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The Titan of Twilight
Troy Denning The Titan of Twilight
Through the still winds I sweep, silent as death. Below, the Vale: a crooked gorge of rock and snow forever clad in dusk’s ashen winter livery. One beat of my umbral wings, and I sail half its immense length. The forlorn halls of Bleak Palace pass beneath my breast, a grim memorial to my ancient hubris. Two beats, and a craggy wall looms ahead. An insufferable yearning as cold as it is deep shudders through my tenebrous body. I long to soar over the cliff top, to fly into blue midnight and let slip this eternal eventide.
Instead, I dip a wing and bank. I circle back the way I came, as I have done a thousand times more than there are stones upon the land, and I listen to your voices. For an immeasurable eternity, they have poured through my head in an endless, ghastly rain-all the profane things you whisper when no one is listening, no one but me:
“Of course, you don’t have to, my dear! But if you like this shiny necklace…”
“… where the lady stores her jewels-and if you want the key, I need my money…”
“… tonight, my love. Strangle her while she sleeps, and we’ll always be…”
Does it surprise you to know I am listening? It shouldn’t. Your sinister whisperings come to me from all the black corners of your dark, distant world; at times they fill my head with such a profane, raucous rustling that I cannot hear my own thoughts.
And even I–I, Lanaxis, the Titan of Twilight; mother-murderer and eternal prisoner of shadow; founder of Ostoria, Empire of Giants-even I cannot silence your voices. The gods have proclaimed that I must listen, and I dare not defy them. They are trying to tell me something-something momentous, I am sure.
Unbalanced? Demented? Will you call me mad?
Aren’t my words ringing inside your head?
Yes, yes! Now you understand. We’re all mad, each of us. The voices make us that way; deranged and maniacal, quite possibly dangerous-but you more than me. I am, after all, chosen of the gods.
And suddenly I, Lanaxis the Chosen One, am sitting alone upon the crumbling steps of my palace, staring, as is my habit, into the eternal dusk above. Where the moon should hang is an enormous green eye. For a moment I am bewildered; then I realize what has happened: I have slipped free of the moment and settled in the past, sometime during the Time of Troubles, when the gods walked the land and chaos ruled Toril. It is, as always, impossible to know the date more exactly.
And truly, it doesn’t matter. Time has lost its meaning. Since long before the first human kingdoms arose in the south lands, twilight has hung in this vale. The dusk is as perpetual and still as the heavens themselves. Never does night fall, nor the sun rise to herald a new dawn. There are no days by which to tally the tenday; no tendays to track the months. In this valley, the season never changes. The years pass without notice; they blur into decades; the decades into centuries; the centuries into decades of centuries. Life has become an endless series of moments that add up to nothing.
It is no wonder that I have slipped the currents of time, that I flit in and out of the eternal river like a dipping gull.
A bird’s shadow appears on the snowy ground ahead. I look up and see a roc, as large as a cloud, soaring across the vale. Well do I remember the flavor of the raptor’s meat-lean and wild, with a spicy tang that tickles the roof of the mouth.
I leap up and hurl a splintered pillar at the bird. As swift as a lightning bolt, the shaft flashes across the sky to bury itself in the raptor’s breast. The creature screeches and reels. It dives, talons extended to exact revenge, but even a roc is no match for a titan’s spear. The life seeps from its wings, and it rolls over to plummet toward me in a limp bundle of feathers.
But the gods would deny me even this simple feast. As the bird’s shadow sweeps across my head, the great carcass dissolves into glimmering golden twinkles. A cold, tingling energy seeps into my body. Black, incorporeal feathers sprout along the edges of my arms, and my feet change into the talons of a great, shadowy raptor. Overwhelmed by the urge to launch myself into the sky, I beat the air with my umbral wings and rise into the purple twilight.
Thus is the shadowroc born, and still I have not decided whether it is the gift of the gods or their curse. How I long to flee this valley! How I yearn to soar over distant lands and see what has become of the world my brothers and I ruled!
Now I am with them again: Nicias and Masud, dynast of cloud giants and khan of fire giants, and also Vilmos, paramount of storm giants, Ottar, jarl of frost giants, and others too numerous to name. We stand beside the bubbling waters of the Well of Health, in the longest and most majestic colonnade of Bleak Palace, the largest and most exalted of the citadels of the Sons of Annam.
I have slipped far into the past, to that fateful moment I live again and again, to the moment I have already endured a thousand times and am doomed to suffer ten thousand times more. My brothers will not meet my gaze, and I know it falls to me alone to save Ostoria from our mother’s faithless treachery. I feel the Mother Queen’s rumbling approach, and the poison is quick from my hand to the well.
Othea arrives, her shadow plunging the entire colonnade into twilight. She is as large as a mountain, with hips like hillocks and a bosom of craggy buttresses. Her eyes are black, like caves, and her white hair billows off her head like a plume of snow.
I bid my two-headed servant, the ettin, to carry a chalice of water to Othea, but she will not drink. Her craggy mouth twitches at the corners, and she declares my brothers will drink with her. My mind fills with a white haze, thoughts sailing through it like wind-driven snow. A warning to my brothers would be a warning to Othea. Perhaps she knows what I have done? Is she testing me, to see if I will sacrifice my brothers to poison her?
I must. I will play this game to the end. Othea is the wife who cuckolds her husband, who loves her paramours’ bastard races more than she loves us, who would give our empire to the children of her lovers.
I command my servant to bring chalices for my guests, and with my own hand I fill each cup. The tray shakes in the ettin’s grasp. The ettin knows what I have poured into the well, but neither head speaks. They carry the goblets to my guests. I watch my brothers drink.
Yes, Othea drank too. I have slipped the moment again. I am once more the shadowroc, flying back and forth in the Vale, a lump of ice where my heart should be. The sensation is very clear to me, even thousands of years later; as my brothers fell dead, the blood in my veins turned to half-frozen slush. I began to shiver uncontrollably, my skin grew icy and numb, and the tears rolling down my cheeks stung like windblown sleet. I thought I had saved Ostoria.
Of course, I was wrong. Othea had already laid her curse on me, as she told me with her last, rattling breaths: her shadow will lie over Bleak Palace forever, filling me with a cold, sick regret for what I have done. I am free to leave, but when I do-this is the true treachery-when I do, I will become mortal. I will grow old and infirm; eventually I will die. The choice is mine: to spend eternity in cold twilight, or to sacrifice my immortality.
I have endured longer than Mother expected, I am sure.
It has not been easy. I have sat paralyzed for whole centuries, staring at a single stone between my feet, caught in the grip of a despair so profound that I remained in Othea’s shadow only because I lacked the will to flee. But I did endure, and now I know I was never truly alone. The gods were watching over me; it was they who kept my feet rooted to the stones when I could think of no reason to remain. They have decreed a special destiny for me, and the time is close when I will fulfill their purpose.
I can tell, for they are speaking to me again. Your voices are ringing in my head, and the message is growing clear:
“Please, whatever you desire-but I beg you, spare them. Save my little ones…”
“… you understand what we want…”
Yes, I understand. The world is full of evil-evil that has arisen from the destruction of Ostoria. The task the gods have set before me is clear: I must save Toril. I must reestablish the Empire of Giants and restore harmony to the world.
But I cannot rule this empire myself. After my mistake-I did not hesitate to poison my brothers, but it was a mistake-I am not fit. The king must be someone destined to rule, in whose veins flows the divine right of dominion. It is my duty to ensure that he is born.
I know who the mother is to be.
“Bring princess here?” The question comes from Goboka, a foolish ogre who has come to my vale seeking the powers of a shaman. “What princess?”
Goboka stands before me: a tiny, loutish figure lost in the vastness of my audience hall. I sit upon my throne, cloaked in a magic mantle of purple shadow. I have forgotten why I started concealing myself from mortal visitors-perhaps it was shame over my fall-but the habit has served me well. The giants have come to think of me as a sort of sacred spirit, and they do my bidding as if by divine command.
“The princess will… be born next… year,” I explain, barely forcing the words out. I have managed to slip through time to the exact moment of Goboka’s visit, and I must strain to explain what I want. Time builds a certain momentum as it rushes forward, and changing its course-even when the moment is recent-is no easy matter. “You must… bring her here no later than… her nineteenth birthday.”
Again, your voices:
“Why us? What have we done…?”
“… she’s a beautiful filly, but for that price…”
“There are plenty of women who would…”
No! Only her. Only Brianna of Hartwick may bear the child! She is descended of Annam’s last son, who was ordained by the All Father to become king of giants and rule Ostoria with wisdom and justice. True, Othea robbed the child of his birthright-but she did not kill the seed. The seed lives on, awaiting but a wisp of divine breath to bring it to life again.
I will be that wisp.
“I beg your pardon,” says Julien, the ettin’s handsome head.
We are standing together, my servant and I, in the moments before they are to leave Twilight forever. Beside us bubble the black waters that once we called the Well of Health, but have since named the Pool of Despair. Goboka has failed-through the eyes of my eagle familiar, I have seen Brianna’s bloody axe and watched his headless body sink beneath a mountain mire-and I have just told my servant what I expect of them.
“You can’t ask that of us!” Julien insists. “Othea cursed us, too. If we go after the princess, we’ll die!”
I nod my head sadly. “Someday-but not until you grow old.” I give the ettin a suit of magical armor I have forged for their misshapen body, and also a vial of powder I have mixed to ensure their success. “The armor will disguise you as a handsome human prince, and the powder will make Brianna fall in love with you.”
“Why we need magic powder for that?” demands Arno, the ettin’s ugly head. “Any woman love us!”
Is it not love that licenses treachery? This is so, and for me more than others. Do you think it is for my own sake that I poisoned the Mother Queen? Or for myself that I abide this murky prison? I endure for the sons and daughters of my dead brothers.
The mother-murderer suffers for the good of Toril.
Lanaxis the Chosen perseveres so that the giants may set the world to rights-and the time is nigh when they shall. True, the ettin died, but it would be wrong to say that he failed. He did better than Brianna knows; better, even, than I should have expected.
Now I stand on my palace balcony, my vacant gaze fixed on the icy wastes beyond the balustrade. But it is not the dusk-stained snows I see, nor the wind’s cold hiss to which I listen. In the window of Brianna’s throne room-the princess has become queen, but it would be foolish to ask me when-in the window perches my pet, his keen eyes and sharp ears serving me as his talons never could.
The queen’s belly is swollen with child. Before her looms a milky-eyed firbolg with a mane of flyaway hair and a pelt of white beard.
“I have dreamed your birthing,” he says. “You will bear two sons, one handsome and one ugly. It would be better for the Ice Spires if the ugly one never has a name.”
Brianna’s knuckles whiten. The change is almost imperceptible, but the eyes of my familiar are too keen to miss it “I am to kill my child-on your word?”
“Majesty, I am sorry. If the ugly one grows to manhood, the giants will fill the Clearwhirl with the blood of ’kin and men.”
“I, too, have dreamed.” Brianna’s voice is sharp with anger. Good. “But not of twins and wars. I have dreamed of a land ruled by children-”
“But Majesty, you’re no seer! Your dream has no meaning!”
The queen rises, glaring. “In Hartsvale, my dreams are the only ones that have meaning!”
Your dreams and mine, Brianna. Your dreams and mine.
Gorge of the Silver Wyrm
Tavis Burdun felt the detonation before he heard it: a faint quiver in the soles of his feet, followed instantly by a feeble shock wave breaking against his back. A muffled karumph rolled up the gorge from someplace far behind him, sweeping last night’s snowfall off the craggy precipices, and he smelled whiffs of some mordant, caustic fume. There was a slight lull, then a deafening crack as an enormous ice curtain broke free of its cliff and crashed down on the far side of Wyrm River.
“Halt the Company of the Royal Snow Bear!” Tavis boomed, addressing the long column of warriors ahead. Even without the roar of shattering ice, he would have had to yell. A fierce boreal wind had been howling down the gorge since dawn, filling the canyon with a whistling keen as eerie and cold as a banshee’s wail. “Halt the horse lancers! Halt the footmen and front riders!”
As the company sergeants relayed the commands forward, Tavis turned and looked back down the canyon, raising his hand to halt the elegant sleighs coming toward him. He saw nothing unusual, only the icy, rutted road that the queen’s entourage had followed into the dusky Gorge of the Silver Wyrm. To one side of the route lay the broad ribbon of Wyrm River’s frozen surface, with a sheer granite cliff looming above the far bank. To the other side rose a steep, craggy slope flecked with the stumps of a felled pine forest A web of precarious footpaths laced the barren hillside, stringing together the rock heaps that spilled from the mouths of the canyon’s fabled silver mines. Atop a few of the mine dumps stood a handful of tiny figures, weary miners who had crawled from their dank holes to watch the queen’s procession. If they felt any concern over the muffled blast, their motionless forms did not betray it.
The royal sleigh, the first in the procession, continued to come toward Tavis. It was drawn by the queen’s favorite horse, Blizzard, a white-flecked mare with a snowy mane and a disposition as fierce and unpredictable as her namesake. The beast did not halt until she reached Tavis’s side, where she cast an angry glare into his eyes and snorted sour-smelling steam into his face. He grabbed the horse’s bridle and pushed her head away, then fixed his attention on the sleigh’s fur-swaddled driver. The young man was a lanky border scout with a yellow beard, twinkling gray eyes, and a touch of larceny in his ready smile.
“Avner, keep a taut rein on the Queen’s Beast,” Tavis advised, calling the petulant mare by his favorite nickname. “I don’t like her look.”
Before the young scout could reply, a muffled voice sounded behind the fleece curtain that enclosed the sleigh’s passenger compartment. “Tavis? What was that horrible crash?”
“Falling ice, milady.”
A mittened hand drew the curtain aside, revealing the striking form of Tavis’s wife, Queen Brianna. She was a tall, big-boned woman with robust features and a chin as strong as a man’s. Even her white fur cloak could not conceal the fact that she was enormously pregnant. She filled three-quarters of the booth, with a belly so swollen she could barely close her coat. There were dark circles under her eyes, for her condition made sleep difficult, and her cheeks were puffy and red from the bitter cold-but Tavis hardly noticed these flaws. He saw only her maternal radiance, the most ravishing of any beauty.
“Falling ice?” Brianna asked. “It sounded more like a falling mountain, Lord Scout.”
Tavis pointed at the enormous ice blocks scattered along the far bank of Wyrm River. “There was some sort of blast behind us. It shook an ice curtain off the canyon wall.” He nearly had to yell to make himself heard over the wind. “The road’s not blocked, but we shouldn’t go on until I know what happened.”
“In that case, we may continue.” The speaker rode into view and stopped his gray stallion on the far side of Brianna’s sleigh. He was the earl of the Storming Gorge, Radborne Wynn, a stout old man wrapped in a cloak of silver ermine. With a tuft of ice-caked beard and a long mane of gray hair, he looked as august and feral as the mountain goats that roamed the canyons of his wind-blasted barony. “A tunnel wizard’s spell caused the blast”
“You told me there would be no mining magic while Brianna is in the canyon!” Tavis barked. “Didn’t you issue the command?”
Radborne responded with an icy glare. “The wizard responsible will be severely punished, Lord High Scout,” he said. “I assure you, there is no need to speak to me in such tones.”
The high scout clamped his jaw shut and looked away, running his eyes over the craggy slopes as though he had not heard the comment. He had learned not to apologize to nobles-such overtures were interpreted as signs of weakness-but the earl had a point. Tavis had been anxious and short-tempered the entire journey-though with good reason, he thought.
The earl’s miners had struck a rich new vein deep in the gorge, and with the royal reserves bled dry by three years of war against the giants, the treasury needed the extra silver. Unfortunately, the deposit could not be mined until Brianna blessed it. An ancient tradition held that Skoraeus Stonebones would swallow anyone who took ore from an unconsecrated vein, and tunnel wizards considered their calling dangerous enough without incurring the wrath of the stone giant god. So despite her delicate condition, Brianna had undertaken a difficult winter journey that would bring her within eight leagues of a fire giant stronghold at the canyon’s far end. As the lord high scout of Hartsvale and the first defender of her majesty the queen, Tavis would have been remiss in his duties if he were not worried.
The high scout tried to steady his nerves by reminding himself that he had taken every possible precaution. The fifteen horse lancers of the Royal Snow Bear Company sat fifty paces up the canyon, in front of a roadside mine portal, their white chargers snorting steam and the pennon flags of their posted lances snapping in the wind. Ahead of the riders stood a hundred pikemen armored in frost-rimed breastplates. In front of the footmen, there was a contingent of swift, lightly armored front riders. A rearguard of six lancers and twenty footmen followed behind the royal entourage, while several bands of border scouts patrolled ahead, behind, and to both sides of the procession.
Tavis could do nothing more to ensure his wife’s safety, but still he was plagued by the incessant sensation that he had overlooked some lurking danger.
Perhaps he was worried about the firbolg seer, Galgadayle. The old prophet had not bothered the queen since last spring, but Tavis doubted that had been the end of the matter. The fellow’s dreams were never wrong, and everyone in the Ice Spires knew it. Twice, Galgadayle’s prophecies had saved entire tribes, once when he foresaw a landslide that engulfed a verbeeg village, and another time when he predicted a flood that deluged a fomorian cave. If the seer claimed that one of the queen’s twins would grow up to lead the giants against the northlands, there would be no shortage of people trying to put the babe to death. It did not even matter that the queen’s own priest had divined the contents of her womb and discovered that she had only one child inside. Given the choice of believing Galgadayle or the imperious Simon of Stronmaus, most people would choose the beloved seer.
Even Tavis had his doubts. Like a knelling bell, Galgadayle’s prophecy echoed through his dreams at night, woke him at dawn, and tolled through his mind all day long. Firbolgs could not lie. If the seer claimed to have dreamed ill about the royal offspring, then he had. But why had he seen twins, while the queen’s priest divined but a single child?
After a few moments of being ignored, Earl Wynn grew impatient “If we hurry, we can still reach the Silver Citadel before twilight.” He cast a nervous eye at the crooked sliver of winter sky hanging over the canyon. Although it was barely two hours past noon, dusk was already beginning to darken the gray clouds. “I’m sure her majesty will appreciate a hot meal and a warm hearth this even-”
An enormous subterranean boom cut the sentence short. The road bucked, and Blizzard whinnied, her voice as shrill as the wind. The big mare reared against her harness rods, lifting the front of the royal sleigh high into the air. Tavis leapt past her slashing hooves and grabbed her bridle. He jerked the startled creature back to all fours, already casting an angry glance in Radborne’s direction.
“Earl, do any of your tunnel wizards heed your commands? One miscreant is bad enough, but two are-”
A deafening roar erupted behind the high scout, drowning out his complaint. The ground trembled beneath his feet, and a blast of hot wind scorched his neck. The same mordant fumes that he had sniffed earlier filled the canyon with a caustic, acrid stench. Tavis spun around and saw an immense tongue of flame lashing from the mine portal beside the road. Inside the inferno he glimpsed the writhing, wraithlike shapes of rearing chargers and flailing riders, then he was half-blinded by the glare and had to look away. Over the horrible crackling of the fire came the squeal of burning horses and the howls of dying men.
