Runes of Sorcery: Book Three of The Runespell Trilogy
Whoever holds the Egg controls the
ancient animals of power - kraken, wyvern and dragon. Whoever cracks the Egg unleashes
these monsters on the world, unrestrained, beyond the control of anyone alive...
The three young Torra Altans, Caspar, Brid and Hal, are closing in
on the immemorial hiding place of the Egg from Yew Wood to Lake of Tears, spies and
enemies pursue them. The Mother Goddess has promised that once the Egg is brought to their
ancient home in the North, the starving hordes of Vaalakans besieging the castle will be
driven back. But creatures of legend desire to be real, and time is running out.
The stunning climax of the Runespell Trilogy is a magical and
magnificent story of quest, battle and dragon-fire.
Book Three of The Runespell Trilogy. Published by HarperCollins
Order it Today! Amazon.com
THE RUNES OF SORCERY
Gasping for breath, he struck out through the tumbling white-water rapids for the
eastern bank, the scything-cold waters of the Silversalmon sucking at his strength. He
welcomed the cold after the scorching flames of the fire. Pin-points of light sparkled
where minute ice crystals were beginning to form in the fast running river. Blue with
cold, he scrambled breathlessly to the bank and slunk into the snow-muffled, eastern
ranges of the Yellow Mountains. The water trickled from the tufts of his cropped fringe
and crisped to points of ice. He sucked in the sharp winter air and grinned.
"Great Vaal-Peor, God of ice, your breath already claims the land," the
Warlock muttered to himself, his breath a steamy cloud curling into the frosty air. Behind
him a pillar of angry flames lit the sky like a beacon, as a towering inferno engulfed the
west tower of Torra Alta.
He moved quickly through the trees lining the lower slopes, intent on finding fresh,
dry clothes before he perished in the freezing northern winter of the mountains. A lone
trapper hiding from the Vaalakan enemy offered him his first opportunity. The warlock
slipped a toothed dagger from his belt and soundlessly slit the mans throat from ear
to ear. As the wolf-trapper slowly bleed to death, he stripped his leather leggings,
wolf-pelt jacket, bearskin cloak and cracked leather boots from the slowly writhing body.
The blood glistened on the frosted crystals, which thirstily sucked up the precious red
liquid and a rich scarlet carpet surrounded the body.
The warlock ripped his sodden cloak from his back and, in the cool waters of a mountain
brook scrubbed away the last smuts from his blackened face. Finally satisfied, he sank
down amongst the frosted ferns and spat towards the besieged castle, a dry cackle rasping
through his throat. He coughed to clear the last remnants of smoke from his scorched
lungs, then a thin laugh escaped from his cracked lips. Bitterly, he wiped his hand across
his mouth, wincing as the singed flesh on the back of his hand brushed against his chin.
He ripped off his wet black garments, now shredded and singed in his escape, and
redressed in the tough leather hides of the trapper. He wrapped his easily distinguished
black clothes and fine shoes into a tight bundle and, kneeling, scraped with his dagger at
the frozen ground. He dug beneath the roots of a blackthorn, whose battered branches lent
with the prevailing wind. It was only a small hole but large enough to bury his clothes.
Satisfied with his work, he stood and sucked in the keen, raw air of the crisp month of
A self-satisfied smile twisted his narrow face as he stared at the distant turrets of
the besieged castle and then looked down at a small object whose brilliance glistened in
his hand. He closed his fist possessively around it and headed straight for the steeper
scree slopes where the wind had blasted away the snow, knowing that he would leave no
tracks on the bare rocks. He dragged the wolf-pelt tightly around his shivering body, his
snarling face mimicking the toothed grin of the wolfs head that dangled over his
back, before enveloping himself in the heavy, brown bearskin cloak.
Zealous energy spurred him across the boulder-strewn terrain until at last a lonely
hunting lodge, cowering beneath the snagged peaks of the mountains, beckoned him from the
treacherous cold. Content that no-one could track him across the scree, he risked
descending into the snowbound valley. Wading through the deep snow, he stumbled in drifts
up to his thighs, the icy snow biting through his breeches and stinging against his skin.
The numbing pain of cold hardened his heart as he shouldered open the weather-beaten door
that had set fast in its rusted hinges.
Damp logs were stacked up against the hearth and it took many minutes for his shaking
hands to entice life from a flint. The miserable flame teased at a wisp of kindling.
Eventually, he crouched down beside the thin fire as it wheezed in the grate, cradling in
his numb hands the sparkling object that he had taken from his forsaken home of Torra
Alta. With a satisfied sneer to his lean face, he gazed into the heart of the brilliant
blood-red crystal. The taught lines around his mouth hardened as his lips peeled back in a
The ruby was an unusually circular jewel and embedded deep within its crystalline
structure were fracture lines like white threads that flawed its perfection. The threads
formed a circle subdivided by three radiating lines into three segments. He stared deep
into its heart though the sight of the circular sigil burnt painfully into his watery blue
eyes. A derisive laugh wracked through his singed lungs.
"The sacred rune of the Mother," he sneered. "But I have it now."
The blood-red ruby scorched into his palm and he gasped, painfully drawing breath into his
smoke-damaged lungs. A sinister smile drew out his thin lips as he relished the sweet
torment of his victory. He had the ruby now and Torra Alta would suffer.
He thought back on how he had been forced to such a desperate act as fleeing Torra
Alta. The fire in the castle had all but consumed him but he had needed the flames to be
fierce so that he could slip furtively away in the distraction. All the others had failed
him. The Vaalakan shaman, the weak curate Dunnock, the monstrous Cailleach; they had all
failed him. Now he would do his own work. He wondered how many tears dear Baron
Branwolf had shed over his death, and how long it would take him to discover the damage to
the runes of war rimming Torra Altas heartstone. He laughed fitfully at the thought,
then abruptly flicked his gaze back to the jewel seized in his long-fingered fist.
