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The Children of Isador

 

 

 

 

 

The Children of Isador

 

 

An Epic Fantasy Adventure

 

 

 

SAM J. CHARLTON

 

 

 

All characters and situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

 

The Children of Isador by Sam J. Charlton

 

Copyright © 2012 Samantha Charlton. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

 

First Edition Published in Australia 2007

Equilibrium Books

 

Map by Samantha Charlton

 

Sam J. Charlton’s website: www.samjcharlton.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To my mum – for her love, support

and invaluable editorial skills!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Come my children and I will tell you a tale

Of men of old and their fortunes foul and fair;

Of the nameless land far-off to the South

And of the evil residing there;

Dark times they were, for centuries of war

Had fragmented this noble land;

Each race distrusted its neighbour,

Ignoring the peril at hand;

The cruel shadow did lengthen,

Over continent did creep;

For darkness thrives in darkness,

Beware where malice sleeps.

 

 

 

Contents

 

Prologue

Ill – Tidings

Chapter One

The Last Stand of the Ennadil

Chapter Two

The Orinians Unite

Chapter Three

Captives of the Morg

Chapter Four

The Siege of Aranith

Chapter Five

Trouble in Brenna

Chapter Six

An Unexpected Ally

Chapter Seven

Across The Water

Chapter Eight

The March North

Chapter Nine

The Bounty Hunter

Chapter Ten

The Occupation of Serranguard

Chapter Eleven

Reunion

Chapter Twelve

Adelyis Takes Her Chance

Chapter Thirteen

The Prophecy

Chapter Fourteen

Paths Taken

Chapter Fifteen

The Power of Three

Chapter Sixteen

The Tarzark Stir

Chapter Seventeen

A Weakness At Last

Chapter Eighteen

A Company of Four

Chapter Nineteen

Tarzark On The Move

Chapter Twenty

The Bait

Chapter Twenty-One

It Begins

Chapter Twenty-Two

Finding Courage

Chapter Twenty-Three

The Hidden Stairs

Chapter Twenty-Four

End of the World

Chapter Twenty-Five

The Storm

Chapter Twenty-Six

Parallel Paths

Chapter Twenty-Seven

The Tide Turns

Epilogue

Separate Ways

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Prologue

Ill – Tidings

 

 

The servant hurried through Serranguard’s airless corridors, nearly causing the torch he grasped to gutter and die, such was his haste to reach his lord’s chambers. The evidence he had been instructed to find had finally presented itself.

Hugo hoped Lord Brin would not be so consumed by rage upon receiving this news that he would forget the promotion he had promised. Hugo allowed himself a cunning smile as he reached a heavy wooden door and knocked. Such a meteoric rise from dogs-body to the Lord’s chamberlain would allow him to harass any of the serving wenches he pleased from now on.

“Enter!” The City-Lord’s flinty voice brought Hugo back to the present. He felt a twinge of fear. Ambition over-rode good sense, however, and Hugo pushed the door open.

“Milord.” At the sight of Theo Brin sitting on a chair directly opposite the door, watching him under heavy lids like a malevolent toad, Hugo decided it was better to come straight to the point. “Lady Myra and Jennadil . . . I’ve seen them together . . . in private milord.”

The heavy-lidded eyes widened and something dark moved in their depths. “Where are they?” Lord Brin spoke slowly, deliberately. His voice was calm, betraying no inner emotion.

“I saw them go into the wizard’s chambers milord,” Hugo replied, suddenly wishing he had not been spying on Lady Myra and Serranguard’s wizard. It was too late for such regrets now though.

Theo heaved himself up off the chair. Standing, he looked less toad-like and more threatening. His robes swished against the stone floor as he moved with surprising speed towards the open door.

Hugo watched his master leave and hoped, once again, that Theo was a man who kept his promises.

 

Jennadil Silverstern drew the curtain closed around the bed and smiled at the young woman sitting naked on top of the covers. Eager, and innocent, Myra Brin stared up at him. Jennadil saw the devotion in her eyes but focused, instead, on the slender curves of her naked body.

Jennadil organised their encounters with military precision lest Theo Brin discover his wife’s betrayal. Jennadil knew he was taking a massive risk continuing with the affair but the danger only added to the excitement.

Lord Brin had been duped again.

Jennadil shed his clothes with practiced ease and slid into bed next to Myra. He smothered her giggles with his mouth and pulled her urgently against him. Their time together was always so brief and passionate—exactly how Jennadil liked it.

A short while later a sound intruded on their haze of passion. The sound was unmistakable: the rattling of the iron doorknob—the grating of a key turning in the lock.

Jennadil’s blood turned to ice. No one else had a key to his chamber. The only other key belonged to a master set, and that belonged to . . .

Jennadil hissed a curse and pushed himself up off Myra.

The door unlocked with an ominous clunk and screeched inward on un-oiled hinges. Myra cringed down against the bed sheets while Jennadil leaped off the bed, intent on reaching his staff. Instead, he somehow got himself entangled in the voluminous curtain shielding his bed from the door. Panicked, Jennadil struggled to get free but only succeeded in entangling himself further. The curtain ripped off its railing with an obscene tearing sound, exposing Myra’s nakedness for all to see.

Jennadil toppled forward, limbs flailing, onto the floor; landing heavily on the flagstones. Pain lanced through Jennadil’s jaw as his chin hit the floor and he bit down on his tongue. He swallowed a mouthful of blood and tried to recover his wits. It was then he saw two expensively slippered feet beneath a sumptuous velvet robe stop before him.

Myra’s sharp intake of breath was the only sound in the silent chamber.

Jennadil would have preferred to remain cowering on the ground, pretending to be invisible for a while longer, but he could feel cold, hard eyes boring into him. Reluctantly he felt his gaze drawn upwards.

Lord Theo Brin glared down at him. The City-Lord’s face was the colour of raw meat—his jowls quivered and his eyes glittered. Jennadil’s first reaction was to bluff his way out of the situation. It had worked many times for him before, albeit in less dire situations.

He even opened his mouth to make some elaborate excuse, but something in Theo Brin’s glower choked the words before they reached his mouth.

 

***

 

Ill-tidings, like a bad omen or a sign your luck is about to turn for the worse, arrives in many guises.

The lowland peasant folk had a finely tuned sense of such matters. They lived by the seasons and by the eternal cycles of the sun and moon. They were suspicious of change or of anything out of place in their pastoral idyll.

So it was on this late summer’s afternoon, as the sun was sinking towards the western horizon and the still air shimmered and shadows were long, when the reapers in the barley field were thinking about finishing for the day, that such a sign appeared.

The men and women felt a vibration beneath their feet and the sound of approaching thunder in the distance. Some leaned on their scythes and looked up, while others continued reaping, too tired to care. Not a storm cloud marred the pale sky. A few of the peasants watched the edge of the barley field, where the road rose above the rippling waves of golden barley before disappearing amongst undulating folds of land. The storm sounded as though it was rolling in from the south.

As they waited, instead of rain clouds, galloping white horses broke over the crest of the hill and thundered down the incline. The riders, crouched low over their horses’ outstretched necks, were Ennadil. Tall, dark haired and pale skinned; their fair faces were grim. No one had seen Ennadil in these parts in years. Children abandoned their task of bundling the barley stalks into sheafs and gathered at the roadside, watching the horses approach. The Ennadil streamed past, paying the locals no heed. Dust boiled up behind them and when it settled, the horses and their riders had disappeared to the north, towards Serranguard. However, it was some time before the echo of galloping hooves faded.

Unease and worry settled over the men and women in the barley field. Some of the older ones whispered amongst themselves. The presence of Ennadil in these lands was an ill omen.

The riders galloped onwards, oblivious of the stir their passing created. They had been on the road since daybreak and they had no time to admire the unfurling patchwork of cornfields, woodland and the meadows of the lowlands spreading north towards their destination. Finally, sweat-soaked and dusty, they reached the ridge of the last hill. The head rider brought his horse to a skittering halt and looked upon the scene before him. There, perched like a sentinel upon a rocky outcrop commanding over its lands, sat Serranguard.

Not taking his gaze from the castle, he reached forward and stroked his horse’s slick neck. His horse’s flanks were heaving like forge bellows. They had left Aranith a week earlier—and now the journey was nearly over.

The rider glanced over his shoulder at his companions. They were not looking at him; instead, their gazes were fixed on Serranguard. It was indeed a mighty fortress. At this time of day, its walls glowed with a radiance that made it look as if it was lit by some furnace within. Four towers rose up from the square keep. A green flag hung limply from its pole atop the southwestern tower. There was not a whisper of a breeze on this sultry afternoon.

The Ennadil’s gaze followed the road ahead as it dipped between two hills and then re-appeared, crossing the River Serran. The body of water resembled a thin silver ribbon at this distance, but it was the same great river that flowed south through Ennadil Territory before it finally reached the sea. After the river, the road wound its way up from the base of the outcrop, spiraling upwards until it reached Serranguard’s gates.

The Ennadil rider sighed. That was where they were headed, where he would seek an audience with Serranguard’s City-Lord. For the first time in centuries, the Ennadil nation would ask for help from the Orinians. Not wanting to dwell on this unpleasant necessity a moment longer, the leader of the Ennadil party spurred his horse on. Seconds later, his companions did the same. Fleet, as if carried in by a strong wind, the white horses galloped down the hill towards the fortress.

 

 

A pale yellow moon rose into the night-sky. It was a hot, airless evening. The aroma of roasting meat wafted through the lower levels of the Keep and only the murmur of voices, bursts of laughter and a baby’s occasional wail broke the night’s stillness.

Lassendil Florin, the leader of the Ennadil party, was rapidly losing his patience. Upon arriving at Serranguard, hours earlier, they had left their horses at the stables and requested an immediate audience with Lord Brin. The City-Lord had sent a servant to escort them down to one of the stuffy visitors’ chambers, along with the message that he was momentarily indisposed and would not be able to speak with them until dinner time. The Ennadil had waited and dinnertime had come and gone. They were now hungry and furious. This was no way to treat weary travelers. They had not ridden non-stop for a week to be ignored upon their arrival.

Lassandil paced across the narrow chamber and whirled around, facing his companions. “It seems Lord Brin has forgotten his manners. Let us go and educate him on how guests should be treated.”

The Ennadil stormed out of the chamber and nearly collided with a squat, greasy-haired man who was hurrying towards them down the corridor outside.

“Ah, kind sirs.” The man squinted up at the Ennadil. “I am Hugo, the Lord’s Chamberlain. My Lord will see you now if you would care to join him for dinner?”

Lassendil looked down at the chamberlain coldly. “Take us to him,” he snapped.

The servant bowed and they followed him to a stairwell, which curled up one of the towers. He led them up worn steps, his torch throwing long shadows across the ancient walls, and, finally, they reached the top of the tower. Lassendil breathed in deeply, relieved to be free of the castle’s fetid atmosphere. Ennadil castles were bright and airy compared to the airless fortresses in the City-States of Orin.

It was considerably cooler up here. Battlements ringed the tower’s flat, square roof. Candles perched on top of the battlements, illuminating the night in a soft glow. In the centre of the roof stood a large, rectangular table covered in a white table-cloth and a lavish spread of food. At the head of the table, seated upon what appeared to be a throne, was Serranguard’s City-Lord.

Two men stood either side of him. To his left was a short, lithe man in his early thirties. He had wavy brown hair, a long white scar down his left cheek—and the bearing and dress of a solider. The other man was enormously fat, even more so than the City-Lord himself. He looked to be around forty-five and he wore plush velvet robes that were making him sweat copiously in the heat.

Lassendil and his companions bowed briskly. “Lord Brin. I thank you for your audience. I represent the Elder Council of Aranith. I am Lassendil of the House of Florin. These are my companions, Essel, Farindel, Sariddil, Tellendel and Miradel.”

Theo grunted rudely before motioning to the man to his left. “This is Will Stellan—Captain of Serranguard’s army.”

The soldier nodded coolly. He had the quick, intelligent gaze of a man who missed little.

“This is Vermel Ham, my Counsellor.” Theo motioned to the man to his right.

The Counsellor mopped his sweaty brow and acknowledged their guests with a frown.

Lassendil nodded politely, as Ennadil custom required, before turning his attention back to Theo Brin.

“Lord Brin, we have traveled here with great urgency to …”

“Please, please.” Lord Brin cut Lassendil off mid-sentence with the wave of a pudgy, ring-encrusted hand. “I cannot talk on an empty stomach. Let us eat first.”

Lassendil took a deep, steadying breath to curb his growing irritation. Stiff with annoyance, the Ennadil took their seats at the table. As they did so, Lord Brin scrutinized them with interest. They were an attractive race, the Ennadil; tall and lithe with beautifully molded faces, alabaster skin and bright, intelligent eyes. They wore their dark hair long and were dressed in simple green and brown outfits, sleeveless jerkins, leggings and hunting boots. The Orinians were a shorter, stockier race than the Ennadil. They had light brown, red or blonde hair and ruddy skin and were rougher in manner. It was common knowledge that the Ennadil considered them to be uncouth and barbaric. Back in the mists of time, when the Ennadil had arrived upon these shores, it was said they had brought the Orinians with them as slaves. Thousands of years had passed since then, and the Orinians had escaped slavery and traveled north to create their own territory, but neither the Ennadil nor the Orinians had forgotten their common history— and as a result, relations had always been strained between the two races.

Lord Brin did not like Ennadil. He read their serenity and good manners as calculating and cunning. You could never win an argument with an Ennadil, simply because they refused to be manipulated. They rarely lost their tempers, and they used your own words against you. However, it was their superiority that Theo hated the most about them. All the same, he had been curious enough to agree to see this Lassendil Florin and his friends. Visits from Ennadil were rare in Serranguard and Theo welcomed the distraction after the day he had endured.

Theo helped himself to a large plateful of spiced beef and roasted vegetables. Without preamble, Theo started on his meal in a mechanical fashion, eating more out of habit than hunger. He raised his hand and clicked his fingers. The sound cracked like a whip in the humid air. A servant materialized at his elbow and filled his goblet with wine. Theo noticed the Ennadil refused the offer of wine, sticking to water. He was not surprised—it was obvious the Ennadil were not here to be entertained. Theo gulped down some wine and turned his attention to the leader of the Ennadil.

Even if Lassendil Florin had not made the introductions for himself and his companions, Theo would have guessed him to be their leader.

The Ennadil looked around thirty, although it was difficult to tell as Ennadil aged much slower than Orinians. His proud bearing and self-confidence marked him as a member of a highborn family. He had long black hair that fell over his shoulders and piercing blue eyes. Theo had noticed however, that something set this Ennadil apart from the others. Lassendil Florin was having a lot of trouble hiding his impatience. This intrigued Theo, as the Ennadil only sent their most unflappable diplomats to speak with other races. Lassendil Florin was no diplomat.

Theo Brin slowed down his eating as a thought took root in his mind. He lent back in his throne and sipped meditatively at his wine. Theo was still deep in thought when Vermel Ham interrupted him. “My Lord,” he murmured in the City-Lord’s ear. “I feel the wizard, Jennadil, should be here for this meeting. He’s half Ennadil after all. He knows their ways. His counsel would be valuable.”

“Jennadil is no longer in my service,” Theo growled, loud enough so that the Ennadil looked up from their plates and stared at him. To his left, Captain Stellan glanced sharply at Theo and caught his following words, even though they were whispered. “He is in the dungeons and has an appointment with the chopping block at dawn tomorrow.”

“My Lord!” Vermel Ham drew back in shock. His sweaty face gleamed in the candle light. “But why?”

“The reason does not concern you.” Theo’s voice rose once more. “However, after tomorrow you will need to find me a new wizard.”

Vermel stared down at his plate. “Yes my Lord.”

Theo Brin did not wish to be reminded of Jennadil’s treachery, nor of his whore of a wife who had been whipped that afternoon. She was now locked in her room, pleading for forgiveness. Theo would never forgive her. He had toyed with the idea of killing Myra, but that way her suffering would be over in a moment. It was better to let her live and make her life a daily misery. As for Jennadil, Theo wanted him disposed of, his head on a pike, as soon as possible.

The memory of seeing Myra naked and cowering on Jennadil’s bed, made Theo’s stomach curdle. His first wife, who had died three years earlier, had been a frigid prude but at least she had been faithful. She had given him a daughter, Gywna, who had been sweet and biddable until she reached adolescence, after which she had become obnoxious. He had packed her off to Brenna to become a Guardian of Isador—an order of virgins who guarded the Temple of Ancestral Wraiths. Of course, Theo had always wanted a son but if Jennadil had gotten Myra with child then he would strangle the whelp with his bare-hands as soon as it was born—and he would make her watch.

These thoughts were giving him indigestion. Theo had lost his appetite. He sunk into the depths of his throne and glowered at his guests until they felt his stare. Realising that the City-Lord was at last ready to talk, the Ennadil finished eating. Servants cleared the table and left them alone so they could speak privately.

“So, what is it you so urgently wished to discuss with me?” Theo said finally.

Lassendil’s face grew strained, as if it pained him to speak. “As you have probably guessed, we are here on a very serious matter,” he paused and took a deep breath before continuing. “For the past year, invaders have threatened our southern coast.”

Theo raised an eyebrow, incredulous rather than alarmed.

“At first they only attacked in small groups; scattered raiding parties that were no more than a nuisance.” Lassendil ignored the City-Lord’s smirk. “But then they started arriving in enormous ships, resembling floating cities. They attacked our coastline relentlessly and now have control of Fareen and Trill.”

Lassendil let his words hang in the air for a few moments before he continued. “They are wiry, though strong, and cover their bodies with long black capes. Many ride great flightless birds, and their shamans use a powerful dark magic.”

“But who are they?” Vermel mopped his sweating brow, and his faced creased in alarm. “And where do these invaders hail from?”

“They call themselves the Morg and as far as we can guess they come from a great continent to the south.” Lassendil replied.

“What do they want?” Theo’s expression was unreadable as he spoke.

The Ennadil held the City-Lord’s gaze. “What do all invading forces want?”

A silence followed Lassendil’s words. Eventually, Theo broke the silence.

“Come now,” he scoffed, “the Ennadil nation is vast and powerful. These Morg sound like a nuisance but I am sure their army and magic are no match for yours.”

“It’s gratifying to hear such confidence in us,” Lassendil Florin replied sharply, “but if the Morg were just a ‘nuisance’, we would not have ridden a week without rest to warn you of them. If they were just a nuisance, they would not be encroaching further into our territory from the coast. They would not be enslaving our people and setting fire to villages, towns and forests. Every week more of these floating cities arrive and they pour out of their bellies in an unstoppable tide.”

Theo crossed his arms across his barrel chest defensively. “It does not sound like you are doing much to stop them.”

“We are doing everything we can,” Lassendil shot back, “and it is barely slowing them down!”

Theo’s lip curled. “You want our help?”

“We are not just asking for your help,” Lassendil replied slowly, as he struggled to keep his temper. “Other delegations have gone to the City-Lords of Mirren and Falcon’s Mount, as well as to the Tarzark Kingdom and the Forests of Gremul.”

“You are asking the Tarzark and Gremul for help?” Theo’s mocking laughter rang across the table. “By the wraiths of my ancestors, you must be desperate.”

“I do not think, Lord Brin, that you grasp how serious this is.” Lassendil’s temper finally boiled over. “Maybe I need to explain it to you again using simpler language!”

Theo Brin’s laughter choked off. His eyes hooded and his face turned puce.

This Ennadil was an insolent upstart who needed putting in his place. Theo opened his mouth to give a tongue-lashing that would send Lassendil Florin cowering under the table but the Ennadil emissary did not allow him to get one word out.

“These Morg are not just a threat to Ennadil but to all of Isador!” he burst out. “Unless we all: Ennadil, Orinian, Tarzark and Gremul, form a united front, the Morg will gradually move north, enslaving us all. It has happened all along our southern coast. The Ennadil they left alive are now forced to be part of their war machine. Their strength grows daily.”

“I understand what you are saying, but after centuries of isolation I do not think Isador’s races are capable of uniting.” Captain Will Stellan spoke up for the first time. His expression was unreadable but unlike Theo’s, his eyes were not hostile.

“Was it not the Ennadil.” Theo burst in, his jowls quivering.“Who isolated themselves from the rest of Isador centuries ago? Where were you when the Tarzark tried to extend their territory south into our lands or when the Gremul raided our eastern border villages? When we asked you for help, you gave us long eloquent speeches about the Ennadil nation’s disinterest in our affairs. But look at you now. You come crawling on your bellies, pleading for help, or rather, demanding that we help you. Even when you are whipped like dogs you still think you are better than the rest of us!”

Lassendil leapt to his feet, followed by his companions. Their faces were stony masks of fury. “You still have not understood!” Lassendil’s voice was hoarse with the effort he was making not to shout. “This affects all of us! It is just your good fortune they attacked us first, otherwise it would be you asking for help! We did not come here to plead or demand. We came here to warn you and ask for a united front against the Morg. Need I remind you that Serranguard’s army is a quarter of ours. Just ignore the problem and bicker amongst yourselves like you have always done and when the Morg arrive at your borders you will stand alone!”

“Get out!” Theo bellowed. He rose from his seat, his stout body shaking from the force of his rage.

The Ennadil turned their backs on Serranguard’s City-Lord—the ultimate insult among their kind. Tight-lipped with barely contained anger, they stalked away from the table. They disappeared down the stairwell, their soft-soled hunting boots noiseless on the stone steps.

Captain Stellan watched them go and with a sigh turned to his master. Theo sat brooding in the depths of his throne-like chair.

Next to him, Vermel Ham was pale and agitated. “My Lord,” Vermel ventured timidly. “It was not wise to upset the Ennadil. We need their alliance.”

Theo gave Vermel a slow, dark look, his rage slowly simmering. Vermel, used to Theo Brin’s temper, returned his Lord’s gaze without flinching, even though a nerve twitched under his left eye. “You think I should have humoured them do you Vermel?” Theo’s voice was dangerous. “You think we should hand over our army and let them scare us into being their puppets?”

“No my Lord.” Vermel mopped his sweaty brow before continuing. “It’s just that the threat could be real.”

Theo meditated on Vermel’s words a moment before he turned to the young Captain of his army. “You’ve been very quiet through all of this Will.” He eyed the soldier’s face. “What words of advice would you give me?”

“I agree with Vermel,” Will Stellan replied, “The Ennadil are proud and independent. They like us as little as we do them. They would not ask us for help unless their need was dire.”

Will Stellan finished speaking and leant back in his chair. He ran a hand through his shaggy brown hair; a nervous gesture and the only outward sign that the Ennadil’s news had disturbed him. “If the Ennadil do not contain these ‘Morg’, then what is currently their problem will become ours.”

Theo slumped in his chair, his anger spent. He felt alone and worried. Usually, at this stage of the discussion, Theo would ask his wizard for counsel. The three of them: Vermel Ham, Will Stellan and Jennadil Silverstern, were essential to any vital decision Serranguard’s City-Lord took. However, just thinking about that fornicating wizard made Theo’s stomach clench.

“What would you have me do?” Theo finally asked Will Stellan.

“If you are against joining with the Ennadil then we must strengthen our army and contact Mirren and Falcon’s Mount without delay,” Will replied. “The City-States of Orin must, at least, stand united,”

Will looked across at Vermel for confirmation, and the counsellor nodded wordlessly.

Theo sighed. Indigestion burned the back of his throat and he could feel a headache forming either side of his eyes. It had been the worst day he could remember. He understood, with a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach, that for the first time in the twenty years of his rule as Serranguard’s City-Lord, his ability as a leader was about to be truly tested.

***

It was dark in Serranguard’s dungeons, as dark as the depths of an underground cavern which has never seen sunlight. The air was close and rank with the smell of mould and urine. It was cool down in the dungeons; the day’s heat could not reach here, could not penetrate the heavy stone beneath the fortress. The dungeons had the chill of a tomb, and a tomb it had been and would be for many who sojourned within its walls.

Jennadil knew it would not be his tomb. He would not rot away in the darkness until madness or disease took him. He supposed he should be grateful for that. However, the executioner’s axe did not seem like an appealing alternative at present.

The darkness in the cell was so thick it felt as if he was wrapped in a blanket. His eyes strained to make out the outlines of the walls but it was impossible. He was blind; at the mercy of the rats who wriggled their way into the cell and bit at him. Jennadil slapped them away and rattled his chains, and they slunk away into a corner for a while, only to return to gnaw at him once more when they thought he had fallen asleep.

Jennadil sat, his back up against the cold, damp wall, and pondered his predicament. If he’d had his staff, he would have been able, not only to illuminate this foul cell, but also to escape. He knew it went against the laws of Orinian wizardly conduct—using magic to avoid merited punishment—but he would have done it anyway.

The wizard’s thoughts were alternating between self-pity, fear, embarrassment and the vague hope that Theo would have a change of heart, when he became aware of footsteps approaching his cell from the corridor outside. He tensed. Had they come for him early to dispose of him quietly in darkness? A key rattled in the door and Jennadil broke out in a cold sweat. He scrambled to his feet. The chains binding his wrists and ankles clanked noisily.

A cloaked figure appeared in the doorway, holding aloft a small lantern. “Keep quiet would you!” A voice hissed. “You’ll wake up the whole castle with that din!”

Jennadil recognised the voice instantly. His legs went weak with relief. “Will! Thank my ancestors, I knew you would come!”

“Did you?” Will Stellan’s voice was terse as he knelt down before Jennadil and unlocked his chains, “because I wasn’t so sure myself. What possessed you? Serranguard’s full of pretty scullery maids and serving wenches, but no, you had to have Myra.”

“Alright, alright,” Jennadil whispered impatiently. “I do not need a lecture on morals from you of all people.”

“Just for the record,” Will replied, “I would gut you like a fish if I caught you in bed with my wife.”

“Just as well no woman will have you then.”

“Well if I ever marry I shall keep my wife a thousand leagues from you.”

Will reached into his cloak and pulled out a tall staff with a gnarled end, and a bundled cloak. “You won’t get far without this.” He passed the wizard his staff.

“Thank you Will,” Jennadil’s voice lost its cocky edge. “I do not deserve this.”

“I know you don’t,” Will replied, “and I hope I don’t live to regret it. Follow me.”

They slipped out of the cell into the narrow passage. Will pulled the cell door shut but did not lock it. Unspeaking, the two men moved down the passage. The glow of Will’s lantern was the only warmth in the sea of darkness around them. The passage went on for a while, twisting in labyrinthine fashion, until they came to a steep stairwell.

“Mind your head,” Will whispered as he descended the steps, “and be careful. The steps are covered with moss.”

The steps plummeted into the lowest depths under Serranguard. Jennadil was just starting to feel the beginnings of claustrophobia when Will stopped. Jennadil nearly collided with him. The steps ended here. There was nothing but a slab of impenetrable rock in front of them.

Will handed Jennadil his lantern and knelt down. They were standing next to a trap door, locked shut by a tangle of chains. Will drew out the bunch of keys and fumbled for a few moments before he found the correct key. Jennadil watched him unlock the chains and push them aside. When Will lifted up the wooden trap door, Jennadil could see nothing but a black void beyond.

“From here you travel alone my friend.” Will took the lantern back from Jennadil and pushed back his hood.

The two men stared at each other for a moment, knowing it would be unlikely they would ever see each other again. Will’s face was solemn in the lamplight. His scar was a silver slash down his left cheek and his eyes were darker than in daylight; without their usual mischievous glint. They were men of different breeds, Will and Jennadil, and yet their sense of humour had bound them together in friendship from the day they had met. Jennadil would miss their banter and teasing. He stepped forward and gave his friend a quick hug, feeling as he did so, an uncharacteristic stab of self-recrimination. This was all his own doing—he had known the risk he was taking but he had been unable to stop himself. Myra would suffer because of him.

Jennadil pushed these unpleasant thoughts aside. It was better not to have a conscience.

“Will . . . I would like to say how much I . . .” Jennadil began hesitantly but Will interrupted him.

“Don’t thank me again—you know I could not let Brin chop your head off. I just hope you’ve learned this time.”

Jennadil nodded.

“There is a ladder.” Will pointed to the trap door. “It leads down to a tunnel. If you move quickly, it should not take you more than three hours to reach the end of the tunnel. It exits in Delm Forest.”

“It goes that far?” Jennadil tapped his staff on the stone floor and a soft blue light illuminated from its top. “I did not know Serranguard had a secret exit.”

“You’re not supposed to—that’s the whole point of it—besides, I knew Theo would lose his patience with you sooner or later.”

“Well, I think that’s my cue to leave.” Jennadil lowered himself down into the darkness, his feet scraping on the rock until he found the ladder. “Good-bye Will. I’ll never forget our friendship. I am just sorry I made a mess of everything. Tell Myra I am sorry, will you?”

“Very well,” Will answered. “May the wraiths of your ancestors protect you, Jennadil.”

The wizard’s tousled auburn head disappeared into the darkness. Will lowered the trap door, drew the chains back over and locked it. His chest ached strangely as he looked down at the trap door and imagined his friend making his way along the ancient tunnel. Will Stellan had been estranged from his parents and siblings at thirteen. His friends and comrades had taken the place of family, and he would miss Jennadil. At least Jennadil was alive, he consoled himself. He just hoped Theo never found out how Jennadil had escaped; otherwise, it would be his head on the chopping block.

Will turned his back on the trap door and drew his hood back over his face. Then, with a heavy head and heart, he retraced his steps back up to the shadowy passages of Serranguard’s dungeons.

Book One

 

 

Chapter One

The Last Stand of the Ennadil

 

One Year Later

 

 

Lassendil Florin stood at the top of the castle walls and watched the sunset. He had not done so for a while – not since the Morg had invaded. Of late, there had been no time to enjoy sunsets and sunrises, or to note the passing of the seasons. These days smoke stained the morning and evening sky and a shadow had fallen over this once serene and verdant land. However, this sunset held special poignancy for Lassendil, for it would be the last before the Morg attacked Aranith—the last stronghold of the Ennadil—their last chance.

Lassendil watched the light fade. Aranith glowed pink in the dusk, its walls a dusky rose limestone. It had been built in tiers, rising up from a wooded plain to a turreted fortress at its crown. Aranith’s beauty, like all things built by Ennadil hands, was famed throughout Isador. From a distance, the city resembled a magnificent pink wedding cake, thrusting sky-wards from a bed of green. Lassendil tried not to think about the fate that awaited this city. A dull ache twisted somewhere between his stomach and ribcage. He was under no illusions about their ability to hold Aranith against the Morg. No army had ever breached Aranith’s walls, but then the Ennadil had never fought such a powerful enemy.

Lassendil remained there, standing on the castle wall, long after the light had faded. His keen gaze could make out the glow from the Morg’s campfires on the southern horizon. It lit up the sky like a small city. Their numbers had tripled since Mithridel had been taken.

Lassendil took a deep steadying breath and turned his back on the glowing southern sky. Then, his tall, lithe frame tense with purpose, he re-entered the fortress. Inside Aranith, the air was cool and laced with the scent of jasmine. A calming silence filled the hallways, broken only by the tinkling of numerous fountains that dotted the interior of the fortress. Aranith was built on three springs. The delicious, sparkling water fed Aranith’s fountains and made the city a place of pilgrimage. The spring water was known to have miraculous, healing powers.

Lassendil moved swiftly through the lofty hallways. Brass lanterns hung from the vaulted ceilings and long shadows played across the dusky walls. Lassendil had grown up here—his family, the House of Florin, were members of the Ennadil aristocracy—one of the four Ennadil houses residing within Aranith. Four representatives from each house made up Aranith’s Elder Council. Lassendil was not yet old enough to become a council member, although his father, two of his uncles and his maternal grandfather were, or had been, members. Out of these four men, only his father was still alive. His grandfather and his two uncles perished in the sacking of Mithridel.

Usually, Aranith’s hallways were thronged with people taking their evening stroll, but tonight Lassendil walked alone. Every able-bodied Ennadil man who had survived thus far had joined the army that camped around the base of Aranith, just inside the city walls. Later, he would join them, but first he had to make sure his sister was safely escorted from the city.

Lassendil’s pace quickened as he thought of his headstrong younger sister, Adelyis. After ten years with her nose buried in books, she had only recently finished her studies in sorcery. She was now a witch and unlike the other Ennadil wizards and witches residing in Aranith, who were staying on to fight, she was leaving. It had not been easy to convince her; Lassendil and his father had argued with her for days before she had finally, ungraciously, relented. She was now making her final preparations and would leave within the hour.

The door to Adelyis’s chamber was ajar. Even so, Lassendil knocked before entering. He found his sister with her back to him, looking out of the window. She was wearing a blue traveling cloak and her long black hair was braided down her back. Her bags sat on her bed behind her. Lassendil could tell by the set of her shoulders that Adelyis was upset.

“Adelyis . . . are you ready?”

“No,” Adelyis’s voice, low and musical, was strained, “but I had better get this over with.” She turned and looked into her brother’s face. They looked so alike, Adelyis and Lassendil Florin, tall and slim with the same fine, even features, sharp blue eyes and stubborn jaw. A little of Adelyis’s earlier anger resurfaced as she looked upon her brother.

“It is a waste sending me away like I am with child or infirm,” she said stiffly. Ice glinted in her eyes and her face hardened. “There are so few of witches and wizards left. You need me here.”

Lassendil sighed. He thought they had finished discussing this. “If your kind is scarce then that is even more reason to make sure you are kept safe,” he explained. “Someone has to preserve Ennadil magic.”

“Then one of the more experienced wizards should go,” Adelyis snapped. “You speak as if we were already defeated!”

Lassendil watched as his sister took one of her bags, shouldered it in an unladylike fashion and made for the door. Wordlessly, having exhausted all arguments but knowing despite her protests she would still be leaving, Lassendil picked up her two remaining bags and followed her.

They made their way down to the great courtyard that lay behind the gates leading down to Aranith’s second tier. The stables were located here, although most of the stalls were empty. The horses were with the soldiers guarding the city walls. A small company waited for Adelyis in the centre of the courtyard. Adelyis’s maid, Eryn, sat, stone-faced upon a stocky grey pony. Lassendil’s friend, Miradel, stood holding his and Adelyis’s horse, and behind him two young soldiers, Ladril and Gannadil waited on horseback. Shadows partly obscured their faces but their keen eyes glinted in the dim light.

“My Lady.” Miradel relieved Adelyis of her bags and tied them to the back of her saddle.

Adelyis turned to face her brother, and Lassendil could see the grief in her eyes.

“What if this is the last time we will see each other dear brother?” Her voice shook as she spoke.

Lassendil stepped forward and clasped her in a fierce hug. “Such thoughts will do you no good. Now it is you who speaks as if all hope is lost!”

Adelyis brushed her tears away and pulled back, turning to her father who had stepped out of the shadows behind Lassendil. Padrell Florin was an older, more tempered version of his son. His long dark hair, flecked with grey, was tied back from his careworn face. His eyes were dark and hollowed in contrast to his pale skin.

Padrell reached out and stroked his daughter’s wet face. “Late is the hour of your departure Adelyis,” he said gently. “There will be Morg scouts nearby. When you leave Aranith, ride directly north, as fast and as far as you can. Do not slow your pace until you reach the highlands. Cross into the City States of Orin at Mirren’s border, rather than Serranguard’s. You will find more friends there.”

“Yes father,” Adelyis replied, her voice barely above a whisper.

Padrell Florin sighed then, suddenly seeming every day of his sixty-eight years. Being Ennadil, he was youthful in appearance, and usually he appeared no older than forty. However, tonight, sorrow sapped him of his vitality. He looked weary, as if he had said good-bye too many times during his life.

“I know you wish to stay,” he said finally. “I know you think it is wrong to leave but I need to know you are safe. Please humour me Adelyis.”

Adelyis blinked back fresh tears and hugged her father briefly and violently, before turning from him and mounting her horse. Her mount was a fine-limbed bay mare with an inquisitive face. Miradel passed Adelyis her staff before he swung up onto his horse. Behind them, the heavy wooden gates were rumbling open.

“Look after my sister,” Lassendil said to his friend, “and yourself too Miradel.”

Miradel nodded, and out of the corner of his eye, Lassendil saw Adelyis bristle. She never liked it when he acted too protective of her, even now when he could do nothing else for her.

Behind the company, the gates yawned open. Adelyis looked down at her father and brother, the last of her family, and felt a crushing sadness stop her breath for a moment. She suddenly felt spoiled and immature for having spent the last few days arguing with them instead of appreciating the remaining time they had together. The war had swept down on Aranith with terrifying swiftness and now time had run out.

“Go now.” Padrell Florin slapped the mare’s rounded rump and sent his daughter on her way. “And know our love travels with you.”

The company turned in unison and clip clopped briskly across the courtyard. Padrell and Lassendil watched the horses pass through the gate and disappear into the darkness before the gates rolled shut behind them.

The two men stood in the empty courtyard for a while after that, listening as the hoof-beats disappeared and the silence returned. Finally, Padrell stirred. He turned and studied his son’s pale face. Wordlessly, he put an arm around Lassendil’s shoulders and steered him away from the gates. Together, they walked across the shadowed courtyard, their boots crunching on the gravel, before they disappeared inside the fortress. Around them, Aranith prepared itself for war.

 

***

 

By the time the sun rose into a colourless sky, Adelyis and her companions were already many leagues from Aranith. They rode close to the coast, where a briny sea tang laced the crisp morning air, and across rolling grasslands, dotted with stunted vegetation and clumps of trees. Granite boulders studded the desolate landscape. They passed no villages or travelers during their ride north.

Adelyis did not feel comfortable riding across such exposed terrain. She would have preferred the protective shade of woodland, even if it meant they traveled slower. They rode at a brisk canter with Miradel in the lead, although he would periodically ride ahead or drop back to make sure they were not being followed. Adelyis’s maid rode silently alongside her mistress while Ladril and Gannadil brought up the rear.

They stopped mid-morning in a pine thicket and ate a hurried breakfast. Adelyis and her maid, unused to riding, were already stiff and saddle sore. Adelyis surreptitiously rubbed her behind and wondered how she was going to get back on sidesaddle without squealing in pain.

It was pleasant in the pine thicket and they drank honeyed ale and ate bread, fruit and cheese. Pine resin perfumed the air and the ground beneath them was a springy bed of dry pine needles. However, it was unnaturally silent. No bird-song or rustling of small animals in the undergrowth disturbed them. Adelyis looked around in concern, her body suddenly tense, before she caught Miradel’s gaze.

“Something’s wrong,” she warned him. “What is it?”

Miradel got to his feet and started packing their food and drink away. His movements were unhurried but deft. “We’re being followed,” he told his companions calmly. “I thought I sensed something an hour ago but they were too far away for me to be sure. There aren’t many of them, and they’re still at least an hour behind us, but their presence radiates out from them. The birds and animals here use their silence as a warning.”

“Well then, we should heed it.” Adelyis got to her feet and brushed crumbs off her skirt.

They remounted, aching muscles and fatigue forgotten, and pushed their horses northwards at a brisker pace. It would have been easier and faster to head towards the coast and take the coastal North-South Highway. The Highway would bring them to Mirren in about four days, if they rode hard, but taking the Highway was too risky. There were many refugees traveling on that road—and the Morg would be patrolling it.

The coolness of the morning dissipated under the burning sun as it climbed higher into the sky. By midday, they were roasting in their traveling cloaks. The heat drained them and their horses of energy.

For the first time Adelyis admitted to herself that she had not taken the soft option in agreeing to ride north. Her father and Lassendil would face their enemy face to face, whereas she was forced to flee into the wilderness, hunted down like a rabbit.

They rode hard all day, stopping only briefly for lunch. Gradually, the landscape changed from shrubby, rock-studded grasslands to gently curving hills, which grew higher as the day progressed. They were entering the southern edge of the Arden Highlands. Scattered thickets merged into thick forest and although they were no longer exposed, the trees slowed them down. It would also be easier to track them in the forest, despite that Miradel had done his best to leave a confusing trail behind them.

As the day drew to a close, Adelyis had to cling to the pommel of her saddle to keep herself from toppling off side-ways. Muscles she did not even know existed, burned and ached. She had no idea how she was going to be able to ride, let alone mount, tomorrow. Eryn rode beside her, tight-lipped and pale; discomfort etched on every line of her young face.

The shadows lengthened and the day’s heat waned. The horses stumbled in exhaustion. They had pushed them as far as they dared. When Miradel finally halted his horse in a small clearing, Adelyis nearly cried in relief. The day had passed with little conversation, but they were now all so exhausted that their minds could not focus on anything other than food, water and rest.

Adelyis climbed down from her horse and staggered slightly. In an instant, Miradel was there, steadying her elbow. She gave him a weak smile in thanks, and their gazes held for a few moments. Adelyis had always suspected that Miradel, her brother’s oldest friend, was secretly infatuated with her, and the look in his eyes now only confirmed her suspicions. Miradel was certainly attractive, with intelligent dark eyes and a serious manner, and Adelyis had noticed the speed with which he had agreed to escort her north. She was pleased Miradel was with her—she had always liked him—but he knew as well as she did that it was forbidden for an Ennadil witch or wizard to form romantic attachments.

Turning away from Miradel, Adelyis walked stiffly over to the far edge of the clearing and splashed water on her face. Overhead, the light had almost faded. The sky was indigo, smudged with streaks of rose. Adelyis was relieved to hear the sounds of animals rustling in the undergrowth and the evening chorus of birdcalls. They had outrun the Morg for the time being at least. She rejoined the others, eased herself down onto the ground next to the silent Eryn and stretched her legs out.

“We cannot risk a fire tonight,” Miradel explained as he handed out dry bread, cheese and bitter plums, “so dinner will be cold.”

Eryn made a sour face as she eyed her simple meal. Watching her, Adelyis felt a stab of irritation. Padrell Florin had insisted his daughter brought a maid along, as all noble women traditionally did when traveling. Eryn had not been her choice—the girl was sullen—and it would have been better to have sent her with the other refugees. However, her father, a stickler for protocol, would not have agreed to it.

The companions ate in silence while the horses, their heads hung low in exhaustion, had a dinner of oats from their nosebags. The horses had been hobbled to prevent them from wandering off during the night. Ladril and Gannadil spoke together in low voices while they ate, while Adelyis, Eryn and Miradel concentrated on their dinner, too hungry to make conversation. Adelyis’s gaze scanned the clearing as she ate. They would not be able to rest here for long—even if they had lost the Morg for the moment, their pursuers would pick up their trail soon enough.

After dinner, Eryn spread out their sleeping mats under the boughs of an ancient oak on the fringes of the clearing. Ladril and Gannadil laid out their sleeping mats nearby while Miradel took the first watch.

Adelyis stretched herself out on the ground and wrapped her cloak around her. Immediately, thoughts of her father and brother crowded her mind. Her father had never recovered from his wife’s suicide a decade earlier. Adelyis had never been close to her mother; Raynis Florin was a beautiful and highly intelligent woman but she had always remained aloof from her children. She had been melancholy as a girl but as the years passed her depression deepened, despite her husband’s efforts to please her. One day Raynis had retired to her chamber early and drank a bottle of poison. It was Padrell who found her, hours later, face down on the flagstone floor near her bed with the bottle clutched in her hand. Padrell Florin had never fully recovered from Raynis’s death. Guilt plagued him that he was somehow to blame; that he should have been able to make his wife happy and lift her out of depression—and ten years on he still blamed himself.

Two months after her mother’s death Adelyis had decided to apprentice herself to become a witch. She left Aranith and traveled south to train at the Mystic Council in Mithridel. Lassendil coped with his mother’s suicide by falling deeply in love with a young woman called Violyda, who was as fair and melancholy as his mother had been. It had been impossible to please her but Lassendil appeared not to notice. Like his father before him he believed he could change her. When Violyda was killed in a hunting accident six years earlier, Lassendil’s grief had been so extreme Adelyis had worried for his sanity. Since then, there had been no other woman for Lassendil. He had become a lot harder than the impulsive, naïve brother she had grown up with.

Adelyis hated abandoning her father and brother in Aranith—and she would have cried had she not been so bone weary. It was a relief when the fog of exhaustion dragged her down and sleep finally claimed her.

When she awoke, it was the early hours of the morning. It was a moonless night and a black veil hid the forest. Adelyis rolled over onto her back and gazed up at the carpet of stars overhead. To her left, she saw Miradel’s outline, stretched out next to her, his breathing deep and even. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she became aware of a figure, either Ladril or Gannadil, sitting a few feet away keeping watch. I must get up now, she told herself. I must wake everyone up and force them onwards—we cannot linger here. However, her limbs were heavy and sleep pulled her down into its clutches.

When Adelyis awoke again it was nearing dawn. She crawled over to where Miradel was keeping watch and sat down next to him. “You should have woken me,” she whispered. “We have stayed here too long.”

“You were sleeping so soundly,” Miradel smiled, “I did not want to wake you.”

Adelyis looked at Miradel’s handsome face. His eyes were hollowed and there were dark smudges under them. She felt guilty at not taking a watch so he could rest a little.

“Come on then,” he said with a yawn. “Let’s get the others up.”

Miradel got to his feet and Adelyis stretched her stiff limbs. Then, as the remnants of sleep cleared from her brain, she felt a tickle of alarm flutter at the back of her skull.

The clearing was deathly silent—where was the dawn chorus? Adelyis reached out and grabbed Miradel’s arm. His eyes widened as he too realised what the silence meant. Tiredness had dulled his usually sharp senses and Miradel swore under his breath, moving quickly to wake the others while Adelyis sat frozen, staring into the shadows.

They were there—watching her.

Adelyis lunged sideways for her staff. Her fingers fastened around the smooth wood, just as dark shapes leapt from the far edge of the clearing and hurtled towards her.

Her shout of alarm brought the others awake with a jolt. The attackers would have reached them in seconds if Adelyis had not sensed their presence. She jumped to her feet.

An explosion of blue light shot out from the staff and mushroomed around Adelyis and the others, throwing their attackers onto their backs. Howls shattered the morning’s stillness. The Ennadils’ horses squealed in fear, pulling back at their ropes. Miradel, Ladril and Gannadil drew their swords and Eryn ducked behind them.

“Get the horses!” Adelyis shouted.

The Morg scrambled to their feet. It was difficult to see them properly, for they were wrapped up, mummy-like, in black cloaks. But Adelyis could see their eyes, burning at her from within the folds of their hoods. They were shouting at each other in sibilant voices.

Miradel came up next to Adelyis and flanked her, his sword raised in case any of them broke through the shield. Behind them, the others moved to ready the horses and remove their hobbles. There would be no time to saddle the horses—they would have to ride bareback.

Holding up the energy shield was exhausting Adelyis. Her staff vibrated in her hands and sweat trickled down her back between her shoulder blades. The Morg formed a semi-circle, just beyond the shield that lit up the clearing in an eerie blue glow. They raised their weapons and waited.

Behind the Morg, detaching itself from where it had been lurking in the shadows, another figure appeared. Adelyis saw the gleaming bald head and gnarled white staff of the Morg shaman. His skin, pulled tight over angular cheekbones and a hooked nose, was leathery and tanned. He grinned at Adelyis through the energy shield, revealing a line of yellow, pointed teeth. Adelyis loosened her grip on her staff—although she was fully trained, she was still a novice and her abilities had never been tested. The shaman’s grin widened, for he sensed this.

“Adelyis!” Miradel urged. “The horses are ready. Come on!” He grabbed her arm and pulled but she stood firm.

“No!” she replied through gritted teeth. “I can’t let the shield down—go with the others!”

“You’re coming with us!”

Adelyis glanced over her shoulder at her companions. They had mounted bareback and the horses danced nervously, eager to flee. The energy-field scared them as much as the Morg did. Her own horse stood just three strides away but she would have to let the shield down to mount. The Morg would reach her before she even got one leg over her horse’s back.

At that moment, the Morg shaman thrust his staff into the air. A bolt of purple fire shot out and hit Adelyis’s energy shield. The force of it caused Adelyis to stagger backwards. Miradel was knocked to the ground and, savage with desperation, Adelyis kicked him hard in the leg.

“Go!” she shouted. “You won’t get another chance!”

Adelyis turned her attention away from Miradel and back to the Morg. She gripped the staff hard and channeled her thoughts into it. The energy shield expanded and met the shaman’s purple fire with a hiss, like water on hot coals. Purple and blue sparks rained down over the clearing.

Behind Adelyis, Gannadil clambered off his horse and dragged Miradel over to his bay gelding. Miradel’s face was white as he vaulted onto his horse’s back. Adelyis was oblivious to her companions. She focused on the shaman and nothing else.

Miradel turned his horse back towards Adelyis. The others galloped out of the clearing, expecting him to follow.

Adelyis saw Miradel ride towards her and knew what he intended. She freed one hand from the staff, invoked a spell and flung her hand towards him. A blue whip lashed out from her fingertips and caught his horse across the rump, causing the gelding to rear. Miradel tried to control his horse but, terrified, the gelding took the bit between his teeth and bolted after the other horses with his rider powerless to stop him.

Adelyis’s distraction had only been momentary but it was what the shaman needed to press his advantage. A forked tongue of flame shot out of his staff and smashed against Adelyis’s rapidly weakening shield. This time she could not contain it.

The fire clove through her shield like an axe and knocked Adelyis onto her back, engulfing her.

 

 

Chapter Two

The Orinians Unite

 

 

Will Stellan was awake long before the first rays of sun peeked over the tops of the grassy hills to the east. He had awoken tired with a slight headache and eyes stinging from fatigue. He felt as if he had not slept at all. It was difficult to sleep easy these days, what with Isador in the midst of war. He had lain awake for hours in the stuffy darkness inside his tent, mulling over things until his brain hurt. Finally, he pushed aside the rough blanket covering him and sat up fully clothed.

Will emerged from his tent and rubbed sleep from his eyes. His gaze scanned the eastern horizon where the first rays of light were slipping over the edge of the world. Beyond those hills lay the dark mass of Gremul. The vast forest carpeted the entire eastern side of Isador—from the Ennadil border in the south, to the Sawtooth Mountains in the far north. It was late summer but the morning was cool. Dew lay thick on the grass beneath Will’s boots and there was a pleasant freshness to the air. Will yawned and shook off the tiredness that still fogged his brain. He drank deeply from a bladder of stale water and massaged a tense muscle in his left shoulder before turning away from the sunrise.

He was camped on the top of a hillock. Around him, a sea of weather-stained tents made of animal hide stretched for as far as he could see in every direction. It was a makeshift city of ten thousand men – not nearly enough. Wisps of smoke, the dying embers of last night’s campfires, dirtied the lightening sky. Will savoured the peace, his mind returning, not for the first time in the past month, to how it had all come to this.

The Ennadil had not been able to contain the Morg. Once the invaders gained a foothold on Isador’s southern coast, they tore through the Ennadil Territory with terrifying speed. The Ennadil sent out an army of their most able sorcerers to combat the Morg shamans, but the battle that ensued destroyed the great southern city of Mithridel. A city of lofty marble walls and palaces, gardens and fountains, Mithridel was the Ennadil centre of learning and culture. Mithridel was two-thousand years old, founded on the grave of a great Ennadil wizard. In a matter of days, the gleaming city was destroyed, pounded to rubble. The surviving Ennadil either fled north-west over the river Serran to the last Ennadil stronghold of Aranith, or the Morg had enslaved them.

As they encroached further into the Ennadil Territory, the Morg then turned their attention to the City States of Orin, of which Serranguard was the closest. One flank of their army pushed north-west, following the fleeing Ennadil to the city of Aranith, while the other flank marched north towards Serranguard.

The Ennadil managed to slow the Morg’s journey north, and over the months that followed, many of the enemy fell. However, the Morg’s supply of foot soldiers and huge birds they called the ‘Yangtul’ were endless. The sea off Isador’s southern coast now bobbed with flotillas of massive ships. The Morg were not just transporting armies but colonists to settle the conquered territory.

The situation could not have been worse. Will kept cheerful around his men but underneath his bravado, he was plagued by a constant sense of foreboding. They had very little information about the Morg, and that worried him. After the Orinians had refused to aid the Ennadil, there had been little communication between the two races. Lord Brin had sent scouts south to gather what little information they had. It was rumoured that the Ennadil emissary to the Tarzark had been killed and eaten. Will was sure their King, the barbaric Grull who loathed the Ennadil and Orinians, would have used the news of an invasion to his advantage. He would hope for the Morg to do what the Tarzark had never achieved—enslave the Ennadil and Orinians—before trying to take these lands for himself.

Will stretched his tired limbs and took a deep breath of the crisp air. He turned his gaze eastward once more and wondered what had become of Isador’s fourth race—the Gremul. Just two days earlier they had received news of sightings of smoke rising above the tree tops of the great forest. It appeared the Gremul had not escaped the Morg either.

The aroma of frying bacon wafted past Will and reminded him of his growling stomach. He pushed his thoughts aside and wandered down to where breakfast was being prepared. At the bottom of the hill, Talyn Belderell, Captain of Mirren’s army, was helping himself to crispy bacon and fried stale bread. At least a decade older than Will, he was a tall, wiry man and completely bald.

“Good morning.” Talyn passed Will a plate of food. “Did you sleep well?”

Will smiled at their unchanging morning ritual. “Of course not Talyn. Did you?”

“Come now, Will. I have not slept in years.”

“Listen to you two maidens!” Reb Ethern, Captain of Falcon’s Mount’s army, still half-asleep and scratching himself, lumbered into their midst. He was a hulking, hairy fellow who always looked as if he was recovering from a hard night on the ale. “I slept like a hibernating bear.”

Will’s smile widened. “You snore like one too. You kept the whole camp awake.”

“Insolent pup,” Reb muttered good-naturedly, taking a plate of bacon and bread that Talyn passed him.

The three captains ate in silence while around them the camp stirred into life. It was the beginning of the fourth day since they had arrived here. Sensing the Morg were not far off, the men were nervous and restless. They were tired of waiting and beginning to squabble amongst themselves. Relations between the three city-states had not been good for a while. Just ten years earlier, there had been a civil war between Serranguard and Falcon’s Mount, a petty border dispute which had escalated into a civil war lasting two years. Even a decade later, there were still lingering tensions between the two city-states. It was just as well that the three captains got on well or more fights may have broken out.

The captains were just finishing their breakfast when shouting from the southern edge of the camp caught their attention. They watched a rider cut his way into the centre of the camp. The scout wound his way in between closely packed tents, eventually reaching the clearing where the three Captains stood.

“They have arrived then?” Talyn spoke calmly.

The scout was pale and breathless. “They are crossing the Jade Plains Captain.”

“Did you get an idea of their numbers?” Will asked.

“Their army is vast Captain.” The scout’s eyes were enormous. “It stretches to the horizon and beyond.”

His words hung in the air before Will let out the breath he had been holding. “Well, let’s get these boys moving.” His face was expressionless as he turned and strode off to where the Serranguard troops were camped. Reb Ethern’s face tightened into a fierce mask; his thoughts were already focused on the battle ahead. He nodded curtly to Talyn and stormed off towards his men.

Talyn Belderell watched him go and paused a moment in the clearing. Around him, the makeshift city heaved off the grassy hills and made ready for war. He thought briefly of the home he had left behind in Mirren, and of his wife and daughter waiting for him there. They were who he was fighting for—not the greedy and bickering city lords who were ensconced safely in their fortresses. Pushing aside his sadness and bitter regret, Talyn left the clearing and hurried to ready Mirren’s troops for battle.

 

Captain Will Stellan swung up on to his warhorse and spurred it on to the front of the riders heading towards the crest of the hill. Adrenalin surged through him, dissolving the tension and nerves that had accumulated during the four days of waiting. He had an exalted sense of connection to the thoughts of the men around him—almost tasting their fear, aggression and blood lust.

Will reached the front of the riders and led them up to the brow of the hill. His war-horse, an enormous grey stallion, rolled its eyes and sidestepped nervously. Will reached forward and stroked the stallion’s quivering neck, murmuring soothing words. He urged the stallion forward and braced himself for the sight of the Morg on the plains below. He could feel his men watching him, drawing their strength and courage from him, and was glad his helmet hid his expression. He could not falter before them.

They reached the crest of the hill and fanned out there, forming a long line. Will drew his horse to a halt and looked down onto the Jade Plains.

The sight that greeted him made Will gasp. The Morg army was a seemingly endless, black carpet bristling with spears and standards, stretching back and disappearing beyond the hazy southern horizon. It appeared an army from another world—a sea of black cloaked figures carrying broadswords and axes. Many of them rode birds with glowing eyes and hooked beaks—the Yangtul. The birds’ silver-grey feathers glittered in the morning’s sun. Their cries were feral screams that made the hair on Will’s neck prickle. It was impossible to get a good look at the Morg from this distance as they shrouded their bodies in cloaks. Only the Morg shamans were bareheaded, with gleaming bald skulls and maniacal grins.

The shamans carried long white-tipped black staffs, and there were scores of them. Will realised with alarm that their own army had only twenty wizards, and it had been a struggle to find even that number. Magic was far weaker in Orinians than in Ennadil and Tarzark. Not only did the Orinian army only possess a limited number of wizards but they were all cowering at the back of the army, ready to flee at the first sign of defeat. They would be little use Will realised bitterly.

Around him, Will sensed his men’s growing panic as they viewed the approaching Morg war machine. If he did not act soon, terror would seize them and they would be useless in battle. Will dug his heals into his warhorse’s flanks and rode forward, along the line of riders. His men were frozen to their saddles, gaping in fear at the Morg. He drew his sword and held it aloft, gaining their attention.

“Look at your enemy!” He shouted. His voice echoed across the valley. “Don’t shrink away from them. Look at them! They are our enemy, Isador’s enemy! They have taken the Ennadil Territory and they will take ours. We are all that stands in their way.” He paused here a moment, his throat burning. Then, he shouted. “This is our land!”

A great roar went up among the army. It rippled through the riders and boomed off the sides of the valley. Will stood up on his stirrups. “Look at them! They have come to rip this land from us! I will die to protect my home and the wraiths of my ancestors will guide my sword as they will guide yours. Are you with me?”

This time the roar was deafening, like rolling thunder. The soldiers drew their swords and Will saw that their fear had been replaced with righteous rage. They were savage, terrifying warriors who would follow him willingly to death.

Will turned his stallion on its haunches and together they charged. In the valley below, gathering like a giant black wave, the Morg army surged forward to meet them.

 

 

Chapter Three

Captives of the Morg

 

 

When Adelyis awoke, she found herself slung, like a sack of wheat, across the back of something moving fast. At first she thought it was a horse but it did not smell or move like one.

Adelyis sneezed—her face was pressed up against the coat of silver-grey feathers of the Yangtul that carried her. Her wrists and ankles were tightly bound and, below, the ground rushed by in a blur of sun-seared grass. As far as she could tell, they were travelling south, away from the Arden Highlands.

Adelyis raised her head and twisted her neck sideways in an effort to see where she was. One of the Morg sat astride the bird in front of her, his black cape billowing and snapping in the wind. The birds ran in long strides, eating up the ground much faster than a galloping horse.

Squinting up at the sky, Adelyis saw that it was a beautiful summer’s day. The sky was a rich, unblemished blue from one horizon to another and the sun beat down on Adelyis’s back. She felt a sense of unreality at what was happening to her. It seemed such a short time ago she had been finishing her apprenticeship in Mithridel—and now that city had been reduced to a mountain of stones, Aranith was under siege and her father and brother would surely perish, if not today, then during the days which followed.

Adelyis hung limply across the Yangtul’s feather back. She could feel the bird’s powerful muscles moving under her in a steady rhythm, and she closed her eyes and fell into a numb meditative state; emptying her mind and concentrating only on the hot sun on her back, the Yangtul’s jolting stride and the wind against her face.

It was some time later; the day’s heat was waning and the sun had softened, basking the land in gold, when the Yangtul came to an abrupt halt. Adelyis was jolted out of her meditation and she looked about her, bleary-eyed and disoriented. Upon getting her bearings, she saw they had left the wide grasslands behind and had stopped in a lush valley, dotted with trees and wildflowers. A wide river, its waters glittering in the dusk light, flowed serenely by. Adelyis knew this be the might River Serran—the Morg had not taken her south as she had thought, but east. The river marked the border between the Ennadil Territory and the City States of Orin. On the other side of the River Serran lay Serranguard.

Rough, pinching hands grabbed Adelyis, dragged her off the Yangtul’s back and dumped her unceremoniously in a patch of clover. Adelyis watched as they made camp; there were six of them, including the shaman, who was thankfully ignoring Adelyis for now. The small band had obviously tracked her from Aranith after a scout had spotted them leaving.

The hot day faded into a balmy evening, so the Morg did not bother to erect tents. They imbedded iron stakes into the ground and tied their Yangtul to them. Adelyis observed the Yangtul with distaste—they were foul birds with burning eyes and enormous hooked beaks that looked able to split a head in two in a single stroke. The Yangtul stood on thick, muscular legs and large two-toed feet, tipped with long, black talons. They squawked and made a terrible racket until two of the Morg came back from a nearby thicket dragging a wild boar. Ravenous, the Yangtul scrambled over each other and fought to get a piece of the carcass. However, just one boar did not appease them, and it was only after a few dead rabbits, another boar and a deer had been added to the feast, that their screeching died down.

Adelyis felt sick watching them feast, wondering how many Ennadil had been fed to these creatures. Once the Yangtul had devoured their meal, they chirped contentedly, clustered together and settled themselves down on the grassy riverbank. Then, tucking their heads under a wing, they went to sleep—a quivering mountain of silver feathers.

The Morg made a campfire, unconcerned that the smoke might attract attention to them. They were supremely confident; acting as if this land was already theirs. Adelyis watched them, rigid with outrage.

The sun slid behind the western horizon and the sky glowed pink, promising another hot day to come. The Morg tied Adelyis to a tree and gave her a cup of water and a piece of dry bread. She ate her morsel and continued to observe them while they talked amongst themselves in their whispering tongue. They did not use the campfire to cook but to boil water; then they emptied a small bag of herbs into the boiling cauldron. After it had infused, they drank it out of earthen cups. Their dinner consisted of freshly killed rabbits which they ate raw, using their sharp teeth to rip away the fur to get to the flesh beneath. The Morg shaman sat a little apart from the others, at the far edge of the camp-fire. The firelight danced on the shiny dome of his bald head as he ate.

Gradually, the light faded and soon Adelyis found herself staring up at the stars. She listened to the gurgling river and the sounds of the Morg bedding down for the night – except for one caped figure who silently took the first watch.

The world slumbered around her but Adelyis did not sleep. Alone and frightened, she sat and stared into the darkness.

 

***

 

Excruciating pain woke Captain Will Stellan. The pain exploded in his forehead and rippled out in spasms over his entire body. Something heavy was pressing him into the dirt. Will opened his eyes and blinked away the grime that clogged them.

His body was pinned down, save for his head, shoulders and arms. Will raised a trembling hand and reached behind him, touching the motionless flank of his horse. It was dead but not yet cold; he had not been unconscious for long. Slowly, as the mind-fog cleared, images and sounds filtered back. Memories of that terrible, hellish battle, of soldiers falling around him, of seeing his terrifying enemy up close, flooded back. He remembered the noise, the clash of steel and the screams of the dying—until the moment his horse was shot from under him. As his stallion fell, it dragged Will underneath it. He had lost his helmet in the early stages of the battle, and was surprised the fall had not killed him. Then, as he heard the hiss of Morg voices approaching—he wished it had.

Will attempted to push his war-horse off him but the weight flattened him against the dry earth. He was trapped while the Morg combed the battlefield for survivors and the spoils of victory. They would soon reach him.

Will did not want to be taken alive. He looked around desperately for a weapon. He would not be taken prisoner and be forced to be part of their war machine – he would take his own life rather than let that happen. Will caught sight of his sword, laying an arm’s length away, and reached out for it. His fingers only brushed the tip of the hilt and, gritting his teeth with the effort, Will stretched out his fingers once more – he could almost touch it.

At that moment, two cloaked figures stepped in front of him.

Will stared at their heavy, dust-coated boots, watching as one of the Morg kicked his sword out of reach. Laughing and, presumably, congratulating each other on their find, they hunkered down in front of Will and gazed at him hungrily; their gazes wolflike from inside their shadowed hoods.

These two Morg were young—their skin had not yet taken on the leathery appearance of most of the warriors he had fought during the battle. Nevertheless, their faces were hollowed and gaunt, and their skin was mottled as if some skin disease afflicted them. The young skin was pulled tightly across their skulls and when they grinned at Will they revealed sharp, yellow teeth.

Will punched and gouged at the Morg when they reached forward to bind his wrists. Exasperated, they called for help and within moments, a mob of Morg surrounded him and held him still while he was bound. They lifted the dead horse off him and, despite himself, Will groaned in relief at being able to breathe properly again. They pulled Will to his feet and, to his surprise, Will found he could stand. The fall had not broken any bones, although under his clothes he would be livid with bruises. His head throbbed, feeling three times its normal size, and his vision speckled dangerously.

Once the world had ceased spinning, Will looked upon the carnage around him. A sea of dead men and horses covered the battlefield as far as the horizon; their tangled, bloodied bodies contrasted sharply against the hard blue sky. There were hundreds of dead Morg, as well as the corpses of their birds—but men far outnumbered them among the dead.

It did not surprise Will that the Morg had won the battle. However, he felt devastated and cheated to have survived it. The other captains had perished, but he was still alive while his men lay massacred around him. He had no right to be alive and he envied Talyn Belderell and Reb Ethern their oblivion.

The Morg, growing impatient, shoved Will forward. He stumbled and nearly fell over the corpse of one of his men. Cursing his clumsiness, Will’s captors hauled him up by his shoulders and manhandled him through the battlefield. The death, carnage and devastation were overwhelming, and trampling over it, Will felt as if he was desecrating a mass grave.

Ahead, a city of conical black tents loomed like a great shadow over the land. It was the Morg’s encampment and upon seeing it approach, Will felt despair pull him into its clutches, Moments later, Will Stellan was swallowed into their midst.

 

 

Chapter Four

The Siege of Aranith

 

 

The Morg attacked at dawn.

As the first rays of sun peeked over the eastern horizon, the enemy rose up from their encampment and swarmed north. They battered down the forest that stood between them and Aranith. There had been no parley, not like before the Morg attacked Mithridel. Then, they had sent a delegate, one of their shamans, to state their conditions. The shaman spoke the Ennadil language crudely, learned no doubt from their captives. Nevertheless, he had made his demands clear: unconditional surrender by the Ennadil in return for a Morg government and over-lords or a wholesale slaughter. The Ennadil response to his demands was to shoot him full of arrows, tie his body to his saddle and send him back to his fellows looking like a hedgehog. Their answer had been clear—and the Morg were not going to waste shamans at Aranith.

Lassendil, dressed in light silver armour and helmet, his grandfather’s sword at his side, with arrows and a longbow strapped to his back, watched the black tide sweep towards them from the southern horizon. His stood beside Padrell Florin, atop the high wall on Aranith’s fourth tier.

The sight was incredible—even from this distance, the Morg looked like one entity, as if they would swallow Aranith whole. Lassendil quelled the fear creeping up from his bowels and looked down at the Ennadil soldiers who lined the walls of Aranith’s first three tiers. They had close to five-thousand soldiers, enough to defend Aranith for a spell, but too few to meet the Morg in combat face to face.

Lassendil’s gaze followed the lines of immobile Ennadil soldiers. Their eyes were riveted on the horrifying spectacle approaching them. Among the soldiers, resplendent in long grey and blue robes, were the last of the Ennadil wizards and witches. They stood, hard and proud-faced, as they mentally prepared themselves for the coming battle.

Lassendil looked once more at the Morg. They were so close now he could see the sun glinting on their weapons and the individual motifs of their standards—and Lassendil’s stomach clenched at the thought of facing the Morg yet again in combat.

“Come Lassendil.” Padrell Florin turned to his son. “It is time to join the others.”

Lassendil followed his father wordlessly; glad his father had not seen the fear on his face. Father and son turned from the battlements and ducked into a narrow stairwell that led down to the tier below. A short while later, they emerged on the third tier and took their places alongside the other soldiers.

At that moment, the first Morg reached Aranith’s outer walls.

The Morg’s blood-chilling war cry echoed across the city and the first long-bows sang. The siege of Aranith had begun.

 

***

 

The whip cut across Will Serran’s back, causing him to trip and nearly fall. Behind him, the Morg astride his Yangtul brandished his bullwhip and hissed. The Captain of Serranguard’s army did not need to speak their language to understand the threat issued—and he picked up his speed alongside the others.

