Bethany House Publishers
"I dream of the meadows, green-gold 'neath the sun, sweet with the dew of the morn ..."
The bell-toned voice drew Abramm Kalladorne into the sunlight of the open meadow, a yellow butterfly zigzagging ahead of him above a patch of purple lupine. He pressed through the bloom-laden stalks into rippling grass, following the plucked notes of a lirret and a voice as familiar as his own. She must be just beyond that primrose at the meadow's far edge.
Children's laughter echoed in counterpoint to her sweet voice, and his pace quickened. Ian would be over two by now, walking well, maybe even talking in phrases and sentences, while Simon would have left all his toddlerhood behind, a real little boy at last. Then there was Maddie. Abramm ached for her so badly sometimes he could hardly bear it. Now finally, that was behind him. All the worrying about threading the high passes before winter closed them had been for naught. In a moment he would step around that bush and there she'd be, her gray-blue eyes widening with surprise at the sight of him an instant before she'd cast her lirret aside and fling herself into his—
His foot slipped, and he lurched to regain his balance, gripping his walking staff hard as he drove it into the snow. The misstep jolted his entire body as the vision winked out and the dark, icy reality of the blizzard-swept heights filled his senses again. She wasn't here. His boys weren't here. There was no meadow. The passes were not behind him, and winter was very definitely closing in....
Realization slammed him so hard he reeled to a stop, struggling to breathe as he felt again the cold and the exhaustion and the misery. Wind screamed around him, pelting his heavy woolen cloak with slivers of snow and flapping its snow-caked hem about his legs. For a moment the desire to give up was so strong he nearly collapsed.
But he couldn't. Maddie was waiting for him. His boys needed him. And so he drew a deep breath and reached up to dash away the ice that continually froze onto his beard and mustache. Chunks of it clung also to the long hair dangling beside his face, some of them rasping against the inside edge of his cowl, others frozen to his beard. He no longer felt his feet, and his fingers, numb beneath a double layer of glove and mitten, could hardly grip his walking staff.
He squinted down the rocky hill to where a shin-deep trough of footprints angled across the slope through the rapidly accumulating snow. At the end of his pocket of visibility, the last of his companions were starting down the next switchback, obscured by the shifting veils of snow. Shuddering, he started after them, placing steps and stick carefully to avoid any more almost-falls.
Neither he nor anyone else in his party had any real idea where they were going, only that having come through the Kolki Pass they must descend the barren slopes beyond to an ancient Terstan monastery just below the tree line. "The way will be obvious," the men back at Highmount Holding had assured them. Maybe it would be if clouds hadn't swallowed the world and driving snow hadn't made it hard to open one's eyes and the rock cairns that were supposed to be their guides weren't fast disappearing beneath the drifting snow.
It was typical, though, of the bad luck that had plagued them since leaving Kiriath, transforming what should have been a three-week journey through the pass into a six-week trial of endurance. They'd run out of food two days ago and burned the last of their dung-pats in last night's fire. Water had been in short supply for over a week, and they had an old man, a pregnant woman, and a number of children with them. Thinking they'd be in Caerna'tha tonight, they'd left much of their bedding and tents with the wagon when it had irreparably broken down in the pass that morning. Now, with the day three-quarters gone, and the tree line still who knew how far below them, their situation was growing desperate.
For not the first time he sent up a prayer for guidance and protection.
Thus, when the trail rounded a rocky slope to emerge onto a promontory overlooked by a small trailside hut, he should have been elated. His traveling companions certainly were. Many were already picking their way up the steep, narrow stair to the doorway where two men worked to string up a blanket.
At the base of the stair in the slope's lee, the big, blond former blacksmith, Rolland Kemp, lifted the pack frame off their one remaining horse. "Ah, Alaric!" he said as Abramm drew up beside him. "I thought maybe we'd lost ye." The wind was lessened there in the slope's lee, but it still made conversation difficult. Rolland tossed the frame onto the ground, then bent to dig through one of the discarded saddlebags. He pulled out a near-empty grain bag and offered the remainder of its contents to the horse. Snow mounded on his shoulders and clung in balls to the fur-lined rim of his hood.
