JANE WELCH

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


 

Runes of War

Book One in the Runespell Trilogy (Artwork by Geoff Taylor)The Runes of War: Book One of The Runespell Trilogy

Threatened by a new ice age, barbaric tribes of the vast northern tundra join forces under the bloody rule of warrior-chief Mortbak. In the name of Morbak's cruel god, Vall-Peor, they march south to claim dominion of the world. Only the frontier castle of Torra Alta stands in their way.

Within its walls, Baron Branwolf prepares his defences. For a thousand years Torra Alta has stood triumphant, unconquerable, perched on the spectacular pillar of rock where dragons once had their lair. But ominous sounds emerge from the labyrinth of dragon-built tunnels beneath the castle. Sabotage is feared. Against the baron's orders, his young son Caspar accompanies the party despatched to seal off the tunnels. There Caspar discovers an ancient hoard of treasure gleaming in the magical light of a moonstone, and when Caspar is captured by the enemy spies, so is the moonstone. No ordinary stone but the Druid's Eye - with its power Morbak will be invincible. Only the long-abandoned Runes of War can save Torra Alta, and only Caspar can find them...

ISBN 0-00-648025-x

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Order it Today!

Book One of The Runespell Trilogy. Published by HarperCollins

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PROLOGUE

The last scaly beast lay dying on the canyon floor. A pennon, bearing the Belbidian colours, fluttered from the hilt of the lance that pierced its chest and, with the dragon’s final breath, the pass was won. From the floor of the canyon thrust a commanding tor, and at its summit yawned the cavernous nest from which a dynasty of dragons had once disgorged into the air. But now, over the slaughtered monster’s empty lair, the proud men of Belbidia constructed a mighty fortress. They named the fortress Torra Alta and dedicated its power to the Mother Goddess, invoking the Primal Gods for their blessing.

For a thousand years Torra Alta had enforced its tyrannical rule over the pass through the Yellow Mountains. From high on its rocky throne it could lash out to protect the peaceful lands from the bloody hordes to the north. And so absolute had been its power that in three hundred years there had been no call to raise its might, for the fortress sat back needing only to glare down at the valley.

Now it happened that a great plain of ice crushed over the dread lands of northern Vaalaka, eating at their pastures and freezing over their hunting grounds. The fields of ice steadily encroached southward, forcing them into the wasteland of bare rock and parched soil blistered by tongues of fire belched from the great winged monsters in the ancient days of the Dragon Wars. But every summer the ice-cap receded and the meltwaters poured into the wasteland of the Dragon Scorch giving the Vaalakan nomads fertile lands on which to graze their herds along the banks of the seasonal rivers. When harsh winter returned and the Summer Melts dried out, the tribes once more migrated northward to the thin belt of green steppes on the fringe of the tundra, which was all that was left of their hunting grounds. They prayed for the return of spring and the merciful meltwaters that would again open up the Dragon Scorch for them.

But then as the millennium drew to a close, the Tundra gained in power and ate steadily southwards until one year the spring never came and the ice no longer melted. The Dragon Scorch remained permanently and inhospitably arid in the fast clutches of unyielding winter.

Unable to migrate south for the summer, the nomads were imprisoned within the thin belt of the steppes where the tribes squabbled amongst themselves, competing for food. The desperate struggle for survival twisted their souls and they became brutally barbaric, murdering their neighbours to ensure food for their own families. They seemed doomed to an existence of misery and depravation, until one year there arose out of their number a leader, a man of great strength and love for his people, and he was known to them as Morbak. He prayed that a God might hear him and help his people; but none would answer. When finally Morbak was near despair he heard a howling cry born on the ice-north wind, and the cry became wailing words. Believing the words, he took them to his people:

"Forsake all other Gods but Vaal-Peor. Turn away from the Great Mother because she no longer feeds us from her mantle. Turn to Vaal-Peor. He wants not prayers but sacrifices. Let blood pour onto the earth to feed him and he will give me strength to lead you southwards through the Dragon Scorch into a new land beyond." Morbak was consumed by these words: they ate at his soul and he became as the dark and treacherous land that bore him; naming himself the High Priest of Vaal-Peor, pouring evil into the hearts of his people.

