JANE WELCH

Book One in the Runespell Trilogy (Artwork by Geoff Taylor) Book Two in the Runespell Trilogy (Artwork by Geoff Taylor) Book three in the Runespell Trilogy (Artwork by Geoff Taylor)      First of the Book of Ond Series which follows on from the Runespell Trilogy (Artwork by Geoff Taylor) Second of the Book of Ond Series which follows on from the Runespell Trilogy (Artwork by Geoff Taylor) Third of the Book of Ond trilogy which follows on from the Runespell Trilogy (Artwork by Geoff Taylor)
Artwork for Dawn of a Dark Age (Artwork by Geoff Taylor) The Broken Chalice (Artwork by Geoff Taylor) The Allegiance of Man Book Three of the Book of Man (Artwork by Geoff Taylor)


 

Lord of Necrond

Third of the Book of Ond trilogy which follows on from the Runespell Trilogy Lord of Necrond: Volume Three of The Book of Ond

In the magnificent finale to THE BOOK OF OND, Jane Welch reveals long awaited secrets to her readers. Spar,Hal and Brid come of age and put on the garments of adulthood. Each is forced to embark on epic journeys into danger across the face of their world, and while their nemises is eventually unmasked, their lives, and the fate of their country, will be forever changed.

With a sense of character next to none and a world as colourful and real as any in Feist or Jordan, Jane Welch has proved herself a mistress of the genre. THE LORD OF NECROND is her greatest adventure yet.

ISBN 0-671-77346-1

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PROLOGUE

"A bargain, you say?" Tartarsus stared thoughtfully out of the high turret window overlooking the forests of Rye Errish. "There are no bargains for the dead. You are here in the Otherworld and will be tortured until you move on freely to the forgetfulness of Annwyn, whence all are reborn."

"You will bargain with me! They must suffer as I have suffered! Until they are in utter misery, I shall withstand any pain that you inflict. I will never let go of my last life until I have laughed at their pain and despair." The prisoner strained at the bonds that tied him to the chair.

"Then your torture will continue." Tartarsus turned, the sunshine slanting in from the window flashing brightly in his yellow eyes.

Bending, he retrieved a bridle of steel bands, screws and buckles from where he had discarded it after ripping it from the wolfman’s hairy muzzle so that he might talk. Attached to the metal circlet of the head-brace were two plates of steel designed to be strapped over a man’s eyes. Through the centre of each plate wound a thick screw and these screws were coated with brown blood and gelatinous tissue that had clumped and dried into dark lumps.

Tartarsus continued, "Saille, has healed your eyes but I can have them put out again - and again. That is the ingenious thing about torture here in Rye Errish. You can suffer to the third degree, time and time again." He laughed at the cleverness of it.

The creature that once had been man but now was almost half wolf nodded, his movements limp from pain, his head lolling against the thick armchair. "Stop my torture and I shall bring you rubies. I shall fill this tower of yours with sunburst rubies, Tartarsus, such as these."

The wolfman awkwardly reached into his breast pocket and, with short, unnaturally curving fingers now tufty with fur, dragged out a radiant red ruby and, holding it up, revealed its glowing heart of brilliant yellow.

The newly appointed chief verderer snapped his head away from the window to fix on the ruby, the glow in his eyes pulsating with the thrill of beholding the gem. Barely breathing, he swept across the floor of the hunting tower, which had once belonged to Talorcan before his fall from grace, to stand over the wolfman.

Tartarsus snatched the ruby, his glinting eyes bulging with delight as he drooled at the brilliant gem. "A snatch of the sun in its heart, a rare magic to enhance my own." He threw back his head and a piercing note rang from his mouth until the pitcher of wine on the low table beside the wolfman shattered into a thousand pieces. He laughed delightedly and, with one strong sinewy hand, grasped and lifted the wolfman from the chair. "Give them to me! Do as you say and fill my tower with rubies."

The wolfman swallowed hard, trying not to show any emotion; already his battle was won. "If you want rubies, you must give me this upper tower room of yours, with freedom to come and go as I wish. Rubies cannot be accomplished overnight; there are many wheels to set in motion," he said as silkily as he could, though he could not disguise the growl in his lupine throat.

The verderer nodded, "It can be arranged - though secretly of course. The High Circle would never allow it and they must never find out until my power is great enough. Those fools have ruled Rye Errish from before the first troublesome man crawled out of his caves - and they have ruled it badly. Just because the ealdormen have their fine wings, they think they are so superior to the verderers. Ha! Talorcan was right. They are not fit to rule. I shall have the power. He loved beautiful women but who wants women when I can have rubies?" He licked the gem in his hand. "You may have my rooms."

"And the head-brace? No more torture?"

Tartarsus dropped the wolfman and nodded. "So long as you bring me rubies. You have a way to achieve this?" he asked, sliding his tongue avariciously over his lips.

The wolfman laughed and held out a ring on his finger. The verderer stared closely at it and saw that there were three hairs woven about the ring. He frowned at it. "That is but a ring. I see no magic in it."

The wolfman gave him a twisted grin. "Indeed, the ring is nothing but the hairs are much. They are taken from one who still roams the world of the living, one who holds a great artefact of power that directs the channels of magic bridging the worlds. Through these thin tendrils, I invade his dreams and so tease him into my service. An unreliable method, I agree, but I have planned for that. The last time I broke across the divide between worlds, I did not pursue him or his precious power. For I have found another: an artefact that the priestesses discarded when they fled from the King’s Inquisitors. Every man, whose breath of life is caught within it, will give me the strength to cross the chasm."

Tartarsus shrugged. "Fill this tower with rubies," he warned. "or I shall feed you to the Commoners, and all your worthless pursuits and vendettas, along with your puny soul, will be lost to oblivion."

The wolfman bowed. "I shall not fail." Jerkily, he threw back his head and, holding the ring aloft, wailed out a lonesome howl of the wolf, its echoes rippling through the channels of magic to disturb the peace of the world. "Tartarsus wait! There is one last thing."

"More? You demand more?" the chief verderer said with haughty disdain.

"Indeed more. You want the rubies, don’t you? The High Circle punished Talorcan cruelly and they will do the same to you if you cannot match their power." The wolfman turned his head on one side and gave him a sly and hideous grin. "My soul is starved of pleasure. Let me view the torture halls of Abalone. Already there is one there whose suffering I must witness and relish."

Tartarsus nodded warily. "If you wish to enter the chambers you must submit to torture lest the High Circle suspect I have struck a bargain with you. Is it worth it to witness one soul’s agony, if you are then to suffer equally yourself?"

