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Chapter Three The Unexpected Advance
The young boy lightly pressed his index finger against the cool page, tracing a line below the words. What, should I hurt her, strike her, kill her dead? Although I hate her, I’ll not harm her so, he read. He sighed, shifted his weight slightly to get more comfortable, tucked into the corner of the window alcove. He glanced outside at the cloudy day, seeing green fields past the tall buildings that imposed themselves upon the landscape. The clouds forbid the sun from breaking the calm of the day, and he allowed himself a slight smile.
He returned to the page, ready to be lost in the comfort of words again. The dark, cool room was filled with the scent of the hundreds of books lining shelves against the walls. What, can you do me greater harm, he began, before the distracting sounds of shuffling feet made him frown.
A thin man approached him, stopping just short before the boy. He was gaunt, and scruffy, a few days worth of beard on his face. The special collections keeper’s grey hair had been slicked back on the sides of his head, a weak attempt to hide the disheveled morning hair.
“Master Sprouls,” said the keeper.
The boy did not look up at the intruder. After a few moments he spoke, less a question than a note of resignation. “Yes.”
“Master Sprouls,” said the keeper, “the Librarian has requested the Duke Humphrey texts.”
Sean Sprouls looked up at the keeper’s worried expression. The eleven-year-old boy on the floor seemed to frighten the library’s keeper with his steady gaze. Sean sat upright and leaned over, then dislodged the three books he had been resting against. The texts had short lengths of broken chains embedded into the spines, now worn by age and crinkled by the weight of a young boy using them for armrests. The chains clinked noisily as he dragged the stack around him and pushed them toward the keeper. He returned to the page, looking for his place again in the story.
The keeper cleared his throat. “The Librarian also asked me to tell you,” said the keeper, his face red, “to please be careful with … the books.”
Sean, still examining the folio before him, reached to his side and tugged open his belt pouch. He fished out a coin and flipped it towards the keeper, who caught it on the second grasp.
9 YEARS LATER …
Chapter Two The Mirror
The ice-chilled wind burned against his cheeks as he trudged across the tightly packed snow, the winter conspiring against him. He had considered, and quickly rejected, waiting for the more forgiving spring. Enough time had passed.
Olcán’s dark exposed hair, damp with sweat from the trek, had frozen against his cheeks. He pushed aside the stiff strands, tucking them into his fur-lined hood, the crackle of breaking ice the only sound to breach the drone of the wind.
He straightened his back, barely feeling an ache. He cupped a hand over his brow to shield his eyes from the wind and studied the land before him. The whiteness of the sky and the winter-swept land merged together so that only the odd jumble of snow-capped boulders stood out, their sides not yet overcome by the snow. Then he saw it, the wall of blue ice a short distance away: the glacier’s beginning. He picked up his pace.
Another thousand steps or so, each with a half-conscious mantra of soon joining his footfalls, and he reached the wall. He yanked his sheepskin gloves off and threw them to the ground, then pressed his hands against the burning ice. The cold bit into his skin.
He opened his mouth to speak and found his voice lacking, dry from the journey. He swallowed and cleared his throat then spoke.
“Open,” said Olcán. “Open.”
He tried again, face red and anger beginning to leech into his features, “Open.”
Then it seemed within the ice, shadows moved like figures walking on the other side. The amorphous shapes, two or three of them, came close to the surface as if looking closely at him. Dark shapes with no identifiable features. He kept his hands pressed and said again, “Open.”
The shadows moved to his left, not so much walking as gliding away along the ice wall. He abandoned his grip against the ice, feeling a pinch as his fingers left the surface, and followed. The shadows took their time, and though they were faceless, he felt watched.
After a few minutes they paused, coming to a jagged crevice in the glacier, the ice protruding over Olcán’s head like a narrow roof. He saw now there were three shadows, which came together almost like an embrace. The dark shapes within had become one, and appeared to be just beyond the surface of the ice wall. Then they stilled.
It took a few moments before Olcán realized there was no longer a shadow beyond the wall of ice, but an opening instead. Nothing appeared to have changed, but he felt an absence like space being created, and when he reached out his hand to touch the wall, he found only the empty space of the opening. He tilted his body slightly to the side to get another angle and saw clearly the tunnel before him. Returning to a straight posture, the wall still seemed to bar his way.
He stepped inside.