Rolland had become something of a friend on this journey. As the strongest of the men, he and Abramm were most often called upon to search for the lost, unstick the wagon, or carry extra loads—and the shared experience and responsibility had bound them together. Besides, Rolland had an easy temperament, a level head, and a strong sense of loyalty. He was a good man, and a good husband and father. If Abramm couldn't have Trap here with him, he thought Rolland might be the next best thing.
Now Abramm turned to stare over the promontory into the stormy whiteness, relieved they had a place to escape the cold, but uneasy nonetheless. Caerna'tha was supposed to have been but a few hours' hike once they'd left the pass. Wind gusted against his side, ice crystals stinging his cheekbones and making his eyes water as he searched for some sign of the monastery's presence: the glint of a window, the straight line of a wall, even the dark bulk of a mountainside. But swirling white obliterated all beyond the small promontory on which they stood.
"See anything?" Rolland shouted from the other side of the horse.
Abramm shook his head. "It could be right there, for all we know."
"An' we could blunder off the trail and get hopelessly lost b'fore we found it," Rolland said. As with every other man in the party, ice clotted his blond beard and brows, framing a small patch of wind-burned cheekbones beneath deep-set blue eyes. "Ye wanna help me get Pearl here up that stair now?" He slapped the mare's flank, dislodging a mass of accumulated snow.
Abramm glanced back at the hut where the last of the women and children disappeared through the blanketed doorway. His uneasiness remained, but he could think of no reason why it should—other than the fact he was hungry, thirsty, exhausted, and deeply disappointed they'd not reach Caerna'tha after all. He was sick to death of snow and cold and wind and, truth be told, these people and their endless needs. If only he could—
His breath caught and he froze, listening hard. "Did you hear that?"
Rolland regarded him blankly.
"Sounded like someone screaming." But he heard nothing more and clearly Rolland had not noticed it. Probably the wind. Or maybe another hallucination.
Though all the other huts on their journey through the pass had had linked to them a shelter for the animals, this one did not. Since the mare refused to climb the ice-slicked front stair, Abramm suggested they take her back up the trail and try leading her across the slope on a level closer to where the hut sat. But they could get her to go only a little way off the trail before she refused to go another step. Finally they had no choice but to tether her to a pile of rocks back at the foot of the front stair.
"I hate leaving her out here," Rolland said, and Abramm marveled, not for the first time, that a man as big and strong and fearsome looking as Rolland Kemp could be so tenderhearted. He clapped his friend's beefy shoulder. "She'll be all right, Rollie. She's weathered worse up in the pass."
"I suppose ..." Rolland shook out his own blanket and laid it over the mare as Abramm started up the stairway.
Fatigue was closing in hard on him by the time he gained the top of the slippery steps. He was reaching to push aside the blanket when again he heard the distant scream. Skin crawling, he cast back his cowl. But the sound did not repeat; instead he heard voices arguing inside the hut.
"Well, if yer friend Alaric hadn't insisted on stoppin' early yesterday, we'd have gone on and found the right place t' camp." That was Oakes Trinley, former tanner and city alderman, and the group's self-appointed leader since long before Abramm had met them. "An' if we'd camped in the right place—"
"He didn't insist!" a female voice interrupted him. "You all agreed it was a good idea, so don't go blaming Alaric for what was your decision." Marta Brackleford, the widowed sister of Trinley's wife, Kitrenna, was one of the few who had no compunctions about speaking her mind to him. Once married to a banker, and proprietor of her father's printing business, she'd been an independent woman all her adult life. She'd also taken an unveiled interest in Abramm, which made him as uneasy as it warmed his heart.
