|A Cavern of Black Ice|
Sword of Shadows, Book 1
|Warner Aspect Books, 752 pages |
Chapter 1 -- The Badlands|
Raif Sevrance set his sights on the target and called the ice hare to him. A moment of disorientation followed, where the world dropped out of focus like a great dark stone sinking to the bottom of a lake, then in the shortest space that a moment could be, he perceived the animal's heart. The light, sounds and odors of the badlands slid away, leaving nothing but the weight of blood in the ice hare's chest and the hummingbird flutter of its heart. Slowly, deliberately, Raif angled his bow and sent his shot wide of the mark. The arrow cracked the freezing air like a word spoken out loud. As its iron blade shot past the hare, the creature's head came up and it sprang for cover in a cushion of black sedge.
"Take the shot again," Drey said. "You sent that wide on purpose."
Raif lowered his bow and glanced over at his older brother. Drey's face was partially shaded by his foxhood, but the firm set of his mouth was clear. Raif paused, considered arguing, then shrugged and reset his footing on the tundra. It never felt good deceiving Drey.
Fingers smoothing down the backing of his horn and sinew bow, Raif looked over the windblown flats of the badlands. Panes of ice already lay thick over melt ponds. In the flattened colt grass beneath Raif's feet hoarfrost grew as silently and insidiously as mold on second-day bread. The few trees that managed to survive in the gravely flood plain were wind-crippled blackstone pines and prostrate hemlock. Directly ahead lay a shallow draw filled with loose rocks and scrubby bushes that looked as tough and bony as moose antlers. Raif dipped his gaze a fraction lower to the brown lichen mat surrounding a pile of wet rocks. Even on a morning as cold as this the lick was still running.
As Raif watched, another ice hare popped up its head. Cheeks puffing, ears trembling, it held its position listening for danger. It wanted the salt in the lick. Game animals came from leagues around to drink at the trickle of salt water that bled across the rocks in the draw. Tem said the lick welled up from an underground stream.
Raif raised his bow, slid a arrow from the quiver at his waist. In one smooth motion he nocked the iron arrowhead against the plate and drew the bowstring back to his chest. The hare swiveled its head. Its dark eyes looked straight at Raif. Too late. Raif already had the creature's heart in his sights. Kissing the string, Raif let the arrow fly. Fingers of ice mist parted, a faint hiss sounded, and the arrowhead shot straight into the hare's ribcage. If the creature made a sound Raif didn't hear it. Carried back by the force of the blow, it collapsed into the lick.
"That's three to you. None to me." Drey's voice sounded flat, resigned.
Raif pretended to check his bow for hairpin cracks.
"Come on. Let's shoot at targets. No more hares are going to show now you've sent a live one into the lick." Drey reached out and touched Raif's bow. "You could have used a smaller head on that arrow, you know. You're supposed to kill the hare, not disembowel it."
Raif looked up. Drey was grinning, just a bit. Relieved, Raif grinned back at him. Drey was two years older than him, better at everything an older brother should be better at. Up until this winter he had been better at shooting too. A lot better.
Abruptly, Raif tucked his bow into his belt and ran for the draw. Tem never let them shoot anything purely for sport and the hares had be taken back to camp, skinned and roasted. The pelts were Raif's. Another couple more and he'd have enough for a winter coat for Effie. Not that Effie had much use for a coat. She was the only eight year old in Clan Blackhail who didn't enjoy running around in the snow. Frowning, Raif twisted the arrows free from the twig-thin bones of the hare's ribcages, careful not to break the shafts. Timber straight enough for arrows was rare in the badlands.
As he sealed the carcasses in his game pouch, Raif checked the position of the sun. Nearly noon now. A storm headed elsewhere blew eastward in the far north. Dark gray clouds rolled across the horizon like smoke from a distant fire. Raif shivered. The Great Want lay to the north. Tem said that if a storm didn't begin in the Want then it sure as stone would end there.
"Hey! Rough Jaw! Get your bow over here and let's shred some wood." Drey sent an expertly pitched stone skittering off rocks and hummocks and landing with a devilish skip precisely at Raif's feet. "Or are you scared your lucky streak just ended?"