<!–nextpage–>The tunnel before him was bright, devoid of darkness. He pushed back his hood, feeling some warmth return to his cheeks despite the remaining cold. The shadows that he had followed were gone. The tunnel gave the appearance of having been created by a serpentine creature as tall as he stood, polishing the ice walls into a jewel-like perfection. Scattered points of brilliant light forced him to avoid looking too long at any one spot. The source of the light was not obvious; it was too still and constant to be fire-borne.
He followed the tunnel deeper into the glacier, noting the winding course it took, until reaching a small chamber filled with entrances to several more tunnels, some beginning in the ceiling of the ice. The points of light reflected against the curving walls a hundredfold, so that the chamber seemed full of lightning bugs. He noted that there was otherwise nothing special about the chamber.
“Where are you?” he said, studying the entrances.
He noticed one of the tunnels seemed to darken further in, as if a light had been turned off. He entered.
Within a few steps, the cold walls had gone dark, though he felt underneath his fingertips what he could no longer see. The circle of light behind him from the chamber’s glow could not pierce this darkness, and he walked on. He felt the curve of its slope rising and falling in a gradual descent under his feet, and he used his hands to guide himself blindly into the depths of the glacier. After a time, what could have been hours or only minutes, the tunnel walls disappeared beneath his hands and he fell into space. He hit the hard ground, smacking his cheek against the ice.
He could sense the open space he was now in, a chamber that felt wider than the first, though still dark. The magician pushed himself to his feet, touched his cheek briefly and clenched his jaw. Blindness, even the illusion of it, unsettled him.
Then he noticed it: the tiny cluster for shimmering lights, each no more than the thickness of a grass seed. He stepped closer and looked closely at the cluster, which seemed to float in a flat plane about waist-high. He reached a hand to touch them and his fingers met solid ice, freezing to the touch.
“Light,” said Olcán, and the blue glow from his hands swiftly lit the room with a wavering light as if being underwater.
The cluster of lights continued to flicker, though he now saw that rather than floating, they were embedded in the surface on the top of a rectangular column of ice. The pinpoints of lights resembled a circular constellation of stars. The column’s purpose was not clear, not the reason for the lights.
Olcán looked up to see the chamber was indeed wide, nearly big enough for a house. Then he sensed he was not alone, and smiled.
“You are here,” said Olcán. He turned around to face the wall to his back and saw his own reflection.
The surface of the ice wall here was perfectly flat, and the light shone so that it worked as an ideal mirror, where the dark shape of Ulfr stood frozen inside the ice. Olcán stepped closer to the captive, seeing his own features reflected over Ulfr’s stilled expression.
He came close enough to look into Ulfr’s open eyes, slightly above his own. The merging of his face and Ulfr’s conjured the image of a twisted, broken creature.
“I will release you,” said Olcán. “My blood is yours.” The frozen face did not move.
Then Olcán touched the ice wall and spoke, “Break.”
<!–nextpage–>The ice cracked immediately, a thin line spreading across its surface like a lightning bolt, small chunks slipping free to the floor. Then a circular section of the wall shattered, radiating from where Olcán had pressed his fingers. For the most part the countless pieces remained in place and formed an imperfect white circle, the broken ice now shielding Ulfr from view. The ice shifted, and Olcán saw Ulfr’s hand move, then the pebble-sized shards flooded out into the chamber room.
Olcán took a few steps backward, his feet crunching on the ice underfoot, and beheld the freed captive. Ulfr stood within the circular alcove left behind, his eyes already locked on Olcán’s.
“Not my blóð,” said Ulfr.
Olcán felt his body lifted up into the air by invisible hands at his throat, pressing hard against his windpipe, though Ulfr remained still. Olcán kicked his feet in mid-air, a flash of his last encounter with the Witch flitting through his mind. He almost smiled at the idea that a journey could begin and end the same way. He tried to speak but could not. Then Ulfr’s mind touched on his, and his strange words clicked into sense. Not his blood. He saw then that Ulfr had no descendents, only the brothers who betrayed him did. Not his blood.
Now that Ulfr was freed from the ice, Olcán saw him clearly: a thin, yet muscled young man with long blond hair tightly knit into a braid. Barbed, jagged pieces of metal skewered every inch of the braid like sawteeth. Ulfr’s lean face was defined by his sharp nose and thin-set lips pressed without evidence of emotion. Rather, the thin man would have come across as uninterested in Olcán, save for the look in his blue eyes. Indeed, Olcán saw, no resemblance existed between the two men.