Trinley, on the other hand, had disliked him from the moment he'd joined the group at Highmount.
Now, as the former alderman started to reply, Abramm forcefully stomped the snow from his boots, cutting him off. Pushing aside the blanket, Abramm stepped into the close, warm air of the dimly lit chamber beyond.
People sat or curled on the floor between piles of salvaged bedding and gear. A rope net full of murky kelistars hung from the ceiling timber. Others gleamed here and there throughout the company—most of them warmstars—while in the shadows at the back, old Totten Ashvelt picked his way through a rubble of fallen stones, filling the many chinks in the wall with dried grass from the floor. The three mothers in the group wrapped their crying children into blankets, promising they'd have all the food they wanted tomorrow when they reached the monastery.
For now only snow filled the kettle on the cooking tripod, heated by a fire ring heaped with warmstars. Trinley stood near the doorway, a stocky, broad-shouldered man in an ice-caked leather greatcoat. Marta faced him from the far side of the ring of warmstars, her dark eyes flicking to Abramm as he entered. A blush deepened the pink of her wind-burned cheeks.
Trinley turned to glare at him, but Abramm made no mention of the recently terminated conversation, shrugging out of his rucksack as he informed them of the situation with the mare.
"And Rollie?" Mrs. Kemp inquired from Marta's side. "He's not going to stay down there with the beast all night, is he?"
Abramm smiled. The woman knew her husband well. "He'll be up shortly, ma'am."
She seemed content with that, but Marta gave Trinley a look of alarm.
"We're not below the tree line yet, Marta," the alderman said before she could speak.
Abramm had no idea what that was about and was too tired and discouraged to care. He picked his way through the clutter of people and belongings to a clear spot on the other side of the warmstar ring and settled tailor style before it. As he stripped off his ice-crusted mittens, Marta said quietly, "They told us specifically not to stop after we left the pass. To go straight to Caerna'tha."
"And in good weather that would have been fine," Trinley retorted. "But it's not good weather, and anyway, if Caerna'tha was an easy walk away, why would anyone build this hut? Besides, if the wolves are rhu'ema spawn like they said, they won't be out in this storm anyway. The horse will be fine. Stop worrying."
Wolves ... rhu'ema spawn ... Abramm stuffed the wet mittens into his rucksack and conjured his own warmstar to hold directly against his palms, thinking he should know what they were talking about but unable to make his mind focus on it. Instead, it wandered off into an exhausted haze that involved another reunion scenario with Maddie and the boys....
The painful tingle of his hands returning to life brought him back to the moment. A sense of being watched and mocked swept over him. Probably with his head bent like this, the others felt freer to stare at him and exchange whispers. They'd all die now, and it would be his fault.
Not my fault. I wanted to move on.
"But you didn't move on, did you? And now you are stuck."
He wasn't sure who had said that. Were they speaking aloud? Why did everything sound so far away? He wanted to look around, but he couldn't seem to lift his head.
"Stuck." Two voices taunted him in unison: "You didn't think you could escape us, did you, loser?"
And suddenly he knew who they were. Rhu'ema had dogged him on the journey through the pass, knowing exactly who he was, even if the people he traveled with did not. They'd delighted in harassing him with a stream of subverbal insults and threats. He'd spent many nights maintaining the Lightshield he'd routinely conjured to protect everyone—a duty few of them knew he carried out.
Knowing they'd be forced to ground once the storm hit, the rhu'ema had come ahead to wait for him. And not just to wait ...
He sensed other minds through theirs—dark, savage minds, full of bloodlust. Human, yet not human at all, feeling the wind and the snow as they ran toward the feast that awaited them in the heights....
"NO!" The shout burst from him as he surged to his feet, drawing the startled gazes of those around him. The room whirled briefly as he stared back, struggling to understand what had just happened. He'd stood up too fast for one thing.
"Sit down, Alaric," Trinley growled. "Ye were only dreamin'."