"Oh, yes, it is! A thousand times! I must see their pain!" the wolfman said wildly.

"Then come! It is of no consequence to me!"

Tartarsus handed him over to one of his minions with detailed instructions as to how he should be tortured in the chambers deep beneath the castle if Abalone.

The wolfman was led across the grease-smeared floor of the smoke filled cavern, weaving his way between the writhing bodies until he reached the wretched soul he was seeking. Here he was permitted to halt while, gleefully, he inhaled the aroma of burning flesh and spilt blood.

"Morrigwen, old woman," he called softly, gloating over her pain.

The woman’s eyes slowly opened and stared up at him with faint recognition.

"Know that I pleasure in your pain and that I strive to bring your loved ones to join you," he snarled, before the verderer dragged him to an iron chair.

Nearby, sizzling pokers were buried in the glowing embers of the fire in readiness to be stabbed in his eyes. But, as instructed, the verderer waited, allowing the wolfman time to witness the old Crone’s torture.

A green-jacketed verderer, sweating in the heat from the fires, stood astride her wasted body and looked on her without emotion. "Old woman, your time is done. Move on! Let go! Bliss awaits you. New life awaits you."

A halo of red rimmed her vision. She looked up numbly at the hazy figure standing over her and fought to find that essential part of herself that was separate from her body. She had to separate herself from the pain, the unbearable pain. Yet she must bear it! She had to return. They were too young, too innocent, too foolish to cope without her.

Screams were beyond her now. She did not know how long she had screamed. Was it days? Was it weeks? Was it months? All was a raw nexus of pain.

She stared coldly into those yellow eyes of her torturer. "You miserably fool!" The words bubbled from her bloodied mouth. "I must see the High Circle. I must speak with Nuin. She, at least, must understand that a new Maiden must be found. The ways of¾ " Her head jerked sideways, her words shredded into a scream of anguish as the verderer prodded her body, searching for an area as yet undamaged. The point of a skewer, such as might be used to pin a roll of meat ready for roasting, pricked the flesh of her outer ear.

"Woman, join the march of souls through the forest."

"Never!" she screeched. There was no need to reply but it gave her courage. She needed courage. Already they had cut out her kidney and forcibly stuffed it into the mouth of the man opposite and she knew the savagery of the pain they could inflict. The fear never left her. The fear never left any of the miserable souls trapped down in the dungeons of the Otherworld.

Her head was held steady by a brace and all she could do was gasp and tremble. A mallet tapped against the butt of the skewer until the point touched the drum of her inner ear. The pain was so sharp, she sucked in her scream that rang silently within her head as the blinding flash of pain jolted her brain. They knew well what would cause the most suffering. Convulsions racked her body.

But she would hold out. Brid needed her. The helpless little child that she had taught so well, the girl who hid all her insecurities in a blanket of competence, who had worked so hard to reach that higher plain required of a high priestess, needed her desperately. She would not fail Brid.

Pain tore at her brain.

"Give in; let go and all will be peace. Love awaits you; bliss awaits you."

"Never!"

The skewer twisted. Pain raked through her entire body until, at last, the mercy of blackness drowned her mind. Though the verderers knew how to induce maximum pain whilst still keeping their charges conscious, Morrigwen’s mind-control was too strong for them. In her one hundred and fifteen years on earth, she had learnt to find that state of trance, that inner world beyond the flesh where her body could be separated from her inner soul. She retreated there now.

Much of the pain she had borne in such a manner and knew that those about her survived their tortures in similar ways, reaching for that inner strength that so bemused the verderers and was the reason why they would never fully dominate the human spirit.

She swam in blackness, a ribbon of light swirling and dancing in the void. All was thought, detached and abstract. There were more important things to her than being a part of the cycle. The full weight of consciousness that slid eternally round from life, death and rebirth was beyond all else more important than her own part in it - and those fools had found a way to distort the flow of life. So young, so earnest, so determined to do such good and win such acclaim. That was the thing, she mused, retreating deeper into that intensity of thought that found only inner consciousness and that sweet release from pain.

The Great Mother had been so right, she considered, to see that it was three women who represented her, spoke for Her on Earth. Men sought too much for glory. They were dangerous. The proof was all about her in the dungeons of Abalone. So few women yet so many men went against the circle of life. She knew it was not that the women were unable to bear the pain. Indeed not. Bearing pain was not a physical strength but a state of mind.

The skewer was withdrawn and colour flooded back to her mind. The yellow-eyed verderer’s attention had been snatched away. A sudden hush overlaid the fug of the chamber; even the wailing screams of defeated souls trailed off. A soul had entered; a new soul, someone of great importance.

Tartarsus swung down from the viewing gallery and stared. The leaping, spitting fires sank down, cringing back into the bed of embers like raging tigers calmed by their trainer’s presence as the soul drew close. Though small and sprightly, he bore an air of intense presence.

"Talorcan!" Tartarsus greeted him with mock warmth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

Caspar wrapped his arms around May, pulling her head down against his chest and hunching his shoulders protectively over her. The walls shook. Chips of masonry fell from the arches overhead, glancing off his bowed back.

"Get us out of here," the girl begged.

"I shall, don’t worry," Caspar said bravely though he had no idea how they were going to escape from where they were trapped in the secret halls deep beneath the ancient palace of Castaguard.

The ground beneath his feet trembled and Runa, a white wolfling, yelped as plaster flaked from the vaulted ceiling and crashed onto her back. She pressed close to May’s side as choking dust billowed up from the floor.

Caspar blinked, trying to see the others through the cloud of dust and prayed they were still safely tucked beneath the spread arms of the great stonewight.

"Perren!" he shouted, trying to make out the hulking form of the stonelike creature who had twice the girth of a man and a grey rindy skin the colour of granite.

"Spar!" Perren’s rumbling cry came back, followed by excited yips from Caspar’s thickset terrier, Trog and a wild shriek from his horse, which echoed loudly in the vaulted halls.

The youth heaved a sigh of relief. The dust was settling and he could see the others now. Ursula, Reyna, Elergian and Fern were all crouched at Perren’s feet. "We’ve got to get out of here before we’re all crushed!" Caspar shouted.

How was he, a Belbidian, a stranger in this wet land of Ceolothia, going to find escape from this warren of a city? Silently and without venom, he cursed May for setting in motion the events that had caused him to abandon his command at Torra Alta to cross Vaalaka and half Ceolothia to rescue her. Now they were trapped in the depths of the palace, hiding from the slave master, and all his outraged men, who sought them in the city above.