He marched them south, butchering children, spilling their warm blood in the name of his cold-hearted God. At the head of the united tribes, Morbak rode upon the back of a gargantuan troll, an ugly creature with coarse hog-like hairs and yellow fangs. He adorned his helmet with the skull and horns of an ibex; over his naked chest, on a string of pig-gut, hung the teeth and claws of a troll; and, as he assumed this demonic form, a swelling number of his followers believed he was the God incarnate.

As the tribes of Morbak poured southward, following the course of the dried out or frozen Summer Melts, they heard tales of a Belbidian fortress, built upon a tower of rock, that guarded the gateway through the mountains to the promised pastures. Morbak drove his army onwards, goading them with his double-edged axe through the harsh and inhospitable lands; yet still the rumours of an impassable fortress grew to terrifying proportions. Its garrison was said to be captained by the last living dragon and in times of threat the warriors walked abroad as sabre-toothed tigers, prowling the pass for any trespasser daring to enter Belbidia. The power of the fortress, so the local legends told, was a gift from the ancient Gods; the Primal Gods of Sun, Moon and Mother Earth, and the castle was blessed by their protection. Many of Morbak’s people believed these tales of magic; and the legendary power of the Fortress at Torra Alta struck fear into the hearts of the Vaalakans. In their dismay they rebelled against Morbak, saying they would not march on such a fortress, but he took the youngest of his issue and drained the life-blood from its veins until the earth turned muddy red.

"Great God of Ice, Lord of the Tundra, how may we crush the might of Torra Alta?"

The tribes heard the icy howling of the wind and Morbak heard the words of Vaal-Peor. He told his people:

"The Fortress of Torra Alta is but a shell and her people are grown fat and slow on peace and plenty. They have forsaken their true Gods and worship those of the cities of the southland. Their worthless faith will be no defence against our own great Lord, who will show us how to smite at her roots and deliver us into Belbidia."

The tribes of Morbak drew comfort from their leader’s words and marched on to make their attack.

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

The first Caspar knew of the unrest was when his father, the Lord Branwolf, Baron of Torra Alta, bellowed out orders for supplies to be brought up to the castle. For weeks a struggling procession of carts, wagons and pack-mules picked their way through the jagged rocks and fallen boulders that lay strewn across the rough hewn road up to the fortress.

The threat of the encroaching hordes of Morbak made the boy feel alive: it was exciting to be part of this new hubbub. The rushing to and fro with supplies and stocks for the armouries; the hammering of repairs; shouts of help for tools or building materials; the yelling of orders and the rallying of the castle’s people; united all as one entity. They were preparing for siege, as if slapped awake from a doze, at last making the blood return to this ancient fortress. Men pulsed through her corridors and halls until every part of her throbbed. The heart of Torra Alta beat again and Caspar’s blood raced with the thrill of it. Perhaps if he had been a little older he might have measured his excitement with apprehension but the brutality of war meant nothing to him. At fourteen years of age, the boy clung to the glory of the heroes that filled the books and ballads: war was the stuff of legends. Besides, Caspar had no reason to feel fear; he had absolute faith in the invincibility of his home.

Beside him, stretched up on elongated hindlegs with its pendulous front paws dangling over the side of the parapet, a great deer-hound nuzzled up against his master, allowing the scruff of his neck to be kneaded and ruffled as the boy pensively twisted his fingers through the hound’s coarse grey fur.

"What do you think then, Wartooth?" Caspar addressed his silent dog. "Nothing, but nothing can touch us up here, can it? We’re on top of the world."

The auburn-haired youth hung over the battlements, drinking in the scene of scrambling animals whose hooves slithered over the stones in their efforts to haul their loads. It would be impossible to climb the Tor under the fury of Torra Alta’s garrison. He thought back to ancient tales from the time of the Dragon Wars, in the millennium long past, when the fortress was raised upon the lair of a slain beast; since that day no army had successfully assailed the peak on which the citadel perched. It seemed to Caspar that the spirit of the dragon still cast a haunting eye from her lofty nest, as if scanning the valley for prey.