Almost against his will, Raif's hand rose to his chin. His skin felt as bristly as a frozen pine cone. He was Rough Jaw all right. No argument there. "Paint the target, Sevrance Cur. Then I'll let you take a hand's worth of practice shots while I restring my bow for wood."
Even a hundred paces in the distance, Raif saw Drey's jaw drop. "Restring my bow for wood" was exactly the sort of high-blown thing a master bowman would say. Raif could hardly keep from laughing out loud. Ignoring the insult and the boasting, Drey snorted loudly and began plucking fistfulls of grass from the tundra. By the time Raif caught up with him, Drey had smeared the grass over the trunk of a frost killed pine, forming a roughly circular target, wet with snowmelt and grass sap.
Drey shot first. Stepping back one hundred and fifty paces, he held his bow at arm's length. Drey's bow was a recurve made of winter-cut yew, dried over two full years and hand-tillered to reduce shock. Raif envied him for it. His own bow was a clan hand-down, used by anyone who had the string to brace it.
Drey took his time sighting his bow. He had a sure, unshakable grip and the strength to hold the string for as long as his ungloved fingers could bear. Just when Raif was set to call shot due, his brother released the string. The arrow cut air and light before landing with a dull thunk, dead center of the smeared-on target. Turning, Drey inclined his head at his younger brother. He did not smile.
Raif's bow was already in hand, his arrow already chosen. With Drey's arrow shaft still quivering in the target, Raif sighted his bow. The wood was long dead. Cold. When Raif tried to call it to him as he did with the ice hare, it wouldn't come. The pitch-impregnated wood stood its distance. Raif felt nothing; no quickening of his pulse, no dull pain behind his eyes, or metal tang in his mouth. Nothing. The target was just a target. Unsettled, Raif centered his bow and searched for the still line that would lead his arrow home. Seeing nothing only a faraway tree, Raif released his string. Straight away he knew the shot was bad. He'd been gripping the handle too tightly and his fingertips grazed the string on release. The bow shot back with a thwack and Raif's shoulder took a bad recoil. The arrow landed a good two hands lower than the target.
"Shoot again." Drey's voice was cold.
Raif massaged his shoulder, then selected a second arrow. For luck, he brushed the fletchings against the raven lore he wore on a cord around his neck. The second shot was better, but it still hit a thumb's length short of dead center. Raif turned to look at his brother. It was his shot.
Drey made a small motion with his bow. "Again."
Raif shook his head. "No. It's your turn."
Drey shook his own head right back. "You sent those two wide on purpose. Now shoot."
"No I didn't. It was a true shot. I-"
"No one heart-kills three hares on the run, then misses a target as big as a man's chest. No one." Drey pushed back his fox hood. His eyes were dark. He spat out the wad of black curd he'd been chewing. "I don't need mercy shots. Either shoot with me fair, or not at all."
Looking at his brother, seeing his big hands pressing hard into the wood of his bow and the whiteness of his thumbs as he worked on an imagined imperfection, Raif knew words would get him nowhere. Drey Sevrance was eighteen years old, a yearman in the clan. This past summer he'd taken to braiding his hair with black leather strips and wearing a silver earring in his ear. Last night around the firepit when Dagro Blackhail had burned the scum off an old malt and dropped his earring into the clear liquor remaining, Drey had done the same. All the sworn clansmen had. Metal next to the skin attracted frostbite. And everyone in the clan had seen the black nubs of unidentifiable flesh that the 'bite left behind. You could find many willing to tell the story of how Jon Marrow's member had frozen solid when he was jumped by Dhoonesmen whilst he was relieving himself in the brack. By the time he had seen the Dhoonesmen off and pulled himself up from the nail-hard tundra, his manhood was frozen like a cache of winter meat. By all accounts he hadn't felt a thing until he was brought into the warmth of the roundhouse, and the stretched and shiny flesh began to thaw. His screams kept the clan awake all night.
Raif ran his hand along his bowstring, warming the wax. If Drey needed to see him take a third shot to prove he wasn't shamming, then take another shot he would. He'd lost the desire to fight.
Again Raif tried to call the dead tree to him, searching for the still line that would guide his arrow into the heart. Although the blackstone pine had perished ten hunting seasons earlier it had hardly withered at all. Only the needles were missing. The pitch in the trunk preserved the crown, and the cold dryness of the badlands hindered the growth of fungus beneath the bark. Tem said that in the Great Want trees took hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years to decay. Raif imagined the Want as a deserted battlefield of dead petrified trees.