Olcán’s head swum with a dance of lightness and heaviness. The bright blue glow filling the room dimmed, his magic weakened along with his breath. Ulfr’s face remained still, betraying nothing of his thoughts. Darkness briefly clouded Olcán’s vision, then returned to normal. Then out of the corner of his eye, Olcán took notice again of the pedestal and the flickering lights on its top. His thoughts shifted into place, and he felt clarity.
Olcán struggled to get a word out, pressing his hands against his chest, and spoke, “Léoma.”
The grip on his throat slackened, but kept him aloft. “The Léoma,” said Olcán, loathing the desperation in his voice, “I know who has it.”
The invisible hold tightened once around his throat, then left him and he collapsed to the floor. He turned his back as he got up, keeping his scowl to himself, then turned to face Ulfr.
The thin man reached out a hand in what seemed a gentle motion, until he locked a tight grip onto Olcán’s forehead before the magician could stop him.
<!–nextpage–>“Kunna,” said Ulfr, and Olcán felt his mind being touched violently, a sharp pain inside his head. He shuddered and his body felt chilled, then Ulfr released his grip and Olcán staggered backward.
“Where does the Léoma lie?” asked Ulfr, turning around to face what remained of his shattered prison.
“We are the same,” said Olcán, after a moment’s hesitation. “They have betrayed me as well.”
“You are one of them,” said Ulfr, a sharp note in his voice, trying the new words with some interest. He spoke with scarcely an accent of his own. “Where is the Léoma?”
“My brother’s grandchildren,” said Olcán. He sighed, caressing his throat. “It would have to be in their possession.”
“That it is not in yours,” said Ulfr, glancing at Olcán, “implies a weakness on your part.”
“The young Sprouls were underestimated, not only on my part,” said Olcán, his eyes squinting with the memory. “They had help.”
He stiffened his back, yanked his dark hair back with several motions until he gripped the locks in one hand, then pulled out a thin cord to tightly bind it. Ulfr studied the younger man. Though centuries had separated the lives they lived, they appeared to be the same age.
“Besides,” said Olcán, “The Léoma was unknown to me until a year after my powers were taken. You notice I have won them back, to your advantage.”
Ulfr betrayed nothing of his thoughts.
“I studied the Sprouls from time to time, from afar, before I set out to find … you.”
“It was not me you sought.”
“Fair enough. The Léoma. It is obviously not here. Therefore, they must have it already.”
Ulfr waited. His eyes spoke enough.
“And I do know where they spend their time. We can seek them out together, you and I. The Léoma will be ours.”
“Yours. I only ask to serve you.”
“You are a serpent that cannot be trusted,” said Ulfr. He grinned, an off-putting expression on his otherwise stoic presence. “I understand how to keep a serpent under control.”
Olcán’s nod was slight, hesitant, and his mouth a thin line of distaste. “As you will.”
“We won’t be going to them,” said Ulfr.
<!–nextpage–>“You have already shown your weakness,” said Ulfr. “A lord does not go into battle when he has soldiers to send. Vakti.”
From the wall opposite the broken prison, three shadows emerged from behind Olcán. The blurred shadows paused before Ulfr and gradually became clear figures: two pale-skinned and blond-haired men and one woman, her golden tresses spilling down her back. The three were clothed in armor resembling obsidian dragon scales, knotted leather belts clinched around their waists with daggers tucked into sheaths. Olcán noticed the black tint to their lips and the deadened blue irises of their eyes, fixed on Ulfr.
“Allvadr,” said the woman.
Ulfr looked to Olcán and spoke, “Where do I send my soldiers?”
The village lay in ruins. Not one home had escaped the flames during the night, and now the haze that had filled the sky was beginning to clear. Only a few scattered billows of smoke drifted from the charred remains. A village of skeletal homes now abandoned to the dead. In the smoldering wreckage, in the doorways to houses no longer standing, and on the rough roads lay bodies with tormented expressions and skin blackened not by smoke but disease. Their eyes lost to shadows, tongues spoiled by dark death.
Satisfied, she turned her back to the village and began to walk away. The raven-haired woman, clothed in dark and tattered robes, smiled slightly and touched a finger to the labyrinth tattoo inked into the softness of her left wrist.
She stopped, and quickly turned her face to the West, stray locks of her hair falling across her cheeks.