The ground shook again. A block of masonry, dislodged from an arch above, landed inches from Fern. The trembling woodwose that looked most like a spindly pot-bellied dwarf, flung his arms about the slave-girl. Her naked limbs grey with dust, Ursula stood calmly though she her eyes were wide with fear.

"Which way?" Caspar asked them all urgently, fearfully wondering what caused the ground to shake.

"Not down!" The stonewight sounded unnerved. Caspar couldn’t believe it. Perren had never shown fear, not even in the face of the abyss worm. "They’re coming!" Perren’s grey skin turned chalky, his huge round head held stiffly erect.

"Who’s coming?" Caspar demanded, spreading his arms protectively over May and wincing as a stone cracked him on the crown of his head, flooding his senses with dull sickening pain.

Head ducked down, the salve-girl, Ursula, ran across the hall to him. "You’re bleeding, master." She tugged at Caspar’s outstretched arm and the youth caught the intense look that passed between her and May, declaring, if not animosity, then at least deep suspicion.

Caspar ignored the two young women and turned instead to Reyna and her elderly mage, Elergian. Surely, with all their ancient knowledge of Castaguard, they would know of an escape route. Huddled together beneath Perren, Reyna was fretting over her unborn child while Elergian did his best to shelter her. Though Reyna was well into her middle years, she was pregnant and claimed to be carrying a son who was the rightful heir to all the extensive and rich lands of Ceolothia. She looked faint and frail in the embrace of her mage.

Elergian looked about him in dismay at the rubble and falling dust. "The only way for the horse is back out the way we came in, and then out of the city along the canal paths. Mamluc and maybe many other slave masters by now will be searching for us but one on the horse might be swift enough to escape him. The rest must pass through the servants’ halls and from there up through the palace. You can reach them from here through the wine cellars’ and then work our way." He nodded at an arched door to the right of a cavernous fireplace.

Caspar nodded. "And you?"

Elergian nodded to a door at the rear of the chamber. "It’s best if we split up. We’ll be less noticeable in small groups. Reyna and I will head through the tunnels into the mines of Kalanazir where we would least be expected to go. We have knowledge of secret ways and halls within the mines and from there we shall gather followers to our own cause."

Caspar hastily appraised his options and then spoke decisively. "Fern, you must take Cracker. Obviously I must stay with May and so you will have to ride the horse out of here."

Even with the fearful urgency of the situation, it grieved him to abandon Firecracker to Fern. The magnificent Oriaxian purebred was fully recovered from the poisons that would have claimed its life if it hadn’t have been for Reyna’s healing potions of trinoxia, and Caspar could only pray that Fern was capable of controlling the snorting, stamping stallion. Still, the woodwose was devoted to the horse he had no option.

Being part creature, Fern had a deep understanding of animals. In his last life he had been a deer but, on the point of death, had wished to return in his next life as a man. Such a wish, at the moment of death, governed what physical form souls would take upon reincarnation and, when Caspar had first met him, the woodwose was still in the early, painful stages of metamorphosis. Since Fern had never fully completed the change in the Otherworld, he had arrived back in the world of the living still in a state of flux, but was now more man than beast.

The woodwose twitched his nose at Caspar and looked as if he were about to object but then said, "Do I take the saddle bags with the grain in?"

"Yes, anything!" Caspar shouted in exasperation. "Just get going. I’ll meet you beyond the eastern walls of the city. Good luck!" He turned to the others. "The fewer of us that work our way through the palace the better; we’ll be less conspicuous like that. Ursula, you must stay with Reyna. Your looks and dress cut you too much apart from the Ceolothians and there will be much you can do to help her."

"But, Master—" Ursula objected.

Caspar raised his hand to silence her. "Do as I say. We haven’t got time to argue." He spoke harshly but he had a onerous task to fulfil and couldn’t allow anyone to jeopardise his mission. He must be rid of Necrönd and hide it for all time beyond the reach of man. The fewer people with him at the end the better.

The ground trembled again and Reyna moaned fearfully, cupping her hands around her hugely swollen belly. Elergian sprang into action and swept aside vast curtains of dust-choked cobwebs that draped the ancient halls to reach the door that he said led to the wine cellars. With a grunt of effort he heaved it open and gestured Caspar through.

"Go, Spar. Hurry!" he urged. "Get out of here now. You bring danger to my Reyna. Go!" There was sympathy in the mage’s voice but an urgency that made it certain he would turn against anyone who threatened Reyna’s well being.

Caspar hesitated. Ursula was still begging him to take her with him and, for a moment he couldn’t think clearly. Perren’s great fist clamped him about the wrist and snatched him forward. "Fool, human, move!"

Caspar had no time to make his farewells. He hoped that Reyna might understand that he wished her well. He hoped the child she carried within her would be born alive and that, even at her advanced age, she might survive the ordeal of labour. It would do no harm, he thought, for the King of Ceolothia to be removed and replaced by the ancient line whose right to the wealthy kingdom had been stolen away so long ago. He prayed she was strong enough to survive this thirteenth pregnancy and so break the curse that kept her and her daughters in exile. Her mind was strong, of that there was no doubt but, though she constantly drank her restorative potion of trinoxia, her body was that of an ageing woman.

"Get out of here," Reyna urged as he gave her one last backward glance. "You’re drawing them to us. Get away fast! Don’t worry about us. My time is now; I shall rouse the slaves of Kalanazir and unite them under my cause."

Holding a spitting torch, Perren squeezed through the door first. With May’s wrist locked in his fist, and Runa and Trog at his heels, Caspar burst after him. He was glad that, at least, he was taking Necrönd, locked in his silver casket about his neck, away from Reyna, Elergian and Ursula. Now he would no longer endanger them. Apart from Perren, who had vowed to help him in his quest, he meant only to take May with him.

He would flee east and, when he was beyond the reach of man, he would be rid of that dreadful artefact of power so that never again could the souls of those dead beasts banished to the Otherworld be summoned to walk the Earth. He longed to be rid of their daily pecking at the quiet of his mind, longed to silence their shrieks and roars that flooded across the chasm between the worlds, breaking through the barrier between life and death.

He ran hard, tugging May up winding staircases. She breathed heavily, her hand hot in his and her light feet slapping on the hard stone. Shortly, he realized that a further set of footsteps sounded behind him and he glanced back to see Ursula, hot on his heels.

"Go back," he ordered, stopping to face her and giving May a moment to catch her breath. Ursula on the other hand was only very slightly out of breath. She stared at him defiantly, her dark eyes appearing even blacker in the gloom. Caspar studied her black hair; the way it was cropped short at her firm jaw, the animal skins that barely covered her lean and tanned limbs and the three enigmatic tattoos high on the smooth flesh of her left arm. Her eyes spoke of a harsh life but at least he had rescued her from Mamluc. "I told you to stay with Reyna."