Seconds passed as Raif concentrated on the target. The longer he held his sights, the deader the tree seemed. Something was missing. Ice hares were real living things. Raif felt their warmth in the space between his eyes. He imagined the lode of hot pulsing blood in their hearts, and saw the still line that linked those hearts to his arrowhead as clearly as a dog sees his leash. Slowly, Raif was coming to realize that still line meant death.
His mind wandered. Little irritations niggled away at him: the low, constant buffeting of the wind, a sharp chip of limestone beneath his left boot, even the beads of moisture forming along the waxed bowstring where his own warm breath had condensed. At his side, Raif was aware of Drey shifting his weight restlessly. He wouldn't call shot due, though. Drey Sevrance never liked to be rushed himself and would never dream of rushing others. Raif loved him for that.
Frustration finally got the better of Raif and he stopped searching for the inner heart of the target and centered his sights on the visual heart instead. With the fletchings of Drey's arrow in his eyeline, Raif released the shot.
The moment his thumb lifted from the string a raven kawed. High and shrill, the carrion feeder's cry seemed to split the very substance of time. Raif felt a finger of ice tap his spine. His vision blurred. Saliva jetted into his mouth, thick and hot and tasting of metal. Stumbling back, he lost his grip on the bow and it fell to the ground point-first. A crack sounded as it landed. The arrow hit the tree with a dull thud, placing a knuckle short of Drey's own shot. Raif didn't care. Black points raced across his vision, scorching like soot belched from a fire.
Raif felt Drey's huge, muscular arms clamp around his shoulders, smelled his brother's scent of neat's-foot oil, tanned leather, horses and sweat. Glancing up Raif saw Drey's brown eyes staring into his. He looked worried. His prized yewbow lay flat on the ground.
"Here, sit." Not waiting for any compliance on Raif's part, Drey forced his younger brother onto the tundra floor. The frozen earth bit into Raif's buckskin pants. Turning away from his brother, Raif cleared his mouth of the metal-tasting saliva. His eyes stung. A sickening pain in his forehead made him retch. He clenched his jaw until bone clicked.
Seconds passed. Drey said nothing, just held his brother as tightly as he could. Part of Raif wanted to smile; the last time Drey had crushed him like this was after he fell twenty foot from a foxtail pine three springs back. The fall only broke an ankle. Drey's subsequent bear-hug had succeeding in breaking two ribs.
Strangely, the memory had a calming effect on Raif, and the pain slowly subsided. Raif's vision blurred sharply and then reset itself. A feeling of badness grew in him. Swiveling around in his brother's grip, Raif looked in the direction of the camp. The stench of metal washed over him, as thick as grease smoke from the rendering pits.
Drey followed his gaze. "What's the matter?" His voice was tight, strained
"Don't you feel it?"
Drey shook his head.
The camp was five leagues to the south, hidden in the shelter of the flood basin. All Raif could see was the rapidly darkening sky, and the low ridges and rocky flats of the badlands. Yet he felt something. Something unspeakable, like when nightmares jolted him awake him in pitch darkness, or when he thought back to the day Tem had shut him in the guidehouse with his mother's corpse. He had been eight at the time, old enough to pay due respect to the dead. The guidehouse was dark and filled with smoke. The hollowed-out basswood where his mother lay smelled of wet earth and rotten things. Sulfur had been rubbed into the carved inner trunk to keep insects and carrion feeders away from the body when it was laid upon the ground.
Raif smelled badness now. He smelled stinking metal and sulfur and death. Fighting against Drey's grip, he cried, "We have to go back."
Drey released his grip on Raif and pulled himself to his feet. Plucking his dogskin gloves from his belt he pulled them on with two violent movements. "Why?"
Raif shook his head. The pain and nausea had gone, but something else had come in its place. A tight shivering fear. "The camp."
Drey nodded. He took a deep breath and looked set to speak, but abruptly stopped himself. Offering Raif his hand, he heaved his brother off the ground with a single tug. By the time Raif had brushed the frost from his buckskins, Drey had collected both bows and was pulling the arrowshafts from the dead tree. As he turned away from the blackstone pine, Raif noticed the fletchings in his grip were shaking. This one small sign of his brother's fear worried Raif more than anything else. Drey was his older brother by two years. Drey was afraid of nothing.
