come. Let’s leave this foul place. Let’s get as far away as we can.”

“Yes.”

Bordun’s dragon flew in low over the valley side when they emerged from the palace. As they waited, Meg took a strip of cloth she’d brought for the purpose and fashioned a simple sling by tying it at an angle across her chest. It would hold the baby in place as they flew.

They climbed onto the wyrm’s back and rose into the sky.

The return journey to the archway in the valley proved uneventful. Meg expected pursuit at any moment, but they saw no one. Either word hadn’t reached Menhroth of what had happened, or else the King had no idea where they were. Or perhaps, she thought, his forces were simply waiting at the other end of the wyrm roads to ambush them.

Bordun took a different route to return to the An, passing through seven archways in total, hoping, as he explained, to throw Menhroth off their scent. Throughout, Meg clutched the baby to her breast with one arm and with the other clung on to the iridescent scales on the dragon’s neck. As they swooped through each gate, the world a blur of rocks and woods and ice and woods again, they were met by shouts and cries. This time she was aware of pursuing dragons. More than one gout of flame seared past, hot on her face. Bordun dodged in the air, threading his way through their opponents rather than turning to attack.

By weaving and wheeling around they made it through the first six archways unscathed. But as they dived towards the seventh, a huge green dragon rose to meet them, filling the arc of the gateway, wings beating hard to hold the great beast stationary in the air. It roared a wide cone of red flame directly at them.

Meg let go of the dragon and, holding her left hand forwards, palm flat, unleashed a blast of cold air to meet the fire. It was purely instinctive. Working the magic cost her. Sharp pains cut through her head and down her neck as her ice met the green dragon’s fire.

She bought them only a moment’s respite, but it was enough for Bordun to duck beneath the flame. Speeding to the ground they banked, their dragon’s wings vertical once more. Meg felt herself coming loose from the creature’s back, but the dizzying tightness of their turn held her in place. Her head swam. A headache thundered between her eyes and for a moment the world threatened to fade to grey. Terrified she might fall from the dragon’s back, she fought against the fog, willing herself to stay awake, stay alert.

The clashing, roaring world rushed back to engulf her. She saw what Bordun was attempting. They were looping hard around the archway’s upright, attempting to enter it from the reverse side without slowing down. It was surely impossible. The dragon’s wings were still vertical but even so it didn’t seem they could turn tightly enough. They were slipping to the ground, staying in the air only because of their speed, the dragon’s skyward wings giving them no lift.

Their loop tightened as Bordun attempted to cut inside the archway. The green dragon was turning, flapping awkwardly, preparing to unleash more flame on them. Meg tried to summon more threads of magic, work a gale to fend off the fire. But she couldn’t think straight, couldn’t form the shapes in her mind. The darkness rushed in again to consume her and this time there was nothing she could do to hold it off.

The troubled world slipped away from her.

Bordun’s iron grip on her shoulder brought her back to herself. They were still alive, still flying. Flying horizontally, too. Somehow they’d made it. Bordun had steered them through the archway.

The baby. Alarm shot through her. How long had she lost her senses? But the reassuring weight at her breast was still there, the sling holding the infant in place. She pulled aside the cloths and the baby’s wide-eyed face smiled back at her, as if nothing had happened and they’d never been in any danger. Marvelling, Meg stroked the baby’s cheek, then returned to holding tightly onto the dragon’s neck.

“Are they pursuing us?” she called over her shoulder.

Bordun’s voice was strangely close to her ear as he replied. “No. They have let us be for a moment.”

“Why? Why would they do that?”

“They were mustering into attack formation, ready for an assault on the bridge. Lord Charis was there, the King’s Chancellor. They think to take us in battle at the An.”

If that was so it must mean news of their rescue of the baby girl hadn’t spread this far east. Perhaps they had a chance after all. In the far distance, a sparkling line of blue, the An, waited for them. They were nearly there. For the moment they were safe and alone, and that was very welcome. Meg forced herself to breathe slowly and deeply, trying to calm the ache that lingered in her head.

The dragon’s outstretched wings beat steadily, propelling them forwards. The babe in her arms closed its eyes and fell into sudden sleep. Perhaps it was the surging motion of the dragon. Meg smiled to herself. In all her years of trying to get babies to shut their eyes, she’d never once thought about trying a ride on a wyrm.

She reached out with her mind, questing northwards through the aether to try and find the gathered witches and mancers at the ice. If they hadn’t made it that far north, or if their combined strength wasn’t enough, then it made little difference whether she and Bordun reached the bridge or not.

She hoped to find one of the older witches, those with whom she’d been friends for many decades. Mother Crookall or Esme Cobb. Instead it was the girl, young Fyr, she found. A wavering candle-flame in the grey of the aether, almost flickering out as if set too near a draught. Meg drew nearer, cautious. It was a delicate business making contact with another witch. There was always the risk the touch would be perceived as an attack. But unexpectedly, with no resistance offered, Meg found herself looking out through the girl’s eyes.

This far north the broadleaf trees she was used to, oak and elm and ash, had given way to spiky conifers, dark green despite the cold air. It was said the river was a little narrower here, the waters running fast and deep, but still the far shore was invisible. A crust of ice had formed on the An, stopping a few yards out where it met the full force of the flow. It was just a good thing winters were never severe enough for the ice to creep all the way across. Some said the great river had no beginning and no end; that its waters moved in an endless ring around the world. If that was true, Andar would be safe once they’d destroyed the bridge.