Blizzard neighed wildly and shied away from the blast. Only Tavis’s grip on her bridle kept the mare from spinning away and toppling the royal sleigh. She reared, jerking the high scout off his feet. He came down hard on the icy road, then lay on his back, struggling to hang on to the bridle as Blizzard whipped her head to and fro. He twisted his hand into the leather and pulled. Although a runt by the standards of his race, Tavis was still a firbolg. His strapping arms were more than strong enough to manhandle a creature as small as a horse.
Tavis pulled Blizzard’s nose to within reach of his free hand, then pinched her nostrils shut. The mare’s eyes flared, but she quieted instantly. The high scout returned to his feet and looked back toward the sleigh, where Avner sat blanched and wild-eyed, cursing the Queen’s Beast under his breath. Brianna sat far back in the passenger compartment, gripping the hand rails so tightly that her knuckles were white. Her complexion had turned pale, and the shadow of a grimace lingered on her face.
“Milady, are you injured?” Tavis asked. “Did that jolt-”
“I’m pregnant, not feeble.” Brianna glanced over the scout’s head, then hissed, “Hiatea have mercy!”
For the first time, Tavis noticed that the deafening roar behind him had been replaced by the hiss and pop of melting ice. The searing heat had yielded to the flesh-numbing cold of deep winter, and the acrid stench of the explosion had been swept down the canyon by the fierce boreal gale. A few of the wounded had raised their voices to shriek in eerie harmony with the wailing wind, but most were too stunned to do more than groan.
The three closest horse lancers had already struggled to their feet and were calling to their mounts, which were clambering up the steep hillside as fast their hooves could climb. More riders lay scattered across the road, their flesh as black as their scorched armor. Despite their terrible burns, several men were crawling over the hissing ice to their charred horses, already drawing the daggers that would put the loyal beasts out of misery. A huge plume of yellow smoke was billowing from the mine portal beside the road. The fumes were so thick that Tavis could not see the coughing, confused footmen on the other side of the cloud.
Behind Tavis, Avner gasped, “Milady, no! You’re the queen!”
“I’m also Hiatea’s high priestess.” Tavis turned to see his wife climbing out of her sleigh, her gaze fixed on the groaning soldiers ahead. “And those men are suff-”
Brianna’s eyes rolled back in their sockets, then she groaned sharply. She clenched her teeth and grabbed her abdomen with both hands.
Tavis bolted to her side, catching her in his arms. “The baby!”
He lifted Brianna back into the sleigh, then cast a wary eye toward the yellow smoke boiling out of the mine ahead. He did not relish the thought of his pregnant wife passing through those caustic fumes, but he cared less for the idea of watching her give birth in the open. Turning around was out of the question. It would be dark before they could clear the courtiers’ sleighs off the narrow road behind them.
“Avner, close the curtain,” Tavis ordered. “We’ve got to get the queen to the Silver Citadel, now!”
“There’s… no rush,” Brianna gasped. “It’s nothing… I’ve had these pains before.”
The queen let out a slow breath, then sat up. “They probably don’t mean anything, Tavis.” Her face no longer appeared anguished, but her cheeks remained pale, and the pain was slow in fading from her eyes. “I’ve been having them now and again.”
“And you didn’t tell me?” Tavis growled. “When we left Castle Hartwick, you must have known your time was near!”
“I knew no such thing-and I still don’t,” Brianna retorted. “It could be another year before I give birth-we really have no way to tell, do we?”
The high scout could not argue. The queen had been pregnant more than three years already, since just after the war broke out. Tavis had not worried for the first two years, since firbolg women carried their offspring that long, but he had grown steadily more concerned over the last year. The blood of Brianna’s divine ancestors still ran strong in her veins, and Tavis secretly feared that the three racial stocks of their progeny had combined in some terrible way to prevent the birth-or to make the infant the hideous monster of Galgadayle’s dream.
A low, grating rumble sounded from someplace inside the mine tunnel, then Radborne’s shocked voice echoed off the canyon wall. “F-Fire giants!”
Tavis looked toward the mine, where the large, boulderlike shape of a giant’s head protruded from the smoking portal. The brute’s ebony face was surrounded by a halo of orange beard and scarlet hair, but the high scout could see little more through the billowing yellow fumes.
Tavis took his bow off his shoulder. At eight feet long, the weapon was not quite as large as the legendary Bear Driller, which had been destroyed three years earlier in a battle against an ancient ettin. The new bow, however, was easily a match for Bear Driller, as it was strung with woven steel and reinforced with the rune-etched ribs of a glacier bear.
“Be ready, Avner.” Tavis pulled an arrow from his quiver. It was thicker than most, with red fletching, a stone tip, and runes carved along the shaft. “I’ll clear the way.”
The high scout was surprised to hear a nervous edge in his voice. Usually, he felt coldly tranquil at the beginning of a battle, unconcerned about anything except maneuvers and tactics. But today his thoughts were a boiling cataract of fear and doubt. Images of his pregnant wife kept appearing in the churning froth inside his head, like a swimmer being swept downstream.
The fire giant squirmed forward until his lanky shoulders came into view, then he thrust his powerful arms out of the mine and dug his fingers into the tunnel’s stone collar. He began to pull his torso out of the hole. The ice hissed and turned to steam beneath his breastplate, as though the heat of the forge still lingered within his black armor.
Tavis nocked his arrow and pointed the stone tip into the fuming portal, not even bothering to search for a gap in the giant’s black armor. The high scout drew his bow, at the same time hissing, “taergsilisaB!” A ruby gleam flared from one of the runes etched into his weapon, then flashed out of existence. He released the bowstring. A sharp clap echoed off the canyon walls, and the arrow flashed away, leaving a blinding streak of crimson between the bow and the tunnel mouth. The shaft flew into the mine, then pierced its target’s thick armor with a muffled clang.
The fire giant did not drop dead, for even an arrow driven by the lord high scout’s magic bow was not powerful enough to fell such a foe in a single strike. The mighty warrior merely grunted in surprise, then instinctively reached for his wound.
“esiwsilisaB!” Tavis cried, speaking the command word that would activate the runearrow’s magic.
From inside the mine came a glimmering blue flash and a mighty boom. The fire giant’s torso shot out of the portal and plummeted over the steep bank of Wyrm River, trailing a spray of crimson blood from the truncated waist. Blizzard whinnied in alarm, and Tavis grabbed her reins. A muffled crack reverberated deep within the mountain.
There was no opportunity to cry out or to cringe in fear, and even the queen’s mare did not have time to rear. The hillside simply folded inward over the tunnel. At the top of the ravine, a frozen buttress of stone lost its hold on the canyon wall and came rumbling down the slope. Tavis and Blizzard barely managed to retreat half a dozen steps before the avalanche roared over the mine portal and swallowed the fallen lancers of the Royal Snow Bear Company. The churning mass spread up the road, then spilled over Wyrm River’s steep bank and rumbled across the broad ribbon of ice, engulfing the fire giant’s truncated corpse and finally crashing against the far side of the canyon.
For a moment, Tavis could do nothing except stare at the mountainous jumble before him, listening to the dying thunder of the avalanche echo down the crooked gorge. He felt himself shivering in the cold wind and realized that he had broken into a nervous sweat. The landslide had come so close to swallowing his wife’s sleigh, and him with it, that he could have reached out with his bow and touched a frost-rimed boulder as large as himself. Even Blizzard seemed stunned by the close call. She stood stiff and motionless at his side, the muscles of her powerful shoulders trembling with fear.
Brianna was the first to speak. “It seems we finally have a name for your new bow, Tavis,” she said. “I hereby dub it Mountain Crusher.”
“Hear, hear! The giants will need Surtr’s own help to dig out of there.” Radborne’s eyes were fixed on the hillock of stone and ice ahead. The heap rose thirty feet above the mine portal, and the choking yellow plume that had been pouring from the tunnel a moment earlier had now been reduced to a few scattered wisps. “Well done!”
From the other side of the rubble heap came a sergeant’s terrified voice: “Your Majesty? Lord Scout?”
“The queen is well!” Tavis yelled back. “What of the footmen?”
“Mostly able. The slide buried a dozen of us,” he replied. “What would you have us do?”
“Climb over here,” Tavis called. “We’re going to need you to carry the queen’s sleigh over the avalanche.”
The high scout did not even consider abandoning the sleighs to retreat up the canyon. Even if Brianna had been in any condition to ride, they would only find more fire giants coming down the road. The fumes he had sniffed after the first, distant explosion smelled the same as the mordant smoke that had been pouring from the mine ahead. Unless the magic of Radborne’s tunnel wizards bore the same odor as fire giant alchemy, it seemed likely that their ambushers had planned to trap the queen between two war parties.
The footmen began to cross the landslide, their armor clanging loudly as they clambered and slipped over the ice-rimed boulders. Tavis relayed orders to the front riders to dismount and wait on the other side of the avalanche in case the queen’s party needed to borrow the mounts. While the high scout arranged his wife’s escape, Avner unhitched Blizzard and set her free. The trails that laced the canyon walls were too narrow and precarious for sleighs, but the stubborn mare had followed her beloved mistress over paths far more perilous.
Tavis was about to send word for the courtiers to abandon their sleighs when a familiar, sharp odor came to him on the wind. He heard a soft crackling, as of a distant fire, then a cry of alarm rose from the back of the column. The high scout turned to see the first of his enemies rounding a bend, about three hundred yards beyond the entourage’s rearguard.
The fire giant was a lanky, dark figure that loomed thrice the height of a man. Like the one Tavis had killed a few moments earlier, this brute was armored in steaming black plate. He also wore a massive helmet upon his head and a buckler as large as a table strapped to one forearm. In his other hand, he carried a flaming sword longer than Tavis was tall.
The high scout drew another runearrow from his quiver, but did not nock it. Over the long line of courtier sleighs, he could see that the rearguard’s six lancers were already charging the brute. If he used the arrow now, he would catch them in the blast.
The fire giant bellowed his war cry and stomped forward to meet the attack, lowering his buckler to protect his groin from his foes’ upturned lances. Behind him, another giant was already stepping around the bend.
The first giant’s fiery sword descended on the leading pair of horsemen. The huge blade struck with a blinding white flare. When the flash faded, the cleaved bodies of horses and riders were tumbling toward their killer’s feet in a tangled ball of smoke and blood. The wind grew heavy with the stench of charred flesh.
The surviving riders leapt their horses over the mess, angling their weapons at their enemy’s hips. The leading pair splintered their lances against the giant’s steel shield, then crashed into his thick legs with a clamorous boom. Even a fire giant could not stand against two chargers at full gallop. The impact knocked the brute’s legs from beneath him, and he dropped to the road face first, crushing the horsemen and their mounts beneath his heavy body.
Before the fire giant could recover, the last pair of riders arrived, their weapons pointed at the soft, unarmored flesh at the base of his neck. The momentum of the charge drove their lances deep into the giant’s torso, eliciting a scream as thunderous as it was brief, then their mounts crashed into his shoulders. The horsemen flew from their saddles and tumbled down the length of their foe’s spine, their armor chiming against his until they skidded off his flanks.
As they struggled to their knees, the next fire giant stepped around the bend and carefully crushed each man beneath his foot. Behind the brute, Tavis could see at least two more giants, and he suspected there was a long line behind them.
The high scout nocked his runearrow.
The palace courtiers began to leap from their sleighs and scurry down the road. Swaddled as they were in thick cloaks of combed fur, they looked like a herd of frightened wolf pups fleeing the slavering jaws of a snow dragon. Their abandoned draft horses also panicked, turning the road into a churning mass of hysterical beast and man. Sleighs began to plummet over the riverbank and topple along the edge of the road, and such a tumult of terrified shrieking filled the air that it was impossible to separate the human voices from those of the horses.
Tavis aimed at the chest of the leading fire giant, more than three hundred yards away, and hissed the command word that would trigger his bow’s magic. A rune flared red and vanished from sight. The high scout released Mountain Crusher’s bowstring, and the arrow streaked away, leaving a trail of crimson light above the jumble of abandoned sleighs.
The runearrow pierced the black armor as though it were leather instead of steel. The giant peered down at the fletching that had sprouted in his breastplate, and Tavis could imagine the brute’s face scowling in fear and confusion. Fire giant armor was as thick as a dungeon door, hammered from special steel forged only in the fires of their volcano homes. For anything less than a storm giant’s spear to pierce it was unthinkable-at least without magic. The fellow reached up to pinch the arrow between his thumb and finger.
“Blast him now!” urged Radborne. “Say the word!”
Tavis remained silent When the giant tried to extract the runearrow, the butt of the shaft broke off. The warrior’s face paled to an ashy charcoal. He turned to face his comrades, pointing at the pinhole in his armor. The second giant in line leaned down to inspect the wound, with a third peering over his shoulder.
“esiwsilisaB!” Tavis cried.
A sapphire light reflected off the slope beside the three giants, then a thunderous boom shook the canyon. The wounded brute dropped where he was, a smoking hole in his chest. The second giant’s head simply vanished in a ball of blue flame. The third survived long enough to cover his mangled face and turn away, then fell over the riverbank and crashed through the ice.
Four more giants stomped around the bend. The footmen of the rearguard formed two wedges and started down the road.
The palace courtiers began to gather around the queen’s sleigh, assaulting both Brianna and Tavis with a din of questions and suggestions. The scout quickly found himself trying to keep the frightened crowd at bay as well as watch the giants ahead. He did not notice the arrival of the rest of the Royal Snow Bear Company until a sergeant clanged to a stop at his side.
Tavis turned to the man, a grizzled veteran with a gray beard and bushy black eyebrows. “Get these worthy gentlemen and ladies out of the way,” the high scout ordered. “Send the rest of your footmen to reinforce the rearguard.”
As the sergeant and his men began to herd courtiers toward the landslide, Tavis took an inventory of his quiver and bow. He had plenty of black-feathered runearrows left, and four runes still remained on Mountain Crusher’s lower limb. Unfortunately, those sigils were of little use at the moment. The runes on the upper limb were the ones that made his shafts pierce the fire giants’ thick armor, and only two of those remained.
The high scout looked up the canyon. The four fire giants were scuttling down the narrow road, hunched over so that he could barely see their heads and shoulders above the abandoned sleighs. The brutes were hiding behind their bucklers, with the surfaces angled to deflect arrows. They had been careful to space themselves so that Tavis’s blasts could not kill more than one at a time.
The rearguard was still a hundred yards from the leader.
Tavis nocked another runearrow. As the main body of the Royal Snow Bear Company pushed through the tangle of abandoned sleighs, the high scout fired at the second of the approaching giants. The magic shaft streaked away, penetrating both buckler and armor with a single loud clang. The high scout spoke his second command word. The blast sent the huge warrior’s buckler twirling high into the air, with the arm that had been holding it still attached.
The leading giant cast a nervous glance over his shoulder. He grimaced at the sight of his comrade’s mangled carcass, then rose to his full height and charged. Tavis nocked another runearrow, but held his fire. The rearguard’s first wedge was already rushing to meet the attack. The three point men brandished battle-axes, and everyone else held long pikes.
The giant closed the distance in three crashing steps. The men in the middle row angled their pikes toward his midsection. He brought his buckler down instantly, sweeping the sharp points aside, and swung his fiery sword into the wedge. A chorus of agonized screams echoed off the cliffs, and the wind was suddenly heavy with the stench of charred flesh. Four severed bodies dropped in midstride.
The wedge continued its charge, the weapons of the rear echelon now rising toward the fire giant’s vulnerable loins. Too late, the brute realized his mistake and stepped away, trying in vain to bring his shield back into position. The pikes struck home, and a loud crackle echoed off the walls as several shafts snapped against his steel armor. The giant bellowed in pain and stumbled back, the splintered ends of two wooden poles protruding from the seams in his armor. The axemen went to work, hacking at his ankles as though felling a tree. The huge warrior toppled to the icy road, crushing three more humans before the survivors swarmed him.
The rearguard’s second wedge began its charge, rushing forward to meet the last pair of fire giants. Hoping to spare them the trouble of felling both brutes, Tavis pulled another runearrow and turned Mountain Crusher back down the canyon. The pair had wisely decided not to hide behind their bucklers and were rushing up the road at a full sprint. The high scout drew his bowstring back and aimed at the one in front.
Before he could fire, a bolt of lightning arced away from the queen’s sleigh. It struck the leading fire giant with a thunderous bang, burning a terrific hole through his breastplate and the chest it protected. The bolt blasted through the brute’s backplate and crackled halfway to the next giant before finally fading.
The high scout shifted his aim to the last fire giant and fired. The shaft took its target high in the breastbone. Tavis uttered the command word. The brute’s head disappeared in a blue flash, then his body collapsed in a clanging heap of steel and flesh.
“Well done!” exclaimed Radborne. “You saved my mines!”
“That’s a good thing, I suppose,” Tavis allowed. “But I was more concerned with the queen’s safety.”
The high scout turned to face Brianna and found her lying in the bottom of her sleigh, clutching her abdomen. Avner was kneeling by her side holding her head. When he looked up to meet Tavis’s gaze, his eyes were wide with alarm.
“I think your baby likes the fighting!” he yelled. “He’s coming!”
The high scout slung his bow over his shoulder and went to his wife. “Sergeant! I want men here!” he bellowed. “We must carry the queen’s sleigh over that landslide!”
The sergeant arrived almost instantly. “Begging your pardon, Lord Scout,” he said. “But I don’t think we’ll be having time for that.”
Tavis looked up and saw the sergeant pointing down the canyon. Another fire giant was peering around the bend.
The crushing agony receded as it had come, smoothly and swiftly, and Brianna felt like a door was being lifted off her abdomen. Her broken waters were already growing cool against her thighs, but the effort of breathing still sent torrents of liquid fire tumbling through her body. Something was wrong. The royal midwife had said there would be no pain when the womb unleashed its flood, yet the queen had not suffered such pain since the ogre Goboka had punched her in the stomach. She felt herself flush with fear, tiny pearls of sweat popping out on her brow and lip. In the bitter cold, the beads froze almost as quickly as they formed.
The queen opened her eyes to find Tavis peering at her. His rugged firbolg features were tense with concern, and his eyes were fixed on her lap, where her cloak had opened to reveal a half-frozen stain of thin, milky fluid. Blizzard, now free of her harness, had hooked her chin over the edge of the sleigh to stare at her mistress. Only Radborne, still sitting on his silver stallion, had averted his gaze.
Brianna tugged her coat closed, then, with Avner’s help, pulled herself onto her seat. “The baby’s coming.”
Tavis cringed. “He has a bad sense of timing.”
“She,” the queen quipped, hoping the banter would relax her husband. She had never seen Tavis panic, but he looked nervous today-and today, of all days, she needed him calm. “The child is a girl-by royal decree.”
Tavis grinned, but the smile quickly vanished as a fire giant’s angry bellow dropped out of the wind. The death screams of several men echoed off the canyon wall, and the reek of charred flesh filled Brianna’s nose: a sick, rancid odor that made her jaws ache with the urge to vomit. Then came the clatter of snapping pikes, more yelling, and the booming crash of a collapsing giant. The Royal Snow Bear Company had felled its next foe.
