JANE WELCH

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Runes of Sorcery

Book three in the Runespell TrilogyThe 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.

ISBN 0-00-648201-5 

Book Three of The Runespell Trilogy. Published by HarperCollins

          

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THE RUNES OF SORCERY

by

JANE WELCH

 

PROLOGUE

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 man’s 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 Hunting.

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 wolf’s 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 bestial scowl.

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 Alta’s 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 Druid’s Egg. Instinct urged him that the sacred pattern held some further meaning and would lead him to the talisman. But he didn’t 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 Kullak, the 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 Druid’s 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 … another magic … 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 runespells. He instinctively knew that the force radiating through the earth’s 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 pieces together … 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 Druid’s Egg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

"It’s not safe to leave it here." The priestess warily glanced at the mist.

"Well, we can’t very well take it with us, can we Brid? We’d need a wagon and a team of six to shift that great thing," Hal reasoned, his words sharp, resentful.

"I’m not stupid, Hal. We’ll have to destroy it," the young maiden replied decisively.

"Destroy it? That’s even more stupid! It’s half a ton of solid metal."

"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 Gatto’s 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 sword’s bright steel.

"You can’t destroy it. You haven’t told us what the runes say," Caspar objected. "I’ve got to know!"

Brid ignored him, her dazzling green eyes still warring with Hal’s. 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 didn’t mean anything. I needed the magic that was all. I wanted to enhance the elemental powers released by sacrificing myself to you."

"Sacrificing?" Hal’s 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 didn’t have to in the end, did I? Really, Hal, we haven’t 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. Brid’s hands clapped to her mouth and her brilliant eyes were momentarily startled but she quickly wiped away her alarmed expression.

"You weren’t clear in your mind, Hal. Give me the sword. We have to destroy the cauldron."

"No!"

"Give it to me!"

"No! Haven’t you done enough harm already? You’ve already ruined the runes of war!" He ran his fingers lightly over the nick in the sword’s 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 Brid’s face. "It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have stirred the potion with the runesword. But I’m sure I didn’t spoil the runes of war," she flashed hotly at Hal, defending herself.

Again Hal’s 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 cauldron’s spell-womb Caspar had first sensed the malevolence prowling in the mist.

"Look at it! Look what you’ve done!" Hal was shouting now. "You’ve broken it!"

"It’s not broken; it’s chipped and it’s 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 Hal’s mouth. "Oh come on, Brid, what are you playing at? You can’t even lift it." He placed his hand on the sword, arresting her efforts. "Why don’t 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 sword’s weight.

Hal eased her fingers from the ornate hilt and drew the sword up. "Right that’s better. Now, tell me what to do."

Brid brushed herself down and smiled. "When you’re not being stubborn, there’s a lot of hope for you," she said. "Now look. Read the runes on the blade and it’ll 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 T [see Rune Appendix, note 1] : Tiw’s rune, dedicated only to war."

Hal fixed his eyes on the sigil and nodded. Caspar looked at the rune over Hal’s 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 N [see 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 that’s 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 can’t drive as much power through the sword."

"It’ll 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, I’ll never forgive you."

"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 cauldron’s 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 uncle’s grimace. "The wound in my side has re-opened so what do you think?"

Brid eased up his shirt to examine the bloody gash. "It’s not too bad; it’s just where the scab’s 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 she’s 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. "I’m 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 Druid’s Egg; I couldn’t 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.

"I’m not ready," Brid defied him.

Even Caspar was getting impatient. Brid had ignored him ever since she had deciphered the cauldron’s 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 Caspar’s home, and birthright, the frontier castle of Torra Alta, from destruction.

Caspar’s 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 Caspar’s flame-haired mother. At about that time, King Rewik outlawed the Old Faith from Belbidia thus forcing Branwolf to suppress all mention of Keridwen’s 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 mother’s 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 Brid’s 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 haven’t 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. It’s already taken us two months to find the cauldron and we’ve only got until the last day of Fallow, or had you forgotten? At this rate it’ll be another month before we even get out of this wretched yew forest."