Except, that wasn’t to be. She saw now. All around her, the towering slopes stepped away into the far north, and the vast fields of ice and snow upon them lay dazzling in their white brilliance. But all pristine, all untouched.

Fyr? she said. What has happened? Can you hear me?

Black Meg. You’re still alive. That is good. The girl sounded exhausted, the words limping from her.

What has happened, said Meg again. Have you unleashed the ice?

See, said Fyr.

The girl was too exhausted to speak longer. Pain coloured her thoughts. Pain and horror. When her gaze shifted and Meg saw the field of snow all around the girl, she understood why.

Witches and mancers lay all around, scattered on the icy bank of the An as if they’d simply fallen asleep. But Meg knew, immediately, they were gone. Expressions of frozen agony twisted their faces. So many of them, so much strength and life spent on trying to crack the ice and send it crashing into the water. So many old friends she would never see again.

We weren’t enough, said Fyr. We spent all we had but we weren’t enough.

What of Alice Beetle and the Andar witches? asked Meg.

They threw everything into it. Many died from the effort there, too.

And Hyrn?

I don’t know. Perhaps I sensed something. Like a great light. But then I lost sight of it as we came together and battled.

And did any ice hit the water? Will there be any flood at all?

None. We have failed. Utterly failed. I am sorry.

Shocked, Meg withdrew, leaving the northern ice for the sunlit woods of Angere beneath her. It had all been for nothing. The great wyrm’s wings beat the air, propelling them eastwards to the An. What did it matter now? Menhroth could take Andar whenever it suited him. Take the baby girl. Everything was lost. Despite their efforts, the deaths of so many, everything was lost.

The baby she carried in her arms made a snuffling sound, almost inquisitive, as if asking Meg what was wrong. Meg looked down at the child. Her eyes were open, staring at Meg with something like wonder. Meg stroked the baby’s soft cheek. The girl could never understand, but they had failed her. Failed everyone.

The baby, oblivious, made a sound that was something like a chortle of laughter. A moment of simple delight at Meg’s touch perhaps.

The sound stirred something in Meg’s heart. What was she thinking? Despair was so easy, but there was always hope. Hope for the future. Hope in new life. This was no time for giving in. This was a time to fight back.

Reaching into the aether she found Fyr once more.

How many or you are left? Meg asked.

One or two. Not many.

And in Andar?

Alice and a few others.

Then … let us try one more time. Perhaps we are close. Perhaps you weakened the ice on the slopes and it is ready to fall. I will lend my strength to it.

You are too far away.

We have no choice. Let us try. Let me work through you, give you my strength. If we all die, what does it matter?

After a moment, she felt Fyr relenting, agreeing to make one final effort. Very well. It is all we can do.

Opening her eyes, Meg called back to Bordun. “If I pass Weyerd to you can you carry her and fly the dragon at the same time?”

It took Bordun a moment to reply. “You want me to hold the baby?”

“You’ll have to tie the sling around you. Can you fly with one hand?”

“Yes. But why?”

“I’m about to attempt something. It may not go well. I may black out or fall. It’s quite possible I won’t survive it. If I don’t you must take the girl to the bridgehead, see she’s taken to Andar without delay. Do you understand?”

“I understand.”

“Very well. Don’t try any aerobatics while I pass her to you.”

“Yes, but…”

“There’s no time. I’m holding her now. Untie the sling. Good. Now knot it securely about your neck. Are you ready?”

“Yes.”

“Here she is. Wrap her up tight. Not so tight she can’t breathe. Ready?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now, if you talk to me I may not respond for a time.”

“But…”

“Hush, now. Fly your dragon.”

The effort and pain of what Meg went through over the following minutes nearly killed her. She offered up the strength within her to Fyr, letting the girl draw on it, add it to her own. Sharp pains coursed through Meg as if her insides were burning, but she kept herself open, refusing to relent. Fyr and the other remaining witches sent their fire into the ice, attempting again to weaken it at its base. Dimly Meg was aware of Bordun’s grasp on her shoulder, holding her in place on the back of the wyrm.

When she had given all she had she screamed in agony and fear, although whether it was through her own mouth or Fyr’s she couldn’t tell. A moment of absolute silence followed, filling the world. She’d done all she could. There was nothing more to give.

The moment stretched out, unending, as if the whole land waited to see what would happen. Here was another turning point. Or perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps nothing would change and they could do nothing but cower away to await the inevitable end. Still the moment stretched on.

Then a sharp crack, louder than lightning striking the ground, broke in the air around Fyr. The huge sound echoed around the mountainsides. On the slopes, a jagged line appeared in the ice, a fault in the pristine white. Nothing else moved. Had they failed after all? Managed only to break the ice that small amount?

Then she saw that the slopes were moving. Slipping downwards. Slowly at first, then gathering speed as the undercut ice higher up began to fall. More weight brought down more and more ice. In a few moments it was unstoppable, mountainsides of snow crashing down to smash into the An, filling the air with a fury of snow and spray. The river seethed and boiled, sending a huge wave of water and ice surging southwards to engulf the lands.