Blizzard snorted anxiously and stomped her foot, no doubt urging the queen to take flight before it was too late. Tavis stepped onto the sleigh’s running board, his ruddy complexion now as white as Brianna’s cloak, and reached for her.
“No. See to the battle.” It was the hardest command the queen had ever given. All her maternal instincts howled for her to find a quiet and safe place to give birth-but there was no safe place, not with the fire giants’ attacking. She pushed Tavis away. “Go and stop our enemies.”
“I’m the first defender,” Tavis objected. “My duty is to see you to safety, if I can.”
“Then you mean to abandon my mines?” Radborne’s voice was indignant.
Tavis gave the earl a cold glare. “Your silver mines mean nothing to me.”
“But they mean everything to Hartsvale-and I want you to save them,” Brianna said. She switched her gaze to Radborne. “Earl, you will fetch my midwife, then assemble an escort in case I must flee the battle.”
Radborne scowled. “These are my mines,” he objected. “My place is-”
“Gentlemen, I am not asking your opinions.” Brianna cast admonishing glances at both Radborne and Tavis. “I am issuing commands.”
Tavis raised his brow, then set his jaw and took a runearrow from his quiver. To Avner, he said, “Promise me this, Scout: no matter what happens to me, you won’t let the giants have Brianna or the baby.”
Avner nodded grimly. “On my honor.”
“Tavis, nothing’s going to happen to you.” Brianna tried to sound confident “That is my promise.”
“In battle, even a queen cannot guarantee such a thing,” Tavis replied. He kissed Brianna, then turned to face Radborne. “Earl, we have our orders.”
With that, the high scout turned away and rushed off. He crossed the road and angled up the mountainside, then traversed the slope above the main body of the Royal Snow Bear Company. Now that Brianna had persuaded him to concentrate on the battle at hand, the firbolg seemed completely in his element. He ran along the frost-rimed slope with bow in hand, vaulting ice-draped boulders and sidestepping snow-capped stumps without taking his eyes off the fire giants. Tavis was known as the Lion of Hartwick for his great size and hunting prowess, but Brianna thought of him more as a sleek, noble bighorn ram. He was powerful, swift, and agile without being bloodthirsty or cruel, and he possessed a certain feral dignity rare in human men. If something happened to her husband today-the queen stopped herself, for there was no use even considering that possibility. Tavis Burdun would never fall, not in this battle, nor any other.
As the high scout moved up the canyon, a steady war din started to build: screaming footmen, bellowing giants, the crackle of flaming swords and snapping pikes, steel clanging against steel. Other smells merged with the sick stench of burning warriors: coppery blood, throat-scorching brimstone, the fetor of spilled entrails. Brianna’s stomach grew hollow and queasy. She forced herself to breathe through her mouth. She climbed out of her sleigh, holding on to Blizzard’s snowy mane while she peered up the canyon.
Two hundred yards away, the road was becoming a river of pain and death as a long line of fire giants waded into a swirling current of knee-high soldiers. The queen could see her footmen swarming around the first three foes, hacking with gleaming battle-axes at huge ankles, or jabbing pikes into the seams between thick plates of ebony armor. The giants were fighting back viciously, clearing broad swaths of road with every swing of their fiery swords. Brianna counted a dozen more brutes coming down the canyon to join the battle, and she could not even see the end of their line.
Tavis was already a hundred yards up the canyon, above a jumble of courtier sleighs lying abandoned along the roadside. He was less than twenty paces from the leading fire giants, easily within bow range; from that distance, he could sink an arrow into each of a giant’s eyes before the dead body hit the ground. Nevertheless, the high scout continued forward, traversing the slope well above the reach of his enemies. The queen saw one giant try to climb after him, but a thicket of pikes instantly drove up beneath the warrior’s loin apron. The brute thundered in pain and collapsed into the battle swarm.
Brianna felt her hand drifting toward her sleigh, where the satchel containing her spell components lay on the bench. She allowed herself to pick up the bag, but restrained the urge to reach inside. Through long experience, the queen had learned the wisdom of saving her magic for critical moments, when a rain of fiery hail or a well-placed lightning bolt could turn the tide of a battle.
Tavis finally stopped and nocked his runearrow. He fired down the hill. The queen waited for the shaft to detonate, but the blue flash and sharp crack never came. Apparently, the arrow had bounced off the target’s thick armor-it was inconceivable that the lord high scout had actually missed. He drew another runearrow and fitted it onto Mountain Crusher’s bowstring.
On the hillside below Tavis appeared two fire giants, crouching behind their bucklers and scrambling up the slope. One brute’s breastplate was striped by a long runnel of blood, bright and red against the ebony steel. From his collarbone protruded a tiny, feathery stub: the high scout’s first runearrow.
Tavis ignored the pair and fired at the road again. Brianna felt a growing tension low in her abdomen and knew another labor pain was coming. The two giants lowered their bucklers and charged up the slope, raising their huge swords to strike.
“What’s that firbolg doing?” Brianna demanded of no one in particular. “Say the command word!”
She would have said it herself, but that was not possible. Three years ago, Tavis had nearly died when a spy learned how to discharge his runearrows and detonated one in his face. Now, the command words had to be spoken backward, and even then, they worked only if spoken by the person who had nocked the shaft.
By the time his foes reached striking range, Tavis had pulled another runearrow from his quiver. Brianna did not see what good it would do him, for he would never have the opportunity to nock it. The fire giants’ huge swords dropped, tracing fiery arches against the hillside. Tavis gathered himself to leap, then the giants’ flaming blades came together in a brilliant flash.
The hillside erupted into a fiery ball, spraying scorched rock and blazing stumps into the air as high as the giants’ heads. The looming warriors raised their swords and struck again, hewing great, smoking furrows deep into the mountainside. They did not stop swinging until they had churned the ground into a blackened mound of stone and earth. Even then they continued to jab the tips of their blades into the heap, like a pair of nervous hunters trying to spear a wolverine before it scurried from its den and chewed their legs off.
The giants were doomed to fail. Brianna saw Tavis more than twenty paces down the slope, rising to a knee, the runearrow in one hand and Mountain Crusher in the other. His cloak was badly tattered from catching on stones and stumps, and he looked rather unsteady on his feet. Despite his condition, he quickly nocked his arrow and fired.
The shaft streaked up the slope and planted itself behind a giant’s knee. If the fellow cried out, his voice was lost in the battle din, but he suddenly hunched over to slap at the wound. He said something to the brute with the runearrow lodged near the collarbone, and they both turned to face Tavis. In the same instant, the enormous, bearded face of a third fire giant appeared behind the scout.
Brianna’s hand slipped into her satchel. Before she could withdraw the spell component, her husband abruptly rushed across the slope toward a nearby crag. Behind him, sapphire lights flashed beneath the armor of his foes, and a trio of loud, sharp booms shook the canyon. All three giants collapsed, one with nothing below his loin apron, one with nothing above his breastplate, and the third with nothing between his chin and his belt. With the impact of their crashing bodies, Brianna’s swollen stomach reverberated like a drum.
The baby noticed the rumble, too. The queen’s belly suddenly began to jump and dance above the child’s kicking feet. A tiny fist pressed against her kidney, sending a fiery pang of anguish through her lower back. Almost instantly, the pain faded to a dull ache, but it also slid forward and encircled her abdomen. The coil slowly tightened, and the crushing agony of a labor pain gripped her.
The queen gritted her teeth and kept her gaze fixed up the canyon. One of the giants had fallen onto the road, but the other two were still tumbling down the slope, descending upon the road in a fiery avalanche of blood, bone, and steel. They came to rest atop the third giant, forming a hillock of black armor and flesh.
The death of the three fire giants caused no eerie silences or temporary lulls in the battle; the fighting continued. The Royal Snow Bears pressed their attack with renewed vigor. One giant fell when he looked over his shoulder at his dead comrades, the next when he slipped and dropped to a knee. Brianna’s pikemen swarmed up the gorge, leaving the road behind them strewn with bodies large and small. The roar of combat faded to a drone, and the rancid battle-smell grew so thick the howling wind could not sweep it from the canyon.
The Snow Bears’ advance came to a rumbling halt thirty paces later, when they crashed into a long line of charging fire giants. As the battle din returned to its former roar, four giants at the rear of the column climbed the hillside into Brianna’s view. Unlike their comrades on the road below, they had no bucklers strapped to their arms. They carried their swords, dark and cold, in their scabbards. The four spread out and cautiously started across the barren slope toward Tavis, bobbing and dodging to make themselves difficult targets.
Doing her best to ignore her growing pain, Brianna reached into her satchel, considering which of her spells would best aid her husband.
As her fingers closed around a small glass rod, Avner cried, “Majesty, look!”
The young scout was standing on his bench, pointing up Wyrm River. Brianna looked over the top of her sleigh and saw several fire giants near the bend in the canyon, belly-crawling down the river’s icy surface. They were not hiding-even the thought was absurd-but trying to distribute their weight across the ice so they did not fall through. They would soon outflank the Royal Snow Bears, for the company no longer had enough men to spread their lines across the frozen river.
Brianna glanced back toward Tavis. When she saw him standing beneath his crag with another runearrow in hand, the queen took a pinch of powdered brimstone from her satchel and turned her attention to Wyrm River. She removed her goddess’s golden talisman from her neck and pointed it up the canyon.
“Valorous Hiatea,” she said, “I call upon you to aid these brave and noble warriors in their just cause, that they may prevail against our enemies and ever serve your will.”
The amulet, shaped like a blazing spear, began to glow, the golden fire dancing as though the metal had truly burst into flame. Brianna tossed her brimstone into the air, at the same time uttering her spell. A river of acrid amber fumes shot from the talisman and streaked up the canyon. When the yellow smoke reached its targets, it coalesced into a huge, roiling cloud that hung in the wind like a boulder in a cataract. The fire giants craned their necks at the billowing vapors, and the queen hissed the mystical word that would unleash the spell’s fury.
With a thunderous crack, the yellow cloud burst, spilling a shower of sizzling, popping fire pellets onto the frozen river. The giants bellowed in surprise and leapt to their feet, the tiny balls of flame bouncing like hailstones off their black plate armor. Although Brianna could see that her blazing storm was hardly incinerating the fire giants, the brutes were nevertheless frightened-and with good reason. They had taken no more than three steps before a series of long, sharp crackles rang through the canyon. A hissing, impenetrable steam cloud rose about their legs. Almost as one, the entire group dropped through the thawing ice, filling the canyon with an eerie chorus of chattering and gurgling as their heavy armor dragged them beneath Wyrm River’s frigid waters.
The agony in Brianna’s abdomen had grown worse. She felt as if someone were standing on her stomach, grinding hobnailed boots into her womb. Her knees were trembling, and the pain deepened with every breath. The queen grabbed a handful of Blizzard’s mane and cursed Radborne for taking so long to return with her midwife, then looked toward her husband.
Tavis’s four attackers had discovered they could not dodge the firbolg’s deadly aim. Now they were rushing across the slope, pulling boulders out of the ground as they ran. Brianna could see stripes of blood streaking the armor of two giants, and the high scout was just drawing his bowstring to fire another runearrow. He would have plenty of time to plant his deadly shafts in the remaining foes long before they reached him.
But even Tavis Burdun was not infallible. As he loosed Mountain Crusher’s bowstring, his target suddenly pulled a boulder out of the ground and stood upright. The shaft bounced off the giant’s armor and ricocheted down the mountain, disappearing into the midst of the melee. The high scout’s shoulders slumped. He could not detonate any of his runearrows without obliterating what remained of the Royal Snow Bears.
The fire giants hurled their boulders. Tavis threw himself down the mountain to escape the barrage, and his foes sprinted forward.
Brianna pulled a small stick of purple glass from her satchel. Her hands were trembling-whether from crushing pain or naked terror, she did not know. She pointed the glass rod at the giants and, squeezing the words up from deep within her pain-racked body, beseeched Hiatea’s blessing.
As Brianna spoke, Tavis rolled to his feet holding the long, thin shaft of a normal arrow. He nocked and fired in one smooth motion. The queen did not even see the missile streak through the air. Her husband simply released Mountain Crusher’s bowstring, then a giant slapped a hand over his eye and dropped to a knee.
The flames on Brianna’s golden amulet began to dance. The queen summoned the spell to mind, then groaned aloud as her anguish deepened. It felt as if the inexorable power of her abdominal muscles were grinding her pelvis bone to powder. She forced herself to exhale, twice, trying to breathe away her agony. The pain only grew worse.
Brianna fixed her eyes on her husband. He was racing down the hillside, reaching for his quiver with stones and stumps flying past his head, dodging fire giant boots as they kicked the ground around him into a froth. The queen opened her mouth, forcing her tongue to curl and trill as she shaped the arcane syllables that would save her husband’s life.
An unbearable surge of pain gripped her. She heard herself scream and felt her knees buckle, and her half-finished spell misfired. The glass rod dissolved in her hand, becoming a twinkling beam of purple luminescence that shot out of the canyon and hung high in the sky, fluttering and hissing and popping like the boreal lights gone mad.
A fire giant’s boot slammed into her husband and sent his limp body tumbling across the mountainside. Then Brianna felt the stinging bite of ice beneath her body and realized she had collapsed. A moment later, she heard the cold thunder of boulders raining down on the frozen road, and the voices of her loyal footmen rising together in a long, mournful wail: the death shriek of the Royal Snow Bear Company.
Brianna lay doubled over in an icy rut-for minutes, it seemed-her ears ringing with the screams of the Royal Snow Bear Company. She felt the road shuddering beneath her body, the wind rasping across her cheek, even her own voice burning like bile as her screams boiled up from her womb. But she heard nothing-nothing save the cries of her loyal soldiers, perishing beneath the thundering torrent of granite.
The seeping mists of despair filled the queen’s mind, and through this darkening haze swarmed a bevy of somber thoughts. The giants had won, and more than the battle. They had captured the gorge, and with it the silver that kept Hartsvale’s armies strong; they had felled her husband, and with him the pillar of her strength; soon, they would take Brianna herself, and with her the infant so desperately fighting to reach a bloody and uncertain future.
Brianna did not know what to do when-if-her enemies captured her. They would present her to their mysterious guardian, the Twilight Spirit, so he could use his magic to get a giant king on her. To prevent that, the queen had vowed to die before allowing any giant to take her alive-but she had made that pledge before her pregnancy. Now, she worried that she lacked the strength, perhaps even the right, to make the same choice for her child.
Brianna opened her eyes and exhaled long and hard, then rolled to her knees.
A pair of hands grasped her beneath the arms. “Wait a minute,” said Avner. “I’ll help you up.”
Avner pulled backward, rocking Brianna into a kneeling position-and filling her belly with fiery pain.
“Avner!” she barked. “What are you doing?”
“We’ve got to go.”
The young scout pointed up the canyon to where the abandoned sleighs of the courtiers sat beside the road. A single fire giant was already walking by the tangle, casually kicking to death panicked draft horses as he passed. The brute was little more than a hundred yards away, close enough to see his flashing bronze eyes and foul green teeth.
Brianna clenched the young scout’s arm. “Avner, I can’t run,” she gasped. “Not now!”
Avner reached into his cloak and withdrew a purple flask sealed with a cork. Inside was one of the thick, frothy healing potions that Brianna’s high priest had given to Avner and Tavis. “Maybe if you drink this.”
Brianna pushed the vial away. “I’m not wounded; I’m giving birth,” she said. “Simon’s elixirs won’t help me. I need Gerda.”
The young scout paled. “Radborne hasn’t returned.” He studied her with a growing expression of horror. Brianna was a foot and a half taller than him, and weighed a hundred and fifty pounds more. There was no question of his carrying her. “Maybe the Beast-”
The queen shook her head. “Even if Blizzard could climb the landslide, I can’t ride.” The mere thought of sitting on a horse filled her with an unbelievable ache. “You go for help.”
Avner cast a nervous glance up the canyon, and Brianna followed his gaze. The leading fire giant was passing the last of the courtiers’ sleighs. Fifty yards behind him, several of his companions were slowly coming up the road, stopping now and then to grind what remained of the Royal Snow Bear Company into the ground.
Avner unsheathed his sword. “I can’t leave your side,” he said. “I promised Tavis.”
“You will do as I order! It’s our only chance.” Brianna grabbed his arm and pulled herself up. Although her pain was receding, she clenched her teeth at the effort. “And hand me my spell satchel before you leave.”
The young scout started to argue, but abruptly stopped when a loud clatter erupted from the landslide behind them. Brianna turned around to see Radborne Wynn and six front riders escorting a pair of twelve-foot strangers down the jumbled boulder heap. Long pelts of ice-crusted beard hung from the jaws of both newcomers. They wore their brown-furred parkas drawn tight against the howling wind, so that they resembled the fabled bear-men reputed to inhabit certain remote valleys of the Ice Spires.
“Firbolgs!” Avner slipped his sword back into its scabbard. “We’re saved!”
“I wish we were,” Brianna muttered. Like everyone else in court, Avner had apparently heard of the firbolgs’ recent alliance offer-but not the price they asked in exchange. “They’re no friends of ours.”
Avner scowled and started to draw his sword again, but Brianna motioned for him to leave the weapon sheathed.
“I don’t know what to expect,” she whispered. Perhaps the firbolgs had decided to offer their help without demanding the life of her unborn child. “Just follow my lead.”
From behind Brianna came the fire giant’s booming voice, bellowing for his companions to hurry. The firbolgs lumbered down the slide at their best pace, easily outdistancing their human escorts. One was as brawny and broad shouldered as a bull moose, with pale eyes the color of blue tourmaline. The other was spindly enough to be a verbeeg; his eyes were more like alabaster, white and milky and deep: Galgadayle.
Blizzard neighed spitefully at the newcomers. She stepped in front of Brianna, positioning her white-flecked torso between the queen and the hairy strangers. The firbolgs stepped off the landslide and stopped a single pace away. Though the mare was as large as any charger in the kingdom, her shoulders rose barely as high as their waists.
“I am Raeyadfourne, ur Meadowhome,” the burly one stated. He bowed, then gestured at the gaunt seer. “I’m sure you remember Galgadayle, oin Meadowhome.”
Brianna understood just enough of the firbolg tongue to recognize the appellations as titles, rather than names. Galgadayle translated roughly as “The One who Dreams for Us,” while Raeyadfourne was “Broad Shoulders that Bear Our Burdens.” “Oin” simply meant “lies in,” identifying Galgadayle as a resident of Meadowhome, while “ur” meant “watches over,” identifying Raeyadfourne as its chief.
“What are you doing here?” Brianna demanded.
Galgadayle glanced down the canyon, where the crashing footsteps of a sprinting fire giant echoed off the cliffs. “I should think you’d be happy to see us,” he said. “We came to save you.”
The seer pushed Blizzard aside as though she were a house pet. The big mare stumbled into Avner and knocked him to the ground, then Galgadayle scooped Brianna up in a single arm. This drew a scowl from Raeyadfourne, for snatching strangers up without permission bordered on lawlessness, but the chieftain did not voice any objections. He merely pulled a six-foot battle-axe from its sheath and stepped toward the fire giant
“I’ll hew the orange beard,” Raeyadfourne said. “Galgadayle will carry you to safety, Queen.”
“Safety?” Brianna scoffed. “This is abduction!”