"But tell me! Where will you go?" She clutched at him possessively.

He prized her fingers off him. "East to the great ocean you told me about. I must cross the seas."

"But you will never return," she said in dismay. "Remember, I spent my childhood on the east coast of Oriaxia lapped by the great uncharted ocean of Tethys. No ship that sailed east ever returned. There is no way back. The winds blow ever westward over the Tethys. Don’t abandon me."

"Go back to Reyna; there is a life for you there!" he ordered again.

She smiled and shook her head. "Master, I cannot leave you," she defied him.

Caspar had no time to argue. The halls were dark and their footsteps on the stone steps slapped and slipped on the slimy walls. The foundations of the palace were clearly not as strong as they might have been and ground-water leaking from the canals was working its way between the masonry and trickling out onto the floors.

"The Great Mother will reclaim all," Perren said with certainty, striding towards an aged door. "Whatever you creatures of the surface do to her, she will take back what is hers. The tears from the skies are washing her bones back into body!"

The huge square being, no taller than a man but twice as wide, dipped slightly at the waist and shouldered his weight against the door, the sodden timbers tearing easily away from the rusted bolts and hinges. He punched aside the door with his closed fist and, in the light of the flickering torch, they saw before them a low-ceilinged room filled with vast barrels. Beyond that, through an arched opening, Caspar saw the unmistakable brightness of daylight spilling down a flight of ascending steps.

Caspar was about to sprint for the steps at the far side but leapt back, pressing May behind him. The floor before him bulged, slits in the flagstones cracking open. Runa, the white wolfling gave out a low and blood-curdling snarl, while Trog bristled and growled from behind Caspar’s legs.

Panting heavily, the others stood at the youth’s shoulder, all staring in horror.

Caspar knew now that he had made all the wrong decisions. So long as he was guardian of Necrönd, he was a danger to them all, a danger to May whom he loved deeply. He must go on alone.

"Trog stay! Guard May! Get back to Reyna, all of you," he yelled and ran. The ground moved beneath his feet but he kept running, Ursula’s cries of protest loud in his ears.

"No, Master, no!"

One of the great wine barrels burst up into the air and crashed down onto the heaving floor. It split open, filling the air with a yeasty aroma and sending a pink wash rippling across the floor. Something moved fast through the periphery of Caspar’s vision but he focused on one thing alone - the steps at the far end of the low hall. His footing gave and he stumbled onto one hand. For a second, he looked down into a widening fissure in the floor. An eye glistened in the dark beneath him and a hooked paw snatched up at him. He didn’t know what it was but he wasn’t prepared to wait and find out.

Falling to his knees, then scrambling up and leaping, he raced on, the horrendous sound of splintering rock hammering around him. The screams of the others pierced the roar around him.

"Master, no! Come back!" Ursula shrieked.

"Don’t leave me - not now!" May’s forlorn cry made him cast back over his shoulder and he stumbled as he twisted to look back. To his amazement, Trog had actually obeyed his commands and stood at her side, a ball of furious muscle bellowing and snarling at the creatures below the floor. He was not surprised that Runa, who had always been devoted to May, stood on her other side, her thin body taught, ready to spring at anything that attacked.

The creatures that Perren had appeared so frightened of were not vast by any means but only half the height of a human, hairy and stooped with vast eyes, giving them a curiously babyish look. A few were turned on him and the rest faced the stonewight who pressed the two women behind him.

Caspar punched up his fist, a flash of silver in his hand. "This is what you seek!" he cried knowing that Necrönd would draw these creatures to him. Gnomes they were, he decided, still having no notion as to why Perren feared these small, fur-clad cave-dwellers.

Like moths to a light, they swarmed to him, their large eyes flashing greenly. He stared for a split moment, wondering how such small, silly-looking creatures had managed to erupt through a stone floor, before turning to run. Their footfalls came, pattering and scratching up the stone steps behind him like rats. They sought him; they wanted him for the Druid’s Egg that was known by its ancient name of Necrönd.

Ever since the First Druid captured the breath of life of the ancient and savage beasts of legend within the Egg, so banishing them to the Otherworld, the less dangerous beasts had, for a time, freely roamed the Earth. But as man grew in strength and cunning, they retreated to Earth’s darker realms where they lurked, half forgotten, licking their wounds and cursing mankind. Now they stalked Caspar, longing for the power that had swept them aside for the swelling civilisations of man.

The steps split before him and Caspar had no thought as to which way to turn. After hesitating too long, he decided that the steps leading to the right were narrower and so would lead to quieter rooms. Instinctively, he chose those.

But the gnomes, like rats escaping a flooding sewer, were soon at his heels. A door! He saw a door. He fumbled at the looped handle, kicking out at the first of the creatures that grappled for him. Their spindly bodies folded under his blows to be trampled beneath the rush of the others following. The hasp was rusted up. He rattled it violently, struggling to stay on his feet.

Should he wield Necrönd and summon a beast that might protect him? In desperation, his mind leapt eagerly at the thought but a core of inner reserve warned him not to do so. He was tired and, with so much chaos about him, there was no knowing how much control he might have. In an hour of need, he had summoned hooded wolves to drive back the invading Vaalakans from his father’s castle, and, three years on, those same wolves had multiplied into a plague. He knew he must never wield Necrönd again.

The door gave and he fell through onto more steps that spiralled upwards. He slammed the door on the arms of several gnomes and turned to attack the stairs, leaping up them, his muscles screaming with the effort, his legs like lead. His breath rasped in his pounding ribcage and his head swam giddily.

Soon, a gnome caught him up and clung to his leg. He turned, grabbed it and hurled it at the others behind. They toppled back down the stairs, landing in a twisted knot of flailing limbs from which they would take some while to right themselves. Caspar laboured, struggling to lift his legs high enough for each step.

This wasn’t right. Something was weighing him down. He had the curious notion that it was the Egg itself, loath to let him escape.

The rough stone walls became fine brickwork and then plaster painted a chalky white. One gnome caught him and clamped itself about his calf. He stamped his other boot down on its head and staggered on. Over his rasping breaths, he could hear women screaming. An open doorway in the stairs led him to a corridor and he chose the first door, managing to squeeze through and hurl back a half dozen of the little beasts so that he could close and bolt the door behind him. He was left with no more than three of the wretched creatures clinging to him.

They had apparently no language but screamed with a thin breathy note whilst flinging themselves up and clawing at his neck. He scrabbled frantically to rid himself of them. One bit him, long teeth hooking deep into his flesh. With another still wrapped about his hand, he hauled the third off his neck and was revolted to feel its flesh tear in his grip. The first then sprang for his throat, teeth raking through his skin.