Caspar had often studied his home from below, when returning from hunting boar in the scrubland and forests just north of the canyon. On entering the mouth of the square-sided valley, he had swelled with pride at the sight of the angular block of the keep encinctured by the buttressed towers and pinnacled turrets of his father’s fortress, which dominated the pass from the heights of Torra Alta. The treeless pillar of rock, left standing by some great elemental force of nature, thrust up like the core of a volcano out of a calm sea. The flat valley floor stretched away on either side before washing against the canyon walls that framed Caspar’s view. A curving river, sluggish and tired from its hectic tumbling down the northern ranges of the Yellow Mountains that divided Belbidia from the Dragon Scorch of southern Vaalaka, idled through the centre of the valley and lapped around the foot of Torra Alta. In springs gone by, when the meltwater gushed off the mountains, it had swelled the river to a roaring spate, cutting into the stalk of rock on two sides, creating an overhang. Much of the fissured rock was sheer, though in places it would be possible for an athletic man to climb it, using his hands to haul him from ledge to ledge, after scrambling over the scree that slumped around the base of the rock. Caspar knew how difficult that was: one false step and the boulders rolled over against each other, threatening to trap a leg or start a rock fall.

The road itself had been blasted and chiselled out of the western approach, which rose less steeply. On the lower slopes of the scarp the road cut back and forth, twisting through gorse and heather and then spiralled up encircling the pinnacle. Near the summit the road steepened into a stretch which Caspar and Hal had named the "Slide", because in winter, when the ice glossed over the stones, the horses skidded and slipped, cruelly losing their foothold and making upward progress treacherous, if not impossible.

Caspar jumped as he felt a sharp prod in the ribs, bringing him back from his reverie. It was Hal.

"Look. Over there." Hal pointed at an uncovered wagon that seemed, at this distance, to be carrying barrels stacked two layers high. "I’ll bet you a hunting knife, they won’t make it with that wagon." Caspar did not reply. He had learnt from long experience to avoid betting with his uncle: he always came away poorer. Hal was Branwolf’s much younger brother, in fact his half-brother. Their father, Baron Brungard had remarried late in life and Hal had been born twenty years after his brother and only three years before Caspar. After the old father died, young Lord Branwolf had raised Hal alongside his own boy, and because of their closeness in age he naturally came to treat his young half-brother as his eldest son. However, by law and birthright, Caspar was Hal’s superior and stood to inherit all: the Barony, Torra Alta and the power that went with that mighty fortress. Hal was an uncle treated as an elder brother: it was a relationship that the two boys both found awkward.

They watched together, Wartooth’s grey muzzle pointing between them as the wagon set off and as other carts, bringing in more supplies, offloaded much of their cargo at the foot of the crag. Milled flour and grain, for the animal stock kept within the castle, were slung in sacks over the backs of mules. Ropes threaded the beasts together and, driven by a short man with a hard voice and a hard stick, they snaked up to the castle. Unsuitable for transferring onto the mule trains were: the wooden crates of laying hens that squawked in outrage at their journey, barrels of ale, pallets of salt beef wrapped in muslin cloth, bundles of saplings and a casket of arrowheads for the castle fletcher, battle axes, mailshirts and barrels of tar. All these siege supplies and trappings of war remained on the wagons for their journey up.

The two youths had found a good vantage point on the castle wall just beyond the guard room. Unafraid of the dizzy heights they leant over the battlements, straining forward to gain a clear view of the miniature scenes far below. Caspar pressed his toes into the solid walls to balance himself as he stretched forward to take a look at the half-finished cathedral far below. From the valley floor the foundations for the new building looked enormous but from up here it was dwarfed into insignificance by the natural magnificence of the mountains. Work on the sacred building had only recently ceased since the news of the Vaalakan threat had reached Belbidia and it was the first time in his life that Caspar had been unable to see the ant-like masons crawling over the walls to chisel out the gargoyles and decorations intrinsic to a cathedral. He liked the gargoyles.