“The elders have discussed your reluctance to heed Galgadayle.” Raeyadfourne did not look at Brianna as he spoke. “The first law is to defend the clan, so they have decided to take you under protection until the twins are born.”
With that, the chieftain turned to meet the fire giant. Galgadayle started up the landslide, cradling Brianna in one arm. Avner snatched the queen’s satchel off the ground and followed, lagging behind as he clambered over boulders that the seer stepped across in a single stride. Blizzard did not even try to follow. She cast a wary look at the jumble of huge rocks, then bounded up the mountainside toward one of the precarious mining trails.
A sonorous battle cry rang off the canyon walls, followed by the thunderous clang of a huge axe striking thick steel. Brianna looked past Galgadayle’s shoulder and saw Raeyadfourne duck as the fire giant’s sword swept over his back. The chieftain drew himself to his full height-which put his head at his foe’s midriff-and swung his axe. The giant twisted away and counterattacked, and the two warriors fell into a vicious, clamorous dance of death.
Avner scrambled to the seer’s side, then caught Brianna’s eye and cocked an eyebrow.
“There’s no need for violence, young man,” warned Galgadayle. “I mean no harm to either your queen or Tavis’s son. It’s the other twin, the one fathered by the ettin, I want”
Avner tripped in astonishment and fell to his knees. Brianna hardly noticed, for she felt as though the seer had punched her in the stomach. The ettin was the magical imposter whom the Twilight Spirit had sent to court her. His powerful love potion had befuddled her for days at a time. She did not remember being seduced by the spy, and she could not recall much of what had happened during the dreamlike haze.
Brianna twisted in her captor’s arms and saw Avner slowly rising to his feet. His expression was more hurt than suspicious, for he knew as well as anyone that the firbolg seer could not lie about this matter-or any other.
“Avner, Galgadayle’s mistaken!” Brianna cried. The queen wanted the young scout to know the truth, and not only because he was her best hope of escape. Avner was like a son to her and Tavis; to lose the youth’s trust would be to lose all that remained of her family. “You were there when Simon divined my womb! I’m carrying only one child!”
Galgadayle nearly dropped Brianna onto the sharp rocks. “That can’t be!” He tipped his head to look down at her. Brianna could barely see his white eyes above the ice-crusted curtain of his long beard. “Who is this Simon?”
“A high priest of Stronmaus,” Brianna explained. “He said you were wrong.”
Galgadayle considered Brianna’s words for a moment, then shook his head. “You’re lying. My dreams are never wrong.”
Brianna glanced back and saw that Avner had started up the landslide again. His expression was thoughtful and enigmatic, but his eyes would not meet the queen’s.
On the road beyond Avner, Raeyadfourne was slowly giving ground to the fire giant. One side of the giant’s steel apron hung bloody and askew, while half a dozen glancing blows had left the firbolg’s parka seared and smoking. The rest of the fire giants were only thirty paces from the battle, and one was already climbing the hillside to flank Raeyadfourne.
Brianna’s six front riders came scrambling down the slide, the frozen links in their mail coats rattling like bones. They carried their lances at port arms across their chests and did not slow as they approached the queen, obviously intending to help Raeyadfourne with the fire giants. Earl Wynn was ten steps behind the men, clambering over the boulders as best he could in his plate armor.
“Wait!” Brianna ordered. “I need you men here.”
The front riders clattered to a stop several paces from Galgadayle, politely leaving space for the firbolg to continue up the slide. Brianna and her captor were now so close to the summit that she could see the next bend in the gorge.
“Stop this firbolg!” Brianna commanded. “He’s abducting me!”
Most of the front riders merely scowled in confusion, but two men instinctively obeyed the queen’s command. The seer did not stop until the tips of their weapons were pressed against his belly. Then, as the other front riders moved to surround him, Galgadayle tightened his lips and let out a whistle as loud and piercing as the cry of an eagle.
Brianna expected some strange spell to render her men unconscious or helpless, but that is not what happened.
Instead, Earl Radborne demanded, “Majesty, what are you doing?” He had stopped behind the front riders and was pointing down the slide, to where Raeyadfourne was diving over the riverbank to avoid being trampled by fire giants. “There are more giants coming!”
“Let them!” Brianna snarled. She let her eyes drift toward the crest of the landslide, then asked, “Where’s Gerda? I need my midwife.”
“We have taken her into our troop’s protection,” Galgadayle answered. “We have done the same for all your courtiers.”
Brianna felt her abdomen tighten, though she could not tell whether it was another labor pain or a sign of her growing apprehension. She looked at Galgadayle’s face.
“Put me down, or I’ll order my men to attack.”
The seer squeezed her tightly in the cradlelike crook of his elbow. “That will do you no good. I have already summoned our warriors,” he said. “Even if you kill me, you have no hope of escaping.”
“I’ll take my chances,” Brianna replied. When the firbolg made no move to put her down, she looked to her front riders. “Kill-”
Galgadayle flexed the biceps of his enormous arm, forcing the air from her lungs and preventing her from finishing her command. The front riders braced themselves, but Brianna could see by their eyes they were reluctant to attack for fear of causing her death.
Radborne pushed his way forward to Galgadayle. “You heard the queen! Release Her Majesty.” He raised his arms over his head and still could not reach Brianna. “Hand her down!”
Galgadayle shook his head. “That I cannot-arrghhHH!”
The seer’s muscles went limp. Brianna plummeted into Radborne’s arms, and they crashed to the ground in a clamorous heap of steel armor and fur coat. A dull, throbbing ache blossomed deep within her belly. Suddenly, she seemed to smell every vile and sour thing in the gorge: the brimstone stench of fire giant swords, the coppery blood and steaming entrails covering the road below, even the sour frozen sweat beneath the armor of her own front riders. Her gorge rose, and a dry, rasping sound came from her throat. She saw Galgadayle’s feet stomping in a circle beside her.
From somewhere above came Avner’s scream, “Save the queen! Take her and run!”
Brianna looked up to see Avner dangling from his sword, which was planted to half the depth of the blade in Galgadayle’s back. The young scout was trying to brace his feet on his victim’s hip so he could widen the wound, but the anguished seer was shaking and twisting so violently Avner could not get a foothold.
Two front riders grasped Brianna beneath her armpits and pulled her off Radborne. Her belly filled with pain, and she screamed aloud. Her rescuers paid the cries no heed and dragged her up a hut-sized boulder, safely away from Galgadayle’s writhing figure. She saw Radborne try to rise, then one of the seer’s heavy feet came down squarely on the earl’s breastplate. The steel buckled like tin, and the noble’s death rattle left his lips with the sound of a trembling tambourine.
Brianna tried to rise, but made it only as far as her knees before she doubled over, howling in pain. Her womb had tightened again, and she felt something inside as hot and fiery as lava. She glanced down the slope and saw the leading fire giant already climbing toward her. From other side of the landslide came the muffled clatter of the firbolg troop.
The queen clutched at the arms of her rescuers. “I can’t run!” she gasped. “Get me out of here!”
The front riders pulled her cloak off her arms and tied the empty sleeves across her chest, then rolled the lapels to make a makeshift stretcher. By the time they finished, their fellows had scrambled up the boulder to help. Together, the six men hoisted the queen into the air and started up the landslide, each using his free hand to brace his spear butt on the treacherous ground.
Brianna was facing downslope, where Avner still clung to Galgadayle’s thrashing form. Finally, the young scout managed to plant his feet squarely on his victim’s hip. He jerked on his sword, and the blade snapped with a loud ping. Avner sailed backward through the air and vanished between two boulders. The firbolg collapsed to his knees, growling like a beast and twisting an arm around to claw at the steel sliver in his back.
Brianna glanced down the landslide and saw that the leading fire giant had already climbed halfway up the slope. Another pair followed close behind, while the last two in line were spreading out to prevent the queen’s party from doubling back toward the road.
From between the boulders where Avner had fallen came the young scout’s voice, “ythgimsilisaB!”
The familiar crack of a rune spell echoed up the slide. A black streak flashed into existence, pointing at the fire giants below. A piercing clang echoed off the leader’s armor. The brute’s arms flew up, and he sailed backward through the air as though a catapult boulder had caught him in the chest. He slammed into the warrior behind him. They both crashed to the ground in a clamorous heap of black armor, then the leader’s body went limp and his bronze eyes turned the color of dried blood.
Avner climbed out of his hiding place. In one hand, he held a simple leather sling, in the other a shiny steel ball. The missile, Brianna knew, was one of three her runecaster had given the young scout.
“Avner, no!” Brianna called. It hurt to yell, but if Avner stayed to fight, he would be trapped between two enemies when the firbolgs crested the hill. “Come here!”
Avner shook his head and fit the steel ball into his sling. “The giants-”
“Young man… to my side!” Brianna forced the words out, trying to assume the tone of an angry mother. She had not used that voice with him in more than two years, since before he had sworn the oaths of the Border Scouts and taken his place in the war against the giants. “Now!”
Avner scowled and cast an anxious glance at the fire giants, then reluctantly put his weapon away and bounded up the slide. The giants began to climb again, and Brianna breathed a sigh of relief. She had taken control of events, and that fact alone gave her hope.
Brianna craned her head up the hill and saw that her litter bearers had almost reached the canyon wall. They were angling toward the edge of the landslide, where Blizzard waited to meet them at the broken end of a mining trail. The slide itself became a narrow plume of dirt and rock as it ascended the mountainside toward the mile-long furrow from which it had spilled.
“Not… the… trail,” Brianna gasped. Despite her increasing optimism, her pain had grown so severe that she found it difficult to speak. Her womb was contracting rapidly and severely now, and she felt a growing hollowness in her lower abdomen, as though a great, empty bubble were forming inside. “Up… the slide.”
The front riders stopped in their tracks. Brianna could hear the tremendous clatter of the fire giants climbing after them, and she could smell the sharp fumes of their flaming swords. On the other side of the landslide, the firbolgs were so close that she could hear their deep voices booming commands to each other.
“Majesty?” asked one of the front riders. “The trail is our only chance of outrunning-”
“Do as the queen says.” It was Avner’s voice. In spite of the loose ground, the young scout had approached them as quietly as always. “She knows what she’s doing.”
Avner laid Brianna’s satchel next to her, then stepped to the front of the litter and grabbed hold. The party had barely gone fifteen yards before three fire giants reached the bottom of the plume, their coppery eyes sparkling with bloodlust and their swarthy lips twisted into green-toothed snarls. Each time the brutes exhaled, wisps of yellow vapor poured from their nostrils, and Brianna smelled the bitter stench of brimstone.
The leader leveled his sword at the queen’s litter-bearers and opened his mouth to speak-then a roaring clamor rose at his back. A wall of hairy firbolgs poured over the crest of the slide, their long beards streaming in the wind and their huge axes whirling above their heads. The eyes of the giants turned as yellow as their flaming swords, and they spun around to find a tide of fur-clad warriors swirling about their hips.
The battle did not begin so much as erupt. The fire giants lashed out wildly with their swords, slicing off burly arms and slashing into thick chests, filling the air with the charnel-house stench of spilled entrails and scorched flesh. The firbolgs countered with a flurry of axes, and soon the knelling of their weapons against the giants’ black armor overwhelmed even the thunderous bellows of the wounded and the dying.
Avner led the queen’s party to the edge of the slide, then released his hold on her litter and pulled his sling from inside his cloak. Brianna did not have to ask what he was doing, for a single fire giant had escaped the battle and was angling up the canyon wall to cut them off. Nevertheless, she caught the young scout’s sleeve before he could go.
Brianna could barely hear her own voice above the battle clamor, but she did not have the strength to speak louder. She was shaking uncontrollably-from the pain, not the cold-and her body felt entirely too weak and achy for the strenuous business of delivering a baby. She pulled Avner close to her mouth.
“Avner… thank you, for believing me… not Galgadayle.”
Avner gently pulled his sleeve from her grasp. “I’m just keeping my promise to Tavis,” he said. “I’m not really sure what to believe.”
As Avner spoke, the baby shifted and slowly began to drop toward Brianna’s pelvis. The horrible pain in her stomach subsided almost instantly, and everything below her waist suddenly felt loose and open.
“You’d better go kill that giant,” the queen said. “And find someplace for us to hide-we’ll know soon enough who to believe.”
The Silver Duchess
The queen’s cry broke from the tunnel, as shrill and piercing as the shriek of a striking wyvern. Avner cringed and prayed that the keening wind would swallow the sound before it reached the ears of their enemies. He crawled on his belly to the edge of the rock dump and peered into the darkening canyon, where he saw a swarm of firbolgs on the trails far below. The entire troop had stopped climbing and tipped their heads back. They were too distant to tell if any of the warriors were looking toward the Silver Duchess, the mine where the queen’s party had taken refuge, but the young scout was careful to keep his chin close to the ground.
Avner counted thirty burly silhouettes spread across the bottom of the slope. That was many fewer firbolgs than before the battle with the fire giants, but it was far more than the queen’s small party could hope to turn back. After killing the last fire giant, Avner had only one magic runebullet left for his sling. The front riders had no missile weapons at all.
The young scout cast a longing glance over his shoulder. Less than a hundred yards above, the gorge’s crooked lip hung silhouetted against the purple twilight sky. He had hoped to make it over that crest and join the border scouts patrolling the canyon rims, but the party had been forced to hide in the Silver Duchess so Brianna could deliver her baby. The birth was taking much longer than Avner had expected. He tried to stay calm, telling himself that the battle’s thunderous clamor had certainly alerted the patrols to the trouble in the canyon. He did not understand why a company of his fellows wasn’t running down the slope now.
“Tavisssss, you baaaarrggh!”
Brianna’s curse became an incoherent, grating wail that made Avner’s teeth ache. He looked back into the canyon and saw firbolgs pointing up the slope every which way. A few fingers were aimed in the direction of the Silver Duchess. The young scout pushed himself back across the rock dump into the shelter of the tunnel mouth, then stood up. A faint draft wafted out of the dark hole, so gentle it was almost imperceptible, save for the stale heat and dank granite smell on its musty breath. Five front riders sat just inside the portal, looking out over the canyon and self-consciously trying not to seem too interested in what was happening deeper in the mine.
Fifteen paces beyond them, at the creeping black edge of the mine’s gloom-cloaked throat, the queen was squatting over her fur cloak. She was naked, save for the flaming spear talisman hanging around her neck. There were baggy, dark circles beneath her violet eyes, which had themselves grown almost black with pain. Her skin was as pale as snow, her mouth twisted into a hideous, gaping grimace by the anguish racking her body. Runnels of tears and sweat streamed off her face to dribble on her blue-veined breasts, while her swollen belly throbbed with spasms so rapid and severe they made Avner wince and swear he would never be so cruel as to father a child.
The sixth front rider was kneeling in front of Brianna, holding his outstretched hands beneath the queen’s trembling hips. Although Gryffitt was an old married man, his face had a green tint visible even in the dim light. He kept averting his gaze, as though he could not quite bear what he was seeing. Only Blizzard, who stood nearly invisible in the murk beyond the queen, seemed at all easy with what was happening. The mare kept up a reassuring nicker, and once in while her snout appeared out of the darkness to give Brianna a comforting nuzzle.
Avner envied the horse’s unquestioning loyalty and compassion. He kept hearing Galgadayle’s warning about the twins and could not help feeling angry with Brianna. Love potion or not, if she had remained true to Tavis and sent the imposter away in the first place, there would be no question now of whose baby it was.
Brianna’s belly stopped throbbing, then several bands of muscle tightened around it like a belt. The queen’s eyes rolled back in her head and her mouth yawned open. Avner rushed to her side, at the same time pulling his frozen mitten off his hand.
“Majesty, don’t yell!” He slipped the edge of his mitten between her teeth, then said, “Bite down on this.”
Brianna turned her head and looked at him with a wild, bug-eyed glare. The mitten flew from her mouth, then a deafening shriek filled the dark passage. Avner had heard such a cry only once before, as a frost giant’s axe cleaved a warrior through at the hips, but that man had been fortunate enough to die a moment later. There was no telling when the queen’s agony would end.
Avner slipped one arm around Brianna’s shoulders and clamped his free hand over her mouth. The sound vibrated through his fingers and continued to reverberate off the dank walls, only slightly muted by his grasp.
“Milady, the firbolgs are coming!” Avner hissed.
Brianna glared into the young scout’s eyes. She clutched his wrist and used it to support herself. She felt as though she were slowly exploding from the inside out; her lower back ached with such a fiery, crushing pain that she wondered if her kidneys had been smashed. Her intestines had turned into writhing, searing snakes of anguish. The worst agony of all was her pelvis. She could feel her womb pushing the baby against the inner edge of the cavity, trying to force the infant out and managing only to drive barbed spikes of pain deep into her bones.
It would have been easier to squeeze a boulder through a keyhole. For several minutes now, Brianna had not felt the baby descend any farther, and she was growing weak. Her midwife had said that would not happen. Gerda had told her that Hiatea gave every mother the strength she needed to deliver her child, but the queen could feel her vigor fleeing her body on the wail she was breathing into Avner’s hand. Her infant was stuck.
“Majesty, the firbolgs will hear you,” Avner pleaded. “Please, you must be quiet!”
Brianna ripped Avner’s hand from her face. “Surtr… take the firbolgs!” she said, half groaning and half growling. She was surprised to find she could talk at all; a moment ago, she could force nothing out but wails of agony. “Do something useful… kill them!”
“There are at least thirty, Majesty,” replied Avner. “We can’t possibly-”
“Don’t bother me with… with this!” Brianna snarled. She heard a clatter from the front of the tunnel as the nervous front riders rose to obey her orders; then she regretted her words. She wasn’t going to save her child by issuing impossible orders. “Wait, you men! Don’t listen to me. Can’t you see I’m giving-” She paused to groan. “That I’ve got other things on my mind?”
The soldiers glanced at each other and studiously avoided looking toward the back of the tunnel. They hovered just inside the portal and did not seem to know what to do. Brianna dropped to her knees, then fixed her gaze on Gryffitt’s slack-skinned face. She had seen fog giants with better color.
“What do you think, Gryffitt?” the queen asked. She could still feel the baby against her pelvis, but the pressure from her womb was slackening. She hoped that meant her body was resting, not that it had given up. “The delivery isn’t going well, is it?”
Gryffitt’s baggy eyes flicked away. “I’m not much of a midwife, Majesty.”
“But you are a father six times over,” Brianna countered. “Surely, you learned something.”
Gryffitt rubbed his beard-stubbled chin. “I’ve never heard such yelling, milady,” he said. “Even with number three, and he was breech.”
Brianna’s heart sank. “That’s what this feels like.” She looked to Avner and asked, “What about Gerda?”
The young scout shook his head. “There are thirty firbolgs between us and the road,” he said. “And even if we could get past them, there are twenty more with the courtiers.”
Brianna nodded. “Then you and I must turn the baby.”
Avner swallowed. “But Gryffitt-”
“Will keep a watch on the firbolgs,” the queen interrupted. She did not want the front rider with her, even if he was a six-time father. The last person she needed nearby was someone more terrified than she. “Gryffitt understands what a woman in labor might say. He’ll know better than to obey if I start shouting crazy commands.”
“I’ll do my best, Majesty.”