Meg felt her connection to the girl slipping away. Only a handful of witches had survived in the north and the girl was among them. They’d worked this terrible magic to save Andar, but now Fyr and the others were lost, cut off forever. Perhaps they could stay in the north, hide away. It was the only hope for them Meg could see.

We will save Andar, Meg said to Fyr with the last of her strength. We have bought that, at least.

Yes, said Fyr. We have done that. That was a good thing to do.

Good bye, girl.

Good bye, Black Meg.

Meg’s link to Fyr’s mind fell away and she was back on the dragon again. She panted heavily, sharp pains cutting through her as if she’d suffered terrible injuries. Hopefully, given time, her wounds would heal.

“What happened?” Bordun shouted to her against the wind. “Can you hold on?” He knew nothing of her struggles and what had just been achieved. He would learn soon.

“I’m well,” she called over her shoulder. “Is Weyerd safe?”

“She’s fine. For some reason she finds me amusing. She keeps laughing at me.”

Despite her agonies Meg smiled to herself at his words. “Very well. Let’s get to the bridge.”

Beneath them lay the familiar patchwork of fields and woods and hills. Villages and hamlets she’d visited often in her travels. The countless dwellings she’d spent her days and nights in, tending to the sick, easing the passage of newborns into the world and the passage of the old from it. There was movement down there. A lot of movement. The streaming air made her eyes water, but it was clear enough what she was seeing. People were flocking along the roads and tracks and paths towards the river.

It struck her this was the last she would see of any of it. Whatever happened, the land she’d lived her whole life in, save for the occasional journey over the bridge, was dying. One whole half of the world was dying, the people of Angere draining from the land like water from a basin.

It was clear not everyone would make it. In three days, if they had it right, the great swell of water would seethe its way southwards to engulf them. But the one hundred mile crossing took at least that long. Which meant anyone not already at the bridge wouldn’t have time to reach the safety of the other side. Time was up for Angere and its people.

Bordun touched her on the shoulder, telling her something. They were nearing the river. She could see the delicate line of the bridge, its stone archways striding into the mists.

And over the bridgehead, hanging in the air like huge birds of prey, flew three dragons. Menhroth, it seemed, held the crossing. Bordun’s wyrm blasted out an arc of fire in their direction, as if warning them or trying to intimidate them. Bordun angled to fly directly at them, losing height and gaining speed, spearing into the attack. Wearily, aware she would be of little use, Meg tried to summon what scattered tatters of magic were left within her. Somehow they had to make it through.

But Bordun must have sensed what she was doing. He shouted to her again. “No. They’re friends. We’ve made it.”

The three dragons, seeing who they were, stopped hovering, and broke into glides, circling in wide spirals above the bridgehead. There were others, too, down on the ground. A ring of defenders around the steps that led onto the bridge. Dragonless riders, perhaps a few hundred of them. They still held the crossing. As she watched, the line parted to let a knot of people up onto the bridge. If the King chose to throw all his strength at them they wouldn’t last long, but clearly Menhroth was in no hurry. It appeared he didn’t know about the flood thundering southwards either. In that small ignorance lay Andar’s hope.

The dragon landed beside the ring of defenders with a bone-rattling thump. Bordun passed Weyerd back to Meg and slid from the wyrm’s scaly back.

The dragon that had borne them across Angere stretched out its vast wings once more, allowing Bordun to inspect them for fresh wounds. While he did so, another rider left the ring of defenders and approached.

“You made it,” said Dervil.

“Just about. Thanks to Bordun.”

Dervil frowned when she saw what Meg was carrying. There was a sadness and also an edge of hardness to her features that hadn’t been there before. “And this is the one you sought in the west?”

“Her name is Weyerd.”

“She’s a child. A baby.”

“Yes she is.”

“Why is she so important?”

“I will tell you, Dervil, I promise. There are things I need to explain. And things I need to warn you about, too. But first, tell me. What happened to the book? Did you find Akbar?”

“We found him. We were hard-pressed and there was little time, but he took the Grimoire and cut it in half. Magically I mean, so that each half was useless without the other but would be reunited if brought back together.”

“Why would he do that?” She didn’t know such a thing was possible.

“Menhroth’s forces were all around. Dividing the book meant they’d have to capture both of us. I took half and Akbar the other.”

“And you still have yours?”

“It is here.” As before, Dervil pulled the book from inside her cloak. It looked the same, complete, but when Meg opened it she saw what Akbar had done. Words, sentences and whole paragraphs were missing, mostly from the right-hand pages. Diagrams were half-complete, and some leaves were completely blank. With this half of the Grimoire, it might be possible to attempt the incantations and rites, but it would require much guesswork. Probably very dangerous guesswork.

Were the sealing words Thaniel had described contained within this half of the book? Perhaps. They would need to study it, try and understand it. Grim as the prospect of doing so was. The girl, Weyerd, would need to be told all about it as well. When she was ready. The secrets and horrors in the book were her secrets, her family’s secrets.

“Will you take it this time?” Dervil asked. “Across the bridge to Andar?”

“I will,” said Meg. “As perhaps I should have before. Although, given where I’ve been, perhaps it was for the best. But, hold onto it for a while longer, will you?”

She looked puzzled, but relented. “Very well.”

“And what of Akbar? I don’t see him here. Is there any word?”

