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Authors: Thomas Wharton

The Shadow of Malabron

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For Ronan

You will journey to strange storylands…

— The Book of Errantry

I
N A CHAMBER HIGH IN A TOWER
a young woman sits at a loom, weaving threads of many colours into a tapestry so large that it pools around her feet, half covering the chamber’s marble floor. When her people first went to war, years ago now, she began to weave the story of their struggle against the enemy that threatened all the world. Everyone who has come to see the tapestry take shape has marvelled at the young woman’s skill. When you gaze at the intricately woven threads they seem to move, and change, and reveal more than you had thought was there. The more you gaze, the more there is to see, until you feel you have been drawn into the tapestry yourself and have become part of its weave.

The long work is almost finished. At one end of the tapestry rise the dark clouds, like billowing towers of shadow, from which the hosts of the enemy first marched, spreading fear and death across the land. From there the images sweep across the weave like a rushing tide of story, a story of blood and battle, of bravery and death, of hope lost and found again. And at the end of the tapestry the young woman is still working on, a city rises into the bright morning sky. A city of gleaming towers and crystal fountains upon a mighty rock in the sea. It is the city where the young woman lives with her brother. While she is famed for her weaving, he is known far and wide for his wondrous craft at metalworking. In years past, he made beautiful cups and candlesticks for his people, but for a long time now he has forged only blades and armour. From his smithy at the base of the tower, the sound of his hammer rings day and night.

They are there in the tapestry as well. She has woven her brother working in his smithy and herself in the tower room, where she can be seen paused for a moment from her work and gazing out through the window, across the waves to the dark wooded shore of the mainland, not yet touched by the light of morning. She has worked all through the night, but she will not finish the tapestry today. The story it tells is not over.

Years ago, on the eve of war, she promised her hand to a brave and noble young man, a prince of the realm. When her betrothed rode away to battle, he swore he would not return until victory was at hand. And now reports have been coming from the distant battlefields that this day is not far off. Her betrothed is said to be riding home even now with a band of heralds, bringing joyous news of the war’s end. The young woman gazes long at the causeway that links the island city to the shore. It is empty: no troupe of gladly singing knights crosses it yet today. As she watches sea and shore, her hand strays to the tapestry. Her fingers feel their way across the warp and weft. She has worked on these threads for so long that she knows them by touch.

The causeway in her tapestry is the same as the one outside her window: untravelled, but with space left to weave an army of victory with her betrothed at its head.

Then she sees something that makes her heart beat faster. From the trees on the shore a great flock of birds rises and wheels in the sky. Something passing through the forest has disturbed them.

She rises eagerly from the loom and descends the tower in haste to meet her brother at his forge. He sees the look on her face and his eyes widen with hope.

“Is it finished?” he asks.

“Soon,” she says, and hurries out. The streets are mostly deserted at this early hour. At the stables she takes a horse and gallops across the great causeway as the bells of the city ring to greet the morning. On the mainland she plunges down a pathway lined with tall white standing stones into the forest.

As she slips under the shadows of the trees she senses that something is wrong. She can hear no birds, and the air is icy, much colder than it should be at this season. The hoofbeats of her mount on the hard earth are the only sounds to be heard. She rides on until the white stones give out and she is deep within the forest’s shade.

There horror meets her eyes. From the branches of a dead tree hang blackened, lifeless bodies. From the remnants of their armour she knows these are her own people, the knights who had the guarding of the forest paths.

The horse shies and she forces it on, her heart cold with dread. All at once she feels herself pass with a shiver through an invisible web of enchantment. Still she keeps on, until she comes to a clearing and beholds a sight that freezes her blood.

The horse bolts in fear and she is thrown to the ground. Picking herself up she flees back through the deathly silent woods to the causeway, her one thought to warn her people. When she is halfway across the water, she hears a slow clop of hoofbeats behind her and she whirls, prepared to fight for her life. Riding slowly towards her on a horse armoured for war is a man she does not at first recognize. Then her heart leaps.

It is him. He has returned.

His eyes meet hers and she shudders with a strange foreboding. Her betrothed wears a cloak as sleek and black as a raven’s wing, not the bright cloak she wove for him when he rode out to battle so long ago. He is not that young man any more.

She runs to him. He lifts her into the saddle before him and holds her tightly.

“In the forest,” she gasps. “An army of the enemy, hidden by spellcraft. We must warn the city.”

“I know of the army,” he says. “You are cold. Here.”