Maniacally, he clutched it with feverish possessiveness, certain that the rune of the
Mother held the key to the secret location of the Druids Egg. Instinct urged him
that the sacred pattern held some further meaning and would lead him to the talisman. But
he didnt yet possess all the pieces of the puzzle.
He knew he must go south to Caldea and pick up the trail at the point where
Vaalakan shaman, had failed. There he could start to trace the threads of the pattern and
begin to piece together the puzzle. He had to get to the Druids Egg first. He, and
his servants had failed to slay the witch, who had conspired with the world against him.
Now his only chance of destroying her was to claim the Egg first. He must be avenged for
the death of his mother and so he needed the ancient, awe-some power of the talisman.
Warmed by the fire, he slept fitfully through much of the night, but the night was not
yet over when he was slapped awake by a trembling energy flooding through his veins. The
air within the cabin crackled with power. His inner senses tingled with foreboding. He
stepped outside the hut and kicked away the snow to press his palm onto the bare soil,
feeling for the pulse of the Great Mother, whom he abhorred. Something was trembling
through the bones of the earth. The Great Goddess was stirring. He felt a magic awaken and
radiate through Her lines of power. He sensed the energies stir, felt the rousing magic
blending with the elements.
The runes from the ancient cauldron had been found, he was certain, but there was more
something unexpected. The power tingled like a new life
sizzling through the earth. He had spent his childhood amongst those who taught the lore
of the old ways and that had heightened his innate sensitivity to the power of
He instinctively knew that the force radiating through the earths mantle would
rekindle life into the ancient creatures creatures that possessed the natural power
to sense the moods of the Great Mother from whom they sprang. These were runes of great
sorcery rushing through the energy lines of the Mother. They were empowering; but not to
him. No, these runes empowered the ancient creatures long lost in the mists of time and
the pages of legend.
He dismissed the thought of this unexpected magic and turned back to contemplate the
lost runes of the cauldron. If they had found the lost cauldron then they must also know
the runes that would lead them to the Egg. But he had the rune of the Mother. He looked
down at his clenched palm and slowly uncurled his slender fingers to grimace with a wicked
sneer at the ruby. The rune, the pattern of the rune
if only he could fit the
He had to get to the Egg first.
Torra Alta must fall to the Vaalakans and the witch must be destroyed. His mother would
be avenged. He thirsted for the satisfaction that would come from the suffering of all
those at Torra Alta. All those years they had despised him and now he would be avenged.
All he needed was the Druids Egg.
"Its not safe to leave it here." The priestess warily glanced at the
"Well, we cant very well take it with us, can we
Brid? Wed need a
wagon and a team of six to shift that great thing," Hal reasoned, his words sharp,
"Im not stupid, Hal. Well have to destroy it," the young maiden
"Destroy it? Thats even more stupid! Its half a ton of solid
"Absolutely. But the runesword will shatter it."
The dark youth looked uncertainly at the weapon, rotated it in his hand and eased his
grip further into the quillions that spanned the hilt. He flexed the fingers of his left
hand. His eyes fixed on the knotted red scar that sealed over the knuckle where his little
finger had been before it was severed by Gattos mercenaries. "It may have
shattered mail and badly forged blades, but that
" He fixed on the solid mass
of the rune-engraved cauldron. The black sooty metal looked as old and as solid as
granite, contrasting dramatically with the swords bright steel.
"You cant destroy it. You havent told us what the runes say,"
Caspar objected. "Ive got to know!"
Brid ignored him, her dazzling green eyes still warring with Hals. Caspar bit his
tongue and the mist. Something was out there, lurking, he was sure.
"Destroy it!" Brid ordered.
The noble youth made no move to obey her. Instead he plucked up her clenched fist and
soothed the back of her hand with surprising tenderness. "After last night you could
be a little sweeter with me."
"Oh Hal!" Brid looked exasperated but there was a faint flicker of pleasure
in her eyes. The beginnings of a receptive smile bowed her lips before she suddenly
stiffened. "That didnt mean anything. I needed the magic that was all. I wanted
to enhance the elemental powers released by sacrificing myself to you."
"Sacrificing?" Hals voice was teasing. "Are you sure?"
"Yes!" Brid glared at the handsome raven-haired youth for a long hard moment
and then laughed lightly. "But fortunately I didnt have to in the end, did I?
Really, Hal, we havent got time for this. Please do as I ask."
He bowed gallantly, grinned and turned his attention to the sword. The taut contoured
muscles of his face flexed along his jawbone as he approached the cauldron, both hands
firmly gripping the hilt of the broadsword. The pearly light of dawn danced on the runes
engraved along its length as the youth swung it around his lithe body. His graceful
movements, enhanced by the soft hazy light, made him look like a warrior stepping out from
a book of legends. Seven paces from the cauldron, he leapt forward, the rage of
determination screeching from his lungs, swirling the sword back in readiness to smite the
soot-black iron of the great cauldron.
Caspar clapped his hands to his ears as the pain of the noise slammed into his head. A
splinter of bright metal ricocheted out into the glade. The cauldron appeared unmarked but
a chip had broken off the edge of the runesword. Hal was on his knees, staring with
horrified shock at his damaged sword. Brids hands clapped to her mouth and her
brilliant eyes were momentarily startled but she quickly wiped away her alarmed
"You werent clear in your mind, Hal. Give me the sword. We have to destroy
"Give it to me!"