“He was lost. The army he was with tried to battle their way down the Meltwater, but they were overrun and slaughtered a few hours after we left them.”

“Akbar was killed?”

“He was. All we found of him was a journal written in his hand. His diary.”

“And his half of the Grimoire?”

“Gone. We must assume Menhroth has it. By cleaving the book in two Akbar at least made sure the King doesn’t have access to all Ilminion’s foul arts.”

She was right. Losing half of the book was a great blow. But it was nowhere near the catastrophe that would have engulfed them if Menhroth held the complete book. Akbar’s act had saved them. Strange how everyone’s fate could hang by such simple threads.

“Very well,” said Meg. “We must take the book to Andar. The book and the child.”

“It won’t be safe there for long.”

Meg studied Dervil for a moment. She really didn’t know anything about the flood. They had kept their secrets well. “Actually, that’s not quite true. I have every reason to believe Andar will be safe.”

Dervil’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What do you mean?”

“Gather the others,” said Meg, “and I will explain all.”

When she had finished telling the assembled dragonriders what the witches and mancers had done, there was silence for a moment. Above them in the air, their shadows sliding across the ground, the three lookouts remained on the wing, although Meg had made sure her words had reached them too.

“And you’re sure of this?” Dervil asked. “You’re sure the flood will be enough to smash aside the ancient bridge.”

She tried to sound more convinced than she was. “There can be no doubt. In three days Andar will be safe. Anyone setting off now will have to hurry with all speed to reach the other side before the flood comes. An hour or two more, perhaps, and we can be sure Menhroth has been kept out.”

“Then we must defend the bridge for at least that long,” said Dervil. “It is all we can do.”

“No,” said Meg.

“What do you mean, no?”

“I mean, I think you should travel the bridge with me. You and the dragonless riders. There is nothing here for you now.”

“You can not ask that of us. We who failed the land will die defending it to the last.”

“Oh, nonsense,” said Meg. “All very heroic, but what’s that going to achieve? It makes sense for the four with dragons to remain if they must. They won’t want to leave the wyrms behind. But the rest of you have to cross over. If Menhroth does throw all his forces against the bridge you won’t be enough. And if he doesn’t, you’ve lost you chance to escape to Andar. Over there, somehow, you might be able to do some good. I think we’ll need you, one way or another.”

She could see the objections queuing up on Dervil’s face. Before Dervil could utter any of them Meg turned to the rider who had brought her and Weyerd safely back from the far west. “Bordun, will you do this? Stay and defend the bridge? If the King does come, you and these fabulous beasts will buy us a little time.”

Bordun nodded without even pausing to consider. “We will guard the bridge.”

“Thank you. For everything. But … there is something else I must ask of you too. Another task. Harder and crueller than everything you’ve already done. A task I am sorry to give you. That I don’t have any right to lay upon you.”

“Tell me.”

She paused for a moment. Should she stay behind to do this thing herself? Was she fleeing because she was afraid? In truth she couldn’t be completely sure. But she was needed in Andar. And the girl and the book had to be taken there.

“The people we saw heading for the bridge. All those fleeing across Angere for the safety of Andar. For three days, until the bridge is destroyed, you must stop them making the crossing. By whatever means you can, fighting them if needs be. They’ll attack you and they’ll hate you, but it is the only way. Perhaps, somehow, they’ll have a chance in Angere. But they’ll have no hope on the bridge when the waters sweep it away.”

Bordun didn’t reply for a moment. It was a terrible thing she was asking him to do. People would see a rider guarding the bridge and assume he was loyal to Menhroth. That he was to blame. After a few moments, saying nothing, he nodded once more and turned away to ready himself and the dragon.

“Bordun?”

“Yes?” he replied without turning round.

“We have done a great thing rescuing this girl. Whatever else happens, a lot of people may be grateful to us one day. Perhaps many years from now. They may not know our names or the part we played. But what we have done may give them a chance for salvation. Think on that as you guard the bridge.”

After a moment Bordun continued walking without replying. The dragon standing beyond Bordun snaked its head into the air and roared a huge arc of flame into the sky, hot enough on Meg’s face to hurt her eyes. The beast lowered its head to regard her. For the briefest moment, unexpectedly, the hard shell around its mind disappeared and she caught a glimpse of the wyrm’s true self.

There could be no doubt it was intelligent. She saw. Its mind was rich and deep and huge. Meg caught glimpses of the world as the dragon saw it; the mountains, the forests, the lakes. The rising of the sun and the dragons’ dance among the clouds. There was an image of a single, vast wyrm, perhaps Xoster herself. Meg saw, too, the dragons’ revulsion at what the King had done. The wyrms burned with life and the undain were the opposite of that. What Bordun had said was true: the dragons would never allow the undain to ride them. The wyrms would fight and die if need be. The sadness within the creature was cavernous: an aching loss that threatened to overwhelm Meg completely for a moment.

Then the dragon’s mind closed to Meg again. It took her a moment to regain herself from those huge, seething emotions. Had she been granted this insight deliberately or was it mere chance? She didn’t know. Perhaps the wyrm, knowing what was coming, had been bidding farewell. Or asking Meg to remember it. The death of such ancient and noble creatures seemed suddenly unbearable. One more sorrow to add to the tally.