Dreaming? He glanced around at the rough stone walls bathed with the warmstars' orange glow, and at the back of the chamber he found two other lights—one purple, one green—pressed into the cracks between the stone and the slate roof, hiding from him, even as they laughed at him. For they knew as well as he did that the discovery was not one he could share.
Trinley laid a hand on Abramm's shoulder, giving him a little shake. "Relax, man. We're safe for now."
But were they? Were those other minds he'd touched nothing but dream creatures? His disquiet intensified.
One of the children began to cry. Then Rolland shoved aside the blanket and stepped inside, a giant in the cramped quarters. He shoved back his ice-crusted hood and looked about at them, his expression tense. "I think I just heard wolves," he announced.
Abramm's heart stopped. "Light's grace!" he muttered. "That's what I sensed!" He looked around at the people staring up at him. "This is a trap," he cried loudly. "It's probably not even a real hut."
Trinley shook him again, harder. "Stop it, now! That's enough of yer nightmares."
Abramm turned sharply, knocking the other man's grip loose with his forearm and forcing him back a step. "It wasn't a nightmare!"
Trinley gaped at him, his long gray hair straggling over the cast-back fleece-lined hood.
"There are rhu'ema here," Abramm said, scanning the back wall. "Ells. They've worked some sort of spell." An errant draft from the back chilled his face.
In the corner the baby whose crying had been temporarily silenced by Rolland's entrance started up again, while the adults muttered one to another.
Trinley stepped close to Abramm again. "What the plague is wrong with ye, man?" he growled. "Are ye tryin' to set us all apanic?"
"Of course not!"
When Abramm didn't back down, Trinley turned to scowl at the shadows in the drafty rear of the hut. The others followed his lead, twisting round in a rustling of fabric and leather. For a moment the babe cried and the wind shrieked and the rope-slung kelistars rocked gently back and forth in the draft.
Then someone grunted dismissively. "It looks fine to me."
More voices echoed him, and Trinley nodded. "Ye've done a lot for us, Alaric, but ye know ye've been hallucinatin' for days."
"I'm not hallucinating," Abramm said. "If we stay here, we'll die."
Trinley's grizzled brows drew downward. "We can't go blundering out into that storm again. If ye fear t' stay with us, leave. No one'll stop ye. But I'll cock ye on the head m'self if ye don't stop this wild talk."
Abramm quelled a flare of irritation, wondering what would happen if he did leave. Which of the two of them would the others follow? He snorted inwardly. As if there was any doubt. Besides, he knew he wouldn't be able to abandon the children, and anyway, Trinley was right as far as he understood things.
My Lord Eidon ... they won't follow if they don't believe me. But how can I persuade them to believe me if they can't see the truth? Open their eyes....
More children started to cry, frightened by his mention of the ells. Their mothers assured them there were no ells, and shot angry glances at Abramm while the men glowered at him. Across the ring of warmstars, though, the widowed Marta Brackleford spoke softly to her sister. "Surely if this hut was a safe place, the Highmounters would have mentioned it."
"So d' you see these ells o' his, then?" Kitrenna Trinley asked her sourly. She brushed a wet strand of gray hair from her wind-reddened face and glanced at the rafters.
"No," Marta admitted, looking up, as well. "But I sense something here. A crawling up the back of my neck, as if unfriendly eyes are watching us."
Kitrenna huffed. "Stop it, Marti! Ye'll just encourage him."
"What if he's right?"
"What are the ells goin' t' do t' us, anyway?" Kitrenna demanded.
"Hold us until the wolves get here," Abramm answered grimly.
Kitrenna looked up at him. "We don't even know there are any wolves."
"Rolland heard them—and so did I, earlier."
"Rhu'ema spawn can't travel through falling snow," Oakes Trinley pointed out.
"I don't think they're rhu'ema spawn," Abramm said. "I think they're something else."