Will had not been the only solider taken alive, as he had first thought. There were three men from Mirren, one from Falcon’s Mount and two of his own men from Serranguard. Two of them were in a bad physical state and urgently needed medical attention. A forced march northwest over the Jade Plains would kill them.

Will’s own injuries made it difficult to keep his balance during the march. His head throbbed and he was dizzy from lack of food and water. Travelling in the middle of a bobbing black sea, he was having trouble walking in a straight line.

Finally, one of the seriously injured soldiers cried out and toppled forward. The whip slashed down across his shoulders, and the man groaned but did not get up. The whip was raised for a second blow.

Will threw himself in between the whip and its victim. He stared up at the Morg who brandished the whip. He was bigger and more muscular than most, and sat astride his Yangtul with supreme arrogance. He snarled at Will’s interruption and the whip twitched in his hand.

Will braced himself for the blow he was sure would come but, instead of lashing him across the face, the Morg lowered the whip and sprang from the Yangtul’s back. He walked round to the injured man and hauled him to his feet. The soldier was doubled over, groaning piteously. The Morg inspected his wounds before turning his attention to the other prisoners. He presently came across the other badly wounded soldier. The man’s skin was ashen and blood stained his once grey shirt crimson. Completing his inspection, the Morg turned to two of his henchmen who were watching the proceedings, and barked an order.

The soldiers’ bonds were cut and, too late, Will realised what the Morg intended to do with them. Will shouted out and leaped forward but the two soldiers were dragged out of reach.

Two Morg unsheathed their curved swords and, with one practiced stroke, decapitated the two men. The headless corpses flopped, twitching and kicking, to the ground.

The Morg, who had issued the order, turned from watching the execution and caught Will’s eye—then he smiled. Will stared back, understanding perfectly. They did not need to speak a common language; the Morg had made himself perfectly clear. From now on, Will was to behave himself or others would lose their heads.

His point made, the Morg turned his back on Will. His black cloak billowed like a sail as he vaulted back onto his Yangtul.

The Morg war machine moved on. Will stepped over the bodies of the two soldiers and forced himself onwards. Part of him wanted to give up—it would have been so easy to just fall over and let them beat him to death. However, the survival instinct that had seen him through every one of his thirty-four summers refused to let him do so. He would see this nightmare through to the end, wherever it took him.

 

***

 

It was mid-afternoon on the second day of the siege when the Morg finally breached Aranith’s walls. From the first morning, they had rolled in wooden siege towers and placed them against the outer defence so that their soldiers could scale the walls. The Ennadil were ready for them, dousing the siege towers will boiling oil and setting them alight. This did not daunt the Morg for they had used their Ennadil slaves to construct over a hundred towers.

The Ennadil held out valiantly, but as the light dimmed on the second day, a battalion of Morg scaled the walls and trampled the exhausted defenders who tried to stop them.

The Morg flowed over the walls like water over a bursting dam. Night was falling but there would be no break in the Morg’s attack. Now that they had breached Aranith’s defenses, they would push forward until the fortress city was theirs.

Two hours after the Morg scaled the city walls, a shower of arrows cut Padrell Florin down. Standing a few feet away, Lassendil saw his father fall. They were on the fifth tier, using longbows to pick off the bolder Morg who clambered over the city’s lower tiers. The fading light made visibility difficult and they had been about to about to abandon their bows and descend to the lower levels with their swords drawn, when the enemy’s arrow found its mark.

Lassendil dropped his longbow and rushed to his father, dragging him away from the edge of the wall and into a shadowed alcove where they were hidden from view. Around them, the evening air rang with the screams of the dying and the chilling war cries of the Morg that had not ceased since the siege began. Flashes of purple and blue sporadically lit up the darkening sky as the Ennadil wizards engaged the Morg shamans in battle.

Lassendil pulled off his own helmet before removing his father’s. Their faces were sweat-streaked and their hair was plastered to their skulls. Padrell’s face was contorted in pain, and Lassendil bent over his father and held him as close as he dared without hurting him. Then, he heard an ominous rattle in his father’s chest and knew it was hopeless.

Padrell Florin stared up at his son and clutched his arm. The arrow had pierced him in the chest, through his lungs. Blood bubbled on his lips and his face drained of colour.

“Father,” Lassendil whispered as tears streamed down his face. He was vaguely aware of shouting and the sound of boots hammering up a nearby stairwell. They would not be hidden here much longer.

Padrell Florin smiled weakly up at his son before he raised a bloody hand and touched Lassendil’s face. “My son,” he whispered hoarsely, “I am sorry…”

“For what?” Lassendil replied, swallowing a sob. “You have nothing to . . .”

Lassendil trailed off as he felt his father’s body go limp in his arms. He observed Padrell Florin’s indomitable spirit drain from his eyes.

Paralised by grief, Lassendil clung to his father. He would not even be able to bury his body—and in a short while, he too would be dead. The shouting had grown louder. Within seconds, Morg would be all over the wall.

Gently, Lassendil lay his father down and climbed to his feet. He drew his sword and strode forward out of the shadows, just as four cloaked figures burst from the stairwell onto the top of the wall. They spied Lassendil immediately. One of them laughed and said something to his companions, before the Morg warrior stepped forward, still chuckling, to face the lone Ennadil warrior.

Lassendil cut him down before the Morg got within three feet of him. His thin Ennadil blade flashed silver, slicing through the Morg’s hooded neck and severing it. The Morg fell, arms flailing, to the ground—as the remaining three Morg let out a collective howl and rushed at Lassendil.

He knew it was over for him but he intended to butcher as many Morg as he could before he died. He howled his father’s name and rushed to meet the Morg in combat.

He never reached them.

Out of nowhere, something large and fearsomely strong, gripped his shoulders like a pair of giant pincers, and suddenly he was being lifted above the Morg. They grappled furiously at his kicking feet—but whatever held him was too quick and their claws grasped nothing but air.

Lassendil struggled wildly. He had no idea whether his abductor was friend or foe, but it took no notice of his struggling and cursing.

The Morg were now far below him. Lassendil was sailing high above Aranith. The wind was cold against his tear-streaked face. Lassendil looked down and caught his breath—even under siege, Aranith was breathtaking. The forest around the city was burning. Lassendil could see the battle still raging below and he struggled even more desperately.

“Let me go!” he shouted. “Let me die with my people, damn you!”

His pleas received no response. Up and up they went, travelling east, and soon the fires of Aranith were nothing but a pale speck on the western horizon. Night shrouded the land and the moon was just starting to rise into the inky sky. Below Lassendil, woodland, fields and hamlets crouched in the darkness. Lassendil wondered how much of this land had already fallen to the Morg. He hung suspended in mid-air, the fight gradually draining form him. He was still gripping his sword in his left hand and had considered using it against whatever had him in its clutches. However, now that the madness of grief had cleared, he did not relish the idea of being dropped at this height.

It was only when he caught sight of the glittering waters of the River Serran below that Lassendil realised how far he was being carried. A few leagues more and he would be in the City State of Serranguard. He began to struggle again.

“Who are you?” he shouted but his words were whipped away by the wind as soon as he had uttered them. “Where are you taking me?”

There was no response, only the roar of the wind in his ears.

 

 

Chapter Five

Trouble in Brenna

 

 

“How could you be so careless?”

The High Guardian’s querulous voice echoed around the chamber. “The Morg are at our borders and you let our precious Flame go out! We do not need our ancestors’ fury unleashed upon us at a time like this—you stupid, stupid girl!”

Gywna Brin clamped her jaws together and attempted a placating smile. “Please forgive me Eddelyn. I did not mean to fall asleep. I was feeling a little drowsy and then . . .”

“Silence!” Eddelyn shrieked, finally losing her temper. “Your insincerity is as nauseating as your lack of faith. For years I have put up with your sullen ways, your rudeness . . . but this . . .” The High Guardian paused a moment, struggling to contain her anger. Her eyes were two dark slits on her pale, angular face. Her thin body trembled with rage. Gywna stared back at Eddelyn, her mouth curled in an insolent smile. “But this is as much as I will tolerate,” Eddelyn finished. She drew herself up in triumph. “I am sending you back to your father— you are no longer a Guardian of Isador. A true Guardian would take her own life rather than let the Ancestral Flame go out. If you were not Lord Brin’s daughter I would have you horse-whipped for your negligence!”

“You can’t send me away,” Gywna retorted, her smile slipping. “I’ll tell my father you’ve mistreated me!”

“Your father already knows about your behaviour,” Eddelyn replied coldly. “I’ve kept him informed. He ordered me to send you back to Serranguard if your conduct worsened.”

Gywna glared at the older woman from under hooded lids. How dare her father undermine her in this way.

“Return to your chamber and pack your bags,” Eddelyn continued. Now that she had won the argument her usual unflappable calm had been restored. “You are leaving tomorrow morning.”

“What! I . . .”

“I have finished speaking with you Gywna.” Eddelyn turned her back on the young woman. “Leave me, now.”

Gywna’s infamous temper smouldered. She only just restrained herself from leaping on the sanctimonious High Guardian and scratching her eyes out. Instead, she flounced from the chamber and slammed the door behind her. Then, in the whitewashed cloisters outside, she kicked over a flowerpot and snarled at two young Guardians who were taking a walk around the garden. The girls shrank back in fear as Gywna stormed past. They were barely thirteen summers old and they had only been at the Temple a short while. She left the cloisters and stomped into the apple orchard behind the complex.

It was nearing dusk and there was no one about at this hour. The other Guardians were washing up before dinner. Muttering a string of curses, Gywna stormed up the hill behind the buildings and, reaching the top, where a high wall prevented her from going any further, she climbed a walnut tree and sat brooding.

How she hated the Temple and everyone in it. At the age of eighteen, she had spent the last four years as a prisoner within these high walls. Life as a Guardian of Isador required a spartan existence of prayer and watching over the Ancestral Flame that burned continually in the centre of the temple. The flame had not gone out in four hundred years—until that afternoon. The only part of her life here that Gywna had not minded was working in the garden and orchard, and the instruction in physical combat and swordsmanship. These skills were not usual for women but a Guardian of Isador was not like other women. They remained forever virgins and had to be able to protect the Temple of Ancestral Wraiths if the need ever arose.

Every morning, for the past four years, Gywna learned how to fight like a man. It helped her release her aggression but it did not make her popular with the other Guardians. She had never bothered to conceal her preference for fighting to praying. The other Guardians knew the only reason she had been allowed to stay here was because her father was Serranguard’s City-Lord. However, as much as she detested this place it was preferable to Serranguard and her father’s indifference. Now she was more than old enough to marry, he would auction her off to the highest bidder as soon as she returned to Serranguard.

Gywna uttered a few more curses that would have made Sister Eddelyn blanch and plucked at the long blue gown she wore. If she had not been in such a foul mood she would have enjoyed sitting in the walnut tree, looking over the white angles of the Temple and cloisters below.

The Temple of Ancestral Wraiths nestled in the foothills of the Cradle Mountains. The mountains were a gently sloping, horseshoe shaped ridge carpeted in pine forest. To the north, over the Temple’s onion-shaped roof, Gywna could see the hazy outline of the rooftops of Brenna. The nearby market town huddled on the shores of Lake Farne. The only time Gywna had ridden through it, Brenna had appeared a rough place; noisy, dirty, crowded and colourful. She had been captivated by it and had wanted to return to have a proper look around. Sister Eddelyn had been mortified by such a proposal. Once they entered the Temple, Guardians never left. It appeared that Gywna was now the first to break with tradition.

Gywna sat in her tree for over two hours. After a while, the bell for dinner chimed below her. She caught sight of a flurry of blue robed Guardians, moving towards the dining hall. She made no move to join them – and hoped they all choked on their vegetable broth and pigeon pie. She was too angry to eat; too unhappy and too suffocated. All her life she had been ordered around and treated like a piece of extraneous furniture, moved from room to room because she did not fit in anywhere.

Gradually, as the light faded, Gywna Brin made up her mind. The decision was monumental and it both terrified and exhilarated her. However, after much rumination she concluded it was the only way she could escape the gilded cage her father had imprisoned her in.

She would run away.

Gywna climbed down stiffly from the walnut tree and made her way back to the Temple. The cloisters were deserted, as everyone was still in the dining hall. Gywna navigated a network of narrow whitewashed corridors inside the complex. Her step was unhurried; her anger was seeping out of her now she had decided to run away. Inside her sleeping chamber, she packed a small bag with essentials. The task only took her a short time, and then she sat on her bed and waited.

Opposite the bed sat a small mirror. It had been a present from her mother not long before she fell ill and died. Gywna stared at her reflection—and a young woman with a pale, round face, a scattering of freckles over a turned up nose and heavy lidded hazel eyes looked back at her. Her thick curly brown hair, cut just above her shoulders, framed her face. She was thankful she took after her mother, rather than her father in looks; for only her heavy-lidded eyes and the pugnacious set of her jaw when angry gave her any resemblance to Theo Brin. Gywna tucked the mirror away in her bag. It was all she had of her mother—the only person who had ever bothered with her.

Gywna lay back on her bed and rested for a while. It was too early to make her move and she had to wait for the bell for midnight prayers to sound. As she had let the flame go out, all the Guardians, including Eddelyn, would be feverishly praying in an all-night vigil for forgiveness inside the temple.

Gywna was just starting to drift off to sleep when the bell rang, its mournful sound echoing through the complex. Gywna heard the rustle of slippered feet moving along the corridor outside her chamber. She waited until all was quiet once more before she got up and pulled her long, blue guardian robes over her head. She dressed in the plain and voluminous black shirt and wide trousers she wore for physical training, before picking up a belt with an ornate scabbard containing her Wraith Sword. Eddelyn would insist she left this behind but she did not intend to do so. This sword, carried by all those who protected the Temple of Ancestral Wraiths, was priceless. It had been expertly crafted; its hilt was studded with precious stones. The sword had a long, slender blade, forged by the best Ennadil smiths in Mithridel. Gywna buckled the Wraith Sword around her waist.

Before leaving her chamber, Gywna wrapped a long, dark-grey cloak around her and pulled up its hood. Then, shouldering her bag with her meagre possessions, she stepped into the corridor outside.

Silent in her soft slippers, Gywna moved quickly along the shadowed passages, until she reached the High Guardian’s chamber. She held her breath in anticipation and gently pushed the door open. Eddelyn’s chamber was empty, as Gywna had hoped. She let out the breath she had been holding and slipped into the chamber. Wasting no time, she crossed the wide floor to the High Guardian’s desk. She opened drawers and, after finding nothing but quills, ink and parchment at first, came across a small velvet bag filled with coins. Gywna pocketed the pouch with a grin of triumph. At least she would not starve.

Outside in the deserted corridors, she made sure to hug the shadows in case any of the other Guardians were about. She need not have worried. It seemed everyone was paying penance for her terrible act.

Gywna knew she should feel guiltier than she did about letting the Ancestral Flame go out. Despite her flippant attitude when confronted by the High Guardian, she had not meant for it to happen. She really had dozed in the temple’s alcove and had forgotten to close the skylight in the temple’s roof. While she was sleeping, a rain squall passed over-head and doused the tender blue flame in a hiss of acrid smoke. However, she did not see any use in worrying about the repercussions of her actions. She was no longer welcome here—and she never had been.

Gywna slipped outside into the darkness. She had discarded the idea of leaving through the main gates. They were guarded by two Guardians at all times, and she did not relish the idea of fighting her way past the both of them. She would end up being caught and marched back to her father, in even greater disgrace. Instead, Gywna had decided to climb the high wall at the back of the orchard, with the help of one of the apple trees that grew a few feet from the wall.

Clouds obscured the moon and darkness blanketed the orchard. Gywna moved by feel through the trees, following the gently sloping ground up to the high wall. She felt her way forward until she came to a section of the wall where a few of the apple trees had grown large, skimming the edge of the wall. Reaching around her like a blind woman, Gywna judged which tree stood the closest. Then, slinging her bag across her chest, she started to climb. The clouds were still covering the moon when she reached the top of the tree. She squinted through the darkness and tried to judge where the wall was, guessing it was no more than a few feet in front of her; just a little higher than where she was perched. In order to clear the wall, Gywna realised she would have to launch herself forward with a lot of force – and she hoped the apple tree’s thinner top branches would bear her weight.

Gywna raised herself up, braced her slippered feet against the branch, and jumped.

She slammed against the wall.

Gywna scrabbled madly against the rough stone before she fell, winded, onto her back. She had misjudged its height—the wall was much higher than she had estimated. She lay there for a few moments, regaining her breath, before she got to her feet and climbed the tree again. This time, Gywna felt a flutter of fear as she braced herself to jump. It had hurt, hitting the wall like that, and she did not fancy repeating the experience. She counted to three and then leaped as high as she could.

She hit the wall again but this time her fingers curled over the top edge. Her chin scraped painfully against the stone but she clung on and slowly pulled herself up onto the top. Gywna lay panting, her heart thundering in her chest, before she let herself down the other side. She hung for a moment, her fingertips and arm muscles burning, before she was forced to let go. She fell onto firm ground, toppling back onto her backside with the force of the fall.

Above her, the clouds obscuring the moon parted and the landscape around Gywna was illuminated in an eerie, silver luminance. She sat on the edge of a pine thicket. Below her, a shrubby hill sloped down to the unpaved road leading to Brenna.

Gywna got to her feet and rubbed her backside, before checking her sword was still fastened securely and that her bag had not lost any of its contents. Satisfied everything was still intact, she pulled up her hood and, without looking back at the white edifice behind her, she started walking towards Brenna.

 

***

 

It was late when Jennadil Silverstern left the home of Brenna’s richest merchant, Mirk Erdwood. A heavy bag of coins clinked in his cloak pocket as he walked. It was a cool, cloudy night and Brenna’s streets were quieter than usual. Brenna was the City States of Orin’s southern-most town, and news of the Orinian army’s crippling defeat had made the townspeople nervous and reclusive.

Despite that Jennadil’s eyes were gritty with fatigue, he was not ready to retire for the evening. Mirk Erdwood had paid him well to place an invisibility charm on his money vault—so that if the Morg arrived they would not be able to rob him—but he had not offered the wizard dinner. Jennadil’s money reserves had been almost exhausted. This job had bought him a few more weeks of hot meals and comfortable beds.

Jennadil’s stomach growled, reminding him that he had not eaten since the morning. His favourite tavern, the Stag and Ox—due to the pretty serving wench who warmed his bed after hours—was on the other side of town. The Erdwood town house lay on the southern outskirts, under the shadow of the Cradle Mountains, and not far from the Temple of the Ancestral Wraiths. It was a long walk, too long on his empty stomach, to the Stag and Ox, and Jennadil decided to look for a tavern on Brenna’s southside.

Jennadil walked through gradually narrowing streets. Stone and timber buildings towered overhead, made of granite slabs and larch framing. During the day, the town’s austerity was softened when Brenna was packed with street merchants, noise and colour.

Jennadil’s stomach growled as he passed the door to a tavern. It looked inviting. Two torches burned either side of the door and the lingering aroma of roast mutton and rumble of voices and laughter wafted out into the street. Jennadil paused and looked up at the sign above the door: The White Hare. A comical depiction of a startled hare stared back at him from the painted sign. He had never visited this tavern before and decided it was time he did.

It was still crowded inside, despite the lateness of the hour. Jennadil felt curious eyes on him as he moved across to an empty table in the corner and sat down. He tried to look as inconspicuous as possible these days, having changed the black, silver-lined cape that marked him as a wizard for a forest green one. However, his staff still drew curious stares—for he looked too young to need one. He knew his looks drew attention as well. The inhabitants of the City States of Orin tended to be short in stature with blond or light brown hair and eyes—much like his friend Will Stellan. Jennadil was tall and athletic with hazel-green eyes, a short ginger beard and curly auburn hair that he wore long. His skin was so fair it was almost translucent; a legacy of his Ennadil mother. He was not ashamed of his Ennadil heritage but his looks caused enough of a stir as it was; Ennadil were not popular in these parts.

The tavern-owner’s wife ambled over to his table. She was a chubby middle-aged woman with a tired, sagging face and a vacant expression. “What can I get you?” The woman’s voice was as expressionless as her face.

“A hot meal and a bed for the night good lady.” Jennadil gave her his most winning smile.

“‘Tis a bit late for supper but we have some mutton and sweet potatoes left over in the kitchen.”

“Thank you madam and I’ll have a jug of your finest ale with that.”

Immune to Jennadil’s charm, the tavern-owner’s wife turned her back on him and went back into the kitchen to fetch his dinner. Jennadil settled back into his chair and surreptitiously observed the other clientele inside the tavern. They all had turned back to their business but Jennadil sensed they still had an eye on him. The tavern’s interior was decorated in red velvet with a low, wood-beam ceiling. Pipe-smoke hung in a haze in the air. The aroma of roast meat mingled with the tang of strong ale.

A few rough-looking men sat around a table in the centre of the tavern. They were playing Death Dice; an old Tarzark game where the players made bets before throwing six dice. It was an ancient game and once a very dangerous one. In the past, if after throwing the dice a skull appeared on all six dice, the man who had thrown the dice was sworn to fight the man who had thrown before him—and the latter could choose the weapon. It was a fight to the death; a game traditionally played by enemies. These days however, instead of betting with their lives the players bet using gold coins, making it a safer but nonetheless, risky, game.

A roar went up at the table of gamblers, as someone threw six skulls. A heavyset fellow with deep-set eyes, who had been unfortunate enough to receive the six skulls, handed over a fist full of gold coins, cursing as he did so, to the grinning individual who had thrown before him. The winner snatched the coins and sneered at the loser while he made a show of adding the coins to his mounting pile of winnings. Watching them, Jennadil wondered how much longer the game would remain civil.

The tankard of ale arrived, followed by a plate of congealed mutton and over-cooked sweet potatoes. Jennadil was so hungry however, that he did not mind the average fare. He tucked into his meal, momentarily ignoring everyone else in the tavern.

However, he was half-way through his dinner when he realised someone was staring at him.

Jennadil looked up from his plate and let his gaze travel casually across the room past the group of dice-players, who were now shouting at each other, to the corner of the room. A cloaked figure sat in the shadowed alcove. He had his hood pulled up but Jennadil could just make out his face. He had dark skin and sharp features—looks that marked him as a native of the Isles of Tarantel, an archipelagoin the Gulf of Tarantel, off Isador’s south-east coast. The Isles of Tarantel were, and always had been, shrouded in mystery. Jennadil did not know anyone who had visited them.

This stranger was a long way from home and would stand out in a crowd here in Brenna, even more than Jennadil, but despite this, everyone except Jennadil seemed to be ignoring him. The man reclined in the alcove, a tankard of ale balanced on one knee. He exuded self-confidence and when his dark gaze met Jennadil’s unflinchingly, he raised his tankard in a mocking salute.

Jennadil tore his gaze away and stared down at his plate. His stomach had closed and his heart was pounding.

He knew a bounty hunter when he saw one. After a year in hiding, he had become careless. Theo Brin had finally caught up with him.

Jennadil’s first instinct was to pay for his meal and leave immediately but that would only draw attention to him. For the moment, he was safer here, surrounded by people. Jennadil took a gulp of ale and toyed with the remains of his dinner while he tried to hatch an escape plan.

A short while later, he was still wracking his brains and trying to ignore the stranger’s piercing stare, when the tavern’s front door opened and a young woman wrapped in a grey cloak entered. She had her hood pulled up but it was easy to see from her walk and the smooth skin of her shadowed face that she was a young woman. Jennadil forgot his own predicament as he, like everyone else in the tavern, stared at the girl.

Brenna was a rough town—it was the sort of place where even during daylight, women were careful. Even the prostitutes never walked about at night un-chaperoned. The girl was mad, walking into a tavern alone at this hour—a tavern full of bored, drunk men.

The tavern-owner’s wife intercepted the girl as she purposefully made her way across to an empty table near Jennadil. “Do you need lodgings?”

“Yes and a meal as well if it is not too late?”

“I’ll bring your supper up to your room. Follow me,” she tried to usher the girl towards the wooden stairwell but the girl turned away and took a seat at a table.

“I’d prefer to eat here,” she said.

The tavern-owner’s wife gave her an exasperated look before disappearing back into the kitchen. The girl settled herself in her chair and nonchalantly pushed back her hood. Brown curls framed a pert face. Jennadil felt a tickle of recognition. Had he seen her before? She reminded him of someone.

Every man in the tavern was staring openly at the girl. To her credit, she ignored them blithely, instead looking around the tavern’s interior with curiosity. The men who had been playing Death Dice were sniggering amongst themselves and making crude comments. Jennadil wondered if this girl was stupid or just looking for trouble. If it was the latter, than she had certainly found it, for her presence was causing a growing ripple of excitement.

The tavern-owner himself scuttled out of the kitchen, bearing a plate of food and a mug of ale. He was a small, nervous man with bright, darting eyes, like those of the hare on the sign outside the tavern.

“Are you certain you would not prefer to dine in your room my dear?” He said in a hushed voice as he placed the girl’s dinner before her. “This is not the place for a young girl.”

The girl shook her head, “I prefer it here thank you.”

The tavern-owner gave her a helpless, pleading look that she ignored before he retreated into the kitchen. The girl ate hungrily. Jennadil noticed however, that she ate neatly with good manners, despite her obvious appetite. That, and her well-bred accent, hinted she came from a class that closeted its women rather than letting them eat alone in taverns.

Jennadil felt he should intervene.

“Excuse me.” He leaned forward and tried to get her attention. “I think you should heed good advice. You should not be eating in here. You are attracting far too much attention to yourself.”

The girl turned in her chair and fixed him in a cool, hazel-eyed stare. Jennadil was reminded even more strongly of someone, but before he could make the connection, she spoke. “I shall eat where I please. Mind your own business.” With that, she turned back to her meal.

Meanwhile, at the table of dice-players they had obviously thrown dice to decide who would take first turn with the girl. The tall, meaty fellow with deep-set eyes, who had just lost nearly all his gold, swaggered over to where the girl sat. He pulled out a chair next to her and stared rudely while she ate.

“Yer hungry?” he leered. “I have somethin’ ya can eat!” His cronies at the nearby table broke into cackling laughter and Jennadil winced. This was going to turn ugly. Despite that Jennadil did not feel at all chivalrous towards this female, he was going to have to intervene, and in doing so draw attention to himself. He bitterly regretted his decision to set foot inside the White Hare—The Stag and the Ox may have been a long walk but it was not full of nasty surprises.

The girl looked up from her dinner and gave her harasser a glare of disdain. “Get away from me you slack-jawed cretin!”

This drew howls of laughter from most of the men inside the tavern. Even Jennadil could not suppress a grin of mirth. The girl had a tongue like a viper. Unfortunately, the slack-jawed cretin in question had not found her comment amusing. “I can find much better use for yer pretty mouth,” the man hissed, his eyes narrowed into pinpricks. “We’ll see how feisty you are when I get ya alone!”

Not waiting for another cutting response, he grabbed the girl by the hair and yanked her to her feet. Screaming in outrage, she kicked and struggled, but he was twice her size and held her easily.

“I’m takin’ her upstairs,” he bragged to his friends. “If ya wanna turn ya’d better queue outside the door!” His promise was met with roars of approval.

He turned, dragging the kicking and yelling girl behind him, and made for the stairwell.

Unfortunately, he found it blocked by Jennadil.

“Get outta my way!” he snarled, “she’s mine!”

Jennadil sighed apologetically. The apology was sincere; he really did not want to intervene. However, his sense of decency could not allow this oaf to rape the girl.

“I do apologise but I am afraid I cannot move aside.” Jennadil sighed again. Please let her go.”

The man snorted in disbelief before he made to shove Jennadil out of the way. Instead of doing so, he howled in pain. The girl had sunk her teeth into his wrist, and clung on like a terrier as he tried to shake her off. Turning his attention away from Jennadil, the man clubbed his captive across the side of the head with his free hand.

The girl released his wrist and sailed into a nearby table. She crashed into it and sent a flagon of ale smashing onto the floor. Her attacker grabbed her once more by the hair, put his head down and charged at Jennadil, intent on running him over. He never touched Jennadil however, for when he was no more than an a foot from him, a bright green energy bolt exploded from Jennadil’s staff and knocked his assailant flat on his back.

The on-lookers collectively scrambled to their feet, including the bounty hunter. There were cries of “wizard!” along with more worrying shouts of “reward!”

Real panic seized Jennadil now that realised he had irretrievably blown his cover. There was a hefty price on his head, which many in Brenna obviously knew about. He cursed himself for getting careless.

Jennadil’s mind frantically scrambled about as he tried to decide on the quickest way out of the tavern. However, his thoughts on escaping were interrupted when the tavern’s front door crashed open.

Three soldiers dressed in the green and black armour of Serranguard stomped in. The signs of a fracas inside the tavern were evident but the soldiers did not appear to notice. At once, Jennadil saw the terror in their eyes that they were valiantly trying to hide.

“The Morg!” One of the soldiers shouted as if they were all deaf. “They are marching north and are but one hour from Brenna. Flee while you can! There is no time to pack your possessions. Leave immediately!”

After delivering this devastating news, the soldiers turned on their heels and marched out of the tavern.

There was a moment of shocked silence inside the White Hare while the news sunk in—before an eruption of panic. Jennadil chose this moment to make his escape. Nimbly, he leaped over the still prone body of his attacker and past the girl who was picking herself up off the ale soaked floor and wiping blood off her mouth.

The dice players were shouting and scrambling over each other to get their share of the gold pieces they had bet. The gold sat in a pile at the table’s centre and it scattered as they all lunged for it. The scene turned ugly and knives were drawn.

Reaching the door, Jennadil saw the bounty hunter get to his feet in one fluid movement, and he would have reached the wizard in moments, had the dice players not blocked his path. He tried to elbow his way through their brawl but, thinking he was after their gold, the dice players turned on him. Suddenly, he too had to defend himself from wildly slashing knives and meaty fists. Jennadil disappeared into the street.

 

Inside the White Hare, Gywna Brin shakily got to her feet, pulled up her hood and made to follow the wizard outside.

“Where do ya think ya goin wench? We aint finished with ya.” One of the men made a grab for her.

Gywna took hold of another earthen jug of ale off the table next to her and swung it in his face. It crunched against her attacker’s nose and shattered. He screamed and let go while Gywna dived for the door.

Outside, she caught a flash of green disappearing up the street. He was getting away. She had to follow him— staying close to the wizard would probably save her life. She had felt so courageous after escaping from the Temple but her experience in the tavern had shaken her badly. That oaf would be raping her right now if the wizard had not intervened. Pushing the terrible thought aside, Gywna gave chase.

It had previously been a tranquil evening but, as news of the Morg’s imminent arrival rippled across Brenna, the town burst into life. Panicked towns-folk flooded out into the narrow streets, jostling each other and trampling anyone who could not keep their feet.

Everyone was moving, en masse, northwards towards the lakefront.

Gywna sprinted through the narrow streets. A stitch stabbed her side but she forced herself on; she knew if she lost sight of the wizard it would be nearly impossible to find him again in the jostling crowd. Soon he was just a short distance in front of her. His green cape swirled around him. He ran in long, loping strides and appeared to be slowing his pace. He was clutching his side as he jogged—like Gywna, he appeared to be suffering from a stitch after running with a stomach full of food and drink.

The streets sloped downwards now, in the last stretch before the lakefront. Gywna finally drew level with the wizard.

“Excuse me!” she gasped.

He swung his head round and his eyes narrowed when they fixed on her. “You! Why are you following me?”

“Since you saved me back there,” Gywna panted. “I’ve decided to stick with you until I get the chance to repay the debt.”

Panic spread across the wizard’s face. “There’s no need for that!”

“Yes, there is. No argument. It’s decided.”

“Look here young lady,” the wizard snapped. “Nothing is decided—I travel alone.”

“Not anymore.”

The wizard opened his mouth to argue the point further but the sight of the waterfront ahead of them suddenly diverted his attention.

It was bedlam.

Townsfolk were seizing any available craft and scrambling aboard. Fights had broken out and boats were capsizing. People shrieked as they plunged headfirst into the year-round, icy water. Oblivious to the townfolk’s plight, Lake Farne’s still waters twinkled in the moonlight, in a serene backdrop to the chaos onshore.

 

 

Chapter Six

An Unexpected Ally

 

 

The moon was riding high in the night sky when the unknown creature carrying Lassendil descended towards the earth. Lassendil fought against a growing feeling of unreality and the sense that this whole ordeal was merely a hallucination. He was light-headed and had started to shiver violently, from both shock and the cold. Although it was not yet autumn the air high above Isador had a bite to it.

He felt his feet brush against treetops and then, suddenly, the fearsome grip on his shoulders released and the ground rushed up to meet him.

Lassendil hit springy, dew-covered grass and clambered stiffly to his feet. He still clutched his sword and he intended to use it. However, when his gaze fell on his abductor, the sword slipped from his nerveless fingers. Lassendil’s knees went rubbery and he stared.

The moonlight bathed the surrounding landscape in silver, giving the setting an otherworldly glow. Lassendil stood in the centre of a wide clearing, surrounded by oak and ash trees.

Before him stood an enormous owl.

The creature stood at least ten feet high. It stared at him unblinkingly; its eyes two great lamps in the darkness, its soft blue feathers glinting silver in the moonlight. Lassendil had heard of these fabled birds, for they were said to dwell in the upper reaches of the Saffira Mountains, in the southern reaches of the Ennadil Territory. The Giant Blue Saffira Owls were part of Ennadil folklore. Few men had ever seen one of these birds, and lived to tell of it, however, for the owls were territorial and reclusive. The sight of the owl’s enormous hooked beak and shiny black talons made Lassendil take a tentative step backwards.

The owl cocked its head and blinked.

“Do not fear, Lassendil, if I had meant to devour you I would have already done so.” The owl spoke the Ennadil tongue in a soft, hooting voice.

Lassendil’s heart flipped in shock.

“How do you know my name?”

“Your father told me—you look much like him at the same age.”

“You know my father?” Lassendil whispered.

“I knew your father,” the owl corrected, “I saw him fall this eve, for I was circling Aranith during the battle.”

Lassendil stared uncomprehendingly. He had been through so much in the last few hours; his muddled brain refused to take in any more. Finally, the owl gave a hoot of impatience and decided to explain itself.

“My name is Grey-Wing. Years ago, when your father was a young man, younger than you are now I believe, he left his family behind and set off to explore the Ennadil Territory. His journey took him up into the Saffira Mountains where he fished in the streams and hunted in the forests. He journeyed high into the mountains and it was there that he found me.” The owl paused a moment, never taking its golden stare off Lassendil, “I was little more than a fledgling. I had been attacked by a hawk and my wing was damaged. I would have perished if your father had not taken care of me. He stayed for over two months and nursed me until my wing healed.”

“My father told me of his journeys in the Saffira Mountains,” Lassendil murmured. “He mentioned saving an owl but I’m sorry to say I didn’t pay much attention.”

The owl blinked in response before continuing its tale. “My kind are proud and independent. We do not accept help from outsiders—but without your father’s kindness, I would have died. I was indebted to Padrell Florin and I told him that if he was ever in need, he was to send word to me and I would aid him. Years passed and I all but forgot about my promise—until your father sent a wizard to deliver a message from Aranith three days hence. Your father wished for me to observe the battle from afar and only carry you away if you were in mortal danger.”

Lassendil’s shock turned to bitterness. “He should not have done it! What honour is there in being the only survivor on the losing side of a battle? I chose to fight at his side and that’s where I wanted to die!”

Grey-Wing only stared solemnly at him in response. The owl could neither share nor understand his bitterness and sorrow. Eventually, mastering his anger, Lassendil looked around the clearing in which they stood. “Where have you brought me?”

“You are on the southern edge of Delm Forest near the shores of Lake Farne. You are out of danger’s way, for the time being at least.”

“Delm Forest! But I don’t want to be out of danger’s way,” Lassendil exploded. “It will take me days to travel back to the Ennadil Territory. I command that you take me back to Aranith!”

“Aranith has been taken by the enemy,” the owl replied patiently. “I will not take you back there. I have fulfilled my promise to your father, although I must say you are highly ungrateful. That is quite a temper you have. I think I will take my leave of you now.”

The Giant Blue Owl lifted its wings.

“Wait!” Lassendil rushed forward. “Please wait a moment. Don’t leave me here. Please, I need your help.”

Grey-Wing observed the young Ennadil warrior for a moment before answering. “Even from high up in the Saffira Mountains we owls have seen the invaders. They crawl from the sea, burning the land and the trees, and enslave man and beast to do their bidding. For now they neither know, nor care of our existence —and we would prefer to keep it that way.”

“But the Morg are trampling Isador! You can’t just ignore it!”

“Then you must find a way to stop them.”

Lassendil’s shoulders slumped as anger, fatigue, grief and desperation brought him near to tears. “You will not help me?”

“The owls cannot aid your plight,” Grey-Wing hooted softly. “For thousands of years my kind have watched while Isador was settled, invaded, and fought over, and now invaded once more. We will not interfere in the world of men and beast. Look to the people of the land in which you stand for help—there is still strength and courage left— you just need to find it.”

Lassendil watched helplessly as Grey-Wing flapped his wings and rose up into the air. “Farewell Lassendil Florin.”

The owl disappeared into the night.

Lassendil sunk to the ground and stared blankly out at the night. Grey-Wing’s words brought him no solace. It was over for the Ennadil – they had fought and lost. The Morg had taken his father away from him, and his hope. His body felt cold and weak, and grief was a vice crushing his chest, making it difficult to breathe.

Lassendil lay down on his side in the empty clearing and wept.

 

***

 

The sunrise brought with it another scorching day. Isador had not been blessed with such hot weather in years, and day after day of cloudless blue sky went unnoticed. The Morg seemed to take the heat for granted and Adelyis could not concentrate on anything as trivial the weather.

Like the day before, the Morg trussed Adelyis up and slung her over the back of a Yangtul. Today they travelled south along the banks of the Serran. The river was too deep and wide to cross at this point, and the nearest bridge was half a day’s ride south—the Bridge of Valdorn. The Bridge was the only location where Ennadil and Orinian culture existed, albeit uneasily, side by side – and it was the main route by which Orinians and Ennadil crossed into each other’s lands. Ennadil populated Valdorn’s west bank, while Orinians lived on the east bank—and they rarely mixed.

It was humid in the lush river valley. Adelyis’s clothes stuck to her skin and she was sure she was starting to stink; not that her captors would notice—not with the carrion-stench of these birds.

The party halted briefly when the sun reached its zenith. The Morg fed Adelyis a cold broth, dried meat and more stale bread. Throwing her manners aside, Adelyis fell upon the food. The Morg observed her as she ate and made comments of obvious disgust—they found cooked food as disgusting as Adelyis found their feasts of fresh meat. After a year of ravaging the Ennadil Territory and taking its people prisoner, the Morg had realised that most Ennadil would rather starve than survive on a typical Morg diet. Hence, they had been forced to provide their prisoners with their own food.

As soon as Adelyis had eaten, they threw her back onto the Yangtul and continued on their way. The river valley was hazy and airless; flies and mosquitoes buzzed around them in an incessant whine. Adelyis hung over the Yangtul’s back, miserable and afraid.

It was late afternoon when they finally reached Valdorn. As a child, Adelyis’s father had once brought her and Lassendil to Valdorn. She remembered it as a strange place. The Ennadils’ beautifully crafted stone cottages had contrasted against the rickety two-storied wooden houses on the east bank. A glittering expanse of fast flowing water divided the two towns and a vast granite bridge spanned the divide. The current Bridge of Valdorn had been built by the Ennadil and had stood for over a thousand years. It rose high on delicately curving arches, solid and yet elegant. The River Serran’s clear waters eddied around the granite pillars, heedless of the Ennadil and Orinians who trundled across the bridge from dawn to dusk.

However, Adelyis’s memory of the town was completely unlike what she saw upon her arrival in Valdorn this day. She raised her head and momentarily ignored her protesting neck muscles.

The once sleepy border town had been transformed into a bloated Morg colony. The only Ennadil or Orinians she saw alive were surprisingly passive—and they stared at Adelyis with vacant eyes as she passed by. Every Morg strode confidently about the streets with at least two Ennadil or Orinians in tow. For the first time, Adelyis saw some female Morg. Unlike the males, they did not walk around swathed in black capes. Their skulls were covered in fine dark hair that fell lankly to their shoulders and they wore long shift dresses made from coarse, sack-like material.

Adelyis’s captors slowed their pace as they passed through Valdorn but they did not stop. They reached the great bridge and Adelyis saw that the tollgates at each end had been smashed down. For the first time in centuries, there was no barrier between the City States of Orin and the Ennadil Territory—and the irony of it was not lost on Adelyis. They crossed the bridge, the Yangtuls’ heavy clawed feet thumping and clattering over the worn stone, and when they reached the east bank, Adelyis saw Orinians mechanically piling their dead into heaps by the roadside. By now Adelyis realised that these people were enslaved, not just in body but in mind. The Morg shamans had obviously worked some spell, turning their prisoners into zombies who would carry out their masters’ bidding without question.

The Morg had not been long in Valdorn for many of the wooden townhouses on the east bank still had smoke rising from their ruins. Looking upon the ruined town, tears ran down Adelyis’s face. Her grief was sharp; a thousand jagged blades tearing at her her insides—if the Ennadil frontier had been taken then Aranith had fallen. Her father and brother were dead.

Leaving Valdorn behind, they travelled south into the City States of Orin. As night fell they camped amongst the wooded hills just west of the southern reaches of the Cradle Mountains. The setting sun stained the gently curved mountain slopes violet and a cool wind, charged with the promise of a coming storm, sprang up. The hot weather was ending.

The Morg tied Adelyis to a tree and fed her some more stale bread. Chewing slowly, Adelyis watched them go through their evening chores of feeding the Yangtul, boiling water, brewing tea and feasting on freshly killed animals. After dinner they huddled around the campfire. The firelight illuminated their gaunt faces as they conversed in low, sibilant voices.

Through her grief, Adelyis wondered, not for the first time, from where the Morg had come. All the Ennadil had learned was that they came from across the sea, from a great continent far to the south—a land far hotter than Isador. Indeed, they did not look happy about the approaching storm.

The storm finally hit an hour after nightfall, sweeping in a great wave over the woods where they camped. Adelyis huddled inside her cloak and prayed one of the questing forks of lightening would strike her—anything to escape the rending loss of the two people she loved most. The hammering rain doused the Morg’s campfire. Cursing, the Morg pulled their voluminous cloaks over their heads and dived into their tents.

It was as if nature itself was in a rage. The wind howled, the rain slashed and thunder exploded overhead. Lightning lit up the sky in eerie violet flashes. Finally, nature exhausted itself and the thunder rolled into the distance. The sky darkened and the rain lessened to a drizzle before stopping completely. Water dripped from the branches above Adelyis’s head, landing in large drops on her face. Disappointed she was still alive, Adelyis shivered in her sodden clothes. She was completely drenched but so exhausted by grief that she soon fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The next morning, Adelyis was roughly shaken awake and handed a cup of rainwater. The woodland around the camp sparkled lushly below a sky full of gently scudding clouds. This morning the Morg did not hurry. Huddled deep in their clothes they leisurely packed up camp and rode east towards the purple outline of the Cradle Mountains.

Adelyis’s body ached as she lay over the Yangtul’s feathery back. She felt strangely warm and disconnected from her surroundings. As the hours passed, she felt increasingly worse and realised she had caught a chill during the night after sleeping in wet clothes.

The Morg rode steadily across the undulating landscape, in and out of clumps of woodlands and grassland, and everywhere they passed through fell silent in the Morgs’ presence. It was midday when they entered the last valley before the mountain slopes rose skyward—and there they joined a vast Morg army. A black trail of bobbing heads, conical tents and squawking Yangtul filled the narrow valley floor. It was a rendezvous point for the bulk of the Morg force, gathered from all areas of the vast continent they were slowly conquering.

The new arrivals were greeted with much fuss and backslapping before bony fingers prodded Adelyis as if she were a prize cow at market. Suddenly, a sea of sharp-featured, tanned faces was staring at her. From this Adelyis guessed she was the only Ennadil witch they had managed to take alive. Adelyis gazed upon the Morgs’ eager faces and felt fear crawl up her spine. Spying a group of bareheaded shamans approaching, Adelyis hastily looked down at the muddy ground. The newcomers started to confer with the shaman who had captured her, all the while eyeing Adelyis with bright, greedy gazes.

Once again, hard fingers fastened around her limbs and pulled Adelyis off the Yangtul. One of the shamans shoved her forward and Adelyis only just managed not to fall face down in the mud. Throwing the shaman a dark look, Adelyis lifted her chin and walked unsteadily through the heaving crowd. It was terrifying walking through the midst of them. Many of the Morg hung back as she passed, watching the Ennadil witch from within shadowed hoods.

It took a while, but at last, the small procession consisting of Adelyis and her shaman escorts reached the centre of the vast encampment where a huge tent towered above the rest. A black and red flag with intricate designs fluttered in the breeze from the top of the tent. It was obviously the dwelling of someone of note— someone Adelyis had no desire to meet.

As they approached the tent, an ancient figure swathed in flowing black robes shuffled out to meet them. His skull was painted white and he carried a white-tipped staff, marking him as a shaman. He was the first elderly Morg Adelyis had seen. His ravaged face was a spider web of wrinkles and he grinned at Adelyis and licked his lips as if she were a tasty morsel his minions had brought him to snack on. Nausea stung the back of Adelyis’s throat. Her body was now trembling from fever and she felt so weak all she wanted to do was lie down and rest.

The shaman who had captured Adelyis greeted his superior before passing the ancient Morg the staff he had taken from Adelyis. The shaman took the staff with a leer and stroked the polished wood with such obvious pleasure it was almost obscene to watch. When he had finished with his new toy, the shaman looked up and the grin was replaced by a chilling gaze. Then, to Adelyis’s shock, he spoke her language.

“I am his mightiness, the Great Chak of the Nidu Clan,” he spoke her tongue haltingly and with a hissing sibilance, but Adelyis still understood every word he uttered. “And I demandsss to know who you be?”

“Adelyis of the House of Florin,” she replied. There was little to be gained from being insolent, but Adelyis spoke with reluctance nonetheless. “Witch of the Ennadil Mystic Council.”

“Young you are,” the Morg hissed. “Too young for my liking. A girl witch is the best they bring me!” The Great Chak cast a malevolent look at the shaman who had so proudly offered Adelyis to him.

“You be not ideal but you suits our purposes nonetheless . . . yesssss. You will explains to usss the secrets of Ennadil magic. Explains us you will how you channels the energy of the staff you carry.”

“I will not!” Adelyis shot back recklessly, her anger boiling over for the first time.

The Great Chak scowled and his eyes seemed to disappear into the folds on his wrinkly face. “His Mightiness the Great Chak informs you that we have waysssss of convincing little Ennadil witch to speak. Cooperate with us you will otherwise we cause you great painssss.”

The Great Chak then turned to the shamans and hissed an order. The others had not understood the conversation that had passed between Morg and Ennadil but had nonetheless seen the Ennadil witch’s defiance.

Suddenly, hands grabbed Adelyis by the hair and dragged her from the Great Chak’s presence. Kicking and shouting, Adelyis was towed a short way through the mud to a small clearing. In its centre was a small cluster of Orinian men. They were bloodied, mud-coated and chained together—and they all stared unabashedly as Adelyis was hauled screaming into their midst and dumped in the mud, before the Morg shackled her to the end of their chain. Then, the shaman who had brought Adelyis all this way only to find his prize was not to the Great Chak’s liking, booted Adelyis in the stomach and spat on her before stalking out of the clearing in disgust.

 

***

 

Will Stellan had watched the gang of shamans drag a young Ennadil woman into the clearing. One of them kicked and spat on her before leaving her prostrate form in the mud.

Even laying there, her long dark hair caked in mud; her tall, slender body shaking, he could see she was fine looking. She wore a thick blue traveling cloak of rich material, and when she finally raised her head to look at her fellow prisoners, Will caught his breath at the beauty of her heart-shaped face and exquisitely delicate features. Her skin, though slightly flushed, was alabaster and her eyes were as blue as the waters of Lake Farne on a summer’s day. He had not seen many Ennadil women during his life, and had heard they were beauties, but he guessed that even among her own people this girl was considered more stunning than most.

Will moved forward to help the girl to her feet, his chains rattling as he did so, but she shrank away from his touch and shuffled sideways like a crab. She crouched and stared at him with fierce eyes that warned him not to come an inch closer.

“Who are you?” she spoke finally, her voice husky with thirst and hunger. She spoke Orinian well, Will noted, much better than he or anyone he knew spoke Ennadil. He was not surprised by that however—it was common knowledge that the average Ennadil was better educated than most Orinians. Will himself could barely write or read his own language, let alone speak another.

“I am Captain Will Stellan of Serranguard and you, milady?”

“I am Adelyis of the House of Florin—witch of the Ennadil Mystic Council,” she replied with an imperious tilt of her chin.

Maybe it was the tone of her voice, or the way she looked down her perfectly chiseled nose at him—but whatever the reason, a sarcastic response tripped off Will’s tongue before he could stop it. “A member of the aristocracy? And a witch too? We are in distinguished company lads!”

The other men managed a few snorts before Adelyis’s look of icy scorn silenced them. There was a moment of frigid silence before Will attempted to restart the conversation, this time without sarcasm. “The House of Florin,” he mused. “I believe I met your brother a little over a year ago. He came to Serranguard to seek an audience with Lord Brin.”

The girl frowned at this but Will continued. “I remember your brother well. He was an excitable fellow—for an Ennadil that is.”

“He had every reason to lose his temper,” Adelyis Florin replied coldly. “Theo Brin refused to help us and insulted our people.”

“That I also remember,” Will agreed. “Lord Brin is not known for his love of the Ennadil.”

“Lord Brin is an idiot.” Adelyis replied simply.

Will did not answer. He could not say he disagreed with her for Theo Brin’s refusal to listen to the Ennadil had had disastrous consequences. However, Will was not about to admit this to this supercilious young woman. “What news of the Ennadil?” he asked finally.

“My people have fallen,” Adelyis replied. “The Morg now control the Ennadil Territory. And what of the Orinians?”

“Our army was defeated four days ago on the Jade Plains. None but the men you see before you survived. Now nothing stands between the Morg and Serranguard.”

Adelyis Florin wrapped her muddied cape around herself and sat down in the mud. She was shaking slightly. “Then all hope is lost,” she said softly. “Isador will fall.”

“Well.” Will cleared his throat. “There’s nothing like a little optimism to cheer up a drab afternoon.”

Adelyis lifted her head and stared at him. Will noticed for the first time that the girl was sweating, despite the cool evening. Her eyes however, were bright with anger.

“Fool.” Her voice was clipped and hard. “There are some things you should never ridicule.” With that, Adelyis Florin turned her back on Will Stellan.

Her words had been the verbal equivalent of a slap across the face. Anger and humiliation flooded through Will and he opened his mouth to inflict similar injury. Then, hesitating, he shut his mouth and waited for the sting of her words to pass. Nothing would be gained by arguing with this spoilt young woman.

One of the soldiers nudged Will and upon catching his eye, winked. “You sure have a way with the ladies, Captain!”

 

 

Chapter Seven

Across The Water

 

 

A cold sweat was starting to slide down Jennadil Silverstern’s back as he frantically searched for a boat in which to escape across Lake Farne.

There were none to be found—everyone in Brenna appeared to have the same plan. The lakefront was a riot scene; people were knifing each other to get to the few boats moored along the dock. There was not much to choose from, just a scattering of fishing and trade vessels and two barges used to ferry people across the lake to Sylvin to the east and Issil on the northwestern shore.

Jennadil dodged slashing dagger blades and fists. Deciding he was never going to get out of Brenna like this, he wove his way out of the seething crowd of panicked townsfolk and strode west along the wooden pier away from the docks—uncomfortably aware that he now possessed another shadow.

The girl had suctioned herself to him and she was proving impossible to lose. If that was not bad enough, he knew his third shadow—the bounty hunter—would not be far behind.

“So what’s the plan now?” The girl ran to keep up with his long stride. “I hope you noticed all the boats are taken.”

“Very observant,” Jennadil snapped.

The girl chose to ignore his sarcasm. “So how are we going to cross the lake?”

“I have no idea how ‘we’ are going to get across. But ‘you’ my lovely can swim if you wish.”

The girl did not reply and Jennadil hoped she would go off in a sulk. However, after a few moments she resumed her prattle as if he had not even spoken. “I know! Let’s steal someone’s boat. Just blast them into the water with that staff of yours!”

“I don’t think so!”

“Why not?”

“A wizard can’t use his powers to harm the innocent. We have a code of conduct!”

The girl snorted in reply. “Well, you keep your code of conduct while the last boats leave this pier and the Morg turn up and chop us into fish bait!”

Jennadil quickened his step. This girl was pushing him to the limits of his patience and he was sorely tempted to blast her into the water. They had now left the hysterical rabble behind and entered a run-down area of the lakefront. Guttering street lamps cast an orange hue over the pier and featureless stone warehouses looked out like blank faces across the lake. No boats were moored here, despite the dilapidated wooden jetty that jutted out from the waterfront. Rotting and listing to one side, the jetty looked as if it would collapse into the water the moment someone set foot on it.

 

Gywna Brin turned to the wizard, who had stopped in front of the jetty and was observing it intently.

“Why are we wasting time here? The boats are that way.” She jerked her thumb to the east.

“Off you go then,” the wizard muttered before he stepped onto the jetty and gingerly picked his way over the rotting planks.

“What in my ancestors are you doing?” Gywna was starting to get irritated. “That jetty is completely rotten. You’ll fall into the lake!”

“I have an idea,” the wizard replied. “We’ll make a raft!”

“What!” Gywna stared at him incredulously. “We don’t have time for that!”

Meanwhile the wizard had started pulling up planks.

“Idiot,” Gywna muttered; turning her back on the wizard she walked off down the pier. She glanced over her shoulder back at the jetty and sneered— the imbecile was still yanking at rotting planks. Any moment now he would fall through them into the icy waters of Lake Farne. She decided to leave him to it.

Gywna strode along the dimly lit wharf and forced herself not to jump at shadows; her nerves were on a knife-edge after events of the evening. The far end of the pier had a distinctly creepy atmosphere. There were fewer street lamps away from the busy dock. Without the light of the full moon, Gywna would not have been able to see much at all. Abruptly the docks ended and her way was blocked by a forbidding structure that rose up from the water’s edge like a giant stone monolith. The building jutted out onto the lake and had its own private jetty—and there, bobbing in the moonlit water at the end of it—was an ancient wooden skiff.

Gywna did a little dance for joy on the spot at her discovery. Some luck at last! Then, she turned and ran back up the pier to find the wizard.

 

A short while later, Gywna and Jennadil jogged back together towards the western end of the pier.

“It’s the old saw mill.” Jennadil explained as the building loomed before them. “It closed down two winters ago when they opened another mill at Sylvin.”

Although he would never have admitted it, Jennadil had been relieved when the girl had rushed back to tell him she had found a boat. The raft idea was not working out as he had hoped. After a lot of effort, he had ended up with a pile of rotting planks but no idea how to construct a raft out of them. For the first time, Jennadil was glad the girl had tagged along.

They reached the deserted sawmill and stepped under its shadow. The entrance was boarded shut and threatening notices hung over the doorway.

“We won’t be getting in that way.” Jennadil scratched his chin and looked over to where the jetty thrust out into the inky water. “We’ll have to swim across to the skiff.”

A weighty silence followed his words before the girl finally spoke in a subdued tone. “I can’t swim.”

Jennadil swiveled round and looked down at her. He quickly suppressed his exasperation at her helplessness but she saw it nonetheless.

“I found us the boat!” she snapped. “The least you can do is swim across for it and come back for me.”

Jennadil’s irritation burgeoned once more. She addressed him like he was her lackey.

“And hurry up would you!” She put her hands on her hips and glared at the wizard as if he were a slow-witted servant.

Jennadil’s rude retort was cut off when shouts and screams suddenly echoed down the dock. The Morg had overrun the centre of town; it would not take them long to reach the waterfront. Panic lodged in Jennadil’s gullet and, without another word, the wizard stripped off his cloak and handed it and his staff to the girl. Her bossy manner had disappeared for the moment; her eyes were enormous and frightened on her pale face.

Jennadil climbed down a rope ladder off the end of the pier and lowered himself into the water. “By my ancestors,” he yelped. “It’s freezing!”

Jennadil kept his head above the water and dog paddled across to the skiff. His wet clothes dragged him down as he attempted to pull himself into the craft. On the third try he managed to heave himself over the side. Working quickly, Jennadil untied the skiff from its mooring, picked up the oars and rowed back to where the girl fidgeted on the edge of the pier. She threw Jennadil down his staff and cloak and scrambled onto the rope ladder. Sliding down the ladder, the girl stopped a few feet above the water and looked over her shoulder at Jennadil. Her imperious young face was illuminated in the moonlight.

“Can you paddle a bit closer? I won’t be able to get in from here.”

Jennadil used his oars to maneuver the skiff nearer the dock.

“It’s still not close enough!” she protested.

“For the love my ancestors!” Jennadil exploded, his patience snapping. “Jump would you! I’m not waiting here all night!”

The girl sprang towards the skiff and missed it by miles. She belly flopped into the lake and disappeared beneath its phosphorescent surface. Moments later, she came up spluttering and Jennadil leant forward, grabbed her flailing wrist and pulled her onto the boat. She lay there choking and coughing before, sufficiently recovered, she sat up and pushed her sodden hair out of her eyes.

“You knew that would happen!” she wheezed, glaring at him. “I told you I couldn’t swim! Were you trying to kill me?”

“There are far easier ways to get rid of you if I were tempted,” Jennadil replied, picking up his oars. “Now sit still and keep quiet. Anymore prattle and I’ll stick your tongue to the roof of your mouth with a spell that’ll take a week to wear off.”

The girl’s face pursed and her small body coiled in on itself as if she were about to leap forward and strike him. However, the wizard’s threat appeared to work for she remained silent. Jennadil began to paddle away from the pier and soon the sounds of Brenna receeded into the distance. After a while Jennadil chanced a look back at the town—and instantly regretted it.

Golden tongues of fire licked the night-sky, lighting up Brenna’s ancient skyline in terrible beauty. The wizard and his young companion watched the flames devour the city like a hungry beast. The knowledge they had only barely escaped from the Morg’s clutches did not fill them with relief but a sense of burgeoning panic—the sacking of Brenna was only a taste of what was to come.

Finally Jennadil tore his gaze away from the burning city. Heartsick and weary, he turned his back on the devastation and rowed away into the night.

 

A new day dawned, bright and warm with a limpid blue sky. The sun rose from behind the rounded outline of the Cradle Mountains to the south and sent rays sparkling across Lake Farne’s mirrored surface.

Jennadil blinked his tired, gritty eyes and rubbed his burning arms. He was taking a break after hours of rowing, and now his back ached and his arm muscles felt torn and bruised. The girl was now taking a turn at rowing, but since they had both begun to tire, their progress across the lake had slowed. Despite his fatigue, Jennadil was gratified to see that, whereas to the south only water glittered below the faint shadow of the Cradle Mountains, to the north he could make out the green-forested silhouette of the shore. Soon they would have soil instead of water underfoot once again.

“That’s it—I can’t row anymore!” The girl threw down the oars and collapsed against the bow of the boat. The ancient skiff, only built for one person, sat low in the water and the girl’s sudden movement sent icy water sloshing over the side, soaking them both.

“Well done,” Jennadil said between gritted teeth. “How long did you last that time? Ten strokes?”

“I was rowing for nearly an hour!” The girl’s heavy lidded hazel eyes narrowed into slits, daring him to argue further.

Jennadil glared at the girl—never had he met such a brat, but he was tired of arguing with her. Careful not to capsize the skiff, Jennadil edged forward and exchanged places with the girl. Then, wincing as his shoulder and upper arms protested against being made to work again, he started to row.

Slowly, the northern shoreline inched closer. Glancing over his shoulder, Jennadil could now see the southern edge of Delm Forest clearly, as well as the undergrowth of brambles that tumbled down to the water’s edge.

Eventually, the bottom of the skiff connected with the shingle lake floor. Jennadil threw the oars aside and clambered stiffly into the ankle deep water. Leaving the skiff at the water’s edge, he and the girl waded up the pebbly bank onto the shore. Relieved to be out of the rickety boat, they sat on the grassy bank and let the sun warm their chilled limbs.

Jennadil relaxed against the sun-warmed earth and contemplated having a short nap. He looked over at where the girl was resting a short distance off. However, his drowsiness vanished when he noticed the sword the girl wore around her waist. He had not seen it last night as she had been wearing her cloak.

The sword had a long, slender blade and its finely carved hilt was studded with diamonds. Jennadil recognised it instantly. It was a Wraith Sword—a magical weapon forged by skilled Ennadil sword-smiths and worn only by Guardians of Isador. What was this brat doing with such a sword?

Jennadil’s brief improvement in mood dissipated. He had known from the moment he laid eyes on her that this girl was trouble. The Wraith Sword confirmed his suspicions. The Guardians of Isador were forbidden to leave the Temple of Ancestral Wraiths—and this girl had no right to be wandering about carrying such a precious object as if it were a trinket.

The girl noticed his observation of her sword and looked at him sharply.

Jennadil forced a benign smile. “It just occurred to me young lady that we have never introduced ourselves,” he said, deliberately putting on the charm. “I am Jennadil Silverstern—Wizard and Rescuer of Damsels in Distress.”

“Your accent is foreign,” the girl observed, ignoring his charm, “and you don’t look like the people around here.”

“My mother was an Ennadil and my father was an Orinian soldier from Mirren. I grew up in the foothills of the Silver Peak Mountains but I have lived all over the City-States of Orin.”

“The only wizards I’ve ever met were old and bent with long white beards,” the girl replied.

“Well if I live that long, that’s how I’ll look as well.”

“Do wizards really live three hundred summers?”

“They do, and longer,” Jennadil watched the girl intently. “So now you know all about me. What name do you go by?”

“Gywna.”

“Just Gywna?”

The girl was silent. She looked away from him and stared moodily out across the water. “That’s as much as you need to know about me,” she said finally in a tone that invited no argument.

“I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me where you got that Wraith Sword either?” Jennadil pressed.

Gywna glanced back at him, her eyes hooded and her expression mutinous. Jennadil held up his hands in surrender. “I thought not.”

Gywna continued to glower at him and Jennadil was once again reminded of someone he could not quite place. “But if you want to be secretive, that’s alright by me,” he continued. “In fact, the less I know about you the better and—while we’re on the subject—you’re not to tell anybody you’ve met Jennadil the wizard, especially this close to Serranguard.”

“Why not?” Gywna’s frown deepened. “What have you got to hide?”

“About the same amount as you my dear,” Jennadil replied. “If anyone asks I’m just some vagabond you traveled with for a spell.”

“Very well,” Gywna agreed finally. “Don’t pry into my business and I won’t pry into yours.

 

***

 

The sun was already high in the sky when Lassendil awoke from an exhausted, dreamless slumber. He groaned and rolled over onto his back and looked up at the sky. The sun’s heat warmed his stiff limbs and Lassendil blinked wearily up at the heavens, wishing he could sleep for longer. There was oblivion in sleep and while he slept he did not have to think about his father’s arrow riddled body, of Aranith swarming with Morg—or that he now lay in the middle of Serranguard, hundreds of leagues from home.

Eventually, Lassendil sat up. He could have lain there all day but his stomach growled hungrily and his throat was dry. He stiffly got to his feet and left the clearing. Ahead, the oak trees parted and the flat surface of Lake Farne sparkled before him. His mind still foggy with exhaustion and grief, Lassendil stripped off his clothes and dived into the icy water. The shock of the water on his warm skin cleansed his body and mind. By the time he climbed, shivering, out of the lake, he felt able to think logically. He let the sun dry his body before he dressed; leaving off the silver armour he had worn for the battle at Aranith. It would draw too much attention to him and he had no use for it now.

As he pulled on his long hunting boots and fastened his sword around his waist, Lassendil formulated a plan. He had not been raised a defeatist and so he would not give up. Even if his people had been enslaved and the Ennadil Territory had fallen to the enemy, he could not let despair take him. Isador was still not completely under the Morg’s yoke and others were sure to need his help.

Lassendil had not forgotten his encounter with Lord Theo Brin the year before. His bitterness towards the City-Lord had grown rather than diminished over time but the severity of the situation did not allow for personal resentment. Still, he would rather not face Serranguard and Brin; instead, he would travel north-east to Falcon’s Mount. There, he would do all he could to prevent the Morg from traveling further north—although by now the enemy appeared virtually unstoppable.

Lassendil slung his quiver and arrows over his shoulder and set off northeast. His journey would take him through Delm Forest and the lonely Endaar Downs. He figured that if he kept up a brisk pace, Falcon’s Mount was five to six days journey. He knew he was still ahead of the Morg and his journey to Falcon’s Mount would not take him through particularly dangerous land. He still had time, for the Morg would sack Serranguard before they turned their attention to Falcon’s Mount.

Delm forest was ancient, cool and full of bird-song. Once, before the Ennadil and the Orinians had come to these shores, wood sprites were said to have dwelt here. It was a place of timeless tranquillity—and Lassendil’s battered soul welcomed the forest’s peace.

It was not long before Lassendil realised he was not the only traveler through Delm Forest that day. Two others had recently passed this way, and recently. Their tracks were still fresh. Lassendil smiled; faintly relieved he had company. He guessed they were not far ahead of him, and glad to have found a new purpose, Lassendil set off after them.

 

***

 

Jennadil and Gywna travelled deep into Delm Forest. They had decided to travel northeast towards Falcon’s Mount rather than Serranguard, agreeing that, since the Morg were advancing with terrifying speed, it was best to travel directly northeast. There, Falcon’s Mount would be gathering its defenses against the enemy.

They had quenched their thirst from the lake but started the journey on empty stomachs. Their escape from Brenna had been too rushed to take provisions and Gywna’s stomach growled as she walked. Mid-morning, they found a growth of blackberries and ate hungrily before filling their cloak pockets for later. However, berries did not satisfy their hunger for long and by mid-afternoon Gywna’s head was spinning—she had never gone so long without food.

Jennadil strode ahead of her in silence and when she attempted conversation, he replied in monosyllables. As the afternoon wore on, rain clouds rolled in overhead. The wizard peered up at the darkening sky and announced it would be a good idea to make camp, light a fire and find some food.

“Why don’t you put that sword of yours to use,” he said as he gathered dry wood for a fire.

“What?” Gywna stared at him. “This sword is for combat, not hunting.”

Jennadil raised an eyebrow in reply and continued gathering wood. Gywna watched, with mounting irritation as he piled wood up for a fire. He tapped his staff twice on the ground and a green flash exploded from its handle, hitting the pile of wood. Soon a fire was crackling nicely but they had no food to cook on it.

Finally, Gywna could keep silent no longer. “Look, you’re a man are you not? All men should know how to hunt. Go and catch us some food!”

For the first time since they had met, the wizard’s face lost its good humour; his eyes flashed, his mouth thinned and his neatly trimmed beard formed a point at his chin, giving him a demonic appearance.

“Wizards are not trained to hunt—we are scholars of sorcery,” he replied through gritted teeth.

“Well then, you’re quite useless!” Gywna shot back haughtily.

Jennadil snorted, turned his back on her and stormed off, shouting over his shoulder as he went. “Well at least collect some more fire-wood instead of sitting on your fat rear-end like royalty!”

Gywna could not believe he had spoken to her so rudely—if they had been at Serranguard she would have had him flogged for that.

She cursed the wizard and she went in search of firewood, returning a short time later with her arms full of dry twigs. However, there was no sign of Jennadil. She added some wood to the fire and peered up at the tempestuous sky. The air crackled with energy, warning that a violent storm was on its way.

Finally, Jennadil reappeared. He was disheveled with grass and twigs in his hair; and he was also empty handed.

“You didn’t catch anything?” Gywna’s voice rose as she faced him. “You’ve been away for ages and you didn’t even catch a bird. I’ve never met such a useless excuse for a man. If it wasn’t for—”

“Enough!” Jennadil bellowed. “I didn’t ask you to tag along. One more insult and I’ll leave you to fend for yourself.”

“I wouldn’t be any worse off!” Gywna shouted back. “If I had wanted to travel with a maiden I would have chosen one back in Brenna. Quite frankly, a handmaid would have been more use!”

“I should have let you drown in the lake,” Jennadil roared at her, his hazel-green eyes narrow slits of rage. “Better yet, I should have let that oaf carry you off in Brenna. Maybe he would have taught you some manners.”