Meg sighed once more and turned away. She had work to do in Andar, especially with so many witches lost. She turned to the waiting riders. All Wings were there: gold, red, blue and green. One or two, also, wore black insignia: the colours of the King’s own guard. Some of them had turned against Menhroth as well. She could see the doubt in them. They were all abandoning Angere.

“Dervil?” she said. “Are you ready? Will you come? You can carry the book while I take the child.”

Cradling Weyerd in her arms, Meg climbed the stone steps that led up onto the great bridge. She glanced back at the ring of riders. After a moment’s hesitation Dervil stepped forwards. One by one, then in groups, the others followed, leaving only Bordun and the other three whose wyrms still lived.

They were a few hundred yards out, the shores of Angere already fading into the An’s ever-present mists, when Meg heard the shouting. Voices rich with anger and fear. For a moment she thought it was Menhroth attacking. But no. This was no army. A family from somewhere in Angere, hurrying to the bridge only to find it blocked by the riders and their dragons.

A part of her wanted to turn back, allow the new arrivals onto the bridge. There might still be time to cross. But then others would arrive, and then others. Where would it stop? She strode on, gaze on the stones of the ancient bridge, worn smooth by the passage of so many feet.

“Black Meg! Please!”

Someone who knew her was trying to climb onto the bridge. Someone she’d once healed or helped. She tried to ignore the voice, put it out of her mind. There was no time.

“Black Meg! It’s me! Liana!”

Liana. The girl and the baby boy she’d helped deliver ten days previously. It was too much. She couldn’t walk away from them. Cursing her own foolishness she stopped. She put a hand on Dervil’s shoulder. “Run back. Tell the riders to let them through. But these must be the last.”

Dervil nodded, relief clear on her face, and raced away. After a few moments the angry shouts subsided and Meg saw Liana and her family, her mother and the lad who was the baby’s father, ascend the steps onto the bridge. Behind them, the great bulks of the dragons that had landed to block their passage took to the sky again. Liana approached, her face red, out of breath. In her arms, just like Meg, she cradled a baby.

“Thank you,” said Liana. “I thought they weren’t going to let us through.”

Meg nearly didn’t explain why. But she had to. “Because I told them not to.”

“But … but why?”

“You don’t know? You haven’t heard about the flood?”

“What flood?”

“Ah. Good. Well, let us hurry eastwards to Andar and I’ll tell you all about it as we go. Baby well? Eating and sleeping?”

“Mostly. More sleeping would be good for all of us.”

“Yes. Well I’m sorry, but there will be little rest for the next three days. We must hurry across the An as quickly as we can.”

Meg, Liana’s family, Dervil and the other dragonless riders trudged along the bridge all that day, occasionally passing families aboard trundling carts or even herding small flocks of sheep. Many people had been left stranded in Angere, but many had reached the bridge, too. The sight of each was a joy, a blessing. Meg hurried them all along, explaining about the floodwaters.

When night fell they pressed on for several more hours, Meg always conscious of the swell of the black waters below them, imagining it rising up at any moment to smash the ancient stones aside.

Stone Wayhouses had been built into the bridge at regular intervals, their floors overhanging the waters, supported by heavy wooden stays angled into the side of the bridge. Eventually Meg agreed to stop for a few hours sleep. Liana and her family lay down gratefully and were soon slumbering, although the baby whimpered occasionally, as if nightmares were besieging its mind. Weyerd, too, slept. The riders lay in regimented lines along the bridge, although they also took it in turns to watch for attack from Angere. But Meg, bone-weary as she was, could find no rest. She sat with Dervil on the wall of the bridge, feet hanging in the darkness, swapping tales of their lives and their fears for what was to follow.

After a while, Meg reached into the dark north with her mind, afraid of finding the flood thundering towards them. The long effort of it was exhausting, but there was nothing else to be done. If the waters came now, if their calculations were wrong, they’d have to flee for Andar with all haste. Any minute she could buy them would be vital.

“Can you sense them?” Dervil asked after a long silence. “Menhroth’s forces. The undain. Are they on the bridge?”

Meg returned to herself, always a disorientating experience. There was no sign of the flood. She let her mind expand outwards once more, taking in the whole of their surroundings.

The north remained an emptiness. To the east, Andar was a distant glow. But there was something to the south, a faint presence. Intrigued, she quested that way, the effort of moving over the water even in thought sending niggles of pain through her mind.

An island. There was an island in the An, downriver of the bridge. A thing she’d never heard of. She tried to see what the island was, who or what lived there. For an anxious moment she thought it might be Menhroth, some attack on Andar they’d missed. There were mists about the place, veils in the aether as if the island was deliberately hidden. For some reason she could see it now. She sensed trees, woodland creatures, and there, something else. A bright light, shaded but unmistakable.

Hyrn. Hyrn or a part of him at least, sitting on an unknown island in the An, a refuge from Angere and Andar. A place to watch the river and the serpents in the deeps. A refuge or a prison, depending on how you looked at it. She could sense the hurt in him clearly, the wound running wide through him. But he was alive.

Marvelling, she moved on, questing westwards with her mind’s eye along the narrow line of the bridge towards Angere. She sought out more lights in the aether, the glows that meant people. And not only them. She looked also for the moving shadows. The unlights in the night that represented the horrors under Menhroth’s command. The deeper shadows in the night. It didn’t take long to find them, moving nearer each moment. The shock of the discovery cut through her. They were on the bridge. She studied them for a moment, picking through them as she might sort through rotting fruit in a basket.