He unclasps his black cloak and throws it over her shoulders.

“We must ride faster,” she says. “There is no time to lose.”

“But haste will raise alarm among the sentries,” he replies, and his voice chills her. His smile is thin and mocking. “I do not want them alarmed. That would spoil the joyous moment of my return, when all the city will open its doors to welcome me.”

Looking into his eyes she sees the truth of what he has become.

She tries to tear herself away but he holds her in an iron grip. As she struggles against him, she catches a glimpse of the sea far below. The waves are slowing, their crests going hoary white and still. The waves are turning to ice. The sea itself will soon become a passage for the enemy.

A cry of terror and despair wells up in her then, but no sound comes from her throat.

“You will not speak again,” he says, his voice as hard as his arms about her.

To her horror she feels her body changing form. Her very bones scream with pain as they shrink and twist into inhuman shapes. She tears at the cloak, but it is no longer something separate from her. Its black feathers are her feathers, their roots embedded in her flesh. She holds her arms before her and sees that they have become wings.

She gives a rasping shriek of horror and turns against her betrothed, her beak stabbing at his eye. He cries out and his grip loosens. Breaking free, she beats her wings frantically and rises, out of his reach. She is flying, higher and higher above the waves. The feeling of freedom that wells up in her is almost enough to overcome her terror. Then she sees the glaze of ice spreading across the water, the black clouds massing over the forest, driven on a sudden icy gale, and she speeds towards the city.

Reaching the walls at last she alights on the battlements. Somehow she must warn the sentries not to let the traitor through the gates. When she tries to speak the only sounds that come from her throat are shrill croaks. The sentries have no idea what to make of this strange black bird and its frenzied cries. They shoo her away, then there is a glad shout.
The prince is returning
. He is on the causeway. The call goes out to open the gates. The trumpets of welcome sound above the roar of the wind.

Her last hope is her brother. She soars down through the city to the tower and through her own window. Her brother is there, admiring the unfinished tapestry. He turns in surprise at the sight of a raven perched on the back of his sister’s chair. He does not recognize her. With soothing words he approaches the trembling bird, thinking that it lost its way in the fierce gale that has suddenly sprung up.

Desperate for a way to warn him, she flaps over to the tapestry, alights on it, and with her beak and talons tears at the gleaming city woven there. He cries out and hurries to stop her, then stops and watches as the bird rends only the walls and towers of the city. As the weaving falls in tatters, he understands, without knowing how it could be, that this creature is his sister. And he sees what she is trying to show him.

“The city,” he says in a horrified whisper. “The enemy is here…”

The raven croaks frantically and hops onto his shoulder. He strokes her black wing.

“How…?”

She cannot answer, and there is no time. They leave their house together to spread the alarm, but it is already too late. The streets are crowded with people milling in fear and confusion. Somewhere close by a child is screaming for its mother. As they push through the throng, they hear the clash of swords growing louder, the roars and cries of battle drawing nearer. The earth shudders and groans beneath them, as if the very stones of the city have been struck a mortal blow. The streets crack open, and the crystal fountains run red. When they gaze up into the blackening sky, they see that the city’s gleaming towers have begun to burn.

They understand then that the story they have always known is over, and a new one is about to begin. Where it will take them, and how it might end, there is no telling.

It is when you have already gone too far that your journey truly begins
.

— The Quips and Quiddities of Sir Dagonet

W
ILL HAD TAKEN THE MOTORCYCLE.
He couldn’t believe he had done it, but here he was, zooming down the highway with the wind buffeting him in the face and the bike humming powerfully beneath him. He scanned the road ahead for any sign of the brightly coloured tents he had seen earlier. The late afternoon sky was darkening with thick clouds. It looked like rain.

Will hunkered down over the handlebars. He was in a lot of trouble, but there was no turning back now.

He hadn’t expected the day to turn out like this. The Lightfoot family had been on the road since early morning. It was the third day of their cross-country trip to a new home in another part of the country. On the first day Will had played Goblin Fortress on his gamebook until he was sick of it. On the second day he’d played I-Spy and other kiddie car games with his little sister, Jess, and wondered if he’d ever been so bored in his entire life. On the third afternoon they passed the hundredth field with cows in it and he knew for certain he had never been so bored in his entire life. He was staring out of the window of the camper van at nothing in particular, dazed with boredom and half asleep, when he glimpsed something up ahead that woke him right up.

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