Gryffitt turned toward the tunnel mouth, the strain already draining from his face. Brianna shook her head, unable to understand the peculiar male fear that made it easier to battle a troop of grim firbolgs than to help a woman give birth.
Avner cast an envious glance after the front rider. “And Gryffitt, keep one eye on the canyon rim,” he said. “When our border scouts finally show up, we don’t want them thinking the firbolgs are on our side.”
“I’ll let ’em know who the enemy is.” Gryffitt fastened his parka against the chill wind outside, then dropped to his belly to crawl out on the rock dump. “Don’t worry about that”
“Avner, I need your help now,” Brianna said.
The young scout reluctantly turned around. “Of course, Majesty,” he said. “What can I do?”
Brianna almost told him that he could start by speaking to her more warmly and trustfully, but stopped herself. Even a queen could not command her subjects to feel certain emotions, especially not subjects she cared about deeply. Besides, he would see soon enough that Galgadayle was wrong.
“I’m going to cast a spell,” Brianna explained. “But you’ll have to be the one to use it”
As she spoke, the queen sat down on her cloak and pulled her satchel to her side. She withdrew a small, ragged book of mica, then peeled off a single silver sheet The leaf was almost as clear as glass, save that the color of the mineral cast a gray sheen over everything behind it, and the grain caused a faint blurring. Brianna placed the sheaf on the underside of her swollen belly, directly over her womb, then took her goddess’s talisman from around her neck.
“Valorous Hiatea, patron of families and nature, always have I served your cause well and kept your creed close to my heart,” Brianna whispered. “I call upon your magic now, that I may safely bring my own child into the world and abide in the true light of your glory.”
The amulet’s silver flames glowed to life, then suddenly flickered and began to crackle and dance. Brianna touched the talisman to the mica on her belly, then took a moment to gather her concentration and lock her pain safely away in one corner of her mind. Once she felt sure she could ignore any sudden surges of agony, she slowly and confidently uttered the mystical syllables of her spell.
A silver aura flashed around Hiatea’s spear talisman, and the flames stopped dancing. A shimmering, pearly light passed from the amulet into the mica, which vanished in a puff of sparkling white smoke. Brianna felt a scorching heat against her belly. The pain spread deeper and outward, until her whole stomach burned as though someone had spilled boiling water on it. Her skin began to glow with a brilliant sheen. The queen felt her baby kicking and clawing inside her womb, as though it, too, could feel Hiatea’s searing magic.
Though it was not apparent to her, Brianna knew that her flesh was growing silvery and pellucid. She often used this spell on desperately ill or injured people to look inside and see what was wrong. In Hiatea’s wisdom, however, patients could not look inside their own bodies-as much, the queen suspected, to preserve life’s mystery as to prevent sufferers from seeing their own grotesque injuries and growths. Brianna wished that just this once, the spell would work differently. More than anything, she wanted to see the child in her womb, to confirm for herself what Simon had told her: that Galgadayle’s dream was quite mistaken.
Avner’s eyes, growing wider and more uneasy as the glow brightened, remained fixed on her belly. Finally, when the queen’s shining stomach illuminated the tunnel with a flickering gray light, the young scout’s jaw dropped, and Blizzard nickered in astonishment. The mare lowered her nose to the queen’s abdomen and sniffed the skin; her ears pricked forward and her black eyes grew huge with astonishment.
Avner pushed the mare’s head aside and, amazingly enough, did not get bitten. “I can see the baby!”
Along with several layers of muscle, membrane, and intestinal walls, the queen’s skin had become as transparent and brittle-looking as the mica she had laid on it earlier. Through the silvery window, Avner could see into the queen’s womb, where a bluish infant lay squeezed into a pocket of pink, fibrous flesh. The baby was reclining with its legs tucked in front of its belly and its head pointed down toward the birth canal. Its face was turned away, showing a mane of surprisingly thick and black hair on the back of its head. A pulsing blue cord ran over its flank to a sack of turbid liquids at the top of the womb.
Although its eyes were certainly still closed, the infant was craning its neck back, as though trying to peer through its mother’s pelvis into the outside world. Both hands were stretched down toward the birth canal and gently clawing at the walls of the soft prison, but Avner could see the child would never escape. The baby’s skull was as big around as a catapult stone, much too wide to fit through the cramped opening of the queen’s pelvic cavity.
“Avner, what’s wrong?” Brianna asked, her voice edged with pain. “Simon was right, wasn’t he? It’s not twins?”
The young scout took a deep breath. He looked up, trying to keep his face relaxed so Brianna would not see how frightened he was. “No. There’s only one.”
The queen sighed in relief, then gave him a condescending, if weak, smile. “Do you believe me now?” she asked. “Firbolgs may not lie, but they’re not always right, either.”
Avner did not know how to reply. Although Galgadayle had clearly been wrong about the twins, the infant’s full head of silky black hair was distressing. Tavis’s hair was full, and Brianna’s was silky-but only the ettin’s had been black.
A front rider approached from the tunnel mouth. The man, Thatcher Warton, knelt at Avner’s side, being careful not to look toward his naked queen. “The firbolgs are moving toward the trails that lead up here,” he murmured. “If you don’t hurry, they’ll trap us here.”
His whisper was not quiet enough to escape the queen’s ears. “Hurry? How should I hurry?”
The front rider flushed and did not answer.
“Perhaps Blizzard could sit on my stomach?” Brianna growled. “That would squeeze the child out in short order, would it not?”
Thatcher only looked at the ground. His face showed no sign of ire or indignation, and Avner suspected Gryffitt had warned him that the queen might seem unreasonably cross.
Brianna glared at the front rider for a moment, then closed her eyes and hissed between clenched teeth. Avner looked down and saw the infant’s small fist pushing deep into the wall of her womb. The pain seemed to help the queen focus. She let out two deep breaths, then fixed her gaze on Avner.
“Maybe it doesn’t matter if they catch us,” Brianna said. “Firbolgs are a scrupulous people. Once they see that I’m carrying only one child, they’ll realize Galgadayle was wrong. They’ll never hurt-”
“It’s better not to take that chance, Majesty.” Avner glanced at the infant’s black hair. “They lost more than a dozen warriors against the fire giants. They won’t be in a reasonable mood.”
“What does their mood matter?” As Brianna spoke, the fibrous flesh of her womb rippled, then folded around the baby like a glove. “They’re looking for the ettin’s child. Once they see that I don’t have him, they’ll release Gerda.”
The queen’s voice sounded more desperate than certain, and Avner realized she was dangerously close to pinning her hopes of salvation on the very enemies who had driven her into this hole.
Brianna groaned, then braced her hands against the floor to push herself into a sitting position. “I need my midwife, Avner.”
“You can’t put your faith in the firbolgs,” he said. “Even if you show them what’s in your womb, they might kill it.”
Brianna scowled. “I don’t… understand,” she gasped. “What are you saying?”
Avner did not want to tell the queen about her child’s hair. She was already having a difficult time with labor, and any suggestion that the child wasn’t Tavis’s might dishearten her to the point of giving up.
“Firbolgs don’t trust anyone who can lie.” Avner was thinking fast. “They’ll think you’re trying to trick them.”
Brianna’s face fell. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she let out a short cry. Avner glanced down at her belly and saw the infant’s head pressed hard against her pelvic bone. Her womb walls quivered with the effort of trying to force him through the pelvic cavity.
“I’m… too… weak.” Brianna clutched Avner’s arm, and seemed to be trying to pull herself into a kneeling position. “I can’t do this… not alone.”
“Majesty, you’re not alone.” Avner slipped his hand under her arm, then looked up. Thatcher was still staring at the wall. “Thatcher, help me with the queen. I think she wants to kneel.”
“Of course, with Her Majesty’s permission.” The front rider reluctantly turned to obey. “Please pardon my cold-in the name of Stronmaus!”
The man’s eyes had fallen on Brianna’s transparent womb and remained locked there. His jaw hung slack, and his brows were arched.
“What’s wrong?” Brianna slumped onto her back, sweat streaming from her brow as she struggled to peer down at her swollen belly. “What… is it?” she gasped. “Deform… ities? Is it a monster?”
“No, not at all,” Avner replied. He pushed the staring front rider toward the front of the mine, whispering, “Go back to the portal. Tell Gryffitt to keep me informed, and to keep an eye out for those scouting parties. They should be here by now.”
The front rider had barely left before the scout felt Brianna’s fingers digging into his arm.
“Avner, tell me!”
Before answering, the scout tried to free his arm, fearing Brianna would break it when she heard what he had to say. Like all Hartwicks, the strength of her giant ancestors still ran in the queen’s blood. Even in her weakened condition, her grip was powerful enough to crush bone.
The queen’s fingers only dug deeper into his flesh. “The baby’s in… trouble.”
Her eyes were once again glassy with pain, and they drifted away from his face. “It’s not… dead?”
Avner took Brianna by her shoulders. “From what I can see, your baby’s alive and healthy.”
This seemed to calm the queen. “It’s… it’s breech?”
Avner took a breath, then shook is head. “The child looks as if it might have been fathered by Stronmaus,” he said. “It’s large.”
“Maybe thirty pounds. It looks like a two-year-old,” Avner clarified. “It can’t fit through your pelvis.”
Brianna scowled. “That… just… can’t be,” she objected. “Gerda said… she said no bab-iiiaaaargh!”
The queen’s yell was so loud that Blizzard flinched and clattered a step back into the darkness. Brianna’s womb had closed around the infant like a fist. It was pushing the child against her pelvis so hard that the baby had nearly doubled in two. The young scout placed his hands on Brianna’s transparent belly, directly over the crumpled infant, and pushed against her womb.
Brianna howled more loudly and beat her hands against the floor. Blizzard came out of the shadows, nickering at Avner. He ignored the petulant mare and kept his eyes fixed on the queen’s anguished face.
“I’m sorry, Majesty,” he said. “Your own belly’s going to kill him. I don’t know what else to do.”
The queen’s fist came down again, and a small piece of granite broke in two.
“The firbolgs have found us for sure.” Gryffitt did not bother speaking quietly. “They’re bunching up!”
“How long before they get here?” Avner asked. He could not imagine moving the queen, but neither could he imagine letting the firbolgs catch her here. “Do we have time to finish the delivery?”
“We have a while,” Gryffitt replied. “Maybe ten minutes, fifteen if we go kill the one in front.”
“You stay here,” Avner ordered. “What about the canyon rim? Is there any sign of our patrol?”
It was a moment before Gryffitt replied. “I see something, just a few silhouettes.” He paused, then added, “But they’re too big to be humans, and they’re all-Stronmaus save us! I think they’re fomorians!”
“Look across the canyon,” added Thatcher. “Verbeegs!”
Avner felt his body go weak, and his muscles began to tremble. Fomorians and verbeegs were giant-kin, like firbolgs, and he knew it was no coincidence that they had appeared instead of the border scouts he was expecting. The entire giant-kin brood had united against the birth of Brianna’s child.
Avner looked back to the queen, who had managed to prop herself on one elbow. Her other hand was rummaging for something inside the satchel where she kept her spell components.
“Do you… still have… Simon’s healing…”
The queen did not have to finish her question. Avner took one hand away from her belly and reached into his cloak. He withdrew the small purple flask and offered it to her.
Brianna shook her head. “Not yet.” She pulled her dagger from her satchel and turned the hilt toward Avner. “Baby might… need it.”
The young scout stared at the weapon, uncomprehending.
“You can see… the baby,” Brianna said. “It’s the only… way.”
Avner was too terrified to reply. He could only shake his head and stare at the knife’s gleaming blade.
“Take it!” Brianna thrust the weapon toward him, then collapsed onto her back. “Cut my child free… I command it!”
Since dawn has my eagle battled the cold boreal wind, that I might witness the debacle below. Through his eyes have I watched the Sons of Masud fall like trees to the axes of men, and through his nostrils have I smelled their acrid blood heavy in the air. I have heard dying fire giants call my name, adjuring me to guide their spirits safely to Surtr’s fiery palace, and I have seen their warm corpses sinking into the ice. I have tasted the sour sapor of defeat, and it has filled my throat with the burning bile of despair.
My plan, of course, was not perfect-I am no god-but it was sound. The fire giants were too slow to implement it; too slow, and too faint of heart.
Cowards? Perhaps. They faltered. They faltered, and so the firbolgs will carry the day.
I am watching them now, the firbolgs clambering toward Brianna’s dank hiding place. In grim silence they climb, thirty warriors no larger than bears, weary of gait and pale with their barbarous intent. Their compassion makes softlings of them all; worse, it makes them liars. What honest warrior would shirk at murder to save his people? Not I; I killed, and willingly.
My eagle beats its wings, rising high above their heads and flying straight on toward the tunnel where Brianna hides. By the flickering torchlight inside, I see the queen’s guards pinning her to the floor, one with a knife poised above her womb. Foolish woman. If she had come to me, I would have removed the infant with my magic. Now, she must trust the child’s life to an unwieldy dagger and a trembling boy.
My pet reaches the tunnel mouth and wheels along the mountainside. He dives deep into the canyon, down half the length of the slope, and swoops low over the first firbolg. Talons as sharp as needles rake his quarry’s face. The warrior screams and falls, his hands reaching for an empty eye socket. My eagle banks away, a volley of shouts chasing him over the dusky gorge.
This small reprieve is all I have to offer the unborn emperor. It is little enough, I know, but Annam’s children have fallen farther than I thought. In Ostoria’s absence, the giants have grown as weak and stupid as all the races of Toril.
“… and we know who did that, Charles.”
“… now you must leave, my darling…”
“Don’t be afraid. One foot after the other…”
Be silent, I pray you!
I know what the gods demand of me, yet I would tarry here a while longer. Even I cannot reach the mine ahead of the firbolgs, and I am loathe to leave the Vale before I must. For a mortal to relinquish himself is no great sacrifice; his life is a fleeting and uncertain thing, and it will end soon enough.
I surrender eternity itself.
From the queen’s hiding place erupts a shriek as piercing and shrill as a wyvern song. The voice, of course, is Brianna’s, and in her scream there is more hope than anguish. The eagle raises his head toward the mine, his predator’s mouth watering at the sound of her distress, but I command him to fold his wings and dive. The emperor is coming, and I must find a better way to guard the child than scratching at firbolgs’ eyes.
Into the Darkness
The scream caught Tavis as a rope catches a hanged man, at the end of a long, lonely fall. The high scout found himself dangling in cold, bleak darkness, numb and queasy and thick-headed, with no idea of how long he had been plummeting through the icy murk. The flesh on one side of his body felt soft and pulpy where the fire giant’s boot had caught him, and a huge goose egg had risen where his skull had slammed into a boulder, but these injuries did not actually hurt. He was merely aware of them, as he was aware of the black, frozen emptiness into which he had sunk, and the anguished cry that had rent its desolate tranquility.
Tavis would have heard that scream anywhere. Had he been at home in Castle Hartwick, he would have heard it ringing inside the keep’s thick granite walls; had he been fighting frost giants in the bleak northern plains, he would have heard it rolling across the white wastes of the Endless Ice Sea; and even in this lonely dark place, the cry had cleaved the frozen gloom like the almighty axe of Annam the All Father. Brianna was hurt.
The first defender opened his eyes, and his mind turned inside out. The blackness through which he had been falling was suddenly inside his head, and Brianna’s voice yielded to the wailing wind. A crooked chasm of purple twilight took shape before the high scout’s eyes. He came to realize that he was lying head-down on a steep slope, staring up into the dusk sky. Save for the icy throbbing deep in his battered bones, his body had gone numb from cold, and the gorge felt as empty and deserted as the dark place from which he had come.
Tavis dug his boot heels into the frozen hillside and slowly pushed his feet around, so that he would no longer be lying upside-down. The effort sent swells of frigid agony slushing through his body, and he began to form an idea of his injuries. His right flank hurt from his hip to his armpit. Each breath filled him with anguish, a sure sign that some of his ribs had snapped beneath the giant’s kick. One shoulder seemed strangely weak, as though the blow had momentarily popped it out of joint. His head hurt most of all. A swirling brown fog had seeped up from some rank place to fill it with caustic fetor and raw, aching pain.
The high scout was injured, and badly. With each breath, the sharp point of a broken rib might be slashing his vital organs to shreds-the possibility seemed more likely every time he inhaled. He had certainly suffered a skull concussion, perhaps even a fracture. It would be some time before his thoughts came rapidly and clearly; more importantly, his reflexes would be slow, his judgment suspect. There was also the danger that his pummeled brain would let him slip away in a blissful sleep.
Groaning, Tavis propped himself up. A short distance away stood a black spire eagle, no doubt here to feast on the battle carrion. The high scout brandished an aching arm, but the bird merely hissed and continued to watch.
Fifty paces below Tavis, a belt of purple-shadowed ice ran alongside Wyrm River: the road. The surface was strewn with dark boulders and frozen, contorted bodies, both human and giant. Other than the high scout himself, there were no wounded. Unlike firbolgs, neither humans nor fire giants could tolerate bitter cold; their wounded were doomed to quick, frigid deaths.
Farther up the canyon, the courtiers’ sleighs lay shoved and shattered to the side of the road, many with the twisted carcasses of draft horses still in the harnesses. Down the canyon, Tavis could barely make out a mangled heap of debris that had once been the royal sleigh. Nearby lay a few dark blotches, the corpses of men and horses that had died in the queen’s defense. Beyond the sleigh, the landslide’s jumbled slope was distant and dark. In the purple shadows near the crest lay the huge silhouettes of several fire giants. Save for a single pennon flag snapping in the wind, nothing moved, and no one cried for help.
Tavis grew cold and queasy. His arms began to tremble, and such a wave of weariness washed over him that he nearly collapsed. Brianna was gone. He had heard her scream with his heart, not with his ears. The fire giants had carried her into their cavern-how long ago he could only guess-and her voice had traveled to him not through frigid air or dense granite, but through the mystical bond between husband and wife. To reach him across such a medium, the cry must have been as much spiritual as it was physical, and only one thing could cause his wife such grief: the giants had murdered their child.
A croak of despair, all the sound he could voice, tumbled from Tavis’s mouth. His arms folded beneath his weight, and he felt the cold ground beneath his back. Above the gorge’s opposite rim hung a blue star with a blurry white aura. The silvery halo began to dance like the boreal lights, and a female voice sang in a high, lilting pitch. A cold numbness fell over Tavis’s body. His eyelids began to close. He fought to keep his eyes open, but his grief, deeper than any pain tormenting his body, kept pulling them closed. He had failed his queen and his child. Something frightened and weak inside him wanted nothing more than to die and forget.
The throb of fluttering wings sounded over Tavis’s head, then a hard beak pecked his brow. The high scout’s eyes opened to find the eagle standing over him, its head cocked to one side.
“Wait till I die,” Tavis muttered. He raised his hands to push the bird away.
The eagle hopped aside, then opened its beak and screeched. The sound was deafening, as sharp and piercing as the shriek that had awakened him. Brianna’s scream. Whether Tavis had heard her with his ears or his heart, the queen had screamed. She needed him, perhaps now more than ever.
Tavis slipped a frostbitten hand into his cloak, his numb fingers searching for one of Simon’s healing potions.