With one slash of his knife, he cut through its body. The legs and hips fell away but the top half still clung to him as watery blood and foul-smelling entrails fell from its stomach. It was a full minute before he managed to unclamp the teeth, needle-sharp like those of the wolfling, from his neck. Fortunately, the teeth had pierced skin and tendon only, missing any major blood vessels.

The door held and Caspar sighed with relief, pondering his next move. He found himself in a long gallery and guessed he was right in the heart of the palace. The palace servants were unlikely to pay him any heed with all the commotion that he could hear outside. It sounded like a stampede raged through the city.

He tiptoed out into a sumptuous hall, the panelled walls clad with tapestries and the floor soft beneath his feet. He looked down in surprise. Woven carpets! He had heard that some of the grander palaces in the countries surrounding the Caballan Sea had woollen carpets on their floors though he wondered at the practicality of it. Straw and reed matting had always served them well in the halls of Torra Alta.

Voices came from the door of an antechamber. Keeping himself hidden behind the door, he glance in. Servants in long robes stood with their backs to him, their faces pressed against a glazed window. The women amongst the number were chanting distractedly. Caspar was not quick in the Ceolothian tongue but he understood that they prayed to their god of the New Faith for protection against what they thought to be an earthquake.

Calmly, so as not to draw attention to himself, he crossed to the tall windows at the far end of the gallery and looked out. He was surprised at how high he had climbed. Below him, the city of Castaguard shrank away, dipping into the gloomy hollow around the base of the black tower.

Hot as he was from his exertion, a chill spread through him at what he saw. He was certain he had not summoned such creatures from the Otherworld and yet could not explain how there came to be a vast sea of wraithlike creatures marching out of the ground at the foot of the tower. So that was why the earth trembled and why Perren had been afraid. How could he possible have thought him fearful of the gnomes?

Hazy apparitions of monstrous beasts - two-headed lions, a lequus, sabre-toothed wolves and what Caspar thought to be huge hobgoblins, naked and sinewy - poured out from the black tower. The guards and slave masters were marshalling them into ordered lines. Caspar was afraid now too. Someone, something other than himself, was controlling them. But how?

He cradled the casket containing Necrönd protectively against his breast, watching with horror and disbelief as the monstrous phantoms marched into the market square and joined the men, already marshalled into ranks around the edge of the square. The slaves swayed fearfully but were too disciplined, or frightened of their commanding officers to flee. As he watched, a sickening pain began to throb in his head.

Trying to think clearly through the pain that spread down from the crown of his head and cramped his brain, he stared down at the massing army. Raised to be lord of a frontier castle, he instinctively knew these men that were marshalled into lines were being mustered for war. Judging by their chains, some were from the slave pits; others looked like townsfolk; and those bearing farm tools, billhooks and pitchforks were no doubt from the surrounding countryside.

The Ceolothians gathered an army! From his thorough schooling in history, Caspar knew that Ceolothia had been at war many times in the last thousand years, mostly with Lonis and Salise but in minor disputes only. However, she had fought three major wars, the last admittedly over four hundred years ago, but all three had been with Belbidia. Caspar knew the history particularly well because his own forefathers had been instrumental in fighting back the aggressors. If the Ceolothians were again mustering to attack his homeland, he must do something.

They would march, as all other Ceolothian armies had done before, through Vaalaka and then turn south to attack his father’s castle of Torra Alta at the northernmost border of Belbidia. But this time, he could stop them long before any Belbidian blood was shed. A stab of guilt harried his soul. His father had left him in charge of the castle; Torra Alta and its young garrison were his responsibility and, though it was for a higher cause, he had still abandoned them. He must do something. After all he had the power; he held Necrönd. What would it take? He had commanded dragons before; what could be harder? His hand moved to his chest.

But no! He had sworn to his mother that he would not again wield Necrönd. He could not break such a solemn oath; not one made to a high priestess. It had meant so much to her and he could not disobey. Keridwen’s reasons were sound; she and the other two high priestesses, Brid and Morrigwen, had lectured and scolded him at length. It seemed certain that all their troubles had been caused by Necrönd; the more he had used it, the more their woes had been compounded. He stared glumly down at the monstrous throng. There was even a unicorn amongst the ghostly number.

His heart beat boomed in his throat; the forms of the ghostly beasts were becoming firmer in outline until they were solid blocks of colour, the beasts fully formed in this world and no longer phantoms. Yet he had not summoned them. He hoped that his mother and the very beautiful Brid, who held the office of the Maiden, and even Morrigwen, if her soul could see him now, would believe in his innocence in this.

Someone was shouting at him. Evidently he was not so inconspicuous as he had thought; a manservant had spied him and recognized him as an intruder. The man began yelling more insistently though Caspar was not familiar enough with the Ceolothian words to translate them when they were shouted in vehement outrage. He ran. Skidding to a halt at the end of the galleried hall, he found a low arch that led to a corridor and that to a huge staircase cut around the outside of a central well. Surely this was a way out. With the agility of youth and the sure-footed speed of a Torra Altan born to the mountain heights, he hurtled down them.

He couldn’t think straight. His head hurt and Necrönd felt strange in his hand. It radiated a warm wet pulse, as if he grasped a living heart. Feeling faintly sick, he dabbed at the crown of his head and felt the moistness of unhealed skin. He must run, get out of the palace, join the milling mob about the panicked city, where their was already so much disorder that he would never be noticed.

The huge staircase led to a ballroom and he ran for the narrow service stairs at the back of the hall. He spun down them, his hand hot from rubbing against the stone of the central newel that supported the stair.

At last he was out into fresh air. Racing along what he thought to be a likely alleyway, he soon found himself on the edge of the central market square, where he least wanted to be. But, though there were many soldiers, there was also enough of a mob to conceal him and at least he would be able to follow the main east street out of the city without becoming lost. Here, he was anonymous; all eyes were turned towards the yawning portcullis of the black tower. A great rumbling, like the sound of a distant stampede groaned from the dark mouth. He halted and stared in horror.

Guards charged forward, pikes at the ready, to meet whatever was about to burst out from the gateway to the infamous mines. Great black war-horses, snorting and chaffing at their bits, bore armoured knights that lined the road out from the tower. The ground shook and the air trembled with a deep rumbling roar.