They had left the camp before dawn, before even the embers on the firepit had burned cold. No one except Tem knew they had gone. It was their last chance to shoot game before they broke camp and returned to the roundhouse for winter. Tem had warned them about going off on their own in the badlands, though he knew well enough that nothing he said would stop them.
"Sons!" he would say shaking his large, grizzled head. "I might as well spend my days picking ticks from the dogs, rather than waste them telling you two what you should and shouldn't do. At least come sundown I'd have a de-loused pup to show for my trouble." Tem would glower as he spoke, and the skin above his eyebrows would bunch into knots, yet his eyes always gave him away.
Just this morning as Raif pulled back the hide fastening on the tent he shared with his father and brother, he noticed a small bundle set upon the warming stone. It was food. Hunters' food. Tem had packed two whole smoke-cured ptarmigan, a brace of hard-boiled eggs, and enough strips of hung mutton to mend an elk-sized hole in a tent. All this for his sons to eat on a hunting trip he had expressly forbidden them to take.
Raif smiled. Tem Sevrance knew his sons well.
"Put on your gloves." It was Drey, acting just like an older brother. "And pull up your hood. Temperature's dropping fast."
Raif did what he was told, struggling to put on gloves with hands that felt big and slow. Drey was right: it was getting colder. Another shiver worked its way up Raif's spine, making his shoulders jerk awkwardly. "Let's go." Drey's thoroughness was beginning to nettle him. They had to get back to the camp. Now. Something wasn't right.
Although Tem warned them constantly of the danger of using up all their energy by running in the cold, Raif couldn't stop himself. Despite spitting profusely, he couldn't remove the taste of metal from his mouth. The air smelled bad, and the clouds overhead seemed darker, lower, closer. Frozen colt grass crunching beneath their boots, Raif and Drey headed back to the camp. Iced-over ponds dotted the landscape like blind eyes. Prostrate Hemlocks grew in thick wedges, their branches providing safe haven for ice hares, mistletoe and grouse. To the south lay a line of bald, featureless hills, and west of them lay the Coastal Ranges. Tem said that the Ranges were the reason why the Want and the badlands were so dry. He said their peaks milked every last drop of moisture from passing storms.
The three hares Raif had shot earlier thumped up and down in his pack as he ran. Raif hated their warmth against his thigh, and was sickened by their fresh-kill smell. When the two brothers came upon Old Hoopers Lake, Raif tore the brain-tanned pack from his belt and threw it into the center of the dull black water. Old Hoopers wasn't frozen yet. River fed, it would take a full week of frost before its current-driven waters plated. Still, the lake had the greasy look of imminent ice about it. As Raif's pack sank to the bottom, swirls of vegetable oils and tufts of elk hair bobbed up and down on the surface.
Drey swore. Raif didn't catch what he said, but he imagined the words "waste of fine game" in their place.
As the brothers ran south, the landscape gradually changed. Trees grew straighter and taller, and there were more of them. Beds of lichen were replaced by long grasses, bushes and sedge. Horse and game tracks formed paths through the frozen foliage, and fat grouse flew up from the undergrowth, all flying feathers and spitting beaks.
Raif barely noticed. Close to the camp-perimeter now, they should be able to see smoke, hear the sound of metal rasping against metal, raised voices, laughter. Dagro Blackhail's foster son Mace should be riding to greet them on his fat-necked cob.
Drey swore again. Quietly, to himself.
Raif resisted the urge to glance over at his brother's face. He was frightened of what he might see.
A powerful horseman, archer and hammerman, Drey pulled ahead of Raif as he charged down the slope to the camp. Raif pushed himself harder, balling his fists and thrusting out his chin. He didn't want to lose sight of his brother, hated the thought of Drey arriving at the tent circle alone.
Fear stretched over Raif's body like a drying hide, pulling at his skin and gut. They had left thirteen men standing by at the camp; Dagro Blackhail and his son Mace, Tem, Chad and Jorry Shank, Mallon Clayhorn and his son Darri who everyone called Halfmast...