Avner’s hands were slick and warm with blood, and the baby’s skull was so large that he could barely hold it in both palms. When he tried to pull the infant through the incision in Brianna’s womb, the head slipped from his grasp and dropped back into the slick red pocket from which it had come. Although the queen’s belly was no longer transparent-the spell had faded when he began to cut-one of the front riders had lit a makeshift torch, and the young scout could now see the child’s profile. Even from the side, the infant looked as ugly as a troll, with a round heavy face, pug nose, and a wild mane of matted black hair.
“Get that baby out of me-now!” Brianna shrieked. She lay in front of Avner on her outspread cloak, her arms, legs, and head pinned to the floor by front riders. Although she was doing her best to hold still, she had been unable to keep from jerking and twisting as Avner opened her womb, and the struggle to restrain her had left the five front riders almost as exhausted as she. “Take it out, you clumsy oaf!”
An angry whinny sounded from deeper in the tunnel, where Blizzard had been tied to a rough-hewn mining timber. The mare’s hooves scraped a warning across the stone floor. Avner ignored the beast and pushed his hands back into the warmth of the queen’s stomach. He slipped his fingers under the baby’s jawline, then pulled slowly and steadily. The head and shoulders came out of the womb with a loud sucking sound. The child smelled coppery and sour, like a concoction of blood and curdled milk. It was wet with its mother’s blood, and covered by a thin coating of something that felt like wax. The infant was so large that Avner had to move his hands beneath the armpits before he could extract the hips and feet.
“By Stronmaus!” gasped Gryffitt, who was holding his belt over the queen’s forehead. “That boy’s as big as my two-year-old!”
“Tavis… was right? A boy?” Brianna croaked. Without awaiting an answer, she ordered, “Avner, clear… clear his-”
“I remember,” Avner replied. The queen had given him explicit instructions about every phase of the birth. “This is the one part I couldn’t forget.”
Avner turned the infant around and placed his mouth over the child’s nose and lips, then sucked the mucus plugs from the airways and spat the membranes onto the tunnel floor. They left a coating of sour-tasting slime in his mouth, but the young scout hardly noticed. The baby was as blue as a robin’s egg and just as still. His dull russet eyes were open, and he was staring at Avner with a vacuous, unblinking gaze.
“He’s not breathing,” Avner said. He looked to Brianna. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Make sure his passages are clear,” she replied. “Then wait a moment.”
Before the queen finished speaking, the child snuffled, then yawned, blinked, and glanced around the tunnel. When his gaze returned to Avner, the young scout could not help gasping. The newborn’s eyes had changed to a blue as pale and sparkling as glacier ice. With each breath the baby took, his complexion darkened and became more ruddy. His double chin vanished, his jowls tightened into a firm jawline, and his face grew thinner and more handsome. The infant’s stubby nose lengthened into a straight, bladelike appendage, and even his black hair seemed to be lightening to bronze.
“Iallanis save us!” cried the torch holder. “That child’s-”
“Breathing, you fool.” Avner cast a reproving glance at the man, who was the only other person who could have seen the transformation. “His color’s changing, that’s all.”
“Let… me see.” Brianna tried to raise her head, but even without Gryffitt’s belt holding it in place, she would have been too feeble to manage.
“Of course, Majesty.” Avner held the child up, deliberately keeping the face turned away from the queen. Although the incision across her abdomen wasn’t as gruesome as some belly wounds he had seen, Brianna had already lost enough blood to weaken even a Hartwick. The young scout feared the shock of seeing her child’s appearance change before her eyes would kill her. “He’s a handsome boy.”
“Give me,” Brianna commanded.
Although her eyes remained glazed, the queen’s smile was radiant, and Avner knew the worst of her pain was past. He held the child a moment longer, until he was certain the boy’s face had undergone the last of its mysterious changes, then nodded to Thatcher. The front rider released the queen’s arm, then took the infant and passed him to Brianna. She laid the baby on her chest, and he began to suckle immediately, clinging to her with a grasp as secure as a yearling’s.
“Now finish,” Brianna ordered. “Not much time before the firbolgs… And, Avner-”
The queen smiled beatifically, then said, “Thank you.”
With that, she returned her arm to Thatcher’s grasp and allowed the front riders to pin her to the ground once more. Avner slid a hand into Brianna’s belly and grabbed the umbilical cord-still blue and pulsing-then pulled gently. The queen gasped, more in surprise than pain. A small, membranous sack filled with pink-tinged fluid slipped from her womb. The young scout laid the pouch aside, then, as Brianna had instructed him, reached inside to make certain no part of the membrane had torn off.
Once the womb was completely empty, Avner untied a skin of blessed water that the queen had prepared and poured it over her incisions. Dark bubbles frothed up from the cuts, covering Brianna’s stomach with a thick, brown-streaked foam. The scout sat back and waited for the lather to do its cleansing work, happy he would soon be closing her up. It was disconcerting enough to see the queen naked, but after actually reaching inside her body to extract the child, he would never again look at her without being at once awestruck and embarrassed.
Avner felt almost in love with Brianna. He had become connected to her and the child on some spiritual level more profound than he could understand; when he looked at them, an alien warmth rose from deep within his heart, and he felt bound to the pair by a force far too powerful to resist. It was not an attraction the young scout welcomed. Such feelings seemed a betrayal of Tavis’s friendship, as though some part of him wanted to usurp his mentor’s place.
“Great,” he muttered to himself. “I’ll need a posting in the Eternal Blizzard to get past this.”
“What?” Brianna asked.
“I wish Tavis were here.”
“You’re… doing fine,” she said. “Tavis would be… proud.”
The dark bubbles on Brianna’s abdomen turned clear and drained off her body in pink-tinged runnels. Avner took a needle and thread from the torch holder, then began to sew the queen’s womb shut. Like all Border Scouts, one of the first things he had learned was how to mend both his comrades’ wounds and his own winter clothing, so he was no stranger to the art of stitchery. Despite his patient’s groans and a steady flow of blood seeping from the incision, he worked quickly and efficiently, pinching the wound closed with one hand and hooking the curved needle through its edges with the other.
Avner had almost finished closing the womb when Blizzard neighed madly, then began to scrape at the ground and jerk against her reins. He glanced at the mare. Her eyes were fixed on the tunnel mouth, where the enormous silhouette of a firbolg was blocking the entire portal. Although the ’kin was kneeling on one leg, he was so large he had to stoop down and turn his head sideways to peer into the mine. His shoulders were as broad as the passage was wide. With pale blue eyes gleaming from a tangled wreath of windblown hair, his shadow-cloaked face resembled some fierce woodland spirit.
Several front riders released Brianna to reach for their weapons, and the queen herself cried out in alarm.
“Don’t worry about him!” Avner gestured the front riders back to Brianna. “We’ve got to finish here.”
“Do as I say!” Avner pulled a stitch tight. “We’ve plenty of time.”
Avner had learned the value of cramped spaces as a child, when he had often eluded the town guard by crawling into sewers or ducking through culverts. In narrow confines, the advantage belonged to the runt. The firbolg would need to squeeze into the tunnel on his hands and knees, making it easy for the queen’s party to flee deeper into the mine and find another exit-or to turn and fight, if it came to that.
Avner hooked the needle through the womb. Brianna flinched so violently that one leg slipped the grasp of an inattentive front rider, tightening a set of abdominal muscles that the young scout had carefully separated. The fibers slipped back into place, causing him to drag the sharp needle across the queen’s womb. Brianna screamed, her head jerking forward. Gryffitt’s belt held her in place, and the front riders once again pinned her securely to the ground.
“I see the queen’s birthing has been a difficult one,” said the firbolg. Avner recognized the rumbling voice as Raeyadfourne’s. “Give us the ugly child, and Munairoe will heal the mother.”
“Fine. Go fetch him.” Avner had no intention of letting any firbolg near Brianna, but it couldn’t hurt to buy time-especially if the needle had caused more injury to the womb. The young scout glared at the man who had allowed the leg to slip, then hissed, “Pay attention. You’re more dangerous to the queen than the firbolgs.”
Avner returned his attention to his patient and carefully pushed the stringy muscles away from the incision, then examined the small cut his needle had made. The tip had scratched the womb, but hadn’t pierced it. He glanced toward the front of the tunnel. Raeyadfourne was still watching and waiting for his fellows to arrive. The young scout did not like the chieftain’s patience. It suggested that he had someone who could offset the disadvantage of the cramped tunnel, perhaps a shaman or runecaster.
Blizzard continued to jerk at her reins and neigh at the firbolg, and Avner continued to sew, working as fast as he could without being careless. He was just putting in the last stitch when Raeyadfourne spoke again.
“Munairoe is coming up the trail now.” The firbolg was still kneeling at the front of the mine. His head was pushed just inside the collar, with the crown of his skull pressed against the roof of the tunnel. “Bring out the queen and her twins.”
It was the queen herself who replied. “I have only… one child, and he is handsome… as handsome as his father.” Brianna’s eyes shifted to Thatcher. “Show him.”
Avner nodded his permission, then opened one of Simon’s healing potions. He poured half the contents directly over the seam he had sewn in Brianna’s womb. The blood immediately ceased seeping from the closure. The edges fused together, leaving an ugly red scar in the incision’s place, but the queen was not ready to move. Before his task was complete, the young scout still had to close a layer of membrane and another of flesh.
As Avner worked, Thatcher released the queen’s arm and lifted the baby into the torchlight.
Raeyadfourne snorted in disgust. “That child? Kaedlaw?” he scoffed, using the firbolg word for ‘handsome as the father.’ “A name will not disguise a hideous face. Bring him out, and our shaman will help you survive to raise the princely one.”
“But I have… only one child!” Brianna protested. “And he… he is Kaedlaw.”
The queen’s brow was furrowed in confusion, as though she could not imagine why Raeyadfourne insisted on calling her child ugly. Avner feared he knew the reason. The firbolg did not see the same face as Brianna; he saw the visage that had been upon the child’s face at the moment of birth. The young scout glanced at the torch holder. The man was gazing toward the tunnel mouth, his eyes tense with the strain of keeping secret the transformation he had witnessed.
“Pay attention,” Avner hissed. “Hold that light down here, where I can see.”
Raeyadfourne’s rumbling voice filled the tunnel. “Galgadayle’s dreams have never been wrong. You must give us K-Kaed-uh-law.” The firbolg’s voice cracked with the strain of speaking a name that was a lie to his eyes. “We demand this for the good of Hartsvale, as well as our own.”
“We’ll give you nothing,” Gryffitt growled. “And if you want to take this handsome boy from the queen, you’ll have to do it from the sharp end of a lance.”
As Gryffitt made his declaration, Avner was carefully moving into place the edges of the translucent membrane he had cut to reach Brianna’s womb. He allowed her abdominal muscles to slip back where they belonged, then poured the remaining healing potion over the area. Normally, the patient was supposed to drink the elixir, but the queen had said her insides would mend faster if the tonic was poured directly onto them.
From outside came the heavy footsteps of a second firbolg. Raeyadfourne turned away from the tunnel mouth to converse with his fellow. Avner motioned the front riders to their weapons.
“Gather your things quietly,” he whispered. “We’ll be leaving shortly.”
“Where we going, if you don’t mind my asking?” asked Gryffitt. “Getting ourselves trapped in the back of a mine seems no better than fighting it out here.”
“Earl Wynn said the veins in this mountain cross each other like a tangle of worms-and the tunnels follow veins,” Avner explained. “With any luck, we’ll connect to another mine and sneak out that way.”
As the front riders gathered their parkas and weapons, Avner began to close the cut on the exterior of Brianna’s abdomen. Without the front riders to pin her down, she flinched and jerked whenever the needle pierced her skin, but her motions caused him little trouble. The movements were not as severe as when he had been closing her womb, and even if his hand slipped, he was not likely to cause serious injury. He worked as fast as he could, spacing the stitches just tightly enough to close the wound. If the edges overlapped in places, he did not worry. There would be time to tidy up later.
Avner was only half finished when Raeyadfourne spoke again. “Running will do you no good,” the firbolg said. “Even if you escape us, the fomorians and verbeegs will be waiting at the other exits.”
“I never thought to see the day when firbolgs consorted with the likes of those scum,” commented Gryffitt. He and the other front riders had already slipped back into their parkas and gathered their weapons. “Have you taken a sudden liking to thieves and murderers?”
Raeyadfourne shrugged, and it seemed to Avner that the firbolg had changed somehow. The chieftain’s silhouette appeared somehow more feral and threatening.
“The verbeegs and fomorians are our brothers,” Raeyadfourne explained. “If you surrender the ugly child, you have nothing to fear from them.”
“Let me heal the queen, and give us the second child,” boomed a second firbolg, Munairoe. “He will not suffer at our hands.”
Avner saw a pair of green eyes peering around Raeyadfourne and realized what had changed. The chieftain’s beard now hung clear down to his belly. His hair had become a long, wild mane, and, most importantly, his huge shoulders no longer covered the tunnel mouth completely.
“He’s shrinking!” Avner gasped.
A guttural curse erupted from deep within Raeyadfourne’s throat. He threw off his bearskin cloak and pulled a four-foot hand axe from his belt, then scuttled into the tunnel. Although the chieftain still had to squat on his haunches, he was now small enough that his hands remained free to fight.
Blizzard went wild, filling the passage with ear-splitting shrieks. She whipped her head violently against her reins, drawing an ominous creak from the thick mining timber to which she was tied, and her hooves hammered the stone floor. The front riders ignored the angry mare and leveled their lances, moving forward to attack the chieftain.
“You men, wait!” Avner yelled. If the front riders attacked Raeyadfourne now, they would still be fighting when the rest of the firbolgs reached the portal. “Come back here!”
Avner pulled his hand axe from its sheath and hurled it at the post to which the Queen’s Beast was tied. The weapon tumbled straight to the timber and sliced cleanly through Blizzard’s leather reins. The angry mare hardly paused to gather her feet before springing up the passage. She bounded over Brianna and knocked the front riders aside as she barreled past to attack Raeyadfourne.
The firbolg’s hand axe rose and came down, burying itself deep into the mare’s flank. The wet snap of shattering bone echoed through the tunnel. Blizzard continued forward, bowling Raeyadfourne over and burying her teeth into his neck. She landed astride the chieftain, as a wolf might a man, and ripped a mouthful of flesh from his throat. Raeyadfourne bellowed in pain, a spray of blood erupting from the wound. He pulled his axe free and raised it to strike again. Blizzard lowered her muzzle to bite, and the vicious fight erupted into a bloody melee from which neither beast nor firbolg would emerge whole.
Gryffitt and the rest of the front riders returned to the queen’s side. Avner motioned for them to lift Brianna, then pinched together the unsewn edges of her incision.
“Let’s go.” The young scout used his chin to point deeper into the mine. “And someone grab my axe.”
The torch holder led the way, his light casting a flickering yellow glow over the craggy walls. The rest of the front riders followed close behind, carrying Brianna and Kaedlaw upon her cloak. Avner brought up the rear, with the queen’s knees locked around his waist and the edges of her incision squeezed between his fingers. His view of the tunnel floor was blocked by his patient’s makeshift litter, and he kept stumbling over loose stones and jagged knobs of rock.
The awkward procession had barely gone ten steps before a panicked whinny sounded from the portal. Avner glanced over his shoulder. Two firbolg warriors were dragging the queen’s mangled horse out of the mine. The beards of both warriors were extremely long, hanging almost to their waists, and neither of them looked much larger than Tavis. They passed Blizzard to someone outside, and the mare let out a shriek that sounded almost human.
The two firbolgs reached into the mine and grabbed their groaning chieftain beneath the armpits. Raeyadfourne was covered in blood from his jawline to his belly, and his body remained limp as the warriors pulled him through the portal. The pair passed their injured fellow to the green-eyed shaman, then entered the tunnel themselves. To fit into the passage, they only had to stoop over. “Faster!” Avner said. “Run!”
The torch holder broke into a trot, as did the men carrying Brianna. Their feet moved almost in unison, filling the tunnel with the martial cadence of tramping boots. Several times, Avner tripped and nearly fell into Brianna’s lap, and she soon volunteered to hold her own wound closed. For the first time, little murmuring sounds came from Kaedlaw’s mouth. He did not seem to be crying or groaning so much as calling the count.
The passage followed the crooked, winding course of a silver vein, and Avner quickly lost his bearings. They seemed to be traveling ever deeper into the mountain, but the young scout knew better than to trust his surface dweller’s instincts. For all he knew, the tunnel could be less than a dozen feet underground.
Avner soon found himself thinking in terms only of the area illuminated by the flickering torchlight; there was the murk ahead, warm and still and thick with the smell of musty stone and moidering wood; there was the floor beneath his feet, sometimes sloping up and sometimes down, often slick with mud and always strewn with loose debris and potholes; there were the walls around him, craggy and colorless, supported at regular intervals by crudely shaped arches of mud-crusted mining timbers; and most of all, there were the firbolgs coming up behind, clattering and cursing through the darkness, stumbling along without a torch, yet slowly and steadily closing the distance to their prey.
Avner waited until they rounded a sharp curve, then stopped and pulled his sling from inside his cloak. “Keep going,” he said. “I’ll buy us some time.”
“Avner, no!” Brianna sounded as exhausted as she did pained. “You’re all I have… left.”
“I’ll be along,” he promised. “Nothing’s going to happen.”
The young scout slipped behind one of the thick posts that supported the ceiling, then fit his last runebullet into the pocket of his sling. As the queen’s party moved off, he took advantage of the fading torchlight to eye the decaying timbers above his head. Although his runebullet was hardly as powerful as one of Tavis’s runearrows, he suspected it could still bring the roof down on their enemies. Unfortunately, the heavy bracing suggested that the rock above was very unstable. The rumble of even a small cave-in could start a chain reaction that would bury him-and perhaps the queen-along with their pursuers.
Avner looked down the tunnel toward the fleeing front riders. He could still see Brianna and her bearers, illuminated in the torch glow. If he stepped into the passage too early, the firbolgs would see his silhouette against the light.
The young scout waited, simultaneously keeping his eyes fixed on the receding torch and listening to his enemies’ approach. Their gaits were sporadic and heavy, punctuated by dull thuds, resonant clatters, and a constant rumble of angry curses. By the time the flickering torch had vanished from sight, the firbolgs were so close that Avner could hear their parkas rubbing against the walls and smell their sweat in the damp air. He stepped from behind his post, whirling his sling over his head. An eerie whistle echoed through the mine.
“What’s that?” The firbolg’s cry seemed to come from the roof, directly above Avner’s head.
The young scout flung his missile at the voice, at the same time crying out, “ythgimsilisaB!”
There was an ear-splitting crack and a brilliant white flash. A firbolg shouted in terrible pain. In the same instant, Avner glimpsed the faces of the two warriors-one astonished, the other disbelieving-less than three paces away. The light vanished as quickly as it had appeared, leaving the scout with nothing but swimming white spots before his eyes. The rich smell of blood filled the tunnel and something warm splashed across his face. Avner barely leapt away before the injured warrior crashed down where he had been standing.
“Ethelhard?” called the second firbolg.
