Authors: Elizabeth Haydon
Tags: #Adventure, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adult, #Dragons, #Epic
The seven-and-a-half-foot-tall monster in ring mail threw back his head, bared tusklike fangs, and roared. The bellowing howl of rage rang through the darkness that clung to the toothlike, mountainous crags, sending loose shale stone and clods of snow tumbling down into the canyon a mile or more below.
Achmed the Snake, king of the Firbolg, exchanged a glance with Rhapsody and Krinsel, the Bolg midwife who was helping her pack for their journey. He returned to his sorting, hiding a smile behind his face-veil at the shock in the Singer's enormous green eyes.
'What's upsetting Grunthor now?" she asked, handing the midwife a sack of roots.
Krinsel sniffed it, then shook her head, and Rhapsody set the sack down again.
'He's apparently displeased with the quartermaster and his regiment," Achmed answered as a stream of Bolgish profanities rumbled over the heath.
'I think he's more perturbed that he can't go with us," Rhapsody said, looking through the gray light of foredawn with sympathy at the terrified soldiers and their leader, who were doing their best to stand at attention, withering under the Sergeant-Major's violent dressing-down. The midwife handed her a pouch, and she smiled.
'Undoubtedly, but it can't be helped.“ Achmed cinched a leather sack and wedged it into his saddlebag. "The Bolglands are not in any state to be left without a leader at the moment. Do you have everything you need for the delivery?"
The Singer's smile vanished. “Thank you, Krinsel. Be well while I'm away, and look in on my grandchildren for me, will you?" The Bolg woman nodded, bowed perfunctorily to the king, and then made a cautious exit, disappearing into one of the Cauldron's many exit tunnels.
'I have no idea what I'm going to need for this delivery,“ she said in a low voice with a terse edge to it. "I've never delivered a child who is demon-spawn before.
Achmed's dark, mismatched eyes stared at her for a moment above the veil, then looked away as he went back to his packing.
Rhapsody brushed back a strand of her golden hair, exhaled, and rested a hand gently on the Bolg king's forearm. “I'm sorry for being churlish. I'm nervous about this journey."
Achmed hoisted the snow-encrusted saddlebag over his shoulder. “I now," he said evenly. “You should be. We are still agreed about these children, I take it? You understand the conditions under which my help is given?"
Rhapsody returned his piercing stare with one that was milder but every bit as determined. “Yes."
Good. Then let's go rescue the quartermaster from Grunthor's wrath."
The newly fallen snow of winter's earliest days crunched below their feet as they tramped over the dark heath. Rhapsody paused for a moment, turning away from the western foothills and the wide Krevensfield Plain to the black eastern horizon beyond the peaks of the Teeth, lightening now at its jagged rim with the paler gray that preceded daybreak.
An hour, maybe less, before sunrise, she thought, trying to gauge when she and Achmed would be departing. It was important to be in a place where she could greet the dawn with the ritual songs that were the morning prayers of the Liringlas, her mother's race. She inhaled the clear, cold air, and watched as it passed back out with her exhalation, frozen clouds in the bitter wind.
'Achmed,“ she called to the king, twenty or more paces ahead of her. He turned around and waited silently as she caught up with him. "I am grateful for your help in this matter; I really am."
'Don't be, Rhapsody,“ he said seriously. "I'm not doing this to help you spare the spawn of the F'dor from damnation. My motives are entirely selfish. You should know that by now."
'If your motives were entirely selfish, you would not have agreed to accompany me on this mission to find them, you would have gone alone and hunted them down,"
she said, untangling the strap of her pack. “Let's strike a bargain: I won't pretend your intentions are altruistic, and you won't pretend they're selfish. Agreed?"
'I'll agree to whatever makes you hurry up and get ready. If we don't leave before full-sun we run the risk of being seen."
She nodded, and the two of them hurried over the remainder of the heath and down to the lower tier of battlements, where Grunthor and the quartermaster's troops were waiting.
'You're a disgrace to this regiment, the 'ole lot o' ya,“ Grunthor was snarling at the trembling Bolg soldiers. "One more missed instruction, Oi'm gonna flay ya, filet ya, and fry ya in fat for my supper, every last one o' ya. And you, Hagraith, you will be dessert."