Hal teasingly nudged his precariously balanced nephew and the younger boy swung down to a more stable position and grimaced at his grinning companion. Neither was worried by the height. Being born and reared in the castle, the surrounding drop was as normal to them as a swaying eerie to an eagle. Indeed, Caspar used to dream he was a bird of prey and could step out of the top tower and soar into the heavens. However, it had given them much entertainment over the years when any stranger to the citadel swooned at the sickening drop.

Caspar signalled toward a stretch of road below them. "There’s your wagon."

It was emerging from behind a spit of rock, an extra pair of cart-horses hitched to the team, their heads hung low as they leant forward into their collars, straining against the weight of the load. The body of the wagon rested between its four wheels, which stood as high as the wagon itself. The solid disks, with their hubs bulging out at shoulder height to a man, looked like mill wheels for grinding corn. The huge diameter of the wheels made it easier for the cumbersome vehicle to roll over the rough ground, though even then, as they clattered over the stones, a boulder or time-worn rut would trap them. The wagoner lashed his whip over the heads of the horses and a man at each wheel gripped the rim, hanging his weight from it in an attempt to manhandle the wheel round. Finally the vehicle lurched forward, crashing down from the obstacle and rumbled on.

"My bet still stands," said Hal.

"Hey! I never agreed to any bet," protested Caspar.

"Dear Nephew, where’s your sense of adventure?" mocked Hal. "Of course, I forgot you’re still a boy and not big enough to bet yet." The sarcastic words had the sting taken out of them by Hal’s broad smile and were designed to tease rather than hurt, but they still dug at Caspar who tried desperately to think of something witty in retort but as usual failed. He knew Hal was only trying to bait him into taking up the challenge by using one of his old tricks out of their early childhood. Caspar hated being called ‘nephew’ and had always flown into a childish tantrum when Hal teased him with it, but he had since learnt that he lost fewer quarrels with the older boy if he bit back his temper and behaved with infuriating dignity. He decided to parry Hal’s challenge by changing the subject.

"What do you suppose is in those barrels anyway?" he asked calmly, still looking down at the wagon.

"I for one, hope it’s ale, or even Caldean wine," Hal replied, putting on a voice slightly deeper than his natural tones, "otherwise we’ll all be reduced to that boiled well water."

Caspar groaned inwardly. He might have guessed that Hal was in one of those moods that had become all too frequent lately. He was forever trying to prove himself as a full-grown man and Caspar wished he would hurry up and grow out of the phase: it was very tedious.

"There’s nothing wrong with the well water."

"Dragon’s piss!" sneered Hal.

Caspar gave up on his companion. The promise of battle was evidently making Hal more difficult than usual. He must have overheard the full-bearded, seasoned men of the garrison talking about the well over their frothy tankards of ale. The wellhead was housed within the deepest cellar of the central keep, which had been erected over the entrance to the dragons’ ancient den. The mouth had been sealed over, except for the seemingly bottomless well, which plummeted into the caverns and labyrinth of tunnels honeycombing the core of Torra Alta. A cable, as thick as Caspar’s wrist, was drawn through a system of pulleys by a winch. Attached to the cable was a line of buckets that dragged up water from the underground streams at the very roots of the Tor. The water smelt foul and wisps of yellow vapour floated off the surface of the buckets as they slopped up from the pit bellow, but the water was boiled in vats and sieved through purifying hunks of carbon to extract the sulphurous poisons.

Suddenly the Baron’s clear voice boomed out from the courtyard below: "Over here!"

Caspar spun round guiltily and dropped down behind the low wall on the inside of the parapet. For a second he thought he had been spotted and that his father must be summoning him to help with more unloading.

"Over here with the flour," Baron Branwolf called and Caspar sighed with relief as he realised that his father was gesturing to the mule-driver arriving at the gates. The man towed his melancholy beasts over to the Baron, leaving behind a thin, powdery trail across the cobblestones from one of the flour sacks that had split. The Baron was standing, feet astride with hands on hips, and looked, as always, ready for action. He was a vigorous man of solid build, carrying no spare flesh, and with the same sharply contoured features, raven hair and olive eyes of his younger brother, though Hal was a few inches shorter and had not yet broadened across his chest.