Gywna drew her arm back, preparing to strike the wizard across the face, when something rustled in the undergrowth to their left. In an instant, Jennadil had his staff at the ready and Gywna drew her sword.

A man emerged from the trees. In one hand, he held the back legs of three dead rabbits, and the other he held palm up in a gesture of peace. He was a tall, lithe Ennadil, dressed in forest green. Handsome and delicately featured, he carried a bow and arrow on his back and a sword at his side.

“Have no fear,” he said with a smile. “I thought I should intervene before you killed each other. I believe we’re traveling the same way and I have enough food to share with you.” He held up the rabbits. “Am I welcome?”

Jennadil relaxed and lowered his staff. “You are more than welcome. A few moments more with this shrew and I won’t be held accountable for my actions.”

Gywna sheathed her sword and glowered at the wizard. “Neither will I,” she snarled at him.

 

 

The aroma of roasting meat made Jennadil’s mouth water. Such was his hunger, he gazed at the rabbits while they roasted, willing them to be ready. Eventually, their new companion removed the rabbits from their spit. Grease ran down Jennadil’s chin as he attacked the meat. All three of them ate ravenously and it was only when they had picked their rabbit carcasses clean that they bothered to acknowledge each other once more.

Jennadil rubbed his contented stomach and leaned back against a tree trunk, silently observing the Ennadil curiously, while he finished eating. Lassendil Florin had introduced himself while the rabbits roasted and had told them that Aranith had fallen to the Morg.

Jennadil usually had an irreverent attitude to the happenings in the world around him—caring little for Isador’s politics. However, this news could not be swept aside or played down. They were running out of places to run, and if Falcon’s Mount fell then they would be forced to flee across the Sawtooth Mountains into the Tarzark Kingdom—to a fate even worse than capture by the Morg.

The Ennadil ate hungrily but without great enjoyment. Jennadil could see the grief etched in the grooves around his eyes and mouth. He had recounted how he was the only member of his family left—save his sister who had escaped to the north. Lassendil had also told them of his miraculous escape thanks to Grey-Wing, the giant blue owl that had rescued Lassendil, moments from death and carried him to safety, hundreds of leagues from Aranith before dumping him on the northern edge of Lake Farne.

Lassendil wiped his greasy fingers and looked up as the first drops of rain splashed onto his nose. “The storm is almost upon us,” he announced. “Let’s take shelter.”

The three travelers pulled up their hoods and huddled together under the sheltering boughs of an ancient oak. Moments later the storm exploded overhead and rain lashed across Delm Forest.

Their campfire hissed and went out, plunging their tiny corner of the forest into darkness.

 

 

Chapter Eight

The March North

 

 

Lord Theo Brin stared moodily out of the window and was aware of the gazes boring into his back. They all expected him to open his mouth and spout miracles. As if he could change the course of events by uttering a few words.

If only it were so easy.

Outside, leaden skies presided over a sodden landscape. The good weather had broken yesterday evening and a violent storm had hammered Serranguard’s walls. Distant thunder rumbled towards the south, signaling that more bad weather was on its way.

Theo Brin sighed heavily, his eyes skirting the southern horizon. Indigestion burned at the back of his throat. He almost expected the Morg to come flooding over the crest of the hills at any moment. The enemy was not so close yet—but unfortunately, they were not that far away either. They had annihilated the Orinian army on the Jade Plains and a messenger had arrived, on the point of collapsing from exhaustion, half an hour earlier with the news that Brenna had also been sacked. The messenger had ridden like a demon, covering the distance between Brenna and Serranguard in little over twenty-four hours. He had ridden while Serranguard’s southern-most city burned—and his horse dropped dead upon arrival but the message had been delivered.

It would take the Morg army just over two days to march from Brenna to Serranguard. Lord Brin had to make a decision immediately.

Finally, the City-Lord turned around. They were all watching him, their faces tense and their gazes revealing a mix of fear, expectation and hope. Theo’s gaze moved down the length of the vast oak table where they all sat: Myra, pale and tense; Vermel Ham, sweating and startled; and his new wizard, Arridel Thorne, silent and brooding. Behind them, his chamberlain, Hugo hovered uselessly. The oily little man was practically wringing his hands in fear. Apart from the wizard, they were all of little use to Theo Brin.

“My Lord, we can delay no longer. What is your decision?” The wizard finally broke the ponderous silence.

“What would you suggest Arridel?” Theo deliberately stalled. He watched the wizard under hooded lids. He was at least two decades older than his previous wizard, Jennadil, although it was hard to discern his true age. Theo Brin’s new wizard was as different to his former as night to day. Arridel Thorne was subtle and sly. Unlike Jennadil, who could be disarmingly candid, nothing came out of Arridel Thorne’s mouth that had not been censored first. He was not an attractive man; he had pale, waxy skin, a short black beard and long, lank black hair laced with silver, and his black wizard’s robes hung from his raw-boned frame. As always, Theo Brin detected the power emanating from the wizard, despite Arridel Thorne’s best efforts to hide it under an urbane façade.

“We cannot defend ourselves milord,” Arridel conceded. “Serranguard has little more than eight-hundred soldiers to protect her against an army of thousands.”

“We’re doomed milord! Doomed!” Hugo cut in. “They will destroy us. They will—”

“Silence!” Theo snarled at his chamberlain and Hugo choked his hysteria obligingly. Theo Brin shifted his gaze to Vermel Ham but the counsellor looked back at him beseechingly.

“Hugo has a point,” he said quietly. “It will be a fight we cannot win.”

Lord Brin’s cold gaze finally settled on his wife. Myra looked thin and washed out these days. Since the fiasco with Jennadil he had enjoyed making her suffer; not physically, for Theo got little delight in doling out floggings or torture, but mentally—there were many subtle ways to diminish someone. On feeling Theo Brin’s eyes on her, Myra’s grey-blue gaze met her husband’s. He had not yet broken her spirit, but in time he would.

“Do you wish to concede an opinion my dear wife?” Theo asked softly, sarcasm dripping from every word. Myra shook her head and looked down at where her slender hands rested on the tabletop.

“I thought not,” Theo mocked. “You do not have opinions do you Myra? You are as simple-minded as you are plain.”

An uncomfortable silence followed Lord Brin’s words. They were all used to hearing the City-Lord taunt his wife but, nonetheless, it still put them on edge.

Theo Brin looked away from his silent wife and turned his attention once more to the view outside the window. He deliberately avoided the gazes of the others for he knew they would not like his decision.

“We have no other option open to us,” he announced finally. “We must evacuate Serranguard.”

 

***

 

It was raining steadily when the Morg packed up camp and marched north. After a long, wet night, more Morg legions had reached the encampment. The Morg numbers had now swollen to truly intimidating proportions. However, they were evil tempered as they prepared to march north, and it was obvious to their prisoners they detested the rain.

Sloshing through ankle-deep mud, Will Stellan glanced across at the Ennadil witch. Her face was flushed with fever and her blue eyes were glassy. Her chill had worsened overnight and trudging through the driving rain was not helping it. He had not spoken to her since their altercation the day before. Occasionally, he had caught the other Orinian soldiers staring at the girl. She possessed an ethereal beauty, so different from earthy, voluptuous Orinian women. Despite her beauty, the witch’s haughtiness prevented any of them from attempting to converse with her.

Will’s legs ached, his back throbbed and his stomach burned from the lack of a decent meal. The Morg fed them morsels of dry bread and a disgusting gruel that only the ravenously hungry could stomach. More than hunger though, what tormented Will Stellan was the knowledge that this army was preparing to march on Serranguard. Will did not worry so much about his own death, for he had a fatalistic attitude towards life and death. He had been estranged from his family for years and most of his friends had died on the Jade Plains—but his loyalty to Serranguard caused him physical pain when he thought of it falling to the Morg.

A sharp tug on Will’s chains pulled him out of his thoughts. The prisoners were all chained together so when the witch suddenly stumbled and fell, she nearly took Will with her.

Will reached down and pulled her out of the mud. Behind them, a Morg snapped a bullwhip in the air and snarled. The Ennadil witch hung limply in his arms; her eyelids fluttered as she struggled to keep conscious. Having already seen what the Morg did to prisoners who slowed the army down, Will gave Adelyis a gentle shake, attempting to wake her. She groaned and turned her face away from him. Will shook her harder and she reluctantly opened her eyes.

“Stop manhandling me!” she mumbled and made a weak effort to pull free of his grasp.

“Sorry, milady, but if we don’t keep moving that fellow with the whip will flay us both.” Will pulled her upright. “I’ll carry you on my back for a while.”

“You will not!”

The bullwhip whistled dangerously close to their—and, without any further argument, the girl clung to his shoulders.

Will carried her piggyback for a while. For such a delicate beauty, she was no featherweight. Her legs and arms that clung around his neck and waist were sculpted with hard muscle and, after a while, Will started to stagger and was forced to pass her to another soldier to carry for a while.

The army moved steadily through the sparse woodland carpeting the foothills of the Cradle Mountains. The mountains themselves loomed grey through the rain and marched south as the day progressed. By the time the sun set in a misty haze, the peaks lay behind them.

The prisoners collapsed in a huddle while the Morg made camp. The rain had lessened to a drizzle and the Morg bickered while erected their tents. Their black robes dripped with water, they were caked with mud and they squabbled over campsites. A few fights broke out over the poaching of suitable space.

The prisoners, oblivious to the Morgs’ squabbling, huddled together in a miserable, sodden heap. To Will’s surprise the Ennadil witch stretched out on the wet ground next to him and laid her head on his lap. Moments later she was asleep. Will could feel the heat from the fever radiating off her. He tried to summon up irritation at being used as her highness’s pillow but, in truth, he welcomed the human contact.

 

Adelyis opened her eyes to the sound of voices. They were Morg voices but the pleasanter softer tones of the Orinian language. Sunlight warmed Adelyis’s face; her body felt surprisingly relaxed and free of aches and pains. The fever had spent itself. She stretched her arms and legs as she turned over, freezing when she saw that she had been sleeping curled up on Captain Stellan’s lap. He was smiling down at her with a definite air of smugness. “Slept well, princess?”

Adelyis bolted upright and tried to recover her dignity, her face flushing hot. “Fine thanks,” she muttered, pushing her hair from her eyes.

“Are you feeling better?”

Adelyis managed a mute nod in reply.

“Glad to hear it. Here, we saved this for you.” Will passed Adelyis a piece of dry cheese. “Sorry it isn’t much. They were in a foul mood last night.”

Adelyis took the cheese, keeping a wary eye on the man before her. She had not spent much time in the company of Orinians. Studying them at close quarters, she was a little humbled to realise that despite cruder manners and an obvious lack of culture, Orinians were not so different from Ennadil. Despite his arrogance and smug manner, Captain Will Stellan radiated strength of character. His eyes sparkled with intelligence and good humour, and he was even quite attractive— for an Orinian—despite the silver scar that marred the left side of his face.

Adelyis swallowed the rest of her cheese and took a long drink from the earthen cup Will Stellan held out to her.

“Thank you for carrying me yesterday,” she said finally. “You could have let the Morg trample me into the mud but you didn’t. I appreciate that.”

Will Stellan gave her a warm, unexpected smile. It was the perfect opportunity for an arrogant comment but he let it pass.

The bellow of horns to the east of the sprawling Morg campsite, interrupted Adelyis’s breakfast. Swallowing the last of her cheese, Adelyis watched another legion stomp into the clearing and felt her stomach clench at the sight of them. The Morg could suffocate Isador with their sheer numbers.

Now that the rain had stopped the Morg were in much better spirits. They cackled to each other as they packed up camp. The prisoners were jostled unnecessarily, poked and prodded like livestock.

The army had almost finished packing up camp when another prisoner was dragged through their midst. The crowd parted and much snarling and spitting could be heard before something large and hairy was hurled towards the prisoners.

Gazing upon their new companion, the other prisoners all drew back sharply.

The creature picked itself up off the muddy ground and made an obscene gesture at the Morg who had manhandled it. Then, it turned and stared balefully at the other prisoners.

It was roughly the height of a short man and its round, barrel-like body was covered in a thick russet pelt. The creature’s arms and legs were long and sinewy and covered in leathery green skin pockmarked with warts. Large clawed hands and feet were attached to deceptively scrawny ankles and wrists. Its nose, jaundiced yellow in colour, protruded like a hooked beak below two beady topaz eyes. Beneath the hooked nose, was a wide mouth with two fangs protruding from each side. The creature’s keen gaze viewed its fellow prisoners—five Orinian males and one Ennadil female—all staring at him as if they were looking at a two-headed warthog.

Although Adelyis had never set eyes on one of these before, she knew exactly what she was looking at. They were rarely seen this far west, rarely venturing far from the borders of the great forest in which they lived.

This creature before her was a Gremul.

 

 

Chapter Nine

The Bounty Hunter

 

 

 

Gywna blinked water out of her eyes and, deliberately, let the branch she had pushed aside snap backwards so that it whacked Jennadil in the face. She smiled as she heard him curse behind her. Before her, the Ennadil’s tall, lean form flitted through the trees like a shadow. Gywna’s sodden clothes dragged her down as she walked. Despite everything, Gywna felt surprisingly in good spirits. For the first time in her life she was free.

Jennadil was not in a good mood—his face stung from where the branch had caught him and he glowered at the back of the girl responsible. She was lucky he was a gentleman. As soon as they arrived at Falcon’s Mount he would rid himself of her.

Ahead of Gywna and Jennadil, Lassendil’s keen eyes picked out a path through the forest. He barely noticed the rain for his thoughts were divided between the task at hand and the turmoil of the last few days. He knew it did no good to dwell on it but his thoughts kept returning to the last few moments he had shared with his father in Aranith.

The small band traveled in silence for hours on end. Their strides splashed in time with the steady tempo of the rain, deeper and deeper into Delm Forest. By the time they made camp for the night, they were all exhausted and weak from hunger.

Gywna sat down heavily on a moss-covered log. She was so hungry that she felt ill. Unfortunately, it was too wet to light a fire—there would be no roast rabbit tonight. Jennadil collapsed into a morose huddle nearby while Lassendil disappeared in search of food.

It was after dark when Lassendil returned, only to find the wizard and the girl in the same positions he had left them in. They where still ignoring each other. The glowing tip of the wizard’s staff lit the waterlogged clearing in a sickly green hue.

“I didn’t find much,” Lassendil announced. “Only some mushrooms and Aka-fruit.”

His companions were so hungry that neither of them complained about the meager fare. The mushrooms were delicate in taste with a meaty texture that satisfied their empty stomachs and the Aka fruit were tart and delicious. Aka Trees, characterized by their gnarled trunks and branches, grew abundantly all over central Isador; their fruit resembled large red cherries, although sourer in taste. The meal, while light, was surprisingly filling and Lassendil had found enough of it to last them for lunch the following day.

The rain was still falling when they wrapped themselves in their cloaks and rested against tree trunks for the night.

 

***

 

Jennadil awoke from a deep, exhausted sleep to find the cold metal of a knife blade pressed against his throat.

At first, he thought it must be part of some evil dream caused by the mushrooms he had eaten for dinner. However, the chill of the blade seemed too real to be part of a nightmare—even an extremely vivid one. Hardly daring to breathe, Jennadil stared into the darkness as the fog of sleep sharply receded. Fear prickled across his body like thousands of tiny marching ants.

“Keep very quiet,” a voice hissed in his ear, “and do exactly as I tell you.”

Jennadil held his tongue while his left hand stretched out, fumbling in the darkness for his staff. He had fallen asleep clutching it but during the night, the staff had rolled off his lap onto the ground, and now he could not find it.

“I’ve moved your staff out of harm’s way,” the voice continued. “If you try that again my knife will slip and cut out your windpipe. Now get up.”

Slowly, Jennadil did as he was told.

“Walk backwards, carefully . . . we don’t want to wake anyone up, do we?”

Jennadil began to shuffle back out of the clearing.

All at once the cold steel at his throat was abruptly removed and there came the thuds and smacks of a violet tussle in the undergrowth behind him. At the sudden realisation he was free, Jennadil dived forward on his hands and knees and frantically searched for his staff. His fingers finally closed over its polished surface a few feet away—and seconds later the clearing was lit up in green iridescence.

A cloaked man lay face down in the mud. Lassendil, mud-streaked but calm, sat on top of him with one knee pressed against his neck and a thin-bladed Ennadil dagger pressed at the man’s jugular.

“A friend of yours?”

“Obviously not,” Jennadil rubbed his neck where the blade had pressed. The skin still tingled.

“I’ve seen him before.” Gwyna came over. “In that tavern in Brenna. He was sitting in the corner. What does he want with you?”

Jennadil silently cursed the girl; he hated women as clever as this one. Ignoring her question, he looked back at Lassendil who was watching him curiously.

“Am I going to sit on the fellow all night or are you going to tell us what this bounty hunter wants with you?” Lassendil asked finally.

Jennadil started. “What makes you think he’s a bounty hunter?”

“Please Jennadil.” The Ennadil’s expression hardened. “Stop evading the question. Bounty hunters aren’t difficult to spot. Who is he working for and can we expect any others?”

Cornered, Jennadil swallowed hard. Meanwhile, the bounty hunter was starting to protest. However, the bed of damp ferns his face pressed into, muffled his curses.

“Very well,” Jennadil replied sullenly. “He was hired by Lord Brin.” The others remained silent, waiting for the wizard to explain himself. Jennadil cleared his throat in embarrassment before continuing. “A year ago I was working for Theo Brin. I’d been at Serranguard for three years but then . . .” Jennadil paused, deciding whether to tell the truth, before he ploughed on, “. . . he caught me bedding his wife.”

Lassendil’s expression grew incredulous. “And he didn’t have you executed on the spot?”

“I was scheduled to be executed the following morning—but luckily I have friends at Serranguard and one of them helped me escape.”

“No wonder there’s a price on your head,” Lassendil replied.

Jennadil snorted. “It never would have happened if the fat toad hadn’t had us spied on.”

A sharply indrawn breath from behind him caused Jennadil to glance over his shoulder at where the girl stood silently listening to his confession. Her face was strained and white, and her hazel eyes blazed.

“What’s wrong with you?” Jennadil snapped. “Don’t tell me I’ve shocked your sensibilities as well?”

Her fist shot out and slammed into Jennadil’s right eye. The force of her punch knocked Jennadil backwards. He sat down heavily on the ground and clutched his eye before yelling at her. “Vicious bitch! Why did you do that?”

“That fat toad you speak of.” Gwyna stood over him, her fist ready to deliver another punch. “Is my father!”

 

***

 

Pale, watery sunlight broke through the rain clouds the next morning. Shafts of light warmed the vegetation and caught on each droplet of water still hanging from the leaves—causing the forest to look as if it had been frosted with millions of tiny crystals.

In the small, trampled clearing, Jennadil, Gywna and Lassendil ate a frugal breakfast and eyed their captive. He was in his late thirties, dark skinned with high cheekbones, chiseled features and short curly black hair. A silver crescent moon, a Tarantel good-luck charm, glimmered from one ear.

Lassendil had tied him to a tree and the bounty hunter did not bother to struggle. He just sat and stared at his captors with disarming intensity.

“Any ideas on what we should do with him?” Lassendil finished his Aka-fruit and threw the stone into the bushes. He turned to the others but their expressions were as mutinous as the bounty hunter’s. Lassendil suppressed a sigh; he was beginning to regret taking up with these two. They were tiresome with their constant bickering. Without his help they were unable to feed themselves or come to a decision.

“Let me go Ennadil!” the bounty hunter spoke for the first time since his capture. “Don’t interfere. I came for the wizard. Give him to me and I’ll be on my way.”

“Good idea,” Gywna agreed. “After what he did to my father he doesn’t deserve our help.”

“Listen to the girl,” his voice softened and became coaxing, hypnotic. “Free me.”

Lassendil’s face creased into a rare smile. “Your Tarantel tricks won’t work on me.” Lassendil glanced at Jennadil and Gywna as he spoke. “Don’t look into his eyes when he speaks like that or he’ll hypnotize you.”

Jennadil and Gywna hastily averted their gazes from the bounty hunter who, to their surprise, laughed.

“We can’t let him go!” Jennadil spoke up. “He’ll just have to come with us.”

Gywna snorted and Lassendil raised an eyebrow, regarding the wizard calmly. “Well Jennadil, if you want to bring him along he’s your responsibility. You watch over him but if he escapes be it on your head.”

Jennadil frowned at the Ennadil; until now he had quite liked Lassendil. However, he did not appreciate Lassendil’s off-hand way of speaking to him. He and Gywna Brin had behaved like prudish old maids when he had told them about why the bounty hunter was after him.

No wonder Gywna had reminded him of someone—when she scowled her face was a replica of her father’s. When would this run of bad luck end? His right eye-socket was aching. Gywna had punched him hard; he would have a black eye by nightfall.

It was in this cheerful mood the day began. Lassendil set a brisker pace through Delm Forest than the day before. It was not long before the others were struggling to catch their breaths. Jennadil brought up the rear, and was occasionally forced to prod his captive with his staff when the bounty hunter deliberately dawdled.

The forest glistened after the recent rains, until the sun evaporated the moisture, turning Delm Forest into a steam bath. They stopped for a brief lunch, when the sun was at its zenith, before Lassendil pressed on relentlessly. Finally, an hour before sunset—as the shadows lengthened and the forest’s green deepened —the trees abruptly drew back.

There before them rolled an expanse of grass-covered hills, stretching north and disappearing over the horizon. The company halted and gazed across the vast Endaar Downs. Falcon’s Mount lay northeast.

“Long have I heard of this place.” Lassendil spoke for the first time since that morning.

“It looks a bit empty for my liking,” Gywna replied. “You’re not Orinian—why do you know of it?”

“Many Ennadil fell here,” Lassendil replied, “during the last great battle between the Tarzark, and the Ennadil and Orinians over a century ago. My grandfather fought here. Many Orinians and Ennadil fell during that battle but they ultimately triumphed against the enemy. The Tarzark could not withstand the combined strength of both armies.”

The companions stood for a moment and looked across the downs, imagining a time when Orinians and Ennadil had fought side by side in this lonely land. Apart from Falcon’s Mount, this city-state was sparsely populated. There were a scattering of small communities to the west of Falcon’s Mount but nothing but rolling grassland between the great citadel and the garrison at Hammer Pass where the jagged Saw-Tooth mountain range created a natural border between Orin and the Tarzark Kingdom. No Ennadil had ventured here in long years.

“How times have changed,” Jennadil observed solemnly from the rear.

His words were met by silence.

 

 

Chapter Ten

The Occupation of Serranguard

 

 

Will Stellan would never forget the day the Morg marched on Serranguard. He had readied himself for bloodshed, and steeled himself for watching his home being sacked and burnt. However, the reality was far worse.

The vast Morg army flooded across the rolling farmland towards the golden hued fortress—only to find Serranguard castle completely undefended.

Where was Serranguard’s home guard? Where was Lord Brin and his entourage?

Will and the other prisoners were swept along; debris caught up in a swiftly moving tide. The Morg swarmed up the winding road to the castle, and finding no archers on the walls to impede them, they battered the great gates down. The invading army spewed into the Keep but no army awaited them.

Serranguard was empty.

The prisoners were among the last to enter the castle. Howls echoed off the stone walls as the Morg looted the Keep. Will stared numbly at first before anger hit him like a battering ram.

No Ennadil lord had abandoned his doomed citadel during the Morg attacks. Theo Brin had fled in terrible cowardice.

Will gazed about him, his mouth sour and his stomach roiling. His men looked on with pinched white faces, similarly affected. Will felt the gazes of the Ennadil witch and the Gremul on him and felt humiliation join the boiling rage within him. Wisely, both Adelyis and the Gremul kept silent.

Only one of the Morg bothered to draw attention to the lack of honour in finding Serranguard open for the plundering. A small, whippet thin warrior stopped in front of Will and curled his lip. He spat at Will’s feet before disappearing into the seething crowd.

Moments later the tide of Morg pushed the prisoners forward and Will found himself being swept across the vast courtyard between the empty stables, up familiar stairwells and along oft travelled corridors – only this time the familiarity was tainted. The Morg shoved the prisoners into a small chamber, which had once belonged to one of Serranguard’s servants. Will listened to the sound of the door being bolted from the outside before he turned his attention to the chamber in which they stood. Overturned chairs and a few personal items strewn over an unmade bed gave signs of a hasty departure.

The prisoners were silent while the fortress echoed and throbbed with the Morg’s celebrations.

Will crossed to the narrow bed and sat down heavily on the edge of it. If he had been alone he would have buried his head in his hands but the presence of his soldiers, the girl and the Gremul made him control his despair.

“Well that’s it then Captain,” one of his men eventually spoke, his voice thick with emotion. “It’s over, and we never even gave them a fight.”

Will nodded listlessly and heavy silence hung in the air—then a hoarse, gravelly voice intruded upon his misery. “The rest of Orin is free is it not?” the Gremul rasped. “Why do you whine like whipped dogs?”

Will snapped out of his reverie. “You speak our language!”

“I do.” The creature’s voice was rough as if it had a severe throat infection but it was still easy to understand. “I am Taz, my tribe’s emissary, so learning your tongue was necessary. You still haven’t answered my question.” Two yellow eyes fixed on Will, unblinking and full of cunning.

“We do not whine,” Will replied coldly. “We are just attempting to understand what has happened here. Even if Falcon’s Mount and Mirren are still free, Serranguard was our home. We can’t understand why Lord Brin did not attempt to defend it.”

“Maybe he had a good reason for abandoning Serranguard,” a cool female voice interjected. “Perhaps he thought he was saving more lives this way.”

“Lives that will only be lost later,” bitterness hardened Will’s voice but he could not bring himself to look at Adelyis Florin. Her words might be fair but he could just imagine the superiority on her face.

“This is a humiliating day for the City-States of Orin,” Taz the Gremul added unnecessarily.

Will glared across at the squat, fur-covered creature. “And what of your kind? I doubt the Gremul have fared any better.”

The Gremul stared back at Will and appeared to hunch down on himself, crossing his sinewy green arms across his furry chest. He made a low growling sound in the back of his throat. “What remains of my kind have fled deep into the heart of Gremul Forest where the Morg have yet to reach. We fought them for as long as we were able and whole tribes were slaughtered. I was sent to ask for help from the Orinians but I was captured south of the Cradle Mountains.” Taz turned to Adelyis. “And what of the Ennadil?”

Adelyis compressed her lips and shook her head. “I fear Aranith has fallen. It was under siege when I left it a week ago. I know not the fate of my people.”

Their conversation was abruptly terminated by the grating of the bolt being drawn back on the door. Moments later Morg flooded inside like cackling black crows. Hard, pinching fingers grabbed them and herded them out into the corridor. Moments later, they were being pushed down a narrow stone stairwell.

The Morg were taking them down into the dungeons.

A wave of stale, mildewed air hit Will as he descended the stairs into the dungeon’s top level. He knew the labyrinth of tunnels intimately, having escorted numerous prisoners down here. He had never expected to be among their numbers and the irony was not lost on him.

The Morg had procured a large ring of rusty keys. They fiddled and argued over it before finally unlocking a door at the end of a tunnel on the dungeon’s second level. The prisoners protested and struggled when the Morg attempted to push them into the dark cell. Adelyis was the last to enter. She grappled with the edge of the doorway before the Morg ripped her fingers free and tossed her inside.

The door slammed shut behind her, sealing them all in fetid darkness.

 

***

 

As night fell over the land, swallowing Serranguard in its long shadow, the Morg reveled. They were celebrating their easiest victory yet in their conquest of Isador. With over half of the continent taken, they could afford to celebrate with gusto. Unlike the Ennadil fortresses, which had been reduced to rubble by the fighting, Serranguard had been left intact. Geographically, it lay at Isador’s heart, and as such was an obvious choice for a Morg capital. The Morg lit great fires on top of Serranguard’s four towers; giant torches that welcomed the approaching Morg legions that were still traveling north.

An enormous feast of raw meat and entrails was prepared in the castle’s banquet hall. Heaps of sheep’s eyes, a newfound Morg delicacy, were heaped on silver platters. Great cauldrons of the potent Morg beverage they drank at every opportunity bubbled at the far end of the hall; this fermented brew gave the Morg great strength. The bubbling liquid gave off a pungent, earthy smell, like the bottom of an ancient forest. The Morg preparing the banquet scuttled to and fro across the great hall.

Their frenetic activity heralded the imminent arrival of someone of great importance.

The last streaks of light faded from the indigo sky outside when drums started to pound in the lower levels of the Keep. The Morg inside the dining hall froze mid-action for a moment before scurrying and tripping over each other to make the finishing touches to the feast.

The drums rolled like approaching thunder, and the last Morg had flattened himself against the wall alongside his fellows—who were all standing rigidly to attention—when a tall, caped figure swept into the hall, followed by a considerable entourage.

The fear and awe that this individual inspired was palpable inside the hall. There was not one Morg who did not resist the urge to cower as he strode by them, before taking his position at the head of the long table. The Morg shamans filed into the hall, their heads bare, their staffs at their sides. They took their places near the head of the table, flanking their master.

The individual who led them settled into his chair and watched under hooded lids as the rest of the company took their seats. He reached out a large hand and grasped the chalice in front of him. The hand was white and bloodless; its pallor contrasting sharply with the Morg’s bronzed skin. Pocked, leathery skin covered the powerful hand and long black nails protruded from its fingertips. Slowly, he raised the chalice to his lips and as he did so, the cowl slipped back slightly, revealing the ghastly visage within.

Chalk white skin, slitted pink eyes and a black slash of a mouth flashed into sight like a naked, evil white rabbit. The lipless mouth opened revealing a double row of sharp yellow teeth. Grinning, the Morg’s leader drained his chalice and brought it back down onto the table with a thump, where it was immediately refilled.

The Morg at the table all sat with unnatural stillness, watching their master hungrily but not touching the plates of offal in front of them. Not one of them would have dared. Sensing this, their master drained his second chalice slowly and leant back in his chair, his gaze slipping over them. Finally, he leaned forward and clapped his raw-boned, bloodless hands. The sound echoed in the great hall.

The Morg fell upon their banquet and the grunting and growling of their feasting caused a great din. Their master looked on dispassionately, eating slowly as he savoured his food. His gaze never left his subjects for a moment.

Outside, the drums pulsed the rhythm of a slowly beating heart. The sound echoed for leagues in every direction, summoning all Morg to the castle. Below the fortress lay a forest of black, cone-shaped tents crawling with Morg. All signs of the Orinian villages that had dwelt there until today had been virtually obliterated. By daybreak the landscape around Serranguard would be unrecognisable.

Men no longer belonged here.

 

***

 

Adelyis’s stomach growled loudly. Hunger gnawed and bit at her belly like the rats that infested this vile dungeon. Darkness cloaked the cell and the chill of damp rock numbed her skin through her clothes. She was a mess; her hair was now dirty and matted and her fingernails were broken and ragged. She could not see the others but she sensed them sitting nearby, lost in their thoughts and worries.

So this would be her fate—left to rot in this festering tomb. She would have preferred almost any end than this. Left in this cell, her death would be drawn out to extricate every bit of suffering. Adelyis squeezed her eyes shut to halt her morbid thoughts. There was no use in torturing herself; she was sure the Morg would get to that soon enough.

“Witch.” A voice rasped to her left, making Adelyis jump. “For that is what you are, is it not?” The Gremul’s attempt at conversation unnerved Adelyis.

“My name is Adelyis,” she replied coldly. “Not witch—although that is what I am.”

“Gremul do not trust magic,” Taz continued bluntly, “but can you not use your powers to help us?”

Adelyis sighed deeply. “Without my staff my powers are limited. I know some spells but none of them will unlock this door and free us.”

“Not one trick which could aid us?” The Gremul’s voice roughened accusingly. “A real sorceress would not be defenseless without her staff!”

“I am not defenseless!” Adelyis snapped. “You know nothing of my magic Gremul! To blast down an armoured door and clear a path through a Morg army is beyond my means at present—and if I were capable of such power I would not be locked up in here with you!”

Taz growled and muttered under his breath and Adelyis took a few deep breaths to calm the anger that bit at her empty belly. If it was not the Orinian captain and his sarcasm, it was this stinky, hairy creature and his whining. She hated them all.

Will Stellan and his men were mercifully silent at present. Still subdued after seeing their beloved castle abandoned to the Morg, they had listened to her altercation with Taz but did not comment on it. The events of the last few hours had stripped them of hope and left despair in its place.

 

 

Chapter Eleven

Reunion

 

 

It took Gywna, Jennadil, Lassendil and their prisoner two days to travel across Endaar Downs. It was open, unprotected country and there was no place for them to hide from the enemy. Luckily, the Morg were still behind them, although not far enough behind. Lassendil, the only one of the group to have fought the Morg, would halt periodically at the top of the highest of the rolling downs and listen intently, his acute Ennadil hearing straining for the echo of far-off drums and the faint vibrations of marching feet. Serranguard had been taken, he was sure of it—and so the Morg would not wait long before they set out for Falcon’s Mount.

His last image of the Morg, grappling for his feet, snarling and snapping, while Grey-Wing carried him away, still haunted him. He could not avoid facing them, if not once more, then perhaps many times before the end – whatever his end was to be. The thought chilled him and he quickened his stride, as if by putting more distance between him and them, the memories would fade.

At the beginning of the second day of marching across the open, featureless landscape, they met the East-West Highway. Rutted and potholed, the road stretched from Falcon’s Mount in the east, skirting the northern fringe of Delm Forest, through to Serranguard and onto Tarlock on Isador’s west coast.

The travelers followed the highway east and towards the end of the day, the outline of what appeared to be a tall mountain-peak, hove into view.

It was unlike any other mountain peak existing in Isador. Silver grey, with a faint mauve sheen, it cut a crisp outline against the washed-out sky. Only Jennadil had been here before—but still the towering fortress of Falcon’s Mount awed him, just as it did the others. As they marched closer, it became evident that the mountain was man-made, rather than a natural feature of Isador’s landscape. Closer still, it was clear they were not looking at a mountain but a great city.

Falcon’s Mount was a fortress unlike any other. Whereas most of Serranguard’s population dwelt in densely populated villages, scattered beneath the fortress, Falcon’s Mount was completely self-contained. It was a fortress-city constructed of granite hewn from the slopes of the Sawtooth Mountains. A spider web of walkways spiraled up the fortress’s craggy sides towards its pinnacle. Shaded courtyards, wide squares and flat-roofed dwellings of every size were carved out of the rock.

Falcon’s Mount lacked the grace of the Ennadil cities, or Serranguard’s red-hued beauty, but it was an architectural masterpiece and the City-States of Orin’s centre of culture and learning. Jennadil had come here to complete his studies as a young wizard. He did not have pleasant memories of Falcon’s Mount—not for the city itself but for his experiences here. He sharply recalled the city’s austere beauty, the steep, winding stairways and Falcon’s Mount’s freezing library where he had spent hours huddled over dusty books in preparation for his exams.

Slowly, Falcon’s Mount inched closer and soon it towered above the group of footsore travelers. They were weak with hunger and thirst. Gywna, who had never before had this much exercise, ached all over. She longed to stretch out on a soft bed and sleep for a couple of days—and she also longed to shrug off her present company. The Ennadil did not irritate her but she found him distant and cold. Apart from being more handsome than any man she had ever seen, which was distracting, there was something about him that made her uncomfortable. Acid comments and complaints died on her tongue whenever his dispassionate blue-eyed gaze settled on her. The wizard on the other hand was a constant source of annoyance to Gywna. As if his unmanly behaviour and flippant manner were not offensive enough, she now knew he was a wanted man for seducing her stepmother, whom she had never met but disliked intensely for no reason except irrational jealousy. Jennadil and the bounty hunter trailed at the rear of the small company. The bounty hunter had not spoken all day and they could get nothing from him—not even his name.

Gywna gazed up at the fortress and, not watching her step, tripped over a rut in the road. She stumbled forward and collided with Lassendil. He broke her fall and they collapsed in a crumpled and undignified heap on the hard road. Gywna’s face flamed when the wizard’s laughter stung her ears. Lassendil gave a quiet groan underneath her—she had knocked the wind out of him.

“Get off him girl!” Jennadil’s hand fastened around Gywna’s arm and he pulled her to her feet.

“Don’t you touch me!” Gywna snarled before turning to Lassendil who climbed lightly to his feet and brushed dust off his clothes.

“I tripped, I’m sorry,” she muttered.

“Did you hurt yourself?” Lassendil asked.

“Oh she’s fine,” Jennadil answered for her, laughter in his voice. The wizard’s demeanour seemed to alternate between moroseness and flippancy. “How unladylike Gywna—throwing yourself at a man like that!”

“Pig!” Gywna rounded on the wizard. “You judge everyone by your base moral standards!”

“Stop baiting her Jennadil,” Lassendil interrupted mildly, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, “You’d be good in a fight Gywna—you completely flattened me!”

Gywna’s face burned in indignant fury. She would make these two oafs pay for their disrespect. On the verge of angry tears, Gywna stalked ahead of the group.

Further on, more travelers, some on foot, others with carts loaded with their possessions, were passing through the city gates. Uniformed guards wearing blue and silver armour were stopping them.

Bringing up the rear, Jennadil hesitated; the irrational fear that these soldiers were looking for him made the hair on the back of his neck prickle. However, he could not turn back now without drawing attention to himself—and where would he go? He glanced sideways at the bounty hunter who was staring straight ahead, giving nothing away. Jennadil’s survival instincts screamed that going into Falcon’s Mount cut off any chance of escape—but then he was passing through the gates and the chance had passed.

It was then that he saw the distinctive green and black armour of Serranguard amongst the soldiers in the blue and silver of Falcon’s Mount.

Panic seized Jennadil and he froze mid-step. Gywna’s voice, high and excited, lifted above the crowd. “Why are Serranguard soldiers here?”

“Serranguard has been evacuated Miss,” a soldier at the gate replied. “Have you not heard? All citizens, including Lord Brin himself now reside here.”

Jennadil watched as Gywna’s face blanched before colour rushed back into her cheeks—then she drew herself up and looked the soldier in the eye. Jennadil saw she was indeed Theo Brin’s daughter; her regal bearing and arrogance could only have been his.

“I am his daughter, Gywna Brin,” she announced.

Jennadil inwardly cringed. Why did she not declare that a bit louder? He was sure there was a prisoner down in the lowest levels of the fortress’s dungeons who had not heard her.

Serranguard soldiers rushed up to Gywna, disbelief and shock on their faces.

“We thought you had perished during the sacking of Brenna, milady,” one of the soldiers blurted out.

“I nearly did,” Gywna replied, obviously enjoying the sudden concern and attention she was receiving.

Then, as the shock of seeing their Lord’s daughter alive and well faded a little, the soldiers turned their attention to her traveling companions. Jennadil looked down at his dusty boots praying that no one would recognise him—but of course someone did.

“By the wraiths of my ancestors—she’s brought the wizard, Jennadil Silverstern, here with her!” A soldier shouted.

Jennadil remained immobile while Serranguard soldiers surrounded him with their swords drawn. He glanced sideways at the bounty hunter and saw that the man of Tarantel was smiling, silently victorious.

Jennadil’s gaze moved to Gywna—and she met his look briefly, her expression hard and her eyes hooded. Next to her, Lassendil was frowning, his body tensed and ready to aid Jennadil if the wizard did anything foolhardy like try to fight his way out of being arrested. To prevent Jennadil from using magic, one of the soldiers held a blade to the wizard’s throat while another took his staff.

Ignoring Jennadil’s predicament entirely, Gywna stepped forward and addressed the soldiers. “Where is my father?”

“He resides in the City-Lord’s palace, guest of Lord Fier, milady.”

“Take us to him.”

 

 

Lord Fier’s palace crowned Falcon’s Mount; its pointed roof forming the sharp peak at the Fortress’s summit. A steep, winding road led up from the main gates. It was a long climb up to the palace, or would have been had Jennadil not been trussed up and slung on the back of a bullock-drawn wagon. The bounty hunter, calmly self-assured now that he was a free man, climbed up next to the wizard. Lassendil took a seat nearer the front, behind Gywna who had perched beside the driver. She appeared calm but Lassendil noticed her hands were tightly clenched on her lap.

A phalanx of Serranguard soldiers escorted them up to the palace. Their passing caused a considerable stir. Falcon’s Mount was far more crowded than usual and many of Serranguard’s citizens recognised the brown curls and pugnacious expression of their City-Lord’s only child. Many also recognised Jennadil—the wizard had been the subject of great speculation and gossip this past year. The price on his head was greater than any of them would earn in a life-time, and many of them watched with thinly veiled envy as the wagon trundled out of sight, carrying away the young wizard in the dashing green cape and the dark-skinned man perched next to him who would earn the reward.

There was a cool breeze that afternoon but Jennadil was sweating under his cloak. The thought of being under Theo Brin’s malevolent stare, once more at his mercy—or lack of mercy—made Jennadil’s stomach twist up into a knot.

Finally, the wagon rattled up the final incline through the solid granite gateway and into the palace courtyard. The bounty hunter pulled Jennadil off the wagon and kept a firm grip on his arm, as if still expecting the wizard to try to escape. However, Jennadil just stared at the ground as they walked. Fear had drained him of energy.

The soldiers escorted the group into the palace, through dimly lit, torch-lined hallways, until they reached a set of oak doors.

“Lord Fier has been informed of your arrival, milady,” one of the soldiers informed Gywna. “As has your father…they await you.”

The great oak doors were thrown open and they entered a high-vaulted hall. Sturdy, granite columns lined the length of the hall and high windows let in rays of the honeyed afternoon sun. Their footsteps echoed loudly as they moved towards a group of seated figures at the far end.

“Father!” Gywna rushed forward, as if to embrace the unsmiling figure cloaked in blue robes, before thinking better of it and dropping into a low curtsy. “Father,” she repeated breathlessly. “I never thought to . . .”

“It is a pleasure to see you alive Gywna,” Theo Brin spoke in an uncharacteristically gentle voice, before he touched her shoulder briefly. Gywna looked into her father’s face and saw he had aged in the years since she had seen him last. His eyes were rheumy and bloodshot and his face was drawn and tired, in a strange way making him appear more intimidating; yet he spoke to her with a tone approaching tenderness. Gywna felt an unexpected surge of joy and sudden tears stung her eyes. Maybe he did care for her after all.

For his part, Theo Brin barely recognised the young woman in men’s clothes before him. She had been little more than a child last time he saw her and now she carried herself with such self-confidence that he could see she had left childhood far behind her. A riot of brown curls framed her pale face and freckles sprinkled the bridge of her pert nose. Her hazel eyes, full of intelligence and spirit, met his unflinchingly. She wore a travel-stained grey cloak and a black cotton tunic and trousers. The Wraith Sword, sparkling like a silver jewel against her shabby attire, was buckled around her waist.

Theo Brin frowned—she was far more self-confident and bold than a young woman should be, and he found it obscene to see a woman stride about dressed like a man. He finished his inspection and fixed his daughter in a stare that was suddenly hard.

“Tell me Gywna, how is it that the Temple of the Guardians was burned to the ground and every last guardian slaughtered . . . save you? How did you survive?”

Theo watched his daughter set her jaw and knew he was not going to like the answer.

“I ran away,” she lifted her chin, as if daring any one to judge her, “and it is just as well I did for otherwise I’d be dead too!”

Theo frowned at the discovery that his daughter was as insubordinate as ever. Her years in the order had done nothing to break her spirit as he had hoped.

“We will discuss this further in private,” Theo growled. “For now we have more important matters to address. You are in the presence of Falcon’s Mount’s City-Lord girl; remember your manners and greet him.”

Gywna’s cheeks flushed and she turned to Lord Aran Fier, who had been watching the interaction between father and daughter with interest. “My Lord,” she curtsied.

Lord Fier, twenty years younger than Theo Brin, and tall and spare with expressive blue eyes and thinning blond hair, smiled at Gywna. “Welcome to Falcon’s Mount, Lady Brin. I only wish your visit was under more favourable circumstances.”

“Gywna,” Theo broke in impatiently. “I demand to know why you have traveled here in the company of these two men! Do you know who they are?”

“I only recently discovered their identities,” Gywna replied, turning her attention once again to her father.

Theo Brin’s gaze shifted to Lassendil Florin. The Ennadil stood at the back of the group; his expression was offhand, but Theo saw his own dislike mirrored in Lassendil’s eyes. The City-Lord’s gaze moved on, to where the bounty hunter he had hired stood next to Jennadil Silverstern. Theo stared at the wizard for a moment before addressing the man who sat to his right.

“Arridel Thorne—meet your predecessor.”

“We have met,” Arridel replied, his expression giving nothing away. “Here in fact. He remembers I’m sure.”

Jennadil’s face was set grimly and he did not respond.

“So Jennadil,” Theo settled back in his chair. Behind the City-Lord sat Myra Brin and Vermel Ham. They were both silent but Theo could feel their discomfort—and he could see that Jennadil was carefully keeping his gaze averted from them, especially Myra.

“You thought you’d got away did you? If you’d had any intelligence, you’d have left the City-States of Orin, never to return!” Theo glowered at the wizard, as if expecting Jennadil to start crying and beg for mercy; but when no such reaction was forthcoming, he shifted his gaze to the bounty hunter. “Good work Dael. You shall be amply rewarded as promised.”

The bounty hunter nodded in assent; a man of few words it seemed.

“Excuse me Lord Brin,” Lord Fier joined the discussion at this point. His tone was cordial but there was a note of impatience in it. “I realise you have personal business to attend to with these two but I have questions of my own—questions which I’m afraid are more pressing than yours. Now that the Morg occupy Serranguard, they are but a three-day march from here. Since this is the first Ennadil we’ve met since the invasion, I must speak with him.”

Theo’s lip curled. “You won’t get much out of this one. Just ask yourself what he’s doing here instead of fighting in the Ennadil Territory. He probably deserted.”

“Let us hear it in his own words then,” Aran Fier’s good humour was fading. He turned to where the Ennadil was silently fuming. “Please introduce yourself and tell us what has befallen your people?”

“I am Lassendil Florin of Aranith,” Lassendil replied stiffly, “and I am no deserter. I met Lord Brin a year ago when I rode to Serranguard as part of an emissary, asking for help against the Morg. I am sure you remember, for another such emissary came to you as well.” Lassendil’s voice was clipped, as if he barely suffered being in the presence of, let alone speaking to, these people.

Lord Fier’s face grew grave but he nodded and allowed the Ennadil to continue.

“Like yourself, Lord Brin refused to aid us. Despite our efforts to defend our territory, one by one, our cities have fallen to the Morg.” Lassendil paused a moment, letting his words take their full effect before he started to recount, in detail, the destruction of Mithridel, the siege of Aranith, his father’s death and his rescue by Grey-Wing the giant blue owl. He even went on to tell of his meeting Gywna and Jennadil in Delm Forest. When he finished his tale, there was a moment of silence before Theo Brin erupted into laughter.

“What a story!” Theo Brin wheeze. “Rescued by an owl were you? You expect us to believe such drivel? No wonder the Morg have trampled your people . . . you and your kin obviously come from a long line of cowards!”

Lassendil’s face transformed as rage took him. He drew his long Ennadil sword in one smooth movement, lunged towards Serranguard’s City-Lord—and would have imbedded his sword in Theo Brin’s throat if the Wraith Sword’s blade had not blocked the arc of his sword.

The sound of clashing steel split the air and echoed through the cavernous hall.

Gywna stood before her father, her gaze locked with the Ennadil’s. Their blades were just inches from Theo Brin’s face. Serranguard’s City-Lord had shrunk back into his chair, the colour draining from his cheeks.

Lassendil held Gywna’s gaze, and through the haze of anger which still consumed him there was surprise in his eyes. The girl’s reflexes were astoundingly fast.

“Enough of this!” Lord Fier’s voice echoed through the cavernous hall. “Put down your swords this instant!”

Lassendil and Gywna glared at each other a moment longer before obeying. Lassendil stepped back; his body was coiled, ready to strike if Theo Brin dared insult his people or his kin once again. He did not re-sheath his sword.

Lord Fier stood up and turned to Theo Brin.

“Lord Brin, I would thank you to remember you are no longer in Serranguard. Hold your tongue!”

Theo turned puce but did not reply. The shock of nearly having his throat cut had still not worn off.

“Come now Aran,” he finally blustered. “The Ennadil just doesn’t like hearing the truth.”

“That does not interest me,” Aran Fier snapped. “What matters is that while you sit here dallying with your personal grievences, the Morg invasion force is sitting on our doorstep!” Lord Fier’s blue eyes glittered dangerously. “Never forget that you are a guest here Lord Brin—as is Lassendil Florin. Keep your temper under control. I also understand this wizard betrayed you and for that, you placed a price on his head. You may wish him dead but right now he’s more use to us alive.”

“What!” Theo spluttered but Aran Fier silenced him with a gesture and rose to his feet. A commanding presence, he towered over Serranguard’s City-Lord.

“There is a very real chance the Morg will trample Falcon’s Mount. If they do then you will get your wish—Jennadil will die—like the rest of us. Weak of character as he may be, Jennadil Silverstern is still a vital resource. He and Arridel Thorne are the only wizards we have left. We do not have the army necessary to defeat the Morg, you know that. Magic is our last hope. If we manage to defeat the enemy then you may do what you wish with Jennadil.”

“This may be your city,” Brin erupted, “but Jennadil Silverstern is still my prisoner and if I wish to cut off his head and let the crows pick out his eyes, I will do so!”

“Your pettiness disgusts me.” Aran Fier took a step towards Theo Brin. “You forget yourself!”

“My Lord.” Arridel Thorne inserted himself calmly between the two City-Lords. He placed a cautionary hand on Theo’s arm. All eyes in the hall turned to the enigmatic, black-cloaked figure with long, silver-streaked hair and beard contrasting against the pallor of his skin. “I have as little love for this man as you but his skills are needed.”

Shaking, Theo Brin struggled to his feet and gathered his robes around him. “I allow him to live only for the good of Isador.” The words sounded as if they were choking him. “Although you will soon see that this shiftless wizard will be more of a hindrance than a help to you.” He stepped off the dais.

“Gywna, Myra, Vermel—come!” he barked.

Vermel Ham, sweating profusely, his face creased in consternation, lumbered after his master, followed by Myra Brin, her eyes cast downward.

Gywna followed last of all. She bristled at being ordered about like a dog and cast a regretful glance behind her. Her adventure was over— she was now back inside her gilded cage under her father’s control, and would be treated like his other minions. Gywna passed Jennadil and Lassendil but neither of them looked her way. Neither of them cared and why should they? She would not be surprised if they loathed her.

Gywna followed her father, his wife and counsellor out of the hall—each echoing footstep a lock turning and a door slamming shut behind her.

 

 

Chapter Twelve

Adelyis Takes Her Chance

 

 

Barely a flicker of light penetrated the decaying depths of the dungeon. Time lost all meaning in the dark. Apart from the sounds of their breathing and the murmur of listless conversation between them, the suffocating, timeless monotony was broken only by mealtimes when the door creaked open and trays of rancid food were shoved inside. At the far end of the cell, barely hidden in an alcove, was a stinking privy.

Four mealtimes had passed since their capture and Adelyis was wondering how much more she could bear when she felt a light touch on her shoulder. Will Stellan was sitting beside her.

“How are you feeling Adelyis?” he murmured. “Speaking for myself, I’m ready to dash my brains out on these cell walls.”

Despite herself, Adelyis smiled in the darkness. He had distracted her from the hysteria that had been rising from a point just under her ribcage. The darkness forced them to dwell in their subconscious; in the dark recesses of the mind where childish fear and paranoia lurked.

Adelyis reached out her hand and fumbled in the darkness for human warmth. She found Will’s hand and squeezed tightly.

Will placed his other hand over hers. His skin was cold and clammy, like her own. To Adelyis’s surprise, Will suddenly gathered her close and held her tightly against him – and to her even greater surprise, she did not mind. Under normal circumstances, she would have shoved him away but in the terrifying dark she merely huddled against his chest.

Adelyis slowly relaxed against Will; his warmth and steadily beating heart was a safety net that stopped her drowning in her own fear. Apart from her brother and father, she could not remember the last time she had hugged anyone. Wizards and witches stood apart in Ennadil society and, since she had entered the order, months would go past before her hand would brush another’s. Most of the time she never gave it much thought. It was the life she had chosen and she accepted it. However, she could not deny the comfort of being in a man’s arms.

Time melted away and Adelyis must have eventually fallen asleep for the sound of the rusty key turning in the cell door’s lock intruded slowly into her consciousness. She came awake reluctantly; not wanting to leave the comforting oblivion of sleep.

The door opened and with it came a whisper of fresher air. A lamp’s pale glow illuminated the cell from the corridor.

“Witch!” A voice hissed from the shadows. “Come!”

Blinking rapidly in the sudden light, Adelyis did not move. A caped figure moved into the cell. Fingers fastened around her arms and dragged her out of the cell.

Outside in the corridor, Adelyis shivered in the lamplight. As her vision cleared, she saw a dozen caped Morg surrounding her. They grinned and clawed at her, laughing when she shrank back from them.

Finally, tiring of tormenting their captive, the Morg pushed her ahead of them through the maze of corridors and up out of the dungeons. They led her through the lower levels of the castle until they reached a spiral stairwell. Adelyis obediently started to climb, realizing as she did so that she was in one of Serranguard’s four towers. The air got fresher and cooler as she climbed and when she reached the top of the tower, she inhaled deeply.

A strong wind with a slight chill to it was blowing, and after the rank dungeon it smelt fresh and sweet. Autumn was almost upon Isador. The wind ruffled her hair and stung her cheeks. However, any pleasure she might have had at being free of her cell was obliterated when she saw the cluster of Morg shamans waiting for her.

At the head of the group, she recognised the ancient, shriveled Morg shaman, ‘His Mightiness, the Great Chak of the the Niduk Clan’, as well as the shaman she had fought in the Arden Highlands. Chak was holding her staff and when he saw the direction of Adelyis’s gaze, he drew back his lips to reveal shrunken gums.

Then, before Adelyis had time to prepare herself, the crowd parted and a tall figure, swathed in black, stepped through their midst.

The being glided towards her across the tower top and Adelyis was suddenly filled with terror. She staggered backwards and collided with the Morg who had escorted her from the dungeons. They sniggered at her fear and, gripping her arms, pushed her forward to meet the hooded one.

The tall figure stopped a few paces from her and Adelyis could feel sharp eyes burning into her. She looked into the face, shadowed by a deep cowl, and gasped. She was looking at a cadaver – a chalk-white face, lipless mouth and albino eyes.

This was no Morg but some deformed parody of man. She sensed his power; rippling just beneath the surface—and if the Morg had not been holding Adelyis still she would have run from this creature and hurled herself from the top of the tower to escape him. Adelyis cowered against the Morg holding her still.

The cloaked one had been watching Adelyis carefully, his hooded pink eyes reading her face with interest, before he finally spoke.

“Adelyis Florin,” his voice crawled across Adelyis’s skin. “How does it feel to be the last Ennadil sorcerer alive?”

The albino eyes studied her before he continued. “You are young and inexperienced but I still hope you will be of some use to me.”

Adelyis wanted to be brave and defiant. She wanted to scream that she would never help him—ever. However, the brave words stuck in her throat, and she just stared as if hypnotized.

“You will cooperate with us little witch,” her captor continued. “As will your fellow prisoners. The Gremul and the Orinian Captain will be questioned soon. There is much they can help us with.”

Adelyis listened numbly, her mind too frightened to make sense of his words or to analyse them.

“You will stay by my side as I conquer the rest of Isador. You will be my aide, my helper.” The horrible visage contorted into a smile. “And I have a little task you can assist with right now. Chak and Salazth will accompany you to the library where you will do as they command.”

Adelyis somehow dredged up the courage to defy him. “I won’t help them!” she choked. “I won’t help you destroy us!”

Unfazed by her outburst, his smile—a slash across his bloodless face—widened. Then, he hissed an order to his minions.

The Morg shoved Adelyis forward towards the edge of the tower and for a moment she thought they were going to throw her off it. Instead, they held her tightly, just in case she tried to take her own life, forcing her to look out across the lands to the south of Serranguard. It was only mid-afternoon but a rosy glow lit up the southern sky. Below, the once pastoral landscape was studded with black tents. They were hacking down the woodland; scarring and polluting the landscape as they made way for the Morg townships.

“Down there are many Ennadil who are doing my bidding.” He moved close to Adelyis and whispered in her ear. “The next time you defy me, one of them will be brought before you, tortured and killed. We will continue in this way until you learn that I am your master now and my will is yours.”

 

It was hot and fusty inside the library; so different from the lofty ceilings and marble pillars in Ennadil libraries. Here, the chamber was barely big enough to hold the stacks of books piled up on every available surface. A layer of dust covered everything.

Adelyis stood before Chak and Salazth who were exchanging heated words before they fixed her with malevolent stares. Then Chak spoke. “His Mightiness the Great Chak demands you finds every book containing magicsssssss and places it on table.”

Adelyis obeyed without argument, noting as she did so, that their urgency had an edge of desperation to it. At this stage of their invasion, she would have guessed the Morg were invincible, and yet something troubled them.

As Adelyis worked, a plan slowly took root in her mind—however she would need to gain strength to carry it out. She turned to Chak, who was hunched over his staff watching her work.

“I am weak, I can barely concentrate.” She forced herself to hold his gaze. “You must bring me some food and water if I am to be of any use to you.”

Chak’s eyes narrowed and the folds of flesh hanging around his face quivered. He looked as if he would deny her, but then he abruptly turned away and barked an order at Salazth. The younger shaman stomped from the library and a short while later, a tankard of ale and a plate of dried meat and heavy rye bread were thumped down in front of Adelyis. She fell on the food and ate ravenously, washing the meal down with the ale. A short while later she felt strength seep back into her weakened limbs.

The library was airless and far too warm. The Morg had lit a fire in the hearth at the far end despite that it was not a cold day. Adelyis’s robes stuck uncomfortably to her back as she worked. Finally, as the day waned and the light dimmed outside, she finished piling the last of the reference books containing magic on the table. It was not an extensive selection for she guessed the wizard residing here had taken his prized books upon fleeing Serranguard. Nonetheless, there was still considerable information in these books; information that could make the Morg’s final victory over the peoples of Isador a certainty.

“Tomorrow you returns here and we will be reading each books,” Chak hissed.

No I will not—came Adelyis’s silent response.

A group of four Morg guards accompanied her back down into the dungeons.

It was a long journey through the massive Keep but eventually they reached the entrance to the dungeons and descended into the bowels of Serrandguard.

They were descending the last flight of stone steps down into the dungeon when Adelyis took her chance.

Adelyis moved swiftly, jabbing the Morg to her left in the stomach with her elbow and kicking the Morg to her right in the shin, tripping him up. The Morg to her left doubled over with a vicious wheeze, while the one to her right fell headlong and landed on his face.

A violent scuffle ensued—Adelyis kicked, punched and clawed until they subdued her. Her ears were ringing and her head throbbing from their blows, when they finally man-handled her into the cell and slammed the door behind her.

Adelyis groaned and slumped against the closed door.

“Adelyis?” Will put his hand on her arm. “Are you injured?”

“No, they just knocked me about a bit for trying to escape,” she gasped in response.

“Save your strength girl,” the Gremul growled from the darkness. “There is little point in picking a fight unless you are sure to win it.”

“I did not intend to win,” Adelyis countered. “It was a diversion and it worked.”

Silence fell in the cell as all its occupants held their breath and listened.

“My powers are weaker but not insignificant without my staff,” Adelyis explained, “and during the scuffle on the stairs I ripped a piece of material off one of their cloaks. That is all I need to cast a spell.”

“What kind of spell milady?” one of Will’s men asked, his voice rising in hope.

“A spell which will give me temporary control over this Morg’s mind,” Adelyis replied. “This eve, at midnight, he will do my bidding.”

“How will you achieve such devilry.” Taz’s voice betrayed the fascination and distrust of magic that battled within him.

“Through a spell that requires an enormous amount of concentration,” Adelyis replied, “and I will need all my strength to weave it. None of you must speak to me for the next few hours.”

Adelyis leant back against the door and stretched her legs in front of her. The side of her head still throbbed from where one of the Morg had slammed her head against the wall. It would take all her concentration to achieve this. She fingered the scrap of coarse cloth she had torn from one of the unsuspecting Morg and cupped it between her palms. Then, closing her eyes and deepening her breathing, she prepared to cast her spell.

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

The Prophecy

 

 

It was well after midnight when Jennadil awoke in a cold sweat. His heart was beating so hard he thought it was going to explode from his chest. He shivered in the darkness and took deep gulps of air.

Jennadil lay, seemingly frozen to the thin mattress beneath him, and tried to push back the panic grappling at his throat. Remnants of the nightmare that had ripped him from his sleep still lingered. This was not the first time he’d had such a dream. He had all but forgotten about it, but as a child, shortly after the death of his parents, the same nightmare had woken him in the night. As a child, the dream had been as mystifying as it was terrifying—but on this occasion it had disturbing relevance to what was happening around him.

Jennadil stared into the darkness for a while until his pulse slowed. He would not be able to fall asleep again after such a nightmare. Giving up on trying to rest, Jennadil got out of bed, dressed in leggings and long shirt, pulled on his boots and left his sleeping chamber. He was lodged in a tiny tower that protruded from the highest level of the palace like a hooked finger. It housed political prisoners, and a couple of guards were stationed at the bottom of the stairwell, just in case Jennadil had any middle-of-the-night urge to disappear again.

Jennadil could not go downstairs, so he made his way up to the top of the tower instead. It was a pitch black, moonless night and the lands around Falcon’s Mount were cloaked in darkness. Above him, millions of stars glittered in the night-sky. A chill wind was blowing; Jennadil welcomed its sting against his skin and turned his face up to the stars.

He had come to a dead-end. Jennadil suddenly felt very sorry for himself. He had not become a wizard by choice. After his parents died, he had been taken in by an aged wizard named Durel, who noted a striking magical ability in the young lad. Despite his apprentice’s character being thoroughly unsuitable for a career in wizardry, Durel had persisted. Orin had few wizards of talent and Durel was determined that Jennadil would go on to become a great sorcerer. Jennadil was grateful that Durel was dead now; so he would not have to see what a failure his apprentice had become.

Then there was the dream. Even now, some time after waking from it, he grew cold at the memory. Its meaning was very clear and Jennadil wished he could erase it forever from his mind.

“It is an odd hour to be out admiring the view.”

A voice behind Jennadil made his heart leap for the second time that night. A nerve jumped erratically under his left eye as he turned to see who had spoken.

“Sorry, did I startle you?”

Jennadil recognised Arridel Thorne’s voice and, now his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, he could make out the wizard’s caped form, a few feet away.

“How long have you been lurking there Arridel?” Jennadil was relieved to note that his voice did not sound as shaky as he felt.

“Lurking?” Arridel feigned hurt “I was doing no such thing, Jennadil, I was out enjoying the night air like you.”

“What do you want?” Jennadil was too tired and shaken to play games. “Come to gloat?”

Arridel gave a low, humourless laugh. “I could but I would not get up in the middle of the night for that … no I am here because I sensed your terror a short-while ago and was curious to know what had befallen you.”

“Disappointed not to find me dead?”

“On the contrary, I am intrigued to know what caused such a strong reaction in you that I, on the other side of the palace, was woken by it.”

Surprise rendered Jennadil speechless for a moment. How had he known?

“It was a dream,” Jennadil replied, his voice wary, “or, rather, a nightmare.”

“Tell me of it.”

Jennadil hesitated. He did not like Arridel Thorne. He had once studied under him and would never forget the humiliation he had suffered at this man’s hand. However, the need to share his worries with someone overrode his dislike. Since he had no friends here, Arridel was as good an audience as any.

“I had a nightmare like this many years ago, when I was about seven or eight.” Jennadil broke the silence between them reluctantly, “and I had forgotten about it until tonight. As a child, none of it made sense but I realise now it was about the Morg.”

“Then it is no dream but a prophecy,” Arridel answered; his voice was quiet and thoughtful.

Aghast at this, Jennadil stared at Arridel’s shadowy face a moment before he turned back to the night.

“If it is a prophecy then we are all doomed,” he replied. “For in it I see this continent controlled by them. Their cities are soulless citadels of stone—there is no green, no beauty and we are their slaves. Isador was completely unrecognisable to me. Everywhere there was fire, and it was as if a dark shadow covered everything.”

“It was the future you saw Jennadil.” Arridel’s voice was serious. “Or rather, what has already happened in the Ennadil Territory. I know for I have seen it too.”

Jennadil turned and studied Arridel’s face. The wizard’s gaunt features were emphasised by the shadows. “You have seen it?”

“I have.”

“Then you’ve also seen him?”

Arridel sighed and moved closer to Jennadil, looking over the battlements at the sleeping landscape below.

“Yes, I have,” Arridel admitted. “Last night I had the same dream as you.”

The two wizards stood in silence for a moment. The darkness around them was suddenly oppressive and watchful. Jennadil’s stomach knotted and his bowels turned to ice; prophecies only came to wizards at times when doom was about to fall. If Arridel spoke true, Jennadil had seen the end of the world and now he would be forced to wait while it arrived.

“He is more powerful than any being that has ever lived in our time,” Arridel said finally, “and the Morg are but his puppets, forced to do his bidding.”

“Who is he then?”

Arridel turned his face towards Jennadil and the younger wizard felt his piercing gaze stab at him. Jennadil fought the urge to step back, away from his cold, shrewd intelligence. The years had not softened Arridel Thorne—just as they had not made Jennadil any wiser—he still had a mind like a steel trap. Arridel had a habit of staring as if he was looking into his victim’s soul and reading his darkest secrets.

“Follow me.” Arridel whirled away from the edge of the tower, his robes brushing against Jennadil, before he disappeared into the stairwell. Reluctantly, Jennadil followed.

The guards at the bottom of the stairs stirred in surprise as the two wizards came down the stairs together. The guards glanced at each other, unsure whether to stop Jennadil from passing. However, a word and a gesture from Arridel stilled their protests.

Jennadil followed Arridel through the palace’s silent corridors before they emerged into the shadowed courtyard. Here, they passed through the gates out into the city itself. Unspeaking, they walked down the main thoroughfare, through the sleeping city. Eventually they entered a maze of narrow lanes.

It was not long before Jennadil realised Arridel was leading him to the Ellenrith. It had once been the greatest school of wizardry in Orin; a vast complex which drew aspiring wizards and witches from each of the City-States. Jennadil had studied here, although the place did not hold fond memories. Stepping inside the grey-stone halls brought back the humiliation and inadequacy he had suffered within them.

The complex was eerily silent. No one studied here these days—since the Morg threat had crept over the land, the college had been closed. Now there were not enough wizards left to run the school, let alone attend it.

Arridel led the way through the complex to the great library of Ellenrith. Inside the library, Arridel went directly to the restricted section in the basement. Jennadil followed curiously. He had never been inside ‘the inner sanctum’ as he and the other students had nicknamed it. The books contained in here were too valuable to be given to careless students. Jennadil watched as Arridel produced a key from his pocket and inserted it into the lock.

“This is Lord Fier’s key,” Arridel explained as he struggled with the rusted lock. “No one but me has authorisation to be in here, but I suppose Fier will make an exception for you.”

Arridel’s voice was heavy with sarcasm. Jennadil’s fatigued brain was still searching for a suitably cutting reply when the lock gave way and the door creaked inwards. The wizards descended worn stone steps into Ellenrith’s basement.

The subterranean room was surprisingly spacious and covered wall-to-ceiling with shelves of ancient, leather bound books. Jennadil’s spine prickled as he looked around him. The history of Isador was contained within these walls. Memories that had faded from living memory would be contained here for as long as these walls protected them.

Jennadil took a seat at a table in the centre of the room and watched as Arridel took a wooden ladder and climbed up to get a book from the top shelf. It was an enormous volume bound in cracked, faded leather. Arridel brought it over to where Jennadil sat and dropped the book with a thump in front of him. Fine dust billowed up from it. Reaching forward, Arridel wiped the cover with his sleeve.

“Your generation of wizards were not taught the history of this time.” Arridel’s voice was full of scorn. “But mine were and that dream triggered a memory in me.”

Arridel opened the book and started to leaf through it. The parchment was so old that he had to be careful not to tear the pages as he turned them. Jennadil observed Arridel’s hands as he read—they were large, powerful hands but their skin was weathered and the flesh had sunk into the spaces between the tendons and bones, giving them a gnarled appearance. They revealed his age and reminded Jennadil that Arridel was much older than he looked.