Achmed cleared his throat. “Are the horses ready, Sergeant-Major?" “ 'Bout as ready as can be expected," Grunthor grumbled. “Provisions will be in place momentarily, as soon as Corporal Hagraith 'ere gets 'is 'ead out of 'is arse, cleans the hrekin out of 'is ears, and gets them rolled bandages Oi requested two hours ago." The soldier took off in a dead run.
Rhapsody waited in respectful silence as Grunthor dismissed the rest of the supply troops, then came up behind him and wound her arms around his massive waist, a sensation similar to encircling a full-grown tree trunk.
'I'm going to miss your troops tromping by my chamber and singing me awake,"
she said jokingly. "Dawn just won't be the same without a few choruses of 'Leave No Limb Unbroken.'
The giant's leathery features relaxed into a fond grin. “Well, ya could always stay, then," he said, mussing her glistening locks, which shone with the brilliance of the sun.
It never failed to amaze him, looking at her thus, how much she resembled the Great Fire they had passed through together, in that journey so long ago. 'While crawling along the root of Sagia the World Tree, that had wound itself around the centerline of the Earth, he had come to respect this tiny woman, even though his own race had preyed on hers in the old world.
Rhapsody sighed. “How I wish I could." She watched his amber eyes darken sadly.
“Will you be all right, Grunthor?"
A sharp sound of annoyance came from over her shoulder. “Safeguarding the mountain is child's play to Grunthor."
'Nope. Oi vaguely recall enjoying child's play. Don' like this a'tall,“ the Firbolg giant muttered, his fearsome face wreathed in a terrifying scowl. "We almost lost ya once to a bastard child of the demon; Oi don't especially want ya riskin' your life—and your afterlife—again, miss. Wish you'd reconsider."
She patted his arm. “I can't. We have to do this; it's the only way to get the blood we need for Achmed to finally track and find the host of the F'dor."
''E may need to do it, then,“ Grunthor said. "No need for you to go along, Duchess.
'Is Majesty works best alone, anyway. We already lost Jo; Oi don't see no reason to risk losing you as well."
The reference to the death of the street child she had adopted as her sister made Rhapsody's eyes sting, but outwardly she betrayed no sign of sorrow. She had sung Jo's final dirge a few days before, along with the laments for the others they had lost along the way. She bit back a bitter answer, remembering that Grunthor had loved Jo almost as much as she had.
'Jo was little more than a child. I'm a trained warrior, trained by the best. Between you and Oelendra I believe I am fully capable of defending myself. Besides, since you're 'The Ultimate Authority, to Be Obeyed at All Costs,' you can just command me to live, and I suppose I will have to do so. I wouldn't want to risk your wrath by dying against orders."
Grunthor surrendered to a smile. “All right, consider it a command, then, miss." He encircled her warmly in his massive arms. “Take care o' yourself, Yer Ladyship."
'I shall.“ Rhapsody glanced over at Achmed, who was securing the saddles of the horses Grunthor had ordered provisioned for them. "Are you ready, Achmed?"
'Before we set out, there's something I want you to see," the king answered, checking the cinches.
'What? I thought you wished to be gone ere full-sun."
'This will only take a few moments, but it should be worth the delay. I want to be in the observatory at dawn."
Delight splashed over her face, making it shine as brightly as the sun soon would.
“The observatory? The restoration of the stairway is finished?"
'Yes. And if you hurry we can get an overlook of the Inner Teeth and the Krevensfield Plain before we try to cross it." He turned and gestured to the entrance to the Cauldron, the dark network of tunnels, barracks, and rooms of state that was his seat of power in Ylorc.
Rhapsody gave Grunthor a final squeeze, then gently broke loose of his embrace and followed the king through the dismal, windowless hallways, past the ancient statuary that was only now being cleaned and restored by Bolg artisans to its former glory from the Cymrian Age thirteen centuries before, when Ylorc, then known as Canrif, had been built.
They entered the Great Hall through its large double doors wrought in gold and inscribed with intricate symbols, and crossed the enormous expanse of the round throne room, where Bolg masons were carefully cleaning centuries of grime off the blue-black marble of the room's twenty-four pillars, one marking each of the hours in the day.
'The renovation is coming along nicely,“ Rhapsody commented as they hurried through the patches of dusty gray light, filtering down from the glass blocks that had been embedded in the circular ceiling centuries before, affording not only illumination but glimpses of the peaks of the Inner Teeth above them. "This place was a mass of rubble the last time I was here."