"No! Havent you done enough harm already? Youve already ruined the
runes of war!" He ran his fingers lightly over the nick in the swords edge. A
dark ball of liquid appeared on one of his fingers and smeared across the bright metal.
A rare look of self-doubt clouded Brids face. "Its my fault. I
shouldnt have stirred the potion with the runesword. But Im sure I didnt
spoil the runes of war," she flashed hotly at Hal, defending herself.
Again Hals anger flared in his eyes just as it had done when he had first
discovered that Brid had inadvertently altered the runes on his sword by using it to stir
the contents of the cauldron. The runes emblazoned on the fuller were now blood-red and
extra symbols had appeared. Brid had called them the runes of sorcery. The moment they had
been drawn from the cauldrons spell-womb Caspar had first sensed the malevolence
prowling in the mist.
"Look at it! Look what youve done!" Hal was shouting now.
"Youve broken it!"
"Its not broken; its chipped and its only a tiny chip on the
edge. Now, give it to me!" The dark youth stood up but rather than handing the sword
to the Brid, he let it fall ungraciously to the ground. Stooping she grasped the hilt of
the weapon. The length of the blade seemed almost as long as her body and the tip dragged
in the earth as she pulled at the hilt.
A sardonic smile lifted one corner of Hals mouth. "Oh come on, Brid, what
are you playing at? You cant even lift it." He placed his hand on the sword,
arresting her efforts. "Why dont you tell me how to focus my mind and let me
have another go?"
The stubbornness was sliding away from his voice and reason filled its place. He raised
an eyebrow questioningly at her and finally her resolve softened. Her arms sank down to
let the earth bear more of the swords weight.
Hal eased her fingers from the ornate hilt and drew the sword up. "Right
thats better. Now, tell me what to do."
Brid brushed herself down and smiled. "When youre not being stubborn,
theres a lot of hope for you," she said. "Now look. Read the runes on the
blade and itll help." She pointed them out one by one. "Ignore the runes
of sorcery and concentrate on the others. Most of them are vicious hateful runes. Runes of
revenge, runes of hatred, runes of victory, runes of maiming and this one is
[see Rune Appendix, note 1] : Tiws rune, dedicated only to war."
Hal fixed his eyes on the sigil and nodded. Caspar looked at the rune over Hals
shoulder. "It looks like an arrow" he observed.
"Until now you have used the sword without understanding," Brid continued to
lecture the raven-dark youth. "But this rune here is the rune
Rune Appendix, note 2]: Nyd, the rune of necessity or need. You cannot use hatred against
another artefact of the Great Mother so you must concentrate through the rune of need. You
wish to destroy the cauldron because you must and not because it is your enemy. Focus
through that rune and when you strike the cauldron, strike with the part of the blade
thats level with it."
Hal fingered the plain geometric pattern near the hilt of the blade. "Do you
really think a rune will make any difference? If I strike so near the hilt, I cant
drive as much power through the sword."
"Itll make all the difference. Think through the rune. Try and free yourself
from all the other aggressive, cold feelings of hatred that the sword induces. Think only
that you must do this for the greater good."
The youth nodded and grinned. "If the sword breaks in two, Ill never forgive
"Trust me," she smiled back.
"Yeah!" He let the tip of the sword rest on the ground and took slow deep
breaths, concentrating his energies before drawing his arms back and pacing towards the
cauldron. With nothing more than a grunt of effort, he twisted the blade and brought it
down heavily on the cauldrons rim. Dust and smuts filled the air and somewhere at
the back of his mind Caspar heard an intensely sorrowful song. The song of the sword at
last, he thought; it was the saddest sound he had ever heard.
As the dust settled, Caspar looked for the cauldron but it had gone. All that was left
was a heap of slag and soot. Hal was coughing on his knees. One hand gripped the sword and
the other clutched his side. Blood oozed between his fingers. Brid rushed to him, reaching
him only a moment before Caspar.
"Are you all right, Hal?" the freckle-faced boy anxiously asked his kinsmen.
"You do ask stupid questions," Hal spluttered and the younger boy could see
the tense lines of pain in his uncles grimace. "The wound in my side has
re-opened so what do you think?"
Brid eased up his shirt to examine the bloody gash. "Its not too bad;
its just where the scabs torn apart a little. Try not to stretch your side too
much," she advised as she bound the wound with a strip of cloth from her shirt.
"Try not to move too much, she says, when shes just got me to charge around,
smashing up a mammoth-sized cauldron." He looked towards Caspar. "Try not to
move too much!"
Brid stirred the dust of the cauldron with her toe and looked at it ruefully.
"Im sorry, Great Mother. I had to do it. The Keepers have abandoned their duty.
There was no one left to guard the cauldron; no one left to protect the knowledge of the
Druids Egg; I couldnt leave it."
Hal took a moment to admire his sword and breathed with great satisfaction as if
savouring his mighty feat of destruction. "We should go," he boomed, his muscles
still twitching with the after-shimmer of power bestowed on him by the runesword. He spoke
like a warrior-chief, every word an order.
"Im not ready," Brid defied him.