Using an eyeglass, Arridel moved ponderously over the script. Time passed slowly in the silent library. Jennadil’s eyes stung with accumulated fatigue and he stifled a yawn. When Arridel finally spoke, Jennadil was on the verge of dropping off. He started and blinked rapidly to clear his mind.

“Here it is.” Arridel pushed the book across the table. Jennadil took the book and looked down at the open page. His mouth fell open and he did not bother to stifle a gasp. There on the page was a picture of the creature from his dream. The sketch was chillingly accurate, portraying the tall, cadaverous figure dressed in a long, hooded robe. His face was depicted clearly: the white, corpse-like skin, lipless mouth and terrible pink eyes.

“My ancestors . . .” Jennadil whispered. Then he read the page opposite the drawing aloud: “Morgarth Evictar; born to an Orinian witch and Tarzark sorcerer in the First Century of the Second Age, was the most powerful sorcerer that has ever lived. Evictar was briefly head of the Council of Wizards at Falcon’s Mount until he was cast out of the order. It was discovered he had been plotting to take control of the City-States of Orin. After many years at large, Morgarth Evictar was killed at the battle of Hammer Pass and so it was a great evil vanished from Isador.”

Jennadil looked up from the book at Arridel. “But he lived over two-thousand years ago. How can he still be alive?”

“I have no idea, for it was said an axe cleaved his skull and killed him during that battle. But survive he did and he has grown more powerful.” Arridel’s face was grave as he spoke.

Jennadil resisted the urge to bury his head in his hands. This was too much to take in. His head was spinning.

“There’s something else which worries me,” Arridel continued ominously. “Two-thousand years ago, Morgarth Evictar nearly destroyed Orin. He brought a massive army of Tarzark through Hammer Pass and got as far as Serranguard before the Ennadil came to our aid and beat his armies back. Despite being of mixed blood he always hated Orinians. He was elevated to a god-like status by the Tarzark, and they still worship him as a God. If they find it is he who is conquering Isador they will think he wants to unite with them—and they will attack us without hesitation.”

Jennadil stared back at Arridel Thorne and digested the older wizard’s words. Instead of just having the Morg to contend with—they were instead sandwiched between two enemies who would take Falcon’s Mount apart stone by stone if they combined forces.

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

Paths Taken

 

 

Serranguard slumbered, and the occupied land around the fortress lay deep under the shadow of night when one of the Morg soldiers stirred from a deep sleep.

The Morg groggily sat up and looked around him. Sleeping bodies wrapped in black cloaks carpeted the floor of Serranguard’s ceremonial hall. Slowly, the soldier got to his feet and picked his way through the slumbering Morg. He moved mechanically, mindlessly, like a sleepwalker.

There was not a soul about at this hour and the Morg padded silently, barefoot, down the stone steps leading into Serranguard’s lower levels. At the entrance to the dungeons, a Morg sentry sat slumped in a chair, snoring quietly—and above his head hung a heavy ring of keys. A lantern flickered on the table next to him.

Careful not to disturb the guard, the Morg took the keys in one hand and the lantern in the other. Then he disappeared down into the dungeons.

 

The occupants of the cell had long since dropped off to sleep, or were slumped against the wall drowsing, when Adelyis finally stirred. Slowly, they roused themselves, stifling yawns, as she stood up.

“Adelyis?” Will got to his feet and stretched his numbed limbs. “Did you manage it?”

“The Morg is on his way down to the dungeons.” Adelyis’s voice, soft and tired echoed in the darkness. The spell making had drained her. “He is alone. We must be ready for him.”

Will, Taz and the four soldiers positioned themselves behind the door and waited. The waiting seemed to drag on endlessly—and then they heard a key turning in the cell door.

The Morg who opened the door was in a dream-like state and never expected to be ambushed. A sharp blow caught the back of his neck. Hands grasped him as he fell and the bunch of keys and lantern were extracted from his limp fingers. Will and Taz dragged the unconscious Morg into the cell and dumped him on the ground before joining the others in the corridor outside.

Nervous excitement rippled between the prisoners while Will closed the cell door and locked it.

“Follow me,” Will ordered, automatically slipping into the role of leader. “I know a secret way out.”

Unquestioningly, they followed Will Stellan through a maze of corridors. Will led them into the depths of the dungeons, down to the lowest level where the Morg had yet to explore. Finally, he led them down steep steps to a trap door.

“There is a tunnel under here which will take us as far as Delm Forest.” Will hunkered down, and fumbled through the set of keys until he found the one that unlocked the tangle of chains above the trap door. “We’ll be half-way to Falcon’s Mount before they even realise we’re gone.”

The Gremul cackled at this news, the men murmured excitedly between them but Adelyis remained silent.

Will untangled the chains off the trap door and pulled it open.

“There’s a ladder leading down to the passage below. It’s quite safe. Adelyis, you can go first. Give me your hand.”

“No.” Adelyis’s voice was quiet and laced with sadness.

“Excuse me?”

“I’m staying here.”

All of them turned to stare at her.

“Witch!” Taz hissed. “We do not have time for this.”

“I’m sorry.” Adelyis shuffled back towards the steps, as if expecting one of her companions to manhandle her down the ladder. “I don’t expect any of you to understand my decision but I’ve decided to remain here and try and find a way to stop the Morg. Yesterday, they made me spend the day in Serranguard’s library, searching through magic books. There is something they are desperate to find—something that worries them—and I intend to remain here and discover what it is.”

“Madness!” Will snapped. “They’ll find you and when they do . . .”

“That concerns me, not you,” Adelyis countered. “I will not argue with you. The Gremul is right, time is short. You must make haste to Falcon’s Mount and alert them. I haven’t had the chance to tell you all, but yesterday I met the Morg’s leader—a powerful sorcerer who is not one of them. I’d wager he is more danger to Isador than the entire race of Morg. Falcon’s Mount’s City-Lord must learn of this.”

“Then you should be the one to tell them,” Will replied. “Only harm will come to you if you remain here.”

“I am staying.” Adelyis voice developed a steel edge to it. “Do not try to force me to come with you. If you touch me I will stop your heart.”

“Leave her here Captain,” one of the soldiers interrupted. “If she wishes to choose death let it be her look out.”

Will turned to Adelyis, struggling to contain his anger. “Ancestors curse you Adelyis! I can’t leave you here. If you stay than I must as well.”

“What?” the soldier, who had just encouraged Will to leave Adelyis behind, spluttered. “Has everyone taken leave of their senses?”

The Gremul started muttering under his breath in his own tongue.

“Will,” Adelyis said coldly. “This is not the time for heroics—please leave with your men.”

“I should leave,” Will replied, “and so should you—but if you insist on remaining here you will need my help. You won’t last five minutes alone in Serranguard without me.”

Adelyis frowned; the arrogance of his comment rankled.

“I cannot believe I am saying this,” Taz growled, “but if this witch believes there is a chance of stopping the Morg then I will stay to help her as well. I cannot return home with bad news.”

“Marek.” Will turned to the soldier who had protested. “Lead the others to Falcon’s Mount. Travel with as little rest as you can manage; you must reach Falcon’s Mount safely and report to them what Adelyis has discovered.”

“Yes Captain.” Marek’s voice was sharp with disapproval but he dared not argue further. “May the wraiths of your ancestors protect you . . . all.”

“And you Marek—now go.”

The four soldiers climbed down into the passage below. Will gently closed the trap door after them but left it unlocked. He pocketed the keys and turned to where Adelyis and Taz stood silently, lost in their own thoughts.

“You can still change your mind Adelyis?”

“I won’t,” Adelyis replied tiredly, “but I am sorry to have involved you both in this.”

“We were already involved girl,” Taz grumbled.

“We should find a place to hide.” Adelyis turned to Will. “Before they realise we’ve gone.”

“I know of a place that should be quite safe for the moment,” Will replied. “Follow me.”

They turned and started to climb the steep, crumbling steps, back up into Serranguard’s belly.

 

***

 

A grey morning hung over Falcon’s Mount when Gywna rose from her bed. Despite her fatigue, she had slept badly, hovering on the edge of sleep and wakefulness for most the night.

Gywna now had a slight headache and was in a rotten mood. She pulled on a robe over her nightgown, padded barefoot over to the window and drew back the heavy drapes. The weather did not improve her mood. Heavy, colourless skies presided over the land and the air was humid and suffocating. A general malaise: a mixture of depression, boredom and irritation niggled at her, and she longed to be back in Delm Forest, hiking in the rain, far away from her father and the pall of doom that had settled over Falcon’s Mount.

Gywna rested her elbows on the window ledge and looked down at the city below. Under her window was one of the palace’s many courtyard gardens. A marble fountain tinkled in the centre of the garden and a riot of evergreen plants and shrubs climbed the stone walls. The courtyard’s southern wall had a lookout from where it was possible to see for miles across the Endaar Downs to the south.

Gywna had been at the window, lost in her own thoughts, for about ten minutes when Lassendil Florin entered the garden below. He was dressed in blue leggings, a white shirt and his long hunting boots, and Gywna noticed he carried his sword buckled around his waist. She guessed he did not feel comfortable here. Lassendil did not trust her father and she could not blame him—she did not trust Theo Brin either.

Lassendil climbed up onto the lookout point and gazed across the Downs. He had his back to her. Gywna wondered what he was thinking of. His family probably, the people he had left behind. Did he have a wife or lover? Such thoughts caused Gywna to feel grumpy but she pushed her sudden ill temper aside without bothering to analyse it. Why should she care if Lassendil was married or had a lover? Just yesterday he had tried to kill her father. She should hate him but, strangely, she did not.

Sensing someone’s eyes on him, Lassendil turned from the view. His expression was unreadable when he saw Gywna.

“Good morning Lady Brin,” he made a perfunctory bow. There was nothing mocking in his behaviour but it irritated Gywna nonetheless.

“Don’t call me that,” she snapped. “Just call me Gywna.”

“Did you sleep well, Gywna?” Lassendil inquired politely.

“No,” Gywna replied shortly, suddenly on the edge of tears. “I wish I were a thousand leagues from here.” She rapidly blinked back the tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks. “How long will you stay on here, Lassendil?”

“I know not,” he replied, a note of tiredness creeping into his voice. “My people lie far to the south but they are enslaved. I cannot return to them so, in many ways, I am a prisoner here—like you.”

Gywna gave him a piercing look. He saw too much, this Ennadil.

“I am not a prisoner here,” she reminded him coldly, “and neither are you. You could leave now and no-one would try to stop you.”

“And where would I go? The enemy is but three days from us, gathering their full force at Serranguard. They are making us wait before they deal the final blow.”

“Then nothing we do will make any difference?”

“Nothing short of a miracle.”

Gywna was silent as Lassendil left the garden, and she remained at the window long after he had gone. In many ways, the Morg were still an abstract concept to her. She had seen their destruction from afar in Brenna – the sight of the burning city was still fresh in her mind—but in many ways, the Morg were a faceless menace. She moved her gaze, south-west, in the direction of Serranguard. She knew the City-State was under the control of the Morg but to her it would always be the place of her birth, where her mother had lived and where she had been her happiest. She could not imagine it differently and did not want to.

 

***

 

Jennadil splashed cold water on his face, in an effort to clear his head. He was beyond tired at this point. His head throbbed as if he had spent the previous night downing jugs of ale. He sat down on the edge of his narrow bed and picked at the breakfast of freshly baked bread and cheese one of the guards had brought up to him earlier.

The thought of what awaited him today had taken away his appetite. Within the hour, he and Arridel Thorne were to go before Aran Fier and Theo Brin to speak of their discovery. He was not looking forward to it; such news would not be well received. Worse still, he and Arridel had no answer; no solution for the City-Lords with which to soften the bad news.

A loud knock on his door made Jennadil start slightly. His nerves were still on edge. The guard pushed the door open and motioned for Jennadil to follow him. With a sigh, the wizard pushed his breakfast aside and followed the guard out into the stairwell.

On the way to the Great Hall, Jennadil found Lassendil waiting for him at the foot of the stairs leading to the palace’s upper levels.

“They’ve summoned you too?” Jennadil said, surprised and a little alarmed.

“You are to have an audience,” Lassendil replied. “Word has it that you and Arridel have discovered something of great importance.” The Ennadil gave Jennadil a piercing sidelong glance. “I got the impression that you and Arridel Thorne are not on the best of terms. How do you know each other?”

Jennadil gave a wry smile. “Oh, we met years ago, when I was a student here. He was the same as he is now: humourless, arrogant and superior. He was my tutor for a time—before he had me expelled.”

Lassendil raised an eyebrow. “What for?”

Jennadil coloured slightly and cleared his throat in embarrassment. “He caught me in his study, plowing a girl on his desk.”

Lassendil raised the other eyebrow. “You took a girl into your tutor’s study?”

“It was the only place we could be alone. Well, we were alone, until he walked in on us.”

“Wizard, you tread a thin line.” Lassendil shook his head.

Jennadil threw Lassendil a sour look. “Go on, say more. I can see you want to.”

“I would have thought that experience might have taught you something,” Lassendil said, his face disapproving.

“A wizard’s life is not an easy one,” Jennadil grumbled in response, “and I refuse to live the joyless life that Arridel embraces.”

“It is a choice that demands sacrifice. My sister is an Ennadil witch; she leads a solitary life.” Sadness tinged Lassendil’s voice.

“Where is she?” Jennadil forgot his own humiliation for the moment when he saw the expression on Lassendil’s face.

“She left for Mirren on the eve before the Morg attacked Aranith. I hope she is safe but I have no way of knowing. I do not know if the Morg have reached that far north.”

“Let us pray they have not.” Jennadil replied.

The wizard finished speaking as they drew near to the oak doors leading into the Great Hall.

 

 

When Arridel and Jennadil had explained their discovery, Lord Aran Fier was the first to speak. At first, when Arridel Thorne finished speaking, an ominous, chill silence had hung in the hall.

A small company was seated on the dais behind Lord Fier. Lord Brin, his wife, daughter and counsellor sat apart from Lassendil Florin. Next to Lord Fier sat his wife, Imeldia; a beautiful woman in her late twenties, with huge green eyes and a rippling mane of auburn hair. Jennadil had met her briefly at dinner the evening before, and back in the old days, he would have turned on the charm to see if he could woo her. However, too many troubles now clouded Jennadil’s mind for him to muster the energy which pursuing a married woman required.

“Alas that we do not remember the past.” Lord Fier’s voice was heavy with sadness. “This Morgarth Evictar should never have been forgotten. You say he nearly destroyed Orin during the second age of this world; and yet I have never heard of him until today.”

“Yes, My Lord,” Arridel Thorne replied. “My generation of wizards studied him briefly but it was thought after he was vanquished at Hammer Pass, that such evil would never arise again.”

“We pay now for our complacency.” Lord Fier rubbed a hand over his tired face. “Such events should never be forgotten.”

“Is there no way to defeat him?” Lassendil spoke up, “he is powerful but he is not immortal?”

“An axe in the head did not kill him once,” Jennadil replied, “and since then he has had time to strengthen his powers and amass an army.”

“Magic is perhaps the only weapon which can defeat him,” Arridel added.

“So do you know of a way to stop him then?” Theo Brin spoke, watching the wizards under hooded lids.

Arridel Thorne shook his head, “as yet—no … if there were more of us it would be easier to combine our powers, or if we had Ennadil sorcerers to aid us. Magic cannot stop the Morg but it is the only way to defeat their master.”

“So, you cannot stop him.” Theo’s mood had worsened from the day before. He supped deeply from a pewter goblet of wine and fixed Arridel and Jennadil in a humourless stare. The older wizard returned the City-Lord’s gaze impassively, “No, My Lord, I am saying we need time.”

“Unfortunately, we do not have time,” Aran Fier said, “but at least we now know what it is we face.”

“That is of little use to us if we cannot find a way to stop this Morgarth,” Theo Brin sneered.

“There is something else which worries me,” Arridel continued. “Morgarth Evictar is half Orinian, half Tarzark, and the Tarzark worship him as a God. It would be wise to strengthen the garrisons at the Blade and Hammer Passes. Evictar may send out riders to the Tarzark Kingdom—they must never know he lives or we will face an attack on both sides.”

“It is done,” Lord Fier replied briskly. “I will send reinforcements at once.”

Fier studied the two wizards—the last of their kind. They both looked strained, especially the younger one. Secretly, he doubted they would come up with a solution but he knew better than to voice his real thoughts. Hope was hanging on by a thread, and he did not have the heart to destroy it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOOK TWO

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

The Power of Three

 

 

A new day dawned, and with it came the end of bright summer days and blue skies. Dark clouds gathered over Serranguard but it did not rain. From her vantage point, peering out of the tiny window in the secret storeroom, Adelyis frowned up at the clouds. They were unnatural; not made up of shades of grey. Instead, sulfuric yellow and brown swirled in their noxious depths. A hot, unpleasant wind now blew across the land from the South.

Adelyis gnawed at her bottom lip as she pondered the weather—it took powerful magic to change the climate of a country. She wondered what evil purpose these clouds had.

“Adelyis.” Will’s voice broke her reverie. She turned from the window to see he had brought her a bucket of water and a weathered cake of soap. It had been days since any of them had bathed and Adelyis longed to soak up to her neck in a hot bath; but for now a bucket of cold water and a rock-hard piece of soap would have to suffice.

“Thank you.” Adelyis took the bucket and soap behind the screen Will had erected in the corner of the storeroom. He had fashioned the screen from a bolt of dusty muslin they had pinched from one of the City-Lord’s pantries.

“How long will we be safe here?” Taz growled from where he sat atop an empty crate.

Will passed the Gremul a piece of dried meat and took a seat opposite him.

“I cannot say,” he replied, taking a bite of dried meat and chewing thoughtfully. “This was the City-Lord’s secret store-room, containing delicacies from all over Isador that he didn’t trust his servants to keep their hands off. As you saw, the entrance is hidden; it looks as if it is part of the wall. As long as we are careful we could remain hidden here for quite some time.”

“I don’t like all this waiting about and sneaking around,” Taz grumbled. He scratched absently at his pelt as he spoke.

“I think you’ve got fleas,” Will observed, “you’re always scratching. Why don’t you take a bath after Adelyis has finished?”

Taz glowered at the man opposite him. “Gremul do not bathe! It weakens our constitution; brings the onset of illness and dulls the senses.”

A muffled laugh sounded from behind the screen, Adelyis was listening to their conversation. A grin tugged at Will’s mouth as he struggled to keep a straight-face. “Well then Taz, you’d better keep your fleas to yourself.”

Later on, as Will washed behind the screen and Adelyis sat combing her wet hair, Taz watched her with interest.

“Your hair is the colour of obsidian little witch. You are very fair indeed.”

Adelyis laughed in surprise. “Why thank you Taz.”

“Why are you not yet married with half a dozen screaming brats in tow?” Taz asked bluntly.

Adelyis’s eyes widened in surprise but there was pride, rather than embarrassment in her voice when she replied. “Ennadil witches and wizards cannot marry.”

“Why not?”

“It is thought to be a distraction.”

“Ennadil are strange creatures,” Taz replied. “Your society has too many stupid rules.”

“Stop badgering the poor girl Taz,” Will emerged from behind the screen, naked to the waist as he toweled himself down, “she probably finds your kind just as strange.”

Adelyis looked across at Will; her gaze involuntarily drawn to his naked torso. Her gaze traced the network of scars that decorated his pale skin and the masculine swirls of hair on his chest, before she realised she was staring and hurriedly looked away. She concentrated on braiding her hair and did not look up until she was finished. To her relief, Will had put on his shirt and seemed oblivious to her embarrassment.

“They will have noticed our absence by now.” Will said. He leant against the wall and regarded his two companions. “Our only advantage is they won’t suspect we were foolhardy enough to remain in Serranguard.”

“I must retrieve my staff,” Adelyis said, “and we have to discover what spell they are searching for.”

“Don’t be hasty,” Will replied. “During day-light it is perilous to wander about the Keep. At dusk there will be shadows we can hide in.”

“What of those clouds outside?” Taz crossed his long, sinewy legs in front of him and wiggled the toes on his horny feet. “They have an ill-favoured look.”

“It is the work of magic,” Adelyis replied, “of that I am certain.”

She got up and walked back over to the window. The clouds swirled over-head and the horizon was obscured by dirty fog. The landscape around her was unrecognisable as what had once been one of the most bucolic and picturesque areas of Isador. The farmland around Serranguard had been a patchwork quilt of cornfields, vineyards, orchards and vegetable patches, interspersed with woodland and villages nestled in the folds of the undulating landscape. It now looked as if a hurricane had ripped through it.

“Darkness thrives in darkness,” Adelyis murmured.

Listening to Adelyis, Will suppressed a shudder. Her words sounded prophetic, as if those clouds were a great blanket intent on smothering them all so that evil could crawl freely across the land.

 

***

 

Servants entered the dining hall, bringing with them platters of meat and roast vegetables. The food was aromatic and enough to feed a poor family for a week but none of those seated at the table, save Serranguard’s City-Lord and his rotund counsellor, had much appetite.

Theo Brin sat at the head of the table, flanked on one side by Gywna and Vermel Ham, and by Myra and Arridel Thorne on the other. Not one of them looked happy to be in his presence. Gywna scowled, Myra was pale and withdrawn, Vermel wore the expression of a frightened rabbit and Arridel Thorne brooded.

Gywna speared a piece of meat and chewed mechanically, observing Myra as she did so. She had not met her father’s young wife before coming to Falcon’s Mount, as Theo had packed her off to Brenna before the marriage; obviously fearing his bratty daughter would cause a scene during the wedding ceremony. So this was the woman who Jennadil had risked his neck over? Frankly, Gywna had expected a sultry, more alluring woman. Myra reminded her of a pretty, fragile bird. She was far too thin, although Gywna supposed it was unhappiness that made her pick at her food and avoid eye contact with everyone at the table. Gywna had not failed to notice that her father humiliated his wife at every opportunity. Still, Gywna reflected, taking a sip of red wine, she did not think much of Jennadil’s taste in women.

Feeling Gywna’s gaze on her, Myra looked up from her untouched plate and for a moment their gazes locked. Gywna looked into Myra’s pretty blue eyes and expected to see the pleading look of a beaten dog, an expression she despised. Instead, Myra’s eyes were vacant. They had an emptiness, a deadness, which chilled Gywna. Her disdain changed to discomfort. She was the first to look away.

“You!” Theo barked at a passing servant. “Fill my cup!” The servant nervously hastened to obey, filling his master’s cup to the brim with red wine. It was only lunchtime but Theo Brin was already drunk. He was dangerous and viper-tongued when in such a state. Even Arridel Thorne was wary of him today.

“Well people,” Theo slurred, raising his glass and slopping wine over his sleeve as he did so, “here’s to Isador, or what’s left of her.” He drained his cup in a few gulps and barked for it to be refilled once more.

“Why the long faces?” he roared at his companions. “We’re not dead yet! Enjoy your lives while you still have them!”

Gywna looked across at Arridel Thorne and saw the wizard’s mouth curl into a sneer.

At that moment, the doors to the dining hall flew open and one of Lord Fier’s personal guard hurried towards them. Gywna was momentarily relieved for the distraction; until the guard spoke.

“Milord! We have received word that Mirren has been sacked. Refugees have just reached us. Many are seriously injured and they say the Morg massacred thousands, milord.”

Theo Brin stared back at the messenger, his face expressionless, before he lowered his cup and sank back into his chair, deflating like a balloon.

Falcon’s Mount would stand alone after all.

 

Gywna picked up her skirts and picked her way through the crowd of bloodied, exhausted refugees. Many lay on the ground, hungry, dehydrated or unable to go on, whether it was from grief or injury. She was not sure why she had come here with the healers who were sent to help the injured. Perhaps she needed to see the reality of this war, to get away from her father’s drunken ranting. She carried a basket of bread that she distributed among the crowd. As she moved through the sea of people, a deep sadness settled over her; an emotion unlike any other she had experienced. Her breathing became shallow and her throat constricted painfully. Many of these people thought they had reached safety here. Instead, all they would have was a short reprieve before the Morg slaughtered them, right down to the last man, woman and child.

Gywna handed out the last loaf of bread before turning back to get some more. As she turned, she caught sight of a man lying on the ground at her feet. She saw immediately he was Ennadil. His dark hair was plastered against his head. His skin was chalk-white. He was staring up at her with desperate eyes. Gywna knelt down and unfastened a flask of water she carried. She raised it to his lips and let him take a few gulps. His skin was dry and burning up with fever; his injuries were severe—two deep sword wounds in his side. She was surprised he was not already dead.

“Please,” he whispered between cracked lips. He reached out and grasped Gywna’s hand. His grip was still strong.

“What is it?” Gywna replied with a touch of impatience. He was crushing her fingers.

“Please . . . I must find someone . . . help me!”

 

Gywna searched the entire palace before she eventually found Lassendil in the armoury.

He sat sharpening the long fine blade of his Ennadil sword, his face tensed in concentration. Gywna opened her mouth to speak but sensing her presence Lassendil looked up before she spoke.

“What is it Gywna?” He did not look that pleased to see her but then Gywna was used to—it appeared she had inherited her father’s affect on people.

“Have you not heard?” she paused to catch her breath. “Mirren has been sacked. Many refugees have just arrived here, and among them is a man named Miradel, an Ennadil. He asks for you.”

Lassendil leapt to his feet and sheathed his sword in one movement. “Where is he?” his voice was sharp.

“I’ll take you to him.”

Gywna picked up her skirts and led the way, out of the armoury and through the maze of hallways leading to the House of Healing. It was a narrow wing, attached to the palace like an afterthought, near the main courtyard.

Gywna’s voluminous silk gown rustled as she walked, and Lassendil easily kept up with her shorter strides. Dust, men’s clothing and the Wraith Sword at her side suited her more than this impractical gown.

Finally, they reached the House of Healing. Crying, groans and screams of pain assailed their ears as Gywna led the way through the wards. The House of Healing was a large hall, divided into wards by large linen screens. Healers, dressed in flowing blue robes, fluttered back and forth like frantic butterflies. Their assistants scurried after them, arms laden with medicine, bandages and surgical instruments.

They found Miradel at the far end of the hall, tended by a solemn-faced healer. The healer looked up and, seeing Lady Gywna and an Ennadil staring at the man he was treating, he sighed and straightened up, wiping his bloody hands.

“I am sorry,” he bowed his head, “but there is nothing more I can do for him. He has lost too much blood. I advise you to say good-bye while he is still with us.”

The healer moved on to the next patient and left them alone. Lassendil walked forward and knelt beside the man on the narrow bed. Gywna hung back and watched silently.

“Lassendil!” Miradel managed a weak smile, “I thought you perished at Aranith. I’m so happy to see you’re alive.”

“It would have been better had I died,” Lassendil replied softly, “but my father made sure if Aranith fell, I alone would be spared.”

Miradel’s fever-bright eyes widened uncomprehendingly but Lassendil squeezed his friend’s hand in reassurance. “But come Miradel, what of my sister? Did you reach Mirren safely? Where is Adelyis?”

“I failed you,” Miradel replied, his voice weakening to a whisper. “A band of Morg attacked us in the Arden Highlands. Adelyis fought their Shaman. She held them off so we could escape. I tried to save her but she stopped me. I tried Lassendil, I really did . . . I am so sorry. She is gone.”

Gywna knew she should leave but somehow she was rooted to the spot. Tears streaked Miradel’s face and he clutched at Lassendil’s arm. Their combined grief was so strong, she could almost taste it. It sharply reminded her of five years earlier, of her mother on her death-bed. She would never forget the crushing, overwhelming pain of losing the only person who had ever loved her.

Lassendil’s head was bent. The knuckles of his hands that gripped Miradel’s were white. Gywna could tell his self-control hung by a thread. She knew then that she must leave him and his friend alone to their grief.

Unseeing, she walked back through the House of Healing, and out into the weak sunlight. The sun had seemed to lose its heat and the chill of autumn was in the air. A small leafy courtyard led out of the House of Healing before joining a walkway that led back to the main courtyard. Now that the patients had been brought inside, the small courtyard was empty. Gywna took a seat on one of the stone benches. Around her, many of the trees were changing colour; green was turning to shades of gold, orange and brown. Autumn was always, for Gywna, a melancholy season but this year it depressed her more than usual for she had now begun to understand that she might never see another spring or summer. She suddenly realised how little notice she had taken of the seasons—she had always assumed she would have a lifetime of summers ahead of her.

The stone-bench was uncomfortable and cold to sit on, but Gywna rearranged her skirts and silently waited.

 

A grey dusk had slipped over the land, promising a chill, starless night, when Lassendil finally emerged from the House of Healing. He slowly walked down the stone steps into the courtyard and spied Gywna sitting in the corner of the courtyard.

“Have you been waiting here all this time?” His voice was lower than usual, roughened by tiredness and grief.

“Your friend . . . is he . . .”

“Yes, he died about an hour ago.”

The words were spoken with such an air of finality that Gywna ached to reach out and comfort Lassendil. However, she was not used to physical affection, and she knew Ennadil had strong rules of social propriety. She did not want to offend him.

“Lassendil . . .” she whispered. “I am sorry about your sister.”

Lassendil came up to Gywna and looked down at her face for a moment. Gywna could see grief etched on every line of his face, but still he had not cried.

“You know, I think I misjudged you Gywna,” he said softly. “You are a much kinder person than you would like to admit.”

“What is that? Some kind of back-handed compliment?” Gywna snorted.

“No it is the truth.” Lassendil gently took Gywna’s arm and placed it over his. “Now let me take you back inside. Your hands are freezing—you have been waiting out here too long.”

As they walked out of the courtyard, Gywna sneaked a sideways glance at Lassendil. He was so self-contained, so different from her. When her mother had died, she had howled for days, broken furniture, and refused to eat or drink anything. She could see the grief in him, bubbling just beneath the surface, but he refused to give in to it.

 

After the day’s excitement, Falcon’s Mount did not sleep until the early hours of the next morning. The city’s frightened inhabitants were aware doom was about to fall and, in between preparing for battle, they tried to make the most of the time they had left. The city’s taverns were full of revelers. The drunkenness was more extreme and the laughter louder than usual, as if they were trying to chase away their demons before war came upon them. The city’s brothels were also the busiest they had ever been and lovers were everywhere, in a hedonistic attempt to live as much as possible before the end. Only the city-guards were sober, standing watch on Falcon’s Mount’s outer walls. They smoked pipes and talked in low voices while, beyond the walls, the night was strangely silent.

It was the early hours of the morning when a ragged band of men reached the main gates and demanded to be let in.

“From whence do you come?” one of the guards asked suspiciously. “It is a strange hour to be traveling.”

“Let us in! I am Marek Tillar of Serranguard. We are survivors of the Battle of the Jade Plains. We were taken prisoner by the Morg and brought to Serranguard. But we escaped and have news of great importance for Lord Fier. Let us in!”

The great gates rumbled open and the guards warily observed the group of four men who waited on the other-side. Indeed, they wore tattered remnants of battle uniform but the Captain of the guards was suspicious nonetheless. To his knowledge none had survived that tragic battle. These men could be deserters. However, that was not for him to decide—Lord Fier would do that.

The travelers were escorted up to the palace and plates of food and ale were brought to them. They ate ravenously and were promised hot baths and a soft bed to rest in, just as soon as they had recounted their story. The two City-Lords were summoned from their beds. Bleary eyed, Aran Fier and Theo Brin listened to Marek intently as he described the Battle of the Jade Plains and the subsequent march north. When Marek described the occupation of Serranguard, Theo Brin turned a sickly colour.

It was with some surprise Theo learned that Captain Stellan was still alive and aided by an Ennadil witch and a Gremul.

“They won’t last long there My Lord.” Marek shook his head sadly. “The fortress is teeming with Morg. The Ennadil Witch said that the Morg were searching for something, a spell perhaps, they are desperate to find. She hopes it will reveal some weakness.”

Aran Fier nodded, his face creased in thought. “There may be little hope but it is encouraging to discover there is at least one chink in their armour, a weakness we could exploit.” He looked across at the exhausted faces of Marek and the other three men. They had travelled two days and nights without rest to reach Falcon’s Mount; and now they were having trouble staying awake.

“Rest for the moment,” he said, getting to his feet. He turned to Theo Brin. “We all need to meet for breakfast at first light, the Ennadil and the wizards as well. They too must hear of this.”

Theo nodded his assent, too weary to argue.

The City-Lords left the soldiers to the remains of their meal and went back to bed—although neither of them was able to sleep for the rest of the night.

 

Jennadil dropped the crust of bread he had been buttering and stared at Theo Brin; his face relaxed in relief and sudden joy. “Will Stellan is alive?”

Theo nodded curtly and glanced across at where Vermel Ham was beaming. The three of them had gotten on well, too well for Theo’s liking. He had always suspected that Will Stellan had had something to do with Jennadil’s escape. Seeing the wizard’s reaction just now made him all the surer. Jennadil was oblivious to the glowering City-Lord and just for a moment, his guard brought down by the good news, his gaze strayed to where Myra sat next to her husband. Her gaze darted upwards and for a second their eyes met, before Jennadil hastily jerked his gaze away. However, it had been long enough for Theo Brin to notice. His eyes hooded and his jowls billowed like an enraged bullfrog. Myra would suffer in private for that stolen glance.

“Yes,” Lord Fier continued, as Theo Brin seemed temporarily robbed of the power of speech, “and what’s more, he is being aided by two others, one of whom may be of interest to you Lassendil.” He looked down the long table at where Lassendil Florin sat listening to the proceedings. The Ennadil’s face, usually fresh and alert, looked tired and strained this morning. His breakfast sat, untouched, in front of him.

“Why is that?” Lassendil’s voice was listless and flat.

“There is an Ennadil sorceress named Adelyis with him. Do you know of her?”

Emotion rippled across Lassendil’s face. “Adelyis Florin is my sister,” his voice audibly shook. “Just yesterday I learned that she had been taken captive by the Morg but I believed her dead.”

“She may be before long,” Theo replied nastily.

“So may we all,” Aran Fier turned on Theo Brin. “Hold your tongue!”

Theo Brin choked at being spoken to so rudely. He tried to struggle to his feet but got caught up in his robes and had to be pulled back down into his seat by Vermel Ham before he made a complete fool of himself. He sat making strangling noises of rage while around him the conversation moved on.

“She’s alive,” Lassendil repeated to himself. “I must go to her!” he looked across the table at where the two wizards sat watching him. “I must help her!”

“You will,” Arridel Thorne spoke up for the first time. “This news that an Ennadil sorceress has survived, changes many things. Give us until this afternoon and we will have a way to be of proper aid to her.”

“You have a way to defeat the Morgarth Evictar?” Aran Fier’s lean face, brightened.

“I dare not be so confident as yet,” Arridel Thorne got to his feet, “but there is something I must check. If my suspicions are correct then, yes, we may have a chance to defeat him.” Arridel looked down at where Jennadil was pouring himself another cup of hot milk spiced with cinnamon and honey. “Come Jennadil, breakfast is over. We have work to do.”

“What? . . . but I,” Jennadil protested but Arridel had already swept from the hall, his black cape streaming behind him like a bat in full flight. Jennadil put down his cup and glowered at the departing wizard. He hated the way Arridel Thorne bossed him around in front of everyone as if he was his lackey. Bristling with annoyance, he got to his feet and followed the older wizard out of the hall.

At the table, Gywna Brin watched the proceedings with great interest, ignored by everyone present. Her gaze was drawn to the other end of the table where Lassendil sat, his face flushed. She tried to catch his eye but he was oblivious to her. Her father was wheezing like a winded carthorse while Lord Fier talked excitedly with Vermel Ham. Myra Brin sat, even paler than usual, next to her apoplectic husband.

Gywna’s initial enthusiasm and interest at hearing the news that Lassendil’s sister had survived wore off and she was left feeling alone. She could have dissolved into thin air and no one present would have noticed. Deciding that she would do exactly that, she got to her feet, gathered her skirts and left the hall.

 

“I need all those books from the top shelf,” Arridel Thorne pointed to a narrow case of books packed into the library’s far left corner, “get them for me.”

“No one ever taught you social niceties like please and thank you, did they?” Jennadil grumbled.

“We have no time for ‘niceties’ as you put them,” Arridel shot back. “Now get to work.”

Jennadil bit back the sharp reply that was balanced on his tongue and placed a ladder against the bookcase. He climbed to the top and started to pull out ancient, dust-covered books. Carrying the first five, he came back down the ladder and passed the stack to Arridel.

“Are you planning on telling me about this idea of yours?” Jennadil said as he climbed back up the ladder, “or are you going to just order me about all morning.”

Ignoring the younger wizard’s sarcasm, Arridel carried the books over to a table and sat down. “I will explain nothing before I’m sure the idea I have is actually possible,” he replied.

Jennadil silently fumed while he retrieved the rest of the books. Finally, Arridel had a stack of eleven books in front of him. He slowly leafed through the first, oblivious to Jennadil’s presence. Jennadil waited, letting his irritation simmer while Arridel read on. Two hours later, the wizard was three-quarters of the way through the fourth volume when he grunted in satisfaction and straightened up. He looked across at Jennadil, who could have sworn the strange grimace on his face was an attempt at a smile.

“I’ve found it,” he announced, “and I was right.”

“About what?”

“The Power of Three.”

Jennadil stared back at Arridel blankly. “It’s a spell? I’ve never heard of it.”

“Well you wouldn’t have,” Arridel replied and there was no mistaking the withering tone of voice. “You never did spend much time studying did you?”

“Go on,” Jennadil replied between gritted teeth.

“The Power of Three is an ancient and complex spell. It is also highly dangerous to those who cast it, but if we manage it properly it could destroy Morgarth Evictar.”

Arridel gave Jennadil a piercing look to make sure he was listening attentively before continuing. “Ideally, this spell requires one sorcerer from each of the three races who practice magic: Orinian, Ennadil and Tarzark. However, it should still be effective with you, the Ennadil witch and myself.”

“How does this spell work?”

“It uses the power of three elements, earth, air and water to counteract evil—which uses the element of fire. Each of us must wear a crystal that represents one element and conjure up its power. We must do this in unison and we must begin and end at the exact same time otherwise the spell will not work. Once we do this we must direct the spell at Evictar.”

“It sounds difficult,” Jennadil replied.

“It’s much more than that,” came Arridel’s sharp response. “In casting this spell and ridding the world of Morgarth Evictar we may also end up sacrificing our own lives. This spell is extremely powerful and if Evictar is too close to us when we cast the spell he may end up taking us with him.”

“I’m getting more excited about this plan of yours by the second,” Jennadil said with a grimace.

Arridel gave him a long hard look in response. “Until now Jennadil Silverstern, your life has been a long series of petty, selfish actions. You now have the chance to make your life mean something and if that means sacrificing yourself so that our world is not destroyed then you should be grateful to do it. I know I am.”

“Well that is clearly the difference between you and me,” Jennadil, in a rare burst of temper got to his feet. His hazel-green eyes narrowed, “and don’t assume to know so much about my life—you don’t know the first thing about me!”

Arridel Thorne watched as Jennadil swept past him and out of the library, the door slamming shut behind him. “I know more than enough.” Arridel replied calmly, having the last word, even though only the books heard him this time.

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

The Tarzark Stir

 

 

On the top of his tower, the Tarzark Sorcerer lifted his face and sniffed. A strange south wind was blowing; a wind unlike any other he had known. It brought scents he could not recognise. Unlike the raw north wind that blew in from across the Great Ocean beyond Isador’s Northern shores, this wind was warm.

From his vantage point atop Hull Mutt’s second highest tower, the sorcerer could see for leagues in every direction. The leather cape he wore about his broad shoulders billowed and flapped behind him as he stood high above Hull Mutt. Behind him stretched barren, rock-studded terrain until the horizon, while to the south-west reared up the sheer peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains. The Tarzark had a bittersweet relationship with that mountain range, for it was both their protector and their prison. It separated them from the world inhabited by the Ennadil, Orinians and Gremul but it also trapped them in the least fertile, most hostile part of Isador.

Hull Mutt was the Tarzark’s greatest city. Other fortresses: Snaga Mutt, Snarl and Dagha Argutt studded the vast wasteland but Hull Mutt was the King’s stronghold. It resembled a great black claw grasping sky-wards. Its towers were curved black fingers with the King’s Tower in its centre, stretching above all the others.

King Grull resided here. Grull, cruel and cunning, was loved and feared by his people. Under his rule, the Tarzark cities had grown and prospered. For the last year, ever since the Ennadil had been foolish enough to warn them of the invaders from the south, Grull had built up his armies. Now, a force of nearly twenty-five thousand Tarzark were ready to cross the Sawtooth Mountains. The Tarzark had been patient. They were waiting for a sign that the Ennadil and Orinians had been trampled under the invaders, a sign they were weakening. Only then would the Tarzark attack.

This sorcerer, Yaduk was his name, had a feeling that time was almost upon them.

The wind brought with it a silent message.

Turning from the view, Yaduk strode over to where a gleaming black bowl sat atop a pedestal on the tower’s centre. He picked up a clay jug of water and, muttering his guttural tongue, he poured water into the bowl. The water swirled and bubbled as Yaduk continued to chant. The water hissed and mist rose into the morning air. The sorcerer leaned forward, thrust his head in the billowing steam and waited.

Almost instantly, images began to form in front of him; images so clear he resisted the urge to reach out and touch them. His gaze swept over Isador’s southern reaches, lands he had never seen, and he saw the devastation caused by the invaders. The ruined walls of Aranith rose before him, as did Serranguard, occupied by strange, cloaked creatures with hollowed, gaunt faces. Yaduk stared, fascinated by the images of the ravaged landscape and enslaved Ennadil and Orinians moving before him. Grull would be delighted by this news.

Suddenly, his vision was pulled back towards Serranguard. The great red fortress shone like a crown atop the desolation although its ruddy hue had taken on a jaundiced shade. A heavy yellow cloud now hung over the land.

Yaduk’s vision narrowed and he was sucked into Serranguard’s south-west tower. There, standing before him, seeming to fill the chamber in which he stood, was a tall, cloaked figure. The figure turned towards him and pushed back his hood.

Yaduk gasped.

Morgarth Evictar curled back his thin lips, revealing rows of sharp Tarzark teeth. His pink eyes deepened to red and burned into the sorcerer.

“Welcome Yaduk,” Morgarth spoke the same language as he, although with a strange, lilting accent as if it was a while since he had spoken the Tarzark’s tongue. “I have waited many long years for this moment.”

Uncomprehending, Yaduk fought the urge to get down on his knees and grovel. He gripped the sides of the bowl and bowed his head. “I am filled with joy that you have returned to us my Lord.”

“So, you have not forgotten me then?”

“Never my Lord!”

“Isador has. That is why I have waited so long. I waited until all memory of me had faded far from living memory; until the only references they would find to me would be in the dustiest history books, forgotten in unvisited libraries. I waited until they grew complacent, confident that they had defeated their greatest enemy, until they began to fight amongst themselves. Two-thousand years I have waited, and yet the Tarzark have never forgotten me.”

“We worship you!” Yaduk replied vehemently. “You were with us during our Golden Age. Long have we waited for your return.”

“Your patience has been rewarded for I am close by and the time has come for the Tarzark to cross the Sawtooth Mountains and claim what is rightfully theirs.”

“My Lord?”

“The Ennadil have fallen and the last Orinian stronghold, Falcon’s Mount, is vulnerable. Falcon’s Mount is yours. Take it for me and I will join you there. Too long have Ennadil and Orinians walked free in Isador but my army of Morg have beaten the arrogance out of them.”

“Who are these Morg, my Lord?”

“They are creatures from a great continent far to the south. They are my slaves, and they will do my bidding like dogs until they are no longer needed.”

Yaduk was so overcome with emotion he nearly wept—fortunately, he managed to restrain himself.

“We will prepare our troops and leave for Falcon’s Mount at dawn,” he whispered. “We will not fail you my Lord.”

Yaduk bowed his head but when he looked up again Morgarth Evictar was gone. The vapor before him evaporated and the warm south wind caressed his face. Yaduk straightened up and, to his surprise, discovered he was shaking. He took a deep breath and attempted to collect his thoughts. There was much work to be done.

Yaduk turned, his cape billowing out behind him, and hurried to seek audience with his King.

 

***

 

“We should leave this afternoon,” Arridel Thorne’s face was set in grim lines as he addressed the amassed company who stood before him in the palace’s largest courtyard garden. “We can delay no longer.”

The two City-Lords before him nodded while their entourage looked on silently. Standing beside Arridel Thorne, Jennadil Silverstern avoided their gazes. Arridel may have been hopeful but as far as Jennadil was concerned they were going to their deaths, and he was sure the others knew it too.

Lassendil Florin stepped forward, his lithe form tense and restless. His gaze met Arridel’s with an almost violent intensity. “I am with you. I will help ready the horses at once.”

The Ennadil ignored the others and strode from the garden. In his mind he was already leagues from Falcon’s Mount. Ever since he had learned his sister was alive he had been distracted and aloof; hating every moment that kept him at Falcon’s Mount when he wanted to be riding to Adelyis’s aid.

“So just the three of you will go?” Lord Aran Fier said finally.

“It is safer that way,” Arridel replied. “We intend to slip in unseen. We will ride by night and sleep by day. Jennadil has told me of the secret tunnel which leads to the dungeons. It will be our path inside.”

At these words, Jennadil felt Theo Brin’s accusing gaze on him. Even now, with his own doom rapidly approaching, Theo was still stewing over Jennadil’s escape from Serranguard. Only Theo Brin and Will Stellan knew of that tunnel. Now, Theo would be surer than ever that the Captain of his army had helped Jennadil escape. Not that it mattered now—Theo was unlikely to get his chance for revenge.

“Whatever you need for the journey will be put at your disposal,” Aran Fier added. “I just wish I could do more to help you.”

Arridel bowed his head in thanks before turning on his heel and leaving the garden. Jennadil followed close behind and when they were in the colonnaded arcade outside, Arridel turned to him.

“I’ll leave you to return to your quarters to pack your things. I will bring up our supplies and meet you at the stables in an hour.”

They went their separate ways and Jennadil was grateful for the momentary solitude. He made his way up to his little chamber and packed his meagre possessions. He now owned so little; his belongings fitted into a light leather bag that he slung across his front. It took him only a few minutes to pack and when finished, Jennadil sat on the edge of his bed and picked up his staff. He ran his fingers over the polished wood. The staff hummed with energy as he touched it, and the sensation relaxed him. Its energy seeped into his body and flowed through his veins.

He was frightened of the task appointed to him; for he knew he was not up to it. Arridel was so matter-of-fact and appeared undaunted by it all but it was all Jennadil could do to keep his wits together. Arridel was a powerful wizard whose skills had been honed by years of methodical study and practice. Jennadil, on the other hand, had never applied himself. He had a sickening, gnawing fear he would let everyone down when faced with Morgarth Evictar, if he even made it that far. Eventually, unnerved by his own thoughts, Jennadil got up, left his chamber and made his way down towards the stables.

There was an eerie quiet in the palace this afternoon. Jennadil walked alone through the corridors leading towards the stables. He was halfway there when he heard a woman’s soft voice call to him.

“Jennadil!”

He turned and saw Myra Brin standing behind him. Dressed in a pale blue gown which made her look more fragile than ever, Myra was unrecognisable as the carefree young woman he had seduced from under Theo Brin’s nose.

“Myra.” He shook his head. “You should not be here. We cannot be seen together. It will be terrible for you if Theo learns of it.”

“I care not!” Myra rushed forward and threw herself against Jennadil’s chest. She squeezed him tightly and when she looked up at him, Jennadil saw her face was streaked with tears.

“I cannot bear it any longer,” she whispered.

“I am so sorry Myra,” Jennadil had not thought it was possible to feel any more wretched. Now, as well as feeling like a sniveling coward, he also felt like a villain. “This is my fault.”

“It is not! I wanted to be with you. You did not force me!”

“But life is unbearable for you now. I know Theo makes you suffer—I know what he’s capable of.”

Myra buried her face in his chest. He felt her thin body tremble in his arms and he had to fight the sudden urge to cry. It was a mess—all of it.

“I can put up with his cruelty,” she whispered. “I can put up with anything if I know you are nearby. I cannot stand the thought of you going away again.”

Jennadil stroked her hair, not knowing how to respond. “I have no choice,” he said finally, hating the inanity of his reply. “My fate no longer lies in my own hands.”

“Then take me with you!” Myra’s blue eyes glittered with a sudden, vehement passion as she stared up at him. “Take me away from him!”

Jennadil took a deep breath and, gently taking hold of her shoulders, stepped back from Myra, not breaking her gaze as he did so. “It’s no summer’s picnic I go on,” he said quietly. “Where I’m going I would never take you. You are safer here.”

“Bring me with you!” Tears spilled down Myra’s cheeks. “I cannot stay here. I cannot!”

Jennadil felt sick with self-loathing as he shook his head. “No Myra . . . I am sorry, so sorry. Please go now—we cannot be here like this.”

He extracted himself from her grasping hands and stepped away from her. He slowly backed off; worried she would throw herself at him and start screaming. However, she did not. She seemed to crumple in on herself. Her hair fell forward and she covered her face in her hands.

Watching her silent sobbing, Jennadil stumbled away and upon reaching the end of the corridor, he turned right. Further on, he sank against the wall and rubbed at the tears which were suddenly streaming down his face.

 

***

 

Lassendil Florin mounted the grey gelding Lord Fier had given him for the journey to Serranguard. High-spirited, the horse sidestepped and tossed his head, eager to be off. Lassendil knew how he felt; he too was impatient to leave. He watched the two wizards swing up onto the saddle. They were both wearing long traveling cloaks; Jennadil’s was of a dashing forest green whereas Arridel’s was a more somber charcoal.

Only Aran Fier, his wife and Vermel Ham had bothered to come to see them off. Lassendil was surprised that Gywna Brin had not come as well. He had not thought her as lacking in manners as her father but, obviously, he had been wrong. Lassendil was irritated it should bother him that she had not wanted to say good-bye. He turned to the wizards, impatient.

“Shall we leave now?”

Both wizards nodded—Arridel’s face was grim and introspective whereas Jennadil was looking a bit peaky and thoroughly unhappy.

“May the wraiths of your ancestors protect you all,” Aran Fier said quietly. “I would send a host of soldiers with you but it appears magic is the only weapon of any use to you now.”

“You too have a difficult task to face,” Arridel replied. “Falcon’s Mount must not fall.”

Suddenly, Lord Fier looked very tired. The City-Lord smiled sadly and nodded. “The Morg will not take us easily,” he assured the wizard.

The small company of three rode out of the courtyard and through the high stone gates into the city. None of them looked back as they journeyed down the spiralling road, through a city preparing itself for war. Jennadil was shocked to see the townsfolk so energetic. He had expected the lethargy of hopelessness to have settled over Falcon’s Mount, but instead he witnessed every blacksmith hard at work fashioning weapons.

The clang of steel echoed through the streets. Jennadil saw men gingerly loading barrels of explosives onto carts and in one of the main squares he witnessed women and children practising archery. Such a sight should have lifted his spirits, but after his encounter with Myra nothing could ease the wretched knot in his stomach.

On Falcon’s Mount’s lowest level, they entered the market place; a long rectangular square which stretched down to the city’s massive iron gates. They wound their way past clusters of townsfolk buying produce and live-stock. Life still went on, despite the shadow of doom that was almost upon them. Gone however, was the laughter and cheerful banter that usually echoed around the market place.

The three riders arrived at the main gates and waited while the locks were released. The guards nodded curtly at the Ennadil and two wizards before they pushed the heavy iron gates open. Lassendil caught sight of the open grasslands stretching south-west before him and felt his skin prickle with anticipation. For the first time in days, his mouth curved into a smile and he urged his horse on, under the raised portcullis, on to the bridge and over the shallow moat, with the others close behind.

All three of them had passed out of the city, and the guards were just preparing to pull the gates shut, when a shout from one of the guards made Lassendil turn in his saddle. A caped and hooded figure atop a stocky bay horse thundered through the narrow opening, nearly colliding with Jennadil’s horse. The horse twisted to the left just in time and scooted past Jennadil’s left leg. Drawing level with Lassendil, the rider threw back her hood.

The guards, who were just drawing their weapons, gave a collective gasp at the sight of the brown curls and the pert, freckled face of Lord Brin’s only child.

“Lady Brin!” One of the guards found his voice. “Your father did not permit this. Come back inside this instant!”

Gywna lifted her chin and stared back at the guard in question. “Neither you nor my father has command over me,” she informed him. “I’ll go where I wish!”

“Well you’re not coming with us!” Jennadil had been momentarily shocked out of his misery. “I’ve already had to endure one journey with you and I’m not enduring another!”

“Well then stay behind,” Gywna countered. “I’d prefer not to listen to your whining anyway.” She turned to Lassendil who was staring at her in mute surprise. To his greater surprise, she gave him a cheeky smile and winked. “I hope you can keep up!”

Gywna dug her heels into her horse’s flanks. The heavy-set beast lumbered off down the road, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake. Lassendil glanced back at the two wizards. They both looked like they had been drinking vinegar. Lassendil gathered up his reins with a sigh of resignation.

“You heard the girl,” he said.

The guards watched as the Ennadil urged his horse into a canter and the two wizards followed. They continued watching until the four riders were nothing but fast-moving specks on the horizon, before one of the guards turned to the man next to him.

“Lord Brin is going to have a fit when he hears of this.”

His colleague shook his head and slapped him on the back. “I’ll let you break the news to him.”

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

A Weakness At Last

 

 

A smoky dusk settled over Serranguard, promising yet another claustrophobic night. The heavy clouds that hung over the castle blocked out the moon and the stars, and the landscape below Serranguard twinkled from the fires of the Morg encampments like an inverted night-sky. What looked so foul in daylight had a surreal beauty after nightfall.

In the corridor outside their hiding place, Adelyis pulled her hood over her face and wrapped her cloak around her. Nervously, she followed Will and Taz; her apprehension tinged with relief. The day had dragged on endlessly and Adelyis preferred to finally be in action rather than biting her nails down to the quick, worrying about what lay ahead.

Will had assured Adelyis he could find his way around this castle blindfolded; which was just as well since she could not see more than three feet ahead of her. This area of the castle had no torches lining the walls, enabling them to move about with relative ease. Unfortunately, they would have to make their way to the heart of Serranguard if they were to find Adelyis’s staff or more information about the Morg.

There, they would only have the shadows to hide in.

Adelyis could only just make out Taz’s caped form in front of her and quickened her step so as not to lose him. Will moved quickly and decisively; the soft leather boots he wore noiseless on the stone floor. Their caped forms could pass, at first glance, as Morg. However, their flimsy disguise would not stand up to a closer inspection, and they would have to rely on Will’s knowledge of the castle to escape detection.

Adelyis’s heart crept higher into her throat the nearer they came to Serranguard’s north-west tower. Will had explained earlier that each of Serranguard’s four towers had a name and a particular function. The north-west tower was called the Scholar’s Tower. It was where the City-Lord’s wizard had once resided and the location of Serranguard’s library. The south-west tower, where Adelyis had met the Morg’s master two days earlier, was the Lord’s Tower. The City-Lord’s chambers were located here. On the south-east corner rose the Wraith Tower, so named because of the small temple to the Ancestral Wraith’s house there; and the north-east tower was named the Ceremonial Tower. This tower housed Serranguard’s great dining hall and meeting rooms.

Having already spent an afternoon in Serranguard’s library, Adelyis had guessed that the Morg’s highest-ranking shamans, including the one who had taken her staff, slept in the Scholar’s Tower. She hoped her intuitions were correct, for she did not relish the idea of searching all four corners of the huge fortress.

Will led them on a torturous path, through the narrowest passageways, instead of the principle thoroughfares. This circuitous route took them nearly an hour to cross the Keep but it ensured they met no Morg.

Finally, they were two corridors away from the circular stairwell leading up into the Scholar’s Tower. Will came to the end of the narrow passage leading to one of the main corridors and stopped so suddenly that Taz nearly ran into the back of him. The Gremul hissed but Will put up a hand to silence him. Slowly, Will peeked around the corner and spied four Morg sentries guarding the entrance to the stairwell. He had hoped to find them slumped against the wall, dozing. Instead, they stood up straight, spears grasped at their sides. News of their escape from the dungeons was obviously now widespread and, although Will guessed the Morg thought their prisoners had somehow fled from the castle, they were still taking precautions to keep their new stronghold secure.

Will turned to the others, held up four fingers and pointed to his left. His companions nodded and Will hesitated a moment, feeling their expectant gazes on him. He had got them this far and they expected him to have another plan up his sleeve.

Will drew the sword he had taken from the Morg who had unwittingly freed them. It had a curved blade and was more lightweight than the swords he was used to, but it would have to suffice. Taz and Adelyis however, were without weapons.

Adelyis watched as Will moved over to her and bent his head close. For one heart stopping moment she thought he was about to kiss her. She froze on the spot, her skin involuntarily prickling as his breath feathered across her cheek. However, he merely whispered in her ear.

“Do you have any spells you could use as a diversion?”

Momentarily unnerved, Adelyis nodded mutely. She frantically tried to think of something that could draw the Morg away from the stairwell. Without her staff, the most she would be able to manage would be sounds or fleeting images.

Suddenly, an idea came to Adelyis. Her mouth curved into a slight smile and she closed her eyes. Taz and Will looked on as Adelyis reached out her hand and whispered a string of words in Ennadil.

Moments later, the image of a Morg female materialised next to them—and both Will and Taz took a startled step backwards before realising she was merely an image Adelyis had conjured. The female was startlingly life-like and naked to the waist, wearing nothing more than a floor-length flowing black skirt. Lank black hair fell onto her bony shoulders.

The Morg woman turned to Will and gave him a slow, suggestive smile. Looking upon her, Will grimaced.

Adelyis kept her eyes squeezed shut and flicked her fingers outward. The Morg turned and walked casually past them, swaying her hips as she moved. She walked out into the main corridor and was illuminated by the light of the torches chained to the walls.

Appreciative hissing could be heard from the end of the corridor. The she-Morg smiled at the sentries and with a flick of Adelyis’s hand, she turned and sauntered back to where Taz and Will waited. There, the image of the she-Morg disappeared.

The sentries called after the female encouragingly, hoping she would come back—but when she did not their calls became impatient. Presently the clump of approaching booted feet approached. Two of the Morg rounded the corner, both of them practically salivating in anticipation. However, instead of a half-naked nubile Morg female, two caped figures detached themselves from the shadows and barreled towards them. The Morg had no time to put up a fight; Will’s sword sliced into one and Taz snapped the neck of the other.

The remaining two sentries saw their companions disappear into a side-passage. Seconds later a strangled noise followed by a few loud thumps alerted them. A short while later a low growl could be heard. The Morg eyed each other warily. They both hesitated, not sure whether to interrupt their comrades having a bit of fun or whether to investigate just in case something was amiss. After a moment of indecision, they decided on the latter.

Muttering curses about slackers, the two sentries stomped down the hallway, spears raised. They had almost reached the passageway when three caped figures burst out at them.

These two Morg were harder to bring down than their comrades. Taz launched himself at the shorter of the two sentries; his sinewy arms fastening around the Morg’s lithe form. They grappled like lovers in some fierce embrace before Taz managed to wrench the spear from the Morg’s fingers. Snarling, the Morg reached into his robes and pulled forth a long-bladed dagger, which he would have sunk into the Gremul’s furry belly if Adelyis had not grabbed the Morg from behind and dug her fingers into his eye-sockets. With a howl, the Morg released his grip for a moment—and in one swift movement, Taz grabbed the dagger and slit the Morg’s throat. The corpse slumped, twitching and kicking, to the floor; blood pooling on the stone floor underneath the black robes. Adelyis was shaking as she stared down at the dead Morg.

Nearby, Will had managed to slay the other Morg. He pulled his blade out of his opponent’s chest and swayed slightly against the wall. His cape had fallen back and Adelyis saw a red stain seeping through the side of the leather jerkin he wore.

“Will, you’re hurt!”

“Not badly,” Will replied breathlessly, “although after the racket we’ve just made I may end up a lot worse off than this. This corridor will be crawling with Morg soon. Let’s get a move on.”

Needing no further encouragement, Adelyis and Taz followed Will up the spiraling stairwell. Will led them to the Wizard’s Chamber. It was here his friend Jennadil Silverstern had resided for three years, and seduced Myra Brin from under the City-Lord’s nose. With any luck, the shaman they were looking for would be sleeping here tonight.

They reached the chamber and, not knowing how else to attract attention, Will knocked loudly on the heavy wooden door. His gaze met Taz’s while they waited for a response. The Gremul’s eyes glowed like two suns in the murky light. His expression was keen and feral and Will was relieved Taz was a friend not a foe. Having seen the Gremul handle himself in physical combat, Will knew he would not want to be Taz’s opponent.

A hissing enquiry came from inside the chamber. Instead of answering, which would immediately give them away, Will knocked again; louder this time. There was a moment of silence before they heard the lock releasing. The door started to open a crack and not waiting for the shaman to see them and slam it shut again, Will and Taz threw themselves against the door with all their combined strength.

The shaman screeched and fell back, as an Orinian male and a ferocious creature covered in russet pelt with nasty fangs, bore down upon him. He was grasping for his staff but his attackers were too close to him now for him to use it effectively.

Adelyis entered the chamber behind the others, and recognised the Morg as Salazth, the shaman she had fought in the Arden Highlands. She was surprised to find Salazth, and not Chak, residing in the Wizard’s Chamber, and wondered if the Morg had rearranged their hierarchy since she had passed the afternoon with Chak and Salazth in Serranguard’s library. Salazth had not noticed her, preoccupied as he was with fending off both man and beast.

Adelyis could hear shouts echoing up the stairwell, warning them that this tower would soon be overrun. She dodged the spray of red sparks that were spouting sporadically from the Salazth’s staff and squeezed past the struggling trio.

Running to the other-side of the chamber, Adelyis cast her gaze about frantically. Where was it? Surely Salazth would keep the staff where he could look upon it and gloat at its acquisition.

There it was—leaning up against the far wall. Adelyis grabbed her staff, feeling its energy vibrate through her as she did so, and turned to aid the others. They had almost overcome the struggling shaman and Adelyis hesitated to step in, in case she accidently injured them in the process.

It was then that Adelyis saw two leather-bound books on a small table near the window. They were illuminated by a torch that hung from the wall above the table. They had obviously interrupted the shaman from his studies.

Adelyis scooped up the books and stuffed them into the deep pockets inside her cloak. They would give her vital clues as too what the Morg were searching for. When she turned back to the doorway, she found Will and Taz standing over the Salazth’s motionless form.

“You found it?” Will’s voice was rough from exertion and pain.

Adelyis nodded, and joined her two companions as they hurried out into the stairwell. The echoing sound of feet, of what sounded like a whole battalion of Morg, marched their way up the stone steps towards them.

“We are trapped!” Taz growled.

“Not yet!” Adelyis replied. She stepped forward and thrust her staff downwards.

Edelyith mirenn anieath!”

A tongue of flame shot out from the top of the staff and roared down the stairwell. The smell of burning, and screams and shouts reached the trio on the landing.

“That should distract them for a moment,” Adelyis announced while Taz and Will gazed at her in awe. “I am now going to cover us in a cloaking spell. This enchantment can only be used in times of mortal danger and it will only last a few minutes. We must link hands for it to work properly. Are you ready?”

Wordlessly, Will and Taz nodded. Adelyis took hold of Will’s hand and Will took hold of Taz’s. Then, Adelyis murmured words in Ennadil, briefly touching Will and Taz with her staff.

A cloud of tiny, sparkling particles erupted from the top of Adelyis’s staff and enveloped them.

Keeping a tight grip on Will’s fingers, so tight Will thought she might break his hand, Adelyis led the way down the stairwell. Chameleon-like, their forms became as of the walls and stairwell. They carefully wove their way in between hysterical Morg who were frantically beating flames off themselves and coughing in the acrid smoke that filled the stairwell.

Moments later, the three of them were outside in the main corridor. Still holding fast onto each other’s hands, they squeezed past a group of heavily armed Morg hurrying towards the tower and slipped, unnoticed, into a side passage. Hidden by darkness, they sprinted through the labyrinth of corridors and did not dare slow their pace until they were far from the Scholar’s Tower.

 

“I need to look at your wound.”

Adelyis turned to Will the moment the door closed behind them. They were safe for the moment, hidden inside a cramped chamber once used for storing sacks of grain. The earthy smell of wheat still lingered in the musty air.

They had only made it half way back to their original hiding-place when the sheer number of incensed Morg swarming about the fortress had forced them to take refuge. Taz was busy securing the door while outside, booted feet thumped back and forth; some far away, others unnervingly close.

“There’s no need.” Will tried to step out of Adelyis’s reach but she followed him. Once Adelyis had him backed up against a row of empty wooden shelves, she unbuckled the leather vest he wore and peeled it back to reveal his bloodstained undershirt.

Adelyis made a hissing sound between clenched teeth. “You’re losing a lot of blood!”

“Stop fussing, it’s just a flesh wound.”

“That it may be but you’re still bleeding. I need to bind it. Take off your shirt.”

Will gave her a long, slow look in response, and Adelyis felt her face grow hot. She wished he would not deliberately provoke her like this. Sometimes he showed no respect for the fact she was an Ennadil witch.

Adelyis watched Will remove his shirt, and saw him wince as the movement hurt his wound. He was standing so close to her she could feel the heat of his body. Suddenly, it felt hot and airless in the storeroom. Adelyis took a close look at Will’s injury, before turning away from him and pulling down the cobwebs that festooned the walls behind her.

“These will seal the wound,” she explained when she saw the look of worry on his face. She carefully plugged the wound with the spider webs before helping him back on with his leather vest; pulling its buckles tight so it would not chafe.

“You have the touch of a born healer.” Will smiled down at Adelyis when she had finished.

“We should rest while we can,” Adelyis replied briskly, cursing her glowing, embarrassed face.

Sensing her discomfort, Will said nothing more.

A while later, the three of them sat side by side on the storeroom’s dusty floor; their backs pressed against the shelves behind them. Adelyis sat between Will and Taz. The second of the two spell books she had taken from Salazth’s chamber was open on her knee. Her companions dozed. Outside, the pandemonium had died down a little. Heads would roll over this one—not only had they let the prisoners escape, again—but this time Adelyis had her staff which made her considerably more difficult to find and dangerous to apprehend. Adelyis scanned the pages quickly; her mind was sharp and clear as she scanned each page.

“I’ve found it,” Adelyis exclaimed finally. The others stirred from their dozing and sleepily gave Adelyis their attention.

“I know what they were so desperate to find. It’s here!” Adelyis gestured to the pages of the open book she held. Will glanced down and saw an illegible black scrawl in the margins. Certain points in the text were circled and underlined.

“What have you found?” he said, trying to clear his tired mind to concentrate on what Adelyis was saying.

“It’s a weather spell they’re looking for,” Adelyis whispered triumphantly, her eyes bright. “That’s why that cloud is hanging over everything. It should be autumn now but they have made the air unseasonably clammy and hot. However, they will have problems sustaining it I think. These are all temporary spells.”

“But why should they want to alter the weather?” Taz asked.

“My guess is they don’t like the cold,” Will replied, his expression thoughtful. “We know very little of the Morg but we do know that they come from a land that never sees winter.”

“So they’ve conquered a continent they can’t actually inhabit,” Taz mused. “What kind of folly is that?”

“It does not make any sense,” Adelyis agreed, “but what is even stranger is that they don’t already know a permanent weather spell—such an enchantment is complex but not impossible. Their shamans appeared highly skilled and it puzzles me as to why they are not able to perform one.”

Will looked down at the hysterically scribbled notes on the pages, equally mystified. “You met their leader, Adelyis, do you think he could cast such a spell?”

Adelyis paled at the memory of the fell being she had encountered on the tower top. “I have never met anyone so powerful,” she admitted. “Such a powerful warlock should know how to conjure a permanent weather spell.”

“Unless he didn’t want to.” Will pointed out.

The words hung in the musty air before them, demanding an explanation none of them could give.

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

A Company of Four

 

 

Lord Theo Brin snarled and flung his half-full chalice of wine across his chamber. Vermel Ham ducked, just in time, as the chalice flew overhead. It hit the wall with a hollow clunk and bounced onto the tiled floor, leaving a crimson flower; a dripping red stain, on the whitewashed wall.

“Where is he? I summoned him over an hour ago!”

“I’m sure he will be here shortly Sire,” Vermel wrung his chubby, jewel-encrusted hands together as he spoke. “Please be patient.”