But it was clear what it meant. Bordun was dead. He and the others would have fought to the end. She’d thought that somehow, impossibly, the wyrm lords would survive. That the strong, fearless riders on their fabulous beasts wouldn’t be defeated despite the overwhelming odds. That was how it would have gone in a fireside tale. But this was no tale. Bordun was dead. The fact, more than anything she’d seen or heard in the past few weeks, brought home to her how everything had changed. How the world was being turned on its head and much that was fine and right was being lost or corrupted. Many had died, and many more would die yet, but for some reason it was the loss of this quiet, stern wyrm lord, a man she barely knew, that seemed to her unbearable. What chance was there for any of them if one such as he was gone?

It was a moment before she could speak. She murmured to Dervil in a low whisper in case anyone else was listening. “They are coming. Eight or ten hours behind I’d say. But moving all the time.”

“So the riders defending the bridge were overrun.”

“Yes. They bought us a few hours’ lead at least. We’ll never be able to thank them for that.”

“But will the waters come before they reach Andar? Before they reach us?”

“I don’t know. I can only hope. We should move on. It seems our pursuers aren’t stopping to rest at all.”

Dervil nodded and rose to rouse the others from the Wayhouse.

When dawn came, the waters beneath the ancient stones of the bridge remained smooth and calm. The bright sun lit up the mists into a diffuse glow. There was no sign of their pursuers, but the pearly air concealed more that it revealed, and Meg was constantly aware of their enemy’s approach, like a low thrum she couldn’t shake from her head.

They hurried as quickly as they could. Liana was still exhausted and sore, so they moved at her pace. The riders walked behind, ready to defend them if attack came. With only the mist and the stones of the bridge to look at, Meg slipped into a walking half-dream where they were trapped by some magic to cross the same section of the bridge over and over. With an effort she shook herself out of it.

Liana was visibly struggling, panting deeply. The boy, the baby’s father, carried their child. As he walked he studied Liana with growing alarm, seemingly afraid she might collapse at any moment. Meg called a brief halt while they let down one of the chained buckets set along the bridge to haul up water. Liana nodded her thanks but didn’t speak. While they drank, Dervil offered to carry Weyerd. After a moment’s hesitation Meg handed the child over. She was worn out too. All the twinges and pains in her body had joined into one unfocused ache, filling her up.

When evening finally came, Meg found their pursuers were much closer, only an hour or two behind. The rough cobbles of the bridge weren’t good for horses, but either Menhroth’s forces were riding regardless or were able to run and run without resting. She thought, briefly, about stopping, working what magic she could muster to block their pursuers while Dervil and Liana and the rest fled. It would be her final act. She put the notion out of her mind. Not because she was afraid – she was too exhausted for fear – but because she was so spent. If she tried to summon up a gale to throw their pursuers from the bridge, she’d probably succeed only in ruffling their hair. It would be a pointless sacrifice. All they could do was race for the shore.

“We can’t stop,” she told them, even as they slumped to the ground in another Wayhouse. “If we rest they’ll be upon us. I’m sorry, we have to keep going.” She stooped beside Liana. “Can you walk? The riders could carry you perhaps, or…”

“No.” Liana stood, refusing to give in. There was a fierceness in her eyes. “We’ll walk through the night. They won’t have us. I’d jump into the An first.”

“Well,” said Meg. “Hopefully it won’t come to that. We can rest a few minutes and then we’ll continue.”

“Yes.”

The march through the night was interminable. Now it seemed they weren’t moving forward at all, that the world was an endless darkness, nothing more. The only sounds were the shuffle of their footsteps and the gurgle of the An somewhere below. Meg was too exhausted to craft a guide light for them, but one of the riders lit a flaming torch and strode in front. They followed the wavering smudge of yellow, each footstep an effort.

When the next morning came, the third and final day of their crossing, the mists had lifted a little, scattered by a cold wind blowing from the north. Meg didn’t need to quest with her mind to find their pursuers any more. Sunlight glinted off their metal armour in the distance behind them. Was this an invasion of Andar? That seemed unlikely so early on in Menhroth’s new world. Most likely he’d sent a force across to hold the eastern end of the bridge, as well as to capture any attempting the crossing.

“Andar is only a few miles away,” she said. “We’ll be able to see the hills of Faerness soon. We’ll be safe when we get there.”

“We’ll buy you some time,” said Dervil. “We’re going to stop here and try to hold the bridge.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re hugely outnumbered. And I told you. You’ll be needed in Andar.”

“It won’t take all of us,” said Dervil. “The bridge is narrow. A few of us could hold off an army.”

“Nonsense. For a few minutes, maybe, but no more. It would be certain death.”

“Yes. It would. But it’s been decided. One from each Wing will stop here to face Menhroth’s army. See.”

Meg saw. Their pursuers were almost upon them. She could see their faces, see the long line of them snaking back along the bridge. See the undain lord who led them. But four riders had stopped and were standing in two ranks of two upon the bridge, serpentine swords drawn. It was madness. But there was also a certain defiance beyond all hope to it that lifted her spirits.

“Can the riders be dissuaded from this folly?” she asked.

“No. They’ll buy us what minutes they can.”