Even Caspar was getting impatient. Brid had ignored him ever since she had deciphered
the cauldrons runes and she still refused to tell him what they said. He had been
unable to read the esoteric writing on the bottom of the cauldron. He knew only that it
told of the Egg, a great talisman that the Goddess said would save his mother. It had dark
powers, a sorcery that Caspar did not understand but it was the only means to rescue his
mother Keridwen and restore the Trinity of high priestesses. And once the Trinity was
reunited, the Great Mother had vowed to repel the Vaalakans from the borders of Belbidia
and so save Caspars home, and birthright, the frontier castle of Torra Alta, from
Caspars heart caught in his throat as he thought of his mother incarcerated in
the cold heart of the Vaalakan glacier, at the mercy of the evil Ice-God, Vaal-Peor. The
magical eye of the moonstone had unveiled more than the reality of her torturous,
deathlike state. It had revealed a radiant vibrant woman with red hair swirling about her
shoulders and piercing violet eyes welling with love from her soul. He wished he could
remember her before her disappearance but it had been when he was still an infant. He had
no clear recollection of her at all.
Lady Keridwen had disappeared without trace shortly after his birth and his father had
been stricken with grief at her loss. Though Baron Branwolf had filled the bleak
wilderness of his loneliness with a stream of smiling feminine faces, he had never again
found a love to match the one he shared with Caspars flame-haired mother. At about
that time, King Rewik outlawed the Old Faith from Belbidia thus forcing Branwolf to
suppress all mention of Keridwens pagan status. If she had been found alive,
preaching the word of the Great Mother, she would have been branded a witch and burnt at
the stake. Caspar had been brought up in the New Faith, oblivious to his mothers
heresy and he had only learnt in the last few months that she had been a high priestess of
the Old Faith.
"I will have no more delays. We must get back to Ceowulf and Cybillia," Hal
demanded loudly at Brids back.
The Maiden was hurriedly searching for her herb scrip that she had mislaid in the
spell-casting frenzy of the previous evening. She completely ignored Hal, who was now
impatiently preparing the horses and cursing at a white terrier that had become part of
their retinue. "We havent got forever, Brid. The Great Mother only bestowed the
runes of war on Torra Alta for three seasons. That was at the end of Shedding. Its
already taken us two months to find the cauldron and weve only got until the last
day of Fallow, or had you forgotten? At this rate itll be another month before we
even get out of this wretched yew forest."
"I cant go until Ive got my herb scrip. I cant leave this
clearing and pass through the mist while Im awake. I need Faronan henbane and
Salisian wolfsbane to cloak my mind in sleep before I put one toe in the mist."
Hal looked at her as if she were mad. "Whats so fearsome about the mist and
"Cant you feel them?" Caspar interrupted his uncle, his voice catching
in his throat.
The pagan priestess flicked her eyes warily towards the eerie dun cloud that surrounded
the glade. "The runes of sorcery on the sword have stirred bestial ghosts from the
Otherworld. The parallel world of spirit is close. Something knows we are searching,
searching for the talisman and they desire that power for themselves."
Hal finally sheathed his sword and the blazing anger in his eyes subsided though he
still refused to join the search for the herb scrip. The terrier, however, was greatly
enjoying snuffling through the crisp bracken alongside Brid, who was on her hands and
knees now, combing the undergrowth. The dog evidently found it a great game.
"I still dont see why you have to be asleep," Hal said more reasonably.
"I cant pass through the mist awake, because I know whats written on
the cauldron. Dont you remember what it was like when we first entered the mist? The
way it seeped into our minds, forcing us to share each others thoughts? I cant
allow my knowledge of the cauldrons runes to be shared with those creatures out
"Thats why youve spent all night copying down the details from the
cauldron and refused to tell us what they mean!" Caspar exclaimed, suddenly
enlightened. He remembered how she had used the back of his map and a stick of charcoal to
trace out a complicated design of squares, crescents, circles and runic letters.
Brid looked at him as if he had been a little slow to understand. "Of course! Now
help me find my scrip."
Hal was pacified for a little while but when the search was still fruitless his
patience failed. "Why didnt you bring some food, Brid?"
"Im not you servant," she retorted without rising from the bracken.
"Its late Fogmoon now which means the castle only has a little over seven
months before the runes on the heartstone fail. Are we to spend every day of those seven
months here? Cant you use anything else to put your mind to sleep?"
"You could hit me over the head I suppose, Hal, but really Id rather
not." Brid smiled sarcastically.
"Im hungry," Hal continued to complain. "And we havent got
time to waste. If the Great Goddess really wanted to protect us, She would have given us
the runes unconditionally."
Caspar sighed. "Who are we to judge the deeds of Gods?"
Hal spat disgustedly. "Spar, you sound worse than Father Gwion and his incessant
sermonizing about the New Faith." He kicked through the dusty remains of the cauldron
and glared at the young auburn-haired youth. "It must be in your blood, all this
sanctimonious preaching; I cant bear it."
Caspar sulked. Gwion might be his mothers brother but he was nothing like the
self-righteous priest. The youth withdrew into the vivid landscape of his own thoughts.
Hals temper and irreverent words had unnerved him. He couldnt listen to any
more of it.
"Trog no!" Brid was shouting and chasing after the white dog. "No! Drop
it! Give it to me!"
Caspar was relieved that at last they had found Brids herb scrip but despaired
when none of them could catch Trog. The Ophidian snake-catcher was running in delighted
circles around them, tossing the scrip into the air and snapping at it with his long white
fangs. Gleefully he scattered herbs and various articles of divination, including a
bats wing and what Caspar imagined to be tails of mice and the claw of an owl.
Hals nose wrinkled at the sight of the withered fragments and Brid wailed.