“I am not used to being kept waiting!” Theo stomped over to the window. It was a grey, airless day outside; his window faced west and the sky in that direction had a strange yellow tinge. Theo’s mood was too foul, however, for him to register this anomaly.

“How dare she!” he muttered glaring at the colourless sky. “When I get her back here I will have her whipped and locked up. I will teach her obedience!”

Vermel winced at his Lord’s words and glanced at the enormous wine jug on the table next to him. It was nearly empty. Upon learning that his daughter had run off with the wizards and Lassendil Florin on their hopeless quest, Theo had been pouring wine down his gullet, requesting the jug be refilled constantly. He was an irascible, mean drunk and Vermel longed to be excused from his presence. There was a heavy silence in the chamber while the counsellor desperately searched for something calming to say. Then, someone knocked on the door.

“Enter!” Theo bellowed before turning to Vermel. “Pour me more wine you oaf!”

Vermel hastened to obey. The door opened, revealing the hunched, greasy-haired figure of Hugo, Lord Brin’s chamberlain.

“My Lord,” Hugo’s voice was as oily as his hair. “The bounty hunter is here.”

“Show him in then!” Theo barked.

Hugo shuffled aside to allow a tall, lean figure, dressed in forest green to pass into the room. Dael, freshly bathed and well fed since his arrival here at Falcon’s Mount, looked far more relaxed than the chamber’s other occupants.

Even here in relative safety, he carried a quiver slung across his back, a sword at his side and various daggers strapped to his arms and legs. His handsome face was impassive as he made a courteous bow and waited for Theo to speak.

“I trust you have been spending well the gold I gave you,” Theo’s tone would have soured milk.

“It was gold well earned,” he replied lightly, “I will soon be on my way however. I tire of staying here.”

“Not before you carry out one more job for me,” Theo replied.

The bounty hunter cocked a dark eyebrow. “My Lord?”

“Yes, I have an urgent task for you,” Theo grabbed the chalice Vermel offered him and took a deep draught of wine before continuing. “Of course you will be paid handsomely. Do you accept?”

“It depends on what this task is?” Dael replied.

“My daughter has run off. You must get her back for me.”

Dael gave Theo Brin a speculative look. “Do you have any idea where she has gone?”

“She has gone with the wizards to Serranguard.”

There was a pregnant pause before Dael let out a low laugh. “Well, good luck to her.”

“You must track them down and bring her back here!” Theo’s voice rose querulously.

“They will be halfway to Serranguard by now.” Dael shook his head. “No amount of gold you could offer me would be worth entering Serranguard when it’s occupied by the Morg.”

“Are you refusing me?” Theo hissed. Vermel watched with increasing distress as Lord Brin puffed up like a bullfrog before his eyes. The counsellor knew from years of unpleasant experience that the rage about to be unleashed would be blistering.

“I am,” Dael replied as calmly as if he was dismissing the offer of a glass of wine. “I am a businessman, Lord Brin. There is no fortune to be made in following your daughter to her death. War is coming to this city. You have far greater worries to contend with.”

“One thousand gold pieces!” Theo screeched, his face livid. “I will pay you one thousand gold pieces if you do this!”

Dael shook his head. “It is a handsome offer but gold is no longer of any use to me. There will soon be no place for me to spend it.”

“You cannot refuse me!” Theo exploded. The wine in his goblet splashed everywhere like molten lava in a volcanic explosion.

“I can. I am neither your slave nor your servant,” Dael replied, his expression bored. “Now if you will excuse me . . .”

The bounty hunter stepped around Hugo who, wisely, did not attempt to bar his path. He pulled the door shut, just as something smashed against it. Having seen the crimson stains all over the walls inside the chamber, Dael did not need to guess at what had been thrown at him.

“A waste of good wine,” he said. Then, with an amused shake of his head, he walked away.

 

***

 

The company of four rode hard all afternoon across the featureless expanse of the Endaar Downs. None of the companions were in high spirits and so they rode in silence, a warm wind against their faces. They stopped briefly when the sun reached its zenith and consumed a light lunch of bread, cheese and apples, washed down by cider, before they continued on their way. Lassendil rode out in front, his long dark hair streaming out behind him, followed by Gywna. The two wizards brought up the rear.

The light was starting to fade when they reached the fringes of Delm Forest. The shadow of the ancient forest embraced them in a blanket of green and they were no longer breathing in the sulfuric, westerly wind but the scent of moss, peat and vegetation. Not far from the edge of the forest, by a shallow brook, Lassendil halted his horse and turned in the saddle, studying the others. “From here we go on foot.”

“What?” Jennadil protested. “But Serranguard is still leagues from here.”

“We will cover ground no more quickly on horse-back than on foot,” Lassendil explained, springing from the saddle, “and the horses will make unnecessary noise. The Morg will have scouts positioned around the western reaches of the Forest. We will need to slip past them.”

Jennadil nodded in reluctant understanding and slid off his horse with a groan.

“We should at least keep the horses here for the journey back,” Gywna spoke for the first time all day.

A look passed between Jennadil and Lassendil. Gywna gritted her teeth in annoyance.

“What is it?” she demanded crossly.

“Do you really think there will be a journey back?” Jennadil replied.

 

The light faded into a misty, airless night. The mist curled around them like tendrils of an old woman’s hair. Camping at the water’s edge, they decided to risk a fire. They were still far enough from Serranguard not to worry about attracting attention to themselves. Lassendil killed a couple of rabbits and put them in a stew with some potatoes, carrots and onions they had brought from Falcon’s Mount.

“I do not know what we would do without you Lassendil,” Jennadil said, helping himself to another bowl of stew.

“Well you would definitely starve,” Gywna replied. “You are absolutely useless at fending for yourself!”

“I managed to save your ungrateful hide,” Jennadil snapped, “although it is something I have regretted ever since.”

Gywna opened her mouth to counter-attack but Lassendil interrupted her. “Enough Gywna,” he snapped. “Remember that none of us want you here. Keep a leash on your tongue if you do not want to be left behind tomorrow.”

Gywna’s face flushed in the flickering fire light. She glared across at Lassendil with venom but to everyone’s surprise, remained silent. No one saw, however, the tears that brimmed in her eyes when she looked down at her stew.

Arridel watched the exchange between his three companions impassively. The wizard had been silent for most of the day; his thoughts turned inward. He felt bone weary; not used to riding this distance at such speed. Arridel was a grim presence and the others were not inclined to engage him in conversation.

The rest of the dinner passed in silence. Afterwards, Lassendil moved back from the fire and leaned back against a nearby tree. Jennadil lit a pipe and after a few puffs joined the Ennadil, offering him a smoke. The two of them sat in companionable silence while Gywna and Arridel remained near the fire.

Arridel stretched his legs out in front of him and studied Gywna’s profile as she stared into the dying embers of the fire. She was a pretty girl but troubled. He could see the Ennadil’s words had hurt her, for she had been subdued ever since his reprimand. It had not done her any harm, Arridel surmised. Her manners were appalling.

“Lady Gywna,” he said finally, “may I take a look at that sword you carry?”

Gywna looked up from the fire, her brow crinkling in surprise. She hesitated a moment before nodding. She reached under her cloak and unbuckled her sword, passing it across to Arridel. He took it and unsheathed it from its scabbard. The fine Ennadil blade glinted in the fire light. Its hilt sparkled with diamonds.

“Can you not feel the magic in this sword?” Arridel said softly, weighing the sword in his hand. “It hums with it.”

“It does?” Gywna was curious.

“This sword is bound to you and you to it,” Arridel continued in a soft voice. “Away from the protection of the Temple of Ancestral Wraiths, the sword’s power has grown stronger. Now that you are the only living Guardian it will protect you.”

“But the temple was destroyed. The Ancestral flame has gone out.” Gywna replied with a frown; his words confused her.

Arridel attempted a smile, although on him it looked more like a grimace. “Those things are inconsequential my dear. We made them so that we could worship our ancestors—but the Ancestral Wraiths care nothing for them. The Guardians were originally created three millennia ago to protect Isador from threat. Only a woman can wield the blade you carry and only you can use its magic. However, as the centuries passed the Guardians’ real purpose became obscured and their role became ceremonial. Man’s habit of forgetting the past is the cause of more than one of today’s problems.”

Gywna stared at him blankly. Arridel sighed, she still did not understand.

“Do you remember at Falcon’s Mount when Lassendil challenged your father?”

“You mean when he tried to cut his throat?” Gywna replied with a rueful smile. “Of course.”

“I was there. I saw how you moved across the hall to block him. You moved like lightening—with an impossible speed. When you wield this sword and channel your emotion into it, you and the Wraith Sword merge.”

“Why was a not told this before?” Gywna shivered, despite the fire’s warmth.

“Such knowledge is dangerous. Morgarth Evictar knows, however; it is said that when the Morg destroyed the Temple, they barricaded the doors and sent flaming catapults over the walls. The Guardians were trapped inside and burned to death before they had a chance to fight the Morg. If they had been able to fight, many of them may have escaped. Morgarth Evictar could not risk that.”

Gywna was still shivering as she listened. If she had not run away just hours earlier she would have met the same fate.

Arridel re-sheathed the sword and handed it back to her. “Look after this,” he said gravely, “for it is the only thing which will guarantee your survival in the days to come.”

 

Jennadil took one last puff of his pipe before laying it down across his knees. He looked across to where Arridel had engaged Gywna in conversation. They spoke in low voices so he could not hear what they were saying; not that it mattered. He reached up and fingered the gemstone which hung around his neck. It was a round, transparent, blue stone, Arkaheth; the Water Stone. Arridel carried Bruarn, the Earth Stone, around his neck.

Jennadil reached into his pocket and pulled out another gem attached to a fine chain, studying it for a moment. It was pale and milky with a slightly rough surface.

“The Ennadil call that a Mist Stone.” Lassendil was looking down at the stone in awe. “They are incredibly rare. Where did you get it?”

“Arridel gave it to me. This one is called Didliar; in Orin it is known as an Air Stone—and it is for your sister. We need three elements: Earth, Air and Water to fight Morgarth Evictar.”

“This spell, will it work?”

“Arridel seems to think so,” Jennadil replied hesitantly.

“But you do not?”

Jennadil looked up from the stone he held in the palm of his hand. “It is not the spell I doubt, nor Arridel or your sister—but myself.”

“Self-doubt comes to us all Jennadil,” Lassendil replied gently, “but from the moment we met I saw that you were plagued by it. I know you are not a fool, so why do you try to convince the world that you are?”

Jennadil sighed and attempted a smile. “I haven’t done a very good job of convincing you have I?”

“And you do not fool Arridel either,” Lassendil added.

Jennadil glanced over at the stern-faced wizard, who was still talking to Gywna. “Do you think so? Arridel thinks I am a halfwit.”

The two of them sat in silence a moment before Jennadil put away the stone and brought his knees up to his chest. When Jennadil began to talk once more, his voice was quiet and hollow with sadness. “All my life I have felt like an impostor. My mother was an Ennadil witch who broke with her people to marry my father—a soldier from Mirren who had nothing to offer her except his love. Mixed race marriage was not accepted in Mirren any more than in the Ennadil Territory so they went to live in the foothills of the Silver Peak Mountains. My father built a little cottage there and the years passed happily for us all until when I was seven summer’s old.” Jennadil paused a moment, pain flickering across his face before he continued. “A band of Tarzark, after slaughtering the garrison at Blade Pass, attacked our home. They murdered my parents, and I would have been killed too but I had been out practising with my slingshot in the forest. When I came home, I found them dead and our cottage in flames.”

Silence followed his words. Lassendil watched the wizard’s face and saw the grief etched there.

“After that, nothing mattered to me. I would have ended up in the slums of Mirren but, instead, I was taken on as a wizard’s apprentice. I have led a selfish life, dedicated to my own gain and pleasure, but inside, I am hollowed out, empty.” Jennadil broke off and met Lassendil’s gaze.

“It is time to fill that void,” Lassendil replied, and the fierceness in his voice surprised Jennadil. “You cannot face the evil of Morgarth Evictar in such a state. He will prey on any weakness he senses.”

“But I am weak.” Jennadil looked away from the Ennadil’s piercing gaze. “I disgust myself. Before we left Falcon’s Mount, Myra Brin came to me.” Jennadil’s face wore a pinched expression as he remembered the scene. “She told me she loved me. She begged me to take her away with me but I refused.”

“It is just as well you did,” the Ennadil dismissed the idea. “We already have one troublesome female in our midst,” Lassendil cast a dark look in Gywna’s direction.

“But that’s just it,” Jennadil replied, “even if I had not been going to certain death, even if I had been traveling far away from all of this, I still would not have taken her with me.” Jennadil looked down at his hands in shame, avoiding eye-contact with the Ennadil. “You see Lassendil, I am a coward. I do not love her, and I never did. I’ve never loved any of the women I seduced. To think that I destroyed the life of someone who I used because it pleased me at the time makes me hate myself.”

Silence hung in the air while Lassendil took in Jennadil’s words. There were few words of comfort he could give the wizard. He knew very little of the emotion Jennadil battled with. After Violyda’s death, the only woman he had ever loved, Lassendil had deliberately kept himself aloof to avoid such entanglements. He had loved Violyda so deeply; his attachment to her had bordered on obsession. When the hunting accident claimed her life he had nearly gone mad with grief. Unlike Jennadil he could not use women. Until now, he had regarded Jennadil’s womanising existence with bemusement; it made for a complicated life. Now though, Lassendil saw the emptiness of the wizard’s existence and his intense loneliness.

Hesitantly, Lassendil reached out and placed his hand on Jennadil’s forearm. The wizard looked up in surprise; his eyes glittering. Lassendil squeezed his arm gently.

“Do not burden yourself with the weight of your past mistakes.” He gave the wizard a rare smile. “Hating yourself is self-indulgent and won’t undo a thing. What is done cannot be changed but you now have the chance to give your life meaning. If you want to make amends for the life you have led then start now.”

 

 

Chapter Nineteen

Tarzark On The Move

 

 

The Tarzark army snaked through Hammer Pass like a shimmering serpent. Although heavily armoured and armed, the Tarzark troops moved stealthily on their large, two-toed, reptilian feet. The sun was rising over the eastern tops of the Sawtooth Mountains; the great peaks cast a deep shadow over the pass.

King Grull marched at the head of the army, flanked either side by his two most trusted generals: Argoth and Grimmak. Grull wore a long leather cape, encrusted with gleaming jewel-like pieces of obsidian, about his wide, muscular shoulders. The cape sparkled as the first rays of sunlight filtered into the narrow pass.

Grull was the most charismatic Tarzark king in half a millennium. Despite being fifty winters old, he walked as tall and virile as the surrounding warriors half his age. Among the Tarzark, he was feared as much as he was loved; ruthless with those who opposed him and cruel to those who disappointed him.

Grull stared straight ahead as he marched; his eyes two glittering slits and his massive jaw set. Chain mail and leather encased his huge, muscular form. The skin visible revealed a grey-blue hide of scales. His face, like the other Tarzark, was reptilian. Two nostrils flared from the end of a smooth snout, and his mouth was wide and lipless. A pink, forked tongue shot out intermittently, sensing the air around him.

Four of the King’s most senior sorcerers marched behind him. Yaduk was among them. He wore the billowing red sorcerer’s cape. A number of red mantles fluttered in the morning breeze amongst the warriors’ iron-grey battle cloaks; red butterflies interspersed among a cloud of fluttering grey moths.

The army marched up the final incline as the pass abruptly widened before them and there, blocking their path further west, was the Orinian Garrison. The fort was an imposing structure of iron and stone. Wicked spikes protruded from its high walls like dragon’s teeth and torches burned on top of the walls, illuminating the figures of men against the lightening sky.

 

High up on the wall, the Captain of Orin’s Garrison stared down at the approaching army. The Captain was a young man; he had risen quickly through the ranks due to his force of personality and a quick mind. However, as his gaze swept over the mass of bobbing Tarzark heads, he knew his garrison did not stand a chance. There were so many of them; they carpeted the narrow gorge, stretching back into the throat of Hammer Pass.

Sudden dizziness swept over the Captain and he gripped the edge of the wall for support. His guts cramped with such a force he nearly doubled over with the pain, and he struggled to control his panic. Lord Fier had sent reinforcements but a mere two thousand men were no deterrent to this vast army.

“Captain?” The soldier next to him gave his superior a beseeching look. “We will never be able to hold the fort against so many!”

The Captain turned and looked at the soldier. He found it difficult to speak and moments passed before he managed to croak out an answer.

“We can delay their passage to Falcon’s Mount—it will give Lord Fier time to prepare. Ride to Falcon’s Mount . . .”

The young Captain paused then, his heart beating in his throat, before he managed to finish his order.

“Warn them a Tarzark attack is imminent.”

“Yes Captain!” The soldier rushed off, but not before the Captain had seen the dizzying relief on his face. The Captain watched him go, wishing he too could flee the nightmare before him.

He reluctantly turned his attention back to the Tarzark army that had come to a halt about thirty yards from the wall. He could see their front line clearly and caught sight of an individual who could only be the infamous Grull; the Tarzark wore a glittering black cape and was taller than most.

The Captain exhaled slowly, letting out the breath he had not realised he had been holding. He stepped back from the edge of the wall and turned to the men awaiting his word.

“Secure the gates! Focus all your efforts there—they must not break through!” Determination washed over him as he spoke, dulling his fear.

The Captain picked up his longbow and notched an arrow. “Archers at the ready!” he shouted. His voice echoed off the mountainside. The sun cleared the edge of the fort and bathed Hammer Pass in golden light. “Fire at will!”

A hail of arrows flew from the top of the wall.

 

***

 

The air over Falcon’s Mount was heavy and charged as if a storm was coming. No storm clouds loomed in sight however. The sky was colourless, except for a yellow haze to the west.

Myra Brin’s gaze took in the wide horizon as she climbed the last set of steps and stopped to catch her breath at the top of the tower. Her heart beat frantically against her ribs. She stood for a moment and took deep gasps of air in an effort to calm the panic that fluttered in her breast. She studied the jaundiced western sky; not knowing its cause but sensing it heralded the enemy’s arrival here.

Jennadil had gone west, towards those clouds. She would never see him again.

Myra’s vision swam. She did not think it was possible to have any tears left. After Jennadil left she had cried until she felt hollow. However, the tears had not brought relief; her life was a brittle and empty shell.

Myra walked across the top of the tower, towards the rim of battlements. The city fell below her, tier upon tier of fortifications. She could see people, tiny as ants, scurrying about below, readying Falcon’s Mount for war. She envied them their strength. Hope and courage mobilized them, despite the overwhelming odds.

Myra did not have that kind of valour. She had been in turn passive and then reckless—but ever since that day, when Theo Brin discovered her and Jennadil together, Myra had slowly been crumbling from the inside out. She had not thought her husband capable of such cruelty. She now knew there were depths of malice to Theo Brin that surprised even him. It was hard to believe he had loved her once.

For a moment, Myra’s thoughts strayed to four years earlier when she had lived in Brenna, the eldest daughter of the city’s wealthiest merchant, Mirk Erdwood. Theo had made his yearly visit to the city during the Harvest Fest and they met during a banquet her father held in the City-Lord’s honour. Theo had courted her like an infatuated teenager, eager to please her and so generous with his gifts. Despite the age difference, Myra had found herself succumbing to him. He was not a handsome man but he had an undeniable charisma and force of character—and he had blinked back tears when she accepted his proposal. Myra’s family, her father especially, had been silently opposed to the marriage but there was little they could do to stop it. Myra had arrived at Serranguard and looked up at those golden walls with a sense of wonder—upon marrying Lord Brin she would become mistress of this castle and all its inhabitants.

Myra sighed at the memory of her shallowness and vanity. Disappointment would have settled in eventually, even if she had not met Jennadil Silverstern. Theo Brin shared power with no one and he could only co-exist with those he could control, which was why he was so aggravated by his willful daughter. He had married Myra because he had been sure she would obey him; a serious misjudgment on his part.

Myra’s thoughts returned to Jennadil once again—she had wanted him from the moment they were introduced, but she had initially fought against it. Her resistance only encouraged him. His bright, intelligent gaze and playful smile were hard to resist. It took a year and a half but finally Myra gave in to her passion, and once she did, she cared for nothing else. She still did not.

At the edge of the battlements, Myra placed her hands on the rampart in front of her and took a deep breath to steady her nerves. There was a narrow space between the huge battlements; Myra could easily see between them. She leant forward, squeezed her eyes shut and tried to forget she was afraid of heights.

It was a long way down from here.

Thoughts of the past had distracted her; but she had not come to this lonely tower to reminisce or to admire the view.

Myra kept her eyes squeezed shut and fought to control her terror. She had contemplated other ways of killing herself but she did not have the stomach to take a knife to her wrists, nor access to poison. This was the only way, and she was determined to go through with it.

Still keeping her eyes shut, Myra pulled herself up into the narrow space between the battlements. The stone was cold and rough to touch. She pulled herself up into a crouching position and stayed there for a few moments before she opened her eyes and straightened up.

It was a windless day; no breeze stirred against her chilled skin as she stood, wedged in-between the battlements, and looked around her. From up here it felt like she was a bird, an eagle, soaring high above the city. Just one step would take her over the edge. Just one.

Myra was not sure how long she stood there, readying herself to take that step, before a drawling voice sounded behind her.

“You’re taking your time milady. Jumping does not guarantee certain death . . .”

The shock of realizing someone else was standing behind her on the tower, nearly sent Myra over the edge. Her heart hammered hysterically and her body went rigid.

“Would it help if I pushed you?”

Through the haze of misery and pain, Myra felt a stab of outrage. Who would dare make fun of someone about to take their own life? What kind of person would watch as if for sport—and who knew she was up here?

She twisted her body, taking care not to move her feet, and looked back at her tormenter.

The tall, lean form of the Tarantel bounty hunter leaned up against a battlement on the far side of the tower-top. His arms were folded across his chest. The expression on his face was a mix of incredulity and amusement. Myra recognised him; she had caught the bounty hunter looking at her once or twice during the dinner he had attended after bringing Jennadil to Theo. His looks had not been lustful, men no longer looked at her that way these days, but speculative. She had heard about those of Tarantel and their mind powers – she had heard they had the power to hypnotize, to read minds.

Reading her mind then, Dael inclined his head slightly and raised a dark eyebrow, “I saw you sneaking through the palace after breakfast. I decided to follow you and see what you were up to,” he said by way of explanation.

“I was not sneaking,” Myra replied coldly. “Did my husband bid you to follow me?”

“No Lady Brin, I am my own man.”

“Then kindly slither back into the hole from which you emerged and leave me alone.”

“What?” Dael laughed, a low, surprisingly warm sound, and shook his head so that the crescent moon he wore on his left ear sparkled in the sunlight. “And leave you to leap to your death without a witness? I think not, milady.”

Myra gritted her teeth to stop herself from screaming at him. Her nerves were stretched taut. She felt hysteria looming.

“Keep away from me,” she hissed. “I’m going to jump. Don’t try and stop me!”

“I have no intention of trying to stop you,” the bounty hunter replied mildly. “You might take me with you.”

Myra clenched her fists, squared her shoulders and turned her back on him.

“This is all a bit pointless isn’t it?” The voice drawled behind her once more. “The enemy is coming and there is little chance any in this city will survive. If you wait a day or two, a Morg will slit your throat for you. It’ll save you the grand gesture of suicide.”

“Do you think I’m doing this to get attention?” Myra spat, her hurt and outrage finally boiling over. Two spots of colour marked her thin cheeks and her blue eyes glittered with tears.

“No, I think you’re a coward.”

Myra snorted and turned her back on him again. Tears ran down her face as she answered. “Well, that’s the first thing you have been right about.”

There was a moment of silence before the bounty hunter spoke again. “Such a fuss over a worthless man who cares nothing for you—I suppose the humiliation is too much to bear.”

“Be silent!” Myra screamed. Years of pent up fury finally erupted from her. “Get away from me, you with your poisonous, lying words. Leave me in peace!”

Sobs wracked her thin body and a vice-like pain crushed her chest. She could not breathe. Suddenly, it was all too much to bear.

Pushing herself forward to the edge, Myra jumped.

However, instead of sailing through the air, her skirts billowing around her, Myra found herself hanging upside down over the edge of the tower staring down at the city below her.

Strong hands grabbed her about the legs and hauled her back from her death leap. Her skirts had fallen up around her shoulders. She struggled violently, humiliation and rage coursing through her.

The bounty hunter paid no heed and pulled her slowly back up. Myra fought wildly but the grip on her ankles did not lessen. She bruised and scraped her knees as she struggled but the pain just spurred her on.

Finally, Dael managed to haul her back onto the top of the tower but was instantly forced to defend himself. She clawed at his face and kicked viciously at his shins. Dael finally got her pinned up against the wall, and Myra looked into his face, seeing to her fury that he was grinning.

“You’re stronger than you loo,k milady,” he taunted. “It’s a pity you show a backbone only when it comes to killing yourself.”

“You know nothing of me fool!” Myra panted.

“You forget—my people are able to read minds. Some are easier to read than others. Your husband’s mind is a sealed vault, but yours is as transparent as a mountain stream. I read all your sniveling thoughts the moment we met. ‘Tis odd that you object to my words, and yet allow Theo Brin to humiliate you at every turn.”

“It is his right,” Myra glared at him, their faces only inches apart. “It is not yours.”

Dael stepped back from Myra with an infuriating smile still plastered across his face.

“You said you would not stop me from jumping,” Myra accused. The anger was slowly draining from her voice. She did not have the strength left to sustain it for long.

That’s right, I did,” Dael replied glibly, “but I’m a liar.”

The bounty hunter moved swiftly to her right, striking like a snake. Myra had no time to defend herself. The blow caught Myra expertly across the back of her neck.

Lady Brin crumpled without a sound at the bounty hunter’s feet.

Dael picked her up easily, noting as he did so, how painfully thin she was. He carried her down the stairwell, out of the tower and through the palace. He met no one and did not expect to; the palace had been emptied except for essential servants. All hands were needed to make weapons in the city below.

Dael carried her up to where Serranguard’s City-Lord and Lady were lodged and met a servant in the main corridor. He was the creepy fellow who had escorted him to see Theo Brin the day before. Hugo’s eyes widened upon seeing the swarthy bounty hunter carrying the unconscious Lady Brin in his arms.

“The Lady has taken ill,” Dael snapped. “Show me to her chamber at once.”

Hugo hesitated for the moment but the bounty hunter’s expression made him decide against refusing the order. He hurriedly led the way, left, up a stairwell, to a large, ornately furnished chamber. A narrow single bed sat in the room’s centre. Such a small bed looked lonely and out of place in such an opulent room. Dael gently laid Myra down on the bed and turned to Hugo.

“Fetch Lord Brin,” he ordered and Hugo fell over himself to comply. Dael watched the chamberlain go with a frown—he could see that slimy little man was enjoying this.

Dael looked down at Myra’s unconscious face and decided the time had come to leave Falcon’s Mount. Lady Brin would wake shortly and would have Theo Brin to contend with. He did not want to be here upon the City-Lord’s arrival.

“Sorry about hitting you milady,” he said softly, reaching down and stroking her cheek. Her skin was rose-petal soft. “But you were a danger to yourself.”

With that, the bounty hunter turned on his heel and left the chamber.

 

***

 

“How did you get that scar?”

Will looked up from where he had been cleaning the blade of his sword.

Adelyis met his eye. “You do not mind me asking?”

Will smiled and reached up to touch the long thin white scar that ran down the left side of his face, starting parallel to the eye and almost reaching the chin. It was an old scar and disfiguring. Upon first meeting him, her eyes had been constantly drawn to the blemish but now she barely noticed it. Still, Adelyis was curious as to how he had got it. Hunger and fatigue made her bolder than usual.

“No, I don’t mind,” Will replied in a low voice. Next to them, Taz had curled up on the storeroom’s cold flagstone floor and was gently snoring. The watery light filtering in from a tiny window above their heads had dimmed considerably. The day had passed slowly but now night was approaching. They had been trapped in the storeroom since the night before; soon it would be time for them to make their way back to their former hiding place where they had water and food—but they would have to wait here a little longer, until darkness cloaked Serranguard once more. There was a little time to talk.

“I was thirteen, growing up in Brenna. My family lived near the docks, where my father worked. We were a big family and a very loud one,” Will said with a wistful smile, “but we were poor. There were always fights about money and squabbles over food. Two of my sisters died of a fever one winter and one of my brothers drowned in the lake when he was five. I was the oldest and from when I had passed my sixth summer, I was sent to work with my father at the docks. My three surviving younger brothers did the same as soon as they were old enough. I hated working with my father; he was big and mean and I was small for my age. He drank too much and he beat us—and it was always worse when he’d been drinking. He beat my mother much worse than the rest of us. She always fought back and it made him nastier. There were many times I thought he’d kill her. When I was little, I stuck my fingers in my ears to block out her screams but then one day, during my thirteenth summer, I challenged him while he was punching her. He grabbed a carving knife and went for me with it . . . and that,” Will stroked his scar absently, “is how I got this.”

“What happened after that?” Adelyis gasped.

“He threw me out, said I could come back home when I learned some respect.” Will’s gaze hardened. “But I knew I’d never go back. I was bleeding badly and in shock—I collapsed on the street in front of a group of soldiers who were on their way to their barracks outside Brenna. They took me with them and looked after me until I healed. I stayed on as a stable-hand for a while. Later, they trained me and I joined Serranguard’s Army. So there you have it,” Will turned his face and looked at Adelyis in the gathering darkness. He could see her fine features creased in consternation. “Sorry, you asked a simple question and I’ve told you my life story.”

“What an awful childhood,” Adelyis murmured.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Will replied, “Brenna’s a rough town and a lot of people fared worse than me.”

There was no reply Adelyis could make to that.

We come from different worlds,” Will was smiling again; he studied Adelyis’s face as he spoke. “I’m rough and unlearned. I can read and write only because my friend, Jennadil, a wizard who once lived at Serranguard, gave me lessons, but I do so like a child. You’ve spent your life immersed in your studies amongst civilised people.”

He accented the word ‘civilised’ in a way that made Adelyis stiffen.

“Do you dislike the Ennadil?” Her voice had an accusing edge to it.

“Not particularly,” Will held her gaze, “I have no reason to dislike your people—however most of the Ennadil I’ve met have been a bit haughty.”

Will laughed and held up his hand as if to fend off the icy glare Adelyis was now giving him.

“Present company excluded of course,” he finished with a grin, but when he saw Adelyis was still glaring at him, his grin faded. “Come now, Adelyis, you know the ways of our peoples are very different. The Ennadil never bother to hide their disdain for us. You think Orinians crude and uncultured but, in truth, Orinians have always envied the Ennadil their serenity and wisdom. We feel like unruly children around you.”

The ice in Adelyis’s eyes melted slightly at this and her mouth relaxed. “I never had much interaction with Orinians before now,” she explained, “and I must admit I was prejudiced. My people are more subtle than yours; we keep our emotions well hidden under layers of etiquette and we pour our passion into our art, literature, poetry and architecture. All these things are windows into our inner world. You are so different. Orinians have their culture but only a few among you have access to it; and your lack of self-restraint makes the Ennadil uncomfortable. For us it is dangerous.”

“And do you dislike us?” Will turned Adelyis’s earlier question back on her.

Adelyis smiled and shook her head. “Your ways are odd but not as unpleasant as I had imagined.”

“What exactly about me do you find odd?” Will raised an eyebrow.

Adelyis’s smile widened. “Oh . . . many things, your sense of humour most of all. You make jokes about everything, even bad things—we Ennadil take life much more seriously. Sometimes when you say things you confuse me, for if I were to take you literally, as I would an Ennadil, I would be constantly offended by you.”

Will looked down at the sword he had been cleaning, his face serious, before he replied.

“I’ve never meant to offend you Adelyis,” he looked up and Adelyis was surprised to see softness in his eyes, “but if I have I apologise for it. To me, you are a beautiful, other-worldly creature; you belong in a palace, a worshipped queen who rules over vast lands with many who seek your counsel—not trapped in an occupied fortress with the likes of Taz and me.”

“Speak for yourself!” Taz grumbled, coming awake at the sound of his name. “What with the two of you blathering on like fools, I am surprised we don’t have the entire Morg army beating down this door!”

Will and Adelyis abruptly broke off their conversation. It was almost dark inside the storeroom; the three of them could barely make out each other’s faces. It was time to move on.

“We are going to need a plan,” Adelyis spoke, tucking the two spell books back into her cloak. “Once we get back to our hiding place we will have little time left. They will eventually find us.”

“I don’t know how we can make use of the information you’ve discovered about the Morg’s weakness to cold,” Taz replied. “Perhaps you can cast a weather spell yourself, bring freezing weather upon us and kill the vermin in their beds!”

Taz spoke with such zeal that Will was glad, once again, that they were on the same side and not opposing ones.

“I need a different spell book,” Adelyis replied. “Neither of these have the spell I need.”

“Well then, we’re finished.” Taz replied bluntly.

“Taz has a point,” Will spoke up. “We stayed with you to help you get your staff back and discover what the Morg were searching for. Now we’ve done both and we’ve discovered that even knowing their weakness we still cannot stop them. I say we make haste for Falcon’s Mount this eve. The library at Falcon’s Mount is the largest in the City States of Orin; there you’ll find your spell.”

“A good plan!” Taz nodded. His yellow eyes fixed, unblinking, on Adelyis.

Adelyis sighed, knowing she was beaten. “Very well—but we will not travel far on empty stomachs and without water. We must stop at our hiding place first.”

“It is too risky,” Taz growled, “from here we can travel directly down into the dungeons. We will have to make a long detour if we go back to the secret chamber. I say we wait until we reach Delm Forest before we eat and drink.”

Adelyis and Taz looked at Will, waiting for him to make his vote. His stomach ached with hunger and his mouth was dry from thirst but he knew he could go on a bit longer without eating or drinking. It was Adelyis who concerned him. She had an iron will but she was physically much more fragile than either he or Taz.

“I say we make a stop at the secret chamber first,” he said finally. “The tunnel under Serranguard is long and we will have to travel fast. It will be a long while before we will have the possibility to eat and drink again.”

“It is too dangerous!” Taz insisted, his eyes narrowing into two yellow slits. “Our luck has worn thin, and if we push it much further the Morg will find us!”

“Maybe it has,” Will said tiredly, “but you’re outvoted Gremul. Let us move on now.”

Without a further word, the three of them got stiffly to their feet and wrapped themselves in their cloaks. Taz gingerly lifted the bolts free, trying to make as little noise as possible, although Adelyis could hear him hissing his displeasure under his breath.

One by one, they filed out into the silent corridor. Darkness surrounded them and no torches lit this narrow conduit. Adelyis took hold of the edge of Will’s cloak and Taz did the same with hers; they would lose each other otherwise. Will took a moment to orient himself before moving left. His two shadows padded softly after him.

It was not as silent in the Keep as it had been the night before. Patrols were moving through Serranguard; the echoes of their boots and flickering light from their torches lit up corridors at odd intervals, especially where passageways converged. Whenever a patrol got too close, the three companions would crouch together against the wall and try to make themselves one with the shadows until the Morg moved on.

Finally, Will came to a halt and drew back so that he could whisper to the others.

“We are almost there. At the end of this corridor, we will turn left and then right. Directly after, there is the secret door.”

Adelyis let out the breath she had been holding. Her stomach burned with hunger. The thought of the dried meat and apples that awaited her made her mouth water.

They were half way up the corridor when their luck ran out.

Not all the Morg patrols had been as noisy as those they had passed earlier; one moved stealthily through this corner of Serranguard. They crept barefoot and without torches, listening intently for any sign of the escaped prisoners. They tracked the three shadows for a while before attacking, and listened to their whispers without understanding their words. Closer and closer they crept, eight cloaked shapes in the darkness, until they were within striking distance.

They attacked from behind, and it was only Taz’s sharp hearing that prevented him and Adelyis from being skewered on the Morg’s swords. The Gremul shouted a warning and launched himself forward, smashing Adelyis against the wall, just as a sword blade whizzed past their heads.

The struggle that ensued moved with violent swiftness. Taz disarmed a Morg and swung his opponent’s sword upwards, just in time to fend off the next Morg that came at him through the darkness. A blue tongue of flame shot out from the top of Adelyis staff and lit up the corridor for a moment. The witch-fire hit a Morg, who fell clutching his chest and screaming. Will dived in-between Adelyis and Taz, sword raised. They were now too close for Adelyis to channel magic through her staff; she risked harming Taz and Will. Instead, she used her staff as a different kind of weapon on the next Morg who attacked her. She swung it hard downwards, and the staff hit the Morg’s shins with a dull crack. He hissed and stumbled forward, only to receive another blow to the head that sent him sprawling.

Will fought mechanically, with two swords now, hacking and slicing at any Morg who came within reach. Behind the Morg, however, he saw a glow of light coming from the far end of the corridor—torches. Soon the corridor would be flooded with Morg and they would be trapped.

“More are coming!” he shouted at Taz and Adelyis through the fray. “We can’t stand and fight like this, there are too many. You need to get to the secret chamber now!”

“Not without you!” Adelyis panted. “If we go, we go together. If you stay, we stay!” She thrust the end of her staff into the stomach of a Morg and Taz finished him off with a sword blade through the throat.

“Hide in the chamber until things die down here and then make for Falcon’s Mount,” Will gritted his teeth with effort as he swung his two blades at the next Morg who came at him. His wound was hurting him and he was tiring fast. “Taz, take her, you haven’t got much longer!”

The Gremul did not reply. Instead, he leaped in front of Adelyis and blocked a blow with this sword that would have cleaved her head in two.

“Taz!” Will roared. Desperation and pain made him savage. He could see the Morg reinforcements bearing down on them now, their eyes glowing like hot coals in the darkness, “take her…now!”

Adelyis screamed as a sinewy arm fastened around her waist and pulled her off her feet. She kicked, wriggled and scratched but the Gremul was far stronger than her, far stronger physically than any Ennadil or Orinian. He carried her away, her arms pinned to her sides.

The last thing Adelyis saw before they rounded the corner was Will Stellan, his face was wet with sweat, facing the Morg alone. The two swords he wielded flashed in the torchlight and his cloak swung around him as he moved. A mass of writhing black-cloaked figures descended upon him.

Chapter Twenty

The Bait

 

 

The tall, cloaked figure strode through Serranguard with an entourage of Morg shamans trailing in his wake. Morgarth Evictar, despite his towering, skeletal frame and arrogant stride, moved quietly. The shuffle of Morg boots behind him echoed along the dimly lit corridor.

The shamans kept a respectful distance from Evictar—their master had been irascible of late. Just yesterday, he had lost his temper with one of the shamans who had complained, a little too loudly and long, of the impossibility of finding the permanent weather spell. He had made the fatal error of whining that his master had promised he would look after the Morg if they took Isador for him, and that although he would continue to serve his master willingly, Evictar was not holding to his promise. Morgarth Evictar had not let the shaman finish his sentence before he had lifted his hand and sent forth a whip of flame that set the shaman on fire. The Morg had staggered, screaming, across the chamber and thrown himself to his death from the window of the Lord’s Tower.

Since then, the other shamans had been fawning and apologetic for their comrade’s behaviour. Their Master however, remained coldly impassive. His displeasure pained them even more than his punishment.

Fortunately for the shamans, Morgarth Evictar’s attention was no longer focused on them—more serious matters had distracted him. He glided down the last set of steps and entered a cavernous hall. This had once been the servants’ dining chamber but since the Morg’s occupation, it had been transformed into sleeping quarters. The Morg preferred to sleep communally on the floor, packed in close to each other, for this generated more warmth between them and the cold stone. The hall was well lit. Torches flickered along the walls, illuminating the Morg’s keen eyes and the face of their prisoner.

The Morg collectively bowed to the ground upon their Master’s entrance. However, the man they had captured remained standing. Morgarth Evictar pushed back his hood and heard the prisoner’s sharply indrawn breath. He saw the terror flare briefly in his eyes. Evictar bared his teeth and had the pleasure of seeing the man tremble slightly.

“Captain Will Stellan,” the sibilant whisper was more menacing for its quietness, “I was planning on us having a long chat before you and your friends managed to escape.”

The man before him appeared vacant and unfocused, seemingly frozen in fear.

Evictar sighed, “I do hope you are not going to disappoint me Captain Stellan; not a battle-hardened warrior like yourself. There is so much for us to talk about. So much you are going to tell me.”

He saw the prisoner’s face unfreeze and something primal move in the depth of Will Stellan’s brown eyes. A sheen of sweat covered the man’s face, highlighting the scar that ran down his left cheek, but suddenly he was no longer paralysed. Morgarth Evictar could sense the anger rising up from the man before him; he could feel it reach out and touch him. Will Stellan was neither a tall man, nor heavy set but his body was muscular and his physical presence was startling. He was a leader of men; the first Evictar had met in over two thousand years since his exile.

Morgarth Evictar watched the Captain of Serranguard’s army with something akin to hunger. Being half Orinian he was fascinated by his mother’s kind. They were so much more vulnerable than the Tarzark and yet capable of a far more complex range of emotions. He had grown up amongst men and had been spurned by them. Even two millennia on, the pain of that rejection still burned deep within the Warlock. They thought, because he was half Tarzark, that he was inferior to them and when he had got too powerful they had turned against him; shunning him. The desire for revenge had sent him to the Tarzark and there he had found those who would worship him and kill for him. However, despite having the Tarzark at his side, the Orinians had still beaten him. The thought of revenge was all that had sustained Evictar in the long centuries since, festering and growing until it consumed him.

A strange emotion preyed upon Morgarth Evictar as he continued to gaze upon Will Stellan. He felt a deep, lingering sadness for he knew the Orinians would never submit to him willingly. He had beaten the Ennadil into submission but he cared nothing for them. He only felt a mild disdain for their pretentious ways and intellectual superiority. What he really desired was for the City-Lords of Serranguard, Falcon’s Mount and Mirren to come to him and pledge their allegiance. He not only wanted the people of these lands to worship him as their Lord, like the Tarzark had, but he wanted them as his allies. He could make them do it but it pained him to think it would not be by their own will, but his.

“So Captain Stellan,” Morgarth Evictar murmured after he had finished his study, “you did not flee Serranguard after all. You escaped four days ago, and you could have reached Falcon’s Mount by now; and yet you are still here. Why is that?”

“Serranguard is my home,” Will’s voice was hard and flat, “and I will not leave it.”

“Very noble words Captain,” Evictar mused, “but all lies. My Morg saw you with the Ennadil witch and that vile Gremul. What company you keep Captain? Unfortunately, they escaped but I have a feeling they will not flee Serranguard while you are kept captive here.”

“You are wrong,” Will replied between gritted teeth, “they will not return.”

“Lies again,” Evictar shook his head in mock chastisement, “you are such a terrible liar Captain. The Ennadil witch is very beautiful—I saw her myself. As for the Gremul, I have no idea why you would befriend such a creature.”

Morgarth Evictar gazed upon Will Stellan’s face once more and despite his stony expression, saw a nerve flicker under his left eye. “I think they will come looking for you Captain.” He smiled, revealing a double row of sharp teeth. “And we will give them a warm welcome when they do. As for you, I have a lot of questions to which I need answers.”

Evictar turned to the Morg surrounding them. They had been listening without understanding a word. Their master spoke a strange guttural language with the prisoner that was unpleasant to their ears.

“Bring him to my tower,” he commanded.

The Warlock whirled around, his heavy robes billowing about him. He strode towards the door but paused a moment in the threshold and looked back over his shoulder at Captain Stellan before leaving. The man’s face was bloodless; his expression was pained but his eyes burned. Morgarth Evictar snarled. This man would never aid him willingly—he would have to break him. Evictar pulled his cowl back over his face and left the hall.

 

***

 

Night was falling on the second day after they had left Falcon’s Mount when Lassendil, Gywna and the two wizards arrived at the mouth of the tunnel. They barely noticed day slipping into night, for the sickly cloud that covered this part of the world had thickened overhead. The air was rank and humid and they all were sweating heavily under their heavy wool cloaks. Even this far out of Serranguard itself, the Morg had positioned sentries. They had spotted two but had slipped easily past them, camouflaged by the dark cloaks they wore and aided by the murky light.

The entrance to the tunnel was well hidden; covered by thickly growing ferns. Without Jennadil’s help they would never have found it—and as it was, Jennadil had wandered around looking confused for over an hour before he finally located the entrance.

“It has been over a year since I was last here,” he defended himself when Gywna threw a disdainful look in his direction, “and we arrived from a completely different direction than the one I took after I left the tunnel.”

“You did well to find it,” Lassendil replied, “and that is good for it means the Morg are unlikely to for a while.”

They pushed past the ferns and climbed into the cool dark tunnel beyond. The air smelt of mildew and it was silent except for the faint dripping of water. Jennadil tapped his staff on the ground and the interior of the tunnel was lit by a soft green glow from the top of his staff. The ceiling was low—just clearing their heads. The glow from the staff revealed the tunnel running straight ahead of them, until the darkness swallowed it. Gywna shivered; she found this place was oppressive and tomblike. Jennadil saw her reaction and raised an eyebrow.

“Believe me Gywna, this tunnel is pleasant compared to what awaits us. Are you sure you still want to come? There is time for you to turn back if you wish.” He spoke lightly to disguise his own fear that crept up his throat like icy fingers.

Gywna looked back at Jennadil and set her jaw stubbornly. “I am not going back,” she replied coolly, “shall we move on?”

Jennadil led the way, followed by Gywna and then Arridel while Lassendil took rear guard. They all wore soft-soled boots so their passage through the tunnel was silent. After two hours of steady walking, Jennadil still did not lessen his pace.

“How much farther is it?” Gywna replied. The darkness and eerie silence in the tunnel, as well as the knowledge that a mountain’s weight of stone sat above them was making her feel hemmed in and panicky. She was perspiring heavily and her breath was coming in short gasps.

“Still another hour I should think,” Jennadil replied. He continued a few paces on, but came to an abrupt halt at the sound of a loud thud behind him.

Jennadil turned to see Gywna slumped on the floor of the tunnel.

“Gywna?” he crouched down next to the unconscious girl. “What’s the matter?”

Lassendil pushed past Arridel and hunkered down next to Gywna’s prostrate form. He placed a hand on her forehead and murmured something in Ennadil. Gywna groaned and her eyelids flickered.

“Are you unwell?” Lassendil asked.

“No,” Gywna took hold of the hand Lassendil offered and let him pull her to her feet. She braced herself against him for a moment to gain her balance, “I just felt as if the walls were closing in around me. I couldn’t breathe and then I blacked out.”

“It is only your mind playing tricks,” Lassendil replied. “Let me help you.”

Without waiting for her reply, he reached out and placed his fingertips on Gywna’s temples. He then closed his eyes and spoke low, soothing words in his tongue. Jennadil and Arridel looked on in silence, watching as Gywna’s eyes closed and the tension went out of her body. Lassendil removed his hands and looked down at Gywna. She opened her eyes and smiled up at him.

“Do you feel better?” Lassendil asked.

“Much,” Gywna replied, her cheeks colouring, “thank you.”

“What did you do to her?” Jennadil asked, curiosity getting the better of him.

“Just an ancient Ennadil healing rite,” Lassendil replied with a smile.

“It looked a bit more than that.”

“I think it is time we moved on,” Arridel interrupted from the shadows, his voice tinged with impatience, “every moment we waste here could risk us arriving too late.”

 

***

 

Adelyis chewed hungrily on a piece of dried meat and glanced over at where Taz was gulping down a tankard of cider. “We must go back for him,” she said finally. “We cannot leave Will.”

Taz lowered his tankard and fixed Adelyis with his glowing yellow eyes. “He sacrificed himself to save us. If we give ourselves up as well, he won’t be thankful. We must escape Serranguard as he wished and go directly to Falcon’s Mount.”

“Foolish man,” Adelyis hung her head and blinked away stinging tears. “Why did he do it?”

“To give you a chance,” Taz replied before giving a loud belch. “He wouldn’t appreciate you trying to save him, believe me.”

Adelyis noted the grudging note of respect in the Gremul’s voice. “I should have been able to use magic against them.” She looked down at the half-eaten piece of dried meat she held. “I tried but there were too many and they were too close to give me time for the cloaking spell.”

“Magic is no substitute for a sharp blade and quick reflexes,” Taz replied, stuffing a piece of dried meat into his mouth and chewing vigorously. “I think you rely too heavily on that staff of yours. We risked our lives to get it back for you and yet the spell you used to free us from the dungeons was far more effective than anything you’ve done since using that thing.” Taz cast a baleful glance at the staff that lay at Adelyis’s feet.

Adelyis felt her anger rise. At times, the Gremul was far too free with his opinions. “If you did not wish to aid me in recovering my staff you should have said,” she replied coldly.

Taz shrugged, her wintry anger was lost on him. “No one tells a Gremul what to do,” he reminded her, “but relying on anything, or anyone, is risky.”

Adelyis glared at him; her temper boiling. Yet, for the first time in ages she did not defensively jump in to negate the words of someone who had so openly criticised her. Instead, she took a few deep breaths and let his remarks hang in the air between them.

Maybe there was something in what he said. If nothing else, recent events had taught her how unprepared she had been for the situations she had been thrust into. Will and Taz had reacted admirably well, but they were used to violence and coming face to face with their own mortality. Without their help she would have perished days ago—she knew that. Her powers were untested and her belief in herself was shaky. She had put up a front before Will and Taz, playing the role of the Ennadil sorceress, but the Gremul had seen past the façade. He was not fooled; and neither was that sorcerer she had encountered on the top of the Lord’s Tower.

“Come,” Taz got to his feet and pulled on his cape. “We must leave at once.”

“But how will we find the trap door without Will’s help?” Adelyis watched Taz ready himself to leave, and felt the fear she had been keeping at bay till now resurface.

“Lucky for you that Gremul have a highly developed sense of direction,” Taz replied. “Finding the trap door is the least of our worries. Reaching it alive is.”

Adelyis got to her feet and looked on while Taz pushed against a column that jutted from the secret chamber’s left wall. With a slow grating sound of stone scraping against stone, the wall drew back, revealing the dimly lit corridor behind. After Will had taken on the Morg they had made it inside just in time. Seconds after Taz and Adelyis had pushed the heavy door shut, a company of Morg had thundered past. The two of them had stood, frozen, until the sounds of the pursuers faded.

Two cloaked figures, one tall and slender, the other short and bulky, stepped out into the empty corridor. Adelyis and Taz glanced quickly around them; relieved to see the Morg were searching for them elsewhere for the moment. Then, tarrying no longer, they pulled up their hoods and disappeared into the shadows.

 

***

 

Myra Brin took a customary deep breath and pushed open the door to Lord Brin’s chamber. Inside, the City-Lord sat on a chaise longue near the window. He had not yet pulled the drapes, and Myra could see it was an overcast night out.

“My Lord?” She curtsied before her husband. “You called for me?”

“I did wife, I did,” Theo slurred.

Myra noted that he was horribly drunk. She waited there, patiently, before her husband and dreaded his next words. When Theo Brin did speak, his voice was deceptively cordial, belying his accusatory words.

“Hugo informs me that it was the bounty hunter, Dael, who brought you to your chamber this afternoon. Hugo saw the two of you together, alone, in your chamber.”

“I was unconscious My Lord,” Myra’s voice was barely above a whisper. “I remember nothing.”

“And how did you come to be unconscious?”

Myra hesitated. She could not tell him that she had tried to take her own life.

“It is as I thought,” Theo hissed, taking her silence as an admission of guilt. Myra watched him curl in on himself with rage, and her heart started to race uncontrollably.

“You have been playing the whore again, haven’t you?”

“No my Lord,” Myra protested feebly, tears welling. “I have not! I was taking a walk in one of the palace’s gardens and I fainted. The Bounty Hunter must have found me and carried me back to my chamber. That is all.”

“You lie!”

“No my Lord, I tell the truth!”

“Deceitful slut!” Theo Brin sprang from the chaise longue and pinned Myra against the wall, his fingers grasping around her throat. “I ought to throttle you right now!”

Theo squeezed harder and Myra felt her eyes bulge and her breath choke off. Terror filled her and she struggled against his grip. Finally, he flung her aside; his face contorted in disgust. Myra hit the adjacent wall and crumpled to the ground. There, she lay panting and choking, waiting for the next blow to come. Myra tensed as Theo’s shadow fell over her. Then, she saw him draw back his leg to kick her.

Myra brought up her knee just in time. The City-Lord’s boot glanced off her kneecap and pain shot down her leg.

“Whore!” Theo bellowed before moving to kick her again, this time with all his force.

Whether it was instinct or courage Myra would never know, but she dived forward, just as his foot swung towards her. Instead of connecting with her ribs, Theo’s foot hit the wall.

Myra heard the crunch of his toes breaking as she scrambled forward. Behind her, Theo wailed and crumpled to the ground, clutching his foot. Myra untangled herself from her skirts and crouched against the wall. She watched him like a cornered animal. “Bitch!” Theo screamed. “I’ll kill you for that!”

A strange sensation stole over Myra then. As she watched her husband hunch over his foot, fear was replaced by a feeling quite unlike any she had experienced before—an intoxicating surge of defiance and self-possession.

Myra scanned the chamber for a means of escape. A collection of decorative swords hung on the wall, on the otherside of the room. It would only take a few strides to cross the chamber and retrieve one of them.

Time slowed down and Myra could feel her pulse beating through her body. She knew with chilling surety that her husband meant to kill her. A year of mental cruelty, barbed comments and locked doors had finally culminated in one killing rage.

Paradoxically, his violence had finally freed her.

“One day my Lord, I will die,” Myra spoke slowly, measuring each word, “but I promise you, it will not be by your hand.”

Theo looked up from nursing his broken toes; understanding her intention a split second before she acted. His injury forgotten, Theo lunged towards her.

Myra ducked out of the way and Theo slammed into the wall. She reached the far end of the chamber in three strides and pulled one of his smaller ceremonial swords off the wall. It was still in its scabbard. She clumsily pulled the blade free and backed towards the door. The sword was heavy and unwieldy in her hands.

Theo pulled himself up off the floor. His face drawn in pain and his jowls quivered like the wattles of an outraged turkey. He did not curse her this time, but watched her under heavy lids. Even in pain, he was coiled, ready to pounce—and only the sword she held kept him in check.

Sensing the door at her back, Myra let go of the hilt with one hand, reached out and released the door latch. As she did so, Myra wondered how she was going to open the door without lowering her guard. If she took her eyes off Theo even for a second he would be on her.

At that moment, the door flew open and crashed back against the chamber wall.

Hugo the Chamberlain fell inside, hitting the marble floor with a thud. He had been eavesdropping, yet again. Hugo fell onto his hands and knees, and when he saw his Lady standing above him wielding a sword, he squealed and scuttled forward.

Myra considered stabbing Hugo with her sword. This oily little man had caused her much suffering over the past year, and she knew that Hugo had told Theo about Jennadil. Ever since then he had not missed the chance to toady up to his Lord for approval or spy on Myra. The urge to terrorise him was strong but fleeting. She was not skilled with a blade and, while she was distracted, Theo would have time to retrieve another sword from the wall and pounce on her. She would not allow herself to be trapped again.

Myra slipped from the chamber through the open door and ran. She was halfway down the corridor when she heard a shrill scream echo from Lord Brin’s chamber. She considered leaving the sword behind as it slowed her down but she could not lay aside the only weapon she possessed.

Clutching the sword, Myra ran like a hunted rabbit through the palace’s deserted corridors—thankful that the soft slippers she wore made no noise. She made for the palace’s kitchens and laundry. Inside the large palace kitchen, the cook was slumped asleep over the great oak table in the centre of the room, snoring gently; the dirty pots, pans and dishes from that evening’s dinner, were still piled up on the benches surrounding him.

Myra tip-toed past the sleeping cook and into the laundry where she sorted through some clean washing, finally choosing a pair of leggings, long linen shirt and leather jerkin. She shed her long, silk gown, and it pooled on the ground like quicksilver. She stepped out of it before pulling on her new clothes. They fitted well, and she was so thin these days she would easily be taken for a boy. She buckled Theo’s sword around her narrow waist—it felt cumbersome and strange to be carrying a weapon.

Next, Myra plaited her hair, coiled it on the top of her head and pulled down a woolen hat over it. Before leaving the laundry, she stuffed her gown behind some barrels. She slipped out of the laundry and stole some bread, cheese, meat and apples, as well as a flask of ale, which she wrapped in a tablecloth she found hanging above the ovens.

Now she had to find suitable footwear; her slippers were impractical and silly with her new attire. Myra moved quietly through to the servants’ quarters and was thankful to find them empty. She searched frantically for shoes and was on the verge of abandoning her hunt and going barefoot when she found a battered pair of boots under one of the beds. She sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on the boots. They were slightly too big and had cracked soles, but they were much more practical than slippers.

Myra knew the palace’s main gates would be guarded so she made her way to the back of the complex. She knotted the tablecloth containing her provisions and slung in over her shoulder. Suddenly, for the first time in a year, she was hungry again. She looked up at the high wall that encircled the palace’s lowest level and felt her heart sink. It would be nearly impossible, trying to scale the wall with her bundle of food – but she did not intend to leave it behind.

Myra slipped out into the shadowed courtyard and maneuvered her way around a stack of barrels towards the rear gate. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw the portcullis was down and an iron gate blocked her escape. However, her luck was holding this eve for the area was deserted—the guards must have been changing shifts.

On approaching, Myra noticed a cleft in the wall next to the rear gate. It was a narrow door secured by an iron bar, presumably only used in emergencies if the portcullis jammed. Myra put down her bundle of food and managed to lift the rusty bar out of its cradle. Then, she pushed against the heavy door.

It opened with an unnerving screech. Myra froze and looked over her shoulder, but no one seemed to have heard. There was just enough space for her to slip through. She picked up her bundle and slipped out into the empty road beyond.

Outside, the darkness was all-consuming. Myra realised her carelessness at not bringing a lantern with her; she did not know the streets of Falcon’s Mount. She had lived for so long in great castles and palaces that she felt vulnerable in such an open space. The only thing she knew of the streets of Falcon’s Mount was that they were famous for their labyrinthine layout.

Theo would already be searching for her; she had to get as far away as possible from the palace. She would not feel safe until she had lost herself deep in the city.

Myra crossed the road and took a side street that sloped downwards. She reached a set of stairs and nearly fell headlong, grabbing hold of the corner of a building to steady herself just in time. Shaking with relief and chiding herself for her clumsiness, Myra made her way slowly, step by step down the stairs, feeling her way along the wall as she did so. The worn stone steps curled down from the city’s highest tier where the richest families resided, down to the second level.

Reaching the wall at the bottom of the hill, Myra found set of narrow steps. She climbed up onto the high wall that ringed the conical-shaped citadel and sat on the edge, gazing down at the city beneath her. The upper level of Falcon’s Mount had seemed largely deserted. It was eerily silent and dark; none of the windows had shown any light from within. However, from her vantage point on the wall, Myra could see the flickering gold of torches below. There was some noise and activity in the lower levels. Dogs barked and the mournful strain of an Orinian pipe floated through the evening’s stillness from one of the city’s many taverns. Now and then, she caught the sound of voices but there was no laughter on this eve; not with war almost upon them.

Darkness shrouded the land around Falcon’s Mount. It was not a cold night but Myra shivered at the thought of the army of Tarzark, marching this very moment from Hammer Pass. Word had reached Falcon’s Mount late that afternoon. It was not the Morg but their old foe, the Tarzark, who would bring doom upon them.

Myra knew that there was no way out of this city—escaping her husband had only prolonged her life for a short while. Despite this, Myra had never felt so alive or so comfortable in her own skin. She had displayed a courage she never thought she possessed. She had freed herself of her prison.

Myra suddenly felt ravenous. She opened her bundle of food and ate some of her bread, meat, cheese and apples. She chewed slowly and washed the simple meal down with ale. Then, she sat on the edge of the wall, kicking her heels like a young girl, and marvelling at what it felt like to be free.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One

It Begins

 

 

 

The guttering torchlight illuminated the first moss-covered steps leading down into the rock below Serranguard—to the trap door and freedom.

“I can’t believe you found it!” Adelyis ducked her head and followed Taz down the steps. It had taken them a few hours but they had finally reached Serranguard’s dungeons undetected. The Morg, it seemed, were hunting for them elsewhere.

“Didn’t you believe me?” Taz grumbled.

They descended slowly down the steps and there at the bottom, unlocked as Will Stellan had left it, was the trap door. Looking upon it, Adelyis was reminded of the last time she had stood here. She then looked at the staff she gripped in her left hand. Taz had spoken the truth; she had risked all of their lives to retrieve it.

“Taz, forgive me,” Adelyis whispered, “but I cannot leave.”

The Gremul let out a long hissing breath and turned to her. His eyes glowed like a cat’s in the torchlight.

“I am sorry.” Adelyis took a deep, steadying breath. “But I can’t leave Will behind.”

“Fool, woman!” Taz growled. “Is there no end to your childishness?”

Taz’s words stung but Adelyis pressed on. “I cannot leave him here to die!”

“He is probably dead already,” Taz replied bluntly, “and you will be too if you stay.”

“My life isn’t important,” Adelyis replied stiffly. “One person alone cannot save Isador.”

“You are the last of your kind,” Taz snarled. “You are our only hope!”

Adelyis was about to respond when a gently creaking sound reached her. She and Taz turned their attention to the trap door at their feet—and watched as it slowly inched open.

Adelyis and Taz watched transfixed for a moment before they suddenly came to life. They leaped back, weapons drawn.

“Wait!” a voice echoed from below. “I heard something. There’s someone up there!”

“Who goes there?” Adelyis called out, her voice tremulous.

There was a moment’s silence before a man’s voice replied.

“Adelyis, is that you?”

That voice—the timbre and lilt she knew so well. She had never thought to hear it again. “Lassendil!”

A scuffling sound could be heard from below before a man burst through the trap door. He scooped Adelyis up in his arms, and Taz needed no introduction to see this man was Adelyis’s brother. He had the same silky black hair that fell straight and long down his back, and the same lithe grace and delicate features. Dressed in hunting garb and wearing a travel stained cloak around his shoulders, he carried a sword at his side and a longbow and quiver strapped to his back.

Adelyis started to cry, and her brother seemed at a loss for words.

“Let us through—I cannot stay in this tunnel a moment longer.”

Taz watched as a tousled auburn head emerged and a tall, athletic man with a short ginger beard, wearing a green cape and carrying a staff, climbed through the open trap door. A young woman with curly brown hair, who carried a jewelled sword at her side, followed him. Lastly, a tall, angular man of indeterminate age, wearing a long grey cloak and carrying a staff, emerged into the small space above the trap door. It was at that point, when Taz had observed each of the newcomers with interest, that he realised they were all staring at him.

“What’s the matter? Never seen a Gremul before?” he grumbled.

“Well no actually,” the girl replied. She was staring at him with unabashed curiosity. “I didn’t realise Gremul were quite so hairy.”

“It is a pelt, not hair,” the Gremul in question growled. “My name’s Taz, and yours girl?”

The girl raised her chin haughtily. “Gywna Brin.”

“And I am Jennadil Silverstern.” The man in the green cape bowed with a smile. “I was once wizard here at Serranguard.”

“And I am Arridel Thorne,” the older man introduced himself with a terse nod. He was a forbidding presence; his face was grim as if it was hewn from stone. “I was wizard here after my predecessor lost his job.”

Jennadil threw Arridel a sour look and Gywna smirked.

Lassendil turned to the others, his arm around his sister’s shoulders.

Arridel Thorne stepped forward and surprised both Adelyis and Lassendil by giving a formal Ennadil bow; leaning forward and clasping his hands behind him.

“I thank the wraiths of my ancestors that we have found you,” he said solemnly. “For I feared we were too late.”

Looking on, Gywna Brin observed Lassendil’s face and saw, for the first time since she had known him, the naked emotion that flickered across his handsome features. His sister was also smiling through her tears. She was tall and elegant like Lassendil and, despite herself, Gywna felt a stab of envy. Brother and sister were so beautiful. This woman, even wearing stained clothes, and with her face dirty, had the kind of grace that not even a lifetime of deportment lessons could give Gywna. She was tempted to hate her for it but smothered the uncharitable thought.

“Time grows short,” Arridel continued. “Adelyis, tell us what you know of the warlock who leads the Morg?”

Adelyis nodded, her smile fading. “I was brought before him a few days ago,” she replied. “He is a terrifying being, at least seven foot tall, with a bloodless face and reptilian features. I can still remember his chilling, pink eyes. We managed to escape from our cell before he had the chance to interrogate me properly. Did Will Stellan’s soldiers reach Serranguard safely to warn you?”

Arridel nodded; his face grave. “The warlock you describe is Morgarth Evictar”

Adelyis’s eyes widened. “It cannot be,” she whispered. “He was slain in battle over two millennia ago.”

“It seems that the Ennadil study history more thoroughly than the Orinians,” Arridel Thorne commented dryly. “Yes, it is true. He did fall at the Battle of Hammer Pass but he did not perish as believed. He survived and somehow managed to leave Isador. Magic prolonged his life for over two thousand years, but he has now returned to the land which spurned him—and he has brought an army with him to do his bidding.”

“The Morg are his slaves,” Adelyis murmured, “just like the Ennadil and Orinians they have captured, they have been forced to his will.” She looked across at the others who, with the exception of Taz, were watching her with bemused expressions. “The Morg are suffering and their master makes no effort to help them. Their bodies cannot cope with the onset of winter and the drop in temperature. They have tried to create weather spells, but these raise the temperature only temporarily. It is for this reason a sulfurous cloud covers the land.”

“But what of the warlock?” Taz asked Arridel,. “Do you have the means to defeat him?”

“Now that we have found Adelyis we may have,” Arridel replied, turning to Jennadil. “Do you have the stone?”

Adelyis looked across at the younger of the two wizards, acknowledging him for the first time. She watched Jennadil dig into the pocket of his cloak and retrieve something. He stretched out his hand towards Adelyis and opened his fingers.

“This is for you,” Jennadil said. “Please put it on.”

Adelyis looked down at the pale, milky stone with an opaque surface. It was attached to a fine chain. “A Mist Stone,” she murmured, reaching out her hand.

“Yes, this is Didliar,” Arridel drew back the collar of his cloak to reveal a flat brown pendant around his neck. “I carry Bruarn, the Earth Stone, and Jennadil carries Arkaheth, the Water Stone.”

Adelyis stared at the wizards, her face frozen with surprise. “You cannot mean to use the Power of Three?”

“Again, I am impressed,” Arridel replied, raising a dark eyebrow. “There are few who know of that spell.” He shot a withering glance in Jennadil’s direction. “I see we are lacking in more than just history lessons.”

Next to him, Jennadil was glowering. Adelyis did not notice his reaction however; her gaze was still riveted on Arridel. “But that spell needs an Ennadil, an Orinian and a Tarzark,” she pointed out.

“It will still work with the three of us,” Arridel insisted. “The most fundamental part of the spell is the stones and reciting the incantation together without error.”

“That spell could kill us,” Adelyis looked down at the stone in her hand. After a few moments, she looked up and gazed upon the two Orinian Wizards with new respect. She lifted up the pendant and fastened it around her neck.

“Excuse me Adelyis.”

Adelyis looked up and met Jennadil Silverstern’s gaze. The wizard’s brow was furrowed in concern.

“Forgive me for asking, for I know we must now concentrate on the task at hand, but I was told the Captain of Serranguard’s Army, Will Stellan, had survived and was with you. Where is he?”

 

***

 

Another day dawned—heavy, cloying and sunless. It was as if the weather itself knew war was approaching Falcon’s Mount.

Myra walked amongst the townsfolk in the lower levels of the city and watched them make the final preparations for war. Every man, woman and child had taken part in the preparations. Myra noted that everyone she passed carried at least three visible weapons—swords, knives, clubs, maces, axes and long bows. She felt ill equipped carrying just Lord Brin’s ceremonial sword. Myra would not last long, fumbling around with a sword she did not know how to use.

Spotting a sword smith’s workshop, Myra joined the queue of townspeople waiting to pick up the last of their weapons.

“You already have a fine sword lad,” the smith squinted up at her as he sharpened a blade.

“It was my father’s, and I am not confident with it. Do you have another, smaller, weapon I could carry?” Myra did her best to roughen and deepen her voice.

“Take this,” the smith passed her a small dagger in a worn leather scabbard. “I use it for peeling fruit but it’s sharp enough. If it is a decent weapon you want, get yourself a long bow. Do you know how to use one?”