Black Meg sighed. “Very well. We must make the most of their sacrifice.”

They raced for Andar at a half-run, no one speaking. The first cries and shouts, the first clang of metal on metal came only a few moments later. A scream and then another cut through the air. The sounds of fighting faded away behind them before cutting out completely. Meg thought the riders had been overrun, but then a fresh cry rang through the mists. The fighting continued. She tried not to think about the scene of carnage unfolding such a short way behind.

Eventually silence fell and there were no more shouts. Meg didn’t dare look back, as if doing so would make their pursuers more real, summon them from the mists. All she could do was put one foot in front of the other. They were so close to safety.

“Look,” called Liana. The edge of panic in her voice was clear.

Meg had no choice but to look. Their pursuers were there, marching forwards across the bridge, the four defenders trampled beneath their boots. Soldiers and the undain lord leading them.

“We’ll have to fight,” said Meg. “Those of us who can. The rest of you take Weyerd and the book and run for Andar.”

“No,” said Liana. “I mean look that way.” She held her baby close to her with one arm, but with the other she was pointing north. “The flood. It’s coming.”

Meg turned to look upstream. For a dizzying moment she couldn’t believe her own eyes. The waters of the river were rising up, as if the whole land was folding in two to crash down onto them. A mountainside of meltwater, funnelled by the narrowed banks, hurled itself forwards.

“Run,” Meg shouted. “Get to the bank!”

But everyone was already running, their exhaustion forgotten. Riders carrying Weyerd and Liana’s baby raced ahead. In a few moments they were all splashing through puddles as the An rose to cover the bridge. Then they were wading through icy waters up to their knees, their thighs. Meg could feel the surging force behind it. A few moments and it would wash them from the bridge. Off-balance, she slipped to the ground, banging her hip hard against the wall.

Up ahead, the banks of Andar were visible now: a line of slender trees and, above them, round hills. They’d nearly made it. Would they have reached Andar if they hadn’t stopped those few times on the way across? If she hadn’t waited for Liana and the others? Perhaps. It mattered little now. Freezing spray and a roaring thunder, the loudest sound she’d ever heard, filled the air.

Then, weirdly, the flood subsided for a moment. The wave hung over them, the scale of it difficult to take in. It was a wall of water, trees stuck in it like straws. They were in the lull, the dip, before the full force of the wave hit them, like someone pulling back before throwing a punch.

Meg tried to stand but her hip wouldn’t support her weight. She collapsed to the ground. Had she broken something? Again, it didn’t matter. The others were ahead of her, lost in the spray. She began to crawl, inching her way forwards. She’d done all she could. They’d so nearly made it. At least they’d tried. At least they’d saved Andar. At least…

Then the wave struck and she was lifted up and dashed against the side of the bridge, and she knew no more.

Faces loomed over her. She couldn’t tell who or what they were at first, their lines blurred. Then features became clearer and names began to appear in her mind. Dervil. Liana. Weyerd.

Alarm shot through her, making her sit upright. Had they failed after all then? She’d been on the bridge and now she was here. The bridge had survived. Despite everything, the terrible force of the wave, Andar hadn’t been saved. She tried to speak, but could only cough and splutter with all the water she’d swallowed.

“You’re safe, Black Meg,” said Liana. “We made it. We’re all safe.”

“The bridge,” she managed. “We have to destroy it.”

“It’s gone,” said Dervil. “The flood destroyed it, just like you said.” The rider offered her an arm to lever her upright. Her hip hurt, but she could put a little weight on it. It would do. They stood upon the rocky outcrop of land that stood over the Andar bridgehead. They were all there: Weyerd, Liana and her family, the wyrm lords. There was no sign of the bridge, save for a short stretch that led out thirty yards and then stopped abruptly, going nowhere.

“I pulled you clear,” said Dervil. “We were the last two. The stones cracked just behind us.”

“Our pursuers?”

“The An took them. One was very close to us, yards away. One of the undain. It was about to leap at us when the wave hit.”

Leaning on Dervil, Meg worked her way to the edge of the outcrop where the other riders stood in silence. The swollen waters below seethed from the turbulence of the flood, boiling down the banks of the An. Whole trees were being carried along by the river, fallen trunks twisting around like twigs. But there was no sign of pursuit, no sign of any survivor. How could there be? Not too far out, mist veiled the wide waters as if to soothe the damage done. In the quiet of the moment, the croaking of crows came to her. The crows of Andar.

“What will you do now, Dervil?” Meg asked eventually.

Dervil didn’t reply for several moments. Finally she spoke. “Rebuild here. This is the closest point to Angere. We’ll build on this headland. Reuse the stones of the bridge to raise a watchtower. To look for the coming of the undain.”

“And if they come?”

“Then we will be ready to fight them. We failed Angere. We won’t fail Andar.” Her voice was level. This wasn’t bragging; she was simply stating facts as she saw them. And what would the folk of Andar make of these dragonriders without dragons? These protectors who’d failed to protect? Tolerate them. Maybe even welcome them. But embrace them? That remained to be seen.

Dervil pulled something red and gold from inside her cloak. For the third time she offered Ilminion’s book to Meg.

“Will you take it this time?”

“Yes. It needs to go to Islagray Wycka. We might need it one day. Us or those who come after us.”

“And what will you do?” asked Dervil. “This is no more your home than ours.”