"Trog, you stupid dog, look what youre doing." She fell to her knees and
scrambled about in the short tufts of grass that managed to grow in the shade of the
trees, gathering up the strewn objects and muttering as she went. "Bladderwort,
saxifrage, loosestrife, melilot, good more loosestrife, wolfsbane." She twirled a
purple veined stem in her hand and then stopped short as she sifted through the remaining
herbs. "Oh Mother!" She looked up in horror at the dog who was dancing gleefully
away from Caspar. The youth was chasing after him as the terrier chomped something in his
mouth. "Oh Mother! Hes eaten it! Hal, get that dog; hes eating the
She raced after the terrier who skipped from left to right, pausing briefly on his
short tautly sprung legs before bounding away just as Caspars fingers brushed
against his tail.
"Trog, stop. Come here; its not a game. Drop it! Drop it!"
The dogs dark slit eyes gleamed wickedly back at them. He turned to leap out of
reach but stumbled, shovelling his blunt-nose into the dirt. Lifting his head, he swayed
and staggered a few ungainly paces before collapsing, his breath coming short and sharp.
Pitifully he wagged his tail as Brid approached. "Oh Trog! What have you done?"
she sighed sorrowfully.
The three companions stood over the dog and starred down forlornly as the animal began
"Will he be all right?" Caspar asked anxiously.
"Hell sleep for a week I should think, but most of what hes eaten
wont do him any harm. At least he didnt touch the ergot wheat, or the
dragonfire or the wolfsbane, but hes eaten the woundwort, the hyssop and, worst of
all, the henbane."
"Wont that just make him sleep?" Caspar was fascinated by Brids
"Yes, itll make him sleep but"
"But you were going to take it to empty your mind," Hal finished for her.
"Faronan henbane and a tiny bit of Salisian wolfsbane, you said. Cant you just
use the wolfsbane?"
Brid looked pale beneath the smooth bronze of her skin. "I suppose Ill have
to. Wolfsbanes poisonous but without Faronan henbane theres no alternative
and, Ill have to take a lot more of it to have the desired effect. Well," she
sighed as if steeling her resolve, "lets get ready."
Caspar pulled her round to face him. Red blotches appeared on Brids arms where
his anxious fingers dug into her flesh. "Are you sure you know what your doing?"
he demanded, tightening his knuckles.
She prised him off and snapped tartly. "Oh Caspar, leave me alone! Itll make
me sick thats all. And Id rather be a little nauseous than have my mind
devoured by whatevers out there." She pushed him further before instructing
them what to do once she became unconscious.
"Yes, Brid, of course we understand," Hal snapped impatiently as she
finished. "Is this self-inflicted illness of yours going to be gruesomely awful?
Because if Im going to carry you out of here I dont want ..." His words
petered out as she turned away.
Brid wasnt listening. She swallowed hard then moistened her dry lips before
taking a mouthful of Salisian wolfsbane. Dipping her cupped hand into the stream, she
scooped up some water and gulped it down, washing the poisonous herb into her system. She
sat perfectly still for just a moment, then began to rock back and forth, her head swaying
before she was gripped by spasmic coughs. She fell writhing to the ground. Her throat and
face turned a deep puce and a thick foaming tongue choked her mouth. She coughed and
wretched and clawed at her mouth, her eyes bulging in pain.
"Brid! Brid!" Caspar cried pitifully, trying to pin her arms.
Gradually the violence of her convulsions lessened and she lay still, eyes wide, pupils
rolled back, the whites ridged by deep red blood vessels. Caspar leant forward and pressed
his head to her chest. He could hear nothing for his rasping breath. A cold sweat broke
out on his forehead. He held his breath and at last there it was; the flutter of a faint,
"Oh Hal! Shes only just with us."
Hals forehead grooved into lines of concern but his voice was steady. "Time
to leave. My mare will be steadier than Cracker. Lift her up to me and well get out
Biting back his fears, Caspar passed up the Maidens limp form to his uncle. Now
that Brid was no longer awake, he felt vastly more vulnerable, guessing that her waking
presence had been shielding him from the threat in the mist. The raven-haired youth
grasped the girl firmly around the waist and nodded at Caspar
"Lead on, Nephew, future Baron of Torra Alta. Deliver us from this place of
ghouls," Hal boomed with mock ceremony.
Firecracker shrieked out a wild fiendish whinny and reared, hooves slashing at the
insubstantial form of the mist. The freckled youth spurred his heels into the
animals side. Fearing what the runes of sorcery had awoken, he gritted his teeth and
braced himself for what he might find in the irksome mist.
At first he sensed nothing. His horses jangling curb-chains seemed shockingly
loud, like the chime of a lepers bell, and he felt like an intruder into this
murk-filled world. Slices of mist clung to his skin, damp and cold, creeping into his
pores, invading his body. Swirling drifts massed around his head, befogging his vision and
when he turned to look back at Hal, he could only just discern a dim shadow, half-eaten by
"Spar!" Hals voice came muffled through the ground-hugging cloud.
"Keep going. Im right with you!" Then suddenly his voice was startlingly
clear. "Keep talking to me, Spar," Hal spoke in his head.
"Im right with you."
Caspar tried to concentrate on his uncle rather than thinking of what might be in the
mist. Hals mind leapt from one thought to the next, snatching glimpses of Torra Alta
and of Baron Branwolf, fighting alongside his men with a longbow in his fists. Archers
fired flaming arrows down into a deep canyon; Vaalakans screamed. They were wishful
thoughts where Hal yearned to be: battling alongside his older half-brother, rather than
here in Caldea searching for the Egg.
"Dont think about it. Think of something else anything else but
dont think about it", Caspar warned.
Hals mind turned to the Maiden in his arms. Brids contorted face and wall
eyes filled him with a sense of sinister evil, the remnants of ingrained fear of the pagan
people clouding his rationale. Fleetingly, he imagined her withering until she was like an
old witch, possessed of the Devil. Then she was beautiful and vibrant, free and wild, full
of the promise of blossoming youth.