"And how would ye know that?" Kitrenna sniffed disdainfully and turned back to her sister. "He just wants to get t' the monastery as fast as he can so he can lose the rest of us and strike out fer Trakas on his own. Ye heard him the other night—he doesn't care a pin what happens t' us."
The accusation stung precisely because of its element of truth.
"Indeed!?" the ells sniggered. "You can hardly wait to leave them behind."
Abramm ignored them and kept his focus on the issue at hand. "How is it you even saw this place?" he asked of Trinley. "Given how far it sits above the trail, hidden by all the snow ... I'd think we'd all have walked right past it. What drew your eye?"
"What the plague difference does that make?" the stocky alderman snapped. "I happened t' notice it. Ye're not the only one with sharp eyes in this group, ye know." With a snort of disgust he raised his voice and assured everyone they'd be safe here for the night and better able because of it to tackle the forest in the morning.
Abramm glanced back at the two rhu'ema, smug and malevolent in the shadows.
"Ye know, ells bein' here would explain poor Pearl's refusal t' come up here," Rolland mused from where he stood before the blanketed doorway.
As Abramm turned to him, the icy draft from the chamber's rear washed around him again, and with it came inspiration. Wordlessly he wheeled and picked his way across the crowded floor to the back wall. There he bloomed a kelistar into the darkness, making it hard enough he could hold it in one hand while he fingered the wall with the other.
Furious now, the rhu'ema crammed themselves back into their crevices. He touched the cold stone, the rough bristles of grass, then the faint, hair-lifting vibration of the spell. A rush of threats, alternatives, and condemnation flooded his mind from the panicked ells. He ignored it, seeking the Light....
It flared from the shield on his chest and down his arm into the stone veneer of the illusion, shredding it to streamers of mist. A hole big enough to fit two horses through gaped in a wall riddled with holes, many of which had already been chinked with blowing snow or grass. More snow piled up on the threshold as flakes held back by the illusion fluttered through the opening.
At Abramm's back, people gasped and a woman cried, "There's nothing there."
Other exclamations followed the first, the pitch of the voices escalating until in moments Trinley's feared panic was upon them. People raced about, jabbering, grabbing this or that without heed. One woman snatched up her baby and hurried for the doorway without cloak or blanket.
Abramm caught her arm as she went by him and shouted, "Enough! Stop this NOW!" The old kingly imperiousness rang in his voice, and the command produced an immediate and startling effect. Everyone froze and turned toward him. Only the children continued to cry.
"We must go," he said firmly. "And we must hurry. But we must do so in a sensible manner. Eidon has brought us to this point, and he knew we would take this detour."
"Aye, an' now we must pay fer our foolishness," old Totten Ashvelt said fiercely, glaring at Trinley.
"How will we find our way in the dark?" demanded Kitrenna.
Abramm reminded them they had at least an hour of light left.
"Will you lead us, then, Alaric?" This was from young Galen Gault, Trinley's newly wed nephew. "We all know you see better in the dark than anyone."
"Aye," Trinley said sourly. "Please. Lead us. 'Tis what ye've wanted from the start, isn't it?"
Abramm opened his mouth to deny it, then realized this, too, was a distraction. What's more, he knew it didn't originate with Trinley but with the two glowing forms at the back of the hut. Thus, he gave Trinley a quick nod and set about directing their preparation to leave. Soon, with Pearl repacked and rucksacks redonned, Abramm led them down the trail from the promontory, Rolland on his heels and Trinley bringing up the rear.
The track widened swiftly, and soon the twisted trunks and snow-laden branches of stunted evergreens sprang up along its downward side, further defining the trail, even in the driving snow and gathering gloom. If the wind howled at their backs, it also swept their path relatively clean of snow.
The trees grew in size and number as they descended, the wind lessening, as well. The wolves howled again, and Abramm stopped, tossing his hood back to listen as Rolland, immediately behind him, did likewise. A second scream answered the first, followed by a chorus of strange, sharp squeals, undeniably closer than they'd been before.