Avner did not hear whether Ethelhard answered, for he was already rushing down the tunnel. Unlike his enemies, he moved almost silently, his knees rising high to lift his boots over unseen debris, his feet coming down toe-first so he could dance away when he happened to land on unsteady footing. As he ran, he kept one hand pressed against the wall to give him some idea of the passage’s course. Although Ethelhard’s comrade had fallen silent, no doubt fearing another attack such as the one that had killed his companion, the young scout took no pleasure in his triumph. Now that his pursuers were quiet, he could hear the muffled din of more firbolgs coming down the tunnel. Judging by the steady reverberations of their boots, these warriors were moving swiftly and confidently. They had torches, and they fit into the cramped mine as well as the pair Avner had just stopped.
The young scout continued forward at his best run, expecting to see the flickering yellow glow of his companions’ torch at any moment. He felt the tunnel make several sharp turns, and the floor began to rise and fall at steep angles. Once, a breeze wafted over his shoulders as he ran through a curtain of cool air flowing down from someplace outside, and another time he passed through a humid stretch of passage that stank fiercely of stagnant water and bitter minerals.
But it was not until Avner felt a gust of hot air from the opposite side of the cavern that he stopped running. With his heart pounding like a double-jack against drill steel, he turned toward the tunnel’s other wall. He put out his hands and took one step forward, and two, then three. The breeze blew steadily into his face. With his next step, the floor seemed to vanish beneath his boot. He almost fell, then found solid stone a foot below where it should have been. He turned again, and that was when he felt it: a craggy, rounded corner where a side-passage opened off the one he was following.
Avner retreated back into the main tunnel-at least, what he hoped was the main tunnel. He had rounded dozens of sharp bends. How many of those had actually been junctions, like the one across the way? By following only one wall of the passage, he could have turned off the main pathway any number of times. Each curve might have been a fork in the tunnel, or it might have been just another bend in the mine. Somewhere back there, probably not far from where Ethelhard had fallen, the front riders had made a different choice than Avner, and with them had gone the queen.
Night had fallen; though the boreal lights bathed the canyon’s ice-draped rim in a rainbow curtain of dancing reflections, their ghostly rays could not pierce the abyssal gloom deeper in the gorge. The landslide at the bottom was cloaked in a mantle of dark, swarthy purple, and Tavis could hardly see the rocks beneath his feet. He had to climb by feel, testing each step carefully before trusting his weight to the slick stones, and even then he often braced himself on his bow to keep from falling.
Everything hurt. His shoulder ached so much he could hardly move it; each breath filled his chest with a swell of dull pain. His frozen feet burned with the dubious blessing of renewed circulation. The constant throbbing in his head felt no worse than having a battle drum pressed to his ear, and he could not string two thoughts together without a conscious act of will. In his belly, he felt the warmth of Simon’s healing elixir working its magic-but that was little comfort now. Tavis found his fist inside his cloak, grasping his second healing potion. He forced himself to withdraw his hand empty. It would be foolish to use the second vial before the first had finished its work.
As Tavis climbed the landslide, he remained alert for clues as to where his foes had taken Brianna. The fallen fire giants above were mere silhouettes, barely distinguishable from the huge boulders heaped along the crest of the slide. Beside some of the bodies flickered the orange glow of guttering fire swords, suggesting that the battle had ended less than an hour ago. The high scout saw no human corpses at all.
Tavis’s heart began to hammer. If the fire giants had left their dead in the canyon, perhaps Brianna had escaped after all.
About halfway to the crest, Tavis heard rocks clattering nearby, then an anguished cry too deep and resonant to be human. He dropped into a crouch, then crept toward the sound. A short distance ahead, a bushy-maned profile rose above a big rock. Though the head was little larger than the high scout’s, it had the wild mane of hair and beard typical of firbolgs. The figure groaned again, then pushed an arm over the boulder and clutched at the cold stone. It turned a pair of milky white eyes toward Tavis.
“Over… here.” Strained as it was, the deep voice sounded chillingly familiar. “Help me!”
Tavis neither showed himself, nor drew his weapon. “Galgadayle?”
The seer looked toward Tavis’s voice, then groaned in disappointment. “You?” He slipped lower behind his boulder. “Tavis… Burdun?”
“What are you doing here?”
“They didn’t… find… after battle,” the seer croaked. “Couldn’t yell… too much… pain.”
Suddenly, Tavis understood why the fire giants had left their dead behind. They had lost the battle. “The Meadowhome Clan is here?” he asked. “You killed the fire giants?”
“We… had to come,” the seer replied. “Must protect the tribe. The law… demands it.”
Galgadayle lost his grip on the boulder and slipped out of sight. Tavis crept up the slide, confident he was not being lured into a trap. The pain in the seer’s voice had been genuine, but more importantly, firbolgs were incapable of such treachery. They might wait in ambush or sneak up on a foe, but the same instinct that made it impossible for them to lie also prevented them from enticing an enemy to his death.
Tavis slipped around the boulder to find Galgadayle sitting in a hollow between several stones. The air was heavy with the reek of urine and fresh blood. The seer held one arm twisted behind him, pressing his hand against the small of his back. He was only about two-thirds as large as when he had visited Castle Hartwick.
The size change did not surprise Tavis as much as it might have. His mentor, Runolf Saemon, had once known an entire tribe of firbolgs to grow two feet in a single day. For a time, Tavis had pleaded with every firbolg he met to show him the trick, but they had all refused. The scout had finally given up, concluding that their law forbade sharing the secret with an outcast.
Tavis knelt at Galgadayle’s side and reached out to move the seer’s hand. “You’re smaller than I remember.”
“I’ve lost blood.” Galgadayle pushed Tavis’s arm away. “Finish me quickly… nothing to gain with torture.”
Tavis half-smiled at the attempt to change the subject. The seer was more afraid of breaking the law than of dying.
“I won’t torture you-or kill you.” The high scout did not blame Galgadayle for trying to capture Brianna. The seer was acting on his conscience. As wrong as he might be, that did not make him evil, and Tavis was not in the habit of killing people for their mistakes. “I’d rather help you, if you’ll allow me.”
Galgadayle glared at him with one white eye. “I have brought harm to your… family,” he said. “Why show me mercy?”
“Because you’re no longer a threat,” Tavis replied. “Killing you would make me a murderer.”
“Perhaps,” Galgadayle groaned. “But the law does not require… nowhere is it decreed you must help an enemy.”
Tavis shrugged. “I have learned a different kind of law with the humans,” he said. “It comes more from inside than out, and it can be as nebulous and shifting as a cloud, but I must obey it nonetheless.”
Galgadayle considered this, then took his hand away, revealing a large, mangle-edged hole in his cloak. Though it was too dark to see more, Tavis smelled fresh blood. It was heavy with the scent of urine, a sure sign the seer would die without help.
“You’ll have to lie down so I can reach the wound.” Tavis gently guided Galgadayle onto his stomach.
“This changes nothing.” Despite Galgadayle’s words, there was a note of gratitude in his strained voice. “When the child is born… Raeyadfourne must still-aarghh!”
Tavis began to probe the wound, bringing Galgadayle’s sentence to a harsh end.
“What happened to my wife?” Tavis continued to work. His fingers came across the stub of sword blade that had been broken off just below Galgadayle’s kidney. “Who has her?”
The seer shook his head. “That I will… not tell you,” he groaned. “Leave me, if you wish. I’ll probably die anyway.”
“No, you won’t,” Tavis said. “I have a healing elixir.”
Galgadayle craned his neck to glance up at Tavis, his eyes flashing with a brief hope that quickly vanished behind dark clouds of despair. The seer gave Tavis a wry smile, then shook his head. “Keep your potion,” he said. “The cost is too dear.”
“I’m not trying to buy your knowledge.” Tavis had watched Brianna deal with her earls often enough to know there were more effective ways than bribery to learn a person’s secrets. “The potion is yours, but it won’t do any good unless I pull that broken blade out of your back. To do that I’ll need light”
“All-all I have is a sparking steel.” Galgadayle sounded forlorn. During the time it took to start a fire and make a torch, the seer could well bleed to death.
“I have a magical light,” Tavis said. “But I don’t want to attract fire giants.”
Galgadayle sighed in relief, and when he spoke, he sounded like a dead man to whom the gods had given a second life. “You won’t,” he said. “There’s no need to worry about that.”
“How do you know?” Now that the seer’s thoughts were on saving his own life, Tavis could try to draw out the information he needed. “If a straggler attacks while I’m pulling out the steel, there won’t be much I can do.”
“There… aren’t any… stragglers.” Galgadayle sounded as though the frustration of trying to reassure Tavis would kill him long before he bled to death. “Our warriors… killed them… all of them.”
The high scout’s stomach felt queasy and heavy. If the fire giants were dead, Brianna was with the firbolgs. “In that case, maybe I should fetch your shaman,” Tavis suggested. “It would be safer if he removed the blade.”
“No!” Galgadayle objected. “I won’t live… long enough.”
“They couldn’t have gone far.”
The seer started to reply, then thought better of it and glared at Tavis. “You’re as devious… as a human,” he said. “Can you lie, too?”
“I would if I could,” Tavis said truthfully. “I’ve sworn to protect the queen, and I’d do anything to keep that vow.”
With that, the scout took Mountain Crusher in both hands and whispered, “tnaillirbsilisaB.” A rune flared with sapphire light, then the entire bow radiated a pale blue glow. Tavis leaned the weapon where it would illuminate the injury. He pulled his dagger and cut Galgadayle’s fur cloak away from the wound. The scout had little trouble finding the end of the steel shard, for it protruded from a short crescent of severed sinew and sliced meat. Whoever had planted the blade had deliberately tried to work it back and forth, a vicious killing technique more commonly employed by assassins and thieves than by honorable soldiers. Tavis knew instantly who had done this to the seer.
“You’re lucky, Galgadayle.” Tavis pulled a wad of soft, clean cloth from his satchel and laid it on a stone beside the seer. “Avner usually strikes truer than this.”
“The one who stabbed you in the back.” Tavis pinched the stub of the broken sword between his fingers and jostled it, lightly, to see how securely the blade was lodged. “I hope you didn’t kill him.”
Galgadayle shook his head. “The coward got away,” he hissed. “But if I-”
“Got away?” Tavis interrupted. If Avner had escaped, so had Brianna. The youth’s ethics were certainly questionable, but not his loyalty. “Your warriors didn’t capture him?”
Galgadayle’s head pivoted toward the mountainside, then he realized his mistake and looked away. “I’m feeling weak.”
Tavis glanced up the gloom-shrouded slope. He saw only a purple, inky darkness as deep as the Abyss itself, but he was smiling when he looked back to his patient. “Avner has taken my wife into the mines, hasn’t he?”
Galgadayle’s eyes widened. “I don’t… I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to.”
Before his distracted patient realized what was happening, Tavis pulled the shard from Galgadayle’s back. The steel slipped out of the wound like a dagger from its sheath, and it was removed before the seer could open his mouth to scream. The fragment was about two feet long and covered with a dark coating of slime and blood.
“You… tricked me!” Galgadayle seemed more surprised than angered.
“You have nothing to complain about.” Tavis tossed the bloody shard aside. “The blade came out in one piece, didn’t it?”
He used the cloth he had set aside earlier to stanch the heavy flow of blood, then guided Galgadayle’s hand to the wound. Once he knew his patient was strong enough to hold the dressing in place, he helped the seer sit up. Tavis took his healing potion from his cloak and uncorked the purple flask.
“Drink this.” He placed the elixir in Galgadayle’s free hand. “And when you feel well enough to move, find someplace warm to spend the night.”
The seer did not lift the flask to his lips. “You will not… you cannot save the child,” he said. “There are many… many miles of tunnel up there.”
“I’ll find my way.” Tavis stood and grabbed his rune-etched bow. “Now drink up. I’d hate to see you spill the last of Simon’s elixir.”
The seer lifted the potion to his lips and downed it in a single gulp. When he finished, he raised the empty flask to Tavis.
“I thank you for my life.” He still sounded weak, but the anxious edge had slipped from his voice. “And I would repay your favor with… with a warning.”
“I’m listening,” Tavis said. “But if this is about the child-”
Galgadayle shook his head. “Watch out for the… verbeegs… and the fomorians,” he said. “And pray… pray that Raeyadfourne finds your wife… before they do.”
Brianna’s litter-bearers were exhausted. Their efficient double-time trot had degenerated into a disorderly jog occasionally punctuated by the thud of tripping feet. The sound of their labored breathing echoed through the tunnel like the wheezing of a punctured forge bellows.
The party was passing through a labyrinth of winding passages that the tunnel wizards called “the drifts,” where the narrow corridors crossed and recrossed each other as they followed the meandering “drift” of the silver veins. The queen did not dare call a rest. Even suspended on her cloak, she felt the stone floor rumbling beneath the heavy boots of her pursuers, and she heard their distant voices echoing louder at each fork in the tunnel.
Brianna did not know what had become of Avner, but it seemed apparent the young scout’s plan had failed. She had heard the crack of his runebullet and, for a short time thereafter, the sounds of pursuit had fallen silent. The queen and her bearers had slowed their pace so he could catch up, but he had never arrived. Then a distant rumble had begun to build behind them and resolved too soon into the tramping boots of a firbolg troop. The front riders had been running hard since, and Brianna had knotted her stomach into a snarl worrying about her young friend.
Kaedlaw stopped suckling, then fixed his handsome blue eyes on Brianna and opened his mouth wide to cry. The noise that came out sounded nothing like a sob; it was more of a long, gurgling growl. Several of the queen’s exhausted bearers cast nervous looks over their shoulders, peering not at the infant, but down the dark passage behind them.
“Carry on,” Brianna said. “It’s only Kaedlaw-commanding to be burped, I imagine.”
“Strangest sound I ever heard a baby make, Majesty,” huffed the torch holder. “Sounds more like a-”
“Marwick, you’d do well to save your wind.” Brianna started to ask the young front rider if he expected a half-firbolg prince to sound the same as his own peasant runt, but she caught herself and said instead, “If you have that much breath left, you can change places with Thatcher.”
A crimson flush crept over Marwick’s face. His green eyes flashed briefly to Kaedlaw, then he fell back and traded his torch for Thatcher’s place at her cloak.
The queen was still using one hand to keep her incision closed, so she balanced her son on her chest and used her free hand to gently pat his back. Kaedlaw’s growl only became louder. She covered him with her shift, thinking he might be cold, but that also failed to silence him.
“Don’t worry, Majesty,” wheezed Gryffitt. “He’s just tired. It’s a rough way to come into the world.” “Yes, it is,” Brianna agreed.
The queen felt as exhausted as Kaedlaw, and that worried her. She had already lost so much blood that she was cold, sleepy, and dizzy, and blood continued to seep from the incision. A dark curtain had begun to descend inside her mind. When it fell completely, her son would be left an orphan, with nothing more than half-a-dozen exhausted guards to defend him from the firbolgs.
The front riders carried Brianna deeper into the drifts. Always, they strived to follow the largest passage, on the theory that it was the least likely to come to a sudden end. Kaedlaw’s growls gradually abated to mere murmurs, and the clamor of their pursuers grew steadily louder. It was not long before the queen could make out some of what the firbolgs were shouting:
“… clear here.”
“Not in here.”
The cries kindled a glimmer of hope in Brianna’s breast. She propped herself on her elbow, then watched the gray walls and mineral-crusted timbers slip past. At the next fork, she ordered her litter-bearers to carry her down the smaller of the two passages.
Thirty paces later, the queen almost missed what she had been looking for. A small drift branched off the main corridor; its entrance was so narrow and ragged that it looked like a shadow. The passage itself was barely as wide as a man’s shoulders, with the walls lying at a cockeyed angle and the floor sloping down toward the heart of the mountain.
“Wait!” Brianna ordered. “Stop here!”
The front riders stumbled to a halt, then Gryffitt cast a nervous glance back toward the fork. “Milady, the firbolgs are closing,” he panted. “We may not have time to backtrack.”
“We’re not backtracking, we’re hiding-in there.” Brianna pointed at the narrow drift, then added, “And I need a volunteer to lure the firbolgs away. Someone fast.”
All eyes turned to Marwick.
“Take the torch back to the fork and go a little way up the passage,” Brianna ordered. “Stay ahead of the firbolgs, but let them catch a glimpse of the light now and then, and don’t go too fast. We don’t want to make it obvious you’re alone.”
“As you wish, milady.” Marwick reluctantly reached for the torch.
Thatcher did not yield the brand. “Majesty, perhaps I should go instead,” he suggested. “Marwick has a family.”
“There’s nothing to worry about,” Gryffitt growled. “Those aren’t fomorians back there. All Marwick has to do is surrender when he runs out of tunnel. If he doesn’t fight, the firbolgs won’t hurt him.”
Gryffitt and another front rider carried Brianna into the cock-eyed drift, tipping her sideways to prevent her broad shoulders from becoming lodged in the narrow confines. The warm stench of sulfur filled the passage, causing Kaedlaw to start murmuring again. The other front riders crammed themselves in behind the queen’s litter; then Marwick took the torch and left, plunging the drift into a darkness as thick as sap. Already, Brianna heard firbolg axes clanging against the walls of nearby tunnels.
Kaedlaw began to complain more loudly, filling the drift with a deep, rumbling growl. Brianna turned his face toward her breast, hoping he would start to suckle again. That only made him angrier. She laid her hand across his cheek to muffle the noise. He still sounded as loud as a snoring bear.
A chorus of shouts erupted from the fork as the firbolgs spotted Marwick’s light. They rushed after him, the fury of their pounding boots shaking the drift walls. The thunder continued for minutes. Kaedlaw’s growls grew ever more ferocious. He kept twisting his head away from Brianna’s hand, determined to make himself heard. The queen found herself holding her breath, as though that would quiet her indignant son. She prayed to Hiatea that the din would continue until he wore himself out.
But Kaedlaw was a strong boy. The thunder gradually began to diminish, and the newborn’s complaints seemed that much louder. Brianna tried to reassure herself with the thought that her pursuers could not possibly hear the child over the hammering of their own boots.
She was finally beginning to believe herself when a hand shook her ankle.
“Thatcher says a firbolg’s coming down the tunnel,” whispered a front rider. “He wants to know if he should attack.”
Brianna appreciated the young man’s diplomacy. He was really hinting that she should find a way to quiet Kaedlaw, but he was too wise to suggest the queen’s child might be placing the party in danger.
“Tell him to be ready, but to hold fast unless I call the order.” Brianna would battle her pursuers to the death, but she was under no illusions that it would save her child. If it came to bloodshed, the rest of the firbolgs would quickly realize they had been tricked. “I’ll do what I can to spare us a fight.”
The queen pressed Kaedlaw more tightly to her breast. She pulled the edge of her cloak over him, but even the heavy fur could not smother his cries. The thunder of the firbolg boots continued to diminish, and she saw the first dim glow of torch light flickering outside the drift. It was growing steadily brighter, as though the warrior were walking carelessly down the passage, not really expecting to be ambushed.
“Kaedlaw, forgive me,” Brianna whispered.
The queen slipped her hand over her son’s face and covered his mouth. He began to struggle, beating and kicking at her chest and trying to twist out of her grasp. Although her fingers muffled his cries, he still had enough air to continue his protests. He sounded more like a fox kit than an infant, but Brianna knew better than to think their pursuer would be fooled. She tightened her grip until she felt her palm pressing into Kaedlaw’s jaw bone, then pinched his nostrils shut and started to count. If the firbolg was still here when she reached a hundred, she would order Thatcher to attack.