Surging emotion howled and Hals mind flooded red. Caspars unbridled love
screamed jealously green and for a while the two colours roiled in tempestuous conflict
before slowly the colours faded until it was as if they had never been.
Hals image of Brid was gone; another beautiful maiden filled his thoughts. Her
eyes were dusky smudges of colour, like the hazy sky in the full heat of harvest, and long
rippling waves of rich golden hair, like golden fields of ripe corn stroked by the
whispering wind played about her pale face. The image distorted and coloured red. Her
glorious hair was now cropped to short spikes of grimy stubble. Her skin was soiled and
bruised and the scars
Knotted raised weals puckered her cheeks where the pagan
stellate symbol had been carved into her flesh.
Cybillia, poor Cybillia! For her the stigma of the pentagram on her face was worse than
death itself. The daughter of the Baron of Jotunn, she came from lowland Belbidia where
all men and women, peasant or noble, were true to the New Faith. Hal jerked at her pain
and self-loathing. The image of her disfigured face soured his thoughts and filled his
mind with guilt-laced revulsion. He turned back to gaze at the Maiden.
"No!" Caspar railed, his thoughts. "You cant have
her!" But then his mind was racing, galloping across grassy plains beneath a
beating sun and he realized that his thoughts had melded with the bestial emotions of his
Their minds galloped wildly, weaving through scrubby bushes, chasing, desiring, warring
with guiltless savagery. A shadow swept over them at twice their speed, drinking up the
suns heat, obliterating thought and drowning comfort in a fearful stampeding panic.
He was in the misty yew forest now, the urge to bolt, to crash through the overhanging
branches overwhelming. He grappled to throw off his instincts and pull away from the herd.
Desperately he struggled for his individual self, grasping for the fresh air of logic.
Hals calm mind was with him now, guarding him, shielding him from the malevolence
stalking them through the mist. But still something cold crystallized in the boys
mind. Appalling cold. The frost of death was creeping through his veins. Needles of ice
pricked at his eyes, stabbed at his ears, pierced his mind, delving for the secrets of his
soul, seeking the knowledge of the Egg.
Hals red anger lashed out and beat at the blue terror of the cold.
Firecrackers wild shriek of fright shattered the stillness of the muffling mist,
breaking through the barriers of their minds. The horse reared and slashed at the air,
throwing Caspar forward against the stallions neck. For a brief second he thought he
saw a more solid whiteness in the mist. Above it, the point of a single horn was just
visible through the swirling shroud. Caspar began to shake. He tried to tell himself that
the white was merely the mist and the darker lancelike horn no more than a dead branch but
the deathly cold remained.
The fierce warmth of Hals emotions charged through his mind one last time and
then he could hear nothing but the roar of Hals voice bellowing out the Torra Altan
battle-cry. Pride in his noble ancestry brought heat to the boys soul and he joined
his uncle in the fearsome war-song. A streak of bright metal flashed through the cloying
mist. He could see the runesword and the shape of the black markings on Hals piebald
mare became clear.
"Im with you, Spar. Just keeping talking. Well soon be out of the
mist." Hals matter-of-fact tones were soothing.
Gradually the shrouding vapours rolled away and they eased into the stillness of the
drowsy yew forest. The fear of the unnatural creature was gone and the eerie sense of
spell-craft that had charged the air diffused into the healthy reality of the late autumn
morning. A squirrel, startled by their approach, spiralled up the dusky-brown bark of an
ancient yew and vanished into the dark green canopy, its chattering cry scolding them for
their rude intrusion into its territory. Caspars memory of the malevolence in the
mist drifted to the back of his mind. He sensed it dimly, only as he might remember a
dream at the point of waking, recollecting little of what happened but still left with the
lingering stain of dark emotion.
He urged Firecracker to a faster pace, winding and dipping between branches that
dragged at his clothing and teased his hair. Morning light slid through the trees and
ahead was the edge of the forest. Caspar drew a deep breath and filled his lungs with the
fresh air. At last free from the trees, his gaze stretched out over the smooth rolling
downs of Caldea, Belbidias southernmost barony, and across a grey-green sea to where
the distant twin peaks of the Hespera Islands crowned the western horizon. With the
morning sun warming his back, he looked down as his long shadow stretched out across the
springy grass. For the briefest of seconds a cloud swallowed his spindly shadow, a rearing
shape enveloping his long sticklike image. Then the sea-breeze stirred the air and the
image was gone. Scudding clouds raced away across the sky and with relief the boy felt the
warmth of the sun soak through the supple leather of his jacket.
A branch snapped behind him. He jumped round startled, convinced that the presence
still hovered at his back. But it was only Hal as his horse brushed apart the last of the
dark green brooms of yew to join him in the open. They pressed their heels to their
horses flanks and with Brid bouncing awkwardly in Hals arms, they cantered
south over the downs and through the regimented strips of Caldeas famous vineyards.
Finally they sped across the dirt road that linked the port of Ildros to the Baron of
Caldeas castle at Tartra and on towards a thicket of blackthorns that were crowded
round the convex rise of a distant chalky down. Two figures greeted them: a tall bulky man
leaning heavily for support on the shoulder of a spiky haired girl.
Caspar reined in at the very last possible moment and slid from his horse. The
hot-blooded red roan danced round at the end of his reins. With a confident air of one
totally at ease with horsemanship, the boy steadied his steed and unbuckled the straps
that secured the terriers heavy slumped mass to the cantle of the saddle. He dragged
the white dog over the horses back and let him thump to the ground before turning to
greet Ceowulf and Cybillia.