"How many more trips can you make before sundown?" Branwolf asked the mule-driver as he approached.

"Well, my Lord, it’ll not be for want of trying, but the beasts are tiring." The short man wiped his sleeve across his brow, "Aye, tiring, that they are, but, daylight willing, Sir, I might get another couple more trips out of them, maybe three... Aye, three - if the packs are lighter. They don’t take well to these heavy loads, Sir, that they don’t."

"Yes, yes." Branwolf sounded as if he was trying to disguise his impatience but then he softened. "All right then, let’s keep it moving. I’ll give you a hand here. We’ve got to have that last load brought up tonight." The Baron pushed up his cuffs to expose the tight cords of sinew and tendon, which striped his forearms, and heaved a sack of flour off the leading mule. "We haven’t got time to waste, Driver," he grunted.

"No Sir, so I’ve been told." The mule-driver leant against the flank of one of the animals to draw his breath for a moment. "And one of the carters too, Sir, he was telling me a most horrible tale. He’d been up north not ten leagues beyond the head of the canyon to fetch in pine-logs, and he swore he’d not go back that way again, not for logs and not for gold neither, he said." The mule-driver dragged another flour sack off the back of the mule and let it slump to the ground. "He saw shadows moving in the Boarchase Forest. Aye my Lord, and heard tales of strange beasts roaming thereabouts. Evil beasts."

"Huh!" Branwolf was dismissive. "Savages that’s all, an outlying group of worthless spies no doubt. We have to expect them. They adorn themselves in animal carcasses. Grotesque idea." He grunted under the weight of a flour sack. "There’s no need to fear a small party of heathens - unskilled warriors, no match for any fellow of Belbidia. You don’t need to worry about them, Driver. It’s Morbak’s central force, the main army. We need to be ready for that."

"This army then, as you say, Sir, it’s mighty close then?"

"We’ve got a few weeks yet." The Baron’s voice was reassuring. "My own spies tell me that their main force and Morbak is still deep in the Dragon Scorch, but I still need this fortress fully provisioned and secured against siege by the beginning of the Fogmoon, just to be sure. We’ve a lot of mouths to feed here and in a siege... So keep those loads coming up, Driver, keep them coming. It will be difficult to get the wagons up the frosty road during the month of the Wolfmoon and if we have to still get supplies in after the solstice, during the Snowmoon, well..."

All the flour sacks lay heaped up outside the storeroom wall and the short man pulled the head of his leading mule round to face the portcullis. "Yes, my Lord, I’ll be hurrying with the next load for you right away, Sir."

The guilty feeling was spreading over Caspar’s body and started to prick at his conscience.

"Don’t you think we’d better go and help again?" he asked Hal.

"No, not yet. We’ve been lugging crates and sacks around all day," grumbled the older youth. "Five more minutes and then we’ll go down again."

Caspar watched his father pace over towards the Captain of the garrison, who was checking through the cargo of the next wagon that had arrived at the gates and was halted beneath the fang-like prongs of the portcullis. Baron Branwolf immediately climbed up on top of the wagon and started handing down the crates. Caspar reflected that his father hadn’t stopped unloading or dragging sacks into the storerooms for the last four days, working alongside and harder than all the soldiers and servants within the walls of Torra Alta.

A shrill cry from below cut through the clutter of noise within the castle. Hal was still leaning over the battlements.

"It’s that wagon. There on the Slide." Hal’s voice was urgent. He was already leaping down from the wall and tearing across the cobbled courtyard towards the storerooms, Wartooth’s long legs racing alongside, when the Baron’s tones drowned all other noise. "Rope! Get a rope!"

Hal acknowledged his older brother with a wave of his hand as he disappeared through the nearest door.

"You four," Branwolf pointed to a group from the garrison, "follow me. And Captain fetch the men from the guardroom." He continued to hurl out orders whilst already running towards the gates.