Myra nodded. She and her sister had been given numerous archery lessons; it had amused her parents to see her shoot an apple off a barrel during Harvest Fest. “Where can I find one?”

“Down in the Market Square, they should have a few left.”

“Thank you,” Myra strapped the dagger to her right thigh and turned to go.

“Lad.” A large hand, scarred from years of work over a furnace, clamped over her arm. Myra looked back at the smith’s careworn face.

“You will need steel and arrows for the battle ahead but remember the best weapon you have lies here.” The smith tapped his chest, over his heart. “Even the sharpest sword is useless in the hands of he who lacks the courage to use it. ‘Tis not the weapon you hold which matters in the heat of battle but your ability to inflict harm on another; your ability to kill. Many do not have it in them, even when their very life is at stake. They are always the first to fall. Remember that.”

Myra nodded; the implication of his words, true as they were, made her feel queasy. Shaken, Myra left the smith’s and wove her way through the crowds down to the city’s lowest level. There were a number of soldiers about—most wore the blue and black armour of Falcon’s Mount but a few carried Serranguard’s colours. They seemed preoccupied with readying the city for war but Myra was careful to avoid them. Theo would have sent soldiers out to look for her.

The Market Square was filled with people taking last minute archery practice. Myra took a long bow and a quiver full of arrows, mixing with the crowd until she was sure everyone was ignoring her. She tested her long bow before taking a couple of practice shots. She was a little rusty but her aim was good.

Deciding it was time for breakfast, Myra strapped the long bow and quiver to her back and wandered out of the Market Square back towards the wall separating the first and second levels. An elderly woman was handing out fresh bread rolls to hungry townsfolk, and Myra was half way through hers when a deep horn sounded from high up.

The mournful sound reverberated throughout the city. The hair on the back of Myra’s neck prickled. She knew what it signified. Stuffing the last of the bread roll into her mouth, she ran up the narrow steps onto the top of the wall. Soldiers, armoured in leather and steel, stood atop of the battlements. Myra had to move along behind them for quite a distance until she found a gap wide enough for her to see through.

An ocean of bobbing heads and fluttering grey and red capes approached from the east. The sheer size of the Tarzark army made Myra’s breath stop in her throat. She, like the others who looked on, had not believed King Grull capable of amassing such numbers. As the army neared the gates, she could see that it was at least twenty thousand strong. As a child, her nanny had terrified Myra and her sister with stories of these beasts. The Tarzark were terrifying; far taller and more muscular than she had imagined.

It was an army primed for war; and Myra could smell their blood lust and savage desire to lay siege to the city.

One of the soldiers upon the wall slotted an arrow into his long bow, noticing as he did so, that a young man was jostling against him trying to get a view of the army below.

“Get outta here!” he snarled. “You’ll get your chance to see these beasts face-to-face soon enough!”

Myra hurriedly backed off. Further along the wall, a narrow watch-tower jutted out from the main structure. Myra climbed up and found that from here she had a clear view and shot of the Tarzark. She peeked timidly over the edge of the outer wall and saw, standing a few feet before his front line and baiting the soldiers within Falcon’s Mount to take a shot at him, a huge Tarzark who could only be King Grull himself.

As Myra watched, Grull made a hand signal she did not understand and bellowed a challenge. His voice, low and guttural, echoed over the citadel’s walls. Myra did not understand the Tarzark language but Grull’s words needed no translation. The Tarzark gnashed their teeth, clanged their weapons and stomped their huge feet. The sound made the very earth tremble.

Myra’s knees went from under her and she clung to the edge of the wall for support, terrified. The smithy had spoken the truth—what good were weapons when she lacked the courage to fight? Her hands were shaking too badly to be able to handle a long bow.

Myra never saw who fired the first shot. One moment, King Grull was strutting up and down in front of his troops bellowing insults, and the next arrows rained from the sky.

The Tarzark surged forward and broke upon Falcon’s Mount’s outer wall like a great silver wave.

 

***

 

Will Stellan lay on his side upon the flagstone floor high in Serranguard’s Lord’s Tower and watched two ants make their way across his field of vision. His gaze followed the ants as they made their way across the last flagstone and disappeared into a fissure in the wall. He too wished he was small enough to be able to slip away but the chains that bound his wrists and ankles were heavy and bit into his chilled skin. His rib cage hurt from the two wounds he had sustained. He had lost a lot of blood. His body ached, and he felt weak and light-headed from lack of food.

The hem of a black cloak swung into his field of vision.

“Recovered your strength yet Captain Stellan?”

The voice, beguiling and sibilant, made him cringe involuntarily. He felt the chill of the stone wall at his back. He had nowhere to go.

“I must thank you for the information you provided me,” the voice continued, “even if it was not given willingly.”

Will brought his knees up and curled into a fetal position. This creature had employed a form of torture not even the most battle-hardened soldier stood a chance against. He had used dark, cruel magic to force his way inside Will’s mind. He had seen Will’s innermost fears; the part of his mind and soul that no other had access to. He had tortured Will from the inside out and left no exterior wound.

“Do not tell me I have broken you Captain?” the voice mocked him. “I can do a lot more than that.”

Will rolled his head back slightly to look up at his tormentor. The creature’s face was hidden within the recesses of his deep hood. Only his monstrous hands; gnarled, sallow and tipped in black nails, were visible. He slowly paced the wide chamber, back and forth, as if the action helped him think.

“So there is a secret tunnel underneath Serranguard,” the creature mused, “and you told your friends to take it and make haste to Falcon’s Mount to warn them of me. Well let me tell you, if your friends have taken your advice they will soon die for you do not know that at this very moment a massive Tarzark army is attacking the last Orinian bastion.”

Will groaned in distress and twisted against the irons that bound him.

“Yes that is correct. You did not guess the Tarzark would aid me did you? You thought I would send the Morg to Falcon’s Mount.”

The cloaked figure crouched down in front of Will. A cold hand took hold of his chin and forced him to look into the creature’s shadowed face.

“Do you know who I am?”

Will squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head.

“Morgarth Evictar is my name—do you know of me?”

Will shook his head, more violently this time.

Morgarth Evictar sat back on his heels and looked down at the man he had reduced to a trembling wreck through the unique torture method he had spent the last two thousand years perfecting. The man had resisted for a time but Evictar had broken him eventually.

“The vanity of the world of Men; that you would forget one who once nearly brought your civilization to its knees.” There was a touch of injured pride in Evictar’s voice. “So foolish, so short-sighted.”

Morgarth Evictar let go of Will Stellan’s chin and stood up. He walked over to the window and looked down upon the city of black tents that studded the desolation below Serranguard.

“You revealed more to me than you realised Captain. You told them to leave you here but you secretly hope that they will come for you. You are in love with the Ennadil witch, even though you have not admitted it to yourself. You threw your life away to save her.”

Will Stellan remained silent; his eyes squeezed shut as if he was trying to shut his mind to Evictar’s words.

“Men are so fragile,” Evictar continued, his voice softening, as if he was speaking more to himself than to Will, “emotion interferes with your judgment. My mother was one of your race and she had the same weakness. She was an Orinian witch who was captured by the Tarzark for a time. She fell in love with one of her captors. He was a Tarzark sorcerer—my father. Pregnant, she escaped the Tarzark, fearing they would kill her baby once she gave birth. She fled to Falcon’s Mount but there, once I was born, she was shunned for mating with a Tarzark and for giving birth to an abomination. The Freak they called me until I grew tall and strong enough for them to be frightened of me.

When I was ten my mother, an outcast in her own city and love-sick for my father, left me behind and tried to return to the Tarzark Kingdom. That was her last, foolish mistake. She was captured and killed, by my father’s own hand, I heard. He was right to do so. She had lost her honour and shown terrible weakness. The Tarzark do not mate for life, my mother knew this. But she believed my father capable of loving her.”

Evictar broke off and gazed out of the window, his eyes unfocused. He was looking far back into the past, at the events that had shaped his life. No one had ever shown him compassion so he was devoid of any himself. He found emotions such as love, loyalty and friendship incomprehensible.

“It is all for revenge then.” Will’s voice, low with pain, cut through the warlock’s reverie. “You have laid Isador to waste to soothe your injured pride.”

He could feel Evictar’s eyes burning into him from within the recesses of his hood.

“Ignoramus!” Evictar hissed. “I care not for the fate of those who bore me. They are two millennia dead! But Isador is mine and I was born to rule it!” The caped figure whirled towards the man in chains before him. Will closed his eyes, expecting the Warlock to finish him off this time with an energy bolt that would stop his heart. Seconds passed and when nothing happened, Will opened his eyes. Morgarth Evictar stood once more before the window. The only sign of the anger he was struggling to contain could be seen in his clenched hands. They were enormous—the hands of a strangler.

A loud rap at the door interrupted them.

“Elgurik!” Evictar barked. To Will’s ears the word sounded like an insult but since the door to the chamber opened it was obviously not. A bent and withered form swathed in the folds of a voluminous black cape shuffled inside. Several days had passed since Will had last seen the Great Chak of the Nidu clan, but it seemed as if many weeks had passed.

Chak was now but a shriveled husk. When Will had first encountered him in the woodland to the west of the Cradle Mountains he had seemed ancient but in good health. Now he was horribly wizened, his skin was mottled, his nose ran uncontrollably and he hunched inside his heavy robe. Will could see he was trying to hide the shivering that wracked him. Adelyis had been right; the drop in temperature was dangerous for the Morg. Despite the heavy cloud still hanging overhead, the air now had a chill to it. The Morg’s spells could not prevent the onset of Isador’s harsh winter.

Morgarth Evictar was clearly irritated by the interruption but Chak stood his ground. Despite his ill health, he spoke clearly and at length, gesticulating as he spoke. Finally, he fell silent and waited for his master to respond. Will watched them, not understanding what Chak had just said but guessing that the Warlock was not pleased to hear it. When Morgarth Evictar replied it was brief and with a cool tone that brooked no argument. He spoke the Morg’s language with the sibilant ease of a native speaker.

Chak bowed his head and replied to his master, clasping his trembling hands before him as he spoke. Evictar nodded and turned his back on the Morg. The Great Chak shuffled from the chamber, throwing Will a look of smouldering resentment on his way out.

The Warlock stood, unmoving while the door shut and Chak’s footsteps receded down the stairwell. He then turned back to Will and watched him silently for a while.

“You’re wondering about the Morg’s role in this are you not?”

“No,” Will wheezed. His wounds were starting to hurt him badly. Then it occurred to him he was probably still alive because this creature desperately wanted to talk to someone. The warlock obviously felt he had two-thousand years worth of conversation to catch up on, but Will felt like a field mouse caught between the paws of an overfed tomcat.

Evictar ignored his lack of enthusiasm.

“Long ago, as I lay dying in the mud in the middle of Hammer Pass, while the bloodiest battle this land has ever known raged around me, I realised what must be done. I knew that the Tarzark army I had led would not win the battle—not against a united army of Ennadil and Orinians. I was able to muster the last of my power and I released my soul from my body before death took me. I floated above the battle until I could not bear to see any more of it, and I then entered the body of a hawk, that had been nesting in the peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains. I flew south.

On and on I flew until I left the southern coastline of Isador far behind. Over a vast blue ocean I traveled until I spied another land mass on the horizon. I arrived in a land of desert, rock and searing heat inhabited by a proud, warlike race—the Nagarduruk. I entered the body of one of their clan leaders and began to exert my influence over him. A few years later, after a bloody clan war, he was victorious over his people—and I renamed them the Morg. They became my slaves, every one of them.

Finally, I was able to regain my old form and shed the shell of my host. The Morg had no magic before me but I created an order of Shamans and trained them well in dark magic. Eventually they were ready to take to war but I knew the time was not right. I had to wait until the Ennadil and Orinians were truly divided; only then would Isador be ripe for invasion. Therefore, I counseled patience and finally the moment arrived. The Morg had no desire to leave their desert home for Isador—that was all my doing. They live and die for me but now, as you see, the drop in temperature is slowly killing them.”

“You could stop that,” Will replied.

“As powerful as my shamans are, there is a lot of knowledge I have deliberately kept from them.” Evictar crossed to a large cupboard on the far side of the room. He pulled open the door and lazily caressed the spines of a row of leather-bound books on a shelf. “I took these from Serranguard’s library as soon as we arrived. The weather spell dear Chak wants so desperately is here but sadly he will not get it. I have told him no such spell exists but that I am searching for a solution; and he has no choice but to believe me. The Morg have now outlived their usefulness. Once the Tarzark take Falcon’s Mount, I will no longer need them. Two thousand years amongst the Morg is more than long enough.”

Will listened to Morgarth Evictar’s confession and momentarily forgot his own torment. For the first time he thought of the Morg with pity. More than any of them, the Morg had suffered at the warlock’s hand. Now, he too was Morgarth Evictar’s creature; held here as bait so that the warlock could catch a bigger fish.

Seeing he no longer had a captive audience, Evictar closed the cupboard doors and ceased talking. He pulled out a chair and sat across from where Will lay. Will closed his eyes but could still feel the Warlock’s malevolent stare burning into him.

“They will come for you Captain Stellan.” Evictar’s voice slid across the room like oil. “They will come.”

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

Finding Courage

 

 

Lord Aran Fier stood at the window. His gaze was fixed upon the mayhem below. From this window, high up in the palace’s Great Hall, he had an unobstructed view of the city’s lower tiers and of the Tarzark horde swarming around the outer wall. Through the open window, the morning breeze brought with it the screams of the dying, the twang of bowstrings, the metallic stench of blood, and the rank odour of fear.

Aran Fier watched the Tarzark hammer the outer wall and felt as if he had aged a decade since the battle had begun. He was so intent on studying the scene below him that he was not aware of anyone approaching from behind. When Lord Theo Brin stepped up beside him at the window ledge, Lord Fier came out of his reverie.

Fier turned his attention to Serranguard’s City-Lord and was shocked by what he saw. He had not seen Lord Brin in over three days, not since Gywna Brin had run off. It was also rumoured that Lord Brin’s wife had abandoned him. Aran Fier’s wife, Imeldia, had told her husband of the rumour that morning over breakfast—and she had added that Lord Brin’s chamberlain was nowhere to be seen. Only Theo Brin’s loyal counsellor, Vermel Ham, seemed to have stayed at his side.

Dark circles ringed Lord Brin’s deep-set eyes, his slack mouth sagged downwards and his head seemed sunken into his shoulders like an arthritic tortoise. Theo Brin’s appearance was unkempt; his robes were dirty and disheveled. Yet his eyes were still as sharp as ever.

“So it has begun.” Theo Brin mused, looking down at the battle. “It will not be long before they breach the wall and take the city.”

Aran Fier gave Serranguard’s City-Lord a long, measured look. “The Tarzark are finding it more of a challenge than they thought to break through our defenses,” he corrected Theo. “We will hold them back for a while longer.”

“It makes no difference if your men manage to hold them back for another day or more.” Theo’s mouth twisted as he spoke. “The city will soon be knee deep in Orinian blood.”

Aran Fier was by nature a calm and sanguine man not easily moved to anger. However, Theo Brin’s presence here at Falcon’s Mount had grated at him and worn down his patience; it was impossible to like the man. Fier’s blue eyes hardened; he had held himself in check for too long where Serranguard’s City-Lord was concerned. He no longer had any patience with him.

“If I have but a short time left to draw breath, I will not waste it being polite to you,” he ground out finally. “For days now I have been forced to listen while you have spewed your bitterness and scorn.” Lord Fier stepped away from the window. “I go now to join my men in battle. If you have but a shred of honour left you will do the same.”

He turned his back on Theo Brin and walked out of the Great Hall. Mocking laughter followed him but he did not react to it—he had finished with Lord Brin.

 

***

 

Lassendil perched on the bottom step of the stairwell and watched the three wizards. They were deep in discussion beside the trap door. Light from Arridel’s staff cast a pale violet glow, giving their faces an ethereal quality. Jennadil, Arridel and Adelyis bent their heads together as they talked in low voices, oblivious to their other companions.

Lassendil stifled a yawn. He had no idea what time it was, having lost all sense of time since they had entered the tunnel, but he guessed it was the early hours of the morning. They had rested for a while here while the wizards conferred but Lassendil longed to stretch out and sleep properly.

Gywna sat next to Lassendil, huddled in her cloak to keep warm, while Taz leaned against the wall to his left, casually picking at his teeth with the point of his dagger.

“Will you have enough time to memorise the spell?” Lassendil finally asked the wizards.

Arridel’s forbidding face twisted into a scowl. “It would be time better spent if not for the constant interruptions,” he growled.

Not intimidated by the wizard, Lassendil nodded. However, Arridel ignored the Ennadil and turned his attention back to Jennadil and Adelyis.

“How much longer are we to wait here in this festering darkness?” Taz grumbled.

“For a short while longer,” Lassendil replied. He glanced across at Taz and then back at Gywna. He was not worried about the Gremul’s ability to hold his own in the trial ahead; it was Gywna who concerned him. She had hardly spoken a word during the past two hours. Her face was pale and there were dark smudges under her eyes; the fatigue of the journey here was showing.

There had been times when Lassendil had forgotten Gywna’s age. Her self-assurance and willfulness had made her seem older. Now though, wrapped up in her cloak, her eyes unfocused as her thoughts turned inwards, she looked young and vulnerable. Lassendil felt a stab of self-reproach. He should have tied her up and sent her back as soon as she tried to go after them. He was not sure she would be able to withstand the horror that awaited them.

Lassendil decided he could no longer be gentle with her.

“Gywna, Taz, it is time we discussed our role in this.” He spoke in a low voice so as not to distract the wizards. “For although we have given the wizards swords, none of them are trained in combat as we are. Without us they will not be able to get anywhere near the Lord’s Tower.”

Gywna looked up from her thoughts and blinked, attempting to focus on Lassendil as he continued.

“They will not be able to use their magic until they reach Morgarth Evictar. If they are to have any chance, they must face him without any of their power drained. We must be their shield.” Lassendil paused here, letting his words take effect before continuing. “Hundreds of Morg stand between us and the Lord’s Tower, and we must cleave a path through them.”

Taz nodded, his eyes glowing. The Gremul’s horny fingers tightened around the hilt of his sword and he growled low in the back of his throat.

Lassendil turned to Gywna and took her firmly by the shoulders. “Gywna—are you listening?” he stared into her startled hazel eyes. “That sword you carry will not work its magic if you let fear take over.” He tightened his grip on her shoulders and Gywna winced in pain but did not break eye contact with Lassendil. He saw anger spark in her eyes and her mouth compress. He smiled. “That’s my girl. I want you to channel your anger. Push out fear and stay with us, no matter how bad it gets. You must kill, and enjoy seeing your enemy fall, if you wish to survive this.”

Lassendil let go of Gywna’s shoulders but did not look away from her face. He could see her inner struggle and knew he was asking a lot of her. In cold-blood, Lassendil did not enjoy killing. However, in the heat of battle, when blood lust caught him in its grip—he took grim pleasure in dealing out death. Gywna had impulsively run after them, wanting to take part in dangerous games without giving thought to the reality of it. Despite that Gywna was a trained Guardian, she had led a sheltered life—and unlike Lassendil and Taz, she had never seen a Morg. She had no idea how terrifying they were in battle.

On the other side of the cramped space, the three wizards got to their feet.

Adelyis adjusted her robes and buckled the sword Lassendil had given her around her waist. The weapon felt cumbersome but she was happy to have it nonetheless. Since she could not use her staff until they faced Evictar, she had no desire to fight the Morg with her bare hands.

Taz and Jennadil led the way in single file up the narrow stairs. The others followed cautiously, taking care not to slip on the mossy steps, before they emerged into the bowels of Serranguard’s dungeons.

Shadows and silence blanketed them, and only the small, guttering torch held aloft by Taz prevented them from being smothered by it. After a moment’s hesitation, while he got his bearings, Taz took them left down a narrow passageway that led to a wider corridor.

Although they moved as stealthily as possible, it soon became evident there were no Morg lurking in the dungeons. The air down here was too chill and damp for them to bear.

Walking behind Jennadil, Gywna fought against a growing sensation of detachment. Ever since they had entered the tunnel in Delm Forest, her fear had caused her to disconnect from her companions and surorundings; it felt as if all of this was happening to someone else. Deep within, a small voice told her it was merely her mind’s reaction to fear. Her mind was trying to protect her, but she knew this trance-like state was dangerous. If she remained like this she would be skewered on a Morg blade before they got quarter of the way to the Lord’s Tower.

Gywna steadied her breathing and took slow deep breaths; desperate to regain her equilibrium before it came to her turn to lead her companions through the labyrinth of Serranguard’s vast keep.

 

***

 

Chaos reigned. Noise splintered the air and arrows rained from the sky. Stones pelted the lowest level of the city and snaking tongues of smoke from burning oil drifted amongst the ramparts. The dead lay where they had fallen while the living scrambled over them.

Myra crouched in the watchtower, paralysed by terror. Her bow and quiver had slipped from her fingers. She heard the snapping of arrows slamming against the watchtower and whistling overhead, yet she did nothing. She had no thoughts. The yells and screams were terrible on both sides. Myra covered her ears with her hands and scrunched herself up into a ball—and she might have stayed like that for hours if a dying soldier had not staggered into the narrow space and collapsed, convulsing, on top of her.

Blood—there was so much of it—soaked into Myra’s clothes. The soldier’s unseeing eyes rolled up under his lids and she heard the wheeze of his last breath before he died pressed down upon her. Horrified, she struggled to push his body off her, and scrambled away, bile rising in her throat. Panting and shaking, she looked down at her bloodstained clothes. She put her hand to her breast and felt her heart slamming against her ribcage.

She did not want to die.

With trembling hands, Myra slotted an arrow into her longbow and slid along to the edge of the watchtower. She peered around the corner and cringed against the cold stone when her gaze fell upon the mayhem below. The Tarzark roared and gnashed their teeth; oblivious to the arrows raining down on their heads. Some of the arrows found their mark but many only bounced off the Tarzarks’ tough hide. They carried massive crossbows that, although slower, fired arrows twice the size of those used by the Orinians.

Catapaults of rock, brought all the way from Hull Mutt, crashed against the city’s outer wall; tearing out large chunks and knocking Orinian soldiers from the battlements.

The Tarzark warriors were fearsome but the Tarzark Sorcerers were even more terrifying. They stood back from the front line, their red cloaks rippling out behind them as they unleashed bolts of fire from their fingertips. The fire lashed out in giant whips of flame and scored the outer wall. It curled around the soldiers and pulled them off the wall to their deaths.

Although witness to the mayhem, Myra now felt her strength returning and calm settled over her. She edged a little further forward and drew the arrow back until her bowstring was stretched taut. She aimed for the chest of one of the Tarzark who had just brought down an Orinian soldier and was bellowing in victory. She released the arrow and her bow sang. The arrow hit the Tarzark square in the chest. He staggered backwards and was hit again by another arrow from Myra’s bow. She watched him fall, only to be trampled by his comrades. The madness of battle that until now had only surged around her caught alight in her veins.

Myra’s spot against the watchtower gave her a perfect vantage point of the Tarzark front line. Unfortunately, it also gave the enemy a good shot of her. Numerous times, she felt an arrow whiz past her ear or brush against her shoulder—and many times, she ducked just as a volley of arrows hit the watch tower and splintered above her head. Despite the fear that at any moment an arrow would find its mark, she remained where she was and managed to take down a few more Tarzark.

Myra was beginning to run low on arrows when she spied the first Tarzark ladder being raised up against the outer wall. Orinian soldiers rushed to the top of the wall to meet them, unsheathing their swords as they ran.

Myra knew she had to get off the wall immediately. She would not last long up here, wielding a sword she could barely use. She strapped her quiver to her back and scrambled along the inner edge of the wall, picking up another quiver full of arrows as she went. She reached the stairs leading down into the city’s lowest level, just as the first Tarzark clawed his way to the top of the first ladder. Myra narrowly escaped being trampled by Orinian soldiers; she dived around them, tripped and tumbled down the steps.

Myra would have surely broken a bone had a passer-by not cushioned her fall. She barrelled into the man and knocked him to the ground. The fall had winded Myra, and she could hardly breathe.

She rolled off the man, resenting him for impeding her flight, and winced at the scrapes and bruises the tumble had caused her.

The man groaned as he gingerly picked himself up off the ground. “By the Wraiths of our Ancestors you charge like a wild boar!”

Myra recognised his voice. Her body tensed and her breath stopped in her throat when her gaze met his. “You,” she croaked.

Dael stared back at her, his dark eyes widening in surprise. He had not recognised her in boy’s clothing.

Panic shot through her. Theo had sent him—and she would never go back to her husband. Myra scrambled to her feet and took off in the direction of the Market Square. She sprinted away from the bounty hunter, dodging the chaotic mob that seemed to have no direction and had been seized by panic. Dael caught up with her before she had run twenty yards. He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her up short. Myra struggled, kicked and scratched but he held her easily.

Gasping for breath and close to hysterical tears at the thought of being taken back to Theo Brin, Myra looked up at Dael—and saw from the expression on his face that he had read her thoughts.

“Well, well, so you found your courage milady,” he said with a mocking smile. “I am surprised.”

Myra drew herself up to her full height, which unfortunately was still only level with the bounty hunter’s shoulder, and looked up at him, meeting his gaze squarely. He was baiting her, seeing if she would react like the spoilt child he thought she was. The memory of their meeting on the palace roof made her cringe inside. She hated him for making her look pathetic.

“It looks like you too have found your courage,” she snapped. “I thought you would be half way to the Isles of Tarantel by now. Let go of me!”

Myra wrenched free of his grip and stood her ground. To her surprise, he laughed.

“What?” she snapped, “what are you laughing at?”

Dael laughed again, revealing straight white teeth. “And miss out on all this excitement? There’s nothing like a good battle to get your blood going.”

“Or flowing,” Myra shot back. “The Tarzark are on the wall you idiot. We’re all done for!”

Shouts, screams and the clanging of steel echoed down from on top of the wall, momentarily deafening them. More Tarzark had reached the top of the ladder and it would not take them long to bring down the men defending the battlements.

The amusement went from Dael’s face. His gaze followed Myra’s to the wall behind them. Half a dozen Tarzark now battled with the Orinian soldiers, their struggling figures silhouetted against the grey sky.

“To the second level,” Dael shouted, getting the attention of the townsfolk around them, who were refilling their quivers with arrows and loading catapaults. “Fall back to the next level! The Tarzark have scaled the wall!”

The townsfolk picked up what they could and fled. Dael and Myra were carried along by the human tide; through the Market Square they went, up the cobbled road and under the archway into the city’s second level. Behind them the heavy iron doors were pushed ajar, ready to slam shut once the surviving soldiers who could no longer defend the outer wall had fallen back.

 

***

 

King Grull looked on as more Tarzark warriors clambered to the top of the ladders against the outer wall. It would not be long before the first level of Falcon’s Mount would be his. The Orinian soldiers were putting up one last show of resistance on the top of the wall but they were quickly becoming outnumbered; hewn by Tarzark axes before they toppled from the wall. Any unlucky to still be alive when they hit the ground were trampled to death by the enemy.

A slow, self-satisfied grimace, which may have passed for a smile, crept across the King’s face. It had taken longer to break through than Grull had anticipated, but he was satisfied that they had managed it before nightfall.

The massive Tarzark turned; his jewel encrusted cape swinging heavily around him as he moved. He signaled to his phalanx of sorcerers and they charged forward, following the surge of warriors towards the outer wall where more ladders were being erected.

Grull became still as he watched the Tarzark scale the wall. He adored battle. Nothing pleased him better than sticking a pike in an enemy and hearing his death squeals. Nothing compared to the smell of his adversary’s fear and the feel of battle adrenalin pulsing through his veins. The battlefield was what the Tarzark lived for. Many long centuries had passed since the last time Orinians and Tarzark had last locked swords and Grull was savouring every moment while his troops inexorably fought their way towards victory.

Chapter Twenty-Three

The Hidden Stairs

 

 

Taz knew they were nearing the exit to Serranguard’s labyrinthine dungeons when he caught a whiff of cooler, fresher air. His sensitive, beak-like nose twitched and he longed, not for the first time, to be in the cool, fragrant depths of the Forests of Gremul, far from the City States of Orin and their bleak stone citadels.

The hairy Gremul moved noiselessly through the gloom. He could hear the footfalls of the others behind him and wished they had a lighter tread. In their natural habitat, the Gremul were forest hunters. Faster than they looked, they flitted like light and shadow through the undergrowth when stalking deer, wild boar, hares and, occasionally, men. The Ennadil walked with a light enough step—Adelyis wore light, slipper-like shoes while her brother, Lassendil, dressed and carried himself like a hunter—but the Orinians made so much noise Taz was surprised the Morg had not already heard them two levels up.

They reached the narrow entrance to the dungeons and found their first Morg sentry. He stood shivering in the darkness, huddled deep inside the folds of his thick cape. There was a perceptible chill down at this level and while it did not affect the Gremul or the humans, the Morg clearly suffered. He did not sense his solitude had been broken, until something large and hirsute with long sinewy arms and legs detached itself from the shadows and lunged at him.

The companions stepped over the Morg’s body and listened intently for any sign their presence had been noted. A dull silence pressed down on them. This area of Serranguard appeared deserted.

Arridel Thorne tensed. He did not trust the stillness, for he knew it had eyes and ears.

At this point, Gywna took the lead. The Wraith Sword felt heavy in her hand, its hilt slippery from her sweat. Hesitantly she moved forward with Arridel Thorne at her heels. Taz and Jennadil stepped into line behind them with Adelyis and Lassendil as rear guard.

They could not risk carrying a torch to light their way, so Gywna would have to navigate them through darkness until they reached the inhabited parts of the Keep. As long as she moved slowly, Gywna was not worried about losing her way. Despite that many people found its interior claustrophobic and dim, she associated Serranguard with the happiest period of her short life. As an independent only-child, she had slipped away from her nanny many a time to explore Serranguard’s tunnels and passageways—only to have a beating when she returned from her adventures.

Now, she thought carefully about the best route to the Lord’s Tower, once her father’s domain. Only his most trusted aides and servants were permitted entry, and Gywna and her mother had only been allowed in on special occasions.

The quickest route to the Tower was naturally the most dangerous. They could take the central stairwell up to the third level and cut straight down the main passageway. However, to take such a route would be suicidal. She needed to take them on a quieter, longer route where there would be shadows to hide in.

“Which way will you lead us?” Arridel whispered over her shoulder, making Gywna jump.

“There is a way,” she said when her heart had dislodged itself from her throat and settled back in her ribcage. “We will spend most of our time in darkness—but if we stay on this level I can find a narrow stairwell on the other side of the castle that very few know of. It’s barely wide enough for a grown man to squeeze through and it will take us up three levels so that we emerge a short distance from the entrance to the Lord’s Tower.”

She sensed that the others approved of her plan and for the first time since setting off from Falcon’s Mount, she felt like a help rather than a hindrance.

“Lead the way Gywna,” Jennadil encouraged.

Even after her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, Gywna was barely able to discern her surroundings. It was damp and unpleasantly cold down here, which seemed to have driven most of the Morg up to higher levels. Unfortunately, the last time she had used that stairwell—to hide from her father after she broke his favourite statuette—was when she was ten years old. Even then, it had not been easy to find.

Gywna had wondered about the stairwell’s purpose upon its discovery but had barely given it a thought since. Serranguard had stood, commanding over the northern reaches of Delm Forest and the rich farmland to the south-west for nearly three millennia and during that time a lot had occurred within the its walls that had never been recorded in the annals of history. The stairwell had obviously been built by one of the fortress’s former city-lords, but had been left partially finished.

It would not be easy to find the stairwell, working by feel in the clammy darkness. To stop them from losing each other, the companions placed a hand on the shoulder of the individual they followed. In Jennadil’s case, he grasped a handful of Taz’s thick, tangled pelt and hoped the Gremul was not riddled with lice.

They moved slowly down the main corridor to where the vast inner stairwell curled up through the castle’s central core. Shafts of watery, dusty light—the remnants of glimmering torchlight from high above —filtered down the inner stairwell, briefly illuminating the gloom. The company traveled carefully here, expecting to find another Morg sentry but the entrance to the stairwell was unguarded. They moved past the stairs, through floating dust motes and, moments later, re-entered the oppressive darkness.

It was a time-consuming, hesitant journey through the rabbit warren of passageways in Serranguard’s belly. A few times Gywna took them in the wrong direction, only to reconsider and retrace her steps. Often, she halted and concentrated on the memories she had of this level. Each of Serranguard’s four levels were built with a completely different style of corridor layout. It had been constructed in this fashion to confuse any invading force, but the trouble was that it meant even those dwelling inside Serranguard got lost regularly.

The hours crept by with the agonising slowness that only unpleasant experiences can create. Finally, when the others were beginning to suspect their guide had gotten them well and truly lost, Gywna found the entrance to the hidden stairs.

It was easy to miss and Gywna had actually walked past the opening. Then, she hesitated and turned back. Remembering the stone seat with the twisted pedestal to one side, she soon found the niche she was looking for.

“Someone light a torch,” Gywna ordered.

Moments later light flared and they all looked away, blinking rapidly as their eyes adjusted. Arridel Thorne held the torch aloft. The shadows gave his gaunt face a ghoulish look as he gazed down at the narrow niche. The entranceway was hidden to one side behind a stone pillar, but appeared to be only half the height of a normal doorway.

“Were these stairs made for men?” he grumbled. “They look more suited to Gremul!”

Taz gave a long, soft, warning growl at the disparaging tone with which this comment was uttered.

“The entrance and the exit are the narrowest parts,” Gywna explained. “I’ll climb through first. Pass me the torch.”

They all looked on as Gywna got down on her hands and knees and squeezed through the narrow gap. Arridel passed the torch through to her and one by one each of the company followed.

Inside, it was so narrow they all had to turn sideways. Thick cobwebs brushed over them. The stairs themselves were roughly hewn and covered in a thick layer of dust. No one appeared to have used them of late.

Gywna looked about her and compared the sensation of being inside the cramped space with her experience eight years earlier. Of course, she had been a lot smaller physically but the cobwebs and dust had not changed much. The dust she stood in was undisturbed. However, there was something different about the stairwell—something she did not remember from last time. She tensed and looked about her warily.

“Is something amiss?” Arridel asked from behind her.

“Not really,” Gywna replied, trying to decide if something actually was amiss or if her senses were playing tricks on her. “Only there is something changed about these stairs. It’s nothing I can see but the air smells and feels different somehow.”

“It smells rotten,” Jennadil piped up. “There must be a dead animal somewhere about.”

“That must be it,” Gywna agreed, although she was not sure that was the cause of her wariness either. However, she did not want to appear as if she was deliberately stalling so, using her sword to cut her way through the dense cobweb curtain, she began moving upwards. Behind her, the others cautiously picked their way up the narrow stairs.

 

Jennadil, the tallest of the group, had to bend his neck to prevent taking all the cobwebs with him. With cobwebs this size there were bound to be a lot of big spiders about, he thought with a shiver. He stopped worrying about spiders however when he reminded himself that with each step he was getting closer to the most dangerous predator of all, lurking in his lair atop the Lord’s Tower. Since they had entered the tunnel on the fringes of Delm Forest, Jennadil had thought obsessively about the dangerous task they would soon face. If they actually reached Morgarth Evictar—for it seemed to him that their trek across Serranguard was taking longer than the entire journey from Falcon’s Mount.

When Arridel had taken him and Adelyis aside next to the dungeon trap door, and explained the workings of the three stones they carried and the spell they would have to summon, Jennadil had listened mutely. His magical abilities were reduced to inane party tricks when compared with the massive spell he would soon have to conjure. Despite Lassendil’s words of encouragement, he still felt a fraud. However, this time he would keep his feelings to himself. There was nothing to be gained in whining anymore, for the time for turning back had long since run out.

At the back of the group, Lassendil hung back a little and looked about him. He disliked this place. From the moment he had entered, the very air had made the fine hair on the back of his neck stand up; and it was not because it was any colder in here than outside in the corridor. The air in the hidden stairs was rancid and unpleasant. Indeed, it did smell as if something decayed.

In front of her brother, Adelyis had picked up her skirts and was climbing carefully. Unlike Jennadil, her thoughts were not focused on the upcoming confrontation as they should have been. Worries for Will Stellan crept into her mind and distracted her. She knew she had to focus her energy and thoughts on the battle ahead, but as soon as she relaxed her guard Adelyis’s thoughts always returned to Will. Would they even find him alive?

 

Gywna’s limbs ached with accumulated fatigue. How long was it since she had last rested? The endless hours since they had entered the tunnel seemed to merge into one long, exhausting and terrifying ordeal. Arridel carried the torch, lighting her way while she hacked at the sticky cobwebs. The Wraith Sword was so sharp that the cobwebs parted easily but her arm muscles were starting to burn from the strain. She was not as physically fit as the others. Only stubbornness prevented her from stopping for a break every few yards.

The stairs wound up, almost vertically in places and at times, they became so narrow the companions could barely squeeze through. The rotting smell, which had been faint at the bottom of the stairs, got stronger as they climbed. The air here had a strange dryness compared to the rest of the castle. Dust irritated their eyes and caught in the back of their throats.

As she climbed, the feeling of unease that had bothered Gywna upon entering the hidden stairs increased. At times, it felt as if dozens of furry spiders were crawling down her spine, and since cobwebs surrounded her, Gywna had to resist the urge to pull up her hood just in case something nasty dropped down her neck.

It was not an easy stairwell to climb and as a result, their progress was slow. After a while, Gywna halted to catch her breath and looked back at the others. Their eyes looked hollowed in the torchlight and the Gremul’s eyes glowed back at her.

“Not long now,” Gywna explained, her voice husky with dust and weariness. “We have but a short climb before …”

She never finished her sentence.

In that instant, two skeletal claws, covered in decaying flesh, sprang from the curtain of cobwebs ahead and grabbed Gywna Brin about the throat.

The others recoiled as a wraithlike specter, swathed in rags, with wild bloodshot eyes, long, matted grey hair and rotting limbs, broke through the cobwebs. The loathsome creature flung Gywna about the narrow space like a rag doll and would have surely broken her neck if Arridel, following close behind Gywna, had not sprung forward and stabbed it with the short sword he carried. The thing screeched, let go of Gywna and fastened its claw about Arridel’s sword, tearing it from his hands. It bore down on the wizard and, with a demented shriek, raised the sword to pierce him through.

Moving quickly, still choking and retching from the feel of the rotting fingers grasping around her neck, Gywna swung her Wraith Sword in an arc. The sword seemed to move of its own accord in her hands; slicing the creature right through its torso. The blade imbedded deep inside its body. When Gywna pulled it free, the steel was dry—this being did not appear to bleed. Arridel’s sword clattered down the stone steps and was retrieved by Taz.

The creature gave a great howl and slumped against the wall. The companions looked on in fascinated horror as their attacker’s decayed form shrivelled before their eyes. It was as if invisible maggots were tearing and rending its rotting flesh.

Within seconds, there was nothing left; it seemed to melt into the steps. Only its stench lingered in the air.

Gywna slumped back against the wall, coughing and rubbing her neck. Arridel leant over her, his raw-boned face ashen.

“Gywna,” he hunkered down and looked into her eyes. “Did that creature cut you?”

Gywna coughed and shook her head. “No, but it nearly succeeded in tearing my head off,” she wheezed.

Arridel let out the breath he had been holding. “Fortune is with you child,” he murmured. “For if it had broken your skin you would be transforming before our very eyes into the same creature.”

Gywna stared at him. Her eyes were enormous on her pale face.

“Arridel, what was that?” Jennadil’s voice shook when he finally managed to speak.

The older wizard turned and looked down at the others. “Do any of you know what that creature was?” he asked incredulously.

All of them, even Adelyis, shook their heads.

Arridel sighed, his face looking even gaunter than previously. “It was a Tunnel Wight—a creature borne of evil. It lives as a parasite near its host. Warlocks and evil wizards have always used them as guardians to their lairs. They are almost impossible to slay, although it would seem that they have no resistance against the Wraith Sword. That is just as well for where there is one there is usually another.”

The others looked around nervously at this, drawing their swords as they did so.

“The only fortune in meeting a Tunnel Wight is the knowledge we are very near its master,” Arridel explained. “Morgarth Evictar is close by.”

Listening to Arridel, Jennadil supposed he should have felt grateful for this tidbit of information but instead of reassuring him, it made his bowels turn to water. Gywna Brin did not look any happier than Jennadil. White faced and shaky on her feet, she led the way, with extreme caution this time, up the almost vertical stairs. A short while later the stairs ended.

A large sandstone block partially obscured the exit. Gywna and Arridel stood aside while Taz threw himself up against the block, shifting it just enough for them to squeeze out into the corridor beyond. Here, on Serranguard’s upper level, the castle was lit by small windows high up on the outer walls. Pale amber light filtered in and pooled on the pitted stone floor, giving the corridor a jaundiced hue.

“The entrance to the Lord’s Tower is at the end of this corridor to the left,” Gywna whispered, her throat still hoarse.

“There will be Morg waiting,” Lassendil warned. “We can no longer hide in the shadows. Ready yourselves for combat.”

No sooner had Lassendil spoken when a company of Morg, swathed in their signature black capes, rounded the corner. Upon spying the intruders, the Morg drew their weapons and crept towards them.

Gywna’s encounter with the Tunnel Wight had left her badly shaken. The sight of these Morg, who were far more frightening than she had anticipated, brought her close to tears—but before she had time to gather her wits, the Morg were upon them.

Their leader would have thrust his sword through Gywna’s belly if Lassendil had not leapt between them. He cut the Morg down and flung the kicking corpse aside.

For the second time, Gywna’s life had been spared—and the realisation jolted her out of fear and into action. She saw that Jennadil and Adelyis were fighting back to back, and she rushed to their aid. They both wielded their swords clumsily and were on the verge of being overwhelmed when Gywna, her sword flashing silver in the dim light, sliced her way through the fray and positioned herself between them and the hacking, clawing Morg.

Lassendil, Gywna and Taz, fought their way up the corridor with the three wizards close behind them. Adelyis watched in awe as her brother moved with the grace of a dancer, cutting down any Morg who stepped into the arc of his sword. Lassendil’s agility had always meant he was a gifted swordsman whereas Taz’s fighting style was far more brutal. The Morg fell back under the Gremul’s rage.

 

Entranced, Adelyis watched Gwyna fight. The girl, whose sullen presence had grated on Adelyis since meeting in the dungeons, was transformed. The sword she wielded glowed with energy and its radiance permeated her entire body. She and the Wraith Sword moved as one—it was difficult to tell where the sword ended and Gywna’s arms began. Adelyis had heard of the Guardians of Isador but, not being Orinian, she had dismissed the legends about their magical powers and the sacred flame they guarded as romanticised folklore.

Gywna Brin was the last of her kind and, seeing the incredible energy brought together by her fusion with the sword, Adelyis realised that a great untapped reserve of magic stood at the brink of being lost forever.

The company made slow progress down the corridor. The throng of Morg became denser, the closer they moved to the entrance of the Lord’s Tower.

Morgarth Evictar was making sure no one disturbed him.

 

Lassendil’s arms burned from exertion as he fought. He had to concentrate completely for he knew one slip, one side-ways glance to see how his companions fared, and a blade would slip past his guard and gut him. The Morg were still formidable swordsmen. He remembered that well from past skirmishes with them. They were relentless, even physically suffering as they were; and although they were less coordinated in their movements than Lassendil remembered, this did not seem to hinder them. They seemed to care nothing for their own mortality.

Lassendil was well aware that without Gywna they would not have been able to fend off such a vicious attack. Even the Gremul was tiring under the onslaught but the girl fought on as if the attacking Morg fed rather than drained her.

The colonnaded entrance to the Lord’s Tower loomed ahead of them, guarded by a seething mass of caped figures and a terrible visage that appeared behind them.

The second Tunnel Wight.

The creature opened its rotting maw and screamed. The sound made Lassendil feel as if icicles were trailing down his spine. Its eyes, sunken orbs, fixed on him and it pushed its way forward through the heaving throng of Morg towards him.

“Gywna!” Lassendil shouted. “To me!”

Arridel had warned that weapons, such as the long Ennadil blade Lassendil carried, were useless on such a magical fiend. Lassendil defended himself from the swipe of curved sword blade and ducked as a mace swung past his right ear.

Two more paces and the Tunnel Wight would be on him. It reached out its ragged claws towards his face. Lassendil slashed at it but his blade bounced off its grasping arms. The Ennadil threw himself back against the wall and watched as a bright silver blade pierced the Tunnel Wight through the heart.

The Wight gave an ear-splitting wail and collapsed at Gywna’s feet, just inches away from rending Lassendil’s face. He jumped backwards to avoid touching its corpse. Before him, the Tunnel Wight disintegrated.

Lassendil straightened up to find the corridor littered with Morg corpses, and no more alive. His five companions stood panting around him. Their faces glowed with sweat and their eyes were wild with battle rage.

Adelyis had a deep scratch across her left cheek, Jennadil’s shoulder was bleeding and Arridel had a large purple bruise coming up around his right eye. Lassendil himself had been clipped across the thigh. The wound was not deep but he could feel warm blood trickling down the front of his leg. Only Taz, protected by his thick pelt, and Gywna, were unharmed.

Gywna stood, her sword lowered for the moment. She stared around her in amazement, as if looking upon the world for the first time. Her face was flushed, her eyes alive. Gywna’s merging with the sword had changed her. Gone was the sullen frown which had marred her expression, and instead a striking young woman stood before him. Looking upon her, Lassendil was spellbound—and he may have gone on staring for a while, if shouts and the tattoo of running booted feet had not knocked him from his reverie.

They would not be alone in the corridor for much longer.

The six companions exchanged glances, knowing what now lay ahead. They ran through the colonnaded entranceway into the Lord’s Tower and, once inside, pulled the heavy door closed behind them and barred it securely. Then, led by Lassendil with Taz as rear-guard, they climbed the spiral stairwell to Morgarth Evictar’s lair.

Chapter Twenty-Four

End of the World

 

 

Will Stellan had never thought of silence having as a noise in itself, but the stillness inside the Lord’s Tower roared in his ears as loud as waves crashing on rocks. A long night had passed since Morgarth Evictar had finished tormenting him. Since then the Warlock had mercifully left him alone. For hours now, Evictar had stood immobile at the window in a meditative state. The Warlock was so still he appeared hewn from marble.

Will’s wounds throbbed continually now and he shivered in the chill. He was afraid that if he shut his eyes, the pain coursing through him might carry him away and he would lose consciousness. To distract himself, Will let his gaze roam the interior of the chamber in which he lay.

What once had been the City-Lord’s inner sanctum was an impressive chamber. Will had only been inside it a handful of times and when he had, Theo Brin had always taken all of his attention. Sumptuous tapestries woven with silk and threaded with gold, carved wooden screens, and busts of past City-Lords stared back at Will from the walls. Vast circular columns reached up to a high, flat ceiling depicting the sun, moon and stars, and intricately painted frescoes framed the ceiling. There were images of victorious warriors atop galloping steeds, paintings of maidens dressed in blue—the Guardians of Isador—kneeling before the sacred flame, and images of the ceremony in which the City-Lord swore to protect this city-state and its great fortress with his life.

Will felt a sting of bitterness as he looked up at this last image. Theo Brin had not protected Serranguard with his life. He had fled like a whipped dog.

At the far end of the space there was a wooden door which, Will knew, led up to the tower’s flat roof. It was on that roof, on a balmy evening over a year ago that Will had met Adelyis’s brother, Lassendil Florin—an evening that had been a catalyst for a catastrophic series of events.

In contrast to the Scholar’s Tower, where the walls of each chamber were carpeted floor to ceiling with books, the walls of the Lord’s Tower were sumptuous almost to the point of vulgarity. Only one wall was adorned with a small bookcase, and the cupboard where Evictar had shown him the books he had secreted from Serranguard’s library. A carved oak desk and chair sat to the right of the window. The window itself was enormous and teardrop shaped.

A sickly light filtered into the chamber through the window. The chill in this chamber had seeped into the very marrow of his bones. Will ached all over. He felt dangerously sleepy and light-headed; on the verge of lapsing into unconsciousness.

At length Will felt his gaze reluctantly drawn back to Morgarth Evictar. The Warlock was waiting for something—a sign perhaps—or maybe he was using his powers to see how the attack on Falcon’s Mount was progressing. Will was still looking at the silent, cloaked form when Morgarth Evictar whirled from the window and threw back the cowl covering his face. His face twisted in a horrid grin of triumph and his pink eyes narrowed into evil slits.

“They have come,” he hissed. “They are here now. We have only to invite them in!”

Will cringed back against the wall. He was a brave man but his very soul felt flattened in Evictar’s cruel presence. Seconds later, Will heard the soft thud of footsteps approaching up the stairwell. It was not the sound of approaching Morg; he could hear the Morg leagues off with the heavy boots they wore. Rather, it was the sound of men.

Will’s heart simultaneously sunk and surged—for as happy as he would be to see Adelyis and Taz again they were walking into a trap. He opened his mouth to shout out a warning but Morgarth Evictar silenced him with a flick of his fingers that choked his voice in his throat. The Warlock then reached out one long arm. White fire shot forth from his outstretched palm and the door blew off its hinges, shattering against the wall.

Will brought up his manacled hands to protect himself from flying shards of wood. Once the dust and debris cleared, he was startled to see not two but six individuals on the other side of the doorway.

To his great surprise, he recognised five of them—Adelyis and Taz were accompanied by Jennadil Silverstern and Arridel Thorne. Although he had only met him once, Will also recognised Lassendil Florin on sight. Only the sixth individual, a pretty, young Orinian woman, was a stranger to him.

Will saw their gazes sweep across the chamber, fixing on him before their attention was held captive by the menacing figure that stood in the room’s centre. Will heard their indrawn breaths and tasted their horror. He understood their reaction; Adelyis had described the Warlock to him but he had been unprepared to deal with the evil that permeated the very air he breathed in Evictar’s presence. The air around the Warlock hummed with the immense power he held in check.

Will’s gaze met that of his friend, Jennadil Silverstern. It was little over a year since they had said goodbye in Serranguard’s dungeons. He had never expected to see him again. So much had happened since their parting and the past year had obviously taken its toll on the wizard as well for he appeared altered. Jennadil’s handsome face was strained and careworn and there was an intensity to him that had been missing before. Will saw the concern in Jennadil’s eyes when the wizard returned his gaze. He knew he must look at death’s door.

Will’s gaze shifted across to Adelyis. She stared back at him, her blue eyes hard with determination.

“What do we have here?” Morgarth Evictar’s wicked laughter echoed around the chamber. “Three ragged wizards and their body guards? What an unexpected pleasure.” The Warlock took a few steps backward; his black-claw tipped fingers beckoned the company inside.

Will could see every one of them struggling to control their repulsion. Even though they tried to hold their emotions in check, their fear was painfully transparent. Will felt a sense of impending doom. What were they doing here? Will found his voice at last.

“Run!” he croaked. “Get out while you can!”

The Warlock laughed again, and the sound reverberated off the chamber’s walls, mocking him.

“Good advice Captain Stellan,” Evictar’s voice slid across the room, “but it has come too late for your foolhardy friends here. I have need for more slaves to do my bidding and three wizards will serve me well.” Evictar raised his arms to cast a spell.

“Shield!” Arridel shouted at the other wizards. His voice was surprisingly strong and unwavering despite that his face was bloodless with fear.

The group moved so swiftly, it was clear they had planned this moment.

Lassendil Florin, the young woman and Taz ducked behind the wizards as Arridel, Adelyis and Jennadil brought up their staffs. Three bursts of energy, blue, green and red flashed together and created a protective bubble around the group, protecting them just in time as white-hot tongue of fire from Morgarth Evictar’s finger tips exploded towards them.

 

Using his free hand, Arridel Thorne pulled out the stone he wore around his neck.

Bruarn, the Earth Stone, gleamed in the murky light. Jennadil and Adelyis followed suit. Arkaheth, the Water Stone and Didliar the Air Stone shone like precious gems on Jennadil and Adelyis’s outstretched palms.

Earth, water and air. The Power of Three we call upon you!” Arridel shouted. “Merge our energies to fight the evil before us!”

Bruarn, Arkaheth and Didlier!” Jennadil and Adelyis’s voices joined Arridel’s this time. The stones on their outstretched palms started to glow palely, lit by a warming energy from within.

Morgarth Evictar’s attack ricocheted off the wizards’ shield and hit the wall above where Will Stellan lay trussed up in chains. Fire hit the wall, shearing a huge hole through it. Rubble and dust rained over Will, who shouted out and curled up in a ball, bringing up his hands to protect his skull.

The Warlock’s expression turned from victorious to thunderous. There was no fear or apprehension on his eyes, only pure fury.

 

Peering from behind Arridel Thorne, Gywna Brin watched Morgarth Evictar’s rising anger. He recognised the spell the wizards were shouting out in chorus. Despite her newfound courage, Gywna felt sick with terror. She fought the urge to turn and sprint from the Tower—not that there was anywhere to run. Although they had bolted the door at the bottom of the stairwell, it would not take the Morg long to break through it and come to their master’s aid.

Morgarth Evictar’s face twisted from anger into killing rage. “Margeethra!” he shouted and thrust his hands towards the three wizards.

The world stopped.

Hollow silence reverberated around them and then the very air split apart. Gywna knew one moment of all consuming horror before she was lifted off the ground and flung backwards.

The top of the tower exploded like an erupting volcano. The protective shield shattered and the wizards tumbled to the floor. Debris pelted them and thick, stinging dust seared their lungs.

Gywna was convinced that the end of the world had come. Tears streaked her face as she clung to the edge of the doorway and waited for Morgarth Evictar to finish them off.

The Warlock grew to appear twice as tall. He towered above them in the centre of what was left of the tower; all encompassing in his wrath. Above him, clouds swirled where the ceiling had once been. The wall behind Will Stellan’s prostrate form had nearly been blown away completely.

Morgarth Evictar’s mouth was an open sore. His eyes were now fiery orbs, flickering and glowing in the sudden gloom. His anger had metamorphosed into something more terrifying. He looked down upon them, savouring their mute fear and revelling in his absolute power.

Arridel Thorne staggered to his feet. He turned to Jennadil and Adelyis who were still on the ground. Lassendil had been knocked into the corner where Will Stellan lay and Taz and Gywna were scrunched against the doorway. All of them were bruised, bleeding and barely clinging to their courage.

“Get up!” Arridel snarled at Jennadil and Adelyis. “We’re not beaten yet. Get up!”

The older wizard’s harsh words cut through Jennadil and Adelyis’s shock and fear. Shaking, they clambered to their feet. Arridel outstretched his hand revealing Bruarn. The others followed suit.

Bruarn, Arkaheth, Didliar!” the three wizards chorused. “Bring down the dark, bring back the light, merge earth, water and air and evil fight! Open the void, remove this malice from our world, bring forth fire and purge!”

The air atop the tower changed once more. A violent wind began and beyond the gaping hole left by the missing roof, a great swirling vortex appeared.

The Warlock sent forth a whip of fire from his fingertips. It curled around the wizards, and would have pulled them off their feet if Adelyis had not sent forth a counter spell. Flames exploded between them—and the distraction was all the wizards needed to finish their spell. Their voices rose, strong and loud now. Determination surged through them, overcoming their fear.

Bruarn, Arkaheth and Didliar—take this evil being from our midst! Give birth to Star Fire—bring forth the power of Earth, Water and Mist!”

Three streams of cold, silver fire shot out of the stones and merged with a blast of searing light. The fire swelled into a large ball, like a newborn star. In unision, the three wizards flicked their fingers forward and released the fireball.

It shot across the chamber and hit Morgarth Evictar in the chest.

The Warlock staggered backwards. A ring of flames curled around his body and lifted him off the ground. The wizards pushed him back towards the swirling vortex.

Morgarth Evictar’s roar splintered the air. Serranguard shook with the force of the Warlock’s anger. It was as if they were holding the power of an entire ocean and sky in check. The wizards clung together for support; sweat trickled down their faces with the effort it took to keep the spell working.

Air, Water and Earth—merge and toil. Send this foul creature into the Void!”

The Warlock lifted higher off the ground. His voluminous black cape billowed around him as the vortex drew him towards it.

In an effort not to be sucked into the void, Lassendil grabbed hold of the unconscious Will Stellan, who was chained to the ground.

“Mortals!” Morgarth Evictar’s voice thundered overhead. “You can’t destroy me!”

Despite his words however, the Warlock was still trapped in the ring of fire and it was only when the combined strength of the three wizards pushed him to the very edge of the vortex that panic started to show on his face. He struggled violently against the fire that had wrapped itself around him like a choking vine. Eventually he got an arm free and with a shout of triumph, stretched his grasping claw out towards the wizards. Already, his feet were being sucked into the vortex. Within moments, the void would have him.

“You’re all coming with me!” he screamed.

A wall of energy hit Arridel, Jennadil and Adelyis like the back of a great invisible hand.

The stones scattered and the Power of Three disintegrated. Jennadil flew backwards and collided with the wall. He crumpled to the ground, only to be grabbed by a pair of sinewy hands. Taz had reached round from his and Gywna’s hiding place on the other-side of the door and grabbed the unconscious wizard. Just in time—for at that moment, anything not fastened down was sucked towards the vortex.

Adelyis screamed and grabbed hold of Jennadil’s legs. The vacuum ripped Adelyis’s staff from her grasp. It disappeared into the great swirling maw above her.

“Arridel! Hold on to me!” she shouted.

The older wizard was slipping away from her. She stared down at his terrified face. Arridel scrambled for her feet and almost managed to catch hold. Adelyis felt his hand brush her slippered toes but the Warlock’s spell caught him and he was ripped from her.

“Arridel!” Dust peppered Adelyis’s skin and stung her eyes as she called out to him.

She stared down at Arridel Thorne’s ashen face. His eyes were wide, his hands still grasping desperately towards her—and then he was gone. Adelyis had one last shocking image of the wizard and warlock grappling together in a parody of a lover’s embrace before the void took them both.

Then it was all over.

The whirlpool above the Lord’s Tower disappeared as quickly as it had been conjured. All that remained were sallow clouds swirling in the aftermath.

 

Adelyis lay on the rubble-strewn floor, her body so weakened by shock that she could not find the strength to move. She turned her head and was relieved to see Lassendil and Will lying nearby. Her brother stared back at her; his blue eyes enormous on his dirty face. Will lay, still unconscious, beside Lassendil. Adelyis pulled herself along the ground on her elbows. She reached Jennadil, who lay worryingly motionless. She reached up and touched the wizard’s dust covered face, and was relieved to discover that he was still breathing. He groaned at her touch, his eyes flickering open.

“I’m not dead?” he rasped.

“Evictar has gone,” Adelyis replied, “but he took Arridel with him.”

“Arridel’s gone?” Gywna crawled out from behind the door, white-faced and shaking.

Adelyis nodded. Her delicately featured face was gaunt and strained.

Jennadil closed his eyes, his face twisting in remorse. Like Adelyis, Jennadil knew that they would never have succeeded without Arridel. The wizard had forced them to face Evictar when they had cowered. Jennadil’s stomach heaved and he vomited onto the stone floor.

Taz was the first of the company to pull himself together. He helped Adelyis to her feet, letting her rest against him when her legs threatened to give way under her. Lassendil had sat up and was attending to Will Stellan. Adelyis and Taz stood over them watching anxiously.

“Is he dying?” Adelyis asked finally. Her brother heard the emotion in her voice and looked up at his sister’s face. Then, he looked back at the wounded Orinian Captain and frowned.

“He’s lost a lot of blood,” Lassendil said finally, “and he’s severely chilled. His wounds need tending to.”

Lassendil glanced behind Adelyis at the sound of retching. Jennadil had finished being sick and had pulled himself gingerly up into a sitting position. His face was chalk-white. He appeared disorientated, and was clearly concussed. The wizard looked worried at the sight of his friend’s unmoving body.

“Is he going to be alright?” Jennadil croaked.

Will Stellan stirred as Jennadil finished speaking. He slowly opened his eyes and saw faces peering down at him.

“Get these chains off me,” he said weakly, before registering that something had happened while he had been unconscious. “Evictar?”

“Dealt with.” Lassendil replied. The Ennadil leant forward and worked to remove the shackles binding Will’s ankles and wrists. “Sucked into the Void.”

Will’s bloodshot eyes widened.

Lassendil opened his mouth to explain further, but never got the chance. At that moment there came a terrible uproar from down below. A collective howl of all the Morg within the Keep splintered the air.

The company atop the ruined Lord’s Tower exchanged fearful glances before realisation dawned on them. Morgarth Evictar’s death had freed the Morg from two millennia of slavery. They had just awoken to find themselves on another continent, fighting a war they cared nothing for while the colder temperatures and the onset of winter ravaged their bodies.

The Morg’s rage and betrayal shook the great fortress to its very foundations.

From below came the first heavy thuds on the oak door leading up to the tower.

Chapter Twenty-Five

The Storm

 

 

The survivors stood alone atop the ruins of the Lord’s Tower, listening as the armoured door at the base of the tower buckled and creaked under brute force. It would not be able to withstand much more battering. That door was all that stood between the Morg and their prey.

The Morg were ripping Serranguard to pieces.

The fortress shook with the force of their collective rage. Howls rent the air and the Morg’s anger crackled like lightening around Serranguard.

Lassendil, Adelyis, Gywna and Taz clustered together in a semi circle. Will Stellan lay at their feet, barely clinging to consciousness, and a few feet away Jennadil still sat propped against the wall. The wizard’s face was bloodless, and a large purple swelling had come up on his forehead from where he had hit the wall.

Precious moments were being wasted while the survivors stood immobile, stricken by panic. They had come so far and sent Morgarth Evictar into the void—an infinite vacuum where the Warlock would be a prisoner for eternity.

None of them had foreseen the Morg’s reaction to being set free from their master. They had focused on destroying the Warlock, not stopping his minions.

“There is no way out of here,” Gywna told the others. Her Wraith Sword hung limply from her hand. Her face was young, vulnerable and frightened. Adelyis looked across at the younger woman. Her already plummeting hopes dropped to her feet. She had hoped there was another, secret, way out of the Lord’s Tower that only the City-Lord and his kin knew of.

“Listen to me,” Will Stellan’s voice was weak and strained with the effort he was making to stay conscious. They could barely hear his voice above the din below. “At this very moment, Falcon’s Mount is under siege.”

The others stared down at him, their faces registering varying degrees of shock. With difficulty Will continued. “The Tarzark are in league with Morgarth Evictar but unlike the Morg they are not held in his sway. Unless something is done, once the Tarzark take Falcon’s Mount, the rest of Isador will be open to them. Evictar had been in contact with the Tarzark sorcerers for days. He was planning on doing away with the Morg once Falcon’s Mount had been taken. He’s had the means to change Isador’s climate to suit the Morg, he just hid it from them. He removed the books containing the weather spell from Serranguard’s libraries and put them in that cupboard.” Will pointed to the small wooden cabinet that was one of the few pieces of furniture that had not been blown away by Evictar’s rage.

Upon hearing these words, something inside Jennadil shifted. The weakness and nausea subsided and resolve galvanised him. Jennadil struggled to his feet, clutching the wall for support. Then, he staggered across the room towards the padlocked cupboard. A bolus of green fire exploded from his fingertips with such a force, his companions all started. The lock shattered.

Not bothering for the smoke to clear, Jennadil reached forward and ripped the doors open. A small pile of leather-bound volumes lay on a shelf inside.

Jennadil grabbed the spell books and dumped them on the nearby desk. Adelyis materialised at his side. She knew, without communicating with the wizard, what she must do. Wordlessly, they rifled through the books in search of the weather spell.

An almighty crash shook the tower. The door at the base of the Lord’s Tower had been breached and a host of Morg now thundered up the circular stairwell.

Jennadil looked up from searching and Adelyis was taken aback at what she saw. His hazel-green eyes were hard, any trace of the diffident, disinterested man he had once been had vanished. Returning to his task, Jennadil flicked over pages hurriedly, hunting for the weather spell.

“Hold them off!” he shouted to the others, “give us time!”

Lassendil, Taz and Gywna were already picking up their weapons and moving to the doorway as he finished speaking.

The first Morg reached the top of the stairwell.

The noise was terrible. The shouts, grunts and screeching, the clash of metal and the wet sound of death rent the air. It took all of the witch’s and wizard’s self-control not to glance towards the door to see if one of their companions had fallen, or if a weapon was hurtling their way.

“I’ve found it!” Jennadil looked across at Adelyis, his face set, eyes gleaming. “The weather spell will need the two of us to cast it.”

Adelyis rushed around to his side of the desk, catching a glimpse as she did so, of her brother slashing at an enraged Morg. The ravaged creature’s black robes flapped like wings as it fought, making it resemble a frenzied bat. Even Gywna, who had once again fused with her Wraith Sword, was struggling under sheer number of Morg who were forcing their way into the tower. They would not be able to hold them back much longer.

Jennadil took hold of Adelyis’s hand, noting as he did so, the smoothness and chill of her skin. It was like grasping the hand of a corpse—the only outward sign of the terror that pulsed through her. With his left hand grasping her right hand, Jennadil and Adelyis pressed the palms of their free hands together. Jennadil stifled a gasp as their magic merged.

Their powers had joined once before, when they had conjured The Power of Three, but this was the first time their hands had actually touched. The power surge rippled through Jennadil’s body and, his gaze meeting Adelyis’s, Jennadil saw her eyes dilate. A wonderful sensation prickled over his skin before heat filled his veins. Jennadil had heard of ‘enhancement’ as it was known. The merging did not occur frequently but when it did, it increased the skill and power of both wizards—an effect that remained even after physical contact was broken.

Time, air, wind and sun, move the seasons, come undone!”

Their voices rose over the mêlée and were whipped away by a sudden whirlwind that curled around the tower top. Heat radiated out from the centre of Jennadil’s palm and an energy aura; green and blue—the merging of their power—swelled from their joined hands. Adelyis and Jennadil doggedly continued, their eyes fixed upon the open spell book on the desk before them.

Bring forth winter, sap warmth from land and sky, make all that is green wither and die!”

The wind hit the tower, like an invisible battering ram, with a sudden bone-numbing chill.

Carpet the land in ice and snow, bring forth the chill of winter, howl and blow!”

A lance of turquoise fire shot up from the witch and wizard’s joined hands and exploded in the murky clouds high above them in a dazzling firework display.

Suddenly the wind that swirled around them was thick with snow and ice.

Hail pelted the top of the tower and the force of it drove deep inside the castle. The wind howled like a wild beast in its intensity. The spell books flew off the table and disappeared into the storm. Adelyis and Jennadil clung together and squeezed their eyes shut against the stinging needles of ice.

The effect on the Morg was horrific.

They broke off their attack and fell to the ground, clawing their ravaged skin. The screams and wailing were unbearable. Even Taz, who until then had shown no fear, reeled. The Gremul staggered backwards and grabbed Gywna. The girl was terrified. Her Wraith Sword had slipped from numb fingers and she was shaking so badly she could hardly stand. Lassendil grabbed hold of Taz and Gywna, and the small group cringed together while a great storm, more violent than any of them had ever experienced, battered Serranguard.

Adelyis and Jennadil were not sure how long they clung together, their palms still joined, before the snow storm spent itself. The Morg’s death screams ceased and a silent, terrible calm settled over Serranguard.

Jennadil opened his eyes and winced at the raw cold that had frozen his face. Adelyis’s dark hair was frosted in white and they stood ankle deep in thick, crisp white snow. He let go of Adelyis and crunched over to his companions. Will Stellan’s prostrate form was nearly covered with snow, as were the dead bodies of the Morg, not far from him. Jennadil hunkered down next to Will and, with numb, shaking hands, brushed the snow off his face. His friend was unconscious. Jennadil felt for his pulse and let out a relieved breath when he found it. With Taz and Lassendil’s help, Jennadil got Will to his feet. He hung, still unconscious, between them.

“We have to get him out of here,” Jennadil spoke through chattering teeth. “He won’t last long in this chill.”

“Neither will we!” Taz reminded him. Despite the thick pelt covering his squat body, the Gremul was shaking violently.

Nearby, Adelyis pulled up the hood of her cape and walked over to the edge of the tower. The wall had been almost completely blasted away in this spot, giving her an unobstructed view across the surrounding landscape. The storm had washed away the heavy, sulfuric clouds. The sky above was now completely clear.

It shocked Adelyis to see just how powerful the weather spell had been. The ‘enhancement’ that had sparked between her and Jennadil still crackled all over her body.