"We were worried," the solidly built knight greeted them quietly. A look of
pain still covered his face and he clutched at his shoulder where a throwing axe had
hacked into his upper ribcage. It was obviously still painful for him to breathe and he
leant heavily on the tall slender girl, who careful kept her face turned away to prevent
them from scrutinizing her scarred cheek.
Ceowulf watched silently as Hal and the two heavy-boned war-horses thundered up the
rise. Brids arms flailed helplessly in Hals embrace.
"Brid! Whats happened to her?" Ceowulf raised his arms to help ease the
Maiden from the back of the piebald mare but flinched with pain and grasped at his
shoulder. Caspar rushed to help and eased Brids poisoned body to the ground. The
whites of her unseeing eyes, ridged with purplish blood vessels, stared at the four noble
Belbidians. All, bar Caspar, grimaced.
"May the good Lord have mercy. May he cleanse her soul of these demons,"
Cybillia prayed in alarm.
Caspar gave her a harsh look. "Dont, Cybillia. Your God will do nothing to
"What can we do to help?" the dark, sunburnt knight asked insistently.
Cybillia bundled up two bearskin cloaks and handed them to Hal, making sure she kept
her distance from Brid. He eased one under the Maidens light frame and wrapped the
other skin warmly about her, all the time, keeping his eyes averted from the agonized
expression contorting her face.
"Shes poisoned. I dont know how long itll take to wear off. She
told us specifically just to let her rest," he explained to the knight.
"Poisoned! And the dog too! Why? Who poisoned them?" Ceowulfs face was
anxious beneath his straight dark eyebrows and he scanned the western horizon as if
looking for a ship that might be harbouring Vaalakan spies. Caspar shuddered at the
thought of Kullak, the fiendish Vaalakan shaman, and the bearlike warrior, Scragg. It was
hard to believe that it was only five days since the Vaalakans, their hired mercenaries
and the traitor Ulf had attacked them.
"She poisoned herself to forget the runes, because of the thing in the mist,"
Caspar blurted, realizing instantly that his words made no sense at all.
"Heretical madness," Cybillia snorted, one hand pressed firmly against her
scarred cheek to conceal the damaged skin.
"Be quiet," Ceowulf ordered with surprising fierceness and Cybillia instantly
deferred to the mans authority. He turned back towards the two youths. "Now try
and tell me what happened. Is she going to recover and what thing in the mist? Tell me
quietly and steadily. Lets see if you two hot-headed lads can make sense so I
can decided what to do."
Caspar liked Ceowulf even though he was a mercenary. He couldnt help it though he
considered it innately disloyal to offer your lance for the highest price and Ceowulf had
been a mercenary for fifteen years, fighting foreign wars in the far south. All the
same, the mans practical skills and easy manner made him an agreeable companion.
Caspar sensed Hals hackles rising at being ordered around, even though Ceowulf was
of equal status and older and more experienced.
"There isnt anything to do." The dark Torra Altan youth levelled with
the swarthy Caldean knight. "Brid said we were just to wait until she comes
round." He sat down next to the Maiden as if proving his point. "And thats
what were going to do."
"Well, it had better not be too long," the knight said quietly. His face
looked wan and dark smudges under his eyes betrayed the toll on his injured body.
"Last night the sky was alive with strange colours and this morning we heard the
great knell of a bell, a monstrous sound that pealed out across the downs. The Inquisitors
may well have sailed for Dorsmouth on their way back to King Rewiks court in Farona,
but such strange and inexplicable commotions will alert them all too quickly."
Hals distrustful expression changed and he looked eagerly at the youngest son of
the Baron of Caldea. "If we come under your banner will your father, Baron Cadros,
Ceowulf shrugged. "I very much doubt it. I havent seen him for fifteen
years. He might welcome me but, more likely, hell cast me out. As a penniless
free-lance, I would bring only disgrace to his house."
"But I thought ..." Caspar began, remembering the sight of the knight
glistening in polished armour beneath the red and white chequered surcoat, when he had
charged to their aid. "I thought you had already been to Tartra to claim your horse
"No, I risked a meeting with an old friend, my old tutor Morgrimm, who purloined
the horse and knightly paraphernalia. No, I couldnt risk going to my fathers
castle and neither can you. He and my brother are as devout as Rewik in their following of
the New Faith."
"Quite right," Cybillia muttered under her breath, but Caspar was too busy
worrying about Brid to defend the Old Faith.
"Weve got to get out of Belbidia before we make enemies out of our own
countrymen," Ceowulf continued. "Any ship that will take us away from Ildros
Hal shook his head. "We cant go anywhere until Brid comes round.
Unfortunately shes the only one who knows where were supposed to be
"What? You mean
" Ceowulf drew his hand up to his forehead and rubbed
at his temples. "Youd better explain from the beginning."
Caspar drew a deep breath and described the enormous Mother Cauldron and the intricate
pattern wrought into its metal. Briefly, he explained that the flashes Ceowulf had
witnessed were caused by the magic potions and roaring fire that Brid had conjured to coax
the meaning of the runes from the cauldrons mysterious design. Then in hushed tones,
he described the mist and the malevolence they sensed and how it tried to invade their
thoughts. Without knowing whether he was making sense or not, he tried to explain that it
was because of the thing that Brid had been forced to take the Salisian wolfsbane.
"If Trog hadnt eaten all the Faronan henbane it would have been much
easier," Caspar concluded the explanation.
The dog was still lying on his side, his breathing much calmer than the Maidens
shallow rasped breaths. The animals white paws were twitching as if he were
"Ceowulfs right; we should get out of here fast," Hal decided.