"Are those the wolves, Mama?" a small voice asked as the wind lulled.
"Shh, poppet," said the child's mother, Rolland's wife, standing behind her husband.
"Are they coming to eat us?"
"No, son," Rolland said. "Now, hush!"
"They're still down in the valley, where the deep drifts will hamper them," Abramm assured them. "We'll reach Caerna'tha long before they get here."
But a dry voice in his head grimly reminded him that the men at Highmount had said these wolves were like no others. Huge, agile, able to leap twenty feet at a bound, they were not real wolves at all, in fact. But something worse.
We'll make it, he assured himself. Eidon will see to it. The wolves screamed again, as if to contest that view, and he quickened his pace.
The snow had been knee-deep for some time when Rolland moved to take over breaking the trail. Stepping aside, Abramm stood gasping back his breath as the others slogged past him, heads down against the storm. With no faces to look at, his eye caught on the lights that glowed in the surrounding tree trunks. Green, blue, red, and gold glimmered from the cracks in the trees' platelike bark—always on the side away from the wind, as if taking refuge from the storm.
"You're not going to get away, you know."
He frowned, realizing that again he was hearing their voices, and irritated he should be able to.
"We've been waiting for you. They've been waiting for you. Especially for you, O great slayer of shadowspawn."
As if on cue, another ululation wailed on the storm winds, closer than ever.
Now Oakes Trinley approached him, trudging at the end of the line, face turned downward like the rest. Only as he came even did he glance up. "Still think we'll make it before dark, Alaric?"
Abramm let him pass without comment. Before long Rolland surrendered the trail-breaking job to Galen, who eventually gave it off to Cedric Ashvelt, and on down the line as the light continued to fail and the wolves' cries drew ever nearer.
Finally, the party rounded a hill and the clouds parted to reveal a wide valley whitened with snowfall and cut through by a dark stream. Out of the near bank rose a great bulk of stone walls and peak-roofed turrets, levels upon levels stairstepping up the jagged outcropping on which it had been built and surrounded by a high, crenellated outer wall. In the dimming light, it stood dismayingly dark, its great mass lit by a mere handful of tiny lights.
A deep ravine spilled riverward out of the draw to their right, their trail running along its near side and finally crossing over it by means of a snow-cloaked stone bridge.
Abramm took back the lead and they switchbacked down a forested slope to the lip of the ravine, then headed back out toward the valley. The wolves felt so close now, Abramm feared his little group wouldn't even break into the open before they were attacked. He urged them repeatedly to hurry, to pick up the children and guard the mare, but they were all too muzzy with fatigue to obey him for longer than a few steps.
As they neared the forest's edge, Abramm rejoiced to see two men tramping through the snow beyond the trees. A thicket of spruce momentarily obscured them, and when Abramm emerged into the open, no one was there. He thought he was hallucinating again until he saw the trail that had been stamped through the snow, paralleling the ravine to the bridge and over it, then up to the monastery, looming on the far side. But where were the men who made it?
The others found the track and burst into excited chatter. Abramm quelled it sharply. "We have no time to dawdle. Our enemies are close."
Trinley took over the lead, and Abramm dropped back to protect the rear. Implicitly reassuming command now that the end was in sight, the alderman called for the lanterns to be broken out and kelistars placed in them. Though Abramm chafed with impatience at the delay, he did not object. The kelistars might have a warding effect, and he feared they'd need all the help they could get.
Finally they were hurrying along again, the wind pressing them up the trail as it pelted their backs with snow. Just as Abramm dared believe they might reach the monastery in time, the wolves burst into loud, triumphant song, sounding as if they were coming up the ravine even now.
Their howls spurred his people to panic, and they ran all out for the dubious safety of the bridge.
Return of the Guardian-King (Legends of the Guardian-King #4) by Karen Hancock
Copyright © 2007; ISBN 9780764227974
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.