Achmed circumvented an enormous, star-shaped mosaic on the floor; the last of a series of celestial representations wrought in multicolored marble, cloudily visible beneath a layer of construction grit. “Mind your step here. If I recall, the last time you were in here you succumbed to a vision on this spot."
Rhapsody shuddered and picked up her pace. The gift of prescience had been hers for as long as she could remember. Nonetheless, each time she was assailed by a memory that was not her own, a vision that related something significant in the Past or, worse, warned of something coming in the Future, it caught her off guard, especially if it caused her to relive the intense emotions that remained behind like the smoky residue of a long-dead forest fire. Her nightmares had returned to plague her as well, now that Ashe was no longer there to keep them at bay. At the thought, Rhapsody felt her throat go dry, and she struggled to banish the memory of her former lover from her mind by walking even faster. Their time together was over; he had his own responsibilities, chief among them seeking out the First Generation Cymrian woman he planned to marry, to rule with him as Lady, as the Ring of Wisdom had advised. They both had known from the beginning that their romance would only last a short time, but that knowledge had not made its passing any less painful.
Achmed had disappeared through an open doorway behind the dais on which stood the thrones of the Lord and Lady Cymrian, some of the few antiquities that had survived the Bolg rout of Canrif at the end of the Cymrian War intact.
'Hurry up." His voice echoed through the circular room.
'I'm coming as fast as I can,“ Rhapsody retorted as she hastened through the doorway. "You're a head taller than I am, Achmed; your stride is longer." She fell silent, admiring the beauty of the restored stairway to the observatory, high within one of the peaks of the Teeth.
On one side of the room, a twisting staircase of polished hespera wood, dark and rich with a blue undertone, curved in many spirals up to the opening of the tower high above. On the other, a strange apparatus rested on the floor, apparently still being renovated. It resembled a small, hexagonal room with glass panes.
'It's a form of vertical trolley, a funicular of sorts like we use in the mining tunnels,“ Achmed explained, reading her mind. "Another of Gwylliam's inventions.
He'd written precise plans for its construction and maintenance. Apparently it ferried courtiers and the like who were too sedentary to climb the stairs. Clever design."
'Interesting. I'd prefer to walk, however, even if it were operational. I don't like the idea of riding in a glass room above a stone floor."
Achmed hid a smile. “As you wish."
They climbed the polished stairway, ascending higher and higher within the hollow mountain peak. As they neared the top Achmed reached into his boot and pulled out a large brass key. Rhapsody cast a glance over the railing at the distant floor and shuddered slightly.
'I'm certainly impressed with your renovations, Achmed, but why couldn't this tour wait until our return? Surely the view of the Krevensfield Plain is panoramic enough from the Heath, or from the tower in Griwen Post. Then at least we would be moving westward."
The Firbolg king inserted the key into the lock, and twisted it, causing an audible klink. “You may be able to see something from the observatory that you couldn't from the Heath or Griwen Tower."
The heavy door, bound in long-rusted iron, swung open on recently oiled hinges with a groan, revealing the domed room beyond. Rhapsody caught her breath. The observatory had not been renovated yet; white cloths, frosted with layers of dust, were draped heavily, covering what appeared to be furniture and freestanding equipment. They gleamed in the diffuse light of the room like ghosts in the darkness.
Achmed's strong hand encircled her arm; he drew her into the room and closed the door quickly behind them.
The room itself was square, with a ceiling that arched into a buttressed dome. It had been carved into the peak of the mountain crag itself, the walls burnished smooth as marble. Each of the four walls contained an enormous window, sealed shut, forgotten by Time. Ancient telescopes stood at each of the windows, oddly jointed, with wide eyepieces. Magic and history hung, static, in the air of the long-sealed chamber. It had a bitter taste, the taste of dust from the crypt, of shining hope long abandoned.
Rhapsody surveyed the rest of the room quickly—shelves of ancient logbooks and maps, intricate frescoes on the quartered ceiling, depicting the four elements of water, air, fire, and earth at each directional point, with the fifth, there, represented by a covered globe suspended from the apex in the center. She would have loved the opportunity to examine the room thoroughly, but Achmed was gesturing impatiently from in front of the western window.