A winter landscape covered the land around Serranguard for as far as the eye could see. A thick white crust covered the Morg’s devastation and there was not a breath of warmth in the world. Adelyis was stunned by the power she and Jennadil had managed to unleash. Among the Ennadil, ‘enhancement’ was as feared as it was revered—for in the wrong hands it could reek havoc. Remembering the sensation, Adelyis felt slightly sick.

“Adelyis!” Lassendil stepped up beside his sister and placed a cautious hand on her arm, bringing her out of her reverie. “Are you unwell?”

She shook her head, as much to clear it as to negate his question. “I am fine.” She managed a weak smile. “Just in shock.”

Like a child, she let her brother guide her away from the tower’s edge. They followed the others down the stairwell, over the frozen corpses of the Morg and into Serranguard’s keep.

 

***

 

It seemed fitting that as the sun set on the first eve of battle the sky was stained crimson. It was as if the blood from the dead had washed from the earth into the heavens. The evening was still and airless. Men had not fared well against the relentless Tarzark assault.

A breathless quiet had descended over the city, for the Tarzark had halted their attack and made camp for the night. They now occupied the entire first level of Falcon’s Mount, while the city’s citizens had barricaded themselves inside the top levels.

In the gathering dusk, the Tarzark bedded down for the night. The Orinians would have but a short reprieve before Grull launched another assault at first light. The Tarzark King had not halted the attack out of any sense of fair play. His troops had fought hard all day and there was no urgency in the attack. Furthermore, Grull wished to savour his victory in daylight as he cut down Falcon’s Mount’s City-Lord and watched him grovel and beg for death at his feet.

The moon had yet to rise when King Grull climbed atop the wall and looked up at the shadow of the great city rising above him. The buildings wrapped across the conical hill, curling up to where the City-Lord’s palace perched at its pinnacle.

Grull stood on the edge of the wall and breathed in the sharp, cool air. He was risking death standing there. An Orinian sniper could have picked him off, especially once the moon rose, but Grull enjoyed toying with death. He had spent the last ten years preparing for this moment.

When he had come to power, the Tarzark Kingdom had been severely weakened after centuries of civil war. His kingdom, although vast, had a harsh climate. It was a desolate area of Isador, and if it had not been for the underground springs that bubbled up through the bedrock in various spots, life would have ceased to exist there hundreds of years ago. The Tarzark cities were vast, jagged, obsidian fortresses. Many had the same profile as the great mountain range that cut them off from the rest of Isador. They were all built on springs and were surrounded by small satellite villages that grew crops and raised animals to feed their host. Under Grull’s rule, the Tarzark Kingdom had risen once more to its former strength. Hull Mutt clutched heavenward like a massive black gloved hand, as if it were trying to encompass all of Isador within its grasp. It was Grull’s desire that it would one day.

Grull stood there awhile, anticipating the victory that he stood on the brink of. He imagined the Tarzark Kingdom spreading out; encompassing Orin, Mirren and Serranguard. Then, in time, when the Tarzark had gained a foothold there—the Ennadil Territory would be conquered. Morgarth Evictar was the only obstacle that tempered Grull’s ambitions. Unlike the Tarzark Sorcerers who revered the Warlock, Grull was suspicious and resentful of Morgarth Evictar. He knew the Warlock was far more powerful than himself. Evictar would expect him to behave like his toady—and just the thought made Grull grind his teeth with rage.

Grull bent the knee to no one.

Yes, Morgarth Evictar was a hindrance that would have to be removed if Grull wished to see his ambitions realised. The Tarzark King possessed a cruel and intelligent cunning and he was certain he would find a way to dispose of the Warlock. He would just have to wait.

At length, a silver crescent moon rose into the sky and bathed the city in cold, hoary light. Grull reluctantly left the wall and descended down narrow stairs to where his troops were cooking meat on spits—man-flesh was a particular delicacy for the Tarzark and after the hundreds of Orinians they had slain today there was plenty of fresh meat to go around. The smell of roasting flesh made Grull’s nostrils twitch; reminding him he had not eaten since day break. He was on his way over to the fire where his two Captains, Argoth and Grimmak, were preparing his meal, when the High Sorcerer, Yaduk, intercepted him.

“My Lord,” the sorcerer bowed hurriedly, “there is a serious matter I must discuss with you.”

Grull did not bother to hide his irritation. “What is it Yaduk,” he snapped.

The High Sorcerer did not look well. He was pallid under his scaly flesh and his great frame was trembling slightly. “May I speak to you in private my Lord?”

Grull was unmoved. “Speak where we can all hear you. I’m hungry. Say your piece while I feast.”

Grull had not been pleased with Yaduk of late. In his opinion the High Sorcerer’s allegiance had shifted from him to Evictar and worse still, he had influenced many of the other sorcerers.

Yaduk knew better than to argue with Grull. The Tarzark King had a notoriously short fuse, even when in a good mood. He wisely kept silent and followed Grull over to the fire.

Grull took hold of the joint of meat Argoth handed him. He bit into the hot flesh and let the juices run down his chin. His great jaws worked furiously and his slit eyes fastened on Yaduk.

“I have dire news my Lord,” Yaduk began. “I have lost contact with Morgarth Evictar.”

Grull stopped chewing. “What is the significance of this?”

Yaduk’s shoulders slumped. “Ever since he revealed himself to me, I have remained in close mind contact with him—until an hour ago when our mind link was abruptly severed. I can no longer sense his presence.”

Yaduk was having trouble hiding his distress.

However, upon hearing these words Grull was finding it a challenge to mask his jubilation.

If the High Sorcerer had not been so distressed and worried he would have seen the naked pleasure that flared in his King’s eyes before Grull got a hold of himself and carefully shielded his thoughts and feelings. The Tarzark King was well aware of the concern and worry that would ripple around the camp at this news. The Tarzark had long revered Morgarth Evictar as a god. Grull did not share his people’s belief in Evictar but he knew better than to voice his feelings for revered and feared as Grull was, there were things in Tarzark culture that were untouchable and that half-blood Orinian spawn—Morgarth Evictar—was one of them.

King Grull schooled his features into an expression of concern.

“The Great Morgarth Evictar is no more?” he queried, affecting a worried tone of voice.

“I know not for certain,” Yaduk admitted, “but our mind link was as strong as an iron coil. Just before it snapped, a strong sensation of betrayal, helplessness and rage swept over me. I fear he has met a terrible end.”

“This is tragic news,” Grull lied.“It is a great loss for both the Tarzark Kingdom and Isador herself.” Grull paused here and dipped his head so that Yaduk would not see the lie in his eyes.

“But we must rally!” Grull brought his head up sharply and let his words ring out. “We cannot let the demise of this great warlock weaken us!” His hard gaze swept over the crowd of Tarzark warriors, drawing them in.

“Victory is almost upon us!” he shouted. “We shall take this city for Morgarth Evictar even if he is no longer with us to share the triumph!”

The horde of Tarzark roared in collective agreement, their distress forgotten. Morgarth Evictar was a shadowy figure to most of them. He was a powerful warlock with a past and present steeped in mystery but Grull was real and he had led them this far in battle without any apparent help from Morgarth Evictar. They would continue to follow him unquestioningly.

Satisfied he had placated them, Grull turned back to his dinner. His gaze swept over the High Sorcerer. Yaduk watched his King with hooded eyes. Grull did not like the keen, assessing intelligence he saw there.

“Leave me now,” Grull snapped.

The High Sorcerer bowed and slipped away without a further word. Grull watched him go. Yaduk would have to be disposed of.

 

***

 

On the higher levels of Falcon’s Mount, the atmosphere was subdued and tense. Hundreds of Orinian soldiers had fallen that day; morale was low and both townsfolk and soldiers were exhausted. The nauseating smell of roasting human flesh wafted up through the citadel.

Atop a balcony, above the palace courtyard—that was now crammed with survivors—Lord Aran Fier addressed his people. His wife Imeldia, whose beauty still shone arrestingly, stood next to her husband. Imeldia’s face was solemn, her smooth brow furrowed, as her gaze swept over the townsfolk and soldiers. She was looking for someone.

At the back of the crowd, with her woolen hat pulled down over her ears, Myra saw Imeldia look straight at her and then her gaze slid away. She had not seen her, which was not surprising for Myra was virtually unrecognisable in boy’s clothing. Her face was dirty and her hair hidden under a soiled hat. Myra felt a pang of loneliness as she watched Lady Fier.

She had liked Imeldia; she and her husband had been kind to Myra. Despite Lady Brin’s obvious unhappiness, they had always tried to make her feel welcome without being pushy. Unlike Myra, Imeldia had married for love but, despite their happiness, Lord and Lady Fier’s union had proven childless. In contrast to Theo Brin, who had publicly shamed his young wife for her failure to reproduce, Aran Fier appeared unconcerned by his lack of children. The position of City-Lord was not handed down from father to son, so there was little reason for him to covet an heir. When a City-Lord died, a public assembly appointed a new one. Despite this, Lord Brin had never ceased to complain that neither of his wives had produced a son.

“People of Falcon’s Mount, hear me!” Lord Fier raised his voice over the chatter of fearful voices. “You have fought tirelessly today. Despite that our losses have been heavy, I have never been so proud to be Orinian as on this day.”

 

Lord Fier paused a moment, letting his words carry throughout the vast courtyard.

Emotion tightened his throat. His body ached from fatigue but his mind had never been clearer. Knowing his death was imminent brought life into sharp focus as never before. The Orinians had held the second level as night fell, not giving the Tarzark one inch of an advantage. Sentries had been placed along the wall. Even if Grull did not launch a surprise attack during the night, as soon as the first rays of sun peeked over the eastern horizon, the Tarzark would come at them relentlessly—until Falcon’s Mount was taken.

Aran Fier was no fool. He deliberately did not dwell on the fact that the last bastion of Men was doomed to fall—however, that did not mean he was unaware of it. He had struggled with a deep sadness until his confrontation with Theo Brin. Since then he had been too busy to indulge himself in melancholy. If they were finished, he had to make sure Falcon’s Mount was victorious in defeat. He had to appear as if he still thought the Tarzark could be beaten—even if he had long since realised that was an impossibility.

““Falcon’s Mount must hold!” Lord Fier continued. His voice was strident. “We are all that remains. We are not just fighting for Falcon’s Mount but for Isador herself. If we fall then we must take the Tarzark with us!”

Lord Fier looked at their battered faces and saw the fear there. Tears ran down many faces, but Fier also saw their pride and spirit and felt an overwhelming surge of love for his people.

“I will be at your side,” his voice was gentler now, “and I will stay there until the very end.”

 

Myra Brin watched the City-Lord of Falcon’s Mount and was relieved, not for the first time, it was Aran Fier and not Theo Brin that had been forced to make the final stand.

To her relief, Lord Brin was nowhere in sight. She knew him well enough however, to sense his presence lurking somewhere in the shadows. An ambitious man to the last, Aran Fier’s bravery and leadership would gall Lord Theo Brin for it showed him up for the coward he really was.

Myra’s body ached and her stomach hurt from hunger. After they had passed through the gate into the second level, she had managed to lose the bounty hunter in the crowd. She was no longer afraid of him, realising that he had ceased working for her husband, but his manner still grated on her. He seemed to think that stopping her from ending her own life gave him the right to be insufferably rude to her.

For the first time, Myra felt almost happy. She had a taste of what if felt like to be free, anonymous and a person in her own right. She enjoyed this new sensation so much it saddened her to think that it would soon end.

Night shrouded Falcon’s Mount. A portentous quiet settled over the once vibrant city. Although the Orinians still held the top two levels of the citadel, the survivors had fallen back to the top level, leaving the second level occupied by soldiers.

The homes of the wealthiest citizens of Falcon’s Mount were thrown open to feed and house those who were now homeless. Hungry and bone tired, Myra followed the crowd out of the Palace courtyard and soon found herself sitting at a huge, scrubbed table in a warm kitchen, peeling vegetables for dinner. No one spoke to her much but she preferred it that way. Sitting in the crowded kitchen and helping to prepare a simple dinner while listening to the intermittent and subdued conversation around her, Myra felt a sense of well-being steal over her.

Finally, when the huge venison and vegetable stew was prepared, she helped dish out food to the hungry townsfolk crowded into the street outside. Then, helping herself to a wedge of unleavened bread and a bowl of stew, she found an overturned barrel to perch on and ate her meal.

Later on, as a crescent moon rode high in the sky, Myra wrapped herself in a blanket and curled up on the floor in the corridor outside the kitchens. She was aware, for a short while, of people stepping over or around her before the exhaustion, which had been looming since dusk, swept over her and she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

 

***

 

A great fire roared in the hearth of one of Serranguard’s immense kitchens. The heat was a healing balm, seeping through their battered and chilled bodies and warming the blood. To one side of the kitchen, Jennadil was foraging around for supplies. He found dried meat, apples and some hard cheese. It would be a simple meal but everyone was so hungry it would seem a feast. At the other end of the kitchen, Will Stellan lay on the kitchen table near the fire. Lassendil, who was the only one among them, save Adelyis, with any healing abilities, had unbuckled the leather breast guard Will wore and peeled back the shirt underneath, revealing deep gashes which had thankfully stopped bleeding.

Adelyis stood next to her brother and watched as Lassendil inspected Will Stellan’s wounds. She winced at the gravity of his injuries. Will was still unconscious and breathing shallowly. His skin was ashen and his eyes seemed sunken into his skull.

“It’s a miracle he’s still alive,” Lassendil murmured. He had not realised his sister was standing next to him; it was only when he heard her sharp intake of breath at his diagnosis that he realised Adelyis was at his elbow.

Once again, Lassendil Florin gave his sister a piercing look. She cared a little too much for this Orinian it seemed. He wondered if she had broken her promise of celibacy.

Lassendil looked back at the unconscious man. He barely knew Will Stellan, and the man had never done anything to him, but Lassendil felt a stab of irrational dislike. Lassendil had never thought of himself as an overprotective, jealous brother but his sister had made promises to the Ennadil Order of Wizardry. He had always admired her strength of character and the seriousness with which she took her role as Ennadil Witch. The thought she might succumb to human weakness disappointed him. Perhaps her recent trials had changed Adelyis in more ways than he would have liked to admit.

“Is he going to die?” Adelyis did not take her eyes of Will Stellan as she spoke.

“It is hard to say,” Lassendil replied honestly. “Whether or not he survives depends on whether his wounds become infected and on how hard he fights.”

Adelyis nodded, still not meeting her brother’s gaze. “Can I help?”

Lassendil shook his head. “There’s not a lot you can do here. Find me some blankets to cover him while I disinfect his wounds. The most we can do is keep him warm and get him to drink something when he wakes up.”

 

Grateful to have something to do, Adelyis turned away from her brother’s probing gaze. He had always been able to read her too well.

“Dinner’s served!” Jennadil’s voice rang out across the kitchen. The wizard had perched himself on a stool at the head of the table. He was pouring ale into tankards that he slid along the worn wooden tabletop towards his thirsty companions.

At the sight and smell of the simple fare, Adelyis felt her stomach rumble like an approaching thunderstorm. She had lost count of how many hours had passed since she had last eaten. She had almost forgotten she was hungry but the weakness in her limbs and her shaking hands warned her that she would not be able to go on much longer without sustenance.

Adelyis managed to push her hunger aside for a moment longer and went in search of blankets. She found some in the laundry and returned with an armful of dusty coverlets. She draped them over Will before joining the others at the table.

The dried meat, apples and hard cheese were delicious, washed down by thirst-quenching malted ale. The companions did not converse for a while, not until their stomachs were full. After a while though, conversation turned to the siege of Falcon’s Mount.

“What now?” Jennadil leaned back and eased his full stomach. “After all we’ve been through do we sit back and let the Tarzark come to us after they’ve done with Falcon’s Mount?”

“We should ride to their aid,” Gywna spoke, swallowing a mouthful of bread.

“What can the five of us possibly do against legions of Tarzark?” Lassendil pointed out. “Unless we can bring an army with us.”

Taz made a sound resembling a cross between a hiss and a snort at such a ludicrous suggestion.

“Has that snow storm of yours covered all of Isador?” Gywna directed her question at Jennadil.

The wizard shook his head. “No more than ten leagues in every direction I’d say but enough to keep us safe for now. Let’s hope the Morg further south decide they’ve had enough of Isador and make for home.”

“If they have not done so already,” Adelyis added hopefully.

A sudden noise caused the group of exhausted companions to leap out of their seats, their hearts hammering in their chests.

“I think you might be wrong about that Adelyis,” Lassendil reached for his sword, his finely chiseled features sharp with tension. “Maybe that storm didn’t kill all of them.”

Taz growled something unpleasant in his own language, needing no translation. He grabbed the heavy broadsword and a vicious mace he had appropriated from one of the fallen Morg.

“Not again!” Gywna muttered, unsheathing her Wraith Sword.

The noise came again, louder this time, the sound of shuffling and scraping.

The companions exchanged wary glances before Taz took the initiative, stomped across the kitchen and flung open the door.

An icy draft rushed in, causing the fire to gutter in the hearth.

Figures emerged from the shadows, ragged and shivering. Instead of the gaunt, leathery faces of the Morg, they saw the ravaged faces of Ennadil and Orinian men and women. They were weak, hungry and suffering from exposure.

The companions lowered their weapons, their faces suffused with relief. Of course, the Morg had not been the only slaves. Hundreds of Ennadil and Orinians had been taken from their homes and enslaved, both in body and in mind. Adelyis remembered the sight of their beaten eyes as they followed their Morg masters around in Valdorn.

Taz glanced across at Lassendil and grinned wickedly, “Looks like we’ve found our army.”

 

Hours later, well past midnight, Gywna unrolled a blanket on the flagstone floor near the fire. Fatigue had progressed to bone-aching exhaustion. She stifled a groan as she stretched out. She would never have thought that a hard floor could feel like a feather mattress, but this one did.

Gywna’s head still whirled at the knowledge they would not stand alone against the Tarzark after all. Upon discovering they were not the only survivors, she and the others had brought as many people as possible in out of the cold. Fireplaces throughout the vast castle now roared invitingly. They shared the remaining food out, and the City-Lord’s secret hoard was ransacked.

At that moment, no less than one hundred and fifty confused and weary men and women, with some children among them, bedded down for the night. Despite their exhaustion, the survivors had been full of questions. Gywna, like the others, had tried her best to answer them. However, she knew it would take time for the enormity of what had happened to sink in.

The survivors would not have much time for contemplation, for many of them had volunteered to join the small army Jennadil was amassing. They would leave tomorrow, as soon as they were able. It was a three-day—two days if they travelled by night as well—journey to Falcon’s Mount on the East-West Highway, and they could not afford to delay their departure.

Gywna lay on her side, feeling the fire’s warmth seep into her tired body. She thought of Falcon’s Mount burning and of the last bastion of Orin falling to the Tarzark. Her stomach cramped and she prayed to the Wraiths of her Ancestors that the people of Falcon’s Mount would be able to keep the Tarzark at bay for a while yet.

Gywna was glad that, despite their collective bone-weariness, her companions had unanimously decided to go the aid of Falcon’s Mount—and she was especially relieved Lassendil had agreed to join them. She was not ready to say good-bye to him and, although she had never suffered from an infatuation before, Gywna knew she was held in Lassendil’s thrall. During dinner that evening, her gaze had constantly strayed to him. Now though, Lassendil appeared oblivious to her.

 

A few feet away from Gywna, Adelyis lay quietly, feigning sleep. She waited until everyone slumbered before she got up from her place near the fire. She stepped over Gywna, who was snoring gently, and padded to the other end of the kitchen. Will Stellan lay stretched out on the table. His breathing was shallow, his ashen skin slick with sweat. He looked terrible.

Adelyis realised with a shock that he was dying.

She furtively looked over her shoulder. They were all sleeping soundly, including her brother. Lassendil was a light sleeper but the day’s trauma had exhausted him like everyone else. Adelyis longed to stretch out in front of the fire once more and let sleep claim her but she could not do so knowing Will Stellan might be dead in the morning.

The ‘enhancement’ she and Jennadil had experienced on top of the tower still hummed through her. It was an odd sensation and it gave her an extraordinary awareness of her own body. The ‘enhancement’ had increased her command of magic; she instinctively knew things she had not before.

Without any further hesitation, Adelyis undid Will’s shirt and placed one hand, palm down, in the centre of his bare chest. The other hand she cupped over his throat, just under his chin. She would try an Ennadil healing rite in conjunction with her own powers.

Adelyis closed her eyes and murmured soft words. The energy that buzzed around her increased in intensity and prickled her skin. The sensation of her hands on Will’s clammy skin changed and she became aware of the network of veins, muscles, sinews and bones that held his body together. He had lost much blood and was dangerously chilled and dehydrated.

A bolus of heat formed in Adelyis’s open palms. She reached out with her mind and pushed the heat into Will’s body; feeling it suffuse him with warmth. She repeated this until the skin under her hands lost its corpse-like feeling and his breathing deepened. Colour reappeared in his face and his pulse strengthened.

Finally, Adelyis removed her hands from him and did up his shirt. She covered him with a rough blanket.

Will’s eyes flickered open. His gaze met Adelyis’s.

“Hello, princess,” he croaked.

Adelyis felt tears sting the back of her eyes. She blinked furiously and smiled. “Welcome back,” she whispered.

Adelyis propped Will up with a few cushions under his shoulders and poured him a cup of warm water, to which she had added some herbs. He winced as he tried to sit up straighter so the water would not spill down his neck.

“Easy does it.” Adelyis steadied the cup and when he had finished it, poured him another. Then she spoon-fed him some broth. He had not eaten since his capture and, despite his weakness, he was ravenous. Adelyis sagged in relief as she fed him. She had never used her magic to heal before. It was a skill that usually took many years of study to acquire; and she could not even remember how she had done it. It had been instinctive and had drained her of the ‘enhancement’ she had felt upon combining her powers with Jennadil’s—bringing Will back from the brink of death had sapped it from her.

Will finished the last of the broth and looked up at Adelyis’s face. His eyes were soft and, once again, she forced back the urge to cry.

“I wanted to thank you,” she said hesitantly, “for what you did for us. It was far too noble and self-sacrificing but I understand why you did it.”

Will smiled weakly, “I had to give you a chance to escape—even if you didn’t listen to me.”

“I know I’m stubborn,” she replied. “It is one of my least endearing traits.”

Will smiled and, reaching out, caught Adelyis’s hand in his. His skin was warm. Adelyis could feel his pulse beating quickly against her palm. Her gaze locked with his.

“Adelyis,” Will murmured, “I must speak to you.”

Adelyis gently brought her free hand up and placed her fingers across his lips. “Not here Will. We should wait until this is all over.”

“We might never get another chance,” Will replied, his face suddenly so sad that Adelyis had to look away. She knew what Will wanted to say to her and she felt the same way—only she was terrified of hearing it.

“We will,” she promised him.

 

***

 

Jennadil trudged down the long road through the melting snow. The way spiraled down from the great castle to the river valley below. The wizard walked at the head of the ragged band of survivors; tall and regal despite the travel and battle-stained green cape and clothes he wore.

Adelyis, Gywna, Lassendil and Taz followed close behind him. Taz and Lassendil carried Will on a stretcher. Will had awoken at dawn and after a light breakfast of broth and stale bread was rapidly looking better. His face was still pale and he winced as Taz stumbled over a rock and jolted the stretcher, but he had rallied now that his wounds had been cleaned and bandaged. Lassendil, who had tended the Orinian’s wounds the night before, had seen their severity and was amazed at Will Stellan’s rapid recovery.

Jennadil preferred not to question why it was he and not one of the others who led them down the hill. Ever since the weather spell, he had assumed an authority over the group, which was as unnatural as it was unnerving for him.

A lifetime of looking after himself and no one else made him uncomfortable in his new role. It had been thrust upon him and he did not want to lose the others’ respect by refusing to lead them. He was aware his manner and entire outlook on life had changed. He could not say he was happier this way; his once irreverent attitude had cushioned him against life’s harsher realities—but he had not liked the weak individual he had transformed into after Will helped him escape from Serranguard. The crushing, self-pitying sense of hopelessness that had dogged him since their departure from Falcon’s Mount had gone and he was aware of exactly what was required of him.

The snow had melted in patches and Jennadil saw, in the hollow of the river valley, the remains of the Morg’s tent city. He wondered if there had been any other survivors who had sought refuge in their former masters’ tents. He hoped so, for the eighty-two men who had spent the night within Serranguard’s protective walls were not nearly enough to take on the Tarzark.

Jennadil stared with fascination at the ravaged landscape. The Serran Valley had once been famed for its pastoral beauty. Jennadil had fond memories of lazy summer afternoons—and there had been many of those—lying on the banks of the Serran, listening to the sounds of haymaking and of the farmers working in the fields. He remembered the scent of apple blossom in the spring when the valley’s orchards blossomed, and the apple festival at the end of each summer. Apples in every edible form: pies, tarts, strudels, cakes, puddings; and potent cider were consumed in vast quantities. There were apple bobbing competitions and archery contests where apples were shot off barrels.

Jennadil had spent many an evening in local taverns in one of the hamlets that dotted the valley, drinking fine local ale and flirting with serving wenches. They were all fine memories, but all the more vivid for the Serran Valley unfolding before him bore no resemblance to Jennadil’s memories.

The Morg had felled every tree they could find. As the weather had grown colder, they had built large bonfires in a vain effort to warm themselves. The thickets of low evergreen trees that had once carpeted large tracts of the valley were gone, replaced by the wreckage of the Morg’s city.

They reached the bottom of the vale and travelled in silence down the narrow road that ran alongside the River Serran. Upon hearing footfalls on the road, figures emerged from some of the tents—more survivors. Jennadil welcomed them with a wave. He sent Gywna on to explain to them what had happened, while Taz and Lassendil went in search of discarded Morg weapons. Jennadil and Adelyis left Will with a group of Orinians and went looking for any animals – horses, mules or donkeys in particular—which would quicken their journey to Falcon’s Mount. They found none. Not even a scrawny chicken or a plaintively bleating goat remained. The Morg and their carrion birds had eaten everything.

Adelyis and Jennadil had almost given up when they discovered a Morg tent that was larger than most. The tent sat slightly apart from the others at the far end of the valley. Unlike many of the other tents, it had withstood the storm and was intact.

Jennadil parted the entrance to the tent and gasped when he saw what was inside.

Huddled together inside the tent, a quivering mass of silver feathers, was a roosting flock of Yangtul.

 

“You’re not getting me up on one of those things!” Gywna crossed her arms across her chest and glared at Jennadil under hooded lids.

“Fine, you can walk to Falcon’s Mount,” Jennadil dismissed her.

“We’ll all be walking to Falcon’s Mount,” Taz cut in. “These foul birds will peck out the eyes of anyone foolish enough to come within reach.”

As if to prove his point one of the Yangtul gave an ear-splitting screech and yanked at the heavy chain around its ankle—the only thing preventing the bird from savaging them. The Yangtul were all awake now, fiendishly hungry and in vile tempers. Where were their keepers? The birds stared at the group of humans with glowing, malevolent eyes.

The witch and the wizard exchanged a knowing glance before they turned to the others.

“They’ll do what we ask if they have no choice,” Adelyis said.

“An enslavement spell is crude but effective,” Jennadil added by way of explanation.

Their companions stared at them with varying degrees of distaste; none of them were warming to the idea of riding one of these Yangtul, even if it was under an enchantment. Seeing their skepticism, Jennadil sighed.

“None of you has a better plan so it will be done this way. Please step outside.” The wizard waved his companions away. “Adelyis and I have some work to do.”

 

The sun was well above the horizon when an unlikely army rode out of Serranguard. The procession of Yangtul and humans trickled out of the valley, across the river and onto the East-West Highway towards Falcon’s Mount.

Most of the travelers rode double atop a disgruntled Yangtul, while some sat on wagons pulled by a pair of birds. Jennadil had managed to gather just one hundred and fifty-four men. It was not nearly enough but there was no time to search for more survivors. Apart from a few women who insisted on fighting alongside their men, the women and children had remained at Serranguard with the men whose injuries prevented them from accompanying the army. Will Stellan should have been among them, but he had made such a fuss about being left behind Jennadil had finally relented.

“You won’t be much use to us, half dead as you are,” Jennadil had reminded his friend bluntly.

“I’ll be the judge of that!” Will had countered.

Jennadil had known better than to argue the point and truthfully Will’s tactical and battle skills would come in handy once they reached Falcon’s Mount. Will Stellan was riding double behind Taz and stoically putting up with the pain Jennadil knew his wounds must be causing him.

The day was crisp and bright—not a vestige of the thick, yellow clouds lingered. The sky was pale blue and the sun glittered white upon the bare landscape. Even though the weather spell had cleared, winter had definitely arrived. It was lucky for Isador it had, for any Morg remaining on the continent would surely perish if they stayed on.

Jennadil rode with Gywna behind him. Next to him rode Adelyis and Lassendil. The Yangtul squawked and tossed their heads, but could do nothing to break free of the powerful enchantment the wizards had placed upon them. The birds’ long sinewy legs covered the ground swiftly and by the time the sun had reached its zenith they had left Serranguard far behind.

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

Parallel Paths

 

 

On the same clear and frosty morning that Jennadil and his ragged army left Serranguard, the Orinians were struggling to hold the second level of Falcon’s Mount.

Battle had resumed at dawn and the Tarzark attacked even more ferociously than the day before. They erected great catapults and sent flaming projectiles over the walls. Fire plumed from many of the second level’s buildings; a great pall of oily smoke hung over the besieged city.

Even though she was some distance from the wall, Myra Brin was still not safe from the comets of fire that the Tarzark sorcerers hurled from their fingertips. Myra felt dangerously exposed on the ground. She peered up at the sky and blinked rapidly as her eyes watered from the smoke.

Atop the wall, a company of Orinian archers braved fire and arrows to prevent any Tarzark from scaling the fortification. A number of the reptiles tried to clamber up on the wall, only to be shot full of arrows and sent back from whence they came. The Orinian defense was holding for now but it was only a matter of time before the Tarzark would break through and take the second level.

Wiping her streaming eyes, Myra looked about for a position where she would be able to get a clear shot at the Tarzark. The greasy smoke caught at the back of her throat and she choked. Coughing and retching, she stumbled off the main thoroughfare and made for one of the townhouses. This one had been built with a high, slender tower so that its owner could survey Falcon’s Mount like the lords and ladies who resided in the palace above.

A domed roof, where carved pillars held the dome aloft, crowned the tower. The townhouse’s front door was open—the owners had long since run off. Myra made her way through the deserted house and found the entrance to the tower off the back courtyard. She climbed the circular stairwell and, reaching the top, saw she was not the only one who had realised the tower would make a good sniping spot.

The bounty hunter stood there, leaning indolently against a pillar. He was in the process of slotting an arrow into his bow. Upon Myra’s entrance, he looked up with mild surprise.

“Milady? Still dressed for the occasion I see,” he grinned at her.

Myra knew she looked a fright in her grimy boy’s clothes with a filthy hat pulled down around her ears—but since a horde of Tarzark were probably going to come crashing through the wall and hack them to death at any moment, her state of dress hardly mattered. She hesitated at the top of the stairwell and decided whether it was worth remaining up here with this man. Petty dislike seemed pointless when the enemy’s shadow was looming over them.

A fireball hit the side of the tower then—jolting Myra out of her introspection. She flung herself on the ground and narrowly avoided being toasted. Thick, pungent smoke filled the top of the tower. Choking, Myra rolled over onto her side and came face to face with Dael, who had also managed to save himself just in time. He was looking considerably less smug, for they were not as safe up here as he had assumed.

Exchanging wary glances, they pulled themselves up into a crouching position and readied their bows. The smoke was making Myra feel queasy, and they would have to wait for it to clear before getting a clear shot.

“So you’re staying?” Dael asked finally, his voice hoarse from the smoke.

“I have little choice,” Myra replied coldly. Just because she had to suffer this man’s company did not mean she had to share his banter. He smiled at her then, in such a way that Myra knew he had read her mind.

“Stop that!” she snapped.

“What?” He feigned innocence.

“My thoughts are private!”

“Private? Milady, you have the most transparent face I’ve ever seen. One look at your face and I don’t need to read your mind.”

Myra’s palm itched to slap him. She settled instead for turning her back on the bounty hunter. He was possessed with such a keen intelligence and sharp wit it was almost impossible to outtalk him. After snapping up the bait he offered, she came away looking foolish.

The smoke was beginning to clear. Myra peered over the edge of the tower wall and saw she had a clear shot of the Tarzark front lines. She could see the foot soldiers slithering over each other at the front, while their sorcerers formed a tight row further back and lobbed flaming globes of fire across the wall at regular intervals.

Dael glanced across at Myra, observing her reaction at the sight of the Tarzark. He was impressed to see her pale, grime-smeared face was calm and resolute. He had not said as much but he had been quietly impressed by her transformation since he had prevented her from taking her own life. She was a lot stronger than he had thought.

“Are you ready?” he asked her.

Myra nodded. “Once they realise we’re up here, they’ll bring the tower down,” she replied grimly.

Dael did not answer. Instead, he drew back his bowstring and waited for her to do the same.

Their bows sang as arrow after arrow shot into the Tarzark front lines.

Such was the fury of the Tarzark’s assault that they did not notice at first when the first few warriors fell and were trampled underfoot by their comrades. Dael and Myra managed to bring down more than a dozen before Argoth, killed by an arrow in the jugular, toppled against the Tarzark King.

Grull glared up to the slender tower wreathed in the haze of smoke. Argoth was Grull’s most loyal follower, a Captain from his earliest campaigns—and if Grull had been given to sentimentality he might have felt a pang at seeing this great Tarzark warrior felled. However, Grull felt nothing save fury that one of his best warriors had been slain and would no longer be of service to him. He shoved Argoth’s corpse aside and shouted for his sorcerers to aim an attack at the tower.

Now that Yaduk was no longer leading them, Grull’s sorcerers had become considerably more biddable. Ridding himself of Yaduk had been easier than Grull had anticipated. While they had been fighting that morning, Grull had employed his other loyal captain, Grimmak, to ‘accidentally’ fall against the sorcerer during the first assault. While doing so, he had slipped a knife between the sorcerer’s ribs. Yaduk had fallen and, in the chaos of battle, no one had suspected a thing. Although, even if they had, the rest of the sorcerers feared their King enough to pretend they had seen nothing.

A group of sorcerers nearest the tower clustered together in a red, fluttering mob. Howling curses, they sent forth tongues of fire.

 

Dael and Myra hit the ground as a sphere of flames wreathed the tower. The heat was blistering. Myra pressed her face to the stone floor and covered her head with her arms.

The heat clawed at her back and she felt a stomach-churning moment of fear at the thought she might be incinerated up here. Then, strong hands grasped her around the waist and dragged her backwards into the protection of the stairwell.

Just in time, for at that moment hungry flames spilled over the edge of the tower and roared across the floor where Myra and Dael had stood moments earlier. Dael’s ragged breathing was harsh in Myra’s ear. He pulled her close against him, protecting her body from the flames that licked against the entrance to the stairwell. They were in a furnace. Flames blazed in an orange mist through Myra’s closed eyelids and the intense heat made it difficult to breathe.

Finally, the flames abated. Myra and Dael sat up and sucked in deep gasps of air. The top of the tower was charred from the unnatural fire. Dael crawled past Myra and peered cautiously over the edge of the tower. He was careful not to touch the stone, which was still hissing with heat.

Watching the bounty hunter, Myra saw his body stiffen in alarm.

“Myra,” his voice, usually so self-assured, had a panicked edge to it. She moved closer to him and peeked over the edge of the wall, gasping when she saw what had alarmed him.

The Tarzark had broken through the Orinian defences.

They swarmed over the wall, an unstoppable tide of fearsome, scaled bodies. They would overrun the second level in a matter of minutes.

“We have to get out of here!” Myra’s voice rose in panic, “we’ll be trapped!”

Dael pulled Myra from the wall and pushed her ahead of him in the direction of the stairwell. For once Myra did not complain about his forthright manner. Instead, she shot down the circular stairwell with Dael at her heels. They raced through the empty townhouse and out onto the narrow street. To the right—the direction Myra had come from earlier—they could hear fighting and screams on the thoroughfare. The most direct route up to the citadel’s highest level was blocked. They would have to find an alternative.

Neither Dael nor Myra knew Falcon’s Mount well. Away from the main road, which corkscrewed its way up to the massive granite wall encircling the palace, Falcon’s Mount was a labyrinth of steep stairs going off in various directions and narrow lanes, many of which led to dead ends.

Fear drove them up stair after stair without thinking about stopping to catch their breath. It was only when Myra’s chest started to burn with exertion that she realised she would not be able to keep up with the lithe bounty hunter much longer.

“Wait!” she gasped, “I … can’t … go on without a rest!”

Myra stopped and bent over in an effort to breathe much needed air into her burning lungs. Breathing heavily, the bounty hunter stopped, drawing his sword as he stood beside Myra. His keen gaze swept over their surroundings.

“Do you know how to use that sword you carry?” he asked Myra.

“No.” Myra replied between gasps.

“Well, now would be a good time to learn. They’re coming.”

Myra looked up and saw, at the bottom of the long stairs they had just climbed, the flurry of grey capes. The Tarzark, fitter than either of them, were gaining easily.

Suddenly, Myra got her second wind. She turned and shot up the next staircase, clumsily drawing her sword as she did so. Seconds later, Dael was at her side. Myra’s legs felt rubbery but she forced herself on. She knew that they could not be far from the Palace. The ground was starting to level out now; a sign they had almost reached the wall. Fear clamped itself around Myra’s ribcage when she heard the slap of Tarzark feet on stone and the rasp of their breathing close behind them now.

They reached the end of a street and the gigantic stone wall which protected the palace reared up before them. Unfortunately, they had come out far below the main entrance. Dael started to turn right, towards the main gates but Myra grabbed his arm.

“The back entrance is closer!” she urged.

A gang of Tarzark surged onto the street in time to see the man and woman they had been pursuing, disappear down the wide cobbled street that encircled the palace walls. Their leader gave a roar of triumph and the Tarzark gave chase.

It was downhill and Myra was running so fast she was afraid her legs might give way under her.

Then, she risked a glance over her shoulder at their pursuers—and that was her undoing. The sight of them bearing down on her made Myra’s step falter. They were huge beasts; their flat reptilian faces and slit eyes, gleaming with bloodlust, scared her so thoroughly that she forgot she was running. Her legs tangled and she fell.

That would have been the end of her if Dael had not been there.

Myra sprawled on the cobbles, narrowly missing impaling herself on her own blade. Her chin hit the stones and she tasted blood. The Tarzark would have fallen upon her then and ripped to pieces, but Dael sprang in front of her.

“Myra! Run!”

Myra scrambled to her feet and blindly did as ordered. She had run a short distance when she realised she was leaving Dael to face the Tarzark.

She was leaving him to die.

Myra stopped and turned back to look behind her. Dael was sweeping his sword in front of him in a broad arc. The Tarzark were encircling him, waiting to pounce.

One of them saw Myra had foolishly stopped running. The Tarzark grimaced at her, revealing rows of pointed teeth and a serpent’s tongue that flicked out between them. Then, he started towards her.

Throwing aside her sword, Myra whipped out her longbow and before the Tarzark realised what she was up to she had shot an arrow at him. Her hands were shaking and so her aim was off. The arrow thudded into the Tarzark’s shoulder instead of his heart.

The Tarzark roared and thundered towards her. Within seconds, he would be too close, but Myra released the second arrow just in time—and this time her aim was true. It impaled him in the chest. The Tarzark staggered forward and collapsed, twitching, on the cobblestones in front of his intended victim.

“Myra, I told you to run!” Dael shouted.

Ignoring the bounty hunter, Myra shot four arrows in quick succession, which felled two more of the enemy. The remaining Tarzark, incensed that these two slight creatures were proving troublesome, fell on the bounty hunter in a rage.

Myra was relieved to see Dael knew how to handle himself with a sword. She watched in awe as he danced his way around the Tarzark, deflecting their chops and lunges with graceful feints and parries. Myra waited, longbow at the ready, for another clear shot but she could not get one.

Given time, she and Dael might have been able to fight off the small band of Tarzark – but when another pack exploded from a side street, Myra’s burgeoning hopes faded.

Dael saw them as well, before the Tarzark he was fighting did. He pulled his blade free of the belly of one of the Tarzark and pushed him into the path of his comrades—then he turned and fled.

Dael and Myra sprinted down the street; and this time neither made the mistake of looking behind them. From the thundering behind them, they knew they did not just have a company of Tarzark on their tail now, but a whole host.

Terror gave Myra speed she never knew she possessed. The gate loomed before them and Myra was horrified to see they had almost finished lowering the portcullis. The large metal teeth were nearly at the ground. In seconds, they would be locked out.

“Stop!” Myra screamed. “Open the gates!”

“Myra!”

On the other side of the metal grid, Myra saw Lord Aran Fier. His lean face seemed to have aged years since she had last seen him. He stood, covered in dust, blood and grime, overseeing his guards as they sealed the palace’s back entrance.

“Let us in!” Myra pleaded. “The Tarzark are almost upon us!”

Without hesitation, Lord Fier gave the order and slowly the portcullis started to rise.

Dael and Myra rolled to the ground and squeezed under it. There was barely enough room for them to get under and the metal teeth snagged and ripped their clothes. Then, suddenly, they were through and the portcullis slammed down as the Tarzark crashed against it. Their claws raked at Myra and she felt a sting as one of them slashed her arm. She rolled away and sat up, staring at the giant, bipedal lizards.

The Tarzark watched her with malevolent, hooded eyes. They bit, clawed and slashed at the portcullis in blind rage but to no avail. Lord Fier barked an order and his men locked the portcullis and pushed the heavy oak gates shut, bolting them securely in six places.

“Seal off the gate!” Lord Fier bellowed. “No one will be getting in or out of this entrance!”

All of Myra’s remaining strength drained from her. She sat there in the dust, not even bothering to get up. She looked across at Dael; his dark skin shone with sweat and he was breathing heavily. However, when he caught Myra’s eye he winked.

“Not bad milady,” he drawled. “I’ll make a fighter out of you yet.”

To her own great surprise, Myra laughed.

 

***

 

The half-moon hung high in the heavens when Jennadil slowed his Yangtul. Behind him, the army of ragged but resolute Orinians and Ennadil came to a halt. They had ridden hard for hours without taking a break. Falcon’s Mount still lay many hours ride to the east but Will had warned Jennadil that his army would be no use to him if they arrived at Falcon’s Mount and then collapsed from hunger and exhaustion. It was time to take an hour’s rest.

It was a clear, cold night and a thick silver crust of frost had settled over the landscape. The highway was deserted and shadowed on one side by the silent boughs of Delm Forest.

Jennadil swung down from the saddle, grimacing as he did so. He was not much of a rider on horseback at the best of times – but these birds were even more uncomfortable to ride and their feathers made his nose itch.

Gywna slid down after him, brushing aside the hand he held out to steady her. She cast him an imperious look and Jennadil was reminded, once again, of her father. Since confronting Morgarth Evictar, he and Gywna tolerated each other more readily but Jennadil doubted they would ever become fast friends. She was one of the few females he had ever met that he could not charm.

Jennadil watched as Gywna rubbed her aching posterior and scowled. Her gaze then traveled over to where Adelyis and Lassendil were dismounting. Jennadil saw Gywna’s face soften as she looked at Lassendil, and the wizard felt a twinge of pity for the girl. He had seen that expression before when women had fallen for him. He had once enjoyed the knowledge his easy words had charmed yet again, but he had never known what it felt like to be infatuated. Seeing Gywna’s look of hurt when Lassendil ignored her, Jennadil was relieved that he had not.

Jennadil had always been a keen observer of human nature and over the past days, he had noticed an intricate pattern of unspoken tension between those he traveled with. He observed Adelyis and Will’s closeness and their obvious, but undeclared, attraction and affection for each other. He also saw that it upset Lassendil.

Jennadil had suspected that Lassendil had firmly held views on Ennadil and Orinians inter-breeding, and even stronger views on Ennadil wizards and witches remaining chaste. His inflexibility did not surprise Jennadil for many Ennadil still believed they were genetically superior to their neighbours, and that their bloodline should be kept pure.

Being half Ennadil, half Orinian—Jennadil had no such views. He marveled at how two races with more in common than not, could get on so badly. His parents were a notable exception. Ennadil and Orinian society had banished them because they each refused to give the other up. Jennadil knew he could have blamed the prejudices of both races for indirectly causing his parents death; for they would never have been living in the isolated foothills of the Silver Peak Mountains, where they died, if they had resided at Mirren or Aranith as they had wished.

Despite this injustice, Jennadil Silverstern could not dredge up any bitterness. It saddened rather than embittered him to see that, even now, when both races had been so diminished, petty resentment lingered between the Orinians and the Ennadil. Some, he mused, never learned.

Jennadil stretched his arms skyward in an effort to release his cramped back muscles. As he did so, he saw Lassendil remove a bladder of water from his saddlebag and hand it to his sister. Adelyis gave a wan smile in thanks, pulled off the plug and took a few gulps of water before passing it back to him.

Then, Adelyis walked away from her brother, over to where Will Stellan was gingerly dismounting, with Taz’s assistance. Adelyis approached Will and Taz, and wrapped her arms around both of them.

Watching the trio, Jennadil realised how much they must have gone through together. Like him, Lassendil and Gywna, circumstance had bonded them.

Jennadil saw he was not the only one who had witnessed the hug between Will and Adelyis. Lassendil’s face was dark, and his body rigid with disapproval. He looked as if he wanted to smash his fist into the Orinian’s face.

Making matters worse, Adelyis smiled warmly up at Will and held his gaze for far longer than was appropriate between friends. Disgusted, Lassendil stalked off into the mass of resting Yangtul, Orinians and Ennadil.

Jennadil took a swig of stale water and chewed on a piece of cheese. He offered Gywna some water but she shrugged him away. Lassendil was the only person she had regarded a friend on this quest, and he had ignored her ever since they had taken refuge in Serranguard after the snowstorm.

On the verge of tears, Gywna brushed past Jennadil and disappeared into the shadowed boughs of Delm Forest. After a moment’s hesitation, Jennadil put aside his light supper and followed her. When he caught up with Gywna, she was leaning against the trunk of an ancient oak, crying. It was obvious that tears did not come easily to Gywna Brin. She cried as if in physical pain. Jennadil was not surprised she had developed a tough shell—her father had taught her that.

Overcome with pity, Jennadil went to Gywna. In an effort to comfort her, he gently pulled her against him. In other circumstances, Gywna would have kneed Jennadil in the groin for his familiarity, but such was her misery that she just hung limply in his arms. Jennadil did not speak a word. He just stroked her tangled brown curls in an effort to soothe her.

Finally, Gywna managed to regain some self-control and pulled back from the wizard. Jennadil met her eyes and smiled gently but Gywna looked away from him and hastily rubbed at her face with the edge of her cloak.

“If you tell anybody about this, I’ll geld you!” Gywna muttered, trying to grasp at her shredded dignity.

Jennadil laughed and shook his head. “Your secret is safe with me Gywna,” he assured her, “but don’t go thinking anyone would think any less of you if they saw you cry.”

“For you perhaps,” Gywna sniffed. “It matters not however for this time tomorrow we’ll all be dead.”

“That may be the case.” Jennadil looked Gywna in the eye. “Or it may not be. You don’t have the gift of foresight so I suggest you let the future write itself.”

“I don’t care,” Gywna snapped before the defiance suddenly went out of her. Fresh tears threatened, but this time Gywna was able to push them back. Her eyes glittered as she glared back at Jennadil. He could see she hated him for seeing her so vulnerable.

“Gywna,” he said sadly, “you’re too young to give up hope so easily. Where’s that fighting spirit of yours? Don’t throw away your life tomorrow as if it has no meaning. You are young and beautiful … yes don’t scowl like that … you are beautiful.”

Gywna was now glowering at him; certain he was having fun at her expense. Jennadil sighed and tried to remain patient.

“Listen to me Gywna. I saw Arridel had faith in you and it may surprise you to know I do as well. That sword you carry is the last of its kind—and so are you. You are the only remaining Guardian of the Ancestral Flame and when you wield that sword an ancient magic that has all but been forgotten comes alive in your veins. You’re strong. Don’t let one man’s opinion of you make you forget who you are.”

Gywna stared back at the wizard, at a loss for words. He was not sure if his bluntess had offended or embarrassed her. “I know who I am,” she replied finally. Her cheeks had turned pink. The wizard saw her conflict and smiled in sympathy.

“I apologise if I see too much Gywna but I know the look of a woman in love.” He held up a hand to ward off the fury he could see brewing. “Save your wrath for tomorrow on the battlefield. Remember though that Lassendil has his mind on other matters at present. Adelyis and Will are getting too close for his liking and he is having trouble understanding or accepting it.”

Gywna’s eyes widened at this. She had been so caught up in her own thoughts she had not noticed.

“Thank you for your advice,” she said gruffly. Tired of letting the wizard see her at her worst, she turned to go back to the others.

Jennadil’s hand closed over her shoulder and stopped her in her tracks. “Gywna?”

She met his gaze. “What is it?”

“You’re not in this alone. We’ve been through a lot, you and I, and although we haven’t always gotten along, fate has ensured our paths have run parallel. I’ll be at your side tomorrow and I’ll be looking out for you.”

Gywna smiled and the expression transformed her face. “Thank you Jennadil,” she replied sincerely, “and I’ll be looking out for you.”

Jennadil let Gywna go ahead, hesitating under the branches of the ancient oak where he had found her crying.

This forest had an aura about it; a primeval wisdom and silence that whispered of what the world had once been millenniaago, before the Ennadil and Orinians arrived and tamed its wilderness. In those days, the Tarzark and Gremul had roamed freely over the continent. Jennadil made a silent promise to himself that if they somehow managed to defeat the Tarzark and he survived the battle, he would return to this forest to live.

Its age, silence and wisdom had a lot to teach him.

After a few minutes, Jennadil followed Gywna back to the army and shared some of his supper with her. Then, massaging an aching muscle in his shoulder, he wandered over to where Adelyis and Will sat in companionable silence next to each other on a fallen log. He could see they were both exhausted.

Jennadil perched on the edge of the log and took a piece of dried meat Will handed him. He smiled at his friend, remembering their parting in Serranguard’s dungeons over a year earlier. Like Jennadil, Will Stellan had changed since then. A little of his arrogance had been knocked out of him. Will and Jennadil had once shared the same love of banter and witty, barbed comments – but neither of them had the energy for it these days.

“How are your wounds?” Jennadil asked Will finally.

“I’m holding together,” Will replied. “Lassendil wrapped me up pretty tight.”

“Will you be able to fight?”

“If I can’t I’ll be Tarzark fodder.”

“Any thoughts on how a hundred soldiers against a Tarzark force of thousands are going to prevail?”

Will gave a wry grin and for a moment, his boyish countenance reminded Jennadil of the Will Stellan of old. “The odds are not in our favour,” Will agreed, “but remember Falcon’s Mount has been under siege for the past three days. If the Tarzark have managed to take the city our journey will have been for nothing, but if the Orinians have managed to hold against the enemy then the Tarzark force will be greatly diminished and we may have a chance.“ Will paused then and looked over at where Adelyis sat silently next to him. Then, his gaze flicked back to Jennadil.

“I heard about what you two did yesterday. That storm you roused nearly brought down Serranguard. Taz told me that it is rare for wizards to be able to combine their powers like that.”

“It’s called ‘enhancement’,” Adelyis spoke for the first time. Her expression was wary and Jennadil could see she did not feel comfortable speaking of it. He knew how she felt. Remnants of the ‘enhancement’ between them still hummed through his body, even a day later. The intensity of the power they had unleashed had unnerved them both. Jennadil had found the sensation dangerously addictive. It had frightened Adelyis, and Jennadil could tell she was not keen to try it again.

“Could you use this power against the Tarzark?” Will ventured. “We may need another weapon at our disposal tomorrow.”

Adelyis nodded and drew her cloak tightly around her, warding off the night’s chill. Seeing her discomfort, Will put an arm about her shoulders. “What is it Adelyis?”

“’Enhancement’ is a dangerous weapon,” she replied. “Unless we learn how to control it properly, the power it unleashes could turn against us.”

Jennadil felt Will’s eyes on him. He raised his face from where he had been studying his dusty boots, to meet Will’s questioning gaze. “Is this true?”

Jennadil scratched his neck and nodded. “With time, ‘enhancement’ could be of great use to both the Ennadil and the Orinians but Adelyis is right. Without first learning how to control it, the power is dangerous.”

“Then, what will you do tomorrow if we need you?”

Jennadil looked across at Adelyis and caught her eye.

They both knew what ‘enhancement’ did to them. It made them greedy. It made them feel invincible. It made them forget who they were and want nothing but that feeling of immense power. The desire for it was so strong it had taken all their self-control not to succumb to it.

“If there is dire need we will aid you,” Jennadil replied firmly, still holding Adelyis’s gaze, “but only if there is no other choice.”

 

***

 

Myra fastened her chilled fingers around the bowl of steaming stew and gazed up at the half-moon. She had rarely ever seen such a bright, clear night. There would be a hoar frost in the morning. The night air was as sharp as a knife blade.

“You’ll freeze out here.” A rough blanket draped around Myra’s shoulders and she glanced sideways to see Dael beside her at the wall where she stood atop one of the palace’s highest towers.

“What are you doing up here?” she said tiredly. “Worried I might jump again?”

Dael caught the edge of wry humour to her voice and chuckled.

“I didn’t do you many favours by not letting you jump did I?” he said after a moment of silence had passed between them. “You could have been saved all of this.”

Myra studied his dark profile for a second before replying. When she did, her voice was low. “I know it may not seem that way but you did me a favour.”

“I did?”

“You forced me to face things I’d been avoiding for too long.”

“I take it your husband was not in agreement to you donning men’s clothes and joining the plebs in battle?”

“He tried to kill me,” Myra replied quietly, “and he would have if I hadn’t fought back. After that I ran away.”

“I shouldn’t have left you there,” Dael’s voice hardened. “I’ve suspected for awhile that Theo Brin has been steadily losing his grip on reality.”

Myra laughed. “That’s one way of putting it!”

“I could say he’s a calculating, controlling lunatic if you’d prefer.”

“That would be closer to the truth.” The laughter died out of Myra’s voice and she shivered. “He’s still around here, somewhere.”

“He’s probably lurking behind the thickest door he could find in the palace,” Dael assured her. “For all his bluster Theo Brin is a coward—and this time he has no place to run.”

“I’ve heard it said that cowards are dangerous when desperate,” Myra replied. “He’ll kill me if he sets eyes on me again.”

“Not if you stick him first,” a wicked gleam lit the bounty hunter’s eyes. “After seeing you in action today, Myra, I don’t think he’ll be a match for you.”

Myra grinned back. “We made a good team didn’t we?”

“We did,” Dael replied, smiling down at her.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

The Tide Turns

 

 

Lord Brin stared, bleary eyed, from his chamber window down to where he could see the surging wave of Tarzark breaking around the palace’s outer wall.

The sun’s first rays were slipping over the edge of the Sawtooth Mountains to the east. Beyond those evil mountains lay a vast, inhospitable wasteland that stretched north until Isador’s shores met a wild ocean. Theo Brin had never seen the Tarzark Kingdom but the knowledge that these creatures were spawn of that land filled him with terror.

The palace’s outer wall was high and solid granite. However, Lord Brin could see it would not hold the Tarzark for long. Theo stared at them in awful fascination. Each Tarzark warrior had twice the size and strength of the average human male. The only advantage an Orinian soldier had in a fight was agility and speed.

Theo Brin clutched the marble windowsill until his fingers ached, trying to quell the violent trembling in his limbs. He had not stopped gulping wine since the Tarzark had attacked, but upon seeing the beasts as they made their final assault on Falcon’s Mount, a cold sobriety washed over him. His bowels cramped and his stomach roiled.

“My Lord,” Vermel Ham spoke from behind him. “You are unwell. It is best if you come away from the window.”

Theo Brin cast his counsellor a contemptuous look but did not bother to reply. Vermel Ham’s dogged loyalty bemused Theo. He had lost everyone he had once trusted; but still Vermel Ham had remained at his side.

Theo Brin did not need a counsellor these days.

Theo would have preferred to drink himself into oblivion without his counsellor standing there wringing his hands; but Vermel Ham would not hear of it. Even so, the counsellor looked terrible. His skin was pallid and shiny and his eyes bulged from a constant state of fear.

“They are coming Vermel,” Theo finally slurred. “They will hack us all to pieces, down to the last man, woman and child.”

The counsellor gave Lord Brin a pained look but said nothing while Theo continued his drunken ranting.

“This is all the fault of Aran Fier,” Theo’s voice took on a malevolent tone. “The man’s arrogance has brought ruin to this city. The Tarzark on one side, the Morg on the other—impossible odds—but that fool did not care.”

“My Lord! Aran Fier is an honourable man,” Vermel gasped.

“He should have surrendered!” Theo bellowed. Spittle flew from his mouth and his already crimson face turned puce. “He decided our fate without ever consulting me!”

Vermel Ham watched Lord Brin anxiously. There were times when he was sure Theo would die of apoplexy, his rage was so extreme. At moments such as these, the counsellor saw madness light in Theo Brin’s eyes. The City-Lord had slipped into insanity a few days earlier when he had tried to kill his wife and had murdered Hugo, his chamberlain. Vermel had been summoned to Lord Brin’s chambers to find Theo in a catatonic state. Hugo lay dead in a pool of congealed blood on the flagstone floor near the door. The sword Theo had stuck him with still protruded from his belly.

Once Theo had recovered his wits, he ordered Vermel to dispose of the body and to send out a search party for his wife. The look in Lord Brin’s eyes as he gave the order had chilled his counsellor. Even after years in his service, Vermel had the sensation he was staring at a stranger—one who was capable of anything.

Now, Vermel could see Lord Brin slipping into madness once more. His stout, richly clad body quivered with the force of his rage. His chubby, ring encrusted fingers clenched and unclenched. The counsellor watched Theo tear himself from the window ledge and limp across the chamber to where his swords hung on the far wall. One of them was missing. Myra Brin had taken the City-Lord’s ceremonial sword to fend off her crazed husband.

Theo ripped the second sword off the wall; it was the sword he had plunged into Hugo’s belly. Vermel was horrified to see Theo clutching it in his trembling hands. His first thought was that the City-Lord planned to do away with him too. The counsellor shuffled backwards, mute with fright but Theo Brin ignored him.

The City-Lord limped, as quickly as his broken foot would allow, across the chamber. Ignoring Vermel Ham, Theo Brin disappeared into the corridor beyond.

 

The soldiers defending the palace’s main gates were taken aback when a squat, jowly figure dressed in flowing velvet robes and brandishing a heavy sword, stumbled into their midst.

It took a few moments for them to recognise the wild-eyed individual as Lord Brin. When they did, many of the soldiers just stared at the City-Lord in surprise. They had not expected Lord Brin to join them in battle, especially not on the front line.

“Listen to me!” Theo Brin bellowed. “I’m in charge here. I demand you let me through. Let me through now I say!”

The soldiers stood back respectfully, allowing the City-Lord to limp his way to the front of the gate.

“It’s the only way, the only way,” Theo ranted. “Listen to them, gnashing their teeth and sharpening their blades. If they take this palace by force we will be slaughtered! I must talk to their King. I must negotiate. We shall have a graceful surrender and I will negotiate the terms!”

The tired, battle-worn faces of his men stared at Theo uncomprehendingly for a moment before his bizarre request sunk in. Outside, the Tarzark were slamming their massive battering ram into the gates and this fool was talking about a graceful surrender?

“You can’t negotiate with the Tarzark milord,” one of the soldiers pointed out. “They aren’t here to talk.”

The gate shuddered from the force of the battering ram, making the soldier’s point. Theo Brin however, was beyond listening to reason.

“Open the gate!” Theo bellowed. “I order you to open this gate at once!” He swung the broadsword around in a dangerous arc, causing the men nearest him to draw back.

“Milord!” the soldier who had objected earlier spoke up once more. He was a tall, swarthy man who bore the scars of a seasoned soldier—and he was visibly losing patience with Lord Brin’s antics. The soldier strode through the crowd, to where Theo Brin was edging up to the gate.

“Such talk is folly. The Tarzark will not parley with you or anyone else. It is madness to think they would!”

“Madness is it?” Theo shrieked. “I’m in charge here! Curr!”

Abruptly, the City-Lord seemed to lose his staggering, clumsy appearance. He flew at the soldier with a flash of steel, and his victim never had time to put his guard up. The broadsword sliced into the hollow at the base of the soldier’s neck. Blood spurted and the man fell, gurgling, to the ground.

Theo dropped the sword and rushed to the gate. He started to heave at the pulley that lifted the portcullis. His eyes bulged with the strain, but the portcullis slowly began to lift.

Despite their collective shock at what Lord Brin had done, the soldiers would not have let the City-Lord raise the portcullis and unbar the gates. Some moved menacingly towards him but before they could reach Lord Brin, another figure swathed in velvet appeared. This man was taller and even more corpulent than Theo Brin, and he rushed into their midst wielding another ceremonial sword.

Vermel Ham, his face creased into a grimace, walked up to Theo Brin and raised his weapon.

“Lord Brin, I as Counsellor to the City-Lord of Serranguard, deem you unfit and relieve you of your duties. Step away from the gate!”

“What?” Theo shrieked with laughter, continuing to pull open the portcullis. “Worm—I don’t take orders from you.”

“My Lord,” Vermel Ham repeated calmly while the soldiers clustered around looked on. Mesmerised by the absurd scene unfolding in front of them, the soldiers forgot the horde of Tarzark trying to force their way into the palace. “I repeat, step away from the gate. Lord Brin, you are no longer fit to command.”

“Get away from me!” Theo snarled. The portcullis was now half-raised. Sweat poured from Theo Brin’s forehead as he strained to finish the job.

Vermel Ham lunged forward and skewered the City-Lord on his blade.

Theo Brin’s scream echoed off the palace walls. He collapsed forward, let go of the pulley and fell to the ground. Vermel Ham sank to his knees beside the man he had served for twenty years. He gaped at the sword he had sunk into Theo Brin’s chest, struggling to comprehend what he had just done.

“Vermel …” Blood bubbled on Theo Brin’s lips. Vermel Ham stared into Lord Brin’s eyes. The maniac had disappeared and the man he had once considered a friend had returned.

“I am sorry milord,” Vermel Ham whispered, “but things have gone too far.”

Theo Brin closed his eyes and nodded. “I’m sorry Vermel,” he gasped. “All these years … and I never took your advice when it really mattered.”

Vermel Ham’s vision blurred and tears ran down his cheeks. He sat back on his heels and watched as Theo Brin’s body went slack and the life left him.

“Counsellor.”

Vermel Ham looked up and found Lord Fier standing over him. The counsellor’s stomach twisted and he started to tremble. He had not realised the City-Lord of Falcon’s Mount had watched his act of treason. Vermel drew in a deep breath and waited for retribution. Instead, Lord Fier stepped forward and held out his hand.

“You served him well.” The City-Lord looked upon him kindly. “But in the end he left you no choice.

Vermel Ham took Lord Fier’s hand and got to his feet.

Behind them, the portcullis slammed shut. A moment later, the Tarzark’s battering ram burst through the thick gates and hit the portcullis which such a force that the iron screamed and bent inwards. The Tarzark started to pull the gate to pieces in a frenzy. The portcullis would not hold them for long.

Vermel Ham picked up Theo Brin’s discarded sword, still stained with the blood of the soldier the City-Lord had slain. Vermel took a deep breath and felt strength and calmness settle over him.

Whatever happened now there would be no turning back from it, no running away, no hiding.

A short while later the last of the palace gates were ripped aside and Vermel Ham spied the surging mass of Tarzark beyond. Their howls assaulted his ears and Vermel watched the portcullis buckle and bend inwards. The last barrier between them and their quarry was falling. Grey and red capes fluttered amongst the multitude of scaled, leather cased bodies. Their eyes shone with blood lust. Their huge mandibles gnashed and their hands stretched out towards the Orinians behind the portcullis.

Vermel Ham stared at the reptiles, unable to tear his eyes from them. His death loomed before him, and he raised his sword to meet it.

 

***

 

There was little heat in the morning sun, barely enough to melt the hard frost carpeting the land. The sweating bodies and breathing of the small army steamed in the dry air. The Yangtul loped along the deserted highway, meeting no one during their path east—all had forsaken this land.

It was mid-morning when the conical outline of Falcon’s Mount hove into view; a purple silhouette against a pale blue sky. At the head of the convoy, seated behind Taz, Will Stellan squinted up at the city and saw the plumes of smoke rising from its crown. It was the fourth morning since the Tarzark attack had begun but Falcon’s Mount had not fallen yet. Will turned in the saddle, wincing as he did so, and shouted to the others.

“The palace is still under siege!” His voice cut through the chill air. “Falcon’s Mount holds against the enemy! Ride to their aid and slay any Tarzark in your path!”

The army responded and, surprisingly, for one hundred and fifty four strong, the very air vibrated with their roar. Falcon’s Mount stood on the brink and they would fight to the death to defend it.

Despite his injuries, Will felt the thrill of battle ignite within him. In front of him, a warrior to the core, Taz let out an almighty roar, causing their Yangtul to leap into the air in fright. The Gremul brandished his sword and dug his horny heels into the Yangtul’s flanks. The great bird squawked and bounded forward into a loping sprint. Battle cries echoed behind Will and Taz and the ground thundered with heavy Yangtul feet.

Falcon’s Mount edged closer and soon the full extent of the damage the city had sustained became clearly visible. The Tarzark had hammered relentlessly at the citadel’s outer wall. Chunks of stone lay on the pockmarked battlefield amongst the corpses of Tarzark and Orinians.

Will smiled grimly as they approached the main gates. The heavy iron doors hung open, and one had come off its hinges. Grull had foolishly not left any Tarzark guards outside to defend the city. Instead, he had brought all his warriors up into the higher levels of Falcon’s Mount. Grull’s overconfidence would be used to their advantage. The scene they rode through also revealed that the Tarzark’s taking of Falcon’s Mount had turned out to be no easy task. Will guessed that although they were clearly winning, the Tarzark had suffered heavy losses. Grull needed every able-bodied warrior at his side for the final assault.

The army thundered inside Falcon’s Mount and into the central market square. Before them lay scenes of horrific carnage. Butchered corpses carpeted the ground and the stench was terrible. Carrion crows sat atop the walls, sinister and watchful; their stomachs distended from feasting on the dead.

Will had witnessed scenes of death many times before. Apart from the massacre on the Jade Plains, few had been as gruesome as this. Will heard retching and gagging behind him and knew it would do them no good to linger here.

“Butchers!” he yelled, brandishing his sword in the air. “They will pay for the lives they have taken!”

Rage overcame revulsion. The soldiers who rode behind Will Stellan looked down at the slain bodies and prepared themselves to ride over the dead. They charged through the market square and onto the wide road which corkscrewed up the citadel.

The entire city smoked from the Tarzark assault. Bodies littered their path but they rode on, turning their faces away from the grisly scenes around them.

The wall surrounding the second level reared up before the army and Will saw that although the gates were open, there were Tarzark soldiers guarding the entrance. Too late, the Tarzark saw the rabble of huge birds and their howling riders thundering up the incline towards the wall. There was no time to close the gates. The Tarzark drew their weapons and stood their ground. The first riders crashed into them and they cut the Tarzark down in a flurry of clawed Yangul feet and flashing sword blades.

Taz and Will led the charge up the hill. The road wound tightly now, through the higher levels of the city, past once palatial town houses, many of which had been reduced to rubble. Upon seeing the extensive damage, Will realised that there had been more at work here than just catapults and steel. The Tarzark sorcerers’ command of magic was legendary and the air was thick with it.

Jennadil and Gywna rode to Will’s right. Jennadil’s face was set in such a fierce expression he was barely recognisable as the devil-may-care wastrel that Will had once caroused with. Jennadil held the reins with one hand, a sword in the other—and his staff was strapped across his back. Behind him, Gywna Brin had unsheathed her Wraith Sword. She crouched behind the wizard, her eyes glowing.

The closer they got to the palace itself, the more Tarzark they encountered. Many of the stragglers were injured or dying, while others were guarding the area. Most of them fell under the onslaught of enraged Orinians and Ennadil atop birds so frightening that even the Tarzark cringed before their glowing red eyes and viciously hooked beaks. Those who did not fall were left behind as the army thundered through their midst.