"I can’t go until I’ve got my herb scrip. I can’t leave this clearing and pass through the mist while I’m 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. "What’s so fearsome about the mist and why do—?"

"Can’t 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 don’t see why you have to be asleep," Hal said more reasonably.

"I can’t pass through the mist awake, because I know what’s written on the cauldron. Don’t you remember what it was like when we first entered the mist? The way it seeped into our minds, forcing us to share each other’s thoughts? I can’t allow my knowledge of the cauldron’s runes to be shared with those creatures out there."

"That’s why you’ve 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 didn’t you bring some food, Brid?"

"I’m not you servant," she retorted without rising from the bracken.

"It’s 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? Can’t you use anything else to put your mind to sleep?"

"You could hit me over the head I suppose, Hal, but really I’d rather not." Brid smiled sarcastically.

"I’m hungry," Hal continued to complain. "And we haven’t 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 can’t bear it."

Caspar sulked. Gwion might be his mother’s brother but he was nothing like the self-righteous priest. The youth withdrew into the vivid landscape of his own thoughts. Hal’s temper and irreverent words had unnerved him. He couldn’t 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 Brid’s 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 bat’s wing and what Caspar imagined to be tails of mice and the claw of an owl.

Hal’s nose wrinkled at the sight of the withered fragments and Brid wailed. "Trog, you stupid dog, look what you’re 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! He’s eaten it! Hal, get that dog; he’s eating the Faronan henbane!"

She raced after the terrier who skipped from left to right, pausing briefly on his short tautly sprung legs before bounding away just as Caspar’s fingers brushed against his tail.

"Trog, stop. Come here; it’s not a game. Drop it! Drop it!"

The dog’s 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 to snore.

"Will he be all right?" Caspar asked anxiously.

"He’ll sleep for a week I should think, but most of what he’s eaten won’t do him any harm. At least he didn’t touch the ergot wheat, or the dragonfire or the wolfsbane, but he’s eaten the woundwort, the hyssop and, worst of all, the henbane."

"Won’t that just make him sleep?" Caspar was fascinated by Brid’s skilful magic.

"Yes, it’ll 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. Can’t you just use the wolfsbane?"

Brid looked pale beneath the smooth bronze of her skin. "I suppose I’ll have to. Wolfsbane’s poisonous but without Faronan henbane there’s no alternative and, I’ll have to take a lot more of it to have the desired effect. Well," she sighed as if steeling her resolve, "let’s get ready."

Caspar pulled her round to face him. Red blotches appeared on Brid’s 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! It’ll make me sick that’s all. And I’d rather be a little nauseous than have my mind devoured by whatever’s 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 I’m going to carry you out of here I don’t want ..." His words petered out as she turned away.

Brid wasn’t 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, rapid heart-beat.

"Oh Hal! She’s only just with us."

Hal’s 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 we’ll get out of here."

Biting back his fears, Caspar passed up the Maiden’s 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 animal’s 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 horse’s jangling curb-chains seemed shockingly loud, like the chime of a leper’s 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 the mist.

"Spar!" Hal’s voice came muffled through the ground-hugging cloud. "Keep going. I’m right with you!" Then suddenly his voice was startlingly clear. "Keep talking to me, Spar," Hal spoke in his head. "I’m right with you."

Caspar tried to concentrate on his uncle rather than thinking of what might be in the mist. Hal’s 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.

"Don’t think about it. Think of something else anything else but don’t think about it", Caspar warned.

Hal’s mind turned to the Maiden in his arms. Brid’s 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 Hal’s mind flooded red. Caspar’s 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.

Hal’s 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 can’t 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 horse.

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 sun’s 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.

Hal’s 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 boy’s 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.

Hal’s red anger lashed out and beat at the blue terror of the cold.