The mouth of the black tower was suddenly filled with emerging grey faces. They stumbled and blinked in the sudden light. Emaciated men and women staggered into the square, some with their hands outstretched pleading for mercy, others glancing back into the dark mouth of the tower in terror. The guards outside the tower showed no mercy but levelled their crossbows at the stampede of slaves and, forming two lines channelled them into the centre of the square. Most of the terrified slaves ran as they were directed though others, in maddened terror, fought to break through the ranks of guards. Caspar saw several shot through with crossbow bolts and many trampled to a pulp by the great horses.

He knew he should run but he could not yet pull himself away from the sight as three-headed bears and lion-faced dogs sprang out from the foot of the tower.

The guards shouted in both Belbidian, the most widely understood language of the Caballan, as well as Ceolothian so that all might obey them. With angry words and sharp pikes, they organized the slaves pouring from the mines into ranks alongside those already gathered.

A guard thundered, "Stand! They are ordered not to hurt you. Like you, they now form Prince Tudwal’s army."

Tudwal’s army! The words jolted Caspar’s thoughts. But that was good. If Tudwal raised an army then he and Cymbeline must have been rescued. All must be well; his father must have returned from Farona and organised a search party for the prince and princess.

No doubt Prince Tudwal mustered the army to rout out the outlaws who had ambushed him and his sister, Princess Cymbeline, and slaughtered the major part of her escort. Princess Cymbeline had been on her way to marry King Rewik of Belbidia and the Ceolothians had blamed the Belbidian escort for the loss of the precious princess. King Dagonet threatened Rewik with war if his precious daughter was not quickly returned in good health. But his thoughts strayed quickly from the politics as more and more beasts, mainly rangy hobgoblins now, emerged from the black tower that was the entrance to the long tunnels that led to the mines of Kalanazir.

He trembled at the sight of the monstrous beasts, fearful as to how they came to be in this world. May had been in possession of the Egg for a dangerously long time but it was still difficult to believe that she could have unwittingly summoned so many beasts. Should he now wield Necrönd to send them all back to their exile in the Otherworld?

The thought of May brought him out of the dark confusion that swirled around the Egg. Every day that passed, the thing becoming more alive, less of an inert artefact but something with life and power of its own. He must get it away from all these people, away from everyone. He must cross the sea and find a vast wilderness. He turned and ran, pushing his way through the crowd.

"There! You! Hey you!" came a sharp yell, the voice horribly familiar.

Caspar instinctively knew the cry was aimed at him. He glanced over his shoulder and ducked. Mamluc! Mamluc, the slave trader! Amongst all these people he had to be seen by Mamluc!. Head stooped and shoulders hunched, he dodged amongst the crowd and ran for the eastern exit to the square only to find himself in a maze of streets. No one road led straight and, again and again, he was confronted by canals blocking his path or roads ending in a congestion of huts and crumbling houses. Middens steamed in the streets. Dogs growled, their coats straggly from mange, patches of scaling bare skin showing through the matted fur. Soon he was completely lost amongst dark alleyways twisting between the backs of tall windowless buildings.

As he stood staring helplessly around him, a boy trotted up to him, his face as muddy as his clothes, red toes breaking through the rags that bandaged his feet.

"The way out! How do I get to the east gate?" Caspar fetched in his pocket for a coin. Without even looking at it, he tossed the urchin a gold piece.

The boy’s mouth dropped and his eyes brightened. "You’re in big trouble, mister." He looked gleefully at the glinting coin. "Follow me!" The boy, who could have been no more than ten, had the eyes of an old man. "This way," he said, leading him over a broken gate at the back of a tall derelict building and through into a dark alleyway beyond. Caspar could hear the strike of galloping hooves on cobbles and raced alongside the boy. He hoped it was not Mamluc on his trail.

"Already this week, I’ve got four men away from the slave-masters. This is a good way," the boy reassured him breathlessly as they ran on. "Here we are!" The alley spat them out onto a broad sweep of open lawn that footed the great black walls, skirting the city. Caspar stopped short. Looking from across the hundred yards of open grass, he saw no way to scale those black walls.

"The canal." The boy pointed to his left. "It slips under the wall. You’ll have to get wet. The bridge in the wall is low and the water high at the minute but it’s the best way out of here and as close to the east gate as I can get you."

Caspar smiled his thanks and scurried along the edge of the ramshackle houses towards the stone-walled canal. The water stank. A deep murky brown, it was littered with debris. He looked ahead along its length to where it slunk beneath the great black walls. No light emerged. The walls must be thirty foot thick at least and he hoped the water was low enough to allow him room to breathe. He dropped down the banks of the canal, thankful to find a ledge that he could work his way along rather than immediately plunging into the water.

He was nearly at the walls when he heard shouts and the sound of the boy’s voice yelling in Ceolothian. He didn’t need to translate to know that his little helper had turned traitor and sent his pursuers after him. Caspar rued his innocence. When was he going to learn not to trust people?

He fled on until he reached the arching stones that bridged the canal and supported the great wall above. There was no more than a six-inch gap between the surface of the water and the underside of the bridge. He shuddered. He was not a great swimmer.

An arrow sloshed into the water and another thudded at his feet. He gave it no more thought but ripped off his bearskin, holding the hem and neck together, reasoning to use it as a balloon to trap air and so help him float. He plunged in, swimming for the middle point of the canal where the airspace was greatest.

As he paddled, his body rose and fell, his head grazing on the water-worn stones beneath the wall. But the bearskin worked and he hoped that, so long as he was only in the water a short time, it would not become waterlogged. He was thankful that at least he hadn’t dragged May out this way and prayed that Perren had led her safely back to Reyna and found another way out.

Shouts rang out from behind. Hooves pounded turf. Then came a splash as someone plunged into the water behind him. Caspar redoubled his efforts, gasping in air and kicking furiously. Something snagged his ankle. He kicked back and connected with flesh. The hands scrambled for him but evidently were not quick enough to catch him. Then he heard the bark of a dog ahead. His heart sank: they were waiting for him on the far side of the walls.

Men shouted. Mixed in with the excited yells and the angry barks of a dog were the painfully shrill howls of some animal that Caspar did not recognize by its cry.

Cursing the wretched boy for betraying him, he swam on, preferring to face the danger ahead rather than struggle in the water with his pursuer; he doubted his chances in the water.

Daylight washed down on him and he didn’t even need to go to the effort of pulling himself up out of the canal. Someone hooked his belt with a billhook and hauled him out, the weight of his bearskin dragging at his arms. He was rolled over onto the ground and looked up at the long feathered legs of a great war-horse. Caspar knew the breeding well; such clean lines, the deep chest: it was a foal out of Demon Black, one of his father’s best stock stallions and, no doubt, exported several years ago. Such fine horses raised and bred on the beautiful soil of Torra Alta brought to this dark land, it was tragic!