A firbolg’s deep voice rang down the corridor outside their hiding place. “It’s no use hiding, Queen,” he called. “We’re going to find you.”
Brianna felt her men tense and heard hand axes swishing from their sheaths.
“Not yet,” she whispered.
The firbolg was trying to draw them out. If he really knew they were here, he would be calling his fellows back, not yelling threats into the dark-that was what Brianna hoped.
The queen’s count reached twenty-five. Kaedlaw finally ran out of breath and fell silent, but he continued to struggle against the smothering hand. Outside the drift, the thunder of the main troop suddenly grew quieter, as though they had rounded a corner in some distant tunnel, and Brianna heard the rustle of heavy boots scuffing across the stone floor outside.
“What’s that bitter scent?” the firbolg called. “Is that giant spawn I smell?”
Brianna counted fifty, and she bit her tongue to keep from answering the insult with an attack order. The affront was the worst a firbolg could offer, for the enmity between ’kin and their true giant brethren dated back to the birth of their races.
The rumble of the firbolgs’ main troop had grown so muted that Brianna heard other voices in nearby passages. Like the pursuer in the drift outside, they were attempting to lure her from hiding by hurling taunts into the darkness. The queen counted seventy-five, and Kaedlaw stopped struggling in her arms.
An icy fist closed around Brianna’s heart, but she did not dare remove her hand from the child’s face. She could see her men’s heads silhouetted against the light of the firbolg’s flickering torch. The warrior would certainly hear the slightest gurgle. She already feared that her own throbbing pulse was loud enough to give the party away, and she smelled her own sweat growing heavy beneath the sulfurous stench of the drift. It would not be much longer, she knew, before the odor grew thick enough to reach the warrior outside.
“Think about what you’re doing, Queen,” the firbolg called. “The wicked twin will slay his brother to assure ascension to your throne. A strong queen-a good mother-would protect both her kingdom and her worthy child. She would give the giant spawn to us.”
Brianna counted eighty-five. She slipped her fingertips under Kaedlaw’s jaw and searched for a pulse. She could not find one, and the infant remained as still as death. The queen silently called upon Hiatea to protect her child. In reply, she heard the dark, angry voice of another god, one who promised that if the firbolgs forced her to smother her own child, her vengeance would be as terrible as her grief.
Brianna shuddered. She did not want vengeance; she wanted to escape with her child.
At ninety-five, the queen heard Raeyadfourne’s weak, raspy voice call out from the fork. “Let’s go, Claegborne,” he said. “We’ll have trouble enough catching the others.”
The warrior did not reply. The tunnel fell so quiet that Brianna could hear Claegborne’s torch hissing and sputtering. The firbolg had to be within two or three paces of her hiding place. A strange, muted rumble sounded inside her skull, and the queen realized she was grinding her teeth. She stopped, fearing her pursuer had already heard the noise.
The count reached a hundred.
“Stop wasting my time,” Raeyadfourne ordered. “If you’ve found something, say so.”
A pair of heavy steps sounded from the fork as Raeyadfourne started down the passage. Brianna opened her mouth to order the attack, then the torchlight outside suddenly dimmed.
“Don’t trouble yourself.” Claegborne started back toward Raeyadfourne. “I smelled something, but it was just brimstone blowing up the passage. This tunnel must connect to the bottom of the mine.”
The icy fist inside Brianna’s chest clamped down, squeezing so hard that she feared her heart would burst. Kaedlaw had already been without air for nearly two minutes, but she forced herself to keep her palm over his face as she listened to the firbolg withdraw. The thought that she might be smothering her own child left the queen shivering and queasy, but she would feel no better if the firbolgs returned to murder him before her eyes.
Finally, the heavy steps of the two firbolgs abruptly faded to muted thumps as they reached the fork and started up the opposite tunnel. Brianna pulled her hand from Kaedlaw’s face, ready to slap it back at the slightest hint of a grumble. When the child made no sound, she wet her fingers and held them before his nostrils, alert for the faintest stir of breath.
The queen felt nothing but the drift’s sulfurous breeze.
“Someone strike me a light,” Brianna commanded. “Thatcher, go to the fork and keep a watch for our enemies.”
A noisy rustling filled the cramped darkness as the front riders scurried to obey. Brianna placed her lips over Kaedlaw’s nose and mouth and blew a slow, gentle breath into his lungs. When he did not cry out, she pressed lightly on his abdomen to push the air back out, then repeated the process. As she worked, she heard the sharp crack of someone breaking a lance, then the shrill rip of cloth. A cork popped as it was pulled from a flask, then the pungent reek of torch oil filled the passage. Brianna silently begged her son to breathe, but he did not cry out or gasp.
A front rider scratched a flint across a striking steel, filling the tunnel outside with brief sparkles of white light. Forgetting about her own wound, the queen used both hands to raise her son’s chest to her ear. She heard a single, feeble thump, then nothing. “I need that light!”
The queen cradled her son in the crook of her elbow, then blew another gentle breath into his lungs. A tiny orange light flickered at the end of the passage. It gradually grew bright enough to reveal the form of a man squatting in the tunnel outside, blowing gently on a small pile of burning tinder. It took only a moment for the flame to grow steady enough for a second man to light the head of a makeshift torch. He passed the brand into the cockeyed drift, handing it to the front rider at Brianna’s feet.
As the torchlight fell over her son, the queen cried out in alarm. Kaedlaw’s handsome face was gone. In its place was an ugly round visage with brown eyes, a pug nose, and puffy cheeks. The infant’s lips had suddenly become meaty and bluish. He had a mouthful of snaggleteeth and a rolling double chin, and he looked as cold as a statue.
“What is it, Majesty?” asked Gryffitt. “He isn’t dead?” “I don’t know yet.”
The queen looked up and realized that she was the only one who could see her son’s new face. Gryffitt was standing on the low ground behind her, and the man at her feet had to reach across his chest to hold the torch for her. He could not look in her direction without staring directly into the flame.
Brianna placed her thumbs over her son’s sternum and began to press down in the rhythm of her own heart. Kaedlaw opened his mouth, unleashing a belch as deep and foul as an ogre’s growl. A blue sparkle appeared in his brown eyes, his meaty lips pursed out to suck a lungful of air, then, all at once, his heavy jowls disappeared, his teeth straightened, his nose lengthened, and once more he was her handsome young son.
The change puzzled Brianna only briefly, for she quickly decided what she had seen was an illusion. Those who lost too much blood often became disoriented and confused. The transformation had been no more than a hallucination of her blood-starved brain. The queen was sure of that.
“Majesty, what of the child?” Gryffitt asked. “Is he well?”
“He’s going to be fine,” Brianna answered.
All the front riders sighed in relief.
“Then perhaps we should see to you, Majesty,” Gryffitt suggested. “Unless we finish Avner’s work, I fear…”
The front rider let his sentence trail off, apparently thinking better of what he had almost said.
“It’s okay, Gryffitt. I’m no more anxious to make an orphan of Kaedlaw than you are. Take me into the tunnel.” Brianna clutched her son more tightly to her breast, then added, “And Hiatea have mercy on the firbolg that makes me cover my son’s mouth again.”
Tavis stood at the tunnel wall, peering into the black throat of a crooked, craggy-sided chimney that yawned overhead like the serpentine gullet of a famished wyvern. Mountain Crusher’s recurved tip pointed up the gloomy shaft at a slight angle. Only the high scout’s firm grip kept the weapon, still glowing with magical blue light, from flying up the hole of its own accord. Brianna was up there somewhere, at least if the bow’s seeking rune was to be trusted.
Unfortunately, that knowledge did not mean Tavis could actually reach his wife. The rune merely pointed in her direction, without indicating whether the route was passable. The chimney, which the miners called a raise, might end a dozen yards overhead. It might wander within a foot of the queen, only to turn in the opposite direction and leave the high scout farther from her than before. Or, it might lead straight to Brianna. The only way to find out was to climb.
Tavis tied his quiver to his hip and slipped Mountain Crusher over his chest. The tip of the bow swung around so that it pointed up the shaft. The weapon would have floated free if the string had not caught in the high scout’s armpit. Tavis gulped down a lungful of the tunnel’s sulfur-reeking air, then reached into the chimney and hauled himself up.
He barely fit. Though the raise was more than eight feet wide, it was not much thicker than Tavis’s torso. To pull himself into the cramped space, he had to wedge his back against one wall and press his palms against the other, keeping his elbows tucked tight at his sides. It was strenuous work, and the high scout still felt weak and dizzy from his injuries. By the time he had pulled himself up far enough to use his knees and feet, his muscles were burning with fatigue. The sulfur stench from the tunnel below made matters worse, filling his lungs and throat with such a scorching stink that he could hardly breathe.
Tavis forced himself to gulp down more air, then clenched his teeth and pushed himself up another few inches. It would be slow going, but he had few alternatives. Shortly after leaving Galgadayle, a group of firbolgs had seen his glowing bow and started rolling boulders down the slope at him. The high scout had been forced to duck into this tunnel, trusting Mountain Crusher’s magic to help him find his wife before her pursuers.
Nor were the Meadowhome warriors Tavis’s greatest worry. He had yet to spy any verbeegs or fomorians, but the high scout knew better than to doubt Galgadayle’s word.
Both groups were formidable foes.
The verbeegs were as organized as they were cunning. They would move quickly to seal every exit from the mountain, then begin a search of the entire warren-no doubt aided by the magic of their shamans and ingenious runecasters. If they captured Brianna before the virtuous firbolgs, they would not content themselves with killing her child. Almost certainly, they would also demand an impossible ransom for her release.
The fomorians posed an even greater danger. Although they were the largest and least intelligent of the giant-kin races, they were born to darkness. They could squeeze their peculiar, deformed bodies through holes half their size, and they walked through pitch blackness in utter silence, with the patient, slow movements of spiders on the stalk. When their hunt was successful, nothing delighted them quite so much as twisting their live prey into grotesque parodies of their own malformed bodies.
Brianna had to be at the end of this raise; Tavis could not bear to think of what might happen if she was not. Unfortunately, the farther he climbed, the more Mountain Crusher pointed at the wall instead of straight up. He began to fear that soon the tip would be leveled at an impassable wall of solid granite.
Tavis came to a rocky choke point too narrow for his thick torso. He blew out his breath and tried to pull past, but succeeded only in lodging himself between two craggy ridges of granite. He tried to push back down, thinking he could traverse sideways and climb through at another angle. He could not descend.
Tavis attempted to break free through sheer force, trying to move up, down, sideways, and all directions between. He succeeded only in exhausting his battered body. His weary muscles began to shake uncontrollably, and the granite grew damp and slick beneath his palms. His boots trembled free of their nubby footholds, leaving him suspended in the crevice like a thief stuck in the palace chimney. For each breath, he had to struggle against a crushing glove of stone.
Tavis’s own odor, as musky and bitter as minkwort, overpowered the sulfurous stench from below. The firbolg could see nothing but the stone before his eyes, glowing eerily blue in his bow’s magic light. The darkness around him grew heavy and smothering, as though the immense weight of the mountain itself had poured into the absolute blackness of the raise. Nothing existed below his feet save the impenetrable murk, and nothing above him, nor around him, but more of the same. The high scout had a vision of himself: a tiny, buglike creature trapped in a minor crevice lost deep within the mountain’s immense, cloying gloom.
Tavis’s pulse sounded in his ears. With each beat, he felt the cold stone grating against his ribs, sending sharp pangs of agony through his battered torso. He tried to squirm sideways. The pain only worsened, and he grew more convinced that he had lodged himself forever. He heard his own voice groaning and snarling, as though someone might actually hear him through all those immeasurable tons of granite.
The high scout forced himself to stop struggling, to close his eyes and mouth and simply feel his situation. He was caught beneath his chest. Somehow, he managed to push the largest part of his body-his breast and shoulders-past the choke point. After a moment’s reflection, he realized he had been trying to pull himself through the constriction, which meant his arms had been raised above his head.
Tavis unfastened the ties on his scout’s cloak, then blew out his breath and raised his arms. The pressure on his ribs abated, and he slid down a few inches. He let his body go slack and fell out of his coat. Mountain Crusher slipped over his shoulder and started to float up the raise, and the high scout fell into the darkness below.
Tavis thrust his feet and hands against the chimney wall, bringing himself to a quick halt-then almost lost his hold as his heavy scout’s cloak landed on his head. He pulled the coat off, then realized that the raise was still illuminated by Mountain Crusher’s blue light. He looked up and saw his glowing bow a dozen feet above the choke point, where the raise gradually bent over and became a narrow corridor with cockeyed walls. The weapon was scraping along the ceiling, slowly floating into the drift.
Tavis folded his cloak over his quiver and climbed back to the choke point. This time, he slipped through with only a minimum of grunting and cursing. He scrambled up the raise and caught his bow a few steps inside the drift. The cockeyed passage sloped upward at a gradually decreasing angle for about fifty paces. There, dancing on the wall of a junction with another corridor, he saw the orange glow of torch light.
Tavis felt he would find Brianna near the torch, but he had no idea who would be with her. He wrapped Mountain Crusher inside his cloak, then crept up the drift as silently as a fox on the stalk. His heart was pounding so hard that he did not hear the strange, gurgling growl until he had almost reached the junction. He stopped and quietly eased his sword from its scabbard.
A woman hissed, then groaned in pain-Brianna!
With visions of cruel, malformed fomorians dancing through his head, Tavis threw his cloak into the passage to distract his wife’s captors. He followed with his sword raised, then heard several voices cry out in surprise. He found himself stooped over in a small tunnel, staring down at his wife’s fur-swaddled form. One man was holding a torch over her, while another knelt on the floor, hunched over her bare midsection. There were no giant-kin-fomorians or otherwise-anywhere near the queen.
Tavis lowered his guard.
Someone behind him hissed, “Firbolg!”
“Wait, it’s me!”
Tavis was spinning even as he spoke, bringing his sword around to deflect the misguided assault. A sharp crack rang off the tunnel walls as his blade sliced through a well-aimed lance, but even the lord high scout of Hartsvale was not fast enough to counter the thrust of the second front rider. The point of a lance sliced across his flank, opening a long gash above his hip.
Tavis grabbed the lance and jerked it from the man’s hands. “Is this the proper way to greet me?”
“Lord High Scout!” The men uttered the exclamation together, then one continued, “But you-Avner said you fell to the fire giants!”
“I did.” Tavis returned the lance he had taken, then pressed his hand over his bleeding wound. “But-”
“But Tavis Burdun always honors his duty,” interrupted Brianna. Her voice was hardly more than a whisper. “Even if he must cheat death to do it.”
“Firbolgs can’t cheat, milady,” he replied. “You know that.”
Tavis sheathed his sword and faced his wife. She had a pearly grin upon her lips and a violet sparkle in her eyes, but her joy could not hide how hard the last hours had been for her. She looked haggard and weak. Her golden hair was sweat-plastered to her head, and her complexion was more pale than alabaster. Her pain showed in the lines etched into her brow and around her mouth, and her cheeks were as sunken and hollow as a corpse’s. Although her belly was no longer swollen in pregnancy, Front Rider Gryffitt was carefully sewing shut a long incision that someone had cut across the lower part of her abdomen.
Tavis could hardly bring himself to look away from the wound. If he had not seen the joy in her eyes, he would have assumed that one of their enemies had cut the child from her womb.
Tavis knelt at his wife’s side. “What happened?” he asked. “How badly are you hurt?”
“I’m fine.” Brianna’s voice was as serene as moonlit snow. “And Tavis-I have something to show you.”
The queen opened her cloak. There, suckling at her breast, was the most hideous infant Tavis had ever seen. The baby was the size of a two-year-old, with stubby limbs and pudgy red fingers that pinched at its mother’s flesh like talons. It had dull brown eyes as ravenous as they were vacant, a short pug nose, bloated cheeks, and blood-red lips. Sparse tufts of wiry black hair covered its fat, round head, and the thing resembled a goblin more than a child.
“Well, Tavis?” Brianna asked. “Don’t you think he looks like you?”
The Drainage Tunnel
The muggy underground air suddenly felt cool and crisp, a sure sign that Tavis and his companions were finally nearing an exit. They were deep down in the mine system, wading through the turbid orange waters of a drainage tunnel as long as it was straight. The walls babbled with the constant echo of dripping water, and the ceiling was so lofty that even the high scout could stand upright. Dozens of side tunnels opened off the main passage, all filled with streams of cloudy, auric water that stank of iron and copper and a dozen other minerals too obscure to name. But it was the heavy smell of brimstone-sharp and acrid and fresh-that concerned Tavis. The queen’s party could not be far from where the fire giants had broken into the mine warrens.
“Thatcher, hold up a minute.” Tavis was carrying the queen and her child in his arms, for the tunnel waters were so deep that only he could keep them dry. “Do you feel that cold air?”
The front rider stopped and nodded. “It’s coming from there.” He gestured forward with Tavis’s glowing bow, which had become the party’s only light source when their torch guttered out. “We must be near an exit.”
“Thanks be to Stronmaus,” whispered Gryffitt. “I was beginning to think we’d never get out of this labyrinth.”
“We haven’t yet,” Tavis cautioned. “Our enemies are sure to be watching the portals.”
“Then let us hope they missed one,” Brianna said. “If we keep stumbling around in the dark, sooner or later we’ll run into Raeyadfourne’s warriors-or something worse.”
The queen was looking much healthier now. After Gryffitt had finished sewing her up, she had used her healing magic to mend both her own wounds and some of those Tavis had suffered. Unfortunately, she had been unable to do anything about her fatigue. She was still so weak she could hardly stand.
Tavis nodded to Thatcher. “Lead on,” he said. “But keep a watchful eye, and you other men hold your weapons ready.”
The other front riders arranged themselves on Thatcher’s flanks, two carrying hand axes and two bearing lances cut short for use inside the mine. The party continued down the tunnel. The foul waters grew deeper, the interval between support timbers shorter. Twice as they passed side passages, Tavis heard the distant rumble of firbolg voices.
The air became cooler. They passed a drift in which the waters sat stagnant, with no sign of any current flowing from the other end. Deep within the passage echoed the sucking sounds of draining water, and Tavis smelled the mordant reek of brimstone hanging heavily about the entrance.
A dozen steps later, the main tunnel intersected another flooded corridor. The two passages joined and angled off together. The cold breeze became a frigid wind. The water was up to Tavis’s navel now, and he could feel the current pressing against the front of his thighs-the opposite direction he had expected.
Thatcher stopped in the intersection. “The wind’s coming from up there.”
He was not pointing down the joined passages, but up the opposite arm of the intersection. This tunnel was even more heavily braced than the one in which the queen’s party stood. It looked as though it had been driven through wood instead of granite.
“And down the main tunnel?” Tavis asked.
Thatcher waded around the angle. He came back a few moments later. “I think it’s the tunnel you blew up with your runearrow,” he reported. “The passage is filled with rocks, and the support timbers have burned away. I saw a boot sticking out of the rubble. It had to be as large as my chest.”