Raif shook his head violently. Thirteen men alone on the badlands plains suddenly seemed unbelievably easy prey. Dhoonesmen, Bluddsmen and Maimed Men were out there. Raif's stomach clenched. And the Sull. The Sull were out there too.
The dark weather-stained tents came into view. All was quiet. There were no horses or dogs in sight. The firepit was a dark gaping mine hole in the center of the cleared space. Loose tent flaps ripped in the wind like banners at battle's end. Drey had broken ahead, but now he stopped and waited for Raif to join him. His breath came hard and fast, and spent air vented from his nose and mouth in great white streams. He did not look round as Raif approached.
"Draw your weapon," he hissed.
Raif already had, but he scored the blade of his halfsword against its boiled-leather scabbard, mimicking the noise of drawing. Drey moved forward when he heard it.
They came upon Jorry Shank's body first. It was lying in a feed ditch close to the horse posts. Drey had to turn the body to find the deathwound. The portion of Jorry's face that had been lying against the earth had taken on the yellow bloom of frozen flesh. The wound was as big as a fist, heart-deep, made with a greatsword, and for some reason there was hardly any blood.
"Maybe the blood froze as it left him," Drey murmured, settling the body back in place. The words sounded like a prayer.
"He never got chance to draw his weapon. Look." Raif was surprised at how calm his voice sounded.
Drey nodded. He patted Jorry's shoulder and then stood away.
"There's horse tracks. See." Raif kicked the ground near the first post. He found it easier to concentrate on what he could see here, on the camp perimeter, than turn his sights toward the tent circle, and the one shabby, oft-repaired, hide and moose felt tent that belonged to Tem Sevrance. "Those shoemarks weren't made by Blackhail horses."
"Bluddsmen use a grooved shoe."
So did other clans and even some city men, yet Raif had no desire to contradict his brother. Clan Bludd's numbers were swelling, and border and cattle raids had become more frequent. Vaylo Bludd had seven sons and it was rumored he wanted a separate clanhold for each of them. Mace Blackhail said that Vaylo Bludd killed and ate his own dogs, even when he had elk and bear meat turning on the spit above his fire. Raif didn't believe the story for a moment - to eat one's own dogs was considered a kind of cannibalism to a clansman, justifiable only in the event of ice-bound starvation and imminent death - but others including Drey did. Mace Blackhail was three years older than Drey: when he spoke, Drey took heed.
As Drey and Raif approached the tent circle their pace slowed. Dead dogs lay in the dirt, saliva frozen around their blunted fangs, their coats shaggy with ice. Fixed yellow eyes stared from massive gray heads. Glacial winds had set rising hackles in place, giving the dogs' corpses the bunched-neck look of buffalo. As with Jorry Shank's body, there was little blood.
Raif smelled stinking, smelted metal everywhere. The air around the camp seemed different, yet Raif didn't have the words to describe it. It reminded him of the slowly congealing surface water on Old Hoopers Lake. Something had caused the very air to thicken and change. Something with the force of winter itself.
Drey's voice broke through Raif's thoughts. Impatience wasn't something Raif was accustomed to hearing from his brother, and its unusualness made Raif start.
Drey had crossed into the tent circle and was kneeling close to the firepit. Raif saw the usual line of pots and drying hides suspended on spruce branches over the pit, and the load of timber waiting to be quartered for firewood. He even saw the partially butchered black bear carcass that Dagro Blackhail had brought down yesterday in the sedge meadow to the east. The bearskin, which he had been so proud of, had been set to dry on a nearby rack. Dagro had planned to present it as a gift to his wife Raina when the hunt party returned to the roundhouse.
Only Dagro Blackhail, chief of Clan Blackhail, would never return home.
Drey knelt over his partially frozen corpse. Dagro had taken a massive broadsword stroke from behind. His hands were speckled with blood and the thick-bladed cleaver he still held in his grip was similarly marked. The blood was neither his nor his attackers'. It came from the skinned and eviscerated bear carcass lying at his feet; Dagro must have been finishing the butchering when he was jumped from behind.