Caspar’s gaze slid upwards. Long feet dressed in thong sandals dangled from golden-coloured calves. A lion’s tail, discoloured and loosing its hair, swung down alongside. Caspar looked up at Mamluc whose squinted eyes, one black, one pale green, only half looked back at him.

Behind the slave master stood a squat furry animal with human hands. Its eyes glinted red just like the eyes he had seen looking up from the bulging, broken floor beneath the palace.

Mamluc’s mouth twisted into a delighted sneer before growling at the eight men about him, "Don’t let him get away! Keep him with the girl."

Caspar’s heart sank. He knew who the girl must be. Soon, three more of the furry creatures lumbered into view, May held fast in the grip of the largest. Caspar had no name for these beasts. He focused intently on the one holding his beloved. It looked vaguely human only more coarsely built, the limbs tremendously thick, the skull heavy and with a short forehead. It had peaceful eyes but they drooped with deep sadness.

Caspar watched how its eyes flitted warily. There was no doubt that it hated man and he instinctively knew that it was one of those creatures of the dark dank corners of the forgotten earth controlled by Necrönd but not banished to the Otherworld. This time, he didn’t hesitate to use the Egg. Concealing his hand in his shirt, he reached into the silver casket at his chest that held Necrönd. "Go!" he shouted.

The creature looked at him blankly and shook its head, its grip tightening on May.

"Drop her," Caspar demanded again, now panicked. He had lost control of the Egg just when he needed its powers to rescue May.

"Let her go." Caspar turned to Mamluc, his voice full of reason. "You can have no need of her. Let her go and take me instead."

"We already have you," Mamluc laughed. "Now get to your feet. He wants you alive."

Caspar felt sick and giddy. He slung his sodden bearskin cloak over his back and wondered whether he shouldn’t just try and fight his way out of here. He knew he would never escape but perhaps he could cause enough of a diversion to help May.

A dog barked again. Caspar had forgotten that he had already heard that bark but he concentrated on it now. The same animal gave out a deep growl followed by a high pitched yelp, sounding completely ridiculous coming from the same throat. It had to be Trog!

He moved; one hand reached for his belt the other for his boot where he kept an additional hunting knife. Knowing that he could not get a true aim at Mamluc swaddled as was in his lionskin - and Caspar was no great expert with a throwing knife - he aimed for the larger target of the horse. The blade stabbed into its chest and the animal reared. Toppling backwards, it crashed down on its cursing rider and one of the guards midst screams of pain.

Trog’s salivating growls added to the raucous chaos. Though short and squat, the animal had a terrifying growl and overlarge jaws for his size. He was lazy and cheeky but immensely strong and loyal; the sight of May in danger turned him into a savage fiend. Mamluc’s men shrank back but there was still six of them on their feet and Caspar saw no way that he was going to fight his way out of this.

The guards surrounded Mamluc, who was still pinned under the horse. Bent on pulling the screaming slave master out from beneath his great black destrier, they seemed lost without his clear orders. Caspar seized his opportunity. Darting forward, he plunged his short knife into the arm of the furry, manlike creature holding May and dragged her from its grasp. Holding his knife up in front of him, warning all to keep their distance, he stepped slowly back and then ran, dragging May behind him.

Hooves, fast and light, galloped towards him.

Desperately, Caspar looked for somewhere to hide. Though injured, the furry man was already after them, a trail of blood darkening the ground behind it. Grunting and coughing with the effort, it was slowly gaining on them since May was not fast, her skirts flapping around her legs and her breath coming in panicked grasps. The men were shouting in disorganised alarm and Caspar heard the first sounds of their pursuit as they ran for their snorting horses. He had seconds only to think of a plan but he suddenly didn’t have to.

Firecracker! Caspar rejoiced at the sight. His fiery red stallion was galloping towards them, Fern running alongside rather than riding the horse. Caspar would never have imagined that the woodwose would come to his rescue and certainly hadn’t credited him with such bravery.

"Fern!" he cheered him. "You made it!"

Firecracker skidded to a halt before them, Fern swinging on the end of the reins. Caspar flung May up onto the horse’s back.

"Get her out of here!" the heir to Torra Alta yelled at the woodwose.

Fern obeyed though May shrieked in protest, "No, I can’t leave you, Spar. No! Not after everything that’s happened."

Her words were whisked away and the youth spun on his heels to face the furry human. "Stand back! I am your master; obey me!"

The creature showed no recognition of his authority but rammed into him, bowling him over. It was like being hit by a galloping horse, and the air was knocked out of him. He lay flat, face down in the mud, and shook his head to gather his senses. The furry man growled and snarled, blood from his wound trickling down onto the youth. Before he could draw his breath, the creature had him by the neck in one fist, his other raised to strike, but he hesitated. The creature looked puzzled, uncertain as to how to kill a human being.

Mamluc was out from beneath his horse and hobbling towards them, yelling at his men, "Get him!"

Then something grabbed both the beastly man and Caspar from behind, rolling them over. The furry man, squealed and instantly released Caspar, who found himself held fast in an even fiercer fist. A strange deep cracking noise, half way between a growl and splintering rock, sounded loudly in his ears.

"Perren!" He grinned gratefully.

The stonewight shoved him aside and, with one punch to the temple, flattened the furry man before scooping Caspar up under one arm.

The guards thundered towards them but they were diverted by a howl of attack from another quarter. Thin men with grey-white skins and wielding shovels, charged in attack. Judging by their pallor, it was clear they were slaves from the mines and Caspar concluded that Reyna’s uprising was already underway and gathering force.

Their clothes in rags, black crosses marked their lower arms. Amongst their number, Caspar spied Ursula who wielded a club and, with relish unnatural in a woman, thumped it down on the back of one of the guards. Though the blow was vicious, she clearly lacked the skill of a trained soldier and the guard was able to twist away from the main force of her blow. Caspar was greatly relieved when a male slave dragged her back before she could be hurt. Her eyes reached out to him across the distance, wishing him well, and he raised his hand in farewell.

With long smooth strides, Perren raced after Firecracker, Caspar thumping against his stone-hard side. Fortunately Fern had halted the horse just a couple of miles outside the city and so it wasn’t long before they caught up. Castaguard was set in a shallow bowl in undulating landscape just south of the mountains of Kalanazir. In the grey flatlands bottoming the bowl, water lazed in silver pools reflecting the grey clouds that darkened the rainy lands of Ceolothia. There was no shelter. Instinct drew Caspar towards the hills and he yelled at Perren and Fern to turn north.