Caspar hesitated for a moment, not knowing whether to run after Hal or go straight to his father. Hal was already re-emerging with a coil of rope over his shoulder as he sprinted through the gates, followed by a dozen men from the guardroom and nearly tripping over the excited hound that was weaving about his feet. Caspar dashed after them. By the time he got to the wagon Hal had lashed the rope to its front axle and the Baron was directing men to haul on the wheels, rope and harness to save the floundering wagon. The vehicle teetered on the steep pitch of the track. The wagoner must have attempted to rush the section relying on momentum to carry him through, but the horses’ strength had faded midway and they were now wrestling to stop the weight of the loaded wagon dragging them backwards.

The men jostled each other for space around the wheels and leather strapping of the harness. Caspar found room by a dun mare, on the inside of the ledge, and twisted his forearm through the leathers to get a firm grip. The horse’s coat was matted and dark with sweat, her muscles quivering with the strain. Facing the wagon, with one foot braced against the rock-face, the boy leant back and pulled with all his strength, determined that his efforts should be worthy of his rank and position. But the wagon was still slipping. Each time it fell back the men grunted as one, the horses’ hooves grating against the rock in a frenzied battle for grip. A caustic smell of burning arose from the brakes as they smouldered against the iron wheel rims.

"You soldier," shouted Branwolf. "Get out from behind that wheel. If she rolls back, it’ll take your foot off." The man leapt aside and found a new position.

"On the count of three we all pull together," commanded the Baron. "Get yourself a firm footing. Ready? One, two-" His words were snatched away by the cracking of the whip as the slightly built wagoner lashed out at the horses.

"Steady there lad. It’s all in the timing," explained the Baron, raising his voice above the excited barks of the deer-hound. "Wait for the count of three."

"We’re going to roll over that cliff." The wagoner’s voice was thin and barely audible. His eyes gaped down at the distant valley floor, the eyelids frozen open. A greyish hue deadened the glow of his smooth cheeks and his lips were dry with fear.

"You haven’t made the climb up to Torra Alta before, have you?" asked Branwolf, trying to calm the young man.

The man’s lips formed the word "no" but no sound came out. He cleared his throat and tried again.

"No, Sir."

"Don’t look down; think only about what you’ve got to do," urged the Baron. "Concentrate on the leading pair."

"My father was ill. I said I’d take the wagon up for him. I didn’t realise it would be like this." The young man’s voice trailed on but he couldn’t drag his eyes away from the precipitous drop.

"He’s frozen up," the Baron said flatly.

Using the hub of one of the great wheels as a step, Hal swung up to sit beside the young wagoner.

"It’s all right, you know. The height does that to a lot of men." Hal’s generous attitude surprised his young red-haired nephew: the dark youth so rarely missed an opportunity to tease someone. "Now give me the reins. We’ve got to get these horses moving."

The wagoner seemed paralysed: Hal was forced to prize the reins and whip out from the man’s rigidly closed fists.

"Right, I’m ready," he announced.

Baron Branwolf tried again: "One, two, three, heave!"

On "three" Caspar drew in a deep breath and on "heave" exhaled sharply, releasing a cry as he kicked back against the rock face. A similar grunt came from all the men around the wagon except for Hal’s excited "Now!" It made up for his inability to make the whip crack. He had thrust it forward with enough force, the leather whistling as it sliced through the air, but he mistimed the wrist action that should have snapped the leash taught. The anticipated crack became a mere sigh but the horses responded and the wagon surged up a full foot.

"Hold it now, men. We’ll take a rest for a second," ordered the Baron.

The great belly of the dun heaved in and out, like the smith’s bellows, as she drew in her breath next to Caspar’s shoulder. He found himself a new foothold in preparation for the next combined effort.

"Heave!" cried the Baron again. Caspar pulled as hard as he could but this time the wagon gave them only a hand’s width before it stuck fast. The blood began to throb in his ears with the physical strain.

"And again men. One, two, three, heave!"