“First things first,” said Meg. “People need healing. They need food, shelter, a home. The rest can wait. Young Liana’s taken a shine to Weyerd, and maybe that’ll work out nicely, but they’ll all need a place to live and fields to work. Them and others. Alice and the other witches, those that survived, will return in a few days. We have plans to make. We’ll make a start, although others may have to finish things. Somehow I don’t think this story will be over any time soon. And I need to write down everything I’ve seen or heard. One day it may be of use.”

“I thought you said you knew nothing about writing and spell books.”

Meg thought about Bordun, and everything he’d sacrificed. She thought about the undain woman who’d nursed Weyerd, and the troubling magic used to despatch her. “No. I don’t. But perhaps I should. The world’s changed and we have to change with it. Just as you have. We have to be prepared. Healing people’s agues and persuading rain clouds to fly elsewhere is all very well, but that won’t do anything in the face of those horrors. We’ve been like children, asleep while monsters throng to our door. We can’t do that any more. The witches have to be ready when the nightmares come, too. And if that means delving into the darkness to understand them, use their power against them even, so be it.”

Dervil grasped Meg’s arm, a gesture of respect. Respect or farewell. Then she turned and strode purposefully away, as if she planned to start laying the foundation stones of the new tower then and there.

Shaking her head at the sight of the rider, Black Meg turned and limped to Liana and her family.

“Can you walk?” Liana’s mother asked. “We can wait here until you’re better, sleep under the trees. We’re safe now.”

“Don’t worry about me,” said Meg. She held out her arms to take her turn carrying Weyerd. After a moment, Liana’s mother relented and handed the child over.

“Very well,” said Meg. “Let us go.” The six of them – the four adults and the two children – set off on the trek south and east.

As they walked, Meg glanced aside again and again, out across the An. What was happening through those mists, over there in Angere? What of Hyrn? What of the dragons and their riders? And what of Menhroth? Would they come one day, those horrors, those undain, to scour beautiful Andar as they were scouring Angere? And would they find other worlds to invade and enslave as well, down those ancient roads across the aether?

Perhaps. For now, though, she was safe, and Weyerd was safe, and there was much to do. Singing to the baby she carried, the sun on her face, Black Meg hobbled through the glowing woods of Andar towards Islagray Wycka.

The End

Dear Reader,

Many thanks for reading Hyrn. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

The story of the witches of Andar, Angere and our own world continues in the Cloven Land Trilogy. Book one, Hedge Witch, is now available with book two, Wyrm Lord, to be published in 2015. The concluding volume, Witch King, will be appearing in 2016. Find out more on Facebook or at simonkewin.co.uk.

Sign up to my Newsletter and you’ll be the first to know when these new books are released. There are also free books to download now as thanks for signing up. You can unsubscribe at any time and your email address won’t be shared with anyone else.

Thanks again for reading.

Simon Kewin.

Find out more

Two worlds, one nightmare…

Fifteen year-old Cait Weerd has no idea she’s being sought by the undain: sorcerous creatures that feed off the spirit of the living. She doesn’t know they need her blood to survive. She doesn’t even know she’s a witch, descended from a long line of witches. Cait Weerd doesn’t know a lot, really, but all that’s about to change.

At Manchester Central Library she’s caught up in sudden violence. In the chaos she’s given an old book that’s been hidden there. Given it and told to run. Hide the book or destroy it. The book contains all the secrets of the undains’ existence. They and their human servants want to find it as much as they want to find her.

Cait learns the fates of two worlds are at stake. Just what she needs. Along with definitely-not-a-boyfriend Danny, she has to decide what the hell to do. Run, fight or hope it all goes away.

It’s only then she learns who she really is, along with the terrible truth of what the undain have been doing in our world all this time…

From the reviews:

“I loved it. Pulled me into the world and wouldn’t let me go … a wonderful read.”

“A wonderful story combining the world of today with magic and fantasy”

“I was on the edge of my seat from beginning to end”

Simon Kewin was born on the misty Isle of Man, but now lives in England with his wife and daughters. He is the author of over 100 published short stories. He writes fantasy, science fiction, contemporary literature and some stories that can’t make their minds up.

He can be summoned from the aether at simonkewin.co.uk, on Facebook or on Twitter.

Hyrn

Copyright © Simon Kewin 2015

Simon Kewin has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

This story is a work of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the author, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

Edited by Stephanie Lorée.

CROW•23


Hyrn - a Cloven Land prequel

Some wounds are too wide to heal... The world changes one bright morning in spring. The ageing king of Angere has turned to necromancy to prolong his existence - necromancy fuelled by the death of many, many others. The land descends into chaos as loyalties are tested and former friends become bitter foes. For Black Meg, eldest witch of Angere, time is desperately short. She receives a vision from the mythical Hyrn, the horned man of the woods. The future he shows her is worse than anything she could have imagined. But Hyrn shows her, also, an answer, a way out. It is a terrible and desperate path. But it soon becomes clear the free people of Angere have no choice but to take it… A novella prequel to the Cloven Land fantasy trilogy.

  • ISBN: 9781310505065
  • Author: Simon Kewin
  • Published: 2015-09-07 12:05:09
  • Words: 24632
Hyrn - a Cloven Land prequel Hyrn - a Cloven Land prequel