Firecracker’s 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 stallion’s 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 Hal’s emotions charged through his mind one last time and then he could hear nothing but the roar of Hal’s voice bellowing out the Torra Altan battle-cry. Pride in his noble ancestry brought heat to the boy’s 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 Hal’s piebald mare became clear.

"I’m with you, Spar. Just keeping talking. We’ll soon be out of the mist." Hal’s 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. Caspar’s 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, Belbidia’s 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 Hal’s arms, they cantered south over the downs and through the regimented strips of Caldea’s famous vineyards. Finally they sped across the dirt road that linked the port of Ildros to the Baron of Caldea’s 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 terrier’s heavy slumped mass to the cantle of the saddle. He dragged the white dog over the horse’s 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. Brid’s arms flailed helplessly in Hal’s embrace.

"Brid! What’s 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 Brid’s 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. "Don’t, Cybillia. Your God will do nothing to help her."

"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 Maiden’s light frame and wrapped the other skin warmly about her, all the time, keeping his eyes averted from the agonized expression contorting her face.

"She’s poisoned. I don’t know how long it’ll 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?" Ceowulf’s 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 man’s 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. Let’s 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 couldn’t 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 man’s practical skills and easy manner made him an agreeable companion. Caspar sensed Hal’s hackles rising at being ordered around, even though Ceowulf was of equal status and older and more experienced.

"There isn’t 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 that’s what we’re 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 Rewik’s court in Farona, but such strange and inexplicable commotions will alert them all too quickly."

Hal’s 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, help us?"

Ceowulf shrugged. "I very much doubt it. I haven’t seen him for fifteen years. He might welcome me but, more likely, he’ll 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 and colours."

"No, I risked a meeting with an old friend, my old tutor Morgrimm, who purloined the horse and knightly paraphernalia. No, I couldn’t risk going to my father’s 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.

"We’ve 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 will do."

Hal shook his head. "We can’t go anywhere until Brid comes round. Unfortunately she’s the only one who knows where we’re supposed to be going."

"What? You mean …" Ceowulf drew his hand up to his forehead and rubbed at his temples. "You’d 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 cauldron’s 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 hadn’t 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 Maiden’s shallow rasped breaths. The animal’s white paws were twitching as if he were dreaming.

"Ceowulf’s right; we should get out of here fast," Hal decided. "Since he’s unable to offer us safety at his father’s castle, we’ll have to buy passage on a merchant ship. It doesn’t 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 Ceowulf’s advice to go to the nearest vineyard rather than into Ildros. They couldn’t afford to draw any more attention to themselves.

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 Firecracker’s 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 taken aback.

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 man’s 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, isn’t she?" Hal replied soothingly. "Where is everyone? Is the master in?"

"Don’t 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 don’t know about the pig," Hal replied, beginning to sound a little edgy.

"Hey, Lucky, just who’re 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 mustn’t 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 uncle’s example.

"Who are you and what do you want?" the woman demanded.

"We’re a long way from home and one of our companions is ill. We need to buy a wagon because she can’t ride," Hal explained.

"My husband is out and I’m not bartering with no strangers," she replied curtly. "Now go on, get out of here; we’ve got enough trouble as it is."

"First the horse and then the pig," the simpleton muttered to his stick.

"Shut up, Lucky."

"They wouldn’t 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 squirming baby.

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 don’t eat horse in these parts so we’re on the look out for vagrants or strangers who might do such a thing."

"We don’t 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 didn’t kill the pig," Hal promised her. "We just want a cart."

"I know you didn’t kill the pig." The woman’s tense face was half curtained by a sheet of lank brown hair. "It weren’t a man that killed the pig. My lad found him early this morning. Our prize boar. His side’s been ripped open and he’s shredded with claw marks. It weren’t 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. "We’ve sent for the reeve. He’ll 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 woman’s words. They couldn’t 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.

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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