As they ran, May whimpered softly, her head buried into Firecracker’s mane, and Caspar remembered how she so hated riding the stallion who would buck, rear or shy without warning. He himself loved the Oriaxian purebred, believing it to be the finest of its breed, and enjoyed its feisty nature; but, unlike Brid the Maiden, May was no horsewoman.

Eventually, they reached the leafy willows that marked a river tumbling from the mountains and drew to a halt. There was no sign of anyone on their trail and, breathlessly, they stopped to look back at the city.

"May, are you harmed?" Caspar asked anxiously.

Perren released him and he jumped down onto the pads of soft mossy plants growing at the edge of the brimming river. Water oozed up over his boots as he ran to help the slender, chestnut-haired girl down from his horse.

She fell heavily into his arms. Though light, her fear had made her clumsy. Sobbing, she clung on tight to him and Caspar wondered, not for the first time, where she had found the courage needed to steal Necrönd and find her way alone all the way to Ceolothia. It was extraordinary.

"That creature," Caspar began to explain. "That hairy man…."

"That troll," Perren supplied for him.

"He wasn’t a troll. I’ve seen trolls in Vaalaka." Caspar objected. "Creatures nearer the size of an ox with leathery skin and no more than hog’s bristles for hair."

Perren looked at him patiently. "A Ceolothian troll."

"Anyway, we’ve lost Mamluc," Caspar said with relief as they looked back over the plain.

Perren shrugged. "For now but we are easy enough to follow. We must move." He paused, looking down at the trickling water that bubbled over May and Caspar’s feet and tickled his toes, and then looked up at the couple for a long while and gave May a curious look. "A girl," he said at last.

Caspar laughed. "What do you mean a girl? Of course she’s a girl."

Perren laughed. "It must be strange to be a human being; you have so many secrets from one another."

"Secrets?" Caspar did not like the way Perren looked at May and suddenly knew he was going to like even less what the stonewight had to say.

"She’s carrying a girl," Perren proclaimed.

May’s eyes widened. She looked shocked, elated and, as she glanced at Caspar, almost fearful.

"You didn’t tell me!" he said slowly and coldly, wounded to the core.

"It didn’t seem like the right time," she admitted. "I …I," she stammered.

Caspar knew that she was pleading for his love. He swallowed his storming emotions that were too shocked to even know what he felt. Coldly, he told himself that the other man was dead – dead at his own hand. That at least should make it bearable. Who was he to judge May after all the horrors she had been through? Stiffly, he forced himself to hold out his hand and took hers though he would not pull her close.

"I’m sorry. I was thinking of you," she said lamely.

"Of me!" Caspar’s blood boiled and flushed to his face, his composure gone in an instant. He shoved her away and snatched up his hand to hide his expression, nudging at his crooked nose. Hal had broken it all those years ago and it reminded him that this sort of thing would never happen to his young uncle; it was the kind of thing that Hal might do to someone else. "How could you, May?" he asked bitterly.

"I was trying to protect you from Necrönd." She was crying now, her eyes pleading. "I thought that if I gave myself to Amaryllis…"

"Talorcan!" Caspar snapped. "His real name was Talorcan."

"Talorcan then," she said quietly, sniffing intermittently but regaining some of her self-control. I thought that, if I did, I would never be able to succumb to my longing to go back to you and so I would avoid endangering you. I reasoned that if I came home after hiding the Egg, you might force me to tell you where I had hidden it and so I had to be certain that I could never go home."

Caspar did not see the logic in it. All he knew was that he had slain Talorcan in error, believing him to be the one that had stolen Necrönd. All he had been able to do to make amends, as the verderer lay gasping his lasts breaths, was to grant him his dying wish. That wish had been to look after May. And now he knew why. A black pit of jealous hurt bored deep into Caspar’s stomach. He couldn’t look at her. He had heard her declare her love to Talorcan and, though that had hurt, it was not so painful as this. His child! She carried Talorcan’s child! He loved May with all his heart and she had done this to him!

His first love, Brid, had wounded him by never returning his love; instead she had only eyes for Hal. He had finally accepted that and, in so doing, discovered his love for May, who had remained devoted to him throughout. He had waited too long to tell her of his love and now, when he had the chance, he had to discover that she had already given herself to someone else.

They could not look at each other.

Perren coughed uncomfortably. "I see that perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything."

"I would have found out," Caspar snapped angrily. "Eventually! It’s the kind of thing you can’t hide for long. Though you could have had the decency to admit it yourself." He glared bitterly at May.

"I don’t know I am pregnant except on the say so of this talking rock. How do you presume to know?" she demanded, her eyes stabbing at Perren.

"I might only be a very young stonewight but we sense things in the water." He looked down at his feet. "It is a gift from the Great Mother; we share the thoughts of all things that are joined by Her waters."

"Truly!" May exclaimed. Her expression changed. Somehow she appeared to draw into herself while her hands protectively cupped her flat belly. The orphaned daughter of a woodcutter turned haughtily on the Baron’s son. "And you have no claim at all to be angry with me."

The wolfling ran to her side, growling at Caspar - something she had never done before.

"Hush, Runa," he said with restraint. "I will never hurt her."

"Indeed!" May replied with flat emotion. "It would have been better that you stabbed me with your sword than cut me with this scornful rejection. You behave as if you are so innocent. Ha! The high and mighty Caspar who all praise as the best of souls! They wouldn’t believe this of you at home, you know. They would not believe that you could treat me so ill. They would believe you were a bigger man inside than this spoilt, jealous child. Talorcan gave all for me, faced oblivion for me, and I had the power to give him a soul."

Caspar’s conscience was peeked. She was right. At home they would expect him to be magnanimous but he was still human. "I didn’t expect such treachery," he growled at her, the hurtful words springing from his wounded soul.

Her eyes grew slitted and she glared venomously at him. "You accuse me of treachery! You who has shunned me all these years whilst drooling after Brid. You expected me to save myself for you after that?"

"It’s not the same."

"All those years you said you loved Brid!" she shouted at him.

"Yes, but I didn’t lie with her."

"Only because she didn’t invite you to."

This was undeniable true. Caspar opened his mouth to shout his retort back but could think of none.

She smiled in triumph. "You see!"

"But I’m a man. It’s different."

"Is it?" she asked scornfully, her eyes no longer begging for his forgiveness. She turned her back on him and Caspar suffered not only the gouging pain of his jealousy but also the hollow ache of rejection. He wanted to forgive her, wanted to hold her close and say that it didn’t matter. But it did!

 

 

Hope you enjoyed this and didn't find it too much of a strain on your eyes.

Anyway let me know what you think my e-mail address is janewelch@janewelch.com

 

 

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