“Ulfr.” A whispered name.
She left the road behind and set out in the new direction.
READ CHAPTER THREE
Chapter One The Return
The old man studied the glowing entrance to the cavern above, an orange slack-jawed mouth in the precipitous face of the small mountain. The subtle flickering inside the cave cast itself upon the walls, revealing the waiting warmth. Lipless, the cave lacked a ledge. No steps, nor even a simple trail, would give him easy access. He kept his own face still, and he kept his emotions hidden. He had drawn his hood until it snugly fit his head, hiding the whiteness of his hair, but moonlight betrayed the wrinkles in his face and hands.
The old man stepped away from the forest and walked as briskly as he could manage across pale rocks, taking care not to stumble. A fall would be the end of him. A sharp twinge in his knee jolted him, but he willed the pain away.
Jagged boulders lay at the base of the face of the mountain. He climbed onto the first of these and reached out to lay his palms against the rock face. He stared up, no longer able to see the entrance, only the orange glow coming from the well-lit cavern. Cracks riddled the mountainside. A safe climb remained possible, but equally so was a disastrous fall. He imagined his death watching him. He gripped both hands onto a jutting rock over his head and began to make his way up.
Within a few minutes his heart shuddered and the cold air chilled the sweat on his face. He shivered, saw his exhaled breath become a moonlit vapor. He pressed closer to the rock wall. His legs began to tremble; his tattered robe quivered. His fingers ached, tightly gripping a cleft of rock near his face. He pressed his forehead to his hands and closed his eyes, forcing deep breaths into his body, and willed the trembling to stop. After a minute his legs stilled, and he opened his eyes. The white rock faced him, flecked with grey spots that in places seemed to study him. He raised his gaze: a little further to climb.
His knees throbbed. He felt the ache and weariness of his years spreading fast through his body, but he continued to climb, clamping his jaw tight and baring his teeth to the rock wall. It was as if he had come face to face with a challenger and neither would give ground to the other. He felt numbed by the chill, easing his pain, and soon his fingers curled over the edge of the entrance. He pulled himself up and fell back against the wall.
Already he felt warmer from the fire at the rear of the cavern, though it was beyond his sight. The heat washed over his face and into the night. The mouth narrowed into a round throat curving into the mountain, slick and shiny, reflecting the light beyond it. He heard footsteps. He lay still for a moment, catching his breath and trying not to make a noise. His eyes were wide and locked onto the tunnel walls, waiting for her shadow to appear. He saw a brief lapse in the light as if she walked in front of the fire, but she did not enter the tunnel.
Chapter Three The Draw of Luck
Ruarc walked for the entire morning, and being accustomed to soft soil and grasses, his feet chafed from the rough road. Small blisters emerged on his soles demanding relief, but Ruarc wrested his attention back to the road. It’s only blisters. He welcomed the cool morning’s fresh breeze upon his face instead of dwelling on pain. He might have imagined this to be an after-breakfast stroll had the circumstances been different.
The Goblin Road narrowed to a rocky trail that could hardly be called a road, for two horses could not ride abreast. Riders traveling opposite directions would be spurred to the challenge of who would move aside for the other. It seemed as if the road picked the worst of spots to shrink, as if it craved conflicts among the travelers and herded them like sheep across the land. Nevertheless, Ruarc began to wonder if he was fated to have a quiet journey, not quite the dangerous adventure he had suspected.
As the road bent around an imposing copse of thick trees, Ruarc came face to upside-down face with his answer: a diminutive rope-bound creature hanging from a branch. A tight cloth gagged the small creature’s mouth. The rope covered him from neck to ankles so that he triggered in Ruarc an image of thread upon a spool, but then he noticed the bruises on its face. He’s hurt. Bad. The creature’s eyes shot open at the sight of Ruarc and he wriggled within his bounds. A muffled moan escaped though the gag.
Ruarc’s surprise rooted him to the earth. It took another moan from the captive to snap him out of his stupefaction. He yanked the gag off of the captive, who drew in a loud breath.
“What?” asked Ruarc. What language is this?
“Behind you!” the captive shouted, “Gremmon!”
Ruarc ducked as he spun around, somehow anticipating the large branch that whooshed overhead and hit the hanging creature in the stomach, rendering him breathless as his small body swung upwards.
“Grem … gremmon, “ gasped the creature, “Help.”