Caspar felt the joints in his shoulders and arms stretching but there the effort was bearable. Only in his fingers was his grip was beginning to fade. He fixed his eyes onto his whitening hands and concentrated fiercely on keeping his knuckles tightly closed around the leather harness. He still had strength in his arms and legs but the trappings were starting to slip between his fingers.

"We’re up against a rock," a soldier called out from beside one of the wheels.

"Relax a moment and let her run back a bit. Let’s take another run up," ordered Branwolf.

The wagon creaked on its axles as the strain was released. Caspar took the opportunity to wipe the sweat from his palms and flex his fingers to regain some of their strength.

On the next count Hal managed to produce an ear-splitting crack from the whip. It lashed across the broad back of the lead horse and a line of red beads sprang up across its quarters. The animal squealed and, when the wagon still remained anchored to the rock, the great cart-horse panicked. Unable to bolt, it thrashed at the ground, sparks flashing from its iron-shod hooves as they struck the rock, and it kicked out backwards, desperately trying to break free from its burden. The Baron grabbed its bridle, pulling the tossing head down to calm the beast, and suddenly with a jolt they cleared the obstructing rock and gained another foot.

"Not too harshly!" admonished the Baron.

Hal grunted in acknowledgement; his face furrowed with concentration. He gave a quick glance at the dazed young man beside him, who now clung to his wooden bench with teeth firmly clenched.

"It’s not as easy as it looks - using a whip," Hal said to him gesturing with the leather goad. The man didn’t seem to hear.

"Three more goes and we’re onto the easy part," said Branwolf in encouragement to his men. They pulled together as before. On the third heave the road flattened and the wagon rushed forward at a pace. Caspar fell backwards and rolled to the side, catching a fleeting glimpse of the wheels as they crashed past his shoulder. By the time he got to his feet the wagon was thundering away, the hocks of the six heavy-weight horses thrusting in unison beneath their quarters. The long-legged deer-hound snarled at the wheels of the cart, tripping up soldiers as he darted back and forth in his excitement. Caspar paused to catch his breath and then sprinted after them.

Panting heavily, with his speed now exhausted, Caspar trotted into the courtyard in time to see Hal standing tall on top of the driving seat, pulling back hard on the reins to balance himself. He looked for all the world as if he had just won a chariot race, whooping with delight and punching the air with his free arm. The horses stood four-square with white foaming sweat smearing their shoulders and flanks. Finally, Hal sat down looking pleased. The young man next to him quietly climbed down, looking almost worse than he had on the road. Feeling sorry for the wagoner, Caspar went over trying to think of something appropriate to say but his father had got there first.

"Don’t worry, lad; that’s not the first time someone’s been stricken by the heights."

"I’m sorry, my Lord, I feel such a fool," the wagoner quietly mumbled, unable to look the tall, raven-haired man in the face.

"Forget it. Just go and take care of your horses." The Baron smiled kindly at him and then turned to his son. "And, Spar, it’s about time you and Hal got back to work. Get him down from there and start unloading the barrels." Branwolf looked despairingly up at the dreamy expression on Hal’s face.

Later that day, when the swollen globe of the setting sun sank towards the jagged peaks in the west, spilling its blood in a wash of red across the sky, the floor of the canyon was already shrouded in the black pall of night. The citadel of Torra Alta caught the last rays of red-gold and flashed like a bronzed shield as it reflected the evening sun off the whinstone walls.

In the very centre of the courtyard a smooth round slab was embedded in the cobbles, featureless except for a ring of pagan runes engraved around its circumference. The once sharp etching was now barely visible since the stone had been worn by the passage of feet over the centuries. Caspar stood in the middle of it and raised his weary arms to catch the last drops of warmth from the sun.

"Can’t you feel the magic, the ancient power of this very spot?" he asked in an awed voice.

"No, I can’t. Come on, Spar, we’ll be late," replied Hal.

Caspar didn’t move. It seemed to him that the night crawled up from below, creeping up over the walls and stealthily slinking over the ground like a black panther, stalking low on its belly.

"Don’t you see, Hal? Right here on this stone, it’s like a gateway between day and night."

"It’s just a stone, Spar. Our ancestors worshipped it, but it’s a heathen thing. They were primitive," Hal reasoned sensibly.