Raif took a quick unsteady breath and sank down by his brother's side. Something was blocking his throat. Dagro Blackhail's great bear of a face looked up at him. The clan chief did not look at peace. Fury was frozen in his eyes. Glaciated ice in his beard and moustache framed a mouth pressed hard in anger. Raif thanked the Stone Gods that his brother wasn't the kind of man to speak needlessly, and the two sat in silence, shoulders touching as they paid due respect to the man who had led Clan Blackhail for twenty nine years and was loved and honored by everyone in the clan.
"He's a fair man," Tem had said once about the clan chief, in a rare moment when he was inclined to speak about matters other than hunting and dogs. "It may seem like small purchase, and you'll find others in the clan willing to heap all manner of praise upon Dagro Blackhail's head, but fairness is the hardest thing for a man to practice day to day. A chief can find himself having to speak up against his sworn brothers and his kin. And that's not easy for anyone to do."
It was, Raif thought, one of the longest speeches he'd ever heard his father make.
"It's not right, Raif," Drey said only that as he raised himself clear of Dagro Blackhail's body, but Raif knew what he meant. It wasn't right.
Mounted men had been here; broadswords and greatswords had been used, clan horses were gone, stolen. Dogs were slaughtered. The camp lay in open ground, Mace Blackhail was standing dogwatch: a raiding party should not have been able to approach unheeded. Mounted men made noise, especially here in the badlands where the bone hard tundra dealt harshly with anything traveling upon it. And then there was the lack of blood...
Raif pushed back his hood and ran a gloved hand through the tangle of his dark hair. Drey was making his way toward Tem's tent. Raif wanted to call him back, to tell him that they should check the other tents first; the rendering pits, the stream bank, the far perimeter, anywhere except that tent. Drey, as if sensing some small portion of his younger brother's thoughts, turned. He made a small beckoning gesture with his hand and then waited. Two bright points of pain prickled directly behind Raif's eyes. Drey always waited.
Together the sons of Tem Sevrance entered their father's tent. The body was just a few paces short of the entrance. Tem looked as if he had been on his way out when the broadsword cracked his sternum and clavicle sending splinters of bone into his windpipe, lungs and heart. He had fallen with his halfsword in his hand, but as with Jorry Shank, the weapon was unblooded.
"Broadsword again," Drey said, his voice high and then rough as he sought to control it. "Bludd favors them."
Raif didn't acknowledge the words. It took all he had just to stand and look upon his father's body. Suddenly there was too much hollow space in his chest. Tem didn't seem as stiff as the others, and Raif stripped off his right glove and bent down to touch what was visible of his father's cheek. Cold, dead flesh. Not frozen, but utterly cold, absent.
Pulling back as if he had touched something scorching hot rather than just plain cold, Raif rubbed his hand on his buckskins, wiping off whatever he imagined to be upon them.
Tem was gone.
Without waiting for Drey, Raif pushed the tent flap aside and rushed out into the rapidly darkening camp. His heart was beating in wild, irregular beats and taking action seemed the only way to stop it.
When Drey found him a quarter later, Raif's right arm was stripped to the shoulder and blood from three separate cuts was pouring along his forearm and down to his wrist. Drey understood immediately. Tearing at his own sleeve, he joined his brother as he went amongst the slain men. All had died without blood on their weapons. To a clansmen there was no honor in dying with a clean blade, so Raif was taking up their weapons one by one, drawing their blades across his skin and spilling his own blood as a substitute. It was the one thing the two brothers could give to their clan. When they returned home to the roundhouse and someone asked, as someone always did, if the men had died fighting, Raif and Drey could now reply, "Their weapons ran with blood."
To a clansmen those words mattered dear.
So the two brothers moved around the camp, discovering bodies in and out of tents, some with pale icicles of urine frozen to their legs, others with hair set in spiky mats where they had been caught bathing, a few with frozen wads of black curds still in their mouths, and one man - Meth Ganlow - with his beefy arms fixed around his favorite dog, protecting the wolfling even in death. A single swordstroke had killed both man and beast.
It was only later, when moonlight formed silver pools in the hard earth, and Tem's body was lying beside the firepit close to the others, but set apart, that Raif suddenly stopped in his tracks. A sheet of frozen blood freighted down his arm. "We never found Mace Blackhail," he said.
Thanks to everyone who entered our The Cavern of Black Ice contest. We received the final winning entry on Monday, April 19, 1999. All the books have now been won, and the content is now closed. A complete list of winners will be published in the May issue Letters column.
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