Finally, the palace wall hove into sight. A huge granite barrier, it rose up before the domes and towers of the dove-coloured palace beyond. The heavy gates lay in pieces before the wall and the portcullis had been breached. A throng of fighting Tarzark and Orinians surged around the entrance to the palace. From the looks of things, the Tarzark had just broken through the gates.

Will shouted the Serranguard battle cry and, for a moment, the fighting before them froze in time. All heads turned to see the tide of Yangtul bearing down on them.

Hope had arrived—and not a moment too soon.

 

***

 

Myra edged forward on her stomach to the edge of the parapet and notched an arrow into her longbow. The courtyard below was a battlefield. The Tarzark surged into the wide square through the destroyed gates, overcoming the Orinians who tried to defend the palace. It was difficult to get a clear shot of the Tarzark directly below her. Myra risked shooting one of the Orinians—so she directed her aim to the flood of Tarzark who were pushing through the gateway—a mass of huge scaled bodies, hungry for Orinian blood.

Myra released the first arrow and then another and another; her aim true. Next to her, Dael also used a long-bow with unerring accuracy. Their arrows thudded into the Tarzark. Some fell and some staggered onwards, but Myra and Dael’s efforts made little difference to the sheer volume of Tarzark now surging into the palace.

They were vulnerable on the edge of one of the palace’s lowest towers. The Tarzark would already be rampaging through the ground level, slashing through any resistance they encountered. If the numbers had been evenly matched, it may have been a fair fight between the Tarzark and the Orinians. What the Orinians lacked in size, strength and blood lust, they made up for in skill, agility and tenacity. However, there were now thousands of Tarzark inside the palace against a defending force of hundreds.

Screams and shouts from below warned Myra that the Tarzark had now reached the first floor. She pulled back from the edge of the parapet and caught Dael’s eye. He too had drawn back from the edge. Tossing aside his long bow, he pulled out his sword.

“Arrows are no more use to us Myra. It’s time you baptised that blade of yours.”

Myra drew Theo Brin’s ceremonial sword from its scabbard and with her other hand pulled the smith’s dagger free from its sheath. She had no experience in hand-to-hand combat. She was neither tall nor strongly built but the smith’s advice came back to her then: to fight a monster she had to become one. Myra swallowed and found her mouth was dry.

She was not sure she could.

Myra exchanged glances with Dael. The Bounty Hunter nodded at her and touched the blade of his sword against his forehead in a silent salute. Neither of them spoke. Myra nodded, not breaking eye contact with Dael as she did so.

Then, turning their backs on the cold winter sky, they ran downstairs.

 

***

 

Gywna jumped from the Yangtul’s back and into the middle of the melee. Her Wraith Sword came alive in her hands as it had when she fought the Morg; its blade glowing silver. It hissed as it cut down the first Tarzark warrior who fell upon her.

It took Gywna mere seconds to register that fighting the Tarzark was a completely different matter to fighting the Morg. The Morg were quick and wily. They had used dirty tricks and speed to outsmart their opponent. The Tarzark used brute force. The huge broadswords they wielded would have been too heavy for even the strongest Orinian or Ennadil male to use properly two-handed, but some of the Tarzark held one in each hand and swung them at their quarry like meat cleavers. Blood splattered against the granite wall surrounding the palace. The din was awful. The stench of death and fear was everywhere.

A red haze settled around the edges of Gywna’s vision. No Tarzark who came within reach of her blade stood a chance. Gywna fought with single-minded fury. If she was to die today, she wanted her last day alive to mean something bigger than herself. She was the daughter of a City-Lord. These were her people the Tarzark had slain and before they cut her down, she would avenge their deaths.

Despite her merging with the Wraith Sword, Gywna could not fail to notice that they were hopelessly outnumbered. Some of the soldiers fought from astride their Yangtul but many had chosen to fight from the ground. Their initial rush had caused a ripple of alarm among the Tarzark. The reptiles were not given to panic but, having never set eyes on the Yangtul before, they had shrunk back under the onslaught. Still, it was not long before they realised the band attacking them was not as big as it had initially appeared. When more Tarzark pressed up from behind, they hemmed the newcomers against the palace wall on all sides.

Gywna spied Will, Taz and Lassendil nearby. They had also abandoned their Yangtul and were fighting on the ground. She could not see Adelyis or Jennadil anywhere.

The Tarzark were terrifying this close. Gywna’s nannies had read her many chilling tales of the Tarzark and their deeds when she was a child but Gywna had never imagined they loved war as much as this. The beasts fought with savage joy. Even as Gywna cut them down, they roared in her face and impaled themselves further on her blade. They challenged her until the life drained from their eyes.

Gywna gradually moved around so she was fighting back to back with Will, Taz and Lassendil. She saw the skill with which Will Stellan handled his sword. However, it was clear he was in pain; his face was white and pinched and his movements stilted. The Tarzarks’ attacking style required an aggressive countering. Each time Will lifted his arms high or twisted too sharply, even more blood drained from his face. Gywna moved to his side. If things continued like this, it would not be long before a Tarzark blade slipped under his guard.

On and on they fought. Sweat streamed down Gywna’s face and neck, down her back and in-between her breasts. The Wraith Sword allowed Gywna to fight on without dropping from fatigue, but she could still feel the pull of exhaustion like a dark shadow under the magic that kept her on her feet.

The others were rapidly tiring, even Taz whose fighting style was similar to that of the Tarzark. Gywna had sustained a few gashes but Will had received a deep wound to his left shoulder. Luckily, he was right handed. He fought on but Gywna could see he was steadily weakening and beginning to sway on his feet.

Gywna’s first signal that the fight was seriously turning against them occurred when she caught sight of the fluttering of blood-red capes further back in the heaving mass of Tarzark. Grull had brought his sorcerers forward. They were his ultimate weapon, when steel and arrows were not enough.

The Tarzark had a large group of defenders pinned up against the palace wall, and the sorcerers were slowly pushing their way through towards their quarry. They would have them surrounded within moments.

“Lassendil!” Gywna shouted. “We need to get into the palace!”

Lassendil nodded. His face shone with sweat and his dark hair flew around him as he moved with sinuous grace through the bloodshed. Back to back, the four of them—Lassendil, Taz, Will and Gywna—sliced and hacked their way towards the gateway. They reached the swirling tide of friend and foe that surged in both directions through the entrance, and shoved their way through.

They managed to get inside the courtyard, just as an explosion hammered the outside of the palace wall. Magic crackled through the air and caused the fine hair on the back of Gywna’s neck to prickle. The Wraith Sword hummed in response to the magic that now flowed around her.

Gywna turned her back on the terrible wails of pain coming from beyond the wall, while next to her, Will Stellan bent double in pain.

“Can you go on?” Gywna moved in front of Will to shield him from the Tarzark who were now circling the four of them.

“Yes,” Will replied between gritted teeth. He straightened up and Gywna saw the blood seeping from under his leather breastplate. He saw the direction of her gaze and smiled grimly. “Don’t worry about me Gywna, I’m tough.”

“I’m sure you are,” Lassendil interjected, “but not immortal. Can you fight?”

Will nodded. Then, there was no more time for talk. The Tarzark fell upon them—and the only thing that mattered was survival.

 

***

 

At times such as these, Jennadil regretted turning down Will Stellan’s offer of sword-fighting lessons.

He dodged the lethal swipe of a broadsword and broke out in a cold sweat at just how close his head had come to parting from his shoulders. Although Jennadil could use a sword, he was no match for the Tarzark who came at him from all angles.

Jennadil looked around in vain for his companions. After Gywna had leapt from the back of the Yangtul, Jennadil had lost sight of her. So much for their promise to look out for each other—he could have done with her help right now.

Nearby, a group of Ennadil swordsmen were being skewered, one-by-one, on Tarzark blades. Adelyis fought next to him, but she was also close to being sliced in half.

Jennadil caught sight of the advancing line of Tarzark sorcerers to the right of where he and Adelyis fought. Red-winged birds of prey, they moved towards a group of Orinians who were fighting near the gates. Suddenly, a flash of silver light detonated against the palace wall. White heat and choking dust billowed in a noxious cloud and the screams of the dying rippled across the crowd.

Jennadil used the moment of distraction to sheath his sword and pull his staff free. Adelyis was without her staff, after losing it to the void with Morgarth Evictar and Arridel Thorne—and there had been no time to fashion a new one.

Jennadil and Adelyis’s gazes met in wordless understanding.

Taking Jennadil’s cue, Adelyis re-sheathed her sword and in a broad sweep of her arms created an orb of fire, which she flung at the approaching Tarzark. The orb exploded and the howls from the Tarzark overtook the screams of the dying humans near the wall. Jennadil followed up her attack before the Tarzark had time to rally. A whip of green fire shot from the end of his staff and curled around the staggering Tarzark. Pandemonium erupted amongst the Tarzark ranks. They had not expected this.

The line of Tarzark sorcerers turned from their prey against the wall, and their gazes fixed upon Jennadil and Adelyis. There were at least fifty of them. Their fury was palpable, as was their arrogance when they saw that just two figures faced them—a wizard and a witch.

The time for hesitation and diffidence had passed and, not waiting for the sorcerers to strike first, Jennadil attacked. Blistering energy erupted from Jennadil’s staff and the sound soared above the din of battle and echoed around the palace itself.

Fiery green tongues wrapped themselves around the Tarzark sorcerers and seared their skin. Joining Jennadil’s attack, Adelyis sent clouds of white smoke billowing from her fingertips. If the Tarzark could not see them, they would be harder to kill. Bolts of hot white energy ricocheted around Jennadil and Adelyis, gouging craters out of the ground.

Side by side, Jennadil and Adelyis edged back from the Tarzark sorcerers. Even though they could not see them, Jennadil knew the sorcerers would now be advancing through the fog.

Witch and wizard sent volley after volley of the most powerful magic they could both conjure: whips of flame, orbs of fire, hot acid and poisonous vapours – they hurled it all. Their magic had inflicted serious damage at the outset but like a virus that morphs when its host finds a new way to attack it, the Tarzark sorcerers swiftly discovered a way to shield themselves. Tarzark sorcerers had not fought against Orinian or Ennadil wizards in centuries, and they had no way of knowing what these two were capable of. Yet, the Tarzark possessed a dark, swift magic that was as sharp as a dagger blade and much more lethal.

“Adelyis!” Jennadil shouted as white fire billowed out towards them. “Shield us!”

Adelyis closed her eyes and muttered an incantation. She bent double and a blue sphere rose from her clasped hands and settled over the two of them. White fire splintered against the bubble and rained like milky lava over the huge crowd fighting before the palace wall.

The fog was clearing and Adelyis crouched low, concentrating with the effort to keep the protective bubble over them. Out of the mists, the row of sorcerers loomed. To Jennadil they appeared like giants, as if they had suddenly grown much taller and fiercer. Their jaws were open wide as white fire poured from their fingertips.

In their midst Jennadil caught sight of another figure, broader and larger than the other Tarzark. He was a massive beast, clad in leather and metal, and a glittering cape hung from his broad shoulders. Jennadil was awestruck; so this was Grull. Even carrying numerous cuts and slashes from three days of battle, the Tarzark king was formidable; perhaps even more so for he wore his wounds like badges of honour upon his scaly hide. He carried himself with the power and arrogance of a being born to dominate others.

Grull gave Jennadil a look, communicating that if the wizard had stood within arm’s reach the Tarzark king would have ripped him to pieces. He shouted commands at his sorcerers in a foul, grating tongue. The sorcerers responded by letting forth a blast of incinerating heat that flattened anything in its path.

Men fell like corn stalks in a gale. A hammer blow hit Jennadil and Adelyis and threw them clear across the battle-strewn road. They collided with a building on the far side of the thoroughfare and only the protective shield prevented them from having their brains dashed out on the hard stone.

Jennadil hit the cobbles and felt the wind gush out of him. Gasping, he scrambled to his hands and knees to see the Tarzark sorcerers gather in a semi-circle around him and Adelyis. Executioners tightening the noose—soon the whole world became grey-scaled bodies and swirling red capes.

“Adelyis!” Jennadil croaked. He grabbed his staff and shuffled backwards, dragging Adelyis against him. Her blue eyes were enormous on her pale face. Her dark hair flew about her head like a halo. She suddenly appeared far more fragile than Jennadil had previously realised. Adelyis was a naturally slender woman but the trials she had endured since the Morg had first abducted her had taken their toll. Her heart-shaped face was gaunt and the arm he gripped was stick-thin.

“We’re not going to make it unless we join our powers,” Jennadil got to his feet, pulling her with him. “I know it’s dangerous but there is no other way!”

Adelyis surprised Jennadil by not bothering to argue with him. She reached out and grabbed his left hand in her right.

A rush of heat that caused them both to gasp followed the shock of the coldness of their skin. Every nerve ending on their bodies came alive and suddenly all their accumulated fatigue, fear and desperation dissipated. Jennadil felt as if he had just awoken from a long sleep.

The Tarzark sorcerers were almost upon them now. They raised their arms to deliver the final blow.

Jennadil and Adelyis merged their power and the ‘enhancement’ sang through their veins in a rush that was even more powerful than the first time they had experienced it. Energy shot up through their bodies from the roots of their feet.

Then, they pointed their free hands out towards the sorcerers, who were barely five yards away, and unleashed their combined power.

It was as if a giant thunderclap had exploded in the middle of the fracas. One moment, fifty Tarzark sorcerers were poised to kill them, the next they were groveling on the ground, howling in pain and clutching their faces. The force of the thing that hit them had killed those nearest to Jennadil and Adelyis outright.

A deep silence fell amongst the battleground then. A hollow silence so deadly and still that the very beating of Jennadil’s heart echoed in his ears. He was aware then of the wintry sun glaring down upon them from a monochrome sky, of the chill breeze on his heated skin, of the metallic stench of blood in the air. He was filled with a power that transcended his mortal body.

Time slowed down. The sorcerers were struggling to their feet. King Grull was crouched nearby, bellowing at his warriors to attack the witch and wizard. Jennadil looked down into Adelyis’s face and saw his own exhalation mirrored there. She was a goddess in her flowing blue robes and her mane of dark hair rippling down her back.

The moment both of them had tried to deny had come.

They tasted power and became drunk on it. Jennadil and Adelyis stepped over a precipice that could not be returned from. Together, they wielded a power greater than the forces of nature combined—but it demanded their souls as payment.

Jennadil felt Adelyis’s fingers tighten around his own and he squeezed back in response. Pure energy exploded from their fingertips and sliced through the air like a thousand sharp daggers.

The sounds of Tarzark screams now punctured the air, drowning out the sounds of the dying humans. It was a terrible, unnatural sound and it chilled the blood of all those who heard it.

The tide had turned.

 

***

 

It had all gone gloriously, catastrophically wrong. Never had Grull imagined the Orinians would have discovered a weapon such as this; such a deadly, destructive power. He gaped as some invisible force tore his warriors and sorcerers to pieces—and for the first time in his life, King Grull of the Tarzark Kingdom knew fear.

By some miracle, he escaped death.

He clawed, bit and crawled his way out of the fray, blindly clambering over the dead and stabbing anyone or anything that got in his path. His survival instinct took hold. Grull did not think of the glory of death in battle, or of trying to save anyone but himself. He was a survivor and a purely selfish being; and this was what saved him.

He staggered away from the battleground and left death behind. A few stragglers followed their king. Grull led the retreat down through the smoking city. By the time he reached the Market Square and the great gates, nearly two dozen Tarzark followed at his heels. There was only one sorcerer among the survivors. The rest had fallen before the palace gates.

Not slowing his pace, King Grull ran from the citadel and headed east across the Endaar Downs, towards Hammer Pass. Falcon’s Mount was a dark, smoking shadow against the horizon when Grull dared to stop to catch his breath. Bent double, his breath coming in ragged, painful gasps, Grull looked back at the city that had been so close to being his—should have been his.

Fury consumed him.

None of the other Tarzark who had survived dared to speak to their King. They sensed his rage and kept their distance. It seemed incomprehensible that Falcon’s Mount had been so close to being theirs, only to be ripped from their grasp.

Grull glared at Falcon’s Mount, noting as he did so, the smoke wreathing the city. His army had caused serious damage that would take many months to repair. He ground his teeth at the Orinians’ victory but consoled himself at the thought that Morgarth Evictar and his minions had also helped bring men to their knees. Upon his return to Hull-Mutt, Grull would plot once more to invade these lands—he would never give up. He would find a way to defeat the Orinians and their wizards and then he would exact slow, cruel revenge for today.

He would make them pay.

Grull cast one last baleful glance at Falcon’s Mount before turning his back on it. Before him rose the serrated peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains. Beyond those mountains lay Hull-Mutt and a stony wasteland, where very little besides the Tarzark themselves could survive. It was a bleak, hostile home but never had a place seemed so inviting to Grull and his two-dozen warriors.

They left their humiliating defeat behind them and set off at a brisk jog towards the Sawtooth Mountains, not stopping until they had reached the safety of Hammer Pass.

 

***

 

Lassendil Florin did not recognise his sister when she entered the palace courtyard.

Like a two-headed beast, the witch and wizard swept through the archway, cutting a swathe of carnage through any Tarzark they encountered. A pulsing blue flame surrounded Adelyis and Jennadil. Their faces were unnaturally pale, their eyes black. Lightening bolts erupted from their outstretched hands. An invisible fiend raced ahead of them, tearing any living creature it touched to pieces.

Despite himself, Lassendil shrank back from Adelyis. She did not see him, and neither did Jennadil. They appeared to be in a powerful trance of some kind and they paid no heed to their surroundings; intent only on killing any Tarzark who did not already lie dead within the palace walls.

Lassendil, Gywna, Taz and Will had been on the verge of succumbing to the onslaught of Tarzark when a violent explosion had rocked Falcon’s Mount. Blood-chilling Tarzark screams soon followed. The noise distracted the attacking Tarzark and they turned to investigate. Lassendil had used the moment of reprieve to staunch a bleeding wound on his right thigh, and had just finished doing so when a wild creature—that was and was not Adelyis Florin—entered the courtyard.

Now as Lassendil backed up, he saw his companions did the same. Adelyis and Jennadil were not themselves and it was unwise to distract or attempt to stop them. Around them, those Tarzark trapped inside the courtyard howled and scrambled to escape, before an invisible giant ripped them from their feet and dashed their brains out against the palace walls or cobblestones. Blood and gore splattered, dismembered corpses slumped to the ground—and the witch and wizard moved on heedless of the destruction they left in their wake.

Lassendil flattened himself up against the wall next to Gywna; watching his sister pass by, no more than two yards from where he stood. She looked at him and then through him with soulless black eyes. Lassendil felt his skin go cold.

For the first time ever he was afraid of his sister.

Adelyis and Jennadil swept from the courtyard and entered the palace. Shortly after, more Tarzark screeches echoed out from within. Regaining his composure, Lassendil glanced at Gywna, acknowledging her properly for the first time in days. Her round face was chalk-white, and her hazel eyes enormous. She looked back at him, wordless. Nearby, Taz and Will were also visibly shaken. Taz was actually trembling. Magic did not exist among the Gremul and the forest dwellers feared and avoided it at the best of times.

Will Stellan’s face was bloodless. The Orinian was suffering from his injuries. He could no longer stand up straight and was bleeding profusely where his old wounds had split open. His gaze followed Adelyis and Jennadil across the courtyard.

“It’s the ‘enhancement’” Will moved away from the wall once Jennadil and Adelyis had disappeared. “What’s it done to them?”

“It’s consuming them,” Gywna replied, her voice shaking.

“They will kill us all!” Taz’s voice rose in panic.

Lassendil looked back helplessly at his three companions. He could offer no comment on what he had just seen. “We must find them—before they tear the palace down to its foundations.”

Lassendil led the way across the sea of Tarzark corpses lying thick over the Orinian dead. The ground was slippery with gore and Lassendil felt bile sting the back of his throat at the sight and smell of it. He was relieved when he reached the steps leading up to the palace’s main entrance, and the others were close at his heels as he sprinted into the palace.

An eerie silence now hung inside the great stone walls. The dead lay everywhere. The Tarzark had done a great deal of butchering before Adelyis and Jennadil had stopped them.

Now, chunks of Tarzark carcass lay everywhere. Lassendil averted his eyes from the dreadful scenes. However, they had to follow the trail of carnage if they wanted to find Adelyis and Jennadil. They picked their way across the slaughter, through the network of cavernous corridors up to the first floor.

Once again, they encountered a disquieting stillness. The four companions readied their weapons. Lassendil’s stomach was now roiling but he forced himself onwards. He dreaded what awaited them.

Half way across the palace’s third floor, not far from Lord Fier’s personal chambers, the trail of Tarzark body parts stopped. No living Tarzark remained in the palace to slay.

Amongst the last of their slaughtered foe, Adelyis and Jennadil lay unmoving on the cold marble floor.

Lassendil rushed to them and saw upon kneeling at Adelyis’s side that she and Jennadil were no longer touching. The terrible ‘enhancement’ had left them but more than just the magic had gone. Lassendil searched for Adelyis’s pulse and found none.

Lassendil’s cry shattered the ghostly quiet. He clasped his sister to him but her body was heavy and cold in his arms. This was how he had held his father, after the Morg had shot him full of arrows. She was just an empty shell of dead hair, skin and bones—Adelyis Florin was gone.

Grief ripped through him like a jagged, wrenching blade and Lassendil Florin felt the world spin around him, out of control.

 

Gywna slid to the ground next to Jennadil Silverstern’s prostrate form. Tears blurred her vision while, opposite her, Lassendil sobbed over his sister’s body. Jennadil’s eyes were closed and his skin was like white, blue-veined marble. They had just been starting to understand each other, she and Jennadil—and they may have even become friends if given the chance.

Stifling a sob, Gywna reached out and touched his skin. It was so cold that she fought the urge to pull her hand away. Finally, she felt for a pulse on his neck and was about to remove her hand when she felt a faint flutter under her fingertips.

“He’s alive!” she shouted.

Will Stellan was at her side in an instant. He reached over her and felt Jennadil’s pulse for himself.

“He’s dying,” he whispered. “His pulse is faltering. The ‘enhancement’ is taking him.”

Gywna looked down at Jennadil’s face and was about to give in to tears as well when an idea came to her. “If magic is taking him then maybe it can bring him back!”

Instinctively, Gywna knew what she must do.

She reached for her Wraith Sword. It hummed as her fingers fastened around the hilt. She took hold of Jennadil’s left hand and wrapped his fingers around the engraved hilt before wrapping her own around the sword’s blade. Pain lanced through Gywna’s hand. The blade cut into her palm but she did not release her grasp. With her other hand she kept Jennadil’s fingers fastened around the hilt. Gywna gasped, her hand burned as if she grasped a hot coal.

The Wraith Sword vibrated and throbbed like a living thing.

At first, the wizard did not respond—and then she felt Jennadil’s hand slowly begin to warm under hers. Gywna glanced back at Jennadil’s face and saw life returning to his cheeks. His breathing became faint but noticeable.

Will checked his pulse. “I don’t believe it! His heart beat grows stronger.”

Finally, the throbbing in Gywna’s palm became unbearable. She let go of the Wraith Sword’s blade with a cry. Blood poured from Gywna’s hand and nausea flooded over her. Will made a bandage from the hem of Jennadil’s cape and wrapped it around her palm. Gywna leaned against him and was grateful when his arm wrapped protectively around her shoulders.

Gywna noticed for the first time that Taz knelt next to where Lassendil cradled Adelyis in his arms.

The Gremul’s head bent towards the ground in a wordless gesture of grief. Gywna looked up into Will Stellan’s face and saw the sorrow etched in deep lines there. He was still a young man but life had left its mark on him. The disfiguring scar down his left cheek pulsed like a silver snake. Gywna remembered what Jennadil had told her about Will and Adelyis. Gywna was young and in many ways, naïve about the ways between men and women; but the look on Will’s face was impossible to misread.

Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, Gywna reflected upon life’s cruelty. The world cared nothing for the plight of mortals.

Will’s body shook from the effort he was making to stem his grief. Gywna could not bear to see such suffering in a man who was not accustomed to crying. She wanted to take his sorrow away but she could only comfort him. She had saved Jennadil but it was too late for Adelyis.

Gywna gently reached up and wrapped her arms around Will. Her action removed the last of Will’s restraint. He buried his head in her shoulder and began to cry.

 

***

 

When Myra came to, she was surprised to find herself alive.

Her head felt three times its usual size and there was something heavy pinning her to the floor. She could feel her pulse beating in her cheek where it pressed against the icy stone. For a few moments, Myra was too scared to move; afraid she would find one of her limbs missing or part of her body paralysed. Eventually she tested her left arm, and then her right, before flexing each leg and finding she could move them both. She wriggled out from under the great weight pressing her down, realising as she did so that it was the headless corpse of the Tarzark who had been about to skewer her.

It had all happened so quickly. From the moment she and Dael had descended from the tower, the Tarzark had set upon them. Dael had handled himself easily with a sword but Myra had soon lost sight of him. A hacking mob of Tarzark had swallowed him up, leaving Myra to fend for herself.

She had known from the first that she was no match for these beasts, but fear and the survival instinct made her difficult to kill. She inflicted little damage on the Tarzark. The clumsy swipes of her sword connected with nothing but air and she was not close enough to any of them to use her dagger. They roared with ridicule and toyed with her. Terrified, Myra darted, jumped and ducked while they slowly closed in. Eventually, they had trapped her in an alcove. Enjoying her terror, they took their time frightening their victim. Since she posed no real threat, they could afford to play with her for a while.

Finally, Myra found herself pressed up against the wall, her sword trembling in front of her, with nowhere to go. She screamed to Dael for help, but no help came. Myra shrank back against the wall and waited for the death stroke to fall.

Then it happened.

Blue light had suddenly exploded just beyond the alcove. The Tarzark turned from their prey and snarled at whatever had interrupted their kill. The cerulean light detonated once more and this time the air shook.

Myra had no chance to see what this new menace was before an invisible claw picked her up and threw her against the wall. Myra’s head had struck stone then and she knew no more.

Now, as Myra crawled out from underneath the dead Tarzark, she saw the ground littered with dismembered corpses. The offal smell of death and the sight of congealing blood and entrails were too much for Myra. She turned away from the carnage and threw up the contents of her stomach. Then, still gagging and retching she picked her way through the dead.

It did not take her long to find Dael. He was pinned under a pile of three Tarzark. Myra cringed at the thought of putting her hands on the lizards, but she pushed aside her revulsion and concentrated on freeing Dael. With great difficulty, Myra pulled the beasts off the bounty hunter. Alive, an adult male Tarzark stood well over seven feet tall and was twice the weight of an adult Orinian male—dead it was like moving a huge sack of rocks.

Myra had expected Dael to be dead, but although he was unconscious and his left arm was slashed down to the bone, Dael breathed still, albeit shallowly. Myra Brin sat back on her haunches and surveyed the slaughtered Tarzark around her. She frowned, not understanding why she and Dael still lived while the Tarzark had not. She had seen nothing of their attackers save the eerie blue light. Myra’s skin still crawled at the memory.

“Dael?” Myra reached down and slapped his face gently. When he did not respond, she slapped him harder.

The bounty hunter groaned. His eyes flickered open, unfocused at first before his dark gaze settled on Myra. “You’ve been waiting to do that,” he croaked.

Myra laughed; a nervous, high-pitched sound that she smothered immediately. She and Dael should have been dead.

“My arm.” Dael’s voice was hoarse as Myra helped him to his feet. It was a nasty gash and needed the skills of a healer. Myra tore the remnants of Dael’s shirtsleeve free and wrapped it around the wound in an effort to staunch the bleeding. Dael let out a strangled cry and beads of sweat broke out on his dark skin. His eyes rolled back in his head and, for a moment, Myra thought he would faint.

“Sorry.” Myra let him lean against her until the wave of pain subsided. “I don’t think that helped.”

Dael shook his head. Regaining his composure, the bounty hunter looked around him, his eyes widening as he took in the bloody scene.

“Did you see who did this?” Myra asked as they wove their way down the corridor. They took care not to step on the dead, although it was nearly impossible.

Dael nodded. “It was the wizard, Jennadil and an Ennadil witch. They were surrounded by a halo of blue flame.” Dael paused as they reached the end of the corridor and turned onto the main thoroughfare. Before them, Tarzark bodies carpeted the ground. He and Myra stopped for a moment and gazed, awestruck.

“What kind of magic could do this?” Myra whispered, her voice hushed as if she expected to wake the dead.

Dael and Myra started down the wide corridor, making their way to the entrance. Oppressive silence surrounded them as they left the palace and descended the stairs to the wide courtyard below. The dead had been mostly Tarzark at first but the closer they got to the courtyard, the more Orinian soldiers they discovered. The Tarzark had inflicted serious damage, and would have taken the palace had the witch and wizard not stopped them.

Outside, the light was fading as a chill day was ending. Myra shivered and wrapped her arms about her, gazing down on to the courtyard. A few surviving Orinian and Ennadil soldiers moved through the square. Helping the wounded, they moved mechanically and stiffly; their faces drawn and bloodied. Lord Aran Fier was among them. He was drenched in blood and his face sagged with exhaustion.

Myra looked across at Dael and caught his eye. The guarded expression he wore reminded Myra of the first time she had seen the bounty hunter. Then, as now, the man of Tarantel wore an inscrutable mask.

Myra did not pity the Tarzark. Their deaths had been violent but then so had their attack on Falcon’s Mount. If they had not been stopped, the City States of Orin would have fallen to Grull and his brethren. However, victory had come at a high price.

So much death and violence—so much blood spilt to defend their home. There were few Orinians left alive inside the city to enjoy the triumph. Falcon’s Mount would be in mourning for a long time to come.

Myra shivered again, her gaze shifting to where smoke still dirtied the darkening sky. The Tarzark had come so close to defeating them. Myra, like many of the survivors, was surprised to find herself alive and the city free of the enemy.

Myra raised her face to the crisp, smoky air and took in a deep breath, savouring the life that she had come so close to losing.

Miracles, she thought wryly, sometimes did happen.

 

***

 

An icy north wind gusted over the Endaar Downs and swept over Falcon’s Mount.

Night had fallen some hours earlier. At first, the city appeared devoid of life; a hollow tomb for the hundreds dead within its walls. Then, one by one, as the wind tickled its way through the deserted alleyways and winding stairs, lights flared within the manmade mountain. Initially, they were faint flickers of fire against the darkness but as the night grew colder, Falcon’s Mount twinkled like a welcoming beacon—and at its zenith, the palace glowed palely.

The city was subdued on this eve.

Later, once the dead were buried and the blood washed off the streets, the townsfolk would be able to celebrate Falcon’s Mount’s liberation and chase away the Tarzark shadow that still lingered over the city. Tonight though, the people of Falcon’s Mount would tend to their wounds, eat, drink and thank the wraiths of their ancestors that the city had been spared.

Still, there were many within the city walls who were too heart sore to be thankful—those who had lost their families and friends. There were many who grieved alone and Lassendil Florin was among them.

The mortuary lay in an annex off the House of Healing. A windowless building constructed of granite hewn from the slopes of the Sawtooth Mountains, the mortuary was as unwelcoming as those hostile peaks. Effigies of former city lords guarded the entrance from malevolent spirits and torches hung from the walls, bathing the interior of the mortuary in hallowed light. The mortuary itself was divided into cells, like the interior of a honeycomb. Archways led from cell to cell. There were no doors and only simple stone slabs adorned each small room.

Adelyis Florin lay in a cell at the far end of the mortuary. Here the air was close and damp and there was no sound save the whisper of Lassendil’s breathing as he knelt next to his sister. Tomorrow, he would burn her upon a pyre, as was Ennadil custom, but tonight he would stay by her side and perform the death rites over her corpse.

Adelyis lay on the cold slab, dressed in a white gown. There was not a mark on her body. Her long dark hair lay like a silk curtain over her shoulders. Her face was serene; it was only her pallor that betrayed her lifelessness. Lassendil took her cold hand in his and closed his burning eyes for a moment. He had emptied his soul of tears. He could cry no more.

Moments passed before Lassendil reached out with his free hand and held it above Adelyis’s unmoving breast. Then he began to sing.

The mournful notes of the Ennadil death rite drifted through the mortuary. It was a haunting refrain in an ancient tongue. Unlike the Orinians who believed the spirits of the dead joined the wraiths of their ancestors, the Ennadil believed the soul could only be set free by performing the death rite. Once the spirit left the body, it could then travel west across Isador to the coast, where it would dive into the sea and swim back to the Ennadil’s homeland, far across the water.

On and on Lassendil sang; his voice was soft and sure. The notes carried out of the mortuary and into the House of Healing beyond, and all who heard it were stilled by its poignant melody. Lassendil paid no heed to the stir his singing caused, or to the two figures standing motionless in the shadows behind him.

Will Stellan and Taz, their bodies obscured by heavy winter cloaks, looked on as the Ennadil’s voice rose in exquisite sorrow. Will Stellan’s hands, hidden within the long sleeves of his cloak, clenched until his nails bit into his palms. He looked across the narrow cell at Adelyis’s serene face and swallowed the hot lump lodged in his throat.

Will thought about the last time he and Adelyis had spoken honestly together, when he had awoken in one of Serranguard’s kitchens to find Adelyis smiling down at him. It had taken Morgarth Evictar’s taunting to make Will admit to himself that he loved Adelyis. Yet, he had not been able to tell her then—and she had not let him.

He did not care that she was an Ennadil witch, or that she would probably have rejected him, or that her jealous brother would have run him through with a blade for his audacity—he loved her.

He had always been scornful of lovesick men who got themselves killed over women. The risks Jennadil had taken had bemused him. Although Will enjoyed female company, he had never planned on marrying. Women complicated a man’s life. He did not want to end up with a nag or be cuckolded as Theo Brin had. However, Adelyis made all his fears seem immature and petty. He would have risked everything to be with her. That he would live through this battle, injured as he was, while Adelyis had died, was a cruel twist of fate.

Lassendil Florin finished the death rites and silence once more pressed down upon the mortuary. Will glanced across at Taz. The Gremul’s eyes glowed in the dim light. They should leave now before Lassendil detected their presence. Will made a silent gesture in the direction of the exit and Taz nodded curtly. The two caped figures slid through the shadows out into the darkness, leaving the Ennadil alone with his grief.

Lassendil waited until they had gone before he placed his sister’s hands over her chest.

Those two breathed as heavily as Tarzark. He had known, without needing to turn around and look, who had lurked in the shadows behind him. He was not angry. His jealousy had not protected Adelyis from the devastating force of her own magical powers. He could no longer dredge up ill feeling towards Will Stellan but he was glad that he and the Gremul had kept a respectful silence.

He could not face speaking to others.

Hours passed. The night stretched on, silent and watchful. Finally, his knees numb from kneeling on cold stone, Lassendil got to his feet. He was about to leave the mortuary when he saw a shadow moving through the cells, off to his right.

Lassendil slipped quietly after the shadow and, upon getting closer, he recognised Gywna Brin. She wore a hooded cape but Lassendil recognised her nonetheless by her walk and small, compact frame under the voluminous cloak. At first, he thought she had been looking for him—and his first instinct was to leave before she saw him. Gywna’s attachment to him was a complication that he did not need at present. He turned to go but Gywna’s sudden gasp halted him. He looked back over his shoulder but Gywna had disappeared.

Lassendil walked over to where she had been standing and peered through the narrow arch into the cell beyond. He saw her there, a few feet away from a corpse. Her hood had fallen back and her mop of curly brown hair had fallen over her face. She was trembling.

Lassendil inched forward and saw Lord Theo Brin stretched out on the stone slab, his face swollen and grotesque in a death grimace. The City-Lord’s body was in a terrible state. The once opulent velvet robes he wore were ripped, muddied and blackened by blood. He looked as if he had been trampled and from this distance, Lassendil could not tell how he had died. Gywna had covered her face with her hands and started to cry.

“Gywna,” Lassendil murmured, trying to catch her attention without alarming her.

Her tear streaked face jerked towards him. Seeing who it was, she made a hasty effort to wipe her tears away with the edge of her sleeve. Lassendil moved into the cell and saw the wound in Theo Brin’s chest.

“I don’t know why I’m bothering to cry over him.” Gywna’s voice was small and tremulous. “He wouldn’t have shed a tear over me.”

Lassendil looked down at the ravaged remains of Lord Brin and shook his head. “I didn’t like your father Gywna,” he began quietly. “He was not an easy man to like. But I think you underestimate him. I’m sure he cared for you.”

Gywna shook her head fiercely. “He didn’t.” Her voice shook with anger now. “He liked me well enough when I was a little girl, just as long as I didn’t cross him, but once my mother died he was happy to see the back of me. He was a selfish man and terrible father but I still wanted him to love me.”

Gywna broke off and visibly struggled for control.

Lassendil watched Gywna and took a step forward, as if to comfort her, before hesitating. He knew he should put his arms around her and let her cry on his shoulder but he held back. He had lost everyone dear to him—and it had hollowed out his core. He felt so alone he ached, but still he could not go to her.

Gywna saw him step towards her and hesitate. The perceived rejection pushed her over the edge. Gywna’s face crumpled as if he had just hit her, and she backed away from him.

“Don’t trouble yourself Lassendil. My father and I are not your concern. You have your own loss to contend with.”

“Gywna …”

“I know my presence on the quest was a burden to you. You felt you had to be responsible for me but I made the mistake of thinking you cared.”

Tears were now flowing freely down Gywna’s cheeks. This time she did not attempt to brush them away. Instead, she pulled up her hood and looked Lassendil in the eye. He stared back at her, struck dumb by her brutal honesty.

“You remind me of my father at times,” Gywna continued. “Sharp, self-contained … and cold. I don’t need you Lassendil. I don’t need anyone.”

She whirled away from him and seconds later was gone. Her footsteps echoed on the ancient stone, fading away until she left the mortuary.

Lassendil did not go after her. He stung as if she had slapped him. His grief at losing Adelyis had frayed his nerves raw and Gywna’s words had lashed him.

No one had ever spoken to him like that.

Lassendil cast a glance down at Lord Brin’s corpse. To say he and Theo Brin shared any traits was ridiculous. He was surprised Gywna’s opinion of him mattered so much.

Weariness pressed down on Lassendil and he closed his eyes for a moment. It was days since he had slept more than a couple of hours. He had to sleep or he would go mad. It was so cold inside the mortuary that Lassendil’s breath steamed. He wrapped his cloak around him and left Theo Brin, passing through the honeycomb of cells and archways until he reached the exit.

Outside, a chilling north wind buffeted against him. To his right he could see the windows of the House of Healing glowing and shadows moving within. The healers would not sleep tonight. There were many people who lay on the brink of death, many who would never recover from their wounds. Lassendil knew Jennadil lay unconscious in the House of Healing but he was too exhausted and weary with grief to check on him. He would do so tomorrow. For now, the only thing Lassendil Florin could focus on was sleep—and any flat surface would do.

 

***

 

When Jennadil finally awoke, he had a few blissful moments, while his eyes were shut, when he did not remember all that had befallen him. The bed was soft and warm and his stomach growled in hunger. The wizard stirred and rolled over onto his back. He stretched languorously and opened his eyes.

A young woman with curly brown hair, hazel eyes and a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose was staring down at him. She had a strong jaw and a piercing stare—and upon seeing him awake, her face split into a radiant smile.

“Gywna,” Jennadil croaked.

Then it all came back to him. The bubble of well-being Jennadil had been languishing in suddenly burst. He groaned and shut his eyes. “Why am I still alive?”

“You nearly died.”

“The ‘enhancement’…” Jennadil’s voice trailed off before his eyes opened wide in alarm. “Adelyis?”

Gywna shook her head and looked away. “I only managed to save you … Adelysis died.”

Jennadil sank back into his pillow and brought his hand up to cover his eyes.

Adelyis had known, more than he, the danger of combining their power. Coldness seeped through Jennadil at the memory of it. The moment he and Adelyis had clasped hands it was as if he had become a different person. Suddenly he was no longer Jennadil but a powerful warlock of old and Adelyis was his queen. The magic rushed like a drug through his blood and it seemed as if he was floating three feet off the ground. He had been afraid of nothing and no one.

Jennadil started to shiver violently. The memories were vivid now. He had enjoyed killing them and he had felt Adelyis’s pleasure as well. They may have gone on killing indefinitely, turning on the very souls they were trying to protect if Adelyis had not tried to sever their link. He was too far gone to step back from it but Adelyis had been stronger. Their minds and spirits had fused together and when she tried to break away from him, it was as if something was trying to crack open his skull and tear out his brain.

The moment Adelyis’s hand slipped from his, the ‘enhancement’ had left them both. A second later, an excruciating pain exploded in Jennadil’s head. The corridor, littered with dead Tarzark, spun around him before a door had slammed shut in his mind.

When Jennadil finally reopened his eyes, Gywna was still sitting there watching him. She reached out, took his hand and squeezed it. “You did it,” she said with a gentle smile that was quite unlike her. “You stopped them. Grull retreated with a small band of survivors. Falcon’s Mount did not fall and it is because of you and Adelyis.”

“We did a terrible thing,” Jennadil whispered. “We should have never used it.”

“If you hadn’t …”

“I know we stopped the Tarzark.” Jennadil swallowed to ease his dry throat. “But in doing so we have unleashed something dreadful on the world.”

 

 

Epilogue

Separate Ways

 

 

In the days following the Tarzarks’ retreat, the people of Falcon’s Mount slowly began rebuilding their city. First, they cremated the dead. It was a gigantic task to remove all the Tarzark corpses to the pyres. The fires stained the air above the Endaar Downs black for two days, and a pall hung over the city until the last funeral pyre smoldered to ash. As if on cue, heavy rains came and the fresh water washed the streets clean again.

Aran Fier oversaw the rebuilding of Falcon’s Mount. His wife Imeldia, who had barricaded herself into a high tower during the attack, was at her husband’s side as he tirelessly patrolled the city. They rebuilt the great gates, stronger and heavier than ever. The outer wall was fortified and a moat was to be built to strengthen the citadel’s defenses. The City States of Orin had been severely weakened—if the Tarzark rebuilt their army and marched on the Falcon’s Mount again there would be few left to defend it.

Food was in short supply. The Endaar Downs were empty grasslands for leagues in every direction and they had evacuated the few scattered villages once the Morg invasion began. Traditionally, Falcon’s Mount had always brought food in from the agricultural areas around Serranguard and Brenna. The road between Serranguard and Falcon’s Mount had once been busy with merchants and farmers who set up stalls in the Market Square every morning. These days, the highway was deserted and there was barely enough food to go around. The threat of famine hung over the city, and Lord Fier opened the palace’s food store to his people so his cooks could bake bread for the hungry townsfolk.

Mid-winter loomed and snow came, blanketing the landscape in a pristine crust. Hunters brought animals back from Delm Forest but the price of meat was exorbitant and only the city’s wealthiest inhabitants could afford it. It was a bitter winter; the coldest in half a century and Isador hibernated in the chill. Once spring arrived, they could rebuild the cities destroyed by the Morg, but for now, winter held Isador in a stranglehold.

 

It was a clear, bright morning when Dael saddled a horse and prepared to leave Falcon’s Mount.

The sun shone out of a hard blue sky, melting the huge drifts of snow banked up against the citadel’s outer wall. The bounty hunter had kept a low profile after the Tarzark had retreated. He had been careful to stay away from the palace and out of sight of the Lord Fier and the wizard Jennadil. His slashed arm had healed well although it was still weak and he bore a wicked scar from shoulder to elbow.

Dael tightened the saddle’s girth, dodging as the horse, a bay mare with a grumpy disposition, tried to nip him. Horses were in short supply these days and, luckily, he had possessed the gold to purchase one. Dael had very little in the way of possessions; just a couple of saddlebags with provisions and a roll of bedding tied behind the saddle. He would travel light and fast.

It was a long journey back to the Isles of Tarantel. The journey would take him directly south through Delm Forest before he would travel southeast, skirting the edge of the Forests of Gremul. The final part of the journey would take him east across the Jade Plains before he reached the coast and the Gulf of Tarantel. The journey was eighteen to twenty days, but could take longer if the weather worsened, or if he encountered any problems en-route.

The bounty hunter led the mare out into the stable yard. He mounted and, eager to be off, the mare sidestepped. Dael then reached down and grasped a pale, slender hand.

Myra used Dael’s foot for leverage, and vaulted up onto the saddle behind him. Then, she reached around the bounty hunter’s torso and hugged him tightly.

Dael smiled and enjoyed the feel of her body pressed up against him. He stroked her hands, which were clasped gently just below his ribcage, before he adjusted the stirrups and checked the girth was tight enough.

The Bounty Hunter and Lord Brin’s widow had become lovers two weeks after the Tarzark retreated. Dael had promised Myra nothing but they both knew he would not leave her behind—and they did not speak now as the mare clip-clopped out of the stable yard and into the busy thoroughfare beyond.

Their time at Falcon’s Mount had ended and they would not relax until they were riding south.

 

Jennadil Silverstern was taking a walk along the busy street, enjoying the heat of the sun on his face, when a bay horse carrying a man and a woman rode past him.

Jennadil stopped and stared at them. He recognised the bounty hunter and Theo Brin’s wife instantly. He was still weak and thought for a moment he may have been hallucinating—but he would have recognised Myra anywhere.

She looked radiant.

The bounty hunter was staring straight ahead as he rode. His face was an inscrutable mask. He carried a sword at his side and although his body was relaxed in the saddle, his demeanour did not invite anyone to approach him.

Neither Dael nor Myra saw Jennadil and he was grateful for it. He watched them ride away, and then he took a side street and walked up to the wall dividing the city’s third and second level. There he climbed gingerly, taking care on the icy steps.

Slightly out of breath, Jennadil reached the top of the wall. The winter landscape unfolded before him. The snow was melting but patches of white still dotted the Endaar Downs, like dollops of thick cream, until the grasslands merged with the horizon.

Jennadil stood on the wall, welcoming the sun and the crisp air. Finally, he saw, far below, a tiny figure emerge from the citadel. The horse crossed the highway and broke into a brisk canter across the Downs. He watched them until the horse was nothing but a speck in the distance. Jennadil was smiling when he turned and descended from the wall—Myra had not only lived but she was free. The guilt he had carried ever since their last meeting lifted and for the first time since he had awoken in the House of Healing, Jennadil felt his heart lighten.

Jennadil walked slowly back up to the palace, passing as he did so, many townsfolk who called out to him and waved. They all hailed him as their liberator these days. None of them knew about the evil he and Adelyis had set free in order to rid Falcon’s Mount of the Tarzark.

Jennadil’s lightness of heart dissipated and his stomach clenched. Fear was never far from him these days. He would not stay here much longer. Lord Fier had asked him to remain and rebuild Ellenrith, the great Orinian School of Wizardry, but Jennadil had refused. He was still a young man, a month off completing his thirty-fifth winter; an adolescent in a craft where a wizard reached his full power at around seventy and often lived two centuries or more.

Instead, the solitude and peace of Delm Forest called to Jennadil Silverstern. He remembered well the promise he had made himself—the wisdom of the ancient forest had much to teach him. He would leave Falcon’s Mount soon and he doubted he would return. Gywna, Will and Aran Fier knew of his decision, but he planned to slip away unnoticed. Right now though, he had other people to bid farewell. Lassendil was leaving Falcon’s Mount that afternoon and beginning the long journey back to the Ennadil Territory and Taz was departing, returning south-east to his kin in the Forest of Gremul.

Jennadil walked up the last slope towards the palace gates and as he did so, a vast shadow slipped across the sun. The wizard froze and looked upwards. Around him, people shouted and cried out in alarm.

A huge bird of prey, a vast silvery blue owl, glided across the city and circled the palace’s highest towers. Jennadil gasped. He had heard of these fabled birds. The giant blue owls of the Saffira Mountains were a part of Isador’s folklore. Few people had ever seen one of these creatures and one had never been sighted this far north.

The wizard hurried into the palace’s courtyard as the giant owl swooped down and perched on the top of the palace’s outer wall. A group of people had gathered, Gywna Brin and Will Stellan among them, to gaze upon the bird. They stood in reverent silence and stared up at the creature while it surveyed them with large, unblinking golden eyes. Its gaze fixed on Jennadil when he moved to the front of the crowd.

As if the giant blue owl had not shocked them enough by its arrival at Falcon’s Mount, the bird then spoke. Its voice was soft and gentle. “Does Lassendil Florin still live?”

Jennadil gaped at the bird before recovering his wits enough to respond. “He does.”

The bird blinked and cocked its head slightly. “With him I wish to speak.”

Jennadil turned to Taz, who had materialised next to him. “Have you seen Lassendil?”

“He’s in the stables, readying his horse. I’ll find him.” The Gremul disappeared and the owl remained perched on the wall.

It studied Jennadil intently. “You are a wizard,” it observed.

“I am,” Jennadil replied, “for what it’s worth.”

“Grey-Wing!” Lassendil burst through the crowd with Taz on his tail.

Jennadil turned to Lassendil in surprise. “You know this bird?”

“He saved my life at Aranith,” Lassendil explained before staring up at the giant blue owl, his eyes shining. “What are you doing here?”

“I’ve come to take you home,” the owl hooted, “the Ennadil Territory is now free of the Morg but they have left destruction and famine behind them. Your people have no leader. They need you.”

The joy faded from Lassendil’s face.

“You have seen what they have done?”

“I have and it is terrible. It will take you weeks to reach your home from here on horseback. With me it will take little more than two days.”

Lassendil stared at the owl for a moment before he nodded.

“Let me get my things and we can leave now.”

By this time, quite a crowd had gathered. Aran and Imeldia Fier had joined the group. People talked excitedly amongst themselves at this news while Will, Taz and Jennadil spoke in hushed tones with the City-Lord and his wife.

No one noticed Gywna Brin had slipped to the edge of the crowd.

Gywna watched Lassendil disappear into the palace and felt her stomach plummet. He was leaving. Few words had passed between them since their controntation in the mortuary. He probably thought she hated him but she did not. She regretted her angry words, but they could not be taken back and she was too proud to apologise.

Presently, Lassendil returned; this time with a pack slung across his shoulders, his quiver and arrows strapped to his back and his sword at his waist. The owl flapped its wings, causing a draught of air to buffet against the onlookers, and hopped from the wall, landing in the centre of the courtyard.

The crowd fell back. Everyone kept a respectful distance from the giant owl. The bird’s massive clawed feet and curved beak were arched and strong and its eyes were round and bright as two gold coins. Its feathers gleamed many shades of blue and silver in the midday sun; up close it was magnificent.

Lassendil walked up to Grey-Wing and turned to speak to Aran Fier. The City-Lord stepped forward and unexpectedly clasped Lassendil in a bear hug.

“Falcon’s Mount and the Orinian people are eternally grateful to you.” Lord Fier released Lassendil. “You and your sister’s bravery will be remembered by us. We will build a memorial to honour her. I hope we can forge better relations between the Orinian and Ennadil people for we must work together to rebuild Isador.”

Lassendil nodded and he smiled gently. “I hope for that as well. I wish you and your people good fortune.”

Aran Fier smiled back. “Thank you Lassendil.”

Lassendil turned to where Taz, Will and Jennadil stood together. He smiled at them and bowed in the Ennadil fashion.

“You are three of the bravest individuals I have ever met,” he said gently. “I know you share my grief over Adelyis. Do not blame yourselves, for you did all you could to protect her. I will never forget that.”

Taz nodded solemnly. Next to him, Will met Lassendil’s steady gaze and a look of understanding passed between the two men. However, when Lassendil’s gaze shifted to Jennadil, the wizard looked away, his face creased with sadness.

Finally, Lassendil’s gaze moved across the crowd and fastened on a young woman who was trying to hide herself at the back.

“Before I take my leave there is someone else I must say good-bye to.”

Gywna shrank back when she saw Lassendil making his way through the crowd towards her. Everyone turned to look and Gywna felt her face grow hot under the curious stares.

It was too late to hide and Gywna’s father had not brought her up to shun the limelight. She raised her chin imperiously and took a deep breath. Then, she forced herself to meet Lassendil’s eye. Her stomach leaped when she did so. The Ennadil’s beauty was untouchable and she felt embarrassed for succumbing to her infatuation. She had been a fool.

Lassendil walked towards her now, his face unreadable. She could not imagine that he had anything pleasant to say to her. However, when Lassendil reached Gywna, he did the last thing she expected.

Lassendil leant down and kissed her.

Gywna’s body went rigid but—oblivious to her astonishment—Lassendil drew her towards him and deepened the kiss. Then, he reached forward and cupped her face with his hands. Despite her embarrassment, Gywna melted into his arms.

Around them, the crowd roared and applauded. Gywna eventually drew back and gazed up at Lassendil; her hazel eyes enormous on her flushed face. He was still holding her against him and his smile made her breath catch in her throat.

“What possessed you?” Gywna gasped. “I thought Ennadil didn’t put on displays like this.”

“We don’t—but I thought it was time I broke with tradition.” Lassendil looked deep into Gywna’s eyes before he continued. “I didn’t want to leave with regrets.”

With that, he kissed her again. This time, Gywna wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back. The crowd roared, loving the spectacle. After the pain and horror of recent times and the long, cold winter such a display warmed their souls. Jennadil and Will wolf-whistled and clapped, and even Aran Fier joined in.

Lassendil finally released Gywna and gently stroked her cheek. Then, he turned and walked back to Grey-Wing. The owl had been observing the scene with interest but it made no comment as Lassendil climbed up onto its back.

Gywna moved to the front of the crowd and stood next to Jennadil. Her elation had already started to fade—Lassendil was leaving and he was not taking her with him. She might never see him again. She fought the childish urge to beg Lassendil to take her with him, knowing he would refuse.

Lassendil looked down at her and smiled enigmatically. “Good-bye Gywna.”

Gywna felt tears burn down her cheeks and she angrily brushed them away. Meeting Lassendil’s gaze, she forced a smile, not trusting herself to speak.

Suddenly the giant blue owl lifted its wings and took off. The blast of air nearly knocked Gywna off her feet. Jennadil put his arm around her shoulders to steady her and kept his arm there in comfort as they watched Grey-Wing and Lassendil circle the palace once. Then, the giant owl headed south-west towards the Ennadil Territory.

Gywna watched Lassendil disappear into a tiny speak in the sky. She leaned against Jennadil, feeling as if she had been punched in the stomach. “I don’t understand,” she whispered. “Why did he kiss me and then leave?”

Jennadil sighed. “Gywna,” he said gently, but not without a trace of wry humour in his voice. “That’s what men do.”

“What he means is that we’re born cowards,” Will Stellan added. “The best time to kiss a woman is you’re leaving.”

Gywna wriggled out of Jennadil’s embrace and glared at both the men. “Neither of you are helping!” she snapped.

“Gywna.” Will reached out and ruffled her hair. “I don’t think you’ve seen the last of Lassendil Florin.”

Gywna gave Will a jaundiced look. He and Jennadil always found ways to irritate and goad her but nonetheless she was fond of them both. In an odd way their words made her feel better.

“Since we’ve had one good-bye I think it’s time to add another,” a gruff voice interrupted the trio. Taz stood before them, his meager possessions contained in a small sack attached to a pole he carried over his shoulder. “I have lingered here long enough. My people are waiting for me.”

“You will be missed my friend.” Will took the horny hand the Gremul offered him and shook it. “I know you fought with us to protect your own but you stayed on when you needn’t have. We will never forget that.”

“Can we provide you with a horse?” Aran Fier stepped forward.

The Gremul shook his head. “I prefer traveling on foot. The Forest of Gremul lies only three days journey from here.”

“Good-bye, Taz.” Jennadil shook the Gremul’s hand, followed by Aran Fier. Gywna stepped forward and hugged Taz. The Gremul growled softly but did not pull away. His yellow eyes gleamed when Gywna stepped back from him.

They watched Taz leave the palace courtyard. He cut an odd figure framed by the gateway—a shaggy ball of russet fur with sinewy yellow arms and legs. The Gremul walked with a springy step, eager to return to the shadowy green of the forest and to recount all which had befallen him since his capture.

Will, Jennadil and Gywna were sad to see him go but they could see their friend was happy to be returning home. Gywna felt hollow as she watched Taz disappear through the gate.

One by one, her friends were deserting her.

 

***

 

The full moon rose over Falcon’s Mount. Silvery light filtered into Gywna’s bedchamber through the window and pooled on the stone floor. Gywna could not sleep. She had lain in there for hours trying to relax her mind and body but sleep was far away. Finally, she sat up and swung her legs out of bed; wincing as her bare feet touched the icy floor. She fumbled for her slippers, put them on and pulled on her cloak over her long nightdress.

Gywna did not want to be alone with her thoughts. Unlike the others, she had no idea what direction her future would take. Lassendil had returned to the Ennadil Territory and Taz to the Forest of Gremul. Will would soon take a group of soldiers with him back to Serranguard to start rebuilding the city-state and Jennadil was planning to live a hermit’s existence in Delm Forest.

Soon they would all be gone.

The palace slumbered as Gywna padded through the shadowed hallways on slippered feet. She made her way down to the first floor, to the library Jennadil had been using as a bedchamber during his convalescence. His door was slightly ajar and a warm light glowed from within. Gywna knocked before pushing the door open and poking her head inside.

Jennadil Silverstern stood in the centre of the library. He was fully dressed and wearing a forest green cloak. He had been busy packing a bag when Gywna entered.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she demanded.

“Don’t sneak up on people like that,” Jennadil snapped. “My nerves aren’t what they used to be. You’ll stop my heart.”

“I knocked. Anyway, you didn’t answer my question. Where do you think you’re going?”

Jennadil sighed and gave her a long-suffering look. “I told you I was leaving.”

“You didn’t say you were planning to sneak away without saying good-bye to anyone.”

“It’s better this way. I hate good-byes. After today I can’t face anymore.”

Gywna came inside and shut the door behind her. “Why do you have to leave Jennadil? Lord Fier has asked you to stay.”

“I can’t.” Jennadil stuffed the last book into the heavy pack and pulled the drawstring closed at the top. “I feel suffocated here.”

Gywna sat down on the bed and looked down at her hands.

“Don’t look so miserable Gywna.” Jennadil came over and sat next to her. “I get on your nerves. You should be rejoicing at my departure.”

“You’re not so bad,” Gywna replied quietly. “I’m not the easiest person to be around at times either.”

Jennadil reached out and hugged her. His cloak was scratchy and smelt of leaves and moss. Gywna pushed back the tears that had been lingering since Lassendil left and pulled herself together. “I know you’re not happy here,” she admitted. “It’s just that when you and Will leave, I’ll be on my own and I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with my life.”

“What has Lord Fier said?”

“He wants me to rebuild the Temple of Ancestral Wraiths in Brenna.” Gywna pulled a face.

“I take it you don’t find the idea very appealing?”

“I know the Temple is a vital part of our culture but I am not the right person to rebuild it. I was a disaster as a Guardian—my father knew it too. The only reason I was there was to keep me out of his way. I’ve tried explaining this to Lord Fier but he isn’t convinced.”

Jennadil nodded. His expression was thoughtful. “Perhaps you didn’t fit in the way it was, but remember what Arridel told you about the Guardians of Isador. They were once warrior maidens who protected Isador from peril. By the time your father sent you to the Temple they had become an outdated, reclusive sect that saw more value in prayer and guarding a flame than protecting this land. You could change that.”

Gywna stared at him, before the full implication of what he was suggesting sunk in. She felt a flicker of excitement ignite at the base of her stomach. “You mean I could bring it back to the way it once was.”

“You could.”

“But it’s an enormous job, and would take years of hard work.”

“You’re young my dear. You’ve got time.”

Jennadil got up, hitched the heavy pack onto his shoulders and picked up his staff. Gywna looked up into his kind hazel-green eyes and saw that he was serious. He really did believe she was capable of rebuilding the Temple of Ancestral Wraiths.

Gywna stood up and started to follow him as he made for the door but Jennadil stopped and turned to her. “It is better if we say our good-byes here,” he said gently. “I told you I’m no good at them.”

“So what are you going to do? Hide out in Delm Forest like a hermit. Won’t you get lonely?”

Jennadil smiled. “Delm Forest is a magical place, Gywna. I’m the last of my kind now and there is still much I have to learn. I wasn’t a great student when I studied under Arridel. It’s about time I took my job seriously.”

“You think I should do the same?”

Jennadil reached out and took Gywna’s hands in his. “We did not ask for the responsibility, but if we had not faced Morgarth Evictar, Isador would have fallen. Our role as this land’s protectors has not ended because the enemy has been defeated. You and I have no family left—but we are still the children of Isador. Someone has to watch over her.” Jennadil leaned forward and planted a gentle kiss on Gywna’s forehead. “You’re a special girl Gywna. The path ahead of you may be difficult at times but it will have its rewards.”

Gywna watched Jennadil leave the library and bit her lip as her eyes flooded with tears. She did not know what was wrong with her; she was not a crier. She despised women who simpered and wept over puppy dogs and kittens. Yet, she had lost count of how many times she had cried today. She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her cloak and padded back to her bedchamber.

Inside her chamber, Gywna pulled open the heavy drapes covering the window and leaned against the wide sill. Clouds had drifted over the moon but Falcon’s Mount glowed against the featureless downs beyond. Out there, Jennadil was beginning his journey across the Downs, south-west to Delm Forest.

Gywna gazed upon the city and thought of how much she had changed. Then, she thought back to the day her transformation had begun. The late summer’s eve she had slipped over the temple wall and run off to Brenna. That decision had saved her life and now, many misadventures later, she was still alive.

Adelyis Florin had not been so lucky; nor had Theo Brin. Neither had the hundreds of unfortunates whose bodies they had cremated just days earlier. The heavy cloak of self-pity and self-absorption that she had dragged around ever since she hit puberty was lifting from her shoulders. Suddenly the world had more colour in it.

Gywna stayed at the window, watching the slumbering city until her face felt numb with cold. Finally, the clouds drifted and the moon shone bright once more. Gywna yawned and stepped back from the windowsill. She drew the drapes, kicked off her slippers and crawled into her warm bed. A short while later when Gywna drifted off to sleep, she was smiling.

 

***

 

The guards at the gatehouse asked Jennadil no questions. They winched up the portcullis and opened the gates wide enough for him to squeeze out.

A sense of finality settled over Jennadil as the gates thudded shut behind him and he heard the creak of the portcullis being lowered. Out here in the darkness, the wind seemed colder and the Endaar Downs were lonely and desolate. There would be wolves about but Jennadil tried not to think about that. He had his sword and his staff should he need to defend himself. Nevertheless, he would be relieved when he reached the sheltering boughs of Delm Forest.

Jennadil crossed the road, as Dael and Myra had earlier that day, and left the highway. The shortest route to the forest was cross-country. Jennadil shivered in the dank air and pulled his hood up around his face. The wind snagged at his cloak; its icy fingers tried to penetrate his clothing and claw at his skin, but Jennadil quickened his pace, knowing he would warm up soon enough.

The wizard walked for a while before he paused and looked back at Falcon’s Mount. The citadel was magnificent at night, illuminated by home fires and the moonlight. It glowed pale amber and Jennadil was briefly reminded of his warm bed and the comfortable life he had shunned there.

No home, no friends and no lover awaited him in Delm Forest. He would have to construct a dwelling to live in, and he would have to fend completely for himself. It was a lonely path but Jennadil welcomed the solitude. Maybe one day he would return to live amongst men but for now, he needed to isolate himself from them. He needed time to heal from the events of the last year, which weighed heavily on his heart and soul.

He cast one more glance back at Falcon’s Mount and the life he had given up. Then he turned his back on it and disappeared into the enfolding night.

 

 

Over grassy down

By the eye of the moon

I wend my way

To the forest door;

Through the embracing night

Into the lonely dawn

Spirit restored

I am lost no more.

 

 

Other works by Sam J. Charlton

 

The Palâdnith Chronicles

 

An epic fantasy trilogy about three brothers and the destiny that awaits them.

 

 

Book #1: Journey of Shadows

[+ Buy now from Amazon.+]

 

SHORTLISTED FOR THE SIR JULIUS VOGEL AWARDS, ‘BEST FANTASY NOVEL’, 2014!

 

“When you’re lost there’s nowhere to go but forward. One step at a time – and the way will show itself.”

A traditional epic fantasy adventure about three brothers – a guard, a weaponsmith and a librarian – and the legacy that binds them.

Thirty years after the mysterious disappearance of their mother, cataclysmic events force Seth, Eni and Val Falkyn to abandon their old lives and identities, and embark on three epic journeys. An assassin hunts Seth, Eni is accused of murder and sentenced to hang, and Val’s master sends him on a perilous quest that is meant to claim his life.

As each brother sets out on his journey, he must face his personal demons and fears. Help comes from unlikely sources but, in the end, it is Seth, Eni and Val’s own strength, determination and courage that will decide their fates.

 

 

 

Book #2: The Citadel of Lies

[+ Buy now from Amazon+].

 

Three brothers. Three assassins. One destination.

 

In the dark forests of Westhealm lies the fabled Citadel of Lies. Seth, Eni and Val Falkyn travel towards it – and towards an uncertain future.

 

Val must retrieve the Blood Stone, a powerful charm that can open a way to Moden, the magical underworld prison. He must free Floriana DeSanith – the only person who can train the brothers in the ways of the Sentorân.

 

Yet another powerful, artefact lies within the Citadel of Lies. In the wrong hands, it could destroy the world.

 

Three assassins stalk the brothers. Seth, Eni and Val must die before they reach the Citadel.

 

Before they discover the truth.

 

 

Book #3: The Well of Secrets

[+ Buy now from Amazon+].

 

The last chapter in an epic fantasy adventure begins…

 

The Well of Secrets (Book Three of the Palâdnith Chronicles) is a tale of adventure, discovery, fear and courage. It’s the story of three men, and the legacy that binds them.

 

Seth, Eni and Val Falkyn stand at a crossroads. The Citadel of Lies now lies behind them and the Collar of Jade is lost.

 

Floriana DeSanith convinces the brothers that in order to gain the skills they need to rescue their mother from Moden, they must first become Sentorân. Reluctantly, the brothers return home to Barrowthorne, to begin their training – a decision that they eventually come to regret.

 

Meanwhile, an ambitious young realmlord travels to Deep-Spire with hopes of power and glory. At the same time, Edessa Delfen – who has escaped the Malwagen – begins a hunt for the man she deems responsible for the death of her lover: Seth Falkyn.

 

When a new discovery comes to light, the brothers’ focus changes once more. Instead of continuing their training, they set of on another quest – this time in search of the mythical ‘Well of Secrets’.

 

However, there is far more at stake than the brothers realise…

 

 

 

About the Author

 

 

 

Sam J. Charlton is an author of epic fantasy adventures. Her novels are character-driven, coming of age stories that take place in richly drawn fantasy worlds. Fast-paced, and full of epic adventure and memorable characters, her books are for anyone who loves traditional epic fantasy.

 

Two of Sam’s novels: Journey of Shadows, and The Children of Isador, were shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards.

 

PUBLISHED WORKS:

 

The Palâdnith Chronicles:

Deep-Spire (Prequel novella)

Journey of Shadows (Book 1)

The Citadel of Lies (Book 2)

The Well of Secrets (Book 3 – available late 2015)

 

The Children of Isador

 

Sam lives in New Zealand’s South Island, where she works as a freelance copy writer.

 

 

——————————-

 

Visit Sam’s website: www.samjcharlton.com

 

Visit Sam’s blog: www.samanthacharlton.com

 

Follow Sam on Twitter: @SamJCharlton

 

[+ Follow Sam on Facebook+].

 

Did you enjoy The Children of Isador? Please leave an honest review on Amazon or Goodreads so that other readers can find it – thank you!


The Children of Isador

NEW, UPDATED EDITION - NOVEMBER 2016! An Epic Fantasy Adventure. The Morg, savage invaders from an unknown land far to the south, sack Isador's coastline. Less than a year later, they have gained control of nearly half of the continent. After centuries of civil-war, the four races that inhabit Isador: the Ennadil, Orinians, Tarzark and Gremul, refuse to band together. No one comes to the Ennadil's aid as the Morg's war machine quickly moves north, killing or enslaving all that oppose them. Morgarth Evictar leads the Morg. A powerful warlock bent on vengeance, Evictar has returned to his homeland after a long exile to claim it for his own. With only the City States of Orin yet to fall - victory lies within Evictar's grasp. Can Isador be saved or is it too late?

  • ISBN: 9781370391868
  • Author: Sam J. Charlton
  • Published: 2017-02-19 23:05:27
  • Words: 114589
The Children of Isador The Children of Isador