"It’s not just a stone," Caspar objected. "In front of me the sky is red, it’s daytime, but behind me," he turned and pointed to the East, "it’s night, everything is black night. Here where I stand it’s twilight. The sun catches my head, my face, my arms - they are in the light; but my feet are in the shadow of night. Right here it is dusk."

"You think some strange things, Nephew."

"Don’t call me that."

"Take my word for it, Nephew, you won’t get too many wenches interested in you, if you talk like that - Baron’s son or not. Sunsets, I ask you!"

Caspar ignored him. It didn’t matter that Hal could not sense the magic of the place and time; he could, and it warmed his soul. The air was still and quiet with the slight chill of evening, which seemed to concentrate his thoughts. As the sun touched down to rest, the sky was a blend of mysterious colours, from black behind him, through to purple and lilac over-head, spreading to pearl and pale salmon pink and finally the rich colours of blood, burnt orange and gold, in the West. In that one moment, when day met night, the world stood still, holding its breath, as if in reverence for the ancient God, mourning as the lord of the heavens made his magnificent death throes.

The clear peal of a bell shattered the moment, echoing back from the canyon walls, clamorous and sharp in the chill air of evening.

"Stop dreaming. It’s Evensong," demanded Hal, starting to get a little irritated by Caspar’s dallying.

"I know, I know," replied the younger youth, but his sapphire blue eyes, still hazy and unfocused, remained staring at the sunset. "I was just thinking how beautiful it all is. Our lands. Our fortress."

"Yours maybe, but not mine," quipped Hal, with what could have been bitterness but sounded more like a matter-of-fact attitude. "You’re the one who gets to inherit it all."

"No, it’s our Torra Alta," Caspar said firmly. "It’s always been home to you as much as to me."

"I know. It’s just sometimes it feels strange that we’ve been brought up as brothers. I really do feel I’m your brother, your older brother, but yet you’re the one who will become Baron one day."

Not knowing how to reply to Hal’s unusual frankness about his feelings, Caspar dropped his head to avoid his uncle’s eyes and traced his foot over the strange indistinct runic lettering.

The bells pealed out again.

"Come on. We must go. The Chaplain will be peeved if we’re late and we ought to be praying for the safety of our Torra Alta." Hal emphasised the ‘our’ and smiled with

resignation at his companion.

Father Gwion and his curate, Dunnock, nodded frostily at the two youth's as they crept into the back of the Chapel. Their lateness had not gone unmarked. Dunnock had just returned from the northern frontier of the Barony. He was the only preacher who took the good news of the one true God so far north to the simple woodsmen of the Boarchase Forest.

"Dear Lord, protect us from the idol-worshippers, who come to rape our land." The Chaplain’s words were solemn.

"Almighty Father, help drive out the pagan from our barony," Dunnock implored passionately.

Caspar bowed his head and prayed fervently.

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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Geoff Taylor artwork.

 

Threatened by a new ice age, barbaric tribes of the vast northern tundra join forces under the bloody rule of warrior-chief Morbak. In the name of Morbak's cruel god Vaal Peor they march south to claim dominion of the world. Only the frontier castle of Torra Alta stands in their way.

Within its walls Baron Branwolf prepares his defences.

For a thousand years Torra Alta has stood triumphant, unconquerable, perched on the spectacular pillar of rock where dragons once had their lair. But ominous sounds emerge from the labyrinth of dragon-built tunnels beneath the castle. Sabotage is feared. Against the baron's orders, his young son Caspar accompanies the party despatched to seal off the tunnels. There Caspar discovers an ancient hoard of treasure gleaming in the magical light of a moonstone, and when Caspar is captured by the enemy spies, so is the moonstone. No ordinary stone but the Druid's Eye - with its power Morbak will be invincible. Only the long-abandoned Runes of War can save Torra Alta, and only Caspar can find them...

ISBN 0-00-648025-x

Order it Today! Amazon.com

Order it Today!

Book One of The Runespell Trilogy. Published by HarperCollins

 

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Last modified: January 02, 2002