"Since hes unable to offer us safety at his fathers castle, well
have to buy passage on a merchant ship. It doesnt much matter where we go: we just
need to get out of here quickly before either the Inquisitors or the Vaalakans return. If
Spar and I ride into town we could purchase a cart. We could put Brid in it and slip into
the docks without too much trouble."
They wasted no time in argument, but took Ceowulfs advice to go to the nearest
vineyard rather than into Ildros. They couldnt afford to draw any more attention to
With Hal leading the borrowed cart-horse, the two Torra Altan youths galloped off.
Firecracker held his tail high, proudly kicking his heels and dropping his head down to
his knees. He then tossed his head wildly so that his mane whipped against Caspar
face. He wheeled Firecracker in a wide circle to allow Hal time to catch up before they
turned off the Tartra Road and down a track that squeezed between walled vineyards towards
a large flint house with a low terracotta roof. Chickens and geese scratched in the earthy
forecourt amongst wisps of straw that stirred in the lazy breeze. Two vast barns shaded
the house and, through a crack in one rickety barn door, Caspar could see huge oak vats,
which he presumed were used for fermenting wine. His attention was caught by a door to his
left. It banged in the breeze and, through it, he glimpsed a two-wheeled open wagon amid a
collection of broken barrels. Perfect, he thought to himself and followed Hal towards the
shuttered farmhouse in search of the proprietor.
He was surprised that no one had come forward to meet them. Not even Firecrackers
hooves striking sparks on the cobbles in front of the flint house had brought any sign of
life from the farmstead. Caspar had the uncomfortable feeling that the place was deserted.
"Hello!" Hal bellowed in a deepened voice. "Anyone at home? Hello!"
"Helloo, helloo," a mocking voice called back and a man with a pudgy face and
blank eyes looked down at them from the top of a wall. "Helloo, neeone a
hooome." He giggled childishly
"Good morning," Hal addressed the man politely, though he seemed somewhat
Caspar wondered what a fully grown man could usefully be doing sitting on top of a wall
during the working part of the day but, noticing the mans faraway expression and the
slack drooling jaw, he surmised that he must be simple. The man beat a stick rapidly
against the wall before grinning at them and repeating, "Helloo."
Hal sagely avoided repeating the greeting and grinned back at the childlike man. The
simpleton flicked his head around like an owl and looked back at the dark youth, nodding
gravely at his horse, Magpie. "Big horse!"
"Yes, isnt she?" Hal replied soothingly. "Where is everyone? Is
the master in?"
"Dont know. They told me to stay here." The man beat his stick against
the wall more fervently. "I wanted to see the dead pig. The horse is killed, then the
pig is killed too. Who killed it?"
"I dont know about the pig," Hal replied, beginning to sound a little
"Hey, Lucky, just whore you chattering to?" an anxious female voice
shouted from behind the wall.
"Just two boys. They have horses," Lucky replied matter-of-factly.
"Strangers! Lucky, you know you mustnt bother strangers." A young
brunette appeared from behind the wall, dressed in a stained apron that was stretched over
her swollen stomach. With a baby in her arms and heavy with child, she was obviously too
preoccupied to bother with the killing of the pig.
Hal inclined his head politely. "Good morning."
"Morning," Caspar hurriedly followed his uncles example.
"Who are you and what do you want?" the woman demanded.
"Were a long way from home and one of our companions is ill. We need to buy
a wagon because she cant ride," Hal explained.
"My husband is out and Im not bartering with no strangers," she replied
curtly. "Now go on, get out of here; weve got enough trouble as it is."
"First the horse and then the pig," the simpleton muttered to his stick.
"Shut up, Lucky."
"They wouldnt let me see the horse neither," Lucky gravely informed
them. "He was all hacked up." He squinted defiantly at the pregnant woman when
she gestured at him to be quiet. Slouching grumpily, he continued to disobey her.
"They said it was all chopped up with an axe."
The woman looked thunderously at Lucky but Caspar hardly noticed; the word axe jarred
in his thoughts.
"An axe!" He turned towards the brunette woman as she struggled with the
She sighed resignedly as if deciding that these two polite Belbidian youths were
unlikely to be of any real threat. "Yes. It was shot through the head with a bolt and
the rump was hacked out like someone had taken it for meat. Now, we dont eat horse
in these parts so were on the look out for vagrants or strangers who might do such a
"We dont eat horse either," Caspar hurriedly assured her. A shiver ran
up and down his spine. A crossbow bolt and an axe! Brid was wrong, Kullak and Scragg must
still be nearby. She had thought that they had fled Caldea but this suggested otherwise.
"And we didnt kill the pig," Hal promised her. "We just want a
"I know you didnt kill the pig." The womans tense face was half
curtained by a sheet of lank brown hair. "It werent a man that killed the pig.
My lad found him early this morning. Our prize boar. His sides been ripped open and
hes shredded with claw marks. It werent the work of a man; it were the work of
a beast, a huge beast." She hugged protectively at the huge bulge of her stomach.
"Weve sent for the reeve. Hell alert the town to look out for strangers.
Evil times," she murmured fearfully. "May the good Lord protect us."
Caspar looked at Hal as he tried to take in the meaning of the womans words. They
couldnt go into the port to buy their passage out of Caldea now. They would have to
seek sanctuary in Caldea. Moreover the Vaalakan spies and a vast beast were abroad.
Hal was already turning Magpie and clattering out of the courtyard. Caspar burst past
him and streaked recklessly through the vineyards and back towards the blackthorn thicket.
His only thoughts were to protect Brid.
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